It had been a long and exciting day.
Barney and Clem had taken Clarissa all the way from Montgomery to a very
discreet clinic run by the Duvali Foundation in Cydonia that specialised in
exotic body modification and cybernetics surgery. They’d spent the evening after
they checked Clarissa in toasting her soon-to-come freedom in every bar they
could find before Clem passed out drunk. In spite of all the virals Barney had
uploaded he still had the presence of mind to hoist Clem discreetly into their
hotel room without attracting too much attention.
Clem lay sprawled on his bed snoring softly in a drunken
stupor while Barney was logged into the Sensorium revelling in a blaze of cheap
psychedelic fantasy. Neither of them even heard the noise outside their door
until it was too late and a platoon of armed and heavily armoured police burst
into their room splintering the door into splintered fragments cascading all
over their room.
One trooper shot Barney with a restrainer lasso while another
brusquely yanked out Barney’s connection cable to the terminal which hooked him
up to the Sensorium. The shock was too much for Barney who lay lifeless on the
floor as he rebooted.
Clem managed to lift himself groggily off his bed. “Huh, wha…?”
Was all he managed before 16 high-velocity trank darts hit and knocked him
unconscious before he even hit the floor.
Clem regained consciousness hours later lying on a hard metal
bunk in a cell gazing blankly ahead watching a fuzzy image of Barney pacing the
floor muttering anxiously in high-speed mechspeak. Clem retched and shook
spasmodically as his stomach emptied itself several times over. Seeing how Clem
was showing vague signs of life, Barney raised his voice and slowed down his
speech in the hope that Clem might be able to shed some light on things. “This
place is some sort of Faraday Cage. I can’t even connect to the backbone MechNet
here. There’s no signal.” Barney fretted aloud as he paced around their cell.
“Ggghhrrrrr…whaaalllppppp!” Clem retched what, by now, must
have been the contents of his intestines laced with blue bile. Tears of pain
streaked down his vomit-stained face and shirt. “Wh-where are we?” Clem gagged
weakly while wiping stomach-acid stinking vomit from his face with the back of
“Some sort of prison but no idea where.” Barney grumbled
haplessly. “One moment I was in the Sensorium talking with Ruby’s clone, next
thing I know I reboot here after a 2 hour gap.”
“How is she?” Clem desperately clenched his teeth as his
stomach convulsed yet again. He failed and this time his vomit squirted out
between his teeth and fingers of his hand as he tried to hold it back.
“Worried about Earth Fed catching her but I think she’ll be
OK. She managed to escape from the Raiders when they captured the mining ship
she was working on.” Although it couldn’t show on Barney’s fixed mech face, he
felt pity for Clem. He was about to speak when his train of thought was broken
by the sound of the bolts of their cell door opening. The heavy metal door swung
open scraping noisily on its hinges and the sound of the warden’s rough voices
Seven wardens burst in. Two each brusquely grabbed Clem and
Barney while two armoured marksmen kept them covered at gunpoint. Their
commanding officer folded his arms and fixed Clem and Barney with a hard, cold
sneer. Without so much as a word he spat at the floor in front of them, unfolded
his arms, spun around on his heel and clicked his fingers as he marched off
along the hallway away from their cell. The wardens hurriedly hauled Clem and
Barney along in his wake.
They were forcefully bundled into a shabby windowless office.
Filing cabinets and time-worn computer terminals lined one wall. Several drawers
and broken-hinged doors hung partially open with sheafs of paper sticking out at
random angles. Bare strip lights on the ceiling flooded the room with harsh,
unforgiving light. They were made to wait in front of a battered metal desk
festooned with dents where skulls had been slammed into it. After a while, the
wardens’ officer strode in carrying a data slate and several folders of paper
which he thumped down on the table as he sat down.
The officer took one last look at his documents before
leaning back in his chair and looking straight across at Clem and Barney.
“Clement Abernathy 4037 and Barney Theta-4 Klank you are charged with the
“In violation of the Synthetics’ Rights Act of 2115: one
count of enslavement.
“In violation of the Synthetics’ Rights Amendment of 2117:
one count of theft, namely Clarissa Fourier 2496, a clone under indenture and
the property of the Associated Metals and Mining Group.
“In violation of the Revised Civil Liberties Code of 2118:
one count of trafficking.
“In violation of the General Civil and Criminal Act of 2122:
one count of de-cerebration and one count of conspiracy to murder.
“In violation of Incomes and Revenue Act of 2123: failure to
disclose taxable income of indentured labourers and chattels.
“Do you have anything you wish to say at this time?”
“Huh?” Clem was in such a state of shock he could barely
comprehend what was happening. It all felt like a bad dream.
“What?” Was all Barney could manage before he was cut short
by the prison officer.
“Thank you and duly noted.” The officer smirked
sarcastically. “You will now be taken for questioning after which you will be
allowed to make arrangements for legal counsel and representation.” The wardens
holding Clem and Barney dragged them off to separate rooms. Clem was promptly
strapped to a chair and injected with a truth serum to loosen his tongue. Down
the hallway Barney was hooked up to a terminal which force downloaded not only
his memory and data but his entire core… he was being cloned for profiling and
Ruby had only been seconds from total shut down when Veronica
had plugged her into the interceptor’s power circuit and left her to recharge.
Her first hour had been a vague sepia-tone blur with her consciousness dominated
by Veronica’s parting words. Bit by bit as parts of her processors came back
online fragments of her consciousness merged into that sepia-tone blur gradually
giving it form, colour, depth and meaning. The blurry rush of lights and images
on the interceptor’s control panels appeared to slow down to the point where she
could understand them as her systems came back up to speed. Her memories
returned as she lay in her seat staring up and out through the cockpit’s canopy
at the Spirit of Discovery and the Shallens’ The Ark of Exodus which surrounded
Ruby remembered that she’d been on a direct video feed to the
Space Corps and realised that the feed had been broken while she’d been
recharging. She tasted that faint glimmer of freedom and began to plan her
escape. She’d play the dumb civilian mech. After all, she wasn’t in the military
and how was she supposed to know how to hook herself up as a direct feed? She
did and also knew how simple it was but so long as she didn’t let on. Could she
pull it off?
She felt her best bet would be to search for the mechs from
the Spirit of Discovery and hide out with them. But the Space Corps would arrive
in a few days time and they’d start looking for her. Kkhrkht might be able to
help her. Dzzhakh-ye seemed to know his way around. And them there was that
reptilian Xandu… she giggled at the thought of him… had invited her back to his
world… what was it called? Vermthellyn, that was it. A bit of a long shot but he
did seem more than interested. She still had her sexbot programming and her
anatomically correct plastiskin so it wasn’t as if she couldn’t entertain him
and enjoy it too. The worry of running out of power on his world briefly crossed
her mind but she reckoned that so long as she could find a source of electricity
she’d be ok and they must have plenty of that.
Ruby’s train of thoughts were broken by Veronica clambering
noisily into the cockpit. “Ah, there you are.” Veronica heartily slapped Ruby on
her shoulder where she lay back in her seat staring out into space. “Feeling
“Yes, thanks.” Ruby knew that her deception would have to
start here with her friend Veronica. She disliked the idea and hoped it wouldn’t
get Veronica into any trouble, but it was a matter of survival. “What happened?”
“You ran out of power. We took you back here to recharge.”
“Oh.” Ruby acted dumb even though she knew full well what had
“You. Come here.” Psy brusquely grabbed one of Kkhrkht’s arms
and hastily bundled dzzhakh-ye into an empty canteen tent in the human’s base
camp. “So what was your clever idea bringing the Shallens here?” Shi hissed
Kkhrkht had been dreading this moment. Ever since Psy arrived
dzzhakh-ye had felt hir hostility. “I told you, it was nothing to do with me.
Pzeptilan and Vvezhti-Kla and I were part of a mission to bring our hive
citizens back from Burrakhtlmyr. We got lost in the gateways when we attempted
to return and ended up on Vermthellyn. We had to leave and took the first ship
out which was this one.” The last bit was at least partially true.
“Do you think the Shallens are on the level?” Psy let go of
Kkhrkht buzzed distractedly while reviewing dzzhakh-ye’s
memories of their encounters with the Shallens from the time they stepped out of
the gateway terminus on Vermthellyn and attempting to sum it all up in a simple
yes or no… and failing. “They are too complex and diverse but everything I heard
Reflinghar tell you is true.”
“And the humans they’re ferrying along. What of them?”
“Zzzz, now they’re interesting.” Kkhrkht perked up. “They
claim to be from the Duvali Foundation on Earth. Two problems: first they claim
to have left Earth in their year 2179 which is 54 Earth years from now. Secondly
they don’t show any interest in cybernetic body modification and enhancements
which were very common with Duvali Foundation members when I was on Mars.”
“Go on.” Psy knew this much already having been briefed on
the encounter with the Ark of Exodus before setting out.
“Various possibilities: they could be telling the truth which
would imply that they were subject to some sort of temporal displacement. They
could be clones created by the Shallens or someone else. Or….” Kkhrkht trailed
“Or what?” Psy kept up the pressure on Kkhrkht.
“They might be from another universe.” Kkhrkht added
“Even less likely than the first possibility, don’t you
think?” Psy snorted sceptically. “I think it’s safe to presume they’re clones or
some sort of artificial life forms. That leaves us with two questions: Who made
them and why?”
“I don’t think it was the Shallens.”
“What makes you think that, buggy boy?”
“I saw almost no use of synthetic life forms amongst the
Shallens: neither mechanical nor organic.” Kkhrkht reminisced.” The only time I
came across any use of mechanoids was the Chznzet. And their mechanoids were
very crude and primitive compared to the ones the Humans make. They weren’t even
autonomous but had to have a remote operator.”
“I see.” Psy hummed and hawed. “Still, it’s a clever ruse
this broken-down spaceship routine, don’t you think?”
“Maybe someone else is manipulating the Shallens.” Kkhrkht
“Now you’re thinking, buggy boy.” Psy cracked a knowing
smile. “I might even have some use for you. Who do you think it might be?”
Kkhrkht thought for a few minutes but came up blank and
guessed: “The Gulmarians?”
“Well done.” Psy smarmily congratulated Kkhrkht while shi
pulled a small bag of detector beads out of hir shoulder bag and gave them to
Kkhrkht. “I’d like you to be my eyes and ears here. You help me and I’ll do what
I can to help you. What do you say?”
Kkhrkht grasped the straw Psy held out for dzzhakh-ye without
letting on how desperately Pzeptilan, Vvezhti-Kla and dzzhakh needed help and
allies. Anyone….. even a temperamental primadonna of an old Nglubi field agent
would do. “I’ll see what I can do.” Kkhrkht replied as noncommittally as
“I knew you’d come through for me.” Psy exuberantly kissed
Kkhrkht on the side of one of dzzhakh-ye’s mandibles before gracefully guiding
Kkhrkht back out of the canteen tent. “Now, how about showing me around some of
the sights that Pierre left off the itinerary?”
“You’ve learned the hard way that you have total command of
The Ark of Exodus.” Reflinghar scolded Knetryxx. Barwyndar, the Ingnuthin high
priestess stood by his side wearing her finest ceremonial robes. Definitely out
to make an impression on this young and headstrong new Keeper of the Ark.
Knetryxx looked at the floor in genuine contrition as Morgau stood at her side.
She hadn’t meant to upset the lives of the Olblavy clan, House Sedeirtra and the
countless Shallens who lived aboard the Ark and on Vermthellyn. Her spacious and
sumptuous quarters suddenly felt very small and claustrophobic.
“No more taking the Ark out on joyrides until it’s fully
repaired, is that understood?” Reflinghar continued.
“Yes.” Knetryxx felt ashamed for having jeopardised their
only real home and stranding the best part of half a million Shallens on
“Good.” Reflinghar relaxed a bit. He could tell Knetryxx felt
remorse. Her pheromones said as much. “You have to oversee the rebuilding of the
Ark. Barwyndar will help you and if you have any questions contact Deleethia or
Barwyndar tilted her head to one side and held her paws in an
almost theatrical motherly fashion. “Deleethia and Reflinghar were Milentiet’s
emissaries on Vermthellyn as they are also my emissaries. Listen to their advice
if you need help. They know what is best for us.”
“Well, that’s settled. Plenty of time for adventures later
on, young lady.” Reflinghar felt satisfied that Knetryxx’s impulsiveness would
be kept in check for a while. Meanwhile he had his work cut out back on
Vermthellyn. “I’ve instructed Colonel Norfalth, the new Guard Commander, to deal
with the humans for you. No doubt they’ll want to disembark soon. And do try to
practice your diplomacy skills. I don’t want to come back and find you in a war
zone. We may have to evacuate everyone from Vermthellyn, you know how touchy the
Rtuntli are about us, and I don’t think anyone would appreciate being thrown
into a battle after their comfortable lives on Vermthellyn.”
“Yes.” Knetryxx felt dumber and dumber by the minute. What
had once seemed exciting and glamorous now felt like the type of dull and boring
job you’d do anything to avoid.
“That’s my girl.” Reflinghar briefly clasped Knetryxx by her
shoulders for a moment to give her some encouragement. He could see how awkward
she felt in his presence. “You’ll get used to the responsibility, it’s not that
bad. I’m off back to Vermthellyn now. Deleethia’s expecting me.” He announced
with a mixture of relief and trepidation. He was glad to have an excuse to get
away from the madhouse aboard the Ark of Exodus but dreading the reception he’d
get from Deleethia. No doubt she’d give him an earful over the turn of events.
Being forced to leave their home stranded in another solar system, even if it
was in orbit around their fabled HomeNest, was not the outcome they’d
anticipated. “My vizier, Weetleetly, will get in contact with you about the new
gateways we’re getting.” And with a formal nod of his head, Reflinghar turned to
leave with Barwyndar accompanying him to the Ark’s only working gateway.
“You got off easily.” Morgau broke the silence after
Reflinghar and Barwyndar left.
“Fah, this is worse than running a junk shop.” Knetryxx
Aridel, who’d been sitting quietly on the settees with Xandu,
Yldoseh and Tatia during Reflinghar and Barwyndar’s visit, looked around
Knetryxx’s palatial quarters. “Well they pay’s good. I wouldn’t complain.”
Xandu threw a cushion at Knetryxx and Morgau. “C’mon, let’s
have a party and worry about everything tomorrow.”
And party they did! Mostly to unwind and forget all the high
drama they’d been through. After the drink and drugs kicked in things turned to
frivolous play and sex. Tatia repeatedly slapped Xandu’s paw every time he
slipped it up her skirt. Aridel was a bit more accommodating, enjoyed the
attention and returned his advances in kind. Morgau and Knetryxx, who’d been
canoodling passionately on a settee slipped off to her bedroom for a bit of
privacy. A shrill drunken scream pierced the air. It was Knetryxx.
“Huh, what?” Xandu pulled himself up from Aridel’s passionate
embrace and hurried off to Knetryxx’s bedroom followed closely by Aridel, Tatia
“It, it’s….” Knetryxx spluttered drunkenly as she leaned
heavily on Morgau and pointed at her bed. There for all to see was the Chznzet
Nest-and-Egg emblem painted on her bedspread in what looked and smelled like
used machine oil. In its middle was an exquisitely gold leaf bound copy of the
Legend of Faith, the Chznzet scriptures and the words ‘We are everywhere’
Yldoseh, ever the budding journalist, had already activated
her camera to record the scene.
“I bet they got in through the service ducts.” Tatia
suggested as she looked around Knetryxx’s bedroom. “Remember how Wootjan-Oo
found the Sortranol and rescued us?”
“Uh huh.” Morgau mumbled disappointedly. He was aching with
lust and held Knetryxx close. She led him off to one of the guest rooms where
they fell onto the bed and impatiently pulled each other’s clothes off.
Tatia led the search round Knetryxx’s suite with Xandu,
Aridel and Yldoseh in tow. Yldoseh keenly recorded every moment. Two hours and
every opportunity Aridel found to press herself up against Xandu’s erection
later they were about to give up.
“I think we ought to call the Guard about this.” Tatia
“Um.” Aridel rolled her eyes in the direction of the guest
room Knetryxx and Morgau had commandeered.
“Sheesh!” Tatia spluttered in exasperation before stomping
off to the guest room. Bam-bam-bam she banged on the door. “I think you better
call the Guard.” She shouted through the door.
“Go ‘way.” Two muffled voices replied. “You do it.”
“Can’t.” Tatia shouted back. “You’re the Keeper, it’s your
Tatia heard a faint grumble of complaint and the sound of
Knetryxx and Morgau pulling themselves off the bed. A few minutes later they
stumbled out of the door still flushed with the hot passion of sex and clumsily
adjusting their clothes.
It didn’t take long for the first Guard troopers to arrive.
And they kept on coming. It seemed as if every officer and specialist department
in the Guard turned up to make a favourable impression with the new Keeper of
the Ark. It didn’t take long before her suite was crowded out with Guards
attempting to search it from one end to the other and busily conferring amongst
Eventually Commander Norfalth pushed his way through the
crowd to where Knetryxx and her friends were huddled together and bowed low. “My
apologies, Keeper Knetryxx, we take the Chznzet threat very seriously. I will
personally see to it that the perpetrators are apprehended and brought to
justice before you. We should be done here very soon and I will reinforce the
security for your quarters.”
“Oh man.” Clem wailed piteously in their cell after the first
round of interrogation. All his dreams of a life together with Clarissa,
thankful for being freed from her neural net, had turned not only to dust but
into a nightmare he’d never imagined. “The Overlordz must have scooped her brain
out before we found her. We only thought she had a neural net and were going to
remove it.” He shuddered at the grisly thought of Clarissa’s fate.
“You did.” Barney grimly reminded Clem. He wished he’d been a
bit more forceful when Clem had spotted her in the brothel window back in
Coriolis. But it was too late now. “You better hope you can convince the judge
and jury otherwise it’s the death sentence for both of us.”
“No…” Clem sobbed spasmodically into his hands. He’d never
meant to hurt anyone, least of all Clarissa. And now he was being blamed for
what had happened to her. Life was so cruel and unfair. Clarissa was the one
thread of hope he’d held onto ever since he found her and now that had been
turned into his undoing.
“Quit your blubbering.” Barney angrily scolded Clem. “How do
you think I feel? This is all you fault.”
“Like hell.” Clem felt like hitting Barney. The only thing
that stopped him was the knowledge that he would only hurt himself as Barney
didn’t have pain sensors. “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you. It was your
idea to take her to that clinic.”
“Damn you…..” Barney raised his hand to hit Clem got no
further. Their cell door swung open again and Big Bob Wrexham, their foreman
from the Montgomery open-air market, was thrust into their cell loudly
protesting his innocence of any crimes.
“You, you little fucking punk!” Bob growled murderously at
Clem after the cell door slammed shut. “I thought you’d have something to do
with this.” He grabbed Clem and slammed him up against the wall. Clem felt too
miserable to even put up a token resistance. “I was on parole but now I’ll be
doing time again thanks to you.” Bob punched Clem so hard in the stomach that he
slid down the wall goggle-eyed, gasping for breath and started vomiting again.
But Bob’s anger was only started and he kicked Clem so hard and often that his
wounds bled. “You little fucking smiley-faced piece of fucking slime!” Bob swore
angrily as he laid in kick after kick of his steel-capped boots. “If I ever see
you outside again, you’re fucking dead meat.”
Barney could take no more and stepped forward to defend Clem
but Bob knocked Barney to the floor, no mean feat for a human, and threatened
Barney. “You stay out of it, tin can. One word out of you and I’ll have you
dismantled for spare parts.” Barney sulked in a corner of the cell while Bob set
about taking his anger and frustration out on Clem until it was obvious that
he’d beaten Clem unconscious. He then turned on Barney and gave him a thorough,
but totally pointless, kicking. To finish things off he opened his trousers,
whipped out his cock and pissed copiously over both of them. “That’ll show you
who’s the boss around here. Those pansy-ass Earth Fed cops are gonna be like
your momma compared to what I’ll do to you.” He spat out contemptuously.
Satisfied, he slumped down onto the cell’s metal bench, his anger temporarily
spent while he awaited his fate and schemed his escape.
Clem awoke a few hours later with three broken ribs, aching
all over from Bob’s beating still wet and stinking of Bob’s piss. He looked up
and saw Bob snoring on the bench. Barney was huddled on the floor as far as he
could get away from Bob and Clem. “I wish I was dead. At least I’d be with
Clarissa.” Clem gasped feebly.
“Could well happen.” Barney grumbled sarcastically in a vain
attempt to distance himself from Clem. He realised he was in as deep as Clem and
faced the same fate. “I’m not giving up without a fight. I’m gonna get myself a
lawyer with the last of that advance I got.”
“What about me?” Clem bleated miserably.
“What about you?” Barney shot back angrily. “I could be
terminated all because I stupidly helped you rescue a decerebrated zombie and
you want my help? Screw you, fleshie. Sort your own mess out.”
“No!” Clem felt his heart cave in. Barney’s abandonment hurt
even more than the beating Bob gave him. He’d lost his only true friend. He felt
totally alone in the world. Helpless and lost. Then a glimmer of hope flickered
in his mind. “I could ask Chester and the Watusis to vouch for us. They were
there when we found Clarissa. They all saw that she’d been done before we found
her. That would prove that we hadn’t de-thingied her.”
“Good luck.” Barney was unconvinced. “They wouldn’t touch you
with a bargepole. Not on the charges you’re up against. They’d be mad to talk to
you ever again.”
Bob, who’d only been pretending to be asleep so that he could
eavesdrop on anything Barney and Clem said propped himself up on an elbow. “I
know a fancy lawyer, bent as they come. Might be able to get you off the murder
charge but you’re still looking at a good few longyears for the other stuff.
It’ll cost you a pretty penny, though. Depends on how much you think your sorry
ass is worth.” He smirked cruelly.
Veronica was enjoying her first real break since her
encounter with the Spirit of Discovery and the Shallens aboard their worldship.
She searched out the canteen and ordered herself a slap-up feed with a huge
grilled sauropod steak provided by the Shallens. Ever since she left her base at
the Early Warning Platform she’d been surviving on her nutrient paste rations.
They kept you going but weren’t much to write home about and right now she
craved real food which she tucked into heartily. The steak was juicy but a bit
gamey compared to what she was used to. The roast sweet potatoes were familiar
enough and she relished their soft sweetness.
Ruby had been acting strangely ever since she’d shut down.
Veronica was only too familiar with computers being glitchy after crashing and,
seeing how mechs were super-sophisticated autonomous computers, assumed it would
be similar for them. She’d let Ruby wander off on her own to recuperate in spite
of the Space Corps’ urgently pestering her to reconnect Ruby to their live feed.
Veronica felt that Ruby wasn’t up to it in her present condition. So she sat
back and watched the crew from the Spirit of Discovery milling around the
canteen. They seemed so normal. Quite unlike the Duvali Foundation acolytes
she’d met in Coriolis.
Veronica washed down her mouth-watering meal with a tumbler
of tangy juice that deliciously refreshed her taste buds. Just then she spotted
Kkhrkht and Psy leaving the canteen’s serving area and looking around for a
place to sit. “Hey, Jazz! Over here!” She called out and waved to them. They
made their way over and joined her at her table. Kkhrkht almost gulped
dzzhakh-ye’s meal down hungrily while Psy, in an almost forced epitome of
decorum and manners, ate hir meal gracefully.
Psy set down hir fork and knife. “Buggy boy’s been showing me
around this ship. Quite something, don’t you think?” Shi addressed Veronica
genially and without the least hint of their previous enmity.
“Yes.” Veronica was awe-struck by the sheer scale of the Ark
of Exodus. “I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s like a small world.”
“Indeed it is.” Psy confided. “They call it a worldship and
with good reason, too.”
“Is this all of them?” Veronica asked cautiously.
“Oh, no.“ Psy replied grandly. “They have many more
worldships. The Shallens are migrants and traders nowadays.” Psy avoided going
into too much detail about the Shallens.
“Like this one?” Veronica asked incredulously. It hasn’t
occurred to her that there would, or could, be more ships the size of the Ark of
“No, in far better shape than this old rust bucket.” Psy
Veronica heard the voice in her headset asking her to pump
Psy for any information she could get. “What are they doing here and will they
“Ah.” Psy cocked a conspiratorial smile and reached over to
tap on Veronica’s headset. “You’re hooked up to the Space Corps aren’t you,
sweetie? They’re here because your Earth is also their home world and, no,
they’re not going to attack you. At least not for the time being.”
“What do you mean?” Veronica asked as she tried to ignore the
frantic babble in her headset.
Psy took a long breath and rolled hir eyes upwards as if to
look up to the sky. “I am Nglubi.” Shi confessed for the benefit of whoever was
at the other end of Veronica’s headset. Psy presumed it was someone in the Space
Corps but had no idea who it might be. “The Nglubi and the Shallens were at war
long ago, long before you humans existed, and we drove them from your world so
that they became wanderers of this galaxy. As I said, it was a long time ago,
long before my time and we have long since changed our ways. We have different
goals now. Conquest and dominion get a bit old after a while…”
“They run the gateways.” Kkhrkht interrupted in between
mouthfuls of food.
“We did create them.” Psy countered defensively.
“And they live like lords on the back of their monopoly.”
Kkhrkht pointed out.
“So you see, Ronnie.” Psy smarmily purred. “Conquest and all
that carry-on wasn’t all it was cracked up to be: wasting all that time and
effort subjugating lesser species wherever we go. We get a far better return on
our efforts from enabling people to get around. And everyone thanks us for our
marvellous gateways. Except the Shallens, but that can’t be helped. They have
awfully long memories.”
“What are these gateways?” Veronica relayed the questions
coming to her from the Space Corps.
“Inter-dimensional portals connecting one part of this
universe to another.” Psy responded casually as if describing a mundane domestic
appliance in a department store. “A very efficient way of getting from A to B
and back again.”
“So why don’t we have them if everyone else does?” Veronica
hit hir with the obvious question.
“It’s not my decision.” Psy shrugged and replied evasively.
“I’m just an observer stationed in your solar system to observe you…. amongst
other things. I’m not supposed to get involved but I get bored and need company
too. I hope you didn’t mind me butting in on your band back on Mars.”
“No, well, yes I did at the time.” Veronica was still reeling
from Psy’s admissions. “You did manage to get everyone’s backs up.”
“I’m sorry about that.” Shi apologised. “I enjoyed it
immensely. The best fun I’ve had in a long time. I really do envy you and your
friends going around and playing music like that. It must be a great life.”
“Yeah it’s okay.” Veronica grudgingly admitted. Even though
she was only a part time member of the Flaming Watusis, she knew that it was a
hard life and that it was only the pleasure and joy of playing music that kept
Ruby was surprised at how easy it was to get away from
Veronica and to wander around on her own. She’d decided to join up with the
mechs from the Spirit of Discovery wherever they had decided to take up camp
aboard the Ark of Exodus. Finding them was another matter altogether. Try as she
might she was unable to pick up any chatter on a common carrier frequency. Maybe
the ship was shielding them in some way, but it certainly hadn’t blocked her
live feed back to the Space Corps or Veronica’s headset. She just put it down to
the fact that they were different.
She retraced Pierre’s glib tour, branching off from it along
the way to find potential hiding places and saw plenty of the Shallens going
about their lives but no sign of the Spirit of Discovery’s mechs. She eventually
ended up back at the base camp, none the wiser save for a few desperate
bolt-holes she’d mapped out. Just then she spotted two of the Shallens who had
interviewed her and Veronica talking with an Avian Shallen over by one of the
terminals. She plucked up her courage and went over to them.
“Have you seen where the mechs from the Spirit of Discovery
went?” She asked.
They turned to her looking quizzically. Wootjan-Oo took out
his translator. “Sorry, we didn’t have a translator active. Could you repeat
“Oh, yes” Ruby was taken aback. “Have you seen where the
other mechs went?”
“Who?” Xandu and Yldoseh asked in unison.
“The machine people from the human’s ship.” Ruby remembered
how Aridel had described the mechs in her interview. “You know, the ones like
“Oh, them.” Wootjan-Oo replied now that he knew what Ruby
meant. “They’ve gone to the Cruthigne sector.”
“How do I get there?” Ruby asked. “I’d like to talk to them.”
And hide amongst them, but she wasn’t about to say that!
“Just follow the signs. It’s a bit of a distance from here;
you’d best take the shuttles.” Wootjan-Oo cawed confidently but then guessed
that she couldn’t read Darconit. “You can’t read our language, can you?” He
asked. Ruby shook her head. “Maybe Xandu and Yldoseh would show you the way. I’d
take you there myself but I’m on duty right now and have to stay here.”
“Yeah, sure.” Xandu leapt at the chance to find out more
about this strange machine woman. He and Yldoseh were just killing time until
they went back to Vermthellyn. A short while later they were riding the shuttle,
whooshing and rattling its way along the track. Xandu wanted to know more about
his HomeNest, but seeing how Ruby had never been to Earth settled for her tales
of life on Mars and her adventures with SkyHawk and Psy in the Omphalatta. Xandu
thought he’d take his chance. “How’d you like to come with us to Vermthellyn?”
Ruby couldn’t believe her luck but decided to act ambivalent.
“That sounds interesting Xandu but I couldn’t stay for long. I’m not like you;
I’m very dependent on the technology here. Also I need to recharge my power
cells regularly.” If things didn’t pan out favourably with the Duvali mechs she
had no compunctions about using Xandu as her escape route from Earth Fed’s
clutches but didn’t want to appear to be too eager. They’d already terminated
her once and next time, if they got hold of her, she might not survive.
“That’s okay.” Xandu pretended to be concerned. All he really
wanted was to find out what she was like in bed. “It would just be for a few
days unless you’re busy or something. You could visit another time. I’d like to
show you around…” He trailed off not knowing quite what to say.
‘I bet you would’ Yldoseh thought and resisted the temptation
to say anything and watched the old hen’s proverb that men only think with their
snakes unfold in front of her eyes. He was such a tart! Tatia and Aridel had
been gossiping about him and the machine woman, Ruby. Tatia had bet Aridel that
Xandu would bed her before they returned to Vermthellyn. Yldoseh never had to
worry about Xandu’s attentions. They were too closely related. She’d long got
used to the sight of him making a fool of himself… and enjoying every minute of
it. The rest of their journey was taken up by Xandu describing all the places
he’d like to show Ruby.
Ruby had only been half-listening to Xandu’s chat as she
formulated her plan for hiding amongst the Duvali mechs. She strained her
scanners to full sensitivity but still found no trace of any comms signal. All
mechs had a continuous chatter over thousands of communication sidebands. The
radio silence was unsettling. All she could detect was the all-pervasive local
communications network of the Ark of Exodus.
“I hope we find them.” Ruby added expectantly as they
disembarked from the shuttle when they arrived at the derelict central terminus
of in the Cruthigne sector. It was a far cry from the well kept, populated and
bustling sections of the Ark of Exodus that she’d seen so far. It was deserted
and in a shocking state of disrepair. Broken windows, missing wall panels and
torn-up grime-encrusted sections of decking were everywhere to be seen. Weeds
and thick vines had long since taken over here and pushed their way out through
gaps and breaks in the buildings and decks. A lot of the lights were broken or
flickering erratically. It was cold and the air was significantly thinner.
“So do I.” Yldoseh’s breath came out in cloudy wisps in the
frigid air as she shivered. She was certain Xandu would only get himself in
trouble with this strange machine woman and hoped that she would quickly
disappear amongst the other machine beings. “The Cruthigne sector is quite
large. It would take us days, if not longer to explore all of it. How do you
hope to find your friends?” She asked.
“We can talk amongst ourselves by radio waves.” Ruby
“Can you hear them?” Xandu asked curiously.
“No.” Ruby was puzzled. She should have heard something by
now unless they were totally stealthed. The only signal she could pick up was a
weird static rush that seemed to press against her. She hadn’t noticed it
anywhere else in the Ark of Exodus so decided her best bet was follow it to its
source. “But I have a clue.” And off they went with Xandu as their guide,
reading the maps on the walls and Yldoseh busily filming their progress. Hours
passed. The static signal grew louder but all they found were a few trails of
mech footfalls amidst the grimy corroded dereliction. They trailed through
habitation decks up to the abandoned environment deck which was thoroughly
overgrown, deserted save for a few scrawny feral raptors eking out a meagre
existence beneath the blazing light pouring out of the neglected mini-sol way
overhead and back down again into the dingy depths.
They eventually stumbled into what would have been a vast
mall in better times. Concourses of tumbledown decaying and what clearly looked
like looted shops spread out around them. But still no sign of the elusive
Duvali mechs. It was getting late. Xandu and Yldoseh wanted to go back, so Ruby
called it quits and tagged along with them. She didn’t come away empty handed as
she’d mapped out their journey and could now easily make her way back to the
Cruthigne sector if she needed to. All she needed to do was to figure out some
way of tapping into the Ark’s electricity supply to keep herself topped up and
she could hide out indefinitely provided the Space Corps didn’t come after her
once they arrived.
Ruby broke the awkward silence on their return journey. “How
did that happen?”
“Cruthigne?” Xandu shrugged his shoulders indifferently.
“It’s always been like that. At least as long I can remember. It’s one of the
dead zones: they were abandoned long ago. Nobody really lives in them any
longer, at least no-one that I know of. You saw what it was like, who’d want to
“The Arbrunthiel sector was damaged when we left the
Sylbarian system.” Yldoseh added just to let Xandu know that she too knew their
“Or so they taught us in school. Could just be a story for
all I know.” Ever since the Chznzet’s tales of their HomeNest had been
vindicated, Xandu was starting to doubt everything he’d learned up to now.
“No, no, no, put that down!” Pzeptilan angrily scolded
Vvezhti-Kla as dzzhev-ye dragged dzhinn away from the souvenir stores on the
promenade where the Ark’s main gateway was stationed and thrust their egg into
dzhinn’s arms. “Here, you look after our egg while I find that flea-brained
Kkhrkht. Then we’re going back to Vermthellyn.”
“I thought you wanted to leave that place.” Vvezhti-Kla asked
as dzhinn lovingly clasped their egg to dzhinn’s iridescent exoskeleton and kept
up with Pzeptilan’s brisk pace across the promenade.
“I did but this ship is falling apart.” Pzeptilan peevishly
griped. “Dieing in space doesn’t really appeal to me. I’ll take my chances with
“And what if that Shallen can’t protect you any longer?”
Pzeptilan pointed out the lurking danger on Vermthellyn.
“Duke Reflinghar? Zzzz… good point.” Pzeptilan buzzed
thoughtfully. “But at least they have gateways there so we’re not totally
“We barely escaped last time and that was from your Shallen
Duke who was merely returning your lost communicator. It would be very different
attempting to escape from the Rtuntli. It’s their home planet. We would have
nowhere to hide.”
“So what do you suggest? Stay here and wait until this rust
bucket breaks up?” Pzeptilan quipped sarcastically.
“No, we go to that planet Kkhrkht studied. We’re flying past
it right now.” Vvezhti-Kla patiently proffered dzhinn’s plan.
“Wonderful. Their gateway is locked to Estrillyd. How are we
supposed to change its co-ordinates?”
“Kkhrkht has a crystal.” Vvezhti-Kla replied.
“And doesn’t know how to use it.” Pzeptilan contemptuously
crushed Vvezhti-Kla’s suggestion. “Remember our little jaunt around the gateways
when we escaped from Burrakhtlmyr? We only found Vermthellyn by accident. Do you
want to go through all that again?”
“That gateway must be able to access other locations. The
Nglubi that arrived here came from that planet used it.” Vvezhti-Kla stuck to
“The one that looks like a human and kept pestering Kkhrkht?”
“Yes, that one.”
“Fine, first we find Kkhrkht.” Pzeptilan was on the verge of
accepting Vvezhti-Kla’s plan but had to keep up the pretence of being in charge.
A pretence that promptly fell apart when Pzeptilan, totally engrossed in their
conversation and escape plans, walked straight into Duke Reflinghar and
“Oof…. Oh there you are!” Reflinghar quickly regained his
composure after the initial surprise. “It’s about time to head back the
Vermthellyn, Ambassador Pzeptilan. Do join my wife and I for a meal at our
palace. Deleethia’s signed up for another race and your pilot will be the star
of our team. But, please, no shenanigans this time. I’ve already pulled all the
strings I can for you. Anything more and I’ll have to turn you over to the
Pzeptilan glumly touched antennae with Vvezhti-Kla <So much
for our escape plan.>
“By all means, Duke.” Pzeptilan bowed and acted as if nothing
was amiss. “We’re just waiting for our triune-mate, Kkhrkht to arrive.”
“Of course.” Reflinghar conceded grandly as he launched into
an extravagantly garnished tale of Vvezhti-Kla’s piloting prowess at Estrillyd
Speedway for Barwyndar’s benefit. He was in the middle of telling her about the
three Khzchhrrrtz who appeared out of nowhere one day at Estrillyd with news
about the merciless Gulmarian attack on Burrakhtlmyr and how they saved the day
for the Ilbryak when Ruby and Xandu arrived arm-in-arm followed closely by
Tatia, Aridel and Yldoseh who were whispering and cackling lewdly amongst
“Ah there you are, the young lady who alerted us to the
Chznzet.” Reflinghar drew Yldoseh away from her friends and congratulated her.
“We owe you our thanks and gratitude. I see you travel prepared.” He lifted
Yldoseh’s camera which hung on a strap over her shoulder and looked at it. “I
wonder what exciting and interesting titbits you might have there. Would you
like to give us a preview at the palace this evening?”
Yldoseh curtseyed. “I’d be honoured.”
Just then a captain of the Guard approached Reflinghar. “The
humans have docked with the Ark, sire.”
“Does Norfalth have it all under control?” Reflinghar
appreciated being kept in the loop even though it wasn’t really his concern.
“He has, sire.” The captain replied deferentially.
“Good. See to it that they tow away their wreck as soon as
possible. I hope they’ve come prepared. We’ve got our paws full repairing the
damage to the Arbrunthiel sector.” Reflinghar gave his orders which he knew
would go straight back to Norfalth.
“There she is!” Veronica spotted Ruby and raced across the
crowded concourse with Kkhrkht and Psy in tow. Space Force had handed over her
link to the command centre aboard the Odysseus and they’d been nagging her
non-stop to locate Ruby to bring her in for debriefing about the Bessemer Baby
incident. She pushed her way through the milling crowd and grabbed hold of Ruby
who was leaning slinkily in Xandu’s embrace. “I’ve been looking everywhere for
you. The Odysseus has arrived; they’re going to take us back to Mars.”
Ruby had been expecting something like this to happen and
tensed up her plazflex to full strength in order to stop Veronica from taking
her. “I’m going to Vermthellyn with Xandu.”
‘Stop her.’ The voices shouted in Veronica’s headset as she
tried and failed to pull Ruby away from Xandu as they walked towards the
gateway. Although Ruby only had a beta-class body she was still strong enough at
full power to drag Veronica along with her and not even let Xandu know.
Xandu, blissfully unaware of the battle going on at his side
as they waited on the dais for it to be activated, invited Veronica. “Hey, why
don’t you come with us?” Two for the price of one! How could he resist the
opportunity to bed one of those humans and the machine woman?
“No!” Veronica by now had given up all pretence and was
desperately trying to pull a resolutely immobile Ruby off the dais. A flash of
brilliant white light and then they materialised in the gateway terminus in
Estrillyd. The voices in Veronica’s headset had gone silent but it was still
recording as she looked around. “What? Where are we?”
“I don’t think that was meant to happen.” Psy smirked as shi
and Kkhrkht watched Reflinghar’s retinue vanish through the gateway.
“What?” Kkhrkht was beginning to regret agreeing to be Psy’s
spy aboard the Ark. Dzzhakh-ye saw Vvezhti-Kla’s clumsily stunted maternal
instincts as dzhinn clutched their egg and knew that dzzhakh should be with his
triune to nurture their egg.
“Veronica going to Vermthellyn with Ruby and those Shallens.
Or Ruby for that matter.”
“They went to Vermthellyn?” Kkhrkht hadn’t been paying close
attention. Dzzhakh could stop thinking about their egg and the way Vvezhti-Kla
doted over it. When it hatched their grub would need their care. “Whatever for?”
“Does it matter? They’ll be back soon enough.” Psy pronounced
confidently. “Ruby will run out of power before long and Veronica will be
scurrying back into the arms of her dear little Space Force.”
“Psy, I can’t stay here and work for you.” Kkhrkht
reluctantly broke the bad news.
“Why?” Psy thought Kkhrkht might have second thoughts and
wanted to hear dzzhakh’s excuse.
“Our egg. Once it hatches we have to take turns looking after
it. It’s our way.”
Psy sighed heavily. Trust nature to foul up hir plans! “When
will it hatch?”
“About a month from now but I can’t be certain.”
“I understand.” Psy remembered only too well raising Grattlyd
and all hir other offspring on hir own and just how demanding it was. “Could you
do one thing for me before you have to go?”
“What’s that?” Kkhrkht was relieved that Psy was prepared to
“Distribute the detector beads and floxetrasine to the
Shallens here. I’ll arrange for a shipment to be sent through. It shouldn’t take
long for you to show them how to use it. We’ve got a few infected Raiders held
captive on Mars. I could ship one of them up here so they can see for themselves
what we’re up against.”
“Do you really think the Gulmarians have infiltrated this
“I can’t rule it out. They spread like a cancer.” Psy
admitted in grim resignation. “The Shallens had no reason to leave Vermthellyn
the way they did. Their movements were completely irrational.”
“What about the Chznzet?” Kkhrkht believed that they were the
driving force behind the Ark’s journey to their HomeNest at Earth.
“You heard Reflinghar, he was right. We created the Chznzet
long ago. Oh what tangled webs we weave only to see them spin out of control
when they’re no more use!”
“They latched onto the myth of their HomeNest when we tried
to disband them. The Shallen aristocracy even ran an inquisition against the
Chznzet at one point which failed spectacularly. It only made them more
“So why don’t you recruit some Chznzet to work for you?”
“Are you joking?” Psy laughed ruefully. “Nowadays they hate
us even more than the average Shallen. I’d be lucky if they didn’t lynch me.”
“Okay, I’ll stay here to distribute the beads and gas but
after that I really have to go.”
“Thank you.” Psy kissed Kkhrkht. “I’d like to be a godparent
for your child.”
“Our grub?” Kkhrkht was taken aback. “I’ll have to ask
Pzeptilan and Vvezhti-Kla.”
“Please do. I’m not a monster, you know.” Psy looked
pleadingly into Kkhrkht’s unmoving compound eyes. “I’ve had children too.”
Marius Pedersen strutted fretfully back and forth in front of
the holographic images of Pierre Dupont and Silver Varmananda in his office at
the Solis City headquarters of the Duvali Foundation on Mars. His tension wasn’t
helped by the three Earth Fed Intelligence officers who’d arrived and insisted
on his talking to these people. Who were they? They didn’t look like any Duvali
Foundation acolytes he’d ever known and, according to the officers, they were
from the future. It had to be some sort of set-up by Earth Fed. But what were
they playing at and what did they really want? Were they just testing the limits
of his gullibility or maybe it was just some awful prank cooked up in the depths
of the security services.
They just looked wrong. Not in the way Earth Fed agents stood
out. No, their spies were more like caricatures of Duvali acolytes with their
obsessive fetishisation of cybernetics. The pair of holograms before him had no
evidence of any cybernetics whatsoever. Oh, he knew that some acolytes had
little interest in cybernetics and that even some of their senior members wore
fakes just to show their approval of the younger followers. But at least one of
them should have some sort of visible enhancement.
But still he almost found himself agreeing with Earth Fed’s
insistence on quarantining except that Earth Fed would get the first grab at
their future technology; something that he wanted.
“I can’t go along with this.” He addressed the officers.
“Mr. Pedersen, your consent is moot.” A buzz cut blond major
in a crisp spotless uniform wearily replied. “We’re already there. We’re
offering you access in return for your co-operation.”
“We want access to their technology.” Marius insisted. “We
are the Duvali Foundation and that ship is our property.”
“I can’t guarantee you that.” The major continued. “Are you
aware of the time loop conundrum?”
“Of course I am.” Marius spluttered indignantly. “I’m not an
“Then you understand the need to reduce the potential
“It is already begun.” Marius spelt out the obvious. “What
ever distortions this event is causing to our timeline have already begun and
the best thing we can do is to ride it out.”
“Think of this as damage limitation.” The major blanked out
Marius’ perspective. “You break the news to your crew and we’ll give you access.
Otherwise we take them into quarantine anyway.”
“Pah, you and your timeline nonsense. This is just an excuse
to get your grubby mitts on their technology. Our technology, I might add.”
Marius defiantly thumped his chest. “You’re no better than pirates.”
“Yes or no, Mr. Pedersen?” The major made it very clear he
was unimpressed by Marius’ histrionics.
“Do you give me any choice? We do not abandon our own, no
matter what the circumstances.” Marius was thinking on his feet for a suitable
get-out phrase. This meeting, as all official meetings, was being recorded and
he knew he’d be held accountable for his collaboration. “You hold all the cards
this time, Major Eversleigh, and leave me little choice. We cannot abandon our
people so you’ve forced our hand and we will comply with your demands.”
“Thank you.” Major Eversleigh replied with a tart military
crispness that matched the freshly-ironed creases in his uniform. “Let us know
when you have assembled a team to visit the Spirit of Discovery and we will
arrange for their transport.”
Marius reluctantly turned to face the holograms knowing full
well that he’d be held responsible for his ‘lapse of judgement’ if anything went
wrong. At least he had enough time to round up a covert group of engineers to
send out and glean whatever technology they could get hold of. With a bit of
luck they might even have a few acolytes serving aboard the Space Force ships
despatched out to the alien ship. He’d have to check his files after their
meeting. He switched the sound back on and addressed Pierre and Silver: “Much as
I would like to welcome you back to Earth, I can’t as we have lost all contact
with Earth. Due to the unusual nature of your circumstances, Earth Fed has
insisted that your ship and crew be held under quarantine. We will send a team
to visit you and rest assured that we will petition for your release most
vigorously through the courts. Your achievements for both the Duvali Foundation
and humanity are beyond our wildest dreams. We shall not abandon you, be most
certain of that. May the oneness be with you.”
There was no hiding Pierre and Silver’s confused and
crestfallen expressions. Marius pressed on before they could even gather their
wits to speak. “I can see your disappointment. However you set out on your
mission with no guarantee of ever returning to Earth.” He was guessing here. As
far as he knew the Duvali Foundation had no plans for space exploration. And he
was in their most senior ranks on Mars. Whatever might have been afoot on Earth
was lost for the time being if what Major Eversleigh had told him was true.
They’d have to send an exploration team from their base on Luna to check it out
“Merde!” Pierre swore after Marius’ hologram faded out from
the crew lounge aboard the Spirit of Discovery. “Ze government wants to keep us
prisoner in one of their space stations. Non! We must not go, we should stay
“But we told the Shallens we’d leave as soon as we got back
to Earth. And the Space Force is already here to take us back.” Silver, like the
rest of the crew had been looking forward to life back on Earth. “We can’t back
“We can and we must.” Pierre was emphatic. “I will get down
on my knees and beg zat Shallen Queen, Knetryxx, if I have to. We signed up for
exploration, not to end our days rotting in a prison. Here we have our freedom,
if we go wiz zis Space Corps we will be zere prisoners. Ironic, non? Anyway our
mechs have already abandoned ship and I have no idea where zey are now. We
should join zem if we can. Maybe zey knew something we didn’t.”
Silver was aghast but she could see Pierre’s logic. “What are
you going to do?”
“We go to see zat Knetryxx now while still have some time.”
Pierre took Silver’s hand as he set off briskly towards the walkway connecting
their broken ship to the Ark of Exodus.
They emerged onto the habitation deck into the midst of a
cheerful bustling crowd eagerly packing away their temporary tents and bivouacs
preparing for their return trip to Earth. A small group broke off and gathered
around Pierre and Silver. “Hey, what’s the matter? You look like you’ve seen a
ghost.” One of the men addressed Pierre.
“I have…. Ze ghost of dead-handed paranoiac military
bureaucracy.” Pierre answered miserably. He had to get away from this deck
before the Space Force arrived.
“We must stay here. They mean to put us all in prison.”
Pierre explained impatiently.
A ripple of confused expressions spread across the crowd.
“What do you mean?”
“We have arrived here in our past. Don’t ask me how it
happened.” Pierre explained impatiently. “Ze Duvali Foundation here has no
knowledge of us and ze government wants to keep us in prison… zey call it
quarantine… but you know what zey mean. When zey come here do not go wiz zem
under any circumstance. Make any excuse you want. Zat is an order… comprend?”
A ring of blank uncomprehending faces stared back at Pierre
and Silver. Eventually one of them, a rotund earth-motherly woman, spoke.
“Anything you say, Pierre. You’re the boss.” She turned to face the others. “You
heard him, we’re staying put. Tell everyone else right away.”
“Thank you.” Pierre addressed the remaining crowd. “Silver
and I go to see zere Queen to ask permission to stay here. Has anyone seen Major
Ghihk or Colonel Li-Penh around?”
“They’re in the command centre.” A young fresh-faced man
Pierre thanked him and hurried off with Silver desperately
keeping up with him. When they arrived Ranjit was in a discussion with the crew
of the Odysseus through a viewscreen terminal. “… our crew are preparing for
transfer to your ship. Our ship is stuck. Their mooring clamps are locked in
place around our ship. We may have to cut it free. I don’t think it will be much
of a problem. The Shallens here want us to leave as soon as possible.”
Pierre stood out of the line of sight of the viewscreen and
drew his hand across his throat in full view of Ranjit.
“I’m sorry, Lieutenant Osterberg, I have to go now. I look
forward to meeting you aboard the Odysseus.” Ranjit cordially signed off. “What
now, Pierre?” He asked unpleasantly. He really disliked the oily effete
Frenchman and made no pretence to hide his feelings.
“It’s a trap. We must stay here on zis ship wiz ze Shallens.”
Pierre ignored Ranjit’s open contempt.
“Oh come on. Hitting the Pernod already?” Wang playfully
“Pah, I’m serious!” Pierre was desperate to get through to
this pair of hard-boiled mercenaries. He had to get them on his side. “I just
got off ze line wiz ze head of ze Duvali Foundation on Mars and he has agreed
wiz ze government’s demand to hold us in quarantine. Zat’s zere words… zey mean
to hold us in prison.”
“So you say.” Ranjit poured cold water on Pierre’s concern.
“You think I’m making zis up?” Pierre was running out of
patience with Ranjit. “I want to go back to Earth too, you know.”
“Mars, you say? Why no news from Earth?” Wang had noticed a
lack of mention of Earth when he and Ranjit were in conference with the Space
“I don’t know.” Pierre pleaded. “Zey said zat zey lost
contact with Earth. Surely zat is not possible. Something is wrong here. You and
your soldats can go wiz zem if you want to but we Duvali Foundationeers are
staying here. Wang, you had dealings wiz ze Shallens. I would like you to come
wiz me. Please.”
Wang rolled his eyes. “It’s a bit late. They’ve already
docked and should be here any minute now but if it makes you feel better I’ll
come along with you. Ranjit, keep an eye on things. I hope this doesn’t take too
long. First the mechs mutiny and then this lot… So what do you want me for?”
“I have to ask zere Queen if we can stay here. You had
dealings wiz zere military so maybe you can help me convince zem zat we mean zem
no harm.” Pierre explained as he led Wang and Silver away from the command
“What, just like that?” Wang asked incredulously. “And how do
you propose to find her?”
“We start wiz zere liaisons.” He explained as they approached
the environment deck station where a group of bored Shallens were sitting around
playing what looked like a game of cards. He spotted Wootjan-Oo in their group
and walked straight up to him. “Ah zere you are!”
Wootjan-Oo looked up from his cards. “Hello Pierre. I hear
you’re going back to HomeNest soon.”
“Zat is what is what I want to talk to you about.” Pierre
looked around nervously. “Could we talk in private please?”
“Of course.” Wootjan-Oo set down his cards and followed
Pierre a short distance away. The rest of the Shallen group strained their ears
to hear what Pierre wanted to talk about while making small talk with Silver and
“We cannot go back to Earth. Somehow we have arrived back
before we set out on our journey.” Pierre launched into his plea. “Zey mean to
put us in prison. I cannot let zat happen to my crew and so I ask you and your
Queen to let us stay on your ship.”
“You mean Knetryxx?”
Wootjan-Oo cawed disbelievingly. “And where would you go?”
“We could go to one of zose empty sections you told us
about.” Pierre explained hurriedly. “I think zat is where our mechs have gone.”
Wootjan-Oo clucked disapprovingly. He knew about the humans’
machine-people going missing and that the Ark’s overseers were less than
impressed by their actions. The overseers were the administrative caste who ran
the day-to-day business of the Ark. Yes, they had aliens aboard the Ark. The
T’lunth occupied most of the Dastarnia sector but that had been carefully
negotiated and they kept out of Shallen affairs. There had been others before
them as well. But these humans were running amok and it didn’t bode well. But
they had helped him and his friends when they had no-one else to turn to. “All
right, I’ll take you to see her. But don’t get your hopes up.”
Kkhrkht and Psy were idling around the main concourse
chatting aimlessly and watching the crowds milling around when Pierre, Silver
and Wang accompanied by Wootjan-Oo hurried past. The detector bead in Kkhrkht’s
claws turned bright red and pointed towards them. Dzzhakh-ye looked down at it
in disbelief and gave Psy a sharp nudge.
“Ow, you’ve got sharp elbows.” Psy complained.
Kkhrkht pointed to the detector bead in dzzhakh-ye’s claws.
“What the fuck?!?” Psy spluttered. “We’ve got to stop them.”
“You have some floxetrasine?”
“Yes, but not much. We’ll only have one chance to hit them. I
wasn’t expecting to come across any infected carriers quite so soon. See those
guards over there?” Psy pointed out a group of the Ark’s Guards. “I want you to
push the crowd away from the carriers and grab one of the soldier’s plasma
lances. Shoot to kill as soon as they change. Don’t let any part of their bodies
touch you. You understand? Now go!” Psy gave Kkhrkht a forceful shove.
Kkhrkht barrelled across the concourse at full tilt knocking
into Shallens left, right and centre with Psy following close behind bellowing
as loudly and aggressively as shi could. Kkhrkht spread dzzhakh-ye’s four arms
as wide as possible to sweep people out of the way as dzzhakh ran past
Wootjan-Oo and the humans. Psy threw a handful of capsules on the ground from
where shi stood behind the humans and waited. It didn’t take long before Pierre,
Silver and Wang began to morph into Gulmarians. Psy drew hir pistol and shot
them from behind but it would take more than a few shots from hir little pistol
to bring them down.
Wootjan-Oo squawked and shrieked in terror running away from
the confusion as Kkhrkht leapt past him, wrenched a plasma lance from one of the
dumbfounded guards, span around and pumped the staggering Gulmarians with enough
hot crackling plasma to roast a brontosaurus. The surrounding Shallens who had
moments earlier being going about their daily lives crushed back against shop
fronts, walls and into doorways in fear for their lives to get away from the
one-sided battle that erupted in their midst. Just as suddenly it started, it
ended with Psy and Kkhrkht standing over the smoking, bleeding and very lifeless
A shocked silence hung over the concourse for a few minutes
before people started scattering and running away. A few curious onlookers
stepped forward to take a closer look. The guards regained their wits and strode
over to inspect the carcasses. Wootjan-Oo approached Kkhrkht. “What have you
done? What are they?”
“Don’t touch them!” Psy barked authoritatively in fluent
Darconit to the Guards as shi pushed them back. “They’re infectious.”
“What, will it turn me onto one of them?” A burly reptilian
soldier guffawed sarcastically.
“Yes, it will actually.” Psy quipped tartly. “You might want
to clear this concourse and start decontaminating it. Treat these bodies as you
would any highly toxic biohazard and destroy them.”
“And you two better have a good explanation for our
commander.” A tall avian guard firmly grabbed hold of Psy and Kkhrkht. “Murder,
theft of a controlled weapon from a Guard and disturbing the peace in a public
“Count yourselves lucky we found and killed these
Gulmarians.” Psy squirmed fruitlessly in the guard’s iron grip. By now several
platoons of guards had made their way down to the concourse and were running
noisily towards them with their plasma lances at the ready.
The Guards’ district commander brushed his way through the
rabble of common foot soldiers and stepped up to Psy and Kkhrkht. “What this all
“Kkhrkht here discovered some Gulmarians aboard your Ark and
neutralised them for you.” Psy explained hurriedly. Time was of the essence.
“There may be more.”
“Gulmarians? I’ve never heard of them. And why are they such
a threat?” The avian Shallen officer made it clear by his tone of voice that he
didn’t believe a word Psy said.
“Ask Duke Reflinghar.” Psy replied.
“And what would the Duke want with you?” The officer asked
“More than you might imagine.”
“You can explain that to Colonel Norfalth. Come with us.” The
officer wanted to get things back to normal as soon as possible and his soldiers
pulled Psy and Kkhrkht along to follow him.
“Stop!” Psy bellowed at the soldiers who went forward to
clear away the Gulmarian carcasses. “Do not touch them or their body fluids. It
will infect you!”
“What do you know about this?” The officer turned to address
“I am the Nglubi field agent for this sector and I know
everything there is to know about those creatures.” Psy risked revealing hir
true identity amongst the Shallens.
“You don’t look like an Nglubi.” The officer was losing his
patience with Psy.
“We can regenerate in any form we desire. If you want proof,
watch me take control of your gateways.
“You risk your life amongst us.” The Shallen guard officer
curtly reminded Psy.
“Well I certainly didn’t come here for my health.” Psy
couldn’t agree more with the surly Shallen. “I came to visit Duke Reflinghar.”
“Yes, of course you did.” The Shallen officer humoured Psy
before addressing his soldiers: “Take these reprobates to Norfalth. He can sort
Fortunately for Psy and Kkhrkht Colonel Norfalth had heard of
the Gulmarians but didn’t know more about them other than they were a dangerous
enemy. He listened to Psy’s hasty explanation and put a call through the
Reflinghar who was in his bedroom when he took the call. Deleethia was visible
in the background preening herself in front of her vanity mirror.
“Gulmarians, you say?” He addressed Psy and Norfalth. “You
did the right thing. And be very careful with their bodies.” He addressed
Norfalth. “Perform a complete decontamination and incinerate the remains. As the
Nglubi says, they are infectious. That is one of the ways they spread and
“I told you this would end badly.” Deleethia piped up with
out even turning away from her mirror. “First it’s the Chznzet, then the Nglubi
threaten to impound the Ark and now it’s the Gulmarians. What next?”
“I’ll take care if it, dear.” Reflinghar sighed before
regaining his composure to address Norfalth. “If the Nglubi discovers any more
Gulmarians or any infected carriers they must be isolated and destroyed. Is that
“Yes, my lord.” Norfalth replied. “And what about the
prisoners?” Norfalth nodded towards Psy and Kkhrkht.
“I know them both. They are reliable and you can trust them.
You will need their expertise to locate and destroy the Gulmarians. After that
you can release them.”
“As you command, my lord.” Norfalth bowed as Reflinghar
signed off leaving the screen blank. “You heard the Duke.” Norfalth addressed
Psy and Kkhrkht. “So where are these other Gulmarians?”
“They came from the human crew of that ship you have in tow.
It’s possible some more of their crew is infected.” Psy explained coolly. “First
we have to isolate them and then stop the humans from Mars contacting them. Do
you know where they are?”
Norfalth consulted a screen built into his work desk and then
an illuminated 3-D scale projection of the Ark of Exodus. “It looks like they’re
all in the Pynthon sector environment deck or else in their ship. Their machine
people had migrated to the Cruthigne sector but we’ve since lost track of them.
We have bulkheads in each sector in case there’s a breach that can be closed.”
“As far as we know the Gulmarians can only infect organic
life forms so we’ll deal with the humans first. Seal up that sector and evacuate
your own people as unobtrusively as possible. Then stall the humans from Mars
until I can meet up with them.” Psy formulated hir plan on the spot. “We don’t
want them getting suspicious. Kkhrkht, give me your blue crystal.”
“What crystal?” Kkhrkht lied unconvincingly. It was dzzhakh’s
prize possession and dzzhakh didn’t want to lose it.
“The one you have in your kit pouch. I know it’s there. We
haven’t got time for games.”
Kkhrkht reluctantly handed it over. “Can I have it back?”
Psy took the crystal in hir hands and closed hir eyes. The
crystal began to glow with a solid blue light until, as if it were soft as
putty, shi pulled it apart into two smaller glowing blobs which quickly reverted
to their previous state as clear blue crystals. “Yes.” Psy handed one of the
crystals to Kkhrkht. “And no.”
Psy held the other crystal out to show Norfalth. “This
crystal can act as a remote gateway. All I need to do is to drop it in the
middle of the human’s camp and I can flood the entire section with floxetrasine.
It won’t affect anyone who isn’t infected. After that it’s up to you and your
soldiers to kill any of them that turn into Gulmarians.”
“Where are you going to get that much gas?” Kkhrkht could see
the obvious flaw in Psy’s plan.
“From Mglyptl. Shi can pump it directly from hir lab through
the gateway this crystal will open.”
“I don’t get it. One minute we’re told to pack things up to
get ready to go back to Earth, the next we’re told to put the tents back up
because we’re staying here.” Nathan DiMarco complained while taking a break from
setting one of their large dormitory tents.
“There was never any guarantee that we would ever return to
Earth.” Mustapha Al-Halabi shrugged his shoulders philosophically. “So far, so
good: its one day at a time for me.”
“Hey guys, look over there!” Louisa MacFarlane pointed off
into the distance along the environment deck. “A flock of dragons flying our
Nathan and Mustapha looked up. Sure enough, approaching them
was a large flock of winged creatures flapping their wings on long, slow lazy
beats. Their long necks and scaly lack of feathers gave them a very draconic
“They’ve got riders, too.” Nathan could just about make out
the dragon riders if he squinted his eyes and made the extra effort to focus.
“That is so rad!” Louisa almost squealed with excitement as
she fumbled around in her bag for her communicator and made sure its camera was
active. “I’ve got to get some pictures.” More and more people stopped what they
were doing to look as the flock of dragons flew closer. Soon they were circling
overhead, screeching and cawing, their riders clearly visible. One dragon broke
away from the flock, descended to their camp and landed in a clearing. It had
two riders: an avian Shallen and a Human. The Human dismounted and the dragon
flapped its wings uneasily as if it wanted to fly away but was restrained by its
The human held out its hands and they were engulfed in a glow
of light: the remote gateway that served as a conduit for Mglyptl’s
floxetrasine. Radiating outwards in a fast-spreading circle from the dragon, the
crew of the Spirit of Discovery spasmed, frothed and fell in confused
death-throe agonies as the floxetrasine forced the Gulmarian biota dormant in
their bodies to manifest itself, destroying the unfortunate Humans’ minds whose
last moments of consciousness were a warped and psychedelic torment before being
shattered into an oblivion of eternal darkness. When it was over there were no
survivors. All had been infected with Gulmarian biota and the marksmen riding
the dragons finished them off with the grim certitude of executioners. Somewhere
out amongst the smouldering wreckage a ladies’ communicator lay beside a charred