Week 8, Sneaking back into Westpod
We left our heroes in an "abandoned" factory pod near the Jack, conversing with JACT47, a maintenance robot. JACT47 is a metallic stick-figure carrying a rake and wearing (backwards) a baseball cap of exactly the same pattern as the one Tom usually wears. JACT47 politely asks for our authorization and Tom tells him that we are members of a police force, representing the Jack government. (Of course, he does NOT mention that it is a government 70 in the Jack's future.)
JACT47 then asks for credentials. We have none -- at the moment. Chris hastily tries cybernetic clairvoyance on JACT47, but gets no clear image. He whips up something based on the official documents he's seen around here, made by Glamour, and presents it. It works! JACT47, sounding more and more human by the minute as it re-loads old programming, remarks that it was told the culture on the Jack might change.
Tom is impressed by the latitude of judgment this remark betrays and takes a quick telepathic glance at the robot. He detects a vague presence of mind. "Memory check," he tells JACT47. "What did this factory make?" Answer: An assortment of machines, too large and dangerous to make in the Jack proper, but mostly gravitic equipment.
Excellent. What we've come for is gravity belts. We ask to see some belts. JACT47 remarks that those weren't made here, but they have a fair number in the maintenance equipment, and leads the way into the pod.
After winding our way through corridors and up stairs, we come out in a much smaller version of the Jack's cylindrical landscapes, lit by a single dim light-tube running down the axis. The gravity is half normal, the landscape is drab industrial buildings heavily overgrown with weeds. JACT47 explains what we had guessed, that its major job is tending the weeds, to keep the oxygen levels at optimum. We note here and there some geometrical patterns that might be a robot's idea of an ornamental weed garden.
Tom asks JACT47 what its letters stand for. "Jackcorps Automated Care-Taker." It leads the way across the weedy factory grounds, to a barracks-like building. Inside, we find showers and lockers, as for workmen. One set of lockers contains gravity belts. "What do we need to do get authorization to use the belts?" we ask. We explain that we need them for police work.
JACT47: "That lies outside my authority. I would have to activate one of the JAS units, and it would have to authorize you." (JAS = Jackcorps Automated Security.)
There is nothing like the mention of Security to make you feel insecure, especially after JACT47 tells us the JAS units have lethal firepower. But we gingerly ask to talk to a JAS unit -- through JACT47 rather than in "person."
JACT47 activates and warms up JAS17. At our request, it lets use listen in on the conversation. JAS17 wants clearance from Jackcorps. "But it's defunct," Chris tells JACT47. The Caretaker is not surprised, but tells us that JAS17 simply can't imagine a world without the Corporation. (I'm sure you've all met the type.)
Tom and Cantrel ask JACT47 to tell JAS17 that, as police, we are requisitioning the equipment from the corporation, and never mind about its nonexistence. JACT47 tries putting it to JAS17 in this light, but the Security drone recognizes no authority greater than that of Jackcorps. JACT47 exhibits rather human signs of exasperation and remarks that the JAS units appear to get a little soft in the software after too much time in storage.
JACT47 then asks diffidently if we would be willing to recognize it as legally a person. Sure. (Tom telepaths some actual hints of embarrassment from the machine.) That being so, it can probably convince JAS17 that it, or he, is a junior executive of Jackcorps. To do this, however, he will have to summon JAS17 physically.
We stand aside and look as non-threatening as possible while JACT47 sends out the signal. Shortly, JAS17 comes loping into sight. It is basically a large gun with three legs and a pair of camera-eyes. It moves speedily, with a kind of predatory grace. It scans us steadily as JACT47 introduces us and assures JAS17 (addressed as "Jazz Seventeen") that we are accredited government officials. We then formally recognize JACT47 as a person. JAS17 stops scanning us and scans up and down JACT47, as if not quite believing this. However, it accepts JACT47's authority for releasing the requisitioned flying belts and, after a few suspicious questions about expected or intended intrusions in the factory, allows itself to be ordered back to its bay and shut down.
We wander through the weed-gardens while JACT47 and some R2-ish units check out and charge the gravity belts. Once that is done, JACT47 asks for a favor: could we tell him, or his neighbor in the next pod, JACT56, should we learn of a market for Jackcorps products or learn the whereabouts of any other Jackcorps people? Certainly. We warn him about the politically unstable conditions on the Jack at present, which might lead to looting out here someday. Cantrel suggests that JACT47 might want to move the factory, if he can. Tom tells him that, in the event of looting or attack, he should not sacrifice himself to save the factory; since he IS a person, he is therefore more valuable than the factory. Chris recommends that he monitor the communications channels of the Jack as much as he can, for useful data. We agree on a channel through which we can contact him at a later date.
JACT47 listens gravely to all this advice and remarks that he ought to consolidate his data processing hardware. (So THAT'S why telepathic impressions were blurred -- only part of JACT47's brain is physically present in the robot body.)
We sign a bunch of forms, follow the robot dollies down to the ship, and load up. Tom compliments JACT47 on his hat, and we leave.
We intend to dock on the outer cap of Westpod, but before we do, we make a careful clairvoyant check of all the locks on the Jack big enough to hold a small ship. There are fourteen such locks, one on each pod and eight on the Hub. Eventually, we do find a ship in a Hub lock. It looks like a small, interplanetary freighter. Alag plants a discreet tracer down a nearby corridor and we leave.
We find an airlock on the outer tip of Westpod but, like the one on Northpod, it can't be opened without notifying some machine somewhere. We shrug and enter anyway. We then make our way down toward an access hatch in the mountains of the outer cap.
Chris X-rays the hatch before we exit, and a good thing, too. Nearby on the other side are three men in uniform, on flying belts. The uniforms are interesting -- black, with baggy pants and tight cuffs, and plaid berets and neckerchiefs. Unlike Prince Rashid's minions, they look fully human. They have guns and appear to be patrolling.
We wait. An officer-type with plaid epaulets comes up to the door, inspects it, and leaves. Thinking over the plaid bits, Tom recalls that the three towns on this side of the pod are Brisbane, Doncaster, and Normanhurst. Might these be local guards? Enemies of the Prince?
Maybe, but explanations would still be awkward at this point. We stay in the tunnels and move on. Chris leaves a viewpoint behind. Shortly after we leave, he sees someone show up at the hatch with two armed guards and an instrument pack of some kind, which he inspects. Has our arrival been noticed?
The three soldiers enter, look around, scan with their pack, and begin tracking back, approximately along our path, to the airlock where we entered. Yes, our arrival was noticed. However, they can't seem to do much more than notice it.
By now, we are a fair way down the inside of the cap. Lorelei asks what our cover-story should be now. Claiming to be salvagers won't look convincing in this armed situation. Cantrel advises that we be as cagey as possible, but when pressed we "admit" that we are spies -- from another pod. Our people are worried about the chaos in this pod. Yes, we got in from outside; our folk pieced together a ship that brought us to that lock, and it is now waiting a few kilometers away. (It's really a few centimeters away, but invisible and cloaked, etc.) But meanwhile, try not to get questioned at all.
Around the .5g point, we must choose between leaving through a hatch or going far out of our way. We leave. We are up in the hills, with forests below, and, beyond them, the town of Joliet. We hike through the woods, hit the Spiral Road, and head down. At the city border, we see a truck made over into a solider-carrier. They do not look particularly alert. We strike off cross-country and fade into invisibility. We also spot an air-jeep with berets inside.
Once in the town, we fade back in on an empty street and walk through the rest of the way normally. We note plenty of civilians and TWO uniforms -- the black-and-plaids and folk in khaki with a green plaid. From overheard bits of conversation, we gather that they are highlanders and lowlanders respectively, and make a hobby out of ribbing each other. Some things never change.
We come to a point where we can either walk straight out of the city into forest (a Teldai suburb), or take the Joliet highway out of town. We take the highway; there's very little vehicular traffic. Soon, we come to the village of Brisbane, were two ordinary cops in blue and a lowlander are lounging about a cop-car. They greet us in friendly fashion and we, having prudently Glamoured our guns into walking sticks, return the greetings and ask for the best restaurant in town -- with regard to beer. This produces an argument rather than an answer, but no one seems to regard us with suspicion. They warn us that the Prince's forces have been busy lately, so we should stay clear of the ring-lake. (Yes, and we strongly suspect what has busied them -- hunting for us and the refugee Nazas.) We thank them for the warning and enter Brisbane.
Copyright © 1998, Jim Burrows. All Rights Reserved.