by Neil Burlington
"I want to see a copy of this book," Villsomo the general barked into the field receiver on his Mechano Boot-Suit. "If it has his work in it I want to see it and take down every detail. I can use any advantage I can get in taking that blasted hill."
"Sand-blasted. I don't know what they're teaching you kids up on the Hop, but it must not have anything to do with ground-based scout and flout."
"I don't really follow you, sir. Are you asking me to take a closer look at the ground conditions?"
The general twisted his neck, and the rotating knob of his helmet moved with his tough-skinned, shaved skull. "I'm not asking you to do jack. Just sit tight and stream the flow when it comes in. J.A. Ted Out."
The communications boy at the flat tab under the digital cones made a face. It wasn't uncommon for the Heavy Steel's to disrespect the help, but there was a tone of disdain with no hint of inquiry into the cause of his incompetence that was irksome.
Ted Tad turned in his seat. "Look, I just can't stand that guy. How am I supposed to keep feeding him information when he clearly makes it known in every instance of relay that he can barely stand the sound of my voice?"
Sit-Chief Henry T'blame watched Ted's cones from over his shoulder. "Can't stand the sound of your voice."
"He can't stand the sound of your voice. As in, he can barely stand the sound of your voice."
Ted frowned. "That's worse."
Henry sighed, turned away. "Finish out the hour. Then it's Woldel's."
Ted watched the bouncy lights on his repeating tube and glared at the ultra-pink pinpoint where the general was camped out. "I hope a sandstorm gets 'em."
"Shut up, Tad." Ellena Greni picked her teeth and squished in her eyelids to a straw's width of sight. "It's bad enough I have to work in the dark with high-contrast lights. Don't make me listen to you whine about how hard you have it over there. You're the one who picked Villsomo anyway."
Ted grinned and sat back in his stable curtain. He looked over the side to where she hung a level down. "I thought you were sleeping."
"I am, through this conversation. What about it? Do you intend to keep on pissing and moaning or are you just going to do your job like you said you would in applications?"
"Do my job? Yes, but if I could get my hands on that book, then I might be able to do the work with a bit of satisfaction and appreciation."
"You get paid. That's your appreciation. Forget the book. That thing will turn out to be nothing but trouble. Believe you me."
A ribbon of enemy movements flashed on the cone, and Ted twitched two fingers to send the satellite intel down to the surface bunker. The voice-whippet spasm stroked his neck, and he pressed down on it with his chin to tell it to buzz off.
"No word on that one?" Ellena was up to her eyebrows in tentacles of orgo-flesh communicato tech, and her stable curtain meshed about her flashing lights and cones and tubes and sticks of prickle lights indicating every movement along the surface.
Environment ran a tactile strip along her back. Foreign intel info indicators rippled along her right side. The rest of her was covered in sensors and blip lights marking the position of a million battlefield combatants on both sides of the Perisida World conflict. She could remember when she'd been assigned the position and the claim that the curtain made her as aware of the field of contention as she was of the movements and impulses of her own body. It was true, and gross.
"I won't stop looking for it. I know it's out there. Somewhere. I have a hundred people looking for it, and they have access to a thousand more with an interest. It'll show. When it does, someone will catch it and they'll tell me. I'll get the book and take it personally to the general, and from then on I will have the respect that someone in my position deserves."
"You already have respect."
"I want more. I don't have the respect of the people that matter the most. The most important person on my list is the general, and there is no way to get the respect from him that I so dearly crave other than the delivery of that book. It is the only saving grace that I can provide to him that will save our relationship."
"You don't have a relationship."
"Are you in love with this guy or what?"
"Not in the way that you mean. But I guess, yes, I think I am in love with him after a manner of speaking. At least I don't think there is anyone else in the known universe that I would rather know on a close and personal level. He fascinates me. Why shouldn't he? He's a master. A genius. He's on our side, but I think I might cheer for him even if he weren't. I'd fear him, but I'd cheer him. I fear him now."
"I'm not gay."
"I didn't say you were. Yeesh."
"Men are mysterious too, you know, Ellena."
She waved a dismissive hand. "No they're not. They just get confused easily."
Ted looked down at the massive flux of info coursing through his suit and frowned deeply. "Maybe so. I don't care. I can still fix it."
"There's nothing to fix. You're off in a little bit, go home, relax in a meaningful way and come back with your head free of the general."
"I can't. I don't want to."
"You will. Just give it some time."
The surface drain pulled at Ted's buttocks, and he knew it was time to rotate the gluten that fed the curtain. He squashed the nodule under his left hand and the needed stuff filled the sweet spots in the curtain until the whole thing flashed green. He released the knob and watched the front tassel at his feet loosen, then release. He was hanging upside down and over the smooth surface of the up-station hum omission.
"Shift Terminated. Ted Tad, exertion." The cool voice carried around the spherical monitor room. The curtain unfolded like a flower at the open end and he moved into the air, feet up, and prone. He waved goodbye as he disappeared into the black, but Ellena was too busy to notice.
Ted's body whistled through the ringworm tube with arms outstretched by the push that carried him aloft. The stretch was good and softened his aches. The solid mass of black he crashed into released the last of his stress and cohesion.
The computer was watching the deck and supple-space below and waiting for the next Ted Tad to enter the room. Ted Tad walked through the forest by the funnel arch before the aviary and booster-signal podule, looking for the red blotch on the twisted fold of floor. He found his mark and the tendrils made their descent to wrap him up and tell him who he was and what he was doing here.
Ellena turned in her curtain. "Oh. Hi, Ted. You weren't gone long."
"Wait a second. It'll come back to you."
* * *
The battle on the ground was going poorly. General Villsomo watched his Diplodocus discus with a sour frown. "Cormell. Give me a boost over here won't you?"
Lieutenant Cormell walked on dumpy-drive legs to the spot where Villsomo stood beneath the scaled mirror. He held out his multiple single-stock hands and moved the general into position.
"Can you see it better now?"
The general shook his head and a few crumbs of toast landed on his polished coat. "Can't. Don't really need to see it all that clearly though. It looks like we're going to have another blow-out at the tables tonight."
"Did On-sot send in the order for the new lawn-dart set?"
"Yes. This morning. I think it's coming from surplus."
"Just as well. Scithers."
"They'll eat 'em, all right, but not before the boys can have some fun. Might even pull out a POW or two for the games."
"What about the word-back to the up-above?"
"No word. No cams, no word. No civvy cams, anywho."
"Righty. I wonder--"
"Don't do that. " Villsomo plodded from the side of his black chair to his white chair. "I can't abide wonderment. It's the one thing that takes the sac out of the soldier."
The lieutenant followed the action on the mirror. The troops were losing badly on the Western front but gaining everywhere else. There was an explosion of light over the Eastern horizon and suddenly there were swarms of Birdy Troops swooping down toward the ground where they expertly picked off the ten-gunned Cresent Tankards and crushed them in their claws.
"It's not so good anymore."
The general turned from his infusion of Lovely Leaves in solution and coughed. "Just a minor aberration, I'm sure."
Cormell's face was getting long. "Not so small. It looks like we might have to call in the Shifters."
"No? Can we be hit so badly?" Villsomo put down the syringe and hopped over to the mirror. "What's the source?"
"Space tumor. About the size of a grapefruit, but it keeps spitting out flitters."
"I wish I knew what Iso was thinking. If I had that book."
"The book doesn't exist anymore. The cat in the sun ate it in the last incursion. Parallel time, twenty bounce."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"That's because you've been frozen."
"Lousy storm. Lucky nanos in the bloodstream, warmth and security almost anywhere."
"I'm going to buy some. I have to keep saving."
"It's worth it. Listen, if I can't get my hands in the sun to snare that book from the cat's throat, then where can I get it?"
"Meme might know."
Cormell tapped the air and the computer awoke. "Okay. What would you like?"
"Which-- Oh, that book. If I look for it in the sun, can I get some more sleep for say, maybe thirty bounce?"
Cormell and Villsomo took a smoke-bath and cooled the flesh left in their toes by the ice gap. A pop sounded by the white-bed, and Cormell checked to see if one of his meaty and partially sensate parts was destroyed by the intense cold. The wrap and nuggets of flesh that remained amidst the metal and cap fibers were unchanged.
"Meme? Did you blow a panel?"
"I found the book."
Villsomo sat up in his buttcup and Meme keyed into his eyes. "I see. What do you conclude? Did you destroy the cat?"
"No conclusion. Bombed the cat, then negotiated."
"That's what I said, no conclusion. Take it at face value or don't take it at all. I'm tired, I'm going to sleep."
"Will you use it?"
Villsomo took a moment to decide. This is our new strategic battle plan. We own Iso. I read his book."
"I knew the cat would be reasonable."
"You knew that?"
Cormell shrugged. "I suspected."
"You're a good officer and a good friend. I'll start working on this right now, and when I'm done it will probably look just the same. Even so, it will be ready for issue to the troops, and I will be able to tell the people at home that we are going to go it on a new course with much better intel. I will be able to tell them we're working with intel from the very general who is leading the opposing army. The best part is we didn't have to rely on the Sat-Ops or Home-Snoop to peck out the info and find the thing when we could no longer use it."
"Righty. Soon and then later."
"Later for you."
Cormell gave a sharp salute and left the room. The brilliant sun of Perisida hit his eyes and he felt the heat settle onto him like a wet sack of flour.
"I wonder --"
* * *
The black rain was cold on face of the grunties as they moved over the sand dunes of the Eastern encampments of the Retdhid Cloomba.
"I don't understand why they won't ship out the big guns and leave the warm and soft humans alone." Etan Ooth swung his connector entanglement rod around his waist to hang at his side.
A thundering vibration traveled through the air and the grunties fell to the ground. Overhead, a giant Nester ruffled its cilia and poured electric light over the front.
"This is new."
Simon Coop watched his bio-splat implant in attempt to comprehend. "They weren't supposed to bring in air support for fifty hachhoo."
"Well, here they are. It's a mop-up."
"They call it a scour now."
"Okay. Watch them go."
The flight arm settled in over the field and decimated the enemy wherever they could. A minor portion of the thieving force scuttled underground but lost their loads on the way down.
"Looks like they won't be mining here after all."
"Not doing anything."
* * *
Villsomo sat in his chair under the dinosaur mirror. A thin smile crossed his lips and he let out a sigh of contentment.
"I read your book. You're mine. Get off my planet."
Iso watched Villsomo through the eyes of Cormell and clucked his tongues in disappointment. "I really thought you might consult the intel cat-bot before you moved ahead. You're becoming so impulsive in your golden years. It really doesn't do you any favors."
The book hummed softly on the white-rhino table at Villsomo's side, and somewhere deep in its deceptive and intricate mind it expanded the stumbling-line scenario to fit the moment. Villsomo took another sip of his chicory tea, and gave an order.
Story © 2003 by Neil Burlington email@example.com
Illustration © 2003 by Zackary Lowing firstname.lastname@example.org
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