THE WORLDS OF
HOLLOW MOON
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G.E.N.I.E. AND THE L.A.M.P.
by Steph Bennion

Angelos Inari, petty thief and self-professed laziest man in Epsilon Eridani, is offered more money than he's ever seen to steal a top-secret corporation interrogation device. Unfortunately, the mysterious Namtar has no intention of letting Inari keep his wonderful new prize...

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ANGELOS INARI, flag-bearer for all lazy youths of Epsilon Eridani, was in love. Hujing, the girl of his dreams, walked past his shack every day, pretty in pink with a fake leather jacket casually slung over her shoulder. It mattered not that she was the sister of a thick-headed muscle man, whose job with the settlement’s gang of crooks mostly involved baseball bats and other people’s kneecaps. Nor did Inari care that she ignored him, for he knew it was all an act and one day she would stop and declare her infatuation. Until then, he was content to lie on his couch in the shack’s ramshackle porch, soak up the sun and dream his days away.

It was December across the five systems, not that it made much difference in the hot and humid tropics of Taotie. Inari had barely closed his eyes when he sensed a shadow fall across his face. A tall figure, wearing a wide-brimmed hat that seemed to deliberately eclipse the sunlight just where he lay, stared at him from the dusty road. Inari scowled and raised his head. He had few pleasures in life and did not take kindly to strangers interrupting his mid-afternoon snooze.

The man moved closer and paused. His face was a blank silhouette in the bright sunshine, but his crisp summer suit and robust bulges of the powered exoskeleton strapped to his legs suggested he was a recent arrival on Taotie. The planet’s high gravity, one and a half times that of distant Earth, took some getting used to. The man took another step forward and glanced at the metal and glass lantern, a battered biochemical unit stolen from the mines, which hung from the remains of the porch roof. Inari caught a glimpse of his pale features and saw he was a young man, barely in his twenties by Terran reckoning and just a few years older than himself. He looked at his own scruffy overalls and absently moved a hand to cover an embarrassing stain at his crotch.

“Are you perchance the one they call Fat Angie?” remarked the stranger. His voice carried a distinctive Russian lilt. “I am in need of assistance in a somewhat delicate matter.”

Inari shrugged. “Who wants to know?”

“My name is not important,” the man said carefully. “I understand from your compatriots that this young man I seek has a reputation for obtaining items the Que Qiao Corporation would prefer to retain for itself. Equipment held at a local supply depot, to be precise. I have been sent by the Dhusarian Church of Yuanshi,” he added.

“Never heard of it,” said Inari. That was not entirely true, for tales abounded of the weird alien-worshipping cult adopted by Indian settlers on Yuanshi, a moon of the gas giant Shennong. “Talk posh, don’t you?”

“An educated manner opens many doors,” he remarked. “When that fails and a more direct approach is required, I call upon others to do my bidding. Are you the one whom I seek? I am willing to pay handsomely for services rendered.”

Inari scrutinised the stranger and decided he looked harmless enough. More importantly, the man was offering paid work, something Inari had not come across in weeks. He had an irritable mother and his own large stomach to feed. He swung his feet from the couch, shuffled into a sitting position and offered the man a grubby hand. The battered couch creaked alarmingly beneath his weight.

“Angelos Inari,” he said. “Call me Fat Angie again and I’ll smash your face in.”

“Inari?” The man eyed the hand dubiously. “A fox spirit of Japan, I believe.”

“Dad was Japanese,” muttered Inari. His late stepfather had been a mine inspector who got careless, leaving behind an ailing widow and son without a credit to their name. Inari’s attempts to scrape a living on Taotie ever since rarely ventured on the right side of the law. “He disappeared down a hole. Inari’s a good name.”

“My name is Namtar,” he replied. The man took Inari’s offered digits and gave a hesitant shake. “Shall we talk business?”

Inari gestured with a thumb to the shack behind him.

“Inside,” he said. “Mum gets annoyed if she’s left out.”

* * *

Inari’s mother was a large, rotund Greek woman in her fifties who, by the time the seventh decade of the twenty-third century came around, had lived on no less than four different worlds and seen off just as many marriages. Inari’s father had been husband number two, a optimistic but clueless fellow Greek and ore prospector on Mars, who one day ran off with a young space pilot after admitting he liked boys more than girls. It had been her fourth husband, a sweet Japanese health and safety inspector for the Que Qiao Corporation, who had dragged them both to the Epsilon Eridani system, ten light years from Sol. Her late husband, a devout Christian, had left her with a love of religious festivals, a penchant for silk kimonos and enough debt to remove any chance of leaving Taotie soon.

Inari saw Namtar’s face pucker in disgust as he led him inside. His mother sat as always slouched on the sofa, watching a comedy holovid on an ancient receiver, the sound turned down low. The main living area was crammed with tatty furniture, empty food cartons and discarded clothes. The spiky primeval fern dragged from the jungle, adorned with polished tin cans and sparkly bits of food wrappers, was a poor excuse for a Christmas tree but his mother seemed to like it. Her eyes went wide in panic at the sight of their visitor.

“Who’s he?” she shrieked. “The rent’s not due till next week!”

“It ain’t the landlord, mum,” Inari reassured her, rolling his eyes in exasperation. “He’s from a church on Yuanshi. He’s offering me a job.”

“A church lad, eh?” His mother looked impressed. “Lovely!”

“Brother Namtar, at your service,” the man said smoothly, offering his hand. She stared at his outstretched smooth fingers as if he were about to magic a rabbit from thin air. “A humble envoy of Priest Taranis and the Dhusarian Church of Yuanshi. I wish to engage your son in a transaction that should prove mutually beneficial.”

“Engage? My Angelos prefers girls, you know.”

“He doesn’t want to marry me!” Inari retorted. He glanced to Namtar. “Do you?”

“I most assuredly do not!”

“He’s got his eye on young Hujing down the road,” Inari’s mother said mischievously. “She don’t even look at him. Poor Angelos might as well be invisible!”

“Mum!”

“That is not why I am here,” said Namtar. “May I sit?”

Inari shrugged and gestured to the section of sofa not covered in food wrappers or the rolling contours of his mother. Namtar gingerly took a seat, then yelped and grabbed the edge of the sofa in alarm as he was almost swallowed by the sagging upholstery. His scowl deepened upon discovering he had put his hand through a discarded carton of noodles. Inari grinned and retrieved a stool from the corner for himself.

“To business,” Namtar said sourly. He withdrew a white handkerchief from his pocket and carefully wiped his fingers clean. “You will be familiar with the Que Qiao airstrip on the other side of your sorry excuse for a village. My sources tell me that this will soon be visited by a corporation transport, here to collect what is left of stored equipment. There is an item in the vault I would dearly like to remove before corporation agents do likewise. Inari, I hear you are somewhat of an expert in challenging situations of breaking and entering. Is this true?”

“That place is abandoned,” said Inari’s mother, before her son had a chance to reply. “There’s nothing there!”

“My reconnaissance suggests security measures are still active,” Namtar replied. “The inference being that items of value remain. The android sentries were easy to spot.”

“It’s them Chinese gangs,” Inari told him. “They thieve what they can and sell it to those prospecting illegally.”

“Ex-miners themselves,” his mother added sadly. “Like the brother of that girl you like. They’re only doing what they can to put bread on the table.”

Inari grinned. “If it ain’t nailed down or got a robot watching, it’s gone.”

“The rumour is that armed security androids are no match for you,” remarked Namtar. “Indeed, you have quite a reputation. If you can get me into the vault, I am prepared to pay handsomely. Enough for you to establish a proper trade. What do you say?”

His mother cackled excitedly. “You’ll do it, Angelos? Think of your poor mama!”

Inari was not so sure. “What’s in there?” he asked, eyeing him suspiciously.

“It is better you do not know,” said Namtar. Inari opened his mouth to protest and was met by a stern stare. “I am willing to pay two thousand credits.”

“Two grand? For bashing a few robots?”

“Bashing?” Namtar raised a quizzical eyebrow. “A technical term, perchance?”

“You’d still need to get through security inside,” Inari added, ignoring the man’s remark. “You got a friendly corporation worker to open the door for us?”

Namtar reached into his pocket, withdrew a small shiny ring and tossed it towards him. Inari fumbled the catch and the ring fell to the floor. Picking it up, he saw it had a thick silver band, upon which was mounted a bulbous piece of black glass. The ring slipped easily onto his middle finger. Spotting a dark smudge on the silver, Inari gave the ring a quick rub and was startled to see a flicker of light cross the glass.

“A rather neat AI security pass,” Namtar explained. “Once we venture within range of the Que Qiao network, it will link to their systems and grant us access.”

Inari looked at the smear upon his finger. “Is this blood?”

“The previous owner was reluctant to hand it over,” Namtar confessed. “I believe his actual words were: ‘Over my dead body’. Somewhat prophetic, as it turned out.”

Inari was not listening. The ring captivated him. The shabby near-abandoned mining village in which he lived was slowly regressing to medieval levels of technology. Part of him wondered whether Namtar was his ticket for getting off Taotie for good.

“The price is five thousand,” he said firmly, trying to sound tough. “Two now, and... err... two? Three? The rest when the job’s done.”

“You can’t haggle with the church!” his mother protested. “They’re good people!”

“This is a wicked world,” Namtar said solemnly. “Your son is not to blame for his impertinence. However, my mission here is of the utmost importance and I am authorised to pay whatever it takes. Within reason,” he added quickly, as Inari opened his mouth to speak. He reached into his pocket once more and withdrew a small cloth pouch, which was quickly snatched from his hand by Inari’s mother. “Two thousand, in advance.”

“Two thousand credits!” she cried, peering into the bag. “He’s all yours!”

“Mum!” Inari protested.

“This is more than you’ve ever brought back in your life, you lazy...!”

“It’s a deal,” Inari told Namtar, interrupting hurriedly. “When do we do it?”

“I shall return at dusk,” he said. He tried to lift himself from the couch but seemed to be stuck. “Tell me, is there a trick to extracting oneself from this accursed perch?”

* * *

As planets go, Taotie was larger than Earth but its days were short, lasting just over sixteen Terran hours. The alien world orbited near the inner edge of Epsilon Eridani’s habitable zone and had the distinction of being the first such planet discovered with oceans and continents, abundant native life and an oxygen-rich atmosphere that did not immediately kill unwary travellers at first breath. Evolution was several million years behind life on Earth and much of Taotie was swathed in primordial forest. Humans could live and work without life support, but the heavy gravity and sweltering jungle took its toll. Most regarded the daily cycle of eight hours sleep and eight awake as a blessing in disguise.

The Que Qiao supply depot lay in a vast clearing within the jungle. The pot-holed track that ran between the depot’s airstrip and the sad collection of huts and equipment sheds of the village continued onwards to vast opencast bauxite mines, though all that remained of operations were a couple of decrepit six-wheeled ore transporters rusting by the roadside. The airstrip was surrounded by a double ring of wire-mesh fences, three metres high and topped with barbed wire, punctuated at intervals by steel sentry towers upon which cameras and automatic plasma gun turrets watched for trouble. The corporation may have ceased mining, but it had not yet abandoned its investment for good.

Night was falling. Inari and Namtar paused at the edge of the clearing and scrutinised the depot ahead. The road from the village ended at a stout gatehouse, where there were more automated gun emplacements and a couple of mobile sentry robots. Beyond the gate, a paved concrete area led to a cluster of low buildings and the white space-traffic control tower at the end of the airstrip. Apart from the robots and eerie alien shrieks from the surrounding jungle, there were no signs of life. Away on the horizon, the distant red beacons of Yao Chi’s launch ramps rose into the dusk, high enough to be seen fifty kilometres away. The electro-magnetic launch rails at Taotie’s main spaceport helped the corporation’s heavy freighters build up speed to flee the high gravity, taking the spoils of the world with them.

“We must be cautious,” Namtar whispered. “The entire perimeter is guarded by automatic systems. Watch.”

He knelt down, scooped a pebble from the road and threw it towards the distant fence. There was a loud bang and a flash of lightning burst from the nearest tower towards the projectile, vaporising it in a puff of smoke. Inari shrugged.

“Anyone can chuck stones,” he said.

He calmly strolled towards the first of the abandoned ore trucks and made his way to the steps at the rear. The transporters were little more than huge metal troughs on wheels, with a driver’s cabin high at the back that overlooked its cargo like the bridge of an ocean liner. The metal staircase creaked uneasily beneath his weight and the handrail was sticky with grime. Reaching the open cabin, Inari dropped into the seat and hit the power switch. As expected, the truck’s nuclear battery was still live. The corporation cared little for decontamination regulations now that their local health and safety inspector had gone.

Inari shoved the gear stick forward, yanked the drive-control lever across and grinned as the truck shuddered into life. A quick tug on the steering wheel straightened his aim, then he was out of the cab, down the steps and leaping from the moving transporter to safety. The truck rumbled onwards, its motors growling in protest at being awaken from their long slumber. Inari staggered to a halt at Namtar’s side.

“Think bigger,” he told him. “Watch this.”

The transporter rolled on. All of a sudden, the two nearest sentry towers opened fire, sending spears of blinding light smashing into the side of the lumbering vehicle. Violently shuddering, the truck trundled on towards the gatehouse, its slab-sided hull mottled by a flowery mosaic of glowing steel. Moments later, the robots at the gate started to fire. The truck continued to roll, oblivious to the angry firepower bathing it in heat.

Reaching the gatehouse, the transporter ploughed onwards, ripping the steel barriers from their hinges. Inari watched in glee as the vehicle crunched down upon the robots fighting its advance and crushed them beneath its wheels. The two sentry towers, tracking the truck’s progress, released one last barrage of crossfire and promptly blew each other to bits. A sudden hush descended upon the scene.

The gatehouse was in ruins. Thick smoke rose from one of the crumpled robots; the other had been reduced to a trail of twisted components strewn along the road. The transporter had by now reached the runway and attracted the attention of sentry towers on the far side of the depot, drawing their fire. Inari grinned at the look of horror on his colleague’s face.

“Astounding,” murmured Namtar. “I have never before seen such a display of wanton destruction in the name of petty theft. Is this the reputation others alluded to?”

“What of it?” Inari retorted. “It’s results that count.”

* * *

The whirring of his colleague’s exoskeleton was annoyingly loud in Inari’s ears as he hurriedly followed Namtar past the ruined gates towards the control tower. No further armed automatons troubled them on the way, though that did not stop Inari from keeping a wary eye upon the mould-encrusted glass walls of the circular viewing level above. Arriving at the tower, they found the entrance was locked.

“The security pass,” Namtar urged him. “We should be within range by now.”

Inari had forgotten about the ring. Raising his hand, he hesitantly swiped the glass as before, then jumped as a fist-sized holographic head appeared above his clenched fingers. The projection was of a pretty Chinese girl, with cropped blue hair and a cheery smile. Inari moved his hand experimentally and the disembodied head twisted and blurred.

“Greetings!” said a sweet voice. “I am Que Qiao Sprite, your Security Protocol Intelligence. How may I assist you today?”

The word ‘SPRITE’ scrolled around the bottom of the floating head as the apparition relayed her name. Inari scratched his own flaky scalp and shrugged.

“By opening this door?” he suggested.

“Biometric data does not match that of the employee to whom this pass is registered,” said the ring’s artificial intelligence. “You will enter and wait while your clearance is checked with central control. Your guest should report to the gatehouse.”

Inari looked to Namtar, who responded with a glare.

“The gatehouse has gone,” Inari told the AI. “He comes with me.”

The projected head froze for a few moments. “I am unable to contact central control to verify your status,” it said. Whoever had programmed it had bequeathed the ability to sound irritable. “Emergency protocols require me to accept your incomplete credentials.”

The door slid open with a hiss. Beyond, interior lights flickered into life for what was probably the first time in months. Just as Inari opened his mouth to reply, he heard a rumble and saw a distant orange flash as the runaway truck was finally blown to pieces by cannon fire. When he looked back at the holographic apparition, the tiny floating head had gone.

“Excellent work,” said Namtar, sounding relieved. A sprinkling of black dust fell silently from the sky. “Come, we must make haste.”

* * *

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