Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 21: Something fishy.

     "Hey, you!!", Knetryxx yowled as she hurled a broken commslink helmet across a once glistening flight deck that now resembled a cross between a bombsite and a computer hardware junkshop. A strange mixture of wildly coloured avians and reptilians seem to be busy at work. A closer inspection reveals that few are actually doing any real work. Some think they are, others make a big fuss of looking busy. The majority appear to be skiving off chattering in groups dotted around the vast (and I mean hugely vast!) flight deck in and amongst masses of smashed up electronic hardware as if nothing were amiss. Is this a ship of fools?
     Terminals blink randomly and the huge vid screens lend the flight deck the ambience of a dubious night club dominated by malevolent fruit machines as less than half of the screens work properly, the rest either flash streams of nonsense image data, run through diagnostic routines, are dying or already dead. "Yes, you, you feathered brainless freak! You were supposed to get this useless heap o' junk patched up last time", as the black glassteel ovoid sailed past the back of an avian head hollowly bouncing off a dead comms unit, loose wires flaying in all directions. Slowly, the head turned to face its' assailant. Some other heads also turned in her direction, most turn back, bored. A few remain watching a drama unfold...
     "Ah, stow it, Knetryxx. We did our best, the old drive units were rusted solid. You never told us how far gone they were." Wootjan-Oo called across the flight deck in the bored tone of one who has learned the art of humouring the terminally insane in order to survive. "You're lucky you've got anyone from the Techies Guild on this rust bucket of yours. My group only signed up because you're going to HomeNest." That, and the fact that they’d grown up together. He had been dismayed by her change for the worse ever since she had inherited the Ark of Exodus. She used to be fun, now she’d become a royal pain in the neck and Wootjan-Oo was determined to set her right.
     "HomeNest, GnomeNest," Knetryxx lashed her tail and her cerise colours darkened dangerously, "At the rate your lot screw up we'll not even get within parsecs of it." She bit off a few of Wootjan-Oo’s feathers for dramatic effect.
     “Ow, that hurt!” Wootjan-Oo jumped back in surprise and preened his ruffled plumage. “You’re a bit snappy today.”
     "Just remember, berry eater, I eat birds!" Knetryxx petulantly hissed back through the broken feathers held fast in her clenched fangs.
     Wootjan-Oo wasn’t the least bit fazed by Knetryxx’s empty threat. "Uh huh, you'd choke on my bones if ya did ever try to eat me. Look, if you decide to sell the Ark, the Guild has offered to buy it as a museum piece and training ship with a full guarantee to restore it to its' original condition and an honourable mention for the Olblavy clan." Wootjan-Oo hated doing the salespitch, but that was part of the reason he'd signed up for this trip, as well as a chance of promotion in the Guild.
     "Never!" Knetryxx replied with the defiant certitude of the blissfully deluded. "This ship has been in the Olblavy clan's name since the Exodus and will be for generations to come." She replied boldly, beginning to regain some of her lost confidence.
     "Have it your way, but it'll cost you a fortune to put this monster through dry-dock and you'll never earn that much in your lifetime. You can barely afford to keep it operational as it is. The Guilds' offer stands for you to take up at any time. You could buy yourself a smart new Galac Class cruiser or a luxury home on a pleasure dome or whatever you want." Wootjan-Oo added in his best ‘I'm being reasonable’ tone of voice.
     "The Olblavy clan will continue here as long as there are Shallens." Knetryxx added defiantly, concealing from Wootjan-Oo the fact that she was currently at severe odds with her clan who were largely in favour of selling the old world ship to which Knetryxx now held the title. She had narrowly escaped out of port ahead of a compulsory sale order engineered by her great uncle, Reflinghar; on the grounds that Knetryxx didn’t have the financial means to maintain an artefact of such great cultural value. Knetryxx now had the stranded ship with a thousand "humans" in cryo-hibernation from HomeNest and was making a run for it. "And when can we start fitting in the new deck?"
     "Not long now. The original control system doesn’t interface properly with the Pdzarvian Jump Drive so it’s got to go." Wootjan-Oo replied.
     "What? Smash up the flight deck?" Knetryxx continued with the air of one who is beginning to doubt whether she'd struck such a good deal with the Techies' Guild.
     "Come off it." Wootjan-Oo replied in the hurt tone of a misunderstood philanthropist. "It's being totally refitted to current spec. We've refitted all the torch drives and it’s being retrofitted with a Pdzarvian Jump Drive so you can make this journey in a few days instead of centuries. Ok, it's a bit irregular having all the work done in transit. But there wasn't any time. The story about HomeNest was breaking fast and the Guild felt that it would be a fitting tribute for the original Ark of Exodus to make this journey for all of us. Our people negotiated a plum deal for you. You ought to be thankful. The original Ark all rust and rags. Humph! Shameful."
     "Well, your guarantee better hold or else I'll roast you and eat you." Knetryxx retaliated in an attempt to appear as the aggrieved party when she knew that Wootjan-Oo was right about the "plum deal".
     "Yeah, sure, I know and your great, great grandmother thought hunting Pteros was such a laugh. I've heard it all before. Look, if you can't make yourself useful right now, why don't you take a break. Everything's safe as eggs."
     At this point, a mixed group of avians and reptilians engaged in animated conversation drifts over. They are quite obviously extremely wealthy: The avians have exquisite jewellery woven into their exotic plumage while the reptilians are decked out in extravagant neo-baroque costume. A foppish young male reptilian holding a bejewelled Chznzet staff of office steps forward, holds out a paw for Knetryxx and looks her in the eye: “Come, my dearest. Let us be wed and together we can rule the Shallens from our HomeNest.”
     Knetryxx’s life had changed dramatically ever since she inherited the Ark of Exodus. But this was too much coming hot on the heels of her row with Wootjan-Oo. “What??? Get lost, Alghar.” She spat out dismissively at the Chznzet who had been following her like a shadow and pestering her ever since she arrived on the Ark.
     Alghar calmly stood his ground. “Ah, aren’t you the flighty one! Destiny calls you and you shall be mine. Why wait any longer? The future is ours!”
     “Hey, you heard her. Beat it.” Wootjan-Oo stepped in between Knetryxx and the brazen fop.
     Alghar turned his head ever so slowly to face Wootjan-Oo and addressed him icily. “And who are you, commoner, to have the cheek to speak to me like that?”
     “Someone who’s known Knetryxx a whole lot longer than you have.” One thing Wootjan-Oo really hated was uppity aristos. “She doesn’t want you around, so why don’t you and your collection of lounge lizards go jump out of an air lock.”
     Alghar scowled hatefully at Wootjan-Oo before switching on his fey grandiose charm for Knetryxx. “Oh I like a bit of fire! We shall be married on HomeNest for all Shallens to see that we have finally come home.” He bowed low and kissed Knetryxx’s paw. “As always, I am yours and we shall meet again, my sweet.” And with a casual flick of his tail, he left surrounded by his chattering retinue.
     Knetryxx angrily shook a clenched paw and defiantly shouted “No we won’t! Never!!!” as Alghar and his retinue ambled away in spite of the fact that he was knee-meltingly handsome and left her fighting a losing battle against her youthful hormone-fuelled lust. But he was a Chznzet and they were seriously weird. On top of which, she had no intention of getting married so soon, let alone to someone she hardly knew. “Why do I get all the idiots?” Knetryxx complained. “Do you know that’s the eighth time he’s proposed to me?”
     “Yeah, and I bet he’s only after the Ark.” Wootjan-Oo commented cynically.
     “Huh?” Knetryxx had naively assumed Alghar was only after her body.
     “Take your time and get to know the other aristos. You don’t know anything about them yet.” Wootjan-Oo explained. “You and I, we know each other inside and out. You’ll probably leave us behind now that you’ve got the Ark, but we’re your friends.” Wootjan-Oo spoke not just for himself, but their circle of friends in Estrillyd.
     “Humph.” Knetryxx sulked. She hated it when Wootjan-Oo talked sense.
     “What happened to that guard Reffy sent you?” Wootjan-Oo looked around to see where Kkhrkht was.
     “Gone off to see those Humans, I think.” Knetryxx got rid of Kkhrkht at the first opportunity. “All it did was talk about them all the time and stood around doing nothing when Alghar hassled me, so I sent it over to the Humans.”
     “Funny enough, that’s where I’m going. I want to find out a bit about them." Wootjan-Oo added as he jumped out of the way of an enormous shower of sparks that leapt out of a dying computer terminal beside his right armwing and hastily checked to make sure none of his plumage was singed. "Do you realize that they and all those mammalians evolved from the vermin in our sewers we left behind when this very Ark took off on the Exodus? True, a couple of loonies in the BioTech Guild checked it out on an off-chance and the DNA lines up like eggs in a nest! I kid you not. Anyway, I'm going past the residential deck. I'll walk over with you, if you want to take a break."
     "Thanks, Wootjan-Oo." Knetryxx replied, having cooled down a bit. "But I'll stay here for a while." Knetryxx looked in the direction that Wootjan-Oo started walking off in for a few moments before busying herself with the endless task of running a worldship, even if it is a dilapidated one.
     As for Wootjan-Oo, he was in no hurry to visit the Humans. So he thought he'd go for stroll along the residential parkland deck near his nest after getting off the spoke shuttle before going below to check up on the Humans. How their lives had changed ever since the Ingnuthin novitiates arrived to anoint Knetryxx as the new Keeper of the Ark.
     Milentiet, the previous Keeper of the Ark, was killed by a raptor that broke into the residential deck. By the time her guards arrived on the scene all they found was a glutted raptor chewing lazily on the remains of her legs. For this, Reflinghar and the many other factions within the Olblavy clan who couldn’t believe their luck were secretly thankful that the rogue raptor had tipped the hand of fate. Milentiet was a wizened old crone who had artificially extended her lifespan many times over to deliberately thwart their scheming and connivances. The Olblavy clan, of which Knetryxx’s family were distant poor relations, immediately went into council and summoned the Ingnuthin, a quasi-religious sect of the Shallens widely believed to possess psychic and prophetic powers, to divine the identity of the next Keeper. After endless ceremonies, mystical mumbo-jumbo and byzantine ritual they announced that Knetryxx was to be the next Keeper, much to the consternation of the more ambitious members of the Olblavy clan. But the Ingnuthin’s word was final. They had never been wrong. Ever. And so they sent two novitiates to anoint Knetryxx. Meanwhile the Olblavy clan factions stepped up their scheming and plotting.
     Wootjan-Oo remembered the day as if it were yesterday. He’d been over at Knetryxx’s home hanging out with their friends. He had just finished his apprenticeship with the Technicians’ Guild and was about to start his first real job maintaining the Ark of Exodus which hung in a stationary orbit above Vermthellyn like a miniature fake moon for as long as Wootjan-Oo could remember. Knetryxx was in her final year at school and hoped to join the local repertory company. Morgau, her boyfriend, was an artist and had already put on an exhibition at the community art centre as well as landing a job as a set designer for Hepticon-X ‘The wildest underground media channel on Vermthellyn’. Tatia, who always seemed such an airhead, surprised them all by announcing that she was going to join the Space Force, so she could fly around in a fighter ‘just like in those arcade games’. Blenzhy and Uweelia, avians like Wootjan-Oo, spent the afternoon annoying everyone by cooing and preening each other’s feathers like a pair of lovebirds while Xandu read them out the latest chapter of an adventure story he was writing as Yldoseh, a vestigial-winged reptilian-avian hybrid, recorded it for posterity.
     And then the Ingnuthin novitiates arrived to anoint Knetryxx. By the time they left, she was Princess Knetryxx, Keeper of the Ark of Exodus, starry-eyed and babbling as if it were the very centre of her life when in reality she, like most Shallens living on Vermthellyn, had hardly ever given the Ark and Shallen mythology a moment’s thought. Within days she had run off to the Ark of Exodus and head-first into the convoluted politics and intrigues of the Shallen aristocracy. The first Wootjan-Oo knew of it was when he was working deep in the bowels of the Ark’s dilapidated torch drives when suddenly half of them lit up incinerating scores of Tech Guild workers in the process as it began lurching out of it’s orbit around Vermthellyn. Fortunately for Wootjan-Oo, the torch drive tube he was working was so encrusted with grime and corrosion that it just spluttered feebly and failed to ignite, giving him time to escape death by fusion plasma. The ancient Ark’s frame creaked and groaned its protestations of age as Knetryxx, accompanied by that ghastly Alghar, appeared on screens all over the Ark announcing proudly that she was taking the Ark of Exodus to meet its destiny. This was met with even more groaning, this time from all the Shallens living aboard the Ark of Exodus as they presumed that meant the scrap yard and that they would all have to live on Vermthellyn, try to find places on one of the other Shallen worldships or else go to their adopted home world, Cervetica.
     But instead it led to them discovering the lost spaceship which turned out to be from HomeNest. Which was pretty close because Knetryxx only managed to avoid crashing into it head-on during one of her attempts at piloting the Ark by the narrowest of margins, leaving a 20-kilometre gouge down one side of the Ark of Exodus where the spaceship had scraped screeching, crashing and banging its deafening way along the hull until she managed to pull it up to a dead stop.
     Oh, it was so reassuring to be away from all that machinery for a while in amongst the giant cycads, conifers and ferns hearing the sound of running water in the streams, surrounded by the sight, sound and smell of other animals, plants, soil and air. For sure, there were no predators that would disturb the restful, reinvigorating parkland ambience allowed into this deck (although it did happen from time to time). No one was sure whether it was accidental or a planned ploy to keep complacency from setting in. Heavy predators were kept on the livestock deck to keep the herds from becoming too lethargic and weak as well as on the wildlands decks.
     All worldships had to have a wildlands deck of which no two were the same. Yet all of them were apparently based on real ecosystems that had existed on HomeNest. The BioCultures chapter of the Historians Guild said so. And why should they lie? HomeNest must have been such a varied planet, he mused wistfully, before shaking himself out of his reverie with the hard cold fact that he, Wootjan-Oo, was at this very moment heading back to HomeNest with those Humans from HomeNest, who call it "Earth" and had never heard of the Shallens before.
     "Heady stuff", he thought, as he rested beside a giant cycad. "How nice it would be to really fly like the other birds and Pteros", he thought idly. "Well, we can think and have created all this and more while they just flit about mindlessly eating and laying eggs. Not a bad trade-off", he thought as he stretched his armwings and preened his feathers. "Still, it would be nice...", he thought as he looked up past the treetops, past the soaring birds and Pteros, past the microfusion sol and out through the vaulting transparent dome that covered his section of the residential deck, past the sparkles of micrometeorites being vaporized in the ionization shield and out into the depths of space as the Ark of Exodus gradually accelerated away from Vermthellyn.
     Wootjan-Oo's thoughts gradually trailed off as they will do when one is confronted with the vastness of our universe until they reach that long pause affectionately known as "Oneness with the Universe". He'd been in that blissed out state for quite a while when he was brought rudely back to reality by the memopaging system in his communicator repeatedly calling out in its' subdued, servile, but remorselessly insistent tones: "Tech Guild worker Wootjan-Oo, please report to docking bay #5. Tech Guild..." CLICK! Wootjan-Oo faffed around with the input pad to shut the stupid thing up and sent out a "message received" confirmation. He squawked and crowed as he picked himself up, stretched out his armwings, ruffled his feathers and made his way over to the main concourse clucking to himself about how it was almost impossible to get a moment's rest.
     He was making his way around the waist high grasses and reeds near a stand of giant ferns, when he was nearly bowled over by a gang of cheery youths who were noisily chasing each other across the parkland. "Hey, can't you lot watch where you're going… Djohti, what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be at home?” Wootjan-Oo called out as he recognised Knetryxx’s youngest brother. “There’s raptors on this deck.”
     “No! I’ve got a zapper.” Djohti cheekily called back as he playfully waved his stun-gun for Wootjan-Oo to see and ran off across the parkland veldt with his friends as Wootjan-Oo headed for the nearest exit. He waited on the platform for the next shuttle going past docking bay 5 where the Human’s spaceship was held. When he got on, he spotted Yldoseh, Aridel and Xandu and went over to join them.
     Yldoseh picked up her video recorder out of her lap and pointed it at Wootjan-Oo. “So tell me, Human, what’s it like on HomeNest?”
     “You too?” Wootjan-Oo laughed at Yldoseh’s mock interview question.
     “Yeah!” Xandu, Aridel and Yldoseh’s eyes lit up with excitement.
     “We’re going all the way and Yldoseh’s going to sell her story to the networks back on Vermthellyn.” Xandu enthusiastically explained Yldoseh’s plan.
     “Let’s start with you, Wootjan-Oo.” Yldoseh effortlessly switched into she thought sounded like a ‘professional’ mode. “You’re an engineer with the Tech Guild. Tell us what you’re doing to prepare the Ark for the Journey to HomeNest.” So they worked out his interview with Aridel and Xandu asking the questions as their shuttle car sped along the track.
     “All those old stories about HomeNest,” Xandu commented after they finished Wootjan-Oo’s interview. “Who ever believed any of them?”
     “The Chznzet do.” Wootjan-Oo pointed out.
     “No-o-o-o!” Xandu held his paws over his ears. “They’re too weird for words; them and their recruiting drives and their stupid fairy tales.”
     “I’ve found the perfect way to fail their personality tests.” Aridel conspiratorially offered. “It works every time.”
     “Really, how?” Wootjan-Oo was curious. He didn’t think much of the Chznzet either and least of all that foppish faux-aristo Alghar.
     “Tell them you like living on Vermthellyn and that you’ve got lots of Rtuntli friends.” Aridel laid out her simple strategy.
     “But I hardly know any.” Xandu complained. Even though Shallens had been living on Vermthellyn for several generations, they hadn’t mixed in too well with the Rtuntli and tended to live in self-contained communities.
     “So? A few little lies go a long way.” Aridel confidently elaborated. She’d tried it out on the Chznzet and found that it worked admirably. “After a while they’ll leave you alone.”
     “Have you seen Knetryxx?” Yldoseh asked Wootjan-Oo brightly, eager to hear the latest gossip.
     “Yeah.” But he wished he hadn’t.
     Yldoseh picked up on Wootjan-Oo’s diffidence. “Why? What’s the matter?”
     “It’s gone to her head.” Wootjan-Oo didn’t really want to go into it.
     “Morgau was worried about that.” Xandu sympathised with Wootjan-Oo’s disappointment. “He hasn’t heard from her in ages.”
     The windows at the docking bay seemed to stretch on forever and afforded a panoramic view of the ‘Spirit of Discovery’, the Humans’ spaceship held fast by the Arks’ inertial clamps. Vermthellyn was but a green, cloud-streaked blob in the far distance.
     “So where are they?” Aridel asked as she tried to read the alien script on the ships’ hull. Large as the Spirit of Discovery was, it was dwarfed by the sheer scale of the Ark of Exodus.
     “There’s about a thousand or so in suspended animation on the ship.” Wootjan-Oo revelled in his role as documentary commentator. “At any time they have a crew of five who are awake and I think you’ll find them up top on the environment deck.”
     “Let’s go!” Yldoseh excitedly waggled her video recorder in Wootjan-Oo’s face.
     Pierre Dupont, acting Captain of the Spirit of Discovery idly unhooked the fish he had just caught and dropped it in the basket with the others before he cast his line back out into the river coursing across the environment deck. “So let me get zis right.” He asked in his thick French accent. “You’ve just come from Earth.”
     “Mars, actually.” Kkhrkht corrected him. “Just over a month ago.”
     “And you’ve never heard of ze Duvali Foundation?” Pierre quizzed Kkhrkht again. The Duvali Foundation was Earth’s leading independent space exploration group and were tireless self-publicists to the point where they were virtually a household name. Children from all over the world wanted to join them.
     “And judging by ze dates you’ve given me, ze Spirit of Discovery hasn’t even left Earth yet.” Pierre was still angry with the crew from the previous shift who went back into suspended animation before his own shift was revived without telling them that the Spirit of Discovery had been adrift for over 50 years as a result of an ion storm which left it crippled with barely enough power to maintain life support. Nearly a third of the crew died as a result of the power outages following the ion storm. All that was left of Pierre’s shift was himself and Silver, a petite dark-skinned Tamil woman who always dyed her thick, flowing hair silver. “But we left Earth 163 years ago. Our chronometers and logs prove it.”
     “I know, you showed me.” Kkhrkht was just as mystified as Pierre.
     “Maybe zat ion storm threw us back in time.” Pierre speculated as he slowly reeled in his line. “But I don’t see how zis can be. Zis violates causality. How can we be here if we haven’t yet left Earth? Zere will be two Spirit of Discoveries when we get back to Earth. Zere will be two of me and two of everyone on ze ship.”
     “Well, it’ll certainly give your people something to talk about.” Kkhrkht found the idea intriguing. “Maybe if you checked your logs again…”
     “Been there and done that.” Silver interrupted Kkhrkht as she gutted the fish and propped them on sticks over the glowing embers of a small fire. “The time flow was continuous. There are no gaps in the logs and no-one experienced any temporal anomalies.”
     At this point our Shallen foursome walk into view led by Wootjan-Oo and Yldoseh with her video recorder followed by Aridel and Xandu who gawped at Pierre, Silver and Kkhrkht.
     “Ah, we have visitors!” Pierre commented genially as he picked up a stick with two grilled fish impaled on it. “Would you like some fish?”
     Xandu was stunned to hear this alien speaking in his own dialect of Darconit, one of the many Shallen languages. But the fish smelled tasty and he timidly reached out to accept the stick. “Sure.” He took a bite of one of the fish and passed the stick to Aridel. Mmmm-delicious! “So how do you know our language?”
     “Kkhrkht’s amazing translator.” Pierre pointed out the little spherical translator sat on the grass between himself, Silver and Kkhrkht. “But you want to come in close, it doesn’t have much of a range.” He added as he beckoned to Xandu, Aridel, Wootjan-Oo and Yldoseh. Pierre could clearly see that they were quite nervous as they shuffled in close and sat around the fire. “So tell me a bit about yourselves.”
     “We’re from Estrillyd on Vermthellyn and… wait a minute we’re supposed to be interviewing you.” Aridel caught herself in the nick of time. She didn’t want to let Yldoseh down.
     “I thought so.” Pierre’s eyes twinkled as he laughed. “But first we get to know each other. I am Pierre Dupont from France on Earth; I think you call it HomeNest. And zis is Silver Deepak Varmananda…” He used the introductions to set the young Shallen visitors at ease and soon they were eagerly bombarding Silver and Pierre with questions. Silver was a bit wary with some of her answers, but Pierre positively revelled the attention and entertained them with endless stories and trivia. Pierre Dupont, or the Mimetic Freak as he was known in Lyons, had bought his place on the Spirit of Discovery through his winnings as a quiz show champion. He was eventually banned from going on quiz shows because he always won, but by then he was a wealthy celebrity looking for adventure.
     At one point, Wootjan-Oo caught Kkhrkht’s attention. “Where can I get a copy of their language for my translator?” The Tech Guild issued all its members with translators, something which Wootjan-Oo had never needed until now.
     “You can’t.” Kkhrkht explained. “It’s not available yet.”
     Kkhrkht picked up on Wootjan-Oo’s disappointment. “Do you want a copy?”
     “Wait until everyone’s done and I’ll copy it across for you, I’ll have to take my translator offline.” Kkhrkht explained. “Do you have Nglubi Elktan?”
     “I think so.” Wootjan-Oo scrolled through the list of languages on his translator and found it. “Yes, why?”
     “It aliases through Nglubi Elktan, it’s not a standardised language yet. A friend of mine put it together in its spare time.” Kkhrkht hoped that Grattlyd wouldn’t consider this a betrayal of trust.
     Wootjan-Oo’s communicator beeped: incoming message. Djohti’s tear-streaked face popped up on its tiny screen. “Where are you, Wootjan-Oo?”
     “The environment deck above Docking Bay 5. Why? What’s happened?”
     “The guards won’t let me in to Knetryxx’s apartment.” Djohti sniffled miserably into the screen. “They kicked me.”
     Wootjan-Oo could see that any plans he had for the day had just gone out the window. “Ok, get on a shuttle and come over here.” The picture on his communicator winked out as Djohti ran off from the public call box to the nearest shuttle platform.
     “What is it?” Aridel asked as Wootjan-Oo tried unsuccessfully to put a call through to Knetryxx.
     “Djohti.” He explained. “Knetryxx is acting up again. I’ll look after him. He can stay in my apartment, but I’d just as soon send him home.”
     The scene in Knetryxx’s apartment was very different from anything Wootjan-Oo might have imagined. Morgau, Tatia and Knetryxx were tied to chairs as Alghar strutted about imperiously and slapped his plasma pistol against his open paw. “You will learn your place, Knetryxx. Unlike Milentiet, you are the Keeper of the Ark in name only. It is we Chznzet who rule the Ark of Exodus. Your Olblavy clan are but sleazy rentiers and a shameful complacent disgrace to all Shallens. It is we Chznzet who are the true beating heart of the Shallens.” Alghar proudly beat his chest. “We who have kept the faith. We who bring us back to our HomeNest.”
     “You’re mad, Alghar.” Morgau interrupted as he struggled in vain against the ropes holding him fast. “You can’t change the past.”
     “Mad am I?” Alghar toyed with Morgau and held his pistol to Morgau’s head. Morgau went cross-eyed with cold, blind fear. “What’s so mad about undoing the Great Fall that drove us from HomeNest in the first place?”
     “But if you succeed, none of us will have ever existed. You included.” Knetryxx pleaded as she tried to move her chair so she could be beside Morgau.
     Alghar put a foot out and brusquely pushed her away. “Afraid of death are we?” Alghar laughed cruelly at Knetryxx. “Is that the example the Keeper of the Ark wishes to set? You would prefer to live the life of the idle rich rather than undo the greatest crime ever perpetrated against us Shallens? You’re not even fit to scrub out the torch drives.” Alghar spat out contemptuously.
     “You’re a genocidal maniac, Alghar.” Tatia tried to reason with Alghar. “What you propose to do will kill all Shallens alive today. Even our worst enemies couldn’t do that.”
     “We are the result of The Scattering the Nglubi inflicted on us.” Alghar explained with the certitude of a fanatical true believer. “When this is over, Shallens shall be restored to HomeNest and the Great Fall and The Scattering will have never happened.”
     “You’ll never get away with it.” Knetryxx defied Alghar.
     “And you’re going to stop me?” Alghar mocked his bound captives. “Look at us Shallens wandering around the galaxy. Some of us settle on one planet or another while the rest stay in their Arks wandering like lost gypsies forever beholden to the locals wherever we go.”
     “We have Cervetica.” As far as Morgau was concerned, Cervetica was their home planet. “Isn’t that good enough?”
     “That toxic slag heap!” Alghar scorned Morgau’s suggestion. “The most incompetently terraformed planet ever. The Galactic Council only gave us that planet because no-one else wanted it. Let’s see how long you last there before it makes you sterile or you end up a mutant.”
     “That’s not true.” Tatia defiantly butted into Alghar’s diatribe. “I was born there and my family have lived there for generations.”
     “So why did you leave?” Alghar acidly squashed her defence. “The Nglubi destroyed HomeNest and drove us out! Not only that, they created those Humans you found.”
     “You’re out of your mind, Alghar.” Tatia didn’t believe Alghar’s claims about the Nglubi or the Humans. “Where’s the proof?”
     “You’ll find all the proof you want in the scriptures.” Alghar replied with unshakeable belief.
     “Not that bunch of fairy tales.” Knetryxx knew that Alghar was loopy, but hadn’t expected him to turn out to be a religious headbanger into the bargain.
     “The truth.” Alghar coldly corrected her. “Every single word is a true record of our history. You would do well to read them sometime. Don’t you take pride in what you are? What is one’s own life when you weigh it against the glorious future on HomeNest that the Nglubi denied us?”
     “Oh, I’m stuffed!” Pzeptilan groaned with contentment as dzzhev lay on dzzhev-ye’s back in a clearing on the environment deck with the carcass of a partially-stripped allosaurus at their feet.
     “Stringy.” Vvezhti-Kla commented abstractly as dzhinn picked strands of tough flesh out from between dzhinn-ye’s mandibles. “It has such a tiny brain; I had a hard time finding it with my stinger.”
     “Good job you did, that beast nearly killed me.” Pzeptilan looked up out of the transparent ceiling of the environment deck and out into space. Dzzhev-ye could see the illuminated environment deck arching overhead like the interior of a wide glowing wheel with the main drive and control section suspended like an axle on spokes down the middle.
     Neither of them noticed the Guard and footman from Duke Reflinghar’s retinue until they were standing over them. The footman stooped low, holding a purple cushion in his paws. “Ambassador Pzeptilan of Zrrlchtz?”
     Pzeptilan, who was too full to even think about standing, let alone running away, looked up at the footman. “Yes?”
     “You left your communicator in the Palace.” The footman stooped even lower so that Pzeptilan could see dzzhev-ye’s communicator resting on the cushion.
     Pzeptilan cautiously picked up dzzhev-ye’s communicator from the cushion. “Why, thank you.” Pzeptilan couldn’t believe this was all there was to it after the mad chase through Estrillyd and the shoot-out at the gateway terminus. “No escape, eh?”
     The footman stood up. “We can find anyone anywhere on the Ark.” He pronounced confidently. “Lady Reflinghar is a keen sports pilot and enjoyed the chase immensely. She would like to challenge your pilot to a match at the Estrillyd Speedway at the next tournament.”
     Pzeptilan couldn’t believe dzzhev-ye’s ears. “That’s it?”
     “I believe so.” The footman courteously replied. “Have you a message you would care for me to relay to her Ladyship?”
     Pzeptilan thought for a moment. “We were most impressed with Lady Reflinghar’s piloting and look forward to meeting her on the Speedway.”
     The footman bowed a last time before leaving. “Thank you, and a good day to you.”
     “It won’t be a fair contest.” Vvezhti-Kla spoke up as the Guard and footman marched off out of the clearing and down a path through the woods. “I’m a combat pilot.”
     “Lady Reflinghar doesn’t know that. Play with her, let her think she can beat you and then leave her standing at the finish.” Pzeptilan suggested helpfully as dzzhev-ye fiddled around with the communicator. “I wonder where Kkhrkht is.”
     Xandu, Aridel, Yldoseh and Wootjan-Oo spent the afternoon munching on grilled fish and swapping stories with Pierre and Silver as they gradually built up a picture of how these Humans lived on HomeNest or Earth as they called it and their colonies on Mars and Luna and were flattered when Pierre asked them about their lives on Vermthellyn.
     “Are there any Shallens living on HomeNest today?” Xandu asked hopefully.
     Pierre looked Xandu over and sighed. “No, I’m afraid not. Ze Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction was quite drastic. After your ancestors left, we evolved to fill up ze niche zey left behind. But I am intrigued; your friend Aridel claims that some Shallens believe it was an act of war. What do you think about zis?”
     Yldoseh zoomed in on Xandu for his reply. Xandu wasn’t sure what to say. All the certainties in his and most Shallens’ lives were unravelling ever since Knetryxx had found the ‘Spirit of Discovery’ and its crew of humans. “I don’t know. I never believed that HomeNest even existed until now. HomeNest was just a myth that only the Chznzet believed.”
     “And who are zese Chznzet?” Pierre wanted to know more about the Shallens. When they turned up at Earth it would certainly shake up the Humans’ self-centred complacency.
     “They’re a religious cult.” Aridel detested the Chznzet with a passion. Her mother had joined the Chznzet and abandoned Aridel and her two brothers to be brought up by their father on his paltry earnings as a school janitor; something for which she never forgave her mother or the Chznzet. “They break up families and mess with peoples’ minds.”
     “But zey were right about your HomeNest.” Pierre pointed out as Yldoseh recorded his every word. “Look at Silver and me, zat’s where we come from. Maybe zey are right about zese other things, too.”
     Wootjan-Oo could see what Pierre was getting at. “They’re not interested in knowledge for its’ own sake, Pierre. They want power, power over their brainwashed disciples and power over all Shallens as well. They want to purify the Shallens of their decadence, cleanse HomeNest of what they see as alien filth and repopulate it with their true believers.”
     “Well then, we have a problem.” Pierre was beginning to get a grasp on where the Chznzet were at. “Our planet is quite crowded. Zere were about 10 billion of us when ze Spirit of Discovery left. Maybe some of you Shallens could live zere. A few million possibly, but it’s not for me to say. We have government zat makes zose kind of decisions. But if your Chznzet think zey are going to get rid of us, zey are in for a big disappointment. Unlike you, we have nowhere to go and you can be very sure we will defend ourselves.”
     “Now you know why most Shallens avoid the Chznzet.” Aridel broke the silence after Pierre finished talking. “They stir up trouble wherever they go.”
     Kkhrkht had long since gone to report back to Knetryxx and the lighting on their stretch of the environment deck was starting to dim simulating dusk when Djohti came running along the path beside the river and threw himself at Wootjan-Oo, hugging him tearfully and curling his tail around Wootjan-Oo. “Wanna go home.” Djohti whimpered.
     “I’ll take you to the gateway and arrange for your mother to collect you back on Vermthellyn.” Wootjan-Oo offered as he comforted Djohti.
     “Can’t. It’s closed until the morning.” Djohti tried to bury his head in Wootjan-Oo’s feathers.
     Wootjan-Oo held Djohti close in his armwings and it wasn’t long before the young Shallen was fast asleep. “Pierre, Silver, it’s been very interesting talking with you, but I must go now. I have to look after Djohti. He’s very tired.”
     Pierre wrapped up the last of the grilled fish and gave it to Aridel. “Here’s something for ze young one. And, please, come back again. Silver and I don’t have much to do zese days, so it’s nice to have some company to pass ze time.”
     Xandu waved goodbye to Silver and Pierre. “So long and thanks for all the fish.”
     Silver waited until their Shallen visitors disappeared down the path towards the exit to the shuttle platform. “Pierre, you old charmer, you’re telling them too much about us.”
     “Pas de tout, ma petit chou.” Pierre reassured her. “I tell zem nothing zat zey won’t find out once zey’re near enough to Earth. Meanwhile we learn more about ze Shallens and their culture. Zis way we have some information about ze Shallens to send to ze Foundation. So, are you going to help me file a report about zese young Shallens or do you want some more fish?”
     “No, I’m fine, thanks.” Silver patted her stomach and stretched out on the grass.
     Aridel was so overcome with excitement she felt as if she was dreaming. She hugged Yldoseh and danced around the shuttle platform nearly knocking the video recorder out of Yldoseh’s paws. “We’ve done it! We’ve done it!” Aridel was ecstatic as visions of fame and celebrity danced in front of her eyes. Yldoseh had just pulled off the first-ever interview with the Humans from HomeNest and she, Aridel, was part of it.
     Yldoseh broke free from Aridel’s clutches and stalked up and down the platform pretending to record everything in sight. “This is just the beginning.” She announced with a wicked grin as she whipped the memory pack out of the recorder. “And it’s all here!”
     They couldn’t stop talking about the Humans as they rode in the shuttle. “The fur on their heads…”
     “Their paws are so slender…”
     “That fish was really nice…”
     “I don’t know if I’d want to go in suspended animation. It sounds dangerous…”
     “They don’t have tails…”
     “Their skin looks so soft and they don’t have scales…”
     “No claws that I could see…”
     “Their faces look kind of flat…”
     “They’ve got such small teeth. And no fangs…”
     “I wonder why they cover their feet…”
     “Silver’s boobs are so large!” Xandu couldn’t take his eyes off Silver the whole time they were there.
     “What’s wrong with mine?” Aridel cut short Xandu’s dreamy fantasies. Female reptilian Shallens have breasts, but not quite as pronounced as a female human’s.
     “I hate to say it.” Wootjan-Oo interrupted their excited babbling as he shifted Djohti’s sleeping bulk in his lap. “But everything those Humans said corroborates the Chznzet legend of The Fall.”
     “You’re not thinking of joining them, are you?” Aridel knew Wootjan-Oo was right, but her loathing of the Chznzet kept her from joining up the facts.
     “No.” Wootjan-Oo was guiltily defensive. He had toyed with the idea once, but had been put off by their fanaticism. His encounter with Alghar merely sealed his decision to give the Chznzet a wide berth. “But what Pierre told us fits the legend perfectly. So unless he’s part of a massive hoax cooked up by the Chznzet, we should accept what he has to say.”
     “I wouldn’t put it past them.” Yldoseh commented as she cleaned the lens on her video recorder. “The Chznzet have the means and the motive.”
     “But that means the Chznzet knew about the Humans and HomeNest all along.” Xandu was dumbstruck by the duplicity of such a charade. “And they always said that they’d reclaim HomeNest with a battle fleet as soon as they found it. So why would they set up such an elaborate scam?”
     “To vindicate their mythology in the public eye?” Aridel didn’t really like thinking about the Chznzet. It brought back too many painful memories. “They’ve never hidden the fact that they want to be the official religion for all Shallens. This would take them from being a fringe cult straight into the bedrock of our culture. But they’re such creeps.”
     “I’ve never met any that I liked.” Wootjan-Oo commiserated. “I’d pluck my feathers out before I’d ever join them.”
     “Ouch! That sounds painful.” Even though Xandu was a featherless reptilian, the thought of it sent shivers through his scaly skin.
     “I’d like to live on HomeNest.” Yldoseh was seduced by Pierre’s colourful descriptions and wanted to see it for herself. “After all, that’s where we came from.”
     “Yeah, but what about the Humans?” Aridel could see that they were about fall straight into Chznzet orthodoxy.
     “What about them?” Xandu wasn’t particularly bothered. Much as he disliked the Chznzet, their creed was seductive.
     “I suppose it’ll end up like Vermthellyn all over again.” Wootjan-Oo surmised. “Some of us will live there, but it’s their planet now.”
     “Not if the Chznzet get their way.” Yldoseh pointed out. “They’re obsessed with the place. And they refuse to set foot on Cervetica.”
     “So? It’s not as if it’s going to affect any of us.” Xandu countered.
     “But HomeNest created the Humans just as it created us.” Aridel was surprised at Xandu’s blasé indifference. “Surely that counts for something?”
     They got off the shuttle at Wootjan-Oo’s residential deck and took turns carrying Djohti until they reached Wootjan-Oo’s untidy bachelor apartment. It was a small two-room affair with a porthole looking out into space. Wootjan-Oo carried Djohti through to his nest room and settled him into his nest.
     “What’s this?” He heard Aridel calling from the living room.
     “What’s what?” Wootjan-Oo asked as he quietly closed the nest room door behind him and saw the green-and-blue feathered Ninjakla bird nailed to the wall, its blood trailing down the wall in still-wet deep red streaks. “Aw-w-w-wk!!!” Wootjan-Oo squawked. This could only mean one thing: a warning from Alghar.
     “What’s a Ninjakla bird doing nailed to your wall?” Xandu had never seen the cool and collected Wootjan-Oo so terrified before.
     “It’s, it’s…” Wootjan-Oo slumped down onto a cushion trembling with fear and told them all about his encounter with Alghar and Knetryxx earlier that day and finished off by telling them what happened to Djohti. “They must have kicked Djohti really hard; he’s got some nasty bruises.”
     “What are you gong to do?” Xandu asked Wootjan-Oo.
     “I-I don’t know.” Wootjan-Oo was petrified. “I can’t stay here. Now that Alghar knows where I live he could send could one of his stooges here to kill me at any time. I doubt if it’s even safe to go back to work. The Guild’s riddled with Chznzet. Could I stay at your place?”
     “Uh, we were supposed to stay with Knetryxx.” Xandu felt helpless. He really wanted to help Wootjan-Oo but was completely out of his depth.
     Aridel threw down her communicator in exasperation. “They’re not answering.”
     “Who isn’t answering?” Wootjan-Oo felt as if his world was closing in around him.
     “Morgau and Tatia.” Aridel explained. “They came up with us today to visit Knetryxx.”
     “Maybe their power cells have gone flat.” Xandu was always forgetting to keep the power cell in his communicator topped up.
     “But what about Djohti?” Aridel knew that Knetryxx didn’t like Djohti hanging around her friends but this was way beyond anything she’d ever done before.
     “That explains everything.” Xandu snickered. “Would you want your kid brother hanging around when you’re going at it?”
     “If that was the case, she would have booted out Tatia. Threesomes aren’t her style.” Yldoseh knew Knetryxx well enough. “She’s a bit proper about all that.”
     “You said Knetryxx has been acting strangely lately. Maybe she’s fallen for him and been trying to hide it from us out of guilt.” Xandu suggested. “It could explain why you couldn’t get hold of Morgau or Tatia. They must have gone back to Vermthellyn.”
     “Morgau must be really cut up over it. He’s been living like a monk ever since she ran off to the Ark.” Yldoseh really felt for Morgau. He’d been certain that Knetryxx would come back to him.
     Wootjan-Oo ran out the door and returned a few minutes later pushing a small cart into his apartment. “Grab all my blankets and put Djohti in the cart. We’re out of here.” They rode the shuttle in paranoid silence perforated by the shuttle’s rhythmic rattling, got out at Docking Bay 5 with its view of the ‘Spirit of Discovery’ and took the lift up to the environment deck. The lighting was down all the way simulating night-time and a canopy of stars with Vermthellyn’s receding sun crossed by the Ark’s curved ring hung overhead. They followed the smell of wood smoke along the riverside path and soon found Silver and Pierre sitting by their fire playing some music.
     Pierre was strumming a battered old guitar and crooned a mournful ballad of love lost and broken hearts in French while Silver tootled along on a clarinet. They kept on playing as the young Shallens joined them around the fire. Wootjan-Oo’s translator didn’t recognise French, but they were lulled by Pierre’s mellifluous singing and were soon harmonising along with his songs. Pierre and Silver led them through song after song washing away their fears and worries in as they basked in the fire’s warm glow.
     Their comforting bubble of music was crudely punctured by the arrival of Kkhrkht, Pzeptilan and Vvezhti-Kla singing and buzzing drunkenly as they staggered down the path to find Pierre and Silver and flopped down noisily beside the fire. Pierre set down his guitar. “Did you manage to get ze translators, Kkhrkht?”
     “Oh yes.” Kkhrkht rolled over and picked two translators out of dzzhakh-ye’s satchel and passed them over to Pierre before collapsing back into a heap with Pzeptilan and Vvezhti-Kla.
     Pierre laughed softly at Kkhrkht’s drunkenness as he gave one translator to Silver. “So what brings you back so soon?” He asked the Shallens who all spoke at once. “One at a time, please.” And they told him about the Ninjakla bird, Alghar, Djohti, their lives together on Vermthellyn, how Knetryxx came to be the Keeper of the Ark, the Chznzet and as much of the Shallens’ history as they knew. It all came out in such a rush Pierre had to stop them every now and them to piece it all together. “But are you certain Alghar really wants to kill you? It could just be a warning. Maybe he sees you as a competitor and wants Knetryxx for himself. After all, if he could find your home, he could find you just as easily.”
     Wootjan-Oo wasn’t reassured by Pierre’s reasoning. “We’d rather stay here with you.”
     “Zat’s fine by me. But tonight we stay here because zese fools,” Pierre pointed to the drunken Khzchhrrrtz. “Are too drunk to move.” As the night wore on they gradually drifted off to sleep, Aridel snuggled up with Xandu to keep warm and Yldoseh curled up around Wootjan-Oo.
     Morning came with Djohti scampering around excitedly waking everyone up as Pierre and Silver boiled up a pot of coffee and grilled some toast over the fire. Kkhrkht crawled over to the river, threw up, fell headfirst into the slow-moving water and flailed around clumsily as dzzhakh-ye struggled to climb out onto the riverbank.
     “Our very own egg!” Vvezhti-Kla exclaimed dreamily in spite of dzhinn-ye’s excruciating hangover. “This is the happiest day of my life.”
     “My brain hurts.” Pzeptilan grumbled painfully as dzzhev-ye looked up to see Vvezhti-Kla proudly holding their egg.
     “I didn’t know a Zzhemthax could…” Kkhrkht trailed off as dzzhakh-ye tried to come to grips with what had just happened. At least this time around there was little chance of a repeat of what happened with Zzzhkzklt, Vvriklrty and that damn louse, Jemalkhta.
     “Nor did I.” Vvezhti-Kla was ecstatic. “Isn’t it wonderful?”
     “Yes, I mean no.” Kkhrkht’s antennae drooped despondently. This was the last thing they needed right now. “But it’ll be a freak, that’s why the different castes never mix.”
     Vvezhti-Kla was momentarily upset by Kkhrkht’s panicky comment until dzhinn-ye looked down at the egg cradled in dzhinn’s arms. “I don’t care. It’s our egg and it’ll be our grub. You see Pzeptilan was right to make me drop the caste formalities. It’s all a big lie to control us and make us suspicious of each other. Love conquers all and this egg proves it.”
     Pzeptilan could see there was no stopping Vvezhti-Kla now. “That wasn’t quite what I had in mind.” Dzzhev-ye protested weakly as Yldoseh filmed them with her video recorder.
     Yldoseh cornered Aridel and Xandu while they were having their breakfast. “Here’s your ID cards, clip them on where everyone can see them.”
     Aridel looked at her picture on the card. “Who’s the Wing-Fang Media Group?”
     “Us.” Yldoseh explained as she clipped her card onto her jerkin. “We’re going to interview Knetryxx today. We’re professionals now.”
     “If you say so.” Xandu looked dubiously at his ID card.
     They set off for the Ark’s gateway with Djohti riding on Vvezhti-Kla’s back. Vvezhti-Kla was ecstatic. Amongst the Khzchhrrrtz, Zzhemthax were assumed to be neuter dzhinns, so their egg was like a dream come true for Vvezhti-Kla. Pzeptilan and Kkhrkht, however, didn’t quite share dzhinn’s feelings as they nursed their hangovers. The egg and raising their grub would completely change their lives. Never mind what they’d face after it pupated. What sort of life could it expect to lead on Vermthellyn? And if they ever got back to Zrrlchtz, what then?
     Yldoseh yakked away in hyperdrive outlining her plans to Aridel and Xandu as their shuttle whisked them to the Ark’s gateway terminus. She showed Xandu how to operate the video recorder and made him film everyone for a bit of practice while she cued Aridel on how to pose as her assistant. “We’ve got to keep up the act.” Yldoseh explained to Aridel. “So long as we act the part, no-one’s likely to question us. There’s plenty of independent reporters on Vermthellyn, so why shouldn’t one team come to the Ark of Exodus?”
     “But they’ll never buy the Channel-7 shtick.” Aridel admired Yldoseh’s nerve, but had doubts whether they could pull it off. “On top of that, the Wing-Fang Media Group doesn’t exist. If they check us out, we’ll come unstuck.”
     Yldoseh was having none of it. “Of course it’s real. It’s my own registered company.”
     Aridel looked closely at her ID card. “But that’s your home address. Won’t your mother answer the phone if they call your ‘office’?”
     “No, that’s my own line and I’ve got an AI answering service to handle any calls.” Yldoseh prided herself on staying one step ahead.
     After they saw off Djohti, Vvezhti-Kla and Pzeptilan at the gateway amid the early morning traffic Wootjan-Oo stopped Yldoseh. “I think we’d best split up here.”
     “Why?” Yldoseh had planned on having Wootjan-Oo and Kkhrkht around as extra muscle in case things went awry.
     “If Alghar is hanging around Knetryxx, you don’t want to be seen with me or Kkhrkht.” Wootjan-Oo explained. “It would give the game away.”
     “Hmmm.” Yldoseh could see Wootjan-Oo’s point. Xandu was nice, but he wasn’t much use in a fight. This would change her plans a bit. “Okay, but keep in contact. We’ll meet up at Silver and Pierre’s this evening.”
     “I thought you were supposed to be guarding Knetryxx.” Wootjan-Oo asked Kkhrkht as Yldoseh led Aridel and Xandu off to interview Knetryxx.
     “So did I, but I was dismissed by Lord Alghar.” Kkhrkht didn’t know what dzzhakh-ye was supposed to do now. Kkhrkht had to stay on the Ark otherwise Pzeptilan would face a death sentence on Vermthellyn.
     Wootjan-Oo didn’t like the sound of this. “When did that happen?”
     “Last night.” Kkhrkht explained. “That’s why I got drunk.”
     “Alghar seems to be popping up everywhere.” Wootjan-Oo muttered darkly.
     “I take it you don’t get on with Lord Alghar.” Kkhrkht asked diplomatically.
     “No I don’t.” Wootjan-Oo huffed angrily. “He’s no aristo either, so stop calling him Lord Alghar. He’s a fake. He’s a Chznzet and they want to overthrow the aristocracy.”
     “But all his followers call him Lord Alghar.” Kkhrkht pleaded innocently.
     “Really?” This surprised Wootjan-Oo. It wasn’t like the Chznzet to pretend to the aristocracy they so passionately hated. “I wonder what they’re up to? That’s very out of character for them.” They stood around in the gateway’s atrium with the morning’s crowds milling around them as Wootjan-Oo tried to fathom the Chznzet’s change of tack. Suddenly Wootjan-Oo had a flash of inspiration and grabbed Kkhrkht by one of dzzhakh-ye’s arms. “Come on, we’re going to check up on Knetryxx.”
     “Aridel, you just hold that notepad and do the secretarial bit. Make sure you keep an eye out for an escape route if we have to make a break for it. Leave the talking to me.” Yldoseh reminded Aridel as they strode down the corridors towards Knetryxx’s apartment. “Xandu, remember to get the subject on camera. And don’t forget to film me when I do the intros and field questions. Got it?”
     “Sure thing.” Xandu tried to sound casual. He’d never seen such ostentatious displays of opulent wealth before and stared around in slack-jawed wonder. They rounded the last corner and spotted two guards slouched against the wall part way down the hall. One looked sound asleep.
     “That’s it!” Yldoseh couldn’t hide her glee. “Start filming now, I want to get this.” She whispered to Xandu. “Keep it rolling the whole way, we’ll edit it later.”
     She marched her crew up to the guards one of whom lazily raised his plasma lance to block their path. “You can’t come through here. Try another passage.” He grumbled sleepily.
     “We’ve come to interview Princess Knetryxx for Channel-7.” Yldoseh bluffed.
     “Channel-7, why didn’t you say?” The guard straightened himself up and kicked his slumbering partner to wake him up.
     “Huh? Wha?” The dozy guard rubbed his eyes.
     “Video crew from Channel-7” The first guard chivvied Dozy and helped him to his feet. They brushed the creases out of their uniforms, stood to attention on either side of the doorway into Knetryxx’s apartment and lowered their lances to formally block Yldoseh’s path. The first guard cleared his throat to speak in a suitably stentorian military voice: “I am very sorry, but Princess Knetryxx does not receive members of the public at her residence. You will need to make an appointment through the Keeper’s Office.”
     Yldoseh thanked them and as they were about to go, Dozy grabbed hold of Aridel’s arm. “Are we really going to be on screen?” He asked hopefully.
     Aridel was impressed at how easily Yldoseh had bluffed the guards into admitting that this was Knetryxx’s apartment and got into the swing of using glib fibs to get her way. “Possibly, I’ll see if we can fit you in.”
     “Did you see that?” Xandu asked once they were safely away from the guards. “They’re both Chznzet.”
     “I hope you recorded some proof.” Yldoseh wanted all the fine details.
     “Yep.” Xandu proudly slapped the video recorder.
     Kkhrkht followed Wootjan-Oo away from the gleaming gateway atrium and down a series of dingy grime-encrusted corridors. Dzzhakh-ye could hear the deep rumble of machinery in the distance and the steady rush of air in dzzhakh’s face. “Where are we going?”
     “To check up on Knetryxx.” Wootjan-Oo explained again as their corridor opened out onto to the access shaft for their section of the Ark. The access shaft was thirty metres across and doubled up as the main ventilation duct. A fair gale of wind blew up from the stygian depths below. The air rushed past them with a deep whooshing rumble and low whistling as their lift cage rattled along its tracks up one side of the cavernous shaft. They got out at Knetryxx’s deck and the accumulated dust and dirt of aeons showered down upon them as they made their way down the dimly-lit corridor as Wootjan-Oo led the way down the cramped passages. He stopped to consult the map on his notepad and wiped the dust off a corroded plaque. “Nearly there.” He sneezed as a cloud of dust settled around him. “This is going to ruin my feathers.” Wootjan-Oo grumbled.
     A few minutes later the passage opened out at a junction for hundreds of ventilation ducts. A dirty yellow box with a pipe snaking down one of the ducts caught his attention. “I wonder what this is?” He opened it up, found a small canister inside and gave it to Kkhrkht. “Wait here, I’m going to see where this one goes.” Wootjan-Oo crawled down the duct and found himself looking through a grating overlooking Knetryxx’s luxurious bedroom. Just as he was about to turn to crawl back he noticed a sonic transducer next to the grate and picked it up.
     “What did you find?” Kkhrkht sneezed as Wootjan-Oo brushed the dust out of his feathers.
     “Knetryxx’s bedroom and this.” Wootjan-Oo held up the transducer. “There’s something dirty going on here. Let’s check the rest of her apartment.” They spent the best part of the next hour crawling up and down the different ducts. Guest rooms, a kitchen, foyers, halls, lounges: all lavishly luxurious, but entirely deserted. They were nearly done when Wootjan-Oo spotted Tatia and Morgau tied up in one of the reception rooms. He knocked on the grate to get their attention, but they didn’t respond.
     He crawled back and told Kkhrkht what he had found. “I think they’re drugged. Maybe we should leave them there. Alghar will come looking for them and we don’t have anywhere to hide them.”
     “But Alghar will know soon enough when he finds that we’ve tampered with that machine.” Kkhrkht pointed out the grimy yellow box. “He might move your friends somewhere else. We should take them now.”
     “But you can’t hide on an Ark. The surveillance system can find anyone anywhere.” Wootjan-Oo barely hid his desperation. “I should know, I’ve worked on it.”
     “What about the human’s ship?” Kkhrkht suggested. “They wouldn’t be on the Ark there.”
     “You’re a genius, Kkhrkht. Why didn’t I think of that?” But Wootjan-Oo thought for a minute about what he was getting himself into. If this went wrong they could all end up dead: Alghar wasn’t playing games.
     Just then Kkhrkht heard the faint sound of footfalls echoing through the passages and dzzhakh-ye’s warrior self took over. “Quick, hide.”
     “Where?” Wootjan-Oo looked around nervously.
     “In the ducts nearest the entrance.” Kkhrkht lifted Wootjan-Oo up and stuffed him feet-first into one of the ducts overlooking the junction before crawling backwards up another duct on the other side of the entrance and waited. It wasn’t long before a pair of Chznzet guards, an avian and a reptilian, walked cautiously into the junction pointing their fusion lances into the ducts.
     “They definitely came this way, Lugoth.” The reptilian Chznzet spoke as he poked his lance down one of the ducts. “They’re in here. I feel it.”
     “And they’ve taken the Sortranol.” Lugoth slammed the lid of the empty yellow box shut.
     Kkhrkht watched them closely waiting for a chance to pounce. Dzzhakh would only have one chance in such confined quarters. Lugoth, the avian Chznzet, went to scout on ahead down the passage leaving the reptilian in the junction. A fatal mistake. Kkhrkht waited until the reptilian walked past the duct dzzhakh was hiding in and launched out as hard as dzzhakh-ye could push and bit through his neck, severing the reptilian’s head in one swift move. Kkhrkht landed on top of the decapitated body, grabbed the fusion lance that had fallen out its dead paws and shot Lugoth in the back. Kkhrkht stood there covered in blood and shaking from the energy rush as dzzhakh-ye’s warrior self faded away.
     Wootjan-Oo crawled out of the duct he had hidden in and could barely believe his eyes. Kkhrkht had just killed two fully armed Chznzet guards!
     “Where were we?” Kkhrkht asked as dzzhakh-ye handed the reptilian Chznzet’s plasma lance to Wootjan-Oo.
     “Morgau and Tatia.” Wootjan-Oo plucked one of his feathers out to make sure that he wasn’t dreaming.
     “Right.” Kkhrkht agreed as dzzhakh-ye picked up Lugoth’s plasma lance. They broke into the reception room and untied Morgau and Tatia. Kkhrkht lifted them up to the duct and Wootjan-Oo pulled them along to the dingy junction. They put the grate back in place, even though it would be obvious how Morgau and Tatia left the room.
     Kkhrkht put two arms around Morgau and held him upright. It reminded Kkhrkht of the times Pzeptilan was doped up on Ghalthynn. “It looks like they’ll stay on their feet as long as you hold them up.” They set off back to the access shaft and sped away from Knetryxx’s apartment in the rattling service lift as it plummeted deep into the Ark’s bowels.
     The Ark of Exodus, in common with all Shallen worldships, had an extensive service and maintenance network so that essential work could be carried out without disturbing the Ark’s inhabitants. It had a complete parallel transport system to carry workers, tools and materiel to wherever it was needed. The maintenance shuttle they rode was an open flat car laden with packing crates. Although it was much faster than the passenger shuttles, their journey seemed to take forever as it stopped at every platform along the way. Luckily, they were all deserted.
     Wootjan-Oo looked at the silver bands around Tatia and Morgau’s necks. “They’re wearing prison bands. I hope you’re right about the human’s ship not being part of the Ark.”
     Wootjan-Oo pointed out the metallic prison bands to Kkhrkht. “They can be used to track prisoners and choke them if they get out of control or try to escape.”
     Morgau and Tatia were still listless when Wootjan-Oo and Kkhrkht bundled them off the shuttle car at the platform for Docking Bay 5. They struggled to walk them all the way to the Spirit of Discovery’s gangway. It was open which meant the Silver and Pierre were onboard, so they heaved Morgau and Tatia aboard and were greeted by a somewhat sleepy Silver. “You’ve brought some more friends to visit us?” She yawned as she ran her fingers through her tousled hair.
     “It’s a little bit different this time.” Wootjan-Oo struggled to lift Tatia’s listless body through the airlock.
     “Are you sure this is the right place?” Xandu asked as he swept the video recorder around to take in the spacious observation deck which was located at the forward end of the Ark’s central hub. Its’ glassine cover gave a breathtaking panoramic surround view of space beyond.
     “It says she’ll be making a tour here this afternoon.” Aridel consulted a copy of Knetryxx’s official timetable in her notepad.
     “There she is!” Yldoseh spotted Knetryxx on a raised walkway overlooking the observation deck surrounded by a crowd of Shallens she had never seen before. “OK, roll it, Xandu. I want close-ups of that lot before they see us. C’mon, let’s go.” They made their way up the walkway and were stopped by one of the entourage long before they could get near Knetryxx. Xandu filmed Yldoseh as she bluffed, bullied, begged and pleaded to no avail. Knetryxx glanced their way once without even the faintest glimmer of recognition.
     An officious avian decked out with Chznzet regalia interrupted Yldoseh’s futile attempts at securing an interview. “Please submit your questions and accreditation to the Keeper’s Office. Princess Knetryxx will be holding a full press conference in three days’ time just before we make the jump to HomeNest.” After much heated haggling, Yldoseh got permission for Xandu to film the entourage. Xandu made his way through the crowd until he was face-to-face with Knetryxx and filmed her close-up. Nothing. She stared past him into space as if he wasn’t there. It didn’t last long before the avian ushered them away.
     “Looks like it’ll be a staged press conference.” Yldoseh sighed as they walked away across the observation deck. “We’ll have to prepare a list of questions and hope they chose some of ours.”
     “Every single one of them was a Chznzet.” Aridel spat out once they left the observation deck.
     “What have they done to her?” Yldoseh couldn’t figure it out. Sure, Knetryxx could be snooty and snobbish when she wanted, but this was something else altogether.
     “She’s taking after you, Xandu.” Aridel quipped sarcastically.
     “What do you mean?” Xandu knew that tone of voice and expected one of Aridel’s sharp-edged insults to follow.
     “That silver choker she’s wearing.” Aridel took a dig at Xandu. Everyone teased him about his black velvet choker. “I thought it looked quite good on her.”
     “Huh.” Xandu wasn’t impressed. He liked his choker, even if everyone thought it made him look ‘girly’. “She’s just copying me. Knetryxx has never had an original idea in her whole life.”
     “That’s the second one done.” Silver announced as she switched off the laser torch in the Spirit of Discovery’s workshop and peeled the broken prison band away from Morgau’s neck. “That’s one tough alloy. What do you want to do with them?” She asked as she handed Morgau and Tatia’s prison bands to Wootjan-Oo.
     “Throw the damn things out the air lock.” Wootjan-Oo knew it was only a matter of time before Alghar would start a sweep of the Ark for Morgau and Tatia who lay comatose in a drugged stupor on the workbench. “And wait for Morgau and Tatia to come to their senses.”
     Pierre stuck his head round the workshop door. “Ah, zere you are. It looks like we have ze whole family here today.” Yldoseh, Aridel and Xandu followed him into the workshop.
     Aridel rushed over to Tatia and hugged her warm, listless body. “What happened to them?” She asked Wootjan-Oo.
     “We found them in Knetryxx’s apartment.” Wootjan-Oo explained. “Alghar’s drugged them. He had prison bands on them, too.”
     “What bands?” Xandu asked as he felt Morgau’s pulse to make sure he was still alive.
     “These bands.” Wootjan-Oo held up the two broken prison bands.
     “Just a minute.” Aridel whisked one of the bands out of Wootjan-Oo’s claws and placed it around Tatia’s neck. “What does that look like?”
     Yldoseh and Xandu looked at the silver prison band Aridel held around Tatia’s neck in disbelief. “What did you say these things were?” Xandu asked Wootjan-Oo.
     “Prison bands, why?” Wootjan-Oo wondered what they were getting at.
     “Knetryxx had one of these when we saw her today.” Aridel lifted the prison band off of Tatia’s neck and gave it back to Wootjan-Oo.
     “Are you sure?” Even though Wootjan-Oo half-expected something like this, it was the last thing he wanted to hear.
     “Let’s see.” Yldoseh rewound the video recorder, stopped it at one of Xandu’s close-ups of Knetryxx, zoomed in and showed it to Wootjan-Oo. “What do you think?”
     One look told Wootjan-Oo everything he needed to know. “Damn that creep, Alghar. He’s put a prison band on Knetryxx. Not only that, he’s been trying to brainwash her.”
     “What do you mean?” Aridel was seriously worried about Knetryxx.
     “Wootjan-Oo found these.” Kkhrkht held out the transducer and the canister Wootjan-Oo had removed from the box outside Knetryxx’s bedroom.
     “A sonic transducer and some drug they were pumping into her bedroom.” Wootjan-Oo didn’t like breaking even more bad news. “It looks like they were trying to brainwash her in her sleep.”
     “I wonder what it is.” Xandu asked as he snatched the canister out of Kkhrkht’s claws and squirted a tiny burst of it contents into his nose. “Who-o-o-o!!” Xandu staggered back reeling from the intense rush of the drug. “That’s some strong stuff!”
     “What is it?” Yldoseh could smell a faint chemical tang in the air.
     “Sortranol.” Xandu struggled to keep a grip on his senses. “She must be as high as a kite. There's enough in there to keep you out of it for months.”
     “Hah!” Aridel laughed at Xandu. “Trust our resident druggie to know that one.”
     “Knetryxx is in danger.” Wootjan-Oo spelt out the obvious. “We’ve got to rescue her. But how?”

Scribbles & Scraps
Chapter 20
Chapter 22