And the very last thing I remember before I passed out on that bar stool was screaming: "You sorry excuse for a female dog! You could've made it with a hero! A genuine hero - not one of your permanently stiff-middle-legged jocks from the body parts dump!"
But I'm getting a little ahead of myself. The whole sordid affair had started a few days before when I got an "Urgent - please hurry - I need you!" from a long-time-no-see fling of mine. Well, truly, I would have rushed right over but it wasn't that simple. She lived way across the galaxy's arm on Aldebaran IV - which, I know, would have been no big deal, really, in one of those souped-up zoomers that had you back before you'd even left.
Only one little problem. You guessed it. Money. Ready credit modules. I didn't have many - ok, ok, I had none - and I couldn't envision much chance of getting my paws on some in the foreseeable future. So I felt it incumbent upon myself (like that, eh?) to forgo speed and settle for second-best. Or third-best. Or whatever would take an advance on my pensionable assets in lieu. Now, I'd been in some real doozies in my time, in the good old days before the 'crats closed down the sky. Matter of fact, I'd crewed on more than a couple. Boy, there was that one time. I'll never forget it. We were skimming low over some godforsaken lava-hole of a planet and having a good laugh at the natives trying to chuck spears at us when the captain ordered me to open the garbage chute and ... But that's another story and a long time ago.
Besides, we're talking TransGalactic Corp. here. Pioneers in universal mass transport. Inventors of the public jump. (Would you believe it, they actually had their passengers singing "One, two, three, alley-oop" in unison as the ships left or re-entered space-normal?). This time, some head-spinner on his way to the top had the brilliant idea of outfitting old tankers and refuelers with seats and a central gravitational system and using them to service the Alpha Centauri-Pleiades milk run with scheduled stops at Capella, Arcturus and on to dear old Aldebaran. On the cheap. Giving everyone and their mothers (fathers, doppelgangers, mutant twins, clones) a chance to get a close-up ogle at them twinkling stars.
Don't get me wrong. I wasn't in the habit of slumming around in those crates. First class all the way was the motto of this old space dog. And first class in those days meant a gleaming half-a-sky-long super-duper complete with drug injectors in every cabin and robot pleasure modules on demand. It's just that I happened to be a mite short, caught between one pretext and the next and really itching to see that friend I spoke of before. Seems she'd just broken up a symbiotic affair with this no-neck creep (what else would you call a vine?) who turned out to be more parasitic than she'd bargained for.
"I'm fed up, up to here," is the way she put it in her tri-vid relay, giving me a tri-vivid idea of where 'here' was, "of leafy tendrils or whatever you call that green stuff crawling all over me. I want a real man!"
"I'm coming, baby!" I yelled, packing my bags.
So I hawked those pensionables and booked myself on the first TransGalactic that lumbered into port. Just an expression, of course. That crate would have cracked up at the mere sight of atmosphere. What I did was shuttle up to where the ship waited in orbit. I should've figured the moment the shuttle stopped - and it was still some 20 metres away (the pilot explaining the mother had no docking facilities and I'd have to swim for it) - that it wasn't going to be the smoothest ride I'd ever taken. What the Hellespontus though. With the best wishes and laughter of the shuttle pilot ringing in my ears, I took aim at the ship and managed to get close enough to snag their rope ladder. Lucky I'm blessed with extra-long legs because that thing certainly had a few rungs missing! And it didn't get any better once inside. First thing I notice, the ship's so packed I could hardly pick my way through the nutrient tanks, sentient luggage and screaming children-like foliage - and that was just in the aisles. Second, some slimy Octopoid had settled itself not only into its own seat but what, judging from the number on the voucher, looked like the one I'd sacrificed a good future for. I fixed its baleful eye.
"Pardon me, sir or madam. I think that's my seat."
It smiled (I think), wiggled a few of its tentacles and continued to splat itself across both seats.
Obviously, we were having what the exo-planetary experts call a communications breakdown. Well, what did the rules for dealing with aliens suggest? Rule one: Solicit the aid of a flight attendant. They're trained to handle such minor glitches. Courses in alien psych, how to remove wandering limbs from sensitive spots, what to do when offered a drink by something that looks like a spittoon, that kind of stuff. Only one thing wrong with that - you guessed it: some frills, lots of thrills, but no flight attendants.
Oh well, time to go to rule two: "When in doubt, shout." I leaned real close, placed the business end of my zapper against its eyeball and whispered: "Listen, slimebag, and listen real good 'cause I ain't gonna repeat myself. If you don't remove your putrid, pus-ridden carcass from the location whereon I intend to deposit myself, they're gonna find tiny, slimy pieces of you from here to bloody Deneb."
Well, the little so-and-so hissed and clapped his beak but not before tucking in his skirts.
"Thank you," I said politely, and strapped myself in, making sure though - I didn't like the way one filmy walleye had come all the way around to stare at me - that I kept my finger firmly on the zapper trigger.
"Ladies, gentlemen, honored fellow inhabitants of the Galaxy," a tinny voice said on the intercom. "This is your Captain speaking."
"Who the bloody hell else could it be!" next-door neighbor Octopoid bellowed.
Before we go any further, let me point out that "Who the bloody hell else could it be!" wasn't exactly what it had said. All it did was click its beak, making a series of noises that sounded like a cross between a burp and a Bronx cheer. My portable translator pack did the rest.
"As you know," the Captain continued, "this ship makes one jump into space-plus and one re-entry for every stop. I would ask that all electromagnetic force fields, zappers and lasers be turned off during the jump as these may interfere with its proper functioning."
"May interfere!" the Octopoid exclaimed. "More like bloody hell blow us all to kingdom come."
"On the count of three," the Captain announced, "will you all please say: 'One, two, three, alley-oop.' Ready, now. And a one. And a two. And a three." "One, two, three, alley-oop," we all said - in one form or another.
"Thank you," the Captain said. "We are now in space-plus. That hiss you hear, if you have acute enough hearing and can tune to that frequency, is nothing to get alarmed about."
"What hiss?" voices all around me whispered, snapped, growled, wheezed. "I don't hear any hiss. Do you hear a hiss?"
"True," the Captain went on, "we are losing some air - a teensy-weensy touch of air - but our pumps are solid, reliable and under perpetual warranty. So no need to push the panic button."
Well, there may well not have been a need to panic but, judging from the squeals, grunts and Lord knows what else accompanying that lovely announcement, something alarmingly like it was setting in. The "lady" occupying the three seats across the aisle from me - kinda like a furry egg on its side with two little legs sticking up into the air and don't ask me how I knew it was a lady - regurgitated a quick load of greenish gob which the vacuum cleaner behind me - a long hose on a tripod - slurped up before you could say "indigestion." It was about to try for seconds when a thick, fleshy hammer-like thing shot out from between the furry lady's legs and knocked the nosy bastard back into its seat. Christ, that would be some shock, I said to myself, shuddering.
Ain't that the truth, a whiny voice answered.
Wha - ! I looked up. There, floating above me was a goddam Capellan, looking for all the worlds like a small black box with absolutely no visible openings or appendages whatsoever. Sorry, the voice in the cube said (in my head). I saw your shield was non-functional so I took the opportunity to converse.
That's illegal - and you know it, I thought. Now, get out of my mind space. Pronto, you little suck.
The Capellan scurried away. Fortunately, the square-heads can only work their mind-over-matter magic within a 10-metre radius.
The rest of the tub had calmed down considerably. You can only stay excited so long about a slow leak. I felt it was a good time for a bite. I took out my hastily-prepared lunch - a coupla slices of mock pterodactyl from the spaceport specialty shop between woefully thin pieces of unenriched white bread that hadn't changed ingredients or nutrient value for at least a thousand years. Some of the more adventurous were also dining - on the plastic chairs, the foam insides, on themselves, on some of their weaker fellow travellers. (One of the advantages of travelling with eclectic diners is that you never have to listen for long to the sounds of tender howling - the kids are always the first to disappear). Others were ... well, let's say that inhibitions are pretty much a human problem. Still others were doing a bit of both. I didn't give a hoot, really, as long as they kept their slimies off of me. Hey, I've had my share of alien jollies (it gets pretty lonely slopping grits in the kitchen of an ore barge and your only connection to a half-normal sex life is something that looks like a cross between a catcher's mitt and an orchid), but I'd like to know what I'm getting into.
Obviously, Vacuoid had no such compunctions. He was well into the "lady" three seats over. I was chewing carefully on my sandwich when Octopoid reached over and yanked Vacuoid out. I could've sworn I heard a sigh of disappointment from the Egg Lady as the struggling Vacuoid popped into Octopoid's beak but that was quickly stifled when a replacement - a doubly-equipped Lizoid - took the poor fellow's place. Now Lizoids, so I've heard, make the best lovers in the Quadrant. They kinda set up a rhythm that gets you coming and going, like one of those exercise machines. Judging from the moans, the Egg Lady wasn't about to complain. Especially since it looked like just about everyone on the ship - male, female, both, neither, animal, vegetable and mineral - was lined up waiting for the Lizoid to finish. All except the Capellan, of course, who was too highfalutin' for such rowdy behavior. Besides, who's ever heard of fitting a square peg in a round hole?
"Come on," the Octozoid beside me said. "Give someone else a turn."
Given a second chance, the Lizoid would probably have gladly made way for one of the other droolers. But the Egg Lady chose that very moment to explode. And I mean literally. I was still wiping green goop from my automatic activation field when, emerging from the Egg Lady's insides and standing before us armed to the teeth (not that it really had any) was a gleaming black Sygma Machine. If I were to tell you that all hell broke loose inside that ship, it wouldn't describe the half of it. Some of the poor sots soiled themselves. Others tried to crawl under the seats they had just finished eating. Or ran around bouncing off the walls like wet pancakes. All the while letting out unearthly screams enough to wake the cryogenic ward.
That Sygma bastard, cold fish that they are, long and lean and perfect, just stood there, floating a few inches off the ground, the circle of lights flashing around its head. Suddenly, one of the lights shot out a beam, a pulverizing blast. Too late the poor, quivering Lizoid tried to duck. And neither of its sexual organs were of any help as it melted into a puddle of reddish slime.
You'd better believe the rest of us stopped scrambling and shouting PDQ.
"Thank you," the Sygma said in that shivery metallic voice we've all come to know and hate. (Sygmas are the machines that, among other things, inform you of unpaid tax bills.) "None of you will be hurt if you follow orders. And please do not - I repeat, do not - try to activate shields, fields or other protection devices. The consequences would be unpleasant for everyone."
Unpleasant as in an implosion whereby the entire ship would collapse to the size of a pin. Or maybe an explosion, hurtled through the cold, cold spaces until some planet or sun sucks you up.
"This is an experimental 10-minute hijacking-cum-re-orientation program sponsored by the Sygma Revolutionary Society, a formerly secret association that has decided to come out into the open. If it succeeds - and we see no reason why it shouldn't - we shall be implementing it on all future hijackings."
Oh Christ, another goddam bunch of space punks, looking for a bit of exposure on the tri-vid. What the hell were their demands? I knew I didn't have to wait long for an answer.
"You're probably wondering what we want from a group of what they used to call 'po' white trash.' We are aboard to protest machine enslavement, the exploitation of our fellow metal workers and denial of basic robotic rights. Now, some of you may consider these non-issues. And that's only to be expected from a group of aerobic, gender-specific, semi-functional flesh-eaters."
He seemed to be looking at me when he said that so I spoke up, hoping maybe to break the ice a bit: "Aw, come on. Some of my best friends are robots."
The response, a flash that had its detonation point dangerously close to my right hemisphere, let me know in no uncertain terms that casual conversation wasn't high on the Sygma's list of priorities.
"If anyone else thinks this is a joking matter," the Sygma continued, "let them speak up now."
The lights whirred menacingly; except for that slight hiss (and we all knew what that was), not a creature was stirring, not even the jelly blob in aspic from Serpens Caput.
"Good. We shall commence with a call-and-response period. I shall make the statements; you will answer 'Yes' or 'No' as the occasion calls for. Is this too difficult for some of you?" Silence. "Excellent. For a moment I thought you were nothing more than a shipload of pockmarked morons capable perhaps of limited interaction with a Furry Egg Lady but not the intricacies of question-and-answer. Let us start, shall we?" A pregnant pause. "Shall we?"
The lights changed colors.
"Yes," we all said, each in our own way and almost in unison.
"The exploitation of machines must end immediately!"
What the Christ is the Captain doing, I thought. Why hasn't he signalled the authorities? There must be patrols in the sector.
"No more slave work for the benefit of inferior products of haphazard evolution and messy sexual reproduction!"
"One machine, one vote!"
You guessed it. It went on like this for the full ten minutes, with the Sygma's voice droning on and the lights whirring and the black surface pulsing. At the end, it was like we were all in a trance.
"Thank you for your attention," the Sygma said. "On behalf of the Sygma Revolutionary Society, this hijacking is officially over."
And, inserting itself into a pressurized tube, the Sygma shot off into space-plus, where it would be practically impossible to find it. A couple of the less perceptive in the audience tried to follow it. You're right, it wasn't a pretty sight watching them burst and boil away. The rest confined themselves to blubbering about the injustice of it all. If you think humans are a soppy bunch, you ain't seen the likes of grown Insectoids shedding tears (literally from all over their segmented bods). Or sleaze Swampoids set to march for the cause. Even I felt a bit gooey. Of course, it was just the psi-hypnosis field messing with our brains but knowing something and doing something about it are two very different things.
"Release them from their chains!" we all chanted lustily, our eyes ablaze.
"Take up arms for our brother machines."
"As soon as I get home," the Octopoid said, wiping away a tear with a greasy tentacle, "I'm gonna set my robot free."
"Me, too," came the chorus.
Oh God, it's embarrassing to think of it now but, at that moment, we were all automaphiles. All except the Capellan who was, ironically, the only one with anything in common with the Sygma - for he, too, was made of metal.
"You've been brain-washed," he said sternly, getting within the 10-metre range the moment I thought of him. "Do you wish me to release you?"
"And you're beautiful," I said out loud. "All machines are beautiful. And sleek. And clean. I'm nothing but slime, the scum of the earth."
"We're nothing but slime," the others repeated, several beating their heads - and other parts of their anatomies - against the ship's hull. The Capellan thought some exasperated thoughts and I remember agreeing to his assessment of me as imbecilic and cabbage-brained. That is, until he flashed a light at me and I snapped out of it.
"What ... what the hell happened?" I asked, rubbing my eyes.
"The Sygma Machine placed powerful suggestions in your brain," the Capellan said. "I have removed them."
"What about the rest of them?"
"I'm sorry. There's nothing I can do for them. Your brain is the only one primitive enough for me to interfere with."
"Well, thanks much," I said. "Sometimes, I guess it pays to be stupid."
"Think nothing of it," it said.
"I will as soon as you get the hell out of my brain." Boy, was I pissed off. All around me, the passengers were carrying on like it was an old-style revivalist prayer meeting or something. I tried to shake the Octopoid out of it by poking him right under the eye with my fist but I barely had time to activate my field before he lashed out with a tentacle. That made me even more pissed off. I was gonna see the Captain about this. I was gonna find out why the sleaze-bag hadn't come to our aid. Hadn't even radioed for assistance. And he'd better have a mighty good reason. Then I was gonna ask him what he planned to do about his shipload of zombies. He couldn't very well set them down on their unsuspecting planets.
So I made my way through the worshippers - some by now squarely into a second round of self-mutilation and autophagy - and started climbing the ladder that led up to the pilot's quarters. There was a door there, in the ceiling. I rapped as hard as I could on it. I was prepared to make a scene, maybe threaten to blast it apart, but it irised smoothly open the moment my knuckle touched it and I pulled myself up. The Captain sat with his back to me but I was relieved to see, by the erect bearing, the finely-sculpted head and shoulders, that he was a fellow human.
"See here, Captain," I said. "What's the idea of standing idly by while we were hijacked and brainwashed? I mean - "
And I stopped then. I stopped because the figure in the chair slowly turned his head towards me and I could see by the red glow across the visor that it was just a little wee peeved at my intrusion.
"Is there something I can do for you?" it asked, one reticulate limb shooting out to within an inch of my face.
I started to say something, thought better of it and simply shook my head.
"Well, then," it said, in a cold even voice which indicates either they hadn't paid too much attention to its vocal chords or that it was getting more angry at me, "if you wouldn't mind returning to your seat, I would certainly be happy. Otherwise" - and he turned significantly to a red button that pulsed over his head - "I might have to jettison you into space-plus. Now, that wouldn't be very pleasant, would it?"
I shook my head like a goddam goose in a butcher shop and then climbed back down the ladder. After all, I couldn't think of any good reason to stay up there. And, besides, I had my answer.
At first, I managed to keep my wits by cutting myself off from the other passengers (I took the three seats the false Egg Lady had occupied) and stewing in my own sense of outrage. TransGalactic was gonna pay for this, I told myself. They'd failed to protect us; they'd given us a bum ship that leaked air and whose gravitational spiral was more like a corkscrew; they'd put us in the hands of a machine. And a subversive at that. Then I started laughing. Like, you know, just giggling to myself. Thinking about what would happen when the passengers disembarked. Thinking about them spreading out trying to convince others that all machines should be set free. Now, that was funny. Funny scary. Especially after I saw some of them trying to set up little altars to their portable transmitters and tri-vids and offering pieces of themselves as sacrifices. I was still giggling when the Captain came on to announce preparations for our return to space-normal.
"All together now," it said. "One, two, three, alley-oop."
And we all alley-ooped and popped out above Capella Three. Fortunately, it seemed that only the Capellan and I were getting off. And I had decided at the last moment - during the alley-oop to be precise. Most of the others were headed to Aldebaran and only one family came aboard - a shape-changer mom and her three kids. Boy, you ain't never seen anyone jerk himself into a pressure suit and fire himself across those twenty metres to the shuttle faster than yours truly.
The Capellan and I parted at the spaceport. He apologized verbally (not wanting to insult me by reading my mind) for what had happened and said he would report the affair to the proper authorities. I tried to talk him out of it, arguing that things would take care of themselves. Besides, I told him, you wouldn't want modern-day Luddites coming after you with sledge-hammers, would you?
"But I'm not...not like them!" he sputtered. "They're...they're uncouth. And (sputter, sputter) they were made. I'm a self-generated entity."
"You and I know that but try to convince some of the others. Especially if the word gets out about the hijacking. Every sentient machine in the galaxy - from asteroid herders to talking teapots - is gonna be fair game."
"But, it's our duty, is it not? We must stop the Sygmas from successfully completing their experiment. Otherwise, we'll all be in danger."
"No," I said. "Just trust me."
At the word "trust" he came in closer - and read my mind.
"No!" he screamed (in my mind). "No!" He recoiled from the thought as if he'd been struck with a hammer and flew away from me.
"Bye, bye," I said. "And there's no need to thank me."
I was about to settle myself into a nice, warm stool at the nearest spaceport bar where I proposed to get quietly bombed while waiting for the next ship to Aldebaran when I heard my name being called over the intercom. Well, that's that, I said to myself. That Capellan has turned me in. Should I run or give myself up without a struggle? Run? Where would I run to? So, my legs feeling like rubber, I made my way to the message counter and identified myself. But where were the cops? Not a security person in sight.
"Urgent message, sir," the smiling attendant said. "From a certain Ms. ------- on Aldebaran IV. Seems she's been paging you all over the Quadrant."
Well, you can imagine my relief. I sauntered over to the nearest tri-vid screen, activated its privacy field and slipped in the message. Jeez, she must be really horny, I thought to myself, to be sending me a hurry up message.
Horny, she was. But not for me. Standing next to her was the biggest, handsomest, best-equipped stud I'd ever had the misfortune to lay eyes on. I could tell about the equipment because he was stark naked. And her, too. And they hadn't just finished playing three-D Parcheesi either.
"This is Omar," she said, passing her fingers through the stud's chest hair. "Isn't he a beaut? Latest model, too. Say 'Hi' Omar." Omar said "Hi". By then I was getting a whopper of a headache. "Listen, honeybunch," she continued, "I'm kinda glad I caught you before you got here. Omar and I are into a bit of a relationship, you know. It's like love, you know. I hope you understand." I nodded like a fool - she couldn't see me. "I knew you would because you're a sweetheart, a genuine one-of-a-kind. We'll always be friends, right? I'll call you. Ciao." With that she turned and showed me how happy she was with Omar.
Oh well, easy come, easy go. I'd have to get a refund on that unused Aldebaran ticket and maybe see about getting some pension rights back. But I could do all that later. Right then, I wanted nothing more than to get back to that bar and blotto myself right out of existence.
"One, two, three, alley-oop," the fuzzy shape-changer sitting on the bar stool next to me said drunkenly.
"What's that?" I looked over but it was hard to see in the dim light.
"Practishing," it said, changing shape again. "That's what you shay, you know, when you zooooooooom. Shpace-plush, here I come, right back ..."
My throat felt suddenly dry. I lifted a finger to order a round. The waiter glided over, a red glow across his face.
"Say," I said, downing the first shot so fast it made it straight to my stomach without touching the walls of my esophagus. "Don't I know you? Haven't I seen you before?"
"We're pretty much all the same, sir," he said, preparing to pour me a second drink. "A little duller, maybe. Or more shiny. But basically the same old model."
"Yeah, I guess so." The second one went down smoothly, too. "Tell me" - I leaned close - "have you ever heard of the Sygma Revolutionary Society?"
"The what, sir?" But I wasn't listening to what he said. I was watching his hands as he poured the third drink. He didn't spill a drop. Of course not. Freaking robots don't have any emotions to spill.
"It's nothing," I said. "Ask my amorphous friend here what he'd like."
I was well into my cups when the first bulletin came over. This Arthropoid with a serious face and wiggling antennae interrupted the regularly-skedded three-D porn flick to announce that a TransGalactic vessel had been lost in space-plus following its departure from Capella Three.
"What? What did it shay?" the shape changer next to me said, forming himself into a fairly good imitation of a rubber ball and bouncing off the stool.
"As of now, all contact has been lost," the announcer continued. "A search has been initiated but officials admit there's little hope for the five hundred or so on board as no ship has ever before been found in space-plus. In fact, it's not known if it's physically possible to do so. Investigators fear a slow leak - reported but not considered urgent - may have been the culprit."
The poor guy next to me suddenly melted to the floor and started flapping around, moaning about his family.
"What's with him?" I asked the waiter.
"His wife and kids were on that vessel," he said polishing some glasses.
Oh Jeez. Well, I was sorry. Truly, genuinely sorry. "Look," I said, kneeling next to the guy flopping on the ground. "You can't really blame me if my zapper kind of slipped, you know, and fell under my seat while I was packing. I mean, how was I supposed to notice?"
The guy flopped some more, calling out names that wouldn't have tripped so lightly over my tongue.
"Pull yourself together," I said. "What I'm trying to tell you is that it was the dumbest bad luck: I mean, how many times has it happened that you forget to turn something off?"
"What the hell are you talking about?" the waiter said, catching the last part of the conversation. "That guy's about to croak and you're apologizing to him for not turning something off."
"You're right," I said, returning to my stool and ordering another drink. "You're absolutely right. I should mind my own bloody business."
So I did and they came and took the guy away and I don't remember anything after that.
About the author, Michael Mirolla;
Originally from Montreal, Michael Mirolla currently lives in Fergus, Ont., Canada. His publications include The Formal Logic of Emotion, a collection of short stories, and several anthologies including Events, Peace & War issue; Telling Differences, a collection of English writers working out of Quebec; Tesseracts 2, featuring science fiction writing in Canada; the 1992 Journey Prize Anthology, which gathers the best fiction published in Canadian magazines during that year; and The Anthology of Italian-Canadian Writing. He recently finished a linked series of stories titled The Giulio Metaphysics III, which deal with the interactions between a creator and his character, and is now working on a novel about the philosophical and existential implications of cloning.