Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 36: Pieces of a puzzle.

      Yldoseh waited patiently while the barista at the Technobabble Café made her coffee. Normally he was bright and chatty, no doubt buzzing on a few espressos. But the riot had changed everything. Today he just stared at the cup as it filled and handed it to her with a perfunctory “Here’s your coffee, ma’am. Would you like anything else?”
      “What’s the matter Tony?” Yldoseh asked. They were on first-name terms, if only on a business level. Tony made it his practice to get to know the names of all his regular customers to make them feel at home in his café and always engaged them with light chit chat while he served them. It had certainly worked on Yldoseh.
      “Nothing, ma’am.” Tony glanced nervously around the café.
      “Oh, okay.” Yldoseh didn’t press him. She could see that something was on his mind so she paid for her coffee and went to join Veronica. “What’s with Tony?” Yldoseh asked.
      “He seemed a bit quiet. Maybe he has a hangover.” Veronica mused thoughtfully.
      “He just looked at me like I was a stranger.” Yldoseh leaned across the table so that the other customers couldn’t hear her. “Last week he was asking me about life on Vermthellyn and the Ark and telling me things about life here. Now it’s like none of that ever happened…” Yldoseh trailed off as she joined the dots. “It’s the riot, isn’t it?”
      Veronica looked up from her coffee. “Uh huh.”
      “I’m sorry.” Yldoseh apologised for all Shallens without quite realising it. Maybe it was all those years on Vermthellyn looking over her shoulder in case the Gheltsyn had swept into town to start yet another of their anti-offworlder race riots. “We really didn’t want it to be like that.”
      “Well, what did you want?” Veronica asked. She had heard all the talk about how the Shallens on Mars were merely the scout force for an alien invader.
      “Um…” Yldoseh had actually come to talk about the Pdzarvians. She’d barely even given any thought about what the Shallens in general wanted. She had enough to deal with Wootjan-Oo and her mother on her paws. “To find the Ark, reclaim it and go. You’ve made it clear we’re not welcome here. Now that you’ve got a gateway you’ll meet others. Maybe you’ll get on better with them. Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know.”
      Veronica reached across the table to hold one of Yldoseh’s paws. “I’m still your friend. I don’t want you to go.”
      Just then a solidly built man with a short mohican wearing well-worn brown leathers stepped up to their table. “Well, what do we have here? Interplanetary lezzers!” He guffawed crudely as he stepped right up next to Yldoseh and poked her aggressively on the chest. “You fuckin’ aliens can get off of this planet now before we push you off.”
      Yldoseh was mute and stared up at the man. She trembled as her adrenaline level went off the scale. Was he about to attack her? She’d never been in a fight-for-your-life situation before but she knew that was what her body was readying for.
      “Leave her alone!” Veronica got up and reached out to push the man away.
      “You her slave or something?” Mohican sneered as he took a punch at Veronica. Veronica jumped back, grabbed his arm, used his momentum to pull him off his feet and kick him in the nuts for good measure as Yldoseh, all keyed up with adrenaline, thumped him on the back knocking him to the floor.
      “I said, leave us alone.” Veronica tersely told her assailant as he lay groaning in pain on the ground.
      “I’m sorry sir, but I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” Tony helped mister mohican to his feet and into the arms of a waiting policeman.
      “Fuck you, asshole.” Mohican pushed Tony out of the way and staggered out the door holding his crotch. “I’ll be back.” He turned around at the door and shook his fist at the clientele. “Fuckin’ alien lovers. You’ll regret it.”
      “Look… I’m… uh… really sorry about this, ladies.” Tony apologised so obsequiously to Yldoseh and Veronica that it would have made Uriah Heep blush. “Can I get you anything?”
      Veronica looked down at their table on the floor. What was left of their coffees was spilt all over the floor. “A couple of coffees would be nice.”
      “Sure.” Tony picked up the table, wiped it clean and scurried off to his coffee machine.
      “So, where we?” Veronica asked with mock-ironic casualness as she sat down and dusted herself off.
      “Um…” Yldoseh had completely forgotten what she had wanted to talk about. “Oh yes, Grattlyd found Chyptwyt Timeworks. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s at an off-grid free-trade zone. It doesn’t have any gateways. Oh, that and Grattlyd insists on going there with us.”
      Veronica remembered Grattlyd from their jaunt to Zrrlchtz. “How bad is bad?” Veronica wanted to know what she was letting herself in for aside from an extra body to look after. She knew what Grattlyd was like: childishly playful.
      “Off-grid places just take longer to get to.” Yldoseh didn’t want to scare Veronica off with the fact that the free-trades zones tended to be lawless places. “As for Grattlyd, I really don’t know. You don’t have to come if you don’t want to. I suppose I could let them send one of the Guards with me.” Yldoseh sighed.
      “No, no, it’s okay. Really.” Veronica reassured Yldoseh. “I want to see more of what’s out there. Did you manage to get some time off from your job with Eridania Wave?”
      “No. Arden and Rico were recalled to Cydonia after the riot.” Yldoseh confessed. “So I don’t have a job any longer.” Yldoseh managed a weak smile. “It was fun while it lasted. At least I don’t have to beg for some time off.”
      “So when do we start?” Veronica wanted to know how much time she had to get ready.
      “Grattlyd wants to meet us tomorrow morning at the Fort Melchisor gateway.” It was a bit sudden. Yldoseh had hoped for more time to break the news slowly to her mother but that was out of the question now.
      The gateway was very different from how Veronica remembered it. The last time it was large, gloomy mysterious dome inside a mountain almost empty except for the dais, Gregor’s old tour bus and a couple of beat-up aero bikes. Now it was a brightly-lit hive of activity with gantries, workstations and stacks of crates filling it up. Here Humans, Mechs and Shallens worked together seamlessly unloading deliveries from the gateway dais as if the riots had never happened. A lone Nglubi operated the gateway.
      “Do you think that’s Grattlyd?” Veronica asked quietly.
      “I don’t know.” Yldoseh confessed. “They all look the same to me.”
      Unseen to either of them a tentacle snaked out from behind to caress Veronica’s boobs. It was a very light touch; at first Veronica thought she might have put her bra on wrong in the rush to get out in the early morning until she looked down and saw a lone tentacle clumsily trying to fondle her boobs. “Get your tentacle off my tits!” She swatted Grattlyd’s tentacle away as she and Yldoseh turned around just in time to witness Grattlyd tucking the guilty tentacle away.
      “We don’t all look the same.” Grattlyd huffed in its deep liquid voice.
      “Well you certainly take after Psy.” Veronica scowled at Grattlyd.
      “Sorry.” Grattlyd apologised like a young child caught stealing biscuits from a jar.
      Yldoseh eyed up the gateway. “It looks very busy. Will we have to wait long?”
      “Oh, we’re not using that.” Grattlyd replied dismissively.
      “We’re not?” Yldoseh was confused. “How else can we get there that won’t take several lifetimes?”
      “Come with me.” Grattlyd led them away from the busy gateway chamber and down a succession of deserted darkened passages that lit up as they went along. The air was colder than in the gateways chamber and Veronica was starting to feel a chill. They eventually arrived at a much larger chamber that had a spaceship identical to the one Psy had used for their journey to Zrrlchtz sitting on top of a gateway dais that was many times larger than anything Yldoseh had ever seen. “Ta-daa!” Grattlyd held out a tentacle as it proudly pointed out its Omphalatta to Veronica and Yldoseh.
      “That’s a gateway, isn’t it?” Yldoseh asked Grattlyd. “Why aren’t you using this one?”
      “It was only delivered a few of your days ago and won’t go active for another week.” Grattlyd explained. “So until then…”
      “It doesn’t work?” Veronica guessed at what Grattlyd was going to say next.
      “No. Well, sort of.” Grattlyd bluffed while it thought up an explanation that gave away as little as possible. “I’m testing it. I’ve set up a link with the nearest deep-space gateway to Belzar-Tel-Sa'an which is where Chyptwyt Timeworks is.”
      “Testing?” Veronica picked up on what Grattlyd said. “That means it might not work?”
      “Only a very low probability.” Grattlyd countered defensively.
      “Of working or not working?” Veronica needed a solid assurance before she’d entrust her life to a pervy alien squid.
      “Of not working.” Grattlyd felt mildly insulted. “Do you think I want to die before my real life even starts?”
      “Just checking.” Veronica replied as Grattlyd led the way into its Omphalatta. Inside it was structurally identical to Psy’s ship but this one was decorated like an alien teen hangout, which was exactly what Grattlyd was. Grattlyd slipped into the pilot conch and biostone seats flowed up out of the floor for Yldoseh and Veronica. They were surprisingly comfortable and Yldoseh appreciated there being a gap for her tail after battling against the limitations of Human furniture.
      “So when do we start?” Veronica hated waiting around.
      “We just left the deep-space gateway.” Grattlyd proudly replied as it turned the hull transparent so that they could see the vastness of space outside.
      “Oh.” Veronica had expected something more dramatic: flashing lights or whiz-bang rocketry sounds or both. She found the silent, smooth transition disorienting even though Psy’s ship had been just as quiet. There had been so many people on board that time she hadn’t noticed. “How long does it take now?”
      “About ten hours your time.” Grattlyd replied smugly having suitably over-awed Veronica. “I did a bit of homework on Chyptwyt Timeworks.”
      “And?” Yldoseh wanted to know all she could about them.
      “First off they cater to the hyper-rich.” Grattlyd eagerly shared what little knowledge it had gleaned. “…minor potentates, people who already own multiple planets or have interplanetary business empires and are looking for that ‘something special’ as a holiday getaway. I looked up their list of customers. The Chznzet don’t really fit that pattern. They generally indulge their customers’ fantasies rather than doing political stuff.”
      “Secondly, they haven’t been around for very long, a few decans at most.” Grattlyd added with sniffy disproval.
      “Why should that matter?” Veronica couldn’t see the significance.
      “You surprise me.” Grattlyd patted Veronica on the shoulder with one of its tentacles. “Someone comes along offering custom fantasy universes and timeline rewriting to the hyper-rich. It does appeal to their vanity a bit, don’t you think?”
      “You think they’re frauds?” Veronica could see where Grattlyd was going.
      “On some level, yes.” Grattlyd admitted. “But they do seem to have a lot of satisfied customers.”
      “Or a lot of gullible suckers who are too embarrassed to admit they were swindled.”
      “Possibly.” Grattlyd was pleased the Human wasn’t quite as dumb as some that it had come across.
      “Whatever they sold the Chznzet didn’t work as it was supposed to. Look what happened.” Yldoseh pointed out.
      “Exactly.” Grattlyd agreed. “If it had worked we wouldn’t even be here now and neither of you would exist.”
      “Gee, thanks.” Although true, Veronica didn’t appreciate Grattlyd’s logic.
      “We exist!” Yldoseh asserted playfully. “And I intend to keep on existing.”
      “Well, at least that’s settled.” Grattlyd chuckled approvingly. The hours coasted along as Grattlyd treated Yldoseh and Veronica to its collection of popular and not-so-popular ‘yoof’ music from around the Orion Arm of the Milky Way. Yldoseh was surprised not only at how much of it she recognised but how much she’d never heard before. Grattlyd must have had a lot of time on its tentacles to dig up that collection! It ranged from the cheesily tuneful to mathematical abstraction to structured noise to sonic assaults to epic alien symphonies and back again in no particular order.
      Grattlyd was still merrily entertaining / boring to tears Yldoseh and Veronica as Belzar-Tel-Sa'an gradually came into view. At first it was just an illuminated dot in the distance that grew larger as they approached. At a million klicks it looked like a multi-faceted jewel floating in space. At a half a million kliks its surface looked like elaborate psychedelic patterned rococo etchings. They bathed in the warm orange glow of its giant sun as they hurtled inwards.
      “Is that it?” Yldoseh asked.
      Grattlyd turned down the music. “Belzar-Tel-Sa'an.”
      “What is it?” It didn’t look like any sort of planet to Veronica and it was way too large be a space station.
      “Belzar-Tel-Sa'an.” Grattlyd repeated as if that was all that needed saying.
      “No, but what is it?” Veronica was still none the wiser. “Is it a planet, a space station or what?” By now they could clearly see that its surface wasn’t solid but riddled with caverns arranged in neo-organic patterns.
      “It used to be a planet.” Grattlyd explained vaguely. “And if you look carefully you can see the remains of its five moons. They catch the light very nicely.”
      “Used to be?” Veronica wanted to know more. “What do you mean?”
      “I think it was during the third Terexi War. It could have been during the second or fourth…” Grattlyd was never that interested in history and frequently got names, places and dates either hopelessly muddled up or glaringly wrong. At least this time it was fairly close. “Well, it was one of them. Anyway Belzar was a primitive agricultural planet that was on the periphery of the Phandruphi Corporatum and nominally under their protection. The Terexi seeded Belzar with self-replicating nanobots that dismantled the entire planet and turned it into what you see now.”
      “What happened to the people who lived there?” Veronica stared out the window at the captivating fractallized beauty of Belzar-Tel-Sa'an.
      “Them too.” Grattlyd replied without a trace of emotion. “Everything was consumed. They say that the spirits of the Belzari live on within Belzar-Tel-Sa'an but no-one really believes any of that. The Corporatum administrators hold an annual asteroid bombardment festival. Contestants have to shepherd asteroids to crash into the exterior of Belzar-Tel-Sa'an and the winner is chosen on artistic qualities. So it’s not just about how much mass you can slam into it but also a matter of choosing your angle of attack and location because that determines what the nanobots will do with your asteroid.”
      “Is it safe?” Yldoseh didn’t like the idea of being deconstructed by nanobots.
      “Sort of.” Grattlyd gave her a half-answer. “The exterior is still active. You have to be very careful flying in towards the core or else you’ll end up assimilated into it. The core is as dead as a rock so it’s as safe as things get in this part of the galaxy. It’s got so much mass it holds its own atmosphere so you don’t need a pressure suit. Actually it’s got multiple atmospheres in different zones. That’s something else the nanobots did.”
      By now Belzar-Tel-Sa'an Looked about as solid as a metallic sponge with light refracting and glinting off parts of its surface. Other parts appeared to glow softly with reflected light. Veronica was marvelling at the fractallized finery of its surface when a dour-looking grey-and-puce skinned alien with an array of dark blue vertical slit eyes and a thin horizontal slit of a mouth wearing a dull metallic outfit appeared on the Omphalatta’s viewscreen.
      “Nglubi personal transporter, please state your destination.” The alien demanded.
      “Chyptwyt Timeworks.” Grattlyd replied. It knew they were based at Belzar-Tel-Sa'an but had no idea where in Belzar-Tel-Sa'an they had set up shop.
      “One moment please.” The alien consulted someone or something off-screen before turning its attention back to Grattlyd. “Landing fee is five hundred Galacs which includes non-renewable berthing for a quarter radian. You will be assigned a beacon trail to the nearest docking bay upon receipt of payment.”
      Grattlyd must have wired over the payment because the alien continued without waiting. “Do not deviate from your assigned beacon trail. The Belzar-Tel-Sa'an Consortium takes no responsibility and does not pay compensation for any traffic loss or fatalities. Enjoy your visit to Belzar-Tel-Sa'an.” The alien disappeared from their viewscreen and was replaced by a view of the surface of Belzar-Tel-Sa'an that filled the entire screen. They were heading towards a cavernous opening where they could easily see streams of traffic flying in and out of Belzar-Tel-Sa'an.
      Ahead of them a squadron of fliers attacked a shabby-looking freighter which caught fire and careened out of control towards the fractalloid surface around the entrance. Grattlyd zoomed in on the doomed ship as the fliers circled around picking off whatever escape pods they could find. “Watch this.” The hulk of the ship crashed into the rim of the entrance tunnel and they could quite clearly see it being fractallized as its mass was incorporated into Belzar-Tel-Sa'an. By the time they entered the tunnel there was nothing left of the ship, not even a ripple or scar on the surface where it had impacted. “Neat, huh?”
      “Shouldn’t we have done something to help them?” Veronica was aghast at Grattlyd’s casual indifference to the loss of life they’d just witnessed.
      “Are you mad? No. The first rule of survival in a free trade zone is to stay out of other peoples’ battles unless it directly affects you. You’ll only get drawn into a conflict that you don’t understand fully. No-one will thank you for it and you’ll probably end up dead for your efforts.” Grattlyd shrugged a few of its tentacles as it turned its attention back to the Omphalatta’s flight controls.
      The first thing Veronica noticed was that the entrance tunnel wasn’t so much a tunnel as a portal. The outer region of Belzar-Tel-Sa'an looked more like a fractallized lattice that changed almost imperceptibly with each iteration as it receded in all directions. It was like flying through a three-dimensional psychedelic hallucination without the worry of any unwanted drug-induced side-effects.
      It took another hour before they reached the docking bay. It was a vast 3D array on the outer edge of the atmospheric zone deep within Belzar-Tel-Sa'an with ships of all sizes, shapes and condition parked up. Their assigned berth was between a sleek black ship that was almost as small as one of the Space Force interceptors that Veronica flew and a scuffed dull grey transporter with markings in bright garish alien text. Attendants and service bots scuttled between the many ships berthed up in the docking bay loading, unloading and refuelling them. They were approached by a guide bot that offered to guide them to Chyptwyt Timeworks for a ‘modest’ fee of twenty five Galacs which Grattlyd reluctantly paid and grumbled about how expensive this jaunt was turning out to be.
      Luckily the guide bot fee included an air taxi which took them past arcades of exclusive shops built in to the vaulting fractallized arches that seemed to extend to hazy heights further than the eye could see. By the time they got out of the air taxi, the docking bay was almost out of view at the bottom of what looked like and endless chasm.
      “Stop!” Grattlyd ordered the guide bot. “Wait here.” Grattlyd shot over towards a nondescript terminal on the concourse as fast as its tentacles could carry it. Yldoseh and Veronica had to run to keep up.
      Yldoseh recognised it immediately. It was almost identical to the many translator terminals dotted around the gateway terminus in Estrillyd. “Why the fuss about a translator terminal?”
      “This is the perfect place to upload Veronica’s language and get it distributed around the galaxy.” Grattlyd explained enthusiastically. “If enough people use my translator matrix I might even earn some Galacs.”
      Yldoseh plugged a fresh data block into her NewsMaster Pro headset, put it on her head and adjust the drop-down visor before flipping it up out of her line of sight. “We’re almost there, are you ready?” She asked Veronica.
      Veronica felt a slight tremor of stomach butterflies as she unclipped the safety strap on her holster, checked that her pistol was powered up and felt for the three spare power packs that she’d attached to her belt. “Yep. Are we there yet?”
      “Just about.” Grattlyd patted them on their heads with two of its tentacles. “Follow me.”
      The entrance to Chyptwyt Timeworks was framed between a pair of arched fractallized stone columns polished to a shiny bronze colour with cream-coloured light seeping out from the seams, gaps and joints. Inside there were highly detailed holographic displays of planets, landscapes, cityscapes, seascapes and solar systems along each side of the entry foyer.
      Yldoseh launched into the narrative she’d rehearsed for her docu-exposé. “And here we are at Chyptwyt Timeworks, the very source where the Chznzet acquired their timeline rewriter. And what a fascinating place it is!” She panned around the grand arching foyer and zoomed in for close-ups of the displays. “…To think that this establishment has the ability to alter history in whatever way its’ clients desire.”
      A short, podgy Pdzarvian wearing a neo-baroque outfit and cape stitched through with iridescent fibres who had been observing them unawares stepped out from behind the display closest to Yldoseh. “And at a reasonable price, too.”
      “Wah!” Yldoseh jumped up in surprise as she looked around to see where the voice was coming from.
      “Ah, an Nglubi.” The Pdzarvian could see that Grattlyd was a juvenile. “Have you come for the day-trip special? Only two hundred thousand Galacs for the entry-level experience that includes the empire of your choice, epic battles that you are guaranteed to win and a choice of lifestyle fantasies for any taste or curiosity. It’s quite the bargain! Customisations, extensions and add-ons cost extra.”
      “No, we’re just looking.” Grattlyd was floored by the outrageous price but kept its composure. Compared to Veronica and Yldoseh, Grattlyd was fabulously wealthy but even it still wouldn’t be able to afford a ‘day-trip special’ even if it saved up from this moment until it matured into adulthood in a centuries’ time.
      “In that case we have brochures and souvenirs that you’re welcome to take.” The Pdzarvian was reasonable generosity incarnate. “Feel free to look around.”
      “We already have one.” Veronica picked the junk mail out of her shoulder bag and activated it. “We picked it up at the Galactic Council.”
      “Oh, that was terrible what happened there. Did you see the announcement? Ambassador Lyvchwn said they’ll relocate to the Selglecti swarm-system.” The Pdzarvian sympathised. “They say it’s very picturesque but I’ve not been there. Have you?”
      Yldoseh had gone off stalking around the foyer filming the displays and psyching herself up. She returned to ambush the Pdzarvian. “And here we are at Chyptwyt Timeworks, the very place that claims to have given the Chznzet the means to pull off their amazing stunt. Billions of Shallens want to know: How. Did. They. Do it?”
      The Pdzarvian who had been gaily showing Grattlyd and Veronica around the displays was stunned into silence. “The who?” Was all he could muster in a choked voice.
      “The Chznzet, of course!” Yldoseh replied brightly as she snatched the junk mail gadget out of Veronica’s hand and set it to play its pitch. It was plain to see that the Pdzarvian making the enthusiastic sales pitch was none other than their current host. She stopped it just after the holographic image of their chubby host proudly announced: ‘Why only today, The Chznzet Faction came to us with the sad story about how their home world was wiped out long ago in an ancient war. Well, you can be sure we’ll see a happy ending to their story.’
      “Oh yes, them.” The Pdzarvian seemed anything but happy. “Could you wait here please?” It scurried off to the back of the foyer and into an office. “Uncle Remi, Uncle Remi, there’s some people out there asking about the Chznzet. You know, the ones who robbed us.”
      “I know what the Chznzet did, Zelthyn. How can I forget? They took our only working timeline rewriter.” Remi scolded Zelthyn as if it was his fault. “What did you tell them, Zelthyn? We never discuss our clients… client confidentiality.”
      “Nothing, uncle.” Zelthyn pleaded. “They had an advertiser. You remember the one I did mentioning the Chznzet? The one you said was a good idea?” Zelthyn added a titbit for Remi. “They got it at the Galactic Council just before it blew up.”
      “Well it seemed like a good idea at the time.” Remi dismissively shoved the responsibility onto Zelthyn. “Galactic Council, you say? There could be some money in this.” Remi gleefully gloated as his mercenary nature took over.
      “No, they’re just looking, Uncle Remi.” Zelthyn fawned as he deflated Remi’s hopes.
      “Oh,” Remi came back to reality with a bump.
      “It’s so boring out there. Hardly anyone comes here.” Zelthyn whined. “Can’t we just get a greeter bot?”
      “Absolutely not.” Remi firmly slapped down Zelthyn’s suggestion. “We’re a high-end exclusive business. It would be an insult to our clientele to use a greeter bot. I thought you might like some sales experience. Never mind.” Remi sighed. The damage was done. “You run along to the workshop with your grandfather and I’ll see to our visitors.
      “Yes, Uncle.” Zelthyn was glad to be absolved of any responsibility and scuttled off to the workshop.
      Remi strode up to our little gang and clasped his claw-like hands together. “Welcome to Chyptwyt Timeworks, purveyors of truly unique experiences. My assistant tells me you’re enquiring about one of our clients, the, ah… Chznzet.”
      “Yes!” Yldoseh launched into her patter. “Using a device acquired from Chyptwyt Timeworks, the Chznzet have somehow thrown a planet believed to be our mythical HomeNest into a dimensional loop. Not only that but they’ve made an entire worldship disappear from sight. Billions of Shallens today have one question: How. Did. They. Do it?”
      Remi recognised Yldoseh’s version of the Pdzarvian NewsMaster Pro headset for species with binocular vision and chuckled inwardly: A child, barely older than Zelthyn, playing at being a news reporter. How cute! “I’m sorry but we don’t discuss our clients. We’re a highly exclusive service here and customer confidentiality is paramount. You’ll understand, of course.” Remi, however, was never one to miss an opportunity. And right at this moment he saw himself looking at free advertising exposure that only a fool would pass up. “I can, however offer you a guided tour of our esteemed establishment.” Remi gestured grandly. “If you’ll follow me…”
      “Here we have the Claxhlub homeworld restored to its former glory after the Vorticon home furnishing debacle.” Remi held out his hands to proudly show off a dull, foggy planet that was almost shrouded in rain clouds.
      “It doesn’t look like much.” Veronica didn’t like the thought of being somewhere perpetually rainy. She had grown up on the dry Mars.
      “But it’s their home!” Remi pointed out brightly as he led the way to another exhibit. “And that’s how they like it.”
      “This is Blaeneria 2, home to Nuraldio the Omnipotent.” A planet, swathed in a faint opalescent glow floated in the display. “And if you zoom in, you can see the planet surface.” Remi zoomed in to reveal a world where the land, its flora and fauna all glowed with a soft light and let them marvel at the view. “It’s quite heavenly but the radiation levels would be absolutely lethal to the likes of you and me.”
      “Over here we have Grentana IV,” Remi strolled across the foyer towards a display with a heavily built-up planet. You could see multiple space stations in orbit around it. “This is the incredibly popular role-play and gaming world developed in collaboration the Synton Fides. One of many such projects we have brought to life.”
      Remi sauntered along to another display of a chaotic universe where entire galaxies were being bent out of shape and nebulae swirling in and out of existence. “This is the Glopstiverse commissioned by Thuvligiana Glopst XIV, a completely chaotic universe. I’m not too sure if I’d want to go there but she likes it enough to brag about it to all her friends.” Veronica, Yldoseh and Grattlyd were completely entranced by the swirling, chaotic exhibit.
      Remi led them to a large, well-lit room at the back of the foyer. It was suffused with a faint icy blue glow on its dark metallic walls. Near the entrance on a low stand was an open framed polyhedral object with a translucent orb suspended in the middle. Strips and shapes on the orb emitted a blue glow which reflected softly off the matte-finished ceramic polyhedron. Remi walked up to it and placed a hand on the top. “This is our standard bubble universe generator.” He then leaned down and picked up two half-metre long cylinders and held them out. “These are anchors, they work in pairs. You attach one to the generator and leave the other one in a safe place in this universe, activate the generator and off you go! Simple as that.”
      “What, you only have the one?” Yldoseh asked incredulously.
      “Oh, no!” Remi cackled merrily. “This is just a display model. We have hundreds on the go at any time. A client tells us what they want, our chief scientist programs it up and they take delivery as per their contract. We have a 100% customer satisfaction rate.”
      Remi led them to the far end of the room. “This is a display model of our famous timeline rewriter.” What looked like a giant purple plasma ball was held aloft by a black metal circular frame with a control panel suspended between two of the support struts. “We are not able to offer the timeline service at present as our timeline rewriter is currently in for repair. We will, however have that service on offer again as soon as our rewriter is back in action.” Remi pitched their timeline rewriter service to the viewers he imaged Yldoseh might have.
      “Is it possible to enter a bubble universe after it has been created?” Yldoseh quizzed Remi.
      “Well yes. You just find the anchor in this universe and walk through or fly though or whatever depending on where it is.” It seemed so obvious to Remi as to hardly need explaining. “But it’s generally frowned on. It’s a bit like entering someone’s home without being invited in if you know what I mean.”
      “What about dimensional displacement?” Veronica questioned Remi. “Could these anchors be used to undo it?”
      “I’m sorry, what do you mean?” Remi really had no idea what she meant.
      “Our world has been affected by a timeline rewriter or else the universe generator. Maybe both for all I know.” Veronica explained. “Our world is being continuously replaced by different versions from alternate universes.”
      “Oh, that could get confusing.” Remi found it amusing. “I think you’d have to talk to our chief scientist about that, who happens to be through here...” He led them through to a brightly lit workshop. Racks of advanced alien electronics were scattered around a long bench where there was a line of universe generators with their frames opened and cabling running from the unlit dormant spheres to what must have been some sort of control console beside each one. A dormant timeline generator surrounded by tools and electronics consoles stood neglected in a corner.
      Zelthyn, still wearing his fancy showroom clothes, was tapping at one of the universe generator consoles. Another Pdzarvian wearing a dull green lab coat and a magnifier over its central eye was at a workbench poking away at a piece of machinery with what looked like some cross between a welding torch and a plasma spike.
      “Delvan, father, someone here for you.” Remi called out.
      The Pdzarvian in the lab coat switched off the torch, set it down and flipped up his magnifier as he walked over to Remi. “Some more customers? See, I told you Zelthyn 'ad it in him.”
      “No, father…” Remi explained impatiently. “…some visitors with a question for you.”
      “Oh well, that’s different then. Go on.” He nodded towards our trio.
      Veronica explained what had happened to Earth and the resultant dimensional displacement that was causing random alternate Earths to take the place of their Earth.
      Delvan listened patiently until Veronica stopped. “Well you could use a pair of anchors but you’d 'ave to 'ave one in this universe and one on your planet, which might not be possible if wot you say is right.”
      “But it would work?” Veronica asked hopefully.
      “Yeah.” Delvan was certain it would work. “You’re basically anchoring a micro universe to this one which is wot the anchors are supposed to do in the first place. Whether it would hold an entire procession of alternate planets in place is anyone’s guess. You might want to do it with at least one other world and their universe too. The more you do, the better your chances.”
      “Could we buy some of those anchors?” Veronica asked.
      “I’m sorry we don’t sell them.” Remi interrupted. “However you can lease them at very reasonable rates.”
      “How much?” Grattlyd asked cautiously.
      “Fifty thousand Galacs each per Llindorian year.” Remi casually reeled off the company rate.
      “Is that a lot?” Veronica asked Grattlyd.
      “Yes.” Grattlyd was disappointed by the extortionate price Remi asked but accepted that maybe you could ask prices like that in the custom universe business and get away with it.
      “Oh, is that the actual timeline rewriter over there?” Yldoseh asked brightly to turn away from a topic trail that was rapidly running out of steam.
      “Unfortunately it’s out of action at the moment, but do take a closer look.” Remi turned to lead the way.
      “Nah, that’s the good ‘un.” Delvan interrupted.
      Remi stopped in his tracks and turned back to face Delvan. “What? You mean that’s the working one? Why didn’t you tell me before?”
      “I’ve been meaning to tell you all along, Remi.” Delvan pleaded with his bullying son. “But you ‘ad Zelthyn and me working on that pre-industrial game world an’ ‘alf a dozen private porno playgrounds you wanted us to get ready.”
      “Well, there you have it, from our chief scientist!” Remi quickly took command of the situation in case his father blabbed any more about the timeline rewriters and led them away from his babbling father. “Chyptwyt Timeworks is back in business with its famous timeline rewriting service!” He let Yldoseh film it for a short while before herding them up. “Thank you for visiting Chyptwyt Timeworks. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
      “Can you confirm that the Chznzet were customers of yours?” Yldoseh asked boldly.
      This was just the sort of question that Remi dreaded and replied with a cautious: “Yes.”
      “Thank you.” Yldoseh wasn’t going to let up now. “I notice you have displays outside from some of your other clients. “Will you have a similar display from the Chznzet?”
      Remi bluffed his way out with a plausible excuse not to discuss the Chznzet…. Something he really didn’t want to talk about: “We only have displays where the client has given us express permission. Most of our clients prefer confidentiality, you understand, and the Chznzet are no exception.”
      “I see. Thank you.” Yldoseh then returned to her brighter airhead narrator mode as she panned around the workshop. “And here we have it; the workshop where universes are made and timelines rewritten to order! Who would have thought that such a place could exist?”
      Remi ordered Zelthyn to shepherd our trio off the premises and waited until they left the workshop before turning to his father, Delvan. “So what actually happened?”
      “Well, you remember them Chznzet was in such an ‘urry an’ all?” Delvan launched into his story.
      “Well of course they were in a hurry. They were robbing us.” Remi peevishly reminded his father of the obvious. He’d been robbed a few times before and in his experience robbers were always in a hurry.
      “Anyway they took the one nearest the service doors. That was the faulty one I was repairin’ for you at the time.” Delvan continued. “I wasn’t going to let ‘em take the good one, now was I? Even if they wanted to I don’t think they ‘ad the time to get at the other one, you know what they was like.”
      Remi afforded himself a wry chuckle. Maybe there was justice after all. “Serve ‘em right to get the dud ‘un.”
      “Yeah.” Delvan heartily agreed.
      “You don’t think that might have caused what happened to their world?” The thought had vaguely crossed Remi’s mind.
      “Could’ve done…” Delvan scratched his head. “But given the fact that it was the timeline interpreter synect that wouldn’t focus properly, I’d ‘ave thought it more likely to ‘ave thrown their planet into a permanent time loop. Honestly, it’s like a guessing game with that stuff, Remi. I still ‘aven’t figured out their language properly.”
      “It gets better.” Delvan gave Remi a nudge as he continued. “The universe generator they took ‘ad a leaky dark matter conversion matrix. Two for one, Remi! They thought they was clever but we got the bastards!”
      “So… what happens when a whatsit matrix leaks?” Remi was none the wiser.
      “Well a universe generator uses a dark matter conversion matrix to sustain the universe wot it generates.” Delvan was in full geek mode. “Normally we program it for a fixed period of time, for instance a Llindorian year or maybe ten for those gamers. Well with that one the universe would start fizzling out after the first few months and take everyone with it.”
      “Hmmm…” Remi considered a possibility. “That might just take care of the Chznzet for us.”
      “It could, it could.” Delvan snickered darkly. He knew exactly what Remi meant. “I miss my lab back home.”
      “You’re doing a great job here father.” Remi jollied his father along.
      “You’re working Zelthyn and me like slaves.” Delvan complained piteously. “You could at least pay us and give us some time off.”
      “Do you see me paying myself or taking time off?” Remi countered with righteous indignation. “What do you think pays for everyone back on our colony at Centus V to eat while they reclaim the soil after the plague that turned all our crops into inedible slime? Us, that’s who. That’s what all those stupid porno playgrounds we sell to rich vacuous idiots are paying for. You have to see the bigger picture, father.”
      “I know.” Delvan conceded sulkily. “But I still miss my lab.”
      “I know.” Remi briefly put an arm around his father to comfort him. He admired his father for his brilliantly playful genius and alternately loved or loathed him for his selfless humility and humble manner. He could have been a fabulously wealthy research scientist on one the Pdzarvian main worlds but instead lived his life out in a remote agrarian colony world. “We’re going to need more of those universe generators soon.” Remi changed the subject back to business.
      “There’s thousands more out at that old wreck we found, so no problems there.” Delvan cheerfully reassured his son.
      “What about the timeline rewriters?” Remi wanted to know how they stood as far as stock went.
      “Didn’t see so many of ‘em.” Delvan thought back to when he had discovered the wrecked ship that was stuck part way into an asteroid. “There might be two or three more wot work. There were others but they looked quite badly smashed up. Maybe I ought to salvage ‘em for parts.”
      “So what were they originally?” Remi suspected that his father knew a lot more about the alien technology he had found than he ever let on.
      “What were what?” Delvan didn’t know what Remi was talking about.
      “The universe generators.” Remi explained as if talking to a very simple child.
      “Oh, them. Life boats of some sort given how they was arranged along the inside o’ the hull.” Delvan hypothesised. “Did you know that ship’s over a hundred thousand Llindorian years old? The hull’s quite affected by vacuum metal sublimation.”
      Grattlyd staggered into the Omphalatta with tentacles on Veronica and Yldoseh’s shoulders for support as the entrance iris port flowed shut behind them. “Graaakkkk, I feel sick.” Grattlyd barfed out nine trans-dimensional anchors which fell clattering to the floor in a puddle of faintly orange Nglubi saliva and digestive juices. Grattlyd shook with relief. “I don’t feel well.”
      Yldoseh and Veronica stared down in disbelief.
      “I saw a box of those anchors so I helped myself to a few of them.” Grattlyd coughed up a minor flood of stomach acid as it settled down gingerly in its conch. “It’s not as if we could afford to lease them.”
      “You’re right about that.” Veronica tried not to notice Grattlyd’s vomiting. “But how do they work?”
      “Let the Omphalatta figure it out.” Grattlyd heaved up another cascade of Nglubi stomach acid as it pointed to the collection of anchors on the biostone floor as it oozed up around them. “It’s good at things like that.”
      “We better get out of here before they discover you stole some of their anchors.” Yldoseh reminded Grattlyd of their situation.
      “You’re right.” Grattlyd spasmodically ejected another burst of stomach acid onto the floor as it telepathically relayed the instruction to the Omphalatta. Outside it lifted silently off its berth in the landing bay and set off to follow the beacons leading safely out of Belzar-Tel-Sa'an. Inside, the biostone floor dutifully absorbed Grattlyd’s outpourings of stomach acid and cleared them away as if nothing had ever been there.
      Grattlyd got up cautiously out of its conch and, leaning against the wall with a tentacle, made its way slowly towards a small, private room. “I’ll be back…. In a bit.” Veronica and Yldoseh sat in silence staring at the anchors embedded in the milky white floor.
      Eventually Yldoseh broke their silence as she took off her headset, unclipped its data block and put it in her bag. “Not as good as I’d hoped but at least we have confirmation that the Chznzet bought something from them although we don’t know what. We can assume that they didn’t use the timeline rewriter otherwise, as Grattlyd pointed out, we wouldn’t be here. So it’s a safe bet they have a universe generator. Knowing the Chznzet, they’ve made themselves a bubble universe with their HomeNest.”
      “Well at least they’re happy and out of the way so that’s one up.” Veronica commented.
      “What? Are you mad? The Chznzet stole our worldship.” Yldoseh had no sympathy for the Chznzet. “There’s millions of people and even off-worlders like the T’lunth who were just swept along against their will. We’re going to reclaim the Ark for our clan and for everyone aboard.”
      “Sorry, I didn’t know.” Veronica apologised. Yldoseh cooled down a bit and gave Veronica a condensed Shallen history including an explanation of who the Chznzet were and how they were instrumental in Yldoseh and the other Shallens landing on Mars.
      Veronica interrupted Yldoseh at one point. “So you’re best friends with the queen of your worldship. Is that it? Are you royalty or something?”
      Yldoseh laughed at the very idea. “No, Knetryxx is like you and me. Her father is a herdsman on the environment deck. We went to school together. The Keeper is chosen at random for a ceremonial role. Knetryxx hates the courtly airs and graces. She complains that being the Keeper has completely ruined her life. We do have a Royal Family.” Yldoseh curled her lip into a sneer. “But they live on Cervetica and they’re only interested in themselves. She’s had to receive a few of them aboard the Ark. You’ve never met anyone so pretentious and conceited. Really.”
      “Oh, I think I have.” Veronica put Psy squarely in the pretentious and conceited box. Irritatingly so. The rest of the way to the deep space gateway Veronica and Yldoseh swapped stories about life on Mars, Vermthellyn and aboard the Ark.
      When they arrived, Grattlyd emerged from the side room in much better spirits. “That was close.”
      “What was?” Veronica looked up at a restored Grattlyd.
      “Those anchors have a ceramic outer shell.” Grattlyd explained. “The dye they use is toxic to us Nglubi.”
      “Is it poisonous?” Yldoseh was concerned.
      “No, it just makes you chuck your guts until there’s no more and then some.” Grattlyd explained ruefully having just experienced exactly that. In spite of the Omphalatta’s ministrations, Grattlyd’s stomach still felt quite tender. “Time to divvy up the booty!” The Omphalatta dutifully disgorged the anchors just in front of where Yldoseh and Veronica were seated. Grattlyd lowered itself down on its tentacles. “Now I did the thievin’ but I couldn’t have done it would my two trusty accomplices.”
      “Talk like a pirate!”
      “So that’d be three apiece.” Grattlyd divvied them up
      “But they only work in pairs.” Veronica dropped out of her pirate character.
      “A spare!” Yldoseh gleefully waved a trans-dimensional anchor in front of Veronica.
      “Maybe we should test this here treasure.” Grattlyd suggested. Which they did: Touch a pair together, activate them, pull them apart and look for the faintly visible energy field linking them together. They all worked! Satisfied with their haul, Grattlyd activated the gateway and they rematerialised back on the industrial dais at Fort Melchisor. When they stepped out onto the dais they were greeted by the surprised stares of Earth Fed workers assembling a loading bay on one side of the dais.
      No sooner than they stepped off, Grattlyd’s Omphalatta disappeared in a burst of light from the dais. “Well, wham-bam, thank you, ma’am.” Veronica said to no-one in particular as she and Yldoseh walked back to the main chamber at Fort Melchisor. “I thought Grattlyd wanted to hang out with us.”
      “Eh, Grattlyd’s quite young for an Nglubi.” Yldoseh knew a bit about the Nglubi. “Sort of a pre-pubescent teenager with a character to match. They mature a lot later in life than we do. Don’t expect much and you won’t be disappointed.”
      Veronica said nothing as they walked along. This time the tunnel didn’t light up for them and the only lighting came from overhead lights strung up by the workmen.
      Yldoseh took one of the anchors out of her bag and offered it to Veronica. ”Here, you have this. You’ll need it more than me.”
      Veronica looked at the anchor but didn’t take it. “What?”
      “You heard what that scientist said.” Yldoseh felt surprised she had to even explain herself. “He said you’d need to use the anchors on more than one planet to hold it in place against the dimensional displacement.”
      “That’s if we even find our own planet again.” Veronica felt the odds were infinitesimal.
      Yldoseh said nothing but continued to hold out the anchor for Veronica. Veronica reached out and tentatively took hold of it. Yldoseh let go.
      “Are you sure?” Veronica asked cautiously.
      “Yes.” Yldoseh looked over at Veronica as she took her paw away from the anchor to complete her offer. “We only need one pair to anchor the Ark and recover it. What use would the other one do me? You might as well have it. That way you’ll have two pairs which increases your chances of success. If you need more, get the last pair from Grattlyd. If we need more, our clan will buy them from Chyptwyt wotsits. We know where they are at Belzar-Tel-Sa'an. Your people don’t and they don’t have the means to get there yet.”
      “Thanks.” Veronica let what could have been a veiled insult go and put the extra anchor in her bag. They didn’t have to wait around long before they were able to catch a lift back to Montgomery aboard an Earth Fed flier.
      “So you see, entropy always wins out.” Bill said as he set down his beer and leaned back in his chair with a triumphant smile and clasped his hands behind his head. “If they’ve created a bubble universe it will eventually fizzle away to nothing and everything within it will cease to exist.”
      “That’s fine except for one thing.” Wootjan-Oo countered between sips of stout. In the weeks since they had settled in Montgomery, Wootjan-Oo would meet up with Bill and Malcolm in the Wobbly Goblin. “Our home and everyone living on it would disappear.”
      “Ah yes, I hadn’t thought of that.” Bill’s triumphalist posture crumpled.
      Malcolm’s commset pinged. Veronica was back in range. He sent her a ping leaving her free to meet up if she felt like it. “They’re back!”
      “Who?” Bill was thinking about bubble universes.
      “Veronica and Yldoseh!” Malcolm felt he was stating the obvious.
      “They are?” Wootjan-Oo was almost incredulous. He’d been worried sick about Yldoseh going to a lawless hive of villainy like Belzar-Tel-Sa'an and had hardly been able to get any sleep while she was away. He immediately got out his commset and sent her a message.
      Yldoseh and Veronica’s commsets pinged at almost the same time as they stepped out of the flier and into the sealed walkway leading to Montgomery. Veronica looked at hers. The screen displayed: ‘Wobbly Goblin, Malcolm, Would you like directions?’ Without even looking up Veronica asked: “Wobbly Goblin?”
      “How did you know?” Yldoseh couldn’t figure out how Veronica had guessed where Wootjan-Oo was.
      “Men and beer. You can’t separate them.” Veronica joked.
      Sure enough, when they finally got to the bar Wootjan-Oo, Bill and Malcolm were, beers-in-hand, loudly interrupting each other with competing multiverse theories. Yldoseh snuck up from behind and gave Wootjan-Oo a big hug that rumpled a few of his feathers. He didn’t mind… it was good to feel her breath and warmth again. He turned around and gave her a little peck. “What have you got for us this time?”
      “Hah! Funny you should mention it.” Yldoseh toyed with Wootjan-Oo as she pulled up a seat and held out a thumb. “We found Chyptwyt Timeworks.” Then a finger. “They admitted that the Chznzet are one of their customers.” Then another finger. “I’ve got a good idea what they’ve done.” “And yet another finger. “And, I’ve got these, ta-daa!” She whipped her pair of anchors out her bag and placed them on the table. To a resounding silence.
      “Bookends?” Malcolm finally broke the silence.
      “No, Trans-dimensional anchors.” Yldoseh was so excited she didn’t even notice the blank response she was getting from Bill, Malcolm and Wootjan-Oo. “You activate them in pairs, stick one on the bubble universe generator leave the other one somewhere in this universe, activate the bubble generator and off you go. The link between the anchors is your gateway.”
      “How big?” Was Bill’s first question.
      “He said you could fly through it, so I suppose you could get a ship through it.” Yldoseh hoped that was what Delvan meant.
      “Well they got the Ark through if that’s what they’ve done.” Wootjan-Oo pointed out the obvious.
      “Veronica has some to anchor Home… er… your world to this universe” Yldoseh almost said HomeNest.
      “If it reappears.” Veronica doubted if Earth would ever reappear.
      “How does that work?” Malcolm was bowled over by this sudden inrush of alien technology.
      Veronica opened her mouth to speak but Yldoseh beat her to the mark. “You activate a pair in this universe and take one to the micro universe that contains your planet. That anchors them together.”
      “Great, but how will they know for certain if they’re in the micro universe?” Wootjan-Oo saw the obvious problem.
      Yldoseh didn’t know either. “Um… take it down to the surface of the planet? That should do it… I guess.”
      Margot Jones, communications officer fifth class, came on shift at the Metropole One communications centre just as an alternate Earth where Spanish was the dominant culture and language was fading away into a wash of static on the overhead screens. For the next few hours it was just the same old static. Suddenly Margot’s HUD pinged. It was the Kourou encryption handshake! They were back in contact with Earth. “It’s Kourou!” She shouted out as she flipped her HUD down to follow the action.
      [Pablo] *Whoo-hoo, it’s Kourou!
      [Suzanna] * Got London here.
      [Arkhan-D] *Whoah, they’re piling in.
      [Ricardo, mgr.] *Let ‘em get connected first. Deal with their grousing later.
      In short order London, Santiago, Shanghai, New York, and a hundred other data feeds came online. Click, click, click… It didn’t take long before word got out and all the feeds were swamped with traffic flooding in from Mars and Luna. Metropole One had, from the beginning, been the main communications hub between Earth and its colonies on Luna and Mars.
      Captain Wolfgang Metz, commander of the Space Force wing assigned to Metropole One, sat back with his feet on his desk and his data slate cradled in his lap. He was annoyed at the way the SF Trumpton’s Wing Commander had so casually ordered him to assign his squadron of shuttles to plug gaps in the blockade around the alternate Earths. They had enough to do policing the unruly traffic flowing in and out of Metropole One as it was and looked forward reluctantly to yet another day of pleading and wheedling with Wing Commander Jennings to release a few of his shuttles for their regular duties.
      Major Emmaline Mercier of the Space Force European Headquarters at Ciudad Real in Spain popped up on the wall screen overlooking Wolfgang’s desk. He wasn’t looking up. “Wolfie, you’re back!”
      Wolfgang jumped with surprise and sent his data slate flying across the office. He recognised that voice and looked up. “Major Mercier! What? How did you do this?”
      Emmaline smirked at Wolfgang’s panic. “We have a window. I don’t know how long, maybe a few hours, maybe more. Did you lose a shuttle, specifically the Cygnus B?”
      “Yes.” Wolfgang didn’t expect this. “But that happened after we lost contact with you. How could you know?”
      “Were these the crew?” Emmaline disappeared from the screen and was replaced by a badly-filmed scene of what looked like a campsite in an overgrown garden. The crew of the Cygnus B; Nora, Sergei, Bill and Bennie were tied up to metal posts. In the foreground you see a few of the rag tag captors milling around.
      “Yes, that’s them all right.” Wolfgang was stunned. “But how? What happened to them?”
      “Are you seeing alternate Earths from where you are?” Emmaline pressed on.
      “I think that’s what it is.” Wolfgang had a tough time accepting the current ‘dimensional displacement’ theory.
      “We’re seeing alternate universes from here.” Emmaline explained. “First you disappeared then a few days later we see another station that calls itself ‘Naryan Eye’. We lost contact with them after half a day. Then about three days later they reappear. Then they disappear for ten days. Then they reappear. This has been going on for over a month now. Then they sent us that video clip demanding a ransom in some currency we’ve never heard of. It looks like that’s where your crew ended up.”
      “Can we rescue them?”
      “We’re working on it.” Emmaline reassured him. “Just one thing, Wolfie. Don’t send a rescue mission out after Cygnus B. We’re taking care of it. It’s likely to be a shooting match and your shuttles aren’t equipped for it.” Emmaline paused for a moment. “So what’s been happening at your end?”
      “First contact!” Wolfgang launched into a the story of contact with the aliens who were in a worldship, how it had appeared when they lost contact with Earth, how the worldship had now disappeared and that some of the aliens were living on Mars.
      Emmaline managed to get a word in an hour later “Impressive. And Metropole One?”
      “Hell.” Wolfgang slumped in his chair. “We had riots up here for two weeks solid after we lost contact with you. We didn’t get things back under control until the Trumpton turned up.”
      “The Trumpton?” Emmaline was surprised. “What’s it doing in Earth orbit? It’s supposed to be patrolling Jupiter.”
      “It was?” Wolfgang wasn’t privy to strategic information and just took things as they came.
      Emmaline realised, too late, that she had let slip information that Wolfgang didn’t need to know and changed the subject to the missing crew. Hours later after Wolfgang had a chance to put a call through to his wife and children in Düsseldorf and further not-so-subtle debriefing by Emmaline the connection began to break up. “I’ll let you know how the rescue mission goes next time...” was the last Wolfgang heard as the signal broke up into mush.
      “How long did it take you to figure out they were up to something?” Sergei Rudovski asked Bill and Bennie as he leaned back in his canteen chair aboard the Naryan Eye. The canteen was identical to the one Bill had discovered on the other ring except this one was cleaner and used by humans instead of raccoons who’d figured out how to work the dispensing machines. It had the same service bots scuttling around and even they looked cleaner and more purposeful.
      The Naryan used this canteen but tended to keep their distance from the Cygnus B crew unless it was something to do with their ongoing standoff. That distance was made even greater by their language barrier. The Naryans made no attempt to learn English and only spoke in Esperanto. Aside from Sergei, none of the Cygnus crew understood Esperanto so communication was sparse at best. The Naryans made no pretence about the fact that they considered handing their guns over was just an act and that they were still in command of the Naryan Eye.
      “I’ve noticed about two times when a lot of fresh faces appeared and some old ones left.” Bill double-checked his memory in case he was mistaken.
      “Hell, they don’t even try to hide it from us.” Bennie joined in. “I was floating around the hub one time when a transporter docked and a whole bunch of them came aboard. It stayed for three days and then left full up with people going back to their planet. And they’ve been checking out our shuttle pretty close. I watched them trying to get into it once.”
      “You know what this means?” Sergei let his chair fall forward so that he was sitting close up to their table. “It means that they’re in contact with their world. Not just once, but several times. It means that whatever’s been happening isn’t just random, it’s periodic and that means we might be able to get back to Metropole One.”
      “How do you know it’s periodic?” Bennie remained unconvinced. “Maybe it’s chaotic and they just get lucky by keeping people on standby until a window opens up.”
      “If their world shows up from time to time then maybe ours does as well. Either way, chaotic or periodic, we wait until Earth shows up and make a run for it.” Sergei made it clear that he was determined to get away from the Naryan and their chaotic junkyard space station. “So we need that shuttle prepped and ready to go at a moments’ notice, you with me?”
      “Sure.” Bill’s ankle still hurt and he really wanted to get back to Metropole One where he could get it properly seen to. “When do we start?”
      “Now would be a good time.” Sergei got up from the table to lead the way. They had only got out of the canteen when their commanding officer, Lieutenant Nora McDermott, came running up behind them.
      “Sergei, there you are! I need your services.” Nora gasped after running flat out to catch up with them.
      Sergei turned around and smirked smuttily at the breathless Nora. “Oh really?”
      “In your dreams, Rudovski.” She knew what Sergei meant and the answer was no. He just wasn’t her type. “As an interpreter, dumbass. The Naryan station commander wants to talk to me about something. It’s kind of urgent.”
      “Yeah, sure.” Sergei dropped his act and poked Bennie in the chest. “Shuttle.”
      “What was that about?” Nora watched as Bill and Bennie scuttled off to prep their shuttle, the Cygnus B.
      “I thought it was about time we checked our shuttle and maintain it in a state of flight readiness.” Sergei replied casually. “When do we start?”
      “Now.” Nora led the way at a brisk pace around the knots of curiously amused Naryan hanging out on the concourse. “He showed me some vids of Metropole One and the Trumpton. I don’t think they’re anything from our video logs but I didn’t want to get Bill and Bennie’s hopes up in case they turn out to be a fake.”
      “Wha… how?” Sergei couldn’t believe his ears. Maybe there was a way home after all!
      “That’s where you come in.” Nora explained. “You’re the only one of us who can speak Esperanto." They eventually reached the operations control room which had a commanding view across the interior of the Naryan Eye ring. You could see which sections were completed, sections that were nothing more than open lattices and the struts leading to the central hub. Inside, vines and flowering plants grew floor-to-ceiling not only along the wall but from seemingly random points around the room. One vine had grown part-way around one of the many active glowing control consoles. All the leaves faced whichever light source was nearest in a vegetal embrace.
      The Naryan station commander, a wiry balding man, introduced himself as Terval. Neither Nora nor Sergei had seen him around before. He certainly wasn’t aboard the Naryan Eye when they arrived. Nora was certain of that. They’d met all the Naryan top brass aboard the Naryan Eye at the time. He activated two projectors. One displayed an image of Metropole One and the Trumpton. You could even see some of the traffic flowing in and out of the great station as well as some of the Trumpton’s fliers. The other one displayed what felt like a ground-level rush across on land, forests, lakes, mountains, jungles, cities, oceans, deserts and more at a hypersonic speed. It was Earth all right. Both Nora and Sergei could see that all the cultural details were right.
      Terval waited a short while before speaking. “Ni kredas ke via rakonto. Ni estis al ambaŭ via mondo kaj via universo.”
      Sergei translated faithfully: “We believe your story. We have been to both your world and your universe.”
      “Ni estas interesitaj en via teknologio.” Terval continued in a genial mood. “Speciale ke ŝirmita. Ni ŝatus aĉeti ĝin aŭ eble plurajn se la terminoj estas agrabla. Kiel akto de bona fido ni estas pretaj por eskorti vin hejmen.”
      “We're interested in your technology.” Sergei translated word-for-word. “Especially that battleship. We'd like to buy it or maybe several if the terms are agreeable. As an act of good faith we're prepared to escort you home.”
      “Oh crap.” Nora groaned. Of course she was thrilled at the prospect of going home! “No way would they sell the Trumpton. That ship’s state-of-the-art. And the Space Force docks at the Imbrium orbital shipyards off Luna are already at full capacity. Those Naryan had better be pretty patient if that’s what they want.”
      “So they use us as pawns.” Sergei was ever the realist. “At least we’re out of here and with any luck the negotiations won’t involve us.”
      “You’re right.” Nora agreed with Sergei. “Let’s take them up on their offer.”
      The official response…” Sergei prompted Nora.
      “Wha… oh, right.” Nora cleared her throat. “Thank you. We accept your offer.”
      Which Sergei dutifully translated: "Dankon. Ni akceptas vian proponon. "
      "Bonega!" Terval almost gloated as he clasped his bony hands together. "Ni lasas en ses horoj."
      “It’s all go in six hours.” Sergei told Nora.
      Nora whistled. Things were moving quickly. “The Cygnus-B is stone cold. It would take us nearly that long that long to get it flight-ready. It better be a short journey, we haven’t got that much fuel left.” Unfortunately it was another hour before Terval let them go. He treated them to a potted history of their world and their tribe, the Naryan, in a video presentation that would under any other circumstance been quite fascinating but had Nora impatiently looking at her watch the entire time.
      After the presentation, Terval brought in the Naryan pilot whose ship was going to lead the way. Nora thought he looked stunningly handsome in his oiled brown leather flight gear and looked on enjoying the view as he and Sergei discussed their flight plans.
      Sergei relayed the news as they finally walked away from the seemingly interminable meeting. “We should be able to coast most of the way. We have to go three universes across so it means we have to skip across three planets while the window is open.”
      “Do we have enough time?” Nora didn’t want to die drifting in space with no fuel.
      “Edmundo the pilot thinks so.” That was good enough for Sergei.
      “Do you think Sergei and Nora have been at it?” Bennie asked as he brought the Cygnus-B’s main systems back online.
      “I’d give him one.” Bill was gay.
      “You’re out of luck there, pal.” Bennie tried to console Bill. “He doesn’t swing that way.”
      “And you?” Bill asked hopefully.
      Bennie never had the chance to answer. The airlock door crashed open and Nora and Sergei pushed their way in. “We’re off in four hours. We’re heading back.” Nora could barely believe what she was saying.
      “April fool!” Bill didn’t believe it was even possible.
      “It’s for real.” Sergei understood Bill’s cynicism. “Go. You and Bennie grab everyone’s kit. And be back here in an hour. What else needs doing?”
      “Boot up the avionics and warm up the plasma injectors.” Bennie replied as he got up to follow Bill. “Takes at least two hours to heat them up to optimal.”
      “We can still take off if they’re cold.” Sergei knew that from hard-learned experience. A troop-carrier he had been piloting had been ambushed once on a mission during the South-East Asian Secession wars.
      “But it wastes fuel and has poor performance.” Bennie countered from textbook knowledge.
      “You’re right about that.” Sergei remembered only too well the troop transporters’ agonisingly sluggish performance as it only just managed to escape the hail of ground fire attempting to bring it down. “Now, chop-chop. Get kit, get back pronto. OK?”
      “Yes sir.” Bennie snapped a salute and ran off with Bill.
      Fours later the Cygnus-B and her trusty crew lifted off from the Naryan Eye’s central zero-grav hub following a small Naryan warship. Bennie counted five canon turrets down each side. “They’re not taking any chances. Bennie commented.
      “You never know what we might meet along the way.” Sergei replied realistically. “Best to be prepared.”
      “The Trumpton would have them for breakfast and not even burp.” Nora dismissed the Naryan’s ship armaments from her co-pilot’s seat next to Sergei. “Let’s hope they don’t try anything stupid.”
      The first leg of the journey took them down to skim off Esplenia’s upper atmosphere, That was the Naryan’s name for their homeworld, When they bounced back up the Naryan Eye was gone. They coasted along for a few hours before dipping down again. This time it was a different planet and they were met with a barrage of missiles which they outran. This time when they bounced up there wasn’t just a space station but what looked like an entire city in space.
      “My gosh!” Nora was overawed by the sight of the vast space city. “Why would the Naryan be interested in trading with us when they’ve got this?”
      “Because we’ve got the Trumpton and maybe these people don’t have anything like it?” Bill suggested.
      It was another slow day at the Metropole One Space Force Flight Control. Mitch Connolly had already seen the last of his patrol ships requisitioned for the blockade and was left with a skeleton crew to handle routing shipping requests and settled into his morning coffee and donut. Mitch nearly dropped his coffee with surprise when Nora McDermott’s face popped up on one of the secondary viewscreens in Flight Control. “Mitch, can you sent a tug out? We’re coasting out of fuel.”
      “Wha… wow!” Mitch had to believe what he saw. “We’d given you up for lost. You’re in luck, I can manage a tug. Everything else has been pulled for that damn blockade.” Mitch looked at the adjacent screen. There was an unidentified blip next to the Cygnus-B’s marker on the screen. “You’ve got company.”
      “I know. They brought us here.” Nora explained.
      “Friend or foe?” Mitch wanted to know their status.
      “Friendly but they’re tooled up.” Nora put Mitch in the picture.
      “Okay, I’ll get the Trumpton to keep an eye on them.” But Mitch didn’t have to. A third screen displayed a feed from the Trumpton showing them tracking the two incoming vessels. Two hours later the Cygnus-B and the Naryan ship docked at Metropole One.

Scribbles & Scraps
Chapter 35
Chapter 37