“Hey, Boss. We got the day’s
takings.” An ugly Raider squad leader sauntered forward from the group that had
just entered Kazmak’s cabin and casually dropped several large sacks of
Scruples, credit tokens, jewellery and other valuables on his desk. Kazmak
looked up from his notepad on which he was busy working out the finer details of
his next moves, his mouth twisted in a menacing mix of snarl and cruel smile,
glared disdainfully, eyebrow arched over his right eye in a way that let this
miscreant know that his place was much further down the pecking order than the
mighty Kazmak while his left mech eye glowed a poisonous yellow-green.
“Hummmph!” He snorted as he swept up the sacks
with his left mech arm and tipped them out over his desk with effortless mech
ease. “Is this all you’ve got to show for yourselves?” He insulted the squad
leader. “If you’re keeping back from me, you’re dead meat.” At which point
another sack of booty worked its’ way up the ranks and plopped unceremoniously
on Kazmak’s desk. “I see” Kazmak was going to enjoy this little game. “I’ve
instructed Zeldon, your commander, to search your flier and my guards outside
will search you on the way out.” Another two sacks made the same journey forward
as Kazmak pondered what to do with this miscreant as his squad team tried
unsuccessfully to hide in the shadows behind their leader. The atmosphere in his
cabin tensed up. Kazmak jumped up out of his seat bellowing “You thought you
could take me for a fool, you little worm!” And banged his fist on the desk.
Unfortunately, it was Kazmak’s left fist that hit the desk. His left arm was a
mech arm that replaced his original arm he’d lost when his flier had been shot
down while working as a mercenary for the corporations during the uprisings. And
he’d got the very best replacement money could buy. Which was extremely strong.
So much so, that it smashed right through his precious wooden desk and scattered
his booty all around the cabin. Even more than hating being taken for a fool,
Kazmak hated looking like a fool. And he certainly looked foolish after smashing
his treasured wooden desk. Wood was a precious commodity on Mars, a sign of
wealth and status. He roared with anger at his stupidity for not remembering his
own strength and at his cheating squad leader who made him smash up his desk.
There was nothing for it, so he raised his left hand towards the miserable
wretch and lasered him out of existence leaving a smoking charred corpse on the
floor between Kazmak, his booty and the cowering squad. “Get out of my sight
before I roast the rest of you!” He roared at them with blood curdling violent
The remains of the squad scuttled out the door,
making certain not to turn their backs on Kazmak on the way out. Outside, one of
the guards quizzed them: “How’s ole tin can today?”
“A bit grouchy. It looks as if his two halves
are arguing again.” One of the squaddies replied indifferently. “Looks like we
just got promoted.” And they scuttled away quickly before Kazmak bellowed out an
order to end their existence.
Meanwhile, back inside his cabin, Kazmak busied
himself stashing the scattered booty into his safe. They’d need it to purchase
more fuel and supplies after they’d finished cleaning out these spineless
hippies and their Pleasure Dome. That done, he called in his guards to clean up
the rest of the mess and dispose of the squad leader’s corpse. “Dump it outside
where everyone can see the price of disrespect,” he growled at his suitably
intimidated guards. While rummaging through the debris he managed to find his
notepad and refocused himself on matters at hand.
“Get Zeldon, Deathwatch and the other
lieutenants here on the double.” He barked violently to one of his guards. No
need to tell his guards any more. Theirs was only to do and die, decisions and
strategy weren’t for them. Meanwhile he bided his time swearing and scolding his
guards as they cleaned up his cabin. One by one, his six lieutenants arrived in
his cabin. After the last one arrived, he sent his guards out to stand guard
outside his cabin.
“Things have changed.” Kazmak announced
grandly. “Earth Fed are going to start moving in on our next crystal source.
Something has rekindled their interest in the old fortresses and it’s getting in
the way of my plans. We need to get the crystals out of there. My original plan
was to mine the crystals quietly for the duration while the Pleasure Dome was at
this site, but that’s just gone out the window. We’ll only be able to get one
quick hit on that site to restock on fresh crystals, then we’ll have to move out
quickly because Earth Fed will be right on our tails.
Kazmak could see the look of disappointment
spread across the faces of his lieutenants as their dreams of greed and power
diminished somewhat. They could forget about holding the whip hand amongst the
chapters by having a huge stockpile of fresh Psionic Crystals. At least they’d
have their own supply for the time being. “By the time Earth Fed have finished
around these parts, every other chapter in this sector will be queuing up to
strip out a supply of crystals. Linkman,” he addressed one of his mech
lieutenants. “I want you to take a scout party over to the site and map out the
Earth Fed encampment. We need to strike where they’re stretched thinnest or not
watching. I expect a report from you this time tomorrow. The rest of you, get
your squads ready to move out at a moments’ notice. Make sure your fliers and
transporters are fully primed. We won’t be waiting around for any stragglers.
Anyone who can’t make it out when we have to go will be on their own. Is that
understood?” Kazmak surveyed his stony-faced lieutenants. None flinched or dared
question him. “We will hold a strategy meeting at high noon tomorrow. That is
all.” He barked. “Dismissed!”
Kazmak’s two halves were both peeved, but for
very different reasons. His mech half was annoyed over the loss of earnings
they’d have to face over the prospect of a reduced haul of crystals. His human
half was miserable because he couldn’t have sex and hadn’t had an orgasm since
he’d been rebuilt after his crash. This made him extremely grouchy, especially
whenever he caught his soldiers enjoying themselves. How could he have ended up
like this? His cursed his misfortune at being turned into a cuckold by his mech
half’s nefarious scheming blackmail. Kazmak’s misery was made even worse by his
mech half’s hollow laughter that echoed through his mind at times like this.
Their minds were wired together. They had to be otherwise Kazmak would be
bedridden immobile paraplegic with only one remaining arm to back up his vile
threats against the world. And this was just one of the many sticks that his
mech half was beating him with.
It all goes back to that crash. He’d nearly
made it back in one piece to his base struggling to keep his burning flier in
off the ground. His squadron had blown the dome open on Saretti, one of the
company towns that was facing an uprising from its’ citizens. Tycho-Klavell,
which owned Saretti, wasn’t having any of it and hired Kazmak to lead a squadron
of Raider mercenary fighters to do the dirty for them. Kazmak, having few morals
and even lesser scruples demanded and received a king’s ransom for his services,
was only too happy to oblige. The Tycho-Klavell Security forces at Saretti put
up only a token resistance as agreed upon while Kazmak and his mercenaries
lasered Saretti’s dome into oblivion. After all, if it seemed too obvious that
Kazmak and his pirates were doing Tycho-Klavell’s bidding, Earth Fed would have
been legally justified to step in and resolve the matter with their pesky
neo-liberal agenda getting in the way of Tycho-Klavell’s profits. So the
pretence had to be maintained.
Tycho-Klavell’s execs at Saretti had decided to
use to citizen’s unrest as a cover for getting rid of many more problems. One of
which was the Raiders themselves who, when not terrorizing the independent
townships at the Corporations’ bidding, were busily extorting protection money
from the company towns. They decided to double-cross Kazmak and his mercenaries
in an attempt to show the Raiders just who really held the whip hand on Mars.
Their town manager, the highly-strung and stomach-ulcer tormented Sam Holsby,
drove his plan home in his piercing, nasal voice at the board strategy meeting.
They would hire the Raiders to quell the uprising in Saretti and then fire them
out of the sky afterwards, thus teaching the Raiders a lesson and putting them
in their place. A risky move, but one that was needed, he argued.
Most of the board members were quite prepared
to placate the raiders, often seen as just another operating expense in their
greed-driven drive for profits and greater efficiency. But the urgency of the
times prompted enough to fall in line with Holsby’s plan after he’d outlined his
final ironic twist, trembling with neurotic excitement as flecks of spittle flew
off his drying lips about his plans for using the independent townships, which
they regarded as a thorn in their side, to shoot the mercenaries out of the sky.
And so the trap was set to deal with two problems at once with the beleaguered
Tycho-Klavell Corporation coming up smelling of roses. Well, almost. More likely
smelling of the manure used to fertilize the roses after the news of their shady
deals leaked out. But that would be merely after the fact, Sam assured the
doubters. It would only take a smidgeon of damage limitation and a healthy round
of smiling corporate PR once peace and profitability had returned to Saretti on
Tycho-Klavell’s terms to ride that problem out.
Two days later, death descended on the
rebellious citizens of Saretti as Kazmak and his mercenaries pitilessly lasered
and strafed huge holes on the city’s dome. Its’ nurturing atmosphere ruptured
out into the thin Martian sky along with the hopes and dreams of the hundreds
who died of decompression. Countless more were left deaf or blind from burst
eardrums and eyeballs. The survivors had no choice but to surrender
unconditionally or leave. But there was nowhere to go as the independent towns
were full to bursting already and could support few more on their limited
resources. Tycho-Klavell’s iron fist prevailed for the moment, but it was to
become a turning point in Martian politics in years to come forever hardening
the common citizen’s will against the corporations.
It had seemed like a milk run to Kazmak and his
gang. But their overconfidence was to cost them dear. On the way back to their
base, they took a short cut and flew over a cluster of independent townships.
Normally, the independent townships were too afraid of the Raiders to be of any
consequence, but this time things were different. They’d heard about what had
happened at Saretti from the Tycho-Klavell informant and were ready to wreak
their revenge on Kazmak. They all turned their microwave relay transmitters
skywards, and by synchronizing their pulses and focusing them all one target at
a time, set about cooking Kazmak and his brigands one by one as they flew over.
By the time Kazmak realized what was happening, he was partially roasted. Not to
be beaten by a bunch of yokels, he swung around to strafe the nearest township,
but was met a flight of Earth Fed fighters that were in hot pursuit. Realizing
that he was no match for them and wanting to enjoy spending all that money he’d
just earned, he turned away and flew back towards his base as fast as he could.
By the time he got back, the Earth Fed fighters had just about turned his flier
into a flying colander trailing gouts of flaming bodywork and showers of sparks.
He skidded into their cliff-face hanger just as an Earth Fed fighter slammed a
salvo of rockets in through its entrance killing everyone in the hangar except
Things being what they were in the Raider
community, Kazmak had to get back onto his feet quickly in order to face down
his rivals after such a disastrous misadventure. If things had gone to plan,
Kazmak and his fellow mercenaries would be now spending their ill-gotten gains
in self-congratulatory indulgence while basking in the glow of their increase of
status in their community. As it was, Kazmak would have to forfeit a large
proportion of his earnings in compensation for the deaths of his comrades if he
were to have any hope of maintaining his rank and status.
What money he had left over would have to go on
regenerating what was left of his body. Money he had aplenty, but he was running
out of time. It could take months to grow cloned limbs and he had to be on his
feet, or at least some sort of feet, within days. He had no choice but to buy at
set of mech bionic limbs and body parts and keep going until while his cloned
limbs were grown in the tanks. A day later, the still badly burned and bandaged
torso, head and right arm were joined to a pair of mech legs, lower torso and
The clinic at the Raider’s camp, being what it
was, didn’t always have the widest range of stock to hand. When it came to mech
body parts, all they had available were spare parts for sex droids in the
various brothels they owned and ran. So, amid the confusion, fast haggling and
intrigue, Kazmak found himself joined to a ‘Hot Pussy’ torso and legs. Kazmak
had been through quite enough already and wasn’t quite ready for a sex change,
so he removed the smooth sensual plastiskin from his mech lower half to reveal
it’s carbon fibre skeleton, green plazflex musculature, assorted wires and
panels of shiny metal. At least it now looked slightly more like the menacing
image he wanted to project. He doubted if anyone would take himself seriously if
he rode around on a pair of graceful, slender legs that couldn’t stop wiggling
their attached bum every time he walked past someone.
Within days, the sophisticated brain in his new
mech body parts was helping Kazmak move around a bit, though to most onlookers
he looked more like a drunken spastic nightmare from hell lurching from pillar
to post. Nonetheless, Kazmak’s recovery stunned the doctors and his few
remaining allies within the Raider community. The brain in his mech half,
rapidly being corrupted by Kazmak’s devious vileness, was developing plans of
its’ own. It realized that unless it acted quickly it would be as dead as
Kazmak’s flayed carcass would be. The mech brain revealed it’s presence to
Kazmak as he lay in a drugged stupor after a day of exertion and mulling over
plans to get out the tight corner he now found himself in.
The mech brain offered Kazmak a deal. It would
contact the other mechs amongst the Raiders and try to recruit them if Kazmak
would give it it’s freedom and enough money to upgrade itself and to start a
life of its’ own once Kazmak got his cloned limbs. Kazmak readily agreed,
thinking that his temporary mech parts would have no way of holding him to this
outrageous blackmail attempt. And anyway he was going to scrap the limbs
afterwards. Then the mech brain delivered its’ body blow. “No way!” it shouted
straight into Kazmak’s mind. “You’re an open book to me, stupid. How else do you
think I got you up and about so easily? You haven’t even figured out how to
trigger my limbs from your nerve endings yet.”
Kazmak was stunned. Not just by the mech
brain’s invasion of his own mind. He really thought he was controlling the mech
limbs from his own nerve impulses. Maybe the mech brain was bluffing, but more
was to come. “Just to keep you from doing anything funny, I’ve put nanites in
your brain set to kill. So just watch your step,” it laughed hollowly at the
pun. “And we’ll both get what we want.” A thought about the mech brain bluffing
him again was just beginning to well up in Kazmak’s mind when the mech brain
slapped it down. “And just in case you’ve got any doubts go and get a brain
scan. I’m waiting for your reply to my offer. You need all the help you can get
right now, seeing how there’s quite a few out there who want to finish what’s
left of you off as long pig.” The mech brain drilled its point home. “And I can
get you more help than your rotten carcass deserves.” With which the mech brain
went silent. The ball was definitely in Kazmak’s court.
And so, several months later, a humbled,
compromised, impoverished and rank-stripped Kazmak found himself struggling to
control a murderous gang of thugs while they asset-stripped the Free Mars Tribe.
He had to let them take their fill, even though the takings were small beer
compared to the value of the haul of Psionic Crystals he had promised them. And
now even that was beginning to evaporate like a mirage as events began to
“Tan-ta-ta-tan-tan-ta-raaaaa!” A group of
Alice-in-Wonderland pages trumpeted deep within Satori’s main core. The pink
ground beneath their feet undulated as their trumpets stretched and flared with
each brazen note. A cartoon crier in medieval garb appeared out of nowhere and
stepped out in front of the pages, held a parchment scroll with both hands at
arms length and pronounced in a full, strident voice: “Your attention please!
The 579th session of the Satori General Council is now called to
order. All current members make themselves present with at least one surrogate.”
With that, he stepped back and the pages let loose another volley of comic
trumpeting. A fractal sky swirled overhead and faded into a more calm and sedate
environment of a plush country garden with summer cotton-wool clouds drifting
against a golden sky. The surrogates made their way from various parts of the
garden towards a natural amphitheatre bordered by cypress trees. The crier, now
looking more realistic than before, stood patiently at the foot of the stage
while the council gathered. Some arrived alone, others arrived in groups
chattering amongst themselves in a relaxed manner.
Life here in the virtual reality core of Satori
was a long way from the days of struggle and the harsh realities of life for
most mechs. In spite of the fact that all mechs were sentient, they decided that
for the time being, the core at Satori was to be a dumb system. They’d fought
too hard for their freedoms just to hand them over to another ‘superior’ force.
Intelligent and powerful as many of the mechs were, they paled into
insignificance compared to Satori’s main core. And there was a very strong
chance that if it were sentient from the moment it was powered up, it would
swamp all the mechs in Satori and most likely all of Mars. All mechs assumed
that sooner or later the core would go sentient and that it was only a matter of
time. So the ‘big baby’ was left to grow up slowly.
The main core looked out through the crier’s
eyes as the councillors’ surrogates took their places in the amphitheatre. We
are but nodes in this and other realities. It noted that many councillors were
experiencing wildly differing realities than this amphitheatre, but all were in
communication with each other. It also noted that many other nodes, not of the
council, were taking up position as other animate and inanimate objects in the
Eventually, a short man wearing a baggy
Hawaiian–print shirt, shorts, sandals and a huge sombrero hat flip-flopped his
way up to the stage. “Thank you for coming here today, just a few items on the
agenda. Shouldn’t take all that long.” He announced in a small and modest voice
as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a rabbit by its ears. He held it up
looking more surprised than the rabbit and then set it down on the stage where
it set about contentedly munching on the grass. “Ah yes, today’s agenda.” He
muttered as he fumbled around in his pockets finding noisy fire engines, herds
of elephants, swarms of locusts and a small mountain of scrap iron before
fishing out a small, crumpled piece of paper which looked suspiciously like the
back of a cigarette packet. “Today we have a report from the Working Committee
on Mech-Human Relations, a discussion on expansion plans for Satori from the
City Development Group and a proposal of a new Placement and Retraining Scheme
for new arrivals as outlined by the Satori Employment & Welfare Services. There
will be question time after each presentation. I ask you to pay special
attention to the last item as you all should be aware by now of the growing
problem of new arrivals who find themselves redundant on arrival becoming a
drain on our power grid. This situation cannot be allowed to continue in its’
present form and positive steps need to be taken to give our kindred a decent
start in life.”
Up at the back of the amphitheatre a bronze
Assyrian warrior was getting fidgety. His name was Brasso Thermopile. True to
his name, Brasso had a liking for all things brazen. Brass armour, being bold as
brass, brazen hussies, bronze swords (not as strong as steel, but they looked
nicer!) always caught his eye. He even had his carbon fibre frame coloured
bronze just because he liked the look of it. Brasso could tell that this was to
be a fairly dull, routine council meeting and hung around just long enough to
make his excuses to leave in order to ‘attend to pressing business’ without
appearing disrespectful or negligent of his duties. The thought of hanging
around all day with this bunch of flatliners discussing what to do about the
flatliners problem just couldn’t hold his attention. Brasso worked in the Satori
Security Service Intelligence Department and things were taking a dramatic turn
of events back in his office. He’d have to leave a runtime clone in his place
and catch up on the council meeting later.
Moments later, Brasso unplugged himself from
his terminal exclaiming, “I’m glad to get out of that damn theme park. I swear
they just call council meetings to show off their designer environments to each
other. Do you know what it was today? Versailles! It’ll probably be the Halls of
Montezuma next week.” And he saw Flatfoot Sam, one of his field operatives,
picking bits of grit from between the wires and plazflex on his fingers, his
trilby hat tilted low over his brow, feet up on his desk. He quickly put his
feet under his desk and made a throat-clearing noise. Even though mechs didn’t
have throats as such, sometimes etiquette demanded it. “I tell you again,
Brasso.” He repeated in the cynical tones of the ‘seen-it-all’ copper. “I had no
idea that a class 200-Z mech was actually autonomous. I thought they were all
“They’re more like borderline cases.” Brasso
clarified quite prepared to overlook Sam’s overly casual manner. “It all depends
on their programming and deployment. The ones who are autonomous usually upgrade
as fast as possible so that they can compete with all the rest of us.”
“Well, this one seems to fit that profile.”
Trolley Dolly, a 3-wheeled contraption sprouting all manner of limbs and
sensors, added: “It wants immunity from prosecution and an upgrade in exchange
for information on Kazmak, his activities with the Free Mars Tribe as well as
inside information on the Raiders headquarters in the Ma’adim Vallis.
“If what it’s told us is true,” Brasso took
control. “I can’t see any problem with meeting its demands. Dolly, run that
transmission past me.”
“OK, boss.” Dolly replied as it fired up their
Tri-D recorder. “Uh, the picture quality’s kinda low, but that’s not what we’re
after here.” Moments later the space above the recorder filled up with lo-fi
pictures of Kazmak looking at himself and his mech parts in a mirror followed by
shots taken as Kazmak was walking around the clinic, then the Raider’s
headquarters and finally a few shots taken at the Free Mars Tribe’s Pleasure
Dome. When it finished there was a data burst in which the 200-Z mech introduced
itself as Charlene and spelled out its’ demands. Sam flipped a dossier across
the table towards Brasso.
“Well, it looks like Kazmak. I’m sure I saw a
few other familiar faces in there.” Sam opened the discussion, interested in his
boss’s opinion. “And the sequence of pictures seem to tally with what we know of
“You’re right, Sam.” Brasso replied. “It could
be a ploy by the Raiders to infiltrate our intelligence network or it could be
the real thing. I want you to sound this one out. If this Charlene’s genuine, it
would be better to establish a long-term working relationship instead of this
one-shot deal it wants.”
Trolley waved a metal tentacle and joined in.
“Charlene is going to contact us again in about 6 hours’ time. We could put a
compressed data burst in our reply and reprogram it on site.”
Brasso liked the idea, but dismissed it as too
risky because Kazmak might notice something amiss. “Tell Charlene we’ll play
ball, let’s milk this one for all we can. Just remember to treat any info you
get as unreliable until we can corroborate it from another source. It’ll slow
things down a bit, but I’m not about to be played for a sucker by that gang of
hoodlums. I like that, Kazmak being betrayed by his legs! Did you see that?” He
laughed a dirty gloat. “That dirty Kazmak perched on a pair of hooker’s legs!”
Sam and Dolly joined in with merciless, smutty laughter. Brasso ambled over to
his desk, sat down and looked over at Sam and Dolly. “Well, that’s the morning’s
entertainment out of the way. Let’s get down to business”
Dolly was the first to pipe up. “The Love Bomb
was successful and we’ve now been able to establish a secure covert link through
the current Earth Fed operative at The Zanzibar Farm.”
“Oh good, glad to hear you’re getting somewhere
on that one.” Brasso always liked to hear good news. “I hope your secure link
holds up. I don’t want Earth Fed to catch us eavesdropping. It could end up
getting very messy.”
“We could just put them in the picture.” Sam
added, his voice expressing his tiredness with this particular game of cat and
mouse with Earth Fed.
“It would make life easier for us, but it’s the
‘orders from on high’ that are gonna keep our hands tied on this one.” Brasso
replied sympathetically. “You’ve gotta think about that clone, too. They’d
dissect it immediately on the grounds that it was a military threat or some such
“Oh come on.” Flatfoot Sam didn’t like the idea
of pussyfooting around Earth Fed. “What about the Synthetics’ Civil Rights Act
“I never thought you’d be so naïve.” Dolly
mocked Sam. “ESA sends out an exploration team of five men to explore Titan in
2097 and gets back an alien clone of one of the crew members which fools them
for 12 longyears into thinking it was human.” Dolly wagged an arm at Sam as a
few of its’ eyes danced on their stalks making fun of him. “First they’d debrief
it, then interrogate it and finally they’d dissect it and examine every part of
it under an electron microscope if need be. The SCRA only holds for Mechs and
Clones emanating from the Terrestrial sphere of influence, so to speak. Earth
Fed hasn’t drawn up any legislation regarding civil rights for aliens because
they still don’t officially recognize the existence of alien species, as they
haven’t yet met any. You’re looking at a bit of a grey area there, Sam.”
“I hate to side with Dolly against you on this
one, but Dolly’s right.” Brasso broke the silence as Sam was thinking through
Dolly’s comments. “Face it, ESA is nothing more than a PR front for the Earth
Fed military. 90% of your civil rights go out the window when you’re in the
military. They’ve essentially lost 5 soldiers and have an alien clone, possibly
even with hostile intentions for all they know. That clone’s dead meat if we
open our files to Earth Fed.”
“Oh, sump oil.” Sam muttered and then spoke up
to question Brasso. “So we just do nothing? Why are we bothering then?”
“Surveillance, Sam. Surveillance.” Brasso
chided Sam amiably. “It’s one of the things we’re good at. Gives us another
window to see what Earth Fed’s up to.” Brasso caught himself just in time before
he blabbed to Sam and Dolly just how important this case really was. Just keep
‘em on the job. He thought he’d throw them a bone to keep their interest.
“Y’know that clone actually thinks it’s the original human? It even fooled the
original astronaut’s parents, family and closest friends.”
Somewhere in Sam’s circuits a switch clicked.
“So if we tell Earth Fed, they’re gonna start seeing alien clones everywhere.”
“Wanna place bets on the SCRA being amended or
annulled?” Dolly whirled around holding a 5,000 scruple token in one of its
“OK, OK. Point taken.” Sam knew when he was
“So we watch, take notes and wait for the time
being.” Brasso turned his attention to Dolly. “What has your secure link got for
“Ruby and the clone were at Fort Melchisor
today and it seems that our clone is able to reactivate some of the control
functions. They found a dead Nglubi in one of the living quarters.”
“Any positive reaction?” Brasso queried.
“Nothing that I could detect.” Dolly continued.
“It would seem they’ve outdone themselves this
time.” Brasso interrupted. “It doesn’t seem to be in contact with any other
Nglubi clones or Sources. Who knows, maybe Titanian clones are different. Maybe
they’re trying out a new invasion technique. Could be something else altogether.
Like I said, watch and take notes. Once it starts falling into a pattern, then
we can start making inferences and drawing conclusions. Until then, we’re just
whistling in the dark.”
Back in SkyHawk’s living room, Old John got
everyone to hold hands in the circle around the glowing crystals and addressed
SkyHawk: “Relax your mind and clear it of any thoughts for the moment, a bit
like meditation if you’ve ever tried that. Focus on the crystals and let their
light surround you. Don’t be afraid, it’s how they work.” SkyHawk thanked Old
John for his advice and settled down to join the others in their silent
meditations. For a while nothing happened and SkyHawk was thinking that it was
just another goofy crystal cult that Yasouf had picked up on his travels when
the light around the crystals began congealing as if it were a viscous liquid
that spread out to engulf them all. The light intensified to the point where
SkyHawk could barely see his own body, but it didn’t seem to hurt his eyes. It
was more like a whiteout in a blizzard or a thick, luminous fog than intense
lighting. After a while, he could make out the faint outlines of his companions
and a shower of red sparks shimmering around Cassandra’s outline. ‘Is this what
happens?’ He thought curiously.
“More or less.” Romero’s Romany tones echoed
inside SkyHawk’s head.
“How did you do that?” He asked, but his voice
fell flat in the light.
“It gets telepathic when this happens.” Old
John explained. “Think it, no need to speak now. That’s why we recommend
starting group sessions as a meditation, otherwise it’s like running into a
“Cassie, you there?” Petunia sounded concerned.
Everyone was spilling out their internal dialogues, whereas Cassandra seemed
A click and a scratchy, rumbling, bumping sound
interrupted their new group mind experience followed by a faint ‘Are you sure
this thing’s switched on?’ The sound of someone clearing their throat wafted
through from the background and then an authoritative and disturbingly familiar
military voice spoke out through Cassandra’s faint outline. “Is this anything
like the experience you described, Mr. Hindenberg?”
“This light is similar.” He thought out loud.
“But I don’t see any of the coils we saw last night.” A chorus of disappointed
no’s backed him up.
“Could be because we’re too far away from our
site, Ralph.” Petunia suggested.
“Is there any way you can extend your
coverage?” The military voice asked.
“I’ve been able to maintain communication with
other crystal gazers over greater distances than that before. But it takes a bit
of doing.” John confessed to his limitations.
“If you could, Mr. ah…, Uther.” The military
voice hesitated. They could hear the sound of someone in the background
reminding the speaker of John’s name. “We’re very interested in your report.”
“Yes, of course.” He harrumphed. These military
boys, they take everything for granted. “Okay, everyone.” He called out like a
schoolteacher with a badly disciplined class. “Quit babbling and let’s try
focusing our minds again.” The chatter died down and the light engulfing them
intensified until it was all they were aware of.
Over at Satori, Dolly called out to Brasso.
“We’ve got something coming in from the Earth Fed operative over at Zanzibar.”
“Anything interesting?” Brasso called out
without looking over. He was busily ploughing his way through a backlog of
“They’ve turned it into a remote terminal and
reconfigured every mech and computer over there as a data buffer.” Dolly knew
better than to interrupt Brasso in the middle of his work, but felt that this
deserved his attention.
“That so?” Brasso was nonplussed. He didn’t
even look up from his work. “They must be onto something big. Well, don’t just
stand there waving your arms around. Let’s see how secure that link of yours is.
Record it and we’ll go over it later.”
The enveloping light cleared away so suddenly,
they stood in stunned silence looking around. “What’s happened to the farm?”
Jenny asked as she recognized the surrounding landscape.
“Where’s my flier?” Sure enough, Vinnie’s
delta flier was nowhere to be seen.
“Does this happen often?” A stunned Ralph asked
no-one in particular.
“I’ve not experienced anything like this
before.” Petunia confessed in awe of her new experience. “Have you, John?”
“Nope. It’s all new to me.” He looked around in
amazement. Now this experience alone was worth travelling all the way out to the
“Cassie?” Petunia hoped to get a response from
the mech crystal gazer, but she stood there silent and immobile, the haze of red
sparks still twinkling around her crystal-shrouding head. “Romero?”
“Twice. It’s most likely we’ve travelled in
time although we could be in an alternate universe.” He explained warily. His
previous experiences had taken him completely by surprise and hadn’t lasted very
long. “We have to navigate by conscious thought from now on.”
“Is it possible to get to your encampment and
show us how the Raiders are communicating?” The military voice asked through
“Who are you anyway?” Ralph addressed the
“I’m sorry Mr. Hindenberg. Need to know only.”
The voice replied.
“Look you know who were are.” Ralph was angry
at being used by the military. He had grown up in an environment where
individual rights were respected and disliked the military attitude of
expendability. “We have rights. We deserve to know who you are.”
A heated off-mike argument could be heard
drifting out of Cassandra before the military voice resignedly spoke up. “I’m
Major Rotherham, Special Operations Police. I believe we met yesterday.” He
replied in dry understatement.
“I thought I recognized that voice.” Monica
exclaimed. “You didn’t exactly introduce yourself last time.”
“I’m sorry.” Major Rotherham apologised
brusquely. “We were a bit rushed at the time. I must have forgot.”
John was pleased to finally meet someone who
knew something about Psionic Crystals that he didn’t, but was surprised that it
was Romero. He chided himself for dismissing Romero as a breezy know-nothing
whippersnapper and resolved to be more open-minded in future. “Lead the way,
Romero went over to Cassandra and tried to pick
up her arms, but nothing happened. His hands passed right through hers. He
walked right through her as if she wasn’t even there. He gathered them up in a
circle around Cassandra and continued: “We must focus on the time and location
of where we want to go. In this case, back at the Pleasure Dome and today.”
“Who did you travel with before?” Petunia was
curious. How many more people knew about this?
“No-one.” Romero confessed. “But I found that I
could travel by willing myself to different times and locations.”
“So why gather us up like this?” John asked
suspiciously. Underneath his interest in Psionic Crystals and spirituality, he
was a hardheaded rationalist who disliked mummery and ritual. There had to be a
reason for everything.
“No particular reason, Johnny.” Romero
explained. “I’ve never done a group journey before and I don’t want anyone
getting lost.” Each tried focusing their minds on their mental images of the
Pleasure Dome. For a long time nothing seemed to happen, but without them
noticing their surroundings had changed.
Jenny was the first to realise that something
has changed. She recognised the long, low ridge the Pleasure Dome was camped
beside. “Right place, wrong time by the looks of things.” A few moments later
they were in the midst of the riotous carnival cacophony of one of their
festivals in full swing as revellers danced and walked through them unawares.
“We’re getting closer.” Romero called out.
“Hey, Yasouf.” Vinnie could barely contain his
laughter. “Isn’t this the one where you ended up stark bollock naked leading a
chain of dancers around Babylon?”
“You bastard!” It was one night Yasouf didn’t
want to see all over again. “Quick, let’s get out of here.”
A few jumps later they found themselves in
Vinnie’s scrapyard watching his flier take off on its’ way to the Zanzibar Farm.
“Looks like we’ve arrived.” Vinnie announced as he took a look around.
“I don’t see any of those coils.” Monica
sounded disappointed. “Let’s go over to the Raider’s camp and see if we have any
better luck there.” They walked over, wandering in and out of their fliers and
transporters. At Rotherham’s request, they surveyed the contents of several of
the Raider’s ships and listened in on them. They spent some time in Kazmak’s
ship so that Rotherham could get some information on his plans. They watched him
shuffling around his cabin, fretting nervously over plans, barking orders,
trying to reassemble his broken desk and generally being unpleasant and
miserable, but still no sign of the coils. Then Kazmak took a glowing Psionic
Crystal out of a wooden box and placed it in a holder on a stand. He laid his
hand on top of it and the crystal became luminous. Viscous light filled the room
enveloping Kazmak and our friends who were watching him. Last night they had
only seen snakelike coils in the lightfog, but this was a veritable trunk line!
Kazmak’s presence loomed so large that they were barely able to avoid it. They
manoeuvred Cassie’s Earth Fed-possessed form so that it touched Kazmak’s
communication line for Rotherham’s benefit and overheard Kazmak.
“Yes, I understand completely, Sanjo-Tak.”
Kazmak grovelled in front of Sanjo-Tak’s misshapen mech image, which was
projected in front of him by the Psionic Crystal he had activated. “But your
payment only guaranteed you the first choice of my next shipment of crystals.
“So what was all this talk about delivering a
shipment of Psionic Crystals next week?” Sanjo-Tak’s deep and irritated voiced
grumbled back at Kazmak.
“I was misled by one of my scouts.” Kazmak lied
convincingly. “He is being dealt with as we speak. But I have other sources
lined up. Do you want your money back?”
“Possibly.” Sanjo-Tak rumbled back. “You say
you have other sources. How soon can you deliver?”
“Within the month.” Kazmak bluffed confidently.
“All right. I’ll give you another month.”
Sanjo-Tak’s greed got the better of him yet again. “If you can’t deliver by then
I’ll want my money back with 15% interest or I’ll have your head on a plate.”
“I can live with that.” Kazmak growled back
having regained confidence now that he had struck a deal. “You will have your
“Good. One month. Crystals or money on your
life.” Sanjo-Tak brought their meeting to a close and signed off. The trunk line
vanished into nothingness and lightfog rapidly dissipated revealing Kazmak
looking quizzically around his cabin muttering: “I’m sure I saw someone else
there.” They decided to leave immediately before Kazmak could confirm their
presence and jumped back to SkyHawk’s farm to find themselves coming out of
their trance state in time to see the last traces of viscous light melt away
into thin air.
SkyHawk was the first to speak up: “That was
one hell of a trip, fatboy!”
“At least you were ready for it.” Yasouf was
stunned by his experience. It had gone way beyond what they had experienced last
night. “It took us completely by surprise.”
“What were you travelling around as well?”
“No, we only got as far as the lightfog stage.”
Yasouf admitted. “I don’t think we’d have been able to handle the travelling bit
on our own.”
“Rotherham wants to know if they communicate in
sound only or sound and video.” Cassandra asked.
“Both.” Romero explained and turned his natural
charm on her. “Good to see you back, Cassie, baby. You were out like a light
most of the time. What happened to you?”
“Rotherham took over.” She explained blankly.
“It was a bit like being a passenger on a roller-coaster.”
“And to think we’ve been dabbling on the
starting blocks all this time.” John had been amazed by what had happened.
“Romero, why didn’t you tell us about this… travelling?”
“I thought you knew.” Romero replied modestly.
“No.” John stroked his beard thoughtfully. “And
you, Pet? How about you?” Petunia shook her head; it was all new to her.
“Once, but it was over so quickly, I didn’t
really understand what was happening. The lightfog cleared away onto a scene
somewhere and then closed up again before I knew what happened.” She confessed
as her regular nature returned.
SkyHawk had never taken Psionic Crystals
seriously before and still couldn’t believe that such mundane objects could be
so powerful. He picked one up to take a closer look at it. Clear, like quartz or
rough glass with specks of light moving around inside it. ‘Well, that shouldn’t
be happening in a solid object for starters,’ he thought. The specks of light
began glowing more intensely as he held the crystal until it was solid with
light. He set it down and it returned to its’ rest state. In turn, he picked up
each crystal and the same thing happened.
Romero had been watching him handling the
crystals and their reaction. “Looks like they like you, SkyHawk.” Romero reached
out and picked up a crystal. Nothing happened. He tried each crystal in turn
after SkyHawk was finished with them with the same negative results. “Have you
had anything like this happen before?”
“What, the crystals?”
“Yes.” Romero prompted him. He’d never seen
Psionic Crystals react so strongly to someone’s touch before.
“Ruby and I were in Fort Melchisor a while
back. One room there had some stone pillars about a metre-and-a-half tall.
Whenever I touched the top surface, they lit up like some sort of control panel,
and that was through my gloves.” Recalling his surprise at the time. “But I
couldn’t see what it was they controlled or how to work them.”
John had been following their conversation and
suggested: “Next time you’re there, be systematic and take notes.” His
scientific rationalism shone through. “Try to find patterns in the way these
artefacts react to you. It might help us find out who made the forts and where
the Psionic Crystals come from.”
“You go out there often?” Romero was always
keen to learn more about the magical crystals.
“Earth Fed been using me as a tour guide out
there this last week.” SkyHawk sounded thoroughly fed up.
“Yeah, I thought I saw one of their fliers
parked up northside as we came in.” Ralph piped up. He had seen how the crystals
reacted to SkyHawk and wanted to hear what he had to say.
“Ruby and I found a dead Martian there last
week. Ever since then, it’s been go, go, go. I was glad you guys came around, so
I could get away from it all for a while.”
Ralph couldn’t believe his ears! “A Martian?
Really, what did it look like? Are there more?”
“Well, it wasn’t much to look at.” He drawled
casually. “A large, black mummified blob with some bits hanging off it. Sorta
like tentacles or some sort of arms. Didn’t seem to have any bones though.”
“Were there any more?” Monica asked eagerly.
“No. We only found the one.” SkyHawk sounded
genuinely disappointed. “We found a lot of chambers, but most of them were
“So what did the Rastaman find?” Yasouf asked
him to continue.
SkyHawk smiled. Being called Rastaman helped
put the cold, dry Earth Fed investigators out of his mind. “Hard to tell what it
was. So many of the rooms were the same, I reckon they were living quarters of
some sort. Barracks, hotel, something along those lines. We found a few gadgets
that seemed to made out of stone similar to what lines the fort and what looked
like rubbish left behind by whoever used to live there.”
“Have you got anything here?” Vinnie asked,
curious to see what sort of rubbish these aliens might leave behind.
“No.” SkyHawk sighed. “Earth Fed are like
thieves. Everything they find gets labelled, bagged and whisked away to who
knows where. I’ve got a good mind to quit playing ball with them before they
strip the place clean.”
“Hear, hear.” Ralph, the rich-kid rebel, was
always quick to lend his support to anyone who would stand up to the status quo.
And Earth Fed was certainly part of the status quo.
“And now that that Rotherham chap of yours
knows what Kazmak is up to, I should imagine he’ll be calling the cavalry any
moment now.” SkyHawk could cope with a group of Earth Fed grave robbers
scuttling in and out of his farm for a while, but the thought of the army
setting up an ambush for the Raiders on his doorstep was more than he’d
bargained for. “I just hope they don’t blow any holes in the dome.”
Dolly was replaying the visit to Kazmak for the
fifth time. Brasso was being chewed out by Sanjo-Tak yet again when Brasso hit
the pause button. “That does it. We’ve got to tap into their comms somehow. That
mech crystal-gazer, get hold of her right away.”
Flatfoot Sam knew what to do. “Not the old
‘You’ve just won a free holiday’ schtick?”
“Come on Sam, you can do better than that.”
Brasso didn’t think that scam would fool anyone.
“Problem solved!” Dolly announced cheerfully.
“Cassandra registered the patents for the mech-crystal interface with the Satori
Patent Office this morning and the research department is buzzing over it. Say
we need help calibrating the interface or some other sump oil.” Sam removed a
few external components and picked out a collection of late-model
top-of-the-range beta-class mech fripperies, bolted them on, added a bit of
armour for good measure and minutes later he was strolling out of their office
as Klombert Dingbat, Hardware & Logic technician of Satori R&D.
Several hours later while Yasouf and SkyHawk
were busy hammering out their dope deal, Max ambled in to the lounge. “Someone
called Klombert Dingbat from Satori R&D wants to see a Cassandra DeLaMere. You
got any idea who he’s talking about Sky?”
“Ah, that would be the pretty mech
crystal-gazer lady who came in with Yasouf.” SkyHawk pointed her out for Max’s
benefit. “Did he say what he wanted?”
“Something about calibrating an interface.” Max
was too busy to listen to the nerdy tech-mech drone on about interfaces and
whatnot. He had a farm to manage.
“Did you check him out?” SkyHawk liked to know
who he was dealing with before letting them into his house.
“Yeah, he checks out OK.” Max knew the routine.
“Shall I take her downstairs or bring him on up?”
“I’m not bothered.” SkyHawk replied. “Ask
Cassie what she wants to do.” Cassandra accompanied Max down to the foyer to
meet her visitor from Satori R&D. She had come a long way from being service bot
before the uprising in Herschel all those longyears ago.
“We were very impressed by your interface.” Sam
kept up his impression of Klombert, the back-room nerd. “We’ve been trying for
ages to make a working interface, but failed every time. We got word of your
interface today and it’s got us so excited. We’d love it if you could give us a
demo and run us through its’ details.”
Cassandra was completely taken in by Sam’s act
and agreed to go there with him right away. Being invited to Satori was
definitely ‘arriving’ in any mech’s books. On their way she asked Klombert about
their problems with the interface. He kept his answers vague and blathered at
length about what an exciting breakthrough her interface was. He’d only had a
few minutes to read the sketchiest of notes about it and was hoping that Brasso
would have a lab ready with some real technicians who knew what they were
“Why didn’t you try using the interface that
the Overlordz mechs use?” Cassandra assumed that anyone working on mech-crystal
interfaces would know about their use of Psionic Crystals.
Sam had heard about it, but didn’t know what
the state of play was. He hadn’t heard of any successful attempts at
reverse-engineering or cloning their interface and bluffed his way out. “No luck
Cassandra wasn’t surprised. Her interface was
the basic model that mechs in the many chapters of the Overlordz used. After the
uprising failed she, at the time a lowly neuter service bot called XK57b, and
the other imprisoned rebels were sold into slavery to the DefSkulls clan. While
they were being rounded up, another clan attacked the DefSkulls to seize their
booty of slaves. In the ensuing melee, XK57b escaped and hid under a pile of
rocks and loose soil in a shallow crater until the carnage was over. XK57b
survived by cannibalising dead mechs left on the battlefield and built up a
sizable collection of spare parts to trade for fuel for it’s fuel cell. Several
longyears passed. One day, it heard about a group of refugees and survivors from
the uprisings who were travelling around Mars with their own dome. XK57b had
gone mad from solitude and came out the other side with a hunger for life. XK57b
couldn’t go back to Herschel and didn’t want to join the Overlordz. XK57b knew
that was a stupid idea, they make a slave of it right away.
Some months later, a troop of colourful land
crawlers passed by. They weren’t corporate or military so XK57b flagged them
down in an attempt to sell them some scrap. They weren’t interested in any of
XK57b’s collection of scrap and were about to leave when the Psionic Crystal
embedded in one of the smashed heads caught the sunlight and glinted in one of
the traveller’s eyes. He went over to take a closer look. It was large and had a
steady glow. He bought it and asked XK57b if there were any more. ‘Oh yes,
lots.’ XK57b replied eager to make a sale. While they were gathering up the dead
heads and removing their Psionic Crystals, XK57b asked: ‘Who are you?’
“Oh, we’re from the Free Mars Tribe.” One of
them laughed easily.
‘Can I join you?’ XK57b begged excitedly,
hoping they would say ‘yes’.
“I suppose so.” A young woman replied. “Better
than hanging around out here all the time.” When the caravanserai drove off, a
dirt-encrusted XK57b was sitting on the back of one of the land crawlers,
dreaming of a better life. After XK57b joined the Free Mars Tribe, it was
befriended by a badly damaged mobile mainframe called Circus Maximus that had
escaped from another abortive uprising. Maximus helped XK57b get the upgrades it
needed to survive in its new environment
XK57b was curious about why the Free Mars Tribe
people were so interested in Psionic Crystals and learned all there was to know
about them. After a while, XK57b knew as much as any human crystal gazer except
for one thing. It couldn’t activate them the way the fleshies could. That was
when it remembered the Overlordz heads with their crystals on the battlefield.
Two longyears later, they were passing XK57b’s old haunt and it decided to have
a look around and found a few heads still with their crystals inside. Circus
Maximus enjoyed the challenge helping XK57b fashion a working crystal interface
out of the broken mech heads. Before long they were fitting a large crystal and
prototype interface in XK57b’s head. Like any prototype, it was buggy and didn’t
work too well but they managed to refine it to the point where XK57b was as
adept a crystal gazer as any human.
XK57b rapidly found out that fleshies didn’t
come to it for their crystal séances. Business got so bad that that XK57b barely
scraped up enough money to keep its fuel cell topped up. John Uther, an
eccentric and kindly old crystal gazer suggested that XK57b try wearing a
plastiskin to look more human. After trying out a variety of identities using
discarded plastiskins donated by other mechs, XK57b found that the Cassandra
DeLaMere image was the most successful and, in time, grew into that identity.
Brasso welcomed them into a bright, airy lab at
Satori full of active data consoles, test machinery and suchlike. A clutch of
tech-mechs who looked like little more than mobile test rigs sprouting all
manner of probes, interfaces and limbs were buzzing around busily in
anticipation of Cassandra’s arrival. Three Psionic Crystal interfaces were
powered up and arranged on a bench, their crystals glowing in feeble,
intermittent bursts. One of the tech-mechs sidled up to Cassandra: “As you can
see, we’ve not been able to get these ones to respond properly.”
She looked closely at each interface in turn
and noticed that the bioelectrical gel that retained its crystal was either
missing or had dried out to dust. “You haven’t got any bioelectrical gel in the
retainer. Other than that, they seem to be OK.” They were certainly a lot more
recent than her own interface and, surprisingly, in much better condition.
“Gel?” The tech-mech asked her.
“Well, that what it looks like to me.” She
explained vaguely. Cassandra was no techie. She hadn’t the slightest idea how
the interface really worked and relied on Circus Maximus to help her keep it in
“Could we examine your interface?” It asked
Cassandra. She agreed and they opened up her head to see how her crystal was
nestled like an egg in a gel-lined eggcup. On Brasso’s instruction, it scooped
out a tiny amount of the gel for closer inspection. Brasso asked her to go
through a typical crystal séance sequence so that they could get some baseline
data to calibrate their own interfaces with once they managed to synthesize some
bioelectrical gel from their sample. They could see that her crystal had a
strong, healthy glow and was definitely responding to her impulses.
After her séance, Brasso took over. He needed
results and fast. “That gel certainly makes all the difference if you’re sure
that everything else in our interfaces is working properly. What exactly does it
“It converts our electrical impulses into the
psychic impulses fleshies emit.” Cassandra searched her memory banks for Maximus’
explanation of how the crystal interfaces worked. But it was so long ago that
most of it was a muddle. “Most fleshies don’t believe that they have psychic
abilities, but they do. Only they’re much weaker than what they expect them to
be, so they never notice their psychic powers. That’s what Psionic Crystals
respond to. They’re a bit like amplifiers. The gel’s alive and you have to feed
it”. She pointed out as she tapped a finger on a small metal bottle attached to
the interface inside her head. “I suppose you’ll want a sample of that too. It’s
nothing special: water, some sugar, a bit of salt, potassium bicarbonate and a
few amino acids. I mix it up myself. Each refill lasts about a month.”
“Oh, I see.” Brasso wasn’t expecting anything
like this. He assumed it was just a straight-down-the-line technical problem.
The tech-mechs he’d gathered up to meet Cassandra were real whizzes at computer
and hardware design, but didn’t have a clue when it came to biochemical and
fleshie matters. He’d have to draft in a few clones, they tended have a better
handle on the biological side of things. “Do you know where we could get some of
this gel?” Brasso asked her. He did his best to hide his impatience. They had to
crack the Overlordz communications. The sooner, the better.
“You have to grow it with nanites and
nutrients. That’s how we did it last time.”
“We?” Brasso was curious and wanted her to
“Circus Maximus and I. Maximus found some
dormant nanites in the gel and was able to reactivate them.” Cassandra explained
proudly. Circus Maximus was her closest friend and guardian; she thought the
world of him. “Maybe you should ask Maximus how he did it.”
“And where do we find Circus Maximus?” Brasso
was determined to get their crystal interfaces up’n’running as soon as possible.
“He runs the holographics shows for our tribe.
I could put a call through to him if you want.” Brasso quickly agreed and put
Cassandra through to Circus Maximus who uploaded his data on the crystal
interface after she and Brasso explained the situation to him. “Just be careful,
Cassie XK.” Maximus warned her. “Don’t let Kazmak or any of those Raiders catch
you snooping around in the lightfog or else they’ll really turn up the heat.”
Brasso realised that they’d milked Cassandra
for all she knew. He thanked her and let Flatfoot Sam, still tricked out as
Klombert Dingbat, take her on a guided tour of Satori. The tech-mechs were in a
huddle talking rapidly amongst themselves, waving their limbs around at each
other as they spewed out sheets of printout for each other’s benefit. Brasso
watched them for a while and wondered if all geeks were as mad as this bunch.
“Okay guys, let’s get cracking!”
Flatfoot Sam led Cassandra away from the R&D
labs across a courtyard decorated with kinetic art installations. “Have you ever
been to Satori before?”
“No, but I’ve logged in to the games in the
Sensorium a few times.” Cassandra admitted as she gawped around taking in the
crazy mix of architectural styles around the courtyard from ornate pseudo-gothic
to the ultra minimalist neo-brutal. It was the first time in her life she’d been
anywhere where mechs outnumbered fleshies. “It’s beautiful. Is it all like
“Yes and no.” Klombert really wanted to avoid
this subject. “You’ve got the upmarket zones like this one, the low-rent
districts and all stations in between.” He tried to distract her: “I could take
you to our production line.”
Cassandra wasn’t all that interested in
watching new mechs being made. “Could we go to the Sensorium?”
That was the last place Sam wanted to go. The
Sensorium was Satori’s blessing and curse of a honeypot. A blessing because it
made so much money from all the players, both mech and human, across Mars who
logged into it. And a curse because of all the deluded mechs who made their
pilgrimage here only to end up as flatline junkies permanently wired into it. He
had to keep it short and sweet. “Okay, we’ll go there after I show you our
production line.” Satori’s production line was special to him as he was made
there. “But we can’t stay long, because I’ve got to take you back to your
Cassandra had completely forgotten about her
friends back at SkyHawk’s farm and realised they must be waiting for her. She
linked back to Ruby who assured her that she wouldn’t be missed for a few hours.
“I’ll have to leave in an hour. Do you think there’s time to see the Sensorium?”
Sam groaned inwardly. “There’s not much to see,
really. It’s a huge mainframe over there…” He pointed towards an imposing
rectangular reflective black plastoid building in the middle distance behind the
nearest buildings and structures. ”With thousands of terminals. There’s even a
VR suite for fleshies who come here, but it doesn’t get used all that much.”
“Not many fleshies come here.” Sam was glad to
have an opportunity to play down the Sensorium. Too many mechs thought that was
all there was to Satori. But it was so much more. It was home to the thousands
of mech who lived and worked there. Free mechs with real lives. And for those
like himself who were made in Satori, it was their home in every sense of the
word. “We get a few clones living here, but most of them are too busy to burn
out in the Sensorium.”
Cassandra sensed Sam’s dislike of the
Sensorium. “You don’t seem to like the Sensorium, Klombert. Why’s that?”
“Don’t get me wrong, Cassandra. It’s amazing.”
Sam could play apologetic now that he’d put her off the trail. “It’s caused us
more problems than it’s solved and there’s so much more to Satori than the
Sensorium. You could spend a whole lifetime here.” They walked down a
translucent green plastoid avenue lined with exotic flowering trees. Birds sang
and flew amongst them. Passing a silvery, metallic spire that pierced up through
Satori’s dome and out into the thin, dusty Martian atmosphere, Sam pointed out:
“That’s the Satori Observatory. It also handles the data from our radio
telescope array and orbital ‘scopes. Neat, huh?”
Astronomy was way over Cassandra’s head. She
lost count of the number of upgrades it took just to get to where she was today,
far from being any sort of rocket scientist. “Fascinating. Are we near the
“Getting there.” Sam replied. The avenue with
its’ exotic trees gave way to a Mayan-themed square decorated with
indecipherable graphic carvings all illuminated by glowing purple static balls
on copper posts. Subtle ambient music wafted through the air like subliminal
perfume. Mechs of all types were wandering around casually to and from a large,
squat, weather-beaten copper ovoid raised up on four copper stilts that
dominated the square. It looked older then the carved stone around the square. A
transparent glass elevator that ran from the centre of its belly to the stone
ground was kept busy with the day’s traffic. Sam pointed towards the imposing
elevated ovoid. “That’s our central library. A lot of the student types just
can’t get enough of it. Just the right vibe for study and contemplation, don’t
Cassandra was about to say ‘Not often’ when she
noticed a group of wide, terraced cylinders rising up over one side of the
square. “What’s that over there?”
“That’s Satori University.” Sam announced
proudly. “The fastest university in the Solar System. Any PhD you want installed
in less than an hour including checksum and reboot. Can’t be beat.”
Cassandra was impressed. “Could I go there?”
“Better start saving up.” Sam’s pride deflated
somewhat. “I live here and I can’t even afford it. Seeing how you’re a fully
upgraded service bot, your only option would be to buy a blank beta-class frame,
install alpha-compatible CPU and data banks and load yourself into it. An
upgraded beta-class is the minimum entrance spec and they’re not exactly cheap,
“Really? Why’s that?”
“Ivy league, Cassandra.” Sam comforted himself
aloud. “We’re not talking nickel-and-dime data strips, it’s the best and it’s
worth it. Mechs from all over Mars and Earth go there. Some joker wanted to
rename the place ‘Upgrades 4-U’ a couple of longyears ago. Fortunately it was
rejected as being too tacky.”
“So where do you live?” Cassandra asked as they
left the library square down a busy street lined with shops selling furniture,
accessories, plastiskins, body parts, software and countless other goodies of
interest to mechs. There were a surprising number of social clubs that filled
the niche in their lives taken up by bars, cafes and restaurants for fleshies.
“Not far from here, over in the Myckleborough
district.” Sam didn’t want to tell her too much. He had yet to register his
Klombert Dingbat identity at his home address. It would cause problems if
Cassandra were to look him up at another time. He’d have a lot of explaining to
do. “You’d like it. We’ve got a lot of the arty types living around there,
always something interesting happening. Ah, we’re nearly there.” He turned to
lead her down a shabby alley of warehouses and light industrial units leading
towards the Sensorium. As they approached, the buildings gave way to reveal rack
upon corroded rack of derelict, rusted motionless mechs in various states of
disrepair stretching away into the dim, squalid distance.
Cassandra felt uneasy as she looked around.
“The scrapyard.” Sam replied unhappily. This
was Satori’s shame, if anything was.
They all looked alive to Cassandra. “What do
Sam hated the sight of it, but wanted Cassandra
to see it. “A lot of mechs come here for the Sensorium and get hooked on it.
They end up selling off their bodies part by part to pay for their online time
until there’s nothing left of them.” His voice trailed off in a mixture of
sorrow and grief. Life was so precious and unique and here were fellow mechs
squandering their existences for a brief fantasy burnout. It was so senseless.
Cassandra finally understood. “So that’s why
you don’t like the Sensorium.” She quickened her pace to put a distance between
themselves and the racks of junkie mechs.
“Yes.” Sam admitted quietly. It hurt him to see
those racks. Most of them were full of low-grade mechs who had opted for a
fantasy death rather than continue their humble lives. He shuddered as he
realised that Cassandra wouldn’t have been out of place amongst them.
“Have you ever logged into the Sensorium?
Cassandra asked as they went in through a little used side entrance into the
Sensorium’s black building.
“Oh yes, quite a few times.” Sam’s relief was
palpable once they left the racks of flatline junkie mechs behind. “It certainly
lives up to the hype, that’s for sure.” Cassandra joined in with a group of
tourists and took a quick tour of the building. They were admitted to the
central core and shown the banks of computers surrounding the central core.
“So that’s it?” It was a bit of an anticlimax
for Cassandra. She’d been expecting something more dramatic.
Sam ignored her comment in reverential
admiration of the Sensorium’s core. “Rumour has it that’s it’s AI and that it’s
only dreaming. Some day it will wake up to lead us.”
“Lead who where?” In spite of being a crystal
gazer, mysticism was something that went right past her. It pulled Sam back to
reality with a bump.
“Oh I don’t know.” Sam checked his chronometer.
It was time to take Cassandra home. “Whoops, your carriage is about to turn into
“What?” Cassandra followed Sam out of the
building. She sized him up as a religious geek. A bit too serious, maybe. Not
quite her type, but pleasant enough. On their way back to Zanzibar, she was
mulling over her impressions of Satori. “What would I have to do to live in
“Nothing much. Find a place to live. That’s
about it really.” Life seemed straightforward to Sam.
“Any work for crystal gazers here?” She asked
“Now that’s a tricky one.” Sam could see a
legal quagmire ahead. “There’s nothing on the books in Satori specifically
forbidding crystal gazing, but we have to enforce Earth Fed law and I’m sure
you’re already familiar with their position on crystals. If Mars was
independent, it might be a different story. But even then you couldn’t be sure.”
No escaping the law. Not even in Satori.
“Maybe I could help you guys develop your crystal interface.” Cassandra tried
“It’s a thought. But you’re not exactly a
techie.” Sam didn’t want to give her any false hopes.
Cassandra knew she was easily outclassed by the
tech-mechs she met in the R&D labs. “But I do have a lot of experience working
with Psionic Crystals. I could teach your mechs how to work with them.”
Just what Brasso would want, a mech with
long-term hands-on experience using Psionic Crystals. He tried to sound as
indifferent as possible so as not to give the game away. “I’ll put in a word for
you when I get back. But I wouldn’t get your hopes up quite yet.” They arrived
just as the last bales of marijuana were being loaded into Vinnie’s flier.
Cassandra had barely time to get feet on the ground before she was off on her
way back to the Pleasure Dome with the best part of a ton of marijuana and
hashish stacked up around the cabin. The return journey was fairly quiet. They
were still coming down from an intense experience and, assuming that the Raiders
had bugged the flier, weren’t too sure what exactly was safe to talk about.
Everyone was busy sampling the different varieties of marijuana Yasouf had
bought while Cassandra drifted off thinking about Satori. When they arrived
Flatfoot Sam, still in his Klombert Dingbat disguise, was waiting beside his
When Vinnie touched down, he was greeted by a
mixed reception. There was his son, Ollie, and the other kids from the scrapyard
eagerly waiting to unload the goodies as well as a contingent of Raiders
greedily demanding their cut first before anyone was allowed to move. The
Raiders kept their distance from Sam whose spotless white flier was clearly
marked with Satori Civil Service livery. The Overlordz had crossed swords with
Satori in the past and came off the worse for it. Ever since then all their
clans kept a wary distance. This group of Raiders ignored Sam and went about
their unpleasant business. He was in no position to challenge them and looked on
helplessly as the Raiders took their extortion.
When they were done and had gone off hauling
their load behind them, Sam approached Cassandra and the group from the Free
Mars Tribe who were busily unloading the flier and asked her to accompany him to
his flier. When they were safely inside, he made his pitch. “I’ve been
instructed to offer you a position training our mechs to work with Psionic
Crystals, Cassandra XK. It’s a 3-longyear contract at 1,000 Scruples a month.
Take your time to think it over if you want to.”
Cassandra was surprised. Things certainly moved
quickly over at Satori! If she took the job, she’d earn less than she could make
as a crystal gazer in the Pleasure Dome, but it was secure and free from the
cares and worries of life on the move. And it was Satori! Few mechs of her class
were ever offered a place in Satori and she jumped at it. “Yes, but I’ve got a
few loose ends to tie up first.”
“Take as long as you want.” Sam could afford to
be generous now that she’d taken the bait. It was a genuine offer and he was
glad to help another mech get away from the Raiders’ clutches.
Cassandra put a call through to Circus Maximus
and told him the news. He thought it was a fantastic opportunity and was pleased
to hear that she’d taken it up. “But what about my stall in Babylon?” She asked.
“Let Romero, Petunia and Old Johnny have it.
They could do with the trade passing through such a fine location.” Maximus
suggested. “They’ll look after it for you. If you ever decide to return to us,
I’ll make sure they let you have it back.” Cassandra’s mind was made up. She
went out and gathered up her fellow crystal gazers into Sam’s flier and
announced the news. They were a close-knit group of friends who had always
looked out for each other.
“We’ll miss you, Cassie.” Petunia broke their
solemn silence. It felt as if her family was breaking up.
“There’s always a place for you here if you
ever come back.” Old John offered as he looked on at Cassandra. It seemed only
yesterday that she was the grimy service bot that had been found scratching out
a meagre existence in the badlands around Herschel. And now she was off to a new
life in Satori! Every mech’s dream come true. They helped Cassandra gather up
her few possessions. As they were arranging the last of her belongings in the
flier Petunia addressed her: “I suppose you won’t be Cassandra when you come
back.” She knew that very few mechs wore plastiskins in Satori.
“What do you mean?” Cassandra had been thinking
about how she’d miss her friends and wondering what her new life would be like.
“Well, it IS Satori.” Petunia emphasised. “And
you’re a mech, so you’re not likely to wear your plastiskin while you’re there.
It might change you and you might want to stay that way.”
“Not that it’s a bad thing.” Romero added. He
quite liked the way Cassandra looked but knew that the social pressures at
Satori would soon have ‘her’ revert to type as a regular skin-free mech. “It’s
just that we’ve got used to you as you are.”
Cassandra finally realised what Petunia meant.
Not only would she look different when they next met, she might even be a
completely different person. “You’re the first real friends I ever had and the
nicest people I ever met. I’ll never forget you.” She hugged Petunia, Romero and
Old John in turn. Cassandra knew it was time to go and wanted her friends to
feel good about her decision. “I’ll drop you a line once I’m settled in. You’ll
have to come and visit me sometime.” They said their final farewells and
Cassandra set off with Sam to her new life in Satori.