Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 37: A long shot.


      It was a Thursday morning, a week after her journey to Belzar-Tel-Sa'an with Yldoseh and Grattlyd. It had been such a crazy trip; Veronica could still barely believe it had even happened. It was only the bag with the four trans-dimensional anchors that hadn’t moved since she dumped them on the coffee table when she got home that served as a mute reminder of where she’d been.
      Veronica, wearing an old scruffy dressing gown and pink fluffy slippers, stumbled around her kitchen half-asleep rustling up something edible for breakfast. She left the Tri-D set running in the living room. Five minutes later she emerged with a bowl of cereal in one hand, a cup of steaming coffee in the other, shuffled into the living room and sat down on her sofa. The Tri-D set had a shopping channel presenter breathlessly hyping up a hideous ladies’ fashion wear outfit that Veronica wouldn’t be seen dead in. The romance fiction channel Veronica had been watching the previous night alternated between shopping specials and agonising low-budget soap operas in the mornings. Soap operas like Verity Street which were so bad you spent most of your time watching it thinking of new and creative ways of killing off all the characters.
      Seeing how Verity Street wouldn’t be on for another half hour, Veronica switched over to the news channel. Behind the newscaster, an obvious fresh-faced and ridiculously handsome male clone, was a muted video clip of the current Earth Fed president, Datuk Embong Nambiar, addressing a group of functionaries at the General Assembly in Geneva. ”…following from the surprise temporary contact with Earth, we have another story that seals the deal on the multiversal dimensional displacement theory.” Behind the newscaster the scene changed to show a standard Earth Fed shuttle and a ship that Veronica had never seen approaching Metropole One.
      “Yesterday, a shuttle that had gone missing from Metropole One over a month ago reappeared accompanied by a ship from an alternate Earth.” The scene behind the newscaster changed to show the crews from the ships disembarking. “Word has it they’re here on business looking for trade with us and Earth.” The picture switched to a close-up shot of their commander, Terval, chatting optimistically with a group Naryan officers. “They call themselves the Naryan; they speak Esperanto and call their world Esplenia. They claim to have travelled to other alternate Earths and that regular travel is not only possible but safe.”
      Veronica looked over at the bag of trans-dimensional anchors lying half-open on the coffee table where she’d thrown them down a week earlier. This meant they might just work. But how was she supposed to get them there? Veronica took comfort in the fact that they mentioned trade. It meant they’d be back and that there would be other opportunities so she shrugged her shoulders and tucked into her cereal as the morning news babbled away in the background.
      After cleaning up her apartment Veronica set out for the Technobabble Café to meet Yldoseh. The marketplace was almost empty today with just a few fresh produce stalls over by the Wobbly Goblin. The marketplace really only came to life on Friday and Saturday. The rest of the time it was a wide open plaza in the centre of Montgomery dominated by its central fountain which was designed to recycle its water to create the reassuring illusion of an eternal source of water and life.
      Tony was closer to his usual chatty mood when he served Veronica. “Yldoseh’s over at table number five. Sorry about what happened last week.” Tony picked out a slice of chocolate cake with a dusting of icing sugar for Veronica. “Here, have it on the house.”
      “Thanks.” Veronica went over to the table. Yldoseh was half-asleep at the table, her grip slipping from her double espresso as it sat on the table in front of her. Veronica shook her shoulder. “Hey, Yldoseh, are you okay?”
      “Huh, what?” Yldoseh opened her groggy eyes as she looked up and took a gulp of her espresso and blinked as she swallowed. “I was up all last night doing the voice-overs and commentary for my show about Chyptwyt Timeworks. It’ll go out on Vermthellyn later today.”
      “Why don’t you put your shows out here?” Veronica suggested.
      “Do you think anyone would be interested?” Yldoseh hadn’t even thought about it.
      “Only one way to find out: Put your stuff up on LifeBoard and see how many viewers you get. Heck, it’s free so you’ve got nothing to lose except a bit of time to set things up.” Veronica gave Yldoseh some encouragement. “Did you see the news this morning?”
      “No, what?” Yldoseh barely had time that morning to drop off the data cube so that it would be delivered to Vermthellyn later that day. Breakfast had been half a cold fishcake she found on the kitchen counter.
      “A shuttle from Metropole One that had gone missing six weeks ago turned up last night escorted by a ship from an alternate Earth.” Veronica quickly summarised what she’d heard while eating her breakfast.
      “Wow! You’ve got a chance to recover your world.” Yldoseh was excited by the news even if Veronica sounded jaded. “What are you waiting for?”
      “There’s no way I could get there in time.” Veronica couldn’t see how she could get to Metropole One before the Naryan left to return to their space station. “The standard passenger flight takes six weeks if you set off when Earth is approaching its nearest point to Mars. That window has gone and won’t be back for half a longyear. Flight time will get longer until it’s not worth the bother for a few months. That’s expensive, too. At the moment all I can afford is a bunk on a freighter taking the Hohmann Transfer. That’s nine Martian months. So I’d miss those Naryan by a mile.”
      “Still it would be worth taking the anchors to that station, Metropole One. From what I heard your world will reappear.” Yldoseh suggested.
      “Yeah, you’re right. Maybe I could get a job there while I wait.” Veronica thought out loud although the prospect of being cooped up in a freighter for months on end didn’t appeal to her. Just then a briefcase was placed on their table. Veronica looked up to see who or what was at the other end. “Psy?”
      Psy said nothing. Shi pulled up a seat, opened the briefcase to reveal Grattlyd’s three trans-dimensional anchors inside and then briskly clicked it shut. “How lucky I am to find both of you here! We don’t have much time. The Naryan leave tomorrow. Grattlyd told me you have three each. We’ll need yours, Veronica. Yldoseh, you keep yours. Reflinghar was very impressed with your latest vid and sent a group of scientists to measure the radiation signature of the universe generators. They hope it will help them locate your worldship.”
      “Do you think these anchors will really work?” Veronica wanted to believe but somehow didn’t fully trust the goofy old Pdzarvian scientist at Chyptwyt Timeworks.
      “I don’t know.” A rare moment of candid honesty from Psy! “From what Grattlyd told me there’s a good chance they might. At the moment, it’s the only tool we have in the box and, even if the Naryan have normalised themselves to this dimensional shifting, I still don’t think it’s a good idea.”
      Veronica felt uncomfortable about the fact that she basically agreed with Psy. “And who are you to make that decision?”
      “The Nglubi field agent for this sector of the Orion arm.” Psy replied proudly. “Don’t get me wrong. It might be new and exciting in the short run. Trade and travel with alternate Earths, maybe even a few wars if that’s what you want. Your people seem to like them. But in the long run the histories and timelines of all the alternate Earths will merge and that might not be a good thing. Maybe good for you Humans, I don’t know, but an anomaly like that might be bad for the universes.”
      Veronica hummed sceptically. “So because you don’t like something, you want to shut it down?”
      “Do you want things to stay as they are?” Psy asked Veronica earnestly. “Well?”
      Psy’s candour caught Veronica off guard. In spite of being a Space Force interceptor pilot, she was also a born and bred Martian and, for the most part, supported the Mars Independence Movement’s aims. At least as far as the Montgomery municipal elections went. She always voted for the MIM candidates even if they didn’t always win. Their recent separation from Earth only brought home to Veronica how much Mars still needed Earth and that total independence from Earth was an unrealistic fantasy at the present time but might work out at some time in the future when Mars had a larger population and a fully self-sustaining economy. “No. You’re right. It just bugs me to agree with you… on anything.”
      “My apologies.” Psy was miffed. Shi really did think shi could just breeze into Veronica’s life as if shi hadn’t spent an entire tour with the Flaming Watusis mocking Veronica for not being loose enough with her libido. “The clock is ticking, love. We really need to get moving.”
      “What’s the point?” Veronica wanted to put the anchors into action. Even if they didn’t work at least she would have tried. “Today, tomorrow, next month, it doesn’t matter. It’ll take months to get there.”
      “I have the means.” Psy purred confidently. “Now finish your coffees, ladies. No time to waste.” Once shi successfully shepherded Veronica and Yldoseh outside, Psy flagged down a taxi which dropped them off outside Veronica’s apartment block. “What’s with all the scaffolding? It looks like a building site on this street.” Every building on this section of the street facing onto the Berghault development was undergoing one form of repair work or another. Some buildings were surrounded by scaffolding and sheeting; others had construction machinery, hoists and small cranes parked outside them.
      “Oh it was the riot.” Veronica answered awkwardly as she opened the door.
      “Did I miss anything?” Psy asked curiously as they went up the stairs.
      “No!” Yldoseh and Veronica answered in unison. Veronica almost lost her balance but Yldoseh caught her.
      “It was just a misunderstanding.” Yldoseh nervously tried to brush the subject away.
      “Yes, just a misunderstanding.” Veronica didn’t feel like talking about the riots either. Instead she led the way into her apartment and went into her living room where she’d left her bag with the trans-dimensional anchors on the coffee table a week ago. No sooner had she picked it up than Psy pulled a blue Psionic crystal out of hir jacket pocket and transported them instantly to hir Omphalatta which was parked out on the Montgomery airstrip next to the Shallen transporters.
      “What???” Yldoseh was caught by surprise. She’d heard stories about the Nglubi and what their crystals could do but had never experienced it first hand.
      “Strictly short-range, love. It wouldn’t be able take us to Metropole One.” Psy held up hir blue Psionic Crystal to show to Yldoseh as shi settled onto the control seat and console that extruded from the Omphalatta’s biostone for hir. “We’ll be there in about an hour.”
      Similar seats, although without any consoles, extruded from the floor for Veronica and Yldoseh. Yldoseh was pleasantly surprised that her seat had a gap for her tail, a welcome respite after months of battling against tail-less Human furniture.
      Now that their journey was underway, Psy brought up whatever info and images there were available of the Naryan and their ship. One screen appeared to be a close-up of the Naryan ship as filmed by a remote probe flying very slowly around it. Another screen showed the Crew of the Cygnus-B being interviewed. A third screen cut back and forth between scenes of the Naryan walking around Metropole One and a guided tour of the Naryan’s ship. A fourth screen showed a tech team going over the Cygnus-B making sure that it hadn’t been booby-trapped or wired up with eavesdropping or tracking devices.
      “They look very confident.” Psy commented as one of the screens showed a group of Naryan sharing a joke through an interpreter with some of Metropole One’s crew. “We might have a problem.
      “What do you mean?” It seemed straightforward to Veronica. Give the Naryan a pair of anchors to deploy for their world and use a pair to anchor Earth back to this universe.
      “They’re talking about trade.” Psy continued. “They seem to have adjusted too well to our new circumstances. I doubt if they want to put things back the way they were.”
      “Maybe it’s meant to happen.” Veronica suggested.
      “Pah!” Psy dismissed Veronica’s suggestion without a second thought. “A gang of religious nutcases buy some faulty gadget from a Pdzarvian conman. A faulty gadget which, instead of delivering their nirvana, throws your planet Earth and all its alternates into permanently shifting between universes. And you call that predestination?”
      “Stranger things have happened.” Veronica could see that Psy was having none of it.
      “And the moon is made of green cheese.” Psy sneered contemptuously at Veronica. “We’ll have about a day at Metropole One before the Naryan leave. Chat them up and see what you can find out about them before we give them the anchors.”
      “How are we supposed to do that? None of us can speak Esperanto.” Veronica pointed out the obvious fault in Psy’s plan.
      “Bat your eyelashes, show a bit of leg and stick your tits in their faces? That’s what I’d do. Most men understand that language.” Psy certainly would but shi knew Veronica well enough by now to know that Veronica wasn’t quite as mercenary. “Oh, okay, give me your translators. You’re in luck. I made an Esperanto translation matrix back in the day before Grattlyd hatched. I had a lot more time on my hands back then.”
      Yldoseh and Veronica gave Psy their translators which shi pressed onto hir console while it uploaded the Esperanto-to-Nglubi Elktan translation matrix. When it was done Psy returned them along with a capsule. “Swallow that. It’ll neutralise most of the alcohol you’ll drink for the next thirty-six hours.” Psy casually popped an identical capsule in hir mouth and swallowed it. “You don’t want to get too drunk. Yldoseh, can you interface your translator with your headset?”
      “Yes, why?” Yldoseh’s headset interfaced with most translators including her humble budget-model Bierbool translator.
      “Good.” Psy was getting into hir stride. “Keep your headset on all the time and try to pick up everything those Naryan say amongst themselves so we can go over it later. Earth Fed would pay quite handsomely for a copy.”
      “What if I want to use it for my own show on Vermthellyn?” Yldoseh wanted to know where she stood with this Human-looking Nglubi and hir Human wards.
      “Do what you want with it.” Psy wasn’t bothered. The ‘Earth Fed’ money was just an incentive that Psy, in hir role as an Earth Fed SCS Command operative, was holding out for Yldoseh. Not that shi’d ever bother telling Yldoseh. It was too convenient to have two seemingly unconnected roles. “Get them talking. See what you can find out about them. I’m sure it will make quite a story for your show.”
      “You’re right about that.” Yldoseh felt uncomfortable about how Psy took control so effortlessly and went over to the viewscreens to film each one in turn on her headset.
      “Psy, do you remember that show you did with us at The Free Mars Tribe’s dome?” Veronica asked.
      “Mmmhmm.” Psy didn’t even look away from the display screens.
      “What were you trying to do with those crystals?” Veronica had heard stories of what the people out in the arena had seen: an alien civilisation of reptilians and avian living side by side, their destruction and then the rise of the human civilisation. She’d missed most of it from up on the stage as the stage lights blocked her view of the arena. She looked over at Yldoseh and wondered if she could have been one of them.
      Psy turned hir attention away from the screens and looked over at Veronica and Yldoseh. “Preparing you.”
      “For what?” And then the penny dropped in Veronica’s mind. “You mean that was some sort of history lesson? So, um…” Veronica pointed at Yldoseh. “If they were on Earth, why aren’t they there now?”
      “Ah…” Psy took a deep breath. “You’ll have to remember this was long ago, long before my time. We Nglubi have changed since then. Some might say we’ve evolved a bit although even that’s debatable. Back then we were warlike and our all-conquering empire was on the rise.”
      “The Shallens at that time had basic space travel and were spreading out around your solar system.” Psy continued. “We had just mastered gateway technology and were using it to send fleets out across the galaxy. Simple method really; send out a probe that doubles up as a gateway. Sit back, wait until it reaches its destination then send the fleet through. They managed to cover vast regions planting the Nglubi flag wherever they went. Your world, or HomeNest as the Shallens called it, put up a fight and the commander of the Nglubi fleet decided to make an example of them. They plucked a suitable asteroid out of your outer asteroid region and used a mass accelerator to aim it at your world. As a strategy it worked brilliantly. Yldoseh is the descendent of their one worldship that escaped before it struck.”
      “So it is true!” Yldoseh was almost lost for words. She felt as if the foundations of her very world were crumbling. “Everything the Chznzet say is true. What about them?” She pointed at Veronica.
      “They evolved after your world healed.” Psy was almost apologetic as shi pointed at Veronica. Shi also noticed that Yldoseh’s headset was active. ”Look at her. She’s not so different from you. They’re not bad people. They took you in when you had nowhere to go.”
      Yldoseh didn’t know whether to be angry with Psy or Veronica or both but a voice at the back of her mind told her to stay calm and to play it out. Gather up the story and let her audience be the judge. “How can you talk so dispassionately about it? Your people destroyed my world.”
      “Like I said, it was a long time ago. It’s ancient history now. Are the descendants to blame for their ancestors’ crimes?” Psy shrugged hir shoulders. “We’re not like that now. Tell me, Yldoseh, have you ever heard of us attacking anyone, anywhere?”
      “No.” Yldoseh had to admit she hadn’t. Up to now she’d only known of the Nglubi for their gateways.
      “And what are we known for?” Psy pressed on to make hir point.
      “The gateways.”
      “Not exactly warlike is it?” Psy made hir point. “Mercantile and maybe a bit capricious about where we deploy our gateways but not exactly warlike, are we?”
      “No.” Yldoseh certainly agreed with Psy about the mercantile and capricious part. It was the one grumble about the Nglubi you would run into anywhere in the galaxy. By and large the Nglubi were seen as jealously guarding their monopoly of the gateways which for most people which was regarded as a utility service connecting far-flung worlds across the galaxy.
      “Would you care to tell Veronica about the millennia of genocidal wars between your avians and reptilians just because one lot had feathers and the other lot didn’t?” Psy reminded Yldoseh that the Shallens had a less than stellar past. “Or the Brenthennik Wars? Or maybe about how the Shallens got involved in large-scale space piracy?”
      “Okay, okay, you’ve made your point.” It was all Yldoseh could do to keep herself from shouting at Psy. “And I suppose these Humans are angels?” She added sarcastically.
      “Hah! Far from it.” Psy laughed. “A violent and bloody past but they’re slowly coming to their senses. The damn fools nearly trashed their home planet in the process but never mind. Am I right, Veronica?”
      “Yeah.” Veronica hated it when Psy was right.
      “So we’re even.” Psy was triumphant. “Come on, I’m not so bad. Am I, love?” Psy pouted at Veronica.
      Veronica bit her lip but couldn’t hold herself back. “So why did want to hang out with us? We thought you were just some spaced-out hooker on the run. But you’ve got all this. You’re from a race that spans the galaxy. You work with Earth Fed and who knows what else.”
      “Fun. Adventure.” Psy admitted coyly. “I was getting bored and needed a diversion. Your band was the right thing at the right time. That and the fact that I had to move fast. The Gulmarians were already in your solar system and you didn’t officially exist as a recognised world. The standard procedure is to exterminate the Gulmarians wherever they turn up. They simply do not negotiate. It would have meant incinerating Earth and all the moons and planets in your solar system as a precaution. I couldn’t let that happen. I got bored with all those tiresome government officials; they’re so stale, corrupt and pompous. I wanted people who were more representative of who you are. I really did enjoy my time with your troupe of musicians.”
      “Why are you so hard on the Gulmarians? What have they done?” Yldoseh didn’t know much about them.
      “Why?” Psy snorted as shi telepathically commanded the Omphalatta to reconfigure the four screens as one large screen. “Here is Fendectelum, an agrarian pre-industrial world.” The screen showed a lush, almost pristine planet. There was hardly a speck of light to be seen on the dark side. “First the Gulmarians arrive in their fleet.” The screen showed a vast armada of menacing dark ships approaching the planet. “They attack and exterminate the local sentient species. Those who they don’t infect with their biota are killed. Maybe they were the lucky ones. The infected people are genetically transformed by the biota into Gulmarian workers and foot soldiers who then proceed to strip mine the planet.” The screen showed images of cities being destroyed by aerial bombardment and of the planet being stripped of its vegetation, animal life, oceans and even atmosphere. “Did they stop there? Of course not! They strip mined the planet for minerals afterwards. When they left it was a dead husk. And that’s only one of hundreds they’ve attacked. They are like locusts. So, yes, in their case it calls for drastic action.”
      “Oh.” That was more than Yldoseh wanted to know.
      “It’s all on public record.” Psy tapped hir forehead to remind Yldoseh that shi knew Yldoseh was filming everything. “Fendectelum, Ovona-Telsin, The Doxti Binaries, Xarthar and over a hundred more… let your audience read up on them if you really want to know about the Gulmarians.”
      “Who are they and where are they from?” Yldoseh wanted answers.
      “We don’t know.” Psy knew that Yldoseh would include this in her show on Vermthellyn and that word would get out about the Gulmarian threat. Shi was exasperated by the official Galactic Council silence on the Gulmarian threat by always reporting it as ‘unrelated isolated tragic incidents’ and decided that the only course of action was a bit of good old grass roots subversion. And who better to use than Yldoseh, a young Shallen ‘yoof’ culture presenter with a rising interest in her shows. “What we do know is that they appear to be exploiting an ancient network of gateways that we thought was decommissioned millennia ago and are appearing at random locations around the galaxy. A civilisation capable of projecting itself like that takes a mature technologically advanced industrial base and there was no sign of them until very recently. It’s as if they came out of nowhere. But we all know that can’t happen so that leaves the question of where. Best guess is that they’re either from somewhere on the periphery of this galaxy which is still largely unmapped or one of our galaxies’ satellite micro-galaxies or clusters.”
      “Is that why some gateways have been closed down in recent years?” Yldoseh had heard of some far-off worlds dropping off the network of gateways.
      “Amongst other reasons.” Psy admitted. “Some are just redundant or no longer in use. Which is why the one on Mars should never have opened for general use. That was my private gateway, I’ll have you know. At the moment it’s linked directly to Vermthellyn and there have been sightings of Gulmarians on Mars. No offence, Veronica, but it’s too risky. You Humans aren’t the only kids on the block and we have to think of the greater good.”
      “So we get sacrificed?” Veronica asked sourly.
      “Not if I can help it.” Over the years Psy had become endeared to the Humans with all their flaws and was determined to fight their corner on this one. “I have other plans for you.”
      Veronica and Yldoseh said nothing but just glanced at each other guiltily as if they knew too much of each other’s dark secrets. Veronica took one of the trans-dimensional anchors out of her bag and offered it to Yldoseh. “Um… you can have it back if you want. It’s okay, really.”
      Yldoseh was almost embarrassed. “No, keep it. I meant for you to have it at the time and I still want you to have it now is spite of what Psy told us. I am just as much a product of that war as you are. The Chznzet dream is a mad fantasy. Grattlyd was right. If they did succeed neither of us would exist.”
      “And I’d be doing roughly the same thing except I’d be helping the Shallens fight off the Gulmarians.” Psy added glumly before brightening hir mood. “So, are we a team?”
      Veronica and Yldoseh looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders. “I guess so.”
      “Good! That’s what I like to hear.” Psy rubbed hir hands triumphantly. It didn’t take long to reach Metropole One. Upon arrival they were directed to a docking berth next to the Naryan ship which was held securely in place by docking clamps without which it would drift off into space. “Oh my gosh, will you look at that thing?” Psy gawped at the neo-dieselpunk appearance of the Naryan ship as the docking clamps eased Psy’s Omphalatta into its berth while a sealed walkway extended out to their ship. “It looks like it’s held together with pieces of string and sealing wax. Talk about flying on a wing and a prayer!”
      Yldoseh quite liked Metropole One. It felt like a cut-down and slightly cramped version of the Ark of Exodus. She was quite taken by the gentle curvature of Metropole One, the rows of shops, residential and business units rising up from the floor inside the outer rim towards the ceiling on the inner rim. There were even public gardens with pools and fountains. Everywhere she looked residents and workers bustled about their daily lives although she did get more than a few curious looks. No-one on Metropole One had seen a Shallen in the flesh before. The air was fresh except for a slight industrial tang which she recognised from the lower decks aboard the Ark of Exodus. She diligently recorded the sights and sounds of Metropole One on her headset.
      “No sign of the Naryan anywhere.” Veronica commented as she and Yldoseh followed Psy’s aimless meandering and window-shopping along a crowded concourse of shops.
      Psy sighed. Veronica was right. They weren’t getting anywhere. “Let’s look up the crew of the shuttle and see if we can find out anything useful there.” They picked up pace as Psy led the way to the Space Force Operations Centre. In spite of its grand name, the operations centre turned out to be a nondescript collection of shabby offices wedged in between industrial and commercial units way up on the upper deck. Its one saving grace was the control centre with its observation blister that allowed an unimpeded view of the inside of the ring and space beyond.
      Not that our trio saw any of that. Oh no, they were stopped right at the entrance reception. A young woman with neatly-permed shoulder-length brown hair in a dark blue Space Force uniform with deep red piping sat at a desk with an armed trooper standing to one side. On the wall behind her was a large sign with bold red letters: ‘Authorised personnel only beyond this point’.
      Psy didn’t even break hir pace and strode right up to the desk. “I’d like to see your commanding officer, Captain Metz. It’s an urgent matter concerning our Naryan visitors.”
      The receptionist looked up from filing her nails. “He’s in a meeting right now. Your name, please?”
      “P. Sirius Joventhal, Field Operative for SCS Command, Earth Fed Mars Division, Coriolis.” Psy handed over hir ID card which the receptionist validated before handing it back.
      “Please take a number and wait your turn.” The receptionist smiled perfunctorily.
      Veronica looked around. There on a bench just inside the door were four people: an old man with a long thinning beard in a wizard’s costume complete with a crooked wooden staff with a glowing crystal, a slender young shaven headed man with dark sunglasses in a black suit who was obviously a member of the Grey cult, a fierce-looking voluminous woman with a ruddy complexion and long curly golden orange hair in long-flowing earth-tone robes and a solitary manbot mech holding a small flowerpot with a mature bonsai tree. Veronica didn’t reckon their chances. “No way am I sitting around here. See if you can make an appointment.”
      Which shi did. “Two hours!” Psy exclaimed in disbelief as they left the reception. “Oh well, more time to kill.” Which they did back on the concourse: Stopping anyone, mech or human, who looked approachable, quizzing shopkeepers and pestering customers in bars: “Had they seen the Naryan?” Most people had only seen them on the newscast and, yes, wasn’t it fascinating? Oh and isn’t she one of those aliens who landed on Mars? A few people mentioned Kepler’s Redoubt, a workmen’s bar near the docking bays. None of them liked the sound of the place so they dived into a café off the concourse instead.
      “We’re getting nowhere.” Psy grumbled as they sipped their coffees. “Knowing Earth Fed, they’ve probably given then Naryan the VIP treatment. Earth Fed has a block of residential suites here. Let’s try our luck over there after we see Captain Metz. It’s almost time for our appointment.” When they got back, Earth Momma and Bonsai Bot were still there waiting their turn.
     
      It had been a long day for Captain Wolfgang Metz. Normally the day’s regular business would be broken up with arguments with Wing Commander Jennings over some technicality relating to the blockade scheduling. But now, thanks to some idiotic PR ruling dreamt up by a Earthside wonk after the Pierpoint scandal in order to show the public that, yes, the armed forces not only answer to the people in principle but we also listen to their concerns, had to deal with the seemingly endless stream of fruit loops crawling out of the woodwork by the brief reconnection with Earth and now the arrival of the Naryan from an alternate universe. He cursed himself for having considered appointing a PR officer as a decadent indulgence when he was first posted to Metropole One. He could have done with such a person right around now to fend off the local loonies.
      Wolfie made each appointment stick to ten minutes. It was his only way of keeping his sanity. So far today he’d had one prophet of doom, a junior messiah, an adventurer, two requests to leave with the Naryan, a delegation of businessmen who offered to hire the Trumpton’s interceptors to scope out alternate Earths for trade, a group of idealists who believed we should go forth and spread peace throughout the alternate universes and an armchair general who vociferously insisted that the Space Force should ramp up its capacity by an order of magnitude or two to deal with this new alien threat. Right now he was in the middle of an argument with Wing Commander Jennings.
      “With all due respect sir, we really could do with one shuttle to handle docking patrol here at Metropole One.” Wolfie wearily repeated his daily request.
      “Look, Metz, why go through this charade?” Jennings resigned himself to a few minutes of prime-time whine from Captain Wolfgang Metz. “You’ll just have to make do with your tugs. Have you seen that armada of private ships waiting for Earth to reappear? Who knows what might happen to them, Metz?”
      “Some of them will get through.” As far as Wolfgang was concerned they could all sail through the blockade. “They’re not children, they know the risks.”
      “Maybe so, Metz.” Wing Commander Jennings was having none of it. “But we were ordered to maintain a blockade and that’s what we’ll do. We’re soldiers, not civilians. I’ll have no more of that griping out of you. Just assign your shuttles to plug the gaps in the blockade.”
      “Yes, sir.” Wolfgang reluctantly saluted Wing Commander Jennings. He might disagree with the point of his orders but he wasn’t going to disobey them. It wasn’t such a big deal really. But he was just determined to make Jennings know that he wasn’t a pushover and that he’d fight the corner for his pilots and crews. So it became a daily point of principle between the two men with Wolfgang forever conceding in the vain hope that someday Jennings might change his mind.
      “Oh, by the way, how are you getting on with our Naryan visitors?” Jennings switched to an almost sincere genial mood.
      “From what we’ve picked up through our interpreter they seem pretty confident about travelling between alternate universes. By the sound of it we’re not the only world they’re in contact with.”
      “Good! See what you can find out from them.” Jennings was cheered up by a morsel of good news on an otherwise dreary day. “I’ve had their commander, he calls himself Terval, over here offering to buy the Trumpton for gold bullion. He must think we’re children!”
      Wolfgang laughed along with Jennings. Space Force had only received the Trumpton last year. They’d never sell their latest state-of-the-art battleship.
      “Keep me posted on the Naryan and let me know if anything interesting comes up.” Jennings signed off giving Wolfgang a few minutes’ respite before his next visitor. It’s only ten minutes he reminded himself. Be polite but firm and see them out the door when their time’s up. After a few slow deep breaths to calm himself he pressed the intercom pad built into his desk. “Send the next one through.”
      Wolfie had thought he’d seen it all. That old wizard guy was completely off his rocker. And the Grey cultist who wanted to contact his brethren in alternate universes. The businessmen tried to bribe him. And the armchair general got so worked up he nearly had a heart attack. But no, here come three women and one of them is a Shallen, who he thought were all on Mars. He noticed that the Shallen was wearing a headset with a visor that she would flip up and down. He thought they might be hookers looking to work the Naryan. “How can I help you ladies?”
      Psy breezed in with Yldoseh and Veronica in tow, introduced herself and handed hir ID card to Wolfie. He placed it on the sensor pad on his desk and its built-in screen lit up: P. Sirius Joventhal, SCS Command, Earth Fed Mars Division, Coriolis. Security Clearance Ultra. He looked at the image on the screen. Then up at Psy. Then back at the screen. To his utter amazement it was all legit and not a bunch of doped-up groupies. He handed back Psy’s card. “Please, be seated.”
      “Captain Metz, I presume you are familiar with the recent reconnection with Earth. My associates here have acquired the technology to make that permanent.” Psy pointed to Yldoseh and Veronica. “Ideally it should be deployed in multiple universes which is why I would like to give it to the Naryan. Also, I would like to talk to the crew of the Cygnus-B about their flight between universes.”
      Wolfie looked them over. Crazies all right, but crazies with an official clearance. He wondered briefly what comeback there might be for fobbing them off but thought better of it. He didn’t want to give Wing Commander Jennings another stick to beat him with. “A very interesting idea. I’m afraid the crew are on leave and currently unavailable. The pilot, however, has been seconded to act as an interpreter and is with the Naryan now. You might get a few minutes with him but he’s very busy.”
      Wolfgang got up from his desk and went over to a large viewscreen on his office wall. A tired-looking Sergei Rudovski popped up on the screen. “Captain Metz! What can I do for you, sir?”
      “I have some people here with official clearance who would like to talk with you about your flight back with the Naryan. Can you fit them in today?” Wolfie was hoping that Sergei would say no.
      “Sure, send them over.” Sergei’s eyes widened at the sight of Yldoseh. “Those Naryan are just getting drunk. I can’t keep up with them.” An armed guard escorted our trio along a gauntlet of curious glances and gossip about Yldoseh. Yldoseh was unfazed and was enjoying herself filming the Humans’ first contact reactions with her headset.
      The rooms at the Earth Fed block were named after marques of 20th-century cars. There were the Bentley, Imperial, Lamborghini, Cadillac, Rolls-Royce, Maserati, Ferrari, Maybach and Zil suites. The DeSoto, Porsche, Tatra, Bugatti, Borgward, Lexus, Moskvitch, McLaren, Lotus, Chrysler, Chevrolet, Edsel and Oldsmobile rooms and more. They were directed to the Daimler Lounge where a large group of the Naryan crew were noisily drinking themselves senseless and greeted our trio with lusty catcalls and laughter.
      Psy made a beeline for Sergei who was sitting alone at a table in a corner looking the worse for wear. The drunken Naryan were of no interest to hir. “Just who we’re looking for.” Psy purred huskily as shi pulled up next to Sergei. “The courageous pilot who brought the Cygnus-B back to Metropole One. Tell me, how did you do it?” Yldoseh was mildly amused to hear Psy steal her line and focused on Sergei waiting for his response.
      Sergei looked up at his guests: two women and one of those aliens that had recently landed on Mars. Between them and the Naryan he felt as if he was still in an alternate universe but reminded himself to act as if everything was normal. “I just followed the Naryan.” Sergei replied. “You’d be better off asking their pilots but I don’t think you’ll get much out of them right now.”
      Psy glanced over at them. “You’re right about that. At least you’re still sober. Do they use specialised technology to travel between universes?”
      Sergei thought for a minute. “I don’t think so. I think they were very observant and managed to exploit this… what do you call it… dimensional displacement. From what I’ve been able to gather they only started exploring alternate worlds after we arrived at their station.”
      “Interesting.” Psy acted casual but was desperate for concrete answers. “How do they exploit it?”
      “When a world shifts between universes it is surrounded by a purple plasma. We just flew down into it and back up again.” Sergei did his best to explain something he didn’t fully understand. “When we regained orbital altitude we were in the next universe. It’s a bit like skipping stones across a pond. It took us six skips to get from their station back to here. By then the plasma fields were fading out. They didn’t talk about it but as far as I could see that purple plasma is essentially your window of opportunity. Once it fades out your window is closed until the next dimensional shift occurs.”
      “And that works in both directions?” Psy pumped Sergei for more information.
      “Apparently in any direction.” Sergei expanded on Psy’s question. “These alternate universes aren’t lined up in a nice stack. It’s multidimensional. Different vectors take you to different universes. At least that’s what they told me. But it must be reversible otherwise they wouldn’t be able to travel out from their world and back again.”
      “Do you feel confident enough to fly such a mission again?” Psy tested Sergei.
      Sergei sucked his teeth and let out his breath. “Maybe if I was tagging along with the Naryan. They seem to have it mapped out. On my own, I’d be flying blind and I’m in no hurry to get stuck in an alternate universe again. Once was enough.”
      “So when the Naryan leave tomorrow will that purple plasma you described be visible?” Psy probed.
      “Sure, of course!” That much Sergei was certain about. “They’re stuck here until the plasma reappears.”
      “And how long does it last for?”
      “I can’t say for certain. Two to three hours but it seems to change each time.” Sergei wished he knew more about the purple plasma that accompanied the dimensional displacement. “When we came back here we made six skips. From what I saw both the duration of the plasma and the intervals are variable. Again, ask the Naryan. They seem to have a much better handle on it that I have.”
      “Maybe when they’re sobered up.” Psy glanced over at the Naryan crew who appeared to be in the middle of a drinking contest that involved a lot of group and solo singing. “I doubt I’d get anything out of them right now. You’ve been a great help, Sergei. Could you meet us at my ship after the Naryan leave? We’re at bay 37 next to their ship.”
      “If you’re thinking of following the Naryan, forget it.” Sergei squashed what he thought was Psy’s plan. “I’ve been up for two days on stims. Much longer and I’ll be hearing colours and seeing sound.”
      “Oh, nothing of the sort.” Psy glibly brushed off Sergei’s concerns. “Just some technical advice. I wouldn’t want to keep you from your beauty sleep.”
      Yldoseh decided not to let the opportunity go and went over to the Naryan crew. A rousing chorus swelled up from the Naryan: “Semitim, semitim, ĉie vi rigardas, kurante por liaj vivoj. Bombardi ilin, bombardi ilin. Bruligu ilin sur la teron!”
      “Kiuj estas la Semitim?” Yldoseh asked them in Esperanto thanks to her translator and Psy’s Esperanto-to-Nglubi Elktan translation matrix.
      That stopped them in their tracks. Yldoseh held up the translator hanging on her necklace for them to see. A fresh-faced man with a thin beard and ragged orange dreadlocks wearing grimy overalls broke their surprised silence. “Plago. Ili ŝtelas nian landon.”
      “Jes, bombardi ilin al infero.” A plump, blond busty woman with a long pony tail running down the back of her immaculate pilot’s uniform backed him up. That opened the floodgates and the others joined in: “Mortigi ilin ĉiuj!”, “Kaj la Mongelja!”, “Naryan supera!”, “Vi ne povas konfidi en Negrini.” And on and on until it turned into a babble of jingoistic soundbites and slogans.
      “Kio estas vi?” A slender woman with short black hair wearing a patchwork outfit of work clothes and animal skins asked as she touched Yldoseh’s bare arm.
      “Shallen.” Yldoseh replied in a matter-of-fact voice.
      “Reptilio. Rawr! Ŝi tuj manĝos vin.” Another man standing next to the Naryan woman joked loudly.
      Yldoseh gave him a filthy look. “Tio ne eĉ amuza.” Which only got her a round of mocking laughter from the Naryan.
      “Brindis por la lacerto knabino!” A man at the back of their crowd held up his beer and called out loudly. Before Yldoseh knew it someone had thrust a full glass of beer into her paw and the Naryan were making up even more ridiculous jokes about Yldoseh.
      “What’s going on here?” Veronica had been drawn over by the loud singing and chatter from the Naryan.
      “I think they’re at war.” Yldoseh said quietly to Veronica. Unfortunately their translators dutifully translated their brief exchange into Esperanto.
      “Jes, ni estas ĉe milito!” A Naryan earnestly replied. “Milito! Milito! Milito!” “Naryan supera!” Went up the rousing cry from one and all of the Naryan. Another beer found its way into Veronica’s hand. She looked down at it wondering how it got there and had a sip.
      Yldoseh pulled Veronica over and whispered in her ear: “Jus’ keep smiling. Let them do the talk.”
      That took Veronica by surprise. “I didn’t know you could speak English.” She whispered back so that her translator wouldn’t pick it up.
      “I learn some. Good, huh?” Yldoseh laughed. “Keep drinking, we got the pills.”
      Veronica turned to face the Naryan crew and held her beer up. “Hey, yeah!” She took a hearty swig to a rousing cheer. Yldoseh worked the crowd getting them to open up and talk. It didn’t take much to get them to brag travelling to alternate universes all vying to out do each other with tales of not only which worlds they’d been to but how many. As she went along Yldoseh managed to tease out bits of information about their own world, Esplenia. There had been an epic space battle near their world between two alien fleets.
      After it was over the aliens departed and large parts of their world lay in ruins. Their civilisation had collapsed into regional tribal superstates that spanned vast but sparsely populated areas. The Naryan spanned most Europe and Western Russia. The Semitim occupied the Middle-East, North Africa and Spain. Hinda in the Indian sub-continent, Tchin in China and South-East Asia, the Mongelja ruled over Eastern Russia, Siberia, Central Asia, Northern China and Japan. And they were all at war with each other; wars that had gone on for so long that they’d become just another part of life on their scarred world.
      Any alien tech they came across often ended up being turned into yet another terrible weapon in their unending wars. Veronica, a trained Space Force interceptor pilot listened closely while the Naryan described how simple it was to navigate between universes: wait for the purple plasma fields swathing the planet to appear, set your vector, dive through and then climb back up and keep going and repeating until the plasma fields faded out. It sounded simple enough in principle. Veronica was amazed at how well Psy’s alcohol-blocker worked and began to worry about all the extra calories she was packing down with her drinks.
      Yldoseh was still gaily working the crowd swapping tales of her life on Vermthellyn, the Ark of Exodus and Mars for titbits about the Naryan’s world and lives when Psy breezed up with Sergei in tow. “Come on girls, time to go. The Naryan have to be up bright and early tomorrow for their flight home.” Unfortunately Psy’s alcohol-blocker didn’t work quite so well for Yldoseh’s reptilian metabolism and she nearly fell over when she stood up to leave.
      When they got back to Psy’s ship, Yldoseh took off her headset and flopped down in her seat. “I’m so glad I don’t live on their world!”
      “Why’s that?” Psy inquired.
      Yldoseh picked up her headset and held it out to Psy. “See for yourself.”
      “No need.” Psy glanced over in Yldoseh’s direction and looked at her headset and recognised the design. “Pdzarvian, huh? Nice. Best optics this side of the galaxy.” The Omphalatta extruded a fibril of biostone which clamped itself to the data port on Yldoseh’s headset and a jumbled rush of images and sound poured out of the main viewscreen. “You have the stage.”
      Yldoseh stepped them through her interviews and commentaries of the Naryan crew. After a while she froze the replay. “They’re all at war with each other on their world. It’s all they know. In their lives, there’s never been a time when they weren’t caught up in one war or another.”
      “Da. Those rotten little punks wanted to execute us at first. They thought we were spies from one of the other tribes. They don’t talk about that now. No, all they talk about is the future of interplanetary trade. Pah!” Sergei, even though he was half-asleep with exhaustion, still managed to follow Yldoseh’s presentation from where he lay propped up against the compartment bulkhead. “They never told us a damn thing about the fact that they’d been to Metropole One and back until the day they brought us back here. What else are they hiding from us?”
      Sergei was coming down hard off the dose of stims he’d pumped himself up with when they set off from the Naryan Eye to return to Metropole One. All it took was the calm, subtle rhythm of Psy’s ship and he slipped off into a much-needed sleep snoring loudly. Psy couldn’t abide by snoring. Shi found it to be crude and uncouth so shi commanded hir Omphalatta to extrude a sound-absorbing cocoon around Sergei and to probe his memories about flying to and from the Naryan space station. Yldoseh was the next to drift off after having drunk enough beer to float a battleship. Psy controlled Yldoseh’s headset remotely through the biostone fibril connection and spent the next few hours going over Yldoseh’s recordings of the Naryan crew. Veronica drifted off into a light sleep aided along by the Omphalatta’s subtle ministrations at Psy’s command.
      Once Sergei, Yldoseh and Veronica were sound asleep, Psy ordered the Omphalatta to give the Naryan’s ship a full stem-to-stern scan while shi went for a walk around the docking bay to stretch hir legs and to give the Naryan’s ship a closer look through the docking bay windows. And what an old junker it was! Cracked welding, mismatched sections of the outer hull, heavily burnt-in scorch marks from rushed atmospheric entries and an improbable combination of pre-space faring and multiple hypermodern technologies were the least of it. It was plain to Psy that the Naryan hadn’t made it into space using their own technology. Shi was unable to recognise any of the non-Naryan technology so shi continued walking along the deserted docking bay. Psy found the chill quiet of the docking bay refreshing after weeks with a schedule so tight that shi barely had a spare minute to call hir own.
      Psy idly stuck hir hands into hir trouser pockets as she strolled along the docking bay and found a detector bead that shi’d forgotten about. Shi pulled it out and looked at it. It was dull grey. Excellent! Shi tossed it into the air and caught it as shi walked back towards hir ship, each time checking to make sure it was still grey. Just when shi was about to congratulate hirself on weeding out the only Gulmarian to appear on Metropole One, the bead landed in the palm of hir hand with a telltale faint red glow.
      Uh oh. Psy looked down only to see that the detector bead pointed towards hir ship and walked back towards it with a slowly-mounting sense of dread. No, it wasn’t pointing towards hir Omphalatta: at least Veronica, Yldoseh and Sergei were clean. Instead it pointed towards the Naryan ship. Psy cautiously walked back and forth past the access walkway attached to the Naryan ship carefully watching the bead. All the time it pointed towards the ship. Psy was about to go back to hir ship when a Naryan crewman stepped out of their access tube and onto the docking bay. Psy ducked over behind a support column and held out the bead. It pointed resolutely towards the ship. The crewman was clean.
      That stymied Psy. Shi waited until the crewman was out of sight and ducked into hir ship with its still-slumbering crew. “Have you found anything on the Naryan ship?” Psy asked hir Omphalatta.
      The viewscreen enlarged and the Omphalatta dutifully displayed an overview of the Naryan ship highlighting not only Gulmarian technology in their propulsion and atmospherics systems but also Nglubi technology for their navigation and computing systems. Then it dawned on Psy what had happened to the Naryan’s world, Esplenia. The space battle the Naryan told of had been between a Gulmarian assault fleet and the Nglubi Navy. It looked like the Naryan had scavenged Gulmarian and Nglubi technology from some of the debris that had fallen to their planet to power their space program and who knows what else.
      The Nglubi must have won because in that time frame the Nglubi had long since moved on from conquest. Instead they would have left and administrator, much like hirself, to oversee that region. Psy let out a low whistle. The Naryan had got off light all things considered. Had the Gulmarians won, the Naryans would have been exterminated and their world strip-mined.
      Psy pressed the detector bead into the biostone console and ordered the Omphalatta to magnify its sensitivity and to scan all the crew aboard the Naryan ship. It didn’t take long as there were only five other crew aboard the ship and they all showed as uncontaminated. Now shi had to wait for the rest of the crew to return from their comfortable quarters in the Earth Fed hospitality suites in the morning and scan them.
      In spite of their ferociously predatory nature, Psy found the Gulmarians intriguing. They showed no interest whatsoever in being part of the host of civilisations throughout the galaxy. Heck, they never even communicated with anyone. They just infiltrated and took over or else turned up with their fleet and destroyed entire worlds. The only pattern to their behaviour was that they tended to target living worlds. They hardly ever targeted dead planets. That and what exactly were they doing with all the resources they were plundering?
      Shi’d seen reports of Gulmarian attacks. Yes, their fleets were massive replete with flotillas of gigantic cargo ships but not large enough to carry away the resources of entire worlds. If they were simply predators on the move they had already processed enough planets to sustain themselves yet they were still on the attack. They had to be shipping stuff out using the gateway system they’d compromised. But where was it going? The Nglubi had lost every single agent they’d sent to infiltrate the Gulmarians so they had no real leads there. Psy’s only guess was that it was somewhere incredibly resource-poor. Yet how could such a technologically advanced species have arisen in a resource-poor environment? Had they stripped their own system of resources? How could they be so reckless?
      Psy was still pondering the Gulmarians and poring over the schematics of the Naryan ship hours later when shi heard muffled banging and shouting. Sergei had woken up so Psy released him from his cocoon.
      “What do you think you’re doing imprisoning me like that?” Sergei towered angrily over Psy.
      “You snore. Loudly.” Psy explained dismissively. “I put you in an acoustic cocoon so we could have a bit of peace and quiet. Feeling better now?”
      “Oh. Just don’t do it again.” Sergei rubbed his eyes and harrumphed grumpily as he looked around. “Say, what is this place?”
      “You could say it’s my ship.” Psy was deliberately coy.
      “Huh? Oh, that’s right, we’re on the docking bay.” Sergei couldn’t remember much of the previous night. “I’ve really got to stop taking those stims. I didn’t do anything embarrassing, did I?”
      “No, not at all.” Psy genially reassured Sergei.
      “Is this some new experimental Earth Fed ship?” Sergei had never seen anything like Psy’s Omphalatta before. The flowing organic interior was completely alien to him as were the seats and consoles that just appeared to have grown out of the floor.
      “No.” Psy replied modestly. “Maybe some day, but not now.”
      “Is it… alien technology?” Sergei asked cautiously. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to know the answer to that question.
      “Indeed it is!” Psy revelled in Sergei’s uncertainty.
      “You said this is your ship and it’s alien technology.” Sergei felt as if the pieces of a puzzle were falling into place. “Are you some sort of alien, like… her.” Sergei pointed over to the still-slumbering Yldoseh.
      “Very much so.” Psy was smugly triumphant.
      “You don’t look very alien.” Sergei didn’t want to be taken for a fool. “You look like one of us.”
      “Camouflage, love.” Psy gave Sergei a knowing look. “It helps to blend in with the natives.”
      “Are you a shapeshifter or something?” Sergei felt as if he was falling down a rabbit-hole of Sci-Fi fantasy.
      “No, although it would be convenient.” Psy could see that the truth would seem even more improbable to Sergei. “I grow different bodies as and when I need them.”
      That was just too way out for Sergei. He glanced at his commset to root himself in reality and caught sight of the time. “I better be going now. They’ll need me back at the Daimler Lounge.”
      “Just one thing before you go.” Psy reached out to Sergei. “I need to see the Naryan leader, Terval. It’s rather important. Could you arrange that for me?”
      Sergei suspected something like this was coming. “Yeah, okay. But if Earth Fed throw you out, you’re on your own.”
      “That’s all I need.” Psy hopped up out of hir seat to rouse Yldoseh and Veronica. “Come on girls, work to do! Grab that bag of anchors.”
      “Huh? What?” Yldoseh and Veronica pulled themselves out of their warm and comfortable seats and followed Psy and Sergei out onto the cold, unwelcoming docking bay. The Daimler Lounge was full of the welcoming aroma of cooked food. The canteen was in full swing serving breakfast to the Naryan when they arrived.
      Sergei looked around as he piled up his tray with an oversized helping of synth-ham steaks and hash browns and spotted Terval at a table surrounded by his officers all tucking into their breakfasts. He set his tray down at the table Psy chose. “I’ll be back in a minute.” When returned he informed Psy that Terval would see hir after breakfast.
      “Thank you, Sergei. I owe you one.” Psy kissed Sergei on the cheek as she fished the detector bead out of hir pocket. Shi turned to look at it almost dreading what shi would see but the bead was grey. Well, that was a surprise! Shi hoped it wasn’t faulty. It was as grey as the day shi fished it out of Mglyptl’s jar.
      One by one the crew filtered out and back to their ship. A few of them who’d been drinking with Yldoseh and Veronica the night before stopped by their table to say goodbye. Sergei had to leave with the crew as he would be needed as an interpreter to liaise between the Naryan crew and the docking bay deckhands. Terval waited patiently at his table. Psy led the way over to his table and placed two of the trans-dimensional anchors on the table as they sat down. “Here is the means to secure your world back to your universe.” Psy looked keenly into Terval’s eyes.
      Terval glanced briefly at the anchors in front of him, his voice translated into English by their translators. “And even if these pieces of pipe can do what you claim, why should I want to? We have new opportunities for travel, trade and discovery. Why should we give that up?”
      “A very good question!” Psy could see that Terval was no pushover. “Your ship uses two essentially incompatible technologies. You’ll never be able to integrate your navigation and propulsion systems. Do you know why?” Psy asked rhetorically before continuing. “Because they’re scraps your people scavenged from pieces of ships that fell to your planet after the space battle.”
      “So?” Terval snorted derisively. “We don’t hide that fact. After that battle Esplenia was devastated. We used whatever we could find to rebuild our world. Only a fool would do otherwise.”
      “Indeed.” Psy agreed wholeheartedly before lowering the tone of hir voice. “It’s time you learned just where that technology came from.”
      Terval gave Psy a sceptical look before laughing out loud. “You’re a good one, you are. I’ll give you that much.”
      Psy stood up and motioned towards the door. “Shall we? I’m parked up next to your ship.”
      Terval saw no harm in humouring these two crazy women and that reptile creature. He had to get back to his ship to prepare for their journey back to the Naryan Eye and felt that their company added to his imaginary sense of adventure as he regaled them with heavily-embellished stories and outright fibs of other worlds he’d visited. He’d send them on their way once they reached the docking bay with a squeeze and a quick grope… at least that was what he’d planned. Instead he saw Psy’s Omphalatta in all its cheesy circular clichéd-UFO glory parked next his much larger yet out-of-place gunship.
      “Ah yes, the technology.” Psy purred as shi slipped an arm around Terval and guided him towards hir ship.
      “Look, I... ah… I really need to get back to my ship.” Terval blustered nervously. “We have to leave in a few hours.”
      “This won’t take long.” Psy tenderly stroked Terval’s cheek.
      “Very well then.” Terval called over two crewmen to accompany him. Both were armed and cockily self-assured.
      “Bring your goons if you must.” Psy tutted and condescendingly chided Terval. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. I’ll only bite if you ask nicely.”
      The interior of the Omphalatta was a new experience for Terval, streams and threads of multi-coloured light flowed and pulsed flowing through the opalescent curved walls and ceiling. There, next to what Terval assumed must have been the pilots’ seat and console was a replica of his ship’s navigation console as he’d never seen it before. Streams of light flowed up through the floor into it illuminating its console. “What is this?” Terval felt this strange slut was playing some sort of trick on him.
      Psy slipped away from Terval, went over to the little console and patted it. “This one’s happy. Yours is sad, frightened and in severe pain.”
      “What do you mean?” Terval felt as if things were getting surreal.
      “How would you feel if your mother had died and someone was sticking high-voltage electrodes in your head and a bully was threatening you?” Psy asked straightforwardly.
      “What, you mean it’s alive?” In Terval’s mind people were alive and machines were things.
      Psy coughed politely. “Yes. As is this ship. Now, as for yours…” Psy clicked hir fingers and the Omphalatta dutifully expanded the viewscreen so that it stretched from floor to ceiling and displayed a schematic of the Naryan ship in 3D detail. Psy pointed out various sections that were highlighted in cyan. “These parts are Nglubi biomechanical technology, the same as this ship.” Psy then pointed to sections that were highlighted in a harsh purple. “These other parts however are Gulmarian metallo-crystalline technology. The Nglubi and the Gulmarians are at war. Their technologies are incompatible by design. At least the Nglubi tech is… I know that much for certain. Not so sure about the Gulmarian tech, though.” Psy mused aloud. “They’re so predatory; I wouldn’t be surprised if their tech was just the same.”
      “How do you know all this?” By now Terval had come to the cold realisation that Psy wasn’t just some cheap tart with a silly story.
      “Let’s just say I have a passing acquaintance.” Psy answered cryptically before clicking hir fingers a second time. This time the viewscreens replayed the rape of Fendectelum. “Do you recognise any of those ships?”
      “It was before my time. I have seen some pictures though.” Terval admitted. “No wait, hang on. That one over there.” Terval pointed at a ship the screen. Psy froze the replay as Terval approached it and covered part of the image with his hand. “Yes… something like that came down in Scandia.” The two crewmen who’d been following all this conferred between themselves and tentatively agreed with Terval.
      Psy switched the replay to show an Nglubi fleet as it engaged with the Gulmarians at the battle of Nethorwyx. Huge battleships were surrounded by fleets of supports ships, squadrons of assault ships and swarms of combat drones. “Do you recognise anything here?”
      The crewmen pointed excitedly at the screen before Terval even got the chance to speak. “Yes, we have part of one of these in Germania.” Terval pointed to an Nglubi supply ship. “It crushed part of the city of Muniken when it landed. Everyone knows about it.”
      “You are very lucky the Nglubi fleet turned up.” Psy returned to display to show the Gulmarian assault on Fendectelum in all its gruesome horror. “Had the Gulmarians won, this would have been the fate of your world.” Terval and his crewmen watched the replay in mortified silence.
      “The Gulmarians are very aggressive.” Psy continued. “Just as you have been able to exploit this dimensional displacement, they would do the same only their intentions are far different. The consequences don’t bear thinking about. Did you know that there never was a battle between the Nglubi and Gulmarians in this universe?”
      “I’ll accept what you say about the battle and provenance of the debris.” Terval conceded somewhat formally. “But don’t take me for a fool. I understand the concept of multiple universes just as well as the next person. No doubt there are also universes where these Gulmarians, as you call them, have not only won but are already spreading into alternate universes.”
      “Well that’s the poorest excuse I’ve ever heard for inaction!” Psy almost sneered at Terval. “I’d say it’s time for action or damage limitation at the very least, which brings me back to these.” Psy held up a pair of trans-dimensional anchors.
      “My people will hate me for this.” Terval shook his head.
      “The alternative is knowing that the Gulmarians might return skipping from one universe to the next the way you do.” Psy looked Terval straight in the face. “And your people do not have the means to defend yourselves against them. Not for a very long time. Nor do these Humans with their fancy battleship that you covet. And I would advise against reverse-engineering their technology. You might become infected with Gulmarian biota and end up turning into one of them. That’s another one of their nasty little tricks.”
      “None of which has ever happened to anyone on Esplenia.” Terval calmly dismissed Psy’s anxious concern. “Whether the Gulmarians from our universe or another return to Esplenia to annihilate our world makes little difference. We would be doomed either way.”
      “These would improve your odds.” Again Psy offered the anchors. “Now that the Nglubi have fought a battle next to your world, they will patrol it regularly to watch out for another Gulmarian incursion. What they can’t do is patrol the interface between your universe and the alternate worlds as they slip through.”
      Terval accepted the anchors. “How do they work?” Which Psy eagerly explained. Just after Psy finished Terval had another question. “If these work as you say, why give them to me? Surely you would simply use them to anchor your world to this universe.”
      “Oh, we will be doing just that.” Psy assured Terval. “These anchors were made for anchoring temporary recreational bubble universes to this universe. The dimensional rift we’re dealing with is on entirely different scale so we need to deploy as many pairs as possible.”
      “What, just yours and mine? Do you think that would be sufficient?” Terval could see that this was a long shot.
      “No, I intend to deploy other pairs as well.” Psy laid out hir plan to Terval. “Your navigation system told my ship all about it when they linked. We’ll have enough time to make it to the periphery of the plasma flux, deploy a pair of anchors and get back here. Remember, as soon as Esplenia comes into view to activate your anchors. Keep one aboard your station and take the other one down to the planet. We’ll do the same here.”
      “And hope that they work.” Terval made it clear that he knew Psy was winging it. “Otherwise we’ll meet again. Aside from this Gulmarian threat you describe, I see little problem with our new circumstances. We have adapted, as have others. You will, in time.”
      “I understand, Terval.” Psy wasn’t about to give up. “The incident that caused the dimensional displacement of Earth, Esplenia and all the other alternate worlds happened in this universe. We know that much for certain. So we’re doing what we can to set it right.”
      “I wish you the best of luck.” Terval held up the trans-dimensional anchors in one hand. “Who knows? Maybe they’ll work. Now, I must go. We have preparations to make before we set off.”
      “Of course.” Psy ushered Terval and his crewmen to the Omphalatta’s access portal. “Thank you for your time. I appreciate this may not have been what you expected to find here but please bear it in mind.” After the portal sealed up Psy turned to Veronica and Yldoseh. “I don’t think we can rely on him. It’s up to us.” Psy climbed into the pilot’s seat and patted the biostone control console. “Come on, let’s go!”
      Veronica could have sworn she saw the streams of light flowing through the Omphalatta’s biostone do a happy dance as they lifted off from the docking bay. “You’ve never even flown through the plasma fields. Wouldn’t it be better to wait until Sergei could join us? He’s got the sort experience we could use about now.”
      “No need!” Psy confidently pointed to the little navigation console. “Why take the passenger when we’ve got the navigator?”
      “What?” As far as Veronica could see it was just another console that the ship would extrude from time to time.
      “When my ship scanned the Naryan’s ship it found pieces of Nglubi tech embedded in it. Some of those pieces were sentient and their souls have now joined up with my Omphalatta. They’re much happier now.” Psy patted hir console again. The little navigation console flashed a light show on its display and broke out into patterns of dancing light on its support. “We have a very experienced guide, don’t we?” Psy sweet talked the little console as shi guided the Omphalatta to a holding position between Metropole One and the Trumpton. “Now we wait.”
      The hours dragged by. Even the Omphalatta was getting bored: the streams of light became quiescent and the main viewscreen and control consoles had darkened. “What are we waiting for?” Veronica impatiently broke the suffocating silence. A secondary viewscreen lit up and showed Earth, or one of its analogues, gradually becoming swathed in a swirling purple plasma field way above its chromosphere. Eventually it completely enveloped the planet. Then the picture raced towards the plasma, through it and then back out again.
      “That.” Psy kept hir eyes on the viewscreen. “And, yes, that’s how the Naryan have been doing it.” Psy reached over to pat the little navigation console which had migrated across the floor so that it stood next to Psy. The main viewscreen popped back to life showing the Naryan ship departing from Metropole One. The Omphalatta woke up with a purposeful hum awaiting Psy’s command. “It’s showtime!”
      They watched the Naryan gunship dive down towards the thickening field of plasma enveloping the planet below. As soon as it disappeared through the plasma field Psy took off in the opposite direction and dived down through it. They came up in a different universe and kept going until they reached the far end of the plasma field five hops later.
      Psy positioned the Omphalatta with a clear view of the planet below. It didn’t look good. There were huge brown streaks across the oceans. “Okay Ronnie, time to do your bit, two anchors please.”
      Veronica picked two trans-dimensional anchors out of her bag. “What do you want me to do with them?”
      “Activate them and place them on the floor.” Psy ordered Veronica. “The Omphalatta will encase one which will remain in orbit here and create a pod for the other one which will take it down to the planet surface.”
      No sooner than Veronica had done so the Omphalatta had swallowed them up. “This won’t take long.” Psy reassured them. The periphery of the plasma field surrounding the planet was fading fast. “Done… take us home.” Psy patted the navigation console. Five skips later they emerged out of a weakening plasma field on a straight run towards Metropole One. Not only could they see Earth below but the Omphalatta also picked up a few broadcasts and displayed them on the viewscreens as confirmation. Psy turned to Yldoseh: “How’d you like to be the first Shallen to set foot on HomeNest since the great fall?”
      Yldoseh was lost for words. “Sure.”
      “My gift to you.” Psy blew a kiss to Yldoseh. “But we’ve got a few things to do at Metropole One first. Ronnie, we’ll need those anchors.”
      Veronica hated being called Ronnie. It summed up Psy’s casual condescending air of familiarity and manipulativeness but she let it go. The slim chance they had to anchor Earth back to their universe was more important so she picked up her bag of trans-dimensional anchors and followed Psy and Yldoseh back into Metropole One after they docked up at the landing bay. The station was abuzz with the news that they were back in contact with Earth and it showed in everyone’s faces. Psy took them over to the Earth Fed block but rather than the plush Daimler Lounge where the Naryan had been entertained shi took them to the Skoda rooms. These were small short-stay rooms for minor government officials and officers. Psy pressed hir ID card against the entry pad and booked the room for a week.
      The door slid open and the lights blinked on to reveal a cold, spartan room with a single bed, table, kitchenette and en-suite bathroom. They could see Earth through the vanishing purple plasma outside window. “Ronnie, the honours, please.”
      Veronica cursed at Psy under her breath as she took two anchors out of her bag. “What do you want to do with them?”
      “Activate them.” Psy nodded at Veronica. “Leave one here. We’ll be back for it later. We’ve got to get the other one down to Earth while we’ve still got time.” No sooner than Veronica had placed an activated anchor on the table, Psy slipped an arm around Yldoseh to guide her out of the drab little room. “Now it’s your turn, love. I’ve got something just for you.” Shi gave Yldoseh a friendly peck on the cheek. Veronica just shook her head in disbelief as she followed them back to Psy’s ship.
      “Look over there!” Psy pointed excitedly towards a small armada of commercial ships making a run for Earth as they left Metropole One. “They’re making a break for it. It looks like the Space Force blockade isn’t up to much. “Here we go!” The stars almost streaked past as they moved so fast they left the flotilla behind and made it to Earth in minutes flat. Psy took them in over the Arabian Sea, across the Thar Desert, lush Punjab and the snow-capped mountains of Kashmir low enough for Yldoseh and Veronica to marvel at the view as the land raced past below them. “I have a hideaway in the Karakoram Mountains. It’s a safe place to leave the other anchor.”
      Psy was enjoying hirself racing along at mountaintop level as they zoomed up one valley and down into the next eventually reaching the glacial heights. One valley ended in a wall of rock towering over the glacier head. Veronica held on to her seat with a white-knuckle grip as Psy flew straight at it instead of climbing. At the last moment they decelerated as a section of the rock face melted out of sight revealing an illuminated cavern. “My home from home on Earth.” Psy announced proudly as shi stepped barefoot out of hir ship into hir living Omphalon on Earth. Veronica couldn’t help but notice how the interior looked just like one of the smaller chambers at Fort Melchisor and how the floor lit up with rings of pulsating light around the base of their ship and wherever Psy walked.
      “Ronnie!” Psy held out a hand. Veronica gritted her teeth as she gave Psy the active trans-dimensional anchor. A biostone polyp rose up out of the floor, its streaky veins of light flickering eagerly as it took hold of the anchor. Psy turned to face Yldoseh and Veronica and bowed imperceptibly as shi clasped hir hands. “Excellent! We’re done here many thanks to you, Veronica… and now my promise to you, Yldoseh. Come.” Psy held out an open hand to point towards hir ship.
      Psy gaily jolted their ship around as they flew away careening along valleys up and over the Himalayas down into the more placid open skies of Northern India at first following the Ganges but then out across the Bay of Bengal and back inland across Thailand to bring them down on the grassy lawn at Angkor Wat. Psy stood in the oval doorway that opened in the Omphalatta’s side to reveal the outside world and held out a hand to Yldoseh. They walked out into the fresh warm air with to the curious stares of a few guinea fowl strutting in the grounds and than a few tourists giving their ship and Yldoseh curious stares. Ahead of them the ancient crumbling temple rose majestically ahead of them
      Psy led them into the shallow water of the large pond on the approach to the temple, waded in, cupped hir hands to lift up some water which shi let flow out through hir fingers as if to baptise Yldoseh. “Welcome home. It’s been a long time. But it’s their world now. They are not to blame for what happened. In time you will get to know them.” Psy fell silent to let Yldoseh marvel at their surroundings and to feel the living soil and grass of HomeNest beneath her bare feet.
      “It is beautiful, isn’t it?” Psy broke Yldoseh’s reverie. “We’ll come back another time Right now we’ve got more to do.” Minutes later they were racing back to Metropole One where they collected the other active trans-dimensional anchor and continued on to the Moon. “We’ll bury the other anchor here somewhere safe from prying eyes… This will do nicely.” Psy announced as they landed in Lovelace crater near the Lunar North Pole away from the many research and industrial facilities claiming their own craters.
      “The anchor, please.” Psy held out a hand to Veronica who placed the other active trans-dimensional anchor on the floor. The Omphalatta swallowed it up and encased it in a pod which set off digging its way deep down into the lunar crust. “Now we wait.”
     
      Margot felt as if her feet were hardly even touching the floor as she made her way over to the communications suite to start her shift. They had come in contact with Earth again! She looked out of every observation window she passed to look at Earth below and remind herself that it was real. She’d even managed to squeeze in a quick five-minute call to her parents in Riverside, Iowa. There was no way she’d pass up the opportunity as the chances were that they’d lose contact by the time she came off shift. Margot stole a last glance at the overhead displays with their feeds from Kourou and Earth Fed Central as she slipped on her HUD to swim in the streams of data flooding into Metropole One.
      [Suzanna] *Earth’s online. It’s looking good.
      [Pablo] *Any bets on how long we stay connected this time?
      [Arkhan-D] *If it stays as long as last time, I’m a happy sprocket.
      [Ricardo, mgr] “Margot, see if you can raise the Delta-17 feed, they’re whining about their connection.
      [Margot] *On it now.
      Margot reached in through the avalanche of data streams to isolate the Delta-17 feed. It was a Duvali foundation feed. ‘Damn them and their non-standard protocols’ Margot grumbled as she patched in a conversion template that would normalise their feed to Earth Fed standard as it passed through Metropole One. And, yes, she made sure there was a reverse-conversion template at the output so that they’d be able to decode their feed.
      And so the day went on. The connection with Earth held up until mid afternoon when the weaker feeds began to break up. The buzz of excitement in the communications centre gave way to a subdued apprehension. Margot flipped up her HUD to take a quick look at the overhead screens. Several of them showed Earth and she could clearly see the purple plasma begin to materialise around the periphery. She knew the routine by now: comms would break up and then it was a waiting game until the next alternate Earth was revealed after the plasma cleared. Meanwhile she was busy reconnecting any feeds that were strong enough to keep going until the bitter end.
      [Ricardo, mgr] *Okay team, let’s go for an orderly shutdown this time. Start with the low-end feeds first and see that each stream gets notice that it’s being cut off so we’re not left with broken feeds still coming in at our end. The industrial feeds should be good for a few more hours before we’ll have to pull the plug on them.
      Margot and her team were caught in a game of catch-up weeding out the weaker feeds to shut down as well as capping the already broken feeds coming in from Luna and Mars so that they didn’t overload the buffers. She looked up from time to time at the overhead screens to watch the encroaching field of purple plasma. They had got to the point where they were shutting down some of the minor corporate feeds when Arkhan-D, the one mech on their team, interrupted them.
      [Arkhan-D] *Whoah, hold up guys. The signal’s firming up.
      [Ricardo, mgr] *It could just be a blip. Carry on. You’re doing a great job, Arkhan-D.
      [Arkhan-D] *No, I’m serious, Ricardo. Check it for yourself, the signal coherence has stopped degrading.
      [Ricardo, mgr] *Yeah, I’m seeing it on my HUD. Okay guys, hang fire. But if the signal coherence goes south again continue as before, understood?
      Margot flipped up her HUD to watch the screens. At first the swirling plasma looked as if it would finally envelop Earth but after an interminable half an hour where it seemed poised to swallow up their world, it looked as if it was beginning to thin out. Ricardo interrupted her reverie.
      [Ricardo, Mgr] *Signal coherence is 63% and climbing. Start reconnecting the feeds. Well done, Arkhan-D.
     
      “Don’t be silly, I insist on paying.” Psy brushed aside Yldoseh and Veronica’s attempts to pay for their coffees after shepherding them back to where their adventure started at the Technobabble Café. “So far so good.” Psy commented breezily as they sat at a table by the window looking down Longridge St towards the market square. “It looks like the anchors have held. Those periods of instability should diminish now. One down, one to go.” Psy enthusiastically clapped hir hands.
      Psy then addressed Yldoseh. “I wish your people the best of luck locating your Ark of Exodus. If I can be of any help, let me know. Just leave a message for Grattlyd at Fort Melchisor with any Nglubi working there.” Psy’s commset pinged. “Oh, I must be going.” Psy looked at hir commset, gulped down hir coffee and got up to leave. Yldoseh and Veronica sat in a stunned silence.
      “Did any of that really happen?” Veronica finally broke their silence.
      “Um… how many anchors are in your bag?” Yldoseh wasn’t all that sure herself.
      Her shoulder bag felt empty. She looked inside. Yep, it was empty. “None.”
      “I guess so.” Yldoseh could see that the trans-dimensional anchors were gone. So the Humans had recovered their world! She was happy for Veronica but at the same time felt a sense of loss and wondered if they’d ever find the Ark of Exodus.
     
      In spite of Terval contemptuously throwing his pair of trans-dimensional anchors out the airlock as they journeyed back to Esplenia, the other two pairs held and the purple plasma was never to fully envelop Earth again. Each time it appeared it was weaker and covered less until it was just a faint wisp in the periphery. Seven years, five months and ten days after they were deployed the anchors switched off, their task complete.

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Chapter 36
Chapter 1