Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 28: Cutting loose.

      Ruby, Xandu and Veronica hung arm-in-arm from the side of a fragrant bubbling hot spring. Every now and then Veronica and Xandu would cast off and float around amongst the steamy bubbles enjoying the outdoor woodland retreat view while Ruby stayed behind. Mechs didn’t have the natural buoyancy that humans and Shallens had in water and would sink like a stone unless she swam furiously. Something she really wasn’t in the mood for doing. She took a quick reading of the water down in the spring’s depths. She’d have no way to dump heat if she sank down there and would overheat critically. So she hung onto the edge of the hot spring revelling in the warm glow between her legs while Veronica and Xandu canoodled as they floated around. It brought back memories of lazy days with SkyHawk and she wondered if he even missed her.
     Ruby couldn’t make up her mind whether it was Xandu’s easy-going playfulness or effortless sexual stamina that had won Veronica over but Ruby had never seen her so relaxed and so content in a long time. Whatever it was it was doing her a world of good. But she desperately wanted to talk with Veronica somewhere out of range of that infernal Space Corps headset which she carried around with her recording her adventures as a video diary. And how she’d tried to lure Veronica out of her headset’s range time and time again! Never mind the need to talk privately with Veronica, Ruby craved a break from that damned headset’s never-ending requests to interface. That dumb piece of hardware was really pushing her tolerance to the limit with its’ inability to take no for an answer.
     She was so tempted to just smash it and drop it down the hot spring but that would only make Earth Fed suspect that she had something to hide from them when Veronica returned to Mars with her recordings which they’d then be bound to interrogate her about. Ruby knew only too well how brutally callous and indifferent Earth Fed could be and that was something from which she had to protect Veronica. So instead she enjoyed the moment and the luscious view out across the wispy mist wafting across the valley while Xandu and Veronica canoodled by her side.
     Even though Ruby was enjoying her holiday on Vermthellyn with Xandu and Veronica she knew only too well that this was her only chance for freedom. Somehow she had to make the break before they went back to the Ark and on to Mars. She could never go back. To do so would be instant termination and death. She doubted if her last backup the she had stashed away at Zanzibar even existed any longer. No, she had to take her chances here on Vermthellyn and hope she could survive. Fortunately Xandu had given her and Veronica a guided tour of Estrillyd and she rated her chances.
     There was a substantial population of off-worlders. Not just Xandu’s Shallens, but many others, so blending in and hiding shouldn’t be too hard. She even had a temporary identity token. Xandu made a point of paying for them himself: One for Ruby and one for Veronica. She assumed that she could be tracked through it but also that it could be reprogrammed so it might come in useful.
     “This is so much better than the time we went to Zrrlchtz.” Veronica broke their languid silence as she toyed with Xandu’s tail sliding its tip up and down between her breasts.
     “Oh yeah, no question about it.” Ruby couldn’t agree more. Their trip to Zrrlchtz had been a tightly chaperoned school outing by comparison.
     “What’s Zrrlchtz?” Xandu was curious about their lives and always asking questions. He was fascinated by them.
     “It’s where Kkhrkht comes from.” Veronica casually explained.
     “What’s it like?” Although the Shallens were a space faring race, space gypsies if truth be told, Xandu only knew of life on Vermthellyn and occasional visits to the Ark of Exodus as he was hatched on Vermthellyn.
     “Didn’t see much of it.” Ruby took up the thread. “All we saw was the spaceport city where we stayed. It was very built up with massive hives much, much taller than anything in Estrillyd.”
     “Oh.” Xandu tried and failed to imagine what it looked like before yielding to Veronica’s attentions. “Maybe we could go there some time. I’d like to see it.”
     Their carefree repartee was interrupted by a group of Shallens all dressed in black and gold High Chznzet uniforms who came up the path and arranged themselves ominously along the far side of the pool. “Traitor, you do not belong among us.” Their leader squarely addressed Xandu as he pulled a pistol out of his holster. Ruby didn’t even stop to think but immediately leapt across the bubbling pool at him, knocking him over. His plasma shot struck short of Xandu vaporising the water where it struck the pool as she wrenched his pistol out of his paw. An accomplice pulled out another pistol and fired at Xandu. He missed but hit Veronica’s headset where it lay at the poolside. Ruby shot him in his paw forcing him to drop his pistol which she scooped and jumped to her feet to confront the Chznzet. But they had already turned to run back down the path.
     Ruby, still naked and wet from the pool, ran after them. The combat routines Veronica had given her when they landed on the Spirit of Discovery were proving to be lethally effective. She shot and killed three of the Chznzet with an almost unthinking ease.
     Ruby stood there silent and looked down at the fallen Chznzet. She was about to turn back to the pool to join Veronica and Xandu when she realised with a flutter of her little mechanoid heart that this was her chance… maybe her only chance to escape. Her clothes and ID token were back at the pool so she took one of their cloaks, another pistol, a shoulder bag and anything that looked small and valuable. She dumped the pistols in the bag and hoisted it over shoulder as she hastily made her fateful decision.
     That gave the other Chznzet attackers time to put enough distance between her that they were able to escape alive to their waiting air car. Ruby arrived at the clearing just as it was lifting off. A few shots hit the ground wide of her before it landed on the path to pick up their fallen comrades and then it was gone, racing across the sky back towards Estrillyd. Ruby took one last look back up the path towards the pool and set off running down a trail in the wooded valley towards Estrillyd in the far distance.
     Xandu and Veronica scrambled for shelter behind some trees as Ruby ran off giving chase to Chznzet. He pulled Veronica close as they huddled naked and wet behind a stand of trees. His erection rose out of his sheath and slipped effortlessly into Veronica. She shifted her position to make it easier for Xandu and welcomed his reassuring presence inside her. They slid down into a mossy nook at the base of the tree they had hidden behind. What has started out as mutual comfort to reassure each other that they were still alive rapidly descended into unbridled passion, Xandu thrusting hard and fast as Veronica wrapped her legs around his lithe body holding him fast. Ooooh, she moaned with pleasure as he hissed with lust, his thin reptilian tongue flicking sensually over her still wet body. Aaaaaa… ooooooo… OOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Again and again and again so many times that Veronica lost count until Xandu was totally spent.
     They lay embraced as they came down from their orgasmic high kissing, licking and fondling gently in the arboreal calm by the pool. “I wonder what happened to Ruby?” Veronica asked idly as Xandu playfully tickled her nipples with his oh-so-agile tongue. He found Veronica’s nipples fascinating. Their smell, the way they reacted to his touch, the way she reacted to his touch
     “Maybe we should look for her.” But Xandu’s attentions said that he’d really rather spend his time playing with Veronica.
     Veronica slipped gracefully out of Xandu’s embrace and dived into the pool to clean his pungent spunk out of herself. Sure, it felt fantastic, so hot and creamy, the way he just kept on gushing but Shallen spunk seemed to be a lot more pungent than human spunk and she didn’t really feel like advertising the fact they’d been at it quite so blatantly. Xandu dived in to join her in the pool but she climbed out, towelled down and got dressed before he could get close enough to seduce her again. She waited for Xandu to get dressed and they set off down the path where they last saw Ruby.
     They wandered down the path calling out for Ruby but their only answer was the faint arboreal twitterings, chirpings and rustlings of the alien woods surrounding the hot springs. They searched and searched, poking through shrubs, looking behind trees, up and down paths, in and out of the woods but to no avail. They called out in vain. There was no answer. Ruby was long gone. Veronica was crestfallen. Xandu was at a loss.
     “Maybe they took her.” Xandu suggested hoping that she just might still be alive and could be rescued. But that seemed unlikely seeing how the Chznzet had tried to kill him only a few hours earlier.
     “Looks like it.” Veronica resigned herself to the inevitable. They couldn’t stay much longer: the sun was already low in the sky and it would be dark in a few hours. “What do you do here when things like this happen?”
     “Report it to the Rtuntli Gendarmerie or the Arks’ Guard. Or both. Why?” Xandu was still getting over the shock of the days’ events.
     “We can’t just give up on her like that.” Veronica refused to give up on her friend. “Maybe they did take her but she could be out there somewhere badly damaged.”
     “We could tell the Hot Springs owners. They might know what to do.” Xandu suggested.
     “Right, let’s do that.” Veronica took control of the situation. One way of another she was determined to either find Ruby or find closure as to her fate.
     “Don’t tell them about the attack?” Xandu pleaded.
     “It would complicate things… a lot.” Xandu didn’t know quite where to begin. “The Rtuntli Gendarmerie would probably turn it into a murder enquiry. Then, because it was the Chznzet, the Ark Guard would have to come out here. The Rtuntli would keep us here until their investigation was closed.”
     “Is that so bad?” Veronica quite liked the idea of an extended stay at the Hot Springs.”
     “In a Rtuntli prison?” Xandu was taken aback at Veronica’s naiveté. “From their point of view we’re the first suspects. Do you think they’d just let us walk free?”
     “Oh, I see what you mean.” Veronica realised that things were getting complicated. “So what do we tell them? That Ruby walked off into the woods and got lost?”
     “That might do.” Xandu was only too happy to fall in line as Veronica led the way back to the Hot Springs lodge. It took the weight of responsibility off his shoulders.
     The Nauroth Valley Hot Springs, in spite of its impressive name, was run by an elderly retired Rtuntli couple aided and abetted by what appeared to be their grandchildren and a few slow-witted local villagers. “Missing, you say?” The elderly male Rtuntli sounded disinterested, almost mildly annoyed by this unwanted intrusion on his easy life as he looked up from his desk in the rustic lodge reception and addressed them, his voice thinned out by the rustle of age. “We’ll need a description to give the Gendarmerie when I notify them. Do you have any photographs of this missing person?”
     Xandu piped across a few photos of Ruby from his communicator. The old bear glanced at them. “Species?” He asked.
     “Mechanoid.” Veronica took up the slack when Xandu fell silent. “She’s from the same planet as me.”
     “I see.” Although by the tone of his voice they could tell the old bear didn’t really believe them. “Resident off-worlder?”
     “Temporary tourist visa.” Xandu kept his answer short in case the old Rtuntli asked too many questions.
     “I’ll have to notify the Gendarmerie and send out a search party.” The old bear sighed wearily as he scratched his chin with a claw that had long since lost any vestiges of youthful lustre and tapped a console set into his desk with his other paw. A holographic image of a sleek-furred younger Rtuntli appeared wearing a quasi-military uniform: obviously one of the Gendarmerie. He activated a privacy shield and delved into a lengthy discussion with the gendarmes hologram. Xandu and Veronica looked on helplessly as he took his time shrugging here, gesticulating there and drumming his claws on the desk. After what felt like an eternity, he switched off the privacy field and turned his attention to our unlikely duo. “They’ll contact you when they find your friend.” And with that he folded his broad paws on his desk as a way of telling them the meeting was over.
     “He didn’t seem very concerned.” Veronica commented as she and Xandu walked down the drive from the lodge.
     “They don’t really like us.” Xandu confessed with a joyless resignation that was far older than his youthful years. “They like our money but that’s about it.”
     “Do you think they’ll find Ruby?”
     Xandu never had to answer that question. He was interrupted by his communicator. It was Yldoseh: “The Chznzet threatened to burn down my mother’s house if I don’t leave. I’m scared for her and me too.” Her voice wafted out for all to hear showing her worried expression on its screen.
     This was the last thing Xandu needed to hear. “Get in a taxi and fly out to D’spretni. We’ll meet you there. And make sure it’s a Rtuntli driver.”
     “But that’s way out of town.” Yldoseh sounded confused.
     “I know. We’re at the Nauroth Valley Hot Springs. D’spretni’s on the way back.” Xandu explained impatiently as he desperately tried to come up with a plan.
     “Why a Rtuntli?” Yldoseh whined. “They don’t like us.”
     “They hate the Chznzet. You’ll be safe with them.”
     “Uh, OK. You better be there.”
     “We will.” Xandu reassured Yldoseh as she signed off.
     “What now?” Veronica asked as she buttoned up her jacket.
     Xandu was galvanised by the bad news from Yldoseh. “We go to D’spretni and then on to the Ark to stay with Knetryxx.”
     “What about Ruby?” Veronica’s spirits sank. She didn’t want to go back to the Ark so soon. She couldn’t just abandon Ruby on an alien world.
     “Maybe the Rtuntli Gendarmerie will find her. If we stay here much longer the Chznzet will find us again and next time we might not be so lucky. “On the Ark, we’re safe. Knetryxx has loyal guards.” Xandu held out a glimmer of hope for Veronica. “She owes us a favour although she might not see it that way. Still it’s the only safe place I can think of right now.” An hour later they were flying over the low hills of the Estrillyd hinterlands. Pastures with grazing herds of Hentam and Jyarbeest interspersed with vast orchards to feed the Rtuntli appetite for meat and fruit drenched in the sunset blaze rolled past below.
     Veronica stared out the window at the scenery below in a dejected silence torn about abandoning Ruby but knowing that events were well and truly out of her hands. She was on her way back to Mars. Xandu was absorbed in an intense conversation with Yldoseh over his communicator all the way to D’spretni.
     When they landed in the plaza outside the D’spretni terminus, an armoured Sedeirtra limousine and a troop carrier waited for them. Armoured Shallen troopers, their plasma lances at the ready formed an ominous perimeter. The regular bustling traffic of hawkers, beggars, pickpockets and pedestrians gave them a wide berth. Veronica didn’t like the look of it at all.
     A plasma bolt sizzled past them as they ducked and scurried from the air-taxi to the limousine and melted the cobblestones where it landed just short of the troop carrier. Three troopers shot back. A lone lifeless Shallen figure toppled and fell from the low roof of one of the many shops lining the plaza. Most likely a Chznzet agent. The troopers ran to recover the body. As soon as Xandu and Veronica were inside the limo it lifted off. The troopers would follow on later.
     Weetleetly, Reflinghar’s vizier, slid the door firmly shut behind Veronica and scuttled back to her cushioned resting cradle. Xandu fell into Yldoseh’s arms for a long silent embrace. Yldoseh’s mother, Sursipal, sat at the back, looking frightened. Veronica sat on one of the sloped cradle-seats designed so that Shallens could let their tails hang free at the back and waited to see what happened next.
     “Your exposé seems to have gathered you some unwanted attention, Yldoseh.” Weetleetly broke the silence.
     Yldoseh let go of Xandu and looked sheepishly at Weetleetly. “I’m sorry.”
     “No need, young one.” Weetleetly comforted her. “You did what you thought best. Still, what is done is done.” Weetleetly sniffed disapprovingly. “We must deal with things as they are. First of which is the threat on your lives. We take these matters most seriously. Your homes are no longer safe” The old vizier continued. “We can arrange secure accommodation for you and I would strongly recommend that you take this offer as the Chznzet have you in their sights. Much as I would like to extend our hospitality, the Palace is our Embassy on Vermthellyn, not a hotel. And you,” Weetleetly addressed Veronica, her voice a wizened mix of awe, curiosity and admiration, “Are from Home Nest.”
     “Um, no...” Veronica awkwardly corrected their aged avian host. “I’m from Mars, the fourth planet.” She felt vulnerably alone without Ruby for support.
     “Legend has it that we originated from our Home Nest, the third planet in your system.” Weetleetly explained in her thin fluty voice. “I’d love to see it for myself.”
     “Um…. You should be able to.” Veronica picked up the thread. “Your Ark’s on its way there and you could use one of the gateways to get to the Ark.”
     “Yes, I know.” Weetleetly replied wistfully. “But I have matters to see to here. You, Human,” The old vizier addressed Veronica. “Must return to your world immediately. It is not safe for you here. Not from the locals but from extremist factions within our own society.”
     “And you!” Weetleetly brusquely scolded Xandu. “You should have known better than to bring them here. You know about the Chznzet. They hang around Estrillyd all day with nothing to do. They probably spotted you the moment you stepped off the gateway. You’re very lucky to be alive.”

     Ruby kept on running oblivious to her lush woodland surroundings and determined to put as much distance between herself and the Hot Springs. The path she’d started out on had long since widened to a grassy woodland lane with tracks worn into the loamy soil. By now the sun had set, two of Vermthellyn’s three moons were visible overhead and the glow of light from a village a few klicks ahead was unmistakable. She struck off back through the woods to go around it. Her night vision made it as bright as daylight as she barrelled her way through the forests’ undergrowth and made her way up a hill which capped out at a clearing overlooking the village.
     A flier trawled slowly along the valley alongside the hill, its’ searchlights sweeping slowly in wide arcs piercing the darkness and lighting up the ground below as she lay on the grass letting her plazflex cool down from the exertion of running for so long. She jumped up and scrambled back into the woods with the realisation that not only were the Rtuntli looking for her but that she needed to stay hidden until she got to Estrillyd. There were so many off-worlders there she’d easily blend in. Except for one thing: her plastiskin. The Rtuntli were looking for red-skinned humanoid Ruby with her long blue hair. But would they even know what she looked like beneath?
     Without a second thought Ruby peeled off her plastiskin, rolled it up tight and just managed to stuff it into the bag she’d taken from the dead Chznzet. Ruby, no longer the sexy humanoid, but now an androgynous carbon-fibre and plazflex mech looked out across the starry night sky of alien constellations and faced the universe alone. She sighed regretfully at having to put away the identity she so closely identified with. Her whole life so far had been Ruby the humanoid mech and she was happy with it. But survival came first.
     A flock of bat-like creatures the size of large geese landed on the hilltop clearing chittering and screeching noisily as the flier kept on searching nearby. She didn’t dare move lest she draw attention to herself so she bunched herself up underneath the coat she’d taken leaving a gap so she could peep out to spy on her surroundings. A second flier joined the first one for a few hours but then they gave up and flew away. The bats had other plans, sparring and jostling noisily in the clearing. Some of them must have seen her and flew over to where she was hiding, their eyes and fangs glinting in the moonlight as they poked around in the shrubs where Ruby hid. One of them grabbed Ruby’s coat with its teeth and tried to pull it away. She gripped the coat and punched the bat on its’ snout. It jumped back, screeching in surprise and then lunged back for another attempt.
     Alerted by the commotion, some of the other bats joined in lunging and snapping at Ruby. One of them clamped its jaw around Ruby’s bare carbon-fibre arm tugging violently in order to wrench its prize free. That was it. Ruby kicked its throat hard, held her fingers together so that her hand became a cybernetic ice-pick and rammed it through the bats broad skull killing it instantly. The other bats set upon their fallen comrade, screeching and jostling each other to gorge themselves. They made no attempt to chase Ruby as she retreated back into the woods: the undergrowth was too thick and the trees too close for the bats to fly there.
     She made no effort to kill any of the other bat-things. Instead she crouched down silent and immobile under the forest underbrush and waited until the flock dispersed noisily in the chill dewy-grey early morning dusk. Looking out from the edge of the clearing, Ruby could see the mist-filled valleys descending from the Hot Springs’ village down towards the wide, open fertile plains leading towards Estrillyd. A mountainous ridge lined one side of the valley and led all the way into the distance. Deciding it was best to stay away from civilisation until she reached the lowlands of Estrillyd, she set off from her hilltop vantage point down through the damp mist which condensed on her mechanoid body as she made her way through the woods towards the ridge. The sun had long since risen and burnt away the mist by the time she reached the tree line and looked around to take stock of her position.
     Ruby picked out the twigs, foliage, gravel and clumps of earth that had lodged themselves into her carbon-fibre frame as she looked around, taking in the stretch of the valley below. There was some light traffic of air cars up and down the valley but no sign of the fliers that had been looking for her last night. Even though her navigational systems which were designed to triangulate from Earth Fed satellites around Earth, Mars and Luna were almost useless here on Vermthellyn she was still able to work out her approximate position from the planets’ reasonably stable magnetic field. Something which she’d tried out when she first arrived.
     Now that she had removed her plastiskin her mech body was vulnerable to the elements. Unlike mechs designed to work outdoors who had body armour or, at the very least, seals and coverings over their most vulnerable parts Ruby had no such protection and had to find something soon. There were no spare parts for mechs here aside from what she could make for herself. Electricity wasn’t a problem. She’d already figured out how to top up her power cell during her stay in Estrillyd as Xandu’s guest. The only problem was access and she didn’t see any likely sources up here along the tree line. Still, she had enough power to last a week and felt confident that she’d be in Estrillyd by then where she could top up her power cell at leisure.
     Ruby kept up a steady pace crossing mountain meadows, loose scree, up and down ravines all along the tree line on her journey towards Estrillyd. The only living creatures she saw were some more of the bat-things but much larger and with light-grey furred wings as they wheeled overhead. No doubt looking for prey. Ruby guessed that the bat things were the indigenous analogues of birds. Except here on Vermthellyn they appeared to be mammalian or at least shared a common evolutionary branch with the Rtuntli.
     By dusk she had covered a fair bit of ground with only a few mishaps where she lost her footing and went tumbling down a steep incline. The largest of Vermthellyn’s three moons was already visible overhead on its highly inclined orbit. She spotted a solitary building in the distance across an alpine meadow as she crested a ridge. It was surrounded by a sprawling array of radio masts and dishes. Ruby immediately presumed it was a radio relay station of some sort and that it was occupied. Not wanting to be discovered, she headed downhill until she had a good bit of forest between herself and the relay station before continuing her journey at night.
     As it got darker, Ruby switched over to her night vision while she trudged on making good time through the sparse upper-mountain woodlands. Unlike her old body which had military-grade sensors she now only had basic infrared sensors. Not the best but they’d at least alert her to the presence of any living creatures near her. Ruby had been used to a life surrounded by an endless wash of radio signals. Chatter between mechs and fleshies as well as the endless streams of digital data. It wasn’t much different in Estrillyd or any of the built-up areas of Vermthellyn except that she couldn’t understand most of it. But way up in the mountains it was different. Aside from the torrents of data flowing through the relay station she just passed it was eerily quiet. A bit like the time the Raider shot her scout ship back at the Bessemer Baby except for some reason she couldn’t quite fathom she felt safer up in the mountains on Vermthellyn.
     Once she’d put enough distance between herself and the relay station Ruby made her way back to the tree line so that she could make better time in the moonlit night. She buoyed her good mood by humming some of the songs by the Flaming Watusis. She knew Roadside Queen, Gates of Time and Crystal Magic from beginning to end and fragments of their other songs blended into a tuneful medley as she made her way towards Estrillyd. Her musical reverie was broken shortly after she crossed a stream by a sound of splashing in the distance behind her. Ruby turned around and saw what appeared to be a herd of stocky cattle following her at a distance. Their sharp wide, pointed horns glinted in the moonlight.
     Presuming that they were docile like the cattle she’d seen on some of the Martian farms, Ruby carried on her way without giving them a second thought. It was only a few hours later when she could hear them trampling over the loose rocky ground above the songs she was humming that she realised that they were closing in on her. This time she could see that they’d spread out as if they were about to surround her. She didn’t even need to zoom in on them to see the moonlight glinting off fangs that stuck out of their mouths as they trotted along. One of the creatures near the middle of the herd reared up and bellowed. At its signal the beasts at the furthest ends of their formation broke into a canter to outpace Ruby while the ones in the middle charged towards her.
     There was no way she could see them off the way she’d dealt with the bat-things. One of these beasts alone was larger than herself and she was faced with a herd that didn’t seem too friendly. Without a moment to spare she pulled out two of the Chznzet’s pistols, switched them on, slung her bag over her back and ran as fast as her legs could carry her. Unfortunately the malevolent cattle were mountain creatures: sure-footed and swift, never losing a step where Ruby stumbled and slipped on the thin mountain soil and loose rocks. It didn’t take long before the outliers caught up with her, galloping hard and flashing their fangs as they bellowed and snarled with hunger. Ruby realised that they meant to catch and eat her, unaware of her mechanoid nature. Not that that would be much help to her. Their broad jaws looked easily strong enough to crush her limbs even if they couldn’t digest her.
     Not having the first clue about Vermthellyn anatomy, Ruby squeezed the trigger and fired a long pulse into the head of the nearest beast. It died instantly, slumping to the ground and skidding to a stop in a tangle of twisted limbs under its quite considerable momentum. Heartened by her success, Ruby spun around and finished off the beast closing in from her other side. Unlike the bat creatures these beasts weren’t cannibalistic. Instead, they quickened their pursuit with their full-throated hungry howling and pounding hooves filling the crisp night air.
     Ruby’s plazflex was overheating from exertion. Warning alarms went off in her head but she muted them all. No time for distractions now. She hadn’t come all this way to be crushed to death by a herd of feral beasts. Ruby spotted a small shack by a pond and ran towards it hoping that she could make it there before they caught up with her.
     As she covered the last steps towards the shack Ruby could see its door hanging open. There would be no shelter inside. The closest beast lunged at her as she leapt up onto its low roof. It narrowly missed, clamping its jaws on one of the posts holding up an awning and effortlessly tearing it to pieces in its hungry rage. Ruby almost fell to the ground but just managed to pull herself to safety as the rest of the herd charged up to the shack. Two of them went inside. She could hear them crashing around. The others stayed outside, smashing into the shack and tearing chunks out of it with their long, sharp claws, powerful jaws and desperate strength.
     There was no way the shack would ever survive their onslaught. Sooner or later they’d bring it down and, most likely, kill her. It’s them or me, Ruby thought to herself. Hanging onto the roof as the beasts rocked the shack with their attack, she picked off each one in turn. One of the pistols ran out of power but she kept on until she had killed all fifteen of the herd. The night time silence after the last execution crashed in around her as she clutched the roof too terrified to move in case she overheated. Her night vision showed her body as positively glowing with heat. Not. Good. At. All.
     It took a few hours but the cool night air soon brought her temperature back down to a safe range. That was when she realised that she’d drained her power cell way more than she’d imagined. Less than half full. She’d never make it to Estrillyd without topping up somewhere. But where? But first she had to get away before any other predators, or even Rtuntli, found her. There was still one moon up in the sky when she climbed down off the roof, covered in condensation, in the cold grey pre-dawn light to take a look inside the shack.
     Ruby stepped gingerly around the corpses of two dead beasts and the smashed furniture inside the shack. She spotted a stack of animal pelts that had been scattered on the floor during the rampage and picked one up. Just what she needed to protect her frame from the elements! And, judging by the look of the heads attached to some of them they were the same species that she’d managed to escape from. Ruby set about measuring herself up and cutting the pelts to fit around her arms, legs and body but she was still dripping with condensation. She looked at the crude stone fireplace along one wall, gathered up the smashed furniture and started a fire to dry herself off. A fur-covered Ruby slipped out of the shack and disappeared into the distance as the morning sun broke over the mountain ridge.
     Going back to the relay station she passed the day before was out of the question. She’d only have pass this way again and who knows what might be lying in wait this time so she pressed on, shutting down all non-essential systems in order to conserve power. The next few days passed uneventfully. The only other living creatures she saw were a few solitary bat-things wheeling about high in the sky. On the fifth day, she came across a high waterfall, stripped off her furs and used its crashing crystal-clear waters as a power jet to clean the last of the dirt and grime from her frame. Ruby surveyed her surroundings as she dried out. By now the valley had widened out so far that all she could see was the broad, flat fertile plains below. In the distant haze she could make out the glinting towers, termini and busy traffic of the Estrillyd Spaceport. Beyond that, completely obscured by the haze, was Estrillyd itself and the coastline.
     Ruby had less than a third left in her power cell. She’d have to start heading down into the valley or risk dieing from a lack of power. She was just about to head down towards the valley when she picked up the radio backwash of a relay station. An hour later she could see the tops of its aerial array from a clearing in the sparse mountain woods and decided to take a closer look. If it was unattended she could top up her power cell there.
     Ruby strode hopefully through the scraggly trees towards the relay station. But her hopes of an easy surreptitious recharge were dashed. She was about to step out into the clearing where the antennae array was sited when a series of explosions blew most of them over. She froze on the spot and, very slowly so as not to draw attention to herself, slipped back and hid behind a stand of trees and shrubs. She zoomed in to scan the area but it seemed to be deserted. The she spotted a group of Rtuntli cantering up a ravine that led away from the station on mounts that looked too similar to the beasts that she had narrowly escaped. Moments later an entire wall blew out with a massive explosion and the tiny building collapsed.
     She stayed frozen to the ground not even daring to budge from her hiding place and used her night vision as a crude thermal imaging and scanned her surroundings. Hours passed, the mountain air took on a chill as the shadows grew longer and the sun began to set. She watched the remains of the station and the twisted towers cooling down. Finally satisfied in the evening dusk that there were no heat sources moving around she got up and made her way towards what was left of the relay station in the hope that she might find some electricity there.
     Banks of sophisticated electronics, scorched by the explosion, lay in broken heaps under rubble that used to be the walls and roof of the relay station. Radiation alarms went off in her head. Looking around she spotted a large canister that had split down one side. The readings went off the scale so she backed away to a safe distance. Heavy black conduits snaked through the rubble from the leaking canister to the crumpled controls. Ruby guessed that the canister was the relay station’s power source and traced one of the conduits back to what must have been a rack of transceivers and disconnected it. A quick test confirmed that it was still live so she set about trimming the connectors so that she could plug the cable into herself.
     It was a pitch-dark moonless night by the time she’d managed to hook herself up to the stations generator and she drank deep of its surge of power flowing into her depleted power cell. Ruby took no chances and set all her scanners to run at maximum sensitivity while she was charging up. But the night was silent save for a light mountain breeze. Not even sight nor sound of any bat-things screeching overhead so she spent the time adjust the head attached to the pelt wrapped around her chest so that it stayed in place and its jaw moved with hers.
     As soon as her power cell was topped up Ruby looked down at the distant haze-smudged blaze of lights surrounding Estrillyd Spaceport in the broad valley below. Best to leave before whoever owned the relay station turned up. She was just about to set out when a paw pushed out from under the rubble and grabber her ankle. Try as she might to pull herself free from its grip, she couldn’t escape. Whatever was on the other end of that paw it was certainly strong! “Help!” A pain-weakened voice cried out from under the rubble. “Take me with you. Don’t leave me here.”
     Damn! This was the last thing Ruby wanted but that vice-like grip wasn’t letting go so she relented and began pulling away the rubble to reveal at first an arm and finally the battered and bloodied Rtuntli attached to it. It wasn’t one of the Rtuntli who had attacked the station: they had long ragged fur. This one had short, well-trimmed fur that barely hid its injuries. More like the sleek Rtuntli Ruby had seen in Estrillyd. The Rtuntli didn’t wear clothes. At least not as we know it. They had thick fur and clothing would have been an annoyance at the least constantly rubbing against their fur. But they almost always carried a bag or satchel on elaborate and artistically decorated straps. This one just had crude grey webbing holding an equally drab satchel to its back. Where the webbing joined on its chest Ruby spotted what would have been some sort of functioning electronic device were it not so obviously smashed beyond repair.
     The Rtuntli grabbed one of Ruby’s arms to pull itself up to sit. It let go of Ruby and grunted as it slumped out of exhaustion. “Thank you. You’re not one of the Gheltsyn.” It looked up quizzically at Ruby. “Where are you from?” Then it heard its voice being translated into English, an alien tongue to the Rtuntli, by Ruby’s translator. “Oh… offworlder. What are you doing here?”
     “Who are the Gheltsyn?” Ruby asked, not wanting to answer the Rtuntli’s question.
     “Oh, them.” The Rtuntli waved an arm weakly in the direction of the mountain tops. “Survivalist nutcases... Hate modern technology and offworlders… they’d kill the likes of you in a trice. You’re lucky they didn’t find you. We should leave before they return.”
     “Will they?” What Ruby saw of the remains of the relay station and the badly injured Rtuntli convinced her that the Gheltsyn were best avoided at all costs.
     “That explosion was supposed to kill me.” The Rtuntli grunted with pain. “Fortunately they’re not very smart and didn’t know how to place their explosives properly. Please…” The Rtuntli reached out to Ruby for support and pulled itself up towering over her and leaning heavily her solid mechanoid frame. The Rtuntli was half again her height and easily twice her weight but her sturdy frame took the extra weight. “Aaaagh!!!” It fell down grimacing with pain. One of its legs was broken so Ruby fashioned a splint out of strips of metal and wires. After a few attempts the Rtuntli was able to hobble around while leaning heavily on Ruby. “We go.” It commanded in spite of its pain. Ruby let it lead the way and together they set off in silence leaving the ruined relay station behind.
     They travelled very slowly and the Rtuntli had to stop frequently to rest. Late in the day they stopped in a clearing by a stream that bubbled and raced alongside their path. The Rtuntli drank deeply, flopped on its back and groaned weakly. “I’m hungry.”
     “I don’t have any food.” Ruby confessed.
     “Can’t eat our food?” The Rtuntli sounded disappointed. “I’ve heard that about some offworlders.”
     “I’m not organic, I don’t need food.” Ruby lifted off the head attached to her furs to reveal her mechanoid head beneath.
     The Rtuntli did a double-take. “You are a strange one indeed! The Gheltsyn would definitely have killed you. What do you live on?”
     “Electricity mostly.” Ruby explained.
     “Oh.” The Rtuntli was genuinely disappointed and held a paw over its stomach. “I’m hungry.”
     “Is there anything here you could eat?” Ruby asked hopefully.
     The Rtuntli looked around. “No.” After a bit of coaxing Ruby managed to get it to tell her what it could eat. After a long, and interesting explanation of the flora and fauna of Vermthellyn; that the creatures who chased her were called Blurtahnyk and were very common in these parts… yes, they were edible, but good luck catching one… that the Gheltsyn used a related species for as their steeds. Most of the bat-things were edible but not desirable as their meat tended to be tough and stringy. Berries and fungi on Vermthellyn were pretty much all poisonous to the Rtuntli and required elaborate preparation. However fruit and root vegetables were generally safe. Even Tushtungi, generally considered a weed on Vermthellyn, was edible provided you boiled or roasted it long enough to break down the toxins in its roots.
     Ruby realised she was in a dilemma. She couldn’t leave the Rtuntli alone while she scouted around for some food but it had to eat. It was obviously weakened by its injuries and needed topping up if they were ever going to make it back to whatever passed for civilisation in these parts. She remembered the stories SkyHawk used to tell her about his days in the army before he joined the space corps and that it was important to have a fire at night to help keep predators away so she gathered up as much dried kindling and fallen wood as she could find around the edge of the clearing and built a fire next to where the Rtuntli lay on the ground.
     It would need a weapon if anything like the Blurtahnyk came sniffing around for prey. Two of Ruby’s pistols still worked. She balked at the idea of giving one to the Rtuntli. Would she ever get it back? Would it shoot her? She couldn’t be in two places at once: out hunting for food as well as staying guard by the fire. She rummaged through her bag, found the pistols and realised she had no way of knowing how much power they had left or even which one was discharged. So she fired each one into the ground beside her and put the dead one back in her bag.
     “Do you know how to use one of these?” Ruby held out one of the pistols handle-first to the Rtuntli.
     The Rtuntli looked at it sceptically. “A light weapon. Looks like an offworld design. Why?”
     “If I go out to hunt for food for you, I won’t be here to defend you if there’s any Blurtahnyk around.” Ruby offered the pistol to the Rtuntli.
     The Rtuntli reluctantly accepted it. “Don’t be long. I’m not very good with these things.”
     As soon as Ruby was far enough away from the infrared glare of the fire she turned her night vision up to maximum sensitivity in order to find something for the Rtuntli to eat on the premise that living animals were likely to be a lot warmer than the surrounding background temperature. She racked her memory for any anecdotes SkyHawk might have related about hunting but all that came up as to be quiet, stealthy and patient. He’d said something about smell but that was no use to Ruby as she didn’t have any olfactory sensors.
     The trees, or whatever passed for them on Vermthellyn, had a surprisingly high core temperature that made them stand out in her infrared vision: something that didn’t help her quest for prey. But prey, if there was any to be found, remained elusive. Hours passed. All she had found were two small rat-like creatures. Not enough to feed something as large as a Rtuntli. So she pressed on stalking through the woods.
     In a way Ruby found the Rtuntli similar to mechs. Humans and Shallens had obvious gender differences. Shallens less so but even amongst them it was easy enough to tell the difference as males tended to be more solidly built than their females. The Rtuntli that she had seen so far didn’t seem to have any obvious gender differences. Maybe they didn’t have genders as she knew them. Xandu had referred to them as ‘he and ‘she’ but Ruby couldn’t see much to differentiate them aside from the colour of their fur and size.
     While she was contemplating the differences between Humans, Shallens, Mech and Rtuntli a flock of bat-things flew low overhead. Ruby wasted no time and took pot-shots at them and downed five. She set off purposefully to find her catch, tied them to a vine, slung them over her back and made her way back to their campsite only to find the Rtuntli sound asleep snoring loudly beside a dying fire.
     Ruby roused the slumbering Rtuntli whose eyes widened eagerly at the sight of her catch. “We’ll eat like lords!” It exclaimed gratefully as it trembled in an uncomfortable mix of pain and hunger. Ruby built up the fire and, with the Rtuntli’s assistance, skinned and dressed her catch of bat-things which were soon roasting over a blazing fire. Ruby kept an eye on the perimeter as the Rtuntli ate hungrily and tossed the finished bones into the fire. After it ate its fill it thanked Ruby and curled up to sleep by the fire which Ruby kept well stoked up all night not only to keep the Rtuntli warm but also to prevent any condensation settling out on her frame in the cool, moist mountain air.
     The morning mist was finally melting away under the warming light of the rising sun when the Rtuntli awoke with a start and looked around. “Oh yes, you, that strange off-worlder.” It glanced at the two remaining roast bat-things. “Are you sure you won’t have some? It’s delicious, especially if you’re hungry.”
     “Thanks but I don’t eat.” Ruby declined its offer.
     “All the more for me then.” It ate part of one of the bat-things before putting the rest of the food into its satchel and crawling over to the stream for another drink. “We should go.” It told Ruby after it crawled back to the fire. They kept going for another two days. Ruby honed her hunting skills. The Rtuntli gradually became more talkative, sometimes babbling incomprehensible nonsense sometimes talking about its life. Its name was Tarnoukh-Drauntakh, a young male-analogue [they were roughly analogous to terrestrial marsupials, which went a long way to explaining their apparent lack of gender dimorphism to Ruby] who had, until recently been working as a service engineer aboard the Ark of Exodus. His company was laid off just before the Ark’s latest journey and he’d taken up a job at the remote relay station as a change of pace and a chance to earn some badly-needed money. He’d found the work aboard the Ark of Exodus fascinating but it paid poorly and grumbled about the extortionate costs of the gateways eating up his meagre wages.
     Ruby played the role of the enthusiastic tourist, a role she and SkyHawk often played to bluff their way past the Earth Fed patrols at Fort Melchisor, and it paid off handsomely. Tarnoukh was only too eager to talk about his homeworld. All she had to do was to make interested noises every now and then and he’d merrily rattle away with tales about his hometown, working on the Ark of Exodus, life in the ‘Big City’ of Estrillyd, politics on Vermthellyn, his love of dance and theatre, his failed relationships, his youthful misadventures, places to visit, snippets of Rtuntli folklore and history as well as a litany of other random topics all of which Ruby dutifully catalogued to build up a picture of how life could pan out for her on her new home.
     It turned out that the Rtuntli weren’t much of a spacefaring race. Rather space travel and interplanetary trade had come to them. Vermthellyn happened to be near several major trade routes and proved to be a convenient location for passing traffic to pick up supplies. With time the Rtuntli had cannily managed to position themselves as a trading planet which boosted their economy as well advancing them technologically by leaps and bounds. Space travel for most Rtuntli was limited to policing their solar system, something which kept them very busy given the amount of intergalactic traffic passing their way. The backlash was that their latent suspicion of offworlders and xenophobia was never far below the surface. Of which the Gheltsyn were a more extreme example.
     On the third day they spotted the village of Plehrcitvaal a the head of the valley they were descending into, its organically-shaped houses and barns made of an intriguing combination of traditional and high-tech materials clustered around a central grassy oval mall. “You must come and visit me sometime.”
     “Thank you, I will.” And Ruby meant it. She was on her own on Vermthellyn and she took his offer as a lifeline.
     “I think you’d like to meet some of my friends.” Exhausted as he was, Tarnoukh still managed to quicken his pace as they approached the village. “We should go to the hostel. I can get transport to the nearest clinic from there.” When they finally arrived in the village square Tarnoukh realised his hopes had been over-ambitious. All it had was a small general store that doubled up as the village inn. At least it was open for business and he guided Ruby towards it.
     Spirit sticks hanging decoratively around the doorway clattered melodiously as they entered. Tarnoukh let go of Ruby and flopped down on the nearest seat, grunting with pain from his broken leg. The innkeeper, a portly female Rtuntli with well-groomed sandy fur came bustling out of the back room. “What in heavens name happened to you?” She exclaimed in an affected motherly fashion. “You look as if you were savage by a pack of Blurtahnyk and left to die!”
     “Worse than that, madam.” Tarnoukh mustered his best casual manner to ingratiate himself to this rustic innkeeper upon whose mercy he’d thrown himself. “It was the Gheltsyn. They destroyed the wireless station where I worked.”
     “Scum!” She spat on the floor. “Nothing but thieving lazy ignorant scum. You’re safe now. Oh, your leg.” She fussed over him. “You must get to a clinic.”
     “First I need to send a report to EsNet to let them know what happened to the station.” Tarnoukh felt it necessary if only to establish his credentials. Surely EsNet would know by now that his station was offline and, given its location, would have worked out what had happened. His call was more to let his employers know that he was still alive.
     ”Of course.” The innkeeper obliged him. “You’ve travelled a long way on a broken leg. You must be in terrible pain.”
     “I am.” Tarnoukh admitted. And he was! Now that he’d made it back to safety the fuzzy burning pain that he’d managed to suppress for days came flooding in. “And if it wasn’t for this kind offworld tourist who found me I would have died out there. I owe it my life and thanks.”
     The innkeeper was puzzled. “Who? There’s no-one here but us.”
     Tarnoukh looked around but Ruby was nowhere to be seen. She had slipped out of the inn and was already making her way further down the valley towards Estrillyd. “It was here a moment ago. We came in the door together.”
     “You’re badly injured; you’ve been in the wilds for days. It’s made you feverish and you’re in shock.” The innkeeper soothed him as she unfurled a thick blanket around him. “People imagine all sorts of things when they’re in shock. I’ll make you some nice broth and put a call through to the clinic for you.”

     The Flaming Watusis were storming through a rehearsal in Gregor’s garage. No doubt the neighbours could hear but in all the years Gregor, Anna and their kids lived there the neighbours had never complained once. In fact they’d turn out like clockwork for the hometown shows at the Wobbly Goblin even offering to help shifting their equipment around. Gregor considered himself very lucky as he enjoyed the rehearsals immensely as he let his mind drift through their weaving melodies and his pounding rhythms. The instrumentalists; MariElla, Chester, Collette, Malcolm and Lottie always played at their uninhibited best in his garage studio. Something which he and Eddie, the bassist, were only too happy to encourage. Stan, their vocalist and frontman fared less well. Sure he was great but he was a showman through and through only coming into his element when there was an audience to entertain. Or, warping their minds, as he called it.
     They didn’t notice Veronica as she slipped into the studio and hung around nervously by the door. All she wanted to do was to lose herself in her friends’ music to ground herself after her adventures and losing Ruby. She felt awful about it. Space Force had grilled her for days about everything that had happened leading up to her landing on the Shallens’ worldship, her excursion to Vermthellyn and Ruby’s disappearance. She was confused too. They’d told her that Ruby was an illegal mech that had to be terminated and went as far as accusing her of aiding and abetting Ruby’s escape. They’d put her through the mangler and sent her back to Mars on indefinite leave. At least they hadn’t held her in prison which they had threatened her with more than once.
     Veronica didn’t buy the Space Force’s assertions about Ruby. Ruby was her friend. They’d known each other for longyears ever since she moved in with SkyHawk. And it was an open secret that he was still on Earth Fed’s payroll. He was, after all, SkyHawk Dread, the sole survivor of the ill-fated mission to Titan in 2097. Earth Fed was always in and out of his farm as they invariably used it as a forward base whenever they decided to go poking around in Fort Melchisor. So Earth Fed would have known about her all that time and if she was an illegal they would have caught her back then.
     It wasn’t as if SkyHawk would have to buy black-market mechs. He was a successful farmer in his own right and could easily afford to buy himself a newly-minted mech any time he wanted. And it did seem as if he had a thing about mechs. Lottie was the first flesh-and-blood human she’d ever seen SkyHawk with. Veronica was lost in her thoughts letting the music and body heat in the studio massage some life back into her torn soul. She glanced up sheepishly to look around the studio. Everyone was lost in their music. Gregor caught her eye, flashed a huge gap-toothed smile at her, winked and pointed to some congas with his drumstick without so much as skipping a beat.
     Veronica slapped at the congas half-heartedly at first; she had too much weight on her soul but the music gradually took hold and soon she was flying along with the groove. One by one the others spotted her, nodding and waving their greetings while playing. By the time Gregor wound the jam down to a drifting, wisping close with the last fading echoes of melody floating around the studio Veronica was beginning to feel like her old self again.
     “Welcome home, Ronnie!” Gregor called cheerfully out as he towelled the sweat off his balding head. Lottie and MariElla ran over and hugged her. “We saw the live feed from your landing on that alien worldship. That must have been so exciting!” MariElla burbled excitedly. “How’s Ruby?”
     “Um…” Veronica felt crushed. Her voice felt so small that it barely crawled past her lips. “She didn’t make it.”
     “Oh.” Lottie held Veronica’s hand to comfort her.
     “I’m so sorry.” Malcolm mumbled awkwardly. He’d been looking forward to seeing her again.
     “What happened?” MariElla enquired, never one to let tragedy or sympathy get in the way of some hot gossip. Haltingly at first, because there was so much to tell and not knowing quite where to start Veronica slowly found her voice again. Hours passed as Veronica told them her story about how Ruby found her interceptor at the Bessemer Baby, their narrow escape from the Overlordz and the Bessemer Baby’s subsequent destruction by the Shallen’s worldship and their visit to Vermthellyn with Xandu, a reptilian Shallen.
     “Whoah, that’s one helluva first date!” Stan joked. “Hey babe, wanna come and see another world?”
     “Yeah, it was fun for a while.” Veronica reminisced wistfully even though she was only starting to get over Ruby’s disappearance. “These other Shallens turned up when we were at the hot springs and tried to kill Xandu. Ruby went after them and that was the last we saw of her.”
     “You didn’t see her being killed or find her body so there’s still a chance she might be alive.” Chester plucked a pizzicato arpeggio of hope on his violin. “They might find her.”
     “I hope so.” But at the pit of her stomach she knew that the Rtuntli didn’t care that much about offworlders and would put much effort into looking for a lost offworlder. “You know the weird thing that Xandu told me was that some of his people believe that they originated on Earth from before the K-T extinction. They call it HomeNest.”
     “Freaky.” Stan loved way-out ideas like that as they almost always became the inspiration for a new song.
     “She’ll need parts if she’s still alive.” Gregor broke their awkward silence. “That plazflex only lasts about a longyear and an average mech’s power cell is good for five before it can’t hold a charge.”
     “And how are we going to get anything through to her?” Eddie pointed out the obvious problem. “You heard Veronica. The only way there is by ship to that worldship and then by their gateways. Even if we chartered a flight, Earth Fed would spot us and realise what we’re up to.”
     “Psy got to their worldship by a gateway. I’m certain of it.” Veronica chipped in. “I was there when shi chewed out Kkhrkht over a comms link from Mars. Shi was on board the worldship a few hours later. We don’t have anything that travels that fast.”
     “Probably from Fort Melchisor or one of hir blue crystals.” MariElla ran with Veronica’s suggestion. “SkyHawk’s part Nglubi.” MariElla addressed Lottie. “Grattlyd hinted at something like that and Fort Melchisor does respond to him. Maybe he could operate that gateway.”
     “Hah!” Lottie scoffed at the idea. “Have you actually seen him blundering around Fort Melchisor? He hasn’t got a clue. Things there just respond to his touch at random. He can’t even get the same things to work twice.”
     “Maybe now’s the time for him to get serious about it.” Stan saw that they now had a chance to get past Earth Fed. “Have you still got that translator?”
     “Yes.” Lottie could see what Stan was leading up to and wasn’t sure that SkyHawk would like it.
     “Good. You take him back to Fort Melchisor with that translator and start decoding everything you can, especially the gateway. And if you don’t want to, I’ll do it.”
     “Stan!” MariElla whined at the prospect of Stan running off on another of his hare-brained schemes.
     “Stan, nothing!” Stan snorted contemptuously back at MariElla. “This is important, babe. Ruby’s out there all alone. You can bet your sweet ass Earth Fed is going to send someone out to find her and if they do, they’ll terminate her. If there’s any chance we can get there first then we have to. Are you with me?” Stan looked around the studio triumphantly. Assent was sheepish and subdued at Stan’s sudden outburst but there wasn’t a murmur of dissent. MariElla had long got used to Stan’s way of grabbing the limelight. It was his stage persona taking over but she wished he could be a bit more diplomatic at times.

     “Sometimes I wonder about you.” Wootjan-Oo wearily berated Xandu. “So you wanted to bed the Human and that machine woman? I hope it was worth it. Don’t you ever think?”
     “Um…” This was no time for boasting about his latest sexual conquests. Xandu glanced around Wootjan-Oo’s cluttered apartment in the workers’ quarters for support. But there was none. It was just him and Wootjan-Oo. “Sort of.” Xandu smirked weakly.
     “Oh, wonderful!” Wootjan-Oo was totally exasperated with Xandu’s antics over the years. Xandu seemed incapable of thinking with anything other than his snake and it was always getting him into trouble, something from which Wootjan-Oo and his friends were forever rescuing him. “Isn’t Tatia good enough for you?”
     “Of course she is.” Xandu sulked. “So I took them to Vermthellyn? What’s the harm in that?”
     “Hadn’t it occurred to you that the Chznzet might have put a price on your head?”
     “What do you mean?” Xandu was at a loss.
     “Look. You... we… are part of the Keeper’s inner circle.” Wootjan-Oo spluttered with disbelief. “That’s what Knetryxx is now. She’s not the air-head bimbo we used to know and love. Well, OK, she still is. But she’s also the Keeper of the Ark. And we foiled the Chznzet’s plot to take over the Ark. Don’t you think they’d be more than a little upset? Did you really think they’d be good sports and give up just like that?”
     “Oh.” Xandu felt inadequate in the face of Wootjan-Oo’s justified tirade.
     “Good job that machine woman had fast reflexes.” Wootjan-Oo could see that Xandu had suffered enough. Maybe not enough to learn his lesson but it would do. “What happened to her?”
     “We lost her.” Xandu admitted miserably.
     “What? Just like that? Didn’t you look for her?”
     “We did.” Xandu replied defensively. “But it got dark and the Duke’s Vizier intercepted us on the way home and… and… we ended up here.” He trailed off. “We told the Rtuntli Gendarmes. They’ll look for her.”
     “You hope.” Wootjan-Oo clucked disapprovingly. “As if they really care about us or any offworlders for that matter. I doubt they’ll try very hard. The good news is that the Chznzet haven’t found her yet.”
     “How do you know?”
     “I don’t know for certain but I hear a lot of rumours at work from Chznzet sympathisers.” Wootjan-Oo didn’t want to give Xandu false hope. “One thing for certain, there’s a lot of Chznzet been flooding into Vermthellyn lately and the Rtuntli aren’t too happy about it.”
     “How so?” Xandu, in spite of his rampant hedonism, lived a fairly quiet life. He didn’t get too involved in politics. He was a party animal first and foremost.
     “Riots in the main cities, things like that.” Wootjan-Oo shrugged indifferently. He was glad he was far away from the riots. It wasn’t as if he could do anything about them. “If the Chznzet had killed you and your friends it would have been through the rumour mill like wildfire.”
     “I hope she’s all right.” Xandu felt helplessly selfish about having so casually abandoned Ruby. “I really liked her.”
     “How’s Yldoseh?” Wootjan-Oo changed the subject.
     “Fine, I guess.” Xandu knew that Yldoseh had been terrified when the Chznzet threatened her. “She’s with her mother at Knetryxx’s.”
     Wootjan-Oo made a low, approving chirp. “They’re safe for now.”

     “What’s the latest on the Ruby clone in the Sensorium?” Brasso called out of his tiny office set off to the side of the shabby Satori Security Service office to Flatfoot Sam who was hunched up at his desk gawping at a collection of tri-D displays on his desk. They could have had a modern, shiny spotless office but Brasso preferred the noir ambience of their dingy little office. He claimed that it helped to focus his mind and foster a tight team spirit. Though they found it bizarre, none of his superiors questioned his judgement: the SSS got results.
     Sam looked over from his desk. “Ever since they patched in the update acquired from the human pilot, its gone off the scale. Fans from all over Mars are sending in suggestions so fast that it’s getting bogged down: Ruby has to play out too many possibilities. The Sensorium is doing the extra crunching but it’s got other environments to run that are just as popular as well. Obviously it’s all premised on the possibility that Ruby is still alive on that planet. How long she’d survive is another matter. She’s a brave mech.”
     “Desperate, more like.” Brasso knew only too well what Ruby faced. “If she’d returned Earth Fed would have terminated her.”
     “Why?” Sam couldn’t see any reason. Ruby, along with the Human pilot, were celebrities. They’d made a successful first contact with extraterrestrials.
     “She’s an illegal mech.”
     “What?” Sam found it hard to believe. Yes, there were a few illegal mechs and they were always sorry stories to rescue and rehabilitate. But they were almost always used as menial slave labour or sexbots, never for anything as high-flying as a pilot for Amalgamated Mining & Metals Group. Sure, AM&MG were typical greedy capitalists but they were totally above board as far as employment and workers’ rights. At least as far as he knew.
     Brasso paused for a moment. “You know that Zanzibar place?”
     “Yes.” Sam had been out there once on official business to collect a mech, Cassandra, from the Free Mars Tribe to work on their crystal program. It wasn’t the sharpest tool in the box and had latched on to him like a puppy. It ended awkwardly and he still felt bad about having led her on.
     “The owner, SkyHawk Dread, is a retired astronaut.” Brasso kept it short and sweet. “Long story short is that Earth Fed supplied him with a series of sexbot minders who were rotated out every three longyears. At first he thought nothing of it but when he tried contacting one of the sexbots after it was rotated out he was warned off by Earth Fed. He came to Satori to search the universal record but there was no trace of it. No serial numbers, no service record, nothing. Nor for any of the others. Anyway, he was flagged up later buying cloning gear and blank cores at one of our black-market honey pot outlets so I put a tab on him.”
     “I don’t like where this is going.” Sam didn’t see much point in busting some lonely Human who cloned a sexbot. They had much bigger fish to fry.
     “He bungled his first attempt so I sent Max over to take a look.” Brasso explained. “We substituted Max for SkyHawk’s botch job and he managed to see the next attempt through. It didn’t go too well but Max managed to extract its original serial numbers. I checked them against the universal record and nada, no trace. Every mech has to be registered on it. Otherwise it’s an illegal and the first thing we do when we find an illegal is register them.”
     “You mean to say that Earth Fed is building illegal mechs?” That made little sense to Sam. Earth Fed was riddled with anti-mech bigots from top to bottom. It was an open secret. So why they would even consider making their own illegal mechs? It didn’t add up seeing how they had a steady supply of more legal military mechs than they knew what to do with.
     “Yes.” Brasso was grimly firm. “And terminating them.”
     “That’s illegal!” Sam splurted out the dumbly obvious.
     “And immoral.” Brasso added seriously. “I’ve got enough now to take a case against them. But since its Earth Fed it’s become a political issue so it’s out of my hands. The Satori Department of State is deciding whether to bust them which will need an army of lawyers and yours truly reduced to a brief appearance to present the evidence or use it as a stick to beat them with whenever we want something out of them.”
     “Damn politicians.” Sam hated seeing good mechs’ lives being used as a bargaining chip. “I’m just a cop. I say we bust their sorry ass.”
     Just then Dolly came bustling into the office, cheerily waving her metal tentacles and excitedly swivelling her stalk eyes around. “Charlene has spoken!” Dolly parked herself in the middle of the office, switched on her personal tri-D projector and filled the air above her with a sequence of badly-compressed images and video clips.
     “Just what exactly are we looking at?” Brasso asked as he pulled himself out of his office.
     “The latest data burst from Charlene.” Dolly announced proudly in spite of the abysmal picture quality.
     “I thought you gave her some decent image processing software.” Brasso wasn’t particularly impressed by what was on display.
     “Quantity not quality, Brasso.” Dolly chided her boss. “Charlene’s only a pair of mech legs, not a server farm. She didn’t have much storage space to begin with. Seeing how there was no way we could upgrade her remotely without raising any suspicion I opted for extreme data compression.” Dolly began replaying a series of stills taken from the bridge of Kazmak’s battle cruiser while Brasso grumbled about the poor image quality.
     “As you can see Kazmak’s upped his game a bit with his own ship.” Dolly gave a running commentary. “It doesn’t look like anything from any of our shipyards. Maybe the Overlordz now have their own shipyard. More on that later. The Raiders definitely seized the Bessemer Baby and the EWP platform.” To emphasize her point Dolly replayed a sequence showing Kazmak and his crew aboard the Bessemer Baby discussing their plans with their team who had seized the EWP platform via the viewscreens on the Bessemer Baby’s bridge. “So it’s a good job that alien worldship took them both out. Otherwise we’d be looking at Overlordz clans with nukes within striking distance of Mars, Luna and Earth.”
     Sam and Brasso kept knew better than to interrupt Dolly when she got into her stride. “Here, here and here.” Dolly skipped quickly through a series of cut scenes aboard the Bessemer Baby. “We can see neural nets on the mining ships original crew so Earth Fed’s suspicion about Overlordz clans using neural nets for enslavement appears to be vindicated.”
     “There’s more to come!” Dolly announced as she scrolled back through the images at a breakneck speed. “They got some floxetrasine and those detector beads from Evil Bert. I believe he’s one of your assets, Sam” Dolly displayed the scene from Kazmak’s cruiser where some of his crew were exposed as Gulmarians.
     “He is.” Flatfoot Sam was piqued that Evil Bert hadn’t notified him of this.
     “Looks like he’s on Earth Fed’s payroll too.” Brasso joked.
     “It wouldn’t surprise me. Bert’s an independent operator.” Sam made a mental note to review anything he’d discussed with Evil Bert and to be a lot more circumspect in his dealings in future.
     “Looks like some of his crew were infected with that Gulmarian stuff or whatever it is that Earth Fed sent us a memo about.” Brasso watched the scenes of Kazmak’s crew reacting to his first release of floxetrasine.
     “Not much to worry about there.” Sam added glibly. “It only affects fleshies.”
     “It affects clones too.” Dolly primly pointed out as she fast-forwarded through video clips showing Kazmak and his Raiders clan picking up floxetrasine and detector beads before unleashing it on the unsuspecting clans at the base in Hellas. The carnage was brutal, swift and gruesome.
     When it was finished Sam was the first to speak up. “I think we can safely say that they’re clean.”
     “For the time being.” Brasso pointed out. “Given the low-lifes they mix with they’ll probably get infected again. More a matter of when rather than if.”
     “This is where it gets interesting.” Dolly replayed the scene of Kazmak and Killdan discussing the fate of their team that had commandeered the Bessemer Baby.
     “So their main base is out in Jupiter’s Trojans. We knew they had to have one somewhere.” Brasso was impressed. Not even Earth Fed had tried anything quite as ambitious. “Dolly, see if you get Charlene to supply us with the co-ordinates of their base.”
     “Already done. Charlene’s been very thorough this time.” Dolly announced proudly as she punched up the co-ordinates into a stellarium display that showed the approximate location of the Overlordz’ secret base in the Trojans. “Oh, and by the way, she wants extraction and the upgrade to a full body as we promised.”
     “Damn!” Brasso cursed. “We really need an agent on that ship if they’re heading out to that base in the Trojans. See if you can get her to upload a bot agent into the ships’ systems before you extract her.”
     “It’ll take a while to set up. I can’t just walk into Hellas and ask Kazmak for his mech legs.” Sam knew the work of arranging Charlene’s extraction would fall on his desk. “Never mind the time it would take to vat-grow new legs and lower torso for Kazmak. By the time its all set up they could have been out to the Trojans and back.”
     “Bot agent it is then.” Brasso decided before changing the subject. “Who’s up for a trip to the Observatory?”
     “What?” Sam was flummoxed.
     “I’ve just booked a secure session to check out those co-ordinates in the Trojans that Charlene gave us.” Brasso explained conspiratorially. “Let’s take a look-see for ourselves. We may not have the ships that Earth Fed has to get out there but the observatory should give a good peek at things.”
     “What exactly are you looking for?” Sam, although swept along by Brasso’s breezy determination didn’t think they’d be able to see a space station at such a distance.
     “Heat signatures, radiation signatures, objects not moving along with the overall motion of the Trojans themselves…” Brasso trailed off. He was clearly working on his list of targets. “Come on then!”
     Sam and Dolly followed Brasso out of their office and down into the sprawling and not too unpleasant city of Satori below. Brasso hailed what looked like a passing taxi that whisked them out to the observatory on the outskirts of Satori. In reality it was an armoured SSS car tricked out to look like a taxi… all part of Brasso’s ‘ambience’. Sam revelled in the illusion that Brasso weaved so much so that he even bought and wore (completely unnecessarily!) a wide-brimmed fedora hat just to get into the groove.
     “The big question.” Brasso broke the silence in the taxi as it slid noiselessly along the busy avenues of Satori. “Is how long we sit on this intel before passing it on to Earth Fed providing it’s not some nonsense cooked up by Charlene.”
     “What do you mean?” Sam couldn’t always keep up with Brasso’s jumps of logic.
     “Charlene’s just a pair of legs left over from a dismantled sexbot. I doubt if she could even pass the Turing test. If I was in her situation, I’d do anything to get an upgrade.” Brasso explained. “Wouldn’t you?”
     “Probably.” Sam could see what Brasso was getting at. Dolly remained silent.
     “Precisely.” Brasso scored an imaginary point. “We can’t take her word for it so we need to verify or negate it independently. Thus our little excursion to the observatory.”
     “Why bother with Earth Fed at all?” Sam suggested. “Why don’t we send a probe out there?”
     “First off they’d spot anything incoming months in advance and secondly we don’t have anything with the range. Earth Fed does.” Brasso admitted with a shrug of resignation. “And they’ve got the means to take the fight there. We don’t.”
     “So we play it for brownie points?” Sam could see that the SSS was little more than a bit player this time around.
     “And see what we can parlay out of them as a bit of quid pro quo while we’re at it.” Brasso was never one for giving up easily. The technicians at the Ariadne Space Observatory took their work seriously and were quite clearly annoyed at having their regular schedule disrupted by government spooks with crazy ideas but it was written into their funding contract so they did their best to take care of Brasso’s ‘hunt for the mystery space pirate base’ by humouring him with an excruciating level of obsequiousness. Brasso saw their behaviour for what it was but ignored it in the hope that they might actually find something. The Satori Observatory was the best civilian facility on Mars. Something its techs never missed a chance to remind you of.
     Hours passed. Eventually Jupiter and its Trojans rose above the horizon and the technicians swung into action. It didn’t take long before they located not one but three heat and radiation sources that couldn’t be explained naturally.
     “Yes!!!” Brasso punched the air jubilantly.
     “I owe you an apology, Mr Brasso.” Ambrose, the lead tech mech conducting Brasso’s search apologised profusely. “It looks like you’re on to something. Would you like to take a closer look?”
     “By all means.” Brasso felt like a child let loose in a sweet shop and had already forgotten the technicians’ earlier bad manners. “Any chance of optical viewing?”
     “From here?” Ambrose scoffed. “Not a chance but we can get a closer analysis of their emission spectra and a lock on their radio transmissions. Assuming they encrypt everything it might not be much use to you though.”
     “That’s fine.” Brasso was satisfied. The rest was icing on the cake as far as he was concerned. “Send everything you get over to the SSS. I’ll get a team to work on it.” Brasso beamed over his contact details to Ambrose on a secure channel. “Have we got anything closer?”
     “What, do you mean satellites around Jupiter?” Ambrose asked.
     Ambrose quickly scrolled through their database of satellites and probes. “The closest thing we have is a timeshare on a probe orbiting Callisto. It belongs to Celestial Mining who went bust in the stock market crash of 2153. Since then it’s been dormant so it’s ours to use until the creditors find a use for it. I should warn you, it’s not a very sophisticated piece of kit. Rudimentary encryption and no narrow-focus transmission beam so your space pirates or whoever they are will get wise to it sooner or later.”
     “We’ll have to take that risk.” Brasso weighed up his options. “Set it to scan the vicinity we covered in the Trojans and just to store data for the time being. We’ll work out something later.”
     “Dolly, could you do a search and see who owns Celestial Mining’s assets?” Brasso asked as the rode back to their office in his faux-taxi.
     “I’m on it now.” Dolly projected a 3D display of her search as it progressed for Brasso and Sam’s benefit. “Ah, here we are. The terrestrial assets now belong to Oranger Kierk Investments of Johannesburg and offworld assets were bought by Carta della Bianca Associates of Messina.”
     “Most likely front companies.” Sam wasn’t fooled. It was too clean a break. Large bankruptcies tended to be messy and drag through the courts for years.
     “But for whom?” Brasso leapt to the logical conclusion. “Dolly, do a background search on those companies and find out what you can about them.” Brasso paused briefly before turning his attention to Sam. “I’m actually quite impressed. It must have been quite a logistical operation moving out to the Trojans. Even Earth Fed hadn’t attempted anything like that.”
     “Excellent defensive location and given their distance they’d see any Earth Fed fleet approaching them months in advance giving them plenty of time to prepare.” Sam had always considered the Overlordz to be a disorganized unruly rabble of criminal opportunists. This showed another side he hadn’t expected: strategic organisation.

Scribbles & Scraps
Chapter 27
Chapter 29