Head of the Herd - Pt 1 of 5
"Okay, citizen,where's the stiff?" said Doyel.

Lefty Muligan had been here before. The wallowing grounds of the Headbull, the boss of the Mbuto herd. A grove of mahogany trees surrounding a muddy pool, now almost empty of water. A dozen gang members, mostly minotaurs and water buffalo, standing around in attitudes of dejection or uncertainty.

"A little decorum, please, Doyel," his cyber-half said, addressing his colleague. "Someone has died here."

"The half-vec is correct, human," boomed the 'taur. "Our chief has been murdered in the most horrific circumstances imaginable, and you insult his memory. This will not be forgotten."

Muligan twisted round, so that his metal side faced the bull-man.

"Last time we met, you didn't give your name. My recognition apps come up blank as well; perhaps you could enlighten them, and me."

"My name is Ricard deGarnie, officer Muligan. My name is on file, I'm sure"

Cyber-Muligan ran the name though his database; this took an eyeblink. "Our records show you as fully human, not therianth, deGarnie. When did you get the new morph?"

"Two years since, at the suggestion of Chief Mbuto, I had my body superficially altered into that of a minotaur. The Chief wanted me to cut a more — imposing- figure. As his chief regimenti, I found it expedient not to refuse."

Muligan filed the data, reflecting that he still had large gaps in his knowledge about the Mbuto herd. Or should we start calling it the deGarnie mob? This guy has plenty of motive. Is he expecting to take over?

"Perhaps we could view the body now. Are you sure he is dead?"

"I'm afraid the body is somewhat inaccessible. But our 'doc has examined his heart, and mortality is confirmed."

"How'd it do that, then?" Doyle smirked skeptically.

"See for yourself," said deGarnie,and plunked a bloody object onto the poolside table. A fresh buffalo heart.

"Have a care — that is evidence, you know," said hu-Muligan, his (entirely functional and whole) human stomach turning over. "Right — Doyle, put that in an evidence bag. DeGarnie; your boss had a lot of enemies. I'm very sorry about what has happened to him; I must admit, I liked the chap. But I must insist - we must see the rest of the body. Or as much of it as you can muster."

"The body is still inside the fogbank, or at least that is what we presume; we have not ventured in since it happened. If you are foolhardy enough, you are welcome to take a look." DeGarnie gestured towards a gap between the trees; barely visible in the evening light, there was a construct like a quilted sheet hung between the branches, making a continuous barrier in the air that appeared almost completely transparent.

Muligan stretched his human hand out to touch it; the sheet was entirely intangible, as if it were not there.

"Is that what I think it is?" he said.

"Yes," said the bull-man, flinching perceptibly as Muligan touched it. "Utility fog. The largest fogbank currently in existence on the Disk, so far as I am aware. I am in no hurry to go in there myself."

"What exactly did you see?" Doyle said, bloody bag in hand.

"A nightmare came out of the fog, and threw the heart at my feet."

"Tell us what happened," said Muligan, using his cyber-voice (set on 'stern').

"You may know that our herd is cooperating with others in the effort to return u-fog to the Disk in significant amounts; since the transaps abandoned us there has been precious little of this material available to the consumers of this habitat. A box-load here, a room-full there; pathetic compared to the wonders that we were all once used to. The problem isn't making the stuff, but it is devilishly difficult to control in large quantities. Just a few years ago we took this stuff for granted; the transapients made sure it was safe to use. Now even a small bank like this cannot be trusted, or so it seems."

"You say you are cooperating with others. Who else is involved in this enterprise?" Cyber-Muligan cocked his shared head to scan the minotaur, who did not meet his gaze.

"Several herds and tribes, including the Caffer herd and the Fey technophiles. In fact the Head of the Caffer herd was here earlier in the day, or so I understand."

Another quick scan of the databanks gave Muligan the name. "Ah yes. Tembo. His herd is even bigger than yours, two levels up."

~ Another name to put on the suspect list, hu-Mulligan sent to his other half silently.

"I believe he prefers to be addressed as Zar Caffer these days," said DeGarnie.

"What time did he leave?"

"Before I arrived, it seems."

"So he could have subverted the u-fog to attack your Headbull somehow."

The minotaur looked into the far distance. The walls of this habitat displayed an endless expanse of savannah; a small virtual herd of baseline elephants could be seen far away. "I know not."

"Do you not have access to your security systems, so we can check?" It was a dead cert that this Herd would have a monitoring system of some sort.

"That is part of the problem. The mainbrain is buried deep inside the fogbank. That is where you will find the controls to deactivate the u-fog."

"Krek." hu-Muligan said.

"Fecking stupid idea to put your off-switch inside the danger zone", said Doyel, and laughed uproariously.

"One more thing; Zar Mbuto has a back-up, of course; he has great plans for the future."

"So I recall," Cyber-Muligan said. "He told me all about them once. He wishes to transcend and assume the reins of power in this habitat."

"That would be the start of it, yes. But there is a problem; his back-up files are stored in our mainbrain."

"Which is inside this cloud. Wonderful." Doyel started to laugh again.

"Then I will have to go in and get it," the half-cyborg said, in a flat voice. "Send me the exact co-ordinates."

~You must be joking! sent hu-Muligan to his conjoined partner, as the requested information arrived.

~Courage, compadre; we have some tricks up our sleeves. Not that we have sleeves.

Hu-mulligan looked at his bare human arm, with its heavy tech bracelet. ~Yeah, but we haven't tested these — tricks - yet.

~Opportunity calls.

Cyber-Muligan sent a quick thoughtmail to Doyel, who was still laughing. ~ Clear the area; I don't want DeGarnie to see this.

~You got it, Lefty.

"Come with me, regimenti; my insane colleague wants to prepare himself. In private, apparently."

"This will cost extra, by the way, DeGarnie," called hu-Mulligan to the retreating back of the minotaur.

"I detect a note of bravado in your voice, half-man. Your company will be rewarded suitably."

"Cheers. Make it out to Invicta Policing Corporation."

"And double if you survive".

Alone in the glade, facing the half-invisible fogbank Muligan gathered his binary consciousness together into one mind. We have practiced this, there should be no problem. But some doubt remained.

He held his disparate arms aloft and sent a scrambled message to the habitat database, hidden in the walls and floor.

The long-vanished su-phants that had built this hab had incorporated a vast amount of processing material into the structure, of which only a fraction was now accessible. Some of it was used by the habitat's population of virtual citizens, to support their simulated existence. Much of the rest was employed in maintaining the real-life environment, a thriving savannah that had once been optimised for herds of superbright elephants, and now allowed several intelligent species to live here in comfort. But there were hidden systems in the walls; unfamiliar techologies, weapons and traps, and Muligan had, not long before, found a way to use just one of these hidden surprises. He preferred to keep this fact a secret, for now at least.

A glittering cloud flowed through the wood, just below tree-top height. Millions of diamond-winged origami butterflies came and settled onto Muligan's skin, merging together until he was completely covered. Now we are ready, his conjoined mind thought. Hope we know what we are doing. The curiously mishapen half-and-half figure glinted in the hablight as it pushed forwards into the cloud of killer utility fog.

At first little changed, although the light seemed dimmer. This fog is optimised for buffalo provolves, he thought. Eyesight is not their primary sense, presumably. But the trees were getting taller, and so were the grasses. Something was skulking through the scrub, a nightmare predator of some sort — he glimpsed leopard spots, crocodile teeth, the wings of a bot-fly. More than one; a dozen, hundreds, teeming like termites. Things brushed against his legs, barely felt through the diamond shell.

As they ventured deeper into the fog, telecommunication links with the outside faded away. Fog's creating a Faraday Cage around us, thought Muligan. Lucky we have inertial guidance capability. Losing contact with the habitat cybersphere was as daunting as anything else in here.

Now the trees and scrubland began to arrange themselves into ranks, forming flat slabs in Muligan's field of view that resembled some bizarre form of theatre scenery. The more distant objects looked larger than they should have been, and the closer ones seemed smaller, miniaturised versions of their real form. In an eyeblink these relationships reversed themselves, so the closer objects looked inflated and coarsened.

Hu-Muligan stretched his arm out to touch them; his hand encountered something completely different- a pile of cubes or pyramids.

~ Keep it together, human, sent his cyberhalf. ~ Everything here is an illusion. We need to use both of our skillsets in concert to interpret this stuff.

~Just makes me nauseous, came the reply. Wooorgh - now what's happening?

The flat scenery now reversed itself entirely, without apparently moving; the furthest elements became the closest, and the closest elements now were furthest away, at the end of long tunnels carved into the landscape. ~ Well, that is intriguing. A rapid reversal of optical parallax.

A gigantic predator like a monstrous hyaena appeared at the end of a tunnel, huge and threatening; as it approached it got smaller until it was the size of a kitten, attempting to bite into hu-Mulligan's diamond-coated arm with tiny red teeth.

~Fecking intriguing, all right. Just make it go away.

Cyber-Mulligan rerouted the optical data that flowed between his sensors and hu-Mulligan's visual cortex; the landscape now appeared normal again, or rather as close to normal as it had before.

~We cannot rely on any visible or tactile input, sent cyber-Mulligan.

~True, that. I bet smell would be affected too, if we weren't covered in this stuff.

~ Time to try something new. My inertial systems tell me we are somewhere near the mainbrain core now.

The diamond shell surrounding Muligan now began to re-arrange itself; a long tube started to form in front of his head, reaching out through the fog and searching around for signs of reality. Tiny diamond blades at the end of this tube cut their way through the utility fog, disabling its illusory powers in a localised area. Casting around, he found the smooth black bulk of the mainbrain, a round shape resembling a gazebo in the very centre of Herd territory. Scraped clean of fog by the diamond-tipped viewing tube, the mainbrain was still covered in something sticky and red.

Mulligan sent the interface handshake to the mainbrain, and searched for the off-switch for the u-fog; luckily this was still open in the primary control screen, as if the Headbull were still working on it. He gave the command for the fog to collapse, and after a few nerve-racking seconds the foglets deactivated and settled to the floor, forming a milky layer several decimetres thick.

With horror he watched as the bones and flesh of a large animal were revealed by the collapsing fog; disjointed, spread around as if tossed by an enormous carnivore, largely but not completely defleshed. The tiny robots that utility fog is made from are more than capable of killing a water buffalo, or a human, in a number of different ways; but this would probably have been a slow death. Muligan was glad of his diamond sheath.

There; the long curved horns of a buffalo were emerging from the milky metamaterial. No, four horns in total, tangled together like trophies. Two of these sentient animals had died here.

~ Hi Daggs. I think we have found the head of the Caffer herd as well, Mulligan sent. ~ Or rather, just the head of the head. Zar Caffer never left.

~ Narrows the suspect list down by a fraction, so that's a plus, Doyel replied. ~ Just a few million more to eliminate. Good work, keep it up.

Head of the Herd main page - NEXT

by Steve Bowers (2014)
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