Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 26: A turn for the worse.

      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 his sleeve.
     “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 flooded in.
     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 following offences:
     “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 double-blind interrogation.
     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 them.
     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 better now?”
     “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 happened.
     “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 tetchily.
     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.
     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 off.
     “Or what?” Psy kept up the pressure on Kkhrkht.
     “They might be from another universe.” Kkhrkht added sheepishly.
     “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 suggested.
     “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 possible.
     “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 Vermthellyn.
     “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 me.”
     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 griped miserably.
     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 and Yldoseh.
     “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’ written below.
     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 suggested.
     “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 place.”
     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 themselves.
     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 Exodus.
     “No, in far better shape than this old rust bucket.” Psy reassured her.
     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 attack us?”
     “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 them going.
     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 that please?”
     “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 me.”
     “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 explained.
     “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 live there?”
     “The Arbrunthiel sector was damaged when we left the Sylbarian system.” Yldoseh added just to let Xandu know that she too knew their history.
     “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 the Rtuntli.”
     “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 trapped.”
     “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 dzhinn’s plan.
     “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 Barwyndar.
     “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 authorities.”
     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 themselves.
     “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 be accommodating.
     “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 ship?”
     “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!”
     “What happened?”
     “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 popular.”
     “So why don’t you recruit some Chznzet to work for you?” Kkhrkht suggested.
     “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 idiot.”
     “Then you understand the need to reduce the potential damage.”
     “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 for themselves.
     “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 here.”
     “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 down now.”
     “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 replied.
     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 teased Pierre.
     “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 Force.
     “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 centre.
     “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 Wang.
     “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 Gulmarian carcasses.
     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 place.”
     “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 about then?”
     “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 contemptuously.
     “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 Psy.
     “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 them out.”
     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 infiltrate.”
     “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 understood?”
     “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 way.”
     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 appearance.
     “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 rider.
     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 Gulmarian corpse.

Scribbles & Scraps
Chapter 25
Chapter 27