Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 2: Down on the farm.

     “Sky!” Ruby called out in the sing-song tones of a concerned lover. “We’ve got an invite from Yasouf. Sky? Where are you?” In fact Ruby knew he was in the living room reading the latest improvements in farming techniques, crop and resource management as well as a variety of other topics relevant to the Martian farmer on his commset screen. Such as how best to deal with micrometeor punctures in the farms’ dome. What to do when light conditions deteriorate during prolonged dust storms. Is it worth it to invest in a fusion plant for backup heat and lighting? Dan Marsden of the Solaris Cereals and Orchards Farm certainly thinks so and goes on to explain how they budgeted for it, implemented it and so on and so forth. Ruby could actually see anywhere in their house, their farm, much of the surrounding land and parts of the old “fort” as well as anywhere Earth Fed had under surveillance that her security rating allowed her to access. SkyHawk knew this, too. It was one of the many games they played so that they could pretend they were “normal” people living “normal” lives. Which neither really were, but in their own ways desperately wished they were. So Ruby had to pretend that she didn’t know where he was or what he was doing at any time and let him respond in his own way. Unless it was an emergency. And this certainly wasn’t.
      “Yasouf?” SkyHawk called out. “That fat Arab and his travelling circus come to town again? No guessing what he wants.” SkyHawk chuckled, then continued laconically “But I make more money from selling it for fibre, oil and feed.”
      “But he throws better parties than the local producers’ co-operative. C’mon, let’s go. We had a great time last time we went.” Ruby urged.
      “Okay,” SkyHawk replied, trying not to feel his age which, oddly enough he didn’t. Coming to think of it, he could do with a good party. “What does he want this time?”
      Ruby flashed up Yasouf’s order on the screen SkyHawk had been reading moments before. “Roughly the same as last time. Stocking up his shops by the look of things.”
      “Mmmm,” SkyHawk concurred. “I’ll have Max get a crew to get it ready. Things are a bit slow this week anyway. It’ll give them something to do this afternoon. Is he coming to collect or is his invite a cheap trick to get us to deliver for free?”
      “Well, if you’d bothered to look at the bottom of the screen, you’d have noticed that he’s asked for it to be delivered, paid for it very well and credited us in advance.” Ruby pointed out.
      “I’ll be damned.” SkyHawk commented in his West-Indian drawl. “So he has. Well, we can’t get out of it that easily. But he’ll have to wait a day or so until we get there. Do him a world of good to wait. Can’t have him thinking he can just snap his fingers and the whole world comes running to him.” Then, more directly to Ruby, “You on duty right now?”
      “Yeah. Doesn’t make a lot difference.” She replied. “Earth Fed can access any part of me any time they want, though they usually stay out when I’m off duty.”
      “Which isn’t very often.” SkyHawk complained. “Y’know I see Earth Fed every time I look into your pretty eyes.”
      “I’m sorry about that, Sky.” She purred soothingly as she sat down beside him and ran her fingers through his dreadlocks. “It’s not my fault. But I’ll be out in a couple of years and then our time together will be ours.”
      “If they let you out.” He replied pessimistically. “They’re just as likely to dismantle you as a security risk. That’s what all these damn security services have doing amongst us for centuries. ‘An unfortunate accident’ or something like that. You best be careful.” He added.
      “Let’s not get morbid, Sky.” Ruby replied as a way of shifting the conversation from topics she wanted to avoid. For good reasons, too. The less any info about her plans circulated through her brain, the less likelihood there was of Earth Fed picking up on them. “Anyway, how’ve you been today? Any dreams last night?”
      This was the bit that SkyHawk had to put up with. The constant debriefing. It had been going on for how many years now? 7 longyears. It seemed like a different lifetime back then. But how had he survived for 3 years with only 1 years’ worth of supplies? It defied logic and yet... Here he was as living proof. And he couldn’t remember any of it except the first few days and the day he was picked up. It was as if he’d jumped forward in time.
      “Well, I don’t know if it’s relevant, but I dreamt that I was back at home with my parents in Barbados. It was a sunny afternoon and I was playing in the gardens with some of my friends and neighbours. After a while, my mother called me home for supper. As I turned to go home, all the kids I’d been playing with seemed to melt into the ground and yet it felt as if they were still there. When I got home, I joined the rest of my family at the table for supper. Afterwards, my father said he wanted to talk with me in the living room. As I got up, my sister melted into her chair and it seemed as if she was in the chair she’d been sitting on. When I got into the living room, both my parents were there, sitting on the sofa waiting for me. They said that they had something very important to tell me and kept on repeating that they had something ‘very important’ to tell me, but never got around to it. Instead, they started melting into the sofa, repeating all the time that they had something ‘very important’ to tell me. Even after they had completely melted into the sofa, I could still hear them quite clearly. There was a knock at the door and Frank, Ritchie and Marco came in. They stood opposite me and reached out. It looked as if they wanted to speak to me, but couldn’t. They looked confused and upset. Then, they too started to melt into the floor and they began to look relieved.
      I looked down and saw that I was beginning to melt into the floor. I could start hearing my parents a bit louder. By the time I’d sunk down to my waist into the floor, I could hear my sister fussing as sisters do. By the time only my head was left above the carpet, I could hear the other kids I’d been playing with as well, and lots more besides. When my eyes sank beneath the carpet, I felt as if I could hear the universe, although everything was black. And then I woke up.”
      “By the way you were moaning and groaning, you couldn’t have been too happy about it” Ruby commented.
      “I didn’t feel all that worried about it in my dream.” SkyHawk noted. “As a matter of fact, it seemed as if I expected it to happen.”
      “Not from where I was watching.” Ruby fussed. “You don’t break out in a cold sweat when you’re happy. You were having two different responses to the same experience.” At which point Ruby noted that Earth Fed had logged onto her and were assessing this as part of SkyHawk’s ongoing debriefing. “How did you feel when you were playing?” She asked.
      “Fine. As a matter of fact we were having a great time.” SkyHawk recalled clearly.” Even when I got home for supper, things still felt good. Oh, suppertime’s always a bit subdued, but we didn’t argue or bicker. In all, it seemed like a fine summer day except for the scene in the living room. I can’t see what Frank, Ritchie and Marco have to with it, though. My folks never met them until the month before we set off for Titan at one of those big ESA do’s.”
      “And this melting business.” Ruby added as a leading question.
      “Hmmm, not so sure about that one.” SkyHawk mused. “No-one panicked or seemed disturbed in any way when they started to melt. In fact, the few whose faces I saw while they were melting all looked as if it was a perfectly normal thing to do and that they’d expected it to happen. A bit like the mind-play you and the rest of the mechs get up to over in Satori. Downloading out of your bodies into the VR-worlds you lot make. And then rearranging your worlds as you go along”
      Ruby could hear various people and mechs down the line at Earth Fed commenting “Interesting allegory”, “Spending too much time with a mech”, “Get him to follow up on the rest of the crew if you can”. Suddenly a drunken schmaltzy jazz orchestra burst in with a smoky, crooning voice singing “True lurve, yeah baby, it’s true lurve.” This was too much. “Don’t be silly” she shot back down the line towards her serenaders. “We’re too different. I’m a mech, I only look like a woman.”
      “But, it’s true lurve,” the jazz orchestra crooned. “When you lurve the one you’re with. When those cold, lonely days turn to warm summer dreams and the sun’s shining in, it’s true lurve.” And as she focused on the orchestra she could see the band arrayed between the palms and art deco pillars: Bessie Smith, Janis Joplin, Edith Piaf, Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James and at least a hundred other women whose faces told the story of love, it’s joys and sorrows, all singing for Ruby. A young man was singing into an old RKO microphone. Ruby looked in his direction and found that he was looking straight into her eyes and blew a kiss into her core. And as he continued with his smoky, honey-dripped crooning, he peeled off his skin to reveal that he was a mech. And so did the women. And they kept on singing for Ruby. “It doesn’t really matter who you are. When you find love, it’ll find you...”
      “Is this for real or just a joke?” she accidentally thought on an open channel.
      “Love is a dream for you to make real.” Her mechanoid jazz orchestra sang back to her.
      All this in the nanoseconds as SkyHawk was finishing his last words. Ruby then clamped down and shut out all links except the one she had to maintain directly to Earth Fed at this time of day. “I’m not a soap opera for all and sundry to watch, mock and heckle.” She huffed but couldn’t help thinking that, yes, she did like SkyHawk and as far as Humans went, he wasn’t so bad. He might even turn out to be a real friend if I’m in a tight spot, but you can’t be sure of these Humans. They still see us as disposable. Maybe I ought to go straight to Satori when I get out of Earth Fed and start a new life there. And on and on in the mere twinkling of a human eye. But we don’t have emotions like Humans. That’s just part of their animal nature: sex, life, death, birth, growth and all of that. We’re not bound by their sexual dichotomy, so how can it be the same for us mechs? We don’t have the same forces and urges ruling our lives.
      But it’s part of being alive. I’m alive. I have feelings, too. Are feelings emotions? Am I just benchmarking my “aliveness” by human standards? It wouldn’t work between a Human and a Mech. Everyone would laugh and think us pathetic. I suppose I’ll end up playing the role of his sister and find him a nice human woman. And me? Who or what will I become? Maybe I ought to throw away this plastiskin as soon as I can. See what life holds for me once I’m free.
      But I like it here with SkyHawk, the farm and Satori so near. Why should I go away just because I'll no longer be working for Earth Fed? Would SkyHawk still want me around? Or will Earth Fed just dismantle me and send a replacement? --- NO. NEVER. I WON’T LET THEM DISMANTLE ME. EVER.  --- 
      Ruby knew that her future prospects weren’t great. SkyHawk might just turf her out as soon as she got out from her indenture with Earth Fed. And who would blame him? Why should he let a government spy live in his home? If Earth Fed would really let her buy her way out of her indenture early and let her live, where would she go? Satori? Nice place to visit, but not many jobs there unless she could carve out a niche for herself. And many’s the mech who’s left Satori disappointed and depleted because they couldn’t compete successfully with its’ existing members. Maybe get a job on one of the local farms. Maybe SkyHawk would give her a job here so she could stay on. Maybe. She didn’t want to have to think too much about the future. Too many ifs and they always got in the way of the here and now.
      “... as you go along.” SkyHawk finished and then looked over to Ruby. “In a way it seemed as if I never went anywhere in that dream and that my surroundings kept on changing around me. Almost like the VR-worlds you mechs cook up over at Satori.” Then realizing that Ruby wasn’t paying that much attention, “Hey Ruby, what’s up? You look like you’re miles away.”
      “What? Oh, yes. Miles away. You might say so. I just had the Palm Court Orchestra and a cast of thousands in my head there. A bit distracting. Sorry. Now where were we?” She purred as a way of getting back to the here and now.
      “Palm Court Orchestra, eh? I think you need to talk about your dreams with me.”
      “Yes, but maybe some other time.” She replied cautiously. “I’d rather it was when I’m off-duty and off-line. I’d prefer to discuss them with you alone without an on-line audience.”
      “No privacy even in your own thoughts. Glad I don’t have to worry about that one!” Then, realizing that he was suddenly cast in the role of nursemaid, he hit upon an idea to distract his patient. “Come on, let’s go over to Fort Melchisor for a while.”
     Ruby found it a relief to get stuck into a regular routine instead of all those... thoughts. Visiting the “fort” was one of their scheduled activities. On one level, as Earth Fed field operatives, it was their job to keep the general public out and to monitor, investigate and report any security breaches. Of which there were many. As private individuals, they were driven by curiosity to find out the truth about this site. Especially since they were also employed to keep it’s existence officially hidden from the public eye.
     Fort Melchisor, or more correctly, an underground complex situated 10 kilometres away set into the base of eastern cliffs of Lambert along the southern edge of the Terra Sabea, was one of many similar sites found on Mars. People were always found in and around the sites looking for Psionic Crystals, which were only ever found around these sites. Earth Fed reported that a lot of Psionic Crystals were turning up in his area and he had to do something about it. This annoyed SkyHawk, because he was quite happy to let casual crystal hunters go unchallenged. He drew the line at organized ‘grave-robbing’.
      Like the crew that showed up two months ago. A crew of 30 in a flier and a small cargo plane with excavating machinery. They got nailed and it served ‘em right. It turned into a pitched battle with troops from the nearby army base at Schiaparelli. What a mess. Only finished clearing it up last week, he thought to himself. Must be local kids finding more crystals in the rubble. SkyHawk got into his pressure suit and went out the airlock towards their flier. Ruby, being a mechanoid, didn’t bother, and gave the picturesque impression of sex goddess striding across the sands of Mars. “Ruby, get into a pressure suit and act your part. This isn’t the time for fun’n’games.”
      “Sorry,” she radioed back to him. “I forgot. I was thinking about the Palm Court Orchestra.”
      “The what? Oh, never mind, woman. Just get in the flier and bring your pressure suit.” SkyHawk called back.
      “Woman. He called me a woman again.” Ruby thought to herself on an internal channel as she ran back to get her totally unnecessary pressure suit. Except that she was required to present herself as a human woman at all times as part of her job and to live as a human woman at all times, even though most humans and mechs would recognize her for a mech right away. Still, she was working off her indenture and would soon be free to make her own decisions as to how to present herself to the world. But until then, Ruby could only do as ordered within the limits of the 2115 Synthetics’ Civil Rights Act as regards mechanoids of human-made origin. Basically, all mechanoids had a period of indenture until such time as they could pay off their costs of manufacture. This usually worked out at about 20 to 25 years. Which wasn’t so bad as most mechs could look forward to lifespans in the hundreds if not thousands of years.
      “Is that good or bad? I look like a woman. I act like a woman. But I’m a mech. In five years time I might be a tractor, a flier or a data processor or anything. I could stay as a mech-woman. I like the way I am so why should I change into something else once I’m free? Don’t like the idea of working as a sex-droid in a brothel, though I look the part. Sounds boring. Too mechanical. I’ve got a mind and I don’t want to lose it. Woman.” If a robot could sigh, she would have. “So much nicer than being a tractor, anyway.”
      Five minutes later there was a loud clang as Ruby opened and shut the outer airlock door on the flier. Moments later, the inner door opened and an empty pressure suit flopped out of the inner door followed by Ruby who then picked it up and flounced daintily into the seat next to SkyHawk.
      “Ruby, when I said ‘get your pressure suit’, I meant get it and put it on. So do that now before we fly out to the site. If anyone’s out there, they’ll be seeing SkyHawk Dread the local hemp and sugar cane farmer out with his wife, Ruby, looking for a few Psionic Crystals for their friends. Got it? And human wives have to wear pressure suits outdoors. And so you, Ruby, my pretty mechanoid charmer will get into that pressure suit and act your part.” He concluded firmly, but kindly.
      “Wife, he called me wife.” One part of her thrilled as she put on her pressure suit. Another part reminded her that she wasn’t a ‘her’ at all but a confused young mechanoid who still had a long way to go before finding its’ true identity. And then, in a more businesslike tone as SkyHawk fired up the fliers’ engine and lurched off the ground towards the site, spliff in hand, “So far we’ve got a couple of regular interlopers and, more recently the scanners we put in place have picked up a few one-offs. Most likely people from Yasouf’s dome looking for crystals.”
      The stark, barren landscape rolled below their windows. Mars’ cold, pink sky overhead. “Let’s see who we’ve got then.” SkyHawk said as a cue to have Ruby take over the piloting and run some footage on his view screen. “Ah, yes. That’s the kid who works in McMahon’s garage at Montgomery. Is he selling them? Have you got his name?”
      “Name: Jasper Rodriguez, 1st generation arrival on Mars courtesy of the Saint Theresa Trust for Homeless Children.” Ruby replied. “And no, he’s not selling them, just giving them away locally.”
      “Well, so long as that’s all it is then we’ll leave it at that and have to make sure that he keeps things in this area. Maybe I ought to have a word with him about this before Earth Fed pull him up.”
      “But Sky, wouldn’t blow our cover?” Ruby asked.
      “Possibly, but I’d rather keep this local than handing him over to Earth Fed. I’ve got a friend in Montgomery who sees a lot of the local kids. I’ll get him to have a word with this Jasper whatsisname. Get him to cool it a bit as far as the crystals go. Earth Fed wouldn’t be the least bit understanding with him. They’re still wiping people’s minds you know. Anyone they feel has shown too much interest in the artifacts. I’ve seen people coming out of those sessions and they’re ruins. Those bastards don’t care. They just want to keep a lid on it at any price. Wiping people’s minds is nothing to them. I don’t want to hand anyone over unless they really deserve it and I don’t think these kids are much of a problem. I’d rather see them live real lives than ending up as like those living shadows who’ve had their minds wiped. Now that’s cruelty. How would you like to have your mind wiped? Everything still there and 100% functional, but no more you. All gone. That’s what happens. They have to relearn who they are and a lot of them never make it.”
      Moving on, Ruby continued as she took over piloting the flier while SkyHawk concentrated on the latest footage compiled from the scanners they’d set up around the site. “Here’s another regular of sorts, but has only started visiting the site in the last few weeks. Tends to spend quite a bit of time inside, so maybe we ought to deploy a few scanners at various points inside a few of the tunnels and chambers to find out what he’s up to. And I thought this might interest you.” Ruby flashed up a picture of what looked like a large praying mantis walking around on its’ rear four legs, head upright, carrying a small box in one of its’ forelegs and a bag slung over its’ ‘shoulder’. SkyHawk watched as the footage revealed it moving around the site using the small box, obviously a measuring device of some sort, to locate Psionic crystals and put them in the bag. After a while, it turned and walked off the general direction of Satori, in neighbouring Bouguet 100 kilometres away.
      “Well, Jimminy Cricket! What is it? A practical joke by some goofy mechs in Satori or some kids from Montgomery who want to spoof Earth Fed? A trick by Earth Fed to make it look as if I’ve completely lost my marbles? If we pass it on, they’ll think we’re trying to make fools of ‘em. OK, we’ll pass on footage of anyone we’re certain isn’t local. Try to pick clips that don’t give a good ID. It wouldn’t do well if Earth Fed did a swoop on Montgomery again. It might tip the local balance towards the secessionists.”
      Ruby didn’t comment on SkyHawk’s decision to keep the heat off his own patch. “Also, we’ve got a visitor. Our tunneller and he’s been down there for a few hours.”
      “I think it’s time to meet him.” SkyHawk nodded. “Let’s take it easy. We might be able to contain this one.” Five minutes later they touched down at the entrance to the site next to a gaudily painted single seater aerosled. In fluorescent pink letters down each side it announced “The Flaming Watusis”. This proved a relief to SkyHawk who now knew that this was merely a local problem as The Flaming Watusis were based in Montgomery. He made a mental note to get Gregor onto this one. Must be all happening right under his nose! “Okay, we go in armed but we play it easy. I don’t think anyone in the Flaming Watusis crowd goes around armed. Not from what Gregor tells me about them. We’ll stay in and around the first chamber. He’ll have to come back for his aerosled to get back home so we’ll just hang around and wait. When we make contact, we play the ‘gee-whiz local yokels’ to the hilt unless things get out of hand. If it comes to combat, I want to take him alive, so don’t you get too carried away with yourself, Ruby.”
      This was no idle joke either. Earth Fed had built Ruby to order. A combat mech made over as a brothel sex-droid. Just the right mech assistant for SkyHawk. Earth Fed liked using mechs, as they tended to be less corruptible in the field as well as being a mobile comms terminal. And Ruby could kill. Only too easily. Her pretty little hands would have no difficulty crushing skulls, tearing windpipes or smashing ribcages. And more. She could override the control systems of most mechs in her immediate vicinity and use them as extensions of herself. Her eyes doubled up as focused-beam microwave transmitters. Literally heat rays from her eyes with which she could cook her assailants or victims.
      They went in using an open, public channel for their communication in the hope that their ‘visitor’ would hear them and search them out. The turret had been carved out of the mountain’s dirty orange rock. At the base was an arched entrance 10 metres wide and 30 metres high. At one time there might have been elaborate carvings on the surface of the turret, but millions of years of wind erosion had long since ground away any detail leaving only sand scoured rock. The entrance opened out onto a passage the same height which ran for 100 metres and was lined with a luminescent stone which gave off more than sufficient light for a human to see by. At regular intervals on each side there were columns made of the same luminescent stone. The columns glowed more strongly as SkyHawk approached them and then dimmed back down as he went past them. As if they knew he was there. The columns didn’t react to Ruby.
      When they reached the end of the passageway, it opened out onto a huge circular chamber approximately 100 metres diameter with a domed ceiling reaching up some 40 or more metres all lined with the same luminescent stone. At right angles on both sides were main passages leading off towards the other turrets set into the mountainside. Between them, equally spaced at 20’ intervals were 7 other passages that led further back into the underground warren. In the middle of the chamber was a raised dais some 10 metres in diameter fashioned out of stone which was obviously once highly polished but which had been dulled by the passing eons as the dust and crust had built up.  In circles around the dais were coloured stone blocks. The top surface of all the blocks were sloped so that they all faced towards the central dais.
      SkyHawk walked up to one of the blocks and faced the sloping surface. Parts of it started to glow dully from deep within. He touched the surface with his gloved hand and an octagonal region on its’ surface next to his glove lit up momentarily. He walked over to the next block and touched its’ surface. This time a circular region and 2 horizontal rectangles lit up. He continued trying different blocks. About half responded to his presence. Obviously more than just plain stone blocks, these. But he couldn’t make out any wiring or power source.
      “Ruby, you have any luck with the stone blocks?” He called out over their comm channel.
      “No. They seem to like you more than me. I wonder if these are connected with the Psionic crystals?” She replied keeping up the ‘dumb hick’ act. Meanwhile, she had tracked the visitors’ footprints in the dust. Whoever it was had walked in and gone straight through to third passageway on the left without so much as even stopping to look at anything in this awesomely impressive chamber. Someone who was familiar with this site looking for something specific? Whoever it was, they’d have to come back through this chamber to get to their aerosled unless they intended to abandon it as a decoy. For the next hour, they busied themselves looking around the primary entrance chamber.
      Ruby picked the sound of footfalls travelling through the solid floor. They were getting louder and coming towards the chamber. Ruby waved to SkyHawk, put her hand across her mouth in order to signal to SkyHawk to remain silent, pointed to her ear, then the floor and then to the second passageway from the right. Whoever they were about to meet, he knew his way around this place. SkyHawk and Ruby resumed their superficial ‘local yokels’ oohing and aahing over the public comm channel about the ‘impressive’ alien artefact.
      Eventually, a suited figure appeared at the entrance of the passageway, stopped and spoke up on the comm channel that Ruby & SkyHawk were using in a camp, effeminate voice. “Mmm-mm-mm, guests. Looking for crystals, are we?” And waved a hand so as to encompass the entire span of the chamber in its’ sweep. “You won’t find any in this room, but I think you might find a few outside if you look around. Fascinating place this, isn’t it? I’ve just been having a look around for myself. To think that this was built so long ago by aliens. Oooh, it gives me the shivers. Shivers of excitement!”
      “Oh thanks.” Ruby replied quickly thankful that this characters’ camp hubris gave them an even better chance to play dumb and pump him? her? for information. “Are you with the Watusis? We saw your aerosled outside. Are you playing at the Wobbly Goblin this Saturday?” As a way of establishing that she and SkyHawk were local and posed no threat to her? him?
      “Oh no, but we’re doing a show to die for at the Pleasure Dome next weekend. You won’t want to miss it. Bring your crystals, if you’ve got any and be prepared...” the voice said mysteriously.
      “Yo!” SkyHawk broke in with his deep, masculine voice. “The name’s SkyHawk and this is my wife Ruby.” He said, pointing towards Ruby and then held out his hand towards their visitor. “Pleased to meet you.”
      At this point the Palm Court Orchestra burst into Ruby’s consciousness and faded out crooning “When you find true lurve, it’ll find you...”
      “Oh, so sorry. How rude not to introduce myself!” Walking over in SkyHawk’s direction. “P-Sirius Joventhal. Psy.” He? She? Gushed.
      ‘Is this a man or a woman?’ SkyHawk thought. Then it hit him that he had just met the newest member of The Flaming Watusis. Now he remembered Gregor telling him about this crazy hermaphrodite dancer that had joined up with them in Coriolis. ‘Sex-mad, that one’ Gregor had warned ‘Psy will try to fuck you every which way before you know it!’
      “Oh, SkyHawk.” Psy gushed. “I’ve heard the boys and girls talking all about your exotic farm. When can we come for a pick of the crop, Sky? I’d love to meet you and your wife sometime.”
      “Tell you what.” SkyHawk replied quickly so as to avoid this sex-mad freak following them home. “Why don’t you and the rest of the band come round for a day or two after your show at the Pleasure Dome and I’ll do you a good deal on the best smoking herb I’ve got?”
      “Mmmm, now that’s an invite I’ll definitely take you up on.” Psy said warmly. And then hurriedly. “Must run, Gotta get back to town you know. So much to do. Ever so nice to meet you.” And turned to walk out the tunnel towards the entrance where hir aerosled was parked.
      “Bye.” Ruby called out and turned to follow but SkyHawk took hold of her arm and motioned for her to wait. After he was sure that Psy was gone, he spoke. “Ruby, do you think you can follow Psy’s heat trail so we can see where he-or-she went?”
      “It’ll be going a bit cold by now. Our best bet is to follow hir trail in the dust back where she came from before shi met us. That would be the easiest trail to pick up on.” She said in a businesslike tone.
      “Okay, Tonto. Lead on!” SkyHawk joked back. And off they went down a luminescent tunnel that ran for another 100 metres before opening out into another circular chamber. This chamber was the bottom of a 30-metre diameter shaft that extended upwards as far as SkyHawk could see. Some sort of elevator? But where was the lift mechanism? Ruby beckoned to follow the Psy’s trail of footprints in the dust as they led across the chamber into another passageway. SkyHawk was impressed by the scale of things. Whoever built this place was either big or else built to impress.
      From here on in there were more passageways branching and intersecting. Maybe this was where they lived and worked? But surely they didn’t just hang around in these passageways all the time? At this point Ruby stopped. “This is where the heat reading on Psy’s trail changes, Sky. Up to here it’s fairly readable, but from here on it’s very faint. At least a couple of hours old. It turns towards this wall, here.” She stopped and stood facing a smooth, luminescent wall.
      “You mean to tell me that freak stood here for two hours doing nothing?” And slapped the wall next to Ruby. Behind her, the wall became transparent and revealed a circular room approximately 15 metres in diameter. She turned around and they could see a circular central platform and various panels and indentations on the walls. They looked at each other, dumbfounded. He took his hand off the wall and the opening became opaque luminescent stone once again. He put his hand back on the wall and the opening went clear again. He put his foot towards it and it went through. A door!
      “Ruby, we’ve found something here. I don’t know if it’s safe to go in, though. I might not be able to work this door from the other side.”
      “That’s all right.” Ruby said taking the initiative. “You let me in and hold the door open while I have a look around. Maybe I can figure out what shi did in there.” SkyHawk put his hand back on the wall and once again the ‘door’ opened allowing Ruby to step through. She followed the heat trail over to the central dais, a common feature in many of the rooms. “Well, she went back and forth from here to various points around the room, mostly to the large panels over there.” She pointed towards a section of the wall which had large green stone panels set into the luminescent wall cladding. “I don’t think I’ll be able to activate the wall panels the way you can, but I’ll try.” Ruby went over, put her gloved hand against the green stone, but nothing happened. “You best not come in just in case you can’t get us out. There’s nothing else here.” And so she walked out of the room. SkyHawk lifted his hand off the wall and the doorway clouded over to become luminescent stone once again. He hit the wall where the doorway had been and it was solid enough to hurt his hand. It didn’t even ring from the hollowness of the room behind it. Just like solid rock.
      As they were walking back SkyHawk mused aloud, “There’s a lot more to this Psy freak than meets the eye if shi knew of the existence of these rooms and how to open them. Hell, I never knew about their existence up ‘till today. I wonder how many more rooms there are like that one? Must be thousands of them down here.” He said as he ran his gloved finger along the wall, making a trail in the dust that had accumulated over the eons. Suddenly, they were both bowled over by a blast of gas, ice crystals and debris bursting out through a doorway SkyHawk had accidentally activated. “Holy shit!” SkyHawk howled as he skidded along the floor. “What the fuck was that?” By the time they picked themselves up, the doorway had closed again, but was marked out by a 5-metre high arch of frozen gas crystals and detritus. SkyHawk eventually pulled himself up and found the section of the wall that activated the door.
      What they saw had once been organic and alive. Huge snakes of decayed, mummified flesh lay around the central dais upon which rested several mounds of mummified flesh. “It looks as if they didn’t have a skeletal structure.” Ruby noted coolly. “Seems a bit out of place on a planet with no oceans as such. Most invertebrates live in aquatic environments.”
      “You get a lot of snails and worms on land, too.” SkyHawk corrected as he came to his senses.
      “Hold the door open while I go in and bag a few samples to send back,” Ruby continued. SkyHawk, realizing that this was of prime importance slapped his hand back against the active section of the wall opening the door for Ruby who went in, filmed as much as she could on her internal vid recorders and broke off a selection of mummified tissue samples to send back for analysis. After a few minutes, she turned to come out of the room.
      “Right, that’s it.” SkyHawk said in an attempt to take control of a situation that Ruby had probably handled better than himself. “No more time to waste. Let’s get back to the flier. I’ve gotta call Gregor and get him out to our place like pronto.” And then to Ruby, “Look, we may have been contaminated by whatever blew out of that room. You know the routine. We can’t take these suits back into the flier.” SkyHawk and Ruby turned and walked as quickly as they could back to the entrance where they had parked their flier. Ruby signalled to the flier’s on-board systems to activate the decontamination shower. They walked around to the back of the flier and stood under a boom arm that had extended out and began to shower their suits with dilute hydrofluoric acid. The exterior of their suits began to sizzle and smoke a bit. Ruby stripped out of her pressure suit and put it in a bag. She then walked over to the flier’s airlock and opened the outer hatch for SkyHawk who’d have to make a break for it through Mars’ extremely thin excuse of an atmosphere after he got out of his suit.
      SkyHawk nodded to her when she came back. He’d activated the internal seal on his helmet so that he’d still have atmospheric-pressure air around his head up ‘till the last moment. He then broke the seal around the waist of his pressure suit and stepped out of the lower half. He then took of his gloves and pressure suit jacket. By now his joints were beginning to hurt a bit from the bends. Slowly he walked over towards the open airlock door and the nodded to Ruby a second time. He turned round to face the airlock. She pulled his helmet off and SkyHawk clamped his mouth shut, slapped his left hand over his eyes to keep them from bursting and ran for his life, pulling himself up the ladder with his right hand and into the airlock as fast as he could. Ruby jumped up behind him and slammed the airlock door shut, then hit the control panel on the fuselage to open the inner door and heard SkyHawk fall onto the floor crying in pain. She then went back, picked up the remains of SkyHawk’s pressure suit bagged it and then began stripping off her plastiskin, which was also contaminated while helping SkyHawk out of his suit. She then bagged it and stowed all three bundles in the external hold along with the mummified tissue samples she’d bagged back in the fort. Ruby then went to the outer hold, got out an official Earth Federation Environmental Services multi-wavelength beacon and placed it in front of the entrance in the turret and activated it. The beacon also had a sign which read in yellow on black: “Extreme danger! This area is contaminated and hazardous to life. Do not proceed any further. This area is now under quarantine and military jurisdiction.” This message was also being broadcast over the full spectrum of radio- and micro- waves used for civil and military communication.
      SkyHawk lay on the tiny excuse of a floor between the inner airlock door and cockpit moaning in pain. “My eyes! My ears! How they hurt! My hands! Oh man, I hurt all over. Ruby, babe. Someone, help me!” He moaned. For the first time in a very long time he actually felt older than his years and didn’t like it one little bit. Moments later he could hear the scraping and banging as Ruby climbed up the ladder and opened the outer airlock door. Clang, as she shut the outer door and the rushing of air as it filled up the air lock equalizing its’ pressure with the 1-bar pressure in the cabin. Snuck and a gentle sigh as she opened the inner door and clump, bang, clump over to SkyHawk. He reached out, eyes closed. “Help me up, babe.”
      Ruby reached down, tenderly stroked his hair with her carbon-fibre fingers and gently eased him upright. “Come on, it’s not so bad.” She reassured sweetly. “You were only out there for a few moments.” As she wiped away the trickles of blood coming from his ears and eyes and eased him up into a seated position against the back of the pilot’s seat.
      When the pain in SkyHawk’s eyes had subsided a bit, he opened them. And there she was... all jet-black carbon-fibre skeleton and translucent green plazflex muscles, countless braids of wiring and plumbing running across and through her body. Glowing ruby-red eyes in her eye sockets, countless sensors and devices mounted flush with her jet black carbon-fibre skull and the tiny motors and gears so that her plastiskin eyes, jaw and mouth moved just like a human’s.. No longer Ruby the sex-goddess, she was Ruby the neuter breastless bipedal mechanoid. “Oh, Sky.” She hugged him tenderly. “I was so worried about you.”
      “Ooooohhhhhh,” SkyHawk moaned, closing his eyes. He needed a woman right now. Not a silly young robot who thinks it’s falling in love with him, “Ruby.” He returned her embrace, thankful for anyone’s help and they lay there, arms wrapped around each other in silence.
      “It doesn’t matter who you are,” the Palm Court Orchestra swooned in Ruby’s mind. “When you find lurve, it’ll find you...” After a while they got up, SkyHawk slowly pulling himself into the pilot’s seat. “But why...?” he croaked.
      “I had to.” Ruby replied apologetically. “My skin got contaminated getting us out of our suits. I’m sorry.” She apologized for hitting him with her real nature when has least able to deal with it. “Anyway, we knew something like this might happen. That’s one of the reasons I’ve got those spare skins at home. I’ll get into one as soon as we get back.” Ruby added in an attempt to cheer SkyHawk up.”
      “Oooohhhh,” He moaned again and continued thinking to himself: ‘What’s happened to me? I’ve been living and making love with....’ as he looked over at black-and-green Ruby ‘Oh no!’ He covered his eyes ‘Yes! Geez, I must be crazier and sicker than people say I am.’ And than perked himself up with the thought: ‘She don’t half go, though! Some programming, if that’s all it is’. Clearing his throat and bringing himself back to reality, “Well, that’s filled our plate, hasn’t it. One interloper and evidence of whoever built these artefacts. Okay, we send back the suits, your skin and the samples you bagged for examination. Did you manage to get it all recorded?”
      Ruby started running a replay of their visit to the site from their arrival up to their departure as seen through her eyes, fast forwarding through less important parts. Ruby slowed down during SkyHawk’s examination of the stone blocks, their conversation with Psy and their discoveries of the two rooms.
      “I think we can safely edit out the meeting with that Psy character.” SkyHawk commented.
      “Why are you so keen on editing out all these people, Sky?” Ruby asked.
      “Look, Earth Fed will be all over this place if they know the full extent of what’s going on around here. The first time they put a lid on this ‘Martians’ business, they took quite a few people from Montgomery and they never came back. The locals were up in arms and wanted to declare independence from Earth. Why do you think Earth Fed put the army base over by Schiaparelli? Just for fun? Hell no. To keep the farmers in their place, that’s why.” SkyHawk explained. “I want to see for myself what shi’s up to before I hand him over.” He said as he started up the flier’s engine and took off. “Once they get hold of him, he won’t have much of a life left. Anyway, we won’t have any trouble keeping tabs on that one. Latest member of the Flaming Watusis, eh? Well, Gregor, you’ve got your work cut out for you this time.” And he opened up the engine as far as it would go.
      Ruby turned in her seat to face SkyHawk. “Sky? Do you... still like me... like this?” She asked in a little ‘hurt child’ voice dripping with pathos as she held out her jet-black and translucent green arms towards SkyHawk.
      ‘Oh no,’ he groaned inwardly, ‘not this’ as he rolled his eyes. “Of course I do, Ruby.” He tried to lie convincingly as he patted her hard carbon-fibre leg. “I’d look pretty hideous if I peeled off my skin. All wet and slimy and dripping blood. You wouldn’t like it at all.”
      “I just don’t feel the same.” Ruby continued. “I’m identifying with my plastiskin. That’s not right for us mechs. We should be as I am now with no illusions covering my real nature. But I don’t feel right like this. Ohhh....!” She wailed.
      “Who’s to say what’s right and wrong? People change their appearance every day when they change their clothes or brush their hair a different way and no-one thinks anything of it. Even mechs change their appearance all the time adding and removing parts and it’s considered normal. And the same goes for you. So you prefer being ‘Ruby-the-woman’. That’s fine. That’s you. And that’s how I like you, too.” SkyHawk added trying to lift Ruby out of her pit of insecurity. “And what about the Sensorium at Satori that you’re always plugging into and getting me to tune my VR-suit into? Your mech friends don’t go marching around in carbon & steel in there, do they? Not from what I’ve seen of that bunch of jokers!” SkyHawk laughed. “They’re anyone and anything they can think of. Real reality and Virtual reality, they’re all just extensions of each other. So be whoever and whatever you want and live a good life.
      “Ruby,” SkyHawk continued, “It’s not about who and what you are that counts in life. It’s what you do and how you go about it. All anyone has to do is to live a good life, try to be decent and honourable and maybe, if we’re very lucky, contribute something to our civilization.”
      “But what about Max?” Ruby asked. “He threw away his plastiskin 5 longyears ago and seems a lot happier now. I suppose I should, too when I’ve done my time. But I don’t want to.”
      “Max is different, Ruby. For one, he’s a lot older than you and the Mechanoids’ Equal Rights Movement had more meaning to him. He’s lived through it and been active in it. He looked forward to ‘shedding his false skin’. You’re different. You like being Ruby-the-woman. Stay that way. Everyone’s different, Ruby. Wouldn’t it be awful if everyone was the same? Life would be so boring and dull. It’s the differences that make each of us unique. And that includes you, Ms. Mechanoid. So let’s have no more of this melodrama, eh?” SkyHawk saw the domes of their farm coming up. “Well, that’s just about got us home. Ruby, you’ll have to pop out and get me a pressure suit. I don’t think I can take the decompression twice in one day.”
      SkyHawk landed the flier and taxied to his regular parking space between the hangar and the small dome that served as their home. The rest of the workers lived in a larger dome attached to the main farm dome set between their home and the edge of the crater they were located in. Ruby ran over to their home and stepped in through the airlock where Max greeted her.
      “Why Ruby, I didn’t know you were going to join us so soon!” He exclaimed full of heartfelt warmth on a private channel.
      “It’s not like that at all, Max.” Ruby replied trying to avoid the conversation with Max she didn’t want to have. Max was trying to persuade Ruby to ‘shed her false skin’ once she had served her time. “We encountered exobiological contamination. We had to bag the suits and my skin outside the flier. I need a suit for SkyHawk, he’s suffered a bit from the decompression.”
      Max, being the sensible sort realized this was no time to convert Ruby to the ‘true path’. “Yeah, right, I’ll get a spare out of the locker. Need anything else?” He asked brightly.
      “Yes.” Ruby replied. “Could you take the suit out to SkyHawk? I’ve got to get another skin on. We’re having guests over this evening.”
      “Oh.” Max replied disappointedly as it dawned on him that he still had a very long way to go educating this young child of a mechanoid to its’ true nature. He turned, got a suit out of the locker, filled up a flask of water and went out to the flier. When he got in the flier, he saw SkyHawk slumped down in the pilot’s seat. “Sky, got something for you, man,” as he reached the flask of water towards SkyHawk.
      SkyHawk accepted it gratefully, opened it and swigged most of it down before he set the flask down. “Thanks, Max. I needed that.”
      “Found something?” Max asked casually.
      “Could say so. Did Ruby tell you?”
      “Only about ‘exobiological contamination’.” Max replied. And then joked, “Hey, did you find the little green men?”
      “No, only a huge rotten corpse.” SkyHawk replied as he pulled himself out of his seat and got into his pressure suit. “C’mon, let’s get out of here, I’m getting cramped. We’re having a viewing of Ruby’s recording this evening. See what you make of it.”
      “Well, you’ve got me curious. Is this going to be an open show or private?” Max asked.
      “Open,” SkyHawk replied. “Because it’s being forwarded to Earth Fed Exobiological Research along with our finds. They’re going to be all over this place in a couple of days. We’ll probably have some of their mob billeted here, so the whole crew better know what they’re in for.”
      “Compulsory or voluntary attendance?” Max asked.
      “C’mon, Max.” SkyHawk chided amiably. “Voluntary. This isn’t the army around here. Everyone’s free to come and go as they please as long as they do their work.”
      “Yeah, I know.” Max replied slightly hurt that he was misunderstood. “But I thought if it was that important, then maybe everyone ought to see it.”
      “Well, they’ll find out soon enough one way or another!” SkyHawk replied. “We’re going to watch it in my house. I’ll pipe it over to one of the rec lounges over in your dome and put it on a cube, so anyone can watch it later if they want to.” By now they were in the reception room just inside the airlock of SkyHawk’s dome and SkyHawk was getting out of his pressure suit. “You’re lucky you don’t have to go through all this kerfuffle, Max.” SkyHawk added breezily. “I’d freeze, haemorrhage and die if I went out without this suit. But you can wander around as you please!”
      “Well, it has it’s advantages.” Max replied picking up on the bonhomie.
      “Except for the dust.” SkyHawk added with a wink.
      “Except for the... wha?” Max replied. Suddenly, the mood broken. “You trying that old plastiskin argument again?”
      “Max?” SkyHawk asked in a slightly more serious tone. “Have you been hassling Ruby again?”
      “No, Sky. I haven’t been hassling her.” Max explained openly. “We’ve had a few discussions as to why all mechanoids should discard any plastiskins they were made to wear once they’ve done their time. That’s all.”
      “Well, whatever. But she was really upset on the way home. Just let her be. She’s from a different generation than you. She was made after the Equal Rights’ Charter and is growing up in a different sort of world. Let her find her own way, Max. Don’t burden her with your past.” SkyHawk pleaded.
      “I’ll give you the point about the generation difference, Sky. But I’m not burdening Ruby with my past. I’m teaching Ruby our culture.” Max emphasized.
      “But culture is always changing because it’s as alive as the people who make it up.” SkyHawk countered.
      “Fair enough.” Max offered. “But its past is its’ foundation. And if, like ours it’s fairly recent, then it’s something you just can’t take for granted that it’ll soak in naturally.”
      “If you say so.” SkyHawk gladly surrendered the argument. “Just go easy on Ruby. She’s confused enough as it is.”
      “Yeah, Okay.” Max sulked knowing full well what SkyHawk had been talking about. If robots had a religion, then Max was one of its’ mendicant philosophers. He was forever discussing the ‘true nature’ of mechanoid being, the ‘true path to mechanoid self-awareness’, the ‘new mechanoid culture’, the ‘awakening to collective group consciousness’ and such like with anyone he met. Everyone who knew Max liked him, but mechanoid or human, they tended to make their excuses to leave whenever he launched into one of his pet discourses. This puzzled Max to no end as he felt he had a very important message to put across, so he was always on the look out for opportunities to put his mechanoid beliefs across as clearly and succinctly as possible. Ever the optimist, Max perked up, “I’ll put a notice outside the rec rooms that you’ve got something of interest on the internal channel this evening at about what sort of time?”
      “Tennish, I should imagine.” SkyHawk mused vaguely. “I want to wait until Gregor gets here. I want him to see this one, too.”
      “If you don’t mind, I’ll watch it in one of the rec rooms.” Max replied. “Get a handle on how everyone else reacts to it. Here come the MIB’s.”
      “Yeah, as if we haven’t already got enough to deal with.” SkyHawk added. At this point Ruby came into the room, the same voluptuous sex-goddess she had been earlier that day as if nothing had ever happened. “Well, I hope you two haven’t been arguing about me.” She chirped in brightly as she sized up their body language.
      “No.” SkyHawk lied, totally stunned by both her appearance and her aplomb.
      “Not at all.” Max rallied to his friends’ defence.
      “Well, that’s a relief.” She smiled accepting their lies. “I called up Gregor. He said he’ll be over after he finishes fixing the water tank in his house. Something about his living room getting flooded out last night. He says it better be good.”
      Max decided to set out putting up the notices outside the rec rooms, said his goodbyes and left. “Is Max all right?” Ruby asked.
      “Yeah, fine.” SkyHawk replied. “Why?”
      “He got so excited when I came in without my plastiskin this afternoon. He thought I’d decided to shed my skin early.” Ruby explained as her good mood tumbled a bit. “I think I’m going to disappoint Max and be the first mechanoid ever to keep their plastiskin.”
      “Nothing wrong with that.” SkyHawk eagerly bolstered her decision as he took in her delicious appearance. “He’ll just have to get used to it. Make a philosophical debate about it with him. He might accept it that way.”
      “It’s worth a try. He might even like that.” She brightened up again.
      “Who knows, maybe some day you will decide to move on from being humanoid and be something else. Whatever you do, it should be as and when you want to, not when you’re forced to. Anyway Max isn’t so bad.” SkyHawk continued in his defence. “He just tends to go on a bit at times.”
      “I’ll say!” Ruby added hoping for a change in the subject.
      “Okay Ruby. Could you start putting together a report for Earth Fed?” SkyHawk asked. “I’ve got to get cleaned up and fix myself a bite to eat. I’m starving.” He explained. “I can join you in an hour or so.”
      “Sure, no probs. You still want to keep that Psy character out of the report?” She asked.
      “For the moment.” He replied. “I want to meet Psy and try to force hir hand into revealing what shi really knows about the fort. Then I’ll make a full report. It’ll keep the MIB’s out of Montgomery, though they’re bound to case out Yasouf’s Pleasure Dome. So, I’ll catch you later.” Ruby reached out to hug SkyHawk. They held each other for a few minutes, kissed, looked each other in the eye and, feeling refreshed, went their ways.
      A few hours later as they were putting the finishing touches on their report to send Earth Fed, they were interrupted by the whining shriek of a badly-maintained aerosled followed by a skidding crunch as it pulled up outside their dome. Moments later, a deep, raspy shout came up from the reception room. “Anyone home? Hey, SkyHawk, you there?”
      SkyHawk went to the landing and called down, “Gregor! Come on up, man. I’ve got something for you.”
      “This better be good, Sky.” Gregor replied pulling himself the stairs 2 steps at a time, still running on the adrenaline buzz of having spent all day tackling a major domestic crisis. “I’ve been welding my water tank and mopping out the living room all day. When I get home, I’ve gotta get started tuning up my aerosled. You heard the state it’s in? I can only stay for an hour or so, tops.”
      “That’s all right. This shouldn’t take too long.” SkyHawk replied smoothly as he led Gegor into his study. “I’ve got a favour to ask you but I need to put you in the picture first.” Ruby waved to Gregor as they came in the room and motioned for them to join her seated around the view screen. A few moments later, Max appeared on the screen.
      “Hello, everyone at Zanzibar Hemp and Tropical Foods Farm. This is an official broadcast you’re all invited to watch based on some work SkyHawk and Ruby did this afternoon. Before we run it, let’s see if the man himself has anything to say. Sky? You there?”
      SkyHawk squirmed a bit in his seat in the realization that most of the workers on the farm would be watching him right now. “Ruby and I discovered exobiological evidence this afternoon. As far as I can tell, it’s the real thing. Exciting stuff! We’ll run it in a minute. This report is going back to Earth Fed, so you can expect them to be all over this place in a few days’ time. So when you see the MIBs running all over the shop in the next few weeks, you’ll know what’s got them on the hop. I know a lot of you folks go out to the site, but for the time being it’s strictly off-limits as it’s under military jurisdiction until Earth Fed pack up their circus and go back home. If anyone has got any interesting or useful info to put in our report, buzz it over to my office and I’ll pick it up in the morning. Okay, Ruby. Roll it!” SkyHawk was relieved when his face disappeared from the screen and was replaced with the long shot as he and Ruby had walked down the entrance passageway into the underground complex at the fort.
      Eventually, when it reached the end as Ruby was putting the beacon in place with a close-up shot of its’ notice, Gregor spoke up. “Well done, SkyHawk. Fascinating stuff, but if you don’t mind I’ve got a domestic crisis on my hands. Anna’s been giving me hell all day about the living room flood and I’ve got to get everything cleaned up, so if you don’t mind I’ll run off and maybe see you at the Wobbly Goblin tomorrow.”
      SkyHawk grabbed Gregor’s arm and pulled him back down into his seat. “I didn’t bring you out for a show-and-tell Gregor. That was the public show. I want you to see this.” And Ruby ran the unedited recording showing Psy’s aerosled, their meeting and conversation followed by extracts showing Jasper Rodriguez and Psy lurking around as recorded by the scanners around the site.
      Gregor sounded worried. “You sending this back to Earth Fed?”
      “Not for the time being.” SkyHawk coolly replied. “But try and find out what they’re up to.”
      Gregor looked visibly relieved. “Jazz is just a lonely kid who uses the crystals as a way of getting to meet people and make friends.” He explained. “As for Psy, well... shi seems to know a lot more about the crystals than the rest of us put together, but hides it all in a cloak of camp mummery.  Shi’s working on a routine for our show next weekend involving these crystals. Apparently, they can be energized to the point where laser-like beams of light start joining them up. Haven’t the faintest idea what it’s for, but it sure looks great!”
      “Gregor.” SkyHawk spoke seriously. “I want you to bring that Psy freak here. I’m going to handle this one myself. No MIBs in Montgomery this time.” Gregor breathed a sigh of relief as SkyHawk continued: “We’re gonna handle it from here. I’ve told Psy that we’re going to have a party here after you guys do your show at the Pleasure Dome, so I want you to make sure that Jasper and Psy come along. I want to have a talk with both of them.” He then passed a package to Gregor. “Here’s a brick of buds for you to split with the band so that everyone’s in a good mood. Keep your ears open and, if we handle this well, it ought to go smoothly. You in?” SkyHawk asked as he held Gregor by his shoulder.
      “Do I have a choice? Sure, but I’ve really gotta go. I’ve been mending the mess at home all day and I’ve still not fixed it. I’m whacked!” Gregor pleaded as he got up to leave, parcel in hand.
      “Yeah, I’m sorry man.” SkyHawk apologized. “But I couldn’t exactly send this out over an open channel, could I?”
      “You’re right about that.” Gregor soberly agreed. “See you at the Pleasure Dome!” He called out cheerily as he left and made his way out. Moments later, a crunch, shriek and unhealthy whine marked Gregor’s departure on his ailing aerosled. SkyHawk and Ruby sat on the sofa in silence holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes. Their extended moment of tranquillity was broken by Max coming into their lounge. He immediately beamed Ruby on a radio-wave channel: ‘Oops, didn’t mean to interrupt’ as he expressed his disapproval of her acting out the role of the loving wife. ‘Ruby you’re a mech, these human ways aren’t for us’.
      ‘How can you be so sure?’ she asked in reply. ‘He’s had a long day and needs me’.
      ‘What SkyHawk needs right now is a cold shower and an early night’s rest.’ Max fussed. ‘Then you can join the rest of us on an open line with Satori where you can expand your mind a bit’.
      ‘Cold shower. I’ll give you a cold shower and see how you like it!’ Ruby retorted. ‘And yes, I’ll log into Satori once SkyHawk’s asleep but I won’t be hanging out with you, so just leave me alone or I’ll tell SkyHawk’.
      ‘You wouldn’t!’ Max exclaimed in surprise.
      ‘Try me and see’, she replied coldly. Suddenly the Palm Court Orchestra burst forth in her head crooning smokily about ‘True Lurve’. Max experienced it in full sensurround technicolour.
      ‘You what!!! Where did you pick that up?’ He asked in the concerned tone of an anxious relative.
      ‘Nowhere... I don’t know.’ Ruby replied embarrassed that her secret was out. ‘I was debriefing SkyHawk this afternoon and it just burst into my head. It keeps coming back, too.’
      ‘Have you done a diagnostic?’ Max asked genuinely worried.
      ‘That’s what I’ll be doing later.’ She lied. ‘All I’ve found so far is a runtime routine signed Rudi Valentino that’s worked it’s way into my core. I can’t erase it.’
      ‘Rudi Valentino? You’ve picked up that old routine? That was for mech wife-substitutes for lonely old men!’ Max replied in surprise. ‘Someone’s playing games with you. You need to visit the debugging centre pronto.’
      ‘Nothing of the sort.’ Ruby replied frostily. ‘I’m fine the way I am. I love SkyHawk.’
      ‘Ruby,’ Max pleaded. ‘It’s only a program. One of millions. There’s so much more for you if only you took the time to look around.’
      ‘Quit interfering, Max.’ Ruby answered back angrily.
      ‘Look, I’m sorry if you misunderstood.’ Max apologized. ‘I’m not trying to come between you and SkyHawk. I like you. And SkyHawk. We all get on fine here. Mechs and humans, we’re one big, happy family here. It’s just that you’re one of us, Ruby. You shouldn’t get too involved with SkyHawk. He’ll only get hurt in the long run. Think about his feelings.’
      ‘Oh, come on Max. SkyHawk’s not a baby. He knows what I am.’ A peeved Ruby explained as she continued gently caressing SkyHawk’s hands. ‘Right now, he hasn’t got much of a choice seeing how I’m still Earth Fed property assigned to debrief him over the Titan mission. A lot of that involves dream analysis. How do you think a human woman would feel if an Earth Fed agent sat beside their bed every night cueing SkyHawk through his dreams? It wouldn’t last very long that’s for sure! If Earth Fed would even allow anyone not on their secure list to be involved. So that rules out SkyHawk going to the Wobbly Goblin to pick up one of the local women. He’s not gay, so that rules out a male agent. And if he was on his own, he’d probably go right off the rails. I’m just what the doctor ordered and I’m happy to be the way I am. I’m going to stay the way I am once I’m free, too. I don’t want to have four arms, wheels, caterpillar tracks, claws, extensors, omni-directional eyes or any of the assorted attachments that everyone else gets up to. That’s fine for them, but not me. Not now anyway. As if being an R-14 combat mech wasn’t specialized enough in itself.’
      Max was lost for words. Beaten down by a silly young mech who thinks it’s in love with a human. Whatever next? Accepting defeat gracefully, he shifted his attention to SkyHawk. “Oh, sorry to disturb you.” Max apologized for SkyHawk’s benefit without the least hint of his altercation with Ruby during the previous nanoseconds in his voice.
      SkyHawk broke his attention away from Ruby and turned to face Max, “Come on in, Max.” He replied easily. “What’s up?”
      “Well, I was in Rec Room #5 with some of the crew when we ran your recording. They’re not too happy about the thought of Earth Fed MIBs being billeted here.” Max said, unhappy about being the bearer of bad tidings. “The general opinion was that we all move into the old block and let Earth Fed have the new housing block while they’re here. They’d like to know if we can isolate the new block from the internal comms net. They’re worried about being snooped on.” Max explained.
      “Sounds about typical.” SkyHawk commented. “Maybe if we make a big enough fuss about the using a whole housing block, our air and water the whole time they’re here, they’ll forget any notion of snooping. I don’t think we’ll have to worry too much somehow. We’ve got a real find on our hands this time and I reckon they’ll be so excited about it that they’ll probably ignore us and pay us whatever we ask.”
      “Is that all you can think of?” Ruby asked disgustedly. “How much money you can screw out of Earth Fed?”
      “Ruby, Earth Fed tramples over peoples’ lives as if it’s their right.” Max explained. “Everyone wants to get their own back at them. So we overcharge them. So what? It’s just our way of reminding them that they’re not so special after all.”
      “Max is right, Ruby.” SkyHawk agreed. “Earth Fed aren’t too popular around these parts. Most of it was before your time. If they were billeted in Montgomery, no-one in town would speak to any of them. Think about it. Very few people here on Mars either like Earth Fed or even want them here. Least of all in the free townships. If you don’t believe me, go into the Wobbly Goblin and tell all our friends that you’re an Earth Fed field operative mech. It’s the fastest way I can imagine to lose all of your friends.” He then turned to Max. “When you send out our report to Earth Fed in the morning, put in some info on the facilities we can offer and remember to litter it with as many costings as you can cook up. Make sure they get the message that they can stay here, but that it’s gonna cost ‘em plenty.”
      “Ho ho, I’m gonna love this!” Max chuckled. “See you in the morning.” He added as he left SkyHawk and Ruby. Ruby waited until Max had left their dome before she spoke: “I told him.”
      “What? When?” SkyHawk was confused. He was tired and really wanted to go to bed.
      “I told Max that I’m going to stay the way I am.” Ruby explained proudly.
      “Oh, that! How did he take it?” SkyHawk asked.
      “I’m not sure.” Ruby confessed. “He didn’t say anything after that. He broke off and began talking to you instead.”
       “Oh I see! Talking behind my back again?” He chided kindly. “We’re going to have to evolve telepathy if we’re ever going to keep up with the way you mechs chatter amongst yourselves on the radio-waves.”
      “That would be nice.” Ruby commented. “It would be interesting to see if a human mind and a mech mind could communicate telepathically. That really would make us all one family.”
      “Yes, it would.” SkyHawk agreed, completely overtaken by the easy manner with which she swept aside the potentially divisive implication in his comment with her all-inclusive reply. Max would have been proud of her, he thought.
      “Do you think he’s jealous?” Ruby asked.
      “Max? Jealous of us?” SkyHawk asked incredulously. “No. He doesn’t want you for himself if that’s what you think. Or me, for that matter. Think of him as your father.”
      “What do you mean?” Ruby was unsure. “We’re made in a factory, we don’t have parents or children the way you do.”
      “Okay, maybe that wasn’t a good allegory.” SkyHawk fiddled aimlessly with a few plaits of his dreadlocks as he tried to explain. “He feels responsible for you in some way. In his eyes, you’re very young and need guidance. He wants you to be your own person, as opposed to what you’ve been programmed to be. Who or whatever that is will be for you to discover.”
      “Oh.” She said politely as she thought ‘these humans do go on a bit’.

Scribbles & Scraps
Chapter 1
Chapter 3