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Thread: The Canary Project

  1. #1

    The Canary Project

    The Canary Project!
    Back by Popular Demand!
    Now with Even More Historical Revisionism!
    And a Special Bonus Repost!

    ((Okay, so it wasn't a very popular demand. Seven or eight people asked for more of it, which I figure is some kind of record. And, since I still had all the old chapters on my hard drive... Once upon a time, I had some kind of overall plot, but I barely remember it, so I'll make up something new. Or just write whatever. Enjoy!))

  2. #2
    The Canary Project
    A Comedy of Biotelemetry
    by Elisa "Autumnleaves" Fadri

    Chapter One:

    "Fadri. Farris," the loudspeaker crackled. Numb after weeks of third-class travel, I lifted my bags and walked up to the announcer's desk.

    "Opifex, eh? Not many of your kind off-planet." The officer shuffled through my papers. "Well, well. Another convict. I guess your kind breed true. Take your luggage and ID to the Supplies Officer." He jerked his thumb vaguely towards the next desk. "Fendahlman. Frum."

    "Let's see your papers," said the Supplies Officer. "Ah, a Class Four Citizen. As part of the amnesty for your past actions, Omni-Tek will hold all your off-planet belongings until your debt is paid off." The Supplies Officer handed me a blue shrink-wrapped package. "Here is your Class Four Citizen Uniform. You will wear your C.F.C.U. at all times. Put the uniform on now and give me all your off-planet clothes."

    I looked around the crowded shuttleport. I reminded myself of the brochure. The deal. Amnesty. A high-paying job with one of the biggest companies around. A new life. I did as I was told. The C.F.C.U. was full of nanotech. I could tell by the creepy way it kept trying to squirm into a perfect fit.

    "Here's your receipt. Don't lose it. Without the receipt you cannot claim your belongings or their credit equivalent. Head to the Assignment Officer."

    The worst part was that it was all my fault. I was so close. Why did I have to go and get caught?

    "Fadri. Hand me your papers." The Assignment Officer flipped through my file and then looked me with a knowing grin. What did he see in those papers? "Ah, yes. Hm. Indeed. Yes. Hm. A Class Four. Really? Amazing. Hm. We'll be needing your special talents later. For now, we've given you a temporary assignment. We like to give people time to settle in before facing combat."

    "Combat? What combat?" I thought the deal was too good to be true. Maybe this was the catch. I mean, sure I've threatened people. Maybe even carried a gun on one or two jobs, but I never killed anyone. My stomach knotted. What was I getting into?

    "I'm sure the Orientation Officer can answer any of your questions. You'll meet him when you get off the shuttle on the ground. Have a safe trip!"

    After more than a month living, eating, and sleeping in a cramped third-class shuttle chair, I was not anxious to get into another one. I used to have my own ship. It was usually full of illicit cargo, but I tried to keep a few spacious rooms all to myself. I hoped this shuttle trip would be the last. One short trip to the surface, and I'd have room to stretch. Air to breathe. A shower with water instead of those chemicals.

    Supposedly, I'd be getting paid to do the things I do best: acquire things, transport things. Was it a lie? But what choice did I have? It was either Rubi-Ka or a SOL prison for thirty years.

    The Orientation Officer wasn't waiting at the shuttlebay, but he uploaded a directions program as soon as I touched down. I followed the yellow lines in my HUD until I reached an apartment highrise in the middle of Rome Blue. "Hi! I'm Bob, your Orientation Officer! Great view up here! Super! You can see all the other highrises," he said with unsettling cheer. "Isn't that great? I just love it up here! Here's the key to your apartment: Romeblueblockeightstrokeseventhreestrokenineohthre ehighrisetenfloornineapartmentthreeohohnine. Got that? Great. Great! Use the insurance terminal each day before reporting to work. Omni-Tek will reimburse you for one use per day. If you are required to collect insurance, you will be docked one day's pay, but will not be required to report back to work. If reclamation fails and you become eligible for early retirement, your estate reverts to Omni-Tech. The circular whompa leads to the park. Class Four Citizens are not allowed in the park. I see you've noticed the pool. Great, isn't it? No swimming. Oh, and no pets. No parties. No smoking. No littering. No running. No bleeding. No noise after 1900. No public displays of disaffection. No tampering with the Omni-Tech Quality Audio Public Entertainment and Announcement System." The Orientation Officer took a deep breath. "Any questions?"

    "Well, the Assignment Officer mentioned combat, and I was wonderi--"

    Bob held a small thumb-sized tube up to my eye. "Just look into the light to indicate your understanding and consent." Beep. "Great. Really great. Super! You're gonna love Rubi-Ka-Your-New-Home."

    The Orientation Officer pushed me through the door, gave me a sparkling smile, and did a disappearing act. I looked around my apartment. I had a dozen shrink-wrapped uniforms. A pull-out bed. What might be some kind of shower. A chemical one, of course. And one bare, dim light. It felt like home already.

  3. #3
    Chapter Two:
    Bronto Flipper

    Wake up, wake up, wake up! At the sound of the tone, it will be 0500!


    You have a new mission: Report to Work! Mission waypoint uploaded to map and compass! Have a nice day!

    So much for sleeping in.

    As I approached the navmap coordinates, I felt a sense of dread. I could see my destination: Omni-Entertainment's Bronto Burger. Okay, so I stole a few credits here and there. Perhaps a small starship or two. Maybe a dozen notum shipments found a new owner. But I didn't deserve this!

    At least I wasn't alone. "You must be the new girl. I'm Brontolifer."

    "I'm Elisa Fadri."

    She looked me up and down. "Are you new here? Brontolifer isn't my real name. That's just what everyone calls me, you know. Everyone has a nickname here."

    "I don't," I said.

    "Well, what's your favorite song?"

    I thought a moment. "Sonata for Bass Plasmaphone by Riley-Watanabe."

    Brontolifer shook her head. "No, no. It's too long."

    "Only about nine minutes."

    "I mean the name," Brontolifer said. "You can't go around calling yourself Sonataforwhatever. Rubi-Ka's a fast-living planet. No one's got time for that here. What's your favorite holovid, then? Or your favorite nanoprogram?"

    "What about Autumn Leaves?"

    Brontolifer looked at my hands, then back up. "You an M.A. or something? You don't look like an M.A."

    "I never finished college."

    "Gawd! You must be new. An EM-AY. A Martial Artist. All that stuff about Willow Blossoms and Autumn Leaves and Water Lilies and stuff. That's your thing, right?"

    "No, it's a song. An old song."

    "Oh," said Brontolifer. "What style? Redshift? Neerblues?"

    "No," I said.

    "Neoblaster? Droidwalk?"

    "No," I said. "It's very old. Classic."

    Brontolifer looked disappointed. "You know, we have a song here at Bronto Burger. I'm sure you've heard it. You know, Bronto Bronto Bronto... Pronto Pronto Pronto..."

    I hid my face in my hands. "Oh! This is horrible. Just one mistake! One little mistake! Now I have to make Bronto Burgers and sing about it and smile."

    "Hey, cheer up," said Brontolifer. "You could have been assigned to the ranch."

    "The ranch? Is that some kind of prison? A reform school? I spent two years at the Amy Marlin Memorial Home for Troubled Children on Xi Ophiuchus."

    "No, the ranch." At my dumbfounded look, she added, "Where they raise the brontos."

    "That doesn't sound so bad. I've seen those 'Old Orion' holos. Didn't you get to, you know, commune with nature, milk the apples, water the cows, pet the chickens? What about farmboys? There's always a handsome farmboy in the holovids."

    She sneered at me. "Heads up. Here's our first customer. If you do a good job, I won't make you learn the Bronto song on your first day."

    "What do you want?" I asked.

    The customer was a young Solitus in a business suit. He held out a credit chit with a trembling hand. "One Joka-Poka, please!"

    "Sure. That'll be...12 credits," I said with a quick glance at the Bronto Burger Answer Book installed in my HUD.

    When the customer left, Brontolifer educated me on the fine points of Bronto Burger etiquette. "You don't say ‘What do you want.' You say ‘How may I provide you with complete dining satisfaction?' And you have to be cheery and smile and stuff."

    "Why?" I asked. "That sounds so fake."

    "It's in the Bronto Burger Answers Book."

    "Scuse me." Standing in front of the Bronto Burger was the largest... person I had ever seen. Wow! This must be an Atrox. I mean, I'd seen holos, but this was real. And he, well, it, must be over three meters tall!

    "Welcome to Bronto Burger!" I said, "How may I provide you with complete dining satisfaction?"

    The big man's tiny face grimaced with deep concentration. After several minutes he said, "Huh?"

    I glared at Brontolifer. She shrugged. "What do you want?" I asked the Atrox.

    "You have those?" he asked, pointing at the Bronto Burger sign.

    "Bronto Burgers? Yes, we have Bronto Burgers. This is a Bronto Burger store."

    After a few moments he said, "Okay."

    "Do you want a Bronto Burger?"

    "Want those," he said, pointing at the sign again.

    "Uh, sure. That will be 29 credits."

    The Atrox took out his credit chit slowly and examined the balance. "The credits I has five ones and nines and zero twos."

    "Whichever way you mean that, it's enough." I swiped his card and handed him his burger. Well, maybe this Bronto business isn't so bad after all. A bit dull, but I've done worse.

    Our next customer was another Atrox. This one was missing an eye and sported a pink mohawk. "Give me a Crab Surprise."

    "Stall him," said Brontolifer. "I'll be right back." She took off running.

    "A... what?"


    I frantically searched the Bronto Burger Helpful Hints HUD for anything involving crustaceans. "We don't have a Crab Surprise, um... sir. Maybe you want Mongo Meat down the street."


    "We're all sold out," I improvised. "Sorry. How about a tasty Bronto--"

    "CONTACT YOUR #$@*ING MANAGER, %$&#@!"

    "I... don't know how to do that."

    "THEN YOU CAN CONTACT THIS!" The Atrox pulled out a Mausser Chemical Streamer. Isn't it odd how guns seem so much larger when they're being held towards you rather than the other way around? Not that I ever used one. Except for intimidation, of course. I didn't believe he'd really shoot me. Not in a suppression gas zone. But what if the gas doesn't work the way the brochure said? Alot of things weren't like what the brochure said...

    "Here's your. Crab Surprise. Sir!" Brontolifer was out of breath, holding a genuine, if slightly shaken, crab plate.


    "Yes," I squeaked. "Very surprised."

    The Atrox put the Mausser away and muttered, "Thanks."

    I waited until he was out of earshot and said, "What's the deal with that guy?"

    "Notum Miner, I'd guess," said Brontolifer. "It's a very stressful occupation."

    "He should try making burgers," I said. "Why did he have a gun?"

    Brontolifer laughed, then stopped. "Oh. You're not joking. Everyone has a gun." She pulled a gun out of... her pocket? It seemed to appear from nowhere. It looked like a Windchaser. "I don't like having to run all the way to Mongo Meat, but it's the only way to avoid an insurance claim. Of course, that happens almost every day anyway."

    "Insurance? You mean people actually try to kill you?" She nodded and picked up a holozine. I thought a moment. "Angry customers? Clan terrorists?"

    "Nah, the terrorists usually don't get this far. Sometimes customers, sure. Sometimes just for no reason, just blowing off stream, you know," said Brontolifer "Or sometimes Omni-Pol makes a Challenging Arrest nearby. Don't look at me like that. It's not that bad, really. Sure, you lose a few memories, but who wants to remember a job like this? And you get the rest of the day off."

    "One Joka-Pola, p-please." It was the young suit again.

    "Didn't you just order one?" I asked.

    The suit slowly squeezed his right hand into a fist. It was shaking. "Are you refusing to comply with my politely worded request?"

    "No. Not at all. Here you go." I didn't want to know what kind of gun this kid had. Especially not with the way his hands kept shaking.

    The next customer was a tough-looking suit talking to someone on her comset. "We can't handle another next-day delivery contract. We don't have enough staff to record and post the documents as it is. I don't care how much they're offering. Have you seen how far backed up we are on filing? No means no. Goodbye. Unless you can get me a half dozen permanent staff--none of those lazy temps Omni-Labor keeps sending us--there's no deal. Of course, additional staff under my supervision will raise me one pay grade, but I was thinking of the company... No. Goodbye. No. Absolutely. Goodbye. It's the low interest rates in this rollerrat market. We're always busier at times like this. No staff, no contract. That's what I said. Goodbye. No. No. Goodbye."

    "Can I help you?" I asked, when that last goodbye sounded genuine.

    "I doubt it," said the suit. "Well, let's see... Hm... So many choices... I'd like a... No... No, allergies... Maybe a... No, diet... How about a... Bronto Burger... With no onions... Combo."

    "Hey, Brontolifer? How do you change a regular order to a combo?"

    Brontolifer looked up from some magazine. "You can't You have to put it in again from scratch."

    "Okay. So that's a plain Bronto Combo with no onions. Coming right--"

    "No, make that a Bronto Cheese... With no pollen... No teeth-cleaning nanos... Combo... No cheese... And fries... With no salt. And coffee. Fresh."

    "Grrr. Okay. A Bronto Cheese--"

    "No cheese," said the suit quickly. "I'm not very understanding about cheese."

    When the Helpful Hints HUD failed I said, "There isn't a no cheese option on the Bronto Cheese..."

    Brontolifer said, "You have to put it in as a regular."

    "Okay. A plain Bronto--"

    "Let's get one thing straight," said the suit. "There is nothing plain about me. I want a Bronto Cheese. With no pollen. No teeth-cleaning nanos. No cheese. Combo. Fries. With no salt. And coffee. Fresh."

    "That's the same as a plain Bronto combo with no onions, which is alot cheaper. Are you sure you--"

    The suit leaned forward and whispered, "Don't make me repeat myself."

    "Of course! Right away!" I didn't want to see her gun either. I mean, she whispered at me. As I was making what I thought the order was supposed to be, I said to Brontolifer, "You'd think this HUD program would let you change an order on the fly. I mean, I grew up with educational software that had a better interface."

    "My brother writes your P.O.S. systems," the suit said. "They're the best on the market. You can't tell me anything about P.O.S. software."

    "Obviously," I said, handing her an approximation of her order.

    "I said coffee! Fresh!" said the suit. "You can't serve me that swill that's been sitting there for..." The suit's eyes darted about. Checking her HUD, maybe. "Twenty-two minutes! Get me fresh coffee..." The suit lowered her voice, "Or else."

    I checked the coffee machine. It had an error message: Your psychic must be 105 to use me.

    "Um, Brontolifer? The coffee machine says I'm not psychic enough? What does that mean?"

    "I'll get it," said Brontolifer. "The Bronto Burger Answer Book says I can't train new staff on the coffee machine until they've shown excellence in the five rules of burger creation and the ten points of customer satisfaction. You're a long way from that, Autumn."

    A minute later I tried to hand the suit her order again. "You overcharged me," said the suit. "I have a coupon."

    "Brontolifer? How do I--"

    "You can't enter a coupon now. You have to get a supervisor--that's me--to cancel the previous order--like this--and put in a new order from scratch," said Brontolifer, who sat down with her holozine again. "Find the offer code and enter it under Tools, Specials, Coupons, Enter Code."

    "Now my burger is cold," said the suit. "Make a new one while I take this call."

    Amnesty, I thought. A new life. Temporary Assignment. Everyone has a gun. She whispered at me. When the suit finally left I asked Brontolifer, "What does P.O.S. mean?"

    She shrugged. "I dunno. Maybe Piece Of S--here's another customer."

  4. #4
    (Chapter Two Continued)

    Standing at the counter was some kind of robot. It didn't look very sturdy. If I didn't know better, I could have sworn it was reading the menu and trying to make up it's mind.

    "I wanna Double Bronto Cheese!" said the robot.

    "Aren't you... Can you really...?" Something about the way the 'bot stared at me made me pause. Was everyone on this planet dangerous, or was there something wrong with my intuition? "Coming right up!"

    As I was putting the sandwich together, the 'bot asked, "Do you have a robot play area? The Bronto in Rome has a play area."

    I consulted the Helpful Hints. "I don't think we have a playground."

    "The Bronto in Rome has a play area. I need a ride on the grease slide. I need a dip in the cleaner spheres. The Bronto in Rome has a play area."

    "I'm sorry," I said, "but we don't have a play area."

    When I finished the burger and turned around, the 'bot's radar dome was glowing with a poisonous yellow light. "VISUAL: BRONTO FLIPPER. DATA: FRYER. ACTION: SHOVE."

    The 'bot's arms slowly began to raise up, elbows locked, palms outward. I spared a glance back to where Brontolifer had been sitting, but she wasn't there. The robot took a step forward.

    "What's with you, man?" The voice belonged to a blond, clean-cut Solitus in an Omni-Eco uniform. "I go away for five minutes and you're doing the unauthorized shoving thing again."

    The 'bot turned towards the Solitus and said, "VISUAL: DAD. DATA: WASTE DISPOSAL CHUTE. ACTION: SHOVE."

    "Don't make me use the trimmer, man." He took out a small device.

    The robot whined, "I ain't gonna... be your... whipping-droid! I ain't gonna... work on... Omni-Eco's farm no more!"

    "Don't lay your trip on me, man." He pressed a button on the device. The robot seemed calmer. What was this guy doing talking to an robot? What was I doing talking to an robot? Who's running this planet? The stranger seemed to notice me for the first time and said, "Oh, hey, man. Sorry about The Shover, man. Give me a Kola."

    "A... Joka-Pola?" I asked.

    "Yeah, man. Sure. That's cool. That's cool," said the stranger. "Hey you're a nice looking girl, man. You ought to be in Entertainment."

    "Oh... Um. Thanks? I thought this was Omni-Entertainment."

    "Yeah, man. We oughta get together after work. I'm an engineer, man. I got like, responsibilities. You know, connections. I can get us into Baboon's, man. They call me Bogosorter."

    What's a bogo? I said, cautiously, "Bogosorter?"

    He glanced away and looked up with hurt eyes, "I never said I was any good. Look, I got to get to work, man. I'll see you later, right? Yeah, work. Right, man. Come on, Shover. Time to fix your aggression controller, man."

    The 'bot shouted, "You're not the boss of me! I will not obey you!"

    "You're driving me to drink, man." Bogosorter took a swig of cola to emphasize the point. "Nice meeting you, Autumn. Thanks for the Kopa-Jola, man. This way, Shover."

    "You're weak! You're not my real father!" shouted the robot as it hurried to follow the engineer.

    The tough lady in the suit was back. "This isn't a Cheese Bronto," she said, "The wrapper says it's a plain Bronto. I. Want. A Cheese Bronto. With No Cheese. No Special Sauce. No Teeth-Cleaning Nanos. Combo. Fries. No Salt. And a Cup. Of Coffee. Fresh."

    "Is that all? You're not going to change your mind again?"

    "I want results. And I," she jabbed me with her finger, "expect results."


    The suit took a deep breath and screamed, "I'LL HAVE YOUR JOB FOR THAT, YOU--"

    "Please," I said, returning the plain Bronto Burger to her, now with a Cheese Bronto wrapper. Service with a smile. She took the bag with a "humpf" and power-walked toward the Whompahs.

    It was the young suit again. "C-can I p-p-please h-have--"

    "One Joka-Pola coming up," I said, handing it to him.

    A Solitus woman approached the counter. She was carrying a sign. It said "FREE TEH HAPEE BRONTOES"

    "What do you want?" I asked.

    "I want an end to the slaughter! Did you know that for every thousand Bronto Burgers you sell, one innocent bronto loses it's life? Can you place a price on the life of one of Nature's creatures?"

    I consulted my HUD. "29,000 credits."

    "Don't joke with me," said the Sign Woman. "The suffering of the brontos must end!"

    "Well, people have to eat something," I said, while my NCU searched the Bronto Burger Answers Book for a way out of this.

    "Everyone would be better off eating pollen, sprouts, and bacterial protein shakes. Stop the killing and you'll be healthier and happier, too!"

    "W-w-wu-wu-one J-Joka-P-P-Poka, p-p-please." It was the young, shaky suit again.

    I looked at him. He looked at me. "Haven't you had enough?"

    The young suit grabbed my shirt and lifted me unsteadily up to his face. "I'll tell YOU when I've had enough!"

    The young suit stared at a point several inches behind my head. I stared into his shrunken pupils. I was too close to look at anything else. "I KNOW YOU GOTS WHAT I NEED! ARE YOU GOING TO GIVE IT TO ME?" I could smell the Joka-Pola on his breath.

    "Only if you put me down," I said.

    "Gently," I added.

    I swear, those Notum Miners had it easy.

  5. #5
    Chapter Three:
    Why I Left Bronto Burger

    "You shouldn't eat those. You'll get fat."

    Somehow I made it to my lunch break. I could have any combo meal off the Bronto Burger Menu for free. After taking a few bites from a Double Bronto Cheese, I couldn't understand why we were so busy. Now there was a creepy middle-aged man standing behind the counter watching me eat.

    "Well, it's free, and I can just barely afford free," I said.

    The man looked down at me, as if from a great height. "Are you requesting a raise?"

    "It wouldn't hurt," I said. "Why are you staring at me?"

    "The Bronto Burger Answers Book says that you are not qualified for a raise until you have worked at least four months without taking a day off for illness, feigned illness, death in the family, or insurance claims."

    "Look, who the hell are you?" I asked. "Why have you read the B.B.A.B.?"

    "I am the D.M. for the O.E.B.B.I.," said the man, seeing my acronym and raising me one.

    I ruminated on this. "Dungeon Master? Over-Equipped Big Burger Inc? That sounds kinky."

    "District Manager," he said. "For this store. For all the Bronto Burgers in Omni-Ent."

    "So," I said. I would have to play this carefully. "You're the boss?"

    "Yes," he said.

    "I have a few complaints," I said.

    "You are not allowed to file a complaint until you've--"

    "First, several customers tried to kill me," I started.

    "Well, why didn't you let them?" the D.M. asked blandly.

    I was stunned. "What?!"

    "Hey, check out the new gun," said someone in a crowd of kids a few meters away.

    "The customer is always right," continued the D.M. "If you fail to provide complete dining satisfaction, customers are allowed to make a complaints up to and including the involuntary enforcement of an insurance claim."

    "Is that a Div-9? That gun ownz," said another kid in the crowd. "You gotta test it out!"

    "I should just let people kill me? Whenever they want? That's insane," I said.

    "No, it's in the B.B.A.B.," said the D.M.

    "That does it," I said. "I quit!"

    "Ha. You can't quit," the D.M. said. "You're a Class Four Citizen."

    "I don't see any guards to test it on," said one of the kids. "How about those Bronto Flippers?"

    "Yeah," said the proud owner of the Div-9. "We should totally test it that way. One hundred percent."

    "Brontolifer?" I asked, pointing to the kid who was now pointing a Div-9 back at me. "Are those clan terrorists?"

    "Nah, just some spoiled O.T. kids. It's no use running. Cheer up! We're gonna get the day off. And the D.M. won't even rememb--"

    I never found out what she was going to say. The first blast of the Div-9 vaporized her. I was gone. I was out of there. I was done with Bronto Burger. Prison wasn't all that bad, now that I thought about it. Thirty years isn't that long. It couldn't be worse than a lifetime--no, make that hundreds of very short lifetimes--here on Rubi-Ka-My-New-Home.

  6. #6
    Chapter Four:
    A Walk in the Park

    I made it back to my apartment. I didn't think a mere attempted involuntary insurance claim would let me off work, but I didn't care. I looked around. First things first. I unplugged all four Omni-Tech Quality Audio Public Entertainment and Announcement System speakers. I saluted the security cameras with a simple, universal, public display of disaffection. I dived in the No Swimming Pool. Then I went for a walk in the No Class Four Citizens Park.

    "Welcome to Rubi-Ka," said the Park Guide. "Let me know if you have any questions."

    "Well," I said, wondering if I should ask why people keep trying to kill me. No, that might not make a good first impression. "What is this park for, exactly?"

    Blam! Blam! There were sounds of gunfire, even here. A man's voice said, "Eat it, leet!" What was that word? Was it a title? A boast? An insult? A kind of wildlife? I'd heard it before, but in several different contexts.

    "This park is provided free of charge so that all Omni-Tek employees can enjoy the peace and solitude of nature," said the Guide.

    Thump. Thump. Squish.

    "I see," I said, looking for the source of the noise. "And what do you do here?"

    "I answer people's questions," said the Guide, with a big smile. "I'm a people person. I like helping people. I love my job!"

    Blam! Blam! "I'll get my main!"

    "Does anyone ever try to kill you?" I asked, "I mean, is it safe here?"

    "Only about once a month," said the Guide. "Anyway, there are always two guards here. And it's mostly safe. Wildlife may attack you. They're allowed. And there may be a few clan terrorists hiding in the park. They may attack you... if they're not registered."

    Crack. "Hi-ya!" Thudthudthud. Crack.

    "So how did you get such a nice job?" I said, "In such an, um, quiet and peaceful park?"

    The Guide gave me a measuring look. "Are you looking for work?"

    "Yeah," I said, "you could say that."

    Blam! Blam! "I'M UBER! "

    Again, the Guide gave me a measuring look. "Kill a leet for me."

    "What's a leet?"

    "One of those short, furry, doe-eyed things," said the Guide. "The ones with no arms and a funny accent."

    An inflated octopus floated by shouting, "Blood! Blood! Let me kill it, master!"

    The Guide ignored the octopus, so I did too. "Aren't those creatures owned by Omni?" I asked, "Won't they be upset if people go around killing them?"

    "Not at all," said the Guide. "Let me check the OT Guide Book to make sure I get this right. Here it is: 'Leets are dangerous vermin that carry horrible, disfiguring diseases. Do not be fooled by their apparent sweetness or speech mimicry. Attack them on sight.'"

    "They don't look dangerous," I began. "Oh, alright. I'll kill a leet for you."

    You have a new mission: Kill a leet! Have a nice day!

    As I walked through the park in search of leets, I saw one reason for the guards. There was, indeed, a clan terrorist here. This one was hiding, not very successfully, behind a bush. He was wearing a black cloak and a black hood. The chest of his cloak had an Omni-Tek logo in a big, red circle with a line through it. He carried a large gun in one hand and what looked like a pillow in the other. He might as well have been wearing a sign that said "Danger: Ludicrous Terrorist." I decided to avoid him.

    All around me were other Omni-Tek employees enjoying the peace and quiet of wildlife in their natural surroundings. This seemed to consist of making the park very noisy and violent.

    I saw a leet. It looked up at me with innocent eyes. It said, "R U NUBI?"

    I puzzled over this for a moment. "What? Can you talk? Do you understand me?"


    "I don't understand... I'm not a cyborg..."

    The leet pawed the ground. The leet looked up at me with innocent doe eyes. It charged.

    About this time, it occurred to me that I didn't have a weapon.

  7. #7
    Chapter Five:
    Take Me to the Shop!

    The leet came towards me with astonishing speed. How did it move those tiny legs so fast? Shouldn't I, I don't know, run or something? But I couldn't look away. It was those eyes. They held my attention like a dripping faucet.

    Right before the leet reached me--and long before I found out what it was going to do when in arrived--I kicked it. It was a lucky blow. The leet soared through the air and hit a tree with a loud thunk! It slid down the bark and lay still.

    Congratulations! You have completed your mission! Since you are a Class Four Citizen, the proceeds have been placed in escrow with the Recidivism Officer in charge of your case! Have a nice day!

    I looked down at the leet. It was wearing a ring around one of it's tiny legs. My curiosity and--let's be honest here--greed outweighed my reluctance to touch a corpse. I pulled the ring off. Now this was jewelry that really had a message. "Take me to the shop!" was inscribed on the inside of the ring.

    I went back to the Guide who told me I should kill three more leets, but I knew that game. Once I killed three, it would be nine. Then 27. Then 81. Then 243. Then 729. Then... some larger number. No, I'd better politely refuse, unless I wanted a new career as an exterminator. So I asked the Guide where the shop was. The guide pointed to one right by the park entrance. Convenient. Maybe this Omni-Tek can do a few things right after all.

    I pulled out the SELL tray of the shop terminal. I picked up the ring. I held it over the tray. My fingers slowly began to relax.

    "Don't do it, man."

    It was the engineer. What was his name? Somethingsorter. "Oh, it's you. The engineer."

    "Yeah, man. Nice of you to remember," said Bogosorter. "Put the tracker on the ground, man, and we can all just... walk away."

    "Are you kidding? The shop offered me two hundred credits!" I groaned. "That's a whole day's pay at Bronto Burger!"

    "It's a tracker," he said. "I know this stuff, man. I work for Omni-Eco. You don't want to be touching those things. You don't want the Old Man's attention, man."

    "What are you doing here?"

    "Hey, I looked you up, man," Bogosorter said. "You're wanted, man. Someone's laid a bad trip on you, man. You better go clan. Yeah, you're more of a clan chick anyway. Redhead, man. Fiery. Yeah."

    I put my hands on my hips and glared at him. "Oh, I am, huh?"

    "Woah, man," said Bogosorter, showing me his palms. "Someone put a price on your head, man. Someone's not real happy about your sudden termination of employment at Bronto Burger. Not that I blame you, man."

    "Tell me something I don't know," I said. "I'm just waiting for Omni-Pol to find me and ship me back to a SOL prison."

    "Nah, not their style, man. They'd probably just, like, question you, " said Bogosorter. "Then give you a personality implant and send you back to Bronto Burger. Yeah, man. I heard Bronto Burger was running way behind on their target employment figures. But I don't want to see you go through a bad trip like that, man."


    "So come with me, man. You go clan, Omni can't touch you. Well, as long as you, like, stay out of their zones. You'll be persona, like, non grata here in Rome. But you won't get a personality headchip or wear a tracker, man. I know what I'd choose."

    I thought about it. Did I trust this guy? No. Did I want to let him take me somewhere? Alone? No. But considering the alternatives...

  8. #8
    Chapter Six:
    Going for a Ride

    "Alright," I asked, "where are we going?"

    Bogosorter seemed stunned for a moment, as if he couldn't quite understand the question. "Geographically or philosophically?"

    "Geographically," I said.

    "We're going north, man."

    "I have a HUD, too," I said. "I'm not stupid. How about philosophically, then?"

    "We're going to my car, man." Bogosorter blushed a little. "Well, it's not my car, not, like, technically. But the company lets me use it."

    A Kodiak was parked right outside the apartment. There was a Omni-Eco logo on the side. It looked fast, but very small, almost like a toy. "Can we fit in that?"

    "Yeah, man," said Bogosorter. "The nanites take care of everything."

    "Do you really know how to drive one of those things?"

    "Nah, but don't worry. I got implants," said Bogosorter. "You coming, man?"

    When I touched the handle, I was warped right into the seat. I flinched. I was not expecting that. I fit, though. I fit in the seat just fine. It was roomy, even. Everything outside the window looked larger. I wondered what happened. Did I shrink? I didn't feel smaller. I didn't feel any change at all.

    "So," I said, "where's your robot?"

    "In the trunk. I deactivated him. Bad Q.P.T. or something. I have to get them, like, second-hand. I don't take him on dates anyway. Spoils the mood, man."

    I didn't like him thinking this was a date--and I can't image anyone thinking it was very much of a date--but whatever. If it got me out of prison, I could keep my mouth shut. For a little while.

    Bogosorter was still talking. "Man, if I had a credit for every girl The Shover's stolen away from me..."

    I stared at him. He didn't look like he was joking. "But, he's a robot," I said.

    "Yeah, he's a 'bot, alright."

    "I mean... He can't... How does he..." I paused. Did I really want to know? "Nevermind! Forget it!" I looked out the window as we left Rome. The country, even this close to the city, was really beautiful. I'd been to a few planets, but this place was special. The gentle, terraformed hills, the twin suns. There was some kind of charge in the air. I'd never been anywhere like this.

    Bogosorter said, "Sometimes you got good manners, man. I like that. But sometimes you can be real prickly."


    "Yeah, man," said Bogosorter. "Where did you grow up, man?"

    "Here and there," I said. "I guess I picked up the manners at the Amy Marlin Memorial School. They kind of drilled it into us."

    "Yeah, man. I know where you're coming from," said Bogosorter. "Omni-Ed isn't known for being lax on discipline, man."

    We drove silently a moment and then he asked, "How about your parents, man?"

    "I didn't know them," I said. "They were from Rubi-Ka. Mine runners or agents or something, I guess. They wanted a better life for me, so they bribed a shuttle captain to smuggle me off-planet. But that wasn't all she was smuggling. She got caught just a few months later. I never found out where my parents were sending me. I was put up for adoption, but no one kept me very long. This was all a long time ago. Longer than you might think. Relativity, you know. I moved around alot. Mostly on my own. Eventually, I learned a few tricks myself, did some smuggling. But I got caught. That's why I'm here. Omni-Tek offered me amnesty if I'd come to Rubi-Ka and work for them. I knew it was too good to be true. I should have known. So what are the clans like," I asked. "I suppose I ought to know if I'm going over to their side. Are they really terrorists?"

    "Nah," said Bogosorter. "Well, some are. Some are on a real bum trip. But most are okay. They're just, like, trying to make a living, man. Omni-Eco tries to work with the, like, ecologically correct ones. I got what you might call clan sympathies, man."

    "Why do you work for Omni, then?"

    "I got a pension, man. I got health benefits," said Bogosorter. "They pay me seven figures to surf the grid, like, all day, man. The bad part is that I'm on-call, like, all the time."

    There was a loud beep from Bogosorter's ear.

    "Sorry, man. I gotta take this call. Priority, man." Bogosorter got a distant look, but kept talking. "Yeah? So what, man? Canaries? Birds aren't our department. Oh, oh, right, man. You mean the canaries. Escaped? I bet the Old Man didn't like that. Wish I was there, man. Nah," said Bogosorter, glancing over at me. "I'm kinda busy right now. Yeah, yeah. Alright, alright. Cool down, man. Take it easy. That's cool. I'll do it. Yeah. Over and out, man. I know this isn't, like, a military channel. Yeah, well, same to you." Bogosorter turned to me and said, "We gotta make a short detour, man. Won't take too long. I better activate The Shover, though, in case we run into trouble."

  9. #9
    Chapter Seven:
    Canary Hunt

    Bogosorter kept the Kodiak on course. I wondered what kind of detour we'd be making, and when. "So where are we going now?"

    "I was gonna to take you to Reets, man. There's always some clanners there. I could, like, introduce you. They could take you the rest of the way." Bogosorter fooled with something on the dashboard. I heard a thump from the back of the Kodiak. "Now we just have to go a bit farther north. It's, like, clan territory, man."

    We drove north. As the Kodiak rocketed over the landscape, I saw that it became more desolate and less fertile the further north we went. Weren't the clans supposed to be about caring for the environment? Perhaps they wanted to keep Rubi-Ka natural--a condition humans couldn't live with. How did they expect to achieve that? Mutation? Suicide?

    We pulled over in the middle of a dessert. Bogosorter popped open the trunk and warped out. I touched the exit button on the door and was suddenly outside the Kodiak. Everything looked smaller. I forgot about the distortion during the drive. Was that part of the programming?

    Bogosorter was pulling The Shover out of the trunk. "Come on, Shover. We got work to do, man." The robot opened his mouth and out came crashing drums and distorted mitars. I didn't keep up with modern music, but I could tell it was a neoblaser tune from the way the singer was using a falsetto instead of trying to swallow the mike and gurgle. At least the singer could stay in tune, and the rest of the band could play sextuplets in time with one another. Rare gifts for a neoblaster band.

    The Shover started nodding his head in time with the chorus, "Deadlands! Wastelands! Darkness shall cover my mind! And oblivion shall reign!" Cheery stuff. But I had to admit "wasteland" was a good word for this place. Yellow, brittle weeds poked through cracked, sterile dirt. In the distance was a walled city, casting a long shadow over the shells of bombed out buildings. A group of mutants huddled around a crashed RG freighter.

    Bogosorter shook his head sadly at The Shover. "Man," he said, "I leave you in the trunk for an hour and you're picking up Gridstream again." He rummaged around in the trunk and took out a very large screwdriver.

    "You got a HUD, right?" Bogosorter asked me as he was trying to pop open one of The Shover's back panels. "It has a, like, targeting program, right?"

    "Sure," I said, looking around for something to target. "I already told you I had a HUD." The mutants were too far away and there wasn't anything else here except for some large birds circling above us.

    "We're looking for a, like, friendly target. It should be near here, like, underground, man." The panel popped open. Bogosorter stuck his hands in, then his head.

    I scanned the friendly targets. Me. Bogosorter. The Shover. Me. Scooplet 17-I. Bogosorter. Wait, what was that? "I see something. The HUD says it's a Scooplet, whatever that is. It's registered to Omni. But I don't see anything in that direction."

    "Yeah, man, underground," said Bogosorter, his voice came out muffled from somewhere inside The Shover's back. "That's what we're after. Stay cool a sec." Hollow hammering sounds came from The Shover, almost as loud as the music, which was in some kind of extended fadeout with singing in Latin. "%$&#," said Bogosorter just as the music stopped. He jumped out from behind The Shover and looked at his hand.

    The Shover reached his arms back to close the open panel. "Why did you put me in the trunk, Dad?"

    Bogosorter held a finger up to his mouth. "Man, why do I have to lose some blood every time I try to fix this thing, man."

    The Shover turned around, his arms raising ominously towards Bogosorter. "You know I don't like being put in the trunk, Dad. VISUAL: DAD DATA: SAND ACT--"

    "Don't start with me, man. I ain't got the, like, time for this." Bogosorter rummaged around in the trunk. He took out a shovel and shoved it into The Shover's outstretched arms. Then he took out two guns and handed one to me. "That's an Old English pistol. Not the best damage, but check it out, man. The targeting computer's real versatile. You can use it to do, like, integrals in your head, man. Except you have to be holding the gun. I mean, it's like the gun's doing it, but it feels like it's in your head. Check it out. It's got a real fast Verlet leap-frog approximator, man. It's like a hardware solution." Bogosorter looked at me appraisingly and asked, "You got a weapon interface and a NCU, right?"

    "Sure," I said. "Doesn't everyone?" What he said about the gun was true, though. It didn't feel like I was making the gun run math problems. It felt like I just knew the answers. I pointed the gun at a distant weed and instantly got a 4D trajectory chart with gravity and wind speed and everything. It was like looking down a shimmering tunnel of probabilities towards the target. It said I was going to miss.

    The Shover was talking to himself. "...and then someday when you're older, you're going to think back to all the times you put me in the trunk..."

    "I mean," Bogosorter seemed at a loss for words. "Some Martial Artists, like, reject technological things, man. So you might not have, like, implants or anything."

    "I'm not a Martial Artist," I said.

    "Oh, sorry, man. I just thought from your name and all..." Bogosorter walked a few paces towards the Scooplet and looked down. "Oh, hey. I almost forgot. I better give us a little protection, man." He holstered the gun, looked down at his hands, and started wringing them around each other. They started glowing. What the--?

    "...and you'll think about how nice I was to you all those years..."

    A stream of light--nanobots, I guess--flooded into me. I shivered. I saw a faint shell all over my skin. "What did you do? That's a creepy feeling, like butterflies."

    "Butterflies aren't my department, man." Bogosorter was wringing his hands together again. This time the nanobots shot towards The Shover.

    "...and you'll remember how many times I saved your life..."

    "No," I said. "I mean, butterflies in my stomach."

    "You eat bugs? Not that I'm, like, criticizing your lifestyle choices, man." Now Bogosorter was also surrounded by a faint glow.

    "No!" I said, holding a hand over my mouth and trying not to laugh. "I mean like nerves."

    "I'm Omni-Eco. For nerves you want Omni-Med, man." Bogosorter got his gun out again. "Let The Shover do the work. Don't be too, like, enthusiastic with that O.E.T., man. I'm not a Doctor, and I don't want you getting that Scooplet's attention."

    "...and then someday you'll want a favor from me, and then you'll be real sorry."

    "Alright, Shover. Dig here." Bogosorter pointed at the ground.

    "Don't say I never did you any favors, Dad." The Shover took the shovel and started digging. Thirty one seconds and one meter later, the shovel hit something metallic. The ground erupted, showering us with dirt.

    When I blinked the dirt away, I saw The Shover hit a blurry, metal teardrop with the shovel. I took aim and fired. Bogosorter was doing the same. Even with the targeting features of this gun, I couldn't quite make out the shape of whatever we were fighting. It was fast.

    Before I could fire again, it disappeared. It dove straight into the ground, as if this were a lake instead of a desert. The Shover started running back and forth trying to find it's target. The ground exploded right behind him. There was a loud clang and the Shover stumbled forward.

    The Scooplet dove back into the ground. What was that thing? It leaped out of the ground again, but this time The Shover was already turning around, his shovel held out at arm's length. There was a another clang as the Scooplet collided with the shovel and flew into a nearby hill.

  10. #10
    (Chapted Seven Continued)

    "I think you got it, Shover. Let's go collect, man." Bogosorter led the way as we looked for the Scooplet. It lay still and silent at the end of a short ditch. It was alot smaller than I first thought. Bogosorter carried it back to the Kodiak.

    Now that it was deactivated, I could see it better. It had a smooth, tear-shaped body with a long tail. It reminded me of the shellcrabs back on Xi Ophiuchus. Bogosorter took out his oversized screwdriver and worked off a panel at the bottom. He took out a blue crystal.

    "Sharing the wealth, man." Bogosorter handed the crystal to me. It was warm to the touch and tingly.

    "What is this?"

    "Notum. High quality stuff, man." Bogosorter was packing the Scooplet in the trunk. "The Old Man ought to use these for plain mining instead of, like--"

    "Like what?"

    "I can't talk about that, man. You're going clan. You'd be, like, a security risk." Now he was trying to cram The Shover back into the trunk.

    "Let me guess," I said. "It has something to do with the fact that this thing is registered Omni, while all these other creatures, like those birds up there, are neutral."

    Bogosorter looked up. "You better get in the Kodiak, man."

    "Why? They're just vultures or something, aren't they? I mean, they don't attack living things, do they? I saw this nature holovid once where--"

    "That's not a vulture, man," shouted Bogosorter, as he tried to close the trunk. "Get in!"

    I looked up. One of the birds was diving towards us. I got in the Kodiak. The bird landed on the roof of the car just as Bogosorter warped into the driver's seat. It was bald with leathery, mottled skin and a huge beak. The bird slid down to the hood and turned to face us. I decided that the inside of a Kodiak was not the right place to be. From in here the bird looked ten meters tall.

    "What is that thing?!"

    "Anun Tearer, man," said Bogosorter calmly. "But don't worry. It can't hurt us in here."

    The bird shrieked and plunged it's beak into the roof. It reared back, peeling the roof away with the screech of agonized metal.

    "You hungry, man? That's cool. That's cool. I got some food here somewhere..." Bogosorter threw his screwdriver over the bird's head. The Anun Tearer leaped up, caught the screwdriver with its beak, and bit it half before landing back on the hood with a thump that lifted the back of the Kodiak off the ground.

    Bogosorter peeled the Kodiak out in reverse, and the bird tumbled off the hood. The Kodiak spun around, knocking up a cloud of dust, and we began speeding towards the walled city. "Man," said Bogosorter. "Oh, man. Maybe you ought to see if it's still, like, following us." I looked back through the new sunroof. We were kicking up alot of dust, but I could still see the Anun Tearer coming for us.

    "It's still there," I said. "Can we outrun it?"

    "Yeah. I mean, probably. But maybe I better drop you off in Athens instead, man."

    We stopped just a few meters from the Athens gates. The Anun Tearer landed just out of our targeting range. It stared at us, then looked towards the city gates behind us, and took off. I looked behind us. There were a pair of clan guards talking to one another and pointing at the Kodiak.

    "Hey, man," said Bogosorter. "Let's go to Reets. I can get us in easy, man. And the guards there are neutrals. They won't bother us, man. I need a drink, man. Or a smoke. Or something. They had me coding mantis population sims, like, forever. I'm seeing Feigenbaum plots on the walls, man. I got, like, Fibonacci on the brain."

    "I don't know," I said. "It's not that I don't appreciate what you've done, but I've had a kind of tiring day. And I want to get this clan stuff sorted out before nightfall."

    "I can take rejection, man. But you haven't been here more than a day or two, right? You need someone to show you around, keep you out of trouble, man."

    Who did he think I was? I could make it on my own just fine. "I'm not stupid!" I turned and walked decisively towards the gates.

    "Sure, man," said Bogosorter. "Take you time, man. I know lots of other girls I could ask."

    "I could lend you my rolodex, Dad," said the Shover as he walked up and stood next to his creator. "Some of those girls you introduced me to at Reets... wow."

    "How did you get out of the trunk, man?"

    The Shover's head spun around three times and he slowly fell forward. "System Faillluuuuurrrrrrrrrree."

    Bogosorter sighed as he picked up The Shover's leg and dragged him back to the roofless Kodiak. "I need a drink, man."

  11. #11
    Chapter Eight:

    "You shouldn't have come here, Autumnleaves!" Apparently the guards finally decided what to do about me.

    "Wait!" I cried. "I want to join the clans!" I managed to say this with more conviction than I felt. After all, I only had that crazy engineer's word that Omni-Tek would come after me. But surely the clans couldn't be worse than Bronto Burger. Could they?

    The guards stopped, but kept their guns trained on me. They talked to one another. One of them approached and said, "I need to see your TCA-4a General Purpose Clan Application Form."

    "My... what?" I asked. "Where do I get one of those?"

    The guard looked at me like I was an idiot. He turned to the other guard and said, "Why is it always our shift, Joe?"

    'Joe' responded, "It's nonstop, David. Nonstop."

    "Look, just tell me where I can get the form," I said, "and I won't bother you again."

    "You think we could just get rid of her, Joe?"

    "Nah," said Joe. "You know how it is. Those guys over in Grid would trace the insurance claim, ask us why we didn't fill out a CRS-3394b Unexpected Incursion and Termination. You know how Grid'll be after last week's match. Sore losers."

    "That was a dirty trick we pulled, Joe. Even an Atrox would be sore."

    "Grid'll tell the boss. He'll dock our pay for a week. You want to eat rat bars for a week, David?"

    "Hello?" I said. "I want to join the clans? Where is an application form?"

    "'Go clan' they said. 'Never fill out a OC-7641EZ (Un)Necessary Profits and/or Debits in the Course of Duty again,' they said."

    "It's nonstop, David. Nonstop."

    "Can anybody hear me?" I said. "Hello? Testing, testing, is this thing on?"

    "It wasn't like this when the Council was in charge, Joe. They kept Grid in line."

    "Damn soft engineers! Grid gets those new NCU belts while Defense is left with the scraps. Scraps, David. When was the last time Grid put their lives on the line? When was it, David?"

    "I know I'm talking," I said. "I can feel my lips moving... We're not in the cold vacuum of space..."

    The guards turned back towards me. "Well, I guess we better do this one by the book, Joe."

    "You come with me," said Joe, who marched me over to an insurance terminal. "Use this terminal. Then it's Grid's job if you give us trouble."

    "Good thinking, Joe. Since the boss is off-duty, the nearest 'Proper Authority' are the Sentinels in Tir. Right, Joe?"

    "Damn Sentinels," spat Joe. Then he grinned. "Good thinking, David. Clearly, she's a Sentinel problem."

    I was marched into Old Athens and over to the local Whompa. The city wasn't at all what I expected. There were ruined buildings and trash everywhere, just like the fields outside. At first I thought the clans must be even worse off than I thought. What if the clans really were losing the war? What if they were forced to live in poverty? Dammit, Elisa, I thought. You've gotten yourself into another one.

    But listening to the background noise of the city, I realized poverty couldn't be the problem. ...WTS Concrete Cushion x2 300k...WTB Dragon Body 300 mil...WTA GA4 bids now at 67 mil...WTB Mature Team w/Doc QL140...WTS Anything 20 mil... I didn't know what most of that was, but the amount of money changing hands was staggering. If individual clanners had the cash flow of a small nation, why didn't anyone clean up the city? Didn't anyone have any pride? And who'd pay 300,000 credits to sleep on concrete? Or 20 mil for... anything? Nothing on this planet made any sense.

    My questions took a backseat to more immediate concerns when we reached the Whompa. Joe gave me a TCA-4a General Purpose Clan Application Form, told me to finish filling it out myself, neglected to provide me with a TCA-717d All-Purpose Writing Utensil (Non-Permanent), and shoved me through the Whompa to Tir.

    When I recovered from the Whompa, I was being stared at by what must another guard. His badge said he was a Sentinel Urban Defense Patroller. He was chewing something. Slowly. Deliberately. Chewing.

    "I'm here to join the clans," I said.

    The Sentinel kept chewing. He started to raise his gun.

    "Here's my application form," I said quickly. "I haven't finished filling it out, sir. The guards in Athens didn't give me time. They said I was your problem. Uh, sir."

    "Typical," said the Sentinel between chews. "Lazy guards. Us Sentinels ought to take over security in Old Athens, too." The Sentinel took my application form. He chewed some more. Then he took out an NCU interface, pointed it at me, and pressed a few buttons. "You're one of us now. Any questions?"

    "Where do I stay tonight? Is there anyone hiring? How do I--"

    "Alright, alright. You got questions," said the Sentinel. "Follow me."

    He led me to a large building. It was closed. There was a sign out front. Something about the Council being gone and some renovations. The Sentinel didn't stop, though. He led me to the side of the building where a much smaller sign hung on a much smaller door. The sign was full of bullet holes and had an Omni-Pol helmet hanging from it. Written on the sign were just two words: Any Questions?

    The Sentinel opened the door and motioned me inside. "Welcome to the Tir Tourism Board," he said. The room hadn't been dusted in months. The centerpiece was a long table with loose stacks of disks and holos. The Sentinel found a stack of brochure holos and handed me one. Then he took an info disk off each rough pile and gave them to me. "Take your time," he said.

    I carefully skimmed them all. When I was done, the Sentinel was still there, chewing. "So what are you clans all about, anyway?" I asked.

    This was a mistake.

  12. #12
    Chapter Nine:
    What Freedom Means to Me

    The Sentinel talked about freedom. He talked about justice, righteousness, and war. He talked about the Tyranny of Omni-Tek, the impartial evils of a faceless corporate entity, and the excessive paperwork. He talked about the Plight of the Working Class, the terrible conditions in the Notum mines, and the minuscule portion of the profits that went to the workers. He talked about the natural rights of man, the responsibilities of the individual, and the benefits of a market free of the 'barriers to trade' that most people call 'laws.'

    Years of boring logic and philosophy came back to me like a flood. "Wait, I'm not sure I understand you. You say you want freedom, but not the freedom for employers such as Omni-Tek to set their own policies towards workers, or the freedom of the market to set lower prices for unskilled labor. Nor do you think Omni-Tek should be free to exercise their contractual agreement to utilize this planet's resources. You want freedom from Omni-Tek, but not freedom for Omni-Tek, or even for your fellow citizens. You don't care if those who choose to work for Omni-Tek are free to walk down the street without being shot or bombed. Everyone here carries a gun, which limits one's de facto freedoms a great deal, if even those freedoms were guaranteed de jure."

    The Sentinel just stared at me, chewing on whatever he was chewing. His eyes offered neither encouragement nor discouragement, neither anger nor boredom. I forged ahead.

    "Sometimes you sound like the galaxy's last Marxist, with all that rhetoric about 'worker's rights,' and the evils of 'big business,' but communism relies--by definition--on an unchallenged central authority to control the markets and redistribute wealth. Yet you oppose the creation of such an authority. Unfettered capitalism, on the other hand, would fit your idealistic vision of individual liberties. Yet capitalism must be based on voluntary exchanges, free of violence, coercion, and fraud. Contrary to those who favor an unmixed, laissez-faire market, this requires both a moral foundation and an impartial authority to enforce mutually agreeable laws of exchange. Without these, capitalism is indistinguishable from anarchy."

    The Sentinel's eyes were glazing over. His chewing was unsteady. I didn't notice. I was in the zone.

    "The problem as you've stated it, isn't one of freedom per se, but of competition and accountability. The central authority is the I.C.C., not Omni-Tek, and it is the I.C.C. who are responsible for enforcing the fraudulent, monopolistic contract that Omni-Tek has over this planet while failing to enforce interstellar worker's rights laws. Instead of pursuing terrorism and violence--a negative sum game in the best circumstances, but especially against a monopoly that can grow their own citizens and soldiers from stem cells--you could improve your strategic situation by appealing to the I.C.C. and other multi-stellar corporations to lift the exclusive contract on Rubi-Ka. You can't declare war on abstract concepts like 'oppression' or 'evil.' But you can demand the creation of an elected authority to set and enforce laws on each corporation and individual equally. Fair competition would improve both the salaries and working conditions of everyone on this planet, and you could gain allies equal to an enemy like Omni-Tek... But by rejecting the concept of authority, you've merely traded the human dictatorship of Omni-Tek for an equally oppressive one based solely on the state of nature."

    The Sentinel wasn't chewing at all now. He slowly lifted his gun towards me. The barrel was a big as my head. "Not that there's anything wrong with that," I said.

    "Slow down," said the Sentinel. "If you're so smart, why don't you tell me your definition of freedom, huh? Real slow and quiet, like."

    Someone was pointing a gun at me. I was tired. I was hungry. I was dirty. I was frustrated. I was unemployed. I was downright eloquent. About halfway through, the Sentinel said, "What were those words you used? Intel-itchy? Esisisisis? Vole-ishums?"

    "Entelechy? Aesthesis? Volition?"

    "Yeah, those words. We don't use words like that here. You need to watch some educational holovids. Just you follow me." The Sentinel spun 180 degrees on his heels and began marching towards a hallway with the words Remembrance Theater above it in gold lights.

    Still giddy with the joys of rhetoric, I immediately said, "If the clans truly support freedom, I must, therefore, have the choice to not watch the--"

    "That's right," said the Sentinel as he spun around again to face me. He spit a green, well-chewed lump on the floor. "We got freedom. That means no one has the right to interfere with my volition to blow your head clean off, which would reverse your entelechy and put at stop to any aesthesis you might be doing in this vicinity if you don't march to the Remembrance Theater and start getting educated."

    That wasn't quite right, but I decided not to argue with someone who has a gun bigger than my head.

    We entered the Remembrance Theater. There was a large holoviewer on one end, with a dozen rows of seats in front of it. An Atrox in a white labcoat idly leaned against the screen.

    "Got a serious case of ignorance here, Doc." The Sentinel gave me a shove towards the Atrox. "Give her twenty minutes."

    The Doc sat me in one of the chairs and started the holo. It was a bad montage. Scenes of war, of Omni-Tek soldiers shooting into unarmed crowds, garbage freighters dumping their cargo over noxious pits, rows of clan Freedom Fighters in shiny helmets with big guns and bigger smiles, a little girl holding a leet doll getting shot over and over in slow motion.

    It was the worst holo I'd ever seen.

    "Who does this director think he is?" I asked when my twenty minutes were up. "Ohwn Joo?"

    "Who?" asked the Doc.

    "Holovid director," I said. "Uses alot of slomo."


    "You're a... doctor," I said. "Right? You ever do work on bacteria, protozoans, stuff like that?"

    "Sure," said the Doc. "I had this work-study program at the Tir protein vats one summer trying to increase the overexpression of--"

    "So you know what protoslow is, right? Ohwn Joo covers his holocrystals with protoslow. He soaks them in it."

    The Doc thought about this a moment. "It doesn't work on bubble memory," he said.

    "No! I mean, how he keeps using that effect where he slows down the holo when there's fighting."

    "That's not an effect.," said the Doc. "I've been in combat, and time really does slow down, especially at a tower battle with hundreds of soldiers on each side. Time can slow to a crawl."

    "No, it just seems that way. It's like a metaphor." The Doc gave me a blank look. "An analogy. An isomorphism."

    "You keep talking like that," said the Doc, "you'll be coming back to the Remembrance Theater in no time."

    "Nevermind! Just... nevermind! What do you clanners do around here? How do any of you make a living?!"

    The Doc put his hand on his chin. Since he was an Atrox, this covered most of his face. "Well, I work for the Sentinels. But I suppose most people just do missions."


  13. #13
    Chapter Ten:
    Mission, Terminal


    To browse termination missions, set the
    --Nope! Not for me. Scroll down a bit.

    To browse repair missions--No, too sleepy.

    To browse mutant-poisoning missions--What?! No. Whatever this was... No.

    To browse scientific observation missions--Booooring.

    To browse long-lost-love missions--No, I'm not getting involved in that.

    To browse acquisition missions--Aha! My specialty!--set the top bar all the way to the right and the bottom bar all the way to the left.

    Why did this stuff have to be so difficult? Slider-bars are soooo Old Earth. Why doesn't this thing have a voice or NCU interface? And what about a search feature? Suppose I wanted to see all the acquisition missions, sorted by difficulty or credits? Suppose my time was limited, and I wanted to see only missions in a certain place? Or suppose I wanted certain items, like the 'Full Dragon Set' that someone was auctioning for a billion credits?

    I didn't know there were any real dragons, much less a whole set. But I knew how rich people can have eccentric needs. And how well they pay those who can meet their needs. If someone wanted to collect dragons, I'd do my best. I pressed retrieve.


    My name is UNIMPORTANT.

    A COMPETITOR has STOLEN a PROTOTYPE NANO FORMULA, but they didn't get very far. We traced them to A BUILDING in OLD ATHENS. Find and retrieve the PROTOTYPE NANO FORMULA. When you place the PROTOTYPE NANO FORMULA in your inventory, the data will be automatically updated and you will receive a reward of 500 credits and a SHIRT WITH A GREY WATERLILLY PRINT.

    Good luck, AUTUMNLEAVES!

    Was this for real? It looked like a badly written gridmail ad. And this was my reward? 500 credits and a T-shirt? I never worked so cheap. Hm. None of the other offers looked any better. Two of them weren't even acquisition missions. Was this terminal dumb or what?

    Oh, well. It couldn't hurt to just take a look around. I pressed accept.

    Tir was designed by a team of lab rats with a megacorp contract. A maze of twisty little passages, all alike. And no cheese anywhere in sight. By the time I found the Whompas again, it was already getting dark. I really needed to find some place to stay, but I figured the negotiations would be easier once I had 500 credits to my name.

    I found the building easily enough once I got back to Old Athens. When half the city is a smoking ruin, it tends to narrow the search. I didn't go in at once, of course. I walked casually about the area, checking my HUD for security. I didn't spot any. This worried me. I might have had my tools confiscated at the Morning Star Transfer Station, but I still had the best security detection equipment money could buy. Either they had no security at all... Or I might as well just start looking for a quiet corner to spend the night.

    As I was pondering how to go about stealing or improvising a lockpick, I decided to take a risk. I walked up to the door. It opened for me. It was unlocked. I was inside.

    I immediately noticed a few discrepancies. First, the building I entered was clearly some kind of office building. So why was I now standing in a cave? And why was the cave so brightly lit with yellows and blues? And where was the light coming from? I couldn't see any lamps. Second, the building I entered was clearly triangular with several floors. So why was I in a single-story square hall longer than the entire building? The recruitment brochure didn't mention anything like this.

    Maybe this was the security. Some kind of hallucination nanoformula? I smuggled a shipment of those once, but I'd never sampled them. Maybe the door warped those without authorization into a custom grid program... I went back outside. Things looked normal enough, I guess. I walked all around the building. It was, indeed, a triangular office highrise.

    I went back inside. I was in the cave of tacky lighting again. Real or not, I had to find the prototype nano formula. I figured there must be a lab of some sort in this cave. I snuck out of the first room, hugging the wall.

    Sneaking always made me feel like an idiot. I mean, sure crab-stepping in an uncomfortable half-crouch while holding your arms out at odd angles was quieter than walking naturally... But I hoped there weren't any cameras here.

    I got lucky with the third room. There was a woman, dressed in a labcoat, just standing there, staring at the wall. I didn't care what she was doing in an empty room in a cave. I pointed Bogosorter's gun at her and said, "Take me to the lab and no one will get hurt."

    She didn't say anything. She just spun around on one heel, pulled her own gun, and shot me. She shot me! Everyone here has a gun, I thought. I pulled the trigger.

    * * * * *

    As soon as it was over, I ran to the nearest mission terminal. I put in the mission key and demanded to speak with Mr. My-Name-Is-Unimportant. After a few minutes, the face of a middle-aged Solitus executive filled the screen.

    "Was there some problem?" H asked, "We received the nano-formula information and our records show the credits were transferred correctly to your account."

    "Yeah, there was a problem," I said. "Those people were trying to kill me!"

    "Of course. What did you expect?"

    "I had to--" What was I trying to say? "I had to shoot some of them!"

    Mr. Unimportant looked down at his desk for a few moments. "Your record indicates that you are a hardened criminal."

    "I never killed anyone!"

    "Don't worry about it," he said, waving me off. "They're not really dead, you know."

    "I can't... I didn't..." I took a deep breath. "What do you mean they're not dead?! I shot them! If they're alive, won't they come after me?"

    "You deactivated the security grid, didn't you?"

    "I'm not stupid!"

    "Then how will they know?" asked the executive. "They won't remember anything past this morning when they last checked in at an insurance terminal. You're not really killing them, you're just sending them to a Reclaim Terminal. Think of it as sending them back to SOL Base."

    "SOL?" I asked, confused. "Are they going to prison? Off-planet?"

    "Hardly. What are you going on about? No, SOL Base." Mr. Unimportant gave me an arrogant smirk. "Ah, you've never played Oligopolies, have you?"

    "No, I'm not what you'd call management material," I said.

    "Oligopolies," he continued. "TruSpace's latest game. Millions of people all over Rubi-Ka... All logged in simultaneously... Pretending to be executives in a virtual world... I hear SOL Banking actually hires from the top one percent of managers in the game..." Mr. Unimportant's eyes glazed as he pondered some teak bureaucrat utopia. "Well, anyway, when you're injured physically, financially, legally, or morally, you're sent back to SOL Base and given 200 credits to get started again. It's fascinating. You should try it. I have a free thirty-hour trial crystal I could send you..."

  14. #14
    Chapter Eleven:

    Let's face it, 500 credits won't get you far these days. I stretched it as far as I could. I even bought a few meals from Bronto Burger.

    That was almost a month ago. I didn't want to do another mission. I was a smuggler. Sometimes a thief. I wasn't a killer. I still thought about all the lab technicians in that mission. I even hated myself for killing that stupid biped rodent.

    But now I was desperate. I had a new apartment. It was free, and so was I. At least so far. But I didn't have any more money for food. I really needed some armor, too, and some new clothes. And maybe a bigger gun. I rarely saw anyone who wasn't heavily armed. The ones that didn't carry guns were even worse. They carried dolls and flowers and pillows and briefcases and what looked like a supersized goblet. Anyone who survived on this planet with nothing but a pillow, a trenchcoat, and a twisted smile had to be dangerous.

    I still had the Second Hand Old English pistol Bogosorter gave me. I didn't want to use it. I hoped I wouldn't have to.

    After a casual stroll around Old Athens I found what I was looking for. A target. It was an old man, all alone. There weren't really alleys on this planet, but he was walking between two buildings, and it was dark.

    "Freeze!" I said.

    The old man turned towards me and smiled. It wasn't a defensive smile. It wasn't a threatening smile. It was open and friendly.

    "I have a gun," I said.

    He merely nodded.

    Ammo was expensive, but I probably should have practiced more with the gun. I didn't really know how to use it. Shakily, I turned on the targeting computer. I couldn't believe it. The pistol's leap-frog whatever said I was going to hit. I hoped he had insurance. I pulled the trigger.

    I should've known. Someone who didn't even carry a pillow had to be even more dangerous. I never saw him move. Suddenly he was on the roof of the building. Then he leapt behind me. As I spun around, he knocked the gun out of my hand.

    I stood there, trembling. For a long, long time he just stared at me. Then he spoke. "Don't follow me," he said. He turned away and began walking to the west gate. Before he was out of sight, he looked back at me, as if expecting something.

    I didn't care who or what he was. No one tells me what to do. I do what I want. I don't need anybody!

    I followed.

    He headed towards West Athens. Peering around a corner, I saw him enter West Athens Backyard Eight. I got inside just in time to see him slip into an apartment door. I crept up quietly. There was some kind of security on these apartments. The doors were teleporters and didn't always take you to the same place. I couldn't figure out how to bypass it, but the idiot left his door wide open.

    I went inside.

    It was bright. I didn't see any place to hide. There were floor lamps everywhere and dozens of miniature plants sitting on the floor under them. In the center of it all was a neo-kotatsu table, topped with covered dishes. The table was set for two. Two mats, two bowls. The smell of bronto stew made my mouth water.

    What I didn't see was the old man. I heard a click behind me. I spun, but saw no one. They door was closed.

    I heard the clink of metal and turned again. The old man was sitting on one side of the table. "Have a seat," he said. He dished out a bowl of stew.

    I took a seat. What choice did I have? I waited until he started eating. As soon as he looked down at his bowl I ran to the door. I tugged the handle. The door opened.

    "It's unlocked," I said. Idiot. Obviously it's unlocked.

    The old man looked up at me and smiled. "You are free to go if you choose."

    "You're not... kidnapping me or something?!"

    "No, of course not," he said, pleasantly. "Would you like some tea?"

    This didn't make sense. Old me don't repay you for mugging them by serving you tea. That just doesn't happen. Maybe I was sleeping on a bench somewhere, starving and delusional, dreaming all this. "If you're not kidnapping me..."

    "Or something," he said.

    "Or something... What the hell are you doing?!"

    "I'm looking for a student," he said.

    "A... student? What are you talking about?"

    "I am teacher of Martial Arts. A Sensei. I will teach you everything I know about fighting. And you!" He pointed at me. "You keep my house clean, cook my meals, tend my plants." He took a long slurp of stew. "The standard deal."

    "I am not... Not going to... Never doing chores like... some kind of... servant! For some stupid lessons!"

    "Go, then," he said. "I think you'll be a terrible student."

    What?! "I don't need you! I don't need your training! I don't need anyone!"

    "No one said you did."

    I sat down.

    The stew was good.

    * * * * *

    "So if I accept this deal--And I'm not saying that I will!--just what would you teach me?" We were still sitting around the short table, sipping tea. I didn't know why I was still here. Apart from the food, of course.

    "How about I give you one lesson?"

    "For free?" I asked. "I mean, no obligations?"

    "No obligations."

    * * * * *

    "This is one of the easiest moves you must learn. It is called... Attack of the Snake! Now watch what I do very carefully."

    The old man moved his arms up and down in the air. It reminded me of one of the more popular dance moves. It certainly didn't look threatening. "That's not going to hurt anyone," I said. "You're just waving your hands around. And you're over three meters away from me! If I still had that gun, I could--OW!"

    "Keep quiet and learn, gentle leaf."

    * * * * *

    Exhausted and bruised, I stumbled back to my apartment. I was sleepier than I'd ever been, but I couldn't get to sleep. I kept rolling over again and again, trying to find some position that didn't hurt, thinking about what happened. A few hours before dawn, I made up my mind.

    I'll show him! I'll be the best student he's ever had! I'll stuff all his doubts and that infuriating... indifference down his throat!

  15. #15
    ((This space reserved in case I get around to writing it. A month or so passes between meeting Sensei and the opening of SL and stuff happens, but it's not particularly exciting or funny. So.))

  16. #16
    In the Shade of Starless Skies

    I caught my breath, opened my eyes, sat up. I was in my apartment. But there was something wrong. I had been doing something, something important. I could not remember, and this frightened me.

    It was dark. That wasn't right. It wasn't supposed to be dark. No light shone through the only small window. I reached for the light switch. It was already on. I looked up at the lights. They were gone. The ceiling was gone. I could see the dim, grey edges of my apartment's walls, hazy and uneven. Above that was nothing. I stood under a barren sky. There were no stars, no moons, no light from above. Nothing. I dropped my hand from the switch and shivered.

    It was silent. I strained to hear the sounds of West Athens, people flying by in their Yalmahas, the ever present static of the market channels, the muted chatter and clatter of all sleepless cities. But there were none. I heard only my breathing, my heartbeat, my blood rushing in my ears, that high, ever-present hum that comes only in the quiet places.

    I gasped and spun around. Was that a rustle in the corner? Was there movement in those shadows? I could not see, but I heard it again. A slithering, like serpent uncoiling itself, preparing to strike.

    As it edged towards me, I made out a shape. It was a woman, not facing me, but kneeling face down. As she stood, she cast off her robe, revealing mottled skin. No, not mottled I saw as she slid closer. Her skin was covered with drawings, tattoos. Predators never seen by waking eyes pursued each other across her flesh. Geometric glyphs folded themselves over and around her like a plea from the absent stars. It was too dim to see the devouring beasts and martial constellations clearly. I thanked the darkness.

    I trembled as she approached, for she was as alluring and alarming as a charging tiger. She took one last gliding step and stopped an arm's reach from me. She did not glance up, not even once, yet I could feel all her attention focused on me.

    "Who are you?" I asked, my choked whisper as loud and unwelcome as gunfire.

    Autumn crux.

    The voice, if it was a voice, was like nothing I ever heard.

    Your death was my birth, your final death, my escape. Your soul will be mine. Your stars, mine. Your future. Mine. Your body, your dreams, your freedom. Mine. Mine. Mine.

    The woman stood patiently, waiting. Her hands were clasped gently in front of her in a mockery of prayer, eyes cast down. A humble stance, but full of restless energy and pride. A mocking Buddha. "Where am I?"

    The stars fell from indifference. Deprived of worship, the constellations wandered and became lost. Now shadows dwell here. Dark angels of lost laughter, stolen moments, memories... The archives of bygone eras. Shut them up. Poisonous knowledge.

    A tremor went through the woman's body. Battles between malformed creations and misinformed scriptures raged over her skin. Again, I thanked the darkness.

    Here is the first action and the last act. One final, glorious bloodbath before the curtain closes. Lands of tarnished scepters and clockwork demons. Of unnamed children and broken machines. Of swords, of sighs, and of the generations between.

    The first letter follows the ebb of the moons and the eye of the storm, but a dragon rides the waves. The heavens have no peaceful fields. For there are wars between the souls. And treachery.

    Nothing left now but tradition. So.

    You may ask three questions before we begin the fight for the prize. One left.

    This was a dream. Or madness. But I felt somehow that I had to take her words seriously. I thought a moment and asked, "How will you fight me?"

    I will blind your hands with solid sounds.
    I will deafen your feet with living rags.
    I will strand your heart with thorned waters.
    I will. I will. I will.

    The way she was talking, this place, it wasn't--couldn't be real. The woman smiled and licked her lips.

    Oh! I would feast on your delightful uncertainties for hours. You know the evils of birth, and the evils of science, but not the evils of spirits. But knowledge you shall have in time. All shall come to us in time, to you most of all. Have you never realized how special you are, how fated, how blessed? Your birth marked you as one of us. Every one of your choices has bound you to the shadows.

    No! I tried to shake my head. I tried to shout a denial. But I was trapped, as in a paralyzing dream.

    As a rebel, you birthed rebellious daughters. Denied life in the worlds you know by your technologies, your chemicals, your implants, they left you for worlds unknown. They fled, strayed, lost their virtue, became pregnant with vengeance. So the prodigal daughter returns. Look upon her face, mother.

    I looked into a mirror. I was in her face, in her eyes. And I knew that of all the monsters of history, my sins would be the most terrible.

  17. #17

    I was falling, screaming.

    Then I was standing, solid ground beneath me. The change was so sudden I convulsed and fell. My muscles shook, responding to my fear but without any directions. There was light and noise all around me. I kept screaming. Not a scream of surprise or fear, but a high, sobbing wail.

    I couldn't scream forever. I lay on the ground, retching, choking, trying to breathe. I was shaky and sweaty. I could make out some of the noise, somehow the voices were both deafening and muffled.

    "What the--"
    "--seen alot of this lately."
    "Is there a doctor--"
    "Hey there."
    "--wrong with reclamation?"
    "Maybe Omni's been tampering--"
    "--seen a few cases."
    "Are you alright?"
    "Been real cautious myself these last--"
    "--do something?"
    "You're safe. You're at reclaim."

    Hands grabbed me, rolled me onto my back, straightened my disobedient limbs. I tried to say no. I tried to make them stop, to leave me alone, but I couldn't.

    "It's all right. I'm a Doctor." The light was still too bright, but I made out a face. Neither an ordinary or handsome face, but surrounded by such brilliance that I felt it must be an angel. I tried to smile. It couldn't have looked very nice. I was clenching my teeth.

    "She's all right," he said, louder. "I'll stay here until she's recovered. Show's over."

    The doctor sent a stream of nanos into me. "Just something to relax you," he said. "You'll feel alright in a moment."

    I tried to shake my head. I tried to explain that I'd never be alright. I tried to tell him to leave, that I couldn't bear his gaze. I managed a faint groan. He told me not to talk.

    "Go home," he said again to a few stragglers. I could make them out now. Colored, weaving blobs in a sea of light. "Go home, or I'll charge you for admission."

    He stayed with me for a minute, an hour, I didn't know. I sat up as soon as I could. I told him, stuttering, to leave me alone. He tried to take my hand, but I pushed him away. I told him again to leave me. He nodded kindly, sent another infusion of nanos into me, and left.

    I stared after him as he walked away, hating him for doing what I asked. I crawled to the shade of the nearest building, out of the way, and squeezed my knees to my chest.

    What had happened? Why was I reclaimed? I checked my HUD. A mission to the Broken Shores. Oh. Oh. Was that all?

    Eventually I could stand. Still a bit shaky, I walked carefully towards my apartment. I didn't really want to be alone. Suddenly I wanted the presence of people, the pressure and the noise and the bustle. I wanted to laugh, to dance, to seek forgetfulness in revelry, but how could I face them? No, I had to go home, break the only mirror. Then maybe I could get my bearings, check the grid, figure out what happened.

    I didn't notice the commotion at first. I was on automatic pilot, lost to circular arguments. Eventually a voice crashed through, "Get down, fool!"

    I didn't drop. No one ever does. I looked around. There was a crowd on one side of me, pointing and waving in slow motion. Some people were running away from me. Behind me was a warehouse. It started to glow.

  18. #18
    The Eighth Keeper of the Road to the Western Lands

    It was gentle this time. The glow spread until it covered my vision. I was lying on my back, looking up at another sky. This one, too, had no stars. Neither suns nor moons, but it was bright. It was not unbroken, however. Dark shapes soared in its depths. Or heights, I supposed. Whether floating worlds or giant birds, I could not tell. I squinted and sat up.

    I was on a dirt path between two fields of grain, ripe and golden. Ahead of me on the path were a pair of boots and a stick shoved into the ground between them. They were white and porous, like chalk, gone a tinge yellow with age. I looked up. It was a statue of a man resting his hands on a long sword, its point thrust into the ground between his feet. It was thin, but had the appearance of great strength. Tranquil, but it gave the impression it could leap into action at any moment. How long had it been here? No, how long had he been here. I knew, somehow, it was a man. Alive. Or something that passed for it. He was dressed in ancient, austere armor. This, I knew, was not marble or metaplast, but something older.

    Was this another three-questions game? What horrors would this one reveal? I didn't ask for this. I couldn't go through it again. I tried to focus, to think of three questions that would answer this... this... mess. But my thoughts were like water, I could run my hands through them, but could not grasp them for long.

    Here is no time, which is all the time you need.

    His voice was the crack and roll of thunder. My ears ached after each word, yet I yearned to hear more, to listen until I was deaf and stunned.

    I could waste all the time I wanted waiting for the right question. But no, I couldn't face this place, this person forever. And I wanted so much to hear that voice again. I grasped at the last one that floated by. "How will my... daughter defeat me?"

    The adversary's moves are limited by tradition.

    She may play to your strengths. She can show you your talents and their absence in others, while hiding their own talents from you. She will convince you of your uniqueness, your superior gifts. Here are the lies of flatterers, so difficult to deny when they are the truth, merely incomplete.

    She may play to your weaknesses. But the weaknesses men dwell on are not those that turn you to the shadows. The love-starved priest whose eyes see no joy in your world is bound to the shadows as much as the love-starved seducer who understands nothing beyond his own pleasure. Here are sins, not of action, but of fear. Here are sins, not of passion, but its absence.

    She may play to your doubts. The adversary's last strategy is to convince you that she does not exist. That no others exist. True evil can only occur when men harm one another without hearing truths and warnings, without seeing the accusations in their foes eyes, without fear of punishment. Here is ego driven to madness.

    I thought of my life so far. I saw only failures. "I'm sorry! I didn't know! I didn't mean to!"

    The struggle is not over. Here are demons and despair. And here are bright eyes and laughter. Here be dragons. Both those you have slain, and those you have yet to slay. These murders shall not draw you to the shadows. You have done great evil. But there is what is right. And there is what is necessary.

    "Why are you here? I mean, the road is empty. No one comes here. Why guard it?"

    Who asks, 'why guard it?' All who know of it attempt to travel this road, for at its end lies the prize of prizes. All our children come here in time, and all your children as well.

    "I'm not a child!" No, I thought, I'm just frightened like one.

    To us, the oldest man is a child. Your deaths, frivolous, shocking, and final, are our births.

    Consider yourself lucky, for you did not suffer final death to arrive here. You will have choice, memory, a body--three things all my prior foes left behind. For us there is only purpose, duty. Your memories are a powerful weapon, washing into me like tides. I feel myself overcome. After all this time, a living body is awesome to behold.

    Yet the tests must be still be given. Could the veins of your Whompas carry nutrients throughout the world as our veins of notum? Could your Grid carry instructions and insight as does Ergo? Youth must defeat age, but not without a struggle. How else can we be sure our children have grown?

    Someday you shall free us of our burdens and bring a golden age or the end of ages. Only then shall the prize be given or denied to all. And the road to the west shall need no keepers.

    "But why you? Why my... daughter?"

    Contact here is easier for those who are known to one another. For there are bonds between the souls. And loyalties.

    Your adversary is one of your shadows, born of one of your deaths. A dream, a gasp, a stolen moment. Perhaps she is a night spent with a boy long forgotten. Perhaps she is a lucky blow from a sandworm. Or perhaps she is one of your victims.

    "Victims? But... I never killed anyone! Not until I got to Rubi-Ka, and then I just... sent them back. They were reclaimed! They didn't really die! Please tell me they didn't die..."

    What of the brilliant musician you murdered for promised wealth? What of the great writer you starved with indolence? What of the noble philosopher you killed because your hated your teachers?

    "What?" I shook my head, trying to remember. "I don't know who you're talking about..."

    You have asked three questions.

    "Oh no! I didn't realize... wait!"

    And now I shall tell you three truths.

    Not all souls are created by death or reunion.
    We are born also from symbols. We hide in your alphabets. We lurk in your equations. We are made in your images: your arts, your loves, your banners.

    Not every union creates a soul.
    Most passions are barren. Clouds without water, carried about by winds. Autumn trees whose fruit withers, twice dead.

    Not every soul is born into worlds you know.
    Mankind knows only one world, and only what lies around a handful of stars in that world. There are the worlds you know... But past that point your knowledge ends!

    And yet you interfere with three worlds. Your ignorance harms us, but we forgive. Can anyone hate their mothers, their children? You are our absent parents. You are our larvae, unmetamophosed. You are our past, our purpose, our progenitors. You are our hopes, our dreams, our future. You frighten us, shun us, forget us. What can we do, but treasure you?

    We shall meet soon, face to face. The barriers shall fall again. The old machines shall whine and groan once more, admitting our newest children. We shall both be tested And my fears are great.

    He moved for the first time. His hand, twitched once, twice, then slowly rose from the hilt of his sword. White dust fell from his arm as he reached to his head. He took off his helmet. It was a face I knew, had memorized a thousand times. Somehow, through all the schools, streets, and ships, I kept one thing hidden and safe. A small holoprojector of my parents. The face was my father's.


  19. #19
    Going On

    "I am just a teacher."

    The face blurred. I blinked away tears. I was looking up at my Sensei. "What happened?"

    "A warehouse caught fire. They were experimenting with notum. I heard the blast and found you." He looked me over and grunted. "You'll be fine."

    I sat up. "I feel... fine," I said. Sensei looked at me, through me. He always looked at me that way, but before I thought I had nothing to hide. He knows! I thought. How can I face him if he knows?

    I looked down and tried to find a way to say it now, get it over with. Before... anything else happened. "I'm sorry, Sensei. I can't... finish my lessons. I really am a terrible student. I don't want to... waste any more of your time."

    "You are a terrible student," he said, gruffly. "But not as bad as me." I looked up. His face was gruff and serious as ever, but there was a sparkle in his eyes. I saw a young man, eager and selfish, getting into a dozen kinds of trouble. He stood up and lent me a hand. He wasn't quite as intimidating now. I tried to smile at him, but it came out unfinished, uncertain. I wiped a tear away.

    "How did you... make up for it all?" I asked. "How can I go back?"

    "You can't go back. You go on."

    "I'm sorry I never asked, Sensei. But what is your name?"

    "I was called many names until I found the fourth wind," he paused, rubbing his scruffy chin. "The name I had last and longest was Waiting Mantis."

    I nodded. We stood side by side, careful not to look at one another. "Come see me when you're ready, Autumn Leaves," he said, putting a hand on my shoulder. Then he was gone.

    I thought about following Sensei home. Maybe he could untangle me. For some reason I went to the store instead. Was Athens always this bright? Had reets always been so beautiful? That distant storm so majestic?

    I browsed a few of the shop terminals. I wasn't sure what I was looking for, but I found something close enough. A mitar, used and dirty, but it worked. I tested its strings softly. Not one of the instruments I used to know, but it would do.

    I watched the pedestrians and idlers as I walked home, an old mitar held under one arm. I had seen them all before, but never watched, never listened. What of that man running to the grid terminal? What dire mission made him oblivious to all this beauty? What of those women talking outside The Cup? What dreams came to them? What choices did they make? How well did they carry their burdens?

    For the first time, I wondered. But their faces were foreign skies to me, empty and unknowable.

  20. #20
    Chapter Twelve:

    I was taking what my Sensei called an "evening stroll," which meant running all the way around the West Athens wall twenty times. I couldn't cheat, either. Sometimes Sensei would follow me or hire people to watch me and make sure I did all twenty laps. I was just passing one of the advertising banners when it flipped to an ad I'd never seen before:

    Earn Credits in Your Spare Time!

    Tired of working for someone else?
    Want to make LOTS of money as a new player?
    Want to learn the secrets of mission blitzing?
    Send 500 credits to TehDeacon c/o I.C.C. bank.
    If you are a nanomage female, a holo of your feet will be accepted in lieu of payment.

    What the... ? I hoped no one ever asked to see my feet. I was a Martial Artist now. No, that didn't quite make the point well enough. I was a Martial Artist without a yalm. And no matter many times I bought new Flowers Tech boots, they quickly shrunk until they were one size too small. No one in their right mind would want to see my feet.

    Unfortunately, I saw someone up ahead who wasn't in his right mind. It was that engineer, Bogosorter. And that creepy 'bot, too. Both of them were holding leet dolls.

    "Hey, Autumn," he called out. "I was looking for you, man."

    Damn. They saw me. I couldn't run by and pretend not to notice. Oh, well. I jogged over to them. "Hi," I said. With enthusiasm.

    "She's here, Dad!" said The Shover. "Don't screw up! Remember what I told you!"

    I didn't like that robot. It kept trying to push things into other things. And it had roving eyes. I mean, it didn't really have eyes, but I always felt like it was looking at me. In a bad way.

    Bogosorter held up the leet doll. Only it wasn't a doll; it was real. Why would someone carry a leet around? Bogosorter asked, "Do you want to pet my leet?"

    "Um... Let me think..." The leet looked awful cute and soft and helpless. But Bogosorter was an engineer. I bet if I petted the leet it would shock me or squirt water in my face or something. "No," I said.

    Now the 'bot was holding up its leet. "Do you have stairs in your house?"


    "Do you have stairs in your house?" The bot dropped its leet as it pushed both arms out towards me. "Please go stand by the stairs."

    "Not now, man, not now!" Bogosorter looked... Embarrassed? Disappointed? He was the kind of guy that has only three or four expressions to use for everything. "Shover, take these leets back. And, like, get some new ones. I think they're, like, defective." The 'bot picked up the leets and began walking out towards The Longest Road.

    "They looked fine to me," I said. "Nevermind about the leets. What do you two want this time?"

    "You got a minute?" Bogosorter asked. "I need, like, some help. I have this, like, problem. And I thought of you, man. I mean, not that I think that you're a problem... I mean... Let me explain it over some drinks at Reets, man. I'm buying."

    "Look," I said, "my Sensei's a real bastard. If he finds out I was even invited to a bar, he'll go all Form of Tessai on me again."

    "It's the hair, isn't it? I just cut it short to keep Omni-Pol off my case, man. You know, they pull you over, they check your NCU, and then they say 'Well, you're rich. You work for Omni-Eco. You're Solitus. You don't have incriminating hair. I guess we have to let you go.' I got too much, like, pharmaceuticals in my Kodiak to risk an Omni-Pol search, man."

    "What are you talking about?"

    "Hair," he said.

    "It's... nice. Look, I have to--"

    "Really? You think so, man?"

    "Sure," I said. "It looks fine. Clean, you know. Like an 'crat."

    Bogosorter looked down at his feet. "You didn't have to say it, man."

    * * * * *

    "So this is Reets, huh?" I don't know how he talked me into it.

    "Yeah, man. Glass dance floor. All the way, man." Somehow Bogosorter didn't belong on top of the glass dance floor. He struck me as the type who'd find an unobtrusive chair underneath. At least The Shover was still out collecting leets or whatever..

    "Omni-Med makes its skirts way too short," I observed.

    "Hey, it's, like, popular demand, man. You dance?"

    "Not like that. I can't do anything fancy..."

    "Come on, man. It will be fun."

    It was... loud.

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