The Guardian Part 1
I'm on a roll this evening - 3 posts in the space of an hour.
I've done some more work on my story recently and have been reminded of how difficult writing a story is - people who do this professionally make it all look fairly effortless. I have at least a first part to publish, anyway, although there are still problems with it.
The process of writing is strangely cyclical, looping around on itself: produce a first draft - read it through - hate it - do a second draft correcting what is wrong with the first draft - read it through - hate the second draft - re-read the first draft and realise that it wasn't as bad as it at first seemed - return to working on first draft - go back to hating it - abandon first and second drafts and begin work on a third.. At no point does the damn thing become finished.
Below is the gazillionth stab at re-writing the tale, although in terms of the content it is only really the third try
Part 1 How did I end up here again? The human wondered to himself. Axel Munt glanced around at the interior of the public-house, trying to remember if it had looked this seedy the last time he had visited. It was early evening and the management had turned the lamps down to create a moody atmosphere and allow the customers to carry out their shady business with less danger of spectators. As a happy by-product, the darkness also served to mask the tackiness of the décor; the building’s interior, modelled after a native temple, was decorated almost entirely in blue and gold, the walls and furnishings encrusted with the shells and fossils of tiny sea creatures, while holograms of living fish swam over the customers’ heads to finish off the marine effect. It was pretty at first glance, but it was difficult not to feel motion sickness after you had been in there a while. The centrepiece was a huge, bejewelled statue of the goddess after whom the tavern, the Embrace of Agrothrax, was named. She resembled a Syreenii, the planet's native sentient race, save for her height - she towered over the barkeeper and his staff, her head scraping the ceiling - and her tentacles, which spread out across the interior and gripped the pillars supporting the domed, transparent roof. According to local legend, the goddess’s embrace was fatal; none of her lovers saw another dawn once they had entered her bed-chamber. Cheery stuff, Axel thought, although he was unable to imagine why anyone would want to make love to a sixteen-foot-tall woman-squid. That said, out of all the gods of Atruenus, she was by far the most representative of the planet; you could leave the place, but you never got very far before an invisible tendril curled around your ankle and yanked you back again. That, at least, had been his experience. Axel had been offworld twice since his parents had left him here all those cycles ago, but somehow fate conspired to keep bringing him back to Atruenus again. Why the universe – or the Maker, if you believed in such a being – would want him to be marooned here of all places was anybody’s guess. The planet was little more than a soggy sponge hanging in space, more than 99% of its surface covered in grey oceans and the remainder knee-deep in mud. Little sunlight made its way past the perpetual cloud cover and every breath that you took threatened to drown you. It was little wonder that the colonists’ affectionate nickname for the place was ‘Puddle’. Even the Syreenii seemed not to like being here, hence the influx of many of their number to the offworlder settlements above water level. The Syreenii elders were less than happy about this, but there was little they could do; the lure of offworlder benefits was too powerful to resist for their young folk. The tavern's owner was one of those immigrants. He was a powerfully-built, young fellow of sour disposition who had been glancing disapprovingly at the human since he had entered half an hour earlier. Like others of his race, he was primarily humanoid, if you discounted the piscine characteristics – gills and dorsal fin - not to mention the perpetually briny smell. He was currently multitasking, dividing his time between polishing glasses and glaring at the customers. Axel was getting most of the attention; no doubt Skid was still trying to work out what a monk was doing in his establishment. That was, after all, how the boy was dressed. He had worn the outfit by way of a disguise, although Axel now realised that the robe was attracting more attention than his usual clothes. Generally, religious types didn't frequent places like this. Anxious to avoid a confrontation, the human broke eye contact with the owner and turned his attention to the other customers. The tavern’s clientele had not improved in Axel’s absence. At the table closest to his crouched a solitary Virnoid, its mottled skin shifting from blue to an excited orange as it scooped its still-wriggling meal into its oversized maw. Virnoids usually ate alone, and with good reason. Stomach heaving, the human fixed his gaze on another table, which was occupied by a crowd of Nimlings. They were less repulsive to look at, at least, chattering loudly as they drank and giving every appearance of enjoying one another's company. If you waited long enough, however, the drinks would affect a transformation in these creatures, from sweet little pixies to ravening monsters who profoundly hated each other, and loud and bloody war would kick off. The only reason the management hadn't barred them from this establishment, in fact, was because the other customers enjoyed watching the little imps kicking seven shades of plasma out of each other and hurling vile curses in those childlike voices. As entertainment went, it was cheaper than hiring singers or a band, and it was never difficult to eject the Nimlings from the premises afterwards as they were too small to present much danger to the staff. And over there, next to the fish tank, were two Vulpins, each conversing through one mouth while drinking through the other. Their species, out of all those represented in the tavern, were equipped for talking and drinking simultaneously, something most races had yet to master. The tank next to them was occupied by three Chiming Eels, which were dozing peacefully, apparently taking the night off; usually, those creatures provided the music, wailing in shrill voices which combined into a unique, almost-human sound that Axel had never acquired a taste for despite multiple visits. Like attracts like, the human thought. Creatures from literally worlds apart, all hanging around exclusively with their kind, raising the question of why they bothered leaving their planets at all. Out of this whole crowd (excepting the Virnoid) he was the odd one out, the solitary little human far from home. He always had to work that little bit harder to get people to listen to him and take him seriously, and nobody wanted to be his friend, no matter how politely they tolerated his company. He was a bad joke, an insignificant creature from a small, obscure planet. He was going to show them all eventually, of course. Absent-mindedly, he reached for the round, hard lump in his right pocket and gave it a squeeze, just to assure himself that it was still there. 'What will it be, um, Father?' asked the waitress. The human started; he had been so wrapped up in his thoughts that he hadn't heard her approach and now she was standing uncomfortably close to him, tablet in hand. He looked up and locked eyes with her before he could stop himself. He looked away very quickly. Unfortunately, it was his favourite waitress, a slim young Syreenii female, who also happened to be the owner's younger sister. She was stunning by the standards of any race, and the skimpy outfit she was wearing didn't help; it was skin-tight, made of glittering fish-scales, and it revealed more than it covered. As if her family connections weren't off-putting enough - the last customer to flirt with her had been marched outside and dropped in the ocean - the human was well aware that the business of interspecies coupling was fraught with peril. It was rumoured that some particularly nasty planet-wide plagues had their origins in two specimens of different races meeting and falling in love. Those two facts didn't serve to make her any less distracting; in fact, it just increased her appeal, the fruit hanging ripe and swollen from the forbidden tree, within his reach but ultimately toxic. 'Oh, er, fetch me some water if you would be so kind, my child,' he rasped, hiding his voice behind one meant to sound older and gruffer than his usual self. He doubted that this exceptionally, painfully beautiful creature would remember him from their previous encounters, but one could never be too careful. 'Are you sure that's all you want?' She asked slyly. As she said this she took a small step closer to him so that her thigh was pressing up against his shoulder, sending a thrill up his spine. She would probably, like her brother, be wondering what a man of the cloth was doing in a den of sin such as this, perhaps even considering what kind of fun she could have with him. They were quite a double act, those two; she lured customers in, and her brother made them disappear. Axel hesitated. Up close she smelled of the sea-breeze, and it was not at all unpleasant. The human remembered a story from long ago, something read to him in his childhood about a woman, part fish, who fell in love with a human man. It was a beautiful story, and from what he could recall, it did not end well for one of the characters, although he wasn’t sure which one. 'No, that will be all,' he said with difficulty, trying not to stare at her ample posterior as she turned and returned to the bar. The owner’s eyes met his again and flashed a warning. 'Excuse me,' said a voice close by. Axel jumped; this was indeed a night for being snuck up on. Somehow a small, green creature that had been seated at the bar - the customer he had paid least attention to, as it happened - had managed to cross the room without him noticing, and now it was standing by his left knee. It was so close that he could feel its warm breath on his skin. It was covered from head to foot with thick fur, its head all whiskers and twitching, pointy ears, and it was gazing up at him with a pleading expression in its large, golden eyes. Its appearance reminded him of something that he vaguely recalled, a distant memory of the historical records on his parents' ship... 'Cat!' The word popped out before he could stop himself. 'Oh, why do you humans have to do that?' the creature growled. 'Comparing every sentient race that you meet with some stupid animal from your planet? It’s quite rude, you know. I'm a Gelithran.' ‘Sorry,’ said Axel, who had never in his life heard of 'Gelithrans'. And then, as what he had just heard sank in: ‘”You humans”?’ The cat nodded. ‘You’ve met others?’ Another nod. ‘Recently?’ ‘Lived with them,’ the cat said. ‘Worked for them. Learned quite lot about them.’ ‘Take a seat,’ Axel said quickly, pulling up a stool. He had been about to shoo the alien away, feeling no desire for company or the attention that it would bring, but now he was hooked. If there were any other Terrans in the vicinity of this planet, he had to know. ‘I thought I was the only one left in this sector,’ the human explained as the cat climbed up on to the stool and seated itself, legs and tail dangling. ‘We’re quite a rare species in these parts, as you may be aware.’ His new friend nodded. ‘I know,’ he said. In truth, he would have to have lived quite a closeted life not to know; the humans' story had become one of the best-known cautionary tales in the system and had begun twenty-one cycles earlier. That was when the three Terran ships had arrived in Clusterspace, bearing hundreds of their number - men, women and children – who had all crossed the vast distance from Lost Earth on a single mission: to convert the children of the Cluster to their One True Faith. Everyone knew how disastrous that mission had turned out to be. The Clusterworlds had already had plenty of religions of their own, thank you very much, and weren't desperate to receive any more. As such they treated the newcomers with responses ranging from polite indifference to downright hostility. The human missionaries found the business of spreading their message of salvation very hard going, and, after a while, grew somewhat demoralised. That was when they made their most significant mistake; despite all warnings against doing so from the aliens who knew better, they decided to take their proselytising outside the borders of the Cluster to the worlds and races beyond. And unfortunately for them, the first race that they came across was the Tellistraxians. Very few of the humans had survived that encounter. ‘I smelled you when you came in and knew what you were,' the green alien continued. 'Not that I'm suggesting that you're… you know… smelly or anything. My race has an excellent nose for different species; it's how we hunt, and after living with humans for as long as I have...' He tailed off and began to look uncomfortable. ‘It’s just.. I thought you might be able to help me,’ he went on. ‘I’m sorry to bother you like this, I’ve had a terrible day… yesterday everything was fine, and now it’s all gone wrong, and I don’t know what to do… this has never happened to me before… everything’s falling apart… Nggh!’ ‘Hey, stop it,’ the human said, alarmed. The creature had begun to gnaw the table. ‘Sorry,’ the Gelithran said. ‘I tend to chew things when I’m stressed.’ ‘Well, the owner hates it when customers eat the furniture,’ Axel said. He wasn't sure how the creature managed to have a runny nose with such tiny nostrils, but they were streaming. Embarrassed, he fumbled in his pocket and withdrew a grease-smeared rag, which he offered to his new friend. The creature took it gratefully and blew his nose before offering it back. 'Oh, no, you keep it,' Axel insisted. ‘So tell me about this situation of yours – who have you lost?’ ‘A girl,' the creature said, stuffing the rag under his bottom. 'I'm a guardian by profession, and I've misplaced the child I was supposed to be looking after. In all the time I’ve been doing this, I’ve never before had one run out on me.’ He began chewing again, this time on the alarmingly big and pointy fingernails - claws, in fact - that had sprouted out of his fingers. Guardians. The babysitters of the Cluster. Axel had never had a guardian, and had never wanted one; the fact that his parents hadn't resorted to outside help with their parenting of him was one of the things he felt grateful to them for. One of the few things. 'You don't... look like a guardian,' Axel observed. 'What does a guardian look like?' the cat asked sharply. 'Well,' Axel shrugged. 'They're usually bigger than the children they look after, for a start.' 'Size has got nothing to do with it,' the creature said stiffly. 'The job is all about self-assertion; if you don't have that, then the cubs will walk all over you. I've observed some very big guardians who were hopeless at managing their charges and some tiny ones who could inspire terror and obedience with a single word.' 'Oh, I'm sure,' Axel said quickly. 'And all respect to you, it's not a job I could do. I'd rather crawl through a sewer than get stuck looking after a clutch of screaming, defecating brats all day.' The alien appeared a little appeased. 'So what should I call you?' the human asked. 'Alvar,' the Gelithran answered. 'My last family found the name for me in their ship's data banks. It means "guardian".' The human thought this was a bit like calling a spaceship pilot 'Pilot', but he decided to keep that observation to himself. ‘Don’t they have names on your home planet then?’ he asked. By way of reply, Alvar made a strangled, growling, coughing noise that caused the human to jump out of his seat. 'Alright, I was only asking!' Axel cried, terrified. 'No, that's it,' Alvar said. 'That's my name spoken in my mother tongue. Sorry.' 'Conversations must be pleasant on your world,' Axel said, relaxing a bit. 'What does it mean?' Alvar muttered something. 'Angle grinder?' Axel said. 'Anklebiter,' Alvar corrected. 'My species go in for descriptive names - Windchaser, Stonecutter and so on - and that name was the one my father chose for me because of... my size. Are you laughing?' 'Why would I laugh?' said Axel, who was smirking inside his hood and looking the other way. 'Because everybody does,' Alvar said testily. 'That's why my last family gave me a new name. They were the only sentients who cared enough to do so and do you know what? I’ve been feeling a lot better about myself since then. I wouldn’t expect a creature of your size to understand.’ 'Right,' Axel said. 'Well, "Alvar" it is then. My name's Axel, by the way. Axel Munt.' He held out his hand. Alvar, seemingly clueless about human greeting rituals for all his alleged previous experience, took the hand and gave it a tentative lick before handing it back. 'And what does "Axel" mean?' he asked. 'Oh, most human names don't mean anything,' Axel said, wiping his hand on his robe. 'But my father chose mine.' He puffed up his chest. 'It was the name of a great hero from Lost Earth who spent his life questing for the Paradise City.' 'What's that?' Alvar asked, brightening up. 'It's a place where the grass is green, and the girls are pretty. I guess on some level that's what we're all looking for, right?' 'I suppose so,' Alvar sniffed. ‘Well, I'm not all that bothered about the colour of the grass, really. But how did you come to be on this planet? I’m fairly sure there aren’t any “paradise cities” here.’ ‘That’s a question I keep asking myself, over and over,’ Axel confessed. ‘My parents brought me here initially – they were looking for somewhere to hide from the Tellistraxians, and this seemed like as good a place as any as nobody in their right mind would choose to live here.’ 'Oh, dear,' Alvar said. ‘Yes, quite’ Axel said. ‘We stayed here and kept our heads down for a couple of cycles, but those monsters found us eventually. That was when my folks took off, ostensibly to divert the Tellistraxians, and they left me here for my safety. Their plan worked; the Tellistraxians never returned, but neither did my parents…’ He tailed off, leaving an awkward silence hanging in the air between them. Alvar gave a little cough. ‘The thing I’ve never understood,’ he said finally. ‘Is why the humans didn’t return to their planet.’ ‘Your human employers didn’t tell you?’ Axel asked. Alvar shook his head. ‘They told me there had been some kind of ecological disaster on Lost Earth,’ he said. ‘And the planet was mostly uninhabitable. I never quite believed it though.’ ‘That’s not the whole story,’ Axel said. ‘The fact is that the missionaries could have gone back if they still had the location, but they lost it, hence the name. Someone among them had the bright idea of wiping Lost Earth’s coordinates from their memory banks in case the Tellistraxians got hold of it and made good on their threat to blow it up.’ ‘They don’t do things by halves, do they, those Tellistraxians?’ Alvar observed. Axel shrugged. ‘Belief is a powerful thing,’ he said. ‘I think more genocides have been committed through our history over religious squabbles than for any other reason. My people thought this was a behaviour confined to their species, and were quite surprised to find out that it extended to other races.’ ‘Leaving your planet can be quite disillusioning,’ Alvar said. ‘You imagine no other planet can be as bad as yours, and then you find the same nonsense happening on other worlds. It’s quite depressing.’ 'Here's your water,' the waitress said, re-materialising next to Axel's chair. She placed it down on the table, leaning over as she did so just far enough to glance inside the human's hood. Their eyes locked and hers showed a flash of recognition, sending a thrill down Axel's spine. Gods, but she smelled good. 'Nice to see that you've both made a friend,' she smiled. She gave Alvar's head a rub and flashed a smile at Axel. ‘Can I get you anything?’ she asked the Gelithran. ‘It’s been a while since I last ate,’ Alvar said politely. ‘Do you suppose I could have one of those eels in the tank over there?’ ‘Those are the entertainment,’ the waitress said, blanching. ‘They’re not for eating.’ ‘We’re not staying that long,’ Axel said. ‘Water for him will be fine, thank you.’ The human watched her go until he felt Alvar’s eyes on him. 'What?' Axel asked. 'Nothing,' said Alvar, although his eyes were boring holes in Axel's head. 'You know what they say about inter-species relations, don't you?' 'I'm familiar with the rumoured side-effects, yes,' the human said, annoyed. 'Why don't you explain to me how you managed to lose that human child of yours, and then maybe we can think up a plan to get her back?’ 'Of course,' Alvar said. 'Does that mean you're going to help me, by the way?' 'Maybe,' Axel replied. He didn't want to sound too eager, just in case this creature was leading him up a blind alley. 'Anyway, you were saying?' Alvar cleared his throat. 'I wasn't always a guardian,' he began. 'I did a bunch of odd jobs before finally sort of falling into the profession. There’s an interesting story there, actually…’ ‘Another time,’ Axel interrupted. ‘So working for a human family was your last job, I’d guess?’ Alvar pierced Axel with the frostiest of stares before continuing. ‘Yes,’ he said presently. ‘My human family. The guild that I was working for, AGOG, fixed me up with the job, telling me it was only going to be a short-term position and not to get too comfortable. They explained to me beforehand that it was a basic child-minding job filling in for a human cub’s parents while they were looking for a new home. I didn’t know anything about humans before taking on the job, but I found them – you - to be an entirely agreeable species and nowhere near as challenging as some of the other races I’d worked for. The parents, Angus and Rita, gave me a choice of a hundred rooms to bunk in on board their ship and the run of the vessel while they were gone. And their daughter, Amber, seemed to take to me as soon as we met, which is always a good place to start. Her parents had previously left her in the care of a bunch of house robots, so I think having a companion of the living, breathing variety was a big step up for her. Personally, I think robots are a poor substitute for parents; children raised by them tend to grow up a bit…’ ‘Robotic?’ Axel suggested. Alvar nodded. ‘Even the most complex machines can’t love the children they’re assigned to,’ he said. ‘They can pretend to, but cubs are better at picking up on pretence than most adults think… in my opinion, that is. Anyway…’ ‘I learned a lot about your kind and their history by studying the databanks on their ship and picked up quite a few of their habits and customs while I was with them. They treated me like one of the family, so I didn’t question why the job went on so much longer than anticipated.’ ‘It sounds like a good job though,’ Axel said. ‘So what happened?’ ‘Amber grew up,’ Alvar said sadly. ‘We do that, I’m afraid,’ Axel said, sipping on his water and wishing it was something a little stronger. Gods, but this had turned into a strange evening. ‘We grow up very fast. Brief, exciting lives, that's the Maker's gift to us.' 'I know,' Alvar said. 'You've got to be the shortest-lived species in the universe. It seemed like Amber was an adorable little bundle of fun and joy for all of a microsecond and then "WHOOMF" somebody replaced her with a big, moody, intemperate creature who spent half her time incubating in her room and the rest plodding around the ship like a Stinktroll with a sore head.' 'We call that "adolescence",' Axel said. 'So do other races,' Alvar said. 'But I’ve never seen it manifest that badly before. Are you sure it’s not a disease of some kind?' 'No, it’s normal for our sort,' Axel said. 'My understanding is that I wasn't particularly easy to live with when I hit my teens, based on what adults have told me. As for “normal”, I'm not sure what that is anymore. Every species seems to do things differently, including growing up.' He gestured towards the Nimlings, who had already entered the early stages of inebriation and were leaning across their table towards each other in a threatening manner, their voices having dropped a few octaves. ‘Those are adults,' Axel said. ‘Believe it or not.' 'I've met Nimling children,' Alvar said. 'They were perfectly sweet little creatures.' 'You must have needed a magnifier to see them,' Axel smirked, taking another swig of his water. 'Yes, well... annway, my species live for a lot longer than yours,' Alvar said. 'Five cycles for every human cycle, that's what I worked out, although I only have my family's estimates to go on. Most Gelithrans don't get to live out their entire lifespan, even the strongest ones. They're too aggressive, you see.' ‘Aggressive isn’t an adjective that springs to mind when I look at you,' Axel observed. 'Yes, well... I take after my mother,' Alvar said. 'She was always a bit lacking in the "killer instinct" of the other Gelithrans, and she seemed to pass it down to me, unfortunately. If I hadn't left the planet when I did, I probably wouldn't have lived much longer.' 'Your world sounds like a scary place,' Axel said. Alvar shrugged. ‘I like it better out here,’ he said. ‘It’s not perfect, but the life expectancy is longer. Anyway, to return to what I was saying: Amber got older and got bored of being stuck on her parents’ ship and got bored of me. I tried telling her parents, but they were still looking for a suitable planet to settle on and were getting quite worried about how long they were going to be wandering around in space with nowhere to live. I got no help from them at all.’ ‘Why didn’t you just leave?’ Axel asked. ‘Ohhh, it was comfortable,’ Alvar answered. ‘It was a steady job; I was tired of the agency moving me on from one temporary post to another, always having to get used to a different species and a different culture. Before I knew it ten cycles had passed, and the job had turned sour on me, but I still didn’t want to abandon it.’ One morning, while her parents were away, Amber and I had a blazing row. I left her and went off to my favourite hiding place for a nap, imagining that I could make up with her later. I didn't imagine for a second that everything was going to go to hell while I was unconscious. When I woke, I found a note from Amber telling me she'd taken an exploration pod and left the ship and was never coming back.' Axel's eyes widened. 'So what did you do?' He asked. 'I panicked,' Alvar confessed. 'I should have done several things then; I should have tried to contact her parents, I should have tried to contact my agency, and I should have stayed on the ship. But instead, I took another exploration pod and set off after her. 'Unfortunately, those pods were designed to be flown by humans, not by creatures my size. It wasn't long before I lost control of the vessel and wandered into a shipping lane - don't ask me how. Space is a big place, but I still managed to fly into the worst possible place within that quadrant. That was when I got hit by the other ship.' 'I came off second best in the collision. The ship I ran into was a freighter, heavily armoured, and it made scrap metal out of my pod. Fortunately, the freighter's pilot was a nice chap, and he dropped me off here with enough credits to get my pod fixed. That was six hours ago, and I've been sitting here ever since.' Axel was about to ask the creature exactly what he thought he could do when a shadow fell over their table. ‘Excuse me,’ interjected a gruff, stern voice. Axel looked up, annoyed at yet another interruption, and nearly choked on his water. Looming over him was Skid, the tavern’s owner; as witheringly intense as his glare was from twenty feet away, it was even more so at such close quarters. He was accompanied by one of his bigger employees, a surly Greel with gold-plated tusks. It was then that Axel realised, with horror, that he had lost his hood; at some point in the conversation he had allowed it to drop, although he couldn’t tell when, and his identity was now exposed for all in that place to see. Underneath the hood, he was an unremarkable specimen; young, fair-haired, pale and with a few days’ growth of that pointless fur that human males grew between their nose and chin. ‘I know you,’ Skid said. ‘You’re the human who keeps coming in here and eyeing up the female staff, including my sister. The one I barred from this establishment because you were making them all so uncomfortable, in fact.’ Around them, the conversations ground to a halt as all the patrons – even the Nimlings – turned to witness the little drama playing out in their midst. ‘Oh, hello Skid,’ Axel said, his voice suddenly having risen an octave. ‘I was just passing through, that’s all. I didn’t want any trouble.’ ‘Give me one reason why I shouldn’t feed you to them,’ Skid said, nodding towards the fish tank ‘Or maybe take you out to the kitchen and do something about that libido of yours. I hear human bits are a delicacy on some worlds.’ ‘I’m fairly sure that’s not true,’ Axel said. ‘We’ll see,’ Skid said, his eyes glinting. Just when the tension had built to breaking point, there was a cough from Alvar’s direction, loud enough to draw Axel and Skid’s attention to him. The Gelithran had dropped off the stool onto his feet and was glaring at the human with the expression of a disapproving parent. ‘Axel,’ he said in the stern voice of a true guardian. ‘You told me this was a suitable establishment for a cub of your age and species, and I can see now that I have been lied to, yet again. First, you drag me to the casino, then to the strip bar, and now this, all under the pretext of “good clean fun”. Your parents will be hearing all about your antics of this evening when I get you home, which is where we are going, right now.’ He took hold of a sleeve and pulled an astonished Axel to his feet, dragging him in the direction of the door. Skid, as thrown as Axel, just stood and gawped. ‘I apologise for this boy's behaviour,' Alvar said to Skid as he passed. ‘I only took over as his guardian last week, and so far it's been the worst experience of my career. I don't know what kind of morals they've been teaching him at home if any. Don't worry; there will be sanctions aplenty when I get him back to his parents.' Axel, still nonplussed as to what was going on, shot a look of helpless bewilderment at Skid as he was pulled towards the exit. ‘Now hold on just a second…’ Skid said, recovering slightly. ‘BLAAAEEEUUUGH!’ shouted the Virnoid. The creature, oblivious to what was going on, had regurgitated his dinner all over the floor. This done, he leaned down and began scooping it into his mouth again. ‘Hey, you can’t do that in here!’ Skid yelled as he and his staff descended on the Virnoid’s table. ‘We have standards to maintain!...’ With their enemies thus distracted, Alvar dragged Axel through the double doors and out into Atruenus’ damp air.