© David Massey
THE ATMOSPHERE inside the bar was so thick it could be sliced with a laser. A fog of smoke and bad breath hung in the air like a cloud, and the thumping strains of the ancient jukebox assaulted the ears of anyone still sober enough to listen. The oft repeated sequences of one of Roving Eye’s early works rang round the room, filling the ears with deadening sound from before the space age.
The barman wondered why the music was still so popular. It was several centuries old and yet it was revived at regular fifty-year intervals so much for the vagaries of fashion. As the barman moved methodically down the line of glasses, filling or polishing as required, the garish lights gleamed off his polished chrome features. Jaques was not old enough to remember the original band, though several regulars assumed that he was. He had been born some three hundred years before, and had been a cyborg for over two hundred and seventy of those years. Sometimes he wondered if there was anything human left at all.
Jaques’ metal hands moved at an unhurried pace, cleaning, pouring and receiving money. It was a quiet hour, the second shift of the day was on, and the first shift had finished their initial thirst-quenching round and had gone home. The shipyards were in full swing and the only clients were long term drunks, druggies or other spaceport debris. His glowing eyes easily penetrated the smog of different drugs in the bar, and his ears were on low volume so that the music was no distraction. Jaques was not keen on having drugs in his bar, except the liquid variety, but while tobacco and all the other narcotics were still legal on Topaz, they would be sold in all of the bars of Peters Base.
Jaques was no longer quite human, but he was happy, whenever he remembered to switch on his emotions, to make the most of all of humanity’s frailties.
The door to the bar swung open to admit a draught of fresh air. lt spilled into the bar, creating a patch of emptiness in the fog of smoke. It seemed to wander around for a short while, apparently dazed at coming off the spaceport and into the humid room. it wafted about the bar for a few short minutes then gave up the unequal struggle and disappeared into the general smog. A man had entered with the air and he walked with a hunched stride to the quietest part of the bar, signalling for a drink.
“What’ll it be Duke?”asked Jaques. as his hands reached to pour a bottle of Grainer’s best.
“Grainer’s,”grunted the man at the bar as Jaques passed the foaming glass into his hand. With a start of surprise, the man glanced up into the face of the cyborg.
“How did you do that? I only just ordered.”
“Weren’t you in here about ten months back or so?”asked Jaques, even as his memory circuits reminded him that it was ten months, seven days and four hours since he had last seen this man, and thirteen months, four days and six hours since he had first walked into the bar on Peters Base.
“Yeah, something like that, but how come you remember?”
Jaques could feel a long conversation coming and so with a quick internal adjustment he turned down the jukebox. “It’s not something I can easily avoid!” Cyborg features are not able to contort, but the man could sense a cynicism behind the words even without the wry smile which should have accompanied them.
“What model are you?”
“That’s not considered a polite question amongst us cyborgs, you know. It’s like asking for your geneprint or your tax record.”
The man at the bar recoiled as if he had been stung. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know. No offence intended.”
“That’s alright. In fact I’m so many different parts it’s hard to tell quite who or what I am.”He held up one hand and gazed at it thoughtfully while rotating it in the orange lights of the bar. “I think this bit’s original—” he paused for effect. “It’s a Quinentis fourteen.
When the man did not respond, Jaques felt a quick flash of near anger - how quickly normal human flesh forgets.
“The Quinentis fourteens fought at Hell’s Gate for the Federation. I was drafted into them.”
“Hell’s Gate? But that was centuries ago. Surely you’re not.”
“Oh, but I am,”interrupted Jaques. “Or at least the oldest bits and pieces are. The human part of me was. I’m not so sure now.”
“So how come you’re here, in the Empire? I wouldn’t have thought they’d like a veteran of Hell’s Gate running around on Topaz.”As soon as the words were spoken the man realised what he had done. Giving permission to a barman to tell his life story was a sure way towards a day spent drinking steadily, but what the heck. he had nothing better to do all day and he’d been intending to drown his sorrows anyway.
“It was a long time ago, you’ve got to remember that,” began Jaques. “The Federation and Empire were almost always at each others throats in those days, nowhere near as quiet as it is now.”
The man at the bar gave a small grunt. He’d run into enough disputed zone incidents to realise that neither Federation nor Empire were quite as content as their propaganda stations made out. Jaques ignored the minor interruption and continued.
“In those days if you were unemployed and a Federal citizen you had to work hard to avoid the draft. I failed. My three years on the dole came to an end and the army seized me. I failed the initial medical so they changed me into a cyborg! Mind you, in those times the Empire were gene altering their soldiers, so I guess I got the better of the offers.
“Those were interesting times. Most of the local planets had been reached, but they were nowhere near as tame as they are these days. We often found ourselves pitted against the worlds as much as the Empire troops. Truth to tell, we rather admired each other. I had a couple of run-ins against the manipulates on a number of different worlds, and they were mean guys, I can tell you.
“I was always loyal to the Federation you understand. My circuits don’t let me even think anything else. I gather the Empire had similar means to make sure that the manipulates stayed loyal. But after the battle of Hell’s Gate my section ended up behind enemy lines and were captured when our transport ship failed to rendezvous.
“Like all the other prisoners, I was protected under the Valhalla treaty, but after Hell’s Gate we were all pretty mashed up. The Empire engineers had a field day taking me to bits, and their surgeons did their part in putting me back together. It was fourteen months before I was back in one piece, and even then large chunks were pure replacement.”Jaques pointedly raised his left arm and drew back the sleeve to reveal a bright blue metallic insert, obviously different to the smooth silver metal of the hand and wrist. “Even now it gives me a twinge when it rains.” Jaques had no trouble keeping a straight face as he uttered the words. It normally took a listener about a day to realise that there was never any rain in the orbital station.
“I was due to be part of a standard POW exchange, but when the generals realised that I’d had Empire surgeons tinkering around inside me, they didn’t want to know. The Federation were only just beginning to realise how far ahead the Empire was in genetic research and they were deathly afraid of letting in a latent plague. It had happened on one or two worlds before, so all returnees were put through quarantine. They reckoned I would need about twenty years before I was safe. Maybe they were right, I couldn’t tell you, I just decided to stay in the Empire.
“It took a bit of bartering, I can tell you. The Federation still regarded me as their property, I was quite a high-tech device for the time. By this time Guvenour’s peace had been negotiated and so technicians from the Federation could come and de-activate one or two nasty bits and pieces still inside me. All that remained was to figure out a price to let me go.”
The man at the bar gave a bit of a start. “But you were a Federation citizen weren’t you? There’s no slavery in the Federation, so how could they sell you to the Empire?”
“Oh, they weren’t trying to sell me to the Empire! They wanted to sell me back to me. Remember, I was one of the earliest successful cyborgs and they wanted to keep me in their pocket, official secrets and all that. But after Hell’s Gate and the reconstruction work, it was hard to tell how much of me was left. Different experts and lawyers claimed that between about a pint or up to one quarter of my body was original organic, the rest was Federation or Empire tinkering. They made me pay for all the modifications!”
There was a sense of bitterness in the cyborg’s delivery, and the man at the bar wondered what the cyborg had gone through at the time to make the memory so sour after all this time. He reached for his glass and noticed he had emptied it again. With a resigned gesture he asked for another. Jaques slid off to get a re-fill.
“So how did you end up here?” the man called after him.
“It turned out the Federation boys were pretty nearly right about the Empire doctoring.” Jaques rotated his head through an impossible angle to answer while he continued pouring the beer. The man blinked and remembered that he had no idea how the cyborg was put together.
“Two years after leaving the POW camps, after the money side was settled, I needed some more genetic manipulation to fix a nasty disease. When I got the treatment, the Empire stung me for medical bills. It took me over a hundred years to work off the contracts to both Federation and Empire, piloting ships, cleaning reactors. Hazardous jobs which no whole human could deal with and no pure robot or android could handle either. Those days are gone now, thank goodness, not that I’m in any condition to do that sort of work any more.”
The man at the bar raised an enquiring eyebrow. “What do you mean?” Obviously the line had been a come-on, but the bar-man’s story was interesting and his own misfortunes seemed to be fading into obscurity as he listened.
“It was while I was asteroid mining on loan to an Empire Corporation Gutamaya, I think it was.” Jaques knew his memory bank was ready to fill him in on all the details, times, dates, hours worked and company personnel, but he had found that human audiences preferred vagueness to detail in matters like these.
“I had nearly worked out my debt and was ready to go freelance. This one last job would finish the lot. I was mining a small planetoid. One advantage of being a cyborg is that your life-support is much smaller than a normal person’s so it’s cheaper to set up a small mine. I’m a lot smarter than your normal robot mine equipment as well, I can tell you.
It turned out that the planet had a load of volatiles tied up in the surface rocks, covering large radioactive deposits. My mining lasers triggered a rock explosion and I was covered with radioactives as well. I set off my emergency beacon, but by the time the Corporation found me the damage was done. I lost both my legs in that little escapade.”
“I wouldn’t have thought that would be any problem to a cyborg. Couldn’t you just buy another set and replace the ones you lost?” That’s what I thought straight away. I’d made sure that I had plenty of insurance in case of just that sort of thing. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just my legs which had gone. Some of my brain was wiped out at the same time, so even if I had a new set of legs built, I can’t use them any more.”
The door of the bar opened to admit another early morning drinker who strode to the far end of the bar and signalled for a drink. Jaques moved off smoothly to serve him and the man took the opportunity to look over the bar. Jaques stood on top of a smooth metal cylinder which ended where his waist would have been and a narrow track passed underneath the pedestal. The track ran the whole length of the bar. The man sat back and looked around and, sure enough, buried into the floor of the room was a similar track so that the cyborg could reach each of the tables to tidy up. The man glanced down at the bar and smiled as he noticed that even while he was talking. Jaques had kept polishing the glasses - a small pile of spotless glassware stood to one side.
A glass of beer slid into place in front of the man. He turned to see Jaques throwing the empty bottle into a recycling bucket and starting his smooth glide back.
“When you’ve been working here as long as I have, you get to be quite accurate.” the cyborg explained.
“But how come you ended up here? Serving behind a bar in an orbital station around Facece?”
“Best damn mechanics in the Empire!” Jaques unconsciously raised the volume on the jukebox as it started to play a Jjagged Bbanner number. He had a signed vidicube from the band from their early days and still liked the music. The lighting strobed violently to the sounds, casting weird shadows around the room as he turned back to complete his tale.
“I got tired of spaceflight and mining. The medical insurance was pretty much enough to pay the remainder of my bills and I wanted a place to settle down. I chose to come here because in those days Topaz was the only Empire world to have any decent technicians at all, and I didn’t want to deal with the Federation. They were just building the first orbital station at the time and I asked to be included in the starport plans.
“The Federation and Empire were at peace then, and it amused some planner to include a war veteran of a century before in the starport design. They offered me a job as a barman and I accepted. That was over two centuries ago and I’ve been here ever since.
But enough of me, its your turn for a story. Free drinks while you tell your tale!”
The man gave a long theatrical sigh and leaned forwards onto the bar.
“You sure you want to hear this? I’m not a happy man at the moment.” Jaques gave a solemn nod, as if recognising his duty to hear the man out after telling him the story of his life. The man gave another sign and drained his glass, then waited for Jaques to return with a refill before continuing.
I’m Captain of the Never Too Late,” the man introduced himself. “Andre Capatot. The Never is a junk freighter, Lion class, and she’s been a good ship to me in the past. This last year it’s been really tough though.
“I had been doing pretty well as a standard trader, beginning with a simple grub ship - a Cobra - and working up from there. Seven years ago I got hold of the Never and I paid off the final instalment in about three years. Since then I thought I’d try and go a bit up-market, install a few extra features in the ship and take some more valuable cargoes. First thing I did was install a passenger suite, then I pressurised the hold so I could take a wider range of cargoes.
“The passenger side seemed to be working quite well. It can pay off quite adequately as long as you try and keep legitimate, but you can’t always tell. I think I got badly stung with one of my first passengers, a slip of a girl from Earth who wanted to get to the Empire. I made the journey in reasonable time but when I got back into Federation space, they went over my ship with a fine-toothed comb. I never did find out what they were after but it lost me a lot of time, and time is credits in my game.
“Anyway, I’ve never been happy in the Federation since then so I’ve been working between Empire Worlds. You know, I was based at Quince for a while, running around between Emerald in the Hoarla system, New America and Jeffries High at Quince, stopovers at Chekov on Chester’s legacy in Ethveeth, occasional trips to the miners in Canayze system or the new colonies in Arexack system. I ran into a guy in Dickens Base at Vequess who talked me into taking a hunter out towards Home in Bedaho system, do you know it?”
Jaques gave a brief shake to his head. Naturally he had access to data banks with all the information known about every planet and system of human space, but he didn’t want to spoil the yarn because of his electronic enhancements. Over the decades he had got quite used to listening without unwanted intrusion.
“It’s quite a trip from Vequess to Bedaho, a long way for a clapped out freighter like mine, at least.”
Jaques’ link spurted the unwanted figures; Bedaho, 36.62 light years from Vequess, K type, Inhabitable planet… He tuned out the rest of the information as it poured into his brain, concentrating instead on what Andre was saying.
“I picked up my hunter here on Topaz, last time I was here. Then Anyeth, Cemiess, CD46-I 150, Arcturus, Altair, Quzece, Bedaho and back.” The litany of star systems was a familiar traders’ shorthand for months of travel and interim dealings. “No jump over 16 light years to be on the safe side. No trouble getting to Bedaho, a quiet stay while my fare enjoyed his hunting at one of the planet lodges, and I carried on with a bit of quiet speculation on the stock markets. Getting the animals aboard was no problem either. Major Griddley - that’s the hunter - had cleared all the documents just clean as a whistle. But gods, have you ever had to fly transporter with a hold full of live cargo? The stink is terrible. No amount of atmosphere cleansing gets rid of the smell completely. Have you ever had a big game hunter as a passenger? There’s only so many times I can hear a hunt described. I thought I’d plant one on him at any number of times on the way back.
“And what happens then? Just out of jump between Cemiess and Anyeth?” Andre paused for effect. Jaques could guess what was coming, but let the man tell it his own way.
“We get jumped by poxy pirates is what!”
To emphasise the point the man downed his glass of beer at a single swallow, thumping the empty glass down on the surface with drunken force. Jaques gauged how drunk the spacefarer was getting, but decided that he’d be no trouble and needed to get some frustration out of his system. The cyborg reached out and poured another Grainer’s, this time his head stayed pointing at Andre, but the rest of his body swivelled round. Most customers found this feat of mechanical dexterity off-putting, but Andre was too involved in his own story.
“They moved in star formation, classic pirate manoeuvre. What chance did I have? Just when I thought the trip was showing a clear profit.” His fist thudded onto the bar to emphasise the point, causing the glass to jump and beer to foam onto the counter.
“I’ve only run into serious pirate opposition six times in my whole career. Three times I was able to shoot it out with them. You know, once a single twit in a poxy little Cobra III tried to rip me off! Ha! Did he get a shock!
“But this was different, one look at this lot and I knew that my time was up. I recognised the lead ship as Darling Hanson’s - you know he’s got that distinctive commcode. I had heard a lot about Hanson’s gang you know how bar-room gossip is. No surrender Hanson. He’s getting quite a reputation.
“I hear there’s a reward out for the man, bounty hunters everywhere looking out for a hot tip,” Jaques broke in with a quiet comment, interrupting the flow. When he had the trader’s attention, the cyborg nodded at a woman in a back corner of the bar.
“Bounty hunters might be willing to pay a bit for a decent lead on Hanson or any of his crew.” Jaques laid a restraining hand on Andre’s arm as the man made to move away from the bar.
“Don’t worry about that now, carry on with your story. She’s a regular and won’t go for a while yet.”
“Well. OK. Where was I?”
“About to tell me how you managed to get away from Hanson. He’s not noted for letting traders slip from his grasp.”
A grin split the trader’s face and he seemed to cheer up at a memory.
“No, he’s not renowned for his friendly disposition is he?” A snort of laughter escaped Andre’s lips. “I doubt if he’s any happier with his latest haul than I am at losing it.
It was obvious that the pirates wouldn’t let us go without plundering us, and my ship was no match for any of theirs. We couldn’t out-shoot or out-run them all, and surrender wasn’t in the cards with that horror leading them. But what could I do?” The question was so obviously rhetorical that Jaques let it pass with a quick shake of his head.
“I’ve dumped cargo three times in my career - that’s one reason it took me so long to get from my Cobra to the Never Too Late. It always distracts the hunters, as long as the cargo looks worthwhile.”
“But I thought you were carrying livestock last trip? Don’t tell me that any pirate thought that dead meat would be worth more than your ship?” Jaques was puzzled again and let it show in the tone of his voice.
“Ah, but you forget we’d just come from Home, in Bedaho. It’s where the goldskins come from.’ He gave Jaques a second to take the information in.
“You mean that you —”
“Yup. we shaved the fur off the animals and fed a still picture from the hold across to Hanson. He saw a hold full of gold! Now, a load of animal meat might not be worth a lot, particularly if it’s spaced into vacuum, but an equivalent volume of gold would be worth stopping for.
“We claimed that we were couriers for the Fourth Catholic Province of Exioce, just out from O’Rourke Colony. It seems a bit thin now, but it was the best that the Major and I could come up with at short notice. As soon as the message was received we blew the cargo bays and dumped the lot into space then ran in another direction.”
“I take it you got away unscathed?”
“I wouldn’t say unscathed. We still had a quick duel with one of the pirates, but the Major turned out to be as good with a Phlaschbugher as with a hunting rifle. At the time he was as happy as I was to escape with his skin in one piece, but neither of us was very happy when we landed. and we didn’t part on very good terms. But I’d loved to have seen the look on Hanson’s face when he recovered the first of his gold statues!”
Jaques kicked in his emotion circuits and let himself chuckle at the other’s amusement.
“So what are you doing now?”
“I’m getting my passenger cabins ripped out and losing the air conditioning on my hold. I’m going back into trading in less vulnerable cargoes. ones which don’t talk back.”
“So that’s why you’re here at Topaz?”
“That’s right. Like you said, best damn technicians in the Empire. It was true two hundred years ago and it’s still true now. I’m upgrading the Never Too Late to longer jumps it’s the only way to get ahead in this business and I know I get a good deal here. What keeps you in this bar though? Couldn’t you find something better to do. even if you want to stay on Topaz?” Andre felt he’d been talking enough. Let the barman have another chance.
“But I don’t want to stay on Topaz, I just want the facilities of the orbital.” Jaques had a strange look about him which puzzled the man. There seemed to be some crumb of information he was keeping back, something of a private joke.
“You see”, the cyborg continued, “I’ve been here for over two hundred years, I’ve long paid off all my bills and I’ve just come to like the place. So much so that I half own it now.
“You mean you half own this bar?” Andre was confused. He’d assumed that the cyborg probably owned the whole place. It certainly seemed prosperous enough.
“No, I mean I own half the station.” The cyborg gave Andre a chance to absorb the information.
“I guess it will take me about another fifty years to buy up the rest of this place and another ten to fit it out with enough drive engines.” Andre’s choking splutter distracted the cyborg for a moment. He wiped the beer from his jacket and the bar as he continued, “I’ve got a hankering to see the universe again, you see. I think I’ll do what Augustus Brenquith did and fly off into the unknown and explore new systems. But I like people as well, so in sixty or so years time there will be an invitation going out, anyone who wants to come along can join me on a long trip. “If you’re still around and interested, come and sign up. I never forget a face.”
Andre stood in stunned silence for a moment, his own woes and story forgotten. This was an adventure in the making! Sixty years wasn’t too long to wait, and modern treatments meant that he could easily last another hundred or more years. He could even take a cyborg treatment. One thing still puzzled him though.
“If you’re so keen on seeing space again, and you own half an orbit station, why don’t you just sell up and buy a fancy ship and head off now?”
“Oh, I couldn’t do that!” exclaimed Jaques. “I’ve got too much invested in this place, I need its facilities for repairs and I’m very comfortable here.” He glanced down at his cylindrical base, slotted into the floor track.
“You might even say I’ve become attached to the place.”