Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 33: The catch was better than the chase.


     Ruby was busy cleaning her frame with a handheld vacuum cleaner extracting any loose Blurtahnyk fur she could find. Just as Szelmy had said, the Myxli dancers had moved out and she was able to move in using the ID and money Grattlyd had given her. Ruby amused herself with absurd fantasies about herself as She-Z'ahn, vanquisher of body-clogging fur, as she held an eye in one hand while she poked around her frame with the vacuum cleaner that she held in other hand when there was a knock at the door.
     "Ruby, it's time we set out to work." Tarnoukh called through her door.
     "I'm not quite ready." Ruby set down the vacuum cleaner and popped her eye back in as she went over to open the door. She was still getting used to the fact that the days on Vermthellyn were 2 hours 47 minutes and 32.5829756 seconds longer than the Martian days she was used to. At first she thought it would be a simple matter of adjusting her chronometer to match the local diurnal cycle but for some reason she kept defaulting to the Martian timebase clock. It must have been a glitch in her base code that would have never shown up on Mechs in her home system. Not only that but the Rtuntli measured time differently with their equivalent of 32 hours in a day. So she had to keep converting from Earth standard time, which was what she was programmed with, to Vermthellyn time and back again. As a result she had a habit of turning up at the wrong time for appointments.
     "Oh, I'm sorry." Tarnoukh awkwardly excused himself at the sight of Ruby as her bare-frame self. It really made him feel uncomfortable. Yes, Ruby had saved his life and now that he knew her a bit better she was fun company. But at the same time she, or it [at times like this he just didn't know], was a machine and at the back of his mind he could hear the voice of the Gheltsyn condemning her as unnatural.
     "That's all right, come in while I get ready." Ruby breezily invited Tarnoukh. She pulled on her Blurtahnyk skins while Tarnoukh waited. She popped the animal head she modified to fit over her own, snapped the jaw into place and turned to face Tarnoukh. "How do I look?"
     "Like you've got mange." Tarnoukh didn't mince words. Her skins were long-dead and losing fur at an alarming rate. "You'll have to find some skins that have been properly treated or else you might be quarantined." He joked. "Come on, let's go." When they got to UniCom at the Estrillyd gateway terminus Trelzellyn made pointed remarks about Ruby needing to do something about her shedding and to keep the shop clean. Shi left them with the warning that shi didn't want to find any loose fur on the floor in the morning. They had the usual steady trade of off-worlders fresh out of the gateways placing interplanetary calls.
     'Szelmy was right, it is an easy job.' Ruby thought as she connected an elderly Pdzarvian's call through to one of their many colony worlds. Ruby was determined to work rather than coast along on the money Grattlyd had given her. She might need that money another time. So she joined Tarnoukh working the night shift at UniCom. They wove fantasy stories populated by characters based on whatever customers came in the door up in the privacy of their office where the customers couldn't hear the outlandish tales they wove to amuse themselves. "...the ancient Pdzarvian king, so recently deposed, frantically calls his supporters to rally to his cause..." Tarnoukh rambled as Ruby entered the office. "...so overcome by grief at the betrayal of his daughter he fails to notice a band of Xarubian assassins lurking in the shadows."
     In reality the elderly Pdzarvian was their analogue of female and a recently-retired civil servant who was on a bucket-list holiday around the Orion arm of the galaxy and the Vermthellyn hot springs were on that list. She couldn't stop squawking excitedly to her sister about where she'd been and her plans and all the exotic people and places and... and... The Xarubians were a group of sallow youths who had booked tickets for a show by the Vortex Tribe on Khaless VIII and were on their way to the gateway to catch the show in time.
     Ruby picked up the slack as they left. "But as fate would have it the feckless assassins were let down by the substandard guns they had bought on the black market. The hapless Xarubians screamed in agony as their worthless guns betrayed them and exploded in their paws. The king, jolted out of his grief by the commotion, drew his trusty sabre and beheaded them as they lay on the floor begging for their lives. But lo! A lone Klartupyn mercenary approaches the king. Will she assist or betray him?" Ruby found herself using the female gender as the default gender when describing people whose gender she wasn't sure of.
     It was Tarnoukh's turn so he went out to take care of the Klartupyn. When he got back all he could say was. "You're not going to believe this."
     "That our mercenary is secretly in the pay of Tel-Pyntyr soul-eaters who want his entrails for unspeakable rituals?" Ruby jokily added her next line for their never-ending story.
     "Almost, but not quite." Tarnoukh could barely believe it himself "That Klartupyn is some sort of businessman and wants to place a call through to an associate on Mars. That's where you're from, isn't it? But it's an unrecognised world. So how would a Klartupyn know about it?"
     "Are you making this up?" Ruby wanted to be sure.
     "No."
     "Well, it was reported on the news that the Shallen Loyalists were stranded on an unknown planet that miraculously happened to have a working gateway." Ruby suggested. "I know where it is but most other people don't. Word gets around, I suppose."
     "You're a bit new around here but trading with unrecognised worlds is very shady." Tarnoukh explained. "And I mean real shady. People end up in the labour camps for things like that."
     "Should we inform the Gendarmes?" Ruby wasn't sure what to do. This was a different planet, a different society. No doubt they'd do things differently here.
     "No. He hasn't done anything illegal yet. We cover our tails." Tarnoukh activated his console to patch the Klartupyn businessman through. At the same time he surreptitiously set up a micro camera in the office to record the lone Klartupyn. Although he knew how to patch into the comms systems in their shop it was forbidden and grounds for instant dismissal. It just wasn't worth the risk. UniCom's big selling point was confidentiality and unbreakable encryption. Claims that, thanks to their unique quantum encryption, stood the test of time. Besides which, all Tarnoukh would have been able to record would be encrypted mush so it wasn't worth the bother. "The last thing we do now is get the authorities involved. Those kind of people..." Tarnoukh nodded out the office window. "...can be very dangerous. Wait until the Gendarmes come here asking questions. Until then, nothing."
     The Klartupyn, a garrulous freebooter who'd seen better times gave Tarnoukh a hard time when it came time to pay up haggling needlessly over fixed-rate charges. "The connection was so bad we had to repeat ourselves several times just to hear each other. It was the worst service I've ever had and I'm going to file a complaint. I'm only paying for half the time and that's being generous." It ceremoniously slapped down a derisory short payment in Galac cash and stormed out of UniCom back into the crowded terminus foyer.
     "And don't come back, you lying cheapskate!" Tarnoukh shook a paw and shouted after the Klartupyn freebooter as it vanished into the throng outside. "Gah! Trelzellyn will probably dock me for that." He grumbled angrily as he slammed the office door shut behind him, much to the consternation of the other customers.
     "I doubt we'll see that one again." Ruby comforted Tarnoukh as she wrote up the log for him. She'd seen her share of awkward customers in her time. Such as that nasty Mr. Greaves who'd pulled a gun on her and the other trainees back at the Satori Aerodrome. At least the Klartupyn only resorted to sharp words and nothing else. "Did you know DeRhendia got her melodia back today?" Ruby deftly changed the subject. "I haven't seen her so happy in a long time."
     "You know why?" Tarnoukh leaned over to Ruby. "It's because for an Ooplatski, playing one of those things is like sex with a sentient sex toy. Think about it. She's basically having sex in public every time she plays with Narliss and M'Thekh."
     "So?" Ruby had to admit it sounded strange. She couldn't have imagined herself and SkyHawk ever having sex in public. But then she'd expected things to be different on a different planet. "All people see is her playing the musical instrument that they're listening to."
     "That's what you think!" Tarnoukh snickered smuttily. "At least half the people at every show have bets on not whether she has an orgasm while playing, but how many."
     "Oh." That was something Ruby really didn't want to know. It totally changed her perception of DeRhendia. "Well I still like the music she creates."
     "So do I." Tarnoukh wholeheartedly agreed. "But I was that close to wining the orgasm sweepstake the day before you turned up at Rebulon's Room."
     "You dirty animal!" Ruby playfully slapped Tarnoukh on his arm. "Served you right to lose. Does she know?"
     "That we know about her... music?" Tarnoukh asked cautiously. "I should think so. She's not that dim. Beneath that graceful slender skin of hers..." He fantasised. "...lies an out-and-out exhibitionist. Who knows? Maybe she likes it like that. I don't see anyone complaining. Least of all her." The rest of the shift went fairly uneventfully and they managed to get back to their fantasy story. They were still battling the Mind Thieves from Zontharr in between cleaning up the shop when a haggard-looking Szelmy turned for his shift carrying what looked like a black shoebox.
     "Could you take this home and plug it into our data port?" Szelmy asked Tarnoukh as he handed it over.
     "What is it?" Tarnoukh looked suspiciously at the box. He could see the data and power ports but other than that it was featureless. "And what does it do other than use up power?"
     "It's Yldoseh's AI. Morgau and I broke into her home to get it." Szelmy confessed. "The Chznzet have it staked out.
     "Ah, the notorious Wing-Fang Media Group's business AI." Tarnoukh looked down knowingly at the box in his paws. "Did they see you?"
     "I don't think so." Szelmy slumped down into one of the chairs in the office. His tail drooped lifelessly to the floor. "We were up all night."
     "You look it." Tarnoukh could see that Szelmy was exhausted and running on nerves. "I don't think you'll make it through your shift."
     "I'll be fine." Szelmy shrugged off Tarnoukh's concerns. "I'll get something to eat at Bite and Flight and take a couple of poppers. I'll be back before Trelzellyn gets in. Yeah, Wing-Fang is back in business!" He added with exhausted cheer after a long night of breaking and entering as well as dodging the Rtuntli Gendarmes and Chznzet spies. "Apparently Yldoseh made a video diary of the expulsion from the Ark and plans to do a daily show from their outpost on that planet they landed on."
     "That planet has a name: Mars. It's my home." Ruby interrupted hotly. "And that outpost is SkyHawk's farm."
     "Okay, okay, whatever." Szelmy threw his paws up in concession to Ruby. "Anyway, what it means for us is that our little Wing-Fang box has something to do now that Morgau's not making any more installations. Luckily for us her Chznzet exposť story got good coverage so Darvik, our little Wing-Fang AI, should have an easy job of things." Szelmy pulled himself out of his seat and staggered out of the office mumbling something about food.
     "An AI?" Ruby asked after Szelmy left. The thought of an alien AI intrigued her.
     "Don't get your hopes up. It's nowhere near as sophisticated as you." Tarnoukh had dealt with Yldoseh's AI before and had come to the conclusion that it was as dumb as a box of rocks. "It runs the business side of her ventures and only exists online. Last time I checked it had about fifty different character masks I created to make it seem like a bigger company than it really is. Doesn't fool anyone but it was fun to set up."
     "You programmed it?" Ruby thought Tarnoukh was an engineer, not a programmer.
     "Not really." Tarnoukh explained modestly. "They come ready programmed but I had to set up its interface characters, their identities and roles in the imaginary labyrinthine bureaucracy of the Wing-Fang Media Group. They're all pre-programmed. You just select whatever ones you want and modify them a bit. I did all that online from home. This is the first time I've actually seen it."
     "Who's Yldoseh?" Ruby asked.
     "A friend of ours. She was on the Shallen worldship and is now on your planet." Tarnoukh explained. "You'd like her. We used to make up some crazy stories."
     "What, like the Evil Genius Sulphur Fountains of Moentek?" Ruby referred to the story they made up the day before.
     "Oh better than that!" Tarnoukh chuckled. "The Dream that Ate the World; The Sentient Moons of Belgezar; Invasion of the Wobbly Gas Blobs; The Sedarian with a Million Bodies; It Came from Under the Sea; The Day the Sky Caught Fire; The Mystery of the Missing Galaxy; The Legend of Ardenthio; The Last of the Kerreli; To the Nth Dimension!; Whatever Happened to Professor Jelnyk's Missing Black Hole?; The Broken Time Loop; It Came from Beyond the Stars!; The Catacombs of Nezelyon; The Singularity of Doom; Q'Azile, The Ice Maiden of Semulghin's Ill-Fated Search for a Mate; The Carnivorous City; The Crying Comet; Frozen for a Thousand Cycles; The Temporal Pirates of Povanthyn; The City at the End of Time..." He positively relished rattling off a list and even delved into some of the stories the he, Yldoseh and their friends had conjured up in their spare time. "And lots more as well as some real howlers that are best forgotten."
     "Did you save any of them?" Ruby liked what she heard. "They sound like fun. You ought to publish them."
     "Ah no, not really." Tarnoukh was only half in the office with Ruby. The rest of him was still taking a trip down memory lane revisiting some of the wilder stories they'd made up. "We were having too much fun at the time."
     "Where I come from, people who come up with stories like that sell them and make a living that way." Ruby wondered if the concept was alien to Tarnoukh. "You wouldn't have to work here any longer."
     "Hmm..., I like that idea." Tarnoukh warmed up to Ruby's suggestion. "Except the stories aren't mine to sell."
     "Run it past your friends and split the money with them if you manage to sell any of your stories." Ruby suggested.
     "Oh, I better save the security camera logs to show to Trelzellyn so that shi doesn't dock me for that thieving Klartupyn." Tarnoukh turned to the console and fussed around with its controls. Szelmy bounced into the office munching on a grilled fishcake clearly revived by an artificial boost. "Pepped up on poppers again?" Tarnoukh commented as he looked up from the console.
     "You don't think I'm going to stumble around like a zombie all day, do you?" Szelmy sneered defensively at Tarnoukh's jibe. "It's not as if I take them all the time."
     "No, just every morning after a party." Tarnoukh sourly reminded Szelmy.
     "Well this time it wasn't self-indulgence." Szelmy felt hurt. He and Morgau had really put themselves out for Yldoseh. "It was for the greater good."
     "We'll see." Tarnoukh had a sinking feeling that this would fizzle out like so much of Yldoseh's previous work. Ruby looked on, not knowing whether to interrupt in order to fend off a brewing argument or to stay out in case she made things worse. Tarnoukh then changed the subject to show that although he didn't approve of Szelmy's over-reliance on poppers, he still valued him as a friend. "Ruby thinks we should sell our stories."
     "Nice idea." Szelmy agreed. "But we never transcribed any of them, let alone recorded them. We'd have to start all over again and record what we remember of them."
     "Not impossible except for one little problem." Tarnoukh found the fly in the ointment. "Yldoseh's on another planet and we won't be seeing her for a long time."
     "You're still in contact, so you can work on your stories." Ruby offered them a lifeline.
     "It might work." Tarnoukh picked up on Ruby's suggestion. "But it wouldn't be the same as before. Ah, it's time for us to go. I'll set up Darvik when I get back." Ruby and Tarnoukh left Szelmy to start his shift at UniCom and took the monorail back to the H'Ulwyn district.
     Ruby looked out the window of the monorail at the city as it raced by. Not far below them were streets, plazas and parks, still only half-lit in the early morning light with the last few stars and one of its moons still visible in the sky, gradually coming to life. Later in the day they would be bustling with traffic. Above them lane above lane of air traffic working their way between the towering buildings of downtown Estrillyd. Even the largest city on Mars, the corporate City One barely matched up to the suburbs she had passed on the way in. Ruby's curiosity finally got the better of her. "So what's that AI like?"
     Tarnoukh thought for a moment before speaking. "Bright, breezy, informative, helpful and quick to close a deal. But it was programmed that way." He felt bad about Ruby getting her hopes up about meeting a kindred spirit. She would only be disappointed, or possibly confused at best. He patted the box. "Darvik is nothing like you."
     "What makes you think all mechanoids are like me?" Ruby laughed at Tarnoukh's downbeat assessment of Yldoseh's AI-in-a-box. "We're quite varied. Sure there's quite a few with a body frame identical to mine but overall we're more varied than most organic species. Most are mobile with legs like me or else on wheels, tracks or even hover bots but there are also static ones like the Deep Core at Satori, the ones built into spaceships, airships, transporters as well as big installations on Mars, Luna and Earth. Everything from vending machines, cleaners and sexbots to AIs that run entire cities." Ruby continued with a tinge of pride in her voice. "You'd be quite surprised."
     "I suppose so." Tarnoukh was almost swept along by Ruby's enthusiastic pride when he was brought back to earth with the sad realisation that Yldoseh's business AI, Darvik, was little better than a vending machine. And an irritatingly insistent one at that.
     "You ought to check your apartment." Ruby changed the subject to something she'd been meaning to talk about for a few days, yet hadn't had the opportunity. "I found some cameras hidden in my apartment. There might be some in yours."
     "Really?" Tarnoukh feigned shocked surprise. He knew full well what those cameras were: Szelmy's spy cams to film the Myxli dancers who'd been the previous tenants of Ruby's apartment. Those films had proved quite popular on the local porn channels. Ruby, however, hadn't been quite as exciting. They'd even watched footage of her finding and removing them. He'd installed them for Szelmy and knew where they all were hidden. She'd found all of them except the one in the bathroom. Most likely because she didn't use that room much. "I'll tell Szelmy when I get home and we'll search our apartment."
     "Good idea." Ruby nodded her head in agreement. When they got out at the H'Ulwyn district station it was returning to it's former pre-riot colourful mayhem with beggars, hustlers and street vendors jostling their way through downmarket off-world milieu of the H'Ulwyn district. Tarnoukh went on ahead to set up Darvik the AI while Ruby wandered around looking into the shop windows for things to decorate her apartment. She remembered how Lottie's and Veronica's apartments in Montgomery had felt so full of life and welcoming compared to her humble, almost barren, home when she lived in Satori. She never had to decorate SkyHawk's home at Zanzibar: he'd already done that longyears before she'd even been made.
     Not knowing where to start, Ruby bought decorative plants, a holographic photo panel to hang on one wall that came with themed collections of pictures, cushions and drapes, a few small ornaments and a home terminal that functioned as a 3D home entertainment centre as well as a computer terminal. She wondered if she was trying too hard to be like fleshies. Maybe a mech should decorate their home with pieces of electronic hardware but that didn't appeal to her. She guessed that this was what Max had meant about the journey to find yourself who or whatever that might be after one's tenure had completed.
     A Jullexyn tunic on display in a shop window caught her eye. The rich red, purple and green fabric and fancy gold braid looked both comfortable and styled to impress. Except only Jullexyn males wore them. The females of their species were merely egg-carriers who had a lower standing than property, more like a common resource. Not exactly something she felt comfortable about even if she was technically neither male nor female. Nevertheless she self-identified as female and felt a deep sadness about the fate of the Jullexyn females.
     She turned away from the shop and let the throng pull her along past the shops and stalls. A stall selling brightly-coloured clothes and shifts made out of a gossamer yet surprisingly tough fabric. "You'll love them!" The exuberant Turellian stallholder eagerly accosted her. "We have just the one for you." But Ruby wasn't in the mood for clothes. All she could think about was the loose fur clogging up her vents and worrying about overheating. But they were nice. Maybe another time.
     The crowd swept her along past a wide shop with all manner of swords, daggers, bows & arrows, throwing weapons, sheaths and scabbards on display. Their blades glistened in the sharp morning light: highly-worked steels and exotic alloys, glassine translucent blades, dark synthetic materials with all manner of handles for hands that were very different to a humanoid. Behind her the same shop had a market stall laid out with what looked like brightly-coloured handles to catch passers-by. "Monofibre whips, guaranteed for life to hold true! No more worries with these finest Artaud Industries whips!" The Rtuntli barker called out as he enthusiastically whisked a monofibre whip through the air in front of the onlookers who stood back for safety's sake. He then started thrashing it around violently and tossing lightweight foam blocks into the air which the whip sliced through effortlessly. "Do you think I'd attempt anything like this if it was unsafe? It's perfectly safe to use."
     Monofibre whips could cut through just about anything except the toughest of alloys and were notoriously lethal to their users. All it took was even the slightest fluctuation in the energy pulses holding its monofilament fibre straight and it would fall back most often cutting right through the arm of whoever was wielding it. There were plenty of cases of accidental decapitation, too. The most common cause of pulse fluctuation was two monofibre filament colliding when their users were fighting or duelling.
     Ruby noted the faint zingy sizzling sound the monofibre whip made as the barker showed it off to his potential customers.
     "The life of the whip or the life of the user?" A burly four-legged offworld Turellian heckled, its arms firmly planted on its forehips.
     "If you live long enough to make a claim." A rangy Pdzarvian youth cackled sarcastically which set off a wave of nervous knowing laughter rippling across the onlookers. But that didn't stop them buying the whips and the stall did a brisk trade. Monofibre whips were popular with offworlders on Vermthellyn because they weren't on the restricted list which meant you could buy them without a license.
     Ruby considered buying one for self defence and spent a few minutes looking at the different handles trying to decide which design and colour scheme she liked best. She picked out one with a sandy red handle decorated with an inlaid eight-pointed star of polished bronze as well as two spare power packs for it, paid the stallholder and put it in her shoulder bag.
     A little way further along she came across a stall selling wind chimes: metal, stone, wood, crystal, glassine and synthetics. The ones nearest the front would rattle, clack, ting, ping and ring in the eddies generated by the passers-by. Lottie had a wind chime in her home so Ruby picked out one that had a mixture of wooden, glassine and synthetic tines. She liked the way the synthetic tines resonated.
     Most of the stalls in this part of the market sold food. Something that Ruby didn't need. But what a selection there was to be found! At one stall an arachnoid Rezwyn fished a live segmented creature out of a tank on the table and butchered it for a customer. At another a well-fed Pdzarvian stood watchfully behind a table piled high with seeds, grains, gourds, fruit and fish. Here a stall with a crowd of Xarubians jabbering excitedly amongst themselves. There, well stocked stall with a group of Dmatrians serving a solitary customer languidly flicking its tentacles across the traders' wares as it chose some fresh produce.
     Ruby recalled the time shortly after SkyHawk's visit when Tarnoukh and Szelmy showed her around and how Tarnoukh had proudly told her that all the top restaurants come to the H'Ulwyn for their food. It was certainly a melting-pot of interplanetary life, almost like a scene out of Space Quest.
     There were only off-worlders walking along the street outside Ruby's apartment as she walked up the steps to the door. It was that sort of neighbourhood. She was thinking about what she'd do later in the day. Maybe explore a part of Estrillyd she hadn't yet been to or take the monorail to one of the coastal villages instead. When she let herself into her apartment she was greeted by two off-worlders. She stopped in her tracks and was about to reach for her monofibre whip to chase them out when she realised they weren't off-worlders at all. She recognised the sloping pale turquoise heads with their four short, curved velveteen horns and inscrutable lustrous black eyes. They weren't off-worlders at all, they were a male and female Utanh from Space Quest. Max! But who was the other one?
     Ruby was excited to see Max again but annoyed that they'd broken into her apartment. "What are you doing here, Max?" She addressed the male Utanh
     "Uh, Sam actually." The male Utanh pointed to the female Utanh. "Max is cross-dressing today."
     "I'm over here." The female Utanh waved and spoke with Max's voice. "Sorry about breaking in like that but we didn't want to draw attention to ourselves."
     Ruby stepped back and looked them over. "Okayyy..." She replied slowly and noted that Max, as the female Utanh, had exactly the same fembot frame that she had. "I thought you had left your past behind, Max."
     "I have. But needs must." Max wasn't the least bit fazed by Ruby's response. In fact he'd expected as much. This was a first time for him. He had never been one of SkyHawk's wives. Sam and Brasso had Patti insert Max's core into SkyHawk's failed attempt at cloning that mech 'wife' in order to scope out what exactly SkyHawk was up to. At the time they had no idea that Earth Fed was creating and destroying illegal mechs and suspected SkyHawk and Patti of running an illegal mech cloning operation. Being in a fembot frame was a new experience for Max and he couldn't get used to the way it walked differently swaying its hips.
     Ruby was prepared to forgive them breaking into her home at the sight of him as a Utanh woman. The plastiskin looked gorgeous. "Did you get me a Utanh skin?" Ruby began to peel off her Blurtahnyk skins. "I need to clean the loose fur out of my frame first. Could you help me?"
     "Whoah there!" Max stepped over to stop her peeling off the skins. "Not so fast. All in good time, young one. First we have a few things for you." Sam opened the rather large bag he'd been carrying on his back to reveal a portable synthesiser.
     Oh!" Ruby had never imagined that they'd actually go through with it. She thought that had just been a bit of good-time talk amongst old friends. But here it was! They'd actually got it for her. Now she'd be able to join in with Narliss, DeRhendia and M'Thekh. That would be fun! "Thank you!" She hugged Max. "And pass my thanks on to SkyHawk, Stan and everyone else back home."
     "I will." Max reached over as Sam passed him a small box which Max opened to show its contents, a collection of data strips, to Ruby. "The complete Platinum Doctorate in Music accredited course from the University of Satori: theory, practice, classical and modern composition, counterpoint, arranging, orchestration, harmony, production, Grade 8 piano technique in all known modern, traditional and classical styles as well as minors in a library of wind, brass, string, percussion, electronic, acoustic and ethnic instruments as well as advanced engineering and mechanics, astronavigation and combat piloting data strips for when you need to find work. Single use data strips and they have to be installed in the correct order. We'll take care of that later." Max snapped the little box shut and gave it to Ruby.
     Ruby was agog. "For me?"
     "Yes." Max felt humbled by Ruby's humility. "Do you still have your old skin?"
     "Of course, why?" Ruby looked up, puzzled.
     "Could you get it please?" Max asked. "We'll need it."
     "What for?" Ruby asked as she went to fetch it from a cupboard in the bedroom. She didn't need sleep but sometimes she would sit on the bed and look out the window watching the stars on clear nights. She liked the bedroom, it was a quiet and restful place in spite of it reminding her of her nights of passion in SkyHawk's bedroom.
     Max never answered her question. "We have a few more things for you."
     Ruby looked around. She couldn't see anything else. "Where?"
     "On the roof." Sam pointed up to the ceiling.
     "What?" Ruby felt as if things were getting surreal.
     "On the roof." Max repeated. "We could use some help bring your stuff down."
     Ruby had never been up to the roof of her apartment block and followed Max and Sam. They seemed to know the way. She carried her old Red Ruby skin in bag and felt as if she was carrying away her old life. When they got to the roof there was a shabby hover truck parked up there. When they got to it the side door opened upwards and a Khzchhrrrtz stepped out.
     "Kkhrkht?" Ruby asked.
     "No, Pzeptilan." Dzzhev-ye courteously corrected Ruby. "It's Kkhrkht's turn to stay at home with our grub. Are you ready?" Pzeptilan asked Max.
     "We'll offload the boxes first." Max explained their course of action to Pzeptilan. "It'll take a couple of trips." Max passed large boxes out to Ruby and Sam and followed them carrying one himself. The boxes weren't particularly heavy but they were large so navigating their way back down the stairs was a precarious task.
     "What's in the boxes?" Ruby asked as she bumped into a wall while navigating her way around a tight corner in the stairwell.
     "Clothes, cubes, parts..." Max could barely see his feet because the box he was carrying blocked the line of sight for his fembot frame which was shorter than what he was used to. "The full collection of Star Quest and Stan's library of Sci-Fi classics. To be honest I don't know everything we've got here. Everyone back home pitched in with something for you so it's going to be as much of a surprise for me as it will be for you. Most of the clothes are from Lottie, Veronica and Patti. That much I know for certain."
     "Patti? That will be interesting!" Ruby remembered the day she was uploaded into a new core in Patti's mad studio workshop and being plugged into a crazy collection of surrealistic mechanoid bodies before bring given her current frame and her Martian red skin. People who didn't know any better would say that Patti was insane but with sufficient vestiges of sanity remaining to run a successful business. But Ruby knew otherwise: Patti, mechanoid as she was, was a force of nature.
     After they got the last of the boxes down to her apartment they left them there unpacked and departed in the hovertruck. Once they got in Ruby could see that a second, much larger, Khzchhrrrtz was driving the hovertruck. She also noted that it was unusually quiet compared the usual battered hovertrucks plying their way around the H'Ulwyn.
     "Why all the cloak and dagger?" Ruby asked Max. "I could have changed into a new plastiskin in my apartment."
     "Because you're getting more than just a skin." Max, currently a Utanh woman, patted her torso. "You're getting this frame and we need a clean room to switch our cores around."
     "Oh." Ruby pointed over her shoulder with her paw thumb at Sam.
     "Yes, he's going to swap us over." Max explained. "Sam's done this sort of stuff before." Sam had posed as an apprentice in Patti's workshop during one of the many Satori Security Service investigations of her before Brasso's commander decided that she'd be more use as an asset. During that time Sam became a dab hand at mech maintenance and could plumb a fresh core into a frame in under a minute. Removing them always took longer because of the shutdown cycle.
     "So what do you need my old skin for?" This was the part Ruby couldn't figure out.
     "You killed those Chznzet." Max reminded her. "They're looking for you and want revenge. You can't go back to Mars because of Earth Fed, so what do you do? You go on the run."
     "What?" Ruby couldn't believe what she was hearing.
     "No, not you." Max reassured her. "You stay here as a Utanh but I'm taking your old skin and frame on a wild goose chase around a string of planets to throw the Chznzet off your trail while Sam is stays here with you for a few weeks while you build up your new identity."
     "That sounds a bit involved." Ruby felt they were going to too much bother. "Surely it would be simpler to make it look like I've gone back to Mars."
     "Can't do that." Max shook his gracefully feminine Utanh head. "Ever since the Shallens landed on Mars those aliens have activated a gateway in Fort Melchisor. And guess who's got their fingers in that pie?"
     "Earth Fed?" Ruby guessed.
     "Ruby wins the prize!" Max amiably joshed her. "The moment I step off that gateway in your skin, they'll nab me thinking I'm you. Then when the find out I'm not, they'll subject me to a hardware-level interrogation to find out where you are. So that's a bit of a non-starter. Instead I take your old skin on a wild goose chase where you're seen on a string of different planets to throw the Chznzet and Earth Fed off your trail and then return to Mars bare frame."
     "What do Earth Fed have to do with it?" Ruby couldn't see the point. The Chznzet were more of a present threat.
     "Gateway?" Max waved a hand in front of Ruby's face. "Think about it: a gateway to other worlds open up on your planet. What's the first thing you do? Send a few of your own through to see what's on the other side. They're coming."
     "Earth Fed?" Ruby was genuinely worried now. "Are they coming for me?"
     "Not at the moment, at least as far as I know." Max tried to reassure her. He hoped the SSS intel Sam had shared with him was reliable. "It's primarily a diplomatic and trade mission but it wouldn't hurt to lay down a false trail now before they start asking questions."
     "Right." Ruby was beginning to understand Max's plan and made up her mind to keep the nest egg Grattlyd had given her in case she ever needed to make a quick escape. "What are these other planets you're going to like?"
     "I don't know." Max replied honestly. "Grattlyd picked them out as planets with known Shallen presences in the hope that there'd be some Chznzet amongst them so that they'd think they saw you going away from Vermthellyn. Grattlyd gave me a crystal pre-programmed with all the jumps. All I have to do is spend a few hours walking around at each one to make sure I'm seen by their spies."
     "That sounds dangerous." Ruby didn't like the sound of this plan. Max might get hurt.
     "It's not without risks." Max admitted candidly. "I made a backup of my core before I set out. If I get killed on this mission, my backup will be activated." He lied. He had no backup. His original frame and core was powered down and in safe storage in Sam's office at the Satori Security Service. What had gone on this mission to visit Ruby and beyond was a perfect clone in a core rigged to self-destruct if the Chznzet or anyone who might capture or kill Max attempted to access any of its data or reverse-engineer it. Although Max had started out as an SSS operative like Sam he was now generally regarded more as an asset than an agent because he'd been undercover at Zanzibar for too long.
     "It's not quite the same, Max." Ruby was no stranger to recovering oneself from a backup and knew only too well how it left gaps in ones memory. Especially that gap between the last backup and when you were reactivated.
     "I knew the risks when I decided to do this." Max had actually suggested to Flatfoot Sam during one of his visits to Patti's studio workshop in Satori that it might be more convincing if he let the Chznzet kill him when he was masquerading as Ruby. After all, with a backup all he'd miss out on were his memories of this venture. Sam agreed that it would make a more convincing closure but balked at the idea of putting Max's idea into action though he eventually agreed to it. "If I'm not back in two days my backup goes live. And if I return late we'll have to be merged. That'll be fun." He laughed sardonically.
     Merging cores was something mechs did when a mech's core was fatally damaged in order to transfer as much as possible to the backup. Or when a backup had been accidentally activated. Not a particularly difficult task but boy, was it time-consuming and tedious. All those ultra high-speed trips down memory lane checking and re-checking memories and routines! Max had actually made up his mind to draw out the Chznzet to kill him at some point. By getting them to kill what they thought was Ruby, it would put them off her trail back on Vermthellyn as well as hopefully convincing Earth Fed that she was dead once the story filtered back to them as it inevitably would.
     He didn't want to alarm or upset Ruby with the facts and kept up the pretence that it was a fairly routine mission and that his backup was merely him being over-cautious. Aside from that, he wasn't in any hurry to die. It wasn't something he'd planned on doing for a long time to come. He'd never died before and didn't really relish the prospect of waking up with no memory of where he'd been for the last few days.
     The hovertruck pulled up outside a small warehouse on the industrial estate surrounding the Estrillyd Spaceport. Its doors opened and the hovertruck slid noiselessly inside and pulled up nest to an aircar that was parked inside. When they got out Ruby noted that it looked much like the one she broke into to top up her power cell when she passed through on her way to Estrillyd except that it was cleaner, well-lit and had row upon row of stacked crates and containers. Vvezhti-Kla stayed to guard the hovertruck while Pzeptilan led them through to the offices at the back. One large room had multiple layers of clear plastic sheeting hanging down from the ceiling. Ruby could see a portable console, a spare mech core, a diagnostics terminal and two tables inside.
     "Our clean room." Max announced proudly as he stepped through the outer perimeter of the plastic sheeting. "Sam will clean your frame up and prep you." When she was ready, Sam led her through to the inner sanctum where Max was waiting undressed and sitting on one of the tables.
     Sam took over. "You'll both be conscious throughout this procedure. First I'm going to hook your cores up to a console and an external power source. You'll be able to talk with me through the console. Then I'll extract your cores and switch them over. Once you're reconnected with your new frames, I'll disconnect you from the console and external power. Do you have any questions?"
     Ruby and Max sat silently. The only noise in the room was the soft whirr of the air pumps and the rustle of plastic sheeting as Pzeptilan patiently paced around outside their clean room. "Right!" Sam clasped his hands. "Max, could you peel back your skin so I can access your core? And then if you could both lie face down on the tables I'll get started."
     When they were lying down Max turned to Ruby. "You're going to like this skin. Patti really pushed the boat out for you."
     "What do you mean?" Ruby assumed it was a tactile skin and knew that Max had eschewed tactile plastiskins for as long as she'd known him. Maybe he'd discovered that he liked tactile plastiskins after all.
     "It's beyond tactile." The Utanh nictating membranes fluttered seductively across their lustrous black eyes as Sam spoke. "It's semi-organic, self-repairing and for some reason Patti made the horns erogenous. They're very stimulating. The frame's armoured and has its own subprocessor unit. It's very advanced and built to last."
     Moments later they were watching Sam at work from the console screen overlooking the tables as he disconnected their cores from their frames and switched them around. The first thing Ruby recognised after Sam connected her core to her new body with the Utanh skin and clicked her tail into place was the familiar displays that came up in her field of vision. She was back in a milspec frame. Not all that different from the one she had when she was first created for SkyHawk but it felt more powerful and somehow more aware if something like that was possible for a frame. As if it had a mind of its own, which it did in a way: the subprocessor that Max had mentioned. A subprocessor programmed to augment her own core in 360-degree combat situations and for extreme mobility. Earth Fed used that trick to get alpha-class combat performance out of beta- and gamma-class core mechs and it worked very well.
     And the skin! She could feel the table as she got up from it. Her weight on her feet as she stood on the hard, cool tiled floor. She could feel the air on her skin and as she touched her face, her fingertips and cheeks. She swished her long, thick tail from side to side and could feel it tapping against the table legs. Her nipples stood up and tingled as she cupped her warm, soft breasts. She ran a hand along one of her soft, velvety horns and got a rush of erotic pleasure. Max was right! She wondered what other surprises Patti had put in store for her.
     "It's wonderful!" Ruby hugged Max as he was pulling Ruby's old red plastiskin over her old frame. "Thank you."
     "I'm glad you like it." Max replied as he closed up the self-sealing seam along the back of Ruby's old skin. It, too, was tactile but nothing like the Utanh skin Patti had created for Ruby. When Max finished Sam brought them their clothes and they got dressed and helped Sam pack away the consoles, tools and sheeting which they stored in a packing crate in the main part of the warehouse. Ruby and Sam got into the hovertruck with Vvezhti-Kla. Max and Pzeptilan got into the aircar and they set off on different directions.
     Vvezhti-Kla set Ruby and Sam down on the roof of a medium-sized residential tower in a moderately affluent part of Estrillyd. Sam broke open the security gates to access the roof and led the way down to the ground floor. Pzeptilan, meanwhile, took Max to a monorail station in one of the outlying suburbs and dropped him off there where he waited for the next monorail into town.
     "Couldn't we have landed on my roof? That would have been so much easier." Ruby asked Sam as they strolled through a small park in central Estrillyd. Around them Rtuntli and off-worlders sat around relaxing on the local equivalent of grass which had a slight bluish tint to it. Elderly Rtuntli sat on benches while young Rtuntli cubs hared around playing and chasing each other.
     "We could have." Sam admitted freely. "But if you were under surveillance they would have seen us going out without ever having gone in. That would look suspicious. This way they see what looks like two new residents moving in."
     "But wouldn't they have seen you land on the roof?" Ruby pointed out the obvious flaw in Sam's elaborate deception.
     "Possibly, but your building is taller than the surrounding ones so it was a fairly safe bet. They might have seen us flying in and out but wouldn't have been able to see anyone on the roof." Sam explained as they walked out of the park and towards a monorail station. "There's nothing to connect you as you are now with your old self. The real question is whether you want to reconnect the people you've met here up to now. There is a risk that they could inadvertently lead the Chznzet or Earth Fed to you."
     Ruby thought over what Sam said. She didn't like the idea of burning her bridges for a second time so soon in her life and still hadn't said anything when she paid their fares to the H'Ulwyn district. She looked out the window at the towering city around them in silence and for a moment felt utterly alone and insignificant. "They're friends, good people, Sam. I suppose I could live alone here but I miss the way we're all connected back home like we're all one big family. They're the closest thing I have to that, Sam. I don't want to turn my back on them."
     "It's your call." Sam had a feeling she'd go right back to her previous life. "But we may not be able to pull you out if things go wrong."
     "That's okay. I'll look after myself." Ruby had done a pretty good job of that so far and, with the new accelerated milspec armoured frame they gave her, she felt confident enough to tackle just about anything except for monofibre whips at close quarters. "Thank you for everything you've done for me." She laid her hand on his arm but he didnít respond: his skin was non-tactile.
     
     Max sat apprehensively in the monorail carriage as it snaked its way towards the teeming metropolis of downtown Estrillyd. Max had discussed his plans with Kkhrkht and Pzeptilan who both thought it was brave but needlessly self-sacrificing in spite of the fact that his original core was back on Mars. For them death was final. Nevertheless Pzeptilan agreed to put out a rumour that Ruby had been sighted lurking around the Estrillyd Spaceport. That would be enough to get the Chznzet on the look out.
     Instead of riding the monorail all the way to the Gateway Terminus, he got out a few stops early and walked along the crowded streets. Here, well-to-do offworlders jostled through the crowds followed closely by hungry pickpockets. And there were plenty of Shallens on both sides of that social divide. He walked around like an aimless shopper frequently doubling back to see if anyone was following him. At one point he was looking in a shop window when a group of Shallens walked past behind him. One was an avian with black feathers. It was common for avian Chznzet to dye their feathers black.
     The chase was on! Max worked his way through the crowds towards the terminus. Sure enough, they were following at a distance. This was the easy part. The hard part was to get captured. He was carrying tracking self-replicating nanites. Harmless to anyone infected with them and designed to spread from host to host by contact. They were programmed to count the number of times they were transmitted to a new host so that when anyone was found infected with them it was a simple matter to determine how many steps in the chain they were away from the initial target.
     In this case the target was a random group of Chznzet but that was all he needed. Now all he had to do was to make it convincing. If he presented Ruby as too easy a catch they might get suspicious. So he meandered from shop to shop looking in the windows, going inside, crossing the roads but making his way slowly towards the terminus. Each time he spotted the group of Chznzet they were maintaining their distance which they kept all the way to the terminus.
     It took Max a few minutes to find the self-service gateways which were reserved for crystal-holders authorised by the Nglubi. They were now so close Max could follow them on Ruby's internal sensors as they closed in on him while he strode across the concourse towards the rank of self-service gateways. Here, unlike the main concourse of the terminus, there were few people around: the Nglubi weren't exactly generous with their favours. Something that wouldn't be lost on Max's pursuers.
     The Chznzet saw Ruby activating a gateway and pushed their way past the last of the pedestrians and sprinted across the chamber towards her. One of them pulled out a pistol and shot at Ruby but missed as she laced the control console with tracking nanites to infect her pursuers should they touch it. The next one got one of her legs as she stepped on to the dais. Max felt that. Ruby's plastiskin felt pain where it was scorched by the plasma bolt that burnt its way through. That took him by surprise. He'd always associated tactile plastiskins with pleasure rather than pain. Not only that but his sensors registered damage with a massive localised heat surge to Ruby's carbon fibre frame.
     They were only metres away when the gateway activated and transported their quarry beyond their reach. Max, as Ruby, stepped off the dais, pulled a shirt out of his shoulder bag and tied it around his waist as a skirt to hide the burn marks on his leg. He felt disconnected from the feminine curved body of Ruby's old frame as he looked down and adjusted his skirt to hide the burns. This was definitely a time when he didn't identify with his exterior appearance. To himself he was Max, the male mech, ex-SSS operative who was slowly forging a new life for himself at Zanzibar. Yet now more than ever he needed to identify with his appearance if he was to play out this chase convincingly and lure the Chznzet into his trap.
     Here the dominant species were quite unlike the Rtuntli. Their skin was smooth and hairless, almost scaly in many shade of green and brown, slanted, sloping tapered heads yellow eyes and long ear slits and hands with three long fingers at the end of their arms. There were some off-worlders but nowhere near as many as on Vermthellyn and no sign of any Shallens so Max set off to do a bit of sight-seeing to let himself as Ruby be seen by any Chznzet who might be lurking around.
     The Gateway terminus here was much smaller than the one he had just left. If Vermthellyn was grand central station this was more a provincial town. Outside, the buildings were much lower but still more imposing that anything on Mars. Dark, weathered metal and stone seemed to be the favoured building material which lent an air of uniformity unlike the chaotic and vibrant randomness of Mars and Vermthellyn.
     It was dark outside and there were very few people walking around on the poorly-lit streets, most seemed to travel in ground or air vehicles. Max looked up and couldn't see any stars and concluded that it was either overcast or else so polluted that it blocked the sky and, judging by the low visibility in the murky air decided it was more likely the latter. He walked along the main roads from one pool of light to the next, carefully avoiding the unlit side streets. Some buildings were well-lit up with a steady flow of ground and air cars stopping off at different levels.
     It was a hotel catering to off-world visitors. Max didn't have any money. Only the crystal and his mission so he lingered in the foyer for a short while and then left before drawing any attention to himself. Several more such hotels later, Max came across a club that seemed to be open to the public so he went inside. Here there were crowds of off-worlders mingling with the locals in a raucous blare of flashing lights, loud music, gaming tables and dancers.
     He spotted a group of Shallen women, three reptilians and an avian, draped over a pair of very masculine quadrupeds, laughing drunkenly at a group of erotic dancers as they worked their way through a routine of simulated interspecial sex. They didn't look like Chznzet. Nonetheless he positioned himself in the audience so that they couldn't help but see Ruby watching the erotic dancers. Judging by the audiences' reaction, Max guessed the dancers' routine was a comedy about passion being thwarted by mismatched biology.
     No-one in the crowd paid Ruby much attention, they were enjoying the show too much, so Max moved on and wandered around the club for a while watching the players around the gaming tables which looked like miniature elaborate transparent structures through which balls of light would race and stop at random intervals. Excitable crowds had gathered around each of the many gaming tables. Some placed bets while others looked on. The gamblers looked all serious until they won when they and the onlookers would break out into loud cheers which resulted in the gaming hall being a continuous raucous hurly burly of cheering and disappointed cursing from losers.
     Max didn't see any other Shallens in the club so he went back out into the street and continued his journey as Ruby idly making her way from one pool of light to the next until he returned to the gateway terminus. He spotted a group of Shallens hanging around in the foyer outside a row of well-lit shops but they made no move in his direction so he ambled at a leisurely pace over to the single self-service gateway at this terminus. He could see them watching as he left behind a payload of tracking nanites and stepped Ruby up onto the dais and left for the next destination programmed into his crystal.
     Ruby stepped off the dais into a busy industrial terminus of bare metal walls with painted signs and harsh lighting. Off-worlders of all species seemed to be here bustling around in overalls or work clothes. There didn't appear to be a dominant species here and Max spotted a few Shallens in amongst the workers milling around. He had no way of knowing if he was on the surface of a planet or in a space station as there were no windows but a simple gravimetric and inertial analysis told him that the gateway terminus was buried at least two kilometres below the surface of a planet whose gravity was 0.8 times that of Earth's. Which explained the lack of windows and outside view: there was none.
     Here it was a hive of noisy activity with people busily bustling around. No-one was hanging around the gateway terminus for very long. The drive of work kept them moving. The zone nearest the gateway was full of offices staffed with smartly dressed offworlders. Outside workers in overalls hurried to their work far underground. There were a few Shallens on both sides of the glass divide but they appeared to be too engrossed in their work to pay any attention to anyone else. In between getting his bearings and finding his way back to the gateway terminus he was stopped several times by employment recruiters all claiming to offer better wages and employment terms than each other. Other than that it was fairly uneventful and it wasn't until Max stepped off the dais at the next destination that he noticed a plasma hole through his lower torso. Fortunately it had passed through a hollow section. The trail was hotting up!
     This time it was more like the spacious gateway terminus in Estrillyd except that here the dominant species were the three-eyed beaky Pdzarvians. There were plenty of offworlders around, some that Max recognised from his stops on the other worlds but he didn't see any Shallens until he was grabbed and bundled into a waiting hover truck by a group of Chznzet. The two avians had dyed their feathers black and wore gold-coloured harnesses. The reptilian wore a black tunic and breeches with gold piping and held a pistol to his head while the others pinned him down from behind where he couldn't see them.
     Ruby's frame wasn't strong enough to overpower them so Max struggled futilely. At least they didn't know that a mech's core is in its torso. Heads are replaceable. If you want to kill a mech, take out its core. Max released a dose of tracker nanites to infect his captors as they kicked and punched Ruby's mechanoid body. The skin was tactile so Max simply switched it off so as not to let his captors have the pleasure of hurting what they thought was Ruby. It was probably hurting them a lot more that it had hurt Max seeing how they were punching a thinly-covered carbon fibre frame.
     When they landed they were met by more Chznzet who took hold of Ruby's arms and legs and carried Max into the back of a grimy old building. They chained her to a mesh metal wall and stood around in a semi-circle. When they were all gathered together their leader stepped forward. "You killed three of our kind. For that, you will die. But first you will answer our questions."
     Max said nothing but kept pulling at the chains that held him to the wall. He knew this was a suicide mission and his main regret was that he'd never be able to share his experience with his main core back on Mars. It would be very useful intel on the Chznzet.
     A harsh spotlight was aimed into Ruby's eyes. No doubt the intention was to blind their captive. It would have had the desired effect on fleshies. However all Max had to do was reduce the sensitivity of his eyes and mask out the spotlight. No doubt they'd find out the truth about their captive eventually but Max felt no desire to give the game away quite so soon.
     "Who are you and why do you work for Clan Olblavy?" The Chznzet group leader, a muscular and gnarled reptilian barked at their captive. Max remained silent. One of the Chznzet produced a whip and whipped Ruby. Max felt nothing beyond the slight motion the chains holding Ruby's frame to the wall allowed when the whip struck. He'd released most of his remaining payload of tracker nanites onto Ruby's plastiskin. Every time the whip struck more of them would attach themselves to it and work their way towards the Chznzet holding the whip.
     The Chznzet leader held up Max's blue Psionic crystal which his acolytes had taken when they had seized and searched Ruby. "What are you doing with this Nglubi gateway crystal? Are you an Nglubi agent?" Max said nothing but struggled futilely against the chains holding Ruby's frame to the wall. For his efforts he received another lash of the whip.
     This kept up for a while with the questions changing between each lash of the whip until the Chznzet realised they weren't getting anywhere with Max's stony silence. The leader approached their captive and brandished a monofibre whip. Max could hear the faint high-pitched sizzling buzz of its pulse generator. "Don't think you can take your secrets to the grave. We will make you talk. He lashed at Max and the whip cut through Ruby's left forearm leaving it and her hand hanging loosely where it was chained to the wall.
     The Chznzet didn't notice the section of plazflex that fell out of the severed forearm onto the floor and continued slashing through Ruby's frame. It wasn't until he'd sliced off the rest of her left arm and most of her right leg that it dawned on him that something was wrong. By now their captive should have been screaming in pain and blood should have been pouring out of the body and splattering onto the floor. Instead nothing except their brusquely-amputated captive continued to writhe against its chains in an attempt to break free.
     One of the Chznzet seized the twitching severed leg and peeled back the plastiskin. "It's a machine."
     "Does it speak?" Another one asked.
     The leader set a holographic projector on the floor and a recording of Ruby talking with Kkhrkht and Wootjan-Oo with Yldoseh standing off to one side filming them aboard the Ark of Exodus filled the space between them. You could hear them talking quite clearly. "Yes it does." The leader growled before turning his attention to his captive. "That insectoid alien was hired by Clan Olblavy to protect their keeper." He snickered cruelly. "And the others are from her inner circle. What were you doing with them?"
     Max stayed silent and kept pulling at the chains.
     "And what about this?" The leader changed the scene on the projector. Now it showed Ruby and Xandu canoodling on a park bench in Estrillyd with Veronica sat beside them primly looking the other direction. The other Chznzet surrounding them laughed smuttily but still Max kept his silence.
     "Machine, eh?" The Chznzet leader cursed as he picked up one end of a live power conduit. "Maybe this will make you talk." He jabbed the live end at the exposed parts of Ruby's frame.
     BZZZT Max's field of perception became a sudden flood of saturated static. It had barely returned to normal so that he could see and hear his surroundings when it happened again and again... BZZZT, BZZZT, BZZZT. The Chznzet had gone berserk attacking with the power conduit as it made Ruby's frame twitch each time it made contact. But the only sound that came out of Ruby's mouth was a garbled howl of static and random gibberish.
     The jolts were hitting exposed control lines in Ruby's frame which were connected to the core. An entirely different kind of pain... a horrendous neural scything that Max couldn't block out. They were scrambling his ability to think coherently. This was it, he had to initiate his self-destruct before it was too late. The last thing he did was to flood out the last of the tracking nanites and get confirmation that everyone was infected.
     *Self-destruct countdown in ten seconds.* BZZZT *Self-destruct countdown in ten seconds.* BZZZT *Self-destruct countdown in ten seconds.* BZZZT... it kept resetting between jolts until the Chznzet group leader angrily decapitated Ruby with his monofibre whip. Everything went dark and silent for Max in the last few seconds of the countdown. In his last moments of existence he pulled up images of Ruby, SkyHawk and Patti and savoured scenes from his life at Zanzibar as their images broke up into static and darkness finally engulfed him.
     Outside the Chznzet leader had thrown down the conduit and closed his monofibre whip. He assumed that decapitation would kill his captive and turned to face his acolytes. "No wonder Clan Olblavy hire these things. They certainly keep their secrets. At least we got it's gateway crystal. That will come in useful." Behind him the thermal charge buried in Max's modified core went off turning it into a cascade of molten metal slag which poured out of Ruby's frame setting fire to her clothes and plastiskin. The heat was so intense around what remained of Max's core that parts of Ruby's carbon-fibre frame caught fire as well.
     
     *REBOOTING* Hello Max Corundum. You have been offline for ten days, four hours, 27 minutes and 11 seconds as per notarised agreement signed with Satori Security Services on the 5th of Deimos 2125. Standby for reconnection to CommNet. When the bootup sequence finished all Max could see was the back of the cupboard door in Sam's office.
     "You can let me out now." Max optimistically knocked on the door. "Your skeleton-in-the-cupboard has come back to haunt you." No-one came to open the door. Max scanned the office. It was empty except for Dolly who was over on the far end of the floor. He pinged Dolly.
     Minutes later the door was opened and he was greeted by a gaily waving metal tentacle and a bobbing eye on a stalk stretched up from the cornucopia of attachments on the top of Dolly's cart-like body. "I'm sorry. It's been a very busy day. Sam and Brasso were called away at short notice." Dolly apologised effusively and fell silent for a moment.
     "Can I go now?" Max asked the silently stilled Dolly.
     "Yes. Sam will visit you at Zanzibar." Dolly perked back to life. "He doesn't know when he'll have any free time until next week." Dolly showed Max the way out of the SSS offices. Once outside he briefly thought about visiting Patti over in the Mecklenburg district but decided against it and took a taxi back to the perimeter gate where he'd left his aerosled. He'd never been offline before and needed some quiet time to catch up on life. The banana crop back at Zanzibar was almost ripe and ready for picking. Just the dose of reality he needed.
     He wondered what had happened to his clone as the taxi whisked him to the perimeter of Satori's dome. What had he seen? How had he died? But they were questions to which he'd never know the answer. He felt as if he was missing part of himself. Maybe someday if Sam or someone else at the SSS got lucky and came across any Shallens or other alien carrying the tracker nanites they might be able to piece together some of his clone's final journey. But that could take longyears.
     
     It was a cool, crisp autumnal afternoon in Estrillyd. Morning rain left the ground wet and the air clear. It was Ruby's first performance with Narliss and DeRhendia and M'Thekh and they had a good crowd on the pavement outside Rebulon's Room. They had a few practice sessions in Narliss' apartment. He suggested that she just play along with them and to keep her contributions fairly sparse until she was more familiar with their music.
     Now that she was tooled up with the music software gifted to her by SkyHawk, Ruby heard their music with fresh and attentive ears picking out the nuances of rhythm, melody and harmony. It was all new to her so Ruby cautiously tried out different techniques and styles at random as they went along. Occasionally she would let an algorithmic interpreter take over but she found that both lazy and unsatisfying preferring to immerse herself in the music and play consciously.
     DeRhendia and Narliss took turns leading and M'Thekh drove the performance along while playing around with different rhythms... or the total lack it at times. Narliss spent most of the afternoon playing textural sounds in Pythagorean scales. DeRhendia could play four simultaneous melodies and toyed around with timbre, syncopation and harmony to pass the time. Ruby wove around whatever they were doing and it seemed to go down well.
     Ruby couldn't get what Tarnoukh had told her about DeRhendia out of her mind and kept glancing over at DeRhendia to see if she could tell if and when she had an orgasm while playing. Engrossed in the music: certainly. Orgasms? Not as far as Ruby could tell. Maybe Tarnoukh had just spun another one of his tall tales. Then again she had no idea what an Ooplatski orgasm might look like from the outside. For all she knew the entire act of creating music might be a sexual / sensual / orgasmic activity for an Ooplatski. Or it might be their equivalent of twiddling their thumbs. The kind of thing only an Ooplatski would know but just the sort of question you wouldn't ask.
     She could just imagine it now: 'Oh hi DeRhendia, is it true you have multiple orgasms while playing music with your friends?' and suddenly got a vivid mental picture of DeRhendia rudely poking her in the eye with one of her sharp, pointed pincers. Ow! That was one answer that she'd have to find out by more roundabout methods.
     Still, it was good to see and hear her playing again. This was DeRhendia's first performance since the riots and, as far as Ruby could tell, she was humming, tootling, buzzing and plinking away without a care in the world. Ruby didn't see any Gheltsyn around, which was a good thing. A group of Chznzet passed by in their black-and-gold outfits. They barely gave Ruby a second glance as they passed their ID cards over M'Thekh's tip collector before going on their way. M'Thekh shared the tips out equally between everyone in the band. They used his tip collector because his was the only working one they had left after the riots. Tarnoukh and Szelmy turned up towards the end of their show and she spotted them waving to her from the back of the crowd.
     Szelmy and Tarnoukh came up to her after the show as she was pressing her ID card up to M'Thekh's tip collector to receive her share of the day's take. "How'd it go?" Tarnoukh asked her.
     "She's doing fine!" Narliss cheerily patted Ruby on her back as he answered for her while helping M'Thekh pack away his percussion set. "I think she'll be a great addition to our little band." Afterwards they repaired to the bar to talk put away the drinks Jem-Dhaka brought them. It turned out that Narliss, DeRhendia and M'Thekh had met at the Vermthellyn orbital docks. M'Thekh was working in the docks at the time and Narliss and DeRhendia were deckhands on freighters that were passing through. They discovered their shared interest in music during a party and M'Thekh invited them down to Vermthellyn if they were ever passing through again. Much to M'Thekh's surprise it didn't take long for them to show up at Rebulon's Room.
     "The shipping company I worked for went bankrupt." Narliss joked bitterly. "Stellar Lines has form with that. They never maintain their ships properly. Cheap and nasty. And when you bring something to their attention, they never have the time for it. We were berthed at the orbital dockyard here and the hull broke up from excessive metal fatigue. Lucky for us we were on the docks when it happened. Otherwise we would have all been spaced. Every time that happens to one of their ships they go into bankruptcy to escape their obligations. Hah! Next thing we knew all the officers had abandoned ship and we were locked out with no pay or transit documentation. It's expensive staying up at the orbital docks so I decided to come down here while I waited for my documentation to come through in order to look for another job. Now I can't get away."
     "It's the fourth time you've been back." M'Thekh gave Narliss a friendly poke. "Admit it, you like it here."
     "Aside from the riots." Playing with M'Thekh and DeRhendia had given Narliss a new focus in life and it was one he liked. It's what brought him back to Vermthellyn every time. "We could have done without that."
     "I know, I know." M'Thekh sympathised. He'd seen too much of the universe beyond the narrow confines of his home world to buy into his peoples' simmering xenophobia any longer. But he was in no position do much about it.
     "It is good that we make music here." DeRhendia told Ruby in her liquid fluty voice. "You have sex?"
     "What?" Ruby was taken aback. "Yes, sometimes. Why?" She hadn't had sex since her fling as her old self with Xandu and wondered if Szelmy was anything like him. Sure, she liked it. A lot. She presumed it had to do with her original hardwiring but it wasn't something she thought about very often.
     "Not when. How." DeRhendia obliquely clarified her question.
     "Oh. Um..." Ruby didn't know where to begin. She wanted to know the full nitty gritty? Now? In a bar?
     "She wants to know what gender you are." Szelmy explained quietly to Ruby before turning his attention to DeRhendia. "Ruby is female, like Yldoseh and Tatia of my kind."
     "Ah." DeRhendia gently stroked one of Ruby's velveteen horns. "But you are not organic. Do you give birth to little machines?" DeRhendia, like everyone else in their group, knew Ruby's true nature.
     "No, it doesn't work that way for us." Ruby knew the old joke about mechs giving birth to pocket calculators that grow up but really didn't want to go into the full details. "We are made in many different forms. Some of us are made to appear similar to the species that make us. Some of us are made by our own kind too, but in a factory not like you organics."
     "I see." DeRhendia kept stroking Ruby's horns. Something which gave her a delicious tingle. "We play some time." And from the dusky tone of her voice, DeRhendia didn't mean their little band.
     Ruby said nothing but let DeRhendia lean against her and continue stroking her horns. She had been alone for so long. Sam had been perfunctory company for his short stay on Vermthellyn. They had barely even touched. But now DeRhendia's touch took her back to how she felt when she was with SkyHawk. At home in the world and sexy. And... 'whoah, hang on a minute there, girl!' she snapped out of her erotic reverie to pay attention to the world around her again and saw the Klartupyn trader who had given them so much trouble at UniCom making his way around the alcoves and tables in Rebulon's Room.
     "It's him. Hide!" Ruby got Tarnoukh's attention. Even though Ruby looked completely different to how she appeared back then and there was no chance he could recognise her now, Tarnoukh still looked exactly the same.
     "Who?" Tarnoukh looked around the alcove. "And where?"
     "That Klartupyn who ran off without paying. He's over there." Ruby nodded in the Klartupyn's direction. Tarnoukh squirmed in behind M'Thekh and Szelmy as the Klartupyn approached their alcove.
     "I have something that might interest you young folk." The Klartupyn held out its wares in one of its six-fingered hands. "The finest Nglubi Crystals! Look how the lights sparkle within them! You can use them to enhance sťances and all manner of parapsychic activities. Some say you can even operate the gateways themselves with them."
     "No you can't. Only blue crystals can activate gateways." Ruby blurted out before realising that she'd given away too much knowledge about Psionic Crystals.
     "Ah, the young lady is knowledgeable. Excellent. Then you know what these are." The Klartupyn craftily taunted her as it brandished a portable payment terminal in its other hand. "Only fifty Selotys or a quarter Galac. Guaranteed anonymous payment."
     Ruby looked the crystals over. They were genuine all right. No doubt about that. Just like the ones back on Mars. "Are they from this planet?" She asked the Klartupyn.
     "Ho ho ho, no!" The Klartupyn laughed. "There are no sources here on Vermthellyn. Beyond that, I cannot say." It closed the topic evasively. "Take this opportunity now or there are others who will buy them." It glanced around the bar at the other customers to make its point.
     "Okay, I'll take one." Ruby picked out a Psionic Crystal and pressed her ID card against the Klartupyn's terminal to transfer the payment.
     "An excellent choice, my lady." The Klartupyn ingratiated itself. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have others to see to."
     The Klartupyn was just about to leave when Jem-Dhaka grabbed it by a shoulder and bundled it out the door. "No selling allowed in here. Now get out!"
     Jem-Dhaka returned to the alcove moments later to reassure his customers and much-appreciated musicians. "Sorry about that. I hope that filthy rat didn't bother you."
     "Not at all." Narliss spoke up. "It had some interesting Nglubi crystals."
     "Pah, you don't believe that nonsense do you?" Jem-Dhaka snorted contemptuously and flashed his fangs. "Do you know what those things are? Turds. Turds from Nglubi gateways, biodomes, spaceships or any of their biotech machinery. All their stuff is alive. And it all shits. And what does it shit? Those oh-so wonderful Nglubi crystals that everyone thinks are so special. I know. I've seen it for myself."
     "Oh really? Where was that?" Everyone knew about the blue crystals and that they were almost impossible to get hold of. Which made Tarnoukh all the more sceptical about the claims made about the Nglubi crystals. He also found Jem-Dhaka's claim outlandish.
     "Installing the first industrial gateways on Sigonia IV. I was there." Jem-Dhaka backed up his claim. "There was so much of that stuff left over that the only way to get rid of it was to grind it up and use it as sand in the building cement. Oh, I better get back to the bar. Can I get you some more drinks?"
     Ruby tried to imagine a building made out of Psionic Crystal cement. She could think of a few people back on Mars who'd pay handsomely to see that! She looked down at the sparkling luminous crystal in her hand and it was just like the ones she and SkyHawk used to find around Fort Melchisor. "I've seen these before." Ruby held out her Psionic Crystal to show to her friends.
     "Where?" DeRhendia picked up the crystal with one of her pincer hands to get a closer look at it.
     "On Mars."

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