Wootjan-Oo could feel his tail feathers
tearing inside his space suit as he clumped along the platform releasing one
mag-boot at a time as he made his way across the platform. It happened every
time he wore a space suit and he hated it. Nothing that a bit of preening could
fix later on, not even the annoyance but it was the Guards’ insistence that
their suits were fine and most categorically did not damage avian tail feathers
when everyone knew they did that annoyed Wootjan-Oo the most. Another case of
reptilians getting one over the avians and getting away with barefaced lies.
Still, he had more immediate things to
worry about. Like the pocket universe portal just ahead of him and P'Gelyn behind him. He held their probe, a metal pole with
a camera on the end, like a lance as he slowly approached the portal. Above
them, the anchor tethering the Chznzet bubble universe to the main universe
hovered motionlessly directly in front of the portal.
Once they got the dimensional
displacement detector from Clan Ghathanwe, finding the portal linked to the
universe generator aboard the Ark of Exodus was easy. What surprised them was
how small it was; barely enough for one person to fit through. Although it
would have been just as easy to stick a probe from their ship through the
portal, it was decided that a show had to be put on for the Ghathanwe. Thus
Wootjan-Oo and P’Gelyn doing the march of sloths across the platform.
The Ghathanwe wouldn’t let
anyone from the Olblavy clan near the dimensional displacement detector. They
claimed it was classified technology and insisted that it be operated by their
own technicians. And now that the portal was found they would take it back.
Their supervisor wasn’t a scientist at all. She was obviously a soldier whose
scientific expertise began and ended with knowing which end of a plasma lance
to point away from herself. Her job was to keep any curious and enquiring
Olblavy clan scientists well away from her charges operating the dimensional
Up on the bridge, See’Enth,
the pilot, and their commander, Porcardr, a middle-aged overweight male avian
with dull tawny plumage were at their posts and watching the probe’s view. The
Ghathanwe ‘supervisor’ stood off to one side watching the screen. She wore the
maroon and gold uniform of the Imperial Guard. No scientist here in spite of
her supposed credentials as an FTL research engineer attached to the
Ghathanwe’s military research unit. See’Enth looked over the Ghathanwe’s
reflection in her control panel. See’Enth knew the type, their stance, their
rock-hard musculature and cockiness that comes from knowing that they could
easily kill a male much larger than themselves with just claw and fang.
See’Enth looked down at her out-of-tone body bulging against her own uniform
and felt her muscles tightening. See’Enth was no softie pushover but she knew
when she was outclassed. Oh yes, they had a killer in their midst, make no
mistake about that.
The picture on the screen
drifted around slowly with the rhythm of Wootjan-Oo’s breathing but got no
closer. The portal itself looked like a glowing circle of video static. “Take
the probe in and push it through the portal.” Porcardr ordered Wootjan-Oo. The
picture now lurched around with each step Wootjan-Oo took. In less than a
minute, the portal filled the entire screen. The static continued for a while
and then…. They saw the interior of a vast domed space that was at a very steep
angle. All three of them tilted their heads to one side.
“It’s the Observation Deck of the Ark,
Sir.” See’Enth tried to hold her excitement. She didn’t want that damn
Ghathanwe bitch to think that the Olblavy Clan were nothing but a bunch of
“Rotate the probe.” Porcardr ordered
Wootjan-Oo. On screen the viewing angle became steeper and steeper until it
started going upside down. “No, the other way, Technician.” The picture slowly
returned to its original skewed angle and kept flattening out. “Stop right
there.” Porcardr ordered Wootjan-Oo once the picture had levelled out. “I do
believe you’re right, Pilot.” Porcardr cawed appreciatively. “And by the look
of things not at floor level.”
Just then the picture on the screen
lurched wildly and the floor rushed up towards them. “Hey, what?” Wootjan-Oo
shouted over the open comms as the picture bounced around wildly before coming
to rest showing Wootjan-Oo in his pressure suit lying face-down on the
Observation Deck floor.
“Damn you, P’Gelyn. You pushed me.”
Wootjan-Oo shouted over the open comms as he lifted himself off the floor.
“Hey, you’re a hero now.” The sarcastic
sneer in P’Gelyn’s voice was obvious. “You just discovered the Ark of Exodus.”
Normally Porcardr would have just
shouted a bit of sense into those two young cocks but not with that ice-cold Ghathanwe looking over his shoulder. He felt mortified by
their breach of discipline and could already imagine the Ghathanwe officers’
arrogant laughter at the undisciplined Olblavy rabble. “Assist the Technician,
Corporal.” Porcardr had to force the words out of his fear-clenched throat and
ordered P’Gelyn with the best crisp professionalism he could muster.
See’Enth could see the
Ghathanwe’s cold sneering smirk and hated her even more.
“Bring the ship around so
that we’re level with the deck on the other side and deploy a marker beacon,
Pilot.” Porcardr ordered See’Enth.
“Yessir.” See’Enth activated the
transporter’s attitude microthrusters to rotate their transporter. Basically,
just part of a docking manoeuvre which she’d done hundreds of times before and
coolly managed with no overrun or correction. So there, you Ghathanwe bitch.
Out on the platform P’Gelyn pushed out a
ladder through the portal and climbed down to join Wootjan-Oo on the
Observation Deck floor. He gave Wootjan-Oo a brusque push on his shoulder and demanded:
“Where’s this universe generator or whatever it is?”
Wootjan-Oo seethed at P’Gelyn’s crass
bullying but held his tongue. Not only did P’Gelyn outrank him but he was much
stronger and liked throwing his weight around. Something Wootjan-Oo had also
discovered the hard way on several occasions before. “How the hell am I
supposed to know?” Wootjan-Oo vented his impotent anger at P’Gelyn as he waved
his suited armwings around to encompass the empty Observation Deck. “It’s
Unseen to them, a security drone
appeared floating out of a doorway far across the Observation Deck. Neither of
them gave it much attention as it hovered in the distance slowly approaching
them. Security drones were ubiquitous aboard the Ark and useful for directions
if you happened to be in a part of the Ark you didn’t know.
At first Wootjan-Oo didn’t even register
that he’d been shot by the drone. Its plasma bolt had pierced Wootjan-Oo’s
pressure suit but had only gone through some of his tail feathers. It wasn’t
until P’Gelyn had dropped to his knee shouting ‘Out, out, out!’ and shooting
back at the drone that Wootjan-Oo realised that he’d been shot. He recognised
the smell of singed feathers inside his suit and dropped back behind P’Gelyn
and took aim at the drone.
P’Gelyn got a clean shot and disabled the
drone. It crashed to the floor and rolled towards them. P’Gelyn picked it up
and pushed Wootjan-Oo towards the ladder. ‘Go!’
Wootjan-Oo didn’t look back and climbed
up the ladder to the portal as fast as he could. Looking back as he stepped
through the portal, he could see a swarm of security drones converging on their
ladder and gave P’Gelyn covering fire to distract the drones. One of them shot
P’Gelyn in the back as he got to the top of the ladder. P’Gelyn collapsed onto
the platform grunting in pain as his suit slowly and inexorably leaked air into
the hard vacuum of space. Wootjan-Oo instinctively grabbed P’Gelyn and dragged
him towards the airlock not caring whether P’Gelyn was dead or alive. You never
left a fallen soldier behind.
Back inside the transporter medics tore
off P’Gelyn’s pressure suit to tend to him. Much as Wootjan-Oo disliked
P’Gelyn, he was relieved to see that P’Gelyn was very much alive; cursing and
groaning in pain and bleeding as the medics whisked him away to patch him up.
In the midst of all the commotion just
inside the airlock their commander, Porcardr, closely followed by the Ghathanwe appeared. “Well done, Technician.” Porcardr
congratulated Wootjan-Oo with all the enthusiasm of a drowning man clutching on
to a piece of driftwood. “I’d like you to run a diagnostic on that drone once
you’re cleaned up. We need to find out why they’re shooting at us and some way
to disable them.”
Wootjan-Oo peeled off his pressure suit
as Porcardr and theGhathanwe returned to the bridge.
He took his time preening his feathers and examined his tail. It wasn’t too
bad. A few of his long tail feathers had been singed. They would grow back.
Eventually. He carefully preened his tail feathers so that the burnt parts
wouldn’t show and made his way slowly to the engineering workshop where the
dead drone awaited his attention. He took his time as it was as close as he was
going to get to taking a break today.
By the time Wootjan-Oo got to the tech
workshop Terzyn-Dael, a slightly overweight male reptilian with silver and
turquoise scales wearing a uniform that was at least one size too small, and
Roetzan, a lithe female emerald-scaled reptilian whose uniform hung loosely
over her light frame, had already hooked up the fallen drone as endless streams
of code raced past on the screens above the workbench.
“Anything useful?” Wootjan-Oo asked then
“Nothing yet.” Roetzan didn’t even look
away from the screen as she answered Wootjan-Oo.
Terzyn-Dael just grunted half-heartedly.
“P’Gelyn’s shot blasted its processor and part of its core. We’re extracting
what we can but it’s not going to be complete. We can’t recover anything from
the parts that are slag.”
“You’re right about that.” Wootjan-Oo
agreed aimlessly as he gazed, almost mesmerised, at the rapidly scrolling reams
of code racing across the screens and then glanced down at the dead drone on
the bench. The hole from P’Gelyn’s shot had gone clean through it.
“It’s all just standard stuff.” Roetzan
sounded puzzled. “Nothing’s been tampered or altered since the Chznzet took
over the Ark.”
“Well the command had to come from
somewhere.” Wootjan-Oo stated the obvious. “If it wasn’t coded into the drones,
then it must have come from the Ark’s
security systems. What about its communication logs?”
“Ah.” Terzyn-Dael turned his attention
to the drone. “There’s not much left of that part. Anything we extract will be
nothing more than fragments.”
“It’s worth a try.” Wootjan-Oo suggested
hopefully. “As Roetzan pointed out, all the operation code is completely normal.”
“OK.” Terzyn-Dael diffidently shrugged
his shoulders as he pulled away the metalloplastic cover off the drone where
P’Gelyn’s plasma bolt had cut through and plugged a cable onto a data terminal.
One of the screens switched over to swathes of static interspersed with random
fragments of Darkonit text.
Wootjan-Oo rubbed his paws together. “I
think we’ve got something here.”
“Once I’ve extracted whatever logs are
recoverable, I’ll pull the text out of the noise and see what we’ve got.”
Roetzan had a tinge of enthusiasm to her voice now that she had a challenge
rather than the soul crushing routine of being the transporter’s on-board tech
support. “Shouldn’t take too long.”
Just then a Guard officer steeped into
their workshop. “I need an engineer to help remove that dimensional
whatever-it-is for the Ghathanwe. They’re in a hurry
to pack up and go.” Wootjan-Oo didn’t have much to do so he followed the Guard
over to the docking bay where the Ghathanwe engineers had set up camp with
their dimensional displacement detector. In reality his job was to clear away
the power couplings and help the Guard grunts lug cases of equipment into a
waiting shuttle. The Ghathanwe supervisor was the last aboard after inspecting
the docking bay to make sure nothing was left behind.
Wootjan-Oo was about to head
back to the workshop when one of the grunts grabbed his armwing and pointed to
the window. “Hey, you’ve got to watch this!”
“What?” All Wootjan-Oo could see was the
Ghathanwe shuttle heading back to a Ghathanwe light
cruiser nearby. Aside from being a fairly new medium-sized warship, it didn’t
look all that special. Even the Rtuntli had ships that could easily outgun it.
“Wait for it.” The grunt failed to
explain with an excitement Wootjan-Oo couldn’t fathom.
“Could you let go of me?” Wootjan-Oo
squirmed in the grunt’s rock-solid grip.
“Oh yeah, sorry.” He let go of
Wootjan-Oo who quickly ruffled the feathers on his armwing and made to leave.
“Hey, don’t go.” The grunt pleaded.
“I’ve got work to do.” Wootjan-Oo was
making his excuses when he caught sight of it out the window: a vast ovoid of
milky light rapidly coalescing around the Ghathanwe
cruiser until all you could was the glow of light. And then it collapsed in on
itself until it was just a thin line of blazing light which then vanished from
sight. The cruiser was gone. Wootjan-Oo cawed softly with amazement.
“Slick, huh?” The grunt was
definitely impressed. “All the way back to Cervetica in one hop. Makes our
gateways insignificant in comparison.”
“Really?” Wootjan-Oo didn’t
know what to think.
“Yeah, Nglubi tech.” The grunt explained
what little he knew about it with a forced casualness as he relished his brief
moment of actually knowing more than someone else.
Wootjan-Oo thought about it for a moment
before blurting out: “So that’s what they get for being the Nglubi’s pets? The Ark’s our home and we’ll
“The Ark!” The grunt resounded with a reflexive
sincerity that just couldn’t be faked and raised a paw in loyal salute. “We all
saw the video feed. You’re the one who found it.”
Busted! Wootjan-Oo slumped. So much for
the quiet life. “Yeah, well, you saw our little problem.”
“Shoot the damned drones!” The grunt
“The Ark has tens of thousands of drones.”
Wootjan-Oo saw the futility of that idea. “You’d be shooting them for months.”
The grunt shrugged his shoulders.
“Unless you techies figure out a way to stop them, we might have to.”
“You’re right about that.” Wootjan-Oo
conceded although he wasn’t too keen on the prospect even though it was the
grunts who would be doing most of the shooting. When he got back to the
workshop Wootjan-Oo was going to share the news about the Ghathanwe’s gateway-powered drive system but never got the
Roetzan was banging her clenched paws on
a console beneath screens of scrolling digital mush and fragments of text.
“Dammit, this is worse than useless.” She cursed angrily. “There’s not even as
much as a coherent fragment we can pull out of this garbage. That idiot
completely slagged the drone’s memory.”
“Look, just pull out what you can and
we’ll go over it later.” Terzyn-Dael futilely tried to appease her.
“Waaahhhh!” Roetzan yowled with
frustrated rage. “Just get me a working drone. Not this… piece of junk.”
Terzyn-Dael and Wootjan-Oo looked at
each other. “I’ll see what I can do.” Wootjan-Oo offered. Terzyn-Dael silently
thanked Wootjan-Oo and turned his attention back to Roetzan in an attempt to
bring her back to a more amenable state of mind.
Wootjan-Oo made his way to the bridge
thinking over how he was going to put their request across. When he got there,
he poked his head round the door in trepidation but was surprised to see it
almost deserted except for the pilot, See’Enth.
“Where’s the Captain?”
Wootjan-Oo asked timidly.
“In his office.” See’Enth
barely even glanced over from her station. “Do you know where it is?”
“Yes thanks.” Wootjan-Oo
replied and made his way back down the corridor to Captain Porcardr’s office. He pressed the entry
chime and his apprehension was swept away by confusion at the sight of his
Captian looking up from a game of Gachan-Da, somewhat similar to a 3D version
of Go, that he was playing against the ship’s AI. Drink in hand, Porcardr
reached over to turn the music down. “Do you play Gachan-Da?”
“Ah, no sir.” Wootjan-Oo was completely
wrong-footed by Porcardr’s casual manner.
“You should!” Porcardr was obviously an
enthusiast. “You could have taken over a few moves from the ship. It would make
a change to play against a real opponent. So, what can I do for you, Technician…
Ah… Terzyn-Dael, is it?”
“No. Wootjan-Oo, sir.” He nervously
corrected his relaxed Captain. “We’ve run up against a problem with the drone.”
Porcardr looked up as he took a sip from
his drink. “And?”
“We’ve not found anything that might
suggest that it had been reprogrammed to target us.” Wootjan-Oo held back the
really bad information.
“That’s good to know.” Porcardr took
another sip of his drink. “And what about it’s logs?”
“I was about to get to that, sir.”
“What do you mean?” Porcardr fixed his
stare on Wootjan-Oo as he took yet another sip of his drink.
“There’s nothing there, sir. The Guard’s
shot went clean through the drone’s memory.” Wootjan-Oo unburdened himself of
his group’s failure. “Roetzan was able to check its operating code and it was
all normal. Nothing altered. But the logs were, well, a mess. Most of what
Roetzan could pull out was just mush and a few random fragments. We could
really do with a working drone.”
Porcardr took a last sip of his drink,
set it down and got up off his perchseat. “Well, why didn’t you say so?”
“What, sir?” Wootjan-Oo felt as if he
wanted to vanish.
“Captain, we need a working drone to
study.” Porcardr offered as a suggestion while doing his best to imitate a
lower ranking officer addressing his Captain. “Or something like that. There’s
no need to be afraid of me, Wootjan-Oo. If you have something to say, say it.
Good communication helps run a tight ship.” Porcardr paused to let his words
sink in. “So, you need a working drone?”
“Yes, sir.” In spite of Porcardr’s
efforts, Wootjan-Oo felt even more uncomfortable.
“You’ll get your drone.” Porcardr
switched off the music and the Gachan-Da game and brought up a holographic
command data screen. Gone was Porcardr the genial host. Here was Captian
Porcardr of the Ark
transporter Xepherion. “Can’t say how long it will take though. Dismissed.”
Wootjan-Oo made his way back to the
workshop in a daze and relayed the news to his co-workers. An hour later a
burly reptilian Guard, grinning with pride and still wearing his combat armour blundered in through the door
carrying a shiny spherical drone in the mesh netting they’d used to catch it.
“You guys wanted a drone?”
Terzyn-Dael could barely believe their
luck and accepted the captured drone from the Guard. It seemed suspiciously
lifeless. “Does it still work?”
“It should do.” The Guard replied
“What do you mean?” Roetzan shot back
from a darkened corner of the workshop where she’d been sulking.
“It went into standby mode when we got
it out through the portal.” The Guard explained straightforwardly. “So, we
switched it off in case it woke up and started shooting again.”
“Good move.” Terzyn-Dael congratulated
the Guard who then left. Terzyn-Dael hoisted the dormant drone up onto the workbench,
pulled away the netting and prised open its service panels. He casually opened
a few clips, slid out the drone’s cylindrical glassine memory core and tossed
it to Roetzan. “See what you can get out of this one.”
The likelihood of success pulled Roetzan
out of her dark mood as she hooked up the drone’s memory core and downloaded
its contents. She stared intently at the data screens as acres of Darkonit text
scrolled up at a hectic rate.
“Hey do you want to see something
funny?” Terzyn-Dael asked Wootjan-Oo in a conspiratorial tone.
Terzyn-Dael tapped the power switch on the
drone. It lifted off the workbench with soft hum accompanied by a few clicks
and winking lights as it powered up. “This is Xepherion Security Drone 001
initial startup. Please insert a memory core and run full systems diagnostics
after I shut down.” The drone settled back down onto the workbench and the soft
“The hell?” Wootjan-Oo was aghast. “You
could have… mmffffkrrrlllmmmffff!”
Terzyn-Dael reached over, clamped
Wootjan-Oo’s beak shut and hit the power switch again. Again, the drone lifted
off and went through its routine before shutting itself off. And again, and
again; each time he started it up it went through the same routine.
“You see, no memory.” Terzyn-Dael
exclaimed proudly. “Not only does it have no memory of being a drone on the Ark, it thinks it
belongs to our ship.”
Wootjan-Oo finally got Terzyn-Dael’s
point. “It doesn’t even remember between startups.”
“Now all we have to do is to find some
way to override their data link with the Ark’s
security systems.” Terzyn-Dael clasped his paws together as if he knew what he
was doing. He didn’t.
“Use the service channels” Roetzan
called out without even taking her attention off the data screens. “They’re always
open for maintenance.”
“I’m on it!” Terzyn-Dael started
rummaging excitedly amongst the storage bins and lockers next to the workbench.
“Roetzan, wipe that memory core when you’re finished with it.” A few minutes
later he found what he was looking for: a portable data terminal and a handful
of assorted cables. “Ah, yes, this should do it. I’ve got a bit of time to work
on something while Roetzan is analysing that memory core.”
Roetzan was finished with the memory
core sooner than they’d expected and she passed it over to Wootjan-Oo. “Are you
sure this is safe?” He cautiously asked Roetzan.
“Sure.” Roetzan was casually confident.
“What about the data shadow? Are you
sure you cleared it?” Wootjan-Oo asked Roetzan. “It could rebuild the old logs
“Oh, OK.” Roetzan wearily snatched the
memory core back from Wootjan-Oo. “One more time if it makes you happy.”
It didn’t take long and again Wootjan-Oo
found himself holding the memory core waiting to insert it into the dormant
drone. He felt as if Roetzan and Terzyn-Dael had set him up to take the blame
if anything went wrong. He realised that Terzyn-Dael’s plan might go badly
wrong and felt that he’d be more use standing off to one side aiming a plasma
lance at the drone. he offered the memory core to
Terzyn-Dael. “Here you go. I’ll get a plasma lance out of the locker, just in
Terzyn-Dael didn’t even look up from the
drone as he accepted the memory core from Wootjan-Oo, obliviously unaware of
Wootjan-Oo’s paranoia, “Yeah, sure. We’re ready to start.”
Wootjan-Oo panicked and started pulling
open storage lockers until a plasma lance fell into his eager claws. He primed
it and swung around just in time to watch the drone lift off from the
“This is Xepherion Security Drone 001
initial startup. My memory core is corrupted. Shall I attempt recovery or
reinitialise?” The drone blandly addressed them.
Roetzan didn’t even skip a beat and
barked out from her corner of the workshop without even looking away from her
data screens: “Initialise.” Wootjan-Oo held his breath while the drone
“This is Xepherion Security Drone 001
initial startup. Ready for deployment.” The drone addressed them in the same
“Shut down.” Roetzan got up from her
workstation to look at the drone as it settled down on the workbench. She kept
her paw over the open service panel to stop Terzyn-Dael from switching it on
“What are you doing?” Terzyn-Dael
blurted out defensively. He felt as if Roetzan was shutting down their one
chance of hacking the drones.
“Terzyn” Roetzan looked at Terzyn-Dael
the way a parent would at a child who soiled itself yet again after months of
failed toilet training. “You don’t want that thing looking over your shoulder
and listening in while you’re coding, do you? It’ll know what you’re doing and
lock you out. You’d have failed before you even start.”
“Oh yeah, right. Hadn’t thought about
that.” Terzyn-Dael acknowledged sheepishly. He knew Roetzan was right and
sloped off to his workstation. “Coding it is! This won’t take long. I’ll need
to restart the drone to test my work.”
“Fine, you do that.” Roetzan was glad
Terzyn-Dael could see the need for thinking things through. “But give me the
memory core to wipe after each test until you’ve got it working.”
“Whatever.” Terzyn-Dael was already
beavering away at his coding to pay Roetzan much attention.
“I think I’ve found out why the drones
shot at you.” Roetzan pulled Wootjan-Oo over to her workstation where the
screen was stopped at wall of text.
“That’s quite the wall o’ text!”
Wootjan-Oo didn’t know what to make of it.
Roetzan pointed to her screen and
ploughed on. “Here, the drone identifies five intruders by the ID tags in their
pressure suits. The next line is a reply from the security central AI
identifying them as hostile combatants. That bastard Sebret’Zaan
has probably put all our subdermal tags on their black list as well.”
“We can spoof the suit ID tags easily
enough.” Wootjan-Oo ran with Roetzan’s information. “Subdermals are a bit
different. You need to wear a foil armband with a fake ID tag. Your subdermal
is unreadable and the world thinks you’re someone else. That’s how I used to
get into night clubs when I was underage.”
Roetzan laughed and gave Wootjan-Oo a
knowing look. “I did the same thing myself. Looks like we’ve got a plan to put
to the test. I’ll prep a few suits and you tell the Captain we’re going to need
a few volunteers.”
Wootjan-Oo slumped. He really didn’t
want to face Captain Porcardr again. Ten minutes later he returned to the
workshop looking totally dispirited.
“And?” Roetzan looked up from
reprogramming the ID tag on a pressure suit and quizzed Wootjan-Oo.
“We’re the volunteers.” Wootjan-Oo
wasn’t too happy about it.
“Oh well.” Roetzan shrugged her
shoulders and passed Wootjan-Oo one of the wristbands she’d prepared. She was
fairly confident their plan would work. The suit tags were spoofed with ID’s
from the Arbrunthiel sector. That was a safe bet because so much was lost when
that sector was destroyed it would be almost unlikely for the Ark’s security AI to flag up a duplicate ID
tag. She also loaded up the wristband ID tags with ID’s from deceased residents
from the Arbrunthiel sector for the same reason. The suit tags wouldn’t be a
problem. Everyone knew that wristband ID tags weren’t foolproof but right now
it was the best they could do aside from reprogramming their own ID tags. No ID
tag was not an option. The drones would automatically shoot to disable or kill
unless authorised otherwise.
“I hope this works” Wootjan-Oo
didn’t want to get shot at twice in one day. He tightened the wristband over
his feathers to keep it in place. By the time Wootjan-Oo looked up to get his
helmet off the rack, Roetzan was already suited up in her hacked suit and ready
to go. Not wanting to be shown up by Roetzan, he suited up and followed her to
Once outside, Roetzan deferred to
Wootjan-Oo. “What happens now?”
“Hold on to the ladder. It goes down at
a bit of an odd angle.” Wootjan-Oo tried to focus as he flashed back to his
previous foray into the Ark.
At least P'Gelyn wasn’t going to push him in this
time. “We stay close to the ladder. If anything goes wrong, climb out
fast. I’ll cover you. You cover me when it’s my turn.”
Roetzan could tell by Wootjan-Oo’s voice
that this was no longer a game. The drones might very well shoot at them. “OK.”
“I’ll go first.” Wootjan-Oo turned to
climb down the ladder. When he got to the bottom, he looked around. No drones
in sight so he waved to Roetzan. They didn’t have to wait long. Drones soon
appeared on the periphery of the observation deck. Wootjan-Oo noticed that the
drones appeared to be ignoring them: a welcome change from last time.
A solitary drone approached them.
“Atmospheric conditions are nominal. There is no need to wear a pressure suit.”
“We’ll be going back outside in a few
minutes.” Roetzan saw no harm in telling the drone the truth. “It’s a lot of
bother changing in and out of these suits.”
“As you will.” And the drone drifted off
noiselessly. Roetzan and Wootjan-Oo couldn’t believe their luck. It worked!
They spent the best part of an hour wandering up and down the vast observation
deck looking for drones to test. Not once were they challenged. Satisfied that
they’d filmed enough evidence to convince Captain Porcardr, they climbed back
up the ladder and returned to their workshop where they were greeted by the
drone floating in the doorway.
“Welcome to Castalya-Tan’s hot bath and
sex club!” It announced cheerily. “Do you have a reservation or would you like
to book one of our available suites? We cater to all tastes and have licensed
escorts.” Wootjan-Oo laughed and pushed past the drone.
“Hey, you can’t barge in like that,
buster.” The drone complained peevishly as Roetzan followed and pushed past the
“How do you like my override routine?” Terzyn-Dael
“Yeah, yeah, shut it off.” Wootjan-Oo groused.
He and Roetzan had put their lives on the line to get real information while
Terzyn-Dael had just played games.
“Oh, OK.” Terzyn-Dael sulkily caved in
and jabbed at his portable data terminal and the drone instantly announced
itself as ‘Xepherion Security Drone 001’. He wasn’t going to give up. “But in
case you’re wondering that was an actual override. I put the sex club stuff in
as a marker to let me know if the override worked. Look!” Terzyn-Dael jabbed at
his data pad again and the drone went blank for a moment before launching into its
sex club greeter routine. He jabbed at the handheld again and the drone
returned to being ‘Xepherion Security Drone 001’.
“Great.” Wootjan-Oo replied flatly to
let Terzyn-Dael know that he didn’t share his enthusiasm. “The ID tag spoofing
worked so we’ve got first line and backup now.”
“What do you mean?” Terzyn-Dael was
upset that Wootjan-Oo didn’t appreciate what he’d done.
“We spoof the ID tags on everyone who
goes in and then use the override if the spoofing fails.” Wootjan-Oo set out a
“Yeah, that would work.” Terzyn-Dael
felt better now that Wootjan-Oo had accepted his work.
“But change that marker to something
neutral like ‘This unit is offline’ or something like that?” Wootjan-Oo
suggested. “How about making them just shut down?”
“I haven’t got that far yet.”
Terzyn-Dael admitted candidly. “But once they’re in maintenance mode you can
just shut them down manually.”
“That will have to do.” Wootjan-Oo knew
what he had to do even though he’d rather be eaten alive by Tamordian
Bloodworms. “I’ll run it past the Captain.”
“You do that and we’ll get on with
finalising things here.” Terzyn-Dael, yet again, failed to read Wootjan-Oo’s
reticence. Minutes later he reappeared with Captain Porcardr.
“Let’s see what you’ve got.” Porcardr
could see that they were a bit uneasy around him and slipped into his casual
mood for them. He hummed and clucked appreciatively while Roetzan ran through
the spoofing for him and laughed heartily at Terzyn-Dael’s sex club marker
during the drone override demonstration. When it was over, he became more
businesslike. “It looks like we’ll be able to get aboard the Ark safely now. I want you to prep every
suit we have on this ship. It’s a shame we only have one of these override
“Not a problem, sir” Terzyn-Dael was
eager to please his captain. “Just load the software into any portable data pad.
It’s a one-button job. Anyone could use it.”
“How many do we have?” Porcardr was
formulating a plan.
“I think we’ve got about three more in
the workshop, sir.” Terzyn-Dael started rummaging around in the storage bins.
“We’ll need more than that.” Porcardr
mused. “I’ll get someone to round up every one we’ve got on the ship and I want
you to load that program onto them.” For the rest of the day their workshop
turned into a production line as Guards and crewmembers brought in pressure
suits for Roetzan and Wootjan-Oo to reprogram with spoofed ID’s while
Terzyn-Dael loaded his override program onto the flood of data pads and
personal consoles that landed on his workbench. Much to Wootjan-Oo’s relief
Terzyn-Dael had stripped out his sex club marker so that when he showed the
Guards how to use it, they weren’t bombarded with an automated greeter from a
Although Reflinghar was irked that he’d
received news about the discovery of the whereabouts of the Ark of Exodus from
the gloating Ghathanwe Commander who made a point of
showing him the video of Wootjan-Oo falling head over heels into the Ark, he was still in a
good mood when he got a call from Captain Porcardr. “Well done, Captain. And a
commendation for your technician.” He briskly congratulated Porcardr from the
comfortable confines of his office on Vermthellyn. “I hope this spoofing plan
of yours works out. I’m going to assemble a task force with all the Guards we
can spare from our garrisons here on Vermthellyn and Mars to re-take the Ark. It would help if
you could send us the data we need to prepare our
troops so that they’re ready to go as soon as they arrive.”
“Of course, my Lord.”
Porcardr obsequiously deferred to Reflinghar. “I shall see to it immediately.”
Xandu, Tatia and Jervyk were
merrily battling their way through a baroque fortress cutting down hordes of grunting
trolls and cursing demons as they played a round of Ice Warrior IX. Their
glamorous avatars seemed invincible as they swept through the holographic game
in front of them with only one last thin line of warriors to vanquish before
they could loot the treasure that waited glinting seductively in the distance.
Jervyk’s communicator pinged. It would
just have to wait. They were so close to finishing this level and the action
was so addictive. But the pinging wouldn’t stop so he played his controller
with one paw as he reached over to answer his communicator. It was a call up.
“Hey guys, let’s wrap this one up as
fast as we can.” Jervyk was already mentally disconnecting from the addictive
rush of the game as the real world caught up with him. “I just got a deployment
“Oh man, that sucks.” Xandu sympathised
as his avatar wielded its glinting broadsword and sliced through a brace of
shrieking demons. “Any idea what it’s about?”
“Nope.” Jervyk sighed and looked
enviously around Xandu and Tatia’s cosy studio apartment in the Berghault development where the Shallens were resettled.
They had made their home here and were doing their best to make a life for
themselves on Mars. Xandu worked odd jobs as a porter in the market although
Tatia had yet to find a job.
Jervyk really appreciated
their welcoming warmth and spent most of his time hanging out with Xandu and
Tatia. There weren’t many Shallen girls in his age group. The few who made it
out had already paired off. He’d lost out on that but had a few brief
encounters with some human women who found him exotic, which made him feel
uncomfortable even though the sex was great. All he really wanted was the
unconditional love that Xandu and Tatia had, but it was not to be. At least
they were understanding and accepted him which was what he needed to get over
the loss of his friend, Varnath, who had died during the riots.
Two days later, Jervyk stepped through
the portal leading into the Ark of Exodus in a platoon of raw recruits and
volunteers nervously clutching their brand-new plasma lances who were shepherded
by five seasoned Guards. His armour hung loosely on his wiry frame as they
marched across the deserted observation deck. Along the way they passed disabled
drones sitting on the floor, a procession of mute metallic markers lining their
path to reclaim their home, the Ark of Exodus. They had to clear and maintain a
drone-free zone leading to the security control rooms. The Guards would disable
them and Jervyk’s team would switch them off, remove their data cores and set
them out as markers along their path.
Wootjan-Oo, Roetzan and Terzyn-Dael
stepped into the security centre as they followed a team of engineers sent from
Vermthellyn by Reflinghar. It felt odd to be back on the Ark as an intruder. Wootjan-Oo couldn’t help
but be spooked out by how empty it was. Normally there would be Shallens
everywhere going about their lives, but instead it was deserted like a ghost
ship. He couldn’t help but wonder where everyone was. Still, they had work to
do, which was to take back control of the Ark’s security systems.
Roetzan got to a terminal first and
fired it up. Its control panel and holographic screen winked into life.
“Dammit, I’m locked out.” She cursed loudly. “Anyone else getting this?”
“Yeah.” Wootjan-Oo and Terzyn-Dael came
up against the same brick wall and judging by the grumbling around the control
room, everyone was locked out.
“Damn that bastard, Sebret’Zaan!”
Roetzan thumped the terminal console and then came up with an idea. “We should
still be able to access the public channels. Let’s see what happened here after
they threw us off.”
It didn’t take long before every screen
in the control room was showing the magnificent pageantry of the Knetryxx
Nodles-Irah, Keeper of the Ark of Exodus, and Alghar of Khelamothyra’s wedding
to a stunned and disbelieving audience. Wootjan-Oo just sat there dumbfounded
with his beak half-open.
“It’s not real.” Wootjan-Oo finally
leaned across to speak to Roetzan.
“I know that. She’s on Vermthellyn.”
Roetzan wasn’t taken in by the overblown wedding and retinue that was staged in
beautiful parkland next to a placid lake on one of the environment decks. “But
who are they?”
“More like what. They’re androids
controlled by the Chznzet.” Wootjan-Oo knew exactly what they were. “We ran
into them once before.” Up on the screens there was a display of ceremonial
jousting by dragonriders mounted on their airborne steeds. Then the picture
moved down to zoom in on the Knetryxx and Alghar androids waving to the adoring
crowds in attendance.
Knetryxx stepped up to the edge of the
balcony to address her audience. “On this wonderful day when I take Alghar to
my heart, I pronounce that from this day forth that the Chznzet are the true
spiritual guide for the Ark. The Ingnuthin have served us well, but their time
is gone. It is Chznzet who will lead us to HomeNest!” The tumultuous cheering
seemed endless and burned hard into their ears.
“Hey, have you noticed this?”
Terzyn-Dael butted in. “I just had a quick look at the news feeds and according
to their calendar, that wedding happened nearly a cycle ago. But we’ve only
been away for a couple of months.”
“Maybe time runs at a different speed
here.” Roetzan suggested.
“Well I want to get out of here before
my scales go dull with old age.” Terzyn-Dael didn’t like the prospect of
Jervyk rode the lift down the long
slender support strut with his platoon taking them from the central core that
housed the main operations centres and forward observation deck of the Ark of
Exodus down to main cylinder that housed the environment decks and the Ark’s
citizenry. They were heading down to one of the forward agricultural zones and
he could make out a few of the larger sauropods wandering in herds as they
raced downwards. There was no sign of any Shallens as they got closer but this
didn’t really surprise him as few would normally risk being trampled by spooked
herds of those behemoth creatures.
When they arrived, their platoon-leader
Guards commandeered a shuttle which they rode all the way to the next bulkhead.
Jervyk relaxed and enjoyed the view as they sped along its tracks across the
environment deck. It felt good to be back on the Ark after their ejection and tumultuous stay
amongst the Humans. And, for once, they weren’t being repeatedly ambushed by
yet more drones which they’d have to disable.
Jervyk looked up out through the ceiling
where he could see the inner environment deck arcing upon both sides to where
they met far behind the linear fusion sol that ran the central length of the
ark bathing the environment deck in its life-giving light and warmth. As they
approached the bulkhead that ran all the way up to the ceiling, he saw that not
only were the doors closed but that the upper portals for dragon riders on
their aerial steeds were firmly sealed shut.
The doors, ten metres high and easily
twice that width, proved impervious to any override codes that the techies sent
them, so their commander, a muscular middle-aged reptilian lifer in the Guards,
lined them up facing the door. “We’re going to have to cut our way through. I
want you to set your plasma lances at full power, aim them all at the same
point and work your way around this line I’m marking out.” He then stepped back
and gave the order.
It didn’t take long. Their plasma lances
worked surprisingly well as cutting tools and it wasn’t long before their
commander gave a final kick to push a piece of the doorway through. No sooner
had he done that than a military drone shot through firing at Jervyk’s platoon.
He ducked for cover behind a clump of low-lying cycads to shoot at it and the
other drones that followed it through. “Keep shooting at them.” His commander’s
voice barked through the comms headset that Jervyk and all Shallen soldiers
wore for combat. “The override codes don’t work on those drones.”
In between taking pot-shots at the
drones he could hear the curses of his fellow soldiers shooting back at the
drones as well as grunts, groans and screams whenever someone was shot. His
scales and muscles tightened in determination as he fought back and, to his
surprise, even brought a few of them down. But still the drones kept flooding
Jervyk had lost count of the number of
drones that had flooded through and they were close to being overwhelmed when
another shuttle overloaded with troops raced up the track, shooting at the
drones as soon as they got within range. These were seasoned Guards, marksmen
all, and they managed to turn the tide and hold the drones back until they
stopped their assault.
Once the shooting had died down, Jervyk
and his comrades came out of their hiding places and regrouped off to one side
of the opening they’d cut in the door. He looked through and could see a group
of unarmed Shallen civilians standing around outside their village held back by
a line of military drones between them and the door. They’d had a few
casualties and one fatality: a young avian male. Jervyk looked down at the
lifeless body and shook as he momentarily relived the moment back in Montgomery when he saw Varnath falling in slow-motion to his death, twitching
uncontrollably like a broken rag doll as the projectile bullets pierced his
“We’re going through.” His commander’s voice
suddenly blared into his ears jolting him out of his memories. Jervyk hated the
way his headset was so loud even when he turned its volume down. “Follow the
Guards and give them cover.” He took up position and waited as the Guards
clustered around the hole they’d cut to shoot at the drones. When it was his
turn to go through, he primed his plasma lance ready to shoot the first drone
he saw, but there were none. Instead the people who had been held back were
milling around them.
An elderly reptilian male in worn rustic
clothes, his burgundy scales long-dulled with age, clutched on to Jervyk and
pushed him back towards the door. “Quick, they’ll be back. We have to get out
“What?” Jervyk didn’t know what to do.
“They sealed all the sectors.” The old
Shallen hastily explained. “They’ve made prisoners of us all. You’re one of the
ones Sebret’Zaan expelled, aren’t you?”
“Yes.” Jervyk only half-listened to the
old boy as he kept watch for any approaching drones.
“Pah, children!” The old Shallen groused
peevishly before pleading anxiously. “Look, just take me to your commander.”
Jervyk obliged the old boy and took him
to his commander who was surrounded by a group from the village who were
pouring out their stories in fragmented torrents. Jervyk held back as they
mobbed his commander and the other officers with their stories. Their gathering
was cut short when a military drone hovered into view and started shooting at
them and they fell back through the doorway taking some of the villagers with
them. Jervyk helped one of the Guards wedge the piece of metal plate they’d cut
out of the door and weld it back into place to stop any more drones coming
Jervyk sat silently on the shuttle as
they rode back across the agricultural deck towards the elevator strut that
would take them back up to the central core. He couldn’t stop shaking as he kept
reliving the moment Varnath died and was barely even aware of the old reptilian
babbling away next to him.
“And then they found HomeNest just after
the wedding.” The old boy rambled on. “The faithful went first and then anyone
who wanted to settle on HomeNest could make the journey. That’s when they
locked all the sectors. We haven’t done anything wrong!” He was indignant. “My niece
is over in the Ssyraniss sector and I haven’t seen her for a full cycle.”
“Oh… I’m sorry.” Jervyk had only heard
the tail end of the old boy’s rant and decided it was best to sympathise
politely rather than unburdening himself onto an old man who was obviously
quite distressed. “What was that about HomeNest?”
“You weren’t listening, were you?” The
old Shallen chided Jervyk. “The Chznzet found HomeNest.”
“Really?” Jervyk, like most other
Shallens, knew all about the Chznzet mythology of HomeNest, but never gave it
much credence. To him they were a cult of religious headbangers.
“Well they must have.” The old Shallen
sounded like a believer who was beginning to have doubts. “They’ve gone
somewhere. They aren’t on the Ark
Jervyk nodded his head in mute
agreement. Even to him the Chznzet were notable by their absence. “Good
riddance to them.” That was the first bit of good news he’d heard in a while.
Up on the Xepherion, Porcardr was busy
receiving a group of intelligence officers who had arrived aboard the
transporter Zoplan along with the troops sent from Mars and Vermthellyn in a
cargo bay that had been repurposed to receive the residents from the Ark who
had returned with their troops. He strutted around fretfully making sure that
all the seating and refreshments were in place like a nervous hotelier
awkwardly ingratiating himself with the intelligence officers who’d been sent
by Duke Reflinghar.
The senior intelligence officer,
Trrktah-Kyn, a portly avian briefly flapped his armwings to get everyone’s
attention to address them: “We’ve had reports that time appears to be running
faster aboard the Ark
than it does here. Apparently, a full cycle has already passed there, so be
prepared for some time differences when you interview these people. It’s up to
you whether you want to tell them that only two months have passed. We can
always deal with that later after we recover the Ark.”
Trrktah-Kyn was interrupted mid-stream
by a group of Shallens who looked like country bumpkins being herded in by a
group of Guards. “Ah… well, here they are now.” And then he spotted someone he
recognised. “Glarzuss, you old scoundrel! What are you
The old reptilian who’d been pestering
Jervyk perked up, broke away from the crowd, strode purposely over to
Trrktah-Kyn and grabbed one of his arms. “It took you long enough.”
“Ah…” Trrktah-Kyn knew had had to be
honest with his old friend and offered him a seat. “Here, sit down.” Glarzuss
accepted the offer as Trrktah-Kyn continued. “It’s been two months, Glarzuss.
That’s all. We got lucky when clan Ghathanwe pitched
in to help.”
“Oh, not them. What do they
want out of it?” Glarzuss facepalmed and then looked up incredulously at Trrktah-Kyn. “What do you mean, two
months? It’s been over a cycle in orbit over HomeNest.”
Trrktah-Kyn waited for Glarzuss to calm
down. “Two months, Glarzuss, that’s all. The Chznzet used a bubble universe generator.
We don’t know why but time is running faster in there.”
“What do you mean ‘in there’?” Glarzuss
asked tetchily. “We’ve been in orbit around HomeNest for at least a full cycle.
“I haven’t seen Ngathel since the Chznzet sealed the sectors.” The exasperation
and despair were clear in his voice.
Trrktah-Kyn could see that the proudly
confident Shallen who’d been his department leader not so long ago was almost a
broken soul. “HomeNest is home to those Humans now.”
“What do you mean? It’s uninhabited. Everyone
saw the broadcasts.” Glarzuss protested.
“No, you did. We didn’t.” Trrktah-Kyn respected
Glarzuss too much to humour him. “You saw a fantasy HomeNest that’s part of that
bubble universe. It’s going to collapse and we’ve got to get the Ark out before that
“The Ark is in a bubble universe.” Trrktah-Kyn
was beginning to feel he’d made a mistake even mentioning the time difference
“Yes, yes, I heard you the first time,
Trrktah-Kyn.” Glarzuss was peevishly angry with himself for having got caught
up in such a mess. His plans for an easy retirement in an Ingnuthin village on
an environment deck after a lifetime in the intelligence service had been
upturned after the Chznzet takeover of the Ark. “But how?”
“We found the anchor that tethers their
bubble universe to this one. Trrktah-Kyn explained patiently. “It’s just
outside the portal you came through. Somewhere in there the Chznzet have the
universe generator that powers that bubble universe.”
“So?” Glarzuss didn’t have much sympathy
for the Chznzet. “Who cares about them? Just get the Ark through the portal.”
“We can’t.” Trrktah-Kyn sighed. “It’s
barely large enough for one of us to walk through.”
“Oh.” Glarzuss slumped as he imagined
the Ark of Exodus and his niece, Ngathel, winking out of existence. “We can’t
just leave it there.”
The next day Jervyk’s platoon was
assigned to do a sweep through the empty Senyarian sector which had been
previously taken over by the Chznzet. Because of the time dilation factor only a
few hours would pass in the main universe when they spent the best part of a
day aboard the Ark. But they’d be just as tired when they got back. It was slow
going due to the intelligence officers they were escorting who were
meticulously cataloguing everything they found as well as attempting to
interrogate every data terminal along the way. Old clothes discarded on the
floor, partially-eaten meals with mould cultures sprouting out of them, toys,
tools, personal handheld terminals, even the contents of waste containers were
all inspected and catalogued.
They hardly even encountered any drones.
The most Jervyk had to do was to blow open locked doors with his plasma lance
and help some of the officers as they rummaged around cataloguing their finds.
It was an easy gig and his mind wandered off thinking about visiting his home
in the Takhtallyk sector. It wasn’t luxurious but it did overlook one of the
lower gardens far below the environment decks. His parents ran a clothes shop
so they were always well-dressed even though they couldn’t mix with the smart
set. He’d surprise his mother by bringing back some of her favourite colourful
outfits as well as a few things for himself and his father.
They were making their way along a
commercial concourse not unlike the one where his parents worked, going from
shop to shop while the intelligence officers rummaged around for clues as to
the Chznzet motives and whereabouts when a swarm of military drones burst out
of a hatchway in the ceiling arcing above them. Bolts of plasma fire raked the
concourse and they scattered for cover. He found himself in a narrow passageway
along with an avian Guard, Z’Taklyss, who looked like a menacing raptor, a
young female reptilian recruit, Seelek, and an elderly reptilian intelligence
officer who’d been shot in the leg.
The plasma bolt had seared clean through
the intelligence officer’s leg and he was twitching with pain. Jervyk
instinctively pulled a hypo out of his field pouch and gave him a shot of
tremenol to mask the pain until they got back to their transporter.
“Track and shoot once you’ve got an
auto-lock on your target.” Z’Taklyss barked his terse command as he shot down a
military drone as it whizzed past their hideout. “Drop back and keep cover.
Don’t stay out in the open.” They made their way down the passageway darting
from the cover of a storage container to a stand of ducting to a recessed
doorway and on and on, keeping an ever-watchful eye for any drones. A group of
drones spotted them and came racing down their passageway. Jervyk and Seelek shot
back and even took a few of them out. Z’Taklyss set down the injured
intelligence officer he was carrying and joined in. But the drones kept coming.
“There’s too many of them!” Jervyk panicked,
blasted open a door using his plasma lance and dashed inside calling out: “In
here!” The others ducked in as fast as they could with the Guard dragging their
injured invalid in just as a series of plasma bolts raked past the doorway.
They wasted no time piling up crates, drums, pieces of furniture and machinery
that were lying around. Even as they caught their breath, they could hear the
drones trying to shoot their way through.
“We must keep moving.” Z’Taklyss informed
them as he tapped his combat headset and a holographic display screen flickered
into life in front of his eyes showing him a map of the Ark of Exodus. “We can
get back to our ship but it will take a bit longer.” He looked down at the
intelligence officer lying on the floor. “Do you think you can walk?”
“Grrrwwwllllgraaaghssss.” The old man
burbled incoherently. Jervyk must have given him way too much tremenol.
Z’Taklyss let out a resigned sigh as he
hoisted the old reptilian up for support so that he could hobble along. He was
annoyed because he’d be home late to his nest-mate and chicks. The little ones
always acted up if he got home late which got his nest-mate, Skreatlee,
flustered meaning that she’d sulk and they wouldn’t have sex. But first he had
to get home. “Come on, old man. We can’t leave you here.”
They made their way through a series of
warehouses, some almost empty, others crammed with row upon row of crates and
shelves stacked with goods. One warehouse was full of electronic hardware.
Jervyk noticed that as they crossed through some of the devices were powered up
and running. The further they went, the more that were operational. By the time
they got to the exit, all the equipment was powered up. Screens were flickering
with data displays and optical cabling pulsed with light. A thick knot of
optical cable ran off to one side and through an open doorway. A glow of bluish
light flooded out and Jervyk went over to take a look.
“Come back!” Z’Taklyss called out.
“That’s off our path. We can’t afford to waste any time.”
Jervyk stopped outside the door, looked
in and waved to get Z’Taklyss’ attention. “Guard, I think I found something.”
They stepped inside and looked around.
There along the walls were dormant Shallen androids, Avian and Reptilian, male
and female, each in a transparent storage cylinder staring blankly ahead. Looms
of cables and tubing ran into their backs. Service terminals with dormant data
screens stood next to each android.
Jervyk and Seelek walked wide-eyed past
the androids, staring up at them and half-expecting them to wake up at any
moment. When they got to the end of the room Seelek spotted an access console,
the type you activated by putting your paw on it and it read your genetic code
and ID tag, with a fleshy block on it with various tubes running out of it. She
could see that the console was on and went over to take a closer look. The
block was sitting right on top of the activation pad. Seelek lifted the block
off the console.
“Closing.” The console chimed and its
“What?” Seelek jumped back with surprise
even though that was what every console did when you ended a session. She just
never expected some soft block with a load of tubing plumbed into it to
initiate a session with an access console and put the block back down on the
“Princess Knetryxx of Nodles Irah,
Keeper of the Ark
of Exodus.” The access console identified the block. “Awaiting instructions.”
“What?” Seelek was dumbfounded. How
could this block be their Keeper, Knetryxx?
“Voice does not match Knetryxx or any
authorised Chznzet officers. Terminating session.” The console replied.
“What?” Seelek lifted the block off the
“Closing.” The console chimed again and
its lights dimmed. She placed the block back on the console and, once again, it
greeted Knetryxx, Keeper of the Ark of Exodus and then closed the session when she
lifted the block up again.
“I think you should see this.” Seelek
called out to her compatriots. They gathered around as she demonstrated the
strange block on the access console. Z’Taklyss recorded it on his headset and
relayed it to his commanding officer at their base station up on the
“We are to secure this location until
reinforcements arrive.” Z’Taklyss informed Jervyk and Seelek. “They are on
their way now. Do not put that thing back on the console.”
“Hang on a minute.” The old intelligence
officer hobbled over to access console. Behind them, and totally unnoticed, the
terminals hooked up to the androids winked into life. “Let me see that, young
lady.” He asked Seelek who passed it to him. He held the block on both paws,
gave it a squeeze, sniffed at it, licked it and then held it up to show to the
group. “Hmmph… as I suspected. They’ve grown a block of the Keeper’s flesh to
access her privileges and most likely used voice morphing to fake her voice.
Clever bastards, aren’t the…aaarrrgghhhhhhh…” He died lifelessly gasping out
his last word as an android avian claw ripped through his chest from behind.
Jervyk, Seelek and Z’Taklyss immediately
jumped back swinging their plasma lances to the ready to face a wall of
androids closing in on them. One of them made a grab for Seelek’s plasma lance.
Z’Taklyss managed to shoot it only to see Seelek’s plasma lance being snatched
up by another android before Seelek could reach it. This went on five times
with Jervyk doing his best to hold back the androids. That was when the first
android now with its skin burnt off its head and upper torso, lifted itself off
the floor and continued its attack.
Little did they know but the androids
were not autonomous units but were remotely controlled by the Ark’s security AI. Soon they were faced with
a mob of dismembered androids intent on killing them.
Some of them missing an arm or a head, the ones without legs pulled themselves
across the floor or climbed around the chamber’s fittings and furniture. Even a
solitary arm crawling along the floor like some weird metalloplastic insect.
The damn things just wouldn’t stop.
Jervyk and Seelek, being the least
experienced shots, concentrated on the larger targets like whole bodies and
limbs. Z’Taklyss, a combat-trained Guard, used his headset’s tracking to take
out the smaller moving objects. He was surprised just how agile and fast-moving
a single android paw could be!
At one point Jervyk nearly dropped his plasma lance as he screamed out in pain. A
dismembered paw had climbed up his leg and had stabbed one of its fingers into
him. He pulled it off his leg and threw it back towards the glassine storage
booths that had held the dormant androids. Then one dropped from the ceiling
onto Seelek’s head but she was too focused shooting at the androids ahead of
her to notice. Jervyk did and only managed to knock it off her head as it was about
to punch a finger through her skull with a hefty slap that almost knocked
Seelek off her feet.
“What did you do that for?” Seelek demanded
angrily as she shot a one-armed, headless android that was marching in her
“Sorry.” Jervyk apologised as he blasted
to smithereens a lower torso and its pair of legs that had been hiding behind
the access console. “You had a paw on your head. It was about to kill you, I
didn’t have any time.”
“Next time try not to hit me so hard.”
Seelek scolded Jervyk as she blasted a chest that was pulling itself along by a
single arm followed by a second shot to the dismembered paw so that it couldn’t
Soon they were surrounded on all sides
desperately fighting for their lives as they were attacked by murderous
fragments of the androids. They were struggling to maintain a clear zone around
themselves when a platoon of Guards from the Observation Deck arrived in time
to clear an escape path for them.
“C’mon sleepyhead.” Knetryxx tugged at
Morgau who was curled up in the mossy comfort of their bridal nest. He pulled
away and snuggled under a living green moss blanket. Knetryxx straddled her beau,
pulled his paws away from his face and gave him a playful nip. He got an
immediate erection and slid up effortlessly inside of her.
“Not so sleepy now.” Knetryxx joked as
she hopped up leaving Morgau’s glistening pink erection twitching with
Morgau rolled over and slowly pulled
himself up as his erection slid reluctantly back into its sheath. “This is
worse than going to work.”
“It is.” Knetryxx had resigned herself
to life as the Keeper.
“I’d rather be back at Unicom with
Szelmy.” Morgau grumbled. “At least I had a life of my own then. Now your job
becomes your life. I don’t think I’m ready for this.”
“You think I wanted any of this?”
Knetryxx understood only too well what Morgau meant. “Between the Chznzet
doping me up and then throwing us off the Ark, it’s not exactly been a barrel of
“That’s what I mean.” Morgau was glad
Knetryxx sympathised and slowly got dressed to face the world outside their
“Goodness knows, I’ve tried to get out
of it.” Knetryxx shrugged her shoulders as she pulled on an embroidered tunic
and looked at Morgau. “You know, I think I’m finally getting what all this is
about. At first it was like winning the Black Hole lottery. Then that horrible
haze when they doped me up. Then after we were thrown off, everyone on the
transporter was so deferential. I felt like a fraud. I wanted to throw myself
out of an airlock. But when I gave that speech on the bridge, giving voice to
how we all felt, I saw their eyes light up.”
“What, like one of those free spirit priests?”
Morgau was incredulous.
“They’re just frauds who recruit for
cults.” Knetryxx snorted dismissively. “No, this was different…” Her voice
trailed off as she searched for words to describe her experience. “It was like…
it was like… touching on something we all knew was true and how we felt about
the expulsion. All I did was give voice to it.”
“Wow.” Morgau was stunned. That sounded
so profound. Not at all like Knetryxx. “Are you getting all spiritual now?” He
“Me? I don’t think so.” Knetryxx replied
hesitantly. “It’s just that the whole time, I was trying to figure out what
this was all about. Am I just a figurehead dummy or something else? I was
convinced that I was just set up to a sweetly-smiling dummy wheeled out for
official occasions; meaningless but an easy job for life until I gave that
speech. I hadn’t planned it or anything. It was totally spontaneous, as if the
words spoke me. At the time I was just glad to get out of there in one piece.
So maybe it’s something else. Whatever that is, I don’t know. Barwyndar just
talks a load of mystic mumbo-jumbo that makes no sense to me. Maybe it’s to be
a catalyst or leader or something.”
Morgau had listened closely. Power-mad,
capricious, flighty and more he could cope with. Temper tantrums were a breeze,
but not spirituality. He kneeled down in front of Knetryxx and took her paws in
his and looked pleadingly up towards her. “Please, baby, don’t ever go
spiritual on me. I’ve had enough of all that stuff between the Ingnuthin and
the Chznzet.” He begged her with all his heart. “I just want a normal life.” He
paused as he glanced around their opulent surroundings. “Well, as normal as
we’re going to get around here. Would you do that for me? Please?”
Knetryxx was dumbfounded. For a moment
she thought he was going to propose to her! She’d never been a particularly
spiritual person and had rarely frequented the local temple on Vermthellyn
after she left school. She was still the good-time girl who’d held down various
low-paid jobs, was in love with Morgau and spent her spare time promoting his
art installations in spite of their recent misadventures. “Yeah, sure.”
Knetryxx felt awkward. “Maybe there are some clues in some of the Ingnuthin
“What do you mean?” Morgau saw the
spectre of spirituality looming close by.
“They have records of what the previous
Keepers said and did. There might be something there.” Knetryxx knew she wasn’t
really explaining herself very well. “Like the way you’d sometimes place clues
and messages around your installations so that people could discover the
“So you think there might be a hidden
message?” Morgau felt he was following her train of thought.
“Maybe in their texts or somewhere
else.” Knetryxx wasn’t even sure herself. “If there isn’t then it’s a
meaningless job and what I did on the bridge was just a random fluke.”
“Case closed, my lady.” Morgau joked.
“Just allow me to consult my notes. So…. What are we in for today?”
“Meet and greet mostly.” Knetryxx wasn’t
thrilled at the prospect. “Now that the discovery of the Ark of Exodus has gone
public every ambassador on Vermthellyn or their deputies will make an
appearance to offer their official support and to pick up any inside
information. Just try not to get drunk like last time.”
Morgau wasn’t going to argue with
Knetryxx. “Sure. Judicious sips and light chit-chat. I know the drill. How much
are we going to tell them about the Ark?”
“That’s why we have to get down to see
Reffy before the guests start arriving.” Knetryxx also knew they were running
out of time.
When Knetryxx and Morgau finally stepped
into Reflinghar’s study which adjoined the reception, they were met by
Reflinghar sat behind a well-polished table flanked by Deleethia and Barwyndar.
Knetryxx gulped. “I’m sorry we’re late. What’s our official line to tell our
Reflinghar raised a paw to set Knetryxx
at rest. “Morgau can help Deleethia and me see to our guests. There’s been a
change of plan.” He tapped a console on the table and a holographic screen
flicked into life showing Seelek demonstrating the block of cloned flesh on the
access console followed by the intelligence officer’s gruesomely bloody death
and the ensuing standoff with the androids and their dismembered parts.
“They did what?” Knetryxx didn’t want to
believe what she’d just seen. She had come across the Chznzet’s androids before
but had no idea they could be such relentless killing machines.
Reflinghar folded his paws and looked up
from the table to look Knetryxx straight in the eye. “It would appear that the
Chznzet took a tissue sample from you when they had you in captivity and grew
that block of flesh to access your system status. That proves they haven’t
installed their own Keeper which makes it easier for us. All you have to do is
get to an access console and rescind any orders the Chznzet made. Time runs
faster there so you don’t want to stay long.”
Knetryxx looked around nervously
realising that Reflinghar made something possibly dangerous sound mundane.
“So…. How do I do that?”
Barwyndar cleared her throat politely.
“Just activate the console. I’ll step you through the rest. If we go now, we
should be back in a few hours.”
“What, now?” Knetryxx wasn’t expecting
anything like this at all.
“Yes, now.” Reflinghar underlined
Barwyndar’s urgency. “The Chznzet have all decamped to their fantasy HomeNest
and this is our chance to take back control before they find out that we’ve
discovered the Ark of Exodus. We will need full control of the Ark’s navigation and
propulsion systems at the very minimum if we’re ever going to get it out of the
bubble universe. In the meanwhile, it might be good for morale if you unlocked
all the sectors. Apparently the Chznzet sealed up each sector and that’s not
gone down too well.”
“Is it…?” Knetryxx glanced around
“You’ll have plenty of Guards to protect
you.” Reflinghar cut her short with a casual wave of his arm. “They’ve moved an
access console so that it’s next to portal. You get in, do your bit and then
get out. Barwyndar will contact the Ingnuthin on board the Ark to start restoring a semblance of
Duty called. Knetryxx knew there was no
getting out of this so she turned to Morgau, gave him a hug, a playful slap on
his ass and whispered in his ear: “Don’t get too drunk. I want to continue
where we left off this morning.”
Barwyndar slipped her arm under one of
Knetryxx’s arms and steered her out of Reflinghar’s study. “They’ve set up an
access tunnel from the ship’s airlock but you’ll still have to wear a pressure
suit. It’s a short walk”
Knetryxx had only worn a pressure suit
once before on a school outing from Vermthellyn. Her lasting memory of that
trip was how bulky and clumsy she felt before going out the airlock and yet
almost effortless once they were out walking along the hull of the Ark of
Exodus in the hard vacuum of space. Still, she was in no hurry to wear one
Barwyndar held out a data pad as she led
the way down the hallway to the Olblavy Clan private gateway in the
communications room where a solitary Guard waited at the control console. “We’ve
worked out the times and dates. All you have to do is rescind any orders after
that date, annul the marriage, rescind the Chznzet’s Right to Council and
reinstate it to the Ingnuthin. It’s all here on the data pad.” Barwyndar
stepped up onto the dais, held out a paw to help Knetryxx up and nodded to the
Guard. In a flash they found themselves on the gateway dais aboard the
Xepherion. “Oh, and reopen the bulkheads between the sectors. It would be good
for morale if that order came directly from you.” Barwyndar didn’t even skip a
beat as she stepped off the dais and helped Knetryxx down.
It was all happening too fast for
Knetryxx. One moment she was in Morgau’s arms, now she was on a spaceship being
led by a cranky old priestess past Guards in full combat armour who jumped out
of their way in surprise to salute and bow respectfully at the sight of the
Keeper herself in their midst. Next thing she knew she was standing outside a
door with Barwyndar banging on it loudly.
The door slid open to reveal Porcardr and
Trrktah-Kyn, the senior intelligence officer, looking up from a game of
Gachan-Da. “That was quick!” Trrktah-Kyn sounded pleasantly surprised. “Come
in, come in!” He stood up, bowed dramatically to Knetryxx and offered her his
“If I had known you would be back so
soon, I would have posted someone at the gateway from the moment you left.” Porcardr
did his best to take the blame while at the same time attempting to ingratiate
himself with Barwyndar by congratulating her on her successful mission. Successful
so far. Getting Knetryxx to the Xepherion was the easy part. Now they had to
get her on and off the Ark
Porcardr stood up to address Knetryxx.
“I’ll take it that you’ve been briefed by Duke Reflinghar. We have encountered
some resistance but the area you will be in is our entry point into the Ark and is quite secure.
There are Guards here from the garrisons on Vermthellyn and Mars. More than
I’ve seen in one place in quite some time! We had so many volunteers we had to
turn some away.” He briefly basked in the reflected glory of their loyalty to
House Sedeirtra and the Olblavy Clan before getting down to business.
“Barwyndar, let’s wait while the Guards
deploy. They’re not all in place yet.” He then turned to Knetryxx. “You’ll have
to suit up. We removed the access tunnel to make sure all the Guards have their
armour properly sealed. Don’t worry; it’s only a short walk. Remember to take
your helmet off when you get in…. and a glove. The console will need to
Knetryxx looked up mutely at Porcardr,
accepted the data pad from Barwyndar and read over the notes Barwyndar had
prepared. It was the instructions to take back control of the Ark. She couldn’t
shake the feeling that Barwyndar was manipulating her even if it was for the
right thing. She felt as if Barwyndar didn’t trust her to make the right
Knetryxx shrugged her shoulders
accepting her circumstances. The instructions were fairly simple and would lock
out the Chznzet. She hadn’t used any command access to the Ark since the day she was installed as
Keeper. And that time she’d read her commands from a data pad prepared by none
other than Barwyndar. It made her all the more determined to prove both to
herself and Barwyndar that she, Knetryxx, was no-one’s puppet; unlike Alghar
who was nothing more than a remote-control android puppet operated by the
Chznzet. Just the memory of him or whoever was controlling him gloating when he
held them captive filled her with revulsion and the determination to see the day
through. She would do her part and set things right.
The time came and Porcardr led them to
the airlock where Knetryxx, Barwyndar and Trrktah-Kyn suited up to walk the
gangplank over to the portal leading into their Ark of Exodus. Barwyndar led
the way with Knetryxx following down the ladder. By the time Trrktah-Kyn joined
them inside the circle of Guards all facing outwards to defend against any intruders;
Barwyndar had already removed her helmet and was helping Knetryxx remove hers.
Barwyndar passed the data pad to
Knetryxx. “Just read it out from the top. Once you reinstate the Ingnuthin, you
can go back to Vermthellyn; we’ll manage it from here.”
Knetryxx accepted the data pad, took off
her glove, gave it to Barwyndar and stepped up to the waiting access terminal.
She was just about to place her paw on the console when a distant crashing
noise came from the vaulting glassine ceiling far above them. She could feel
the air around them start to rush out at she looked up to see hundreds of
Chznzet soldiers crashing through.
Barwyndar grabbed Knetryxx’s paw and
slammed it onto the console. “Do it. Now!” Trrktah-Kyn stepped up beside
Knetryxx to hold her steady.
“Princess Knetryxx of Nodles Irah,
Keeper of the Ark of Exodus, how may I help you?” The terminal greeted her
pleasantly amidst the unfolding chaos and plasma-lance fire erupting around
Barwyndar steadied the data pad as
Knetryxx started to read out her commands, shouting to make herself heard over
the combat noise erupting around them through the thinning air. She gasped and
almost lost her place when Trrktah-Kyn was shot through the head and collapsed
in a bleeding mess beside her. Knetryxx had just finished racing through her
orders to open the bulkheads when a cage dropped down capturing her and Barwyndar
just as Knetryxx gasped the final command to reinstate the Ingnuthin through
the rapidly-thinning air.
No sooner had she done that than
Barwyndar slammed down Knetryxx’s helmet over her head, clicked its seals into
place and brusquely shoved her glove back on before putting her own helmet back
on. Knetryxx gulped in the air as it filled up her suit and looked around to
see Guards climbing up onto their cage as it lifted off the floor in a
desperate bid to cut its cables with their plasma lances. One by one they fell away
dead or injured, cut down by the Chznzet attackers.
Barwyndar managed to get out a message
over their suit comms to let her people know that the Chznzet were no longer in
command of the Ark of Exodus and for the Ingnuthin to resume their posts. Not
that it would do much good, she thought ruefully; there wouldn’t be anyone at
the defence controls in time to stop the Chznzet spiriting herself and Knetryxx
away to who-knows-where. She looked down at the shattered dome of the observation
deck and then up towards the sleek black assault transporter that was reeling
them in like a prize catch.
In the distance, dead soldiers, both
Chznzet and Loyalist, spiralled slowly outward towards the transparent inner
ceiling of the environment decks.