Head of the Herd - Pt 3 of 5
To make their human and humanoid guests feel more comfortable, the currently leaderless Mbuto herd had constructed a large marquee, with classical interior décor derived from half a dozen human worlds, including old Earth. O'Braian squinted at a 2D painting of a goddess in a fairly cheesy hyper-realistic style.

~ Who's the naked lass? he sent to Muligan, on their private channel.

~ Well, she's got a telescope, sent hu-Muligan. ~ I guess she's supposed to be the muse of astronomy or something. Out of ancient Greek myth. Can't quite remember her name.

~ It's Urania, cyber-Muligan contributed, offhandedly.

~ It's your ania, sent O'Braian, smirking.

DeGarnie noticed that they were amused by the picture, and came towards them. For a sophont three times as massive as an average human, he moved quietly, but his presence was powerful. "Of course this picture has some glaring anachronisms in it," he said. "The veneration of the muses was ancient history more than a thousand years before the invention of the telescope. And the smartphone she is holding in her other hand is later still. But still, a nice effort."

Muligan turned to the minotaur, who towered more than a head above him, not counting the horns. "I still have some questions for you, regimenti," he said, using both voices together in unison, signifying that he meant serious business.

DeGarnie was not phased by the cyborg's direct approach. "Officer Muligan, we will have plenty of time to discuss this later. Believe me, I want to get to the bottom of this as much as you do. Right now, we must work together to ensure that this gathering of the herds goes as smoothly as possible."

Muligan regarded him closely with his human eye; with all its failings, this eye could sometimes pick up subtleties of expression and nuance that the rest of his sensors would miss. "The thing is. I can't quite work out if I'm just talking to you, deGarnie, the loyal regimenti of a headless herd, or the next Headbull."

"Ah, well, it would be premature of me to say too much at this juncture. But just let it be said that there is another candidate, someone who has my full confidence." The regimenti softly clicked his heels together and moved away.

~Damn, I had him pegged down as the prime suspect, hu-Muligan sent. ~ This looked like a straightforward coup by the second-in-command. Who can this new 'candidate' be?

~Dunno, Lefts. But the henchies I'm talking to on the Mbuto herd channel sometimes let slip about the 'new headbull', so it looks like a shoo-in. I thought they were talking about deGarnie here, but p'haps not. Oh, krek- here comes that little faerie lassie again. You're in trouble.

"I trust you haven't been making wild allegations again, officer Muligan," she said, hovering at head height.

"Zar Mimosa, this is a complex case, and we have little reliable information to consider. Your co-operation would be appreciated."

"Let's face it, this paycops corp of yours is operating with dark age tech. In any civilised society you would have access to oceans of cliological data; hell, you'd know who was going to commit a crime almost before they did it. Instead you are relying on after-the-fact forensic investigations and hearsay. It's no wonder no-one has confidence in you."

"We still maintain the contract for policing on these outer levels, and the Representative has every confidence in us. As you are aware most surveillance tech and information monitoring functions were lost when the last transapient left; we are trying to build up our own systems, but it is an uphill struggle. The political landscape on this habitat is — complicated." All this was spoken by Muligan's cyber-half, which was facing towards the miniature flying woman. Cyber-Muligan turned away, seemingly disinterested; but this brought his human face round to interact with her.

"Come on," he said. "Your people are techmeisters; I bet you could build some heavy-duty surveillance systems if you put your mind to it. Hey, no doubt you are working on it already. And fog, too, am I right?"

"At last, someone with half a brain. And no offence, officer Muligan, but that is all you have got. Aye, we are working on u-fog, and doing pretty well - but your marvelous Representative won't let us release it on the market til it has been tested for safety. This affair with the dismembered headbulls isn't exactly helping with that — no-one has confidence in home-built u-fog at the moment."

"But it's safe, yeah?"

"Of course it fucking is."

"How about surveillance?"

"Already got it, pal. Practically everywhere. Just not allowed to use it because of the Representative's qualms about — about privacy- hmm. Excuse me a moment." She broke off, and started to speak silently to an unseen associate. "That's funny; we've just lost contact with the (appallingly limited) surveillance systems we do have in this sector. What the kreking-"

"Lefty," O'Braian said urgently, using his physical voice. "I can't talk to the Mbuto henchies all of a sudden. And we've lost our paycop channel too-"

Cyber-Muligan switched over into fast mode; his human half could catch up with what he was doing later, if necessary. An unexpected noise to his right alerted him, so he swivelled round so that his cyborg half faced the danger. Just in time, as a projectile of some sort slammed into his armoured side.

A broad-wavelength scan of the direction from which the shot came identified the culprits; two Doran hitmen, dressed in their sharp suits which packed lots of surprises. The long legs of these suits hid advanced stilt-boots which allowed the dwarfish Dorans to move blindingly fast; the suits also used efficient chameleon-tech to make the hitmen difficult to see. Only by comparing a wide range of wavelengths could Muligan see them at all. Someone was upending a table to use as a shield against the projectiles fired by the attackers; this table was rapidly disintegrating under the well-targeted bullets. Muligan attempted to deploy the gun in his artificial left wrist, but the hit he had taken seemed to have affected his arm control; it hung uselessly by his side. He commandeered his human left arm and attempted to access a handgun concealed in his abdomen area, but the access hatch was distorted and wouldn't open fully. Only one option left, then; he flipped onto his back, and pointed his artificial left leg at the intruders. There's a gun in my boot, he thought — no time to unholster it, so he aimed his whole leg (using sensors in his toes) at one of the hitmen, who exploded in a shower of sparks.

From the floor he could see Mimosa flying overhead, aiming some tiny weapon at the other hitman; an even larger shower of sparks erupted as she found her target. Both sharp-suited Dorans crumpled to the floor, as Muligan awkwardly scrambled to his feet. Much to his surprise the hitmen both recovered quickly, despite their suits being in sparkling adamantine tatters. They darted out of the door-flap and disappeared. The whole event had lasted less than three seconds.

The Machine Elf darted to and fro, yelling "Come on, after them — the bastards are getting away!" Muligan scanned the crowd — most were crouching or lying prone, and most were unharmed. Pretty good targeting software no doubt, he thought. However the regimenti had taken several hits, and was motionless. Muligan started towards him, then noticed a figure underneath the splintered table. At last he had time to replay the events of the last few seconds in analytical mode- O'Braian had flipped the table up, perhaps as a shield, perhaps as a distraction — and had been hit by several projectiles himself. A tiny fragment of his exoself was still operating, and sent Muligan a final message while it could:

~Don't worry about me Lefty I'm fully backed up. Go after them for feck's sake - Don't worry about me Lefty I'm -KLICK

"Right. Right. Okay. Look after the regimenti and O'Braian," Muligan said to the nearest Mbuto herdmember. "I'm going after them. Mimosa - I see you are armed. I might need your help. Are you coming or what?"

Without a word the Machine Elf darted through the door-flap, but she checked back over her shoulder to make sure that Muligan was following her. With a loose-hanging arm impeding his stride, the cybercop was close behind.

Outside, in the open hab, Muligan scanned for signs of the fugitives. Mimosa flew high to do the same. Three or four Mbuto herdpersons came galloping up, a couple of water-buffalo and a minotaur.

"What's happenin'? I heard shots. My links are down," they said, all together.

"We've-been-attacked," said cyber-Muligan, speaking with inhuman rapidity. "The-regimenti-is-hit. Get-in-there-and-see-if-anyone-needs-anything. You-and-you, find-medics."

~Probably too late for that, hu-Muligan thought to his counterpart.

~True, but we can't know for sure. Look - a podcar leaving the scene. That's our guys. Where's our car got to-

Hu-Muligan's thought was interrupted by the arrival of their own car, tooting its low tone horn. "At your service," it said.

Cyber-Muligan called up to the Machine Elf, who was starting off in pursuit of the Doran car. His voice was set on 'loud, and highly directional'. "Zar Mimosa -get-in-our-car,quick. You'll-never-catch-it-under-your-own-power."

"Just a sec-" She banged her wrists together, and a small but blindingly fast missile appeared and set off after the fugitives. Just before it hit their car, another car drove into the flightpath; the roof of this second car disappeared in a shower of white hot metal. Mimosa dived down and flew into the open window of the paycop car.

"Missed- another car got in the way-" she said, out of breath.

"Anyone-hurt?" Cyber-Muligan was still talking too fast.

"Nah- it was empty. Lotta empty cars around all of a sudden."

She was not wrong. As they attempted to drive after the Doran hitmen, several empty cars appeared and attempted to park next to them. One drove right into their path and shut down, all its lights and ad-text extinguished. Another parked behind them, and several on each side.

"Boxed in. What the krek?" said hu-Muligan.

"Deliberate," cyber-Muligan said shortly.

"Figures," Mimosa said, and folded her arms on the dashboard. "The Doran family own most of the hire cars on this level. They must have set this up to stop us from following them."

"Well, just as well I've made a few adjustments to this car of ours. Best investment we've made in the last several orbits."

Their car began to rise into the air; Mimosa slipped off the dashboard, then recovered herself and deployed a geckotech safety harness from somewhere. "It can fly? Impressive," she said, and flicked her (rather alarming) fluorescent yellow hair out of her eyes.

"Not quite - just a set of very long legwheels. The flying car is still waiting for a certificate."

"The Representative and her obsession with bureaucracy again, huh." They lurched as their vehicle stepped gingerly over the artificial traffic jam below. The cars shuffled, but they were too tightly packed to get in the way. Once it was over the obstruction, the legwheels retracted until they were tight to the ground once more.

"First time I've done that," said the car. "Not sure I like it."

"Look- I'll take over if you like. We might need to do some fancy driving," cyber-Muligan said.

"Please do; I'll watch, if you don't mind," the car replied.

"You can drive? Impressive. I thought that was a lost art," said Mimosa. "Where's the steering wheel?"

"In my noggin," said Muligan, and stared intently ahead. The Invicta car gathered speed. Behind, a dozen empty cars were following, but they were soon left behind.

The fleeing Doran car was barely visible when they hit the main street; a flurry of veldt dust to spinward. As they began to make headway another obstacle was thrown in their way; a pair of hirecars veered over from the other carriageway and created an impromptu roadblock. These cars had passengers. Cyber-Muligan raised the car on its legwheels as they approached, then -leapt- over the roadblock with centimetres to spare.

"Woo-hoo! Do it again!" said the car.

"LookslikeI'llhaveto," said the half-cyborg, in fast mode again. A second roadblock loomed straight ahead, this time more cars with their warning lights all activated.

The paycop car lifted itself up once again, but not quite so high- the flat underbelly of the car scraped over the roofs this time. When it landed the vehicle was skewed sideways slightly- they went into a spin, and ended up facing the wrong way.

"Changed my mind," the car said in a little voice. "Don't like it."

Without turning round, Lefty Muligan assumed control once more, using his human eye this time, (which had been facing backwards previously). "Now I get a chance to drive. Finally!" His human half leaned forward with anticipation as the car accelerated once more.

But they did not have to drive far. A fleet of shiny black hirecars was forming yet another roadblock — but this time they also blocked the fugitive's car, which was caught in a narrowing trap in front of them. It skidded to a halt, and so, in turn, did the Invicta car. Mimosa unfastened her harness, glared at Muligan until he opened the window, and flew out. Muligan ordered his door to open and followed.

"Don't move, dumbags," yelled the Machine Elf. Her wrists were together once again, pointing at the tattered Doran hitmen, who were cowering against the black cars. Muligan didn't know if she was bluffing or not.

"Okay, fellas, let's just take it easy. Consider yourself under arrest. No-one's going to get hurt." Hu-Muligan adopted a conciliatory tone; he liked to think that this would be better coming from him than from his other half.

"You need not be concerned, Officer Muligan; these criminals will cause you no more trouble." In the shiny black shell of the nearest car a door unfolded, and a tall figure emerged. The speaker was a particularly tall and well-dressed Doran, wearing dark eyeshades that were integral with her face. Muligan realised that she was not really tall, just wearing especially long stiltboots that curved down to a well-sprung point, which formed her only point of contact with the ground. As she slowly moved towards them, her short body described a shallow sine-wave in the air. The motion was hypnotising.

"Don't attempt to hijack my cars, Kinikki," she said to the closest of the fugitives, who were staring at her with obvious apprehension. "We realised something was amiss when we lost contact with our fleet. It took us a few moments to regain control, of course; that was a fairly sophisticated backdoor command function you were using there. What else have you been up to?"

"The little spring-heeled bastards have killed the M'buto regimenti," spat Mimosa, wrists still at the ready.

"And one of my officers," Muligan added, in combination mode now, using both voices.

"My backroom people have restored the local Habnet now, so I can confirm that your information is correct. Interesting; on-the-spot news reports indicate that both victims are fully backed up, so their deaths will be only temporary."

"No-one enjoys being killed,"said Muligan.

"Not on this backwoods habitat anyway," said the woman. Muligan's recognition routines finally identified her - the Habnet link was rock-solid once again. The head of the Doran family on this diskworld — Zanik Hildago herself.

"Zar Hildago, I am grateful for your assistance in this matter; your prompt action has prevented further wrongdoing. Now I need to take these people into custody. Can I count on your co-operation?"

"Take them and drop them into space for all I care. I would speak with them for just a few more moments. Kinikki, Kinikki, little man — you are seriously deluded. I too have heard the rumours that the M'buto regimenti was behind the attack on the Headbull; but these are only rumours, spread by his enemies. The regimenti was loyal to the old headbull, and he is loyal to the new. Or rather he will be, when and if they rebuild him. You are a little pawn in a very big game about which you know nothing."

Now more cars were arriving, including more carrying the Invicta markings. Doyel and the custody squad strode towards them, as Muligan quickly briefed them on the secure channel. He grabbed Doyel by the arm as he went past.

~Is he?

~O'Braian? As a doornail, whatever that is. Lucky little bastard'll be getting a new body before all of us.

~I don't take this sort of thing lightly, Daggs. Sometimes I wonder if backups really work the way we like to think they do.

~Doesn't bother me, Lefty. As long as I can eat my breakfast every day I don't care who I am.

~Yeah, well, I've got a bit of an idea. Seems crazy to want to lose you as well, when we are temporarily one man down, but listen -

~ Whao -oh -oh - hang on a minute. You aren't talking about plan Z are you? They'll fry me!

~Daggs, you know that the Herd has been looking to recruit you for long enough. I just need a bit of inside information. Who is this new Headbull, and why is everyone killing everyone else? You just get two salaries, that's all.

~ Hah. If you put it like that. If it all goes vernier-up then I can always emigrate to the Periphery.

~Good man.

~Lucky for you I'm a thrill junkie, you bastard.

In the modified Invicta car once more, taking the Machine Elf to her home address, Muligan tried yet another gambit.

"Tell me, Zar Mimosa, what you meant when you said your people already have surveillance 'practically everywhere' but you can't use it. What did you mean by that?"

"You've got a good memory, Muligan. Oh, of course. Cyborg. Got it. Well, think about this. We manufacture a wide range of high tech, delicate gizmos that your average home fab can't handle. These gizmos have all got warranties, and most of them have facial recognition tech, and speech circuits, and microphones- all to improve the customer experience, of course. My people can access some of these systems- mostly to make sure no-one breaks the terms and conditions of use. But the data we get is all modified by anonymity software — speech is censored, video channels modified to disguise individuals, and so on."

"So what you are saying is that the Machine Elves have a ready-made surveillance system, but you need to get round the anonymity. Have you tried?"

"Fuck, no, officer, and I mean that. We are a reputable clade. But your esteemed Representative Eimarr could issue warrants to remove those systems, if she ever deemed it necessary. What do you say? She listens to you; persuade her, and you could listen — and watch — any of our customers. In the interests of crime detection and prevention, of course. There would be a certain fee, naturally."

"You interest me strangely," said Muligan. "I think we can work together."
With the cooperation of the Machine Elves, Invicta could wipe the floor with their rivals in the paycop business. "Can you show me the censored data stream, just out of interest?"

"I suppose so. Look; there's a data integrator we sold to the M'buto herd last year; it's right in the centre of the compound. Want to see what they are doing?"

"If you are twisting my arm, remember they are both left-handed."

"Is that a yes? Here - this is the stream." She sent him a resource locator file.

The M'buto wallowing grounds were much as he remembered them; the hab database had been rebuilt, but it was difficult to see any details, because every active surface was pixilated. A number of figures were moving around- it was easy to see that some were buffalo and others were minotaurs, but they were cartoonish caricatures, impossible to identify individually. When they spoke, their voices were scrambled, distorted — it was barely possible to identify the tone of voice but no actual words.

"That's very interesting, but not much use as it is."

"We can use it sometimes to determine if our equipment is being misused or deliberately damaged, but that is about it-"

"Hold on..."

The cartoon figures had changed their behaviour, they were suddenly hushed, reverent. ~That's the way they behave when the Headbull comes near, hu-Muligan thought to his partner.

~Is it now? That is interesting, came the reply.

All of the caricatured buffalo had lowered their heads; the anonymized minotaurs stood to attention. Another figure entered, bigger than the rest.

Much, much bigger.

"Great Cosmos, is that the new Headbull?"

Slowly, assuredly, with measured tread, a cartoonised bull elephant moved across their field of view.

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By Steve Bowers (2015)
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