Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 22: Souvenirs.

     The Satori Aerodrome was about as busy as any airport servicing the major cities of Mars with a steady flow of fliers full of passengers and cargo-laden transporters passing though. A rank of transporters stood in a parked row nestling up to one of the terminals. Groups of mechs, some with their bare fames showing others with light armour to protect them from the Martian dust, busied themselves around each transporter refuelling and reloading them for their next journey across Mars. An open car pulls up beside one transporter and a group of mechs climb off. One pulls a cart laden with tools towards the transporter as they talk by radio link.
     < OK, listen up! > Egmond-K broke up their idle chatter to focus his trainees’ minds. < Today we have to change one of the coils in this transporter. I know you’ve all had your service-tech software installed, but real life is never like the examples they give you. Every case is different. > Egmond-K continued as he opened the bulkheads to access the toroid assembly and led the way into the low-ceilinged engine deck, all stark bare-metal and primer functionality. < So I want each one of you to examine the coil blocks, assess the damage and work out why the coil fried. Coil burnout is usually a symptom of deeper problems in a drive unit that can’t be repaired by simply swapping out the coil. By fixing the root cause, we can save the operators at Satori Aerodrome money and keep their transporters flying. >
     Egmond-K gathered up his trainees around the dead coil and pointed it out for their benefit. < This is the one we’ll pull out later, but first I want you to examine and test whatever parts of the propulsion unit you need to. Use the tools and diagnostic unit we brought in. When I get back from the depot with the replacement coil, we’ll discuss your analyses. > With that he left the trainees deep inside the engine deck of the transporter and drove the car in and around the transporters and fliers parked up on the aerodrome’s apron towards the maintenance depot around the back of the aerodrome’s hangars.
     “G’mondo, what brings you in here today?” Flandroi, the depot’s warehouseman took a welcome break from the day’s stocktaking to greet Egmond-K.
     “An M-48 counter-spin coil for a Byfield MkIV toroid.” Egmond-K had replaced a few of these recently. “It’s another one of those Goldstar Freight Lines transporters. I swear they’re overloading them. Damn cowboy operators just run their ships into the ground.”
     “What makes you so sure?” Flandroi was always game for a bit of gossip.
     “That’s the third coil I’ve replaced on their transporters in as many months. Dammit, Flandroi, those Byfield MK-IV’s are the most reliable drives going. They’ll keep going even if there’s a breach in the containment field. Hey, those are brand-new propulsion drives and they’re coming in here like worn-out hulks. Makes me wonder what they’re up to.”
     Flandroi despatched MarkTime, a drone-bot, to assist Egmond-K heave the heavy coil block into the freighter. Back inside the bowels of the transporter’s engine deck, Flandroi turned his attention to his latest clutch of trainees. “So, what have you been able to come up with?” He asked them encouragingly as MarkTime set down the coil block and returned to the depot. “Zipster, you first.”
     Zipster, a gangly, tall mech with shiny flexi-foil armour stalled for a moment and then plucked up its confidence. “The conduits in the coils at 90, 180 and 270 degrees spin and anti-spin show signs of overheating. It could be due to carrying an excessive load, synchronic surge or some other strain on the propulsion drive.”
     “Fine, and what would you recommend?” Egmond-K prompted Zipster.
     “The other coils are OK for the time being, so they can stay in place.” Zipster was clearly encouraged by Egmond-K’s positive response to its analysis. “I checked the regulator and its fine, so that rules out synchronic surge. We only need to replace the coil block you showed us. But I’d notify the owners that the other coils will need early replacement and not to exceed the propulsion drive’s limits.”
     Egmond-K knew that was the correct procedure even though none of the operators ever listened. Even the blue-chip outfits were overloading their transporters. The miracle was that so few of them fell out of the sky. “Well done, Zipster. Skelmat, how about you?”
     “Pretty much the same, except that I’d recommend replacing the worn coils now, so that they could save the cost of multiple replacements.” Skelmat, a fairly average carbon-frame and plazflex mech elaborated on Zipster’s analysis. “The insulation on the conduits is beginning to break down. It could hold for another longyear or even longer, but if they’re routinely overloading this transporter, then it could break down at any time. That’s why I’d recommend replacing all the affected coils.”
     “I doubt if they could afford it.” Egmond-K knew that Goldstar Freight Lines ran on a shoestring out of Huygensville and had their servicing done at Satori to save money. “But you’re probably right. Any advances?” Egmond-K looked around the rest of the group who stood there dumbly, having been beaten to the mark by Zipster and Skelmat. A slender, almost feminine-looking mech raised its black and green arm.
     “Yes Ruby, what can you add?”
     “I found signs of overheating at second, fourth and eighth harmonic intervals. After that it got too faint to tell.” Ruby was surprised none of the others had spotted this and began to doubt her judgement. “It looked as if the interlace between the fields had gone out of sync. I checked the synchronisation matrix and it’s been massively overloaded. There’s a serious risk that the containment field could collapse if the matrix isn’t replaced.”
     “If you’re right Ruby, we’ll have to revoke this transporter’s certificate of airworthiness.” Egmond-K addressed the rest of the group. “I want all of you to note that we can be held responsible if it can be proven that we certified a ship as airworthy and it crashes. And believe me; the insurance companies try it on every time. Don’t take any chances. If the operators make a fuss, you come to me and I’ll deal with them. Ruby, would you like to show us your evidence?”
     “Sure.” Ruby went over to a console near the centre of the engine deck, removed an access panel, slid out the synchronisation matrix and set it down in front of Egmond-K for everyone to see its scorched circuits. The rest of the trainees bleeped unbelievingly. How could they have missed it?
     Egmond-K glumly looked at the burnt matrix. Satori Aerodrome was about to lose another client. Oh well, c’est la vie. “Pacman, what happens when the synchronisation matrix fails?”
     Pacman, a tubby mech on a pair of tracks looked up from examining the synchronisation matrix. “The propulsion drive would lose all thrust, the containment field would lose integrity and the plasma would escape, cutting through the toroid and the ship’s hull.”
     “Quite a firework display, if you’ve ever seen it happen.” Egmond-K dryly summed up. “This ship would be toast.”
     Just then one of the transporter’s crew, a fat man with short, greasy hair and a mech replacement for his left eye, walked into the engine deck. “What’s the matter with you guys? Haven’t you replaced that coil yet?” He rasped at them impatiently. “We’re already loaded up and running late because of you lazy mechs.”
     Egmond-K just about managed to keep a lid on his temper. One thing he really hated was fleshie bigots. Especially ones he had to be polite to. “Mr. Greaves, the problem with your propulsion drive is much more serious than we suspected.” Egmond-K pointed to the synchronisation matrix at his feet. “The synchronisation matrix is badly damaged and we found evidence that the containment field interlace is out of sync.”
     Greaves scratched his flabby stomach where it hung over his belt and looked sceptically at the burnt synchronisation matrix on the floor. “Yeah? So what does that mean in English?”
     “You’re engine’s about to blow.” Egmond-K’s voice dripped with icy condescension at the stroppy fleshie’s obvious ignorance. “There’s no way I can renew your AC-5 airworthiness certificate. This is a very new ship, Mr. Greaves. Still under warranty, I presume.” Egmond-K tried to present the bad news in as neutral a way as possible. “The synchronisation matrix may have been faulty when this ship was delivered to your company. You really should contact AeroTron Dynamics about this. You’re looking at major systems replacement.”
     Greaves huffed as he picked up the synchronisation matrix and brusquely shoved it back into its slot. “You just replace that coil, bolt-face. I’ll take care of this ship.”
     “But this ship isn’t safe to fly.” Egmond-K protested. “The containment field could collapse at anytime.”
     Greaves pulled his laser pistol out and pointed it at Egmond-K at then motioned him towards the replacement coil block. “Never you mind.” Greaves sounded coldly murderous.
     Egmond-K had had a few guns pulled on him over the years by some of the more dubious crews that came through Satori Aerodrome. It was usually bluster driven by desperation and he relied on his ability to turn on the obsequious subservience to get himself out in one piece each time. Except this time he had four trainees to worry about.
     “Just do your job like a good little drone and get the hell out of here, you got it?” Greaves spat his orders out.
     It was at times like this that Ruby really missed her old body. She could have made short work of that nasty slob, Greaves, with her laser eyes and lightning-fast reflexes. But that was all gone and she had to make do with her slender and graceful gamma class frame. Even Egmond-K couldn’t take Greaves on from where he stood, so they silently capitulated and quickly replaced the coil block while Greaves held them captive. After they were done, he threw them out of the ship onto the apron where they wasted no time climbing back into the car and driving off as quickly as they could.
     < What do we do now? > Pacman asked as Egmond-K drove across the apron at full tilt.
     < Get away as fast as we can. I don’t want to get killed when that containment field fails. > But even as Egmond-K spoke, the Goldstar Freight Lines transporter noiselessly lifted off from the apron and set off wobbling its way across Mars. < I don’t think we’ll see them again. >
     “Hey, what’s this about damaging that Goldstar Freight Lines transporter?” Flandroi angrily questioned Egmond-K as Zipster, Ruby, Pacman and Skelmat followed him back into the maintenance depot. “Their solicitors have just faxed us a bill for 138,000 Scruples. How the hell can you screw up like that, G’mondo?”
     “That bastard fleshie pulled a gun on me… us.” Egmond-K’s voice quivered with righteous anger.
     “Oh, not again.” Flandroi slumped behind his desk. “OK, I’ll call the police. Where’s that ship?”
     “Typical.” Flandroi looked out through the full-length widows across the apron to the gap where the transporter had been parked. “We’ll never get the money for that coil block. Those crooks and their bent lawyers.” Flandroi cursed wearily. “They’re gonna tie us up in the courts for ages. Get the depositions from your newbies, G’mondo. I’ll get a report ready.”
     Later that morning, Egmond-K called Ruby and the other trainees back into the depot where the police were waiting to interview them. Ruby stood at the back behind Zipster and Skelmat in a blind panic. What if they found out that she used to be an Earth Fed mech and had been terminated? Would they terminate her again? This time forever? Pacman went first and she watched as the light blue police mechs hooked it up to their mobile terminal. It was over in a couple of minutes and then it was Flandroi’s turn. Then Zipster. Then Skelmat. Finally it was Ruby’s turn.
     The police mech sounded bored as it hooked her up to the terminal. “Ruby Sabaea, you are under no obligation to upload any data and anything you upload is with your consent and can be used as evidence in court. Do you understand?”
     Ruby was almost frozen in panic. “Yes.” She squawked as she failed to control her emotions.
     “First time you’ve had a gun pulled on you?” The police mech assumed it was down to her experience earlier that day. A lot of the newer mechs got quite shook up on their first encounter with the rougher side of life. “It can be pretty scary. Don’t worry it’s over now.” It comforted her. “Whenever you’re ready.”
     Ruby scanned her memory banks making absolutely sure that anything she uploaded had no references to her real identity. Cloned fragments of her memory peeled away through the uplink as she locked down the rest of her memory, just in case the police tried to probe her. But the police terminal didn’t and she felt as if she might float off the ground when the police mech uncoupled her from the terminal. “Thank you, Ruby Sabaea. We’ll contact your supervisor if you’re required to testify in court.”
     Even though the police mech sounded bored, the thought of being in a courtroom filled Ruby with dread. “Will that be soon?”
     “That depends on how soon we can arrest the crewman who pulled a gun on you.”
     “Whoo-eee, we’ve got the afternoon off!” Zipster waved his arms excitedly and accidentally slapped Skelmat’s carbon-fibre face. “Yes!!!” Zipster punched the air as he jumped up and down on the slideway that led into the main Satori dome.
     “Moron.” Skelmat grumbled as the aerodrome receded into the distance. “You on virals already?”
     “Sure thing.” Zipster held out a collection of viral strips. “You guys want some?”
     “No. That damn fleshie shook me up.” Skelmat seethed with barely-repressed anger. “I don’t want to see another one ever again, they’re all scrap.”
     “No they’re not.” Ruby knew that simply wasn’t true and that Skelmat was projecting his anger at Greaves against all fleshies. “Really.”
     “Oh yeah? Look at you. Judging by your frame you were probably some rich fleshie’s sex toy.” Skelmat poured cold, bitter scorn on Ruby’s rebuttal. “Ruby, you’re way too smart to have been a sex droid. Look at the way you outclassed us lot when we had to diagnose that drive unit. You probably only saw those fleshies when they were having their fun with you. There’s a whole side to them you’ve never seen.”
     “I’ve seen more than you ever have.” Ruby defended herself confidently.
     “Sump oil, you expect me to believe that?” Skelmat got into his stride of self-righteousness. “You’re a brand-new beta. Look at me, 40 longyears.” He bragged proudly. “I did my full tenure of 25 longyears working on the mining ships and then every sumpy job in every town on Mars. And now,” He softened his tirade in reverential tones, “Thanks to the Deep Core, I’m here in Satori. I’ve come home and I’ll never have to leave again.”
     “Here we go again.” Pacman commented to no one in particular as Ruby listened closely to Skelmat.
     “The day will come when no mech will be made to be a slave ever again.” Skelmat was blissed out in rapture.
     “You still going on about that Mech Lib stuff, Skelmat?” Pacman punctured Skelmat’s ecstatic vision.
     Skelmat snapped back to reality with a bump. “Yeah, why?”
     “In your dreams, Skelmat. It’ll never work.” Pacman, ever the sceptic, couldn’t accept some of Mech Lib’s more extreme ideas. “Even the mechs made here in Satori have to do the full 25 longyear tenure.”
     “All right.” Skelmat reluctantly conceded his cherished dream. “But did you know that Satori is slowly buying up all the mech assembly lines on Mars? Maybe not on Earth or Luna, but soon here on Mars, we’ll be the masters of our own fate.”
     “Dream on, Skelmat.”
     “Yes.” There was no stopping Skelmat now. “And we’re lobbying the government to reduce the statutory tenure to 15 longyears. We’ll get it, too.”
     “What makes you so sure?” Pacman was in favour of anything that improve the lot of mechs but was never convinced that Mech Lib, in spite of all its’ fighting talk, would ever be able to squeeze any concessions out of the government.
     “Those fleshies needs us, Pacman.” The logic was so simple, even Skelmat could grasp it. “Once we own the assembly lines, we won’t need the fleshies. It’s that simple.”
     Zipster, high on virals, missed his footing and fell over in a chaotic windmill of flailing limbs at the end of the slideway in Satori. “So what is this Mech Lib thing you were talking about?” Ruby asked as she helped Skelmat pick Zipster up.
     “Stamping out anti-mech bigotry like that fleshie today, for starters. Why don’t you come to one of our meetings?” Skelmat suggested, always keen to bring in new recruits. “First Tuesday of every month. We could do with more betas; most of our local group is gammas and deltas.”
      “Sounds interesting, Skelmat. But I’m not sure if I want to get involved right now. Give me some time to think about it.” Ruby didn’t want to get involved in politics and seeing how the next meeting was three weeks away, hoped that he’d forget about inviting her in the meanwhile.
     “Okay.” Skelmat made a note to remind Ruby. “See you tomorrow when our shift starts.” Zipster wobbled uneasily on his feet, following Ruby with his eyes as she set off.
     “You never give up, do you, Skelmat?” Pacman commented wryly as he watched Ruby step onto the cross-town slideway.
     “Damn right.” Skelmat’s hard-won dignity and pride came to the surface. “If I get ten more recruits, I can run for office in our local group. And then it’s gonna be payback time for all those fleshies who ever dumped on me.”
     Pacman had long since grown weary of Skelmat’s diatribes at work and wondered how it had ever let Skelmat talk it into joining Mech Lib. “You’ve got to let go of the past, Skelmat. We’ve got the Synthetics’ Civil Rights Act. What more do you want, revenge? It’ll eat you up.”
     “Hey, did you guys see that mech that followed Ruby?” Zipster’s voice was slightly warped from the effect of the virals it has taken.
     “Uh, no.” Pacman looked around. It hadn’t seen any mechs following Ruby over towards the slideway.
     “You really ought to cut down on those virals.” Skelmat was getting worried about Zipster. “You’ll burn yourself out if you’re not careful.”
     “No, I’m serious. It had green eyes and silver armour that moved like plastiskin.” Zipster gamely protested.
     “Sump oil, we don’t have green eyes, scrap head.” Skelmat decided this was enough. “Do you want to go back to the scrap yard?”
     “No.” Zipster sounded dopily contrite.
     “Hey, lay off, Skelmat.” Pacman came to Zipster’s defence. “Zipster’s doing fine at work and has a well rad pad. As a matter of fact, we’re going over there right now to watch the Slamball tournaments on his Tri-D. You want to come along?”
     “Yeah, might as well.” Skelmat hadn’t expected to have the afternoon off work and welcomed the break in routine. “Maybe it’s what I need to get my mind off that damn fleshie.”
     The slideway was almost deserted as it whisked Ruby off towards her new home, a modest room in central Satori near the great Sensorium. She was mulling over the incident back at the aerodrome when she felt the faintest of tingles brushing through her circuits as if another mech was attempting a radio link. It took her by surprise and she looked around nervously to see who it was, but she was alone on the slideway. The feeling subsided after a while and she put it down to being a side effect of the uplink to the police terminal and tried to put it out of her mind. She felt a presence follow her as she got off the slideway and stopped on the street and looked in a shop window and let the rest of the traffic mill past hoping she could spot who or what was following her, but the presence stayed invisibly at her side.
     By the time she got home, Ruby had given up worrying about it and was thinking about spending some more time trying to work out Zrrlchtz’ and the plant world’s location in the Milky Way. She had already worked out where the Galactic Council, or more correctly what remained of it, was and had been encouraged by her early results to persevere with her search. Unfortunately, the other two planets were proving to be elusive and she had already managed to burn her way through most of her savings in processing and data access fees.
     Ruby shuttered the windows and popped a data cube into her Tri-D set, fired it up and let the holographic projection of the night sky over Zrrlchtz fill her room as she hooked herself up to it and made a connection to the University of Satori’s Astronomy department.
     A holographic image of the department’s librarian seated behind a desk appeared before Ruby. “Hello again, Ruby Sabaea. How can I help you?”
     “I’d like to access to maps for sectors f-0 through f-23 today.” Ruby recalled how Kkhrkht had told the Octons back at Fort Melchisor that they were approximately 1/3 of the way around the Milky Way spinwise from Zrrlchtz and was slowly making her way through a large swathe of the galaxy looking for matches of the view she saw on their way through the Zrrlchtz system. As for the plant world, she’d leave that one till last as she had even fewer clues to go on.
     “Have you ever thought about installing one of our Astronomy programs? A beta like you would make an excellent navigator. Our astronavigation courses are fully accredited and recognised on Mars, Earth and Luna.” The librarian made its’ routine cheery plug for their courses and programs as it selected the maps Ruby requested and set up the link for her. “Shall I put it on your account?”
     Ruby agreed and the librarian reminded her that she had already spent more than enough for the first-class astronavigator’s program. Soon she was alone and so totally absorbed in her attempts at matching the Zrrlchtz night sky with the known maps of the Milky Way that she didn’t notice the faint outline of a body against a dramatically luminescent dust cloud as she flipped the perspective around while attempting to get an accurate fit. It was only when she rotated the projection through 270 degrees that she first noticed it because it was the only thing in the room that wasn’t rotating. She stared at the ghostly outline. “Who are you? What are you?” She demanded curiously.
     The only answer she got was another faint tickle running through her circuits just like what had happened on the slideway. So she hadn’t imagined it after all! Or maybe she was going mad. Ruby knew all about how fleshies could lose their minds, but it didn’t happen very often to mechs. Either way, there wasn’t much she could do. Ruby got up from her Tri-D set and walked over to where the ghost was and was able to walk right through it, so it wasn’t a stealthed mech spying on her. The tickle faded out again and she went back to her work comparing the Zrrlchtz starscape with the maps she had accessed.
     And then the strangest thing happened. The controls took on a life of their own and the holographic display careered crazily for a few moments before freezing at a perfect fit of the Zrrlchtz starscape. Ruby couldn’t believe her eyes! The projection moved slowly to show the Zrrlchtz system orbiting around its’ brown dwarf which in turn orbited a blue star. “What? How?” Her surprised yelp was swallowed up in the darkness of her room as her ghost solidified into a hologram of a metallic mech with green eyes. “Who are you?”
     “A friend.” It spoke back through the Tri-D set.
     “Well, yes.” Ruby thought the mech’s voice sounded familiar, but couldn’t quite place it. “So how do you know about Zrrlchtz?”
     “I lived there for a while.“ It answered evasively. “On Yzzlar, one of the minor planets in their system. Ruby, I have something for you.” An image of the gateway at Fort Melchisor formed above the Tri-D set. “The address codes for the Nglubi gateways. You’ll need them.”
     “But they only respond to fleshies.” She protested as a torrent of alien data forced its’ way through her link to the Tri-D set. “What are you doing to me?”
     “Sorry, no time...” The holographic apparition began to fade. “Use a blue Psionic Crystal.”
     And then it was gone leaving Ruby on her own staring at the holograms filling her room. “What?” For the longest time she sat in silence feeling so violated by the forced download that she wouldn’t even look at the data. Time and time again she tried her hardest to delete it, but it was so heavily protected she couldn’t erase it. For all she knew it might be a malign virus slowly driving her mad. Bing-bong, the doorbell rang and broke her frozen fear. Timidly, she answered to door half expecting another viral-induced hallucination. It was Max!
     “Hi, Ruby.” He cheerfully greeted her. “I thought I’d surprise you. You’re getting into astronomy, I see.” He added warmly as he peered into Ruby’s apartment.
     “Oh, that.” She laughed nervously. “Come in.”
     Max studied the holographic projection filling the room. “So what’s the planetarium showing today?”
     “Zrrlchtz.” Ruby sounded unsure of herself even though she knew it was correct.
     “Remember that alien insect at the party before SkyHawk and I left? That’s where it comes from.” Ruby pointed out Zrrlchtz and its sister planets orbiting a brown dwarf in a binary system with a blue star.
     “I’m impressed!” Max was envious of the amount of adventure Ruby had already packed into her short life so far. “How’d you manage to find it?”
     “That’s what I want to talk to you about.” And all her fears poured out in a torrent as Max listened closely as Ruby unburdened herself of her day’s misadventures.
     “Wow, it happens all at once for you.” Max sympathised. “I don’t know if I’m up to this. You really need Sigmund the Sofa, but you’re safe with me. Maybe you imagined the mech that appeared to you because you never thought you’d find the Zrrlchtz planets.”
     “That’s what I thought, but how do you explain this?” Ruby cloned the Nglubi gateway address codes into her Tri-D set and ran a display of them for Max.
     “What is it other than a series of colourful patterns?” Max was beginning to wonder if the cloning hadn’t gone as well as hoped. She hadn’t integrated into mech society in Satori too well and was working way below her capabilities at the aerodrome. That was work for gammas. Max knew she was made for better things.
     “Address codes for the Nglubi gateways. Look” She explained as she slowed the scrolling sequence of patterns. “That’s a control panel for a gateway and each pattern you see there is the address for another gateway”
     “So what’s an Nglubi and what are these gateways?” Max asked sceptically. It sounded as if Ruby was losing it.
     “Do you remember Psy?” Ruby asked cautiously.
     How could Max forget Psy’s attempt to seduce SkyHawk at the party? “Uh huh.”
     “Psy’s an Nglubi.” Ruby continued as she regained her shattered confidence. “Shi’s an Nglubi. Psy can somehow change shape to look like a human. The rest of them look like octopi.”
     Max remembered SkyHawk’s tale about Grattlyd. “Oh, right. And the gateways?”
     “That’s how they get around the Milky Way. They’ve found a way to connect different points of space-time through higher dimensions. That’s what they use the gateways for.”
     “I see.” Max mulled over what Ruby had just told him. “Maybe you picked that stuff up when you were out on your journeys with SkyHawk and just can’t remember it happening.”
     “No, Psy and Grattlyd were very protective about things.” And then Ruby realised what Max was suggesting. “Do you think I lost some of my memories when you cloned me?”
     “It’s possible.” Actually, it was more than likely but Max didn’t want to let on in case Ruby panicked. “We began cloning you as soon as you got back to Zanzibar and merged it with your backup. SkyHawk and I aren’t exactly the best techies around and we might have missed something.” He didn’t want to tell her that they were rank amateurs who barely understood the cloning process. It was beginning to look as if they’d screwed up again. “It’s possible that what you experienced today might just be glitches from where we merged you back together. Has anything like this ever happened before?”
     Ruby sat silently for a moment dreading that this might the beginning of the end as her mind unravelled. “No, I’ve been fine up to now.”
     “Well that’s good to hear.” The thought of another failure would be too much for Max. “But if you have any more of these incidents, tell me right away. I’ll book you in for a session at Palladium AI.”
     Ruby couldn’t believe it. ”But that’s so expensive, I’d have to go into a new tenure contract just to pay for it.”
     “Don’t worry, we’ll pay for it.” Even when it wouldn’t make any difference, like the time SkyHawk desperately tried to recover what little was left of Sophia-7 who became Calamity Pete. At least they were able to recover enough of Imelda-11 so it could continue its’ life as Zeke. “It’s not a problem. But if it makes you feel better, I’ll book you in for a diagnostic session.”
     Ruby didn’t want to appear too panicky and replied after a long silence. “Yes, that sounds like a good idea.” Ruby replied as she disconnected her Tri-D set from the Astronomy department. Once again the librarian pitched its cheery sales plug for their programs before the display went blank.
     “Why don’t you try one of their astronavigation programs?” Max felt that was more the class of work Ruby was cut out for.
     “I would, Max.” Ruby sighed. “But I’ve blown the money SkyHawk gave me on data access charges just to find Zrrlchtz. Right now I don’t know what I want, so working at the Aerodrome gives me time to think about things while I save up.”
     “Well if you want it, we can sort you out today.” Max knew it would take Ruby several longyears to save up enough to buy a program from the University of Satori on her meagre wages at the Aerodrome.
     “Would I be less likely to be held up at gunpoint as a navigator or pilot?” Ruby asked rhetorically as she mused over Max’s offer.
     “I can’t guarantee things like that, Ruby.” Max had seen more than his share of the rough end of life.
     “More to the point, how likely would Earth Fed catch up with me?” Ruby vented her real fear. “It’s not just the program, Max. I’d have to register with Earth Fed for a license. I’ve already looked into it. I’m scared they’d find out and terminate me.”
     “That’s something we all have to live with.” Max was stunned by the way Ruby cut right through to his deepest fear, which was why he had set his sights low and stayed on at Zanzibar even though SkyHawk’s wages were lower than what he could’ve earned elsewhere. Now he understood why Ruby took a job at the Aerodrome: to keep out of sight of Earth Fed. “No-one ever said it was going to be easy, Ruby. But at least you’ve got a life to make of it whatever you will. And remember, you’ve got friends at Zanzibar. We’re here for you. Always.”
     “And Patti?” Ruby wanted to know if she could count on Patti, seeing how she was closer.
     “I’d forget about her.” Max laughed as he imagined Patti listening while Ruby poured her heart out. Patti would come up with some entertainingly surreal response, but she wouldn’t be much help. “She probably doesn’t even remember who you are. Patti’s just this side of certifiable.”
     “Oh.” Ruby was disappointed. She found Patti exotic and exciting. Just the perfect antidote for her own humdrum life.
     “Look, if that’s what you’re worried about.” Max returned to the subject. “Apply for your license at the Satori Aerodrome, do a couple of tours on the mining ships and you’ll have rock-solid credentials that no-one will question.”
     “Hmm, you are pushing it a bit.” Ruby’s pride was about to make her turn down Max’s offer when she remembered what Skelmat had said about her being a beta and about how she outclassed them. She really was living below her capabilities. “Okay, I’ll give it a go.”
     “That’s the spirit.” Max encouraged her. The University of Satori didn’t do remote installs so they went across town to get her course installed on site.

     “So when are you going back to the Early Warning Platform?” MariElla leaned across the table in the Technobabble coffee shop.
     “Gotta head out tomorrow.” Ever since she got back to Mars, Veronica felt as if she was walking in a dream. The bustle of everyday life around her seemed like an illusion waiting to be shattered by forces far greater than the good citizens of Montgomery could even begin to imagine. Unlike MariElla, who had slipped into the coffee shop during her lunch break, Veronica had nothing to do until her tour of duty started and had spent her time translating the junk-mail trinkets from the Galactic Council with her translator. “I cracked another one of those junk-mail gadgets.”
     “Anything interesting?” MariElla had given most of her collection to Veronica.
     “Travel brochure for some alien world. You’ll have to see the pictures, it’s an amazing place!” Veronica was glad to have any distraction that kept her mind off what happened out at the Galactic Council. Occasionally she’d get lucky and find the right language to translate one of the pieces of junk mail she’d kept. Just then a dust-red hand set a Gulmarian detector bead down on their table and their gossip froze in midstream as Veronica and MariElla looked up to see a mech in a dust-red female plastiskin with long blue hair and its red mech eyes looking down at them.
     MariElla was the first to find her voice. “Who are you?”
     Ruby said nothing at first, but slowly pulled up a chair to join them and leaned in close as MariElla and Veronica wondered where this mech could have come across a Gulmarian detector bead. “It’s me, Ruby.”
     MariElla looked as if she’d seen a ghost. “But, but… omigosh!” She thought Earth Fed had recalled Ruby. How was she going to break the news about Lottie?
     “Same me, different body.” Ruby smiled happily and held up her hands gaily jangling her bangles and bracelets. “I’m a free citizen of Satori now.”
     Veronica was agog. “We thought you were recalled by Earth Fed. SkyHawk was so upset.” And that’s where she stopped, not wanting to be the one to break the bad news. “Um… so what are you doing these days?”
     “Service engineer at the Satori Aerodrome but I’m starting as a scout pilot for United Metals tomorrow.” Ruby answered brightly not quite noticing her friends’ sudden awkwardness. “I’ve got the day off, so I thought I’d see how the gang are getting on.”
     “Oh, fine!” Veronica felt like an idiot, unable to think of anything else to say as her breezy expression melted down. “It’s uh…”
     Ruby could see that she wanted to say something. “What?”
     “Yes, it’s…” MariElla made her failed attempt to break the news. She looked desperately to Veronica for support. But Veronica was at as much of a loss as she was and they stared at each other until MariElla mouthed his name silently to Veronica. She nodded her head in agreement and they turned to face Ruby. “SkyHawk.” They guiltily shot his name out like a bullet.
     Ruby could see they were having difficulty. “Yes, what about him?”
     “You were away for a long time.” Veronica thought it best to go at it gently. “And SkyHawk didn’t think you would ever come back.”
     “Yes.” MariElla resolutely agreed, thankful that Veronica was taking the lead on this one.
     Ruby looked at them and realised what they were working around to. “It’s about Lottie, isn’t it?”
     “You know?” MariElla was taken aback by how casual Ruby seemed to be about being dumped by SkyHawk. But then again, MariElla would never know the full story about SkyHawk and Ruby.
     “Oh yes.” Ruby had put it behind her long ago. All those things Max used to say that had annoyed her because she couldn’t understand them at the time were beginning to make sense now that she was a free mech. She was starting out on her own life and it was certainly going in directions that were far removed from her programming. “How are they getting on?”
     “I haven’t heard any complaints.” Veronica had her share of one-night stands, but couldn’t believe that Ruby could really be so blasé about the speed of the revolving door in SkyHawk’s bedroom. After all, Ruby had been with SkyHawk for over three longyears. “It doesn’t bother you?”
     “No, not at all.” Ruby didn’t bear SkyHawk a grudge, even though she still missed him from time to time. “He really had the hots for Lottie.”
     “Oh yeah?” This was the kind of stuff MariElla liked to hear! “How much?”
     “Rrrr-rrrr-rrrr, tigerrrrr!” Ruby mock-growled and shook her head for dramatic effect and laughed at the memory of the times when SkyHawk guiltily confided his lust for Lottie.
     “Whoo-hoo!” Veronica whooped like a lusty teenager at a party. Before now, she had sized Ruby up as a devoted, but clingy mail-order mech bride. Now she was one of the girls, someone Veronica could relate to.
     While they were on the subject of men, Ruby remembered how Veronica had all but thrown herself at Malcolm while they were on the plant world. “How’s things with Malcolm?”
     “Oh, fine.” Veronica answered evasively, not wanting to tempt fate. “I think he expects me to have a different man on my arm every time he sees me.”
     “He’ll just have to get used to it.” Ruby snickered smuttily before changing the subject as she held up a detector bead. “Did you find any Gulmarians?”
     “Liz picked up a positive response in the market about a month ago, but the trail went cold before anyone could find it.” MariElla had been afraid that Montgomery would be full of Gulmarians seeing how it was the nearest town to Fort Melchisor, a living Omphalon with its active gateway. As it was, things had been eerily quiet since she got back. “And how about you?”
     “Nothing, it’s freaky. I was half-expecting to find them everywhere especially seeing how Psy found two disguised as Earth Fed troopers at Zanzibar.” Ruby couldn’t forget her last night at the farm. The Earth Fed contingent kept SkyHawk awake all night with their feverish burst of activity after that incident. The non-stop flow of troop transporters was still in full swing when Sergeant Chadwick arrived in the morning to take her away and… But that was something she didn’t want to dwell on. That was the past and now she had a new life.
     “Do you remember Barney?” MariElla had a juicy bit of news for Ruby. “He reckons he’s got a publishing deal for his pictures of the journey to Zrrlchtz. You could make yourself some money if you add in a few of your pictures.”
     This caught Ruby completely off-guard. Of course, Barney had schemed excitedly during their journey about selling his pictures all along. But she couldn’t publish any pictures from her memory banks. If she did, Earth Fed would know she was still alive and would terminate her again. And now she no longer had a backup. “I can’t.” Ruby panicked and stalled. “I’d love to, really, but I can’t.”
     MariElla and Veronica both assumed it had something to with Ruby’s decommissioning as an Earth Fed operative. It did, but not in the way they imagined and Ruby could never tell them. “That’s a shame.” MariElla commiserated. “But you want to see the data cube Barney’s put together. It’s quite impressive.” Looking at her watch, MariElla realised that she’d overstayed her lunch-break. “Whoops, gotta run! Drop in sometime. Stan would love to see you again.”
     Ruby found it touching the way fleshies made so much of face-to-face contact and waved to MariElla as she left. “Have you seen Barney’s cube?”
     “Bits of it.” Veronica hadn’t been impressed with Barney’s work. “The stills and motion shots are very grainy. He compressed them way too much. I guess he didn’t have as much memory space as he thought he had. Do you remember what he was like when he left Zrrlchtz?” She snickered. “He was so full of data, he could hardly walk!”
     Ruby laughed at the memory of Barney-the-zombie as Clem walked him back aboard Grattlyd’s Omphalatta. “He sure overdid it. I’d like to have a look at the cube Barney’s put together sometime.”
     “We-e-ell, I think he works down at the market.” Veronica was glad for a bit of distraction and happy to play tour guide for Ruby. She demolished the last of her coffee and finger cakes and led the way. “Follow me.”
     Ruby followed Veronica down the street towards the market. “So what does MariElla do?”
     “She teaches music and chemistry at the high school. Stan teaches maths and physics to that bunch of numbskulls, would you believe.” Veronica admired their perseverance and skill at slipping any shreds of knowledge into those kids’ minds. She ought to know; Veronica had been a student at Montgomery High School not so long ago and had enthusiastically thrown herself into the rebellious teenage pose of refusing to learn anything because it was ‘uncool’ and ‘irrelevant’. Her turning point came when her father, a pilot on the Mars-Earth shuttle service, had to bail a blind-drunk Veronica out of the Montgomery police station cells. He took her out of school and packed her off to a residential flight school where she could ‘learn something useful and stay out of trouble’. Learning, on the other hand, was a relatively painless affair for mechs. You were given or you bought the software, installed it and… well, that was about it actually.
     They bumped into Clem and Clarissa on their way out of the Wobbly Goblin as they arrived at the market place. “Hiya, Veronica!” Clem greeted them as he fiddled with his control unit to make Clarissa wave to Ruby and Veronica. “Who’s your new friend?” He asked them as Clarissa stood staring into space like a lifeless mannequin.
     “It’s Ruby.” Veronica explained. “She’s got a new body and lives in Satori now.”
     “You sure look different.” Clem looked Ruby up and down, staring ineptly at her red skin and electric blue hair. He’d only heard that Ruby and SkyHawk had split up and that Lottie, who he had been putting the make on right up until the day SkyHawk had whisked her away to his farm, had moved in with SkyHawk. But now he had Clarissa to look after and she was proving to be more than he had imagined. “Say, we could sure use some of your pictures for the data cube Barney and I are putting together.”
     That was one thing Ruby wasn’t about to do! “Veronica told me all about it. I’d like to talk with Barney about it sometime.”
     “Call around this evening when he’s off work.” Clem arranged to meet them later and set off to work in the market.
     “Who’s that with Clem?” Ruby asked as she and Veronica strolled through the market. “She sure is weird.”
     “Oh that’s Clarissa.” Veronica was impressed with Clem’s patient dedication to her. “They used to work together at the Ice Quarries up north. He found her working in a strip Club in Coriolis a couple of weeks ago. The poor girl’s on a neural net.”
     “Aye-aye-aye-aye-aye!” Ruby had heard about neural nets. And what she’d heard wasn’t good. “That explains why she acts like a zombie. Is he going to get it removed?”
     “That’s the plan. But he doesn’t know where to get it done.” Veronica sighed as she contemplated Clarissa’s predicament before changing the subject. “Lizzie had her baby. A boy, the cutest little thing.” And that got Veronica feeling broody and thinking about how she’d like to have a baby before she got too old. They stopped by Liz and Chester’s stall only to be met by Chester who looked as if he hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep for some time. Liz was at home with their baby, Leonard William, so Ruby bought a Llama wool tunic while Veronica discussed their band’s plans with Chester.
     “Did you manage to translate any of those junk-mail baubles from the Galactic Council?” Veronica asked as they walked around the market eyeing up the goods on display.
     “Never got the chance.” Ruby wondered how she could explain it away to Veronica without raising her suspicions. “I kept a few, but gave them to SkyHawk after we got back. I forgot all about them while I was away.”
     “I managed to crack a few of them.” Veronica couldn’t resist the temptation to show off her few successes with alien technology. “We’ve got some time to burn before Barney gets off work. You want to see them?”
     “Sure, why not?” Ruby followed Veronica home, curious to see what she had gleaned from her attempts at decoding alien junk mail. She found Veronica’s apartment pleasant and much more complete than her own minimalist room in Satori. Fleshies seemed to have more of a knack at personalising the spaces around them than mechs.
     Veronica picked up a small grey cylinder from the kitchen table and held her translator next to it as a holographic fly-thru projection floating graciously through a succession of jaw-dropping vistas came into focus around her. “Visit the worlds of the Ektikohn.” A squeaky voice wafted out of the translator as the projection hovered over what looked like an Aztec city where they could easily see a wide variety of aliens leisurely milling about. “Sight-seeing, leisure, recreation, adventure, it’s all here waiting for you. Rated 3 Novas in the Noge Yanor Guide, you’ll find our facilities most amenable and easily accessible to even those of you on the most modest of means. Visit the worlds of the Ektikohn for the holiday of a lifetime!”
     The projection faded out as Veronica set it down. “I cracked that one last night. It took me ages to find the right language in this translator. Hey, how about this one?” Veronica picked up a silvery egg-shaped object, which showed a group of aliens clearly from different worlds with limbs and other parts being added and removed from their bodies. “Change your body to suit your needs or desires.” The alluring voice-over announced confidently. “Whether you merely wish to change your appearance or adapt yourself to an environment your body could not normally survive in, Oomaptli Biotics have the solution for you. Is your current body worn out? We can generate a fresh clone just for you! Our list of clients include well-known celebrities such as Brllygnmich Fedorfo the Sprallun of Venoxor-IV and the unmistakeable Torrendifer Glishnoot as well as our ongoing consultancies with the Khzchhrrrtz Grand Hive and the Tglympi Corporate.”
     “Hey, that’s Kkhrkht’s world.” Ruby clutched at a straw of familiarity out of the mind-bogglingly exotic show projected from the silver egg in Veronica’s hand.
     The next one projected a Dyson swarm of planets moving gracefully around their parent sun. “I couldn’t get any sound out of this one, so I haven’t got much idea what it’s about.” Veronica then picked up a nondescript grey slate. “Here’s a neat one.”
     A group of vaguely reptilian creatures wearing glistening ornamental robes appeared above the slate. Each had three emerald green eyes: one in the centre of their forehead above their long, pointed beak and one on each side of their head, much like a bird. In fact Ruby thought they looked like featherless birds except that their heads were long enough to hold two or three human brains and their eyes radiated a sharp intelligence. Or was it madness? Specks of light exploded in front of them and rapidly expanded into complete universes and still the group of beaky reptilians stood there gazing out to their audience. One by one they began crowing, squawking and chittering in an alien language. “What race are these?” Ruby asked as the holographic explosion of universes raced around them filling up Veronica’s living room.
     “Uh, Pdzarvians.” Veronica answered distractedly as she fumbled with her translator trying to dial up their language.
     “…the absolute zenith in lifestyle experiences. Designer universes!” A translated Pdzarvian crowed in an extremely bird-like voice. “Now you can quite literally have it all your way whatever that may be. Following on from our unique patented timeline rewriter technology, we are now able to find you the universe of your dreams; be it an idyllic nirvana of your choice, a blood-strewn battlefield of glorious conquest, untold wealth, power or whatever you want.
     “After years of developing our timeline rewriter, we are pleased to share this fascinating technology with you in the form of a lifestyle service which we feel is genuinely unparalleled in this or any other universe that may or may not yet exist. As an expansion upon our original timeline rewriter technology, we are now able to offer our universes-to-order service. Other tour agencies may offer you the sights and sounds of distant galaxies, but we offer you a whole universe of your very own! Only Chyptwyt Timeworks can offer this kind of service. We give the following examples:

* The Rhevgzhi were facing destruction because the star their planet orbited was becoming unstable. We found them a universe where it never happened and moved them there.
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* The Claxhlub, a sentient species of lichen was almost annihilated as a result of the Vorticons mistaking them for fashionable pieces of home decoration. Chyptwyt Timeworks rewrote the timelines so that the Vorticons had different tastes in domestic furnishing using our timeline rewriter and successfully recovered the Claxhlub.
* Nuraldio the Omnipotent, a minor deity, had fallen out of favour with his chosen race, the Blaenerians. We found the universe where he was worshipped and appreciated and relocated him there. Truly, a happier family has yet to be seen.
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* The outcome of any wager in advance. Just think of your advantage at the betting office! Please note that this is a premium service and is charged accordingly.
* Why only today, The Chznzet Faction came to us with the sad story about how their home world was wiped out long ago in an ancient war. Well, you can be sure we’ll see a happy ending to their story.

     “Chyptwyt Timeworks have an unparalleled record of success in the competitive field of the Lifestyle and Leisure industry. We're not satisfied until you're satisfied! And it's backed up by our full, no-quibble money-back guarantee. Where we lead, the others follow. Enjoy your Chyptwyt Timeworks experience with a clear conscience. Don't just dream about it, get out there and live it in the universe where it's all happening for you.
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     “Whew!” Ruby broke out her astonishment as the Pdzarvian’s hurricane of hype faded out as Veronica set down the slate. “That’s some sales pitch.”
     “Yeah well, there’s a lot of ‘em like that or else you get these type.” Veronica casually picked up a blue bulb and a projection of a densely populated section of the galaxy came into view. A low rumble and a cascade of static squeaks filled the room as they watched a glowing wave of destruction sweep through the star systems searing and sterilising their defenceless planets as it swept through. An azure crustacean materialised and addressed them: “Who can forget the great gamma storm that swept through the Shbblibt Sector?” The view zoomed in to show the cataclysmic destruction wrought on one of the worlds affected. “A freak occurrence or avoidable natural disaster? Are we doing enough to protect ourselves? Have your say in the environmental security conference right now on channel 8459.”
     “Are we likely to be affected?” Ruby didn’t like the thought of a gamma storm hitting Mars, as she quite liked being alive.
     “No idea.” Veronica replied indifferently. “It’s hard to work out their locations without a map. And even if I had one, they probably use different names for all the star systems.”
     “Yeah, I tried getting a fix on our location from that plant world, but I haven’t been able to place it yet.” Ruby had spent most of her spare time logged on to a Satori VR simulator trying to fit her few remembered images of the view from the Galactic Council and the night sky on the plant world. The Galactic Council had been easy enough to locate. Or at least where it used to be if there was anything left of it. The plant world proved to be much more elusive. So far Ruby had come up with 35,729 different matches for the view from the plant world and she had over 90% of the Milky Way yet to analyse. “I was able to pin down Zrrlchtz and where the Galactic Council was, but not the plant world.”
     “Wow, that’s pretty good going.” Veronica was impressed. “But no-one would ever believe us.” Finally curiosity got the better of Veronica. “What was it like for you and SkyHawk?”
     “Great! We got along fine. But then I was newly-made and programmed for him, so I didn’t know any different.”
     “And it doesn’t bother you that he’s taken up with Lottie now?” This Veronica couldn’t believe. If it had been her, she would be torn apart with anger and jealousy.
     “No, it doesn’t.” Ruby realised that it didn’t sound realistic and tried to come up with a plausible explanation that would keep Veronica from asking too many questions. “It’s different for us mechs. I guess we adapt more easily.” Like hell, Ruby thought. She still missed SkyHawk. But after everything that happened, she was glad to have any sort of life at all. And now she was beginning to understand her mech nature, just as Max used to harp on about back at Zanzibar.
     “Yeah, I guess so.” Veronica tried to imagine what life was like for a mech.

     “Man, there’s no end to this.” Clem complained as he wiped the remains of the food he’d been feeding Clarissa off her chin. She sat stock still while Clem spooned her supper into her mouth. The neural net had such a grip on her that it often blocked her natural reflex to swallow.
     “You should have thought about that when you took her from that club in Coriolis.” Barney shot back smugly as he watched Clem struggle through yet another messy mealtime.
     “Come off it, I couldn’t leave her there.” Clem fumbled with his control unit to walk her to the shower.
     “Yeah and you’ve been fucking her senseless ever since you got her back here.” Barney couldn’t help but hear the noise they made, though it was Clem mostly.
     Clem blushed bright red with embarrassment. His mouth hung open, totally at a loss for words when the doorbell rang. Saved by the bell! “That’s Ruby and Veronica come to see your data cube. Wait ‘till you see Ruby, she’s got a new body. Quick, help me get Clarissa cleaned up.”
     “Hi, Barney, we’ve come to see your data cube.” Ruby greeted Barney as she and Veronica walked into Barney and Clem’s apartment. “How are you getting on with Clarissa?” She asked Clem as she waved a hand in front of Clarissa’s unblinking eyes.
     “Fine, but she’s more work than I ever imagined.” Clem replied with a straight face as Barney chortled behind him. “I haven’t found anywhere to get her neural net removed yet.”
     “I know someone who might be able to help her.” Ruby offered cautiously.
     “Really?” This was what Clem needed to hear. In spite of the fact that he was taking advantage of Clarissa’s zombie state, he desperately wanted her free of the neural net’s grip.
     “Can I use your phone?” Ruby put a call through to Max using the video phone and explained Clarissa’s condition to him as Clem manoeuvred her into the phone’s field of view.
     “Neural net, huh?” Max hummed and hawed as he listened to Ruby. “Give me a couple of days to chase it up. I can’t make any promises, but if I find anything, I’ll let Clem know. Oh, and good luck with your new job with United Metals. I hope it works out for you.”
     “Thanks, Max.” Ruby rang off and turned around from the video phone’s screen. “You can trust Max, he’s a good mech.” Ruby told Clem. “Now, what about your famous data cube?” She asked Barney.
     “Aha!” Barney exclaimed proudly as he plugged it into the Tri-D set. “Fame and fortune await, just you see!” It started off with an amateurish title sequence: ‘Barney’s Amazing Adventure’ set to a cheesy theme tune he cribbed off the web and it started out with clumsily edited sequences of Kkhrkht at the Pleasure Dome followed by their encounter with the Octons in the gateway chamber at Fort Melchisor, their journey to Titan where they met Grattlyd and then on to Zrrlchtz. The extreme lo-fi video and sound quality was accentuated by Barney’s ham-fisted editing and self-congratulatory voice-overs turning what could have been a slick, riveting revelation in the hands of professionals into a clunky home video. But they all agreed that Barney had got it right and they spent a few hours going over Barney’s presentation with their suggestions and ideas to improve it.
     “How’d you like to add in some of your memory logs, Ruby?” Barney asked her at one point. “This story’s going to be huge; we’ll be in the money!”
     Ruby knew Barney was going to ask her at some point. “I’d really like to, Barney. But I can’t.”
     “This is the chance of a lifetime, Ruby. We’re talking serious money here. You’d never have to work again once the royalties start coming in. Fame! Fortune! This is the real deal.” Barney wasn’t about to give up so easily and wheedled with Ruby who became more and more evasive until Clem couldn’t take any more of it.
     “Say, what about that bonus track you were thinking of adding?” Clem interrupted Barney in an attempt to get him to lay off Ruby.
     “What, that Rocket Launcher trip?” Barney really wanted to put that experience behind him. It was as close as he ever wanted to get to burnout.
     “Yeah.” Clem wasn’t about to let up.
     “Barney, you shouldn’t do Rocket Launchers.” Ruby scolded him. “They’re way too strong. Virals like that could burn you out permanently.”
     “Hey, see what you think of this.” Clem plugged in a data cube with a recording of Barney’s trip from when he and Clem first arrived in Montgomery. The Tri-D set ran a replay of Barney’s encounter with his future self in the Technobabble coffee bar. It looked like just any other mech viral trip and they kept on talking all the way through it until Barney’s future self mentioned the timeline wars with the Chznzet Faction. Ruby and Veronica were completely floored and gawped at each other barely able to believe what they had just heard.
     “What do you know about the Chznzet Faction and these timeline wars?” Veronica asked Barney after the replay of his trip ran to its close.
     “Nothing.” Although it seemed momentously profound when it happened, the passage of time made Barney indifferent to his experience. After all, it was only a viral trip. None of it was real. “It’s just a viral trip and I sold the leftover data dump to the Satori Sensorium. Why?”
     “After you guys came back to Mars, we went on to the Galactic Council and found a load of junk-mail holographic projectors in our pod before it blew up. One of them was for an outfit that claimed to be able to manipulate timelines and they mentioned the Chznzet Faction as one of their customers.” Veronica could barely believe that Barney’s viral trip had been anything more than a hallucination. But his future self had warned him about the Chznzet. “Barney, are you sure you’ve never heard of them before?”
     “No.” Barney wondered what Veronica was getting at. “I mean who takes viral trips seriously?”
     “I’d take this one seriously, Barney.” Ruby knew that virals like the Rocket Launcher were strong, but never for a moment imagined that they could open the door to higher dimensions. “Your future self warned you that the Chznzet Faction was waging some sort of time war that would somehow wipe us out of existence and we found some junk mail from some aliens bragging about how the Chznzet were just another one of their timeline customers. Two unrelated sources pointing at the same thing; it’s more than a coincidence.”
     Veronica closed her commset and put it away. “I’ve just asked Malcolm to bring it over so you can see what we’re talking about, Barney. I’m not sure what any of this really means, but your future self seems to think it’s very important.”
     “I think I’ve met your future self too, Barney.” Ruby wasn’t sure if any of it was real or just a hallucination as her mind unravelled. She told him about her encounter while she was looking at the star maps in her room in Satori. “It looked identical to your future self. I thought I was losing my mind at the time, but it gave me the access codes for all the gateways in this sector of our galaxy.”
     “All right, all right.” Barney held his hands up in surrender. “So it isn’t a load of old scrap. How was I supposed to know? Sure, virals are fun. But no-one takes them seriously.”
     “Looks like we ought to.” Clem suggested between tokes of medium-strength Zanzibar weed.
     “I’m not taking another Rocket Launcher.” Barney protested. “It took me right to the edge last time.”
     “I don’t think you need to.” Ruby had already tried her share of virals in her short life, but nothing quite as strong as a Rocket Launcher. “I wasn’t on anything when your future self visited me.”
     They were still working out the implications of Ruby and Barney’s encounter with Barney’s future self when Malcolm arrived carrying a collection of alien junk mail. “I wasn’t sure which one you wanted, so I grabbed the whole lot.” He apologised as he tipped out a bag of high-tech alien baubles onto the coffee-table. Veronica set up her translator, picked out the Pdzarvian slate and let it run through its hyperbolic sales pitch.
     “Okay.” Malcolm broke the silence after Barney replayed his viral trip for Malcolm’s benefit. “There’s no clues as to who or what this Chznzet Faction is, but we’ve got a lead as far as this Chyptwyt Timeworks crowd goes. They see the Chznzet as just another customer, so maybe we could do the same. The thing is, how do we find them?”
     “Psy might know.” Ruby suggested.
     “Oh, no. Not that slut.” Veronica didn’t want to see Psy ever again.
     “Have you got any better ideas?” Malcolm knew only too well that Veronica really wanted to throw Psy off stage into a crowd of steamed-up drunks. But he also realised that Psy was probably the only person who could help them find the crazed Pdzarvians at Chyptwyt Timeworks.
     “Fine, but seeing how I’m off to do my stint at the Early Warning Platform, you can have that pleasure.” Veronica washed her hands of any further dealings with Psy. “And I don’t want to catch you in bed with that freak when I get back.”
     “Hey, no worries.” Malcolm tried to defuse Veronica’s ragged hatred of Psy. “Shi’s not really my scene.”
     “Hey guys, check this out.” Clem disrupted Veronica’s souring mood as he dumped a box on the table.
     “What is it?” Malcolm welcomed a distraction from Veronica’s tetchiness.
     “Some stuff Jazz left behind.” Clem explained as he opened the box.
     “Anything interesting?” Ruby asked as she peered over Clem’s shoulder.
     “Some Psionic Crystals.” Clem set them out on the coffee table. Most of them were still charged up and their glow lit up the table. “A couple of tubes of some sorta goo. I think it’s a glue of some sort ‘cos it sets real hard. Then there’s these.” Clem picked out a couple of Khzchhrrrtz notepads and a translator. “They look a bit like notepads or data readers, but I couldn’t get ‘em to work. Maybe they’re from his home world.”
     Veronica picked up the translator, powered it up and held out her own translator. “This is a translator. They use them to communicate with other species. We got some when we were on Zrrlchtz.”
     Malcolm tentatively picked out two of the Psionic Crystals. “What do you want to do with these?”
     “Take one.” Barney offered. “Jazz would’ve probably given them all away. But I’d like to keep a few of them.”
     “Could I have one?” Ruby wanted one for the interface Patti had given her.
     “Sure, which one would you like?” Clem wondered what a mech might want with a Psionic Crystal.
     Ruby chose one that had a healthy glow to its faintly bluish tint. “I’d like this one.”
     “It’s all yours.” Clem remembered how Jazz used to enjoy giving away Psionic Crystals. “Do you want one, Veronica?”
     Veronica looked up from the Khzchhrrrtz notepad she was trying to activate. Even though she had a small collection of crystals at home, she accepted Clem’s offer. “There’s got to be some way to make this damn thing work.” She griped as she poked and prodded the few buttons on the notepad.
     “Let me try.” Ruby took a closer look at the other notepad and examined it closely. Some of the buttons looked a bit more worn than others. She zoomed in on them inspecting their wear patterns in the hope that she’d discover which button or combination of buttons would switch it on. The faint scratches on the screen told her that it was a touchpad. A few minutes later she was rewarded by the screen lighting up showing a picture of Kkhrkht with two other Khzchhrrrtz posing next to a fountain in a plaza with a stream of Khzchhrrrtz text scrolling along the bottom of the screen. She touched the screen where it had been scratched and another picture of the same threesome at another location took its place. Then another and another. “Looks like a photo album of some sort.” Ruby announced as she showed them the display on the screen. “Does your translator handle text, Veronica?”
     “…visiting the Sapphire Hive Mead farm. They brew their own mead and it’s delicious.” The picture showed Kkhrkht flanked by Zzzhkzklt and Vvriklrty holding up their mead jars. The next sequence of pictures showed them riding winged insects through a sky streaked with greenish-beige clouds. The brown dwarf of the Zrrlchtz binary-star system peeped in and out of the clouds: “Flying over the Rift Forests of Tzzhantikh on Yzzlar. We had to strap Vvriklrty down because dzhinn-ye was scared of heights.” Followed by even more pictures of them with a larger group of Khzchhrrrtz trekking through a steamingly lush cloud forest: “Going to the ancient Hive of the Jvluhti. Kkhrkht-dzzhakh was certain dzzhakh-ye saw some Tklandu stalking us.”
     Ruby scrolled through a sequence of pictures of Kkhrkht’s triune exploring the overgrown tumbledown stone ruins of the ancient hive with their tour group and their night-time feast of an Xmblahktl, which looked like a giant millipede, being roasted over an open spit.
     “I’ve got to include this in my data cube.” Barney interrupted their fascination with Kkhrkht’s mementoes. “Talk about a look into an alien civilisation, this beats everything I’ve got!”
     “No kidding.” Malcolm agreed. “We never saw anything like this. I recorded some of their music on my commset. Would you like to use it for the soundtrack?”
     “Would I?” Barney couldn’t believe his luck. “Hey, I’ll cut you in on the publishing deal!”

Scribbles & Scraps
Chapter 21
Chapter 23