Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 11: Shadows in the Pleasure Dome.

     It's an early Saturday morning blue-on-pink Martian sunrise and turning our attention towards the Pleasure Dome, we notice a few flickering and flashing blobs of light visible through the condensation-lined outer skin of the travellers' gargantuan silver breasts. At ground level we can see the tracks of thousands of pairs of pressure-suit boots of all sizes traced out in the dusty red soil leading from the visitors' park-up area to the main entrance to the Pleasure Dome itself. The main entrance, suit storage facility and ticket booths were camouflaged within an ever-changing holographic display that projected all kinds of marvellous scenes so long as they could fit the main entrance in as part of it. So that you might find yourself walking up to the Taj Mahal one moment and a few hours later find that it's changed into a stroll along the bottom of the Grand Canyon, an entrance to Mecca, along the clouds of Jupiter, approaching Stonehenge, or whatever.
     Making our way through the public entrance to the Pleasure Dome (the travellers have their own service, workers & residents' entrances) and taking a look around, we find that activity is at a bit of a low point in the early morning. The main stage in the show dome has finally powered down leaving a sizable horde of revellers a few hours rest sleeping on the ground within the dome. Most of the stalls dotted around the inside of the perimeter have closed, giving their traders a few hours of precious sleep. The other dome, or breast, is given over largely to shops, stalls, exotic clubs, boutiques, caf‚'s, bars and all the other sort of establishments found at a festival.
     A few people linger around the main drag in the early hours of the morning either because their body clock is totally out of whack or because they're too wired out to sleep. Small knots of people with or without blankets draped around them huddle around the occasional fire pit warming their bones and, often as not, making new friends.
     One such fire pit has a group of worn-out looking humans and a mechanoid gathered around it. Some are sleeping, some are awake. Most are in an assortment of in-between states depending on the intoxicants of their choice the previous night. Barney's translucent green plazflex muscles and carbon-fibre skeleton-frame are covered in orange-red dust. Every now and then members of this group pass joints to smoke, bottles to drink and bits of food to each other...
     Barney and Clem sat around the dwindling remains of a fire that had been burning feebly throughout the previous night. Clem, looking thoroughly spaced out after a hard night's partying, scratches the orange-red, dusty soil with a eucalyptus stick. To his left Barney, is splayed out on the ground staring up into the silvery canopy of the dome above watching the first rays of morning sunlight interacting with his vivid hallucinations.
     "Did you see where Jazz got to?" Clem wondered vaguely. "I haven't seen him or Psy since the Technoids were on last night."
     A cloud of dust blew out of Barney's mouthpiece, "Ace gig, huh? Ah, they're probably off screwing somewhere. Dig the colours. Wow!" He trailed off in tripped-out wonderment. "Too bad you can't try these virals, Clem. This Rainbow Bridge is one amazing trip!"
     Clem was a little closer to ground at the time what with his head throbbing from too much tequila the night before. His furry tongue was telling him to get another drink, but the dwindling fire in the pit still cast out enough heat to keep him too comfortable to move.
      "Hey, mech!" called out an obvious reveller who'd had way too much fun the last few days. "How come you're sitting round our fire? You don't feel cold like we do."
     "I'm here for the party, man." Barney was miles away.
     "Bull!" croaked out another who looked much the worse for wear. Following which a crumpled form part way round the fire pit burst out into a spasmodic fit of phlegm-laden coughing interlaced with smoky cackling of a woman who'd obviously enjoyed more than a dozen chillums the night before. "Pah!" she replied amidst a jangle of her assorted rings, bracelets, beads, baubles and other colourful body decor, "How come you ain't over at Satori City, like the rest of the mechs whenever they get any time off? Done something wrong and got yourself banned from Satori have ya?"
     "Hey, what's the big deal?" Barney was in that blessed-out state a good acid trip takes you to and in no fit state to take on an argument. Even Clem, who was sitting right beside him, seemed worlds away.
     "Hah! Look at him" our crusty floozy continued as her boyfriend groped her and, to her obvious pleasure, put his shaggy, dreadlocked head facedown between her legs. "Off his face on virals hanging around with us fleshies." She mocked him using the mech's vernacular for humans while stroking her boyfriends' back with her legs. "Mmmmmmmm, that's better," she murmured to her partner. In turn, all the worn-out souls around the fire pit, emboldened by the brash insults our floozy dished out to Barney, had a go at him suggesting that he was anything from a rogue mech on the run to a corpcop.
     Clem couldn't take any of this much longer and finally spoke up before Barney started taking them seriously. "Look you lot, leave him alone. We work at the sewage farm in Cydonia City and we came here for a break, OK. Now if any of you lot have anything more to say, say it to me."
     "Uh-oh, a mech-lover" a voice grumbled.
     "Hey honey, is your mech fucking you or what?" A voice of indeterminate gender called out. "I hear they never stop. Just what I need."
     "Sewage farm didja say?" A tall, thin man of Asiatic features spoke up. "No-one works there except immies. You just come up from Earth?" He didn't notice that Clem was a clone and that clones wouldn't have immigrated to Mars, but would have been birthed in a tank locally on Mars. He then shouted his ignorance louder so that everyone walking past the fire pit could hear him, "Hey we've got some immies here. A mech immie, too. Yes, for only two scruples you can hear the true-life stories of a couple of Earthside losers who blew their life savings to work on a sewage farm on Mars. Whatta pair of suckers! Whatta pair of losers! Roll up, roll up!" By now he was more or less on his feet doing a nearly passable impersonation of a fairground barker, but still obviously from one of the nearby dome-villages. No traveller this one. Just a doped-up, wired out farm boy with too little to do and a whole lotta time and money on his hands to burn.
     Clem reached over and grabbed Barney's right arm. "C'mon, let's get out of here. I'm hungry. You need a recharge?"
     "No, not right now. I'm fine, thanks." Barney replied as he wobbled dreamily alongside Clem. "How's about Martian Mary's Inorganic Taco Pizza Saloon? I bet you could use a strong methedrine coffee and couple slices of pizza by now."
     "Yeah, sounds OK to me. Damn those creeps. No way was I going to sit there and let them pick on you like that."
     "Huh? What? That lot?" Barney was still floating along in viral-induced euphoria, mercifully untouched by the abuse hurled at him. "Why worry? We'll never see them again."
     "I suppose so, but it was completely uncalled for." Clem felt disgusted and genuinely embarrassed for Barney's sake though the remains of the tequila in his blood may have made him feel a bit more maudlin than usual. So this is what the lowest level real humans are like? Just thinking about them made him shiver. Why was it that clones and mechs had to be near-perfect people in order to enjoy the same rights as humans who seemed to be anything from dull-witted to outright questionable? "Not when I'm hung over and most certainly not on me or any of my friends."
     "What was all that sump oil about the sewage farm in Cydonia City?" Barney was surprised when he heard Clem spinning that yarn.
     "It sounded like the most undesirable sorta job in the most distant town I could think of on the spot." Clem explained. "I didn't want any of that following us home later."
     "Good idea, that." Even through the fading swirls of his hallucinogenic viral, Barney could see that his clone friend was beginning to think on his feet. "Did you ever notice that the lights on the shops are switching on an asynchronous crenulated sequence?"
     "No." Clem didn't have clue what Barney was talking about. It must be the drugs.
      By now our dubious duo were shuffling though a haze of early-morning hangovers hidden behind glazed, bagged and bloodshot eyes. Up and down the length of the Babylon main drag were an amazing array of stalls, shops and boutiques selling anything and everything from the essentials of life to the most exotic luxuries imaginable. This was surely the Pleasure Dome!
     A flashing holographic banner over one stall advertised "Morty's Apothecary and Cosmic Accessories. The finest herbs, hallucinogens and virals for all occasions. Psionic Crystals. Genuine Martian relics and Asteroid jewellery. Palm readings, Tarot and more. Step right in for a free introductory offer." Below the holographic banner was a holographic projection of a crowd of onlookers fixed in rapt awe of the wares on display. Except that the projector wasn't really working all that well and there were occasional bursts of static running through the "onlookers". Aside from which, the illusion was repeatedly broken by one festival-goer or another who'd just wander obliviously through the seemingly solid curiosity seekers gathered around Morty's Apothecary.
     Next to Morty's Apothecary was a stall advertising "The finest Martian silk and hardest-wearing Martian hempen clothing."
     Further along there was "Al Sahib's fresh non-hydroponic fruit, vegetables and finest organic meats."
     Another boutique advertised "All the latest hardware and software for your computers, bionic enhancements and other devices. Mechanoid upgrades our specialty. Step right in for a free quote. Lowest prices on Mars and a full 5-year warranty. All our merchandise is 100% legit. Buy in confidence!"
     "Shin-Ju's book and music cube emporium. All the latest and greatest hits. Every thing from Plato and Mozart to this week's top titles. Cubes bought & sold for cash. Top prices paid. Rarities sourced at low, low commission."
     "Beer, beer, beer! The finest, strongest and widest selection of beer on Mars!"
     "Tibetan cuisine. Free yak's milk with every order."
     "Massage and erotic pleasures. Human and mechanoid attendees. All tastes catered for. Come on in and feel at home with our wondrous hosts and hostesses."
     "Cassandra DeLaMere's Mind-reading. Genuine Martian Psionic Crystals."
     Martian Mary's stall was coming into view by now. "So what do you reckon about this gig Psy wants us to do with Jazz's crystals tonight?" Barney asked. He was worried about Psy's ambitious plans ending badly. "Remember what Bob told us about the old guy who tried selling Psionic Crystals in the market?"
     "Hey, take a look around, Barney." Clem waved his arm to take in the broad sweep of the shops and stalls on the main drag. "People are buying and selling them openly here and no-one's been busted yet." He pointed out optimistically. I reckon it's safe. At worst, we'll end up back at Klondike Pass with no memories."
     "Yeah, with Mitch telling us all about where we've been." Barney joked. "He'd love this place. Hey, why don't we call him up and invite him over?"
     "Don't I know." Clem knew Barney was right. Mitch would have been completely in his element in the Pleasure Dome. But calling through to Klondike Pass might bring AM&MG looking for them and if living in Montgomery meant having things like the Pleasure Dome, then he wasn't going back to Klondike Pass if he could help it. "You don't want AM&MG getting on our tail, do you?"
     "You'd never get anything like this around Klondike Pass or City One for that matter." Barney mused enthusiastically. This was how he imagined freedom to be. He'd already forgotten the foul-mouthed harpie and her cavilling cohort. What with the remains of the half-dozen virals he'd uploaded the previous night and the recordings of the bands' music spinning around in his mind, he felt as if he was on cloud nine. Life was good!
     Clem was looking around hoping to catch sight of Jazz. He needed some familiar company in this early morning ebb of mostly human life. Mostly human, because there were a fair number of mechs taking in the sights and sounds as well. "Any sign of Jazz?" He asked hopefully.
     Barney looked around for a moment surveying the few remaining revellers wandering along the main drag. "No."
     "Aw nuts." Clem gave up. He noticed Martian Mary's up ahead and began thinking about food. "I think I'll go over there and get a bite to eat. How about you?"
     Barney didn't want to sit around watching Clem eat. It was more interesting drifting around taking in the sights and sounds. "I'll wander around and see if I run into Jazz. I'll meet you back here in an hour." They agreed to meet up in the caf‚ and Clem sauntered over towards Martian Mary's, his drug-numbed appetite returning as the spicy aromas of food being prepared cut through the crust of Martian dust that had built up in his nose. Glancing around as he went in through the swinging "Wild West" style doors, he saw that the few customers perched around the tables or reclining in nooks were just killing time because they had nowhere else to go and didn't want to sleep in the open. This they did by buying the occasional coffee or beer while spending their time watching films on vid screens or perched over com screens set into their tables, trying to catch forty winks while desperately making the effort to look as if they're wide awake.
     Clem sized up the couple working behind the counter. Both in their mid-thirties, probably living together. A second man is working in the kitchen cooking some food. They all look tired and drawn as if they've got much more to worry about than whether or not they're going to make enough money to keep going on. Still, the smell of food being cooked, the incense and spices have an immediate effect on Clem, lifting his spirits.
     Doing his best to smile and seem cheerful, he orders three slices of pizza and a half-litre jug of strong coffee and the goes over to a nook with a vid screen and a comm set in the table. A quiz show is running on the vid screen...
     "And for 500 Scruples, Jayne Esterhazy, this your big chance.... In 15 seconds, name the star centre-forward of the Galileo Scopesters' Zero-Gee Slamball team."
     "15, 14, 13, 12..." Accompanied by hysterical audience shrieking.
     "Uh, um, Julius N'goma?" In the background the audience could be heard oohing their disbelief that she could get such an easy question wrong.
     "No, I'm so sorry, Jayne. It's Santiago Chu'n. Never mind, you'll get another chance in the next round where you'll get a choice of topics for 1,000, yes that's 1,000 Scruples. So, hang in there, Jayne. And now on to our next contestant, Marky Hernandez from New Moscow..." The game show host gushed and continued on with all the remorselessness of a runaway train about to plunge over a cliff. Clem reached out for the control panel on the wall of the nook and dialed at random through various channels before stopping at an Earth-based news service on the local feed. Anything happening in Portsmouth? In a way he hoped there would be before accepting that none of it had ever happened. But he couldn't help thinking about Sandra and their non-existent son, Michael. Millions of miles away on another world. It seemed as if it was a completely different lifetime. And it wasn't even that. A small voice at the back of his mind reminded him that it was just an illusion AM&MG had hypnotically programmed into him to keep him trapped into working for them for his entire lifetime. Yet thinking about them was making him lose his appetite. What would it have been like to be a real human with a real life? For the longest time he sat there thinking, almost in tears, holding a slice of pizza six inches away from his partially open mouth as it gradually went cold along with the coffee sitting by his elbow on the table.
     "Wakey, wakey, Clem!" Barney sang as he gently shook Clem's shoulder.
     "Huh? What? Oh, there you are. Any sign of Jazz?"
     "No." Barney continued in his best 'life-as-usual' tone of voice to his somewhat distant friend. "We'll run into him sooner or later. Psy seemed really keen on having us help out with the crystals at their gig tonight. Damn, I've got to get new sealed joints all the way round. Those dust seals Sam sold me aren't all that good. There's dust getting in my joints and it's grinding me to bits. I'll have to get a full set of sealed joints if we get back to Montgomery."
     "Well, you could get yourself a plastiskin." Clem pointed out.
     "Hey, no way! I'd feel stupid going around looking like a fake human. I like the way I look just as I am." Barney said as he looked at his arms and legs and admired his crinkled reflection on the mirror-cloth drapes hanging around their nook. "On top of that I run a whole lot cooler now that the air can circulate through me more easily."
     "Sure, and you get clogged up with dust. Sam Kapella was right. This place is full of dust." Clem sneezed as if to emphasize his point. "The only place you'd be safe is in one of the sealed domes."
     "Or Satori." Barney added defiantly.
     "I'm not so sure on that one. It's very open-plan from what I hear. You'd still get full of dust over there."
     "All right, you win on that one." Barney conceded. "I'll just have to get a refit. Might have a look at some of that armour Sam tried to interest me in."
     "Barney, you don't have to go to Satori, do you?" Clem asked.
     "No, not really. I can link in any time." Barney mused. "But it's not the same as being physically close. I guess that's something we've picked up from you guys. I wouldn't mind living there, though."
     "Yeah...." Clem sighed a long, sad sigh and looked down at his hands on the table.
     Barney noticed the Earthside news on the vidscreen, sat down beside Clem and waited for a few minutes before speaking. "What's the matter, Clem?"
     "Been thinking about Sandra and Michael. I'll probably never see them again. Doubt if Sandra would be in any hurry to see me if I was back home either. Damn!" He banged the table with his fist and winced in pain. "What's it like for Michael? That Eric better treat him well. Otherwise I'll go back and wring that gigolo's neck!"
     "Look, Clem you're getting yourself all worked up over nothing. She doesn't even exist. Neither do Michael or Eric." Here we go again, Barney thought dismally. How long would it be before Clem put their illusions behind him and accepted his life as it really was? "We've been over this before. It's just a load of sump oil AM&MG filled your mind with to keep you working for them. Even if Sandra was real, would you want to get back together with her? Aside from the cost of bringing her up from Earth, she sounds a bit callous throwing you out after losing your job. If it's women you want Clem, take a look around. There's plenty of women here." Barney offered in a vain hope of bringing his friend out of his depression.
     "Maybe. But I was happy with her. We had a good life. At least it was a happy illusion." Clem paused. And then, shaking his head in dumbfounded realisation, "That mind control stuff of theirs is powerful. I still can't get it out of my head and it seems so real"
     "Don't I know. I couldn't get through to you back at Klondike Pass because they reprogrammed you every night. And now you talk about it all the time" Barney wearily replied wondering if Clem would ever clear AM&MG's sump oil out of his head.
     "Sorry about that."
     "It's OK. It's not your fault. And in the illusion Sandra and Eric are married now. Why not leave it behind? We can't go back to Klondike Pass now, so you'll have to start a new life." Barney reasoned. "You'll meet another woman here. Tell you what, I'll stick around until you get yourself together, then I'm going to go to Satori."
     "Thanks, Barney. But that could be years." Clem moaned pathetically from the bottom of his well of self-pity.
     "No problemo, Clem. I've got a long life ahead of me, so what's a few years between friends? You helped me kick my VR addiction back at Klondike Pass. What are friends for? On top of that, I want some real reality adventure." Barney replied in his best sympathetic-cheery voice.
     "What, working in the Montgomery market?" Clem replied, almost laughing.
     "Just the first stop, buddy. I've got it all worked out. Work in the market and save up, wait until our citizenship papers come through then go to Satori for new software and a refit. I'm going to sign up for one of the off-world exploration crews." Barney breezed confidently.
     "Blimey, you're the ambitious one. Good luck, mate. Send me a postcard sometime. Me, I just want to meet a nice bird, settle down. Raise a few kids. Continue the family that I thought I had. Maybe get a job on a farm." Clem dreamed out loud.
     "A bit low-key, but understandable." Barney commented.
     "It's in our genes, our programming. We're not as flexible as you mechs, but it's the way we are and the way we like it." Clem explained.
     "Yeah, sorry." Barney apologized.
     "That's all right." Clem accepted. Feeling better now that he'd shared his blues with Barney, he switched the vidscreen over to a slamball match, wolfed down the cold remains of his pizza and washed it down with his jug of cold coffee, burped, wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve, sat back contentedly and promptly fell asleep.
     "He's out for a few hours," Barney thought to himself. "Let's see how far I can go on these vidscreen and com screen feeds. Leaning back a bit, he placed the induction pickup he'd bought at the upgrade shop against the vidscreen control panel. What a rush of noise!!! Must be at least 500 channels there. OK, let's filter 'em and check their sources one by one... This didn't take Clem very long and, as he suspected, most of the channels were coming in from MarsTel, a commercial broadcaster based in Schiaparelli City. Standard everyday stuff.
     There were a few live shows coming in, but most of it was canned shows from Earth along with a handful of live shows from Mars and Jules Verne, the orbital docking station in geosynchronous orbit above Mars where the huge interplanetary ships docked before transferring their passengers and cargo onto smaller planet-bound craft. Barney wasn't all that interested in being entertained, so he turned his attention to the 2-way comm screen which was lighting up their nook with the glow from its' screen. He lifted his induction pickup and placed it as near to the feed lines as he could so's he could get a handle on the data flow. Yup, there were the Raiders monitoring the data flow in and out of the Pleasure Dome. More immediate, though, was how they had placed watchdog bots at various hubs and junctions. They sure wanted to know who was saying what to whom.
     Barney amused himself for a while scanning the various channels for all the latest news and views. Finally he shifted his attention over to the public mech channels broadcast out of Satori. They were broadcast at "slow" human data rates so that mechs couldn't be accused of secrecy. It didn't matter because they were either way-out computer-art environments, elaborate multi-player fantasy game environments or else tech discussion channels that were all broadcast as a PR reassurance for the human population. Still, it was good to tune in to his own for a while.
     Barney was in the middle of a recreation of 1930's Chicago gangland when he was abruptly brought back to the here and now in Martian Mary's when a group of Raiders sauntered in. Two humans and a mech. All armed to the teeth and the mech looked as if he/it could pull Barney to pieces without even trying. A mean bunch indeed who moved with the confident cocksure ease of those who commanded all that they surveyed. One of the human Raiders and the mech Raider went over to the serving counter while the other human Raider covered their backs and surveyed the clientele of Martian Mary's. Barney decided this was no time to mind his business and cranked up the gain on his "ears" as far as it would go.
     "...come to collect our tributes." The human Raider at the counter demanded in a low, menacing tone so as not to be overheard by the rest of the customers over the background music which drifted through the air like so much heady incense. "And don't think about calling out to the punters here for help or we'll waste the lot of you right now."
     "Whaddya mean?" The woman behind the counter asked defensively. "This is our home."
     "Not while we're here it isn't. And if you don't pay up, you'll be joining the rest of the stiffs we're pulling out of this joint." The mech Raider laughed. "So, if you know what's good for you, you'll hand over your takings before we have to take it ourselves, little lady. Or are your buddies here in the mood for heroics?" He sneered tauntingly.
     "Yeah, c'mon." The human Raider joined in. "Move it. Like my buddy here says, give or we take. That's all there is to it."
     At this point one of the men came out of the kitchen and joined in. "Look, we've got to get new stock." He tried vainly to reason with the thugs. "If you keep on taking everyone's earnings, this whole place will be bankrupted. Not just our cafe. Don't you guys ever see anything in the long-term?"
     "Sure we do, faggot" The human Raider baited the cook. "and you creeps don't figure anywhere in our long-term plans." He sneered. "You wanna fight about it? Huh? I'll kill you now just as sure as we're gonna finish the lot of you off before long." And he slapped his laser pistol against the flat of his hand in order to make his point. "Hand over the scruples, fag, and I'll let you crawl around for another day."
     At this point the couple behind the counter looked at each other, shrugged and opened the till. The man scooped out several handfuls of banknotes, coins and credit tokens and gave them to the human Raider who put them into a pouch he was carrying and then slung it over his shoulder.
     "Oh yeah, and be sure to download your credit takings too, or we'll be back real soon." The mech Raider warned. Then turning around towards their third member, "C'mon, let's move. Gotta do the rounds." Satisfied that they'd be collecting the rest of their 'tributes', they ambled out the swinging doors in the direction of the next shop along.
     If robots could crap their pants, Barney would have done so. As it was, he stayed frozen in place desperately trying not to draw any attention to himself. Obviously the Raiders didn't consider him a threat. Which he wasn't really, because he was no match for the hardened Raiders. The Raider mech looked like an ex-military killing machine bristling with lethal weaponry and could most likely smash Barney's Theta-class drone frame to bits without even trying. On top of which, they were all armed to the teeth and Barney had left the laser pistol in their lock-up back in town. This called for a different plan of action, but what?
     Barney turned his attention to Clem who was squirming his way through semi-erotic movements in his sleep, blissfully unaware of the scene that had just transpired. Barney shook Clem by the shoulder and woke him up. "Hey, you awake?" He asked. "I think you ought to catch a load of this" Barney placed his transducer next to the input cable for the comm-set and replayed the audio and vid recording he'd made of the Raiders visit.
     Clem sat transfixed staring down at the comm-set screen in the table. When the recording ended, Clem didn't move for a long time and then gradually straightened up and turned around to face Barney. "Tell me it isn't real." Clem pleaded numbly.
     "Wish I could." Barney replied.
     "Damn, I was dreaming about Eleanor Chou." Clem sighed as scratched his balls. "I suppose it couldn't last forever." He added wistfully. "Couldn't you have waited a bit longer before you woke me up? It was just getting to be a real good scene. But why... ...that?" Clem pointed at the blank screen in their table. "Oh, man. What a comedown!"
     Barney was beginning to slump. "Sorry, man. But that's reality. Anyway, I'm keeping that and a few other clips I've got. Might be useful sometime."
     "I didn't know you played the cop." Clem teased his mechanoid friend.
     "No, not usually." Barney replied "But you've gotta admit, these are unusual circumstances and I've got to do something even if I can't take those bastards on head-on. And as for you, my friend, go and get yourself a strong coffee this time. I can't have you nodding off like you just did after your last one."
     "Mmmm, yeah, OK." And Clem got up and tried to saunter casually over to the counter as if everything was just fine. "Hiya, babe." Clem smiled. "A jug black jolt java and some pancakes." And then, adding casually "How's things?"
     The woman serving at the counter straightened up momentarily, smiled weakly, "Fine. Hope you have a nice time in our Pleasure Dome." And then hurriedly so as to avoid thinking about the Raiders' visit, she continued: "Oh, uh, what topping would you like on your pancakes?"
     "Ah...." Clem could feel himself getting hungrier by the moment as he smelled the pancakes being prepared. "Cinnamon, pecans, cardamom and honey would do me nicely." At which point he reached into his pocket and pulled out a 200-scruple credit token and pressed it into her hand. "Here, this is for you and your friends. Keep it."
     She looked embarrassed for a moment, glanced around to make sure no-one else was watching and then regained her composure and gave the token back to Clem. "It's all right. I think you're going to need that money more than us." With that she turned to the serving hatch, picked up Clem's pancakes, put the topping on them, poured out his extra-strength coffee and placed it on the counter. "Eat, drink and be merry..." she said pleasantly.
     "...For tomorrow we may die." Clem thought darkly as he thanked her and took his breakfast back to his table. Clem ate in hungry silence barely able to appreciate his delicious breakfast while Barney kept on scanning all the different frequencies and sidebands on the comms feeds coming through the Pleasure Dome in an attempt to lock onto any babble amongst the Raiders. No such luck. They were so distracted and absorbed in their actions that they didn't notice Jazz, Psy, Eddy and Gregor walk up to their booth.
     "Hey, hey, hey! If it ain't Pyramus and Thisbee." A friendly slavic-sounding voice wheezed above them. Clem and Barney both looked up at... a pudgy man whose badly-shaved head was covered in fluorescent blue stubble holding a tray laden with enough food to feed a family. On his left was a tall, solid man with bronze skin, long, black hair. His Amerindian features accentuated by necklaces of beads and feathers. Behind them Clem could see Jazz being fussed over by Psy. "So you're going to be helping out with Psy's crystal show this evening?" Gregor smiled showing his brown, stumpy teeth as he set down the tray. "The name's Gregor. Gregor Popovich," his eyes twinkling with friendship and squeezed Clem's hand so hard, the blood nearly stopped flowing, shook it heartily and then let go. Gregor then pointed to Geronimo, "This is Edward Laughing Bear, but you can call him Eddy."
     Eddy looked up and with his mouth full of food said, "Hi!" Gregor lit up a pipe and passed it to Clem. "Can't say we haven't had reservations about it, but it's going to be a show that people will remember for years. The Flaming Watusis!" Gregor pronounced proudly as he thumped the table with the palms of his wide, fat hands. "We're going to shake this place apart or else have one hell of a time trying."
     "Are you with the band?" Clem was excited. He'd never met a band before. Their lives seemed so much more glamorous than his humdrum existence.
     "Yeah, sure." Gregor modestly admitted. "Eddy here plays bass and I play the drums. Dunno where everyone else is, but they'd better get here on time for the show."
     "Wow!" Clem's eyes were full of stars. "So when are you guys playing?"
     "Sometime around 11 tonight." Gregor sounded bored with the vagaries of concert scheduling as he fiddled around with his food. "We're on after The Collapsing Deckchairs. They're a punk band from Callisto. But knowing how things go, it'll probably be some time later than that. Jazz told me you boys would like to visit Fort Melchisor sometime. Everyone wants to go there and pick up some crystals. That right Jazz?"
     "Oh, yes." Jazz spluttered awkwardly. These humans and their paranoias were getting to him. On one hand he was feted for handing out Psionic Crystals and on the other hand Psy and friends like Gregor were constantly warning him off.
     "It might be a bit difficult. Something's happened over there and the MIB's are crawling all over the place." Gregor could read Clem's look of disappointment and Jazz's worried expression like a book. "There's a friend of mine who runs a farm nearby and he's invited us along for a party afterwards. Seeing how you're part of the show tonight, you're all invited." Gregor hoped his grand offer would offset their obvious disappointment. He didn't really like doing SkyHawk's dirty work, but at least this time it really was for their own good, so he offered them a crumb of hope. "Maybe we can work something out when it's safer to visit."
     Clem was so thrilled at being invited to a party with the Flaming Watusis that he immediately forgot about visiting the fort to look for some Psionic Crystals. Feeling accepted into their circle made him feel pleasantly at ease in his surroundings. "So what exactly are we supposed to do with these crystals?" He asked casually as he placed his crystal on the table.
     Psy overheard Clem. "You, Jazz and Barney are going to be relays for me tonight. We're going to do some dimensional travelling like you've never seen before." Shi explained mysteriously. "I need you three to make sure my blue crystal can reach all the audience. You won't be using your crystal, Clem. I'm charging ten blue crystals to use later."
     "And?" Barney prompted Psy. If was going to risk being picked up by Earth Fed, then he felt he was due an explanation. Ten crystals meant that Psy planned on enlisting at least seven more gullible victims in order to pull of whatever stunt shi had in mind. "Who are the others?"
     "Haven't decided yet." Psy glibly dismissed Barney's doubts. "There's a few people in this amazing Free Mars Tribe who know how to use Psionic Crystals. Jazz and I have been talking to a few of them and they're very interested in getting involved, so I don't think we'll have any problems. It's all been a bit of a rush the last few days. I'm still getting used to being in this fabulous band. It's so exciting!" Shi gushed excitedly before returning to the business at hand. "I need people holding crystals to form a circle around the audience. It'll be easier to activate the crystals that way."
     "What crystals?" Clem felt as if he was still missing part of the plan.
     "Come, come, dear boy. Look around, use your eyes." Psy scolded him. "Nearly everyone has one variety of crystal or another. Just you wait."
     "If you say so." Clem doubted whether this madman's? madwoman's? plan would work. As it was his ticket to a party, he decided to play along. "So why can't I use my own crystal?"
     "It's not the right type." Psy expostulated grandly. "Only blue crystals can hold the energy matrix we'll need for tonight's show. The one that Jazz hands out aren't up to the job." Shi added dismissively before adding: "But it's going to be all those common crystals like yours that will open the gateway." Clem was intrigued by what Psy was planning and lapsed into silence while he tried to imagine what was in store.
     "How are we supposed to keep playing all the way through this dimensional travelling? I doubt if the power leads on that stage are going to stretch across these dimensions you've been talking about." Gregor's wheezy voice was tinged with a rust of doubt.
     "Well, it's not going to affect you all that much. You make enough of a racket with those drums of yours as it is." Psy joked breezily.
     "No..." Gregor admitted slowly. "But it could put Malc, Lottie, Eddy and Ches out of the picture. They'd feel like a right bunch of lemons if they were cut out of the jam."
     "I know, I know." Psy sounded concerned. "I found a scrap yard while Jazz and I were taking a walk outside the Pleasure Dome last night. They're building a commercial Delta flier out there! And, by the look of things, it's where they service and maintain all the vehicles and machinery. We might be able to borrow a few power cells to use tonight. We're going back later, aren't we?" Psy snuggled up close to Jazz who smiled nervously and wearily agreed with his overwhelming date.
     "Yeah and what are we supposed to do if Earth Fed's got it's MIB's staking out our gig?" Gregor voiced the concerns of most of the band. He sounded aggressive, almost angry though he didn't want to. They were all fascinated by Psy's plans. But unlike Psy, they all had families and lives they wanted to back to afterwards. None relished the idea of ending up in jail.
     "They won't be bothering us during the gig." Psy pronounced confidently. "If there's any of those pesky Keystone Cops around, they'll be swept along for the ride. Afterwards, yes we might have a problem. I'm hoping they're going to be too stunned to try anything silly. Anyway, I've told you before if anyone gets busted, I'll take the rap. It's my idea and I hypnotised all of you to work for me, OK? It's a valid defence with plenty of legal precedent. And I did leave 5,000 Scruples with Anna to bail us out if anything goes wrong." Psy did hir best to sound as sincere as possible. Shi really did mean what shi said. "At the very worst you might spend a few days in the jug, but that'll be it. I give you my word."
     Neither Eddy nor Gregor looked totally convinced. "I hope so. For your sake." Gregor added gravely. A sullen silence settled over them and Barney fidgeted awkwardly in his chair feeling somewhat out of place as these humans did their fleshie thing of eating and drinking. And then they had to shit and piss out the remains a few hours later. So inefficient and messy. Why couldn't they use a fuel cell like mechs? Oh well, vive la difference.
     Clem finally broke the silence. "So who exactly are these MIB's?"
     "Earth Fed Special Operations Police," Gregor explained through a mouthful of food.
     "But why MIBs?" Barney asked, none the wiser. "Surely 'Special Operations Police' would be called SOPs, although you've gotta admit it's a stupid sounding acronym if I ever heard one!"
     "It goes back a long way." Eddy began explaining. "Did you ever hear about the Greys who crashed in North America about 180 years ago?"
     "Oh yeah," Clem replied, relishing the warmth of his new friends. "That was at Rosebud, wasn't it?" He asked tentatively.
     "Roswell actually, citizen Clem." Eddy wryly corrected him. "My tribe came from that area. That was one of the reasons my parents and their tribe came here. To start our journey out into the stars or some such rubbish. So here we are, farmers in space!" Eddy's eyes twinkled as he laughed warmly at the absurd irony of it.
     "Not much hunting for buffalo?" Clem teased playfully.
     "Hardly." Eddy replied wistfully as he relished a mental image of the plains and their endless herds of buffalo that he'd only ever seen on Tri-D. "We'll have to wait until the atmosphere thickens, if it ever does, for that one." Realizing that he'd completely lost track of what he'd been talking about, he added, "Where were we?"
     "MIBs." Clem prompted, eager to know more.
     "Oh, right. MIBs." Eddy replied, relieved to be put back on course after the strong hash he'd smoked before breakfast had knocked him off course with his psychoactively enhanced memory of the teleshow. "A lot of people found out about the crash and the Greys when it happened and put news about it out on their telemedia. The government back then tried to deny that any of it ever happened and set about systematically discrediting all the evidence and silencing people. They won the battle, but lost the war."
     "What do you mean? What battle? What war?" Clem asked, piqued that his growing interest was once again cut off by something he couldn't understand.
     "The media battle and the credibility war. They discredited all the evidence, but no-one really believed them because they seemed so desperate to explain everything as natural phenomena or test flights." Eddy continued patiently. "Over the years it came out how the government had set up a secret police force called 'Majestic-12' to deal with extraterrestrial encounters and that they had a reputation for being very heavy-handed."
     "Yeah, but why MIBs?" Barney inquired as he failed to see any connection between 'MIB' and 'Special Operations Police'.
     "I was getting round to that." Eddy continued, pleasantly surprised to find himself enjoying telling people he'd just met facts that he and most of his contemporaries knew, but that Clem and Barney obviously didn't. "For some reason or other, they tended to wear black suits and people began to refer to them as the 'Men in Black' or MIBs for short."
     "Ah, I see." Clem smiled as he joined his new-found friend in the conspiratorial feeling of shared knowledge.
     "We had 'em for real in Montgomery five years ago." Eddy added soberly. "They keep coming back every now and them because people are always going out to the fort which isn't supposed to exist."
     "You mean Fort Melchisor? The one between here and Satori?" Barney joined in.
     "That very one. And the many others like it." Psy affirmed. "Honestly, those policemen. You think they could find something better to do with themselves than running around telling everyone back is white. There's no point denying reality."
     "Hear, hear!" Gregor rejoined. "Maybe they could do something useful like chasing off the Raider clans that prey on the smaller, vulnerable settlements."
     "That would make a change, wouldn't it?" Psy agreed rhetorically as Eddy nodded his head sagely in agreement.
     "What do you know about these Raiders, then?" Barney asked cagily wondering whether or not to share his recording of the Raider's earlier visit to the caf‚.
     "Parasites." Gregor spat out.
     "Scum of the universe." Eddy seconded Gregor's emotion
     Barney hummed softly for a few moments while he made up his mind. "I think I've got something you should see." He spoke cautiously as he placed his transducer on the data feed to their table. He replayed the same scene he'd shown Clem earlier as they watched in silence letting their food go cold.
     "Bastards!" Eddy eventually exploded. "Forget the MIBs, these guys are serious shit."
     They watched the scene unfold on the screen set into their table cursing the Raiders and deciding what to do. Psy drew Jazz away so that they were out of earshot of the other's discussion. "You see?"
     "Those?" Jazz pointed towards the screen.
     "Exactly." Psy confirmed smugly. "Now you see why I made you bring your pistol."
     "Not much different to some of the criminal classes on Earth." Jazz remarked blandly. "What makes them so special?"
     "They're organised into a very tight social structure, use Psionic Crystals for their communications and are on the brink of making formal contact with some of the less salubrious members of the Galactic Council." Psy explained briskly.
     "Oh." Jazz was aghast. "You mean that lot might well end up being the formal representatives of the human race?"
     "Precisely." Psy's voice hardened. "And I intend to throw a spanner in the works."
     "What, you mean the show you're doing with the crystals tonight?"
     "But I thought you were against breaking protocols." Jazz felt the goalposts moving again. Psy had given him a long lecture the other night about how the human race wasn't yet ready to step up to the wider picture of life in this galaxy.
     "It's too late." Psy confessed resignedly. "I'll probably get it in the neck for this. Can I count on you to be my witness that I acted in good faith?"
     Jazz rapidly weighed up the situation. At worst, he'd be disgraced, sent on internal exile on his home world and most likely be condemned to spending the rest of his life in menial labour. On the other hand, if things worked out, he would be feted for bringing a new civilisation into the Galactic Community. This wasn't quite what he'd expected when he was sent out to study and observe. Well, life was full of intriguing twists and turns. "Yes, I suppose so." He shrugged. "But what makes you think this pistol of mine's going to be much use?"
     "It might be only a fig leaf, but it's better than nothing." Psy chided his dubious charge. "With a bit of luck, you won't need it."
     "Thanks, I'll remember you when I get home."
     "No you won't." Psy's voice dripped with bored inevitability. "You'll file your reports, put in a footnote about a psychotic alien from a dying race and then move on with your exciting and dazzling career."
     "Been here before, huh?" Jazz observed warily.
     "More times than you'd care to imagine. It's the same every time." Psy sniffled dejectedly. "They all say they'll drop by and visit, but no one ever does. You don't know how lucky you are, gallivanting around the galaxy, poking around here and there. Me, I'm stuck here overlooking this lot. Oh, they're not such a bad bunch, but they're such idiots. They just can't see the big picture."
     Jazz was so moved by Psy's abject pathos that he put his arm around Psy to comfort hir. "It's not that bad. You've got a fairly unique life. Be thankful for what you have." Psy snuggled up to Jazz and aimlessly caressed Jazz's leg to draw some comfort from hir shapeshifting insectoid companion. They sat in a comforting silence drawing strength from each other while their friends talked nervously about Barney's recording of the Raiders malevolent appearance in the caf‚. Though they were both quite awake, they looked as though they'd fallen asleep in each other's arms. Barney eventually began playing back the Technoid's gig last night as they discussed their plans for their show. Lottie, Malcolm and Yvonne drifted into Martian Mary's looking somewhat bleary-eyed from too much partying. They spotted our entourage and joined in.
     "So what's with this power cell business?" Malcolm asked Gregor as finished off his breakfast.
     "Psy reckons we'll be jumping into another dimension tonight and doesn't think the power from the stage will follow us." Gregor didn't really believe they'd be going anywhere other than the stage and then off to a party at SkyHawk's afterwards. "That's why we're going hunting for power cells when our lovers over in the corner wake up."
     "Why don't we do an acoustic set then?" Yvonne chipped in.
     "What are Malcolm and I supposed to do? Dance and wave our hands around?" Lottie joked.
      It went right past Yvonne. Her mind was still dislocated from a wild night in the Pleasure Dome. "I suppose so." She was still thinking about the group of clones she was dancing with last night. All five were identical and so-o-o-o gorgeous. If genetic manipulation produced dreamboats like them, was it such a bad thing?
     "Aw c'mon. Malc's got two left feet." Lottie complained. Dancing came so effortlessly to her graceful, sensual body.
     "So?" Yvonne couldn't see any problem there. "Forget about Malc, we'll do one of those kooky spiritual dances. Just treat it like any other time when we lose power at a gig."
     "Screw that, Yvonne." Malcolm butted in. "Lottie, Ches and I worked out a cool jam for this trip."
     "No need to get so worked up, Malc." Yvonne felt serenely in command. "Do it when we have power on stage. Everyone else is running overtime, so I doubt if anyone's gonna hold it against us stay on a bit longer than we're supposed to."
     "Hmmph!" Malcolm snorted sullenly. He'd overheard Lottie's comment earlier and knew it was true. He just couldn't dance, he felt too awkward and uncoordinated. But it was his music that danced, soared, swooped and flew with the greatest of ease. That was where his spirit was truly free.
     Eddy didn't care either way, but he knew that pained look on Malcolm's face: "Power cells."
     "Why?" Gregor sounded jaded. He was sure they were getting worked up for nothing. "What makes you think we're going anywhere? We're going to be playing on that stage, Psy does hir groovy little number with the crystals, everyone has a great time and we go to a party afterwards. What's the big deal?"
     "Because where we're going there won't be any power." Psy called out as shi dragged a reluctant Jazz back to join in with the others. "And I want an unbroken flow."
     "Why?" The thought of a power break during a gig didn't faze Yvonne. She felt she was a trooper who could handle any situation. "If we keep playing as normal during this trip you've planned, it'll look as if it's part of the holographics. It might have more of an impact if we let the stage lose power and you do your crystal thing against a power blackout."
     Psy hummed for a moment. Yvonne had a point, but shi felt that if the audience realised that what they were experiencing was something more than the usual holographic fare, they might panic and get stuck in inter-dimensional space. "We may yet have to go down your path, Yvonne. There's no guarantee that I'll find any power cells. But if I do, we'll be using them."
     "You sure like taking control," Yvonne felt angry that Psy was taking liberties. "You come in as a groupie while we're out on tour and now you're acting as if we're nothing more than a pickup band for your ego trip. Has it occurred to you that we've got lives and plans, too? Have you any idea of the risks you're asking us to take?"
     "Fine. If that's how you feel, then I'll do my bit separately at the end of your show." Psy huffed with a hint of bitchiness simmering hir voice. "And I'll be off to Cydonia City on Monday. The last I'll see of you miserable, paranoid hacks."
     "Yeah, that's right." Yvonne baited hir mercilessly. "Fuck off back to the big city and turn your rich tricks, huh?"
     Psy got up abruptly and grabbed hold of Jazz. "Come on darling. We don't have to put up with these jumped-up yokels. I've got better things to do with my time."
     'Here we go again' Jazz thought haplessly as he let himself be swept away by Psy's tempestuous impulsiveness. As they were going out the door he managed to pull himself together enough to speak: "I thought you wanted to do this show."
     "Screw the lot of them." Psy swore in a hard, masculine voice. "I don't need this sort of crap. The Raiders can have the lot of them for all I care."
     Back inside the caf‚, Gregor was flabbergasted. "Hey, what's going on?"
     "Ah, that damn freak's split." Yvonne spat out with casual disgust. "We're not good enough for her or him or whatever it is."
     "That freak..." Gregor replied angrily thumping the table with his large, meaty fist. "Was our ticket out of obscurity. You want to do dead end gigs for the rest of your life?" He had worked hard over the years nurturing his band and wasn't about to let an ego clash put it all to waste.
     "See if I care." Yvonne was steadfastly smug. Even Lottie, who had harboured doubts about Psy's planned show, was stunned by Yvonne's outburst.
     Clem was aghast, his na‹ve starry-eyed illusions smashed by this volatile outburst. Barney thought it would be best to leave this lot to their own devices. "I think it's about time we left, Clem." Clem reluctantly got up to follow Barney away.
     Gregor got up to chase Psy. "Eddy, let's see if we can undo the damage." Eddy didn't think twice. He could see Yvonne's point, but also shared Gregor's ambitions for their band. On top of that, he'd been looking forward to the gig. He was intrigued by Psy's knowledge of Psionic Crystals and had enjoyed the rehearsals. He was sure it was going to be a knockout show. Stepping out into the brightening daylight, they could see Psy and Jazz had run into a group of Raiders and stopped in their tracks. Eddy could see MariElla struggling in the clutches of one of the Raiders, her long curly blond hair not quite hiding her frightened expression. Stanley was arguing loudly with another Raider who was pushing him around in circles. Curious onlookers gathered along the edges of the main drag, safe from the threatening Raiders attention. Clem and Barney stumbled out of Martian Mary's and bumped clumsily into Gregor and Eddy's backs, looked up and watched the scene unfolding. "Uh oh, looks like trouble." Barney muttered apologetically as if any of it had been his fault.
     "Leave MariElla alone." Stanley shouted angrily at the Raider who was pushing him around. "We're doing a gig here tonight."
     "Tough shit, faggot. The babe works for me now." He had enough fun pushing this puny weakling around and knocked Stan unconscious onto the ground with one solid punch.
     Psy squirmed against hir captor's vice-like grip. "What's going on? Let me go. Now."
     "Change of plan, sweetie." The ugly three-eyed mech Raider oozed menacing smarminess. "You an' honeybuns over there are working for us now."
     "Do you know who you're talking to?" Psy ripped back in hir iciest authoritative tones. "I'm the regional supervisor. I have friends in very high places. Let us go this instant or you'll regret this."
     "Haw!" Three-eyes guffawed to his companions. "Don't you just love it when these pussies talk tough." He then shook Psy roughly. "Time to go to your new home, you sexy little thing. Let's see how much your friends will pay to get you back."
     Psy panicked as shi and MariElla were being led away and called out to Jazz who'd been timidly trying to edge away from the Raiders. "Do something!"
     An old, grizzled Raider stepped out and sneered as he grabbed Jazz violently and twisted his head to break his neck: "Too bad. It looks like your friend just changed his mind." And threw his limp body to the ground. As Jazz's 'human' consciousness faded out from shock other parts of Kkhrkht's character that had been genetically programmed before he was hatched back on Khzchhrrrtz took over. Sensing danger, his warrior self took over as his body, no longer under conscious control, began morphing back its natural insectoid shape tearing through Jazz's clothes in the process. The old Raider who moments before had thrown Jazz's lifeless body to the ground, looked on in wonder as the body changed before his eyes. His companions who were hustling away their new prizes looked over to see what was keeping him.
     Kkhrkht picked himself off the ground, but it wasn't Jazz/Kkhrkht. The Jazz part of his consciousness was still out of action and a much simpler, more brutal aspect of his nature took over in its place. Warrior looked around to size up the situation. Where am I? Where did the attack come from? Kkhrkht stood up towering over the bulky old Raider who looked up transfixed in terror as Kkhrkht flexed his powerful mandibles and struck down, biting his head off in one swift, effortless bite. Crunchy with a soft, juicy centre. 'Tasty, I think I'll try another' he thought as he spat out the chewed up remains of an assortment of cyborg-implants from inside the old Raiders' skull.
     The other Raiders, two of them holding MariElla and Psy like shields, fired at Kkhrkht, but their laser rifles glinted off his iridescent, refractive exoskeleton only causing him mild discomfort. He was surprised how easily killing came to him. Little more than a reflexive measure for survival. A programmed 'leave me alone and we'll get on fine, attack me and you die'. Eat your vanquished. What a simple way to program an army. They win, they live and you don't have to feed them. They lose, they die or are taken captive and you still don't need to feed them. Two cheers for programming, then. Well, that'll teach those low-lifes a thing or two as he turned and sliced through the chest of the Raider who moments previously had been rudely hustling MariElla only to see the horrified uncomprehending looks on his friends' faces.
     MariElla was in shock and could barely believe what was happening around her. What the fuck?????? Where's Jazz? "Don't kill me!" She wailed in horror. Veronica, Malcolm and Lottie heard the commotion outside and stepped out of Martian Mary's into the gathering crowd to see Warrior/Kkhrkht in full fight.
     Kkhrkht closed in on another Raider, bit his head off and turned to face down three-eyes. Having seen how easily Kkhrkht had despatched three of his troop, three-eyes and the remaining human Raider ran off through the gathering crowd letting off a few ineffective volleys at Kkhrkht as they retreated. Warrior looked down at Psy and MariElla cowering at hir side and thought 'Eat'. Somehow his Jazz self clawed its' way through his consciousness with sufficient force to tell his warrior self that wouldn't be such a great idea. And then it dawned on him that.... he had just reverted to type amongst these humans and their kind. What was he supposed to do in such circumstances? Hide? Kill all the witnesses? Sizing up the situation, he realised that it might take a while to kill everyone in the Pleasure Dome, let alone the few minutes needed to put the Raiders who'd been hassling his friends??? Return to being Jazz? He tried that and it didn't work. He was stuck as himself, a 2-metre tall iridescent insectoid, feeling more than a bit out of place.
     "You idiot!" Psy shrieked back over the chaotic tumult. "Look what you've gone and done." Stan was picking himself off the ground, rubbing his aching chin as he groaned in pain. Our reluctant heroes, having watched Jazz's transformation and the ease with which he despatched the Raiders approached cautiously, but kept their distance not wanting to be his next titbit. Some of the braver onlookers stepped closer to look on in wonder. Psy acted quickly, found Jazz's laser pistol in the remains of his torn jacket and seized it. Warrior/Kkhrkht looked on as the dark-haired female? stood up and pointed a familiar looking device at him. Jazz did his best to rein in Warrior's instinct to attack and the giant iridescent Praying Mantis wavered on its' haunches like a tiger poised to attack. The crowd closed in on them in hushed expectation. Would the giant insect strike again?
     "Can you hear me?" Psy hissed out so that the crowd couldn't hear hir clearly.
     "Yes." Jazz/Kkhrkht replied in a voiced that sounded something akin to strips of paper buzzing together.
     "Good." Psy sounded relieved. At least shi didn't have to kill Jazz at point-blank range out in public. Kkhrkht's kind made an awful mess when their exoskeleton broke up. "Just play along with me. OK?" Jazz/Kkhrkht nodded his head mutely. Psy spun around to face the crowd holding hir arms up with Jazz's pistol still in a firm grip. "Thank you, thank you everybody." Shi addressed the crowd. "Be sure to see the Flaming Watusis tonight on the main stage. And remember folks; it's fantasy dress tonight so let's break out those crazy costumes. Be there or be square!"
     The crowd breathed a collective sigh of relief having been assured that it was some sort of publicity stunt. One man who looked like the archetypical swashbuckling Buccaneer from an old Errol Flynn film stepped forward. "Is that a costume?" He asked in dumbstruck awe.
     "Certainly, my dear." Psy adopted a coolly camp manner. "It takes a lot to get people's attention these days. Do bring your crystal, you're in for a surprise tonight" Psy tried to overwhelm the young man's conflicting emotions by glibly ignoring the gory events that had just transpired moments before.
     "Oh. Yeah, sure." The young Buccaneer didn't sound so swashbuckling any longer as he looked down at two bloody, headless corpses lying at Jazz/Kkhrkht's feet while an eight-legged pantomime cow gaudily painted in luminescent green with pink polka-dots and radio aerials for horns staggered past behind him wheezing out a muffled rendition of the 'Conga Song'.
     Psy noticed him and the crowd looking at the dead Raiders. "Don't worry." Shi waved Jazz's pistol around nervously and reassured them in forced grandeur. "Everything is in hand. The show's over for now. See you tonight." Shi waved the crowd away. "Thank you everybody." The crowd began to disperse leaving our traumatised friends staring stupidly at each other in dumbstruck silence. "Don't just stand there like a bunch of idiots." Psy called out and waved them over with Jazz's pistol.
     Clem walked timidly over to Kkhrkht. "Jazz, is that you?"
     "Yes." Jazz/Kkhrkht buzzed back hesitantly.
     Stan staggered over to join Psy and MariElla where they stood facing Jazz/Kkhrkht. He'd been unconscious while Jazz/Kkhrkht routed the Raiders. "Where's Jazz? I thought he was with you." He asked Psy. MariElla pointed to Jazz/Kkhrkht and tried to say 'In front of you', but nothing came out. He looked at Jazz/Kkhrkht for a moment scratching his aching head. "Hey, that's some weird outfit you've got there, Jazz. Where'd you get it?"
     "You could say he brought it with him." Psy interrupted quickly before Jazz/Kkhrkht confused Stan any further. He could let Stan find out the truth later.
     "Wow, you're more of a party animal than I thought, Jazz." Stan congratulated what he thought was Jazz wearing an outlandish costume. "Getting into the party mood, huh?" That was when he noticed the Raiders' corpses on the ground, looked up and saw the congealing blood on Kkhrkht's mandibles. "Huh? What happened to those assholes?" By now Eddy, Gregor and Barney were coming out of shock. They had watched Jazz being brutally attacked and his subsequent transformation into a giant killer insect. Was this really the same mild-mannered Jazz they knew? While they were coming to grips with their new situation, a group of Raiders appeared standing a short distance off. They were led by three-eyes and stood impassively, exuding a dark menace.
     "I think they've come for their friends." Psy announced calmly. "Shall we?" Shi grabbed Jazz/Kkhrkht, put the pistol to his head and began to pull him away from his victims. Jazz/Kkhrkht fidgeted and strained like a panicky colt. Jazz could see the Raiders' weapons and was terrified that they or Psy would kill him. Warrior wanted to attack. And they tasted so nice. He wanted more! "No! Back off or I'll blow your brains out." Psy threatened angrily. Shi meant it and had to pull hard to get Jazz/Kkhrkht away from the fallen Raiders. The rest of the group followed. Once they were at a safe distance, three-eyes led his troop forward to collect the bodies. He stood sternly holding a light laser canon as his underlings took the corpses away. They didn't want to leave any evidence for Earth Fed to find.
     "Hey, lady," Three-eyes called out. "That freak with you?"
     Psy coolly stepped out between three-eyes and Jazz/Kkhrkht so as to block his line of fire. "Yes." Eddy, Malcolm, Clem and Barney warily joined ranks with Psy to protect Jazz/Kkhrkht.
     "Well, if that's how you want to play it, you'd better watch your backs from now on." Three-eyes growled back murderously. "We've got your number. Just remember: any time, any place. We can find you." He spun on his heels and marched off to his camp.
     MariElla was shaking from her ordeal and Stan was still a bit wobbly. Lottie finally spoke up: "What do we do now?"
     "Get stupid here out of the way before he causes any more trouble." Psy barked anxiously, still keeping a firm grip on Jazz/Kkhrkht. "Anyone got any good ideas?"
     "Ches is in my bus outside." Gregor offered hopefully. He wondered if it would even be safe to play here after what had happened. "We could take Jazz there."
     "Excellent." The tension melted slightly in Psy's voice. "Thank you, Gregor. You're a good man. Please, lead the way." Gregor led them over towards the entrance bay. "Do you think you'll fit into your suit?" Psy asked Jazz/Kkhrkht.
     "Don't know." Jazz/Kkhrkht buzzed awkwardly. "Not completely necessary."
     "Could you make it to the bus without your suit?"
     "Fine, but you'll try to wear it. Is that understood?"
     "Oh, Jazz. What am I going to do with you?" Psy sighed away several megawatts of stress as shi put hir arm around him. "I can't keep you on a leash all the time."
     "Go to bus?"
     "And afterwards? What then?" Psy conjectured haplessly.
     Jazz/Kkhrkht knew what Psy meant. If he couldn't morph back to Jazz, he'd have to hide until Psy could get him safely back to his Zrrlchtz home world. He felt oddly inarticulate as he struggled with his warrior self and who knew how many other genetically programmed selves for control of his native Khzchhrrrtz body. Warrior neither knew nor cared to speak the human's languages and considered them inferior. On top of that, Khzchhrrrtz vocal chords didn't work the way human ones did making it difficult for him to mimic human speech. The end result was that Jazz/Kkhrkht spoke in monosyllabic jolts. "Oh."
     "Well, that's a fine mess you've got me in." Psy huffed.
     "Me too." Jazz/Kkhrkht buzzed mournfully.
     "You better hope we find some way out of this, or I may have to put you out of your misery." Psy was angrily depressed. Shi hated it when things spun out of control. It had been a long time since shi had to kill one of hir charges and was in no mood for a repeat performance. The last time, s/he'd been called away to endless rounds of tribunals and enquiries. The accusations of negligence and incompetence still rang in hir ears. Shi had to face the anguished relatives, pompous politicians and mealy-mouthed bureaucrats over and over until shi was dizzy. And not a word in hir defence from hir own kind. Talk about being hung out to dry! Overseeing alien visitors to this backward part of the galaxy wasn't the easiest way to make a living by any stretch of the imagination.
     "No." Warrior/Kkhrkht stopped firmly in his tracks forcing Psy to a halt. Warrior/Kkhrkht reared up and flexed his mandibles wide open and lunged at Psy who stood hir ground and pointed the pistol straight into Jazz/Kkhrkht's open mouth. Warrior/Kkhrkht froze and then went limp. "You win." He buzzed dejectedly. Even if Warrior/Kkhrkht killed Psy and everyone around him, sooner or later one of the humans would kill him. Jazz/Kkhrkht knew it was a futile course of action. His only hope lay with Psy and his friends who had stopped to gape at their standoff and prostrated himself abjectly at their feet. They couldn't believe their eyes.
     "There's no need for such maudlin histrionics, Kkhrkht." Psy wearily scolded him. "I'm glad to see you're finally coming to your senses. Do you think you can behave yourself from now on?" Jazz/Kkhrkht nodded his head. "Well then, on your feet bug boy." Psy sounded genuinely relieved. "We've got a long day ahead of us." Jazz/Kkhrkht got up slowly and looked around at his friends' questioning faces. They were still adjusting to Jazz's transformation from a timid, geeky human into an awesomely powerful and beautiful killer insect. His iridescent exoskeleton refracted the light into swathes of rich, luminous colour all over his body that changed with his every movement.
     MariElla and Stan who had gone on ahead and collected their suits greeted them at the entrance bay's changing rooms. Clem and Eddy helped Jazz/Kkhrkht struggle into his suit. It was no use; it was too small for his insectoid body. They finally managed to stuff him into Eddy's larger suit. Eddy was just about able to squeeze into Clem's suit while Clem found Jazz's suit quite comfortable. They joined Barney who was outside waiting impatiently for them and followed Gregor out through the air locks and over towards his bus.
     In his younger years, Gregor had bought an old commercial crawler when he tried doing deliveries and light haulage work between the outlying communities and some of the major cities. That business failed and he had to sell his house, so he moved his family into the crawler. In a short while, he and Anna turned the ugly old crawler into a warm and cosy home to raise their family in. He kept the crawler after they settled in Montgomery and used it as a tour bus for his band, the Flaming Watusis.
     One by one, they clambered in through the air lock into the crawler's wood-panelled interior. It looked like a cabin on an ancient boat and had a homey timelessness that would have made it seem at home in almost any era of human history. Chester was still sound asleep on his bunk as Veronica sealed the hatch behind her and joined the others who were talking among themselves and trying not to stare at Jazz/Kkhrkht. The smell of food being cooked in the galley by Bill and Sylvia helped them unwind from their ordeal.
     Sylvia couldn't help but notice the iridescent insect in their midst and, by a process of elimination, deduced that it was Jazz. "That's some fancy outfit you've got there, Jazz. All kitted out for tonight's show, I see." She chirped in brightly.
     MariElla shook her head. "It's not a costume, Sylvia."
     "Oh, come on." Bill started to laugh. "You expect us to believe that Jazz is an insect. Next thing you'll be telling me is that he's an alien from outer space or something stupid like that."
     Kkhrkht had finally subdued his warrior self and was beginning to find his voice again in the cramped, but congenial atmosphere in the bus. "MariElla's right." He buzzed softly in his alien, insectoid voice and wiggled his antennae for extra dramatic effect. "Hello Bill, seeker of aliens. Here I am."
     Bill's mouth fell open as he dropped his plate and fell back in his seat. This had to be some sort of joke they were playing on him. Act cool and don't fall for it, he reminded himself. "Yeah, right." He breezily dismissed Kkhrkht's admission. "And for my next trick, I'll disappear in a puff of smoke."
     "That's coming later." Psy added in mock seriousness. "But we've got other problems right now." Gregor explained about their run-in with the Raiders earlier that morning. It might not be wise to go ahead with the show if the Raiders were out there waiting to settle the score. The others corroborated Gregor's story and expressed their fears about going ahead with the show.
     "That's a shame." Sylvia sympathised. "I was really looking forward to it."
     "So was I." Veronica replied dolefully. 'Me and my big mouth,' she cursed herself. "If only I hadn't lost my temper with Psy. None of it would have happened."
     "It's a bit late for regrets, love." Psy comforted her. "What's done is done. As for me, I'm off to stretch my legs for a bit. Anyone want to come and have a look around the site?" Shi asked brightly. Lottie, Gregor, Eddy, Veronica and Malcolm picked themselves up to join Psy. Any distraction from sitting around moping about what the Raiders might do to them had to be a good thing. Psy turned to Bill. "Do you know how to use one of these?" Shi held out Jazz's laser pistol.
     "Yes." He answered slowly. He didn't like the sound of this.
     Psy handed it to him and spoke loudly so that Kkhrkht could hear hir. "If Kkhrkht here freaks out, shoot to kill. He's got very fast reflexes and you won't get a second chance." Psy turned to leave the cabin and put a finger over Kkhrkht's closed mouth. "Remember what I said, you silly bug. I don't want to find a mess when I get back." Kkhrkht looked up in silence. He wanted to cry except that he didn't have tear ducts. Even his friends didn't trust him. He felt utterly alone and wanted more than anything to be back home amongst his own. Stan's head still throbbed from his knockout blow. He stretched out on a bunk to sleep it off.
     "Thank you Jazz." MariElla was truly grateful. Kkhrkht had saved her from ending up in one of the Raider's whorehouses, slave ships or worse. "That was very brave of you."
     Kkhrkht was touched. It was the nicest thing anyone had said to him for a long time. When he was Jazz he had always tried unsuccessfully to get her attention. She was always so busy or had another boyfriend in tow. And now here he was as his real self. He wanted to hug her but the thought that his hard, chitinous body might repel her held him back. "I couldn't let them take you. I'm sorry, I lost control." He stroked her gently with his forearms and one of his antennae. He kept his mid arms folded in his lap so as not to alarm her too much with his alienness.
     Bill was bursting with questions to ask Jazz, or Kkhrkht as Psy had explained what Jazz's real name was, but didn't know where to begin. Here he was, working for SETI who had been scanning the skies unsuccessfully for over 150 Earth years, sitting opposite an alien from another world. It seemed so unreal that he could hardly believe it. Part of him still felt that it was all an elaborate hoax his friends were playing on him for a laugh. Not wanting to appear foolish in front of his friends, he decided to play it cool and leave the questions until he was absolutely sure about Jazz. If it was a costume, it was certainly a fancy one. How was he controlling the antennae and how did he manage to get all four of his arms to work? And how did he fit in there? It must be extremely uncomfortable. His voice certainly wasn't coming out of his mouth, which got Bill trying to figure out how Jazz made his costume. But then there was their story about his fight with the Raiders. He would have dismissed that as a lie except that Stan and MariElla were both bruised and looked badly shaken. "So what happened with the Raiders?"
     "They were taking MariElla and Psy away and I, I..." Kkhrkht faltered as his mandibles began twitching and memories of how nice they tasted welled up. "Lost control." He had to remind himself that you enjoy your friends as company, not as food. And that, by and large, most humans he met were friendly towards him.
     "They're a pretty tough bunch, Jazz." Bill didn't believe that Jazz had it in him to take on the Raiders, let alone kill three of them. "You sure you're not making this up?"
     "Look, I have blood all over my face and claws and some of their flesh." Kkhrkht paused to regurgitate a morsel of partially digested Raider. Warrior peeped into Kkhrkht's consciousness to brag about how easy it was to kill the feeble Raiders and that he couldn't wait to eat more of them. Kkhrkht had to force Warrior out of his consciousness. "If you don't believe me, take it away and analyse it." Bill gingerly picked up the hot, slimy piece of flesh and put it in a bowl along with a few globs of dried blood Kkhrkht picked off his face.
     Kkhrkht pointed to some of the burns on his exoskeleton: "And these laser burns hurt." He felt dirty and thirsty, so excused himself and went to the shower where he washed away the blood and dust. While he was air-drying, he tried to tend his wounds, but he really needed some Vrrakid repair paste, which he'd left at home because he hadn't anticipated anything like this to happen. From now on, he'd carry a packet with him wherever he went. He picked up a carton of juice in the galley and took it back to the cabin where he found everyone asleep except Barney who had switched on the Tri-D set and was channel surfing aimlessly. He found a docutainment program about 'Martian Crystal Magic'. Kkhrkht settled in to watch the program sipping from the carton through his proboscis and savouring its sweetness.
     "They don't work for me either." Kkhrkht confessed during an advert break.
     "How come?" Barney had long accepted that as a mech, Psionic Crystals wouldn't work for him. Every other mech he'd ever met said as much, so they couldn't all be lying.
     "They're part organic." Kkhrkht explained. "I guess human biochemistry is closer to who or whatever made the Psionic Crystals than I am."
     "Could be." Barney wouldn't be surprised if that were the case. It would certainly explain why fleshies were able to activate and use Psionic Crystals while mechs couldn't.
     "Did you know the Raiders use them?"
     "Wouldn't surprise me." Barney was used to being outclassed wherever he went. "They seem to have an edge on everyone including Earth Fed."
     "Apparently mech Raiders can use them, too."
     "You're having me on."
     "I don't know for certain, but Psy reckons they do." Kkhrkht understood Barney's scepticism. "Psy knows a lot more about these crystals than anyone else I know of."
     "Yeah. You and Psy seem pretty close from what I've seen. Is Psy a man or a woman?"
     "Well, I'll be." What a pair they made! Barney tried to imagine Psy in bed with Kkhrkht and the picture was too weird even for his limited, lurid imagination. "And what about you?"
     "None of the above." Kkhrkht was finding his sense of humour again. He found Psy's overblown sexuality outrageous, even by human standards. "We are different."
     "How so?" Barney was curious.
     "I was hatched in a brood, but will be in a triune when I go home." Kkhrkht proudly explained. His own brood, now that was high-caste! "We are very diverse compared to you mechs or the humans."
     "So what do you guys do for fun?"
     Kkhrkht danced the tips of his antennae across Barney's head and laughed. "Lots of things." He then bust out into a polyphonic fugue. It sounded like a chamber orchestra with oboes, clarinets, bassoons, a reed organ and a kazoo.
     Barney was amazed." What was that?"
     "A song. Did you like it?"
     "A bit more rhythm and you could be in the band."

Scribbles & Scraps
Chapter 10
Chapter 12