Tuesday afternoon at McMahon's garage or McMahon's GeneralMitsuCorp Showrooms and Service Centre as it loudly proclaimed on the sign over the forecourt. Tools and odd bits of machinery laid out on workbenches along the walls with vehicles and assorted farm machinery in various states of disrepair. The tang of fuel-grade alcohol hung lightly in the air. At one end of the workshop a mechanic in dirty blue overalls stood scratching his head as he looked down at 3 aerosleds he had just dismantled for overhaul and servicing. The next bay was empty, its' floor black and gleaming with spilt oil. Next along, another mechanic and his assistant were working on what looks like a bus, having stripped away the panels over its' engine. The last bay was also empty, but not for long.
Jack McMahon stepped out of his tiny office adjoining the workshop and called out. "Jazz, come with me over to the hangars, we've got to start getting Brendan's freighter ready. Hurry up, lad. We haven't got all day." As he strode out of the workshop towards a small electric powered cart laden with all manner of tools, widgets, parts and assorted mechanical detritus. Moments later, Jazz joined Jack in the cramped cab of the cart as they trundled towards on of the vehicle and service airlocks set into the side of the dome covering Montgomery.
"Mind you don't pop your ears on the way out, sonny." Jack joked as the inner door of the airlock closed and the air was pumped out. Sure enough, Jazz's ears did feel the change in air pressure. He could hear the whistling and whining of air slowly escaping through the rotting seals of the cab's doors. "Well, that's it." Jack spoke out to no-one in particular. "We'll just have to put new seals on this old banger when we get back." The hangars were located just outside the main dome. This was where all the larger vehicles which couldn't fit in through the main dome's service airlock doors were parked up and serviced. This was also where you caught the shuttle flights to and from the other settlements, villages, towns and cities. This facility was catered for in the form of a utilitarian waiting room with its' vending machines and hard benches at the end of the hangars nearest the main dome. Basically, the hangars were a series of huge airlocks placed side-by-side and converted into service workshops. Brendan O'Leary's freighter was in one of the bays waiting to have its' toroids tuned up.
They arrived at the hangar, opened the doors by remote control, went in and waited in the cramped cab of their cart until the hangar filled up with breathable air. Jack opened his door as a sign for Jazz to get out. "Jazz, wheel over the console on the trolley over in the corner and let's see if we can get these toroids in sync before teatime," Jack ordered as his moist breath condensed in the hangar's cold air. The freighter was a flat 20-metre diameter circular vehicle and approximately 5 metres high. It was parked on an array of stubby pillars high enough for a man to walk upright underneath. Facing the hangar doors was a pilot's cabin perched on the flat upper deck. Jack made a beeline towards the freighter and continued walking underneath it towards its' centre. Jazz, meanwhile, trudged dutifully over towards the diagnostics console and joined Jack a few minutes later wheeling a trolley carrying the diagnostics console, an assortment of tools with a trail of cables and flexible tubing trailing along the floor with the occasional clatter of some small gadget or other falling off and bouncing noisily on the hard floor.
The freighter used a pair of counter-rotating pulsed fusion toroids both as power source and as a 'reactionless' engine. The virtual mass of the fusion plasma accelerated to near light speed was then given accelerative pulses to give momentum to the vehicle at right angles to the point of the pulse on the circumference of the toroid. With only one toroid you've always got the problem of the vehicle spinning around on the axis of the toroid, so with a second one spinning in the opposite direction being pulsed in sync you cancel out the rotational torque and, hey presto! Back in the driving seat at the steering wheel able to control what direction it goes in. A lesser pair of toroids near the centre generate lift by providing acceleration away from the planets' centre of gravity. Similar, in essence to the larger interplanetary ships, except this one didn't have quite the power. In theory, it should've been able to get up to the Jules Verne low-orbital station. In reality, it would most likely lose it's entire cargo overboard and fall apart in the process even if it were in tip-top condition. This freighter was built to work hauling loads around Mars and only to dream of greater things.
Jazz was glad to be able to let his rigid mental self-discipline relax a little and let himself relax a little. Jack couldn't see inside the pressure suit he was wearing, so Jazz only had to keep his head looking human. He had to get out of town and go on one of his explorations for Psionic crystals again soon. So long as he came back with a few crystals or said how he'd looked but couldn't find any, he felt safe that no-one would think anything of his frequent excursions. Siula and Eddy had insisted on going with him once, which proved to be a bit of a problem. And Gregor, that old worry-wart, had followed him out of town a couple of times. He didn't like having to let go in his lodging room. He'd found a monitoring device there once, but had found a way to disable it. But what if whoever had placed it in his room replaced it? What if there was another he hadn't found? Life was perilous enough!
"Ah, there you are, young man!" Jack cheerily greeted Jazz as he arrived at the service hatch under the freighter pulling the trolley behind him. "Well, let's get started." He continued as he ambled over to the trolley, picked up a section of electrical conduit and plugged it into a socket inside the service hatch. Then, pointing towards an illuminated control panel inside the hatch, "OK, Jazz, reach over there and power this crate up to nominal. Let's see what we can do with this 'un." And so they busied themselves diagnosing Brendan's freighter. Jack noticed that it was pulling clockwise, so he gave it sufficient lift to keep it from crushing them in case it rotated too far and broke any of the stone support pillars.
Jazz noticed that Jack was working a bit more thoroughly than was his usual, checking and rechecking the diagnostics as he gave Jazz his orders to adjust this or that device. It struck Jazz as odd that Jack was making such a fuss to get the freighter's toroids in perfect sync. As far as he had observed of 'reactionless' gyroscopic engines, the two counter-rotating fields of plasma were always slightly out of phase and ran at varying power differences and that it was up to the pilot and engineer to adjust them as the were going along. And as for Brendan's freighter, well it would spin in a slow, lazy clockwise rotation if left powered up and unattended.
"Heh, heh." Jack chuckled. "Well, if we do a proper job of it this afternoon, we won't be seeing this crate in here again."
"Why?" Jazz asked. "What's happening?"
"Oh, didn't you know? Brendan's selling it to that bunch of hippies who've pulled up out of town." Jack replied.
"Really?" Jazz was getting curious. "Who are they and what are they going to use it for?"
"They call themselves the Free Mars Tribe." Jack explained. "And they need it to transport their dome."
This took Jazz by surprise. Up to now his only experience had been of life in fixed-dome towns. He tried to imagine moving a village dome the size of Montgomery, which was a small village by Mars standards, and it just didn't fit. "Surely their dome would be too large and heavy for even this freighter? How are they going to manage it?"
"What?" Jack was taken by surprise. "Oh, they've got this crazy dome they've made out of a pair of collapsible ex-military mobile base domes. Looks like a pair of tits!" He winked laughed smuttily as he nudged Jazz with his elbow. "The funniest thing you ever saw."
"Where did they come from? The people, I mean." Jazz asked wanting to know more about these strange people who travelled around Mars in a giant pair of tits.
Jack took a deep breath and sobered up. "From the company towns mostly, though there's a few who've come from the free towns and up from Earth to join 'em."
"Company towns?" Jazz was uncertain.
"Company towns like Huygensville, City One, Nuke City, Mariposa and Co-Symbian." Jack replied.
"What's so special about them?" Jazz asked.
"Not much now, but I suppose you wouldn't know seeing how you came straight here from Earth." Jack explained. "Most of it happened before you came here. There were quite a few riots and uprisings in the company towns. The people who lived and worked in 'em wanted to be able to save up and move out, but felt that they were being shafted by the corporations who controlled everything... where they worked, where they lived, food prices, everything... and couldn't take any more of being what amounted to a captive slave workforce. It got very messy for a while. Close to civil war, if that's what you want to call it. Anyway, after all the fuss had settled down a bit, a lot of people had to leave the company towns because of what had happened, but there was nowhere for them to go. So some of them banded together, bought a dome and travel around Mars like gypsies."
"But how do they survive?" Jazz was stunned once again by the brutality of human ways.
"They're a bit of a travelling circus now." Jack replied, his good humour returning. "They pitch camp near a town and put on a festival for a couple of weeks. Lots of sex and drugs and rock'n'roll. Fantastic holographics, all kinds of weird and wonderful things. You'd like it. For a while, anyway."
"Oh." Jazz was definitely interested.
Jack turned around to the diagnostics unit as way of letting Jazz know they still had work to do.. "Okay, coils 7 and 32 on the counter clockwise spin are low. So we'll check to see if it's the coils themselves or the controllers. I'll climb in and patch this spare controller into each one in turn." He said as he picked up a loosely assembled collection of circuit boards and components which trailed a brightly coloured tail of cables. "I want you to keep an eye on the readout and see if either of the coils come back up to speed when I patch this thing in." Jack set up a step ladder and climbed up through an access hatch above where he and Jazz were working and located the controller for coil #7. A few minutes later, Jack's voice poured out of a speaker on the diagnostics console. "I've patched it in. Any difference?"
"No." Jazz called back. "Must be the coil, then." He could hear Jack muttering darkly through the speaker. After a short while Jack called out again. This time it made a difference. Jazz duly informed him. Eventually, Jack reappeared with his electronic mare's nest.
"But it worked on coil 32." Jazz said, not understanding why Jack would undo a repair he had just done. "Why did you take it out again?"
Jack looked at the controller circuitry that he still held and then at Jazz. "Come on, lad, this one's only for testing. We'll have to put a brand new unit in tomorrow. It's got to be inspected by the Department of Transport for certification before it can be sold. I've no idea how those hippies will ever get any insurance for it, but that's another matter entirely. Anyway, we've got to get this old rustbucket through the hoops, so you'll be working with me here the rest of the week by the look of things. So, make a note that coil 7 and the controller for coil 32 on the counter-spin need replacing. We'll check the pilot's controls after we're done here. Mick and Jessie are going to be here tomorrow to help us scan the frame and hull for structural defects. You know how to use a crystallographic analyser?"
"No, I haven't had to use one yet." Jazz admitted.
"No big deal." Jack reassured his trainee. "Mick'll show you. Just make sure you make a note of any hairline fractures or stress points you find. Because if we don't find 'em, the Department of Transport boys will, and they'll block the sale. Now, where were we?"
"We've still to run the anticyclic pulsing, magnetic flux continuity and radiation leakage tests." Jazz replied eager to impress on Jack that he had some understanding of what they were doing.
"Right, let's get a move on, then otherwise we'll be here all night." Jack said as he realised that the job of prepping the freighter for sale was going to take a bit longer than he'd anticipated. "And I suppose you'll be wanting to see your friends in the pub before closing time." With that comment, he set about running the next batch of tests and kept Jazz busy doing all the minor tasks trainees end up doing. A few hours later after making a checklist of all the various parts that needed repair or replacement in the propulsion and lift engines, they set about running the diagnostics on the controls in the cockpit. When they were finished, Jack and Jazz left in the little cart they had arrived in. As they were driving back, Jack told Jazz: "Remember to put in an order for the parts we need before you go home. Tell 'em it's a priority order so they don't take forever about it."
Jazz finished up his various tasks at the garage and set off towards his lodgings. He walked along the roadside in and around the dusk-darkened tress and shrubs which lined it and watched the people of Montgomery walking and cycling home from work. He noted a few mechs in the evening throng. They looked like mutated humanoids with their carbon fibre skeletons and translucent plazflex musculature. Some had two arms and two legs, some had four arms and two legs, some had three or four legs, wheels, caterpillar tracks. What a varied lot they were! A few human-driven electric carts and taxis hummed along the evening street quietly making their way through the succession of pools of light cast by the street lights as the Martian daylight faded to dusk. Most people in Montgomery walked, some even used llamas or burros to carry tools, goods and belongings. It wasn't that big a place, so there really wasn't much need for motorised vehicles other than for moving goods around town. As he made his way towards the marketplace, he left behind the various industrial units that had accumulated around the service airlocks and found himself surrounded by the hustle and bustle of last-minute evening shoppers mingling with people coming in from the outlying farms and communities for a night on the town.
Thompson's hardware and general goods store had already closed, leaving its' window display off tools and appliances illuminated for all and sundry to admire. Hirumato's sushi bar was just picking up with the evening trade. A few late stragglers were scuttling out of the Montgomery Township Library ahead of closing time. Pierre Bouchon et Fils., Delicatessen and Fine Foods Emporium had closed for the day, their holographic display showing off their fine range of breads, croissants, cheeses, meats and other fancy foods. The staid offices of Olympus Bank 'The rock you can depend on' filled a short stretch of the high street with its' stolid polished stone front. The harshly-lit Super-Saver Cut-Price supermarket, Joe's Bar and Grill, Maxwell's Agricultural Supplies, DiMitrio Ladies' Fashions, Burton's Liquormart, the Ogilvy&Brown shoe shop, Max Gusto Menswear Salon, Patel & Patel 'for all your groceries and household needs'. Jeffries, Heinz & Dubois, advocates at law for all matters civil, criminal and otherwise. Imbolc, the 'apothecary and exotic curio shop'. Henry Bold, real estate and surveyors guaranteed the best possible deal on residential and commercial properties in Montgomery and its' outlying villages as well registering all new homesteads with the Earth Fed Mars Land office. Music City, where they advertised the lowest prices on all the latest hits, VR-games, exotic sensoria and much, much more with a steady waft of the latest pounding pop music blaring out of its' well-lit and seemingly ever-open door. Rheinholtz & Gold bookshop, offering the widest selections of titles on paper and data cube, had their shop window laid out with a display of book covers and Tri-D projectors showing off their wares. Just like any other small town anywhere, except that it was in a dome on Mars. A dome which sheltered it from the still inhospitable environment so that life could flourish in these man-made bubbles dotted around the red planet.
Downtown Montgomery never slept. Which was typical for many of the smaller towns that served as a hub for the farming communities that surrounded them. Crossing the circular marketplace in the town centre, he paused momentarily beside the fountain in its' centre to admire the play of light from its' multicoloured illuminations on its' cascades and jets of water. He then continued past the Wobbly Goblin pub which was located on the corner where Ventura Street opened onto the marketplace. He looked in through the windows and saw a few people sitting at tables and continued down Ventura Street towards his home in a block of flats run by the United Mars Charitable Foundation with whom the Saint Theresa Trust had placed him.
Jazz lived in what could best be described as a small studio flat. One room served as his living room and bedroom with a separate bathroom and kitchen. He had decorated his modest home with wall-hangings and trinkets he'd bought in the market and in a few of the shops in town. The Foundation had installed a hidden scanner in his living room. Jazz had found this shortly after he had moved in and took the opportunity to hang a rug in front of it so that it wouldn't let whoever wanted to monitor his life have an easy job of it. Fortunately, they hadn't placed any scanners in either the kitchen or bathroom because Jazz had a secret which needed hiding from prying eyes. The least of which was his collection of Psionic Crystals and his collection of data cubes about Martian artefacts.
He got in and flopped down on a soft armchair, tired of being Jazz and needing a break. But he maintained his act a little longer for safety's sake. A few minutes later, he got up, had a drink of water and went to the bathroom, took of his clothes and let go... his human-looking body slowly began to change into something resembling a large iridescent insect glinting turquoise, emerald and fiery orange in the bathroom lights. He made a churring noise of relief now that he had a break from maintaining his human disguise. Jazz, or Kkhrkht Khnomadzh which was his real name, was a long, long way from home. Kkhrkht stretched his six limbs and antennae and did a few exercises to unwind the knotted cramps he always got from maintaining a human form. Not that it was all that difficult, after all he had been specially bred for the job, but he didn't like holding an assumed form for extended periods of time. It just wasn't comfortable. He felt as if he could drink a bathtub full of sweet sugar water.
But it had been Kkhrkht's destiny since before he was born to leave his home world and study alien worlds. His people, the Khzchhrrrtz of the Zrrlchtz system, who inhabited 4 planets orbiting a huge gas giant in a binary system 1/3 way around the galaxy from our solar system, were relative newcomers themselves onto the Galactic scene and were keen to get into any exploration and study programs. They didn't like getting second-hand information from the other member species so they decided to see for themselves just what exactly was out there. And so they bred thousands of genetically modified Khzchrrrtz's with the ability to change shape and sent them forth under the auspices of the Galactic Council cultural studies department. And so he and his brood were dispatched around the galaxy to study civilisations new, old, dead and those yet-to-be. Kkhrkht had been sent to study a species which was just making its' first tentative steps off its' homeworld and out into space. They had even begun colonising a planet in their own solar system! This situation was even more unique in that there was already a species in that system which was in liaison with the Galactic Council and had made arrangements for Kkhrkht to study them as part of his training for more demanding work in the years ahead.
And so Kkhrkht became Jazz the human and was eased into human society on Mars by the Nglubi who had their own field agents working within human society. If he did well, he would be sent out again once he returned home and shared his findings. If not, he would most likely end up training other genetically modified Khzchhrrrtz for their journeys around the galaxy. Either way, he wasn't too worried although there was more status in being sent out on 'daring' missions of discovery than droning away in a safe institution back at home. Not that he was particularly daring or brave for that matter. Kkhrkht had thought long and hard about this and had come to the conclusion that he must have come from modified drone genes. Life was good so far and he enjoyed his work studying these humans as they began to spread forth into the galaxy. He dreamed that his studies would be read by the Galactic Council when the humans along with the clones and mechs they created applied to join the Galactic Community. He had heard rumours as to why the Nglubi weren't yet members even though they had been around for a long time. That they had once destroyed the humans' world and had rebuilt it. That they had created all life on Earth. That they were criminals who were forever barred from joining the Galactic Community. That they shouldn't be trusted.
One rumour had turned out to be true, though. The one about the Nglubi running sight-seeing trips for tourists from about the Galaxy to 'see the wonders' of their rather mundane solar system and it's mostly lifeless planets and moons. Still, he admired their ability to use their meagre assets in order to bring the galaxy to their door. Even if it was a fairly primitive and backward place. By now Kkhrkht was feeling better and ready to face the world as Jasper 'Jazz' Rodriguez again and began to assume his human form once more. Back in his living room, he picked up his notepad and began typing in his diary entries which he would include in his finished presentation about these humans and their society when he got back home. So far he had studied various social groups on Earth and was now studying them on their first colony world, cold harsh Mars. Soon he would be finished with his work in Montgomery and would then go to one of the major cities, study a few social groups there and then make his way home. He was amazed at the cultural diversity on their home planet and found the simpler, less diverse culture on Mars barren by comparison. Here, everything was driven by the struggle to survive in the face of a hostile environment. Life and survival were much more clear-cut than on their nurturing homeworld.
He had a quick meal and then set out back up Ventura Street towards the Wobbly Goblin public house. Here he had an excellent opportunity to observe and study human social behaviour. He went in the door and was greeted by a friendly voice calling from a nearby table. "Hey, Jazz! Come on over, man." He turned and saw Bill Grundy sitting at a table with a few friends. Jazz waved, got himself a beer at the bar and joined them.
"Hey there, Crystal Kid, what's happening?" An obviously happy Bill asked.
"I've been working on a reactionless freighter today." Jazz replied in a less-than-excited tone of voice. "We're getting it ready to sell to the Free Mars Tribe."
"Ho, yeah!" Bill's eyes widened merrily. "You know the Watusis are going to be playing in their Pleasure Dome? Let's try and get in on their guest list!" He added in conspiratorial good humour.
One of Bill's accomplices got up and announced jovially to the circle at the table: "It's party time, so what's your drink?" He took their orders and went off to the bar.
"Party? What party?" Jazz asked rather puzzled. Humans didn't normally have parties during their working week. What did he mean?
"We're in on the Interplanetary Interferometry Project." Bill explained excitedly. "We're set now. No more worries about the observatory being closed down! We're getting a huge Earth Fed grant to expand our telescope array. So, yes, it's party time all right!"
"I'm sorry, but what is it?" Jazz asked timidly, not wanting to embarrass Bill in front of his friends.
"Oh, you know the radio-telescope I work at?" Bill replied as Jazz nodded his head dumbly in agreement. "Well, we're in on a project to link it up with 'scopes on Earth and Luna. Talk about a baseline. Whoa!" He exclaimed as he spread his arms out as wide as they would go.
"Interesting." Jazz said politely, though still at a loss. "But what do you use it for?"
"SETI work mostly." Bill continued in a slightly more serious tone of voice. "But officially we're mapping out this and neighbouring galaxies."
"SETI? What's SETI?" Jazz asked.
Sylvia, who was sitting next to Bill giggled. "It's the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence. They're looking for little green men!" As she playfully slapped his shoulder.
"Little green men?" Jazz felt as if he was getting nowhere, even though everyone seemed friendly.
"Aliens." Sylvia announced comically. "Bill's going to be looking for aliens. And the government's paying him, too!"
Jazz couldn't believe his ears. "You're really looking for people on other worlds?"
"Well, whatever they are." Bill didn't want to sound too stupid. "Think about it, Jazz. There's bound to be intelligent life out there. There's so many stars in our galaxy alone. Even if only one in a million support some sort of intelligent life, that's still a whole lotta people out there."
"And this SETI thing?" Jazz asked. "Has it been going on for long?"
"SETI?" Bill thought everyone knew about it. "It's been going for ages! 150 Earth years at least."
"Really?" Jazz was surprised at this. "Have they found anything?"
"No." Bill admitted soberly. "That's why we're doing the Interplanetary Interferometry. Trying to increase the resolution. We look for solar systems with planets in orbit and then lock in and scan them for any EM-radiation output."
"Why EM-radiation?" Jazz was none the wiser.
"It's a pretty safe bet that any species that start using technology will end up using radio waves for communication at some point." Bill explained to this young kid who'd only recently come from an orphanage on Earth. "And that's what we're looking for."
"But what if they use something like Psionic Crystals?" Jazz pointed out. "It's possible to communicate with them and they don't use radio waves."
"We're out of luck then." Bill admitted. "But it's worth a try anyway."
"What will you do if you find this intelligent life elsewhere?" Jazz inquired curiously.
"Haven't the slightest idea." Bill replied. "It might take hundreds or thousands of years just for us to send back a simple 'Hello'. At least we'll know for sure that there are others out there and maybe learn a bit about them."
"Like if they're a bunch of nasty demons who want to eat us!" One of Bill's colleagues joked.
"Or whatever." Bill continued trying to put a more serious side to his work. "If they're cool, then we've got nothing to worry about. If, on the other hand as Alex mentioned, they aren't so nice, then at least we've got a bit of advance warning so we can get ready to defend ourselves."
"I see." Jazz commented. "And what if there really is no-one else out there?" He asked in order to test his friend.
"Then the whole galaxy's our for the taking." Bill replied. "It means that this is just the beginning of history and that the rest of this galaxy is waiting for us to make it our home. It'll be a bit like the migrations of the proto-hominids all over again. Except this time it'll be out among the stars." And his eyes glazed over, partly from alcohol and partly from the romantic vision of a vast human civilisation spread across this very galaxy.
"Interesting." Jazz noted quietly as he made a mental note to compare and contrast the various attitudes different social groups of these humans had as regards the existence of species elsewhere in the galaxy. He got a thrill out of hearing Bill and his friends talk about 'the aliens out there' all the while not realising that there was one such being in their midst.
Huan-Lo, one of Bill's co-workers looked across the to the bar and announced: "Hey guys, look who just walked in. A couple of dolly birds from the Watusis! Let's invite 'em over." And with that, he got up, went to the bar, put his arms around MariElla and Psy and wheeled them over towards the table to join our group of revellers. The joking and abandoned chatter of the truly happy lifted off again fuelled by beer, spirits, wine and a slowly diminishing collection of hashish and marijuana in a bowl on their table. Jazz had met MariElla before, but not her friend. He had become a regular at the Wobbly Goblin and, in the process of distributing Psionic Crystals, had joined the edges of the Flaming Watusis' social circle. The Wobbly Goblin was their regular haunt as well as being where they played most Saturday nights to a packed house if they weren't playing in another town.
MariElla greeted Jazz: "Hello Jazz, how's our crystal guru?"
"Oh, fine." Jazz replied trying to sound exciting. "I've been doing up a freighter to sell to the Free Mars Tribe."
"Really?" MariElla replied, interested to hear about the tribe, but unable to get excited about freighters. Men, always getting excited about their latest toys. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Psy excitedly handing out flyers for their coming show at the Pleasure Dome.
"I hear you're doing a show at the Pleasure Dome." Jazz continued, desperately trying to maintain MariElla's interest. "When is it?"
She didn't get a chance to answer Jazz's question as Psy thrust a flyer in his hand. He looked at the holographic image of two hands holding up a Psionic Crystal which had thunder bolts bursting out from it and noted that the show was this coming weekend. Jazz looked up and saw MariElla's friend looking intently at him. He suddenly felt very uneasy as if she was looking right through him and was relieved when she turned to talk to Bill and Sylvia.
As Jazz looked up he noticed Clem and Barney entering the bar after a long day's work in the market. He waved to them and handed them a copy each of Psy's fliers as they joined the group around the table. Clem read it and his eyes lit up. "This weekend! Wow, cool." He turned to Barney. "You're going to like this."
"What's the Pleasure Dome?" Barney asked quizzically.
"Oh man, they're famous. It's like the biggest party imaginable. Yes!" Clem was excited at the prospect of going to a festival at the Pleasure Dome and partying on down for a weekend. "So who are the Flaming Watusis?" He asked Jazz.
Jazz pointed out MariElla and Psy. "MariElla plays the saxophone and Psy is their new singer". Clem was starstruck. Here he was in the company of stars who were the top of the bill at the festival this weekend. He felt as if he'd finally arrived. "I'm going with Psy." Jazz told them. "You can come with us if you want."
"Sure." Clem eagerly accepted Jazz's offer. "How's about you, Barney?"
"OK, I guess so." Barney reluctantly agreed in order to keep Clem happy.
"You need some serious loosening up, Barney." Clem good-naturedly admonished his mechanoid friend. "Just listen to yourself. All dry and serious like that. It's about time you had a few more virals in your system, matey."
"Yeah, but not another Rocket Launcher." Barney tried to put on a bit of cheer, but he was too worried about what Jazz might tell his gregarious friends about the pictures and how he got them. Just my luck, he thought gloomily. I might as well have shouted everything from a rooftop. He took comfort from his opinion that this lot looked so out of it that they'd probably forget anything Jazz told them.
At that moment Psy leaned across and purred sensually: "Jazz, you haven't introduced me. Are they some of your crystal disciples?"
"Oh." He laughed nervously. "This is Clem and Barney. They work in the market and I gave them a crystal each." Clem fished his crystal out of his pocket and held it out surreptitiously for Psy to see.
"Be sure to bring that with you to the Pleasure Dome this weekend. We're doing a very special show. You don't want to miss it." Psy laid on the charm.
"Of course." Clem readily agreed, stars jumping in his eyes. Before long he was caught in the whirl of the evening's revelry celebrating Bill's good fortune and his work for SETI. "I've seen some Martians." He bragged in order to keep up with Bill
"Really? What did they look like? Little green men?" Sylvia joked gaily.
"Big black blobs, actually. That right Barney?"
"Huh? What?" Barney pretended not to be paying attention. If only Clem wouldn't keep on blabbing to everyone they met. "Martians? Yeah, they're big black blobby things with tentacles as far as I can make out." Psy overheard Barney and froze cross-eyed for a moment before continuing with hir seduction of Jazz.
"What, real live Martians?" Huan-Lo joined in.
"No, they were dead and preserved in ice." Barney did his best to sound casually indifferent in the hope that the others would lose interest. Fat chance!
"So where did you see them?" Bill was curious. He was now officially working for SETI and here was a stranger at his table claiming to have the mythical and elusive. Martians.
"The ice quarry up at Klondike Pass." Clem enthused. "They'd been in the ice for a very long time. I haven't seen any living Martians."
"So what happened to the Martians you found?" MariElla wanted to know more.
Much to Barney's relief, Clem stuck to the minimal story they had agreed on. "Earth Fed took 'em away for analysis and that's the last we ever saw of them. Only Earth Fed knows where they are now."
"What a shame." Psy commented. "It would be so exciting to find some Martians."
The evening progressed and Jazz later found himself very drunk and stoned with one arm draped around Psy watching MariElla go off with Huan-Lo, Clem and Barney. Montgomery spun around his head as he Psy guided him to hir apartment in the seedier part of town.
"Those friends of yours, the market porters. What do you think of their story about the Martians?" Psy slurred hir words as they wobbled arm-in-arm through the nighttime streets of Montgomery.
"Oh, that's just some story they've made up." Jazz dismissed their story with a casual lie knowing full well that Earth Fed were keeping the evidence safely under wraps. "I wouldn't take it seriously."
"But your friends did." Psy pointed out.
"Ah, but they were drunk at the time." He wagged a finger in drunken finality in an attempt to close the subject. "In that state, they'd believe anything." Psy didn't pursue the topic. Instead shi slipped hir hand dawn Jazz's trousers and gave his bum a good, hard squeeze.
Back in Psy's apartment, they were drunkenly kissing and groping each other on the sofa when Jazz came to the hazy realisation that this woman he was with wasn't exactly a woman. Then again, he wasn't exactly a human either, but still he recoiled in surprise.
"Oh, I'm a little bit different." Psy explained in hir throaty purr. "But we've really got a lot in common." And with that shi disappeared momentarily and reappeared with a small glass in hir hand. "I think you'll need this."
Jazz took the glass and was about to drink the acrid, viscous drink when he suddenly recognised the smell.... Mnadjhr, a powerful detoxicant from his own world. But how? What?
"Drink up, Kkhrkht, it's time to sober up." Psy commanded in hir purr. "We've got to talk."
Jazz/Kkhrkht was in shock. A human who had medicines from his own world and knew his real name? If he/she was Earth Fed, he'd be in trouble. He was supposed to stay out of their way. He needed that Mnadjhr right now and gulped it down. He felt himself coming back into focus.
"I'm the regional supervisor come to check up on my charges, stupid." Shi explained as shi draped hirself around Jazz, sensually rubbing hir small, androgynous breasts against him. "What did you expect? A businessman in a suit with a briefcase?"
Jazz/Kkhrkht sat bolt upright and tried to push a resistantly clinging Psy away. "I'm not in the mood for this, whoever or whatever you are. I'd best be off home if you don't mind. I've got to be at work tomorrow morning." He tried desperately to excuse himself.
"Hah!" Psy laughed. "No-one leaves here until the morning. House rules." Shi teased. "And anyway, you don't sleep. Especially not with that Mnadjhr down your neck. Kkhrkht, you've got to stop going out to the site and giving everyone you meet Psionic Crystals."
"Why?" He asked defiantly. "It's part of my work."
"Yes, yes, I know." Shi humoured him blandly. "A study on how a species reacts when confronted with alien technology. I'd give it a break if I were you. Earth Fed have got wind of a lot of crystals appearing in Montgomery and you know how they feel about that."
"So? What would they do?" He defended himself. "Put me in jail for a while?"
"No, honey buns." Psy explained. "They'd take you away to wipe your mind, find out that you're not human and, at best, keep you prisoner until you die or, at worst, dissect you."
"No!" Jazz/Kkhrkht was horrified.
"Yes," Psy reaffirmed. "Or maybe you hadn't heard about their paranoid tendencies in your travels."
"Oh." Jazz didn't like people taking over his life so easily. Especially the Nglubi who had the annoying ability of whisking him out of scenes that he was getting interested in. So his time here in Montgomery was coming to an end. And he was just getting to like it. He felt as if he was riding on rails. As if all his time spent studying these humans had been just another elaborate training session and that was being called back to the classroom to have his work judged by one of his tutors. No longer in control. "By the way, does anyone in the Watusis know who you really are?"
"No. And if you tell them, you'll be going home as a dead hero." Psy threatened icily before going on in hir camp, casual manner. "There's another group who've also discovered how to use Psionic Crystals." Psy mentioned. "I think you should see them before you go back. They're nothing like the people you've studied here or on Earth. Much more violent and aggressive. You'll see another side of these people that you might have missed so far."
Jazz was taken aback, but not overly surprised, by Psy's threat. After all, his own security depended on Psy's ability to manipulate these humans. So he decided to play along with Psy and discuss his work. "Now that sounds interesting. When can you arrange it?"
"Mmmm, thought I'd catch you there." Psy triumphalised. "You have the great good fortune of being my latest lover. One in a long list of many! The immediate benefit of which is that you will accompany me to the Pleasure Dome for my special performance with the Flaming Watusis."
"Fine, Psy." Jazz remained unconvinced of the advantages of being Psy's latest consort. "But what's that got to do with these people you want me to include in my studies?"
"Everything, sweetie!" Psy gushed.
"Oh, I see." Jazz thought he understood now. "You want me to include the Free Mars Tribe in my studies."
"No." Psy countered smugly. "You can include them if you want to. But I doubt you'll find anything new there. Not much different from any of the nomadic cultures on their home planet, Earth."
"Then what?" Jazz was getting fed up with this Nglubi zoo-keeper running him around in circles. Why can't shi get to the point?
"Have you got a gun?" Psy asked directly.
"Yes, a laser pistol. It's under my bed." Jazz didn't like this. Were they in danger?
"Bring it, you may need it." Psy explained coldly. "The people I want you to see are renegades from mainstream of the human cultures. They have a much more violent code of conduct from what you've seen up to now."
He didn't like the sound of this at all. Suddenly the prospect of being a tutor in an academy back home and life in a nice, happy triune seemed very appealing and so far off. He was beginning to feel homesick. "Let me see if I've got this straight. You want me to study some humans..."
"Humans and mechs." Psy corrected.
"Okay, humans and mechs in the Free Mars Tribe who aren't the Free Mars Tribe?"
"They've been hijacked. Held prisoner in their own home by a group of renegades."
"I see." Jazz was trying to be businesslike. "And these renegades are using Psionic Crystals, not just messing around with them like most humans?"
"Oh they're using them all right. And very effectively, too."
'Humans and mechs finding, mastering and using an alien technology. Interesting.' Jazz thought while at the back of his mind he harboured his worries about having to bring his disruptor. He took a deep breath and reminded himself that he knew his work wouldn't always be easy. He hoped that he wouldn't panic if things got out of control.
"We're going on Friday and coming back on Monday, so you'll have plenty of time to observe them." Psy continued taking control of the situation. "If you can assimilate their mindset, you might even want to mix in with them for a while."
"Well, I'd have to if I'm going to do a proper job of it." Jazz agreed. "But it doesn't really give me very long. Can't you arrange for a longer duration?"
"Possibly, but you've got your ongoing identity here. Are you sure you want to move on so soon?" Psy asked. "You'd be on your own amongst them. You might find it difficult to stay amongst them or leave them for that matter. They're a very closed society. I think you'll see all you need to in a few days. I wouldn't get your hopes up about putting in a case for this lot to join the Galactic Community if I were you. They could be a bit of a problem. There's enough unstable civilisations already without adding another."
It was one thing being light-years from home when you had a bit of back-up not far away, but quite something else going totally out on a limb. Was this another test set by one of his tutors at the Academy? Hardly, but the situation seemed as if they'd set him up. Still, his job was to go out, gather up all the information he could and return home alive. Failing that, he was expected to ensure that the information he'd accumulated got back. Not everyone came back. He knew that. He remembered the annual ceremonies of remembrance for those who hadn't returned from their missions. He hoped his name would never be among those. Thinking about death made life taste sweet.
Psy ran hir hand under Jazz's shirt. "You should loosen up a bit and enjoy yourself! Look at you. So serious studying these humans, desperately trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. You're a bundle of nerves."
"And you're not helping things any." Jazz replied stiffly.
"Oh dear!" Psy exclaimed in mock horror. "Don't you want to be in a triune when you're home again?"
"It's not the same." Jazz tried to push hir away.
"Poor little you." Psy consoled. "It's how humans spend their time together. Surely you want to include that in your report?"
"I have already." Jazz defended himself stoically. "And anyway, you're not a woman."
"Tsk, tsk, that from a Khzchhrrrtz who's pretending to be a human!" Psy pouted. "That's rich! Suit yourself then, but we'll be seeing a lot of each other from now on, so you'd best get used to me. I'm not so bad and I can be very nice, too." Shi added as shi stroked Jazz's chest.
"Well, if you're really nice as you say you are," Jazz demanded, trying to get in control of the situation. "Maybe you wouldn't mind if I let go for a while?"
"No, not at all." Psy conceded disappointedly. "There's plenty of time yet." With that Jazz released his mental grip and reverted to his insectoid shape.
"Ah, that's better." Kkhrkht buzzed in his natural, insectoid voice as he flexed himself, churring contentedly to himself.
"Humph, not quite so much fun." Psy complained. "Not so cuddly, that gangly exoskeleton of yours."
"Quite!" Kkhrkht was glad to be himself again. "So if you're the regional supervisor, why didn't you send one of your underlings?"
"Oh, I do like to get around, dear." Shi camped it up. "It gets so boring in the big cities. Inter-departmental meetings, petty intrigues, security alerts, you name it. Same old rubbish year in, year out. This is where the action is. Or, more correctly going to be very soon."
At this point Kkhrkht decided to find out more about this Nglubi field agent. And the Nglubi, for that matter. Secretive bunch, they were. All very keen to bring tourists and researchers into their solar system, but there were precious few accounts of their own world or what their civilisation was really like, let alone what agenda, if any, they pursued. "So what exactly do you do?" Kkhrkht asked.
"We run the show, darling." Psy bragged.
"What, everything?" Kkhrkht wasn't unduly surprised by Psy's response. After all, shi was probably exaggerating due to hir drunkenness.
"Everything except the experiments we allowed outside researches to conduct." Psy conceded. "But we don't allow any of that nowadays. Time has taken it's course, so we can't permit interference any longer. Only observation. Another good reason for you to stop fooling around with those crystals, you silly bug."
Deciding to let Psy's camp insult pass, Kkhrkht pressed on. "Why the sudden change of policy, then?"
"Look around you, you idiot!" Psy exclaimed drunkenly between gulps of warm brandy. "They're heading out from their home planet. It won't be long before they're knocking at the Galactic Council's door. Can you imagine the stink it would cause if, for instance, it came to light that the Narbonians were conducting an experiment on caste differentiation, the Yllabris researching military dynamics and, say, the Gnishtryx testing their economic warfare tactics? It just wouldn't do. You can't have community members conducting experiments on other members, or prospective members for that matter. So we've had to close all that down."
Kkhrkht was curious. "Were they really?"
"No, not them." Psy covered hir tracks deftly. "I was just giving some hypothetical examples."
"I see." Kkhrkht accepted. "But various such experiments have been conducted?"
"Certainly." Psy admitted. "All very legal. Nothing out of order there. You can check it with the Galactic Council if you want."
Kkhrkht knew this much already. He wasn't getting anywhere. "Did you really create these humans?"
"Ah, yes and no. Part of it was our work and the rest was done by the Vrrakians or some such lot. A bit before my time." Psy explained casually in hir brandy and velvet voice. "The usual evolutionary claptrap. You know, pick out one species and accelerate its' evolution until they reach some sort of critical state of sentience and then watch the shit hit the fan." Psy droned out in a blas‚ manner. "And we've been picking up the pieces ever since."
"You're not too keen on them, then?" Kkhrkht jibed.
"Well, I'd probably be out of a job if they weren't around." Psy joked drunkenly. "Managing that lot is a right pain in the neck. It's nothing but damage limitation all the way down the line. Their society is so fragmented and chaotic, I'm surprised they've even lasted this long."
"So why bother?" Jazz asked. "Surely they can manage their own affairs by now? And anyway how could they join the Galactic Community if they were effectively Nglubi puppets?" And as Jazz spoke those very words, it occurred to him that maybe the Nglubi intended to keep the humans as a puppet species, so denying them any legal footing for joining the Galactic Community.
"Good question, Kkhrkht. And I've never given it much thought." Psy was growing tired of this conversation. It had gone quite far enough. Shi felt uneasy about Kkhrkht's probing questions. He was supposed to be here studying the humans, not me! Maybe he was really a Galactic Council scout. Better watch what I say then, shi thought. Feigning a combination of boredom and drunken exhaustion, Psy excused hirself. "I'm sorry, but I'm really tired. I'll see you in the morning. You can stay here in the living room and watch the holo shows or use the commset. Or, you could come in and join me, but only if you change back into being Jazz. I don't want a huge bug in my bed!" And with that Psy got up and flounced drunkenly off towards hir bedroom.
Kkhrkht took advantage of his time to do a few exercises and then spent the rest of the night in a conscious trance which was the closest a Khzchhrrrtz got to sleep. He was greeted in the morning by a badly hung-over and scantily clad scarecrow called Psy who groaned something about 'more coffee' and 'meet me in the Wobbly Goblin this evening'. Kkhrkht was glad to take on his human form as a means of escape from his sex-driven minder. He was crossing the market place as the traders were setting up their stalls for the day. He was almost across when he ran into Mick Parnell from the garage.
"Hey, Jazz!" Mick greeted him cheerily. "Heard you got a bit of hot stuff last night. The new girl from the Watusis. Didn't know you had it in you."
"Er, um yes." Jazz replied, keeping in character. "We're just friends. That's all."
"Yeah, that's what they all say." Mick joked. "I hear she's a bit weird that one, what's-her-name. Did you get a surprise?"
"Uh, yeah." Jazz mumbled. "Hir name's Psy. Like I said, we're just friends."
"Sure!" Mick teased. As they walked towards the garage, Mick regaled Jazz with his comic account of the time he'd picked up a transvestite by accident in a bar in Mariposa. 'The sexiest tart you ever saw. That was a bit of shock to the system!' And so to a day of good-humoured nudge-and-wink innuendo, belly laughs and rounds of crass sex jokes from Mick, Jack and Jessie, Jazz set about checking the freighter's structural integrity as well as a lot of general gophering for Jack.
By late afternoon, Jack had come to the inevitable conclusion that they wouldn't be finished until the middle of the following week seeing how the spare parts were slow coming and the freighter itself needed a lot more work than anyone had guessed if it was going pass its' certification for sale and commercial use. No hurry here, Jack thought, those hippies are going to be around for a while. Especially seeing how they're so keen on buying this old heap. He turned to Jazz as they were fitting some new instrumentation in the cockpit. "Seeing how you're going out with that bird from the Watusis, I suppose you'll be going to the Pleasure Dome with her."
"Of course, Psy wants me to." Jazz replied excitedly. "Sounds like great fun!"
Jack unconsciously slipped into his fatherly role. And then his thoughts slipped back to when he was younger. "By the way, do you want Monday off, just in case?"
Jazz seized the opportunity Jack had offered him without a second thought. "Actually, I was going to ask you just that." He lied convincingly. "I've never been to this Pleasure Dome before and Psy wants to show me around."
"All right." Jack enjoyed this as much as the times when he let his sons out on their first overnight dates, knowing full well what they'd be up to, wishing that he was their age and discovering the joys and pitfalls of sex all over again. "But don't get any funny ideas of running away with that lot. It looks all very exciting from the outside, but it's a hard life they lead. Believe me, that lot barely scrape along. I've got a nephew who's joined them and we're always hearing about their troubles. But he wouldn't leave them for the world. Reckons they're the future of Mars. He's got a wife and three kids now. Haven't the slightest idea how they manage to survive, but they always look well when we see them."
"You think life's tough here. We've got it nice and cushy compared to them." Jack continued. "We can stay put, trade with the local farms and have plenty of power and heat. That lot have to keep moving and they have to take everything with them. Their dome, families, food, trucks, transporters and buses. Their algae columns, their solar arrays, power generators, stages, everything. It's hard work day in, day out. You know why they want to buy this freighter?" Jack asked rhetorically. "Martin, that's my nephew, told me they plan to buy a permanent dome and use the freighter's fusion toroid as their villages' main power source."
"Quite a sensible purchase on their part." Jazz commented. "First they use it as a transporter while they travel and then, when they find a permanent home, use it as their power source." And on and on they talked away the afternoon while they worked. When he got home, Jazz/Kkhrkht rummaged through his toolkit and picked out his bio-spectrum analyser. He wanted to find out if Psy was human, Nglubi or what. The analyser should at least give him a good idea of Psy's biochemical composition and an overview of hir biological processes. All he had to do was hide it in his clothes, leave it switched on and check the results the next day when he got back home. Easy. Kkhrkht decided that anything he could find out about Psy might lead on to some information about the secretive Nglubi. He'd already observed how they worked through the various human institutions, but much of that was common knowledge.
Later that evening, bio-spectrum analyser and a few other gadgets well concealed in his jacket, he made his way to the Wobbly Goblin. When he arrived, he saw a few members of The Flaming Watusis arranging their equipment and instruments on the stage. Were they going to be playing tonight? He walked over and asked Malcolm, their main synthesiser player.
"No." He explained. "We had a rehearsal for the show this weekend this afternoon. Now that Psy's joined us, we've got a few more numbers to work on. You coming?"
"Sure am!" Jazz replied brightly. "Psy got hold of me last night and made a big fuss and insisted that I come along."
"Ho, boy! You've got your hands full. Didn't get too much of a surprise, did you?" Malcolm winked.
"Huh, what?" Jazz was slightly embarrassed. "Yeah, well...." He trailed off.
"Kinda makes sense though, seeing how you've been giving everyone Psionic Crystals."
"How so?" Jazz asked.
"Well, Psy's worked out this routine using them." Malcolm explained. "Didn't he, or is it she, tell you? Dammit, I still can't get it straight whether to think of Psy as a man or a woman."
"Yeah, I know exactly what you mean." Jazz concurred. "I think Psy's both sexes as far I can tell."
"More or less." Malcolm agreed. "Confuses me, man. I don't know whether to address Psy as a man or woman. I can't think of Psy as either really male or female. What do you do?"
Jazz was surprised that the worldly Malcolm would solicit his advice. "Keep him at arm's length." He joked. And then in a slightly more serious tone: "I suppose it's more a matter of how Psy feels. Does he feel male? Does she feel female? Does it really matter? Given the way Psy was dressed last night, I thought Psy was a woman. Hey, what's this about Psy doing something with psionic crystals?"
"You've gotta see it!" Malcolm was glad to get away from talking about his inability to deal with gender confusion. "Psy does this rap with Stanley Jah about Psionic Crystals and then somehow energises his? her? crystal so that beams of light flow between it and any other crystals in the room and they all light up. Bet you've never seen anything like that."
"No, I haven't." Jazz admitted. "Psy hadn't told me anything about it. Are you doing any more rehearsals this week? I might be able to get some time off at lunch to come down and see it."
"Ask Gregor." Malcolm passed the buck. "He decides when we rehearse. We might do a show here on Thursday, but Psy wants to save the crystal routine for the gig at the Pleasure Dome. Psy reckons that there's going to be so many people there with crystals, it'll trigger a cosmic event." Malcolm turned around towards the stage and addressed Gregor who was putting away his drums and assorted bit of percussion. "Gregor, are we doing a show here Thursday night?"
"Not if I can help it." He called back without looking up. "Unless you lot outvote me. Why kill yourself, Malc? If we play here Thursday, it means a load of mad rushing around afterwards, making sure everything's ready for our show this weekend. We've got the rest of the year to play here. I want to be fresh and on top form, not tired and strung out. I haven't got as much energy as you kids. You try slugging these drums for a few hours and you'll see what I mean." Gregor took a break from his work, looked up and saw Jazz. "Ah, Jazz, the Crystal Kid. When you coming over? I'll get Anna to cook something special for you."
"Thanks, Gregor." Jazz accepted Gregor's open invitation. "But I..."
"Oh, yes." Gregor chuckled. "Psy's got hir claws into you. Just to get hold of your collection of crystals, no doubt. Well, you're both welcome anytime." Over in a corner between the stage and the bar, several members of the band are engaged in heated conversation. Malcolm gives them a concerned glance and invites Jazz to join them.
As they approach the table, a tall, African-looking woman holding an electric guitar beside her can be heard: "But is it safe? I mean doing this crystal thing live? The Free Mars Tribe put out their live shows on the networks. We'll be seen by half of Mars and probably on Earth. The MIBs will get us for sure."
A wiry, hard-muscled man wearing an fluorescent orange top-hat balanced on his mop of frazzled yellow hair waved his wildly tattooed arms: "Sometimes you gotta take risks, Lottie! Safety in numbers, babe. There's gonna be so many people with crystals there, no way can they bust the lot of us."
"That's all right for you, Stan." Lottie replied hotly. "I've got my two boys at home. Who's gonna look after them if I don't come back?"
Another man in dungarees with lank shoulder-length brown hair spoke up: "Look, we've talked this one through before. We've all got friends and family who aren't directly involved would cover for us if anything goes wrong. Anna agreed to look after Denzil and Mercury." And then he called out to Gregor, who was still busy on the stage: "That right, Gregor?"
Gregor looked up, puzzled. "What?"
Chester waved Gregor over so that they could talk without everyone in the Wobbly Goblin hearing them. "Anna's agreed to look after Denzil and Mercury."
"Oh, that." Gregor replied. "Yeah, sure." He then held Lottie warmly by her shoulders for a moment and tried to reassure her. "Don't worry, Lottie. Everything's going to be all right. Anna's going to look after Mercury and Denzil for you. They can keep my lot away from the idiot box and out of her hair for a few days." He laughed. "You worry too much. It's going to be a great show! People will remember it for years to come."
"Yes, but will we if the MIBs get hold of us?" Lottie countered, expressing her doubts.
A solidly-built Amerindian man joined in: "It's the same for me, Lottie. Silver Cloud's going to be well looked after. We can't let Earth Fed get away with stifling the truth forever. If they had their way no-one would know anything about these Psionic Crystals because they're so busy squashing the fact that there are real Martian artefacts at all. Someone's gotta break that cycle. Otherwise we're just as guilty of spreading their bullshit."
"I suppose so, Eddy." Lottie sighed as she surrendered to fate, whatever it might hold. "I wouldn't have thought twice about doing something like this before Denzil and Mercury were born. It's scary how responsibility makes me afraid of taking risks."
The mood around the table was getting morbid. Gregor chirped up. "Come on, you lot. We're going to a party, not a funeral!" He was met by an embarrassed chorus of sheepish laughs as our assembled company realised they'd been in an emotional tailspin for the last few minutes. At this point Psy and MariElla, arm-in-arm, accompanied by Yvonne join our reluctant heroes.
"Just who I wanted to see." Psy exclaimed. "Jazz, we need your collection of crystals. MariElla's been telling me all about your collection. I just have to see it. You will oblige me, won't you?"
Jazz was dumbfounded, but did his best not to show it. Only last night Psy had given him a drubbing for distributing Psionic Crystals and now he finds out that shi is organising a special show using them. And wants more! He felt as if he was walking on quicksand. "Uh, sure. Anytime." He replied knowing that Psy had him cornered. "Come round now if you want." He offered cagily.
"Well, isn't he a gentleman!" Psy pronounced in a campy aside to MariElla. "What are we waiting for, dear?" And then breathily addressing Jazz. "Come on darling, I just can't wait." Jazz had no escape. He made his excuses to leave and was whisked away in a flurry of kisses by Psy who had managed to invite all of the Flaming Watusis except Gregor, who was in a hurry to get back home, over to Jazz's tiny studio flat. By the time they reached Jazz's apartment it was obvious that Psy was more interested in MariElla, much to Jazz's relief. They settled down in his living room amidst much light and frivolous banter. Yvonne excused herself to go to the bathroom. She reappeared a few minutes later.
"Jazz, I think you've got cockroaches in your bathroom." She said in the concerned tones of a woman long used to experiencing the general lack of cleanliness in a man's home.
"What?" Jazz was stunned. What did she mean?
"Little bugs that crawl out of your drains and eat your food. They smell disgusting." Psy smirked enjoying hir opportunity to have a dig at Jazz/Kkhrkht at a time when he couldn't get his own back.
"You really out to get some bug killer." Lottie suggested innocently. "Or you could call in the town pest control department. You don't want cockroaches, they're such a nuisance."
Jazz/Kkhrkht blanched and felt as if things were getting surreal. Surely his odours weren't so noticeable and offensive to humans? He made a mental note to leave a few windows open in future. "Oh, I'll see to it in the morning," the words barely able to come out of his mouth.
Psy snuggled up to a shaken Jazz. "Now, my dear, let's have a look at this fabulous collection of yours." Shi crooned cosily to Jazz.
Jazz realised that he no choice other than to play the part of 'Jasper Rodriguez is totally mesmerised by the exotic Psy' to the hilt. Somehow he had to turn the tables. He went over to a small wooden drinks cabinet and got out a wooden box. There was a faint glow emanating from around the edges of the lid. He opened the box on a low table for all to see. Everyone was genuinely impressed with this box full of Psionic Crystals. Some were plain clear. Some had flecks of light moving around in them. A few were glowing faintly. After he set the box down, he went out to the kitchen to get a glass of water. While he was there, he took his jacket off and arranged it so that he could tell which way his bio-spectrum analyser was pointing. When he came back into the living room, he laid his jacket down so that it aimed in Psy's direction and hoped that it would get a clear reading of hir.
Psy began picking the crystals out of the box and arranging them on the table. When shi had finished, shi took a large crystal, almost the size of hir hand, out of hir shoulder bag. It seemed to have a blue cloud swirling around inside it. Psy stood up, holding the crystal in both hir hands and seemed to go into a trance. After a few minutes it was glowing intensely and then it happened.... a glob of bluish light began to emanate from it and began to slowly descend and engulf the crystals on the table. The light was so strong it seemed to fill the whole room. It was all over in a few moments that felt like forever. A few remaining globs of light floating in the room evaporated leaving the crystals on the table glowing surrounded by an undulating glob of viscous light. Psy stood there, a look of satisfaction on hir face as shi gazed down on the crystals and Jazz's guests who were totally dumbfounded. Stanley Jah reached out and tentatively picked up one of the crystals. A languid string of liquid light seemed to spin out from it back to the crystals on the table. In silence, he got up and walked around the room still holding the crystal. The string of light remained unbroken. When Stanley Jah walked behind Psy, the string of light looped around hir. He finished his circuit of the room, put the still-glowing crystal on the table and sat down. Psy left them sitting in silence for a few moments, just for added dramatic effect, before pronouncing softly: "They're recharged now."
"Will they stay like this for long?" Jazz asked as he overcame his awe. This Psy was certainly full of surprises!
"Oh, for a few days." Psy replied casually, hir camp mannerisms momentarily falling aside. "But they should be fine for quite a while. Maybe as much as a couple of years. It depends how much you use them and also how far apart they are. Groups of crystals keep their charge longer than ones that are on their own. We need to use your crystals for my show." Psy pronounced grandly.
"What do you want them for?" Jazz asked suspecting that Psy was using this as a scam to relieve him of his collection of crystals. He had planned on bringing these crystals home for analysis so that his people, the Khzchhrrrtz, could use this amazing technology.
"Relays." Psy explained. "When we're at the Pleasure Dome, I'm going to recharge all the crystals there. I need some that are already charged up to work as relays so that my bluestone can charge them up quickly. I don't want to have to stand there all night, love. I'll get cold!"
"Do you want them now?" Jazz asked pretending to be excited about the show while trying to hide his disappointment at having to lose his collection of crystals.
"No, no, no!" Psy replied. "I want you to distribute them amongst the audience around the stage. That's why you're coming with us to the Pleasure Dome." At this point Psy turned to address the band members. "I know some of you have had reservations about the show I've been planning. Tonight I've recharged Jazz's collection of crystals. This Saturday, with your help, I'll recharge over a thousand crystals in one go." Psy's eyes lit up. "Wild, huh?"
Chester, feeling somewhat awkward with Psy's obvious mastery of Psionic Crystals, had been fiddling aimlessly with the buttons on his saxophone and looked up. "Fine, but what do we do with them, Psy? I could never do anything with mine."
Eddy echoed Chester's sentiment. "I was only able to communicate once with mine and it never worked again." And so on around the room. For all their interest in Psionic Crystals, none of them had had much success with their crystals.
"Well these ones ought to do the trick." Psy exuded confidently. "They weren't made for you. You're very lucky to be able to use them at all." Shi then picked up one of the crystals from the table and concentrated on it. A cloudy beam of light unfurled towards Jazz's sofa with Chester, Yvonne and Eddy sitting on it which rose up into the air. Chester looked worried. Eddy enjoyed the view. Psy kept them up in the air for a few minutes and then set them down again. The crystal had ceased glowing. "Whoops, drained that one!" Psy quipped as shi put it back amongst the other crystals in their rolling fog of light. Shi lifted it out moments later. It was glowing again!
Malcolm and Lottie picked up a crystal each and gazed into them intently. A field of light grew around each crystal until each was enveloped by their crystals' glow. The fields of light kept growing until they joined together. MariElla, Chester, Stanley and Yvonne picked out crystals and joined the lightfest. Only Psy and Jazz remained on the outside.
"Aren't you going to join in?" Psy taunted Jazz.
"They don't really work for me." Jazz confessed ruefully.
"Good job, too." Psy remarked dryly. "Never mind, I can take you to join the others." And with that, Psy picked out a crystal and let its' light engulf the two of them. And they were as one knowing each others' thoughts and feelings. Reading each others' memories, hopes and fears as if they were all one being. No longer individuals, or so it seemed except that Psy was using hir mental shield the others from probing too deeply into hirself or Jazz, for obvious reasons. Psy projected and maintained the mental profiles of hirself as glamorous dancer and mystic and Jazz as a poor orphan from Earth into their group-mind. Outside looking in. Jazz felt a bit guilty about this as he could easily sense that the others were clearly excited about this new state of group-consciousness they had reached by using the Psionic Crystals Psy had just recharged. But he had no desire to be the one who initiated the long, drawn-out process of admitting a new civilisation into the Galactic Community. And even less of a desire to fall foul of a Psy with obvious psychic powers who was also his ticket home.
Into that field of light and their group-mind Psy proclaimed: "I am the keeper of the Psionic Crystals and have brought you into this light-space. You have tasted the fusing of your minds, but this is only the beginning. When you are like this you are more than your individual parts. In time, you may even become one instead of the many lesser parts you are now. Take what you have learned and use it well." While they were there, Chester led them through a piece of music he had written for the band and the planned their show for the coming weekend. It was certainly a new way of communicating. Almost like thinking in each other's minds.
After a while thoughts of sex, hunger and things they had to do the next day started swamping all else. One by one, they dropped out of the light-field and made their ways home. Eventually only Jazz, Psy and MariElla were left. Psy and MariElla left together and Jazz was left alone. Just what he needed! As soon as he was sure they had left the building, he picked up his jacket and fished out his bio-spectrum analyser. 'Okay, Psy. Let's see what you're made of'.
Sitting down with his analyser, Jazz ran through the evening's data input. Sure enough, there was his own metabolism showing up, so it worked okay. Right filter myself out. Next up a whole swath of human biochemistries al with their various genetic fingerprints. A lot of XY's and XX's. Aha, an XXY, that must be Psy. So you are human after all! Fine, filter all the rest of it out and voila, P-Sirius Joventhal is up on the slab for analysis. A very healthy specimen, indeed! Well, let's see how different you are. Jazz called up each individual scan of the other members of the Flaming Watusis one by one to compare and contrast their genetic composition and metabolic activity. Seems just like the others except for a few metabolic processes that don't occur in any of the others. Hmmmm, Missing anything? No. Jazz started comparing Psy's DNA with that of the others and found that unlike most human DNA which had non-functional sections which didn't contain any specific information, all of Psy's DNA was highly ordered with functional sequences. Not even clones had DNA like that. Well, you certainly are different, Psy. And I don't think you were born like any of the others or cloned in a tank for that matter. Jazz drew the only logical assumption, that being that the Nglubi had somehow made Psy. But what exactly were all those other DNA sequences for? More data to be logged and brought home for further study at the hands of those whose expertise in these matters went far beyond his own basic understanding. His scanner didn't have the kind of database he needed, the DNA sequences of all known lifeforms from the human's planet. Something else to work on. So much to do, so little time.
Well, he had the rest of that night to go over the data if need be. Next up was a device he used to monitor and record human neural activity. He was quite proud of this one. Kkhrkht was no scientist and yet he'd managed to knock it together out of a few of the devices he'd been sent out with. He was contentedly sure that his tutors and fellow academicians would be pleased with his work. He scrolled through the evening's record of neural activity his monitor had recorded. Humans were so predictable, all isolated spheres of consciousness. Highly defensive, yet poorly shielded and almost always reaching out tentatively with their feeble mental tendrils. One stood out, it must be Psy. Powerful, with robust links right into all the others' minds. Psy wasn't just reading all their minds, but actively influencing them, too. And then their session with the crystals. Sure enough, their mental activity had been boosted by the Psionic Crystals. He could see how those feeble tendrils had grown in strength until their minds had fused. And yes, there was Psy. Wow, completely off the scale! Psy had overrun their group-mind and fused with the crystals. He noted a single strand emanating from Psy going way out beyond their immediate environment. But to where? Psy had been in contact with someone or something else during their session. But who or what and where? Well, his little neural monitor wasn't going to be able to shed any light on that. This called for a bit of plain old gumshoe.
Just out of curiosity he aimed his neural monitor at the collection of glowing crystals on the table. 'Well, I'll be!', he was surprised. The crystals were full of mental energy. But it was static as opposed to the dynamic ebb and flow of a living being's mind. Following up from that, he pointed his bio-spectrum analyser at the crystals and got another surprise. Their expected inorganic crystalline structures were not only so regular as to be fault-free, but were shot through with vast quantities of complex organic molecules. A living organism embedded in an inorganic crystal matrix? These weren't created by geological processes either, but had been made. And yet he'd found these very crystals scattered around the old fort amongst the rubble and wind-blown sand. They looked as if they'd been lying around discarded and forgotten for a very long time.
Who or whatever had originally made these Psionic Crystals had done so long ago and had probably long since gone having abandoned the underground warrens they had built and their Psionic Crystals. Were the warrens and crystals Nglubi as he suspected Psy of being? Or were they made by another race and Psy merely stumbled onto them first? Kkhrkht realised that the first option was the most likely although not necessarily correct. Genetically, Psy was more than human, but what? Kkhrkht might never get the answer to that until he was home, so he made a decision to study Psy as thoroughly as possible over the next few days. He had a feeling that whatever he could find out about hir might be more valuable than all the data he gathered on these humans. After all, this human species was nothing special. Just one of many evolving species on the brink of stumbling into the Galactic Community, all very routine and boring. But this different. A real unknown!