Hu-Muligan's one eye began to focus one more. He could see his human arm stretched out in front of him, and he tried to move it, with some success; it felt appallingly weak. Even in the low gravity at this level (what was it – about 0.2 gees? Something like that) he was barely able to move. All his artificial augmentations were inactive, and he would have to rely on purely human muscle and brain power. Trouble was, there wasn't all that much about him that was human. Muligan always told everyone that he was half human and half cyborg, but he knew that wasn't true; the cyborg half was much stronger and faster than the human, and without considerable internal reinforcement his human half would tear itself apart every time he exerted himself.
Truth be told, he was less than one quarter human tissue - the bones and much of the muscle on his human side were artificial. There would be hell to pay if he ever confessed this to the Ivony-Ngaia Vec Regulation Board - they'd have him wearing a limitation harness in no time. The Regulation Board existed to keep vecs under control – since the conflict with the vecs of Kimbale half a century ago few of the bionts in this hab really trusted them any more. Muligan liked to think he had a foot in both camps (in a very literal manner)- but he was always cagey about the exact proportions of his divided nature. One day he might be caught out, but not yet.
All his artificial bodymass was just dead weight now; the minimal muscle tissue he did have would have to suffice. He scrunched himself up into a ball, then managed to lay flat on his (human) face- the dead weight of his artificial half pushed his nose into the floor. Come on, he thought - the gravity is only one fifth standard here – you must be able to do better than this. His first attempts ended in failure as the useless artificial side of his body kept overbalancing and pulling him back down to the ground; but eventually he found himself squatting on his one good leg and supporting himself with his human arm. Tilted over like that he looked around for a way out.
The chamber was very wide, and bare, with one single heavy, brightly patterned door on the far side. No sign of the elephant, or of Daggs. He scuttled towards the door, his inactive leg skidding and bumping behind him. Hanging on to a massive circular doorhandle right at its centre he hauled himself upright. The door would not open – some sort of locking mechanism, presumably. He shuffled around on his single leg, wondering what to do. If his cyborg half had been working he could have blown this door off its hinges with an explosive round – it looked like it was made of metal – some kind of patterned steel perhaps – but a well placed bang-bullet would take it out.
Of course, he still had all those bullets stored somewhere in his cyber-half; all he had to do was get one out and activate it manually. He swung his body back and forth until his cyber arm was dangling in front of him, then fumbled about with the catch to the magazine in the upper arm, trying to get access to the rounds stored there. Should've practiced this a long time ago, he thought. Eventually the rounds spilled out onto the floor and scattered like I-Ching sticks. Hmm. Twenty thin needlebullets, a couple of steerable rocket rounds, a couple of (illegal) nerve agent pellets he hoped he'd never have to use, and a tiny rocket-propelled grenade. He stooped (nearly overbalancing) and picked that one up; it could be used as a timed charge as well, which was just what he wanted - except that he only had one hand, so he couldn't set the timer. Eventually, after much examination, he managed to set it using his teeth and his one hand, totally unable to see what he was doing. Krek – if he did this wrong, and set it for one second, he'd never know what hit him.
The tiny dial started turning, and he saw that he had managed to set it to explode in 1.7 digital minutes – no time at all. The grenade had a pointed end, and he jammed that into the crack of the door just above a hinge then scuttled away on his two good limbs into the most distant corner. When the bang came he was flung upside-down, landing on his human elbow (his one good arm was wrapped tightly over his head in an attempt to protect himself). Even in one fifth of a gee this hurt like fun. A loud clang announced the impact of the much-buckled door on the chamber floor.
Muligan dragged his half-useless body towards the door, but before he could get there two buffalo guards in their bulky control-suits arrived and peered in through the smoke. He scrambled behind the wreckage of the door, just as another figure appeared – this time wearing civilian clothes. DeGarnie.
“The paycop has escaped,” he said to the guards. “He must have gone that way- towards the entrance. Quick - follow him. I'll check for damage in here.” The guards ran off at a gallop, their feet dancing on the floor in the low-gee.
“Now, then, Zar Muligan, what have you been up to this time? You seem but a sorry excuse for yourself.” The minotaur came over and crouched by the crumpled door and the equally crumpled cyborg.
“You can blame your new boss, pal. He used some kind of tech-killer gun on me and knocked out all my circuits. I watched him kill the Doran as well; now he's dragged Doyel off to 'punish' him, whatever that means. What kind of monster have you allied yourself with this time, deGarnie?”
“Our habitat is in a mess- it has been in in this state since the last transapient left. Who is going to put it back together – you? Look at the state you are in. You couldn't even fix a leaky spigot.”
A commotion in the corridor outside announced the arrival of more herdmembers. Muligan suspected that anyone wearing the kind of control-suit that had taken over Doyel's body would be capable of relaying information straight back to Erinle; he really didn't want that to happen. He whispered to deGarnie “Don't let them see me, Ricard,” and the minotaur blinked once, then scooped him up and carried him out of the room.
“His methods might be a little -extreme- but they are effective. Soon there will be only one herd in this hab, with Erinle as its head; he has the perspective that only an ex-transapient can have, even if we might find his actions a little hard to accept at times.”
“You've got a right case of hero-worship going on there, Ricard. This elephant is not what you think he is. Look – before he was killed the dwarf said something about him being a fraud- that might be why he was killed, to shut him up. What do you suppose he meant?”
DeGarnie manually opened the door of his own quarters, tapping in a certain way on the door panel. Without his suit, it seemed that none of the control systems in the palace would work for him. Interesting. Muligan was dumped onto a large couch, human side uppermost.
“What exactly did the dwarf say?” asked the minotaur. He squatted on the floor, his great horned head centimetres from Muligan's own.
“I don't have my totalrecall data, obviously, but it was something about 'elephant maximus maximus', I think. A curious turn of phrase.”
“Yes, it is.”
“I've got half an inkling that if we could look it up in a database we'd understand it better. Cyber-Muligan was trying to do just that before he was – deactivated, but he couldn't get anywhere. The local net is unavailable in this place.”
“Yes, it is blocked for me, too. The Headbull wants to introduce his own datanet, based on transapient principles, but this has has been unforthcoming to date.”
“What about that present you bought for your lad? It's supposed to be educational, isn't it? Sometimes those gadgies have entire encyclopedias secreted inside them, to keep the kids amused on long journeys.”
DeGarnie slowly straightened himself, and picked the gift up from a low bench. “I am loath to open this thing. Junior will spot that straight away – he's a bright kid.”
“Like his father, of course. Just do it.”
The minotaur entered a few phrases into the brightly coloured toy's interface, and it gave an answer almost immediately.The Sri Lankan Elephant, Elephas maximus maximus, is one of three species of baseline Asian elephant originating on Old Earth. Several clades of provolved elephants claim to be derived from this species.
“Well, I don't see -” began deGarnie, but Muligan broke in. “No, no, that's wrong. Something doesn't add up.” He subsided, confused.
“The elephants who built this habitat weren't Sri Lankan elephants; they weren't even Indian elephants. Their ancestors were provolved in Africa. If Hidalgo was correct, then the Headbull is a fraud.”
“How can we possibly know if he was telling the truth?” said deGarnie, pinching the bridge of his massive nose between thumb and forefinger.
Muligan noticed his gesture, and went back to the educational toy. He typed in 'African/Indian Elephant Differences' and the toy displayed a short clip of an African elephant provolve holding a pen between its fingertips. “Look at this. I'm sure I noticed that the Headbull has only got one finger on the end of his trunk; it struck me as a curious handicap for a sophont being. But the African elephants have two fingers - they use them for writing and painting. Surely you noticed that yourself.”
“To be honest, no. But I have noticed that the Boss does seem to have a curious way of picking things up, now you come to mention it. Perhaps the dwarf was right.”
“Of course he was. By the stars, anybody could tweak themselves to look like an elephant, given enough biomorph surgery; but I bet this guy is - was - an Indian elephant. That's why he forgot to learn how to operate the trunk correctly - he already knew how to do it, so he didn't need to lay down new neural pathways.”
“Overconfidence. A fatal flaw. I suppose this means he isn't an ex-Transapient then.”
“No, he's not an Abdicator. Guy's just come here to stir up trouble in this system. You know there's no love lost between the Indian provolves and the Africans, don't you? We could be seeing the early moves in some kind of conflict. The Indian elephant transaps are just as devious as the African ones - they'll have some incomprehensible plan, no doubt. I've got to get a message to Invicta Headquarters.”
“Easier said than done – your systems are all dead, and mine are all dependent on the Herd database. Erinle would know we were onto him in a second.” DeGarnie pinched his nose again, frowning.
“And we are buried deep inside this palace, which you may know is opaque to em-signals.”
“Well, that's not such a problem – we can go outside.”
“How can we do that - most of your blessed Herd is right outside this room, looking for me.”
“I know a way on to the roof. I'll carry you.”
And the minotaur hefted the half-man onto his shoulders with a rattle and clank as Miligan’s limp cyborg limbs clashed against each other.
From the roof they could see the Herdmembers milling about, looking for the dangerous foe who had blown up part of the palace. This dangerous foe was propped up precariously at the roof's edge, barely able to move.
“Okay - now how do we get a signal out? We still don't have any independent comm devices.”
“Yes, we do,” said Muligan.”Give me your son's present for a minute, will you?”
“Don't damage it, halfman.”
Muligan opened the welcome screen, and selected Settings/Contact Us/Complaints. A cartoon-like Machine Elf woman appeared, obviously a non-sentient user-friendly interface. A vot.
“What is the nature of your complaint?” it said.
“I am Officer Muligan of the Invicta Police Corps. I need to speak to Zar Ayin Mimosa of the Machine Elf Safety committee. This is a high priority call.”
“This channel is for complaints, only, Officer. I cannot connect your call.”
“Krek. Can I speak to a real Elf, please? This is urgent. I – er – have evidence that this device has been used illegally.” Muligan looked at deGarnie and shrugged his only working shoulder.
“Putting you through.”
“Who is this?” A bored-looking Machine Elf, a real one this time, answered the call.
“This is an emergency. I am Officer Muligan of Invicta. I need to speak to Zar Ayin Mimosa please.”
“I'll try to put you through, but I have no idea whether she can take your call at this time.”
“Mimosa here. By the stars, Lefty Muligan, it's you. What news?”
“Apologies for the - unconventional - communication channel, but it was all I could find at short notice. This whole thing's a sham. The elephant is a fake. He, she or it has killed another Doran cladista, and disabled my cyborg half completely. He's controlling Daggs using those tech-suits they are all wearing. I expect every herdmember is under the same degree of control, but I'm not sure.”
“Ah, yes, we suspected as much; we've developed some countermeasures that should help us out there. We'll be there in a few moments to pull you out of the fire.”
“Careful, now - the entire herd is in the palace grounds looking for me. DeGarnie is with me - he'll probably need extracting too.”
“I know him - big fella. Take some lifting. I'll see what we can do.”
The device reverted to a three-dimensional cartoon countryside, the welcome screen. Muligan handed it back to deGarnie, but as he did so his non-functioning artificial arm slipped and clattered onto the roof surface. Down on the ground a sharp-eared minotaur looked up. and saw the shiny half of Muligan's head catch the light just as he ducked down. The bull-man grunted something into his comm system and the entire herd turned round as one, to face the fugitives.
With a single, balletic leap the minotaur jumped up onto the roof; the low gravity assisted this movement, but it also contributed to the high bounce that nearly carried him over the far edge and back down to the ground. Recovering with difficulty he turned and loped towards Muligan. DeGarnie blocked his way.
“Jamis - it's me, Ricardo. You don't need to harm this officer; he has important information about the Headbull. It seems that -”
Drowning out deGarnie's words, the voice of the Headbull came from the suit that the minotaur named Jamis was wearing. The voice was deep with subsonic vibrations and covered every other sound.
“You have turned against me as well, deGarnie? I am disappointed. Together we could have brought this habitat back to its former glory - and made it better than ever before, yes. All I ask is your support and trust. Jamis – take him below and make sure he wears the garments of allegiance to our herd once more, yes. Then bring the half-human to me.” The rumbling continued, punctuated by angry-sounding, wordless trumpeting.
Moving jerkily, like a puppet, Jamis approached deGarnie, his vast hands outstretched. He appeared to be mouthing 'I'm sorry,' but Muligan found it difficult to see clearly from his prone position. DeGarnie stood with his head bowed and feet wide apart- the traditional stance taken when one minotaur faced off against another. Jamis moved first, but deGarnie was faster- he was, after all, in charge of his own movements, unlike his opponent. The two bullmen clashed heads, and began to push against each other with their horns locked tight. Simultaneously they threw powerful punches at each other, bouncing around like featherweight boxers in the low-gee.
Perhaps augmented and protected by the confining suit he wore, Jamis appeared to be the stronger of the two, nearly beating deGarnie to the floor; but his opponent saw an opportunity while he was temporarily off-balance, and tipped him to the floor. DeGarnie picked Jamis up, using his horns like a forklift truckbot, and pitched him off the roof into the herd crowded below.
Immediately two more minotaurs leapt onto the roof, both landing awkwardly. Resigning himself to a long fight, deGarnie stood in his defensive posture once more. As he did so he noticed a commotion at the back of the herd; a much larger figure was approaching, wide ears spread, colourful garments in contrast with the dun garb of the control-suits worn by the rank and file herdmembers. The bull elephant Erinle had returned. His rumbling vocalisations grew louder, relayed from every suit in the herd.
The two minotaurs adopted a crouching position, apparently intending to leap at deGarnie in a coordinated attack. But now they hesitated, tilting their heads as if in confusion. Mixed in with the sound of the elephant's rumble was a new sound, something like a mosquito, getting louder and higher in pitch. Movement in the habitat's artificial sky caught Muligan's single eye, and although he couldn't resolve it or guess how far away it was, somehow he knew it meant help was on its way.
Like a cloud of darting dragonflies, the Machine Elves swooped down out of the air, each one sprouting a mass of electronic countermeasure transmitters like thick trailing tentacles. The herd below broke up in confusion. Some, especially provolves like the bison and wildebeest that formed the core of the herd, gathered instinctively closer to the Headbull and formed a defensive ring hundreds strong. Other, more human types, including the Dorans and the minotaurs, milled around in confusion, some attempting to deactivate their suits or remove them all together.
The loyal herdmembers attempted to target weapons at the cloud of Elves, mostly without success, due to the pervasive effects of the jamming; but some shots were successfully fired, including a few explosive rounds that brought down a few of the flying humanoids. As they fell lazily out of the sky Muligan was disturbed to see how much they resembled ancient warplanes downed by anti-aircraft fire. Dammit
, he thought. People are dying again, and for what? A megalomaniac elephant, that I don't even have a good case against?
Of course, the Machine Elves would be all efficiently backed up, so any casualties would be only temporary, but this sort of action could escalate into war. Already the weapons fired by the Herd had damaged the light-emitting fabric of the artificial sky, causing dark spots to appear in the blue.
“Ricardo, what's really going on?” asked one of the minotaurs on the roof, as he stripped off his allegiance-suit with some haste.
“The Headbull is trying to start a war, I think. He is not what he seems. It is never a good idea to discharge projectile weapons inside an orbiting habitat, as any fool should know; but there seems to be a lot of fools around at the moment.”
“You look a mess, Lefty- what have you been doing to yourself?” said a familiar voice. Arriving out of the sky, wearing a low-gee wingsuit not much more powerful than the wings sported by the Machine Elves, was Beni O'Braian, large as life.
“A little inconvenience, nothing more. It shouldn't take long to reboot my other half once I get access to his backup. Don't get too close to the Elephant – he's got some pretty clever gear that will mess up any augments you've got.”
“You told the Machine Elves he's a fake- what do you think he is, then?”
“Probably an Indian Elephant, trying to stir up conflict in this system. I don't really have any proof, but the way he's over-reacting looks like I'm somewhere near the truth. Whoa!”
A series of explosions announced the start of a skirmish between the loyal herdmembers and the disaffected ones; freed from the allegiance-suits, some of the cladistas were free to express their grievances with whatever weapons could be made to work. A number of explosive rounds fell right where the bull elephant was standing. When the smoke cleared a little, several fallen buffalo could be seen- but the Headbull was untouched.
“Fecking krek- are you sure he's a fake, Lefty? Nothing short of transapientech could have survived that.”
“Hmm, I'm not so sure. Look over there.”
All during this chaotic conflict, a distant herd of virtual elephants had been gathering, watching the proceedings. Confined to the walls of the habitat, these virtual herds were a familiar presence; they were evidently simulated by the habitat systems as a comforting background, and few believed that they had any independent sentience. But now they were present in larger numbers that Muligan had ever seen before. Following their own leaders, they slowly began to march forward.
Muligan knew very well that the habitat virtual systems could also support three-dimensional projections within the living space; many of his virtual friends and acquaintances relied upon this technology, often without giving it much thought. Some sort of phased-array optics, or so he believed. But now the virtual herd was emerging into the habitable space, appearing just as solid as the herdmembers and other cladistas who were milling about. A wide gap opened among the real-life herdmembers, to allow the virtual elephants to pass through. Here and there a few cladistas were not fast enough to get out of the way, and the elephants just passed through them as if they were not there. The virtual herd drew itself around Erinle, passing between and through his loyal companions; a cloud of virtual dust appeared, just as difficult to see through as the real stuff – this cloud was full of roars and trumpeting, and the sounds of vicious blows. Eventually the herd returned to the walls at a leisurely pace, and resumed its browsing and grazing activities once more. A shapeless mess remained behind, which slowly faded into nothingness.
“It appears that our Headbull was a mere virtual projection,” said deGarnie.
“Well, the one I saw was a real flesh-and-blood provolve, capable of trampling Sarku Hildago to death," Muligan said. "That means-”
“That the real one is somewhere else. Cheeky bastard. He didn't want to put his own trunk at risk,” O'Braian snarled.
Avin Mimosa appeared shorty afterwards, leading a rather dirty-looking Daggs Doyel (at a respectable distance.)
“Whoof – what have you been up to, Daggs?" said O'Braian. "You look in a worse state than Lefty, and he's half dead. And what's that smell?“
“Ach – the daft bastard thought he'd break me by giving me demeaning work, like I was some dominance-obsessed herd animal. Takes more than a bit of dirty work to break my spirit.”
“Aye, you've never been one to care what other people think of you. What did he have you doing?”
“Cleaning the latrines. Have you seen how much shite comes out of a buffalo provolve?”
"I don't have to see it - I can smell it," O'Braian smirked.
Under their feet the habitat shook, gently, then began a slow, wavelike motion that was unfamiliar.
“If cyber-Muligan were around, I expect he'd tell us exactly what all that was about,” said the human half of that team.
“I'm not a cyborg, but I think I can guess,” said Mimosa. "This palace is quite a massive object to construct inside a rotating habitat. Puts it out of balance. Have you wondered at all what might be on the other side of the ring, acting as a counterbalance?”
“Some sort of escape craft, I guess,” hu-Mulligan said.
In confirmation the Machine Elf projected a moving image into thin air, just above her head but at chest height to everyone else. "This is an external view of the habitat, relayed from the Space-watch guys." A small, bright, accelerating spark moved steadily away from the massive disk of Ivonya-Ngaia habitat towards deep space.
“He's getting away!" shouted Doyel. "Just let me contact some of my pals in Space-watch; I'd like to see how his ship stands up against an x-ray missile. Teach him to make me shovel dung.”
Muligan raised his single arm in placation.
“No, let him go. Perhaps he'll pass the message back to his Indian Elephant cronies that we aren't such a pushover after all. At the very least we don't want to give them a pretext for an attack.”
The bright escape craft grew even brighter as it engaged its main drive, then receded at a respectable pace. A thoughtful touch, Muligan thought; if Erinle had accelerated away under full power from the get-go, the radiation could have poisoned half the habitat. Perhaps he wants to come back one day. Probably find a few friends when he did, knowing this lot. Have to keep an eye out for him.
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