Mad World Band
by Danielle L. Parker
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“Mad World Band” is the name of planet MWB-11 — an alternate Earth. It is wracked by war between two large power blocs that are on the verge of discovering the means of travel to extrasolar planets as well as to other alternate Earths such as Soltri.
Soltri has already experienced the nuclear catastrophe that threatens MWB-11. The Soltrians also know that MWB-11’s space explorations may well provoke fiercely hostile aliens that have already destroyed one alternate Earth.
The Soltrian agent, Dorn, must warn MWB-11 about the aliens while at the same time protecting Soltri from the warring parties of the “Mad World Band.”
Tessa Rinchus crouched in darkness, listening to the slow drip of water from the cave ceiling. She wished she could not also hear her own heart, which now was slugging in her breast so hard that it almost shook her. But she had reason to be afraid. Somewhere near in this totally black cave, or in one of the several tunnels that branched off from it, was an invader. She was not totally sure of its nature yet, except that it was only partly human. And because she had lost her goggles, she had only two senses with which to detect her hunter.
But ears did not seem to be helping her. She tried to remember whether the shadowy form she had glimpsed, silhouetted in the raging glare of her rifle fire, had been equipped with an anti-grav. But she thought it still had legs; only the arm she glimpsed had been reformed into a shape not entirely human. Whether it was gliding soundlessly through the air on an anti-grav plate or creeping silently on feet, she could not hear it.
And that left her only one sense; and the less human the AWOL, the harder it was to detect with that other sense Tessa had never given a name. But she could try, and in this total darkness, it was all she had. She was an unenhanced human against something that had been made more deadly than nature, and likely mad besides: all the AWOLs were, to some degree. She had mere seconds, perhaps, before its far keener senses detected her.
And stretching that sense into the darkness, she felt its ghostly presence: almost instinctively she fired, closing her unprotected eyes against the searing rife flare, and lunged blindly away, hoping to evade return fire. There was a flash that scored her arm, and she had a second’s glimpse of the AWOL’s tall figure, close and unharmed by her own fire. Tessa felt a chill through her bones. They did not meet many AWOLs with the new personal shielding, but this one clearly had it. Her rifle was not going to do her a bit of good.
“Girl.” It still had a human voice, although in the cave that voice echoed oddly. Tessa, speared in a bright beam of light, could only freeze and stare blindly into it. “I have shown you I can kill you. Put down your rifle.”
At least it could still talk, and nothing Tessa could do now would save her. She obeyed, bending to slowly lay her worn rifle at her feet: her arm was burned and fiery with pain. Five AWOLs she had killed and survived, all to end in this. But she had looked this death in the face more than once, and although she felt cold, she was calm. Perhaps she could keep it talking; almost all of the AWOLs were lonely, and this one seemed more human, and more sane, than most.
“Do you have a name?” she said to it, almost curious, and a little sad: it too was a victim, in its own way.
“Unit OFF-091,” it said instantly, with the tang of the inhuman in its voice; and then, after a long pause, while Tessa’s eyes burned, staring into that actinic glare, “David... I was once David.”
It did not say anything more, not for a long time. Many of the AWOLs froze in this way, but if she moved, she would evoke a reaction from it, and clearly it was one of the deadlier new models. She said at last, with her eyes weeping from the glare, “If you would lower the light, it would help.”
She did not expect such mercy, but the angle of light dropped to her feet. She blinked in gratitude, striving to see beyond the light: but there was nothing but a silhouette still, which was much like a man’s, at least.
“Thank you,” she said, wryly, for she still expected to die. But it was obviously saner than most, and it could even remember the name it had once held. “I am Tessa Rinchus,” she offered finally.
“You are a rebel,” it said. “I am an escapee. Take me to your people, Tessa Rinchus.”
The girl wet her lips. She said at last, “I’d like to see you...David. Please.”
The light suddenly turned, and for a long moment Tessa Rinchus stared. She had not seen one of the new models so close before, and clearly, OFF-091 was a little unusual. It looked like a young man. If it were not for the eyes and those shimmering arms, one of which was still formed into the weapon that had scored her, one might indeed not realize that this was a bio-construct.
She said hoarsely, “Why do you want to meet my people, David?”
“I am an escapee,” it said. “I must have friends. I would like to be your friend, Tessa Rinchus. If you do not threaten me, I will not harm you again.”
Perhaps it was a plant; but the Army had never wasted such subtlety on their small band of mice before. OFF-091 still reasoned; it could still remember a human name. It appeared to be almost sane for now, but Tessa had never known an AWOL to remain so long. She said doubtfully, not bothering to hide her fear, “Will you hurt us?”
“I must have friends,” it said again. “If you do not threaten me, I will not hurt you, and I will not hurt your friends.”
“I am afraid for my friends,” she said in indecision. She could not lead this thing home, where their rifles would be of no use against that shielding. “Perhaps you might hurt them.”
It still held the light upon itself. That young man’s face could no longer change expression easily, but it turned those slightly glistening eyes upon her. It seemed able to look through the glare now in its own face with perfect ease. As she watched, cold with fear, it unfastened its shirt and reached, it seemed, inside its very chest. Something, a thin disc of silvery metal, fell at her feet with a machine’s accuracy.
“That is my control,” it said. “Take it. I must have friends.”
Slowly, Tessa Rinchus bent and took up the small disc. It was heavy in her hands, for all its small size; she recognized its unnatural density. There was an indentation in the center that she also knew. She held the life of this thing in her hands.
She bent slowly and picked up her rifle. “Alright, David,” she said quietly. “You can come with me.”
But she had to pause long enough to wind her scarf around her burned arm and, most of all, to still her trembling limbs. It waited, without a hint of impatience, and at last she pointed to the small tunnel exit visible on the edge of its glaring light.
“Through there,” she said. “I’ll take you to see Dolph Rinchus. He’s my father.”
Copyright © 2006 by Danielle L. Parker