Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 6: The big score.

     “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 menace.
     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 Kazmak.
     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 left arm.
     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 overtake him.
     “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 environment.
     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 dumb units.”
     “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 his movements.”
     “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 sump oil.”
     “Oh come on.” Flatfoot Sam didn’t like the idea of pussyfooting around Earth Fed. “What about the Synthetics’ Civil Rights Act of 2115?”
     “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 pincers.
     “OK, OK. Point taken.” Sam knew when he was beaten.
     “So we watch, take notes and wait for the time being.” Brasso turned his attention to Dolly. “What has your secure link got for us today?”
     “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 shouting match.”
     “Cassie, you there?” Petunia sounded concerned. Everyone was spilling out their internal dialogues, whereas Cassandra seemed unusually silent.
     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 casework.
     “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 farm!
     “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 Cassandra.
     “Who are you anyway?” Ralph addressed the voice.
     “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, young man.”
     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 crystals.”
     “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. “Cassie?”
     “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 empty.”
     “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 talking about.
     “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 there, either.”
     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 working order.
     “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 do?”
     “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 continue.
     “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 this?”
     “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 friends.”
     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.”
     “Why’s that?”
     “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 Sensorium yet?”
     “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 you think?”
     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, either.”
     “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. “What’s this?”
     “The scrapyard.” Sam replied unhappily. This was Satori’s shame, if anything was.
     They all looked alive to Cassandra. “What do you mean?”
     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 a pumpkin.”
     “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 Satori?”
     “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 hopefully.
     “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 her luck.
     “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 flier.
     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.

Scribbles & Scraps
Chapter 5
Chapter 7