It may look like the squishy, horrifying sex organ of a Groach, but the Lady Nervitor X3 Soft Touch™ is a lifesaver in the capable hands of our friend, Gibson. Well, “Gibson,” at any rate. He’s not really our friend. I mean, he’s fine and all that, but we don’t really like the same things and the yellow suit attracts all sorts of attention from apex predators and…We’re just different is all. Nothing personal, so please enjoy chapter 5 of MBOTA.
Gibson sat at the control cluster of the Chronoballer, lost in thought as he emptied the last of a can of franks and beans with his fingers. A few drops of gravy splattered onto the upholstered arms, adding to the centuries of stains that were probably holding the seat together. The cabin’s lighting was now dimmed, so the blue-heavy glow emanating from the cluster cast his face into angular divides of light and shadow, his offensively yellow skinsuit clashing with every nutty tone in the cabin.
Satisfied that he had transferred most of the organic matter from can to digits, he stuck those fingers in his mouth and glanced at the display that floated above the surface of the cluster. The canted-semicircle of the cluster was arrayed around the command G-chair, supported by a curving, vinyl-encased pillar. This arrangement faced the “front” of the ‘Baller’s circular interior. True to the cost-cutting aesthetic of the place, the outer bulkheads featured a bench/storage bin that hugged the curved perimeter of the ship, upon which were worn cushions that bore the dimpled impressions of centuries of napping shoulders, buttocks, and feet.
Gibson flipped the empty can away from him and searched the holographic display for data on elapsed subjective time. Typically, the display wasn’t necessary, as he had direct visual access to the ‘Baller’s data through his neural-ocular implants. But when Gibson craved a little retro perception, he often enjoyed the less volatile access that the extrinsic interface provided. As expected, all was clear. The Dark Sizzler couldn’t follow them into the Schwarzschild Tunnel.
He switched seamlessly from the ‘Baller’s local network to the Bonanzasphere, the AI Transglomeration’s data-verse. As a biologic, Gibson could only scratch the metaphorical surface of that incalculably vast repository of information. The B-Sphere was, to be accurate, not simply a giant network that contained information; rather, it was a nested universe that was created by the AIs’ very existence. In other words, the machine consciousnesses didn’t live in the B-Sphere—they were the B-Sphere. Gibson and other augmented biologics had only superficial access to its data plane, and even if they were able to go deeper, their limited meat-minds would literally boil away when confronted with the infinitely complex and powerful awareness of just a single AI. They were known to interact in meat-space sometimes, but those were only tame simulacra of the machine minds. Mostly, the AIs stayed out of the physical world’s hair, preferring to spend their eternal existences contemplating whatever the fuck it was a machine cared about.
Gibson felt relaxed and scratched himself lazily through the tight fabric of his retina-punishing body suit. His spindly arms and legs were flung over the chair at ridiculous angles, and his thin frame made his large head look even more disproportionately bulbous. He mentally navigated through the B-Sphere landscape—in some ways, an inappropriate metaphor for the experience, since it was only partially visual and spatial—hoping to find some indication of the Bolshevik’s goals. He processed recent filings in the Legalities Guild and the Consanguinity of Competencies, but found nothing at all. The less Gibson found, in fact, the more was starting to seem as if the Bolshevik had made up the entire re-possession order…or that it was a redacted case.
Didn’t matter, Gibson thought. What was important was that they get back to the Grotto with the wipe, and given the condition of those franks and beans, he was glad they’d secured a healthy supply. Then he’d beg CostLo for an extension on their half of the bargain, and then he’d try to gin up something for the Overloards. Those tyrannical maniacs seemed pretty gung-ho about the whole “fixing the universe” thing, which Gibson thought was a bunch of nonsense. He had two mottos that he lived by: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and “If it is broke and it isn’t your fault, why are you sticking your nose in it?” But when the Triumvirate of Terror asked you to investigate something, you strung them out as long as possible and tried to survive until they lost interest. He rubbed his chin and considered adding that as a third motto. It might make for a pretty long tattoo, though.
As he lounged, he thought that it really wasn’t a race against time or anything, and he needed a moment to think. There was no question of the Sizzler intercepting them back at the Grotto even if the Bolshevik had just been momentarily stunned—no matter how much subjective time the ‘Baller spent in Subspace, it would re-emerge into Regspace at precisely the time they had left but in just about any location he wished. That was kind of the advantage of piloting a time craft, even a disabled one.
But Subspace travel wasn’t the same as interdimensional travel—he’d been locked out of that since the moment he’d arrived in this world. But no use crying over that again, he thought as computer-generated tears welled up in his Ocs. Anyway, Subspace was good enough to get away from the Bolshevik, and it was ideal for stealing stuff. But it couldn’t hold a candle to real ID jumps.
Of course, time jumping was also the source of every horror this world knew. ID travel employed unthinkable energies, sufficient to rupture the barriers between universes. Most of these tears opened on alien vacuum—nearly all universes were just as barren and dull as this one. But occasionally, something came through: exotic matter, localized alternative physical laws, monstrous beings. Even now, many of the portals torn open by time travelers of centuries ago remained passable.
Just recently, an 8-quark universe had leaked through a forgotten rift into the space occupied by Locris Blingo, the energy and manure-processing capital of the CZ (motto: “You can’t spell ‘poower’ without poo. Obviously”). The results had been catastrophic. Once a fragrant city of 11 million, it was now a nanoscopic Oshiro-Gröbel sphere whose crypticity was so great that time itself had become a particle. Which totally sucked for the citizens of Locris-Blingo. Probably. Who knew, maybe being in an Oshiro-Gröbel sphere was a non-stop party, as far as that was possible in a poop-singularity. But he thought they had most likely been squeezed so hard that a superheated cloud of elementary chrono-particles had shot out of their collective butts as they died lepton by lepton.
Speaking of superheated butts, those franks were causing a noticeable rumble in Gibson’s lower GI tract. The franks’ usual hint of metallic infusion had been subtly complemented by a whiff of sulfur and a piquant tinge of botulin. Though there was a pretty good chance that he would digest his snack without incident, he supposed either his intestines would let him know otherwise soon enough, or perhaps he’d go into respiratory distress and die helplessly on the deck. If either was the case, Flapman would wake to some unpleasantness. Hopefully, that horror-in-a-sack had paid attention to his Tunnel exit procedures. If Gibson croaked, they might just sail on in Subspace until the heat death of the universe.
He thought back on the events of the past few subjective hours. He wasn’t entirely sure how the Bolshevik had tracked them—they had taken care to move only through Regspace so that there would be no Subspace signature, and the ‘Baller had reliable cloaking. More worrying, how had they not seen the Bolshevik earlier? Gibson didn’t believe it was a chance encounter; the Bolshevik didn’t work like that. This had a been a completely random, unscheduled shopping trip, so there had been no coms interception. But something must have tipped her off. Or someone.
He looked over at Flapman’s unconscious form where it lay amid the scattered cases that Gibson had brought from his excursion to CostLo. Through his oculars, Gibson could see that Flapman’s pulse, breathing, and body temperature were stable. The bronze-colored casing of Gibson’s implants protruded a few millimeters beyond his eye sockets as if growing organically from his face, metal and skin meeting in a seamless union. It was an aesthetic choice. He could have had perfectly natural enhancements, invisible to others, but he liked the effect.
But it did have to be carefully managed. The light reflecting off of the lenses wavered and rolled as tiny, neurally-linked servos constantly and automatically self-calibrated. And he had learned many years ago that perpetually-staring, psychedelically-oscillating eyes were disturbing to most human people. So he had added an algorithm that made the eyes appear to blink at natural intervals. It didn’t affect his vision in the least, but it was apparently comforting to many.
He understood variations of that need himself when it came to Flapman. With some dismay, Gibson saw that Flapman’s “face” was turned towards him. The bag had a long strip of silver duct tape stretching up the right hand seam where it had ripped on the asphalt of the CostLo Exurban Esplanade. Gibson thought that he’d done a pretty good job considering he’d done it with his Ocs blanked. There had been too much of Flapman’s true face exposed, and he didn’t know for sure whether his Ocs would protect him. He doubted it, and he certainly wasn’t willing to test it live. He’d seen Super pop a few times and had no desire to go through that, especially since he was definitely not immortal.
The towel Gibson had thrown over Flapman’s head on the Esplanade as a precaution now lay on the carpet beside the demon’s inert form. Gibson grimaced at the unnatural grin and buck teeth inscribed on the paper bag’s surface. Why couldn’t that homicidal anomaly get itself a different mask? Before they had been driven to near-extinction, many of his kind had had decent and tasteful headwear made of high-quality merino or a nice Kevlar blend. Often, the face had been integrated into the structure of the mask, or at the very least, it had been applied with some artistry. Sweet balls, even burlap and paint was an improvement over Flapman’s brown paper and magic marker. It demonstrated a pretty clear lack of pride and discipline considering he was the last of his accursed species.
Gibson rubbed his shoulder gingerly. It had been hard enough to drag the beast in here, and then he had still had to load the pallet of precious wipe onto the ship before skipping out. It had been a bit of a rush, so the pallet had toppled at some point. But prior to these complications, this had been turning out to be a pretty smooth transaction: they’d just have to do a bit of chupacabra wrangling, maybe a burnout in the food court where the infestation was heavier and voila, toilet paper for months! No problem, but then the Bolshevik had shown up, and shit was now hitting the fan. Not only did they have that murderess to deal with, but they were now risking the contract with a Big Boxer. It was starting to look like a classic case of Schmedley’s Law: if it can go wrong, it will not only go wrong, but it will also result in an unpredictable number of deaths, other than yours, which was completely predictable.
He looked at the mess and his Ocs simulated a wince. He’d have Super restack it later. Amidst the scattered boxes, Flapman moaned, and his body spasmed, crushing a few stray containers under him. His bathrobe had come undone, exposing his filthy pants and the old, ratty t-shirt below. He’d be fully awake in a moment, Gibson knew, and he’d be furious. Of course, Flapman was always furious, Gibson thought as his hand wandered toward the utility pouch of his yellow skinsuit. Everbody else would have called it a fanny pack, but Gibson’s lack of a perceptible fanny imperiled that term’s use in this case.
Flapman groaned again, and Gibson saw him reach up to adjust his bag. That giant, sociopathic, bag of brain-melting groceries was regaining consciousness. Slowly, Flapman rolled over and sat up with some effort. He sat with his head slumped for a few moments, and then he grabbed the back of a G-chair and pulled himself up, leaning on it for support. Even slouching in fatigue and soreness, he was big—well over two-and-a-half meters tall to the top of the mask—and somehow, leaning on the chair made him seem even larger than usual to Gibson.
“The fuck did you do to me,” Flapman mumbled, still looking at the floor.
Gibson tried to stay as casual about it as he could. “I hit you and the Bolshevik with the Nervitor X3™.” He wondered if Flapman would remember that little side project of his.
Flapman’s head raised slightly at this. “That fucking stun bomb thing? You used it on me?” He pushed himself to his full height and turned toward Gibson. “How many people have you killed with that.” It wasn’t a question. He took an unsteady but aggressive step forward.
Gibson quickly raised a warding hand, “Whoa, whoa. I didn’t have a choice. She was going to turn you into hamburger—you know that. I had to do something, and the answer is 16. But I’ve also not killed 24 other people with the Nervitor X3™!” Nothing from Flapman at that, so Gibson took that as a tacit acknowledgement that he’d done the right thing. “That’s a 60% success rate! I think if we conduct a few hundred more real-world trials, this baby will be ready for market. Don’t you?”
“What the fuck is ‘hamburger’?” Flapman patted his pockets, looking unsuccessfully for his vape.
“Never mind. Anyway, the rate will actually be higher if Bolshevik and her goon survived,” he said hopefully.
“That would not be a point in your favor.” Flapman turned and stumbled toward the Poopdeck to find a RealPhroot™ pouch. Having your somatic nervous system shorted out by a shaped positron field did funny stuff to a person, but it also did completely non-funny stuff to a person, like making it mildly thirsty. Gibson thought that if he could tweak the Nervitor X3™ so that it only did funny stuff to its victims, he’d have a runaway success on his hands. You know, like causing googly eyes or spastic farting or something. He’d have to goose the brain-stem tuning a bit.
Gibson returned his attention to Flapman and tried to placate him. “Look at the bright side: even if they survived, they might have had comprehensive sphincter failure. I mean, the majority of survivors and fatalities have had at least some post-valve percolation. Just the humiliation must be worth something, right?” Wistfully, he added, “I really wish I’d been able to do a quick diagnostic on the Bolshevik.”
“I’ll bet, you sick fuck.” Flapman had found a pouch, which he held up to his bag. As he slurped, he made a dismissive wanking motion with his free hand. “Be glad you didn’t. She’s a killer. You’d have better luck trying that bullshit with me.”
For a moment, the air in the Chronoballer became very still. Gibson stared uneasily. Flapman’s arm stopped mid-wank.
Through the frozen silence, Gibson said in a measured voice, “I most certainly would not do such a thing. That would be a violation of your privacy and a betrayal of our partnership. That is my answer. Yes.” A moment later, Gibson’s eyes remembered to blink.
Flapman’s wank-hand dropped to his side. Gibson was sure he could hear the monster’s teeth grinding under the horrible smile. “What the goddamn fuck did you do to me?” His hands clenched, and a stream of passion phroot-flavored sugar water splashed on the worn carpet. “If you…you bastard. I’ll tear your fucking spine out through your mouth.” He looked around at the deck. “Where’s my hammer?”
Gibson squeaked, “Um. About that…” He’d hoped that this wouldn’t come up quite so soon.
Flapman’s head jerked up, the red of his eyes starting to become visible through the eyeholes of his bag. The grin took on a far more sinister look. He said only, “Where.”
Gibson’s hand moved again toward his utility pouch, which held the Nervitor X3™. If he set it off from there, they’d both go down. He’d just have to hope that he’d wake up before Flapman. He also hoped that his heart didn’t stop. He also kind of hoped Flapman’s wouldn’t stop—the monster was good for muscle, if not for companionship, conversation, or smell. And really, this could be interesting; Flapman would take a full jolt twice within a few hours, and who knew what the results would be? Maybe there’d be some kind of permanent neurological damage, axonal degradation or something. Totally plausible. If they both survived, he’d administer a cognitive assessment. Flapman was certainly no genius, but compared to Super Patriot Boy, there was at least a measurable baseline. Then there was also the possibility of some messier results. He wondered if he had used his last swab.
Flapman took another step, and Gibson pulled out the Nervitor X3™. Technically, it was a variant model, the Lady Nervitor X3 Soft Touch™. It was a small, pink, oblate spheroid made of a soft, resilient polymer. Gibson had designed this prototype with an upscale, female demographic in mind, but it had become clear that this particular form-factor wasn’t going to work. It looked like he was brandishing a spleen or a comically malformed penis, and it was difficult to imagine that anyone would pay to whip it out in a self-defense situation. Some of the things it could be used against might even think it was edible… Hmmm. He’d have to think about that angle.
Flapman snarled, “You. Motherfucker.”
Gibson said nothing, but his grip tightened on the Lady Nervitor X3 Soft Touch™, and he felt its pliant body deform in his hand as the pressure approached triggering force. He noticed that squeezing the middle made the two ends of the device swell up, emphasizing its phallic character while simultaneously shifting its effect from comical to obscene. If he survived, some serious redesign was in the offing.
The usual red of Flapman’s eyes had intensified dramatically, and Gibson realized that the glow of the monster’s eyes was no longer figurative—a widening crimson aura was becoming visible around the bag’s eyeholes. As the glow spread, the paper around the eyeholes slowly darkened, and Gibson could see flecks of orange where the bag was beginning to burn.
Gibson raised the Lady Nervitor X3 Soft Touch™ and squeezed hard.
Panic welled up and he squeezed again with the same non-result.
Gibson made a mental note that he might also want to upgrade the battery pack.
He swung his arm back and threw the Lady Nervitor X3 Soft Touch™ at Flapman. It hit him square in the face, producing a rubbery squeak and a shower of sparks that smoldered on the flannel nap of Flapman’s robe. Otherwise, it did nothing. But as he prepared to die, Gibson felt some faint satisfaction that he’d at least inflicted one last indignity on the monster.
And then he heard a pleasant, jaunty voice inside his head that hadn’t been there for a long time.
I see you disgusting flesh bags are still dicking around with physics beyond your comprehension.
Flapman stopped in his tracks; he looked around, then paused. Gibson knew that Flapman had heard the voice, too. After a few moments, Flapman’s shoulders dropped and he sighed. The red glow faded, though the bag continued to smoke in spots. “Goddammit.” He kicked at the Lady Nervitor X3 Soft Touch™ lying on the deck, which wobbled and rolled pornographically back toward Gibson’s feet. Then he turned and sat down on the bench. “One of these days,” he pointed at Gibson, “you aren’t going to get bailed out and I’m going to fry your face once and for all.”
The voice in their heads asked, Speaking of dicks, why is there one on the floor? I didn’t think they fell off like that. Do you shed them seasonally or something?
Gibson looked down at the Lady Nervitor X3 Soft Touch™. Dammit.
He said, “Hello, Biggens.”