Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 8: Stranger in town.

     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 croaked.
     “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 later.
     “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 Polaski now!”
     “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.”
     “Maybe we 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?”
     “We haven’t 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 bar?”
     “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.
     “Sure, why 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.
     The entrance 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.
     “I dunno, 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.
     “Sorry, I 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 myself.”
     “Well, I’ve 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 caution.
     “Why?” Clem couldn’t see any reason. It was easier to wear it than carry it.
     “Earth Fed 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 Earth Fed?”
     “Oh.” Although 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.”
     “That was 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.”
     “I suppose 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.”
     Barney went 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.
     “Excuse me. 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.
     Eventually the 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.
     “Ah, yes.” 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?”
     “ Oh, twelve-fifty. Just back from Satori?” She asked casually.
     Barney was 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.
     “Wow, you’re 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.
     “Thanks. I’ll 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 least.
     “Why’s that?” 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.”
     Barney knew 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.
     The early 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.
     “You fell asleep when I went into the garage.” Barney told him. “We’re going to get some money for the pod.”
     “What? You sold it? I didn’t know we could sell it.” Clem, still half-asleep was easily confused.
     “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?”
     “Yeah, we 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 the domes.
     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.
     “Whoah, steady 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.”
     “Huh? What 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 and ever.
     “Never mind.” 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.”
     “No, he’s 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 facts.
     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.”
     Barney tapped the dark viewscreen built into the surface of their table. “Do you have a data link I could tap into while he’s eating?”
     “Nope, sorry.” Janice shrugged apologetically. “That’s a mech thing. If you hadn’t noticed we don’t have direct links like you.”
     “Well, maybe 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.
     Janice finally 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.
     “Trying to 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.
     “And?” In spite of his hunger, Clem was interested.
     “Nothing.” 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.”
     “So? Why 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 oil.”
     “Sump oil?” Clem was lost again.
     Barney had 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.
     Barney busied 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.
     His mind 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.
     Clem wasn’t 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 later.
     Clem drained 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.
     “Maybe not.” 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.”
     “Cheapest digs in town. Probably sleeping tubes or a packing case, but it’s better than nothing.”
     “We could sleep in the common ground by the perimeter where we came in last night.” Clem replied innocently.
     “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 wrong.
     “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 Montgomery.
     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 rationalisation.
     “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 imaginable.
     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 pointed out.
     “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 tonight.”
     “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 mused.
     “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 arm.
      The barman began pouring Clem’s beer. “We’ve got some really hot virals. You guys been to Satori?”
     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 go schizoid.
     “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 Klondike Pass.
     “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 fleshies.”
     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 about.
     “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 oracle.
     “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 the answer.
     “Yes.” Metallic was beginning to fade out.
     “What was I before Satori?” Barney begged his fading future self.
     “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… dhvffffffffllllllltchjkpaaaaktip remember.”
     “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 right now.”
     “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 out.”
     “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?”
:     “I 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?”
     “Something 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.”
     Barney tried 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.”
     “I suppose 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.”

Scribbles & Scraps
Chapter 7
Chapter 9