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
“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
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
“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
“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.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Roetzan shrugged her
shoulders, put the scanner back in her knapsack and went back to sunning
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
“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
“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
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
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
“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
“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
“I’m not doing any tech support for
them.” Delvan replied grumpily. “They stole it. They’re on their own for all I
“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
“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
“Well, you just take it through the
portal.” Delvan took his cue from his son, Remi. “You know, the one it went in
“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?”
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
“What?” Psy had no idea what Remi was
“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
“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
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
“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.”
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
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
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.
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
“You lie!” The avian hissed.
“I told you.” Barwyndar interrupted the
“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
“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
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
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
Z’Taklyss grabbed Wootjan-Oo as he was
walking past and casually shoved a data pad at him. “What do you think? Is this
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.”
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.”
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.
“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
“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
“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
“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.