For chapter one, click HERE.
For chapter two, click HERE.
Frosday the 6th
Breakfast time found Hudley, Pingree and Chippo sat together in the staff canteen. Chippo picked at his food unhappily.
“I spent a week designing those fire-toads. Durle has ordered them reassigned.”
“I’m surprised that he didn’t line them up against a wall and have them shot,” said Hudley.
Pingree snorted. “Durle’s an idiot! He only understands targets and profit. He has no respect for craftsmanship.” He shook his head. “Those toads are beautiful.”
“Hey, it’s the Greys.” Hudley gave a cheery wave. Three slim figures in silver jumpsuits waved back. Each stood roughly a metre and a half tall, with long arms and delicate fingers. Their heads were large and hairless, seemingly too large for their frail looking bodies, but despite their slender frames, Greys are deceptively strong. Large, shiny black eyes and a thin lipless mouth punctuated each otherwise featureless face. Other than a pair of slit like nostrils, they had no visible noses or ears. In spite of this, Greys actually possess very sensitive nasal equipment, and they have no need for external ears, their hearing being stimulated by the minute vibrations of sound waves against their skulls.
Chippo was reminded of an old poem that he had learned at school:
“What do we say to old Mr Grey?
His head has no ears. Who knows what he hears,
When we shout him a greeting as he ambles along?
Can he hear the birds tweeting and singing their song?
And having no nose, what do you suppose,
He smells as he sniffs at a lily or rose?
Does it smell of fine wine, or the sweetest perfume,
Or like an old corpse just exhumed from a tomb?
So we ask Mr Grey, “How are you today?”
He replies, “Very well! And I hear all you say,
For ears I need not to know what you shout,
As you laugh and you point when I’m out and about.
And as for my nose, I can very well smell,
As we meet on this path, that you’re late for your bath.”
So we hurry back home and leap into the tub,
For old Mr Grey says our bums need a scrub.”
The three Greys, Sid, Simon and Genghis ambled over and sat down.
“Hail furry morons!” shouted Simon.
“Greetings hairless lunatics!” laughed Pingree. “What’s happening with the Colony?”
Greys love to talk about their Colony, and Pingree had found this was a good way to start a conversation. The Greys leaned in towards one another and began conferring excitedly, a series of clicks and screeches that reminded Pingree of hyperactive bats.
Sid turned back to the three Fulfae. “Tonight is movie night.”
Genghis rocked gently with anticipation. “A double bill of Human science fiction movies from the last century.” All three Greys murmured softly. Genghis’ rocking increased in speed.
Greys love everything and anything related to Human culture. Their regular visits to Earth are greeted with hysterical excitement by the Colonies, and any new idea or fashion is quickly incorporated into the Grey’s culture. This was reflected in the current trend of giving Human names to Grey babies rather than traditional Grey names. Important figures from Human history also featured prominently, as did characters from movies. In addition to Genghis, the local colony boasted an Attila the Hun, Count Dracula, Sir Francis Drake and a Son of Kong.
Sid was President of the Colony’s movie club, and responsible for choosing the viewing schedule.
“Tonight we are showing the cult classics, Earth vs. the Alien Menace, and Die, You Alien Scum!”
Simon leaned forward and intoned seriously, “this could be the end of life on Earth as we know it, Major.” The three Greys shrieked with laughter. No one at the other tables seemed concerned at the noise; they had all worked with Greys long enough to know that all their conversations were conducted at top volume.
“What is movie night like?” asked Hudley.
Sid considered this carefully. “Noisy.”
“Sounds like fun. Could we join you? Chippo could do with cheering up.”
Simon, Genghis and Sid leaned towards each other and conferred. “Lady Vee is meeting us shortly. We will ask her consent.”
“I’m not in the mood for movies, guys,” said Chippo. “And I don’t really understand Grey.”
“There will be fermented fruits,” said Simon, “and we can turn on the subtitles for you.”
“Go on,” Hudley urged. “You’ll love it.”
“Count me out, Squirrel Boy!” Pingree tossed his floppy green scalp fur and pouted seductively. “Tonight is ladies night at Club Frizzle.”
“I’m with you, Green Man,” said Chippo. “I need to hit the dance floor.”
Hudley did not want to go clubbing. He was fed up with sitting in the corner while all the Fulfettes flocked round his two friends.
“Well, I’m up for it. You two can suit yourselves.”
All three Greys had suddenly become rigid in their chairs and were staring intently at the entrance to the canteen. In the doorway stood a tall slim figure, almost two metres in height, framed by a ghostly white glow, and wearing a long, flowing ivory dress that hung to the floor. Her pale skin pulsed with a dim radiance and a fine network of blue veins was visible beneath the surface. Her dark eyes swept the room and alighted on the Greys, who sprang to their feet. The White Lady Vee glided over and the Greys bowed their heads in silence. The White Ladies’ reputations preceded them. They were known to be fierce, temperamental and violent, as well as fiercely protective of their Colonies. The canteen had become very quiet, and all eyes followed the White Lady as she crossed the floor.
“Greetings Lady Vee.” The White Lady sat down and the Greys followed suit. Vee’s long fingers drummed at the table top, her talons glinting in the fluorescent light. “The Ufro Durle has requested the honour of my presence and I require a chaperone. Sid, you will join me.”
“Of course, Lady Vee,” replied Sid. “Lady Vee, these are our friends, Hudley, Chippo and Pingree.” Vee fixed the Fulfae in a steely gaze. Each nodded in turn, but remained silent.
Sid continued “Hudley wishes to be presented to the Colony.”
Vee smiled. “Do you really?” Hudley nodded.
“He would like to join us for movie night.”
Vee grinned, showing two rows of pointed, white fangs. Her thin black tongue snaked between her lips. “It would be our honour to welcome you as our guest. Sid will bring you by shuttle and return you here tomorrow morning. You will join us for food and entertainment.” Hudley stared at Vee’s vicious teeth and claws. He hoped that he wouldn’t be joining them as food and entertainment.
“Thank you, Lady Vee,” he managed.
Vee rose, and the Greys shot upright, again bowing their heads. “Come, Sid. We do not wish to keep the Ufro waiting.” She swept out of the canteen, Sid following close behind.
Chippo watched them leave. “What’s the deal with the White Ladies? Do they have boyfriends? Husbands?”
“Our society is not like that. Males and females do not form pair bonds.”
“But you do, you know… breed with each other?”
“No,” said Simon sarcastically, “the Magic Munchkins leave our babies under the gnerlberry bush for us to collect each morning.”
Pingree felt this may be time to intervene. “Simon, how do the White ladies choose their mates?”
“Well, as you are aware, Greys are all males and Whites are female.”
“And Greys outnumber Whites by about thirty to one.” Pingree nodded. “Once per year, the White Ladies become fertile and invite all the Greys in her Colony to offer their genetic material to fertilise her egg.”
Chippo was aghast. “All of you? At the same time?”
“The White Ladies will accept genetic material for around five to seven days, in the last quarter of Lunar Cycle nine. For those days, we must be available at all times.” Simon sipped his drink. “Our Colony has about one hundred fertile Greys, so there are between three and six White Ladies of reproductive age at any one time. The White Lady summons us to her chambers to fertilise her egg.” Simon looked pointedly at Chippo. “One at a time.”
“But, with so many potential fathers, who raises the baby?”
“Once the eggs have hatched, the new infants are delivered to our central Hive to be raised. When they come of age, they are reassigned to a new Colony, thus ensuring dilution of the gene pool.”
Genghis took up the tale. “A Virgin Lady will become fertile during her eighteenth year and her first born offspring will be a female. She is then known as a White Lady. All subsequent offspring will be male. The White Lady will become fertile every year for the next twenty five or thirty years. When her fertility wanes, she is known as an Auntie.”
“So Lady Vee will become Auntie Vee.”
“Is that why projects stop running for a week in LuCy nine?”
“Indeed it is; and this year is the Virgin Lady Boadicea’s eighteenth year, so next Spring we will celebrate the birth of a new White into our Colony.” He leaned forward excitedly, his dark eyes glinting. “And that’s not all. Sid, Simon and I have been assigned to visit Earth to find Lady Bee a suitable gift for the occasion.” He sat back and slurped happily at his drink.
Lady Vee stood at Major Durle’s office door. Sid knocked loudly and opened the door. Durle rose from his desk, inclining his head slightly as Vee swept in and stood in the centre of his office. She looked around, taking in the large framed pictures of Durle from his military days; Durle in the cockpit of a space drone, Durle in full military regalia being presented with a medal by the Admiral, Durle bowing before the Emperor. She then directed her gaze to the Major himself, stood behind his beautifully polished glass desk, its rows of pens, pads and paperweights laid out in neat rows.
Durle kept his head bowed and waited for the White Lady to speak.
“Good day, Major Durle.”
Durle raised his head to look at Lady Vee. He stood about ten centimetres taller than her and he was broad and brawny, but he knew of her strength and speed, and his gaze briefly dropped to her long hands and wicked claws.
“Good day, Lady Valentina. Would you care to take a seat?” He gestured towards a large pair of padded swivel chairs. Vee elegantly settled into one and motioned for Sid to do the same.
“You requested an audience, Major?”
“Indeed, Lady Valentina, but I had hoped to speak with you in private.” He directed his gaze toward Sid.
“No,” she replied.
Nobody does awkward silence like the Greys. Sid and Vee sat motionless, while Durle sat and watched his reflection in the dark surfaces of their eyes. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Very well, then. I wish to complain about the Greys from your Colony.” He nodded his head towards Sid. “Particularly this one.”
“They don’t seem to take their duties seriously. They are undisciplined, noisy and constantly giggling.” He frowned. “Giggling like schoolgirls.”
“My Greys’ duties are to provide transport both on and around Genesis, deliver supplies and provide engineering services. Are they failing to transport personnel or supplies in a timely and safe manner?”
“No, Lady Valentina.”
“Are they failing to maintain the shuttle craft in satisfactory working order?”
“Then surely you have nothing to complain about.”
Durle sighed and ran his paws through the soft fur of his chin. “It is not simply their attitude or work ethos. This one, Sid, disrespects me in front of my subordinates. I cannot afford to have my authority undermined.”
Lady Vee turned her head towards Sid. “Is this true?”
Sid stared straight ahead, anxious not to meet Lady Vee’s cold stare. “Yes, Lady Vee. Major Durle speaks the truth.” Privately, Durle was impressed at the Grey’s honesty. It was well known that to bring the Colony into disrepute was punishable by death. Perhaps he had more character than Durle had given him credit for.
“Why?” demanded Vee. “Why do you choose not to show respect?”
“Lady Vee, he demands respect, but does nothing to earn it. He demeans his subordinates, he abuses his position and ….” Sid stopped and looked at the floor.
Sid’s voice was a hoarse whisper. “My lady, I daren’t.”
He continued to stare at the floor. “My lady, he has been heard to make disparaging remarks about our Colony.” He looked up at her. “Your Colony.”
Lady Vee’s fingers started to drum slowly on the arm of the chair. She let out a soft hiss and her lips curled back slightly. The glow of her pale skin became brighter, and her eyes narrowed. Durle slowly started to push his chair back from the desk, his paw moving slowly down to the holster at his hip.
“Please continue, Sid.”
“Lady Vee, please.”
“Now!” she hissed. Sid recoiled in fear.
“My lady. He said that if he had his way, he would flatten our Colony and turn it into a spaceport.”
“WHAT?” roared Vee. She stood up and let out a shriek of anger. Sid threw himself onto the floor as Lady Vee spun around and swept her chair away with a vicious swipe of her long arm. The chair sailed across the room, four ugly gouges in its shiny exterior. In one fluid movement, Durle had jumped to his feet and was holding his service revolver in his right paw. His heart was pounding, but his aim was steady.
Lady Vee turned back to him. “How dare you?” She grabbed one of Durle’s glass paperweights in her hand and tightened her fist. There was a soft crack, and large chunks of glass begin to fall onto the surface of the desk. She slammed the broken paperweight down onto the glass desktop, and a fine network of cracks burst upon the desk’s pristine surface.
Vee and Durle faced each other silently. Vee raised her hand and pointed a finger at Durle. A long shard of glass protruded from her palm and a thin trickle of green blood ran down her finger, onto her talon and slowly dripped onto the floor. “Insult me again and I shall have your skull as an ornament on my desk.” And with that she turned and swept out. Sid leapt up and scuttled after her.
Durle stood for a few moments and waited for his heart to slow. Now his paw started shaking and he sat back down and surveyed the damage. He buzzed for his secretary on the intercom.
“I think I’ll be needing some new furniture.”
It was late morning and Major Durle was in the courtyard of the Capricorn Hotel awaiting a shuttle. He had arranged to meet the insurance investigators, Douglas “Duggie” Dugdale and Vesta Van Fumé, who were coming to investigate the methane swamp explosion. The hospitality manager, Mr Furpin was tasked with greeting the journalists from Wotcha! magazine and settling them into their hotel suites (presumably via the bar).
The shuttle arrived on time and gently touched down in the courtyard. Dugdale and Van Fumé were the first to disembark. Dugdale was a broad shouldered, greying Ufro with dark eyes and a broken nose. He appeared about the same age as Major Durle, but with more weight around the middle. He held himself upright and the Major suspected that he was from a military background. Van Fumé was a tall, slim, attractive blonde Ufrette, with wide hips and long legs. She walked elegantly despite her pointed stiletto heels. Both Dugdale and Van Fumé were smartly dressed in business suits and each carried a single suitcase.
Dugdale put his case down and greeted the Major with a stiff salute. “Major Durle,” he growled.
“Mr Dugdale,” said the Major, returning the salute.
“Formerly, Sergeant Dugdale. Fifty first Imperials.”
“Ah! Infantry, eh?” said the Major.
“Yes, Sir. Served in Ferox, during the troubles.”
“Good chap! And you must be Miss Van Fumé.” The Major extended his paw.
“A pleasure to meet you Major,” said Van Fumé. Her pawshake was confident and firm.
“Well,” said the Major, “let me show you to your rooms, and then I propose we meet in the lobby at thirteen hundred. I have prepared an incident room in the security department. We can start with a debriefing, then you will be able to view security footage of the incident.”
“We’ve already seen the footage, thank you, Major,” said Dugdale. “If you don’t mind, after the debriefing we were hoping to spend the afternoon at the spa. It’s been a busy twenty four hours. Could you please arrange a shuttle and pilot for us first thing tomorrow? We were hoping to spend the morning examining the methane swamp.”
“Roger that,” said the Major. “Shall I take your case, Miss Van Fumé?”
“Thank you, Major.”
The journalists, Lefleg, Tulara and Chuna had now exited the shuttle and were exchanging courtesies with Mr Furpin. He helped them to carry their luggage into the hotel reception where the receptionist greeted them enthusiastically.
“Welcome to the Capricorn Hotel. I am sure you will enjoy your stay here.”
“I’m sure we will,” agreed Lefleg, looking around. “Which way is the bar?”
A short time and several drinks later, the Wotcha! team felt ready to plan their week. The grand opening of Caelestis was to be attended by the Emperor’s family, scores of dignitaries, friends of the Emperor and Empress, and a host of celebrities including stars of stage and screen, singers and socialites. Lefleg suggested that they bring out an issue dedicated entirely to the event, dividing it roughly into thirds; a third dedicated to celebrity pictures and gossip, a third to the spa island of Caelestis and Intelligent Design operations, and a third to the ceremony itself.
Most of the work would take place on and around the big day, but until then, the plan was to interview Intelligent Design personnel and investigate the island and its facilities, starting with the hotel bar.
Chuna was scribbling on the back of a napkin. “I’m going to go round the island tomorrow and get some pictures of the local wildlife; then I thought I’d spend a day at the beaches and spa facilities. On Moonday I was going to do the industrial complex, and then the celebs should start arriving.”
Tulara nursed a green cocktail and snacked on some dried fruit. “I’m being flown to Impervia Island tomorrow morning to see the new Royal Palace. When I get back, I’m going to check out the spa facilities. Why don’t you join me there tomorrow afternoon?”
Lefleg nodded. “OK. I’ll join you in the spa over the weekend. On Moonday, I’ll start interviewing staff. I’m keen to find out what kind of research they’re doing here, and what security arrangements are in place after that explosion.” She ordered another drink. “Chuna, I’ll speak to Major Durle and try to get you a shuttle pilot. I’d like some aerial shots of the island.”
“When will Gerbert be here?” asked Tulara.
“This is going to be great,” beamed Chuna.
“I’ll drink to that!” agreed Lefleg.