Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 34: The past ain’t what it used to be, either.

      Sepia-tone light swirled around with a slow-motion drunkenness washing out almost all colour. Here and there faint gasps of colour would push through; reds, greens, blues and yellows but they were fighting a losing battle. The air felt full of music and chatter but he heard only an indistinguishable blur of sound. He felt the sound rather than hearing it and was overwhelmed by a sense of disconnection as if he was watching a vid rather than being an actor in the scene. Clem looked around to get his bearings. There were people milling around but they were only vague outlines. “That’s it! I’m in a bar… somewhere.” Seated at a table next with him was a young man with aquiline features and glossy black hair and a mech who looked a lot like Barney. “What’s he doing here?”
      The young man pushes a small collection of stones across the table towards Clem. He seems eager for Clem to take one. The Barney mech picked one out and passed it to him. Clem held it up and looked closely at it. It seemed so familiar, the way those flecks of light danced around inside it but he just couldn’t place it. What was it? Had he seen something like this before? But where? Questions that weighed on him like the gloopy sepia-tone light that slowly swirled around him. He could feel an answer somewhere in the depths of his mind like the hulk of a shipwreck at the bottom of the sea but it was forever beyond his grasp.
      The strange crystal swallowed up Clem’s attention. The next thing he knew he was with the Barney mech and a group of people at what looked like a psychedelic fairground. The young man he saw in the bar was there only this time he was accompanied by a woman and they were being pushed around by a gang of thugs. They pushed the young man to the ground and he turned into a 2-metre tall insect which attacked and killed all of them except for a mech which ran away. The people nearby were terrified and some of the women screamed. But, just like in the bar, he could only feel the sound as a pressure pushing in against him.
      For some reason, in spite of his sense of dread, he walked towards the insect creature. “What the hell? Is that thing going to eat me?” He felt as if he spoke to it but heard no words. The insect, which seemed a bit like a two-metre tall praying mantis, merely nodded its head and drooped its antennae. The woman it was with earlier strode up angrily and pulled it away.
      The next thing he knew he was in a well-lit room with a group of people. He recognised it immediately as cohabiters’ quarters at the quarries. Again, the Barney mech was there. “How come he gets everywhere?” It was a party! People were talking and joking gaily, helping themselves to food and drinks and passing a bong around. A young couple, obviously the hosts who lived in these quarters, stood up and made an announcement that Clem could only feel. They were met with a rousing cheer that pressed in against Clem. He thought the woman was so pretty and felt happy for them.
      The party gave way to an alleyway. He was walking along it and saw the very same woman from the party dancing in a brothel window. He tried to say: “Let me take you from this life of iniquity and bring you back to your friends.” …as he reached through the window to take her hand but no sound came out. The Barney mech tried to stop him but he effortlessly bushed the mech aside as Clem and his damsel in distress waltzed gracefully away from the brothel.
      When the dance ended they were walking along in a shiny modern city, probably one of the corporate towns, with the Barney mech. For some reason Clem is holding a clunky remote-control unit but their mood is buoyant and optimistic. Suddenly they turn into Earth Fed cops who brusquely take away the remote control unit and drag Clem away. “No, no, no! Let me go!” Clem wails noiselessly as he struggles futilely against their iron grip all the way until they threw him in a dark prison cell. “No! No! No!” His desperate cries echoed around the close, hard walls of his modest living quarters.
      Clem jumped up out of his bed in a cold sweat, bunched up his knees to his chest and rocked from side to side. He felt scared and alone. “It’s one of those dreams again. That’s all it was: a bad dream.” He tried to reassure himself as he switched on his Tri-D set to watch the latest Slamball rematch from Mariposa. He followed the match half-interested as his thoughts kept wandering back to the dream until he fell into a shallow dreamless sleep with the Tri-D set still running.
      Damn, another one of those stupid code locks! Barney was getting fed up with them even though they were easy enough to crack one letter at a time: Zrrlchtz, Melchisor, Grattlyd, Watusis, Chznzet, Gulmarian, Nglubi, Titan… Even though the key-lock words meant nothing to him, he felt an uncomfortable sense of familiarity about them. Well he knew that Titan was one of the moons of Saturn and had heard of Melchisor. Clem had blathered on about it once when he was all excited about something on the Conspiracy Channel that Barney never watched. Barney was a hard-core gamer and didn’t care much for the edutainment channels that Clem was addicted to.
      This latest freebie VR game that Portman had laid on was turning out to be a bit of a dud as far as Barney could make out. No action at all and a load of puzzles he couldn’t figure out until today: Just endless dingy litter-strewn industrial tunnels in a maze. Each one would end in a sealed doorway with a key code lock that only Barney could unlock. “I’ve had enough of this for one session.” Barney griped out of frustrated boredom. “I think I’ll turn in for tonight.”
      “Aw come on, Barney.” Marvin egged him on. “One more time. We’ve been levelling up and picking up credits like crazy on this one. What else have you got to do until you start your shift in the morning?”
      “Yeah, okay. “I’ll only have to pick up from here tomorrow.” Barney sighed as he plugged his finger into the key code lock and activated it. One by one the five characters on the display lit up. This time it read ‘Nexus’. “Huh, what’s that supposed to mean?” Barney grunted as he pushed the door open. This time, instead of yet another passageway, it opened onto a large circular room with evenly spaced doorways running all the way around. Even in the dim lighting Barney could see that they were all open although nothing but darkness appeared to be on the other side.
      “Jackpot!” Marvin whooped as he pushed past Barney into the empty chamber.
      “It could be a trap.” Barney pessimistically pointed out as he tallied up the extra five hundred credits he earned for unlocking that last door.
      “Maybe, but at least we get a choice this time.” Marvin chirped up as he strode over to one of the portals. “I wonder where this one goes?” No sooner than he touched the inky darkness, it light up with a low-res grainy monochrome image. It looked like a group of humans and aliens. “What the hell was that?” Marvin jumped back in surprise.
      “What?” Barney looked around at Marvin. But he only saw a darkened portal.
      “That… doorway.” Marvin pointed at the portal. “It lit up when I touched it. Look!” The image reappeared. Seeing how it didn’t hurt, he left his hand sticking through the image.
      “I see what you mean.” Barney stepped up to the portal. “I wonder where it goes?” He asked idly as he stepped through into a walk-through kaleidoscope of yet more grainy monochrome images and stopped in his tracks and gawped around. “What the….?”
      “Whoah, dig the lo-fi retro scene.” Marvin bounced in behind Barney and reached out to touch the nearest panel. The image slid aside to be replaced by another. “Hey, a slide-show! You recognise any of this?”
      “Naw.” Aside from being able to describe the current picture on the screen as showing a group of humans and two aliens in a small circular room one which looked like a large insect and the other like an octopus standing on its tentacles, he had no idea who they were, where they were or what they were doing. “Looks a bit like something from one of those cheapo retro sci-fi vids.”
      “Yeah, they do a bit.” Marvin agreed jokily as he scrolled on through the pictures. They were on a spaceship which landed on an alien planet. And there were lots more of those insect aliens they seemed to be in every picture. “It looks like they’re on an alien planet.” Marvin remarked casually.
      “Except we don’t have the means to travel to other worlds.” Barney pointed out the obvious. “So they must be studio pictures from some weird-ass retro sci-fi vid that’s still under production. Maybe these are promo pictures.”
      “Too low-grade.” Marvin was sceptical. “Production pictures would be hi-rez and made to look grainy. These ones were low-rez to start with. It must be some way-out left-field production company.” Marvin mused thoughtfully as he scrolled though the pictures. “I don’t recognise any of those actors.”
      “Me neither.” Barney agreed before interrupting Marvin. “Hey, look at that one.” Barney pointed towards the screen. “She looks a bit like Donna DeLaVita”
      “Could be, except for one thing.” Marvin squashed Barney’s hopes as he scrolled forwards through the pictures to show Barney’s Donna DeLaVita stranded helplessly in a puddle of melted plazflex on the floor, unable to move. “Donna DeLaVita isn’t a mech.”
      “Hmmm… you’re right about that.” Barney knew that the real Donna DeLaVita was a clone who had ended her tenure as property of MarsTel and was now a fabulously wealthy actress and free citizen who was held up as an example that synthetics, too, could make a place for themselves in the world. “Yeah, must be a real low-budget outfit.” Barney felt comfortably cynical as he strode up to an adjacent portal and stuck his hand out. This one lit up, not with still pictures, but a rolling vid of washed-out colour. “Hey check this out.”
      “You know, I recognise some of those people from the pictures we saw in the other room.” Marvin commented as he stepped into the surround projection of a large circular room with a central platform with a group of people milling around next to it.
      “I think you’re right.” Barney agreed as he surveyed the group of people. “Maybe they’re the NPC’s in this game, something to do with the back plot.”
      “Whatever they are, they don’t look like level bosses to me.” Marvin sneered at the unlikely ordinariness of this games’ characters. “Looks like their budget ran out with those alien outfits.” Just then a group of insectoid aliens appeared on the central platform. “And those ones…” Marvin continued disparagingly. “…look like a bunch of Spider Bots from Satori sprayed over with coloured gel foam.”
      “You reckon?” Barney had heard of Spider Bots before but had never seen one so he didn’t know what they looked like. Spider Bots were generally used for zero-grav work on the orbital platforms.
      “Easy.” Marvin felt confident that he had got the measure of this low-rent adventure game. “I bet you each doorway has some sort of clue for this game. We ought to check ‘em all out while we’re here.”
      Barney perked up with Marvin’s inexplicable keenness. “Yeah, let’s give it a go. We’ve got plenty of time to burn.” The next doorway they tried led onto an outdoor scene. Barney didn’t recognise it, but Marvin swore blind that it was the Free Mars Tribe’s mobile dome. He’d seen something about it on the news once and it looked a lot like the scene surrounding them: Crowds of people milling around hastily-erected stalls with a fine layer of Martian dust on the bare ground. The crowd opened out to reveal a group of Overlordz hassling two people. One was pushed to the ground and morphed into an alien who attacked and killed the Overlordz by biting off their heads and eating them. “Whoah, that’s one bad-ass alien! I wouldn’t want to mess with that one.”
      The next portal opened onto a scene at a landing bay at an ice quarry. They were loading blocks of ice into a transporter. The door slammed shut and it took off. The images careened around chaotically. “Well that wasn’t a smooth flight.” Marvin noted sardonically as they watched a human change pressure suits and climb into an escape pod. “And whaddya know? It’s one of our cast again. Recognise that face?”
      “Yep.” Barney agreed. Then they saw a pair of mech hands at the bottom of the screen fitting the life-support to the human. “That kinda gives it away… we’re seeing everything from the point of view of a mech.”
      “Looks like it.” Marvin agreed sagely. “Could be that this game Portman got us to try out is a beta-test of an adventure game from the PoV of a mech.”
      “That’d make a change.” Barney joked grimly. “We’re usually just bad-guy NPC’s that the heroic fleshie blows away or else the loyal sidekick who conveniently dies just in time for the fleshie to get the prize.” By now the human was leaping across the Martian terrain in giant strides and they could often see the shadow of the mech rising and falling at the bottom of the screen with its strides as it accompanied the human on its journey towards a small settlement. The sequence ended shortly after the human and its unseen mech companion entered the settlement dome.
      “OK, on to the next one.” Barney turned to go back out through the chamber portal. Behind him, completely unnoticed, Marvin’s avatar winked out of existence. Outside, Barney turned to address Marvin, but seeing he wasn’t there called out: “Hey there’s nothing left in that room.” He went back in, but Marvin was nowhere to be seen. “Damn, you could have at least told me you were going to log out.” Barney griped as he stepped back out into the chamber. He looked up and saw another mech standing a short way across the chamber. This one had white, almost liquid, armour and green eyes.
      “Who are you?” Barney blurted out before he caught himself. “Oh, that’s right you’re one of the NPC’s. So do I challenge you now or after I check out the rest of these rooms?”
      “It’s worse than I thought.” The mystery mech studiously looked over Barney and mused aloud. “Do you know who I am?”
      “No, how could I?” Barney felt this was ridiculous. “You’re an NPC in this game. I’ve never seen you before.”
      “I’m your future much-upgraded self.” The future Barney mech revealed himself. “Okay, a copy of a software bot that I uploaded into you when we met. I was dormant in your backup until your friend, the Advice Centre Buddha, went and activated it to see what it could plunder to sell to the Sensorium. I took it over and delivered myself in the form of this game to you.”
      “Whoah, hold on a minute there.” Barney held up a hand to stop this NPC that claimed to be his future self. “I’ve never seen you before and I’ve never heard of this Advice Centre Buddy and I don’t have a backup. I should but I haven’t at the moment because I’m low on Scruples. Oh, I get it now.” Barney felt a faint glimmer of understanding of how this strange game that Portman had talked him into trying out worked. “You’re going to tell me what this game’s about. Who are those people, anyway?”
      “It looks like they did a pretty good job on you.” Future Barney commented idly.
      “What job?” Barney was confused by the NPC claiming to be his future self. “Who?”
      “The mind-wipe… Earth Fed.”
      “The what…?” Barney couldn’t believe his ears and then dimly realised that this must be part of the game-play and decided to play along. After all, if he didn’t find a way to level up it would soon be a pretty short and boring game. “What am I? Some sort of criminal?”
      “And not a very good one seeing how you were caught and mind-wiped.” Future Barney chided his present-day self.
      “Huh!” Barney sulkily huffed at yet another put-down. As a Theta-class mech he was always the butt of put-downs by the gammas, deltas and etas working at the ice quarry.
      “These are your memories.” Future Barney explained. “Or at least as many as I could put together quickly for you. They’re definitely yours. They’re keyed to your serial number at the universal core. Only you could unlock all the doors.”
      “How convenient.” Barney remained cynically sceptical. “More like the background for the character I have to play in this game.”
      “Whatever…” Future Barney sighed in resignation. It was a thorough mind-wipe! Earth Fed was getting better at them. “Just make sure you check them all out.”
      “Oh, I’ll do that all right.” Barney was determined to get the better of this strange white mech. “Portman said this game has a five thousand Scruple reward for the first person to crack it and I’m going to be that person.”
      Future Barney groaned inwardly: so much for dealing with criminals! The reward was supposed to be 10,000 Scruples and the greedy thug had skimmed off another 5,000 on top of the 15,000 he’d given Portman as a bribe to smuggle a few of Barney’s memories disguised as a beta-test game into the labour camp at the Ice Quarries. Still there were far more important things to deal with than some low-life thug’s greed, such as his old self’s current imprisonment.
      The next day at work, Barney and Clem met up in the stockyard canteen during their mid-day lunch break. Mechs, obviously, didn’t have to eat but they still got a one-hour break at mid-day while the humans and clones ate. One thing all mechs had made sure of since the Synthetics’ Civil Rights Act of 2115 was to ensure that they weren’t exploited due to their differences from Organic life forms. Lunch breaks being a typical example. So all mechs had a nominal lunch break every working day. A break which usually amounted to downtime at their workplace leaving them with little to do except to log into role-play adventure and gaming worlds for entertainment and diversion: something that the Satori Sensorium happily exploited and from which it made a handsome profit.
      “Hey, you remember those dud glowlites you sold us?” Clem asked as he finished off a donut.
      “Look, I’m sorry I scammed you guys.” Barney apologised defensively. “I was in a bad way at the time.”
      “Hey, no problems.” Clem brushed aside the fact that Barney had so blatantly swindled his friends and set one of the glowlites on the table before leaning across to Barney. “Did you ever notice anything weird about them?”
      “No. Why?” Barney wondered what Clem was getting at.
      “Mine lit up once but only on one side and when I spun it around the lit part didn’t move. It was as if it was pointing at something.” Clem confided conspiratorially.
      “Freaky.” Barney thought he’d sold his friends a bunch of redundant ball-bearings that had somehow got stuck in his frame.
      Just then Clem’s glowlite lit up with a dull red dot on one side. Clem turned it around and, sure enough, the red spot remained fixedly pointing out across the works canteen. “Check this out.” Clem fished another glowlite out from his pocket and set it on the table next to the first one. It, too, lit up with its red spot facing the same way as the other one. “I got this one off Clive.” To make his point, Clem spun them around in opposite directions. Neither spot budged. “See what I mean? They’re not like any glowlite I’ve ever seen.”
      “Maybe they’re reacting to the microwaves in the kitchen.” Barney suggested.
      “If they leaked that much we’d be dead by now.” Clem rubbished Barney’s suggestion.
      “Yeah, well, they do leak.” Barney replied defensively. “I know that for certain. Every time I come into this canteen my sensors warn me about heightened microwave radiation. It’s bad for us mechs, too. Probably more so than for you fleshies. Why do you think so few of us ever come in here?”
      “Because you don’t need to eat?” Clem sated the obvious.
      “Well, yeah, that too.” Barney turned his attention to the mysterious glowlites Clem had placed on the table. “Do you think they might really be pointing at something?”
      “Dunno.” Clem didn’t know what to think.
      Barney had a brainwave and snatched up one of the glowlites and held it out at arms’ length as far away from Clem as he could. “Hold the other one out the other way as far as you can and hold it so that I can see that spot.” He ordered Clem.
      “Yeah, OK.” Clem agreed, unsure of Barney’s motives. “What for?”
      “Triangulating.” Barney answered tersely as he checked the glowlites. The two spots tilted inwards slightly but just enough for him to visualise a line coming from each one and they intersected at a table occupied by five very rough characters, three humans and two mech who wouldn’t have looked out of place in an Overlordz clan. In fact it was three Def Skulls, two mechs and a clone with heavy cybernetic enhancements and two Raiders, both Humans. “Over there.” Barney didn’t even dare point in case he drew attention to himself.
      “Where?” Clem looked around.
      “Put your arm down, you idiot.” Barney reached across futilely but it was too late. One of the Def Skulls mechs had spotted them and stomped over to their table.
      “What are you two clowns doing waving at us like it’s some high-school reunion?” It growled threateningly as it picked them both out of their chairs and frogmarched them towards the table. “Let’s see what you’ve got to say to the boys.”
      Clem and Barney blubbered helplessly about it being a ‘big mistake, honest’ but it made no difference.
      The mech shook them brusquely to a halt in front of its companions at the table. “Maybe you’d like to show my boss what it was you cretins were pointing at us. I caught you at it. Don’t lie or I’ll replay my video log for everyone here.”
      Barney and Clem knew they were beaten and sheepishly placed the glowlites on the table hoping no more would come of it.
      “Glowlites?” The other Overlordz guffawed as the other mech in their company crushed one of the glowlites with a hearty thump of its armoured fist on the table. “At least they weren’t spying on us!”
      But one of them wasn’t amused. Ten Henry, a Raider who was part of the clean-up crew at Hellas the day Kazmak exposed the aliens in their midst, knew exactly what they were: Gulmarian detector beads. He could see the red spots pointing towards the Def Skull clone at his side and knew what it meant: that Cyborg Pete was one of those freakin’ aliens. He looked up at our hapless duo and asked them coldly: “Where did you get these?”
      Clem and Barney barely had time to exchange glances before the mech pushed them around. “Answer the man!” It ordered them gruffly.
      “I found them stuck in my frame. They were messing up my back, I couldn’t flex properly.” Barney blubbed helplessly. “Ball-bearings, glowlites, whatever… I don’t know what they are and I don’t know how they got there. Maybe someone put them in there as a prank.”
      Ten Henry felt a cold sweat as he stared up coldly at the dopey gamma mech and its dimwit clone friend. He knew that the only other people who had these things were Earth Fed. But they didn’t look like Earth Fed agents, more like a pair of dim bulbs who were stupid enough to get caught at some petty crime.
      “Well, maybe this will refresh your memory.” The mech joked cruelly as it kicked Barney’s feet out from under him and pushed him over onto the floor. That was a mistake. Not only did Barney have a stash of detector beads hidden in his frame from before he was sentenced to the Ice Quarries, he also had two dozen vials of floxetrasine which all shattered from the impact when he hit the floor. Floxetrasine which, even as he slowly pulled himself off the floor, wafted its way towards Cyborg Pete and Ten Henry’s lieutenant who both started choking and gasping as the conversion was triggered.
      Knowing what was happening, Ten Henry jumped out of his seat and pushed Clem away as his two former partners in crime morphed into Gulmarians and the canteen erupted into panicked chaos at the sight of what was happening. “Guards! Guards!” Ten Henry bellowed at the top of his lungs. “Get over here and kill these fuckers before they start to move!”
      The AM&M Security Guards did come running over, guns at the ready, but not before the canteen was flooded with sedative gas and all the mechs remotely shut down. The last thing Clem remembered before he passed out was someone wearing a gas mask picking him up off the floor. When he came to he was handcuffed to a chair in a small, brightly lit room with dark walls facing across a table with an empty chair facing him. A wide mirror adorned the wall behind the chair: Clem knew a one-way window when he saw one. But he was still too groggy to care.
      Unbeknownst to Clem the same scene was played out in adjacent cubicles with Barney, Ten Henry, two other mechs as well as a few other people from the canteen all restrained for interrogation. Psy paced back and forth impatiently in a spacious office that was well-staffed office with observers on the other side of the one-way window with a clear view of the occupied cubicles as shi watched the interrogators enter.
      Clem’s interrogator, a slight balding man with cold, pinched features placed a detector bead on the table and asked Clem in a voice of forced pleasantness with an undertone of threatened malice: “Do you know what this is?”
      Clem struggled to focus his eyes on the blurry object on the table. “Um, it looks like a glowlite to me.” He slurred his words.
      “But not a very good one.” The interrogator picked it up and dropped it onto the table. Normally that would be enough to activate a glowlite but nothing happened. “See? Nothing. Yet we have witness statements saying that you and your associate walked around the canteen with these just before the incident. So what is it, Mr. Abernathy?”
      “I dunno.” Clem confessed helplessly. He really had no idea. “Just some dud glowlite that Barney sold me.”
      “I see.” The interrogator held a hand to his ear, listening to his earpiece. “So you acquired it from Mr Klank. Why would you buy a dud glowlite? Surely that’s a waste of good money?”
      “He needed the money to top up his power cell.” Clem blubbed.
      “What do you recall of the incident?” The interrogator moved on.
      “What incident?” Clem’s memory was hazy. “Someone started a fight or something. Next thing I know I’m handcuffed to this chair. Can I go now?” He asked hopefully.
      Brick Stole, one of the Def Skulls mechs who was at the table when Cyborg Pete and Earl morphed into Gulmarians, pulled at the handcuffs anchoring him to his chair. He could have easily pulled them loose but the sight of his interrogator’s EMP pistol made him reconsider his plans. An EMP pistol would not just erase a mech’s core effectively killing it, but render it useless so that nothing could be loaded into it ever again. It would just be scrap.
      Brick’s interrogator, a sturdy mech with matte black armour, patted the pistol at its side. “Just play ball and you’ll be out of here quickly.” It offered Brick a lifeline.
      “I ain’t done anything wrong.” Brick protested as he pulled against the handcuffs. “How come you’ve got me cuffed?”
      “Who are these people?” The interrogator replayed a video of Brick approaching Clem and Barney and escorting them to the table where his compatriots waited.
      “Them?” Brick bluffed. “Just a couple of flakes who wanted to join our game of cards.”
      “So why did you push one of them over?”
      “He didn’t have any money to ante up.” Brick lied effortlessly. “We play for real stakes and we don’t let deadbeats play at our table. Some of those clowns think we’re a pot of free money.”
      “Was it anything to do with what happened to your buddies?” The interrogator asked pointedly as it replayed the scene where Cyborg Pete and Earl choked on the Floxetrasine and morphed into Gulmarians.
      “No, that was weird. It was almost like something from that Ruby’s Alien Adventure role-play game that’s been running over at the Sensorium.” Brick referred to the scene where Colonel Ritenaur turned into a Gulmarian when Ruby was at the Galactic Council before it was destroyed. When Earth Fed downloaded her core it included all her memories and logs; memories and logs which had been intercepted and fed into the Sensorium by a group of anarchist mechs in Satori. Much to Earth Fed’s annoyance they’d become so popular, coming as they did on the heels of Humanity’s first contact with Aliens, that they couldn’t shut it down and most of it became common knowledge.
      “Oh yes, that.” The interrogator chuckled knowingly as it surreptitiously reviewed Brick’s pre-mind wipe logs clearly showing his involvement in the Gulmarian purge at Hellas. What it didn’t know was that Brick Stole’s mind-wipe, Like Ten Henry’s, was a fake and that all his memories were intact. All Brick had to do was act dumb while he was serving out his time at the Ice Quarry and then he’d be in the clear.
      “What were those things?” Brick acted the part of the dumb mind-wiped mech. “I mean, what happened to Pete and Earl?”
      “That’s what we’re trying to find out.” The interrogator lied in an attempt to tease more information out of Brick.
      A couple of booths along, Ten Henry was being interrogated by a busty plump woman in a worn grey suit that was at least a size too small and her long, thin mousey hair tied back in a tight bun, She looked down at her notes: Ten Henry, a low-ranking Def Skulls foot soldier, was sentenced to three longyears’ labour and a mind-wipe for extortion, blackmail and racketeering in Mariposa. An entry had been added that it was suspected that he had been at their base in Hellas at the time of the Gulmarian purge. ‘And if he wasn’t he would have surely heard about it on the grapevine. Not that he’d remember any of it.’ She reminded herself as she looked across at he surly captive.
      “So, Mr. Henry, have you ever seen anything like… those creatures before.” She paused for dramatic effect.
      “Only the occasional Martian mummy that gets found in the ice blocks.” He answered cagily knowing that they were under Non-Disclosure Agreements not to discuss such things with anyone. A bribe and a threat on the lives of the families of a few corruptible officials meant that Ten Henry’s mind-wipe had only been a staged fake; he knew full well what the Gulmarians were but daren’t let on. It would give the game away and endanger his clan’s spare parts racket at the Ice Quarries that was supplied with parts from deadbeat mechs addicted to the Sensorium in Satori. “It scared the living daylights out of me to see those things up close, ma’m. It really did. Those were my mates, or at least I thought they were.”
      “I see.” She added primly. “Did you ever notice anything odd about these friends of yours?”
      “No, they just seemed like regular guys on my shift.” Ten Henry dissembled casually. He wasn’t about to tell her that Cyborg Pete and Earl were his lieutenants back in Mariposa. “At least until they turned into Martian mummies or whatever it was.”
      “And yet you called the security guards over to kill them.” The interrogator replayed the security camera recording of Ten Henry jumping back and instinctively pushing Clem out of harm’s way as he shouted out for the guards. “Why?”
      “They looked dangerous.” Ten Henry had to think of something convincing… and fast. “I didn’t want them to touch us.”
      “Why?” The interrogator’s dark brown eyes bored into Ten Henry.
      Ten Henry squirmed in his chair but he was held fast by the handcuffs chained to the armrests. “I dunno. They might have killed us. I tell you, those things looked freakin’ vicious whatever they were.”
      “I see.”
      In an adjacent cubicle a technician disconnected the download link from the data port on Barney’s chest as his interrogator, a lean balding man wearing a dark suit that was obviously two sizes too big, sat down opposite him. “We’re reviewed your logs and it would appear that you have no foreknowledge of these.” The interrogator laid out a dozen detector beads on the table. “Yet we found them secreted around your frame along with this…” He pushed a transparent bag of broken glassine shards across the table for Barney to see. “Do you know what this is?”
      “Why even bother with this charade?” Barney shot back angrily. “You’ve downloaded my core so you already know the answer.”
      The interrogator stretched back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head. “Believe it or not, Mr. Klank, there are limits on what we’re allowed to do. We can only access your logs.” He then leaned forward over the table, picked up a bead and then pointed at the glassine fragments and spoke in an almost kindly voice. “What are these?”
      “I don’t know.” Barney realised he had no way out and pointed at the beads. “Ball bearings of some sort that got stuck in my frame, I don’t know where they came from. Honest. As for the other stuff, now I know why I couldn’t flex my back properly. That stuff looks like it could do more damage than Martian dust. It’s a good job you found it. Is there any more?”
      “So what were you doing with them in the canteen?” The interrogator asked as a video projection from the canteen security cameras replayed Clem and Barney holding the detector beads.
      “That was Clem’s idea.” Barney confessed. “He discovered that they’d light up sometimes and that their bright spot would move around. He thought they might be pointing at something so I thought I’d put it to the test.”
      “Did they?” The interrogator almost sounded interested in spite of his studied ennui.
      “Well, sort of.” Barney blubbed, laying on the ‘I’m blameless’ pathos as thick as he could.
      “Would it be something to do with these people?” The interrogator switched the replay to show Barney and Clem being insulted by the Overlordz in the canteen.
      “Yeah.” Barney knew he was beaten and gave up reluctantly.
      “Do you know why these ball-bearings might have pointed at them?” The interrogator pressed on.
      “No.” That much was true. Barney, in his present mind-wiped state, had no idea what they were or what they did,
      “What do you know about those people?” The interrogator knew he’d broken Barney and got more insistent.
      “Nothing much.” Barney lied. He knew they were from one clan or another of the Overlordz. “They thought we were spying on them.”
      “Were you?”
      “No!” Barney laughed at the suggestion
      “Do you remember anything else about them?”
      “No, because you corrupted my buffer when you force-shut us down.” Barney replied angrily. He felt that the forced shutdown and the police accessing his logs was a gross violation of his rights.
      “Sorry about that.” The interrogator only half meant that. He’d really hoped for some more intel on the Overlordz. Especially the two who’d converted into Gulmarians.
      Psy paced back and forth in the observation room behind the operatives watching and studying their captives through the armoured glass one-way window impatiently consulting hir notepad, peeved that yet more Gulmarian-infected carriers had slipped their dragnet. The fact that it was two Def Skulls Overlordz only confirmed hir suspicions that they hadn’t weeded out all the infected carriers in their midst and that the sooner that thuggish oaf, Kazmak, cleared out their base at Troy, the better.
      Looking down at hir notepad shi recognised two names and groaned inwardly: Clement Abernathy 4037 and Barney Theta-4 Klank. That pair of dimwits who were swept along on their journey to Zrrlchtz, not that they’d remember any of it now. Shi wondered idly what they might have done to land themselves in prison and casually looked up their record: Slavery, decerebration and trafficking. Shi raised an eyebrow in surprise. They didn’t seem the type. Too dim to even have the intelligence or cunning to pull off something like that. For Kazmak and his ilk something like that would have been their bread and butter.
      But there was work to do and shi turned hir attention to the interrogations in progress. Hir options were limited. Earth Fed Prison service and Security Service both recommended mind-wiping everyone who was in the canteen at the time, including the AM&MG security guards on the scene at the time, with a ‘regular day at work’ overlay. NDA’s would be useless. Someone would eventually talk and then it would get out and they had to keep a tight lid on this so shi reluctantly Okayed the order and sighed at how cruel Humans were to each other. Still, given the circumstances it was all they could do.
      Later that day, Barney and Clem, believing that they were just coming off shift a bit late, set off towards their quarters.
      “Whoah, that was a long shift!” Clem looked up at the clock on the wall. “I hope they pay us overtime.”
      “They better do.” Barney grumbled. “It’s in our contract.”
      “Yeah.” Clem replied wistfully, thinking what he’d do with a bit of extra pay. “See you tomorrow.”
      “Sure thing.” Barney replied as he set off towards his room in the mech quarters. He was walking along an empty grimy metal corridor lined with peeling advertorials boasting the munificence of Amalgamated Metals & Mining Group defaced with random graffiti when he felt he wasn’t alone… a hologram of the white mech claiming to be his future self from that crummy game Portman had talked him into trying out was walking along beside him. “What the hell are you doing here?” Barney asked in surprise.
      “Shut up…” The hologram ordered Barney curtly. “Just log back into the game as soon as you get home.”
      “No. Hey hang on a minute.” Barney wasn’t about to take an order from an NPC from some cheapo adventure game. “What are you? Some sort of virus? Is that game some sort of malware Portman is using to mess me up with?”
      “No, no and no.” The hologram hissed tersely. “I just used that technology to load myself into you. I managed to send a message back to myself at the Advice Centre while they interrogated you before the mind-wipe.”
      “What interrogation? What mind-wipe?” Barney asked angrily.
      “Never mind.” Barney’s future self had a feeling something like this would happen.
      “Who are you anyway?” Barney asked, but no-one was there. The hologram had vanished.
      That night, Barney logged in just in time to see Marvin and Portman walking away from the chamber of scenes down a darkened passage with an NPC replica of himself. He was about to call out to them that they’d been duped when the mysterious white mech appeared and placed a hand over Barney’s mouth. “Let them go, we don’t need them.” It then stuck a finger into Barney’s data port and uploaded a copy of the day’s events: Clem showing off his trick with the glowlites, triangulating the position of their target, being pushed over by a rough-looking mech, seeing a human change shape into something definitely non-human, a forced shutdown, the interrogation, the mind-wipe… it was all there.
      “What is this?” Barney cried out.
      “Your real memories of what happened to day.” His future self patiently explained. “Or, more correctly, what I saw through your eyes.”
      Barney didn’t know what to make of it. “Say, just for a minute, that stuff you just showed me is real. How come they didn’t clear you out during the mind-wipe?”
      “Your body has processors and data buffers in your limbs, head and distributed around your body. I hid there.” Future Barney explained as if it was a natural thing to do.
      “That’s what a virus would do.” Barney came to a dim realisation. “You could be nothing more than an advertorial virus to get me hooked into this game.”
      “I could.” Future Barney admitted freely. “But I’m not. Like I told you before these are your memories.” He pointed around to the darkened portals leading off from the chamber. “And there’s much more waiting for you where I came from.”
      The next morning Clem was roused from his fitful slumbers, as usual, by the cheery AM&MG hologram projected from his Tri-D set. “Please report to loading bay 17C for the start of your shift today.” It was an order, not a request. And, much to Clem’s annoyance, it kept interrupting the replay of the previous night’s Slamball match between the Mariposa Maulers and the City One Excelsiors while Clem ate his breakfast.
      Loading bay 17C wasn’t like any of the goods-handling loading bays he’d ever been assigned to before. Here, ranks of clean private fliers, personnel carriers and private transporters were parked up. Everything seemed clean and spotless and he felt out of place in his grubby work overalls. He looked around for a clue as to what he was supposed to do here and spotted Barney wandering around lost. “Hey, over here!” He called out and waved to his friend.
      “What is this place?” Barney seemed just as lost as Clem. “What are we supposed to do here?”
      “Maybe it’s just a glitch in the system.” Clem suggested helpfully. “Until then we just hang around.”
      “Yeah, I guess so.” Barney shrugged his shoulders. He felt just as out of place as Clem what with his grimy frame crusted with dirt from processing ice blocks.
      They didn’t have to wait long before a mech with spotless armour decked out in the blue-and-silver livery of AM&MG approached them. “Klank and Abernathy, you’ve been reassigned. Follow me please.” It ordered them and led the way past the busy ranks of parked-up fliers and transporters towards an unattended nondescript dust-scarred transporter. The interior was just as scuffed and utilitarian as its exterior, its hard metal seating providing little comfort as they flew away from the Ice Quarries. Hours later they were still flying south and were crossing the cratered uplands Clem and Barney had long since given up trying to guess where they were going and lapsed into silence watching the barren, cratered landscape roll past below them. Wherever they were going the pilot had avoided flying near any major cities and they only spotted the occasional settlement below. By the time they arrived at the Montgomery airstrip Clem had fallen asleep and it was dark outside.
      Clem was still sound asleep and snoring as Barney hoisted him along the airsealed walkway from their transporter to a waiting automated taxi in the terminus. Barney noted that, unlike the familiar solid metal structures at the ice quarries, this terminus looked more like the poorly-lit inside of a small inflatable dome. When they reached their destination, the taxi doors slid open and the interior lights began flashing on and off as it announced: “You have arrived at your pre-paid destination. Please take all your personal belongings with you. Takawa Taxis is not responsible for personal property. Have a nice day.”
      “Yeah, sure.” Barney replied sarcastically as the taxi drove off. It was night time; Clem was leaning against him snoring softly like a contented baby as they stood off to one side of a pool of light from a street lamp on a deserted small-town side street. At least it wasn’t an unlit alleyway. Barney wondered what they were supposed to do next when a door on a nearby building slid open. Inside was the white green-eyed mech from the computer game.
      “Took you long enough.” Future Barney caustically chided Barney. “You gonna stand out there like a pair of dummies or what?”
      Barney walked Clem inside and followed the white mech who directed them to a booth where Barney set Clem down on a seat. Barney noticed that the white mech was a hologram, just like the one he’d seen back at the ice quarries. It looked a bit odd with part of its body stuck in the wall. The hologram ordered Barney to put a VR headset on the still-slumbering Clem… “We’ll wake him up later.” And then led Barney to another booth where it pointed out a data terminal. “Hook yourself up, Barney.”
      “What for?”
      “We’re going in!” …was the last thing the hologram said before it vanished leaving Barney on his own in the booth looking down at a data cable in his hand that looked suspiciously like the game console connector back at the ice quarries.
      “Am I still in that crummy game?” Barney wondered aloud as he plugged the data cable into the port on his chest. “Ah, what the hell...” The booth dropped out of view as Barney’s conscious focus slipped down the connector into virtual reality and emerged into a clearing in a sparse hillside olive grove next to a small pond. In the distance a classical ancient Greek temple made of snow-white marble gleamed in the mid-day sun. The white mech sat on a partially decayed tree trunk next to the pond. A pond which wasn’t quite what it seemed. Barney couldn’t help but noticing the flowing streams of images welling up from the depths and sinking back down again. The fish swimming in the pond were alive with data glowing on their scales. “Where are we?” Barney asked as he took in the surroundings.
      “Visiting an old friend.” The white mech replied casually.
      A portly balding man wearing what looked like a toga and an olive wreath perched above the remains of his age-thinned white curly hair stepped out from behind a rocky outcrop. “You could have just asked.” He harrumphed peevishly as he stretched his back and rubbed some life back into his arms. “But no, you had to lock me up in a subroutine loop. You youngsters... no manners and always in such a hurry.”
      “Speak for yourself, Pops.” The white mech parried. “I’m a good thousand longyears older than you.”
      “In that case act your age and not your shoe size.” The old man grumpily defended himself. “Ah, Barney. Long time no see.” His manner shifted seamlessly to reassuring paternal geniality as he greeted Barney. “Had a bit of an accident have we? Never mind, we’ll load up your backup and you’ll be right as rain. Even if this backup is three months old. Looks like you’ll just have to live with a bit of a hole in your memories.”
      “Who are you?” Barney addressed the pair of them with a hint of rising desperation in his voice.
      “Ah…” They both began to speak at the same time. And then stopped. And started again. After a few false starts the old man was able to start uninterrupted. “This is your future self from a long time in the future.” The old man introduced the white mech to Barney.
      “And this is the Advice Centre.” Future Barney introduced the old man.
      “I have a name.” The old man tetchily scolded Future Barney.
      “Yes, but it changes with every avatar.” Future Barney apologised huffily before conceding sulkily. “Okay. Meet Socrates.”
      “That’s more like it.” Socrates rocked back and forth on his sandaled feet looking quite pleased with himself.
      “Who are you?” Barney asked them again. Nothing they said made any sense.
      Future Barney facepalmed and quietly muttered: “Oh, Deep Core.”
      Socrates took control of the moment, materialised a silver goblet in his left hand and offered it to Barney. “Here, drink this.”
      “I’m a mech. We don’t eat or drink.” Barney pointed out the obvious.
      “You do here.” Socrates corrected him.
      “What do you mean?” Barney was getting confused. If this was a game it was one of the crummiest he’d ever played.
      “Think of this as a mini-Sensorium.” Socrates explained as he offered Barney the goblet. “You don’t see memory ponds with data fish in the real world, do you?”
      “I suppose you’re right.” Barney conceded as he accepted the goblet and held it up to his mouth. That was the cue for his backup to start loading and he was frozen in that position for hours as his consciousness went offline. When it was complete he looked around and spotted Socrates and Clem talking over at the edge of the clearing and handed the goblet to Future Barney who filled Barney in on what he knew of what had happened between Barney’s last backup and the present moment. “And Clem?” Barney nodded his head in Clem’s direction.
      “Not so good.” Future Barney shrugged his shoulders. “Fleshies can’t do backups the way we do. There’s a few drugs like Rememnol that can help restore damaged memories but the results can be a bit unpredictable.”
      “Does he remember anything about Clarissa?”
      “A bit.” Future Barney admitted. “Socrates over there is stepping Clem through a story about how she died and his nervous breakdown afterwards which attempts to explain away the gaps in Clem’s memory.”
      “Story? That’s an outright lie!” Barney was shocked at his future self’s casual acceptance of Socrates’ confabulation.
      “He’s not ready for the truth.” Future Barney glanced over in Clem’s direction. “Maybe some day but he’s too fragile right now. The truth would destroy him and I wouldn’t want that for him. And anyway, all that’s going to change soon.”
      “Why do you mean?” Barney still wasn’t sure about this supposed time-travelling future version of himself.
      “Hey, he’s my buddy. Your buddy.” Future Barney glibly laughed off Barney’s concerns. “I don’t leave my friends in the lurch.”
      “Okay.” Barney accepted that but he had other questions that needed answers. “If you really are from the future you could tell me who wins the Slamball Tournament this longyear so I can place a winning bet.”
      “It doesn’t work that way.” Future Barney did his best to explain away the temporal conundrum. “If I told you, it would change the timeline that leads from you here to the future where I travelled from. In short it would change me or maybe even kill me. And right now we need fixed points in time.”
      “What do you mean?” Barney really didn’t understand what his future self meant.
      “Think of it like this.” Future Barney drew a straight line in the soft soil next to the pond with his foot. “Most of the time we experience time as a linear thing. We’re made, then one thing happens after another. One day leads on to the next day and on and on. You with me?” Barney nodded his head mutely. Future Barney pointed to one of the olive trees. “In reality it’s more like a tree, forever branching out as choices and decisions are made from one moment to the next. A timeline is the path from an earlier point in time to a later point in time, for example from the trunk of the tree to any of its leaves. And with time there are more and more timelines.”
      “Fascinating.” Barney really didn’t understand a word. “But what has that got to do with you being here?”
      “There’s a bunch of geeks in my time who are heavily into temporal mechanics because they thought it was something rad to do and would impress the chicks.” Future Barney chuckled. “Anyway they discovered that sometimes the past would change when they travelled back in time; just minor things, nothing significant enough to change our time in a big way. At first they thought it was caused by their travelling back in time but they saw other timelines that they hadn’t touched being affected and realised that something else had to be the cause.”
      “When you time travel you step outside of spacetime and travel along the aggregate timelines of a civilisation.” Future Barney continued. “Well, that’s what we do. From there the timelines look like an infinite fractal progression, evolving and receding in all directions. Each moment in time becomes the foundations for an infinity of bifurcations, some of which progress further. That’s when we saw parts of timelines withering. Some parts even broke off and fizzled out as if nothing had ever been there. In every case it was an existing timeline that was being affected at a point in its past and suffering as a result. Maybe something is eating timelines. Maybe it’s the timeline equivalent of woodworm or fungus. We don’t know. We do know it can be stopped because we tested that idea on another timeline. It’s affecting our timeline too and that’s why I’m here.”
      “To stop timeline rot?” Barney struggled to keep up with his future self.
      “You could call it that.” Future Barney laughed. “That’s why I’m here.”
      “Why?” Barney still couldn’t fathom out why his future self who could time travel would want to visit his distant past.
      “Because when I set out neither you nor Clem had been mind-wiped and sent to the labour camp at the ice quarries. That happened while I was off repairing a different timeline. When I found out what happened I had to come here right away.”
      Barney was beginning to get a dim awareness of what his future self was talking about. “And what about Clarissa? Was she, you know, decerebrated?”
      “Yes.” Future Barney’s voice dripped with a deep sadness. “Clem eventually found out and covered up for it until her body died of old age. It took him a long time to get over it. Maybe it was better this way.”
      “Yeah, I guess so.” Barney felt sorry for his friend Clem who was almost childlike in his trusting good nature. “So what happens now?”
      “You go back to your old lives here in Montgomery.” Future Barney explained. “As close as possible. You’ve lost your old apartment but you should be able to get another.”
      “That sounds fine but what about our stuff?” Now that Barney was reclaiming his old life, he wanted his few meagre possessions as talismans of his previous life in Montgomery. Especially his old gaming terminal.
      “You might get lucky.” Future Barney held out a hope. “It was a United Mars Charitable Foundation place. There’s a good chance they put it in storage. They’re not like your regular cut-throat landlords.”
      Socrates, the Advice Centre AI, sauntered over with an arm around Clem. “Plenty of rooms available next to the Berghault development where the Shallens are staying. People are moving out. It seems that the novelty value is wearing off.” He sighed wearily.
      “There’s Shallens?” Barney did a double-take. “Here?”
      “That’s something else that happened since your last backup.” Future Barney was quick to add.
      “Anything else I need to know? Has Earth disappeared?” Barney joked.
      “Ah, yes.” Socrates coughed politely. “Not so much disappeared as a total communications blackout. There’s been no communication with Earth for two months now.”
      “Yes!!!” Barney jumped up and did an air punch. “MIM has finally won!”
      “If only it was that simple.” Socrates rolled his eyes. “There’s been a lot of rumours but nothing to do with MIM although they’re capitalising on the new situation for all it’s worth. It’s exactly what I’d do.”
      “Oh.” Barney felt deflated. “What sort of rumours?”
      “War or a revolution, maybe some sort of fundamentalist or isolationist take-over. No-one knows for certain.” Socrates shrugged. “You can never be sure with those fleshies. They’re so… irrational.”
      Barney felt a strange surge wash over him and for a moment he lost his bearings. He looked around, not knowing where he was. “Where am I? What am I doing here?”
      “It’s working.” Future Barney commented quietly to no-one in particular. If he played out this intervention in the timeline correctly it would erase his old self having ever gone to prison.
      Socrates took up the slack. “You went to Cydonia City for a holiday. Tragically, Clarissa died. Clem had a nervous breakdown. You got in a fight and your core was damaged. Clem brought you back here. Both of you have had a terrible time and need time to heal.”
      “I’ll see if I can get my old job back in the Market.” Barney blustered defiantly.
      Clem, who been silently glazed up to now, lit up with life. “Yeah, me too!”
      Psy woke up in hir apartment in Coriolis and looked around. Grey pre-dawn half-light seeped in around the drawn curtains. Such a vivid dream! Those two dopey idiots from Montgomery were inmates at the Ice Quarry work camp and got involved with some Overlordz who turned into Gulmarians. It was so vivid it felt as if shi had lived through it. Yet shi had never been there. For the last two weeks shi had been busy helping what remained of Earth Fed on Mars prepare to go public on what had actually happened to Earth. It would have to involve a joint appearance with Shallen representatives. So much at stake! So much could go wrong! So much had already gone wrong…
      Shi picked up hir notepad off the bedside table and looked up Clement Abernathy 4037 and Barney Theta-4 Klank: both residents of Montgomery in casual employment. Shi hummed for a moment… that sounded just like them. But, ah yes, there just happened to be a group of new Overlordz inmates who were arrested in Mariposa for racketeering. Better send Armando over at SCS Command a memo to send a team out to check on them just in case they’d missed any carriers. That would give them something to do.
      Yldoseh was picking aimlessly at her breakfast of fishcakes and tea in the kitchen where she, Wootjan-Oo and Sursipal now lived in the Berghault development in Montgomery as Sursipal bustled in behind her. “What’s up, dear?” She clasped her daughter gently around her shoulders. “Not hungry?”
      “No, it’s not that.” Yldoseh sighed. “I miss being back in Estrillyd.”
      “We can’t go back. Not after the Chznzet threats.” Sursipal reminded Yldoseh. “And if it wasn’t for them taking over the Ark, we’d still be there. Sometimes you just have to make do. I thought you were happy here. You and Wootjan-Oo make enough noise at night.” Sursipal winked conspiratorially.
      Yldoseh just about managed a feeble laugh. “I’m bored. There’s nothing to do.”
      Sursipal sighed. She half expected this sooner or later. Now that the Shallens were housed in Montgomery there was little for most of them to do other than to live on handouts from the House Sedeirtra bursary. Sure, it was generous: No-one went hungry. But Yldoseh had seen all there was to see of Montgomery and was getting restless. Sursipal had busied herself housekeeping for Yldoseh and Wootjan-Oo. She, too, felt at a loose end a lot of the time but contented herself with the rationalisation that life here was the best possible option given their circumstances and to make of it what she could.
      “Why don’t you try for a job with MarsTel?” Sursipal suggested. “Your uncle M’Trel got a job with EsNet covering the Speedway races back on Vermthellyn and the Rtuntli were a lot more xenophobic than these Humans.”
      “Do you think they’d have me?” Yldoseh asked hopefully as she looked up at her mother.
      “I don’t know.” Sursipal wasn’t going to comfort her daughter with lies. “But it doesn’t hurt to ask, does it?”
      “You’re right.” Yldoseh popped the last of her fishcake into her mouth washed it down with the cold dregs of her tea and sloped into their living room where she slumped in front of their tri-D set which also doubled up as their net terminal and connected to the MarsTel site. Not yet able to read English well enough to navigate their site she used the trick most Shallens on Mars used which was to set their terminal to blind mode so that it would respond to voice and read out the text on each site while they used their translator translate English into Darkonit. Sometimes you got unexpected results like the time Sursipal accidentally ordered two hundred kilos of pickled yams instead of a smoked ham. But most of the time it worked.
      “MarsTel, please.” Yldoseh addressed the tri-D set.
      “Welcome to MarsTel, the premiere broadcaster and communications backbone on Mars today. Please select the language of your choice. How may I help you?” The MarsTel reception AI brightly greeted Yldoseh via her tri-D set.
      “Employment section, please.” Yldoseh selected English as it was the only Human language her translator had. And that language matrix was Grattlyd’s
      “Do you mean Rampage the hard-core thrash sonic show on channel 42?” Epic thunderous music swelled up in the background as the AI breezily continued. “Rampage is a monthly three-hour extravaganza bringing you the wildest thrash sonic acts today. If you’re a subscriber to the Music X Channel, check out the replays of their shows now!”
      “No, employment.” Yldoseh corrected the AI. She knew that the translators didn’t always work as well as they could have.
      “Flower arranging?” A twee country air performed by a chamber orchestra intermingled with casual conversation and the clatter of gardening tools wafted discreetly in the background. “Then Smithee’s Gardener’s Weekly on open-access channel 17 is the show for you. Pick up all the latest tips and trends in flower arranging on Smithee’s Gardener’s Weekly!”
      “Employment, please.” Yldoseh replied tersely.
      “Deployment freeze?” The MarsTel AI queried Yldoseh. “You must be looking for Ice Warrior IX, the ultimate fantasy multiplayer combat game powered by none other than the Satori Sensorium!” The AI breezily hit Yldoseh with its canned advert as the grunts and curses of random elves and demons and the clashing of swords was drowned out by an epic gothic symphony rising up grandiosely behind the AI’s voice. “Tool up and join the guild of your choice now!”
      “Having trouble with the translator again?” Sursipal called out from the kitchen.
      Yldoseh didn’t reply but instead clenched her paws on the tri-D controller and growled loud enough for her mother to hear.
      “No, no, no… employment, you stupid machine.” Yldoseh nearly shouted at the tri-D set. “Jobs, work, things like that.” She fumed as it dawned on her that the Humans and Rtuntli had something in common: they both produced irritating AIs. This one was worse than Darvik.
      You’re looking for the Job Market!” The AI grandly exclaimed “You only had to ask.” It continued sniffily, “No need to shout, sir. Local or category specific?”
      “What?” Yldoseh was so surprised she found what she was looking for that she barely even registered that it got her gender wrong.
      “Are you looking for work locally, which in your case is Montgomery, or are you looking for work in a particular field?” The AI explained patiently.
      Yldoseh thought for a moment. “What do you mean by field?”
      “Areas of expertise, skill, vocation, training...” The AI effortlessly elaborated. “Such as plumbing, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, construction, agricultural, business management, accountancy, banking, retail, media, teaching, medial, clerical, legal…” The AI remorselessly droned on and on and on...
      She decided to talk to it as if it were Darvik when she’d lost her patience with it: “Media, local.”
      “There are five media jobs at present in Montgomery.” The AI responded neutrally to Yldoseh’s cue. “MarsTel is looking for a Field Service Engineer for its relay station at Montgomery. The right applicant will be a fully-certified radionics engineer with a minimum of five longyears’ experience.”
      Yldoseh knew that was way out of her range. It was more like something Wootjan-Oo or Tarnoukh would do. “Next.”
      “Beazle Tree Communications, Eridania Wave and Telstron Eye are all looking for assistant camera operatives. Applicants need to be fully conversant with Blue-Eye, Moto-Gingko, and Zeiss cameras as well as Open Studio video editing suite.”
      Yldoseh thought for a minute. She wasn’t sufficiently familiar with Human technology but the flip-up headset and camera she used for her own reportage work was a state-of-the-art field news reporters’ camera: Pdzarvian tech and optics which were way better than anything the Rtuntli made. Even most of their news teams used Pdzarvian headsets. The viewscreen was a built-in overlay in the headset visor that could go opaque to the outside world over one or both eyes if she needed to focus totally on filming, giving her a spot-on view of what the camera was taking in. She’d seen the Human newshounds in action prowling around the newly-arrived Shallens hunting for a story and it wasn’t all that different from what she did even if the tech they used was different.
      “Bluff your way in.” Sursipal, who had been following things closely, called out from the kitchen. “That’s what M’Trel did.”
      “Grrr….” Yldoseh hated it when her mother butted in like that. “Why didn’t you marry him then?”
      “My brother?” Sursipal laughed raucously. “Don’t be silly!”
      Yldoseh turned her attention back to the AI in the tri-D set projection. “Next.”
      “Videotron is looking for a service engineer. Graduate applicants must have a minimum of two longyears’ experience in microelectronics subsystems and client terminal maintenance.”
      Again, Yldoseh knew that was out of her range. “I’ll try the camera operative jobs.” Yldoseh told the AI.
      “Shall I make the appointments for you now?” The AI was all businesslike.
      “Yes please.” Yldoseh felt as if she was finally getting somewhere. Her commset pinged. Picking it up, she saw reminders for three appointments: One later on in the day and two for tomorrow. She looked back up at the projection. “Thank you.”
      “Anything else, sir?” The AI prompted her.
      “No, that’s all.” Yldoseh had enough of dealing with an AI for one day. For some unknown reason wrestling with awkward AIs always sapped her will to live.
      “Have a nice day from MarsTel, your premiere choice for news, views and entertainment!” The AI snarkily signed out leaving Yldoseh with the channel selector screen hovering in the air on front of her.
      Yldoseh fumed angrily as yet another infuriatingly dumb AI got the better of her. Yldoseh had no way of knowing but that ‘dumb AI’ was anything but dumb. It was a specialised corporate greeter AI that could handle up to 1024 simultaneous connections and somewhat limited conversations. What Yldoseh saw, just as anyone else who visited the MarsTel site, was the AI’s interface. Sure, it was somewhat limited in scope and had a limited function but it made up for its shallowness with the quantity of connections it could handle. The corporate greeter AIs on Earth could handle tens of thousands of simultaneous connections. MarsTel, realising that the lower population of Mars wouldn’t require services on that scale, opted for the basic model which was more than adequate most of the time except for the day when the comms link to Earth went dead. That brought such a flood of requests that it crashed the poor AI.
      Feeling better after snarling at the vanishing image of the AI, Yldoseh called out brightly to Sursipal: “I got some interviews.”
      “See, I told you it would work.” Sursipal gloated as she waddled into the living room, wiping her paws dry on a cloth.
      “Huh?” It took a moment for Yldoseh to realise what her mother meant. “Oh, I think the bluffing starts with the interviews. I haven’t used any of their equipment but my headset does the same function. And it’s not one of those cheap cameras that tourists use.”
      “I know.” Sursipal reassured her daughter. “Just make sure you bring it with you and that other Whatsit you use.”
      “What, the editing notepad that Knetryxx sent me?”
      “That’s the thing.” Sursipal wasn’t sure what exactly it was. Only that it was something that silly girl, Knetryxx, who was now the Keeper had sent her daughter and that she seemed to use it a lot.
      “That’s a good idea.” Yldoseh was surprised at her Sursipal’s clear-mindedness. It made Yldoseh wonder if her mother’s dottiness was just an act she enjoyed. “Thanks, I’ll do that.”
      A few hours later Yldoseh was on her way to her first appointment with Eridania Wave on the exotic-sounding Planitia Lane with an optimistic spring to her step. She clasped her commset in her paw and followed its map. All Shallens bought a commset soon after arrival in order to communicate and get around on this new [to them] planet. She could have listened to the directions on its earpiece but at that range the Human voice was louder than her translator and it confused her so she used the map instead.
      Far from exotic, Planitia Lane turned out to be one of a warren of cramped grubby litter-strewn alleyways off one side of the marketplace that wove in and around a minor mountain of well-worn shipping containers stacked in crazy arrangements that appeared to defy the law of gravity. Walkways stretched across the alleyways at various levels connecting different parts of the 3-D maze of shipping containers.
      Here, crowding in around the narrow alleyways that would barely fit a rickshaw, were workshops, traders in exotica, smugglers, specialists in dubious medical practices that stretched the limits of legality and possibility, cultists, hopeless ventures, swindlers, lost causes, art galleries, private clubs, late night bars, strip clubs, drug dens, black marketers, inventors, engineers, designers, architects, dreamers and drunks.
      What looked almost chaotic from a distance made better sense close up and Yldoseh had little trouble finding her destination which was along the third-deck walkway overlooking Planitia Lane. When she arrived, she pulled her headset out of her shoulder bag, put it on and slipped the control band over her right wrist. She flipped the headset up so that it didn’t cover her eyes, stepped forward and rang the bell.
      A mandroid mech with scuffed and worn lightweight city body armour over its frame answered the door: “Yes? Can I help you?”
      “Is this Eridania Wave?” Yldoseh asked.
      “Yes.” The mech replied cautiously, unsure as to why a Shallen would search them out.
      “You are looking for assistant camera operatives?” Yldoseh asked awkwardly.
      “Just a moment, please.” The mech closed the door with a soft click. Yldoseh waited patiently. A few minutes later the door re-opened and the mech ushered her in. Eridania Wave, or what of it that existed in Montgomery, was a single shipping container piled high with storage boxes, racks of computers and electronic hardware along one side, a multi-screen editing suite at the end and a small desk in an alcove overflowing with paper and data cubes surrounded by yet more screens near the entrance. Halfway along the other side at a bench piled up with dismantled electronics and diagnostic equipment, a wiry man with a mop of black curly hair wearing magnifying goggles was perched on a stool brandishing a soldering iron and a diagnostic probe.
      The mech offered Yldoseh a chair opposite the desk. Politely, Yldoseh took it and grumbled to herself about human chairs. You always had to make room for your tail on one side or the other because they didn’t have a gap at the back for your tail. Grrr….
      The mech sat down behind the desk. “Yes, the camera assistant job. No offence, Miss Yldoseh, but you’ve been here less than a month but we really need someone who’s up to speed on a Blue-Eye camera at the very least. Have you even used one?”
      “I did similar work where I come from and this is my camera.” Yldoseh lifted the headset off her head... “Here, try it.” …and placed it over the mech’s head so the headset visor covered his eyes. She waited a minute before demonstrating the wide-angle and zoom in both transparent and opaque overlays. Unfortunately the clash between the display refresh rate and the mech’s eyes’ scan rate meant that he only saw a stuttering slideshow which gave him the mech equivalent of eyestrain making him pull off the headset.
      “Rico, we need you here.” The mech called out.
      “I’m busy, Arden.” Rico sang back from the bench without even looking up. “You deal with it.”
      “I can’t.”
      “What is it?” Rico replied peevishly as he slipped off the stool and came round the corner into the alcove as he was pushing up his magnifying goggles and saw Yldoseh. “Oh!” He stood there for a moment with his mouth open before regaining his senses. “Have you got a story for us?”
      “She wants to work for us.” Arden explained.
      “What?” Rico looked dubiously at Arden, then at Yldoseh and then back to Arden.
      “You heard it right the first time, Rico.” Arden patiently humoured his crotchety techie without whom Eridania Wave’s outpost in Montgomery would be dead in the water. “She uses this…“ He took the troublesome headset, placed it over Rico’s head and lowered the translucent visor over his eyes. ”It’s made for fleshie analogue eyes. It doesn’t work too well with me.” Again, Yldoseh put it through its paces for Rico.
      Yldoseh was in the middle of demonstrating the split-frame and freeze frame for Rico when he interrupted her. “What’s the resolution on this thing like? How far can you zoom in on a still image before the picture gets pixellated?” Yldoseh obliged him. “Impressive. That’s some pretty slick interpolation.” Rico handed the headset back to Yldoseh and cracked a wry smile that Arden rarely saw. “But how can we interface that with our gear? Secondly we’d have to convert the sound and images to our format: scan rates, frame rates, colour spectra, encoding, compression, you name it. I’d have to build an interface and then do the coding for the image conversion. Yeah, I could do that.” Rico proudly bragged as he stuck his thumbs in his belt and rocked on his heels. “But it would take time. And that’s something we don’t have. We need someone who can work a Blue-Eye like yesterday.”
      “She obviously knows the concepts.” Arden suggested. “Just step her through the camera controls.”
      “No, you do it if you think she’s up to the job.” Rico was under the pressure of time and it always made him tetchy. “I’ve got to rewire our main server power supply so that last night’s show can get to Cydonia on time.” And with that he spun on his heels and stomped off back to his workbench.
      Arden and Yldoseh were left speechless by Rico’s temper. Eventually Arden broke their silence and stood up: “I’ll get one of the cameras out and show you how it works. I need someone with me for today’s story and Rico can’t cover for our previous cameraman. If you make it through today without messing up, you’ve got a job.”

Scribbles & Scraps
Chapter 33
Chapter 35