Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 42: Homecoming.

     
     Agent One looked around his spartan quarters aboard the Xepherion. A bed, a cradle-seat, a window with a view out into space, a washroom, toilet and a desk with a data terminal. He tested it, but it was disabled… no holographic screen popped into view when he touched its controls. He expected as much. After all, he was their prisoner. There were two Guards posted outside his door to make sure he went nowhere. At least he wasn’t in a prison cell or just pushed out an airlock.
     He pulled his communicator out of his satchel and powered it up. Its holographic screen flickered as it connected into the Xepherion. Agent One hummed as he sat back in the cradle-seat and poked at its display, searching out for its link to the Ark of Exodus. It took longer than he expected but when he did, it wasn’t long before he logged into the one comms terminal that was connected to the NewNest subspace node.
     Agent One put in a call to Skrawk-Laa, not knowing what time of day it was on NewNest. Moments later, a grainy picture of Skrawk-Laa’s face popped up on the display. “Nice of you to call back, Mertakk.” Skrawk-Laa’s voice dripped with disappointment and sarcasm. “You certainly took your time. Look, I’m on the monorail. I’ll call you back when I get home.”
     Although it was only a few seconds between Skrawk-Laa signing off from the monorail and reappearing on the compact holo display on Mertakk’s communicator, several hours had passed down on NewNest. Time enough for Skrawk-Laa to ride the monorail home, have supper with his wife Koorelty and listen sympathetically to the latest instalment of her never-ending quest to locate their missing daughter, Yalltyss. When Skrawk-Laa reappeared on Mertakk’s communicator display the crisp image showed the elderly avian relaxing at home in his living room.
     Skrawk-Laa took a sip from a glass of brandy and stared straight into the screen at Mertakk. “What took you so long? We thought you’d run off to Cervetica.”
     “What do you mean?” Mertakk replied defensively. “It’s been barely over a day since I left Brakopyn and they’ve got me locked up on one of their transporters.”
     Not only was Mertakk head of the Chznzet Counter-Intelligence Unit on NewNest but he was also ‘Agent One’, the shadowy leader of the Shallen Freedom Movement. He juggled the two roles precariously partly to keep tabs on any subversion in their tightly-controlled society but also to push his own agenda. At first it was for a more open society but over the years as the grey-outs became more frequent and disruptive, to push for relocation from New Nest. This time around, he was using his identity as Agent One of the Shallen Freedom Movement on behalf of all the residents of NewNest or at least the ones who’d come to accept repatriation to Cervetica as their only way off NewNest. Mertakk had only set up the Shallen Freedom Movement as a counterintelligence front organisation in the first place. And now he was caught up in a desperate bid to negotiate evacuation plans with Duke Reflinghar of the Olblavy Clan, the irony of which he was painfully aware.
     “A day?” Skrawk-Laa was incredulous. “It’s been three months since you left.” He sighed wearily. “There was a grey-out on the edge of town two weeks after you left. People have started panicking and rioting and we’re barely able to keep a lid on things. A group from Freedom Flight and The Peoples’ Symposium seized the transporters at the aerodrome last week and they’re demanding passage off-world to Cervetica. The only thing stopping them is the fact that we’d drained the power cells in those ships as a precaution cycles ago. It’s chaos down here. Have you made contact with Reflinghar?”
     “Nothing yet.” Mertakk confessed. “They’ve got Barwyndar and I locked up under armed guard.
     Skrawk-Laa took another sip of his brandy and then pointed his glass towards the screen. “At the rate things are going, they’ll be coming your way any day now and then they’ll be your problem.”
     “I’m not going to be much use locked up here.” Mertakk moaned. “I have no idea when I’ll get so see Reflinghar, if at all.”
     “Events might force your paw.” Skrawk-Laa settled back in his cradle-seat. “Just be ready when it happens, Things are moving fast here and if another grey-out hits Brakopyn, we might have to start evacuation in order to contain the rioting. Now that House Sedeirtra has regained control of the Ark of Exodus, that might prove to be problematic. That’s where you come in.”
     Mertakk knew what he had to do although he had his doubts whether he’d achieve much. “I’ll keep you posted.” Mertakk signed off and slumped back in his seat wondering what else would go wrong.

     Delvan stepped back from the scanner display on Psy’s Omphalatta and leaned on the spare universe generator they’d brought along with their cornucopia of parts and tools. “Just that one anchor and that tiny portal.” He croaked despairingly. “I don’t see how we’re going to get a Shallen worldship through that. It’s too damn big! The universe generator must have been triggered inside their worldship and then taken it somewhere else.”
     “They have a planet in there.” Psy added.
     “Yeah, they most likely ‘ave it there.” Delvan agreed. “Short of sending an assault force to retrieve their universe generator, I don’t see how we’re going to be able to generate a portal large enough.”
     “You will have to find a way.” Psy stressed in as genial a tone as shi could muster.
     Delvan paced the floor. “Portal size depends on an inverse cube relation to distance from the universe generator. You’d have to be right on top of it to get something that size through its portal. Most clients keep their portal close to their generator, for obvious reasons. This lot appear to have done the very opposite.”
     “What about our universe generator?” Zelthyn interrupted.
     “What about it?” Delvan asked grumpily. He’d been fixated on the universe generator the Chznzet had stolen from his workshop.
     “We could use it as a bridge between our universe and the bubble universe.” Zelthyn cautiously offered his idea to his grandfather. “Have an anchor in each universe when you trigger the generator, take portals out to a safe distance from this ship, crank it up all the way and you should have a portal wide enough for their worldship.”
     Delvan stopped in his tracks. He was impressed! This was completely different to the half-baked daydreams his grandson usually came up with. “That might just work. C’mon, lad. Let’s get down there and give it a try.”
     Psy led the way to the portal with Zelthyn pushing Delvan’s cart of tools. The walkway from the Xepherion’s airlock was surrounded with an inflatable atmospheric tunnel. When they arrived at the portal, Delvan made Zelthyn position their universe generator below the anchor. “Pass me up two anchors.” Delvan ordered Zelthyn as he brought their universe generator online. Zelthyn opened a panel on the side of the cart and held out two anchors to Delvan.
     “Well, go on. Don’t just stand there, activate them!” Delvan scolded Zelthyn.
     “Oh, um, yes… of course.” Zelthyn fumbled nervously with anchors and dropped one onto the floor. He bent down, picked it up and touched the anchors to the universe generator.
     “And be sure to dial them all the way down. You don’t want to fall through a portal into a blank universe.” Delvan reminded Zelthyn.
     “Now, dial this universe generator all the way down, leave it blank and put it on a short time-out.” Delvan talked out loud to himself as he plugged a terminal into the universe generator on fiddled with the controls on its display screen. “OK, here we go!” He unplugged the terminal and activated the universe generator. A blue pulsing light emanated from the seams of the dodecahedral generator cradled within its’ open metal frame before it vanished from sight into its bubble universe. Delvan took one of the anchors from Zelthyn and gave it a twist. The portal field widened in front of him. “Zelthyn, take your anchor through into the worldship and see if you can open a portal there.”
     Zelthyn shuffled reluctantly through the portal leading into the Ark of Exodus and stepped onto the platform that the Guards had erected around it. He twisted the grip on the anchor and, much to his surprise, its’ portal field widened.
     Back on the walkway, Delvan let go of his anchor and it stayed in place due to its positioning link with the universe generator. You could move them around, increase or decrease their aperture but they’d stay wherever you left them. It was a boundary effect of the bubble universe. Delvan picked up a section of the walkway arm rail and poked it through the new portal.
     Moments later, Zelthyn staggered back through the portal at the end of the walkway rubbing one of his eyes. “You hit me with that thing.” He grabbed the section of arm rail from Delvan and stomped off back into the Ark.
     “Oh, did I?” Delvan chuckled as he ducked out of the way of the arm rail that Zelthyn was angrily flailing around blindly from his portal in the Ark.
     Captain Porcardr sauntered down the walkway, amused by the sight of the old Pdzarvian scientist dodging out of the way of a flailing metal pole sticking out through a portal. “What exactly are they doing?” He asked Psy.
     “It looks like the Pdzarvians have built a bridge between our universe and the bubble universe.” Psy commented sceptically. Shi had doubts as to whether they could extend the portal wide enough to let the Ark pass through.
     Porcardr nodded and walked over to Delvan. “How soon can you get your portal open?”
     Delvan grabbed hold of the arm rail, yanked it out of Zelthyn’s grip pulling it back into our universe and set it back in place. “This is just proof-of-principle. We should be able to scale it up for you.”
     “Do you need more of your anchors?” Porcardr pressed. The pressure was on and he needed results.
     Delvan opened a panel on the cart, peered in and did a quick count. “We’ve got twelve here. That should be more than enough. We’ll need to move these portals away from here. Position the one in the bubble universe somewhere ahead of the front end of your worldship and position the one in our universe far enough away so that your worldship doesn’t run us over when it pops out.”
     “Excellent!” Porcardr was determined to have something to show to Duke Reflinghar when he returned from Vermthellyn. “You show us where to position the anchors and I’ll get teams on both sides of the portal to put them in place for you as soon as the day shift comes on this morning.”

     “I doubt we’ll see Knetryxx any time soon.” Reflinghar commented jovially to his wife, Deleethia, as they finished their breakfast. “I bet she and Morgau are making up for lost time.”
     “Hah!” Deleethia let out a short laugh. “You saw the state of her. If that was me, I’d need a few days’ rest before I thought about anything else. At least she’s back where she belongs.”
     Reflinghar nodded in solemn agreement “She does seem to have a knack for getting into trouble. Why don’t you have a word with her? It’s not as if she’s going out anywhere for a while.”
     “Why me?” Deleethia protested gamely. “I thought you were taking her under your wing.”
     Weetleetly, Reflinghar’s vizier, shuffled into their dining room rescuing Reflinghar from an awkward argument with his wife and bowed obsequiously. “It would appear that the recovery program is making excellent headway. They are in the process of setting up a portal that will allow us to recover the Ark. It should be ready for testing later today. Also, there’s a Chznzet agent from their planet seeking political asylum that insists on talking to you.”
     Reflinghar turned to his wife. “A bit of good news to start the day. Hopefully we’ll have this all behind us soon.” The sooner, the better, Reflinghar thought to himself. Deleethia was refusing to have sex until he ‘made up for his incompetence and got their worldship back from those Chznzet pirates’ [Deleethia’s words, not his]. It was proving to be a strain on their relationship. If he forced himself on her, she’d throw him out and he’d be living the life of a senior officer in the Guards with severe career advancement problems. If he was lucky. So, he put a brave face on things. To her credit, she wasn’t cheating on him. At least not yet.

     Reflinghar stood on the spacious observation deck of the Ark of Exodus flanked by Captain Porcardr and Z’Taklyss. Behind them stood a rank of Guards. Looking out ahead they watched a massive portal slowly growing as remote-controlled tugs moved the Universe-generator anchors to create an aperture large enough for the Ark of Exodus to sail through. It wasn’t wide enough yet...
     “It won’t be long now.” Reflinghar clapped his paws together. The sight of the growing portal meant that his troubles with Deleethia would soon be over. “We’ll have to test this portal first to make sure it works.”
     “We have, my Lord.” Captain Porcardr assured Duke Reflinghar. “We’ve had the tugs shuttling back and forth through the portal all day.”
     “Excellent!” Reflinghar couldn’t believe his luck. “Let’s put it to the test. Z’Taklyss, you can be my wingman.”
     “My Lord?” Z’Taklyss wasn’t sure what Duke Reflinghar meant.
     “Let’s take a couple of fighters through the portal.” Reflinghar clapped a paw on Z’Taklyss’ shoulder. “Don’t look at me like that. I was a dragon rider before you were hatched. Come on, it might be the only fun we have all day.”
     Half an hour later, two fighters shot out of one of the Ark’s many landing bays and set course towards the growing portal ahead of the Ark’s massive annular prow. Reflinghar was in the lead with Z’Taklyss following close by off to one side. Reflinghar brought his fighter to a dead stop with its nose right up against the portal’s static field and hesitated for a moment before slamming the throttle all the way up to full thrust. “Here we go!”
     Before he knew it, Reflinghar was out the other side and watching the portal recede behind him on the cockpit display screen as he wheeled around and set course for the Xepherion. There was no room for two fighters to dock inside the transporter, so he pulled up alongside, brought his fighter to a standstill, sealed his pressure suit helmet, slid back the fighter’s cockpit window and used his suit’s thruster pack to propel himself to the nearest airlock.
     Captain Porcardr was waiting inside as a jubilant Reflinghar and Z’Taklyss stepped through the airlock’s inner door. No sooner than he’d taken his helmet off, Reflinghar gave the order. “Fire up the Ark’s torch drives so we can get the Ark of Exodus back into the real universe as soon as the portal’s wide enough and be done with this sorry misadventure.”

     Wootjan-Oo shuffled into the tech workshop aboard the Xepherion after a welcome night in Yldoseh’s arms in his cramped bunk in the crew quarters. Roetzan and Terzyn-Dael were looking at a large display screen.
     “Hey, check this out!” Terzyn-Dael excitedly waved Wootjan-Oo over.
     “Huh, what is it?” Wootjan-Oo rubbed the still-comforting sleep out of his eyes and saw what looked like a misshapen portal growing on the display screen.
     “I dunno how they’ve done it, but those Pdzarvians are setting up a portal for the Ark. We’re gonna get it back!” Terzyn-Dael could barely contain himself.
     “Is it big enough?” It was too early in the morning for Wootjan-Oo to get excited about anything. He still ached all over and wanted to be back in his nest with Yldoseh.
     “Oh yeah!” Roetzan reached up to the screen and zoomed out until you could just make out the Xepherion, little more than a sliver of light in a corner of the screen.
     “Wow!” Wootjan-Oo let out a low caw of amazement. He could barely believe it was happening.
     “They’re still setting it up.” Terzyn-Dael didn’t even look away from the screen. “It should be ready for testing later today.”
     “Nice.” The first thing that Wootjan-Oo thought about was to ask Yldoseh to move in with him as soon as he got his apartment back aboard the Ark.
     “Technicians Roetzan, Terzyn-Dael and Wootjan-Oo, report to the mess hall immediately” The announcement over the PA system broke their excitement.
     “I wonder what’s gone wrong this time? Must be something drastic if they want all three of us.” Roetzan asked rhetorically as she instinctively picked up a toolbox. “Better grab a diagnostics unit as well.” She suggested.
     When they arrived at the mess hall in their scruffy overalls and work harnesses decked out with tools, they were met by the sight of Z’Taklyss, Seelek and Jervyk in their spotless dress uniforms facing Duke Reflinghar and Captain Porcardr. Porcardr ordered them to join the line.
     “In recognition of your courage, bravery and valour for rescuing our Keeper, Princess Knetryxx, it is my honour to award you with the Order of the Dragon’s Egg. Wear this medal with pride.” Reflinghar solemnly addressed them as they snapped to attention. He went down the line pinning a Dragon’s Egg medal to their uniforms. When he got to Wootjan-Oo he took out a second medal and pinned two to Wootjan-Oo’s beaten-up work harness. “I believe we owe this award twice over, technician. House Sedeirtra is proud of you and forever grateful for your service.”
     Wootjan-Oo was overwhelmed and almost crapped himself as he gasped out the words: “Thank you, my Lord. It was my honour.”
     The ceremony was over quickly. Duke Reflinghar had other business to attend to and left as soon as he had presented their awards. They walked back to their workshop in a daze.
     “Twice?” Terzyn-Dael broke the silence with an admiring hiss. “That’s hardly ever happened.”
     “Um…. Yeah.” Wootjan-Oo could barely even believe that he’d been awarded such an honour once, let alone twice over. “The Chznzet were trying to brainwash Knetryxx.”

     Reflinghar consulted his data pad as he walked down the corridor from the mess hall. Someone claiming political asylum who calls themselves ‘Agent One of the Shallen Freedom Movement’ who insisted on talking with him in person. Probably another hopeless romantic in search of a worthy cause like the Interplanetary Liberation Front activists. Reflinghar sighed wearily as he readied himself for a righteous cause pitch and the inevitable sob story. Get it over quickly, he told himself. He’d need the rest of the day to sort out what to do with Barwyndar.
     He reached the compartment where this ‘Agent One’ was being held with two Guards standing on watch outside. One of them accompanied Duke Reflinghar as he stepped inside. Agent One stood up, clasped his paws as he bowed. “Thank you, Duke Reflinghar.”
     “I haven’t done anything yet.” Reflinghar gruffly put Agent One in his pace. “Have you come to grovel forgiveness for hijacking the Ark of Exodus?”
     “Punish me by all means.” Agent One grovelled. “But spare the colonists. They are but innocent pawns.”
     “Innocent pawns.” Reflinghar snorted contemptuously. “You Chznzet have been a thorn in our side for too long. You’ve got your precious NewNest, isn’t that what you want?”
     “That’s what I’ve come to talk to you about.” Agent One addressed Reflinghar urgently.
     “Go on.” Reflinghar didn’t have much time to waste on this Chznzet. He’d just as soon throw him out the air lock.
     “It was an accident…” Agent One trailed off, not quite sure where to begin,
     “What? Hijacking the Ark?” Reflinghar asked incredulously.
     “No, New Nest.” Agent One felt trapped and gesticulated urgently. “Our original plan was to join up with the other Chznzet worldships. At least that’s what they told us; I was a junior officer at the time. We were celebrating on the Observation Deck after we had seized the Ark and parading around this device we’d stolen from some Pdzarvians. None of us knew what it was. We were just kicking it around for fun and throwing these metal cylinders that came with it around. One of them suddenly stuck in mid-air with a field of static around it but we were too drunk at the time to give it much thought. It was only a couple of days later we discovered that not only had we lost contact with the rest of the galaxy but what we assumed was HomeNest was now totally uninhabited. We called it NewNest and decided to settle there. But it’s unstable.”
     “What’s unstable?” Reflinghar had his doubts about this one.
     “The device that created the artificial universe with NewNest.” Agent One looked up, glad that Reflinghar hadn’t dismissed him out of hand. “Whole towns, villages and farms disappear in grey-outs. A lot of people want to evacuate and return to the Ark but the ruling Cadre refuses to let anyone leave.”
     “They can forget about settling on the Ark of Exodus after what you Chznzet have done.” Reflinghar harrumphed indignantly.
     “Then at least give them free passage to Cervetica.” Agent One pleaded.
     “And be blamed for bringing discord to the Royal Court? I think not.” Reflinghar snorted contemptuously. “How many times have you Chznzet tried that in the past?”
     Agent One could see he faced an uphill battle convincing the Duke.
     Just then the door to Mertakk’s quarters opened and a Guard stepped in. “My Lord!”
     “What is it?” Reflinghar snapped tetchily. Just talking to this Chznzet has put him in a bad mood. Foul enough to seriously consider spacing both this annoyingly grovelling Chznzet and that traitorous Ingnuthin priestess Barwyndar.
     “Not here, my Lord.” The Guard apologised.
     “Very well.” Reflinghar stomped out the door followed by the dutiful Guard. Once the door has closed behind them, Reflinghar faced the Guard. “Well?”
     “Flight control has detected five unarmed transporters coming up from the planet below.” The Guard deferentially passed on his message.
     “Don’t let them dock. Make them wait.” Reflinghar gave his orders. “And find out as much as you can about them.”
     “Yes, my Lord.” The Guard bowed and went back to Flight Control aboard the Ark of Exodus.
     Reflinghar went back into Mertakk’s quarters. “Are those transporters anything to do with you?”
     “That was quick!” Mertakk was surprised. He had no idea what the time differential was between New Nest and the Xepherion.
     “Oh, so you do know about them.” Reflinghar took Mertakk’s comment as admission.
     “They’re dissidents.” Mertakk explained. “Part of Brakopyn, the main city, was erased in a grey-out and some dissidents must have seized the transporters.”
     “And you’re their envoy?” Reflinghar guessed.
     That was when it dawned on Mertakk that Shallen Freedom Movement members and supporters would be among the people on those transporters. An organisation that he had originally set up as a covert counterintelligence unit cover story and had taken on a life of its own. Supporters who, in his clandestine role, looked to him for leadership. They were devoted, trusting and loyal, he owed them his loyalty in return. So, in a strange way he was their envoy. “Yes, in fact. I am their envoy.” He looked Reflinghar straight in the eye.
     “And why should we help you after what you did?” To Reflinghar, leaving the Chznzet to die on their fake HomeNest would solve his problems nicely.
     “Most of the colonists are acolytes from other Worldships and Cervetica.” Mertakk pleaded. “They had nothing to do with seizing the Ark of Exodus.”
     “But they benefitted from it.” Reflinghar gruffly pointed out the obvious. “And what about all the people you left up on the Ark with all the sector bulkheads closed? And what about The T’lunth over in the Dastarnia sector? Do they even know where they are?”
     “What?” Mertakk was genuinely shocked. Everyone knew that the Dastarnia sector bulkheads were closed to keep in the T’lunth’s methyl-cyanogenic atmosphere, but all the other bulkheads as well? “That’s the first I ever heard of it. I was only a junior officer when all that stuff happened. Sebret’Zaan would have given that order. No-one else had that kind of authority. Well, maybe Talookti or one of the minor Advocates or their Advisors…” Mertakk trailed off.
     “And where is Sebret’Zaan now?” Reflinghar impatiently demanded.
     “Dead, I’m afraid.” Mertakk shrugged his shoulders. “He passed away 15 cycles ago. Poisoning was suspected but never proven.”
     “Fifteen…?” And then Reflinghar caught himself as he remembered Sergeant Z’Taklyss’ report about how time ran faster on NewNest and that twenty cycles had passed in their time frame. Yes, it was one thing to understand it in the abstract but quite another to deal with it head-on with someone who had lived through that accelerated time frame. “Time has robbed me of the pleasure of executing him myself.” Reflinghar growled. “So who holds his office now? You?”
     “Ah, no.” Mertakk laid on the false modesty as he dodged that bullet with little more than the truth. “The current Advocate of the Diet is Rozit-Skaal.”
     “And he sent you here?” Reflinghar suspected as much.
     “I’m here unofficially on behalf of people who want to leave NewNest for Cervetica or The Starborn.” Mertakk decided to drop any games and play it straight with Reflinghar.
     “What? The Chznzet worldship?” Reflinghar snorted contemptuously. “You’re pushing your luck!”
     “Fine. Any unclaimed habitable planet outside the Shallen Imperium.” Mertakk wasn’t about to give up now. “We don’t care, we just want off NewNest.”
     “Really?” Reflinghar laid on a heavy dollop of sarcasm. “I thought that was your NewNest as your people like to call it?””
     “Hah!” Mertakk laughed bitterly. “It was, but it’s cursed. It has these grey-outs where farms, villages and now even part of the main city, Brakopyn, people and all, are erased. When the grey-outs recede, nothing is left. Just rolling hills or pristine forests. It’s as if they’d never existed. It must be that device that created NewNest.”
     “Oh, it is.” Reflinghar smirked. “We found the people you stole it from.”
     “You did?” Mertakk was surprised. It hadn’t occurred to him that Reflinghar and House Sedeirtra would find out about the timeline rewriter.
     “Oh yes.” Reflinghar gloated. “Do you know what you stole?”
     “A time timeline rewriter, but you obviously know that already.” Mertakk thought back to the day of the raid on Chyptwyt Timeworks. “I had no idea what the other device was.” He’d only grabbed it as a bit of booty on the way out not caring what it was, only thinking that he might be able to sell it for a handsome price in the market. Instead, he’d lost twenty cycles of his life watching the hopeful optimism of a new colony turn sour.
     “A bubble universe generator.” Reflinghar felt triumphant. “And a faulty one at that.”
     “That would explain the grey-outs” The awful possibility dawned on Mertakk.
     “And not just that.” Reflinghar toyed with Mertakk. “It’s only been two months since your band of pirates seized the Ark of Exodus.”
     “Wha…???” Mertakk couldn’t even finish that one word.
     “Oh yes, we know.” Reflinghar smirked again. “It’s been twenty cycles for you.”
     Mertakk felt his world fall apart around him. “Two months?”
     “Yes, that’s all. And you expect sympathy from me?” Reflinghar was enjoying this moment. “You’re not coming back aboard the Ark of Exodus. You can forget about that right away.”
     Mertakk got down on his knees and clasped his paws together. “I’m begging you, Duke Reflinghar of House Sedeirtra, spare my people. Kill me if you must, but let them go. They know they can’t return to The Ark of Exodus. They’ll go straight to the gateway to Cervetica as soon as they disembark.”
     “My people, you say?” Reflinghar suspected it might be more than just the five transporters waiting off the side of the Ark of Exodus. “And just how many are we talking about here?”
     “Ten thousand, give or take a few.” Mertakk did a quick guess of all the dissident group memberships based on the latest intel acquired by the Chznzet Counter-Intelligence Unit and then added half as many again for their sympathisers.
     Reflinghar couldn’t take any more of Mertakk’s pleading and blathering and he certainly didn’t want a return of the Chznzet to the Ark under any circumstances so he pulled out his plasma pistol and shot Mertakk in the head. The plasma bolt burnt clean through Mertakk’s head, cauterising his flesh and melting a hole where it hit the cabin wall. Mertakk’s lifeless body fell to the floor with a thud.
     Reflinghar felt better already. ‘It’s what Deleethia would have wanted’ he reminded himself. Right now, all that mattered to Reflinghar was winning Deleethia’s heart back. She was right. He had let down House Sedeirtra when the Chznzet took over the Ark and he was determined to make it up to her. Mertakk may have only been one Chznzet, but Reflinghar was going to make them pay for what they’d done and maybe then Deleethia would take him back. He stepped out of the room and barked out his orders to the waiting Guards: “Destroy those transporters. I want no survivors.”
     The sergeant relayed Reflinghar’s order to the Ark’s gunnery via his headset. “It is done, my Lord.”
     “Good. Now clean up that mess.” Reflinghar pointed back into the room at Mertakk’s body as he holstered his plasma pistol and then strode off down the corridor to deal with Barwyndar.
     Reflinghar unholstered his plasma pistol as he went and slapped it against his open paw as he made up his mind to kill that troublesome Chznzet spy. And to think that she’d worked her way up the Ingnuthin hierarchy to be the High Priestess on the Ark of Exodus, of all worldships. He pushed open the door to find Barwyndar seated in meditation. He didn’t even break his stride as he shot her in the head. “This is for Milentiet, you Chznzet whore.”
     Instead of falling to the floor dead, Barwyndar’s body glitched much like a random burst of interference on a television screen. She looked up to face Reflinghar. “Yes?”
     “Die, you bitch!” Reflinghar cursed as he let loose a volley of plasma bursts which sailed through Barwyndar and burnt a line of holes in the wall behind her. Again, Barwyndar glitched. She stood up and dusted herself down. “Is there something you want to say, Duke Reflinghar?”
     Reflinghar lunged forward to grab hold of Barwyndar to break her neck, but his paws passed right through her. “Bah, you sent a hologram.” Reflinghar was furious at having been outsmarted by Barwyndar. “Well, if I can’t kill you myself, we’ll leave you in the bubble universe to die when it collapses in on itself.” Reflinghar harrumphed as he turned on his heel and stomped out the door, making sure it was securely locked behind him.
     Reflinghar strode purposefully down the corridor in the Xepherion. Barwyndar may have cheated him, but today he was going to present Deleethia with the successful recovery of the Ark of Exodus and that, he was certain, would win her back. And how he missed her embrace and playful caress when he’d come home tired after a long day. He’d had enough of the loveless purgatory she’d inflicted on him and wanted it to end so badly his desire burnt like a blazing fire of passion guiding his actions. He breezed past a group of technicians working at the entrance of the walkway to the portal, climbed down the ladder onto the Ark’s observation deck and made his way to the Ark’s flight control centre. He’d fly the Ark back into the real universe and make sure that Deleethia saw him at the controls. That was when he noticed a small cough at his side. He glanced over and saw that Barwyndar was matching his pace.
     “Go away!” Reflinghar tried to push the holographic Barwyndar away but his paw only swept through her non-corporeal body.
     “We need to talk.” Barwyndar patiently admonished Reflinghar.
     “You need to die.” Reflinghar was having none of it. “You and all your Chznzet troublemakers before you plague another worldship with your pointless obsessions.”
     “Whatever.” Barwyndar winked out of existence leaving Reflinghar muttering to himself.
     Reflinghar climbed aboard an empty shuttle waiting at the Observation deck’s shuttle terminus, set its destination for the flight control centre and sat back for the short ride. When he arrived, it was bustling with activity and one of the senior officers greeted him as he stepped out of the shuttle.
     “Are we ready to go?” Reflinghar eagerly prompted the officer.
     “The engines have been running at full thrust for hours, my Lord.” The officer bowed respectfully.
     “We’re not moving.” Reflinghar could plainly see that their position relative to the massive portal that the Pdzarvians had jury-rigged wasn’t changing.
     “This is the Ark of Exodus, my Lord.” The officer explained patiently. “Not one of those little fighter darts you’re so fond of flying. We have a lot of inertia to overcome before we even start to move.”
     “Well, I’ve come to take the helm to guide her out of this Chznzet death trap and back to our rightful ownership.” Reflinghar asserted himself proudly over the laws of physics as he starred out of the viewscreen at the portal’s wall of static dead ahead of them. “Is that portal ready?”
     “The Pdzarvians claim that it is.” The officer assured him. “We’ve had darts flying back and forth through it ever since you and Z’Taklyss made the first sortie.”
     “Excellent!” Reflinghar clapped his paws together. “Let me know when we’re on the move. I want Deleethia to see me at the helm.”
     “Of course, my Lord.” The officer obliged and knew better than to ask why as Reflinghar made his way to the officers’ ready room.
     Reflinghar opened to door to find Deleethia wearing her House Sedeirtra flight suit with her goggles perched jauntily on top of her head waiting for him. His proud heart melted. “I told you I wouldn’t let you down, my love.” He crossed the room to hug her but his arms passed through her illusory body. A moment of confusion flooded his mind. Deleethia would never do something like this, it just wasn’t her style. Deleethia was very much an ‘in person’ type.
     The illusion of Deleethia morphed into Barwyndar before Reflinghar’s eyes. “We have to talk.” The illusory Barwyndar firmly demanded.
     “How…? Oh, never mind.” Reflinghar was having none of this trickery. Today was the day he’d make it all up to Deleethia and nothing was going to change that. Not even some apparition that impersonated his love and that treacherous Chznzet spy, Barwyndar. “Go away, whatever you are. You have no place here.”
     “That’s where you’re wrong. This is my place.” The Barwyndar illusion asserted. “It’s you who have no place here.”
     “Your time is over.” Reflinghar confidently retorted. “We are reclaiming the Ark of Exodus and there’s nothing you Chznzet can do about it and when we’re done, we’re going to close up the portal and leave you Chznzet to die in your false universe.”
     “Ah yes, the gallant Duke Reflinghar reclaiming the great Ark of Exodus from the evil Chznzet to win back the heart of his one love.” The Barwyndar illusion mocked Reflinghar. “What makes you think your life is any more important than this?” In a flash, Reflinghar was transported to a farm on NewNest where a group of Shallens toiled in the fields tending their crops. Then he was in a rough-hewn farmhouse where a family and their excitable children were tucking into their evening meal totally oblivious to his presence. The mother walked straight through Reflinghar to fetch more food from the kitchen.
     Next, he was on a pier by the seaside as fishermen unloaded the catch from their boats surrounded by the smell of fresh-caught fish, salt sea air and the busy hubbub of eager traders pushing their forward to buy some of the days’ catch. And before he knew it, he was in downtown Brakopyn full of people bustling about their daily lives: Young, smartly-dressed Shallens making their way to work in shops and offices, hawkers selling food from mobile stalls, air taxis flying overhead and landing to drop off and pick up passengers. And then a school playground at breaktime of young Shallens running around, playing games and talking amongst themselves. Then he found himself in a factory making agricultural machinery: ploughs, tractors, trucks, harrows, seed drills, harvesters and more. Avian and reptilian Shallens working together busily cutting, welding, painting and assembling tools and machinery on a basic assembly line surrounded by tools and machinery on a worn, oil-stained floor. Before he could even take it all in, Reflinghar was transported to a moonlight night on a low hill overlooking a seaside beach where a young reptilian buck and avian hen were romancing and making passionate love. And before he even had time to feel awkward in their presence, Reflinghar was transported to an open-air market of trestle tables stacked high with meats, fish and vegetables crowded around by hawking traders and keen customers.
     “Enough!” Reflinghar shouted out of angry frustration. No-one heard or noticed him as he waved his arms and shouted for attention. He was still shouting when he rematerialised in in the middle of a small village green. A group of children playing at the far end didn’t even react to his animated shouting. In the distance, he could see a formless grey wall silently rushing towards them. The children could sense something was wrong when people rushed out of their homes and looked up just in time to see the grey wall that engulfed them and then…. nothing.
     Reflinghar tried to look around in the formless grey that engulfed him but saw nothing. His body was gone. No heartbeat, no breath, He tried to shout but nothing came out. He tried to move but with no point of reference he had no idea if he was moving at all. He couldn’t tell if it stretched out to infinity or stopped right in front of him. At first, he wasn’t sure, as if his eyes were playing tricks or that he was imagining things out of desperation but Reflinghar was sure that he could make out vague gradations of light and shade.
     Eventually it coalesced into a scene on one of the may concourses aboard the Ark of Exodus. Shallens were frozen in place as if in a tableau of daily life. Reflinghar looked down but he didn’t have a body. He tried to move, but he too, was frozen in place until he was whisked away against his will from sector to sector populated by motionless Shallens. Even the T’lunth tending their vast aeroponic farms appeared to be frozen in time. Everywhere he was taken, it was the same. Eventually he was taken back to the Ark’s flight control centre where everyone was frozen at their posts. They all looked so earnest and fiercely proud. And then back into his ready room where he saw himself facing Barwyndar holding up her paw to click her fingers.
     Click.
     And then Reflinghar was back in his body. He lurched forward unsteadily as he regained his balance. “What sort of trickery is that?” Reflinghar demanded angrily. Being in control was important to him, after all it was part of his life as a commanding officer, and that was definitely an experience where he had no control. “How long have I been away?”
     “In the time it took me to click my fingers.” Barwyndar replied calmly.
     “And what did you expect to achieve?” Reflinghar retorted. “Compassion for those Chznzet criminals? They made their choice when they hijacked the Ark of Exodus.” Reflinghar paused for a moment as the enormity of the experience he’d just been put through caught up with him. “Who or what are you? You’re obviously not Barwyndar and you’re certainly not my Deleethia. No Ingnuthin could do what you’ve just done, not even if they’d dosed me up with psychotropics.”
     “My kind live in nodes that you call universe generators. You can call me Talmaktyl.” The enigmatic apparition being addressed Reflinghar.
     Well, Talmaktyl, we’re taking the Ark back and leaving them to die in this bubble universe with you.” Reflinghar laid out his plan in no uncertain terms.
     “I don’t think you understand…” Talmaktyl got no further as Reflinghar cut her off.
     “No, it’s you who needs to do the understanding. This ends now, so begone back to wherever you came from.” It was all Reflinghar could to do to keep himself from shouting at her. And with that he stomped out of the ready room to see the static wall of the portal filling the forward viewscreens.
     “I take it we’re finally moving, Bortek.” Reflinghar confidently enquired of the Ark’s Bridge Commander, a tough avian with hard brown feathers and a hooked beak,
     “We were, my Lord.” Bortek’s frustration was apparent. “Until we hit the portal. It just absorbed all our momentum. The Ark’s engines are at full thrust and we’re standing still.”
     Reflinghar looked out the viewscreen and could clearly see fighter darts plunging through the portal in both directions. “The darts can get through the portal.” He waved his paw at the viewscreen. ”So, why aren’t we moving?”
     “I don’t know, my Lord.” Bortek confessed.
     “Is the portal wide enough for the Ark to pass through?” Reflinghar demanded, fully expecting to be told that it wasn’t.
     “Oh yes, it was all measured and triangulated before it was activated.” Bortek informed Reflinghar confidently. He had no reason to lie to Reflinghar. “There’s room to spare all the way around. You could fly the Ark blind and you wouldn’t miss.”
     “Bah, get me that Pdzarvian scientist and the Nglubi agent.” Reflinghar needed answers and fast. He’d come this far and there was no way he was going to admit defeat. It simply wasn’t an option for him or for House Sedeirtra and Clan Olblavy.
     Twenty minutes later a group of burly Guards bundled a protesting Delvan and Psi into Reflinghar’s ready room.
     “Oi, you don’t have to push me like that!” Delvan complained vociferously. “I’m an old man. You could have just asked nicely. So, what is it?” He addressed Reflinghar grumpily.
     “Your portal isn’t working.” Reflinghar did his best to sound as matter-of-fact as possible. He needed this portal to work and the Pdzarvian was his only hope to make it happen. But his anger and frustration leaked through.
     “Yes, it is.” Delvan righteously defended himself. “You and your wingman flew through it this morning when it went live.”
     “And entire squadrons of darts all day long. Look out the viewscreen on the bridge if you want to see for yourself.” Reflinghar wearily agreed with Delvan. “But that isn’t the point. The Ark is right up against the portal and we’re not going through.”
     “Oh, really?” Delvan was genuinely surprised. “Well, we could always beef it up with more anchors and maybe get another universe generator to boost the power.”
     “And how long would that take?” Reflinghar felt as he was clutching at straws.
     “About a day, maybe a bit longer if I sent Zelthyn off right away” Delvan replied off-handedly.
     “That long?” Reflinghar was surprised. He assumed that they had easy access to an Nglubi gateway.
     “We’re off the grid at Belzar-Tel-Sa’an.” Delvan badly mimicked Remi’s effortless bluff.
     “Oh, that place.” Reflinghar knew all about it exactly why it was off-grid. “The black market for this arm of the galaxy.” He gave Delvan a dismissive look. “You don’t seem the type.”
     “We run an exclusive business.” Delvan replied defensively. “Custom universes aren’t for your ordinary riff-raff, if you know wot I mean.”
     “This one isn’t working.” Reflinghar’s patience was wearing thin.
     “Yeah, well, like I told you before it was those Chznzet bastards wot stole a faulty one.” Delvan replied with injured pride. “You don’t think I was going to stop ‘em and give ‘em a good ‘un, now do you? Look here, mister Reflinghar. I program up these bubble universes for our clients and we’ve never had any complaints. We’ve never had to do any recovery work before so this is all a bit experimental.”
     “No complaints because there would be no survivors.” Reflinghar snorted sarcastically.
     “We’d know if one went missing an’ we ‘aven’t lost any yet.” Delvan gamely defended his integrity.
     “What if the one you brought is also faulty?” Reflinghar could see that if one universe generator was faulty, there might be others.
     “Fine, I’ll send for another.” Delvan didn’t want to admit it but he could see that Reflinghar had a point.
     “Make that three, just in case.” Reflinghar drove his point home.
     “Whatever.” Delvan had little choice but to agree and raised his paws in surrender. At least he wouldn’t have to break the bad news to Remi. He felt bad for using his trusting nephew like this but there was no-one else he could send as he was effectively Reflinghar’s captive until their worldship was out of the bubble universe.
     Just then, Talmaktyl materialised as Barwyndar next to Delvan and began pacing around him staring intently at him. The Guards raised their plasma lances aiming them at Talmaktyl ready to shoot. Reflinghar raised to paw and motioned for them to lower their plasma lances. “It’s all right, just ignore her, she’s only a hologram. You’d only burn a hole in the wall if you shot her.” He commanded the Guards.
     “You. You’re the one.” Talmaktyl poked at Delvan who stepped back, not sure what to make of this old Shallen crone whose fingers poked through his chest.
     “You have been turning us inside out. It hurts and it has to stop.” Talmaktyl remonstrated Delvan.
     “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Delvan decided there and then he didn’t like the old crone even though he was probably a lot older than her. Pdzarvians were very long-lived.
     “You are an open book the me, Delvan.” Talmaktyl morphed into a graceful Pdzarvian, Delvan’s wife Loolani, who had been killed when the Rylben gangsters attacked their colony on Centus V.
     Delvan couldn’t believe his three eyes and just stood there agog with his beak open.
     Talmaktyl morphed back into Barwyndar and turned her attention to Psy, still in hir tentacled Nglubi form. “You are a representative of the Galactic Council, the arbiter of justice between civilisations in this region of the galaxy. I demand justice!”
     “What???” Psy, Delvan and Reflinghar blurted in near-unison dumbfounded by Talmaktyl’s outrageous demand. The words had barely left their mouths when they were all transported to the interior of a large, derelict spaceship that seemed to end in a rough rock wall illuminated only by faint starlight through gashes and tears in the crumpled hull. Universe generators set into the interior of the hull ran off into the distance. The central floor was littered with universe generators and the vacuum-desiccated corpses of creatures that were eerily similar to Gulmarians with the shattered remains of timeline rewriters at regular intervals.
     A short distance away, two suited characters flew in through a gaping gash in the hull, the lights in their helmets illuminating the interior of the ship ahead of them. Delvan recognised the two characters as they bobbed and jetted around in near-zero gravity.
     “Here we see Delvan and his son, Remi, scrap and salvage merchants of the Centus V orbital scrapyard, examining a salvage wreck that was hauled to their scrapyard before deciding to buy it.” Talmaktyl narrated the scene unfolding before them. In the blink of an eye, it changed to a scene in the same ship with lighting gantries erected and worker bots removing the universe generators and timeline rewriters through a massive doorway that had been cut into the hull. You could seem more bare rock outside. It appeared as if the ship was somehow partially embedded in an asteroid.
     “Oi, what do you mean, scrap merchant?” Delvan interrupted Talmaktyl with injured pride. “I was a well-respected research scientist in my time.”
     “Who quit his job and took his family to a remote colony in a fit of pique when his proposed reactionless tensor drive was laughed out of the Institute of Engineering Research.” Talmaktyl countered as she read Delvan’s life story from his memory.
     “And this is how it was.” Talmaktyl continued. Now the ships’ interior was well-kept and illuminated polished and enamelled metal. The interior of the long, cylindrical hull was lined with universe generators powered-up with their tell-tale blue-glowing conduits. The creatures that looked similar to the Gulmarians were busy tending the universe generators and timeline rewriters the were spaced out evenly on a central walkway that ran the length of the visible interior.
     “And this is what you did to us.” Now they were in the showroom at Chyptwyt Timeworks were Remi was giving a demonstration to a potential customer stepping through scenes on battlefields, erotic fleshpots, beaches, tropical forests, snow-covered frozen mountains, neon-lit cities, palaces ancient and futuristic, fire-worlds with rivers and oceans of lava, open plains with herds of animals grazing in the distance, swirling gas clouds with gigantic tentacled airborne creatures floating slowly through them, colliding galaxies, sculptures created using pulsar polar jets, armadas of spaceships racing through the interstellar void, underwater realms, cities floating above clouds, underground empires, and more.
     Talmaktyl returned them to Reflinghar’s ready-room. “I’m sorry that your people died like that.” Psy offered hir condolences to what shi now assumed was an AI created by the dead creatures that littered the broken spaceship they had seen only moments ago. “But they’re all dead.”
     “What?” Talmaktyl seemed surprised. “No, they were our servant drones. We live in nodes, those devices you…” She poked at Delvan’s chest. “…called universe generators. Which you, a scrap merchant, abuse for profit. We are grateful that you found us. We had been dormant for a long time. But what you are doing is killing us. If you don’t stop now, your profitable business will come to an end when we are all dead.”
     “You’ll have to talk to my son, Remi, about that.” Delvan tried badly to absolve himself of any responsibility. “He runs the business and makes the decisions. I’m just the engineer.”
     “Might I remind you that you, all of you, this worldship and all the people on that planet are inside me. There are too many of you little sparks for me interact with. Yes, I can do it for a while, but not on this scale indefinitely, which is what the Chznzet wanted. So many bifurcations would eventually overwhelm me and all those sparks as well. I’m not infinite.”
     “I don’t have a problem with that.” Reflinghar quite liked the idea of the troublesome Chznzet who’d hijacked the Ark of Exodus winking out of existence. “We’re on our way out. You can do whatever you want with the Chznzet. Turn yourself off or whatever it is that you do.”
     “And drift alone in space to an inevitable death when my node runs out of power while my kin die painful deaths from Delvan and Remi’s abuse?” Talmaktyl as Deleethia snorted haughtily before reverting back to Barwyndar the priestess. “I think not. You will take me back to your workshop where you will stop exploiting us. That device you have been abusing as a timeline rewriter is our poly-dimensional hub. It powers our nodes and is how we communicate amongst ourselves. That is what powers us. Not that current you force on us. You will supply us and our dormant kin with a ship. In exchange, we will share some of our technology with you.”
     “And if we don’t?” Reflinghar was many things but he wasn’t a pushover.
     “Then you die with me.” Talmaktyl was coldly final.
     “Is that your best bluff?” Reflinghar laughed. “We’ll be out of this bubble universe of yours by the end of this day and then you can collapse in on yourself for all I care.”
     “You’re not going anywhere.” Talmaktyl coolly called Reflinghar’s bluff. He already knew that the Ark wasn’t passing through the portal. “My kin in the other node and I are blocking you until you agree to our demands.”
     “You’re insane!” Delvan didn’t feel like dying quite so soon “You’d kill us all.”
     “No, we’re desperate.” Talmaktyl firmly disagreed with Delvan. “We want to live. We’re not some machines you salvaged that you can exploit until they break. Is that really so unreasonable?”
     “You can’t hold us hostage like this.” Reflinghar interrupted.
     “Can’t I?” Talmaktyl smugly put Reflinghar in his place. “What are you going to do? Shoot me? I think we’ve already established that doesn’t work.”
     “Damn you, whatever you are.” Reflinghar growled.
     Talmaktyl didn’t take the bait but instead turned her attention to Psy. “I claim asylum for myself and my fellow Zehtakh based on the precedent of the Thekht’ar Adjudication. I think you’ll find that it applies here: sentient beings recovered in salvage shall be accorded rights of self-determination. That was the case about a Temarth colony ship with thousands of their citizens in stasis. It went off course and was found by Olloghtark cybernetic privateers who were later found attempting to sell the Temarth colonists as live food and slaves. A minor adjudication in the greater scheme of things but relevant in our case.”
     “What?” Psy couldn’t place it and felt as if Talmaktyl was just making it up.
     “Oh, come on. I plucked that out of your memory.” Talmaktyl transported Psy back to hir days at the Galactic Council Exoplanetary Institute where they stood in a wide-open courtyard surrounded by aliens of countless different species singly and in groups making their way around fountains and multicoloured fern trees to and from the towering buildings in the background. “Remember these days? All those studies that you missed because you spent all your time canoodling with Mglyptl? And how you crammed for your qualifying exam by uploading as much of the Institute’s library into organic memory nodules you stitched into your tentacles as you could until you passed out? Well, those memories are still there written into your genetic code long after the memory nodules melted away.”
     “You’re just messing with my mind.” Psy felt unsettled by this unexpected trip down memory lane. “Twisting my memories to see what you want. Do you want me to take your case to the Galactic Council? Fine, if that’s what you want. But be prepared for a long wait. There’s thousands of cases all as worthy as yours in the queue ahead of you.”
     “How long?” Talmaktyl toyed with Psy.
     “Two, maybe three Llindorian years.” Psy remembered the glacial pace of the Galactic Council Courts.
     “We don’t have that long.” Talmaktyl drove her point home. She was on a suicide mission with nothing to lose. She would either succeed or die. “I will be dead before then and if I die, you will also die. Oh, grow a spine and go out there and enforce the law. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?” Talmaktyl snorted contemptuously.
     “We don’t have bones.” Psy pushed back against Talmaktyl’s insult.
     “You know what I mean.” Talmaktyl wasn’t taking no for an answer.
     “Toughen your tentacles.” Psy flicked out a tentacle at lightning speed to grab Talmaktyl’s wrist but it passed harmlessly through her holographic body. “And secondly, how can I enforce anything? I’m here on my own surrounded by legions of Shallen Guards. You should be talking to Duke Reflinghar, not me.”
     “What about the battleship you sent to Centus V?” Talmaktyl reminded Psy.
     “Me?” Are you joking?” Psy couldn’t believe that Talmaktyl thought shi had that kind of authority. “No. That decision was made by a High Shell. All I did was tell them about the situation on Centus V.”
     “Then tell them about this situation.” Talmaktyl pushed.
     “They’ll just give you the same answer.” That was something Psy knew for certain.
     “Then we die together.” Talmaktyl was coolly emphatic as she transported Psi back to Reflinghar’s ready room.
     “Okay, okay. You win.” Reflinghar rumbled. He knew when he was beaten and didn’t like it. “Let’s get this node of yours and be gone. I’m sure we can find a ship for you and your people. It might take a while, though. There’s no point in us hanging around here any longer.”
     “I’ll hold you to that.” Talmaktyl made it clear that she didn’t fully trust Reflinghar or anyone else before turning her attention to Psy. “You are the Regional Warden for the Galactic Council. You will bear witness to this agreement and will lodge it with the Galactic Council to make it binding.”
     “Yeah, whatever.” Psy resentfully humoured Talmaktyl. Shi didn’t like how Talmaktyl played with hir memories so easily. “But after that you’re on your own. I can’t authorise what you want. That’s up to the High Shells and they’ll want to know a lot more about you and your kind. Like how you can interfere with someone’s perception of time and space, your abilities to read minds and the fact that you’re not below hostage-taking and terrorism if it suits your needs. And why your drones look like Gulmarians.”
     “Who?” Talmaktyl had no idea what Psi was talking about.
     “Never mind.” Psy fumed. They were running out of time and shi was in no mood to give their captor even so much as a potted history of the Gulmarian situation. Deal with getting out of Talmaktyl’s trap first, then give her the history lesson at a later time.
     “The mind thing only happens because you’re inside of me thanks to Delvan for turning us inside out.” Talmaktyl blamelessly explained. “That’s how I interact with you sparks. As for what you call terrorism, we’re desperate. We want to live. You want to live. The solution is simple enough.”
     “Which you’ve forced on us.” Reflinghar grumpily interrupted.
     “It was the only way to get your attention.” Talmaktyl genuinely felt that she’d done no wrong. “Goodness knows we’ve tried before but it never worked. You sparks thought it was just part of the experience. Don’t blame me.” Talmaktyl held up her paws. “I didn’t start this.”
     “Just tell us where your node is and we’ll get it for you.” Reflinghar was desperate to present Deleethia with the Ark of Exodus as he’d promised.
     Talmaktyl materialised the node into Reflinghar’s ready room for all to see. Where it should have been emitting a steady blue glow of light, it was dim and flickering intermittently. “As you can see, we don’t have much time.” Talmaktyl caressed the node with a paw.
     “Blimey, it’s in rough shape!” Delvan exclaimed. “It looks like it’s run out of power.”
     “Exactly.” Talmaktyl confirmed as her holographic projection began to glitch and flicker.
     “What are we waiting for?” Reflinghar took command. “Let’s dump the Chznzet and go. We’ve agreed to your terms.”
     “No!” Talmaktyl held up a paw. “They come with us.”
     “What? Are you mad?” After everything they’ve done?” Reflinghar slammed his paw down onto a table. He really wanted to be rid of the troublesome Chznzet for once and for all.
     “The lives of those sparks are no different from yours. They will be returned to wherever they came from. Those are my terms and the Regional Warden will bear witness.”
     Psi sagged on hir tentacles. “Anything else?” Shi asked sarcastically.
     “No, that’s it.” Talmaktyl’s hologram was beginning to flicker badly as bursts of static ripped through the ready room. “I can’t hold this much longer. The Chznzet settlers will be returned to this worldship.”
     “You win.” Reflinghar grumbled angrily. “But they’re booted off the Ark straight to Cervetica through the gateway as soon as we’re out of this bubble universe. They’re not staying here a moment longer.”
     “It is done.” Talmaktyl’s holographic projection faded out in a jumble pixellated static.
     Bortek, the bridge Commander, stepped into the ready room and strode up to Reflinghar. “The Ark is moving through the portal, my Lord. Would you like to take the helm?”
     “Finally!” This was the good news Reflinghar wanted to hear. He almost ran out of the ready room onto the bridge to take his ceremonial post at the command station. “And put it on a live feed. I want Deleethia to see this.”
     Psi followed Reflinghar out onto the bridge and gently tapped his shoulder with a tentacle.
     “What now?” Reflinghar growled grumpily. He felt as if everyone and their pet Froodle was jerking him around today.
     Psi coughed softly. “The gravitational null zone. Remember our agreement?” Psi politely reminded Reflinghar. “House Sedeirtra is to park the Ark of Exodus in the gravitational null zone of the planet that the Humans call Earth, in exchange for assistance to affect repairs to make your worldship spaceworthy.”
     “Oh, that.” Reflinghar rolled his eyes. “And I suppose that’ll take another three Llindorian years to clear the Galactic Council bureaucracy while the Ark of Exodus rots in a field of rubble.”
     “Actually, it’s already been approved.” Psi felt better as a bearer of good news. “The assessors will arrive once you get your gateway back online.”
     Reflinghar gave Pai a friendly slap on the back. “I don’t know what’s happening to me, I’m almost beginning to like you, Nglubi.”
     “Thank you.” Psi took that as a compliment. Shi didn’t get many in hir line of work. “We’re not the destroyers of old. We could even be your allies.”
     “Humph!” Reflinghar snorted. “You have been a great help to us but I doubt there’s many of us Shallens who would ever accept your kind. Our history is what makes us who and what we are and it’s not something any Shallen could ever forget.”
     “True.” Psi agreed. “But the future is an open book for us to write. Look at me. I’m not a warrior. I’m little more that a Park Warden. All I want is for everyone in my region to prosper and maybe even get along without killing each other. Shallens, Humans, Rtuntli and everyone else. That’s why I joined the Galactic Council in the first place. Well, that and it seemed like a more interesting life than being a gateway operator.”
     “Noble sentiments, Nglubi.” Reflinghar commended Psi. “But life isn’t always that simple.”
     “Don’t I know it.” Psi agreed. Out ahead through the bridge’s main viewscreen they could see that the Ark had cleared the portal out of the bubble universe and back into the real universe. Comms and communication consoles that had been dormant in the bubble universe starting winking back into life.

     Mertakk woke up slowly, luxuriating in the early morning warm comfort curled up in his nest. He rubbed his paw across his forehead. The last thing he remembered was Reflinghar shooting him in the head and he was surprised to even be alive at this point. That was when it dawned on him that he wasn’t alone in his nest and opened his eyes to see Katinya lying at his side with her iridescent blue feathered armwings wrapped around him and swollen with an as-yet unlaid egg, susurrating softly in peaceful repose. She looked just as alluringly beautiful as she had been before she was taken in one of the early grey-outs on NewNest. Oh, how he’d missed her! He gently stroked her feathers to reassure himself that this wasn’t some sort of illusion.
     Looking around, Mertakk recognised where he was: his old apartment aboard the Ark of Exodus before they had disembarked for NewNest. He pulled himself carefully out of his nest and padded quietly to the washroom so as not to awaken Katinya with an unfamiliar spring to his step. Gone were the aches and pains in his back and hips. He looked in the mirror as he cleaned his fangs and was surprised to see that his scales once again had the middle-aged sheen they had lost in his long, lonely years on NewNest. He thought back to the conversation he’d had with Reflinghar before being shot about how time ran so much faster on NewNest and wondered if somehow his entire experience on NewNest had been a dream.

     Barwyndar woke up in her sumptuous quarters aboard the Ark of Exodus. The last thing she remembered was losing consciousness while being tortured by Rozit-Skaal. The scars, weals, wounds and pain were all gone. She was clean and felt fresh in a silken night-dress unlike the mite-infested filth and grubbiness of the hard forced labour to which she had been subjected. Her relief at being alive was short-lived as she realised that it would only be a matter of time before Reflinghar would find and kill her now that she’d confessed her part in murdering the previous Ingnuthin High Priestess, Milentiet, to Knetryxx.
     Her time with the Chznzet and before had taught her to always have an escape plan. And right now, she had to escape if she wanted to live much longer. Barwyndar strode across her nest room to the All-Mother shrine and opened its egg. She hesitated for a moment before lifting out the memory crystal which contained her library of false identities none of which were known to either the Chznzet, the Olblavy Clan or the Imperial Guard on Cervetica as well as an emergency fund of five thousand Galacs and a small blue Psionic Crystal to activate the Nglubi gateways. Next, she activated her personal terminal in her nest room and initiated a command which would erase all traces and references to herself in the Ark’s data systems.
     There was no going back now, in a matter of minutes her old identity would no longer exist and the intruder alarms would go off in her suite. Barwyndar had no desire to hang around. She stepped into the walk-in wardrobe and pulled out an old battered trunk and opened it. Inside there was a selection of well-worn workwear. She pulled off her silken nightdress and put on a set of overalls. As soon as she clicked the toolbelt into place, she stepped back into the wardrobe, opened a back panel and stepped into the cold, musty breeze of the dusty service ducts that ran throughout the Ark like its hidden veins.
     Barwyndar closed the panel behind her with a soft click and in the half-light of the service duct, she activated the crystal and scrolled through its diminutive holographic display before selecting an identity and loaded it into her subdermal ID tag overwriting her ID as Barwyndar. It didn’t take her long to reach a vantage point where she had a covert view of the industrial freight gateway that serviced the Ark of Exodus.
     The gateway terminal was active which meant they were back in the real universe. All she had to do was wait until the workers at the gateway knocked off for the end of their shift and quickly slip in. The hours crawled by slowly but she finally got her chance, opened a service panel and slipped into the gateway chamber. Not wasting a moment, she strode over to the terminal, pressed her blue crystal onto it and keyed in the address for a busy gateway terminus in Korpel-Tyn, a major city on Cervetica where she’d be quickly lost in milling crowds and traffic. The gateway lit up and she stepped onto it and emerged on Cervetica to start a new life as one of the many anonymous identities she’d collected over the years.

     “Why do I get the feeling that the only reason we got out of this alive is because we gave Talmaktyl indigestion?” Psy mused aloud as shi helped Zelthyn and Delvan pack away their anchors and tools.
     “Yeah, I think we dodged one there.” Delvan shuddered as he thought back over the number of times he’d been in and out the bubble universes he’d generated by hotwiring the nodes he and Remi had discovered. The thought of being consumed thought by thought, memory by memory by a multidimensional being gave him the creeps. “Remi’s going to give me hell for this.”
     “What about the technology transfer?” Psy tried to put an upbeat spin on the sudden demise of Remi and Delvan’s custom universe and timeline rewriting business.
     “Hah!” Delvan gave a short bitterly cynical laugh. “I doubt I’ll see much of that. Your people will probably whisk the Zehtakh away for a bit of first-class technology transfer.”
     “I’ll try to get you a place on the tech transfer program. I owe you that much.” Psy held out a straw of hope for Delvan to clutch. “You had the first known contact with their technology and so must have some sort of understanding of the principles behind their technology.”
     “I wish I did.” Delvan shrugged his shoulders and accepted his fate as a moderately successful scrap and salvage merchant in the later years of his life. “Oh sure, I did polydimensional mechanics at college but that was all just theoretical. Everyone took those courses just to look edgy. It was all the thing back then. No-one had the first idea how to actually make anything polydimensional. And anyway, that was a long time ago.”

     It was mid-morning in Montgomery and the cool crisp air was beginning to warm up with the daily bustle of activity as Veronica strolled down Longridge Street and stepped into the Technobabble Café for her morning coffee and croissant. She spotted Yldoseh sitting alone at a table and went over to join her. “Hey!”
     “Oh, hi!” Yldoseh looked up and greeted Veronica quietly as if absorbed in her thoughts.
     “I heard the news. They found your worldship.” Veronica continued brightly. “Will you be going back there?”
     “Most of us will.” Yldoseh admitted. “Sursipal isn’t so keen. She says it’s claustrophobic and wants to stay here on Mars because she doesn’t want to go back to Vermthellyn.”
     “And what about you and Wootjan-Oo?” Veronica asked wondering if her short encounter with aliens was about to end forever.
     “I don’t know.” Yldoseh felt torn. “I can’t leave Sursipal here but I’d rather go and stay on the Ark with Wootjan-Oo. That’s where the big stories are now.”
     “Is he going there?” Veronica assumed that the Shallens would be only too keen to return to their worldship after their frosty welcome on Mars.
     “He hasn’t decided yet.” Yldoseh shrugged her shoulders. “They need technicians like him to rebuild the Ark. He’d be wasted here servicing the transporters.”
     “Looks like you’ll be doing a bit of commuting then.” Veronica tried to cheer Yldoseh up.
     “What?” Yldoseh didn’t know what Veronica meant.
     “Travelling back and forth.” Veronica reached out across the table to hold Yldoseh’s paw. “I’ll miss you, but you’ve got to do what’s best for you.”
     “Yeah.” Yldoseh sounded a bit blank, knocked back the last of her coffee and brightened up. “Hey, do you want to come to the Ark? I’m going to interview Knetryxx for my channel.”
     “Sure, that sounds like fun!” Veronica was glad to see Yldoseh lightening up and relished the chance of an adventure. “When do we go?”
     “I’m not sure.” Yldoseh deflated slightly. “We have to wait until she’s settled in back on the Ark. Last I heard from her, she was griping about all the boring state functions she has to do. Well, that and Wootjan-Oo has to get the transporters ready to ship everyone back to the Ark.”
     “Do you know the gateway address for the Ark?” Veronica asked Yldoseh.
     “No, but I could get it. Why?” Yldoseh couldn’t see the point as she had no access to a gateway on Mars.
     Veronica fumbled around in her shoulder bag and pulled out a tiny glowing blue Psionic crystal just large enough to activate a gateway and held it out for Yldoseh to see.
     Yldoseh’s eyes lit up. “Where’s you get that?”
     “Shhh, it’s a secret.” Veronica winked conspiratorially. “Skyhawk owes me a few favours; I’ll ask him to run us over to the Fort Melchisor gateways.”

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Chapter 41
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