Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 41: Bustin' out of Brakopyn.

     Wootjan-Oo was wired with nervous energy as he sped out of Brakopyn in a small hoverbus with Z’Taklyss, Jervyk and a group of Shallen Freedom Movement operatives. They’d had little sleep the night before, clearing anything incriminating out of their apartment and disposing of Terzyn-Dael’s transmitter. It felt as if they’d stuffed every recycler in the neighbourhood. And now they were on their way to rescue Knetryxx. He looked out of the window watching the countryside race past them. Jervyk listened closely as Z’Taklyss tersely discussed tactics with the SFM operatives. All Wootjan-Oo could think about was that he’d either back in Yldoseh’s arms within the day or dead which both reassured and terrified him at the same time.
     After a few hours they veered off the main highway with its traffic of produce destined for Brakopyn and goods flowing out to the townships, villages and settlements, hover buses full of passengers and private air cars onto minor byways through villages, past settlements and then a long bumpy ride along lanes between agricultural land and across pasture land with herds of domesticated saurs. They eventually pulled up in a clearing next to a stream running through a cycad forest. This was a close as they could get to the forced-labour camp where Knetryxx was held prisoner. Two SFM operatives stayed behind to guard their hoverbus as they set off on foot.
     There was little undergrowth and they made quick time through the forest. Three SFM operatives, a dark-green scaled reptilian wearing a brown leather outfit and the two avians who had visited their home in Brakopyn the previous day, led the way using their plasma lances to scorch markers on trees as they passed so they could find their way back to the hoverbus. Two hours later, they came to the edge of the woods. Wootjan-Oo could see fields beyond where prisoners laboured under the ever-watchful eyes of drones hovering overhead. The reptilian SFM operative, Kellzyk, motioned for them to lie down. He took out a pair of binoculars to survey the fields ahead for a short while before grumbling and crawling back into the woods. He beckoned the other to join him.
     Kellzyk and the two avian operatives took off their backpacks and began unpacking various pieces of electronic gadgetry and a drone. “We’ve got their prison collar numbers so we can disable their collars remotely once we patch into their network.” Kellzyk explained to Z’Taklyss. Jervyk and Wootjan-Oo as he and the avians assembled their equipment and prepped the drone. “They’ve got quite a lot of our people working in those fields…” He added with a bitter anger. “We have a few agents in the prison guards. They’ve made sure Knetryxx and that priestess will be working over on this side today. The drone will locate them. As soon as they’re close enough, we go in, use the shunt to get through the force field, grab them, disable and remove their prison collars and get out. They’re pretty heavily doped up in there, so don’t even expect her to recognise you. Breechal and Yarllyn will stay here and monitor their comms. Wear these badges. They will identify you as prison guards so the prison drones will ignore you” He passed them out to Z’Taklyss, Wootjan-Oo and Jervyk. Wootjan-Oo clipped his badge onto his harness.
     They waited while Breechal and Yarllyn, the two avian SFM operatives, fussed over their field comms centre as they brought it online and patched into the prison surveillance network. “We’re in.” Yarllyn announced with the easy confidence of a pro hacker. “…and there they are!” He pointed out two blue dots among the many dull green dots moving slowly across the comms unit’s display screen.
     “I’ll launch the drone.” Breechal stood up and activated the drone. It lifted off the ground noiselessly as its anti-grav unit kicked in and drifted off hugging close to the ground where it would be undetected until it was inside the prison force fields where it could safely masquerade as just another prison drone.
     “Let’s go.” Kellzyk gave the order. Z’Taklyss, Jervyk and Wootjan-Oo fell in line behind Kellzyk as they followed the drone from inside the edge of the cycad forest. Wootjan-Oo kept close to Jervyk who had his plasma lance at the ready as they marched through the forest. A short while later, Kellzyk stopped them and pointed at the drone. It had slipped through the force field using its built-in shunt and was hovering in position a short way off over the field of narlik gourds that towered over the captive labourers. “Looks like we’ve found them.”
     Just then Wootjan-Oo spotted another drone slipping through the force field and drifting silently over towards their own drone. “I think we have company.” He pointed out the newly-arrived drone.
     “Damn!” Kellzyk cursed as he broke into a run. “We better get there first. Z’Taklyss, fire up your shunt. We’re going in.” When they got to the force-field perimeter, the force-field shunt punched a sparkle-edge hole through the faintly shimmering force-field. As soon as they were through, they ran as fast as they could through the dense rows of towering Narlik gourds towards the drone’s position. Even as they approached, running past drugged slave labourers picking narlik gourds who were too frightened to react in case they were jolted unconscious by their prison bands, they could hear shouting and the sizzle of plasma fire.
     As they got closer, Wootjan-Oo could make out a clearing in the rows of the Narlik plantation where dead bodies and broken Narlik plants lay on the ground in the middle of a desperate fire fight. Knetryxx was held by one gang. Barwyndar by another. Wootjan-Oo was certain that there was a third gang already there in the shoot-out up ahead. If they didn’t get Knetryxx out soon, they’d all be rounded up by the prison guards.
     “Get down.” Kellzyk barked into his headset. Wootjan-Oo, Z’Taklyss and Jervyk threw themselves to the ground as Kellzyk lobbed a stun grenade into the middle of the battle over their prize. Wootjan-Oo felt the grenade’s concussion blast rip over his back as he lay face-down on the ground. By the time he was back up on his feet Kellzyk and Z’Taklyss had already taken out the remaining competitors and had scooped up Knetryxx and Barwyndar. Z’Taklyss had the unconscious Knetryxx draped across his shoulders.
     Kellzyk hoisted Barwyndar up onto his back. “Let’s go! The prison guards will be here any minute.”
     Z’Taklyss gave his plasma lance to Wootjan-Oo. “Give us cover until we get back to the hoverbus. Jervyk will show you how to use it.”
     Wootjan-Oo accepted the plasma lance and set off running through the towering Narlik plantation behind Z’Taklyss and Kellzyk. So far, so good.
     “It’s really easy to use.” Jervyk explained to Wootjan-Oo as they ran along. “Point it at your target, twist the grip for it’s power setting and squeeze the grip to shoot. Slide the grip forwards and backwards to focus the beam. Forward for a narrow beam, back for a wider spread. You’ll get the hang of it.”
     “What power setting should I use?” Wootjan-Oo asked as he kept up with Jervyk.
     “Anything above half power is lethal. Full power on a full charge at close range would blow a Shallen to his component atoms.” Jervyk gave Wootjan-Oo a wicked grin.
     “Wow!” Wootjan-Oo had done maintenance work on the Ark’s mighty engines which were orders of magnitude more powerful than a plasma lance. One wrong move around those engines and you’d be nothing more than a cloud of ionized vapour. But he’d never held the power of life or death in his paws before.
     “Just put it on full power and a wide spread.” Jervyk suggested helpfully as they ran along pushing Narlik plants and drugged prison slave labourers out of their way. “You couldn’t even miss if you were blind. You’ll drain its power cell in no time like that though.”
     They were less than 100 metres from the force field perimeter when the smoking remains of their drone crashed to the ground. A plasma bolt sizzled past Wootjan-Oo’s shoulder and scorched a patch of ground ahead of him. Jervyk spun around and shouted to Wootjan-Oo: “Full power, wide spread. Get the fuckers.” Wootjan-Oo spotted the drone that was following them and shot at it. It juddered in the air but kept coming at them. Jervyk hit it with a tightly-focused plasma lance shot and it fell to the ground in flames. They turned to run towards their exit point before any more drones caught up with them.
     When they got to their assembly point at the edge of the woods, Breechal and Yarllyn were already packing down their mobile comms and control unit. “Well done.” Breechal congratulated them. “We’ll follow on as soon as we get this gear packed away.” Kellzyk and Z’Taklyss led the way jogging at a steady pace with the unconscious Barwyndar and Knetryxx draped over their shoulders.
     Wootjan-Oo couldn’t help but notice Knetryxx’s blissfully peaceful expression in spite of her dirt-caked scales which had lost their youthful iridescence as she bobbed lifelessly on Z’Taklyss’ shoulders. Even though avians had narrower shoulders than reptilians, Z’Taklyss was as tough and strong as any reptilian and was able to keep up a steady pace as they made their way through the cycad forest to their waiting hoverbus.
     As they approached their hoverbus, Wootjan-Oo could hear shouting and the unmistakable sizzle of plasma fire through the forest ahead. Z’Taklyss set down Knetryxx at the foot of a cycad tree and Kellzyk laid Barwyndar down beside her. Z’Taklyss grabbed hold of Jervyk: “You and Wootjan-Oo look after them, we’ll go ahead and see what’s happening.”
     Wootjan-Oo sat down beside Knetryxx and ran his paw over her forehead to comfort her even though she was still unconscious from the stun grenade blast earlier. She began to squirm and moan and, to Wootjan-Oo’s total surprise, her eyes opened slowly.
     Knetryxx tried to sit up, failed and fell back to the ground. “Wootjan-Oo? What are you doing here?” She grunted faintly.
     Wootjan-Oo kept stroking Knetryxx’s forehead. “We’re going home.”
     “Ugh.” Knetryxx rolled over, threw an arm around Wootjan-Oo and drifted off back into unconsciousness.
     “Hey, what??? She knows you?” Jervyk couldn’t believe that his Keeper, Princess Knetryxx, would know a commoner.
     “Uh, yeah. We go back a long way.” Wootjan-Oo looked down at Knetryxx’s grime-encrusted face and wondered what horrors she had seen as he tenderly wiped her face clean. In the distance, he heard the thump of another stun grenade and the shouting stopped. A minute later Z’Taklyss reappeared: “It’s all clear, let’s go.”
     Wootjan-Oo and Jervyk picked up Knetryxx and Barwyndar and walked them slowly to the hoverbus. As they entered the clearing, Wootjan-Oo saw Kellzyk, Breechal and Yarllyn tying up a group of unconscious Shallens from another resistance group who had intended to take Knetryxx for themselves. They bundled Knetryxx and Barwyndar into the hoverbus and sped away for their rendezvous at the Aerodrome with Knetryxx leaning up against Wootjan-Oo.

     Mertakk struggled to stay awake in his overly-comfortable chair during the monthly plenary session of the NewNest colony development and oversight review. The soft uplighting and anechoic furnishings were drinking up the ambient sound and sapping his will to live. He was counting down the minutes until the meeting adjourned and he could make his escape.
     One after another, the various heads of departments presented their monthly reports. Population up in spite of the losses from the recent grey-out. The colony’s economy was booming, public morale was generally good and dissidents were contained. What a euphemism, Mertakk snorted quietly to himself as one senior Chznzet bureaucrat after another droned through their bland reports. And there was Rozit-Skaal, at the far end of the table lapping up the reflected glow of their achievements as if it was something he’d done. And yet Mertakk couldn’t bring himself to loathe or envy him. Instead he saw someone who unthinkingly rode the tide and bent to the will of his every advisor.
     Mertakk picked up his data slate and tapped on its screen. “Kill me now, I can’t take any more of this charade.” He wearily passed it to Skrawk-Laa, an elderly avian with age-dulled tawny feathers, who tapped on its screen and passed it back to Mertakk. “You too? Let’s go to the bar afterwards.” After what felt like an interminable imprisonment in stasis, the meeting drew to a merciful close and Mertakk shuffled out while fighting off a cloud of tedium-induced drowsiness.
     Skrawk-Laa grabbed hold as Mertakk almost swooned on his feet. “Careful there, you old lizard. I know those meetings are boring. Why don’t you take a stim?”
     Mertakk looked into Skrawk-Laa’s bright eyes and could see that he’d obviously used chemical fortification to make it through the plenary session and snorted. “Not at my age, it’s a bad idea. You shouldn’t either.”
     Skrawk-Laa cawed dismissively. “It’s not as if any of us are going to live forever, now is it? Come on, let’s have a few drinks and forget about these dreary meetings.” He led the way past the office where Rozit-Skaal had interrogated Knetryxx and Barwyndar in the imposing NewNest Ministry of Public Works building in downtown Brakopyn. “Now cheer up, old boy. At least you’ve still got your family. I haven’t heard from Yalltyss ever since she ran off to join one of those infernal Fundamentalist collectives. It’s as if she’s been swallowed up in one of those grey-outs.”
     “Give her time, Skrawk-Laa. Give her some time.” Mertakk consoled his old friend.
     Skrawk-Laa sighed. “It’s all we can do. Koorelty is worried sick about her. She’s been to the Fundamentalist Mission countless times but they just stonewall her. It’s breaking her heart. Ah, here we are.” Skrawk-Laa pushed open the door that led into the Ministry staff lounge and bar. “Time to drown our woes.”
     They took their seats at a table by a window overlooking the bustling metropolis of Brakopyn with its airborne traffic sailing past the window and were served by a young reptilian waitress who brought them their drinks. Mertakk savoured the spicy fire of his Turellian Brandy and gazed out the window in silence for a few minutes as it revived his spirits. “I’ve checked Rozit-Skaal’s records. It says he came here aboard the Klaamath. That’s the same transporter I came on and I never saw him, his parents or anyone even close to his description. It’s as if he appeared out of thin air. And he’s not the only one.”
     “Oh, Great Goddess, not your ghosts again.” Skrawk-Laa had long wearied of Mertakk’s conspiracy theory. “Have you any idea how many trips those transporters made? He was probably on a different flight to yours.”
     Mertakk emphatically set down his brandy. “No, I checked the manifest. It’s the same flight Eradzyn and I were on.”
     “So, what are you suggesting?” Skrawk-Laa humoured Mertakk. “Is he an agent from House Sedeirtra?”
     “Pah, not a very good one if that’s what he is.” Mertakk snorted contemptuously. “You know he put the real Knetryxx and that Ingnuthin priestess out to work in the fields.”
     “Yes, I heard about that.” Skrawk-Laa concurred knowingly and took a swig of mead. “The old crone won’t last long out there. At least she won’t be a problem much longer.”
     “You don’t get it do you?” Mertakk vented his frustration.
     “What? That House Sedeirtra has retaken the Ark?” Skrawk-Laa was indifferent to Mertakk’s concern. “Fat lot of good it’ll do them. The Ark’s here in this bubble universe to stay.”
     “No. Please stop dismissing me like that.” Mertakk knew that Skrawk-Laa didn’t share his concerns. “The population of our colony is way too high. There are more people here now that what came down from the Ark.”
     “So? Hens lay eggs and young ‘uns come along. There’s no wars or other attrition aside from old age and grey-outs, so the population’s going up.” Skrawk-Laa philosophically dismissed Mertakk.
     “Dammit, Skrawk-Laa, do you think I’m an idiot?” Mertakk pleaded anxiously. “Of course there’s children, but that’s not what I mean. There are now more adults our age or who would have come down as children than originally arrived here on NewNest. I’ve got proof, too.” Mertakk perked up as he got on a roll with his findings. “I’ve kept backups of the old records and manifests from when we landed here. There are thousands of people here today who aren’t on the original records. Rozit-Skaal, for one. And yet, when you examine the records today, their names show up on the manifests. It just doesn’t add up.”
     “Well it was a bit of a rush.” Skrawk-Laa thought back to the heady times when they settled on NewNest. “Maybe they forgot to register at the time and came forward later.”
     “Pah!” Mertakk was having none of it. “The colonists were rigorously screened and vetted for loyalists. You should know that much.”
     “So, what are you suggesting?” Skrawk-Laa hated seeing his friend so agitated. “That they’re subversive infiltrators sent by House Sedeirtra?”
     “I don’t know.” Mertakk confessed. “Most of these new people seem to be ordinary citizens. Oh sure, some of them turn up in the dissident groups. I’ve even interrogated a few of them myself and keep their organisations under surveillance. I haven’t been able to find any evidence of outside influence.”
     “These ghost people of yours, are they a threat?” Skrawk-Laa decided to humour Mertakk and play along with him.
     “Not as far as I can see.” Mertakk confided.
     “Then there’s no problem.” Skrawk-Laa grandly reassured Mertakk. “You’ve got to let go of your guilt for dropping that universe generator on my foot. What’s done is done. We’re here now and there’s no going back.” He noticed that Mertakk’s glass was empty. “Do you want another one?”
     “I could do with it.” Mertakk accepted Skrawk-Laa’s offer.
     Skrawk-Laa called the waitress over and ordered another round of drinks. “Keep monitoring these ghost people of yours in case they’re some sort of sleeper cell. That should give the operatives in your department something to do.”

     Terzyn-Dael, Roetzan and Seelek had spent the morning cleaning up their home and making it look ‘normal’. Seelek slipped out to the shops and returned with enough food to last them a week. She stocked the cupboards but not before opening up several of the packages and throwing some of their contents down the waste disposal… all part of Z’Taklyss’ instructions to make it look like they were just out for the day.
     Roetzan’s communicator beeped. It was Hwralkha, her manager at the Brakopyn Municipal transport depot. She didn’t dare answer the call at home so she put him on hold and ran out into an alleyway beside their apartment block. Unlike the inside of their home, it was a location that Hwralkha wouldn’t recognise. She called him back and no sooner than his face popped up on her communicator’s little screen he launched into a tirade. “Where are you? You and Wootjan-Oo are late. You’re paid to be here on time and do your job.”
     “We got an offer of a place with the Pratektyl commune. They want to see us at the Chznzet Mission today.” Roetzan fed Hwralkha their agreed cover story.
     “Damn you, you little Fundie. We’re short-pawed at the depot today." Hwralkha spluttered angrily. “You’re both docked a day’s pay and I’ll be seeing you for a disciplinary meeting tomorrow. Don’t ever pull a stunt like this again. If you want time off, arrange it with me first.” Roetzan didn’t even have time to reply, her communicator screen went blank as Hwralkha signed off in a huff. When she got back into the apartment, Seelek and Terzyn-Dael were packing the last of the EMP grenades into their satchels.
     “Where were you?” Seelek asked urgently as she closed her satchel and looked up. “Z’Taklyss called up while you were out. They’ve got Knetryxx and they’re on their way.” She picked up a third satchel with its load of EMP grenades, plasma pistol, extra power cells with her overalls stuffed in on top and gave it to Roetzan. “It’s time to go.”
     Roetzan felt a brief flurry of butterflies. After months of talk, earnest planning and what felt like forlorn hopes, it all just got terrifyingly real. She had fallen into the steady rhythm of their life in Brakopyn with her job at the Municipal Monorail Transport seeding Terzyn-Dael’s bots into its system. But that comfortable life had come to its inevitable and sudden end. She took one last look around their apartment and followed Seelek and Terzyn-Dael out into the street.
     Outside, the everyday life of urban Brakopyn was going on oblivious to the events that were unfolding. Mothers were out and about doing their daily shopping with their hatchlings and infants in tow. Shop assistants were hanging out on the pavement during their mid-day break as hover trucks trundled past with their deliveries.
     Roetzan took in the sights and sounds as they walked along the street lined with medium-height apartment blocks, shops and offices towards the local monorail station. It was just like any small town on Cervetica or Vermthellyn. Even though they were all Chznzet, she couldn’t bring herself to hate these people. In their time on NewNest, Roetzan had noticed that few people had any idea what had happened on the Ark, let alone cared. They were just happy to have a planet to live on.
     Terzyn-Dael was all keyed up and felt as if he was walking on air. Today was the day he’d get to use the bot net that he’d created! “I’ll trigger the…”
     Terzyn-Dael never finished his sentence. Seelek grabbed his arm squeezing it so hard that it hurt and gave Terzyn-Dael a hard-fixed smile that could kill. “I can’t wait until we get to the Mission and find out about the offer.”
     Terzyn-Dael’s eyes watered with pain until Seelek let go. They had to stay in character until they got to the Aerodrome: Brakopyn was a total surveillance police state where one never knew if one’s public conversations were being monitored. He’d been questioned by the gendarmes several times in the past but had been able to bluff his way out. They couldn’t take any chances today. “Oh yes!” He replied eagerly. “I hope they have places for all of us.”
     The line running through the local monorail station stopped near the Chznzet Mission but didn’t go anywhere near the Aerodrome. Instead they rode the monorail through downtown Brakopyn with its gleaming modern towers and steady flow of airborne traffic above the pedestrians at street level below. The got out at one of the larger stations and got on a monorail that went past the Chznzet Mission and the Aerodrome after pushing their way through the bustling crowds. As soon as they were seated on the crowded monorail, Terzyn-Dael got out his data slate and activated his botnet. From now on the entire monorail network was under his control. It wasn’t long before passengers were banging on the locked doors out of frustration as the monorail sailed past platforms full of confused and angry passengers who looked on helplessly as the monorails they had expected to ride whizzed past them with their captive passengers inside.
     By the time they got to the Aerodrome, their monorail was fourth in line to disgorge its passengers. When their monorail finally got to the platform and opened its doors, they had to fight their way through the chaotic crowd which had long since spilled out of the station and across the grounds to the Aerodrome terminus. As expected, Guards from the military base were busy helping the civilian gendarmes from the Aerodrome to contain the still-growing crowd of confused and unruly commuters. That meant there would be fewer Guards watching over the rest of the Aerodrome which suited them just fine.
     Seelek, who had learned the layout of the Aerodrome, led them away from the crowd towards rows of sheds and workshops leading towards an apron where transporters taken from the Ark were parked up. They had been repainted with commercial colours. Most had been converted for air freight although a few were in use as a passenger service.
     As soon as they were safely out of the line of sight of any surveillance cameras, she dropped her satchel, pulled out her overalls and put them on. “Come on, get your overalls on. We might not get a chance like this again.” She ordered Roetzan and Terzyn-Dael. A minute later, three Brakopyn Aerodrome engineers stepped around the corner walking towards the apron.
     As the were passing an open workshop, Terzyn-Dael, seeing that there was no-one inside, ducked in and grabbed a cart and was piling it up with tools and gadgets.
     Seelek ran in after him. “What are you doing?”
     Terzyn-Dael ignored her. He was in his own little world. “…a Tremosil Mk17 Avionics diagnostics unit, power cell calibration unit, a set of tensor wrenches…. and, oh yeah baby, a Kezktlyx-Vb Flight Control Interface. We’re going to town!” He kissed the device’s display screen and set on the cart amongst its ever-growing collection of tools, cables and gadgets.
     Seelek pulled a tensor wrench out of Terzyn-Dael’s paw and put it back on the shelf where Terzyn-Dael had found it. “Are you mad? Put that stuff back.”
     “Huh?” Terzyn-Dael snapped out his geeky ecstasy, “What do you mean? This stuff’s useful.”
     Seelek rolled her eyes. “Oh yes, and have half the Aerodrome looking for us. The idea was to have the Gendarmes and Guards tied up with the riot over at the Aerodrome’s monorail station and sorting out the chaos in town, not have them running around looking for thieves.” She sternly told off Terzyn-Dael. “We have our camouflage shields.” Seelek held up her arm to show off her camouflage shield armband unit. It was a scaled-down personal version of the shield they used to hide their shuttle when they landed on NewNest. “But it would never hide that cart. It’s out of the question.” Seelek picked up a diagnostic unit. “Where does this go?”
     Terzyn-Dael sullenly snatched the unit from Seelek and laid it down on a tool bench. “Happy now?”
     “And the rest of it.” She marched Terzyn-Dael around the workshop until everything was back in its place and then slapped his wrist to activate his camouflage shield. Seelek turned to face Roetzan and pointed to her armband. “You too. We’ve wasted enough time here.” By the time Seelek had activated her shield they were all invisible to each other and the rest of the world save for an imperceptibly faint shimmering in the air around their bodies and only able to track each other through dots on their HUDs.
     “I thought you said you could do it with your bots.” Seelek threw Terzyn-Dael’s confident idle lazy evening in Brakopyn boast back at him as they walked away from the open workshop before its owners appeared.
     “Well, yeah. In theory.” Terzyn-Dael wheedled. “But they’re slow and have to learn their way through a system. That stuff was purpose built. It would have saved us a lot of time.”
     “Your untested bots will just have to do.” Seelek made it quite clear that she was unimpressed with his thoughtless behaviour that could have put them at risk in spite of his obvious brilliance. “We’ll go to the shuttle first. You upload your bots and get them started while I set the shunt out by the perimeter force field. We should still have plenty time to set the EMP grenades on the fighters before Z’Taklyss gets here. They won’t come through the perimeter until it gets dark.”

     Mertakk was in a good mood after a few drinks and a good lunch. He relaxed in his office and activated his holo displays to read the latest reports from his agents embedded in the many social and political groups on NewNest.
     Skrawk-Laa strolled into Mertakk’s office with an active data slate in one paw and informed Mertakk in a resigned tone of voice. “Prisoner 847927313D has escaped.”
     “I’m surprised it took so long.” Mertakk didn’t even look away from the holo displays over his desk. “Every dissident group on NewNest knew about her. Who was it?”
     “This is where it gets interesting.” Skrawk-Laa managed a wry snicker. “We rounded up agents from Freedom Flight, The Peoples’ Symposium, Dark Fang and the Fundamentalists out at the labour camp. Apparently, another group ambushed the lot of them and made off with her and the priestess.”
     “Keep a lid on this.” Mertakk finally turned away from his holo displays to face Skrawk-Laa. “It’ll get too messy if it goes public. I told Rozit-Skaal it was a stupid idea to capture her in the first place. The people are used to their android replica of Knetryxx and her romance with Alghar. It’s the story that binds us all together even if it is a managed fiction. Introducing the real thing would just confuse them.”
     “How do you want to proceed then?” Skrawk-Laa cautiously asked Mertakk.
     “Track them for the time being.” Mertakk suggested. “And make sure they don’t go public. Frankly, I’d just as soon whoever took her just spirited her away off NewNest. That would be one less problem to worry about.”
     “That’s not likely to happen, they’re more likely going to run to ground somewhere and NewNest is a big planet.” Skrawk-Laa reluctantly dashed Mertakk’s hopes. “Oh, and forget about tracking them, we found their prison collars hanging on a Narlik stalk.”
     “Well, they won’t go far.” Mertakk countered confidently. “Those grey-outs get more frequent and widespread the further you go from Brakopyn. Even if it was that suicidal mob of nihilists, the Sunrise Anarchists, I doubt they’d go to all that effort just to lose their prize in a grey-out. They’re more likely to make a ransom demand or pull some sort of publicity stunt. We’ll have to step up our surveillance of the dissident groups.”
     “Oh, you will all right. Rozit-Skaal’s heard about this little escapade and is going to want results. You know what he’s like.” Skrawk-Laa offered Mertakk his sympathies.
     “Oh well, we’ll pull in a few people from each dissident group for questioning.” Mertakk knew what was required of him. “Rozit-Skaal does like his interrogation room.”

     Psy pulled up hir Omphalatta into an arcing trajectory towards the Shallen transporter Xepherion which was parked up next to the portal leading into the bubble universe and coasted into its docking bay. Captain Porcardr was waiting for them as they disembarked with Psy, Duke Reflinghar and Delvan still in his dressing gown, nightcap and slippers leading the way. Veronica and Zelthyn followed behind pushing a cart with Delvan’s tools and a spare universe generator that he’d brought along to cannibalise for parts. Yldoseh stepped off to one side so that she could record the entire scene on her Pdzarvian NewsMaster Pro headset.
     Porcardr bowed deferentially to greet Duke Reflinghar. “It’s an honour to have you here, sire. Would you like to inspect the Ark of Exodus now that we have secured it?”
     “All in good time, Captain.” Reflinghar rumbled authoritatively. “I have no intention to meet the same fate as Princess Knetryxx.”
     “Ah, of course.” Porcardr bowed again. “We have sent a rescue mission to bring her back to her rightful place aboard the Ark.”
     “And…?” Reflinghar prompter Porcardr.
     “We haven’t heard back from them yet since they left.” Porcardr awkwardly broke the bad news. “But that was only yesterday so it’s early days yet.”
     “What’s this about time running six times faster aboard the Ark?” Reflinghar wasn’t about to be fobbed off by a mere Captain. “Surely they’ve been on their mission for six days now? I’d say it’s time we sent in some reinforcements.”
     “Six times faster, you say?” Delvan interrupted Reflinghar. “I’ve never seen anything like that before. It sounds like the universe generator is unstable and could collapse at any moment.”
     “Just get the Ark out of that damned bubble universe and then you can collapse it with all those Chznzet inside for all I care.” Reflinghar grumpily reminded Delvan why he’d been brought away from his workshop back at Belzar Tel Sa’an.
     Delvan gleefully rubbed his clawed hands together. “Suits me just fine after all the trouble they caused us.”

     Wootjan-Oo gazed anxiously out of the hoverbus window as they wended their way along country lanes past farms and villages. Knetryxx lay asleep against his shoulder. Barwyndar snored loudly on the seat opposite. A quiet, anxious tension laid over everyone, knowing what lay ahead: the Brakopyn Aerodrome and escape from NewNest.
     They ran into a police roadblock with a group of police officers on hoverbikes and had to stop. One of the police officers dismounted, walked over, leaned in and looked around. “We’re looking for escaped criminals. Have you taken on any suspicious passengers?”
     “No.” The driver, a portly crimson-scaled reptilian wearing a scruffy bus-drivers' uniform, felt no guilt about what he or his passengers were doing.
     The police officer too one last look in and consulted his holographic wrist display: “SunTour afternoon bus from Ilkellyn-Tun to Brakopyn. Logged.” He then looked back up at the driver. “If you see anyone suspicious, file a report right away. There will be a reward.” The police officer stressed the last part.
     “How much?” The driver feigned interest.
     “Don’t know yet.” The police officer admitted before reassuring the driver: “There’s always rewards for turning in criminals.”
     “That’s for sure.” The driver agreed amiably. “I’ll keep my eyes open.”
     “You do that.” The police officer slapped the side of their hoverbus and walked over to move his hoverbike out of the way.

     Roetzan watched the blue dot on her HUD that represented Seelek’s position as she walked away from the shuttle towards the force-field perimeter to set their force-field shunt in place. A row of transporters, still in their original Ark of Exodus livery, were parked up next to it along the edge of the Aerodrome apron. On the far side were rows of combat fighters taken from the Ark of Exodus. Behind them blast-proof hangars ringed the edge of the apron.
     “We won’t be able to immobilise anything in those hangars. They’re blast-proof. Most likely shielded as well.” Terzyn-Dael commented as he fished his data slate out of his rucksack full of EMP grenades and loaded it up with his bots to hijack the shuttle they planned to escape on.
     “Worry about them later.” It was too late for Roetzan to even humour Terzyn-Dael’s defeatism. From here on it was do or die. Even though they were standing side-by-side they couldn’t see each other save for the tracking dots on their HUDs. “Let’s get this shuttle prepped and ready to fly first.”
     “I need to find an access panel.” Terzyn-Dael hadn’t a clue where to start.
     “What???” Roetzan couldn’t believe that Terzyn-Dael was so dumb.
     “Hey, I’m a coder.” Terzyn-Dael whined his excuse. “You’re the technician.”
     Roetzan huffed and swung her arm around until she connected with Terzyn-Dael’s arm, marched him over to the shuttle’s main service panel at chest height on the starboard side of the shuttle’s cockpit and flipped it open. “There you are.” She announced impatiently. “Get on with it. We need this piece of junk ready to fly by the time Z’Taklyss gets here.”
     “Okay, okay. No need to bite my head off.” Terzyn-Dael tried to ignore Roetzan’s tetchiness as he plugged his data slate into the shuttle and uploaded his bots. “There. Now we wait.”
     “Not here, we don’t” Roetzan urgently reminded Terzyn-Dael. “Let’s get started on the EMP grenades.”
     “What about Seelek?” Terzyn-Dael felt as if he Roetzan was rushing things.
     “She will join us when she’s done setting up the shunt.” Roetzan was already striding away from the shuttle towards the rank of transporters parked up nearby.
     Terzyn-Dael ran to catch up with Roetzan. “You can’t put EMP grenades on them. They’re too close to the shuttle. The pulse from the grenades would fry its systems and flight control.”
     Roetzan stopped in her tracks. “Oh great. Now you tell me. Got any bright ideas?”
     “Um… I could upload my bots into the transporters.” Terzyn-Dael suggested cautiously. “Their systems would still be active but I could lock everyone except myself out or maybe reboot them or, yeah… that’s it! I’ll do a reset and wipe their systems clean. They wouldn’t even be able to open the doors or start them up after that. And then lock them out of the systems with an access code that only I know. Yeah, I’m liking it already!“ He snickered gleefully.
     “They’d be as good as useless?” Roetzan guessed at what Terzyn-Dael was planning.
     “Yeah, pretty much.” Terzyn-Dael enjoyed his brief smug victory over Roetzan.
     “Excellent!” Roetzan grabbed Terzyn-Dael and marched him over to the line of transporters so that he could upload his malware control bots into them. It was slow going. The transporters were pretty much drained and barely had enough power left to boot up so that Terzyn-Dael could upload his bots.
     They were uploading the bots into the last transporter when Seelek joined them. “I thought you’d be over at the fighters by now. What’s taking you so long?”
     “It was Terzyn-Dael’s idea.” Roetzan was going to make sure that any blame would land squarely on Terzyn-Dael’s shoulders. “He reckons the shuttle is too close to these transporters. If we put EMP grenades on them, they’d fry the systems in the shuttle.”
     Seelek looked down the rank of transporters towards the shuttle at the far end. “He’s probably right. Good call, Terzyn-Dael. Let’s get a move on.” Seelek spun on her heel and set off towards the fighters with Roetzan and Terzyn-Dael following her lead. When they reached the fighters, they split up and set about placing the EMP grenades. As soon as they were attached and activated, their camouflage shield kicked in rendering them invisible with only a white dot on our trio’s HUDs to mark their position.
     It didn’t take long and when they were finished, they regrouped and went over to check out the hangars. Terzyn-Dael uploaded his bots into the hangar door access control panel and waited for them to take control. They waited. And waited. But nothing happened.
     “This is no good, Terzyn-Dael. We’re running out of time.” Seelek looked around the Aerodrome. It was getting late in the day with the sun low on the horizon. Z’Taklyss would be arriving soon with Knetryxx. “Can you disable the doors so they can’t get their fighters out?”
     “Yeah, that’s easy.” Terzyn-Dael bragged.
     “Do it.” Seelek ordered Terzyn-Dael. “And stick an EMP grenade on each door for good measure.” By the time they got back to the shuttle, the sun was beginning to set in a blaze of evening glory.
     Terzyn-Dael whipped out his data slate to access his bots that he’d uploaded into the shuttle earlier. They’d done their job and its door slid open noiselessly to reveal the shuttle’s interior fully lit up and with its typical faint hum. Seelek went in first and switched off her camouflage shield once she was inside the shuttle. Roetzan and Terzyn-Dael also disabled their shields once they were safely inside.
     “I’ll do the pre-flight. You two check the engines and life support.” Seelek took command as she climbed into the pilot’s seat and surveyed the shuttle’s cockpit. She activated its controls and its data screens and holographic readouts sprung into life.
     It didn’t take them long to find the first hitch to their escape plans. “The ship’s low on air and it’s power cell has barely enough energy left to get us into orbit. We’ve got enough power to accelerate out of the gravity well and then coast the rest of the way if we’re lucky.” Terzyn-Dael spilled the bad news.
     “We can top up our air supply if I run the compressors flat out while we wait.” Seelek slipped off her camouflage shield wristband and gave it to Roetzan. “Go and have a rummage around outside and see if you can find a spare power cell. It’ll never fit under your camouflage field so use mine to hide it and make sure you’re back before Z’Taklyss gets here. If you’re not back in time we may have to leave without you.”
     “Got any bright ideas?” Roetzan managed to be both sarcastic and hopeful as she asked the faint shimmer where Terzyn-Dael stood as she slid the shuttle’s door shut behind them.
     “Forget about those transporters.” Terzyn-Dael snorted derisively. “They don’t even have enough power to light up their torch drives. There were a few power cells lying around in that workshop Seelek shooed me out of.” He mused suggestively.
     “It’s all the way across the Aerodrome. Let’s see if there’s anything closer first.” Roetzan didn’t fancy lugging a fully-charged power cell all the way from the workshops they’d passed on their way in so they had a look around the sheds nearby the shuttle they’d commandeered. There were plenty of tools, a few plasma torch welders and even the stripped-out shell of a hovertruck but that was about it. “Okay, you win.” Roetzan finally conceded. “Let’s go.”
     Roetzan set off jogging at a steady pace across the apron towards the workshop. Terzyn-Dael huffed and puffed as he struggled to keep up with her. She slowed down to let him catch up as they walked the last stretch between the rows of hangars, sheds and workshops. They arrived just in time to watch the workshop owner, a plump middle-aged avian with dust and grease in his light grey feathers, warbling a soft, slow song to himself as he pulled its wide-open doors shut closing up shop for the day.
     “Damn!” Roetzan hissed into her headset, grabbed hold of Terzyn-Dael’s arm and ran for the door. They just managed to slip in behind the workshop owner without so much as ruffling a feather and stood inside gasping as they caught their breath to watch the doors close shut. They waited until they could no longer hear the workshop owner’s footfalls.
     “Do you know where they are?” Roetzan asked as she looked around in the gloom. All she could see were the dark outlines of tool and machinery.
     “Um, yeah. I think so.” Terzyn-Dael walked towards the back of the workshop, a beam of light from his headset piercing out from the seemingly empty space where his camouflage shield hid him from sight. Roetzan watched the beam of light flitting around lighting up shelves and stacks of crates. Eventually the beam stopped when it alit up what looked like a stack of cylindrical barrels with a glassine core surrounded by vertical metal bars.
     “Found ‘em!” Terzyn-Dael announced triumphantly as he checked one to make sure it was fully charged. “Help me lift it down.”
     It was heavy! Roetzan found some straps to tie around the power cell and loop over their shoulders to help carry the load and the slapped Seelek’s camouflage generator onto it. “Let’s go!”
     Terzyn-Dael staggered as he hoisted up his end of the power cell and led Roetzan over to a side door and set down his end while he got out his data slate to override the door’s locks with his bots. They only were part way across the apron when Roetzan stopped. “Can we swap over? My shoulder’s hurting.”
     “Me too.” Terzyn-Dael gladly obliged and set down his end of the power cell. “I was wondering when you’d ask.” Several swap-overs later, they stumbled into the shuttle just as the last rays of sunlight were fading from the sky.
     “I was worried you had been caught.” Seelek was glad to see they’d returned with a fresh power cell.
     “We’re good.” Terzyn-Dael, clearly exhausted, was slumped on the floor next to the power cell.
     Roetzan was still on her feet and rubbing some life back into her shoulders. “Can you power down the engine for a few minutes?” She asked Seelek. “I better get this power cell plugged in while we’re still on the ground.”
     Seelek went forward to the cockpit and powered down the engines. The shuttle’s faint background hum slowly dropped in pitch as it faded out. The silence felt crushingly unnatural.
     “I need an extra pair of paws to lug this thing around.” Roetzan called out. “Terzyn-Dael’s had it.”
     Seelek grumbled loudly and clambered out of the cockpit to help Roetzan carry the power cell to a cupboard at the rear of the shuttle that was nominally the ‘engine room’. In reality it was a slot for the power cell, one small control panel and barely enough room to stand up in. Roetzan slid out the old power cell and the two of them hoisted the fresh one into place. She activated the power cell, pushed the old one back into the cupboard with her foot, closed the door shut and nodded to Seelek who returned to the cockpit to bring the engines back online.
     Seelek cheered loudly as the engines’ faint hum once again permeated the shuttle. She could barely believe that that childish geek, Terzyn-Dael, had come through with a fully-charged power cell and went back to thank him only to find him still slumped against a bulkhead. She kneeled down beside him and massaged his shoulders. Terzyn-Dael leaned in gratefully on Seelek as she worked the pain out of his aching shoulders.
     Time crawled as they waited. And waited. It felt like an eternity. Seelek kept herself busy in the cockpit checking the flight systems over and over. Like Jervyk, she was only a trainee and far from being a fully-qualified pilot but had already put in some flight time and knew how to prepare a ship for flight. Z’Taklyss was their pilot. Her job was to do the pre-flight and have everything ready. So far, so good. She was beginning to worry that they might have been held up or caught when there was a loud banging on the hull.
     “Let us in!” Z’Taklyss’ voice urgently barked into Seelek’s headset. Seelek snapped out of her torpor, hit the control to open the door, ran back to greet them and was horrified at the sight of her Keeper, Princess Knetryxx, in filthy rags groggily hanging onto Wootjan-Oo. She stood there open-mouthed as Wootjan-Oo carefully set Knetryxx down on a seat. Jervyk climbed in just ahead of Z’Taklyss who was carrying the still-unconscious Ingnuthin priestess, Barwyndar. She was snoring just as loudly as she had been in the hoverbus on their way back from the labour camp when he set her down in the shuttle. “If it gets bad, just roll her over onto her side. That’ll shut her up for a while.” He offered his helpful advice loudly enough for everyone to hear, but not so loud as to sound disrespectful.
     Z’Taklyss was just about to pull the door shut when a voice called out of the shadows: “Take me with you!”
     Z’Taklyss drew his plasma pistol and aimed it towards the voice. “Who are you?”
     A lone figure stepped out of the shadows to reveal and elderly reptilian. “I am Agent One of Shallen Freedom Movement. I organised this escape for you. I trust Knetryxx is safe. And Kellzyk, Breechal and Yarllyn… did they make it home in one piece?”
     “What do you want?” Z’Taklyss asked impatiently. They didn’t have time to waste.
     “An audience with Duke Reflinghar.” Agent One was calmly authoritative. “To negotiate safe passage to Cervetica. Some of us want off NewNest. Well, a lot of us actually.”
     “Thank you for your assistance.” Z’Taklyss really meant it. “But I don’t think the Duke will be in much of a talking mood until he gets the Ark out of this bubble universe.”
     “I’m begging you, please.” Agent One held his paws together to plead with Z’Taklyss. In the distance Z’Taklyss could see armed aircars making their way across the Aerodrome apron towards the shuttle. He grabbed Agent One by the arm, pulled him in and slammed the door shut. “Strap in, all of you. They’re on to us so we’re going up hard. Terzyn-Dael, fire the EMP grenades now.”
     Z’Taklyss threw himself into the pilots’ seat, slammed the thrusters into action and was crushed into his seat as they took off at full power. The roar of the engine was deafening and yet they could still hear its hull straining and creaking under the acceleration. They never even saw the electric blue flashes of the EMP grenades as they fried the fighters’ control systems turning them into so much dead metal junk on the ground.
     The violent shaking gave way as they passed through the mesosphere layer on their way out into the hard vacuum of space. The engines’ roar was undiminished as Z’Taklyss kept it running at full power to push them up and out of NewNest’s gravity well towards the L2 Lagrange Point on the far side of the moon. The Chznzet had deliberately parked the Ark of Exodus in a tight halo orbit around the L2 Lagrange point to keep it out of sight of casual observers and amateur astronomers so as not to undermine their ‘Ark gone away to round up the faithful’ public narrative. But it did occasionally drift wide of the Moon, such as the time Terzyn-Dael picked up the Horny Horns porn channel broadcast from the Ark of Exodus.
     They were three-quarters of the way to the Moon when there was a loud crack and acrid toxic smoke started pouring out of the power cell cupboard. The engine, interior lighting and life support powered down leaving them in pitch darkness until the shuttle's backup power came online with its dull orange emergency lighting. To add to their woes, the interior of the shuttle was fast becoming unbreathable.
     Z’Taklyss stepped out of the cockpit into the passenger cabin of the shuttle with the torch on his headset casting a single piercing ray of light through the smoky darkness and opened a storage compartment. There were four pressure suits hanging up inside it. He banged his fist against the bulkhead. “Dammit, we’re screwed.”
     “What’s the matter?” Wootjan-Oo coughed as the acrid smoke cut into his lungs.
     “We’ve only got four suits.” Z’Taklyss aimed his headlamp into the compartment to show the four brand-new pressure suits hanging up with their precious air supply cylinders attached.
     Wootjan-Oo got up, detached three of the cylinders and gave them to Z’Taklyss. “Take these, get everyone into the cockpit and shut the door. Roetzan and I will share the last cylinder and see what we can do. We work on these shuttles all the time.”
     “Hey, thanks for asking.” Roetzan griped out of the shadows.
     “Okay then… Terzyn-Dael, are you up for a bit of heavy lifting?” Wootjan-Oo knew they were running out of time and had to get the shuttle working again quickly or they’d all be dead.
     “Why me?” Terzyn-Dael whined defensively. “I don’t know the first thing about these shuttles.”
     “Okay, you win.” Roetzan griped as she got to her feet and start putting on one of the pressure suits. “But I get first dibs on the air.”
     Wootjan-Oo didn’t even bother arguing with Roetzan as he helped Z’Taklyss and Jervyk carry Knetryxx and Barwyndar into the cramped cockpit. Once they were all inside, he took the last two pressure suits and gave them to Terzyn-Dael. “See if you can use the suits’ power supplies to hotwire the shuttle’s controls.” Wootjan-Oo suggested as he manually cranked the cockpit’s door shut.
     Wootjan-Oo suited up, turned on his headlamp and went to join Roetzan who had already opened the compartment with the power cell. It was glowing red-hot with sparks and thick, black smoke pouring out of it.
     “Looks like the power cell’s core has cracked.” Roetzan commented as she hooked up their air cylinder to Wootjan-Oo’s suit. “The Chznzet must be recycling worn-out power cells.”
     Wootjan-Oo reached out to grab the handle on the top of the power cell but the heat was so intense it almost burnt his paw through his pressure suit. “Ow!” He jumped back in surprise. “Gotta get that damn thing out somehow.” Wootjan-Oo passed the air cylinder back to Roetzan as looked around for anything that could be used to lever the broken power cell out of its slot. He tried a table leg bit it just snapped and the power cell didn’t even budge.
     “Use my plasma lance.” Jervyk called out over Wootjan-Oo’s headset. They’d been following Roetzan and him using the HUD in the helmet of one of the pressure suits in the cockpit. “I put it in the one of the lockers.”
     Wootjan-Oo felt reassured when he lifted Jervyk‘s plasma lance. It proved to be too wide to fit through the handle. Instead he used it to cut a piece of pipe to slip through the power cell’s handle. He crouched down to put his shoulder under it and to push it up. It moved a few inches and then stuck. He could feel it drop back down when he eased up on the pipe.
     Wootjan-Oo sat down on the floor, exhausted and gasping for air cylinder to Roetzan hooked their air cylinder up to his suit. He drank deep of the cool, refreshing air engulfing his hot sweaty face. “It’s coming loose. One more push ought to do it.” He gasped as he felt his strength coming back.
     Roetzan and Wootjan-Oo crouched down and put their shoulders to the pipe and strained every last erg of their strength to push it up. They were just about to give up when the top of the power cell came loose and went flying up to the ceiling. Roetzan fell back and landed on top of Wootjan-Oo. Sparks showered through the thick, roiling black smoke, ricocheting off the walls and floor. The last of the power cell’s blue-glowing corrosive, toxic plasma slopped out onto the floor. Roetzan and Wootjan-Oo scrabbled away backwards as fast they could lest it eat through their suits, exposing them to the now-poisoned atmosphere.
     Roetzan jumped and ran for the airlock. “Hold on to something, we have to vent the cabin.” She grabbed hold of a rail next to the airlock and hit the controls to open both doors. Wootjan-Oo wedged himself into an open locker as the smoke-filled air and vaporised plasma gel rushed out the air lock into space. Roetzan was almost sucked out through the open airlock but was just able to hold on long enough until the explosive rush of smoke-filled air flushed out into space.
     Once the cabin was vented to hard vacuum, they could finally see what they were doing. The broken power cell’s casing was fused to the inside of its slot. Between Roetzan cutting away the remnants of the broken power cell with Jervyk’s plasma lance and Wootjan-Oo hacking away at them with the pipe, they managed to loosen up and scoop of the last fragments of the old power cell.
     Roetzan was woozy from a lack of oxygen as she helped Wootjan-Oo lower the original power cell into the slot. Normally power cells would just slide in but this time it took a lot of pushing and shoving to force it down into a heat-warped slot. When they final clicked it into place nothing happened. The shuttle was still dark. Roetzan blacked out and collapsed. Wootjan-Oo hooked their air cylinder up to her suit to revive her. He shook her lifeless body to wake her up and pleaded: “Come on, don’t go on me! Not now, not today.”
     Roetzan slowly opened her eyes and mouthed a few silent words. That was good enough for Wootjan-Oo. “Breathe deep!” He encouraged Roetzan, patted her helmet and went back to struggle with the power cell to pull it out of its slot. He, too, was feeling groggy as he torched the contacts clean with the plasma lance and with salty sweat streaming into his eyes, struggled to find the strength to force the power cell back into the scorched slot. This time it worked and the shuttle came back on line
     Wootjan-Oo staggered over to the airlock, closed it, slid down onto the floor and drifted off into unconsciousness. Back in the cockpit Z’Taklyss hit the control to repressurise the cabin with whatever air was left in the shuttle’s scrubbers and reserves. He threw the door open, rushed over to Roetzan and Wootjan-Oo to pull their helmets off. They were barely conscious so he took one the air cylinders and emptied its last contents in their faces to wake them up.
     Agent One was standing over Z’Taklyss looking on as he desperately slapped Wootjan-Oo and Roetzan to get a reaction out of them. “They’re going to need more than that.” He could see drastic action was needed. “Is there a medi-kit in this shuttle?”
     “I’m on it.” Seelek didn’t wait for Z’Taklyss’ orders and set off rummaging around the shuttle. She returned a few minutes later carrying a medi-kit case, set it down on the floor and opened it. She pulled out a hypo and clipped a metal cylinder into it. “It’s got ten doses of Izevak.”
     Terzyn-Dael whistled. “Damn, that stuff will raise the dead!”
     Seelek pressed the hypo up against their carotid arteries and gave Roetzan and Wootjan-Oo a dose each. Their bodies jolted as if they’d had an electric shock as their eyes popped open and they gasped in the shocked deep breaths of the newly-revived. Wootjan-Oo looked slowly around the cabin, eyes full of wonder, and slowly began to laugh. “We did it! It worked!” He turned to Roetzan and held her arm. “Are you okay?”
     “Yeah, I think so.” Roetzan had never felt so vibrantly alive or hyperaware before. He body buzzed with energy. Radiantly full of wonder at the universe and totally blissed out to be alive to it… the pleasant and addictive side-effect of Izevak. It would eventually wear off returning her to her exhausted and aching body in need of a good, hot bath and a bit of pampering.
     Jervyk, who had stayed behind in the cockpit to stay at the controls, stepped into the cabin doorway and leaned forward as he held onto the top of the doorway. “I hate to break up the party, but we’ve got another problem.”
     “What is it?” Z’Taklyss turned away from Wootjan-Oo and Roetzan to give Jervyk his attention.
     “Looks like Terzyn-Dael and the girls missed a few of the fighters.” Jervyk smirked grimly to Z’Taklyss in a crass and clumsily inexperienced attempt at male bonding.
     Z’Taklyss pushed past Jervyk and sat in the pilot’s seat. He waited for Jervyk to take the co-pilot’s seat. “Can we out-run them?” He asked urgently.
     “Lotta variables there, sir.” Jervyk glanced up as Z’Taklyss as he casually waved his paw through the holographic display shifting around fields of data. “We can’t out-run them to The Ark if that’s what you’re asking. But…” He took his paw out of the field of data and held it up. “We will get around the moon long before we’re in range of their plasma cannons. At the moment, their plasma beams would be so spread out they’d only warm our hull so they won’t waste energy firing on us… yet. This is where ‘the variable’ comes in...” He leaned over towards Z’Taklyss for dramatic effect. “The response time from The Ark. The Chznzet are accelerating and will close in on us before we’re in range of The Ark. Even if we diverted all power bar basic life support to the engine, we’d only be putting off the inevitable.” He put his paw back into the data field and swung the picture around until it showed the view out the back of the shuttle. He poked three specks of light which turned bright green. “There they are. So if you’ve got a special ‘Mission accomplished, send the Dragon Riders because we’re in a bit of a jam’ code message to send to your commander, now would be a really good time, sir.”
     Z’Taklyss was taken aback by Jervyk’s casual manner. He was more of a by-the-book type. “I see. And what about our defences?”
     “Just a basic Metron-IV force field for clearing debris and rubble out of our path. A plasma cannon beam will go straight through it at close-enough range.” Jervyk shrugged his shoulders.
     “Message it is, then.” In spite of Jervyk’s casual style, Z’Taklyss agreed with his analysis. “Open a line.”
     Jervyk jabbed at a comms console that refused to respond to his increasingly frantic efforts. “It won’t connect to The Arks’ sub-space carrier, sir.”
     “Damn!” Z’Taklyss slammed his paw down onto the unresponsive console, turned to return to the passenger compartment where he grabbed hold of Terzyn-Dael who was surreptitiously watching the latest instalments of the Wing Fetish porn channel he’d downloaded onto his data slate before they left NewNest in a corner so that no-one could see its display. Z’Taklyss caught sight of it as he reached down towards Terzyn-Dael. “Come on, I’ve got a job for you. You can beat yourself off later.”
     Terzyn-Dael flushed red with embarrassment. He guiltily glanced over at Seelek who was smothering a laugh. Seeing Terzyn-Dael look at her, she pulled her paw away to show off her best “no, really, I wasn’t laughing at you” straight face which she managed to hold long enough for Z’Taklyss to drag him into the cockpit. As soon as the door was shut, she went over to Terzyn-Dael’s corner, picked up his data slate and cackled smuttily as she watched his selection of porn.
     “You were clever enough to pick up that porn channel from The Ark when we were on NewNest. We can’t hook into The Ark’s subspace carrier. “Z’Taklyss levelled with Terzyn-Dael. “Do you think you can fix it?”
     “I-ah, I’ll give it a go.” Normally this was the sort of challenge he’d take up for fun. Right now, he felt exhausted and wanted to watch his porn videos until he fell asleep. But their lives depended on it so he switched into his mister fix-it mode. “Can we access any sub-space net?”
     Jervyk turned his attention to the comms console, jabbed at it a few times and swept his paw across the screen to move the display around. “Yeah, NewNest. But we don’t really want to talk to them.”
     “That means it works!” Terzyn-Dael balled up one paw into a fist and punched it into the palm of his other paw. “They’ve most likely reconfigured the comms. I’ll need to run a diagnostic and I’ll need... my… ah… data slate.” He pointed sheepishly towards the cockpit door.
     “Go on.” Z’Taklyss nodded his head towards the door. “But turn off that porn. This is work.” He emphatically reminded Terzyn-Dael.
     Jervyk started to laugh slowly after Terzyn-Dael left the cockpit. “He was watching porn? Really?”
     “Yeah.” Z’Taklyss shrugged his shoulders.
     “Did you see what it was?” Jervyk asked hopefully.
     “Something avian as far as I could see.” Z’Taklyss didn’t really want to talk about Terzyn-Dael’s porn.
     “I think I’ll have to borrow Terzyn-Dael’s data slate.” Jervyk suggested cheekily.
     “Hey, get in line. You’re after me.” Z’Taklyss saw right through Jervyk’s blatantly transparent wheeze.
     “Rank has it’s privileges, huh?” Jervyk teased Z’Taklyss.
     “You bet!” Z’Taklyss gave Jervyk a victoriously smug wink. “But it’s got it’s responsibilities too. Like getting the Keeper and, hopefully, the rest of us back alive.”

     Terzyn-Dael stepped back into the passenger compartment to see that the old priestess, Barwyndar had finally woken up and was in deep conversation with Seelek and Agent One while Wootjan-Oo and Roetzan sat on benches opposite them waving their arms dreamily and babbling incoherently to each other. He looked around but couldn’t see his data slate anywhere. “Have you seen my data slate?”
     Seelek pulled it out from under one of her legs. “I was keeping it warm for you.” she smirked. “Here you are.”
     “Oh, uh… thanks.” Terzyn-Dael avoided Seelek’s eyes as the data slate automatically started playing his porn video from where Seelek had set it down. He poked the screen to stop it and cleared his throat as he started up his control program to communicate with the bots he’d loaded into the shuttle when they hijacked it and returned to the cockpit.
     “Okay, the Psionic Crystal module checks out, so we’ve definitely got working comms.” Terzyn-Dael informed Z’Taklyss and Jervyk without even looking up from his data slate which teemed with data that his bots returned as they interrogated the shuttle’s systems. He swiped his paw across the screen to navigate his way through the fields of data until he found what he was looking for. “Yep, they just deleted the access code for The Ark’s main subspace node and added access codes for a bunch of nodes on NewNest. They left the entry but removed the key code, so it wouldn’t work. Look, I’ll show you.”
     Terzyn-Dael walked over to the comms console and put it into its diagnostic mode. He beckoned them over to look at the screen which showed a field of small illuminated circles. He flicked a finger across the screen to scroll the display. It didn’t scroll far and he returned it back to the top of the display. “Normally this list goes on forever. Well, for commercial comms. Military stuff might be more tightly controlled… Yeah anyway, this is the list of nodes you’re connected to and there aren’t going to be many subspace nodes in this bubble universe.” He poked at one of the circles and it expanded up to fill the screen with text and images. “Like this one. It’s a node on NewNest and there’s it’s access code.” He tapped the screen again and the display shrunk back down it’s previous circle. He tapped another circle and it opened up. “Here’s the one for The Ark and where there should be an access code, it’s blank.”
     “Do you know the access code for The Ark’s node?” Z’Taklyss asked hopefully.
     “No.” Terzyn-Dael admitted. “But what I do have…” He waved his data slate for dramatic effect. “Is a diagnostic access code that I used at work back on Vermthellyn. It’s primarily for calibrating spacetime warpage but you can use it for machine-level node-to-node communication.”
     “What good will that do?” Jervyk was growing impatient with Terzyn-Dael’s showboating.
     “Well, it’ll give us a list of nodes sorted by ping time which roughly corresponds to actual distance.” Terzyn-Dael transferred to display to the cockpit’s much-larger holographic display. “Watch.” The display showed one dot in the middle and a virtual scrollbar along the side. “I’ll set the resolution to half a femto-second. Watch what happens.” He stuck a finger through the holographic scrollbar and slowly moved it upward. A small cluster of dots came into view and then disappeared as he slowly increased the ping time. “That was the Moon. Let’s hope they don’t shoot at us.” Then eight dots came into view. “That’s the fighters from NewNest chasing us.” The screen went blank again as Terzyn-Dael scrolled up through the ping-time results and then lit up with dots. “That’s the Ark…. they’ll be the commercial and private nodes. And…” He quickly whizzed his finger up the scrollbar. This time, the display showed only a paltry cluster of dots. “That’s NewNest.” Terzyn-Dael flicked his finger up to the top of the scrollbar. “And beyond that, nothing. A bubble universe is a lonely place.”
     “Can you get us through to The Ark?” Z’Taklyss demanded urgently.
     “Not yet.” Terzyn-Dael studiously ignored Z’Taklyss’ impatience and turned his attention back to the holographic display and scrolled through the display of all the Psionic Crystal subspace nodes aboard the Ark of Exodus. “I need to find an unsecured terminal first. Oh, hey, here’s three!” He announced excitedly before his voice tinged over with disappointment. “Nope, they’re just Psionic Crystal modules waiting to be calibrated. Not much use unless you want to have a deep and meaningful conversation with a power supply.” Jervyk and Z’Taklyss stood over Terzyn-Dael as he scrolled through the list of nodes muttering to himself. Eventually he stopped and poked at a circle. “Found one! Let’s see what we’ve got.” The circle expanded up to fill the display and showed the derelict surroundings of an abandoned sub space comms booth. “What the fuck?”
     Jervyk, who had lived his whole life aboard the Ark of Exodus prior to the expulsion, recognised it immediately. “That’s the Cruthigne sector. No-one lives there. It’s been abandoned for generations.”
     “Okay, I’ll upload my bots to that terminal and hope they can get through to somewhere that’s a bit more populated.” Terzyn-Dael nervously chewed on his talons as he waited for his bots to work their way through the Ark’s comms network. In short order, several empty UniCom booths popped up on the holographic display followed by scenes of hallways and empty offices from wall-mounted comms terminals; a restaurant kitchen with its staff busily working; a clothes shop with racks of outfits stretching into the distance; another UniCom terminal with three Xarubians arguing loudly; a home terminal with a reptilian woman dabbing some scale polish on her face; a T’lunth warehouse in the Dastarnia sector recognisable by its’ toxic pale blue atmosphere swirling around… Terzyn-Dael looked up apologetically at Z’Taklyss: “This might take a while.”
     “We’re running out of time.” Z’Taklyss grumbled. “The Chznzet are catching up on us.”
     “Yeah, well I’m moving as fast as I can.” Terzyn-Dael griped as his eyes stayed fixed on the rush of images from comms terminals all over The Ark rushed past on his holographic display. Suddenly he saw something he recognised and reached out into the holographic display to grab hold of the image so that it wouldn’t be lost in the torrent. “Whoah! That’s our workshop on the Xepherion. I know the access codes for that terminal. Good job they kept the uplink open.” He flipped the image over to reveal a virtualised control panel and tapped in his access code. He flipped the image over again. The scene of the workshop was replaced by a blank screen displaying the Xepherion’s crest. “Captain Porcardr, please.” Terzyn-Dael addressed the screen.
     The screen blinked to show Captain Porcardr in his office absorbed in a game of Gachan-Da with Psy. Porcardr turned to face the screen. “Ah, Cadet….” He trailed off, unable to put a name to the fresh-faced cadet on his holographic display. “Success?” He enquired hopefully.
     “Yes, sir.” Was all Terzyn-Dael got out before Z’Taklyss pushed him out of the way. “We have recovered our Keeper and the Priestess.” He informed Porcardr tersely.
     “Excellent!” This was just what Porcardr needed to hear and he completely missed the sense of urgency in Z’Taklyss’ voice.
     “We also have someone from the planet claiming political asylum.” Z’Taklyss wasn’t too sure about this ‘Agent One’ they picked at the aerodrome.
     “Oh.” Porcardr hadn’t expected anything like this. “What sort of political asylum?” He inquired cagily.
     “He claims to be the leader of a dissident faction in the colony.” Z’Taklyss made it clear that he didn’t fully believe Agent One’s story about himself. “But I can’t vouch for him.”
     “I see.” This time, Porcardr picked up on Z’Taklyss’ scepticism and mused aloud: “He might be useful.”
     “We’re also being chased by a squadron of Chznzet fighters.” Z’Taklyss put Porcardr in the picture. “They’ll outrun us before we get back to the Ark and this shuttle we commandeered only has a basic shield.”
     “I’ll pass that on to the Duke.” Porcardr knew what had to be done. He was only the captain of a transporter and didn’t have the authority to launch squadrons of fighters. But knew someone who did and immediately patched through to Duke Reflinghar who was in a heated conversation with two Pdzarvians. Reflinghar looked over at the screen. “Yes, Captain. What is it?” He asked wearily.
     “The rescue mission is a success but they need cover.” Porcardr put it as succinctly and urgently as he could. “They are being chased by fighters who will intercept them before they reach The Ark, sire.”
     “Oh… Oh!” Reflinghar’s eyes came alive with his sudden mood change. “Thank you, Captain. You did the right thing. We’ll find out if those launch rails work.” Reflinghar ended Porcardr’s call to give the order to launch as many working fighters as they could muster.
     “We have them on our scanners but are unable to contact them, sire.” The commander of the Ark’s Dragon Riders informed Duke Reflinghar via the Duke’s holoscreen.
     “Bring them in and be quick about it.” Reflinghar snapped at the commander. They were this close to getting Knetryxx back and he wasn’t going to let the Chznzet foil their plans.
     “Yes, sire.” The commander gladly obliged Reflinghar. “We’re on it.”
     Jervyk interrupted Terzyn-Dael and Z’Taklyss as they stared at the Xepherion’s crest on the holoscreen while they waited for a response. “We’ve got other problems!”
     Z’Taklyss looked up. “What?”
     “Look!” Jervyk pointed out through the cockpit windscreen. Blue-white plasma bolts were shooting past them from behind in a loose ring formation.
     “Warning shots.” Z’Taklyss coolly made a snap-assessment. “They could hit us if they wanted to. Looks like they want to take us alive, or Knetryxx at the least.”
     “Surrender now!” The wing-commander of the squadron of Chznzet fighters gruffly ordered them as his helmeted face abruptly filled the holoscreen. “Decelerate now and prepare to be boarded.”
     “Looks like they’ve got our number.” Jervyk commented as the holoscreen reverted back to the Xepherion’s crest. “What shall I do, sir?”
     “Light up the engine and put us on an acceleration burn. We need to buy as much time as we can.” Z’Taklyss looked out the windscreen towards the Ark. Large as it was, it was still only smudge of light in the distance and its fighters were nowhere to be seen.
     After what felt like an eternity, Captain Porcardr reappeared on their holoscreen. “Help is on it’s way.” Was all he had time to say before Duke Reflinghar pushed him off screen. “Where’s Knetryxx?” He demanded anxiously.
     “Um… ah… she’s in the passenger compartment, my lord.” Terzyn-Dael felt awkward that the leader of their House would even so much as deign to talk to him. “I’ll get her for you.” Terzyn-Dael shot out the door and helped Knetryxx up on her feet and carefully walked her into the cockpit. She was still coming to her senses after the stun-grenade blast.
     “What have they done to you?” Reflinghar held his hands out to the holoscreen at the sight of Knetryxx in dirt and rags.
     “Huh? Wha…?” Knetryxx was still only barely aware of her surroundings.
     “She was hit with a stun-grenade blast when we rescued her from a slave-labour camp.” Z’Taklyss informed Reflinghar as he briefly stepped into view of the holoscreen.
     “She what?” Reflinghar’s mouth hung open in disbelief. Disbelief that that quickly turned into a furious growling anger. “The bastards! I’ll make them pay for this!”
     A loud explosion rocked the shuttle. Lights went out, the holoscreen winked out into thin air and the all-pervasive background hum of the shuttle’s drive screeched out to nothingness. For a second time, the ship’s orange emergency lighting came on.
     “So much for accelerating.” Z’Taklyss looked around the dimly-lit cockpit.
     “We won’t be able to slow down either.” Jervyk laughed joylessly as he looked back from the co-pilot’s seat. “Unless they speed up a tug to throw a grappling line around us, we’ll either speed off into space and probably loop around this bubble universe or whatever happens when you hit the edge or make one hell of a bang when we hit the Ark. We’re packing a whole lot of kinetic energy right now.”
     Roetzan pushed open the cockpit door which normally would have opened automatically but, being deemed non-essential by the backup system designers, was now a rather stiff sliding door that took quite a bit of effort to open. A faint wisp of smoke followed her into the cockpit. “Scrubbers are fried. Whatever hit us took them out, too. I need some help to pull them out to see if I can get them restarted.”
     Z’Taklyss, Jervyk and Terzyn-Dael dropped what they were doing and followed her out. “They’re up here.” Roetzan pushed a bench towards the rear bulkhead of the passenger compartment. She stood on the bench and reached up to a row of six circular covers, rotated one a quarter-turn and slid it out. It’s normally light-orange catalytic fibre mesh contents were carbonised and broken lumps fell on her as she pulled it out, spluttering and blinking as bits got in her mouth, nose and eyes.
      Seelek and Wootjan-Oo joined in and they laid what was left of the scrubbers out on the floor. “Looks like the blast came from the engine.” Roetzan commented as she pointed to the three carbonised scrubbers that came out of the slots nearest the engine. “This one’s OK.” She stepped around, picked up the scrubber that was furthest away from the engine unit and put it back in its slot. “We might get a working unit from these two.” She pointed at the two scrubbers with partially damaged meshes, stepped off the bench, reached down and popped open the clips securing the cylindrical wire mesh cage that held the precious catalytic mesh.
     “Get this carbonised crap out of the scrubbers, you need to put the empties back in to close the circuit.” Roetzan, still high as a kite from her life-saving dose of Izevak, but now also manically focused [another side effect!], ordered the others. “Pass me that lump of mesh.” Roetzan tapped Terzyn-Dael on the shoulder as he looked up from the scrubber next to hers. “Yes, that one. The third one along. It’s only mildly scorched. Thanks.” She took the catalytic mesh from Terzyn-Dael and stuffed it into her scrubber’s cage. They managed to fill a second scrubber with the least-damaged chunks of catalytic mesh they could salvage and slotted it into place.
     “What’s so important about these scrubbers?” Terzyn-Dael didn’t like being bossed around by Roetzan.
     “We lost out most of our air when we flushed out the broken power cell.” Roetzan explained without skipping a beat. “Since then we’ve been running on the reserves with the scrubbers running flat-out to keep what little air we have left breathable. No scrubbers, no air.”
     “Oh.” Terzyn-Dael was taken aback by Roetzan’s scarily brisk assessment of their predicament.
     Roetzan stepped back, clapped her paws together and looked up at the scrubbers. Nothing happened. Normally you’d see the active mesh light up through a small viewplate when it had current across it, but this time nothing. “Dammit, I should have checked the power. And…. And… Oh, Great Goddess, we’re all going to die out here!” She started going manic.
     Seelek took hold of Roetzan and sat her down. “It’s the Izevak, Roetzan. Just slow down. Tell us what we need to do and we’ll do it. You’re not ready yet.”
     Roetzan looked up mutely at Seelek and let her panic subside. “It would take too long to explain. I’m OK, really.” She pleaded and pulled herself up, gave Seelek a quick hug and popped off the wall panels below the scrubbers. There for all to see were the burnt-out power cables running up to the scrubbers. Roetzan peered in and pulled the burnt cables out of the scrubber’s power connector. “The power distribution block looks pretty bad but it’s got no active components so unless it’s melted it’ll still work.” Roetzan stepped back, looked around and drummed her fingers on her chin. “Where are we going to find a working power line long enough?” She mused aloud and looked up at the ceiling. “Could one of you big boys give me a lift?”
     Z’Taklyss hunched over for Roetzan to climb onto his narrow avian shoulders and winced as she held tight with her legs. “Turn right. Two paces…. Yes. Stop.” Roetzan reached up and popped out a ceiling panel, passed it down to Seelek and looked in. “Two, three, four… stop!” She guided Z’Taklyss to position her under the next panel which she also removed. Roetzan pulled herself up into the ceiling cavity and disappeared from sight. A minute later a linked pair of light brown power lines snaked down from the ceiling. “Is that long enough?”
     Terzyn-Dael picked up the power lines and pulled them over to scrubber’s power block. “No.”
     Roetzan disappeared from sight and a moment later, the ceiling panel nearest the scrubber’s power block was pushed down from inside. “Let go of the power line. I’ll pull it back in and feed it to you from here.” This time it was long enough and Roetzan jumped out of the ceiling down to the floor. “That was the connector for the interior lighting. Now we just need to turn on the interior lighting and that should…”
     Clunk! The shuttle rocked. They all looked up and knew what that sound was… Another ship had landed on them. Friend or foe, they’d find out soon enough. And find out they did when an armour-suited paw lobbed a stun grenade through the opening airlock door. Z’Taklyss leapt out, caught it and threw it back in just as the airlock door was closing. It went off after the door closed, knocking out the Chznzet pilot whose armour couldn’t protect him against the full force of a stun-grenade at such close quarters.
     Blam!!! Blam!!! Blam!!! And an ominous scraping sound. Jervyk rushed into the cockpit to see the Ark’s Dragon Riders in their fighters blazing plasma fire on their Chznzet pursuers. The Chznzet fighter that had landed on them drifted away in the distance on a spiralling arc to become more space junk.
     Clump! Clump! Clump! Clump! Four fighters pressed up against their shuttle and they could feel their course change. Z’Taklyss followed Jervyk into the cockpit and, fearing the worst, craned a view out of the corner of the windscreen to catch a glimpse of the ships. They were from The Ark! For the first time, in a long time, he felt as if he could relax. He slumped down into the pilot’s seat and let Terzyn-Dael faff around with the shuttle’s diagnostics to get the scrubbers back online before they all suffocated.
     They were almost out of air when Knetryxx staggered out of the scarred shuttle onto the landing bay and into Reflinghar’s arms.

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Chapter 40
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