In the last installment, Chloe and Zira learned why they were on Mars. In this one, they continue their hunt for the mysterious Dr. Erasmus Mahmoud-Martinique, which takes them to a small, not-so-well-known location in the Martian Outback. Bring your cowboy chaps, horses, and jeans. Akubra's are optional, however.
The dust kicked up, revealing the pinkish red sky of the vast, expansive Martian outback. The ping back on G-net was taking them to the small colony of Tegal. It was relatively unimpressive; just a collection of tin cans and such, but several things stood out immediately; one, it was within driving distance of the colony that Dr. M&M destroyed, and two, there was a Buddhist temple not far from where the small community was at. From the surface, it appeared the typical ruster community; Spartan, practical, and not at all like Elysium, the place she’d just come from.
The Martian buggy – the collective name for the ever-present balloon-tired, enclosed jeep adapted for riding on the red Earth of the Martian terrain – came to a slow stop, before jerking suddenly. The sudden jerk was enough to snap Chloe out of her sleep; she opened her eyes, reaching up to rub them only to ping her knuckles against the face shield. Neither sylph nor ghost came capable of withstanding the Martian atmosphere outside of the domed cities; she’d settled on sylph only because the modified pheromones and cleaned metabolism made it smell better than the ghost. It was probably the first time that sweating had ever made her smell better – in this case, it made her smell of early morning dew.
If she was going to be locked inside of a suit for several hours, she reasoned, there was no reason why she couldn’t at least enjoyed the way she smelled.
Zira looked over at her.
Zira: [Are you awake?]
Chloe: [Yeah. I got some sleep.]
Zira climbed out of the bubble, standing on the rusty red ground. She put her hands on her narrow hips. The suits were nowhere near as bulky as actual hard vacuum suits were; they were, for the most part, normal, full-body clothing.
Zira: [I’m beginning to worry about you and your not being able to sleep, Chloe. You weren’t like that on Luna.]
Chloe: [I was, it just wasn’t as bad.]
Zira looked over at her friend, putting a hand on her shoulder.
Zira: [Stress, maybe?]
Chloe: [Nightmares. They won’t go away.]
Zira sighed and hugged her, Chloe hugging back. Actual moments of affection between the two were rare; sex certainly wasn’t, but that was decidedly different from the rare moments when they reminded each other how far they’d come as friends.
For Chloe, this was one of those moments. She smiled faintly, blinking her eyes.
Chloe: [Damn it. I hate these bubbles already.]
Zira: [You’re not tearing up, are you?]
Chloe: [I’m tired.]
Zira gave her a weak smile.
Zira: [I’ll see I can get some kind of a psychologist or something to help you, Chloe. I’ve got a bit more of a network than you do; a couple of my friends and Cornelius’ friends live on Mars. Zaius’, too. I miss the big ape. I’ll check and see if I can’t use my rep to pull a favor for you, once we’re done here.]
Chloe: [I wonder if it has something to do with me being an async.]
Zira: [I wouldn’t say that too loud. It might, though.]
Chloe looked at her.
Chloe: [You’re not running in terror from me. I remember Antares saying something about how it’s easier for me to get infected with the exsurgent virus because I am an async... you don’t seem particularly worried.]
Zira: [If you get infected, I’ll be right behind.]
Chloe squeezed her hand.
Zira: [Of course, having said that, I don’t have any plans to see you get infected.]
Hand in hand, they started towards the small community. The first thing that Chloe noticed was that it was surrounded by an actual dome; while they were terraforming Mars, the high plains like this were a long way from hospitable. They were also a-ways off from the major rail line that ran through the area; Chloe had difficulty understanding how or why a station would be built this far out, but opted not to question it. Instead, she walked with Zira up to the airlock, stepping into it. Zira shut it behind them, the dome pressurizing. There were a lot of practical reasons for a dome, as well – while she hadn’t seen one, she’d been told that Martian sandstorms were true terrors.
They walked through the second airlock, and Chloe removed the bubble helmet, finally getting a chance to dry her eyes with her knuckle.
They were greeted by minimal activity. The first place that Zira directed them two was a small facility near the edge of the main, dusty road – the whole thing reeked of those old western vids and recreation XPs that Chloe had found on the Mesh. A few of the ones she’d found were really old – some of the first Technicolor editions of John Wayne’s Westerns, A Fistful of Dollars, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, among others – all of them well over 100 years old and counting. Chloe had been of the mind that they hadn’t aged well… at least, not until she set foot in this small community. She frowned, as Zira pushed the door open and stepped into the small, tight building.
Fong Wei (real-time translation from: Mandarin): [Good afternoon]
Zira: [Good afternoon, Mr. Wei. I… Well, we’re here to ask about an individual who you might have seen before.]
His name was Fong Wei. That suggested a Chinese man. The language, Mandarin, likewise suggested a Chinese fellow. The body standing before them, however, was a four-armed synthmorph dressed in a button-down shirt, a jacket, and jeans.
Chloe (private chat, #Zira, Azure#): [They’re serious about this, aren’t they?]
Zira (private chat, #Chloe, Azure#): [About what?]
Chloe (private chat, #Zira, Azure#): [This western thing. They’re seriously about this Wild West thing.]
Zira (private chat, #Chloe, Azure#): [Wait till you see the akubras. The United States wasn’t the only Old Earth Nation that had a “Wild West,” Chloe. I’m sure some channel it on purpose. I know that Wei does, anyway. He’s eccentric like that.]
Wei looked up at them for the first time, the empty eyes of the synth focusing on them. Chloe could see that he was doing a real-time search on them, to see what all he could find. Chloe had ordered Azure to do the same thing before they left the Elysium.
Fong Wei (real-time translation from: Mandarin): [Zira? Is that you?]
She leaned over the counter and hugged the four-armed synth, with two arms returning the hug. Chloe watched, feeling awkward but not saying anything.
Fong Wei: [So they finally got around to resleeving you. That’s amazing.]
Zira: [Well… sorta. It’s a long story, but yeah, I got around to being resleeved.]
Fong Wei: [In a human body, too.]
Zira: [Didn’t have much control over that.]
Fong Wei: [So where is Cornelius? Your partner over here doesn’t match his kinesics profile, and my searches are telling me that she is something completely different.]
Zira: [Her name’s Chloe. She’s actually one of the reasons why I’m here, and not stuck God-knows-where. As for my husband – well, we’re still waiting for him to come back. In the meantime, I’m just trying to get a feel for the place, running errands and such.]
Fong Wei: [It is an enormous pleasure to meet you, Xiōng Chloe.]
Chloe: [You likewise.]
She extended her hand and shook one of the four synthmorph hands.
Fong Wei: [is your full name Chloe Green?]
Chloe: [Yes… how did you know?]
The synthmorph had a strange laugh.
Fong Wei: [By searching, I can find most anything. Your face, your kinesics profile, and your biometrics can all be searched. It is made easier by the fact that, regardless what morph you’re sleeved in, your face, skin, hair color, eye color, and nanotattoo colors remain the same. For instance, you are a resident of Erato. One of your aliases is Hara Vert; you don’t use that alias very much.]
Chloe: [I… I wasn’t even aware I had it.]
Fong Wei: [Should I want, I could probably find your most recent transactions as well. Am I safe in assuming, Xiōng Chloe, that you are also recently resleeved?]
Chloe (private chat, #Azure#): [What the hell does Xiōng Chloe mean?]
Azure (private chat, #Chloe#): [It’s an honorific. I wasn’t sure if you wanted me translate it, I can.]
Chloe (private chat, #Azure#): [Oh. Okay then, never mind.]
Chloe: [I’m new to this stuff still.]
Fong looked over at Zira, pulling down two synthetic glass bottles and sitting them on the counter.
Fong Wei: [Drink?]
Zira sat down.
Chloe sat down beside her, as he started pouring the drinks with two of his hands.
Fong Wei: [So what brings you here?]
Zira: [We’re following up on a Dr. Erasmus Mahmoud-Martinique. Ever heard of him? Theoretical mathematician, pretty popular in Reclaimer circles – came up with the Mahmoud-Martinique Hypothesis, dealing with the mathematics behind the Pandora Gate Lorentzian wormhole?]
He stopped for a second, grabbed some ice, and threw it in the glass before shaking the drinks.
Fong Wei: [That’s probably not a name you should be asking about, Ms. Zira.]
Zira: [We have a job, Fong. If you know something, please tell us.]
The robot vocalized an electronic sigh, pouring the drinks and handing them to the two.
Fong Wei: [He was friends with a few big names in the Reclaimer movement. I’m sure you probably guessed that judging from his Rep score with that group. What you don’t know is that Erasmus was also friends with a couple of the syndicates. If it seems like an odd mix, don’t think it was. See, Mr. Erasmus worked closely with the Interdiction Runners; a group of Reclaimers who operate off Mars and out of Earth Orbit, running the Earth Interdiction to make planet-fall.]
Zira looked over at Chloe. Chloe had already filled in the blanks.
Chloe: [So…. He was basically smuggling things off Earth. And he would give them to the criminal organizations, who would sell the stuff.]
Fong Wei: [Thriving market in rare Earth goods. Jewelry, clothes, pictures, who only knows what. It was enough to fund his research into theoretical mathematics. At least, that’s the connection that I make.]
Zira: [He’s a smuggler. Excellent. Any idea why he’d blow up a Martian colony?]
Fong Wei: [Salvager. While I’m not big on the terminology, it’s not a word you want to be throwing around in the company of the types of Relcaimers that he hangs around with.]
Chloe took a drink, looking over at Zira. It was thick, and nearly blew her off of the barstool the first time she took a drink, but it had a pleasant aftertaste.
Zira: [Maybe there were people in that colony who got word of their ‘salvaging’?]
Fong Wei: [It’s entirely possible, but that would be akin to swatting a dust flea by dropping Deimos on it.]
Zira was thinking. It didn’t make much sense to Chloe, either – he was involved with the Reclaimers and the criminals. It was possible he was using the criminals to finance his theoretical mathematics, by selling them illegal artifacts that he smuggled off Earth. And then he blows up a colony, using his actual name, drawing all of the attention on him.
Chloe (private chat, #Azure#): [One of those things is not like the other.]
Fong Wei: [Why would it matter to you any, Zira?]
Zira: [Personal reasons. For both of us.]
Fong Wei: [If you are interested in whether or not he was here, he was. The small colony you’re referencing isn’t even a mile and a half east of here; he stopped here, presumably before he blew the colony up. He came in to the bar looking for a drink – he was very anxious – and when I realized who he was, I told him I didn’t want any I-Runners in my establishment. He completely lost it, and I had to have two of my friends in synths drag him out. He put up a fight for such a small biomorph.]
Zira: [What was his morph, anyway?]
Fong Wei: [Would it shock you if I said it was a menton?]
Zira: [Not in particular.]
Chloe: [Where did he go then?]
Fong Wei: [My understanding is that he went to see Hiroko Ai. She’s sleeved in pleasure pod, but she’s actually our resident biologist, agriculturalist and ecologist. I spoke with Ai; she said that she wouldn’t see him. He demanded, she told him no, and he left. I’ve done some work on him since and searches, and his actions were completely alien to what is known for him – normally. Erasmus is a weak-willed and meek man.]
Chloe: [We should probably go speak with Ai, then.]
Zira: [You mentioned a group called the Interdiction Runners. Any idea where they’re set out of?]
Fong Wei: [Erasmus operated out of the Noctis valley mostly. However, the I-Runners are out of Zygote, polar colony. You’ll have to do your own legwork there, Zira – I’ve helped all I can.]
Zira: [And you did a phenomenal job, Fong. Thank you so much.]
Fong Wei: [Perhaps you could return some day, and we’ll catch up. You could bring Cornelius – if he ever gets out of cold storage.]
Zira leaned over the counter and hugged the synthmorph. He hugged back, and Chloe finished the drink. They said their good byes – but not before learning where Ai was – and then took a step out into the dusty street again.
“So, what are you thinking, Watson?” Chloe asked.
“Why do I have to be Watson?” Zira asked.
“Well, because I like to be Holmes.”
Zira looked at her, and Chloe laughed slightly. “We can take turns.”
“Okay, we’ll take turns then. In all seriousness, I’m not sure what to think. Fong didn’t say anything about Oversight being after him, but I’m pretty sure that he knows. There’s a reason he was worried about me. We know Oversight is after him. I’m beginning to wonder if it has something to do with something that he brought back from Earth.”
“Or skipping out on his taxes,” Chloe said. “I think we need to interview Ai, and see what she says.”
“Ai probably won’t be able to help us a whole lot more than Fong did,” Zira said. “It’s a matter of whether or not we want to visit a Japanese pleasure pod.”
Chloe looked over her shoulder at Zira.
“Was that ever a question?”
The building wasn’t far from where Fong’s bar was at. Both Chloe and Zira found their way there without problem; stepping into the establishment. The very first thing they were greeted with was a plush, beautiful couch, surrounded by Spartan establishments. The whole place smelled thickly of both modified pheromones and perfume, leaving no question as to what the purpose was.
The voice was a purring voice. When Chloe turned around, she realized that a very svelte pleasure pod had managed to get the drop on her. The pod – strongly Japanese in appearance with long, brown hair traced with red highlights and purple eyes. She had nanotattoos that were kanji characters; Chloe didn’t recognize them, aside from guessing that they were kanji. She leaned up against Chloe, the soft sensation of purring causing Chloe to close her eyes.
“I think you made a new friend,” Zira said.
“How are you doing that?” Chloe asked.
“Pleasure pods come with the ability to purr,” she said.
“Are you Ai?” Zira asked.
“I am. How can help you? And more importantly, will it be fun?”
“Possibly,” Chloe said, her eyes still shut.
“We’re looking for Erasmus Mahmoud-Martinique. Or information on him,” Zira said.
Ai’s face downturned into a pout. “That’s not fun at all.”
She then sighed. “Okay, well, here’s what I know. He came in, demanding to see one of the usual girls. I told him she wasn’t in, he lost it, and I had him escorted out. He’s not a usual ghost around here; He’s pretty irregular, but he’s been her enough for me to know when he was acting different. And he was acting different. That enough?”
“You were right, Zira. That’s pretty much all Fong could tell us.”
“Well, I won’t know much more than Fong does,” Ai said. “Fong is pretty up-to-date on everything going on in the area. If he told you all he knows, that’s more than I know. I’m just the ecologist, after all.”
Zira opened her mouth to speak, when one of the male – or male-looking – pleasure pods appeared in a half-state of dress. Another male biomorph appeared, and the first male-looking pleasure pod pointed at Zira.
“Look; it’s Yiji Hung.”
Zira closed her mouth, and Chloe opened her eyes, looking at the two male morphs.
“It is Yiji Hung,” the other male said.
“I can’t believe I missed that,” Ai said, leaning around Chloe. “Yiji Hung!”
“Uh… no? Zira? My name is Zira?”
“Uh… no? Zira? My name is Zira?”
The male-looking pleasure pod walked over, leaning on Zira’s shoulder. “Ooh… you’re lucky. That’s a pretty amazing body you have there.”
“How do you know?” Chloe asked, beating Zira to the punch.
“Is this your current girlfriend?” the male-looking pod said.
“Friend with benefits,” Chloe corrected. “How do you know?”
“Yiji Hung is a pretty popular porn XP star,” Ai said. “I can’t believe you were fortunate enough to get their body! You lucky thing.”
“What happened to him… her?” Chloe asked.
“Last I heard, they’d gotten caught up in some Relcaimer stuff,” the male-looking pod said. “But that doesn’t matter. We have Yiji Hung.”
“Well, that explains a lot,” Chloe said, looking at Zira.
“A whole lot,” Zira said.
“You’re not leaving, are you?” Ai said, pouting. “We’re willing to bend over backwards to make you feel at home.”
Chloe closed her eyes, enjoying the purring. “I wanted to hear that.”
“Arkady, while don’t you come back here with us?” She said, gesturing with a finger to the male-looking pod. “We’ll show our visitors some royal treatment. We don’t get too many out of towners.”
“Is there…” Zira started to ask, feeling the hand run down her sides. “Never mind.”
“Yes. There is a back room open,” Ai said. “We’re about to pay it a visit, too.”