Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 39: Reclaim the Ark!

     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 displacement detector.
     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 sentimental yokels.
     “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 somewhere else.”
     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 hopefully.
     “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 reclaim it!”
     “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 replied enthusiastically.
     “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 chance.
     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.” Wootjan-Oo backpedalled.
     “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 cautiously.
     “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 hum stopped.
     “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 from that.”
     “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 case…”
     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 workbench.
     “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 restarted.
     “This is Xepherion Security Drone 001 initial startup. Ready for deployment.” The drone addressed them in the same bland tone.
     “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 again.
     “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 the airlock.
     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 drone.
     “How do you like my override routine?” Terzyn-Dael grinned.
     “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 possible plan.
     “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 modules.”
     “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 sex club.

     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. Damn!
     “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 call up.”
     “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 accelerated ageing.

     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 through.
     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 body.
     “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 of here.”
     “What?” Jervyk didn’t know what to do. “How soon?”
     “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 through.
     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 any longer.”
     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 doing here?”
     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 happens.”
     “Come again?”
     “The Ark is in a bubble universe.” Trrktah-Kyn was beginning to feel he’d made a mistake even mentioning the time difference to Glarzuss.
     “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 lights dimmed.
     “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 console.
     “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 console.
     “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 Observation Deck.
     “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 direction.
     “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 attack them.
     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 pleasurable pain.
     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 laughs.”
     “That’s what I mean.” Morgau was glad Knetryxx sympathised and slowly got dressed to face the world outside their boudoir.
     “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 asked cautiously.
     “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 texts.”
     “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 narratives.”
     “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 guests?”
     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 nervously.
     “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 normality.”
     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 again.
     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 seat.
     “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 without incident.
     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 identify you.”
     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 decisions.
     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 them.
     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.

Scribbles & Scraps
Chapter 38
Chapter 40