Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 5: That old crystal magic.

     It’s early morning on Mars as we look over the traveler’s mobile Pleasure Dome silvered with moisture and streaks of condensation running down the inside of its’ transparent walls. The huge floaters and transporters that carry the travelers’ Pleasure Dome on their migrations around Mars are parked up outside the domes. Beyond them lie the solar mirror arrays, already angling around to face the morning sunrise and focus the sun’s rays onto the flash boiler which drives the turbine-driven generators, set out by the travelers to power their Pleasure Dome, living quarters and, hopefully, have enough power left over to recharge the fuel cells and batteries in their myriad collection of colourful and strangely-shaped vehicles parked up in circular groupings. Parked in and amongst them, but mostly between the travelers’ camp and the solar mirror arrays are sleek, dangerous-looking high-power military-style fliers painted in dust-red, orange, ochre and black camouflage patterns. These hunters seem oddly out of place amidst this caravanserai of latter-day peaceniks. Nearly all are parked so that they can make quick, unobstructed take-offs.
     To the other side of the Pleasure Dome, arrayed in neat rows as per local civic regs decreed by the neighboring dome-villages, are the vehicles of residents from nearby towns and villages come for a week or three of escapist hedonism, fun and a look at another way of life on their hard frontier planet. To call the Pleasure Dome a dome was a bit of a misnomer actually, because it was actually two ex-military mobile base domes joined together so as to look like a pair of massive silver breasts when viewed from a distance.
     This came about as a result of one Ralph Hindenberg getting a bit carried away with himself at a party. Ralph, a rich dropout from Galileo, the oldest city on Mars, had just recently taken up with the travelers when it all happened. It was at one of those parties when everyone gets to bouncing around silly ideas like so much laughing gas. So, between the rich aromatic marijuana smoke, clink of glasses, chatter, laughter and the ebb and flow of post-jazz music we find a younger Ralph Hindenberg blathering forth as only the merrily stoned do.
     “Mother Earth has come to Mars to bring him back to life with her loving caress and warm embrace. Everywhere we go, more domes have gone up, like Mother Earth’s breasts in silver bras making long, slow, passionate love to the soil of this world. Sometimes just one on it’s own but more often clusters. The day will come when the domes can be opened up and we’ll be able to walk free on the surface of Mars!”
     “Uh huh, that’s at least a couple of centuries away and *we* will be long gone by then.” Jenny, who sitting to his side, replied as a way of bringing beatific vision down to earth while she tied a few more crystals into the long braids of her thick, dark hair.
     Yasouf, who had languidly sprawled out his not so inconsiderate bulk on a huge cushion a short way across the room, slowly refilling a hookah with fragments from of large block of hashish which he held in one hand, picked up on it, “Yeah, I like the bit about the silver breasts,” he rumbled, “ but how come you’re so sure Mars is a ‘he’?”
     “Well, y’know ‘Mars, god of war’ and all that sorta stuff.” Ralph flanneled aimlessly. “And anyway, the imagery’d fall apart if Mars was female. All right, then. How’s about Mother Earth breathing the long, slow, reviving kiss of life into her long lost sister who has lain at death’s door since time immemorial?”
     “Mmmmm.” Jenny hummed approvingly. “I like that one better.”
     “Ralph’s got a point there.” Patrice added. “The imagery of the planets and their gender, no matter how arbitrarily assigned by a load of astronomers, is still with us and is part of our culture. Look at Venus. Everyone still thinks of it as female, even though it’s a harsh, poisonous hell.”
     “We should turn our dome into a giant pair of breasts so that Mother Earth can give her love to Mars wherever we go.” Ralph eulogized to no-one in particular. “The farm-domes are huge, fertile breasts giving nourishment to her children. The city domes, mature and accommodating, a home to her children while the smaller village-domes are like young girls’ breasts still growing to the fullness of their maturity.”
     “You sure you don’t just want to get your hands on my tits?” Monica commented wryly. “You’ve been going on about tits for ages.” She sat up and leaned forward across the low coffee table and cupped her breasts in her hands and winked jokingly at Ralph, “These good enough for you?”
     “Uh, sure, fine, babe. But maybe later.” He added in a casual tone of voice barely able to conceal his excitement as his heartbeat raced into the near 100’s. Then, continuing with his monologue, “We should turn the Pleasure Dome into a pair of giant breasts to remind the people of Mars that life isn’t just about work and the struggle to survive. It’s about fun and happiness, too.”
     “Yeah, I like it!” Called out an Asiatic voice from one Sen yan Ho who was just taking off a VR headset and joining into the conversation.
     “Mother Earth is a wild woman full of life.” Jenny intoned as she gazed into a handful of the crystals she’d woven into her hair. “And her breasts can raise the dead.”
     “Let’s do it!” Another stoned voice shouted in.
     “The biggest pair of tits in the solar system. Rad, man!”
     “We’ll get two domes and join ‘em together!” Ralph exclaimed. “Mother Earth’s silver tits bringing life to Mars. Yeah!” And so it went on. All the people egging each other on with bigger, wilder and more outrageous fantasies about Mother Earth’s silver breasts going forth boldly until Yasouf leaned over towards Ralph.
     “Great, but how’re we ever going to get hold of another dome? I don’t even know if there’s a spare one on the whole planet. Do you know how hard it was for me ‘n’ Monica just to get hold of this dome? A lot of people were going down the pan in the cities and towns. Especially the ones who fell foul of the company towns. They needed a home town of their own, and this is it. It’s not been easy, but we just about keep things together here. I had to pull strings on Earth just to get Earth Fed to sell off one of their surplus domes. It cost a fortune! Looks nice doesn’t it? The bastards sold us the oldest, most threadbare and moth-eaten tent they had kicking around. The damn thing’s so full of holes, it can barely contain an atmosphere no matter how many patches we put on it.”
     “Well, there’s always the dome works at New Moscow. But, like you say, these things don’t come cheap and I can’t think of any banks that would give us lot a loan to pay for one…,”Ralph trailed off.
     “Because we’re already outside the system in more ways than one.” Monica picked up. “I’d like us to be completely independent of the company towns and Earth Fed, but I don’t know if that’s entirely possible quite yet.
     “Rejoice, for Mother Earth’s all-powerful silver breasts have come to bring life back to Mars.” Jenny continued to deliver her quasi-mystical oratory into the space in front of her.
     “Look, I’ll see what I can do.” Ralph said in an apologetic matter-of-fact tone before taking a hit on the hookah that Yasouf had been meticulously preparing for the last half-hour and then burying his face between Jenny’s breasts. Jenny’s incantations gradually faded away as her attention slowly moved around to Ralph’s nose pressed into her cleavage. And so the night progressed.
     The following morning as he watched Jenny’s breasts rise and fall gently as she lay dozing in bed, Ralph set about ‘seeing what he could do’. Which, in reality was lots. For starters, he was the son of Hugo Hindenberg, the eccentric MD of GlobalNuke, the biggest contractor on Earth for fusion reactors. “GlobalNuke, safe as houses!” was their official soundbite. And oddly enough it held good, though more by sheer luck than technical know-how. So, when GlobalNuke got the contract to build the fusion reactor for Galileo, they went and set up shop on Mars as a way of getting a virtual monopoly on energy supplies on Mars. Until the Chinese got in on the act, that is. But, by then GlobalNuke was the first corporation to go from multinational to transplanetary status when their MD moved to Mars in a highly-publicized corporate PR stunt. And so the Hindenberg family was packed off to Mars for a life on the brave new world. Young Ralphie, his older brother Ben and sister Ailicia said their good-byes to all their friends to start life anew amongst the outer stars.
     Ralph knew that GlobalNuke had mothballed the three domes used to house workers when their fusion reactor production facility was going up. He also knew that he stood a very good chance of getting hold of one of them if he twisted the right arms. And he knew just which arm to twist.
     Beep Beep Beep, Ralph’s commset called for his attention. He pulled it out of a pocket in his jacket which lay on the floor beside his bed. He flipped it open and, as expected, it was… his mother.
     “Ralph, you still with those layabouts?” She shrilled as only mothers know how. “Look at you, not even dressed and still in bed. At this time of day? Why don’t you get a proper job like your brother Ben?
     Realizing that it was too late to turn off the vid transmit on his commset, he got out of bed, with his cock hard and twitching with lust, bright red and glistening from having spent the last few hours as deep inside Jenny as is humanly possible, placed his commset on the floor so that his mother could watch and got dressed… very…very…very… slowly. After he pulled his kaftan over his head, he reached down, picked up his commset and said, “You were saying?”
     “That was completely unnecessary, Ralph. You could’ve just said.” Her face glowing crimson.
     “You wouldn’t have listened, mom. It was the only way I could shut you up. We were discussing some truly rad cultural concepts last night.”
     “What with that cheap tart beside you in the bed?” Ralph’s mother replied, her reddened face beginning to regain some of its’ original colour.
     “No, mom. I met some of the people who started up the Pleasure Dome. They’re a community with a real future. I’m staying here and I’m going with it.”
     Nonplused, Margarita Hindenberg attempted to get back into her original stride with, “Well, when are you coming home for a clean-up and a decent haircut?”
     Ralph stopped her in her tracks by launching into a lengthy discourse on their theories about Mother Earth coming to Mars to breathe life back into her long lost sister, the symbolism of silver breasts and the domes and how the travelers really needed another dome so as to bring the symbolism of Mother Earth’s breasts home to the people of Mars. Not forgetting, of course, that the bulk of the travelers were the outcasts of the company and Earth Fed towns with no place to go. And, that quite a few people here had come from Nuke City, GlobalNuke’s own company town on Mars tied in to its’ fusion plant production facility.
     “I’ll talk to your father at supper this evening.” Then, reverting to her older as role of mother-talking-to-a-young-child, added, “Be a good boy and call home more often.” Sounding more and more pathetic with each word.
     “Yeah, sure mom. Talk to you soon.” And he flipped his commset shut, dropped it on the floor, took off his clothes and climbed back into bed with Jenny. They were still in bed that evening when Ralph’s father called up.
     “Still on the job, I see.” He chuckled. Then, in a more serious and threatening tone, “And don’t you ever pull a stunt like that in front of your mother ever again.” His warning delivered, Hugo Hindenberg allowed himself to lighten up a bit. “Anyway, I’m glad to hear you’ve met some interesting people there. Look, about this dome idea of yours, I can’t just snap my fingers y’know.”
     “Hey, come off it. It’d be great PR for you and GlobalNuke. Think about it, ‘GlobalNuke helps the Martian travelers lead their pioneering path across Mars’.”
     “That bunch of doped-up layabouts?” Hugo snorted. “Look, I know all about your lot. We can find out anything about anyone here. You know Yasouf?”
     How the hell did the old bastard know who he was hanging out with? Spies everywhere? Just bluffing? Testing the water? Probably his mother. “Yeah,” Ralph replied flatly.
     “You want me to tell you a few things about him?” Hugo taunted his son.
     “Yeah, yeah, the Al’ Harouns, I know. So what?” Ralph whined and shrugged. “Yasouf’s well rad and he’s done a fine job for the people here.”
     “OK, Ralph. You stay out of trouble and I’ll see what I can do. And try to do something useful while you’re there. I can’t bear the thought of you lying around doing nothing all day long.”
     “Why? You jealous?” Ralph attempted to score a cheap point off his father.
     “No,” Hugo rebuffed. “don’t you want to do things, make things happen, shape the world around you? You’re just drifting Ralph, trying to pretend that life can be one long holiday. There’s always a job for you here if you come back home.”
     “We’re shaping the world here. The people of Mars don’t want the corporate or Earth Fed visions of Mars’ future. Thing is they’re so lost, they don’t really know what they want. We’re showing them a possible way forward.” Ralph and Hugo sparred liked this for several hours longer until Hugo signed off.
     A week later, Ralph found a recorded message had been routed to his commset and was waiting to be read. It was an official notice from GlobalNuke addressed to Yasouf Al’ Haroun and Ralph Hindenberg that the Free Mars Tribe could collect one surplus biodome from the GlobalNuke resources stockyard at Nuke City within in the next 3 Martian months on the sole condition that they were not to set camp within 200 kilometers of Nuke City upon receipt of the dome. Furthermore, there were to be no press releases concerning this matter otherwise the dome would be forfeit. Signed by Zachary Dubois, Director of GlobalNuke Resources Management on behalf of GlobalNuke, witnessed by Jeffrey Lionel. Ralph knew that Jeffrey Lionel was a close friend of his father’s and a lawyer to be afraid of. It was patently obvious to Ralph that his father went to great lengths to keep the family name out of this. Probably as a way of covering his back if his sons’ episode with the travelers went horribly wrong. Which it eventually did, but many years later and in ways that neither of them had expected or anticipated.
     Sure enough, Ralph and Yasouf kept their end of the deal although they were sorely tempted to go public in a media blitz, but then decided on introducing the new “double-breasted Pleasure Dome” quietly as if it had been double-breasted all along. The rest is breasts.
     Later that day, two characters wearing black pressure suits approached Ralph Hindenberg’s well-appointed track bus which was parked up in the corral of travellers’ vehicles just outside the Pleasure Dome. One of them reaches out and presses a button on a control panel next to the airlock, activating a comm link between themselves and the occupants of the track bus. “Mr. Hindenberg?” A serious voice inquired. “Earth Fed Special Operations Police. We’d like to have a word with you.”
     After a long silence, Ralph answered. “Do you have a warrant?” In a desperate bid to buy time.
     “Yes, Mr. Hindenberg, we have a warrant issued by the Nuke City Justices’ Court on [NOTE: get date correct after constructing viable Martian calendar. Set warrant date as being 1 week before the date this incident takes place].” One of the black suits intoned. “We can upload it for via this control panel if that’s convenient.”
     A worried voice from within the track bus replied. “Yes, of course. It’s activated now. I’ll need a few minutes to read it to see if it’s valid.”
     “Mr. Hindenberg, the warrant is valid.” The black suit stressed. “This is merely a formality. If you refuse us entry, we can override your airlock controls. Are you wearing a pressure suit? Because if you don’t let us in within five minutes, I’d strongly recommend that you wear one unless you intend to die from decompression.”
     The two MIBs didn’t notice Ralph’s track bus rocking ever so slightly on its’ huge caterpillar tracks as Ralph ran around inside in a blind panic. He ran around gathering up all his psionic crystals, gave them to Jenny, told her to ‘stash them somewhere, babe’, cursed his luck for always getting in deeper and deeper trouble, crying out, ‘They’re gonna break open the airlock’ as he crashed into various bits of furniture, lost his balance and fell over the sofa that Yasouf and Monica were sitting on.
     “Sit down, Ralph.” Yasouf ordered in his deep, calm voice taking command while Ralph went to pieces. “Slow down, man. You’ll OD on adrenaline if you’re not careful. We’d have heard by now if any MIBs were trawling the stalls for illegal crystals. Don’t worry. Most of the stallholders can do a better job of keeping their crystals hidden than you or I. And they tell better lies than any of us.” With that he got up and gently set Ralph down on a cushion.
     “Yeah, yeah. Sure man and we’ve got the fucking MIBs at our door now.” A strung-out nerve-wracked Ralph complied, his panic-induced tension beginning to melt away. He started to open his mouth to speak, but was cut off by Monica.
     “We’ll record this interview and send a copy to Simon Ovitz. He knows how to handle those MIBs in court.” She reassured Ralph as she set about activating every commset in Ralph’s track bus and setting up a direct link to ‘Rose, Dubois, Ovitz & Brubacher, Practitioners at Law specialising in all manner of Civil, Criminal, Military and Karmic Law, Laurentia, Mars’.
     “Simon Who?” Yasouf asked quizzically. “Oh, yes that one. He got the MIBs off our back in Laurentia last year. He certainly knows his stuff. What you worried about Ralphie? We’re getting things under control again.” At which point Jenny came back in and told them that she had hidden their crystals behind the drivers’ control panel.
     “Do we let them in?” Ralph asked weakly.
     “Do we have any choice? What have we got to lose?” Jenny asked as way of reply. Monica and Yasouf concurred.
     “Over to you Ralph.” Yasouf breezily chirped in letting Ralph carry the can for letting the cops in once again. A ploy Yasouf resorted to on more than one occasion so that he could upbraid Ralph for being too cosy with the police even though he’d let the MIBs in if it was his bus in this situation. “It’s your bus.”
     Ralph got up, knees wobbling and made his way to the back of his track bus and hit the control panel to activate the airlock. A few minutes and much klunking, scraping, hissing and wheezing later, the two MIBs were inside Ralph’s bus and removing their helmets. One of them stepped forward. “Good afternoon, Mr. Hindenberg.” As he showed Ralph his unmistakable Special Operations Police identity card. “Thank you for letting us in. My associate and I won’t take long. We have matters to discuss with you and your guests.”
     “Guests?” Ralph asked dumbly, hoping that he could bluff them into thinking he was alone and could deal with them here.
     “Guests, Mr. Hindenberg.” The talkative MIB continued calmly. “To be precise His Excellency Prince Yasouf. Al’Haroun, Princess Monica Al’Haroun and one Ms. Jennifer Oolong, formerly known as Mr. Michael McMurdo.” At which point Ralph broke into a bright crimson blush of embarrassment. Realising that further resistance was futile, he turned to lead the way into the lounge as Talkative gestured silently towards the interior of Ralph’s bus. Ralph shuffled into the lounge, his posture screaming a defeated acceptance of what was to come, followed by Talkative and Silent, the two MIBs. Ralph flopped down on his cushion where Jenny could comfort him. Talkative and Silent remained in their pressure suits and stood by the doorway.
     “Your Excellency, Princess Monica, Mr. Hindenberg, Ms. Oolong, good afternoon.” Talkative began politely as Yasouf put his right hand over his eyes and cringed in embarrassment at this excessively formal policeman. “My associate has deployed a secure static shield while we talk. I’m sorry, but we’ve had to cut the link you established with your advocates. They will know that we visited you, but will not know the contents of our discussion, is that understood?” He asked rhetorically, knowing full well that he was dictating the terms of this encounter. “Furthermore, I would advise against discussing the details of this conversation with anyone else.”
     “Yeah, and what if we make a statement on the news wire?” Ralph asked in a token gesture of defiance.
     “Mr. Hindenberg.” Talkative addressed Ralph directly. “The Free Mars Tribe needs you. Who gets the heat off them when things go wrong? You would be sorely missed.” A silence fell on the room as the implication of what Talkative had just said sank in. Talkative gestured to one of the windows and pointed towards a group of the Raiders’ warplanes parked nearby. “It’s come to our attention that the Raiders chapter of the Overlordz has infiltrated and effectively hijacked your community. As you may or may not have noticed, the Raiders have brought a ship capable of interplanetary flight with them. We would like you to find out what you can about their plans.”
     “Well they’re bleeding us dry with the damn tributes they keep taking.” Yasouf spoke up. “And they’re bumping off human and mech drifters and junkies for the body parts market. I know that for sure. I’ve tried to stop them, but we’re not in a position to do much about it. It’s too grisly for words. They’re turning our home into a death camp and forcing us to be the workers.” He added wretchedly as he wrung his hands in genuine misery..
     “That’s why we’re here, Your Excellency.” Talkative replied levelly. “Central Command has decided that it’s time to strike, but we’d rather draw them away from your home if that’s at all possible. At least that way you’ll still have a home to call your own. Do you ever talk to their Chieftain, Kazmak?”
     “Talk to him?” Yasouf snorted bitterly as he spat on the floor. “He won’t even speak to us. We had to lick his boots at gunpoint in front of the whole tribe. I’ve still got the bruises from that. He sends one of his lieutenants to collect the tributes and they never say anything. They’re just dumb thugs.”
     “I see.” Talkative commented quietly and then turned to Ralph. “Mr. Hindenberg, we would appreciate any information you and the Free Mars Tribe can pass on to us as regards the Raiders’ activities and plans.”
     “How are we supposed to do that?” Jenny asked. “The Raiders are monitoring every waveband coming in and out of here and blanking out everything else.”
     “We will arrange for you to meet one of our operatives in Montgomery.” Talkative explained.
     “Do you know how much we’ll have to pay in bribes?” Ralph asked. “Why do you think we get everything delivered nowadays. It sure ain’t because we’re lazy, man.”
     “We know.” Talkative commiserated. “Your expenses will be covered. It might be a good idea to start collecting your food and supplies again. It would make it much easier for us to interface with your tribe.”
     “The Raiders would smell a rat.” Yasouf explained. “They know we can’t afford to pay the kind of bribes they’d demand.”
     “I could arrest all four of you for possession of unregistered Martian artefacts.” Talkative announced blandly.
      “What crystals?” Ralph asked bluffing innocence.
     “Mr. Hindenberg, don’t play games with me. We scanned your bus. They’re in the drivers’ cab and about Ms. Oolong’s person.” Talkative replied flatly.
     “I’m sorry, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Ralph continued his dangerous charade. At which point Talkative gestured to Silent who went forward to the drivers’ cab whereupon he loudly ripped out the control panel, dropped it noisily on the floor for all to hear and returned with half a dozen psionic crystals, some of which were glowing and placed them on the coffee table.
     “Those crystals.” Talkative explained dryly. “We’re police, Mr Hindenberg. We don’t make social calls while we’re on duty. Furthermore, the Raiders are probably wondering what we’re doing here. Hasn’t it occurred to you that we need an alibi so as not to endanger your lives? In spite of what you and most people think of us, we really do care. You and your friends may not trust us, Mr. Hindenberg, but at the moment, the Free Mars Tribe needs all the help it can get. That’s why we’ve been sent here.”
     Talkative took a deep breath and sighed as he contemplated the unpleasant predicament of these people who he would be leaving behind shortly before continuing: “You will be charged to appear before the Montgomery circuit court in three days time on a charge of possessing unregistered Martian artefacts. You will receive a heavy fine and be required to report on a weekly basis to the local police station until such time as the Free Mars Tribe decamps from this locality. That will give you a cast-iron alibi for having to leave your community on a regular basis in order to pass on any useful information. The money to cover your fines and expenses will be deposited in Mr. Hindenberg’s personal account through his parents once I return to my office.”
     At which point Ralph rolled his eyes and groaned, “I knew they had something to do with all this.”
     Undaunted, Talkative continued: “The court hearing will be in the morning. Afterwards, you will go to the Wobbly Goblin bar where one of our field operatives will meet you. Ms. Oolong can keep the crystals she has about her person. It will make the Raiders think you’ve fooled us. We’re not interested in your crystals this time, just tell your shopkeepers to stop advertising them quite so openly. Now, for the benefit of the Raiders who must be scanning us right now, when my associate switches off the static shield, I want it to appear that a fight broke out and that one of you knocked over and broke the static shield.”
     Talkative went on to explain what they were supposed to do and once again suggested that they try collecting their supplies whenever possible as they sat there aghast that their supposedly secure private lives were so transparent to surveillance. On cue, Silent smashed the static field generator and they broke out into their rehearsed mock fight with much cursing, shouting and swearing. Talkative formally charged them, Silent picked up the crystals and they both left Ralph’s track bus to return to their office in Nuke City? ‘But that’s halfway round the planet from here’ Ralph thought incredulously.
     They sat in silence for the longest time until Monica spoke up. “Why did those MIBs have to bust us?”
     “They get a kick out of it.” Yasouf replied, not quite sure if it hadn’t all been a bad dream until he saw the arrest warrant and court summons on the table.
     “My brain hurts.” Ralph moaned as he held his head between his knees.
     Jenny reached up under her skirt and, after a bit of fumbling around, winced a bit and placed two wet psionic crystals on the coffee table. “Well, we’ve still got these ones.” Jenny added brightly. “One of them’s glowing a bit. Maybe we should try a group session and see what happens.”
     “Why not?” Monica chipped in. “After all that, I think we could do with a change of pace” As she got up to move the table so that they could all sit in a circle on the floor holding hands around their two remaining crystals. It was as if a wave of quiet, serene calm had settled over them as they sat focusing their attention on the crystals. By accident or design, they all ended up focusing on the glowing crystal when suddenly, much as in the way a strereogram snaps into place after you’ve been struggling to see the hidden image, they were all engulfed by the crystals’ glow. As if they were inside the very crystal itself. No longer four separate entities, they had now merged as one. None of them had ever experienced anything quite like this before. As a matter of fact, only Monica had ever experienced anything with psionic crystals before and it was her previous experience that now guided their fused group-mind on this trip. And then they sensed the flows of unintelligible jabber like black coils snaking through their ocean of light. The coils came out of the fog of light and disappeared back into it. Some would intersect. Others would twine around each other. Some sprouted new coils. As one they reached out to one of the coils and flew along beside it so that they could understand it.
     “...Curmudgeon to Deathman, got two more stiffs to ship out...” “... Team four report back to Boy Hitler after collecting tributes...” “...We’re working on a tally of all the babes and donut boys we can ship out to Lagrange IV. Work on our team and we’ll cut you in for a piece of the action. Compete with us and we’ll cut you up! Huh. Huh. huh...” And on and on past the Raiders chapter who had usurped their own community to the other chapters, the HellBenders, the Golden Serpent, the Blood Brothers, Il Comorra and others not on Mars. The pulse of the Raiders’ predatory, parasitic society raced through their group-mind. They had just cracked the Raiders’ communications network! This wasn’t the nice spiritual experience they’d hoped for. This was more ugly reality staring them in the face. The shock of the realisation jolted them out of their state of oneness with the crystal back to the lounge in Ralph’s track bus.
     “That does it.” Ralph exclaimed loudly as he came to his senses. “I’m having nothing more to do with those crystals ever again.”
     Panic stricken, Yasouf immediately reached over to silence Ralph and placed his finger across his lips to tell Ralph to shut up. He then turned around to Monica and Jenny motioning to them in his clumsy body language to remain silent. He then hunted around the lounge, found a calligraphy brush, some paper and ink and wrote: ‘The Raiders are scanning us. Don’t even talk about what we saw. Not here. Maybe somewhere else where the Raiders can’t scan us. Pretend we’ve just had a way-out spiritual experience. OK?’
     The others looked at the piece of paper in silence, dumbfounded by the realisation that from now on, they would have to hide the awful truth behind an already strained facade of normality.
     Jenny was the first to get into the swing of things. “Ohhh, I feel so much better now.” She purred as she picked up the brush and wrote: ‘We heard them.’
     Monica started up the casual party small talk that came so easily to her and gently swept the others along with her as she began writing: ‘What do we do now?’ and passed it around for all to read. Their mood lifted as they got into the swing of the subversive charade of maintaining a stream of banal cocktail-party chit-chat for the Raiders to overhear while they wrote what they really wanted to talk about on pieces of paper and passed them around.
     Yasouf: ‘Another session. Not here.’
     Ralph: ‘You can count me out.’
     Monica: ‘No, Ralph. We need you. You helped us break through last time. It might not work again without you.’
     Ralph: ‘No means no.’ Their background conversation dipped noticeably.
     Yasouf wrote: ‘Grow up, man. This is war! We’re fighting for our survival. You’ll do it or the Raiders can have your corpse next.’ And handed it straight to Ralph.
     Ralph gulped at what he read and wrote: ‘Yeah, OK. It just freaked me out too much. It’s more than I ever expected to have to deal with. I just want a quiet life. We could go to SkyHawk’s farm. We asked him to deliver, but we could go there and collect instead.’
     Yasouf: ‘Yes!!!!!!!’ and his face lit up. He danced around the lounge as he held his sheet of paper with its’ one huge word under each of their noses in turn.
     Jenny: ‘Bring our crystals.’ She had noticed that the one crystal still had the faint glow that it had exhibited before their session.
     Ralph: ‘No.’
     Yasouf: ‘Yes.’
     Monica: ‘I’ll get Old John to come along.’
     Yasouf: ‘That old windbag?’
     Jenny: ‘Is it safe to tell anyone else?’
     Monica: ‘Yes. He knows everything about crystals.’
     Ralph: ‘What about Cassandra DeLaMere?’
     Monica: ‘She’s a fake. Mechs can’t read crystals’
     Ralph: ‘Oh? Well she sure fooled me.’
     Yasouf: ‘Don’t tell anyone about this. Chose whoever you think would make a strong session and I’ll get them to come with us to get our stash. Not many, maybe 3 or 4 at most. We don’t want the Raiders to know that we’re on to them.’
     Jenny caught the spirit of double-think: ‘Assume that whatever vehicle we go in is bugged. So we’ll have to wait until we’re well away from it.’
     Ralph: ‘In his dome? I’ll ask around at the morning council meeting tomorrow to see who’s got a suitable vehicle we can use that the Raiders won’t want too much of a bribe to let us out with.’
     Monica: ‘Do we call SkyHawk?’
     Yasouf: ‘In the morning. We talk about the bust now.’ He passed it around and then spoke out, “Those damn MIBs. We’ve got to go to court now. Why can’t they just leave us alone?”
     “Those bastards!” Jenny griped convincingly. “They took our best crystals, too.”
     “I’ll sue them.” Ralph exclaimed. “Just like we did at Laurentia. If we can get enough cases overturned, we’ll be able to get this stupid ban on the crystals and artefacts lifted for once and for all. They can’t go on denying reality.”
     “Too right!” Monica added. They continued talking for a while as a way of getting over the shock of their experience until Yasouf and Monica got up to leave.
     “Catch you tomorrow.” Ralph called out to Yasouf as he and Monica put on their pressure suits before making their way back to their land yacht. As they were walking away from Ralph and Jenny’s track bus, a group of Raiders passed them braying out their traditional greeting, “Hey babe, wanna real good time?” as Yasouf huffed quietly in disgust. Monica thought she could see the faint glow of a psionic crystal implanted in the back of one of the mech Raiders’ heads standing out in the evening dusk. ‘It must be the glowing crystals that communicate’ she thought as she made a mental note to remind Jenny to make sure she brought their glowing crystal with them tomorrow. If it still glowed. ‘Maybe it would work even if it stopped glowing,’ she hoped.
     The next morning as the Martian sunrise glinted off the condensation-induced reflectivity of the plastic skin of the Pleasure Dome a few people wearing colourful pressure suits can be seen making their way towards a much smaller dome erected in the middle of one of the corrals of the travellers’ vehicles. Brightly coloured mandalas and other designs decorate its’ exterior and in bold glowing letters, “Free Mars!”, “Welcome Home”, “The Sacred Kiva”, “You’re never alone with a clone”, and “Reclaim Your Life.” Inside, a group of people sits in a circle some six or seven people deep around a shallow pit in which a holographic projection of Mars floats.
     Monica and Jenny stepped through the airlock’s inner door together as Enrico Hernandez took his turn to speak while he held the Talking Stick. “We need to get a crew together today to put some more patches on the dome’s skin before the weekend crowds start coming in. It won’t look too good if they see us climbing up and down slapping on patches. I need about 10 people to help me today, so if no-one objects, I’d like to put an announcement on this morning’s internal bulletin so we can get a move on with it.” A round of nodding heads and murmurs of assent followed as Enrico passed the Talking Stick to the woman on his left who in turn passed it on until it reached the next person who had something to say.
     In the background, two Raiders, one mech, one human, stood sternly over the morning council meeting as they did every day. They added to their sense of menace by repeatedly making a big show of inspecting their laser rifles. Kazmak had ordered that all such meeting were to be monitored in case the Free Mars Tribe tried to plot against him. Which they all did in the subversive ways that the oppressed resort to. Everyone did their best to ignore them as attempts at engaging any of Kazmak’s lieutenants always had unpleasant outcomes. The only time when anyone spoke with them was when they had been ordered to change the rates of tributes, demand more money, or demand that such-and-such member of the Free Mars Tribe be put on trial for not paying tributes. The Talking Stick finally arrived in fat, little Lucinda Dreamchild’s vice-like grip.
     “OK everyone, listen up!.” She announced in her loud, businesslike voice. “MarsTel have agreed to the new increased rates we’ve negotiated for live coverage of shows on the various stages as well as agreeing to taking our internal workshops channel for an 18-month test period. We have to supply the coverage sufficient to fill up one channel on a full-sol basis using our own crews and cameras, because they won’t send in any of their own crews. It’ll cost us more initially, but in the long run, we’ll have more control over what goes out as well as a bigger stick to hit them with when we do the next round of negotiations if all goes well. I’ve done a preliminary schedule with the main stage going out live and the various smaller stages and clubs filling up the remainder of the schedule time while the main stage is powered down. I reckon we can rustle up enough material going out to fill up two channels, but they’re not yet ready for that. Benji and I managed to get them to see reason, but they’re not too happy about this one.” Lucinda added cryptically before finishing: “Anyone want to take this one further, come and see me after the meeting,” as she passed on the Talking Stick which eventually arrived in Ralph’s nervous, sweaty palm.
     “Just a few moments of your time.” He started timidly so as the Raiders wouldn’t sense any real significance in what he was about to say. “We’ve had an invitation to collect our next stock of smoking herbs from a local farm. I’ll need a vehicle, preferably a flier, which can carry everything in one trip.”
     “That’ll cost you.” The mech Raider broke in to prove that he was listening very carefully to what everyone was saying.
     “Yeah, lots.” The human Raider laughed cruelly. “And we’ll be taking a big cut out of your money from MarsTel. Wait ‘till Kazmak hears about that one!” And he toyed with the controls on his laser rifle yet again.
     An awkward silence fell over the meeting. Ralph, realising that he still held the Talking Stick did his best to carry on as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. “If anyone’s got a flier that’s up to it, see me after the meeting. Oh, and if anyone’s seen John Uther this morning, would you send him round because he’s needed on this trip.” He gladly passed the Talking Stick to his left. It passed from hand to hand until it reached Haresh Gupta, a small, bespectacled man in his middle years. “Yes, I’m putting together an order for this weeks’ stock of food, so if anyone’s got any orders to put in, I’ll be here for the next hour or so. Seeing how we’ve pitched camp near a farming community, this might be a good time to put in bulk orders seeing how we can buy from source.”
     The next person the Talking Stick stopped at was Yasouf. He got up to speak: “As some of you may have heard from the rumours by now Ralph, Jenny, Monica and I were busted by the MIBs yesterday under their hoary old ‘possession of unregistered artefacts’ act. They warned us to tell the stalls dealing in crystals to keep it under the counter or else they’ll have to raid us. We don’t want that to happen, do we?” He asked rhetorically in the hope that he wouldn’t have to spell it out in yet another crummy edict that people had come to expect from him. “So play it cool, we’re not in a position to pay out lots of legal fees right like we did at Laurentia. If anyone gets busted for selling crystals, you’re on your own. I’m sorry, but it’s out of my hands right now.” A murmuring broke out as Yasouf passed the Talking Stick on through their company so that those who had something to say would have their turn. There were a lot of things they all wanted to talk about, but couldn’t. Such as: “How do we get rid of these damn Raiders?”
     After a while the meeting was formally declared closed for the day and everyone began milling around congregating and chatting in their different interest groups. Yasouf ambled over towards Ralph. ”Hey Ralphie, I thought you were gonna get us a driver!” He teased amiably as Yasouf found himself surrounded by people concerned about the MIBs leaning on their scene again.
     Two men in oil-stained overalls made a beeline towards Ralph. “Oh, hi Mark!” Ralph greeted the older of the two men as he searched his memory in vain for the younger man’s name. The younger man spoke up: “Dad and I were talking about your idea. What are you looking for, speed or carrying capacity?”
     Ralph was taken aback out of embarrassment for not recognising Mark’s son, Ollie (short for Olympus after Olympus Mons), and his clear-cut assessment of their needs. “Well, Ollie, carrying capacity. Even the slowest flier’s gonna be a lot faster than any land crawler we’ve got, why?”
     Mark took up the thread at this point: “Vinnie’s just got his airbus patched up and wants to give it a test flight. It seats about 30, so if we rip out the seats, we ought to be able to fit it all in. Whaddya reckon?” He asked.
     “Wow!” Ralph was genuinely surprised. He thought Vinnie was going to scrap his airbus for parts and join in a partnership on a reactionless toroid freighter. “Is it safe?” Was his first question. “I thought he was going to scrap it.”
     “Well yes and no.” Mark replied. “He was until he discovered the damage wasn’t as bad as he thought. The hull and wings are sound, so he’s decided to patch it up and sell it instead.”
     “And we’re the guinea pigs.” Ralph added doubtfully
     “More or less.” Mark replied. “Hey, he’ll fly it himself. That’s as good a guarantee as he can make. Vinnie’s got too much to come back to. I reckon it’s safe enough. If you want, I’ll come along as well.”
     “Can I go?” Ollie asked excitedly, his eyes brightening with the prospect of going out on a run to pick up bales of finest marijuana and bricks of best hashish.
     “I’ll have to see, Ollie.” Ralph replied trying his best to let this young lad down gently. “At the moment we’ve got John Uther, Romero Fortuna and Petunia Arcturus. We’re a bit full, but maybe next time.”
     “That bunch of crystal heads!” Ollie exclaimed disbelievingly. “I thought you’d need a few hands to help shift our dope around.”
     “No, that’s OK. Yasouf and I ought to be able to handle all that if Vinnie lends a hand.” Ralph explained as best he could without giving too much away. “It’s a bit special this time around.”
     Mark stepped in. “Ollie, don’t hassle Ralph. You can help me and Vinnie get his airbus ready.” And then in a brighter tone of voice to cheer his son up: “Come on son, we’ve got work to do.”
     “Aw, dad. How come I never get to do anything interesting?” Ollie whined disappointedly at his father. Mark put his arm around his son’s shoulder and led him away to the airlock and off towards Vinnie’s weather-beaten airbus. Ralph drifted over to join the crowd around Yasouf. Things were getting heated.
     “What’s this about no money in the kitty?” One man asked.
     “Hey fatso!” A tall, muscular and obviously angry man who towered over Yasouf shouted as he shook a fist at Yasouf making clear his threat of a fistfight. “Bringing back the class system, huh? Use the tribe’s money to bail out your fat pansy ass and leave us plebs to rot in the slammer?”
     “We gonna have MIBs in here again?” Came another worried voice.
     Yasouf didn’t stand a chance. Ralph came to his rescue. “Cool it, you lot!” He tried to shout them down. “Let the man speak, for goodness’ sake.”
     Yasouf, clearly relieved and doing his utmost to look unruffled spoke, his voice no longer resounding with its’ usual confidence. “It’s my fault. I dropped Ralph and Jenny in it.” He lied abjectly. “I promise I won’t use any of the tribes’ money on this.” He spoke what he hoped would be the truth if the MIB who busted them was telling the truth. “I’ll get the money from Earth, don’t worry.” He half-lied, knowing that if the MIB didn’t keep his end of the deal, he’d probably have to ask his father in Yemen to bail him out and end up having to listen to one of his father’s long-winded, boring homilies about Allah’s punishments for indolence. As if that old fool had ever done a days’ work in his life!
     “Hey!” A tall, slender woman with red, spiky hair joined in: “What about the money coming in from this deal with MarsTel? Surely we could use some of that money?”
     “We can’t.” Yasouf tried to explain. “We need that money for food, maintaining the Pleasure Dome and to get parts for our fleet. What with that and all tributes we’ve got to pay Kazmak, there’s nothing left to go around. We’re running on empty. If you don’t believe me, get on a terminal to Circus Maximus, he’s doing the books this year.”
     “What! The light show mech?” She exclaimed in astonishment.
     “Sure why not?” A dark-skinned man with golden hair and a cyborg implant grafted onto his head spoke up. “Why shouldn’t he? He’s a member of the tribe. You got something against mechs?” He asked inquisitorially.
     “What about the MIBs?” another voice in the crowd asked.
     “They’re not going to be trawling for crystals as far as we know.” Ralph offered up the truth to the best of his knowledge. “All we’re saying is to keep your eyes peeled. We can’t afford any hassle with them. Not now, anyway.” By now it had degenerated into a verbal free-for-all with everyone within earshot shouting at each other. Ralph grabbed Yasouf by the arm and made an attempt to get the crowds’ attention: “Yasouf & I are going out to get a fresh stock of smoking herbs and we expect to be back by 2200 this evening. Could someone please notify all the shopkeepers who want to stock up to meet us here in this Kiva when we get back.” And with that he spoke quietly to Yasouf: “Come on, let’s get out of here before they tear you apart.”
     “I’m with you.” Yasouf surrendered as he let Ralph pull him to safety by the airlock where they got into their pressure suits and left ignominiously. “What a mess!”
     “You ain’t kidding” Ralph replied as they walked over towards Yasouf’s bus. “At least we got out in one piece. Let’s check out Vinnie.”
     “I better tell Monica it’s all go. She’ll round up Old John, Romero and Petunia.” He said as he veered off towards his bus. Ralph waited outside while Yasouf put Monica in the picture. A few minutes later, Yasouf emerged from his bus. “She’s on the case. Monica said she’d round them up and bring them over to Vinnie’s right away. Let’s hope his kite can fly.” They made their way over towards Vinnie’s airbus, which was parked up, on the perimeter of the travellers’ encampment.
     John Uther’s home was an ex-military troop transporter that he’d bought and converted years ago. It was a brightly painted, slow land buggy that ran on batteries that were charged up from a small solar array which packed up onto a trailer. Forever pulling its’ burden which gave it life enough to provide shelter for John and to take him along with the Free Mars Tribe on their migrations. It gave him one room to call his own and it was a chaotic clutter of books, data cubes, old clothes, pots and pans, and all the bric-a-brac of life. A glowing crystal sits on a wooden chest. Its’ glow seems to fill the interior and surround Old John who is sitting in a full lotus, his attention fixed on it.
     Old John Uther was lost deep in his crystals’ glowing light, a spirit without physical form in communication with his circle of crystal mediums in their morning meditation.. An arc of orange light swept through the centre of his being and off into the distant light-fog where it connected with Romero, Petunia and Cassandra. A black coil appeared momentarily in the distance through the light-fog. John ignored it.
     “Aaaaaauuuuuuummmmmmm!” They intoned as one to bring their minds together in harmonious resonance. “We are gathered together in the living crystal’s light space for one and all. If you hear us, come and join us.” They chanted over and over. This thrice-daily ritual was started years ago by Old John as a way of finding other people who had tapped into the psionic crystals’ power. Through this simple mantra and chant he had found Romero, Petunia and, much to his surprise, Cassandra the mech. From time to time as the Free Mars Tribe migrated around Mars, they would encounter others who also knew how to use their crystals, enjoy each other’s company and then, when the tribe moved on, gradually lose contact with them. It seemed as if the crystals’ powers were limited by distance. Every now and then they would find themselves hooked up into chains of crystal gazers that spanned huge distances around Mars. They were trying to use their meditations as a way of finding out where the crystals really came from and how they got their powers.
     During their third session the previous evening all four had become aware of another powerful presence in the psionic crystal’s light-space. They had watched it come into being and chase after one of the black coils of the Raiders’ communications and then evaporate into nothingness out of shock? Surprise? Lack of experience? They all knew it had to involve someone close at hand as it was so easily detected, but hadn’t had the time to make contact before it disappeared.
     A pre-recorded sound of wind chimes broke into John’s consciousness alerting him to the presence of someone waiting outside his airlock. He tried to use his communion with the crystal to see who was outside, but to no avail. Romero spoke up: “Try to stay in contact with us.” Carefully, so as not to break his link with the others, John refocused his attention on his body. He reached over and picked the remote control to patch the signal from the camera in the airlock’s external control panel and recognised Monica’s green and pink pressure suit with her astrological chart emblazoned across her breast on the viewscreen in front of him. They all saw her through John’s eyes.
     “John, I’m sorry to interrupt you,” she apologised in advance of her request, “I need to see you urgently.” Without saying a word, he activated the airlock for Monica. Once inside, she only removed her helmet. This was to be a short visit indeed! John was only just able to maintain contact with Petunia, Cassandra and Romero. Monica saw that John was still in communion with his crystal and that it, too was glowing. John gestured for her to speak, afraid that if he spoke he would lose contact with his circle of crystal-gazers who were watching the events inside John’s transporter unfold before their eyes.
     “Yasouf, Ralph, Jenny and I are going off-site today and we need you, Petunia and Romero to help us with your knowledge about the crystals.” All four heard her request. “I know you’ve got things to do, but this is very important. Could you bring your crystal as well? It affects all of us. I need you to help me convince Petunia and Romero to come along as well.” Monica pleaded.
     Romero spoke to John: “Let’s go! I haven’t been out since the Raiders muscled in. I could do with a change of scene.” Petunia and Cassandra agreed that it would make a nice break to get out for a while, no matter what silly ideas Monica and her friends had come up with. With that, they decided to meet up in John’s transporter with a collective decision of “Keep her talking until we get over to your place, Johnny” and broke off from their collective consciousness.
     By now John was feeling a bit dizzy, what with being in two places at once. He lost his mental balance momentarily as the rest of his group broke off, leaving him alone in his home with Monica and his glowing crystal. “Oh yes, Monica.” He mumbled as he harrumphed and cleared his throat. “No need to go anywhere. We were linked up when you came in. Do it all the time. You ought to try it yourself sometime. Takes a bit of doing, though.” He rambled. “Now, what exactly do you want us for?” He asked with crystal clarity.
     “It’s about the crystals.” She blurted. “We need your help. I can’t say any more about it until we get there. Please?” She looked pleadingly into his eyes as she sat down beside him and held his hand in her still-gloved hand. John realised that this must be serious. Especially seeing how the Raiders would extort a serious fee in bribes or tributes or whatever those pig-ignorant parasites called it. He wondered briefly if it was something to do with what they’d seen last night in the light-space as he unhooked his legs out of their full-lotus, stood up and stretched his aged, frail frame with a cacophony of creaking and cracking joints.
     “Well, I’d best start getting myself ready.” John humoured Monica as he looked around for his pressure suit. One corner of his cabin was made over as a kitchenette. He made his way over there, helped himself noisily to some food and put a kettle on to boil. “Tea?” He asked politely before continuing: “Bring my crystal, you say? So, some of you dry-heads want us to put on a special show for your friends? Or would you like a beginners guide to crystal gazing? Well, you’ve certainly come to the experts if that’s what you want! Well, we’re the only ones we know of, so that makes us the experts by default, but don’t expect miracles. Not everyone can work psionic crystals, you know.” By now John was getting into his stride and quite enjoying himself, too. He was an old man who had seen and done many things in his long life who’d found his spirit rejuvenated by the challenge of the Psionic Crystals’ mystery. So far, it had only rejuvenated his previously jaded spirit and had left his body as old and worn out as it had ever been. Never mind, it’s good enough consolation for an old man to feel alive, vibrant and razor-sharp even though his flesh sagged with age.
     ‘Maybe I ought to take up slamball again,’ he thought casually to himself as he chewed his way through a chunk of bread and bounced on his feet. He was eager to go and do a group session off-site, but didn’t want to give it away. One thing he hated most of all was being taken for granted. And as he got older, he noticed that more and more people, especially young people, took him for granted as if he was just a piece of the furniture. Which he was, in a way. As a result, he’d evolved the tactic of droning on at great length about all sorts of wondrous things except whatever it was that he was being asked for as a way of saying ‘You’ll just have to wait if you want my knowledge without working for it’ without words.
     Monica knew better than to expect a coherent conversation with John and happily settled for listening to his disjoint discourses about Psionic Crystals, the meaning of life, the universe and everything as well as the best way to make a good cup of tea. She was halfway through her first cup of tea and still wearing her pressure suit when Romero joined them. Romero came from a long line of Spanish gypsies, some of whom had emigrated to Mars. Petunia and Cassandra arrived moments later. Being a mech, Cassandra never wore a pressure suit. She looked like a gypsy enchantress whenever she walked outside in her long, flowing robes and jewellery except that real humans couldn’t do it because the decompression and low temperatures would kill them. Cassandra had originally joined the tribe after one of the failed company town uprisings as a “bare” mech with no plastiskin. With time, she had devised a working interface between her mechanoid computer brain and Psionic Crystals. Cassandra had gone back to wearing a plastiskin because most of her customers were human and humans weren’t particularly inclined to visit a mech for a Psionic Crystal reading. Especially seeing how the received wisdom was that ‘mechs can’t do it’ as far as Psionic Crystals were concerned. The bottom line being that once she got herself a plastiskin and her gypsy outfit, business boomed like never before. So Cassandra lived in the netherworld of humanoid mechs and made a secure living for herself and the Free Mars Tribe.
     They crowded into Old John’s transporter with the patient silence of monks. “Monica has asked for us to go with her off-site today.” He announced for Monica’s benefit. “No point sitting around in here using up what precious little air I’ve got.” As he got into his pressure suit and made a big fuss of stuffing his long, grey beard down inside the neck of his pressure suit. “Where to from here, young lady?” He teased Monica with a wink of his eye as he put his crystal in its’ pouch.
     Monica was momentarily taken aback by Old John’s sudden switch from ‘distant philosopher’ to ‘playful friend’ that it took her a few moments to come back to the here and now. “Oh yes, we’re going in Vinnie’s airbus.” She smiled nervously as she turned to lead the way out of Old John’s transporter. They gathered up outside and Monica led the way towards Vinnie’s airbus.
     Vinnie didn’t live in the airbus. His wife owned a land-crawler that he and their children lived in. She kept their home in immaculate condition. Which couldn’t be said for Vinnie’s sphere of influence. His airbus looked like a jigsaw of bare metal, carbon-fibre panels and brightly-coloured polygons as it sat in the middle of what could best be described as a junkyard littered with all sorts of scrap machinery, tools and crazy machine-like constructions that Vinnie built for fun. The Free Mars Tribe would grind to a halt without Vinnie and his anarchic gang of apprentices. They ran the central workshop for maintaining every piece of hardware that the Free Mars Tribe relied on to stay alive. The transporter’s fuel cells, engines and batteries. Solar power arrays. Algae columns for generating oxygen. Air scrubbers and recyclers. Methane generators. Heating units. Compressors, you name it. Leaky airlock? Broken commset? Split caterpillar tracks? Vinnie’s your man! He also ran a pressure suit library making a point to keep a stock of many of the smaller sizes so that there’d always be a pressure suit just the right size for any of the children as they grew up.
     His latest project was his airbus built out of bits and pieces from various other crashed airbuses and parts bought from scrap dealers and auctions. His next step was to get its’ airworthiness certificate and use it for sight-seeing tours as well as shuttling visitors from nearby townships to and from wherever the Free Mars Tribe and their Pleasure Dome happened to be camped up. As well as a way of teaching his young charges many of the essentials for maintaining aircraft in his self-run practical classroom for sciences, maths and engineering. Now that this project was nearing completion, he was already sourcing parts for his next project, a mobile fusion reactor for the Free Mars Tribe. His plan was to buy the parts with the profits from running his airbus.
     But then he’d been offered a deal to go in on a partnership to buy a used reactionless toroid freighter from a haulage company in Montgomery. Which could easily double up as a fusion power generator when it wasn’t being used to haul the Pleasure Dome and all the accoutrements of the Free Mars Tribe on their migrations. He still wanted to keep the airbus for the Tribe to use. It meant spending a few hours sorting out his personal finances and a bit more hard haggling. If the Raiders weren’t sucking the Tribe’s funds dry, the Tribe could have bought it outright. ‘But never mind.’ He thought. ‘We can settle it all up later, if and when we get rid of them.’ And now a chance to test fly the airbus on a run for Yasouf. Things are looking up!
     He was showing Ralph and Yasouf around the cabin of the airbus. “As you can see, we’re in the finishing stages. We haven’t put in the fancy trim yet, but the hull is sound and it doesn’t leak.” The all had their helmets off inside the airbus. And, sure enough, no-one’s ears detected the least loss of air pressure.
     “But will it fly?” Yasouf added doubtfully.
     “It ought to.” Vinnie defended his and his apprentices’ workmanship. “I used to be an engineer in the Space Corps and I’m teaching these kids everything I know. And one thing I learned early on, Yasouf, was to never cut corners. I check everyone’s work around here and we’ve been getting it up to A-1 condition. Why do you think it took so long? We could have sold it when we were in Laurentia to any number of cowboy flight operators. Easy money, for sure. But I don’t think it would’ve been long before we heard about an airbus crash in the news. So we take a little bit longer and we’ve got us an airbus that’s in better condition than most commercial operators or military services would demand. Okay, it looks a bit scruffy right now, but if you want to wait a few months we’ll kit it out like a MarsAir luxury cruiser if that’s what you want.”
     “No, Vinnie. That’s fine.” Ralph replied. “Seriously man, I’m impressed with what you’re doing here. You’re doing a great job teaching these kids. It just looks a bit rough around the edges, that’s all.”
     “Yeah, I know.” Vinnie concurred. “I decided it was more important to get them up to speed on airbus service, maintenance and a bit of flight dynamics rather than spending three months bolting pretty geegaws onto a heap of useless scrap.”
     “A wise decision.” Yasouf said to no-one in particular. “How soon can you get it ready?” He asked testing Vinnie

     “A couple of hours. Have to fuel it up and warm up the engines first.” Vinnie said as he walked into the cockpit and began powering up the control panels. Small motors and pumps could be heard coming to life within the airbus’ hull and wings. Fluids could be heard gurgling through pipes. Relays clicked. An imperceptible hum of life washed through the airbus as Yasouf joined Vinnie in the cockpit.
     “Well, you haven’t scrimped here.” Yasouf commented as he surveyed the state-of-the-art cockpit which had been fitted out with an impressive array of control and guidance computers.
     “Get it working first and do the decoration afterwards.” Vinnie emphasised. “Now what exactly are we going out for?”
     “Eight hundred kilos of hashish and bush for the shops and stalls in the Pleasure Dome. Should last for the duration of our stay in this area.” Yasouf mentioned.
     “Oh, yes!” Vinnie’s work-worn eyes lit up with glee. “Let’s go!” And then he turned around and looked back into the cabin and saw the seats that a group of young children had spent a whole day putting carefully into place. ‘I hope they don’t see us taking them out. They’ll think I failed their work.’ He thought dismally. And then to Yasouf: “Well, let’s get started pulling out some of the seats if we’re going to get anywhere today.” He handed Yasouf and Ralph a spanner each and all three set to work in preparation for the days’ journey ahead.
     An hour later they had unbolted all the seats they needed to remove, pumped all the air out of the cabin, opened a cargo access door on the side, carried the seats over to one of the workshop huts, closed the cargo door on the airbus, repressurised the cabin and were catching their breath when they heard the chime of the airlock’s entryphone. Ralph looked out one of the windows. “Looks like they’re all here. We’ve got Cassandra coming along, too.” One by one Monica’s motley crew came in: Petunia, Jenny, Old John, Cassandra and Romero. Monica came in last, took her helmet off and shook her hair out. “I hope you told SkyHawk we’re going out to his farm.” She addressed Yasouf. “By the way, has Kazmak sent any of his goons out yet?”
     There was a loud banging on the airlock door. Ralph looked out a window and saw a knot of well-armed and nasty-looking raiders outside. “Well, speak of the devil! No guesses as to what they want.” He announced. “Yasouf, you got the money for them?”
     “Oh man, this hurts.” He said as he got out two platinum 10,000-scruple tokens, got back into his pressure suit and went out the airlock. They watched Yasouf hand over the tokens. One of the Raiders pushed him around a bit and then they left. He came back in, none the worse for his manhandling. “They want 100 kilos of buds. It’ll cost us a fortune. Let’s get out of here before they come back and demand even more.” Ralph and Vinnie went into the cockpit as the others sat down on the floor and the few remaining seats. Vinnie fired up the airbus’ engines, glanced quickly at the map Ralph had given him and, in a blast of dust that covered his entire scrapyard, they lifted off vertically and made their way towards the Zanzibar Hemp and Tropical Foods farm.
     The flight was surprisingly smooth and uneventful. Vinnie certainly knew his stuff and seemed to be getting through to his apprentices! Eventually, the banks of solar arrays, the long ‘domes’ of the farm and the algae towers came into view. Minutes later, Vinnie was settling them down outside the hangar next to SkyHawk’s dome. “See, what did I tell you, Ralph?” Vinnie said proudly. “I told you I’d get you here.”
     “And back again.” Ralph winked, in a good mood now that something was beginning to work out. ‘Only a few more minutes’ he thought impatiently. “One thing, Vinnie. When we get back, only talk about the dope, okay?”
     “Yeah, sure man.” Vinnie was puzzled by Ralph’s sudden paranoid turn. “Anything you say.”
     Max came out to greet them and lead our party of crystal gazers over towards SkyHawk’s dome. Once inside, he brought them into the lounge where SkyHawk and Ruby were waiting. Yasouf, an old acquaintance of SkyHawk’s introduced his contingent from the Free Mars Tribe to SkyHawk and Ruby. Yasouf waited until everyone had a chance to unwind and chat amongst themselves for a bit. Ruby noted that Cassandra was a mech and scanned her immediately before announcing her own status as a mech to Cassandra. As she scanned Cassandra, she noticed that she had an interface with an extremely large psionic crystal occupying her entire head. Mech ‘brains’ are usually in their torso. Ruby had never encountered a mech with a psionic crystal interface before. She was unique.
     Ruby noted that she was being accessed by Earth Fed who were monitoring her surroundings through her and that they, too had just ‘discovered’ Cassandra through her. ‘They’ll be getting their money’s worth tonight’ she thought to herself as she decided to pass on what data she could interpret about Cassandra’s psionic crystal interface to Satori. She then opened a channel to Cassandra to introduce herself as another mech to her only to find that Max had beaten her and was in the middle of introducing Cassandra to all the mechs at the Zanzibar farm and stood by listen to a torrent of ‘Hi!’, ‘What’s happening at the Pleasure Dome?’ and ‘Wanna join some kerrayzeee games?’ and such greetings from the mechs on the farm. Eventually Ruby managed to get Cassandra’s attention to ask her about the interface.
     “It’s my own design.” Cassandra replied proudly. “I’ll make you one if you want. Won’t cost you that much.”
     Ruby then explained that she was an Earth Fed mech and that they were interested in her interface. In moments while our new arrivals were settling themselves into SkyHawk & Ruby’s lounge, Cassandra first contacted Satori to patent her psionic crystal interface and then negotiated an initial deal to supply the design for her interface with a licensing agreement for each interface assembled. With the proviso that the design was not to be passed on to any outside contractor without her prior consent. And dealing with a serious bid from Satori to manufacture and distribute her interfaces as well guaranteeing further R&D. Earth Fed jumped throwing legal brickbats at Satori which countered with its’ own. Cassandra left them to their own glad that she was going to make some money from her psionic crystal interface rather than pulling one out of a dead mech raider. All this on a link through Ruby while both kept on chatting amongst the party in the lounge.
     “SkyHawk, you crazy old Rastaman!” Yasouf exclaimed as he hugged SkyHawk. “I never thought I’d be so glad to see you.”
     “Nor I.” SkyHawk replied, surprised by Yasouf’s sudden display of affection. “What’s happening bro’?”
     Yasouf let out his breath and the good humour drained out of him like the last drops of water running out of a cold bathtub. “We’ve got problems.”
     “What sort of problems?” SkyHawk asked knowing that if Yasouf had problems, it had to be something serious.
     “Raiders.” Yasouf confessed.
     “Yeah, you sure got problems.” SkyHawk sympathised. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to help you all that much.”
     “I think we’ve cracked their comms.” Yasouf allowed himself a small measure of good cheer. “They use psionic crystals.”
     “Now that is something.” SkyHawk raised his eyebrows. “No-one’s been able to find them on any E-M transmission. So, what have this lot got to do with all this?” He asked as he swept his hand to include everyone in the room.
     “Well, Monica, Jenny, Ralph and I were busted by some MIBs last night for some crystals.” Yasouf explained. “We were all shook up and Jenny suggested we do a group session. That’s when we found the Raiders’ comms. It did our heads in.”
     “I’ll bet!” SkyHawk commented. “So who are this other lot?”
     “I was getting around to that. Old John, Petunia, Romero and Cassandra are the best crystal-gazers in our tribe. They really know their stuff. We wanted to do a group session with somewhere where the Raiders can’t scan us.”
     “Why the paranoia?” SkyHawk asked leisurely so as to help his old friend unwind.
     “The Raiders are scanning all our vehicles and homes.” Yasouf explained. “Most of us ignored that possibility when they first muscled in, but the MIBs and our crystal session brought it home to us yesterday. We think they may have bugged our airbus.”
     “You want it checked out?” SkyHawk asked.
     “For sure.” Yasouf explained. “We need to know what’s safe and what isn’t safe.”
     “With the Raiders, nothing is safe” SkyHawk stated. “And what exactly do you expect to achieve with this super-session you want to hold in my house?"
     “To be honest, SkyHawk, I don’t really know.” Yasouf replied openly. “Maybe we can find a way to get them off our back.”
     “What? And onto someone else’s back?” SkyHawk asked as a way of sounding out his friend’s motives.
     “No, of course not.” Yasouf articulated. “I wouldn’t wish that vile pack of parasites on anyone. The MIBs who busted us want us to pass on any info about the Raiders. Maybe we can help Earth Fed get rid of them for once and for all.”
     “Sounds all right to me.” SkyHawk said as he warmed to Yasouf’s plans. “What now?”
     “That’s Monica’s department.” Yasouf explained. She’s been working on it. So if you don’t mind...”
     “Not at all.” SkyHawk offered. “Go right ahead.” At which point Yasouf caught Monica’s eye and gave her a ‘thumbs up’. Monica took her cue and stood up to address everyone in the room.
     “First off, my apologies to Petunia, Cassandra, John and Romero for not telling them why they’ve been brought here. Last night Yasouf, Jenny, Ralph and I did a group session and we think we found out how the Raiders communicate. We need your help because you’re much more experienced with psionic crystals than any of us and we brought you here because we needed to be somewhere where the Raiders can’t scan us.”
     “We saw you!” Romero interrupted excitedly. “It must have bee you!”
     “What do you mean?” Ralph asked. “We only saw some black coils.”
     “Did you chase after them?” Cassandra asked.
     “Why, yes, we did.” Yasouf was equally surprised.
     “Then it must have been.” Old John added. “How did you do it and what happened, you didn’t stay in the light space for very long.”
     Monica was stunned. This was way beyond anything she had ever expected. And Cassandra? Monica couldn’t believe that a mech could actually communicate with psionic crystals. And then she remembered the Raider mech she saw last night. So they can use crystals! That changes everything. “Uh, we did a group session.” She stammered dazedly. “And we all held hands. I’m not sure if that makes much of a difference.” And then she fell silent and sat down, lost in amazement.
     “But what happened to you?” Old John chiselled away. “Did you have difficulty staying in the light space?”
     “We got a bit freaked out by what we discovered.” Yasouf tried to explain as he busied himself filling the bowl of a water-pipe. “It wasn’t anything like what we were expecting.”
     “Yes, life’s full of surprises.” Old John commented dryly. “And not always pleasant ones at that.”
     Petunia seized the moment. “We could do another session right now,” she addressed them. “But what good would it do? We already know what we’re looking for. I think we ought to be asking ourselves about whether we pass this on to Earth Fed. And if so, how do we do it without dropping ourselves in the shit?”
     SkyHawk and Ruby looked at each other. He nodded. At the same time she found Earth Fed opening an ultra-wide terabyte data link into her and on to Cassandra via radio link. The whole mech workforce and all the data banks at Zanzibar were being temporarily reprogrammed as data buffers! A tidal wave of data surged through her processors and pushed her consciousness to one side. Ruby could but sit back and watch for the present. To the outside world it just looked as if she was a bit too stoned and had swooned and flopped back on the sofa. SkyHawk knew otherwise. He leaned over and spoke quietly so as their guests couldn’t overhear them. “Ruby, are you all right?” He asked, genuinely worried.
     For a few moments nothing. She stared ahead blankly. “Yes... busy... .” She replied in a deadpan monotone.
     “Are you on duty?” He asked worried in case his guests discovered that Ruby was a faulty mech. “What’s happened?”
     “ busy....”Ruby droned slowly. “...Earth Fed Mars Security Override Code Gamma Seven...back soon...” and then began repeating herself. ‘Gamma seven, gamma seven. Now what the hell does that one mean?’ SkyHawk thought desperately. He picked up a notepad off the table and punched at the keys. Moments later he got his answer.
     OVERRIDE CODE GAMMA SEVEN: Temporary suspension of all local functions while unit is in use as high-bandwidth communications link. ‘Well, Earth Fed are certainly paying attention!’ SkyHawk thought. ‘But how to break the news?’
     Cassandra spoke up. “Earth Fed just contacted me and they would like us to do a group session because they think they might be able to follow our experience through me.” And the room fell silent.
     ‘I’ll say.’ SkyHawk ruminated. ‘They’ve only taken over Ruby and goodness knows what else around here.’
     “I know we’ve all got mixed feelings about Earth Fed. They’ll wait while we talk it over.” Cassandra finished.
     ‘They certainly don’t want NO for an answer’ SkyHawk thought as he was surrounding by the growing hubbub of conversation as his guests discussed the merits and risks of co-operating with the authorities. Just out of curiosity, SkyHawk picked his notepad and tried to get a line into Max. Gamma Seven. Loopy Louie? Gamma Seven. And on and on. He tried logging into the farm’s main computers but he was locked out of everything except the life-support systems. They sure meant business! SkyHawk waited. Eventually after much heated debate, they all agreed to letting Earth Fed monitor their session provided they were free to go afterwards. Cassandra relayed that their conditions were acceptable and ‘would they please start as soon as possible?’.
     Soon all except Ruby were gathered in a circle on the floor around a collection of psionic crystals some of which were glowing faintly.

Scribbles & Scraps
Chapter 4
Chapter 6