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Chapter 6



/What? Charlie!/






>>>>>—<loss of signal>—>>>>


He couldn't hear the quarx over the static. There was some sort of jostling going on, but he couldn't tell if it was within the data-connection, or on the outside.

The static faded, but there was still some sort of scratchy interference, like a malfunctioning neurolink junction, or an audio speaker distorting a human voice. For a moment, he felt a rush of panic. Was this going to be another devastating breakdown, only without the neuro? It had seemed safe enough... but now the data-connection was disintegrating, and all of Charlie's explanatory images had turned to snow. The interference persisted a moment longer, before







was followed by a stunning silence. The silence was broken only by the jangling of his nerves and the slow return of his external senses.

/Charlie? Are you still there?/

The quarx stirred.

/// I'm here, but so is someone else!

Open your eyes, John!

Open your eyes! ///

What the hell was Charlie talking about? Was someone else trying to get access to his thoughts? Suddenly he realized that the quarx was speaking literally. His eyelids flicked open, and in the gloom of his bunk, he saw the privacy-curtain dimpling inward with rhythmic beats. Someone was whacking on it from the outside. He heard a muffled voice. "Bandie! You in there? Hey, Bandie!"

/// Who is it? ///

Bandicut groaned. /I think I know. I'd better answer./

/// Don't tell them about me! ///

/Gimme a break, will you?/ He opened the curtain a few inches and peered out into the glare of the room light. "What d'ya want, Krackey?" he grunted.

His roommate, Gordon Kracking, was pacing back and forth in front of their stacked bunks, waving his arms in obvious distress. Bandicut sighed. Krackey was arguably one of the brightest individuals in the entire Triton operation—and also one of the most ungainly, with angular bones and an owlish haircut; and whenever he was really worked up about something, all of that mental power somehow transformed him into a sight that reminded Bandicut of a crippled duck trying to fly.

/// Who is this? ///

the quarx asked.

/My friend,/ Bandicut sighed. /Don't mind him, he's a bit of a goak./

/// Goak—? ///

"Bandie!" Kracking cried. "I knew you were in there!"

"Yeah, Krackey, you got me on that one. Now make a little room, will you?" Bandicut pushed the curtain open and swung his feet out over the edge of the bunk. At the same time, he sat up, banging his head on the bunk above him. "Ow!" He cursed quietly. Three months in this place and he was still banging his goddamn head on that goddamn bunk.

Krackey greeted him like a long-lost brother. "Bandie! What happened out there, man? We were afraid you were a goner!"

Bandicut squinted back at him from the bunk. His head was still foggy with the things Charlie had been saying, and he was trying to remember what it was they had been talking about at the very end, before the interruption. He felt as if he had awakened from a dream, and the threads of it were slipping away, even as he tried to fix them in his memory. But it was too late; they were gone. "What are you talking about?" he rasped finally.

Krackey cocked his head, eyes blazing. He had one blue and one green eye, like a cat. "Bandie, everyone knows about it—how you fried your buggy and would be frozen stiff out there if Genghis hadn't come along and gotten you running again. What were you doing in the laser area anyway?"

Bandicut let out an annoyed breath. "Who said I was in the laser area?"

"That's what I heard," said Krackey. "I don't know who said it first."

"What else did they say—that I went into orbit? Look, I didn't fry anything—and it wasn't Genghis, it was Napoleon. And he didn't fix it, he just hopped a ride back to save his lazy, robot ass the walk home."

Krackey was shaking his head. "Bandie, that's not the way people are saying it. Look, man—I trust you, you know that. If you want me to set the record straight for you—"

Bandicut sighed as he slid down from his bunk. "All right, Krackey. Yeah, I guess I can tell you. What really happened is that I met an alien out there, and was lucky to get back without being dissected alive."

/// What are you doing!!! ///

Krackey looked hurt as Bandicut walked past him. "Come on, John—I'll keep it quiet if you want me to. But what really happened? I heard Jackson was fit to be tied."

"I just told you."

/// John, you PROMISED! ///

He ignored the quarx. "Look, Jackson should be put out of his misery, for all of our sakes. I didn't do anything that—" He sighed. "Ah, never mind. You wouldn't believe me anyway. No one else does." He traipsed into the lav, with Krackey following. /Don't worry, Charlie. You don't think he'd actually believe me, do you?/

"Come on, Bandie!" Krackey wailed.

/// Will he? ///

/Not a chance./ Peering into the sink mirror at his angular, unshaven face and his copper-green eyes, he thought, Do I look possessed? Are you in there, Charlie, in those eyes? Sighing, he shook his head and glanced back at his friend. "Krack, if you don't want to believe me, you can read all about it on the board newsies. They won't have it right, either—but at least it'll be official."

"Bandicoot, give me a break! Why'd they demote you to mining ops? Something must have happened!" Krackey couldn't bear mysteries like this, and he was staring at Bandicut imploringly. Suddenly his eyes widened and understanding seemed to dawn. "Bandie!" He lowered his voice. "You didn't have one of those damn fugues, did you?"

Bandicut nearly froze, but forced himself to bend to wash his hands and face. He dried himself and said in a low voice, through the towel, "Now, Krackey—if that's what had happened, they'd have me in the funny room already, wouldn't they?" He peered up at his friend and was greeted with a sober gaze. He had had a fugue, Krackey was realizing. "Look," Bandicut said quietly, "I'd appreciate it if we could drop the subject for a while. You can just tell people that it was all blown out of proportion. Really—I had a malfie, but I fixed it, and nothing happened. Okay?"

Krackey nodded slowly. "Okay, Bandie." He hesitated, scratching the back of his neck. "But listen—let me know if it happens again, will you? You can't let this keep happening. If it does, like it or not, you're going to have to see the docs."

Bandicut snorted.

"I mean it, Bandie."

"Yeah," Bandicut sighed. "I will. Okay?" He waited until Krackey nodded, then he returned to zip up his bunk curtain, and he left the dorm without another word.

* * *

He wasn't going to be able to just waltz around the base pretending nothing had happened, he soon realized. He went to the cafeteria for an early supper, and by the time he'd finished eating, three different people had stopped to ask him what had happened out on the plain—the unspoken gist being, are you still employed here, and are you planning to do anything else that will screw up the works for the rest of us? He answered the questions casually but tersely, and by the third time, he was starting to feel pretty peeved.

/// You aren't going to tell anyone else

that you met an alien,

are you? ///

Charlie asked worriedly.

"You haven't heard me tell anyone, have you?" he snapped. Realizing that he had just spoken aloud, he glanced around self-consciously, grateful that the room was mostly empty. Careful! he thought. It was easy enough to direct his thoughts inward, while maintaining outward silence, as long as he thought of it in terms of neuro-connect. The trouble was that that state of mind tended to leave him with a blank and rather stupid expression on his face, and that didn't seem like a very helpful camouflage.

The quarx persisted.

/// When you told Krackey before...about me.

Was that a joke? ///

He shrugged. /Ha ha./

/// I'm serious! ///

/Yeah, okay. Yes, it was a joke./ He finished his tempeh-and-tomato sandwich and began picking at the custard dessert.

/// Well...was it a joke on me,

or on Krackey? ///

Bandicut stared at the wall, knowing he had a dumb expression on his face, but unable to help it. /I'll leave that for you to figure out,/ he said. /Jeez, Charlie, I thought you said you'd learned all about us by watching TV. You sound like a raw recruit! What kind of an invader are you?/

/// I'm not any kind of an invader! ///

/Hah! Gotcha./

/// Oh.

That was another joke.

Like on TV.

Right? ///

Before he could think of a response, Bandicut heard a sudden rush of laughter in his mind, like a gust of wind blowing open a door. He almost choked on his custard. /What was that for?/ he grunted in bewilderment.

/// Laughtrack.

Isn't that how jokes are answered,

on TV? ///

Bandicut shook his head in bewilderment. /What are you talking about? I've never even heard of such a thing./

/// No? Really? ///

/I think you're operating with some rather quaint and outmoded ideas, Charlie. Maybe we should sit and watch the holo for a few days, and just let you catch up./ Bandicut rose from the table and hooked a thumb at the busrobot, pointing to his dirty dishes on the table. The robot twitched slightly; he could have sworn that it shrugged and looked away from him. Shaking his head, he loped out of the cafeteria, moving along an empty third-level corridor.

/// Were you serious about watching TV?

I don't think we can afford the time— ///

/I was most certainly not serious. Look Charlie—if you don't mind, I'd like to cut the crap here and start understanding what's happening to my life./

/// I think that's wise. ///

Bandicut nodded and stopped to peer out one of the corridor windows, with a view toward the main surface mining area. A cloud of vapor was rising from beyond the intervening building structures; the lasers were back in operation, burning away ices and rock in search of embedded metals. The metals of a civilization from another star system, another eon...a civilization destroyed by war. The images that the quarx had shared with him rose again in his mind. It occurred to him that he was the only human being alive who knew the actual source and history of those metals.

He felt a sudden, deep sadness in his heart, and realized that Charlie was also seeing those images again, and grieving for what had been. /I'm sorry, Charlie./

The quarx stirred uneasily, and changed the subject.

/// I guess I still have some things

to explain to you. ///

/I haven't forgotten. But your "mission" isn't the only thing I have to think about. I need to go check the system boards and see what sort of reassignment they've given me. Just because I've been given a mission to save the Earth doesn't mean I don't still have a job to do here. Unless you decide our mission is urgent enough to let me talk.../

The quarx spoke up hastily.

/// No.

We can always go public, if the situation warrants.

But we can't then go unpublic,

if you follow. ///

/Yes, well.../ Bandicut turned to continue down the corridor.

"John!" he heard, from behind him. It was a woman's voice. He turned and saw Georgia Patwell from ops coming his way with a relaxed, loping, long-legged stride that seemed to fit perfectly with the low gravity. She was accompanied by another woman, about six inches shorter, who was moving with a more energetic gait. Bandicut recognized the other woman from the exoarchaeology group down in the basement.

"Hi," he said, hoping he wouldn't be asked one more time what he'd done wrong.

"Bandie, I thought you were going to give Stelnik hives today, when you dropped out of contact," Georgia said, gliding to a stop with a grin. "I know I shouldn't, but I have to give you credit. That was great."


"You're all right, though, aren't you?" She suddenly looked concerned. "I read your report. I don't know where everyone else is getting their ideas, but it sounds as if they're trying to elect you sacrificial lamb of the week."

"I, uh—"

"You know my friend, don't you?" Georgia turned slightly to include the other woman in the conversation. "Julie Stone, from exoarch? John Bandicut, survey ops?"

Bandicut gulped and nodded, trying to smile. "I, uh—yes, I think we've met—"

Julie offered a hand to shake. "In the rec area. I've seen you playing EineySteiney, but I don't think we've been introduced." Her face flashed with a quick smile, then became inscrutable. She was pretty, Bandicut thought, with short brown hair and blue eyes; and she was probably thinking to herself, so this is the goak who fried his neuros, and then fried a rover for good measure and held up half the station's operations for a couple of hours. Good one to stay away from, she was probably thinking.

He felt a sudden temptation to introduce Charlie to the two women, then felt his face flush as he realized he was still shaking her hand. "Nice to meet you," he croaked, letting go.

"I guess you had kind of a tough day," Julie offered. "Georgia was just telling me about it."

Great, Bandicut groaned inwardly. He took a breath and nodded. "It wasn' of my better days. I was just on my way to...see where I've been reassigned."

"Well, good luck," said Julie.

"Hang in there, Bandie," Georgia said, patting him on the arm as she continued on her way with Julie.

Thanks, Bandicut whispered silently. He sighed and followed the women, but slowly, allowing them to disappear through the bulkhead doors ahead of him.

/// You seemed rather

ill at ease with those women, ///

the quarx noted.

Bandicut shrugged. /Not with Georgia. She's easy to be friends with. She's married, of course, which is probably why. No threat, you know. But the other one—/ He hesitated.

/// Julie?

Didn't she fit your idea of...

friendliness? ///

/Uh-huh. That's why I was...well. I always expect the worst, somehow, when I meet a woman I like. I always figure something will go wrong, that they'll wind up...not...I don't know why./

/// Hm. ///

/What do you mean, "Hm"? You aren't going to start psychoanalyzing me, are you?/

/// Well, no, but...I just wondered...

is this the way you always relate

to women? ///

Bandicut stopped at another window and pressed his fingers to the supertherm glass. Just on the other side of that pane was a rarefied atmosphere at a temperature much closer to absolute zero than to the temperature inside which was keeping him alive. Sometimes it was a distraction to think about things like that, but right now he found that it focused his thoughts remarkably. /I don't really have many relationships with women, Charlie, except for a Georgia./

The quarx was silent for a moment.

/// Didn't I glimpse

something about a...niece? ///

/Dakota? Well, yes—she was orphaned when the rest of my family was killed in the Chunnel. But Charlie, she's just a girl, plus she's related. That's hardly the same thing./

/// But you're

sending her some of your earnings? ///

Bandicut shrugged. /Big deal. I couldn't let her depend on my sister-in-law's family, could I?/

/// Um... ///

/She's a nice kid, Dakota. I want her to have a chance when she gets older./ Bandicut turned away from the window with a sigh. /I gotta go see where I'm posted for work tomorrow. Want to come?/ He started back down the corridor, passing several people and not meeting their eyes.

/// Ho ho.

John, I have an idea.

Is there anything you have to be doing

right now? ///

/Besides checking the postings? I guess not./ He thought of the sleep he was going to need if he was posted to mining work tomorrow. /Except—/

/// You can sleep later.

I think you'll like this idea. ///

/I'm listening./

/// Good.

Is there someplace we can go,

where if you still had your neuro,

you'd be able to connect to the datanet? ///

Bandicut walked a little more briskly. /I guess so. Why?/

/// There's something I'd like to try.

I might be able to improve

on what we did a while ago. ///

/You're going to try to plug me in?/ Bandicut felt his pulse rate increase. /Well—there are the operations centers, but we couldn't just walk in and use them. Anyway, I can't just plug in—or even pretend to—without people noticing. Charlie, everyone knows I lost my neuro!/

/// Isn't there someplace private? ///

/I suppose we could use the rec center. That wouldn't give us full datanet access, but we could reach some of the public info services. We could use a booth, and nobody would know if we were connecting direct, or by screen./

/// Sounds perfect.

Let's go. ///

* * *

From the smell of the rec center, someone had thrown a party here recently, with liberal amounts of locally fermented, hydroponic-grain beverages. By now, the dep-heads had probably plastered the system board with notices warning against any future such occurrences. Bandicut wrinkled his nose against the stale beer smell and found an empty booth. He didn't give a damn what management thought, as long as they didn't try to associate him with it.

/Here we go,/ he said, locking the booth door and sliding into the console seat. /This is where people come when they want to send or receive messages from in-system. They expect people to be looking for privacy here. But we aren't going to get the higher functions./

/// We'll see. ///

He raised his eyebrows, but didn't ask what the quarx meant. /How do you want to do this? First I need to check the postings. I can do that from here./ He poked at the screen controls and brought up the newest notices and job listings. He noted that a brief summary of his mishap was posted, with a warning that until an investigation was completed, all rover electrical systems should be regarded as susceptible to possible cryo-failure. /They bought it,/ he muttered in disbelief. He checked the job postings and cursed. He was to report to mining ops for the early shift the next day. /They didn't buy it that much./ With a sigh, he flicked off the screen. He didn't even want to read the newsies of his accident, knowing how much the local amateur newsie reporters took from the rumor mills.

/What do you want me to do?/ he asked the quarx.

/// Put the 'trodes on your head. ///

/Charlie, they took my implants out. There's nothing for the 'trodes to connect to./

/// Leave that to me. ///

He reached for the headset and hesitated, hands holding the set in midair. /Are you sure you know what you're doing? If this goes wrong.../

/// It might not work.

But I don't think there's any danger. ///

Though he found this less than wholly reassuring, Bandicut positioned the neural set over his temples. The inductance electrodes pressed firmly against the spots on either side where he had once had receptor plates implanted under his skin. The contact made him acutely aware of the emptiness, the lack of what had once felt as important to him as his eyes, or his hands.

/// Okay, I need to make some adjustments.

Try to keep your thoughts still. ///

He tried. He pushed away a fleeting rush of excitement at the thought that the quarx might actually be able to work a miracle here. He thought of the medical labs; he thought of the wrecked buggy; he thought of sleep; he thought of a pink elephant. He thought of how miserable he was going to feel if he got his hopes up for this and then nothing happened.

/// Hush, John.

Wait...maybe I can help. ///

He felt something like a warm, soft rain in his mind and felt the thoughts melt away, leaving him relaxed and expectant. The quarx must have done something to give him soothing alpha-wave relaxation. It was blissful.

There was a brief rush of static, and then he fell off the edge of a cliff into a deep, long, weightless fall...







>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>—<full-neural link>—>>>>>





—<mode shift>—

Lights sparkled around him, like a fishing net encrusted with diamonds, flung against a night sky. Each light burned with possibility, with connectedness and energy. His heart leaped. The linkup was a little rough, but...this was precisely what he had been hoping for...if it was real.

Charlie cut in.

/// It is real.

Is this the datanet we should be looking for? ///

/Charlie—this shouldn't be possible! Not without the neuros! How did you do it?/

/// Oh, it was just

a matter of making certain cross-connections

in the neuronal structure— ///

/You mean, altering my brain?/

/// Well, no.

I mean, not—well, no.

I mean using MY quasi-neuronal capacities

to bridge the missing elements

in YOUR neuronal system.

I merely altered certain characteristics

of the space-time matrix around your neurons.

It's basically how

I talk to you, anyway. ///

/Ah,/ he thought dizzily. /That was another thing I'd been meaning to ask you about./

/// Now you know.

But let's not get bogged down in technical details.

We have a lot to do,

now that we're tuned in and turned on,

as your people like to say. ///

/I've never said that—/

/// Fucking figure of speech, okay? ///

Bandicut blinked, then laughed out loud. /Charlie! You just made a joke! Did you know you just made a joke?/

/// Ha ha.

I think we should get busy here.

I see a lot going on,

and I think we should explore it.

Let's tie into some of those glittering bangles

and see what there is to see.

Are you with me? ///

/Where else would I be?/

A tendril of light leaped out and linked him, sizzling, to one, then two, then three of the pulsing nexi of data.

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