The morning wore on and warmed up
with Clem and Barney hanging out around the plaza watching the market with its
daily hustle and bustle of life swirl around them. Traders were busily hawking
their wares noisily as customers milled around inspecting, haggling and buying.
The tail-end of their psychedelic experiences left them both feeling pleasantly
rooted in the here and now washing away any sense of urgency as they swapped
notes on their previous night’s trips. They were walking around, looking at
exotic fruit on one stall, clothes at another and fine jewellery laid out on
display further along. They passed a stall selling data cubes and assorted
pieces of computer hardware, one with several bales of marijuana and blocks of
hashish piled up on the table and another selling hand-made paper. This was
much more vibrant than anything they’d experienced in their days back at
AM&MG. Clem had heard about marijuana at Klondike Pass, but had never tried
it, so he bought some from one of the stalls some to try out. Being a
non-smoker, it made him cough and his eyes water a bit from surprise and the
stallholder laughed at the sight of seeing someone smoke for the first time.
Clem’s head felt as if it had spun around. Wow! Nice buzz, too. It felt just
right after the trip he’d had the night before.
They felt so
at home in the midst of this riot of activity that they’d completely forgotten
about finding a place to stay. Eventually, Clem’s thoughts drifted back to
their own lives. “Do you want to go to the Advice Centre?” He asked Barney.
was lost in his thoughts. He’d been talking to a mech at a stall that was
giving away free data strips about mechanoid self-discovery, spiritual
development and cultural liberation. Always one for a freebie, he installed one
of the data strips. It was certainly interesting stuff as he wrapped a few of
his processors around its concepts, but he had to uninstall it, because the
haze of light was taking up too much memory. “Yeah, might as well. I’ve got to
do something about that light in my memory banks otherwise I’m going to run out
of long-term memory pretty soon.”
remember how to get there?” Clem asked lamely. “I’ve lost my map.”
rang in Barney’s head. “You haven’t lost your money, have you?” He feared the
in his pockets for a few moments, pulled out a handful of tokens and coins,
counted them and looked up. “Nope.”
“At least you
haven’t screwed up on that that.” You could almost hear the stress dissipating
from Barney’s voice as he unscrewed one of his eyes and held it aloft like a
periscope so that he could get a better view of the plaza. “This way.” He
announced as he screwed his eye back in and led Clem across the market. A short
while later, they arrived at Broxley Street. “I’ll handle this myself.” Barney
didn’t really want Clem following him into the Mech Advice Centre. He wanted to
show that he was his own mech dealing with his own problems. “I’ll meet you
outside in an hour. If I’m still inside, I’ll come out to see you.”
“Sure. I’ll take a look around and see if our stuff’s still in the lock-up.” He
set off looking around the shops on the street, taking in the bright colours,
sights and sounds of his new home as Barney stepped nervously into the Advice
Centre. Helpful literature was posted on the walls of the spartan waiting room
where he was greeted by an impersonal automated messaging board asking him to
plug into one of the terminals for ‘further services’. Barney guessed that was
what he needed and plugged himself into one of the terminals. His consciousness
was instantly transferred to a VR space where a metallic Buddha sitting on a
bench in a crystal garden greeted him. A night sky with the brilliant stream of
the Milky Way arced overhead.
Barney.” The Buddha greeted him warmly. “How’s things?”
“Not too bad.”
Barney felt so at ease that he almost forgot why he’d come here in the first
place. “Nice place you’ve got here.” He commented admiringly as he looked
around the Buddha’s VR space. “Where were you? I didn’t see you outside.”
“You did and
you didn’t.” The Buddha chuckled cryptically.
don’t get you.” Barney was a bit puzzled by the Buddha’s answer. Was he trying
to test him?
read Barney’s mind. “No, not a test, Barney. I am the Advice Centre.”
mainframe!” Barney exclaimed, as he understood what the Buddha had just told
him. The concept excited him. He’d never been in direct contact with a
mainframe in all his time in VR. But this one was different, it had just read
his mind and had probably seen everything there was to know.
right.” The Buddha replied calmly to Barney’s thoughts and feelings.
“So what’s the
answer, then?” Barney felt insignificant. Here he was in a one-to-one VR
session with a mainframe that knew his thoughts before he even got around to
expressing them. He felt as if further conversation was a bit pointless.
question?” The Buddha asked kindly in order to draw Barney out of his shell.
already know everything in my mind, so you know why I’ve come here.” Barney
complained. This wasn’t quite what he’d expected. He needed help, not mind
games from an addled mainframe.
Buddha confessed readily. “But I’m only interested in the things you want to
talk about.” The mainframe was well aware of Barney’s unease. This was a common
occurrence among first-time visitors as they absorbed the ramifications of the
nature of the relationship they had walked into. So as it probed Barney’s data
banks, it embarked on the all-too familiar task of setting its visitor at ease.
“Barney, we’re more than just circuits, software and data. Of course I can see
that part of you. But I can’t make you think or feel. That’s you.” The Buddha
explained calmly to Barney. “I just react to you a bit quicker than what you’re
used to. Anyway, enough of me. So it’s over to you.” The Buddha waved amiably
in Barney’s direction.
“Well, I had a
Rocket Launcher last light.” Barney confessed guiltily. He felt that a bit of
self-abasement might help here.
“Ah. That haze
of light in your memory banks that you can neither read nor delete.” The Buddha
calmly summed up the rest of the sentence Barney was just about to speak.
Barney did his best to act casual in the presence of a mainframe that
outclassed him on every level.
hummed for a moment as the mainframe’s subroutines assessed the security risk
of opening up a data dump from a stim-o-viral in its own data banks and decided
against it. “I’m sorry, I can’t help you on that one but I know someone who
can. You’ll want to visit Sam Kapella’s shop again. He’ll be able sort you out.
Shall I tell him to expect you?” The Buddha suserviently inquired.
remembered his previous visit to Sam’s shop. It hadn’t turned out the way he
had hoped and he wasn’t in much of a hurry to go back. But maybe a
recommendation from the Advice Centre’s mainframe might swing things
differently this time. “Yeah, I guess so.” He still wasn’t all that keen on
going back, but had more or less resigned himself to it. “Either today or
The Buddha effused genially as he clapped his hands to close their meeting.
“Oh, and I’d think seriously about a set of dust seals. They may seem
expensive, but in the long run they’ll save you a small fortune on worn-out joints.”
The Buddha guided Barney gently towards the exit from the crystal garden and
saw him off with an invitation. “You’re welcome back anytime, Barney.” The next
thing Barney was aware of was unplugging himself from the VR terminal in the
Advice Centre. He looked around for a sign of the mainframe, but saw none. As
Barney crossed the waiting room, the message board displayed: “Barney Theta-4
Klank, welcome back anytime.”
whiled away the time milling around Broxley Street gawping in the shop windows.
He had checked their stash in the lock-up and it was still there. ‘So far, so
good.’ Clem thought. ‘At least nothing’s gone wrong so far today.’ He was
wandering around aimlessly munching on a sticky bun he’d just bought in a
bakery when he found himself face to face with a llama. Instinctively, he broke
of a piece to offer to it, but was immediately scolded by its owner. “Sugar’s
bad for ‘em!” The llama gave them both a filthy look and was about to spit at
Clem when he ducked out of the way and hurried on down the street. He was
standing outside a clothes shop looking at the stylish parkas on display,
thinking about how warm they would be when Barney walked up. “That didn’t take
long. How’d it go?”
Barney sounded a bit distant. “I’ve got to back to that shop where we tried to
sell the data strips yesterday.”
didn’t like the sound of this at all. “Are we in trouble, then?”
“No, not at
all.” Barney explained aimlessly. “The Buddha said he could clear out that
light haze for me.”
Clem felt as if Barney was beginning to talk nonsense again.
“The mech in
the Advice Centre. “Barney explained. “It’s a mainframe and it works in VR.”
Things were falling into place, much to Clem’s relief. “So you’ll be going back
“Maybe. It was
very intense.” Barney didn’t really like the ease with which the Buddha/VR
mainframe read his mind. As he thought more about it, he realised that during
the entire session, he didn’t have a handle on the Buddha’s thoughts. It was
far too one-sided. The Buddha could call up AM&MG at any time and send him
back to Klondike Pass. They were living on borrowed time. “It read my mind.” He
was impressed. Barney seemed to be having all the fun! “Neat, huh?”
“No, not good.”
As their new circumstances weighed down on him. “It knows who I am and how we
got here. It’s probably calling up Klondike Pass right now.”
Clem had a feeling that this wouldn’t last. “Let’s make the most of it while
Barney had other concerns. “I’ve got to get rid of that light haze before we go
back. I don’t want them thinking I’m a rust bucket.” When they arrived at Sam’s
Kapella’s scruffy emporium, it hadn’t changed much from their last visit except
that Sam wasn’t hiding. Instead it trundled to the doorway to greet them:
“Hello, Brother Barney. I’ve been waiting for you. Come in, come in.” It
gestured obsequiously with a few of his metal tentacles. Business must be slow
indeed around here, Barney guessed noting Sam’s excitement at their arrival.
Then again, maybe Sam’s normally like this.
hangover from your Rocket Launcher, I hear.” Sam chatted away gaily as it
hooked Barney up to a well-used terminal. “A bit of kick, eh! Might have been a
bit much for you, seeing how you’re a Theta. Must have been one hell of a trip,
though. We’ll have you straightened out in no time.” And so on until Barney was
thoroughly plumbed in, trapped in this jolly metal spider’s web.
beginning to feel trapped, too. He looked down dubiously at the cabling that
was holding him immobile. “Will this take long?”
“Oh, about ten
minutes or so.” Sam replied casually as it was setting up the terminal to
process Barney. “Would you like to sell you data to the VR Sensorium at Satori?”
It asked casually as he was about to fire up the terminal.
Barney felt as
if he was due an explanation. “What data? And what would they want with it?” He
couldn’t believe that the VR Sensorium at Satori, the finest, most powerful and
unimaginably elaborate multiverse of fantasy worlds would actually want the
ravings of a Theta-Class mech. One that had been spurned by the local amateur
VR group because he’d slow their system down.
“That haze of
light as you described it.” Sam reassured alluding to Barney’s encounter with
the Advice Centre’s Buddha. “And the Sensorium uses data like yours as raw
material for VR themes. They pay well. They’re very generous. It would pay for
this treatment, a set of dust seals, and you’d still have some change left
determined to sell me those dust seals.” Barney realised that this was the time
to haggle and strike some sort of deal. But why the dust seals?
the big city or wherever you’re from.” Sam explained patiently. “If you haven’t
already noticed there seems to be dust everywhere you go around these parts.
Look at me.” Sam waved its limbs and metal tentacles at Barney. “All my
essential parts are totally sealed. It’s the only way to go. You might even
want to try some body armour. I know it’s not so fashionable these days, but it
certainly does the trick for your types.”
still convinced that he and Clem would be shipped back to AM&MG’s stale
corporate world at Klondike Pass within a few days now that the Buddha had read
his mind and his memory banks. He knew he’d been thoroughly scanned while he
was connected into the Buddha’s VR space. Still, he could show off the dust
seals he’d bought ‘in the outback’ back at Klondike Pass. “Okay, you win. I’ll
have the dust seals. But seeing how there’s money involved here, how much do I
get and how much does everything cost?”
into sales assistant counter clerk mode. “The VR Sensorium pays 350 Scruples
for data downloads, a full set of dust seals for a Theta-Class Econo-Drone
frame cost 300 Scruples, this session will set you back another 25 Scruples,
leaving you the 25 Scruples change I mentioned earlier. Local and sales tax
included and I don’t charge for fitting.”
really care either way. 25 Scruples. Hardly worth bothering with if they were
going back in a couple of days. They had enough money to last about a week. At
least he’d have the dust seals to back up his stories back at Klondike Pass.
“Fair enough. When do we start?” He asked nervously, still not entirely sure of
this isolated terminal he’d been hooked and tied up to.
Sam replied, eager to sell Barney a set of dust seals. Business had indeed been
slow of late. Most of its trade seemed to be little more than downloading
stim-o-viral data blocks and shipping them to Satori. It threw an ornamental
switch (the console was thoroughly solid-state with touch-sensitive controls
and switches) and the terminal hummed to life. Barney went still and began to
hum softly in tune with the terminal.
Clem had been
watching the scene unfold in Sam’s chaotic workshop. “So what exactly happens
now?” He found his encounters with the mech world a continuous learning curve.
the data into the terminal and then pipe it over to Satori.” Sam breezed as if
it was an everyday occurrence. Almost, but not quite.
“So how come
you’ve tied him up?” Clem didn’t see how it was necessary. Maybe Sam was weird
and into mech bondage or something even stranger.
“Well, it’s a
huge, highly compressed data block and it’s going to take a lot of work just to
chop it up and fit it down the data bus.”
Sam mused in the distracted way old hands do in front of newbies.
“Fine, but it
still doesn’t explain why you’ve tied him up like that.” Clem forced his
unanswered question home. He was concerned for Barney’s sake and felt he had a
right to know what was happening, so that he could tell Barney if he wanted to
know what happened while he was ‘out for the count’.
“The program I
have uses all the processors in Barney’s system to handle the data block.
Sometimes the motor centres fire at random, so it’ll help if he’s restrained. I
suppose I could have removed his limbs, but I don’t really like doing that.”
Sam was beginning to hold back. It didn’t want anyone to know that clearing out
stim-o-viral data blocks was all that was keeping it in business these days.
Life was hard on the Martian frontier.
“No, I don’t
think Barney would’ve liked that either.” Clem agreed. He’d noticed that Sam
had this routine down to a tee. “You’ve done this before?” He asked casually.
Sam hummed cagily. “A few times.” By now
Barney and the terminal’s humming was drifting lower in pitch under the heavy
and erratic load they were processing. Barney could feel the terminal at the
other end of the data link pulling on the light haze as if it were a solid blob
filling his memory. He was straining to force it out and felt it beginning to
budge. Slowly, but surely, they were winning. Back on the outside Clem looked
on as Barney twitched spasmodically. He was relieved to see that it was only
minor movement, nothing wild, violent or destructive. Sam fussed around busily
adjusting one device after another as it kept one eye focused on Barney, one on
Clem and another scanning around its poorly lit workshop.
Barney was winning and had finally pushed the last remains of the haze down the
data link. The unbelievable effort he put into ridding himself of the data
block was draining him. He felt as exhausted as if he’d done a double shift of
hard graft, when suddenly the final remains began slithering away on their own
volition. He watched it disappear down the link for a moment before his
attention returned to the outside world in Sam’s workshop. “Done it!” He
announced with the surprised pride of someone who hadn’t expected victory. He
was glad to have his own limited resources back intact. “Now for those dust
seals if you’ll untie me.”
Sam was only
too glad too oblige. Soon it was unpacking a box of dust seals and set about
Barney in the manner of a junior trainee in a tailor’s getting excited about
measuring up his first customer. Barney still felt a bit glazed and let Sam
whirr and fuss around him while Clem looked on bemusedly at Sam’s hammy
emotions. He felt as if he was watching a bad actor in an amateur play on the
local community channel. A short while later Barney was admiring his new dust
seals in his reflection in a shop window as Clem walked out wearing a new
parka. It had neo-Aztec designs in bright gold and orange. He posed for Barney.
“What do you think?”
know what to think. Humans were so concerned about their appearance. “Looks
good, Clem.” He tried to be cheerful. “We look like a couple of rubes now. Me
with my brand new dust seals stuck all over me and you with that jacket. Still,
there’s not much point in trying to fit in.” He trailed off despondently.
you so sure we’re going back so soon?” Clem wasn’t all that bothered. It had
been adventure enough for him already. He’d seen a whole other side to life on
Mars that he’d never known about before and he liked what he saw. He had
already made up his mind to come back to Montgomery or another independent town
as soon as he could.
“It’s just the
way the Buddha mainframe scanned me so casually. Even the police couldn’t do
what it did.” Barney felt that his one chance to go to Satori and discover his
past was slipping out of reach.
we’re going back to Klondike Pass. So what? We can always come back here
again.” Clem was being as realistic as possible. “We go back to Klondike Pass,
work, save up and come here on holiday. Easy.”
“I want to go
to Satori.” Barney whined miserably.
“So you go
there instead. What’s the problem?” Clem couldn’t bear seeing Barney like this
and held out a straw for him. “Maybe it wasn’t supposed to happen all at once.
Could be that life moves in little steps, showing us a way forward every now
and then.” He philosophised clumsily. “Being here has given us something to
work towards. Before all this happened, I never thought much about life outside
Klondike Pass. When I go back, I’m going to save up and move here. How about
you?” He reassured cheerfully.
Barney hummed approvingly. He could see the sense in what Clem was saying. He’d
get there eventually. Maybe not tomorrow, but at least within a longyear.
Something to work towards. He could live with that. “Yeah, sounds good. I
suppose.” That evening they were in the Wobbly Goblin. Clem had a beer and
half-smoked joint of grass in the ashtray in front of him while Barney was
playing games with a selection of stim-o-viral strips he’d bought at the bar.
He had made up his mind to try out at least one of each of the main types
before the goons from AM&MG came to collect them. Across the bar he noticed
one of the workers from the garage where he’d been cleaned up the night they
arrived in Montgomery. Barney was about to point him out to Clem when a
well-polished Beta-class mech and a clean-faced male clone approached their
“Do you mind
if we sit here?” The mech asked Barney. Clem and Barney moved over to make room
for the new arrivals. Clem was in the middle of telling Barney how funny all
the streetlights around the plaza looked as they swayed and waved when he was
tripping the previous night as the clone opened his briefcase and studied a few
documents. A few minutes later the
clone asked Barney. “Excuse me, are you Mr. Barney Theta-4 Klank?”
‘So this is
how it ends.’ Barney thought glumly. ‘At least they’re not armed. Might as well
go quietly. Maybe they’ll go easy on me.’ He wasn’t sure what to say and looked
to Clem for support. Clem shrugged his shoulders resignedly and took a deep
swig of his beer. He took that as his cue. “Yes.”
the Satori Temporal Studies Institute. I’m Klombert Dingbat.” The mech
introduced himself. “And this is my associate, Jim Fielding.”
“Uh?” Fell out
of Clem and Barney’s mouths in unbelieving unison.
wasn’t the least bit surprised by their reaction. “Not many people have heard
of us and we don’t often get a chance to do any field work, so when we heard
about you, we couldn’t pass it up.”
Barney was at a loss. He couldn’t see how a pair of academic geeks would find a
Theta-class drone mech interesting.
Klombert’s rehearsed pitch fell to bits. He turned to Jim and they conferred in
earnest whispers while Clem and Barney looked on in puzzlement, unable to hear
a word over the background hubbub of the bar. “You are Barney Theta-4 Klank and
you had a data block removed earlier today.” Klombert’s voice was tinged with a
shade of doubt as he quizzed Barney.
answered slowly. He wasn’t too sure about this pair. They could be cops for all
he knew. “What exactly is this Temporal Studies Institute?” he wanted to know
who and what this pair really was.
“We study the
mechanics of time, both relativistic and non-relativistic as well as other
related phenomena.” Jim explained patiently. “And you have no idea as to why
again, Barney felt as if he was missing the plot.
Klombert drummed a snappy rhythm with his fingers on the table for a few
moments before continuing. “What do you remember of your experience and the
data block?” Barney told him all that he could remember. “I see.” Klombert
mused aloud. “So you can’t remember it at all. Interesting. Would you be able
to come to the Advice Centre on Broxley Street tomorrow morning?”
sure if he was ready for another session with the Buddha quite yet. “I suppose
perked up and thumped his fist into the palm of his hand. “10 o’clock OK for
you?” He asked.
Barney looked at each other for a moment. “Yeah, sure.” Barney replied, not the
least bit sure of what he was letting himself in for.
their meeting along to an upbeat close. “Another Red Ale, Clem?” Clem nodded
his head agreeably and soon their visitors were gone leaving Clem and Barney in
the bar. Clem sipped on his beer between tokes and bursts of coughing while
Barney shuffled his stim-o-viral strips aimlessly unable to decide which one to
blurted out as the realisation slowly dawned on him. “That bastard knew my name
and I never even told him. Did you tell him?”
was already used to being outmanoeuvred. Everyone seemed to run rings around
Thetas. And then he met the Buddha.
“What else do
they know about us?” Clem asked rhetorically.
everything if the Buddha’s involved.” Barney’s graveyard cheer began to shape
up. “It’s like being an open book. Look on the bright side, Clem. At least
they’re not the Raiders. We gonna stay here all night?”
exhaustion showed on Clem’s face. “I need some kip and a wash-up.” He yawned as
he ran his hand across his stubbly chin. “I think I’ll try that EZ-Sleep place
round the corner. How about you?”
“I could do
with a break and a recharge. I could stay at the Nuts’n’Bolts Inn. It’s just
off the plaza.” He didn’t want to stay in the bar all night and meet the
policeman the following morning either. They agreed to meet up at the Advice
Centre the next morning and set off to put their heads down for the night. Clem
found himself in a sleeping tube. It was set into a wall that had row upon row
of sleeping tubes. He picked one that was surrounded by empty tubes, crawled in
and dozed off too tired to worry about the coming day. Barney’s ‘room’ at the
Nuts’n’Bolts Inn was little more than a storage box with a power terminal and a
data link. He hooked himself up and
spent some time ruminating over the turn of events since he’d been so abruptly
taken away from Klondike Pass. After a while he felt as if his mind was just
running in circles and needed a break. He set his timer and powered down for
ticked by blissfully for Barney. Clem, on the other hand was surrounded by the
rougher end of the human condition which included several loud snorers echoing
up and down the hallway outside his sleeping tube and a late arrival who woke
everyone up with a drunken symphony of violent vomiting, groaning and loud
swearing. The drunk soon passed out to everyone’s relief and Clem drifted
wearily off to sleep. He was awakened in the morning by the sound of a gay
couple in the tube next to his arguing and fucking loudly. It didn’t bother him
all that much as he was certain that he’d be going back to Klondike Pass soon
and put it all down to his ‘adventure’. He took his noisy neighbours as his cue
to leave and crawled out of his womb-like enclosure, looking forward to going
back to his cosy little room at Klondike Pass.
Clem spent the
early morning hours wandering around downtown Montgomery watching this Martian
frontier town rouse itself to life. Everyone seemed to know where they were
going and what they were doing, just like back at Klondike Pass, with the big
difference that here he was in an independent township free from the controlling
corporate grip of the company town he’d lived in before. He remembered
AM&MG’s unsubtle propaganda about the independent townships and how
precarious they were, but this place wasn’t just surviving, it was thriving!
Which brought him back to Barney’s point about AM&MG lying to them. It
looked like they were lying, after all. He idly wondered how much else they
lied about as he sipped on a coffee in a café on Broxley Street waiting for
Barney and those two mysterious characters from Satori.
Barney was sauntering
along the pavement and spotted Clem through the café window, went inside and
sat down beside him. “How’s things? Did you get a good night’s sleep?” He
greeted Clem cheerily.
chatting about their plans when Clem spotted the agents from Satori go into the
Advice Centre across the road. “Looks like they’ve arrived. I wonder what they
want to see us about?”
taking us back to Klondike Pass.” Barney assumed that they were really agents
from AM&MG sent out to bring them back to Klondike Pass. “Don’t forget the
stuff in the lock-up.” He reminded Clem worriedly. “We better hand all that
gear in as soon as possible.”
Clem shared Barney’s concerns. They took their time crossing the road and
stepped nervously into the Advice Centre.
morning.” Klombert effused with the nervous manner of the cloistered academic
who never sees much of the outside world. “I wasn’t sure you’d show up.” He
addressed Barney. “Jim will fill Clem in on the details.” And he led Barney
over to one of the cubicles where they plugged themselves into the VR
mainframe. No sooner than the connections were made, they found themselves
walking out of a grotto into an olive grove overlooking ancient Athens. The
Parthenon gleamed majestically under a brilliant blue summer sky, its unbroken
splendour overlooking the ancient city. Socrates strolled up to them. “Barney,
Klombert. Glad you could make it.”
confused, he was expecting to meet the Buddha in his crystal garden. “Buddha?”
“Yes, it’s me,
Barney.” Socrates reassured him warmly. “I’m always writing new scenes. It’s a
little hobby of mine. What do you think?”
around. It looked realistic enough to him. “Nice. Did you do the crystal
one of my early scenes. I hadn’t used it in ages.” Socrates sounded almost
wistful as he motioned for them to sit down on cut logs that had been laid out
in a circle. “Klombert tells me you don’t know why I’ve called you here.”
didn’t like the way the mainframe toyed with him. Play dumb and maybe this
conceited mainframe will get to the point.
the data block Sam Kapella cleared out yesterday.” Socrates explained. “I told
Klombert you couldn’t access it, but he didn’t believe me.” He gave Klombert a
scolding look before he continued. “Where’s Jim?”
outside with a Clem Abernathy, a male clone who arrived here with Barney.”
Klombert explained awkwardly.
“Yeah, he’s a
friend of mine.” Barney added in Clem’s defence.
“I know. You
travelled here together.” Socrates nodded his head sagely and then turned his
attention to Klombert. “Get them a pair of VR helmets out of the cupboard at
the end of the hall will you?” Klombert scuttled off to do Socrates’ bidding.
By the time he returned, Jim and Clem were seated in the olive grove with
Socrates. “I have something to show you.” He waved his hand over the ground and
a tri-D projection of Clem and Barney at the bar in the Technobabble appeared.
“As far as we can tell this is how it started.” Socrates let the scene roll.
They watched everyone in the bar slow down to a standstill and the blobs of
light floating around. Barney’s future self walked in and they all listened to
the conversation between Barney’s present and future selves. As it drew to a
close, they watched everyone speed up to normal again. Socrates replayed it a
few times in case Barney missed anything the first time around.
sensorium was going to use it as the basis of a wish fulfilment fantasy about
endless upgrades and longevity.” Klombert explained earnestly. “They were
checking your details and found out that you had actually been registered as
dead. They asked us to check you out before contacting Earth Fed.” He then
pointed to Socrates. “Dr. Memory here assures me that you’re not wanted for any
crimes at Klondike Pass. That leaves us with a possible temporal phenomenon and
a choice for you and your friend.”
right.” Socrates casually interrupted. “If there’s any substance to that
encounter with your future self, then you have to stay here in order to
maintain that timeline. But, then again, it’s just one of an infinity of
timelines that are forever branching out.”
“Have you ever
had anything like this before?” Barney asked Klombert. “This timeline war
“No, but we do
get quite a few sightings of both the future and the past here on Mars.” You
could tell Klombert was going on about his pet project. “We’re putting together
a history and time-map of Mars. Yours doesn’t fit in with what we’ve gathered
so far, but it certainly is interesting.”
Barney’s experience doesn’t involve you directly.” Jim addressed Clem. “If you
returned to Klondike Pass the psychs there would debrief you and lead them to
Barney. If Barney decides to stay, it would be best for you to stay too, for his
It was coming
too fast for Clem. First, Barney’s vision and now their lives being thrown into
chaos yet again. That was enough and now this geek had just given away the fact
that he’d been briefed fairly extensively about their backgrounds. He decided
to test Jim. “I’ve got a life back at Klondike Pass and my friends are there.
Now you’re suggesting we just turn our backs on that and start all over here. I
honestly don’t know. I’ll need some time to think things over.”
“A lot of
people died in the attack.” Socrates explained sympathetically. “Gordon was
Clive, Clarissa and Mitch?” Clem butted in.
silent for a moment. His attention was far away. “Mitch is alive and is still
working at Klondike Pass. Clive was killed and Clarissa was last seen being
taken prisoner by the Raiders. She may be alive, but there’s no further
information about her. I’m sorry about your friends, but no one could have
anticipated what happened. AM&MG weren’t negligent.”
right when he said it was like being an open book. Clem found Socrates oddly
reassuring in spite of it all. Socrates could have handed them over to
AM&MG, but he hadn’t. Clem felt as if Socrates really cared and was lost in
silence thinking over their situation when Barney broke the meditative silence
they’d all lapsed into.
you’ve shown me is real, then I ought to stay here in Montgomery for the time
being.” He surmised awkwardly, not quite believing his own conclusions. “But
then again, it could just have been a hallucination fantasy brought on by the
Klombert conceded. He still clung to his interpretation of the facts “But you
had no way of knowing that AM&MG had you and Clem listed as dead.”
assumed something had gone wrong when Clem’s bank account had been deleted. I
could’ve just guessed it. And as for my future self, I’m a Theta dammit. Damn
near the bottom of the scrap heap. Of course I want to upgrade myself. And what
better way than to meet an imaginary future self that’s upgraded beyond all
“Be that as it
may.” Socrates had to get through to Barney. “The fact remains that neither you
nor your friend officially exist any longer. In the light of your vision, for
the lack of a better description, I’m not about to hand you over to the
authorities. You might want to think things over, before you go trotting back
to Klondike Pass.”
serious, aren’t you?” Barney didn’t really believe a word he was hearing.
picked an olive from a nearby tree, looked at it at momentarily before flicking
it into the air with his thumb. “You could say so.” He sounded vaguely
distracted. “Maybe you should be, too.”
Barney knew what lay ahead and it was a rocky road indeed. “But if Clem and I
are going to stay here in Montgomery, we’re going to need jobs, seeing how
we’re nearly broke. Clem’s lost his life savings and it looks like his ID isn’t
valid any longer. Without any ID, he can’t get a job. And my ID’s been rejected
a few times, too. What am I going to do?”
had finally got Barney’s attention. “There’s plenty of casual work in town. No
questions asked, that sort of thing. Meanwhile, I’ll do what I can to sort out
your ID problems.”
“Any chance I
can get my savings back?” Clem chirped up hopefully.
“I’m not the
bank of free money.” Socrates sounded slightly disappointed. “I don’t know if
it’s even possible what with you being a wholly-owned clone. By law, on your
death, all your assets would revert to your owners. Which in your case would be
the Associated Metals & Mining Group. You might qualify for assistance
under the SCRA, but that’s a bit of a long shot.” His voice trailed away.
“What do you
mean, clone?” Clem demanded. He wasn’t a clone. He was a real human being, born
on Earth and emigrated to Mars. Still feeling guilty about the family he’d left
behind and just as determined to save up and bring them to join him here on
“Clone. As in
synthetic human being. Grown in a vat.” Socrates sounded as if he was
explaining the obvious to an idiot.
“No I’m not.”
Clem rebutted in reflexive defence.
“Yes you are.”
Socrates countered immediately with the air of certainty that comes to those
who know they’re right, even when they’re wrong. It degenerated into a
comically childish round of ‘Yes you are’, ‘No I’m not.’ Which ended as
abruptly as it had started as Clem sat dumbfounded looking around at his
companions in the virtual olive grove. They all nodded their heads solemnly in
agreement with Socrates.
“But I’ve got
a family back on Earth.” Clem cried out in desperation.
haven’t.” Socrates was doing his best to break the news compassionately to
Clem. “That’s just something they programmed you to believe.”
that’s… monstrous.” Clem spluttered. He was lost for words.
Socrates sounded philosophical. “But it’s all perfectly legal. After all, they
own you and within the limits of the SCRA they can pretty well do what they
like with you.”
felt as if he’d been hit on the head with a brick. Just what exactly was he
supposed to believe? Maybe this was a just a weird flashback from the peyote
he’d taken a couple of days ago. “So how come no one’s ever told me before?”
hundreds of time back at Klondike Pass.” Barney confessed wearily. “But they’d
reprogram you every night in your sleep. I gave up after a while because it was
this SCRA thing you mentioned?” Clem was surprised by the aggressive tone to
his voice. He had been living a lie and was angry at AM&MG for what they’d
done. Yet here he was shouting at friends who were in no way responsible as if
it had all been their fault.
Synthetics’ Civil Rights Act of 2115.” Socrates attempted to defuse Clem’s
justified anger. “Without which, none of us would be here. You might want to
read up on it sometime.” Barney, Jim and Klombert all nodded their heads sagely
in assent for Clem’s benefit to underline Socrates’ point. Socrates brightened
up a bit and patted Clem’s virtual back. “Chin up, Clem. There’s plenty of
loopholes in that piece of legislation for you to exploit now that you’re
officially dead. With a favourable judge, you might be able to win your freedom
legally instead of waiting another 20 longyears, which is what I gather the
remainder of your tenure stood at. Yes indeed, you’re a lucky young man, Clem!
Out here in the independent townships, the judges aren’t all that well disposed
to the corporations and I know just the one for you. Yes, leave it with me and
we’ll have you sorted out. Might take a little while, though.”
believe his ears. One moment, his world was being shattered and now Socrates
was throwing him a lifeline as if it was the most natural thing to do. “Yes, of
course.” He muttered dumbly. “So what do I have to do?”
you’ve taken all possible measures to contact your owners and that you are
capable of looking after yourself.” Klombert butted in helpfully.
“In real terms
it means that you have to get a job, find yourself somewhere to live and stay
out of trouble with the police.” Socrates explained for Clem’s sake. “As for
‘taking all possible efforts...’ that’s where a good judge and I come in.” He
Clem wanted to be sure that Socrates’ plan was sound and that he wouldn’t come
unstuck later on.
“Well, by your
coming here, I can vouch that you’ve made sufficient efforts to contact
AM&MG. That goes for Barney, too.” Socrates added as an aside. “The soonest
I can set you up is in two months’ time, so you’ll have plenty of time to get
the character references you’ll need.” He looked around the assembled group,
his eyes twinkling genially as he clasped his hands together and brought their
meeting to a close. “So, I guess we’ll all be seeing a bit more of each other
in the weeks to come. Drop in any time to let me know how you’re getting along.
Remember, the Doctor is always on!” And he led his guests towards the grotto in
the olive grove.
Clem and Jim were removing their VR helmets to find Barney and Klombert waiting
for them. Klombert warned Barney against taking any more Rocket Launchers, but
asked him to get in contact if he had any more anomalous experiences. They
discussed Barney’s experience further while Jim gave Clem useful advice for
clones new to life in an independent town. Hours later, Clem and Barney stood
outside the Advice Centre, their heads reeling from their experience. “Well,
that certainly changes things.” Clem felt as if he was stepping into the
unknown. “And it calls for a drink!”
later, Barney and Clem were unwinding in the Wobbly Goblin after a long day’s
work in the market with a group of porters from the market. Loud electro-rock
music was pounding out of the video jukebox as Big Bob Wrexham bragged loudly
about his life at the market to his new recruits. “You shoulda seen that lot last
week! One of the funniest capers in a long while.” He lowered his voice in a
conspiratorial tone. “There was this old guy from out of town selling crystals
in the market. Remember him?” He asked his assistant and obliging sidekick,
Nick Dee, a gaunt wiry character with greasy, lank hair and intense, dark eyes.
grimly for a moment. “Yeah, bloody fool. He shoulda known what would happen if
he went and sold Psionic Crystals out in the open.”
somewhere along the line Earth Fed must’ve got wind of him,” Bob continued now
that Jim had underlined his story for Clem and Barney’s sake. “Because a squad
came down on the market in the afternoon lookin’ around. Oh, the look on that
guy’s face when he saw those troopers comin’ through the crowd. He grabbed up
his crystals in the tablecloth and legged it out of there as fast as he could.
The poor bastard never stood a chance. Once he realised he couldn’t escape, he
started chuckin’ ‘em everywhere in a desperate attempt to get rid of the
evidence. Man, there were crystals all over the place.”
shoulda seen it.” Nick picked up the thread, establishing his position in their
hierarchy over Barney and Clem. “Every time a black suit came up to nick
someone for possession, they’d sling their crystals through the air across the
market. The damn things were flying everywhere. I got hit on the head by one of
happened to that guy who was selling the crystals?” Clem asked dumbly. He
couldn’t see why Earth Fed would make such a fuss about some crystals.
“Ah, the black
suits tackled him and took him away.” Bob sighed, remembering the fun everyone
had that afternoon at the troopers’ expense. “I don’t think we’ll be seeing him
again. I really feel sorry for that old geezer.”
“Yeah, but he
should’ve known better.” Nick chipped in. “Earth Fed will wipe his mind for
sure. Thing is, at his age it’ll just as likely kill him.” Big Bob hummed
sagely in agreement as he scratched his chin.
exactly are these crystals?” Clem asked dumbly. “And why are they so special?”
Nick guffawed at Clem’s ignorance as Bob spluttered into his beer in surprise.
“You really are new to town aren’t you? Sometimes I wonder what you lot in the
big cities talk about.” Clem stood his grounding waiting for an explanation.
come they’re so special that Earth Fed sends it’s black suits in to slap
someone down?” Barney wanted to know what these crystals were all about.
“You can use
‘em to see the future or the past, even use ‘em like commsets if you want to.”
Bob mocked the crystals purported properties.
“Oh, I dunno.”
Bob sounded unconvinced. “They’ve never worked for me, but other people claim
“So that’s why
Earth Fed are so down on people who have these crystals?” Barney was trying to
get a handle on why these crystals were so special and was failing miserably.
was how it looked to Bob. “The bastards are complete control freaks. They don’t
want anyone using any communications system they can’t monitor.”
nothing like that at all.” Nick butted in. “The damn things are artefacts. They
come from the old Martian forts. Earth Fed don’t want anyone knowing there was
someone else here on Mars long before us.”
Martians?” Clem perked up. He remembered the scene at the loading yard vividly.
He could still see the huge frozen bodies in the ice blocks stacked up in the
loading yard back at Klondike Pass.
right.” Nick spoke with the conviction of a true believer. “They lived in these
underground cities and that’s where the Psionic Crystals come from.”
“You ever seen
one?” Bob interrupted.
Martian?” Clem was about to tell Bob about what he’d seen back at Klondike Pass
when Barney kicked his foot. “Ow!”
haven’t.” Barney butted in quickly and tried to steer the conversation. “So
where can we get hold of one of those Psionic Crystals you mentioned?”
up. Suddenly these two dimwits Bob had hired began to smell like Earth Fed
agents. He’d manage to stay clear of them all these years and there was no way
he’d fall into such a stupid trap. So he opted to pass the buck. If Earth Fed
were looking to bust someone, then it would have to be someone else. “Just keep
your ear to the ground. The local kids are always selling ‘em.” He answered
evasively. “Just you wait ‘till the Watusis get back. You’re bound to find a
few at one of their gigs. That right, Bob?”
Bob missed Nick’s paranoia completely and looked around the bar for a moment.
“Oi, oi! I think you’re in luck, lads. The Crystal Kid’s hanging out tonight.
This one’s givin’ ‘em away for free.” He led them over to where a young man
with Hispanic features was sitting reading a book. “Hey, Crystal Kid.” Bob
called out. “We’ve got someone who wants to meet you.”
Kid looked up and saw a group of scruffy, half-drunk market porters looking
down at him. He recognised Bob and Nick from the market, but the other two were
newcomers. The mech looked vaguely familiar. Hadn’t he called in at the garage
a couple of days ago? “Hello, what can I do for you?”
“Bob and Nick
were telling us all about these Psionic Crystals.” Barney felt the flow of
events pull him along. He’d succeeded in keeping Clem from talking about the
Martians they’d found at Klondike Pass by talking about the crystals and had to
keep the ball rolling until they were away from their employers to remind Clem
not to tell all and sundry about their lives. “And I’d really like to see one.”
too.” Clem joined in dumbly.
Kid hummed for a moment. “Well, I haven’t got any on me right now, but I can
get you some in a day or two.” Clem and Barney were quite excited by this turn
of events and began asking him all sorts of questions about Psionic Crystals.
Nick led Bob
off to the bar for another drink. When they were out of earshot, he asked Bob.
“Do you think they’re Earth Fed?”
pair of idiots?” It was Bob’s turn to laugh. “They couldn’t even bust mother
hen for laying an egg!”
“It could just
be an act.” Nick sounded worried. “They were so interested in the crystals.”
“Not until I
told ‘em that story.” Bob wasn’t all that worried. “Hadn’t heard a peep out of
‘em up until then. So if it an act, it’s a good one.”
Earth Fed might have you on their records, but they don’t have me and that’s
the way I want to keep it.” Nick hissed nervously.
wasn’t having any of it. “If they’re cops, they’ll probably nail the Crystal
Kid. He’s almost as stupid as that old fart I was telling ‘em about. And if
Crystal Kid’s still dishing out his sweeties in a few weeks’ time, we can sound
the all clear. Until then, we don’t know where to get the damn things.”
“Sounds OK to
me.” Nick’s paranoia began to ebb as he felt the reassuring logic of Bob’s
Nick. You worry too much.” Bob played the confident know-it-all to set Nick’s
worries at ease. “You’re more likely to find Earth Fed agents posing as hippies
looking for crystals in and around town. Just leave that lot to get on with it
and we’ll soon see where those two idiots are at.”
Barney were chattering away like a pair of excited schoolchildren with their
newfound friend asking him all about these mysterious Psionic Crystals. “So how
exactly do they work?” Clem asked.
“They seem to
be able to enhance telekinetic abilities.” The Crystal Kid explained, almost
unsure of what he was saying. “You have to go into a trance-like meditation
before anything happens. Not everyone gets anything out of them. It’s a bit
hit-and-miss.” He lapsed into a thoughtful silence for a moment and looked
closely at Barney. “I’ve seen you somewhere before.”
that’s quite possible.” Barney began to back-pedal. He recognised the Crystal
Kid from when he went to the garage to collect the finder’s reward for
supposedly spotting the escape pod they’d abandoned and wasn’t all that sure if
he should break the ice quite yet. “It’s a small town here. I’m sure you’ll see
everyone after a short while.” He answered evasively.
“That’s it, I
remember now!” The Crystal Kid exclaimed. “I saw you at the garage, the day
before yesterday. I work there.”
“Oh, why it
must have been.” Barney faked surprise. “I went to the General MitsuCorp garage
looking for work.” He told a half-truth. He had actually enquired about the
possibility of working at the garage while waiting for his claim for the
finder’s reward to be processed. “But there wasn’t anything going.”
“Oh, sorry to
hear that.” The Crystal Kid sympathised. “Things are a bit slow at the moment.”
And as consolation offered the suggestion: “You might want to try again if
things pick up.”
“Nick told us
that those Crystals were made by Martians.” Clem excitedly blurted out to the
Crystal Kid. “Ow!” The bruise on his shin just got larger. He realised that
Barney had kicked him yet again. “What’s the matter Barney?”
He answered casually. “I was just thinking it might be a good idea to turn in
early so you can get up in time for work tomorrow.”
couldn’t make sense of Barney’s concern. It didn’t make sense.
Kid perked up. “Martians? I’ve heard some talk about that idea, but no-one’s
been able to prove or disprove that one.”
There was no
stopping Clem now and Barney knew it. He didn’t want to tell the Crystal Kid
about what they’d seen back at Klondike Pass, but it looked as if Clem was
going to spill the beans. “I saw some Martian bodies frozen in ice.” Clem
revealed excitedly as Barney crumpled in despair. What trouble would this naïve
clone land them in now?
Crystal Kid sounded casually indifferent to Clem’s news. “And where was that?”
“At the Ice
Quarries at Klondike Pass.” Clem eagerly poured out his experience to this
stranger. “There were loads of ‘em. Great big black blobs with tentacles frozen
in the ice.”
Pass? Isn’t that up by the Northern Ice cap?” The Crystal Kid quizzed Clem.
“You’ve come a long way.”
“Yes, we’re on
holiday” Barney butted in with his lie whilst pressing his metal foot firmly on
Clem’s softer flesh and bone foot in a desperate attempt to shut him up. It
worked! Clem winced with pain, giving Barney his chance. “I’m on my way to
visit Satori and Clem’s looking around the townships. He’s thinking of moving
here when his contract expires.” And then addressed Clem directly: “Isn’t that
couldn’t make sense of Barney’s actions, but Clem had been thinking about
staying in Montgomery. So he decided to follow Barney’s half-truth. “Oh, yes.”
He tried to fake excited interest.
happened to these Martians you saw?” The Crystal Kid leaned forward in interest.
his foot firmly in place and replied as casually as he could before Clem opened
his mouth. “Earth Fed showed up and took the whole lot away. That was the last
we ever saw of them.”
rumours about Martians, but nothing solid has ever turned up. I’d be very
interested in a copy of anything left in your memory banks about these
Barney’s turn to clam up. He’d need time to think about what pictures and data
would be safe to show the Crystal Kid. “I could have something ready for you by
this time tomorrow.” He replied cagily.
gives me time to get a blank data strip.” The Crystal Kid sounded pleased with
Barney’s offer. “I think you’ve got a deal there…” He trailed off.
Crystal Kid repeated the mech’s name. “Bob doesn’t know my name, so he just
calls me The Crystal Kid. It seems as if everyone’s using that handle for me.”
He chuckled ironically at the risqué glamour of such a name. “I’m Jazz, Jasper
Rodriguez. And your friend?”
Clem looked up
from nursing his aching, bruised shin and sore feet and tried to put on his
best smile. “Uh, Clem.”
“What say we
meet up somewhere quieter tomorrow evening like the Technobabble? You know the
place?” Jazz pointedly asked Clem.
“Huh?” Clem was
somewhat surprised seeing how Barney had taken over the conversation and most
of Jazz’s attention. “Yeah, sure. What sort of time?”
okay with you?” Jazz liked meeting new people and wanted to make the most of
it. Barney and Clem agreed to meet him there the next day after work. Jazz made
his excuse to leave: “I’ve got to go now and get an early night. Busy day
tomorrow. Don’t worry if I’m a bit late. Oh, either of you guys got a commset?
I could give you a call to let you know where I am.”
Barney looked at each other for a moment. “Er, no actually. Never really needed
one before.” Clem explained lamely.
always leave a message for me at the Mech Advice Centre. It does a messaging
service.” Barney offered hopefully.
“Fine, I’ll do
that if I’m likely to be late.” Jazz closed their conversation and set off
leaving Clem and Barney in the bar. They sat in silence for a while mulling
over their encounter before Clem angrily grabbed Barney’s arm and pulled him
across the table.
were you doing kicking me like that, you stupid bastard? It hurts like hell.”
Clem let out a torrent of pain-driven anger.
“It was the
only way I could shut you up.” Barney cringed and explained lamely. He knew all
about fleshies, their weaknesses and how they suffered pain when they were
damaged. This would be an uphill struggle. “I’ll make it up to you. You’ve got
to stop telling everyone we meet about where we’re from and what we saw at
Klondike Pass. Those Raiders who attacked it and took us away weren’t playing
games.” Barney was doing his level best to reason with Clem. “Earth Fed, the
Raiders and goodness knows who else are quite prepared to kill anyone who gets
in their way over those Martians we saw and these Psionic Crystals. I think it
would be a lot safer to play dumb with everyone until we’re sure we can trust
them. You with me?”
“Yeah, I guess
you’re right.” Clem conceded weakly. He was annoyed that Barney had such a good
reason to hurt him. Clem felt as if he was suffering for being his natural,
friendly, trusting self. “I could do with some painkillers and something for
all the bruises on my shin.”
Barney hadn’t been too happy about kicking his friend quite as hard as he’d
done and was glad for a chance to make amends. “Let’s go to the pharmacy and
see what they’ve got.” Clem limped his way through the next day’s work while
they discussed what they’d tell Jazz about themselves. They were hauling some
bales of wool for a trader through the bustling marketplace on a trolley edging
their way past knots of traders and customers crowding around the stalls. Clem
had been thinking over Barney’s warning all day and still couldn’t see any way
to keep Jazz from knowing too much. “So what do we tell Jazz?” He asked Barney.
“There’s not much
left to tell him, is there?” Barney quipped wearily. “Don’t tell him how we got
here. We’re on a working holiday and I’m going to Satori, okay?”
makes sense.” Clem realised that it might complicate matters if they had to
explain how they were kidnapped and escaped to their new lives in Montgomery.
“Let’s keep it clean and sweet.”
Barney cheered him on. “You’re getting the hang of it now. First we’ve gotta
see how far we can trust him before we open up on anything else.”
really all that interested in those Psionic Crystals last night or were you
just trying to distract us?”
“A bit of both
really.” Barney reasoned. “There must be something to them, otherwise why so
much fuss? I mean, look at all the hoohah that blew up when we found those
bodies back at Klondike Pass. Would if Earth Fed are clamp down on Psionic
Crystals if they were just a load of old scrap?”
delivered the bales of wool and the set about collecting empty pallets to bring
back the depot from which they would pick up their next errand. “So what are
you going to download for Jazz?”
the first day only. I’ve got plenty of close-ups from when we were loading them
into freighter.” Barney paused before continuing. “I’m not sure about including
anything involving the Earth Fed presence there.”
impress the seriousness of it all upon him. After all you don’t want him
blabbing to everyone he knows. Dunno about the lecture Major Cartwright gave us
in the canteen. That might cause us more problems.”
I was thinking.” Barney sounded relieved. “And definitely nothing of the second
day. That should be more than enough to keep him busy. Maybe we could get a
crystal or two in exchange.” His mood turned gloomy. “Thing is he looks like
the type who’ll tell everyone about the Martians.”
always blow it out then.” Clem suggested hopefully.
“Where are we
going to hide and what excuses would we have to cook up when he found us?”
Barney wallowed helplessly in self-inflicted despair. “This town’s too small
and we’re stuck here for the time being. He knows we work in the market, so he
only needs to come here to find us.”
“It’s a bridge
we’ll have to cross sooner or later.” Clem offered philosophically. “Let’s hope
he doesn’t have too many friends.”
mind getting hold of some of those crystals, though.” Barney mused hopefully.
They spent the rest of the day trudging around the market running errands and
discussing their plans. That evening they approached the Technobabble in
nervous anticipation. “This could be a trap.”
“Well if it
is, the next thing we know is that we’ll be back at Klondike Pass with Mitch
telling us where we’ve been and not believing a word of it. We could still back
out and say we had to work late.” Clem offered his mech friend a last escape.
summoned up his meagre reserves of courage. “Aw, what the heck. We’ve got
nothing to lose. Let’s go.” And he led the way into the coffee-house with Clem
following timidly behind. Sure enough, there was Jazz. He saw Clem and Barney
entering and waved them over to his table.
there you are!” He greeted them warmly. “I managed to get a blank data strip on
my lunch break. I can’t wait to see a replay of the Martians you saw.”
I was wondering if we could do a deal.” Barney wasn’t all that sure how to go
about haggling, but he felt that the data he was giving to Jazz had a certain
Jazz asked warily, his friendly expression took on a more studied, almost
cautious look. “Go on.”
about a couple of crystals in exchange for the data?” Barney tried to sound as
casual as possible to mask his lack of confidence.
stupid of me!” Jazz blurted out his apology. “I wasn’t thinking, was I? I
should’ve made you the offer right from the start. Yes, of course. How many do
Barney looked at each other for a moment. They both realised that they could
name their price, but hadn’t a clue what to ask for. Barney broke their
silence. “Two crystals would do nicely. One for me and one for Clem.” Clem felt
that Barney could have gone higher than that but then realised that the only
place they had to keep them was in their lock-up. Not the most secure of places
and if the story Big Bob had told them was true then they wouldn’t want to be
caught with a stash of Psionic Crystals. So he nodded his head in agreement
Jazz was taken
aback by their modest demand but tried not to show it. They could have asked
for more and he would have obliged them. Especially if the data Barney was
going to download proved interesting. Still, who was he to question them?
“Fine, but I don’t have any crystals with me right now. I keep mine at home. We
could go over to my place if you want if you want them now.” He began to sound
reluctant as he made his offer.
“Sure.” Clem eagerly took him up. After all this he wanted
to see what these Psionic Crystals were all about. So they finished off their
drinks and Jazz led them the short distance through the evening dusk along
Ventura Street towards a well-kept block of studio flats. Magnolia and dwarf
Cypress trees stood in an open row in front with pools of light from the street
lamps between each tree. A mat of Virginia Creeper was making its’ way along
one end of the building, blurring the lines of the building into the gathering
night. They went up a short flight of stairs on the outside leaving Ventura
Street with its’ buzzing bistros, sleeping businesses and warm-lit homes behind
for Jazz’s messy studio flat. Old clothes, books and other bits of day-to-day
junk lay littered around the place.
Jazz offered them drinks and then placed a small wooden box
on a low table in front of Barney and Clem. He set the data strip down beside
it and the opened the box. A faint glow of light spilled out as he lifted the
lid away. Clem and Barney fell silent
and looked on in wonder. A collection of crystals lay inside the like of which
they’d never seen before. Some glowed with opalescent light a few had trails of
light swirling around inside them while the rest were faintly coloured
translucents with specks of light frozen in them.
Clem’s first thought was that they might be radioactive.
“Are they safe?”
“Oh, completely.” Jazz replied confidently as he picked two
out to offer to Barney and Clem. “Have a closer look. Take your time and choose
whichever one you want.” He turned his attention to Barney and pointed to the
data strip. “Whenever you’re ready.”
Barney had been totally absorbed with the crystals. He found
them intriguing, but still couldn’t see why Earth Fed had made possession of
Psionic Crystals illegal. “Yes, of course.” He answered distractedly.
“Fascinating.” He picked up the data strip and plugged it into one of his input
slots. “Be with you in a couple of minutes.”
Clem, meanwhile, was busily handling all the crystals in the
box staring intently at each one in the vain hope that something might happen.
He watched the trails of light on one crystal react to his touch and imagined
he could feel the dripping globs of light hanging off another one. “They work
through meditative trance.” Jazz explained. “Find one that you can link with
and use it.” Clem focused on each crystal in turn and eventually settled on
one which had multicoloured trails of
light swirling around inside it. He felt as if he had some sort of reaction to
it but it could have just as easily been the beers and hash he’d had that
By the time he looked up, Jazz had plugged the data strip
into his Tri-D set and was listening intently while Barney explained the scene
at the loading yard. The blocks of ice were stacked over 60 metres in height.
He zoomed in on one of the blocks. “And here you can see at least three of them
quite clearly. The last one along was sliced on the edge of the block, but it’s
hard to make out any internal structure. And over there you’ll notice what look
like tentacles, but I could be wrong.” Barney rolled the show through endless
scenes out at the quarry and then fast-forwarded to when they were loading up
the freighters. You could see the heavily armed Earth Fed guards every now and
then in the background. “Here we are loading up the blocks into freighters. I
guess they took ‘em away for closer examination. That’s the last we ever saw of
“They’re certainly large, at least 3 metres across. And
those tentacles! Not anything like what I imagined.” Jazz sounded genuinely
“Yeah, so much for the little green men.” Clem quipped
“More like big black blobs.” Barney added for good measure.
is very interesting.” Jazz spoke dreamily, as if his mind was elsewhere. “Mind
you, it’s quite odd that nothing like this has ever turned up before.”
they turn up all the time at Klondike Pass.” Clem felt no harm in sharing some
of their knowledge with Jazz.
that Earth Fed keep a real tight lid on it.” Barney butted in quickly before
Clem got too carried away. “They have ways of making sure it doesn’t get out.”
heard.” Jazz had the distant tone of a
person who always assumed that unspeakable misfortunes always happened to
someone else. “They say that that mindwipes are very effective.”
Clem added with the finalism that comes from having had his mind thoroughly
messed around by AM&MG, Earth Fed and who knows what else.
“Did they say
where they were taking the bodies?” Jazz inquired hopefully. As if there was
any chance that Earth Fed would let him get anywhere near them
squeak.” Barney’s eyes dimmed as he replied dismally. “You’ve seen the size of
those freighters. They could easily get off-planet, maybe even all the way the
Earth. They could be anywhere by now.”
“Nick told us
that Psionic Crystals come from old Martian forts.” Clem had arrived at the
obvious conclusion and put it to Jazz. “Do you think the Martians we saw built
“It could be.”
Jazz had already made the same connection. “But without any conclusive evidence
we’d be hard pressed to make a solid case.”
crystals came from one of their forts.” Clem was already a believer and it
excited him. “Is there one near here?”
Jazz back-pedalled. He felt as if things were moving a bit quicker than he’d
know.” Clem felt as if he was stating the obvious. “Where these crystals come
Jazz feigned ignorance. He didn’t want to let on that that was where he
gathered up his steady supply of Psionic Crystals. Though to most locals his
source was obvious. “There is one near here. Why?”
“We could go
out there and have a look around.” Clem had a brainwave. “See if we find any
Martian bodies there.”
Jazz wasn’t convinced. “But no-one’s ever found anything like what you saw at
Klondike Pass in the fort. Mind you, the place is huge and it’s never been
fully explored, so you never now. And then there’s all the other forts. It
could take you the rest of your lifetime to check them all out.”
“Well, I live
a bit longer than you fleshies, so that’s not such a problem for me.” Barney
added proudly. “And it sounds a whole lot more interesting than pushing carts
around the market. When can we go?” He tried not to sound as dumbly eager as
“I’m a bit
busy this week.” Jazz wanted to put them off, but he could see that he had no
chance. “Maybe next weekend. We’ll have to be careful. Earth Fed put
surveillance cameras all over the place. You don’t want to get caught out
“Sounds to me
like they’re trying to hide something.” Clem observed. “What with all the fuss
they make about Psionic Crystals. Sure, they’re pretty, but so what? I say we
take a look and see what they want to keep from us.” Jazz surrendered wearily
and agreed to take them there the following weekend. They spent the rest of the
evening talking about Psionic Crystals and fantasising about what they’d find
in the fort. “What if we meet one of them? I hope he’s in a good mood.” Clem
and Barney liked the warm, cosy chaos in Jazz’s flat and only left reluctantly
to return to their miserable worker’s digs. Clem held his crystal in his hand
as they walked out onto Ventura Street towards EZ-Sleep and it’s diabolical
sleeping tubes. “Do you think we ought to put them in our lock-up?”
“No, and put
that thing away. You don’t know who might see your crystal.” Barney was getting
annoyed with Clem’s slack attitude. He could get them into needless trouble.
“I’ve got plenty of places in my body where I can hide my crystal. I’d suggest
you stick yours up your butt, but it might hurt.” He joked grimly.
Clem wasn’t amused by Barney’s last comment and stuffed his crystal down his
underpants. But within a few paces it ended up with one sharp corner sticking
into his balls. Ouch! So he put it into one of his jacket pockets instead and
hoped that he wouldn’t be searched.
As soon as his
guests had left, Jazz loaded up the data strip into his Tri-D set and pored
over the pictures with the frozen bodies, zooming in as far as the resolution
in Barney’s eyes had been capable of until the pictures were becoming fields of
blocky, enlarged pixels and back again. He studied it for hours, eyes wide in
rapture. “Now where have I seen you before?” And he knew the answer as he spoke
that question to his empty room.