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Chapter 4


Return to Base

The rover heeled over sharply as the wheels dipped to the left. "Mokin' foke!" he yelled, struggling to keep control of the joystick as he bounced sideways, banging his helmet against the canopy. In Earth gravity, he probably would have rolled over; but he had just enough float to keep it under control while he slowed down and steered the rover back up onto the path. Then he braked to a halt and sighed. /All right, goddammit. Now what did you just say?/

/// I'm...sorry if I startled you. ///

/Sorry? I don't give a mokin' foke whether you're sorry./ Bandicut took a deep breath. /Did you, or did you not, just say, 'Save the Earth from destruction'? Am I supposed to believe that? Or was it some kind of joke?/ He blinked, wanting to stare at the alien. Since that was impossible, he gazed instead at Napoleon, which was swiveling its robot head to fix him with an inquisitive stare of its own.

/// Yes.

I had sensed that it might...startle you.

That's why I asked

if you could drive and listen— ///

/Never mind that dingo shit. Just tell me what the fr'deek you meant./ He gave the robot a wave, hoping that the metal creature would refrain from asking questions.

///'s very complex,

and I don't have all the information yet.

That's why I need time— ///

Bandicut grunted harshly. If he could have seared the quarx with a glare, he would have. He was aware of Napoleon trying to raise him on the comm. Exhaling loudly, he put the rover back into forward motion. The robot swiveled its head worriedly. "Suit—comm on. Nappy—ah—I'm okay here," he called.

The robot looked back. "Are you certain, John Bandicut?"

"I'm certain. Comm off." /Now tell me./

He sensed an awkwardness in the answer.

/// It' approaching cosmological hazard.

Look—I think we should wait

until we're someplace where we can talk.

The danger's coming soon,

but not that soon. ///

Cosmological hazard? Coming soon...? /Listen, damn it—/

/// I don't mean to evade your question.

But we don't want to draw attention

to ourselves, do we?

What's this new escort coming our way? ///

/Escort?/ He suddenly noticed several other robots of various configurations moving along the top of the ridge. As the buggy crested the ridge, the robots fell into formation flanking him, apparently for the purpose of accompanying him back to base.

He cursed silently. /All right, I'll play along—for now. But as soon as we're alone, you talk. Comprende?/

/// Com...prendo, ///

the alien croaked.

Scowling, Bandicut switched on the panel comm and squeezed the mike switch. It was time he called in and let base camp know he was alive. He heard a blast of static, which wasn't encouraging—but he transmitted anyway. "Base Camp Exo-op, Unit Echo. Base Camp, Unit Echo. Do you read?" He was answered with more static. What was going on? he wondered. His suit antenna was broken, but not the buggy's. He tried again. "Base Camp, Echo. Anyone, this is Bandicut. Does anyone read me? Any station?"

The northern mining battery was just coming into view over the horizon. Base Camp was about a kilometer beyond it. The main surface-stripping laser was inactive at the moment. He saw one of the big crawlers moving over the beam-spread area, and assumed that it was safe to proceed, even in the absence of radio contact. He kept trying the comm, but the closest he came to actual contact was, faintly through the static, a voice saying, "...GOT HIM IN SIGHT, HEADING INBOUND FROM WENDY." Eventually he gave up and just kept driving. It wasn't worth worrying about now; he was almost there.

/// I did that to help you. ///


/// The electrical...malfie. ///

He squinted through the windshield, an uneasy clarity coming to him. The robot in the power compartment. The flashes. /Oh./

/// Remember that when you get in.

An electrical malfie. ///

He let out his breath and didn't answer.

* * *

With the exception of Napoleon bouncing on his front fender, the robot escort peeled away as he rolled into the maintenance shed. The glare of lights inside threw off his visor-augment for a moment, and he squinted as he followed a shop mech, directing him to drive straight into the service airlock for the shirtsleeve repair section. He waited as air hissed into the airlock chamber. Once he was through, he shut down the power and pulled his helmet off with a sigh of relief. He felt as if he'd been locked inside it for days.

Climbing out, helmet cradled under his right arm, he called out to the burly repair crew chief, who was ambling over with a scowl. "Hi, Pacho. How's business?"

Pacho Rawlins rarely smiled, and he didn't now. "What the fuck's going on, Bandicoot? Ops says for you to get your ass upstairs as soon as you get in. Sounds like they want to chew your butt up. What'd you do this time?" Rawlins swatted Napoleon off the fender and opened the main cowling with a jerk.

/// An electrical malfie. ///

"I electrical malfie," Bandicut said, flushing. Rawlins squinted at him and with a shake of his head bent to peer into the buggy's power compartment. "It took out my nav and my comm and—"

"Christ, Bandicut!" Rawlins yelled. "What did you do to this thing?"

"What do you mean?" Nervously, Bandicut leaned to see what the chief had found.

"Malfie? Hell, you fried half the goddamn compartment! What'd you do, drive in front of a goddamn laser?"

Bandicut had trouble drawing a breath. The power compartment did, indeed, look fried. One cable was completely melted; many others were scorched. /You did this?/ he whispered to Charlie. He could not imagine what had kept the thing running at all. And he had been depending on it for life support!

/// The robot did it.

I made sure it didn't touch the life support. ///

Bandicut shook his head. "Ah," he mumbled to the chief, "I'm not really sure what happened, Pacho. I didn't do anything except limp home after it happened—and I was damn lucky. Can you take care of it okay?"

Rawlins glared. "Can I take care of it?" He shook his head, walking away. "Jesus Aloysius Christ!" When he turned back and saw Bandicut still staring at him, he said, "What are you doing still here? Get your ass over to ops like they said, will you? I don't want to get blamed for that, too."

Bandicut shrugged and left the maintenance area. He was just as happy not to have to explain any more to Rawlins, and he didn't speak to either of the other survey drivers that he passed. Returning to the ready room, he showered and dressed in his station casuals. He felt very strange...almost with an absence of emotion, as if a whole reservoir of bewilderment and anxiety were stoppered up inside him, waiting for the most awkward moment to erupt. He was sure it was at least partly because he was on his way to ops; but it was a coldly disturbing sensation nonetheless, and he wondered if he were building up to another silence-fugue. He didn't know what he would do if that happened. He wasn't planning to tell anyone about the earlier episode, unless absolutely forced to. A disturbance of that magnitude could put him off the active list altogether.

The quarx stirred from its silence.

/// Correct me if I misunderstand, please.

Wasn't your fugue caused by an injury

resulting from company equipment malfunction? ///

He hesitated, his shirt half snugged up the front. /Yeah. But so what?/ He willed his fingers to continue working, but it was like making them move through molasses. Charlie had touched upon an extremely raw nerve.

/// Then...if I might ask...

shouldn't the company be...responsible?

Legally? ///

He glared inwardly at the quarx. /What, you're an expert in our law?/

/// Well...

I have picked up some information

over the years. ///

/And just how have you done that?/

/// TV and radio, mostly. ///

"TV!" Bandicut yelled, slamming his locker shut. He looked around, red faced—hoping no one had heard him. Fortunately, the locker room was empty. /What the hell do you know about TV?/ he asked in an inner whisper.

/// Well, you know—

your people broadcast it into space

for a good many of your years. ///

Bandicut squinted, and finally laughed bitterly. /I see. Well, Charlie—I got news for you. TV don't exactly always get it right. We're a long way from the law out here. A lonnnng way./ He clamped his jaw. He didn't want to think about it any further...think about what the company owed him, about the loss of the neuro and the botched effort to fix it.

/// A long way from the law—? ///

the quarx mused.

/// You mean, like in the Old West? ///

/Huh? What are you talking about?/ Bandicut shook his head, feeling as though he had skipped a beat. /The Old West? You mean, the American Old West?/

/// Right.

Outlaws and sheriffs.

Like on TV. ///

Bandicut rolled his eyes up, and for the first time today, laughed out loud in genuine amusement. /Christ Charlie—give me a break! Now, let's go!/ He straightened his collar and headed out into the corridor with brisk, floating strides, as the quarx muttered to itself in quiet puzzlement.

* * *

Things seemed pretty subdued in the ops center when he walked in. If any excitement had been generated by his disappearance, it seemed to have died down by now. Two of the mining dispatchers glanced his way in momentary curiosity, but he just nodded back with his very best expression of unconcern, and they didn't give him a second glance. Only Georgia Patwell, who had apparently just taken over the exo-op comm seat, flashed him a brief, quizzical smile before turning her attention back to her console. It would have been nice if he could have reported to her, but there would be no such luck.

Lonnie Stelnik was hunkered down in the back of the ops room, drinking coffee and poring over sector reports. He was tall and lanky, with vulturous eyes, a beak-shaped nose, and an expression that discouraged conversation. When Stelnik looked up, the expression changed from boredom to condescension. As the exo-op who'd been on duty, he was Bandicut's super for the work shift and therefore the one to whom Bandicut had to explain himself.

/// You don't like this man? ///

/No./ Bandicut nodded to Stelnik.

/// May I ask...why not? ///

/Let's just say he's not afraid to step on people's necks to get to the top./

/// ??? ///

"Bandicut." Stelnik crossed his arms over his chest. "What the hell happened out there? You vanished without a word. And we interrupted a lot of work to go looking for you. Then here you come, riding in like a knight from battle."

"What, would you rather I hadn't made it back?" Bandicut snapped. "I had an equipment malfunction!" Great, he thought, it takes exactly ten seconds to blow up at this jerk. Gotta keep a lid on it.

Stelnik shrugged. "We sent out the robots, didn't we? Now, do you mind telling me what you were doing way out past position Wendy?" Stelnik leaned back, stretching out while peering down his nose at Bandicut. His eyes glinted. "Plus, I've got this report here from Rawlins in maintenance, saying you did some serious damage to your rover. You want to tell me about it? Jackson's not gonna like this, you know."

Bandicut felt a second flash of irritation. "I didn't do anything to the rover. Don't blame me for equipment failures, all right?" He swallowed at the half-truth.

Stelnik shrugged, unfolded his arms, and flicked on a holoscreen. "Okay, you can give me the whole story in a second. You can tell Cole at the same time."

Bandicut groaned inwardly.

/// What's wrong? Who's Cole? ///

/Cole Jackson. Director of Survey Operations./

/// You don't like him, either? ///

/Let's just say, between Stelnik and Jackson, it's hard to say who's the more self serving. Cole's going to be mad as hell, because we screwed up his nice, neat work charts./

The quarx seemed to twitch nervously.

/// You aren't going to try to tell them

about me, are you? ///

/These guys? Not on my deathbed. If I turn you in, it'll be to somebody I trust a lot more than these two./ That answer did not entirely soothe the quarx, he realized. He shrugged inwardly. /I hope you've thought of a good explanation for that damage to the electronics./

/// Uh...working on it... ///

Bandicut cleared his throat. "Listen, you mind if I sit?" It wasn't really necessary, in one-thirteenth Earth gravity, but he wanted to call Stelnik on his bad manners.

With an annoyed look, Stelnik twisted around and found a short stool under the counter, which he hauled out for Bandicut to perch on. Meanwhile, a woman's face had appeared in the holoscreen. "Janie—get me Jackson, will you?" Stelnik said. He tapped his fingers on the table until the screen blinked and a middle-aged man's face appeared, wearing old-fashioned eyeglasses. "Cole," said Stelnik, "I've got Bandicut here with me."

"So I see," said the face in the screen.

"He was just about to tell me how he fried the electronics in that rover. You got the report, right?"

"I did. I must say, John—I hope you have a good explanation." Jackson peered out of the holoscreen, stroking the underside of his chin with his fingertips.

Bandicut cleared his throat. "Well, I—"

"It says here that you were out of the approved sector, as well," Jackson said sharply. Stelnik, his eyes shifting back and forth between Bandicut and the screen, barely concealed a smirk. Was he hoping to add the firing of a negligent driver to his record of tough-minded management?

Bandicut stirred and tried to think fast. "Well, as I said, I had an electrical malfie. I was just telling Lonnie here, I don't know exactly what went wrong. But the first thing that went was my nav. I missed the markers—and I, uh, don't know that particular stretch out there as well as some of the others." That last part, at least, was true.

"Nav, huh?" Jackson did not look entirely convinced.

"Nav and comm." He was thinking frantically now. "Something crisped itself in the electrical system, and eventually stopped me altogether for a while. And I, uh, just had to patch it together as best I could to get home. Napoleon came along right after I got the thing running again." He felt his face hot with anxiety as he struggled to sound convincing.

/// You're doing fine. ///

/I'm a lousy liar. I don't like lying. Why am I doing this?/

/// Because if you tell people about me,

our chances of success will diminish markedly. ///


/// Saving the Earth.

I promise, I'll explain later. ///

Bandicut sighed, not replying. Neither Jackson nor Stelnik had responded to his explanation. Stelnik's gaze was slanted down his nose again; Jackson looked worried, as though he might have to log something inexplicable on his reports, and how would that look on his job review? It was Jackson who spoke first. "The report from Pacho Rawlins called it the most...unusual... malfunction he'd ever seen."

Stelnik cackled and rocked forward. "That wasn't the way he phrased it in the report I saw."

"Well, weird might have been the word he used," Jackson said.

"Fucked was the word he used, Cole. He said it was the most fucked power compartment he'd ever laid eyes on."

Jackson adjusted his eyeglasses. "Whatever. There's certainly no need to repeat Mr. Rawlins's vulgarity." His gaze shifted. "In any case—John, what can you tell us about that?"

Stelnik rubbed his nose.

Bandicut thought hard, and a possible explanation welled up in his mind. "I'm hardly an expert, Cole, but I figure it might be that some of those components, like that cable that broke loose that I had to arc-weld back together"—he couldn't believe he was saying this—"weren't quite as cryo-ready as they were supposed to be. You know, we have had trouble with that sort of thing before."

Stelnik snorted, looking away. But Jackson squinted as he met Bandicut's gaze in the screen. "Well..." he said after a moment, "it's true, we have had our fair share of low-temperature problems."

And if that were the explanation, it would make the work audit a lot simpler, wouldn't it? Bandicut thought, waiting for Jackson to bite. He could see Jackson trying to decide whether it was sufficiently credible for his superiors to accept.

"I don't recall the robot's diagnostic report saying anything about cryo-failure," Stelnik said, making a sucking noise with his lips. "I'm not saying it's impossible, Bandicoot, but—"

"But what? I had the thing running again by the time the robot got there." Bandicut shook his head in exaggerated disgust and hissed silently to the quarx, /What is Napoleon going to report? If it says that it fried the circuits, that won't square with what I'm claiming!/

/// Napoleon has no memory of what it did.

I took care of that already.

It's a very simple machine, very easy to reprogram.

We're okay, I think. ///

/You think?/ Bandicut cleared his throat again. "Anyway, Napoleon didn't run his diags on it until I'd fixed it already. I mean, as much as I was able to." He held out his open hands as if to rest his case.

Jackson peered out of the holoscreen. "John, the robot's name is Recon Thirty-nine, not Napoleon. Use nicknames in the field, if you must, but please—when we're trying to get our information straight—"

Bandicut caught himself about to roll his eyes in exasperation. "Recon Thirty-nine. Right, that's what I meant."

"Well..." Jackson said with a shrug. "It seems as though we might have to credit you with a field repair." Stelnik's eyes bulged, but before he could interject, Jackson continued, "Nevertheless, until we complete an investigation, I think we'll have to reassign you from survey to mining ops. As a temporary measure, just so there are no questions. Fair enough?"

Stelnik relaxed and smiled faintly.

Bandicut swallowed. Mining ops. Great. Bad enough he'd been demoted from piloting because they'd fried his neuros; now he was going to be dropped from survey driving and put in the mines. He cleared his throat. "You're saying, just until we have a report, right? This isn't some kind of demotion, is it?"

"John, if the report puts you in the clear, we'll have you back out there as fast as we can," Jackson promised. "Lonnie, you'll forward John's written report to me ASAP, won't you?"

"Yeah, roger wilco," Stelnik said.

Jackson peered at him for a moment, as though trying to decide if he were being sarcastic; then the screen went blank. Stelnik grunted and swung a keypad terminal around to Bandicut. "Type, please. If you don't mind," he said. No question this time; he was being sarcastic.

Bandicut nodded and poised his fingers over the keypad. He looked at Stelnik, who was continuing to stare at him, and said, "You can be the first to read it when I'm done, okay?"

Stelnik shrugged and wandered away. Georgia, working the exo-ops communications, barely concealed her irritation as he hovered over her shoulder. Nevertheless, she caught Bandicut's eye and winked in sympathy.

Bandicut typed a cryptic, fictional account of events, thinking the whole time that he had never before lied on an official form, and he didn't like starting now. He stared at what he had written.

/// Looks good.

That should jibe with the robot's diagnostic.

Will they buy it? ///

/How the hell should I know? Do you mind if I just add, "P.S. Discovered alien artifact and living alien"? It would make me rich, you know. We could retire to Costa Rica./

There was a sound like a sigh in his mind.

/// If you file what you have now,

will it be possible for us to go somewhere

and talk quietly? ///

/I guess so./

/// Then...may we do that, please? ///

Bandicut scowled, hesitated, and pressed FILE. He caught Stelnik's eye, hooked a thumb at the terminal, and left the ops center without another word.

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