“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
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
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
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
“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
“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
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
“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’
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
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
“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
“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.”
“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
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
“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.”
“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
“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
“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’
“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?”
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
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
“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
“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
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
“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
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
“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?”
“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
“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.”
“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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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.”