Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 40: To the Rescue!!!

     Wootjan-Oo, Roetzan and Terzyn-Dael had lugged a computer diagnostics system down to one of the hangar bays aboard the Ark of Exodus on Captain Porcardr’s orders to see what they could get back online. Ranks of single-seat fighters, shuttles and transporters sat dormant in their launch tracks. They weren’t having much luck.
     Wootjan-Oo picked up the conduit cable and dragged it over to a medium-sized shuttle craft and plugged it into its service panel. “Fire it up.” He called out to Terzyn-Dael.
     Roetzan climbed in and went into its cockpit. All the controls had come online and responded to her touch. “It’s all working.” She announced as she stepped out of the shuttle.
     “Just like all the other ones.” Terzyn-Dael Didn’t sound happy about things. “Not much use when the launch rails are offline. They’d blow out the back of the hangar bay if they tried to launch right now.”
     “I think we can safely assume that all the ships are good.” Roetzan was getting bored. “I’ll have another go at the launch systems after lunch.”
     “Do you think you’ll be able to get around the lockout?” Terzyn-Dael asked Roetzan as he sat down leaning back against a launch control console and unpacked his lunch.
     “I want to isolate this console.” Roetzan explained as she munched on a strip of greasy grilled saurian steak.
     “What good’s that going to do?” Terzyn-Dael couldn’t see how that would work.
     “The launch rails are all hooked up to flight control.” Wootjan-Oo pointed up to a long strip of windows overlooking the hangar bay with a piece of grilled Szetni root. “We cut the line to isolate it from flight control and the Ark’s lockout...“ He made a slicing motion with his grilled Szetni root. “And that gives us a dumb unit which has to be operated manually; basically, an on/off switch to trigger the launch rail.”
     “If it works, then we rip out the control lines from all the consoles and they can launch manually until we find a way to defeat the lockout.” Roetzan explained her plan.
     “Isn’t that dangerous?” Terzyn-Dael looked around the hangar bay and pointed out the rank of thrust nozzles facing their way. “You’d be incinerated.”
     “They’ll just have to wait until the technicians clear the hangar bay before they fire up their thrusters.” Roetzan bit off another piece of her greasy steak. “Unless they want a high turnover in technicians.”
     “Got any plans for when we get the Ark out of this bubble universe?” Terzyn-Dael asked causally.
     “I’m moving straight back.” Roetzan had obviously made up her mind long ago. “Those Humans are worse than the Rtuntli. One of them shot me in my leg during the riots. And the gravity’s too low for me. I applied for a transfer to Vermthellyn but got turned down because of this...” She waved her arms around to encompass the Ark of Exodus.
     “Me too.” Terzyn-Dael added awkwardly. He didn’t share Roetzan’s dislike of the Humans. He’d never met any as he had come straight from the Rtuntli homeworld, Vermthellyn.
     “I might stay on Mars.” Wootjan-Oo felt like the odd one out. The low gravity didn’t bother him as much. He couldn’t fly but was able to manage a bit of clumsy gliding in the thickened atmosphere inside the domes if he kept his armwings at the right angle.
     “Why?” Roetzan couldn’t imagine why anyone, even the Humans would want to stay there. “It’s such a dump.”
     Wootjan-Oo never got the chance to reply. The sound of crashing boots and shouting interrupted their quiet meal. He looked up to see Guards in combat armour and flight crews rushing into the parked ranks of fighters and transporters. Three Guards, an avian and two reptilians, in full combat armour ran over to where they were sitting.
     “Does this one work?” The avian Guard pointed to the shuttle Roetzan had checked out earlier.
     “Yes, but the launch rails are still offline.” Roetzan wasn’t about to be rushed by a bunch of Guards. She still hadn’t finished her lunch and as far as she was concerned the world could wait.
     “Fine, we’ll take it.” The avian Guard pushed the other two through the hatch.
     “What…?” Terzyn-Dael gawped around the mayhem in the Hangar bay. Ships were already blasting their way out leaving scorched trails, half-melted launch terminals and blast marks on the back wall.
     The Guard stood in the hatch of the shuttle and shouted at them over the noise of ships blasting their way out into space. “Get in or get out of the hangar bay.”
     Wootjan-Oo, Roetzan and Terzyn-Dael looked at each other. They could hear the thrusters on the ships to either side warming up. They’d never make it out in time and would be incinerated before they got to the access doors so they jumped up and joined the Guards in the shuttle as it blasted its way out into space.

     They were accelerating hard. Wootjan-Oo felt his back feathers crushing under his acceleration-increased weight against his seat. His eyeballs felt as if they were being squashed like soft jellies against the backs of his eye sockets. He could just about make out a battle unfolding in front of them through his watering eyes. And they were heading straight towards it in a civilian shuttle craft that had less firepower than a plasma lance. “What is it?” He could barely even hear his own voice as he shouted over the straining roar of their thrusters blasting at full power.
     The Guards never even heard him and didn’t look away from the forward screen; their helmets were plugged into the shuttles’ flight systems and they were totally focused on the mission ahead. Wootjan-Oo looked across at Terzyn-Dael who just shrugged his shoulders. He was none the wiser.
     Wootjan-Oo strained his eyes to follow the battle outside. Sparks of light and explosions peppered the space ahead of them. That was when he realised that they had changed course away from the battle. A few minutes later the thrusters cut out and they were coasting in silence at speed away from the battle. The Guards took off their combat helmets and for the first time Wootjan-Oo could see their faces reflected in the forward screen. The two reptilian Guards were young fresh-faced recruits, one male and one female. The male reptilian looked vaguely familiar but Wootjan-Oo couldn’t place him.
     The avian Guard turned to face our trio. “We’re going in dark to the surface. The battle was a diversion so we should be able to slip in undetected. It might get a bit cold so I suggest you look around for something to wrap up with.”
     “What? Where are we going?” Terzyn-Dael sounded worried.
     “The Chznzet captured our Keeper. We’re going to rescue her” The young male reptilian’s voice was a youthful blend of pride and trepidation.
     Wootjan-Oo gulped. He’d known their Keeper, Knetryxx, from before she was chosen through their random once-in-a-generation lottery. In spite of it being an exalted position within their society, he knew only too well that she’d had a rough time of it ever since she was anointed as their Keeper. He and the Khzchhrrrtz insectoid, Kkhrkht, had rescued her from the Chznzet’s attempt to imprison and brainwash her shortly after she had been installed as their Keeper. And now they had taken her captive again.
     As they approached the planet, they could see that the Chznzet colony hadn’t spread too widely so they elected to make their planetfall on the far side as far from any defences as possible and to skim in close to the surface until they were within range of the outlying settlements. Wootjan-Oo watched the pristine unpopulated landscape and oceans race past beneath them as they sped along at hypersonic speed. The female Guard looked up from her flight console and announced that they were approaching the outer limits of the colony’s sensors.
     “I’ll set us down at the first suitable location and we go on foot from there.” The Avian Guard took the shuttle down to a clearing in a forest and turned to our reluctant trio after they landed: “We’ll hide the shuttle with a camouflage field. You three stay here to guard the ship while we retrieve our Keeper, Princess Knetryxx. There are plasma lances and supplies in the lockers. Forage for food if you need to but otherwise stay here. We’ll contact you at regular intervals to relay our status.” He briefly introduced himself, Sergeant Z’Taklyss, and the two other Guards, Seelek and Jervyk, and then they picked up their plasma lances and marched out. The camouflage field sparked faintly around them as they stepped through it.
     Wootjan-Oo, Roetzan and Terzyn-Dael looked mutely at each other: stuck on a fake world with nothing to do. At least it was an improvement over being burnt to a crisp in a hangar bay. Two days later they were lazing on a riverbank a short distance from their shuttle taking turns to catch some fish to supplement their diet of chewy nutrient bars. The weather was pleasantly warm and sunny. Roetzan lay naked on the grass sunning herself while her freshly-washed overalls dried in the sun beside her.
     Terzyn-Dael was knee-deep in the river wading over towards a section of the net they’d laid across the river that was thrashing from the fish it had caught when he looked up to see an undulating grey wall coalescing a short distance from them. It stretched up into the sky as far as he could see. “Hey, look at that!” He shouted from the river.
     “What?” Wootjan-Oo looked up from his preening. His feathers had got a bit ragged lately and really needed some attention.
     “Over there.” Terzyn-Dael pointed at the undulating grey wall.
     Roetzan pulled a pocket scanner out of her satchel and pointed it at the grey wall.  She stared intently at its readout screen. She blinked, jabbed at its controls and then looked up at the grey wall. “According to my scanner it doesn’t exist. That’s weird; I’m not getting a signal from our shuttle.”
     “Could be the camouflage field blocking it.” Wootjan-Oo suggested.
     “Yeah, maybe.” Roetzan shrugged her shoulders, put the scanner back in her knapsack and went back to sunning herself.
     Terzyn-Dael returned shortly carrying an armful of fish that he’d pulled out of their net and dumped them at their feet. “Tonight, we eat some real food!” He exclaimed jubilantly. “You going to help me with the net?”
     Roetzan got dressed, picked up the fish and stuffed them into her satchel as Wootjan-Oo followed Terzyn-Dael down to the river to reel in their net. They were just about to step into the clearing where their shuttle was parked when the mysterious gray wall surged forward and swept across the very space where the shuttle was parked. They still couldn’t see it; under normal circumstances the camouflage field rendered it invisible from the outside. They waited until the mysterious undulating grey wall swept away from the clearing and then walked towards their shuttle.
     Except it wasn’t there. Normally they would experience a faint tingling sensation as they stepped through the camouflage field to the familiar sight of their shuttle. This time there was nothing. No tingling as they walked through the camouflage field; it wasn’t there. No scorch or skid marks on the ground from their landing. Not even so much as a bent blade of grass to suggest that there had been a 20-ton vehicle parked on it minutes before.
     They searched around the clearing in vain looking for their shuttle in case they had got their bearings wrong the first time. But it was gone.
     Wootjan-Oo plucked his communicator off his utility harness and contacted Sergeant Z’Taklyss. “The shuttle’s gone.”
     “What?” They could all hear Z’Taklyss’ startled reply. “Have the Chznzet found you?”
     “I don’t think so.” Wootjan-Oo hadn’t thought about the Chznzet. “I think it’s something else.” He held up his communicator to show Z’Taklyss the undulating grey wall receding in the distance over the treetops.
     “Maybe it’s a new weapon. You need to get out of there now.” Z’Taklyss ordered them. “Follow our bearing. We’ll head back and meet up with you. There’s a small settlement along the way. Keep your distance and try not to be seen.” They built a fire, cooked three of their fish and saved the rest for later now that their catch of fish was the only food they had.
     Terzyn-Dael broke their numb silence as they savoured their grilled fish. “Now we’re stuck on this damn planet. How are ever going to get back?”
     “Steal a ship?” Wootjan-Oo casually suggested between mouthfuls of succulent grilled fish.
     “Hah! What chance do we have? They’re probably all guarded.” Terzyn-Dael was getting panicky. “We’d probably get killed trying.”
     Roetzan looked up from the grilled fish in her paws. “Wootjan-Oo’s right. We’re technicians, Wootjan-Oo’s an engineer and those three Guards have plasma lances. And that Sergeant Z’Taklyss is a pilot. It’s our only option unless you want to grow old and die here.”
     Unlike Roetzan, who had signed up to join the Guards and had some basic combat training, Terzyn-Dael had none. He was a bright young graduate from a technical college on Vermthellyn who’d enthusiastically volunteered his programming and technical skills when the news about the discovery of the Ark of Exodus reached the Shallen community on Vermthellyn. His employers, Steltron Cybernetics had agreed to let him go and he’d jumped at the chance with little thought that he’d ever end up in a combat situation. “I’m not really any good at shooty things.”
     Roetzan rolled her eyes. She knew what Terzyn-Dael meant. “Just stay out of the way if there’s any shooting and let the Guards deal with it.”
     “Yeah, sure.” Terzyn-Dael glanced nervously at Roetzan. He took answer as a given that there would be shooting at some point.
     Wootjan-Oo wasn’t too thrilled about the prospect of combat either. He was a civilian engineer aboard the Ark and was seconded to maintain the transporters on Mars for the Guards after their expulsion from the Ark. Like Terzyn-Dael, he had no combat training but thanks to his adventure with Kkhrkht, he some idea of what to expect.
     When they finished their fish, Wootjan-Oo stood up and kicked some earth over their fire to smother it. “We might as well get started before it gets dark.” And so they set off with Roetzan still carrying the rest of their fish in her satchel.
     It was late on the second day when Wootjan-Oo, Roetzan and Terzyn-Dael finally linked up with the Guards next to a lake bound on one side by a forest that came down to its shore. They had spent most of their time trudging across open gentle rolling hills of meadowland following Sergeant Z’Taklyss’ beacon. That whole day they had seen neither sight nor sound of any local Shallens, settlements or otherwise. Wootjan-Oo had spent most of the time trying to figure out why that Guard’s name sounded so familiar. Jervyk, Jervyk… Xandu and Tatia had mentioned someone called Jervyk, a young lad who had lost a friend in one of the few fatalities during the Montgomery riots. Maybe it was him?
     Wootjan-Oo was surprised to see the Guards out of their armour and without their plasma lances. Instead they were wearing rough-hewn rustic clothes. Jervyk and Seelek set two large parcels on the ground and opened them.
     “Get out of your overalls and wear these clothes.” Jervyk ordered them. “We need to blend in. And take off that bioplaz work harness. No-one here has anything like that. Wear this instead.” Jervyk tossed Wootjan-Oo a leather harness.
     While the reptilian Shallens wore clothes, the Avians didn’t need to. They were feathered from head to toe and clothes would only damage their feathers. They did however wear harnesses to which they attached things they wanted to carry around. And they had harnesses for every occasion; work, fashion, business, home wear, school wear, formal, you-name-it. Wootjan-Oo had never held a leather harness before. Aboard the Ark, leather harnesses were the preserve of the wealthy elite. Here it was the mark of a commoner.
     When they were dressed Z’Taklyss turned to them. “That settlement I told you to avoid, it was here.” He pointed to the open land between their position and the lake. “We passed it two days ago but now it’s gone.” He sounded as if he could barely believe his own words. “The village, the aquaculture pens, the stinking packing house, all the people… as if none of it had ever existed. Is this what happened to the shuttle?”
     “Yes, maybe.” Terzyn-Dael spoke up hesitantly. “It was as if it had never been there. Even the track we made on the ground where we landed was gone.”
     “I think that rules out a Chznzet weapon.” Z’Taklyss mused aloud. “This changes the plan but the objective remains the same: we find Knetryxx and return her to the Ark. That means we have to commandeer a ship from whatever spaceport they have here. I want you three to infiltrate it and prepare a ship for us.” He pointed at Wootjan-Oo, Roetzan and Terzyn-Dael. “Meanwhile, Jervyk, Seelek and I will scout out and locate Princess Knetryxx.”
     They were interrupted by a portly reptilian woman running up from behind. ”Oh, there you are!” Z’Taklyss turned around just as she threw her arms around him. “We didn’t know there were any survivors. You poor things!” Wootjan-Oo was mortified and too scared to say anything in case he gave them away. Terzyn-Dael nearly jumped with surprise and gawped back at Wootjan-Oo. Roetzan motioned her paw across her mouth to keep quiet. Jervyk and Seelek stood over to the other side waiting for Z’Taklyss’ orders.
     “I… ah…” Z’Taklyss struggled for words. He had been picked for this hastily drawn-up mission for his skills at combat and covert ops. Nothing had prepared him for the smothering mothering of a concerned matron.
     Two Shallen males came into the clearing; an avian and a reptilian wearing worn work-soiled clothes. “Are there any other survivors?” The avian asked urgently.
     “I didn’t see any others.” The matron sounded genuinely disappointed. “These ones are in shock.” She gently held Z’Taklyss’ paw. “The grey-out took your home. Stay with us for a while. We may not be fundamentalists like you…” She paused awkwardly. “I hope you won’t find our worldliness too offensive.”
     Z’Taklyss couldn’t believe his luck! This country bumpkin was giving him a cover story to infiltrate the Chznzet society on a plate. He’d play this for all it was worth. Except he now had five charges to look after. He hoped that they’d stay quiet and play along until they had a safe time to work out their stories. And so, he let the matron lead him out of the clearing and to a rusty flat-bed hover truck where the other empty-handed search parties waited.
     The hover truck wasn’t all that fast and it took the best part of an hour to get to the village of Tal Turmion which was a couple of dozen houses all characteristically round with low conical roofs, a few shops, a bar and a modest oval meeting hall. The meeting hall had been made over as a shelter for survivors of the grey-out. They’d obviously been expecting more. Wootjan-Oo counted almost thirty flat roll-up nest beds taking up most of the hall. There was a small casual seating area next to an open kitchen where three young Shallens preparing some food stopped what they were doing and looked on curiously as our unlikely crew of Chznzet fundamentalists shuffled in.
     That evening the villagers hosted a banquet led by their rescuer, Yteekah, her equally portly reptilian husband, S’Hadyx, the rescue team and as many of the villagers that could fit in. The table was piled high, the wine was flowing and there was music. Wootjan-Oo and the others kept to their silent act politely accepting the food and drink offered while leaving the talking to Z’Taklyss.
     S’Hadyx, glass in hand, leaned over to Z’Taklyss. “I see your companions have taken a vow of silence. At least they’re enjoying the hospitality. Look, I know it must be hard losing everything like that. Your whole life gone in an instant. Thank the Goddess you’re still alive. Here, let me fill your glass for you. You’ll do all right here with us.” He put an arm around Z’Taklyss and gave him a fatherly hug. “Plenty of work here in the harvest season.”
     “I know your fundamentalist commune didn’t use tags, but out here we do. It’s how they kept you there.” S’Hadyx gave Z’Taklyss a friendly poke on his chest. “You’ll have a freedom of movement beyond your wildest imaginings! Plus, you’ll be able to claim your compensation payout. I’ve heard that the grey-out compensation payments are a bit measly, so use it wisely. But you will need your tag. B’Marlyk, our village clerk, will sort you out in the morning.”
     The next morning after breakfast, B’Marlyk, a scrawny avian with bright green plumage, ambled into the hall casually holding a tag inserter in one paw. He stopped in front of them. “You know, I really admire you guys for living off-grid the way you do but you’re going to need a tag to access your compensation payout. It’ll be in your citizen’s account and you’ll need your tag to access it.” He held up an armwing to emphasize his point. “So…. Let’s see.” He mused aloud as he fiddled with the tag inserter’s control panel. “New tag, Chznzet Fundamentalist, adult, no documentation, grey-out survivor… and, Bingo, we’re good!” He announced brightly as he held up the tag inserter. “Doesn’t hurt at all. At least that’s what they tell me. So, who’s first?”
     Jervyk glanced up at Z’Taklyss who nodded his assent so he stepped forward and offered his arm. He only felt a slight pinch as B’Marlyk’s device inserted a tag into Jervyk’s forearm. B’Marlyk looked at the tag inserter’s readout screen, looked up at Jervyk and back at the screen before realising that he’d forgotten to let go of Jervyk’s arm. Then it was Seelek’s turn. By the time he got to Wootjan-Oo he just gawped at Wootjan-Oo in awe, stepped back, fell to his knees and prostrated himself before them. “Forgive me, I didn’t believe.” He pleaded with all his heart.
     Z’Taklyss and our gang of mutes looked at each other disbelievingly not knowing how to react. B’Marlyk broke the silence as he got up to his knees. “You all have tags from the Ark of Exodus. You left there less than a week ago. They told us that the Ark had gone to bring back the faithful. When did you return?” He asked hopefully.
     That was one question Z’Taklyss didn’t want to answer. “We must leave here at once. Thank our hosts for their generous hospitality and kindness in our time of need, you have our eternal gratitude.”
     “I could take you to T’Klektia. You can get on the monorail all the way to Brakopyn from there.” B’Marlyk offered meekly.
     S’Hadyx sauntered up just as they were getting into B’Marlyk’s scruffy compact aircar and leaned in to look at its cramped occupants. “Leaving so soon?”
     “They want to go to the Chznzet Mission in Brakopyn,” B’Marlyk lied on their behalf.
     “Yes, I suppose it makes sense. “S’Hadyx looked at B’Marlyk and sighed. “They’d want to be among their own in another off-grid commune.” He then turned to our faux-fundamentalists. “I hope you remember us. We were here for you when you needed it and you’re always welcome back to Tal Turmion. May the Goddess be with you wherever you go.”

     Knetryxx paced her prison apartment uneasily. It wasn’t an unpleasant apartment. Quite comfortable actually. She and Barwyndar had their own rooms, a living room, bathroom and kitchen where there was a food dispenser for their meals. But they were prisoners. There were no data terminals and no contact with the outside world. The only time they got out was when they were taken to interrogation or indoctrination sessions. Barwyndar was at hers. Sometimes she’d come back with bruises. It had been going on for weeks. So far they’d spared Knetryxx any physical punishment but she felt it was only a matter of time before she too would return bruised and beaten.
     Knetryxx went over to the sealed window and looked out at the courtyard. It was all she could see of the outside world: Bland polished stone and glass going up ten floors. They were on the third floor. Two giant cycads grew on either side of a fountain in the courtyard below. The pointed leaves of one hung tantalisingly outside her window taunting her with an impossible escape.
     Behind her, the door opened briefly as Barwyndar staggered in and fell noisily to the floor. Knetryxx rushed over to her as the door slammed shut. One of Barwyndar’s eyes was bloodied and swollen shut. Blood was trickling out of her mouth and nostrils. Knetryxx could see the burns on Barwyndar’s head from the neural inducer electrodes. She’d had her fair share of them too. The neural inducers were used to blast you into a Chznzet-controlled fantasy world to reprogram your perception.
     Knetryxx gently slipped her arms under Barwyndar and lifted her onto the sofa where she lay back and groaned with pain. Knetryxx knelt down beside the sofa and hugged Barwyndar for comfort. Barwyndar clasped Knetryxx feebly and they sat there for the best part of an hour as Barwyndar moaned, groaned, whimpered and cried. Knetryxx held Barwyndar until her sobbing subsided. She then got up and went to fetch Barwyndar a glass of water.
     Barwyndar painfully heaved herself up into a reclining position, held the glass in both paws, took a few sips and then gulped it down. She held the glass out and croaked: “Please, some more.” Knetryxx brought her a second glass. This time Barwyndar drank in smaller mouthfuls.
     “Come, sit beside me.” Barwyndar set down the glass, reached up and looked Knetryxx in the eye. She waited until Knetryxx sat down. “They’re going to kill me, you know.”
     “No!” Knetryxx hugged Barwyndar again.
     Barwyndar gently pushed Knetryxx away. “It’s all right, my dear. I’m not afraid of death. None of us live forever. It’s just the pain. Right now, death would be a relief. If they want to kill me why don’t they just do it? It’s not as if I’m in a position to stop them.” She then turned to face the wall, shook her fist and flecks of blood flew from her lips as she shouted: “You might as well kill me now! I don’t work for you bastards any longer.”
     She then turned to Knetryxx adding conspiratorially as she pointed at the wall: “They’re watching us all the time.”
     Knetryxx had assumed that their captors would have them under observation. “Yeah, it figures. Kinda creepy though.”
     “And now they know that we know.” Barwyndar cackled weakly so as not to make her cracked ribs hurt any more.
     “What was that about working for the Chznzet?” Knetryxx was confused. Barwyndar was an Ingnuthin priestess. How could she be a Chznzet? The two were as mutually exclusive as two sects could ever be.
     Barwyndar heaved herself up a bit further until she was almost sitting up. “There’s a few things I should tell you before Rozit-Skaal does. It’s better that you hear it from me.”
     ”The Chznzet?” Knetryxx asked unbelievingly.
     “Yes, them.” Barwyndar confessed. “I wasn’t always an Ingnuthin priestess. Sebret’Zaan saved me from a short and brutal life as a prostitute when I was young and destitute on Telmar XI. The Chznzet were good to me. I was a dutiful novice and became their spy in the Ingnuthin order. I even helped with the plot to kill Milentiet and install you as the new Keeper.”
     “But… but…” Knetryxx could barely believe what she was hearing. “Everyone loved Milentiet.”
     “I know.” Barwyndar sighed dejectedly. “So did I. But I was a loyal Chznzet agent even then. It was only later when I saw that they’d turned into a nihilistic death cult that I began to question them. If they achieved their goal, every Shallen alive today would wink out of existence and millions of years of history would be rewritten. It was ambitious and insane and I wanted no part of it. So, I decided to serve you dutifully as atonement. I had no idea it would end like this. I’m so sorry.”
     Knetryxx was dumbfounded; everything she thought she had known about Barwyndar and the certainties of her own life had been blown away by Barwyndar’s confession. Not only was Barwyndar a Chznzet agent but her own installation as the new Keeper was part of a Chznzet plot. And now she was their prisoner again while her android replica and the Alghar android were used by the Chznzet to entrance the populace in the city and settlements on their replica Home Nest.
     Two soldiers came into their apartment to take Knetryxx away for her daily session before she could even bring herself to speak to Barwyndar. Instead of the usual austere interrogation or indoctrination rooms, they took her to a plush office with soft furniture. Rozit-Skaal, a medium-built avian with grey and dull green plumage wearing a Chznzet back-and-gold harness, was waiting for her. As always, the soldiers stood behind her ready to shoot and to block any attempt at escape.
     Rozit-Skaal clucked cruelly as he activated a holographic display showing Barwyndar’s confession. “There’s one thing Barwyndar didn’t tell you.”
     “What’s that?” Knetryxx asked defiantly.
     “That she killed Milentiet and fed her body to the raptors to make it look like an accident.” Rozit-Skaal sadistically baited Knetryxx with the ugly truth.
     Knetryxx was speechless. Was she even safe alone with Barwyndar?
     “So…” Rozit-Skaal cocked his head to one side as his eyes bored into Knetryxx. “What are we going to do with you? Sebret’Zaan made you and Barwyndar and you both failed us. But there’s a way out: accept the Chznzet doctrine and take your place here alongside Alghar. We’ll overlook your previous indiscretions.” He added in an oh-so-reasonable tone of voice.
     “What? That android?” Knetryxx laughed incredulously. “Never!”
     “Very well then.” Rozit-Skaal replied with bored disappointment. “You can work in the fields until you change your mind. You no longer have a name; you’re just a number now. Good day.” And the soldiers bundled Knetryxx out the door to her fate.
     No sooner than Knetryxx’s howls of protestation were cut off by the door closing, a side door opened and an older reptilian Chznzet with dull beige scales entered the room. “Not very co-operative, is she?”
     “Nothing that a few months in the fields won’t sort out, Mertakk.” Rozit-Skaal sighed with the weary resignation of a devout torturer. “By the time we’re finished, she’ll be a willing convert.”
     “By the way, there’s been another grey-out in the provinces. A whole village and its freshwater aquaculture wiped out.” Mertakk deferentially informed Rozit-Skaal.
     “And the survivors…?” Rozit-Skaal asked cautiously.
     “Very few.” Mertakk broke the bad news.
     “Oh well, the usual memorial services then.” Rozit-Skaal idly mused aloud “At least we won’t have to pay out so much in compensation this time. And the usual homestead grants for citizens who want to live in a rural environment.”
     “Of course.” Mertakk obsequiously obliged Rozit-Skaal. “It is intriguing what Knetryxx and Barwyndar claim, that Sebret’Zaan expelled them from the Ark only two months ago.”
     “She’s obviously lying.” Rozit-Skaal shot back defiantly. “The settlement here on HomeNest is twenty cycles old and going strong. I came here as a child.”
     “Indeed.” Mertakk agreed. “I myself and the original settlers are growing old and fat here. It’s a good life. But they’ve barely aged a day. Knetryxx would have laid a few fertile eggs in twenty cycles but our examinations show that she hasn’t laid any.”
     “Maybe she’s barren or her lover sterile.” Rozit-Skaal snorted contemptuously.
     “And even if that were the case, the treatment is readily available.” Mertakk countered cautiously so as to not trigger Rozit-Skaal’s ire. “And a Keeper, of all Shallens, must produce offspring. It’s tradition.”
     “The ships we sent out all reported the same time contraction in the vicinity if the Ark.” Mertakk continued. “Did you not think it odd that the mission you sent out took so long to return? All the ships’ chronometers reported roughly eight days. Yet they were away for just over a month. Those are facts. Just like that device in the vaults below. Oh yes, that one.”
     As if Rozit-Skaal needed reminding. He was, after all, the current leader of the Chznzet faction on HomeNest. He scowled at Mertakk as if to dare him to speak further.
     “I should know. I was carrying the damn thing when it went off and created this world and all we see now.” Mertakk reminded Rozit-Skaal. “It took us a while to figure out what had happened.”

     Psy stepped out of hir Omphalatta where it rested on the landing bay at Belzar-Tel-Sa’an followed by Grattlyd, Yldoseh, Veronica and Duke Reflinghar. Shi stretched up on hir tentacles as shi took in the sight of Belzar-Tel-Sa’an’s epic vaulting fractallized architecture. It felt good to be back in hir Nglubi form even if hir human form had its attractions. “Go on, lead the way, Grattlyd.” Psy coaxed hir truculent offspring with a familial pat of a tentacle before turning hir attention to Yldoseh. “Keep your headset running the whole time and no voice-overs. Duke Reflinghar will be presenting your recording as evidence to the Galactic Council.”
     Duke Reflinghar leaned over to Yldoseh as they walked along behind Psy and Grattlyd. “We’ll go over your recordings after the hearing and pick out some bits for your show. But until then we’ve got to keep it all hush-hush.”
     Yldoseh was surprised by Reflinghar’s conspiratorial manner. “Sure. Any idea when?”
     “The sooner, the better.” Reflinghar sounded defiantly hopeless. “Knowing the Council, it could be cycles.”
     “Why not leak some of it?” Yldoseh suggested hopefully. Breaking this story would send her channel’s viewing figures through the roof. “Make it common knowledge.”
     “We might have to.” Reflinghar nodded thoughtfully. He liked Yldoseh’s suggestion and gave her a wink. “Let’s talk about it when we’re done here.”
     When they got to Chyptwyt Timeworks, Zelthyn, a pudgy young Pdzarvian male, was wandering aimlessly around the displays in the foyer desperate to stave off his boredom. Blaeneria 2, the Glopstiverse, the Claxhlub homeworld, Grentana IV and countless others. He knew their details inside and out but try as he might, he just couldn’t get interested in any of the displays or his uncle Remi’s business hiring out fantasy bubble universes to the rich and stupid even if its profits did feed his home colony on Centus V. The customers were worse. He wasn’t jealous of their fabulously wealth, some of whom owned entire strings of star-systems. He’d become somewhat numb to it. No, it was that they were so boringly predictable in their quest for a new thrill yet still determined to chisel over the price. Every. Single. Last. One. Of. Them.
     When Zelthyn saw Grattlyd, Yldoseh and Veronica he suddenly found himself yearning for that comforting boredom that he was fighting off moments earlier. Or maybe one of their crankier customers coming back to complain that their bubble universe wasn’t as exciting as they’d been led to believe. “Ah! So good to see you again, Grattlyd.” He failed badly at emulating his uncle Remi’s effortlessly glib geniality as he clasped his clawed hands together. “Decided to try day-trip special after all? It’s the experience of a lifetime.”
     “We have some technical questions about your universe generators.” Psy interrupted urgently.
     “Ah, a fact-finding mission!” Zelthyn completely misread Psy’s intentions. “I’m afraid you’ll have to wait a while. Our chief scientist is resting.” He then turned to Yldoseh. “I saw your show about the Chznzet and subscribed to your channel. I can see why you don’t like them. I don’t like them either.”
     Yldoseh said nothing but let her headset record Zelthyn’s confession.
     Psy interrupted Zelthyn by wrapping a tentacle around one of his arms and yanking him away from Yldoseh. “Please.” Shi ordered more than begged. “Time is of the essence.”
     Zelthyn gingerly pulled Psy’s tentacle off his arm and wiped a faint layer of Nglubi mucus off his jacket sleeve. “Wait here, please.”
     Zelthyn crept into the cramped and untidy Chyptwyt Timeworks offices wishing he could use a timeline rewriter to get rid of his current guests. “Remember the ones who came here asking about the Chznzet?”
     Remi looked up from his desk where he was eating his lunch and watching the Torloq races on a holographic display. “Vaguely. A bunch of kids with no money. Why?”
     “They’ve come back and want to see Delvan.” That was the least of it. Zelthyn could tell that they had questions that he couldn’t answer.
     “He’s resting.” As far as Remi was concerned, they’d have to wait. He had more important things to tend to like his lunch which was going cold and the Torloq races on which he had bet a sizeable amount of money.
     “They’re insistent….” Zelthyn never got to finish what he was saying. Psy leaned around the door and waved a couple of tentacles with an Nglubi singsong. “Oh, hello there!”
     Remi got up from his desk to shoo Psy out of the office. The last thing he wanted was non-paying non-customers asking awkward questions. He put an arm around Psy and gently, but firmly, walked hir back to the display foyer where the others were waiting. When they got back to the foyer, he turned on his geniality in a hope to fob them off as quickly as possible. “Now, how can I help you?”
     Reflinghar and Psy both started to speak at the same time not once but twice. “I think its best we should hear it from you.” Psy eventually deferred to Reflinghar.
     The old Duke cleared his throat. “Our home, our worldship, is stuck in one of your bubble universes. How can we get it out?”
     “I’m sorry but we only take technical queries from our clients.“ Remi grandly fobbed them off. One thing Remi did have was a very good memory and was able to recognise all their small, but wealthy, clientele by sight. And this lot had deadbeat written all over their faces.
     Reflinghar was having none of it and grabbed one of Remi’s arms. “You sold the Chznzet something, one of these universe generators or whatever they are and they used it to steal our worldship.”
     Remi squirmed and failed to break Reflinghar’s iron grip. “We did nothing of the sort.” Remi protested indignantly. “The bastards robbed us blind. I swear on my life.”
     “And they robbed us too.” Reflinghar leaned in close to Remi curling his lips to show off his pointed glistening fangs. “So that puts us on the same side, Pdzarvian.” And then let go of Remi as if he were nothing more than a piece of trash of no consequence.
     “Erm, yes, I suppose so.” Remi attempted to regain his composure. “I sympathise entirely with your predicament but you’ve come to the wrong place. You should really take that up with the Galactic Council.”
     “Ta-daa!” Psy whipped out a blue Psionic crystal holding it up in one of hir tentacles to show Remi its holographic display confirming Psy as a low-ranking field agent for the Galactic Council in the Orion Arm of the Milky Way.
     “I should have guessed, you being an Nglubi and all.” Remi surrendered to the inevitable as he turned to return to his cramped office. “You’ll still have to wait. Our chief scientist is resting.”
     “Then an underling will just have to do.” Psy was dramatically impatient.
     “It’s our apprentice’s day off.” Remi clasped his clawed hands hoping that would shut them up. It didn’t.
     “So, one ‘chief scientist’ and one apprentice? That’s a bit minimal!” Psy snorted derisively.
     “We’re a low-volume, high value business.” Remi countered with the injured pride of a cornered conman. “We deliver on time, every time.”
     “Yes, I’m sure you do.” Psy quipped drily as shi started pushing Remi towards the workshop and telepathically ordered Grattlyd to bring the rest of the gang around.
     “What? Wha…?” Remi panicked as Psy picked him up in hir tentacles and made hir way into the Chyptwyt Timeworks workshop with its short production line of universe generators.
     “We’ll wait here.” Psy pronounced firmly as shi set Remi down in the workshop. Veronica stood next to Psy with her arms folded and a laser pistol in one hand to make their point.
     “What’s all this brouhaha? Are you having another one of your parties, Remi?” Delvan shuffled in wearing the Pdzarvian equivalent of a nightgown, nightcap and slippers, rubbing some life into his side eyes with only his middle eye barely half-way open.
     “No, father.” Right now, Remi wished it was one of those stupid parties he’d throw to get a client to seal a deal. “I’ve got someone here from the Galactic Council asking about the generator the Chznzet took.”
     “I’m not doing any tech support for them.” Delvan replied grumpily. “They stole it. They’re on their own for all I care.”
     “They used it in act of piracy to steal our worldship and they’re holding millions of our people and others captive.” Reflinghar blurted out with angry desperation. “It’s stuck inside one of your bubble universes. We need to get it out. You made these things. Tell us how to do it.”
     “Why should I?” Delvan was grumpily defiant. “You look just like those Chznzet bastards. For all I know you could be one of them trying to con some free tech support out of us.”
     Reflinghar struggled to hold is anger at Delvan’s unknowing insult and was about to let rip with injured indignant pride when Psy deftly butted in. “I can assure you that Duke Reflinghar does not represent the Chznzet. Contact the Galactic Council if you want.”
     “I will, actually.” Remi had seen and spun enough cons in his lifetime to know that his father’s suspicions weren’t unjustified and called Psy’s bluff. “Wait right here.”
     Reflinghar glowered murderously at Delvan who was still only half awake and totally oblivious to how badly he’d insulted Reflinghar. They didn’t have to wait long.
     “You didn’t tell me you had a battleship parked just outside Belzar-Tel-Sa’an.” Remi huffed indignantly as he waddled out of the office back into the workshop. He disliked being outmanoeuvred.
     “Now you know.” Psy was coyly tart. “Do you believe us now?”
     “Yeah, all right.” Remi knew when he was beaten.
     “Well, you just take it through the portal.” Delvan took his cue from his son, Remi. “You know, the one it went in through.”
     “That portal is barely large enough to walk through.” Reflinghar snorted bitterly at Delvan’s suggestion. “I’d like to see you try to fit a worldship through it. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what you are going to do.” Reflinghar felt his confidence return now that he was in sight of reclaiming the Ark of Exodus from the Chznzet’s clutches.
     Delvan wasn’t ready for any of this. It really was too early in the day for him. Especially at his age. “Like my son said.” Delvan addressed Reflinghar. “The Chznzet robbed us. The one they took was faulty. I was repairin’ it at the time they broke in. You don’t think I was going to stop ‘em and give ‘em one of the good ‘uns, now do you?”
     “No I suppose not.” Reflinghar went along with Delvan’s story. He’d decide whether to believe it or not later when he got all the facts. “So, what was wrong with it?”
     “Leaky dark matter conversion matrix if I remember correctly.” Delvan shrugged his shoulders as if it were just a trivial technical issue no more complex than a leaky kitchen tap. “Yeah, that was it.” Except that it wasn’t. The dark matter conversion matrix was a fiendishly complex 7-dimensional device that inflated the bubble universes. He considered himself lucky just to be able to figure out how to use one to create their custom bubble universes. That was what kept Chyptwyt Timeworks in business and fed their home colony on Centus V. Knowing how they actually worked was way beyond his abilities and he’d been a leading research scientist in his younger years.
     “Can it be fixed?” Reflinghar urgently pressed Delvan. He had to recover the Ark. Foremost for their people but also to prove to Deleethia that he wasn’t such a dead loss.
     “I should think so.” Delvan scratched his leathery head and dozily clacked his beak. “But I’d have to have it here in my workshop. And seeing how it’s in use at the moment and all…” He trailed off.
     “So what would you need?” Psy prompted Delvan.
     “Lemme see…” Delvan turned to look around the workshop. “One of the diagnostic consoles, a set of probes, a plasma torch and a spare generator to use for parts.”
     “Our chief scientist is going nowhere until you give us what we need.” Remi brusquely interrupted his father.
     “Name your price, Pdzarvian.” Reflinghar had been authorised to pay whatever exorbitant price that Chyptwyt Timeworks might demand for their services.
     Remi looked Reflinghar up and down dismissively. “Nothing you have. We have clients far wealthier than you.” He then turned to Psy and poked hir angrily. “It’s you, Galactic Council. We want justice.”
     “What?” Psy had no idea what Remi was talking about.
     “Where were you when we complained about the Rylben gangsters who demanded protection money from our colony?” Remi launched his angry rhetoric at Psy. “Where were you when we begged, yes begged, for assistance after they seeded our colony with a bioweapon that destroyed almost all the arable land leaving us starving?”
     “I… I’m so sorry.” Psy was aghast but also thankful that it hadn’t happened in hir sector. And, for possibly the first time in hir life, thankful for being dumped in a restricted sector where very little ever happened. Shi knew exactly what that bioweapon was. The same one that had been used in the Nglubi-Shallen war 65 million years ago which had been banned, used illegally and ‘rehabilitated’ countless times and was still popping up on Mars after all that time. It was a vile and persistent weapon. “I’m the regional supervisor in sector 3729D on my first commission. I don’t hear much of what goes on in the other sectors.”
     “Platitudes and excuses don’t pay our bills, Nglubi.” Remi wasn’t going to let Psy off the hook. “You send that nice battleship over to Centus V to clean up our home and bring those gangsters to justice. Then we’ll talk business.”
     “I don’t have that kind of authority.” Psy felt helplessly out of hir depth.
     “Then I suggest you leave.” Remi pronounced with all the puffed-up grandeur he could muster. “We have work to do and paying clients to see to.”
     “Fine.” Psy briefly toyed with the idea of kidnapping the lot of them but hir Omphalatta was crowded enough already. Instead shi whipped out hir blue Psionic crystal, had it project a holographic screen, poked at it with two of hir tentacles and burbled urgently in Nglubi Elktan.
     Two minutes later shi looked up. “You have a deal.”
     “Okay.” Remi wasn’t going to be taken in by mere words alone. “I’m going to put a subspace call through to my cousin who works at Space Traffic Control on Centus V. She’ll be the first to know when it arrives.” He strolled over to a console and activated its holographic display.
     A female Pdzarvian wearing a 3D visor and surrounded by curved display screens popped up on the screen. Remi said nothing. After a minute she flipped up her headset and turned to face the screen. “I told you not to call me at work, Remi.”
     “It’s important, M’Tanya.” Remi pleaded impatiently.
     “What, are you in trouble again?” M’Tanya asked suspiciously.
     “No, I finally got through to the Galactic Council.” Remi replied with wounded pride. “There should be an Nglubi battleship dropping into your space any minute now.”
     “Why would they…?” M’Tanya never finished what she was saying. Instead she flipped down her 3D visor and turned her attention to her work. Remi and Psy stood by their terminal watching as a look of amazement slowly crept over her face.
     After a few minutes she flipped up her visor and turned back to the screen. “You know, I’d completely given up on the Galactic Council. It seemed like they just didn’t care or even know about us.” M’Tanya confessed. “And now they’re here to clean up the Rylbens’ dirty work. Finally, after all this time! It’ll be nice to go outside again.”
     “So they’ve definitely arrived?” Remi wanted to make sure.
     “Yeah.” M’Tanya confirmed and the flipped down her 3D visor. “Thanks for that Remi, but I’ve really got to go. I have to redirect the traffic while the Nglubi do their sweep.”
     “Tell your grandmother I’ll drop in the next time I’m home.” Remi signed off and turned to Psy. “We have a deal, Nglubi. What do you want?”

     The days were getting cooler now. Gone was the blazing heat of summer and the crippling backache as she toiled in the fields picking, digging and planting the food for the city of Brakopyn. Her back had strengthened and the weather was bearable. Her feet had hardened with the passing months in the fields and she’d broken a few of her foot claws on the hard rocky soil. She’d even learned how to dodge the neuro-whip lashes that the prison guards liked to sadistically dole out to their captive inmates. The scars on her and the other inmates’ backs spoke of painful learning curves. She’d also learned from the other women to keep herself crusted in dirt so that the prison guards wouldn’t pick her out for sexual favours.
     Every night she would dream of Morgau and every morning she would wake up on a hard pallet when her prison collar would jolted her out of her slumbers. Knetryxx would then climb out of her threadbare nest and join the line outside listlessly shuffling along to get their morning gruel before going off to another day of backbreaking work in the fields. Sometimes a fight would break out.
     Today was one of those days. Two avians ahead of her in the line began squawking loudly and jostling each other. It wasn’t long before it came to blows and their prison collars kicked in jolting them senseless on the floor. It was over before the prison guards came to drag their unconscious bodies away. By the time they came to, the work details would have long gone to the fields. Most fights were just desperate attempts to get a day off from the harsh physical labour.
     You’d get the rest off the day off all right but you felt like you’d been hit by a truck and, as a sadistic touch… no rations. So, by the end of it you’d feel worse than if you’d spent the day slaving away in the fields and hungry. You’d have to be pretty desperate to try it.
     Knetryxx found that out the hard way after an older female avian inmate wheedled her into staging a fight ‘to get a day off work’. The last thing Knetryxx remembered of it before her prison band jolted her unconscious was the sight of the avian clutching her chest as she died of a prison-band induced heart attack croaking out her last words: “I can’t take it any longer!”
     There were days when Knetryxx felt like that. This was not one of those days. Today she just felt numb and shuffled along in the cold morning air anticipating the warm glow of the gruel in her stomach. The drugs in the prison food made sure of that. By dulling the prisoners’ emotional responses, blocking their libido and slowing down their minds, the Chznzet prison wardens kept their slave labourers compliant and manageable.
     She’d hardly seen Barwyndar the whole time. They’d been placed in different work details. Today was different. She spotted Barwyndar bent over with age and pain shuffling along ahead of her in the line and wondered if it was going to be like the other times where Barwyndar would desperately beg forgiveness. The first few times Knetryxx had ignored her impassioned pleas. Now it had become an embarrassing routine that she grimly endured.
     Today Barwyndar was accompanied by a scrawny avian whose once-lustrous tawny plumage had become dull and ragged through exhaustion-driven lack of care. They came over and sat on either side of Knetryxx where she sat at a trestle-table in the courtyard eating her morning gruel. The avian set down his bowl of gruel and looked around shiftily before slipping a portable ID tag reader similar to what a bouncer at a night club would use out from under his feathers and running it along Knetryxx’s arms. He furtively looked at its miniscule readout screen for a minute and nodded slowly: “Barwyndar was right. You were on the Ark four months ago and you do bear a striking resemblance to Princess Knetryxx.”
     “That’s because I am Princess Knetryxx.” Knetryxx defiantly asserted herself as best she could against the cloudiness of the mind-numbing drugs in her food.
     “Sure.” The avian rolled his eyes and mocked Knetryxx. “Have you any idea how many parents called their first daughters Knetryxx?” The avian asked in the way you do when you’re reaffirming common knowledge before grabbing her arm and looking earnestly into her eyes. “You are proof that the Ark has finally returned with the faithful. Why haven’t they announced the good news and what are you doing here of all places?”
     Knetryxx didn’t know where to start and just stared down at her bowl of gruel as she spooned in a few mouthfuls of the warm bland mush.
     “Answer me!” The avian jerked Knetryxx’s arm as he pleaded desperately.
     “It never went anywhere.” Knetryxx sullenly pulled her arm out of the avian’s grip and mumbled indifferently between mouthfuls of gruel. “It’s been parked at a gravitational null point the whole time.”
     “You lie!” The avian hissed.
     “I told you.” Barwyndar interrupted the agitated avian.
     “Shut up, old woman.” The avian smacked Barwyndar across her mouth. “You’re not even fit to be cut up for food.”
     “I’ve fed better than you to the raptors.” Barwyndar snarled cruelly as she baited the scrawny avian. “Oh, but you don’t have any raptors here. I wonder why that is?”
     “Shut up, you!” The avian angrily slapped Barwyndar again and then stomped off.
     “That got rid of him!” Knetryxx thanked Barwyndar.
     “There will be more.” Barwyndar gingerly rubbed her sore jaw. “Don’t think he was acting alone. How do you think he got that scanner in here? The people who gave him that scanner will send others.”
     “Oh.” Knetryxx stopped eating and almost dropped her spoon into her gruel. “Who are they?”
     “I’m not sure. It’s become a police state out there. It seems like they put their dissenters and political prisoners to work in the fields.” Barwyndar shared what little she’d been able to glean and then laid out her escape plan. “I say we play them to get us out of here and off this planet. Are you in?”
     Knetryxx looked around the grim outdoor canteen in the work camp. It felt washed of colour in the early morning half-light and she so wanted to be away from this place and back in Morgau’s arms but didn’t feel as if she could fully trust Barwyndar ever again. “Yeah, I guess so.”

     Wootjan-Oo and Roetzan were waiting in the canteen at the Brakopyn Municipal transport depot waiting for their first assignment of the day when their site manager, Hwralkha, a plump drab brown feathered avian, rushed in looking flustered and waving his data pad around. “Have you seen Tormek?” He asked them anxiously
     Tormek, a middle-aged charcoal and silver scaled reptilian, was one of the senior technicians whose role was team leader on work details. Wootjan-Oo looked around. “I don’t think he’s in yet.”
     “Damn!” Hwralkha slapped his armwings to his side. “The signalling at Stop 17 has gone down. I want you two to go with him to get it up and running ASAP. It’s a military base so none of that Fundamentalist pacifist crap out of you while you’re there. I’m sending you because you’re good at your work. Get in, sort it out and get out. They’re not interested in your Fundamentalist crap over there.” And with that he stomped out leaving Wootjan-Oo and Roetzan looking at each other.
     Roetzan slipped out to her locker to pick up a data cube and interface Terzyn-Dael had prepared for them. Their plans to get work at the aerodrome and find a ship to commandeer had run into an insurmountable hurdle: the sole aerodrome cum spaceport for the Chznzet colony on NewNest was a military installation which scuppered their plan of getting a job there. Their registration as Chznzet Fundamentalists on their ID tags ruled them out. Terzyn-Dael had landed a job doing tech support for the Brakopyn Food Wholesalers’ Collective and in his spare time had rustled up a ‘backdoor’ routine for Wootjan-Oo and Roetzan to insert in and compromise as many of the Brakopyn Municipal Transport System’s control units as possible so that they could bring it to a standstill when they made their escape. If they could. They had yet to get remotely close to any of the ships at the aerodrome.
     Z’Taklyss had gone on a scouting mission shortly after they arrived in Brakopyn and spotted the transporters the Chznzet had used on their exodus to NewNest. They looked as if they hadn’t been used in a long time and probably drained of their fuel. There were ranks of fighters that he recognised from the Chznzet attack on the Ark of Exodus. Again, these were taken from the Ark. That meant two things: first, that they couldn’t make their own and secondly that they were dependent on supplies of parts from the Ark to maintain them. That meant that they had to keep one transporter operational. Find that one and he’d find their ticket home because they’d never fit eight including that fat old priestess into a fighter that barely even had room for a single pilot. There wouldn’t even be room for himself and Knetryxx so that ruled out making the rest of the team expendable.
     Wootjan-Oo and Roetzan rode in a beaten-up hover truck out to the aerodrome with Tormek at the controls. “I hope it doesn’t blow your little mind, Fundie. We’re all soldiers here.” A Guard at the checkpoint sneered contemptuously as he scanned Roetzan’s ID tag. “Don’t try sabotaging anything. We’ll be watching you the whole time.”
     Wootjan-Oo gulped and hoped they wouldn’t catch her with Terzyn-Dael’s hacking tools. They were led under armed guard to the control room where they set about their work. The Guards soon got bored and wandered off leaving them to their work. It wasn’t long before they found the problem: a bank of burnt-out optical relays. One short journey back to the depot later for a replacement and they were fitting it back in and checking the systems before bring it back online. He glanced over at Roetzan and, to his horror, saw her merrily humming to herself as she connected Terzyn-Dael’s device to every control unit she was testing as casually as if it was just another diagnostic tool. He did his best not to react and returned to his work as if everything was normal. He’d have to talk to her about it later. Sure, it was nervy hiding it in plain sight but also monumentally stupid.
     Tormek made sure the job took up the whole day. He didn’t want to be sent out on a second job the same day. “We could have got that job done before lunch.” He confessed to Wootjan-Oo and Roetzan as they drove back to the depot at the end of the day. “Thanks for playing along and stretching it out.”
     “We could have just brought the station back online as soon as we replaced the relay.” Wootjan-Oo admitted. “But it was probably a good idea to check that their systems were running smoothly after a catastrophic crash like that. We’d only have to go back again to fix some glitch that we had missed.”
     “We’re all in agreement there.” Tormek felt reassured. “You did well today. And for a pair of Fundamentalists, you’re pretty good with logic units.”
     “We thought we’d do it for our Matrekal.” Roetzan piped up with faked enthusiasm. They’d learned as much as they could about the Fundamentalist Chznzet culture in order to weave a plausible story to explain themselves. The Matrekal was time spent away from their collective living in the regular Chznzet society. It was usually only for a few months at a time but could be for up to a year.
     “Huh.” Tormek raised an eyebrow. “I thought you lot just did missionary work.”
     “We were engineers in our commune before it was destroyed by the grey-out. We haven’t yet decided which commune to join so this is our Matrekal.” Roetzan stepped through their well-rehearsed cover story. Z’Taklyss had not only made them synchronise their cover stories but also research as much as they could about the village they were supposed to be from and invent their own back stories. Roetzan and Wootjan-Oo were trainee engineers in the processing plant. Jervyk and Seelek worked in the aquaculture ponds. Z’Taklyss was a construction worker and Terzyn-Dael was a shop assistant by day and by night a member of a secret computer club which was banned in their village.
     Chznzet Fundamentalists lived their lives as free from technology as possible. For example, the fish and aquaflora processing plant where Roetzan and Wootjan-Oo ‘worked’ was one of the few places where they used modern automated technology on a regular basis. They eschewed the ID tags that all other Shallens wore as a matter of course. Electronic home entertainment, conveniences and kitchenware were unheard of. Housekeeping was a full-time job. Construction work was hard manual graft with little machinery or power tools. Having a computer, data pad or terminal was enough to land you in a re-education program.
     By pooling their compensation money, they were able to buy a family-sized apartment in a modest part of town. It was quiet and everyone was too busy raising their families to pay them much attention. When they got in, Z’Taklyss was in a deep conversation with two male avians from the Shallen Freedom Movement, a dissident group who felt that the grey-outs were an omen that they should leave NewNest and wanted to migrate en masse to Cervetica.
     So far the Chznzet authorities had been able to ignore them by marginalising and even outlawing the dissident groups while only permitting a weak-kneed opposition who did nothing to address the issue of the grey-outs beyond campaigning for greater compensation payouts. Which, while always welcome, didn’t address the real issue that was unsettling so many of the colonists and their offspring on NewNest.
     Z’Taklyss grabbed Wootjan-Oo as he was walking past and casually shoved a data pad at him. “What do you think? Is this Knetryxx?”
     Wootjan-Oo took the data pad and looked at the downtrodden, dirt-encrusted woman in filthy, ragged overalls and zoomed in to check. There had been ‘sightings’ before but they had all turned out to be false leads. Like, Z’Taklyss, he’d grown sceptical during their stay in Brakopyn. But this time, clearly visible through the layer of grime on her neck, was Knetryxx’s dragon heart tattoo with Morgau’s monogram. “Yes, it’s her.” He sombrely handed back the data pad. He knew Knetryxx was far from perfect but she didn’t deserve a fate like that. “Where is she?”
     “In a work camp about a hundred keliks from here.” Z’Taklyss became serious. “We’re getting them out right away.”
     “Them?”
     Z’Taklyss passed the data pad back to Wootjan-Oo. It showed a scene of an old crone in rags arguing with Knetryxx. Clean her up and put a bit of weight on her bones and she might look like Barwyndar. “Are you sure?”
     “If she isn’t then we just drop her off somewhere in town, giver her some money and let her find her own way.” Z’Taklyss shrugged indifferently. “If she is then that’s good news, eh brother?”
     Wootjan-Oo knew exactly what Z’Taklyss meant: They would be leaving NewNest within the next few days. He was eager to tell him what he and Roetzan had done that day but knew it had to wait until the Shallen Freedom Movement avians left so he went into the kitchen to grab a bite to eat where he bumped into Roetzan, Jervyk and Seelek chatting while they grilled some Szetni roots on an open grill.
     “Hey, I’ll pop another one on for you.” Jervyk greeted Wootjan-Oo with a nervous friendliness. Even though they discovered, much to Jervyk’s surprise, that they had mutual friends in Xandu and Tatia, he still felt awkward around Wootjan-Oo: Wootjan-Oo who had rescued Knetryxx from the Chznzet once before. And what an unlikely hero he was… geeky, nerdy, a bit of a slacker. A nice guy, but not the sort you’d think could pull off something like that. But yet he had and that gave Jervyk the confidence that he, too, could be the soldier he desperately wanted to be. He felt massively inadequate for the role thrust on him but was determined to prove to Z’Taklyss that he was good enough material for the Guards. It was only around Seelek that he really let his guard down.
     “Make it two!” Wootjan-Oo called out loudly before leaning on close. “They found Knetryxx.” Having seen the state she was in, Wootjan-Oo felt almost ashamed to tell them.
     “What?” “Where?” “Is she alive?” They bombarded him.
     “She’s in a slave labour camp.” Wootjan-Oo whispered and then nodded his head towards the living room where Z’Taklyss was talking with the Shallen Freedom Movement avians. He then leaned back, slapped his stomach and in a voice loud enough to be heard in the next room exclaimed: “I could really do with some Szetni right now, I skipped lunch today.”
     “Put some on for us.” Z’Taklyss shouted back from the living room.
     Wootjan-Oo leaned back in. “Those two avians from the Shallen Freedom Movement are still out there. Just act normal until they go.”
     Just then Terzyn-Dael sauntered in beaming with geeky pride. “I picked up a signal from the Ark!”
     “How did you do it?” Seelek asked him. They’d not been able to communicate with the Ark since they landed on NewNest.
     “Ah hah!” Terzyn-Dael pulled up a seat and joined them at the table around the grill. “Well, you know time runs roughly six times faster on the Ark than it does in the real universe? What if it runs even faster here? So I started downshifting my receiver and eventually I found it. Time is running twenty times faster here than it does on the Ark and just over one hundred and twenty times faster than it does in the real universe. It turns out we’ve been away for about a day in real time.”
     Terzyn-Dael’s bright enthusiasm was met with a mind-boggled silence. Jervyk eventually broke the silence. “What? You mean that all this happened in a day since we stepped through the portal at the Xepherion to report for duty on the Ark?”
     “Pretty much, yeah.” Terzyn-Dael was pleased with himself for having figured it out.
     Jervyk hissed with amazement. “Damn. It feels real.”
     “What did they say?” Seelek was desperate for a message from the Ark.
     “Um…. Ah….” Terzyn-Dael became coy. “Nothing.”
     “A signal has to be something.” Terzyn-Dael had marched their expectations up a hill and Jervyk wasn’t going to let him walk away from this one. “It can’t be nothing.”
     “Well, it was something, but nothing specifically for us.” Terzyn-Dael skirted around the truth.
     “Tell us!” Seelek demanded.
     “Um… ok.” Terzyn-Dael looked down as he shuffled his feet. “It was the Horny Horns porn channel. I’ve saved it if you want to watch it.”
     Seelek was speechless. Jervyk slapped his thigh and laughed out loud. Wootjan-Oo and Roetzan joined in the laughter even though they sympathised with Seelek’s shock disappointment with the sometimes-absurd banalities of life.
     “Yeah well, it’s proof of principle.” Terzyn-Dael cleared his throat as he tried to regain his composure. “If that’s how far we have to downshift a signal to pick them up, then all we have to do is upshift our signal by the same amount and they should be able to pick it up.”
     “With that transmitter of yours on the roof?” Jervyk doubted that Terzyn-Dael’s transmitter had that kind of range.
     “I built that myself.” Terzyn-Dael felt hurt that Jervyk doubted his efforts. “It’s got a tight beam. You’d have to stand on top of it to detect it.”
     That evening as they had their supper all the talk was about was about rescuing Knetryxx. “That’s only half the job.” Z’Taklyss interrupted their excitement. “We have to get her and ourselves off this fake world. Once we have her, we’ll have to move fast. Wootjan-Oo, you come with Jervyk and I to pick up Princess Knetryxx. I think it will help if she sees a familiar face. Roetzan and Terzyn-Dael, you go with Seelek and get into the Aerodrome. Make sure you plant the force-field shunt as close to the perimeter force field as possible and remember to stick the EMP mines inside the undercarriage compartment. They’ll be open and, most importantly, it’s an opening in the fighter’s case-hardened shell so you’re guaranteed a knock-out blow. We have to make sure their fighters stay grounded. The shuttle’s old and slow and only has a forward-facing low power pulse canon for clearing debris in its path. We should be half way to the Ark before they get their fighters back online.”
     “As soon as it gets dark enough, we’ll sneak in and meet you at the shuttle.” Z’Taklyss continued with his plan. “That should give you enough time to get the shuttle powered up and ready for launch. Any questions?” He was met with a stunned silence.
     Terzyn-Dael broke the silence. “I can get about half the monorail lines to dump all their passengers at the Aerodrome, but the rest of the lines don’t connect to it. What do you want me to do with them?” It was his bots that Roetzan and Wootjan-Oo had planted all over the municipal monorail line that would take control and wreak their havoc.
     “We need something chaotic.” Z’Taklyss mused aloud. “If you stop them, they’ll only be restarted within the hour. Can you come up with something more creative?”
     “How about putting the monorails on a random stop-start schedule that’s set to run for a fixed period of time?” Terzyn-Dael gave Z’Taklyss a knowingly evil smirk.
     Z’Taklyss laughed. “I like that. Do it!”
     “We might be able to shut down the aerodrome and its perimeter force fields.” Roetzan offered with eager enthusiasm.
     “Yes, that would be nice.” Z’Taklyss jokingly humoured Roetzan.
     “No, I’m serious.” Roetzan was mildly annoyed that Z’Taklyss didn’t believe her. “Wootjan-Oo and I went on a job at the Metro station in the Aerodrome. I loaded Terzyn-Dael’s bots into every terminal, console, control unit, processor and data bank I could find. They’ll start spreading. If there’s a way into the Aerodromes’ systems from the Metro station, they’ll find it.”
     “Well done!” Z’Taklyss heartily congratulated Roetzan. “But we’ll still use the force field shunts. There’s too much at stake. If Terzyn-Dael’s bots can take out the Aerodrome or even part of it, that would be a welcome diversion but let’s not count on it. We make our plans on what we know we can do. Same goes for Terzyn-Dael’s transmitter: send a message to the Ark letting them know we’re on our way back. Given what’s happened there’s a strong chance they’ll never get it.”
     “Whatever happens, we’re on our way back to the Ark.” Z’Taklyss stood up and gave his final orders for the evening. “Terzyn-Dael, dismantle your transmitter as soon as you send your message. The rest of you help him destroy and dispose of the parts inconspicuously. Make the place look like we’re six Chznzet Fundamentalists out for the day. Get rid of any piece of equipment lying that points to what we’re doing. Only keep what you’re going to need tomorrow. Get rid of anything else. The Security Enforcers will probably search this place after we’ve gone and I don’t want them to see anything out of the ordinary. Now, jump to it!” Z’Taklyss clapped his paws together forcefully to make his point.

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Chapter 39
Chapter 1