the rallax operation page 2

Vines and creepers climbed the terraced walls and flocks of parrots dipped and darted among them. This puzzled me at first, then I realized the tunnel was landscaped. There were trees, ponds, fountains, steppes and levels built up the curving walls. More than a functional air vent, then. This was meant to impress visitors. I saw the unmistakable signs of a thoroughfare; huge holosigns and service buildings arrayed in a straight line near the lowest point of the curve. I saw no real road, though –just an unmaintained strip of grass. I envisioned it as it must have been before service ended and saw that it would have been quite lovely, like an endless green valley.

It was humbling. I felt the princess’s hand find mine.

'Well, this is something to tell the grand-bears,' she whispered.

Well, stagger me speechless. Luckily the Doctor called and I didn’t have to respond.

'Are you two going to stand there like newly-weds seeing the Niagara Nebula for the first time or are you coming with me to, I don’t know, use these pods to escape?'

He waited a bit further down the curve by what I saw was a decrepit Maglev transpod station. When we moved toward him he turned to the open hatch of a pod and I heard his sonic screwdriver trilling. The side of each dingy pod was labelled “Parallax”.

'Hey, we wondered about that; is Rallax a corruption of Parallax? Did the name degrade through the centuries until the lost inhabitants here forgot its very meaning?'

'No. Parallax is the corporate entity, Rallax is the resort. There is no corruption,' said Bob Sunny Day.

'Oh, okay. That’s rather disappointing.'

'It may please you to know that escapees from Viking Bay believed they lived on a world named Raw Ox.'

'Oh! Thanks, Bob. There’s hope for you yet!'

'Anyway, the Doctor soon had us humming along. The Maglev rails were buried beneath the grass strip but the giant holosigns and the pod’s on board pop-up display showed us the routes. I don’t know what was more distracting –the section designations on the signs or the scenery we travelled through. I’m afraid we were distracted by the signs at first. They gave estimated arrival times to resort environments and showed little scenes of the fun a tourist could expect. Can I just say that some tourist’s idea of ‘fun' is not what I’d choose?

We read the names on the signs as we passed entry ports.

A visitor to “Armagideon Time” apparently fought giant bugs and atomic zombies in a post-apocalyptic ruin.

In “Suburban Sprawl” one could experience an endless, sunny weekend in a setting of old Earth’s 1950s, which apparently were ‘family friendly' and centred on something called a bar-b-q.

The politically-minded could fight for capital independence in “Colonial Conflict”.
“Wizards and Warriors” looked fun, though. I rather fancied being a wizard.

“Destroy All Daleks” is pretty self-explanatory. The Doctor frowned after he noticed it was marked, “Out of Order”.

Come to mention it, a disturbing number of the destinations were Out of Order. At Shawneequa’s suggestion the Doctor checked Wild Adventure on the pod computer and found it to be considered operational. I shuddered as I pondered what constituted Out of Order. Was it total loss of life support? I imagined lights or heating failing, madness and panic erupting among the residents. Was Suburban Sprawl, designated Out of Order, inhabited by roaming mole-people, scavenging blindly in the frozen ruins for the last rancid scraps of bar-b-q? Or was it merely avast, dark crypt now? How much of this world was dead, for that matter? Despite gliding through a tube so gargantuan it had its own weather, I felt mild flickers of claustrophobia.

But that wasn’t all. The vent (we later learned it and dozens like it were called, ‘Garden Highways’) showed every sign of habitation. Here and there we spotted clear evidence –a herd of sheared sheep, wagon ruts in the mud, abandoned camp sites. I wish I could tell you more about the natives, but we never saw them; were they peaceful traders, maybe travelling between different sections of the ship? Or were they roving marauders, attacking wherever they could gain egress?

My pessimistic reverie was interrupted by a cry of, 'Whoa!' from the Doctor and a deepening of the Maglev hum. He’d seen something and slammed on the brakes.

'What’s wrong?' I asked, but he’d already climbed out. The princess shot me a glance and followed. The pod’s screen said we were near the entrance to “Red Revolution”.

Wishing I didn’t have to, I left the vehicle. Then I wished I hadn’t. The machines here had broken down.

It was freezing. Mist hugged the icy ground. Snowflakes drifted toward us from the darkness.

We’d stopped close to the holosign for this area. It flickered and popped but I saw the depicted scene clearly enough –a mob of commoners fighting antique soldiers in front of a burning palace.

Past the sign a portion of the light strip had failed. Far ahead beyond the tunnel’s horizon I saw normal illumination resumed, but here all was murky twilight. In the gloom I could see flickering orange lights moving toward us –people (I hoped) carrying torches.

A vehicle–an old combustion-engine ground-car, black and shiny –was parked on our path. It was riddled with holes and I heard the tick of a cooling engine. I heard the Doctor tell Shawneequa it hadn’t been there long.

I had a bad feeling. This looked like an escape attempt and believe me I know an escape attempt when I see one. 'Doctor,' I said, 'people are coming. I’m not sure we should get involved here.'

In my experience, the pursuers are always a dodgier proposition than the pursued. I’m invariably the latter.

He didn’t respond for a moment, then turned from where he’d been peering into the vehicle. His expression was strange. 'Walk away or stay and help? That’s the question, isn’t it?' I could tell he wasn’t thinking about the current situation. But then he looked back inside the car. 'I haven’t been very wise lately, Unstoffe. I broke some rules, some bad things happened and now I’m running from the consequences. Just like this poor man.'

I saw that a dying man was lying down across the front seat, caught by light beams shining through the bullet holes in the chassis. He was twitching, coughing blood. It was ugly.

'Can I really just leave him to die?'

The door was locked, so the Doctor slapped the glass. No response –the man was insensate. Deciding he couldn’t hear us, I knocked four times on the door. The Doctor twitched and glared at me but it did the trick. Very slowly the man grasped the steering wheel and pulled himself up. He blinked up at us, exhausted, then willed himself to unlock the door.

It swung open and he spilled onto the frozen grass before we could catch him. He stared up, his eyes unfocused. 'Sir,' he said, with gasping pauses between each word, 'you must turn back. Yaka pursues.' I studied the approaching torches with new trepidation. The princess seemed to sense my disquiet and jogged a few paces toward the darkness. I saw her shade her eyes and cup her ear.

'The revolution,' the man continued, 'begins. The bells have rung.'

The princess returned. 'It’s about a dozen men on some sort of animals. Armed with rifles and swords. We’d better decide what we’re doing,' she began, 'they’ll be here in...' She trailed off, her eyes widening. I glanced down and saw the dying man’s eyes had focused. He glared at her.

'You! How can you be here?' he snarled. 'I have renounced your master and I will not be taken!'

He reached into his coat with shocking speed and aimed a pistol at the Princess. I grabbed his arm as he pulled the trigger. The gun banged and with sheer disbelief at the unfairness of it all I saw one of the approaching torches fly back and down, swatted by an invisible hand. An angry clamour arose and I heard shouted orders. Their mounts roared and bellowed. By the gods, what were they? As they surged toward us I had an impression of hulking, shaggy bodies and great, ice-crunching paws. Then a bullet ricocheted off the car’s fender and another caused a grass eruption at the Doctor’s feet. The princess leaped and deftly plucked the gun from the man’s hand. She smoothly rolled behind the car and returned fire. Another torch fell with each shot, four in all.

'What are you doing?'cried the Doctor. 'Stop that!'

'Too late for that!' she replied. Then the pistol clicked. 'Never mind! I’m out of bullets! Now what?'

'Back to the pod!' I called from halfway there.

The Doctor made an anguished, exasperated groan and said, 'Yes! That’s a good idea! Run!' The princess followed him and we reached the pod at the same time, the thundering pursuit drawing closer and closer. Gruff voices demanded we halt and a few more shots were fired.

We tried, Bobs, we really tried but we couldn’t outrun bears. That’s what the Doctor called them, ‘bears’. Actually, he called them ‘great honking huge grizzly bears’, though I never heard one honk.

No sooner had I a leg in than we were surrounded. The massive creatures encircled us, their riders aiming rifles and glaring at us from behind fierce beards. They wore rough tunics with fur collars and bandoleers. One called back, 'Outlanders, sir! Should we kill them?' and waited hopefully for a positive reply.

A man in a smart uniform approached on the largest bear of all. He took his damned time, too, pausing to shoot the man on the ground (who was crawling away with surprising energy) and direct a man to collect him. From his bearing (excuse me) I could tell he was a soldier. He wasn’t dressed like the others, though. I recognized his uniform from the Indomitable Prince's laundry and had seen it in action on Ribos only days before. This was another of the Graff’s men.

'Yaka, I presume?'asked the Doctor.

The officer removed his cylindrical helmet and regarded us coldly. Saying nothing, he slowly reloaded his gun. When finished, he holstered it and rested his hands on the bear saddle’s pommel. Then - 'You’ve spoken to Spidrick, then. Yes, I am Yaka. Perhaps you would do me the courtesy of identifying yourselves? You, woman –step out from behind the peasant so I can see you.'

'Hello, Yaka,' said the princess. 'How have you been?'

I lack the stomach to dwell on what happened next. Yaka leaped from his bear, the princess swept by me and suddenly they were embracing. I had to turn my head when they kissed. The Cossacks (the Doctor told me the name later) all looked in directions that didn’t include their leader playing tonsil hockey, though the bears watched with confused fascination. I saw the Doctor’s eyebrow trying to hide under his hairline. Our eyes locked. His expression wasn’t far off from the bear’s.

I saw him resolve to say something. 'Well! It’s nice to be among friends for once, isn’t it, Unstoffe? The land downstairs was terribly unsocial. Now, if you’ll point the way to the upper decks we’ll be on our way and you two can carry on getting... reacquainted and... stuff. Won’t that be nice?'

Yaka came up for air, murmured, 'Shoot them,' and dived in again.

And that’s what they did.

In my career as a freelance realtor I’ve had the opportunity of visiting numerous clinks, jails, detention areas and prisons. I’ve been in suspended animation, solitary confinement and chain gangs. Run the gamut, I have, from titanium mega sec cells to mud huts.

The sound of hammering woke me up and added another to my catalogue.

This one was what I consider your average low tech holding cell. Brick walls, bars on the window, stout door with two little sliding panels; one up high to taunt you through and one at floor level for your gourmet swill of the day. A bunk bed, a cot, a water toilet and a sink. Classic.

After dismissing the possibility of an ironic afterlife I noticed the Doctor seemed to still be alive as well. He turned from the window and said, 'Welcome back, Unstoffe my boy! You aren’t going to believe this!'

'We aren’t dead,' I noted. 'I distinctly remember a hail of bullets.'

The Doctor resumed his delighted inspection. 'Amusement park bullets, Unstoffe. Probably packed with nano-tech assemblers; you get shot, they start healing you right away. Can't have the tourists really offing each other, can you? It’d be murder on repeat business. Let’s just be grateful they didn’t set those great honking huge grizzly bears on us.'

'That is a relief, though I’d rather not be hurt at all.'

'Yup. I hear ya. You’re lucky, though. For a few more days you’ll probably be nearly immortal. Thing is, my own healing properties and these nanos aren’t getting along. Ouch.'

'Are you all right?'

'I will be.'

I warily probed my injury collection; shoulder, head. All healed. All my physical injuries, at least. One thing still hurt.

'The princess seemed to know that man.'

'Told you she was a princess, did she?' said a voice from above, 'Convincing little minx, I’ll give her that.'

A man reclined on the top bunk. I disliked him immediately. I’m a sloucher with a simpleton’s face; this man was a romantic action hero in the Levithian mode –chiselled features, proud moustache and rippling muscle.

It was the man from the car, Spidrick. He wasn’t dead, either.

'Explain,' I said, 'What do you mean?'

'I mean she’s an actress with a face-job. One of the Graff’s schemes.'

I felt anger boiling up but didn’t know where to direct it. The princess wasn’t a princess? She was in league with the Graff Vynda-K?

'Easy, Unstoffe,' said the Doctor.

'Why was she in storage in a cryoglove, then?'

'His Highness didn’t need her after the real princess was rescued, did he? Girl on a ship full of soldiers? Bad for morale. Look at what happened to Yaka.' He noticed my obvious distress. 'Oh, she suckered you good, didn’t she? Regular little con artist, she is. Sorry, lad.'

The princess was a con artist? She’d lied to me? Wait! That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, was it? My mind raced. Potential futures began to repopulate my mind. Um, never mind why, Bobs.

Bob Sunny Day said, 'Mr. Unstoffe, your continued pretence at living a lawful lifestyle is quite unnecessary. We know you have attempted to mislead us.'

'Oh, fine, then. But why did you let me carry on?'

'We are programmed for humour, human. Our circuits were tickled. Now enough of this. Garron and you were criminals. You were confidence men,'

‘Hucksters,' That was Bob What a Deal.

'And swindlers,' said Bob Name Your Poison.

'What Huey, Dewey and Louie are trying to say is that I already told them,' said the Doctor. 'A top security agent holds no secrets from his peers, after all.' He winked at the princess.

'All right, all right. Very well.' I immediately started fantasizing what it would be like if the princess joined me and Garron. Well, then I remembered Garron was dead. Replace Garron, then. A girl’s a real asset on a team, you know. Garron can pour on the charm but he isn’t pretty. Having the princess as a front woman... imagine the possibilities. I resolved to mention it to her. And then I remembered Yaka.

'What happened with Yaka, then?' I asked Spidrick.

'You have to ask? She was off-limits. Yaka disobeyed orders. Being the Graff’s cousin, he’s always felt a bit more entitled than the rest of us. She goes to the freezer and he’s suddenly point-man. And I’m his partner so I’m point-man, too.'

The Doctor interrupted. 'Unstoffe, forget about the princess for a minute. Spidrick, how did you and Yaka come to be here? We heard the Graff attacked Rallax?'

The man Spidrick climbed down and drank from the sink. Then he sat on the bottom bunk and studied us.

Uncomfortable under his appraisal, I had a quick look outside. It was a high-walled courtyard, built in the popular ‘brooding edifice' style but with touches of the alien. The minarets reminded me of Ribos, for instance. Near our position the view accorded by an open drawbridge teased of a gloomy city beyond. On the opposite side a gate led to the grounds of a magnificent palace. Beyond the wall I saw snow-topped pines, spires and curling smoke. Above it all the low sky hung grey and featureless.

The courtyard buzzed with life. Men in uniform practised on parade, tended to bears and as indicated, hammered wood. I wondered, not for the first time, why those keen on executions don’t just keep scaffolds on hand. They always have to build them outside your cell window. Contractual sadism, I suppose.

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