“He what???” If it hadn’t been for the fact that
Wootjan-Oo and Kkhrkht had pulled Morgau and Tatia drugged and unconscious out
of Knetryxx’s apartment, Xandu would have dismissed Morgau’s story as just
another tall tale.
“Don’t ask me how he intends to do it, but
Alghar claimed that the Chznzet have some way to undo the Great Fall so that we
would never have left HomeNest.” Morgau still felt groggy from the after-effects
of the drugs Alghar had doped him with and rubbed his neck where the prison band
had chafed his scales.
“Neat! I always wanted to live on HomeNest.”
Yldoseh commented excitedly as she filmed Tatia and Morgau’s recovery in the
cramped crew lounge aboard the Spirit of Discovery.
“No, not neat.” Tatia’s sense of desperation was
still dulled by the drugs. “You don’t get it, do you, Yldoseh?”
Pierre Dupont had followed everything Morgau and
Tatia said closely and turned around from where he had been looking out of the
lounge window with its view of the Ark of Exodus’ hull and the receding
Vermthellyn system behind them. “If Alghar is successful, then zere is a high
probability zat most of ze Shallens zat lived after ze Great Fall as you call it
would never have existed. And zat would include you, Yldoseh. On top of zat it
would be an absolute certainty zat us Humans would never have evolved, so zat
Silver and myself and ze Spirit of Discovery would not be here. Am I correct?”
“Yeah, that’s pretty much it.” Morgau was glumly
impressed with Pierre’s cool analysis.
“Oh.” Yldoseh’s visions of a new life on
HomeNest turned to dust.
“It makes me wonder.” Pierre mused aloud as he
poured himself a glass of sparkling mineral water and lit up a Gauloise
cigarette. “Zey claim to be able to manipulate zese timelines and ze Spirit of
Discovery mysteriously falls back 217 years of our time only a short distance
from your planet, Vermthellyn. A bit of a coincidence, no?”
“It’s not our planet. It belongs to the
Rtuntli.” Aridel corrected him. “Some of us settled there when the Ark’s torch
drives burnt out several generations ago.”
“Ah yes, my apologies.” Pierre puffed
thoughtfully on his cigarette as he checked their story’s consistency. “And you
get along well with zese Rtuntli?”
“So-so. Some of the Rtuntli are very
xenophobic.” Wootjan-Oo put Pierre in the picture. “But they’re a trading planet
and we’re just one of many off-worlders living there.”
“The thing is from what Alghar told us it’s a
suicide mission and he knows it.” Morgau was still shaken by Alghar’s steely
“Do all ze Chznzet on ze Ark know about zis
plan?” Pierre decided there and then that Alghar had to be stopped. But first he
had to find out how Alghar was able to affect the timelines.
“I don’t know.” Morgau felt too young to die. He
was still madly in love with Knetryxx and felt they had everything to live for.
“We were captured by Alghar and his guards. They were the only Chznzet Aridel
and I met.
“I don’t think they do, Pierre.” Wootjan-Oo
hadn’t noticed strange behaviour amongst the Chznzet in the Tech Guild. “There’s
quite a few Chznzet in my Guild. They’re very excited about going to HomeNest,
but all their talk is about settling there and reclaiming it for all Shallens.
“Sounds like an inner clique to me.” Silver
chipped in. “Keep the rank-and-file in the dark. It’s a common enough strategy.”
“Yldoseh, I want you to interview zis Alghar.”
Pierre hatched his plan on the fly. “See what you can find out. But for
goodness’ sake, don’t mention zis timeline business. If ze Chznzet are keeping
it secret he would know that you could have only found out about it from your
friends and then he might take you prisoner.”
“Ulp.” Yldoseh had always dreamed of adventure,
but felt she was getting out of her depth. She didn’t want to end up like Tatia
drugged up to her eyeballs with a prison band around her neck or worse.
An obsidian globe wreathed in swirling waves of
luminous purple plasma towered on its pedestal over the two Shallens arguing in
the pulsating glow it cut through the gloom of a deserted expansive
techno-gothic chamber, their echoing voices swallowed up by the still solemnity
of the grandiose architecture. Down one side ran an endless window looking out
into space. On the far opposite side was a procession of backlit statues of
revered avian and reptilian Shallens as well as countless mythical creatures.
Polished green onyx columns arched up and across the vaulting ceiling from
between each statue.
“Damn incompetents.” The aged avian clucked
angrily as it paced in a circle through the orbs’ swirling purple glow. “We
should have killed those stupid children and that half-witted Knetryxx while we
had the chance.”
“Oh right, a crew of Pdzarvian con-artists sell
you this, this… oversized doorstop.” A reptilian High Priestess of the Order of
The Ingnuthin spluttered indignantly as she shook her paw at the glowing orb
towering over them. “And suddenly the Oath of Accession counts for nothing? I’ll
remind you of this the next time you Chznzet come running to us begging for
“It works, Barwyndar.” Talookti, the avian
Chznzet Elder wearily reminded the High Priest. “Look at the way we picked up
that Human ship from HomeNest when we tested it.”
“Pah, those Pdzarvians could have set that up.”
Barwyndar was completely unconvinced. “Sometimes I wonder about you Talookti.
For thousands of generations you Chznzet have schemed and plotted to gain
control of one of the arks. I set you up so that one of your Juniors could marry
the new Keeper of the original Ark of Exodus. That would give you control of the
Ark of Exodus and a seat in the Aristocracy and you’re about to throw it all
away. We had a good thing going with Milentiet. She may have been a bit cranky,
but everyone respected her. I’m beginning to regret killing her off.”
“Think of it as a fallback plan, Barwyndar.”
Talookti pontificated grandly as he led the way across the chamber towards a
small illuminated doorway. “In a few days’ time HomeNest will be restored to its
“Or else we’ll be in orbit around HomeNest
wondering what to do about those Humans.” Barwyndar pointed out as she followed
Talookti through the doorway.
“Precisely.” Talookti was convinced of the
infallibility of his plan. “Either way HomeNest will belong to us again.” The
passageway led in to a gleaming, spacious laboratory. Computers and machinery
hummed and whirred efficiently as Talookti, a typical mad scientist if ever
there was one, walked up to one of the many transparent cylinders ranged along
the walls. Inside was Alghar, stock still, his lifeless unresponsive eyes
staring blankly dead ahead. The back of his head was open with looms of cabling
hooked into it. Tubes with liquids gurgling and bubbling through them were
connected into his back. The once-noisome chattering retinue that accompanied
Alghar stood similarly silent in the other cylinders lining the laboratory
“I see you leave nothing to chance.” Barwyndar
commented dryly as she inspected the lifeless androids in their cylinders.
“I’m not quite the fool you think I am.”
Talookti’s voice was tinted with arrogant pride as he relished his moment of
glory. “And here is my piece-de-resistance.” Talookti stopped to show off a
cylinder containing an android replica of Knetryxx.
Barwyndar inspected it closely. “Have you had
to use this one yet?”
“No, but it will announce the wedding
tomorrow.” Talookti explained.
“And where is the real Knetryxx?” Barwyndar
“Safely under lock and key where she won’t
interfere with our plans.” Talookti felt totally in control.
“But the marriage will be a sham, Alghar’s an
android.” Barwyndar was a traditionalist and Talookti’s scheme violated her
sense of propriety.
“The state Knetryxx is in, she’ll never be able
to tell the difference.” Talookti crowed confidently. “And if she gets
suspicious or causes any trouble, we replace her permanently with this copy.”
“But…” Barwyndar protested vainly.
“But nothing.” Talookti sharply cut her off.
“In the event of the timeline device failing we will still be at HomeNest. A
marriage between the Keeper of the Ark of Exodus and a Chznzet will be the
symbol of our return to HomeNest. Surely you can understand that much. And that
symbolism is far more important than the life of that peasant who you appointed
to be the Keeper of the Ark.” Just then, a mid-rank reptilian Chznzet official
approached Talookti and whispered in his ear. Talookti’s smugly confident poise
crashed to one of poorly-disguised alarm. “Our two captives have escaped.” He
informed Barwyndar. “They must be stopped.”
“I thought you had all this under control.”
This confirmed Barwyndar’s suspicion that Talookti, like all the Chznzet, were
“We’ll find them.” Talookti bluffed
confidently. “There’s nowhere to hide on an Ark.”
“With me here today aboard the mysterious ship
from HomeNest that Princess Knetryxx recently discovered are Tatia Umbleewa
Hr’Tanji and Morgau Voorspak Durkanith, close friends of the Princess from her
home town of Estrillyd on the planet Vermthellyn, with news of some disturbing
developments.” Yldoseh urgently addressed the video recorder Xandu held from
where she sat next to Tatia and Morgau in the crew lounge.
“Yes, it all began when we came to visit
Knetryxx aboard the Ark of Exodus…” Tatia poured her story out for Xandu to
record with Morgau filling in the extra details as Yldoseh prompted them.
“Are you sure you don’t want to be interviewed
when Yldoseh asks me about how I found the Sortranol and the sonic transducer
when we rescued Tatia and Morgau?” Wootjan-Oo quietly asked Kkhrkht so that
their voices wouldn’t interfere with the recording.
Kkhrkht didn’t want to jeopardise Pzeptilan’s
precarious situation back on Vermthellyn. Dzzhakh-ye weighed up the odds and
reckoned that if and when this ever got back to Duke Reflinghar it would look
better if dzzhakh-ye had actually taken part. “All right, I’ll do it.” Kkhrkht
“Where’s the nearest data terminal so we can
pipe this lot back to Estrillyd?” Aridel asked Wootjan-Oo as she held out a
pawful of data packs.
“On the docking bay concourse.” Wootjan-Oo had
used it several times before and knew where it was. “Who are thinking of sending
that lot to?”
He’d been involved in plenty of Yldoseh’s hare-brained schemes before and Aridel
knew he could be trusted. “I’m going to ask him to make a copy for Reflinghar.
He ought to know what’s happened to Knetryxx before it goes out on the networks.
Kkhrkht shook momentarily with fear for
Pzeptilan as dzzhakh-ye overheard their conversation. If Duke Reflinghar felt
that Kkhrkht had been negligent, he might decide to hand Pzeptilan over to the
Rtuntli police on Vermthellyn. But there was nothing Kkhrkht could do.
Pierre and Silver walked in while Morgau was
recounting the time Alghar held a pistol to his head. “Wouldn’t you prefer to be
up on ze environment deck?” Pierre asked Wootjan-Oo.
“No.” Wootjan-Oo felt they’d be safer in the
Spirit of Discovery where Alghar wouldn’t be able to find them. “Maybe later
when Yldoseh’s finished.”
“Bon. Ze airlock’s open so you can go at any
time. Silver and I have some business to see to. If you need to speak to us,
just press zis red button.” Pierre pointed out the videophone panel next to the
crew lounge door.
“Are you sure you want to revive the entire
crew?” Silver asked Pierre as they hurried down the passage away from the crew
lounge. “We’re not exactly stocked up on supplies.”
“Absolutely.” Pierre had already made up his
mind. “Do you think I’m going to stand back while zis Alghar puts an end to us
and our world? What do you take me for?”
“But we’re scientists and researchers, not
soldiers.” Silver realised what Pierre had in mind. “We’d trip over our
“Zat may be so.” Pierre quickened his pace as
they made their way past the ranks of their crew mates resting peacefully in
their suspended-animation tanks. “But we also have a complement of a thousand
mechs which I’m going to reprogram for combat. Don’t look so surprised, Silver.
Why do you think ze Duvali Foundation put zem in ze ship in ze first place? To
play beach ball with you?”
“I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this.” Silver
sighed and resigned herself to the inevitable.
“Me too.” Pierre opened up the console to
activate a thousand brand-new general purpose alpha-class mechs. The Duvali
Foundation was immensely wealthy and supplied the Spirit of Discovery with the
very best money could buy. The first mechs were already stepping out of their
storage boxes and heading to the assembly hall while Silver busied herself with
the bio-systems controls to begin the slow and painful process of bringing the
remainder of their human crew out of suspended animation. Coming out of
suspended animation was only one step up from torture. You had to endure hours
of pins-and-needles itching that you couldn’t scratch or massage because your
body was still too sluggish to move as the bio-systems regulators brought your
metabolism and body temperature back up to normal. Hours of excruciating hell,
but there was no other way. The last of the mechs would be long since activated
before the first humans would be even able to climb out of their S-A tanks and
stand on their own feet.
Pierre drew himself up tall to cut a dramatic
pose on the podium as he addressed the mechs in the assembly hall. “First off,
on behalf of ze Duvali Foundation, may I welcome you to ze wonders of life. Our
mission was to find alien life and make contact with zem. On zat, we have
succeeded.” A large Tri-D projection of Pierre and Silver’s first meeting with
Knetryxx and the other Shallens aboard the Ark of Exodus filled the space behind
the podium. “However, zere is some bad news. First our ship was badly damaged
and many of our human crew are dead. At ze moment, we are being taken back to
Earth by ze Aliens we met. Ze second is zat some of ze aliens we have contacted
have hostile intentions and must be stopped at all costs. Zat is why I have
installed your combat programming.”
“Ze situation is somewhat complex.” Pierre
continued as all the mechs in the hall stared intently back at him. “Zese
aliens, who call zemselves Ze Shallens, originated from our planet millions of
years before we existed. So, if I haven’t confused you enough already, I would
like to introduce you to some of zese Shallens who will explain ze situation to
you. Please bear in mind zat zey are unfamiliar with mechanoid life forms such
as yourselves so you will appear as alien to zem as zey will to you.”
At Pierre’s cue Silver ushered in Yldoseh and
Wootjan-Oo to give the newly-minted mechs a crash course presentation about
Shallen culture and the Chznzet problem using their recorded videos.
Aridel peeked into the assembly hall at the
machine creatures her friends were lecturing. “Are they really alive? Do they
think and have feelings like us?” She asked Silver.
“Oh yes.” Silver had grown up in a society
where mechs, clones and humans mixed freely. “How are Morgau and Tatia?”
“They’re still a bit dopey.” Now that they were
safe for the time being, Aridel was more concerned about Knetryxx.
“Have you heard from Knetryxx?” The slender,
graceful Deleethia Sedeirtra asked her devoted and somewhat bulkily graceless
husband, the Duke Reflinghar of Sedeirtra, as she rubbed another dab of jellied
scale polish onto her face.
“I doubt we’ll hear from her until the
novelty’s worn off.” Reflinghar sighed as he slumped down on the settee while he
waited for Deleethia to finish preening herself in front of her vanity mirror.
At this rate they’d arrive at the Estrillyd Speedway long after her race had
ended. “The day she starts complaining about the condition the Ark’s in is the
day she realises she’s chained to it for the rest of her life.”
“Are you still sore the Ingnuthin didn’t choose
me?” Deleethia was glad she hadn’t been chosen in spite of Reflinghar’s
“No.” Reflinghar knew better than to question
the Ingnuthin. “But why her? Knetryxx is such a child; she knows nothing about
running an Ark. There were plenty of other choices who were more than capable:
Noorit, Flintherian, B’Haolikh... even I could have managed the Ark for you.”
“You’re not really going to disown her from the
Olblavy Clan are you?” Deleethia reminded Reflinghar of his public threat when
he was interviewed after Knetryxx’s first jaunt on the Ark of Exodus.
“No, of course not.” Reflinghar was surprised
Deleethia even took his empty threat seriously. “I had to say something
otherwise it’d look as if I condoned thievery and recklessness. The Rtuntli have
a low enough opinion of us as it is.”
“She’s surrounded by those Chznzet.” Deleethia
sniffed disapprovingly. “I hope they haven’t got their claws into her.”
Deleethia was one of Milentiet’s many great-granddaughters and shared her
deep-seated distrust of the Chznzet. “Next thing you know she’ll marry one of
them and they’ll claim ownership of the Ark of Exodus.”
“Damn squatters.” Reflinghar grumbled. “I
should have evicted them when I had the chance.”
“Vostellion offered to help you.” Deleethia
reminded Reflinghar. Not that he needed reminding.
“Only if his Ghathanwe clan would have rights
over the Ark of Exodus.” Reflinghar had given up his battle against the Chznzet
for the time being. “Milentiet wouldn’t allow it. She was right, too.”
Reflinghar had fought a long and hard legal battle through the Shallen’s
Regional Tribunal to get an eviction order against the Chznzet living aboard The
Ark of Exodus. The Chznzet were too well organised for Reflinghar, an old school
aristocratic soldier, and used every trick they could find to argue their case.
Reflinghar argued that the Chznzet had already attempted takeover bids on
several other Arks and that their real aim was to seize the Ark of Exodus. The
Chznzet countered, rightly, that they were entitled to live on the Arks of their
birth and that they had nowhere else to go. The last part being not quite true,
though there were precious few Arks that would welcome a sudden influx of
Chznzet into their population.
The final straw came when they exposed
Reflinghar’s plan to evict them by force and the Regional Tribunal threw the
case out. Reflinghar was disgraced and came away looking like a vindictive,
spiteful fool when in reality he was a kindly old soul whose only crime was to
defend The Ark of Exodus from falling into the Chznzet’s paws. It had belonged
to the Olblavy Clan since time immemorial and that, as far as Reflinghar was
concerned, was how it was going to stay.
“If the Chznzet want an Ark so badly, they can
commission a new one for themselves.” Reflinghar rumbled defiantly.
“Absolutely.” Deleethia couldn’t agree more and
got up to pose for Reflinghar in her pilots’ suit and jauntily snapped her
goggles over her eyes. “I’m ready now.”
Ah, she was gorgeous! Reflinghar feasted his
eyes on his crazy dragon queen, and swept her up in his arms. “Come, my dear.
They’re waiting for you.”
“Do you think we’ve done the right thing?”
Morgau asked Xandu as Aridel and Kkhrkht walked Tatia around the crew lounge.
“What, you mean all the interviews Yldoseh’s
done?” Xandu was excited about their work so far and felt they had a real scoop
to send back to Vermthellyn. “It’s proof that the Chznzet are up to no good.
Look at the way they treated you and Tatia. Goodness knows what they’re doing to
“No, telling those Humans.” Morgau shook his
head in an attempt to clear away his drug-induced haziness.
“Oh, that.” Xandu hummed and hawed ambivalently
before letting out a long, slow hiss. “Everyone knows the myth of HomeNest
whether they ever believed it or not and now that the Chznzet have found it, who
are we to interfere? We’d be traitors.”
“But Alghar’s plan goes way beyond that. In a
few days’ time we’ll all be dead because we’ll never have existed.” Morgau
hadn’t planned on dieing quite so soon. “Think about it: no one, not a single
Shallen alive today will ever see HomeNest.”
“How do you know Alghar wasn’t just making it
up to scare you?” Xandu found the timeline story a bit far-fetched.
“Not from the way he was talking.” Morgau was
absolutely convinced. “You weren’t there.”
“So you want to take on the Chznzet?” Xandu
knew a lost cause when he saw one and resigned himself to the hopelessness of
their situation. “We wouldn’t stand a chance. They’ve taken over the Ark.”
Aridel overheard them as Kkhrkht helped her
settle Tatia into a soft chair. “You ought to see what these Humans have: a
“Can we really trust them? We hardly know
anything about them.” Xandu vented his nagging doubts about the Humans. “Pierre
and Silver seem nice enough, but what are the others like? What will they think
of us when they find out about the Chznzet?”
“I spent some time on their worlds.” Kkhrkht
joined in. “What do you want to know?”
“Well, for a start, what are they really like?”
Xandu wanted to know more about these Humans who he and his friends had thrown
their lot in with.
“Zzzz.” Kkhrkht buzzed abstractly as dzzhakh-ye
thought of a suitable starting point. “They have a very mixed society… many
different forms of social organisation. Many of them still live very primitive
lives even though they have expanded onto other planets in their system.”
“What are they like with off-worlders?” Aridel
impatiently butted in.
“They haven’t had any real contact yet.”
Kkhrkht explained. “They’re very isolated.”
“Oh.” Morgau, having grown up on Vermthellyn
was long used to living in the company of species other than his own. “So what
did you do?”
“I disguised myself as a Human.” Kkhrkht
briefly morphed into dzzhakh’s human form as Jasper ‘Jazz’ Rodriguez for their
benefit. “It was the only way as they are still quite fearful of the unknown
such as ourselves.”
“Why, would they have killed you?” Aridel
wanted know just what Kkhrkht meant by ‘fearful’.
“Possibly.” Kkhrkht thought back to
dzzhakh-ye’s near-misses with Earth Fed and the Raiders on Mars. “But more out
of ignorance and fear than malice.”
“Can you make yourself look like us?” Tatia was
amazed by Kkhrkht’s shape shifting ability.
“No, I was bred specifically to study the
Humans.” Kkhrkht realised that it would be very useful to be able to disguise
dzzhakh-ye as a Shallen before continuing with a description of dzzhakh’s times
on Earth and Mars and finished up with dzzhakh’s recollections of the times
dzzhakh-ye spent hanging out with the Flaming Watusis in Montgomery.
“Do you think these Humans you know can be
trusted?” Xandu asked Kkhrkht. In spite of the fact that he wanted to meet the
Flaming Watusis, hear their music and see the Pleasure Dome for himself, Xandu
had serious doubts about getting the Humans involved in their battle against the
“Can they trust you?” Kkhrkht turned Xandu’s
question around. “After all, the Chznzet would put and end to them. For all the
Humans know, you might also be a Chznzet. How can they tell the difference?”
“Right now we need all the help we can get.”
Aridel wasn’t about to give up. “I say we use them now and worry about the
“Yeah, but that could be more then we bargained
for.” Xandu was worried that the encounter with the Humans on HomeNest might not
be such a good idea. “What if they start a war against us?”
“Like I said, unless we do something now, there
won’t be a ‘later’.” Aridel reminded him. At that point Yldoseh and Wootjan-Oo
walked into the crew lounge. Aridel could just make out a flood of mechs
marching noisily down the hallway behind them as they closed the door. “How’d it
“Freaky.” Yldoseh had never seen a mech before,
let alone a thousand. “They all asked me the same question at the same time.”
“So what’s the plan?” Morgau asked Wootjan-Oo.
“Silver located a temporal anomaly in the
Arbrunthiel sector of the Ark’s hub, so she’s sending a team of those
machine-things off to investigate.” Wootjan-Oo sympathised with the Humans’
determination to tackle the Chznzet.
Morgau couldn’t believe his ears. “But that
part of the Ark is wide open, the hull’s completely rotted away. No-one lives
there. Even the environment deck there is dead. They only leave the lights on to
make it look good.”
Pierre paced nervously around the assembly hall
as he waited for the mechs to tool up for their assignments and fretted over
what little he’d been able to glean from the Shallens and that other alien,
Kkhrkht. Strategy, strategy… Pierre wracked his brains for a plan, but came up
blank. There were several Earth Fed officers trained in military strategy, but
it would be hours before they were fully revived so Pierre improvised as best he
One group of mechs marched briskly into the
assembly hall. “I think we should secure the Docking Bay, Mr. Dupont.” One of
their group suggested urgently.
“Yes, yes, excellent idea.” Pierre clutched at
their plan in desperation. “Take as large a team as you need and report back to
me in three hours.” With that they marched off only to be replaced by another
“Where do you want us to set up the operations
control centre, Mr. Dupont?” They all asked him in unison.
“I was just thinking ze same thing myself.”
Pierre bluffed. He hadn’t a clue what they were talking about. It sounded
military and Silver knew more about those things. “Ask Silver, she’ll be able to
After they left a solitary mech walked in. “We
need maps of this Ark.”
“Oh yes, you want to see Wootjan-Oo about zat.”
Pierre tried to get the mech off his hands.
“Who?” It was confused by the strange-sounding
name which didn’t match up with any of the names of the human crew programmed
into its memory.
“Ze feathered Shallen who gave you ze
presentation lecture.” Pierre fought down his growing sense of panic. “He works
on ze Ark. You’ll find him in ze crew lounge. At least zat’s where I last saw
The assembly hall began to fill up with a large
group of mechs waiting for their orders from Pierre who still paced around
nervously puffing his way through pack after pack of cigarettes while he waited
for them to come up with ideas he could steal but was only met with a heavy,
pregnant silence. He’d just have to fake it and began quoting lines at random
from the countless hypervision action films he’d watched as a youngster. “Set up
a forward base!”
“Sir, yessir.” One of the mechs snapped to
attention, totally fooled by Pierre’s manic act. “Where shall we establish the
base camp, sir?”
Pierre nearly swallowed his cigarette as he
panicked to come up with an answer. “On ze environment deck.” He hoped that
would make sense.
“Full logistical support!” Pierre barked out
convincingly as he stabbed at the air with his cigarette. “Secure ze perimeter!
Lockdown security! Identify and neutralise all hostiles! No surrender! Defensive
profile! Battle stations! Take no prisoners! Change ze light bulb! No surrender!
Activate ze shields! Storm ze Bastille! Covert manoeuvres! Arm ze cannon!
Encircle and isolate ze enemy! Remember ze Alamo! Secure ze objective!” And on
and on he rambled spewing out an endless stream action soundbites without the
slightest idea of what any of them meant. Somehow he managed to convince most of
the mechs as they’d dispersed leaving behind a small gaggle of bewildered mechs
who looked to him for their orders.
Pierre wheezed heavily as he stubbed out his
last cigarette. His lungs ached and felt as flat as his mind felt empty of
action film clichés. That’s when he realised that he actually had a real job for
them that he’d completely forgotten about. “Your job will be to protect ze
Shallens who are assisting us. You will guard zem with your lives if necessary
and assist zem in any way possible. Is zat understood?” The last group of mechs
reluctantly nodded their heads and followed Pierre as he led the way to the crew
lounge where he found the Shallens and Kkhrkht in a heated discussion which
froze awkwardly as soon as he strode in followed by his troop of mechs.
“Ah, zere you are my leetle lizards!” Pierre
effused his phoney showbiz charm for all it was worth. “Zese mechs will be your
guards, so there’s no need to worry about zat nasty Alghar or ze Chznzet. We
will look after you from now on.” Pierre turned to leave but was stopped in his
tracks when Aridel called out to him.
“What is it, my pretty Aridel?” Pierre gushed,
hoping that it wouldn’t take long. He was busting for a piss and couldn’t hold
on much longer.
“Knetryxx is making a public appearance
tomorrow to announce the departure to HomeNest. Would you like to come with us?”
Aridel, having decided to throw her lot in with Pierre and the Humans, wanted to
use this as an opportunity to let Pierre see things from their point of view.
“Why, thank you.” Pierre was thrown off guard
and nearly pissed himself in surprise. He hadn’t expected anything like this.
“May I bring Silver with me?”
Aridel was glad Pierre had asked. She got on
well with Silver. “Yes, that would be really nice.”
Pierre, ever the opportunist, saw an opening to
exploit. “Ze rest of ze crew will be revived by then and zey would find it most
interesting. Would it be possible for some of zem to come along as well?”
Aridel wasn’t sure and looked to her friends
for support. Wootjan-Oo and Yldoseh were in favour; Xandu was against it and
hissed his disproval while Morgau and Tatia weren’t sure. It was her call and
she hesitated before answering. “What, all of them?”
Pierre realised he might have overstepped the
mark a bit and smiled through gritted teeth as his eyes bulged out from the
strain of keeping his stretching bladder in one piece. “No, I don’t think so. We
have much to do here on ze Spirit of Discovery.” Such as moving the crew and
their supplies onto the environment deck as their ship no longer had sufficient
power to support a fully-revived crew. But he wasn’t about to tell Aridel that.
“Maybe fifty people at ze very most. Or less if zat’s a problem.”
“That’s fine.” Even though Xandu was opposed
to the idea Aridel felt that it would be good for some of the Shallens and
Humans to meet each other, even if only to throw a spanner in the Chznzet’s
plans. “Is something the matter?” Aridel could see that Pierre was quite
“No, nothing really.” Pierre lied badly as he
tensed every muscle in his body and cold sweat trickled down his back. By the
time he got to the toilet, his bladder was fit to burst and his kidneys were
aching. The pain! The pain! Even as he pissed out a torrent, his kidneys hurt
even more. He croaked in pain all the way to the last drop and hurt even worse
when he was finished.
Barwyndar ambled along beside Talookti taking
in the Chznzet’s patchwork refurbishment of their secret lair deep within the
abandoned Arbrunthiel sector. The Arbrunthiel sector had been extensively
damaged when the Ark of Exodus was being chased out of the Sylbarian system for
the purported crime of corrupting the morals of the Sylbarian youth. The
Sylbarians were sexually repressed and the Shallens soon found themselves in the
middle of a roaring trade catering to and exploiting the Sylbarians’ explosive
sexuality. Unfortunately it didn’t go down too well with the Sylbarian elders
who took great offence at the sight of their younger generations having so much
fun. Fun that the jealous elders never had and were now too old to enjoy.
The only escape open to them was to dodge
through an asteroid cloud. When they came out the other side, the Sylbarians had
given up the chase, but the Ark had been holed in the sparsely populated
Arbrunthiel sector. The wave of destruction set off fires that raged for years.
Eventually they limped into a safe haven at Vermthellyn where the Shallens could
rebuild their Ark. Work which was still far from finished.
They reached a busy control room, full of
Chznzet Shallens working at computer consoles. Overhead screens displayed
telemetric data, external visuals, views of selected locations around the Ark of
Exodus, their position in the Vermthellyn system and astronavigation displays.
“We control the entire Ark from here.” Talookti gloated. “The refit with the
Pdzarvian Jump Drive gave us the perfect cover to route all the flight controls
through here. The main flight deck is just for show now.”
A reptilian Chznzet wearing their traditional
blue-green cape and Cooprah-hide body armour vied for Talookti’s attention. “The
insectoid that Duke Reflinghar sent for Knetryxx was involved in the breakout
from her quarters.”
“Really?” Talookti feigned casual disinterest
just to impress Barwyndar. “How so, Franthwyk?”
“We found organic traces.” Franthwyk bowed
deferentially to Talookti. “At least one Shallen, possibly two were also
involved. They also removed the transducer and the Sortranol.”
“I see.” Talookti clucked acidly as if to hold
Franthwyk personally responsible. “Have they been replaced?”
“Oh, of course, your eminence.” Franthwyk
“And this insectoid, where is it?”
“Most likely with the Humans.” Franthwyk put on
a pretence of supreme confidence to counter Talookti’s haughtiness. He was never
sure if Talookti really meant it or was merely putting on a show for Barwyndar
and played along regardless “It has been observed with them on the environment
deck. Seeing how it cannot be located on the Ark, I would assume it is aboard
“Well done, Franthwyk.” Talookti’s voice
dripped with ice-cold contempt. “We can assume that our missing guests are there
“Oh indeed, your eminence.” Franthwyk was
terrified of falling out of favour with the madly unpredictable Talookti, ruling
elder of their chapter of the Chznzet Faction.
“Good, back to your post.” Talookti dismissed
Franthwyk and turned his attention to Barwyndar. “Well, it looks like I have a
job for Alghar.” Talookti rubbed his clawed hands together gleefully.
“Is that all?” Barwyndar could never make sense
“Oh, if they get to be a problem we can always
jettison their ship.” Talookti mused idly. “After all, they’ve served their
“At least you’re still thinking.” Barwyndar
“Ugh.” Knetryxx groaned as she slipped in and
out of consciousness. The room glooped around her like the inside of a fuzzy
bubble. At least the voices that tormented her were gone this time. Colours ran
and pulsated. The Novo-Rustica furniture, a style quite popular with Shallens
who wanted to feel in tune with their heritage, ballooned shrank and warped as
though it was alive. Her limbs felt like they were on another planet and her
tail seemed to have a life of its own. Knetryxx rolled off her bed and tried to
stand up but felt as if her legs were shrinking down to stumps and took a few
faltering steps before crumpling into a tangled heap on the floor. She pulled
herself up only to feel her legs stretching until she’d hit the ceiling, lost
her balance and fell over again.
“Morgau? Tatia? Where are you?” She called out
hopefully as she wobbled unsteadily around her apartment. But they were nowhere
to be seen. Her heart sank lower and lower as she searched through the empty
rooms. Knetryxx finally sank to the floor, crushed and abandoned. “Morgau,
why…?” She cradled her face in her paws and wept hot, bitter tears of sorrow and
regret. She hadn’t realised how much she missed him until his visit and now he
was gone. Knetryxx felt alone and lost in a life that was becoming more unreal
with every passing day. Her excitement at becoming the Keeper of the Ark and a
titled princess to boot was little more than a distant memory.
“You have to leave your past behind.” A crisp
female voice cut through Knetryxx’s wretched guilt-wracked misery.
Knetryxx looked up and through her tear-sodden
eyes saw a lithe, tawny reptilian Shallen wearing a sumptuous purple velvet
dress decorated with ornate gold thread filigree designs. “Who are you?”
“But, but… you’re dead.” Knetryxx struggled to
think clearly. “You’re not real.”
“Shush, my dear.” Milentiet laid a solidly real
finger across Knetryxx’s snout. “I know it’s a big change for a young one like
you, but it’s a great responsibility being the Keeper of the Ark.” Milentiet
wandered graciously around the spacious reception room in Knetryxx’s apartment
as she airily lectured an increasingly befuddled Knetryxx. “The Ingnuthin chose
you and they have always chosen wisely.”
“Where’s Morgau?” Knetryxx interrupted
“Gone back to Vermthellyn with Tatia. They’re
engaged now.” Milentiet confided with a wicked conspiratorial grin.
“What?” Knetryxx’s disbelief barely managed to
surface through her drug-fazed woolly-mindedness. It just seemed so unlikely:
they were cousins. On top of that Morgau had been so excited to see her.
“You’re taking the Ark of Exodus back to
HomeNest.” Milentiet deliberately steered the subject away from Morgau. “We’re
so proud of you, Knetryxx. Don’t let us down.” As she spoke, Milentiet began to
fade out. Knetryxx could see though her increasingly transparent body. “Every
Shallen is watching you fulfil our history. Let the spirit of Darkuna Kuvekti
Knetryxx sat dumbly on the floor staring into
the empty space Milentiet had occupied moments before. The incomprehensible
whispering voices began to surround her again and she never even noticed the
faint click of a door closing.
Outside the door, in an anteroom sealed off
from Knetryxx, ‘Milentiet’ peeled off her mask and pulled the heavy dress off
over her head and buttoned up her fresh, white medic’s smock. “It shouldn’t take
long now.” She commented briskly to Ghrawkli, a reptilian psychiatrist assigned
to make Knetryxx pliable to the Chznzet’s demands. “Knetryxx doesn’t have much
grip left on reality so you can get started rewriting her narrative: She’s
engaged to Alghar and she’s had a nervous breakdown from the pressure of getting
the Ark ready for the journey to HomeNest. Don’t slip up like you did last time
and discuss her feelings from her point of view. Just go right past it. We
define her reality. We tell her what she thinks and feels.”
“Fine, don’t worry. I’ll deal with it.”
Ghrawkli hated the way Planthia never missed a chance to needle him about that
time and looked up from his notes to check the monitor screen on his desk which
showed Knetryxx covering her ears with her paws as she attempted to block out
the voices. “Let’s give her a few more minutes, Planthia. Can’t have her
imagining any causality, can we? Oh and flush out the Sortranol, I might be in
there with her for quite a while.”
Knetryxx sniffled miserably as she rocked back
and forth on her haunches clasping her paws over her ears to block out the
voices and curled her tail tight round her feet. Morgau still had his hothwyl
ring. It was the first thing he’d shown her after he arrived on the Ark. Morgau
had bought a matching pair of rings inset with finely-cut sparkling translucent
blue hothwyl gemstones to celebrate their first year together with his earnings
at Hepticon-X. A wry smile crept across her face as she remembered how Morgau
had recklessly spent all his money on the rings and had forgotten to set
anything aside to buy any food. Knetryxx had to support both of them until his
next paycheck came in, but it was the happiest time of their lives. She peeled a
paw away from her ear and kissed the ring on her finger hoping Morgau would
rescue her and sang their favourite song to fight back the whispering voices.
Emerald Eyes - I miss your...|
Emerald Eyes - I love your...
Emerald Eyes - I want to...
Hold you close and hear your sighs.
You were made for me, my love,
I can feel it when I hold you close.
Walking hand-in-hand through life,
We can make it when we face the world,
Yeah, face it side-by-side.
Emerald Eyes - I miss your...
Emerald Eyes - I love your...
Emerald Eyes - It's written in
The skies and the stars above...
Every night I look out across the sky,
I see our world and I think of you.
Of all the things that we said and did,
Of all the things that could have been,
And then I join you in my dreams, my dreams, my love.
Ghrawkli slipped unnoticed into Knetryxx’s
apartment while she was singing. “That’s a lovely song, Knetryxx. How are you
Knetryxx stood up unsteadily leaning back on
her tail for support and took her paws away from her ears. It was Doctor
Ghrawkli. She detested him even though his medicine made the voices go away. And
she hated herself for needing his help. “What have you done with Morgau?” She
accused him angrily.
“What?” Ghrawkli lied convincingly. “Who’s
“He came to visit me with Tatia.” Knetryxx
sniffled again. Just thinking about him made her tears well up.
“No, no-one’s been here except you. You must
have imagined it.” Ghrawkli kept to his script. Knetryxx was proving to be a
difficult case to break and they were running out of time. “Alghar’s ever so
worried about you. Are you still hearing those voices?”
“Yes.” Knetryxx was too doped up too argue with
Doctor Ghrawkli about Alghar and gulped down the glass of syrupy medicine he
offered her. Syrup that did nothing. Outside, Planthia watched them on the
monitor and set the voices on a slow fade-out so that Knetryxx would think that
Ghrawkli’s ‘medication’ was curing her.
“So tell me, what did the voices say today?”
Even though Ghrawkli could hear the voices just as clearly as Knetryxx, he
maintained the fiction that the voices were an auditory hallucination that
Knetryxx was experiencing.
“Uh, nothing much.” Knetryxx flopped down onto
a settee and tried to focus on the faint whisperings, but they were just so much
“Never mind.” Ghrawkli pretended to comfort
her. “I’m here to help you get rid of those voices. We’re going to work on that
together aren’t we?”
Knetryxx was confused by the endless doses of
Sortranol and nodded her head in mute sulky agreement.
“Good!” Ghrawkli could see she was becoming
more pliable and pressed on. “You have to make a public appearance to announce
the jump to HomeNest tomorrow. Do you feel up to it?”
“Yeah.” Knetryxx could care less. All she
really wanted was Morgau.
“Oh, it’s so good to see you again, Ranjit!”
The short, tubby Colonel Wang Li-Penh threw his arms around the towering Major
Ranjit Ghihk, stretched up on his tiptoes and gave him a great big wet kiss.
Ranjit and Wang were trained Earth Fed commando tacticians and gay lovers from
way back. They met during an extended Earth Fed campaign against slave raiders
in what used to be Northern Thailand and formed a lifelong friendship that grew
and grew with each passing year and widened into love when they bumped into each
other in a gay bar when they were both on leave. Because of the nature of the
Spirit of Discovery’s mission, most of the crew were either single or childless
couples. Ranjit and Wang fitted the bill perfectly and had jumped at the chance
of such an exotic adventure.
Ranjit held Wang close grinding their throbbing
knobs into each other. How long had it been since they’d even seen each other?
Far too long! “Any idea why everyone’s been revived?” He asked Wang after
releasing him from his bear-hug embrace.
“There’s a note here from a Pierre Dupont.”
Wang glanced down at the viewscreen set into his desk as he ran his fingers
through his thick, brush-cut black hair. “Says we’ve made contact with
extraterrestrial life and they’re taking us back to Earth. Situation red, will
“Can’t be much worse than that ion storm.”
Ranjit commented as he adjusted his turban and twirled his handlebar moustache.
“We were lucky to survive that one. So who’s this Pierre Dupont?”
“A paying passenger, would you believe! Some
rich playboy who came along for the ride.” Wang laughed dismissively. “We’ve got
more of them than you’d imagine.” They merrily ploughed through their catalogue
of put-down insults: anachronistic freeloaders, purple pick-me ups, half-wit joy
riders, fancy-dress freebooters, hooray henries, champagne buccaneers, gormless
gallows-fodder, interplanetary goats, lily-livered bandicoots, recycled oats,
nine-lived nitwits, squawking popinjays, sloth-brained picaroons, moth-eaten
kleptomaniacs, scoffing braggarts, golf-club pirates, toffee-nosed tea-traders…
The door chime sounded. “Well, speak of the
devil! Our Hollywood hero has arrived.” Wang put on a straight face and cleared
his throat as he let Pierre into their office.
“Ah, zere you are!” Pierre brought them up to
date with an elaborately breathless barrage of disconnected facts. Wang sat
behind his desk while Ranjit stood at ease with his hands clasped behind his
back as they followed Pierre’s garbled story and tried to piece it back
together. Their expressions turned from studied interest to thinly-disguised
alarm as Pierre described his panic-driven strategies to them.
Wang waited patiently until Pierre ran out of
steam. “I want you and Ms Silver to liaise with these Shallens for us. And,
please, leave the planning and logistics to myself and Major Ghihk from now on.
Report to me on any developments so that we can co-ordinate our actions. Let me
know when you go to this announcement tomorrow. I want to send a detachment of
troops to accompany you.”
Wang let out a long, low whistle after Pierre
left. “What a mess! He’s got them running around like headless chickens.”
“An impossible situation, our backs are up
against the wall and a race against time. It’s just like old times, Wang!”
Ranjit positively relished the challenge. “I haven’t had so much fun in a long
“It looks as if they’re disembarking and
setting up camp on the environment deck.” Yldoseh commented as she filmed the
Humans and Mechs from their vantage point on a low hillock overlooking the entry
point near the river where they met Pierre and Silver. Their generous detachment
of twenty mechs had been pared down on Wang’s orders to a minimal three who
wandered around nearby examining the environment deck.
“Well if that’s what they want, they could use
the Cruthigne sector. It’s pretty much deserted.” Wootjan-Oo commented idly as
he leaned against an ancient cypress tree on the edge of a stand of trees and
bracken which trailed off one side of the hillock.
“Really?” Morgau was surprised. Everyone knew
about the Arbrunthiel sector, but he’d assumed that the rest of the Ark was
“Yeah, the Ark of Exodus is one of the least
populated Arks.” Wootjan-Oo trotted out the little-known facts that were kept
amongst the Arks’ dwellers. “It’s running at less than one quarter capacity and
almost a third of it is uninhabitable. It’s barely even spaceworthy. The only
thing that keeps the Olblavy clan from scrapping it is the fact that they can’t
afford to commission a new Ark.”
“So why don’t you offer them the Cruthigne
sector?” Xandu put Wootjan-Oo on the spot.
“Bureaucracy.” Wootjan-Oo let lout a long, slow
cooing sigh. “It’s not that easy. They’d have to apply to the Keeper’s office
and seeing how they’re aliens, it would have to be approved by the Olblavy Clan
Council of Elders.”
“Not much chance, then?” Aridel summed up
“No, they’d probably get it, especially if they
agree to help with the repairs.” Wootjan-Oo briskly ruffled his feathers. “But
we’ll have arrived at HomeNest long before the Council of Elders even gets
around to considering their request.”
“Speaking of spaceworthy, will the Ark make it
to HomeNest in one piece?” Tatia was beginning to think it might be a good idea
to go back to Vermthellyn.
“I hope so.” Come what may, Wootjan-Oo as a
member of the Tech Guild, had to stay aboard the Ark of Exodus. They were
responsible for its maintenance and would always be the last to leave. That was
when he spotted Knetryxx and Alghar, arm in arm, surrounded by his gaggle of
gabbling gadflies crossing the grassy veldt towards the Humans. “It looks like
we’ve got company. You better hide.”
“Who? What?” Morgau tried to look around before
Wootjan-Oo brusquely pushed him to the ground. “Hey, what do you think you’re
“It’s Alghar, stupid.” Wootjan-Oo squawked
urgently. “Take Tatia and go hide in the bracken before he sees you.” By now the
others had spotted Alghar and Knetryxx and formed a wall to block their view of
Tatia and Morgau as they slipped off into the woods. Aridel went off to round up
their mech guards. It looked as if they might need them.
“I still don’t see why you want to ask zose
Shallens to accompany us.” Pierre addressed Kkhrkht who had now changed into
human form as Jazz as they rode the busy service lift up to the environment
deck. “It’s not as if you don’t know where to buy ze translators.”
“We need a plausible cover, Pierre.” Jazz
explained. “How would any humans know that much about this Ark? The Chznzet
could be anywhere and they’re bound to be on the look out for anything
suspicious. And me, for that matter.” As they strolled across the environment
deck to the young Shallens, Jazz caught sight of Alghar and his troupe of
troublesome toadies surrounding them. “I hope they’re not looking for me.”
“Get your paws off me!” Morgau struggled in
vain to escape from the iron grip two of Alghar’s flunkies held him with.
“Knetryxx, tell them to let us go.” He pleaded but all he got was an enigmatic
smile and an upturned snout.
“What’s going on here?” Pierre demanded as he
and Jazz strode into their midst. The three mechs assigned to the Shallens were
poised for action, awaiting their orders. All the while Yldoseh circled around
filming everything with her video camera.
“Just a little misunderstanding, Monsieur
Dupont.” Alghar pompously addressed Pierre. “Nothing to concern yourself with.
By the way, have you seen that insectoid? I’d like to have a word with it.”
“No, not recently.” Pierre wasn’t about to blow
“Knetryxx, stay here with me. You know what
Alghar’s like.” Morgau couldn’t bear the sight of Knetryxx and Alghar so close.
But it was Alghar who replied. “Indeed she
does, Morgau. And that’s why we’re getting married.”
Morgau stopped cold. “What???”
“Yes, it’s true.” Knetryxx answered sweetly.
“The party starts now and you’re all invited.”
Yldoseh nearly dropped her video camera in
shock. Wootjan-Oo shed a few feathers in surprise. Aridel was stunned. She knew
Knetryxx could be shallow and insensitive at times, but this was taking it into
a whole new league. Xandu was disappointed because Morgau had been true to
Knetryxx all this time. How could she do this to him? Tatia just couldn’t square
it up with what had happened to them. Alghar must have done something to her,
Tatia was still a bit blurry from her
captivity. “Yeah, I guess so.” Aridel and Xandu just stared at each other in
disbelief. Wootjan-Oo didn’t know what to think. Alghar turned to lead them away
with his minions dragging Tatia and Morgau along with them.
“No! I’m not going anywhere with you.” Morgau
shouted out defiantly as he stepped up his struggles. But the flunkies held him
firm and mocked his efforts.
Wootjan-Oo grabbed one of the flunkies’ arms to
pull him away from Morgau but was brushed aside with a force that knocked him
over. “Damn you!” Wootjan-Oo cursed as he threw himself at the flunky. A mech
who was standing nearby joined in and seized the flunky’s other arm to wrench it
away from Morgau. To its’ utter amazement, the arm that broke away wasn’t a
biological arm, but a mechanical android limb. The flunky punched the mech with
its remaining arm and ran off leaving Morgau dazed on the ground.
Within seconds it had erupted into a full-blown
rumble with Morgau leading the attack punching, kicking, biting and spitting for
all he was worth. Xandu, Aridel and Wootjan-Oo joined in as they fought to free
Tatia and reach Knetryxx through the mob of Alghar’s minions. Pierre, Jazz and
the mechs were caught up the fight and were just about holding their own.
Yldoseh kept her distance from the melee so that she could capture it with her
“Reinforcements, sir?” One of the mechs tersely
asked Pierre as he dodged a punch. “Armed?”
“Yes and ye…” Was all Pierre managed to get out
before he took a knockout blow on his jaw which sent several teeth flying and
left him unconscious on the ground.
Jazz was covering Aridel as she pulled Tatia
out of the fight when Alghar smashed him across the back of his head dropping
him to the ground with a sickening crunch where he morphed back into dzzhakh’s
Khzchhrrrtz form and Kkhrkht’s warrior self took over. Kkhrkht went on a blind
killing rampage savaging Alghar’s sidekicks. The Humans and mechs on the
environment deck dropped what they were doing and ran over to join in and made
short work of Alghar and his troupe of toadies.
It was over as suddenly as it started save for
a few unfortunate Humans lying on the ground groaning and moaning in pain.
Morgau staggered over to where Knetryxx lay broken and lifeless on the ground
next to Alghar and sank to his knees. “No! What have I done?” He wailed
miserably as he threw his arms around her. The Human and mech contingent took a
closer look at Alghar’s fallen gang, kicked their dead bodies a few times just
to make sure and wandered off satisfied that they wouldn’t cause any more
“Are you OK?” Aridel asked as she helped Tatia
to sit up.
“Ugh.” Tatia winced as she massaged her bruised
tail. “Someone trod on my tail.”
Wootjan-Oo wandered over to where Kkhrkht was
stripping the clothes and flesh away from the one of Alghar’s dead attendants
and took a closer look at the mechanical body revealed underneath. “What is
“A machine of some sort.” Kkhrkht answered as
dzzhakh-ye fought back dzzhakh’s warrior self now that the fight was over.
Kkhrkht stripped back the rest of the android’s clothes and artificial skin to
reveal the scorched panels, circuits and servos where it had been pierced by
“Are they all like this?” Wootjan-Oo had never
seen a mechanical life form until he met the Humans and their Mechs.
“Possibly.” Kkhrkht answered as Xandu and
Yldoseh joined them. Yldoseh filmed them as they inspected each corpse and sure
enough, they were all androids.
Morgau was oblivious to anything other than
Knetryxx. He couldn’t leave her out on the environment deck. He’d have to take
her home for burial. His tormented mind spun around wracked with guilt and fear.
What would he tell her parents? How could he explain what had happened to the
courts? What did it matter anyway? Without Knetryxx, his life wasn’t worth
living any longer and he clutched her lifeless body even closer. Better to die
with her in his arms than to continue without her. But through the dark fog of
wretched guilt something wasn’t quite right. She didn’t smell like anything he
recognised for starters. Shallens have a keen sense of smell and identify each
other by scent as well as sight. He checked her paw and her hothwyl ring was
missing. And when he tried to pick her up, she seemed unusually heavy.
“Morgau, we just want to check something.”
Aridel gently lifted Morgau away from Knetryxx and held him back while Xandu and
Wootjan-Oo carefully peeled back her clothes and synthetic skin to reveal the
broken robotic body underneath.
“Wha…?” Morgau slumped in Aridel’s arms. It was
one shock too many for him.
“It’s all right you big cry-baby.” Xandu teased
Morgau. “It’s not Knetryxx.”
“I’ll get you for that, you little runt!”
Morgau jumped up to take a swipe at Xandu. But Xandu saw it coming and ran off
with Morgau in hot pursuit. It didn’t take long for Morgau to catch up and he
grabbed Xandu’s tail and twisted it hard.
“Ow, ow, ow!” Xandu yelped as he tried to
escape from Morgau’s painful grip.
“Looks like Morgau’s recovered.” Aridel laughed
as she watched them running around the environment deck.
“That’s more than I can say about Xandu’s
tail.” Wootjan-Oo cawed.
“The remotes have been destroyed, Talookti.” A
reptilian Chznzet technician looked up from her workstation in the command
“Oh, never mind.” Talookti ruffled his feathers
and brushed off the incident with megalomaniac grandeur. “Plenty more where they
came from. But we’ll ditch the Humans’ ship mid-jump. That way no-one will ever
find them.” Talookti snickered cruelly. “They’ll be lost in hyperspace forever.”
Braaah-swoosh! Braaah-swoosh! A pair of fliers
noisily raced past the Estrillyd Speedway pits at full tilt above the teams of
mechanics and strutting pilots below while the spectators raucously cheered on
their favourites from the grandstand overlooking the starting grid. “Ah,
everyone loves a day at the races.” Reflinghar commented jovially to Pzeptilan
as Deleethia and Vvezhti-Kla climbed into their matching fliers and warmed up
their engines in preparation for their race. “Do you have anything like this on
“Yes, but not mechanised.” Pzeptilan explained.
“We have winged steeds for racing and jousting.”
“I’d like to see that.” Reflinghar missed the
traditional sports. “The jousting sounds like fun.”
“It’s very popular.” Pzeptilan quipped casually
in order to avoid discussing dzzhev’s failed escape attempt from Vermthellyn.
“Maybe we could introduce it here. It might
catch on.” Reflinghar mused aloud as he watched the fliers overhead tearing past
the pits. “Have you placed any bets on the race?”
“A hundred Galacs on Vvezhti-Kla to win.”
Pzeptilan hoped dzhinn-ye would win. They needed the money.
“That’s very loyal of you.” Reflinghar
commented as he led Pzeptilan away from pits. Behind them a flier trailing smoke
crashed onto the apron outside the pits, skidded into the crash barrier, burst
into a ball of flame showering both spectators and grease-monkeys with fragments
of debris as the pilot flew through the air and landed on top of the spectators
in the grandstand. “But you should also place a sporting bet on Deleethia.”
“Really?” Pzeptilan was despairing at the
expense of humouring the Duke and his wife. By the look of things they’d be
lucky if Vvezhti-Kla finished in one piece. “It looks dangerous.”
“Nonsense! That was just a stunt pilot to spice
things up for the public. Deleethia used to do the demolition derby, but she
feels she’s getting a bit old for that now so she does the regular races
instead.” Reflinghar was in a good mood. “I’ll place a bet on Vvezhti-Kla and
you place a bet on Deleethia. It’ll make a change for me if Vvezhti-Kla wins
after all the money I’ve lost on Deleethia.”
“I take it Deleethia doesn’t win often.”
Pzeptilan wondered if Reflinghar was a compulsive gambler.
“She hasn’t won in years.” Reflinghar chuckled
indulgently. “But she loves it and it’s good PR with the locals, so it’s money
Pzeptilan followed Reflinghar to the betting
office and matched the old Duke’s recklessly generous bet on Vvezhti-Kla before
joining him in the VIP lounge overlooking the speedway where Reflinghar offered
dzzhev-ye a glass of brandy. “So, how’s the ambassadorial life?” Reflinghar
“Not much to do if truth be told.” Pzeptilan
hedged dzzhev-ye’s bets.
“I’m not surprised. I doubt if anyone’s heard
of Zrrlchtz here on Vermthellyn.” Reflinghar knocked back his brandy and
refilled his glass. “Still, you’ll be pleased to know that the campaign on
Burrakhtlmyr is going well.”
“Really? I hadn’t heard.” Right now Pzeptilan
wanted to be anywhere except on Vermthellyn.
“Indeed!” Reflinghar slipped into his favourite
role of armchair general. “Thanks to information you gave us, we managed to
assemble a strike force to drive the Gulmarians out of the Burrakhtlmyr system. Unfortunately it left much of
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Much as Pzeptilan
liked Burrakhtlmyr and the Ilbryak, dzzhev realised that the destruction they
endured was nothing compared to what the Gulmarians would have inflicted on
“Messy business, warfare.” Reflinghar admitted
stoically between sips of brandy. “Couldn’t be helped. I don’t think the
Gulmarians will be back in this sector for a long time after the beating we gave
them. With a bit of luck Burrakhtlmyr should qualify for reconstruction
assistance from the GC Development Office. In a few centuries, you’d never know
there was a battle there.”
“And the Ilbryak. Were there any survivors?”
Pzeptilan tried to picture the lush Burrakhtlmyr laid waste. It wasn’t a pretty
“Oh, plenty.” Reflinghar preferred to gloss
over such ‘minor details’ and poured himself another glass of brandy. His
vizier, Weetleetly, sidled into the VIP suite nervously clutching a notepad in
her claws and waited for Reflinghar’s attention. “What is it now, Weetleetly?”
Reflinghar tetchily scolded his vizier. “I thought I told you I wasn’t to be
disturbed today. It’s Deleethia’s day at the races.”
“My apologies sir, but something rather urgent
has come up.” Weetleetly hastily shoved a data cartridge into a display screen
and fired it up. The VIP lounge filled up with the sound and babble of the Ark
of Exodus’ observation deck as Knetryxx, surrounded by Chznzet, filled the
screen. It hastily cut to the interviews with Morgau, Tatia, Wootjan-Oo and
Kkhrkht followed by scenes of the Humans and Mechs offloading from their ship
and finished with the chaotic fight on the environment deck and the dead android
replica of Knetryxx laid out on the ground.
“Damn those Chznzet!” Reflinghar angrily threw
down his glass which shattered on the floor. “They’re nothing but trouble. How
long have we got before the Ark makes its jump?”
“About five hours.” Weetleetly made an educated
guess based on what little information she had.
“Muster up all the troops you can and have them
wait for me at the armoury.” Reflinghar had enough and decided that it was time
for a showdown with the Chznzet. “Who’s the garrison commander on board the Ark
of Exodus at the moment?”
Weetleetly consulted her notepad.
“Not that sympathiser.” Reflinghar spat out.
“Find someone we can trust and tell them to round up all the loyal troops to
secure the Ark. And be discreet about it, I don’t want the Chznzet getting wind
of our plans. They’ve gone too far. I’ve got a good mind to throw them out into
space this time.”
“Anything else, sir?” Weetleetly hadn’t seen
Reflinghar so angry in a long time.
“No, that’s it.” Reflinghar couldn’t run off
without telling Deleethia where he was going. She’d only give him hell
afterwards. “Well, don’t just stand there like a dumb bird Weetleetly; I’ll be
along as soon as Deleethia’s race is finished.”
Pzeptilan looked around for a quick escape in
case Reflinghar decided that Kkhrkht had failed and the dzzhev-ye was to pay for
it with dzzhev’s life. But Weetleetly had already gone and the doors were
“What happened? Have we missed the race?”
Reflinghar asked as he looked out from their suite atop the grandstand. This was
supposed to be Deleethia’s day and Reflinghar was determined to enjoy what
little was left of it before leaving.
Pzeptilan looked at the viewscreen which was
following the main pack. They had just passed one marker and were going into a
steep climb to reach the next. Dzzhev-ye spotted one of their fliers jockeying
for position as they hurtled along. “Looks like we’ve missed the start.”
“What, is it over?” Reflinghar ran through his
collection of descriptions of her previous races. Maybe he could bluff it.
Deleethia was bound to quiz him to make sure he had watched the race and would
get annoyed if he’d missed it.
“No, it’s on right now.” Pzeptilan walked over
to the window. Their other flier tore past the grandstand hotly pursued by a
loose gaggle. Was it Vvezhti-Kla or Deleethia? Was it in the lead or trailing
“Let’s see how they’re doing.” Reflinghar
turned on the sound and the commentator’s babble poured out of the viewscreen.
“…it’s a complete upset in the middle-distance
grand slalom. The current champion, Ghrotar of Thelwyk and the hot contenders
this season including, may I say, Boojida Smurfylln have been outpaced by a
total outsider flying under the doughty Sedeirtra colours. Wouldn’t you say so,
“Absolutely, Elshtar.” A chubby, dark-furred
Rtuntli commentator replied as the viewscreen followed the main pack around the
course. “Here we see Deleethia Sedeirtra, known more for her love of racing than
her winning streak, holding up a respectable 8th place.” At this
point the picture jumps to the leading fliers zooming around the course. “But
here we see a pilot with real mastery.” By now the picture was following
Vvezhti-Kla. “Just look at the way this one gets the best line between the
markers and obstacles. I haven’t seen a pilot this hot since Alknorlan the
Bhonevit and that’s going back a while! It looks like Team Sedeirtra has finally
found a winner. This is definitely a pilot to watch: real championship
“Hmmm.” Reflinghar looked at his betting slip
as the commentators babbled away in the background. Maybe something good has
happened today. A winner! That would certainly be an improvement on bribing the
other teams to let Deleethia win. “Go! Go!” He cheered Vvezhti-Kla on as he
watched the fliers chase each other around the circuit. Vvezhti-Kla opened out
dzhinn-ye’s lead all the way to the end and thoroughly trounced the other
“A winner! Yes!!!” Reflinghar jumped up
excitedly as the commentators extolled and analysed the mystery pilots’ skills
in the background. “Let’s go and join them. Vvezhti-Kla’s won a handsome prize
today.” Reflinghar was already seduced by the prospect of managing a winning
team. “We’ll have to enter your pilot in more races. And we’ll need a wingman to
block out the competition: Deleethia could do that. A string of wins on the
local circuit, sign up a few up-an-coming pilots and we’d be in the major
league. What do you think?”
“It’s a great idea.” Pzeptilan was glad that
Reflinghar had forgotten Kkhrkht’s incompetence in his excitement. Dzzhev-ye
would have no trouble talking Vvezhti-Kla into it as dzhinn was still
embarrassingly deferential and subservient and Pzeptilan had no qualms about
exploiting Vvezhti-Kla seeing how their lives depended on it.