Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 31: Castaways.

     "It doesn’t matter whether you support or denounce us, Barwyndar.” Sebret’Zaan mocked cruelly as his Chznzet soldiers forced her at plasma lance point into the transporter with Reflinghar, a few loyalist guards and Knetryxx’s retinue. “Anything you say will only spread our righteous cause. You will see.”
     “You have an hour to clear the Ark.” Sebret’Zaan warned her sternly. “After that we start shooting. Begone, you of no faith.” With that his solders sealed the airlock and set the controls to release the docking clamps. Nine other transporters, crammed to the gunwales with Olblavy Clan loyalists were cast off in short order. On board their transporter it was crowded and chaotic. Barwyndar waddled around in a state of shock babbling Ingnuthin prayers to herself while Morgau consoled Knetryxx with Xandu, Djohti, Tatia, Wootjan-Oo, Yldoseh and her mother, Sursipal, gathered around her. “Did that really happen?” Knetryxx was in a state of disbelief. The three Khzchhrrrtz were in a close huddle. Vvezhti-Kla clutched their rapidly-maturing egg protectively. A few other Shallen loyalists who’d been expelled from the Ark either sat around in disbelief or talked amongst themselves as to their fate and the fate of House Sedeirtra now that it had lost its worldship. The Olblavy Clan was not particularly wealthy. Commissioning a new worldship was out of the question. That left the only option of becoming a dispossessed clan and settling on Cervetica or taking refuge in other worldships. Either way, the Olblavy Clan would be greatly diminished.
     Reflinghar forced his way past Psy, Captain Seward and a group of Guards through to the bridge. “Where to?” Norfalth, who was piloting, asked him.
     “Get us away from here as fast as possible.” Reflinghar had to think fast. With no gateway on the transporter they were stuck in this system. So there was no going back to Vermthellyn. At least not for the moment. They had a sub space comms link but that was it. “Keep our distance and land somewhere on HomeNest far from where the Chznzet make landfall.”
     “There’s no gateways on HomeNest. Land there and we’re stuffed. The Chznzet would find us right away. There is a gateway on the fourth planet.” Norfalth offered an alternate plan. “I found that out from that Nglubi agent who wanted to park us in one of the null gravitational zones.”
     “That Nglubi is standing right behind you, Norfalth.” Reflinghar hissed at Norfalth. Norfalth harrumphed and turned his attention back to piloting their transporter.
     “An excellent suggestion, Norfalth.” Psy had overheard him and purred glibly ignoring Norfalth’s indiscretion. “I suggest we make haste before Sebret’Zaan starts shooting.”
     Captain Brian Seward pulled Psy over to one side of the bridge away from the Shallen crew. “Why not head for Earth? That’s where they were going.”
     “Not an option right now, Brian.” Psy gently put an end to Brian’s suggestion. “First, we’d be within range of the Ark the whole way even if we managed to outrun them. Secondly the comms blackout isn’t quite what you’ve been led to believe.”
     “What is it then?” Brain Seward was a long-time Space Force officer and well used to classified actions but the communications blackout regarding Earth had simply gone on too long and the explanations he’d been given were becoming increasingly implausible.
     “It’s no longer there.”
     “Don’t be ridiculous.” Brian spluttered and pointed at the image on the navigator’s console. “There it is.”
     “It’s an Earth, Brian, but not yours.” Even Psy wasn’t sure where to start with this one. “For some reason its place is being taken by alternate Earths at random intervals.”
     “Come again?”
     “Put it this way.” Psy tried to simplify things for Brian. “You could land there but then when the alternate Earths switch places you’d be in a different universe with no way of getting back. Something our jolly mutineers aboard the Ark are going to discover the hard way.”
     “What do you mean?”
     “You heard Sebret’Zaan.” Psy was surprised shi had to remind Brian. “They intend to reclaim their HomeNest.”
     “Maybe that’s their plan: to seed as many possible alternate Earths as possible.” Brian felt he was beginning to understand what Psy was talking about.
     “Possibly, but they didn’t strike me as the panspermia type. Anyway the upshot is that Earth is off-limits until this can be resolved one way or another.” Psy hated that way all the awkward cases landed in hir lap.
     “Will we ever see our Earth again?” The enormity of what had happened to his world was beginning to dawn on Brian.
     “Maybe for a few hours every now and then but that’s about it.” Psy had no comforting answers to give Brian. Shi had never encountered anything like this before. “And you’d have no way of predicting it.”
     Brian felt utterly lost. His wife, children and most of his relatives lived Earthside and now he’d be unlikely to ever see them again. He felt too old to start over. He didn’t want to start over again. He wanted to see his own family again but realised that it might truly be a forlorn hope.
     Over on the other side of the bridge a hologram of Reflinghar’s wife, Deleethia, was shaking her paw, livid with anger and shouting at him: “You idiot, how could you lose the Ark?”
     ”What?” Reflinghar was puzzled. How could she know so soon?
     “Don’t play dumb with me you old fool.” Deleethia angrily scolded Reflinghar. “It’s on all the news channels here on Vermthellyn. The Chznzet are claiming it as a major victory for all Shallens.”
     “The Chznzet had turned most of the Ark’s Guard. We were hopelessly outnumbered and given an ultimatum. It was all I could do to save the Keeper.” Reflinghar had been well and truly outmanoeuvred by the Chznzet. “The only remaining loyalists were Norfalth and barely a platoon of Guards. They must have planned this for a long time. It was so sudden they had us bundled out into a transporter before we knew what was happening.”
     Deleethia was having none of it. She gave him her ‘you’ve not heard the last of this’ look that he dreaded.
     “Oh you would rather we had stayed and fought?” It was all Reflinghar could do to keep himself from shouting at his wife in public. “We’d all be dead. Who would oversee retaking the Ark?”
     “Someone who wouldn’t lose it in the first place.” Deleethia shot back venomously. “How many of our Guards here have the Chznzet turned? Do you know there have been riots while you were away?” Deleethia turned to a subject that, by contrast, seemed almost mundane.
     “There’s always riots.” Reflinghar groaned. Rtuntli xenophobia ran deep beneath their desire to hold their place in the interplanetary community and resulted in frequent riots against off-worlders but they were usually only a minor irritation.
     “These ones were worse than usual.” Deleethia sounded worried. “Some Rtuntli extremists are targeting our homes and businesses and hardly any of the other off-worlders.”
     “We’re heading to a gateway. I should be back very soon.” Reflinghar tried to reassure her. “I’ll have a word with their Premier, Estartlon Hur’Alia, and his Civil Security Board when I get back.”
     “You do that. Lose the Ark, you incompetent fool.” Deleethia snorted contemptuously as she signed off. “It might have been better if you had died. What are we going to do now?”
     Reflinghar slumped in front of the empty space where her hologram had been moments before and hoped no-one had overheard. He was in disgrace now. He had no doubt that Deleethia would turn him out as soon as he returned to Vermthellyn and without a doubt be stripped of his rank and commission in short order. He had lost the Ark of Exodus. He was finished. Maybe Deleethia was right. Maybe he should have died fighting bravely but pointlessly on the Ark. He felt miserable. The best he could hope for was that she might have cooled down a bit by the time he got home.
     Psy slipped out of the bridge with Brian in tow and made hir way to the lounge where the confused and distraught passengers were gradually coming to terms with their new circumstances. “Buggy boy, how’s your grub?” Psy sweetly greeted Kkhrkht with the nickname shi knew Kkhrkht hated the most.
     “Almost ready to hatch.” Kkhrkht ignored Psy’s pointed jibe.
     “Good news, everyone!” Psy clasped hir hands and addressed everyone in the room. “We’re going to a gateway in the local system. From there you can go to Vermthellyn.”
     “You’re going to meet some old friends, Buggy boy.” Psy teased Kkhrkht.
     “You’ll all be staying at the Zanzibar farm until I can get you back to Estrillyd.” Psy announced grandly. “And no sneaking out stealing any more crystals.”
     "Not Zrrlchtz?" Kkhrkht asked hopefully.
     "Sorry, your gateways are still down." Psy hated to be the bearer of bad news but felt it best to tell it like it is.
     “Crystals?” Anything forbidden sounded intriguing to Pzeptilan.
     “Discarded biostone from the Nglubi Omphalon,” Kkhrkht explained once Psy was out of earshot. “It can be used to induce telepathic states and other psychic experiences. Very interesting stuff.”
     “Do you know people where we’re going?” Xandu asked Kkhrkht after Psy whisked Brian along on hir tour around the transporter. “Is this the place where you studied those Humans?”
     “Do you know Veronica?” Xandu asked hopefully.
     Kkhrkht was amazed. How could this Shallen know her? And then dzzhakh-ye remembered that they had met on the Ark and had visited Vermthellyn together. “Yes, she lives near where we’re going.”
     “Maybe it won’t be so bad then.” Xandu mused dreamily as his mind wandered to their hot passionate sex. She’d been so enthusiastic and he’d really enjoyed that.
     “Yldoseh and her mother don’t want to go back to Vermthellyn. Knetryxx is too embarrassed to go back. She was the Keeper of the Ark and was deposed by the Chznzet. It would be too much to live down. Morgau’s going to stay with her. Tatia has decided and I’m staying with her.”
     “What about the soldiers?”
     “I suppose they’ll go back.” Xandu shrugged. “They do what they’re told. What’s this place like where we’re going?”
     “The farm?” Kkhrkht welcomed the distraction from Pzeptilan’s incessant grousing in the background. “Food crops mostly. Humans and mechanoids live and work there. We’ll probably stay in one of the residential blocks.”

     “Sir, we’ve lost contact with the Ark of Exodus.” The navigator, a grey-green female reptilian Shallen with emerald spots running along her back and tail, announced without even looking up from her console.
     Reflinghar groaned. First the Ark and now this. “Is this bad maintenance or sabotage as Sebret’Zaan’s parting gift?”
     “I wouldn’t know, sir.” The navigator deftly avoided giving Reflinghar the wrong answer by giving him no answer. “Telemetry is down and we have lost visual contact.”
     “Very well.” Reflinghar sighed. So this is how it ends, he thought, not in glory but ignominy. “Replay the last visual contact on the main screen.” The Ark of Exodus appeared on the bridges’ main screen. As they watched a flickering field of purple plasma surround the ancient Ark. It grew in intensity until it was all they could see. When it faded away the Ark was gone. A sense of dumbfounded loss swept over the bridge crew. Their home, the touchstone in their lives, gone. Now they were truly dispossessed. It was one loss too many for them and some of the crew unclipped their neural interfaces and began keening and wailing. Reflinghar kept a stoic brave face in an attempt to keep up the crew’s morale even though he, too, felt gutted.
     “Unknown ship bearing 357 mark 240 mark 179, please identify.” A human voice wafting out of the comms officers’ console brought them back from their grieving,
     “It is one of the Human ships that was escorting the Ark of Exodus.” The navigator informed Reflinghar.
     “Put them on the screen.” Reflinghar resigned himself to the inevitable. A mech Space Force officer appeared on the screen. Reflinghar identified their ship: “We are the transporter Xepherion from the Ark of Exodus en route to your fourth planet.”
     “Acknowledged, Xepherion.” The mech exuded a brisk air of military professionalism. “Your mothership, The Ark of Exodus, has dropped off our scans. Can you please confirm its status?”
     “We can confirm that it is no longer in local space.” Reflinghar slumped even further into the bridge commander’s uncomfortable seat.
     “Are there any other survivors?”
     “Nine other vessels.” Reflinghar relayed the bad news. “We have one of your officers on board.” Reflinghar ordered his soldiers to find Captain Brian Seward and bring him to the bridge. He didn’t have to wait long. Three Guards escorted Brian with Psy clinging onto his arm to the bridge.
     “Captain Seward, do you need any assistance?” The mech had a definite note of concern in its voice. “We can rendezvous with your ship in two hours.”
     Brian glanced around and could see that the crew were obviously distressed by the days’ events but bearing up bravely and decided not to go into the full details. It would only rub salt into fresh wounds. “The crew here have matters in hand but the rendezvous would be appreciated. I’ll file a full report at my debriefing once I’m back aboard the Odysseus.”
     “Oh, leaving so soon?” Psy tenderly stroked Brian’s cheek. “I thought you wanted to come to Mars with me.”
     “I did?” Brian was clearly uncomfortable with Psy’s over-the-top attention.
     “We were going to see the sights of Mars together. There’s so much to see.” Psy purred seductively.
     “I’m a married man.” Brian stammered awkwardly.
     “Tsk, that’s what they all say.” Psy pouted with mock dejection.
     “And you are?” The on-screen mech came to Brian’s rescue by asking Psy a question.
     “P. Sirius Joventhal, field agent with SCS Command, Coriolis.” Psy knew what they were up to and gave Brian a languid back rub for good measure. “I’m taking these Shallens from their mothership to temporary accommodation on Mars.”
     “I see.” The mech was clearly unimpressed by Psy’s antics. Captain Armando Petrucci, the SCS Command station commander, came up on the screen
     “Hello, love. So good of you.” Psy knew the mech would check hir credentials. Shi had hir own way of dealing with formalities.
     “So what have you dragged in this time, pussycat?” Armando was only too familiar with Psy’s games and knew how to get around them.
     “I have some guests.” Psy gestured grandly around the bridge. “We’ll need the barracks at Zanzibar. It’s a nice out of the way location that won’t attract too much attention.”
     Armando scratched his balding head. “You timed that well. Earth Fed are a day away from pulling that block down and re-deploying it to Fort Evanston in Xanthe Terra.”
     “Get them to hold fire on that.” Psy couldn’t leave the Shallens standing around in the Martian outdoors. “Will you do that for me?”
     Armando knew that was an order, not a request. “Anything else?”
     “See to it that the building’s warm and the lights are on. I’m not bringing our guests into a disused refrigerator. And make sure the Tri-D sets are working. We’ll need some entertainment.”
     “Consider it done. And I’ll want a full report when you check in at the station.” Armando kept up the pretence that Psy was his subordinate. He was one of the few people who knew what Psy really was and that this call was being monitored by people who neither of them wanted in on their little secret.
     Psy blew Armando a kiss. “For you, anything.”

     “Wow, that’s a side I’ve never seen of Veronica.” Lottie commented as Max wrapped up his presentation of Ruby’s video logs.
     “She sure let her hair down with that reptilian guy.” SkyHawk had long suspected that a pool of hot passion lay below Veronica’s uptight exterior.
     “She’s a brave mech.” Max referred to Ruby. “She took out three of those attackers. They’re probably looking for her right now.”
     “Yeah.” Lottie added glumly. “Do you think that Space Quest plastiskin idea will work?”
     “Maybe.” Max could tell from the video logs that the Chznzet weren’t the type to give up easily. “But I have a plan that might do the trick.”
     “What sort of plan?” Right now they needed a plan and SkyHawk was open to all ideas.
     “Ruby will be seen returning to Mars.” Max put forward his plan. “Those attackers won’t be able to follow her here.”
     “No, but Earth Fed would pick her up within the day and terminate her.” Lottie was a realist and knew what they were up against.
     “Exactly!” Max scored an imaginary point which left Lottie and SkyHawk mystified. “So I go to Vermthellyn wearing Ruby’s new skin and come back wearing her old skin. I make myself seen over there as Ruby and, hopefully, her attackers will see what appears to be Ruby leaving Vermthellyn. Once I’m back, if anyone asks, I’m good old Max Corundum the cosplay freak on my way to the Space Quest convention.”
     “It might just work...” SkyHawk saw a glimmer of possibility in Max’s idea. “Except for one teensy-weensy little problem.”
     “What’s that?” Max thought he’d worked out his plan from end to end.
     “Your frame’s way too large.” SkyHawk laughed out loud. “You’d stretch those skins to buggery. They’d be way too large for her after you got inside them. And there’s no way even someone half-blind would mistake you wearing Ruby’s skin for Ruby.”
     “Oh, that.” Max laughed. “I’ll load my core into a female beta-class frame. We’ll look like chips off the same block.”
     “Right.” SkyHawk saw that Max’s plan might just work. “You better get an armoured frame in case they start shooting. And I’d make a backup before you go if I were you.”
     “Hey yeah, the convention. What you say we go there this year?” SkyHawk changed the subject and gave Lottie a playful squeeze. “Stan and MariElla are going. We’ll bring Denzil and Benjamin along. They’ll have whale of a time.”
     SkyHawk’s commset pinged so he picked it up from the coffee table and sent the message to his tri-D set even though commset video was only 2D. A human Earth Fed officer popped up on a flat screen projection. “Ah, Mr Ogilvie I’m glad to see you could take my call.” He greeted SkyHawk. “I’ve been instructed to inform you that the residential block used by Major Rotherham’s detachment will be staying with you a little bit longer. We have guests from that alien worldship. Due to the circumstances we thought it would be best they stayed somewhere out of the public eye. This alien contact thing has to be handled carefully and it couldn’t have come at a worse time. I hope you understand.”
     Max, SkyHawk and Lottie looked at each other. Well, this was something new!
     “I’m not really up to negotiating another contract with Earth Fed at this time of night.” SkyHawk really wanted to get into bed with Lottie.
     The officer consulted his headset for a moment before replying. “We can extend the existing contract for the duration if you prefer.”
     “Do they have any special needs?” SkyHawk wanted an idea of what he was getting himself into.
     Again the officer held a hand to his ear listening intently to his headset before answering. “Not that we’re aware of. We will have staff on site to liaise with you.”
     SkyHawk groaned. He really wanted to see the back of Earth Fed. They’d been at Zanzibar too long. “Look I’m really sorry but Major Rotherham’s crew really got up everyone’s back here. It affected morale and productivity in a big way. They’re not coming back.”
     After another session intently listening to his headset the officer got back to SkyHawk. “Special Operations Police will not be involved. There will be no more searches. It would be a contingent of six officers and catering staff whose sole responsibility will be the security of our guests and to dissuade curiosity seekers.”
     “I want that written into the contract and I’ll hold you to it.” SkyHawk warned him. “When can we expect them?”
     “Two days’ time.” The officer could see that SkyHawk was warming to the idea and made his move to close the deal. “I’ll take that as a ‘yes’ then?”
     SkyHawk had been to other worlds and his curiosity had only been whetted. Here was a chance to meet more aliens. Of course he’d agree to it. How could he pass it up? But he hated that officer’s slick presumptuousness and all he could manage was a sullen ‘Yeah’ when he knew it was a chance he’d jump at.
     Max broke the silence in SkyHawk’s living room after the officer signed off. “No more searches. Nice work, SkyHawk.”
     “Until they break their promise with some half-assed excuse.” SkyHawk knew only too well that Earth Fed would break their agreement if it suited them. But at least he had something to hit them with in court afterwards. “You know what they’re like.”

     ”There’s no kind of atmosphere where we’re going. Well, it has an atmosphere but it’s so thin it’s unbreathable.” Xandu proudly rattled off the few facts he’d learned about life on Mars from Veronica and Ruby. “They have to live under domes.”
     “That’s really out on the frontier.” Knetryxx had only ever known life on Vermthellyn and aboard the Ark of Exodus and had never even worn a pressure suit or ventured out into the hard vacuum of space. “It sounds dangerous.”
     “Veronica’s friends are musicians.” Xandu told his friends. “She told me all about it. You know that Nglubi that’s with us?”
     Knetryxx and Tatia nodded their heads. Morgau and Wootjan-Oo stood back a bit unsure about Xandu’s new-found enthusiasm. They were taking a step into the unknown and Xandu’s attempts to make their destination feel familiar seemed suspiciously over-enthusiastic.
     “Hir name’s Psy and shi even did some shows with them, something to do with crystals.” Xandu was clutching at straws and he knew it. He’d been pretty badly shaken up by the way the Chznzet so effortlessly took over the Ark and needed something to hold on to. Something that gave even a shred of hope.
     Just then Barwyndar waddled in with Psy in tow. “And what a show it was!” Psy eulogised. “I don’t think they’ll be having me back any time soon but you could catch a show of their little beat combo while you’re on Mars.”
     “I’m afraid the Keeper must return to Vermthellyn immediately.” Barwyndar interrupted Psy. “The Ark is gone. The Olblavy Clan and House Sedeirtra need her now more than ever.”
     “Ex-Keeper.” Knetryxx tetchily griped at Barwyndar. “You don’t need to remind me that we’ve lost the Ark.”
     “No.” Barwyndar could tell that Knetryxx hadn’t yet heard the bad news. “It has vanished from this space. Neither our navigators nor the Human ships can locate it any longer.”
     “Oh, hooray!” Knetryxx felt as if things were just getting worse by the minute. “Maybe I can go back the life I had before your Ingnuthin lot snatched me from my home.”
     “No you cannot.” Barwyndar patiently and sternly explained to this sullen young Keeper. “The Keeper is a role for life, mainly symbolic, but you are the figurehead for your clan and at a time like this they need you to rally around. It was your destiny to be the Keeper and you must do your duty. And your first duty as the Keeper is the well-being of your clan.”
     “I’ve had enough of this Keeper business.” Knetryxx lost her temper with Barwyndar. “First you grab me out of my home and make a big fuss about taking me to the Ark. Then I’m so doped up that I can barely remember who or what I am. Then we’re thrown off the Ark. And now this? Everyone wants to use me as their puppet. Well, I’ve had enough of it. I’m reclaiming my life starting right now. Go find yourself another Keeper.”
     “You’re not dead.” Barwyndar felt as if she was dealing with a petulant young girl’s temper tantrum and refused to rise to Knetryxx’s bait. “If the Chznzet had killed you then, Ark or no Ark, a new Keeper would be anointed for your clan. That is our way. Maybe you’ve lived a little too long amongst outsiders to concern yourself with such things as tradition but it would serve you well to learn a bit of our own history.”
     “What, like the fable of HomeNest and the Chznzet? What’s to stop the Chznzet from killing me the moment I set foot on Vermthellyn?” Knetryxx had found out the hard way that the Chznzet played for keeps and wanted to be as far away from them as possible.
     Barwyndar was flabbergasted. Did this young slip of a girl suspect or worse, know, how Talookti had so coldly despatched Milentiet, the previous Keeper? “I, ah…” She flustered. “Of course, Keeper, your concerns for your safety are totally justified.” Barwyndar realised that Knetryxx would need a bit more convincing and hurried off to fetch Reflinghar.
     Knetryxx shook her clenched paw and shouted at the departing Barwyndar. “I’ve had enough of this. I just want a normal life.” Knetryxx snuggled up defiantly into Morgau’s arms and wrapped her tail around him for good measure in case Barwyndar got any funny ideas. It didn’t take long for Barwyndar to drag Reflinghar away from the bridge. He looked and sounded as if he had the weight of the world on his shoulders as he begged, pleaded and cajoled fruitlessly with Knetryxx.
     “Fine. Tell them the Chznzet killed me if you need to.” Knetryxx was exasperated. She’d already made her mind up. She wanted out.
     “None of us would be party to a deception like that.” Reflinghar countered emphatically. “Not myself. Not Barwyndar. And certainly not any of the Guard or crew. You didn’t have to listen to the bridge crew crying when the Ark vanished. Their loyalty is to our clan which you symbolise to them. They look up to you. I’m disappointed that you would even consider abandoning them. Would you really let them down?” Reflinghar tried to shame Knetryxx into accepting her place. “Even if we went along with your deception you would be reinstated as soon as you were found. And make no doubt that you would eventually be found, if not by one of us then by the Chznzet. Solanya, the Keeper of the Mintakha Clan worldship, Draught of Stars, was presumed killed when it was boarded by H’Relvist mercenaries during the battle of Ghondarr and a new Keeper was anointed. Solanya was later found at a Turellian slave labour camp and reinstated as the Keeper for the Mintakha Clan. The temporary keeper became her assistant.”
     Knetryxx sulked sullenly saying nothing. Reflinghar sensed that he’d touched a nerve somewhere seeing how she’d stopped her shouting. “We have two days before we arrive at the gateway. Talk to the crew, the Guards and the other passengers. Find out what you mean to them. Take your time and think things over.” With that he left her and went back to the bridge to ponder where his duty would take him and the prospects weren’t looking good.
     Xandu let out a long, low hiss. “He’s serious.”
     “What are you going to do, Knetryxx?” Tatia wasn’t the least bit surprised by Knetryxx’s raw outburst. Tatia knew what she was like. But Reflinghar had put the ball squarely back in her court.
     “I don’t know.” Knetryxx felt lost and looked around for support. “We can’t stay in here the whole time. Might as well get it over with. Morgau, would you come with me?”
     “Of course.” He put an arm around Knetryxx as she got up and together they set off with their tail tips twined together as young lovers would do. There was a Guard on either side of the door outside the lounge. Chiselled, muscular and fierce-looking reptilians in Cooprah-hide armour holding their plasma lances at attention vertically in front of them silently stepped back and bowed their heads deferentially to Knetryxx. She found it unsettling as if it was something she didn’t deserve. Sure she’d seen them do that before. They always did back on the Ark but she barely noticed it. At first when she was a starry-eyed ingénue when everything was new and then later on when the Chznzet drugged her and everything was a hazy blur.
     When she was first anointed it was a bit like winning the Black Hole Lottery. She was whisked away from her humble home on Vermthellyn and installed in palatial quarters aboard the Ark of Exodus, waited upon by servants and received at formal functions. It felt more like a fantasy dream than her life as a second-generation offworlder on Vermthellyn who had barely even set foot on the Ark. So when it turned into a nightmare from the Chznzet’s mind-control plot it just felt like a bad dream more than anything else.
     But now she was clear-headed and unsure how to respond with Reflinghar’s words still fresh in her mind. She returned their deference with a friendly smile and a coy flick of her long, thin tongue. That seemed to reassure them and they went back to their post. Knetryxx held Morgau close as they wandered slowly around the cramped transporter. It was designed to carry 50 passengers between worldships or to and from the surface of a nearby planet. The journey to Mars was pushing it right to its limit and with over 100 passengers aboard it was crowded. Most people were seated in the main passenger compartment. There were two lounges, one of which was reserved for the Keeper, her entourage and ranking officers, a dozen private cabins and the crew’s quarters which was little more than a long room lined with bunk beds. Then there was the bridge and, to the rear, engineering where the transporter’s engines and power generators were.
     Everywhere they went they bumped into people: groups talking earnestly in corridors and corners and others wandering around almost in a daze coming to terms with their new circumstances. Every time the men would bow respectfully to Knetryxx. The women curtseyed and whispered graceful honorifics. ‘You bless us with your presence, O Keeper.’ ‘We will reclaim the Ark in your name.’ ‘Our guiding light!’ Some just reached out to touch her in reverential awe as if they were touching a holy shrine or whisper a prayer as she passed them. Others would cast her a nervous glance harbouring a sense of betrayal after their expulsion from the Ark. And on and on they went. Knetryxx did her best to reply politely to everyone one. To them she was someone, nay something, special yet she felt no different from anyone else. Just as lost and confused and totally at the mercy of events beyond her control. No-one was having an easy time of it and she could see that in their postures, their expression, tone of voice and even their breath, even the way almost everyone held their tails in close to themselves, a classic Shallen defensive reaction. And it was to her that they looked for comfort, solace, inspiration and guidance. Their devoted sincerity only made her feel like a cheap charlatan and yet… and yet… she couldn’t bring herself to break their illusions. At a time like this it would be infinitely cruel.
     Morgau’s suggestion that they evade the crowds by hiding out in engineering failed spectacularly when they were ambushed by the chief engineer, Sertantyn, an emerald-green feathered avian, and her crew who gave them an enthusiastic and ridiculously detailed guided tour. It was all way over her head and Knetryxx soon found herself losing the will to even pretend to understand the hurricane of technical data gleefully thrown her way by the engineers who were thrilled to be graced by the presence of the Keeper herself and felt it their duty to explain what every last nut, bolt and rivet did.
     “I’m so proud of you.” Knetryxx struggled to make her words sound convincing as she thought up an escape plan. “I’ll put in a commendation for you with your commander. We must go to the bridge now.” That seemed to do the trick; Sertantyn curtseyed and dutifully escorted them to the door.
     “That was close.” Morgau breathed a sigh of relief once they were safely away from engineering.
     “Did you actually understand any of that?” Knetryxx was still reeling form the barrage of technical information they’d floundered in.
     “A bit.” Morgau lied. He was an artist at heart and never really felt a need to understand the inner workings of machines so long as they did what he needed them to do. “They’re friends of Wootjan-Oo’s”
     “That would explain a lot then.” Knetryxx managed a wry laugh. “They probably think we’re geeks like him. I’m glad you’re here for me.” She nuzzled up close as they ambled along a strangely deserted passageway. “I was really lost for a while.”
     “I know.” Morgau held her close. “I missed you too. We could go back to the lounge."
     "I know but..." Knetryxx trailed off, confused by her emotions.
     "I thought you wanted to get away from Sertantyn. It worked perfectly." Morgau congratulated her.
     "I did... But you saw how they reacted to me." Knetryxx began articulating her confused feelings. "I really am someone special to them. You could see their devotion in their eyes and hear it in their words. They would do anything for me. It's frightening, Morgau. I feel like such a fraud. Sure, I could skip out and spend the rest of the journey in the lounge with you. I'd love to. But that would only show me up as a fraud in their eyes and I can't do that. Their world would fall to pieces and they'd probably tear me to pieces."
     "What are you going to do?" Morgau didn't know what to make of Knetryxx's sudden turn.
     "Keep my word and go to the bridge." Knetryxx finally understood the ancient Shallen expression: 'Ride the dragon lest it eat you'. "Call me a coward if you want for taking the easy way out. We'll just have to ride it out. Maybe it won't be so bad. I doubt they'll want us on the bridge for long, we'll only get in the way."
     "Yeah." Morgau loved Knetryxx and could see that she was changing but wasn't sure if it was anything more than just another one of her whims. Still, if it made her a bit less self-centred then perhaps it was a good thing. He stayed by her side with an ever-increasing sense of trepidation as Knetryxx led the way towards the bridge.
     Knetryxx timidly poked her head around the door leading onto the bridge. The duty Guard at the door flung it wide open and announced "The Keeper is on the bridge!" Everyone dropped what they were doing. A few turned to glance briefly at Knetryxx but the rest remained at attention at their posts. The communications officer, a wiry old avian with some of the scruffiest feathers Knetryxx had ever seen, crowed out aloud 'Ektu Rakah Shan!', a traditional Olblavy Clan cheer normally reserved for times when the Keeper made an appearance at a formal ceremony. There was a brief silence after his cheer rang out around the bridge and then they started joining in until everyone one the bridge joined in as they called out their cheer in affirmation stamping their feet and banging their paws on their consoles. Even Knetryxx and Morgau joined in with the rousing cheer.
     Reflinghar saw her cheering along and, even though it was absurd for the Keeper to cheer herself, he let it pass until his crew's enthusiasm began to wane and grandly raised a paw to call for silence. Reflinghar was all genial formality and not a trace of the stern exasperation of their argument a few hours earlier when he addressed her: "Welcome to the bridge, O Keeper, the thread that binds our lives together."
     Knetryxx counted her blessings. She knew what was expected of her and summoned up what passed for courage into her small voice and made the decision that if she was the Keeper, she had to follow those footsteps fearlessly wherever they led. She held her paws nervously and cleared her throat as she held back her nerves. "We shall reclaim the ark. The Chznzet may have usurped us for the moment but it shall be ours again."
     Reflinghar was stunned as the crew broke out into resoundingly enthusiastic battle cries. It was more than he'd expected. He glanced over at Norfalth who gave him a pleasantly surprised look in reply. There was hope for her yet. She had done them proud. He could see that she was struggling to keep up with his crews' expectations and decided it was best to get her away before she slipped up. "And so we shall." He grandly addressed Knetryxx as he rose up from the bridge commander's seat and reached out a paw towards her. "Come, I would like an audience with you."
     Reflinghar escorted them off the bridge back to the lounge. He briefly put an arm around Knetryxx and hugged her once they were out of sight of the duty Guards outside the bridge. "I'm so proud of you. You have no idea how demoralised the crew were. You've given them hope again. Maybe now you're beginning to understand not who you are but what you are. We all have roles in life and not always ones we choose or want. When I married Deleethia all we wanted to do was to go dragon riding on Sylbar. But she's from the inner family so I end up as our official representative to the Rtuntli. That's what I am. The dragon rider flying alongside Deleethia is who I am." And he hoped that Deleethia still felt the same about him. "I know it was big step for you becoming the Keeper. The Chznzet made you forget who you are. But that's over now and you are back with Morgau; that's who you are. It's a balancing act, Knetryxx, and I have every confidence in you. You'll grow into being the Keeper but never lose touch with who you are. Without knowing who we are, we are lost."
     "And you, Morgau, stick to your art." Reflinghar poked the young Shallen in the chest. "Make it a touchstone in your life. You and Knetryxx are destined for the high life. People will be talking to what you are, not who you are. Always remember that. And make time for who you are but never forget what you are." The rest of the journey was mercifully uneventful. Barwyndar even agreed to let Knetryxx stay over on Mars for a few days in order to 'pay her respects for the primitives who helped us in our time of need'. She and Morgau spent most of their time locked in one of the private suites shagging themselves senseless over and over... something they both needed badly.

     "There it is. That's the first one." Max announced as he looked up from the viewscreen in the main office at Zanzibar. The little dot that represented the Shallens' transporter moved across the screen at a steady clip. "They ought to make landfall within the hour."
     "Get them to land as close to the dome as possible. That docking tunnel of ours isn't all that long and I doubt if they'll have pressure suits." SkyHawk reminded Max. "See if you can raise them."
     "Nope, no can do boss." Max sighed after a brief struggle with their comms. "We'll just have to hope they can figure that out for themselves."
     "Oh well, rustle up a team to unravel it and roll it out about halfway. We'll need some slack." SkyHawk resigned himself to the inevitable. "I hope we don't have to move it around too much, it's got patches on top of patches and it still leaks."
     "Sure thing." Max got on the comms console and asked the day shift foreman to assign a team to prepare the docking tunnel. Half an hour later as SkyHawk and Max drove out of Zanzibar's main dome on a sand buggy the workers had only just started rolling out the clear plastic docking tunnel. It would be a while before it was even ready to be inflated.
     Max kept an open feed from the farm's comms centre so he could track the incoming Shallen ship and scanned the greying late afternoon sky while SkyHawk drove the buggy. "Got it!" Max pointed up. Sure enough, when SkyHawk held up the magnifier to his helmet and squinted he could just about make out a grey dot that was increasing in size as it descended towards Mars. Predictably it landed well out of reach of the farm's docking tunnel so they drove out across a ridge and into a small ancient weather-worn crater where the transporter had landed. They drove up to what looked like an airlock and SkyHawk hopped out. "Wait here. This shouldn't take long."
     SkyHawk walked up to the transporter, banged on the airlock door and waited... and waited. Eventually it slid open and he stepped inside. The outer door shut noiselessly behind him and he felt his suit going limp as the airlock pressurised. SkyHawk slipped up the visor on his helmet as the inner door opened where he was face-to-face with Psy who was flanked by a large reptilian. Behind them were five Guards, their plasma lances at the ready. Behind them an apprehensive crowd of Shallens looked on.
     "Ah, farmer Giles." Psy warmly greeted SkyHawk with a hug and a wet kiss on his cheek. "So good to see you again. I trust you have everything in order for our guests." The reptilian next to Psy said something but SkyHawk couldn't understand it so he nodded courteously to the reptilian. Psy could see that something was amiss. "No translator?"
     "I forgot it in the rush to get out here." SkyHawk lied. Actually, he hadn't even thought about it. He and Max had been working on their plan for Ruby ever since they'd returned from Vermthellyn.
     "Not to worry." Psy breezily took up the slack. "Duke Reflinghar here expresses his thanks on behalf of his people and would like to know when they can debark."
     "Unless they have pressure suits and feel like walking a klick and a half to the dome they'll have to move this ship closer. Our docking tunnel won't reach out here." SkyHawk explained.
     Psy consulted with Reflinghar. "Where do you want them to land?" Psy asked SkyHawk.
     "I'll drive my sand buggy to a suitable location. Tell them to land next to me." Back outside SkyHawk and Max raced away in the sand buggy just managing to stay ahead of the dust cloud raised by the transporter as it lifted off. "Damn, that momma sure kicks up one hella dust storm." Max commented gamely as they bounced across the airless terrain. "It's a good job I decided to wear a pressure suit today." He radioed ahead to the team foreman, Henry Clovis, a free clone who'd been active in the Synthetics' Civil Rights Movement alongside Max, to warn any unsuited mechs on his team to hide inside the tunnel when the transporter landed.
     Thanks to Mars' low gravity and thin atmosphere the transporter kicked up an almighty dust cloud when it landed which took its time settling down. They stayed until SkyHawk could see the first passengers making their way along the tunnel. "Better get round there to welcome the new arrivals." SkyHawk gunned the sand buggy's engine and they raced back into the safe haven of Zanzibar's expansive dome complex. He didn't have time to run back to the office to find his translator. Fact was he wasn't sure where he left it. It could be in his office, or in his bedroom or in his desk at home for all he could remember. He and Max had been too busy working on their plan to get Ruby a new plastiskin and spare parts. As it was he barely had time enough to peel himself out of his pressure suit and dust himself down in time to meet their new arrivals as they stepped out into the main dome. Not understanding a word the Shallens said in their throaty warbling voices, he was reduced to bowing and grinning like an idiot as a crowd of bewildered Shallens built up around himself and Max.
     He was eventually saved when Psy pushed hir way through the growing crowd. "I think we're ready now. Lead the way."
     "Huh?" Psy's directness took SkyHawk by surprise. "Oh right." He turned around and set off towards the barracks block with a trail of Shallens following him.
     "Didn't Grattlyd give you a translator?" Psy nagged SkyHawk as they walked along.
     "It did." SkyHawk admitted. "But I've been very busy since we got back." He didn't want to let Psy know that he'd been to Vermthellyn right now. Maybe some time later. "It just didn't occur to me."
     "You'll need it from now on." Psy scolded SkyHawk. "You see all those Shallens? You'll be dealing with them as you're the only human here with a translator. Some of the Shallens have translators but they don't have English in them... yet. Another thing for my to-do list, I suppose." Psy sighed dramatically before changing the subject. "Most of them will be going back to Vermthellyn in dribs and drabs. Something you could help me with, cousin." Psy added pointedly.
     "What do you mean?" SkyHawk was at a loss.
     "The biostone responds to your touch. We both know what that means." Psy cut to the chase. "There's over a thousand Shallens to be returned to Vermthellyn. That's at least a hundred trips through the gateway. Plus crew have to stay with their ships as well as supplies and other crew coming here. It'll drag on for ages and I haven't got the time or will to be their taxi service."
     "You want me to operate the gateway at Fort Melchisor?" SkyHawk asked incredulously. "I don't know how."
     "I'll show you. It's quite simple, really." Psy glanced over at SkyHawk and gave him a friendly pat on the back. "You'll see. I'll send Grattlyd over to help you out. Between the two of you doing it in shifts, you should have it covered."
     SkyHawk couldn't believe his luck but daren't show it. They now not only had the perfect cover for travelling to and from Vermthellyn but also the means!
     "Do you have anything here that I could use to ferry passengers out to the gateway at Fort Melchisor?" Psy asked abruptly, jolting SkyHawk out of his thoughts.
     SkyHawk sucked his teeth. "We have an old bus but it's not in the best of condition. It leaks air. We'd have to patch it up first."
     Psy decided against taking chances. "That's all right, I'll get Armando to deliver something we can use." They spent the rest of the day settling the Shallens into their accommodation in the barracks helped along by off-shift workers who dropped in partly out of curiosity. Later on, SkyHawk managed to take a break once things had settled down and everyone moved in. He was even pleasantly surprised that the grunts Earth Fed had sent over were spending their time fussing over the Shallens. So he thought he'd stop by the cafeteria for a cold beer before turning in. He was half way though a well-earned refreshing cold drink when a Khzchhrrrtz walked in followed by two more of its kind. One was significantly larger than the other two and was carrying on opalescent ovoid. Was it Kkhrkht? He had no way of telling as he found it hard to tell them apart.
     "SkyHawk!" One of the shorter Khzchhrrrtz buzzed as its antennae wagged excitedly. "I was hoping to find you."
     So it was Kkhrkht! "Have you come back to live among us as Jazz again?" SkyHawk grinned from ear to ear. "We missed you. How's things?"
     "Zzzz... Alive. Which is good. And so is my triune." Kkhrkht buzzed awkwardly. Dzzhakh-ye was still getting used to the idea. And it was cross-caste which was even worse, but it was Vvezhti-Kla's insistence that they be a triune now that they had an egg. Not that dzzhakh-ye or Pzeptilan dared argue with dzhinn-ye. Vvezhti-Kla could rip them both apart effortlessly.
     "Triune? That's... wonderful." SkyHawk remembered only too well Kkhrkht's drunken binge back on Zrrlchtz fuelled by the heartbreaking end to his(?) previous triune had ended. SkyHawk wasn't all that sure on how their gender thing went so considered Kkhrkht as male having first met Kkhrkht in human form as Jazz Rodriguez, who was male. "Are you going to stay here?"
     "We'd like to but we have to return to Vermthellyn." Kkhrkht explained reluctantly. "Pzeptilan is the Khzchhrrrtz ambassador to Vermthellyn. Vvezhti-Kla and I are dzzhev-ye's assistants. My old days here are over now. They were good times, I enjoyed being the Crystal Kid. You are good people and I will remember you well."
     "So what exactly happened?" SkyHawk wanted to know why his farm was about to be overrun by ten ships full of aliens who had to be shipped back to Vermthellyn using the gateway at Fort Melchisor... in total secrecy. Hah! Knowing how things were on Mars, he could already picture in his mind the encampment of news hounds and curiosity-seekers growing outside of Zanzibar's domes.
     "There was a coup on their worldship." Kkhrkht kept it simple. "A religious faction overthrew the ruling clan and took control. The Shallens you see here are some of the loyalists who managed to escape. They intend to return to their colony on Vermthellyn although that may not be for long."
     "How so?"
     "If they cannot reclaim their worldship they will disperse, join clans on other worldships or settle on their homeworld. The Rtuntli may even ask their colony on Vermthellyn to leave. It was only a temporary measure to begin with. Even our situation might become untenable."
     "You're always welcome here." SkyHawk offered. Kkhrkht had been a good sort as Jazz. He had met Jazz a few times and always found him a bit shy but friendly, affable and good-natured. He wondered if Kkhrkht had a similar character or was Jazz just an act? "It may not be the best but I'm sure we could sort something out for you and your family."
     "Thank you." Kkhrkht meant it. "We may have to take you up on your offer."
     "Do you remember Ruby?" SkyHawk asked.
     "Of course." Kkhrkht couldn't forget SkyHawk's mechanoid companion. "How is she?"
     "Fine. We're not living together any longer." SkyHawk still felt awkward about that. "She's on Vermthellyn now."
     "I'm sorry to hear that."
     "It's okay. Things happened but we're still friends." At least SkyHawk hoped so. "I wonder if you could help us. We need somewhere secure, clean and with an industrial electricity supply in Estrillyd for a day."
     "Oh, I didn't know you could travel through the gateways." Kkhrkht was surprised. "What for?"
     "It's for Ruby." SkyHawk couldn't to go into details. Too much of their plan had yet to come into place.
     "What exactly will you be doing?" Kkhrkht wanted to know what dzzhakh-ye was getting into.
     "We're bringing some spare parts for Ruby." SkyHawk kept it vague. A lot depended on what strings Max could pull in Satori.
     "She could come here to Mars through the gateway." Kkhrkht suggested helpfully. "It will be connected to Estrillyd for a while."
     "She'd rather stay on Vermthellyn. She likes it there." SkyHawk cagily avoided telling Kkhrkht the full truth. Actually, as far as SkyHawk could tell, Ruby was quite enjoying her life on Vermthellyn. The less he told Kkhrkht, the better. If he told Kkhrkht about Ruby's run-in with the Chznzet they might refuse to get involved.
     "I see." Kkhrkht could tell SkyHawk was hiding something but decided to let it pass and turned to pass his request on to Pzeptilan and Vvezhti-Kla.
     "Not our embassy." Vvezhti-Kla nearly snorted with contempt. "All the other embassies in our block are spying on each other. Their sensors sweep our embassy all the time and we have no shielding."
     "Now you tell me." Pzeptilan griped. "They could use the unit I hired out at the spaceport to store our supplies."
     "And the pscho-hypnotics you're selling to those decadent L'Metryns." Vvezhti-Kla disapprovingly scolded Pzeptilan. Dzhinn-ye didn't approve of Pzeptilan's dubious business activities.
     "We need the credits. In case you hadn't noticed, I've nearly spent my entire field allowance and our revered hive elders in their infinite wisdom haven't even sent us a single Galac. We'd be homeless and on the streets of the H’Ulwyn district with the beggars by now if it wasn't for my business dealings." Pzeptilan wearily explained to Vvezhti-Kla for what felt like the hundredth time before turning dzzhev-ye's attention back to Kkhrkht. "When do they need it?"
     Kkhrkht turned back to SkyHawk. "When do you plan on visiting?"
     "Some time in the next few weeks." SkyHawk felt a sense of urgency over his debt to Ruby. "We're not sure yet. We have to get the parts first."
     "I see. We leave in the morning." Kkhrkht informed SkyHawk. "Pzeptilan will see to it that you have a suitable place to repair Ruby."
     SkyHawk was over the moon with his good fortune. So long as the Chznzet weren't following her, their plan stood a chance of working. They had to draw the Chznzet's attention away from where Ruby lived in Estrillyd. Kkhrkht quizzed SkyHawk about Ruby's whereabouts on Vermthellyn and reminisced fondly about the old days sharing dzzhakh-ye's experiences with Pzeptilan and Vvezhti-Kla. Pzeptilan was bored but Vvezhti-Kla was fascinated and followed Kkhrkht's stories with rapt attention interrupting Dzzhakh-ye every now and then to clarify a point. SkyHawk was exhausted. All he could think about was falling into Lottie's welcoming arms. So he made his excuses to leave and promised to bring Kkhrkht some crystals next time he visited. He was walking back to his house when he spotted Psy running across the courtyard towards the docking tunnel and the blurred outlines of a military transporter's running lights through the skin of the dome as it set down outside next to the Shallens' transporters. He couldn't be bothered to chase after hir. He'd had enough for one day.

     The first night at the Zanzibar barracks was insanely overcrowded but everyone put up with it as it was only temporary and they'd be back on Vermthellyn soon. Even then most Shallens were still out in the transporters as there was insufficient room in the makeshift barracks block at Zanzibar. Wootjan-Oo, Yldoseh and her mother, Sursipal were assigned to a room that would normally have been for a single occupant that they had to share with an elderly reptilian couple, their three noisy grandchildren and a plump, middle aged female avian middle-ranking Ingnuthin priestess. In spite of the old reptilian dame's noisy snoring, Sursipal soon fell asleep on a cushion in one corner of the room. It had been a long day and she just wanted to sleep off the claustrophobia of two days in a cramped transporter. Wootjan-Oo and Yldoseh weren't so lucky. Both of them were too wired by the events ever since the Chznzet coup on the Ark to do more than snatch the occasional moment of sleep. Yldoseh curled up around Wootjan-Oo. He laid one of his feathered armwings across her. Right now it was enough to have her close, to feel her warmth and the rise and fall of her breathing. Yldoseh wasn't the prettiest of Shallen women. She wasn't lithe like Knetryxx or exuding earthy sexiness like Tatia. No, it was Yldoseh's wild imagination and sparky character that Wootjan-Oo had fallen in love with.
     "Do you think they'll really let us stay here?" Wootjan-Oo asked Yldoseh. He knew she was still awake.
     "Sursipal-Se thinks so." Yldoseh propped her head up one arm and gazed up at Wootjan-Oo. Just being next to him made her feel more secure and the night time half-light in their room made him look so... noble. "The transporter crews have to stay here to maintain their ships. And the food here is awful. Have you tried it?"
     "Not yet." Wootjan-Oo was hungry but he'd been too busy all day to even think about it until now. "Is it safe to eat?"
     "Supposedly." Yldoseh had no reason to think that the Humans would poison them but maybe their food wasn't fully compatible with Shallen biology. "I could really do with a stuffed Narlik gourd right now." She added wistfully.
     "Or some Szetni." Wootjan-Oo felt weak, not from tiredness but from hunger. The whirl of the days' events, the excitement of landing on an alien world and then being shepherded into overcrowded accommodation had kept him from even thinking about his own needs. It wasn't until Yldoseh had mentioned food that he realised that he hadn't eaten anything all day. "Where do they have the food here?"
     "Are you sure?"
     "I'm so hungry I'd swallow my gizzard stones." He really was that hungry.
     "OK." Yldoseh got up. "I'll show you." It was eerily quiet as they walked along the hallway. As they passed one room they could hear some sad, desperately hopeful singing through a door. Further along, a blazing argument between several Shallens. In another maudlin drunken laughter seeped out through the door but for the most part it was deathly quiet save for the soft susurrations of heated air wafting out of air ducts.
     The cafeteria was almost deserted save for a group of Shallen flight crew and Tech Guild engineers gathered around one table in a heated discussion. Wootjan-Oo recognised P'Gelyn amongst them. P'Gelyn was an argumentative reptilian a few cycles older than Wootjan-Oo who was forever trying to get one over on him, so he followed Yldoseh and slipped past them unnoticed over to the serving counter which was empty. All the food had been put away. "Oh." Yldoseh looked up and down the counter and back into the kitchen for signs of life but it was deserted so she led Wootjan-Oo by the paw into the kitchen and looked around to see what they could find.
     They rummaged around the kitchen opening cupboards, fridges and freezers looking for something to eat. They were well stocked but none of it looked appetising to Wootjan-Oo. It wasn't helped by the fact that he couldn't read or understand the labelling on any of the packages, bags, boxes or containers. Not knowing how to prepare any of the chilled or frozen food, he grabbed a box out of one of the cupboards. 'McBain's Super Breakfast Crunch' it proclaimed in bright bold lettering with a picture of a heaping bowl of crunchy cereal swimming in milk with the faces of happy, satisfied human children arranged around it. Deciding that with a picture like that it was unlikely to be poisonous, he tore it open and stuck his beak in to sniff at it. It seemed OK, so he tried a mouthful. Underneath the excessive sweetness and quite obviously synthetic flavouring he could just about taste the rolled grains, seeds and dried fruit. It would have to do. He looked around something to drink while he gulped down the cereal. Yldoseh brought him a bowl of water to sip from.
     "Be careful in case it swells up." Yldoseh warned him.
     "They live on this stuff?" Wootjan-Oo asked incredulously.
     "That's nothing. You should have seen what they served us earlier." Yldoseh's mouth puckered at the memory of what the Humans served them for their evening meal. "Overcooked vegetables and something that tasted like a dead Potroo but even greasier, if you can imagine that."
     "I'd rather not." Just the thought of it made Wootjan-Oo's stomach turn. "It's not exactly 'Bite and Flight' is it? I can see it now: Visit Mars, it's got no atmosphere and the food's terrible. You won't die. Rated one star in the Good Planet Guide."
     Yldoseh laughed. "They seem friendly enough and they do try, I'll give them that much. As far as I know no-one got sick but it was one of the slowest meals I've ever sat through. We really need our own food. Sursipal-Se is going to ask the Humans in the morning if she can use their kitchen to see if she can come up with something a bit more palatable."
     Wootjan-Oo liked that idea. "Does she have a translator? She'll need one if she's going to work with those Humans."
     "No, could she borrow yours?" Yldoseh knew that Wootjan-Oo needed his translator as he was assigned to work with the Humans.
     Wootjan-Oo sighed. He had a feeling this was coming. "I suppose so. I loaded their language into it. Not everyone has that yet. But I need to use it too."
     "Of course." Yldoseh knew her mother would return it.... if she didn't lose it first. She was as good at losing things as she was at cooking. And Yldoseh could vouch for Sursipal's culinary expertise. She had a lifetime of enjoying her mother's delicious food. She tried to ignore how Wootjan-Oo might react if her mother lost his translator, but try as she might, the worrying thought kept niggling at the back of her mind. Sex would have been the best way to clear the worries out of her and Wootjan-Oo's minds but that was out of the question in their overcrowded room so they'd have to settle for a bit of passionate cuddling.
     They were on their way out when P'Gelyn spotted them. "Hey Wootjan-Oo have you heard the news?" He called out and waved an arm at them.
     "What news?" Wootjan-Oo asked as he and Yldoseh walked over to the lively group of techies, astrogators and pilots gathered around P'Gelyn.
     "All Tech Guild and Flight Crew have to stay here to maintain the transporters. We're going after the Ark." P'Gelyn explained as Wootjan-Oo and Yldoseh joined their group.
     "What? All of us? Permanently?" Wootjan-Oo was taken aback. Yes, he'd talked about staying on Mars with Yldoseh and her mother, Sursipal. But when faced with the reality of it, it felt almost unwelcome.
     "We do the first duty rotation until the next crew arrives... Whenever they arrive." P'Gelyn laughed sarcastically.
     One of the techies, a podgy and slightly myopic reptilian with a pair of magnifying goggles perched on his head, looked up at Wootjan-Oo. "There were a lot of Chznzet sympathisers in my team. I was the only loyalist. Looks like I was the lucky one." He snorted wryly. "You should have heard some of the things they were talking about. They had some sort of temporal device that went wrong when we impacted that Human ship. Anyway, they smuggled a backup aboard the Ark. That's what they've done."
     "Done what?" Wootjan-Oo was mystified.
     The techie was agog that Wootjan-Oo couldn't figure out the obvious. "They've taken it back in time to stop the Great Cataclysm. It's all they ever talked about."
     "Oh, that..." Now Wootjan-Oo knew exactly what the techie was on about. He'd heard it directly from that fake Alghar android. "But if they succeed, they and us will never have existed."
     "They know that and they don't care." The techie replied with all the exasperation of someone who'd argued his way against an endless barrage of Chznzet propaganda. "You think I haven't tried explaining it to them?"
     The navigator from Wootjan-Oo's transporter had been listening to the techie and joined in. "All the clans have decided that the Chznzet must be stopped. You wait and see." She added proudly. "We're getting temporal displacement detectors shipped in on direct orders from the Imperial Court on Cervetica."
     "I'll believe that when I see it." In spite of the navigator's cheerful enthusiasm, Wootjan-Oo remained sceptical. The Imperial Court had always seemed distant and remote to Wootjan-Oo. A body that spent more effort on maintaining its own position than actually doing anything for the ordinary Shallen. "Still we could do with the attention right around now."
     "All Tech Guild have to stay here to maintain the transporters." P'Gelyn interrupted. "You'll get your duty roster in the morning. Ghathanwe, Vornath and K'Lekti clans are sending us maintenance crew and supplies to service the transporters."
     "Oh great." Wootjan-Oo was horrified. Everyone knew that Clan Ghathanwe considered the Olblavy Clan and House Sedeirtra to be the disgrace of the Shallen Imperium. And now that the Chznzet had hijacked their ark it only made matters worse. The Vornath and K'Lekti clans were wealthy dispossessed clans from Cervetica who no doubt hoped to earn a place alongside Clan Olblavy aboard the Ark of Exodus. Even they couldn't be fully trusted. "But why Clan Ghathanwe?"
     "They're supplying the temporal displacement detectors." P'Gelyn explained. He wasn't happy about Clan Ghathanwe involvement. "As well as most of the funding."
     "This won't end well." Wootjan-Oo commented glumly.
     "That's what I said." P'Gelyn admitted. "But who listens to the likes of us? Watch your back around those Ghathanwe." P'Gelyn warned Wootjan-Oo. "They're out to dispossess us."
     Yldoseh pulled herself away from Wootjan-Oo. "Wait here. Keep them talking." She dashed out of the cafeteria. Wootjan-Oo didn't have trouble keeping his hosts talking. On the contrary, he had trouble keeping up with them. There were simply too many cross-currents in the conversation. How long were they going to stay on this remote planet? What were the Humans like?
     There even was a rumour that the Olblavy Clan was going to establish a permanent outpost here. And then there were the endless arguments about how they were going to upgrade their transporters with the temporal displacement detectors as well as which transporters should be used, or sacrificed, depending on who you listened to. The other big topic wasn't so much as to reclaiming the Ark, but how to actually do it. Even if they found a similar time-travel device there was no guarantee that they'd be able to track them to the same location in time. And if they did, how were they going to muster a force large enough to retake the Ark? No-one had any doubt that the Chznzet would arm the Ark to its maximum capability.
     Wootjan-Oo wasn't surprised when Yldoseh returned with her camera. She'd long since given up the pretence of her imaginary Wing-Fang Media Group. It had served its purpose. Instead she turned her self-taught camera skills into recording a video diary of the journey following their expulsion from the Ark. She had drafted himself, Tatia and Xandu to help her interview the passengers and crew aboard their transporter and this was too good a chance to miss. One by one they worked their way through the gathered throng with Wootjan-Oo prompting each one of them while Yldoseh diligently recorded their stories, thoughts, fears, hopes, theories and ideas.
     There was anger and resentment of the Chznzet. Disbelief that they could have mounted a such a brazen act of piracy and disappointment that so many people willingly went along with them. There was concern for friends, families and lovers left behind on the Ark even more so now that it had disappeared. Worries that they would be dispossessed and scattered amongst the other worldships or that Clan Olblavy would have to join the lesser clans on Cervetica. Some were going to go to Cervetica anyway... 'if it's good enough for the Imperial Court, it's good enough for me'. Others were fired up by the Keeper's already famous speech and were determined to find and retake the Ark. Some missed the cosmopolitan life on Vermthellyn. Others welcomed the opportunity to live out on the frontier.
     "What are you going to do with it?" Wootjan-Oo asked Yldoseh after they'd finished interviewing everyone who'd agreed to it.
     "I don't know." Yldoseh let out a long, low hiss of a sigh. "The Chznzet have already put out their side of the story. We need to put our side across too. But I have to edit all this first and I left my editing suite at home. As it is now, it's just a huge jumble."
     "Is there anyone you know on Vermthellyn who could do the editing?"
     "Knetryxx and Morgau have to go back because she's the Keeper. Morgau could deliver it for you." Wootjan-Oo suggested.
     "Well, there's Szelmy, but he's not very good at editing. He's more of a publicist and not very good at that either." Yldoseh joked.
     "It's that or nothing."
     "Szelmy it is, then." Yldoseh hoped that he wouldn't butcher her recordings too badly. "I don't know if Sursipal-Se is ready for this."
     "For what?" Wootjan-Oo was still thinking over some of the comments made by the people they'd interviewed.
     "She only wanted to cook some food for us and our friends not for an entire army." Yldoseh admitted that her mother was a good cook but she'd only ever cooked at home and had never done commercial catering as far as Yldoseh knew. "Sursipal-Se would be totally out of her depth."
     "Maybe if she simply advised the kitchen staff?" Wootjan-Oo suggested helpfully. "The Humans' food tastes a bit strange. Everyone here would really appreciate it if she did. I know I would."
     "That might work but she'd need a translator of her own if she was to work with the Humans." Yldoseh knew that Wootjan-Oo would need his translator now that he would be staying on Mars for the foreseeable future.
     "Sursipal-Se could use my translator in the mornings and evenings but I'll need it during the main day." It was the best he could offer. He'd need it for work especially now that they were staying on this planet. He doubted if any of the Humans had translators let alone even knew what they were.
     "Oh, thank you." Yldoseh hugged Wootjan-Oo. They were just about to leave when a tired and haggard Knetryxx staggered up to them wrapped in a blanket and accompanied by Morgau. A reverential hush briefly fell over the gathered crowd until they saw that their Keeper was talking to Wootjan-Oo and Yldoseh.
     "Can't get any sleep." Knetryxx mumbled wearily as she slumped down on a seat next to Yldoseh and leaned against Morgau. "That old crow and her children kept crying the whole time. There was no consoling them. Goodness knows I tried. It was all I could do to keep myself from throttling them. And that old lizard who kept on saying the same old prayer to me over and over and over. He just wouldn't stop. I bet he's still at it now. I think he completely lost his marbles."
     Wootjan-Oo cleared his throat. Yldoseh looked up at him, puzzled. Wootjan-Oo said nothing but merely glanced his eyes towards Morgau. She got the message and fumbled with her camera to remove its memory block. "Oh Morgau, could you give this to Szelmy for me?"
     "What is it?" Morgau wanted to know what he was getting into.
     "Interviews and stuff." Yldoseh explained. "I've been making a video diary since the expulsion. Pretty much interviewing everyone I can find. I need to edit it and tidy it up before we put it out on the media but I haven't got my editing suite here."
     "So why don't you come back to Vermthellyn with us in the morning?" Morgau suggested helpfully.
     "I... ah..." Yldoseh stammered. "I'm staying here with my mother and Wootjan-Oo. He has to stay here to service the transporters and Sursipal-Se is too scared to return. The Chznzet threatened to burn our house down with us inside because of the exposé I produced."
     Morgau remembered it well. And how Wootjan-Oo and that alien Kkhrkht had rescued Knetryxx and himself. He laughed inwardly at Yldoseh's eager amateurish attempts at interviewing them at the time. And yet what an effect it had! "I hope you're not going to interview us now."
     "Ugh." Knetryxx was exhausted and clung on to Morgau for support. "I'm not the Keeper right now. I'm just me and very tired. Maybe in the morning."
     "Oh yes, Szelmy, your production assistant." Morgau gave Yldoseh a knowing smile. "I've done a bit of editing. Nothing like your amazing production after you rescued Knetryxx and I... just abstract stuff for my installations." He added with genuine modestly. "I'd like to work on it with him. It would give me something to do. What do you have in mind?"
     "Two versions." Yldoseh laid out her plan. "A short version to go out on a broadcast slot and a longer version for general access. Both with the same message that we're not beaten and that we will reclaim the Ark. We really have to put our message across. The Chznzet already have." She pleaded.
     "You're right about that." Morgau agreed with Yldoseh. "We watched part of their broadcast."
     "That smug, gloating Sebret'Zaan." Knetryxx cursed with exhaustion-enfeebled anger. "Claiming that they had a divine right of destiny to set right an injustice." She spat out contemptuously. "They're delusional. And that vile creature is leading them on. It's too depressing for words."
     Morgau accepted the memory block from Yldoseh. "I'll give it to Szelmy. Do you need anything?"
     "A few memory blocks would be useful. I've only got one left." Yldoseh then leaned over and with a smile that showed off her fangs to good effect, added conspiratorially. "And some food. The stuff here is somewhere between bland and inedible."

     The next morning Yldoseh got her interview. Knetryxx was on top form as the Keeper and turned in a performance that they both knew would underline their message. Later that day a Guard delivered one of Knetryxx's shopping bags to Yldoseh. Inside it was enough memory blocks to keep her going for a long time and a portable data slate with editing software. She was surprised by Knetryxx's generosity and thanked the Guard. Meanwhile two Shallen cooks and their assistants arrived in the cafeteria with a shipment of Shallen food.

Scribbles & Scraps
Chapter 30
Chapter 32