Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 9: Buddha-in-a-box.

     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.
     “Huh?” 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.”
     “Can you remember how to get there?” Clem asked lamely. “I’ve lost my map.”
     Alarm bells rang in Barney’s head. “You haven’t lost your money, have you?” He feared the worst.
     Clem fumbled 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.”
     Clem understood. “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.
     “Hello, 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.
     “Sorry, I don’t get you.” Barney was a bit puzzled by the Buddha’s answer. Was he trying to test him?
     The Buddha read Barney’s mind. “No, not a test, Barney. I am the Advice Centre.”
     “You’re a 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.
     “Yes. Quite 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.
     “What’s the question?” The Buddha asked kindly in order to draw Barney out of his shell.
     “But you 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.
     “True.” The 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.
     “Exactly.” Barney did his best to act casual in the presence of a mainframe that outclassed him on every level.
     The Buddha 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.
     Barney 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 tomorrow.”
     “Excellent.” 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.”
     Clem had 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?”
     “Interesting.” Barney sounded a bit distant. “I’ve got to back to that shop where we tried to sell the data strips yesterday.”
     “Oh.” Clem 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.”
     “The Buddha?” 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.”
     “Right.” Things were falling into place, much to Clem’s relief. “So you’ll be going back again?”
     “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 blurted out.
     “Freaky.” Clem 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.”
     “Oh well.” Clem had a feeling that this wouldn’t last. “Let’s make the most of it while we’re here.”
     “Yeah.” But 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.
     “Got a 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.
     Barney was 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 over.”
     “You’re 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?
     “This isn’t 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.”
     Barney was 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?”
     Sam flipped 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.”
     Barney didn’t 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.
     “Right now.” 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.
     “We download 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.
     “Mmmmmmmm.” 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.
     Deep inside, 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?”
     Barney didn’t 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.
     “What makes 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.
     “Okay, so 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.
     “Mmmmmm.” 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 table.
     “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.”
     “We’re from 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.
     Klombert 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.”
     “Heard what?” Barney was at a loss. He couldn’t see how a pair of academic geeks would find a Theta-class drone mech interesting.
     “Oh.” 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.
     “Yes.” 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 we’re here?”
     “No.” Once again, Barney felt as if he was missing the plot.
     “Hmmmmm.” 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?”
     Barney wasn’t sure if he was ready for another session with the Buddha quite yet. “I suppose so.”
     “Great!” Jim perked up and thumped his fist into the palm of his hand. “10 o’clock OK for you?” He asked.
     Clem and 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.
     Jim whisked 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 try first.
     “Damn!” Clem blurted out as the realisation slowly dawned on him. “That bastard knew my name and I never even told him. Did you tell him?”
     “No.” Barney 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.
     “Probably 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?”
     “Naw.” The 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 the night.
     The hours 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.
     They were 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?”
     “Probably 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.”
     “Yeah, sure.” Clem shared Barney’s concerns. They took their time crossing the road and stepped nervously into the Advice Centre.
     “Ah, good 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.”
     Barney was 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?”
     Barney looked around. It looked realistic enough to him. “Nice. Did you do the crystal garden?”
     “Yes. That’s 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.”
     “No.” Barney didn’t like the way the mainframe toyed with him. Play dumb and maybe this conceited mainframe will get to the point.
     “It’s about 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?”
     “Oh, he’s 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.
     “The VR 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.”
     “That’s 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 thingy?”
     “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.”
     “Although 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 sake.”
     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 killed.”
     What about Clive, Clarissa and Mitch?” Clem butted in.
     Socrates fell 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.”
     Barney was 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.
     “If what 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 Rocket Launcher.”
     “True.” 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.”
     “Well, I 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 recognition?”
     “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.”
     “You’re serious, aren’t you?” Barney didn’t really believe a word he was hearing.
     Socrates 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.”
     “Maybe.” 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?”
     “Ah!” Socrates 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 Mars.
     “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.
     “No you 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, that’s… monstrous.” Clem spluttered. He was lost for words.
     “Maybe.” 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.”
     “Oh.” Clem 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?”
     “I did 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 pointless.”
     “And what’s 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.
     “The 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.”
     Clem couldn’t 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?”
     “Show that 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 beamed proudly.
     “How’s that?” 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.
     Moments later 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!”
     Two days 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.
     Nick chuckled grimly for a moment. “Yeah, bloody fool. He shoulda known what would happen if he went and sold Psionic Crystals out in the open.”
     “Anyway 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.”
     “Yeah, you 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 ‘em.”
     “So what 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.
     “So what exactly are these crystals?” Clem asked dumbly. “And why are they so special?”
     “You what?” 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.
     “Yeah, how 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.
     “Really.” Clem was fascinated.
     “Oh, I dunno.” Bob sounded unconvinced. “They’ve never worked for me, but other people claim they have.”
     “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.
     “Yeah.” That 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.”
     “Nah, it’s 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.”
     “What, like 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.
     “That’s 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.
     “What? A Martian?” Clem was about to tell Bob about what he’d seen back at Klondike Pass when Barney kicked his foot. “Ow!”
     “No, we 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?”
     Nick clammed 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?”
     “For sure.” 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.”
     The Crystal 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.”
     “Yeah, me too.” Clem joined in dumbly.
     The Crystal 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?”
     “What? That 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.”
     “Yeah well, 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.
     “Relax.” Bob 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 plan.
     “Honestly, 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.”
     Clem and 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.”
     “Ah yes, 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?”
     “Oh, nothing.” 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.”
     “Eh?” Clem couldn’t make sense of Barney’s concern. It didn’t make sense.
     The Crystal 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?
     “Really?” The 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.”
     “Klondike 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 right?”
     “Huh?” Clem 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.
     “So what happened to these Martians you saw?” The Crystal Kid leaned forward in interest.
     Barney kept 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.”
     “I’ve heard 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 Martians.”
     It was 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.
     “Fine. That 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.
     “Oh, Barney.”
     “Barney.” The 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?”
     “Half-seven 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.”
     Clem and Barney looked at each other for a moment. “Er, no actually. Never really needed one before.” Clem explained lamely.
     “You could 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.
     “Hey, what 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.”
     “Fair enough.” 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?”
     “Yeah, that 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.”
     “That’s it!” 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.”
     “Were you 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?”
     “No.” They 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?”
     “Clips from 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.”
     “It could 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.”
     “Exactly what 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.”
     “We could 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.”
     “I wouldn’t 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.
     Barney 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.
     “Ah, 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.”
     “Actually 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 negotiable value.
     “Yes?” Jazz asked warily, his friendly expression took on a more studied, almost cautious look. “Go on.”
     “How about a couple of crystals in exchange for the data?” Barney tried to sound as casual as possible to mask his lack of confidence.
     “Oh, how 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 you want?”
     Clem and 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 with Barney.
     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 evening.
     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 them.”
     “They’re certainly large, at least 3 metres across. And those tentacles! Not anything like what I imagined.” Jazz sounded genuinely amazed.
     “Yeah, so much for the little green men.” Clem quipped sardonically.
     “More like big black blobs.” Barney added for good measure.
     “This 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.”
     “Actually, they turn up all the time at Klondike Pass.” Clem felt no harm in sharing some of their knowledge with Jazz.
     “It’s just 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.”
     “So I’ve 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.”
     “They are.” 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
     “Not a 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 them?”
     “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.”
     “So these crystals came from one of their forts.” Clem was already a believer and it excited him. “Is there one near here?”
     “One what?” Jazz back-pedalled. He felt as if things were moving a bit quicker than he’d anticipated.
     “Fort, you know.” Clem felt as if he was stating the obvious. “Where these crystals come from.”
     “Oh, yes.” 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.”
     “You could.” 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 Clem.
     “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 there.”
     “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.
     “Very funny.” 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.

Scribbles & Scraps
Chapter 8
Chapter 10