Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 7: Small town blues.

     It's mid-morning in Malcolm's scruffy, cramped apartment as he stumbles around the kitchenette frying up a breakfast of NuBacon and tomatoes. A holographic poster of a pouting nude 'pinup-of-the-month' holding her breasts up to the camera is hanging at an angle above the cooker. He's turned his Tri-D set on with the volume up loud to wake himself up. A pleasant looking young woman in a pinstripe suit with her hair tied back is hosting the morning news. A huge model of Jupiter floats beside her. "...and on the home front, the Mars Development Bureau has announced a new development for their terraforming program. In a bold, new move, they intend to thicken the atmosphere with gases taken from Jupiter. Here to explain is professor Cuthbert of the MDB." The picture on the screen changes to show a bespectacled, balding man with a wisp of dark hair going from ear to ear around the back of his head who spoke with a soft, melodic German accent. "As you know, Mars is notoriously low on the nitrates needed for agriculture and plant life in general. For years now, scoop ships like the type you see here on the screen having dipping the Jovian atmosphere for ammonia, methane and such like. These have been used as raw materials to provide our farms with the precious nitrates they need. Now it's time to step up a gear." The picture beside him changes to show a modern industrial unit set on an open plain somewhere on Mars. "We plan to set up a series of reactors around Mars like this one in central Arcadia Planitia to process these gases and release them into the atmosphere. This will both thicken the atmosphere and eventually make the Martian soil capable of supporting our Terrestrial plant life."
     Malcolm shuffles out into the living room carrying his breakfast. As he walks past the Tri-D set, he catches his foot on its power cable, pulling it out of the wall socket. Professor Cuthbert fades out in mid-stream and disappears with a Tri-D set's characteristic 'ping'. By the time he's got the set powered up again, a scene of black Earth Fed fighters strafing a canyon wall is rolling behind the presenter. "...hit back yesterday at what is believed to be the main base of the outlaw gangs who have been terrorising many of the smaller communities in southern and central Mars."
     A synthesizer is sprayed out all over the table with tools and manuals adding to the mess. He balances his plate on the on a box beside the synth he's been repairing for the last few days, takes a swig of coffee and, to his horror, watches the plate tip over and his entire breakfast end up all over the circuit boards deep inside the synth. Cursing, he salvages what he can and puts it back on the plate. In the background, the news drones on: "President Brahma Vinandan of the World Assembly has announced that the new Automated Infrastructure Maintenance System, or AIMS as it is known, is due to go on stream later this week. It will assist in streamlining civil administration, resource allocations and military co-ordination on Earth, her colonies on Luna, Mars and elsewhere. Here to talk about it is our political and social affairs editor, Hugo Enright."
     Malcolm picks up a data cube and plugs it into the Tri-D set. The news show is replaced by the cool electroacoustic sounds of the Heironimous Bosch Blank Jazz Quintet as he sets about cleaning out his synthesizer and putting it back together. Soon he was humming along with the music settling into his new life as a member of the Flaming Watusis. Malcolm had grown up in Herschel City. Times were tough when he left college. Unable to find any work, he signed up for a tour of duty on the Asteroid and Meteorite Early Warning platforms that tracked any incoming objects that might be hazardous. In the unlikely event of anything being picked up on their radar, it was their job to locate and destroy it before it could strike Earth, Luna or Mars.
     He had taken one of his synthesizers along to play during his spare time and soon joined in with a group that met regularly in the canteen. It was there he met Veronica, an interceptor pilot, who joined in drumming enthusiastically on a collection of pots, pans and oil drums. Her tour of duty ended shortly after Malcolm arrived. Before she left, she told him about her band and invited him to visit for a jam. Three longyears of watchful tedium and endless drills later, Malcolm returned to Mars and took Veronica up on her offer. That was four months and one tour ago. Soon they'd be playing in the Pleasure Dome!
     At the time Malcolm arrived in Montgomery, Veronica had a live-in partner, Simon, so he had to forget about moving in with her. In the following months, he spent quite a bit of time with Lottie who seemed more appreciative of his company. Simon left Veronica shortly before their tour and Malcolm looked on bemusedly at her voracious sexual appetite as she had a different man every night. Sometimes more than one at a time! In spite of it all, she showed no interest in him. Never one to push things, he let Veronica make her own choices even if it didn't include himself.

     Over in another part of town, we find a residential development set around a communal garden. Watery Martian daylight filters through in on Veronica as she goes through her morning Yoga and Tai Chi exercises. Three mannequins are dotted around the room with costumes Veronica has been making for their shows. Her Tri-D set is tuned to Handsome Herb's Holistic Health Hour on the home life channel. His sensual, golden tones caress her into a state of near meditative peace as her eyes fixed on his well toned and quite obviously oiled rippling muscles and was fantasizing about him stepping out of the Tri-D set into her living room when the door bell rang.
     Veronica lets Lottie in and they both pause to watch Herb go through his routine. "Ole Snake Oil himself." Lottie smirked. "You need a man in your life."
     Veronica nearly blushed, but managed to fight it back. "I'm taking a break. Too many one-night stands on the last tour." She explained defensively.
     "Exactly." Lottie continued. "A man, not one of those toy boys you keep picking up."
     "Hah! I'm surprised you found time to get off your back to play anything." Veronica parried before lapsing into a deep sigh because she really did want a man in her life. Someone who would stay around after he got his rocks off and treat her like a lady. "What brings you over here so early?"
     Lottie's easy demeanour deflated somewhat as she sat down on the sofa. "Denzil got in a fight at school yesterday. Mr. Borwick, the headmaster, called me in for the usual interview this morning."
     "And?" Veronica needed some gossip. It helped her feel in touch with life.
     "Nothing really." It had become such a routine Lottie could nearly sleepwalk through it. "Just the usual threats to suspend him if he doesn't behave himself. But the other kids are just as bad. I wish there was another school in town to send him to, but there isn't."
     "Small town blues, huh?" Veronica commiserated. "Sounds like your boys need a man around the house to keep them in line"
     "Sometimes it feels as if the only time they listen to me is when I call them to the table at mealtimes." Lottie trailed off and they ended up watching Handsome Herb go through his routines. During the advert break, Veronica went to make them some coffee. Lottie broke the wistful silence they had lapsed into. "So what do you think of the latest addition to our band?"
     "Huh." Veronica was decidedly underwhelmed. "I wish Gregor and the boys wouldn't keep bringing their groupies back with us, it's getting to be a bad habit of theirs. I mean, what are we supposed to do with that dancing fool and her collection of crystals?"
     "Her?" Lottie smirked. "Where have you been? Psy's a bit of both."
     "Oh yeah, and I suppose you found out the hard way." Veronica hadn't taken to Psy at all. She always kept groupies and hangers-on at a firm distance from the workings of their band.
     "Uh huh." Lottie confirmed smugly realising that she had one up on Veronica on the adventure stakes. "Went the full round. Quite nice, actually."
     "Well, maybe if I'm bored I'll have a go with him or her or whatever it is."
     "Loosen up, girl." Lottie chided her. "Have a laugh and some fun. Psy'll soon get bored of life here and go back to Coriolis."
     "So how come Gregor called me up yesterday asking me to put together a crystal priestess outfit?"
     "Dunno, but I'm sure you'll look great." Lottie encouraged her. "Got any ideas?"
     Veronica pointed out an incomplete black and gold outfit with bands of turquoise running down it over in one corner. "All I could come up with was an Egyptian theme. A bit corny. For some reason, I kept adding these long black ropes hanging down to the floor. What do you think?" She held a few of them out for Lottie to examine.
     Lottie hummed and hawed for a few minutes. "Makes you look even more mysterious, that's for sure, but they're gonna hide your legs."
     Veronica picked up a decorated paper mache helmet that had wings extending vertically at each side. "I put this headdress together last night, but I'll need to get some crystals for it. What say we go down to the Goblin and find that kid who's always handing them out and get a few?"
     "Who, Jazz? He'll probably wet his pants!" Lottie laughed at the thought of that timid boy being set upon by a pair of hot-blooded women like themselves. "Shall we give him the full works?"
     Veronica cracked a cautious smile. "Could be fun, but it might scare the hell out of him. I'm just going to put the charm on him. If you want to have him, that's up to you."
     "What are we waiting for?" Lottie could see that Veronica desperately needed some sort of diversion. "Let's go!"

     It was a slow day down at the market. Chester and Liz are arranging their collection of jewellery, hand-woven cashmere sweaters, throws, hats, incense, literature and data cubes about Psionic Crystals and pieces of handmade decorative artwork. They were discussing Chester's impressions of the crystal trip Psy took them when he went to the funeral ceremony at Red Wind. "I'm convinced that what we saw was sometime in the past in this dimension." Chester remarked casually to impress his wife.
     "Just because Eddy recognised all those blight nodules raining down before you got nuked?" Liz had long got used to Chester's habit of pontificating at great length about everything and anything.
     "It certainly explains how the damn things are everywhere." He continued. "Mark next door had to put his dog down after she went and dug up a nodule in his back yard. There's probably hundreds of 'em right under this marketplace."
     Liz shuddered involuntarily at the thought and hastily made the sign of a Martian orbit over her heart. "Please, Ches. I don't want to think about it."
     "Just remember to avoid any dark brown stones on the ground." He reminded Liz of Earth Fed's official health warnings about blight nodules. How you were never to touch them and report them to the authorities immediately for safe disposal.
     "I know, I know." Liz replied wearily wishing he'd change the subject when Gregor walked up to their stall. "Hello Gregor, got the day off?"
     "Sort of." Gregor explained cagily. "Have to meet some people down the pub. How do you feel about Psy doing the crystal routine shi's been talking about at the Pleasure Dome?"
     Chester took a long, slow breath as Liz clung to him. "It sounds interesting, but we could get in a shitload of trouble over it. I was over at Eddy's after you left the other night. Psy took us on a crystal trip. It was something else! But I can't see how we're supposed to take the whole audience along with us."
     "That's Psy's problem." Gregor absolved himself of any responsibility if Psy couldn't pull it off. "At worst we end up looking stupid."
     "Or in jail." Chester pointed out.
     "That's what I want to talk about." Gregor explained soberly. "Psy was around at my place last night and has pretty much offered to hire us and pay our expenses. Even put 5,000 Scruples on the table to bail us out if anything goes wrong."
     Chester whistled at the mention of that amount of money. "Serious talk, huh? I didn't think Psy had that kind of money."
     "Nor did I." Gregor was genuinely surprised by Psy's offer. "I thought shi was just another hanger-on who'd disappear back to the big city in a few days."
     "What does Anna think of it?" Liz asked. She didn't want Chester ending up in jail. She was seven months pregnant. They had two young children and she needed him around the house.
     "She wasn't too keen on it until Psy put down the bail money." Gregor felt honesty was the best policy here. No point lying to Liz, as she'd only call Anna as soon as he left. "Crystal possession isn't such a big deal. It's not as if we're selling them."
     "A fine, possibly a month or two in jail if they really want to come down hard on us." Chester mused. They could do with the extra money what with the baby on the way. "Give me a day or two to think it over."
     "Fine." Gregor could wait. "I hope it's a 'yes'. We've got a rehearsal this afternoon. I'll see you there." They talked for a while about Liz and Chester's plans for their baby before Gregor went off to his rendezvous at the Wobbly Goblin.
     As Gregor disappeared into the marketplace crowd, Liz voiced her concerns: "You don't want to end up in jail again, Ches. We run enough risks selling the books and cubes about Psionic Crystals."
     Merely hearing Liz warm up to her whine was enough to tip Chester's indecision. "Yeah, but most of us will be playing. Only Psy and Stan will have their hands free to actually hold any crystals. So long as the rest of us don't have any crystals on us we should be OK." Chester twiddled his moustache as he weighed up the odds of things going seriously pear-shaped. "They tried to do us for inciting crystal possession just for the stuff we sell here and that got thrown out of court. Y'know if Psy can pull it off, it'll be one hell of an experience. You wouldn't want to miss it."
     "But what about Stan and Psy?" Liz pointed out.
     Chester's confidence deflated slightly. "They could end up in jail, but it's up to them to decide. It looks like Psy's prepared to take that kind of risk. I don't know if Stan would. Lottie told him about the crystal session we did. He wished he'd been there with us. I know wants to go on one."

     Joe O'Leary, landlord of the Wobbly Goblin, looked up from washing some glasses behind the bar to see Gregor leaning over. "Ah, if it isn't Mister Watusi himself." Joe served up Gregor a dark, creamy stout. "I hear you're top of the bill at the Pleasure Dome next weekend."
     "Indeed we are." Gregor revelled in the celebrity. "Bring the missus along."
     "Now that's a thought. I'll see how she feels." Irene always appreciated a night out, but Joe realised that at her age she might find the Pleasure Dome a bit over-the-top. "That friend of yours, SkyHawk, showed up a while ago. He's in the lounge bar if you want to see him." Gregor thanked him and was about to go when Joe reminded him of their gig. "We'll be seeing you this Saturday, then?" Joe knew Gregor had finally got a band together that would make it. They were already in demand in Huygensville and the other nearby towns and their upcoming show at the Pleasure Dome would catapult them onto the Martian networks. He enjoyed their shows in his pub. And how business had boomed as people flocked in to hear them! Joe took it for granted that they'd soon be moving on to greater things and was glad to have had them as regulars in his pub.
     "How's life down on the farm?" Gregor asked as he pulled up a chair to sit down with SkyHawk.
     "I wish that crowd from Earth Fed would clear off." SkyHawk complained. "They've picked the fort clean but show no signs of leaving. At least they've stopped wheeling me out to give them guided tours."
     "And how's Ruby?"
     "Oh, fine." SkyHawk sounded distracted. "Do you think it's right?"
     Gregor knew Ruby was a mech, but if SkyHawk wanted to live with her, that was his business. "She seems a fine young lady who's totally devoted to you. You're a lucky man."
     SkyHawk felt confused about his relationship with Ruby. On one hand, she was a considerate, sweet woman who made his life complete. On the other hand she was his minder assigned to him by Earth Fed and the Space Agency. On top of that she was a mech. Even though he was fond of her, in his heart of hearts there was a gnawing voice telling him that it was unnatural. "I know, but she's a..."
     "Mech." Gregor completed his sentence. "It's not so unusual. Oh, there's some people who wouldn't approve, but who cares? She won't bring you any children, if that's what you want. But, believe me, they can be quite a handful. No offence SkyHawk, but you don't strike me as the kind of guy who's ready to raise a family."
     SkyHawk nursed his drink as he mulled over Gregor's words. Even at his age, he knew he wasn't ready to raise a family. He could barely cope with the recurring nightmares and flashbacks from his ill-fated mission to Titan all those longyears ago and would hardly be able to cope with demanding attentions of young children. "Maybe I should get together with a human woman, on of our own kind."
     "Have you talked about it with Ruby?" Gregor could see that SkyHawk's doubts about his relationship with Ruby were eating him up, but he didn't want to come between them. Mechs had feelings too. For all he knew Ruby might feel whatever passed as love amongst mechs for SkyHawk. Gregor had met her many times and didn't want to be responsible for hurting her.
     "Yeah." SkyHawk sounded despondently glum. "She's so damn understanding it makes me feel like a heel." And then there was all that he couldn't tell Gregor weighing down on him like a ton of bricks. Like why they were together in the first place.
     "Tell you what." Gregor offered his friend a change of scene. "Come on over to our rehearsal this afternoon to get your mind off things. We're getting our set ready for the Pleasure Dome."

     Stan was pacing back and forth in the living room reading the lyrics for a song and phrasing them out as MariElla accompanied him on her saxophone. He set down the data pad he was reading from as they took a break. "So you reckon Psy is gonna take the whole crowd at the Pleasure Dome on the same sorta trip you went on over at Eddy's?"
     MariElla could remember her experience as clearly as if it were being replayed on their Tri-D set. "I guess so. But shi hasn't really talked about it much."
     "Man, if Earth Fed stake out that gig, it'll be the biggest bust in history!" Stan joked. "It'll really screw their heads up if they get swept along for the ride. I wonder where Psy's going to take us."
     "Could be anywhere. From what Psy said last time it could be any time in any parallel universe or dimension. Eddy's fairly certain we were in the past, because the ships were spraying the ground with blight nodules."
     "You said that it was attacked." Stan had been kept up all night by MariElla's story about her experience after she got back from Eddy's.
     "Yeah, after it blew up, we were all back in Crystal and Eddy's house."
     "Well, someone didn't want those blight nodules any more than we do." Stan commented. "I wonder who they were?"
     MariElla shook her head. They hadn't seen the occupants of either the massive black triangles or the tiny white ovoids. "Those ships were the only signs of life we saw. The ground was completely deserted where we were."
     "Definitely some sort of a war going on." Stan hypothesised grandly. He had been fascinated with Psionic Crystals for a long time and was convinced that they and the other artefacts like Fort Melchisor were the last remains of a long-dead Martian civilisation. "The white fighters were defending their planet against the black triangles who were terraforming or poisoning the planet. You witnessed the Martians defending themselves. It looks like they were wiped out, because that blight's everywhere."
     On the face of it, MariElla agreed with Stan's conclusion. The Crystals and forts are only found on Mars, ergo they were made by Martians. "But Psy insisted there never were any Martians."
     "Maybe Psy's a Martian and shi's trying to put us off the track." Stan suggested.
     "Could be." MariElla could see how that made sense. She was born in Montgomery and had been in and around Fort Melchisor ever since her tearaway teens. She collected Psionic Crystals and knew all the stories about the Martian artefacts. She even studied to be a crystal gazer before she met Stan, but only had limited success. She had never met anyone who could do what Psy did with hir Psionic Crystal. The more she thought about, she realised that she'd never seen a blue crystal before. Only the clear ones found around the entrances to Fort Melchisor. Then she remembered something else she wanted to discuss with Stan. "Did you see that thing about the blight outbreak on Earth on the news a couple of days ago?"
     "No." Stan never bothered watching the network news programs. They were nothing more than official propaganda in his books.
     "They reckon the Mars Independence Movement was behind it." MariElla filled him in on the details.
     That surprised Stan, things had been relatively quiet on Mars recently. "I'll ask Kieran, see what he knows about it." Kieran was an old friend of theirs who had joined the Martian Independence Movement shortly after the uprisings happened and largely failed. Many people had joined out of resentment against Earth Fed and the corporations. Kieran was an impressionable youth just out of school at the time and soon gravitated to their guerrilla wing where the action was. Every now and then they'd meet up and he'd try to recruit them. Much as Stanley and MariElla supported their cause, they didn't want to leave their lives in Montgomery with the Flaming Watusis and offered to help in any other way possible. Like the time they had to hide three of Kieran's friends on the run from Earth Fed. They were such nice, well-behaved kids. MariElla and Stan couldn't imagine them blowing up an Earth Fed military station as well as an Overlordz outpost. But they had!
     MariElla glanced at the clock. They were running out of time and Stan still hadn't worked out the phrasing for the song they were working on for their gig at the Pleasure Dome. She picked up her saxophone and started in on the opening riff, repeating it a few times until Stan got in the groove.

     Petra-Sirius Joventhal was feeling bright and brisk in spite of hir dingy digs in the cheap district of Montgomery. The clamorous noise and stinking squalor in the street outside suited hir just fine. It was just another reminder of the decay shi had left behind now that shi had regenerated hir ancient body. The biggest surprise was meeting SkyHawk and Ruby on the way out. Hir jaunt away from the big city was a pleasant diversion from life in Coriolis. Wandering around hir apartment, shi opened a wooden box to check up on hir collection of blue Psionic Crystals, which were being recharged by a large green crystal shi had taken from hir Omphalon at Fort Melchisor. It wasn't happy about it, but couldn't interfere with it's master's will, though it insisted the Psy return the crystals as soon as shi had finished using them. If it was still alive when shi returned them.
     In hir long life, Psy had watched human culture evolve and mutate in a multitude of ways. The Overlordz and their many clans were nothing more than the pirates, warlords and robber barons of old preying on the unwary and the defenceless. But now they had started killing the Omphala in their greedy quest for Psionic Crystals. Many were old and dieing, some already dead. Psy knew the Overlordz were using them, but they were taking far more than they needed for their own purposes. People were always gathering up the clear crystals found nearby any living Omphalon, but that was of no consequence as they were taking nothing more than an Omphalon's dead flesh it would slough off anyway. Humans could do what they wanted with them. It didn't matter.
     Psy had to do something about the pillaging, but was at a loss. Shi had done all shi could to manipulate Earth Fed to tighten up their clampdown on Martian Artefacts, but they were stretched thin enough as it was. Psy had toyed with the idea of infiltrating the Overlordz, but ruled it out as too risky. So it was time for a history lesson for these humans starting with the spectacular shi was planning for their show at the Pleasure Dome. It ought to generate enough interest in Psionic Crystals and where they actually came from so that the locals might start taking an interest in protecting the Omphala, or Forts as the humans mistakenly called them, from the Overlordz' predation.
     And then there was hir current charge, that clueless bug Kkhrkht. Things were changing on the nexus. The Gulmarian Allegiance was attempting to invade and take it over, so many of the gateways were being shut down to stop them. Psy had received word that the gateway nearest Kkhrkht's home system was due to be shut down and to send Kkhrkht back home as soon as possible as no-one was sure when they'd be able to open it up again. Things like this happened from time to time, so it didn't worry Psy too much. After all, as long as the Omphala remained alive shi could keep on regenerating hirself for aeons to come. Not like Kkhrkht or these humans who might easily be long dead by the time the gateways were re-opened.
     Psy's race, the Nglubi, was ancient. One of the first species to evolve to sentience in this galaxy, they soon spread out conquering and colonising all the space around them. Their technology was a unique organic-electromechanical hybrid that proved immensely successful. With the passing aeons, they mastered hyperspatial travel and were able to do away with the need for physical spaceships within their own domain. Their gateways were openings onto the nexus in which all universes and dimensions exist giving them a single, universal point to link all their gateways to. Over time, most of the Nglubi migrated through the nexus and only a few remained in this universe. One caste stayed permanently in the nexus running and protecting the backbone of the civilised galaxy from races who would abuse it.
     Psy was born 2 million Earth years ago as the last Nglubi garrisons were pulling out from the fringes of their far-flung empire as they began their long migration through the Nexus. Psy was chosen to stay behind (or abandoned as shi felt in hir darker moments) with a few others to maintain their gateways and oversee this solar system and its environs. One by one, Psy's offspring and colleagues sloped off to join the others who had gone on ahead through the Nexus until there was only hirself and Grattlyd who had gone into a broody sulk on Titan ever since Psy had regenerated into a human form.
     It was obvious to Psy that the Overlordz were selling the surplus of crystals they were mining from the Omphala on Mars. But to whom? The Gulmarian territories were on the other side of the galaxy, so they were unlikely customers. If anything, they'd be more interested in capturing living Omphala. Each Omphalon had its own gateway. Seeing how the Gulmarians were making inroads into the Nexus, it stood to reason that they'd managed to compromise or enslave a significant number of Omphala already, giving them an unlimited supply of crystals unless they were outrageously greedy.
     Compared to the Gulmarians, the Overlordz were small-time operators. There were no reports of the Overlordz entering the Nexus, so it was a fair guess to assume that they had yet to stumble onto the gateways and were peddling their booty locally. There were no gluts of Psionic Crystals on Mars or Earth, Psy kept a careful watch over the flourishing trade and interest in Psionic Crystals. So where were they going? Psy would need Grattlyd's help and that wasn't going to be easy.

     "You'll be pleased to know we've got your next batch of volunteers ready." Brasso announced grandly to a skinless mech-Cassie who had soon abandoned wearing her plastiskin in order to fit in to life in Satori.
     Cassie XK surveyed the group of five mid- to low-grade mechs who were being closed up after having their crystal interfaces fitted. They looked as if they'd been thrown together using a jumble of spare parts from a bin. "Why they're just like last week's students!" She exclaimed enthusiastically as a few of them glanced sheepishly in Cassie's direction but her attention was on Brasso as he led her out of the workshop towards her classroom in the Satori Tech Development complex where she would train her new recruits. Brasso noted Cassie's new mech-self. "I see you're settling in well."
     "Oh yes, it's great." Cassie XK was still starry-eyed about her luck landing a job in Satori. Being an ex-service bot, Cassie XK still identified strongly with her previous life with the Free Mars Tribe as Cassandra DeLaMere and drifted between thinking of herself as the female Cassandra and the neuter mech Cassie XK. "Do you know where Klombert is? I haven't been able to get through to him for days."
     Brasso made a mental note to have a word with Flatfoot Sam about this. Sooner or later, they'd have to come clean with Cassie. "He's on a classified mission. I'm sorry, but I can't tell you any more. I'll ask him to visit you when he gets back." Cassie hummed disappointedly as they strolled down the hallway. "Before you start with your new students, I'd like you to meet someone new." Brasso continued as he led Cassie past the classroom. Sliding doors opened to reveal the real reason Brasso wanted Cassie in Satori. The flatliners fitted with crystal interfaces were just a diversion. "Cassie, meet Ozmun."
     New, indeed! Ozmun looked as if it had just rolled off Satori's production line. Ozmun was a mobile mainframe similar to Circus Maximus, but had a huge crystal sitting in an interface mounted on its upper surface. "Howdy, Cawassie." Ozmun greeted her in a disjointed, metallic voice as it dipped and shuffled in a clumsy curtsey on its rubberised tracks.
     Cassie was about to reply when Brasso interrupted. "Ozmun booted up last night and will need a bit more training before it'll be ready for you." Ozmun hummed and burbled dreamily like the newborn baby it was, albeit a baby with an extremely high IQ and vast computing power, as Brasso dissembled. "We were so impressed by your friend Circus Maximus, that we had Ozmun here specially commissioned for this crystal our department acquired. We felt that a crystal this size needed someone special."
     It was by far the largest Psionic Crystal Cassie had ever seen and was intrigued by its faint bluish tint, which made the crystal even more exotic even if Ozmun seemed to be missing more screws than a rusty service cart. By the time Brasso dropped Cassie off at her classroom her new students were waiting for her. "I had no idea so many mechs were interested in Psionic Crystals." She effused. "It always seemed a fleshie thing to me."
     "Must be the latest craze." Brasso lied glibly as he set off towards his office and called out over his shoulder. "Looks like your classes are popular."
     Cassie surveyed her new recruits, humming the blank tones of quiescent electronics as they waited for her to start. "Good morning." She greeted them warmly. "Today we start with activating and normalising your new Psionic Crystal interface. Have any of you had a genuine or simulated crystal experience before?" The blank humming continued. "Have any of you had VR experiences before?" Her group of sullen disciples broke out into excited laughter and bobbed their head up and down. "I see." She regained control after they quietened down. "Well there are similarities. Have you activated your interfaces yet?" The blank humming returned. "Okay, we'll start there. If you'll check, you'll notice that some new subroutines have been installed to go with your crystal interface. Starting with the diagnostic routine...."

     "G'day, miss Lizzie!" Big Bob Wrexham, the market porter breezily called out as he pushed a cartload of fine, brightly coloured Llama wool past her and Chester's stall through the afternoon throng. "How's the young 'uns?"
     "Oh, fine." She smiled back dreamily caressing her pregnant bulge. "Haven't got anything for you today."
     Bob stopped and pulled up his cart to block passers-by from overhearing their conversation. "Ah, Ches me boy, come on over." Bob pulled Chester over so they were in a close huddle around the stall. "There's some old codger over the other side of the market set up selling yer actual flippin' crystals. I kid you not. I'd keep your head down today if I were you. It's only a matter of time before Earth Fed nick him. It's not as if we'd grass him up or anything like that. We've tried to warn him, but he just won't go." Bob shrugged his shoulders in resignation. "If he wants to get nicked, that's his lookout. It's a free town here."
     Chester's eyes boggled at Bob's news. It was insanely courageous and suicidally reckless. Liz went silent in fear at the thought of being hauled up by Earth Fed yet again. "We're alright as far as that goes." Chester explained. "Like Liz said, we haven't got any today."
     "Just as well." Bob looked genuinely relieved. "I wouldn't want anything to happen to you. I don't know what'll happen. You know what they're like, they'll probably trash half the market to get their man. Best be prepared for a bit of action today." He added as he turned to take his cart away through the surging market crowd.

     He sat on the hard ground in a tranquil full lotus behind the blanket displaying his heaped collection of Psionic Crystals. Most were dirty and dull, badly chipped shards. A few glowed feebly with their own energy. His bronzed bald head with its' wispy grey beard seemed to float above his earthen-grey hempen robe. A golden ellipse of the Martian orbit was sewn into its rough, coarse fabric. The stallholders nearby were doing their best to ignore him. They had begged and pleaded with him to go elsewhere, but to no avail. From time to time a curious passer-by would inquire and the serene crystal monk would break out of his meditation to sell a crystal or two.
     "Oi, mate." One of his neighbours nervously called out. "I admire your style, but you won't get away with it."
     "The crystal energy protects me." He replied in the calm conviction of his beliefs. "Tune into its energies and it'll change your life forever."
     "Have it your way, me old son. But if Earth Fed get you, you'll be going down for a long stretch." The trader warned him.
     The crystal monk thanked him for his concern and returned to his meditations only to be interrupted by a group of customers curious about his strange wares.

     "Hey, there's nothing to worry about." Stan tried to reassure Chester. "We're going out live on the networks, man. You don't want to miss it. This could be the break we need to get onto the major circuit." Chester looked over to Liz for her opinion.
     "It's up to you." She decided it was Ches' call and anyway, it was unfair to keep him tied down. He enjoyed playing in the band and she felt his contribution made the Flaming Watusis unique and exciting.
     Chester had been putting it off. He hated making decisions like this. It was like putting his head in a lion's mouth. "Yeah, I guess so."
     "Alright! That's more like it." Stan cheered him on.
     "Hey, did you see that?" MariElla sounded surprised.
     "See what?" Chester's train of thought snapped like a broken rubber band.
     A Psionic Crystal plopped down onto one the cushions displayed on their stall. Liz picked it up. "One of these?"
     "Yeah, that's it." MariElla couldn't believe that anyone would throw Psionic Crystals around like that.
     "Take it! Get it out of here!" Chester panicked as he grabbed the crystal out of Liz's hand and gave it to Stan. He looked around and could see a commotion in the distance. Earth Fed! Some of the people in the market were craning their necks to catch a glimpse across the tops of the stalls. "Someone was selling Psionic Crystals. It looks like Earth Fed have got him now."
     "Uh Oh." Stan looked across, but couldn't see much. For all the size of his character, even when he stretched up as much as his 5-foot 7-inch frame allowed, all he could see were the backs of the heads around him.
     MariElla, who was taller, could see the stalls being knocked over and the chaos coming their way. "Ches is right. We'd best go." She told Stan. "Are you coming to the rehearsal today?" She asked Chester as a Psionic Crystal whizzed past Stan's face. They were interrupted by the sight of the naked crystal monk leaping for all he was worth through the stalls a short distance off hotly pursued by black-uniformed Earth Fed Special Operations Police who were knocking down everything in their path. People were running in all directions to follow the action or stay out of harm's way. It was raining Psionic Crystals!
     Chester calmly sized up the chaotic mayhem. "We'll see how it pans out. I can't leave Liz alone here with a riot going on."
     "Hey, I found these on the ground!" Stan beamed exultantly as he juggled five Psionic Crystals. "Whoops, see ya later." He called out as MariElla pulled him away through the tumultuous market crowd.

     "I still can't see why Gregor let Psy talk hir way into the band. It's not just his band, it's our band." Veronica emphasized as Lottie admired the clothes displayed in the shop windows as they ambled down Longridge Street past the Technobabble coffee shop towards the market. Once again, she felt out of the loop and didn't like it.
     "So?" Lottie just wasn't joining in with Veronica's rant. "You're in and out of the band like a yo-yo as it is what with your stints up at the Early Warning platform. Psy's a diversion for the rest of us, a bit of variety to spice things up."
     "What do you mean?" Veronica asked hotly suspicious that Lottie was taking sides against her.
     "You go off for one month every five and the band's new for you each time you come back." Lottie explained. "The rest of us just hang around this small town getting bored with each other so anything, no matter how dumb or stupid, keeps it fresh for us. Yeah, sure, Psy's a fruitcake. But who cares? It's things like that that keep the rot from setting in."
     "And I suppose next time we go out on tour, we'll be featuring the massed choir of every belching and farting dust head and wino we find along the way." Veronica quipped sarcastically.
     "Careful who you run that one past! Stan would be up for it, that's for sure." Lottie smirked wickedly. "Keep an open mind. On top of that if it helps put our band about, it can't be a bad thing."
     "Huh." Veronica wasn't the least bit convinced by Lottie's glib rationale when she noticed the end of the street blocked by a cordon of Earth Fed troopers. "Hey, what's that?"
     "Dunno, you tell me." Lottie could only see a knot of people where the street opened out onto the marketplace.
     Veronica led the way through the confused, milling crowd towards the black-uniformed troopers in full riot gear who held their rifles at the ready. Some people stood around talking amongst themselves, a few shouted occasional insults at the bristling black wall of troopers. Veronica walked up to one of them. "What's going on?"
     No response. The trooper stared ahead in a fixed gaze.
     "We have to meet some people in the market." Veronica was determined to get an answer from the troopers.
     Still no response. This time he clenched his jaw. One by one, Veronica barraged the troopers with requests to be let through their cordon, but was met only with their steely threatening silence. She had nearly worked her way through the whole squad when an officer strutted up and addressed the crowd from behind his cordon of surly silent soldiers. "The road's blocked for, ah..." He broke off to look at his watch. "The next four hours at least. So you might as well forget about coming through here." Not waiting for a response, he marched off to check up on his next squad muttering 'Fucking rabble' under his breath.
     Lottie phoned Gregor using her commset to tell him the bad news. Should they cancel the rehearsal? Putting her commset away, she turned to Veronica. "Gregor wants us to wait over at his house with Anna. He'll try and get out through the back of the pub. If not, he'll let us know and would tomorrow be okay?"
     "Sure. Hey, If Gregor's stuck in the pub, I could play the drums this afternoon. I know my way around a drum kit." Veronica quickly took advantage of the new situation.
     "Don't tell Gregor!" Lottie joked. "He'll get jealous."

     The Earth Fed troops had sealed off the marketplace with well-drilled military efficiency. Every street, alleyway and manhole cover was blocked. Guards were placed outside each shop front to keep people from slipping through their dragnet. The afternoon drinkers in the Wobbly Goblin were watching the action unfold in the marketplace through a large plate glass window and placing bets on who would come off best in this afternoon's fracas when a handful of Psionic Crystals smashed through, scattering glass and crystals all around the pub.
     "Can't you lot behave in a civilised manner?" Joe O'Leary shook his fist angrily and shouted out through the broken window to no one in particular. 'Earth Fed will be getting a bill for the window and a good bit else besides, that's for sure' he reminded himself as he made his way around the pub reassuring his customers and taking their orders.
     "It looks as if you'll be staying with us for a while." Joe pointed out with his gift for understatement when he got around to Gregor's table. "So to make things easier, have a round on the house. What'll you be having then, gentlemen?"
     "Cream stout, two Olympus Reds and a large pineapple and mango juice for myself." Yasouf grandly replied. Joe went off to the bar to get their drinks and Yasouf looked out through the broken window at the troopers stationed outside the Wobbly Goblin. "There's no escape." He grumbled angrily. "Damn goons wherever you go."
     "Why you not having a beer with us, Yasouf?" Sky Hawk had loosened up with a few beers, slipping lazily back into his hometown drawl. "I've never seen you drink no booze, mon. How come?"
     "Mohammed forbids it. It's in the Koran." Yasouf explained patiently as held up the last remains of his glass of juice to toast SkyHawk. "Your health!"
     "And I suppose you pray to Mecca every Friday." SkyHawk teased him. "How you manage that one? Mecca could be anywhere. It be movin' while we sit here talkin'."
     "Ah!" Yasouf whipped his commset out of his pocket to show everyone around the table. "I picked up this nifty little program outside the mosque in Cydonia. Just tap in your co-ordinates and the time and it does the rest." He looked intently down at his commset's tiny screen as he stood up turned to point out the correct direction to Mecca. "And it's that way." He announced proudly and looked up to see he was facing straight towards the Ladies' toilet door.
     "Mecca pops up in the oddest of places, eh?" SkyHawk drunkenly cavilled his friend.
     "Yes well, it isn't prayer time yet." Yasouf huffed with red-faced embarrassment. "And this isn't exactly a reverential location either." He emphasized in an attempt to regain his deflated pride. By now Gregor and Ralph were watching the slamball match showing on the Tri-D set perched on the end of the bar. Yasouf escaped from his embarrassment by following the match's fast-paced action. SkyHawk, too drunk to be bothered with the finer details of who exactly was playing, loudly cheered any points, tackles or fouls.
     A short MarsTel news bulletin was aired during the third-quarter break. A fresh-faced and smartly dressed young man read from the autocue. "A group calling themselves the Southern League for the Advancement of Human Rights have claimed responsibility for last week's terrorist attack on Zurich. It can now be confirmed that this illegal terrorist group released an outbreak of the virulent and incurable Martian Blight in Zurich. We go now to General Andre DeLaCroix, head of the Earth Fed Anti-Terrorism Unit." The picture cut to the portly, heavy-jowled General DeLaCroix, sombre and serious in his ceremonial black uniform replete with gold and silver trim. "There has been an upsurge of violent terrorist activities in recent months, but these have mostly been confined to Eastern Africa, Central Asia and Central America. Law-abiding citizens have nothing to fear and we are pursuing these criminals who will be brought to justice very soon." The picture returned to the young presenter who finished off the story with coverage of the biohazard workers busily decontaminating downtown Zurich showing whole buildings being demolished with the rubble being carted away for incineration. After a brief coverage of local and celebrity news, he returned them to the final quarter of the match.
     "Blight on Earth?" Ralph whistled in disbelief. "What the hell's going on?"
     "As far as I know, a lot of people back on Earth feel they've been robbed by the corporations and betrayed by shoddy government." Gregor tried to explain. He didn't follow the news on Earth too closely. Life in Montgomery made Earth so remote as to be a near irrelevance. "Looks like some of 'em are taking matters into their own hands."
     "Sounds like the company-town uprisings all over again to me." Ralph summed it up.
     "More or less." Gregor affirmed Ralph's interpretation. "Except they've got better odds on Earth. You don't have to worry about where your air is coming from or where you can live the way we have to."
     "Lucky them." Yasouf joined in. "At least they don't have to put up with the Raiders or any of the other Overlordz clans."
     "Oh, they do." SkyHawk knowingly explained. He had learned a lot about the Overlordz from the mechs who worked on his farm. "But not as bad as we have it here. They've got enough brigands, pirates and revolutionaries back on Earth. It's just that we never hear of them. You could call it censorship, but I couldn't be bothered to keep up with what's going on back on Earth even if it was available. My head's full enough as it is."
     "We've got the Raiders." Yasouf wearily reminded SkyHawk whose farm had been the staging post for the first dome erected for the refugees from the failed uprisings who then became the Free Mars Tribe. "Ever since they muscled in on our tribe two months ago, they've been bleeding us dry."
     "Oh, you poor man." SkyHawk sympathised gravely. "Any plan of action?"
     "At the moment, no." Yasouf admitted defeat. "They're too heavily armed."
     "Sounds like you could do with some reinforcements." Gregor suggested.
     "That would be nice." Ralph warily agreed. "But at what price?"
     "Get Earth Fed on their case." Gregor offered helpfully.
     "Ha! It would go down like a lead balloon." Ralph snickered grimly at the thought. "We've been over this one before and the vote was to go with the Martian Independence Movement, but they're not active in this area. After we leave Montgomery district, we're heading over towards Huygensville and then across Syrtis Major where the MIM are quite strong, so we ought to see the back of those low-lifes before long."
     "That's a deep price in suffering to pay for your loyalty." SkyHawk knew Earth Fed was unpopular with the Free Mars Tribe, but not so much that they'd rather suffer at the hands of the Raiders than call for help. "Yasouf, my man." He pleaded. "That's what they're there for. It's what we pay taxes for. Use them before they use you."
     Yasouf sighed with exasperation and shook his head. "Thanks, but Ralph's right. I'd never be able to sell that one. Believe me, I've tried enough times. There's too many people who remember how Earth Fed betrayed them during the uprisings. No, if it were up to me I'd call them in. But we don't work like that. I'm only a voice for the tribe, not their leader. They'd never accept it if I made decisions like that against their will."

     Psy lounged in the back of the rickshaw mulling over hir plans for the show at the Pleasure Dome as the cyclist navigated his way through the thickening throng near the market. At one point, they were stuck waiting for a gap in the crowd when Psy spotted Veronica and Lottie coming away from the market. "Hello, girls!" Shi called out as shi slid across the seat to make room for them. "Let's travel in comfort."
     Lottie and Veronica climbed aboard. "Looks like we'll be rehearsing without Chester and Gregor today." Lottie announced as she settled in next to Psy.
     "What? Cold feet already?" Psy asked in mock horror.
     "No, they're stuck in the market." Veronica explained. "Earth Fed have cordoned it off with riot police and they're stuck inside until it's over."
     "Why? What's happened?" Psy had seen plenty of civil disturbances before and knew how heavy-handed Earth Fed's methods were.
     "No idea." Lottie shrugged her shoulders. "They completely stonewalled Veronica. Gregor wants us to wait over at his house." Psy gave the rickshaw cyclist his new directions and they set off. On the way, Lottie called MariElla on her commset and found out the she, too, was stuck in the market. "That's MariElla and Stan out of the running."
     "Should we call it off?" Psy asked. Shi had no idea of how bands worked.
     "No, not at all." Veronica was soberly realistic. "We've got to get our set ready for the Pleasure Dome. So long as Malcolm and Eddie show up, there'll be enough of us there to get started. MariElla can always join in from the market on her commset if she's got her sax with her."
     "So she doesn't have to be in studio?" This surprised Psy.
     "No, we don't have to play in the studio as such." Veronica explained. "We could even do our rehearsals without anyone leaving their homes if we wanted to."
     "Really?" Psy was amazed. "Have you?"
     "Yeah, but the sound through the commset's awful and it breaks up when there's not enough bandwidth." Lottie had often joined their rehearsals from home in order to fit them in around the demands of looking after her children. When they arrived, Anna let them into the studio to wait for the others. The studio used to be a stable attached to their house. The previous owner ran a delivery company and kept horses and llamas to carry loads and pull wagons around Montgomery. Gregor and Anna bought the house when he moved to Herschel, although rumour had it that he sold his animals for slaughter and went on the run because he was wanted for fraud.
     While they were waiting, Veronica called up the rest of the band to see who could make it and who would be on a remote link. Gregor said he'd just listen in because he'd only annoy everyone in the pub if he got carried away drumming on the table. MariElla and Stan would have to share her link, as the battery in Stan's commset was nearly flat. Chester was okay, but he said that he might have to break off if the rioting got out of control. She noticed Stan juggling his catch of Psionic Crystals in the background of the picture from MariElla's commset. "MariElla, can you get me some crystals? I need a few for the costume I'm making."
     "Hmm... they're searching everyone. Don't worry." She winked back mischievously. "I'll get some for you."
     Veronica was still setting up the studio for their rehearsal when Malcolm showed up. He and Lottie were in the middle of showing Psy how to set up a remote link to the studio using a commset when Eddy rolled in. He looked around for Gregor. "Where's Gregor? I didn't see him upstairs."
     Thump, bang, rattle, crash! Veronica laid into Gregor's drum kit for a minute before proudly rolling the drumsticks through her fingers. "He couldn't make it, so I'm standing in today."
     "What?" That didn't make sense. After all, they were in Gregor's house. Eddy was convinced this was some sort of practical joke. He looked over at the mixing console and saw the base station transceiver plugged in with the screen Veronica had propped up on it. "Oh, not one of those sessions again."
     "Haven't you heard?" Malcolm asked him.
     "Heard what?"
     "Earth Fed have closed off the market. Gregor's stuck in the Wobbly Goblin and they won't let him out." Veronica brought him up-to-date in her businesslike manner.
     "MariElla, Stan and Chester are stuck out there as well." Lottie added before Eddy could get a word out.
     "Are they alright?" Eddy knew that if Earth Fed picked any of them up, they wouldn't be out in time to do the show at the Pleasure Dome.
     "I'm not sure, but they didn't sound too worried when I talked to them. Chester said they were chasing after someone else and closed off the market so he couldn't escape." Veronica was certain her friends weren't in any danger, merely inconvenienced by Earth Fed's over-zealous policing. So it was business as not-quite-so-usual. As soon as Eddy and Malcolm got set up, they soundchecked their set-up and got stuck in with Gregor, Ralph, SkyHawk and Yasouf playing the role of producers from the Wobbly Goblin throwing in their comments and suggestions during the breaks. Out in the market, Stan hooked up MariElla's commset to a stallholder's mobile sound system and soon gathered up a crowd listening in to their act from the people corralled in the marketplace by the Earth Fed troops.
     They tried out several different arrangements of some songs Psy wrote for hir Psionic Crystal spectacular. Chester, Stan and MariElla had to drop out more than once when the rioting got too energetic for them to focus on their songs. By the time they finished, they'd worked out who would play the intros, riffs and solos how they were going to link up the verses and choruses as well as a bit of extended jamming to pad Psy's songs out and give each one a distinctive sound.

     Cassie was taking a detour through the colourful and lively town centre of Satori on her way home from her days' work training up her latest batch of crystal-enhanced mechs. She trawled through the trendy boutiques looking for signs of the Psionic Crystal 'craze' that Brasso had hinted at, but found little evidence of it. What she found was the occasional bland Earth Fed approved data cube or strip about 'Martian Mysteries', 'Psionic Crystals, fact or fiction?' and such like. Two hours spent eavesdropping and joining into conversations in some of the fashionable social clubs yielded up precious little interest in Psionic Crystals. If anything judging by the talk she heard, the latest craze was themed upgrades and modifications. She was even given three tickets to the 'Wacky Mods' contest later that night.
     Riding up the glass elevator into the great library, Cassie felt her luck would improve. She approached the library mainframe decorated in the same rough-hewn copper as the library's exterior. "I'd like a terminal for an hour and a database of any material you've got on Psionic Crystals"
     The mainframe looked Cassie up and down with one of its eyes. "Psionic Crystals?" It asked unbelievingly. "That's a fleshie thing. Not much call for any of that stuff around here."
     The mainframe's casually cutting remark made Cassie feel incredibly stupid. "Uh, well a friend told me they're the latest thing."
     "Oh really?" The mainframe's voice dripped with an academic's sneeringly sarcastic disdain as it uploaded the database Cassie requested.
     "No, O'Reilly." Cassie quipped back not to be outdone by the snooty library mainframe.
     "Ha, ha. Nice try, service bot." The mainframe dryly mocked her with ego-crushing malice. "If you must, then. Booth 17-G for one hour. That'll be 1 Scruple fifty." Cassie paid the mainframe and slunk off under a cloud of humiliation to find the terminal. Cassie spent the next hour trawling through the library's database on Psionic Crystals and didn't find much that she hadn't already come across during her years with the Free Mars Tribe or that Circus Maximus hadn't found for her. Worst of all, the mainframe was right. Hardly anyone had ever accessed anything about Psionic Crystals other than the occasional academic doing research papers. So where was Brasso finding all his keen recruits? She was already on her third batch and from the way Brasso was talking there was no end if them in sight. When her time was up, she set off home taking a detour past Klombert's home on the off chance that he might be in.
     Dusk was setting in and Satori was lighting up as she approached the block where Klombert lived. Looking up, she saw his lights were on and went through into the spacious courtyard, past an installation of illuminated abstract sculptures and knocked on his door. A beta-class hybrid she didn't recognise answered the door.
     "I'm looking for Klombert Dingbat." Cassie apologised feeling that she'd knocked on the wrong door.
     "He's away at the moment. I'm staying here until Klombert gets back." The stranger explained. "Is there anything I can do for you?" He asked as he invited her in and introduced himself as TeleMark. Cassie entered and looked around for signs of Klombert. Bits and pieces of a micro-flyer he was assembling from a kit were scattered around his living room, much as they were the last time she visited Klombert. A communicator console chimed in the back room. TeleMark excused himself to answer the call and closed the door for privacy.
     Cassie was admiring the micro-flyer and wondering how Klombert would ever get it out the door once he'd assembled it when she noticed a piece of white mech body-armour jumbled in with a box of struts and wing spars. Pulling it out for closer inspection, she recognised it as Klombert's back plate. TeleMark returned after he finished with the call on the console. "What's this?" Cassie asked him.
     "It's one of the panels from the micro-flyer." He lied.
     "No it isn't." Cassie was sure of herself. "It's Klombert's back plate."
     "It's a panel, just put it back in the box." TeleMark tried to distract Cassie. "I'm sorry, Klombert's not here."
     "It's a back plate." And to prove her point, she went over to TeleMark and placed it over his back. To Cassie's amazement, it was a perfect fit! "See?"
     TeleMark whirled round to grab it from her. "Give me that." He shouted in desperation.
     Cassie held on tight and in the ensuing tug-of-war fell over and knocked open a cupboard spilling Klombert's white body armour all over the floor. They both froze in shock. Cassie was the first to move and picked up two pieces at random, a chest panel and a faceplate and held them out. "I bet these fit you too, Klombert." She spat out in angry disgust.
     Flatfoot Sam knew he was beaten. "Okay, okay. I'm sorry I lied."
     "So who are you really? Klombert or TeleMark?" Cassie felt as if her world was coming apart at the seams.
     "None of the above." Sam knew it was time to come clean. Brasso wouldn't be happy about it, but it would have to happen sooner or later. "Cassie, I'm a cop. A policeman of sorts. My real name is Flatfoot Sam. Klombert is an identity I use for some of my work."
     "What, such as taking me away from the Free Mars Tribe?" She asked hotly.
     "But you're needed here." Sam flannelled for a convincing explanation.
     "I had a life and friends there." Even though Cassie enjoyed her new job in Satori, she was beginning to miss her friends in the Tribe and their supportive companionship.
     "You're among your own kind now. Isn't this what you always wanted?" Sam reasoned with her. They had to keep Cassie on board, at least until Ozmun was up to speed. After that she could do whatever she wanted.
     Cassie was caught off guard. Sam was right, but she felt torn. "I suppose so."
     "I'm sorry if I misled you." Sam apologised. "I was only doing my job."
     Cassie was silent for a moment as it all sank in. "Just one thing, Flatfoot Sam. Where's Brasso getting all my students? He told me Psionic Crystals are the latest craze and everyone wants to learn to use them, but that's all lies too. No-one's interested in them here."
     "Remember when we went to the Sensorium?" Sam reminded her.
     He didn't have to say another word. The images of the racks full of decaying junkie mechs permanently wired into the Sensorium came flooding back. "Oh. So they're not really students at all, are they?"
     "No. They're Brasso's crash-test dummies."
     "And what happens to them afterwards? Do they go back to the scrap yard?"
     "Rehab. Some of them make it. Some don't." At least that was what Brasso told him. Sam was too busy with other work to follow the closer details of Brasso's Psionic Crystal project. It made Sam uncomfortable thinking about those lost souls burning themselves out to oblivion. He picked a small drill to do some work on his micro-flyer, but was too distracted to focus on it. "I've got some tickets for the 'Wacky Mods' contest. Want to check it out?"
     "That's funny, I've got tickets for it, too." Cassie couldn't decide if it was a coincidence or if she was being set up. "Oh, bolt it, why not?"
     The Wacky Mods contest turned out to be a parade of crazy mutant mechs staged on the opening night of the Bolt-O-Drome, a new nightclub in the seedier part of Satori. As they entered, Rollo, a gigantic pair of sprung wheels with a tiny mech head hanging from the axle was manoeuvring clumsily on the catwalk, narrowly missing crushing the panel of judges. After the riotous tumult of applause, cheers and jeers had died down, the compere, a pot-bellied contraption on wheels with one mech eye on a long vertical stalk was helped back up onto the catwalk. "Well, it looks as if Rollo's going to be rolling off for a tune-up. And next, my sybaritic cybernauts, is the friend you can pour your core out to, mechs and clones I give you Sigmund the Sofa!"
     A gold-trimmed sofa with plush maroon velvet came out from behind the curtain to centre stage. An arm and head sprouted out at one end. Sigmund waved to the audience, took out a cigar, put it in its mouth and lit it. "You look like you've a busy day. Tell me all about it." Sigmund prompted the compere in his reassuringly intimate Germanic voice.
     "Well, it's been a toughie..." The compere trailed off in front of the hushed house before catching itself and addressing the audience. "Wow, you can sure let it all hang out with Sigmund the Sofa." Sigmund sidled offstage to be replaced by five shiny metallic spheres bouncing along the catwalk in formation. "Ah yes, how could I forget! The amazing Jugulo!" The compere announced grandly. The spheres bounced and jumped effortlessly in and around each other in ever complex patterns culminating in a gravity-defying display that managed to arc all the way up to the domed ceiling as the audience oohed and aahed in admiration. KKND-X, punched it's way through the back wall, strutted it's stuff on the catwalk and blasted holes in a wall as it showed off it's awesome firepower and left the audience agog as it departed trampling over everything in its path. "KKND-X!" The compere reminded them. "A battle-mech to beat 'em all. And now for something entirely different, the mysterious and unique Unipod!"
     A squat metallic mech riding on one wheel made its way quietly down the catwalk. It was headless and devoid of any limbs or devices and stopped next to the compere. Out in the audience, the talk and mumbling grew louder with their impatience. Unipod seemed like the all-time do-nothing mech. No head, no limbs, no dedicated fittings, nothing except a single antique red LED in the middle of its cylindrical body which blinked once causing the whole Bolt-O-Drome and the entire mech audience to power down involuntarily. A group of clones in the hall could be overheard in the stygian silence commenting on it being 'weird' and 'freaky' when Unipod's LED blinked once again and the whole house erupted in a cacophony of boot-up routines.
     Once the compere was back on line, it spoke up. "Now where was I? Oh, yes, Unipod. Careful with that debug, Unipod! And if any of you out there can't figure it out, just ask any clones or fleshies in the house."
     Sam accompanied Cassie to the bar where she bought some viral strips from the bartender. "Sure you don't want one, Sam? The Euphoratrons are very good. Just the thing to lighten up your mood."
     "No, no thanks. I never touch them." Sam courteously declined her offer. The last thing he wanted right now was to be off his face. He still had to be careful about what he said to Cassie. The show was diversion enough.
     Cassie had a Sparky Zipper, one of her favourite virals when she lived with the Free Mars Tribe to get into the party mood. It was just like the good old days as her loneliness and suspicions faded away under the viral's influence and she felt like talking to everyone around her. Cassie dragged Sam along as she talked her way through the crowds. Then she spotted Brasso and Trolley Dolly at the back of the Bolt-O-Drome watching the show. "Oh, look! There's Brasso." She exclaimed.
     Sam silently cursed his luck and tried to resist Cassie's viral-induced exuberance to no avail. How was he ever going to explain this to Brasso?
     Cassie nearly fell over Dolly who only managed to hold her upright. "Hi, Brasso! Fancy meeting you here. I never thought you'd be into this sort of thing." Cassie was so high she never heard Dolly grumbling about 'These doped-up flatliners everywhere you go'.
     Brasso was surprised to see Flatfoot Sam with Cassie XK, but didn't show it. Well, that cat was out of the bag. He'd have to review the situation with Sam tomorrow. No good ever came of getting involved with casework. "Joined the family, I see?" He asked cryptically before introducing Cassie to Dolly.
     Dolly reached out a metallic tentacle to Cassie. "Careful how you go, Cassie. It's a crowded house tonight." Cassie and Sam wandered off after a while to take in the show. "And that's what you're using to train Ozmun? That flatliner of a service bot?" Dolly asked unbelievingly.
     "That flatliner." Brasso coolly corrected Dolly. "Has been doing Psionic Crystal readings for five longyears just as well as any fleshie."
     Dolly remained unconvinced about this latest hare-brained scheme of Brasso's. "If you say so. But you'd get better results using a compromised Overlordz mech."
     "You've got to be joking, Dolly." Brasso knew it wouldn't work. It had been tried before. Overlordz mechs were too hostile. On top of which most of them were so stupid, they didn't even know how their interfaces worked. They merely used them. "They can't be trusted. Cassie XK is an idealist hippie from the Free Mars Tribe. Now that's someone we can trust."

Scribbles & Scraps
Chapter 6
Chapter 8