Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 23: Emerald Eyes.


      “He what???” If it hadn’t been for the fact that Wootjan-Oo and Kkhrkht had pulled Morgau and Tatia drugged and unconscious out of Knetryxx’s apartment, Xandu would have dismissed Morgau’s story as just another tall tale.
      “Don’t ask me how he intends to do it, but Alghar claimed that the Chznzet have some way to undo the Great Fall so that we would never have left HomeNest.” Morgau still felt groggy from the after-effects of the drugs Alghar had doped him with and rubbed his neck where the prison band had chafed his scales.
      “Neat! I always wanted to live on HomeNest.” Yldoseh commented excitedly as she filmed Tatia and Morgau’s recovery in the cramped crew lounge aboard the Spirit of Discovery.
      “No, not neat.” Tatia’s sense of desperation was still dulled by the drugs. “You don’t get it, do you, Yldoseh?”
      Pierre Dupont had followed everything Morgau and Tatia said closely and turned around from where he had been looking out of the lounge window with its view of the Ark of Exodus’ hull and the receding Vermthellyn system behind them. “If Alghar is successful, then zere is a high probability zat most of ze Shallens zat lived after ze Great Fall as you call it would never have existed. And zat would include you, Yldoseh. On top of zat it would be an absolute certainty zat us Humans would never have evolved, so zat Silver and myself and ze Spirit of Discovery would not be here. Am I correct?”
      “Yeah, that’s pretty much it.” Morgau was glumly impressed with Pierre’s cool analysis.
      “Oh.” Yldoseh’s visions of a new life on HomeNest turned to dust.
      “It makes me wonder.” Pierre mused aloud as he poured himself a glass of sparkling mineral water and lit up a Gauloise cigarette. “Zey claim to be able to manipulate zese timelines and ze Spirit of Discovery mysteriously falls back 217 years of our time only a short distance from your planet, Vermthellyn. A bit of a coincidence, no?”
      “It’s not our planet. It belongs to the Rtuntli.” Aridel corrected him. “Some of us settled there when the Ark’s torch drives burnt out several generations ago.”
      “Ah yes, my apologies.” Pierre puffed thoughtfully on his cigarette as he checked their story’s consistency. “And you get along well with zese Rtuntli?”
      “So-so. Some of the Rtuntli are very xenophobic.” Wootjan-Oo put Pierre in the picture. “But they’re a trading planet and we’re just one of many off-worlders living there.”
      “The thing is from what Alghar told us it’s a suicide mission and he knows it.” Morgau was still shaken by Alghar’s steely fanaticism.
      “Do all ze Chznzet on ze Ark know about zis plan?” Pierre decided there and then that Alghar had to be stopped. But first he had to find out how Alghar was able to affect the timelines.
      “I don’t know.” Morgau felt too young to die. He was still madly in love with Knetryxx and felt they had everything to live for. “We were captured by Alghar and his guards. They were the only Chznzet Aridel and I met.
      “I don’t think they do, Pierre.” Wootjan-Oo hadn’t noticed strange behaviour amongst the Chznzet in the Tech Guild. “There’s quite a few Chznzet in my Guild. They’re very excited about going to HomeNest, but all their talk is about settling there and reclaiming it for all Shallens.
      “Sounds like an inner clique to me.” Silver chipped in. “Keep the rank-and-file in the dark. It’s a common enough strategy.”
      “Yldoseh, I want you to interview zis Alghar.” Pierre hatched his plan on the fly. “See what you can find out. But for goodness’ sake, don’t mention zis timeline business. If ze Chznzet are keeping it secret he would know that you could have only found out about it from your friends and then he might take you prisoner.”
      “Ulp.” Yldoseh had always dreamed of adventure, but felt she was getting out of her depth. She didn’t want to end up like Tatia drugged up to her eyeballs with a prison band around her neck or worse.
       
      An obsidian globe wreathed in swirling waves of luminous purple plasma towered on its pedestal over the two Shallens arguing in the pulsating glow it cut through the gloom of a deserted expansive techno-gothic chamber, their echoing voices swallowed up by the still solemnity of the grandiose architecture. Down one side ran an endless window looking out into space. On the far opposite side was a procession of backlit statues of revered avian and reptilian Shallens as well as countless mythical creatures. Polished green onyx columns arched up and across the vaulting ceiling from between each statue.
      “Damn incompetents.” The aged avian clucked angrily as it paced in a circle through the orbs’ swirling purple glow. “We should have killed those stupid children and that half-witted Knetryxx while we had the chance.”
      “Oh right, a crew of Pdzarvian con-artists sell you this, this… oversized doorstop.” A reptilian High Priestess of the Order of The Ingnuthin spluttered indignantly as she shook her paw at the glowing orb towering over them. “And suddenly the Oath of Accession counts for nothing? I’ll remind you of this the next time you Chznzet come running to us begging for favours.”
      “It works, Barwyndar.” Talookti, the avian Chznzet Elder wearily reminded the High Priest. “Look at the way we picked up that Human ship from HomeNest when we tested it.”
      “Pah, those Pdzarvians could have set that up.” Barwyndar was completely unconvinced. “Sometimes I wonder about you Talookti. For thousands of generations you Chznzet have schemed and plotted to gain control of one of the arks. I set you up so that one of your Juniors could marry the new Keeper of the original Ark of Exodus. That would give you control of the Ark of Exodus and a seat in the Aristocracy and you’re about to throw it all away. We had a good thing going with Milentiet. She may have been a bit cranky, but everyone respected her. I’m beginning to regret killing her off.”
      “Think of it as a fallback plan, Barwyndar.” Talookti pontificated grandly as he led the way across the chamber towards a small illuminated doorway. “In a few days’ time HomeNest will be restored to its former glory.”
      “Or else we’ll be in orbit around HomeNest wondering what to do about those Humans.” Barwyndar pointed out as she followed Talookti through the doorway.
      “Precisely.” Talookti was convinced of the infallibility of his plan. “Either way HomeNest will belong to us again.” The passageway led in to a gleaming, spacious laboratory. Computers and machinery hummed and whirred efficiently as Talookti, a typical mad scientist if ever there was one, walked up to one of the many transparent cylinders ranged along the walls. Inside was Alghar, stock still, his lifeless unresponsive eyes staring blankly dead ahead. The back of his head was open with looms of cabling hooked into it. Tubes with liquids gurgling and bubbling through them were connected into his back. The once-noisome chattering retinue that accompanied Alghar stood similarly silent in the other cylinders lining the laboratory walls.
      “I see you leave nothing to chance.” Barwyndar commented dryly as she inspected the lifeless androids in their cylinders.
      “I’m not quite the fool you think I am.” Talookti’s voice was tinted with arrogant pride as he relished his moment of glory. “And here is my piece-de-resistance.” Talookti stopped to show off a cylinder containing an android replica of Knetryxx.
      Barwyndar inspected it closely. “Have you had to use this one yet?”
      “No, but it will announce the wedding tomorrow.” Talookti explained.
      “And where is the real Knetryxx?” Barwyndar asked suspiciously.
      “Safely under lock and key where she won’t interfere with our plans.” Talookti felt totally in control.
      “But the marriage will be a sham, Alghar’s an android.” Barwyndar was a traditionalist and Talookti’s scheme violated her sense of propriety.
      “The state Knetryxx is in, she’ll never be able to tell the difference.” Talookti crowed confidently. “And if she gets suspicious or causes any trouble, we replace her permanently with this copy.”
      “But…” Barwyndar protested vainly.
      “But nothing.” Talookti sharply cut her off. “In the event of the timeline device failing we will still be at HomeNest. A marriage between the Keeper of the Ark of Exodus and a Chznzet will be the symbol of our return to HomeNest. Surely you can understand that much. And that symbolism is far more important than the life of that peasant who you appointed to be the Keeper of the Ark.” Just then, a mid-rank reptilian Chznzet official approached Talookti and whispered in his ear. Talookti’s smugly confident poise crashed to one of poorly-disguised alarm. “Our two captives have escaped.” He informed Barwyndar. “They must be stopped.”
      “I thought you had all this under control.” This confirmed Barwyndar’s suspicion that Talookti, like all the Chznzet, were overly-zealous incompetents.
      “We’ll find them.” Talookti bluffed confidently. “There’s nowhere to hide on an Ark.”
       
      “With me here today aboard the mysterious ship from HomeNest that Princess Knetryxx recently discovered are Tatia Umbleewa Hr’Tanji and Morgau Voorspak Durkanith, close friends of the Princess from her home town of Estrillyd on the planet Vermthellyn, with news of some disturbing developments.” Yldoseh urgently addressed the video recorder Xandu held from where she sat next to Tatia and Morgau in the crew lounge.
      “Yes, it all began when we came to visit Knetryxx aboard the Ark of Exodus…” Tatia poured her story out for Xandu to record with Morgau filling in the extra details as Yldoseh prompted them.
       “Are you sure you don’t want to be interviewed when Yldoseh asks me about how I found the Sortranol and the sonic transducer when we rescued Tatia and Morgau?” Wootjan-Oo quietly asked Kkhrkht so that their voices wouldn’t interfere with the recording.
      Kkhrkht didn’t want to jeopardise Pzeptilan’s precarious situation back on Vermthellyn. Dzzhakh-ye weighed up the odds and reckoned that if and when this ever got back to Duke Reflinghar it would look better if dzzhakh-ye had actually taken part. “All right, I’ll do it.” Kkhrkht offered reluctantly.
      “Where’s the nearest data terminal so we can pipe this lot back to Estrillyd?” Aridel asked Wootjan-Oo as she held out a pawful of data packs.
      “On the docking bay concourse.” Wootjan-Oo had used it several times before and knew where it was. “Who are thinking of sending that lot to?”
      “Szelmy.” He’d been involved in plenty of Yldoseh’s hare-brained schemes before and Aridel knew he could be trusted. “I’m going to ask him to make a copy for Reflinghar. He ought to know what’s happened to Knetryxx before it goes out on the networks.
      Kkhrkht shook momentarily with fear for Pzeptilan as dzzhakh-ye overheard their conversation. If Duke Reflinghar felt that Kkhrkht had been negligent, he might decide to hand Pzeptilan over to the Rtuntli police on Vermthellyn. But there was nothing Kkhrkht could do.
      Pierre and Silver walked in while Morgau was recounting the time Alghar held a pistol to his head. “Wouldn’t you prefer to be up on ze environment deck?” Pierre asked Wootjan-Oo.
      “No.” Wootjan-Oo felt they’d be safer in the Spirit of Discovery where Alghar wouldn’t be able to find them. “Maybe later when Yldoseh’s finished.”
      “Bon. Ze airlock’s open so you can go at any time. Silver and I have some business to see to. If you need to speak to us, just press zis red button.” Pierre pointed out the videophone panel next to the crew lounge door.
      “Are you sure you want to revive the entire crew?” Silver asked Pierre as they hurried down the passage away from the crew lounge. “We’re not exactly stocked up on supplies.”
      “Absolutely.” Pierre had already made up his mind. “Do you think I’m going to stand back while zis Alghar puts an end to us and our world? What do you take me for?”
      “But we’re scientists and researchers, not soldiers.” Silver realised what Pierre had in mind. “We’d trip over our shoelaces.”
      “Zat may be so.” Pierre quickened his pace as they made their way past the ranks of their crew mates resting peacefully in their suspended-animation tanks. “But we also have a complement of a thousand mechs which I’m going to reprogram for combat. Don’t look so surprised, Silver. Why do you think ze Duvali Foundation put zem in ze ship in ze first place? To play beach ball with you?”
      “I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this.” Silver sighed and resigned herself to the inevitable.
      “Me too.” Pierre opened up the console to activate a thousand brand-new general purpose alpha-class mechs. The Duvali Foundation was immensely wealthy and supplied the Spirit of Discovery with the very best money could buy. The first mechs were already stepping out of their storage boxes and heading to the assembly hall while Silver busied herself with the bio-systems controls to begin the slow and painful process of bringing the remainder of their human crew out of suspended animation. Coming out of suspended animation was only one step up from torture. You had to endure hours of pins-and-needles itching that you couldn’t scratch or massage because your body was still too sluggish to move as the bio-systems regulators brought your metabolism and body temperature back up to normal. Hours of excruciating hell, but there was no other way. The last of the mechs would be long since activated before the first humans would be even able to climb out of their S-A tanks and stand on their own feet.
      Pierre drew himself up tall to cut a dramatic pose on the podium as he addressed the mechs in the assembly hall. “First off, on behalf of ze Duvali Foundation, may I welcome you to ze wonders of life. Our mission was to find alien life and make contact with zem. On zat, we have succeeded.” A large Tri-D projection of Pierre and Silver’s first meeting with Knetryxx and the other Shallens aboard the Ark of Exodus filled the space behind the podium. “However, zere is some bad news. First our ship was badly damaged and many of our human crew are dead. At ze moment, we are being taken back to Earth by ze Aliens we met. Ze second is zat some of ze aliens we have contacted have hostile intentions and must be stopped at all costs. Zat is why I have installed your combat programming.”
      “Ze situation is somewhat complex.” Pierre continued as all the mechs in the hall stared intently back at him. “Zese aliens, who call zemselves Ze Shallens, originated from our planet millions of years before we existed. So, if I haven’t confused you enough already, I would like to introduce you to some of zese Shallens who will explain ze situation to you. Please bear in mind zat zey are unfamiliar with mechanoid life forms such as yourselves so you will appear as alien to zem as zey will to you.”
      At Pierre’s cue Silver ushered in Yldoseh and Wootjan-Oo to give the newly-minted mechs a crash course presentation about Shallen culture and the Chznzet problem using their recorded videos.
      Aridel peeked into the assembly hall at the machine creatures her friends were lecturing. “Are they really alive? Do they think and have feelings like us?” She asked Silver.
      “Oh yes.” Silver had grown up in a society where mechs, clones and humans mixed freely. “How are Morgau and Tatia?”
      “They’re still a bit dopey.” Now that they were safe for the time being, Aridel was more concerned about Knetryxx.
       
      “Have you heard from Knetryxx?” The slender, graceful Deleethia Sedeirtra asked her devoted and somewhat bulkily graceless husband, the Duke Reflinghar of Sedeirtra, as she rubbed another dab of jellied scale polish onto her face.
      “I doubt we’ll hear from her until the novelty’s worn off.” Reflinghar sighed as he slumped down on the settee while he waited for Deleethia to finish preening herself in front of her vanity mirror. At this rate they’d arrive at the Estrillyd Speedway long after her race had ended. “The day she starts complaining about the condition the Ark’s in is the day she realises she’s chained to it for the rest of her life.”
      “Are you still sore the Ingnuthin didn’t choose me?” Deleethia was glad she hadn’t been chosen in spite of Reflinghar’s ambitions.
      “No.” Reflinghar knew better than to question the Ingnuthin. “But why her? Knetryxx is such a child; she knows nothing about running an Ark. There were plenty of other choices who were more than capable: Noorit, Flintherian, B’Haolikh... even I could have managed the Ark for you.”
      “You’re not really going to disown her from the Olblavy Clan are you?” Deleethia reminded Reflinghar of his public threat when he was interviewed after Knetryxx’s first jaunt on the Ark of Exodus.
      “No, of course not.” Reflinghar was surprised Deleethia even took his empty threat seriously. “I had to say something otherwise it’d look as if I condoned thievery and recklessness. The Rtuntli have a low enough opinion of us as it is.”
      “She’s surrounded by those Chznzet.” Deleethia sniffed disapprovingly. “I hope they haven’t got their claws into her.” Deleethia was one of Milentiet’s many great-granddaughters and shared her deep-seated distrust of the Chznzet. “Next thing you know she’ll marry one of them and they’ll claim ownership of the Ark of Exodus.”
      “Damn squatters.” Reflinghar grumbled. “I should have evicted them when I had the chance.”
      “Vostellion offered to help you.” Deleethia reminded Reflinghar. Not that he needed reminding.
      “Only if his Ghathanwe clan would have rights over the Ark of Exodus.” Reflinghar had given up his battle against the Chznzet for the time being. “Milentiet wouldn’t allow it. She was right, too.” Reflinghar had fought a long and hard legal battle through the Shallen’s Regional Tribunal to get an eviction order against the Chznzet living aboard The Ark of Exodus. The Chznzet were too well organised for Reflinghar, an old school aristocratic soldier, and used every trick they could find to argue their case. Reflinghar argued that the Chznzet had already attempted takeover bids on several other Arks and that their real aim was to seize the Ark of Exodus. The Chznzet countered, rightly, that they were entitled to live on the Arks of their birth and that they had nowhere else to go. The last part being not quite true, though there were precious few Arks that would welcome a sudden influx of Chznzet into their population.
      The final straw came when they exposed Reflinghar’s plan to evict them by force and the Regional Tribunal threw the case out. Reflinghar was disgraced and came away looking like a vindictive, spiteful fool when in reality he was a kindly old soul whose only crime was to defend The Ark of Exodus from falling into the Chznzet’s paws. It had belonged to the Olblavy Clan since time immemorial and that, as far as Reflinghar was concerned, was how it was going to stay.
      “If the Chznzet want an Ark so badly, they can commission a new one for themselves.” Reflinghar rumbled defiantly.
      “Absolutely.” Deleethia couldn’t agree more and got up to pose for Reflinghar in her pilots’ suit and jauntily snapped her goggles over her eyes. “I’m ready now.”
      Ah, she was gorgeous! Reflinghar feasted his eyes on his crazy dragon queen, and swept her up in his arms. “Come, my dear. They’re waiting for you.”
       
      “Do you think we’ve done the right thing?” Morgau asked Xandu as Aridel and Kkhrkht walked Tatia around the crew lounge.
      “What, you mean all the interviews Yldoseh’s done?” Xandu was excited about their work so far and felt they had a real scoop to send back to Vermthellyn. “It’s proof that the Chznzet are up to no good. Look at the way they treated you and Tatia. Goodness knows what they’re doing to Knetryxx.”
      “No, telling those Humans.” Morgau shook his head in an attempt to clear away his drug-induced haziness.
      “Oh, that.” Xandu hummed and hawed ambivalently before letting out a long, slow hiss. “Everyone knows the myth of HomeNest whether they ever believed it or not and now that the Chznzet have found it, who are we to interfere? We’d be traitors.”
      “But Alghar’s plan goes way beyond that. In a few days’ time we’ll all be dead because we’ll never have existed.” Morgau hadn’t planned on dieing quite so soon. “Think about it: no one, not a single Shallen alive today will ever see HomeNest.”
      “How do you know Alghar wasn’t just making it up to scare you?” Xandu found the timeline story a bit far-fetched.
      “Not from the way he was talking.” Morgau was absolutely convinced. “You weren’t there.”
      “So you want to take on the Chznzet?” Xandu knew a lost cause when he saw one and resigned himself to the hopelessness of their situation. “We wouldn’t stand a chance. They’ve taken over the Ark.”
      Aridel overheard them as Kkhrkht helped her settle Tatia into a soft chair. “You ought to see what these Humans have: a thousand machine-soldiers.”
      “Can we really trust them? We hardly know anything about them.” Xandu vented his nagging doubts about the Humans. “Pierre and Silver seem nice enough, but what are the others like? What will they think of us when they find out about the Chznzet?”
      “I spent some time on their worlds.” Kkhrkht joined in. “What do you want to know?”
      “Well, for a start, what are they really like?” Xandu wanted to know more about these Humans who he and his friends had thrown their lot in with.
      “Zzzz.” Kkhrkht buzzed abstractly as dzzhakh-ye thought of a suitable starting point. “They have a very mixed society… many different forms of social organisation. Many of them still live very primitive lives even though they have expanded onto other planets in their system.”
      “What are they like with off-worlders?” Aridel impatiently butted in.
      “They haven’t had any real contact yet.” Kkhrkht explained. “They’re very isolated.”
      “Oh.” Morgau, having grown up on Vermthellyn was long used to living in the company of species other than his own. “So what did you do?”
      “I disguised myself as a Human.” Kkhrkht briefly morphed into dzzhakh’s human form as Jasper ‘Jazz’ Rodriguez for their benefit. “It was the only way as they are still quite fearful of the unknown such as ourselves.”
      “Why, would they have killed you?” Aridel wanted know just what Kkhrkht meant by ‘fearful’.
      “Possibly.” Kkhrkht thought back to dzzhakh-ye’s near-misses with Earth Fed and the Raiders on Mars. “But more out of ignorance and fear than malice.”
      “Can you make yourself look like us?” Tatia was amazed by Kkhrkht’s shape shifting ability.
      “No, I was bred specifically to study the Humans.” Kkhrkht realised that it would be very useful to be able to disguise dzzhakh-ye as a Shallen before continuing with a description of dzzhakh’s times on Earth and Mars and finished up with dzzhakh’s recollections of the times dzzhakh-ye spent hanging out with the Flaming Watusis in Montgomery.
      “Do you think these Humans you know can be trusted?” Xandu asked Kkhrkht. In spite of the fact that he wanted to meet the Flaming Watusis, hear their music and see the Pleasure Dome for himself, Xandu had serious doubts about getting the Humans involved in their battle against the Chznzet.
      “Can they trust you?” Kkhrkht turned Xandu’s question around. “After all, the Chznzet would put and end to them. For all the Humans know, you might also be a Chznzet. How can they tell the difference?”
      “Right now we need all the help we can get.” Aridel wasn’t about to give up. “I say we use them now and worry about the consequences later.”
      “Yeah, but that could be more then we bargained for.” Xandu was worried that the encounter with the Humans on HomeNest might not be such a good idea. “What if they start a war against us?”
      “Like I said, unless we do something now, there won’t be a ‘later’.” Aridel reminded him. At that point Yldoseh and Wootjan-Oo walked into the crew lounge. Aridel could just make out a flood of mechs marching noisily down the hallway behind them as they closed the door. “How’d it go?”
      “Freaky.” Yldoseh had never seen a mech before, let alone a thousand. “They all asked me the same question at the same time.”
      “So what’s the plan?” Morgau asked Wootjan-Oo.
      “Silver located a temporal anomaly in the Arbrunthiel sector of the Ark’s hub, so she’s sending a team of those machine-things off to investigate.” Wootjan-Oo sympathised with the Humans’ determination to tackle the Chznzet.
      Morgau couldn’t believe his ears. “But that part of the Ark is wide open, the hull’s completely rotted away. No-one lives there. Even the environment deck there is dead. They only leave the lights on to make it look good.”
       
      Pierre paced nervously around the assembly hall as he waited for the mechs to tool up for their assignments and fretted over what little he’d been able to glean from the Shallens and that other alien, Kkhrkht. Strategy, strategy… Pierre wracked his brains for a plan, but came up blank. There were several Earth Fed officers trained in military strategy, but it would be hours before they were fully revived so Pierre improvised as best he could.
      One group of mechs marched briskly into the assembly hall. “I think we should secure the Docking Bay, Mr. Dupont.” One of their group suggested urgently.
      “Yes, yes, excellent idea.” Pierre clutched at their plan in desperation. “Take as large a team as you need and report back to me in three hours.” With that they marched off only to be replaced by another group.
      “Where do you want us to set up the operations control centre, Mr. Dupont?” They all asked him in unison.
      “I was just thinking ze same thing myself.” Pierre bluffed. He hadn’t a clue what they were talking about. It sounded military and Silver knew more about those things. “Ask Silver, she’ll be able to help you.”
      After they left a solitary mech walked in. “We need maps of this Ark.”
      “Oh yes, you want to see Wootjan-Oo about zat.” Pierre tried to get the mech off his hands.
      “Who?” It was confused by the strange-sounding name which didn’t match up with any of the names of the human crew programmed into its memory.
      “Ze feathered Shallen who gave you ze presentation lecture.” Pierre fought down his growing sense of panic. “He works on ze Ark. You’ll find him in ze crew lounge. At least zat’s where I last saw him.”
      The assembly hall began to fill up with a large group of mechs waiting for their orders from Pierre who still paced around nervously puffing his way through pack after pack of cigarettes while he waited for them to come up with ideas he could steal but was only met with a heavy, pregnant silence. He’d just have to fake it and began quoting lines at random from the countless hypervision action films he’d watched as a youngster. “Set up a forward base!”
      “Sir, yessir.” One of the mechs snapped to attention, totally fooled by Pierre’s manic act. “Where shall we establish the base camp, sir?”
      Pierre nearly swallowed his cigarette as he panicked to come up with an answer. “On ze environment deck.” He hoped that would make sense.
      “Yessir!”
      “Full logistical support!” Pierre barked out convincingly as he stabbed at the air with his cigarette. “Secure ze perimeter! Lockdown security! Identify and neutralise all hostiles! No surrender! Defensive profile! Battle stations! Take no prisoners! Change ze light bulb! No surrender! Activate ze shields! Storm ze Bastille! Covert manoeuvres! Arm ze cannon! Encircle and isolate ze enemy! Remember ze Alamo! Secure ze objective!” And on and on he rambled spewing out an endless stream action soundbites without the slightest idea of what any of them meant. Somehow he managed to convince most of the mechs as they’d dispersed leaving behind a small gaggle of bewildered mechs who looked to him for their orders.
      Pierre wheezed heavily as he stubbed out his last cigarette. His lungs ached and felt as flat as his mind felt empty of action film clichés. That’s when he realised that he actually had a real job for them that he’d completely forgotten about. “Your job will be to protect ze Shallens who are assisting us. You will guard zem with your lives if necessary and assist zem in any way possible. Is zat understood?” The last group of mechs reluctantly nodded their heads and followed Pierre as he led the way to the crew lounge where he found the Shallens and Kkhrkht in a heated discussion which froze awkwardly as soon as he strode in followed by his troop of mechs.
      “Ah, zere you are my leetle lizards!” Pierre effused his phoney showbiz charm for all it was worth. “Zese mechs will be your guards, so there’s no need to worry about zat nasty Alghar or ze Chznzet. We will look after you from now on.” Pierre turned to leave but was stopped in his tracks when Aridel called out to him.
      “What is it, my pretty Aridel?” Pierre gushed, hoping that it wouldn’t take long. He was busting for a piss and couldn’t hold on much longer.
      “Knetryxx is making a public appearance tomorrow to announce the departure to HomeNest. Would you like to come with us?” Aridel, having decided to throw her lot in with Pierre and the Humans, wanted to use this as an opportunity to let Pierre see things from their point of view.
      “Why, thank you.” Pierre was thrown off guard and nearly pissed himself in surprise. He hadn’t expected anything like this. “May I bring Silver with me?”
      Aridel was glad Pierre had asked. She got on well with Silver. “Yes, that would be really nice.”
      Pierre, ever the opportunist, saw an opening to exploit. “Ze rest of ze crew will be revived by then and zey would find it most interesting. Would it be possible for some of zem to come along as well?”
      Aridel wasn’t sure and looked to her friends for support. Wootjan-Oo and Yldoseh were in favour; Xandu was against it and hissed his disproval while Morgau and Tatia weren’t sure. It was her call and she hesitated before answering. “What, all of them?”
      Pierre realised he might have overstepped the mark a bit and smiled through gritted teeth as his eyes bulged out from the strain of keeping his stretching bladder in one piece. “No, I don’t think so. We have much to do here on ze Spirit of Discovery.” Such as moving the crew and their supplies onto the environment deck as their ship no longer had sufficient power to support a fully-revived crew. But he wasn’t about to tell Aridel that. “Maybe fifty people at ze very most. Or less if zat’s a problem.”
       “That’s fine.” Even though Xandu was opposed to the idea Aridel felt that it would be good for some of the Shallens and Humans to meet each other, even if only to throw a spanner in the Chznzet’s plans. “Is something the matter?” Aridel could see that Pierre was quite agitated.
      “No, nothing really.” Pierre lied badly as he tensed every muscle in his body and cold sweat trickled down his back. By the time he got to the toilet, his bladder was fit to burst and his kidneys were aching. The pain! The pain! Even as he pissed out a torrent, his kidneys hurt even more. He croaked in pain all the way to the last drop and hurt even worse when he was finished.
       
      Barwyndar ambled along beside Talookti taking in the Chznzet’s patchwork refurbishment of their secret lair deep within the abandoned Arbrunthiel sector. The Arbrunthiel sector had been extensively damaged when the Ark of Exodus was being chased out of the Sylbarian system for the purported crime of corrupting the morals of the Sylbarian youth. The Sylbarians were sexually repressed and the Shallens soon found themselves in the middle of a roaring trade catering to and exploiting the Sylbarians’ explosive sexuality. Unfortunately it didn’t go down too well with the Sylbarian elders who took great offence at the sight of their younger generations having so much fun. Fun that the jealous elders never had and were now too old to enjoy.
      The only escape open to them was to dodge through an asteroid cloud. When they came out the other side, the Sylbarians had given up the chase, but the Ark had been holed in the sparsely populated Arbrunthiel sector. The wave of destruction set off fires that raged for years. Eventually they limped into a safe haven at Vermthellyn where the Shallens could rebuild their Ark. Work which was still far from finished.
      They reached a busy control room, full of Chznzet Shallens working at computer consoles. Overhead screens displayed telemetric data, external visuals, views of selected locations around the Ark of Exodus, their position in the Vermthellyn system and astronavigation displays. “We control the entire Ark from here.” Talookti gloated. “The refit with the Pdzarvian Jump Drive gave us the perfect cover to route all the flight controls through here. The main flight deck is just for show now.”
      A reptilian Chznzet wearing their traditional blue-green cape and Cooprah-hide body armour vied for Talookti’s attention. “The insectoid that Duke Reflinghar sent for Knetryxx was involved in the breakout from her quarters.”
      “Really?” Talookti feigned casual disinterest just to impress Barwyndar. “How so, Franthwyk?”
      “We found organic traces.” Franthwyk bowed deferentially to Talookti. “At least one Shallen, possibly two were also involved. They also removed the transducer and the Sortranol.”
      “I see.” Talookti clucked acidly as if to hold Franthwyk personally responsible.  “Have they been replaced?”
      “Oh, of course, your eminence.” Franthwyk grovelled.
      “And this insectoid, where is it?”
      “Most likely with the Humans.” Franthwyk put on a pretence of supreme confidence to counter Talookti’s haughtiness. He was never sure if Talookti really meant it or was merely putting on a show for Barwyndar and played along regardless “It has been observed with them on the environment deck. Seeing how it cannot be located on the Ark, I would assume it is aboard their ship.”
      “Well done, Franthwyk.” Talookti’s voice dripped with ice-cold contempt. “We can assume that our missing guests are there as well.”
      “Oh indeed, your eminence.” Franthwyk was terrified of falling out of favour with the madly unpredictable Talookti, ruling elder of their chapter of the Chznzet Faction.
      “Good, back to your post.” Talookti dismissed Franthwyk and turned his attention to Barwyndar. “Well, it looks like I have a job for Alghar.” Talookti rubbed his clawed hands together gleefully.
      “Is that all?” Barwyndar could never make sense of Talookti.
      “Oh, if they get to be a problem we can always jettison their ship.” Talookti mused idly. “After all, they’ve served their purpose.”
      “At least you’re still thinking.” Barwyndar nagged Talookti.
       
      “Ugh.” Knetryxx groaned as she slipped in and out of consciousness. The room glooped around her like the inside of a fuzzy bubble. At least the voices that tormented her were gone this time. Colours ran and pulsated. The Novo-Rustica furniture, a style quite popular with Shallens who wanted to feel in tune with their heritage, ballooned shrank and warped as though it was alive. Her limbs felt like they were on another planet and her tail seemed to have a life of its own. Knetryxx rolled off her bed and tried to stand up but felt as if her legs were shrinking down to stumps and took a few faltering steps before crumpling into a tangled heap on the floor. She pulled herself up only to feel her legs stretching until she’d hit the ceiling, lost her balance and fell over again.
       “Morgau? Tatia? Where are you?” She called out hopefully as she wobbled unsteadily around her apartment. But they were nowhere to be seen. Her heart sank lower and lower as she searched through the empty rooms. Knetryxx finally sank to the floor, crushed and abandoned. “Morgau, why…?” She cradled her face in her paws and wept hot, bitter tears of sorrow and regret. She hadn’t realised how much she missed him until his visit and now he was gone. Knetryxx felt alone and lost in a life that was becoming more unreal with every passing day. Her excitement at becoming the Keeper of the Ark and a titled princess to boot was little more than a distant memory.
      “You have to leave your past behind.” A crisp female voice cut through Knetryxx’s wretched guilt-wracked misery.
      Knetryxx looked up and through her tear-sodden eyes saw a lithe, tawny reptilian Shallen wearing a sumptuous purple velvet dress decorated with ornate gold thread filigree designs. “Who are you?”
      “Milentiet.”
      “But, but… you’re dead.” Knetryxx struggled to think clearly. “You’re not real.”
      “Shush, my dear.” Milentiet laid a solidly real finger across Knetryxx’s snout. “I know it’s a big change for a young one like you, but it’s a great responsibility being the Keeper of the Ark.” Milentiet wandered graciously around the spacious reception room in Knetryxx’s apartment as she airily lectured an increasingly befuddled Knetryxx. “The Ingnuthin chose you and they have always chosen wisely.”
      “Where’s Morgau?” Knetryxx interrupted Milentiet.
      “Gone back to Vermthellyn with Tatia. They’re engaged now.” Milentiet confided with a wicked conspiratorial grin.
      “What?” Knetryxx’s disbelief barely managed to surface through her drug-fazed woolly-mindedness. It just seemed so unlikely: they were cousins. On top of that Morgau had been so excited to see her.
      “You’re taking the Ark of Exodus back to HomeNest.” Milentiet deliberately steered the subject away from Morgau. “We’re so proud of you, Knetryxx. Don’t let us down.” As she spoke, Milentiet began to fade out. Knetryxx could see though her increasingly transparent body. “Every Shallen is watching you fulfil our history. Let the spirit of Darkuna Kuvekti guide you.”
      Knetryxx sat dumbly on the floor staring into the empty space Milentiet had occupied moments before. The incomprehensible whispering voices began to surround her again and she never even noticed the faint click of a door closing.
      Outside the door, in an anteroom sealed off from Knetryxx, ‘Milentiet’ peeled off her mask and pulled the heavy dress off over her head and buttoned up her fresh, white medic’s smock. “It shouldn’t take long now.” She commented briskly to Ghrawkli, a reptilian psychiatrist assigned to make Knetryxx pliable to the Chznzet’s demands. “Knetryxx doesn’t have much grip left on reality so you can get started rewriting her narrative: She’s engaged to Alghar and she’s had a nervous breakdown from the pressure of getting the Ark ready for the journey to HomeNest. Don’t slip up like you did last time and discuss her feelings from her point of view. Just go right past it. We define her reality. We tell her what she thinks and feels.”
      “Fine, don’t worry. I’ll deal with it.” Ghrawkli hated the way Planthia never missed a chance to needle him about that time and looked up from his notes to check the monitor screen on his desk which showed Knetryxx covering her ears with her paws as she attempted to block out the voices. “Let’s give her a few more minutes, Planthia. Can’t have her imagining any causality, can we? Oh and flush out the Sortranol, I might be in there with her for quite a while.”
      Knetryxx sniffled miserably as she rocked back and forth on her haunches clasping her paws over her ears to block out the voices and curled her tail tight round her feet. Morgau still had his hothwyl ring. It was the first thing he’d shown her after he arrived on the Ark. Morgau had bought a matching pair of rings inset with finely-cut sparkling translucent blue hothwyl gemstones to celebrate their first year together with his earnings at Hepticon-X. A wry smile crept across her face as she remembered how Morgau had recklessly spent all his money on the rings and had forgotten to set anything aside to buy any food. Knetryxx had to support both of them until his next paycheck came in, but it was the happiest time of their lives. She peeled a paw away from her ear and kissed the ring on her finger hoping Morgau would rescue her and sang their favourite song to fight back the whispering voices.

Emerald Eyes - I miss your...
Emerald Eyes - I love your...
Emerald Eyes - I want to...
Hold you close and hear your sighs.

You were made for me, my love,
I can feel it when I hold you close.
Walking hand-in-hand through life,
We can make it when we face the world,
Yeah, face it side-by-side.

Emerald Eyes - I miss your...
Emerald Eyes - I love your...
Emerald Eyes - It's written in
The skies and the stars above...

Every night I look out across the sky,
I see our world and I think of you.
Of all the things that we said and did,
Of all the things that could have been,
And then I join you in my dreams, my dreams, my love.


      Ghrawkli slipped unnoticed into Knetryxx’s apartment while she was singing. “That’s a lovely song, Knetryxx. How are you feeling today?”
      Knetryxx stood up unsteadily leaning back on her tail for support and took her paws away from her ears. It was Doctor Ghrawkli. She detested him even though his medicine made the voices go away. And she hated herself for needing his help. “What have you done with Morgau?” She accused him angrily.
      “What?” Ghrawkli lied convincingly. “Who’s Morgau?”
      “He came to visit me with Tatia.” Knetryxx sniffled again. Just thinking about him made her tears well up.
      “No, no-one’s been here except you. You must have imagined it.” Ghrawkli kept to his script. Knetryxx was proving to be a difficult case to break and they were running out of time. “Alghar’s ever so worried about you. Are you still hearing those voices?”
      “Yes.” Knetryxx was too doped up too argue with Doctor Ghrawkli about Alghar and gulped down the glass of syrupy medicine he offered her. Syrup that did nothing. Outside, Planthia watched them on the monitor and set the voices on a slow fade-out so that Knetryxx would think that Ghrawkli’s ‘medication’ was curing her.
      “So tell me, what did the voices say today?” Even though Ghrawkli could hear the voices just as clearly as Knetryxx, he maintained the fiction that the voices were an auditory hallucination that Knetryxx was experiencing.
      “Uh, nothing much.” Knetryxx flopped down onto a settee and tried to focus on the faint whisperings, but they were just so much unintelligible annoyance.
      “Never mind.” Ghrawkli pretended to comfort her. “I’m here to help you get rid of those voices. We’re going to work on that together aren’t we?”
      Knetryxx was confused by the endless doses of Sortranol and nodded her head in mute sulky agreement.
      “Good!” Ghrawkli could see she was becoming more pliable and pressed on. “You have to make a public appearance to announce the jump to HomeNest tomorrow. Do you feel up to it?”
      “Yeah.” Knetryxx could care less. All she really wanted was Morgau.
       
      “Oh, it’s so good to see you again, Ranjit!” The short, tubby Colonel Wang Li-Penh threw his arms around the towering Major Ranjit Ghihk, stretched up on his tiptoes and gave him a great big wet kiss. Ranjit and Wang were trained Earth Fed commando tacticians and gay lovers from way back. They met during an extended Earth Fed campaign against slave raiders in what used to be Northern Thailand and formed a lifelong friendship that grew and grew with each passing year and widened into love when they bumped into each other in a gay bar when they were both on leave. Because of the nature of the Spirit of Discovery’s mission, most of the crew were either single or childless couples. Ranjit and Wang fitted the bill perfectly and had jumped at the chance of such an exotic adventure.
      Ranjit held Wang close grinding their throbbing knobs into each other. How long had it been since they’d even seen each other? Far too long! “Any idea why everyone’s been revived?” He asked Wang after releasing him from his bear-hug embrace.
      “There’s a note here from a Pierre Dupont.” Wang glanced down at the viewscreen set into his desk as he ran his fingers through his thick, brush-cut black hair. “Says we’ve made contact with extraterrestrial life and they’re taking us back to Earth. Situation red, will advise ASAP.”
      “Can’t be much worse than that ion storm.” Ranjit commented as he adjusted his turban and twirled his handlebar moustache. “We were lucky to survive that one. So who’s this Pierre Dupont?”
      “A paying passenger, would you believe! Some rich playboy who came along for the ride.” Wang laughed dismissively. “We’ve got more of them than you’d imagine.” They merrily ploughed through their catalogue of put-down insults: anachronistic freeloaders, purple pick-me ups, half-wit joy riders, fancy-dress freebooters, hooray henries, champagne buccaneers, gormless  gallows-fodder, interplanetary goats, lily-livered bandicoots, recycled oats, nine-lived nitwits, squawking popinjays, sloth-brained picaroons, moth-eaten kleptomaniacs, scoffing braggarts, golf-club pirates, toffee-nosed tea-traders…
      The door chime sounded. “Well, speak of the devil! Our Hollywood hero has arrived.” Wang put on a straight face and cleared his throat as he let Pierre into their office.
      “Ah, zere you are!” Pierre brought them up to date with an elaborately breathless barrage of disconnected facts. Wang sat behind his desk while Ranjit stood at ease with his hands clasped behind his back as they followed Pierre’s garbled story and tried to piece it back together. Their expressions turned from studied interest to thinly-disguised alarm as Pierre described his panic-driven strategies to them.
      Wang waited patiently until Pierre ran out of steam. “I want you and Ms Silver to liaise with these Shallens for us. And, please, leave the planning and logistics to myself and Major Ghihk from now on. Report to me on any developments so that we can co-ordinate our actions. Let me know when you go to this announcement tomorrow. I want to send a detachment of troops to accompany you.”
      Wang let out a long, low whistle after Pierre left. “What a mess! He’s got them running around like headless chickens.”
      “An impossible situation, our backs are up against the wall and a race against time. It’s just like old times, Wang!” Ranjit positively relished the challenge. “I haven’t had so much fun in a long time.”
     
      “It looks as if they’re disembarking and setting up camp on the environment deck.” Yldoseh commented as she filmed the Humans and Mechs from their vantage point on a low hillock overlooking the entry point near the river where they met Pierre and Silver. Their generous detachment of twenty mechs had been pared down on Wang’s orders to a minimal three who wandered around nearby examining the environment deck.
      “Well if that’s what they want, they could use the Cruthigne sector. It’s pretty much deserted.” Wootjan-Oo commented idly as he leaned against an ancient cypress tree on the edge of a stand of trees and bracken which trailed off one side of the hillock.
      “Really?” Morgau was surprised. Everyone knew about the Arbrunthiel sector, but he’d assumed that the rest of the Ark was inhabited.
      “Yeah, the Ark of Exodus is one of the least populated Arks.” Wootjan-Oo trotted out the little-known facts that were kept amongst the Arks’ dwellers. “It’s running at less than one quarter capacity and almost a third of it is uninhabitable. It’s barely even spaceworthy. The only thing that keeps the Olblavy clan from scrapping it is the fact that they can’t afford to commission a new Ark.”
       “So why don’t you offer them the Cruthigne sector?” Xandu put Wootjan-Oo on the spot.
      “Bureaucracy.” Wootjan-Oo let lout a long, slow cooing sigh. “It’s not that easy. They’d have to apply to the Keeper’s office and seeing how they’re aliens, it would have to be approved by the Olblavy Clan Council of Elders.”
      “Not much chance, then?” Aridel summed up pessimistically.
      “No, they’d probably get it, especially if they agree to help with the repairs.” Wootjan-Oo briskly ruffled his feathers. “But we’ll have arrived at HomeNest long before the Council of Elders even gets around to considering their request.”
      “Speaking of spaceworthy, will the Ark make it to HomeNest in one piece?” Tatia was beginning to think it might be a good idea to go back to Vermthellyn.
      “I hope so.” Come what may, Wootjan-Oo as a member of the Tech Guild, had to stay aboard the Ark of Exodus. They were responsible for its maintenance and would always be the last to leave. That was when he spotted Knetryxx and Alghar, arm in arm, surrounded by his gaggle of gabbling gadflies crossing the grassy veldt towards the Humans. “It looks like we’ve got company. You better hide.”
      “Who? What?” Morgau tried to look around before Wootjan-Oo brusquely pushed him to the ground. “Hey, what do you think you’re doing?”
      “It’s Alghar, stupid.” Wootjan-Oo squawked urgently. “Take Tatia and go hide in the bracken before he sees you.” By now the others had spotted Alghar and Knetryxx and formed a wall to block their view of Tatia and Morgau as they slipped off into the woods. Aridel went off to round up their mech guards. It looked as if they might need them.
       
      “I still don’t see why you want to ask zose Shallens to accompany us.” Pierre addressed Kkhrkht who had now changed into human form as Jazz as they rode the busy service lift up to the environment deck. “It’s not as if you don’t know where to buy ze translators.”
      “We need a plausible cover, Pierre.” Jazz explained. “How would any humans know that much about this Ark? The Chznzet could be anywhere and they’re bound to be on the look out for anything suspicious. And me, for that matter.” As they strolled across the environment deck to the young Shallens, Jazz caught sight of Alghar and his troupe of troublesome toadies surrounding them. “I hope they’re not looking for me.”
       
      “Get your paws off me!” Morgau struggled in vain to escape from the iron grip two of Alghar’s flunkies held him with. “Knetryxx, tell them to let us go.” He pleaded but all he got was an enigmatic smile and an upturned snout.
      “What’s going on here?” Pierre demanded as he and Jazz strode into their midst. The three mechs assigned to the Shallens were poised for action, awaiting their orders. All the while Yldoseh circled around filming everything with her video camera.
      “Just a little misunderstanding, Monsieur Dupont.” Alghar pompously addressed Pierre. “Nothing to concern yourself with. By the way, have you seen that insectoid? I’d like to have a word with it.”
      “No, not recently.” Pierre wasn’t about to blow Jazz’s cover.
      “Knetryxx, stay here with me. You know what Alghar’s like.” Morgau couldn’t bear the sight of Knetryxx and Alghar so close.
      But it was Alghar who replied. “Indeed she does, Morgau. And that’s why we’re getting married.”
      Morgau stopped cold. “What???”
      “Yes, it’s true.” Knetryxx answered sweetly. “The party starts now and you’re all invited.”
      Yldoseh nearly dropped her video camera in shock. Wootjan-Oo shed a few feathers in surprise. Aridel was stunned. She knew Knetryxx could be shallow and insensitive at times, but this was taking it into a whole new league. Xandu was disappointed because Morgau had been true to Knetryxx all this time. How could she do this to him? Tatia just couldn’t square it up with what had happened to them. Alghar must have done something to her, but what?
      Tatia was still a bit blurry from her captivity. “Yeah, I guess so.” Aridel and Xandu just stared at each other in disbelief. Wootjan-Oo didn’t know what to think. Alghar turned to lead them away with his minions dragging Tatia and Morgau along with them.
      “No! I’m not going anywhere with you.” Morgau shouted out defiantly as he stepped up his struggles. But the flunkies held him firm and mocked his efforts.
      Wootjan-Oo grabbed one of the flunkies’ arms to pull him away from Morgau but was brushed aside with a force that knocked him over. “Damn you!” Wootjan-Oo cursed as he threw himself at the flunky. A mech who was standing nearby joined in and seized the flunky’s other arm to wrench it away from Morgau. To its’ utter amazement, the arm that broke away wasn’t a biological arm, but a mechanical android limb. The flunky punched the mech with its remaining arm and ran off leaving Morgau dazed on the ground.
      Within seconds it had erupted into a full-blown rumble with Morgau leading the attack punching, kicking, biting and spitting for all he was worth. Xandu, Aridel and Wootjan-Oo joined in as they fought to free Tatia and reach Knetryxx through the mob of Alghar’s minions. Pierre, Jazz and the mechs were caught up the fight and were just about holding their own. Yldoseh kept her distance from the melee so that she could capture it with her video camera.
      “Reinforcements, sir?” One of the mechs tersely asked Pierre as he dodged a punch. “Armed?”
      “Yes and ye…” Was all Pierre managed to get out before he took a knockout blow on his jaw which sent several teeth flying and left him unconscious on the ground.
      Jazz was covering Aridel as she pulled Tatia out of the fight when Alghar smashed him across the back of his head dropping him to the ground with a sickening crunch where he morphed back into dzzhakh’s Khzchhrrrtz form and Kkhrkht’s warrior self took over. Kkhrkht went on a blind killing rampage savaging Alghar’s sidekicks. The Humans and mechs on the environment deck dropped what they were doing and ran over to join in and made short work of Alghar and his troupe of toadies.
      It was over as suddenly as it started save for a few unfortunate Humans lying on the ground groaning and moaning in pain. Morgau staggered over to where Knetryxx lay broken and lifeless on the ground next to Alghar and sank to his knees. “No! What have I done?” He wailed miserably as he threw his arms around her. The Human and mech contingent took a closer look at Alghar’s fallen gang, kicked their dead bodies a few times just to make sure and wandered off satisfied that they wouldn’t cause any more trouble.
      “Are you OK?” Aridel asked as she helped Tatia to sit up.
      “Ugh.” Tatia winced as she massaged her bruised tail. “Someone trod on my tail.”
      Wootjan-Oo wandered over to where Kkhrkht was stripping the clothes and flesh away from the one of Alghar’s dead attendants and took a closer look at the mechanical body revealed underneath. “What is that?”
      “A machine of some sort.” Kkhrkht answered as dzzhakh-ye fought back dzzhakh’s warrior self now that the fight was over. Kkhrkht stripped back the rest of the android’s clothes and artificial skin to reveal the scorched panels, circuits and servos where it had been pierced by lasers.
      “Are they all like this?” Wootjan-Oo had never seen a mechanical life form until he met the Humans and their Mechs.
      “Possibly.” Kkhrkht answered as Xandu and Yldoseh joined them. Yldoseh filmed them as they inspected each corpse and sure enough, they were all androids.
      Morgau was oblivious to anything other than Knetryxx. He couldn’t leave her out on the environment deck. He’d have to take her home for burial. His tormented mind spun around wracked with guilt and fear. What would he tell her parents? How could he explain what had happened to the courts? What did it matter anyway? Without Knetryxx, his life wasn’t worth living any longer and he clutched her lifeless body even closer. Better to die with her in his arms than to continue without her. But through the dark fog of wretched guilt something wasn’t quite right. She didn’t smell like anything he recognised for starters. Shallens have a keen sense of smell and identify each other by scent as well as sight. He checked her paw and her hothwyl ring was missing. And when he tried to pick her up, she seemed unusually heavy.
      “Morgau, we just want to check something.” Aridel gently lifted Morgau away from Knetryxx and held him back while Xandu and Wootjan-Oo carefully peeled back her clothes and synthetic skin to reveal the broken robotic body underneath.
      “Wha…?” Morgau slumped in Aridel’s arms. It was one shock too many for him.
      “It’s all right you big cry-baby.” Xandu teased Morgau. “It’s not Knetryxx.”
      “I’ll get you for that, you little runt!” Morgau jumped up to take a swipe at Xandu. But Xandu saw it coming and ran off with Morgau in hot pursuit. It didn’t take long for Morgau to catch up and he grabbed Xandu’s tail and twisted it hard.
      “Ow, ow, ow!” Xandu yelped as he tried to escape from Morgau’s painful grip.
      “Looks like Morgau’s recovered.” Aridel laughed as she watched them running around the environment deck.
      “That’s more than I can say about Xandu’s tail.” Wootjan-Oo cawed.
       
      “The remotes have been destroyed, Talookti.” A reptilian Chznzet technician looked up from her workstation in the command centre.
      “Oh, never mind.” Talookti ruffled his feathers and brushed off the incident with megalomaniac grandeur. “Plenty more where they came from. But we’ll ditch the Humans’ ship mid-jump. That way no-one will ever find them.” Talookti snickered cruelly. “They’ll be lost in hyperspace forever.”
       
      Braaah-swoosh! Braaah-swoosh! A pair of fliers noisily raced past the Estrillyd Speedway pits at full tilt above the teams of mechanics and strutting pilots below while the spectators raucously cheered on their favourites from the grandstand overlooking the starting grid. “Ah, everyone loves a day at the races.” Reflinghar commented jovially to Pzeptilan as Deleethia and Vvezhti-Kla climbed into their matching fliers and warmed up their engines in preparation for their race. “Do you have anything like this on your world?”
      “Yes, but not mechanised.” Pzeptilan explained. “We have winged steeds for racing and jousting.”
      “I’d like to see that.” Reflinghar missed the traditional sports. “The jousting sounds like fun.”
      “It’s very popular.” Pzeptilan quipped casually in order to avoid discussing dzzhev’s failed escape attempt from Vermthellyn.
      “Maybe we could introduce it here. It might catch on.” Reflinghar mused aloud as he watched the fliers overhead tearing past the pits. “Have you placed any bets on the race?”
      “A hundred Galacs on Vvezhti-Kla to win.” Pzeptilan hoped dzhinn-ye would win. They needed the money.
      “That’s very loyal of you.” Reflinghar commented as he led Pzeptilan away from pits. Behind them a flier trailing smoke crashed onto the apron outside the pits, skidded into the crash barrier, burst into a ball of flame showering both spectators and grease-monkeys with fragments of debris as the pilot flew through the air and landed on top of the spectators in the grandstand. “But you should also place a sporting bet on Deleethia.”
      “Really?” Pzeptilan was despairing at the expense of humouring the Duke and his wife. By the look of things they’d be lucky if Vvezhti-Kla finished in one piece. “It looks dangerous.”
      “Nonsense! That was just a stunt pilot to spice things up for the public. Deleethia used to do the demolition derby, but she feels she’s getting a bit old for that now so she does the regular races instead.” Reflinghar was in a good mood. “I’ll place a bet on Vvezhti-Kla and you place a bet on Deleethia. It’ll make a change for me if Vvezhti-Kla wins after all the money I’ve lost on Deleethia.”
      “I take it Deleethia doesn’t win often.” Pzeptilan wondered if Reflinghar was a compulsive gambler.
      “She hasn’t won in years.” Reflinghar chuckled indulgently. “But she loves it and it’s good PR with the locals, so it’s money well spent.”
      Pzeptilan followed Reflinghar to the betting office and matched the old Duke’s recklessly generous bet on Vvezhti-Kla before joining him in the VIP lounge overlooking the speedway where Reflinghar offered dzzhev-ye a glass of brandy. “So, how’s the ambassadorial life?” Reflinghar genially enquired.
      “Not much to do if truth be told.” Pzeptilan hedged dzzhev-ye’s bets.
      “I’m not surprised. I doubt if anyone’s heard of Zrrlchtz here on Vermthellyn.” Reflinghar knocked back his brandy and refilled his glass. “Still, you’ll be pleased to know that the campaign on Burrakhtlmyr is going well.”
      “Really? I hadn’t heard.” Right now Pzeptilan wanted to be anywhere except on Vermthellyn.
      “Indeed!” Reflinghar slipped into his favourite role of armchair general. “Thanks to information you gave us, we managed to assemble a strike force to drive the Gulmarians out of the Burrakhtlmyr system. Unfortunately it left much of Burrakhtlmyr uninhabitable.”
      “I’m sorry to hear that.” Much as Pzeptilan liked Burrakhtlmyr and the Ilbryak, dzzhev realised that the destruction they endured was nothing compared to what the Gulmarians would have inflicted on them.
      “Messy business, warfare.” Reflinghar admitted stoically between sips of brandy. “Couldn’t be helped. I don’t think the Gulmarians will be back in this sector for a long time after the beating we gave them. With a bit of luck Burrakhtlmyr should qualify for reconstruction assistance from the GC Development Office. In a few centuries, you’d never know there was a battle there.”
      “And the Ilbryak. Were there any survivors?” Pzeptilan tried to picture the lush Burrakhtlmyr laid waste. It wasn’t a pretty thought.
      “Oh, plenty.” Reflinghar preferred to gloss over such ‘minor details’ and poured himself another glass of brandy. His vizier, Weetleetly, sidled into the VIP suite nervously clutching a notepad in her claws and waited for Reflinghar’s attention. “What is it now, Weetleetly?” Reflinghar tetchily scolded his vizier. “I thought I told you I wasn’t to be disturbed today. It’s Deleethia’s day at the races.”
      “My apologies sir, but something rather urgent has come up.” Weetleetly hastily shoved a data cartridge into a display screen and fired it up.  The VIP lounge filled up with the sound and babble of the Ark of Exodus’ observation deck as Knetryxx, surrounded by Chznzet, filled the screen. It hastily cut to the interviews with Morgau, Tatia, Wootjan-Oo and Kkhrkht followed by scenes of the Humans and Mechs offloading from their ship and finished with the chaotic fight on the environment deck and the dead android replica of Knetryxx laid out on the ground.
      “Damn those Chznzet!” Reflinghar angrily threw down his glass which shattered on the floor. “They’re nothing but trouble. How long have we got before the Ark makes its jump?”
      “About five hours.” Weetleetly made an educated guess based on what little information she had.
      “Muster up all the troops you can and have them wait for me at the armoury.” Reflinghar had enough and decided that it was time for a showdown with the Chznzet. “Who’s the garrison commander on board the Ark of Exodus at the moment?”
      Weetleetly consulted her notepad. “Looflah-Hrentlyn, sir.”
      “Not that sympathiser.” Reflinghar spat out. “Find someone we can trust and tell them to round up all the loyal troops to secure the Ark. And be discreet about it, I don’t want the Chznzet getting wind of our plans. They’ve gone too far. I’ve got a good mind to throw them out into space this time.”
      “Anything else, sir?” Weetleetly hadn’t seen Reflinghar so angry in a long time.
      “No, that’s it.” Reflinghar couldn’t run off without telling Deleethia where he was going. She’d only give him hell afterwards. “Well, don’t just stand there like a dumb bird Weetleetly; I’ll be along as soon as Deleethia’s race is finished.”
      Pzeptilan looked around for a quick escape in case Reflinghar decided that Kkhrkht had failed and the dzzhev-ye was to pay for it with dzzhev’s life. But Weetleetly had already gone and the doors were closed.
      “What happened? Have we missed the race?” Reflinghar asked as he looked out from their suite atop the grandstand. This was supposed to be Deleethia’s day and Reflinghar was determined to enjoy what little was left of it before leaving.
      Pzeptilan looked at the viewscreen which was following the main pack. They had just passed one marker and were going into a steep climb to reach the next. Dzzhev-ye spotted one of their fliers jockeying for position as they hurtled along. “Looks like we’ve missed the start.”
      “What, is it over?” Reflinghar ran through his collection of descriptions of her previous races. Maybe he could bluff it. Deleethia was bound to quiz him to make sure he had watched the race and would get annoyed if he’d missed it.
      “No, it’s on right now.” Pzeptilan walked over to the window. Their other flier tore past the grandstand hotly pursued by a loose gaggle. Was it Vvezhti-Kla or Deleethia? Was it in the lead or trailing the pack?
      “Let’s see how they’re doing.” Reflinghar turned on the sound and the commentator’s babble poured out of the viewscreen.
      “…it’s a complete upset in the middle-distance grand slalom. The current champion, Ghrotar of Thelwyk and the hot contenders this season including, may I say, Boojida Smurfylln have been outpaced by a total outsider flying under the doughty Sedeirtra colours. Wouldn’t you say so, Narfulit?”
       “Absolutely, Elshtar.” A chubby, dark-furred Rtuntli commentator replied as the viewscreen followed the main pack around the course. “Here we see Deleethia Sedeirtra, known more for her love of racing than her winning streak, holding up a respectable 8th place.” At this point the picture jumps to the leading fliers zooming around the course. “But here we see a pilot with real mastery.” By now the picture was following Vvezhti-Kla. “Just look at the way this one gets the best line between the markers and obstacles. I haven’t seen a pilot this hot since Alknorlan the Bhonevit and that’s going back a while! It looks like Team Sedeirtra has finally found a winner. This is definitely a pilot to watch: real championship material.”
      “Hmmm.” Reflinghar looked at his betting slip as the commentators babbled away in the background. Maybe something good has happened today. A winner! That would certainly be an improvement on bribing the other teams to let Deleethia win. “Go! Go!” He cheered Vvezhti-Kla on as he watched the fliers chase each other around the circuit. Vvezhti-Kla opened out dzhinn-ye’s lead all the way to the end and thoroughly trounced the other pilots.
      “A winner! Yes!!!” Reflinghar jumped up excitedly as the commentators extolled and analysed the mystery pilots’ skills in the background. “Let’s go and join them. Vvezhti-Kla’s won a handsome prize today.” Reflinghar was already seduced by the prospect of managing a winning team. “We’ll have to enter your pilot in more races. And we’ll need a wingman to block out the competition: Deleethia could do that. A string of wins on the local circuit, sign up a few up-an-coming pilots and we’d be in the major league. What do you think?”
      “It’s a great idea.” Pzeptilan was glad that Reflinghar had forgotten Kkhrkht’s incompetence in his excitement. Dzzhev-ye would have no trouble talking Vvezhti-Kla into it as dzhinn was still embarrassingly deferential and subservient and Pzeptilan had no qualms about exploiting Vvezhti-Kla seeing how their lives depended on it.

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