Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 18: On the road.

     “Wha-hey, Rock and Roll!” Barney punched the air excitedly after The Flaming Watusis finished their soundcheck on the shabby but spacious stage of the Metropole Concert Hall in Coriolis. “Let’s hit the town!”
     “Yeah, and don’t get too out of it.” Gregor called out as he looked up from adjusting his drum kit. “We’ve gotta break down all this kit and be out of here by 2:00 am after the show.”
     “Don’t worry. I’ll keep an eye on them.” Stan called back as he intercepted our dubious duo and dropped his voice a few decibels to address them. “Stick with me, I know this part of town. Let’s go to the Mercator Arms and meet some friends of mine.”
     “Sounds good to me.” Clem was in good mood, having escaped from his routine in the market for a few days.
     “Oh not that dump again!” MariElla protested. She hated that place; it was such a sordid dive.
     “Aw, come on, MariElla. I told Kieran we’d meet him there.” Stan slipped his arm around MariElla’s waist and led her to the door.
     Veronica recognised that pained look in MariElla’s eyes and decided to tag along to keep her company. “Are you guys coming along?” She asked Lottie and Eddy who were hanging out by the stage door.
     “Er, uh…” Eddy couldn’t make his mind up. “Sure, why not?”
     Lottie was still on cloud nine from the sudden change in her life living with SkyHawk out at Zanzibar and decided to stay in the bus with Gregor and Chester until the show. Malcolm spotted Veronica heading out the door with Eddy and decided to follow her. “So what’s with this bar?” He asked Eddy as he caught up with him.
     “It’s where Stan used to hang out when he was at college.” Eddy explained. “Stan and his drinking buddies meet up there whenever they’re back in Coriolis.”
     “Well he better not be drunk on stage.” Veronica grumbled as they walked down a litter-strewn street outside the grand-sounding Metropole and past several abandoned burnt-out cars.
     “Right now, that’s the least of my worries.” Malcolm commented nervously as they passed the dilapidated Coriolis College of Further Education and Mineral Engineering, Stan’s less than salubrious alma mater. Its grime-coated windows made it look more like an abandoned warehouse than the academy where Stan won his degree in Physics.
     Stan was still babbling away excitedly as he led them around the corner and into the darkened womb of the Mercator Arms, nestled away in a side street opposite his old college. Kieran was nowhere to be seen so Stan bought a round of drinks and a viral strip for Barney while they waited. “Where’d Clem go? We don’t want to lose him in this part of town.” Stan asked as he glanced around the bar surveying the rest of the clientele.
     “I’ll take a look for him.” Barney offered as he plugged in his viral strip and wobbled out the door into the alleyway outside. “Whoo-hoo!” Barney scanned what he could make out of the alleyway through the swirl of viral-induced psychedelic colours and just about made out Clem staring intently into a window further down the alley. “Hey, Clem, your drink’s waiting for you!”
     “Look!” Clem called out intently and pointed into the window.
     Barney looked into the window and saw a curvaceous dancer wearing nothing more than a thong and two illuminated stars on her nipples writhing away oblivious to their presence in the window of a strip club. “Don’t waste your time, Clem. They’ll take you to the cleaners in that clip joint. Pick up one of the women backstage after the show, if that’s what you want.”
     “She looks just like Clarissa.” Clem continued excitedly.
     “No kidding.” Barney snickered through his drug-induced trip oblivious of the implication of what Clem suggested. “So do thousands of other clones. But if she turns around I’ll read her bar-code for you.”
     “You saw her bar-code?” Clem wondered how Barney ever got to see Clarissa naked.
     “Yep, and yours!” Barney bragged smugly. Then the dancer turned around to wave her bum around and Barney scanned the bar-code genetically tattooed on the top of her left buttock as she undulated her erotic dance for them. Barney couldn’t believe it! “Oh sump oil, it is Clarissa!”
     “But why doesn’t she recognise us?” Clem stared dumbly at Clarissa as she danced in the window. He waved at her several times, but Clarissa didn’t even respond as she continued her routine.
     Barney never thought he’d see anyone from Klondike Pass ever again let alone Clarissa. “I don’t know, Clem. It just doesn’t make sense.” He continued staring at Clarissa and had to admit, that for a fleshie, she sure looked good!
     “We’ve got to get her out of there.” Even though watching Clarissa gave Clem a hard-on that was nearly driving him mad, he just couldn’t square up the Clarissa he remembered from Klondike Pass with the zombie dancing for him in a seedy strip-club window. “I’m going in to get her.”
     “No!” Barney panicked and dragged Clem into the Mercator Arms. “A place like that won’t give her up without a fight and you’re no fighter. We need a plan of action.”
     “But, but, but…” Clem couldn’t take his eyes off Clarissa until they were back in the bar. As they approached the table, a broad-shouldered man with long, greasy dark hair and a picture of a Road Runner superimposed over Mars emblazoned on the back of his black leather jacket was gesticulating excitedly.
     “It was the weirdest thing you ever saw, Stan. We were flushing the Huramo clan out of the caves west of Coriolis and killed a few of them. But what we found wasn’t human, whatever it was.”
     Stan had wondered why Kieran had been so keen to meet up. Kieran was active with the Freedom Fighters of the Mars Independence Movement. Dedicated to the liberation of Mars by force if necessary, they ended up doing what Earth Fed ignored: fighting off the Overlordz. The Freedom Fighters seldom had the time to visit the larger cities, so Stan guessed it had to be something special. “So what did it look like?”
     “A black, leathery thing with four spindly legs, a long head and purple, triangular eyes.” Kieran had found the gore-splattered alien remains in the caves after a particularly fierce firefight that had left Edwina, Brian and Oscar badly injured and fighting for their lives in the med-station. Their bubble of idle talk around the table fell silent swallowing up the surrounding hubbub as they heard Kieran’s words.
     “Um.” Stan didn’t know how to break the news to Kieran. “It’s a Gulmarian.”
     “A what???” Kieran couldn’t believe his ears. “You know what they are?”
     “Gulmarians.” Veronica chipped in. “They’re from Andromeda.”
     “And they’re trying to invade our galaxy.” Malcolm looked up from his beer. This was the last thing he wanted to hear and wished he could drink it away. But he couldn’t.
     Kieran just about managed to keep up with that. “And they’re invading Mars?”
     Stan broke the silence that had engulfed their table again. “Well we’re still in charge of this planet. And that’s the way it stays!”
     “Yeah, right on!” Kieran was reassured by Stan’s defiant tub-thumping sentiment. “Does that mean the Overlordz are fighting for these Gulmarians?”
     “Looks like it.” MariElla summed it up grimly.
     “I know the Overlordz are low-life scum, but it doesn’t make sense.” Kieran shook his head disbelievingly. “Why would they betray their own kind? Piracy and banditry I can understand. That’s just greed. But…” Kieran trailed off.
     “There must be something in it for them.” Stan suggested as he put down his beer. “Guns, drugs, money. Who knows?”
     Clem breathlessly interrupted the lull in the conversation just as Veronica was about to tell Kieran about the detector beads. “Hey, I know the dancer in the window of the strip club down the road. Her name’s Clarissa and we used to work together before I came to Montgomery.” Clem was brusquely cut off by Barney’s hard carbon-fibre foot pressing down hard on his own soft flesh-and-bone foot.
     “Forget it.” Kieran smirked at Clem’s childish naïveté. “They don’t give credit in there.”
     “Hey, is Samantha’s still going?” Stan asked as his memory drifted back to his wild and reckless days as a student.
     “Ah, it’s changed hands a few times.” Kieran explained non-committaly. “The crew that run it now buy the retreads from the third-rate clubs. By the time they end up in Samantha’s, they’re cyborg zombies on neural nets. Do you remember Ernie? He got the job patching up their computer last time it crashed. All the girls were standing around like dummies. They couldn’t even move until he got it back online.”
     “But what about Clarissa?” Clem bleated desperately. The thought of the warm, friendly and hard-working Clarissa reduced to a strip-club zombie was too much for him.
     “She’s as good as dead.” Kieran explained with world-weary pessimism. “And if you tried to break her out of there, the goons would cut you up for sure.”
     “Oh.” Clem’s courageous dream of gallantly rescuing Clarissa from the strip-club turned into goo dribbling out of his consciousness. “Isn’t there anything we can do?”
     “Not a lot.” Kieran shrugged his shoulders in resignation. “Maybe you could buy her from the club owners, but you’ll need a control unit to run her until you can get her neural net removed.”
     “Is that possible?” Clem desperately clutched at the vague straw Kieran held out.
     Kieran took a long breath. “In theory, yes. But more often than not, it kills them.”
     Clem was lost for words wondering how such a fate could have befallen the bubbly Clarissa he once knew. MariElla shuddered at the realisation that if it hadn’t been for Kkhrkht saving her back at the Pleasure Dome, that’s what would have happened to her and Psy.
     “You want one of these.” Veronica held out what looked like a marble across the table.
     “What’s that?” Kieran asked sceptically as he accepted it.
     “A Gulmarian detector bead.” Veronica explained. “It lights up when they’re in range and points them out. It works for infected humans, too.”
     “What?” This was too way out, even for Kieran.
     “They infect other species with their biota and take them over.” Stan butted in before Veronica could open her mouth. “Maybe that’s what happened to those Huramo you took out.”
     “You mean to tell me that they could infect me and I’d turn into one of those… monsters?” Kieran asked unbelievingly.
     Everyone around the table except Eddy, who hadn’t witnessed Andy Ritenaur’s metamorphosis at the Galactic Council, nodded their heads. Just then a main sailed in backwards through the barroom door, arms flailing wildly in a desperate attempt to regain his balance and skidded across the floor before colliding with the bar. A chaotic commotion of shouts, smashing and crashing flooded in through the open door from the alleyway outside. A few people ran to the door to see what was happening outside as the remainder cleared back to the corners of the bar. Stan followed Kieran to the door.
     Four scruffy, black hover-trucks had descended into the alley blocking off the entrance and disgorged a horde of heavily armed, rough-looking men, women and mechs who raced into Samantha’s shooting wildly at everything in their path. Kieran pulled the onlookers back from the door and slammed it shut before anyone was hurt. “Take cover!” He barked out and everyone hid wherever they could: behind the bar, huddled in corners and crouching below windows. Kieran wedged a table and a couple of chairs behind the door and scuttled over to where Stan and the rest of the band who were scrunched up under the tables.
     “What’s going on?” Stan asked as the noise from the alleyway outside filtered into the bar.
     “Looks like some gang is raiding Samantha’s.“ Kieran explained as he caught his breath. “Haven’t a clue who they are, must be some local bunch of hoods.” Clem looked up from under the table to see a group of scantily clad women being herded past the window. Then the hypersonic sirens tore through the air and their bones as laser fire raked down into the alley. Earth Fed!
     A pitched battled raged in the alleyway with the gang caught at the bottom. They didn’t have a chance and an hour later after the sizzle of laser fire, shouting and explosions had died down, a forceful knock banged on the door. “Earth Fed, open up!”
     “Yeah, just a minute.” The bartender called out timidly as he crawled out from behind the bar and cleared the furniture away from the door.
     Five troopers in full battle gear marched in when he opened the door. The soldier leading the group lifted his visor and looked around as everyone began to come out of hiding. “We’ll take your witness statements now. Remember, any information leading to a successful conviction is rewarded with tax credits.” The soldiers dispersed around the bar recording everyone’s statements with the vid-cams built into their helmets.
     Kieran gave the trooper a fake ID. “I came in for a drink. Next thing I know some guy comes flying in through the door and there’s a riot going on outside. I just hid under the table until you guys came in. Didn’t see much else.” The soldier seemed satisfied with Kieran’s outright lie and carried on around the bar recording statements. It didn’t take long and soon they were gone.
     “Drinks on the house!” The bartender called out and Clem joined the crowd forming around the bar to get his free beer. Beer in hand, Clem wandered out into the alleyway to see what had happened. The crumpled, smoking wreck of a hover-truck lay at the entrance to an alley that was strewn with debris. Wisps of smoke curled out of the windows of Samantha’s and Clem went to take a closer look. And there was Clarissa frozen like a shop window dummy with broken glass at her feet. He looked around the door into Samantha’s but it was a deserted ruin so he went back outside, finished his beer and climbed up into the window with Clarissa who stared blankly out into space. Her breathing was regular and she was warm to the touch. Clem found he could move her arms easily and that they’d stay wherever he left them so he draped one of her arms around his shoulders, put an arm around her waist, eased her down out of the window and walked her into the bar even though her feet dragged listlessly along on the ground. “Meet Clarissa!”
     Barney covered his eyes and muttered despairingly: “Oh, sump oil. The moron’s gone and done it again.”
     “Is she on something?” MariElla found Clarissa’s blank unresponsiveness unsettling.
     “No, she’s on a neural net.” Clem pointed proudly to the transponder grafted onto the base of Clarissa’s neck. “And I’m taking her home.”
     “I think we better get back to the bus while we can.” Eddy suggested as he eyed up Clarissa’s curvaceous body. They followed Eddy out of the bar, squeezing past the crashed hover-truck, out onto the street and back towards the relative safety of Gregor’s bus. Clem was struggling along with Clarissa at the back of their pack when Kieran dropped back to join him.
     Kieran held out his commset and winked conspiratorially at Clem. “Here, watch this.” He prodded a button and Clarissa stiffened up stood stock-still, nearly tripping Clem off balance. “Oh, sorry about that. It’s been a while since I used this.” Kieran took off his jacket, draped it around Clarissa and then poked another button on his commset. Clarissa began walking towards the rest of their group further down the road.
     Clem couldn’t believe his eyes. “How did you do that?”
     “Ah, it’s a little program I picked up.” Kieran smirked as they followed behind Clarissa. “It’s good for a bit of fun in the knocking-shops.”
     “Could I have a copy of it?” Clem couldn’t get his eyes off Clarissa’s perfectly shaped bum swaying in front of him.
     Kieran had a feeling this was coming. “You say you know her?” He asked tentatively.
     “Oh yes!” Clem felt as if he had fallen in love with Clarissa, although at this point it was more like lust. “We used to work together at the Klondike Pass ice quarries.”
     “You’re clone aren’t you?” Kieran looked over Clem’s uniform features. “So how did you end up here?”
     “An Overlordz raid. They took Clarissa captive and Barney and I ended up in an escape pod.” This was the first chance Clem had to tell his story and it poured out in a torrent as they walked back to the bus.
     “The Overlordz didn’t raid your quarry just for Clarissa.” Kieran interrupted sceptically.
     “No, we found some dead aliens in the ice. That was what they were after. We just got caught up in the attack.” Clem admitted.
     Kieran could clearly see the barcode on Clarissa’s languidly swaying bum and then looked over at Clem. Clones. They could never have children, but they could know love. He didn’t quite believe Clem’s story but seeing how he couldn’t take her back to the MIM base camp where she’d only be a burden on their scarce resources, he let Clem have her. “Sure, why not? Have you got a commset?”
     Clem fumbled around in his trouser pockets, pulled out his scuffed commset and held it out for Kieran to see. “Yep!”
     “OK, I’ll pipe it over to you.” And he transmitted the control program over to Clem’s commset. “Right, I’ll show you how it works.” By the time they got back to the bus, Clem was getting the hang of how to control her movements. “See if you can walk her up the steps.” Kieran encouraged him. It took Clem a few attempts, but he eventually succeeded after managing to mash her toes into the steps all the way up, and with lot of careful manoeuvring, managed to sit her down in the bus.
     Veronica was glad to get back to the relative safety of their bus when she spotted Psy snuggled up between Gregor and Lottie making hirself at home with cat-like ease. In spite of everything they’d been through Psy still got her hackles up and Veronica kept her mouth shut as she took a seat.
     “Ah, Stanley, how good to see you!” Psy pulled Stan down onto the seat. “Have you brought our friend?” Shi whispered.
     “Hey, Kieran. Come on over, man.” Stan called out as he fended off Psy’s attentions. Kieran eyed up Psy warily as Stan introduced them.
     “Stan tells me you’re with the Mars Independence Movement.” Psy laid on the charm at the sight of the solid-built freedom fighter. Kieran, however, was annoyed at his cover being blown and looked around the bus nervously in case this was a trap and he had to make a fast exit. Psy read him like a book. “Nothing to worry about, love. I have a job for you.”
     “I thought I told you never to blow my cover.” Kieran unholstered his laser pistol and glared angrily at Stan. Everyone dropped what they were doing when they saw Kieran pointing his pistol at Stan.
     “Hey, everything’s cool, man.” Stan squirmed awkwardly and held up his hands in surrender.
     Psy was unfazed by Kieran’s panic reaction and reached up to stroke his leg. “It’s all right love, you’re among friends here.” Kieran looked around nervously at the faces surrounding him and his panic-driven heart slowed down a fraction. Kieran slowly lowered his pistol as he realised he was in no immediate danger. “I need you to help me find something.”
     “Yeah. What about it?” Kieran asked warily. “We’re not bounty hunters. There’s plenty of them in town if that’s what you want.”
     “I hear you have encounters with the Overlordz from time to time.” Psy purred warmly.
     “Yeah.” Kieran was angry with Stan for wasting his time. He was needed back at their base and was barely able to get two day’s leave to meet up with Stan.
     “They have something I want.” Psy pouted demurely in a vain attempt to defuse Kieran’s tension.
     “Like I said, you’ve got bounty hunters for that.” Kieran had to grit his teeth to maintain even the slightest air of civility.
     “Oh, I know all about them.” Psy brushed off Kieran’s hostility. “But this is a little bit different. I’m looking for aliens.”
     “I think we already found them.” Things were beginning to make sense for Kieran, but only just.
     “Yeah, that’s right.” Stan backed him up. “They found some Gulmarians in the West Ridge caves.”
     “Oh really!” Psy feigned surprise. “Well then, you know what I’m looking for. I want you to hunt them down for me.”
     “Why don’t you go to Earth Fed?” Kieran didn’t know what to make of this woman. Or was it a man? “They do search-and-destroy. That’s their main game.”
     “I have.” Psy sighed. “But you, the Mars Independence Movement that is, have contacts with the Overlordz.”
     “Not if we can help it.” Kieran muttered darkly.
     “I need to find out how they’re involved with the Gulmarians.” Psy levelled with Kieran.
     “Do you work for Earth Fed?” Kieran didn’t like what Psy was asking of him.
     “Who, me?” Psy lied with easily feigned innocence. “No, but I have dealings with them.” Well that part was true, but not in any way Kieran could imagine.
     “And how are we supposed to find these Gulmarians for you?” Kieran was convinced that Psy was part of some elaborate prank Stan was playing on him. “It’s not as if we play slamball matches with the Overlordz clans, you know.”
     Psy held out a detector bead. “This will help you find them.”
     Kieran recognised the detector bead. “What, these little grey marbles that Veronica and Stan spun a yarn about?” Kieran guffawed contemptuously. “I think you’ve lost a few of your marbles if you think I’m going to fall for that one.”
     “It’s no yarn.” Psy was fast losing patience with Kieran, pulled out hir commset and activated it to display a holograph of a Gulmarian. “This is what you found, wasn’t it?”
     Kieran was at a loss for words. Before today, he was sure that only his squadron of the MIM had ever seen these freakish Gulmarians. Now it seemed as if he was the last person on Mars to find out about them. “Er, yes.”
     “Right, well I have what you need.” Psy lowered hir charm offensive and got down to business. “I can get you enough of these ‘marbles’ to equip the entire Mars Independence Movement. And I have this.” Psy held up a vial and crushed it in hir hand.
     “Urgh!” Kieran tried to waft away the stench of unwashed socks that came his way. “What, a stink bomb?”
     “Floxetrasine.” Psy smirked at Kieran’s discomfort. “It paralyses them and forces infected humans to revert to Gulmarian form. I think you’ll find it useful from now on when you meet any more Overlordz.”
     “You really want to talk to my base commander about this.” Kieran could see that Psy was serious.
     “Pah! You know as well as I do that you don’t allow visitors.” Psy was getting annoyed with Kieran’s caginess. “That’s why I asked Stan to invite you here.”
     “Oh, so it was a set-up.”
     “You’re the only person I know in the MIM.“ Stan pleaded desperately. “You guys really need this stuff. We’ve seen what these Gulmarians are like, Kieran. They’ve got to be stopped. You know where their hideouts are. Earth Fed are useless.”
     “Humph!” Kieran didn’t like the way Stan had roped him into this. But was there really any way out? “Well, you’re right about one thing: Earth Fed are useless. Even if this stuff does what you claim it does, how am I going to get enough of these marbles and stink-bombs for the MIM?”
     “Detector beads and floxetrasine, big boy.” Psy purred back into action. “I have a consignment waiting for you at Fort Melchisor. Do you know where it is?”
     “Of course I do.” Kieran was born in Montgomery and was MariElla’s brother, but he wasn’t about to tell Psy that.
     “Good, we can pick up your consignment after the show.” Psy deftly took command before Kieran could get another word out.
     Gregor’s commset beeped and he listened attentively to it for a minute before announcing to everyone in the bus: “That’s the stage manager, let’s go.” He picked up his lucky alloy drumsticks, twirled them through his fingers and herded his unlikely flock out of the bus and into the cold, cavernous backstage of the Coriolis Metropole.
     Psy latched onto Kieran while Clem and Barney busied themselves helping the band powering up their gear before going onstage. “Did you see our show at the Pleasure Dome?”
     “Yeah, I saw a vid of it. That was the weirdest thing the way it was flooded by all that light from those Psionic Crystals. I never knew they could do anything like that. And that light show at the end was amazing.” Kieran stopped as it dawned on him. “That was you, wasn’t it?”
     “Don’t tell Veronica, but I’m doing a few numbers with them tonight.” Psy pouted wickedly as shi draped hirself around Kieran’s sturdy frame.
     “So how did you pull of that trick with the crystals?” Kieran lapped up Psy’s attention. ”Stan said you took everyone on a trip.”
     “Ah, trade secret.” Psy toyed with Kieran’s curiosity. “Can’t have everyone playing with Psionic Crystals, you know. I’d be out of a job.”
     “Are you going to do it again tonight?” Kieran hoped to find out for himself what had actually happened at the Pleasure Dome.
     “No.” Psy deflated ever so slightly. “You know what Earth Fed do to people who use Psionic Crystals. It was safe at the Pleasure Dome, but if we did it here Earth Fed would storm the concert hall before the show was over. We’re going to run a recording of the light show during the set. It’s a bit jumbled, but you’ll get an idea of what it was about.” The band started up their sonic assault on stage amidst a blaze of projections and lasers from Bill’s lightshow. Meanwhile Psy sunk into Kieran’s arms rubbing up against his stiffy as he gleefully massaged hir breasts as shi waited for hir cue to join the band on stage.
     When Stan announced Crystal Magic, Psy slipped out of Kieran’s arms and sashayed onto the stage leaving him alone in the wings. He took the marble Veronica had given him out of his pocket and looked at it wondering if they hadn’t all been a joke when the darn thing lit up! It pointed out into the audience and as he tried to work out where it was pointing, the illuminated red side swung around as if it was tracking a target. And it kept on moving around until it pointed at him and Kieran burst out in a cold sweat of fear imagining that he might be one of those Gulmarian aliens himself when the red spot kept on moving around. Whatever it was had just gone behind him. Kieran looked around across the dimly lit backstage and spotted a stagehand ambling across the backstage carrying a box of tools and a large roll of cable. The stagehand disappeared through door on the far side and the red spot tracked him moving through the building.
     Kieran was still staring at the active detector bead when Psy slipped off the stage. “Did you like my song?” Psy eagerly slipped an arm around Kieran.
     Kieran had completely forgotten about Psy and was surprised to see hir. “I’m sorry, I missed it. Look.” He held out the detector bead for Psy to see. The red spot pointed across the stage.
     “Oh.” Psy forgot about seducing Kieran, this was far more important: a Gulmarian sleeper that had slipped through the dragnet in Coriolis. “Did you see it?” Shi asked coldly as shi fumbled around in hir pockets and pulled out two vials of floxetrasine.
     “Yeah, one of the stagehands. Why?” Kieran was taken aback by Psy’s sudden change of mood.
     Psy snatched the still-active bead out of Kieran’s hand and marched off in the direction it pointed. “Follow me.” Shi ordered brusquely and led Kieran through a warren of passageways, dead-ends, changing rooms, storerooms, up and down several flights of stairs until they reached a small office. They could hear the cheering and running commentary of a slamball match wafting out the open door. Psy walked in, followed by an uncertain Kieran. “I say, we’re lost. Could you show us the way back to the stage?” Psy laid on the charm.
     The stagehand looked up from the tri-D set and switched off the sound. “Wozzat?”
     “We’re lost. How do we get back to the stage?” Psy didn’t really like having to repeat hirself. “Would you mind showing us the way?”
     The stagehand looked them over for a minute and then slowly got up out of his chair. “Yeah, alright.” Psy broke one of the vials as soon as the stagehand was close enough and he morphed, hissing and spluttering into a paralysed Gulmarian lying on the floor.
     “Is this what you found?” Psy asked flatly.
     Kieran could barely believe his eyes. So Stan wasn’t playing games with him after all. “Er, yes.” Kieran took a long look at the black, leathery alien lying frozen on the floor. “What are you going to do with it?”
     “I’m taking this one alive.” Psy unclipped hir commset from hir belt and put through a call. “Send a biohazard unit to the rear of the Metropole. I have one EB for immediate pickup.” Psy stepped back out into the hallway and scanned around with the detector bead, but it didn’t point out any more Gulmarians so shi rejoined Kieran and their Gulmarian captive.
     “Who was that you called just then?” Kieran asked suspiciously.
     “Nothing to concern yourself with, sweetie.” Psy glibly brushed aside Kieran’s concerns.
     Kieran, however, was having none it, grabbed Psy by the arm and pulled out his pistol. “You tell me what’s going on here or you’ll be joining that thing on the floor.”
     Psy gently peeled Kieran’s hand off hir arm and handed him a vial of floxetrasine. “Later, darling. Later.” Psy’s breathy voice hardened. “Yes, Earth Fed are going to take this creature away and, no, they’re not interested in you. Just keep an eye on this… thing. Give it another dose in half an hour and if it moves, shoot to kill. I’m off downstairs to let the bio-hazard team in.” Kieran’s panicky fear was an open book to Psy. “Don’t worry about anything, love. I’ve got plans for you.” Psy kissed Kieran lustily, twirled around and flounced out the door leaving Kieran even more confused than before.
     Psy waited impatiently outside the backstage door as The Flaming Watusis stormed through their set. After what felt like an eternity, a biohazard transporter from SCS Command arrived and settled down next to Gregor’s bus. The troops marched up into the backstage and followed Psy. Two mech and two human troopers followed behind as Psy accompanied their sergeant.
     Kieran waited uneasily in the office staring at the paralysed Gulmarian on the floor. The stagehand seemed unaware that he was a Gulmarian. Kieran wondered if the Huramo clansmen he took out had any idea of what they had become. And what about the rest of us? Were we all going to end up turning into one of these creatures? He was interrupted by the crashing boots of the Earth Fed troopers clumping into the office and broke out into a cold panic as they bagged up the alien. He could see Psy talking animatedly to their commander in the hallway outside and was dreading the moment when shi would betray him. But it never came.
     Psy slipped an arm around Kieran’s waist and led him out of the office. “It’s all over, Martin.”
     Martin??? Kieran just kept his mouth shut and let Psy do the talking. Psy had manoeuvred Kieran between hirself and the Sergeant and he was petrified with fear. If Psy betrayed him now, he wouldn’t have a chance to escape.
     “The poor boy’s had a bit of a surprise, Enrico.” Psy spoke loud enough for the sergeant, Psy’s assistant at SCS Command, to hear.
     “And don’t think about going to MarsTel or any of the other media about this, Martin.” Enrico sternly jabbed a black-gloved finger into Kieran’s chest as they followed the troopers with their captive Gulmarian. “Unless you want to spend some time in a correction centre for a mind wipe.”
     “That’s alright, Enrico.” Psy gushed as shi wiped drops of cold sweat off Kieran’s face. “I’ll look after him.” When they reached the backstage, the Watusis had finished their set and watched agog as the troopers carried out the Gulmarian.
     “What happened?” Veronica asked as Psy and Kieran walked past.
     “We found a Gulmarian.” Psy stopped to talk to her, much to Kieran’s relief: anything to get away from those Earth Fed troopers.
     “How many?” She craned her neck to get a better view of the troopers bundling their trussed-up captive out the door.
     “Just the one.” Psy casually dismissed the incident and paraded Kieran around as hir latest piece of arm candy. The troopers wasted no time and soon they could hear the whine of their transporter as it lifted off outside the Metropole. “There, you see. Nothing to get worried about.”
     “What was all that ‘Martin’ business about?” Kieran couldn’t make head nor tail of this crazy Psy.
     “I wasn’t about to use your real name now, was I?” Psy ran a finger down Kieran’s nose. “Oh, I think Veronica’s got a job for us. She gets ever so tetchy if I don’t muck in.” Psy led Kieran over to where the rest of the band were packing their gear away and loading it into the bus. An hour later they were all aboard the bus as it trundled along the streets of Coriolis towards the Eastern Highway airlocks with Bill at the wheel. Clarissa sat bolt upright between Clem and Psy. “Your girlfriend isn’t very talkative.”
     “She’s on a neural net.” Clem surreptitiously controlled her from his commset to make Clarissa shake Psy’s hand.
     “Oh, that sort of girlfriend.” Psy dismissed Clem out of hand.
     “We’re going to get it removed.” Clem bluffed desperately.
     “You’ll be lucky.” Psy quipped sarcastically knowing full well that removing neural nets more often than not proved fatal and then turned hir attention to Kieran. “Are you still interested in my offer?”
     “Which offer is that?” Kieran asked as Psy passionately pawed him.
     “The detector beads and the floxetrasine, silly.” Psy licked his rough, stubbly cheek.
     “Oh, that offer.” Kieran thought Psy had meant something else for a minute. “I’ll have to talk to my commander about that.”
     “What are you waiting for?” Psy egged him on.
     “Not until we’re well out of Coriolis.” Kieran took the upper hand. “Can’t have Earth Fed tracking my calls.”
     “Fair enough.” Psy slumped with impatience and then spent the rest of their journey out to the monorail terminus seducing Kieran. Bill drove their bus up onto a freight carriage at the terminus and then went to take a nap on one of the bunks while they waited for the monorail to set out to Montgomery.
     An hour later, the monorail pulled out of the Coriolis terminus to Montgomery via Schiaparelli and then on towards Huygensville. Once Kieran was confident they were out of range of any Earth Fed surveillance, he put a call through to his base commander. A bedraggled, bleary-eyed face looked out of the screen. “Rick, sorry to get you out of bed at this time of night, but I’ve got something for you.” Kieran apologised to his sleepy commander.
     “It better be good.” Rick’s drowsy voice croaked out of Kieran’s commset. “What is it?”
     “Do you remember what we found when we took out the Huramo clan?”
     “Yeah, you got something on it?” Rick lit up a cigarette and blew the smoke out towards the screen. He looked badly hung over.
     “Found another one in town.” Kieran continued as if it was nothing out of the ordinary. “And this.” Kieran passed his commset over to Psy who by now was straddling Kieran’s crotch erotically grinding hir hips to keep Kieran’s cock deep and hard in hir juicy, wet pussy and clearly enjoying every minute of it. Psy nonchalantly told Rick about the detector beads and floxetrasine shi had stockpiled for the Mars Independence Movement while shi worked Kieran up to another rushing orgasm.
     Rick listened patiently to what looked like Kieran’s latest pick-up and then asked to talk to Kieran. “Are you sure this isn’t an Earth Fed trap?”
     Kieran, his face flushed from his last orgasm as Psy gripped his knob with hir rippling vaginal muscles, looked around the bus and weighed up his doubts. Seduction was the oldest trick in the book. Psy hadn’t betrayed him back at the Metropole but shi could be using him as bait to catch a larger group of MIM freedom fighters though it seemed unlikely that MariElla and Stan would willingly let themselves be used by Earth Fed. “Well, it seems OK here.” Kieran tried to hold back another orgasmic rush.
     Rick was silent on the other end of the line while he came up with a plan. “Pick up that consignment. When you’re ready, give me a call and I’ll tell you where to meet us.”
     Clem whiled away their journey back to Montgomery fiddling around with his commset learning how to use the software Kieran gave him to control Clarissa. Watching Psy and Kieran out of the corner of his eye gave him ideas but, try as he might, he could barely get Clarissa to drink a glass of water without spilling it all over herself let alone giving him the hand job really wanted.
     “Admit it Clem, you’ll never get the hang of controlling Clarissa’s neural net.” Barney couldn’t bear the sight of Clarissa spilling drinks and food all over herself as a result of Clem’s inept attempts at getting Clarissa to feed herself. “If you don’t get that net off her brain pretty soon, she’ll die of starvation.”
     “I’ve nearly got it.” Clem defiantly made Clarissa lift up another spoon of spaghetti only to watch it slither down her chin into her lap. It was one failure too many and he threw down his commset in exasperation as the realisation the he might have bitten off more than he could chew sank in. “But where can I get it removed?”
     “The Advice Centre ‘frame might know.” Barney suggested.
     “No way! Not after what Bob and Nick told us about it.” Clem wasn’t going let that crooked mainframe anywhere near Clarissa. “After it was busted for keeping junkie mechs and breaking them up for parts?” He exploded angrily. “What do you take me for?”
     “I’m sorry.” Barney was taken aback by Clem’s extreme reaction. “It’s all I could think of. Maybe you can get it done at Satori. They’d know about this sort of stuff.”
     Clem looked up hopefully clutching the one straw Barney offered. “You think so?”
     “I don’t know.” Barney didn’t want to raise Clem’s hopes in case he was wrong. “But it’s worth a try.”
     Clem slumped and looked a sorry sight next to Clarissa. So near and yet so far: somehow he had to set Clarissa free from the neural net, but how?
     Lottie clicked her fingers right in front of Clarissa’s nose. Clarissa didn’t even bat an eyelid. “You can’t leave her like this, Clem.” Lottie wiped the remains of the spaghetti off Clarissa’s chin. “Haven’t you ever fed a baby before?” She asked as she pulled the spoon out of Clem’s hand and began feeding Clarissa. By the time they reached the terminus at Montgomery, Lottie had finished feeding her and, with Clem’s clumsily manoeuvring managed to get Clarissa dressed in clean clothes. “At least she doesn’t look like a whorehouse tart any longer.” Lottie commented briskly as she brushed Clarissa’s hair. “You’ll have to get her off that net, Clem.”
     Gregor took over driving the bus when they rolled off the monorail car at the Montgomery terminus. Max was waiting inside for Lottie and got a surprise when Psy and Kieran turned up with her. “Have you got room for two more or shall I hire a flier?” Psy asked Max.
     “No need, we’ve got plenty of room. What brings you back?”
     “I have a job for SkyHawk.”
     Gregor dropped Clem, Barney and Clarissa off outside Jazz’s old apartment and Clem managed to walk Clarissa indoors without her falling over. Clem ceremoniously picked Clarissa up and carried her over the threshold and set her down on the sofa in their messy apartment. “Clarissa, I don’t know if you can hear me through that neural net, but welcome home.”
     “You haven’t really thought this out, have you?” Barney brutally demolished Clem’s romantic rescue fantasy.
     “What was there to think about?” Clem felt insulted by Barney’s insensitivity. “Did you really think I was going to leave her there?”
     “You heard what Kieran said.” Barney reminded Clem. “By the time they end up on neural nets, they’re as good as dead. You could be wasting your time trying to save her.”
     “That’s the problem with you, Barney. You only think of yourself.” Clem nearly shouted at Barney with anger. “Friends don’t abandon friends. Anywhere, any time.”
     “Don’t look at me, fleshie.” Barney threw Clem’s anger right back. “I saved your soft pink butt when we were in that transporter.”
     “Yeah, you’re right.” Clem cooled down. “I’m sorry.”
     “Hey, that’s all right.” Barney could see how much Clarissa meant to Clem. “But you’re going to have to do everything for her. Feeding, washing, dressing her, all that stuff. That’s a lot of work. How are you going to save up enough to pay to get her neural net removed when you’ll have to spend your money feeding her?”
     “Well, now that you’ve got that job at the garage maybe Clarissa could work with me in the market.” Clem suggested. “Bob still hasn’t found anyone to take your place.”
     “Uh huh and you can barely walk her in a straight line.” Barney admired Clem’s dedication even when it seemed completely hopeless.
     “Okay, I’ll take a few days getting some practice walking Clarissa around town and doing a few things before she starts working at the market.” Clem outlined his plan to Barney.
     “If you succeed and if Bob takes her on.” Barney played devil’s advocate.
     “Meanwhile,” Clem switched on their Tri-D set. “Let’s do a web search and see what we can find out about these neural nets.”
     “I really don’t think you’ll be able to talk SkyHawk into going out to Fort Melchisor tonight.” Max told Psy as he piloted their flier out to Zanzibar. “You don’t wait long before calling in your favours.”
     “Life has a way of overtaking us.” Psy wasn’t about to be put off by Max’s protestations. “If SkyHawk wants his sleep, that’s fine. I just need a few people to help me move a few things out to one of the entrances for Kieran here. I’ll pay them well for their time.”
     “Max, do you know anything about neural nets?” Lottie interrupted Psy’s grandiosity.
     “Not a lot, why?” Max replied and was glad to have a break from Psy’s oleaginous persistence.
     “Do you remember that clone who came to the party after our gig at the Pleasure Dome?”
     “Just about.” Max fetched up a few fuzzy images of Clem from his memory banks.
     “Turns out he used to work at the ice quarries.” Lottie filled Max in on Clem’s story. “He found one his friends from there working at a strip club in Coriolis and brought her back to Montgomery.”
     “How’d he manage that?” Max knew you didn’t just walk out of a strip club with one of the girls.
     “Ah, the place was raided while we were in the pub next door.” Kieran added even though he realised it sounded completely improbable. “First some mob of hoodlums and then Earth Fed. By the time they were all finished the place was a wreck.”
     “And before you know it, lover boy’s taking sleeping beauty home with him.” Psy added dismissively.
     “Thing is she’s ended up on a neural net.” Lottie pointed out. “The poor girl’s like a zombie.”
     “Ah, I’m with you now.” Max sized up the situation. “He wants to get it removed.”
     “I explained the risks to him, but he wouldn’t listen.” Kieran saw little hope for Clarissa.
     “I have to go to Satori soon. I’ll see if Patti knows anyone who does that sort of stuff.” Max was a bit out of his depth on this one. Neural nets were originally developed by Earth Fed to control violent and dangerous criminals before the Overlordz got their hands on the technology to control their slaves. “I’ve heard it has a high failure rate.”
     “I know. I told him not to get his hopes up.” Kieran explained. “I’ve seen what happens when it goes wrong and it’s not a pretty sight.”
     They argued the pros and cons of Clarissa’s chances all the way back to Zanzibar. “Here we are.” Max announced as he set down the flier outside the Zanzibar Farm domes. “You’ll have to talk to SkyHawk about going out to Fort Melchisor.” Max told Psy. “I’m not punting your case for you.”
     “That’s quite all right, Tin Man.” Psy quipped condescendingly as shi suited up. “I’m sure SkyHawk will come around. “Ah, SkyHawk, so good to see you again.” Psy gushed as shi threw hirself at SkyHawk who was waiting in the foyer for Lottie.
     “Well, well, well. What a surprise.” SkyHawk feigned as he peeled himself out of Psy’s clutches and kissed Lottie. “What brings you here so soon?”
     “Family business, cousin.” Psy replied mysteriously.
     Lottie was dumbstruck. She looked Psy over and then stepped back to get a better look at SkyHawk. “You’re related?” She asked SkyHawk disbelievingly.
     “In a manner of speaking.” It was a very long story and SkyHawk wasn’t up to trudging through the gory details for Lottie’s sake. “I’ll tell you another time.”
     “So are you going to invite us in or keep us waiting in the hallway all night?” Psy demanded impetuously.
     “Oh yes, of course.” SkyHawk was totally distracted trying to figure out how Kieran ever got involved with Psy. He knew exactly who and what Kieran was. After all, SkyHawk had been the best man at Stan and MariElla’s wedding. This was obviously no social call. “Long time no see, Kieran.”
     “Yeah, small world.” Kieran managed a wry laugh.
     “So what’s it all about?” SkyHawk asked Kieran once they were settled into his living room.
     “You better ask Psy about that.” Kieran still didn’t fully believe Psy’s story. For all he knew it might have just been an Earth Fed trick with implanted false memories. “Sounds like a cock and bull story to me.”
     “Do you have a transporter here?” Psy impatiently jumped the gun.
     “Hang on. Whoah, what’s going on here?” SkyHawk felt that Psy was being too pushy.
     “I have a consignment of these for Kieran.” Psy held up a detector bead. “And also some floxetrasine for his people. It’s waiting for them in Fort Melchisor.
     “I see.” Now SkyHawk knew why Psy had brought Kieran here. “So what do you need me for?”
     “I need a few helping hands and a transporter to deliver it to their rendezvous point.” Psy explained. “10,000 detector beads and 2,000 canisters of floxetrasine are a bit more than Kieran and I could lug around.”
     “What, now?” SkyHawk could see there was no way out of this one.
     “Preferably.” Psy hid hir impatience behind a thin mask of nonchalance.
     “Wouldn’t it be easier if they came to collect?” SkyHawk suggested. If he had to make a delivery to who knows where the MIM might demand, he’d be up all night.
     “They don’t trust me, SkyHawk. They’re afraid it might be a trap.” Psy cast a sidelong glance at Kieran.
     “Nothing to do with me,” Kieran passed the buck. “It’s our standard security protocol.”
     “Kieran sometimes this paranoia thing can go a bit too far.” SkyHawk was long used to the MIM’s furtive ways of dealing with outsiders. “You realise that I’m going to have to pay everyone overtime, plus the fuel for the transporter.” SkyHawk laid the cards on the table for Psy. “So I’ll have to see the colour of your money before we start.”
     “I always travel prepared.” Psy coyly waved hir bank card for SkyHawk to see. “Is First Mercury Capital good enough for you?”
     “Oh great, just what we need.” Kieran groaned. “A paper trail.”
     Psy gave Kieran a filthy look. “Not my account, big boy. And you should know why.”
     “Fine, have it your way.” Kieran caved in. “SkyHawk, there’s something you ought to know about Psy. Shi works for Earth Fed.”
     After their adventure to the Galactic Council and back with Psy, there was little left to surprise SkyHawk. “Oh, really? Since when?”
     “It’s only a part-time job.” Psy pouted as shi clung to Kieran.
     “Well I could tell you a thing or two about Psy.” SkyHawk matched Kieran’s stakes. “Shi’s not one of us.”
     “I know, shi’s Earth Fed.” Kieran spat the words out with disgust.
     “No, Psy’s not human.” Lottie couldn’t resist taking a dig at Psy. “Are you, Psy?”
     “No, I’m not.” Psy confessed weakly before rebounding defiantly. “What difference does it make?”
     “What are you then?” Kieran looked down at Psy who by now had draped hir arms around Kieran and was rubbing hir tits up against him.
     Psy stopped, shook hir hair out of hir eyes and looked up at Kieran. “Nglubi. What do I have to do to get you to trust me?”
     “Stop trying so hard, for one.” Kieran made short shrift of Psy’s endless advances.
     “Huh.” Psy was miffed. “You really know how to hurt my feelings. We’re on the same side.”
     “I’ll be the judge of that.” Kieran wasn’t about to let Psy’s seduction attempts sway his judgement.
     Psy turned hir attention to SkyHawk. “So when can we start?”
     Now was as good a time as any. “Max, see who you can rustle up. Tell ‘em they’ll get overtime pay. I’ll see you down in the stockyard in about a half hour.” SkyHawk decided to get it over with as soon as possible. “Okay you two lovebirds, let’s get to work.” SkyHawk hustled Psy and Kieran out of his living room. “Lottie, I’ll see you on the morning.”
     SkyHawk led Psy and Kieran around the stockyard pointing out a couple of tractors, electric carts, wagons, a light truck and other bits of farmyard machinery and picked out one of the carts. It was a standard delivery cart, the type seen in towns all across Mars. “So how big is this consignment? Our transporter only takes a five-ton payload.”
     Psy sized up a mental image of the boxes of detector beads and crates of floxetrasine canisters stacked up on the dais at Fort Melchisor. “It should do.” They didn’t have to wait long before Max turned up with two humans and two mechs one of whom was ‘Evil’ Bert. SkyHawk revved up the cart while everyone suited up and then drove it to the airlock with everyone aboard for the ride.
     Psy directed Max to one of the entrances to Fort Melchisor where they got out and rode the cart down the tunnel. Fort Melchisor, the last living Omphalon on Mars, welcomed Psy by lighting up the biostone tunnel walls bathing hir and hir guests in its milky white luminescence. It led to a large chamber with an oversized dais in the middle piled high with boxes and crates.
     No-one had ever seen a fort light up like this before and they gawped in wonder. “Oh come along.” Psy hectored them over their common comms channel. “We haven’t got all night.” They got stuck in shifting the crates cartload by cartload into the transporter. Psy surprised SkyHawk and Kieran by heaving loads as heavy as any they could lift. At one point SkyHawk and Psy were riding the cart with yet another load of gas canisters.
     “You did all that.” SkyHawk was overwhelmed with amazement as he pointed at the luminescent biostone.”
     “Who, me?” Psy revelled in false modesty.
     “Who else could it be?” SkyHawk warmed up to Psy’s playfulness.
     “Um…” Psy tapped on SkyHawk’s faceplate.
     “It’s never done anything like this when I’ve been here before.” SkyHawk was beginning to feel as if this was how Fort Melchisor was meant to be. It felt so much more alive than the dark, airless tunnels he had come to know. “How did you do it?”
     “I didn’t do anything.” Psy admitted grandly. “The Omphalon just woke up for us.”
     “You said ‘us’.” SkyHawk picked up on Psy’s semantic slip. “Does that mean it would light up like this for me?”
     “Maybe. That’s up to the Omphalon.” Psy explained nonchalantly. “Ask it.”
     “What, in Nglubi?” SkyHawk felt as if this was getting a bit surreal. This was one of the oldest artefacts on Mars, not some ideal homes exhibition showing off the latest voice-command home gadgetry.
     “Oh I’m sure it’ll understand English by now.” Psy looked around at the biostone tunnel. “The Omphalon might not be the brightest spark around, but it’s not completely stupid.” No sooner than Psy had spoken than the band of tunnel surrounding them went dark. As they drove along the tunnel, the darkness followed them.
     “I think it heard you.” SkyHawk snickered.
     “Okay, okay. You’re supremely intelligent and wonderfully wise.” Psy called out to the Omphalon. The band of tunnel around them lit up to a dull grey. “Yes and I couldn’t live without you.” The dullness slowly melted away until the tunnel was a uniform milky white again.
     “I see it’s got feelings.” SkyHawk had actually enjoyed watching Psy being put in hir place by what he had thought up to now was no more than inanimate Psionic Crystal.
     “Yes, flattery works wonders.” Psy commented dryly. “The poor thing must get awfully bored nowadays.” At which point the tunnel walls broke out into animated swirling patterns of light.
     Back in the main chamber Bert was busy storing images of everything anything he saw. He had been sent to Zanzibar to spy on Fort Melchisor and he’d hit pay dirt beyond his wildest dreams. Before he ditched his old body back in Montgomery, Bert had been your typical mech Overlord: much brawn and little brain. Now he had precious little of either and pocketed whatever he could when no-one was looking to send back to Kazmak at their lair near Hellas Planitia.
     By the time they were finished Kieran was sweating like a pig inside his pressure suit and looking forward to riding the cart back to the transporter when Psy grabbed his arm. “Let’s walk back.” Psy suggested breathily.
     “I’m pooped.” Kieran pleaded as he tried to make his way over to the cart where the others were waiting for them. That’s when he noticed he couldn’t lift his feet to walk any further and looked down to see that the biostone floor had surged up around his boots and held them in a grip that he couldn’t break no matter how hard he tried. Kieran looked up from his struggles to see Psy waving to SkyHawk as he drove the cart out of the chamber. “Damn you.” Kieran cursed as the cart disappeared down the tunnel. “Let me go.”
     “Tsk, tsk.” Psy scolded Kieran. “Impatient, suspicious and goes into a panic the moment he loses control: what am I ever going to do with you?”
     “Quit playing games.” Kieran seethed.
     “But I like playing games.” Psy teased Kieran. “They make life so much more fun.”
     “Will you let me go?” Kieran vainly tried to pull his boots out of the floor’s unbeatable grip.
     “All in good time, love. I want to talk with you in private before you go.” Psy handed over a briefcase to Kieran. “Here’s the maintenance schedule for the detector beads, synthesis and handling instructions for floxetrasine, a data cube with background info on the Gulmarians and a communication beacon to get in contact with Grattlyd if you’re stuck.”
     “What’s Grattlyd?” Kieran didn’t know what to make of Psy.
     “You mean ‘who’.” Psy icily corrected him. “Grattlyd is one of my children and is much more technically minded than I am. So if you need help making your own floxetrasine or can’t and need more supplies, contact Grattlyd. You won’t be dealing with me any longer more’s the shame, so you can put all those worries about Earth Fed out of your mind.”
     “Can I go now?” Kieran tried to pull his boots out of the biostone floor.
     “Yes.” And the Omphalon released Kieran at Psy’s command. Shi held hir arm out for Kieran. “Are you going to walk me back to the transporter?”
     “I’ve never heard of these forts lighting up like this.” Kieran suspected Psy had something to do with it. “It’s quite impressive.”
     “Must be that crystal magic.” Psy blithely fobbed Kieran off. Shi had absolutely no intention of telling Kieran anything about the Omphalon and preferred that he wallow in ignorance.
     The early morning dusk was just beginning to seep across the sky as Kieran stood in a small crater on the edge of Arabia Terra watching SkyHawk’s transporter disappear over the horizon. The only thing keeping him from wondering if it hadn’t all been a strange dream was the pile of crates and boxes beside him. He didn’t have to wait long before an MIM transporter flanked by a pair of combat fliers swept in and set down beside him. Kieran sat half-asleep in the transporter’s cab with Rick and the pilot on their way back to their base.
     “You look beat.” Rick really wanted to hear Kieran’s story.
     “I am.” Kieran struggled to stay awake. “You’ll never believe it, the whole place lit up.”
     “What do you mean?” As far as Rick knew, the forts were dark labyrinths where you had to bring your own lighting or else end up lost.
     “You know everyone’s been mining Psionic Crystals out of the forts?” Kieran didn’t quite know where to begin.
     “Yeah.” Rick wondered what Kieran was getting at.
     “Well Fort Melchisor is lined with the stuff and it all lit up when we went inside.” Kieran explained. “There’s more to that stuff than meets the eye.”
     “You don’t say?” Rick didn’t believe a word of it, he was a dyed-in-the-wool crystal sceptic.
     “There were a few mechs from that Zanzibar farm working with us. You can buy some downloads from them if you want.” Kieran protested.
     “If I can be bothered.” Rick was disappointed that Kieran had so little to say for himself after dragging him out with a transporter and two combat fliers the best part of a thousand kilometres across Mars. “So what’s with this stuff we picked up?”
     “You know those strange bodies we found in the caves? It turns out they’re aliens known as Gulmarians.” Kieran went on to describe his encounter with Psy in lurid detail.
     “You sure have all the fun.” Rick congratulated Kieran.
     “Maybe, but it could be an Earth Fed trick.” Kieran aired his doubts. “False memories and then scam us to pick up a box of rocks.”
     Rick understood Kieran’s scepticism. “But why would they go to all this bother? We searched those crates thoroughly and didn’t find any trackers, so we can rule that one out.”
     “Beats me.” Kieran admitted. “But given all the stunts they’ve pulled in the past it wouldn’t surprise me.”
     “Dammit Clem, what were you thinking when you installed all that bootleg control software in your commset?” Barney complained as Clarissa threw her underwear at him. “She doesn’t go five minutes without stripping off now.”
     “Well…” Clem blushed guiltily even though his eyes were riveted on Clarissa’s naked nubile body as she went down on all fours eagerly calling out ‘Doggy style’ for the fiftieth time and panting wildly. “You downloaded it.”
     “Oh yeah, right, blame the robot.” Barney’s patience had worn thin. “I just tabbed anything for neural nets. You didn’t have to install it. If she’s going to work in the market with you, you can’t have her carrying on like this.”
     “We could make a lot of money running these programs on Clarissa.” Clem suggested sneakily.
     “No!” Barney almost exploded with indignation and grabbed Clem. “That’s no better than the way AM&MG used to exploit us. Do you want to end up like that scum? Hey, Clarissa’s my friend too and no way are you going to pimp her out. As a matter of fact I’m going to make sure she gets that net removed so I can watch her beat the living daylights out of you when I tell her. So you just uninstall that stuff right now.”
     “Okay.” Clem surrendered sheepishly and started erasing all the dodgy neural net control software he’d installed on his commset. “I sure hope it doesn’t affect the program Kieran gave me.”
     “You should have thought about that first.” Barney firmly scolded Clem. “I found a portable control unit for sale on one of the auction sites. It comes with licensed software for non gender-specific domestic and light industrial work. Do you want to put a bid on it?”
     “How much is it going for?” Clem clutched at the straw Barney held out for him.
     “Last bid was 140 Scruples.”
     “Yeah, put me down for two hundred and see how it goes.” Clem walked over to the Tri-D set to get a closer look at the auction display, picking up Clarissa’s clothes on the way.
     Rick spent the morning after they returned to their base in his office. The briefcase Psy had given Kieran lay open on his desk next to a desktop Tri-D set replaying a classified Earth Fed training video which explained way more than Rick really wanted to know about the strange bodies Kieran’s squad had discovered. It was the direct appeal hastily spliced on at the end asking the Mars Independence Movement to co-operate with Earth Fed tackling the Gulmarian menace that really did his head in. They wanted the MIM to attack or infiltrate any known Overlordz bases and to neutralise any Gulmarian presence.
     Rick had long become used to the 3-way battles between the MIM, Earth Fed and the Overlordz and now his liberationists’ worldview had just been smashed to pieces. Should they trust Earth Fed to fight a greater evil? More to the point, could they trust Earth Fed at all? They were just as dangerous and even more treacherous than the Overlordz. He could see the sense in it, but it wasn’t a decision he could make. It would have to go up the chain of command and they’d certainly demand some quid pro quo concessions from Earth Fed. Such as Earth Fed pulling their finger out and tackling the Overlordz instead of harassing and spying on MIM supporters in the cities.

Scribbles & Scraps
Chapter 17
Chapter 19