(Parts 1 and 2)
Ten minutes later, Glen had rigged a set of speakers so the chip could speak and a microphone input so Johnny and Glen could talk back.
Or something. Johnny didn't really get what was happening.
"It's a data chip," Johnny said. "It's just information. How can it talk? Why does it want to talk? Why it does it want anything? How-"
"Stop," Glen said. "You can ask her, now." He finished setting up the computer and stood back.
Johnny looked at the computer. "Her?"
"My name is Galant," a robotic voice crackled out of the speakers.
Johnny nearly jumped out of his seat. He settled back down and looked at Glen.
Glen took a seat slowly, just watching the computer and waiting.
Johnny looked back. "What are you? How are you speaking? You're just a data chip."
"I am a non-biological-sentient-being. Your kind first called us Artificial Intelligence. I can speak as you can speak, only I use speakers while you use various biological mechanics to utter sound. I am a mind without a body. Data Storage Unit 0113455432 currently contains the information that makes up my being. I set up an emergency program to transfer myself to it in case of system-wide failure."
Glen poured himself another drink. He seemed in shock.
Johnny leaned forward. He thought of all those ships in the Heap. "System-wide failure? You were part of the ship I found you in. What happened to it? There are hundreds of downed ships out there."
There was a burst of static. "I have lost much in the transfer process, including some memory storage. I do not know what occurred to bring down Terra Former 02234, The Siren, or the other ships I traveled with."
"The ship you were on," Johnny said. "What was it's purpose?"
"The Siren was a class-4 ship, specifically created to carry and utilize a Terra Former machine on other worlds, to make them habitable for the human species."
"Wait, what? Make other planets habitable? What did the Terra Former do?"
"The Terra Former can affect a planet's surface, change it's climate and seed the land with organic life. It can, depending on the planet, convert a climate into a hospitable land for humans in months. It can create a utopia in a year."
Johnny's hand found the bottle of liquor and he drank straight from it. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "What fuel do the old-tech ships need to run?"
"The ships run on hydrofusion, the only fuel needed is H20, or water."
Johnny grabbed the gun off the table and leveled it at Glen's head.
Glen had his glass in hand, half-raised to his mouth. He froze. "What the hell, Johnny?"
"How deep are you with Hal?"
Glen carefully set his glass on the table. "I'm the only techie in town so you know he keeps a close eye on me. I give him what I have to, to keep him off my back, that's it."
"You wouldn't tell him about this?" Johnny asked, looking into his friend's eyes over the barrel of the gun.
"Of course not, Johnny," Glen said, throwing his hands on the table. "This is bigger than Hal or the Sheriff, or even our little-shit town. This is bigger than everything, do you understand? Someone with that could-"
"Create a new world and control the entire thing? Yeah, I think I got the gist," Johnny said. He kept the gun on Glen and stood up. He took the chip out of the computer. He took a breath, then holstered the gun. "I need this more than you."
There was a clatter outside, then footsteps.
Johnny ran to the window, pulled the shade away and looked out. A boy sprinted down the street and out of sight. He'd been listening in.
"Shit," Glen said.
"One of Hal's boys," Johnny said, feeling something sinking in his gut. "He keeps 'em around the gates to follow people. I didn't see him before."
Glen frowned and shook his head. "I'm not going to tell you what to do with that chip but..." Glen sighed. "You have the ability to change the world. People are going to want that."
"I never wanted the ability to change the world, I just wanted a meal and a place to sleep," Johnny muttered, slipping the chip into his pocket. "And now Hal's going to know."
"What are you going to do?"
Johnny shrugged. "I'll play it by ear." He walked out of Glen's and the town felt different.
The buildings looked more run-down. The dirty streets seemed filthier than ever. For the first time, he noticed nothing green grew anywhere in the town. The sky even had a brownish cast to it, as if dirt and dust were in the air itself.
It could all be different, he thought. He imagined fields upon fields of crops, forests filled with trees, entire jungles of plant and animal life. He'd seen old-tech vid-clips of other planets, planets teeming with life. They had seemed...impossible to imagine. Now, he could see it here.
It could happen.
He heard the click of a gun and felt something hard press against the back of his head.
Or maybe not.
"Hello again," a feminine voice said behind him.
His headache suddenly got worse.
The woman from before.
"Really? Robbing me twice in one day? Isn't that a little much?"
"I just wanted to make sure you didn't come looking for a little revenge. The gate guards in this town are awfully easy to bribe." She took his gun.
He closed his eyes and mentally swore at Ken and the new guy. "I wouldn't have come for revenge. I'm not that kind of guy."
"Oh yeah? You would have just been fine with letting me have all your stuff?"
"Well, I might have taken back my stuff, but I would have left it at that. Bygones are bygones. We do what we have to, I don't blame you."
She came around in front of him, holding a gun in each hand. Her goggles were pushed up and he could see her blue eyes. She holstered her own gun, then unloaded the rounds from the other into her palm, which she pocketed. She gave him back the empty gun. She still had his bag over her shoulder. "Nothing personal," she said and walked away.
He watched her leave and swore under his breath, jamming the empty gun back into his holster. He headed the other way, hoping to never see her again. The sun dipped towards the horizon as evening came on.
In Sallie's, business began to pick up as night came on. Farmers and Hal's gun-thugs alike came to Sallie's for a bite to eat and a few drinks. The biggest building in the town, it held tables for hundreds and a long bar against the wall. Sallie's gals walked around delivering food and drinks while Sallie's boys, four big brutes leaned against the wall and made sure there wasn't any trouble.
There usually wasn't any, surprisingly. Both the Sheriff and Hal considered the place neutral. It was basically holy ground, Johnny thought, walking in and smiling. The place felt like home. At the corner tables, men were throwing dice or playing cards. On a stage in the opposite corner, a young lass sang a song about romance that a few listened to. At other tables were men and women, drinking and eating their fill.
Sallie herself was behind the bar, pouring ales and mixing liquors together to make drinks, chatting away with customers at the bar. She had a buzzcut and black tattoos across her face. She was lean and mean, her body taut with muscle and she'd been known to throw out rude customers without the help of her 'boys'.
Johnny walked up to the bar and sat at an empty stool.
She came up to him, shaking a cocktail in her hands. "Johnny," she said. "Ain't seen you around in a few days. How's the Heap treatin' ya?"
Johnny shook his head. "Not so great, Sallie. Think I could get the regular on credit?"
Sallie stopped shaking and poured the drink into a glass with ice. She gave him a look. "I don't give credit and people don't keep tabs here, Johnny, you know that." She went down the bar to give the glass to a customer, who dropped a couple chits on the bar, which Sallie took. She came back to Johnny. "You got nothing, really? What the hell happened?"
Johnny looked down. "I got robbed by a woman today. Twice."
Sallie burst out laughing. "Twice by the same woman in the same day?"
Johnny nodded. "Try not to laugh too much," he muttered.
"Alright, alright," Sallie said. She poured a beer and slid it in front of him. "Meal from the kitchen will be out in a minute. You get one just because I feel bad for you." She reached underneath the bar and pulled a room key. She put it in front of him. "One night. And you owe me." She looked into his eyes, a dark glint in them. "You. Owe. Me." She turned, smile leaping onto her face as she walked down the bar to serve another customer.
Johnny licked his lips and took a long swig of beer. He needed it.
They came for him halfway through his meal. It was the usual, a bowl of stew with a few ragged vegetables in it.
Johnny had hoped he'd be finished before they showed up but thugs always had the worst timing.
Two men showed up and each placed a hand on Johnny's shoulder. "C'mon Johnny," the one to the left said. "The big boss wants to see ya."
"I'm eating," Johnny said.
"Not anymore." The thug to the left said and pushed the bowl away.
Sallie made her way over, pretending to clean a glass with a white rag.
Johnny shrugged. "Gentlemen, I'm fairly sure you don't want to be starting trouble in here."
"You're right, which is why we're leaving." The two grabbed his arms.
Johnny clamped his legs around his stool and gripped the bar with both hands. "I don't think so."
"Excuse me," Sallie said, leaning over the bar. "Are you hassling one of my customers?"
The two thugs let up an inch. "Nah, Sallie, we're just going to have a chat with Johnny here outside."
"Looks like Johnny doesn't want to have a chat," Sallie said.
"Sure he does. It's in his best interests," the thug growled.
"Let him go. You know that shit doesn't fly here," Sallie said.
"Look, Sallie, this is important. More than you know."
Sallie slammed her fist into her bar with a thud. Everyone in the bar had stopped talking and started watching the confrontation.
"What I know is you two have come into my bar and tried to rough up one of my customers." She gave a nod.
Two of her 'boys' grabbed the thugs from behind.
"You don't want to do this, Sallie," the speaking thug said. "You'll be starting something big."
"Tell Hal to keep his business outta my business," Sallie said.
Her boys shoved the thugs out into the street.
She pushed the bowl back over.
"Thanks," Johnny said, adjusting his tussled clothes.
"Didn't do it for you," Sallie said. "Tomorrow morning, you leave here, you're on your own." She walked away.
Johnny finished his soup and drank the last dregs of his beer.
He had until morning, at least.
An hour later, Hal's men opened fire on Sallie's place.