Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 1: Jump down, turn around, pick a bale o’ cotton…

      Night time in the Chasma Boreale at the Martian North Pole. A desolate, lifeless zone broken by the assault of human activity. Here a city of domes has sprung up near the edge of the polar ice cap. Huge floaters, cargo-carrying dirigibles, and land crawlers form a constant procession in and out of its’ terminus. The ice face is lit up by arrays of floodlights revealing huge, black excavators carving up the ice with lasers before being carried away on land crawlers for processing. The majority of the domes here are industrial units whose sole purpose is to process the Martian polar ice for oxygen, carbon and whatever water can be extracted from it. A large nuclear reactor is situated a short distance away to provide the power needed for this earnest hive of activity. This is year-round, 24-7 non-stop industry. Furthest away from the reactor is the residential dome with bocks of apartment buildings housing the workers and a small commercial zone. Looking in through the windows in one block reveals signs of life. In one room, someone is watching a Tri-D set, in another someone is reading a book, further along a group of people are having a party. Halfway along we see a robot motionless, plugged into a terminal in its’ room. Just above that room we find a couple making love. The window next to theirs is dark and seems to be empty. We look inside…
      In the grey half-light filling the small rectangular grey room, the monitor camera pans from side to side surveying it’s functional contents. In one corner, a small kitchenette with a few unwashed plates and pans in the sink. The next corner has a table tucked into it. Further along, a man is sleeping in a bed, his face relaxed with the contented peace of sleep. His chest rising and falling slowly with his breath. Above his bed a poster decorates this spartan room. It shows a group of men and women riding an inflatable raft over a series of roiling rapids, their excited faces drenched with water splashed all over them. One corner of the poster is peeling off the wall. The next corner harbours a tri-D set in silent repose, a few vid cubes scattered on the floor beside it. A soft armchair sits mutely watching over the sleeping Tri-D set. A door emblazoned with the Associated Metals and Mining Group logo, an atom with an anvil for a nucleus borne aloft by bold metallic wings, comes into view and then the camera slowly reverses it’s scan of the room. Over and over and over it goes surveying its sleeping ward.
      This scene, with minor variations is played out throughout the entire workers’ accommodation block. No human eye watches the pictures recorded by the thousands of cameras. Instead, they are monitored by a highly efficient computer which never gets bored, falls asleep, stays on the phone to its girlfriend all night or leaves pizza cartons littered on the floor. The hard Martian night softens as dawn approaches, a faint grey merely hinting at the day’s pink brightness soon to follow with the sun still rising up below the horizon. Soon, the cold morning light, already diffused by the condensation-silvered, dome is flooding in through a window. The camera pans past the bed one more time. An alarm clock goes off, but our sleeper doesn’t respond. The camera pans on. By the time it returns, an arm has reached out of the bed and is in the process of throwing the still-ringing alarm clock across the tiny room. It hits the wall and continues ringing.
      A naked man pulls himself out of the bed, curses mildly, walks over to the alarm clock and turns it off. He then gets dressed, makes himself his breakfast over at the kitchenette, then flops down into the armchair with a coffee and his food and switches on the Tri-D set. A holographic image of a good-natured fatherly announcer, silver haired with a silver-grey suit and metallic-blue tie appears. “Good morning, Clement Abernathy 4037.” The computer-driven simulation greets him. “It’s 7:28am and your shift starts at 8:30am today. Remember, AM&MG is number one and counts on you to do your best. It’s dedicated workers like you who’ve made us what we are today and keeps AM&MG in the lead. We’re proud of you. See you there at 8:30am, Clement Abernathy 4037.”
      “Aw, bull.” Clem swore as he threw an old slipper through the hologram. The simulated announcer gave way gracefully to an early morning show featuring highlights of the previous night’s Slamball match in Mariposa. Minutes later, he had finished his breakfast, switched off the Tri-D set and was out the door in his blue overalls where he was swept along with the crush of workers in the morning rush. He was just getting off the walkway for the Excavation and Quarrying section when he saw a black and green robot, one of his co-workers moving slowly. Its eyes were dim and some of its green plazflex musculature was looking a bit cloudy.
      “Good morning, Barney!” Clem cheerily greeted the ailing robot. “What’s up? You don’t look too good today.”
      “I’m running a bit low.” Barney replied quietly so as to save energy. “Listen, could you lend me 20 Scruples so I can recharge my fuel cell? I’ll pay you back on Friday.”
      “Sure.” Clem offered, always willing to help a friend as he fished a credit token out of his pocket. “But it’s only Tuesday. How’re you going to make it through the week?”
      “I’ll power down when I’m off shift and put myself on a timer.” Barney explained guiltily as he accepted the token from Clem. “It’s a bit like when you fleshies go to sleep. Thanks Clem, you’re a lifesaver. I’ll see you in five.” With that Barney shuffled off to find the nearest power terminal as Clem went inside to suit up and wait for his shift to start. Excavation and Quarrying was dangerous work. They were outside carving up the huge block of ice and loading them on the crawlers. Being a hazardous job, it paid better than the safer work in the processing plant, so Clem stuck at it. He hoped to save up enough money to bring his estranged wife and son to join him on Mars. He was joined in the ready room by the other shift workers, human and mech who were in various stages of suiting up. A revitalised Barney soon strode into the ready room and picked a suit out of his locker. He was putting it on when Clem came over to him.
      “How come you mechs always wear suits when you’re out quarrying? You don’t need to breathe.” Clem asked him.
      “I don’t want grit in my joints.” Barney explained peevishly, wondering what sort of dumbass would ask such a stupid question. “You got any idea of what they charge for spare parts around here?”
      “No.” Clem felt stupid for not knowing more about his friend’s life. “So why don’t you wear a plastiskin?”
      “No offence Clem, but I don’t want to look like a pretend human. OK?” Barney tried to hold back his feelings. After all, He’d only just borrowed some money from Clem. “On top of that, the company says they’re our responsibility and won’t cover wear and tear. So yeah we all wear these crap suits and look like pretend humans for a shift, but it saves us a lot of money.”
      “Oh.” Clem replied soberly having just had a look into mechanoid psychology. He was beginning to wonder if he’d made a mistake loaning Barney the money when their transporter arrived to take them to the ice face. Theirs was the third in a group of five transporters taking workers out to the quarry. Clem was assigned to operate a crane loading the blocks of ice onto the crawlers while Barney was sent off to operate one of the excavators.
      “See you at mid-shift.” Barney called out as he went off to his excavator. When he got into the cab, Barney pressurised and then depressurised the cab to blow out any dust, took off his helmet, plugged himself into the control panel, fired up the excavators’ engines and set off for the ice face. Just another crap job, Barney thought, as he guided the laser torch to cut blocks of ice out of the ice cap. Routine humdrum stuff, so he set himself on autopilot as he daydreamed about the advanced mechs at Satori. He wanted to be like them and have an interesting life instead of the treadmill he felt trapped on. Barney’s reveries were interrupted by a call from the controller. “Number 7, slack off, will you. You’re about to burn up digger 6. Didn’t you hear me call you 10 minutes ago? We’ve had an incident and everybody’s go to stop. Stay in your cab until mid-shift and someone will come out to get you. Stay on the ball, Number 7, ah that’s Barney Theta-4 Klank. I won’t report you this time, but there better not be a next time, understood?”
      “Yessir.” Barney was brought back to earth with a humbling bump. “What exactly is this incident?” He asked as way of demonstrating his lucidity to his foreman.
      “Can’t say.” The controller spoke cautiously over the radio. “Seems to be some sort of security issue.” And then concluded in a brighter tone. “Don’t worry, everyone’s OK and you’ll be paid for the downtime. So take it easy and I’ll let you know when we’re back on stream.” Barney looked out of his cab to see if he could see anything unusual. He could see the other diggers and cranes motionless along the ice face and, sure enough, there was digger 6 right next to where he had stopped. If he hadn’t come to when he had, he would have cut it up with his digger’s laser torch. That would have cost him his job and maybe even his freedom. Barney shook at the thought of it and realised that he had to get a grip on himself, but didn’t know how.
      Right then came a knock on his cab door. He opened it cautiously. It was another mech, Gordon, who’d been operating digger 6. “Oh, hi Gordy.” Barney greeted him sheepishly. “Sorry about that.”
      Gordon lifted himself into the cab and punched Barney squarely on his jaw and sent him flying across the cab. Barney wasn’t hurt as mechs don’t feel pain, but was taken by surprise. “Asshole. You asleep at the wheel again?” Gordon shouted angrily. “Get yourself together or you’ll cause a real accident.” Gordon quickly exhausted his anger and tried to give Barney some advice. “You can’t stay in VR forever, you’ll end up like those flatliners. Face up to it Barney we’re Thetas, live your life in the here and now. If Satori’s what you want, you’ll just have to upgrade yourself and that takes time. As you are you can’t compete, you’ll just burn yourself out.”
      By now Barney had picked himself up and was in the driver’s seat. “Yeah, you’re right.” He admitted weakly and then turned to the matter at hand. “Any idea of what this incident is?”
      “Martian mummies.” Gordon answered tersely.
      “Come again?” Barney didn’t understand.
      “Well, it looks like I’ll have to explain it to you all over again.” Gordon could see that it was going to be one of those days and began what was by now becoming an all-too-familiar routine. “We occasionally get these ancient fleshie bodies preserved in the ice.”
      “What? Humans? In the ice?” Barney didn’t think humans had been around that long.
      “No they’re something else. Big, black and with tentacles. No one knows where they came from so we just assume they’re Martians.” Gordon casually explained. “Looks like they’ve found quite a few today. Normally we just keep on going. Take a look at the blocks you’ve been cutting, you might see something.” Barney zoomed in on the blocks and the ice face, but couldn’t see anything unusual. He thought he saw a dark shadow in one of the blocks, but wasn’t sure.
      Things were very different over where Clem was working. Production had halted and the huge ice blocks were piled up around his crane. He could see dark shapes in the blocks. On the ground, people were standing around in aimless groups. He got a call over the radio from the controller, “OK, crane number3, you can knock off now. We’ll pick up later this afternoon. All downtime is covered today.” Clem’s spirits lifted with this break from routine and the thought of being paid to hang around doing nothing in the canteen for a few hours. He put on his helmet, depressurised the cab, climbed out and joined the others waiting below. He joined one of the groups and touched his helmet to one of the others in order to speak with them. AM&MG didn’t see the need for its’ workers to be able to communicate so left person-to-person intercoms out of their pressure suits. The only way to speak with someone out in the field was to touch your helmet’s faceplate to theirs in order for the sound to travel.
      “What’s happened?” Clem asked.
      A hand pointed up to the ice blocks. “Martian Mummies. Loads of ‘em. Look!” An excited woman’s voice replied.
      Clem stood back and looked up. Martian mummies? He touched faceplates again. “Are those Martians?”
      “Wow!” Clem looked at the blocks again. He could see dozens of bodies preserved in the ice. Some were exposed on the sides of the blocks, sliced by the laser torch used to cut the polar ice. Others were dimly visible deep inside them. While Clem and his group were agog at he spectacle, black Earth Fed fliers swept in and parked up close. They disgorged a large group of heavily armed troops, some officers and a small group of people in civilian pressure suits. The troops dispersed to form a perimeter around the blocks while the officers and civilians, some wearing AM&MG corporate pressure suits, walked over to where Clem and the other workers were. Clem’s intercom crackled into life. “A transporter will be here in a few minutes to take you back to the canteen. Go to your regular pick-up point and wait there.” Clem looked around and saw that the rest of his crew were beginning to walk over to the pick-up point, so he went off and joined them leaving the Earth Fed and corporate suits with the blocks of ice and their mysterious treasure. As they walked past the perimeter, Clem noticed that the troops closed ranks behind them in order to discourage anyone from going back to look out of curiosity.
      Back in the canteen, the conversation was all about the Martian mummies. No one paid the armed Earth Fed guards much attention. Clem was carrying a tray piled high with extra goulash, potatoes, donuts and coffee when he spotted some of his friends. “Clive, Clarissa, Mitch, how’s it going?” He called out happily as he joined them at their table. “Martian mummies, huh? Did you see any?”
      “Sometimes they thaw out in the processing plant and come back to life.” Mitch joked in a mock-scurrilous voice.
      “Really?” Clem fell for the bait.
      “No.” Clarissa explained. “I was there when it happened, they just decompose and stink.”
      “No really.” Mitch continued. “One of them killed a mech. Now that takes some doing!”
      “Don’t listen to a word he’s saying.” Clarissa interrupted nervously. “He’s just making it up to scare you. Aren’t you, Mitch?” And she glared at Mitch to drive her point home.
      “Aw c’mon you lot, can’t we talk about anything around here?” Mitch complained.
      “Look if Clarissa says it’s bullshit, then it’s bullshit.” Clive defended her. “She was there and you weren’t, so she ought to know.”
      “There have been other times” Mitch rallied defensively. “They’ve been finding those things ever since they started quarrying here. And that one about the mech is true. It happened 5 longyears and 15 months ago. That was before Clarissa’s time. And, yes, I was there and lucky to escape alive.”
      “So how come we’ve never heard about any of this?” Clem asked innocently.
      “Take a look around.” Mitch waved his arm to encompass the canteen. “See those Earth Fed guards? You won’t be getting out of here until you sign a confidentiality agreement.”
      “What do you mean?” Clem was lost.
      “You are a newbie, aren’t you?” Mitch mocked Clem gently. “You have to agree to keep your mouth shut or else you’ll end up in a maximum security prison. It’s not worth talking about, if you know what I mean.”
      Clive was nodding his head in agreement when Barney and Gordon walked up and joined them at their table. “Hi Clem, I’d like you to meet Gordon, a friend of mine.” Barney introduced Gordon.
      “Hiya, Gordon.” Clem felt awkward as he waved casually at Gordon, so he continued with the introduction game for lack of anything else to say. “And this is Clive, here’s Clarissa and that’s Mitch over there. Welcome to our happy family.”
      Gordon realised that the ice still hadn’t been broken but decided to continue anyway. He took a 20 Scruple token out of his storage compartment and handed it to Clem. “I think this is yours.” Clem was seriously confused. Everyone at the table looked at Clem. Clem looked to Barney. Barney nodded his head slowly in agreement. Clem looked at Gordon in puzzlement. “Barney, you had something to say, didn’t you?” Gordon carried the moment.
      “I’m a VR junkie and it’s eating up my life.” Barney confessed, his voice dripping with guilty embarrassment and shame. “I’ve spent so much time in VR, I have to beg, borrow and steal to stay alive the rest of the time. Gordon caught me in time before I went flatline. I’d like you to help me stay off the VR so that I can save up and get myself an upgrade.” A chorus of concerned ‘Aws’ went around their table.
      “Of course we will.” Clarissa rose to the occasion. “Admission is the first step and a brave one, too, Barney.”
      Gordon took heart from what he’d just seen that he felt like sealing their deal. “Anyone want anything from the canteen?” He offered.
      “Coffee and donuts!” Mitch called back in good humour. The others joined in. Gordon took their orders and went off.
      “Hey, Gordon seems OK.” Clem addressed Barney. “You known him long? How come we never met him before?”
      “Gordon moves in a different crowd. He’s the local union rep here and he’s been working for AM&MG for at least 10 longyears.” Barney replied quietly. “On top of that, he got me my job here.”
      “Oh.” Clive observed coolly. “That sort of friend.”
      “Yeah, well.” Barney felt like he was going to pieces. Eventually his resolve returned. “Gordon’s OK. He’s sound, you can trust him. Some day you might need him to help you.” By the time Gordon returned with the coffee and donuts for the human contingent around the table, they were all busy talking about the bodies that they’d found in the ice. Gordon was especially interested when Clem told him how many bodies he’d seen in the loading yard.
      “They’ve only ever had a find this large once before and that was 8 longyears ago.” Gordon mused sagely.
      “What do they do with the bodies?” Clem asked Gordon.
      “Earth Fed takes ‘em away for analysis. Or at least that’s what they claim.” Mitch interrupted. “Looks like that’s what we’ll be doing this afternoon.”
      “What?” Clem felt out of his depth.
      “Loading up the ice blocks for Earth Fed to take away.” Gordon explained for Clem’s sake. “If we’re still at it tomorrow we’ll get extra hazard pay, so don’t hurry yourselves on their account.”
      Clarissa was about to ask Gordon whether processing plant workers would qualify for the extra hazard pay when they were interrupted by a man speaking over a public-address system.
      “Good afternoon ladies, gentlemen and mechanoids.” A pudgy, nervous-looking middle management suit announced as he wiped his hand across his sweating, balding head. “On behalf of the Associated Metals and Mining Group, I apologise for any inconvenience this incident may cause you and I ask you to co-operate fully with Major Cartwright and his team. Thank you.” He stepped away from the podium and was replaced by Major Cartwright, a tall beanpole of a man in a black uniform decorated with ominous black and gold trimmings.
      “Hello, my name is Major Abraham Cartwright of the Earth Federation Special Operations Police.” He announced in a bored, authoritative voice long used to the tedium of command and responsibility. “Some of us may have met before under similar circumstances. For those of you for whom this is a first occasion, you will be interviewed shortly by one of our operatives. Please remember that the confidentiality terms are binding and are rigorously enforced. We will call you in turn for your interviews. Thank you.”
      “That’s it?” It seemed as if everything was turning into an anticlimax for Clem. “What does he mean by ‘rigorously enforced’?”
      “Maximum security prison and a mind-wipe.” Clive explained grimly. “You wouldn’t even remember your own name after that.”
      “Sounds terrible.” Clem was genuinely horrified.
      “It is.” Clarissa sighed. “It’s a death of the soul. They’d reprogram you with one of their standard ‘model citizen’ personalities.”
      “More like murder and rape.” Mitch interjected angrily. “Just remember, when you go in for your interview, you haven’t discussed anything with anyone and no names. Got it?” Suddenly, he realised that Gordon, the union rep and long-time company employee had overheard their subversive talk and asked him, “So how does it work for you mechs, then?”
      “They purge all references to the incident from our data banks.” Gordon explained blandly. He understood that he had to prove his trustworthiness to Mitch.
      “And that’s it?” Mitch wasn’t convinced.
      “We still have to sign the same confidentiality agreement. How do you think I feel about this? Me, the union rep powerless to do anything about it.” Gordon spat out with the slightest twinge of self-loathing. “Did you see that suit? He’s probably liable if any of us lot blab. Think about it. He keeps his mouth shut, one of us blabs and he goes to jail. Not much fun. No wonder he’s sweating.”
      “So how come Earth Fed is so heavy about it?” Clem was just beginning to get the picture.
      “Damned if I know.” Mitch shrugged his shoulders in hopeless surrender. “Maybe they just like being bastards.”
      “Earth Fed is afraid to admit that there might have been life here before we arrived.” Clarissa interrupted with her explanation. “They originally suppressed the truth so that people could feel secure, but it’s gone on for so long now that it’s become a way of life for them. Nowadays they’re more afraid of being seen to have suppressed the truth for so long rather than the actual truth itself because it would diminish their integrity and authority in the people’s eyes.”
      “Well, they haven’t purged everything from your data banks, Gordon or else you wouldn’t be able to tell us anything.” Mitch observed astutely, returning his attention to the new arrival in their group.
      “Quite right.” Gordon candidly admitted. “But I think you’ll find things are a bit different for Barney.”
      “What?” Barney piped up at the mention of his name.
      “How long have you been working here Barney?” Clarissa asked him.
      “Just over 2 longyears. Why?” Barney replied quizzically.
      “How many incidents have we had in that time?” Gordon asked Mitch.
      “Well there’s at least three that I can remember.” Mitch was beginning to understand Gordon’s point.
      “Barney, have you ever seen or heard about these Martian mummies before?” Gordon asked Barney for the others to hear.
      Barney thought for a moment before replying. “No, I haven’t. How come I miss out on all the fun?”
      “See what I mean?” Gordon explained to Mitch. “When Earth Fed erases, they erase thoroughly.”
      “Hang on a minute.” Barney was getting upset as the realisation that his mind was being tampered with dawned on him. “You let these guys erase part of my data banks? What sort of monster are you Gordon? I’ve got rights, you know.”
      “Oh, sump oil.” Gordon muttered as he held his head in his hands in despair. “Barney this is the fifth time we’ve had this conversation. Yes, you’ve got rights, but it’s in the employment contract you signed when you started work here.”
      “What do you mean, fifth time? I don’t remember anything about confidentiality clauses.” Barney retorted indignantly. “Would you care to explain what you’re talking about?”
      “Looks like they were a bit too thorough.” Clive commented wryly.
      “Barney, every time we dig out some of those mummies, Earth Fed puts us through the hoops. In your case, and for all mechs working here, they purge your data banks.” Mitch explained patiently. “It may not be fair, but that’s the way it is. I’m not happy about it either, but Earth Fed hold all the cards on this one.”
      “So what happens to me?” Barney was sounding worried by now. “Do I end up with a gap in my data banks?”
      “No they’ll purge your memories of this incident and replace them with false memories of routine day-to-day bullshit.” Gordon explained. “It’ll just seem as if nothing out of the ordinary ever happened, that’s all.”
      “So if they can do that with little bits of my mind, they could do it with all of my mind.” Barney was feeling his world unravel around him again. “How do I know if any of me is real?”
      “Uh oh, Barney’s got the existential blues.” Clem chipped in.
      “Most of you is real, Barney.” Gordon offered compassionately.
      “Is that why I’ve become a VR junkie?” Barney was clutching at straws in an attempt to find order in his life.
      “No. You were a flatliner at Satori.” Gordon explained. “They found what they could of your original personality, reloaded you back into your body and sent you here for rehab. You were coming along well until the last incident. You went into remission after they purged your data banks last time. Barney, if we can prove that they damaged your mind with their purging procedure, we might be able to get a test case together to put a stop to it.” Gordon felt a real need to put his worried charge’s mind at rest somehow. “Hang in there buddy, you’ll be all right.”
      Barney looked around the table at his friends. He felt vulnerable. They all knew something about him that he himself didn’t even know. He had to trust them, but could he? “So how come they don’t purge your data banks?” He asked Gordon.
      “Union rep.” Gordon explained. “Perk of the job in one sense. They only let me go because I also represent most of the fleshies working here and have to be able to discuss all aspects of their work with them including these ‘incidents’.” Their talk drifted on for a while until Clem was called out for his interview. An Earth Fed guard ushered him into one of the interview booths that had been set up along one wall of the canteen. A tired-looking middle-aged woman with her hair tied in a bun was waiting for him.
      “Mr. Abernathy, have a seat.” She greeted him in a detached professional voice as she glanced up from her data slate and adjusted a microphone so as to pick up Clem’s voice clearly. “I gather you were working in the loading yard this morning. Tell me in your own words what happened.”  Clem readily told her about how the blocks with dark shapes inside them started coming in around mid-morning and that he didn’t know what they were. He recounted how work had been stopped and that his entire shift had been sent off early on full pay. “Does anyone know what these dark shapes are?” She asked Clem. He lied badly about how most of his friends hadn’t seen anything and that the others were at as much of loss as he was. The interviewer pretended to be satisfied with Clem’s evasive statement. “You now have to sign a confidentiality agreement as regards this incident, Mr. Abernathy. You are forbidden to discuss this incident with anyone outside your work team until this incident is closed. After which time you are forbidden to discuss this incident at all. Is that understood?” Clem nodded his head dumbly. The interviewer pushed a sheet of printed paper and a pen over to Clem, which he duly signed. After he returned the signed document, the interviewer look relieved and said brightly. “You’ll be going back to work this afternoon, your supervisor is waiting for you.”
      Clem was waiting with the rest of the loading yard crew when Barney walked up. “Looks like I’ll be joining you this afternoon.” He greeted Clem.
      “Any idea of what you’ll be doing?” Clem asked him and then joked. “You’ve not been demoted have you?”
      Barney stalled for a moment from a panic attack as the thoughts of demotion and dismissal crossed his mind. “Er, no and no actually. I guess Earth Fed and AM&MG want the blocks loaded up quickly so that they don’t have to pay us the hazard bonus.”
      “Yeah, just typical of those cheap bastards.” Clem added sympathetically. Within moments they were being moved out to the loading yard. On the way out, their supervisor explained what was in store for them. They’d be loading all the blocks requisitioned by Earth Fed into their transporter and would be taking orders from them for the rest of the day. Sure enough, when they got out at their pick-up point by the loading yard, they could see two huge black circular orbital transporters, their cargo bay doors yawning wide open waiting for their frozen load. Barney was sent off to guide the blocks being loaded into the orbital transporters while Clem was sent back to his crane. By the time their shift ended, a third transporter had landed and was being loaded with no end of the blocks that Earth Fed wanted in sight. There were so many blocks still waiting to be loaded, it looked as if they’d be at it the following day. Neither Barney nor Clem minded, they were both already figuring out what they’d do with the extra hazard pay they’d earn.
      After their shift, they were herded back into the canteen where Major Cartwright and his phalanx of stern Earth Fed guards reminded Clem, Barney and the other workers of their rights and obligations and what lay in store for anyone careless enough to break the confidentiality agreement. Anyone who felt they might be ‘at risk’ as the Major put it could stay in the canteen and in temporary on-site accommodation provided by Earth Fed. After they were dismissed, the canteen emptied out quickly. The Major looked at his watch, cracked a wry smile and turned to a lieutenant at his side. “Whaddya know? They cleared out in less than three minutes! Nearly as fast as last time. Next time let’s stretch things out a bit and let them squirm.” He laughed with sadistic pleasure relishing the prospect of a game of cat-and-mouse as a break from routine. The lieutenant found it funny too and joined in with a cautious laugh wary that his superior might be trying to catch him out.
      As they were going towards the walkway to go home Barney said to Clem: “Gordon suggested I spend some time with you fleshies as a way of staying off VR. What do you think?”
      “I guess it might help.” Clem replied soberly, trying to be helpful. “You could join a social club, hang around in a bar, join a sports club or take some further education courses. It’s up to you, Barney.”
      “Sounds a bit like getting another job.” Barney didn’t really like the thought of any of Clem’s suggestions. “It’s hopeless, I don’t know what to do with myself.” He whined a mechanoid whine.
      “I know, let’s go over to your place for a while and then visit Clarissa later.” Clem suggested in a bid to lighten his friend’s despondent mood.
      “Ah, you wouldn’t really like my place.” Barney replied evasively. “On top of that I don’t have any food to offer you, I’m a mech, remember? Let’s go over and visit Clarissa right now instead.”
      “Aw c’mon, Barney. I can get a takeaway on the way over.” Clem pleaded. He was curious as to what Barney was trying to hide. “I’ve never been in a mech’s home before.”
      “Mine’s not exactly typical. Really, you wouldn’t like it.” Barney was desperate to keep Clem out of his home.
      “Hey Barney, isn’t this your exit?”
      At which point Clem grabbed Barney by his arm and pushed him off the walkway. “Looks like we’re going to your place. Lead the way, Kemosabe.” Clem cheered him on.
      “What? Who?” And then Barney slumped visibly. “Oh all right, you win. Let’s go.” They got off the elevator at the 4th floor and Barney led the way down the corridor. Clem was curious to see the inside of a mech’s home. Barney stopped outside a door marked 153G and announced reluctantly: “Here we are. Chez nous.” They walked in and Clem was dumbfounded. The room, almost identical in size to Clem’s was stark and barren. No furnishings. No decoration. Just a VR terminal and connector cable in one corner. A pile of worn-out spare parts and some broken pieces of plazflex, the mechanoid musculature, lay littered under the window. Clem was lost for words, his mouth hung open with disbelief.
      “I tried to warn you Clem.” Barney apologised. “I told you that you wouldn’t like it.”
      “This, this…” Clem was unable to string his thoughts together.
      “Is a junkie pad.” Barney ashamedly completed the sentence for him.
      “Barney, how could you?” Clem struggled to ask.
      Barney was just getting into a confessional streak. “I was just about to sign a deal leasing out my limbs to pay for more VR time.” Clem started eating his takeaway supper while Barney continued pouring out his soul. Barney was still regaling Clem with his confessional outpourings as Clem was washing down his meal with a cheap beer he’d bought.
      Clem burped, looked around for a dustbin to put his beer can and meal’s wrappers in and asked. “You gotta bin?”
      “No, just throw it on the floor.” Barney replied miserably.
      Clem decided to take his rubbish with him and dump it in the first bin or disposal chute he found. “OK, I’ve seen enough. Barney, you’ve got to do something to make your pad a bit more liveable in whatever way you mechs do things. But this is terrible.” Clem looked around, searching his limited imagination for a suggestion to offer Barney. “You could sell your VR terminal and use the money to get some nice tat for your room.”
      “Yes, you’ve got to stay off the VR for a while, and it’s the quickest way.” Clem was playing the friendly disciplinarian. “You asked us at lunchtime to help you get off VR, and here I am. Barney, you’ve got to sell it.”
      “No.” He pleaded. “I’ll die of boredom.”
      “You’ll die if you don’t kick it.” Clem pointed out forcefully.
      “If you insist.” Barney surrendered pathetically.
      “Yes, I insist.” Clem wasn’t going to let Barney off the hook. “You’ll have to find something else to fill your time and you’re going to stay over at my place until you’ve sold it.”
      “Oh, OK.”
      “Well, that’s that sorted.” Clem took charge of the situation. “Let’s go to Clarissa’s.”
      “I’ve gotta stop in at Ak and Ventnor’s place on the way to pay them back some money. Is it OK to stop in there?” Barney asked submissively.
      “Is it far?” Clem asked, not used to his present role of superiority.
      “Just the other end of this landing.” Barney replied beginning to feel his normal self again now that he was leaving his desperate hovel. No more escape into virtual reality, from now on he would be staying in reality, whatever that turned out to be. Ak and Ventnor were 2 mechs who shared an apartment in Barney’s accommodation block. Their home was another surprise for Clem. Their room was dominated by what looked like a crazy climbing frame with thousands circuit modules and other components bolted onto it with thick looms of cabling running through it. Here and there, display screens would show wild psychedelic graphics or lines of programming code scrolling down the screen at a breakneck pace. Soft lights flickered at random throughout this electronic contraption. Five mechs were parked around it and hooked in through heavy-duty bus cables.
      Suddenly, a mech head on a boom arm swings out of the climbing frame. “Hiya, Barney! Good to see you. Who’s the fleshie?”
      “Oh, uh Ak, this is Clem, he’s a friend of mine from work.” Barney awkwardly introduced Clem to the mech head.
      “So, what’s up?” Ak asked, it’s red eyes blinking randomly.
      “I’ve got your money.”
      “Lucky lottery ticket, huh?” Ak joked. “Put it over there in my storage box.” A mech arm reached out of another part of the climbing frame and pointed to a box on a low shelf under the window. Barney took a 500 Scruple token out of his storage compartment in his torso and put it in Ak’s storage box. Clem’s eyes goggled at the sight of a week’s wages being handed over so casually when he knew Barney was flat broke.
      “So what are you guys doing?” Clem was curious as to what Mechs got up to in their spare time.
      “Programming” Ak replied proudly. “We’re the Zoetrope FreeStyle Programmers. All the latest cool VR stuff.”
      “Could Barney join in with you guys?” Clem asked hoping they’d accept Barney and maybe give him something constructive to do, even if it was VR.
      “Well.” Ak drawled out. If robots could suck their teeth Ak would be doing that right now. “Barney’s a Theta and we’re Gamma’s here. He’d slow our system down and he’d probably have trouble keeping up. Maybe if he got an upgrade…” Ak trailed off. And then addressed Barney. “Do you know FreeStyle?”
      “No.” Barney answered humbly.
      “Do you know anyone who wants to buy a VR terminal?” Clem asked as way of showing Barney that he was serious about helping him get off his VR addiction.
      “What sort?” Ak asked casually.
      “It’s a Mindblast-ZX40.” Barney told him.
      “Maybe, but they’re bit slow.” Ak wasn’t sure. “I’d give you 1,200 Scruples tops for it. You wouldn’t even get that much for it at the recycling shop.
      “We’ll take it!” Clem jumped at Ak’s generous offer.
      “Hey, hang on a minute.” Barney edged in. “It’s my VR terminal.”
      “Yeah, but you’re selling it, right?” Clem reminded Barney in front of his friends. He couldn’t back down now.
      “True.” Barney conceded. “I just need a bit of time to think over Ak’s offer, that’s all.”
     “Fine by me.” Ak breezily replied. “See you soon.” Clem and Barney took their cue and left Ak and his friends to cook up their VR fantasies. A short while later they arrived at Clarissa’s room. In spite of being a clone, her room had all the soft warm, inviting touches of a woman’s influence. Clive, her lover also a clone, was sitting on the bed. They had nearly served their tenure and were looking forward to their years of freedom that awaited them together. They were planning to move to Olympus and start a new life there.
     “Oh, hi Clarissa!” Clem dumbly greeted her as he held out his crumpled beer can and takeaway wrapper. “You gotta bin?”
     “What?” She had become used to Clem’s dopiness, but this was new. “Oh yes, under the sink. Come in.” They entered and Clem dumped his rubbish in the bin. They joined the circle, Clem on a cushion, Barney sitting on the floor.
     “What do you think of…?” Clem started up. Clarissa looked worried.
     Clive cut him off pointing up to the surveillance camera sweeping its view back and forth across the room and warned him. “Remember Clem, the all-seeing eye!”
     “Oh yeah.” Clem clammed up and changed the subject. “Barney’s going to sell his VR terminal.” They discussed the pros and cons of Ak’s offer for a while. Clarissa thought it was the right thing for Barney to do. Clive added that Mitch knew a place where Barney could get some upgrades at knockdown prices if he was interested. It took some doing, but eventually they managed to convince Barney to sell his VR terminal and to work his way towards a more satisfying life in the here and now. Clarissa wasn’t too keen on Barney doing VR programming but Clive thought it would be acceptable, so long as it didn’t run into debt the way he’d just done with his VR addiction. As a VR programmer Barney stood a chance, however slight, to make some money at it. Which was definitely better than losing all his money playing VR games. An hour later they were walking out of Ak and Ventnor’s place.
     “Is it OK if I stay over at your pad?” Barney asked Clem. “I don’t think I could hack it in my room at the moment. It’s like Ground Zero.”
     “Yeah, sure.” Clem replied as they made their way over to his apartment. “Why don’t you look through the home decoration channels on the Tri-D tonight and see if anything interests you.” Clem suggested oblivious to the fact that mechanoids might not be interested in such human fripperies as home decoration. “We’ll go and pick some stuff out at the department store tomorrow after work if you want.”
     “Maybe.” Barney wasn’t too sure. Maybe some paint and a couple of holograms. But to be honest, he hadn’t a clue. Home decoration was an aspect of life that had never seemed relevant to Barney. He’d never really had a home of his own before he came to work at AM&MG and look at what a pathetic mess he’d made of it. Obviously he had something more to learn.
     When they arrived in Clem’s apartment, he rummaged around in the pile of data cubes beside his Tri-D set and picked one out. “Here’s a good one, ‘Up Uranus!’ with genuine clones of the original Carry-On cast. It gets me laughing every time. You’ll love it!”
     “What?” Barney wasn’t quite up for a gay relationship with a fleshie.  “Who are the Carry-On cast?”
     “Some mad English comedy team from the 20th century. They did really early vids in 2-D.” Clem explained as his face lit up in good-humoured anticipation of some old-fashioned mindless entertainment. “It’ll get your mind off things.”
     “If you say so.” Barney wasn’t sure what he should be doing. If he hadn’t sold his VR terminal, he would have been hooked up by now and whiling away his time in a fantasy role-playing action game by now. He doubted if he’d find the passive Tri-D set very interesting.
     Clem loaded up the data cube and flopped down gleefully in his armchair to watch the show. It was a crazy story about a cowardly captain and his loyal, devoted crew who always covered for him exploring the solar system and beyond. Then there was the ships’ computer that couldn’t count and kept a hidden abacus to do all its computations with. They make contact with an alien race and promptly get down to it in a wildly comical sex orgy. All, that is, except the captain who is too prudish to get into the swing of things. The next race they meet aren’t so friendly and in the thick of things the captain finds a semblance of courage. The gags came thick and fast with most lines dripping with sexual innuendo. Clem laughed his way through it downing beers as if they were water. The sheer stupidity of the characters was so outrageous that it even got Barney loosened up and before long, he too, was laughing along with the gags. By the time it finished, Clem had passed out drunk in his armchair.
      That night as Clem lay snoring softly in his sleep, Barney did a bit of channel surfing trying to get ideas about what he could do with his room. He came across all the usual blurb about creating themes that express both your inner and outer character, your interests, values and ambitions and such like when he realised that what he really wanted was a Tri-D set like Clem’s. Not as interactive as VR so it was less likely to be addictive and it didn’t cost anything near as much to use. Even Clarissa had a Tri-D set, so she couldn’t disprove of it. He made his mind up to stop in at the recycling centre after work to pick up a reconditioned Tri-D set and a few other gadgets for his place. He’d have to see how much he could get in scrap value for his collection of worn-out parts. The dead plazflex was worthless, but the rest of his collection might just about pay for an old Tri-D set. Things were starting to look up. Barney was beginning to feel better about himself. Yes, he was going to make it in the real world!
     Come 7:10am as Clem’s alarm clock went off, Barney was waiting to catch it and throw it back at him. “Surprise!” He called out to Clem who was groggily hauling himself out of his armchair.
     “Huh?” Clem was still a bit out-of-focus. “You’re in a good mood. Did you see something you liked?” He asked hopefully.
     “Sure, your Tri-D set.” Barney bounced back.
     “Barney,” Clem admonished his mechanoid friend in a low voice. “You’re coming off VR, is it such a good idea?” Clem didn’t want to see him trade one addiction for another. He’d only have to go through the same sorry scene all over again.
     “Hey, come on.” Barney got defensive, his good humour faded a bit. “Even Clarissa’s got a Tri-D set. I could watch Slamball matches all night and I wouldn’t even get a beer gut the way you fleshies do.” Clem looked down worriedly at his stomach. No sign of a beer gut yet. He’d have to go easy on the beer from now on.
     “OK.” Clem conceded warily. “But you’ll have to do more than that. Get yourself some furniture and some decorations, something to stimulate your mind a bit. How about some books?”
     “I don’t see any books around here, Clem.” Barney pointed out as he surveyed Clem’s tiny abode. “On top of that, I could read the entire works of Shakespeare in less than 5 minutes.”
     “Fair do’s” Clem caved in. “Get some films from the rental shop then. It’s not going to be easy, but you’ll have to find interests outside of VR from now on.” Clem was fishing around for ideas to help Barney and was coming up blank every time. He set about making his breakfast as he hammered his still sleepy brain for ideas. “I know!” He exclaimed hopefully as he struggled into his overalls. “I’ll get a flight simulator for my Tri-D set and we can learn to fly a transporter and some of those cool fliers Earth Fed use.”
     “Hmm.” Barney toyed with the idea of being a pilot. “Yeah, let’s give it a try. We could get a multi-player game and have dogfights!” It was beginning to sound like it could even be fun. He was having visions of flying around madly in a flier shooting down squadrons of helpless victims. His internal chronometer reminded him that he’d be late for work if he didn’t get a move-on. “Uh, Clem. It’s time we got back to the grindstone.”
     “Huh?” Clem looked at the clock on the wall above his table. “Oh shit! We’re late.” And they raced out the door. They arrived at their ready-room late and were greeted by Gordon.
     “Sleeping Beauty and Rip van Winkle, I presume?” He joshed and then turned to the day’s work ahead. “Clem, you’ll be working with Barney guiding the blocks into the transporters today. It looks as if they want to finish it all off on this shift. I’m over in the loading yard on one of the cranes. I’ll see you guys at mid shift.” Moments later Clem and Barney were dropped off outside one of the transporters. The Earth Fed guards looked dangerous and threatening as they kept guard around the transporters and the ice blocks with their mysterious bounty. After an hour, the rhythm of work set in and they no longer noticed the guards or the crew wandering in and out of the transporter. They were inside the transporter’s cargo bay guiding the crane operators so that they could stack the blocks securely for transit in the transporter.
     Barney was in the middle of guiding a crane operator’s load when he saw its cab explode in a ball of flame. Pieces of metal showered through the thin Martian air as the remains of the crane yawed and slowly toppled over, its frozen load crashed to the ground just outside the transporter. He stood transfixed, unable to see the cause of the explosion but was able to tell from the angle of the laser beams that they were being attacked from the air. Five dull grey-and-orange fliers shot overhead strafing the ground with red and green laser fire. He could see the weaker beams of the Earth Fed troops’ lasers who were hopelessly outgunned by the attackers. Clem watched the operator of the crane he was guiding climb out of its cab and jump to the ground as it burst into flames keeling over onto the ground. He was shot dead before he hit the ground. From where they were, deep inside the cargo bay, they couldn’t see the mayhem happening outside. Dead and dying bodies littered the ground, some humans twitching horribly as they died from the decompression resulting from damage to their pressure suits. Broken machinery burned and exploded all around as the Earth Fed troops desperately tried to fight off the attackers.
     And then everything went dark as the cargo bay doors shut, trapping Barney and Clem in with the blocks of ice. Suddenly, the transporter lurched and began to take off. Obviously the crew decided to make a break for it but either didn’t know or care about the workers stuck in the hold. Clem could feel their acceleration even under Mars’ low gravity. A laser beam punched through the ceiling of the hold and vaporised some of the cargo. Then the transporter began to pitch and yaw wildly as the crew desperately tried to execute evasive manoeuvres. The slow, ungainly transporter didn’t stand a chance. More lasers punched through the hull into the hold and the load of ice began to shift around adding to the ships’ handling problems.
     Barney could see that if they didn’t get out of the hold, they’d both be crushed. It might not be fatal for himself, but he was certain it would kill Clem. He knew how much more vulnerable human fleshie bodies were. He made his way over to where Clem was cowering between a bulkhead and a block of ice that had toppled over, grabbed hold of him and began searching for some way out of the hold. After a few narrow misses and doors that wouldn’t open, they eventually found a door they could open. Neither bothered to question where it led. They we both glad of any respite from the possibility of being crushed to death by dancing icebergs.
     They were in a narrow, dimly lit passageway. Clem could feel his ears beginning to hurt and a coldness beginning to take hold of his left leg. He touched his faceplate to Barney’s. “I’m losing air. I’ve got to patch up my suit.” Barney could see the ice crystals forming where Clem’s precious air was leaking. He had to find a room with an atmosphere, but where? Five minutes later, they were still searching out a room with some air when Clem collapsed. His faceplate was misting over. There was nothing for it. Barney tore the sleeve off his pressure suit and wrapped it around the tear on Clem’s leg. It wasn’t perfect, but it would slow down the air loss until they could find something to seal his suit with. At least there weren’t any more lasers punching through the hull.
     “I’m c-c-c-cold.” Clem shivered through his chattering teeth. Barney had just found and turned up the thermostat on Clem’s suit when a load bang echoed through the hull. The transporter began to pitch and yaw wildly again causing Barney and Clem to slide helplessly up and down the corridor they’d found. Every now and then the transporter would drop suddenly, causing them to float around aimlessly flailing their arms around for anything to catch hold of. At one point, they floated past something that looked like a map of the deck they were on. Barney scanned it in time and memorised the location of the flight deck, crew lounge, and escape pods. Escape pods! That was it, Barney decided, they were getting out.
     On their way to the escape pods, they passed the lounge. It had an air lock. Air! Clem needed air, so he decided to go inside. Barney followed hesitantly. What had once been a clean tidy lounge was now a mess. Tables, chairs, food, boxes and electronic gadgetry were scattered all over and occasionally flying around the room as the transporter continued its chaotic course. Clem found a clean, undamaged pressure suit in a locker and changed into it as fast as he could. Barney looked around for anything useful, but couldn’t see anything, so he decided to make his way forward to the flight deck to see what was making the pilots fly so erratically. He told Clem to wait and warm up and that he’d be back in a while. As Barney made his way towards the flight deck, he could hear a lot of shouting and a sound that reminded him of laser welders. Cautiously, he removed one of his eyes, put it on the end of one of his fingers and peeked into the flight deck. Inside, a running battle was in progress. Dead bodies, human and mech, littered the floor while those still alive hid behind fittings and fixtures shooting at each other for all they were worth. There were only 2 Earth Fed crewmembers left alive and they were outnumbered and losing. The others were winning. And they were Raiders. For once, Barney didn’t hate Earth Fed and wished that they were winning instead. But they weren’t. Earth Fed might be bad, but the Raiders were infinitely worse. They had to get out before they were found. Otherwise they were as good as dead.
     The combatants on the flight deck were too busy with their battle to notice Barney as he slipped back to the crew lounge. “Put your helmet on, Clem. We’re bailing out.”
     Clem was just regaining his normal colour and looked disappointed. “Why?”
     “Just put your helmet on and follow me. I’ll tell you later.” Barney had no time to waste. He grabbed Clem by his hand and pulled him to the escape pod and pushed him inside. Barney climbed in behind Clem, sealed the hatch and hit the large red button marked ‘Eject’. Nothing happened. He hit it again. And again. And again. Still nothing happened. Barney was getting desperate. He could hear voices outside. It was one of the Raiders. “I think we’ve got something here. Let’s open up this pod.”
     Clem found a switch marked ‘Power’ and threw it. The controls in the escape pod lit up. Barney hit the ‘Eject’ button one last time and whoosh, they shot up and out of the transporter. Through the window they could see that they were already out of the Martian atmosphere possibly heading for a low orbital rendezvous. Behind them they could see the Raider who nearly found them sucked along by the decompression, his body rupturing in the vacuum was tumbling along in frictionless chase. One of the grey fliers that attacked the ice quarry was attached to the upper surface of the transporter. The Raiders had boarded it in flight! Neither had a clue where they were. They were too glad to escape alive to worry about what lay ahead.
     “So this is space, Barney.” Clem was awestruck by its vastness and the surprise that one as lowly as himself would ever leave his planet’s surface.
     “Don’t get too worked up, Clem. You could die out here if we don’t get picked up soon.” All the same, Barney was impressed with the view as they began their first orbit of Mars. Reality was turning out to be even stranger than VR. “Maybe we ought to try contacting the Jules Verne orbital platform.” He looked around for any guidance controls for the escape pod, but didn’t see any. “Any idea how this thing works?” He asked Clem hopefully.
     “No.” Clem was clueless. He noticed a panel beside him marked ‘Beacon and Survival’. He opened it. The instructions on the inside explained how to activate the beacon, the safest way for a mechanoid to power down for extended periods (something that Barney already knew) and a canister of HyberMax to induce artificial hibernation in humans. This reduced their metabolism to less than a tenth of its’ normal level with no neural degradation and was recommended for humans who didn’t expect recovery within 8 hours due to the limited amount of air, rations, and water in the pod. Clem read the instructions with a feeling of dread and urgency. He had no idea when they might ever be rescued. “Barney, could you give me a hand with these IV connectors if we’re still out here in a few hours?” He asked cautiously, not wanting to betray his hopes of being rescued shortly. To which effect he activated the beacon, which would send out an automated distress signal until they were rescued, or so he hoped.
     As it was, fate has already intervened. Specifically, the pod’s beacon didn’t work because the subcontractor who manufactured the escape pods had a tendency to use substandard components as a way of boosting their already bloated military-industrial profit margins. So as Clem was settling down groggy from his dose of HyberMax with assorted pieces of plumbing running from various parts of his body to connectors beside his seat and Barney was powering down, their last thoughts were about being rescued and what excuses and fibs they’d have to make up when they got back to work. Human greed had let them down for soon they were nothing more than just another piece of unidentified space junk whizzing around Mars.

Scribbles & Scraps
Chapter 2