Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 27: The morning after.

     “You at the back, put that communicator away. I don’t care if it’s the Keeper herself on your screen. Pay attention!” A clearly frazzled and overworked reptilian sergeant of the Ark’s Guard shouted at Wootjan-Oo across the crowded ready-room full to bursting with the liaison team who had worked with the crew of the Spirit of Discovery. Embarrassed at being caught out, he quickly shut it off and slipped it into his kit bag while making sure that he hadn’t ruffled any of his feathers.
     “That’s better.” The sergeant waited until Wootjan-Oo put away his communicator, “As you may or may not know, the Pynthon sector environment deck is now sealed and under quarantine. The crew of the Human ship turned out to be Gulmarians and are now all presumed dead although we can’t rule out any survivors aboard their ship. The Humans still intend to reclaim their ship but because of the change of circumstances they need to board it now.”
     “Your group will accompany the Humans who are to board their ship. Each of you will be assigned to an escort team of the Ark’s Guards.” The sergeant continued. “Even though the Guards will all have translators. You will be needed in case there are any misunderstandings as, hopefully, you’re a bit more familiar with their culture and language. You’ll need to wear a biohazard suit. Those of you who have translators can pick up the Human language pack when you collect your suits. Everyone else will be issued with a translator. If you find any survivors, do not engage with them. The Humans want to take them alive. That is all. Dismissed.”
     Wootjan-Oo was scanned for signs of Human/Gulmarian contamination when he picked up his biohazard suit. He was pleasantly surprised at what a light fit it was compared to the space suits he had to wear when servicing the torch drives. Those suits were notorious for breaking avians’ tail feathers.
     Wootjan-Oo was still deeply confused about what had happened to the Humans. Pierre and Silver seemed to be thoroughly decent people. True friends in their time of need and yet they weren’t even Human. They had turned out to be Gulmarians and he had seen it happen with his own eyes. But what of their minds? Were they Humans who had somehow turned into Gulmarians? Gulmarians pretending to be Human or Gulmarian all the time? Were they really as dangerous as he’d been told? At the moment he had nothing to go on except the official story so he decided to accept it at face value unless he came across any evidence otherwise.
     As a member of the Technicians’ Guild and one of the liaison team who’d been aboard the Spirit of Discovery, Wootjan-Oo was assigned to a team escorting the Human engineering crew. At least he wasn’t with any of the search teams that had gone on ahead. Unlike the Shallen Guards who all wore biohazard suits the Humans arrived in white spacesuits carrying extra life-support units clumping around clumsily in outfits more suited to a zero-gravity vacuum environment.
     “You don’t need spacesuits.” Wootjan-Oo addressed the nearest Human. He guessed it to be a male by its shape. He could see that some had chest bulges similar to Silvers’. Breasts, they called them. But this one didn’t. “The life support aboard the ship is fully functional.”
     The Human stopped dead in its tracks and dropped its life support unit. “You, you know our language?” It gasped in disbelief through a tinny speaker attached to its spacesuit. Yes, Wootjan-Oo could see its face inside its helmet and was certain that it was a Human male.
     “I have a translator.” Wootjan-Oo pointed to the small blue translator attached to his biohazard suit.
     “Oh, yeah, they mentioned something about that at the briefing.” He replied hesitantly. “It’s not the same when it happens.”
     “Are you with the engineering team?” Wootjan-Oo asked the Human. He was anxious to get started. There was no getting out of it today so the next best thing was to get it over with as quickly as possible.
     “No, I’m with the flight crew. I don’t think the engineering crew are here yet. They got held up.” The Human explained.
     One of the Guards in Wootjan-Oo’s team strode over to where they were. “Are they ready?” The Guard asked gruffly.
     “No, this is their flight team.” Wootjan-Oo could sense the Guards’ impatience.
     The Guard grunted. “I’ll tell Lieutenant Ghantharkh they’ve arrived.” He set off briskly and soon returned accompanied by another group of Guards who led the Humans aboard the stricken ship. While he waited Wootjan-Oo watched groups of Human soldiers being escorted onto the ship by squads of the Arks’ Guards. Wootjan-Oo guessed those Humans to be their soldiers. They had sleek black spacesuits and carried ugly dangerous-looking weapons. A far cry from the elegant but extremely lethal plasma lances the Guards wielded. They certainly weren’t taking any chances.
     Wootjan-Oo’s communicator beeped. It was Morgau.
     “What happened?” Morgau asked. “You cut me off there.”
     “Briefing meeting.“ Wootjan-Oo replied tersely. “Try not to call me when I’m at work, OK?”
     “Anything interesting?” Morgau was clearly already bored with his life of luxury and was looking for some diversion.
     “Gotta escort the Humans onto that ship we rescued.”
     “You mean the one where they all turned into those monsters?” Morgau sounded excited. “Can Knetryxx and I tag along? We won’t get in your way.”
     “No, there might be some survivors aboard.” Wootjan-Oo firmly squashed Morgau’s desperate hopes. “It’s dangerous and Barwyndar would never allow you or Knetryxx to go.”
     “Damn that Barwyndar, she’s almost as bad as those loopy Chznzet.” Morgau whined.
     “At least you’re not tied up and doped up to your eyeballs.”
     “What happened to those Humans who helped us, Pierre and Silver?”
     “Them too. They were caught near the main gateway.”
     “Oh what? That is too weird.”
     “I know.” Wootjan-Oo shuddered uncomfortably. Pierre and Silver had been so friendly and helpful yet they had also turned out to be Gulmarians. Just then he spotted Sergeant Korillyan striding towards him. “Gotta go. Talk later.” Wootjan-Oo signed off.
     “Switch that communicator off right now, Engineer, or I’ll have to take it off you.” Sergeant Korillyan brusquely commanded Wootjan-Oo. “There might be survivors on board that ship and I need you to have your full attention on the job, not talking sweet nothings to your nest-mate. Is that understood?”
     Wootjan-Oo struggled to find his voice to explain that he wasn’t married when Sergeant Korillyan continued.
     “Do you want to know the worst job I ever had?” He asked rhetorically and continued before Wootjan-Oo could get a word out. “Telling some sobbing mother how her son died when he was servicing the plasma torches. And how did it happen? Because that damn fool spent all his time chattering away with his friends on a group line instead of paying attention to his work. That’s one job I don’t ever want to have to do again for a long time.”
     “I’m sorry.” Wootjan-Oo stared at the ground.
     “Good.” Sergeant Korillyan was satisfied that he’d made his point clear to this young engineer. “Lieutenant Ghantharkh wants to have a word with you.” He took Wootjan-Oo by one of his armwings and led him over to the field station where Lieutenant Ghantharkh was busy at a data terminal.
     “Ah, there you are.” Lieutenant Ghantharkh looked up. “Thank you, sergeant. That will be all.” He dismissed Sergeant Korillyan and waited until the sergeant was well out of earshot. “I see you’re escorting the Humans’ engineering team. I’d like you to size up their tech and their reactions to our tech. Be discreet, don’t ask any questions. Just observe. And while you’re at it, size up the tech on that ship. I know it’s fairly primitive compared to what we’ve got but they did manage to create those autonomous machine beings. We’ve negotiated limited salvage rights so you’re free to take anything that isn’t critical to running that ship. We’re especially interested in anything related to their machine beings.”
     Wootjan-Oo was taken aback but not entirely surprised by the Lieutenants’ request. Pierre and Silver hadn’t exactly given him a full rundown of their ship. Events and circumstances had been so rushed at the time. But he felt it best to bluff Commander Norfalth to appear more knowledgeable than he really was and deal with the problems later. As he thought over his new task he thought he spotted a small gold Chznzet egg-and-nest button on Lieutenant Ghantharkhs’ tunic lapel. He strained his eyes to make sure without making it obvious. It was! That meant there were still Chznzet on board after Duke Reflinghar threw them off the Ark into exile on Vermthellyn. He had to tell Commander Norfalth and Knetryxx. But if Lieutenant Ghantharkh was a Chznzet there must be others and they’d notice if he went straight to Commander Norfalth. He had to be very careful.
     “Is something the matter?” Lieutenant Ghantharkh asked Wootjan-Oo.
     “No.” Wootjan-Oo was glad he was wearing his biohazard suit. It covered up his neck feathers which were standing on end with startled alarm. “I wasn’t privy to much of the technology of their ship. Our encounters were brief and centred around Knetryxx and Morgau’s rescue.”
     “Ah yes, your heroic rescue of the Arks’ Keeper. Excellent work, Engineer.” Lieutenant Ghantharkh sounded patronisingly indifferent, almost sarcastic. “I’ve assigned some porters to your team to remove anything you deem to be of interest. I’m relying on your experience of contact with that ships crew to pick out tech that we might find useful.”
     “Yes sir, I’ll do what I can.”

     “No, no and no.” Barwyndar spluttered indignantly at the supplicant who insisted on shoving a scroll into her claws. “How dare you ambush me like this right after morning prayers.” She huffed indignantly and poked the scroll into the supplicants’ chest forcing him to take it back. He was a young reptilian Shallen sent from Estrillyd to petition on behalf of the exiled Chznzet. By the look of his smooth sleek scales and expensive clothes Barwyndar could tell that he was no manual labourer. Probably a lawyer employed by the Chznzet judging by the calculatedly obsequious manner in which he spoke.
     Barwyndar stopped in her tracks so suddenly to lecture this pampered miscreant that her retinue almost piled into her back. She was furious that her only escape from the daily treadmill of running the Ark in the Keeper Knetryxx’s name had been so rudely broken. “The Chznzet are banished from the Ark of Exodus. They must find homes elsewhere. Maybe on Hkk’Than or one of the other Chznzet worldships, but not here.”
     “But your eminence.” The supplicant begged earnestly. “They have lived here for thousands of generations. This is their home.”
     “Was their home.” Barwyndar acidly corrected him. “They threw that all away with their attempted piracy, attempted putsch and… and…” She gasped for dramatic effect. “Kidnapping the Keeper herself.”
     “That was only a small faction, Your Eminence.” The supplicant grovelled desperately as he held out the scroll in her direction. “Most are law-abiding peaceable citizens of the Ark of Exodus. Please.”
     Barwyndar wasn’t the least bit taken in by the supplicants’ act and tightly clasped her paws behind her back. She knew full well that accepting the scroll would be interpreted in a court of law as her having received and accepted the Chznzet request. “Take your petition to the Imperial Court and let them deal with it.” She scolded him sternly. “The Chznzet have been banished by The Keeper herself and the Olblavy Clan. Their word is law and The Ingnuthin do not engage in politics. That is all.” With that she stormed off down the cloistered hallway to her office as her retinue distanced themselves as quickly as they could from the hapless supplicant.
     She was still in a foul mood when she reached her office. Its soft earthen tones and subtle earthen scent had little effect on her as she bowed before her shrine to the All-Mother. A gold and polished stone statuette of a winged reptilian warrior queen defiantly guarding the eggs in her nest stared back mutely at Barwyndar as she resolutely fought down her rage and reached back to the warm, glowing calm she’d dipped into during the mornings’ prayers.
     Eventually her composure returned and she sat at her desk, called up the days’ documents on her screen and set about her work. It wasn’t exciting but she was good at it and had kept the Ark running as a well-oiled machine for Milentiet in spite of the massive damage the Ark had sustained escaping from the Sylbarians. And would still be serving Milentiet if it hadn’t been for Talookti’s meddling. She let out a long, slow hiss of a sigh. Talookti had paid the price for the Chznzet’s impatience. She, however, would make her penance by serving the new Keeper just as efficiently.
     A young novice entered her office. Barwyndar looked up at the handsome young avian as he stood awkwardly in front of her desk. She thought she recognised him from somewhere but wasn’t sure. “What is it?”
     “The workmen have arrived to repair the ducting, Your Eminence.” The novice bowed respectfully.
     “See them in.” She instructed the novice who left immediately to fetch the workmen. About time, too, Barwyndar thought as she turned her attention back to her datascreen. For three days now there’d been a puddle of water on the floor in one corner of her office. Yesterday she was certain she’d heard sparking and smelled smoke.
     Five workmen in hooded overalls trundled noisily into her office carrying boxes of tools and parts. Barwyndar stayed at her desk and paid them little attention as they pulled away several wall panels and set about their work. It wasn’t as if they could compromise her security. Shallens of their class were only semi-literate, she sniffed disdainfully. The most they ever read were technical manuals and the occasional scandal sheet. The dense flowing pictograms, text and graphics on her screen would look like a confused jumble to them.
     She hummed and whispered a tune as she delved into her work tapping the tip of her tail in time with the rhythm against the side of her seat. The report from the Maintenance Brigade was encouraging. Not only had they managed to secure the bulkheads to stop any more atmospheric leakage from the Arbrunthiel sector but were managing to reclaim and repressurise entire decks. Food production hadn’t been too badly affected and was getting back to normal as the environment deck of the Arbrunthiel sector hadn’t been used for generations having been effectively abandoned. So its further damage hadn’t affected things much. The T’lunth had stopped complaining and were pleased to report that their agricultural output was back to normal. Luckily for them they were in the Dastarnia sector which was halfway round the Ark and to the rear… as far away from the collision as was possible.
     Then the bad news: material requisition estimates for the new repairs above and beyond the existing repairs which had been ticking along slowly. Slowly: because the damage was so extensive and also because many Shallens had found life on Vermthellyn quite pleasant and were in no hurry to leave. So having a worldship that wasn’t quite spaceworthy was the best excuse ever. They, much to the Rtuntli’s annoyance, had nowhere else to go until their worldship could fly again.
     And where was she expected to source the machinery, refined metals, alloys and glasses? Vermthellyn wasn’t exactly an industrial powerhouse. Importing materials via gateways from other worlds was expensive, which was another reason why the repairs had been taking so long. And now with the latest smash-up entering the HomeNest system that was all increasing by at least an order of magnitude. From the reports that arrived in her office it had appeared that not one, but three Human ships had impacted The Ark of Exodus at speed as well as multiple thermonuclear explosions. This time they couldn’t even cut away the damaged hull and recycle it. No, so much had become radioactive that it would simply have to be cut away and jettisoned.
     So much for the Nglubi demand that we leave the HomeNest system. Now they were stuck on the end of a low-capacity pedestrian gateway in a system which, according to the latest reports, barely had the technological capacity to supply the materials they needed. They’d be in orbit here until the next Keeper was anointed or the one after her unless they initiated a technology transfer program. Hah, that’ll put one up the Galactic Council Barwyndar clucked gleefully knowing full well how much they disproved of technology transfer to unrecognised civilisations.
     One of the workmen approached Barwyndar’s desk and placed a silvery ovoid object on it. She recognised it immediately: A privacy field generator. She had the exact same model herself and used hers when she went out to nightclubs to pick up young studs for one night stands. And then she remembered just how and where she’d met that young novice before. “What?” She looked up still thinking about that wild night as the workman pulled back his hood to reveal an aged reptilian-avian half-breed. The russet-and-grey feathers on the crown of his head and neck were dulled with age. “Sebret’Zaan!” Barwyndar pawed her desk and gasped in shocked surprise. “What are you doing here? You should be… you should be…”
     “…On the Hkk’Than, overseeing the Chznzet Academy of Sciences and Literature?” Sebret’Zaan coolly completed her sentence with a knowing wink. “Oh you know how it is.” He toyed with Barwyndar. “Just can’t get workmen when you need them so I thought I’d come along and fix the leak for you myself.”
     Barwyndar desperately struggled to maintain her composure. She opened her mouth to speak but no words came out. It was all she could do to keep herself from looking like some common fool.
     “And to salvage what I can of Talookti’s most interesting work.” Sebret’Zaan glibly continued, his eyes bright with a fanboi’s excitement. “Fascinating stuff, don’t you think? That timeline idea of his was pure genius.”
     “You must leave at once.” Barwyndar eventually blurted out. “Chznzet are banished from the Ark of Exodus.”
     “Ah, well you see that’s all about to change.” Sebret’Zaan explained genially.
     “What do you mean?”
     “There have been riots in Estrillyd, Tork’Avn and Mene-Zutso. Shocking! Disgraceful!” Sebret’Zaan did a comic impression of a pompous Rtuntli parliamentarian. ”The Rtuntli parliament has called for the instigators to be expelled. Strange as it may seem, they just all so happen to be Chznzet, recently expelled from the Shallen Worldship, The Ark of Exodus which until recently had been in orbit around Vermthellyn and had abandoned over half a million of its’ citizens upon the rightful soil of the Rtuntli. We cannot tolerate these good-for-nothing anarchists disrupting our society. Expel them all!” He poked a claw in the air for extra effect. “What have they ever done except buy our industries and take our jobs?”
     “We don’t have enough room. Dastarnia is leased to the T’lunth, Arbrunthiel’s uninhabitable, Pynthon’s quarantined and Cruthigne’s a slum. There would be a civil war if we shoved everyone from Vermthellyn into Cruthigne. They could go to Cervetica except…”
     “…Chznzet don’t go there.” Sebret’Zaan smugly reminded Barwyndar.
     “I know that.” She hissed tetchily. “So they have to come right back here. That was a very clever move of yours using the Rtuntli to get back on the Ark.”
     “Who, me? I wouldn’t dream of such a thing.” Sebret’Zaan mocked Barwyndar. “Events do seem to have a way of overtaking one sometimes. But there is a compromise, a fig leaf to offer the Rtuntli.”
     “Which is?”
     “Offer to take the Chznzet instigators in return for allowing the rest of the good law-abiding Shallens to stay on Vermthellyn.”
     “Well then you have your civil war and the Chznzet.” Sebret’Zaan calmly reminded Barwyndar before leaning across her desk and dropping his act. “Don’t you ever forget who rescued you from that slaver gang. And who made sure you had an education so that you didn’t end up as a street prostitute? Who sponsored you for a place in the Ingnuthin Order? And then made sure you were appointed as the High Priestess aboard the Ark of Exodus?”
     "Us!” Sebret’Zaan proudly thumped his age-narrowed chest which made him burst out coughing and wheezing heavily. “The Chznzet, that’s who. We made you Barwyndar. When we come calling you will listen or you will be replaced just like Milentiet.” He coldly made his point.
     “This is preposterous!” Barwyndar was unable to accept that her entire life had been moulded to create a deep cover agent for the Chznzet. And that agent was herself. “And what if I refuse? What if I were to retire?”
     “Your retirement would be very brief.” Sebret’Zaan stared hard and cold into Barwyndar’s eyes. “Oh dear, the former High Priestess had a terrible accident. How tragic!”
     “What do you want?” Barwyndar realised she was cornered. She could either co-operate or be killed and replaced with someone else who would do the Chznzet’s bidding. She decided to play along in the hope that she’d be able to escape their clutches at a later date… if they didn’t kill her first.
     Sebret’Zaan drew his paws up across his chest and stood up in a fey, theatrical pose. “In the name of the All-Mother who never forgets her children, no matter how far they may stray...”
     Barwyndar facepalmed. “Oh no…”
     “We shall take these recalcitrant children back into our heart lest they bring further shame upon us and any further distress to the gracious Rtuntli who have accepted us into their world.”
     Barwyndar couldn’t bear it any longer. Sebret’Zaan’s performance made her cringe with embarrassment. “You’re talking to the wrong person, Sebret’Zaan. It’s not up to me or the Ingnuthin whether or not the Chznzet are allowed on this ship.”
     “Well spotted young Barwyndar.” Sebret’Zaan mocked her again. He was the Chznzet who had rescued her all those years ago. And he knew that she knew. “House Sedeirtra is in negotiation with the Rtuntli parliament. You will hear from Duke Reflinghar shortly and be requested to make a public announcement. I’m sure we can count on you to do your duty.” He gave one of her cheeks a playful squeeze the way a doting grandparent would do with an infant.
     “For the Chznzet?” Barwyndar spat the words out bitterly.
     “For all Shallens and in the spirit of goodwill between all races.” Sebret’Zaan mock-graciously corrected her.
     “What have you done to me?” Barwyndar demanded in angry despair. “You’ve made a puppet out of me. I’m not a free agent.”
     “Is anyone?” Sebret’Zaan asked cryptically. “Or would you have preferred it if I had left you as that thug’s slave? You would have been dead long ago, Barwyndar. I gave you a life, young lady. You could at least show a bit of gratitude.” He replied calmly and with just a trace of repressed anger. With that he switched off the privacy field generator, pocketed it, pulled his hood back up and slipped back into the role of anonymous menial labourer. “The leak was only a minor one Your Eminence and is now fully repaired.” Sebret’Zaan bowed deeply and genuflected reverentially. “It is our deepest honour to have been of your service.” Behind him the four other workmen made their way out of her office carrying their tools with them. He picked up the last box of tools and slipped out after them leaving Barwyndar in a stunned silence wondering if she’d just had a very bizarre hallucination. But the small gold Chznzet egg-and-nest button Sebret’Zaan had left on her desk said otherwise.
     Captain Brian Seward of the Odysseus held on tightly to his saddle on the dragon he rode with Commander Norfalth in front and Psy behind. Norfalth, an accomplished dragon rider, circled low and lazily over the remains of the Spirit of Discovery’s base camp on the environment deck. At first Brian found it awkward in the saddle with his legs splayed and tucked under his saddle but soon fell in step with the dragons’ slow, powerful rhythm. A bit like riding a horse except the dragon was much stronger and they were up in the air with precious little holding them into their saddles. No matter how they flew the dragon always seemed to be able to centre their weight over its’ back.
     All the Gulmarian corpses at the centre of the camp had already been cleared away but Psy spotted a team of Shallens in their white biohazard suits at the periphery of the camp, leaned forward and pointed them out to Brian. “Time to get a close look at what we’re dealing with, Brian. Pictures are all very well.” Shi reached past Brian to point out the knot of activity to Norfalth who spurred the dragon, pulled its’ reins rightward and barked a string of commands in Darkonit. Whoomp, whoomp, whoomp, the dragons’ wing strokes took on a more serious tone as they set off at speed towards the clean-up crew.
     Once again Norfalth eased their dragon into wide, slow circles so that Brian could get a view. They watched as the clean-up crew lifted the corpses with mechanical hoists into sealed sarcophagi which were being assembled at a collection point. “What are they going to do with those bodies?” Brian asked Psy.
     “Norfalth?” Psy passed Brian’s question on.
     “Incinerate them.” Norfalth replied indifferently.
     “Do you not keep any to study?” Brian was surprised by Norfalth’s apparent lack of curiosity.
     “We have more than enough already.” Norfalth laughed mirthlessly. “You see this place?” Norfalth swept one of his arms to encompass the land below them. “It will all have to be sterilised. It’ll be a long time before anything grows here again. And it was one of our better public parks. Lover’s Glade was what the young ‘uns called it. I’ll be lucky if I ever see it like this again in my lifetime.”
     “I’m sorry.” Brian looked out across the gentle rolling hills, copses of trees, rivers and lakes spread out across the epic curvature of the worldships’ environment deck and imagined how it would look as nothing more than sterile dust. “How much of it?”
     “Everything between the bulkheads.” Norfalth shrugged. “Worse has happened before, the Ark will survive. She always does.”
     “I have every confidence in you, Norfalth, and your new Keeper to restore the Ark of Exodus to her former glory.” Psy replied diplomatically. “I’m glad you’ve kept some of the Gulmarian bodies.”
     “What, you care about those…. things?” Norfalth snorted incredulously.
     “You must be joking!” Psy laughed off the suggestion. “We’re interested in tracking their source. Some Gulmarians turned up in the local system here before your Ark arrived. They appear to have come via a different vector: In this case local pirates who may or may not have had direct dealings with the Gulmarians. We’ve identified several different Gulmarian genetic pools, if that’s what you could call them, and it would be interesting to see if the Gulmarians who arrived at the Ark come from the same pool as the ones we found in this system.”
     “I wish the Galactic Council had informed us about them.” Norfalth’s bitter resentment was even apparent to Brian. “We could have done with some advance warning.”
     “But then you would have never found your fabled HomeNest.” Psy replied.
     “Between you and me, Nglubi, it’s something we could have done without.” Norfalth grumbled as he guided their dragon away from the workers below and out across the lush, verdant parkland. “The Keeper’s escapades, annoying as they were, proved that the Ark was unfit to fly anywhere and now, no thanks to the Chznzet, it’s a wreck. It’ll take ages to repair now.”
     “That’s something else I’ve been meaning to talk to you about.” Psy deliberately spoke in English so that hir translator would translate Norfalth’s Darkonit replies for Brian’s benefit. “We’ve come up with some approved locations for the Ark of Exodus in this system.”
     “So you’re not going to chase us out then?” Norfalth eased the dragon into a shallow arcing dive over a lake towards an archipelago of islands.
     “No, but this is an unrecognised civilisation. This race has had no previous contact with races outside their system so you must limit your interactions with them until the situation is normalised.”
     “Except the Nglubi” Norfalth snorted.
     “I am but a lowly field agent, Commander.” Psy held on tight to hir saddle as the dragon swooped at water level between the cliffs of two neighbouring forested islands gleefully snatching up fish and splashing up water with its wingtips as it went. “My job is but to observe and report. As you can see I had to take their form so as not to arouse suspicion.”
     “Go on.” Norfalth was plainly unconvinced and pulled the dragon up into a steep climb to fly over one of the islands, its wings beating hard and fast.
     “There are gravitational null zones near the home planet; they would be a safer location for your Ark rather than being pulled around by the tidal forces between their home planet and its moon.” Psy offered the Galactic Councils’ terms in as favourable a light as possible.
     “Gravitational null zones…” Brian interrupted. “Do you mean Lagrange Points?”
     “Indeed I do, Captain Seward.” Psy humoured Brian and immediately turned hir attention back to Norfalth who, by now, had their dragon racing enthusiastically at treetop level across the last island scaring birds out of trees with its screeching as they passed before they set out across the lake. “Commander Norfalth, I believe you’ll find the leading or trailing null zones ideal given your circumstances. Close enough, but not so close as to endanger your Ark or the locals.”
     “And we can stay there as long as we want?” Norfalth knew how to drive a bargain, even one as subtly played out as this one.
     “No, but you can stay until your Ark is certified spaceworthy.” Psy slapped down Norfalth’s blatant attempt to chivvy an unacceptable deal: unacceptable to the Nglubi who still wielded considerable behind-the-scene influence at the Galactic Council. “After that it all depends on whatever agreements you reach with the locals.”
     “I’m sure we can work something out.” Brian offered in a genial tone that hid his eager desire to get hold of some of the advanced technology of the Shallens’ worldship.
     “There, you see, Nglubi. Nothing to worry about.” Norfalth rumbled confidently as he steered the dragon towards the bulkhead portal which separated the barracks and agricultural land on the other side from the condemned parkland behind them.
     “Too bad about Redman Def.” Kazmak opined lazily as he swigged back a shot of cheap whiskey on the bridge of his battle cruiser.
     “One of the best.” Killdan commiserated, always careful not to fall foul of his boss’ twisted reasoning.
     “He had his moment of glory.” Kazmak knocked back another shot. “And from the vids I saw they enjoyed every minute of it.”
     “Good job we kept our distance.”
     “Yeah. Any word from Evil Bert yet? Now that we know what that stuff does and what we’re up against, I want a piece of that shipment Earth Fed sent to the MIM.”
     “He’s on it already, boss. One of our agents has reported that they’re warehousing the stuff at their Syrtis Major base and reckons he can cut us a good deal out the back door.” Killdan brought Kazmak up to speed.
     “Good. Keep things quiet. If there’s any of those fuckin’ aliens hiding amongst our clan or the Def Skulls I don’t want them to know anything. We pick it up and then head straight over to Hellas and spring it on them.” Kazmak elaborated his plans to Killdan. Charlene, his mech legs also listened carefully. Flatfoot Sam of the Satori Security Service would be very interested to hear this. “And after that we head out to Troy and clean up.”
     “Are you out of your tiny mind?” Killdan knew what Kazmak meant: taking the fight all the way to the Overlordz secret base in Jupiter’s Trojans. “They’d eat us alive.”
     “We’ve got to know what we’re dealing with, Killdan.” Kazmak explained. “Are the clans out there all replaced with Gulmarians or are there any of us left? Once we show them what those Gulmarians have been doing to us they’ll be grateful.”
     “And what if they’ve taken over everyone there?” Killdan saw that they were potentially walking into a deadly trap. “We’re so far down the pecking order that we don’t even deal directly with them. Everything we sell to those aliens goes through the Shin-Tan clan up at Troy. And look how many of our crew turned out to be Gulmarian. For all we know those freakin’ aliens could have taken over Troy long ago. And no-one would have ever known a thing if it hadn’t been for Evil Bert’s lucky find.”
     “I didn’t get to where I am today by being a coward.” Kazmak growled at Killdan. One thing he really hated was being lectured at by his subordinates… even when what they said made sense. “This is our chance to be taken seriously again, Killdan. The Raiders will become a respected clan again. I’ve had enough of being at the bottom of the heap. You ask any clansman at Hellas and they’d jump at the chance to be respected again.”
     “Respect doesn’t do you much good if you’re dead, Kazmak.”
     “Shut the fuck up.” Kazmak snapped angrily. “You can stay at Hellas with the women and children when we go to Troy.” Kazmak wasn’t going to have any of Killdan’s cautiousness. “But don’t ever expect to be at the top table again when it comes to cutting deals.”
     Killdan kept his silence. He knew he had little choice but to go on Kazmak’s suicidal mission to Troy. His only consolation was that mechs had a much better combat survival rate than fleshies.
     “Next up, is this.” Kazmak tapped a control panel and the picture on the viewscreen switched to show the Ark of Exodus making its way past Mars’ orbit and on towards Earth. In spite of its huge bulk the Space Force carrier Odysseus and its attendant fleet were clearly visible. “Whatever that ship is, it took out Redman’s mining ship and the Early Warning Platform and its nukes. Look at ‘em!” Kazmak sneered cruelly. “The Space Force is cosying up to it like they’re suckin’ on their momma’s tits.”
     “Hah, they probably already surrendered.” Killdan spat out his contempt for Earth Fed and all its’ works. “The Space Force hasn’t got the balls to take on anything near that size.”
     “Tell you what, Killdan.” Kazmak formulated a plan on the hoof. “Why don’t you take a team over there to scout around while the rest of us head off to Troy? No point letting Earth Fed have all the action around here.”
     “I hear what you’re saying boss.” Killdan felt this job had a better chance of success and survival but didn’t want to sound too keen. “But we’re a bit short-handed at the moment.”
     “Leave it until after we clean up Hellas.” Kazmak knew he couldn’t take all his troops in his battle cruiser. And if it came to a shooting match he’d be outgunned by the clans at Troy. He’d have to play it very carefully. Scouting out this new alien ship would give his second-rank fighters something to do. Who knows, they might even come up with something useful. “First things first. Then you can round up a crew and supplies.”

     Pushing and shoving the overloaded carts that kept spilling their loads of diagnostic equipment, tools, computers and other parts along the Spirit of Discovery’s narrow passageways was a tiresome chore but was also the ice-breaker that got the Humans and Wootjan-Oo talking freely. The troops from the Ark’s Guard and the Human soldiers had gone on ahead flushing out the ship with Floxetrasine in case there were any hidden Gulmarians or infected crewmembers which left the ship stinking of old unwashed socks.
     Not having much to do he accompanied the Humans as they searched through the offices and storerooms adjoining the engine room all the while keeping an eye out for anything that might be of interest to Lieutenant Ghantharkh. They weren’t having much luck judging by the number of control panels they’d torn open and hooked up to their mobile computers.
     Wootjan-Oo noted that most of the control surfaces had visual displays, some with tactile data input built into them and some where the data input surfaces were separate. No sign of neural interfaces in the ship nor did any of the Human engineers use them. He noticed that the Humans and their machine people mixed freely. In some instances they interacted as equals, in others one appeared to have a higher rank than others and would issue commands. Sometimes it was a human, sometimes one of the machine people.
     Robert, a Human technician with olive skin thick brown hair and aquiline features, dumped his tools down on the trestle table they’d set up in the engine room and approached Wootjan-Oo. “Uh, Mr Wootjan-Oo, did the other crew ever mention any passwords to you?”
     “What’s a password?” Wootjan-Oo didn’t know what he meant.
     “A phrase or code that one would use to gain access to systems such as these engine controls.” Robert pointed to on of the ships’ control terminals.
     “Oh. Not that I remember.” It finally dawned on Wootjan-Oo what Robert was looking for. “As far as I saw everything was always active.”
     “Don’t you guys have any security to prevent unauthorised access to your systems?” Robert couldn’t imagine that aliens such as Wootjan-Oo who lived in a mammoth worldship would have no concept of systems security.
     “Oh yes, it’s linked to our…” Wootjan-Oo struggled to find the appropriate word. “Biology? If I need to access something or operate a machine it reads my biology and if I’m allowed to use it, it becomes active. Otherwise it stays dormant.”
     “I see.” Robert pondered Wootjan-Oo’s reply for a moment. “You didn’t happen to see any documentation lying around? Manuals, books or information about how to operate their control systems?”
     “No, why?”
     “Because we can’t access the control systems on this ship.” Robert’s voice reeked of exasperation.
     “Don’t your computers interface with the ships’ systems?”
     “They do but without a password it won’t let us access the controls.”
     “Can’t you bypass their controls and operate it directly?”
     “That’s what we’re working on.” Robert didn’t sound too hopeful. “But it would be easier if we could find some documentation. I could really do with some help searching this place.”
     “Sure.” Wootjan-Oo didn’t have much to do and anything that would keep his mind off the heavy stench of the Floxetrasine was a welcome diversion. They were joined by a short mech that stood about as tall as Wootjan-Oo’s chest named Mitzu. Robert led the way up a ladder and along a gantry as they checked out each office and store room in turn. Plenty of spare parts and tools but Mitzu was more interested in the computers and data terminals.
     “Bah.” Mitzu cursed aloud as it pulled one of its fingers out of a portable data terminal and threw it back down onto the desk where it was found. ”Everything’s locked down so tight I can’t even find an open port.”
     “At least we can interface with their stuff even if we can’t find a way in.” Robert pointed out. “Otherwise we’d have to start cutting up the cabling and hotwire this ship.”
     “Hah! In your dreams Robert, you know that’d never work.” Mitzu shot back with the confidence of one who knew. “You know what’s really strange? The code for everything I’ve seen so far resembles Xyntax. That’s what the Overlordz use.”
     “So? Loads of people use Xyntax. You’re just paranoid.” Robert prided himself on being sober-headed.
     “I know they do.” Mitzu replied peevishly. “But this is supposed to be a Duvali Foundation ship and they don’t use Xyntax. They have their own programming language. Even when they buy in hardware. They reprogram everything. They’re weird like that.”
     Wootjan-Oo listened in, not quite following what they were talking about while he lifted crates off the shelves and inspected their contents. Tools, parts and more tools. Robert told him to look out for anything resembling a small portable data terminal, one of the data cubes Robert had shown him or a book. So far nothing but he persevered.
     “It just resembles one of the forks of Xyntax that the Overlordz use except it’s vastly improved.” Mitzu replied with a casual self-confidence.
     “What makes you so sure?” Robert could see what Mitzu was getting at but wasn’t going to jump to any conclusions.
     “I was on the Drennan mission to bust the Overlordz Lunar base at Tsiolkovskiy. So, yeah, I know a little bit about their systems.” Mitzu laid on the wounded pride just to annoy Robert. “You see that guy hanging out with Lieutenant Hoffmann?”
     “Yeah, what’s he doing here? He’s not an engineer.” Robert couldn’t figure out why an administrator had been sent out with them on an engineering job.”
     “Our dearly beloved Captain Phineas deRoquefort Murgatroyd who bravely flies his desk requisitioning toilet paper, toothpaste and plazflex for his heroic crew also happens to be a member of the Duvali Foundation in his spare time.” Mitzu mimicked a cough for sarcastic effect. “He is here as our advisor.”
     “I see.” Actually Robert didn’t but the excuse Mitzu gave him was probably as good as he was going to get from his lieutenant.
     “More to the point,” Mitzu continued as it rummaged fruitlessly through yet another crate. “His personal computer is programmed in their Ulalia language so we’re using it as a template to design the interface software. That’s why all us programmers got sent down here. I mean seriously how often do you need a platoon of programmers in engineering?”
     “Right, I see what you mean.” Robert felt a bit slow today for some reason. Maybe it was just Mitzu’s snarkiness. “Any luck?” He asked as he passed Mitzu a small terminal pad he’d found in one of the crates.
     “No, that’s why I’m checking all these sumpy terminals. If I could even get into one of them I could pull out some of their code to work with.” The frustration in Mitzu’s voice was very genuine. “Damn, locked out again!” It threw the terminal pad down on the floor, shattering its screen as it bounced across the floor.
     “Hey, cool it!” Robert shouted.
     “Yeah, sorry.” Mitzu slumped against an unlit console desk for support. “It’s getting on top of me. We should have had you guys hooked up in minutes. Instead it’s going to take hours… or possibly never if we can’t get a Xyntax computer running.”
     “You have one?”
     “Several, but not with anything close to the branch they’re running here. I put a call through to requisition an image of one of the Overlordz computers’ system from the stock we seized at Tsiolkovskiy but they’re being all pissy about sending it down the wire in case it goes live and infects our systems which have to be clean and secure and…” Mitzu trailed off, bleak with peevish exasperation. “Hey birdie, whatsyourname, you found anything yet?”
     “It’s Wootjan-Oo.” Robert reminded the mech.
     “Yeah. Hey, Wootjan-Oo, found anything?”
     There was a shuffling noise behind a stack of crates. Wootjan-Oo appeared carrying some portable terminal pads and a stack of scruffy loose-leaf printout booklets with dog-eared and torn pages sticking out at odd angles. Mitzu jumped, grabbed the books from Wootjan-Oo and dumped them down on the desk eagerly rifling through their pages. “Software update procedures for plasma injector controllers, RP-15 hand-held data pad service manual, Z-Frame remote terminal service manual…. Don’t hold your breath guys but I think we’ve hit paydirt. Lemme see…” Mitzu picked one booklet up, reading through it at a breakneck pace that only mechs were capable of. “Here we are…. Diagnostic mode.” Mitzu snatched one of the pads from Wootjan-Oo and flipped it over. “Yep, it’s an RP-15. Here we go.” It powered up the data pad closely following the instructions in the service manual.
     Just then a ceiling panel came loose and crashed onto the floor. A pale sinewy bearded man with wild unkempt hair dressed in mismatched rags came tumbling down. He scrambled to his feet, coughing, wheezing and spitting, grabbed a crowbar and backed into a corner. “Get away!” He bellowed, his eyes wild with fear. “I know what you are, you… you monsters. You’ll never take me alive.” He slashed desperately at the air in front of him.
     Wootjan-Oo, Robert and Mitzu instinctively backed away towards the door. Wootjan-Oo fished his detector bead out of his pouch and aimed it at the strange Human. It remained grey. Whatever that Human was, it wasn’t infected with Gulmarian biota. “It’s safe. It’s not infected.” Wootjan-Oo held out his detector bead for Robert and Mitzu to see.
     “What’s that?” Mitzu asked skittishly as it tried unsuccessfully to squeeze its way behind Robert and Wootjan-Oo.
     “It detects organisms that are infected with Gulmarian biota and points to them.” Wootjan-Oo explained as their new-found Wildman scuttled over to where he had fallen through the ceiling. “He’s not infected.”
     “Damn right I’m not infected, you…. Freaks!” The wild man shouted back at them as he pushed a table under the hole in ceiling. He hoisted a crate onto the table and clambered up onto it to make his escape.
     Mitzu dashed across the storeroom, lunged at the Wildman and grabbed his legs in an attempt to drag him down. The Wildman kicked desperately to break Mitzu’s grip. Robert and Wootjan-Oo ran over to help Mitzu pull him down. He almost managed to escape until Wootjan-Oo hammered his beak into the Wildman’s groin. He howled in agony and doubled up in pain loosening his grip on the open ceiling panels. But that was enough and they pinned him to the floor.
     Robert pulled his pistol out of its holster and shot the Wildman in his arm with a trank dart. His body went limp as his eyes shut and his breathing settled down to a slow and steady wheezing rasp. “Too bad I had to knock him out.” Robert commented grudgingly as he pulled a strap off one of the crates to tie up the Wildman. “He might know how to get this ships’ systems back online.”
     Two Space Force troopers and a Shallen Guard burst into the storeroom guns at the ready. “We heard a disturbance, sir. Are you all right?” One of the troopers asked. He saw Robert tying up the Wildman. “You shouldn’t touch any of the surviving crew, sir. It’s not safe.”
     “This one isn’t an alien agent.” Robert looked up as he finished tying the Wildman’s ankles together.
     “How can you be sure, sir?” The trooper doubted Robert.
     “Um….” He looked over to Wootjan-Oo.
     “This Human is not infected with the Gulmarian biota.” Wootjan-Oo explained as he held out his grey detector bead. “This device detects their presence within a short range. It lights up red and points toward the source. As you can see, it shows no response.”
     Lieutenant Hoffmann and Captain Murgatroyd pushed their way into the storeroom. “Well done, soldiers.” Murgatroyd addressed them. “You found a live one. Maybe now we can find out what happened to this ship and its crew.”
     Mitzu explained what had happened and Lieutenant Hoffmann despatched a platoon of troopers to search through the ducting for any other crewmembers. He and Murgatroyd discussed plans to move and debrief their new find when Mitzu interrupted them. “With all due respect, sir, I think we should keep the prisoner here in engineering at first. He might know the access codes to get the ships’ systems back online. And our first priority is to get this ship fully operational again.”
     “Yours might be, corporal.” Murgatroyd effortlessly pulled rank on the earnest mech soldier. “But mine is to find out what happened to this ship and its crew. The Odysseus has despatched tugs to tow this ship to the Mars Orbital Dockyard if it can’t make it under its own power. The Evac detail will be here in an hour to take him away. Until then he’s yours but I want him alive, so no funny business.”
     “Yes sir, no sir.” Mitzu saluted Captain Murgatroyd before slouching dejectedly over to join Robert and Wootjan-Oo who were standing over their sedated captive. “How long before he wakes up?”
     “Twenty minutes or so. Depends how healthy he is.” Robert shrugged his shoulders. “An hour huh? Well we might get a few minutes to quiz him but he’ll be pretty groggy so don’t get your hopes up. I wonder if there’s any more like this guy hiding out in this ship?”
     “I hope not if they’re anything like him. He was completely crazy.” Mitzu settled in to wait for their captive to regain consciousness. They sat in silence waiting. Eventually Murgatroyd joined them.
     “Did he say anything before you knocked him out?” Captain Murgatroyd stood over the Wildman and looked him over.
     “Not much, sir.” Robert explained. “He called us monsters and freaks and that was about it. Sounded like he’d completely flipped his lid.”
     “I don’t think this person was one of the ships’ crew.” Wootjan-Oo spoke up as he rubbed his face around the base of his beak. He’d pecked that human hard and it hurt! He cursed himself for having got so soft that even a short scuffle left him aching.
     “How so?” Murgatroyds’ curiosity was piqued. This was turning out to be quite a day for him. First they make contact with aliens who have another ship which has a human crew that turn out to be another species of alien and now he was in a conversation with one of those first aliens who happen to be a civilisation with two primary species. If his friends back at the golf club had told him he’d be where he was right now he’d have laughed it off as impossible.
     “I…” Wootjan-Oo hesitated as he searched for the right words. “I met the first crew. They explained that they were revived in shifts of a time duration they described as five years. Each shift had a crew of ten. I met all of them. This person was not one of them.” He pointed at their drugged captive. “At no time did they ever talk about anyone such as this person. I believe they were unaware of his existence.”
     “Interesting.” Murgatroyd mused for a moment before turning his attention to Mitzu. “Why do you need to interrogate this person?” You have my personal computer. Surely you can clone its’ system to build an interface with this ship?”
     “That’s what we’ve been trying to tell you all morning, sir.” Mitzu made no attempt to hide its frustration and exasperation behind a mask of deference to rank. “Your computer is useless. This ship doesn’t run on Ulalia, it’s running on Xyntax.”
     “Oh, but…” Murgatroyd was stumped. This was a Duvali Foundation ship and so it should run on their own Ulalia code, not that common Xyntax. And he should know. He was a paid-up member at the local Duvali Foundation temple back home. “Xyntax?”
     “I know.” If mechs could roll their eyes, Mitzu would have. “And not any common variety either. It’s very similar to the branch the Overlordz use.”
     “Are you certain of this?” This sounded too unlikely to Murgatroyd. The Duvali Foundation would never use Xyntax, let alone a branch used by the Overlordz. It would be unthinkable.
     “Yes sir.” Mitzu didn’t sound too happy about it either.
     Murgatroyd said nothing but instead consulted his notepad which had Mitzu’s service history on display. “Ah yes, the Drennan mission. And you base it on that one encounter?”
     “I was part of the team sent in to interrogate their data store.” Mitzu wasn’t going to be intimidated by some flabby fleshie desk pilot. “So I ended up with a working knowledge of their systems. And every scrap of code I’ve been able to pull out so far is from that branch of Xyntax.”
     “How can you tell?” Murgatroyd was rightly sceptical.
     “Every branch of Xyntax has marker ID’s embedded in it.” Mitzu explained for Murgatroyd’s benefit. “Normally the marker ID’s are stripped out when it’s compiled but the code in the devices we’ve attempted to access so far today is pretty sloppy; not what I’d expect to see in a ship like this. More like what you’d see from a basement programmer who likes to show off.”
     The Wildman suddenly sat upright, his movements restricted by the strap binding his wrists to his ankles. “Hah! You fucking alien monsters. You’ll never figure it out.” He shouted at them as he hyperventilated with raging hysteria and struggled determinedly against his restraints. “I wiped the entire ship. It’s dead. Dead! You might as well kill me now.” He yelled so hard Robert swore he saw droplets of blood flying out with the Wildman’s spittle-laden breath.
     They stepped back a safe distance as the Wildman thrashed and frothed futilely and waited while he wore himself out. He was still heavily sedated. It wasn’t long before his rage subsided. Robert took his chances. “Do you have the access codes for the ships’ computers?”
     That got him going again. He lunged pathetically at Robert, fell short and skidded across the rough metal decking on his face. “I’ve watched you all these years trying to get this ship going and you still can’t do it. So now you’ve got some mechs working for you? Not the ones that were on this ship. Clever trick, that.” He raved and bellowed. “Given up have you? So you think you’ll ask me? Pretty please with sugar on top? There’s nothing left!!!” He shouted at the top of his lungs. “Password schmassword, it won’t do you any good. It’s all gone!!!” He worked himself up into a frenzy and then passed out from over-exertion.
     “What. The. Hell. Was. That?” Mitzu was dumbfounded. It had seen a lot in its time but this was something altogether different.
     “I think we can forget about getting anything out of him.” Robert was disappointed. He’d hoped that this crazy Wildman they’d found would unlock the ship for them.
     “I’m sorry boys.” Murgatroyd had lost his air of faux-authority that he so often used to browbeat people around him. “Looks like we’ll just have to tow this ship back to Mars. You did your best and I’ll put that in my report.”
     The lights flicked on banishing the dull grey Martian dusk lurking outside the window of a tiny cramped studio apartment. A man slumbers comfortably in a single bed beneath a slightly tilted poster of wild horses galloping across the Camargue in a misty late-summer sunset. A pile of unwashed dishes are piled up in the kitchenette sink. A Tri-D set sits on a low table in a corner by the window.
     The Tri-D set burst into life featuring the smiling silver-haired ever-cheerful paternalistic liaison AI of the Associated Metals and Mining Group wearing his trademark silver-grey suit and metallic-blue tie. “Good morning, Clement Abernathy 4037.” The computer-driven simulation greets him. “It’s 7:28am and your shift starts at 8:30am today. Remember, AM&MG is number one and counts on you to do your best. It’s dedicated workers like you who’ve made us what we are today and keeps AM&MG in the lead. We’re proud of you. See you there at 8:30am, Clement Abernathy 4037.”
     “Aw nuts.” Clem grumbled as he turned over and threw a slipper through the hologram. The AI continued smiling and exhorting Clem with cheerful platitudes before fading out to show the results of the Formula One Aero Sled championships. He pulled on his crumpled one-piece overalls and left the Tri-D set running as he brushed his teeth and rummaged through the kitchenette cupboard and fridge for something to eat.
     He ran his fingers through his hair in front of his mirror and stepped out his door into the early-morning rush. Humans and mechs were making their way down the corridors. Some looked determined, others bored and tired. Some looked blank to the world while others seemed to be keenly hyper-aware.
     At one junction Clem spotted a mech he recognised from his work station in the Ice-processing plant. Try as he might, Clem couldn’t recall the mech’s name, which seemed odd as they’d worked together here at the Chasma Boreale Ice Quarries for years.
     “Hey, good to see you!” The mech almost sounded drunk, which was also odd because mechs couldn’t drink. “Here comes another day.”
     “Yeah. I know this sounds weird but for some reason I can’t remember your name and we’ve been working together here as long as I can remember.” Clem almost blushed with embarrassment with his confession as they walked along with the work-bound crowd. “It’s almost as if I’m losing my memory. Maybe I should see a doctor.”
     “Maybe.” The mech sympathised. “Oh yeah, my name’s Barney.”
     “Thanks. My name’s Clem.”
     “I knew that.” Barney lied. He too was experiencing the same alienation that afflicted Clem but didn’t dare talk about it. This was his home, his family. He felt in his mechanoid cybernetic heart that this was where he belonged and yet… and yet… when he looked at everyone around him he couldn’t find a name for any of them. Just that warm, comfortable feeling of familiarity. Even his workstation team, his closest family who he’d known all his life, he couldn’t name any of them except for Clem. Maybe he, too, needed to see a doctor.
     “Say, could you lend me twenty Scruples till Friday?”
     “Yeah, I guess so.” Clem fished a 20-Scruple token out of his pocket and gave it unquestioningly to Barney. “Hey did you watch the Conspiracy Channel last night?”
     “No, why?”
     “They had this show about a mech, looked a bit like you actually. Claims it and a bunch of hippies had been abducted by aliens and taken to an alien planet. They showed some pictures which were a bit grainy. And here’s the weird thing: when they got back to Mars, the mech disappeared. They reckon it was framed up on a murder charge and kidnapped by Earth Fed.”
     “Sounds like some cheapo Sci-Fi story.” It sounded too improbable to Barney. “They’re probably just making it up.”
     “Maybe, but that mech’s name was also Barney.”
     “Then they’re definitely making it up.” Barney victoriously squashed Clem’s conspiracy theory. “Because I’ve been here all my life: never been abducted or gone to any alien planets.”
     “You know when I pay off my tenure…” Clem continued as they rode the slideway to the ice-processing plant. “I’m going to sign up for the Space Force. I’d like to see other worlds. Have you ever thought about what you’ll do once you pay off your tenure?”
     “Me? No, maybe get an upgrade so I can get a better job that pays more.” Barney had never given much thought to such things. It seemed so far away in the future as to be not worth wasting the time thinking about. He preferred to live in the present moment. “I’ve got everything I want right here, why would I want to go anywhere else?”
     “Anyway, I’m feeling a whole lot better today.” Barney continued in his dopey upbeat mood. “Remember I was having problems with my back?”
     “Well last night after our shift I couldn’t take it any longer so I dismantled myself and found these beads jammed deep into my spinal hinges.” Barney held out his hand. Cradled in the cup of his palm were five dull grey beads. “No idea how they got there or what they are. But now that I removed them I can flex my back just fine now. You want ‘em?”
     Clem looked at the beads. They looked like some dull grey ceramic material and offered to take them if it made Barney feel better. Barney realised he’d made a mistake and decided to keep three and give two to Clem. “I had a sixth one but I cut it open to see what it was.”
     “Find anything?”
     “A few metallic objects in a glassy matrix. Probably one of those glowlites they throw around at parties. Except that it doesn’t light up or play any music.”
     “Maybe the battery’s flat.” Clem speculated as he looked at the two beads in his hand. They took on a faint reddish tinge for a moment but it rapidly faded away. “Yeah, the batteries are flat.” He pocketed them without a second thought.
     “Must’ve been one helluva party...” Barney joked. “I can’t remember a thing.” A few minutes later they arrived at the processing plant and took their stations operating the crushers that broke up the Martian ice so that its precious water could be extracted to quench Mars’ ever-growing populations thirst and to water its crops. Even with extreme recycling there was never enough water; so the ice-quarries were always working at full-tilt.
     Come lunchtime he joined the rest of the crusher team; Mitch, Herb, Chloe and Peter. Barney, Marvin and Robby were mechs so they tended to hang out with the other mechs in the stockyard during their breaks.
     Clem looked hungrily at Peter’s extra donut. “I’ll swap you a broken glowlite for that donut.” He set the bead Barney gave him on the table next to Peters’ tray.
     “What, you mean like this one?”” Peter placed an identical bead next to it.
     “What? Where did you get that?” Clem was confused.
     “Collateral for a 20-Scruple loan Barney borrowed from me.” Peter explained with the weariness of someone who knew their money was good as gone.
     Chloe set another bead next to theirs. “A rare and precious mech good-luck token Barney sold me for 20 Scruples.” She added sarcastically realising that she’d been conned.
     “A sub-miniature Lucky 8-Ball; only 20 Scruples from You-know-who.” Herb added in a mockery of the slick sales patter of a low-rent video channel salesman as he plonked his bead on the table next to the growing collection.
     “I’ll see you and raise you one.” Mitch pushed his bead across the table in a parody of a compulsive gambler.
     “He’s suckered the lot of us with a bunch of dead glowlites.” Clem pronounced as he reached over for the donut. Peter made no move to stop him so he picked it up and took a bite out of it. He continued staring thoughtfully at the pile of beads as he ate the donut. Suddenly they all lit up with a faint red glow on one side facing in the same direction across the canteen. The red glow on each bead appeared to move around in perfect synchronisation with the other beads. “Hey, look at this.” Clem drew their attention to the beads and they watched them in silence for a few minutes as their red spots moved around, grew and diminished in intensity all in perfect synchronicity before fading out back to their dull lustreless grey.
     “I’ve never seen glowlites act like that before.” Herb broke their silence.
     “Could just be faulty glowlites.” Mitch opined sagely. “Mechs have a habit of fetishising old pieces of junk.”
     Barney mooched aimlessly around the ramshackle stockyard. Stacks of rusty shipping containers were piled up around heaps of dust-strewn broken diggers and excavators which were used as spare parts to keep the ice-quarries operational. Portman, the boss mech of the stockyard gang kept pestering him to play VR games, which was why Barney was always borrowing money. The games weren’t free. Sure they were more fun than work but he was sinking hopelessly into debt. Rumour had it that Portman was from one of the Overlordz clans but no-one dared asked him to find out.
     Barney was just about to step into Zoron’s ‘Cut-Price Robonaut Recharge and Refit Boutique’ when he bumped into Marvin. Zoron’s Boutique in reality was another one of the many dilapidated shipping containers dotted around the dust-strewn stockyard. Zoron was a semi-independent operator who had a franchise from AM&MG to service the mechs they employed. Although he drastically undercut AM&MG’s prices for recharges he was tolerated because he kept their mech workforce in top condition at a price they couldn’t beat. Sure, most of the parts he got were black market but the suits at AM&MG didn’t really care so long as it kept their costs down and profits up.
     “Hey, Portman’s looking for you.” Marvin cheerily greeted Barney.
     “Yeah, I know.”
     “Hey, why so glum? You’re the hotshot, levelling up faster than any of us.” Marvin was on a full-power high, having just recharged his power cell.
     “I can’t keep with it, Marvin.” Barney confessed bleakly. “I already owe next weeks’ wages. I’ve gotta give it a break.”
     “Don’t worry; we’ll still be levelling up to you when you come back in.” Marvin reassured him.
     “Well, well, well, if it isn’t mister boss man himself!” Portman ingratiated himself with his deep, smooth voice as he, too, stepped out of Zoron’s Boutique. “Having some money problems? No problem, brother. Here have a recharge on me.” He snatched the 20-Scruple token from Barney’s hand. “And you can have the whole next week of VR play for free.”
     “Thanks, but I really need a break, Portman.” Barney knew full well that Portman’s gifts always came at a price. “I’ve been trying to crack that demon’s puzzle for days now and I’m stuck.”
     “If you crack that puzzle our whole guild levels up and we can play for free. Plus there’s a 5000 Scruple bonus to the player who cracks it. No one else is even close… yet. But they’re catching up. Think about it, Barney; 5000 Scruples. And I won’t even ask for a cut.” Portman enticed Barney. “It’s all yours.”
     “Well now that you mention it like that.” The money was tempting! “Count me in.”
     “I knew we could count on you.” Portman put an arm around Barney and led him into Zoron’s Boutique. “Hey, Zoron! A recharge for my good friend Barney. Put it on my tab.”
     “Do you think he’ll do it?” Marvin ran after Portman as he strode away from Zoron’s Boutique.
     “Doesn’t matter.” Portman replied indifferently. “That city slicker from Coriolis already paid me 25 grand just to set up that bogus VR game. He reckons that moron rust bucket Barney has a decryption key to unlock information about alien contact. The game was set up to get the key out of him.”
     “What a kook!” Marvin laughed contemptuously. “Easy money, huh? You gonna give Barney the 5 grand?”
     “Sure, why not?” Portman oozed thuggish confidence. “We’ll get it back off him soon enough.”

Scribbles & Scraps
Chapter 26
Chapter 28