It's Saturday and the market in Montgomery is in full swing. The market square is full of people milling around the traders' stalls and open-sided wagons. Morgan's Outfitters' booth had a wide variety of pressure suits for sale. 'All sizes!' Their banner proudly proclaimed. 'New and used! All our suits are self-sealing and have guaranteed shielding up to 200 µSv/hr'. Next to them 'La Boulangerie' was piled high with fresh-baked bread and pastries, their portable oven baking bread as fast as it could. Then there was Maladroit selling the latest 'Bad Girl' fashions. Hubert's HiTones was stocked with a huge collection of exotic music cubes topped off with Hubert himself DJ'ing an eclectic selection from his collection through his rag-bag sound system that looked like a collection of random scrap draped around his stall. The sounds ranged from chamber quartet pristine through to random sludge noise and back again. The Zanzibar Official Outlet was staffed by a fresh-faced crew: two young men, a woman and a mech gamely selling a selection of finest buds and tropical fruit from their hopelessly overloaded stall.
It’s also Yldoseh’s day off work from her new-found job as the on-site camera jockey tagging alongside Arden in his role as roving reporter for Eridania Wave covering the arrival of the ‘aliens’ in Montgomery. A term which grated her sensibilities because, as her mother Sursipal had pointed out, the Humans were ‘aliens’ to them. Not only her day off, but the first time she was able to feel at home in the market now that she had her first pay-packet of Scruples burning a hole in her pocket. It had taken hours online the previous night just to set up a bank account so that she could cash her pay. At one point the bank AI just gave up and passed her over to a Human manager to asses her application. The manager, a young man with a solid build, slicked-back dark hair and an aura of enhanced good health seemed surprised that a Shallen would want to open a bank account. As a new arrival on Mars she didn’t have any of the references a bank normally required, but knowing her circumstances and the fact that she had a job, the manager accepted her application. Minutes later Yldoseh downloaded a substantial sum to the electronic wallet in her commset and made a note to draw out some cash the next morning.
A lone Klartupyn had a stall selling translators nearby Chester and Liz's table. "Speak freely in all languages." It called out with a salesman's enthusiasm, thanks to its translator, in perfect English. "The most popular translator in the entire galaxy! Used everywhere and comes pre-loaded with the widest selection of languages. Yours for a mere twenty five Galacs or... ah..." The Klartupyn hesitated momentarily realising that it was on a planet that didn’t trade in Galacs. "…the equivalent in whatever your local currency is... oh yes, Scruples." The humans and mechs milling past in the throng looked on curiously but didn't buy. The Shallens who had been relocated to the housing project in Montgomery, however, were buying them as fast as the wiry Klartupyn could get them out on display.
"Oh, look..." Tatia pulled Xandu away from a stall selling synthetic meat hot dogs. “Just what we need; translators. We won't have to keep borrowing Wootjan-Oo's."
"How much?" Xandu asked as he passed Yldoseh and Sursipal their hot dogs which Yldoseh had paid for and took a bite out of his own.
"Dunno." Tatia admitted as she pulled Xandu and Yldoseh along through the crowd. "Let's take a look."
"It's just like the H'Ulwyn." Sursipal commented as she stopped in front of a stall with fresh trout and salmon laid out on a slab. "These smell nice. Yldoseh, dear, do you have any local currency?"
"Yes, mother. I got paid yesterday." Yldoseh was fully caught up in the hurly burly of the marketplace and, she too, felt the urge to buy some of the wares on display. Some of the clothes she'd seen earlier had caught her eye. "Pick out something and I’ll get it for you."
Sursipal picked out a plump slab of salmon and then followed her daughter and her friends through the market closely checking out the food on display to see what looked edible. There was quite a crowd of Shallens eager to buy translators gathered around the Klartupyn's stall and Tatia found it impossible to push her way through so they waited their turn.
"Get the local language loaded onto your translators for only three Galacs!" The Klartupyn barked out its offer to the waiting Shallens. "Yes sir, just place your translator on the console. That'll be three Galacs, please." The Shallen, a senior avian Guard officer, placed his translator on the console and grumbled about the extortionate price. "You'll need their language, sir. And I have to import all my wares to this remote corner of the galaxy at great expense." The Klartupyn lied briskly to justify its high prices. It had merely downloaded Grattlyd’s free English-to-Nglubi Elktan matrix and installed it on every translator it sold racking up a tidy profit on each sale. "It cost me dear and I can't sell at a loss."
Xandu finally got through to the Klartupyn's table and looked over the translators on offer. "What? You only have the Bierbool translators? They're barely worth ten Galacs at most and only have the Cervetican dialect of Darkonit." He snorted derisively.
"The Bierbool translator is the most popular translator ever and has the most common languages in this sector of the galaxy plus these come with the local language pre-loaded." The Klartupyn swept aside Xandu's complaint. "If you have a better translator I can load their language onto it for you. Otherwise I have these and you will need one if you plan on staying here."
"Only popular because they're cheap. I'll give you fifteen tops." Xandu snorted drisively.
"Twenty five." The Klartupyn wouldn't budge and folded two of its arms across its chest while keeping its other two hands hovering over the translators on the table in case anyone tried to steal one. "Take it or leave it. It cost me that much to bring them here. Otherwise I suggest you go back to Vermthellyn and get one there."
Sursipal pushed through next to Xandu. "How much are they?" She asked the Klartupyn.
"Twenty five Galacs apiece madam, and a bargain at the price." The Klartupyn boasted confidently.
Sursipal sucked in her breath. "That's steep!" She needed a translator even at the Klartupyn's ruinous prices. If only she'd been too lazy to learn Rtuntli and had instead relied on a translator back on Vermthellyn like so many of her Shallen friends. They'd all need them now. "How much will you offer me for four?" She asked cautiously.
"Four?" The Klartupyn was surprised.
"Yes, four." Sursipal repeated with cold businesslike aplomb
The Klartupyn hummed and hawed and then cagily pushed four boxed translators across the table towards Sursipal. "Eighty Galacs and that's my best offer."
Sursipal haggled doggedly but the Klartupyn stuck to its price and she reluctantly paid the eighty Galacs. "A pleasure doing business with you, madam." The Klartupyn breezily closed the sale and turned its attention to the next customer as Sursipal gave Yldoseh, Tatia and Xandu their translators which they all unboxed and clipped the receivers into place behind their ears.
Before leaving, Sursipal asked the Klartupyn one last question. "Do you know anywhere we can exchange Galacs for the local currency?"
"Not at the moment, madam." The Klartupyn recognised a business opportunity when it appeared. "But it's something I will look into."
Sursipal was adjusting the controls of her translator broadcaster on its necklace when she was ambushed by a MarsTel newshound followed closely by his cameraman and techie. "Could I have a word with you, sir?" He asked her in Darkonit using his newly-acquired translator.
"It's madam actually". Sursipal primly corrected him in English as she activated her translator.
"Pardon me, ma'm." The newshound apologised politely before launching into his routine. "And how do you like it here on Mars?"
Sursipal glanced around nervously. "It's a bit like the H'Ulwyn."
"And what would that be?" The newshound pushed his microphone even closer to Sursipal.
"The market in Estrillyd..." Sursipal hesitated for a moment as she relived in her memory the moment when the Chznzet threatened to burn her house down. "...where we used to live. Except there aren't as many off-worlders here."
"I see." The newshound pressed on relentlessly and pushed his microphone into Sursipal's face. "Is it true that you were thrown off your ship?"
Veronica was hanging out with Chester and Liz at their esoterica stall stocked up with books, brightly-coloured Llama wool clothes and incense a couple of tables away from the mayhem surrounding the Klartupyn’s stall. Unlike the Klartupyn's stall, trade was slow so Veronica had plenty of time to watch the world go past.
"Look at that crowd over there." Liz nodded her head in the direction of the Shallens crowded around the Klartupyn's stall as she burped her baby. Chester rearranged their display of books and incense partly because he was a bit OCD and also to create the illusion of activity at their stall. They had hardly sold a thing all day. "That MarsTel guy won't leave them alone."
"They're the big story right now." Chester commented without even looking up from their stall. "At least he's not bothering us."
"Amen to that." Liz agreed as her baby squalled in her ear.
"Hey, it's Xandu!" Veronica waved at Xandu as he and his friends were ambushed by the MarsTel newshound and his team. She hoped he could see her through the crowd milling around the market.
"Here comes lover boy." Liz teased Veronica.
"It's not like that." Veronica defended herself tetchily as she continued waving in Xandu's direction but the newshound who was merrily interrogating his latest batch of hapless victims blocked Xandu’s view.
“It would help if you didn’t treat us like a freak show, young man.” Sursipal harangued the newshound as she poked him in the chest. “Where we came from there’s all sorts and it would be considered downright rude or at best an act of madness to go around carrying on the way you do.”
Yldoseh looked on aghast as her mother got into her stride chewing out the hapless young MarsTel newshound.
“Aliens? You call us aliens?” Sursipal indignantly pushed her paws up against the newshound’s chest. “What do you think you are to us, you nitwit?”
Yldoseh was no stranger to the newshound's technique and was just as adept at aggressively interviewing her targets if she had to. Arden could be just as pushy when he needed to be but generally used a more laid-back approach which was surprisingly effective at getting people to open up for interviews. But she was glad she wasn’t on the receiving end of her mother’s sharp tongue and pushed the newshound's microphone away. "Leave my mother alone. You're upsetting her."
Totally unfazed, the newshound turned his attention to Yldoseh. "Is there any truth to the rumour that your ship was responsible for the communications blackout with Earth? It did appear at the same time."
"What?" Yldoseh had no idea what he was talking about.
"How long will you be staying on Mars?" The newshound was determined to get some sort of response out of his targets.
"Um... I don't know really." Yldoseh hadn't thought that far ahead. Up until they'd been thrown off the Ark of Exodus she had assumed that they would live there, move to Cervetica or else go back to Vermthellyn when it was safe. "We only just got here."
"Do you think you might live here permanently?" The newshound pressed on now that he'd got a response.
"Maybe. We might go back to Vermthellyn." Yldoseh was beginning to think that it might be a better idea to go back to Vermthellyn in spite of the Chznzet threats. Convincing her mother would be more difficult.
Not getting a juicy answer, the newshound turned his attention to Xandu. "What's been your most memorable experience since arriving here?"
Xandu thought for a moment. Ever since they arrived it had been a blur of activity; first at the reception centre and then being moved into the housing project in Montgomery. It felt as if they'd barely had time to catch their breath ever since they landed. The only real moment of calm had been the Flaming Watusis' noisy show at Zanzibar. "The concert they put on for us that day after we arrived. It was really primal!"
You liked it?
"Oh yes!" Xandu laughed revealing his fangs to the cameraman next to the newshound and bragged. "The Flaming Watusis. I know Veronica who plays with them."
"You've met the band?" The newshound homed in on the scent of a story.
"Many times." Xandu made a mental slip. He really meant Veronica. Something the newshound didn't pick up on.
Tatia did, however, and jabbed Xandu sharply with her elbow. "Shut up you moron." She hissed in Darkonit into Xandu's ear. "I don't want you to tell everyone how you seduced that Human."
"And what do you think of the band?" The newshound held his microphone close up to Xandu.
"Yeah, great." Xandu revelled in the newshound's attention. "Apparently they live in this town so we'll be able to see them again."
"It's the food." Sursipal gamely interrupted Xandu in mid-stream.
The newshound turned his attention back to Sursipal. "Do you like our food?"
"No! It's bland and tasteless. Dreadful." Sursipal scolded him. "I don't know what you see in that stuff. You really ought to do something about it."
The newshound was about to quiz Sursipal further about food when his tech assistant pointed out some other likely candidates milling around the Klartupyn's translator stall.
"Quick, let's get out of here before he changes his mind." Sursipal shepherded her young charges away from the demented Human and his accomplices. They only just cleared the newshound and his next batch of victims when they ran into Veronica.
“Hey!” Veronica greeted them awkwardly. She could see Xandu and Tatia’s tail tips twined together and guessed correctly that it was their equivalent of holding hands. “How do you like the market?” She exuded the nervous brightness of someone caught off-guard.
“Questions, questions, questions.” Sursipal groused with righteously indignant crabbiness. “You act as if we’re some sort of freak show that dropped in from space for your entertainment. It’s you who are the strangers in the wilderness, not us.”
“Not now mother, please.” Yldoseh begged Sursipal before turning her attention to Veronica. “You’ll have to excuse her; she didn’t like the news reporter.”
“Oh, they’re very persistent.” Veronica was surprised that Yldoseh even knew what a news reporter was.
“I do the same thing.” Yldoseh laughed cautiously as she pointed to her head-cam which was recorded the day’s events. “I’ve been working for Eridania Wave with their reporter Arden Montfoi.”
“Oh, right.” Now Veronica recognised the gadget attached to Yldoseh’s headset for what it was: a camera. The last thing Veronica wanted right now was to be interviewed by an alien newshound. “Are you recording this?”
“Of course!” Yldoseh admitted with honest enthusiasm. “It’s not often something like this happens.”
“Contact with a new species.” Yldoseh was surprised that Veronica couldn’t see the occasion for what it was.
“Well it’s new for us.” Veronica was a bit confused. “But you’ve known alien species all your life.”
“Yes, but we all know each other.” Yldoseh let Veronica’s use of the hated word ‘alien’ go. “Good and bad. It makes for a small and familiar universe. But you were unknown. Contact with unknown worlds is very rare and this changes everything. People are going to ask why you were unknown for so long and if there are other unknown worlds.”
“Oh.” Veronica hadn’t even considered what first contact would be like for the other side as she led them over to Liz and Chester’s stall. Sursipal was fascinated with Liz’s selection of dream catchers and quizzed her avidly about them.
“It will be a bigger change for your world than for us.” Yldoseh continued both for Veronica and for the audience of her recording. “There have been rumours of undiscovered or possibly hidden worlds for a long time. Your existence gives those rumours and theories more credibility now.”
“Hah! Conspiracy, meet theory.” Veronica could see the irony of the situation.
“More or less.” Yldoseh liked Veronica’s dry humour.
“Maybe we should arrange a meeting between our conspiracy theorists and yours and film the results.” Veronica suggested jokily.
Yldoseh liked that idea. “Do we sell it as comedy or conspiracy?”
Veronica sucked her teeth and winked knowingly. “It’s a tough call. I’m sure it would have something for everyone.”
Just then Yldoseh remembered the Pdzarvian timeline rewriter gadget that Veronica had told them about at the party after the Flaming Watusis’ show at Zanzibar. “Could we see that Pdzarvian artefact you told us about?”
“What, the junk mail that mentioned the Chznzet?” Veronica had forgotten all about it.
“Yes, that’s what you called it.” Yldoseh eagerly prompted her. “Junk mail.”
Veronica eyed her suspiciously. “Do you want to film it?”
“Yes please.” Yldoseh asked keenly. This was too good an opportunity to miss and she hoped that Veronica would agree to it.
Veronica was only dimly aware of the role the Chznzet played in Shallen society or even recent events. Nevertheless she could see how it might be of interest to Yldoseh’s people and saw no harm in it. “Yeah, sure. It’s over at my place.” She hesitated, remembering how she’d left her apartment before she’d set out: old clothes draped over her sofa, the sink piled up with dishes, the burnt remains of last night’s casserole encrusted on her stove, bed unmade… “I’ll need a few minutes to clean up before you start filming.”
The Wobbly Goblin was bustling with its regular market-day late afternoon crowd swollen by Shallen newcomers propping up the bar alongside Humans, clones and mechs. Above the bar, a large flat screen blasted the already noisy bar with the roar of the spectators and running live commentary of the slamball match between the City One Slammers and the Coriolis Twisters taking place at the City One Stadium. City One was the largest city on Mars and a corporate city. Just to rub it in everyone else’s nose how rich City One was, the board of governors decided that City One would have an Olympic-sized stadium that wouldn’t look out of place on Earth.
However their grand, and expensive, publicity stunt backfired horribly. City One may be the largest city on Mars but with a slowly-expanding population of roughly hundred thousand people, counting all the humans, clones and mechs, it would be an average-sized town on Earth. Which was all fine and well until it came to the stadium which, even at the best of times hardly filled to a quarter of its’ capacity and managed to inadvertently portray a desultory apathy in spite of its pristine condition. The camera crews had long since mastered that art of choosing their camera angles to hide the ranks of unlit empty bleachers,
“So I guess that’s going to be the end of SETI now that we’ve officially made contact.” Stan commented to Bill in between sips of his cold beer as they whiled away the afternoon in the Wobbly Goblin.
“Pretty much.” Bill sighed. Up to now he’d supported himself and his family on his meagre stipend to man the SETI array on Mars. In all the years they’d found nothing and now aliens were here in the bar ordering drinks just like anyone else. “All that’s left is getting the aliens… er, Shallen’s… star charts and working out how we missed their worlds. After that, I don’t know…” Bill shrugged half-heartedly. “See if we can get a job with the military doing deep-sky surveys or else dismantle the array and sell it for scrap.”
“That’s a bit of a comedown.” Stan felt sorry for his friend in the midst of the first-contact excitement of humanity meeting alien races.
“Yeah.” Bill had always dreamed of being the one who’d detect the smoking-gun proof of alien civilisation. “If we break up the array, I’m going to keep some of the dishes and do my own surveying.”
“Anything in particular?” Stan wondered what Bill might have in mind.
“Nothing yet.” Bill admitted. “Something tells me we’ll need it. Not for SETI work any longer, obviously. Maybe set up as an independent radio telescope. I might even be able to pull in a bit of grant funding to keep it going.” And with that Bill hatched a plan to save the entire array.
The cheering and chatter died down so that Bill and Stan could talk without having to shout at each other over the noise. Stan looked around to see what had hushed the bar and looked up. Instead of the slamball match there was Governor Russell B. Floyd, Earth Fed Governor of Mars, flanked by General Liu Sun-Sen, commander of the Earth Fed military on Mars, Admiral Krebs of the Space Force fleet stationed at Mars and Norfalth, commander of the Shallen garrison on Mars. Russ Floyd wore a sombre suit and did his best to suck in his double-chin and expanding girth. It had to be something serious. It was a running joke that you could tell if Floyd was lying or not by whether his balding pate glistened. Right now it was aglow and glistening with a fine layer of sweat that he repeatedly dabbed off with a silk handkerchief. Sun-Sen and Krebs were decked out in full dress uniform, glittering with medals and gold braid with stern, formal expressions on their faces. Norfalth, off to one side flanked by two civilian Shallens in ill-fitting Human clothes, looked like a fierce and almost primal intruder in his traditional Cooprah-hide armour. Behind them in the row of solemn-faced human and mech government officials Stan spotted Psy. “Hey, whaddya know? Shi sure gets around!” Stan gave Bill a nudge
“Who? What?” Bill looked around, not knowing what Stan meant.
“Up there. Look, Psy.” Stan pointed at the screen.
Bill gawped at the screen for a moment and the recognised Psy in the back row of officials. “So it is! What’s shi doing there? What’s it all about?”
“… and so, ladies and gentlemen, clones, mechs and Shallens…” Russ nodded to Norfalth as he paused to dab the sweat off his head before continuing with his rambling monologue. “…we are not truly alone. We may have lost contact with Earth, but a gateway has opened to new worlds and with it new opportunities for trade and travel. Now I know many of you hankered after independence from Earth and we may have had our differences…”
A contemptuous chorus of jeers erupted and an empty plastic beer glass flew up from the back of the crowd and bounced harmlessly off the screen. “MIM! MIM! MIM! Mars is Free!” A group of people brayed out the Mars Independence Movement’s rally cheer.
“…but we always assumed that mother Earth would always be there.” Russ paused his pompous drone for dramatic effect while he dabbed some more sweat off his radiantly shiny head. “That, however, is no longer the case. Earth has been affected by a dimensional displacement. No, I didn’t know what that meant either. But this group of eminent scientists behind me explained it to me. Earth has been replaced by an alternate Earth. Not just one but an endless procession of alternate Earths. You could go there but you’d end up in a different universe. As a safety precaution there is a ban on all travel to Earth effective immediately which will be enforced by the Space Force.”
“Fuckin’ military takeover!” Someone shouted from the back of the bar. A grumble of assent rose from the crowd as yet another beer glass bounced off the screen and then off the head of an avian Shallen drinking at the bar who looked around surprised before turning back to watch the screen. They were totally engrossed by a story that was too outlandish for even a professional liar like ‘Porky’ Russ Floyd to make up. The poor man’s head had turned into a gleaming font of sweat that sent tormentuously tickling rivers of sweat cascading down his temples which he dabbed at despairingly with his damp handkerchief.
“And so…” Russ Floyd picked with his pompous monologue. “With the power invested in me as Governor of Mars and with the full assent of the Governor of Luna, our legal advisors and the military, Mars will be the seat of Earth Fed Government until we regain communications with our mother Earth.”
“Holy shit!” The words tumbled out of Bill’s mouth as he grappled with what Ol’ Fatty Floyd, the politician everyone on Mars loved to mock, was telling them. “Dimensional displacement? I wonder what caused that.”
“Hah!” Stan, ever the realist cynic, snorted. “I bet you people will still go there even if it is a one-way trip.”
“Yeah.” Bill could see it happening in spite of the Space Force quarantine. A close knowledge of the patrols and a bribe was all it would take. “People on the run or maybe looking to make a new life for themselves.”
Up on the screen, Russell Floyd took a break and let General Liu Sun-Sen, Admiral Krebs and a procession of scientists made their sombre pronouncements and clarified Russ Floyd’s rambling speech. Psy was in the middle of explaining how contact with the Shallens represented a new era of opportunity for Humanity when a burly construction worker in the bar shouted out: “Those fuckin’ aliens nuked Earth!” He struck one of the reptilian Shallens with a solid uppercut that sent the Shallen reeling across the bar. The Shallen’s friends and a few Humans jumped in and set upon the assailant who was backed up by yet more Humans who laid into any Shallen they could find. Within seconds the bar was a full-scale bar fight that sucked almost everyone into it. A few Humans and Shallens held back, pushing back against the walls and hiding in alcoves for fear of becoming part of the melee.
“I’m staying out of this.” Bill dodged out of the way of a bar stool that flew past them, hit the floor and skidded out the door.
Stan looked around nervously. For all his bravado, he didn’t really care for bar fights and made for the door pulling Bill along behind him. “Fuck this, I’m out of here.” But it was too late. The fight had already spilled out of the bar and into the marketplace groups of Humans and Shallens who had been outside were sucked into it like orbiting matter into a voracious black hole that consumed all around it. The stalls nearest to the Wobbly Goblin were overturned and their wares spilled out onto the ground as the fight rolled past them: fresh fruit, fine llama-wool scarves, exotic wood carvings, rare books, jewellery and wheels of gourmet cheese ground together like so much trash in the dusty Martian soil of the marketplace.
To say that the Shallens had received a warm and open welcome to Mars and Montgomery would be misleading at best. Bar a few rare exceptions, curious, formal and frosty would be more accurate. A lot of people had noted that the Shallen Worldship had appeared at the same time all communication with Earth had gone down and drew the obvious conclusion. And in a way they were right but what they had no way of knowing was that the Shallens in their town not only had nothing to do with the nuclear-blast disrupted timeline rewriter that the Chznzet had bought from the Pdzarvian traders, Chyptwyt Timeworks, but that they were totally opposed to their aims and goals. Most people were so overwhelmed by the first contact itself that they just lumped all Shallens in as a single group, even though some were reptilian and others avian. It was just too new for people to even begin to contemplate or comprehend the politics of their society.
The upshot was that many people blamed the Shallens for the loss of contact with Earth and, although it was never officially voiced as such, many impromptu groups had sprung up that saw the Shallens as a dangerous and predatory enemy from outer space who had to be resisted and repelled from Mars. The Mars Independence Movement became split between those who wanted to capitalise on the sudden turn of events and form an alliance with the Shallens and those who were suspicious of them in case they turned their suspected warlike attentions against the remaining humans on Mars and Luna.
And so, all it took was one drunken punch while Russell Floyd and his entourage poured their confusing and occasionally conflicting story out to the populace of Mars to act as the spark to ignite the bone-dry tinder of suspicion and fear of malice and to manifest itself as a bar brawl that was rapidly turning into a riot as gangs of Humans and Shallens joined in pummelling, kicking and spitting at each other. By the time the local police arrived they were hopelessly outnumbered. There was little they could do with their handcuffs and laser pistols other than make a token effort picking off stragglers from the ever-growing riot on their hands and throwing them in the one paddy-wagon that belonged to the Montgomery Police Force.
Now Montgomery, being a minor outpost unlike the major cities, had no such thing as riot police and relied on community volunteers to fill the gaps in their ranks during emergencies. Unfortunately a lot of those volunteers were out there in the riot exchanging blows with any Shallen they could lay their hands on. So when Commissioner Jeff Bradley, head of the Montgomery Police Force sent out the call for community volunteers to report to their local station, he was dismayed not only by the pitiful response but also by the number of his own volunteers that were rapidly filling up the Montgomery Police cells.
This was the last thing Jeff Bradley wanted. Up until today, aside from the occasional crystal trader, drunk, thief or swindler he’d considered Montgomery a safe quiet place where he could pootle around quietly marking time until he could collect his generous Earth Fed pension in three longyears’ time. No such luck today! Out in the marketplace things had long since spun out of control with groups of Humans and Shallens knocking over the traders’ tables and turning them into barricades to mark out their territories. Mercifully, up to this point no-one had resorted to weapons fire, though there were plenty of bruised and bloodied casualties staggering around.
As the violence continued, the marketplace emptied out. Traders nearest the riot cleared their tables, packed away their wares and cleared out as fast as they could. Those further away hung on until the last remaining customers either fled the riot or joined in on one side or the other. A few Humans sided with the Shallens but it soon descended into an ugly pitched battle between Shallens and Humans shouting and cursing each other and throwing whatever they could find: a bottle, a data cube, bricks, tables and awning spars, even lumps of synthetic meat that had been knocked off one stall and abandoned in the dirt after the stallholders hurriedly escaped the riot that had swept past their busy stall. Here and there one unfortunate soul or another was unlucky enough to be jumped upon by a mob of their opposite number who pummelled them mercilessly. Fights were constantly erupting, ebbing and flowing like waves of madness rolling across a crowd.
“So that’s where the Chznzet got their timeline rewriter.” Xandu commented as Veronica switched off the Pdzarvian junk mail from Chyptwyt Timeworks. She had let it loop though its impressively hyped-up slick sales pitch several times at Yldoseh’s request so that she could film it all the way through without anyone talking over it.
“I know where I’m going next.” Yldoseh broke the silence in the room.
“Where?” Tatia asked her.
“Chyptwyt Timeworks!” Yldoseh announced as she tapped her headset with one paw.
“Is that a good idea?” Xandu asked. After all, they had sold a timeline rewriter to the Chznzet. The Chznzet might be there waiting for them.
“Someone has to.” Yldoseh brashly defended her decision.
“You shouldn’t go running off like that.” Sursipal interrupted her. “You only just got that job with those broadcasters.”
“This is too big a story, mother.” Yldoseh wasn’t going to be held back by her mother. “It would explain how the Chznzet did what they did and maybe help us find the Ark.”
Sursipal looked up at her daughter. “If you think so, dear. Just be careful. You know what those Chznzet are like. They won’t take kindly to you poking around. I’ll ask Commander Norfalth to send one of the Guards with you. He’s a nice man. I’m sure he’d understand.”
“No!” Yldoseh was having none of it. “That would be the worst thing to do. Sending a Guard from House Sedeirtra to the Pdzarvians would get the Chznzet’s attention right away.”
“And you don’t think they know who you are by now?” Sursipal pointed out the obvious. “You, the brave reporter who broke the story about the Chznzet imprisoning and drugging the Keeper?”
“I’ll go in disguise.” Yldoseh defiantly countered her mother.
“”Hmmph!” Sursipal snorted sceptically.
“I could go with you.” Veronica offered.
They had all forgotten about Veronica while discussing the Yldoseh’s plan and looked over at her almost surprised that she was even there. “That’s very kind of you, Veronica.” Sursipal didn’t see why a Human should get involved in Yldoseh’s mad plan. “But she really needs one of the Guards to go with her.”
“No!” It was all Yldoseh could do to keep herself from stamping one of her feet like a petulant child.
“Well, um…” Veronica thought out loud for Sursipal’s benefit. “I’m a soldier on indefinite leave and I don’t have a lot to do at the moment. So, yeah, I could look after her.” She carefully omitted that as a Space Force interceptor pilot, she only had basic weapons and combat training but felt confident handling a full-grown man in a punch-up. She wasn’t too sure about the Shallens. The Reptilians looked stronger than a Human although the Avians seemed lighter and an easier match. Some of them had hooked beaks and looked like they could do a lot of damage. She’d only narrowly dodged going to prison over Ruby’s disappearance on Vermthellyn and took comfort in the fact that they hadn’t stopped her pay which meant she could keep up the payments on her apartment.
“There, you see!” Yldoseh proudly grandstanded her opportunity to outmanoeuvre her mother.
“I don’t want to lose you.” Sursipal pleaded as she reached out to take hold of one of Yldoseh’s paws.
Just then a brick crashed through one of the windows sending shards of glass flying across the room. Aside from minor cuts and scratches, no-one had any major injuries. “What the f---?” Veronica exclaimed as she went over to the gaping window crunching broken glass underfoot. Down in the street below was a running battle between groups of Humans and Shallens fighting and throwing whatever they could find at each other. “It’s a freakin’ riot down there!”
Yldoseh, Xandu and Tatia came over and stood behind Veronica peering down anxiously at the mayhem below. “It’s just like the Rtuntli race riots and those vile Gheltsyn.” Sursipal moaned from where she sat to no-one in particular. She’d seen the sharp end of enough race riots on Vermthellyn and knew one when she heard it.
Veronica’s apartment overlooked the Berghault development where the Shallens had been housed. It had been a quiet part of town, what with the Berghault development housing site being unoccupied, which suited her just fine. But that had all changed now as the riot raged outside.
“I think you better stay here for a while.” Veronica suggested as she emerged from the kitchen with a roll of thin transparent plastic sheeting to tape over the broken widow as the others cleaned up the broken glass. They watched the riot ebb and flow during the course of the afternoon. In the evening, Earth Fed troops arrived and set up a barricade at the end of the street facing onto the ‘Berghault’ as most people called it. They parked an armoured car behind the barricade and set up floodlights to illuminate the streets around the Berghault and to dazzle or blind any assailants.
Yldoseh’s commset pinged. It was Arden. His face popped up on the screen. “Hey, I’m sorry to bug you on your day off but we really need you, like now. Have you seen what’s going on out there?”
“Yes, we had a brick through the window and there’s a barricade with troops outside. Aside from that, nothing much is happening.” Yldoseh replied with ironic parody of bland, professional nonchalance.
“Can you get to the office?”
“I’m not sure.” Yldoseh looked down at the street below nervously as she spoke to Arden. “I don’t really know my way around Montgomery that well.”
“Is it okay for me to triangulate on your commset?” Arden asked her urgently.
“What for?” Yldoseh was still getting used to Human technology.
“It’ll show me where you are.” Arden explained. “There’s a back way into the Berghault where they haven’t put up any barricades… yet.”
“I’m not at home.” Yldoseh took small comfort in the fact the she wasn’t on the enclosed side of the barricades.
“Even better!” Arden’s mood brightened slightly. “I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
“No! It’s dangerous out there.” It was Sursipal’s turn to be defiant.
“It’s all right, Mrs Sursipal.” Veronica reassured her as she reached her laser pistol holster down from its peg on the coat rack and clipped it around her waist. “I’ll look after her.”
Yldoseh’s commset pinged again. This time it was Wootjan-Oo.
“I don’t think I’ll be home tonight.” Wootjan-Oo sounded apprehensive.
“What’s the matter?” Yldoseh was concerned. Normally he’d have finished his shift out at the airstrip by now. She had planned to take him out to a restaurant as a treat out of her first pay packet. She could see the interior of the transporter behind Wootjan-Oo on her commset screen, so she could see that he was still at work.
“The locals have surrounded the airstrip and we’re stuck in the transporters. One of them took a shot at P'Gelyn.” The words rushed out of his beak.
“How bad?” She knew Wootjan-Oo and P'Gelyn didn’t get on at all but neither of them would have wished this on him.
“It’s okay.” Wootjan-Oo’s nervous tone failed to reassure Yldoseh. “They missed. But if they start shooting again we’ll have to leave.”
“Where will you go?” Yldoseh didn’t like the sound of this.
Wootjan-Oo glanced around nervously. “I don’t….” There was a flash of static and the screen went dark from a lost connection.
The transporter pilot, See’Enth, a female reptilian, brusquely knocked the commset out of Wootjan-Oo’s claws. “What do you think you’re doing?” She shouted forcefully.
“I was only talking to my mate, Yldoseh.” He squawked feebly as he scuttled sideways to pick up his commset keeping a close eye on the pilot in case she tried anything else.
“Giving our position away to the enemy.” See’Enth countered hotly.
“What? What enemy?” In spite of what had happened, Wootjan-Oo didn’t feel at war with the Humans.
“It’s their technology, you idiot. They can listen in and triangulate your position.” See’Enth explained as she snatched Wootjan-Oo’s commset and, to his dismay, crushed it underfoot before dragging him to the bridge and standing him in front of the forward screen. Outside he could see land vehicles, fliers, aero bikes, groups of humans in pressure suits and dust-proofed mechs in pools of light ranged along the perimeter of the airstrip. They all appeared to be holding weapons of some sort.
“Does that look friendly to you?” See’Enth asked Wootjan-Oo sharply. “They’re the ones who shot at P’Gelyn.”
“Oh.” Wootjan-Oo gave up. See’Enth was right. He might not see Yldoseh for a long time.
Arden’s ‘few minutes’ turned out to be more like half an hour. When he finally appeared at the door, camera in hand, he offered his apologies. He had never been in an enclosed space where Shallens outnumbered Humans and Mechs and felt uneasy but was determined not to let it show.
Yldoseh hoisted the Blue-Eye camera up onto her shoulder as Arden led the way towards the barricade. The Earth Fed troopers up ahead looked ominous in their black uniforms with black helmet visors covering their eyes but Arden didn’t break his pace. Yldoseh struggled to keep us she powered up the shoulder camera and launched four camera drones to widen her field of coverage. For good measure she also had her own headset running to capture it all for her own show on Vermthellyn. She’d send it on to Szelmy and let him do the editing.
She was filming Arden while he was interviewing some of the troopers when she noticed an image from one of the drones on her viewscreen: there was a brawling group of Humans and Shallens just round the corner headed this way. When they came into view the first thing they saw was a group of Humans pulling the feathers off an avian Shallen who was hacking at them with his beak in a defensive frenzy. One by one the troopers shot them with trank darts. When the last one fell over in a drugged stupor, the troopers launched a grappling net over them to drag them back behind the barricade and into an armoured personnel carrier that had just arrived.
All the time Arden kept up a running commentary while Yldoseh filmed the action. After the personnel carrier drove off with its cargo of drugged rioters Arden turned to the troopers’ commander. “I think we’ve seen enough here, officer. Thank you on behalf of Eridania Wave for letting us film Earth Fed in action protecting its citizens.” He thanked the officer without a hint of irony or sarcasm, his voice oozing professional false sincerity and briskly led Yldoseh and Veronica away.
Once they were at the other end of the street away from the troopers, Arden pulled them close and spoke in a conspiratorial tone of voice: “I couldn’t say it back there, but we’re going behind the lines.”
“What do you mean?” Yldoseh was puzzled.
“We’re going to get the story from your side. Earth Fed are thugs.” Arden spat the words out contemptuously. “They shoot to kill and probably only used trank darts because we were there. Come on!” Arden cheerily egged them on.
Arden led them through a maze of narrow streets and alleyways that took them right out to the edge of Montgomery’s dome. Here, the night time air was downright chilly. The peripheries of domes were always a bit colder than the middle. Ambient radiation was also a bit higher. Because of this housing and business space was cheaper. The Berghault was only separated from the edge of Montgomery’s dome by a narrow row of light industrial units and shabby warehouses. Which was why the Berghault was such a flop when it was originally opened: no-one wanted to live in a cold, hi-rad neighbourhood. The builders had insisted that the development’s buildings were more than adequately shielded [they were!] but no-one believed them and potential buyers stayed away in their droves. And so the Shallens were dumped there instead.
Back here it was deserted save for the lone drunken Shallen they encountered staggering aimlessly from lamppost to lamppost. “So far, so good. Keep that camera running. This story is hot and we’re on a live feed. Head office in Cydonia is putting it straight out on their channel.” Arden whispered as he led them in through the back end of the Berghault. Here it was quiet and sleepy, you would hardly even know there was a pitched battle a few blocks away save for the occasional flashes of light blazing up past the buildings ahead and reflected off the dome overhead. The sides of the Berghault apartment blocks were a patchwork of darkened and lit windows.
A late-night convenience store poured out a flood of yellowed light into the poorly-lit street to reveal its three Shallen customers browsing its limited selection of goods under the watchful eyes of an elderly man and a city mech with no armour who was sitting on a stool with his feet propped up on the counter. Here only a few Shallens ventured out to the shop and back. No-one lingered and no-one gave them a second glance.
As they approached the front line the glare from the searchlights began to illuminate the street. Fewer windows were illuminated and they began to see broken windows as well as bricks and rubble on the ground. Here Shallens were moving purposefully to and from the front line.
A young, dust-streaked Shallen whose tunic and breeches were crusted with red Martian dust appeared out of the shadows, held his plasma lance to block their path and addressed Yldoseh in Darkonit: “What are you doing here with that Human and that, that…”
“Mech, one of their machine people.” Yldoseh finished his sentence for him. “They’re with me. We’re news reporters.”
“Spies!” The young Shallen, keyed up by the conflict was having none of it and motioned with his plasma lance. “Come with me.”
Yldoseh didn’t argue. She knew what a plasma lance was and how lethal it was. Arden and Veronica followed as the young Shallen led them into a building that was abuzz with activity; anxious and tense Shallens bustling about, many of them armed. These had been residential apartments occupied by the newly-arrived Shallens, but being so close to the conflict, many of the residents had fled for safer quarters. He led them along crowded hallways with rooms full of Shallens discussing plans for the conflict and knocked on a closed door: “Commander Norfalth. Something for you, sire.”
“Come in.” They could hear his voice from behind the door.
Norfalth looked up to see a young Shallen woman, a Human woman and one of those mechanical beings being bundled through the doorway into his cramped makeshift office that had previously been a bedroom with its bed leaning up against a wall by a scruffy young volunteer who took up position next to Norfalth’s desk.
Norfalth fumbled with his translator as he activated the English language matrix that he’d bought from that crooked Klartupyn in the market and then looked up at his captives. The Shallen girl looked familiar. “Ah yes, Yldoseh.” He said out loud as he finally placed her. “The intrepid reporter who exposed the Chznzet plot to imprison the Keeper. What brings you here with a Human and one of those...?” Norfalth still didn’t know what mechs called themselves.
“Mechs.” Arden finished Norfalth’s sentence.
“Yes, mechs.” Norfalth harrumphed to maintain his dignity and then fixed his stare on Yldoseh. “Well?”
“We’ve come here to cover the story from our side.” Yldoseh explained in her best ‘I’m-not-really-pleading’ voice. “All the other channels are covering from the Human side. Arden thought it would be a good idea to cover it from our side.”
“Who’s Arden?” Norfalth asked her.
“The mech.” Arden’s reply dripped with a tired ironic sarcasm.
Norfalth looked over the sorry crew in front of him and recognised Yldoseh’s Pdzarvian NewsMaster Pro headset. He’d been pestered by enough Rtuntli reporters wearing the exact same headset back on Vermthellyn. He guessed, correctly, that the device mounted on Yldoseh’s shoulder was a Human tech camera. Norfalth was just about to order them not to film in his office when there was a flash of light from the Human-tech camera viewscreen and Yldoseh jumped in surprise.
“Ow!” Yldoseh rubbed her eyes. The flash had been so bright that the rapidly-fading afterimage had almost blinded her.
“What happened? Are you all right?” Veronica asked her.
“I think someone shot one of the drones.” Yldoseh blinked as her sight returned.
“You left them out there?” Arden was mildly annoyed. Drones weren’t cheap and he’d told her explicitly to call them in after each session.
“I didn’t have time.” Yldoseh lied. Truth was, she’d completely forgotten about them.
“Well, call them in for fresh power packs as soon as we get outside.” Arden admonished her. “We don’t want to miss anything.”
“If we get outside.” Yldoseh nervously corrected Arden.
“Yes, if ‘we’ get outside.” Norfalth repeated pointedly as he folded his paws on his cluttered metal desk and looked straight at Yldoseh. “Why should I let you out? It’s dangerous out there. The Humans are shooting at us with projectile weapons and their lasers. We don’t need any more casualties. Especially someone like yourself.”
Veronica blanched. Old-style projectile weapons, although not illegal, were generally frowned upon inside domes as stray bullets could easily perforate and tear a town’s dome causing it to leak precious air. On top of that ammunition was scarce. Earth Fed had long since discontinued the use of projectile pistols, rifles and machine guns opting instead for the lighter, more powerful and recoilless laser weapons. This only meant one thing; that local residents were shooting at the Shallens. She didn’t know whether to tell the Shallens. It might only make matters worse.
Yldoseh shuffled awkwardly as she glanced nervously at Arden and Veronica for support but they stood mutely beside her. They felt completely out of their depth surrounded as they were by aliens who were caught up in combat against their own people.
“We’re here to show the Shallen side, our side, of events.” Yldoseh finally plucked up the courage to talk back to Norfalth, a lifelong ultra-loyalist Guard of House Sedeirtra. “Out there, there are other news teams just like us but they’re only telling the story from the Human side. They’re either too scared to come here or else don’t care about us. Someone’s has to tell our side of the story. Why not us?” She pleaded. “You know who I am. I’m as loyal as you are. I wouldn’t be here otherwise. We’re not spies.” Yldoseh just managed to keep herself from stamping her foot like a young child and glared at the scruffy young volunteer who had hauled them into Norfalth’s office. He aimed his plasma lance squarely back at Yldoseh.
Norfalth leaned back in his chair and looked over Yldoseh and her newly-acquired accomplices. He’d been working out evacuation plans when the young volunteer, Jervyk, had pushed them into his office. His calls to Psy and Colonel Fiorenzo at the Earth Fed military base nearest Montgomery had gone unanswered and they were running out of options. The current working plan was to cut an airlock into the dome nearest to the Berghault, load everyone into the transporters and take them over to the gateway to return to Vermthellyn or go on to Cervetica. After which they’d destroy or abandon the transporters and work out a new plan to recover their worldship. He understood the propaganda value of what Yldoseh wanted to do but felt that things had gone past that point. Still, there was no harm in letting her go so long as she didn’t get herself injured or killed.
Norfalth, who had much more pressing and important matters to attend to, wearily addressed the young volunteer. “Jervyk, look after them and keep them out of trouble.” And then he turned to Yldoseh before waving them out of his office. “Be careful out there, young lady. Now out! The lot of you, I’ve got work to do.” An avian officer in battle dress carrying his plasma lance pushed his way into Norfalth’s office with an urgent message as they left and gave Arden and Veronica a surprised stare.
Back outside, Yldoseh pinged the drones. Sure enough, only three returned. Arden swapped out their power packs and sent them off again. Jervyk stopped them short of the inner end of the Berghault and pointed to the near-stygian darkness above Earth Fed’s spotlights set up on the other side. “You see! They’re trying to blind us. It’s impossible to see where they’re shooting from.” A burst of machine-gun fire raked the ground just ahead of Jervyk and they all dashed for cover in the nearest sheltering shadows they could find. Jervyk and Arden crouched down in an open bicycle shed on one side of the open street while Yldoseh and Veronica squeezed in close behind a row of scruffy vending machines on the opposite side.
“Find the shooter!” Arden shouted across the street to Yldoseh.
“What does he mean?” Yldoseh asked Veronica.
“He wants you to film whoever it was that shot at us.” Veronica explained as she peered around the corner of the rank of vending machines, laser pistol at the ready.
“Oh.” Yldoseh set the drones to scan the buildings opposite the Berghault facing onto the street where they hid.
On the other side of the street Arden slipped and fell on an unexpected muddy patch in the shadows; mud that was a puddle of blood along a trail leading into the darkness. Ramping up the sensitivity of his eyes he saw two Shallen bodies, an avian and a reptilian, lying in a corner bleeding onto the raw Martian soil. “Are they dead?” Arden asked incredulously. He hadn’t seen such casualties since the bad old days before the Synthetics’ Civil Rights Act of 2115.
Jervyk checked their pulse. “They’re alive but unconscious.” He replied tersely as he picked up the lighter avian Shallen. “We can’t leave them here to die.”
Arden picked up the reptilian and shouted across the street to Yldoseh: “Fall back… all the way. Meet up in the shadows.”
Again, Yldoseh had no clue what Arden meant. Veronica, however, understood only too well and grabbed hold of Yldoseh to drag her back to safety. They met up back at the apartment block that Norfalth had commandeered. Jervyk took them to another part where the injured were being treated. No-one appeared to have life threatening injuries: mostly bruises, cuts, torn feathers and a few broken bones. They all stood back looking suspiciously at Arden as Jervyk and Arden hauled their unconscious finds onto a large table. The medics took over immediately without a word being said as they unbuckled armour and cut clothes away to get at the wounds to staunch their bleeding. A Guard in Cooprah hide armour came in and quizzed Jervyk in Darkonit. Satisfied with Jervyk’s reply, the Guard glanced over at Arden, nodded his head curtly but said nothing. Yldoseh had just managed to squeeze in to film inside the Shallens’ temporary field hospital only to be ushered out by Jervyk: “We should leave now. There’s nothing more we can do here and it’s crowded.”
This time Jervyk led them round the back of a block of apartments and up the fire escape to the roof where they could get a good view of the street below and building opposite peering over the parapets. With his enhanced mechanoid night vision, Arden could see armed civilians, both Human and Mech, lurking in the shadowy buildings opposite. He beckoned the others over and pointed the gunmen out. Yldoseh zoomed in on them but even them all she could film were shadowy indistinct figures flitting in and out of view.
“The soldiers in the buildings over there shoot at us and then when we shoot back the ones on the ground shoot at us. It’s a trap!” Jervyk cursed as Yldoseh swung her camera around to film him.
“They’re not soldiers...” Arden glanced quickly over the parapet. “…at least not the ones in the building. The ones on the ground are Earth Fed soldiers.”
“Then who are they?” Jervyk was confused. His simplistic understanding of a single united enemy came into question.
“Local drunks, people who are suspicious of you, thugs who just like a fight, crazed conspiracy theorists and all sorts.” Arden shrugged his shoulders. No doubt they’d find out the next morning as the news teams who were covering that side would break their stories on the news channels.
“Then why are your soldiers shooting at us? Those Humans in the building started shooting at us first.” Jervyk made no attempt to hide his resigned despair. “We thought your soldiers would protect us. That’s what we were told when we arrived here. Now look. They shoot at us.”
Arden didn’t know what to say. He glanced around to see if Yldoseh was filming this. She was. That made him feel a bit more confident. “I’m sorry. If it’s any consolation, there’s a lot of people who are happy to let you live here and don’t want to shoot you.”
“So why them?” Jervyk pointed out across at the buildings opposite where snipers took pot shots at any Shallen they could see.
“There’s a rumour that your people attacked Earth, our home planet.” The ‘home planet’ bit stuck in Arden’s craw as he was a keen supporter of the Mars Independence Movement and had built his career of his ‘everyman-in-the-street’ reportage with an unabashed pro-MIM bias.. “Your ship appeared when all communications with Earth went down. That made a lot of people suspicious. Then when Governor Floyd announced that Earth had been dimensionally displaced that only confirmed their suspicions. Jervyk, they’re not bad people. They’re afraid. To them it looks as if your people attacked us. So in their mind, they’re fighting back against the enemy.”
“Oh.” Jervyk had been at school aboard the Ark of Exodus when his mother rushed in to the classroom to drag him out to one of the loyalist transporters. He was just a bored teenager who had ‘borrowed’ his long-deceased great-great-great-great grandfather’s old plasma lance from the Heuratl wars, to defend his people in what appeared to him as their ‘time of need’. No-one in his family was even sure if it even worked any longer, it was that old. It was even older than the ones on display in the museum aboard the Ark. They only kept it because it was the only family history heirloom his father had. The Heuratl wars had been a long, grinding campaign that had taken a heavy toll on the Shallens. The Heuratl were predatory slave-traders who specialised in picking off vulnerable settlements. The massive and at the time poorly-defended Shallen worldships were rich pickings for the Heuratl. It was during the Heuratl wars that the Chznzet re-emerged as a major player in Shallen politics. Jervyk liked its battle-scarred look and even if it was completely dead he could still use it as a club. It was bad enough having been exiled from that Ark by the Chznzet but he felt he couldn’t just sit by as they were attacked by aliens on a strange world.
They watched the battle below flare up and die down for the next few hours. Yldoseh filmed whatever Arden picked out as he kept up a running commentary. Just as Jervyk had claimed, snipers in the Human-occupied building would shoot at the Shallens. The Shallens would shoot back and then have to duck down from a volley from the Earth Fed troopers. At one point, a burst of machine-gun fire raked the adjacent building in the Berghault. Shattered glass burst out and cascaded downwards followed by a reptilian Shallen whose dead body jerked around like a madcap marionette from bullet impacts as it fell to the ground.
“Varnath!” Jervyk shouted out in shocked dismay. Varnath had been one of Jervyk’s few friends from his days aboard the Ark that had been expelled aboard the transporters which came to Mars. Had he not found Yldoseh, Arden and Veronica out in the street, he would have been up there with Varnath and maybe even just as dead.
Not caring whether it worked or not, Jervyk twisted the plasma lance’s grip to full power, aimed at the machine-gun nest in the building opposite and pushed it forward to fire. To his total surprise it actually worked and it blew a ten-metre diameter hole in the wall. Chunks of cement, bricks, wall panels, flooring, desks, chairs, tables and metal girders exploded out from the wall. The machine gunners, still clinging on to their guns with expressions of horrified surprise, fell screaming to their deaths as they hit the hard, unyielding ground.
A barrage of non-stop machine-gun fire from another window blew chunks out of the parapet as they ran for cover with bullets flying overhead. “Get do… squeeeeeeeee!” Arden’s head exploded in a shower of sparks, metal and plastic in the hail of bullets as he ran for the fire escape.
Yldoseh gawped over at Arden’s headless body standing next to her as they gathered up by the fire escape. “Is he dead?” Arden reminded her of the story about how you could decapitate a bronto and its body would wander around aimlessly for days before it finally died.
“Nope.” Came a small, tinny voice from Arden’s chest. “I’m in here.” Arden patted his chest as they scrambled down the fire escape. “I’ll get a new head tomorrow. Now let’s get out of this place before someone really gets hurt. Hey, Yldoseh, did you get all that on camera?”
When they got down to the alleyway, they could see Earth Fed armoured cars and troopers marching along the streets at both ends towards the inward side of the Berghault. Without warning, spotlights at both ends lit up the alleyway catching them in their glare. There was nowhere to hide and troopers marched up towards them, laser rifles aimed squarely ahead. “Place your weapons on the ground and you will not be harmed.” Loudspeakers boomed off the narrow sides of the alleyway.
Jervyk set his plasma lance down. Yldoseh did the same with the Blue-Eye camera in case the soldiers mistook it for a weapon. Before setting it down she called in one of the drones to film things in case something went wrong.
“Please identify yourselves.” The loudspeakers boomed ominously.
The headless Arden cautiously stepped forward towards one group of troopers. “Arden Montfoi here! Your mech on the street with the latest news, views and rumours on Mars for Eridania Wave.” He started out with his light-hearted on-air strapline before turning businesslike. “I am a member the Martian Association of Journalists and am fully insured for field work. This is my camera operator and these people are with me.”
One of the black-uniformed troopers, a sturdy manbot mech, laughed. “Hey Arden, you sure look different without a head!”
“Yeah, you need to get ahead in life.” Another trooper joked.
Some of the other troopers joined in snickering and laughing at Arden but their officer cut them short with a curt: “Shut up!” He turned his attention to Arden. “Your accreditation, please.” Arden handed over his MAJ card and Eridania Wave company ID. The officer scanned them and passed them back to Arden. “You may go, Mr Montfoi. As you can see this is a live-fire zone. Earth Fed takes no responsibility for any injuries you or your employees may suffer. And one more thing…” The Human Earth Fed officer broke out of his near-robotic formality and rapped his knuckles against Arden’s chest. “Stay out of the way. This isn’t the usual Z-list sleb bunfight that you cover. That shell of yours won’t protect your precious core from projectile weapons fire.”
“Hey, what do you mean Z-list?” Arden indignantly shook a fist at the departing troopers. “I’m at the cutting edge, man!” This time Veronica led the way back to the front line. By the time they got there the Earth Fed armoured cars were parked part way out into the street between the Berghault and the Human snipers and were launching gas grenades across the street. A mobile mech riot control unit was sent out into the middle of the street to forcibly shut down all mechs within 100 metres of its directional field. The directionality was to ensure that any Earth Fed mech troopers deploying it wouldn’t be similarly incapacitated.
Once the shooting died down the Earth Fed troopers stormed the buildings rounding up everyone they found. A few of the shooters managed to escape out the back and into the night. An uneasy peace settled over the Berghault as the Earth Fed troopers reorganised themselves into a security cordon around the Berghault. They might stop people intent on attacking but would they let anyone out? Right now everyone was too tired to put it to the test and seeing that things had settled down the Shallens, first the civilians and later the Guards, drifted away from the front lines back to their homes if they still had one. It had been a long night.
The first grey wisps of early morning light were starting to lighten the dark night time canopy of Montgomery’s dome when they staggered into the Eridania Wave container perched up on the Maze. Rico was exhausted but wired from empty cups of cheap coffee from the dispenser littered around his workbench and high-fived Arden. “Arden, you totally rock man! We got third on the ratings tonight right behind MarsTel and MIM. Nice work, Yldoseh. Shame about losing the drone. The bean-counters will be mighty pissed about that but, hey, it was worth it.”
Although the Blue-Eye camera was surprisingly light, having that thing riding on a shoulder-brace for hours on end was too much for Yldoseh and she plonked it down on the desk before slumping into a chair to massage some life back into her numbed and tired shoulder. Arden took the one other chair in the office so Veronica slithered down the wall and sat on the floor, leaning against the wall for support.
“What are you going to do about your head, Arden? It’ll take a couple of days to get a spare shipped from Cydonia.” Rico plunged straight into the ‘unmentionable’ issue.
“There’s a specialist mech workshop here in town, Sam Kapella’s Krazy Kave.” Arden didn’t sound too worried. “I’ll see what they’ve got in the morning. If they’ve got a printer I’ll get them to run off a replacement shell for the head. I’ve got to look the same even if what’s underneath is different.”
“You worry too much about your appearance, Arden.” Rico, forever the backroom boy, would never understand that even such superficialities as appearance took on a whole new level of meaning on camera.
“I’ve got an image to maintain, bud.” Arden gave Rico a friendly slap on his shoulder. “I can’t keep chopping and changing. But first things first: I want to go over that feed and pick out the best parts for the tomorrow’s show. This is going to be hot! We’ve got the mother lode. Are you up for it?”
“Yeah man, I’m buzzing!” Rico grinned. He was totally wired on cheap coffee and felt unstoppable. “It’s all backed up on the rack. I’ll fire up the editing suite.”
“How about you?” Arden asked Yldoseh.
Yldoseh was exhausted and struggling to keep her eyes open. After their wild adventure, the welcoming warmth inside Eridania Wave’s container ‘office’ made her feel sleepy. “Huh, what?” Veronica, slumped against the wall on the floor beside her, was already asleep.
“Hey, that’s okay.” Arden wasn’t going to push her after her sterling work. “I’ll call a cab for you ladies. Rico and I will take care of it.”
Yldoseh roused Veronica when the taxi arrived and walked her down to the not-so-grand Planitia Lane in the early morning half light. The cool, crisp morning air roused them a bit. They sat in an awkward silence in the taxi, not knowing what to say to each other. Eventually Yldoseh broke the silence. “Is that how your people really feel? Do they want to drive us out and kill us?”
Right at this point all Veronica could really think about was crawling into bed and escaping from the day’s mayhem with some sleep. These were just the sort of questions that she really wanted to avoid. “Who, me? No… stay here as long as you want as far as I’m concerned. I really don’t know about those people who were shooting at you. I suppose we’ll find out soon enough. But they’re not everyone. If it was the whole town, you would be dead by now. If I was like that, I had plenty of opportunity to kill you and many more of your kind last night. Heck, I could have even shot that Norfalth guy of yours.” Veronica idly bragged. Sure, she could have but would have been dead herself within seconds, so in all not such a great idea. “But I didn’t. Doesn’t that tell you something?”
“You’re right.” Yldoseh conceded Veronica’s point. “There were race riots against off-worlders on Vermthellyn. Sometimes… not all that often. Well, maybe. But at least there we were one of many different off-worlders, so it didn’t always affect us as much. Here we’re the only off-worlders. Maybe we should go back to Vermthellyn.” Yldoseh explained in a tired voice. Except she wouldn’t leave Wootjan-Oo who, being one of the few engineers they had to service the transporters, was doomed to stay on this planet until the last Shallens left. Maybe he could get a transfer. Maybe…
They could see the Earth Fed cordon around the Berghault as they got out of the taxi when it arrived at Veronica’s home. Inside, the air was rich with the smell of cooked food. Yldoseh roused Tatia, Xandu and Sursipal who were asleep on the sofa. Veronica accompanied them to the cordon where, not unexpectedly, they were stopped by a trooper who lowered his laser rifle to block their path..
“Sorry, sir.” The trooper addressed Yldoseh. “No-one’s allowed through.” By now Yldoseh was getting used to Humans getting her gender wrong even though she still had no idea why.
“But we live there!” Xandu felt they needed no other reason. Tatia had fallen asleep again leaning against his shoulder.
“We’ve just been visiting our friend here.” Sursipal put her arm around Veronica. “She’s a wonderful hostess but I fear we may have overstayed our welcome due to circumstances…” She deliberately let her speech hang for a moment. The trooper knew just as well as she did that she was referring to the riot. “And it’s really time we went home, which is just over there.” Sursipal pointed to the Berghault behind the trooper’s back. “But you want to stop us. Why?”
“I’m sorry ma’am.” This time the trooper got Sursipal’s gender right. But he didn’t budge. His orders were to stop anyone getting through and that’s what he was determined to do to the best of his abilities, sir yes sir indeedy, click my heels and throw a snappy salute, sir.
They were still wheedling with the trooper when an Earth Fed Officer sauntered up. “What’s all this about, Corporal?”
“It’s these aliens, sir.” The trooper responded full of military urgency. “They want to cross the cordon, sir.”
“Why is that?” The officer toyed with the trooper.
“The claim to live in the Berghault, sir.” The trooper nervously shifted on his feet.
“Claim?” Sursipal nearly shouted at the trooper. “We live there. You should know that. Your people housed us there.”
“I see.” The officer was enjoying this. “So why didn’t you let them through?”
“Our orders, sir.” The trooper felt as if his officer was setting him up. “No-one is to cross the cordon under any circumstances, sir.”
“Well done, corporal.” The officer sarcastically insulted the trooper. “Let them through.”
“Sir, yes sir.” The trooper dutifully pulled back a section of the metal cordon.
Veronica was about to step through when the officer raised a hand, pointed to her laser pistol and stopped her. “I’m sorry ma’am. No weapons. You’ll have to hand that in if you want to go any further.”
Sursipal turned around and hugged Veronica. “Thank you for bringing Yldoseh back. Go home and get some rest now.” Sursipal was right. Veronica was exhausted. She waved good bye to her friends and trudged off home to some well-earned rest.
Xandu and Tatia had a small one-bed apartment at the back of the Berghault that had been untouched by the riot. They stumbled into bed and a deep sleep in each others arms. Yldoseh and Sursipal weren’t so lucky. Their apartment was in the block that Norfalth’s Community Guards had commandeered. The door had been forced open; the apartment looked like it had been hit by a tornado.
“Graagghhhh!” Sursipal growled as she stomped off to her bedroom slamming the door behind her leaving Yldoseh to survey the damage. The floor was covered in litter. The remains of partially-eaten meals were lying in corners and piled up on shelves. Furniture had been shifted around. Chairs piled up in one room and her bed had been pushed up on its side on one wall. A bare metal camp table and two folding chairs stood where the bed should have been. The kitchen had been well and truly raided. There wasn’t much left to eat. Other than that, nothing had been stolen, just thrown around a bit.
She found the Tri-D set leaning up against the wall behind five cases of plasma lance power cells that had been left behind and put it back in its usual place opposite the settee but didn’t feel like watching it. No doubt someone would turn up to claim the power cells soon enough. Too tired to even bother about cleaning up the mess, she went to her bedroom, folded up the table and chairs, leaned them up against the wall, pulled the bed down and wearily climbed in thinking of Wootjan-Oo as she drifted off to sleep.