Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 25: First Contact.

     “Sir, I think you should see this.” Second Officer Mustapha Al-Halabi addressed Ranjit with a professional seriousness that worried Ranjit even more than his crew’s earlier nihilism. Nathan and Louisa stayed at their posts but looked over as Ranjit made his way over to Mustapha’s viewscreen.
     “There’s an unattached vessel about 1500 metres away heading towards us.” Mustapha zoomed in on Veronica’s interceptor. “It’s got Earth Fed markings but nothing that I recognise.”
     “Shields up!” Ranjit ordered reflexively.
     Nathan fiddled around vainly with his console before breaking the bad news. “We’re out of luck Sir. The pulse phase generators were burnt out in the ion storm.”
     “Oh well.” Ranjit sighed resignedly as he rocked back on his feet. “Let’s hope it’s not hostile.”
     “We’re home!” Louisa squeaked oblivious to Ranjit’s gloom.
     “Wow, I never thought we’d make it back.” A new hope welled up in Nathan’s voice banishing his previous fatalistic cynicism to a distant memory.
     “See if you can raise comms.” Ranjit ordered.
     “Yes sir.” Louisa replied with a new-found sense of purpose.
     “DiMarco, scan that ship. Get a lock on it and see if you can get a positive ident.” Ranjit snapped his order with the crispness that comes from years of battlefield experience.
     “Sir, they’re not connecting to our comms net.” Louisa sounded perturbed. “Maybe our systems are damaged.”
     “They could be, MacFarlane.” At this point of time Ranjit could accept just about anything given what they and their ship had been through. “Keep trying. DiMarco, anything on that ship yet?”
     “It’s powered up and flying towards us using what seems to be some sort of fusion drive... technology that was abandoned as obsolete before our time.” Nathan was genuinely puzzled as to why anyone would want to use such antiquated technology. “There are multiple shielded radiation sources which may be weapons of some sort but nothing that I recognise.”
     “That’s because it’s a K-class interceptor. It must be at least 200 years old.” Mustapha was almost dumbstruck by the realisation.
     “How can you tell?” Nathan shot back before Ranjit even opened his mouth.
     “Remember the ‘Sands of Mars’ vids? That’s the exact same type right out there.” Mustapha found it so incredible that he was beginning to think that he’d died and that this was some sort of bizarre afterlife experience.
     “Oh, so you base it on some low-rent adventure film?” Nathan shot back sarcastically. “Come on man, this isn’t party time, at least use the reference tables in the core’s library.”
     “OK, OK, whatever.” Mustapha threw up his arms in mock surrender. “Those vids were historically accurate. And we are looking at a K-class interceptor. I’ll swear to it on a stack of Qurans stretching from here to Mecca and back if you want. Don’t ask me how it got here.”
     “Fine.” Ranjit broke into their argument. “Assuming this ship is what you claim it is, what can you tell us about it?”
     “Single-seat fighter, fusion impulse drive. Armaments vary: anything from maser canon to nuclear-tipped missiles. Fast and very manoeuvrable but hampered by a short range and a vulnerable blind spot above and behind the pilot. Later versions had auto-locking weapons systems that improved their combat survival rate. They were known among pilots as ‘Flying Coffins’, ‘Death Buckets’ and ‘Deuterium Deathbeds’ amongst other unflattering names. In later years they were used as shock attack fighters rather than combat fighters before being scrapped and replaced with the L-series which was the first to feature any sort of defensive shielding. Does that help?” Mustapha smarmily relished his moment of uber-geekdom.
     Ranjit hummed for a moment. “Can you tell us anything specific about this one?”
     “Well, if First Officer DiMarco is correct about the multiple radiation sources that would imply that is carrying nuclear missiles.” Mustapha zoomed in closer on Veronica’s interceptor which, by now, was 200 metres away and drifting lazily towards them. “I would presume it’s also got some maser canon armament. That was standard stuff back then.”
     “So why would anyone want to fly an old junk heap like that…?” Ranjit couldn’t make sense of it unless Pierre Dupont’s ridiculous notion that they’d somehow been transported back in time. No, it had to be something more prosaic. Time travel, what nonsense! More likely a patrol from one of the colonies or possibly even pirates. Whatever it was, they were dirt-poor and desperate enough to fly around in antiques.
     A burst of static voice with a faint voice flooded into the flight deck ripping Ranjit’s train of thought to pieces… “…acknowledge please… …of Discovery… …acknowledge please…”
     “MacFarlane, get a lock on that signal.” Ranjit ordered.
     “Yes sir.” Louisa struggled with her controls to get a fix on it but it wasn’t easy. The Spirit of Discovery used digital comms and this was an analogue signal, something that was well and truly obsolete.
     “This is Earth Fed EWP-17 Squadron interceptor Alpha-42. Please identify…” The voice, now identifiably female, struggled through the rush of static.
     “Comms please, MacFarlane.” Ranjit requested. Louisa activated the flight deck microphones for Ranjit.
     “This is the Duvali Foundation Spirit of Discovery.” Ranjit replied in his best authoritative tone-of-command.
     “Acknowledged.” Veronica tersely replied and then cut her transmission so she could talk to Ruby. “You ever heard of the Duvali Foundation?”
     “Yeah.” Ruby wistfully thought back to her times with SkyHawk. ”They had a place in Huygensville and SkyHawk was involved with them. Not in a big way, thank goodness. I managed to get him away from them.”
     Veronica didn’t like the sounds of that. “Bad?”
     “More weird than bad.” Ruby had a moment of doubt and then decided to tell Ruby. “They’re a cult heavily into genetic and cybernetic body modification. They knew about SkyHawk and had almost talked him into having cybernetic implants to help him remember his mission to Titan. Earth Fed considered that knowledge to be theirs so I had to extricate him from their influence.”
     “Could they have built something like that?” Veronica pointed out to the Spirit of Discovery.
     “Not from what I saw.” Ruby hummed sceptically before continuing. “They had a lot of way out expensive cutting-edge tech for their body mods but not much else. They didn’t strike me as being rich enough or even interested in building spaceships. They were more into spiritual exploration rather than physical exploration. I mean, their place in Huygensville was pretty shabby. They had other chapters on Mars and Earth but I don’t think they were much different.”
     “Some of them must have been sitting on a mountain of gold to build that ship, never mind the other one…” Veronica’s voice trailed off as she craned her neck to look up out of her cockpit at the alien worldship which surrounded them. “Here goes…” Veronica muttered as she switched on her microphone. “Request permission to board.”
     “Copy that.” A male voice replied from The Spirit of Discovery. “Will consider your request.”
     Ranjit signalled to Louisa to cut the transmission. “What’s the state of our launch pods, DiMarco?” In spite of being dwarfed by the Ark of Exodus, The Spirit of Discovery was a large ship though significantly smaller than the Bessemer Baby. It was equipped with a squadron of the latest fighters nestling in launch pods set into its hull and a short runway and landing pad where they would return after their missions.
     “Functional sir but currently unmanned.” Nathan replied. “If you’re thinking of bringing them in at the landing pad they’ll have to go in manually. We’re unable to interface with their avionics so I can’t guide them from here.”
     Ranjit groaned. Something else going wrong. It just wasn’t his day. “They’re bound to get lost or crash into something. DiMarco, talk them through it. We’ve had enough disasters for one day. Al-Halabi, round up a team and go down to meet these people. Bring them to my office.”
     Veronica eased her interceptor away from The Spirit of Discovery and nudged it along the hull following Nathan’s directions.
     “Are you sure this is a good idea?” Ruby already had enough close scrapes with death and just wanted to get back to Mars alive.
     “Can you interface with my ship’s comms?” Veronica ignored Ruby’s concerns.
     “Yes, why?”
     “Good. Do it and I’ll wear a transponder headset so we’ll be wired for sound and video from you.” Veronica began to explain her plan as she opened a channel to the Earth Fed Space Force headquarters on Mars. Her spirits rose when she saw the lights on her console light up to indicate the link was live.
     “This is EWP 17 Interceptor Alpha-42. I have contact with the intruder. Does not appear to be hostile.” Which as true as far as Veronica knew. She hadn’t witnessed the destruction of her base on the Early Warning Platform. “Am not under fire. There appear to be a human crew on board. Not Overlordz. Repeat… not Overlordz. They claim to be with the Duvali Foundation. Am going in to investigate. Downloading flight logs now and will maintain live feed and comms link.”
     “Copy that, Alpha-42.” A slightly distorted voice replied. “We have your position and reinforcements are on their way.”
     “How long?”
     “Three days.” The voice replied.
     “We can coast back to base.” Veronica replied stoically.
     “Negative that, Alpha-42. You are assigned to the carrier Odysseus and will travel back with them.”
     “Yes, sir.” Veronica dumbly saluted the inside of her windscreen.
     “Thank you, Alpha-42. We’re examining your logs now and have your live feed. You may proceed.” No sooner than the Space Force officer signed off, Nathan’s voice broke into the cockpit with more directions to guide Veronica to the landing pad. She activated the magnetic clamps as soon as they touched down.
     “I thought mechs didn’t need pressure suits.” Veronica asked Ruby as she reached for her helmet.
     “No, but they keep us from overheating and it’s already saved my life once today.”
     Veronica didn’t know what to say to that but decided that Ruby knew what was best for her. “How are you at shooting?”
     “Not as good as I used to be and I no longer have internal weaponry if that’s what you mean.”
     Veronica opened a locker and took out two holsters with laser pistols and handed one to Ruby. “Take that, we may need them. It’s preloaded with combat marksmanship software if you need it.”
     “Oh.” Ruby replied in a small voice as she took the holster and clipped it around her waist and loaded up the familiar combat software. It was a short walk from their ship to the airlock on The Spirit of Discovery yet their anxiety made it feel like an eternity. They were truly stepping out into the unknown.
     The inner airlock opened to reveal a clean, well-lit ready room where five junior officers in light beige overalls were waiting for them. Three were armed but at ease. They seemed more curious than anything else.
     Mustapha Al-Halabi stepped forward to greet them as Veronica removed her helmet and shook out her hair. “Welcome aboard The Spirit of Discovery. This way, please.” He gestured with an open hand to a doorway and led them down a series of passageways and elevators towards Ranjit’s office where he was waiting for them. Veronica noticed that some parts of the ship were cold, some were in poor condition and that in many places the lighting didn’t seem to work or flickered badly. There was a faint smell of decay in the air. Ruby was busy mapping the ship as they followed the crew and making notes of any control panels the crew accessed to open doors along the way. She couldn’t help but notice how ordinary the crew looked compared to the Duvali Foundation acolytes she’d known back in Huygensville and wondered why there weren’t any mechs on the ship.
     Mustapha ushered them into Ranjit’s office. “Pleased to meet you.” Ranjit held out his hand to Veronica. “I’m Major Ranjit Ghihk of The Spirit of Discovery.” After the introductions, Ranjit gave them a potted history of the Spirit of Discovery’s journey and how they ended up tethered to the Shallen’s worldship. All the while Veronica was also receiving a running commentary from the Space Force HQ on Mars in her headset earpiece.
     Just as Ranjit was wrapping up his short speech Veronica got a message in her earpiece: “No known vessel of that name or description registered to the Duvali Foundation. Check their credentials”
     “So when did you leave Earth?” Veronica asked politely not wanting to appear uncivil. After all, by Ranjit’s accounts they had been on quite an adventure and were lucky to be alive.
     “The 21st of March 2179. A great day for mankind.” Ranjit replied proudly. Although Ranjit, Wang and many of the soldiers with The Spirit of Discovery were hired ex-military professionals, chosen more for their military prowess than their belief in the principles of the Duvali Foundation, he felt proud to be at the forefront of human exploration. That was what drew him to this mission. Well, that and the fact that his lover, Wang, had already signed up.
     “Come again?” Veronica almost did a double take.
     “The 21st of March 2179, why is there a problem?” He looked perplexed. “We’ve been away for over 160 years. It should be 2342 by now. Look at the date on our chronometers.” Ranjit confidently pointed to an ornamental wall clock.
     “Yes.” Even though she could see the date on the wall clock, Veronica was suspecting that Ranjit and his crew might be alien clones who got a few details in their story very wrong. But how? And why?
     Ruby had been quietly following the conversation not wanting to get in Veronica’s way. Maybe the time difference was why she was unable to interface with the Spirit of Discovery’s network and AI system. She’d try again later. At the moment her attention was on the events happening around her and the running commentary coming back from Mars.
     “So when did this ship arrive?” Veronica quizzed Ranjit.
     “Why, just now.” Ranjit couldn’t see what Veronica was getting at.
     “No, what year?” Veronica clarified the question.
     “2342 of course.” Ranjit felt the question was inane.
     “That’s… oh… 217 years from now.” Veronica could barely believe what she was saying. “It’s 2125. I think you’ve got some explaining to do.”
     Ranjit was flabbergasted. He didn’t know what to say. “I can assure you, Miss Saunders, that we launched on the 21st of March 2179. I work for the Duvali Foundation who commissioned this ship. It was built at the Imbrium orbital shipyards off Luna by Amalgamated Avionics.”
     A squad of Reflinghar’s soldiers who had muscled their way in under Knetryxx’s victory walk during the chaos on the observation deck lowered her to the ground in front of Morgau, Reflinghar and Wang. Knetryxx could barely believer her eyes! After all this time and how Morgau looked so awkward in his armour. She threw her arms around him knocking his lance out of his paws and hugged him tight. “Oh… It’s been so long.” Tears of joy rolled down her cheeks as all the memories of Alghar, Doctor Ghrawkli and her weird dreams faded away. She surreptitiously hooked the tip of her tail around one of Morgau’s ankles.
     Reflinghar ordered the soldiers to guard Knetryxx and Morgau and to escort them back to her quarters in her own time. As for the Chznzet, he’d deal with them later. After everything that had happened, he felt like throwing them all out into space: dead or alive. His eyes lingered briefly on Knetryxx and Morgau lost in the bliss of their lover’s embrace before turning to Wang: “Ah, young love, a heart-warming sight. Come; let’s give them a bit of privacy.” He motioned to Wang to walk alongside him across the observation deck.
     “Will they be all right?” Wang asked cautiously.
     “Oh yes.” Reflinghar waved casually back towards Knetryxx and Morgau. “It’s her ship.” Once they were well out of earshot Reflinghar turned to business. “I would prefer it if your troops do not engage in any independent military action while aboard The Ark of Exodus. I do appreciate your assistance so far. But you must understand that these are matters of our own internal politics and if you were to become too involved it would complicate matters immensely. For us and for you. If you find yourselves forced into defensive action against any rogue elements you may defend yourselves but I must insist that you contact the Ships’ Guard immediately to resolve such matters. They are very well-trained and under my personal orders to assist you should you need it.”
     “Yes, yes, of course.” It wasn’t as if Wang was in a position to argue. The Shallens were generous enough to share their ship and resources as well as bringing them back to Earth.
     “We are almost at your home planet. Then it will be our turn to ask you for a favour.”
     “How so?” Wang was intrigued. The Shallens technology seemed far in advance of his own. No doubt Earth Fed would leap at the chance to acquire their propulsion technology.
     “Many reasons. Some will require careful explanation. But our first concern is The Ark of Exodus. It is ancient.” Reflinghar looked up and gestured at the vast ship around them. “So old that its’ origins are lost in our mythology and has been rebuilt countless times. It is also in very poor condition and needs extensive repairs. We were in the process of rebuilding it at Vermthellyn when it was hijacked for this journey. You may have noticed that we did not travel through normal space on our journey. This ship was never built for such travel. It was only built for sub-light travel. And slowly at that. I fear this journey may be its’ last.”
     “What will you do?” Wang was still in awe of the Shallens’ mammoth worldship. It seemed like a self-sustaining world in its own right.
     “Most will stay here as long as it can sustain life. But eventually they will migrate to some of our other worldships unless it can be rebuilt. I will go back to Vermthellyn.” Reflinghar sighed resignedly. Now that the Ark of Exodus was stuck at HomeNest he would have to renegotiate the terms of their settlement with the Rtuntli as their colony on Vermthellyn had just become a lot more permanent than any Shallen had anticipated. It would be a tough sell as the Rtuntli tended to discourage off worlders from settling permanently on their world. And that was for individuals! He’d be negotiating on behalf of an entire community. “Some might go to Cervetica although I have my doubts now. Some might want to settle on your world. It’s too early to tell. First we need to assess the damage before we make any plans. And that could take a few cycles in itself.”
     “Cycles of the seasons. Supposedly based on the seasons of HomeNest.” Reflinghar alluded to the Chznzet myth of HomeNest and how it was actually the same planet as the Humans’ home planet, Earth.
     Clem, Barney and Clarissa slipped into the Wobbly Goblin during their lunch break from their work portering in the market to watch highlights from last night’s Slamball tournament between the City One Slammers and the Coriolis Cyclones on the pub’s video wall. Instead there was a picture of Earth hanging in space behind a group of MarsTel newscasters on the screen. “…sources on Luna can confirm that they have been able to pick up intermittent signals from Earth but that they are weak and give no clues as to the communications blackout. We go now to our reporter in Herschel.”
     The view on the screen switched immediately to rough-and-ready recycled scrapyard appearance of the Mars Independence Movement’s one and only city on Mars. It was built onto an extended warren of caves which were carved into part of the crater wall at Herschel. A clean-cut MarsTel newshound was interviewing a grizzled man whose shock of thinning wild grey hair made his face piercings stand out all the more. The camera zooms in on them and picks up their voices. The newshound turns to face the camera. “I’m here in Herschel with Julius Pitcairn, one of the lead members of the Mars Independence Movement’s central planning committee and current Mayor of Herschel. Mr. Pitcairn, it is a matter of public record that the MIM has been involved in terrorist actions in the past. You yourself spent 5 longyears in prison for your actions against City One. Can you confirm or deny rumours of MIM’s involvement in the comms blackout with Earth?”
     Julius closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath before letting it out slowly. “The Mars Independence Movement is not a terrorist organisation.” He replied with a calm, liquid sonorous voice that belied his grizzled appearance. “Our interests are the interests of all people on Mars. We categorically deny any involvement in this blackout and offer any assistance we can to help the people of Mars re-establish links with Earth.” Julius carefully avoided mentioning Earth Fed. A sore point as they’d caught his squad attempting to sabotage the air recyclers at City One during the company town uprisings. Which was how he’d ended up in jail.
     “Thank you, Julius Pitcairn. And now back to the studio.” The screen immediately switched back to the newscasters with Earth in the background. “And you can watch a special at 10 o’clock on channel 12 tonight about how Earth Fed troops bravely foiled Julius Pitcairn’s attack on City One during the 2112 disturbances.” A solidly-built baritone anchorman of indeterminate middle age announced before continuing with the day’s unfolding events. “This just in: Earth Fed and MarsTel spokespeople have confirmed that all communications installations on Mars are intact and that none have suffered any form of attack or sabotage and that all communications on Mars and Luna are working perfectly.” The anchorman turned to address a slightly-built man with an owlish expression and slicked-down hair beside him at the desk. “So that seems to rule out the MIM, Larry.”
     “Yes it does, Brian. This morning all the talk was pointing to the MIM. They certainly have the motive. There’s been some talk that Earth herself has cut off links with the rest of us. There is a strong domestic isolationist movement on Earth. But we’ve had a definite report from the United Metals office in City One that they have lost all communication with their head office on Earth.”
     The camera shifts back to the anchorman, Brian, who addresses a woman with clone-smooth features and shampoo-advert perfect hair. She could even be a mech in a plastiskin. “There’s been some talk that the anomaly might have something to with the blackout. Could you tell us a bit more about that, Fiona?”
     “Thank you, Brian.” Ms. Perfect took her cue. “The Ariadne Space Observatory at Satori picked up a massive meteoroid-sized object in the vicinity of Early Warning Platform 17 at 05:23 this morning on a trajectory for Earth. This tallies almost to the minute when communication links with Earth went down. So, naturally, the first assumption is that there is some connection although so far there’s only been wild speculation and few hard facts. The United Metals mining ship, Bessemer Baby, was also nearby at the time. Communications with both EWP 17 and the Bessemer Baby are currently down. The last reports from the Bessemer Baby indicate that it was hijacked by an Overlordz clan. Earth Fed declined to release a statement about EWP 17 at this point of time. The Space Force 3rd Fleet had been dispatched to investigate in case the Overlordz clans are behind the blackout.”
     And so they went on discussing the day’s events. Clem spotted Malcolm in the pub, his attention fixed on the video wall. Clem worked his way through the crowd of market traders, customers and roustabouts with Clarissa in tow. He was a long way from saving up enough to get her neural net removed but had mastered the use of his control unit so that she was now working as part of their team in the market. “Hey man, what’s all this about?” He jerked his thumb towards the video wall.
     “They’ve lost all contact with Earth.” Malcolm could barely believe it. Sure, he supported the MIM but he’d always presumed that Earth would be a constant presence in the background. And now even that seemed gone. He felt as if he’d wake up to find out it was just a weird dream.
     “When?” Clem picked up on the mood of unreality. It seemed to have settled on everyone in the Wobbly Goblin. Even Barney, who was normally talkative, was silently watching the video wall.
     “This morning.”
     “You sure they’re not making this up?” Clem quizzed Malcolm.
     “I’ve got relatives on Earth. I tried calling them this morning. The line’s dead. No voicemail, no call sign. Nothing.” The anxious frustration in Malcolm’s voice was transparent. “All I got was that stupid MarsTel 404 page.”
     “Bah, zose stupid mechs.” Pierre grumbled peevishly as he and Silver set about packing away the camera equipment. The observation deck was emptying out quickly. Even Reflinghar’s soldiers who had manned some of the cameras were long gone. “Why did zey have to run off now when we need zem to help shift all zis junk?”
     Just the Aridel walked up. “Duke Reflinghar rescued Knetryxx, so we’re off to see her. I hope you don’t mind.”
     “Not at all.” Pierre replied stoically. “Give our regards to your friend Knetryxx. Maybe we meet again.”
     Silver waited until Aridel was well out of earshot. “At least we’re back at Earth.”
     “True. But if what zose young Shallens told us is true, then our problems may only just be starting. And I will be blamed for bringing zem here.” Pierre pointed at himself to drive his point home.
     “Tsk, you’re such a pessimist.” Silver playfully scolded Pierre. “We made contact with more than one species of aliens and they seem to coexist with each other. I think it will work out well.”
     “I hope so.” Pierre replied glumly. All he could think of was the Chznzet mythology and how blindly determined they were to see their plans through. Plans which would have spelt the end for all of humanity.
     Wang snapped his commset shut after Ranjit signed off insisting that Wang locate that ‘freeloading Frenchie’ DuPont and get him back to the Spirit of Discovery ASAP. He looked over his platoon of human soldiers that remained with him after the mech’s mutiny. “Okay, we’ve got to locate a crewmember named Pierre DuPont and escort him back to the ship pronto.”
     “Sir?” One of the squaddies spoke up.
     “What is it, corporal?” Wang stuck to formality. He used the traditional ritual form of address as a touchstone amongst the days’ chaotic events.
     The soldier pointed across the observation deck to where Pierre and Silver were packing away their gear. “Over there, sir.”
     “Follow me! Tiger paw formation.” Wang snapped his fingers as he ordered his platoon and strode across the deck with his troops clumping noisily along behind him.
     Pierre looked up from coiling up snakes of cabling for their cameras just as Wang and his soldiers arrived. “Ah, Colonel Wang, how fortuitous too see you again!”
     “Likewise, Mr DuPont.” Wang politely but tersely recognised Pierre’s greeting. “Major Ghihk would like to see you and Ms Varmananda in person on the ship. We’ve made contact with Earth and as you’re the active crew for this shift that makes you effectively the mission commander.”
     “Zat was quick!” Pierre hadn’t expected to get back to Earth so quickly. “Bon! We have achieved our goals though not quite in the way we expected. And we bring ze proof back to Earth. But first I need to ask you a favour.” To which Wang reluctantly agreed and found himself and his troopers lugging crates of equipment across the observation deck to the shuttle terminus.
     Kkhrkht, who Pierre had earlier pressed into service as the liaison between the Spirit of Discovery’s human crew and the Shallens thanks to dzzhakh-ye’s useful translator, greeted Pierre, Silver and Wang when they arrived at their base camp with the news that the access tube to their ship was almost fully repaired.
     “How soon will we be able to board ze ship?” Pierre enquired anxiously.
     “I will find out.” Kkhrkht wandered off to find Wootjan-Oo who had been chosen by the Tech Guild to be the interpreter for the engineering crew repairing the crushed walkway and returned a few minutes later. “It is almost ready. They are testing it now.”
     After a further two and a half hours of exasperating ‘almost readies’ Pierre, Silver and Wang finally arrived in Ranjit’s office. “So you see.” Ranjit explained as he folded his hands after he and Veronica wrapped up their story. “Not only were you right about this time thing of yours but we’ve arrived back before we set out. Before any of us were born. Who’s going to believe us? As far as the people on Earth are concerned we don’t even exist.”
     “Merde.” Pierre cursed. This was one thing he really hadn’t wanted to be right about. And then it dawned on him that they had someone in their midst who had been on Mars only recently. Or at least claimed to have been. Now was the time to find out. “Can you patch me through to ze base camp from here?”
     Ranjit activated the viewscreen on his office wall and a view of the habitation deck from the comms terminal in their base camp sprung into view showing their crew organising their supplies. In the background you could see some of the Shallen engineers, both avian and reptilian, milling around as they finished their work. The duty officer at the comms terminal was sat with his back to the screen and his feet propped up on a crate.
     “Allo!” Pierre called out. “Can you get me zat insectoid alien and bring him here to Major Ghikh’s office? His name is Kkhrkht. Tell him zat I would like to see him.”
     Veronica and Ruby looked at each other speechless as the duty officer snapped to attention on the screen. The look of embarrassment on his face at being caught slacking off by his commanding officers who were both visible on his screen behind Pierre was transparent. “Yes sir, Mr DuPont, sir. Right away, sir.” A few minutes later, Kkhrkht arrived accompanied by a rather sheepish looking duty officer who was only too glad to leave when Wang ordered him back to his station as if nothing was amiss.
     “Veronica…?” Kkhrkht hadn’t expected to ever see any of his old friends from Montgomery again.
     “Kkhrkht? Jazz, is that really you?” Ruby and Veronica were astonished. Suddenly the whole universe felt as small and familiar as the lounge in the Wobbly Goblin. Ruby kept quiet. She was terrified that Earth Fed would discover her real identity and terminate her again.
     Pierre, ever the quick-witted showbiz bluffer, seized the moment where everyone else was stunned with incredulity. “So, you know each other?”
     “Yes.” Veronica and Kkhrkht almost replied as one. “We met in Montgomery. I was in my human form then.” Kkhrkht continued.
     “So you claim.” Wang must have heard every lie, fib and evasion under the sun when he and Ranjit had served together in South East Asia and wasn’t going to be taken in quite so easily. “Earth Fed has already provided us with your credentials. But what about… um… whatsisname here?”
     “Kkhrkht.” Veronica, Ranjit and Kkhrkht replied.
     “Yes, Kkhrkht.” Wang got into his stride. “Is there anyone one Mars who can vouch for you?”
     “Yes, I think so.” Kkhrkht buzzed uncertainly, unsure as to who would be safe to name. Kkhrkht didn’t want to get any of dzzhakh-ye’s friends in trouble. Who else was there? SkyHawk? No. Gregor? No. Mrs O’Neill, his landlady in Montgomery? No, because she had never seen of dzzhakh-ye’s real form. Psy? Maybe… “Psy.”
     “Who?” Wang pressed on. He wanted a real answer not vague mumblings. He caught Veronica face palming and groaning out of the corner of his eye. “Is something the matter?”
     “Not at all.” Veronica attempted to regain her composure.
     “Who is this Psy person?” Wang was beginning to feel that conversation wouldn’t work with these two and would soon have to resort to slightly more forceful interrogation.
     “P. Sirius Joventhal of SCS Command” Kkhrkht explained.
     “It’s okay.” Veronica interrupted. “We’re wired for sound and they’re getting hold of hir now.” Veronica unclipped the transceiver from her headset and set it on Ranjit’s desk. “If you can hook this into your comms system we’ll have a full video link.” Ranjit sent for Louisa Macfarlane and Nathan DiMarco who between them managed to get a rather washed-out image up on Ranjit’s viewscreen which displayed a group of tired-looking officers seated and facing the screen.
     “Thank you, Corporal Sanford.” One of the Space Corps officers addressed Veronica. “We’re in contact with Joventhal and will patch hir through as soon as shi’s ready. And to the crew of The Spirit of Discovery, welcome back home. We gather your ship is disabled. You’ll be pleased to know that our carrier ship, the Odysseus, is on its’ way out to you and will escort you into dock.” The Space Corps officer kept up the banal banter until Psy was ready.
     Eventually the image on the screen switched to a scene in what appeared to be a domestic living room. Several Earth Fed troopers in biohazard outfits could be seen milling around in the background behind Psy who was wearing a trim black suit with hir hair neatly tied back. “This better be imp…. Oh, Ronnie dahling, good to see you.” Shi air kissed into the camera. “And look who you’ve got with you, buggy boy’s come back for more.” Psy laughed into the camera before scolding Kkhrkht. “I told you that you’d only get into trouble if you came back. So what is it? Have you come back for more crystals?”
     “No it isn’t like that at all…” Kkhrkht almost began to plead with Psy before shi cut him off.
     “Yes, that’s Kkhrkht all right.” Psy spoke off-camera while shi held a hand to one ear obviously listening closely to another conversation… most likely someone at Space Corps HQ. “So what is it this time, buggy boy?” Shi asked Kkhrkht.
     “We have come here with the Shallens.” Kkhrkht answered as nondescriptly as possible almost making it sound as if they were a taxi service.
     “You. Did. What?” Psy knew the Khzchhrrrtz were a bit slow at times but this was a real show-stopper. “You told them where this planet is?”
     “No, they already knew.” Kkhrkht answered awkwardly. Dzzhakh-ye felt between a rock and a hard place. Dzzhakh, Pzeptilan and Vvezhti-Kla’s position amongst the Shallen and Rtuntli was precarious enough without falling out with an Nglubi and the Humans whose space they has just entered.
     “So you thought you’d show them the way, is that it?” Psy testily quizzed Kkhrkht. “Kkhrkht the hero bug, is it?”
     “No. I had no idea they were coming here.” Kkhrkht attempted to explain. “This ship was hijacked.”
     “It just gets better.” Psy quipped sarcastically. “How long do we have before the attack starts?”
     “This is not a warship.” Kkhrkht was getting desperate. “It is a worldship. It does not have the capabilities.”
     “So says Kkhrkht, the Khzchhrrrtz xenopologist geek who wouldn’t know one end of a plasma lance from the other. Lucky for us the navy’s sending out its’ log canoes, eh?” Psy mocked Kkhrkht’s assessment. “Do they have a gateway?”
     “Good. I’ll be there in a few hours. I want to have a word with you.” Psy ran hir fingers through hir hair and shook it out. “You really know how to ruin my day.” Shi pouted huffily as shi signed off.
     The screen returned to the same Space Corps officer who had addressed them earlier but this time with a wryly bemused expression on his face. “So, how exactly did you get here and what is this ship you’re travelling with?” Pierre, Silver, Wang and Ranjit took turns interrupting each other as they explained about their mission, how they’d set off, been damaged and ended up at Vermthellyn under the auspices of the Shallens. At which point the officer who had by now introduced himself as Major Dara O’Hanrahan asked them the obvious question: “Did you tell them where we are?”
     Silence…. Then Pierre eventually spoke up. “Yes, I did. Ze Shallens I spoke wiz appeared to already knew of Earth although zey have a different name for it.”
     A look of confused disappointment flickered across O’Hanrahan’s face. “Did it ever occur to you they might have been bluffing?”
     “No.” Pierre squirmed as he realised that the Shallens he had spoken with, whom he had later learned were Chznzet, might have tricked him.
     “Well, you’re here now. Let’s hope they’re not hostile. We wouldn’t stand a rat’s arse of a chance against something that size.”
     “I don’t think so.” Pierre felt as if this was the beginning of the inquisition that he felt he was fated to meet. “Zere were potentially hostile elements but zey have been neutralised. I have seen no evidence zat this might be a warship.”
     “You don’t say.” Major O’Hanrahan feigned blasé casualness before getting down to business. “Corporal Sanford and Pilot Sabaea, please keep your live feeds running. We’d like to see more of this ship before the fleet arrives. Oh, and one more thing, they’ll be wanting to debrief both of you about the Bessemer Baby incident when the Odysseus arrives. Good luck.”
     “Well, ladies. Would you like ze guided tour?” Pierre put on his best showbiz charm for Veronica and Ruby. Silver laughed at Pierre as they accepted his offer. “Zis way, please.” Pierre motioned genially towards the door.
     Ruby and Veronica joined in with Pierre’s light-hearted banter as he led the way out to the walkway which took them into the Ark of Exodus, oohing an ahing like hick tourists in the big city. Inside her mind Ruby was in a cold panic. ‘That O’Hanrahan guy knew my name and I never even told them. How much of me have they read without me knowing? They might even know who I really am. Would they terminate me again? This time forever? Of course they’d never tell me, otherwise I’d make a run for it. Once they got me on the Odysseus to find out about what happened to the Bessemer Baby, I’d be their prisoner and then that would be the end of me. No!’ She looked up and out from the transparent ceiling of the walkway out the vast worldship surrounding them and saw the kind face of hope looking back at her. ‘I could hide there… that gives me a bit less than 3 days to make my break. If only I could find some way to break this live feed without raising their suspicions otherwise they’ll find me wherever I go.’
     On their way to the environment deck they passed the last of the Shallen engineers who were clearing away their tools after repairing the walkway. Although the Shallens were long used to mixing with other species on their travels around the galaxy, some of them still glanced curiously at the humans now that they knew who they were: the new residents of their HomeNest. A HomeNest that would never be theirs again. Unless….
     Ruby thought briefly about approaching Kkhrkht but to do so she’d have to reveal her true identity to Kkhrkht and that would definitely give her self away to Earth Fed because she was on a live feed. Meanwhile Pierre was guiding them around the inflatable domes and bivouacs of their base camp on the environment deck breezily introducing them to the Spirit of Discovery crewmembers they passed who appeared to be quite busy. She noticed how the Humans and Shallens interacted so…. Normally. If they didn’t look so different it could have just as easily been all humans. Or Humans and Mechs. Except there weren’t any to be seen. Ranjit had explained how their Mechs had abandoned ship en masse and set off across the Ark of Exodus.
     The rest of the day was filled up with their guided tour as Pierre took them up to the Observation Deck and around a few other regions he’d visited previously before bringing them back to the base camp. Veronica peppered him all the way with questions piped up to her from the Space Corps back on Mars. Ruby built up a map as they went along knowing that she’d need that map when she made her break.
     Clem and Barney had been following the story about the comms crash with Earth from the comfort of the apartment they’d inherited from Jazz. Clarissa was parked on the sofa, staring into space and unable to join in with them. Sometimes Clem wondered if she was any longer aware of what was going on around her. It was late and the story seemed to have stalled. There was no news at all from Earth and it had reduced to little more than the same old tired commentators thrashing out the same old speculation on channel after channel. Clem was about the switch his Tri-D set off when the view suddenly changed to a scene of what looked like an encampment on the edge of semi-woodland. In the foreground he could clearly see humans and aliens. There were even two Khzchhrrrtz. He remembered what Jazz had looked like when he reverted to type. But the others were unfamiliar. Some looked vaguely birdlike and the others seemed lizardish.
     “And… oh my!” The reassuring baritone voice of the MarsTel commentator almost broke for an instant. “We have something absolutely unprecedented. This is footage that the Space Corps has just exclusively released to MarsTel. What we’re looking at now is the inside of the mysterious object that appeared this morning in the vicinity of the Asteroid Defence Ring. An advance team, led by the Space Corps and United Metals, has landed aboard the ship and is bringing us this unique footage of first contact with an alien race. This is it, folks. They are out there and we have made contact today. This is a day that will go down in history.”
     “So much for us getting the first contact scoop.” Barney griped peevishly. He’d been building up his hopes and plans on the money and publicity they’d get from the photos and video clips he’d archived from their journey to Zrrlchtz in Psy’s Omphalatta.
     “No-one believed us anyway.” Clem sympathised as he kept his eyes glued on the Tri-D display of the interior of the Ark of Exodus. “Maybe now some of those publishers you approached might get back to us.”
     “Pah! What would they want with a bunch of schmucks like us when they can get exclusive interviews with the real thing?” Barney reasoned dejectedly. “We had our chance when we got back from Zrrlchtz, and no-one wanted to know.” Just then something caught his attention on the Tri-D set. He froze the picture, rewound it, let it roll forward until he found what he was looking for and froze the picture again. “Check this out.”
     “What?” Clem was annoyed with Barney for interrupting the broadcast.
     “Look, it’s Ruby.” Barney pointed into the Tri-D display.
     “Are you sure?” Clem felt as if Barney was playing one of his tricks again.
     Barney said nothing but zoomed in on Ruby’s image and enhanced the picture resolution for Clem to get a better look.
     Clem stared at the image. There was no mistaking Ruby’s features, her dust-red plastiskin or blue hair even when only her head was visible above the opened United Metals space suit that hung slackly around her slim frame. “Well I’ll be…. But how the hell did she ever get there?”
     “I dunno.” Barney replied as he archived the image and returned to the broadcast. “Right now, she’s our only hope of credibility.”
     Clem cracked open a can of cold beer and settled down to watch the unfolding scenes on the Tri-D set with Barney. “Whoever those aliens are, they know the Khzchhrrrtz. I wonder if Jazz is there?”
     “Hardly likely, is it?” Barney scoffed at Clem’s idea. The likelihood was infinitesimal.
     “Hey, whoah….. stop the Tri-D.” Clem blurted out. Barney froze the Tri-D set’s image. “Zoom in on that woman over there.” Clem pointed in at the display with his beer can. Barney zoomed in. “Can you sharpen it up a bit?” Barney obliged. Even though the name on her uniform was blurred, her face was unmistakeable. “Recognise her?”
     “Miss cold-ass bitch herself.” Clem smirked.
     “Damn! Ladies night out.” In spite of his grousing, Barney admired them for their sheer luck and good fortune. “They get all the fun while we stay at home shovelling shit. Typical, huh?” Just then their comms terminal pinged. Barney got up and sauntered across the living room and checked its’ screen. “I’ve got mail…. Hmmmm… Braganza & Ogilvy Publishers… Dear Mr Klank, in light of the recent revelations we have decided to revise our consideration of your manuscript. Please accept our advance of 10,000 Scruples which we have deposited in your account. Should any other publishers that you may have contacted offer you an advance we will match and better their offers. Our representative will contact you shortly.” Barney stopped for a moment while it sank in and then jumped for joy. “Yes!!!! This is it!”
     “Whatcha gonna do with the money?” Clem asked cheerily.
     “Umm….. “ Barney looked around and saw Clarissa sitting stock-still on the sofa. “Get that neural net off Clarissa for starters and then we’ll all go on a holiday. How does that sound?”
     “Oh man, you’re the best friend anyone could have.” Clem hugged Barney’s unyielding metal body. “You gonna take her to that place in Coriolis?”
     “You betcha!” Barney exclaimed proudly. “”Let’s take the day off and go there tomorrow.”
     “Do you think Bob would let us?” Clem asked timidly.
     “Leave it to me.” Sure enough, within an hour of them turning up for work the next day Barney had fast-talked Bob into letting them have 2 days off and they were on their way to Coriolis riding the monorail to Huygensville before lunch.
     Psy stepped out of the gateway on the Ark of Exodus in a bit of a mood. Not foul, just irked at being pulled away from mopping up the last few Gulmarian nests on Mars. They’d had a breakthrough by capturing some carriers and interrogating them. It looked like they were going to be able to round them all up. As for the infected Raiders, Grattlyd could deal with them. Except that now the Shallens had just arrived. That really darkened Psy’s mood. Shi had even booked time at a rehab clinic in the Nexus to get over hir sex obsession with humans. Now that would have to go on hold while shi sorted out this new problem. In the meanwhile shi’d carry on as before only now feeling guilty about it. Shi snickered at the droll thought that shi was turning onto a Catholic and had a momentary vision of a priest’s shocked expression while listening to hir confessions.
     Shi craned hir neck to get a better look through the crowds milling around the gateway. Still no sign of Kkhrkht, that stupid bug. Trust it to get muddled up with the Shallens. While shi waited Psy looked around that the Shallens noting that they didn’t look all that much different from their ancestors. They must have found some way to slow down or arrest their evolutionary process. Which made Psy all the more glad that shi was in a human form and not Nglubi given the history between the Nglubi and the Shallens. Not that they would have attacked hir, but relations between Nglubi and Shallen were brittle at the best of times. It was a known fact that the Shallens had the lowest uptake of the Nglubi gateways of any race in the galaxy simply because of the war. Using a gateway was still considered to be treasonous amongst most Shallens.
     Eventually Kkhrkht turned up with Veronica, Ruby, a group of humans some of whom were visibly armed and some Shallens who appeared to be led by an elderly reptilian wearing their traditional battle armour. Psy felt as if shi’d interrupted a fancy dress party. “Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into.” Psy greeted Kkhrkht in Khzchhrrrtz.
     “What?” Kkhrkht replied in Dzzhakh’s native tongue before switching to English for the benefit of dzzhakh’s hosts. After the introductions were over Pierre led the way with Psy abreast between himself and Reflinghar.
     “Why are you on our ship, Nglubi?” Reflinghar rumbled tersely as they waited for the shuttle to take them to Spirit of Discovery’s base camp. He knew full well what Psy really was.
     “Why are you here, Shallen?” Psy snipped back.
     “Because I have to.” Reflinghar replied stoically making it clearly obvious in his tone of voice that he wished he was anywhere else. Preferably at home with his wife, Deleethia. “I am mentor to the Keeper and commander of the Guard.”
     “As do I.” Psy acknowledged Reflinghar’s feelings by softening hir initial hostility. “You do remember the clauses in the Cervetica Accord stipulating that the Shallens give up all claims to their…” Psy coughed to emphasize the point... “Purported home world known as Home Nest?”
     “Yes, of course.” Reflinghar acceded. All Shallen aristocracy had to live with that painful moment in their history burned into their collective consciousness as it was they who had negotiated that settlement of restitution with the Nglubi. A populist stick that the Chznzet had beat them with over the millennia ever since. “But there’s nothing that says we can’t visit.”
     “True.” Psy accepted Reflinghar’s point with diplomatic coolness as they boarded the shuttle. “Then you’ll visit, pay your respects and be on your merry way.”
     “And if we don’t?” Reflinghar added as casually as could be.
     “Then an Nglubi fleet will either escort you away or destroy your ship.” Psy replied with a brittle civility that bespoke the military strength behind it.
     “And if we can’t?” Reflinghar decided to test Psy with the reality of their circumstances.
     “What do you mean?” Psy kept up hir paper-thin civility.
     “Our ship is broken, almost beyond repair.” Reflinghar sighed. “It was broken before we came here.”
     “How convenient.” Psy quipped acidly. “Then why did you come here?”
     “We were hijacked.”
     “And you’re the commander of the guard?” It was all Psy could do to keep hirself from sneering.
     “The hijackers have been eliminated. But we were only able to do so after we arrived here.” Reflinghar conveniently omitted the fact that it was the wreckage of the Bessemer Baby ploughing through the remains of the Arbrunthiel sector that eliminated the hijackers and not their own efforts.
     “Again, how convenient.” Psy had heard many ruses in hir time but this one was so transparent as to be amateurish. “And again, you may visit but you must leave.”
     “You hear those noises?” Reflinghar fell silent so that Psy could hear the ever-present low slow groans and muted screeching in the background above the whoosh and muffled rattle of the shuttle. “The hull is broken and has been for generations. I’m surprised we even got here in one piece.”
     Psy recognised those types of noises for what they were: the death-throes of a ship about to break up. “Then you must repair your ship and be on your way.”
     “Which we will do.” Reflinghar acceded grandly. “But it might take a while. Oh and before you think we’ve all converted to Chznzet, we know that Nglubi agents created the Chznzet to foment civil unrest. Something we really ought to bring up at the Galactic Council.” Reflinghar let Psy know in know uncertain terms that he had something to hold over the Nglubi. Something that would buy them time to stay at HomeNest, repair the Ark of Exodus and possibly even negotiate a permanent presence at HomeNest. Reflinghar knew that concession would never sway the die-hard Chznzet supporters but it might be enough to keep the average Shallen on board. “I presume you will see that our gateway is kept open so that we can evacuate any who wish to leave this ship.”
     “Of course.” Psy wasn’t unreasonable. Shi just wanted to make it clear to this Shallen that shi wouldn’t stand for any nonsense although shi was feeling a bit outmanoeuvred.
     “But to evacuate a ship this size quickly would require increasing our capacity. At the moment we only have one light industrial and three passenger gateways. We would need hundreds.” Reflinghar deliberately overbid. He was already formulating a plan to finance rebuilding the Ark of Exodus through tourism. All he needed was the gateway capacity.
     “You won’t get hundreds.” Psy could see that Reflinghar was trying it on. “I’ll see that your capacity is increased. Can’t say what you’ll get. Where were you last based?”
     “Vermthellyn. We have a small colony there.”
     “Really?” Psy knew that was a first for the Rtuntli and that there was no way they’d ever accept all the occupants of the Ark of Exodus on their world and that this Shallen ship would be in hir domain for the foreseeable future. “We’ll increase your capacity between here and Vermthellyn. Other than that I can’t make any guarantees.”
     “The more industrial gateway capacity we have, the sooner we can repair The Ark of Exodus and be on our way.” Reflinghar pointedly reminded Psy.
     “True.” Psy conceded cordially.
     “Our ship is extensively damaged.” Reflinghar waved his arm grandly to take in the ship that surrounded them. “We would need assistance from the Galactic Council to make it suitably spaceworthy on any meaningful timescale. From our information the locals here don’t even have the technological capability to supply us with parts. We would have to establish the industries from scratch. That could take generations… if they let us. And if we brought in everything using gateways it would cost more than the combined wealth of House Sedeirtra and the entire Olblavy Clan. Do you think we were just sight-seeing at Vermthellyn? No, we were working to pay for our repairs and doing quite a good job of it too.”
     Psy could see what Reflinghar was angling for and didn’t blame him. Shi would have done exactly the same in his position. “Very well, I’ll pass on your requests. They’ll need a damage report and an estimate for spaceworthiness. After that they send out assessors to make sure you’re not cheating and then… you might have to wait a while. Don’t hold your breath, they might decide it’s cheaper to scrap your ship and relocate your inhabitants.”
     “We will never abandon the Ark of Exodus.” Reflinghar rumbled proudly as their entourage stepped out on to the environment deck adjacent to where the Spirit of Discovery was docked. “Give us the gateway capacity and we will rebuild it ourselves. And no more interfering in our politics.” He sternly reminded Psy that he still had a card to play in this bargain. “We will accept assistance to rebuild our ship, but not to abandon it.”
     Max stuck his head round the door of SkyHawk’s office. It was mid-morning and the boys were off to school. “Did you see the news?”
     “What, the comms break with Earth?” He asked distractedly as he rummaged through the day’s paperwork of running a farm.
     “No, the alien ship.”
     SkyHawk stopped what he was doing and looked up at Max. “What alien ship?”
     “The one that turned up out of nowhere at the same time as the comms break and took out a mining ship and a defence platform.” Max brought SkyHawk up to speed.
     “They’re attacking us?” SkyHawk felt as if his worst fear was being made real.
     “No… at least not yet. There’s some humans on board.” As if that was a guarantee of anything, Max thought grimly to himself. “Ruby’s out there as well.”
     “Who? What?” SkyHawk felt his mind stop for an instant.
     “Ruby, you remember her?” Max prompted almost deferentially.
     “Of course I remember her.” SkyHawk felt offended. “I do have feelings you know.”
     “Okay, okay.” Max backed off a bit. “But she is out there. We got a positive ident on her.”
     “Who’s ‘we’?” SkyHawk asked sceptically.
     “Myself and a few friends in Satori.”
     “And how were you able to penetrate this alien ship?” SkyHawk didn’t believe a word of it. It must be some prank that Max was playing on him.
     “Like I said, it was on the news last night.”
     “Ah, Lottie and I had an early night last night.” SkyHawk cracked a wide, beaming smile and winked.
     “Er, yes.” Max always felt awkward around fleshies when they talked about their sex lives. “Mind if I take over your Tri-D for a few minutes?” SkyHawk pointed to the set and keyed over the control to Max who played back highlights he’d chosen from the broadcast shown on MarsTel the previous night. “Somehow two pilots landed there yesterday and have a live feed going back to the Space Corps.” Max explained as he rolled the film for SkyHawk. “They’re both wired for sound and vision. Here’s Ruby.” Max stopped the action and zoomed in on her.
     SkyHawk stared in silence for a moment. “Omigod, so it is! How’d she get out there?”
     Max arrived at the only logical, though unlikely, conclusion. “She did have a job with United Metals and it was one of their mining ships that was taken out. She must’ve been on that ship and been one of the survivors. But the probability of that is infinitesimal…” Max’s voice trailed off.
     “So we’ve got an ident on Ruby?” SkyHawk broke the silence.
     “Have Earth Fed?” SkyHawk asked the obvious question.
     “Not that I’m aware of but it’s only a matter of time.” Max felt helpless as he contemplated Ruby’s fate. “They’re using her as a live feed. They’ll want to know everything about her and every beta-class mech or lower has a security backdoor that can be accessed without us even being aware of it. You can be sure they’ll have her all figured out soon enough.”
     SkyHawk sank his head into his hands. “Oh God, the poor girl’s doomed. Do we still have a copy of her backup… the one we sent to Patti?”
     “Good. We’ll have to hide it and all the other backups.” SkyHawk felt a glimmer of a plan to redeem himself and see that Ruby had the life she deserved. A life that Earth Fed would have denied her. “And the cloning gear, break it up and hide it. If Earth Fed figures out her past they’ll be back here to search and this time they won’t leave until they find something.” He wearily got up from his desk to deal with a new, far more urgent task. The day’s routine of the farm would just have to wait. “We’ll have to book her in for another session at Patti’s workshop.”
     “Forget it, the cops had her place staked out last time. She’s too hot, it would be too risky.” Max explained. “Don’t do this to Patti.”
     “I’ll buy her a body on the black market and reload her here if we have to.” SkyHawk accepted the inevitable and the fact that the cost would be extortionate. But at least it would go undetected by Earth Fed. “I’m not going to let them destroy her. First, we’ve got work to do. You with me?”
     “Sure thing, boss.”
     The Tri-D set in Brasso’s office at the Satori Security Service HQ had been running non-stop ever since the broadcast from the Ark of Exodus went public. Next to it a smaller Tri-D set displayed the unedited feed that they’d intercepted. “Hey, Dolly, have you worked out what all that extra data in the live feed is yet?” Brasso called across the office to Trolley Dolly. They didn’t have to use voice, but Brasso liked the ambience it gave. It was times like this that he got into his old-fashioned drama-cop routine from the films where they always used voice for the fleshie audiences.
     “They’re downloading Ruby’s core. Looks like Earth Fed’s going to clone her.” Dolly trundled across the floor towards Brasso.
     “Bastards… after everything else they’ve done to her. They’ll only terminate her again.” Brasso cursed. He shared every mech’s distrust of Earth Fed even if he did have to work in co-operation with them on a professional level.
     “Goes without saying.” Flatfoot Sam added ruefully. “What’s to stop them just reading her core without even activating the clone?”
     “Nothing.” Brasso admitted. “Knowing them that’s what they’ll do. Ruby’s clone would be so frightened and panicky she could easily self-destruct. Looking on the bright side...” Brasso continued. “…we’re getting the same feed so we should be able regenerate our own clone. I hope you’re saving that entire transmission, Dolly.”
     “Every last bit and byte.” Dolly purred proudly. “Oh, I just got this message now… some anarchist cell in town has also intercepted the live feed and has routed it into the Sensorium. The Sensorium has detected the core coming down the line and is reassembling it in real-time. The login numbers are going off the scale what with the unedited live feed and the anticipation for Ruby’s clone to be activated within the Sensorium.”
     “Oh, thank The Core for our wacky anarchists! At times like this I’m almost proud of them.” After all the times he’d harassed the mech anarchists for riding the edge of legality he finally appreciated their even-handed rationales. “We’ve got Earth Fed over a barrel if they even as much as dare filing a petition to terminate Ruby as a virtual clone in the Sensorium. It would prove that they’re illegally creating short-life mechs, illegally terminating them and illegally cloning mechs.”
     “I don’t think we even have to wait that long.” Brasso pointed out the obvious. “Not only will the Sensorium activate a virtual clone, it will turn her memories into a Tri-D walkthrough. The evidence will be there for anyone to see.”
     “Unless Earth Fed gets a warrant to delete her data and core from the Sensorium.” Flatfoot Sam added cynically.
     “Which would verify the veracity of Ruby’s story. Would Earth Fed want that as public knowledge?” Dolly pointed out. “Oh, get this… the Sensorium has categorised ‘Ruby and the Aliens’ as ‘Romantic Fantasy Adventure’.” Dolly laughed. “That’s a clever legal fig-leaf.”
     “Clever old Sensorium.” Brasso added. “Sam, get onto Markel and get it to step up the security around the Sensorium. Put it on alert for any disruptor bots or worms Earth Fed might attempt to deploy into the Sensorium.”
     “You think they’d try it?”
     “As you said Sam, it goes without saying.” Brasso defended his decision. “It’s only matter of time before Earth Fed gets wind of Ruby’s clone in the Sensorium as well as the fact that their encryption is compromised. At least those anarchists give us plausible deniability for our own interception. Earth Fed will be knocking on our door any day now. I wonder how many other people have intercepted the raw feed.”
     “We’ll know soon enough.” Dolly gaily clicked a few of her pincers. “Just watch the net for any sources of exclusives, rumours or conspiracy theories.”
     Ruby felt inordinately sluggish. Her thoughts were slowing down and she was struggling to keep up with Veronica as Yldoseh, aided by Xandu and Aridel, interviewed them for their fake news channel back on Vermthellyn. In all the excitement and her own rising panic she’d completely ignored the warnings on her inner viewscreen. Her power cell was almost flat! “Veronica… please…. Stop. I need… to… recharge.” Ruby swooned and almost fell over.
     Veronica managed to catch Ruby just in time. “She needs to go back to my ship to recharge her power cell.
     “Yes, of course… my apologies. We go zere immediament.” Pierre delicately put an arm around a lifelessly limp Ruby so that he and Veronica could carry her away before her power cell was completely exhausted. An intrigued Yldoseh followed them filming every moment with Xandu, Aridel and Kkhrkht chattering amongst themselves as they tagged along.
     “Don’t you ever do anything like that again, you silly girl.” Veronica chided a near unconscious Ruby as she plugged her into the interceptor’s power circuits. “I’ll be back in a few hours to check up on you. Just rest and get your strength back.” She patted Ruby on her leg and then made her way out to rejoin Pierre, Kkhrkht and the young Shallens back in the Spirit of Discovery.
     “So can these machine people like Ruby, um… do it, like you can? Or we can?” Xandu asked Veronica as his curiosity finally got the better of him.
     Aridel gave him a sharp dig in the side with her elbow. “Shut up, you. That’s because he thinks Ruby’s hot.”
     “No I don’t.” Xandu protested futilely. His tail’s erect tip and the hormone-driven bulge in his breeches gave him away.
     Veronica almost blanched when it sank in that Xandu was asking about sex. “Yes she can. Some mechs can but most don’t. They don’t need to.”
     “He’s going to put the make on her. Aren’t you Xandu?” Aridel teased.
     Xandu sulked guiltily saying nothing as they walked along and cursed himself for being so transparent. Yes, Ruby was attractive and exotic and… and… so why should he feel guilty? Because Aridel wanted him as well? It wasn’t as if they were married, so why shouldn’t he?
     Kkhrkht took advantage of the confusion to talk to Veronica. “You must come and meet my friends, Pzeptilan and Vvezhti-Kla.”
     “They’ve had a baby.” Aridel butted in.
     “Oh, congratulations, Kkhrkht. That’s so sweet.” Veronica had never really thought about how the Khzchhrrrtz reproduced but quickly decided to respond as she would to a human with the same news.
     “Zzzz…” Kkhrkht buzzed, annoyed at Aridel’s brash tactlessness. “Yes, we have. It’s just an egg at the moment. Vvezhti-Kla is looking after it until it hatches. Not much to look at until it pupates.”
     “Never mind, I’m sure it will be a wonderful child.”
     “I hope so.” Kkhrkht wasn’t all that sure seeing how it would be a mixed-caste child. Sure dzzhakh-ye, Pzeptilan and Vvezhti-Kla would give it the best they could but what would happen when they returned to Zrrlchtz? The poor thing would be considered a freak and its life would be a misery if it would even be permitted to live. Any life it had would be away from Zrrlchtz… it would have no home.

Scribbles & Scraps
Chapter 24
Chapter 26