Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 30: Down from the hills.


     Ruby felt bad about abandoning Tarnoukh back in the village. At least he was safe and his injuries would be seen to. She had enjoyed his company on their journey down from the relay station and had learned a bit about the Rtuntli and life on Vermthellyn. But Ruby had to keep a low profile until she was able to hide in Estrillyd, a city that was orders of magnitude larger than anything she’d ever seen on Mars but nowhere near as dense as Zrrlchtz which seemed to go on forever. Tarnoukh had invited her to meet him at a place called Rebulon’s Room in the H’Ulwyn district of Estrillyd. Seemed easy enough: make her way to Estrillyd, look him up and wait.
     The quickest path took her past the spaceport. From the distance it looked grand and imposing with its constant stream of incoming and departing traffic from where she stood on the edge of a broad coastal plain. It took longer than she thought and she only managed to reach its periphery at dusk the following day. There was only one partially-occluded moon overhead, low on the horizon, so it was getting dark quickly.
     As she got closer it resembled a sprawling industrial wasteland of shabby warehouses and scruffy factory units rather than the bustling spaceport she had expected. It was nothing like the Satori Aerodrome, which it dwarfed by several orders of magnitude, in scale or appearance. Most of it was unlit except for a few lonely windows whose light was already swallowed up by the oncoming gloom. In the distance she spotted a flood of light and crept up to get a closer look. An air freighter and several hover trucks were parked outside a warehouse. Overhead floodlights lit up the area with a harsher and brighter light than daytime on Vermthellyn. Groups of Rtuntli workers and a few off-worlders were busily shifting crates from the trucks and warehouse and loading up the air freighter and talking loudly amongst themselves. Ruby hung around in the shadows for a while watching them.
     Not wanting to arrive in Estrillyd with her power cell depleted, Ruby decided to scout around for a power terminal she could tap into. She avoided any building with lights as she wanted to avoid any contact until she was safely into Estrillyd where she could hide in the crowds. Most of the unlit buildings were securely locked and most likely alarmed so she gave them a miss, too. After a few failed attempts she found an old warehouse that looked promising. A side door was unlocked so she slipped in quietly and looked around. A rusting and partially stripped hover truck lay abandoned inside alongside a ramshackle pile of dust-covered crates in the rapidly fading weak evening light. Pieces of grime-encrusted heavy machinery lay dotted around the floor. She scanned the interior with her infrared night vision just to make sure there weren’t any warm bodies nearby. She didn’t want to run into anyone, especially a Rtuntli. She was safe… so far. No-one else seemed to be in the building.
     Ruby checked the power conduits to the machinery on the ground floor but they were all lifeless. She scouted around the back rooms and offices. The dust-covered computer terminals and light machinery hadn’t been used in a long time. She was about to give up when she found the main power bus for the warehouse in a cupboard. It was live! She threw the switch next to it and the lights burst into life all over the warehouse. Computer terminals booted up and flickered into life. Ruby panicked in case she was discovered and immediately threw the switch off. After two hours of scrabbling with connectors that were designed to remain connected, Ruby managed to disconnect all the power conduits from the main bus. When she was satisfied, she turned the power on again. This time the warehouse remained dark so she unravelled her universal connector out of her stomach, connected it to the main bus and drank up the power as it topped up her power cell.
     Ruby kept her sensors at full sensitivity. At one point she heard two Rtuntli walking past the warehouse. They entered through the same unlocked door that Ruby had found, looked around inside for a while and then left arguing even more loudly than when they’d arrived. If mechs had hearts, hers would have been racing close to bursting! For what felt like an eternity she didn’t dare even touch the cupboard door and tracked them around the warehouse using her infrared and audio location sensors. Eventually, after their footfalls had died away and their infrared signatures were fading into the background, she pushed the door open. Her power cell wasn’t fully topped up but it would have to do. She couldn’t risk another close call like that. She slipped out the door and ran away in the opposite direction from the Rtuntli.
     The night time darkness gave her good cover. Ruby avoided going near any lit up buildings. Dodging down back alleys and doubling back on her tracks several times took longer than walking out along the main road out of the Spaceport but when she finally made it out to open countryside she’d managed to avoid being spotted by anyone. By sunrise she had put a good distance between herself and the spaceport as she trotted along seldom-used country lanes, around the edges of fields and the occasional stand of trees. The next afternoon she passed through a few of the outlying villages and suburbs and was beginning to draw curious looks from passers-by. The outskirts of Vermthellyn were 100% Rtuntli. Not a single off-worlder in sight other than herself and even she could have passed as deformed Rtuntli if it had occurred to her.
     As luck would have it there was a monorail station on the main street of one of the villages she passed through. Xandu had taken her and Veronica on rides around Estrillyd on the monorail so she made her way over to it and studied the map on the wall in the foyer. It was the same map she’d seen in the monorail stations near Xandu’s home so she looked up the station for N’Harya, bought a ticket with one of the credit strips that had belonged to one of the dead Chznzet she’d plundered and waited on the platform. When the monorail arrived she was still the only person on the platform. The carriage she got into was empty but gradually filled up with Rtuntli of all ages as it stopped along its journey into Estrillyd. Groups of excitable young Rtuntli chattering loudly, sombre elderly Rtuntli sitting stiffly and staring out the windows in silence, parents with their infants in tow, adults who looked like Tarnoukh getting on and off at stations along the way, most likely on their way to and from work.
     The buildings outside the window got larger, taller and denser as she journeyed in towards downtown Estrillyd. By the time Ruby got to the built-up N’Harya residential district there were enough off-worlders about that she no longer felt out of place as she blundered her way through buying a ticket to the H’Ulwyn district with her translator. Even the clerk at the ticket kiosk was an off-worlder. Part of her wanted to run out of the station to Xandu’s home but she knew that path led back to the Ark, Mars and the clutches of Earth Fed who would most certainly terminate her. They’d already done it once so she had every reason to presume they’d do it again.
     Instead she trudged apprehensively towards the monorail again and after changing trains a few times walked out of the H’Ulwyn station. Outside the heaving rush of activity almost overwhelmed her. It was like market day in Montgomery gone wild. Hawkers, beggars, hustlers, street traders and performers of all species were noisily jostling for attention while mingling in and out of the chaotic traffic of aircars and hover trucks. Ruby passed a group of colourful acrobats, none of whom were Rtuntli, gleefully performing their act to an excited crowd gathered on the side of the street. A street vendor thrust some food her way and jabbered loudly. Her translator couldn’t pick out his voice from the background noise. She didn’t need to eat like fleshies did so she walked on past the disappointed vendor who assaulted the next pedestrian with its wares. An off-worlder street hustler tried to sell Ruby tickets for the Black Hole Lottery. ‘Everyone a winner’ it insisted. It sounded familiar but she couldn’t place it and pressed on through the crowds.
     The streets were lined with shops selling food, clothes, gadgets, trinkets and electronics, restaurants, bars, cafés, and a thousand other things she couldn’t make out. Offworlders seemed to outnumber Rtuntli in this district, something which made her feel at ease in spite of the crazy swirl of activity and noise around her. Looking around she could see that most of the buildings were quite old and in poor condition but were interspersed with new ultramodern buildings which wouldn’t have been out of place in the N’Harya district where Xandu and most Shallens lived.
     Wandering around while taking in the sights and sounds Ruby remembered her plan: find a place to live, get a job, and look up Tarnoukh: in no particular order. She was beginning to get her bearings when she spotted a smart black-and-gold shop front with a group of Shallens standing outside. The reptilians wore the same outfits as the Chznzet Shallens who had attacked her back at the hot springs. The avians, who seldom wore clothes as it ruffled their feathers, wore chest straps with the Chznzet emblem. Two of them held plasma lances at the ready. The rest appeared to be gathered around one of their group who was addressing the crowd outside their shop. Turning around and walking away might draw attention to herself so Ruby crossed the road and melted into the crowd. Even if she no longer looked anything like what she used to look like: the red plastiskin and blue hair of her previous self when the Chznzet attempted to kill Xandu was stashed in her shoulder bag. Now she had a loose and hastily-fitted fur coat stitched over her frame. Here, in H’Ulwyn no-one gave her a second glance. She didn’t even dare to think until she was a good block away from that place. That was when she decided to find Tarnoukh. If the Chznzet were here she needed friends…. and fast.
     Ruby set about asking everyone she could where Rebulon’s Room was. Sometimes her translator failed and she got a puzzled look back. Sometimes the other persons’ translator failed and she received a reply of gibberish she couldn’t understand. Along the way she got her fair share of smutty replies, propositions, insults, foiled over half a dozen pickpockets, avoided being knocked over by a hover truck, narrowly escaped the clutches of a gang of thieves as well as several groups of enthusiastic evangelists of religions she never even imagined could have existed as well as fending off countless hard luck stories from beggars.
     Eventually she arrived at Rebulon’s Room. A trio of musicians played on the pavement outside. The lone Rtuntli in the group appeared to be a percussionist of some sort. The other two of-worlders played instruments that were a strange mix of acoustic and electronic. One tall blue-grey alien with four arms and multiple deep turquoise eyes in a graceful arc up each side of its head blew into a contraption with four small banks of keys splayed out from it. A rotund feline creature with prominent fangs and short, striped fur merrily jabbed away at a console hanging by a strap around its neck. Ruby hung around outside with the appreciative audience listening to the music for a while who cheered every time the little band took a break.
     They had rhythm, melody and harmony… when they got into a groove they sounded like abstract electronic jazz which could drift off at any moment into dream-like alien sonic landscapes, lumpy sea-shanties with much of the audience singing along, deafening epic blasts, fugues, grinding electronic noise, wispy reveries, raucous virtuoso renditions, tub-thumping chorales and much, much more. To Ruby’s unmusical ears they sounded incredibly talented .She soon found herself cheering along with the rest of the crowd. She kept scanning the crowd but there was no sign of Tarnoukh so she went inside. Rebulon’s Room was busy! Groups of people, mostly off-worlders and a sizable minority of Rtuntli were either propped up against the bar, milling around or sitting in alcoves talking over drinks. The walls were decorated with random pieces of electronic hardware, hanging plants and holographic displays. It felt as if the chaos out in the street had poured itself into Rebulon’s Room and, in spite of being on an alien world, had all the familiarity of a busy Saturday afternoon at the Wobbly Goblin in Montgomery.
     Ruby was standing behind a crowd of off-worlders who were well into a session of exuberant serious drinking waiting her turn and wondering what she would say to the bartender when she was grabbed from behind and spun around. “It is you!” A sleek, well-groomed Rtuntli who was propped up on crutches held her by both arms. “I didn’t imagine it after all. I was beginning to think I really had lost my mind.”
     “Tarnoukh!” Even though his coat was cleaned up and in spite of the fact that she could barely tell one Rtuntli from another Ruby recognised him immediately.
     “It’s so good to see you.” Tarnoukh squeezed her arm and hobbled towards an empty alcove. “Come. Keep me company.” Once they’d sat down and he’d had some of the drink he’d left on the table, Tarnoukh leaned across the table. “Do you remember that innkeeper? She was convinced that I was hallucinating. It was the same at the clinic. I almost started to believe them. But why? Why did you leave me in the village? Where did you go?”
     Ruby really didn’t want to explain that to him. Least of all now in a bar where anyone could be listening in. “I’m sorry.” She apologised awkwardly. “I couldn’t stay. But I’m here now. I think I’ll like it here.” Ruby added brightly as she looked around Rebulon’s Room. She could tell by the look on his face that he’d accept her evasion for the time being but not for long. They swapped stories: Tarnoukh about being patched up in the clinic and then losing his job with EsNet “They dismissed me to avoid paying my medical bills” and Ruby told him about her adventure into Estrillyd on the monorail while carefully omitting her venture into the spaceport.
     Tarnoukh was in a miserable state. Not only had he lost his job and was facing costs beyond his means but he’d been certified as psychotic while he was in the clinic and was not only forced onto heavy medication which he hated but was also unemployable until he was deemed fit to work. He’d been sitting in the corner alcove of Rebulon’s Room every day ever since he got back to Estrillyd drinking himself senseless and hoping in vain that Ruby would turn up. And now that she had, he felt even worse.
     Once again Ruby had to help Tarnoukh only this time the injuries weren’t physical and it was partly her fault. She offered to help him in any way he needed and, the more she thought about it, the more it seemed that this was meant to happen. By helping Tarnoukh she’d also get herself settled into life in Estrillyd without, hopefully, drawing too much attention to herself. They were deep in conversation when a huge crowd surged into Rebulon’s Room. Outside they could hear that the band had stopped playing. Instead they heard shouting and windows being smashed. The next thing they knew, the windows of Rebulon’s Room shattered bursting inwards as bricks, blocks, pieces of machinery and people sailed through the open spaces where the windows had been moments previously.
     The bars’ customers panicked and most of them ran out through side exits and back doors as fast as they could. Tarnoukh could barely manage a slow hobble so he and Ruby stayed put in their alcove waiting for the storm to pass. Ruby peered out and could see a full-blown pitched-battle riot out in the street. Gangs of scruffy Rtuntli were beating up any off-worlders they could find. Groups of determined off-worlders were doggedly fighting back. It wasn’t until she spotted some of the Rtuntli riding their fanged feral shaggy steeds that she realised the Gheltsyn were involved.
     “I thought you said the Gheltsyn were survivalists.” Ruby asked Tarnoukh.
     “They are.” He replied as he looked out from their alcove.
     “So what are they doing here?”
     “I don’t know.” As far as Tarnoukh knew the Gheltsyn regarded urbanised life as a lower form of existence to be avoided at all costs. “It’s not like them, they seldom come into town. Then again they despise everyone who isn’t like them.”
     A group of mounted Gheltsyn paused outside the bar. She could see the percussionist Rtuntli and his two off-worlder band members cowering in front of the Gheltsyn to protect each other and their instruments but to no avail. The Gheltsyn swung spears and gleaming swords cutting the hapless musicians down and smashing their instruments to pieces before moving on. Ruby scuttled out past a group of Shallens huddled just inside the doorway once it seemed safe enough and dragged the misfortunate musicians into the back of Rebulon’s Room. They were badly beaten and cut up but alive. The few bar staff and customers remaining were emboldened by Ruby’s actions and set about cleaning up and bandaging the injured musicians.
     Once they were safe Ruby recovered the remains of their smashed-up instruments and brought them back into the bar. It was anarchy out on the street. Smoke billowed out of smashed-in shops, groups of people, both Rtuntli and off-worlder, were fighting and looting. Overturned aircars and hover trucks were scattered around. Some were on fire others merely served as cover for the rioters to inflict more damage. Although it was chaotic out in the street the main focus of the street battle had moved on.
     Ruby retreated back into the bar and rejoined Tarnoukh. A male orange reptilian Shallen wearing scruffy overalls walked up to them. “What are you doing here Tarnoukh?” He looked down at the metal braces holding Tarnoukh’s leg together. “Couldn’t get away in time?”
     Tarnoukh grumbled unhappily.
     “Looks like the worst of it has died down.” The reptilian tried to reassure Tarnoukh. Just then a group of unkempt Rtuntli hopped in through the broken window, helped themselves to drinks and drugs from the bar and then sauntered out unchallenged and laughing amongst themselves.
     “Maybe not.” He added ruefully. “Thanks for bringing them in.” He addressed Ruby as he nodded over in the direction of the musicians Ruby had brought in from the street. The feline looked dazed and was propped up against a wall. The Rtuntli was standing up with bandages around his head and talking to a group of off-worlders at the bar. The tall blue-grey one was laid out one the floor with another group huddled around it. Ruby could see a large piece of plate glass stuck in its abdomen. “DeRhendia is in a bad way.” The Shallen urgently explained. “We need to get her to a clinic right away.”
     Tarnoukh looked over at DeRhendia. She was an Ooplatski. They looked delicate but were surprisingly tough, something he’d found out while working with them. It was obvious that she was very badly injured. Her tail and one of her pincer-hands were twitching spasmodically. The piece of glass must have cut through her internal organs; her thick viscous deep blue blood was leaking out onto the floor. “Through that riot? Good luck with that. The Gendarmerie will have sealed off this district by now. The only place you’ll end up is in a holding cell.”
     “Rebulon has connections.” The reptilian explained tersely. “There’s an air ambulance on its way. It’ll land on the roof. We need to carry her up there.”
     “Lifting her up might kill her.” Ruby pointed out.
     “I have an idea.” The reptilian turned over the table next to Tarnoukh and Ruby’s alcove and kicked its legs until they gave way and broke off. “Grab an end.” He ordered Ruby. Together, with the help of the people gathered around DeRhendia, they slid the table top under her and carried her up to the roof where they waited for the air ambulance.
     Rebulon, a wiry Rtuntli with blotchy brown-and-tan fur, escorted the other two band members up to the roof as the air ambulance landed. “You, M’Thekh, have concussion.” He scolded the Rtuntli percussionist. “And the only thing hiding your bruises is your fur, Narliss,” He chivvied the Feline sound sculptist up the last few steps to the roof. I don’t want to lose any of you. I like your music and so does everyone else.”
     Rebulon waited until DeRhendia was loaded into the air ambulance before pushing M’Thekh and Narliss in and jumping in after them. “Jem-Dhaka, look after the bar until we return.” He called out to his feline Phelynx bar manager as the air ambulance lifted off. They watched the air ambulance lift off and stayed in silence on the roof watching as it disappeared in the distance behind the cordon of Gendarmerie patrol cars hovering around the periphery of the H’Ulwyn district. They never got involved in anti off-worlder riots. The majority of the Rtuntli were deeply xenophobic and secretly admired the Gheltsyn. The Gendarmerie would wait until nightfall and then take it out on any off-worlders they found wandering around.
     Up on the rooftop they watched the riots ebb and flow up one street and down another. Plumes of smoke billowed up into the sky from buildings and vehicles set on fire. It wasn’t the first riot of disgruntled Rtuntli smashing up the H’Ulwyn district nor would it be the last but this one was particularly bad. Everyone up on the rooftop agreed that it had to be the Gheltsyn. They were totally uncompromising as regards off-worlders. The wanted them all off Vermthellyn and for the Rtuntli to return to a more pastoral pre-space travel life. Given the amount of interplanetary traffic passing their planet it was a poignantly unrealistic stance.
     One by one they filtered down back into the bar and started making their way home. Jem-Dhaka, manager, manned the bar until Rebulon returned. It turned out that the reptilian, Szelmy, and Tarnoukh shared an apartment nearby. They decided to leave before the night time curfew and, not having anywhere else to go, Ruby tagged along. Their apartment was a typical bachelor flat: well-worn furniture with random pieces of clothing scattered on them, half-eaten plates of food left on a low table, junk piled up on a desk with some sort of computer terminal on it, some colourful pictures on the walls and a pair of somewhat neglected plants in a corner. They flopped down on the seats. Tarnoukh grunted with pain as he heaved his leg around.
     “So you’re the one Tarnoukh told me about.” Szelmy looked at Ruby curiously.
     “Yes, indeed.” Tarnoukh replied proudly before Ruby could get a word out. “The one who saved my life and, apparently, is only a figment of my fevered imagination.”
     “I’m real enough.” Ruby defended Tarnoukh.
     “So I can see.” Szelmy had seriously doubted Tarnoukh’s wild tale. He’d been badly injured out in the wilds and was still on heavy medication. “You look like a Blurtahnyk on two legs to me.”
     “That’s because it’s wearing Blurtahnyk skins.” Tarnoukh pointed out. “Show him, Ruby.” Ruby removed the Blurtahnyk jaw from her face and lifted off the Blurtahnyk head off her own to reveal her carbon-fibre and metal head and glowing red eyes underneath.
     “OK, I believe you now.” Szelmy couldn’t take his eyes off Ruby as he poured drinks for himself and Tarnoukh. He’d never seen a mechanoid before. “Good news, Tarnoukh. You can start at UniCom tomorrow on the late shift. I told you that EsNet were no good. Look how they treated you.”
     “Late shift?” Tarnoukh was disappointed. He had really hoped to get on the day shift with Szelmy but it would have to do. “At least it’ll keep me from drinking myself to death.”
     “It’s an easy job.” Szelmy tried to lift Tarnoukh’s mood. “Sit in the office most of the time and just patch your customers through. The pay’s rubbish though.”
     “Thanks. At least it pays and I won’t let you down.” He really needed an income after having been fired from his well-paid job manning a relay station. He had no savings to live on. “You’re right about EsNet. It was like I no longer existed. Here’s your papers, severance pay and clinic fees. Now get lost. Bah.” Tarnoukh cursed with self-righteous indignation.
     Tarnoukh launched into an epic retelling of how Ruby had pulled him out from under the wreckage of the relay station and guided him back to civilisation. Only this time he embellished it with every minute detail he could remember. Details which became fuzzier and more outlandish as he put away the drinks and potions Szelmy plied him with as the night wore on. Eventually he passed out and Szelmy retired to his nest room. Ruby topped up her power cell as they slept.
     Szelmy had long since left to work at UniCom when Tarnoukh woke up with a hangover wincing at the bright mid-day light. “How are you?” Ruby greeted him.
     “Ugh.” Tarnoukh grunted and turned over on the sofa.
     “Come on, Tarnoukh. You can’t sleep all day.” Ruby tried to rouse him
     “I’m recuperating.” He tried to dig himself deeper into the sofa and pulled a cushion over his head.
     “From a hangover or a broken leg?”
     “Both.” Came his muffled reply from under the cushion.
     “Get up or I’ll pour this jug of water over you.” Ruby playfully threatened Tarnoukh who did nothing more than pull a cushion over his throbbing head. He’d called her bluff so there was nothing else for her to do except pour the water over him.
     Tarnoukh jumped up with surprise, eyes wide open. “Aaaahhhhh! You really meant that.” He shook the water off himself, got up and wiped himself down. After rummaging around in the kitchen he found something to eat they set out for a walk around the H’Ulwyn district ‘to clear his head’ although he really meant ‘go to Rebulon’s Room for a drink’. Out on the street the riot was definitely over. Shops and businesses were either boarded up or being repaired. Some were so badly burnt out that they were abandoned for the time being. The few lucky establishments that survived the riot intact were open for business.
     Clean-up crews from the City council were taking their time returning the H’Ulwyn district to its’ former shabby state of decay. The burnt-out air cars and hover trucks were being lifted away for scrap. Looters, both Rtuntli and off-worlder, were still walking in and out of shops unchallenged taking whatever they wanted. There was still no sign of the Gendarmerie on the streets. They walked past what was left of the Chznzet mission. It was completely burnt out and trashed. Ruby spotted a group of Shallens, most likely Chznzet, shuffling around in the shadows. She pressed Tarnoukh to quicken up his pace and move on.
     Eventually they arrived at Rebulon’s Room, which was where Tarnoukh wanted to go all along only he’d taken a circuitous route so it wouldn’t be quite so obvious to Ruby. There was a group of Rtuntli workmen outside fitting new windows. Rebulon greeted them at the bar. “What’ll it be, Tarnoukh?”
     “Desteltin Ale, please.” Tarnoukh looked around and was pleasantly surprised that the bar seemed almost back to its usual self bar a few broken fittings and the as-yet unfinished windows. Business was, unsurprisingly, slow. There weren’t many people venturing out so soon after the riot. “It looks like you’ve got everything cleaned up,”
     “An oasis of calm amidst the chaos.” Rebulon replied stoically as he poured Tarnoukh’s drink. “Someone has to bring a bit order and good spirit back into the world and it might as well be me.”
     “How are they?” Tarnoukh asked with a note of concern.
     “M’Thekh and Narliss are fine.” Rebulon sounded as if a burden has been lifted off his shoulders. “DeRhendia will pull through; it was touch and go for a while. Those damn Gheltsyn thugs.” Rebulon growled angrily. “How could they do that? She was one of the gentlest creatures I ever met. All she lived for was music.”
     “She’s going to be heartbroken.” Rebulon was genuinely upset. He really liked DeRhendia. Not only did he enjoy their music but they also brought a steady stream of customers to his bar. “Her melodia looks broken beyond repair. Narliss’ polytone is pretty badly smashed up and most of M’Thekh’s drums are missing. It’s hopeless.” He dramatised the sense of despair he imagined the musicians would feel when they found their broken instruments.
     “I’m an electrical engineer. I could have a look at them.” Tarnoukh offered.
     “Be my guest.” Rebulon left the bar in Jem-Dhaka’s capable paws and ushered them into his office. The broken instruments were piled up on a table. “I have a diagnostic unit I use to patch up things around the bar and a few tools you might find useful.” Rebulon handed Tarnoukh a fuser probe for working on circuits before returning to the bar. “Let me know how you get on. I’ll bring you some food in a while.”
     Tarnoukh and Ruby set about sorting out the pieces and examining them. Ruby removed one of her eyes, held it in one of her hands and examined the circuits, case and parts of the polytone close up.
     Tarnoukh was aghast. “What are you doing?” Just the way she coolly plucked her eye out made him squeamish.
     “Visual examination.” Ruby explained calmly without even looking up from her work. “See if I can work out how all these pieces fit together.”
     “I’m impressed.” He was! “You do that and I’ll test the circuits. With a bit of luck we might get these working again.” They were still at it when Tarnoukh had to go to start his shift at UniCom. He’d managed to get a few rasping sounds out of Narliss’ polytone but nothing remotely musical. DeRhendia’s melodia was proving to be more difficult. It was partially organic. The mechanical and electronic parts yielded up their secrets to Ruby quickly enough but that alone wasn’t enough to get it working again. By using her fingertips as probes and her adaptive diagnostics software, Ruby was able to map out Narliss’ polytones’ circuitry and over the course of the evening reassemble it. That engineering course she’d downloaded at Satori sure came in useful. By the time Jem-Dhaka came in to close the bar for the night she was playing some of the songs by the Flaming Watusis on it.
     Jem-Dhaka languidly flexed his claws as he leaned up against a wall in rapt silence until Ruby finished her performance. “Very nice. Narliss will be pleased.” He congratulated her. “How did you get on with DeRhendia’s melodia?”
     “Nothing.” Ruby sighed in defeat. The melodia had defied all of her efforts to get it working again. “I managed to reassemble as much as I could and reconnect its circuits but couldn’t get a peep out of it.”
     “I’m not surprised.” Jem-Dhaka swished his tail from side to side. “It’s a semi-organic cybernetic device. DeRhendia explained it once to me. The mechanical and electronic parts are submerged in a culture vat while the rest of the instrument is grown around it. Each one is unique. I’m not sure if they can be repaired. All I know is that melodia had been in DeRhendia’s hive for generations and she spoke of it as if it were some sort of heirloom.”
     It wasn’t until she was outside that Ruby realised that she’d left her bag at Tarnoukh’s place. Ruby had been building up a map of Estrillyd from the moment she arrived. Incomplete as it was it was enough for her to find her way back to Tarnoukh’s. Many of the shops and buildings she passed were still boarded up; the few shops and clubs that were open had groups of off-worlders huddled outside warily keeping guard. Less than half the street lighting worked. The few people she saw seemed to be in a hurry. No-one lingered. This fearful battle aftermath was a far cry from the exhilarating vibrance that greeted her when she stepped out of the H’Ulwyn monorail station. She altered her route to avoid what was left of the Chznzet mission.
     Finding their run-down apartment block was easy. It was jammed in between a row of shops that had, for the most part, escaped the riots unscathed. Getting in was going to be a problem: the entrance door was closed. And locked, as she found out when she tried to open it. But she wasn’t going to let that stop her. She had no intention of sitting outside all night. There was no telling what might happen. So she placed one of her eyes over the lock and built up a 3D map of its mechanism and circuits. Then she removed one of the inductors from a plazflex muscle in her arm and used it to generate a modulated field to override the locks’ solenoid and she was in! She quickly reassembled herself and went up to the third floor, second door on the right and knocked,
     A tired and bleary-eyed Tarnoukh answered the door. “Oh, hi! I wasn’t expecting you. I thought you had a place of your own. Any luck with those instruments?”
     “I got Narliss’ polytone working but had no luck with DeRhendia’s melodia.”
     “That’s better than I managed.” Tarnoukh had been stumped by the alien circuitry in both instruments. “Oh, come in.” He sleepily ushered Ruby into his apartment.
     Szelmy was in the living room with her collection of pistols on the table in front of him. “Where did you get these?” He looked straight at her. He’d obviously been through the contents of her shoulder bag.
     “I found them.” Ruby wasn’t lying but it wasn’t the full story either.
     “They belonged to the Chznzet.” Szelmy pointed to the gold-and-black egg-and-nest insignia of the Chznzet on the handle of each pistol. “You aren’t one of us, a Shallen, or a Chznzet. They don’t give these away, you know. You have to earn them.”
     Ruby began to panic. Was he a Chznzet or a sympathiser? “Like I said, I found them.”
     “Up in the Rhenstock mountains where you gave one to Tarnoukh here and used them to hunt for food for him?” Szelmy sounded very sceptical. “And these?” He threw down two credit slips and a communicator emblazoned with the Chznzet insignia. “I suppose you found these too?”
     “Yes, I did.” Ruby looked to Tarnoukh for support but he was half-asleep in a soft seat. She also sized up the apartment for a quick exit. She reckoned that she could take on Szelmy and hoped that Tarnoukh wouldn’t interfere.
     “These are as good as useless.” Szelmy held up the credit slips, waved them in her face and scolded Ruby. “They can trace every time they’re used and they’ll lead the Chznzet right to you. I hope you didn’t use them.”
     “No.” Ruby lied but vowed to destroy them as soon as she could.
     “What’s this?” Szelmy held up Ruby’s plastiskin.
     Ruby grabbed it out of his paw. “That’s mine.” She was indignant. For a moment she felt naked and vulnerable. At the back of her mind Max was scolding her for identifying with her superficial exterior appearance. Which annoyed her all the more.
     “Look, I don’t like the Chznzet.” Szelmy could see that he’d hit a raw nerve and wanted to set Ruby at ease. “But if you got these how I think you did, they’ll be looking for you and they don’t take prisoners, if you know what I mean. I don’t want them coming around here and I don’t want to get involved with them. Do you understand?”
     “Yes.”
     “Good.” Szelmy put the pistols in Ruby’s shoulder bag and gave it to her. “What are you going to do with those pistols?”
     “I don’t know.” Ruby hadn’t given it much thought. “Maybe sell them.”
     “No-one would buy those off you even if you have a license, which I doubt you have.” It was all Szelmy could do to keep himself from openly scoffing at her naïve idea. “They don’t make it easy for us off-worlders to get weapons licenses here. You’d have a better chance of selling them if you removed the Chznzet grips and replaced them with something a bit more generic. And if you don’t have a license…” Szelmy mused aloud for Ruby’s benefit. “You can’t sell them legally so you’d have to sell them to a black-market dealer. And you can’t trust them because they’d snitch on you to the Chznzet. And if you’re trying to hide from them you can’t do that either.”
     Ruby was at a loss. She offered one of the pistols to Szelmy. “Do you want one?”
     “No!” Szelmy held his paws up in horror. “If the Chznzet ever found me with one of their pistols I’d be very dead.”
     “Oh.” Ruby put it back in her shoulder bag.
     “Same goes for you.” Szelmy reminded Ruby. “You really ought to take those grips off the pistols whether you keep them or sell them. For your own sake.”
     “Tell us a bit about yourself, Ruby.” Tarnoukh had roused himself a bit and wanted to change the mood. He found Szelmy’s paranoid interrogation of Ruby irritating and couldn’t bear to hear any more.
     “Well, I’m from Mars and, as you can see, I’m a mechanoid…” Ruby launched into a carefully edited version of her life history studiously omitting any reference to her being illegally created by Earth Fed or the fact that they’d also terminated her as well as the little fact that she was on the run from them. So instead they got the rose-tinted and deliberately ditzy version of her life with SkyHawk, their adventures, hanging out with the Flaming Watusis and the Free Mars Tribe, going to Zrrlchtz, her time at Satori and her short-lived job at the Bessemer Baby before landing on the Ark of Exodus with Veronica as well as showing off her carbon-fibre and plazflex mechanoid body. Both Szelmy and Tarnoukh, who had been listening attentively at the beginning, were sound asleep and snoring softly by the time she got up to Xandu bringing her and Veronica to Vermthellyn. Which was just as well really.
     Szelmy woke up early in the morning to get ready for his days’ work at UniCom. His head was still a little fuzzy after the night before. “So let me get this right: the humans made you to look like a female sexbot even though you’re a machine person. Then you went on to a city of machine people where you became an engineer. Is that right?”
     “Pretty much.” Ruby didn’t feel like elaborating any more. She’d told her story once. It would have to do.
     “So why aren’t you wearing your, what is it you call it, your plastiskin?” Szelmy wondered what she looked like in it as he got ready for work and flattened out the untidy creases in his work overalls.
     “Um…” Ruby trailed off. She really didn’t want to answer that question.
     “Is it damaged or are you trying out something new?” Szelmy suggested before sneakily adding: “Or is it something to do with the Chznzet?”
     “Um…”
     “Don’t tell me... I don’t want to know.” Szelmy mercifully closed that topic. “I’ve got to go now. Remind Tarnoukh to get in on time today.”
     “I will.” Ruby assured Szelmy who left her with the still-slumbering Tarnoukh.


     “It’s no good, Max. I can’t make any sense out of it.” SkyHawk was overwhelmed with frustration. This was the third day that he, Max and Stan had trekked out to Fort Melchisor to attempt to activate its gateway. “Heck I can’t even get it to generate a pressurised atmosphere in this chamber the way it does for Psy.”
     “We’ve got an hour before we have to pack up. Give it another try.” Max tried to encourage SkyHawk at was rapidly appearing to be a futile task. “We owe it to Ruby.”
     “Yeah, well it isn’t your hand that’s getting frostbite.” Out of desperation SkyHawk had sealed one of the sleeves on his suit at the wrist and taken off the glove in the hope that a proper body contact would have a better response from the biostone. It actually made little difference but he made a show of his determination by taking off his glove until his hand was numb with cold and then putting it back on to warm up his hand. “I can activate the controls and even play around with the display but I haven’t a clue what any of it means or what it does. For all I know I could accidentally dump us in the middle of a sun or a black hole.”
     “Let me try.” Stan offered helpfully. The biostone responded to him but not as strongly. He along with everyone who went to Zrrlchtz in Psy’s Omphalon had been healed by its Nglubi biotech so he had a small amount of Nglubi DNA in his system to which Nglubi biotech would respond. But hadn’t been completely rebuilt the way SkyHawk had. Although SkyHawk was unaware of it, he was effectively an Nglubi who merely happened to look human.
     They were huddled around the console about to give up as they had done the three previous days when a tentacle slipped past Stan’s exposed hand and tapped on the console. They jumped back in surprise. Max hadn’t seen Grattlyd before.
     “What are you doing here?” Stan managed to blurt out once he got over the shock of Grattlyd sneaking up on them like that.
     “You can take your helmets off now.” Grattlyd broke the tensile silence. “I could ask you the same thing.”
     “We were trying…” Stan began nervously, almost like a child caught stealing biscuits from the jar.
     “To get to…” Max continued awkwardly.
     “Ruby.” SkyHawk completed their confession.
     “I thought as much. I see you came prepared.” Grattlyd waved a tentacle to the bags loaded up with fresh plazflex and a brand-new new power cell.
     “You knew?” Stan was taken aback.
     “Do any of you know what you’re doing with the gateway controls?” Grattlyd asked them sternly.
     “Not really, no.” SkyHawk admitted defiantly.
     “You sent out twenty-seven requests for technical support, eight invitations to birthing ceremonies, fifteen announcements that the Grand Shellmaster Ooloorgrah, who’s been dead for seven millennia, was about to arrive or depart at random intervals, nine demands for new caterers, an invitation to a Spraklung tournament, a requisition for a cluster of courtesans, three complaints about the natives and a general distress call.” Grattlyd could have gone on but it’d made it's point. “You were just poking around at random, weren’t you?”
     “Well, now that you mention it, yeah.” Stan knew when he was beaten.
     “It would help if you could read Nglubi Elktan.” Grattlyd told the hapless humans. “Ruby’s on Vermthellyn.”
     “You know?” SkyHawk was suspicious of the way they seemed so transparent to Grattlyd.
     “I don’t live in a total vacuum, you know.” Grattlyd blithely chided it's friends. “I follow events on your world. I’ve been logged into the Sensorium following Ruby’s adventures for weeks.”
     “We have a good idea where to start looking from what Veronica told us.” Now that Grattlyd knew what they were up to, SkyHawk cut straight to the chase. “We’ll start near the hot springs where they last saw her and take it from there. We take the monorail to a place called D’spretni and then go by air car taxi to the Nauroth Valley Hot Springs. Max has brought an industrial scanner which should pick up her transponder within a hundred klicks.”
     “You have thought this through.” Grattlyd had expected to find them more unprepared. “You won’t need your pressure suits where we’re going. Leave them with your aero sled.” It waved a tentacle towards their aerosled which was parked up near the edge of the gateway chamber.
     Stan put a call through to MariElla. “It’s all go, honey. We’ll be back in a couple of days. Pass it on to Lottie.” He was almost breathless with excitement. “Love ya, honey. Got to go.” He peeled off his pressure suit, dumped it on the aero sled, picked up his bag of supplies and joined the others on the dais… … and they rematerialised on Vermthellyn.
     “Where are we?” Stan was awestruck by their surroundings. The vaulting illuminated ceiling, the bustling crowds of which he and SkyHawk were the only humans, rank upon rank of gateway dais and the rows of overhead signs all illuminated with alien text.
     “The Estrillyd gateway terminus on Vermthellyn.” Grattlyd sounded as if it was thinking of something else.
     “You’ve been here before?” SkyHawk was aware how provincial he sounded.
     “Yes, once.” Grattlyd explained in an offhand manner. “I came here to learn how to operate industrial gateways. But it didn’t work out.”
     “What happened?” Stan wanted to know more about Grattlyd’s life.
     “Psy decided I was too young to get a job.” Grattlyd made no effort to hide its resentment.
     “OK, we’re here.” SkyHawk took command of the situation. “Next up, we find the monorail. Grattlyd, you can be our interpreter.” As they set off across the concourse another group of travellers materialised on the dais just behind them.
     “Do you have the translators I got you on Zrrlchtz?” Grattlyd asked them.
     “Yes, but Max doesn’t have one.” SkyHawk explained as he tagged along with Grattlyd who was moving a lot faster than SkyHawk had imagined a tentacled creature could.
     “I’ll get him one.” Grattlyd led them into a small shop staffed by sleek young Rtuntli who almost pounced on them with the eagerness that only salesmen have, loaded its home-made English to Nglubi Elktan template into the translator and gave it to Max. “Keep this with you at all times. You’ll need it. Don’t worry about its size, it recharges inductively.”
     They bundled into a taxi outside the terminus although in Grattlyd’s case it was more of a squash. Before they knew it, they were up in the air traffic lanes making their way to the monorail station. Ping-ping-ping. That sound resonated in Max’s head. There it was again. He knew what that sound was but wasn’t expecting it so soon. He grabbed the scanner out of his bag and checked it to make sure. It was positive. Ruby’s transponder showed up on its screen.
     “Hey guys, stop!” Max almost shouted. “Ruby’s here in this town.”
     “Where?” SkyHawk caught Max’s enthusiasm.
     Max almost poked out one of Grattlyd’s six eyes by accident as he excitedly pointed out one of the side windows. “Somewhere over there. Grattlyd, could you give this to the driver and ask him to follow the beacon?”
     Grattlyd rubbed its sore eye with one tentacle and consulted with the driver who grudgingly agreed but only after exorbitantly increasing his fare. Grattlyd picked up Max’s scanner and held it so that the driver could easily see its screen. Their taxi peeled off from the main flow of traffic and began its new journey. They whizzed through canyons of skyscrapers, past dirty industrial zones, around lush urban parkland and through cleaner residential districts until they finally set down in a run-down area.
     Stan looked out the window. “This doesn’t look good.”
     “Scanner says she’s within 100 metres.” Max wasn’t going to give up after coming all this way. Even though the taxi driver agreed to wait for them, he flew off no sooner than they got out the door leaving them in a debris-strewn street which, at first glance, was lined at street level with smashed-up, burnt-out and boarded-up buildings. Most of the premises appeared to be shops of one sort or another and were open for business. A few aliens, of species they’d never seen before, drifted around and paid them scant attention.
     Stan opened the catch on his laser pistol’s holster. It was fully charged. He hoped that SkyHawk had remembered to bring his. “Lead the way, Max.”
     Max led them up to a place that had a group of assorted aliens hanging around outside. They didn’t appear hostile, more a study of indifference. In fact it looked as if they were drinking and talking amongst themselves. Max stepped inside and looked around. It looked like pretty much any bar on Mars except that there were no humans or mechs. Stan, SkyHawk and Grattlyd followed him in. A furry creature with dangerous fangs and short, sharp claws got up from an alcove, walked up to SkyHawk and hugged him tightly. “Oh!” Words couldn’t even begin to describe how elated she felt to see him again. SkyHawk who’d been the love of her life when she was fist created. SkyHawk, who had rescued her from Earth Fed’s nefarious attempt to terminate her and had given her a new lease of life. SkyHawk, the constant friend in her life. To her little mechanoid heart, he symbolised all that was good about fleshies.
     SkyHawk could recognise that voice anywhere. “Ruby? You’ve changed.”
     “Yes.” She held him even tighter until her Blurtahnyk jaw fell off and hit the floor with a thump. “Oops.” She giggled nervously as she scooped it up and jammed it back onto her face before dragging him to one of the alcoves. “Come and meet my friends.”
     “We’ve finally got something up on those fancy clubs uptown.” Rebulon confided conspiratorially to Jem-Dhaka as he returned to the bar after serving our wayward travellers a round of drinks. “Approved by the Nglubi! How does that sound?”
     “What makes you so sure?” Jem-Dhaka asked sceptically.
     “Pah, all they do is show up for work at the terminus and then slither off back to their compound when they’re done.” To say that Rebulon was contemptuous of the Nglubi’s aloofness towards the younger species was an understatement. “They just don’t mix with us lesser types.”
     “That one’s different.” Jem-Dhaka could see that Grattlyd had already finished its ale and was looking around for another one.
     “Your friend here repaired my polytone.” Narliss purred appreciatively as he proudly held the riot-battered polytone in his paws and showed it off to SkyHawk, Max and Stan.
     “And saved my life up in the Rhenstock Mountains.” Tarnoukh patted Ruby on the back. He launched into his tale of how Ruby rescued him and was still in mid-flow many drinks later when he suddenly stopped. “I have to go to work now. Ruby, where are you staying tonight?”
     “I don’t know.” Ruby was so excited to see SkyHawk again that she hadn’t even thought about the more mundane things like finding a place to live.
     “I’ll send Szelmy over to get you and your friends.” Tarnoukh offered. “We’ll have to work something out.”
     Narliss and M’Thekh got up to leave shortly after Tarnoukh left. “”We have to visit DeRhendia at the clinic.” M’Thekh explained.
     “I hope she gets well soon.” Stan offered his best wishes. “I’d like to hear your group play sometime.”
     “We play outside on the pass days.” Narliss clasped the polytone to his chest. “Weather permitting.”
     “That’s some crazy outfit you’ve got there.” Stan was excited to see Ruby and that she was alive and well. “You look like a wild animal.”
     “That’s because they are wild animal skins.” Ruby laughed along with Stan’s exuberance.
     “We brought a few things for you.” SkyHawk hoisted his bag onto the table. “Some fresh plazflex and one of the new hyperdense regenerative plasma power cells. It should be good for at least ten longyears. You won’t need to top it up.”
     “Thanks. I could really do with the plazflex. I tore a piece in my leg.” It was only a small hairline tear but Ruby knew it would only grow with time until it broke in two and was useless. “And I was bitten a few times.” She pulled the Blurtahnyk skins back on her arm to show them the punctures marks in her plazflex.
     *I see you’ve abandoned your plastiskin.* Max pinged Ruby via the wireless commnet that was common to all mechs. They could communicate orders of magnitude faster than they could compared to using voice with fleshies. Normally it would be open to all mechs in the vicinity. Here it was just Ruby and Max.
     *Because I had to, not because I wanted to* Ruby shot back defensively.
     *Of course.* Max conceded gracefully. *So why the animal skins?*
     *I had to find something to keep the dirt and grit out of my frame.* Ruby sighed. If truth be told the Blurtahnyk skins did a poor job of protecting her frame. They were also shedding at a furious rate and her vents, flexions and joints were getting clogged up with hair.
     *It’s that incident Veronica told us about, isn’t it?* Max could tell when Ruby was trying to disguise herself. *What exactly happened?*
     *Too much to say and not right now.* The last thing Ruby wanted right now was to get stuck into yet another long story. *I’ll beam my video logs over to you. Watch them when you get back home and make sure SkyHawk sees them too.*
     *Just a moment, I need to clear some memory buffers.* Max didn’t want to lose any of this. He wanted to know what Ruby was up against. No sooner was he ready than a torrent of data flooded into his memory banks. *Those Chznzet might be after you here but Earth Fed has turned the farm over five times now looking for your backups. They even raided Patti. I think they’re on to her. You’re safer here.* Max was concerned about Ruby’s safety. *Earth Fed would terminate you the moment you set foot on Mars if only to spite all the hackers.*
     *Hackers? What hackers?* Ruby wondered what Max meant.
     *Earth Fed downloaded your core while you were on that Alien Worldship.* Max explained. *Unfortunately they were in such a hurry they didn’t have time to encrypt it and it was picked up by every Tom, Dick and Sally. You’re famous now! There’s even a clone of you running fulltime in the Sensorium. It was top of the VR charts for a week.*
     *Wow!* Ruby didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. *What about SkyHawk?*
     *They threatened to put him in jail and impound the farm if he didn’t co-operate. They’re convinced he cloned you and had something to do with your disappearance. That’s why they raided Patti. They’re looking for evidence.*
     *Oh no.* Ruby couldn’t bear the thought of her friends being threatened with imprisonment. They hadn’t done anything wrong. They were all good people. *Is he ‘co-operating’ right now?*
     *I don’t think so. But it gets worse.* Max relayed the bad news. *Last time they searched the farm I overheard one of the detectives saying that they intend to terminate you to extract your memories from your core. You’re better off here. At least until the heat dies down.*
     Ruby hadn’t ever expected to see her friends again after she made her break at the Hot Springs so it came as no disappointment. *I guess so.*
     *It might be a good idea if you switched off your transponder.* Max suggested earnestly.
     *Why?* A mech’s transponder verified who, what and where they were at any time. It carried their unique identifier code and was something so ubiquitous that most mechs hardly gave it a moment’s thought.
     *How do you think we found you so easily?* Max stated the obvious. *I used a scanner to locate your transponder. Sooner or later Earth Fed will send an agent here looking for you and the first thing they’ll do is scan for your transponder.*
     *Oh.* Ruby had no intention of being caught by Earth Fed. Ever. So she switched off her transponder immediately.
     *That’s better.* Max confirmed that her transponder was indeed switched off. She had dropped off his base map and if they weren’t next to each other he’d have no way of knowing where she was
     “So how are you getting on here?” SkyHawk was curious.
     “Um… not bad,” Ruby was yanked out of her high-speed commnet conversation with Max and back into the physical world communication of fleshies. It was a bit like being thrown off a moving train. “I’ve met some nice people but I haven’t got a place to live or a job yet.” She went on to describe how vibrant the H’Ulwyn district was when she arrived and then the riots which explained why it looked like a battle zone out on the streets.
     “You say that cat guy and that furry one are in a band that plays here?” Stan asked Ruby after she finished her story.
     “The cat guy is a Phelynx and his name is Narliss and the other one is a Rtuntli and his name is M’Thekh. They’re the indigenous species on this planet.” Ruby corrected Stan. “Yes, they play here. You’d like them.”
     “Hey, we could play here.” Stan grinned as he lit up with another one of his wild ideas. “The Flaming Watusis Interplanetary Tour. I like the sound of that!”
     “That’s crazy talk.” SkyHawk slapped Stan’s back. “The kind of crazy talk I like. What do you say, Grattlyd? Do you think you could get their tour bus through the gateway at Fort Melchisor?”
     “You would have to use the industrial gateways here at Estrillyd.” Grattlyd liked the idea; anything to get away from the boredom at home on Titan. But it didn’t want to appear too excited in case it all went wrong somewhere down the line and Psy had to get them out of trouble. That would take a lot of explaining. “You could do it without me if you could read Nglubi Elktan. I’ll get you a text translator when we get back to Mars.”
     “Great idea, Stan.” Max didn’t want to rain on Stan’s parade but he felt it his duty to remind them of the risks. “If you start bragging about this back on Mars, You’ll have Earth Fed jumping down your back for a free ride so they can pick up Ruby and terminate her. It’s a risk we can’t take.”
     “Yeah, I suppose you’re right.” Stan deflated as his visions of the Flaming Watusis exciting new career as an interplanetary band evaporated from his mind. “But I think it’s something we should do at some time. I mean look at this place, it’s a perfect opportunity. Back home we trudge the same old circuit every longyear. We could reach a whole new audience here.”
     “Maybe just one show here and keep it low key.” Ruby suggested. She knew how much the band meant to Stan and hated to see him disappointed.
     “We could do that.” Stan accepted Ruby’s offer. “Now all I have to do is to sell the idea to the rest of the band.” They spent the rest of the afternoon talking. Tarnoukh wanted to know more about Mars. SkyHawk, Max and Stan wanted to know more about Vermthellyn. Between that and indulging Stan in his ‘Galactic Tour’ fantasies they were still in full stream and packing away the drinks when Szelmy turned up.
     “It’s not always as bad as this around here.” Szelmy apologised as he led his new-found entourage across the H’Ulwyn district to the apartment he shared with Tarnoukh. “Most of the time it’s a nice place to live, especially for us off-worlders.”
     “Ruby told us about the riots.” SkyHawk had a starry-eyed notion of what interplanetary life would be like. The last thing he’d expected was interplanetary race riots. It shattered his illusions.
     “Normally they’re not this bad. Just a few smashed windows, a few broken bones and the Gendarmerie look the other way.” Szelmy explained to his guests. “I don’t know why it spun out of control this time. No doubt they’ll come up with some sort of explanation on the news, but it’s always lies.”
     Ruby and SkyHawk walked arm-in-arm in silence relishing each others’ company. Just like the old times, except it wasn’t. Here she was on a strange world on the run from both Earth Fed and the Chznzet and knew that in few hours she’d be on her own again. So she committed these memories to her long-term memory so she could revisit them over and over.
     “Here we are.” Szelmy led them off a cleaned-up, moderately busy but still scruffy street and up the steps to his apartment block. “I hope you’re not staying too long.”
     “We have to return to Mars in a few hours.” SkyHawk reassured Szelmy.
     Once inside, Ruby cuddled up to SkyHawk on the sofa. “You’re from the Ark aren’t you, Szelmy.” She asked him brightly in order to put him at ease with her unexpected guests.
     “No, my parents were. I was hatched here on Vermthellyn.” Szelmy shrugged it off. It wasn’t something he wanted to talk about.
     “And what are your plans, Ruby?” SkyHawk asked Ruby.
     “Find a place to live, get a job. See how it goes from there I guess.” Ruby replied aimlessly preferring instead to relish the moment in SkyHawk’s arms.
     “The Myxli dancers who live on this floor are moving out in a few days. Moving back to their home world or so they say. You could try that one.” Szelmy suggested.
     “Dancers?” That got Stan’s interest. He always wanted dancers on stage with the Flaming Watusis.
     “Yeah, exotic dancers at one of the fancy clubs uptown.” Szelmy sounded bored. “Lithe sensual dancers were all the rage a while back but things have moved on. As for a job…” He seamlessly changed the subject. “What can you do? You’ll need accreditation and ID, neither of which you have. As matter of fact you’ll need ID and a credit account to rent that apartment.”
     “Um…” It hit Ruby that she really was on the outside completely unlike the safe life she’d known at Zanzibar or Satori. “Well, I’m an aircraft and spacecraft engineer third class, a qualified pilot for light freighters and passenger craft and a qualified astronavigator.”
     “And a very sexy one too.” SkyHawk grinned. Ruby tickled him and he jumped with surprise enjoying every moment of it.
     Szelmy understood and laughed along with them. “You say you’re an engineer and a pilot, but your qualifications come from a planet the Rtuntli have never heard of. For all they know your claim could be bogus. Are you familiar with their tech? Can you fly their ships? If you came from a planet they knew it would be different. Well, not much. You’d still have to sit their certification exams but at least you wouldn’t have to do the training courses which are all taught in Rtuntli. It’s their way of making us off-worlders remember whose planet it is.”
     “The course and exams I can do.” Ruby sized up the situation. “I’ve got a very good memory.”
     “Photographic.” SkyHawk smirked. Ruby slapped his hand before he went any further. She knew by the tone of his voice it would be something dirty. SkyHawk just smirked and gave her that look… the look that made her laugh and feel good inside.
     “You have to pay for the courses and to sit the exam.” Szelmy continued. “To do that you need a credit account and for that you need ID. Without ID all you can get are indentures where your employers pay for everything and you don’t want that. It’s legalised slavery.”
     “So how can Ruby get an ID?” Stan asked the obvious question.
     Szelmy went over to his console and powered up its translucent screen. “I’ll bring up the immigration registry bureau for you. It’s simple enough.”
     Ruby took one look at the screen: it was a mess of alien glyphs. She had no idea what any of it meant. “What is it?”
     “The registration form. Oh…” And then it dawned on Szelmy. “You can’t read it. Can you read at all?”
     “Of course I can.” Ruby replied indignantly. She could read much, much faster than any fleshie could. So long as she knew the language. “I’ve never seen this language before.”
     That...” Szelmy pointed at the screen. “Is Rtuntli. If you want to work on Vermthellyn you’ll have to learn it. Having a translator isn’t good enough.”
     “Let me take care of it.” Grattlyd offered. It’d been sitting in a corner quietly working its way through a crate of Desteltin Ale it had bought on the way over from Rebulon’s Room. Grattlyd held a bottle of ale in a tentacle as it slipped over to Szelmy’s console. “Let’s see: Name, place of origin, species, must provide recognisable holographic image within 30 days of application, blah, blah, blah… must provide legal identification from place of origin or last known place of residence. Recognised domains are: Nglubi Corporium, Pdzarvian Dominion, Ooplatski Regium, The Xarubian Alliance, Praesidium Althusia, The Sopwann Swarm, The Shallen Nation… it goes on and on… forever it seems.” Grattlyd scrolled aimlessly through the seemingly endless list at breakneck speed. “Suffice to say neither Earth nor Mars are on that list. However it is still nominally an Nglubi protectorate…” Grattlyd paused in thought for a moment. “Ruby, how would you feel if I was little bit creative with your application?”
     “What do you mean?” Ruby and SkyHawk looked at each other.
     “You won’t be able to get a valid ID for Vermthellyn as Ruby from Mars.” Grattlyd explained. “However if I were to stretch the truth a little bit and add a few embellishments...” Grattlyd trailed off.
     “Yeah, I guess so.” Ruby felt she had nothing to lose.
     “And the full name you want to use is…” Grattlyd obsequiously prompted her.
     “Ruby Beta Sabaea.”
     “Ruby Beta Sabaea it is.” Grattlyd repeated as it popped open another bottle of Desteltin Ale and set about poking away at Szelmy’s console screen. Time passed as Szelmy explained the full ins and outs of life on Vermthellyn for off-worlders both for Ruby’s benefit and also for Max, Stan and SkyHawk who were fascinated to learn about life on another world. Even if it wasn’t as exciting as they’d imagined.
     “Do you remember DeRhendia?” Szelmy asked Ruby. “She’s been thrown off Vermthellyn three times for not having valid ID. I don’t know why she keeps coming back but she seems to like it here. I suppose she’s lucky they didn’t bundle her off to one of their labour camps on the outer planets in this system. Rare earth elements and radioactives mostly. That’s what pays for the easy life on this planet and what puts Vermthellyn at the junction of so many trade routes. People used to help themselves to everything there for free before the Rtuntli became spacefarers and staked their claim to everything in their system.”
     Just then a blast of music ripped across the room: pounding, swirling, sparkling, screeching, sighing, swooning, cascading, rumbling, roaring and insinuating itself into every last fibre of their bodies and minds. Just as suddenly the volume dropped to a level where they could hear each other speak again. “Sorry.” Grattlyd apologised as it poked busily at the console screen.
     “What was that?” Stan asked in awestruck surprise.
     “The Interplanetary Liberation Front.” Szelmy and Grattlyd both answered his question in unison, much to their own surprise.
     “I didn’t think someone like you would like them.” Szelmy couldn’t imagine an Nglubi, who were one of the oldest and most staid species, approving of anything like the Interplanetary Liberation Front.
     “Oh, they’re the greatest.” Grattlyd spoke like a true fan.
     “Who are they?” Stan wanted to know more about them. “They’re an interplanetary band!” Stan was excited. “If they can do it so can the Flaming Watusis!”
     “It’s not who but what.” Grattlyd corrected Stan. “They’re a collective that spans the galaxy; they’re revolutionaries, artists, anarchists, situationists. They’ve overthrown the slaver oligarchy of Sontaria IX, they broke the siege of Marth'Ex'Nahl. They’ve ended wars, overthrown tyrants, aided revolutionaries fighting for their freedom. They’re the dream you wish you had…” Grattlyd would have continued singing their fanboi praises if Szelmy hadn’t interrupted.
     “Seeing how you found my music collection so easily I hope you haven’t found my porn collection.” Szelmy didn’t want Grattlyd trawling his dirty little secrets.
     “What?” Grattlyd turned the volume up a bit.
     “I hope you haven’t found my porn collection.” Szelmy repeated himself.
     “What?” Grattlyd turned the volume up a bit more.
     “Leave my porn collection alone.” Szelmy raised his voice to be heard over the music.
     “What?” Grattlyd turned the volume up a bit more. This went on for a few rounds until Szelmy was shouting in desperation to be heard over the music. Then Grattlyd pulled the volume down to a whisper leaving Szelmy shouting at the top of his lungs.
     “Leave. My. Porn.” Too late Szelmy realised what Grattlyd had done and blushed deep orange as he put a paw across his snout and dropped his voice to a whisper. “Alone.” You could have heard a pin drop.
     SkyHawk broke the embarrassed silence and laughed. “Well played, Grattlyd.”
     “That was evil.” Szelmy had to admit that he’d fallen too easily for Grattlyd’s trick. Everyone and their pet Froodle had a porn collection but it wasn’t something you bragged or talked about. Least of all the collection of films he’d secretly made of the Myxli dancers using the cameras he’d hidden in their apartment before they moved in. He leaned over Grattlyd and hissed: “Don’t you ever do that again or I’ll rip your tentacles out one by one.” He looked at the screen. “Ruby’s credit account? What happened to the ID application?”
     “All done. Except I keep getting this… Grattlyd pointed to a block of flashing glyphs on the screen. “Please connect your fabricator.”
     Szelmy cleared away some of the junk on his desk next to the console and pulled forward a plain grey box with an opening along the front and switched it on. The fabricator was a 3D printer that could print objects with basic circuitry. It whirred into life and moments later two little plastic cards popped out.
     “Press here to activate your identification card. Please remember to submit a holographic visual scan of yourself within 30 days.” Grattlyd read out the glyphs on the screen and poked it. “Press here to activate your credit slip. Accounts that fall into arrears can be suspended until all outstanding sums are paid. Terms may apply.” Again Grattlyd poked at the screen before snatching them up in a tentacle and passing them over to Ruby. “I’ve put 5000 Galacs in your account to get you started. You have to submit a holographic scan of yourself within 30 days.”
     Ruby was about to open her mouth to thank Grattlyd when Tarnoukh blundered in through the door. “You never told me the supervisor was a damned Igrenthl. They’re so… literal. Don’t they have any poetry in their language?”
     “Ole three-eyes rubbed your fur the wrong way?” Szelmy laughed at Tarnoukh’s encounter with their prickly supervisor at UniCom. “You don’t want to hear their poetry. It’s agonising.”
     “Gah.” Tarnoukh shook the anger out of himself.
     “Trelzellyn isn’t so bad, you’ll see.” Szelmy tried to comfort his friend. “Shi’s just a bit of a stickler.”
     “A bit?” Tarnoukh laughed at Szelmy’s inept understatement. “Tarnoukh, why aren’t these logs filled in properly? Tarnoukh, why did you switch off half the consoles? Tarnoukh, sweep the floor. Tarnoukh, why does your fur look so scruffy? Tarnoukh, clean your desk.” He cruelly mocked Trelzellyn’s incessant cavilling. “I was that close to ripping a chunk out of that bony Igrenthl’s hide. I’m an engineer, not a mindless form-filler”
     “Not any more you aren’t.” Szelmy cautiously reminded Tarnoukh. “It’s an interplanetary call shop, not a domestic one. All interplanetary calls have to be logged. That’s the law laid down by your government, not Trelzellyn. If you want that job tomorrow you’ll just fill in those logs. It beats going mad from boredom staring at the walls.”
     Tarnoukh grumbled and sulked. He knew Szelmy was right and he really needed that job. Grattlyd passed him a bottle of Desteltin Ale which gave him something a bit more pleasant to think about.
     “Who are you going to be for your photo?” SkyHawk picked the thread of their conversation and broke the silence of Tarnoukh’s foul mood. “Your plastiskin, your bare frame or this wild animal?” He gave her a playful squeeze. It was Ruby’s turn to jump in surprise.
     “None of the above.” Ruby didn’t really relish the choice she had. She longed for an alternative. “These skins don’t fit very well. They make me feel clumsy.” Ruby complained. “I can’t feel a thing and I keep bumping into things and knocking things over. On top of that they’re shedding and my vents keep getting clogged up with loose fur. If I went bare frame, my joints and flexions would eventually seize up with grit because they don’t have seals. And I can’t use my old skin…” She added longingly.
     “Why?” SkyHawk was puzzled. Ruby had always preferred wearing a plastiskin. She’d always said that it made her feel complete.
     “I can’t…” Ruby faltered. She didn’t fully trust Szelmy. He was a Shallen after all and they’d only just met. He seemed nice enough but she barely even knew him. And the Chznzet were Shallens. “Max will explain it to you when you get back home.” Even as she spoke the flood of her video logs kept on streaming over the air to Max. “I just wish I could have a different skin. But it would have to be something that didn’t look human.”
     They fell into silence empathising with Ruby’s predicament but unable to come up with an answer. Then Max spoke up. “There’s the Space Quest convention in Huygensville next month. Most of the Satori Space Questors Fan Club goes in costume, skins made up to look like the different species: Almadorian, Trffingli, S’Betnkh, Fldervyl and all the others. And this year some are going as you, Ruby. You’re famous now. You’ve even been written into some of the fan fiction sites in the Sensorium.”
     “Oh hell yes, the convention!” To say that Stan loved the convention was an understatement. For him it was a week-long fancy dress and role-play party. He’d even met MariElla in one of the role-play groups: ‘The siege of Gratakhan Prime’. “I’m going as an M’Zellian warrior this year and MariElla is going as my warrior queen. It’s going to be a blast!”
     “Getting a skin to fit Ruby’s frame would be the easy part.” Max continued soberly in spite of Stan’s exuberant outburst. “Bringing it here is another thing altogether. None of us can operate the gateway.”
     Grattlyd coughed and waved a tentacle. “I can.”
     “Well yes, of course.” Max apologised. “I didn’t think you’d take any of us through the gateway a second time.”
     “So long as we don’t do it too often.” Grattlyd explained. “Psy wouldn’t like it if shi found out about what I’m doing.”
     “Yes, of course.” Max was truly grateful for Grattlyd’s offer of help.
     *Tactile?* Max pinged Ruby.
     *Of course.* She shot back. As far as Ruby was concerned that was the whole point of a plastiskin. *And something pretty. I don’t want to look like a Bloupliep or a H’Vartha.*
     *You know Space Quest too?* Max was surprised.
     *Sky and I used to watch it all the time. I thought you knew.*
     *So you wouldn’t want to be an Evdn’Atri?* Max teased her. They were one of the ugliest species in the Space Quest universe. Noble, wise and honourable, of course. But gut-wrenchingly ugly. It was one of the scriptwriters little in-jokes.
     *Nooooo!* Ruby recoiled in horror. *That slimy, patchy skin of theirs and those creepy, veiny air bladders that keep on pulsating? And all those gills hanging across their faces? No thanks.*
     *I’ll see what I can do.* Max didn’t want to let Ruby down. *But I can’t make any promises.*
     Back in the real world Ruby looked down at the two plastic cards Grattlyd had given her. The ID card had a blank space where her holo-image would be displayed. “So what’s this identity you’ve given me?” She asked Grattlyd.
     “Ah…” Grattlyd twiddled the tips of two of its tentacles. It wasn’t too sure how Ruby would take to her new identity. “You’re a synthetic life form created in an Nglubi laboratory and property one Nglubi… namely me.”
     “What???” Ruby didn’t like the sound of this. “I’m no-one’s property. I’m a free mech.”
     “Maybe on Mars.” Grattlyd wearily explained. “But here on Vermthellyn you’re an illegal alien who’s one step away from landing in a Rtuntli detention camp. I know it may sound strange to you, but by classifying you as my property, the Rtuntli won’t bother you.”
     “Or pretty much anywhere you can go using a gateway.” Szelmy backed up Grattlyd. “Grattlyd’s pretty much given you a free pass. The Nglubi run the gateways. Everyone wants to be in their good books.”
     “At least let me explain, Ruby. Please.” Grattlyd begged. It could see that she didn’t like the identity it had given her. “Your world is classed as an unrecognised domain within an Nglubi protectorate. Unrecognised because no-one at the Galactic Council knew of your existence until very recently. Ergo, by extension of Galactic Council law, your system and all its resources and life forms are the property of the Nglubi Corporium until your civilisation becomes recognised. Then it all changes. Psy is one of the regional Nglubi agents for the protectorate that includes your system who manages the Nglubi assets, namely your system and the various local star systems to your own. In Nglubi law, offspring and parent own property and liabilities collectively. Furthermore any life forms, civilisations or otherwise that evolve during the protectorate can be classed as an experiment if it has had repeated contact with the occupying civilisation or their agents. Which in your case is us, the Nglubi. And Psy has repeatedly meddled around on your planet; something which shi was disciplined about many times.”
     “Do you really expect us to believe all that?” Stan asked incredulously.
     “I suppose not.” Grattlyd had to accept that sometimes the truth was simply too outlandish to believe. “But because of that I was able to distil it down to Ruby being a product of an Nglubi experiment and classed as my property without lying. All I did was stretch the truth to near breaking point. And the result is that Ruby can now live and work legally on Vermthellyn. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
     Ruby looked sceptically at her new ID card. “Well, yeah. But don’t get any funny ideas. And I’m not your slave, tentacle boy.” She added defiantly. “I’m going to change this to something I’m more comfortable with as soon as I can.”
     “As you wish.” Grattlyd obliged Ruby. He really had no desire to offend or abuse her.
     “You know what I’d really like?” Ruby mused aloud and looked around at everyone in the room. “A synthesiser like Malcolm’s so I could join in with Narliss, DeRhendia and M’Thekh.”
     “Now that sounds totally Rad.” Stan liked that idea. A lot! “I’ll ask Malcolm to pick something out for you.”
     “I’ll pick up the top music and virtuoso software for you from the University of Satori.” Max got into the spirit of things.
     “Just put it on my tab.” SkyHawk offered grandly as he gave Ruby a loving squeeze.
     “That’s, that’s… are you sure?” Ruby was overwhelmed by their sudden generosity and turned to SkyHawk. “Those University courses cost a fortune.”
     “We’re doing this for you, Ruby.” Max explained.
     “You made me a very happy man for a while and Earth Fed did you wrong.” SkyHawk held Ruby close.
     “We may not be able to stop Earth Fed.” Stan reached out to hold Ruby’s hand. “But we want to do right by you and when it’s safe for you to come home, we’re gonna throw the all-time party for you.”
     “Really?” Parties were so frivolous but she knew it was Stan’s way of saying how much he, and all her friends, really cared for her. The evening wore on with Szelmy and Grattlyd eagerly introducing Stan to Szelmy’s music collection. Not just the Interplanetary Liberation Front but Goolwagh and their loping chants, Hypnodrone, Drakh Babies which sounded like hellraiser banshees, Vortex Tribe, The Seven Globes, and many more all with amazingly different sounds. At least to Stan’s virgin ears. No doubt it was all familiar territory to Szelmy and Grattlyd.
     Max, SkyHawk and Ruby went over her plans for getting herself settled in to life on Vermthellyn as well as her choice of plastiskin. Maybe a Trffingli or a Utanh, she just couldn’t make her mind up. Tarnoukh stumbled into his bedroom as was snoring as soon as he hit his bed. Stan drifted off listening to more of Szelmy’s music collection. Ruby and SkyHawk lay arm-in-arm on the sofa. It was all Ruby really wanted: To be in SkyHawk’s arms again. Mercifully Max left her alone even after her video logs had finished copying across. He was too busy being quizzed by Grattlyd who seemed to have an insatiable curiosity about mechs and mech culture.
     Come the morning Szelmy roused his guests and escorted them to the Terminus. “I work here.” He told his guests who were clearly impressed by the bustling alien city. “Nothing special, it’s just a crummy interplanetary call shop.” He turned to Ruby after SkyHawk, Max, Stan and Grattlyd disappeared in a burst of light on the dais. “You have very good friends. They care a lot about you.”
     “I know.”
     “Why didn’t you go back with them?” Szelmy could tell they were very close. It seemed odd that she would stay here.
     “I can’t.” Ruby didn’t want to explain it. She knew she would tell Szelmy sometime but not right now. Maybe once she’d adjusted to life on Vermthellyn. Right now it would make the separation from her previous life feel too final.

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