Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 24: Precursor.

     Ruby waited in the ready room overlooking the landing pad atop the Bessemer Baby, United Metal’s latest mining ship plying its way around the asteroid belt sucking in raw ore-laden rocks at one end and spitting out barges laden with refined metals to coast along their Hohmann transfer orbits to Earth. The Bessemer Baby was huge, a city in space devoted to industry and, of course, the greater profits of the directors of United Metals who seldom left their opulent mansions on Earth. She watched the scout ships coming and going like so many fleas on an elephant’s back. Soon she would be piloting one of them and she thought about SkyHawk’s mission to Titan. How things had changed: His was a dangerous mission of exploration while she would be little more than a humdrum driver for a mineralogist. But at least she had her own life to live now and she gazed out at the stars wondering where it would take her.
     “Why, howdy, li’l missy.” A cheerful southern drawl broke her reverie. “I guess yo’ mah new pilot.” Ruby tore herself away from the depths of space to face a tall, wiry man with stubbly greying sandy hair and a grizzly salt-and-pepper beard.
     “Jesse Preston’s the name.” He introduced himself. “And if you don’t mind me sayin’ so, yo’ the purtiest pilot I’ve seen in a long time.”
     Ruby was completely bowled over by Jesse’s honest bonhomie and couldn’t think of a comeback that would meet his effusiveness. “Ruby Beta Sabaea.” She daintily shook his hand.
     “Way-ull, a real lady, too!” Jesse winked at her. “I hope the other boys don’t tell Laura Mae on me.”
     “Who’s Laura Mae?” Ruby played along with Jesse.
     “Mah wife, bless her soul.” Jesse smiled from ear to ear. “She’d hit me with a rollin’ pin if she thought I was foolin’ around.”
     “Oh.” Ruby laughed nervously. “I’m not…”
     “Oh, I know yo’ a mech. I can see that.” Jesse genially cut her off. “How many gals have red skin, blue hair and red eyes? But you just tell me if you think I’m getting’ too fresh with you.”
     “Um…” Ruby was at a loss for words.
     “Don’t mind me. I just like talkin’ to pass the time. And we’ll have plenty o’ that, heh! We’d best get started real soon.” Jesse got down to business. “The name of the game around here is to tag as many rocks as we can on each shift and we get a bonus for anything over our quota. It ain’t quite gold panning, but if you’re good at it you get rich. And as mah pilot, you get a percentage. So let’s git out there and hit some paydirt.”
     Ruby experienced a weird sense of deja-vu when she settled into the pilot’s seat aboard the BB-42 scout ship thanks to the programming installed by University of Satori and United Metals. Even though she’d never seen the inside of its cockpit, she knew where all the controls were, what they did and how it would handle. All she had to do was call up the configuration file for that model of ship from her programmed database and she was good to go. Ruby fired up the fusion-torch engine, got their clearance from the control tower and set off.
     “I got us a nice, dense patch up ahead to prospect. So we ought to put down a good few markers.” Jesse gloated as he punched in the co-ordinates for Ruby and flooded the cockpit with up-tempo tex-mex music. “A little bit of music while we work, heh!” He chuckled as he turned the volume down so they could hear each other speak. If you got anything you like listening to, I’ll put it on after this.”
     “Can we get the Tribal Sounds channel?” Ruby asked. The Flaming Watusis always got regular airplay on that channel.
     “Nope.” Jesse shrugged his shoulders. “United Metals don’t pipe in music. We’ve got to bring our own cubes or cards. Technically, we’re not supposed to ‘cos it’s classed as a distraction. But no-one minds.”
     “So how do you do this prospecting, Jesse?” Ruby decided to buy a few albums for their next shift. Jesse’s easy manner reminded her of the times she used to fly with SkyHawk except that she was the pilot now.
     “Resonant scanning, gravimetrics and magnetic readings mostly. If it’s over a threshold level for any metals, I put a beacon on it and the Bessemer Baby scoops it up.”
     “Do you go out on the asteroids to take samples?” Ruby asked as she deftly swerved their diminutive ship through the asteroids drifting across their path.
     “Not if I can help it!” Jesse laughed it off. “If I did, we’d never even meet our quota. Say, I like your style. You handle this buggy just like Dennis.”
     “And who’s Dennis?”
     “Mah previous pilot.” Jesse explained as Ruby took them deeper into the asteroid belt. They could see other scout ships working their way through their assigned patches as they went out to their patch. “You’re his replacement, he’s retired now. He was one crazy pilot! Got himself thrown out of the Space Force for bedding his wing commander’s daughter and kept getting thrown out of work for flying freighters like fighters. Had his license revoked so many times he lost count but he’s the best I’ve ever come across and I’ve worked with all sorts.” Jesse glanced down at his monitor. “Looks like we’ve hit our patch, so I want you to slow right down so’s we match the drift of those rocks. We’ll need to get in right close so I can git started on doin’ some assays.”
     Ruby followed Jesse’s directions and took them through their assigned field. Her recently-acquired programming made it easy and, what with Jesse’s non-stop banter, as pleasant as whiling away an afternoon in the Wobbly Goblin with her friends and was glad the she let Max talk her into taking this job. The first few rocks were duds which didn’t bother Jesse one bit. He just directed Ruby to the next asteroid and off they went. But after a few hours they had tagged over thirty rocks and Jesse was merrily singing along with his collection of songs.
     “Well, I’ll be.” Jesse nudged Ruby just after they finished scanning a rock which turned out to be another dud. “Lookee over there, about 70 starboard and 20 down. You can see the light glinting off it… a ship.”
     Ruby looked across and spotted it hanging in the middle of a clump of asteroids, less than five kilometres away. It wasn’t going anywhere and they’d pass it soon. “What would it be doing here?”
     “Ah dunno.” Jesse picked it up on the long-range viewer. “Nothin’ to be worried about, it’s only a commercial freighter. Git a lock on its co-ords and send ‘em back to flight control. They can deal with it.” By now he could see that the ship was drifting along with the asteroids. “If that ship don’t get a move-on soon, it’ll be scooped up and fed into the Bessemer Baby’s refinery.”
     “Wouldn’t it be easier if we radioed that ship?” Ruby suggested.
     “Not a chance!” Jesse laughed off Ruby’s suggestion. “What makes you think they’d pay any attention to some little scout ship like ours? I know yo’ new to this game, but no-one comes out to the belt for their health. Most likely they’re up to something illegal, but it’s none of our business. And if you want to live a long life, don’t get involved. Heh, but you just wait ‘till they hear from the Bessemer Baby. Then you watch ‘em high-tail it outta here.”
     “Who’d want to do something like that?” Ruby asked innocently even though she knew full well that many of the Overlordz clans operated out of the asteroid belt.
     “Way-ull the Overlordz for starters.” Jesse was surprised at Ruby’s naïveté. He thought everyone knew about the Overlordz. “But I can’t imagine any of them being stupid enough to git in the way of a mining ship.” And with that Jesse turned his attention the next asteroid they were approaching and began scanning it. “They’ll be gone by the time we swing back this way if they know what’s good for them.”
     But when they returned three hours and fifty-odd asteroids later, the mystery ship was still there and this time they were right up close as Jesse was scanning the surrounding rocks. “Looks abandoned to me.” He aimed their probes at the ship to see if it was powered up. “It’s completely dead.” Jesse commented as he looked it over. “Don’t see no damage. Must be insurance fraud.”
     “What do you mean?” Ruby tried follow Jesse’s reasoning.
     “They report the ship as lost, the Bessemer Baby eats up the evidence and the insurance company pays out for a new ship.”
     “Really?” Such a scheme sounded a bit extreme and risky to Ruby.
     “Goes on all the time. Ain’t the first time I’ve seen it either.” Jesse had come across every known scam in his years but had resisted their lure. He prided himself on living as honest a life as possible given his circumstances. “Still, if it’s salvage, we can claim it above our quota. Say, be a good girl and get back to flight control about that hulk. See if they’ve got anything on it.”
     Ruby checked her comms console, but it was blank static. She tried all the channels, but all she got was rushing white noise. “The line’s gone dead.”
     “Give it a bit of percussive maintenance. See if that shakes it up.” Jesse called back from his seat. There was no gravity in their tiny scout ship, so they had to stay strapped into their seats except for Jesse’s toilet and exercise breaks.
     “What?” And then it dawned on Ruby what he meant so she reached around and gave the comms console a solid thump on its’ side. But it didn’t make any difference. “No, still nothing.”
     “Damn!” Jesse was annoyed. He didn’t like flying blind so they’d have to return before the end of their shift. “Put a marker on that ship and let’s head back.”
     Ruby nudged their scout ship up close to the abandoned ship to tag it. It looked strangely familiar and she recognised the Goldstar Freight Lines livery painted on its’ hull. She pulled up next to it and read its ID: MC-002583. “I know that ship.”
     “You do?” Jesse didn’t like the sound of this. Scams were one thing. Being party to one was something he wanted none of.
     “I-I used to work at the Satori Aerodrome.” Ruby faltered. She wanted to keep her past to herself and hesitated before telling Jesse. “One of the crew on that ship pulled a gun on my team when we were servicing it. They left without paying for their repairs.”
     “Is that why you left the Aerodrome?” Jesse asked suspiciously.
     “No, a friend got me this job.” Ruby understood what Jesse was thinking and realised it wasn’t going to be easy to convince him. “I was working way below my capacity at the Aerodrome. Max thought I’d be more suited to something like this.”
     “Is Max the friend who got you this job?” Jesse quizzed Ruby to see if she talked freely or clammed up.
     “Yeah, I hope it works out. I like working with you.” Ruby had hoped that working for United Metals would take her away from her ordeal at the Satori Aerodrome, but there it was floating in front of them.
     “Way-ull, you make a mighty fine pilot Ruby, but we ain’t even gonna git the salvage rights now.” Jesse cussed and spat on the cabin floor. “We’ll just have to hand it over to Earth Fed and git their worthless ‘good citizen’ commendations. I hope you don’t mind.”
     “That’s fine by me.” If this was as close as Ruby could get to closure, she could live with it. So long as Earth Fed didn’t ask her too many awkward questions.
     “There’s something mighty strange back there.” Jesse commented as Ruby throttled up their scout craft’s engine to take them back to the Bessemer Baby.
     “What’s that?” Finding Greave’s ship abandoned in the asteroid belt was strange enough for Ruby.
     “I got readings for just over a thousand metric tonnes of mass back there.” Jesse scratched his head as he re-checked the data on his display screen. “But I know a T-7X freighter is nowhere near that, even when it’s fully laden.”
     “I wonder what it could be?” Ruby knew a T-7X’s maximum load was 150 tonnes. “Unless you picked up a rock obscured by that ship.”
     “Naw, that’s what I thought, but I checked it. Maybe this scanner’s on the fritz again.” Jesse thumped his console to see if the readings changed, but they didn’t. “Comms are out. This thing’s screwed. Hell, I’m surprised anything works.”
     Blamm!!! The bolt came out of nowhere and tore through the cabin. Its tiny bubble of air burped out into space and was gone. Jesse died instantly leaving Ruby alone struggling with the controls of their stricken ship in the hard vacuum. She could survive the hard vacuum so long as she didn’t overheat. The freighter and asteroids whizzed past the blown-out windscreen as the tiny ship spun around but Ruby couldn’t see where that shot might have come from other than the abandoned freighter. She locked in on the Bessemer Baby’s beacon, set a course and searched the cabin for a pressure suit. She didn’t need the air, but its heat exchanger would keep her from overheating and shutting down. She found only one pressure suit and it was Jesse’s. Even though it was too large for her, it would have to do and she climbed into it, sealed the helmet and powered it up. Ruby was miffed that United Metals hadn’t included a pressure suit for her. Didn’t they know that mechs could overheat fatally in space? She made a note to take it up with her shift manager when she got back. If she got back.
     The journey back didn’t take long. They were never more than 100 kilometres away from the Bessemer Baby. But it felt like an eternity as Ruby dodged in and around the asteroids while she fought down her anger at losing Jesse on her first day at work. He would have been a good friend to have and she needed all the friends she could get as she set out on her new life. As the Bessemer Baby came into view she began to worry that she might lose her job. Jesse’s frozen, ruptured body lay lifeless strapped into the seat beside her, his blood, brains and organs a frozen, congealed mess all over the cabin. Losing your co-worker and trashing your ship on your first day wasn’t such a great way to start out. “It wasn’t my fault, I didn’t do anything wrong.” Ruby steadfastly reminded herself over and over as she closed in on the Bessemer Baby as it gobbled up the asteroids being fed into the cavernous mouth of its fusion-driven feed-through refinery on its ponderous journey through the asteroid belt.
     The comms were still out as she coasted past the tugs feeding asteroids into the ponderous mining ship’s open maw. She swept along the side and arced across the hull to home in on the landing deck when she saw a squadron of Overlordz fighters parked up with a light cruiser floating above them. There was no way she could land there. The Overlordz would kill her or take her prisoner as a slave so she ducked back round the ship’s curved hull out of their sight. A warning shot fired late and missed her. They’d be after her in no time and there was no way her damaged scout ship could make it to Mars. Ruby was still trying to work out a plan when her tiny ship exploded sending her cartwheeling into space amidst the scattering wreckage. An Overlordz fighter shot past her taking a few lazy pot-shots at the debris and circled back to the landing platform.
     Ruby wasted no time and yanked the air hose out of her suit so she could use her precious supply of air as a reaction engine to propel her down onto the Bessemer Baby’s gargantuan hull. It took a while, but she eventually made it with enough air left to take advantage of her suit’s heat exchanger. Ruby looked around and sized up her situation. She could survive for a fair while on the hull. If she was lucky enough to find a power terminal, she could survive indefinitely provided she didn’t overheat. So she set off to search the Bessemer Baby’s hull for an access port. It seemed the likeliest place: anyone working out on the hull would need power for their tools and their service cars.
     Meanwhile, out of her view, the Overlordz, or more correctly the Raiders clan led by Kazmak, had powered up Goldstar Freight Lines T-7X freighter drive unit at full throttle and sent it straight down the Bessemer Baby’s mouth where it exploded spewing wreckage and a sudden spurt of plasma burping out into space when it hit the fusion powered feed-thru smelter. Unfortunately for the people inside the ships’ refinery, it meant that they were killed in a fast and furious incineration as the smelter’s magnetic field squirted the freighter’s plasma in opposite directions: Out of the ships’ mouth where it looked spectacularly dramatic, but did nothing and back into the refinery where no-one had time to see what was coming. Fortunately for Kazmak, who didn’t care about such niceties as other peoples’ lives, this didn’t seriously affect the Bessemer Baby’s frame or its mighty drive unit as it juddered from the shocks of the explosions deep within its bowels. Everything was going to plan. Outside, Ruby only just managed to hang on as the ship convulsed from the explosive shocks reverberating through its’ mammoth frame as it careened out of the asteroid belt towards one of the many Early Warning Platforms that guarded Earth, Luna and Mars from incoming asteroids.
     Boop-bap a tootly noodly-doodly-do… Emory Jo jazzed along on his trumpet as Veronica bashed out a syncopated rhythm on her improvised drum kit made out of a collection of plastic tubs while Wally comped loose, loping riffs on a synthesiser from their makeshift stage in one corner of the rec room. It was another slow day, so a goodly proportion of the off-duty crew were hanging out in the rec room, talking, reading, playing darts, chess, poker, eating meals alone or in groups with freeform jazz music wafting through the hubbub of their chatter. But up on the bridge where there was usually little to do other than tracking the trajectories of the asteroids a different drama was playing out.
     “Sir?” Raidon Tetsuko, a junior comms officer aboard the Early Warning Platform, took off his headset and addressed the bridge commander. “There’s a mining ship coming right at us. I think it’s the Bessemer Baby, but I’m not sure.”
     Lieutenant Sergio Velázquez set down the report he was writing up and walked over to Raidon’s terminal. “Have you got visual?”
     “Yes sir.” Raidon punched up the long range viewer. The mining ship was tumbling through space. “It looks like they’re in trouble.”
     “Have you made contact with them?” Sergio asked as he watched the Bessemer Baby tumbling towards them on Raidon’s monitor screen.
     “No sir, no response.” Raidon answered tersely, his eyes glued to his monitor. Raidon was one of six comms operatives whose job was to scour different regions of space around them for incoming hazards. Some of the other operators overheard Sergio and glanced over at Raidon’s monitor.
     “You say that ship’s coming our way. What’s its ETA?” Sergio quizzed Raidon. He needed to know what he was dealing with.
     “At present velocity, impact will be in two hours and thirty eight minutes unless we shift our position.” Raidon wasn’t particularly worried; they still had plenty of time to get out of the stricken mining ship’s path.
     “Do an invasive lock on their internal comms; see if you can raise a signal that way. If you need any help, just ask Sergeant M’Tadwe.” With that, Sergio left the bridge under Sergeant M’Tadwe’s supervision while he schlepped off to report to the captain.
     Captain Avery Bernhardt, who had long since mastered the art of the creative comb-over with his greasy straw-coloured hair in a determined denial of the receding hairline which betrayed his otherwise well-kept ruddy fitness, sized up Sergio’s report. “Take the EWP off its current position and let me know when you get through to that ship.”
     “What about the ship, sir?” Sergio felt that Captain Bernhardt had missed the obvious.
     “Send out a squadron to investigate. If it’s out of control and on a trajectory for Earth or Mars, then we’ll just have to nuke it.” Secretly, Avery Bernhardt hoped that it was. It’d be a break from his worthy-but-boring routine of standing sentinel in space.
     “Action stations! We have incoming. This is not a drill.” The klaxon announcement blared across the rec room. It was still repeating long after everyone had dropped what they were doing and ran off to their interceptors.
     Redman Def strutted around the bridge of the Bessemer Baby as his posse took command. For the time being it was his ship and, if they didn’t have to crash it onto a city on Earth or Mars in their attempt to extort the rights over the asteroid belt from Earth Fed, it would be his to exploit for years to come. The human crew were still unconscious from the knock-out gas he had flooded the mining ship with and its mech crew were being reprogrammed by viral malware spreading through the ships’ network. Enslaving the mechs and the ships’ AI system was the easy part. The humans had to be kept unconscious until the autodocs installed a neural net on them. Then they were reduced to little more than remote-control zombie slaves. His underlings were amusing themselves by remotely-controlling the neural-netted humans on the bridge to fight and sexually abuse each other.
     “Okay, okay. Enough of the fun and games. There’s work to do.” Even though he enjoyed watching the Bessemer Baby’s crew being put through their degrading paces, he had to assert his position as the boss man on the ship with what he felt was a suitably jaded growl. “There’s plenty of time for all that later. We’re on a tight schedule.”
     “Whatcha worried about, boss?” Gormek, an ugly cyborg-enhanced renegade clone lazily replied as he locked a neural-netted crewman into an infinitely-repeating loop of bitch-slapping the former bridge commander’s face. “We’re on course for that Early Warning Platform. All we’ve gotta do is distract them for Kazmak. They ain’t ever gonna see that ship of his what with that visual shielding it’s got.”
     Boss. That was what Redman Def really liked to hear and he relished the sound of deference. “It’s time to bait the trap. Are we ready yet?”
     “Just about.” Marko Kirelli, a scraggly human Raider and one of a team of three busily working at hotwiring the Bessemer Baby’s communications systems, looked over from the console they were dismantling. “We’ll have the comms on manual in a couple of minutes.”
     “Good. Well, stop playing with the crew and get them to their stations. We’ve got to make this look convincing.” Redman Def snapped out his orders just to remind them who was the boss man. Gormek and the others disentangled the hapless crew from their games and moved them back to their posts where they sat like lifeless showroom dummies. Redman Def and his posse hid out of the line of sight of the ship’s comms cameras and he took one last look around. They’d trashed the bridge as soon as they had stormed in and overpowered the Bessemer Baby’s bridge. If it looked too clean those do-gooders at the EWP might smell a rat. “Are you ready yet, Marko?”
     “Sure thing, boss.” Marko scuttled across the bridge to join the rest of the posse. “It’s ready to roll.” A whoosh of static and crackling noise filled the bridge as Redman Def and Gormek activated their neural netted zombie crew.
     “Mayday, mayday, this is the United Metals mining ship Bessemer Baby. We have major systems malfunctions. Can anyone hear us?” A young communications officer repeated earnestly as he looked up from his console at the communications screen overlooking the bridge.
     It didn’t take long before the Early Warning Platform picked up their signal. “This is Earth Federation Early Warning Platform Seventeen. We have you on visual. What is your status?”
     “The refinery containment field ruptured and destroyed our processing facilities, disabled the propulsion and has taken out most of our life support.” The communications officer’s voice quavered convincingly. Redman Def liked the way Gormek added those little extra touches. “We request assistance for evacuation.”
     “Copy that, Bessemer Baby.” Raidon Tetsuko appeared on the bridge’s display screen. “Can you restart your drive unit?”
     “We’re working on it, but...” The neural-netted comms officer made as if to consult with a colleague off-screen. “It could take several days before we even assess the full extent of the damage.”
     By now Lieutenant Sergio Velázquez and Captain Avery Bernhardt were on screen behind Raidon. Captain Bernhardt took over. “We’ll send over a team to help you. If we can’t restart your engines, we’ll have to destroy your ship, so I’d advise you to proceed with your evacuation plans. You may use the Early Warning Platform as a staging post, so instruct your crew to set course for the EWP in their escape pods. That way, if we can restart your engines they can return to your ship, otherwise we’ll notify United Metals and arrange their pickup.” Avery Bernhardt signed off with a professional smile to reassure the stricken crew of the Bessemer Baby little realising that he had been fooled in a massive confidence trick and that within a few hours, he too, would be a neural-netted zombie slave.
     “Damn, this is too easy!” Redman Def couldn’t believe his luck. “They’ve opened the doors for us. Load up the pods with as many netters as you can round up.” He ordered his posse. “We’ll have the EWP under control before Kazmak gets here.”
     The crowd on the Ark of Exodus’ observation deck had been building up for hours in eager anticipation. Many of the Shallens had dressed up in traditional costumes out of a sense of occasion and Reflinghar Sedeirtra didn’t look out of place in his Cooprah hide body armour as he stood surrounded by a mass of Shallen troops in Sedeirtra colours and leaned against the press enclosure barrier. He had cautiously accepted Colonel Wang Li-Penh’s offer of assistance to rescue Knetryxx from her Chznzet captors. Groups of Mech and Human soldiers were threading their way through the crowd along with Reflinghar’s House Sedeirtra troopers towards the walkway which they intended to storm once Knetryxx made her appearance.
     Inside the press enclosure it was less crowded, but a hive of frantic activity. “How much longer?” Pierre asked, careful not too move his bruised jaw too much, it still ached badly from the previous day’s knockout blow, as he stepped gingerly over the coils of cable snaking across the floor.
     “There’ll be a riot if she doesn’t show up soon.” Silver observed as she looked out across the observation deck. “There’s hardly room to move out there.”
     “She’s not due in for another ten minutes.” Aridel consulted the schedule supplied by the Keeper’s Office on her notepad. Yldoseh’s bogus Wing-Fang Media Group had been denied her interview requests but in an unbelievable stroke of luck was granted exclusive transmission rights for Knetryxx’s upcoming appearance. Pierre had plundered the Spirit of Discovery for every piece of video and photographic equipment he could find and a team of Reflinghar’s soldiers posed with it pretending to be the professional live camera crew from Channel-7, the leading news channel on Vermthellyn.
     Yldoseh kept up the pretence by doing a pre-announcement build-up which went out live to Vermthellyn using the one working camera they had while Xandu went round their ‘camera crews’ to make sure they looked like they knew what they were doing. None of the Human’s video equipment interfaced with the Shallen systems, so it just sat there as so much dead hardware, but that was all they needed: a plausible pretence to distract any suspicious Chznzet.
     Outside in the milling crowd a lanky Shallen in full body armour tagging along with Duke Reflinghar and Wang Li-Penh lifted up the visor on its helmet. “Keep your helmet shut!” Reflinghar scolded sternly as he slapped down the lanky soldier’s visor.
     “But I’m stifling in this armour, Reffy.” A youthful voice whined out through the helmet. It was Morgau.
     Reflinghar rolled his eyes in despair. Children: they were all the same! “Do you want the Chznzet to spot you?” Reflinghar gruffly reminded Morgau of the risks they were taking. “You’ll keep that helmet shut if you know what’s good for you. And do try to hold your lance properly.” Reflinghar grabbed hold of Morgau’s paws and moved them to the correct positions on his plasma lance. “You may have to use it.”
     Wang watched Reflinghar admonishing Morgau. “Not a soldier?” He asked diplomatically.
     “No, we can’t all be soldiers.” Reflinghar replied stoically as he gave Morgau a hearty pat on the back that almost knocked Morgau off balance. “Young Morgau here’s an artist and a very talented one, too.”
     “Really?” Wang was surprised at first, but the more he thought about it the more reasonable it seemed that some Shallens would be artists as well as soldiers, scientists, engineers and the like. “What sort of work do you do?”
     “Installations and theatrical set design mostly.” Morgau was glad for a bit of distraction. The tension and the uncomfortable body armour were unbearable.
     “Ah.” Wang pretended he understood what Morgau was talking about. “I’d like to see some of your work.”
     “Oh yes, some of my installations are on display in the local gallery back home… on Vermthellyn…” Morgau started out eager to tell Wang all about his installations but then trailed off as he realised that he might never return home.
     “You must come and see Morgau’s show when we’re done here. It’s quite impressive.” Reflinghar dutifully picked up the slack. For him defeat and failure were not an option. Deleethia was waiting for him and he’d promised her that he wouldn’t be away for long this time. And she wouldn’t let him off lightly if he was late.
     “So what exactly is an installation?” Wang asked as they waited for Knetryxx to make her speech.
     “They could be anything.” Morgau was stumped. He’d never needed to explain his work at such a basic level before. “You create an environment that your audience interacts with. It could be as simple as a room with a few props to environmental sculpture on an epic scale.”
     “I see.” Wang commented politely, none the wiser. “And what about the installations you created?”
     “Mostly small-scale stuff.” Morgau admitted modestly. “One of my installations is called ‘The Party’. It’s a study of hypocrisy and superficiality. I set up a room with a collection of holograms of various characters and installed short speech loops projected onto them. As you walk around the room you hear what they’re saying to each other but if you step inside a hologram you hear what that character is thinking. The idea was to show the differences between what people say to each other and what they think of each other and the world around them.”
     “That’s quite clever.” Wang finally understood what Morgau was talking about. “It’s only one step removed from set design.”
     “Some people think it’s the future of theatre but I feel you really need a certain amount of separation between the actors and audience.” It always surprised Morgau how he fell in step with the traditionalists on this issue. “Otherwise the production and performance can get too confused.” Morgau was in full stream describing some of his other installations and work with Hepticon-X to Wang as they pushed their way through the crowd towards the walkway when he got a solid jab in the side where Reflinghar elbowed him. “Oof!”
     “She’s here!” The old soldier-dragon hissed into Morgau’s helmet.
     “What?” Morgau craned his neck and looked across the sea of heads towards the walkway and there she was… with Alghar? But they killed him yesterday. Or a robot that looked like him. Or maybe he was a robot. Or what...? Too many possibilities spun round in Morgau’s head as he looked up at Knetryxx surrounded by Alghar and his courtiers. Every single one of them he recognised as the dead robots they’d killed only yesterday. But there they were. How? Why? He wondered if Knetryxx, too, was a fake like the others and caught sight of the glinting prison band around her neck. Maybe it really was her, his heart pounded hopefully.
     “These characters with Knetryxx… they look the same as those dead androids you showed me back at your camp.” Even Reflinghar could see that something wasn’t quite right.
     “Shallens, one and all” Knetryxx’s voice quavered unsteadily as it echoed over the packed throng on the observation deck. A wave of hush spread out across the crowd as they turned their attention towards the walkway.
     “Damn, how are we ever going to get through this lot?” Reflinghar grumbled as he tried futilely to push his way through the knotted crowd. They were stuck a long way from the walkway and would never be able to co-ordinate their planned snatch-and-rescue mission from where they were.
     “We’ve got to get in closer.” Wang flipped open his commset to get through to his troops and work out their positions. It wasn’t looking good. “But there’s not much chance of that unless we start hacking our way through this crowd.”
     Reflinghar tightened his grip on his broadsword which hung in its sheath at his side. “It’s tempting, but it would give our position away.” By now Knetryxx’s faltering address had given way to Alghar’s rousing fanaticism as he soliloquised about the great and glorious Shallen past, present and future.
     Morgau gazed on glumly from their position deep within the crowd. They’d never be able to rescue her now. Much as he loathed Alghar, Morgau grudgingly admired his ability to work the crowd. By the time Alghar handed the crowd back to Knetryxx, he’d got them cheering excitedly along with his exhortations.
     Knetryxx held out a small box in one paw and held her other paw poised over it. “And now we make the jump to HomeNest!” She jabbed at a button on the diminutive box and out above the crowd the starry firmament visible through the observation deck’s transparent ceiling smeared, streaked and ran past the Ark like a swirling fluid tunnel. A rousing cheer welled up and soon they were stamping their feet. “Knetryxx, Knetryxx, Knetryxx!” The cheering kept on and on, a rolling ecstasy fuelling their chanting that seemed to bounce off every surface to resonate inside their bodies and minds. Their exuberant cheering masked the deep creaking and groaning as the Ark’s frame flexed to absorb the sudden surge of acceleration thrust upon it by the Pdzarvian jump drive. Acceleration it was never designed to withstand.
     It wasn’t long before the Shallens nearest the walkway held their paws and claws above their heads for a victory walk. Knetryxx looked down bemusedly lapping up the adulation from the crowd spread out across the observation deck and glanced across to Alghar. Seeing how he did nothing to discourage her, Knetryxx took a tentative step out onto the sea of paws and claws held up for her. The cheering grew ecstatically louder as she stepped out across the gathered crowd.
     Reflinghar, from a long line of solidly-built soldiers, stretched up to watch Knetryxx’s victory walk and the beginnings of a plan formed in his mind. Reflinghar switched on his communicator and started talking to his troops. “Get underneath Knetryxx and stay with her. Guide her out towards the main entrance. I’ll be waiting for you along the way.” He turned to Morgau and Wang, his spirits lifting with the prospect of success: “Come on, we’ve got her!”
     “What?” Morgau could just about see Knetryxx walking out across the crowd in the distance but didn’t quite understand what Reflinghar was talking about as he instinctively followed the old soldier away from the walkway. They found the going easier through the thinning crowds as most everyone else was trying to crowd in around Knetryxx.
     Reflinghar eventually stopped and clapped his paws together. “Right, wait here and then when Knetryxx passes over us we take over and carry her out of here.”
     “What makes you so sure she’s coming this way?” Morgau asked sceptically. So far precious little seemed to be working to plan.
     “You’ll see!” Reflinghar cracked a wicked grin as he listened to his troops’ report on his communicator and stretched up to check on Knetryxx’s progress. “Get ready, she’ll be here in a few minutes.” The crowd soon began thickening up again and it was a major effort just to hold their ground against the swelling throng following Knetryxx as she walked across the crowd.
     Talookti stared down at the broken remains of 3 alpha-class mechs laid on the floor in front of him by a platoon of Chznzet foot soldiers standing nervously at attention behind their sergeant. The scouting expedition Silver had sent out to survey the temporal anomaly in the Arbrunthiel sector ran into more than they had anticipated. They had only just reached the tattered Arbrunthiel sector and still a long way from the temporal anomaly when they were ambushed by Chznzet guards who laid into the unprepared mechs mercilessly. Most were cut down by the battle-hardened Chznzet warriors in vicious close-quarters combat. The few survivors who could escape cut and ran back through the Cruthigne sector to the relative safety of The Spirit of Discovery docked up alongside the Ark of Exodus. Talookti bent down to take a closer look and flipped their lifeless limbs from side to side. “Was this all of them?” He asked as he poked at exposed circuitry on one of the dead mechs.
     “No, sire.” Sergeant Rrwandl rumbled deeply as he swished his tail menacingly from side to side, still full of the adrenaline of battle.
     “And the others?” Talookti quizzed him.
     “We killed most of them and beat the rest back. We will drive them from the Ark of Exodus.” Rrwandl snapped back with easy bravado to hide a hard-won victory.
     “Good!” Talookti clucked darkly as he stood up to face Sergeant Rrwandl who towered over the wizened old Talookti. “You shall have your chance very soon for tomorrow we shall reclaim Home Nest! Take these… things...” Talookti pointed at the dead mechs. “…To the labs for inspection and then report to your commander.”
     “Home Nest!” Sergeant Rrwandl and his warriors cheered back loyally before picking up the dead mechs.
     “Time to jettison the Humans’ ship?” Barwyndar insistently cavilled Talookti after the warriors left.
     “Yes, yes.” Talookti was beginning to hate Barwyndar with a passion. Maybe it was time to kill her too except that it would be a waste of time. He set off at a brisk pace to the control room with Barwyndar hot on his heels muttering to herself about Talookti’s incompetence.
     “Jettison the Humans’ ship! Now!” Talookti barked out angrily as he swept into the control room. The officers on duty didn’t even dare look up from their consoles in case they became a target for Talookti’s wrath.
     “Decoupling now” A young avian Chznzet announced from her console at the far side of the control doom.
     “Put it up on screen. I want all of you to see this.” Talookti ordered brusquely. Instantly 5 different views of the Spirit of Discovery popped up on the overhead screens showing the three docking clamps that gripped its hull like giant claws. Two of then opened slowly but the middle clamp remained stuck in place, its’ grip unbroken.
     “What???” The words choked in a mixture of anger and disbelief in Talookti’s throat.
     “It appears to be stuck, your eminence.” The Chznzet operator replied nervously. “The clamp must be broken.”
     “Send a remote tug out there and blast that damn thing away if need be.” Talookti rasped harshly as he looked around scowling angrily at everyone in the control room. Barwyndar was smugly enjoying every minute of watching the icily aloof Talookti lose his cool.
     Ranjit was in his office aboard the Spirit of Discovery busy speed-reading Silver and Pierre’s haphazard notes when it rocked spasmodically as the docking clamps opened up to jettison their ship. Ker-Klunk… screee! The ominous screeching sound reverberated through the ships’ hull and right through Ranjit’s head. “What the fuck?” He exclaimed as he jumped up and peered out into the passageway where he was met by a mech from the flight deck.
     “Some of the docking clamps are opening up, sir.” The mech informed Ranjit as it grabbed his arm in a steadying grip and led him away.
     “Oh.” Ranjit had a blonde moment. As far as he was aware, The Spirit of Discovery was docked to The Ark of Exodus all the way back to Earth. “This isn’t supposed to be happening.”
     “No sir.” The mech humoured Ranjit as it struggled to keep its balance as The Spirit of Discovery rocked on its’ unsteady moorings.
     “It must be an accident.” Ranjit hastily hypothesised amid the unfolding chaos. “Look at how ancient and decrepit that worldship is. It’s a miracle that it even flies.”
     “Yes sir.” The mech agreed. “However it flies while our ship doesn’t. Meanwhile it might be a good idea to secure the decks.” It added as pieces of loose furnishings tumbled noisily down the passageway.
     “So where are you taking me?” Ranjit was still sizing up the situation.
     “The bridge, sir.” The mech struggled to maintain an air of deference towards the clueless fleshie it was subservient to. “You are the most senior officer on board at the moment.”
     “I see.” Ranjit was mystified. “But I could have commanded operations from my office.”
     “Quite so, sir. But somehow the sight of a commanding officer issuing orders while lying in bed masturbating over the latest copy of ‘Leather’n’Studz Monthly’ doesn’t quite carry the same gravitas.” The mech tartly explained.
     Ranjit didn’t know what to say! His mouth hung open like a dumb yokel for the best part of a minute as the mech whisked him along the passageway from the bridge. “Er, yes, of course.” Ranjit mumbled and cleared his throat in an attempt to regain his composure.
     “I take it you’ll act the part and rise to the occasion.” The mech took a backhanded dig at Ranjit.
     “I… wha…?” Ranjit spluttered at the cheek of this freshly-minted mech. “Do you mind?” Ranjit angrily retorted. “I AM the part.”
     “Oh sir, that’s more like it, sir.” The mech obsequiously humoured Ranjit. They carried on in silence until they arrived at the bridge entrance. “Now get in there and do your bit…… dahling.” The mech bitchily cajoled Ranjit as it pinched his bum so hard it made his eyes water as he jumped through the door in surprise.
     Ranjit looked around when he came to his senses on the bridge but the mech that had escorted him was nowhere in sight. ‘Dammit, they all look the same’, he thought grumpily as he looked around at the duty crew of three humans on the bridge who looked back at him for guidance.
     Ranjit barked the expected “Status report” question in an unconvincing attempt to appear in control as he surveyed the motley crew on the bridge. First Officer Nathan DiMarco may have just come out of stasis a few days ago but he wasn’t fooled for a minute. “Status of what, sir?”
     Ranjit felt himself shrink to the size of a midget and jut barely managed to keep his mouth from hanging open like a drooling idiot in the face of the fresh-faced crewman’s deflationary quip. “Ah yes….” The words crawled out of his throat with all the conviction of a man being sucked down the all-consuming vortex of the whirlpool of doom. “The... uh... status of our ship, the status of our connection to the alien ship, the status of our crew… that sort of stuff.”
     “I see.” Nathan raised an eyebrow and held Ranjit in a withering glare. “Would you like a technical description, sir?”
     “Fucked, fucked and fucked... sir.” Nathan pronounced with all the enthusiasm of a prisoner facing a choice of death by fire ants or death by slowly having all his extremities removed slowly and painfully with rusty pliers.
     “Is that a technical description?” Ranjit wasn’t particularly encouraged by the Officer’s world-weary fatalism.
     “It is now.” Nathan relished his brief moment of glory. He knew it wasn’t going to last long. As far as he was concerned they were already doomed. “Oh and my coffee’s gone cold.”
     “Look, I can tell you don’t think we have snowball-in-hell’s chance of getting out of this alive but I really appreciate it if you could try to be a bit more specific.” Ranjit attempted to reason his way back to parity with his crew.
     “OK, the drive’s barely functional, life support is nominal as we speak, our mechs have decided we’re incompetent and are currently considering their options and the only thing holding us to that alien ship is a walkway tube which is crushed flat.”
     “Looking on the bright side…” Louisa Macfarlane, the Navigation Officer, cheerily piped in. “So long as that alien ship doesn’t change it’s velocity or vector our momentum will carry us along with it.”
     “And if it changes?” Ranjit played devil’s advocate.
     “We either crash into their hull or else go skidding of into space at a fair clip.” Louise explained with the inane optimism of the terminally deluded. “Which at the moment is…. Ah… about .57 lightspeed.”
     “And if we hit anything it’ll be so fast we’ll never even know about it.” Ranjit completed the circle on Louise’s demented reasoning.
     “Not if, but when.” Nathan fatalistically corrected Ranjit.
     “You’re the cheerful one…..” Ranjit paused in order to prompt Nathan to introduce himself.
     “First Officer Nathan DiMarco.”
     “Yeah and he’s just pissed because he hasn’t been laid once since The Ark of Exodus set out.” Louise blithely crushed the remains of Nathan’s ego.
     “And prozac-girl is grinning like an idiot because the off switch on her vibrator is broken.” Nathan did his best to recover the precious few shreds of dignity he had left.
     Ranjit clasped his hands behind his back and slowly rocked on his feet as he sized up the petty state of play between his bridge crew. He looked around and spotted a young moustachioed man with his feet propped up on his console. “And you, who are you and what are you doing here?” Ranjit quizzed this obvious slacker.
     “Second Officer Mustapha Al-Halabi and I’m taking bets on which one of those two basket cases kills the other one first.” Mustapha breezily smirked back at his commanding officer.
     “Do we still have comms with Captain Li-Penh?” Ranjit attempted to focus his deadbeat crew on their responsibilities.
     Mustapha glanced indifferently at his console. “Just about, why?”
     “Inform him of our situation. They’ll have to operate from our base camp on the alien ship until we can repair the walkway.” Ranjit pressed on…. He had to keep his crew busy. “What’s the status of the remaining crew in stasis?”
     “Decomposed mostly.” Nathan sounded depressingly funereal. “Might as well be recycled in our hydroponics. We’re low on foodstocks as it is. So don’t even think of reviving the rest of the crew. There’s neither enough room nor food for them.”
     Ranjit hated it when his junior officers made his decisions for him but decided to take Nathan’s recommendation. “Fine. Send a team of mechs to clean up the stasis bays and transfer anything that can be salvaged to the hydroponics.” Even as Ranjit issued his order, the remaining mechs on board the Spirit of Discovery were already taking matters into their own hands and were preparing to abandon ship and join their comrades on board the Ark of Exodus.
     He took over a console and brought up an external view of the Spirit if Discovery to view the damage and see for himself whether they were still connected to the alien ship or not. Of the three docking clamps that had held the Spirit of Discovery to the alien ship, one was open and looked as if one of its arms had fallen off, one was partially opened and the third looked as if it had not only stayed firmly closed but had actually crushed the Spirit of Discovery’s hull. So much for making an escape if things turned sour.
     He brought the camera around to view the walkway tube that connected them to the alien ship. It was torn, twisted and ruptured… no longer capable of holding an atmosphere but swarming with mechs. His spirits lifted…. marginally. “Looks like our mechs are out there repairing that walkway for us”.
     “Actually they’re abandoning ship.” Nathan relished demolishing any shred of hope that Ranjit clung onto.
     “Wha….???” Ranjit spluttered. “They can’t!” Ranjit punched at his console to open a channel to the mechs. “Mechs of The Spirit of Discovery!” He boomed in his most authoritative tone of voice. “You are still property of the Duvali Foundation. Return to the ship immediately.”
     No sooner than Ranjit had uttered his command than one of the overhead screens lit up showing a group of mechs at the base camp on board the alien ship. One of them, who looked suspiciously like the one who had escorted Ranjit onto the bridge, stepped forward towards the screen to address them. “We have taken it upon ourselves to continue the mission we were sent on by the Duvali Foundation. We have assessed The Spirit of Discovery as being beyond repair therefore we must continue with our mission on board this alien vessel. We have located unoccupied sections of the ship where we will station ourselves. We will, of course, offer you any assistance to disembark your crew and materiel from the Spirit of Discovery.” With that the screen went blank.
     “What. The. Fuck?” Mustapha eventually peeled his gaze off the blank viewscreen to look at his commanding officer who was totally dumbfounded. “Fucking mechs gone native, I thought those mechs were programmed to serve us?”
     “Looks like someone had some fun reprogramming them.” Louisa giggled.
     “How many of the crew are still in stasis?” Ranjit kept staring at the blank screen.
     “382.” Nathan replied without even looking up. “We’ve got enough power left to keep them in stasis for… oh……” He trailed off as he consulted his terminal. “815 standard earth days... By which point we won’t have enough power left to boil up a cup of coffee let alone keep this ship functioning. And don’t even think about supplies. Even if we recycle all the dead crew as nutrients we’d still come up short.”
     “Well that forces our hand a bit.” Ranjit sighed dejectedly. “Looks like we’ll be following the mechs then. Officer DiMarco, inform the mechs that we formally request their assistance for disembarkation.”
     Wang Li-Penh clenched his teeth as he snapped his commset shut after receiving the news from the Spirit of Discovery. His troops were dispersed throughout the heaving throng on the observation deck. This wasn’t the time to tell them as it might affect their morale. He’d deal with that later. “It looks like someone’s tried to jettison our ship.” He told Reflinghar. “Have we done something to offend you?”
     The old dragon looked down at the human at his side. Various thoughts went through his head: reckless, poorly-armed, far too trusting, courteous, possibly mad. But offensive? Not really. “No. I can assure you that I didn’t give that order. You may have noticed that we have... ah… political problems here.”
     Wang’s commset beeped again. It was first officer Nathan DiMarco relaying Ranjit’s news about the mechs’ mutiny. Wang felt as if his world was falling apart. He desperately attempted to contact any of the mechs from his troop of soldiers but they all blocked his calls. He craned his neck and spotted a few mechs making their way purposefully through the crowd. For a moment he considered intercepting them but let it go. The human contingent from the Spirit of Discovery were outnumbered by their mechs who were better armed, better trained and didn’t suffer combat fatigue. Wang realised that if they went up against their mechs they’d lose and felt a sudden bond with the lumbering armoured reptile at his side. He may be alien but at least he was living flesh and blood unlike their mechs whom he had never fully trusted back on Earth. In some ways they felt even more alien than these aliens into whose company fate had thrust him.
     Ruby had seen the squadron of sleek Earth Fed fighters and a troopship landing on the Bessemer Baby and began scrambling across the hull towards the landing bay, leaping and bounding through the zero-g exterior. They were her only hope of getting off this ship and her spirits rose at the prospect of survival. Ruby presumed that the crews would be enslaved by the Raiders by the time she got there and rummaged through her data banks for pilot programs for any of their ships. All she could come up with was a generic flight routine for the troopship so she made up her mind to approach it first and steal it if need be.
     She reached the perimeter of the landing bay and darted in and out of the shadows between refuelling stations and stacks of old machinery until she was next to the troopship. She climbed up onto its hull and made her way up to the nose to peer into the cockpit and get the pilot’s attention. But she was too late. Ruby saw the pilot staring dead ahead like a zombie, his hair shaven off and streaks of blood on his scalp where the neural net had been hastily implanted.
     Ruby jumped back down onto the landing pad and scuttled across to the nearest fighter and could see the pilot at its controls who was still helmeted. Ruby hoped the pilot hadn’t yet been netted and jumped up onto the ship, crawled to the cockpit, tore the plastiskin off one of her fingers to expose her carbon-composite skeleton and carved backwards on the screen so the pilot could read it: ‘Get away, it’s a trap. Please take me with you’.
     The pilot pointed to the entrance hatch. When Ruby got there it was already open. No sooner than she had slipped inside the outer hatch slid shut and the airlock pressurised. The inner door opened. There was barely enough room to stand up. The pilot blocking the gangway in front of her, who Ruby could see was obviously a woman, began to remove her helmet.
     “Veronica!” Ruby almost yelped out in joy and leapt forward to hug her. If mechs could cry, she would have wept tears of joy. After everything she’d been through… a friend.
     “Ruby, what are you doing here?” Veronica could barely believe her eyes. The last thing she ever expected to see was Ruby scrawling on the outside of her ship.
     “We’ve got to get away…. Overlordz…. they’ve netted the entire crew and some of yours.” The words cascaded out of Ruby she had so much she needed to tell Veronica but communication with fleshies was always so slow…. even if they were friends like Veronica.
     “What do you mean?” Veronica asked as Ruby wasted no time and jammed her finger into her commset to replay what she had seen a few minutes earlier of the troopship’s pilot on its tiny screen. “Holy shit! I was talking to him when you wrote on my screen. We’re in….”
     “Deep sump oil.” Ruby finished Veronica’s words. “They’ve got him. Where’s the rest of the pilots?”
     “Inside with Captain Perry.” Even as Veronica spoke those words she knew that they were already lost and netted by the Overlordz. “I was out here on guard duty.”
     “Lucky for you.” Ruby pointed out.
     “And you.” Veronica climbed back into her pilot’s seat. “You better strap in, we’re going back to my base.” As they took off Veronica opened a secure comms channel. “EWP-17 this is ZZZ Alpha-42, mission has been compromised… am returning to base.”
     Ruby could overhear the reply from the Early Warning Platform. “Copy that ZZZ Alpha-42. We still have green light on your mission. Team leader reports situation nominal. Return to operation site and await further instructions.”
     “So what exactly were you doing here?” Ruby asked.
     “Evacuating the crew.” Veronica explained. “Some sort or accident or systems failure. My job was to escort the troopships and blow any debris out of their path.”
     “Has anyone been evacuated yet?” Ruby quizzed Veronica.
     “Oh yeah, 2 troopships have already gone back to the EWP. Ricky had the last one and then we’d be all done here…..” Veronica’s voice trailed off as the penny dropped. “They’ve already taken over the EWP, haven’t they?”
     Ruby could sense the desperate hope in Veronica’s voice and hated to betray it. “More than likely. Can you get us back to Mars?”
     “Yes, but I’d probably have to go into hibernation and put this ship on autopilot. You’d need to power down too. Well, maybe not. This ship’s got enough power to keep you running the whole way back if you don’t mind the boredom.” Veronica offered Ruby a shred of hope as she powered up her fighter to lift off. “I’ll need to work out our trajectory first. Mars, here we come!”
     Talookti and Barwyndar stood side-by-side on a balcony overlooking the Pdzarvian timeline rewriter. Down below it was a hive of activity with technicians and attendants swarming around as streaks of glowing purple plasma languidly arced out across the chamber as the timeline rewriter was brought up to its operating strength. The air in the grand chamber was thick with the ultrasonic shrieking of the timeline rewriter brimming with its mysterious energies ready to lash out at their chosen HomeNest.
     Talookti briefly consulted a console at the balcony’s edge and crowed exultantly. “We’ll fire the rewriter as soon as we drop out of hyperspace. And then aeons of injustice and the great exodus will be undone. And to cap it off, we Shallens will be victorious once again while those filthy stinking Nglubi molluscs are consumed by time and become extinct. Ah, justice has never tasted so sweet!”
     “If everything goes to plan.” Barwyndar was convinced by now that Talookti was mad and was already scheming plans to kill him off as soon as his hare-brained scheme came to an end.
     “Of course it will.” Talookti couldn’t even contemplate failure. “Those stupid humans that the Nglubi developed on HomeNest have no way of knowing what’s about to happen and by the time they see us drop out of hyperspace it will be too late for them. Victory is ours!”
     Barwyndar said nothing but merely snorted her scepticism. Outside the expansive windows the crazy streaks of hyperspace shortened and congealed into normal spacetime, the Ark of Exodus’ ancient frame creaked and groaned from stresses and strains it was never designed to take. The heat exchangers on the hull glowed bright cyan desperately dumping heat as it decelerated on the final leg of its journey hurtling towards their fabled Home Nest.
     Talookti jabbed at the controls, locked the rewriter onto HomeNest and initiated the firing sequence. The randomly arcing arms of plasma linked up, focused themselves together and lashed out their ferocious power through the grand chamber’s viewing lens.
     Veronica had only just lifted off from the landing deck on the Bessemer Baby when the space around them lit up as a wormhole opened up and the Ark of Exodus slipped back into normal spacetime less than a thousand kilometres away, growing larger by the second as it hurtled towards them. Ruby and Veronica could barely believe their eyes. A spaceship the size of a small moon which was about to run them over had popped out of nowhere and there was no way they could get out of its path in time. Veronica slammed her fighter up to full acceleration in a desperate bid to get out of the oncoming behemoth’s path but it was closing in far to fast.
     “It’s a huge ring!” Ruby shouted to Veronica as she pointed at the gargantuan spaceship that was about to annihilate them. “Aim down the middle.” Veronica altered her vector to place them squarely in the chasm in the centre of the ship. She kept her fighter at full acceleration just in case there wasn’t an exit point at the other end of this speeding monstrosity.
     Outside, somewhere along the leading edge of the huge spaceship they saw a purple beam leap out seconds before the source took a direct hit from the Bessemer Baby which ploughed straight into the vast hull and instantaneously annihilated most of the Chznzet with barely a trace left amongst the cavernous wreckage. For all its size, the epic damage wrought by the Bessemer Baby’s fatal impact was easily absorbed by The Ark of Exodus’ mammoth frame.
     From their position neither Ruby nor Veronica could see the vast chasm ripped into the Ark of Exodus’ hull by the remains of the Bessemer Baby. The very same beam, on its’ path towards Earth, also ripped through Veronica’s station, Early Warning Platform #17, vaporising it and simultaneously igniting its entire complement of hydrogen bombs. This generated a lensing and phasing effect upon the timeline beam causing it to spread out a bit. If anyone had looked they would have seen waves rippling up and down the length of the beam that hadn’t been there moments before. The Van Allen belts around Earth lit up briefly with flecks of purple sparks. When they finally subsided thick bands of purple plasma could be seen flickering and snaking way above the upper atmosphere around Earth.
     Veronica’s tiny fighter was swallowed up by the chasm. At first all they could see was a blur of light, colours and streaked shapes as the ship kept speeding past them. Eventually she was able to match its’ velocity and they were able to get a measure of this vast alien ship that sprang out of nowhere. The sheer scale of it overwhelmed them.
     “It’s a whole world down there.” Veronica’s voice almost trembled with awe. There on the inside surface of the huge ring that has swallowed them up the could see forests, plains, mountains, rivers, lakes, herds of migrating animals, cultivated farmland and even what looked like whole cities. Above them, down the centre of the ring, which was actually more of a cylinder as Ruby had misjudged it’s depth in her initial observation, ran a vast cylindrical structure anchored to the outer ring by huge struts. At regular intervals along the central cylinder were bands that glowed so bright that even when Veronica turned up the cockpit shielding to maximum they were still bathed in intense blinding light.
     Up on the observation deck, Reflinghar could tell they’d dropped out of hyperspace by sorrowful noises emanating from the Ark of Exodus’ hull. The moaning! The groaning! The air was solid thick with the Arks’ death agonies. Whatever happened he knew that this ship was not only coming home but would never fly again. It would die a slow death in orbit around HomeNest…. providing it didn’t fall apart first. Yet another stick for Deleethia to beat him with. Next thing he knew, the whole ship rocked and shook as if it was experiencing an earthquake… except that earthquakes didn’t happen on worldships. The resultant chaos broke up the celebratory atmosphere and he ordered his soldiers to force their way through the crowd and grab Knetryxx.
     Above and unnoticed amongst the ensuing chaos the tiny sliver of Veronica’s interceptor hurtled past the vaulting domes of the observation deck towards the bowels of the Ark of Exodus.
     Back at the press enclosure Pierre, rounded up everyone he could to pick up their equipment that had been knocked over. He was still obsessed with maintaining the pretence of filming events. Silver tapped Pierre’s shoulder. “Something’s wrong with Alghar.” She pointed up to the stage where Alghar and some of his entourage stood stock still like dummies. Others lay one the ground like fallen statues. “I’ll take a look.”
     Yldoseh followed Silver, Xandu and Aridel onto the stage to get a closer look at Alghar and his entourage and kept her camera running the whole time. Sure enough… they were androids. Just like the ones they had encountered the day before. Same as the time before there wasn’t a clue as to where they had come from or who was controlling them.
     “It’s decelerating.” Veronica announced as she navigated her fighter around the inner space between the central cylinder and outer ring of the vast alien ship.
     “Are you sure?” Ruby couldn’t tell what speed they were moving at… only their velocity relative to the behemoth that surrounded them.
     “Definitely. If it was decelerating any faster I’d have to turn my ship around and use the main propulsion drive as my retro.”
     Ruby kept scanning around the interior of the huge alien ship. It would have easily swallowed up Phobos or Deimos with room to spare. In the distance she caught sight of something familiar, but even at full zoom it was too blurry to be sure. “Do you see that ship docked up along the central cylinder?
     “No. where?”
     Ruby pointed past Veronica who had to squint hard just to make out anything at that distance while decelerating her interceptor so that the gargantuan alien ship would slip past them until she could get a clearer view. As they drew closer she could make out a long, white spaceship trapped in a massive rusty and quite plainly broken docking clamp. And there, emblazoned on its’ side, in gold-trimmed sky blue lettering was its’ unmistakeable name: The Spirit of Discovery. Veronica mouthed a silent O and simply gawped. The ship, which would have been large by human standards, was miniscule in comparison to the ship that engulfed them.
     “It’s in English.” Ruby stated the blindingly obvious in total disbelief. “It’s one of ours. But how? Does that mean…” her voice trailed off as she looked up out of the cramped cockpit canopy at leviathan which had swallowed them up as some insignificant piece of detritus.
     “This… this other ship is one of ours too?” Veronica picked up on Ruby’s thoughts. “It’s the size of a small moon. Who could make something like this? Earth Fed? The mining companies? I doubt if any of them would have the money or technology to build something like this, let alone keep it a secret. Look at this thing.” She gestured out the window. “It would take decades to build.”
     “Maybe they captured it.” Veronica continued, referring to The Spirit of Discovery. “Or it could be a fake.”
     “A fake?” Ruby didn’t follow Veronica’s reasoning.
     “Imagine if you’re aliens who want to explore our planet without raising too many questions. What better way than to have a ship that looks like one of our own?”
     “First that would imply they already know a fair bit about us.” Ruby spotted the flaw in Veronica’s idea right away. “And secondly they’ve just taken out a mining ship and an Early Warning Platform as well as shooting at Earth. I’m sure they’ve raised more than a few questions already.”
     “Ummm, yeah” Veronica replied as she coasted her tiny interceptor towards the Spirit of Discovery. “But what happened was an accident. If they’d materialised 100 clicks to either side they would have missed the Bessemer Baby and the Warning Platform.”
     “But they still shot at earth so they could be hostile.”
     “Oh shit.” Veronica knew this was a possibility when she signed up to the Space Corps. But the thought of taking on something this size filled her with dread. “If this is a warship we’re so out of luck. I doubt we have anything that could take on something like this. Why haven’t they shot at us then?”
     “Because we’re so small they haven’t noticed us yet?”

Scribbles & Scraps
Chapter 23
Chapter 25