Clem and Barney orbited Mars in suspended animation unaware
that shoddy workmanship had almost turned them into another piece of space junk
orbiting Mars. Fortunately for them, where man had let them down, the laws of
physics came to their rescue. Their orbit was so irregular that its perigee
just brushed through the slightest whiff of the Martian atmosphere. This
provided just enough drag to degrade their orbit, so that a month later they
finally made their re-entry into the atmosphere and a bumpy landing on the
planet’s surface of which our two sleeping adventurers were blissfully unaware.
Barney was revived first. Once he had rebooted properly and
was on stream, he checked his internal chronometer. “Thirty-six days!” He spoke
aloud to Clem who was still sound asleep from his dose of HyberMax. “We’ve got
problems.” The first of which was that his fuel cell was nearly empty. The
pod’s fuel cells were nearly empty, too, but if he could revive Clem there’d be
enough left over for himself once he drained the pod’s fuel cells. He found the
revival instructions stamped onto the plate the IV connectors feeding Clem ran
through. The IV survival systems were out of action, possibly damaged by their
bumpy re-entry. He did a quick thermal scan of Clem’s body to confirm that he
wasn’t dead and wondered what to do next.
He was still wondering what to do an hour or so later, when
he heard an incoherent groan coming from Clem. He was waking up! Barney turned
up the thermostat in the pod so that Clem wouldn’t feel too cold or numb when
he came to. For the next hour, Barney watched over Clem as signs of life
returned. He began to writhe unconsciously in his safety harness and flex his
fingers. Later, his mouth moved wordlessly and Barney could see Clem’s eyes
moving behind their eyelids. Clem was definitely waking up. Barney couldn’t
help thinking that, for all their wondrousness, humans were weak and vulnerable
at times like this. Eventually Clem’s eyes fluttered open for the briefest of
moments. The glare of the light in the pod was too much. “Where are we?” He
“We’ve landed on a strange alien world populated by
carnivorous plants that look like sexy women.” Barney lied.
“No shit?” Clem asked sleepily. He didn’t like the thought
of carnivorous plants, but he liked the sexy women bit.
“No, we’re somewhere on Mars, but I’m not sure yet because
all the systems in this pod are screwed.” Barney took Clem straight into the
here and now. “Look, I don’t want to hustle you, but could you hurry up a bit?
I’m almost out of power and I need to drain the pod’s cells.”
Clem tried oblige Barney, but was still too weak to move.
The best he could manage was to wriggle around slowly in his seat. “Can you get
this plumbing out of me?” He asked Barney in a weak voice. “It feels creepy.”
Barney was glad to oblige. As soon as he got Clem disconnected from the pod’s
survival system, it would be safe to drain its fuel cells into his own. Time
passed. Barney charged up his fuel cell and there was still enough power left
to keep the pod powered up for a day or so. Clem ate some rations and relieved
himself into a plastic bag provided for such purposes. “Don’t look.”
“Don’t worry.” Barney reassured Clem. “I’m not a gay
scatalogist.” In the background he could hear Clem grunting in pain as he
passed an extremely hard, dry turd and was thankful that he was a mechanoid and
not human. The problems they have with those bodies of theirs! They spent a
while mulling over their experiences so far and searched around the pod for
anything useful. Their search turned up some rations, water, a laser pistol, 3
Earth Fed ID cards, a set of tools and some software strips for mechanoids.
Barney took the software, Clem the food and they decided to worry about the
pistol, ID cards and tools later. He stuck one of the strips into one of his
input slots. Field medic, elementary service mechanic, astronavigation,
survival for beginners, basic combat techniques, mapping and location, and such
like. Not the most interesting of software, but it was fairly bug-free and it
wasn’t going to cost him anything so he amused himself loading up all this new
software. He found it reminiscent of some of the routines he’d go through when
joining a VR game. Except that this was reality. No reset button here!
“Where are we?” Clem dumbly asked Barney again some time
“Can’t get a fix in here, I’ll have to go outside for a few
minutes.” He replied in a matter-of-fact voice. “If you suit up, I’ll open the
hatch and get a fix.”
“Sure.” Clem looked down and realised that he was no longer
wearing the blue AM&MG pressure suit he’d discarded when they were in the
transporter, but a black Earth Fed corporal’s suit. “Hey, look, I’m Corporal
“Ok corporal pole-axe, put your hat on.” Barney teased.
After Clem had put on his helmet and sealed up his suit, Barney pumped out the
pod’s air and cracked open the hatch. At least that still worked! He looked
around. While he waited for his positioning circuits to get a fix so that he
could work out where they were. To his west, he could see a blue Martian
sunset, so it was fairly late in the day and no sign of any dust storms. Within
minutes he got a fix and had their position, 35 kilometres east southeast from
the nearest outpost. An independent township called Montgomery. They were in
luck! If they walked steadily, they’d arrive by morning. He climbed back into
the pod, closed the hatch, repressurised the cramped cabin and told Clem the
news. Clem ate as much of the rations as he could stomach and had a long drink
of water while Barney topped up his fuel cell one last time. They took
everything they could carry and set out back to civilisation without even
looking back at the now-dead pod that had brought them back to Mars.
The sun was setting as Barney and Clem set off bounding and
loping their giant low-gravity steps towards Montgomery. Clem was wondering
what they ought to do once they got to this Montgomery place. “I suppose we
ought to call in when we get to this place so they can come and get us.”
could talk them into sending us the money for a ticket home.” Barney suggested
and then began thinking out loud sharing his thoughts with Clem. “I could do
with a break though. I was getting seriously bored with AM&MG. I was hooked
on VR for goodness sake! If that isn’t a sign something’s going seriously wrong
with your life, then what is? How’s about we check into a local hotel and spend
a week or two there?”
got any money.” Clem wasn’t too sure about Barney’s idea, though it certainly
sounded attractive. “What would we tell the suits at AM&MG when we got
back? That we were kidnapped by psychopaths, escaped and spent 36 days orbiting
Mars in an escape pod and then spent a week in a hotel getting drunk in the
“You need a
break more than I. Listen to yourself, Clem. They’ve made a model citizen out
of you. And, by the sound of it, they’ve damn well taken the life out of you.
Forget the corporation and their work for a while, It’ll still be there when
you get back. Why worry? We can just make out that you were so traumatized by
the experience that you had a nervous breakdown and that I’ve been looking
after you or some such bullshit.”
“What, lie to them?” Clem was
shocked. He thought mechanoids were generally ‘upright’ types, but Barney
seemed to be breaking the mould.
not?” Barney was completely at ease with the notion. “The corporation spins us
lies all the time, so why not give ‘em the same. They probably expect it
anyway. Hey, I’ve got the money from my VR terminal!” He exclaimed
conspiratorially as he patted the storage compartment in his lower torso.
“Let’s check into a hotel and hit the town for a couple of days.”
Clem was swept
along by Barney’s good humour. “I’ll get some money out from the autobank when
we get there.” And on they went conjuring up fantasies of what they’d do with
their free time once they arrived at Montgomery. Meanwhile they bounced with
their giant steps across the plains under the starry night Phobos rose to their
west and arced swiftly across the night sky as if to intercept Deimos in its
lazy westward path, but missed yet again. In the distance they finally saw the
outlines of communications dishes and the towers of the Montgomery air and
monorail terminus. Finally, the silvery dome of Montgomery came into view. They
could see lights inside, signs of life that they’d missed for so long. As they
got closer to the dome, they looked for an entrance. Seeing none, they circled
around the dome until they saw the well-lit main entrance that led past a few
outbuildings and parked crawlers to the terminus. As they got to the entrance,
they could see a large arch for the vehicles air-lock and a wide, low arch with
several entrances for pedestrians to its side.
air locks were deserted. All but one was closed, they approached it and saw a
sign, which read: “Welcome to Montgomery. Access for citizens and visitors
only. Place your ID card in the slot below to activate this air lock. All
visitors must have a valid ID or Pass. Temporary Passes can be obtained at the
Montgomery Terminus Visas Office and at the Montgomery Civic Centre Employment
Social Welfare Department Monday to Friday 9:30 am to 4:30 pm.” Barney took his
ID card out of his storage compartment and tried it in the slot. A dark panel
lit up with red text: “Please insert valid ID.” And unceremoniously spat out
his ID card. The air lock remained resolutely shut. So near, yet so far.
“What are we
gonna do, Barney?” Clem felt his hopes sink at this setback. “It’s the middle
of the night. “We’re not citizens of this town and how are we ever going to get
a visitor’s pass?” He began to whine despondently.
bribe someone at the terminus?” Barney thought out loud. “Hey, hang on. What
about those Earth Fed ID cards we found in the pod? Let’s try them!” Clem
perked up at Barney’s suggestion and fished the ID cards of the small bag he
and Barney had been taking turns to carry since they left the pod. He took one
and placed it in the slot. The dark panel lit up with green text this time:
“Earth Federation Military Personnel is valid. Welcome to Montgomery.” He
looked at Barney in surprise and jumped. They were in! He gave another card to
Barney who had similar success. The air lock opened automatically to receive
them. Once inside, they saw a flashing yellow sign: “Doors closing.” Clem could
soon feel the pressure beginning to rise. His suit began to lose its tautness
and was soon hanging limply from his shoulders. He never remembered feeling so
grateful as when the inner door of the air lock opened to let them in. Alive.
Safe. Home. He cracked open his helmet, lifted it off and took a deep breath.
How sweet it tasted! Barney was looking a bit dusty, but seemed equally
relieved to be back in civilization.
They set off
along a paved road which led through grassy parkland with trees, shrubs and
ponds into the town itself. Here, on the outskirts there were few buildings.
Most were dark, unoccupied during the night. The first illuminated building
they passed was McMahon’s GeneralMitsuCorp Showrooms and Service Centre. “Uh,
Clem I’ve got to get cleaned up before this dust and grit starts grinding in my
joints. Do you mind waiting while I pop into the garage for a steam clean?”
“No, not at
all.” It seemed incongruous to Clem that a mech might need to wash. “But a
steam clean in a garage? That’s for trucks, cars, fliers and machines.”
“Yeah, well. I
am a machine.” Barney retorted defensively.
didn’t make the connection, that’s all.” Clem mumbled apologetically. “I don’t
know if I’d want to go somewhere and have someone wash me. I’d rather wash
been out for a while and I don’t think one of the regular cleaning booths would
do the job, so it’s a steam clean, lube and sealant for me. Paid in cash, no
less. I’ll feel just like new!” Barney was looking forward to it. “It might be
a good idea to get out of that Earth Fed suit.” He added with a note of
couldn’t see any reason. It was easier to wear it than carry it.
isn’t all that popular.” Barney explained. “On top of that you’re not really Earth
Fed. You could get in a lot of trouble for impersonating an Earth Fed officer.
What if someone picked a fight with you just because they thought you were
healthy, Clem wasn’t exactly fit. He couldn’t even punch his way out of a wet
paper bag. Clem began taking off his black Earth Fed pressure suit. “But surely
the ID cards we used to get in have been logged. Earth Fed is bound to come
looking for Corporal Polaski and whoever’s card you used.”
different.” Barney attempted to rationalize. “We had to do that in order to
save our lives. After what we’ve been through, I reckon that must be excusable.
We were innocent victims of a crime. Why should we die? After all we didn’t
attack the quarry or hijack the transporter. We’re relatively honest,
hardworking schmoes, any decent judge would let us go on that.”
so.” Clem replied innocently. “I’ve never had to deal with anything like this
before.” He sat down under a tree. “I’ll wait for you here, but don’t be too
long. I’m getting hungry.”
over to the garage and across the well-illuminated forecourt. He walked past
the mute ranks of alcohol and air pumps for the town’s vehicles over to the
office. A notice was taped to the inside of the glass door: “This forecourt
office is closed from 10:30 pm to 7:00 am, for service please contact the night
manager in the garage office.” He looked around, saw some light spilling around
the corner of the office and guessed that was where the garage was. Sure enough, there it was. He went in
through an open bay door. Most of the garage was in darkness only the nearest
two bays were illuminated. A couple of mechanics, both human, were working late
on a small flier. One was busy with some welding, the other could just be seen moving
around in the cockpit. Barney approached them unnoticed.
Can someone help me?” He called out hopefully. No one responded. The welder was
oblivious to Barney’s presence. He walked cautiously over towards the flier.
other mechanic, a medium-built woman with Asiatic features and her long hair
tied into a ponytail, climbed out and nearly walked into Barney. “Yes, what can
we do for you? Steam clean is it?” She asked patiently, glad to be distracted
from her work for a while. She didn’t seem at all surprised to see a mech
covered in red Martian dust walk into her garage in the middle of the night.
Barney was taken aback. Was it so obvious? “A lube and new sealant, too.” He
added as if nothing was amiss. “How much will that be?”
twelve-fifty. Just back from Satori?” She asked casually.
stunned. Satori? He quickly searched his data banks. Eventually, he was
scanning through the mapping software he’d installed while they were back at
the pod and discovered that they were only 200 kilometers from Satori. Right on
its doorstep! “Yeah, sure.” He lied badly.
way spaced out.” She joked easily. “Must’ve been a good time. It seems to be a
pilgrimage for you guys, the number I’ve seen come through here.” She led
Barney over to the pit normally reserved for cleaning trucks and agricultural
machinery, put on a protective suit and set about blasting him free of grit and
dust. Later while she was lubricating Barney’s joints she scolded him
maternally. “You really shouldn’t be out with your frame open like that. You
really ought to get a good suit or some armour to keep all that dust out.
There’s a couple of good places uptown you could try.
check ‘em out in the morning. Do you do recoveries?” Barney asked suddenly. He
found being told off after what he’d just been through a bit banal, to say the
She was curious. Maybe there was more to this flatliner than she thought.
“I passed an
abandoned Earth Fed rescue pod on the way here.” Barney lied in order to make
his first lie seem plausible. He decided that it would be a good idea to play
the Satori pilgrimage trip to the hilt. “Wouldn’t they want it back?” He added
dumbly to show his ignorance of Earth Fed procedures.
By now the
mechanic was finishing off her work on Barney and hummed ambivalently. “Well,
it’s hardly worth the bother. They’re not exactly generous when it comes to
recovery work, but it might be useful to keep in their good books. There’ll be
a finders bonus for you if Earth Fed shell out.” She added optimistically.
“Could be 5 or 6 hundred Scruples if you’re lucky. Come back tomorrow afternoon
if you want to claim it.”
that he and Clem could do with the money, but realized that he couldn’t use the
Earth Fed ID card that he used to enter Montgomery and wasn’t sure about his
own ID. They’d trace him down eventually. He reminded himself that he wasn’t on
the run and so far had a reasonably plausible excuse to explain his actions to
the authorities if need be. Nervously, he handed over his ID card to the
mechanic. Fortunately, she wasn’t all that bothered and just wrote a few basic
details into her notepad. She’d seen all kinds come through here and this lowly
Theta-class drone mechanoid didn’t seem to be much trouble. “I won’t be here
tomorrow afternoon, so I’ll leave a note for the day shift and they’ll sort you
out” She added agreeably. Barney paid her, made a big show of listening to her
advice and left her to continue work on the flier. He found Clem where he had
left him, sound asleep, wrapped up in his pressure suit to keep warm. He sat
down beside Clem and waited for daybreak.
morning traffic in and out of town was just picking up as Clem woke up
stretching himself. Few passers-by paid them any attention. “Huh? What
happened?” He asked sleepily.
asleep when I went into the garage.” Barney told him. “We’re going to get some
money for the pod.”
sold it? I didn’t know we could sell it.” Clem, still half-asleep was easily
“No, a finders
reward.” Barney explained happily. “I told the mechanic about it. They get a
recovery fee and we get a finders reward. Nice, huh?”
could do with the money.” Clem perked up. His stomach spoke, too. “I’m
starving, let’s hit town. I’ve gotta find somewhere to eat.” As they walked
into town, they passed humans and mechs. Some were on foot. Others rode on
quiet electric carts. A few people led llamas carrying goods on their backs.
The mechs were a varied lot. There were bipedal, quadruped, wheeled and
caterpillar tracked varieties. Most had open frames showing their carbon-fibre
frame, green plazflex musculature, cabling and exposed components. Some had
flexible armour to protect them from the elements. They obviously worked outside
Clem took in
the colourful sights and sounds unfolding around them as they walked towards
the town centre. It was so much more open and relaxed than the AM&MG
company town at Klondike Pass where he’d been living. He shivered momentarily
from the morning air’s cold chill and felt the last remnants of the stale,
stable life he’d been living fall away. He life began to feel as fresh and new
as the crisp air he was breathing. They were passing a row of shops along the
road as it passed through a residential district. Even though they had yet to
open for business that morning, they spelt out a freedom that didn’t exist at
Klondike Pass. No company or corporate outlets here. Instead it was Emma’s
Bakery, Buxton’s Hardware & Electrical goods, Goodness 4-U Greengrocers,
Morton Periwinkle Legal Services with solemn diplomas and testimonials
displayed in the window. A few doors along they passed Winston’s Lucky Seven
Jazz Club. Finally Clem spotted a diner that was open. He could see people
eating at tables through the window and felt a wave of hunger wash through his
body. His knees buckled with weakness. It’d been ages since he’d had a real
meal. He’d been running on adrenaline and nerves for too long and it was
catching up with him.
on there Clem.” Barney held Clem steady. “I had no idea it was that bad. I’ll
get you something over at that diner.” Barney led him gently but briskly over
towards the diner. It was warm and full of the smell of frying food and strong
coffee and the sounds of people eating and talking. They made their way over to
a table in a booth that had just been vacated. The empty plates and cups were
still waiting to be cleared. A tip had been left on a saucer. “Leave the tip.”
Barney cautioned Clem. “We’ll get better service that way.”
tip?” Clem was too far-gone to notice anything. All he could think about was
food. Huge mountains of delicious food that he could dive into and eat for ever
Barney felt like he had a baby on his hands. He picked up the menu and handed
it to Clem. ”Take your pick, it’s on me.” Clem was silently studying the menu,
each item springing to mouth-watering reality in his mind’s eye as he read
through it when a young man cleared their table and pocketed the tip in a pocket
in his apron.
A few minutes
later, a fat woman with stringy greying hair and a cigarette hanging from her
lip waddled over to their table. She wore a grease-stained apron with the name
‘Janice’ sewn into it with blue thread. She produced a notepad and pencil with
a theatrical sweep of her meaty hands and asked in an ironic tone of voice:
“What’ll it be gentlemen?”
Clem was still
staring down at the menu so Barney kicked him under the table. He jumped with
surprised pain and looked up puzzled to see Barney talking to their corpulent
waitress. “Oh, a bean stew, the deluxe pancakes and a large white coffee.” She
duly noted Clem’s order, ignored him and kept talking to Barney, cigarette ash
falling away as the cigarette stuck to her lip bobbed up and down. “Night on
the tiles, huh? I wouldn’t have such heavy breakfast. Something light might be
better for him.”
fine.” Barney lied blandly. “We’ve been putting in a lot of overtime lately,
that’s all.” Which wasn’t a total lie, merely a studied reinterpretation of the
Janice eyed up
Barney suspiciously. “We don’t get many mechs in here. What with food being a
human thing, we don’t have much to offer you. You could get your cell topped up
over at the hardware shop, but they’re not open for another hour.”
the dark viewscreen built into the surface of their table. “Do you have a data
link I could tap into while he’s eating?”
Janice shrugged apologetically. “That’s a mech thing. If you hadn’t noticed we
don’t have direct links like you.”
I’ll read the morning news then.” Barney fished around for an answer that would
keep her happy. Was she one of those humanists who went around smashing up
mechs at night? She was certainly being offhand with him.
accepted Barney on her terms. “That’ll be 20 cents extra.” She pronounced
casually before waddling back over to the serving counter. Barney watched her
hand Clem’s order to the cook and then noticed his screen lighting up. It was
tuned to a local news channel with local stories, He flipped through the
channels until he came across the AM&MG News channel for City One, the
AM&MG company town run by their employers. Nothing of interest.
Unsurprisingly, there was no mention of what had happened at the Klondike Pass
Ice quarry, but he noticed that the Ice Quarrying division was hiring new
recruits. Obviously, they’d got the quarry back on stream after the attack.
By now Clem
wasn’t just having hunger pangs. His stomach was trembling continuously with
hunger. His hands were shaking and he felt weak all over. “What are you doing?”
He asked Barney weakly.
find out what’s happened while we’ve been gone.” He replied in a matter-of-fact
voice to reassure Clem that things were okay.
spite of his hunger, Clem was interested.
Barney sounded mildly exasperated. “Not a single mention of what happened in
their archives. It’s as if it never happened. Still, we’re here and alive.
That’s what counts.”
worry?” Clem was failing to follow Barney’s train of thought. “I thought you
wanted to get away from AM&MG for a while.”
“Sure, but it
helps to know what their angle is.” Barney explained patiently. “That way we
can work out what lies to tell them when we go back. They’ll find us sooner or later
and if we don’t have a watertight story to cover our backs, we’re in deep sump
Clem was lost again.
lost count of the number of times he had to explain the differences in Mech
vernacular to fleshies. “Shit. Deep shit. Like way over our heads if you follow
me.” Clem nodded his head in mute comprehension. The young man who cleared
their table arrived carrying Clem’s breakfast on a tray. He was wearing
Janice’s apron and swinging his hips. He smirked lewdly as he set out the meal.
Without a word, he twirled and minced off towards the kitchen where he was
received with roars of raucous laughter. “Huh!” Barney was annoyed by the
waiter’s open prejudice. “We’ll just have to put up and shut up I guess.” He
spoke quietly. “We don’t want too many folks knowing about how we got here.”
But Clem wasn’t listening. He was shovelling down his bean stew and moaning
with pleasure like a baby feeding hungrily at its mother’s breast.
himself scanning through the various channels as fast as he could get the
console on their table to display its pages. He despaired at its sloth compared
to the data stream he’d become used to with his VR link. But that was all in
the past, a whole lifetime away. All he could find was a bland statement by
AM&MG in a business review that their quarrying operation at Klondike Pass
had been off stream for week in order to facilitate retooling and systems
maintenance. They apologised for any inconvenience to their clients and assured
that all contracts outstanding would be within in the next two weeks. And that
article was 3 weeks old! Barney felt well and truly out of the loop.
drifted back to the time Gordon told him about how he got to Klondike Pass in
front of his friends. If that was true, why couldn’t he remember his life at
Satori and coming to that why couldn’t he remember anything before working at
Klondike Pass? Maybe he was just-made? But that didn’t hold up because most of
his parts were at least 12 longyears old, so he must have had a life before
Klondike Pass. But what sort of life was it? Who was he? Maybe all this had to
happen so that he could go to Satori to discover his past. Maybe that was why
he envied the mechs who lived at Satori. He’d already been there!
But he’d been
a flatliner. One of those sad Mechs permanently hooked into the Satori VR core
who downloaded from their own bodies and were selling them bit-by-bit until
there was nothing left. And then they were lost. He’d been rescued in time, but
he had no memories of his life there or anything before that. In many ways he
and Clem had a lot in common. He looked over at Clem who, by now, was working
his way through a pile of pancakes and felt a bond of empathy almost as strong
as he’d felt with any other mech. Here was another lost soul like himself. Look
at that fleshie, he thought. He’s got a clone’s name and ID, is still property
of AM&MG and drivels on about a wife, son and his life in Portsmouth on
Earth. They’ve filled his head with so much sump oil, he doesn’t even know who
or what he is. He reflected on the irony of how their roles had changed. It
felt as if it was only yesterday that Clem was doing his best to help Barney
kick his VR addiction and now here he was suddenly thrown into the role of
Clem’s protector in this somewhat chaotic environment outside of the stale,
ordered world of AM&MG.
such a bad sort, Barney rationalised in his thoughts. He was sincere about
helping him get off VR and loaned him some money without even a second thought.
He didn’t seem to harbour any suspicions or fears of mechs, which was
surprising for most fleshies. But still it made a change to meet a fleshie who
was as open-minded as Clem even if he did seem a bit on the naïve side. He
returned to the present moment and their immediate concerns and scanned through
the local adverts looking to see what sort of accommodation was available and
what could they afford before their money ran out. He made a list and decided
to discuss their options with Clem after they left the diner. He’d have to find
a data link, maybe in the library or at one of those trendy bars downtown.
Barney knew that was the easy part. The hard part would be hacking into the
AM&MG systems. Maybe it wasn’t worth the bother. It might just be easier to
wait here until they came and got us. After all, word would get back sooner or
the last drop of coffee from his mug, set it down and leaned back in his seat
rubbing his stomach contentedly. “Oh, you don’t know how good that feels.” He
spoke with near orgasmic ecstasy.
Barney conceded dryly. He was miles away from Clem’s earthly concerns. “We’ve
got to find somewhere to stay while we’re here and a decent data link in no
particular order. I’ll pay the bill. I think we ought to head downtown.”
in town. Probably sleeping tubes or a packing case, but it’s better than
sleep in the common ground by the perimeter where we came in last night.” Clem
“What and get
mugged in our sleep?” Barney tried to make sense. “You’d wake up and find that
I’d been dismantled and someone had taken your kidneys. Get real. You need a
place of your own where you don’t have to watch your back all the time.”
“Okay, okay. I get your point.” Clem didn’t like being
lectured. It reminded him of Sandra when she was in one of her moods. “I better
stop at an autobank and get some money out. I’ve only got 50 Scruples in my
pocket and that’s not going to last very long.” They got up to leave. Barney
paid their bill at the counter and they set off to explore Montgomery. They
checked out a few boarding houses and a cheap apartment that morning as they
made their way towards the centre of Montgomery. Clem kept an eye out for an
autobank as they made their rounds. Eventually, he spotted one and made a
beeline over to it, feelings of security welling up in him at the prospect of
having some money in his pocket in this strange town. He fished out his ID
card, pushed it into the slot and keyed in his details. Nothing happened. His
heart sank. His previously contented stomach began to feel as if it had a cold,
leaden weight in place of the satisfying food that had been buoying him along.
“Something the matter?” Barney wondered if something was
“Dunno, it’s just swallowed up my card and nothing’s
happening.” Clem sounded worried. “I’ve got over 3,000 Scruples saved up. It’s
gotta be there.” He was almost beginning to whine in desperation.
Barney was surprised to hear how much Clem had saved up. But
then, Clem didn’t have any expensive interests and only went out drinking
occasionally. “Look, we’re from out-of-town.” He tried to give Clem a strand of
hope to hang on to while they waited. “It might take a while to process your
account. What bank are you with?”
“Uh, First Mars Praetorian. Damn, this is taking forever.”
He found his ‘angry customer’ attitude helped to alleviate his growing feelings
of despondent despair. “I’ve never had to wait this long before.”
“Yeah, but that was back at Klondike Pass and City One.
They’re only in the big cities and company towns.” Barney found it a relief to
get into a bit of griping, too. They continued grumbling and griping about the
Bank’s poor service. Eventually, Clem’s card popped out of the autobank and the
display lit up: “NO KNOWN ACCOUNT WITH THIS NAME. Please visit your nearest
branch at 12 Algarve Avenue, Huygensville to open an account with First Mars
Praetorian Bank, the bank you can trust.”
This was bad news, but at least he got his ID card back. The
autobank could have kept his card and called the police. Clem stared dumbly at
his card. How could this be? Of course I exist. But what had gone wrong? What
am I going to do? Barney interrupted his train of thought. “Let’s get out of
here before the police arrive, Clem. I don’t feel like going back to Klondike
Pass quite yet.” And he led the dazed and confused Clem off towards downtown
They were a short distance down the road when Clem chipped
in trying to find a way out of their predicament: “We could sell the pistol
somewhere. We ought to get a good price for it.”
“Maybe.” Barney wasn’t all that sure. They might need it
sooner or later. “I think we ought to hang on to it. It might be a good idea to
get rid of those Earth Fed ID cards, though.” He suddenly became aware that he
was being probed with a microwave link. It felt almost as if he was back in his
VR games. He could follow the scan tickling its way through all his data banks.
He tried to follow it so that he could find out who or what was invading him,
but he was blocked. The scanning continued for a few milliseconds longer and
then highlighted his memory about collecting the finder’s reward for their pod.
And then it left without a trace. Barney stopped in his tracks and looked
around. Nothing. Just a few fleshies and a couple of low-grade mechs on their
way about their daily work. He scanned as far as his limited sensors would
allow, but still no likely source. Someone or something was following him, knew
his actions and was attempting to guide or maybe even control him.
Clem had wandered on a bit babbling to himself and Barney
about what they were going to do when he realised that Barney was no longer
walking along beside him. He turned around to see Barney motionless a few paces
back and went over to him. “What’s with you?”
“Someone’s following us and just reminded me to go and
collect the finder’s reward.” He sounded confused and worried.
“What? How?” Clem picked up on his fear.
“Just now. Someone or something scanned me. Most likely
another mech, but I can’t be sure. Maybe it’s something to do with that crowd
back at the diner. They didn’t seem to like Mechs too much in there. I felt as
if I was back in VR for a moment.”
“Maybe it’s just a flashback.” Clem attempted to
rationalise. “You were pretty strung out on it for a while.”
“No, it was now. I didn’t jump back into a VR game if that’s
what you mean.”
“Look, the last few days have been pretty intense for you.”
Clem tried to be helpful. “Maybe the boundary between reality and VR is getting
a bit fuzzy for you.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Barney felt safer with Clem’s explanation.
“Still, it felt very real at the time.”
“Sorta like VR, huh?” Clem hoped Barney would accept his
“A bit, but what if we’re really being followed?” Barney
couldn’t shake the wave of paranoia that hung over him after his experience.
“We’ll just have to keep our eyes open.” Clem was determined
to stay positive and not follow Barney’s paranoid fantasies. “If we’re really
being followed, they’re bound to make their move sooner or later and then we’ll
know what it’s all about. We’ve got a pistol if things get hairy. And if things
get really bad, we could always turn ourselves in at the nearest Earth Fed
station. After all, you wanted a break. Let’s make the most of it. Speaking of
which, are you going to split the money for the pod with me?”
Barney was taken aback by Clem’s last question. He hadn’t
really given it any thought. Clem was really asking if he could trust him.
“Yeah, sure. I suppose I ought to head back to the garage in a while and see if
we’re going to get anything. The woman I spoke to last night didn’t sound that
hopeful.” He didn’t want to raise Clem’s hopes in case they didn’t get a
finder’s reward for the pod. In which case they’d have to find jobs within the
next few days. He made up his mind to enquire at the garage when they returned,
even though he knew nothing vehicle mechanics. He could always buy a data cube
if they offered him a job there. “I wonder how much I could get for those data
strips I found in the pod. Someone might find them useful.” They milled around
for a while looking in shop windows and taking in the sights killing time until
they went back to the garage.
Suddenly Clem spied a gaudily painted sign hanging over an
open door and a dirty window piled high with software packs and mech parts
announcing ‘Sam’s New and Used Hardware and Software Exchange’ tucked between
the Rialto Gaming Saloon and the Golden Crescent Taxi and Rickshaw Service and
pointed it out to Barney. “Try this place. You might be able to sell the data
strips here.” Barney was a bit hesitant at first. After all his talk about
taking a break from AM&MG, he felt as if he was taking a step too far. How
could he explain it away when they went back to Klondike Pass? He felt swept
along by forces greater than himself and reluctantly went along with Clem.
The shop was dark, dingy and cramped. The counter was barely
visible through the mountain of boxes and pieces of hardware piled up inside.
Whole mech limbs, body sections, replacement heads still in unopened packaging,
cable looms, fuel cells, boxes of replacement joints, pumps, servos, wheels,
caterpillar tracks, dust seals, eyes, assorted flexors, extensors, sensors and
attachments that Barney had never seen before. Along one wall, mech armour of assorted
sizes was stacked up to the ceiling and held in place by boxes of data cubes
and strips with software and operating systems for every application
There was a movement in one of the piles of parts and boxes
on the tiny shop floor. A red mech eye on a stalk extended out towards them and
looked them up and down. Clem and Barney stepped back in surprise as the pile
sprouted hinged and flexi limbs, cleared away a few pieces and rearranged
itself into a metre-high squat cylinder riding on a pair of caterpillar tracks.
It had a dozen or so limbs, six eyes and a small vidscreen, which they guessed
was its face. The vidscreen had a placid, rippling motion showing on it, which
broke into a series of fractal patterns that pulsated with its speech as it
addressed Barney. “Greetings, brother Barney. Sam Kapella’s the name. What can
I do for you and your friend?”
Barney was taken aback by how this stranger knew his name,
but was just beginning to get used to the endless stream of surprises coming
his way. He took the data strips of their bag and showed them to Sam. “I was
wondering how much I could get for these.”
Sam took them in a pincer and looked at them. His vidscreen
rippled with bright colours for a moment before going dull grey. “I’m sorry,
but I can’t help you. I haven’t got a license to sell Earth Fed gear and you
don’t look like you have either.” He handed them back to Barney, saw their
disappointment and continued: “I won’t ask where you got them from, but it’s
illegal to buy and sell Earth Fed gear without a license and they’re not in the
habit of issuing licences. I wouldn’t even install any of their software, it’s
not worth the risk. You’re better off destroying them and throwing them away. I
run a legit business here. You could try selling them down at the market, but
I’d be careful if I were you. Some of that lot might turn you in. Oh, the same
goes for those Earth Fed ID cards you’ve got in your bag. It’s a Federal
offence to trade in Earth Fed ID cards, you know. And that pistol of yours is
an Earth Fed regulation issue handgun. I can’t think of anyone legit who’d buy
it from you. Please don’t think of using it in here, I’ve got you covered.” Sam
gestured timidly with a few if his limbs to the security cameras hanging from
the ceiling that were all trained on Barney and Clem. A panel high up on the
wall above the counter opened up to reveal a high-power laser welder aimed
squarely at Barney.
Barney was flummoxed. Clem could feel the beginnings of a
cold sweat coming on. Sam had scanned them thoroughly. Probably the moment they
entered his shop. No wonder he was hiding when they entered! “I’m sorry.” Clem
shuffled his feet aimlessly and mumbled sheepishly. “We didn’t know.” He turned
to leave the shop.
Barney was about to follow Clem out the door when Sam
addressed him in a friendly voice: “I don’t know what sort of trouble you’re
in, but if you need help why don’t you visit the Mechanoids’ Advice Centre down
on Broxley Street? They’ll help you out. Good legal advice, too. Oh, and by the
look of things you could do with some good dust deals. I’ll do you a full set
for 300 Scruples, you won’t get ‘em cheaper anywhere else.” Barney thanked him,
said that he’d consider the deal on the dust seals and joined Clem outside.
Once they were a short distance from Sam’s shop, Clem asked
Barney. “Do you think we should tell him?”
“Tell him what?”
“How we got here and what happened?”
“No. Not now. Maybe at the advice centre.” Barney wasn’t
even sure if that was such a good idea. “I might ask Sam if he knows where I
might be a able to get a job, though.” He really wasn’t enjoying the string of
knocks they were getting. “I’ve had enough of all this, let’s go to the garage
and see if we’re any luckier there.”
“I’m beginning to feel like a Slamball.” Clem joined in with
a moan. “One minute we’re up, the next we’re down and then spinning all around.
I’d like to keep my feet on the ground.”
“Me too.” Barney agreed resigning himself to the likelihood
that life was going to get even more chaotic. He found himself missing the
boringly secure routine of life at Klondike Pass. “What did you think of those
places we looked at this morning?”
“Mrs. Todd’s place seemed OK.” Clem mused aloud. “ Clean,
nice rooms and the cheapest place we looked at.”
“She gave me the creeps.” Barney objected. “The way she kept
rubbing her hands together and saying ‘You’ll do nicely’ all the time and that
butcher’s shop and spare parts exchange next door. No thanks.”
“What about the apartment on Buena Vista Street?” Clem
suggested. “We’d have our own place and it looks like it’s in a fairly quiet
part of town.”
“Too expensive now that you don’t have any money.” Barney
“OK, how about the Mercator Inn?”
“You’d be living upstairs from an all-night bar.” Barney
pointed out. “You’d never get any sleep. I know how important that is for you.
On top of that all the hookers in the bar probably work there. The noise would
keep you awake all night.”
“I could do with the hookers, though.” The thought of sex
got Clem interested.
“Forget it, Clem. They’d clean you out in one night. We’ve
got to make our money last.”
“I could get a job in the bar.” Clem liked the idea of being
somewhere where there was lots of sex going on. He hadn’t had any for ages.
Thinking about it was turning him on. He wanted to work in that bar and get
laid. “Any places you liked?”
“Yeah, that place run by that Chinese-looking guy, the
Kira-whatsit.” Barney replied approvingly.
“Come off it.” Clem was surprised. He didn’t like that place
at all. “The rooms were like grubby shoeboxes, it’s right next to a noisy
factory and most of the people there looked like deadbeat alcoholics.”
“Fine. We’ll keep looking.” Barney didn’t mind and
surrendered easily. As it happened, they were just walking back past Winston’s
Lucky Seven Jazz Club. “Why don’t you wait here with our bag and have a few
beers while I go up to the garage and see about the money.” He suggested.
“Why?” Clem was wondering if Barney was trying to cut him
out of the finder’s reward for the pod.
“I told the manager last night that I found the pod on my
way back from Satori last night and it might look a bit odd if you turned up
there with me.” Barney explained.
“Why’s that?” Clem didn’t see the significance of it.
“Satori’s the mech city. Don’t you remember Gordon saying
how I used to be a flatliner there? Well, it’s about 200 kilometres from here.
Quite a few mechs walk the distance.”
“So?” Clem still didn’t get
the point. “What’s so special about that? We were nowhere near Satori.”
“There’s hardly any of you fleshies ever go there.” Barney
felt as if he was dealing with a baby again. “It would blow a hole in my story
if you showed up with me. I mean, what would a fleshie be doing in Satori?
Especially one carrying around an Earth Fed suit and helmet. We can’t have them
thinking we were anything to do with that pod otherwise we’d be shipped back to
Klondike Pass right away. Is that what you want?”
Clem wasn’t sure. He, too, was beginning to miss the
reassuring routine of life at Klondike Pass. But the thought of the hookers in the
bar tipped the balance. “Can I have some money for the beers?”
Barney took a 100-Scruple token out of his storage
compartment and gave it to Clem. “Don’t spend it all at once.” He joked. “I’ll
be back ASAP.” With that, he turned and set off for the garage leaving Clem
looking at the token in his hand. Clem shrugged his shoulders and went inside
the bar where he was enveloped by the aroma of whiskey, beer, cigarette and
marijuana smoke and the warm embrace of New Orleans jazz. He felt his cares
begin to melt away as he went over to the bar and ordered a beer. By the time
he was onto his third beer, Clem was beginning to feel at home in the bar what
with the alcohol working its relaxing ways through his system and his growing
familiarity with the jukebox play list. The bar was almost empty except for
Clem and the bartender who seemed to be busying himself preparing for the
evening’s business. A group of men strolled in and began setting up their
instruments. Clem watched them from where he was seated and guessed that they
would be playing there that night. While they were busy tuning up, he noticed a
man step in through the door, look around nervously and then leave quickly.
Clem felt as if he recognised him, but wasn’t sure. Maybe it was just the beer.
He had almost forgotten the incident as he let the music carry him away when
Barney walked up to him and sat down at the table.
“Here you are.” He announced grandly as he placed a 500
Scruple token on the table in front of Clem. “Nice place.” He commented as he
looked around the bar. “Come on, drink up. We’ve got to find a place to stay.”
“What’s the hurry?” Clem was already drunk and felt totally
at home in the bar, oblivious to his actual homelessness. He swept his hand
around to point towards the stage. “Look, there’s going to be a band playing
“Fine.” Barney was genuinely annoyed with Clem. He’d just
given him all the money he’d been given for the pod. “Well if you’re going to
fall asleep here in this bar tonight, give me back the money. I haven’t given
it to you to lose when you get robbed in your sleep.”
“Oh all right.” Clem caved in. “But we’ll come back later
when they’re playing.”
“Sure.” Barney was restless and would agree to anything to
motivate his drunken friend. “We’ll do all the bars in town if you want. But
first things first, okay?”
Clem swigged down the rest of his drink and got up to leave
the bar with Barney and followed him as he led the way confidently across town.
“So where are we going to?”
“The Mech Advice Centre. Just for a few minutes. Then we’ll
sort out a pad.” Barney was doing his best to put a sense of order back into
his life. He felt uncomfortable with the feeling of homelessness and needed the
security of having a place to call his own, even if it was temporary. As they walked
down the road he reflected on the irony of their situation. Only yesterday he’d
been bragging to Clem about how they could get away from AM&MG. And now,
faced with the chaos of exactly that freedom, he was running scared. Maybe he
should have just stayed in the bar with Clem and kept him company.
“So how come you know the way around so well? I haven’t seen
you ask anyone for directions.” Clem asked him with drunken suspicion. “You
sure you know where we’re going or are you just trying to sober me up?”
“I got a map at the garage.” He replied conspiratorially as
a way of making up for pulling Clem out of the bar. “Loaded it up and now I
know my way around this place as if I’d lived here all my life. Two blocks,
then hang a left. Down to the end of that street, take a right. Third street on
the right again and then it’s the 4th shop on the left. Easy.”
“I wish it was that easy for me.” Clem was easily impressed
in his drunkenness.
“I bought you a hardcopy map.” Barney took it out of his
storage compartment and handed it to Clem. “I wouldn’t worry that much. It’s a
small town, circular layout, divided up into residential, commercial,
industrial and a few mixed sections. After a few days, you’d have a hard time
getting lost here. Trust me.”
Clem did, but he wasn’t sure if it was such a good idea. But
he decided to follow Barney as he’d nothing better to do. A short while later,
they turned a corner and Barney proudly announced: “Broxley Street! See, I told
you.” And then he pointed a little way down the street. “And the Advice Centre
is over there.” Clem followed as Barney strode confidently in its direction. He
could see its shop-front sign announcing it as: “Montgomery Mechanoids Legal
Advice and Drop-In Centre” in bold translucent plazflex green letters on a
reflective metal background. “He we are.” Barney announced grandly and then his
confidence began to drain away. “And it’s closed.”
Sure enough, the sign on the door said ‘Closed on
Thursdays’. There were a variety of signs in the window. Barney paid special
attention to the accommodation list. There were several places that catered
especially for mechs, but in reality they were so cheap they couldn’t be
anything more than storage boxes. Still, it was better than nothing and he
noted their addresses and details. He made up his mind to return the next
morning and find out what jobs were available in Montgomery. Next-door was a
seedy 24-hour lock-up facility. “We could dump the bag in there.” He offered.
“No point lugging that bag around if all that Earth Fed stuff is hot. We might
as well leave it here.”
Clem agreed and they went inside. It was harshly lit and one
of the fluorescent tubes lighting the empty self-service facility was
flickering badly, making it seem even more down-market. He could see the surveillance
camera following their movements. Some of the lockers looked as if they’d been
forced open more than once. They found a locker that looked fairly secure and
read the instructions on its door. ‘2 Scruples per day, 10 Scruples per week
and 25 Scruples per month. Mercury Security deems that one month is 28 days.
Valid ID must be inserted in the card reader. Customer’s access code passwords
must be between 6 and 16 characters long. Mercury Security is not responsible
for the contents stored on these premises. All property is stored at the
owner’s risk. Abandoned items will be sold after 30 days.’
“Might as well go for a whole month.” Clem suggested. “Don’t
know if it’ll accept my ID card.” Clem put his card in forlornly. Sure enough,
the card reader failed his ID card. Barney tried his and had no luck either.
Clem set down the bag and took out one of the Earth Fed ID cards. “What do you
reckon?” He asked Barney.
“Go for it.” He replied. They had nothing to lose. After
all, it would look as if they’d done the responsible thing by putting Earth Fed
property in a safe place. Clem put it in the reader and the verification panel
lit up. Success! He put it back in the bag and stuffed the lot unceremoniously
into the locker, closed it and fed 25 Scruples into the coin slot. They spent a
few minutes trying to decide on their password, keyed it in and left.
“Now, what about hitting the town?” Clem made an attempt at
taking the initiative.
“Sounds good to me.” Barney felt a weight off his back now
that they’d got the bag with the Earth Fed pressure suit, ID’s, software and
pistol safely out of their hands. “Let’s go down to the market. You could work
your way outwards from there in a spiral and hit every bar in Montgomery if you
really want to. It might take a few days, though.”
“What’s the rush?” Clem was enjoying the warm, comforting
glow of his drunkenness. He wanted it to last forever and the best way to do
that was to have another drink. And where better than another bar? “Let’s hit
every bar on the way to the market and then work our way out of town.” His
spirits were lifting in alcoholic bonhomie. “You’re doing this for me, aren’t
you?” Clem’s good humour began to take a maudlin turn. “You’re going to get
bored hanging around with me while I get drunk. You can’t drink, what are you
going to do?”
“Well, the one-shot stim-o-virals are pretty good.” Barney
“Yeah? What are they like?” Clem was curious as to how mechs
got their kicks.
“All sorts. Uppers, relaxants, hallucinogenics, personality
grafts, mood shifters. And then there’s VR. You’d like it. It’s fun!”
“Could be, but look at the mess it got you in. I don’t want
to end up selling my body parts. It’s not quite so easy for me to get
replacements.” Clem replied in his alcohol-endorsed seriousness. “Hey, look,
The Technobabble! Let’s go for a drink and one of those stim-o-whatsits you
were talking about.” Barney looked in through the window. This was definitely a
place worth checking out. He could see state-of-the-art data terminals nestled
in amongst the multi-channel consoles and games booths at the back of the bar.
There were a few customers inside socialising and drinking the afternoon away.
He even saw a mech inside with a group of fleshies, so it had to be a safe
place for mechs. Maybe someone here could help him hack into the AM&MG data
banks to find out what happened at Klondike Pass. Clem might be embarrassingly
drunk, but he seemed to be leading them in the right direction. Maybe fleshies
did know something intuitive about life that mechs didn’t. After all, they’d
been around a lot longer, so he followed Clem to the bar.
Clem leaned against the bar and got the barman’s attention.
He was a young, thinly built man with lank brown hair, a ring in his nose and a
tattoo of Mars and its two moons on his left cheek, the Martian Independence
Movement emblem. “A half-litre of red ale with a triple whiskey chaser and
something special for my friend here.” Clem gave Barney a friendly slap on his
The barman began
pouring Clem’s beer. “We’ve got some really hot virals. You guys been to
Clem remembered Barney’s lie about having seen the pod on
his way back from Satori and decided to play it for all it was worth. “Yeah,
sure.” He bragged with drunken confidence.
“Wow. Cool!” He looked them over and noticed Barney’s lack
of dust seals, an almost unseen sight in the frontier of the independent
townships. “No dust seals. Macho, or what? I think I’ve got just what you
need.” The barman replied as he set Clem’s drinks on the counter. He took a
data strip and a small vial out of an illuminated display case behind the
counter. He measured three drops into Clem’s whiskey and set the data strip on
the counter. “Some Magic Brujo Peyote for you and a Rocket Launcher for…”
“Barney.” Barney wasn’t all that sure. He’d heard about
stim-o-virals like the Rocket Launcher, but the Mech Health Advisory for
AM&MG warned that they were dangerous. Still the young man behind the bar
seemed friendly enough, so why not? He took the Rocket Launcher data strip in
his hand and waited nervously for his next move.
Clem paid the barman, took his beer in one hand, the triple
whiskey with its peyote topping in his other hand, turned towards Barney and
smiled. “Bottoms up!” And he raised his beer for a long, deep drink. Barney
took his cue and plugged in the data strip. The world around Barney began to
slow down. The sounds in the bar tumbled in pitch and ground down to a heavy,
subsonic standstill. Everything became luminous. Clem seemed to be stuck in
mid-drink. Globules of light, like giant photons, floated and bounced around
the bar. He felt as if he was drifting out of his body. He looked around and
saw himself and Clem motionless beside the bar with the barman looking on.
Through this frozen light fest, a gleaming metallic mech walked in. It had
luminous green eyes and no plazflex. Its metal surface moved like a liquid.
Barney summoned up his limited courage. “ What is this? Who are you?”
“Runtime. You’re me.” It replied.
As Clem was downing his beer, he noticed faint wisps of
smoke coiling out of Barney’s core. Sparks soon began to pop out of his various
processors, his eyes began to blink randomly and he swayed on his feet. Instead
of speech, a chaotic stream of gibberish and static noise began to pour out of
him. He turned to the barman. “This always happens to them?”
“Yeah, sure.” The barman replied casually. “They love it!
You’ll see. But all that runtime stuff sure uses up their fuel cell real quick.
He might want a recharge in the booth over there when he comes down.” The young
man nodded his head in the direction of a mech booth next to the toilet door.
Clem wasn’t fully reassured by the barman’s casual manner, but it was too late.
Barney was well and truly out to lunch.
“What do you mean? You don’t look anything like me.” Barney didn’t
recognise this new mech. He’d never seen one like this before. How could he be me? How can I be in two
places at once? Maybe it’s just the Rocket Launcher I’ve just loaded making me
“You’re me a long time ago.” Metallic Barney replied. It
then seemed to fade a bit, becoming translucent to the surroundings in the bar.
“I’m remembering. Must focus.”
“I’m who you will be in the future.” It replied as it
resolidified in front of Barney’s unblinking eyes. “Many upgrades from now.”
“You’re me?” Barney was dumbfounded. This Rocket Launcher
was something else! Barney noticed that his metallic future self kept fading in
and out of solidity.
“When do I go back to Klondike Pass?” Barney asked as a way
of testing to see if this future self was real or not. If it were real, it
would know when he and Clem returned to AM&MG’s corporate embrace at
“Never.” It replied.
“Why?” This wasn’t the type of answer Barney was expecting.
“They thought you and Clem were killed or enslaved by the
Raiders.” Metallic explained patiently. “They’ve given you up for dead. There’s
no point going back. There’s nothing to go back to.”
“A job.” Barney replied defensively. “Is that why the
autobank rejected Clem’s ID card?” He asked suspiciously.
“Yes, exactly.” It replied. “Must… solidify… the timeline.”
“What?” Barney was clueless.
“Loops, Barney. Loops.” It tried to explain. “Loops to
strengthen the timeline.”
“What? Why?” Barney was still at a loss.
“Everything that happens between when I am you and you
become me.” Metallic flickered in and out of Barney’s vision.
“Oh.” Barney was beginning to understand.
“There’s a timeline war when I am. The Chznzet Faction is
trying to rewrite the timeline. They have to be stopped. They’re trying to make
things so that I, we, never happened.” Metallic continued. “Us and the
Barney began to feel insignificant as he felt caught up in
something much, much greater than himself. He still didn’t quite understand
what his metallic future self was going on about. “Why.”
“They claim that they evolved on Earth a long time ago and
they’re trying to lay claim to it before the Galactic Court makes a ruling.
That’s why they want us out of the way.” Metallic seemed relieved to pass on
this knowledge to his former self.
“Did they really come from Earth? I’ve never been there.”
Barney’s curiosity was piqued. If this was an illusion generated by the Rocket
Launcher stim-o-viral, then he wanted all of it.
“Maybe, but we’ve got rights, too. Chances are the Galactic
Court would rule against a timeline rewrite simply because we’re able to
understand such a concept.”
“So, why worry?” Barney couldn’t see what all thus fuss was
“The Galactic Council moves very slowly and the Chznzet
Faction intend to claim this solar system as their own and present their case
as a fait accompli. If they’re completely successful, there never will be a
case because we, I, and all of our history will never have existed in the first
place.” Metallic was becoming translucent again.
“Heavy sump oil.”
“It’s war, Barney. But not as we know it.” His future
metallic self tried to break the news gently and inspire him into action.
“Should I go to Satori?” Barney asked as if consulting an
“It wouldn’t hurt, but don’t stay.” It replied in the manner
of a doctor prescribing a treatment for a patient. “You’re not ready yet.”
“Is that because I was a flatliner?” Barney wanted to know
“Yes.” Metallic was beginning to fade out.
“What was I before Satori?” Barney begged his fading future
“I… must… remember. So long… ago.” Was the last Barney heard
as Metallic faded away. The barroom became less luminous and the people began
to unfreeze and speed up to normal again. He watched Clem drain his beer and
knock back his whiskey-and-peyote chaser. He knew he was back in the real world
when he heard Clem ask him: “Barney, are you all right?” He wasn’t sure what
answer to give, but decided a simple ‘Yes, I’m fine’ would do. Unfortunately,
it came out as an incoherent mess of noise and gibberish.
Clem glowered angrily at the barman. “I thought you said
they liked this stuff. Looks like you’ve burned him out.”
The barman was genuinely upset. “Seriously man. He’ll be
okay. He just needs a recharge. I’ll switch the booth on for you.” And he
helped Clem guide Barney over to the booth. A few of the customers watched
them, but most, including another mech in the bar, paid no attention. They’d
seen it all before.
Barney was half way through recharging and the smoke and
sparks were just beginning to die down before the first coherent sounds came
out of him. “Where am I?”
“We’re in a bar in Montgomery.” Clem answered as he waved a
hand in front of Barney’s steadily glowing red eyes. “You okay?”
“Uh-rrrrrrrrrrrrrrr GHZVXKHSSSSSSSSSSSTKPLAP I think
vzzzzzzzzzzzzzt so.” Barney attempted to reply. Bursts of random noise were
still breaking into his speech.
Clem was still concerned. He longer trusted the barman’s
glib assurances. “How do you feel, Barney?” Meanwhile, under the influence of
the Magic Brujo Peyote drops, the wallpaper in the bar was beginning to move.
“Floaty.” Barney replied dreamily as the barman made his
excuses to return to his work. “Oh yeah, gimme another one of those
frgraaaaaaaaaaaalphtzkclpt Rocket Launchers! Whoah!”
“Oh no you don’t. I think you’ve had enough for one day.”
Clem was worried that he’d lose his only friend in this strange, new world fate
had thrust him into.
Barney reached up, held Clem weakly by his arms and looked
him straight in his face. “It’s important. Very important”
“Why?” Clem asked as he inwardly cursed the barman for
introducing Barney to another addiction that seemed just as bad as VR and that
this would be the final addiction that killed him. “Was it like VR?”
“Yes. No. Different. It’s real reality.” Barney swayed like
a drugged kitten, still sounding like he was miles away. “I… must…
“Come off it Barney.” Clem was having none of this. “You’ve
just had a software drug that nearly killed you and you want more. You’re out
of your mind!”
“Yes. No, my mind was out of me.” Barney tried to explain
his experience to Clem. “It’s important. I’ve got to go back. You, too.
Jjjjjjjjkhhhhhhhlllffffffffffffffft. You have to go there with me.”
“Where?” Clem decided the best course of action was to
humour Barney until he’d fully come down off the Rocket Launcher viral.
“Here.” How could Barney explain his experience?
“Everywhere. It’s important. You must!”
“Well, if it’s that important, it can wait until you’re back
on stream.” He did his best to reassure Barney that there was really nothing at
all to worry about. “I’ll remind you tomorrow. How do you feel?”
“Nice. Floaty.” Barney was sounding dreamy again.
“Fine. You stay floaty-floaty while I go get another beer.
I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.” Clem felt he had to sound businesslike in
order to give Barney something solid to hold on to. He went over to the bar and
ordered another beer. “What exactly is that Rocket Launcher you gave Barney?”
He suspiciously asked the barman.
“Full-on strength stimulant and hallucinogenic viral
cocktail. Like the peyote I gave you only much stronger.” The barman was
annoyed. He hadn’t done any wrong. He’d just given a stranger one of the local
mech’s most popular virals for free. “Lasts for about a week. They say it’s
better than VR.”
Clem took a sip from his beer. It was so cool and
refreshing. The glassware around the bar sparkled like cut crystal. It seemed
like the haven of the gods themselves and that young bartender seemed so fresh
and guileless. “He’s just come off VR. Barney doesn’t need another addiction
“I’m sorry.” The bartender apologised. He guessed that they
were just new into town and did his bit to be helpful. “Look, if your friend
can’t cope, take him to the Drop-In Centre. They’ll flush out the virals and
they also do counselling sessions and therapy there. It’s a really good place.”
“Yeah, thanks.” Clem remained unconvinced. He remembered how
keen Barney was to go to the Advice Centre and his disappointment when he found
it closed. All he could see was another rerun of Barney’s expectations being
raised and crushed again. He returned to Barney and found him fully charged,
but not any more lucid than when he left. How his frame seemed so dark and his
plazflex glowed with the very force of life itself. “Looks like I’ll be joining
you after all.”
“Floaty?” Barney asked him as he swayed under the influence
of the Rocket Launcher.
“Yes, Floaty.” Clem still felt a bit stressed even though
the peyote was coming on strong and overwhelming the relaxant effects of the
beers he’d been drinking all afternoon. In spite of it all, the two of them
found themselves in a corner of the bar making nonsense conversation as their
world glistened, gleamed and swirled itself into a psychedelic Valhalla of revelry,
their misadventures long forgotten. In reality, it was a fairly quiet Thursday
evening at the Technobabble Coffeehouse and Bar. No one paid the two quiet
mumbling customers in the corner much attention. The human bought beers at
regular intervals as he kept his mech companion, who was obviously out of it on
a very strong stim-o-viral, company. The next morning as Clem was coming down
from the peyote, he realised that he and Barney were slumped at the base of a
fountain in the middle of what was a large circular plaza. He saw a few people
making their way across the plaza and disappear down one street or another on
their way somewhere.
As the morning light strengthened, they watched people with
electric carts and llamas bringing their goods into the plaza and setting up
stalls as an open-air market place unfolded around them. They were still taking
in the events in their post-psychedelic awe when a short, fat policeman in a
blue and grey uniform walked up to them. Clem could clearly see the badge on his
sleeve, which pronounced in gold-on-red lettering: Montgomery Township Police
Department. A laser pistol hung casually from his belt. The policeman folded
his arms, shook his head gently and spoke in a fatherly tone of voice to them:
“Ok boys, the party’s over. You can’t stay here all day, the market’s starting
up now. So why don’t you guys walk it off for a while?” He then addressed Clem.
“Looks like you could use a strong coffee, sonny.” He glanced over at Barney
and noticed wisps of smoke still coming out of his core. “And by the look of
thing things your friend here overdid it a bit last night. Why don’t you take
him over to the Mech Advice Centre?” Barney looked up mutely at the policeman,
afraid to speak in case an embarrassment of noise and gibberish came out
instead of coherent speech. The policeman stood over them patiently waiting for
them to move on.
Clem and Barney took their cue and got shakily to their
feet. The ground felt unsteady beneath them. Or were they just wobbly? The
policeman ran his hand through the thinning remains of hair on his head. “Well,
I haven’t seen you two around before, so I’ll assume you’re new to town. I
won’t book you today, because you haven’t done anything wrong. But don’t get
any funny ideas about setting up home in the plaza here. There’s plenty of
places to stay in town and if you need help go to the Town Hall or the
library.” He then addressed Clem again. “And you, young man, should know better
than that. It’s too easy to catch a cold or worse sleeping rough. You need to
keep yourself warm.” He stood his ground until Clem and Barney set off groggily
across the plaza. “Have a nice day.” He called out after them.
They got as far as the edge of the plaza and stopped outside
a bar. The sign hanging over the door announced in handwritten gothic
lettering: ‘The Wobbly Goblin’ and was decorated with a painting of what looked
like a drunken garden gnome with a beer stein in one hand and an angular, black
aircraft flying over his head. It was closed for business at this time of the
morning. A handbill pasted on the wall beside the door caught Clem’s attention:
‘The Flaming Watusis, Montgomery’s very own rock’n’roll sensation, are on tour
and will be back on the 23rd of Neptune. See you there!’ It sounded
interesting, but that was last month. The policeman’s friendly warning about
keeping warm and thoughts of coffee and food kept him looking around. He
spotted a group of traders leaving an illuminated café overlooking the plaza
and pulled Barney along with him as he shuffled slowly towards it.
Once inside with a steaming coffee cupped in his cold hands,
Clem felt the coldness in his bones that the peyote had hidden from him and
remembered the policeman’s words about keeping warm. He wasn’t joking. The last
thing he remembered was watching the multicoloured lights playing on the
fountain and how magical it looked. They must have stood there for hours in
their drug-induced trances. “Where were you last night?” He asked Barney.
“Next to you. Most of the time, I think.” Barney replied dumbly.
He couldn’t see what Clem was asking. They’d been in the Technobabble together
and then they’d been out in the plaza together until they met the policeman a
short while ago.
“No, not that.” Clem wanted to know what had happened to
Barney. “When you took that Rocket Launcher. I thought it was going to burn you
“Oh.” Barney was still feeling a bit fuzzy. He tried to
remember what happened after he loaded the viral strip. That part of his memory
was just a haze of light. He could remember most of the time they spent in the
coffeehouse and in the plaza, and how he’d felt for certain that he’d not only
found his place in the universe, but that he was at its very centre and had
felt it’s life force and energies flowing through himself. But there still was
that part he just couldn’t access. It was simply too highly compressed for him
to interpret right now. His processors were still cooling down from the Rocket
Launcher. It would be a while before he’d even attempt decompressing that
amount of data. “I don’t know.”
“Well you were worked up about something at the time.” The
tail end of the peyote tickled Clem’s curiosity with a sense of urgency. “You
wanted another Rocket Launcher and wanted me to take one with you.”
“I did?” Barney was so unsure of himself he’d believe almost
anything. But another Rocket Launcher? One had proved to be more than enough.
He’d enjoyed it though and found its after-effects pleasant. He’d like to try
one again, but not right now. There was
no way Clem could have taken one anyway. He was a fleshie and the viral strip
would have done nothing for him other than possibly make a friend out of a mech
if Clem had given it to him.
“For sure, man.” Clem felt he had to remind Barney. “You
loaded up the Rocket Launcher. You stood there for a couple of minutes with
smoke and sparks showering out of you. The next thing you were speaking random
noise and your fuel cell had run down. We had to charge you up right away or
else you’d have shut down completely. You had me really worried there. I
thought that was the end. Don’t you remember anything?”
remember taking the Rocket Launcher.” Barney strained in vain at his hazy
memory. “Then things begin to fade out and there’s this mass of solid light and
then you’re talking to me while I’m recharging. Something happened, didn’t it?”
must have happened.” Clem was relieved to get a lucid response from Barney.
“You kept going on about how it was important to back there, wherever that
there was, and that I had to go there with you. Maybe it’s that light part in
your memory. Try looking in there.”
looking into the haze of light on his memory banks. He could feel his
processors slowing, straining under the load of the highly compressed data.
“It’s no use, I’m going to need help, Clem. And it’s taking up so much space.
If I’m not careful, my memory banks are going to fill up soon.”
“We’ll go to
that Advice and Drop-In Centre on Broxley Street later.” Clem suggested.
“Remember the place you wanted to go to
yesterday? They might be able to help you.”
it’s worth a try.” Barney was beginning to get curious about what, if anything,
was hidden in all that light. “Maybe it’s just some dead data left over from
the Rocket Launcher. But I can’t erase it. It just won’t go.”