It was a bright morning as SkyHawk flew across the open rocky terrain between Zanzibar and Fort Melchisor on his old aero sled. It wasn't all that fast but it was a fun way to start the day as he tore along just above ground level and then arced up into the sky so that he could set down next to one of the entrances. On top of that SkyHawk felt on top of the world. He was going to learn how to operate the gateways! Psy was giving him the keys to the galaxy. He'd discussed it with Lottie and she warned him not to let it go to his head. Still, they both had to admit that it was an exciting and unique opportunity.
Fort Melchisor was dug deep into an extensive rock face of an ancient crater rim with most of its entrances set into the rock face. Rumour had it that there were some entrances that opened out onto the long, shallow slope that led up and away from Zanzibar towards the crater but SkyHawk had never found any of them. He had no trouble finding the right entrance tunnel along the rock face: there was a fleet of Earth Fed transporters and fliers parked up outside it with a few troopers wandering around them on guard duty. They'd obviously been waiting for him as not a single soldier challenged him when he landed his wheezing aero sled. Instead they greeted him admiringly by his old Space Force handle, Commander Winston Ogilvie, and waved him through. It felt odd to SkyHawk after all this time but then he remembered that Earth Fed had hyped up the Titan manned exploration mission at the time and to young children back then he and his crew were promoted as latter-day heroes. Something that came back to haunt him in ways that he still found impossible to articulate.
The troopers stationed outside Fort Melchisor looked about that age where their parents would have plonked them in front of the tri-D set in their living rooms after school to watch the latest space exploration infotainment along with their daily diet of children's shows. To them he was a heroic survivor yet to himself he was a mystery. He couldn't even remember how the rest of his crew had died, their journey from Earth to Titan or even what they did after they landed. According to their ships' logs, they'd been on Titan for three months before their life support systems began to fail. They'd built a sailboat and gone sailing on a lake of ethane near their landing side and had even filmed themselves playing five-a-side football on the frozen mud lake shore. Yet he had no memory of it. When the rescue mission arrived on Titan over a year later he was a gibbering wreck who'd eaten part of one of his legs and didn't even know his own name. It had taken a long time to rebuild his life and his retirement to Zanzibar had been part of it. To this day he still had nightmares which frightened Lottie. To this day his family back on Earth felt like strangers to him. He didn't know why and it bugged him time and time again.
SkyHawk was surprised to see the gateway chamber such a hive of activity so early in the morning. Lighting gantries, a hoist and small crane had been erected around the gateway. Technicians huddled around consoles that had been wheeled in since SkyHawk, Max and Grattlyd had returned from Vermthellyn only days earlier. A platoon of bored and not-quite-yet-fully-awake Earth Fed troopers hung around lounging and slouching on some electric carts that had been parked up in the periphery of the gateway chamber. They'd even managed to drive a bus all the way in through one of the larger access tunnels.
No-one wore pressure suits in here as it was pressurised with a breathable atmosphere. SkyHawk still couldn't figure out how the fort, or Omphalon, as Psy called it managed such a feat without the need for containment walls and just put it down to advanced alien technology. Psy was on the far side of the gateway dais surrounded by a scrum of Earth Fed officials, both Human and Mech, as well as Shallens earnestly discussing some details of the days' business. Grattlyd looked half-asleep slumped next to the gateway control console but managed to wave a tentacle to greet SkyHawk.
SkyHawk didn't like the look of all those Earth Fed officials hanging around and sloped over to join Grattlyd. "What's going on over there?" He asked Grattlyd as he nodded on Psy's direction.
"We've got a problem. Your government and the Shallens want this gateway opened for general use but Psy won't allow it. Your system's been quarantined because of the Gulmarian presence here. It's too risky." Grattlyd explained reluctantly.
"Yeah, I can understand that." SkyHawk had seen what the Gulmarians were capable of and he didn't want that to happen on Mars, Luna or Earth. He doubted if Earth Fed had the capability to mount an effective defence against a Gulmarian onslaught.
"On the bright side this will speed up your accession to the Galactic Council." Grattlyd cheerily offered SkyHawk the one bit of good news that there was. "It's a momentous occasion for your people."
"Oh." It was momentous. SkyHawk had seen a bit of what lay beyond humanity's tiny realm in the solar system and knew that access to the gateways would usher in a new era. But he couldn't share Grattlyd's enthusiasm. All he could think about was Earth Fed ending up on Vermthellyn looking for Ruby.
"It looks like the Shallens will be setting up a permanent base here on Mars." Grattlyd confirmed the rumour that had been flying around Zanzibar the previous evening when they were settling the Shallens into the barracks block.
"Really?" SkyHawk feigned total innocence. "How come?"
"Their worldship vanished en route to your homeworld." Grattlyd explained. "They'll need somewhere to park up and service their transporters while they conduct their search. Until they find a way to take their transporters to their colony on Vermthellyn or their worldship those transporters are stuck in this system and they're not about to abandon them. At least not yet."
"Right. That makes sense." SkyHawk's curiosity was piqued at the thought of the Shallens staying on Mars. " The ones I've met so far seem OK. Any idea where?"
"That's what they're discussing right now." Grattlyd flicked a tentacle in Psy's direction. SkyHawk looked over and saw them pointing at different parts of a holographic projection of Mars while they talked.
"Couldn't they just park up at Satori Aerodrome?" SkyHawk suggested. "They've got all the facilities there. There's also Cydonia Tri-Planetary or City One Spaceport for starters and plenty of smaller ones they could choose from. Heck, even Montgomery has a landing strip and hangars they could use if that's all they want."
"They may well do that." Grattlyd conceded. "Then there's the problem of where they're going to live unless you want them on your farm permanently."
SkyHawk sucked his teeth. The extra money coming in for housing the Shallen refugees was welcome but he doubted if it would really work out on a long-term basis. The farm would be hopelessly overcrowded and, worse, there'd be very little for the Shallens to do other than hanging around and getting bored. There simply wasn't enough work there for that many people. "Well, ever since Councillor Berghault's plan to bring in new residents to Montgomery by building a low-cost housing project failed it's just been sitting empty gathering dust. Plenty of room there."
"I'll pass that on to Psy." Which Grattlyd did. Telepathically.
Psy broke away from the Human, Mech and Shallen crowd gathered around the globe to join Grattlyd and SkyHawk. Shi clasped SkyHawk by both arms. "You've turned up bright and early! I'm afraid I'm a bit busy today but Grattlyd will step you through everything. Now, first things first." Psy switched off hir effusive charm, spun around to face the gateway and got down to business. "This gateway is on a strictly controlled basis because of the Gulmarian presence in your system. Only the three of us can operate it. The rest of the time it's dormant and it's up to us to make sure it stays that way. No random requests either. So that means that you'll have to be very careful on your little jaunts." Psy poked SkyHawk to drive hir point home.
"Up there..." Psy pointed out a ring of faintly luminescent biostone polyps that had extruded themselves out of the ceiling to point down towards the gateway. "Is a detector array. Any Gulmarian or carrier coming through or approaching this gateway from our side will be automatically transported in those stasis tubes where they will be sent away for interrogation and analysis." Psy pointed out a row of stasis tubes lined up along part of the gateway chamber wall. SkyHawk recognised them from Mglyptl's lab in the Nexus. Anything sent to Mglyptl's lab was on a one-way trip. They weren't going to come back. Ever. "Oh, and stand well back while the gateway's being decontaminated afterwards if you want to live." Psy warned them as shi commanded the Omphalon to put the gateway through a decontamination cycle to show Grattlyd and SkyHawk what it looked like and how long it lasted.
"Once Grattlyd gets you up to speed we've got a lot of work to." Psy continued. "You'll be shipping out Shallens to Vermthellyn and there's machinery and supplies coming in. Don't worry, you won't have to deal with it. Those dozy grunts over there..." Psy waved grandly in the direction of the Earth Fed troopers. "...Will take of that for you. Do you think you can handle it?" Psy asked breezily.
"Yeah, I think so." As if he had a choice. SkyHawk was desperate to learn the secrets of the gateways. With that Psy patted him on the shoulder and skipped back to rejoin hir audience of Earth Fed and Shallen officials. "So, um, what happens next?" SkyHawk asked Grattlyd.
"The gateway." Grattlyd mumbled, not quite sure where to start. "There's two ways to operate them. One for us and one for everyone else."
"So which do I learn?" SkyHawk was keen to start.
"Both." Grattlyd knew it was the right thing to do, even if it disturbed SkyHawk. "You're one of us now."
"I am?" SkyHawk was puzzled. He looked at his hands. They were Human. He looked over at Grattlyd, a tentacled molluscian Nglubi. He didn't look anything like Grattlyd. On top of that he felt totally Human.
"Do you remember Titan?" Grattlyd asked patiently.
"Sure, Psy brought us there." SkyHawk remembered it clearly. They had found a family of lost Khzchhrrrtz Octons who'd been misdirected to Fort Melchisor and Psy transported them to Titan.
"No, the other time." Grattlyd prompted SkyHawk.
"Not much really." SkyHawk's memories of that time were faint and confused. "We crashed and not much else really."
"Your ship was damaged on landing but you and your crew survived until your supplies ran out." Grattlyd told SkyHawk the unpleasant truth. "When I discovered your ship, you were the only one who could be saved."
"Oh." SkyHawk was devastated. He wasn't sure if he wanted to hear any more. "So how does that make me Nglubi?"
"When I found your ship you and your crew were all dead." Grattlyd explained. "You were the best preserved and the only one I could reconstruct." Well that part was true. What Grattlyd kept to itself was that its' attempts to reconstruct the other nine members of the crew had failed miserably and that SkyHawk was its only success. "Our technology is what you would describe as bio-organic more than bio-mechanical. I used Nglubi bio organics to rebuild your body and I made the mistake of replacing junk DNA in your code with Nglubi code because it looked better. You had to be there." Grattlyd positively glowed with innocent schoolboy pride. "Our code certainly had a better sense of order to it. You junk DNA was so random. I hope you don't mind."
"Er... um... I'm alive." SkyHawk looked at his hands again to remind himself that he really was alive. "I guess I can't complain too much. So what am I, Human or Nglubi?"
"Both." Grattlyd had to take the blame for this. Something that Psy had given it a drubbing for long ago. "As far as this Omphalon or any of our technology such as the gateways are concerned you're Nglubi. But to yourself and everyone else you're Human."
"And you?" SkyHawk wondered what Grattlyd thought.
"I really don't know." Grattlyd confessed and flopped a few tentacles. If truth be told Grattlyd didn't see SkyHawk as Nglubi at all, but Psy insisted if only to teach Grattlyd a lesson. Nonetheless it had grown to like SkyHawk and the other Humans it had met and wished them no harm. "I'm glad you made it. Do you mind if we get back to the gateway? We've got a lot of work ahead of us today."
"Not at all." SkyHawk was glad to leave those confused half-memories and awkward questions about himself behind. "So how does it work?"
A conch seat rose up out of the floor behind Grattlyd and it slipped into it. "I just slip a few tentacles into the receptacles to interface although I could just as easily flop down on the floor but it wouldn't look very dignified. As for you, it's probably best if you use the gateway terminal." Grattlyd waved a tentacle in the direction of the terminal it had found SkyHawk, Stan and Max struggling fruitlessly with before their jaunt to Vermthellyn to find Ruby, slipped out of its conch seat and made its way over to the terminal.
"So what happens now?" SkyHawk was almost trembling with excitement and fear at the power he was about to have.
"Do you see that socket?" Grattlyd asked. SkyHawk saw it and nodded his head. "That's where crystal holders, people we allow to use the gateways independently, place their crystal to activate the gateway. Place you hand over it, that's what Psy does." SkyHawk placed his hand over the socket and the terminal lit up as before with its undecipherable alien symbols. "Now think or speak the name or location of the gateway you want to connect with or pick it out from the list. In this case, Estrillyd."
"List? What list?" All SkyHawk could see on the console were the illuminated alien symbols on its screen. He tried thinking 'Estrillyd' but nothing happened so he eventually said "Estrillyd." And still nothing happened.
Grattlyd looked on hopefully waiting for SkyHawk to take control of the gateway but nothing happened. And then it dawned on Grattlyd what was wrong. "It doesn't have your language yet. The terminal usually reads the biocode of whoever holds the activating crystal and presents its information in their language." Grattlyd mumbled apologetically. "Just a minute while I load up your language. You really have to learn our language. It would be so much easier." Grattlyd plucked off its translator and placed it on the terminal. A circle lit up around the translator and they watched as a copy of Grattlyd's amateurish yet essential English-to-Nglubi Elktan translator matrix flowed out of it and into the terminal.
When it was done Grattlyd asked SkyHawk to try again. This time when he looked at the terminal screen it was in English albeit with multiple glaring spelling mistakes. He tried thinking 'Estrillyd'. Much to his surprise the name Estrillyd came up on the screen in what seemed to be an endless list of destinations and the dais lit up. It was online!
"Excellent!" Grattlyd burbled encouragingly. "Now all you have to do is tell the gateway to send if you have outgoing traffic or receive if there's incoming traffic. You can also specify a time delay if you want to hop on and go somewhere. Tell the gateway to rest for now, we won't be starting for a while yet."
"Wow!" SkyHawk was surprised that it was so easy as the gateway powered back down to its rest state. "Psy wasn't kidding that it was easy."
"Too easy." Grattlyd agreed solemnly. "That's why we're having such a hard time locking the Gulmarians out."
"Oh yeah, I'd completely forgotten about them." SkyHawk shuddered at the mental image of a horde of Gulmarians materialising on the gateway dais.
"Don't." Grattlyd warned SkyHawk. "They could cut your hand off and use it to activate a gateway. Or one of my tentacles for that matter."
"Ouch. That sounds gruesome." SkyHawk was quite pleased with his hands and his body and didn't like the idea that his body parts could be prized possessions for another species, especially the Gulmarians. For some reason he couldn't quite fathom he had a brief mental flash of a Gulmarian claw shoving his severed penis into a gateway terminals' crystal socket. "Has it happened before?"
"Too many times." Grattlyd answered evasively, not wanting to go into details. It was the main reason why Nglubi had become so cautious in their travels of late. Psy had drummed the dangers of unaccompanied travel into Grattlyd's young head many a time. The Gulmarians' current MO was to liquidise any Nglubi they captured and use the biotic soup to activate gateways. It was horrifyingly effective. "Be very careful who you let know that you can activate gateways. People have been killed for their blue activation crystals. It's a big galaxy out there, SkyHawk, and not everyone is as nice as you and your friends."
"Yeah, you're right." SkyHawk thought back to their landing on Zrrlchtz and the brutal pitched battle outside their ship between the scavengers and the Zzhemthax police as well as the casual way with which Earth Fed had terminated Ruby and his previous companions. He hoped that Earth Fed wouldn't force him to open the gateways for them.
"Today we're shipping out some of the Shallens and receiving shipments of supplies and machinery for the Shallens who are staying here on Mars." Grattlyd breezily changed the subject away from morbid thoughts to the tasks awaiting them. "We'll get a signal from Estrillyd telling us they're ready to transmit. Once the dais is clear, send them a confirmation and they'll send the next shipment through."
"Fine, you just step me through this confirmation business the first time and I ought to get the hang of it." SkyHawk felt pleased with himself that he was not only able to operate the gateways but that it really was as easy as Psy had said. All the same, he felt uncomfortable about the idea of multiple shipments of Shallen supplies arriving on Mars. Yes, he was fascinated by alien life. What he had seen on Vermthellyn had almost blown his mind in the best possible way. But he wasn't sure if he was ready for it on his own world. "I thought only a few of them wanted to stay here."
"They're setting up a permanent base here." Grattlyd was surprised. It had presumed that SkyHawk already knew. "This..." Grattlyd flicked a tentacle towards the gateway. "...is only a light industrial gateway. We're going to be here for ages. And I don't mean just today. It will take weeks of your time to get all the materials for their base camp shipped through this gateway."
"Look it's really nice of you to show me how to work this gateway." SkyHawk didn't want to be chained to the gateway, he had a life after all. "But I've got a farm to run and a family who need me."
"I know." Grattlyd sighed. "That's Psy for you. Shi just orders everyone around like little children. I'll end up doing most of it but I'd really appreciate a break sometimes, I have a life too." As it turned out SkyHawk quite enjoyed his first day working the gateway alongside Grattlyd. Part of it was the fun of learning something new. As the Shallens' shipments came in, the Earth Fed troopers and Shallen Guards worked the crane and hoists together to load their supplies onto flat trucks to take out to the transporters waiting outside. In spite of his initial reservations SkyHawk found it fascinating to watch close up something new happening on Mars.
"That's the stage?" Malcolm looked incredulously at the row of pallets being jostled into position in the middle of the courtyard by a group of workers at Zanzibar. They'd played here a few times before; SkyHawk would book them in from time to time to entertain the farm workers. But this was different: Gregor had called everyone up in the middle of the night to do a short-notice show out at Zanzibar. They'd even been offered twice their normal fee, something which none of them turned down.
"SkyHawk booked us in to play for some of those aliens from the worldship." Gregor explained as he pulled the bus up alongside the pallets. "They're staying out here at Zanzibar."
Stan pointed out a group of Shallens hanging around the entrance to the barracks block. "This is it boys and girls!" He was exultant with excitement. "This is the day we become an interplanetary band." Stan couldn't get their gear unpacked from the bus and set up fast enough. His enthusiasm was infectious and they breezed through the normally tedious task of setting up their instruments and equipment barely even noticing the small group of Shallens who had gathered near the stage watching them curiously. They were just about to soundcheck when Lottie and Max came across the courtyard pushing a cart with food and drinks for the band.
Malcolm grabbed a few sandwiches and a beer. All that rushing around had made him hungry. His violin could wait. "You've been around those aliens." He asked Veronica. "What are they like?"
"They're okay..." Veronica trailed off not quite knowing where to start. In the background Lottie stifled a smutty snicker. She'd seen Max's replay of Ruby's memory logs of their time on Vermthellyn and knew full well what Veronica had got up to. "What does that mean?" Veronica asked suspiciously.
"Oh, nothing." Lottie rolled her eyes and whistled innocently.
"I got a whole load of their music on my commset." Stan excitedly broke the awkward silence. "We'll put it on the PA before and after our show. That ought to get them in the mood."
"You do that." Eddie picked up on Stan's suggestion as he plonked down a roll of multicore and sat on it to eat his food. "We're part of the welcoming committee so give them something familiar before we start. That ought to set them at ease." Eddie had missed out on the journey to Vermthellyn with Psy so this was his first contact with aliens. Although Psy wasn't human, Eddie had never thought of Psy as an alien, which shi was. Eddie looked at the few Shallens in the courtyard and they seemed as unsure of their Human hosts as he was of them.
It was late afternoon when Wootjan-Oo walked into the canteen after a day servicing their transporter, the Xepherion. "You know you said your Human friend, Veronica, knew some musicians?"
"Yeah?" It seemed an odd question. Xandu had been working in the canteen under the direction of Yldoseh's mother, Sursipal-Se, all day and hadn't had time to think about anything except serving food that Sursipal-Se hoped would be palatable to Shallens.
"Have you looked outside?" Wootjan-Oo asked.
"Take a look." Wootjan-Oo nodded his head in the direction of the doorway.
Xandu set down the pile of trays and plates he'd been carrying and went out of the canteen to the barracks entrance. Wootjan-Oo followed as Xandu stepped out into the courtyard. Even from across the courtyard he could recognise Veronica milling around on the stage with the rest of the band as they set up their equipment. "It's her!"
"Who?" Wootjan-Oo knew Veronica was out there but decided to play dumb to see how Xandu would react.
"Veronica." Xandu wanted to run up to her but remembered the dressing-down Wootjan-Oo had given him for ignoring Tatia and fooling around with Veronica.
"Really?" Wootjan-Oo asked innocently. "Are you going to talk to her?"
"Yeah... maybe." Xandu felt uncomfortable. First Wootjan-Oo had read him the riot act for having a fling with that Human woman and now Wootjan-Oo wanted him to talk to her. What was he playing at?
"What's the matter? We can share my translator." Wootjan-Oo wanted to see how things would play out between Xandu and Veronica.
"Oh, okay then." Xandu realised there was no turning back and set off across the courtyard with Wootjan-Oo at his side. When they got to the stage Veronica was adjusting a microphone over her congas with one hand and tapping them with her other hand. Bap-bap-pang-ba-bap... her congas rang out through the PA system. "Hello Veronica!" Xandu called up to her in between her resounding beats.
"Xandu?" Veronica stopped playing and looked down at Xandu and Wootjan-Oo in total surprise. She almost did a double-take. "I didn't know you were here. I'll be with you in a minute." When Veronica finished her soundcheck she hopped off the stage, hugged Xandu and kissed him. Up on the stage Lottie played a raucous wolf-whistle on her guitar to a round of laughs and guffaws which Veronica studiously ignored. "I thought you'd be back on your worldship or on Vermthellyn. How did you get here?"
"Um... things happened." Xandu was still coming to terms with the Chznzet putsch on the Ark. "But we're here now." He added brightly.
Veronica was surprised. She had never expected to see Xandu again and fumbled around for some small talk. "How's Yldoseh?"
"She's working in the kitchen with her mother, Sursipal-Se and Tatia." Xandu was thankful for small mercies. He, too, was at a loss for words. "Are these your musician friends?" Xandu pointed up towards Lottie, Gregor and Eddie who were still sound checking on the stage.
"Yes, we're going to play here today. What are you doing here?" Veronica could barely get over the surprise of seeing Xandu here at Zanzibar. And yet, there he was, in the flesh and looking as awkward as a child caught stealing from a cookie jar.
"I'm working in the canteen and this is my friend, Wootjan-Oo. He's an engineer and services our transporters." Xandu turned to Wootjan-Oo. "She's a pilot, y'know."
"Only when I'm not playing with the band." Veronica joked as she showed them around the stage introducing them to the band and explaining what each instrument was and how it worked. 'Look but don't touch' she instructed them as they were given a brief demonstration of each instrument in turn. Xandu and Wootjan-Oo found Veronica's show-and-tell tour of the stage fascinating but for very different reasons. Xandu was impressed by the unfamiliar instruments and the sheer amount of effort involved in putting on a show. Wootjan-Oo, however, was fascinated by the mechanics and electronics of the instruments and equipment the band used.
Xandu had to get back to work in the canteen and promised to see Veronica after their show. As he and Wootjan-Oo walked back to the barracks they were surprised to hear The Seven Globes followed by the Drakh Babies erupt out of the PA system flooding across the courtyard and echoing off the buildings. "I didn't know the Humans had any of their stuff." Xandu commented absent-mindedly.
"It's a day full of surprises." Wootjan-Oo replied amiably. "Makes me almost feel at home."
"But the Drakh Babies? They're so fake." Xandu knew the story about how the Drakh Babies were a product of Repticon, one of the massive media conglomerates on Cervetica. They had no street credibility whatsoever.
"There's no accounting for taste, eh?"
Tatia met then when they got back to the canteen. "Where were you?" She asked with a mixture of concern tinged with just the slightest trace of peevishness.
"Out in the courtyard talking to the band. Veronica's here." Xandu replied.
"Oh great." Tatia had only tolerated Xandu's fling with Veronica on sufferance. "You just keep your paws off her. Maybe you can help me move some of these tables." She added, not as a request but as an order. "The Humans want us to set up a stall in the courtyard for your friend Veronica's show."
"Yeah, okay." Xandu knew when he was beaten and took it in good grace. Still, he wanted to be with Veronica. She was so much fun but he realised wistfully that was unlikely to happen again. So he picked up one end of the table they were standing beside and let Tatia lead the way. They spent the rest of the afternoon setting up their stall alongside a collection of stalls that had sprung up in a wide semi-circle along the far side of the courtyard facing the stage. Vinnie's Veritable Virals had a selection of viral intoxicants for mechs. Madam M's Ladies' Lacies displayed a selection of erotic clothes for women. Butler's Beers needed no further introduction than the row of kegs at the back of their stall. The Roadkill Grill was busy roasting up a selection of slabs of vat-grown meat. Next along was Euphoria! Apothecary offering an almost unbelievable selection of highs: herbal, powdered, liquids, inhalers and otherwise they had something for everyone and every occasion or so they claimed. Then there was Henry's Collectables & Curios: Rare and obscure titles bought and sold. Nothing legit refused! Boxes full of data cubes and strips. Mostly vids and music but there were some books as well. And on and on they went.
The two Shallen cooks from House Sedeirtra on Vermthellyn who had arrived that afternoon declared that the vat-grown bison meat was close enough to what Shallens were used to. As a result their stall was piled high with 'Steaks on a Stake' and roast corncobs supplied by the Red Wind farm which proved popular with both Shallens and Humans. The courtyard filled up as the sun went down. Xandu saw Veronica and some of her band briefly when they fought their way through the knot of Shallens gathered around their stall. "I'll see you after the show. Bring your friends." Was all Xandu heard before she was swept along by the surging throng.
The courtyard was rammed full when The Flaming Watusis stomped through their show. It seemed as if everyone who worked at Zanzibar and every Shallen, even the ones who were still billeted out in their transporters, had turned out for the show.
And what a show it was! In spite of an unsteady start they picked up their stride when Stan launched into an impromptu 'Interplanetary Rap' over a loose jam. By the middle of their set most of the audience, helped along by piledriver rhythms, walls of thundering rhythmic sonic assault, swirling melodies and Bill's surrealistic lightshow, were dancing along with the music.
SkyHawk, Psy and Grattlyd stood outside the front door of his house watching the band. Close enough to see and hear them but far enough away so they could talk without having to shout at each other. "I thought you'd be up there with the band." SkyHawk nudged Psy with his elbow.
"Ah..." Psy laughed nervously. "I think I wore out my welcome with random precision using my crazy diamonds. On top of that, I've done enough work for one day. I'll enjoy the show from a safe distance."
Xandu, Tatia, Wootjan-Oo and Yldoseh watched the show from behind their stall. Most of the time Yldoseh was filming the show on her camera leaving the other three to talk amongst themselves. Wootjan-Oo liked the light show and the projections on the walls of the buildings surrounding the courtyard. Tatia said they were 'OK' but thought their singing was a bit simplistic. Xandu was impressed by their wall of sound but couldn't hear thing Veronica was doing except during the softer passages.
Sursipal made them clear away their stall after the show before letting them go. When they got to the stage it was empty save for a few revellers who didn't know who Veronica was let alone where the band was. They were just about to give up when one of the revellers pointed out SkyHawk's mock-adobe house. "They aren't in their bus so they're most likely over there. Private parties." He winked and taped his nose. "Invitation only, you'll be lucky if you get in."
After a brief fumble with the intercom, Veronica let them in. This time she didn't throw herself at Xandu and for that he was thankful. He immediately recognised Goolwagh playing on the sound system in the house. He was surprised to hear them on Mars but it in a strange way it made him feel at home on this new planet. Once they had sat down with a group from the band, Veronica pumped Xandu for a story. "SkyHawk said you were thrown off your worldship. Is that true?"
Xandu looked around to Tatia, Yldoseh and Wootjan-Oo for support. Yldoseh was too busy fiddling with the controls on her headset camera to notice. Tatia and Wootjan-Oo shrugged. He was on his own. "Do you remember those people who tried to kill us at the hot springs?"
"Yes." As if she could forget. It was the last time she'd seen Ruby. And the sex with Xandu in the woods.
"They belong to a religious cult called the Chznzet. They staged a coup on the Ark and gave us loyalists a choice: leave or accept them as the rightful owners of the Ark."
"That sounds like piracy to me." Malcolm interrupted.
"It is." Xandu agreed. "Those of us who could leave, did. the rest stayed behind. Shortly after we left, the Ark disappeared. No-one knows where it is now. Some of us are staying here to look for the Ark using our transporters."
"And what about you?" Veronica tried to imagine piracy on the scale needed to seize a worldship the size of the Ark of Exodus and failed. On an ordinary sized ship when boarded by Overlordz pirates it was usually a bloody affair and even then the pirates didn't always win.
"We're staying here for the time being. Wootjan-Oo is an engineer servicing the transporters. The rest of us work in the canteen." Catering seemed such a humble occupation to Xandu compared to Veronica's glamorous life as a pilot and musician but given the calamitous upheavals that had occurred in his life, even the humble routine of clearing tables was a welcome escape from disturbing memories.
Stan broke away from a conversation on the other side of the room with Psy, Grattlyd, SkyHawk, Norfalth and Gregor to drop in on our group and give them all a copy of the Flaming Watusis latest album 'Crystal Magic'. "You're the first Shallens I've met." He introduced himself with genuine but almost comically overplayed excitement. "Welcome to Mars. I hope you enjoyed the show."
"Yes." Wootjan-Oo was impressed by their show. "But where did you get hold of The Seven Globes and Goolwagh?" I didn't think you had any of their music on this planet?"
"Picked it up when I was in Estrillyd." Stan winked conspiratorially. "All very hush-hush. Don't tell Psy."
"Who's Psy?" Tatia asked.
"Keep it that way." MariElla replied. Malcolm and Veronica nodded their heads sagely in agreement as Stan wandered off back to Psy, Norfalth, SkyHawk and Gregor. Grattlyd, who had followed Stan over to meet the new guests, stayed behind to meet the band.
Chznzet... Chznzet... it seemed vaguely familiar to Veronica but somehow she just couldn't quite put her finger on it. And then it came back to her... that junk mail data slate she'd kept from the Galactic Council place with those crazy three-eyed beaky creatures advertising their timeline re-writer. Pdzarvians, that was it. "Hey guys, I've got something you should see." She interrupted the flow of conversation around her only to realise that it was at home and that it would take hours to get. So instead she told them about the Pdzarvians' timeline re-writer, their claim to be able to create designer universes and that the Chznzet were one of their customers.
"Sound like they're generating bubble universes." Wootjan-Oo hypothesised when Veronica was finished.
"Thing is, they're unstable and decay quickly." Bill, the lightshow wizard, added: "You couldn't live in one for very long. That's assuming you could get out again."
"Now we know how the Chznzet did what they did." Yldoseh flipped up the monitor screen in front of her left eye and joined the conversation. "The question is: what did they get from those Pdzarvians and what did they do with it?"
"You'll need to find them first." Tatia pointed out.
"Hah! And aren't there plenty of Pdzarvians." Xandu joked grimly. "We'll never find them."
"They had a name in their advert." Veronica offered helpfully. "I can't remember it right now but I'll check it as soon as I get home... well, maybe in the morning."
Grattlyd had relayed this nugget of information telepathically to Psy who told it: 'You deal with it, I'm busy sorting out this mess between the Humans and the Shallens. Don't do anything reckless and stay out of trouble. I can't keep bailing you out forever.' So emboldened Grattlyd turned its attention to its new-found friends and addressed Veronica: "Bring me that data slate and I'll find them for you. Then it'll be time to pay them a visit."
'I heard that' Psy snipped Grattlyd telepathically. 'You're not bringing that whole mob with you. Too many things could go wrong. Four or five tops or else I'll go there myself and sort it out.'
'Oh, okay then.' Grattlyd sulked back telepathically. 'And will you please stay out of my mind?' Grattlyd whined. 'It's creepy.'
'Once you show a bit of responsibility.' Psy played the overbearing parent to which Grattlyd could only grumble back at but didn't let it show to it's new-found company.
"...If they tell you anything." Tatia pointed out that it was unlikely the Pdzarvians would reveal anything about their clients.
"It's time to reactivate the Wing-Fang Media Group!" Yldoseh raised a paw as she launched into her demented pitch: "How did they do it? Billions of Shallens throughout the known galaxy have been astounded by the Chznzet's latest feat! Have they taken the original Ark of Exodus back in time to stave off the Great Fall and the Scattering as described in their scriptures? Have they taken it to another location or an alternate universe? People want to know. No, they need to know! And so, today, we have brought you to the very place where the Chznzet acquired the means to achieve their astounding feat. We ask that one question: How did they do it?" She then dropped back to her regular self. "What do you think?"
"Wow!" Malcolm could only follow half of what she was on about but it sounded impressive. Grattlyd clapped a couple of tentacles in applause at Yldoseh's entertainingly manic outburst.
Wootjan-Oo leaned back and gave Yldoseh an admiring look. "It's a good try but do you think they'll fall for it? If they check your credentials, you're out of luck."
"You're right." Yldoseh agreed. "I'll have to get a message to Szelmy to reactivate my office console back on Vermthellyn. It's not as if I could bring it with me."
"I'm working at the gateway. I could send your message through when I'm there tomorrow." Grattlyd offered.
"Thanks. I'll get something ready for you." Yldoseh clipped on a spare data cube and made a copy of the Flaming Watusis' show and this meeting as well as instructions for Morgau and Szelmy. She decided to send it to Morgau first as anything sent to the Keeper's consort always got to its destination unlike anything sent to ordinary Shallens like Szelmy. She hoped their new lives wouldn't change them too much. But Knetryxx was such an impressionable airhead at times.
"Where will I find you tomorrow?" Veronica asked Grattlyd. She wanted to do her bit to help find the Pdzarvians.
"Do you know Fort Melchisor?" Grattlyd quizzed Veronica.
"I'll be working at the gateway tomorrow." Grattlyd informed her. "Can you bring it to me there?"
"I should be able to." Veronica weighed up her options: hire an aerosled for the day and if none were available then call in favours and borrow one. It seemed doable.
"So let me get this right..." Malcolm interrupted incredulously. "You plan to ask these... what do you call 'em... Pdzarvians about whatever it was that they sold to the Chznzet? Did I get that right? And how does that help you find your worldship?"
"Yes, yes and I don't know." Wootjan-Oo answered Malcolm's incredulity. "But at least it gives us an idea of what they've done."
"I hope you find your ship." Malcolm offered his support.
"We shall." Wootjan-Oo replied with a certitude that was unbreakable.
"Thank you for negotiating the accommodation for us in the nearby settlement." Norfalth held his drink up to salute Psy. "I gather the airfield there is somewhat rudimentary."
Psy drank up Norfalth's appreciation before speaking. "Satori Aerodrome is by far the best-appointed airfield in this region. It's the mechanoid city, you know. A bit of a distance from here. You'd be better off using the local airfield. Much easier to maintain security if your troops are stationed in that town. Develop the airfield it a bit for the locals. They'd appreciate that."
"I must say, these Humans are very hospitable." Norfalth mused aloud. "I wonder how we're going to pay for all this? Do they accept Galacs, Shallen Crowns or Rtuntli Selotys?"
"No, no and no." Psy reluctantly knew the obvious answer but it was one that Norfalth wouldn't like. "Think barter. Or more appropriately in your case technology transfer."
"What are you suggesting?" Norfalth didn't like where this was going.
"Your technology is way ahead of theirs." Psy explained patiently. "Sell them one of your transporters so they can reverse engineer it and acquire some of your technology. For them it would be a great leap forward and for that you could get a very good price."
Norfalth let out a long slow hiss. He had a sinking feeling it would come to this. "Under normal circumstances I'd consider it but..."
"These aren't normal circumstances and your options are somewhat limited." Psy reminded Norfalth. "If it's any consolation to you, I'm not particularly in favour of technology transfer in first contact situations. But we're here now and had they been hostile, they could have seized your transporters by now. With or without you."
Norfalth looked around and saw a group of Shallens who he recognised as being in the Keeper's inner circle, chatting amiably with their Human hosts and the Nglubi. He looked at his glass which had just been refilled by their hosts. "You're right, of course. It's not that simple. Even if I could get approval to sell one, we need those transporters just to maintain our search fleet in this system."
"Bear it in mind." Psy prompted Norfalth. Shi could see that he was merely keeping up his end and that they would most likely sell the Humans one or more of their transporters. But that was for another day. Right now it was a party and time to set aside the cares of the world.
Norfalth, however, was feeling drowsy. It had been a long day for him overseeing things at the gateway, as well as fielding a thousand and one requests from his officers: problems with people who were in the barracks, problems with the people still stuck out in their transporters, duty and maintenance rosters for the transporters, urgent messages from House Sedeirtra on Vermthellyn. It had been go all day and now he'd had too much to drink. So he made his excuses and wobbled unsteadily back to the barracks to face another day of the same.
It seemed as if everyone except himself had enjoyed themselves. All he could think of was his dear houseboy, Tez'Halyn, his beautiful eyelids fluttering their last as he died in his arms. That puffed-up rabble-rouser, Sebret'Zaan had just issued his ultimatum and they had a few minutes before the evacuation so he ran back to his quarters to fetch Tez'Halyn. To his surprise he found his lover holding a pistol in his shaking paw and pointing it at him.
"Come with us." Tez'Halyn's youthful voice quavered nervously. "This is our destiny, Norfalth. You know it's right."
"Don't be ridiculous, Tez'Halyn. This is no time for games." It was all Norfalth could do to keep himself from laughing as he reached out to Tez'Halyn. "Come on, we don't have much time."
"No!" Tez'Halyn shot at Norfalth and missed. That was his fatal mistake. Norfalth was a soldier through and through. He had served as a combat training drillmaster in his younger years. Training that had never left him. Reflexively, before any thoughts could even form in his mind, he whipped out his plasma pistol and shot Tez'Halyn through the heart. By the time his thoughts had caught up with him, his dear playful Tez'Halyn lay dieing on the floor.
Norfalth threw his pistol down and ran over to Tez'Halyn and scooped him up in his arms. "What have I done?" He was bereft, but it was too late. Tez'Halyn sighed his last breath in Norfalth's arms and then fell limp as he passed away. But duty called and Norfalth cursed himself bitterly as he got up without even time for farewells at Tez'Halyn's pointless death.
"Where's Tez'Halyn, Reflinghar asked Norfalth as they boarded the Xepherion.
"I don't know." Norfalth lied awkwardly as they pushed their way through the clamouring throng of evacuees. "Maybe he's on one of the other transporters."
Instead Norfalth was alone and drunk on an unknown planet putting on a brave face by day but continuously eaten by guilt and remorse. If only he had disarmed Tez'Halyn instead and dragged him along. 'He'd be here now.' Norfalth ruefully rationalised. 'He would have come to his senses.'
And so Norfalth, drunk and wrestling with his demons, shuffled into the canteen enticed by the smell of food and the sound of agreeable chatter. It was mostly civilian Shallens here and a few off-duty Guards. There were a few Humans working in the canteen and even a lone Klartupyn surrounded by a group of Shallens. He wondered idly how it got muddled up in all this as he sat down at an empty table. He stared into space alone with his fuzzy drunken thoughts about Tez'Halyn swirling around in his head.
Sursipal had spotted the lone high-raking officer sat alone in the canteen and, assuming he was more used to table service than self-service canteens, went over to his table. "Is there anything I can get you?" She interrupted his solitary sorrows with a cheery obsequiousness that jolted him back to the real world.
"What?" Norfalth looked up Sursipal, still full of remorse at having killed Tez'Halyn.
"Oh, I see you're the commander of the Ark's Guard." Sursipal exclaimed brightly.
"What's left of it." Norfalth grumbled bitterly, not wanting to be reminded of yet another loss.
"Now, now." She humoured him as she would have done if one of her children had had a bad day at school. "I'll get you something the Humans call coffee. It'll lift your spirits." Sursipal returned with a cup of hot steaming coffee and set it down in front of Norfalth. "They like it hot. You might want to let it cool down a bit first." Sursipal waited until Norfalth tried it.
He picked up the cup and flicked his tongue into the dark, steaming drink. Oof! It was hot! "You're right. I'll let it cool down before I try it." He agreed as he set the cup back down onto the table.
"I hear we're going after the Ark." Sursipal tried to make small talk with Norfalth. "Do you know where it is?"
"Yes and no, madam." Norfalth appreciated Sursipal's attempt to comfort him and sighed. "We know where it was. As to where it is now, we'll have a better idea once we get the transporters kitted out and searching its last location."
"I'm sure you'll find it." Sursipal patted him on his arm and left him alone with his thoughts.
"There's definitely debris out there." Killdan's face filled the foreground of the display in Kazmak's office. Behind Killdan he could see the crew of Killdan's ship. "We got here too late, that alien ship had already disappeared by the time we got here." Killdan replayed the visual images they got of the worldship being swathed in purple plasma and then vanishing. "Whatever happened some of it didn't make it."
"Did you find anything useful?" Kazmak, ever the opportunist, asked.
"Bulkheads and scrap metal mostly." Killdan sounded disappointed. "Space Force showed up so we high tailed it out before we could get a good look around."
"Okay, bring 'em back before you run out of fuel. We'll organise a proper search later." Kazmak threw Killdan a bone. He knew that their ship only had enough fuel to get out to the worldship and back with precious little to spare for random exploration. He signed off and poured himself a single malt whiskey. Martian single malt, but a single malt nonetheless and it tasted just fine to Kazmak who really didn't know any better. So he told himself it tasted great because it cost so much and everyone else said it was the best. His mech legs hadn't tormented him in a long time now and he was savouring his moment of peace when his monitor screen popped back to life. Damn! It was Evil Bert... hadn't heard from him in a long time. He gulped the last of his drink down and turned his attention to the screen. It showed an outdoors night time scene so it had to be under a dome. Most likely that farm next to the crystal mine they were staking out.
"Hey boss..." Evil Bert spoke into the screen. "You know you wanted me to keep an eye on that mine? Well the place is crawling with Earth Fed and aliens. Straight up. There's loads of 'em here at the farm. Feathery ones and scaly ones. Shiploads of 'em have landed here. Anyway, the Flaming Watusis played just played here and it went down a storm. Those aliens really got the groove, man. I'll upload my video logs so you can see for yourself. Hey, I recorded the gig in high-def. It's awesome."
"Yeah, you do that." It was late, Kazmak was bored. "So, uh, was that it?"
"No..." Evil Bert shuffled awkwardly as he stepped aside. "I've got someone here who wants to talk to you."
A slender, androgynous figure with long, straight hair black tied back and a sultry voice slipped into view. "Kazmak, I have an offer for you."
"Yeah, what is it?" Kazmak was unimpressed by the calibre of groupies Evil Bert could pull if this was anything to go by. "I'm a busy man."
"I have a job for you. A delivery job." Was the cryptic reply.
"Hey, you use home delivery for that." Kazmak laughed. Was this some sort of a joke? "What do you want me for?"
"You could say it's a special delivery. A very special delivery." The sultry voice continued. "And I pay very well... something that you want."
"Yeah, and what could that be?" Kazmak had a feeling where this was going. He'd been here many times before.
"I can make you a man again, Kazmak. Wouldn't you like that?" The androgynous voice taunted him.
Kazmak was right, it was another sales pitch. "Stop it right there. If you're trying to sell me a chop-and-shop clone transplant, forget it. They don't work." He lied. They did work but the killer nanites that his mech legs, Charlene, had flooded his body with meant that he was his legs' captive until they decided to let him go from their iron grip.
"Oh no, nothing as crude as that." The androgyne purred seductively. "It would be all you as you were before but younger and fitter if you know what I mean. But if that doesn't interest you, maybe something else such as removing all the Gulmarian surveillance tech from that nice shiny battle cruiser they just sold you. Name your price, but the delivery job is still on offer."
Now that snapped Kazmak out of his sneering torpor. How was some random freak at a party supposed to know anything about his ship, let alone how he got it? "So what is this delivery job?"
"I have something I'd like you to take to Troy for me."
Hell, even the rank-and-file in his clan were only dimly aware of Troy. How did an outsider know? This was serious business. Kazmak studied the dimly-lit face on the screen. It looked familiar. He'd seen that face somewhere before. But where? Then he remembered the briefing Evil Bert had sent him. That freak he was talking to was some Earth Fed agent. "I know you, you're that Psy Joven-whatsit dame who works for Earth Fed." Kazmak blurted out angrily at this cheeky Earth Fed agent who'd try to fool him. "And I'll tell you right now in case you don't already know, we don't do your dirty work. Ever. So fuck off and don't waste my time."
"Sometimes I work with them." Psy admitted. "But not for them if you catch my drift. This is much bigger than Earth Fed, Kazmak." Psy wasn't about to give up. Shi had the Satori Security Service's latest transmission from Kazmak's legs, Charlene, and knew exactly what to say in order to press Kazmak's buttons. "Don't you want to be respected? To rise up the ranks of the Overlordz clans? To be a man again?" Psy pouted and took a toke on a spliff and let the smoke waft mysteriously out of hir mouth for dramatic effect.
It worked. Kazmak was dumbfounded, lost for words. Sure, any hustler could figure out that he'd want his human legs back... and everything else below the waist. But his ship, Troy, and his ambitions? Or his bluster more like. Hell, he didn't believe his own bullshit as far as that went. He knew the Raiders were always going to be at the lowest rungs of the Overlordz. They just didn't have the means to compete against the top-rank clans. He just spouted his ambition jive to his lieutenants and troops to make them feel that they had something going for them. But to have it offered to him? This was too weird. Was Earth Fed attempting to turn him?
"I can make it all happen for you." Psy offered as enigmatically as hir breath condensed in the cold night time Martian air round the side of the residential block where Evil Bert lived at Zanzibar. Martian night times under the domes weren't exactly balmy and hir heavy jacket and padded trousers only just kept hir warm enough if shi kept moving on the spot. "Just one delivery to Troy. You'll be going there soon with a shipment of crystals. You could take it along with you."
Just when he thought it couldn't get worse, he gets an admission from an Earth Fed agent that they know about his trade in crystals. They really had the drop on him. What else did they know? "OK, I'm listening, what is it? I'm not a Home Delivery parcel boy you know."
"I gather you had a problem with some uninvited guests at Hellas a while back." Psy was enjoying hirself talking in circular riddles. "And that you feel they may have taken over at Troy."
So that was it. Earth Fed set up this freakpot dame to talk me into taking on those weird-ass aliens. "So you figured out who stole that gas and now you want us to take a hit on Troy for you? Why not send out a Space Force fleet to blow it out? You've got the firepower. You know where it is." He snorted contemptuously. "Ain't got the guts to take the Overlordz on, is that it? So you think you could turn us against each other? Think again, Li'l miss Earth Fed."
"Very true." Psy saw that Kazmak still had a few brain cells left to rub together. "But even if they wanted, your people would see them coming long in advance. You, however, have the element of surprise and everything to gain." Shi appealed to Kazmak's ambition and vanity.
Exposing and killing those aliens appealed to Kazmak. That would definitely increase his standing and that of the Raiders. But he could see problems. "Look, even if I took you up on this, Troy's compartmentalised. If we flooded the docking bay where we land, they'd seal it off and we'd be stuck in a shooting match that we'd be unlikely to win. So, thanks but no thanks. We'll take our load of crystals up to Troy, get paid and go home."
"And some of your crew will become infected and you'll have to deal with them just like the others." Psy gently reminded Kazmak of the brute reality of his circumstances. "Could your clan really survive such an attrition rate? You might become infected. What then? Is that a chance you're really prepared to take? We both know what's happened out at Troy."
"What do you mean?" Kazmak knew full well what Psy meant, but bluffed ignorance. It was all he could do to maintain his dignity in the face of this Earth Fed dame who had the measure of him like no-one else ever had.
"No need to be coy with me, Kazmak." Psy actually enjoyed sparring with Kazmak like this. "Those aliens who took over your people, they're Gulmarians. That's who you've been dealing with up at Troy. Don't tell me you didn't know."
Kazmak didn't actually. He decided to come clean on this one. "No, we dealt through other clans there. We never got to see who the buyers were. We were just told that they were aliens who paid real well. Hey, I got my ship on a down payment of crummy second-rate crystals. How's that for good payment?" Kazmak bragged before coming back to the realisation that those aliens had also done something to his people. "So what are they, shapeshifters or something? And what have they done to my people?"
"In a manner of speaking." Psy explained patiently. "Your people are no more. The Gulmarians infect their targets which then rewrites their DNA until it reaches a critical state and then converts them into Gulmarians. When that happens the original host and their mind no longer exists. The Gulmarians have genetic memory so when they convert they know who, what and where they are as well as full mental, motor and language skills. Remarkable really if they weren't so destructive. The gas triggers that conversion and has a paralysis agent that affects Gulmarians."
Kazmak felt as if he'd been duped and was angry. "So you set it up right from the beginning giving Evil Bert those marbles and vials so that we'd end up butchering each other? Do you know how many good friends we lost that day? Have you any idea? If you guys could come up with something that, what you say, converts them, then don't you have a cure? Couldn't you have given us that instead? And you people have the nerve to say we don't respect life." He shot back with angry pride.
"I'm sorry." Psy knew only too well the carnage that Floxetrasine wreaked. "I wish there was another way but at the moment but there isn't. It's all we have to contain this problem right now. It's a very fluid situation and not just in this solar system. There were Gulmarian-infected people in the general population on Mars. We traced it back through your clan and the Def Skulls. You're coming into contact with something out there at Troy that is infecting you. Maybe the hookers, eh?" Psy momentarily teased Kazmak. "But whatever it is you'll end up becoming one of them or being killed by them unless you do something to stop it now."
Kazmak was callous enough to risk a few more of his soldiers to turn a profit but balked at the prospect of ending up as a Gulmarian himself. "I don't think we could pull it off even if you gave us a truckload of that gas."
"Don't worry, you won't be needing that." Psy could tell that Kazmak was warming up to hir plan. "I have something else for you: The finest live Psionic Crystals. That's what the Gulmarians are really after, not that dead junk you give them."
"So how does a shipment of crystals get rid of those aliens?" Kazmak remained sceptical.
"Never you mind." Psy nearly gloated at how easily shi had hooked Kazmak. "All you have to do is make sure they get to Troy. Are you in?"
"How do I know you're not giving me some explosives that will blow up Troy and take me with it?" Kazmak was intrigued by Psy's plan but far from convinced.
"You don't." Psy admitted candidly. "But I have other plans for you and I need you alive. If you're interested, meet me with your mining gear at the North East entrances to Fort Melchisor tomorrow. Evil Bert will be with me so just home in on his transponder."
"Fort Melchisor?" Kazmak was stunned by this weird-ass Earth Fed agent. "That's our turf. We say who gets what from there. Don't try muscling in on our scene. You'll regret it."
"Your turf?" Psy raised an eyebrow. "That turf is my home. And if you ever try taking anything from there you'll end up as dead as the last bunch of ruffians who tried their luck."
"That's big talk from a little dame." Kazmak wasn't going to be put off his prize by an empty threat. "That place is ours and we'll take as much as we want, whenever we want. Sure we'll take those fancy crystals. Hey, I might even give you a cut if they're as good as you say and you keep your place. But that's as good as it's gonna get for you."
"We'll see." Psy replied enigmatically. Shi had him hooked and was close to gloating openly in full view of Kazmak. "I'll give the time and co-ordinates to your associate. Must dash, it's quite chilly out here."
The next day Kazmak himself was at the controls of a scruffy transporter from the Raiders' menagerie of surface ships. Inside they had a large open-topped container truck, an excavator, three drilling rigs and a small crane as well as a crew to operate the lot. He followed Evil Bert's transponder which led them to an entrance on the opposite side of a low mountain ridge from where Earth Fed were shuttling Shallens to and from the gateway inside. A huge Psionic crystal jutted out of the ground in the middle of the landing area in front of the entrance. Kazmak landed the transporter next to it and even from inside the cockpit he could see the dance of light inside the crystal.
"Prime crystal right there, boys and girls!" For once Kazmak had something to feel good about. "Let's blow that and load it up. Then we'll sort out that Earth Fed dame." Kazmak and his crew set about demolishing the scintillating crystal that towered almost three metres over them and made short work of it. It wasn't long before they were drilling into the stump in the ground to get the last bits they could pull out.
Psy watched them on a wall screen in a chamber similar to the one where Grattlyd and SkyHawk were busily transporting Shallens except this one didn't have a gateway. It was almost empty save for a few illuminated consoles that Psy operated. "I had a feeling they'd do that." Psy sighed before looking away from the screen to face Evil Bert. "Let's go and meet your associates. And no funny business. I don't want to have to encapsulate them the way I did when you tried to attack me and break my neck."
"Why, too many for you?" Evil Bert wanted to sound out this strange dame who seemed less and less like any Earth Fed agent he'd ever come across.
"Hardly." Psy snorted contemptuously as shi strolled barefoot along the spacious biostone tunnel that led to the entrance. An illuminated spot in the floor followed Psy wherever shi walked. A darkened spot tracked Evil Bert's movements. "It's just tedious. It's a bit like being a bouncer at a night club throwing out rowdy drunks."
"What exactly did you do back there?" Evil Bert asked. "I was that close to doing you. I couldn't move."
Psy waved hir arms around grandly. "The Omphalon detected a threat to me and extruded part of itself around you in order to restrain you."
"That thing, whatever it was, was draining the power out of me." Evil Bert still hadn't figured out that Psy was referring to what he considered to be 'the crystal mine'.
"I could have done much, much more." Psy smirked darkly. "Killed you slowly and painfully just to entertain myself. And I do know how to make mechs feel pain. But I need you alive. So here you are."
"What, just like that?" Evil Bert was no stranger to capriciousness: Kazmak was his clan leader, after all. But even Kazmak's eccentricities paled into they embodiment of conservative propriety compared to Biskek the Executioner, head of the Shin-Tan clan, whose life was a continuous orgy where the proclaimed aim was to find a new vice every day. Bert felt uncomfortable around someone who looked so effeminate and feeble yet wielded such power.
"Yes." Psy replied primly. "Didn't you notice how everything here responds to me? I'll bet you never saw anything like that in your other crystal mines."
"No." Evil Bert had to agree with Psy there. This crystal mine was unlike any he'd seen before. "And none of them ever had an atmosphere either."
"Because this one's alive. And not just alive, it is me!" Psy skipped along the tunnel like an ecstatic child next to Evil Bert who, by now, had come to the conclusion that not only was this Earth Fed dame very strange but completely loopy as well. They waited by the edge of the force field that held in the Omphalon's internal atmosphere at the end of the tunnel while Kazmak and his crew drove up.
The container truck stopped outside of the entrance. Kazmak hopped out, shot Psy dead and pulled Evil Bert into the cab. "Thanks for the hot tip, Earth Fed." He laughed cruelly as he cracked open his helmet visor back in the safety of the truck's cab. Behind them, totally unnoticed, Psy's dead body was absorbed into the Omphalon's biostone.
When they drove into the main chamber, Psy was waiting for them perched on one of the biostone consoles and waved to them. "Hello there, big boy!" Shi called out.
"Fuckin' clones." Kazmak cursed as he gunned the truck's engine in an attempt to run Psy over. "They always pull tricks like this." But they never made it. Biostone from both the floor and ceiling flowed around the truck and set solid. They were stuck fast with their engine straining at full throttle. Just for good measure the Omphalon similarly captured the rest of Kazmak's motley parade of machinery and roustabouts and held them all firmly in its translucent biostone.
"Kazmak!" Psy called out to hir captives as shi strutted in front of the entombed truck where they could all see hir. "I know you can hear me. That was very rude of you to shoot me. Naughty, naughty." Psy wagged a finger at them. "I had hoped better of you but at least you're consistent. So far you've shown yourself to be an opportunistic lout and a thug."
"But I didn't call you here to criticise your bedside manner." Psy continued. "That's right, I had a job for you. But you came in guns blazing, so now we have a problem. Or, more correctly, you have a problem. I could leave you to suffocate or crush you to death. What should it be? A slow agonising death or a quick painful one? Answers, please, on a postcard."
Not only could shi see Kazmak and his crew banging angrily on the windscreen at him, but shi could hear them too as the transparent biostone transmitted their sound losslessly. "Maybe you need something to focus your minds." Psy commanded the biostone polyp surrounding one of the drill rigs and its operator, Sandra Tey, a fierce amazon of a woman, to start. Slowly the biostone began tightening around her and the drill rig. At first nothing seemed to happen and then they heard her complaining about the tightness over their comms. And then they could hear her dieing gurgling screams as she was crushed to death and the drill rig crumpled like a cheap toy in full view of Kazmak. When it was done there wasn't a trace left. The Omphalon had swallowed them up as if nothing had ever been there.
Kazmak tried shooting Psy through the truck's windscreen but the biostone easily absorbed and dissipated his pistol's energy. Psy stood directly in front of the truck, hands on hips. "I'm disappointed in you, Kazmak. I thought we had a deal."
"Deal, my ass." Kazmak growled as he angrily thumped the windscreen. "You let us out of here."
Psy laughed heartily. "And why would I want to do that? You've already killed me once today and tried a second time. Hoping for a bit of the old 'third time lucky'?" Psy mocked Kazmak. "I don't think so."
"I'll kill you, you motherfucker." Kazmak raged impotently from within the truck's cab.
"You've had your chance." Psy coolly reminded Kazmak. "And it looks like I've got the next shot. Why, it's like shooting fish in a barrel." Psy held hir hands up like pretend pistols and made 'pew - pew' sounds to tease Kazmak as shi ordered the Omphalon to tighten its grip on the truck... just enough to let them hear its bodywork and frame groaning under the stress.
"I've won this round, Kazmak. Game, set and match by the look of things." Psy gloated just to annoy Kazmak all the more. "Now you, Kazmak, come out and talk or I'll kill the lot of you." Psy ordered them coldly. "I've got better things to do than playing with you all day."
"Okay, okay, I'm coming." Kazmak growled angrily.
"Open the door and step into the biostone. It will transport you to me." Psy commanded. "And no weapons." Kazmak muttered his curses and reluctantly stepped into the biostone. When it released him two metres away from Psy, the biostone column contained three knives, a garrotte, a stun stick, five poison darts, a strip of plastic explosive and two detonators for Psy to examine.
"Hey, those are mine." Kazmak complained loudly.
"Were." Psy corrected him. "I did say no weapons. Still think this is your turf, big boy?"
"All right, you win." Kazmak conceded in word only. He had already made his mind up that he'd be back to strip out as much Psionic Crystal as he could. And no Earth Fed freak was going to get in his way.
"Good." Psy took that as surrender. "Kneel before me."
"Go fuck yourself." Kazmak spat at Psy.
"Wrong answer." At Psy's telepathic command two polyps of biostone shot up out of the floor seizing Kazmak and forced him to kneel. "That's better. I am your lord and master." Psy ordered the biostone polyps to squeeze Kazmak hard; just crack a few ribs, but nothing fatal. At least not yet.
*Humour the fuckwit.* Charlene, Kazmak's mechanoid legs, shouted into Kazmak's mind.
*You've been quiet lately.* Kazmak grumbled.
*Never mind that, let's focus on getting out of here alive. Stab the fucker in the back later.*
*I like your style.* "You are my lord and master." Kazmak reluctantly spat out the words Psy wanted to hear.
"You will do anything I command you to do." Psy ordered the biostone polyp to break a couple more of Kazmak's ribs in order to encourage him to give the right answer.
"I... will... do... anything... you... command..." Kazmak struggled to force the words out between cracking ribs. Not because he didn't want to say them. He didn't and he sure as hell didn't mean them. But between the pain and the iron grip of the biostone he could barely get enough air into his lungs to speak.
"Really?" Psy acted all sweetness and light. "Oh, that's so sweet of you." The biostone melted back into the floor releasing Kazmak who promptly collapsed, gasping for breath. Psy made no move to help Kazmak back to his feet
"So what's with these crystals you want us to take to Troy?" Kazmak asked Psy as he shakily got to his feet and wiped the blood and spittle from his mouth.
"Absolute top-grade living Psionic Crystal. What's not to like?" Psy gave Kazmak a come-hither look. "Fill your boots, Kazmak. It's the one and only chance you'll ever get."
"Will we get out of this alive?" Kazmak didn't feel his chances were very good going up against all the clans out at Troy.
"That's up to you." Psy wasn't too worried whether Kazmak and his ruffians lived or died. "So long as you don't get infected with Gulmarian biota you've got a very good chance. Your tin men will be fine but you humans and clones have to be more careful. No physical contact. So I'd leave the hookers alone if I were you."
"What do you want us to do with these crystals?" Now that Psy had the upper hand, Kazmak wanted to know what he was in for.
"Take them to Troy and sell them to the Gulmarians. That's what you'd do, isn't it? Maybe pocket a few for yourself... I'll bet you the Gulmarians will take them in exchange for what you still owe them on that little tugboat of yours. Or maybe you don't trust me and you'll put them in storage." Psy toyed with Kazmak. "Give them away if you want. Auction the off to the highest bidder at Troy. Play football with them. It really doesn't matter. All you have to do is take them there."
"And if I don't?"
"Then Troy and whoever is out there at the time will be destroyed." Psy told it as it was. "Troy is the vector for Gulmarian invasion into this solar system and it will be cleared up one way or another. With or without your help. There is no other way."
"I'm offering you power and wealth that you could only dream of, Kazmak." Psy cocked hir head to one side and looked Kazmak straight in the eye. "Troy will be yours and the Raiders the most powerful clan of the Overlordz. Or stay on Mars and watch Troy being destroyed while Earth Fed grinds your insignificant clans into the Martian dust. It's your choice."
"If that's how it is, then why do you even give a shit about us?" Kazmak had his suspicions about Psy and hir crystals.
"I don't." Psy admitted candidly. "It's a big galaxy out there, Kazmak. So far you've only come across the Gulmarians. But there are others. Some good, some even worse than the Gulmarians. But in time they will come here. Trade and travel, all that sort of stuff and you have this space station conveniently located in Jupiter's Trojans. An excellent way station for anyone who might want to do a bit of mining in the asteroid belt or the Jovian and Saturnian moons. And your people are tough enough to survive out there."
"Times are changing Kazmak." Psy drilled hir pitch into Kazmak's mind. "There are others out there and they will come. And when they do, it's going to make the Forty Niner Gold Rush look like a children's tea party. Troy could be the gold rush town out there: gas station, bar, brothel, bank, hotel, you name it... Or it could be a cloud of forgotten scrap metal floating around in the Trojans. It's your call. All you have to do is be in the right place at the right time."
"You make it sound too easy." Kazmak grumbled suspiciously as he shook off the pain of having been held captive by the biostone. "There has to be a catch."
"Oh it is." Psy was smugly confident. "And there is. I am..."
"...my lord and master." Kazmak bowed his head as he unhappily finished Psy's last sentence.
"Oh come now." Psy scolded Kazmak. "Don't be so glum. You'll find me quite amenable. I have your best interests at heart."
"Now you sound like a politician." Kazmak managed a wry laugh. "All the more reason not to trust you."
"Have it your way." Psy sighed. "But I need to know if I can count you in,"
"Do I have a choice?" Kazmak pointed out the obvious.
"Well, no. Not really." Psy smirked triumphantly. "Let's get down to business then. So, help yourself to some Psionic Crystals, big boy."
Kazmak looked around. "Where?"
"Everywhere!" Psy exuded. "What do you think this place is made of? What would you like? A section of the floor? A piece of the wall? Some of the ceiling? I see you've come prepared."
"Oh, right." Kazmak felt like a half-wit. Of course it was made of Psionic Crystal! It was supposed to have been his mine after all. "Well, seeing how we're short-handed now it would be quickest if we pulled up along one of the walls and chipped it away."
"Off you go then." Psy offered brightly as shi commanded the Omphalon's biostone to release Kazmak's crew. "Oh, just one thing." Psy skipped over and grabbed Kazmak by the arm. "Never come back here. If you or any of your bandits so much as set a foot in here ever again, I will kill you. Slowly. For my pleasure. Is that understood?"
"Yes." Kazmak tried to shake off Psy's grip but found to his further irritation that he couldn't. The biostone floor had shot up polyps to hold him still.
"Yes, what?" Psy asked coldly.
"Yes... master." Kazmak struggled futilely against the biostone.
"That's better." The biostone released Kazmak. "Now get on with it and no more shenanigans out of you or your roustabouts." Psy shouted out so that they could all hear. And so they did but without the usual banter and braggary they would have indulged in. Waves of light pulsed through the biostone where Kazmak's crew assaulted it with their drills and cutters. The noise was deafening and Psy surrounded hirself with a biostone shield to dampen the noise. At the same time Psy and the Omphalon were putting enough of their mind into the biostone that Kazmak's crew was chipping away so that it could function independently and follow its instructions.
Those instructions were quite simple: to open up micro gateways that connected back to Mglyptl's lab in order to release a new, lethal variant of Floxetrasine once at Troy and to act as a homing beacon for an Nglubi warship along with Psy's hastily added note which read: 'clean up the Gulmarians but leave the station intact and the Humans and machine beings alone'.
Slab after slab of biostone crashed into the container truck and shattered into smaller chunks of Psionic Crystal shot through with its ever-mobile sparks of light. They cut away the biostone right back to the bare Martian rock behind it. The pain was harsh, but bearable for Psy and the Omphalon. A bit like having a long drawn-out tooth extraction without anaesthetics. We will be reunited soon. When they were finished and the last crashes of noise echoing around the Omphalon faded away, Psy let down hir biostone barrier and went over to Kazmak and offered him a glass of whiskey. Behind them the biostone wall flowed back to fill in the gap Kazmak's crew had cut away.
"To success!" Psy toasted Kazmak,
"Success!" Kazmak raised his glass and knocked back his drink. Not bad, smoother than his own Martian single malt.
"Success!" Psy drained hir glass and threw it down on the floor. The shattered fragments melted into the biostone floor. "And then I'll pay you a visit out at Troy and we can discuss how you'd like to be paid."
"There's something you're forgetting." Kazmak wasn't going to let Psy have everything hir way.
"What's that?" Psy asked sweetly.
"The rest of my crew." Kazmak reminded hir bluntly. "You're asking a lot of us. It's not going to be easy taking over Troy if that's what you want. Any survivors are bound to challenge us. You've made me quite an offer. One that I can't refuse, it seems. But what about them? They deserve danger money payment for risking their lives." The crew in the truck's cab nodded their heads and shouted in agreement.
"What? Aren't the spoils of war good enough any longer?" Psy asked in mock disappointment.
"No. More like twenty thousand scruples apiece with half paid upfront." Kazmak laid on his best righteous bluff. "And we ain't leaving until we get that first half." Kazmak's demands demand met a rousing cheer from his crew.
"Mercenaries, after all." Psy raised an eyebrow. "You drive a hard bargain except for one thing. You leave now or you can all join your missing friend. I can do this on my own, you know. I thought you might like the opportunity."
"Opportunity, my ass." Kazmak growled back. "You just want us to do your dirty work. We could agree to anything now just to get out alive. What's to stop us going back to Hellas and just selling these crystals on the open market here on Mars?"
"Nothing I suppose." Psy sighed. And so the haggling began. It dragged on for hours until the final agreement was reached: fifteen thousand apiece with five thousand each delivered in advance. It wasn't the best deal Kazmak had ever brokered but under the circumstances he considered himself lucky to be getting out alive. Whether they'd take those Psionic Crystals to Troy depended on whether Psy came through with their payment. When they left, all Kazmak's crew could talk about was whether they should risk taking on the clans at Troy and just what exactly was that weird Earth Fed agent?