Geeda Lala arrived home to find Fourteen Trees had turned her attention back to the mysterious artefact found by Rainith. She held it in her hand, observing it as it blinked in and out of existence.
'I've been trying to trace the dimensional movement, but it's difficult. I think it's meant to join up with other pieces. It would help if we had more of them.'
'Is it important?'
Fourteen Trees shrugged. 'I'm not certain. It has unusual mathematical properties. I'm wondering if it might show us the way home. But I've been distracted because I'm hungry.
'I bought food.'
Fourteen Trees' young face lit up. 'How? We don't have any money.'
'There were a few leftover shielding units in the cupboard. I sold them.'
Geeda Lala had learned the mechanics of the game world and succeeded in loading their inventory with supplies. This was a relief to Fourteen Trees, who had a healthy appetite and had been wondering if they were going to starve to death due to Nakishdan's extravagance. They extracted their supplies, bringing them into existence via their game menus, then stood together in the kitchen cooking, a task which comprised only of heating things in the oven. All food in this world took three minutes to heat in the oven, without exception.
'I discovered something strange at the market,' said Geeda Lala. 'Most of the workers at the shops are women, but they get paid less than the men.'
'I'm not sure. But it's the sort of thing that used to happen. When I was in London it was the 1970s and they'd only just passed some law saying men and women had to get equal pay. Apparently there isn't any law like that here.'
She switched on the radio. Rainith the Red was still broadcasting.
'This is Fairies Hate You Radio playing more Sex Pistols. I was about to see their first gig when these idiots from 102 Woo appeared and spoiled everything. I'll get them back for that one day.'
Mixt and Nakishdan arrived home to find Geeda Lala and Fourteen Trees finishing off their meal, still listening to Rainith's broadcast. No one could suggest any explanation as to how Rainith had managed to become a DJ.
'Who employed her?'
'How did they make a new station?'
'Where is she getting the records?'
Until Rainith decided to return to the bunker, it would remain a mystery.
'I expect there will be serious repercussions,' said Nakishdan. 'Fairies Hate You Radio will enrage the public and the city will go up in flames. We'll die here because of that stupid fairy. I've always known she'd be responsible for our deaths. She has a bad aura.'
'That young Vooret at the market seemed to like her,' Mixt pointed out.
'So did some of the people at the food market,' said Geeda Lala. 'They thought she was funny.'
Mixt noticed the silver object in front of Fourteen Trees.
'Did you learn any more about it?'
'I'm not sure. I think it might be important but we'd need more.'
'We saw another one at the South Market but we couldn't afford to buy it. We were thinking of stealing it but we've never been much good at stealing things in games. We lack the patience to be stealthy so we always get caught.'
'Maybe we could steal it?' Geeda Lala turned to Fourteen Trees. 'Remember we stole all these circuits at school when we needed them for our project?'
Fourteen Trees looked rather embarrassed to be reminded of this, but didn't deny it.
'What's this?' Mixt picked up a piece of paper from the table. 'Equal pay for equal work?'
'It's just a first draft,' said Geeda Lala. 'I was planning to send some holo-info-sheets round the food market. I just found out women get paid less here. I thought I might do something about it.'
Mixt's wrist screen opened unexpectedly. There on the screen was Ms Darben.
'Mixt? Is that you?'
'You found us! Nakishdan, the Department's found us!'
Nakishdan hurried to her side. 'Are they about to rescue us?'
'I don't know. Are you about to rescue us?'
Ms Darben shook her head. 'Not yet. We only just discovered how to make contact. The Kesh made some sort of breakthrough and opened this line for us. Are you all right?'
'We're OK. It's not great being stuck in a game though,' said Nakishdan. 'Apart from my yellow pirate outfit. I like that.'
'It suits you,' sad Ms Darben. The head of the Historical Investigation Department had proved unflappable in most circumstances, and took in Nakishdan's gaudy outfit quite calmly.
'We're working on some way to bring you back but it'll take a while. Before that we have important news - '
'Is my house all right?' Mixt interrupted her.
'I'm worried that it's unattended. I don't want to be burgled. And the boiler's a bit dodgy, as you know. I wouldn't like it to explode.'
'I'm sure it's fine. I must tell you about - '
'Why are you sure it's fine?' demanded Mixt. 'It might not be fine. Can you send someone to check?'
Ms Darben paused, momentarily. 'Yes, I'll send someone to check.'
'Now listen. This is important. We've learned that - '
'Are we being paid for this?' asked Nakishdan.
'Yes, paid. We should be, really. I mean you could say you didn't send us on a mission but really we only ended up here because of you. We'd never have been sucked into a different dimension by Mathematician Girsin if we hadn't been working for the Department. You should be paying us.'
'I hadn't even thought about it.'
Mixt frowned. 'That's rather mean of you, isn't it? Do you always treat your employees so meanly?'
'I demand you pay us!' added Nakishdan.
Ms Darben, no longer entirely unflappable, raised her voice. 'Would you mind being quiet for a moment while I tell you what I've been trying to tell you?'
'Are you about to tell us off for something?' Nakishdan looked concerned. 'Because if you are, it's not fair. None of this is our fault. All we did was switch on the playstation. We didn't know this was going to happen. Mixt, don't let her blame me for this.'
'I wasn't going to - '
'I can't stand the way they always blame us for everything. How come they never blame anyone else? Like the fairy for instance. It's usually her that messes everything up.'
'Shut up!' yelled Ms Darben. 'And listen. The Kesh found out where you were because they were tracking 102 Woo. 102 Woo have some new operative and she's leading Captain Lir your way.'
That was a serious enough piece of news to make Mixt and Nakishdan pause. Nakishdan still had a livid scar on his chest from their last encounter.
'We believe 102 Woo are in pursuit of Mathematician Girsin. If however, they learn Geeda Lala is also there, they're bound to target her as well. You have to protect her.'
'So we are on a mission!' exclaimed Nakishdan. 'That means you have to pay us. Could we get some sort of extra-dimension bonus?'
'Is Rainith with you?' continued Ms Darben, ignoring Nakishdan.
'Yes. She didn't come here with us but Geeda Lala and Fourteen Trees rescued her from the Elves.'
'Right. How is she coping?'
Mixt switched on the radio.
'This is the Buzzcocks,' came Rainith's voice. 'I saw them at the Marquee in 1977, playing with the Fall and they were really great. A lot better than any of the terrible music you play here. You've no idea how stupid you all are with your terrible music. You're like the most stupid people ever. And all the aliens are really stupid too.'
'She's doing all right,' said Mixt.
Ms Darben raised her eyebrows. 'She's a DJ?'
'Fairies Hate You Radio. Gaining popularity among the youth of Star Metal City, apparently.'
'I was going to suggest you all remained as hidden as possible till we could bring you back. Rainith's broadcasting isn't going to help that. Could you dissuade her?'
'No chance. The fairy is in her element. She gets to play her favourite music and insult people all day.'
'I see. Well, you'll just have to cope with that. But try not to come into contact with 102 Woo. They have a new operative, a mathematician called Melusine Morte, and even the Kesh seem worried about her capabilities.'
Though Captain Lir and Melusine Morte had arrived from a different world, they did not stand out in any particular way from the crowd of people gathered around the North Market. Star Metal city was home to a host of races. Few people in the war-torn area chose to dress brightly and there was enough variety of attire for their dark Kesh clothes not to stand out. Though the world was unfamiliar to them, they'd adapted to its demands quickly enough. Realising they need money to purchase supplies, they'd applied themselves to the relativity easy task of locating a horde of pirate silver in the foothills and had now come to the market to sell it. This would give them enough money for some basic weapons and supplies.
'Enough to get started,' the Captain told his men. 'We'll need to get hold of better weapons and shielding before we can take on the most powerful people in this place.'
Melusine had adapted particularly quickly. She had instantly mastered the various game menus and worked out the easiest ways to advance up the ladder. 'A few easy missions,' she told the Captain. 'And we'll be able to raise our levels enough to go after Mathematician Girsin.'
They halted outside the market, unexpectedly obstructed by a large crowd. There were raised voices and, a little way away, the sound of people shouting angrily at each other.
'What is this?' wondered Melusine.
'It looks like the beginning of a riot.'
'As I understood it, there are no riots in the city. Are these people carrying placards? Actual placards made of cardboard?'
It was a strange anachronism for an advanced city, where all advertising was in electronic form, usually holographic. Both members of 102 Woo were wary of talking to strangers until they felt themselves more at home in the city, but Captain Lir did venture to ask a nearby citizen what was happening.
'Market workers have gone on strike,' he was informed.
The Captain and his companion were puzzled. That wasn't the sort of thing they'd expected to happen here. Star Metal City was meant to be all about fighting opposing groups with advanced weaponry. No one had mentioned strikes before.
'What's it about?'
"The women are demanding equal pay.'
'Oh. Is this a common occurrence?'
'Never been known before. Someone raised the subject with some leaflets and it's spread like wildfire. Can't get supplies in any market in the city.'
'Well, this is excellent,' said Mixt, observing the angry crowds around the South market.
'Definitely,' agreed Nakishdan. 'Who'd have thought Geeda Lala's leaflets would have had such an effect?'
'They really touched a nerve.'
Beyond the angry crowd, alien and human, unable to get into the market, Mixt could see a group of female market workers marching around with placards.
'One can only approve. It's a surprise to find labour disputes in Star Metal City - not a subject that's ever come up before, to my knowledge - but you can't argue with their case.'
Mixt opened the small menu that popped up over her left wrist and studied it intently. 'I just wish she'd waited till we'd bought some bloody food.'
'Do we have anything left?'
'One tin of Arcturan beans.'
Nakishdan made a face. Arcturan beans were the cheapest and most generally reviled food available in the city, only ever eaten in the direst emergency. They trudged homewards.
'Maybe we can buy food somewhere else? There's that little shop at the refuelling station.'
The refuelling station was closed. In the window was a sign saying 'Closed in solidarity with the market workers.'
Mixt and Nakishdan headed back towards their underground bunker.
'It's not the cheeriest place at the best of times,' muttered Nakishdan. 'One tin of Arcturan beans between five of us isn't going brighten things up, that's for sure.'