Jones held his hand up in bewilderment.
“Sorry sir,” he said pursing his lips, “I thought you said, at ‘no’ cost to us.”
“Damn right,” the General yelled and pointed at the small man worriedly holding a briefcase behind him, “This heathen, yule-drinking, kobold-worshipping pagan has no right to exist, and as far as I’m concerned, you teufel-huenden may take the first opportunity that comes along, and I mean the very first opportunity, to flush him out an airlock!”
Jones and his men creaked uncomfortably in their chair, uncomfortable not because of the General yelling, not because of the tiny chairs, but because they were all suffering from hangovers that could sink a Star Cruiser. The two rows of Skymarines sat in gleaming Hardlyaman spacesuits, carrying plasma rifles that looked like a cross between blunderbusses and cappuccino machines, and all of them felt as if their heads were exploding. What really made them uncomfortable was waking up and finding their General had a mission.
“If I may interrupt you there, General.” A flunky staffer stepped up to the dais, “What the General means, you are to assist your assignment at every opportunity and ensure he arrives at his destination in one piece.”
“No I don’t,” the General yelled, “I mean exactly what I’m saying, if that idiot happens to walk in front of a plasma rifle, you have my full permission to accidentally pull the trigger. Is that understood?”
There was a subdued cheer from the platoon of Skymarines and they cradled their heads and the small man held onto a chair for support. Jones wrinkled his brow and wondered what sort of bedlam he was being ordered into this time.
“You are to escort him to the Torus orbital of Virginis Zeta,” the General continued yelling, “and if you should happen to lose him on the way, and by lose I mean evaporate, you will be given a medal.”
“OORAH!” the Skymarines chortled, then grabbed their heads in pain, and the little man fainted.
“Is there any reason why we should lose him sir?” Jones asked.
“This heathen wrote the book, ‘Put up, or Shut up God,’” the General snarled, “this is an affront to all we hold good and true, it is also a best seller, I hate best sellers. I have eleven unpublished books, none of which are best sellers, so I repeat, given the opportunity you are to flush this needless sack of …”
“Thank you, thank you General.” The flunky captain stepped in and started the star projector on the far wall. “Perhaps we should review the flight path for the mission. You are to escort Mister Roberto Echo to the Space Port Richard Nixon and board the Star Cruiser Betty Paige. Furthermore, there is a port of call where you will be allowed liberty. Torus Fomalhaut the robot torus.”
This was met with a groan from the Skymarines. The captain grinned with the sort of enthusiasm you’d normally expect from Totenkopf the Clown at a child’s birthday party, “And then onto Torus Virginis Zeta, the war simulation orbital. Where you are to convey Mister Echo to the War department of Virginis Zeta, under the care of General Stanislaw Moronowski.”
“My second cousin,” interrupted the General with a wicked grin.
“Yes sir,” the flunky rolled his eyes, “your second cousin.”
“And there,” the General continued with a grin of satisfaction, “this miserable worthless and well published non-entity will be enlisted in the global war games simulator for this rest of his unnatural life.”
“Sir,” Jones held his hand up to ask, “are we to take it, we are kidnapping Mister Echo.”
“Quite right there, young fellow, you’ll go far with that much brain, although I prefer to call this an extrajudicial punishment. Since under civilian law I can’t have this cretin shot, I’m going to have him shot under simulated martial law, and shot many times I should add,” the General leered at the unconscious author. “Since a virtual crime is not a real crime, no laws will be broken, and since you are conveying him for his own protection you also are exonerated.”
“Who are we protecting him from, sir?” Jones asked.
“Me,” the General made claws of his hands, “if I were to get my hands on him, I’d rip him limb from limb. Dismissed!”
“OORAH!” replied the platoon as they staggered to attention.
The General turned and started to walk from the room, when at the last moment he whirled and ran towards the unconscious author, but his adjutants formed a scrum and pushed him out of the room as he yelled profanities about the author’s baboon ancestors.
The flunky captain faced Jones’ squad and shrugged, “Any questions?”
“Are we breaking the law, sir?” Jones asked.
“Only in the moral sense,” the captain grinned, “the General is quite right, by virtual martial law the fellow can be held in perpetuity under virtual arrest. You are to ensure that happens, and try not to get him killed because that really would be murder.”
The Skymarines threw the bound author in the back of a flivver and flew to the Richard Nixon Space Port. He was a quivering little man, who made noises like a guinea pig every time one of the Skymarines knocked against him or pushed him along. Dressed in a poorly fitting plaid suit and still clutching his briefcase, he reminded Jones of a wriggling body bag, which was the worst sort. They sat opposite in the flivver and Jones wondered what the hell he was getting himself into.
“What’s your name again?” Jones asked pushing the enormous barrel of his plasma rifle in the man’s nose.
“Roberto Echo,” the little man stuttered and shrieked as he stared down the giant flaring barrel of the plasma rifle.
Jones blinked repeatedly and leaned back in his Hardlyaman exoskeleton space suit. “Echo?” he said slowly and grinned at the other Skymarines. “Did I hear an echo?”
“Yes,” the little man coughed, “Echo is my name, and please don’t laugh, this isn’t funny you know.”
Jones nodded his head slowly, “Oh, I think this may be very funny.”
Dorfmann looked over and said: “Wait, you’re the author of books like ‘My biggest mistake by God’; ‘Too many angels on the pinhead’, and ‘What’s this God-thing anyway?’”
“That’s right. My latest is ‘Put up, or Shut up God’,” the little man nodded vigorously, “it’s a best seller.”
“So we heard,” Jones raised an eyebrow. “Do people even buy books anymore?”
“It sold three hundred copies, that makes it a best seller these days.”
“That’s a best seller? Just three hundred copies,” Jones began to enjoy himself, “I thought a best seller was like a million copies, or at least a hundred thousand?”
“Oh, you can’t get the paper you know,” the little man tried to wipe the sweat from his brow, but his hands were too tightly bound. “The environmentalists made it illegal to cut down any trees so we can’t make new paper, and the archaeological societies won’t let us recycle newspaper as they have a historical value. So we’re forced to make books out of road-kill skins like raccoons and beaver.”
Jones blinked and tried to replay back in his mind what he had just heard, but all he understood were the words raccoon and beaver, neither of which made any sense.
“Vellum,” Dorfmann started laughing, “You make books out of animals skins. Just like in the medieval ages.”
“Yes,” the little man’s head bobbed up and down vigorously.
“You write proofs of the non-existence of god using a medieval technology, and for this you’re being sentenced for the rest of your life to be repeatedly killed in a virtual war scenario,” Dorfmann burst out laughing.
“Oh no,” the little man ineffectually waved his hands, “they’re not anti-religious at all. They’re romantic comedies, it’s just the titles sound religious.”
This was too much and the Skymarines fell about laughing so hard they started to choke, as the medical computers on their Hardlyaman suit registered their hangovers as critical vital signs.
“And this is how you make your living?” Svensson asked.
“Oh no, well I used to be a computer programmer, but robots do it so much better now, so I’m reduced to writing books. It’s a living.”
“Couldn’t you just give them a normal title? Like Debby’s Debacle or the Tragedy of Tallulah?” Jones shrieked with laughter.
“Oh, you can’t get a best seller these days without some philosophical or religious title, no one but academics buy books anymore. For that matter, only universities with enormous libraries buy books. I’m really quite lucky to have found a niche market.”
“So you are being sent,” Jones wiped the tears from his eyes, “to perpetual death on the war simulation planet, all because you sold three hundred books. Ha! And you call that lucky!”
“Ah,” the author face fell, “I see your point. Yes, that is a little problematical.”
“Problematical? You think continuous death for eternity is problematical? I would have called it hell.”
“Yes, but think of the experiences I’ll gain, the first hand knowledge I could use in future books!”
“What future books?” Jones hadn’t had this much fun since he was awarded the prize at his college for illiteracy, “you’re going to be there - permanently.”
“I shall appeal my sentence,” Echo protested. “I am innocent.”
“Innocent?” finally Jones was amazed, “there are no innocents in war, just targets. You don’t get to appeal for justice, there isn’t going to be a trial, the General don’t know what justice is, all he cares about is destroying the enemy, and in this case he thinks you’re the enemy!”
The flivver exploded once more into laughter, as the Skymarines rocked in their shuttle seats and felt the hangovers explode in their heads.
“Oh dear, oh dear,” the little author’s face finally crumpled and he burst into tears. Jones felt sorry for the little man and wondered if he should just let him off, but he knew in the back of his head the General would find out about it from his cousin Moronowski.
They landed at the Richard Nixon Space Port and marched the author straight through customs and onto the Star Cruiser Betty Paige. Oddly Richard Nixon was considered one of the greatest presidents of America, having single handily lost a minor land war in Asia, sold America to the Chinese and nearly destroyed democracy - obviously it didn’t take much to be a great president. For reasons of equal opportunity, all Star Cruisers were named after feminist writers or burlesque stars, and all Space Ports were named after failed presidents, this is what happens when equal opportunity goes horribly wrong.
They boarded the Star Cruiser Betty Paige and five minutes later arrived at Torus Fomalhaut the robot torus. Hyperlightspeed travel required vast star ships to house the quantum anomalies used to power the jumps, vast in the sense the Chrysler Building was now considered tiny in comparison, vast in the sense the Empire State building was also now considered tiny in comparison, vast in the sense the Star Cruiser Betty Paige was the size of New York State and could comfortably house nine thousand Empire State and Chrysler buildings in its hold and still have room to spare.
For the most part, travel on a star cruiser was likened to entering a lift on the Chrysler Building, wonderful to look at, but over all too soon.
As they flivvered down to Torus Fomalhaut the Skymarines were heckling each other for something to do.
“That’s like the time I found you with that 400-Solars-an-hour Peruvian prostitute called Diego,” Maguire grinned at his fellow Skymarine Vogelkopf.
“I thought he was a doctor!” Vogelkopf yelled. “He had a stethoscope!”
“Sure, but where was he holding it? And what was he listening for?”
“He said he was a doctor! Feck you!”
“I’m sure he did,” Maguire wiped the tears from his eyes, “A doctor of love.”
The little author stood next to Jones on the flivver, in hand cuffs and a plaid suit that was illegal on over two thousand orbital space stations. He stank of fear and confusion, and rocked nervously back and forth on his heels.
“What is this place?” he asked Jones staring out the window.
“Fomalhaut?” Jones raised an eyebrow, “Fomalhaut is the most boring place in the Galaxy, and this is where they send Skymarines when they want to torment us. A whole orbital of robots, robotic construction, robotic programming and worst of all robotic brothels.”
“Why is that the worst?” Echo asked.
“Because,” Jones grinned, “from a human prostitute you might catch a case of space clap if you were unlucky. Unlucky, because these days it’s highly unlikely with all the medicine they can use. On the other hand, from a robotic prostitute they can accidentally and most horribly mechanically fail, and that my little friend is not a disease you might wish to contract.”
“So, we are going to spend the next three days standing around, till the next star cruiser comes along and do our best to stay away from the bars, because the last thing you want is a group of over-sexed drunken Skymarines forgetting the first principle of boot camp training.”
“Stay away from the robot-whores!” the Skymarines chanted. “OORAH!”
“Interesting,” the little author said.
Jones looked at Echo and for a moment and a flicker of doubt passed his mind, but he ignored it and patted his plasma rifle. As he remembered, that when in doubt use plasma fire, and that was the second principle of Skymarine training.
They found a cheap hotel and set a watch over the little author, the watch revolved tying around him to his bed and going for a drink in the downstairs bar. The hotel was cheap in the sense its species of cockroaches had yet to learn how to empty their pockets while they slept, and cheap in the sense Jones stuck the topology-rearranging end of his plasma pistol in the manager’s face and asked for a discount.
“It says here in your brochure, we could have a room with a view!” Jones shot out the lampshade on the desk.
“But sirs,” the light in the manager’s eyes flickered and a pair of cockroaches evaporated, “you do have a room with a view, the view is outside the room.”
“There are no windows!” Jones yelled and another lampshade disappeared, “and the beds have things.”
“Things sir?” said the robot, as a dustpan and brush extended from its mouth and removed the cockroach remains.
“Don’t,” Jones looked squeamish, “don’t do that.”
“The cockroach thing.”
“Yes sir,” it agreed, as another cockroach ran across the desk and the robot head-butted it. “Things sir?”
“In the beds, there are living things, get rid of them.”
“Yes, sir, anything else?”
“We need drinks,” Jones rolled his eyes, “lots of drinks.”
Fourteen hours later Jones woke up and tried to understand why the ceiling had chairs tied to it. He closed his eyes and slept for another hour then discovered why the ceiling was covered in furniture; the platoon had tied him to the chandelier during the night and forgotten to let him down.
“Get me down! You feckin’ spaceapes!” he yelled and threw up.
The Skymarines were the result extended bioengineering, retro-virals from exotic animals like lynx and golden eagles had been introduced into their DNA. As a result they were immune from diseases and had extraordinary abilities like seeing in the dark or run like a cheetah. The one thing they weren’t immune to was alcoholic poisoning.
Another hour passed before Eckelshammer wandered into the room carrying a cow.
“Eckels!” Jones yelled, and then tried to understand what the cow was for, “Eckelshammer, why are you carrying a cow?”
“Ja, me got lonely,” said Eckelshammer. He was a seven-foot Austrian gorilla they often used to breach doors when they couldn’t find a tank. Unlike any other Skymarine, Eckelshammer was simply made the way evolution intended him and Galactic Command was too afraid to change him.
“Okay,” Jones said slowly, “can you get me down?”
“Ja,” Eckelshammer suffered his own form of Austrian literalness.
“Get me down.”
“Ja, Jonsey,” Eckelshammer said and put down the cow. He unslung his plasma rifle and pointed it at the ceiling.
“No!” Jones screamed, but it was too late as the ceiling evaporated and Jones landed on his helmet.
“Never mind.” He stood up, brushed himself down, and tried to remember how he was supposed to stand. “Where is everyone?”
“Looking,” Eckelshammer patted his cow.
“Yes, and what are they looking for?”
“Ja, the little man.”
Jones suddenly remembered why they were there in the first place.
“The little man, that wouldn’t happen to be the little man we came here with, would it? The one we tied to a bed upstairs, is it now?”
Jones gave out a shriek that made the cow bolt.
“What?” he turned on his comlink and started screaming at the rest of the platoon. “Where the feck is he?”
“Jonsey!” Maguire called back, “we’re been looking for you, why didn’t you use your comlink?”
“I forgot! Now where the feck is the gumby for our mission?”
“He escaped, kind of,” Maguire giggled.
“The night porter threw him out.”
“You told him to.”
Jones stormed into the front desk and punched the robot manager with a steel gauntlet. The robot was unfazed and gave him a good morning.
“Where the feck is little man who was tied up in our room gone to?” Jones became a little incoherent.
“Sir requested the living things be removed from sir’s room.”
Jones punched himself in the head. “Feck! Everyone met me in the front of the hotel!” He screamed into the comlink.
A motley collection of half sober, mostly drunk Skymarines cluttered up the front stairs and wondered if someone had discovered another bar.
“Right listen up,” Jones found himself sobering up very quickly as he down a liter of coffee, “we need to track down our little poet before he leaves on the next star cruiser.”
“Won’t we be on the next star cruiser?” asked Dorfmann.
“Yes, no, I mean the next civilian star cruiser.”
“You mean star liner?”
“You know what I mean!” Jones yelled. “Now fan out and track him down, and one more thing try not to you know, get too creative.”
“Huh?” Dorfmann grinned.
“You know,” Jones glowered at them, “try not to destroy anything … or anyone.”
“Oh no Jonsey,” Dorfmann laughed and the rest broke smiles, “we’d never do that.”
“That’s what I was afraid of you saying,” Jones sighed and pointed them off in groups of three in different directions. Jones wasn’t the squad leader; rather he was the only one with anything that came close to having brains. For like the rest of the Skymarines, he had retro-virals injected into his body during boot camp, but unlike the rest of the Skymarines, he had the DNA left over from Einstein’s brain. Mind you, it wasn’t the useful part of the brain, which might have solved N-dimensional problems in Relativity or Brownian motion while standing in the shower. No, Jones got the idiot part of Einstein’s brain, the bit that dealt with fear, hunger or Rabbi Luntschitz’s daughter, nevertheless, a bit of Einstein’s brain was certainly better than none at all.
Jones took Mackie and Eckelshammer with him. Mackie because if he got into a fire fight then Mackie with his sniper rifle was most likely to get him out, and Eckelshammer because he was the one most likely to start the fight.
There was one other reason for bring Mackie, his Gun was conscious, not conscious in the sense Mackie was conscious, but certainly more sentient than Eckelshammer. The Gun was in fact a sub-Turing intelligence nuclear powered Gatling plasma gun seemingly possessed by the Haitian god of Voodou, it spoke with a Jamaican accent and had one function in life, to obliterate things.
“How much fo' de night honey? Slap ma fro!” it whistled at a passing robotic street cleaner. The robotic weapon scuttled about on four tiny servo legs, for all the world like an Airedale being taken for a walk, the only difference was it could fire a million rounds a second of sheer unmitigated death.
“Gun,” Jones spoke to the weapon, “we’re looking for the little man with the briefcase we brought here. Whatever you do, don’t kill him when we find him.”
All the Gun heard was the word ‘kill’ and it released a salvo of destruction that hadn’t been seen since the Charge of the Light Brigade was mown down. The entire street was turned into holes and more holes, as everything from robotic doormen to robo-taxis disintegrated before the onslaught of the Gun cleaning its barrels.
“Gah!” Jones, Mackie and Eckelshammer dove behind a door-stoop and hid there till the shooting stopped.
Gingerly Jones put his head up. “I said don’t shoot …”
Immediately, the Gun opened up again and anything that wasn’t atomized the first time was certainly removed from earthy existence the second. “I's gots'ta be de foed uh July, Slap ma fro!” the Gun sang as it danced around on the spot from the recoil.
Once more the Gun only heard the word fire, and let loose with enough ordnance to put the architecture of the street back to the Paleolithic. Jones had enough and threw a plasma grenade at the Gun, knocking it unconscious.
“Mackie!” Jones screamed at the sniper, “put a leash on that thing!”
“Bad Gun, bad Gun,” Mackie cooed at his toy. “Jonsey upset, no more bang-bang.” The Gun whimpered and pawed ineffectually with its servo legs.
“Right then,” Jones began to breath again, “lets just find the little guy and … where is Eckelshammer? Eckels?” He called Eckelshammer on the comlink, but the Gun had shot off the antennas on all their suits.
Eckelshammer had wandered into a building looking for a cow. On average this was normal for Eckelshammer, and he had once been known to invade a small planetoid on the off chance they had a herd of Friesians.
“Ja Jonsey,” he sang from the doorway, “is here.”
“Good, now no one do anything that might cause me to have a heart attack. Just keep looking for this Echo guy.” Jones wiped the sweat from under his visor, letting the gun off was one thing, letting Eckelshammer loose on a hapless city was a war crime.
“Ja Jonsey, is here,” Eckelshammer, repeated from the door.
“Yes, Eckels you’re there, I’m here, linguistically that all makes sense, but…”
Eckelshammer tore the door off the frame in frustration and pointed, “Ja, Jonsey, is here.”
“What is there?”
“Ja, little guy is here.”
“Why didn’t you say so?”
“You forget how not to talk,” this for Eckelshammer was a major discussion, for in the small Austrian village he came from it was considered impolite to say anything more than good morning over the span of a year.
The building turned out to be a robo fabrication facility, lines of conveyor belts trundled along carrying robot torsos, robot heads, hands, feet and sexual attachments. Sparks flew and wiring was mercilessly soldered onto inanimate body parts. It took a minute for Jones to realize all the faces on the robots looked exactly like their quarry, Mister Echo.
“Wait,” Jones eyes rotated around the room like electrified ping-pongs, “they all look like our … no …”
“What Jonsey?” Mackie peered over Jones’ shoulder.
“The little fecker has reprogrammed the factory line to make robots that look exactly like him.”
“Is that good?”
Jones looked back out in the street and sure enough, from a side door of the factory a stream of robots with Echo’s face was shuffling away.
“No, I wouldn’t call it good, I’d call it a complete disaster.”
“Is that good?”
“What is it about the word good, you don’t understand?”
“The bad bit?”
At this point the bit of his brain that didn’t belong to him kicked in, and Jones had a plan. “Eckels! Destroy that factory!”
“Ja.” Eckelshammer needed no encouragement for as a child had the witnessed the freak death of his parents at the hands of a Roomba vacuum cleaner, and soon the sounds of wrenching metal and popping robot heads were heard.
“Mackie! Destroy that street of robots!”
“What if the little guy is one of them?” Mackie looked unhappy.
“Then we get a medal or a court martial,” Jones shrugged, “either way I don’t want to face the general.”
The Gun was let off its lease and once more the street exploded in the sort of mayhem that only a nuclear powered gatling gun was capable of producing. In five minutes the equivalent of a small war was visited upon the street and nothing but the squad members were still moving.
They returned to the hotel and met up with the rest of the platoon.
“Find him?” Jones saw they hadn’t.
“Just copies,” Maguire shook his head, “it’s really weird. All the robots have his face now.”
“I think he’s reprogrammed the entire city of robots to make replicas of himself,” said Dorfmann. “They are rebuilding each other in the streets and going about their businesses as if nothing had happened.”
“That is one pesky little poet,” Jones fumed. “Look he must have had an access point from somewhere, let’s work from here, figure out where that is and maybe something will turn up.”
They went inside and discovered the manager had switched faces, and was busily scribbling a love story in the hotel’s ledger.
“For crying out loud!” said Jones. “Stop that!”
“Yes sir,” the robot put down the pen, “pity, just as the story arc was going somewhere. Will sir be requiring anything else?”
“Where did the little guy we brought with us go, you threw him out with the linen?” he thrust his plasma pistol in the robots face, his finger twitching with nervous tension on the trigger. “Where?”
“Does sir mean our Creator?” the robot smiled with the writer’s face.
Jones let this slide and nodded his head.
“The Creator is now coming up with street with an army of writers, if sir would be so kind to look out the window.”
Jones started to turn around but at the last moment his finger twitched on the trigger, just as the robot was lifting a staple gun from beneath the desk and its head exploded.
“Put barricades up!” Jones screamed and ran to front windows, “Shoot anything that isn’t us!”
Out in the boulevard, lines of writers, all with identical faces were scribbling away and taking up offensive positions along the houses. Weapons made out of steam gaskets, elastic bands, and bicycle parts began to fire projectiles, which pinged off the front of the building with bewildering accuracy, and as the volume of missiles increased splinters of wood and specks of concrete began to chip away from the hotel’s façade. In return, Jones and the Skymarines opened fire with the sort of destruction normally created by football hooligans at the World Cup final. Not that it mattered, as the army of robots kept creeping towards them replacing the ones that fell and continuing their scribblings.
Even the Gun was starting to panic and was crying out to the Voodou god of doors for guidance, “You's call dat some weapon, Papa Legba, now he gots'ta some weapon!”
Suddenly a rain of books began falling on the veranda, most of them caught fire and threatened to start burning down the hotel.
“Jonsey!” yelled Dorfmann.
“Trust me!” Jones yelled back, “If I had an idea I’d be telling you!”
Then like a blackout everything stopped and the voice of the little author could be heard eerily coming from the mouths of all the robots.
“Jones? You there?”
“Maybe,” said Jones, then he bit his thumb for being so stupid. “Umm, actually yes.”
“So let’s do a deal,” the robots chorused.
“What kind of a deal?”
“One where you get to deliver your package and I get to …”
Two days later, the Star Cruiser Gypsy Rose Lee arrived at the War department of Virginis Zeta, and the little writer was handed over to the gentle care of General Stanislaw Moronowski.
“This him?” yelled General Stanislaw Moronowski, who was an exact copy of his cousin, “Little god-hating-heathen-barbarian doesn’t look like much.”
“Yes sir,” Jones felt the sweat overriding the air-conditioner of his Hardlyaman space suit. “Writers never do.”
“Well done Space Gyrenes!” General Moronowski yelled, “now take a hike, we’re plugging this little fecker into the mainframe.” The little writer winked a robot eye at Jones and marched off behind the general.Jones turned to his fellow marines and hissed: “Don’t say anything, not a word, not a syllable, not even a haiku!”