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here - Pyr
Greetings:
A
nd welcome to our Spring–Summer 2008 sampler, a collection of
sizable excerpts from every one of our new titles from March to
August. It’s hard to believe it’s been three years already since we launched the
Pyr imprint, and what a ride it’s been so far! We can’t thank you, our readers,
enough for all your love and support, and we promise more good things to
come.
This season, we bring you the continuation of Joe Abercrombie’s
landmark fantasy series; the follow-up to Kay Kenyon’s sci-fantasy epic; a
compelling military history meets father-daughter tale from Theodore
Judson; the much-anticipated second volume of David Louis Edelman’s
brilliant science fiction trilogy of business, politics, and earth-shattering
technologies; a classic from Robert Silverberg; and the return of Mike
Resnick’s beloved fantasy detective, John Justin Mallory, in both a classic and
brand new mystery.
We hope you enjoy them and trust you’ll agree that they each
demonstrate, as Bookgasm.com remarked last year, that “Pyr is quickly
becoming the standard by which all other sci-fi imprints are judged.”
Happy reading!
Lou Anders, Editorial Director
Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books
Contents
Before They Are Hanged
The First Law: Book Two
Joe Abercrombie
A World Too Near
Book Two of The Entire and The Rose
4
Kay Kenyon
52
The Martian General’s Daughter
Theodore Judson
92
Son of Man
148
Robert Silverberg
MultiReal
Volume 2 of the Jump 225 Trilogy
David Louis Edelman
Stalking the Unicorn
A Fable of Tonight
A John Justin Mallory Mystery
Mike Resnick
Stalking the Vampire
A Fable of Tonight
A John Justin Mallory Mystery
Mike Resnick
180
226
284
Before They Are Hanged
The First Law: Book Two
Joe Abercrombie
“Before They Are Hanged is an excellent sequel from an author
writing compelling, character-driven, adult fantasy, for
readers who want to be entertained as well as challenged.”
—SFF World
S
uperior Glokta has a problem. How do you defend a city surrounded by
enemies and riddled with traitors, when your allies can by no means be trusted,
and your predecessor vanished without a trace? It’s enough to make a torturer want
to run—if he could even walk without a stick.
Northmen have spilled over the border of Angland and are spreading fire and
death across the frozen country. Crown Prince Ladisla is poised to drive them back
and win undying glory. There is only one problem—he commands the worst-armed,
worst-trained, worst-led army in the world.
And Bayaz, the First of the Magi, is leading a party of bold adventurers on a
perilous mission through the ruins of the past. The most hated woman in the South,
the most feared man in the North, and the most selfish boy in the Union make a
strange alliance, but a deadly one. They might even stand a chance of saving
mankind from the Eaters—if they didn’t hate each other quite so much.
Ancient secrets will be uncovered. Bloody battles will be won and lost. Bitter
enemies will be forgiven—but not before they are hanged.
About the author: Joe Abercrombie (Lancaster, England) is a freelance film editor,
working mostly on documentaries and live music events for bands from Coldplay to
Iron Maiden. He lives and works in London. He is the author of The Blade Itself: The
First Law.
Visit Joe Abercrombie online at
www.joeabercrombie.com.
Cover Illustration: © Laura Brett
ISBN: 978–1–59102–641–9
Trade Paperback • March 2008
PART I
“We should forgive our enemies, but not before they are hanged.”
Heinrich Heine
THE GREAT LEVELLER
D
amn mist. It gets in your eyes, so you can’t see no more than a few
strides ahead. It gets in your ears, so you can’t hear nothing, and
when you do you can’t tell where it’s coming from. It gets up your nose, so
you can’t smell naught but wet and damp. Damn mist. It’s a curse on a scout.
They’d crossed the Whiteflow a few days before, out of the North and
into Angland, and the Dogman had been nervy all the way. Scouting out
strange land, in the midst of a war that weren’t really their business. All the
lads were jumpy. Aside from Threetrees, none of ’em had ever been out of the
North. Except for Grim maybe. He weren’t saying where he’d been.
They’d passed a few farms burned out, a village all empty of people.
Union buildings, big and square. They’d seen the tracks of horses and men.
Lots of tracks, but never the men themselves. Dogman knew Bethod weren’t
far away, though, his army spread out across the land, looking for towns to
burn, food to steal, people to kill. All manner o’ mischief. He’d have scouts
everywhere. If he caught Dogman or any of the rest, they’d be back to the
mud, and not quickly. Bloody cross and heads on spikes and all the rest of it,
Dogman didn’t wonder.
If the Union caught ’em they’d be dead too, most likely. It was a war,
after all, and folk don’t think too clearly in a war. Dogman could hardly
expect ’em to waste time telling a friendly Northman from an unfriendly one.
Life was fraught with dangers, alright. It was enough to make anyone nervy,
and he was a nervy sort at the best of times.
So it was easy to see how the mist might have been salt in the cut, so to speak.
9
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BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED
All this creeping around in the murk had got him thirsty, so he picked
his way through the greasy brush, over to where he could hear the river
chattering. He knelt down at the water’s edge. Slimy down there, with rot
and dead leaves, but Dogman didn’t reckon a little slime would make the
difference, he was about as dirty as a man could be already. He scooped up
water in his hands and drank. There was a breath of wind down there, out
beyond the trees, pushing the mist in close one minute, dragging it out the
next. That’s when the Dogman saw him.
He was lying on his front, legs in the river, top half up on the bank. They
stared at each other a while, both fully shocked and amazed. He’d got a long
stick coming out of his back. A broken spear. That’s when the Dogman
realised he was dead.
He spat the water out and crept over, checking careful all around to make
sure no one was waiting to give him a blade in the back. The corpse was a
man of about two dozen years. Yellow hair, brown blood on his grey lips.
He’d got a padded jacket on, bloated up with wet, the kind a man might
wear under a coat of mail. A fighting man, then. A straggler maybe, lost his
crew and been picked off. A Union man, no doubt, but he didn’t look so
different to Dogman or to anyone else, now he was dead. One corpse looks
much like another.
“The Great Leveller,” Dogman whispered to himself, since he was in a
thoughtful frame of mind. That’s what the hillmen call him. Death, that is.
He levels all differences. Named Men and nobodies, south or north. He
catches everyone in the end, and he treats each man the same.
Seemed like this one had been dead no more ’n a couple of days. That
meant whoever killed him might still be close, and that got the Dogman
worried. The mist seemed full of sounds now. Might’ve been a hundred Carls,
waiting just out of sight. Might’ve been no more than the river slapping at
its banks. Dogman left the corpse lying and slunk off into the trees, ducking
from one trunk to another as they loomed up out of the grey.
He nearly stumbled on another body, half buried in a heap of leaves,
lying on his back with his arms spread out. He passed one on his knees, a
couple of arrows in his side, face in the dirt, arse in the air. There’s no dignity
in death, and that’s a fact. The Dogman was starting to hurry along, too keen
THE GREAT LEVELLER
11
to get back to the others, tell them what he’d seen. Too keen to get away from
them corpses.
He’d seen plenty, of course, more than his share, but he’d never quite got
comfortable around ’em. It’s an easy thing to make a man a carcass. He knew
a thousand ways to do it. But once you’ve done it, there’s no going back. One
minute he’s a man, all full up with hopes, and thoughts, and dreams. A man
with friends, and family, and a place where he’s from. Next minute he’s mud.
Made the Dogman think on all the scrapes he’d been in, all the battles and
the fights he’d been a part of. Made him think he was lucky still to be
breathing. Stupid lucky. Made him think his luck might not last.
He was halfway running now. Careless. Blundering about in the mist
like an untried boy. Not taking his time, not sniffing the air, not listening
out. A Named Man like him, a scout who’d been all over the North,
should’ve known better, but you can’t stay sharp all the time. He never saw
it coming.
Something knocked him in the side, hard, ditched him right on his face.
He scrambled up but someone kicked him down. Dogman fought, but
whoever this bastard was he was fearsome strong. Before he knew it he was
down on his back in the dirt, and he’d only himself to blame. Himself, and
the corpses, and the mist. A hand grabbed him round his neck, started
squeezing his windpipe shut.
“Gurgh,” he croaked, fiddling at the hand, thinking his last moment was
on him. Thinking all his hopes were turned to mud. The Great Leveller,
come for him at last . . .
Then the fingers stopped squeezing.
“Dogman?” said someone in his ear, “that you?”
“Gurgh.”
The hand let go his throat and he sucked in a breath. Felt himself pulled
up by his coat. “Shit on it, Dogman! I could ha’ killed you!” He knew the voice
now, well enough. Black Dow, the bastard. Dogman was half annoyed at being
throttled near to dying, half stupid-happy at still being alive. He could hear
Dow laughing at him. Hard laughter, like a crow calling. “You alright?”
“I’ve had warmer greetings,” croaked Dogman, still doing his best to get
the air in.
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BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED
“Count yourself lucky, I could’ve given you a colder one. Much colder. I took
you for one of Bethod’s scouts. Thought you was out over yonder, up the valley.”
“As you can see,” he whispered, “no. Where’s the others at?”
“Up on a hill, above this fucking mist. Taking a look around.”
Dogman nodded back the way he’d come. “There’s corpses over there.
Loads of ’em.”
“Loads of ’em is it?” asked Dow, as though he didn’t think Dogman knew
what a load of corpses looked like. “Hah!”
“Aye, a good few anyway. Union dead, I reckon. Looks like there was a
fight here.”
Black Dow laughed again. “A fight? You reckon?” Dogman wasn’t sure
what he meant by that.
“Shit,” he said.
They were standing up on the hill, the five of them. The mist had cleared
up, but the Dogman almost wished it hadn’t. He saw what Dow had been saying
now, well enough. The whole valley was full of dead. They were dotted high up
on the slopes, wedged between the rocks, stretched out in the gorse. They were
scattered out across the grass in the valley bottom like nails spilled from a sack,
twisted and broken on the brown dirt road. They were heaped up beside the
river, heaped on the banks in a pile. Arms and legs and broken gear sticking up
from the last shreds of mist. They were everywhere. Stuck with arrows, stabbed
with swords, hacked with axes. Crows called as they hopped from one meal to
the next. It was a good day for the crows. It had been a while since Dogman saw
a proper battlefield, and it brought back some sour memories. Horrible sour.
“Shit,” he said again. Couldn’t think of aught else to say.
“Reckon the Union were marching up this road.” Threetrees was
frowning hard. “Reckon they were hurrying. Trying to catch Bethod
unawares.”
“Seems they weren’t scouting too careful,” rumbled Tul Duru. “Seems
like it was Bethod caught them out.”
“Maybe it was misty,” said Dogman, “like today.”
Threetrees shrugged. “Maybe. It’s the time of year for it. Either way they
were on the road, in column, tired from a long day’s tramp. Bethod came on
THE GREAT LEVELLER
13
’em from here, and from up there, on the ridge. Arrows first, to break ’em up,
then the Carls, coming down from the tall ground, screaming and ready to
go. The Union broke quick, I reckon.”
“Real quick,” said Dow.
“And then it was a slaughter. Spread out on the road. Trapped against the
water. Nowhere much to run to. Men trying to pull their armour off, men
trying to swim the river with their armour on. Packing in and climbing one
on top o’ the other, with arrows falling down all round. Some of ’em might’ve
got as far as those woods down there, but knowing Bethod he’d have had a
few horsemen tucked away, ready to lick the plate.”
“Shit,” said Dogman, feeling more than a bit sick. He’d been on the
wrong end of a rout himself, and the memory weren’t at all a happy one.
“Neat as good stitching,” said Threetrees. “You got to give Bethod his
due, the bastard. He knows his work, none better.”
“This the end of it then, chief?” asked Dogman. “Bethod won already?”
Threetrees shook his head, nice and slow. “There’s a lot of Southerners
out there. An awful lot. Most of ’em live across the sea. They say there’s more
of ’em down there than you can count. More men than there are trees in the
North. Might take ’em a while to get here, but they’ll be coming. This is just
the beginning.”
The Dogman looked out at the wet valley, at all them dead men, huddled
and sprawled and twisted across the ground, no more ’n food for crows. “Not
much of a beginning for them.”
Dow curled his tongue and spat, as noisy as he could. “Penned up and
slaughtered like a bunch o’ sheep! You want to die like that, Threetrees? Eh?
You want to side with the likes of these? Fucking Union! They don’t know
anything about war!”
Threetrees nodded. “Then I reckon we’ll have to teach ’em.”
There was a great press round the gate. There were women, gaunt and
hungry-looking. There were children, ragged and dirty. There were men, old
and young, stooped under heavy packs or clutching gear. Some had mules, or
carts they were pushing, loaded up with all kinds of useless looking stuff.
Wooden chairs, tin pots, tools for farming. A lot had nothing at all, besides
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BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED
misery. The Dogman reckoned there was plenty of that to go round.
They were choking up the road with their bodies and their rubbish. They
were choking up the air with their pleading and their threatening. Dogman
could smell the fear, thick as soup in his nose. All running from Bethod.
They were shouldering each other pretty good, some pushing in, some
pushed out, here and there one falling in the mud, all desperate for that gate like
it was their mother’s tit. But as a crowd, they were going nowhere. Dogman
could see spear tips glinting over the heads of the press, could hear hard voices
shouting. There were soldiers up ahead, keeping everyone out of the city.
Dogman leaned over to Threetrees. “Looks like they don’t want their
own kind,” he whispered. “You reckon they’ll want us, chief?”
“They need us, and that’s a fact. We’ll talk to ’em, and then we’ll see, or
you got some better notion?”
“Going home and staying out of it?” muttered Dogman under his breath,
but he followed Threetrees into the crowd anyway.
The Southerners all gawped as they stepped on through. There was a little
girl among ’em, looked at Dogman as he passed with great staring eyes,
clutching some old rag to her. Dogman tried a smile but it had been a long
time since he’d dealt with aught but hard men and hard metal, and it can’t have
come out too pleasing. The girl screamed and ran off, and she wasn’t the only
one scared. The crowd split open, wary and silent when they saw Dogman and
Threetrees coming, even though they’d left their weapons back with the others.
They made it through to the gate alright, only having to give the odd
shove to one man or another, just to start him moving. Dogman saw the
soldiers now, a dozen of ’em, stood in a line across the gate, each one just the
same as the one next door. He’d rarely seen such heavy armour as they had
on, great plates from head to toe, polished to a blinding shine, helmets over
their faces, stock-still like metal pillars. He wondered how you’d fight one,
if you had to. He couldn’t imagine an arrow doing much, or a sword even,
less it got lucky and found a joint.
“You’d need a pickaxe for that, or something.”
“What?” hissed Threetrees.
“Nothing.” It was plain they had some strange ideas about fighting down
in the Union. If wars were won by the shinier side, they’d have had Bethod
THE GREAT LEVELLER
15
well licked, the Dogman reckoned. Shame they weren’t.
Their chief was sat in the midst of them, behind a little table with some
scraps of paper on it, and he was the strangest of the lot. He’d got some jacket
on, bright red. An odd sort of cloth for a leader to wear, Dogman thought.
You’d have picked him out with an arrow easy enough. He was mighty young
for the job an’ all. Scarcely had a beard on him yet, though he looked proud
enough of himself all the same.
There was a big man in a dirty coat arguing with him. Dogman strained
to listen, trying to make sense of their Union words. “I’ve five children out
here,” the farmer was saying, “and nothing to feed them with. What do you
suggest I do?”
An old man got in first. “I’m a personal friend of the Lord Governor, I
demand you admit me to the—”
The lad didn’t let either one finish. “I don’t give a damn who your friends
are, and I don’t care if you have a hundred children! The city of Ostenhorm
is full. Lord Marshal Burr has decreed that only two hundred refugees be
admitted each day, and we have already reached our limit for this morning. I
suggest you come back tomorrow. Early.”
The two men stood there staring. “Your limit?” growled the farmer.
“But the Lord Governor—”
“Damn you!” screamed the lad, thumping at the table in a fit. “Only
push me further! I’ll let you in alright! I’ll have you dragged in, and hung as
traitors!”
That was enough for those two, they backed off quick. Dogman was
starting to think he should do the same, but Threetrees was already making
for the table. The boy scowled up at ’em as though they stank worse than a
pair of fresh turds. Dogman wouldn’t have been so bothered, except he’d
washed specially for the occasion. Hadn’t been this clean in months. “What
the hell do you want? We’ve no need of spies or beggars!”
“Good,” said Threetrees, clear and patient. “We’re neither. My name is
Rudd Threetrees. This here is the Dogman. We’re come to speak to whoever’s
in charge. We’re come to offer our services to your King.”
“Offer your services?” The lad started to smile. Not a friendly smile at
all. “Dogman, you say? What an interesting name. I can’t imagine how he
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BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED
came by it.” He had himself a little snigger at that piece of cleverness, and
Dogman could hear chuckles from the others. A right set of arseholes, he
reckoned, stitched up tight in their fancy clothes and their shiny armour. A
right set of arseholes, but there was nothing to be gained by telling ’em so.
It was a good thing they’d left Dow behind. He’d most likely have gutted
this fool already, and got them all killed.
The lad leaned forward and spoke real slow, as if to children. “No
Northmen are allowed within the city, not without special permission.”
Seemed that Bethod crossing their borders, slaughtering their armies,
making war across their lands weren’t special enough. Threetrees ploughed
on, but the Dogman reckoned he was ploughing in stony ground, alright.
“We’re not asking much. Only food and a place to sleep. There’s five of us,
each one a Named Man, veterans all.”
“His Majesty is more than well supplied with soldiers. We are a little
short of mules however. Perhaps you’d care to carry some supplies for us?”
Threetrees was known for his patience, but there was a limit to it, and
Dogman reckoned they were awful close. This prick of a boy had no idea
what he was stepping on. He weren’t a man to be toyed with, Rudd
Threetrees. It was a famous name where they came from. A name to put fear
in men, or courage, depending where they stood. There was a limit to his
patience alright, but they weren’t quite at it yet. Luckily for all concerned.
“Mules, eh?” growled Threetrees. “Mules can kick. Best make sure one
don’t kick your head off, boy.” And he turned around and stalked off, down
the road the way they came, the scared folks shuffling out the way then
crowding back in behind, all shouting at once, pleading with the soldiers why
they should be the ones to get let in while the others were left out in the cold.
“That weren’t quite the welcome we was hoping for,” Dogman muttered.
Threetrees said nothing, just marched away in front, head down. “What now,
chief?”
The old boy shot a grim look over his shoulder. “You know me. You
think I’m taking that fucking answer?” Somehow, the Dogman reckoned not.
BEST LAID PLANS
I
t was cold in the hall of the Lord Governor of Angland. The high walls
were of plain, cold render, the wide floor was of cold stone flags, the
gaping fireplace held nothing but cold ashes. The only decoration was a great
tapestry hanging at one end, the golden sun of the Union stitched into it, the
crossed hammers of Angland in its centre.
Lord Governor Meed was slumped in a hard chair before a huge, bare
table, staring at nothing, his right hand slack around the stem of a wine cup.
His face was pale and hollow, his robes of state were crumpled and stained,
his thin white hair was in disarray. Major West, born and raised in Angland,
had often heard Meed spoken of as a strong leader, a great presence, a tireless
champion of the province and its people. He looked a shell of a man now,
crushed under the weight of his great chain of office, as empty and cold as his
yawning fireplace.
The temperature might have been icy, but the mood was cooler still.
Lord Marshal Burr stood in the middle of the floor, feet placed wide apart,
big hands clasped white-knuckle tight behind his back. Major West stood at
his shoulder, stiff as a log, head lowered, wishing that he had not given up
his coat. It was colder in here than outside, if anything, and the weather was
bitter, even for autumn.
“Will you take wine, Lord Marshal?” murmured Meed, not even looking
up. His voice seemed weak and reedy thin in the great space. West fancied
he could almost see the old man’s breath smoking.
“No, your Grace. I will not.” Burr was frowning. He had been frowning
17
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BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED
constantly, as far as West could tell, for the last month or two. The man
seemed to have no other expressions. He had a frown for hope, a frown for
satisfaction, a frown for surprise. This was a frown of the most intense anger.
West shifted nervously from one numb foot to the other, trying to get the
blood flowing, wishing he was anywhere but here.
“What about you, Major West?” whispered the Lord Governor. “Will
you take wine?” West opened his mouth to decline, but Burr got in first.
“What happened?” he growled, the hard words grating off the cold walls,
echoing in the chilly rafters.
“What happened?” The Lord Governor shook himself, turned his
sunken eyes slowly towards Burr, as though seeing him for the first time. “I
lost my sons.” He snatched up his cup with a trembling hand and drained
it to the dregs.
West saw Marshal Burr’s hands clench tighter still behind his back. “I
am sorry for your loss, your Grace, but I was referring to the broader
situation. I am talking of Black Well.”
Meed seemed to flinch at the mere mention of the place. “There was a
battle.”
“There was a massacre!” barked Burr. “What is your explanation? Did
you not receive the King’s orders? To raise every soldier you could, to man
your defences, to await reinforcements? Under no circumstances to risk battle
with Bethod!”
“The King’s orders?” The Lord Governor’s lip curled. “The Closed Council’s
orders, do you mean? I received them. I read them. I considered them.”
“And then?”
“I tore them up.”
West could hear the Lord Marshal breathing hard through his nose. “You
tore . . . them up?”
“For a hundred years, I and my family have governed Angland. When we
came here there was nothing.” Meed raised his chin proudly as he spoke,
puffing out his chest. “We tamed the wilderness. We cleared the forests, and
laid the roads, and built the farms, and the mines, and the towns that have
enriched the whole Union!”
The old man’s eyes had brightened considerably. He seemed taller,
BEST LAID PLANS
19
bolder, stronger. “The people of this land look first to me for protection,
before they look across the sea! Was I to allow these Northmen, these
barbarians, these animals to raid across my lands with impunity? To undo the
great work of my forefathers? To rob, and burn, and rape, and kill as they
pleased? To sit behind my walls while they put Angland to the sword? No,
Marshal Burr! Not I! I gathered every man, and I armed them, and I sent
them to meet the savages in battle, and my three sons went at their head.
What else should I have done?”
“Followed your fucking orders!” screamed Burr at the very top of his
voice. West started with shock, the thunderous echoes still ringing in his
ears.
Meed twitched, then gaped, then his lip began to quiver. Tears welled up
in the old man’s eyes and his body sagged again. “I lost my sons,” he
whispered, staring down at the cold floor. “I lost my sons.”
“I pity your sons, and all those others whose lives were wasted, but I do
not pity you. You alone brought this upon yourself.” Burr winced, then
swallowed and rubbed at his stomach. He walked slowly to the window and
looked out over the cold, grey city. “You have wasted all your strength, and
now I must dilute my own to garrison your towns, your fortresses. Such
survivors as there are from Black Well, and such others as are armed and can
fight you will transfer to my command. We will need every man.”
“And me?” murmured Meed, “I daresay those dogs on the Closed
Council are howling for my blood?”
“Let them howl. I need you here. Refugees are coming southwards,
fleeing from Bethod, or from the fear of him. Have you looked out of your
window lately? Ostenhorm is full of them. They crowd around the walls in
their thousands, and this is only the beginning. You will see to their
well-being, and their evacuation to Midderland. For thirty years your people
have looked to you for protection. They have need of you still.”
Burr turned back into the room. “You will provide Major West with a
list of those units still fit for action. As for the refugees, they are in need of
food, and clothing, and shelter. Preparations for their evacuation should
begin at once.”
“At once,” whispered Meed. “At once, of course.”
20
BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED
Burr flashed West a quick glance from under his thick eyebrows, took a
deep breath then strode for the door. West looked back as he left. The Lord
Governor of Angland still sat hunched in his chair in his empty, freezing hall,
head in his hands.
“This is Angland,” said West, gesturing at the great map. He turned to look
at the assembly. Few of the officers were showing the slightest interest in
what he had to say. Hardly a surprise, but it still rankled.
General Kroy was sitting on the right-hand side of the long table, stiff
upright and motionless in his chair. He was tall, gaunt, hard, grey hair
cropped close to his angular skull, black uniform simple and spotless. His
enormous staff were similarly clipped, shaved, polished, as dour as a bevy of
mourners. Opposite, on the left, lounged General Poulder, round-faced,
ruddy-skinned, possessed of a tremendous set of moustaches. His great collar,
stiff with gold thread, came almost to his large, pink ears. His retinue sat
their chairs like saddles, crimson uniforms dripping with braid, top buttons
carelessly undone, spatters of mud from the road worn like medals.
On Kroy’s side of the room, war was all about cleanliness, self-denial, and
strict obedience to the rules. On Poulder’s it was a matter of flamboyance and
carefully organised hair. Each group glared across the table at the other with
haughty contempt, as though only they held the secrets of good soldiering, and
the other crowd, try as they might, would never be more than a hindrance.
Either were hindrance enough to West’s mind, but neither one was half
the obstacle that the third lot presented, clustered around the far end of the
table. Their leader was none other than the heir to the throne, Crown Prince
Ladisla himself. It was not so much a uniform that he was wearing, as a kind
of purple dressing gown with epaulettes. Bedwear with a military motif. The
lace on his cuffs alone could have made a good-sized tablecloth, and his staff
were little less remarkable in their finery. Some of the richest, most
handsome, most elegant, most useless young men in the whole Union were
sprawled in their chairs around the Prince. If the measure of a man was the
size of his hat, these were great men indeed.
West turned back to the map, his throat uncomfortably dry. He knew
what he had to say, he needed only to say it, as clearly as possible, and sit
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down. Never mind that some of the most senior men in the army were
behind him. Not to mention the heir to the throne. Men who West knew
despised him. Hated him for his high position and his low birth. For the fact
that he had earned his place.
“This is Angland,” said West again, in what he hoped was a voice of calm
authority. “The river Cumnur,” and the end of his stick traced the twisting
blue line of the river, “splits the province into two parts. The southern part
is much the smaller, but contains the great majority of the population and
almost all the significant towns, including the capital, Ostenhorm. The roads
here are reasonably good, the country relatively open. As far as we know, the
Northmen have yet to set foot across the river.”
West heard a loud yawning behind him, clearly audible even from the far
end of the table. He felt a sudden pang of fury and spun round. Prince Ladisla
himself appeared, at least, to be listening attentively. The culprit was one of his
staff, the young Lord Smund, a man of impeccable lineage and immense
fortune, a little over twenty but with all the talents of a precocious ten-year-old.
He was slouched in his chair, staring into space, mouth extravagantly gaping.
It was the most West could do to stop himself leaping over and thrashing
the man with his stick. “Am I boring you?” he hissed.
Smund actually seemed surprised to be picked on. He stared left and
right, as though West might have been talking to one of his neighbours.
“What, me? No, no, Major West, not in the least. Boring? No! The River
Cumnur splits the province in two, and so forth. Thrilling stuff! Thrilling! I
do apologise, really. Late night, last night, you see?”
West did not doubt it. A late night spent drinking and showing off with
the rest of the Prince’s hangers-on, all so that he could waste everyone’s time
this morning. Kroy’s men might be pedantic, and Poulder’s arrogant, but at
least they were soldiers. The Prince’s staff had no skills whatever, as far as
West could see, beyond annoying him, of course. At that, they were all
expert. He was almost grinding his teeth with frustration as he turned back
to the map.
“The northern part of the province is a different matter,” he growled.
“An unwelcoming expanse of dense forests, trackless bogs, and broken hills,
sparsely populated. There are mines, logging camps, villages, as well as
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several penal colonies operated by the Inquisition, but they are widely
scattered. There are only two roads even faintly suitable for large bodies of
men or supplies, especially given that winter will soon be upon us.” His stick
traced the two dotted lines, running north to south through the woods. “The
western road goes close to the mountains, linking the mining communities.
The eastern one follows the coast, more or less. They meet at the fortress of
Dunbrec on the Whiteflow, the northern border of Angland. That fortress, as
we all know, is already in the hands of the enemy.”
West turned away from the map and sat down, trying to breathe slow
and steady, squash down his anger and see off the headache which was already
starting to pulse behind his eyes.
“Thank you, Major West,” said Burr as he got to his feet to address the
assembly. The room rustled and stirred, only now coming awake. The Lord
Marshal strode up and down before the map for a moment, collecting his
thoughts. Then he tapped at it with his own stick, a spot well to the north
of the Cumnur.
“The village of Black Well. An unremarkable settlement, ten miles or so
from the coast road. Little more than a huddle of houses, now entirely
deserted. It isn’t even marked on the map. A place unworthy of anyone’s
attention. Except, of course, that it is the site of a recent massacre of our
troops by the Northmen.”
“Damn fool Anglanders,” someone muttered.
“They should have waited for us,” said Poulder, with a self-satisfied
smirk.
“Indeed they should have,” snapped Burr. “But they were confident, and
why not? Several thousand men, well equipped, with cavalry. Many of them
were professional soldiers. Not in the same class as the King’s Own perhaps,
but trained and determined nonetheless. More than a match for these savages,
one would have thought.”
“They put up a good fight though,” interrupted Prince Ladisla, “eh,
Marshal Burr?”
Burr glared down the table. “A good fight is one you win, your Highness.
They were slaughtered. Only those with good horses and very good luck
escaped. In addition to the regrettable waste of manpower, there is the loss of
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equipment and supplies. Considerable quantities of each, with which our enemy
is now enriched. Most seriously, perhaps, the defeat has caused panic among the
population. The roads our army will depend on are clogged with refugees,
convinced that Bethod will come upon their farms, their villages, their homes
at any moment. An utter disaster, of course. Perhaps the worst suffered by the
Union in recent memory. But disasters are not without their lessons.”
The Lord Marshal planted his big hands firmly on the table and leaned
forwards. “This Bethod is careful, clever, and ruthless. He is well supplied
with horse, foot, and archers, and has sufficient organisation to use them
together. He has excellent scouts and his forces are highly mobile, probably
more so than ours, especially in difficult country, such as that we will face in
the northern part of the province. He set a trap for the Anglanders and they
fell into it. We must not do the same.”
General Kroy gave a snort of joyless laughter. “So we should fear these
barbarians, Lord Marshal? Would that be your advice?”
“What was it that Stolicus wrote, General Kroy? ‘Never fear your enemy,
but always respect him.’ I suppose that would be my advice, if I gave any.”
Burr frowned across the table. “But I don’t give advice. I give orders.”
Kroy twitched with displeasure at the reprimand, but at least he shut
up. For the time being. West knew that he wouldn’t stay quiet for long. He
never did.
“We must be cautious,” continued Burr, now addressing the room at
large, “but we still have the advantage. We have twelve regiments of the
King’s Own, at least as many men in levies from the noblemen, and a few
Anglanders who avoided the carnage at Black Well. Judging from such
reports as we have, we outnumber our enemy by five to one, or more. We have
the advantage in equipment, in tactics, in organisation. The Northmen, it
seems, are not ignorant of this. Despite their successes, they are remaining
north of the Cumnur, content to forage and mount the odd raid. They do not
seem keen to come across the river and risk an open battle with us.”
“One can hardly blame ’em, the dirty cowards,” chuckled Poulder, to
mutterings of agreement from his own staff. “Probably regretting they ever
crossed the border now!”
“Perhaps,” murmured Burr. “In any case, they are not coming to us, so
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we must cross the river and hunt them down. The main body of our army
will therefore be split into two parts, the left wing under General Kroy, the
right under General Poulder.” The two men eyed each other across the table
with the deepest hostility. “We will push up the eastern road from our camps
here at Ostenhorm, spread out beyond the river Cumnur, hoping to locate
Bethod’s army and bring him to a decisive battle.”
“With the greatest respect,” interrupted General Kroy, in a tone that
implied he had none, “would it not be better to send one half of the army up
the western road?”
“The west has little to offer aside from iron, the one thing with which
the Northmen are already well supplied. The coast road offers richer
pickings, and is closer to their own lines of supply and retreat. Besides, I do
not wish our forces to be too thinly spread. We are still guessing at Bethod’s
strength. If we can bring him to battle, I want to be able to concentrate our
forces quickly, and overwhelm him.”
“But, Lord Marshal!” Kroy had the air of a man addressing a senile parent
who still, alas, retains the management of their own affairs. “Surely the
western road should not be left unguarded?”
“I was coming to that,” growled Burr, turning back to the map. “A third
detachment, under the command of Crown Prince Ladisla, will dig in behind
the Cumnur and stand guard on the western road. It will be their job to make
sure the Northmen do not slip around us and gain our rear. They will hold there,
south of the river, while our main body splits in two and flushes out the enemy.”
“Of course, my Lord Marshal.” Kroy sat back in his chair with a
thunderous sigh, as though he had expected no better but had to try anyway,
for everyone’s sake, while the officers of his staff tutted and clucked their
disapproval for the scheme.
“Well, I find it an excellent plan,” announced Poulder warmly. He
smirked across the table at Kroy. “I am entirely in favour, Lord Marshal. I am
at your disposal in any way you should think fit. I shall have my men ready
to march within ten days.” His staff nodded and hummed their assent.
“Five would be better,” said Burr.
Poulder’s plump face twitched his annoyance, but he quickly mastered
himself. “Five it is, Lord Marshal.” But now it was Kroy’s turn to look smug.
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Crown Prince Ladisla, meanwhile, was squinting at the map, an
expression of puzzlement slowly forming on his well-powdered face. “Lord
Marshal Burr,” he began slowly, “my detachment is to proceed down the
western road to the river, correct?”
“Indeed, your Highness.”
“But we are not to pass beyond the river?”
“Indeed not, your Highness.”
“Our role is to be, then,” and he squinted up at Burr with a hurt
expression, “a purely defensive one?”
“Indeed. Purely defensive.”
Ladisla frowned. “That sounds a meagre task.” His absurd staff shifted in
their seats, grumbled their discontent at an assignment so far beneath their
talents.
“A meagre task? Pardon me, your Highness, but not so! Angland is a
wide and tangled country. The Northmen may elude us, and if they do it is
on you that all our hopes will hang. It will be your task to prevent the enemy
from crossing the river and threatening our lines of supply, or, worse yet,
marching on Ostenhorm itself.” Burr leaned forward, fixing the Prince with
his eye, and shook his fist with great authority. “You will be our rock, your
Highness, our pillar, our foundation! You will be the hinge on which the gate
will hang, a gate which will swing shut on these invaders, and drive them out
of Angland!”
West was impressed. The Prince’s assignment was indeed a meagre one,
but the Lord Marshal could have made mucking out the latrines sound like
noble work. “Excellent!” exclaimed Ladisla, the feather on his hat thrashing
back and forth. “The hinge, of course! Capital!”
“Unless there are any further questions then, gentlemen, we have a great
deal of work to do.” Burr looked round the half-circle of sulky faces. No one
spoke. “Dismissed.”
Kroy’s staff and Poulder’s exchanged frosty glances as they hurried to be
first out of the room. The two great generals themselves jostled each other in
the doorway, which was more than wide enough for both of them, neither
wanting to turn his back on the other, or to follow behind him. They turned,
bristling, once they had pushed their way out into the corridor.
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“General Kroy,” sneered Poulder, with a haughty toss of his head.
“General Poulder,” hissed Kroy, tugging his impeccable uniform smooth.
Then they stalked off in opposite directions.
As the last of Prince Ladisla’s staff ambled out, holding forth to each
other noisily about who had the most expensive armour, West got up to leave
himself. He had a hundred tasks to be getting on with, and there was nothing
to be gained by waiting. Before he got to the door, though, Lord Marshal
Burr began to speak.
“So there’s our army, eh, West? I swear, I sometimes feel like a father with
a set of squabbling sons, and no wife to help me. Poulder, Kroy, and Ladisla.”
He shook his head. “My three commanders! Every man of them seems to think
the purpose of this whole business is his personal aggrandisement. There aren’t
three bigger heads in the whole Union. It’s a wonder we can fit them all in one
room.” He gave a sudden burp. “Damn this indigestion!”
West racked his brains for something positive. “General Poulder seems
obedient, at least, sir.”
Burr snorted. “Seems, yes, but I trust him even less than Kroy, if that’s
possible. Kroy, at least, is predictable. He can be depended on to frustrate and
oppose me at every turn. Poulder can’t be depended on at all. He’ll smirk,
and flatter, and obey to the tiniest detail, until he sees some advantage to
himself, and then he’ll turn on me with double the ferocity, you’ll see. To
keep ’em both happy is impossible.” He squinted and swallowed, rubbing at
his gut. “But as long as we can keep them equally unhappy, we’ve a chance.
The one thing to be thankful for is that they hate each other even more than
they do me.”
Burr’s frown grew deeper. “They were both ahead of me in the queue for
my job. General Poulder is an old friend of the Arch Lector, you know. Kroy
is Chief Justice Marovia’s cousin. When the post of Lord Marshal became
available, the Closed Council couldn’t decide between them. In the end they
fixed on me as an unhappy compromise. An oaf from the provinces, eh, West?
That’s what I am to them. An effective oaf to be sure, but an oaf still. I
daresay that if Poulder or Kroy died tomorrow, I’d be replaced the next day
by the other. It’s hard to imagine a more ludicrous situation for a Lord
Marshal, until you add in the Crown Prince, that is.”
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West almost winced. How to turn that nightmare into an advantage?
“Prince Ladisla is . . . enthusiastic?” he ventured.
“Where would I be without your optimism?” Burr gave a mirthless
chuckle. “Enthusiastic? He’s living in a dream! Pandered to, and coddled,
and utterly spoiled his whole life! That boy and the real world are entire
strangers to one another!”
“Must he have a separate command, sir?”
The Lord Marshal rubbed at his eyes with his thick fingers.
“Unfortunately, he must. The Closed Council have been most specific on that
point. They are concerned that the King is in poor health, and that his heir
is seen as an utter fool and wastrel by the public. They hope we might win
some great victory here, so they can heap the credit on the Prince. Then
they’ll ship him back to Adua, glowing with the glamour of the battlefield,
ready to become the kind of King the peasants love.”
Burr paused for a moment, and looked down at the floor. “I’ve done all I
can to keep Ladisla out of trouble. I’ve put him where I think the Northmen
aren’t, and with any luck won’t ever be. But war is anything but a predictable
business. Ladisla might actually be called upon to fight. That’s why I need
someone to look over his shoulder. Someone with experience in the field.
Someone as tenacious and hard-working as his joke of a staff are soft and lazy.
Someone who might stop the Prince blundering into trouble.” He looked up
from under his heavy brows.
West felt a horrible sinking sensation in his guts. “Me?”
“I’m afraid so. There’s no one I’d rather keep, but the Prince has asked
for you personally.”
“For me, sir? But I’m no courtier! I’m not even a nobleman!”
Burr snorted. “Aside from me, Ladisla is probably the one man in this
army who doesn’t care whose son you are. He’s the heir to the throne!
Nobleman or beggar, we’re all equally far below him.”
“But why me?”
“Because you’re a fighter. First through the breach at Ulrioch and all
that. You’ve seen action, and plenty of it. You’ve a fighter’s reputation, West,
and the Prince wants one himself. That’s why.” Burr fished a letter from his
jacket and handed it across. “Maybe this will help to sweeten the medicine.”
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West broke the seal, unfolded the thick paper, scanned the few lines of
neat writing. When he had finished, he read it again, just to be sure. He
looked up. “It’s a promotion.”
“I know what it is. I arranged it. Maybe they’ll take you a little more
seriously with an extra star on your jacket, maybe they won’t. Either way, you
deserve it.”
“Thank you, sir,” said West numbly.
“What, for the worst job in the army?” Burr laughed, and gave him a
fatherly clap on the shoulder. “You’ll be missed, and that’s a fact. I’m riding
out to inspect the first regiment. A commander should show his face, I’ve
always thought. Care to join me, Colonel?”
Snow was falling by the time they rode out through the city gates. White
specks blowing on the wind, melting as soon as they touched the road, the
trees, the coat of West’s horse, the armour of the guards that followed them.
“Snow,” Burr grumbled over his shoulder. “Snow already. Isn’t that a
little early in the year?”
“Very early, sir, but it’s cold enough.” West took one hand from his reins to
pull his coat tighter round his neck. “Colder than usual, for the end of autumn.”
“It’ll be a damn sight colder up north of the Cumnur, I’ll be bound.”
“Yes, sir, and it won’t be getting any warmer now.”
“Could be a harsh winter, eh, Colonel?”
“Very likely, sir.” Colonel? Colonel West? The words still seemed strange
together, even in his own mind. No one could ever have dreamed a
commoner’s son would go so far. Himself least of all.
“A long, harsh winter,” Burr was musing. “We need to catch Bethod
quickly. Catch him and put a quick end to him, before we all freeze.” He
frowned at the trees as they slipped by, frowned up at the flecks of snow
eddying around them, frowned over at West. “Bad roads, bad ground, bad
weather. Not the best situation, eh, Colonel?”
“No, sir,” said West glumly, but it was his own situation that was
worrying him.
“Come now, it could be worse. You’ll be dug in south of the river, nice
and warm. Probably won’t see a hair of a Northman all winter. And I hear the
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Prince and his staff eat pretty well. A damn stretch better than blundering
around in the snow with Poulder and Kroy for company.”
“Of course, sir.” But West was less than sure.
Burr glanced over his shoulder at the guards, trotting along at a
respectful distance. “You know, when I was a young man, before I was given
the dubious honour of commanding the King’s army, I used to love to ride.
I’d ride for miles, at the gallop. Made me feel . . . alive. Seems like there’s no
time for it these days. Briefings, and documents, and sitting at tables, that’s
all I do. Sometimes, you just want to ride, eh, West?”
“Of course, sir, but now would—”
“Yah!” The Lord Marshal dug his spurs in with a will and his horse
bolted down the track, mud flicking up from its hooves. West gaped after
him for a moment.
“Damn it,” he whispered. The stubborn old fool would most likely get
thrown and break his thick neck. Then where would they be? Prince Ladisla
would have to take command. West shivered at the prospect, and kicked his
own horse into a gallop. What choice did he have?
The trees flashed past on either side, the road flowed by underneath him.
His ears filled with the clattering of hooves, the rattling of harness. The wind
rushed in his mouth, stung his eyes. The snow flakes came at him, straight
on. West snatched a look over his shoulder. The guards were tangled up with
each other, horses jostling, lagging far back down the road.
It was the best he could do to keep up and stay in his saddle at the same
time. The last time he’d ridden so hard had been years ago, pounding across
a dry plain with a wedge of Gurkish cavalry just behind him. He’d hardly
been any more scared then. His hands were gripping the reins painfully tight,
his heart was hammering with fear and excitement. He realised that he was
smiling. Burr had been right. It did make him feel alive.
The Lord Marshal had slowed, and West reined his own horse in as he
drew level. He was laughing now, and he could hear Burr chuckling beside
him. He hadn’t laughed like that in months. Years maybe, he couldn’t
remember the last time. Then he noticed something out of the corner of
his eye.
He felt a sickening jolt, a crushing pain in his chest. His head snapped
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forward, the reins were ripped from his hands, everything turned upside
down. His horse was gone. He was rolling on the ground, over and over.
He tried to get up and the world lurched. Trees and white sky, a horse’s
kicking legs, dirt flying. He stumbled and pitched into the road, took a
mouthful of mud. Someone helped him up, pulling roughly at his coat,
dragging him into the woods.
“No,” he gasped, hardly able to breathe for the pain in his chest. There
was no reason to go that way.
A black line between the trees. He staggered forward, bent double,
tripping over the tails of his coat, crashing through the undergrowth. A rope
across the road, pulled tight as they passed. Someone was half dragging him,
half carrying him. His head was spinning, all sense of direction lost. A trap.
West fumbled for his sword. It took him a moment to realise that his
scabbard was empty.
The Northmen. West felt a stab of terror in his gut. The Northmen had
him, and Burr too. Assassins, sent by Bethod to kill them. There was a
rushing sound somewhere, out beyond the trees. West struggled to make
sense of it. The guards, following down the road. If he could only give them
a signal somehow . . .
“Over here . . .” he croaked, pitifully hoarse, before a dirty hand clamped
itself over his mouth, dragged him down into the wet undergrowth. He
struggled as best he could, but there was no strength in him. He could see
the guards flashing by through the trees, no more than a dozen strides away,
but he was powerless.
He bit the hand, as hard as he could, but it only gripped tighter,
squeezing his jaw, crushing his lips. He could taste blood. His own blood
maybe, or blood from the hand. The sound of the guards faded into the woods
and was gone, and fear pressed in behind it. The hand let go, gave him a
parting shove and he tumbled onto his back.
A face swam into view above him. A hard, gaunt, brutish face, black hair
hacked short, teeth bared in an animal scowl, cold, flat eyes, brimful of fury.
The face turned and spat on the ground. There was no ear on the other side
of it. Just a flap of pink scar, and a hole.
Never in his life had West seen such an evil-looking man. The whole set
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of him was violence itself. He looked strong enough to tear West in half, and
more than willing to do it. There was blood running from a wound in his
hand. The wound that West’s teeth had made. It dripped from his fingertips
onto the forest floor. In his other fist he held a length of smooth wood. West’s
eyes followed it, horrified. There was a heavy, curved blade at the end,
polished bright. An axe.
So this was a Northman. Not the kind who rolled drunk in the gutters of
Adua. Not the kind who had come to his father’s farm to beg for work. The other
kind. The kind his mother had scared him with stories of when he was a child. A
man whose work, and whose pastime, and whose purpose, was to kill. West
looked from that hard blade to those hard eyes and back, numb with horror. He
was finished. He would die here in the cold forest, down in the dirt like a dog.
West dragged himself up by one hand, seized by a sudden impulse to
run. He looked over his shoulder, but there was no escape that way. A man
was moving through the trees towards them. A big man with a thick beard
and a sword over his shoulder, carrying a child in his arms. West blinked,
trying to get some sense of scale. It was the biggest man he had ever seen,
and the child was Lord Marshal Burr. The giant tossed his burden down on
the ground like a bundle of sticks. Burr stared up at him, and burped.
West ground his teeth. Riding off like that, the old fool, what had he been
thinking? He’d killed them both with his fucking “sometimes you just want
to ride.” Makes you feel alive? Neither one of them would live out the hour.
He had to fight. Now might be his last chance. Even if he had nothing to
fight with. Better to die that way than on his knees in the mud. He tried to dig
the anger out. There was no end to it, when he didn’t want it. Now there was
nothing. Just a desperate helplessness that weighed down every limb.
Some hero. Some fighter. It was the most he could do to keep from
pissing himself. He could hit a woman alright. He could throttle his sister
half to death. The memory of it still made him choke with shame and
revulsion, even with his own death staring him in the face. He had thought
he would make it right later. Only now there was no later. This was all there
was. He felt tears in his eyes.
“Sorry,” he muttered to himself. “I’m sorry.” He closed his eyes and
waited for the end.
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“No need for sorry, friend, I reckon he’s been bitten harder.”
Another Northman had melted out of the woods, crouching down beside
West on his haunches. Lank, matted brown hair hung around his lean face.
Quick, dark eyes. Clever eyes. He cracked a wicked grin, anything but
reassuring. Two rows of hard, yellow, pointed teeth. “Sit,” he said, accent so
thick that West could scarcely understand him. “Sit and be still is best.”
A fourth man was standing over him and Burr. A great, broad-chested
man, his wrists as thick as West’s ankles. There were grey hairs in his beard,
in his tangled hair. The leader, it seemed, from the way the others made room
for him. He looked down at West, slow and thoughtful, as a man might look
at an ant, deciding whether or not to squash it under his boot.
“Which of ’em’s Burr, do you think?” he rumbled in Northern.
“I’m Burr,” said West. Had to protect the Lord Marshal. Had to. He
clambered up without thinking, but he was still dizzy from the fall, and he
had to grab hold of a branch to stop himself falling. “I’m Burr.”
The old warrior looked him up and down, slow and steady. “You?” He
burst into a peal of laughter, deep and menacing as a storm in the distance.
“I like that! That’s nice!” He turned to the evil-looking one. “See? I thought
you said they got no guts, these Southerners?”
“It was brains I said they was short on.” The one-eared man glowered
down at West the way a hungry cat looks at a bird. “And I’ve yet to see
otherwise.”
“I think it’s this one.” The leader was looking down at Burr. “You Burr?”
he asked in the common tongue.
The Lord Marshal looked at West, then up at the towering Northmen,
then he got slowly to his feet. He straightened and brushed down his
uniform, like a man preparing to die with dignity. “I’m Burr, and I’ll not
entertain you. If you mean to kill us, you should do it now.” West stayed
where he was. Dignity hardly seemed worth the effort now. He could almost
feel the axe biting into his head already.
But the Northman with the grey in his beard only smiled. “I can see how
you’d make that mistake, and we’re sorry if we’ve frayed your nerves at all,
but we’re not here to kill you. We’re here to help you.” West struggled to
make sense of what he was hearing.
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Burr was doing the same. “To help us?”
“There’s plenty in the North who hate Bethod. There’s plenty who don’t
kneel willing, and some who don’t kneel at all. That’s us. We’ve a feud with
that bastard has been a long time brewing, and we mean to settle it, or die
in the trying. We can’t fight him alone, but we hear you’re fighting him, so
we reckoned we’d join you.”
“Join us?”
“We came a long way to do it, and from what we seen on the way you could
use the help. But when we got here, your people weren’t keen to take us.”
“They was somewhat rude,” said the lean one, squatting next to West.
“They was indeed, Dogman, they was indeed. But we ain’t men to back
off at a little rudeness. That’s when I hit on the notion of talking to you, chief
to chief, you might say.”
Burr stared over at West. “They want to fight with us,” he said. West
blinked back, still trying to come to terms with the notion that he might live
out the day. The one called Dogman was holding out a sword towards him,
hilt first, and grinning. It took West a moment to realise it was his own.
“Thanks,” muttered West as he fumbled with the grip.
“No bother.”
“There’s five of us,” the leader was saying, “all Named Men and veterans.
We’ve fought against Bethod, and we’ve fought with him, all across the
North. We know his style, few better. We can scout, we can fight, we can lay
surprises, as you see. We’ll not shirk any task worth the doing, and any task
that hurts Bethod is worth it to us. What do you say?”
“Well . . . er,” murmured Burr, rubbing his chin with his thumb. “You
plainly are a most . . .” and he looked from one hard, dirty, scarred face to the
next “. . . useful set of men. How could I resist an offer so graciously made?”
“Then I better make the introductions. This here is the Dogman.”
“That’s me,” growled the lean one with the pointy teeth, flashing his
worrying grin again. “Good to meet.” He grabbed hold of West’s hand and
squeezed it until his knuckles clicked.
Threetrees jerked his thumb sideways at the evil one with the axe and the
missing ear. “This friendly fellow’s Black Dow. I’d say he gets better with
time, but he don’t.” Dow turned and spat on the ground again. “The big lad
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is Tul Duru. They call him the Thunderhead. Then there’s Harding Grim.
He’s off out there in the trees, keeping your horses off the road. Not to worry
though, he’d have nothing to say.”
“And you?”
“Rudd Threetrees. Leader of this little crew, on account of our previous
leader having gone back to the mud.”
“Back to the mud, I see.” Burr took a deep breath. “Well then. You can
report to Colonel West. I’m sure that he can find food and quarters for you,
not to mention work.”
“Me?” asked West, sword still dangling from his hand.
“Absolutely.” The Lord Marshal had the tiniest smile at the corner of his
mouth. “Our new allies should fit right in with Prince Ladisla’s retinue.”
West couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. Just when he had thought his
situation could not be any more difficult, he had five primitives to handle.
Threetrees seemed happy enough with the outcome. “Good,” he said,
slowly nodding his approval. “That’s settled then.”
“Settled,” said the Dogman, his evil smile growing wider still.
The one called Black Dow gave West a long, cold stare.
“Fucking Union,” he growled.
QUESTIONS
To Sand dan Glokta, Superior of Dagoska, and for his eyes alone.
You will take ship immediately, and assume command of the Inquisition in the
city of Dagoska. You will establish what became of your predecessor, Superior
Davoust. You will investigate his suspicion that a conspiracy is afoot, perhaps in
the city’s ruling council itself. You will examine the members of that council, and
uproot any and all disloyalty. Punish treason with scant mercy, but ensure that
your evidence is sound. We can afford no further blunders.
Gurkish soldiers already crowd to the peninsula, ready to exploit any
weakness. The King’s regiments are fully committed in Angland, so you can expect
little help should the Gurkish attack. You will therefore ensure that the defences of
the city are strong, and that provisions are sufficient to withstand any siege. You
will keep me informed of your progress in regular letters. Above all, you will
ensure that Dagoska does not, under any circumstances, fall into the hands of the
Gurkish.
Do not fail me.
Sult
Arch Lector of his Majesty’s Inquisition.
G
lokta folded the letter carefully and slipped it back into his pocket,
checking once again that the King’s writ was safe beside it. Damn
thing. The big document had been weighing heavily in his coat ever since the
Arch Lector passed it to him. He pulled it out and turned it over in his hands,
35
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the gold leaf on the big red seal glittering in the harsh sunlight. A single sheet
of paper, yet worth more than gold. Priceless. With this, I speak with the King’s own
voice. I am the most powerful man in Dagoska, greater even than the Lord Governor
himself. All must hear me and obey. As long as I can stay alive, that is.
The voyage had not been a pleasant one. The ship was small and the
Circle Sea had been rough on the way over. Glokta’s own cabin was tiny, hot
and close as an oven. An oven swaying wildly all day and all night. If he had not
been trying to eat gruel with the bowl slopping crazily around, he had been
vomiting back up those small amounts he had actually managed to swallow.
But at least below decks there was no chance of his useless leg giving way and
dumping him over the side into the sea. Yes, the voyage has hardly been pleasant.
But now the voyage was over. The ship was already slipping up to its
mooring in amongst the crowded wharves. The sailors were already
struggling with the anchor, throwing ropes on to the dock. Now the
gangplank was sliding across from ship to dusty shore.
“Right,” said Practical Severard. “I’m going to get me a drink.”
“Make it a strong one, but see you catch up with me later. We’ll have
work to do tomorrow. Lots of work.”
Severard nodded, lanky hair swaying around his thin face. “Oh, I live to
serve.” I’m not sure what you live for, but I doubt it’s that. He sauntered off,
whistling tunelessly, clattered across the plank, down the wharf and off
between the dusty brown buildings beyond.
Glokta eyed the narrow length of wood with not a little worry, worked
his hand around the handle of his cane, tongued at his empty gums, building
himself up to stepping on to it. An act of selfless heroism indeed. He wondered
for a moment whether he would be wiser to crawl across on his stomach. It
would reduce the chance of a watery death, but it would hardly be appropriate, would
it? The city’s awe-inspiring Superior of the Inquisition, slithering into his new
domain on his belly?
“Need a hand?” Practical Vitari was looking at him sideways, leaning
back on the ship’s handrail, red hair sticking up off her head like the spines
on a thistle. She seemed to have spent the entire journey basking in the open
air like a lizard, quite unmoved by the reeling of the ship, enjoying the
crushing heat every bit as much as Glokta despised it. It was hard to judge
QUESTIONS
37
her expression beneath her black Practical’s mask. But it’s a good bet she’s
smiling. No doubt she’s already preparing her first report to the Arch Lector: “The
cripple spent most of the voyage below decks, puking. When we arrived at Dagoska he
had to be hoisted ashore with the cargo. Already he has become a laughing stock . . .”
“Of course not!” snapped Glokta, hobbling up onto the plank as though
he took his life in his hands every morning. It wobbled alarmingly as he
planted his right foot on it, and he became painfully aware of the grey-green
water slapping at the slimy stones of the quay a long drop below him. Body
found floating by the docks . . .
But in the end he was able to shuffle across without incident, dragging
his withered leg behind him. He felt an absurd pang of pride when he made
it to the dusty stones of the docks and finally stood on dry land again.
Ridiculous. Anyone would think I’d beaten the Gurkish and saved the city already,
rather than hobbled three strides. To add insult to injury, now that he had
become used to the constant lurching of the ship, the stillness of land was
making his head spin and his stomach roll, and the rotten salt stink of the
baking docks was very far from helping. He forced himself to swallow a
mouthful of bitter spit, closed his eyes and turned his face towards the
cloudless sky.
Hell, but it’s hot. Glokta had forgotten how hot the South could be. Late
in the year, and still the sun was blazing down, still he was running with
sweat under his long black coat. The garments of the Inquisition may be excellent
for instilling terror in a suspect, but I fear they are poorly suited to a hot climate.
Practical Frost was even worse off. The hulking albino had covered every
exposed inch of his milky skin, even down to black gloves and a wide hat. He
peered up at the brilliant sky, pink eyes narrowed with suspicion and misery,
broad white face beaded with sweat around his black mask.
Vitari peered sidelong at the pair of them. “You two really should get out
more,” she muttered.
A man in Inquisitor’s black was waiting at the end of the wharf,
sticking close to the shade of a crumbling wall but still sweating
generously. A tall, bony man with bulging eyes, his hooked nose red and
peeling from sunburn. The welcoming committee? Judging by its scale, I am
scarcely welcome at all.
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“I am Harker, senior Inquisitor in the city.”
“Until I arrived,” snapped Glokta. “How many others have you?”
The Inquisitor frowned. “Four Inquisitors and some twenty Practicals.”
“A small complement, to keep a city of this size free of treason.”
Harker’s frown grew more surly yet. “We’ve always managed.” Oh, indeed.
Apart from mislaying your Superior, of course. “This is your first visit to
Dagoska?”
“I have spent some time in the South.” The best days of my life, and the
worst. “I was in Gurkhul during the war. I saw Ulrioch.” In ruins after we
burned the city. “And I was in Shaffa for two years.” If you count the Emperor’s
Prisons. Two years in the boiling heat and the crushing darkness. Two years in hell.
“But I have never been to Dagoska.”
“Huh,” snorted Harker, unimpressed. “Your quarters are in the Citadel.”
He nodded towards the great rock that loomed up over the city. Of course they
are. In the very highest part of the highest building, no doubt. “I’ll show you the
way. Lord Governor Vurms and his council will be keen to meet their new
Superior.” He turned with a look of some bitterness. Feel you should have got
the job yourself, eh? I’m delighted to disappoint you.
Harker set off into the city at a brisk pace, Practical Frost trudging along
beside him, heavy shoulders hunched around his thick neck, sticking to every
trace of shade as though the sun were shooting tiny darts at him. Vitari
zig-zagged across the dusty street as if it was a dance-floor, peering through
windows and down narrow side-streets. Glokta shuffled along doggedly
behind, his left leg already starting to burn with the effort.
“The cripple shuffled only three strides into the city before he fell on his face, and
had to be carried the rest of the way by stretcher, squealing like a half-slaughtered pig
and begging for water, while the very citizens he was sent to terrify watched,
dumbstruck . . .”
He curled his lips back and dug his remaining teeth into his empty
gums, forced himself to keep pace with the others, the handle of his cane
cutting into his palm, his spine giving an agonising click with every step.
“This is the Lower City,” grumbled Harker over his shoulder, “where the
native population are housed.”
A giant, boiling, dusty, stinking slum. The buildings were mean and badly
QUESTIONS
39
maintained: rickety shacks of one storey, leaning piles of half-baked mud
bricks. The people were all dark-skinned, poorly dressed, hungry-looking. A
bony woman peered out at them from a doorway. An old man with one leg
hobbled past on bent crutches. Down a narrow alley ragged children darted
between piles of refuse. The air was heavy with the stink of rot and bad
sewers. Or no sewers at all. Flies buzzed everywhere. Fat, angry flies. The only
creatures prospering here.
“If I’d known it was such a charming place,” observed Glokta, “I’d have
come sooner. Seems the Dagoskans have done well from joining the Union, eh?”
Harker did not recognise the irony. “They have indeed. During the short
time the Gurkish controlled the city, they took many of the leading citizens
as slaves. Now, under the Union, they are truly free to work and live as they
please.”
“Truly free, eh?” So this is what freedom looks like. Glokta watched a group
of sullen natives crowding round a stall poorly stocked with half-rotten fruit
and flyblown offal.
“Well, mostly.” Harker frowned. “The Inquisition had to weed out a few
troublemakers when we first arrived. Then, three years ago, the ungrateful
swine mounted a rebellion.” After we gave them the freedom to live like animals in
their own city? Shocking. “We got the better of them, of course, but they caused
no end of damage. After that they were barred from keeping weapons, or
entering the Upper City, where most of the whites live. Since then, things
have been quiet. It only goes to show that a firm hand is most effective when
it comes to dealing with these primitives.”
“They built some impressive defences, for primitives.”
A high wall cut through the city before them, casting a long shadow over
the squalid buildings of the slum. There was a wide pit in front, freshly dug
and lined with sharpened stakes. A narrow bridge led across to a tall gate, set
between looming towers. The heavy doors were open, but a dozen men stood
before them: sweating Union soldiers in steel caps and studded leather coats,
harsh sun glinting on their swords and spears.
“A well-guarded gate,” mused Vitari. “Considering that it’s inside the city.”
Harker frowned. “Since the rebellion, natives have only been allowed
within the Upper City if they have a permit.”
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BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED
“And who holds a permit?” asked Glokta.
“Some skilled craftsmen and so forth, still employed by the Guild of
Spicers, but mostly servants who work in the Upper City and the Citadel. Many
of the Union citizens who live here have native servants, some have several.”
“Surely the natives are citizens of the Union also?”
Harker curled his lip. “If you say so, Superior, but they can’t be trusted,
and that’s a fact. They don’t think like us.”
“Really?” If they think at all it will be an improvement on this savage.
“They’re all scum, these browns. Gurkish, Dagoskan, all the same.
Killers and thieves, the lot of them. Best thing to do is to push them down
and keep them down.” Harker scowled out at the baking slum. “If a thing
smells like shit, and is the colour of shit, the chances are it is shit.” He turned
and stalked off across the bridge.
“What a charming and enlightened man,” murmured Vitari. You read my
mind.
It was a different world beyond the gates. Stately domes, elegant towers,
mosaics of coloured glass and pillars of white marble shone in the blazing
sun. The streets were wide and clean, the residences well maintained. There
were even a few thirsty-looking palms in the neat squares. The people here
were sleek, well dressed, and white-skinned. Aside from a great deal of sunburn.
A few dark faces moved among them, keeping well out of the way, eyes on
the ground. Those lucky enough to be allowed to serve? They must be glad that we
in the Union would not tolerate such a thing as slavery.
Over everything Glokta could hear a rattling din, like a battle in the
distance. It grew louder as he dragged his aching leg through the Upper City,
and reached a furious pitch as they emerged into a wide square, packed from
one edge to the other with a bewildering throng. There were people of
Midderland, and Gurkhul, and Styria, narrow-eyed natives of Suljuk,
yellow-haired citizens of the Old Empire, bearded Northmen even, far from
home.
“Merchants,” grunted Harker. All the merchants in the world, it looks like.
They crowded round stalls laden with produce, great scales for the weighing
of materials, blackboards with chalked-in goods and prices. They bellowed,
borrowed and bartered in a multitude of different languages, threw up their
QUESTIONS
41
hands in strange gestures, shoved and tugged and pointed at one another.
They sniffed at boxes of spice and sticks of incense, fingered at bolts of cloth
and planks of rare wood, squeezed at fruits, bit at coins, peered through
eye-glasses at flashing gemstones. Here and there a native porter stumbled
through the crowds, stooped double under a massive load.
“The Spicers take a cut of everything,” muttered Harker, shoving
impatiently through the chattering press.
“That must be a great deal,” said Vitari under her breath. A very great
deal, I should imagine. Enough to defy the Gurkish. Enough to keep a whole city
prisoner. People will kill for much, much less.
Glokta grimaced and snarled his way across the square, jolted and barged
and painfully shoved at every limping step. It was only when they finally
emerged from the crowds at the far side that he realised they were standing
in the very shadow of a vast and graceful building, rising arch upon arch,
dome upon dome, high over the crowds. Delicate spires at each corner soared
into the air, slender and frail.
“Magnificent,” muttered Glokta, stretching out his aching back and
squinting up, the pure white stone almost painful to look at in the afternoon
glare. “Seeing this, one could almost believe in God.” If one didn’t know better.
“Huh,” sneered Harker. “The natives used to pray here in their
thousands, poisoning the air with their damn chanting and superstition,
until the rebellion was put down, of course.”
“And now?”
“Superior Davoust declared it off limits to them. Like everything else in
the Upper City. Now the Spicers use it as an extension to the marketplace,
buying and selling and so on.”
“Huh.” How very appropriate. A temple to the making of money. Our own little
religion.
“I believe some bank uses part of it for their offices, as well.”
“A bank? Which one?”
“The Spicers run that side of things,” snapped Harker impatiently.
“Valint and something, is it?”
“Balk. Valint and Balk.” So some old acquaintances are here before me, eh? I
should have known. Those bastards are everywhere. Everywhere there’s money. He
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BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED
peered round at the swarming marketplace. And there’s a lot of money here.
The way grew steeper as they began to climb the great rock, the streets
built onto shelves cut out from the dry hillside. Glokta laboured on through
the heat, stooped over his cane, biting his lip against the pain in his leg,
thirsty as a dog and with sweat leaking out through every pore. Harker made
no effort to slow as Glokta toiled along behind him. And I’ll be damned if I’m
going to ask him to.
“Above us is the Citadel.” The Inquisitor waved his hand at the mass of
sheer-walled buildings, domes and towers clinging to the very top of the
brown rock, high above the city. “It was once the seat of the native King, but
now it serves as Dagoska’s administrative centre, and accommodates some of
the most important citizens. The Spicers’ guildhall is inside, and the city’s
House of Questions.”
“Quite a view,” murmured Vitari.
Glokta turned and shaded his eyes with his hand. Dagoska was spread out
before them, almost an island. The Upper City sloped away, neat grids of neat
houses with long, straight roads in between, speckled with yellow palms and
wide squares. On the far side of its long, curving wall lay the dusty brown
jumble of the slums. Looming over them in the distance, shimmering in the
haze, Glokta could see the mighty land walls, blocking the one narrow neck
of rock that joined the city to the mainland, the blue sea on one side and the
blue harbour on the other. The strongest defences in the world, so they say. I wonder
if we shall be putting that proud boast to the test before too long?
“Superior Glokta?” Harker cleared his throat. “The Lord Governor and
his council will be waiting.”
“They can wait a little longer, then. I am curious to know what progress
you have made in investigating the disappearance of Superior Davoust.” It
would be most unfortunate if the new Superior were to suffer the same fate, after all.
Harker frowned. “Well . . . some progress. I have no doubt the natives
are responsible. They never stop plotting. Despite the measures Davoust took
after the rebellion, many of them still refuse to learn their place.”
“I stand amazed.”
“It is all too true, believe me. Three Dagoskan servants were present in the
Superior’s chambers on the night he disappeared. I have been questioning them.”
QUESTIONS
43
“And what have you discovered?”
“Nothing yet, unfortunately. They have proved exceedingly stubborn.”
“Then let us question them together.”
“Together?” Harker licked his lips. “I wasn’t aware that you would want
to question them yourself, Superior.”
“Now you are.”
One would have thought it would be cooler, deep within the rock. But it was every bit
as hot as outside in the baking streets, without the mercy of the slightest breeze.
The corridor was silent, dead, and stuffy as a tomb. Vitari’s torch cast flickering
shadows into the corners, and the darkness closed in fast behind them.
Harker paused beside an iron-bound door, mopped fat beads of sweat
from his face. “I must warn you, Superior, it was necessary to be quite . . .
firm with them. A firm hand is the best thing, you know.”
“Oh, I can be quite firm myself, when the situation demands it. I am not
easily shocked.”
“Good, good.” The key turned in the lock, the door swung open, and a
foul smell washed out into the corridor. A blocked latrine and a rotten rubbish
heap rolled into one. The cell beyond was tiny, windowless, the ceiling almost
too low to stand. The heat was crushing, the stench was appalling. It
reminded Glokta of another cell. Further south, in Shaffa. Deep beneath the
Emperor’s palace. A cell in which I gasped away two years, squealing in the
blackness, scratching at the walls, crawling in my own filth. His eye had begun to
twitch, and he wiped it carefully with his finger.
One prisoner lay stretched out, his face to the wall, skin black with
bruises, both legs broken. Another hung from the ceiling by his wrists, knees
brushing the floor, head hanging limp, back whipped raw. Vitari stooped and
prodded at one of them with her finger. “Dead,” she said simply. She crossed
to the other. “And this one. Dead a good while.”
The flickering light fell across a third prisoner. This one was alive. Just.
She was chained by hands and feet, face hollow with hunger, lips cracked
with thirst, clutching filthy, bloodstained rags to her. Her heels scraped at the
floor as she tried to push herself further back into the corner, gibbering
faintly in Kantic, one hand across her face to ward off the light. I remember.
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BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED
The only thing worse than the darkness is when the light comes. The questions always
come with it.
Glokta frowned, his twitching eyes moving from the two broken corpses
to the cowering girl, his head spinning from the effort, and the heat, and the
stink. “Well this is very cosy. What have they told you?”
Harker had his hand over his nose and mouth as he stepped reluctantly
into the cell, Frost looming just over his shoulder. “Nothing yet, but I—”
“You’ll get nothing from these two, now, that’s sure. I hope they signed
confessions.”
“Well . . . not exactly. Superior Davoust was never that interested in
confessions from the browns, we just, you know . . .”
“You couldn’t even keep them alive long enough to confess?”
Harker looked sullen. Like a child unfairly punished by his schoolmaster.
“There’s still the girl,” he snapped.
Glokta looked down at her, licking at the space where his front teeth
used to be. There is no method here. No purpose. Brutality, for it’s own sake. I might
almost be sickened, had I eaten anything today. “How old is she?”
“Fourteen, perhaps, Superior, but I fail to see the relevance.”
“The relevance, Inquisitor Harker, is that conspiracies are rarely led by
fourteen-year-old girls.”
“I thought it best to be thorough.”
“Thorough? Did you even ask them any questions?”
“Well, I—”
Glokta’s cane cracked Harker cleanly across the face. The sudden
movement caused a stab of agony in Glokta’s side, and he stumbled on his
weak leg and had to grab at Frost’s arm for support. The Inquisitor gave a
squeal of pain and shock, tumbled against the wall and slid into the filth
on the cell floor.
“You’re not an Inquisitor!” hissed Glokta, “you’re a fucking butcher!
Look at the state of this place! And you’ve killed two of our witnesses! What
use are they now, fool?” Glokta leaned forward. “Unless that was your
intention, eh? Perhaps Davoust was killed by a jealous underling? An
underling who wanted to silence the witnesses, eh, Harker? Perhaps I should
start my investigations with the Inquisition itself!”
QUESTIONS
45
Practical Frost loomed over Harker as he struggled to get up, and he
shrank back down against the wall, blood starting to dribble from his nose.
“No! No, please! It was an accident! I didn’t mean to kill them! I just wanted
to know what happened!”
“An accident? You’re a traitor or an utter incompetent, and I’ve no use
for either one!” He leaned down even lower, ignoring the pain shooting up
his back, his lips curling away to show his toothless smile. “I understand a
firm hand is most effective when dealing with primitives, Inquisitor. You
will find there are no firmer hands than mine. Not anywhere. Get this worm
out of my sight!”
Frost seized hold of Harker by his coat and hauled him bodily through
the filth towards the door. “Wait!” he wailed, clutching at the door frame,
“please! You can’t do this!” His cries faded down the corridor.
Vitari had a faint smile around her eyes, as though she had rather enjoyed
the scene. “What about this mess?”
“Get it cleaned up.” Glokta leaned against the wall, his side still pulsing
with pain, wiped sweat from his face with a trembling hand. “Wash it down.
Bury these bodies.”
Vitari nodded towards the one survivor. “What about her?”
“Give her a bath. Clothes. Food. Let her go.”
“Hardly worth giving her a bath if she’s going back to the Lower City.”
She has a point there. “Alright! She was Davoust’s servant, she can be mine.
Put her back to work!” he shouted over his shoulder, already hobbling for the
door. He had to get out. He could hardly breathe in there.
“I am sorry to disappoint you all, but the walls are far from impregnable, not
in their present poor condition . . .” The speaker trailed off as Glokta shuffled
through the door into the meeting chamber of Dagoska’s ruling council.
It was as unlike the cell below as it was possible for a room to be. It is,
in fact, the most beautiful room I ever saw. Every inch of wall and ceiling was
carved in the most minute detail: geometric patterns of frightening intricacy
wound round scenes from Kantic legends in life-size, all painted in glittering
gold and silver, vivid red and blue. The floor was a mosaic of wondrous
complexity, the long table was inlaid with swirls of dark wood and chips of
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BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED
bright ivory, polished to a high sheen. The tall windows offered a spectacular
view over the dusty brown expanse of the city, and the sparkling bay beyond.
The woman who rose to greet Glokta as he entered did not seem out of
place in the magnificent surroundings. Not in the slightest.
“I am Carlot dan Eider,” she said, smiling easily and holding her hands
out to him as though to an old friend, “Magister of the Guild of Spicers.”
Glokta was impressed, he had to admit. If only by her stomach. Not even the
slightest sign of horror. She greets me as though I were not a disfigured, twitching,
twisted ruin. She greets me as though I looked as fine as she does. She wore a long
gown in the style of the South: blue silk, trimmed with silver, it shimmered
around her in the cool breeze through the high windows. Jewels of daunting
value flashed on her fingers, on her wrists, round her throat. Glokta detected
a strange scent as she came closer. Sweet. Like the spice that has made her so very
rich, perhaps. The effect was far from wasted on him. I am still a man, after all.
Just less so than I used to be.
“I must apologise for my attire, but Kantic garments are so much more
comfortable in the heat. I have become quite accustomed to them during my
years here.”
Her apologising for her appearance is like a genius apologising for his stupidity.
“Don’t mention it.” Glokta bowed as low as he could, given the uselessness
of his leg and the sharp pain in his back. “Superior Glokta, at your service.”
“We are most glad to have you with us. We have all been greatly
concerned since the disappearance of your predecessor, Superior Davoust.”
Some of you, I expect, have been less concerned than others.
“I hope to shed some light on the matter.”
“We all hope that you will.” She took Glokta’s elbow with an effortless
confidence. “Please allow me to make the introductions.”
Glokta refused to be moved. “Thank you, Magister, but I believe I can make
my own.” He shuffled across to the table under his own power, such as it was.
“You must be General Vissbruck, charged with the city’s defence.” The General
was in his middle forties, running slightly to baldness, sweating abundantly in
an elaborate uniform, buttoned all the way to the neck in spite of the heat. I
remember you. You were in Gurkhul, in the war. A Major in the King’s Own, and well
known for being an ass. It seems you have done well, at least, as asses generally do.
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47
“A pleasure,” said Vissbruck, scarcely even glancing up from his
documents.
“It always is, to renew an old acquaintance.”
“We’ve met?”
“We fought together in Gurkhul.”
“We did?” A spasm of shock ran over Vissbruck’s sweaty face. “You’re . . .
that Glokta?”
“I am indeed, as you say, that Glokta.”
The General blinked. “Er, well, er . . . how have you been?”
“In very great pain, thank you for asking, but I see that you have
prospered, and that is a tremendous consolation.” Vissbruck blinked, but
Glokta did not give him time to reply. “And this must be Lord Governor
Vurms. A positive honour, your Grace.”
The old man was a caricature of decrepitude, shrunken into his great
robes of state like a withered plum in its furry skin. His hands seemed to
shiver even in the heat, his head was shiny bald aside from a few white wisps.
He squinted up at Glokta through weak and rheumy eyes.
“What did he say?” The Lord Governor stared about him in confusion.
“Who is this man?”
General Vissbruck leaned across, so close his lips almost brushed the old
man’s ear. “Superior Glokta, your Grace! The replacement for Davoust!”
“Glokta? Glokta? Where the hell is Davoust anyway?” No one bothered
to reply.
“I am Korsten dan Vurms.” The Lord Governor’s son spoke his own name
as though it was a magic spell, offered his hand to Glokta as though it was a
priceless gift. He was blond-haired and handsome, spread out carelessly in his
chair, a well-tanned glow of health about him, as lithe and athletic as his
father was ancient and wizened. I despise him already.
“I understand that you were once quite the swordsman.” Vurms looked
Glokta up and down with a mocking smile. “I fence myself, and there’s really
no one here to challenge me. Perhaps we might have a bout?” I’d love to, you
little bastard. If I still had my leg I’d give you a bout of the shits before I was done.
“I did fence but, alas, I had to give it up. Ill health.” Glokta leered back
a toothless smile of his own. “I daresay I could still give you a few pointers,
48
BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED
though, if you’re keen to improve.” Vurms frowned at that, but Glokta had
already moved on. “You must be Haddish Kahdia.”
The Haddish was a tall, slender man with a long neck and tired eyes. He
wore a simple white robe, a plain white turban wound about his head. He
looks no more prosperous than any of the other natives down in the Lower City, and
yet there is a certain dignity about him.
“I am Kahdia, and I have been chosen by the people of Dagoska to speak
for them. But I no longer call myself Haddish. A priest without a temple is
no priest at all.”
“Must we still hear about the temple?” whined Vurms.
“I am afraid you must, while I sit on this council.” He looked back at
Glokta. “So there is a new Inquisitor in the city? A new devil. A new bringer
of death. Your comings and goings are of no interest to me, torturer.”
Glokta smiled. Confessing his hatred for the Inquisition without even seeing my
instruments. But then his people can hardly be expected to have much love for the
Union, they’re little better than slaves in their own city. Could he be our traitor?
Or him? General Vissbruck seemed every inch a loyal military man, a
man whose sense of duty was too strong, and whose imagination was too
weak, for intrigue. But few men become Generals without looking to their own profit,
without oiling the wheels, without keeping some secrets.
Or him? Korsten dan Vurms was sneering at Glokta as though at a badly
cleaned latrine he had to use. I’ve seen his like a thousand times, the arrogant
whelp. The Lord Governor’s own son, perhaps, but it’s plain enough he has no loyalty
to anyone beyond himself.
Or her? Magister Eider was all comely smiles and politeness, but her eyes
were hard as diamonds. Judging me like a merchant judges an ignorant customer.
There’s more to her than fine manners and a weakness for foreign tailoring. Far more.
Or him? Even the old Lord Governor seemed suspect now. Are his eyes and
ears as bad as he claims? Or is there a hint of play-acting in his squinting, his demands
to know what’s going on? Does he already know more than anyone?
Glokta turned and limped towards the window, leaned against the
beautifully carved pillar beside it and peered out at the astonishing view, the
evening sun still warm on his face. He could already feel the council members
shifting restlessly, keen to be rid of him. I wonder how long before they order the
QUESTIONS
49
cripple out of their beautiful room? I do not trust a one of them. Not a one. He
smirked to himself. Precisely as it should be.
It was Korsten dan Vurms who lost patience first. “Superior Glokta,” he
snapped. “We appreciate your thoroughness in presenting yourself here, but
I am sure you have urgent business to attend to. We certainly do.”
“Of course.” Glokta hobbled back to the table with exaggerated slowness
as if he were leaving the room. Then he slid out a chair and lowered himself
into it, wincing at the pain in his leg. “I will try to keep my comments to a
minimum, at least to begin with.”
“What?” said Vissbruck.
“Who is this fellow?” demanded the Lord Governor, craning forwards
and squinting with his weak eyes. “What is going on here?”
His son was more direct. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he
demanded. “Are you mad?” Haddish Kahdia began to chuckle softly to
himself. At Glokta, or at the rage of the others, it was impossible to say.
“Please, gentlemen, please.” Magister Eider spoke softly, patiently. “The
Superior has only just arrived, and is perhaps ignorant of how we conduct
business in Dagoska. You must understand that your predecessor did not
attend these meetings. We have been governing this city successfully for
several years, and—”
“The Closed Council disagrees.” Glokta held up the King’s writ between
two fingers. He let everyone look at it for a moment, making sure they could
see the heavy seal of red and gold, then he flicked it across the table.
The others stared over suspiciously as Carlot dan Eider picked up the
document, unfolded it and started to read. She frowned, then raised one
well-plucked eyebrow. “It seems that we are the ignorant ones.”
“Let me see that!” Korsten dan Vurms snatched the paper out of her
hands and started to read it. “It can’t be,” he muttered. “It can’t be!”
“I’m afraid that it is.” Glokta treated the assembly to his toothless leer.
“Arch Lector Sult is most concerned. He has asked me to look into the
disappearance of Superior Davoust, and also to examine the city’s defences. To
examine them carefully, and to ensure that the Gurkish stay on the other side
of them. He has instructed me to use whatever measures I deem necessary.”
He gave a significant pause. “Whatever . . . measures.”
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BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED
“What is that?” grumbled the Lord Governor. “I demand to know what
is going on!”
Vissbruck had the paper now. “The King’s writ,” he breathed, mopping
his sweaty forehead on the back of his sleeve, “signed by all twelve chairs on
the Closed Council. It grants full powers!” He laid it down gently on the
inlaid tabletop, as though worried it might suddenly burst into flames. “This
is—”
“We all know what it is.” Magister Eider was watching Glokta
thoughtfully, one fingertip stroking her smooth cheek. Like a merchant who
suddenly becomes aware that her supposedly ignorant customer has fleeced her, and not
the other way around. “It seems Superior Glokta will be taking charge.”
“I would hardly say taking charge, but I will be attending all further
meetings of this council. You should consider that the first of a very great
number of changes.” Glokta gave a comfortable sigh as he settled into his
beautiful chair, stretching out his aching leg, resting his aching back. Almost
comfortable. He glanced across the frowning faces of the city’s ruling council.
Except, of course, that one of these charming people is most likely a dangerous traitor.
A traitor who has already arranged the disappearance of one Superior, and may very
well now be considering the removal of a second . . .
Glokta cleared his throat. “Now then, General Vissbruck, what were you
saying as I arrived? Something about the walls?”
A World Too Near
Book Two of The Entire and The Rose
Kay Kenyon
“Kenyon’s latest has it all—plot, character, action, science, and
the sense of wonder that all the cynics say can’t be done
anymore. A remarkable achievement.”
—Mike Resnick, Hugo-winning author of
Starship: Mercenary and Santiago
I
n Bright of the Sky, Kay Kenyon introduced a milieu unique in science fiction and
fantasy: The Entire, a five-armed radial universe that exists in a dimension without
stars and planets and is parallel to our own universe. Stretched over The Entire is a lid
of plasma, called the bright, which ebbs and flows, bringing day and twilight. Under
the vast canopy of the bright live many galactic species, copied from our own universe.
Former star pilot Titus Quinn loves The Entire, but now he must risk
annihilating it by destroying the fortress of Ahnenhoon. To sustain a faltering Entire,
Ahnenhoon’s great engine will soon reach through the brane separating the universes
and consume our own universe in a concentrated ball of fire.
Quinn sets off on a journey across The Entire armed with the nan, a small ankle
bracelet containing nanoscale military technology that can reduce Ahnenhoon and its
deadly engine to chaos. He must pursue his mission even though his wife is held prisoner
in Ahnenhoon and his own daughter has sent the assassin MoTi to hunt him down.
As he traverses the galactic distances of The Entire, he learns more of the secrets
of its geography, its fragile storm walls, its eons-long history, and the factions that
contend for dominance. One of these factions is led by his daughter, who though
young and a slave, has at her command a transforming and revolutionary power.
As Quinn wrestles with looming disaster and approaches the fabled concentric rings
of Ahnenhoon’s defenses, he learns that in the Entire, nothing is what it appears. Its
denizens are all harboring secrets, and the greatest of these is the nature of the Entire itself.
About the author: Kay Kenyon, nominated for the Philip K. Dick and the John W.
Campbell awards, began her writing career (in Duluth, Minnesota) as a copywriter for
radio and TV. She kept up her interest in writing through careers in marketing and
urban planning, and published her first novel, The Seeds of Time, in 1997. She is the
author of Bright of the Sky: Book One of The Entire and The Rose, plus numerous short
stories, including those in I, Alien; Live Without a Net; and Stars: Stories Based on the Songs
of Janis Ian. She lives in Wenatchee, Washington, with her husband.
Visit Kay Kenyon online at
www.kaykenyon.com.
Cover Illustration: © Stephan Martiniere
ISBN: 978–1–59102–642–6
Hardcover • March 2008
Part i
A
Burning
Rose
C
Chapter One
DDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDD
Storm wall, hold up the bright,
Storm wall, dark as Rose night,
Storm wall, where none can pass,
Storm wall, always to last.
—a child’s verse
A
BOVE THE FORTRESS THE SKY DIMMED TO LAVENDER, a time that passed
for night in this world. Here every creature knew by their internal
clock what time of night or day it was, all but Johanna Quinn, a woman of
Earth. Between this universe and the next only a thin wall intervened, a
permanent storm that forbade contact between Earth and the Entire. Or so
most believed.
Johanna hurried down deserted corridors following the heavy drumbeat
of the engine just ahead, a bass thrumming that pounded in her ears and the
hollow of her chest. Coming to a divide in the hall she took the left branch,
remembering her partial and wholly inadequate map. This hall too was
deserted, and she rushed on. She prayed not to be discovered, although she
had her alibi, thin as it might be.
Johanna wondered how he would kill her when the time came. There
were good ways and bad, and she allowed herself—amid all her sacrifices—to
have a strong preference in the matter. Her captors could do what they
wished, of course. They were Tarig.
Tonight only one Tarig inhabited the Repel of Ahnenhoon, and Johanna
profoundly hoped their paths would not cross. Her presence in this hall was
not strictly forbidden, though. In her ten years of captivity she had earned a
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A World Too Near
degree of freedom. Like a butterfly with a pin through its body, she could
move up, down, and in a circle. Enough freedom to have learned by now how
large, how vastly large, was her prison with its thousand miles of corridors
and mazes. Even so, few sentients lived here—a measure of Tarig confidence
regarding assault and their preference for solitary lives. However, they had
not reckoned what havoc a lone woman could wreak.
Something yanked her from behind. She stifled a gasp, staggering. But
it was only her long hair, caught for a moment in a knot of cables snaking
along the wall. She tucked her hair into her tunic collar and hurried on,
following the thunder of the engine, louder now as she approached its seat.
Up ahead was the opening she sought: the deck that circled the
containment chamber. She passed through the arch and onto the catwalk
where in time of siege defenders of the Repel might take aim against
intruders. That Johanna was such an intruder her lord would be surprised to
discover.
She gazed out on a broad valley of giant and baffling technology. Lights
winked across acres of metal machines—many presumably computational
devices—separated by paths as narrow as the Tarig who had made them.
Alongside these machines tall struts held up silos of churning material, and
these in turn sheltered docks of instrumentation, arcane in design and
disorienting in their scale. An occasional gleam announced the work of
molecular fabbers cleaning and repairing. Standing on the high deck Johanna
could easily see the great engine nesting at the center of the cavern. It
shuddered and boomed, knocking all other sounds out of the air. The engine
of Ahnenhoon.
From this distance it looked no larger than her fist. It crouched in two
lobes like a metal heart. Within sight but not within reach. At floor level the
engine nested in the center of an unbreachable maze. This was why she had
come here tonight: to look for patterns. Somewhere in this cavern lay a
path—a continuous course from the perimeter of the walls to the engine.
Someday she would walk that path, to the heart of it. She gripped the rail and
peered, searching for any route she could spy from this vantage point. Her eyes
grew weary with the paths and their twists. She prayed for keen sight, being
one who believed in prayer. But each lane that she traced through the valley
Kay Kenyon
59
of machines came to an end or fed back to the beginning. The maze held.
Nearby, perhaps three miles distant, the wall of the universe formed a
barrier between this cosmos and Earth’s. The wall, crafted by vast and
faultless technologies, resisted penetration. Yet this lobed engine could reach
through, bringing about the collapse of all that she loved: the Earth and
everything else beyond imagination to the ends of the folded, curving
universe. It would not, Lord Inweer said, happen today or next year, but soon.
In response to the siren call of the engine the Rose universe would fall in on
itself in an instant. Thus collapsed it would burn so very brightly. A fine
source of fuel and virtually an eternal one.
For all her intent gaze the maze kept its secret. No paths pierced the
heart of the chamber; at least not one she could see. This excursion was a
failure. God, of course, didn’t owe her a revelation.
She felt more than heard a presence behind her. Turning, she saw her
servant. The vile creature had followed her.
“SuMing,” Johanna said, keeping her voice even.
SuMing bowed. As she did so her braid fell forward, a great rope of hair
that hung to her waist.
“Did you bring my shawl? One is cold.”
“Your shawl is in your apartments of course.”
“Then you have a long walk back, SuMing.”
With a hint of a smile, SuMing bowed to her mistress. She had no choice
but to fetch the shawl. As she turned away she stopped suddenly, then bowed
again, deeply this time, as another figure appeared from a side corridor.
It was the Tarig lord. SuMing must have alerted him. Johanna bowed to
Lord Inweer. “Bright Lord.”
In the early days his form had disquieted her, but no longer. Her lord’s
face was fine, even beautiful. One could become accustomed to anything,
living with it long enough, Johanna had learned. The Tarig even seemed
normal with their muscular, attenuated bodies and seven-foot height.
Standing before Johanna now, Lord Inweer’s skin gleamed with a copper
tinge as though he were cast from metal. SuMing hurried past him, causing
his slit skirt to billow. “Stay,” Lord Inweer said. The servant stopped and
turned back, waiting on her lord’s pleasure.
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A World Too Near
However, Inweer took no further notice of SuMing, his eyes fixed on her
mistress.
“Johanna,” he said, his voice smooth and deep. “We find you abroad. Not
sleeping, hnn?”
She had planned what to say if caught. With all the poise she could
muster she turned from him, looking down into the chamber. “It called me.
I had to see it.”
In four strides he stood next to her, his gaze sweeping the great hall one
hundred feet below.
To Johanna’s dismay she found herself shaking. She breathed deeply to
control this, but Inweer had already noticed.
“Afraid of heights, Johanna? Or afraid of us?”
“Both,” she answered, though only one was true.
On her back she felt the pressure of his hand, heavy and warm, without
claws. Perhaps he believed her. She had served him well, and received his
indulgence in return. Until lately, since the news had come that Titus Quinn
had been seen again in the great Tarig city far away. And that he had fled,
taking all the Tarig brightships with him. Now Inweer had cause to worry
where her loyalties lay. He suspected that she still loved her husband, and she
let him believe that. It conveniently explained her agitation these days. But
she hoped that Titus had forgotten her. He should concentrate on more
urgent matters. Such as this engine. If he knew it existed. Pray God that he
did know it existed: She had risked everything to ensure that he did.
Inweer guessed that her thoughts were of her husband. “Titus did not
rescue you when he came to the bright city. Did you think it possible?”
“No. Still . . .” She put on a wry smile. “My husband was always
unpredictable.”
“We recall.” Once, long ago, Inweer had known Titus in the Ascendancy
where the Tarig had kept him. All the ruling lords had known him. One had
died of the experience.
Inweer watched her with an unblinking, black gaze. “You must shut
your ears against the engine.”
“I can’t.”
“Other things which we required of you were eventually possible. You recall?”
Kay Kenyon
61
Now he toyed with her. She dared to leave his question unanswered.
Instead she murmured, “Why did you ever tell me, my lord?”
In his chambers one ebb-time when he had held her as she wept, he had
murmured the thing that he thought might release her from longing. He had
told her the purpose of the engine.
“We should not have done it if it deprives you of rest. An error?”
She put her hands on the railing, feeling the engine’s drumming even
there. “Perhaps.” You made a mistake, she thought, a most profound mistake.
“Yes, an error,” he conceded. “We wished for you to give up your hope of
home. It had sickened you. We favor that you remain well.” He added
unnecessarily, “You will never go home.”
“If not, I wish always to be with you, Bright Lord.”
“Yes,” he murmured.
If it appeared that he had forgotten SuMing he now made clear that he
had not. “SuMing,” he said, “come to us.”
SuMing appeared by his side, bowing low. “Bright Lord?”
Without looking at her but still gazing outward, he said, “Climb onto
the railing.”
Her mouth quivered, then released the words, “Yes, Lord.” Wearing
practical tunic pants, she climbed up, sliding her legs over the railing,
locking her hands in position. She teetered ever so slightly.
Lord Inweer said, “Johanna, are you cold? You shake.”
“Yes, very cold.”
“SuMing,” he said, “remove your jacket.”
To do so SuMing had to remove one hand from the rail to undo the
clasps. After a long fumbling at knots she undid the five buttons, dipping
one shoulder to let the jacket fall away, leaving her with a small shift for a
top.
“Hand it to your mistress.”
She did so and Johanna took the garment, locking glances with the
terrified girl. The silks of the girl’s tunic rustled in the air currents from
below.
“Now jump,” Lord Inweer said.
Without hesitation, SuMing let go, pushed off, and plummeted. In an
62
A World Too Near
instant Inweer had grabbed her braid, stopping her fall and ripping a terrible
shriek from her. Then she hung quietly, her braid clutched in Lord Inweer’s
hand.
Inweer’s outstretched arm did not tire. He turned to Johanna. “Shall I
open my hand?”
Below, SuMing hung perfectly still, keeping a terrible silence. Johanna
wished she were strong enough to rid herself of this enemy. But not this way.
“No, my lord,” she whispered, “I will teach her to better please us.”
He cocked his head. “If so.”
She nodded.
Then Inweer raised his arm, lifting SuMing’s limp body in an effortless
maneuver that hauled her onto the railing. With his other hand he pulled her
knees clear and deposited her on the floor, where the girl collapsed,
twitching. A trickle of blood fell down her neck.
Ignoring SuMing, Inweer resumed his conversation with Johanna. “It all
has a price,” he said, gazing at the engine. “Even the gracious lords must pay
a price for all we do.”
Johanna watched SuMing shivering on the floor, her scalp pulled halfway
from her head. She could not go to her yet.
Inweer went on. “You understand the price?”
“Insofar as I can.”
“You can understand.”
In saying this he required her to leave him blameless in the matter of the
engine. The Tarig universe was failing, its power source rapidly depleting.
Only one decent substitute existed: Johanna’s universe. So the burning of the
Rose was the price for the billion sentient lives gathered here in their
far-flung sways and in their common hopes for life and love. The same things
that people on Earth desired, which only one place could have.
SuMing inched away from the precipice and pulled herself into a ball,
hugging her knees.
“SuMing,” Johanna said, “can you walk?”
“Yes, mistress,” she whispered.
“Then go to bed.” Even traumatized and bleeding, SuMing should get
out of Inweer’s sight quickly.
Kay Kenyon
63
SuMing looked up. Her expression might as easily have been hatred as
gratitude. She crawled backward for a small distance, eyes on Lord Inweer.
Then she managed to stand up and stagger away.
Johanna felt a cold river move through her, the currents of things to
come. The person sitting on the rail might easily have been herself. It helped
to watch how others faced a terrible death. SuMing had been brave.
Inweer held out an arm for her. “Now you will rest?”
She laid her hand on that hard skin, that tapering arm.
It would all be so simple if she despised this Tarig lord. But that was far
from the case.
She looked into his dark eyes. “Yes,” she said, answering whatever he had
asked her. She must always say yes. Loving him, it was easy to do. In most
things she gladly obeyed, serving him in all ways but one.
Chapter two
DDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDD
T
QUINN WATCHED WITH ONLY A FEW MISGIVINGS as his niece and
nephew played with the world’s most comprehensive standard-gauge
model train collection outside of a museum. It was worth upward of a
half-million dollars, and used to be off-limits to touching, except by himself.
Today he allowed six-year-old Emily to hold the train set controls, and
eleven-year-old Mateo to polish a locomotive. They were his only family in this
universe, and he meant to cherish them until he returned to the other one.
“All aboard,” Emily declared, presiding over the Ives New York Central
model train, just pulling out of the station by the bookcase. She slammed the
start button with her fist, causing Quinn to wince. The S-class locomotive
strained to life, hauling four illuminated passenger cars plus flatcars, boxcars,
tenders, and a caboose.
Next to him at the dining room table, Mateo polished up the Coral
Aisle, using the special cloth that Quinn reserved for the locomotives. “When
will Mom and Dad be back?”
“Tomorrow, Ace. You get to see them tomorrow.”
Mateo’s face fell. “Maybe they’ll stay longer.”
“Hold on,” he heard Emily say.
The Ives New York Central barreled toward the sofa, zooming too fast
into the turn. He saw the trajectory, and knew it would be grabbing air. He
jumped up, gesturing uselessly. “Emily . . .”
Too late for interventions, the locomotive jumped the tracks coming out
of the turn, flying a couple of feet before folding back on the tender unit and
first three passenger cars. It fell to the floor with a sickening clatter.
ITUS
65
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A World Too Near
Reaching Emily’s side, Quinn saw the tears welling, her face starting to
come apart with shock. “Hey, don’t worry,” he told her. “They make these
trains real strong.”
Emily’s mouth crumpled, but she held on to her dignity.
At Quinn’s feet, the locomotive lay, still humming with power. He shut
down the system with a signal of his data rings, the ones he’d forgotten he
wore, that could have avoided this accident if he’d been paying attention.
Mateo ran over to survey the damage. “Boy, did you screw up,” he told
his sister. “You broke it.”
Quinn snorted. “Hey, a simple crash like this? Hell no. We’ll just pick
it up, okay?”
She nodded, sniffing back tears. “We’ll fix it?”
He paused, thinking of a small alien girl who had recently been sure he
was a man who could fix things. The day, already rainy, seemed darker for a
moment. There were things he’d done on his mission for Minerva Company
that haunted him.
“Sure, we’ll fix it. But later.” He stood up, needing some fresh air, even
if it was sodden with cold spring fog. “Get your coats, guys.”
“It’s raining,” Mateo said.
“You bet. That’s why the coats.” Quinn led the way, stopping Emily on
the porch to redo the mismatched buttoning of her yellow jacket.
Outside, the rain had upgraded into a wet fog, with the sky brightening
to a lighter shade of gray.
Not like the bright. The bright sky of the Entire. The place that, after
only a few weeks’ absence, had begun to pull on him like a force of gravity.
When he went back, he would be not a sojourner, but a strike force. Fire, oh
fire, the navitar had said on that impossible river of the Entire. And, Johanna
is at the center of it. In two utterances predicting that the Tarig would burn
this universe, and that Johanna would warn him of it. Before she died.
“Uncle Titus?” Emily gazed at him. He was still holding on to her yellow
jacket.
How could they burn a universe—collapse it in an instant? There was a
way, the physics team said, and it elegantly bypassed speed-of-light issues
and all the other objections. A quantum transition. If the universe, our
Kay Kenyon
67
universe, was not at the lowest-energy state possible, it could make an
instantaneous quantum leap, turning matter—all matter, everywhere—into
hot plasma. This was just one theory of a dozen or so that attempted to
explain what Johanna said the Tarig knew how to do. And were starting to
do, at Ahnenhoon.
“Uncle Titus?” Emily repeated, trying to pull away.
He released her. “Stay close so I can see you, okay?”
She ran off down the strand toward her waiting brother.
When he was around Emily and Mateo, the Tarig seemed remote, hardly
credible. Even after years in their presence, he still knew little of them.
Where did the Tarig come from, really, beyond the legends they fostered?
Were there limits to their powers? How did they manipulate matter and
energy as they did? They hoarded much, and even those sentients who knew
them well were not privy to essential Tarig secrets.
He watched Emily in the hillocky sand, her small legs pounding, hands
held out for balance. His daughter had loved the ocean. Did Sydney miss it
where she was? She would be grown up now, and beyond sand pails and shell
collections. Perhaps beyond him as well, although that did not bear long
thought. He lengthened his stride to keep the kids in view. As they raced
down the beach, Quinn ran too, into the stinging air, icy with moisture.
Out of a curl of fog a figure appeared, near the dunes. It startled him. The
whole beach hereabouts was his. Others were not welcome.
The figure stood on the beach, dressed in a parka and what looked like
suit pants and city shoes.
“Who the hell are you?” Quinn said. The stranger remained silent.
“Kids! Over here now. I want you over here.” Quinn walked up to the
intruder. “So who the hell are you?”
The man sported a day’s growth of beard and piercing blue eyes—but
watery, as though unused to salt air. The breeze rustled graying hair. He
made no move to respond.
“Pissing me off,” Quinn growled at him. “This is my property.”
A reaction finally, a sour face. “Property. Like that other place? You
know. That belongs to everybody. Not just you, Quinn.”
This stranger knew his name. Quinn was suddenly conscious that he
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A World Too Near
hadn’t come armed on this excursion. Usually, outdoors, he carried a knife,
an artifact of another place. But not today.
“That’s fine,” Quinn shot back. “But you’re on my property, fellow.
You’ll leave now. Might try calling for an appointment.” Quinn looked down
the beach. The kids were walking back toward him.
“Property,” the man said. He looked beyond Quinn, to the surf, the
horizon. “Who do you think owns the water out there? The damn ocean.” He
came closer, and his breath smelled of whiskey. “Everybody owns it. Same as
the other place.”
“Other place?”
An unpleasant smile. “Yes. The Entire, isn’t it?”
Quinn hoped he’d heard wrong.
“The Entire,” the man repeated. “What you call it, right? Doesn’t belong
to you or your damn company. Belongs to damn everyone. Think you’re the
only one wants to have that nice big life?” Spoken with righteous contempt.
“Get out of here. I’m calling my security. You better be gone.”
“Okay, sure. We’ll talk later, when you’re in a better frame of mind.” He
emphasized frame of mind viciously. “Just want you to remember me, Quinn.
And that I know. There’s lots of people who know. Keep it in mind.” He
started to back off.
Mateo appeared out of the fog, coming to Quinn’s side. Quinn put his
arm around Mateo’s shoulders.
“Where’s your sister?” Quinn murmured to him.
The figure in the parka moved off toward the dunes. He climbed the first
dune and stood for a moment, a shadow against the glowering sky.
“A little warning,” the man shouted at Quinn, his voice tinny. He
disappeared down the other side of the dune, leaving Quinn unsettled and
nervous.
The fog blew in wisps, and the waves crashed again in normal cadence.
“Where’s your sister?” Quinn asked.
“I don’t know.”
That jerked Quinn to attention. “She’s not with you?”
“I thought she was here with you.”
Then, Mateo in hand, Quinn ran down the beach. She was up ahead.
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Surely just up ahead. Quinn ran until Mateo cried out, and then Quinn
stopped, knowing he had run farther than Emily could have gone in a couple
of minutes.
Shouting her name, he raced for the dunes. He didn’t look at the surf.
She hadn’t gone near the water; she was smarter than that. In the dunes, his
instinct told him. He raced to the edge of the dunes, and crested the first one,
looking wildly at the grasses and gullies. Seeing no one, he charged over the
next ridge, and the next, calling. But she was gone. Gone with the man in
the parka. Kidnapped.
The enormity of this thought tightened his innards. Emily, he said, barely
breathing. Grabbing Mateo by the hand, he raced down the beach toward the
cottage. There was only one road in and out of here. Sometime in the past few
minutes he’d heard a car engine. Whoever it was had come by car.
Quinn stormed into the cottage to grab his keys, yelling for Mateo to go
to the car. They met there and piled in. Quinn gunned the sports car out of
the garage, yanking it around to climb up the driveway, and careened out
onto the road. Choosing the direction toward the highway, he voiced a
security alert and saw by the light on his dashCom that it had gone out. He
drove fast, straining to see ahead in the fog.
“Did that guy take Emily?” Mateo asked, looking miserable.
“I don’t know.” He tried to wrap his mind around the situation. The
word was out; people knew about things Minerva had hoped to keep to
themselves—things too big to keep to themselves, too big to patent. And
now people were using Emily to be sure they got a piece of paradise. They
might be surprised to learn what paradise had in store for them. . . .
An incoming voice message from his security backup brought his
attention back to the moment. He answered. Come by air. Come now.
He jammed around a curve, all the while drenched in a sense of the unreal.
How could this be happening? How could he have let her out of his sight?
“Uncle Titus, slow down.” Hunkered down, Mateo held on to the edge
of the bucket seat.
Yes, going too fast. Too fast in the fog, with bad traction, and
reinforcements coming anyway. It would all be over soon. It would—
Something in the road. Steering to avoid collision, Quinn slammed on
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A World Too Near
the brakes, jolting the two of them forward, into the dashboard. A few
picoseconds before impact of head to steering wheel, the vehicle’s interior
phased into a yielding matrix, softening the crash impact. The rear end
skidded to the side, sending the car nose first into a ditch and knocking
Quinn’s breath out of him.
Quiet settled around him. “Mateo?”
A shaky voice. “I’m okay.”
Quinn hauled himself from the car and ran down the road to the place
where he’d seen a streak of bright yellow. He cried out, “Emily? Emily?”
A high-pitched voice threaded to him; perhaps Mateo—Mateo, whom
he’d left in the car, maybe hurt. God, the world was a jumble. He whirled
around. Standing at the side of the road a short distance away was Emily.
Her jacket was still buttoned all the way to the top, and she stood just
as she had on the porch. Racing to her, he scooped her up, hugging her
fiercely. Her arms went around his neck, bringing the smell of wet wool to
his nostrils.
At last he released her. “Where’ve you been, honey?” His voice, shaky.
“Went for a ride.” She looked worried.
“A ride?”
Then Mateo joined them, looking tussled but not bruised.
“Those people,” Emily said, looking down the road. “I didn’t want to go,
but . . .” She took one look at her uncle’s face and started to fall apart.
“No, honey,” he said quickly, relief washing over him in progressive
waves. “I’m not mad at you. It’s fine. You’re fine, sweetheart. I just love you,
that’s all.”
Mateo looked at his sister and shook his head slowly. “Screwed up again, Em.”
Clutching Emily to his chest, Quinn looked down the dirt road, where
the would-be kidnappers had fled. If they’d meant to keep her, they could
have. This was just a little shot over the bow from the man in the parka.
He took Emily and Mateo to the side of road and sat down, an arm
around each of them. He’d known, he’d always known, that the larger world
mingled with the personal. Great events corkscrewed into small ones, leaving
holes, sometimes eternal ones. His life had been like that lately.
Fortune hunters could break into his own backyard and demand that he
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change his frame of mind. They could demand answers to a few questions,
questions new in the history of the world. Questions such as, Who does the
universe next door belong to?
And who gets to decide?
C
Stefan Polich kept well back from the edge of the sixty-story drop, high
railing or not. The item he held in his hand was too precious to risk a slip.
On the outside, it was merely a gray velvet case the size of a dollar bill, but
it held a costly payload.
Stefan turned the box over in his hand, hearing the soft clunk inside, a
reassuringly heavy clunk, and an expensive one. The contents represented
thousands of person-hours, crammed into the short period of time that Titus
Quinn had been back.
A security guard came to the edge of the patio, nodding to signify that
Helice Maki was here.
“A moment,” Stefan muttered. Let her wait. The woman plagued
him—newest, youngest, and oddly, most dangerous member of the board. It
rubbed the wound raw to remember that he was the one who’d put her name
forward in the first place.
His glance came back to the gray velvet case. Calibrated to maim, not to
kill. All the scientific resources and capability of the fifth-largest ultratech
company in the world assured him that this thing was calibrated precisely.
Local effects, devastating ones, with an internalized mortality sequence to
ensure containment. He believed his people when they told him this. He
prayed they were right. Prayer sat uneasily on him, but to lead you needed a
little faith. That was something Stefan had recently decided, now that he was
dealing with the most startling turn of events: contact with a stage-four
civilization, one that had created, or at least enlivened, a separate but
proximate universe. These beings might normally have little reason to regard
the Earth, Minerva, and its CEO except for one inescapable fact: Their
universe was porous. One could enter. Cause trouble. The two universes were
linked, like conjoined twins. Unfortunately these twins shared only one
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heart.
Slipping the gray box into his jacket pocket, he nodded at the guard,
dreading the confrontation with Helice. Small of stature, large of ambition.
Had he erred terribly when he refused to let her go to the other place? Denied
her ambition, she had undermined him at every turn.
Helice came in, surrounded by three of the tallest security staff Stefan
had ever seen. He thought that she looked like a human among
Tarig—beings Quinn described as unnervingly tall and steely. But as to
predators, in this case it was the short one.
He waved her in. “Helice, good. Have a seat.”
She pulled up a chair by the door, leaving her bodyguards at their posts.
Stefan glanced at them. “Privacy, Helice.”
“These are dreds,” she said, using the pejorative term. “Harmless.” She
meant they were stupid. A dred had an average IQ—by definition around one
hundred. But stupid or not, they understood they’d just been insulted.
Seeing Stefan’s discomfort, she waved the guards away. The brutes went
through to Stefan’s drawing room, lurking just beyond hearing range. Since
the world had cracked open, Minerva board members went under guard, a
caution against competitor firms sniffing around the edges of the secret of the
Entire. They’d come to the brink in a damn hurry, since that innocent day
when a postdoc student discovered right-turning neutrinos and the other
place had announced itself with particles of impossible angular momentum.
“Nice view,” she said. “You can see forever.” The city sparkled in the
night glow of lit skyscrapers, gilded by rain.
“Wish I could. Wish I could damn well see tomorrow.” When the board
would vote on whether to send Quinn now, rather than later. Perhaps, if
Helice had any clout, they’d also vote on whether to send the man at all.
Someone had to go, and soon—now that the secret was out, proven by the
man who had trespassed on Quinn’s property yesterday.
Stefan poured two glasses of wine, noting how young Helice looked. She
was young. Twenty years old, the youngest quantum sapient engineering
graduate in Stanford’s history. Helice had surrounded herself with prodigies
like herself so long she had little tolerance for people of average—or even
above-average—intelligence. Stefan, on the other hand, had attended enough
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diversity training to understand that simple folk had their place, and it
wasn’t a bad one.
Helice broke into his thoughts. “When we first found it, we thought it
would save us.” She referred, of course, to the realm next door. Its inhabitants
called it the Entire, without regard for the fact that it was not all there was.
“Yes. We thought so.”
“Now it’s going to kill us.” Helice looked wistful, rather than afraid.
Perhaps one so young could not imagine her own death, much less the death
of everything.
Stefan still had trouble grasping the news that Titus Quinn had brought
home. That to preserve their unnatural environment, the lords of the Entire
would burn a natural one. It would be no act of malice or even ill will; they
needed this universe to sustain themselves. Once Tarig engines were up to
speed, the combustion would be instantaneous, forming a concentrated heart
of fire that would last the Entire billions of years. It was a loathsome act, like
dining on a child.
It was shock enough to discover an alien civilization. That it far
surpassed human achievements staggered him. The Tarig had, Quinn said,
found a barren universe and shaped it to their own desires. With powers like
this, what chance did the Rose, as they called our cosmos, have?
Stefan put his hand on the gray box, taking comfort from it.
“Sending Quinn is a mistake,” Helice said.
“Maybe. But there’s no time to train someone new.” Ever since Emily
Quinn’s brief abduction, they’d been racing to advance the schedule.
Competing factions had now come into view. “We have to move quickly.”
Helice shrugged. “We’ll let the board decide if that’s so.”
“Perhaps the board will be persuaded by this.” He pulled out the velvet
case, setting it on the table between them.
Her eyes flicked to it, then narrowed. “Oh. You are ready, aren’t you.”
Her forehead wrinkled to indicate she was thinking—thinking faster and
better than most.
Opening the box, Stefan exposed the bracelet. Noting her expression, he
said, “Don’t worry; it’s empty. The nan won’t be ready for a few days. But this
chain is what Quinn will carry with him when he goes. It’ll create a limited
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A World Too Near
but effective local collapse. Everything in a mile-wide circle will fall into
nanoscale chaos. Hard, built structures will fall to sludge.”
“And people.”
“Yes, if in the vicinity.”
Helice picked up the six-inch length of it. Heavy, it draped against her
hand.
“We call it a cirque,” he said. “He’ll wear it on his ankle.” He took it
from her. “It’s hollow, although to the naked eye it doesn’t have much
thickness. When live, it’ll be molecularly dense, loaded with nan.” He
indicated three indentations in the length of it. “Quinn will press these links
in a certain sequence, and that will bring the nan together in a stream, to
share information. From there it’ll build a surge momentum capable of
mutating the environs where it’s released.”
“Surge momentum. You mean a nanoscale changeover.”
“We don’t like to use that term.” Ever since nan technology became
practical, alarmists had warned that the molecular process could get out of
hand. Go uncontrolled, in a chain reaction. “We’ll be under control,” he said.
“There’s a phage system that shuts the whole sequence down after an hour.”
He indicated that she should hold out her hand. When she did, Stefan
slipped it around her wrist and inserted the two ends together to make a circlet.
“That’s the first step. Form a circlet. After pressing the codes into the
indentations, the timing is fifty minutes. Time for Quinn to get some distance.”
She dipped her hand, and the metal strip fell off her wrist onto the table.
“Oops. Good thing it’s not loaded.”
He stared at her. She had actually dropped a billion-dollar bracelet.
Stefan picked it up and replaced the chain in its case. He strove for patience.
“We’ll give this to him as soon as the board decides the schedule. It can’t be
soon enough. Quinn might not be ideal, but he’s all we’ve got, I’m afraid.”
“We’re all afraid. The board’s afraid.”
“No, not all of them. Only your people on the board.” Of course it only
took 51 percent to quash the whole deal. They could agree with Helice that
Titus Quinn was too shaky, too odd, too driven. They could argue that they
needed someone under better control. Someone like Helice. Sitting across
from him she looked damn cocky, as though she’d counted the votes and
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liked her tally.
She gazed out over the city. “All you need to do is compromise a little.”
“Send you instead?” How could she still be harping on this? She was
young and inexperienced. Without the language, without decent cultural
cover. She knew nothing about the place except what Quinn had told them
in debriefings. And by her own admission, he’d withheld plenty: the name of
the Tarig lord who could be subverted, for instance. All to make himself
indispensable.
“Yes, send me.” She pinned him with a gaze unfettered by wine and
goodwill. “I’d stay on task. The man can ruin our only chance. Over there they
don’t know that we know what they’re up to. They won’t be on guard yet. We
have one chance to take Ahnenhoon out of action. If Quinn blows this—goes
looking for the daughter, whatever—we won’t get a second chance. Kiss the
Earth good-bye, and wave a last time at the stars. It’s all for burning.” She
smiled prettily. “That’s my pitch for the board tomorrow. Like it?”
“No.” He rose, and went to the railing. His hands made sweat marks on
the railing. Looking down, he got that little jolt from the profoundly
dropping view. If he just knew which way the board would vote. Christ
almighty, the Tarig wanted to burn the Rose like an enduring source of coal.
Might take a few decades, but they’d already started the process. Stars sucked
out of existence . . .
He turned to her in frustration. “What do you want, Helice?”
“To win.” She joined him at the railing.
“What would you settle for?”
“I’m not sure I have to settle.”
He stared out into a wall of rain borne in on a bank of fog from the river
and deflected by the veranda’s climate control. “The thing that bothers me?
I just don’t believe you. You don’t think Quinn will fail. You just want to go
there yourself, and would sacrifice everything to do it. Sorry. It paints an ugly
picture of you, I realize.”
“I don’t deny it. I want to go.”
“Clouds your judgment, you know.”
Her voice went low and throaty. “I was there when he came back—you
remember? I listened to him for weeks. Every day, we debriefed him—six,
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seven hours at a stretch—and yes, I was intrigued. It would take a heart of
stone not to . . . not to want to go. The creatures. Those sentient species. The
storm walls. I want to see these things for myself. I want that.” She stared
into the rain as though she saw them now. “There are other sentient races out
there, Stefan. We may never find them otherwise. But they’re in this one
place. So yes, I want to go.”
After a pause she said, “But that’s not the reason I’m volunteering. I
don’t expect you to believe me.”
“Just tell me what it’ll take to not hear your pitch tomorrow.”
She said simply, “Send me with him. He goes. Okay. But I go with him.”
Stefan looked at her with new appreciation. The woman could
compromise. She wanted it that much. She wanted the Entire in a strange,
unreasoning way. Her fascination might arise from how the place had affected
Quinn. A man obsessed. And Quinn had brought her down that path
slowly—without, at first, her even noticing it.
She wouldn’t give up; Stefan knew that. He fingered the velvet case in
his pocket. So much depended on the little circlet and its delivery to the right
place: the core of the enemy.
“All right,” he said. “You go.”
A smile hit her lips and stayed.
“If you’re set on this, make sure your papers are in order.” Tellingly, his
mind had jumped to the notion that she would die in the Entire.
She whispered, “Thank you, Stefan.”
It wasn’t a good compromise. Helice could slow Quinn down. She could
blow his cover by doing the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing. On the
other hand—a critical other hand—she might keep the man on track.
Now that he had overcome the last barrier to Quinn’s departure, he let
his mind settle uneasily into the image of Titus Quinn taking possession of
the cirque. The man who’d been, until recently, a hermit, and halfway mad.
“You think he’ll do the job? You think he can focus on what we need?”
“Frank opinion? He’s not your man. He’s got too much personal history
tied up in this. The wife, the daughter. Their home is, or was, the Entire.”
“But this”—he spread his hands in front of him—“is his world. We’ll be
utterly dependent on him. I don’t like the man, but he’s no coward.”
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She conceded, “Maybe not, but the question is, would he rather save us,
or go after his daughter?”
Stefan muttered, “Damn the daughter, anyway. Why couldn’t she have
died like her mother?”
Helice turned a sweet expression on him. “You could always give me the
cirque.”
Relentless, she was. “Let’s just say you’ll be backup. If he fails, then you
deliver it.” Every person on the board had misgivings about endangering the
Entire with this nano weapon. The place was a rich region to develop, and in
some respects the company’s future depended on it. Its byways might offer
safe paths to the stars of this universe. But before Minerva could develop the
Entire, they had to overcome it. Some might find that distasteful. But he
trusted Helice Maki had none of those scruples. She would cleave to her
mission like a pit bull.
She nodded, her eyes exultant. “You can count on me, Stefan.”
He imagined the furor when he broke this news to Quinn. “He won’t
like you going along, you know.”
“He’ll be okay,” she said. “Because we’re not going to tell him.”
Chapter three
DDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDD
T
HE YOUNG WOMAN’S FACE
held an unsettling combination of ecstasy and
innocence. Titus Quinn watched her fluid movements through the
window of the Deep Room, that light-filled tank where, as an mSap engineer,
she programmed the machine sapient. Her lips moved as she voiced code, but
with audio off, the impression was one of a woman dancing in light.
Quinn spoke to Caitlin standing next to him. “She looks too young to
train an mSap.”
“You have to be young, remember? Who else could keep up?”
The empty warehouse was a new acquisition. It worried Quinn that
Caitlin was here with only two bodyguards—presumably lurking on the
grounds, though Quinn hadn’t actually seen them. Lamar Gelde was waiting
outside, along with two cars full of security staff, all of them uneasy to be
making an unauthorized stop for Quinn’s personal business.
“She’s a renormalization expert,” Caitlin went on. “This sapient’s not
brand new. It used to work for the Coastal Desalinization. She’s retraining it,
bringing it around to seeing things our way.”
Quinn didn’t like the anthropomorphic references. The mSaps were just
machines, not really sapients or some kind of AI. Quantum processors did not
a consciousness make.
In the Deep Room, the engineer turned around. Her arms fell to her
sides, and some of the light of the mind-field subsided. She looked in their
direction, placidly, with that flat, hostile look of the wholly self-absorbed.
“Can she see us?” Quinn asked.
“If she’s paying attention to us. She’s still thinking, though.”
Oh, thinking. When you said that about a savvy, one who tested in the
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A World Too Near
upper limits of human intelligence, you said it respectfully. Normal snobbery
metastasized into something truly ugly these days, establishing a chasm
between middies like Caitlin and the technical smart-asses like this young
engineer. It gave Quinn a creepy feeling, this intelligence divide, in a world
where the rigors of advanced quantum physics and biomolecular engineering
evaded the understanding of all but a few. He was one of those, but he’d
bypassed the advanced degrees for a fast-track career as a starship pilot. So
much for smart.
He and Caitlin left the observation chamber, entering the warehouse
proper, soon to house Rob and Caitlin’s new software company. She stopped
in front of a double-paneled wood door, stranding her code into the smart
surface, releasing the locks.
They entered the office, cozy with rose-colored carpet, an expensive desk,
and a view out to a parkland—a far cry from Rob’s former life tending savants
like a groomer in a stable. Now Rob was an entrepreneur, thanks to his
brother’s millions—Quinn’s travel fees for duties performed in the Entire.
Quinn was glad that his brother had finally relented and taken the loan.
Caitlin settled herself into a leather sofa and he sat next to her, glad to have
a moment alone with her, wishing he could tell her what he was facing. She’d
always been his confidante. But for her safety, he could tell her nothing. And
what would he say, anyway? The world will end in fire, Caitlin. You think the
world is eternal, but it’s not. It’s fragile. A dry forest waiting to catch a spark.
That’s what matter is. Latent fire. He pictured a hot wind sweeping over
Portland, a storm of heat and smoke . . . and shook off the vision.
“How’s Emily?”
“Fine, thank God. She’s doing fine. It could have gone badly, and didn’t.
You’re not still thinking you’re responsible?” She shook her head
dismissively. “I’ll get us a drink.” Rummaging in boxes on the floor, Caitlin
tucked her dark blonde hair behind her ears as it fell forward, casually
feminine. She found two cups and a bottle of scotch.
“I don’t have much time, Caitlin.”
She smirked. “You’ve got time, Titus. They’ve got to wait for you. They
control so much, but not everything.”
She was right. He wasn’t a slave to their agendas. He was the only person
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who’d been to that other place and had any idea of how to survive there. The
thing that he wanted to tell Caitlin, and couldn’t, was that he might not
make it back. He would be entering a Tarig fortress. He hadn’t thought
much about escape. He couldn’t think past Ahnenhoon.
She poured him a drink and they toasted each other.
“I’m going back, Caitlin,” he said finally. “Leaving tomorrow.”
Watching Titus, Caitlin took a swallow to cushion her dismay. So soon.
Just when she had adjusted to having him back, and with that altered
face—more narrow, the eyes too dark, covered as they were with lenses that
were supposed to make his eyes look blue. She thought she detected a ring of
amber around his irises. But every time he spoke, she found the old Titus. No
one was quite like him, with his mannerisms, his way of moving and of
thinking. When she’d married Rob she foolishly thought he might be
something like his brother. But Rob was only Rob, and the recent vacation
hadn’t helped.
Titus said, “I’m worried about you and the kids. It feels like hell to be
leaving like this.”
She gestured around her. “You regret that we’ve got our dream company,
that we work for ourselves and don’t even need to work?”
“I regret the bastards are crawling all over you like flies on a picnic.”
The biggest fly was Stefan Polich, the man who’d personally threatened to
destroy her son’s upcoming testing results if Caitlin didn’t spy on Titus, report
on him. She’d expected retaliation when she’d told him to go to hell. Now that
Titus was leaving, she braced herself for something along those lines.
“We’ll survive,” she said. “I don’t walk around being scared. Besides,
what can you do? You’re going. You have to go.”
Titus hadn’t told her why. And she wasn’t going to ask. He looked like
he had things on his mind. That surely would be the adjoining universe, the
place where Sydney might still be alive. Caitlin had last seen Sydney and her
mother at Minerva’s private airport—Johanna holding Sydney’s hand, Sydney
hoisting her own duffel, just like her father’s. That was the last Caitlin ever
saw of her niece and sister-in-law.
She wished she’d never been party to the information that Johanna was
dead. It removed a barrier between her and Titus. He had to love somebody.
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A man like that would love somebody, love them ferociously. Here she sat,
the good little wife and mother, the good sister-in-law, never breaking the
rules, never letting herself go.
Her hand shook as she poured another splash of the scotch.
Misinterpreting, Titus said, “Let me get you more security. My people
this time.”
“Titus, no. I’m not going to live like that. Shut up about it. Besides, you think
because you’re leaving we’re less secure? After what happened on the beach?
Christ. Get you gone, and we’ll be better off.” If he was gone, there’d be no danger
of her letting go. Everyone was definitely better off with her not letting go.
“If they tinker with Mateo’s Standard Test, I’ll keelhaul their asses using
the biggest ship I can hijack.”
She smiled at the bravado. “But we won’t ever know if they tinkered. He
either tests savvy or he doesn’t.” She figured Mateo could well be one of the
superintelligent. He had his uncle’s genetic heritage, his grandfather’s.
Titus was looking out the window but not seeing the view, she guessed.
It seemed to her that he was already in the other place.
“There are some dark things over there,” he murmured. Perhaps he saw
that world right now, instead of the patch of woodland outside the window.
“They can hurt us.”
“Titus.” The unpleasant thought struck. “You’re in danger. This trip isn’t
just for Sydney, is it?”
A silence stretched on. Then he said, “If I don’t come back I want you to
have it all. You and Rob. Everything I have. You’ll need it.”
She put down her scotch. She didn’t want to talk about money. About
life with Titus gone. “We need you, Titus,” she said, wanting to say instead,
I need you. But she was the good sister-in-law. It was such pure shit.
She looked at him calmly, dropping her guard. “It isn’t working. Rob
and me, it isn’t working.” Noting his frown, she said, “You want us to be
happy with each other, I know. You want us to be a good family.” The
bitterness in her voice surprised her. When Titus didn’t respond, she
continued. “You want us to be what you used to be. Well we aren’t. We’re
just Rob and Caitlin, and it isn’t good. It can’t ever be good.”
He shook his head. “I knew there were issues. Rob isn’t always—”
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“Isn’t always what?” She let that hang in the air for a moment. “Isn’t you,
Titus. He isn’t you.” The words were such a relief, she felt a mountain of
tension leaving her body. No, Rob wasn’t a desiring creature, a striving
creature, with quick, unholy passions and the drive for adventure. Just once
in her life she’d like a man to make love to her as though he’d sell his soul to
do it. She closed her eyes. God, it was all such a mess. When she opened her
eyes, heavy tears stuck in the corners.
She wasn’t sure who moved first. They’d been sitting side by side, and
now she was in his arms, with tears their excuse. To hell with the excuse. She
wanted him to undress her right here on the couch.
“Please, Titus,” she whispered.
“Caitlin, Caitlin,” came his throaty reply.
She pulled her head away from his shoulder and kissed him. She couldn’t
stop herself, and was glad she couldn’t. His hands raked through her hair, and
he kissed her back. Titus was in charge, no question, and she would have done
anything, wanted him to take her to the limit. His hands were on her, and
she almost cried out at the pleasure of it.
Then he pulled back. He put his hands on the side of her face, looking
at her with an intensity that froze her.
He stood up, turning away. “Jesus,” he whispered.
It was all clear to her in an instant. He was saying no. Of course he was.
He couldn’t be a son-of-a-bitch who’d bed his brother’s wife.
“Caitlin,” he said. “I can’t. We can’t do this.”
“Speak for yourself,” she said, catching her breath.
He looked at her, emotions warring on his face. “I am.”
She calmed herself, pulling her hair behind her ears. “Is it because of
Johanna?”
“Because of Rob.”
She nodded. She wanted him to spell it out, wanted it to be clear now
that he was leaving and might not come back. “Was I ever someone you could
have loved?”
He looked at her, his face tight with emotion. “Christ, Caitlin, how can
I answer that? How can you ask me?”
She knew it wasn’t fair. Either answer would make her miserable. She
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stood up, smoothing her outfit. “Well, just so long as I was someone you
could have fucked.”
He grabbed her arm. “Jesus, that’s ugly.”
She knew it was. She smiled, and gently took his arms away. “I’m sorry,
Titus. I’m a little out of my mind right now. We both are.”
He stepped back, composing himself as well, but not willing to let it go just
yet. “Are we? Out of our minds? I could still throw caution away. Could you?”
“No,” she said, creating the hardest smile she’d ever faked.
He stood looking at her.
“You go now, Titus.” The sooner he walked out of there the better. She
felt like tinder near a fire. She wanted to burn. But she was able to hope, too,
that he’d just go.
“You and Rob . . . ,” he began. “I’m sorry.”
“Not your fault.” Not his fault for being the charismatic older brother.
“We’ll get by. We always do.”
He was still hesitating to leave. Finally he spoke the words that ended it
all right there. “I’m not saying that you should stay with Rob. That’s none of
my business, I know that. But if you don’t stay, I’m not in line, Caitlin. I
can’t be and still live with myself.”
“I know,” she whispered. The awful thing was, she did know. She
understood how it had to be. “Go bring that youngster home,” she told him.
“Bring yourself home.” She still meant that with all her heart.
And then he was gone.
C
“She took it badly?” Lamar Gelde looked worried as Quinn climbed into the
backseat of the company car, middle vehicle in a caravan of security.
“Yes.”
They pulled away, accelerating after reaching the smart surface of the
arterial.
Lamar nodded. In his seventy-six years, he had never married, had never
studied women’s behavior. But he said with elaborate weariness, “Women
hate to say good-bye.”
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85
“Yes.”
The city passed in a blur as the custom security vehicle eased into the
automated flow of the freeway, where at need the chauffeur could override,
pulling out of the linked formations of cars. Riding in the front passenger
seat, a thin man with a ponytail kept nearby vehicles under surveillance,
assessing armament with enhanced glasses made to look like sunglasses. The
man on the beach hadn’t been armed, but the next interested party might be.
Quinn sank into the backseat, thinking about Caitlin. He kicked himself
for not having known how she felt. For not knowing how vulnerable he was
when a woman he found attractive offered herself to him. It had been three
years since he’d been intimate with a woman, so he was a sitting duck for acts
of kindness. A few acts of kindness spooled through his mind.
“Want to stop off at Rob’s?” Lamar asked.
“No.” Not even. He’d call Rob to say good-bye.
The cars sped onward toward the airport, the dashCom winking with
traffic flow predictions. From there it was a short jaunt by hyperjet to the
mid-Pacific space elevator. Time to go. High time.
Quinn murmured to Lamar, “You’re sure we’re ready for this?” Minerva
had had only a few weeks to plan the mission. This time he would go armed
into the Entire, something he hated, even if there was no choice.
Lamar nodded. “It wasn’t hard once they put their savvy minds to it. A
bit of nan and the damage is done.” Lamar smiled, revealing good white
teeth, the best money could buy. Quinn didn’t begrudge him his vanity. In
his youth Lamar had been a handsome man. Lamar was now something
better: a good man. The only man in the company who’d stood up for Quinn
when he first came back from the Entire messed up, memory erased, family
lost. Gone over the edge, said Stefan Polich. Lamar had been his only ally and
got booted off the board as a result. These days he was Quinn’s handler
because Quinn wouldn’t allow handling by anyone else.
Half of Quinn’s mind was still back with Caitlin. Pray God she didn’t
hate him. Things he should have said crossed his mind, and then what he had
said: I’m not in line. Ugly. Blunt. Maybe it needed to be.
“I’m sorry about where you’re headed,” Lamar was saying. “It’s damn
dangerous. I owe your father more than to send his boy into this madness.”
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“Is that what it is? Madness? They’re burning stars, Lamar. Beta Pictoris.
The Trapezium Cluster. Hoping to do worse.”
Lamar sighed. “Sons of bitches. Like being eyeballed by a tiger for a
snack.”
“My father would want me to go.” And then, mind back on Caitlin,
moving to a safe topic regarding her: “But if I don’t come back, you take care
of Caitlin Quinn. My assets go to her and her family, and you keep Stefan and
Helice at bay, their hands off her, off her assets. Even if she and my brother
aren’t together, Caitlin’s still family. Understood?”
Lamar raised an eyebrow. “Is that how it is?”
“Just in case, that’s all. They’ve already threatened her. Stefan will go
after the boy. So will Helice. If they get paranoid and think I’ve betrayed
them, they’ll squash her.”
“Stefan would, maybe. I’ll watch him.” He left unsaid, Helice.
A heavy silence descended. The longer it stretched, the more uneasy
Quinn felt. Was there something here he should know? Did Lamar not get
Helice’s character? Or had she bought him out? He hated to be suspicious of
Lamar, of all people. But Lamar still let it sit. Quinn was leaving his family
in the man’s care, and now suddenly he didn’t feel perfectly at ease.
“Helice is young,” Lamar said. “She’s making the mistakes of the young.
She doesn’t like you; I recognize that. But you could win her over if you
weren’t so goddamn stubborn.”
“I don’t want to win her over. She’s a vicious brat.”
“You never forgive, Titus.”
Quinn let it go that he’d called him Titus. He went by Quinn now, as
Lamar damn well knew.
The car peeled off the freeway, went to the driver’s command, and under
local control, sped toward downtown.
At Quinn’s inquiring look, Lamar said, “We’ve got one more stop. Hope
you don’t mind. It’s the morgue.”
When they came to a stop, Quinn saw a figure standing, hands in coat
pockets, hunkered against the wind now blowing sharp off the Willamette
River.
Lamar let the window down as Stefan Polich approached, peering in.
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He fixed Quinn with a gaze. “Think you’d recognize the man from the
beach?”
C
He did. Even lying still, the sneer gone and the eyes closed. Yes, it was the
man in the parka who’d known Quinn’s name, known the name of the Entire.
“That’s him,” Quinn confirmed. He pulled the sheet over the man’s face,
covering the damage from a gunshot in the mouth.
“Killed himself before we could question him,” Stefan said. “He was
armed, after all.”
“What about the others?”
“Police are looking. But we’re looking too. I don’t think they’re as eager
as we are.”
Yes, eager. And not for Emily’s sake, but because the man had said that
the Entire didn’t belong to Minerva. That might be true in the larger sense,
but not in the Minerva sense.
“So who was he?”
“His name’s Leonard Garvey. A sapient engineer, down on his luck. A
drinker. We don’t see a connection with the major companies. Pray God he
was on his own.”
“That’d make a pretty good prayer. ‘Please, Lord, secure my bottom
line.’” He brightened, getting into the baiting of Stefan Polich. “But then,
that is your religion, isn’t it?”
Lights gleamed off metal trays, waiting to receive the dead. They were
alone in the basement lab, except for Leonard Garvey, failed sapient engineer,
failed kidnapper. Think you’re the only one wants to have that nice, big life? By that
did he mean long life? If so—and Quinn fervently hoped it wasn’t so—then
quite a lot was known out there about the Entire. Some knew the very thing
that inhabitants of the Entire most feared would be known. That nice, big life.
“What’s this about, anyway?” Quinn asked. “You didn’t need to come to
the morgue.”
“No one knew I was coming here. I needed some privacy.” Then, with
disarming honesty: “I don’t trust everyone at Minerva.”
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A World Too Near
“Really.”
Quinn’s sarcasm killed the conversation for a minute as the two men
sized each other up. They despised each other, and being on the same side
hadn’t changed that. Quinn had once had a thriving career as a captain of an
interstellar ship. It was a risky job and paid accordingly. But Quinn would
have done it for nothing. When his ship broke up in the Kardashev tunnel,
Stefan couldn’t get past the fact that Titus Quinn was apparently the only one
who survived. Quinn couldn’t get past it either, but that didn’t mean he
forgave Stefan for firing him or for putting him in a badly maintained ship
in the first place.
“The truth is,” Stefan continued, “someone talked. Someone in my
group. That’s why Garvey came after your niece; that’s why there’s movement
afoot to figure out what the Entire is. Where it is. Everything we’ve worked
for and which will only be solely ours for a little while longer. We’d hoped
for a few months. Anyway, it’s why you’re going early.”
“You can’t keep the place secret for forever.”
“No. But they’d stop you, Quinn. They wouldn’t trust a renegade pilot
running loose with military nan in the other place. Why would they? They
don’t have the background or the trust. They might accuse us of making up
a threat. We have to act before the feds or the companies make an issue of it.
Before fighting over the Entire obscures what needs doing. You see where it
could go?”
Quinn did. He thought the secret worth keeping to prevent public
mayhem. There were no useful precautions, no shelter from the holocaust.
The only refuge, the Entire itself. With humans decidedly unwelcome, an
exodus in that direction was suicide.
This wasn’t a decision Quinn would leave up to a summit of
corporations. So once again, and against his instincts, he found himself
aligning with Stefan Polich.
Stefan looked around, scanning the scrubbed-down room, smelling of
antiseptic and toxic fluids. But Quinn no longer had heightened capabilities
of smell. Originally implanted so that he could avoid ingesting toxins in the
new land, Quinn had found that some enhancements were impossible to live
with. Millions of years of evolution hadn’t prepared humans to detect smells
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89
like a predator. He’d had the Jacobson’s organ removed from his mouth.
Sometimes plain human was enough.
Looking up, Quinn noticed that Stefan had taken something from his
coat pocket and now held a small box covered in gray velvet.
Quinn knew what it was. The weapon. The nano device.
Stefan opened the case, revealing a silver chain. “A cirque. The
designers call it a cirque. It goes on your ankle.” Pushing the box back into
his pocket, Stefan held the cirque with exaggerated care. “It’s live. Loaded,
you understand?”
Quinn did. It was lethal now—its contents sequestered in three
chambers, each one with only partial instructions of how to digest an
industrial complex the size of New Hampshire. He gazed at the burnished
metal chain. It was attractive, like an antique Rolex.
“The code is four, five, one,” Stefan said. “A total of ten. You press the
first indent four times, the second one five times, the last one, once. Each
indentation is a different width, beginning large and ending small. Once the
code goes in, the cirque opens, comes off your ankle. Then you press the links
again, in reverse sequence: one, five, four. Active, good to go.” He eyed
Quinn. “When you make the placement, hide it. The nan needs time to share
information. Give it an hour. Once fully enlivened, it will spread as fast as a
forest fire under a stiff wind.”
Stefan dragged a chair away from the wall. “Put your foot up here. Either
one. See how it fits.” He handed the cirque over.
The carbon nitride casing was reassuringly heavy. Quinn put his left foot
on the chair seat and linked the two ends, fitting them with a click. Active
nan, military grade, riding his body. Give me something I can’t lose, he’d told
them. Something I don’t have to carry. And here it was.
“Test it,” Stefan said. “That it comes off.”
Quinn examined the chain, noting again the three indentations on the
loop. He pressed down the sequence: four, five, and one. Nothing happened.
For a moment he thought, They mean for me to go down with Ahnenhoon.
“Pull it open.”
Quinn did, and the chain detached, coming away in his hands.
Lowering his voice, Stefan said, “From now on we don’t talk about the
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cirque, and we don’t look at it. There’ll be no physical exams. No baths,
either, by the way.”
“It’s okay in water, though?”
“Yes, but let’s not chance it.”
“Not very reassuring.”
“Okay, take a bath.”
Looking at the cirque, Quinn thought he could do without.
“You don’t have to do this, you know,” Stefan said. “We could send
someone else. You could brief somebody, train them. I’m not saying you have
to go.”
“How sure are you about this thing?”
Stefan looked him straight in the eyes. “We’re not one hundred percent.
But it’s the best we’ve got.”
Quinn liked that bit of honesty. “Do I really have an hour to get away?”
Stefan smiled. “So we’re still trying to kill you?”
“Do I have an hour?”
“Don’t wait an hour.”
Stefan glanced at the cirque in Quinn’s hand. “You know the value of that
thing? Ounce for ounce, the most expensive artifact in the world. We’re giving
it to you to do what needs to be done. If you’re not up to it, tell me now.”
“Who else is there?”
“That’s no answer.”
“I thought it was.” He looked at Stefan Polich, reminding himself that
he wasn’t doing this for Stefan or for Minerva. It was for the Rose. For the
people he loved, for Mateo and Emily, and for everyone else, as well. He
would have done it even if Johanna, in her message to him, hadn’t begged
him to act. She had reached out to him in a recorded warning, one she’d sent
to him when he had first been imprisoned in the Entire. He hadn’t found it
then, and never knew what she took to her grave knowing: that the Tarig
meant to destroy us. Last time back, he’d finally heard her warning. But even
without her urging, he would have tried to stop the gracious lords, as they
termed themselves. At close quarters with them for so long, he’d had time to
grow familiar with their ways. No one else had a ghost of a chance of
stopping them.
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91
Stefan was waiting for Quinn to answer.
Quinn took the cirque in both hands and, leaning over the chair, clicked
it into place around his ankle.
They left the morgue, entering the corridor where their respective
security staffs waited. The chain traced a cold circle around his ankle. He’d
have to practice taking it off, so he could do it in a hurry.
He didn’t for a moment believe he’d have an hour to get away.
The Martian General’s Daughter
Theodore Judson
“A witty, learned, amusing and sometimes moving retelling of
ancient truths which I read at one gulp.”
—S. M. Stirling, author of The Sunrise Lands
and In the Halls of the Crimson Kings
Welcome to the End of Empire
S
et over two hundred years from now, in a world very much like Imperial Rome,
this is the story of General Peter Black, the last decent man, as told through
the eyes of his devoted (and illegitimate) daughter, Justa.
Raised on battlefields, more comfortable in the company of hard men of war
than with women or other children, Justa must keep the truth of her birth hidden.
Her father regards her as an embarrassment, a reminder of his one and only
indiscretion. Yet she is a remarkable woman–one whose keen mind wins her an
education at the feet of Emperor Mathias the Glistening himself.
All his life, General Black served the noble emperor and, out of loyalty to the father,
continues to serve his son after Mathias’s death, even as the son’s reign degenerates into
an insane tyranny worthy of Nero or Caligula. As the rule of the empire passes from
father to son with disastrous results, a strange metal plague begins slowly destroying the
empire’s technology, plunging the realm into chaos and the world into war. Amid the
destruction and upheaval, General Black must decide whether to turn his back on the
men and institutions who never loved him nearly as much as he did them, or whether
to save his most trusted ally and adviser, his best friend and only real family.
The Martian General’s Daughter is a gripping tale of a world at war; of cunning
strategies and vile politics; of bravery, foolishness, and excess. It is at once a stirring
military adventure, a cautionary tale of repeating history, a cutting satire, and a
heartbreaking examination of the joys and pain inherent in the love between a father
and child. Judson’s previous novel was selected in multiple best-of-the-year lists.
With The Martian General’s Daughter, he offers another must-read epic destined to
take its place in the canon of science fiction and sure to appeal to readers of
everything from Orson Scott Card to Walter M. Miller Jr.
About the author: Theodore Judson is the author of Fitzpatrick’s War, which was
described by Publishers Weekly in a starred review as “a spectacular first foray into
speculative fiction” and was selected as one of the seven best debuts of 2004.
Cover Illustration: © Sparth
ISBN: 978–1–59102–643–3
Trade Paperback • April 2008
The day will come when holy Troy shall fall
And Priam, lord of spears, and Priam’s folk.
The Iliad, book VI, line 448
I.
AD 2293. Late March
W
hen the word of Pretext’s fall
came to Peter Black’s camp the
general was seated beneath a conveyer belt on the Twelfth Level, watching a
sales presentation made by the scrap men of Antioch Station. Many hundreds
of workmen in small electric carts were parading past General Black and his
staff officers while they displayed samples of the supposedly uninfected metal
they were hoping to sell the army. The traders had brought acrobats dressed
in light armor made of silvery scales, and those agile young men jumped from
cart to racing cart to impress the hopefully gullible soldiers. They looked like
silver birds hopping across the backs of the ever-moving vehicles. “Bloch,
Bloch, Pater Bloch!” the riders shouted each time they passed the general’s
retinue, for that is how these men of largely Middle Eastern descent
mispronounced his famous surname. The red dust the machines were raising
was becoming very thick around the conveyer belt; some of the
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THE MARTIAN GENERAL’S DAUGHTER
officers—including Brigadier Harriman, the second-in-command—were
choking on the rolling clouds and were frantically waving their hands in front
of their faces to make patches of breathable air. One of these officers, a young
Spaniard named Arango, remarked to me how well the general endured the
dust; the others were making a great show of their suffering while the old
veteran remained seated, his eyes held straight ahead and his body rigid. “He
is an example to us all,” said the young man. Not until the messengers came
with the letter from Garden City did he realize that the general had gone to
sleep.
“Thank you, my darling. I will treasure it always,” said my father when
Brigadier Harriman touched him on the shoulder and awakened him.
Father blinked at the startled man when he understood he was not
addressing his wife. He motioned me to come to him and kneel at his side.
“Your mother is at home, isn’t she?” he asked in my ear.
“Your wife is indeed in Garden City, sir, if that is the one you speak of,”
I said.
I did not think it a fit time to explain to him once again what he should
know better than any man: he was my father, but the woman on Earth was
not my mother.
“Of course,” he said, and tapped himself on the leg. “What are we doing
here?”
“Looking to buy scrap metal,” I whispered in his ear.
“Do we need scrap?” he asked.
“Yes, but not this,” I said. “These are mostly infected parts the traders could
not sell elsewhere. They are keeping them moving so we can’t examine the
damage they’ve covered with red enamel. The entire lot is of suspect quality.”
“Arabs,” huffed Father. “We have beaten them.”
“Many times, sir,” I said. “Presently, however, they are our friends.”
“Clever fellows, though,” he said. “I like how they jump about. If you
can’t fight worth a damn, you should be able to do tricks. Could we lie down
now? It’s very unpleasant here.”
Brigadier Harriman pointed out the messengers to him.
“Governor General, they have a letter from Mr. Golden,” said the
second-in-command, and handed my father a stack of sealed papers.
AD 2293. LATE MARCH
99
“Mr. Golden?” said Father, and he had to ponder the name for several
moments ere he remembered Mr. Golden was the father of his sons’ wives. “A
slippery chap,” said General Black, as he recalled. “Very rich. I wouldn’t buy
scrap from him, either. He talks too much. Bit of a windbag.”
The general fell silent again. I could tell he was further considering Mr.
Golden. The soldiers standing around him were awaiting his orders and
beginning to glance at each other from the corners of their eyes.
“Sir,” said Harriman, after he had awaited a word from his commander
for a respectful minute, “the tradesmen from Antioch Station . . .”
“Send them away,” said Father, emerging from his reverie. “They are too
noisy for my liking. Send old Golden away, too. Tell him to call on me later.
I don’t care if we are related by marriage. I need to lie down.”
“General,” said Harriman, and cleared his throat, “the gentleman is not
present. His messengers have brought you the letter you are holding.”
“Yes, yes indeed,” said Father, and was surprised to see he was holding a
bundle of papers in his lap. “Well done,” he added to Harriman and the other
officers. “Exemplary service. You are dismissed. Not from the army—from
my presence, I mean. Go about your duties. Go about your regular duties. I
don’t need your help,” he said to me as he leaned forward to stand.
He got almost into a crouching position before he decided he was not
going to get completely upright. He grunted mightily when he reached the
acme of his progress, as if the sound in his throat would give him the
momentum he needed to get to his feet. The sound did not help. Brigadier
Harriman and I had to step forward and lift him up, which we were
accustomed to doing nearly every time he stood.
“There we go. No need for help. Here we go. Once the old mule takes
the first step, he can go all the way home, no matter how long the trip. Here
we go,” said Father.
I took his arm and led him from the conveyer belt toward the wide dome
housing the military station. The officers saluted Father’s retreating backside,
and the general waved to them over his shoulder. He could not have used less
ceremony if he were taking leave of a group of children. I noted that the
messengers from Garden City were carrying other missives that they
distributed to the divisional commanders and to several of the common
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THE MARTIAN GENERAL’S DAUGHTER
soldiers as soon as we were a hundred paces from them.
“Good chaps, good chaps,” my father said to the scores of troopers who
stopped to salute him as we passed them. (I expect that as soon as we were
beyond earshot many of the men commented on how the governor of Mars’
mining stations needed a woman to help him walk.)
Movement always did Father good. As we walked farther, his legs
became steadier and his mind clearer. On the last half of the walk home, he
was able to let go of me and progress under his own power.
“Old age happens all at once, Justa,” he told me. “One day I was as
strong as a bull, and the next I needed an hour to wake up and longer than
that to go to sleep.”
The servants at our quarters scurried about like so many geese when they
beheld us approaching. Mica, the Siberian butler my father had collected on
a campaign in the Far East, came running to us, bowing as he went, and
smiling so broadly the corners of his mouth nearly touched his ears.
“The governor general has purchased many tons of fine steel, yes?” he
said. “The Arab traders have wonderful scrap. I told you so.”
“We bought scrap, no,” I told him. “Your friends tried to sell us defective
metal that has the nano-infestation on it.”
“Not my friends!” protested Mica. “Arabs are liars and thieves! They are
the enemies of mankind! Never have I been a friend to Arabs! God bless the
noble soldiers of the Pan-Polarian Empire for defending civilization from
those evil people!”
He was indignant I should remember he was the one who had
approached the general on behalf of the traders. As a member of the religious
sect known as the Pristine Ones, a group that was not supposed to consort
with criminals, Mica resented anyone who disparaged his moral character. He
put a smile over his anger and pulled the door open to let us enter. My father
instantly cast off his armored jacket and his long plastic topcoat, and laid
himself upon his field cot. While Mica undid the old man’s laced boots,
Father gave forth a deep, appreciative sigh.
“Read me the letter, Justa,” he ordered me. “What could Golden want to
plague us with now? It’s something to do with money, I’ll wager.”
Those who have spoken ill of my father—or were more afraid of his
AD 2293. LATE MARCH
101
enemies than they were true to him—have said the governor general of Mars
Station was an uneducated man, and that was why he had others read aloud
to him. In truth he was born to a wealthy military father who saw to it that
Father was proficient in both English and Syntalk while he was still a boy
living at home. Father’s problem when he grew to be an old man was not lack
of education; it was his failing eyesight. The same blazing tunnel lights and
eastern sky that had burned Father’s face and neck as dark as his name had
baked his eyes until everything beyond the end of his nose was a little blurry
to him. In the declining years of his life he could no more have read
handwritten script than he could have won a footrace. Unless he heard my
voice, he was unable to identify his daughter when I was standing at a
distance.
I tore open the seal on Mr. Golden’s letter and began to read:
“‘My warmest salutations to my lord Peter Justice Black—’”
“‘Lord’?! What is this ‘Lord’ business?” asked my father. “The rascal
definitely wants more than I can give him!”
I read: “‘—the hero the Pan-Polarian people have chosen to be—I cannot
stop myself from writing it—emperor!’”
“What is the fool saying?” asked Father.
Mr. Golden’s declaration caused Father to prop himself onto the edge of
the cot.
I continued: “‘Do not, for humility’s sake, forbid me to call you by that
title, and order not the scholar reading this to you to tear apart these lines
written by the most insignificant of your supporters. I beg your indulgence:
I well know no one would dare to demand it of you. Please trust me when I
aver it is my love for your noble person and my faith in the salvation you shall
bring to the Empire which makes me, compels me, yea, threatens me with
tortures worse than death lest I call you by that title. “The Emperor Peter
Justice Black,” I say aloud to myself again and again, so intoxicated am I by
that sweet phrase that my family and friends and those I meet upon the
streets think I am mad. The Emperor Peter Justice Black. It surpasses all
other pleasures to write it and then to contemplate the words that are
enthroned upon the paper.
“‘I have been told by certain friends that you know what happened in the
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Field of Diversions upon John Chrysalis’ failure to pay the guardsmen of
Garden City the gold he had promised them.’”
“I know nothing of this!” exclaimed Father. “Herman Pretext is emperor!
Who is this John Chrysalis?”
“Lord Chrysalis, sir,” I explained. “He was a senator. Apparently, he is
now emperor. Lord Pretext seems to be gone.”
“They just killed an emperor!” said my father. “How long has it been
since we were in Garden City when they killed Luke Anthony?”
“We were there only three months ago, sir,” I said.
I read farther in Mr. Golden’s letter: “‘As you know, the people gathered
there, inside the Field of Diversions, and they were furious with John
Chrysalis, whom they rightfully considered unworthy of the title Emperor. I
was present and can truthfully say that for the first hours of that daylong
gathering the air thundered with insults aimed at the impudent slug who
would rule the world. Here, a group shouted lewd jokes concerning
Chrysalis’ unmanly passions—the which I shall not repeat here for fear I
offend a man whose self-restraint in sensual matters is so widely known.
There, Chrysalis’ dupes came forth bearing meager sacks of gold coins and
tried to buy the public’s goodwill. They were driven from the stadium with
stones clattering at their heels. Here again, good citizens railed against
Chrysalis’ brazen assumption of the throne so soon after Lord Pretext’s death,
and they argued that the usurper had a hand in that kindly ruler’s murder.
Then, from somewhere in the crowd arose a rhythmic chant we at first
thought was the sound of soldiers’ boots on the street outside. We fell silent
and listened. We heard clearly then it was some good men chanting: “Black,
Black, Peter Black!” Others followed their brave example. Then more and
more shouted your name, the glorious chant rising and yet rising farther in
power like the wind rising from the southern deserts, until “Peter Black” was
upon the lips of every man in Garden City, save upon the girlish lips set in
the midst of John Chrysalis’ flaccid, yellow face. Next someone—if I recall
correctly, it was myself—went to the speaker’s platform and gave, in the best
words he could summon, a speech invoking Peter Black as the guardian of
the Empire and the true heir to the sacred office of emperor. The speaker
asked, most respectfully, that General Black not forget his people in these
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103
desperate times. This speech, as poor as it was, was greeted with tumultuous
applause and shouts of approval. Other far more elegant men of senatorial
rank came forward to make similar, but more eloquent, orations in your favor,
and each speech was followed by a round of riotous cheering.
“‘I have been told by friends that certain conspirators who love not you,
me, or the Empire have whispered to you that those faceless men who began
the chant for Peter Black were bribed by this your loyal servant to act as they
did. Consider, my friend, that these same liars have before claimed that I have
secretly pledged my support to Abdul Selin!’”
“Another name,” said Father. “At least I know that one. Selin is governor
in North America.”
“It seems some want him to be emperor now,” I said.
“Everyone, it seems, will be emperor sooner or later,” said Father.
I read on: “‘The scoundrels should get their lies to agree. If I were
supporting Selin in his ill-conceived assault on the sacred throne the gods—if
they exist and have a number that can be counted—have set above the reach
of all ordinary men, would I be bribing riffraff to boom your cause in the
Field of Diversions?’”
“I don’t get that,” said Father. “The man cannot write a straight
sentence. Crooked words, crooked thoughts I always say. What do you
suppose he means by that business about the throne?”
“He means the emperor’s throne,” I said.
“Since when is that sacred?” asked Father. “Some dead emperors are
sacred, or so their sects and the Senate have declared them, but the place
where they sit? We’re worshipping chairs now?”
“He is being poetic, sir.”
“Poets,” sniffed Father. “A bunch of lisping little fairies. They can’t write
a straight sentence, not a one of them. You ask me, they’re ninety percent of
what’s wrong with the world; them and all their songs. Well, them and this
thing that infects the metal—together they’re ninety percent of the problem.
At any rate, they are a bad bunch for anybody to use as a model.”
“‘Were I the African Selin’s lackey,’” I read, “‘which no true Pan-Polarian
could be, would I be the first to expose myself upon the speaker’s platform,
despite the threats these many conspirators have sent my way? Would I have
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THE MARTIAN GENERAL’S DAUGHTER
married my daughters to your sons, knowing the danger to their lives should
our designs fail, if I were the Turk’s confidant?’”
“Turk?” said Father. “Who is the Turk? Selin?”
“Yes,” I said, “Mr. Golden is referring to Selin. Selin is of Turkish
ancestry and African birth. His hometown is Tunis. To Mr. Golden Turks and
Africans seem to be all the same.”
“Turks, Libyans, Syrians, Iranians, Arabs—they’re all wogs,” said Father,
and lay back down so Mica could rub his weary legs. “The sun burnt me
black. Old Selin was born as brown as a loaf of bread.”
“As was I, sir,” I said.
He did not mean to be as cruel as he sometimes was. He actually forgot
that my mother was a Syrian. At times he succeeded in forgetting I was also
a bastard.
I forged ahead in the turgid letter. “‘Would I have solicited money for
your cause from the capital’s best families—which monies I shall be sending
to you when the time is more opportune—if I were not devoted entirely to
you? Would I risk this correspondence with the great General Black if I were
not completely his? No, says this honest man. Put me to the test: give me
whatever dangerous mission your elite troopers shun; let me die for my
friend, my lord, my emperor, my special deity! I am a slave in perpetuity to
you; not a common slave who may one day buy his freedom, but one who will
remain your property until your death—may God forestall that evil day when
you are taken from us! Tell me to cut off my right hand as a sign of my
obedience and the messenger who brings you my next letter will bring my
severed hand with him. Order me to kill my dear brother, and the same
messenger will bring his head to you, for that is the sort of upright man I
am.’”
“The man is an ass,” commented Father. “Skip ahead to the pertinent
parts, if there are any.”
“Let’s see,” I said. “There are another five paragraphs of self-abuse. He says he
would kill his mother for you, were that lady not already dead. He says General
Black will not abandon Garden City to ‘the ambling wolf and the hungry raven.’
That’s rather good, for him, I mean. I wonder where he lifted that phrase from.”
“He goes on and on and on,” said Father. “Just tell me what he wants.”
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105
“He rambles on,” I said, scanning through the long letter. “There are
some anecdotes here about effeminate men insulting you and the Lady of
Flowers. He put those in here to anger you. Oh, this is good; he says some
ex-slaves who are currently pimps are calling you a coward because you
haven’t declared yourself emperor. Here’s the nub: ‘If you allow Selin to take
the throne uncontested, you will lose more than an opportunity; you will lose
your life. We are all slaves in this world, my lord Black, everyone except the
emperor. Chrysalis is a weakling and may be allowed to live, but Selin will
never allow a slave as powerful as you to serve him.’ Then there are some more
words of praise for you, and that’s the end of it.”
“That is everything?” asked Father from his cot.
“May I say, master,” said Mica, “that the gentleman is a most interesting
writer?”
“The gentleman would agree with you,” said Father. Of me he asked, “Is
Lord Pretext really dead?”
“So Mr. Golden says,” I replied. “And John Chrysalis seems to be the new
emperor. We will have to make inquiries.”
“Explain again how that mongrel Selin is mixed up in this,” said Father.
“He himself, or someone in Garden City, wants Selin to be emperor after
this Chrysalis is dead,” I said. “Selin, according to the letter, is marching on
the capital as we speak. He would have the largest army.”
“And Golden wants me to become emperor instead of Selin?” said Father.
“I was a sergeant first grade, Justa. Served in the ranks for most of my life.
Now this rich fool wants me to stand for emperor? Me? The man is insane.
We never should have formed a connection with him.”
“I expect, sir,” I said, “that Mr. Golden has sent a similar letter to every
provincial general, offering each of them aid and money. Selin himself
probably has a letter from him.”
Father got up from his cot. The governor of Mars Station looked an old
man on his skinny, blue-veined legs as he paced the floor wearing only his
tunic and his underclothes. He stopped and peered out the window for a long
time, though I doubted he could see anything outside in the darkened
tunnels very clearly. He was not frightened. Father had been through too
much to fear anything any longer. Not even the prospect of his own death
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THE MARTIAN GENERAL’S DAUGHTER
frightened him anymore. He was upset because he still cared for his distant
family in Garden City and for the Empire, although both his family and the
Empire had taken much from him and had never given him much in return.
“There is one true thing in this letter that windbag has sent us,” he said.
“Should Selin become emperor, if he marches on Garden City and kills this
pretender Chrysalis, then the days of my life are numbered. Selin will suffer
no other army commanders. He’ll purge the generals and the provincial
governors and install members of that dreadful family of his in most of the
men’s places. He won’t kill just me. He’ll take my wife, my sons, all my
relatives. Selin will do the same to anyone unwilling to carry water for him.
I may not know these politicians in Garden City, those senators who want to
be rulers of the world and the whispering rich men, but I do know the
generals, and Selin is the worst of the lot.”
“We don’t know anything definitely, sir,” I said. “You need not worry
yourself over something Mr. Golden has written. You know what a liar he is.
Lie down and let Mica massage your legs some more. We will know the full
story in a few days. There will be merchants in the marketplace who will tell
us. Big news like this always travels with the tradesmen now that broadcast
communications are compromised.”
He did as I bade him, and Mica’s soothing hands soon had Father asleep
and snoring loudly. When the lights in the great dome over the military
camp were being dimmed, he awoke and had a simple dinner of cold polenta
cakes and dehydrated vegetables. Father had gone to sleep another time when
we in the household heard the soldiers outside chanting his name. Mr.
Golden’s messengers had spread their other letters throughout the entire
camp, and now everyone knew of the events in Garden City. Thousands of
people—Pan-Polarian troops, merchants from the tunnel communities, camp
followers from outside the walls of the military post, and some of the now
drunken scrap traders—were marching around our little house, proclaiming
in a dozen different languages that General Peter Black was the new lord of
the Pan-Polarian Empire. Father was completely befuddled. He stood at the
window and shouted at the disorderly crowd to be quiet. To every officer he
saw tramping past he barked an order to the effect that the men should be
gotten back inside their barracks. “Make them stop!” he told his
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107
commanders. “I’m not of royal blood! I’m not even one of the Anthony
family! I’m a common soldier!” The officers were busy till long after dark
getting the soldiers to return to their quarters. After that had been
accomplished we could still hear the civilians shouting “Black, Black, Peter
Black!” outside the limits of the camp.
“All I wanted to do today was buy some uninfected scrap,” said my father
as he lay back down and put an arm over his forehead. “Now I have a camp
full of idiots eager to have me declare myself emperor! We have to have a
better plan tomorrow, Justa.”
II.
AD 2278
F
ifteen years before the letter from
Mr. Golden came to us on Mars, we
had first met the last of the Anthonys at Progress, a dreary military outpost
on the Amur built of gray stone the near constant snow and wind of that
forested region had striped with lines of white patina. Father was by then
already a decidedly middle-aged man, vigorous and self-confident, yet as
weathered from his years of military service as the stones of Progress’ houses
and fortifications were from the snow. My father may have never been a great
strategist when at the head of an entire army, but while in the ranks, while
serving at the head of a company or in command of a division, he had no
equal. Tactics he left to Fate; Father knew the power of discipline and
courage, and on those two pillars he had built his long career. He reasoned he
had always been strong enough and brave enough to get the job done, and if
he were brave and strong in the future, that would suffice to meet all
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challenges. His heroism in the East during the Fourth Mesopotamian War,
when he led a detachment of foreign auxiliaries to glory in the siege of New
Babylon, was a story known throughout the Empire, even unto the emperor.
We were at that time ruled by Mathias Anthony, whom we remember as
Mathias the Glistening, the philosopher-king presiding over that portion of
the world between the Isthmus of Panama and the Gobi Desert. Mathias
brought Father to the Amur while the gathering army there was preparing
to strike across the river at the Manchurian rebels stirring on the southern
shore. The emperor had placed under Father’s command an entire division,
the famous Twentieth, which Mathias had transferred from Britain for the
sake of this one campaign. Father was so proud of his new assignment he
ordered the Twentieth’s wild boar insignia sewn into his personal clothing
and onto the sleeves of his military tunics. In our household the image of the
wild boar was stamped onto our dishes, stitched into our blankets, made the
default image on our family’s hologram projector, and was carved into the
upright posts of our beds and furniture so that while Father was relaxing at
home among his few humble pieces of property he would be continuously
reminded of how high he had risen in the world.
In those brave days Father had not yet faced anything he could not defeat
with his strong right arm and ten thousand troopers armed with energy
weapons. He certainly never needed any assistance when he strode from place
to place and from triumph to triumph. Like all men, he was ambitious.
Never was he overreaching. I doubt that at the time Father thought there was
any higher place to which a man of his background could rise.
Mathias’ son, Luke Spacious Anthony, was with us on the Amur. His
father had the year before named him coemperor, albeit the boy was a month
from his seventeenth birthday and unready for the responsibilities of his office.
Real administrative power remained in Mathias’ hands. The whole
world—and especially the soldiers amassing at Progress, who would witness
young Luke Anthony’s first public duty—was eager to know more about this
boy destined to rule alone after his father’s death. The general expectation was
that the son would be a younger and more vigorous version of Mathias the
Glistening, the wise and generous ruler who had kept the domestic peace and
protected the Empire from foreign invasions as ably as any leader of
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Pan-Polaria ever had. “A lion does not sire a jackal,” was my father’s
estimation of the boy before he met him. (My father was fond of animal
metaphors throughout his life, and often shared them with those in his home,
sometimes sharing them many times over.) What Father and the world would
get in young Luke Anthony would be, as I will tell, something far worse than
a jackal.
I was a precocious twelve-year-old when we came to cold Progress in the
seventeenth year of Mathias’ reign. My life up to then had been a series of
stays at Father’s various postings in the Middle East and in the Asteroid Belt.
During my entire existence I had dwelt in the rectangular encampments the
Pan-Polaric Army builds everywhere it goes, and I had seen soldiers
marching outside our front door ever since I was old enough to be aware of
my existence. My father never knew how to explain that existence of mine to
other men: to his superiors he said the dark-skinned girl always about his
quarters was the child of one of his servants, but to his brother officers of his
own rank he admitted I was his illegitimate daughter, one born to a mistress
long since dead. Father in those times was not a religious man. (I mean he
did not participate in any of the prescribed religions or in any of the mystery
cults that had emerged throughout the Empire during the previous century.)
Outwardly he was a gruff, downright stern figure in the polished body armor
he could never wear too often or shine too diligently. Within his heart he felt
more guilt than he dared confess on account of the child living in his home.
Father assigned failings to other men, not to himself. He knew the other
soldiers, even some of the other officers, had unofficial wives living in the
makeshift villages outside the military encampments. Father did not consider
himself to be the same as other men. I was a memento of the instance he had
slipped as badly as others did every day and as he had disciplined himself
never to do.
Father kept a Canadian amanuensis named Clemens to read and write the
orders of the day for him before I would perform those duties; this same man
had taught me the two great languages of the Empire, and I had devoured
every book in the English and Syntalk tongues I could lay my hands upon,
which were really only those Clemens could borrow from other learned men
and women who happened to be in the vicinity. As is true of most people
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THE MARTIAN GENERAL’S DAUGHTER
exposed to a little learning, I was inordinately proud of myself. I did not
come near my father without repeating something from Homer or Herman
Bing, and I must have been a terrible irritant to him whenever he came home
to eat or sleep. My father’s plan was to keep me until I came of age, then
marry me to a man suitable to my lowly station—meaning my future
husband would at best be a worker or a common soldier, and my learning did
not make me a better match for any man I was likely to wed. Father often
reminded me of that fact when I showed off my abilities in algebra or my
knowledge of world history. While his sense of honor compelled him to
provide for me, his sense of propriety obligated him not to tell his legitimate
wife in Garden City or my two half-brothers that I existed; this family he
seldom visited had risen in the social strata of the capital as Father rose in
military rank. The three of them could barely tolerate the tough old
campaigner when Father managed to travel to that great city, and they most
definitely could not have endured the presence of his Syrian bastard. I
therefore grew up as an only child, one surrounded by the vivid, noisy
atmosphere of the Pan-Polaric Army. I idolized and feared my tall, muscular
father, who appeared more muscular than he in fact was when he wore his
body armor, but I lived within my treasured books and in the dreamland they
inspired in my thoughts.
My father had met Emperor Mathias a year earlier when the great man
made a tour of the Middle Eastern provinces. Mathias the Glistening used a
network of informers recruited from among the army’s quartermaster corps
and from the petty court officials, tax farmers, and provincial policemen to
keep track of the important men within the Empire. Thus Mathias already
knew everything about Father, including everything about me, long before
he encountered Father face- to-face. Mathias would have known that two men
could not have been as different as he and his General Peter Black; still he
granted my father the rare honor of a private interview during his stay in
Alexandria. What the emperor, one of the great thinkers of the age, and my
father, famous among his soldiers for his monosyllabic speeches, could have
found to discuss baffles me yet today. It baffled me more that the emperor
formed a favorable opinion of my father during their brief meeting. But then
Mathias’ judgment of others was a mysterious facet of the great man. He was
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113
consistently more compassionate than discerning when he evaluated others.
It satisfied Mathias that my father, like himself, was a veteran of a hundred
pitched fights and had never flinched from his duty. Mathias appreciated the
horrors Father had endured for the Empire’s sake as only another soldier
would. At Alexandria, on the southern rim of the Empire, Mathias had
promised Father the Twentieth Division and bade him come to Progress the
following spring.
Our new home in icy Siberia was a stone hovel within sight of the
emperor’s great hall, a massive building that stood at the very center of the
military station and atop which were erected the encampment’s primary
communication towers. The four of us—Father, myself, Father’s Greek
servant Medus, and Medus’ wife Helen, who had been my nurse when I was
an infant—were miserable in that cold, smoky, very crowded little house set
in that wet, freezing land that may be a fit home for bears and savage men
but offers only frozen ground and vast distances to civilized people. The elder
Ming and the natural historian Rodriguez tell us Siberia is so very cold due
to its gigantic size and to its low basins in which inversion takes place and
traps the cold air close to the ground during the winter and keeps the sun
from breaking through during the brief summer; these learned men say that
if we laid an electronic grid underneath portions of that forbidding land and
powered the grid with nuclear generators, we could make the heated portions
as warm and as fertile as California. If there is a sliver of truth in what they
write, my two years in Progress convinced me that the first duty of an
emperor—should large-scale electronic projects ever again become
possible—would be to do whatever can be done to heat that chilly corner of
Pan-Polaria. While we were there we had to keep the primitive
wood-burning fireplace burning day and night, as did the other souls trapped
within the four straight walls of the encampment, and thus there was always
a gray cloud around our houses to match the gray clouds high above us.
When we did see the sun, it appeared to us a weak, silver circle that was as
feeble as the light reflected in a blind man’s eyes. Never did it give off enough
heat; it merely illuminated the misty air during the daytime and let us
behold what an ugly bog we had as a home.
My old nurse Helen had long been a believing woman. She believed in
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THE MARTIAN GENERAL’S DAUGHTER
the Lady of Flowers, in the Christian Jesus, in the Moslem Allah, in the Great
Mother, in Minit the god of human sacrificers, and in anything anyone ever
imagined could have a power over us, including those things that move in
the night and do not have a proper name. Helen knew the secret practices
that lie outside religion altogether. Whenever my father was gone from the
house and could not object to her nonsense, she would sit before the fire and
read the future in the ashes the flames left behind, a trick she claimed to have
learned in California, the home of Pan-Polaric spiritualism.
“The Pan-Polaric Army will defeat the Chinese,” she told me one
afternoon when she had scooped up a handful of black cinders and tossed
them into the air.
“Will this be the last time we attack them?” I asked her.
She stirred the ashes with a stick while she considered my question. My
love for Helen prevented me from telling her I did not have any faith in her
divining skills or in any of the other superstitious notions she had.
“Yes, this will be the last time,” she said.
Events would prove her prediction wrong a dozen times in the next forty
years, but I never upbraided her with facts.
“One more thing,” she said. “This is an unlucky place.”
“I would think so,” I said. “Look outside. Progress is too wet for people,
too cold for the fish in the river. It is an unlucky place for everyone but the
geese; they get to fly away anytime they want.”
She told me to hush.
“Show some respect for the mysteries of the gods, child,” she told me.
“Look at how they have made the world colder,” she added, which was a
warning millions of elders had given children ever since—for apparently
natural reasons—the Earth had become a couple degrees colder during the
twenty-second century. “Look, Justa,” she exclaimed, and spat into the ash
pile. “The signs say you, child, are in grave danger here! You should never go
outside the door without my permission, and never, never should you go
spying around the emperor’s residence!”
Wherever we lived, the gods of the ash heap told Helen I should not go
outside. Her gods were a very anxious lot when I was a little girl. Like Helen,
they feared the thousands of armed men drilling in the open spaces outside
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115
our door, and they wanted me to stay indoors and under Helen’s supervision
where I might learn the arts of sewing and cooking every young woman needs
to know now that we no longer have the domestic conveniences our ancestors
did. The gods’ warnings, I regret to say, never worked on me. I would sneak
out of the house regardless of the dangers they foresaw and would go places
I should not have, regardless of how much they and Helen fussed. In dreary
Progress, the one place the gods and Helen warned I definitely should not go
was the emperor’s hall, which was, of course, the one place in the entire
station I wanted to give a closer inspection. Hundreds of tall, clanking
soldiers came and went through that building’s chromium steel doors every
day, as did emissaries from the Senate in Garden City and local officials from
Vladivostok, the provincial capital. I stood at the doorway of our little hut
and imagined as I gazed at the gray exterior of the emperor’s quarters that the
interior of that four-story building must be lined with crystal and metal
machines and that inside its central hallway were elegant men in pristine
white suits bearing the purple stripe of nobility, and those elegant men
would be holding video conferences with other important men back in
Garden City as they discussed the affairs of the world with the studied
honesty of the philosophers in the books I read. I would be utterly
disappointed when I in time found the inside of the hall was as drab as its
outside shell and that the men therein were mostly soldiers who looked and
acted exactly like the ones I could see on the exercise grounds.
On the day Mathias announced the coming arrival via jet transport of his
son in Progress he invited his generals to a banquet that would welcome the
young coemperor to that frozen bit of Hades.
“You will bring your daughter, sir,” he told my father in a private conference.
“I have two sons in Garden City, my lord,” Father told him. “No daughters.”
“I am the Empire,” Mathias told him. “I see all, hear all, or so they say I
do. You have an unofficial daughter living here with you, Peter. I think it
commendable of you to accept your responsibilities to her. She will want to
see me; I am the great emperor and so on. I might be quite impressive, to a
child of her age. I am curious to see what sort of little girl lives her whole life
in military stations. Indulge me, my friend. I am interested in how children
develop. But then, most of us are, aren’t we? We think children will explain
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THE MARTIAN GENERAL’S DAUGHTER
to us how we each became what we are. Bring her to the banquet.”
Helen took an entire morning to bathe me in Father’s little portable tub
and an afternoon to fix my hair into an extravagant pile of curls, which she said
was exactly the same style as noble women in Garden City wore. (Perhaps the
noble women did, just not in that particular century.) Helen patched together
a white gown for me out of the bits of one of my father’s old garments. Once
she had checked the fit on me, she made me take off the dress, and I had only
my shift to wear till it was time for us to walk to the great hall.
“Don’t sit!” Helen warned me as I waited in the smoky house. “You’ll get
yourself dirty! The emperor will think we live like swine.”
“How could the emperor see dirt on my underclothes?” I asked her. “Is
he going to peek up my skirt?”
“What a filthy mouth you have, child!” she scolded me. “Come here so I
may slap you. Do you think the emperor is a criminal?”
Helen’s threats were hollow. She repeatedly told me she was going to slap
me and never did.
“I spoke before I thought,” I said. “I apologize.”
Father told me I should say nothing when we got to the banquet,
particularly not to the emperor.
“He has a familiar manner for a great man,” Father told me as we walked
through the muddy grounds toward the large building. “He may speak to
you directly. I don’t know why. He speaks to a lot of people he shouldn’t. If
he does, pretend you are deaf and dumb. Make guttural sounds and wave your
hands a bit. Remember this, girl: Mathias is going to be named a god
someday. You may not believe in any of that official government nonsense,
but some people do. Bow when he gets near you. Whatever you do, do not
look him straight in the eye.”
“Is it true that when you were a boy people could just fly from place to
place and never have to walk?” I asked him, for I hated wading through the
mud in my white dress and having to lift up my skirt to keep it clean.
“Some people could,” said Father. “Now about the emperor . . . ?”
“I will not look him in the eye,” I said. “I promise.” And perhaps at the
moment I said it I truly meant to keep my word.
Upon entering the emperor’s tall front doors I saw that his home in
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Progress was large, but far less than magnificent. The walls were bare stone, and
the rafters were exposed beams of rough-hewn timber rather than any sort of
composite material one sees inside the monumental buildings of Garden City.
Several of the high windows did not even have shutters on them yet, for work
on the building was not complete and never would be during our time in the
camp. Rather than a central table filled with the sumptuous food one can find
at any dinner in the capital, there were only rows of wooden benches and
wooden chairs on which the diners were to sit. Some of the more important
officers in the front of the hall had pillows to soften their stay on the hard seats;
that was the highest sort of comfort I could see inside the big house. Everything
looked as though it had been made on the site by military carpenters, and
probably everything had been. Carpenters could also have made the food we
ate. Each guest had some figs, a small loaf of fresh bread, some apples from
Europe, and a glass of whiskey mixed with water to make a concoction that was
so weak Father said he could have downed a couple dozen tumblers of it and
remained sober. From our bench high on the steps overlooking the main floor,
we could see the emperor and his party at the other side of the room, yet I did
not realize which one was the great Mathias until Father pointed him out to
me.
“He is the one resembling a schoolteacher,” said Father.
The man he indicated wore a simple wool cloak fastened by a brass clasp
on his shoulder. On the man’s neck was a metal shell that ran down his spine,
for the emperor, like important men from earlier times, had mechanical
implants that allowed him to communicate instantly with computers and
with other men in distant locations. His very brain no doubt contained
implants that supported his basic functions and allowed him to live longer
than others. Mathias wore no crown, carried no scepter, had no emblem of his
office other than the large gold rings on his left hand. Two bodyguards, both
with implants similar to the emperor’s, followed him as he walked to his
dining place. I had thought the emperor would be as tall as his house and
would have bigger muscles than the athletes I would one day see in the Field
of Diversions; this man of fifty-seven years had thinning hair and limped
when he walked because his right leg ached from an old war wound. When
several of his more important guests came to salute him, he stood erect,
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allowing me to see him more clearly. I remember I thought he had the
saddest, most weary eyes I had ever beheld.
For our entertainment that evening an actor in Garden City broadcast to
us on a hologram projector stood before the emperor and recited the poet
Damnmus’ description of Elvis’ heroic actions as told in the sixth book of the
Elvisid. We soon discovered why the ham was not in the cinema making real
money. In front of the learned Mathias the actor got the names of the ancient
cities confused and was saying Los Angeles when meant to say Las Vegas and
Miami when he should have said Memphis. I was twelve and I could tell he
did not know his lines. The generals—except for my father, who had never
read the Elvisid—frowned in recognition of the man’s mistakes. The emperor
maintained a fixed expression of approval throughout the sorry performance.
Mathias thanked the actor when the dope had ceased ranting and waving his
arms in what I suppose was meant to be a dramatic fashion. The emperor was
so kind he ordered via his implants that the fool be given two thousand
dollars and bade him visit Progress on another occasion, perhaps during the
area’s two weeks of summer. Because Mathias applauded the sap, everyone
present gave the actor an ovation.
“Mathias is a good fellow, a good soldier, too,” Father told me. “I
shouldn’t say he is like a schoolteacher. He’s nowhere as bad as the chaps I
had in school. Every master I had would beat us to toughen us up. Mathias
would never do that. That is his great fault: he is much too soft.”
“Sir, is that young man near the emperor his son?” I whispered in Father’s
ear.
I was of the age when I had recently began to look at men and just then
felt a peculiar confusion later in my life I would recognize as desire. When I
looked at the tall, blond, actually beautiful young man seated in Mathias’
group I felt more confused than I had before in my brief lifetime. Unlike
Mathias, this one stood out from the other men; he had an open, seamless face
that was as bright as a candle flame. He was dressed as a young noble should
be; he wore polished silk and had gold chains around his neck and waist.
“That is the other emperor,” said Father. “Luke Anthony.”
“He is very handsome,” I announced, sounding as naive as only a
twelve-year-old can be.
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Father laughed at my innocence.
“Don’t look too long at him, little one,” he told me. “I had a talk with
some of the officers accompanying him from Garden City. They tell me
young Luke doesn’t like girls.”
“He likes boys?” I asked.
Helen had explained, in her direct manner, such matters to me. I did not
fully understand; I was only aware such phenomena existed.
“They say Luke Spacious likes death,” said Father. “That ugly fat chap
next to him is Sao Trentex. He travels with the young emperor wherever he
goes. Luke Anthony has a whole group of such friends that loiter about him.
Some of them are women, so I suppose I should say Luke likes a certain sort
of woman as much as he likes death.”
“What sort of woman would that be, sir?” I asked.
“Helen will explain it to you when you are older,” said Father, and he
scowled as he did when anyone close to him mentioned matters touching
upon sex.
“Why do you say he likes death, sir?” I asked.
“They say he threw a poor cook onto a barbeque grill just because the
wretch made his spareribs too spicy,” said Father. “He has kept company with
those thugs who call themselves the new gladiators. Some say he has killed
unarmed men in the gladiators’ practice arena merely for the thrill of doing
it. He and Sao Trentex and other friends of theirs have picked up people right
off the streets of Garden City and have done with them what they would.”
“But he looks nice,” I said, and for the sake of young Luke’s beautiful face
I disbelieved everything Father had said about him.
I did not note on this occasion that Luke Anthony did not resemble his
father in any manner. Mathias was a slender, fine-featured man of
Mediterranean and Hispanic descent, while young Luke’s nose and mouth
were as large as a German’s. I did not know until years later that Luke was in
fact the natural son of one of his mother’s numerous lovers and no one knew
which one. It is fortunate Nature made young girls innocent of the world,
since I would not have slept for many nights after the banquet if I had known
the stories Father had heard of Luke Anthony were true, and only a portion
of the horrible complete truth. The handsome face I was gazing upon
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belonged to one of the worst monsters ever to burden the ground with his
footsteps. Now when I think of Luke Anthony and how beautiful he appeared
at his father’s welcoming banquet, I think of the lovely black cat Arab
mythology says lives south of the Sahara Desert; the beast, it is said, is so
pleasing in its aspects and has such a beguiling voice that its prey will come
to it whenever it calls, and so the creature may devour its victims at its
leisure. To my young eyes Luke was lovelier than any beast of nature or
legend. I could not have known that later in his short life he would prove
himself to have a larger appetite than all the prey on Earth could have
satisfied.
One of the emperor’s guardsmen making his rounds through the rows of
guests stepped to our bench and informed us Mathias was ready to receive us.
“Remember: say nothing,” Father warned me as we went to the other end
of the hall.
“Even should he speak to me, sir?” I asked.
“We have been over this,” growled Father. “You are a poor deaf girl.”
We stood in queue for several moments while other officers passed the
emperor’s table and paid their respects to him. At our turn Mathias addressed
my father by name.
“Ah, Peter, health to you,” he said, and exchanged salutes with Father after
Father bowed. “You’ve brought the little treasure. Let us have a better look.”
The ruler of the northern half of the world rose from his seat and limped
on his bad leg from behind the table so he might lift my chin. To both his
and my surprise, there was a spark of static electricity when he touched me,
as sometimes happens when people have shuffled across a bare floor, and I
jumped a half-step away from his hand after he made contact. Mathias
laughed at my fright. Contrary to Father’s admonishments, I looked directly
into his eyes that had seemed remarkably sad at a distance. Up close I could
see he was amused about something; whether it was I who made his eyes
smile or if he thought the onus of his position somehow ridiculous I cannot
say. I can say that I was suddenly unafraid of him.
“Well, Lady,” he said, though I did not merit the title “Lady.” “Peter, she
is very pretty,” he said to my father in Syntalk. “Much too pretty to be kept
a secret.”
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“Thank you, my lord,” I said to him in the same language, which startled
my father. He recovered a second later and glared at me as if to say, “You’ve
gone and done it now!”
Mathias, contrary to Father’s fears, was yet more amused and took my
face in both his hands.
“So you are clever as well,” he said in English. “Beauty and brains in one
small body. Did you learn Syntalk in the East, little one? What is her name?”
he asked my father.
“Justa,” muttered Father, speaking as unenthusiastically as a dying man
uttering his last words.
“You have given her a portion of your name, Peter,” said Mathias. Of me
he asked, “Have you read any of the great books, Justa?”
“Yes, my lord,” I said. “I started at the beginning of Western civilization
and read forward. I have read Plato, most of Aristotle, Epicurus—”
“Have you now, little one? At your age?” asked the emperor.
“‘No one can be too early or too late in seeking the health of the soul,’”
I said.
“‘Whoever says that the time for philosophy has passed or not yet come
is like the man who says the hour for happiness has not yet arrived or has
already gone,’” said Mathias, completing my citation of Epicurus. “Very
good, pretty Justa,” he said, and patted my head as he again stood fully erect.
“There are others older here who could not say who the Philosopher of Samos
was.” (He cast his gaze upon his son Luke, who was tossing bits of bread crust
at his friend Sao Trentex.) “You will have to visit us another day,” he said to
me. “Tomorrow, Peter,” he said to my father, “I will be talking to some young
friends. Send her to me. She will enjoy the experience. We are understood?”
“Yes, my lord,” whispered Father.
The master of everything between the Caribbean Sea and the northern
border of China bent down and said into my ear, “You won’t have to dress up
like this when you next come to see us. Wear your hair as you like. The
natural way is superior to artifice, Justa.” (He playfully touched the crown of
my absurd coif.) “Bring your tablet and pencils. Bring a laptop, if you own
one that still functions. We have much to learn, both you and I do.”
The soon to be divine Mathias kissed my forehead, and Father and I
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returned to our bench.
“You don’t listen, do you, missy?” Father snapped at me as we walked
away from the imperial presence. “That isn’t some damned jolly soldier of the
line you were talking to! That was the bloody emperor! The one man in
charge of everything. You stupid, stupid child! Do you know men have been
killed for saying the wrong thing to the emperor?”
“To Mathias, sir?” I asked, for I could not believe the man we had just
spoken to could be that dangerous.
“Maybe Mathias himself wouldn’t kill you. You can’t tell about those
others about him,” said Father. “And when you talk to him, you speak to a
thousand others. The way you run your mouth, you are bound to say
something that will provoke somebody! Then we will all be executed! You,
me, the entire family! I might as well hang myself tonight! That way my sons
in Garden City will at least get my house; otherwise the emperor’s people
will take everything in the courts. That’s what they do to traitors. See what
you’ve done, you prattling, stupid child!”
I felt such anguish at having caused my father’s death I began sobbing.
Already I could see Father swinging from the wooden beams of our lowly
hut.
“Quit that!” Father commanded me, perhaps feeling a little guilt of his
own for having overreacted to my conversation with the emperor. “Nothing
has happened, yet. In the future, keep your mouth shut when you’re around
Mathias and the other big shots, and maybe nothing will happen to us. But
not another word to him. Absolutely nothing.”
I dried my eyes and managed to eat a couple more mouthfuls of the
homely food. While I was looking about the vast room for what must have
been the twentieth time I noticed an odd-looking little man seated two
benches from us; his hair and his beard were like thick black wool, and he
had dark, alert eyes that seemed to miss nothing of the activity around him.
Though he ate his food vigorously—and noisily—his eyes did not glance at
his meal but were kept darting about the rest of the dining room. Seated
around him were thirty or so other dark, wire-haired men, each of them
wearing a bronze cape clasp that was shaped like the stylized face of the sun.
“That’s Abdul Selin,” said Father after I had pointed out the dark man to
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him. “Best damn soldier in the army. I pity any Chinaman who crosses the
path of that nasty little Turk during this campaign. If all the sons of Ishmael
had been akin to him back in the days of the Islamic Wars, you and I would
never have been born. He’s smart and he’s vicious. Looks like an ape trained
to wear a man’s clothes, doesn’t he? Look sharp; he sees you staring at him.
Smile back, Justa. Like smiling at a cobra, isn’t it? We can rejoice he is on
our side, the bloodthirsty little beast.”
“Who are those other men sitting around him?” I asked.
“Relatives of his,” said Father. “Selin has lots and lots of relatives. Keeps
a couple hundred of them on his staff or as his bodyguards. They’re from the
same big tribe of Turks the Empire settled in North Africa a dozen
generations back. The ones Selin can’t stick in the army are back home in
Tunis Alexandria and Casablanca; they’re magistrates, judges and whatnot.
You can imagine what kind of justice they dish out down there.”
“What does the sun face mean, sir?” I asked, regarding the cape clasps.
“That represents a god from way back before the times of the Christian
Bible,” said Father. “In the African and Middle Eastern provinces they call it
Heliosomething. The Selin clan members are all in the same
sun-worshipping cult. If you ask me, their so-called religion just gives them
the chance to meet together in private when they have their secret services.
They’re a big gang, really. A big bunch of tax farmers, smugglers,
extortionists, and crooked lawyers.”
That was the first time I saw Father’s eventual nemesis. We had no idea
then what enmity would one day exist between Selin and our small family;
nonetheless he frightened me when I first beheld him. Most of the generals
at the banquet, Father included, had done terrible things on behalf of the
Empire, and I did not consider them evil men; they were each a servant of the
emperor and acted without malice and not out of choice. Such was the
morality of the world they were born into. Selin was something more than
the other generals. One look at him and a person knew he had the energy of
a dozen other men compressed within his small body. He would keep that
vigor through the whole of his long life and would not allow it to be
diminished by the thousands of unspeakable deeds he would do with the
same zest he displayed when he attacked his food at the banquet. Father said
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that Selin had been a financial administrator—and perhaps a secret informer
in the emperor’s service—before he became a general, which struck me as a
strange background for a man possessing Selin’s aggressive personality. One
could not imagine him sitting at a computer and examining sets of numbers
while he kept a seemingly passive eye on the accountants working in the
office around him. Mathias the Glistening, again displaying his propensity
for choosing unusual men to serve him, had promoted Selin from the ranks
of drones slaving in the government’s financial departments into the military
hierarchy, where, as Father told it, the African-born Turk had displayed a fine
talent for killing both the foreign enemies of Pan-Polaria and his own men.
“The emperor is a—I don’t know what—a la-de-da deep thinker,” said
Father. “Then, for some reason only he knows, he promotes a wild-eyed killer like
Selin and lets him in turn promote his bunch of money-grubbing cousins. You
know why I think Mathias does it? Because he knows most intellectuals can’t
fight—particularly not the deep thinkers you find back in the capital. Bear that
in mind, my bookworm. Intellectuals and philosophers are good enough when
they’re among themselves at their silly get-togethers and talk counts as much as
money. The trouble with thinkers is they know so much and take so much time
pondering what they know they get to being doubtful of everything, even of the
certain things every man believes. Now, if men have doubts, they won’t fight.
Mathias knows that Selin doesn’t think a lick about anything he does; Selin just
acts and knocks the pieces into some sort of shape after the dust has settled.
That’s why the emperor uses men cut from that hairy bugger’s cloth.”
“And men like you, Father,” I would have said, had I been as bold then
as I am now.
In those days I was barely bold enough to return to the emperor’s hall on
the morrow. The soldiers at the door seemed giants to me when I approached
them and gave them my name. I thought them more astonishing when one
of them led me into a smaller chamber off the main hall in which the emperor
was addressing an eclectic group consisting of young officers, members of his
son’s entourage, and a few generals’ children like myself. Unlike the elitist
scholars in the Empire’s universities, Mathias thought all learning should be
open to everyone, regardless of the scholars’ age, class, sex, or party affiliation.
I was embarrassed beyond my powers to express my emotions when the
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emperor spoke my name as I entered the room and pointed to an empty place
I was supposed to sit. More amazing than his casual manner was the
extraordinary class Mathias was conducting for his pupils. Like Epicurus, the
ancient philosopher I had quoted when I met him, Mathias believed a life
worth living was one given to pleasure. He went beyond the Philosopher of
Samos and asserted that the only true pleasure was found in leading a moral
existence. A happy man, said the ruler of half the world, was necessarily a
humble, kind, self-restrained and generous man, for that was the sort of man
partaking of the greatest pleasure the world could offer.
“Forgive others,” Mathias said. “Forgive, forgive, always forgive. Even
forgive those who hate you.”
“What about the Chinese across the river, my lord?” asked one astonished
junior officer. “Are we to forgive them?”
“Especially them,” said the emperor.
“Then, my lord,” said the confused junior officer, “should we—and I ask
this with the greatest respect—should we . . . fight them? Seeing as how we
forgive them, I mean, my lord?”
“Our duty as citizens of Pan-Polaria demands we fight the Manchurian
rebels,” explained Mathias. “They have made raids across the Amur and have
killed people living under our protection. We must chasten them or they will
cross the river again and slay more of our citizens. Once we have beaten them
and peace is again restored, we have a second duty, as men, to forgive them
and to lead them to the true path of life. They are men like us, equal to us in
every aspect, except in that they live in the darkness of ignorance, as all
outside the Empire do. In the better days to come, we will show them the
light of understanding, of that you may be assured.”
If a holy man had spoken those words, I would have long ago forgotten
them. That they were said by the most powerful man alive, a man who could
extinguish the life of any other human as easily as I might strike at a fly, not
only seared them in my memory, it made me wonder if I were really hearing
what my ears were telling my mind.
Handsome Luke Anthony and his companions were seated at the front of
the room. When Mathias had turned to address the young officer they had
been skylarking among themselves and making faces while the emperor
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spoke his solemn words. As Mathias finished his response to the officer’s
question, the young coemperor coughed into his hand the word “Christer.”
This was a deadly insult in the imperial court. Mathias’ old tutor Frons
had taught him that the Christians were not good people, as they acted
morally to gain heaven rather than for the sake of being good. Moreover, they,
like the Jews and the Moslems and unlike the new religions, did not
recognize the divine natures of the dead emperors and their Empire. During
the previous summer the emperor had yet again suppressed the Christian
movement by killing five hundred thousand of that antique sect in Europe
and North America. Mathias was not alone in his disdain for the
once-dominant religion that had been forced underground three generations
earlier; Christians (and the Jews and Moslems) had loyalties that were not
connected to the Empire and thus were suspect citizens. The imperial agents
who spied upon the outlaw sect had spread the rumor that Christians
practiced incest between brothers and sisters, as they called each other by that
title even if they were married to each other. They were outlaws in an Empire
that tolerated nearly everything else. Everyone knew these same outlaws
proclaimed a doctrine of moral living that, except for their belief in heaven,
seemed to be much akin to Mathias’ theory of the good life. No one was more
sensitive of that fact than Mathias himself. The emperor eyed his impertinent
son, and the small room was completely silent while Mathias the Glistening
fought against his anger. When the emperor’s self-restraint had triumphed
over his wrath, he continued speaking to the class as if nothing unpleasant
had happened.
The great Mathias had written a peculiar book during the previous year,
a tome that was part autobiography and part a series of high-minded
statements on anything that had crossed his mind. During his gatherings at
Progress he would often read to us a short passage from this book of his,
expound upon the meaning of what he had read, and next allow anyone to ask
questions pertaining to the reading. The words he chose to read to us on my
first day in his group were: “One can live well even in a palace.”
“Why do we say: ‘even in a palace’?” asked Mathias. “Because the
opportunity to do evil is greatest for those who live there. The stockbroker
working on the exchange in Garden City can do more harm to others than
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can the janitor who sweeps the exchange every evening. The sergeant can do
worse than the individual soldier of the line. The ruler, who makes choices
that touch everyone, can do more mischief than anyone. Thus, the higher our
station in life, the more difficult it is for us to be good men and women.”
Mathias spoke as if he were a detached observer of the world and not one
holding half the world in his hands. His objectivity made everyone present
apprehensive—everyone other than his son Luke Anthony, I should say. That
young man pretended to yawn as his father spoke, so familiar was he with the
emperor’s discourses. Mathias told the story of his predecessor, the deified
Pius Anthony, the palace dweller Mathias held to be the example of one who
used power wisely. Next he told of the emperor Marcellus Darko, who he said
was the example of one who did not live well in a palace, one who in fact
burned his palace and the city around it to the ground.
“Forty-eight years ago, the citizens of Washington, where the capital
once was,” narrated Mathias, “believed that the newly crowned Marcellus
Darko would be worthy of the title emperor, for he was an athletic, handsome
youth, and the people, being shallow thinkers, believed the inner man would
mirror the outward appearance of the young man they saw each evening on
their interactive screens. They did not know that long before he ascended to
the throne Darko had been corrupted by his degenerate companions and,
more significantly, by his indulgent, evil mother, the disgraceful Angelina.
From the beginning of his reign to his last sad day, when he was murdered
in the bedroom of his country estate, Darko surrendered himself to his baser
inclinations; he committed murder, theft, rape, and every manner of carnal
act decency forbids me to name in mixed company.”
“Plus he was a lousy poet,” chimed in young Luke.
For the second time in that session the father turned his eyes upon his
wayward son. The officers present fidgeted in their chairs and wished they
were somewhere else. I was a child and was ignorant of important matters;
the officers from Garden City knew the references to Darko and his mother
were Mathias’ way of speaking of Luke and his corrupt mother Gloriana. The
young coemperor’s companion Sao Trentex giggled at the senior Emperor’s
emperor’s disapproving frown, an indiscretion for which any other ruler of
Pan-Polaria would have removed the fat toad’s head.
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“Must you, sir?” asked Mathias of his son. “Of everyone here, you, young
man, need to learn the truth concerning palaces.”
“Why?” asked Luke. “We never live in one. We are vagabonds, we in this
royal house, O great teacher.” (Sao Trentex and some of his other young
companions snickered at the son’s grandiose title for his father.) “We move
from place to place, from war to war on the Empire’s frontiers, sleeping by
campfires like savages, eating bread and corn cakes the peasants in India
wouldn’t touch. Constricted by such austerity, we have to be moral, sir. There
are no temptations where we live. Back in Garden City there are people
confronting their desires every day; some days they abstain from doing as
they would, and some days they surrender themselves to what you, sir, call
their baser natures. They do not pretend to be holy eunuchs, sir. They are not
hiding themselves out here in the wilderness while real life goes on.”
Two members of Luke Anthony’s entourage shook their heads
enthusiastically. Immediately they had second thoughts about their actions
when the emperor glanced at them.
“Young man,” said Mathias, “you should not challenge me in front of
others.”
“Am I not emperor with you, sir?” asked Luke Anthony, the pitch in his
voice rising as he rose to meet his father’s challenge.
“You have a title,” said Mathias. “I think, young man, the world
recognizes one of us as superior to the other. Should we ask some of the
soldiers inside and see which one of us they will obey?”
Luke Anthony would in time show himself to be a monster, but he was
always more a coward than a monster. The possibility of his father bringing
a squadron from the storied Tenth Division into the room quickly brought
the more powerful aspect of his personality to the forefront. His face turned
ashen, and so did those of his companions, as he and they considered what
might happen to them if the young emperor continued to confront his father.
Luke’s friend and fellow coward Sao Trentex likewise had a change of heart
and decided mocking absolute authority to its face was not the wisest course
of action. The fat fellow whispered something to his young friend, and Luke
Anthony said to his father, “In the spirit of debate, sir, I was suggesting some
alternative possibilities to your—”
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“Young man,” said the emperor, “I know what you were doing. You and
your companions may leave us for the day.”
Luke and his friends scrambled for the exit, bumping into each other in
their rush to reach safety. At the doorway they turned to bow to Mathias
before they disappeared into the hall outside. A couple of them tried to speak
a few words of apology to the emperor before they left, but Mathias waved
them on their way.
“We are young and foolish, my emperor. This is the unfortunate
inclination our formative years have given us,” pled Sao Trentex. “You must
not think we—”
“You are indeed young and foolish,” said Mathias. “In time, you will no
longer be young. Now, go or the soldiers come in.”
The members of Luke’s entourage literally knocked each other aside as
they charged out the door.
The emperor held his hand to his forehead for a moment, much as
ordinary people do when they suffer severe headaches. When he put his hand
down, he continued to instruct the remaining students while he maintained
the same detached mood he had before he had been interrupted. Before the
session ended that day he engaged a young officer in a lively exchange
concerning the origins of private property, and he seemed his normal self
again.
“Did you say anything?” Father asked me over dinner that evening.
“No, the emperor talks enough for everyone, sir,” I told him.
“Very good,” said Father. “Let him talk. Like most bigshots, he loves to
ramble on. Good. As long as he’s only talking, nobody can get hurt.”
“Sir, does Mathias get along with his son?” I asked.
“How would I know?” growled Father. “You are asking a foolish
question. Shows you’re becoming a woman. That’s the only kind of question
women ask. Look, Mathias made that pup of his coemperor, so he must like
the boy in some way. Why would a person give a gift like that to somebody
he doesn’t like? You’ve got to think about these things, girl.”
“Did the Greeks like the Trojans, sir?” I asked.
“That’s from a book, isn’t it?” said Father.
“Yes, a really old one.”
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“It may surprise you, Miss Genius, but I happen to recall that comes
from a rotten long poem written by that Homer fellow.”
“That’s right,” I said. “So tell me, sir: did the Greeks like the Trojans?”
“It’s another foolish question, Justa,” said Father, and set aside his fork
for a moment. “You must practically be a woman to talk like that. You need
to have a talk with Helen. Anyway, as I recall, the Greeks hated the Trojans.
They were fighting a long bloody war, weren’t they?”
“Then why did they give the Trojans a gift, sir?” I said.
“Well, they gave them that big horse full of bloody soldiers, didn’t they?
That is the right story, isn’t it?” asked Father. “This doesn’t have anything to
do with that other old story about the man in the red suit?”
“Yes, it’s the wooden horse story.”
“Then that was not a real gift, was it?” said Father. “Honestly, Justa. You
are bad as the emperor. You think so deeply you confuse yourself. You see, there
are two types of things in the world: those that are simple and those that seem
not to be. The simple ones are easy to understand, and the other ones are really
simple matters disguised as complicated ones. It’s like what happens in battle:
there are brilliant generals and there are slow-witted ones; in the end it’s always
hit them on the left, hit them on the right, soften them up with rockets and
aerial bombardment, and finally attack down the middle. You see?”
“Yes, sir,” I said, and ate my chickpeas.
I attended the emperor’s symposiums throughout that cold first winter
in Progress. I said nothing during class time and grasped what I could. Every
day Mathias was more attentive to me than I could have rightfully hoped. He
addressed me by the pet name “the Most Just,” and would speak individually
to younger students such as myself at the end of each session.
“What did you learn today, Most Just?” he would ask me as I crept
toward the door.
“I learned, my lord, that I do not know what the transmigration of souls
is,” I told him one day.
“No one does, Most Just,” he said. “That is an idea that first appears
among the Pythagoreans, although they probably borrowed it from the
Egyptians, and perhaps it was current in the Indus Valley long before that.
Those who believe in it lack imagination, you see. They can envision no other
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world other than this one. Old Pythagoras and his kind believed the soul
would return again and again to this realm in different forms. The Hindus
think something similar even today. They did not know the soul is made to
live a thousand times ten thousand years, but only once will our souls know
this world.”
I comprehended a small fraction of everything he said, yet he was, I
reminded myself every day, the emperor, and he must know what he was
saying.
“You are very wise, my lord,” I said.
“So everyone tells me,” he said. He bent his head to my ear—so close was
he I could see the separate segments of the flexible metal casing on the back
of his neck—and he asked me, “You would not be flattering me, would you,
Most Just?”
“Perhaps I was, my lord,” I said.
“Don’t do it, pretty one,” he told me, and stood straight once more. “I
have a mob of flatterers about me. I want you to give me honest answers, my
dear. The emperor demands that of you.”
One thing Mathias had in common with his criminal son was that he too
had seen some master actors in the cinema back in Garden City, and he too
could act if he wanted to—just not as well as his boy could. When Mathias
pretended, the real man always shone though his pretense. On the day I
mention here, he had meant to sound stern with me. I could detect the gentle
smile behind the man he was supposed to be, for he could not keep his
goodness from shining through.
As much as I loved him, I do confess Mathias was a man with his faults.
I do not refer to the brutal deeds he did, for his position and the chaotic state
of the Empire demanded he do many horrible things. Nor do I refer to the
mistress he kept in his household after his wife’s death, as lust is a weakness
known to humans in general. When I speak of his faults, I mean that he
enjoyed his wisdom and his own sonorous voice more than a man should.
Worse than that was his love of his own virtue. Mathias had condemned the
Christians for being good in order to please God. I have since come to think
such religious folk are at least wiser than those who love virtue in order to
please themselves, and Mathias, the finest man of his age, was often too
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pleased with himself.
On the second day of spring, when the snows had begun to diminish, the
emperor took me aside after one of his symposiums and gave me a composite
hand mirror as a going-away present. He told me the time for the campaign
against the Manchurians had arrived.
“Look within, Most Just,” he told me as he handed me the gift. “Make
your soul as beautiful as the face you see in the mirror. One day in the distant
future, the face you see here will disappoint you. Do not despise your looks
for being a passing circumstance. Take pleasure in everything that will not
harm you; enjoy the small diversions of this physical plane, for nature put
those things here to give us intimations of the perfections which forever lie
beyond our reach.”
On the following morning he was gone, as were my father and the rest
of the army. The combat engineers had built bridges of black carbon filament
across the swollen Amur to allow passage to the southern shore. The troop
carriers passed two abreast across these black sections straddling the brown
water and into the sparse, sandy hills on the opposite bank. Select men in
silvery helmets and body armor carried the banners of the separate divisions
before the ranks of trucks and armored cars while drummers from the
emperor’s marching band marked the even cadence as the traffic crept across
the composite planks of the bridges. Mounted infantry from Mexico,
recruited after mechanical problems had rendered so many troop carriers
unusable, each of them wearing a long wool coat to shield his body from the
cold, crossed in double lines behind the Pan-Polaric regulars. Siberian
auxiliaries sporting long black beards came after the Mexicans; they shouted
to the jet-streaked skies as they proceeded, and a camp follower told me the
men were calling to their gods to grant them good fortune on the long trek
that lay ahead of them in the hostile Chinese-controlled lands. Last to make
the crossing was the grinding baggage train—the ammunition carriers and
the heavy trucks with wheels as tall as a man’s head. The entire procession
needed a full day to exit Progress. Helen and I watched their movement
during the daylight hours from the doorway of our stone hovel. While we lay
on our beds at night we could hear the engines growling on the undulating
bridges during our slumbers. Whenever a truck with an infected engine
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ground to a halt, a group of soldiers would put the machine in neutral gear
and shove it out of the army’s path. I counted twenty-six such stricken
vehicles within sight of the encampment on the first day of the march toward
the south.
Father and his servant Medus both went with the Twentieth Division,
leaving Helen and myself in the military station among the other women and
children. Most of the other senior officers sent their families back to Garden
City or to other places far from the lonely outpost, and in those distant spots
the families awaited word of the expected victories. I was terribly alone that
long summer and fall the soldiers were gone. I rarely had the company of
other children during my youth: my peculiar situation was far too lowly for
me to have friends among the offspring of other generals; being the daughter
of a legion commander I was far too highborn to associate with the unofficial
children dwelling outside the station walls. At Progress I daily wandered like
a sparrow through the nearly deserted encampment, playing games with
imaginary companions and dreaming of what Father and the emperor were
doing beyond the southern horizon.
Luke Anthony had ridden on a personnel carrier beside his father into the
Manchurian countryside, and had left his pack of jaded playmates in a cluster
of drab buildings near the central hall Mathias had used. Other children left
in the station made a pastime of running near to the quarters of the young
coemperor’s entourage and shouting the nasty expletives they had learned by
listening to their elders discuss Luke Anthony’s friends. The scamps would
run away if one of the insulted hanger-ons emerged from a doorway to see
what was happening. I stayed away from Luke’s people from Garden City
because Helen had told me there were witches from the secret cults among
the group. I knew my old nurse was trying to frighten me away from that
loud, drunken crowd that partied late into the night after every sunset. I also
knew there were certain women from east Africa in Luke Anthony’s group
who painted their eyebrows green and wore spangled clothing and certainly
looked to my twelve-year-old eyes to be the hawk-faced practitioners of the
forbidden arts Helen had told me about in her stories. “Witches eat nosey
little girls, you know,” Helen told me. I did not linger near the strange
foreign women to learn if she was telling the truth. I preferred staying close
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to the river and the only living foliage in the region; at least there I could see
types of life I could understand, and observing the sparse stands of trees and
rusting trucks on the other shore somehow made me feel closer to Father.
Luke Anthony returned to Progress unexpectedly in the middle of the
summer. A small detachment of the Mexican horseman was his only escort
through the wild countryside on his journey back to us. There had been a
scrimmage in the Manchurian wasteland, and despite his reputation for
ferocity and his love of staged combats, Luke Anthony had disgraced himself
by running from the first enemy gunshots of the campaign. After the
Pan-Polaric troopers had routed the suicidal Chinese assault, Mathias had
disparaged his son as a coward in front of the entire high command. Report
had it that some generals present had laughed at the humiliating quaking the
young man did when he suffered the emperor’s rage. I thank Providence my
father was not so foolish as those laughing officers. Anyone who mocked Luke
Anthony on that day died soon after he became sole ruler of the Empire.
“I didn’t flee,” Luke had reportedly told his father. “My carrier’s engine
seized up, and I had to get out and run.”
“Then your carrier was a cowardly machine, young man,” Mathias was
said to have replied. “Take it back to Progress. I’ll not have such a
faint-hearted machine among these other brave vehicles. When you have
found a less nervous transport, one that will carry you toward danger rather
than to the rear, you may return to us.”
Luke Anthony apparently had a difficult time finding a better ride in the
nearly vacant military camp. He loitered for months on the safe side of the
Amur, hunting day after day and reveling with his friends during the warm
nights. His teams of beaters daily made wide sweeps through the forest
surrounding the station, sometimes driving game right against the stone
walls or into the river. These drivers and their dogs (they used real ones,
rather than the mechanical hounds that had been popular a few years earlier)
attempted to tighten their large arc into a slowly constricting circle that
would meet at a point where Luke would kill the trapped animals with his
methane and gunpowder-powered rifle. Pan-Polaric troopers have
traditionally left the mastery of such conventional weapons to foreign
auxiliaries while our men carried laser or particle beam rifles. Luke Anthony
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had mastered the use of such ancient weapons while hunting and training
with Mexican peasants in the hills around Garden City. Everyone agreed he
was an expert shot. Those in the station who had seen him mow down the
trapped deer, bear, wild boar, wolves, and tigers say he rarely missed, though
he rode a motorcycle while he fired, and that the more he killed the more he
went into an ecstasy of delight. When he became lost in the frenzy of the
slaughter, the beautiful young man with the long golden curls would put a
titanium sabot through the heart of some doomed beast and scream, “I am
Luke Spacious Anthony! I am the Empire!” After all the animals in a trapped
group had fallen, he would hop off his motorbike and run into the piles of
dead and find a beast that was still convulsing so he could ask the dying
creature if it appreciated the great honor of dying at the hands of the emperor
of the Northern Hemisphere. Those telling the story say he waited for a reply
and would savage the animal with his sidearm when the beast presumed to
die without giving him one.
Once, on a rare cloudless day, I was walking along the river near the
remains of a disassembled bridge when I heard the barking dogs and the
“clang” of the beaters beating their flails against their body armor as they
moved from the north toward me. To my horror, I realized the hunting party
was not only headed for the Amur; it was converging directly upon a
smattering of small houses built outside the encampment walls a few rods
from where I was. The underbrush suddenly flickered to life as animals
crashed through the foliage and toward the water. I at once ran onto the
remaining portion of the bridge, the middle section of which had been
removed, and I lay flat inside one of the concrete foundations, thus hiding
myself from the oncoming hunters. I peered over the edge of the concrete
shielding me and beheld the beaters’ circle drawing tight immediately west
of the end of the bridge. Several deer leapt into the river and swam away
before the beaters could get between them and the water. A frightful uproar
took place as various creatures and two small boys who had been caught in
the sweep dashed into the open, crashing into each other and howling in
terror as they found themselves inside the ring of the beaters’ shields. A large
bear, its front leg wounded by a rifle shot, charged into the ring and with two
swipes of its good forepaw tore open a large dog and ripped the side of one of
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the terrified boys, both of whom were shrieking to the beaters to let them go.
Luke Anthony, looking as dashing as Alexander riding down the Persian
army, rode his motorcycle to the outside of the ring and fired once into the
bear’s chest, killing it instantly. He was as tremendous a marksman as
everyone had claimed. From his mount he fired round after round into the
animal melee before him. Every sabot he sent into the chaos went straight
into a beast’s vital organs; a boar, three stags, a fox, and a bull from a nearby
farm were caught in midflight and fell lifeless on the ground. Luke Anthony
then took a flail from a beater and chased the two small boys about the ring
on his motorcycle, slapping them with the blunt weapon as he swore aloud.
“You cost me three deer!” he shouted as he struck them from his mount.
“Don’t you know who I am?”
The boys were covered in blood. Their screams had degenerated to less
than human cries of distress and were more like the squeals of dying cattle
inside a charnel house. The boy the bear had mauled soon could withstand no
more and collapsed in the dirt beneath the wheels of Luke’s cycle. The other
one charged the beaters’ wall, but the heartless men knocked him back with
their flails. Unable to escape the scene, the pathetic child curled into a ball
on the unprotected dirt where Luke Anthony continued to beat him.
“I am the emperor!” the brave hunter shouted. “I am the Empire!”
He might have pummeled the two hapless boys to death but for the
actions of his friend Sao Trentex—of whom I have forever after thought
better—for that second young man broke into the ring of beaters and
declared to Luke Anthony that perhaps Emperor Mathias would learn of this
incident if the two children were killed.
“Are you afraid of him?!” shrieked Luke Anthony, wild with the strange
satisfaction violence gave him and raising the flail in the air as though he
were about to bring it down on his friend’s pockmarked head.
The boys were fortunate Sao Trentex thought quickly. The cunning
fellow dropped to his knees and clasped his hands in an exaggerated gesture
of supplication.
“Oh, yes, Luke Anthony!” he said in a semihysterical voice that made
young Luke smile. “I fear your father will come back to Progress and give us
another lecture on moral philosophy! I know you do not fear death, my lord.
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I quiver for the both of us when I think we might have to endure another
seminar burdened by his vast piety! Please bear in mind that the rest of us
are mortal, my lord! We cannot endure as much of his sanctimonious person
as you can!”
Luke Anthony laughed, which cued the rest of his group they should
laugh with him. Sao Trentex’s joke had broken the bloodthirsty mood that
had seemed to grip him only seconds before. Luke gave the flail back to its
owner, and having ordered his men to dress the fallen game he rode toward
the great hall. The moment he was gone, Sao Trentex had some of the bearers
carry the two boys to a physician. He wrapped the most bloodied of the
children in his own long coat, and cleaned the still-unconscious child’s face
with a loose corner of the cloth. “I am terribly sorry, little one,” I heard him
say before the bearers carried the child toward the encampment walls. The
ugly man’s kindness was more astonishing to me than Luke Anthony’s
cruelty had been. No one today has anything good to say concerning Sao
Trentex. History remembers him as one of the fawning dilettantes about
young Luke who abetted the soon-to-be emperor’s corruption. History and
the rest of us never knew the real man. If he was capable of showing courage
and compassion in defiance of Luke Anthony’s irrational fury, I expect there
were deep mines of virtue within the man he normally kept hidden lest he
offend the unthinking power that throughout his short life was always just a
few steps from his side. If the distance between him and Luke had been
thousands of miles, if Sao Trentex had been a programmer in Poland or a
farmer in North America, he might have been as good a man as Mathias
aspired to be. Fate thought otherwise. He was doomed never to be far
removed from that evil influence, and being as close as he was he had to be a
slave to Luke Anthony’s whims, as was everyone else near the willful young
emperor. Since history has overlooked the goodness in the man, I pray some
higher power—if any exists—took note of the luckless man’s act of charity
beside the chilly Amur and for that deed his soul is today in some better place
than that of his thoughtless master.
I did not leave my hiding place on the bridge till everyone in the hunting
party had departed. The moment I could no longer hear the dogs yapping, I sped
off the pontoon bridge and ran home. I told Helen what had happened by the river,
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and she tore her hair and threatened to take a rod to me. In the end she merely
kissed my face a few dozen times and thanked her numerous gods I was well.
“You see!” she said. “This is what happens when you go near the young
emperor!”
“I didn’t,” I said. “I was by the river. He came near me.”
Helen replied that everything in creation, or at least half of it, belonged
to the emperor, and he could go anywhere he wanted on his property. The
only safe place in the camp was our house.
“He could squeeze you like a flea,” she said, and pressed her fingernails
together to demonstrate his power.
For once, I nearly obeyed her. I still went for strolls along the river, but
each time I left the encampment I made certain the coemperor was not out
hunting game of either the four- or two-legged varieties.
The army was gone the entire winter and did not return to Progress until
the rain had changed to snow and back to rain once more. In the early spring
the engineers appeared on the other shore and filled in the midsections of the
bridges so the soldiers could return to our side of the Amur. The seemingly
undiminished force returned largely on foot and brought in its train three
thousand ragged Manchurian prisoners, most of them old people and
children. There had been no great battles in the sandy hills. When report of
our approaching soldiers had reached the isolated settlements in that desolate
region of the globe, the majority of the clans who had been raiding
southeastern Siberia simply retreated into China proper, leaving behind
nothing of value for our soldiers to attack; yet somewhere in the field pack of
some tired veteran the army carried home to us the sole important trophy
they had won on the long and uneventful campaign: they brought to us the
demon called the new metal plague. Every household in Progress sealed its
doorway with caulk once the unwanted guest made itself known to us. People
purified the air about them with antibiotic sprays and washed their metal
possessions in soapy water and mild acids to keep the evil visitor from
moving into their machinery. Helen claimed she had felt the plague in the
wet soil of this strange country when we first arrived there. She believed it
had traveled up the roots and into the trees, and that was why she had seen
the unlucky signs in the wood ashes. She believed this although I explained
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to her the plague was clearly man-made.
What we in Progress did not yet know was that this new curse was not
a variation of man-made virus we had seen corrode our metal goods during
the previous forty years. That earlier plague had indeed been a virus; that is,
it was a microscopic chain of proteins that excreted an acid capable of
corroding metal surfaces. As nearly as the Empire’s scientists could discern,
some laboratory in southern Africa had created the old metal virus, which
was one of the many designer germs and viruses that have afflicted
humankind during the past 150 years. We in the Pan-Polaric Empire had
contained the old metal virus by substituting plastics and ceramics for metals
when we could, though metalloids and nonmetals from the upper right-hand
corner of the periodic table make poor conductors of electricity. We had to
coat our metal circuitry in heavy insulation, and even protected electrical
systems had to be decontaminated every three or four days, which caused
interruptions in communications and interfered with the functions of most
computers. What had saved us from the old metal plague was that since it
was a true virus it had mutated rather quickly and most of the newer varieties
it became were no danger to our metal. Nonetheless, scientists in the
Southern Hemisphere continue to create batches of the original metal virus,
and it has become the primary reason the Empire (and the whole world) has
become poorer and less technologically sophisticated over time. The new
plague the army brought back from Manchuria was not a virus or even a
living organism; it was in fact a nanomachine only three molecules in size.
These tiny machines feed on negative energy, as is found in electricity, which
the machines consume and convert into positrons. Normally these tiny
machines lie dormant in the soil, feeding on the electrons in sunlight. But
when they are in the vicinity of electricity coursing through metal structures,
they latch onto the circuitry the way mosquitoes do blood veins. When
infected with the new metal plague, machines grind to a halt, generators shut
down, and those who have metal implants in their bodies wither away as if
stricken by the plagues of the Middle Ages.
That spring in Progress any neighbor with an electronic implant might
in the morning be as healthy as a goat, by noon become as sluggish as someone
walking in his sleep, and by evening be dead and as stiff as a carbon beam.
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When we first saw people die from it, we did not realize the new plague could
not strike all humans, and we thought we two were in peril. Helen made me
and her husband Medus wear amulets she claimed had been blessed at a
temple of healing somewhere in Europe. Medus was as superstitious as his
wife, and I was terrified by the bodies I every day saw being carried away for
burial in the handcarts, so we did as she wanted. My father threw away the
amulet she gave him. He vowed he would slay any plague demon that came
for him with a flame thrower. He slept with such a weapon at his bedside,
ready to strike at any virus daring to venture through our front doorway.
Given our ignorance of the new affliction, we thought either the amulets or
Father’s threats must have worked, for when the deaths in the encampment
waned and in a few weeks ceased altogether everyone in our household
remained well. Our good emperor Mathias Anthony was less fortunate.
Mathias fell ill soon after his return. For five days he lay on his bed in the
great hall, fighting the affliction with all the remaining strength he had in
the natural portions of his body. When his physicians told him he would
become progressively weaker in spite of the decontamination work they had
performed on him, he refused food and drink and prepared himself for an
honorable death. On the sixth day of his ordeal he summoned groups of his
generals and former students into his room to say good-bye to them.
“Why are you weeping?” he asked his lieutenants. “You should be
worrying about the plague and what it may yet do to you. Each of us is
condemned to die on the day of our birth. My time is now. Take care yours
does not come soon hereafter. I suspect this is something the Chinese have
created. It has long been obvious that technology will be eventually used to
destroy itself. I should have written a book upon the subject. But take heart:
our civilization is more than electric lights and thinking machines. Learning,
language, the arts, our medicine, our laws, our courage—these and much
more will endure, and they will sustain our Empire in the long night to
come.”
I was included among the students he called to his bedside. I waited in
the deserted banquet hall for two hours while sobbing men entered and left
his room. When it was my time, two enormous soldiers dressed in armor they
had to move themselves, as it was no longer self-propelling, escorted me to
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his chamber. He was lying against the wall in his small cot, looking much
paler and thinner than when I had seen him last. Like everyone
else—including the tall soldiers—I wept when I beheld his wan, yellow face.
“Shhh, Justa,” he said in his weak voice. “This is the fate of mortal
things. Do not grieve over what is fated to happen.”
I wanted to be brave for him. Instead I cried the more when I heard how
frail he sounded.
“I should be the one weeping,” he said. “I will not live to see you blossom
into a beautiful woman. Don’t come too close, little one. We don’t
understand how infectious this thing is. I have another farewell gift for you.
Over there.”
He pointed to a small table holding a jewelry box filled with golden
combs I could wear in my long hair. On the box’s casing was depicted the
Judgment of Paris, showing Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, accepting the
golden apple. I imagine the present was the emperor’s kind comment upon
my appearance.
“Think of this old friend when you put on the combs,” he said. “Most
Just, you really must control yourself.”
We had been in Progress for nearly two years. I had turned fourteen in
the meantime and was practically grown by the standards of the day. I was
nonetheless weak in that terrible moment when I should have been as
emotionless as a statue and insisted on weeping before the wasting emperor
when he needed me to be strong.
“What will you do when you are older, Justa?” he asked me.
“I will . . . serve the Empire . . . however I can, my lord,” I sputtered
through my tears.
Mathias turned his face to the wall. My answer had not pleased him.
“You have been told I do not want to hear that sort of rubbish,” he said.
“I would say anything that would be pleasing to you, my lord,” I told
him.
He turned back to me and motioned me to take another step closer to his
bed.
“Then say what is in your heart and not what you think I want to hear,”
he said. “An emperor hears many words intended to please him. That is our
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chief duty: hearing such words. People saying them do not necessarily know
what I want to hear. I would have been more pleased, Most Just, if you had
said you wanted to lead a good and simple life, the sort of life that would
belong to you and your family. You should marry a farmer, little one. They
are honest people. Some of them are, anyway. Be a good wife and a good
mother to a family of honest farmers. That would please me. I would have
liked to have been a farmer myself.”
The import of what he was saying was lost on me in my sorrow. Nor
could I stop weeping for him.
“If you had not been our emperor,” I said, “then, my Caesar, historians in
ages hence would write that Pan-Polaria was deprived of her noblest, most
valiant—”
“Stop that, Justa,” he told me. “Leave us for a moment, friends,” he said
to the soldiers. When he and I were alone in the chamber he said to me in a
whisper that carried plainly to me ears, “Child, historians ages hence will
write the same nonsense they have always written. They will most likely say
I was a good ruler, that I saved the Empire from several invasions and did not
completely destroy the economy. They will add I made my one great error
when I made Luke Spacious my successor. Don’t be shocked, Justa. I know
better than anyone what sort of man Luke is, and I have imagination enough
to guess what evil he will do after I am gone and there is no one to restrain
him. His mother raised him to be exactly the sort of . . . the sort of thing he
is. She and the crowd of sycophants she put about him did a thorough job. I
could not improve upon her work. Know this, my child: I came not to care
what he has become. There once was a time I thought I could educate him,
education being the last depot the train called failure usually stops at. In later
years I considered raising another man outside my family to be the next
emperor, as my immediate predecessors have done. Then, four years ago I
returned to Garden City and found him and several of his friends sitting on
the palace steps like idlers in front of a convenience story; it was morning and
they looked to have been out all night on the streets of the capital, dressed as
they were in their heavy cloaks and hoods. He was only fourteen. The gang
of them, they had a sack full of something they did not wish me to inspect.
I had a squadron of soldiers with me, of course; they retrieved the bag for me,
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and inside there were the most hideous bits of animal life they had collected
during the night, the whole of it cut up in a bloody mess: a cat’s head, a dog’s
hind leg, and such. When I poured it all out on the ground there was a child’s
severed hand amidst the other gore. The soldiers and I were aghast. We
looked at them and wondered. And they, the little murderers, they could only
cower like cowards before me. ‘This,’ I told myself, ‘is the Empire we have
fought a hundred wars to preserve. Pan-Polaria’s story was endured to
produce this.’ I walked away from him and returned to the frontier without
staying another hour in the capital. Two years later I named him my
coemperor. Leaving him to the Empire and the Empire to him will be the
most just deed I have ever done. Pan-Polaria will have the master she has long
deserved.
“Now, Justa, your father General Black is over fifty-five. He may retire
from the army any time he wishes. Tell him to settle somewhere far from the
capital. We are losing control of more outer regions every week. The farther
away from Garden City he settles, the better it will be for you and for him.
Someplace in the far north of America will do. You will meet your farmer
husband there; there you can teach your children to aspire for nothing more
than to be farmers and farmers’ wives. Never, never, little one, should you or
anyone in your family go again to Garden City. Never. Now good-bye, pretty
one, and do not mourn for me.”
I hid my face and wept as I ran from the room. I was so distraught I
forgot to bow to him before I exited. The soldiers posted at the doorway were
shedding tears as plentiful as mine. I knew they were weeping both for the
great goodness about to depart the Earth and for the calamity that was to
befall us when Luke Spacious took Mathias’ place.
Mathias the Glistening died on the seventh day of his affliction. Because
Luke Anthony was in the emperor’s bedchamber when Mathias left us the
rumormongers have claimed the young emperor strangled his father. I know
this is a lie, for Mathias’ bodyguards never left his side while Luke was
present. After the news of Mathias’ death had spread through the
encampment, Luke called the senior officers together at the great hall and
addressed them and the Empire via a hazy satellite transmission.
“Our daddy,” he said, putting both his hands over his heart and casting
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his eyes skyward, “has gone to heaven to sit among the other emperors as a
god. He has left us to govern the world while he is away.”
Luke told the world the army units were to return to their various
provinces, and he, the sole emperor, was returning to Garden City to bury his
father. The Manchurian war was officially over.
My father told us while we packed our belongings at our house that
night that the new emperor had cut quite a figure for an eighteen-year-old
boy.
“He’s a handsome lad,” said Father. “The ladies back in Garden City are
going to love him. Somebody has to. Of course I will serve him as best I can.
That’s what his father would have wanted me to do, and Mathias is the one
who lifted me up in the world. I won’t betray him just because he’s no longer
here to keep an eye on me.”
III.
AD 2293
“I
could be a leader after Mathias’
example, if I trusted our friend Mr.
Golden and did as he wants,” said Father as Mica gave him his morning
massage. “I would be a friend to the poor and a champion to the weak, and so
on.”
Father meant well when he said this. I could have pointed out to him he
thought being a friend to the poor meant giving them positions in the army
and that for Father being a champion to the weak consisted of using the
combat divisions to ward off potential invaders. That an emperor might do
other things, such as reform our corrupt judicial system or break the power
of the commodities speculators, was beyond the limits of his imagination.
Rather than contradict him, I said, “Do you remember when we last saw
Selin in Garden City?”
“How could anyone forget any time he crossed tracks with that one?”
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asked Father. “The bristle-headed bastard was frightened then. He was in a
crazy snit, like he always is, but he was scared to death of Luke Anthony. That
may have been the only time anybody has seen him scared.”
There had been a time when Father had feared Luke Anthony too. I did
not challenge him on that point either.
The soldiers and laborers in the tunnels outside our quarters had been
quiet during the night following the arrival of Mr. Golden’s messengers. The
men had not been chanting Father’s name, but Mr. Golden’s men had
brought plenty of money to pay the local merchants to keep the beer flowing
to the troopers and miners, and the good feelings toward “Emperor” Black
lived on in the hangovers of the morning after.
“Would you return to Garden City, sir?” I asked.
He shook his head. If we could see the thoughts of others, I would have
seen Father’s imperial ambitions fleeing out the door while he contemplated
the dangers of that distant city.
“Only if I went there to retire forever,” he said, and looked into space at
a scene only he could see. “To go to the capital when called is to risk death.
To stay there is to decide to die. Travel across the solar system is becoming so
hazardous, anyway, because of the tiny machines. Do you recall the first time
Luke Anthony . . .”
He did not finish the question. Father looked at the scene before him and
was lost to me for a moment. I knew what he was contemplating.
Son of Man
Robert Silverberg
“Profligate, spendthrift, wildly generous with image and
sensation and with sexuality.”
—The New York Times
I
N THE BEGINNING...there was no Brooklyn, no St. Louis, no Shakespeare, no
moon, no hunger, no death...
IN THE BEGINNING... there were no real men, no real women, nothing but
dispassionately passionate ambisexuals of the lowest and highest order...
IN THE BEGINNING...the heavens, the seas and the Earth belonged to more
intelligent species than a man called Clay could ever have dreamed possible in his
own time.
But his own time as a man had passed, and now his time as the son of man had
come!
Clay is a man from the 20th Century who is somehow caught up in a time-flux
and transported into a distant future. The earth and the life on it have changed
beyond recognition. Even the human race has evolved into many different forms, now
coexisting on the planet. The seemingly omnipotent Skimmers, the tyrannosaur-like
Eaters, the sedentary Awaiters, the squid-like Breathers, the Interceders, the
Destroyers—all of these are “Sons of Man.” Befriended and besexed by the Skimmers,
Clay goes on a journey which takes him around the future earth and into the depths
of his own soul. He is human, but what does that mean?
About the author: Robert Silverberg has been writing science fiction for fifty years.
Among his many books are such novels as Dying Inside, Lord Valentine’s Castle, The
Book of Skulls, and Nightwings, and he has had more than five hundred short stories
published as well. He is a five-time winner of both the Nebula award and the Hugo
award. In 2004 he was awarded the Grand Master Nebula of the Science Fiction
Writers of America, science fiction’s highest honor.
Cover Illustration © John Picacio
ISBN: 978–1–59102–646–4
Trade Paperback • June 2008
For it was not to Angels that God subjected the world to come,
of which we are speaking. It has been testified somewhere,
“What is man that thou art mindful of him, or the son of man,
that thou carest for him?”
—Hebrews 2:6
Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and
the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and
the powers of the heavens shall be shaken:
And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then
shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man
coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
—Matthew 24:29–30
*
*
*
Shrink not from blasphemy—’twill pass for wit.
—Byron, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers
*
*
*
We know what we are, but know not what we may be.
—Hamlet, IV, v, 43
I
HE WAKES. Beneath him the black earth is cool and moist. He lies on his back
in a field of scarlet grass; a soft gust of wind comes by, ruffling the blades, and
they melt into a stream of blood. The sky is iron-blue, an intensely
transparent color that briefly sets up a desperate clamor in his skull. He finds
the sun: low in the heavens, larger than it ought to be, looking somewhat
pale and vulnerable, perhaps flattened at top and bottom. Pearly mists rise
from the land and swirl sunward, making vortices of blue and green and red
lacings as they climb. A cushion of silence presses against him. He feels lost.
He sees no cities, no scars of man’s presence anywhere in this meadow, on
those hills, beyond that valley. Slowly he lifts himself to his feet and stands
facing the sun.
His body is bare. He touches it, discovering his skin. With quiet
curiosity he examines his hand, spread out below his chin against the dark
hairy mat on his chest. How strange the fingers are: ridged at the joints,
lightly tufted with hair on the flat places, two knuckles skinned a bit, the
nails in need of a trimming. It is as though he has never seen his hand before.
He lets the hand slip slowly down his body, pausing to tap the fingertips into
the drum of hard muscle at his belly, then to study the faint puckered line of
his appendectomy. The hand goes lower and he finds his genitals. Frowning,
he cups his testicles, lifting them slightly, perhaps weighing them. He
touches his penis, first the shaft, then the rim of soft pink flesh at the head,
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finally the head itself. It seems odd to have such an intricate device attached
to his body. He inspects his legs. There is a broad bruise, purple and yellow,
on his left thigh. Hair grows on his insteps. His toes are unfamiliar to him.
He wriggles them. He digs them into the soil. He flexes his knees. He shrugs
his shoulders. He plants his feet far apart. He makes water. He looks straight
at the sun, and it is a surprisingly long time before his eyes begin to throb.
When he looks away, he sees the sun behind his eyeballs, embedded in the
front of his brain, and he feel less lonely for having it in there.
“Hello!” he calls. “Hey! You! Me! Us! Who?”
Where is Wichita? Where is Toronto? Where is Dubuque? Where is
Syosset? Where is São Paulo? Where is La Jolla? Where is Bridgeport?
Where is McMurdo Sound? Where is Ellenville? Where is Mankato? Where
is Morpeth? Where is Georgetown? Where is St. Louis? Where is Mobile?
Where is Walla Walla? Where is Galveston? Where is Brooklyn? Where is
Copenhagen?
“Hello? Hey? You? Me? Us? Who!”
To his left are five rounded hills covered by black glossy vegetation. To
his right the field of scarlet grass expands into a choking plain that streams
toward the horizon. In front of him the ground dips gently to form a valley
that is something more than a ravine but something less than a canyon. He
recognizes no trees. Their shapes are unfamiliar; many have swollen, greasy
brown trunks, limbless and plump, from which cascades of fleshy leaves
dangle like festoons of shiny white and yellow beads. Behind him, smothered
in long and inexplicable shadows, lies a maze of formless hummocks and pits,
over which grow rank, sandy-colored little plants with woody stems.
He goes forward into the valley.
Now he sees his first sign of animal life. Out of a stubby tree he startles
a sort of bird that catapults straight into the air, hovers, circles back more
calmly to take stock of him. They survey one another. The bird is hawk-sized,
dark-bodied, with a pinched ungenerous face, cool green eyes, thin lips
closely clamped. Its fire-hued wings are ribbed and gauzy and from its
hindquarters there trails a wedge-shaped filmy tail, edged with pink ribbony
filaments streaming in the wind. Passing over him, the bird dungs him with
a dozen shining green pellets that land artfully to enclose him in a
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geometrical figure. Hesitantly he stoops to touch the nearest pellet. It sizzles;
he hears it hissing; but when he puts his finger to it he feels neither texture
nor warmth. He flicks it aside. The bird caws at him.
“I am Hanmer’s,” says the bird.
“Why are you hostile? How have I harmed you?”
“I am not hostile. I take no responsibilities. I place no blames.”
“You bombed me.”
“It established a relationship,” says the bird, and flies off. “I am
Hanmer’s,” it calls again, from a distance. He studies the creature until it is
gone. The sun slowly moves toward the hills. The sky seems slick and
lacquered now. His tongue is papery. He continues toward the valley. He
becomes aware that a creek flows through the valley, green water, burnished
sun-shimmered surface, trembling shrubs sprouting on the bank. He goes to
it, thinking that the sharp sensation of water against his skin will awaken
him, for now he is weary of this dream; it has somehow taken on an ugly and
implausible tone.
He kneels beside the creek. It is unexpectedly deep. Within its rushing
crystal depths he sees fishes, swept tempestuously along, driven by an
irresistible current. They are slender creatures with large, wistful gray eyes,
deep-cut toothy mouths, sleek flattened fins. Victims. He smiles at them.
Cautiously he puts his left arm into the flow up to the elbow. The moment
of contact is electric and stunning. He pulls his arm back and claps his hands
over his face, and weeps as an uncontrollable surge of fiery sadness cuts
through him. He mourns man and all his works. In his mind there churns an
image of the world of man in gaudy complexity: buildings and vehicles and
roads and shops and lawns and oily puddles and crumpled papers and
blinking signs. He sees men and women in close-fitting clothing, with tight
shoes and fabric binding their breasts and loins. That world is lost and he
mourns it. He hears the roar of rockets and the screech of brakes. He hears
the throb of music. He admires sunlight’s glint on lofty windows. He
mourns. Cold tears sting his cheeks and trickle across his lips. Are the old
blossoms gone? Are the old weeds gone? Are the old cities gone? Friends and
family? Stress and strain? Cathedral bells, the redness of wine on the tongue,
candles, turnips, cats, cactus? With a little defeated sigh he tumbles forward
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and lets himself fall into the creek. He is carried swiftly downstream.
For some minutes he refuses to offer resistance. Then, quickly, he extends
his body and seizes a submerged boulder. Clinging to it, he crawls downward
until his face rests just above the pebbled bottom of the stream, and he hangs
there a long moment, acclimating himself to his altered surroundings. When
his breath is finally exhausted he erupts surfaceward and scrambles onto the
bank. He lies face-down a short while. He stands. He touches himself.
The tingling waters have changed him slightly. His body hair is gone
and his skin is smooth and pale and new, like the hide of an infant whale. His
left thigh no longer is bruised. His knuckles are whole. He cannot find the
scar of his appendectomy. His penis looks strange to him, and after a
moment’s contemplation he realizes in awe that he has been decircumcised.
Hastily he pushes a thumb into his navel; it is still there. He laughs. Now he
realizes that night has come while he was in the water. The sun’s last limb
slips from view, and instantly darkness spreads out over the sky. There is no
moon. The stars pop into view, announcing themselves with high pinging
tones, singing, I am blue, I am red, I am golden, I am white. Where is Orion?
Where is the Dipper? Where is the Goat?
The shrubs of the valley emit a coarse leathery glow. The soil stirs and
quivers and splits at the surface, and from a thousand tiny craters glide
nightcrawling creatures, long and liquid and silvery, emerging from hidden
burrows and slithering amiably toward the meadow. They part as they
approach him, leaving him as an island in the midst of their gleaming
myriads. He hears furry whispering sounds from them but detects no
meaning.
There is a feathery flap and two flying creatures descend, unlike the other
one; these have heavy, drooping, baggy black bodies ringed by tufts of coarse
fur, and angular wings mounted on a jutting knobby breastbone. They are as
big as geese. Methodically they pursue the nightcrawlers, sucking them up
in flexible puckering bills and shortly excreting them, apparently unharmed.
Their appetites are insatiable. He draws back, offended, when they give him
a sour glare.
Something bulky and dark clatters across the stream and disappears
before he can see it properly. From the sky comes raucous laughter. The scent
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of elegant creamy flowers drifts from the creek, decays into saltiness, and
departs. The air grows chill. He huddles. A light rain comes. He studies the
troublesome constellations and finds them altogether strange. In the distance
music unfolds from the night. The tones swell and diminish and crease again
in an easy trembling throb, and he finds he can seize them and shape
melodies to suit himself: he carves a lively tootling horn-call, a dirge, a
minuet. Small animals scramble by. Have toads perished? Are mice extinct?
Where are lemurs? Where are moles? Yet he knows he can come to love these
new beasts. The boundless fertility of evolution, revealing itself to him in
bright bursts of abundance, makes him joyful, and he turns the music into a
hymn of praise. Whatever is, is good. Out of the plasticity of the raw tones
he manufactures the drums and trumpets of a Te Deum. Against this in
sudden bleak counterpoint come thumping footsteps, and he is no longer
alone, for three large creatures emerge and approach. The dream is somber
now. What things are these, so bestial, so foul, so malevolent? Upright,
bipedal, great splayed toes, huge shaggy hams, sagging bellies, massive
chests. Taller than he is. The stink of decay precedes them. Cruel faces,
nevertheless almost human, glistening eyes; hooked noses, wide gummy
mouths, thin gray beards sticky with muck. They shuffle awkwardly along,
knees flexed, bodies canted forward at the waist, colossal upright goats
modeled loosely after men. Wherever they tread, bristly weeds spring up
instantly, giving off fishy odors. Their skins are paper-white and wrinkled,
hanging loosely from the powerful muscles and the thick underflesh; little
tufted blisters pockmark them everywhere. As they clump forward they nod,
snort, snuffle, and exchange blurred murmured comments. They pay no
attention to him. He watches them pass by. What are these dismal things?
He fears that they are the supreme race of the era, the dominant species, the
successors to man, perhaps even the descendants of man, and the thought so
squeezes and grinds him that he drops to the ground, rolling over and over
in agony, crushing the gliding nightcrawlers that still stream past. He
hammers his palms against the earth. He clutches the malign weeds that have
newly sprouted, and rips them from the soil. He presses his forehead against
a flat rock. He vomits, yielding nothing. He clasps hands in terror to his
loins. Have these beings inherited the world? He imagines a congregation of
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them kneeling on their own turds. He visualizes them grunting outside the
Taj Mahal in the full moon. He sees them clambering over the Pyramids,
dropping spittle on Raphaels and Veroneses, fracturing Mozart with their
snorts and belches. He sobs. He bites the earth. He prays for morning. In his
anguish his sex stiffens, and he seizes it, and, gasping, spills his seed. He lies
on his back and searches for the moon, but there is still no moon, and the
stars are unfamiliar. The music returns. He has lost the power to shape it. He
hears the clang and clatter of metal rods and the shriek of strained
membranes. Desperately, grimly, he sings against it, shouting into the
darkness, covering the raucous noise with a lamination of ordered sound, and
in this way he passes the night, sleepless, uncomforted.
2
STREAKS OF ARRIVING LIGHT STAIN THE SKY. The darkness is vanquished by
pink and gray and blue. He stretches and greets the morning, finding himself
hungry and thirsty. Going down to the creek, he bends into it, splashes cold
water in his face, scrubs his eyes and teeth, and, embarrassed, wipes the dried
sticky sperm from his thighs. Then he gulps until his thirst is gone. Food?
He reaches down and, with a deftness that astonishes him, plucks a thrashing
fish from the creek. Its smooth sides are deep blue, with red filaments plainly
pulsing within. Raw? Well, yes, how else? But at least not alive. He will
pound its head on a rock first.
“No, please. Don’t do that,” a soft voice says.
He is prepared to believe that the fish is begging for its life. But a purple
shadow falls on him; he is not alone. Turning, he sees a slim, slight figure
behind him. The source of the voice. “I am Hanmer,” says the newcomer.
“The fish—please—throw it back. It isn’t necessary.” A gentle smile. Is that
a smile? Is that a mouth? He feels it is best to obey Hanmer. He flings the
fish into the water. With a derisive swish of its tail it shoots away. He turns
again to Hanmer and says, “I didn’t want to eat it. But I’m very hungry, and
I’m lost.”
“Give me your hunger,” says Hanmer.
Hanmer is not human, but the kinship is apparent. He is as big as a tall
boy, and his body, though slender, does not seem fragile. His head is large but
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his neck is sturdy and his shoulders are wide. There is no hair anywhere on
him. His skin is golden green and has the seamless, durable quality of a
supple plastic. His eyes are scarlet globes behind quick transparent lids. His
nose is merely a ridge; his nostrils are latched slits; his mouth is a thin-lipped
horizontal slash that does not open wide enough to reveal its interior. He has
a great many fingers and not many toes. His arms and legs are jointed at
elbows and knees, but the joints appear to be universal ones, giving him
immense freedom of motion. Hanmer’s sex is a puzzle. Something about his
bearing seems indisputably male, and he has no breasts nor any other visible
feminine characteristics. But where a male member might be, he has only a
curious inward-folding vertical pocket, vaguely like the vaginal slit but not
really comparable. Beneath, instead of two dangling balls, there is a single
small, firm, round swelling, possibly equivalent to the scrotum, as if it had
remained evolution’s goal to keep the gonads outside the body cavity but a
more efficient container for them had been designed. There can be little
doubt that Hanmer’s ancestors, in some remote era, were men. But can he be
called a man also? Son of man, perhaps. “Come to me,” Hanmer says. He
stretches out his hands. There are delicate webs between the fingers. “How
are you called, stranger?”
It is necessary to think a moment. “I was Clay,” he tells Hanmer. The
sound of his name spills to the ground and bounces. Clay. Clay. I was Clay.
Clay I was when I was Clay. Hanmer looks pleased. “Come, then, Clay,” he
says gently. “I’ll take your hunger.” Hesitantly Clay gives his hands to
Hanmer. He is drawn close. Their bodies touch. Clay feels needles in his eyes
and black fluid spurting into his veins. He becomes fiercely conscious of the
maze of red tubes in his belly. He can hear the ticking of his glands. In a
moment Hanmer releases him and he is wholly without hunger; it is
incomprehensible to him that he could have considered devouring a fish only
moments ago. Hanmer laughs. “Is it better now?”
“Better. Much.”
With his toe Hanmer draws a quick line across the ground. The soil
splits as if unzipped and Hanmer pulls up a gray tuber, bulging and heavy.
He puts it to his lips and sucks at it a moment. Then he hands it to Clay, who
stares, uncertain. Is this a test? “Eat,” Hanmer says. “It’s permitted.” Though
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his hunger is gone, Clay sucks at the tuber. Some drops of a gritty juice enter
his mouth. Instantly flames shoot through his skull and his soul withers.
Hanmer darts forward, catching him just before he falls, and embraces him
again; Clay feels the effects of the juice instantly ebbing. “Forgive me,” says
Hanmer. “I didn’t realize. You must be terribly early.”
“What?”
“One of the earliest, I suppose. Caught in the time-flux like the rest. We
love you. We bid you be welcome. Do we seem fearfully strange? Are you
lonely? Do you grieve? Will you teach us things? Will you give yourself to
us? Will you delight us?”
“What world is this?”
“The world. Our world.”
“My world?”
“It was. It can be.”
“What era is this?”
“A good one.”
“Am I dead?”
Hanmer chuckles. “Death is dead.”
“How did I get here?”
“Caught in the time-flux like the rest.”
“Swept into my own future? How far into the future?”
“Does it matter?” Hanmer asks, looking bored. “Come, Clay, dissolve
with me, and let’s begin our travels.” He reaches for Clay’s hand again. Clay
shrinks back. “Wait,” he murmurs. The morning is quite bright now. The
sky is that painful blue again; the sun is a gong. He shivers. He puts his face
close to Hanmer’s and says, “Are there any others like me here?”
“No.”
“Are you human?”
“Of course.”
“But changed by time?”
“Oh, no,” says Hanmer. “You are changed by time. I live here. You visit
us.”
“I speak of evolution.”
Hanmer pouts. “May we dissolve now? We have so much to see—”
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Clay tugs at a tuft of the foul weeds of the night before. “At least tell me
about these. Three creatures came by, and these grew where—”
“Yes.”
“What were they? Visitors from another planet?”
“Humans,” sighs Hanmer.
“Those also? Different forms?”
“Before us. After you. Caught in the time-flux, all.”
“How could we have evolved into them? Not even in a billion years would
humanity change so greatly. And then change back? You’re closer to me than
they are. Where’s the pattern? Where’s the track? Hanmer, I can’t
understand!”
“Wait until you see the others,” says Hanmer, and begins to dissolve. A
pale gray cloud springs from his skin and envelops him, and within it he
grows misty, fading placidly away. Bright orange sparks shoot through the
cloud. Hanmer, still visible, appears ecstatic. Clay is able to see a rigid fleshy
tube slide out of the pocket at Hanmer’s loins: yes, he is male after all,
showing his sex in this moment of pleasure. “You said you’d take me!” Clay
cries. Hanmer nods and smiles. The internal structure of his body is apparent
now, a network of nerves and veins, illuminated by some inner fire and
glowing red and green and yellow. The cloud expands and suddenly Clay too
is within it. There is a sweet hissing sound: his own tissues and fibers boiling
away. Hanmer has vanished. Clay spins, extends, attenuates; he perceives his
own throbbing organs, an exquisite mixture of textures and tones, this one
green and oily, that one red and sticky, here a gray spongy mass, there a coil
of dark blue, everything so ripe, so lush, in the last moments before
dissolution. A sense of adventure and excitement possesses him. He is
drifting upward and outward, flowing over the face of the land, taking on
infinite size and surrendering all mass; he covers acres now, whole counties,
entire realms. Hanmer is beside him. They expand together. Sunlight strikes
him along the vast upper surface of his new body, making molecules dance
and leap in prickly gaiety, pinging and popping as they bounce around. Clay
is aware of the shuttling electrons climbing the energy ladder. Pip! Pop!
Peep! He soars. He glides. He visualizes himself as a great gray carpet
skimming through the air. Instead of a tasseled fringe he has a hundred eyes,
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and in the center of everything the hard knotted mass of the brain glows and
hums and directs.
He sees last night’s scenes: the valley, the meadow, the hills, the creek.
Then the field of vision changes as they go higher, and he takes in a tumbled,
scarred countryside of rivers and cliffs, of eroded teeth jutting from the earth,
of gulfs, of lakes, of headlands. Figures move below. Here are the three goaty
ones, farting and mumbling beneath a sprawling rubbery tree. Here are six
more of Hanmer’s kind, merrily coupling at the edge of a golden pond. Here
are nightcrawlers slumbering in the soil. Here is a savage thing with
monstrous choppers in place of teeth. Here is something buried
shoulders-deep in the ground, radiating solemn, passionate thoughts. Here
comes a platoon of winged creatures, birds or bats or even reptiles, flying in
tight formation, darkening the sky, now catching an updraft, piercing Clay’s
body from underside to top like a million stinging bullets and vanishing in
the cloudless heights. Here are saturnine intelligences browsing in the mud
of dark pools. Here are scattered blocks of stone, perhaps ancient ruins. Clay
sees no whole buildings. He sees no roads. The world bears no human
imprint of consequence. It is springtime everywhere; things bulge with life.
Hanmer, billowing like a stormcloud, laughs and cries out, “Yes! You accept
it!”
Clay accepts it.
He tests his body. He makes it fluoresce and sees violet shadows dance
below him. He creates steely ribs and an ivory backbone. He weaves a new
nervous system out of bristles of vacuum. He invents an organ sensitive to
colors beyond ultraviolet, and happily topples off the spectrum’s deep end.
He becomes a vast sexual organ and rapes the stratosphere, leaving contrails
of luminous semen. And Hanmer, beside him constantly, calls out, “Yes,” and
“Yes,” and “Yes” again. Clay now covers several continents. He accelerates his
pace, seeking his own termination, and after some brief effort finds it and
links with himself so that he now is a cloudy serpent encircling the world.
“See?” Hanmer cries. “It is your world, is it not? The familiar planet?” But
Clay is not sure. The continents have shifted. He sees what he believes to be
the Americas, but they have undergone changes, for the tail of South America
is gone and so is the Isthmus of Panama, and west of what should have been
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Chile is an enormous cancerous extension, possibly a displaced Antarctica.
Oceans drown both poles. Coastlines are new. He cannot find Europe. A
tremendous inland sea winks up out of what he suspects is Asia; a sunblink
glances off it, transforming it into a giant mocking eye. Weeping, he scatters
gobbets of lava along the equator. A domed shield bulges serenely where
Africa might have been. A chain of radiant islands glitters across thousands
of miles of altered ocean. Now he is frightened. He thinks of Athens, Cairo,
Tangier, Melbourne, Poughkeepsie, Istanbul, and Stockholm. In his grief he
grows chilled, and, freezing, splits into a shower of icy particles, which small
buzzing insects instantly seek, darting up from swamps and marshes; they
begin to gobble him, but Hanmer cries out to them, sending them stunned
to the ground, and then Clay feels himself being collected and restored.
“What happened?” Hanmer asks, and Clay replies, “I remembered.” “Don’t,”
says Hanmer. Again they soar. They spin and leap and break through into the
realm of darkness girdling the world, so that the planet itself is nothing more
than a little spherical impurity in the soft fluttering mantle of his body. He
watches it turning. So slowly! Has the day lengthened? Is this my world at
all? Hanmer nudges him and they transform themselves into rivers of energy
millions of miles long and go boiling out into space. He is inflamed with
tenderness, love, the hunger for union with the cosmos. “Our neighbor
worlds,” says Hanmer. “Our friends. See?” Clay sees. He knows now that he
has not been whisked to a planet of some other star. This is plainly Venus,
this cloudy ball here. And this red pocked thing is Mars, although he is
puzzled by the green weedy sea that laps the rusty plains. He cannot find
Mercury. Again and again he slides into that inner orbit, hunting for the tiny
rolling globe, but it is not there. Has it fallen into the sun? He dares not ask,
for fear that Hanmer will say that it has. Clay cannot bear to lose a planet
now. “Come,” says Hanmer. “Outward.”
The asteroids have vanished. A wise move: who needs such debris? But
Jupiter is there, wondrously unchanged, even to the Great Red Spot. Clay
exults. The bands of color also remain, bright stripes of rich yellow, brown,
and orange, separated by darker streaks. “Yes?” Clay asks, and Hanmer says
it can be done, so they plunge planetward, swirling and floating in Jupiter’s
atmosphere. Foggy crystals engulf them. Their attenuated bodies entwine
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with molecules of ammonia and methane. Down they go, down, to cliffs of
ice rising above bleak greasy seas, to turbulent geysers and boiling lakes. Clay
spreads himself flat across a snowy continent and lies panting, loving the
sensuous impact of the atmosphere’s many tons upon his back. He becomes a
mallet and probes the great planet’s craggy core, striking it happily, with a
bong and a bong and a bong and a whong, and waves of sound rise up in
jagged creamy blurts. He spends himself in ecstasy. But then, immediately
afterward, there is compensating loss: brilliant Saturn is ringless. “An
accident,” Hanmer confesses. “An error. It was long ago.” Clay will not be
consoled. He threatens to fracture again and patter down to Saturn’s tawny
surface in a cloud of snowflakes. Hanmer, sympathetic, hoops himself and
surrounds the planet, whirling, gliding up and down the spectrum, flashing
gilded lights, turning now edge-on, now at a sumptuous angle. “No,” Clay
says. “I’m grateful, but it won’t work,” and on they go toward Uranus,
toward Neptune, toward frosty Pluto. “It was not our doing,” Hanmer
insists. “But we never realized anyone would care so much.” Pluto is a bore.
Hovering, Clay watches five of Hanmer’s cousins trekking across a black
wasteland, going from nowhere to nowhere. He looks questioningly outward.
Procyon? Rigel? Betelgeuse? “Another time,” Hanmer murmurs.
They return to Earth.
Like matched jewels they plummet through the atmosphere. They land.
He is in his mortal body again. He lies in a manicured field of short fleshy
blue-green plants; above him looms a giant triangular monolith, forked at
the peak, and through the fork races a bubbling river that hurtles hundreds
or perhaps thousands of feet down the huge slab’s onyx face into a neatly
circular basin. He is trembling. His journey has drained him. When he can,
he sits up, presses his palms to his cheeks, draws some deep breaths, blinks.
The worlds swing in stubborn circles inside his skull. His joy over Jupiter
wars with the grief for Saturn’s rings. And Mercury. And the beloved old
continents, the friendly map. Stabbed by time’s needles. The air is mild and
transparent, and he hears distant music. Hanmer stands at the edge of the
basin, contemplating the waterfall.
Or is it Hanmer? When he turns, Clay sees differences. On the smooth
waxen chest two breasts have emerged. They are small, like those of a girl
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newly come into her womanhood, but beyond any question they are female.
Tiny pink nipples tip them. Hanmer’s hips have widened. The vertical
pocket at the base of the belly has narrowed to a slit, of which only the upper
cleft is visible. The scrotal hemisphere below has vanished. This is not
Hanmer. This is a woman of Hanmer’s species.
“I am Hanmer,” she says to Clay.
“Hanmer was male.”
“Hanmer is male. I am Hanmer.” She walks toward Clay. Her stride is
not Hanmer’s: in place of his free-wheeling loose-jointed jauntiness there is a
more restrained motion, equally fluid but not as flexible. She says, “My body
has changed, but I am Hanmer. I love you. May we celebrate our journey
together? It is the custom.”
“Is the other Hanmer gone forever?”
“Nothing goes forever. Everything returns.”
Mercury. Saturn’s rings. Istanbul. Rome.
Clay freezes. He is silent for a million years. “Will you celebrate with
me?”
“How?”
“A joining of bodies.”
“Sex,” Clay says. “It’s not obsolete, then?”
Hanmer laughs prettily. She eases herself in one quick sprawl to the
ground. The fleshy plants sigh and quiver and sway. Eyelets open in their tips
and spurts of jeweled fluid leap into the air. A balmy fragrance spreads. An
aphrodisiac: Clay is abruptly aware of the rigidity of his member. Hanmer
flexes her knees. She parts her thighs and he studies the wailing gate between.
“Yes,” she whispers. Lost in amazement, he covers her body with his. His
hands slip down to grasp her cool flat silken buttocks. Hanmer is flushed; her
transparent eyelids have gone milky, so that the scarlet glow of her eyes is
dimmed; when he slides a hand up and caresses her breasts, he feels the
nipples hardening, and he is dazed with wonder at the changelessness of
certain things. Mankind tours the solar system in a moment, birds talk,
plants collaborate in human pleasures, the continents are jumbled, the
universe is a storm of marvelous colors and dazzling scents; and yet in all the
gold and crimson and purple miracle of this altered world, pricks still cry out
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for cunts and cunts cry out for pricks. It does not seem fitting. Yet with a
small smothered cry he goes into her and begins to move, a swift piston in
the moist chamber, and it is so unstrange to him that he briefly loses the sense
of loss that had been with him since his awakening. He comes with such
haste that it shatters him, but she merely sings a fragile series of semitones
and he uncomes just as quickly, and is disembarrassed, and they continue. She
offers him a spasm of disciplined intensity. Her swivel-kneed legs twine
about him. Her pelvis churns. She gasps. She whispers. She chants. He
chooses his moment and unleashes his lightning a second time, touching off
a storm of sensation in her, during which the texture of her skin undergoes a
series of changes, becoming now rough and bristly, now liquid-smooth, now
stiffened into high-crested waves, at last returning to its original state. In the
moment after final ecstasy he remembers the moon. The moon! Where was it
when he and Hanmer sped through the cosmos? There is no moon. The moon
is no more. How could he have forgotten to look for the moon?
They disengage and roll apart. He feels exhilarated but also faintly
depressed. The beast from the past has soiled the sprite of the future with his
salty flow. Caliban topping Ariel. When they join bodies here, do they mark
completion with such a torrent of fluid? He is prehistoric. Moments pass
before he dares to look at Hanmer. But she is smiling at him. She rises, gently
draws him to his feet, and leads him to the basin beneath the waterfall. They
bathe. The water is knife-cold. Hanmer’s many fingers fly gaily over his body;
she is so wholly feminine that he can barely summon a memory of the lean
and muscular male with whom he began his journey. She is coquettish,
playful, archly possessive.
She says, “You couple with great enthusiasm.”
A sudden shower of radiance falls from the sun, which is almost directly
overhead. A line of unfamiliar colors marches across the peak of a lofty
mountain to the—west? He reaches for her, and she eludes him, and runs
laughing through a thorny thicket; the plants claw halfheartedly at her but
cannot touch her. When he follows, they shred him. He staggers forth
bloodied and finds her waiting for him beside a stubby, squat tree no taller
than herself. The latches of her nostrils flutter; her eyelids open and close
repeatedly; her little breasts heave. Briefly he sees her with flowing green hair
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and a dense black pubic mat, but the moment passes and she is as sleek as
before. Five creatures call his name hoarsely from branches of the tree. They
have huge mouths and scrawny necks and puffy wings, and, so far as he can
tell, no bodies at all. “Clay! Clay! Clay! Clay! Clay!” Hanmer dismisses them;
they hop to the ground and scurry away. She comes to him and kisses each
scratch, and it heals. Austerely she examines the parts of his body, handling
everything; learning his anatomy as though she may have to build something
just like him one day. The intimacy of the inspection disturbs him. At length
she is satisfied. She unzips the ground and draws a tuber from it, as the other
Hanmer had done yesterday. Trustingly he takes it and sucks the juice. Blue
fur sprouts on his skin. His genitals grow so monstrous that he sags to the
ground under the pull of their weight. His toes unite. The moon, he thinks
bitterly. Hanmer crouches over him and lowers herself, impaling herself on
his rod. The moon. The moon. Mercury. The moon. He barely notices the
orgasmic jolt.
The effects of the tuber’s juice diminish. He lies belly-down, eyes closed.
Stroking Hanmer, he finds that the scrotal bulge again has grown at the
juncture of her thighs. Hanmer is male again. Clay looks: yes, it is so. Flat
chest, wide shoulders, narrow hips. Everything returns. Too soon, sometimes.
Night is coming. He searches for the moon.
“Do you have cities?” he asks. “Books? Houses? Poetry? Do you ever wear
clothing? Do you die?”
“When we need to,” Hanmer says.
3
IN THE DARKNESS THEY SIT SIDE BY SIDE, SAYING LITTLE. Clay watches the
procession of the stars. Their brilliance often seems unbearable. Now and
again he thinks of embracing Hanmer once more, and has to remind himself
of Hanmer’s unmetamorphosis. Perhaps that female Hanmer will return
eventually; her turn upon the stage seems all too brief to him.
To the existing Hanmer he says, “Am I monstrously barbaric? Am I
coarse? Am I gross?”
“No. No. No.”
“But I’m a dawn-man. I’m a fumbling early attempt. I have an appendix.
I urinate. I defecate. I get hungry. I sweat. I stink. I’m a million years inferior
to you. Five million? Fifty million? No clue?”
“We admire you for what you are,” Hanmer assures him. “We do not
criticize you for what you could not have become. Of course, we may modify
our estimate as we come to know you better. We reserve the right to detest
you.”
There is a very long silence. Shooting stars split the night.
Later Clay says, “Not that I mean to apologize. We did our best. We gave
the world Shakespeare, after all. And—you know of Shakespeare?”
“No.”
“Homer?”
“No.”
169
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“Beethoven?”
“No.”
“Einstein.”
“No.”
“Leonardo da Vinci.”
“No.”
“Mozart!”
“No.”
“Galileo!’
“No.”
“Newton!”
“No.”
“Michelangelo. Mohammed. Marx. Darwin.”
“No. No. No. No.”
“Plato? Aristotle? Jesus?”
“No, no, no.”
Clay says, “Do you remember the moon that this planet once had?”
“I have heard of the moon, yes. But none of these other things.”
“Everything we did is lost, then? Nothing survives. We are extinct.”
“You are wrong. Your race survives.”
“Where?”
“In us.”
“No,” Clay says. If everything we have done is dead, our race is dead.
Goethe. Charlemagne. Socrates. Hitler. Attila. Caruso. We fought against the
darkness and the darkness swallowed us anyway. We are extinct.”
“If you are extinct,” Hanmer says, “then we are not human.”
“You are not human.”
“We are human.”
“Human, but not men. Sons of men, maybe. There’s a qualitative gap.
Too great a lapse of continuity. You’ve forgotten Shakespeare. You race
through the heavens.”
“You must remember,” Hanmer says, “that your period occupies an
extremely narrow segment of the band of time. Information crammed into a
narrow bandwidth becomes blurred and distorted. Is it surprising that your
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heroes are forgotten? What seems like a powerful signal to you is merely a
momentary squirt of noise to us. We perceive a much broader band.”
“You speak to me of bandwidths?” Clay asks, astounded. “You lose
Shakespeare and keep technical jargon?”
“I sought a metaphor, only.”
“How is it you speak my language?”
“Friend, you speak my language,” says Hanmer.
“There is only one language, and everything speaks it.”
“There are many languages.”
“One.”
“Cisono molte lingue.”
“Only one, which all things comprehend.”
“Muchas lenguas! Sprache! Langue! Språk! Nyelv! The confusion of
tongues. Enchanté de faire votre connaissance. Welcher Ort is das? Per favore,
potrebbe dirigermi al telefono. Finns det någon här, som talar engelska? El tren acaba
de salir.”
“When mind touches mind,” Hanmer says, “communication is
immediate and absolute. Why did you need so many ways of speaking with
one another?”
“It is one of the pleasures of savages.” says Clay bitterly. He wrestles with
the idea that everyone and everything are forgotten. By our deeds we define
ourselves, he thinks. By the continuity of our culture we signify that we are
human. And all continuities are broken. We have lost our immortality. We
could grow three heads and thirty feet, and our skins become blue scales, and
so long as Homer and Michelangelo and Sophocles live, mankind lives. And
they are gone. If we were globes of green fire, or red crusts on a rock, or
shining bundles of wire, and still we remembered who we had been, we
would still be men. He says, “When you and I flew through space before, how
did we do it?”
“We dissolved. We went up.”
“How?”
“By dissolving. By going up.”
“That’s no answer.”
“I can’t give you a better one.”
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“It’s just something you do naturally? Like breathing? Like walking?”
“Yes.”
“So you’ve become gods,” Clay says. “All possibilities are open to you.
You zoom off to Pluto when you need to. You change sexes on whim. You live
forever, or as close to forever as you like. If you want music, you can outdo
Bach, each of you. You can reason like Newton, paint like El Greco, write like
Shakespeare, except you don’t bother to do it. You live every moment in a
symphony of colors and forms and textures. Gods. You’ve come to be gods.”
Clay laughs. “We tried for that. I mean, we knew how to fly, we could get to
the planets, we tamed electricity, we made sound come out of the air, we
drove out sickness, we split atoms. For what we were, we were pretty good.
For when we were. Twenty thousand years before my time men wore animal
skins and lived in caves, and in my time men went walking on the moon.
You’ve lived twenty thousand years all by yourself, haven’t you? At least. And
has there been any real change in the world in that whole time? No. You can’t
change once you’re a god, because you’ve attained everything. Do you know,
Hanmer, that we used to wonder whether it was proper to keep striving
upward? You’ve lost the Greeks, so maybe you don’t know about hybris.
Overweening pride. If a man climbs too high, the gods will strike him down,
for certain things are reserved only for the gods. We worried about hybris a
lot. We asked ourselves, are we getting too godlike? Will we be smitten? The
plague, the fire, the tempest, the famine?”
“Did you really have such a concept?” Hanmer asks genuine curiosity in
his voice. “That it is evil to attempt too much?”
“We did.”
“A stinking myth conceived by cowards?”
“A noble concept invented by the deepest minds of our race.”
“No,” Hanmer says. “Who would defend such an idea? Who could refuse
the mandate of human destiny?”
“We lived,” Clay says, “in the tension between the striving and the fear
of climbing too high. And we kept climbing, though choked with fear. And
we became gods. We became you, Hanmer! You see our punishment,
though? For our hybris we were forgotten.”
He is pleased with the intricacy of his argument. He awaits Hanmer’s
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reply, but no reply comes. Gradually he realizes that Hanmer is gone. Bored
with my chatter? Will he come back? Everything returns. Clay will wait out
the night without moving from this place. He tries to sleep, but finds himself
wholly awake. He has not slept since his first awakening here. He can see
little in the starry blackness. But there are sounds. The tone of a snapping
string twangs in the air. Then there comes a sound like that of some vast mass
shifting its period of vibration. Then he hears six hollow stone columns rising
and thumping the ground. A thin high whine. A rich black boom. A sprinkle
of pearly globes. A sappy gurgle. A scraping of wings. A splash. A clink. A
hiss. Where is the orchestra? No one is near him. He is certain that he is
contained in a dark cone of solitude. The music dies away, leaving only a few
vagrant scents. He can feel a mist drifting in and engulfing him. He wonders
how much contagion there is in Hanmer’s miracles, and experiments with
transforming his own sex; lying belly-up on a slick slaty slab, he attempts to
grow breasts. Rigid with concentration, seeking to make mounds of flesh rise
on his chest, he fails; he wonders if it might be more effective to begin by
creating the inner glandular structure of mammaries, and tries to imagine
what that structure might be like, and fails; he asks himself if it might not
be impossible to take on female glands without first ridding himself of his
male organs, and briefly he contemplates willing them out of existence, but
he hesitates, and fails. He writes the sex-changing experiment off as
unsuccessful. Next, thinking of touring the seacoasts of Saturn, he tries to
dissolve and soar. Though he writhes and sweats and grunts, he remains
hopelessly material; but then he surprises himself when in a moment of
relaxation between efforts, he does indeed bring forth the pale gray cloud of
dissolution. He encourages it. He yields to it. He believes that he is getting
there, and tentatively flickers his periphery, trying to rise. Something surely
is happening, but it does not seem to be quite the same thing as before. A
greasy green glow envelops him and he hears ragged sputtering sounds. And
he is pinned to the ground. He gives way to fear and goes sliding halfway
down the spectrum before he can regain some control. Was man meant to do
such things? Is he not venturing into forbidden territory? No! No! No! He
deliquesces. He dissolves. He flaps like a sheet in the wind, nearly taking off,
unable somehow to commit that final severing of the terrestrial bond. He is
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so close, though. Lights swirl in the sky: orange, yellow, red. He is fiercely
eager to succeed, and for a moment he thinks he has succeeded, for he has the
sensations of ripping loose and bounding into the firmament, and cymbals
clash and lightnings flash, and there is a terrible wrenching pull and some
potent event occurs.
He realizes that he has gone nowhere. Instead he seems to have drawn
something to him.
It sits beside him on the slaty slab. It is a smooth pink oval spheroid,
jellylike but firm, within a rectangular cage of some heavy silvery metal.
Cage and spheroid are interwoven, the bars passing through the body at
several points. A single gleaming spherical wheel supports the floor of the
cage. The spheroid speaks to him in a prickly gurgle. Clay cannot understand
a thing. “I thought there’s only one language,” he says. “What are you telling
me?” The spheroid speaks again, evidently repeating its statement,
enunciating more precisely, but Clay still cannot comprehend. “My name is
Clay,” he says, forcing a smile. “I don’t know how I came to be here. I don’t
know how you came to be here either, but I may have summoned you
accidentally.” After a pause the spheroid replies unintelligibly. “I’m sorry,”
Clay says. “I’m primitive. I’m ignorant.” Suddenly the spheroid turns deep
green. Its surface ripples and trembles. A string of glossy eyes appears and
vanishes. Clay feels cold fingers sliding through his forehead and stroking the
lobes of his furrowed brain. In one broad blurting flow he receives the soul of
the spheroid and understands it to be saying: I am a civilized human being, a
native of the planet Earth, who has been ripped from his proper environment by
inexplicable forces and carried to this place. I am lonely and unhappy. I would return
to my matrix-group. I beg you, give me all assistance, in the name of humanity!
The spheroid subsides against the bars of its cage, obviously exhausted.
Its shape sags into asymmetry and its color changes to pale yellow.
“I think I follow your meaning,” Clay says. “But how can I help you? I’m
a victim of the time-flux myself. I’m a man of the dawn of the race. I share
your loneliness and unhappiness; I’m as lost as you are.”
The spheroid flickers feebly orange.
“Can you understand what I say?” Clay asks. There is no response. Clay
concludes that this creature, which claims to be human though it is so wholly
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alien in form, must come from still farther down the curve of time, out of
Hanmer’s race’s own future. The logic of evolution tells him that. Hanmer,
at least, has arms and legs and a head and eyes and genitals. So, too, had the
goatish manbeasts whose era lay somewhere between Clay’s and Hanmer’s.
But this, with all limbs gone, all humanity tucked into some internal packet,
surely is an ultimate version of the pattern. Clay feels faintly guilty, believing
he has dragged the spheroid from its matrix-group in the course of his
bungled attempt at soaring, but also he feels a tremor of pride that he could
have done such a thing, however unintentionally. And it is a delight to meet
someone even more displaced and confused than himself. “Can we possibly
communicate?” he asks. “Can we reach across this barrier? Look: I’ll come
closer. I’m opening my mind as wide as I can. You have to forgive me my
deficiencies. I come from the Vertebrate Age. Closer to Pithecanthropus than
I am to you, I bet. Talk to me. Donde está el teléfono?” The spheroid returns to
something like its original pink hue. Wearily it offers Clay a vision: a city of
broad plazas and shining towers, in whose lovely streets move throngs of pink
spheroids, each in its ‘ own glittering cage. Fountains send cascades of water
to the skies. Lights of many colors twirl and bob. The spheroids meet,
exchange greetings, occasionally extend protoplasmoid blobs through the
bars of their cages in a kind of handshake. Night arrives. There is the moon!
Have they rebuilt it, pocks and all? He surveys the beloved scarry face.
Gliding like a camera’s eye, he passes into a garden. Here are roses. Here are
yellow tulips. Here are narcissi and jonquils and heavy-headed blue
hyacinths. There is a tree with familiar leaves, there another, there another.
Oak. Maple. Birch. These are antiquarians, then, these jiggling giant mounds
of bland meat, and they have rebuilt old Earth for their pleasure. The vision
wavers and crumbles as an impenetrable curtain of regret descends. Clay
realizes he has drawn an improper conclusion. Are the spheroids not beings
of the incalculably remote future? Are they, then, the short-term descendants
of man? The vision returns. The spheroid seems more animated, telling him
he is on the right track. Yes. What are they, the mankind of five, ten, twenty
thousand years after Clay’s own day, a time when oaks, tulips, hyacinths, and
Luna still exist? Yes. And where is the evolutionary logic of it? There is none.
Man has reshaped himself to please himself. This is his oval spheroid phase.
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Later he will choose to be a vile goat. Still later he will be Hanmer. All of us,
swept up by the time-flux. “My son,” Clay says. (Daughter? Niece?
Nephew?) Impulsively he tries to slip his hands between the bars to embrace
the solemn spheroid. He is dealt a jolt of force that sends him sprawling
many yards away, and he lies there, stunned, while some twining plant wraps
tendrils about his thighs. Gradually he regains his strength. “I’m sorry,” he
whispers, approaching the cage. “I didn’t mean to intrude on your space. I
was offering friendship.” The spheroid is dark amber now. The color of fury?
Fear? No: apology. Another vision fills Clay’s mind. Spheroids cage to cage,
spheroids dancing, spheroids conjugating with ropy extended strands. A
hymn of love. Try again, try again, try again. Clay extends one hand. It goes
between the bars. He is not jolted. The surface of the spheroid puckers and
whirlpools and a thin tentacular projection arises and clasps Clay’s wrist.
Contact. Trust. Fellow-victims of the time-flux. “I am called Clay,” Clay says,
thinking it vehemently. But all he can get from the spheroid is a series of
vivid snapshots of his world. The universal language must not have been
invented yet in the spheroid’s time. It can communicate with him only in
images. “All right,” Clay says. “I accept the limitations. We’ll learn to get
along.”
The tentacle releases him. He withdraws from the cage.
He concentrates on forming images. Handling the abstractions is
difficult. Love? He shows himself standing beside a woman of his own kind.
Embracing her. Touching her breasts. Now they are in bed, copulating. He
depicts the union of the organs explicitly. He stresses such characteristics as
body hair, odors, blemishes. Keeping the coupling couple coupling, he
produces an adjoining image of himself atop the female Hanmer, performing
the same rite. Then he shows himself reaching into the cage and permitting
the tentacle to wind around his wrist. Capisce? And now to show trust. Cat
and kittens? Child and kittens? Spheroid without cage, embracing spheroid?
A sudden response of anguish. Change of hue: ebony. Clay edits the image,
returning the spheroids to their cages. Intimations of relief. Good. Now, how
to convey loneliness? Self naked in broad field of alien flowers. Flickering
dreams of home. Scene in twentieth-century city: bustling, cluttered, yet
beloved.
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“We’re communicating now,” Clay says. “We’re making it.”
The long night ends. By azure dawn Clay sees a whole flora that had not
been there at sundown: spiky trees with red ribs, looping coils of sticky
pulsing ground-creeping vines, vast blossoms twice the diameter of a
rowboat, within which little hammerheaded anthers bob and nod, scattering
diamond-faceted pollen. Hanmer has returned. He sits cross-legged at the far
end of Clay’s slab.
“We have a companion,” Clay says. “I don’t know if the time-flux caught
him or if I dragged him here myself. I was making some experiments inside
my head. But anyway, he’s—.”
Dead?
The spheroid is a withered husk glued to one side of his cage. A trickle
of iridescent fluid has dyed three of the bars. Clay is unable to rouse the
spheroid’s now-familiar imagery. He goes to the cage, tentatively pokes two
fingers into it, and feels no shock.
“What happened?” he asks.
“Life goes,” Hanmer says. “Life comes again. We’ll take him with us.
Come.”
They walk in the direction away from the sunrise. Without touching it,
Hanmer pushes the cage along before them. They are passing now through a
grove of tall square-topped yellow trees whose red leaves, dangling in thick
clusters, writhe like annoyed starfish. “Have you seen beings like this one
before?” Clay asks.
“Several times. The flux brings us everything.”
“I gathered it was also an early form. Close to my own time, in fact.”
“You may be right,” Hanmer says.
“Why did it die?”
“Its life went out of it.”
Clay is growing accustomed to Hanmer’s style of answer.
Shortly they halt at a pond of dark blue fluid in which round golden
plaques solemnly swim. “Drink,” Hanmer suggests. Clay kneels at the edge.
Scoops up a careful handful. Peppery to the taste. It fills him with a keen
expansive sadness, a consciousness of lost opportunities and missed turnings,
that threatens in the first instant to overwhelm him; he sees all the possible
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choices that any moment presents, the infinity of darkened blurred highways
marked with unintelligible road signs, and he finds himself fleeing down all
those roads at once, dizzied, overextended. The sensation passes. Rather, it
refines itself into a more exact nature, and he realizes that he is gifted with a
new means of perception, which he has employed metaphorically instead of
spatially. He drinks again. The perception deepens and intensifies. He accepts
glimmering images: eleven sleeping nightcrawlers in a shallow tunnel just
behind him, blood pulsing like sparks within Hanmer’s compact body, the
misty formlessness of the dead spheroid’s rotting flesh, the crisp crustacean
interiors of these little golden swimming plaques. He drinks again. Now he
sees the inwardness of things still more precisely. His zone of perception has
become a sphere five times his own height, with his brain at its center. He
assesses the structure of the soil, finding a layer of black loam over a layer of
pink sand over a layer of jumbled pebbles over a layer of slippery tilted blocks
of granite. He measures the dimensions of the pool and remarks on the
mathematically perfect curve of its floor. He calculates the environmental stress
caused by the simultaneous passage of a trio of small batlike things just
overhead and the growth of six cells in the roots of a nearby tree. He drinks
again. “So easy to be a god here,” he tells Hanmer, and observes the tones of his
voice ricocheting from the surface of the pool. Hanmer laughs. They move on.
MultiReal
Volume 2 of the Jump 225 Trilogy
David Louis Edelman
“A thoroughly successful hybrid of Neuromancer and Wall Street,
MultiReal is the kind of thought-experiment we need more of
around here: rigorously backgrounded, tightly plotted, and built
around one of the most intriguing neurotech conceits I’ve
encountered in years. William Gibson once observed that the
street finds its own uses for things. David Louis Edelman
reminds us that both boardroom and back room do as well—and
the people who lurk in those places are a lot scarier . . .”
Peter Watts, Hugo Award-nominated author of
Blindsight and the Rifters trilogy
D
avid Louis Edelman’s debut novel Infoquake was called “the love child of
Donald Trump and Vernor Vinge” and hailed as the best science fiction
debut of 2006. The story continues with MultiReal, the stunning second book in the
Jump 225 trilogy.
Natch has just won his first battle with the Defense and Wellness Council for
control of MultiReal technology. But now the Council has unleashed the ruthless
cunning of Lieutenant Executive Magan Kai Lee. Lee decides that if Natch’s company
can’t be destroyed from without, it must be destroyed from within.
As black code continues to eat away at Natch’s sanity, he faces a mutiny from his own
apprentices, a legal onslaught from the government, and the return of enemies old and
new. In desperation, the entrepreneur turns to some unlikely allies: a radical politician
with an agenda of his own, and a childhood enemy to whom he has done a terrible wrong.
Natch’s struggle will take him from the halls of power in Melbourne to the
ruined cities of the diss. Hanging in the balance is the fate of MultiReal, a
technology that could end the tyranny of the Council forever—or give the Council
the ultimate weapon of oppression.
About the author: David Louis Edelman is the author of the highly acclaimed
Infoquake. A Web designer, programmer, and journalist, Mr. Edelman has
programmed Web sites for the U.S. Army and the FBI, taught software to the U.S.
Congress and the World Bank, written articles for the Washington Post and Baltimore
Sun, and directed the marketing departments of biometric and e-commerce
companies. He lives with his wife, Victoria, in Washington, DC.
Visit David Louis Edelman online at:
www.multireal.net.
Cover Illustration © Stephan Martiniere
ISBN: 978–1–59102–647–1
Trade Paperback • July 2008
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
1
LESSONS LEARNED
(((1)))
Len Borda was dying.
Or so Marcus Surina told his twelve-year-old daughter Margaret
one blustery winter morning, the two of them striding through the
hoverbird docks, wind at full bore, the sun a frail pink thing cowering
behind the clouds.
He won’t die today, of course, said Marcus. His voice barely registered
above the clanging of the cargo loaders and the yelling of the
dockworkers. Not this week or even this month. But the worries hang from
the high executive’s neck like lusterless pearls, Margaret. They weigh him down
and break his will. I can see it.
Margaret smiled uncomfortably but said nothing.
If the city of Andra Pradesh had a resident expert on untimely
death, it was her father. Before he had accepted the Surina family
mantle and assumed his birthright as head of the world’s most
prominent scientific dynasty, Marcus had wandered far and wide. He
had teased the boundaries of human space, flirted with dangerous
organizations in the orbital colonies. Death was a constant presence out
there.
And yet, High Executive Borda seemed an unlikely candidate for
the Null Current. He had been a hale and headstrong man upon his
inauguration just weeks after Margaret was born. A NEW EXECUTIVE
FOR A NEW CENTURY, the headlines had proclaimed. Some predicted
that the troubles of the office would prove too daunting for the young
high executive. They murmured that Borda had never been tested by
hardship, that he had come of age in a time of plenty and had inherited
the job uncontested. But his stature had only grown in the intervening
decade. Try as she might, Margaret could find no lingering gaps on
Borda’s calendar, no telltale signs of weakness or indecision. As far as
186 MULTIREAL
she was concerned, the high executive was on his way to becoming a
fundament of the world, an eternal force like rock or gravity or time
itself.
But Marcus Surina remained firm. You develop a sixth sense out on the
frontiers, he said, examining the hoverbird manifest for the third time.
You begin to see things outside the visible spectrum of light. Patterns of human
behavior, focal points of happenstance. Travel the orbital colonies long enough,
and you learn to recognize the omens.
Margaret stirred. Omens? A strange word coming from the lips of
her father, the quintessential man of science.
The omens of death, continued Marcus. Plans that wander from their
steady paths. Appetites that suddenly grow cold. Thoughts that lose their
ballast in midsentence and drift off to places unknown. Her father stopped
suddenly and turned his hyper-focus on a dented segment of the
hoverbird wing no bigger than a finger. Three aides-de-camp hovered
a meter away, anticipating a word of command or dismissal. Some people,
you can look in their eyes and see that the Null Current is about to pull them
under, Margaret. You can see the inevitability. Just like you can see the stalk
of wheat as the thresher approaches, and know that the time’s come for a newer,
stronger crop to bask in the sun. Marcus made a gesture, and the aides
scattered like duckpins.
Then he was striding off again, and it was all Margaret could do to
keep up with him. She shivered as she ran, whether from the cold of
encroaching winter or from the strangeness of the man before her she
could not tell. Lusterless pearls? Wheat and threshers? His clattering
metaphors made her teeth ache.
The girl resolved to be patient. In less than twelve hours, her father
would be gone, off to the distant colony of Furtoid with the rest of the
TeleCo board, and routine would slink out from the alcove where it
had been hiding these past few days like a bruised animal.
She called him Father, but it was mostly an honorary title. Marcus
had spent four years of the last twelve on the road, and here at Andra
LESSONS LEARNED 187
Pradesh he was constantly fenced in a protective thicket of apprentices,
scientists, business associates, capitalmen, government officials,
drudges, bankers, lawyers, and freethinkers that even a daughter could
not penetrate. He would stop by her quarters unannounced, cloaked by
the night, and quiz her on schoolwork like a proctor checking up on a
promising student. Sometimes he would speechify as if Margaret were
the warm-up audience for one of his scientific presentations. Other
times he would assign her outlandish tasks and then vanish to some
colloquium on Allowell or some board meeting in Cape Town.
Prove Prengal’s universal law of physics for me, he told her once. It took
Margaret three months, but she did.
Margaret had no doubt that she did not have a normal upbringing.
But how far off-kilter things were she had no way of judging. The
Surina compound was a cloistered and lonely place, despite the crowds.
Her mother was dead, and she had no siblings. Instead she had distant
cousins innumerable, and a team of handlers whose job it was to
confine her life in a box and then call that order.
But there were some things the Surina family handlers could not
shield her from. Lately Marcus’ face had grown sterner, the lines on his
forehead coagulating into a permanent state of anger and anxiety.
Margaret suspected there were new developments in her father’s battle
with the Defense and Wellness Council. Len Borda wanted TeleCo. He
wanted her father’s teleportation technology either banned outright, or
conscripted for military purposes; nobody was sure which. And now,
this past week, tensions seemed to be coming to a head.
Margaret couldn’t quite comprehend what the fuss was about. She
had watched a dozen trials of the teleportation process from
unobtrusive corners, and it wasn’t anything like the teleportation she
had read about in stories. You couldn’t zap someone instantaneously
from one place to another. The procedure required two people of
similar biochemical composition to be strapped into a metal container
for hours on end while particle deconstructors transposed one body to
188 MULTIREAL
the other, molecule by agonizing molecule. Margaret wondered why
High Executive Borda found the whole idea so threatening. But
whenever she asked one of the TeleCo researchers about it, they would
simply smile and tell her not to make premature judgments. Marcus
had big plans up his sleeve. Give the technology a chance to mature,
they said—and generate much-needed revenue for the TeleCo
coffers—and she would one day see wonders beyond her imagining.
The world would change. Reality itself would buckle.
She took the TeleCo scientists at their word.
That look of inevitability, said Marcus, wrenching Margaret back to
the present. They were taking the long, silent lift to the top of the
Revelation Spire, where her father had his office. That look of death. I’ve
seen it, Margaret. I’ve seen it on Len Borda’s face. The high executive knows
that the thresher is coming for him.
Margaret shook her head. But he’s not that old, is he? You’re older than
he is and—
Age has nothing to do with it.
The girl wasn’t quite sure what to do with that statement. How to
make her father understand? How to pierce that veil of myopia and
arrogance that kept Marcus Surina from the truth? But—but—I was
talking to Jayze, and Jayze said that you’ve got it all wrong. She said that the
Council’s coming for you. The high executive’s going to bust down the gates to
the compound any day now and take TeleCo away—
Marcus Surina laughed, and the worry lines on his face broke like
barricades of sand washing away with the tide. At that moment, they
reached their destination, and the elevator doors opened. Marcus put
one brawny arm around his daughter and led her to the window.
You see that? he said.
Margaret wasn’t entirely sure what she was supposed to see. They
stood on top of the world in a very visceral and literal sense. The
Revelation Spire was the tallest building in human space, and built on
a mountaintop, no less. Far below, she could see the Surina compound
LESSONS LEARNED 189
and a blue-green blob that could only be the Surina security forces
conducting martial exercises. Sprawled in every direction outside the
walls was the unfenceable polyglot mass of Andra Pradesh, city of the
Surinas, now getting its first taste of the seasonal snow. Margaret could
think of no safer place in the entire universe.
You see that? Marcus repeated. It’s winter. Everything is shrouded in
snow, and the world seems bleak and hopeless, doesn’t it?
The girl nodded tentatively.
The gloom doesn’t last, Margaret. It never lasts. Remember that.
But—
He gripped her shoulder firmly, turned her around to face him.
Marcus Surina’s eyes shone brilliant blue as sapphires, and she could
smell the cinnamon of morning chai on his breath. Listen, he said
quietly. Don’t breathe a word of this to anyone, especially your cousin Jayze.
Len Borda’s lost. Our sources in the Council say he’s spent too much time and
money coming after teleportation, and he’s ready to move on. That’s why the
board’s going to Furtoid. To negotiate a settlement. By this time next week, it’ll
all be over. Do you understand? We’ve won.
The girl blinked. If the victory bells were ringing, she could not
hear them.
Always remember this, Margaret. No matter how bad the winter, spring
is always right around the corner.
The girl nodded, smiled, let Marcus Surina fold her in his arms for
a last embrace. Better to leave him with this memory of hope at the
top of the world than to shower him with cold truths. Spring might
always be right around the corner, she thought. But there’s always another
winter behind it.
(((2)))
Lieutenant Magan Kai Lee stood at the window of a Falcon hoverbird
and watched the Potomac scroll away until it was lost in the snow.
December of 359 had proven an exceptionally good month for snow.
The pilot quietly veered off the established flight path, leaving the
sparse morning traffic behind while they plowed through the mist a
dozen meters above the river’s froth and foam. Today, at least, the
hoverbird’s egg-white finish made decent camouflage.
Magan looked out the port window and saw the Shenandoah River
slide into view. “Ulterior admission,” he said quietly. Full stop.
It was a small craft, designed by Defense and Wellness Council
engineers for first-response situations. Twelve could fit here with
comfort, and today there were only three. The pilot could hear his
superior officer’s command just fine. “Impulse open and locked,” he
replied in acknowledgment. Full stop. Seconds later, Magan could hear
the decrescendo of engines shutting down and the ethereal whir of
antigrav kicking in. The hoverbird came to rest twenty meters above
the treetops.
Within the space of a heartbeat, the illicit advertising began
dribbling in to Magan’s mental inbox. Guerrilla messages, automated,
probably keyed in to the whoosh of the hoverbird’s vapor exhaust.
COZY WINTER GETAWAYS on the SHENANDOAH:
Affordable Prices!
Hoverbird in Need of a Boost? Read Our Special Report
THE MAKERS OF CHAIQUOKE SALUTE THE SHENANDOAH COMMUTER
The hoverbird’s third occupant blocked the flow with an irritated
tsk.
Rey Gonerev, the Defense and Wellness Council’s chief solicitor,
LESSONS LEARNED 191
rose from her seat and stood at Magan’s side. She parted her long
braided hair to reveal a thin face with skin of deepest cocoa. Magan
could feel the neural tug of her ConfidentialWhisper request. “You
sure we’re not overdoing this?” she asked, her words appearing silently
in his mind like adjuncts of his own thought process.
Magan ignored her and watched the skyline. His mind was sifting
through combinatorial possibilities in preparation for their mission.
Rey Gonerev had no place in his reflections at the moment.
The solicitor pursed her lips. “Lieutenant?” Receiving no response,
she shrugged and retreated to her seat, keeping the
ConfidentialWhisper channel open just in case.
Magan turned his attention to the circular table that comprised
most of the hoverbird’s rear section. He waved his hand over the
surface, causing a holographic map to blink into existence. It was an
example of true Defense and Wellness Council austerity: the meeting
of two rivers reduced to a handful of intersecting vectors, with the
hoverbird itself nothing more than a triangle of canary yellow. As
Magan studied the hilly terrain with a critical eye, four more yellow
triangles arced into the display and halted in formation alongside
them. He looked out the window and surveyed the line of sleek white
hovercraft floating above the Shenandoah, silent as vultures. The
lieutenant noted approvingly that the noses of the hoverbirds were in
perfect alignment.
There was a momentary squawk of pilots confirming their
rendezvous and their mission number. Then one craft broke off from
the rest and took a vanguard position. A blue dot on the map indicated
the presence of the team leader: Ridgello, a veteran from the Pharisee
front lines and one of Magan’s most trusted subordinates.
The team leader opened a voice channel to the rest of the troops.
“Broad strokes imply a declension of purpose, and such things cannot
be ascertained with present information,” he said. We commence
operations in approximately six hundred seconds, after we receive the technical
192 MULTIREAL
crew’s signal. Any questions?
“My question,” said Rey to Magan over the ConfidentialWhisper
channel, “is whether this whole thing is overkill.”
The skepticism in her voice would have earned a swift reprimand
had it come from anyone else. But Magan had learned long ago that
kowtowing to superiors was simply not part of Rey Gonerev’s nature.
She would continue dropping little bombs of snarkiness all morning
until he had answered her. “If you insist on observing,” replied Magan
over the ’Whisper channel, “the least you could do is follow standard
procedure and use Council battle language.”
The solicitor made a dismissive shrug. “This isn’t a military issue,”
she stated icily. “It’s a policy question, and you know it.”
“This policy comes from High Executive Borda.”
“But Magan—nineteen dartguns, six disruptors, and three
technical crew, just for one unarmed man? You’ve taken out whole
Pharisee outposts with fewer boots on the ground.”
Lieutenant Lee gritted his teeth, perfectly aware that he had no
cause to gainsay her. You know she’s right, he told himself. And there’s
nothing you can do about it. He seethed momentarily with ire for the
unsorted, for the unordered, for the chaotic and unplanned.
Magan turned and gave Rey Gonerev an appraising look. She had
risen once again from her seat and was standing alongside the pilot
watching the formation. Gonerev should have been the type of volatile
element that Magan tried to suppress from the Council hierarchy.
Instead he had worked hard to put Rey Gonerev in the chief solicitor’s
office, and it had taken him some time to realize why. It was precisely
because she refused to kiss ass, because she was not Len Borda’s toady
and did not aspire to be Magan’s either. Gonerev could always be
counted on to cut through bureaucratic and organizational hypocrisy
like a machete slicing through so many thin vines. It was no wonder
the pundits had nicknamed her “the Blade.”
Ridgello had just received final status reports from the other four
LESSONS LEARNED 193
hoverbird teams. “Perhaps we need to cover extremities and observe
full zoning regulations,” he said. Commander Papizon will signal us when
he’s overridden the building’s security and compression routines, and then it’ll
be time to move.
“This man is not to be underestimated,” Magan told the Blade.
“He is as sly as a snake.”
“But—”
“Enough. The high executive has made his decision. My duty—and
yours—is to carry it out.” Magan cut the ’Whisper channel with a curt swipe
of one hand, and even the Blade knew that further argument was useless.
Ridgello concluded his preoperational briefing with a question for
Magan Kai Lee. “South by southwest makes for a defensive maneuver,”
he said. Anything to add, Lieutenant?
Magan could feel the randomness algorithm hijack his thoughts and
twist them into unrecognizable shapes designed to sow confusion among
any eavesdropping enemy. “Keep pushing for higher ground, regardless
of any spiking temperatures,” he said. “It’s a tribute to your preparedness
that we have a robust strategy at all.” He could imagine the same process
at work in reverse in each of the soldiers’ heads, realigning and
reassembling his gibberish into something more comprehensible.
Remember that the subject is expected to be unarmed, and lethal force will not be
required. If we encounter his apprentices, they are to be taken alive.
Silence ensued. Magan watched the drifting snowflakes and tried
to clear his mind. He could see the officers through the window of the
next hoverbird polishing their dartguns, choosing which canisters of
black code–laden needles to load. Rey Gonerev was making small talk
with the pilot in plain speech, as if deliberately flaunting her defiance
of military convention.
A little more than a month ago, Magan had never heard of this
man, this fiefcorper who was the object of their mission. He had come
from nowhere, really, a shameless entrepreneur who had clawed his way
out of the bear pit of bio/logic programming. Nobody was quite sure
194 MULTIREAL
how he had wormed his way into Margaret Surina’s good graces, or
how he had gained control of her MultiReal technology so quickly.
Then he had showed up in Len Borda’s chambers, mere hours ahead of
a major product demo, looking to make a deal. The Council’s
protection from some group of assassins in black robes that had
ambushed him on the streets of Shenandoah. Protection from the black
code swarming through his bloodstream even now like barracudas. In
exchange: access to MultiReal.
The high executive had kept his word. He had raised his hand and
sent three legions of his best troops scrambling for Andra Pradesh. The
fiefcorper’s product demo had gone off as planned.*
And what had the entrepreneur delivered in return? Nothing.
He had failed to show up for half a dozen scheduled meetings over
the next week, leaving Magan and his underlings to sit alone in a series
of conference rooms feeling foolish. Urgent messages and
ConfidentialWhispers had disappeared into the void, unacknowledged
and unanswered. Threats had gone unheeded.
Borda had responded to this charade with the subtlety of someone
conducting an orchestra in a suit of armor. He had sent white-robed
Council officers to shadow the man twenty-four hours a day, then had
those officers parade before the man’s windows with dartguns drawn.
When that had failed to apply the appropriate pressure, he had ordered
the troops to accept no excuses and firmly escort the man to the
Council’s administrative offices in Melbourne. Still the fiefcorp master
managed to elude them. He would disappear for days at a time right
under the officers’ noses—nobody knew where or how.
Two days ago, Len Borda’s patience had reached its limit. He had
called Magan Kai Lee to his chambers in the middle of the night,
telling him to drop everything and bring the intractable fiefcorper
*For a more detailed synopsis of the events of Infoquake, book 1 of the
Jump 225 trilogy, see appendix A.
LESSONS LEARNED 195
back to the negotiating table, by force if necessary.
“In handcuffs?” Magan had asked.
“In chains,” Borda had replied.
Lieutenant Lee had looked at that weathered face, that bald
capstone of a head. The high executive had stared back at him with a
gaze of acid. Magan felt his fingertips flex involuntarily, yearning to
take hold of the dartgun holstered at his side and aim it at that caustic,
lichlike countenance. Borda had merely sat there, defenseless but
utterly without fear. He knew that Magan would not break their
agreement.
And Borda was right. In the end, Magan Kai Lee had done what
he was told. He had retreated back to his quarters, filing the
impatience away in yet another mental side room that was full
dangerously close to bursting. He had called up Papizon, and the two
of them had sketched out this endeavor, with occasional input from the
Blade. The next forty-eight hours had been a haze of architectural
blueprints, supply requisitions, and scouting reports.
An incoming blip snapped Magan back to the now. It was time.
Go.
All at once, the Defense and Wellness Council hoverbirds blasted
into motion. They quickly shifted into single file as they sped towards
Shenandoah like a poison arrow, with Ridgello’s hoverbird the barb
and Magan’s VIP ship the fletchings.
Magan took a parting glance at the crossing of the two rivers. He
thought of the flow of illicit advertising, and wondered what kind of
societal parasite would resort to such a scheme.
Natch, he thought, you brought this on yourself.
Five hoverbirds darted out from behind the Blue Ridge Mountains,
skirting close to the ground, where they blended in with the snow.
196 MULTIREAL
Traffic was a farce this early in the morning. The sun hung close to the
horizon, unsure of itself.
Papizon, what’s your status? said Ridgello.
Even scrambled, the tactician’s voice sounded serene and
unhurried. Security is under Council control, he said. We’re decompressing the
building now. Target apartment will be just inside the northwest entrance in
ninety seconds.
And Natch? asked the team leader.
We saw him enter the building last night at approximately ten o’clock local
time. He’s been active in MindSpace ever since. There are human and data
agents watching every exit.
Magan and Gonerev exchanged looks of cautious optimism. So far,
so good. Let the Blade call the plan overkill; once they had the fiefcorp
master safely onboard a Council hoverbird en route to Melbourne, this
whole operation would be yesterday’s lessons learned.
Rey Gonerev joined Magan at the command console. The yellow
triangles were rapidly converging on a blinking red star. A sixth
triangle hunkered down beneath the building in the pipes of the city’s
underground transfer system. That would be Papizon and his technical
crew.
Magan switched the rear windows of the hoverbird to battlefield
display, blocking out the rapidly receding December landscape.
Perspectives from six different soldiers filled the screens: here a man
rubbing the barrel of his multi disruptor with a soft cloth, there a
woman stretching her calves and muttering about the cold. Following
regulations, Magan flipped through each of the twenty-five officers in
turn to verify the connections. He found Ridgello calm and collected
and not the least bit nervous; operations like this were his gruel.
The hoverbirds zipped over a large hill and went into a steep,
nosebleed descent behind a copse of trees. The pilot cut the inertial
cushioners to stifle the noise. Rey Gonerev grunted as her head
bounced against the low hoverbird ceiling, but Magan remained
LESSONS LEARNED 197
composed. He thanked a thousand generations of Chinese heritage for
making him too short to worry about such obstructions.
They touched down in the snow with a soft thud. All five yellow
triangles were now clustered on a slope next to the blinking red star.
Seconds later, the doors whooshed open and the Defense and
Wellness Council was on the move.
A disciplined sprint up a snow-covered slope, dartguns drawn. A
building that curved atop the next hill like a natural extension of the
landscape. Two dozen figures in white fatigues with muted yellow stars
edging through a small huddle of fir trees. The fog of heavy breath.
About ten meters up, a door opened and spat forth a middle-aged
woman holding a mug of steaming nitro. A black platform slid
beneath her feet in the blink of an eye to serve as balcony. She yawned,
stretched, cracked her knuckles.
Take her down, snapped the team leader.
Six pinpricks of light slid across the woman’s torso. The dart-rifles
sang. The woman collapsed, ceramic mug of nitro tumbling after.
Magan watched from his ship as Ridgello’s team zipped across the
snow and dashed through the building’s northwest entrance. Rey
flipped a window to focus on one of the three soldiers ascending the
unconscious woman’s balcony via magnetic cable. One of the officers
glanced back over his shoulder at the copse of fir trees, which looked
perfectly undisturbed. Ridgello was good. Magan felt confident that
nobody inside the building had noticed anything unusual.
The interior hallway was brightly lit. Ridgello’s team flew down
the corridor, swift as ghosts, until they reached the first door on the
left. Two officers lined up on either side of the door, dartguns drawn
and needles loaded. Ridgello blasted the apartment security with a
Defense and Wellness Council priority override, and the door slid
open. A dozen troops swarmed into Natch’s apartment.
Rey Gonerev let out a gasp.
The apartment was empty.
198 MULTIREAL
A half-eaten sandwich lay on the kitchen counter alongside a cold
mug of nitro that had obviously been untouched for hours, perhaps days.
One of the viewscreens was broadcasting a spirited melee from a fencing
tournament on 49th Heaven. A triangular blob of code rotated inside a
MindSpace bubble in Natch’s office with no hand there to rotate it. Even
more telling, however, was the absence of the ubiquitous shoulder pack
of bio/logic programming bars that fiefcorpers always kept within reach.
“You said he was here, Papizon,” barked the Blade. “Where is he?”
A puzzled stammer came over the connection. “You mean,
he—he’s not there?”
“No, he fucking isn’t.”
“But the scope says . . . There’s still . . . If Natch isn’t there, then
who’s working in MindSpace?”
Ridgello, the only one still using battle language: No sign of him,
Lieutenant.
The troops had relaxed their guard by now, and were all casting
dazed looks at one another. One of them scratched his beefy head with
the barrel of his disruptor gun, against all weapons protocol. Officers
were poking through closets and peeking under tables on the off
chance that Natch might be cowering in some undiscovered corner. A
woman standing behind the workbench in Natch’s office turned to face
one of the interior windows and was startled to read the text printed
there in bold letters:
A PRIVATE MESSAGE FOR MAGAN KAI LEE
Back in the hoverbird, Magan blanched. Rey Gonerev’s face
showed some amalgam of disgust and amusement. The snake knew we
were coming, thought Magan. How could he possibly have known that?
Magan counted the people who had known the details of this operation
ahead of time on three fingers: the Blade, Papizon, himself. Not even
Ridgello had known what was going down until late last night.
LESSONS LEARNED 199
The team leader had seen the text by now. Do you want to read this,
Lieutenant? he said.
Magan felt his mind downshifting, looking for a more acceptable
gear. The smart thing to do would be to ignore the message and get his
people out of there as fast as possible. But wasn’t that what Natch was
expecting him to do? The message on the window was such a transparent
ploy to get Magan into the apartment that the fiefcorp master must be
counting on him to not take the bait. In which case . . . shouldn’t he do
the opposite? The lieutenant cursed silently. How difficult it was to use
logic on a creature whose entire nature rejected the concept.
Magan opened the supply chest at his knee, grabbed a canister of
black code darts, and snapped it onto the barrel of his dartgun. “You’re
not going in there, are you?” said the Blade incredulously.
“Shit,” replied the Council lieutenant, striding for the door of the
hoverbird. “I guess I am.”
Within two minutes, he had made it up the hill to the tenement
building’s northwest entrance. Magan was approaching middle age
and no longer possessed the feline agility of his younger troops, but he
still doubted that any of the building’s occupants had seen him. Magan
glanced up at the balcony of the third-floor apartment, where the
officer standing guard confirmed his assessment with the okay signal.
Two other guards were escorting the unconscious woman back to her
bed, where she would wake up in a few hours with a splitting
headache. Even the dropped mug of nitro had disappeared back inside.
The yellow-starred officers in the apartment saw the look in
Magan’s eyes and gave him a wide berth. He walked into Natch’s
office, ushered the massive Nordic team leader out the door, and
opened the message on the viewscreen with a gesture.
SMILE FOR THE CAMERAS.
Magan frowned. What kind of message was this?
200 MULTIREAL
Suddenly his eyes widened. “Out! Everybody out!” he snapped,
unencrypted, startling the Council officers into a pell-mell gallop for
the exit. “No, he knows we’re here—southeast exit!” The group
skidded to a halt and reversed directions. Rey Gonerev was yelling
something in his ear, but Magan couldn’t process it quickly enough.
He managed to decipher the solicitor’s words just as they burst into the
southeast courtyard: “No, stay inside. The drudges, the drudges!”
Standing in the snow outside Natch’s building was a pack of men
and women whose eyes were lit with predatory glee. Magan recognized
many of their faces on sight: the craggy visage of Sen Sivv Sor, the
dandyish face of John Ridglee, the weasel smirk of V. T. Vel Osbiq.
The drudges.
Ridgello, clearly irritated, gave his troops the signal to sheathe
their weapons. The Council lieutenant summoned PokerFace 85a to
mask his own roiling emotions as the drudges formed a receiving line
and began peppering the retreating officers with questions for their
readers.
“Lieutenant, why has Len Borda decided to seize MultiReal by
force?”
“Who approved this mission?”
“Has the Council consulted the Prime Committee about this?”
“What charges are you planning to bring against Natch?”
“Is this legal?”
Magan Kai Lee trudged through the courtyard, saying nothing,
trying to figure out the exchange rate of this new situation. He could
practically taste the bile in the back of his throat. “You see, Rey?” he
said over ConfidentialWhisper. “This snake has fangs.”
(((3)))
Natch stood at his workbench and waved his left hand. A shimmering
bubble the size of a coin appeared in the air before him. The bubble
quickly expanded until it encompassed most of the workbench, until
it enveloped him entirely and blanketed the rest of the world in a
translucent film.
MindSpace. An empty canvas, a barren universe. Anything was
possible here.
With his right hand, Natch undid the clasps to the weather-beaten
satchel that sat on the side table. The satchel flopped open to reveal its
hidden treasure: twenty-six thin metal bars, branded with the letters
of the Roman alphabet. Natch’s fingers wandered blindly to the bar
labeled F and slid it whisper-quiet from its sheath. As soon as the
bio/logic programming bar passed the borders of MindSpace, spikes
and finials burst from its sides like a butterfly’s wings emerging from
the cocoon. Natch swished the bar back and forth in front of him, and
the butterfly took flight.
The fiefcorp master raised his left hand again and spread his fingers
wide. The MindSpace bubble exploded with a sinuous curve of
interlocking spheres, a virtual centipede in hues of purple and brown.
The canvas was covered down to the last square centimeter, and yet
still the shapes multiplied.
Too close in. Natch hitched his thumb back, zooming out to a
better vantage point. The spheres only grew in density as they receded,
until they became atomic particles in a solid block of gray. Farther out,
the block was now merely one of thousands, a brick in the wall of an
ominous castle of programming code. Natch, impatient, continued
jabbing his thumb backward. Now even the castle was just one small
portion of an immense oval-shaped structure. Parapets and walkways
202 MULTIREAL
in aqua and silver swirled through the whole and made daring forays
across the central void. A MindSpace megalopolis.
At last the entire structure lay visible before him. Natch could pan
out no farther. He extended his left index finger and rotated his hand
ninety degrees counterclockwise, causing a legend to appear atop the
block of code.
POSSIBILITIES
Version: 0.76
Programmer: The Surina/Natch MultiReal Fiefcorp
Possibilities was the fiefcorp’s brand name for MultiReal.
MultiReal: the product of sixteen years’ isolation by one of the world’s
most brilliant scientists, with virtually unlimited resources at her
disposal. MultiReal: the crowning achievement of an entire line of
Surinas stretching back for generations.
And now the program belonged to Natch.
The entrepreneur hefted the spiky programming tool in his hand,
testing its mass. He rotated the castle around and around, looking for
just the right spot. . . . There. A soft place, a weakness in the virtual
masonry. All at once, Natch raised the bar over his head and struck at
the castle wall with furious strength.
Clang. The bar bounced off the castle and set his right hand vibrating.
Natch grabbed the bar again with both hands, wielding it like a
crazed samurai. He began delivering savage blows to the structure
before him. Again and again he struck, snarling with rage. Finally one
of the blows smashed through the brick, and the castle wall shattered
into a thousand pieces with a deafening crash.
Natch peered at the interior of the vanquished castle, expecting to
see a skeleton of virtual boards, planks, and girders. But the structure
was completely hollow and had no visible means of support. This was
no mere emptiness, no simple absence-of-something-else; it was a
LESSONS LEARNED 203
yawning chasm of nothingness, a force of void that seemed to pull at
him with intense gravity.
As the fiefcorp master stood, paralyzed with fear, the program
began to crumble all around him. Blocks that had been anchored and
secured by a thousand connections were buckling under the strain,
pulling loose, succumbing to the Null Current. Soon objects across the
room were sliding toward him; programming bars were making
kamikaze leaps from his satchel; even dishes were somersaulting in
from the kitchen to get swallowed by the growing darkness.
Natch felt the tug in his knees first. He struggled to get to the office
door, thinking that if he could just shut out the nothingness, he would
be all right. But soon the void was pulling at his entire body. He
managed to hook his fingers around the doorjamb just as he lost his feet.
For a minute, maybe two, he hung there with his heels in the air and
his fingernails clawing for a handhold on the door. And then a chair slid
in from the living room and bashed his knuckles. Natch lost his grip.
He began tumbling end over end into the chill of the darkest night.
Nothingness.
He came to in a wintry patch of forest, a torch in his hand. A
sickening smell that Natch identified as burning flesh wafted through
the air.
Natch dashed through the trees. He was in a hurry, but he couldn’t
say why. Paths crisscrossed on the forest floor below his feet, but he
didn’t know where they had come from or where they were going;
better to trust his instincts. And right now his instincts said to head
west, towards the rapidly falling sun. He ran through the foliage as
quickly as he could. Thorns and sharp branches lashed his face.
Then Natch heard the screaming.
Stop! Wait, stop! Don’t! Don’t! Don’t! And then a long shriek of
anguish and pain, underlined by the snarling of a confused and angry
bear. The distant tumult of rushing feet through the leaves. The wet
sound of human flesh ripping.
204 MULTIREAL
Natch could not move. The light from the torch sputtered and
went out. In the split second before the dark enveloped him once
again, Natch looked up and discovered he was no longer holding a
torch—it was the bloody stump of a boy’s arm.
Then he awoke.
Natch slowly lifted his eyelids and let the world soak into his
consciousness one millimeter at a time.
He took inventory of his surroundings. It was a familiar setting.
His hands lay palm-down on faux ivory armrests, and he could feel
faux leather at his back. Sunlight tapped a staccato message on his face
from behind a latticework of redwoods passing by at superhuman
speed. Natch had practically memorized every twist and turn of this
Seattle express tube over the years.
The entrepreneur took a closer look at the window. Something
floated there in boldface awaiting his arousal from sleep.
COUNCIL STORMS NATCH’S APARTMENT
IN PLOY TO SEIZE MULTIREAL
Natch gave a tired nod. So those fools took the bait after all.
He skimmed through a few dozen drudge clippings, stacking
them on the window like bricks. There was video from fifteen different
angles, and some anonymous wit had given the whole thing a
symphonic score. Natch summoned the baffled face of Magan Kai Lee
and watched his entire walk of shame back to the hoverbird four times.
At last you have some breathing room, the fiefcorp master told himself.
Now you can stop running and go home again.
Natch had woken up on a tube train every day this week. He had
traveled the entire world over the past few weeks in an effort to skirt
LESSONS LEARNED 205
the Defense and Wellness Council. Yesterday he had seen the desert
sands of old Texas territory, pausing for a brief multi foray to
Shenandoah to set his trap; the night before, he had skimmed the
surface of the Indian Ocean.
But there were a number of close calls. Natch could find only so
much anonymity when his face had been burned into the public
consciousness through a hundred interviews and drudge reports. A
group of teenagers in São Paulo had seen right through his false public
directory profile, and Natch had had to pawn off one of his new
bio/logic programming bars just to keep them quiet. Counting the one
he had flung at his black-robed pursuers in Shenandoah a few weeks
ago, he was now two bars short of a complete set.
Then there was the disturbing incident with the crazy woman in
central Europe. She had worn the bright blue uniform of a healer, but
had reached the age when many abandoned curative treatments and
sent in their applications to join the Prepared. The woman had walked
up to him in plain view of three white-robed Council officers,
indignant, demanding that Natch explain the “dirty tricks” he had
performed at the demo in Andra Pradesh. Natch’s mind had been
gliding through some remote place, and he had nearly panicked. But
suddenly people had stood up to defend him with voices raised and fists
clenched. Soon a handful of L-PRACG security officers had gotten
involved, and the Council officers had scurried over to investigate. A
small-scale brawl had erupted between Natch’s supporters and his
detractors. Libertarians shouting Down with Len Borda,
governmentalists bellowing Respect the law. Natch, dumbfounded, had
offered no resistance when two libertarians calmly tugged him out the
door and thrust him onto a tube running in the opposite direction. He
had managed to escape before Len Borda’s people realized exactly what
was going on.
In a world of sixty billion people, simple mathematics dictated
that Natch must have millions of sympathizers on the libertarian side
206 MULTIREAL
of the political spectrum. A hundred million people probably
supported his fight to keep MultiReal out of the Council’s hands from
sheer spite for Len Borda. But to discover that people had coalesced on
this issue, that they were willing to stand up to armed Council officers
. . . Natch simply didn’t know how to process it.
Once aware of this undercurrent of libertarian sympathy, he began
to see signs of it everywhere he went. Natch found posts of support on
the Data Sea, speeches by L-PRACG activists, drudgic calls for
embargoes against the central government. Suddenly he realized he
had underestimated the number of his supporters by several orders of
magnitude. A minority, perhaps, and still skulking in the shadows,
but gaining strength every day.
And now the Council’s raid on Natch’s apartment building had
altered the dynamics of the situation altogether. He called up Sen Sivv
Sor’s reportage on the window.
COUNCIL STORMS NATCH’S APARTMENT
IN PLOY TO SEIZE MULTIREAL
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Nobody is worse at bungling public
relations than High Executive Len Borda.
In the three weeks since Natch’s MultiReal demonstration at Andra
Pradesh, the fiefcorp master has disappeared from the public eye. This
morning, we found out why. Because Borda, in his supreme wisdom, has
already decided to renege on his assurances of safety, and to seize
MultiReal from its rightful owners without provocation.
What else can we conclude from the dazzling display of stupidity
executed by one of Borda’s lieutenant executives, Magan Kai Lee, this
morning? You all saw it right here, dear readers. If not for an anonymous
tip-off to the drudge community early this morning, the Surina/Natch
MultiReal Fiefcorp might have already been dissolved by now. And its
fiefcorp master might be rotting away in some orbital Council prison.
It’s astounding the lengths some will go to in order to preserve the
LESSONS LEARNED 207
vaunted status quo. Which is why—
Natch had read enough. He banished the potpourri of Data Sea
ramblings from the window and let the redwoods show through once
more.
Yes, Natch’s clever MindSpace tricks had enabled him to reverse
the tide of public opinion, if only for a day or two. Even the staunch
governmentalist Mah Lo Vertiginous was grudgingly admitting that
the Council had blundered today. Borda and Lee would not dare pull
another stunt like that anytime soon.
Natch caught his reflection in the window. So why are you still
sitting on a tube train heading in the wrong direction? he asked himself.
Why didn’t you get off at the last stop and make your way home?
He conjured a picture of the city of Shenandoah in his head. Home.
But when he saw those undulating streets and shifting buildings, all
he could think about was the mercenary precision of the black-robed
figures who had ambushed him there. He could still feel the pinpricks
of their black code darts and the icy rush of poisonous OCHREs
suffusing his bloodstream. The void, the nothingness.
Natch stumbled upon an unexpected realization: he was afraid.
You find yourself capable of strange things when you run out of choices,
Margaret Surina had told him last month.
Now Natch understood what the bodhisattva meant. For three
weeks, he had been fleeing from the Council, catching the occasional
update from Horvil or Serr Vigal over ConfidentialWhisper, taking
quick glimpses at the evolving Possibilities program whenever he
found a rented MindSpace workbench he could trust. Nobody had
heard a syllable from Margaret in all that time. Nor had the Patel
Brothers stirred from their lair to stop Lucas Sentinel and Bolliwar
Tuban from thrashing them in the Primo’s ratings.
And what about Brone? Natch blacked out the window and
displayed the message he had received the other day in small, precise
208 MULTIREAL
lettering.
Why is the vaunted master of the Surina/Natch MultiReal Fiefcorp
running away? What does he think he will gain by fleeing from tube train
to tube train? Does he think his enemies are just going to up and
disappear?
How long before he realizes he needs additional allies to complete the
MultiReal programming and bring the program to market? When will he
finally accept the helping hand that an old enemy has held out to him?
When will his need for funding, equipment, privacy, and security outweigh
the irrational hatred he carries around his neck?
There was no trace of a sender or signature. Natch supposed he
could use some arcane tools of the trade to track down the message’s
origin, but of course there was only one person who could have sent it.
A snippet of dream floated through Natch’s head: a bear, screams,
the bloody stump of an arm. Where was Brone? What was he doing?
Certainly after all that had happened during the Shortest Initiation,
after all the machinations Brone had gone through to put Natch in his
debt, he wasn’t planning to just sit on the sidelines. After all, he was
the head of a major creed organization, the Thasselians, with vast
stockpiles of credits and half a million anonymous devotees at his
disposal. Opportunities for mischief were plentiful.
It was a time of suspended animation, of delayed choices. And now
Natch’s ruse against Magan Kai Lee had set things in motion once
again.
You’ve faced challenges before, Natch told himself. Brone, Captain
Bolbund, the ROD coders, Figaro Fi, the Patels. What’s different? What are
you so afraid of now?
It was the black code swimming through his veins. Somehow it
had aged him in a way that none of his adversaries had managed to do
before. He could practically feel it tinkering away inside of him,
deconstructing his innards, disassembling his mind. Every day, Natch
LESSONS LEARNED 209
sensed that he was losing a small piece of this inner turf to the
encroaching void, to the winter, to the nothingness.
The nothingness was coming to claim him. And Natch knew that
all the battles he had fought before were merely the opening
skirmishes of a much larger campaign against this nothingness. It was
a campaign he could not afford to lose.
(((4)))
Magan spent the next four hours on three different hoverbirds,
watching time and space drift by the window.
“Towards Perfection, Lieutenant Lee,” chirped a voice from the
cockpit as Magan stepped aboard the last hoverbird. Obviously the
pilot had been too absorbed in the complex trigonometry of space flight
preparation to catch the news. “Anything I can get you before we lift
off? Commissary’s got a nice batch of weedtea, straight from—”
Magan cut her off. “Nothing, Panja, thank you.”
“How about—”
“To DWCR, please.”
Panja quieted down. She had flown Magan to DWCR hundreds of
times in the past few years—only a small number of pilots had
clearance to fly there—so she had learned to read his emotions well.
Something must have gone terribly wrong.
Magan took a seat in the back row of the hoverbird and strapped
on his harness. The pilot conducted the ship’s mechanical tests without
a word, then set them on their way. Magan watched the clouds
approach and fell into a light sleep until the ship alerted him that they
were making the final approach into DWCR.
To those in the know, DWCR was the Defense and Wellness
Council Root, Len Borda’s center of operations—and those who could
not define the acronym weren’t aware of its existence anyway. But even
most of those privileged enough to work at DWCR couldn’t pinpoint
it on a map. The location was highly classified, and officers like Panja
had to withstand a battery of loyalty tests before they were admitted
to the inner circle.
Magan himself had spent several years stepping on a red multi tile
without knowing exactly where he was being projected. But he never
LESSONS LEARNED 211
minded such obfuscation, even when it served to block something in
his path. A system with a hidden solution remained a system with a
solution, after all; a welcome change from the centerless anarchy his
life had been before enlisting in the Council twenty-five years ago.
Magan knew that, with scrupulous planning, he could master any
system that confronted him. He knew that time and chance were the
only obstacles between him and the pinnacle of the Council hierarchy.
Eventually the secrets of DWCR would be his.
Nearly ten thousand Council employees were not so confident.
Magan saw them huddled in their offices week after week wasting
hours in useless conjecture. Some believed the Root sat in one of the
many unexplored crevices of Luna. Others favored the Pacific Islands
or the Antarctic or the uninhabitable sectors of Furtoid as more likely
candidates. But so far Len Borda’s engineers had succeeded in keeping
the Root impervious to any known positioning or tracing program,
and prodigious sums of money were expended to ensure that the
mystification would continue for years to come.
Nonetheless, Magan knew the secrecy could not last indefinitely.
Secrets had a gravity of their own that sucked in the curious and the
determined. Had the high executive planned for that contingency, or
was he relying on the secrecy to last forever? The bodhisattva of Creed
Bushido had the perfect aphorism to describe such closed-mindedness:
Short-term plans, long-term problems.
In actuality, DWCR was a disc-shaped platter in orbit at the
outermost reach of Earth’s gravitational pull, only a slight rocket
thrust away from either floating off into the aether or spiraling
planetwards to a fiery, cataclysmic doom. Lieutenant Lee watched out
the port window now as the platter slid into view. A single observation
tower jutted from the bottom with priapic majesty, as if waiting for
something to impale.
Panja docked the hoverbird without a sound, and Magan stepped
through the airlock as soon as DWCR had given them the all-clear.
212 MULTIREAL
Generals and military planners filed curt nods with Magan as he
strode the Root’s maze of twisty little passages, all alike. Without
proper clearance, he could wander these shifting corridors of gunmetal
gray for days. Someone had made an attempt to inject some color on
the walls, but the smattering of pretentious landscapes and portraits of
executives past did little to lighten the atmosphere.
Magan made his way to the observation tower and kept his ears
open for the hallway gossip. He heard rumors of military deployments,
complaints about research budgets, details of appropriations bills
before the Prime Committee . . . but not a single comment about the
failed raid early this morning. Magan frowned. The only thing worse
than listening to officers chatter about the Council’s failure was not
hearing them chatter about it at all. He sighed as he reached the
central elevator and cleared his mind.
The elevator did not head upwards. Instead it dropped, leading
Magan to a floor on the tip of the observation tower. Borda’s private
chambers.
When he emerged from the elevator, the Council lieutenant found
himself standing on the deck of an ancient sloop-of-war. The ship
swayed tipsily in the waves, sending the occasional spittle of SeeNaRee
brine splashing on Magan’s face. Still-smoking cannons on the deck
spoke of a recent battle against some enemy hovering just out of sight
in the fog.
Standing at the prow of the ship was High Executive Len Borda.
Borda listened to his lieutenant’s version of events with rising ire, his
back to the mast and his nose pointed out to sea. “Bloody drudges,” he
said in a rumbling basso that not even the waves could drown out. “If
I wanted their opinion, trust me, they’d know it.”
Some called the high executive arrogant, but that word seemed
LESSONS LEARNED 213
beside the point. After nearly sixty years running the world’s military
and intelligence affairs, Borda needed no tone of intimidation. He
spoke with the timbre of a man who had been the final arbiter for so
long that he had forgotten any other reality.
Magan watched Len Borda move to the railing and run his hand
over the intricately carved wood. He seemed to be scanning the murky
horizon for a sign of the enemy, which would be the French, if memory
served. Why Borda devoted so much attention to this virtual
playground, Magan could not fathom. He admitted that the SeeNaRee
programmers had a terrific eye for detail and historical accuracy. But
Borda was spending more time here than in the world of flesh and
blood lately, and that was not a good sign.
“Today is December twenty-seventh,” said the lieutenant after a
long and uneasy silence.
Borda shrugged. “What of it?”
“The new year comes in four days. After what happened this
morning, do you really think you can gain control of MultiReal in four
days?”
One stony eyebrow lifted itself on Borda’s forehead and then
subsided, like a breaker on the SeeNaRee ocean. “Four days is a
lifetime,” he said. “I was willing to deal with Natch behind closed
doors. He’s the one who decided to bring this fight into the public
eye.” Borda scowled. “So be it. Let’s see how he handles a full
onslaught.”
Magan clenched his fists into a tight ball behind his back, then
slowly forced himself to stop, take a breath, unwind. Could Len Borda
really be so foolish as to try the same thing again? Had his mind
become so entrenched that he could do nothing but continuously loop
through the same routine? “And what if this onslaught of yours fails?”
Borda was not nearly so successful at hiding his emotions, and
didn’t bother with PokerFace programs either. The gritted teeth and
trembling jaw told Magan everything he needed to know.
214 MULTIREAL
The high executive was planning to break their agreement.
“Forget about the fiefcorp master for a moment,” said Borda. “I
need your help with something else.” The high executive waved his
hand and summoned a block of text to float against the gauzy gray sky.
Magan pushed the anger aside and read the letter with a growing
crease on his brow.
Congress of L-PRACGs
Office of the Speaker
Melbourne
In accordance with my duties as speaker, I am writing to inform the Defense
and Wellness Council that the Congress has officially opened an inquiry into
the causes of the computational anomalies known as “infoquakes.”
Four such disruptions have occurred in the past month, leaving thousands
dead and wounded. According to the sworn testimony of Congressional
engineers, the severity of these disruptions is growing. It is my belief that
the Council’s measures to limit bandwidth on the Data Sea are no longer
sufficient to contain this threat.
The Congress hereby charges all employees of the Defense and Wellness
Council to answer any forthcoming subpoenas promptly and with the
utmost discretion.
May you always move towards perfection,
Khann Frejohr, Speaker
“You assured me that Frejohr wouldn’t be a problem,” growled Borda.
“You told me this libertarian uprising of his would die on the vine.”
Magan Kai Lee banished the text with a hard blink of the eyes and
stared glumly at the sea, which was barely visible through the
thickening veil of fog. “So I thought, a month ago,” he said.
“So you thought,” replied Borda caustically. He bent to pick up a
small chunk of wood, a splinter that must have been torn from the rail
by French cannons. “Frejohr’s only been in office for two weeks, and
LESSONS LEARNED 215
already he’s got the Congress of L-PRACGs holding hearings.”
“They’re meaningless,” said Magan. “The Congress has no
authority over us.”
“No, but the Prime Committee does. And these infoquakes give
Frejohr the impetus to put ideas in their heads.” Borda angrily threw
the painted wood chip off into the mist, where the sea swallowed it
without a sound.
“Papizon will find out what’s causing the infoquakes,” announced
Magan. “It’s only a matter of time.”
“How much time?”
“I don’t know.”
The high executive snorted his contempt. “Papizon is usually not
so vague.”
Borda’s pessimism was starting to grow tiresome. Magan thought
the time had come for a quick knife thrust. “Papizon usually doesn’t
get distracted by your useless side projects.”
Borda paced calmly across the deck of the ship. Magan noticed that
the Ionic column of the high executive’s body was immune to the rules
of physics governing the rest of the SeeNaRee; instead of Borda
swaying with the tide, the sea itself appeared to be rotating around the
fulcrum of Borda.
“If you have something to say,” rasped the high executive, “then
say it.”
Magan widened his stance, flaunting his lack of intimidation at
Borda’s presence. “You’re going about this MultiReal situation all
wrong,” he said.
“Oh?”
“Natch thrives on anger. Every blow you strike against him only
makes him stronger. So send another strike force to Shenandoah, start
your onslaught. Not only will you fail to get control of MultiReal,
you’ll have the Congress in full-scale rebellion. You’ll have people on
the streets shouting their support for Natch and Margaret Surina.”
216 MULTIREAL
Borda’s face remained impassive, but the sea began tossing steep
breakers against the ship, as if trying to send Magan plummeting
overboard. The fog thickened, further obscuring Magan’s mental
compass. But the lieutenant executive had done plenty of time on
Council naval vessels and knew how to react to the choleric moods of
the sea. He kept his feet.
“You forget I’ve been through this before,” said Borda in a voice
like molten rock. “I know how to deal with entrepreneurs. And with
Surinas.” His words were punctuated by the crackle of cannon fire from
the enemy juggernaut still hidden somewhere off in the chop.
Magan recalled the iconic video footage that had swept across the
Data Sea almost fifty years ago, footage that could still be found just
about anywhere you looked. The smoking hulk of a shuttle half-buried
in the sands of Furtoid. A charred and mangled hand arching out of the
wreckage.
But then there was the other footage, the secret footage squirreled
away in the depths of the Defense and Wellness Council archives.
Marcus Surina, having miraculously survived the blast, blackened,
gasping, eking out the last fifteen minutes of his life on a Council
stretcher with Council dartguns aimed at his head and Council
hoverbirds whirring in the background. Denied access to the soothing
balms of the Dr. Plugenpatch databases lest someone discover he had
not perished instantly in the wreckage. Cursing Len Borda to the very
end.
“He should have compromised,” muttered the high executive,
gripping tightly onto the railing. Whether he was speaking to Magan
or to himself was unclear. “He didn’t have to come to such an end. But
these Surinas, they’re all the same. Too full of pride, too nearsighted to
see what’s right in front of their noses. I tell you, it must be something
in the curry.” He leaned on the railing and peered out to the sea, but
his attention was not on anything visible there. The British sloop
began to pick up speed, causing the few remaining hairs on Borda’s
LESSONS LEARNED 217
head to flap in the wind.
Magan stood his ground, icy silent, and made no reply.
“It was a choice I had to make!” yelled Len Borda suddenly,
snapping his fingers and wheeling on his lieutenant executive. “What
should I have done? Let Surina hand out teleportation to every man,
woman, and child? Assassins zapping onto the floor of the Prime
Committee! People teleporting into walls! Millions dead! Would you
have that blood on your hands?” The high executive aimed one finger
straight at Magan’s chest. His voice was a thunderbolt, a primal and
electric force of nature. “Consequences? Yes! There were consequences,
Magan. Strong actions always have them. A new TeleCo board willing
to listen to reason. A board smart enough to apply the appropriate
safeguards. It was a necessary change. And if such a change required
a—a market adjustment . . . then . . .”
Len Borda slipped into a troubled silence, which Magan Kai Lee
made no effort to fill. The high executive was not blind. He had seen
the millions wandering the streets for years with nothing but
worthless TeleCo stock to their name. He had seen teleportation
technology crawl back into the marketplace a stunted and crippled
thing, too expensive for the masses to afford, too unreliable for the
moneyed to trust.
And now Len Borda stood on the prow of his SeeNaRee ship, not
just the most powerful man in the world, not just the master of the
Council’s invincible armies—but an old man with a fractured mind, a
man who had sacrificed some crucial chunk of his mortality fifty years
ago in a shuttle explosion on Furtoid.
Short-term plans, long-term problems.
Magan Kai Lee pressed his advantage. “You made a mistake,” he
said. “I can’t allow you to make the same mistake again.”
The high executive’s voice was a croak. “And what say do you have
in the matter?”
Magan steeled his spine and summoned all the repressed rage
218 MULTIREAL
buried in his soul. “You gave me your word, Borda, and I intend to see
that you keep it. You will announce your retirement from the Defense
and Wellness Council in four days, and turn this crisis over to me. As
we agreed two years ago.” When I stood here in this office with a loaded gun
pressed to the back of your neck. When I swore to you that I would not be stung
by an assassin’s dart like the other lieutenant executives before me. When you
convinced me that it would be better to take your seat as a chosen successor and
not a mutineer.
“You don’t have the experience to handle this,” scoffed Borda
quietly. “Marcus Surina—”
“Marcus Surina was a buffoon. He hid behind his family name and
his reputation with the drudges. But this man, this Natch—he has no
family to lose. He has no reputation to uphold. This man will outthink
and outplot your armies until the end, Borda. No, there is only one
person capable of defeating Natch.”
“And who is that?”
“Himself.”
Len Borda slumped perceptibly and turned back to the sea, looking
old and careworn—but not before Magan caught the briefest shimmer
in the high executive’s eye.
Magan felt a sudden nibble of doubt at his ankles. All his
experience with Borda had taught him that the high executive was a
creature of passion rather than forethought, a short-term planner. But
why then did he occasionally see that knowing glimmer in Borda’s
eye? Was it just the nostalgia of the grizzled veteran watching the
young protégé come into his own? Or could it be that Borda’s ardor
was merely artifice? Was that how Borda had bested all his would-be
supplanters over the years?
The high executive stood for a long time without speaking. His
ship had returned to calm seas, but the fog around them had only
thickened. There was no sound but the soft, rhythmic lapping of oars
on seawater, the distant cry of a gull.
LESSONS LEARNED 219
Finally, Borda spoke. “I would like to offer you a compromise.”
Magan said nothing.
“New Year’s Day is just a convenient symbol,” continued Borda,
his voice disarmingly matter-of-fact. “We chose that day to protect the
markets, didn’t we? To cushion the financial impact of the
announcement. But the real financial impact won’t come until the new
year’s budget goes into effect on the fifteenth of January.” The high
executive stood up straight, brushed something off his collar. “So I’ll
give you two and a half weeks. Prove to me you can handle this crisis,
Magan. Bring MultiReal under the Council’s control by the fifteenth,
and I will abide by our agreement.”
Magan could feel his mind whirling like a difference engine,
calculating odds, extrapolating possibilities. “And how do I know I
can trust your word this time?” How do I know I won’t end up at the bottom
of a river, like the last lieutenant executive who tried to bargain with you for
succession?
“What choice do you have?” said Borda.
“Don’t delude yourself,” said Magan, his voice keen and deadly as
a razor. “This decision isn’t yours to make, not anymore. You don’t
think I’m the only one eager to plant a black code dart in your skull,
do you? The only reason you sit in the high executive’s chair to this day
is because I allow it.”
For the first time in the conversation, Len Borda smiled. It was a
horrid expression, the hungry grin of a carnivore. “Spare me the pity
of Magan Kai Lee,” mocked the high executive. “I don’t need it.”
And then, without warning, the SeeNaRee dissolved away. Magan
found himself standing no longer on an ancient British sloop-of-war,
but in a modern office arranged with the strictest military discipline.
Two tables, a smattering of chairs, windows with a view of the globe
below. Standing in a semicircle around him were four Defense and
Wellness Council officers who had been hidden in the virtual mist.
Their dartguns were drawn, and aimed at Magan. As the lieutenant
220 MULTIREAL
executive regarded them with a cool eye, he felt the barrel of another
dartgun press into the back of his neck.
“I give you until the fifteenth of January to take possession of
MultiReal,” said Len Borda, his voice larded with triumph. “If you do,
we have an agreement. If you don’t . . .” The officer behind Magan
pressed the dartgun barrel deeper into his flesh.
Magan kept his face neutral, determined to show no trace of
emotion or hesitation. “You’re not giving me anything, Borda. The
Council will have control of MultiReal by the fifteenth, and you will
relinquish the high executive’s chair—one way or the other.”
He turned without being asked, and the officer with the dartgun
at his neck turned with him. Magan strode calmly to the elevator. Four
of the officers sheathed their weapons as he passed, but the one at his
back never let the nozzle of the dartgun stray from Magan’s skin, even
as he accompanied the lieutenant executive onto the lift.
When the doors closed and the elevator began its ascent to the
main level, Magan fired off a secure ConfidentialWhisper to the man
at his back. “Keep that dartgun right where it is until I’m off the
elevator,” he commanded. “Then send someone to find Papizon and
Rey Gonerev. Tell them I need to see them.”
Ridgello nodded. “As you wish, Lieutenant Executive.”
(((5)))
On the way back to the hoverbird docks, Magan took a detour to see
the statue of Tul Jabbor. The atrium where the statue resided was the
one place in DWCR whose location never changed. The statue itself
was a small-scale replica of the one standing in the center of the
eponymously named Tul Jabbor Complex in Melbourne. A thick man
with mahogany skin atop a tall pillar. No matter where you stood,
some holographic trick caused Jabbor’s gaze to always meet you
head-on—and left you constantly standing in his shadow. As unsubtle
an architectural metaphor as Magan had ever seen.
The founding father of the Defense and Wellness Council needed
no caption, but bold block letters at his feet did pose a question.
DO YOU ACT IN JUSTICE?
The locution had always seemed peculiar to Magan. Acting in
justice, not for or with justice. As if justice were merely a vehicle you
might ride to a particular destination, and the terrain you trammeled
to get there was nothing more than dirt under your wheels.
Certainly Tul Jabbor had treated justice that way. He had
dramatically expanded the Council’s power by going after erstwhile
supporters like the OCHRE Corporation; some even suspected he had
signed Henry Osterman’s death warrant. Then again, Jabbor had come
to power in a world without precedents, a world simultaneously drunk
with the possibilities of bio/logics and desperate to avoid repeating the
horrors of the Autonomous Revolt.
But Len Borda? Borda had two hundred years of Council history to
guide him, with every manner of high executive from Par Padron the
Just to Zetarysis the Mad as object lessons. He should have known
222 MULTIREAL
better. Instead, Borda was ever willing to sacrifice principle for
pragmatism, ever ready to steer justice down the muddy, unpaved
path.
And you? the lieutenant executive asked himself, kneeling in
silence before the statue of Tul Jabbor. Are you forcing Borda to step down
because he’s made a mockery of Par Padron’s ideals? Or are you just afraid to
wake up at the bottom of a river?
Magan Kai Lee was a man of reason and principle, or so he told
himself. He had been drawn to the Defense and Wellness Council by
its discipline, its rigidity, and its stability when compared to the life
of the diss—or so he told himself. Now, after watching Len Borda use
the Council as a blunt instrument of self-preservation for years, Magan
was contemplating the ultimate move against the very discipline,
rigidity, and stability that had brought him here in the first place. And
that contradiction sat in his mind like a poisonous flower with
ever-expanding roots.
But Magan couldn’t allow Len Borda to repeat the mistakes he had
made with Marcus Surina, could he? Wasn’t there a higher principle at
work here that needed defending?
Do you act in justice?
Papizon and Rey Gonerev caught up to him in the hallway, no simple
feat in an orbital fortress whose constantly shifting corridors rendered
geography meaningless.
“We spotted Natch an hour ago,” said Papizon as he moved into
step behind Magan like a hoverbird merging into traffic. “He’s on a
tube train, headed north out of Cisco.”
The lieutenant executive ground his teeth together. “And you
didn’t think to look there before we raided his apartment?”
Papizon shook his head. He was immune to criticism. In fact, he
LESSONS LEARNED 223
seemed to have been inoculated against most forms of human
expression altogether. Sometimes Magan wondered if Papizon was
really some sublevel engineer’s attempt to circumvent the harsh AI
bans in place since the Autonomous Revolt. If so, one couldn’t have
picked a more peculiar vessel: lanky, storkish, brown eyes not quite
symmetrical and permanently half-lidded.
Rey stepped up to Papizon’s defense. “We did check there, Magan,”
she said. “We swept half the tube trains in the Americas yesterday.
Natch was definitely not on that tube line.”
Magan gave the Blade an appraising look. She had pointedly not
fallen half a step behind him like Papizon, but walked at his side like
an equal. A message meant not so much for him as for the other
Council officers in the hallway. The ones she would be jousting with
someday when it was Magan’s turn to step down from the high
executive’s seat.
Papizon: “So are we going to try to pick him up again?”
“No,” said Magan, shaking his head. “Just keep an eye on him for
now—and make sure he knows we’re doing it. Make his life unpleasant.”
“Unpleasant,” his subordinate echoed with a nod, then slipped
down a side corridor and disappeared. Making Someone’s Life
Unpleasant had been honed to a science at the Defense and Wellness
Council, and Papizon was a true authority on the subject.
Unpleasantness meant snooping programs that left clear traces of their
presence. It meant ghostly figures that followed you on the periphery
of your vision. It meant a few unexplained transactions in your Vault
account, too small to be of consequence yet too large to go unnoticed.
“And me?” said the Blade.
“You,” replied Magan, “will be planning the main attack on this
fiefcorp master. I don’t care how much you spend—you have the coffers
of the Defense and Wellness Council at your disposal. We need
unprecedented coordination. Propaganda, logistics, regulatory,
personnel, finance. This man has weaknesses, Rey. I want to know what
224 MULTIREAL
they are, and I want your plan for exploiting them.”
Gonerev nodded sagely with the look of someone taking notes in
her mental log. “What about Margaret Surina?”
“Let her rot in her tower for now.”
“And our time frame?”
“Two and a half weeks. MultiReal must be in our hands when the
new year’s budget goes into effect.”
The Blade didn’t blanch at the urgent timetable; if anything, she
seemed to relish the challenge. Magan thought briefly about the day
when he would find himself with Rey Gonerev’s dartgun pressed into
the back of his neck. That day would surely come, but it was still
decades in the future. Would he go quietly? Or would he cling to
power far beyond his time, resisting oblivion with every last breath in
his body, like Len Borda? And if he resisted, how far would she be
prepared to go to take him down?
Stalking the Unicorn
A Fable of Tonight
A John Justin Mallory Mystery
Mike Resnick
“Mike Resnick is a journeyman in a world of apprentices, one
who knows his craft. His name on a book guarantees a solid
story and believable characters, constructed with imagination
and grace. Most importantly of all, it guarantees
entertainmet.”
—Raymond Feist, of the Magician trilogy
I
t’s 8:35 pm on New Year’s Eve, and Private Detective John Justin Mallory is
hiding out in his Manhattan office to avoid his landlord’s persistent inquiries
about the unpaid rent. As he cheerlessly reflects on the passing of a lousy year, which
saw his business partner run off with his wife, he assumes the bourbon is responsible
for the appearance of a belligerent elf. This elf informs him that he needs the
detective’s help in searching for a unicorn that was stolen from his charge.
When Mallory realizes the little green fellow is not going to disappear with the
passing of his inebriation, he listens to the elf’s impassioned plea that the stolen
magical beast must be returned to his care by daylight or his little green life will be
forfeited by the elves’ guild.
Join detective Mallory on a New Year’s night of wild adventure in a fantasy
Manhattan of leprechauns, gnomes, and Harpies as he matches wits with the
all-powerful demon “The Grundy” in a race to find the missing unicorn before time
runs out!
About the author: Mike Resnick has won an impressive five Hugos and been
nominated for twenty-five more. He has sold fifty-two novels and almost two
hundred short stories. He has edited forty anthologies. His work ranges from satirical
fair, such as his Lucifer Jones adventures, to weighty examinations of morality and
culture, as evidenced by his brilliant tales of Kirinyaga. The series, with sixty-six
major and minor awards and nominations to date, is the most honored series of
stories in the history of science fiction.
Visit Mike Resnick online at
www.mikeresnick.com.
Cover Illustration: ©Dan Dos Santos
ISBN: 978–1–59102–648–8
Trade Paperback • August 2008
8:35
PM–8:53 PM
Chapter 1
Mallory walked over to the window and stared out through the dirt.
Six floors below him people were busily scurrying about the street, parcels
and briefcases in hand, as an endless row of yellow cabs inched past them.
Christmas decorations were still attached to most of the lampposts, and
a couple of Santa Clauses, evidently unaware that it was New Year’s Eve—or
possibly simply displaying a little individual enterprise—were ringing their
bells, laughing their laughs, and asking for money.
He leaned against the window and looked directly down at the sidewalk in
front of his building. The two burly men who had been stationed there all day
were gone. He grinned; even enforcers got hungry. He made a mental note to
look again in half an hour to see if they had returned to continue their vigil.
The phone rang. He looked at it, mildly surprised that it hadn’t been
disconnected yet, and briefly wondered who could be calling him at this time
of night. Finally the ringing stopped, and he walked over to his chair and sat
down heavily.
It had been a long day. It had been an even longer week. And it had been
an absolutely endless month.
There was a knock at the door and he sat up, startled, then let out a yelp
of pain.
The door squeaked open and an ancient, white-fringed head peered in at him.
“You okay, Mr. Mallory?”
“I think I pulled something,” muttered Mallory, rubbing his back
gingerly with his right hand.
“I can call a doctor,” offered the old man.
Mallory shook his head. “We’ve got all the medicine we need right here.”
“We do?”
“If you’ll open the closet door, you’ll find a bottle on the top shelf,” said
Mallory. “Pull it down and bring it over.”
“Well, now, that’s mighty generous of you, Mr. Mallory,” said the old
man, walking across the worn linoleum to the closet.
“I suppose it is, at that,” acknowledged Mallory. He stopped rubbing his
back. “So, what can I do for you, Ezekiel?”
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Stalking the Unicorn
“I saw that your light was on,” replied the old man, indicating the single
overhead light above Mallory’s bare wooden desk, “and I thought I’d stop by
and wish you a Happy New Year.”
“Thanks,” replied Mallory. He smiled ruefully. “I don’t imagine it can be
much worse than the last one.”
“Hey, this is expensive stuff!” said the old man, pushing aside a couple
of battered bats and pulling out the bottle. He stared at it. “There’s a ribbon
around it. Did one of your clients give it to you, for Christmas?”
“Not exactly. It’s from my partner.” He paused. “My ex-partner. Sort of
a surprise going-away present. It’s been sitting there for almost four weeks.”
“It must have cost him, oh, twenty bucks,” ventured Ezekiel.
“At least. That’s first-class sour-mash bourbon from Kentucky. It was
probably fertilized by Secretariat or Seattle Slew in its natural state.”
“By the way, I’m sorry about your missus,” said Ezekiel. He opened the
bottle, took a swig, murmured a contented “Ah!” and carried it over to Mallory.
“No need to be,” said Mallory. “She’s doing just fine.”
“You know where she is, then?” asked Ezekiel, seating himself on the
edge of the desk.
“Of course I know where she is,” said Mallory irritably. “I’m a detective,
remember?” He grabbed the bottle from the old man and filled a dirty New
York Mets mug that had a broken handle he had glued back on. “Don’t take
my word for it. Check out my office door.”
Ezekiel snapped his fingers. “Son of a bitch! That’s what I was going to
talk to you about.”
“What?” asked Mallory.
“Your office door.”
“It squeaks a lot. Needs some oil.”
“It needs more than oil,” replied Ezekiel. “You crossed out Mr. Fallico’s
name with red nail polish.”
Mallory shrugged. “I couldn’t find any other color.”
“The management wants you to hire a painter to do it properly.”
“What makes you think a painter can cross out Fallico’s name any better
than I can?”
“It don’t make any difference to me, Mr. Mallory,” said Ezekiel. “But I
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231
figured I ought to give you a friendly warning before they start making
threats again.”
“Again?” repeated Mallory, lighting a cigarette and tossing the match
onto the floor, where it created a tiny burn mark to go with several hundred
similar charred brown spots. “They’ve never made any threats about my door
before.”
“You know what I mean,” answered Ezekiel. “They’re always after you
about your rent, and throwing paper cups out the window, and the kinds of
clients that walk through the lobby.”
“I don’t choose my clients. They choose me.”
“We’re getting off the subject,” said Ezekiel. “You’ve always been nice to
me, always willing to pass the time of day and share a drink or two, and
you’re the only one who doesn’t call me Zeke even though I ask everyone not
to . . . and I’d hate to see them throw you out over something as trivial as the
sign on your door.”
“Wait until they open the mail next Monday and my check’s not there,”
said Mallory with a grim smile. “I guarantee you they’ll forget all about the
door.”
“I know a guy who could paint it over for twenty bucks,” persisted
Ezekiel. “Twenty-five if you want gold lettering.”
“It’s part of the building,” said Mallory, staring thoughtfully at the
glowing tip of his cigarette. “The management should pay for it.”
Ezekiel chuckled. “This management? You’ve got to be kidding, Mr
Mallory.”
“Why not? What the hell am I paying my rent for?”
“You’re not paying your rent,” noted the old man.
“Well, if I were, what would I be paying it for?”
Ezekiel shrugged. “Beats me.”
“Beats me, too,” agreed Mallory. “I guess I won’t pay it.” He turned to
the door. “Besides, I kind of like the way it looks.”
“With Mr. Fallico’s name all crossed out like that?” asked Ezekiel,
scrutinizing the door.
“The son of a bitch ran off to California with my wife, didn’t he?”
“I know it’s none of my business, Mr. Mallory, but you’ve been bitching
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about both of them for the better part of five years. You ought to be glad to
be rid of them.”
“It’s the principle of the thing!” snapped Mallory “Nick Fallico’s off in
Hollywood collecting two thousand dollars a week as a consultant for some
television detective show, and I’m stuck back here with all his deadbeat
clients and a month’s worth of laundry!”
“You haven’t done any wash since she left?”
“I don’t know how to work the machine,” said Mallory with an
uncomfortable shrug. “Besides, they repossessed it last week.” He looked at
the old man. “I didn’t get this deep into debt on my own, you know,” he
added sharply. “I had a lot of help.” He glared at his cigarette. “And to top
it off, the two-timing bastard took my slippers.”
“Your slippers, Mr. Mallory?”
Mallory nodded. “Doreen for the bourbon was a fair trade, but I’m going
to miss those slippers. I’d had them for fourteen years.” He paused. “That’s a
hell of a lot longer than I had Doreen.”
“You can get another pair.”
“I’d just gotten these to where they didn’t pinch.”
Ezekiel frowned. “Let me get this straight. You wore slippers that
pinched for fourteen years?”
“Twelve,” Mallory corrected him. “They felt just fine the last couple of years.”
“Why?”
“Because Doreen never took a broom to a floor in all the time I lived with
her.”
“I mean, why didn’t you go out and get a pair that fit right?”
Mallory stared at the old man for a long moment, then exhaled heavily
and grimaced. “You know, I hate it when you ask questions like that.”
Ezekiel laughed. “Well, anyway, I just thought I’d let you know they’re
going to start complaining about the door.”
“Why don’t you paint it? After all, you’re the janitor.”
“I’m the sanitary engineer,” the old man corrected him.
“What’s the difference?”
“Thirty cents an hour, more or less. And I don’t paint doors. Hell, I’m
getting so old and stiff I can barely push a mop down the hall.”
Mike Resnick
233
“Ten dollars,” said Mallory.
“Twenty.”
“For twenty I can get your friend.“
“True,” admitted Ezekiel. “But he can’t spell.”
“Then why did you recommend him in the first place?”
“He’s neat, and he needs the work.”
Mallory smiled ironically. “Yeah, my keen detective’s mind tells me that
a sign painter who can’t spell needs all the work he can get.”
“Fifteen,” said Ezekiel.
“Twelve, and you can see all the dirty photos I take the next time I’m on
a divorce case.”
“Deal!” said Ezekiel. “Let’s seal it with a drink.”
“You’ll have to wait until next week for the money,” added Mallory,
passing the bottle to him.
“Come on, Mr. Mallory,” said the old man, taking a swig. “How hard can
twelve bucks be to come by?”
“That all depends on whether this damned rain stops in time for
Aqueduct to dry out by tomorrow afternoon.” He snorted in disgust. “Who
ever heard of rain on New Year’s Eve?”
“You’re not betting on Flyaway again?”
“If the track is fast.”
“Doesn’t it bother you that he’s lost eighteen races in a row?”
“Not a bit. I’d say that, statistically, he’s due to win one.”
“Pay me before he runs and I’ll do it for ten dollars,” said Ezekiel.
Mallory grinned, reached into his pocket, and pulled out a number of
crumpled bills. He tossed two of them across the desk to the old man.
“You’re a sharp bargainer, Mr. Mallory,” said Ezekiel, pocketing the money.
“I’ll paint it the day after tomorrow.” He paused. “What do you want it to say?”
“John Justin Mallory,” replied Mallory, arranging the words in the air
with his hand. “The World’s Greatest Detective. Discretion Assured. No Job
Too Small, No Fee Too High. Special Discount to Leather-Clad Ladies with
Whips.” He shrugged. “You know—that kind of thing.”
“Seriously, Mr. Mallory.”
“Just my name.”
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Stalking the Unicorn
“You don’t want me to put ‘Private Detective’ below.”
Mallory shook his head. “Let’s not discourage any passersby. If someone
comes in here with enough money, I’ll play point guard for the Knicks.”
Ezekiel chuckled and took another sip from the bottle.
“This sure is good drinkin’ stuff, Mr. Mallory. I’ll bet it was aged in oak
casks, just like the ads say.”
“I agree. If it was a cigar, it would have been rolled on the thighs of
beautiful Cuban women.”
“A man ought to drink something this good to ring in the New Year.”
“Or get rid of the old one,” said Mallory.
“By the way, what are you doing up here at this time of night on New
Year’s Eve?”
Mallory grimaced. “I had a little disagreement with my landlady.”
“She threw you out?”
“Not in so many words,” replied Mallory. “But when I saw my furniture
piled up in the hallway, I applied my razor-sharp deductive powers and
decided to spend the night at the office.”
“Too bad. You ought to be out celebrating.”
“I’ll celebrate like hell at midnight. This damned year can’t end fast
enough to suit me.” He looked at the old man. “What about you, Ezekiel?”
Ezekiel looked at his wristwatch. “It’s about eight forty. I’m locking up
at nine, and then I’m taking the wife out to Times Square. Check your TV in
a couple of hours; you might be able to spot us.”
“I’ll do that,” said Mallory, not bothering to mention the obvious fact
that he didn’t have a television set in the office.
“Maybe you’ll get an assignment yet tonight,” said the old man
sympathetically. “A couple of guys were looking for you earlier, at about four
o’clock. They said they might be back.”
“Big guys?” asked Mallory. “Look like they’ve been munching on steroid
pills?”
“That’s the ones.”
“They’re not looking to hire a detective,” answered Mallory. “As a matter
of fact, they’re out to dismember one.”
“What did you do to them?” asked Ezekiel.
Mike Resnick
235
“Not a damned thing.”
“Then why are they after you?”
“They’re not,” said Mallory. “They just don’t know it yet.”
“I don’t think I follow you.”
Mallory sighed. “Nick needed a grubstake to go out West—Doreen is
many things, good and bad, but inexpensive isn’t one of them—so he
blackmailed some of our clients.”
“And left you to take the heat?”
Mallory nodded. “It appears one of them took exception to Nick’s notion
of fund-raising.”
“You’d better tell them that it wasn’t your fault.”
“I intend to. I just haven’t found the right opportunity yet. Something
about their faces implies that they’re just not in a very conversational mood.
I suppose they’ll calm down in a couple of days, and we’ll work things out.”
“How?” asked Ezekiel.
“Well, if all else fails, I’ll give them Nick’s address in California.”
“That doesn’t sound like you, Mr. Mallory.”
“I got into this business to catch blackmailers, not hide them,” replied
Mallory.
“I always wondered about that,” said Ezekiel.
“About what?”
“Why someone becomes a detective. It’s not as exciting as the TV makes
it out to be.”
“You ought to see it from this side.”
“Then why did you become one?”
Mallory shrugged. “I don’t know. I saw too many Bogart movies, I
guess.” He took the bottle back, filled the New York Mets mug again,
took a swallow, and made a face. “It sure as hell isn’t the way I imagined
it, I’ll tell you that. Most of the time I feel like a photographer for
Hustler—and whenever I do luck out and bust a thief or a pusher, he’s
back on the street before I’m back in the office.” He paused. “The worst
part of it is Velma.”
“I don’t know any Velma,” said Ezekiel.
“Neither do I,” replied Mallory. “But I always wanted a big, soft
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secretary named Velma. Nothing special: outfitted by Frederick’s of
Hollywood, slavishly devoted, and maybe a little bit oversexed. Just your
typical detective’s secretary.” He stared at the bottle. “So what I got was
Gracie.”
“She’s a nice lady.”
“I suppose so. But she weighs two hundred pounds, she hasn’t gotten one
message right in close to two years, all she can talk about is her kid’s allergies,
and I share her with a one-eyed dentist and a tailor who wears gold chains.”
He paused thoughtfully. “I think maybe I’ll move to Denver.”
“Why Denver?”
“Why not?”
Ezekiel chuckled. “You’re always talking about getting out of the
business and moving away, but you never do.”
“Maybe this time I will,” said Mallory. “There’s got to be someplace
better than Manhattan.” He paused. “I hear that Phoenix is pretty nice.”
“I’ve been there. You can fry an egg on the street at midnight.”
“Then one of the Carolinas.”
Ezekiel checked his watch. “I’ve got to go now, Mr. Mallory,” he said,
getting up and walking to the door. “You have a nice evening.”
“You, too,” said Mallory.
The old man went out into the corridor and closed the door behind him.
Mallory walked over to his window and peered out through the dirt for a
couple of minutes. Finally he pulled some peeling gray paint off one of the walls,
wondered how such an empty room could seem so small, and sat back down at his
desk. He uncapped the whiskey bottle again and had a drink in loving memory of
the Velma who never was. He had four more in honor of four unnatural sexual acts
he had never had the courage to suggest to Doreen (and which he was absolutely
sure she was gleefully performing with Fallico at that very moment), another one
for the last race Flyaway had won (assuming that he actually had won a race in the
dim and distant past; it was always possible that he had only gone to the post
eighteen times), and one more for the year that was finally crawling to a close.
He was about to have a drink to mourn the loss of his slippers when he
noticed the little green elf standing in front of his desk.
“You’re pretty good,” he said admiringly. “But where are the pink
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elephants?”
“John Justin Mallory?”
“You guys have never talked before,” complained Mallory. “Usually you
just sit around singing ‘Santa Lucia.’” He squinted and looked around the
office. “Where are the rest of you?”
“Drunk,” said the elf disgustedly. “This won’t do at all, John Justin. Not
at all.”
“The rest of you are drunk?”
“No. You are.”
“Of course I am. That’s why I’m seeing little green men.”
“I’m not a man. I’m an elf.”
“Whatever,” said Mallory, shrugging. “At least you’re little and green.”
He looked around the room again. “Where are the elephants?”
“What elephants?” asked the elf.
“My elephants,“ answered Mallory, as if explaining the obvious to a very
slow child. “Who are you, and what are you doing here?”
“Mürgenstürm,” said the elf.
“Mürgenstürm?” repeated Mallory, frowning. “I think he’s on the next
floor.”
“No. I am Mürgenstürm.”
“Have a seat, Mürgenstürm. And you might as well have a drink before
you vanish.” He checked the amount of whiskey remaining. “A short one.”
“I’m not here to drink,” said Mürgenstürm.
“Thank heaven for small favors,” murmured Mallory, raising the bottle
to his lips and draining its contents. “Okay,” he said, tossing it into a
wastebasket. “I’m all through. Now, sing your song or dance your dance or
do whatever you’re going to do, and then make way for the elephants.”
Mürgenstürm made a face. “We’re going to have to get you sobered up,
and quickly.”
“If you do, you’ll disappear,” said Mallory, staring at him owlishly.
“Why did it have to be New Year’s Eve?” muttered the elf.
“Probably because yesterday was December thirtieth,” replied Mallory
reasonably.
“And why a drunk?”
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“Now, hold your horses!” said Mallory irritably. “I may be drunk, but I’m
not a drunk.”
“It makes no difference. I need you now, and you’re in no condition to work.”
Mallory frowned. “I thought I needed you,” he said, puzzled.
“Maybe a professor of zoology . . .” muttered Mürgenstürm to himself.
“That sounds like the beginning of a limerick.”
The elf uttered a sigh of resignation. “There’s no time. It’s you or no one.”
“And that sounds like a bad love song.”
Mürgenstürm walked around the desk to where Mallory was sitting and
pinched him on the leg.
“Ouch! What the hell did you do that for?”
“To prove to you that I’m really here, John Justin. I need you.”
Mallory glared at him and rubbed his leg. “Whoever heard of an uppity
hallucination?”
“I have a job for you, John Justin Mallory,” said the elf.
“Get someone else. I’m mourning my lost youth and other elements of
my past, both real and imagined.”
“This is not a dream, this is not a joke, and this is not a delirium
tremens,” said the elf urgently. “I absolutely must have the help of a trained
detective.”
Mallory reached into a drawer, pulled out a dog-eared copy of the Yellow
Pages, and tossed it onto the desk. “There’s seven or eight hundred of them
in town,” he said. “Let your fingers do the walking.”
“All the others are already working or are out celebrating,” said
Mürgenstürm.
“You mean I’m the only goddamned detective in New York City who’s
in his office?” demanded Mallory unbelievingly.
“It’s New Year’s Eve.”
Mallory stared at the elf for a long moment. “I take it I’m not exactly
your first choice?”
“I began with the As,” admitted Mürgenstürm.
“And worked your way all the way down to Mallory and Fallico? You
must have been looking since October.“
“I’m very fast when I have to be.”
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“Then why don’t you hustle your little green ass out of here very fast?”
said Mallory. “You’re making me think.”
“John Justin, please believe me when I tell you I wouldn’t be here if it
wasn’t a matter of life and death.”
“Whose?”
“Mine,” answered the elf unhappily.
“Yours?”
The elf nodded.
“Someone’s out to kill you?”
“It’s not that simple.”
“Somehow it never is,” said Mallory dryly. “Damn! I’m starting to sober
up, and that was my last bottle!”
“Will you help me?” asked the elf.
“Don’t be silly. You’re going to vanish in another half minute.”
“I am not going to vanish!” said the elf in desperation. “I am going to die!”
“Right here?” asked Mallory, sliding his chair a few feet back from the
desk to make room for a falling body.
“At sunrise, unless you help me.”
Mallory stared at Mürgenstürm for a long moment. “How?”
“Something that was entrusted to me is missing, and unless I recover it
before morning my life will be forfeit.”
“What is it?”
Mürgenstürm returned his stare. “I don’t think you’re ready for this yet,
John Justin.”
“How the hell can I find something if I don’t even know what I’m
looking for?” demanded Mallory.
“True,” admitted the elf.
“Well?”
Mürgenstürm looked at Mallory, sighed, and then blurted it out. “It’s a
unicorn.”
“I don’t know whether to laugh in your face or throw you out on your
ass,” said Mallory. “Now, go away and let me enjoy what little remains of my
inebriated condition.”
“I’m not kidding, John Justin!”
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“And I’m not buying, Morganthau.”
“Mürgenstürm,” corrected the elf.
“I don’t care if you’re Ronald Reagan. Go away!”
“Name your price,” pleaded Mürgenstürm.
“For finding a unicorn in New York City?” said Mallory sarcastically.
“Ten thousand dollars a day, plus expenses.”
“Done!” cried the elf, plucking a fat wad of bills out of the air and tossing
them onto Mallory’s desk.
“Why do I feel that this stuff isn’t exactly coin of the realm?” said
Mallory as he thumbed through the pile of crisp new hundred-dollar bills.
“I assure you that the serial numbers are on file with your Treasury
Department, and the signatures are valid.”
Mallory cocked a disbelieving eyebrow. “Where did it come from?”
“It came from me,” said Mürgenstürm defensively.
“And where did you come from?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You heard me,” said Mallory. “I’ve seen some pretty weird sights in this
city, but you sure as hell aren’t one of them.”
“I live here.”
“Where?”
“Manhattan.”
“Give me an address.”
“I’ll do better than that. I’ll take you there.”
“No, you won’t,” said Mallory. “I’m going to close my eyes, and when I
open them, you and the money will be gone, and there will be pink elephants
on my desk.”
He shut his eyes for the count of ten, then opened them. Mürgenstürm
and the money were still there.
He frowned. “This is going on longer than usual,” he commented. “I
wonder what the hell was in that bottle?”
“Just whiskey,” answered the elf. “I am not a figment of your
imagination. I am a desperate supplicant who needs your help.”
“To find a unicorn.”
“That’s right.”
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“Just out of curiosity, how the hell did you manage to lose it? I mean, a
unicorn’s a pretty big thing to misplace, isn’t it?”
“It was stolen,” answered Mürgenstürm.
“Then you don’t need a detective at all,” said Mallory.
“I don’t?”
“It takes a virgin to catch a unicorn, right? Well, there can’t be two
dozen virgins left in the whole of Manhattan. Just pay each of them a visit
until you come to the one with the unicorn.”
“I wish it was that easy,” said Mürgenstürm gloomily.
“Why isn’t it?”
“There may be only two dozen virgins in your Manhattan, but there are
thousands in mine—and I’ve got less than ten hours left.”
“Back up a minute,” said Mallory, frowning again.
“What’s this ‘yours and mine’ stuff? Do you live in Manhattan or don’t
you?”
Mürgenstürm nodded. “I told you I did.”
“Then what are you talking about?”
“I live in the Manhattan you see out of the corner of your eye,” explained
the elf. “Every once in a while one of you gets a fleeting glimpse of it, but
when you turn to face it head on, it’s gone.”
Mallory smiled and snapped his fingers, “Just like that?”
“Protective coloration,” replied Mürgenstürm.
“And just where is this Manhattan of yours? Second star to the right and
straight on until morning—or maybe over the rainbow?”
“It’s right here, all around you,” answered the elf. “It’s not a different
Manhattan so much as a part of your own Manhattan that you never see.”
“Can you see it?”
Mürgenstürm nodded. “You just have to know how to look for it.”
“How do you look for it?” asked Mallory, curious in spite of himself.
Mürgenstürm gestured toward the money. “Accept the job, and I’ll show
you.”
“Not a chance,” said Mallory. “But I’m grateful to you, my little green
friend. When I wake up, I’m going to write this whole conversation up and
send it off to one of those sex forum magazines and let them analyze it. I
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think they pay fifty bucks if your letter gets published.”
The elf lowered his head in defeat. “That’s your final word?” he asked.
“Right.”
Mürgenstürm drew himself up to his full, if limited, height. “Then I must
prepare to meet my death. I’m sorry to have troubled you, John Justin Mallory.”
“No trouble at all,” said Mallory.
“You still don’t believe any of this, do you?”
“Not a word.”
The elf sighed and walked to the door. He opened it and walked out into
the hall, then stepped back into the office.
“Are you expecting visitors?” he asked.
“Pink elephants?” asked Mallory.
Mürgenstürm shook his head. “Two very large, mean-looking men with
bulges under their arms. One of them has a scar on his left cheek.”
“Shit!” muttered Mallory, racing unsteadily to the light switch and
plunging the room into darkness. “They were supposed to be waiting
downstairs!” He hurried back to his desk and knelt down behind it.
“Perhaps they got tired of waiting,” suggested the elf.
“But they don’t want me!” complained Mallory. “It’s Nick Fallico they’re
after!”
“They looked pretty determined,” said Mürgenstürm. “I think they want
anyone they can find.”
“Well,” said Mallory, wishing he could have just one more drink, “it
looks like you may not be the only one who doesn’t live to a ripe old age.”
“You’re going to kill them?” asked Mürgenstürm.
“I wasn’t referring to them.”
“Aren’t you going to shoot them?”
“With what?” asked Mallory.
“With your gun, of course.”
“I don’t own a gun.”
“A detective without a gun?” said the elf. “I never heard of such a thing!”
“I never needed one,” said Mallory.
“Never?”
“Until now,” he amended.
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“Do you really think they’ll kill you?” asked Mürgenstürm.
“Only if they get carried away. They’ll probably just break my fingers
and see to it that I don’t walk without crutches for a couple of years.”
Two bulky figures could be seen through the clouded glass of the office
door.
“I have a proposition to make to you, John Justin,” said Mürgenstürm.
“Why am I not surprised?” replied Mallory with a touch of irony.
“If I make them go away without hurting you, will you help me find the
unicorn?”
“If you can make them go away, you don’t need my help,” said Mallory
with conviction.
“Do we have a deal?” persisted the elf.
The doorknob slowly turned.
“What about the ten thousand dollars?” whispered Mallory.
“It’s yours.”
“Deal!” said Mallory just as the door opened and the two men burst into
his office.
8:53
PM–9:58 PM
Chapter 2
Mürgenstürm murmured something in a tongue that was not even remotely
familiar to Mallory, and the two figures suddenly froze in midstride.
“What the hell did you do to them?” demanded the detective, cautiously
getting up from behind his desk.
“I altered their subjectivity vis-à-vis Time,” replied the elf with a modest
shrug. “As far as they’re concerned, Time has ground to a halt. The condition
should last about five minutes.”
“Magic?” asked Mallory.
“Advanced psychology,” said Mürgenstürm.
“Bullshit.”
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“It’s the truth, John Justin. I live in the same world you live in. Magic
doesn’t work here. This is totally in keeping with natural law.”
“I heard you chanting a spell,” persisted Mallory.
“Ancient Aramaic, nothing more,” replied Mürgenstürm. “It appeals to
their racial memory.” He lowered his voice confidentially. “Jung was very
close to it when he died.”
“While we’re at it, how did you pluck that money out of the air?” asked
Mallory, waving a hand in front of the nearer gunman and getting no
reaction.
“Sleight of hand.”
Mallory stared at him disbelievingly, but said nothing.
“Come along, John Justin,” said Mürgenstürm, walking to the door. “We
have work to do.”
“I don’t think this one’s breathing,” said Mallory, indicating one of the
gunmen.
“He will be, as soon as Time starts up for him again—which will be in
less than three minutes. We really should be going before that happens.”
“First things first,” said Mallory. He picked the roll of bills off his desk
and shoved it into a pocket.
“Hurry!” said the elf urgently.
“All right,” said Mallory, walking around the two men and stepping out
into the corridor.
“This way,” said Mürgenstürm, racing ahead to the elevator.
“Let’s take the stairs,” suggested Mallory.
“The stairs?” repeated the elf. “But you’re on the sixth floor!”
“Yeah. But the stairs don’t let us out in the main lobby, and the elevator
does. And whether this is a dream or a DI or reality, a green elf is just
naturally going to look a little out of place getting out of the elevator and
turning right at the tobacco stand.”
Mürgenstürm smiled. “Not to worry, John Justin. We’re not getting out
on the main floor.”
“You think your unicorn is hiding between here and the lobby?” asked
Mallory. “All we’ve got below us are two discount stockbrokers, a drunken
one-eyed dentist, a stamp and coin dealer, a guy who handles hot jewelry,
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and—let me think—a tailor who can’t speak English and an old lady who
jobs artificial flowers.”
“I know,” said Mürgenstürm, stepping into the elevator cab.
“Okay,” shrugged Mallory, following him. “What floor?”
“Just press DOWN,” said the elf.
“There isn’t any DOWN button,” said Mallory. “Just floor numbers.”
“Right there,” said Mürgenstürm, pointing to the panel.
“Well, I’ll be damned!” muttered Mallory. “I never noticed it before.”
He reached out and pressed the button, and the elevator began
descending slowly. A moment later it passed the second floor, and Mallory
looked at the elf.
“I’d better press STOP,” he said.
“Don’t.”
“We’ll crash.”
“No, we won’t,” said the elf.
“This building hasn’t got a basement,” said Mallory with a trace of panic
in his voice. “If I don’t hit the emergency stop button, they’re going to spend
the next two days scraping us off the ceiling.”
“Trust me.”
“Trust you? I don’t even believe in you!”
“Then believe in the ten thousand dollars.”
Mallory felt his pocket to make sure the money hadn’t vanished. “If that’s
real, this is real. I’d better stop it now.” He turned back to the panel.
“Don’t bother,” said Mürgenstürm. “We passed the main floor ten
seconds ago.”
Mallory looked up at the lights that denoted which floor the elevator was
passing and saw that all of them were dark.
“Great!” he muttered. “We’re stuck.”
“No, we’re not,” said Mürgenstürm. “We’re still moving. Can’t you feel
it, John Justin?”
And suddenly Mallory realized that they were moving.
“One of the lights must be on the blink,” he suggested unsteadily.
“All the lights are working,” answered the elf. “They just don’t go this
far down.” He paused. “All right. You can stop us now.”
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Mallory hit the STOP button, and was about to press OPEN DOOR
when the doors slid back on their own.
“Where are we?” he demanded as they stepped out into a plain,
unfurnished, dimly lit foyer.
“In your building, of course,” said Mürgenstürm. “Elevators don’t leave
their shafts.”
“They also don’t go below ground level in buildings that are erected on
concrete slabs,” said Mallory.
“That’s our doing,” said Mürgenstürm with a smile. “We visited the
architect’s office one night and made some changes.”
“And nobody questioned it?”
“We did it with a very special ink. Let’s just say that nobody who could
read it questioned it.”
“How far beneath the ground are we?” asked Mallory.
“Not very. An inch, a foot, a meter, a fathom, a mile—it all depends on
where the ground is, doesn’t it?”
“I suppose so.” He looked around. “You expect to find your unicorn
here?”
“If it were that easy, I wouldn’t need a detective,” replied Mürgenstürm.
“You brought Time to a standstill and took us to a floor that doesn’t
exist,” said Mallory. “If that’s easy, I hate to think about what’s hard.”
“Hard is finding the unicorn.” Mürgenstürm sighed. “I suppose I ought
to take you to the scene of the crime.”
“That’s usually a pretty good place to start,” agreed Mallory sardonically.
“Where is it?”
“This way,” said the elf, walking into the shadows.
Mallory fell into step behind him, and a moment later they came to a
door that had been invisible from the elevator. They walked through it,
proceeded about twenty feet, and came to a concrete staircase. They walked
up two flights and stopped at a large landing.
“Where to now?” asked Mallory.
“Down,” said Mürgenstürm, crossing the landing and starting down
another flight of stairs.
“Hold it,” said Mallory. “We just climbed up two flights.”
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“That’s right.”
“Then why are we going back down?”
“This is a different staircase,” said the elf, as if that explained everything.
They climbed down three flights, came to another landing, and then
climbed up a flight.
“Give me a second to rest,” said Mallory, leaning on a banister and
panting heavily. He looked around and saw no other stairs. “By my count,
we’re right back where we started from.”
Mürgenstürm smiled, “Not at all.”
“Two minus three plus one,” said Mallory, pulling a handkerchief out of
his pocket and mopping his face. “We’re back at the beginning.”
“Look around you,” said Mürgenstürm. “Does this look like anyplace
we’ve already been?”
Mallory peered into the gloom and saw an array of lights leading off into
the distance, lining what appeared to be a narrow, domed corridor.
“Maybe I’d better not write this up and send it off to one of the
magazines after all,” he said at last. “They’d probably lock me away.”
Have you rested enough, John Justin?” asked the elf. “We really haven’t
much time.”
Mallory nodded, and Mürgenstürm started off down the long corridor,
his footsteps echoing in the stillness.
“This is a hell of a place to keep a unicorn,” remarked Mallory. “Don’t
they need sunlight and grass and things like that?”
“We’re just arranging for transportation.”
“I wondered what we were doing,” muttered the detective.
Suddenly the corridor took a hard right, and after another fifty feet they
emerged onto a subway platform.
“It’s just a subway station,” said Mallory. “There were easier ways to get
here.”
“Not really,” replied Mürgenstürm. “Not many trains run on this route.”
“What station is this?” asked Mallory.
“Fourth Avenue.”
“There isn’t any Fourth Avenue.”
“Don’t take my word for it,” said Mürgenstürm, pointing to a sign above
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the platform.
“Fourth Avenue,” said Mallory, reading the sign. “Come to think of it, it
looks different from the other stations.”
“In what way?”
“It’s cleaner, for one thing.” He sniffed the air. “It doesn’t stink of urine,
either.”
“It doesn’t get much use,” replied Mürgenstürm.
“No graffiti, either,” said Mallory, looking around. He paused. “I wish
the rest of them looked like this.”
“They did once.”
“Must have been before my time.” Suddenly Mallory tensed. “What was
that?”
“What was what?”
He peered into the darkness. “I saw something moving in the shadows.”
“It must be your imagination,” said Mürgenstürm.
“You’re my imagination!” snapped Mallory. “That was something
moving. Something dark.”
“Ah! I see them now!”
“Them?” asked Mallory. “I only saw one thing.”
“There are four of them,” replied Mürgenstürm. “Have you any subway
tokens?”
“Subway tokens?” repeated Mallory.
Mürgenstürm nodded. “Coins will do, but subway tokens really are best.”
Mallory fumbled through his pockets and came up with two tokens.
“Toss them over there,” said Mürgenstürm, indicating the spot where
Mallory had seen the movement.
“Why?”
“Just do it.”
Mallory shrugged and flipped the two tokens into the shadows. A
moment later he heard a series of shuffling noises, and then two loud
crunching sounds.
“Well?” demanded Mallory after a moment’s silence.
“Well what?”
“I’m waiting for an explanation.”
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“Can’t you see them?” asked Mürgenstürm.
Mallory peered into the shadows and shook his head. “I can’t see a
damned thing.”
“Cock your head to the right,” suggested the elf.
“What for?”
“Like this,” said Mürgenstürm, demonstrating. “Maybe it will help.”
“It’s not going to make the place any brighter.”
“Try it anyway.”
Mallory shrugged and cocked his head—and suddenly, he could see four
dark hulking figures, their hairy hands almost dragging the ground,
squatting against a tile wall and staring at him with red, unblinking eyes.
“You see?” said Mürgenstürm, watching his reaction. “Nothing to it.”
“What the hell are they?” asked Mallory, wishing for the second time
that evening that he carried a gun.
“They’re the Gnomes of the Subway,” replied Mürgenstürm. “Don’t
worry; they won’t bother you.”
“They’re already bothering me,” said Mallory.
“They’re not used to seeing men down here,” explained the elf. “On the
other hand, I’m not used to seeing them here, either. Usually they spend their
time at Times Square or Union Square or down at the Eighth Avenue station
in the Village.”
“I suppose there’s a reason.”
Mürgenstürm nodded. “They live on subway tokens, so naturally they
tend to congregate in those areas where tokens are most plentiful. They’re
probably just slumming.”
“What kind of creature eats subway tokens?” asked Mallory, staring
intently at the Gnomes.
“That kind,” answered Mürgenstürm. “Didn’t you ever wonder why the
New York Transit Authority continues to make millions of tokens every year?
After all, they don’t wear out, and they’re absolutely no use anywhere else.
Theoretically there should be billions of tokens in circulation, but of course
there aren’t. You might view the Gnomes of the Subway as ecologists of a sort:
they stop Manhattan from sinking under the weight of subway tokens, and
provide work for hundreds of people who labor all year to create new ones.”
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“What do they do when they’re not eating?” asked Mallory.
“Oh, they’re perfectly harmless, if that’s what you mean,” replied the elf.
“That was what I meant.”
“In fact, they graze for fifteen or twenty hours a day,” continued
Mürgenstürm. “It takes quite a lot of tokens to fill one of them up.” He
lowered his voice confidentially. “I heard that a number of them emigrated to
Connecticut when they started making look-alike bus tokens up there, but
evidently they weren’t as nourishing, since most of the Gnomes have come
back home.”
“What would they have done if I hadn’t tossed them the tokens?” asked
Mallory, eyeing them warily.
“That all depends. I’m told they can sniff out a token at two hundred
yards. If you hadn’t had any, they would have left you alone.”
“But I had some. What would have happened if I didn’t turn them over?”
“I really don’t know,” admitted Mürgenstürm. “I suppose we could ask
them.”
He took a step toward the Gnomes, but Mallory placed a restraining
hand on his shoulder.
“It’s not that important,” he said.
“You’re sure?” asked Mürgenstürm.
“Some other time.”
“Perhaps it’s just as well. We’re operating on a very tight schedule.”
“Maybe you should tell that to the Transit Authority. I haven’t seen any
sign of a train.”
Mürgenstürm leaned over the edge of the platform. “I can’t imagine
what’s delaying it. It should have been here two or three minutes ago.”
“I’ll bring it here right now, if you’d like,” offered Mallory.
“You?” said the elf. “How?”
“You can bring Time to a halt,” said Mallory. “Well, I can make it speed
up.” He pulled a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it. Just as he took a long
puff and exhaled it, the train sounded its horn and pulled up to the platform.
“Never fails,” remarked Mallory, tossing the cigarette to the floor and
stepping on it.
The doors slid open and they got into the subway car, the first in a line
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of four. Instead of the usual rows of worn-out and uncomfortable seats that
Mallory was used to, the surprisingly clean interior of the car consisted of half
a dozen curving leather booths. The floor was covered by a carpet of intricate
design, and crushed velvet paper lined the walls.
“We get a better class of service on the Fourth Avenue line,” commented
Mürgenstürm, observing the detective’s reaction.
“You don’t seem to get any customers, though,” replied Mallory.
“I’m sure the others are in the diner.”
“There’s a diner car?” asked Mallory, surprised.
Mürgenstürm nodded. “And a cocktail lounge as well.”
“Then what are we waiting for?” said Mallory, getting to his feet.
“I need you sober,” said the elf.
“If I was sober, you’d vanish into thin air and I’d be back in my office.”
“I wish you’d stop saying that,” complained Mürgenstürm. “Pretty soon
you’ll convince yourself it’s the truth.”
“So what?”
“So when we face certain dangers, you won’t believe in them and won’t
take the proper precautions.”
“What dangers?” demanded Mallory.
“If I knew, I’d be more than happy to tell you.”
“Take a guess.”
The elf shrugged. “I really have no idea. I just have a feeling that when
we close in on Larkspur, whoever stole him is not going to be very happy
about it.”
“Larkspur?”
“That’s the unicorn’s name.”
“What the hell were you doing with a unicorn that wasn’t yours in the
first place?” asked Mallory.
“Protecting him.”
“Against what?”
“Against whoever wanted to steal him.”
“Why would anyone want to steal a unicorn?”
“Greed, villainy, an unreasoning hatred of myself—who knows?”
“You’re not being very helpful,” said Mallory.
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“If I knew all the answers, I wouldn’t need a detective, would I?”
demanded Mürgenstürm irritably.
“All right,” said Mallory. “Let’s try a different approach. Who owns the
unicorn?”
“Very good, John Justin!” said Mürgenstürm enthusiastically. “That’s a
much better question.”
“Then answer it.”
“I can’t.”
“You don’t know who owns the unicorn?”
“That’s right.”
“Then how do you know he’ll kill you if you don’t get it back by sunrise?”
“Oh, he won’t kill me,” said Mürgenstürm. “He won’t get the chance.”
“Then who will?”
“My guild.”
“Your guild?”
The little elf nodded. “We guard valuable possessions—precious stones,
illuminated manuscripts, that sort of thing—and our lives are forfeit if we
fail in our duties.” He grimaced. “That’s why I had to hire you. I couldn’t
very well go to my guild and tell them what happened. They would have cut
me to pieces.”
“When was the unicorn stolen?”
“About noon. This was the first unicorn I’d ever been entrusted with. I
thought it would be safe to leave it alone for a few minutes.”
“Where did you go off to?” asked Mallory.
Mürgenstürm blushed a dark green. “I’d really rather not say.”
“So even elves get laid.”
“I beg your pardon!” exploded the elf furiously. “It was a beautiful and deeply
moving romantic tryst! I won’t have you making it sound cheap and tawdry.”
“What it mostly was was stupid,” commented Mallory wryly. “They
wouldn’t have paid you to guard the damned animal if they didn’t think
someone might steal it.”
“That thought has occurred to me,” said Mürgenstürm unhappily.
“After the fact, no doubt.”
“As I was returning to Larkspur,” admitted the elf.
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“Dumb,” said Mallory.
“How was I to know?” demanded Mürgenstürm. “Nothing happened the
first six times I went off to answer the siren song of romance.”
“Just how long was this unicorn in your charge?” asked Mallory.
“Not quite five hours.”
“During which time you went off on seven romantic trysts?”
“I may look unapproachable and formidable,” said the little elf, “but I
have needs just like anybody else.”
“You’ve got needs like nobody else,” replied Mallory, impressed.
“All right!” exploded Mürgenstürm. “I’m not perfect! Sue me!”
Mallory winced. “Don’t yell,” he said. “It’s been a long day, and I’ve had
a lot to drink.”
“Then stop belittling me.”
“I can do better than that,” said Mallory. “Give me a hard time, and I can
stop helping you.”
“No!” yelled the elf, causing Mallory to flinch in pain.
“Please,” he continued, lowering his voice. “I apologize for losing my
temper. It’s just my passionate nature. It won’t happen again.”
“Until the next time.”
“I promise,” said Mürgenstürm.
Suddenly the train slowed down and came to a stop.
“Are we there?” asked Mallory as the doors slid open.
“Next station,” replied the elf.
Mallory turned to the door and watched the passengers enter the car.
There were three elves, a ruddy little man with a red handlebar mustache
whose long overcoat could not totally conceal his twitching reptilian tail, and
a smartly dressed elderly woman who had a small, maned, scaled animal on
a leash. A Gnome of the Subway raced into the car just as the doors were
closing and, disdaining the leather booths, leaned against the far wall and slid
slowly to the floor, staring at Mallory all the while.
“I do wish we wouldn’t let them ride first class,” complained
Mürgenstürm softly, nodding his head toward the Gnome. “They just ruin
the ambience.”
“On the other hand,” remarked Mallory, “the old lady looks perfectly
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normal.”
“Why shouldn’t she?”
“She looks like she belongs in my Manhattan, not yours.”
“That’s Mrs. Hayden-Finch,” whispered Mürgenstürm. “She used to
breed miniature poodles.” He sighed sadly. “Twenty-six years and not so
much as a blue ribbon.” His face brightened. “Now she breeds miniature
chimeras, and she’s quite a success. In fact, she took Best in Show at the
Garden last winter.”
“I don’t remember reading about any chimeras at Westminster,” said
Mallory.
“Northminster,” corrected the elf. “It’s much older and more prestigious.”
“That brings up an interesting question,” said Mallory.
“About chimeras?”
“About unicorns. Why was this particular one so valuable? Was he a
show specimen, or a breeding animal, or what?”
“Another excellent question! Oh, I hired the right man, no doubt
about it!”
“I assume that means you don’t have an answer.”
“I’m afraid not, John Justin,” said Mürgenstürm. “If he wasn’t valuable,
he wouldn’t have been placed in my keeping . . . but beyond that, I know as
little about him as you do.”
“What do you know about unicorns in general?”
“Well,” said Mürgenstürm uncomfortably, “they’re usually white and
they have horns that I am told are quite valuable. And they mess their stalls
with shocking regularity.”
“Anything else?”
The little elf shook his head. “Usually I just guard jewels and amulets and
things like that. To be perfectly honest, I don’t even know what unicorns eat.”
“Then has the thought occurred to you that maybe Larkspur just
wandered off on his own to grab a little snack?” asked Mallory.
“As a matter of fact, it hadn’t,” admitted Mürgenstürm. “That would
make him much easier to find, wouldn’t it? I mean, once we know what
unicorns eat.”
Mallory nodded. “Yes, I’d have to say that it would.” He paused. “You’re
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not much good at your work, are you?”
“No worse than yourself, I daresay,” responded the elf. “If I were a
detective, the criminals I caught would stay caught.”
“You haven’t had much experience with the New York municipal court
system, have you?” asked Mallory.
“What has one to do with the other?” demanded Mürgenstürm.
“Not a hell of a lot,” replied Mallory with some distaste.
The train began slowing down again, and Mürgenstürm got to his feet
and walked over to the door.
“Come on,” he said to Mallory.
The detective got up, made a wide semicircle around the miniature
chimera, which was hooting at him with an odd expression on its face, and
joined the elf just as the train stopped and the doors slid open.
“Where are we now?” asked Mallory, looking around the unmarked platform.
“Unicorn Square.”
“New York hasn’t got a Unicorn Square.”
“I know,” replied the elf. “That’s my pet name for it.” Suddenly he
giggled. “That’s quite a pun—pet name!”
“Hilarious,” muttered Mallory, looking around for a staircase. “How do
we get out of here?”
“The escalator.”
“There isn’t one.”
“It’ll be along any minute,” said Mürgenstürm. “Try lighting a cigarette.
Oh, and you might step about three paces to your left.”
“Why?”
“Because you’re in the way.”
Mallory moved aside. “In the way of what?”
“The escalator,” answered the elf.
No sooner had the words left his mouth than a shining silver ramp was
lowered into place, coming to rest exactly where Mallory had been standing.
It hummed mechanically as the stairs began moving upward.
“Where does this take us?” asked Mallory, stepping onto a stair just
behind Mürgenstürm.
“Up, of course.”
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They rode in silence for a few minutes.
“How high up?” asked Mallory at last.
“Ground level.”
“We’ve been riding for three or four minutes,” said Mallory. “Where did
we start from?”
“The subway level.”
“Thanks.”
They emerged into the open air in another minute. It was chilly and
drizzling, and Mallory pulled the lapels of his suit jacket up.
“Looks deserted,” he commented. “Where are we?”
“Fifth Avenue and 57th Street.”
Mallory looked around him. The buildings seemed vaguely familiar, but
somehow the angles were slightly askew. He cocked his head to the right. It
didn’t help.
“Where are all the cars?” he asked.
“Who’d go driving in this weather?” asked Mürgenstürm, shivering
noticeably.
“What about cabs?”
“Here comes one,” answered the elf, pointing south on Fifth Avenue,
where a large elephant decked out in sparkling finery was walking up the
street toward them. It carried a howdah on its broad back, and in it an elf
with a megaphone was pointing out the wonders of Manhattan to a number
of other elves who listened with rapt attention. The elephant suddenly
spotted Mallory and Mürgenstürm, spread its ears out, extended its trunk
toward them, and trumpeted.
“I meant like Yellow Cabs,” said Mallory, stepping back around the
corner and out of the elephant’s sight.
“Yellow Cab at your service, sir,” cried a voice, and Mallory turned just
in time to avoid bumping into a bright yellow elephant, also resplendent in
its trappings. “Nonstop to Fifth Avenue and Central Park,” continued the elf,
who perched on its back. “Guaranteed arrival before midnight.”
“That’s only two blocks from here,” said Mallory.
“Not the way old Jumbo goes,” replied the cabbie.
“He zigs and zags and backtracks like crazy. Not fast, mind you—it’s a
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perfectly smooth ride, and much better than some of those modern,
stripped-down models—but determined. There’s a fruit stand at 58th and
Broadway that he hasn’t missed in twenty years. Great memory!”
“Why don’t you train him better?”
“Break his spirit?” said the outraged cabbie. “I wouldn’t think of it!”
“It seems to me that there ought to be a happy medium between
breaking his spirit and spending two hours to travel a hundred yards.”
“We travel miles!” protested the cabbie. “Of course, we don’t go in a very
straight line . . . but then, getting there is half the fun.” He glared at
Mallory. “It’s New Year’s Eve and I’m a busy man, a very busy man. Now, do
you want a ride or not?”
“We’ll walk,” replied Mallory.
“Your loss,” said the cabbie. He kicked the yellow elephant with a tiny
foot. “Come on, Jumbo—mush!”
The elephant squealed, pivoted 180 degrees, and headed off at a trot,
ignoring his rider’s frantic instructions.
“Does everyone around here make as little sense as you and that elephant
driver?” asked Mallory.
“I thought he made perfect sense,” replied Mürgenstürm.
“You would,” said Mallory. “Let’s get going.”
“Right,” agreed Mürgenstürm, heading off across Fifth Avenue.
As Mallory stepped away from the building he saw that the broad street
had suddenly become filled with traffic as elephants, horses, and oversized
dogs, all brightly colored and brilliantly harnessed, moved up and down the
thoroughfare, either carrying passengers on their backs or pulling them in
gaily decorated open-air carriages.
They reached the far side of the street, and then began following a complex
and circuitous route between buildings and through alleys, up twisting ramps
and down spiraling stairwells, into and out of strange-smelling basements, until
Mallory, who was trying to remember which way he had come, was
thoroughly confused. Finally they halted at a small, grass-covered, fenced
yard.
“Here we are,” said the elf.
“What’s the address here?” asked Mallory.
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“Fifth Avenue and 57th Street.”
“Come on!” said Mallory irritably. “We’ve walked at least a mile since we
were there.”
“A mile and a quarter, I should imagine,” agreed Mürgenstürm.
“Then how can we be back where we started? Where are the streets and
the stores?”
“They’re here. We just approached from a different direction.”
“That’s crazy.”
“Why must everything look the same from every angle?” asked
Mürgenstürm. “Do both sides of a door look the same? Is the interior of a
Black Forest torte identical to the exterior? Believe me, John Justin, we’re
really at the corner of Fifth and 57th. We’re simply backstage.”
“Where’s the front of the stage?”
“Ah,” smiled the elf. “To see that, we’d have to retrace our steps.”
“I wouldn’t know where to begin,” said Mallory.
“At the beginning, of course.”
“You know,” said Mallory, “I’m beginning to dislike you intensely.
You’ve always got a slick answer, and nothing you say makes any sense.”
“It will,” Mürgenstürm assured him. “Wait until you’ve been here awhile.”
“I don’t plan to be here awhile,” said Mallory. He turned his attention to
the yard, which was about fifty feet on a side and thoroughly overgrown with
weeds. “This is where you kept the unicorn?”
“That’s right,” said the elf, opening the gate. “Watch yours step.”
“More Subway Gnomes?” asked Mallory.
Mürgenstürm shook his head. “Larkspur wasn’t exactly what one would
call housebroken.” He walked gingerly to a gnarled tree, and the detective
followed him. “I had him tethered right here.”
Mallory looked at the weathered brownstone house at the far end of the
yard. Many of the windows were boarded over, all the lights were out, and a
storm door swung noisily back and forth on a single rusty hinge.
“That house goes with this yard?” asked Mallory.
“Yes.”
“Does anyone live there?”
“It’s been empty for more than a year,” replied Mürgenstürm. “That’s
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why I used the yard; I knew there was nobody around to object.”
“Almost nobody,” Mallory corrected him dryly. He squatted down and
examined the ground.
“Did you find anything?” asked the elf after a moment.
“Just unicorn tracks.”
“Are there any signs of a struggle?” suggested Mürgenstürm.
“You think maybe someone stopped to wrestle Larkspur two out of three
falls before leading him away?” said Mallory irritably.
“I’m just trying to be helpful,” apologized Mürgenstürm.
“You can start by shutting up,” said Mallory. He straightened up, then
began a systematic search of the yard.
“What are you looking for?” asked Mürgenstürm.
“I don’t know,” replied Mallory. “Footprints that don’t belong to you or
Larkspur, a scrap of clothing, anything that looks out of place.” He walked
through the knee-high weeds and grass for another minute, then shook his
head, grimaced, and returned to the tree.
“No clues at all?” asked the elf.
“I have a horrible feeling that we’re going to have to follow a trail of
unicorn shit to solve this case,” said Mallory. He walked carefully to the gate,
followed by Mürgenstürm. “Think now!” he said. “Who else knew Larkspur
was here?”
“No one.”
“Someone had to know. Someone stole him. Who owns this place?”
“I have no idea. I suppose I could find out,” said the elf. Suddenly his
narrow shoulders slumped. “But not until the city offices open tomorrow
morning, and then it’ll be too late.”
Mallory’s eyes darted to the shadows, then focused again on
Mürgenstürm. “Keep talking,” he said in a low voice.
“About what?” asked the elf.
“Anything. It doesn’t matter. We’re being watched.”
“You’re sure?”
Mallory nodded.
“I wasn’t aware of it. It must be your long experience as a detective.”
“It’s my long experience dodging bill collectors,” replied Mallory. “Start
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talking about unicorns. Whoever it is, he’s coming closer.”
Mürgenstürm’s face went blank. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Ten minutes ago I couldn’t shut you up!” hissed Mallory, “Now talk!”
“I feel silly,” said the elf.
“You’re going to feel a lot worse than silly if you don’t say something!”
“Give me a hint,” said Mürgenstürm desperately.
Mallory cursed, and suddenly hurled himself into the darkness.
“Got you!” he cried triumphantly, and emerged a moment later with a
scratching, spitting, clawing girl in his arms.
“Let me go!” she snarled.
Mallory felt her twisting free and released his grip. She hissed at him,
then sprang lightly to the top of the fence and crouched there.
“Who are you?” demanded Mallory.
“I know her,” said Mürgenstürm. “She’s Felina.”
“What are you doing here?” persisted Mallory.
“I have as much right to be here as you!” she replied hotly. “Maybe
more!”
“She was probably just rummaging through the house, looking for
garbage,” said Mürgenstürm.
“Then why was she hiding?”
“I don’t like people!”
As Mallory studied her more closely, he found to his surprise that she
wasn’t a girl after all—at least, not like any girl he had ever seen. She was
young and slender, and her limbs were covered with a fine orange down faintly
striped with black, while her face, neck, and chest were cream-colored. Her
orange irises were those of a cat, her canines were quite pronounced, and she
had whiskers—feline, not human—growing out of her upper lip. Her ears
were a little too rounded, her face a touch too oval, her nails long and
lethal-looking. She wore a single garment, a short tan dress that looked like it
had been found on one of her garbage-hunting expeditions.
“What are you?” asked Mallory, genuinely curious.
“Felinis majoris,” she answered defiantly.
“She’s one of the cat-people,” explained Mürgenstürm. “There aren’t very
many of them left anymore.”
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“Why don’t you like humans?” continued Mallory.
“They don’t like anybody,” said Mürgenstürm before Felina could
answer. “Dogs hunt them, humans shun them, real cats ignore them.”
“I can speak for myself,” said Felina haughtily.
“Then start speaking,” said Mallory. “What are you doing here?”
“Looking for food”
“Do cat-people eat unicorns?”
“No.” Suddenly her eyes widened and she smiled a very feline smile. “It
was your unicorn that was stolen!”
“His,” said Mallory, jerking a thumb in the elf’s direction. “I’m just
helping him look for it.”
She turned to Mürgenstürm. “They’ll kill you at sunrise,” she said, amused.
“Not if we find it first,” said Mallory.
“You won’t.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I know who stole it,” said the cat-girl.
“Who?”
She purred and licked a forearm. “I’m hungry.”
“Tell me who stole it and I’ll buy you any dinner you want,” said Mallory.
“I never buy dinners,” she said stretching languorously. “It’s so much
more fun to hunt for them.”
“Then name your price.”
“My price?” she said, as if the notion of selling anything was totally new
to her. Suddenly she smiled. “My price is that I want to watch his face”—she
pointed to Mürgenstürm—“when I tell you.”
“Fine,” said Mallory. “Take a good look at him.”
“Your unicorn, little elf,” she said, watching Mürgenstürm as a cat
watches a mouse, “was stolen by the Grundy.”
Mürgenstürm turned a pale green and reacted as if he’d been hit with a
sledgehammer.
“No!” he whispered, collapsing cross-legged with his back to the fence.
She grinned and nodded her head slowly.
“What’s going on?” demanded Mallory. “Who is this Grundy?”
“He’s the most powerful demon in New York!” moaned Mürgenstürm.
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“Maybe on the whole East Coast,” added Felina, delighted with the elf’s
reaction.
“He uses magic?” asked Mallory apprehensively.
“Magic doesn’t work, John Justin,” said Mürgenstürm in a dull voice.
“You know that.”
“Then what makes him a demon?”
“Nothing makes him a demon. It’s what he is.”
“All right,” said Mallory. “What is a demon?”
“A malevolent entity of incomparable power.”
“So is an IRS auditor,” said Mallory irritably. “Be more specific. What does
he look like? Has he got horns? A tail? Does he breathe smoke and belch fire?”
“All that and more,” moaned Mürgenstürm.
“Much more,” added Felina happily.
Mallory turned to Felina. “You’re sure that it was this Grundy who stole
the unicorn?” he asked. “You actually saw him do it?”
She nodded, grinning from ear to ear.
“Suppose you tell me exactly what happened.”
“The Grundy and Flypaper Gillespie came up to the fence—”
“Just a minute,” interrupted Mallory. “The Grundy and who?”
“Flypaper Gillespie,” said Mürgenstürm. “He’s a leprechaun who works
for the Grundy. They call him that because things stick to him.”
“What kinds of things?” asked Mallory.
“Wallets, jewelry, amulets—things like that,” answered Felina.
“Go on.”
“The Grundy opened the gate, pointed to the unicorn, and said, ‘There he
is. You know what to do.’ And Flypaper Gillespie said that he sure did know
what to do, and then the Grundy vanished, and Flypaper Gillespie untied the
unicorn and led him away.” Felina paused. “That’s everything that happened.”
“You’re sure?” persisted Mallory.
“Yes.”
“Where were you all this time?”
She pointed to a second-floor window.
“What were you doing there?”
“Hunting.”
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“Hunting what?”
“Something tasty,” she replied.
“You say the Grundy vanished,” noted Mallory. “Are you sure he didn’t
just walk away while you were watching the unicorn?”
“He vanished,” Felina repeated firmly.
Mallory turned to Mürgenstürm. “Tell me more about this Grundy.”
“What do you want to know?”
“Everything.”
“Nobody knows that much about him,” replied Mürgenstürm, “except
that he’s a malevolent entity who is the cause of most of the misery and
despair in my Manhattan. He appears, and terrible things happen.”
“What kinds of things?”
“Terrible things!” repeated Mürgenstürm with a shudder.
“Like what?”
“Don’t ask!”
“It’s my business to ask.”
“He’s responsible for everything bad that happens here. If there’s a
natural disaster, he caused it; if there’s an unsolved crime, he committed it;
if there’s an epidemic, he spread it.”
“Why?”
“He’s a demon. It’s his nature.”
“How does he vanish into thin air?”
“He is a master of illusion and misdirection.”
“But not of magic?”
“No. Although,” added the elf, “he is capable of feats that, even to the
experienced eye, are indistinguishable from magic.”
“What are his weaknesses?” asked Mallory.
“I don’t know if he has any.”
“He must, or he’d own the whole city by now.”
“I suppose so,” said Mürgenstürm dubiously.
Mallory turned back to the cat-girl. “Think hard, Felina. Did the Grundy
say anything else? Did he tell Flypaper Gillespie where to take the unicorn?”
Felina shook her head.
“Did he say how soon he’d be meeting him?”
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“No.”
“By the way, just for the record, what does a unicorn look like?”
“Just like a horse, only different,” said Felina.
“Different how?” asked Mallory. “Just the horn?”
“Just the horn,” she agreed. “And maybe the legs, and the face, and the
flanks, and the tail.”
“It looks like a horse except for the head, the body, and the horn?”
suggested Mallory sardonically.
She smiled and nodded.
Mallory glared at her for a moment, then shrugged. “All right. Can
either of you tell me anything about Flypaper Gillespie?”
“He’s a leprechaun,” said Mürgenstürm.
“I know he’s a leprechaun!” snapped Mallory. “You told me that already!”
“That totally defines him,” said Mürgenstürm. “What else did you want
to know?”
“I almost hesitate to ask, but what does a leprechaun look like?”
“They’re sort of . . . well small . . . and they’ve got funny ears, though
they’re not really pointed . . . and, um . . .” began Mürgenstürm, struggling
to come up with a description.
“They wear tweeds a lot,” interjected Felina helpfully.
“Anyway, you’ll know one when you see one,” concluded Mürgenstürm
confidently.
“How about behavior?” demanded Mallory, resisting the urge to snatch
up the little elf and shake him. “What do leprechauns do?”
“They rob and steal and drink a lot,” said Mürgenstürm. “Mostly Irish
whiskey.”
“And they lie,” added Felina.
“Oh, yes,” said Mürgenstürm. “They never tell the truth when they can
tell a lie.” He looked at Mallory. “You seem annoyed, John Justin.”
“I can’t imagine why,” muttered Mallory. “I’ll try once more. Where am
I likely to find Flypaper Gillespie?”
“I don’t know,” said Mürgenstürm. “I apologize if my answers seem
inadequate, but the truth of the matter is that nobody has ever tried to find
the Grundy or Flypaper Gillespie before. Usually, people run in the opposite
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direction.”
“So I gather,” said Mallory. “In fact, I think it’s contract renegotiation
time. I’ve got a feeling that I’m being underpaid for this job.”
“But you agreed to take the case!”
“The case didn’t have a goddamned demon in it when I agreed!”
“All right,” said the little elf with a sigh of resignation. “Twenty thousand.”
“Twenty-five,” said Mallory.
“Done.”
Mallory stared at him. “Thirty-five.”
“But you said twenty-five thousand and I agreed!” protested the elf.
“You agreed too damned fast,” said Mallory.
“Well, I’m certainly not going to agree to thirty-five thousand
dollars—fast, slow, or otherwise.”
“That’s your privilege,” said Mallory. “Find Larkspur yourself.”
“Twenty-eight and a half,” said the elf quickly.
“Thirty-three.”
“Thirty.”
“Make it thirty-one and we’re in business.”
“You promise?” asked Mürgenstürm distrustfully.
“Word of honor.”
The elf considered it for a minute, then nodded his assent.
“You’re really going to try to find the unicorn?” asked Felina.
“That’s right,” said Mallory.
“Even knowing that the Grundy’s behind it?”
“Even so.”
“Why?”
“Because Mürgenstürm’s paying me an awful lot of money,” said Mallory.
He paused. “Besides, I haven’t been having much luck as a husband or a
horseplayer or anything else lately. I think it’s about time I got back to doing
something I’m good at.”
“I like you,” said Felina, rubbing her hip against his and purring. “You’re
not like the others.”
“Thank you,” said Mallory. “I think.”
“You’re not like them at all,” she repeated. “You’re crazy! Imagine anyone
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wanting to fight the Grundy!”
“I didn’t say I wanted to,” replied Mallory. “I said that for the right price
I was willing to.”
She rubbed up against him again. “Can I come along?”
“I thought you were afraid of the Grundy.”
“I am,” she assured him. “I’ll desert you in the end, but it’ll be fun in the
meantime.”
Mallory stared at her for a moment.
“Can you follow a unicorn’s scent?”
“I suppose so.
“Okay, you’re hired. Now, let’s get going. We’re not going to find it by
hanging around here talking.”
She stared at the ground, nostrils twitching, then walked to the gate,
opened it, and headed off down the twisting, deserted street.
“I’m sorry that events have taken this unexpected and distressing turn, John
Justin,” said Mürgenstürm as he and Mallory fell into step behind Felina.
“It could be worse. At least we know who we’re looking for now—and
we’ve still got most of the night ahead of us.”
“True,” said the elf. “But as you actively seek the Grundy, so he will
actively defend himself.” He paused. “Still, you’re risking your life for me,
and I’m grateful.”
“You’re overreacting,” said Mallory. “The Grundy doesn’t even know I’m
here.”
Suddenly there was a clap of thunder, and a flash of lightning
momentarily illuminated the night sky.
“Don’t bet on it, John Justin Mallory!” said a hollow voice from a nearby
courtyard.
Mallory raced off in the direction of the voice, but found nothing except
eerie shadows flickering on the stone gargoyles that stared down at him from
a balcony overlooking the empty street.
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PM–10:22 PM
Chapter 3
They had proceeded for another block when Mallory noticed that his
surroundings were getting brighter.
“I must have gotten turned around,” he remarked to Mürgenstürm. “I
could have sworn we were going back the way we had come.”
“We are, John Justin,” said the elf.
Mallory shook his head. “The street was dark before. Now look at it. The
streetlamps are starting to glow, and a number of the apartments are lit up.”
“They always were,” Mürgenstürm assured him.
“Bullshit.”
“They were,” repeated the elf. “You simply couldn’t see it before.”
“Why not?”
Mürgenstürm scratched his head. “I suppose it’s because you were an
intruder who had wandered over from your Manhattan. Now, for better or
worse, you’re a participant.”
“That makes a difference?”
“All the difference in the world.”
“Why?”
“Excellent question.”
“You don’t know,” said Mallory.
“I have never pretended to be anything other than what I am: a devilishly
handsome elf of normal intelligence and sexual needs—”
“And severely diminished expectations of longevity,” interjected Mallory.
“True,” agreed Mürgenstürm unhappily. “At any rate, I have never
claimed to be a scholar or a clairvoyant, and I find it thoroughly ungracious
of you to constantly belittle me for these shortcomings.”
Mallory was about to answer him, but at that moment they followed
Felina around a corner and he realized that Mürgenstürm’s Manhattan had
come fully to life. It was still cold and raining, but the street was bustling
with elves, gnomes, goblins, trolls, and even less human passersby, as well
as an assortment of men and women. Sturdy multihued elephants and draft
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horses pulled an endless stream of carts and carriages, while odd little street
vendors who were neither men nor elves were hawking everything from toys
to mystical gemstones.
A large man with scaly skin and strange, staring eyes stood in front of a
clothing store, slowly turning the crank on a music box with long, webbed
fingers, while a little blond boy on a leash walked up to Mallory with a cup
in his hand and a hopeful smile on his face. Mallory tossed him a coin, which
he caught in the cup, and, alter bowing deeply, he cartwheeled up to a
passing woman and did a little jig until she, too, had made a contribution.
“I’m on retainer plus expenses, right?” said Mallory suddenly.
“That’s right, John Justin,” replied Mürgenstürm.
“I just wanted to make sure you remembered.”
“Why?” asked the elf.
“Because I’m soaked to the skin and freezing my ass off,” said Mallory,
striding toward the front door of the clothing store. The organ grinder
stepped out of his way, and Mallory noticed that he had a row of gills running
up each side of his thick neck.
“Don’t overdo it, John Justin,” Mürgenstürm cautioned him. “My funds
are quite limited.”
“Then pull some more out of the air.”
“That money’s no good.”
“What?” said Mallory ominously.
“Oh, it’s perfectly good in your Manhattan,” the elf assured him. “But
where would we be if anyone in my world who needed money could simply
produce it out of empty air?”
“Then give me some money that works here.”
Mürgenstürm begrudgingly counted out $500 and gave it to him, along
with a handful of change. Mallory inspected the money briefly, then placed it
in his pocket and entered the store, which was surprisingly crowded given
the time of night. The clientele wore everything from tuxedos to suits of
armor, except for a portly, middle-aged man who wore nothing except a
bowler hat and a gold-handled umbrella. Most of the mannequins displayed
various satin and velvet robes and gowns, though a handful sported chain and
one was equipped with jodhpurs and a pith helmet. Two live models, one
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well over seven feet tall and the other shorter than Mürgenstürm, walked up
and down the aisles showing off marked-down seersucker suits.
“Interesting,” remarked Mallory.
“Pedestrian,” replied Mürgenstürm, obviously unimpressed.
“May I help you?” asked a smartly dressed man approaching them.
“Yes,” replied Mallory. “I need an overcoat, preferably something with a
fur collar.”
“I’m afraid that’s out of the question, sir,” replied the man.
“How about a fleece-lined ski jacket?”
The man looked mildly distressed and shook his head.
“I’m terribly sorry, sir, but we simply don’t carry anything that exotic.”
“You don’t carry anything exotic?” repeated Mallory. “What the hell have
you got on display?”
“You refer, doubtless, to our safari outfit,” replied the man, gesturing
toward the mannequin with the pith helmet. “I’m afraid that’s our only truly
outré outfit, sir.”
“Look,” said Mallory. “All I want is something that will keep me warm
and reasonably dry.”
“And it shouldn’t be too expensive,” added Mürgenstürm hastily.
“Well, let me take your measurements, and I’ll see what we can do for
you, sir,” said the man, whipping out a pen and a note pad.
“Don’t you need a tape measure?” asked Mallory.
The man looked amused. “Whatever for?”
“Damned if I know,” admitted Mallory.
“Shall we begin, sir?”
“Go right ahead.”
“Age?”
“Thirty-seven,” said Mallory, puzzled.
“Legs?”
“Yes.”
The man tried to hide his annoyance. “How many, sir?”
“Two,” said Mallory.
“Eye color?”
“Brown.”
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“Any scars?”
“Any scars?” repeated Mallory, puzzled.
“Please, Sir. Others are waiting.”
Mallory shrugged. “One, from an appendectomy.”
“Are you right-handed or left-handed?”
“Right.”
The man looked up and smiled. “I believe that’s everything. I’ll be right
back.”
“Strange,” muttered Mallory as he watched the man scurry across the store.
“Why should you say that, John Justin?”
“You didn’t find that unusual?” asked Mallory.
“Not really. He should have asked about cavities and fillings, of course,
but they’re obviously understaffed.”
Just then a woman screamed at the far end of the store, and a moment later
Mallory saw Felina leap up onto a display counter, hissing furiously. She was
wearing a hat that seemed to be composed entirely of bananas, grapes, and
oranges, and it was apparent that she was prepared to fight to the death for it.
“If you won’t pay for it, you must give it back!” said a saleswoman,
approching her.
Felina hissed again and leaped lightly to a chandelier.
“Cat-people really aren’t at their best in places like this,” said
Mürgenstürm sadly. “They simply don’t understand the capitalist ethic.”
“Go buy the damned thing for her and get her out of here before she kills
someone,” said Mallory.
“She’s not on an expense account,” protested Mürgenstürm.
“Just do it,” said Mallory. “You can take it out of my pay.”
Satisfied, the little elf walked over to pay for the hat. A moment later
Mallory’s salesman returned, carrying a red satin robe with a coal black cape.
“How do you like it, sir?” he said, holding it up to the light.
“It’s lovely,” said Mallory. “But it’s not what I asked for. I’ve got to wear
it outside.”
“Certainly,” said the man. “That’s why I chose red and black. They won’t
show the dirt as much as our more popular gold-and-white combination.”
“I’m not so much concerned with the dirt as I am with the cold and the rain.”
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“Ah, you must be referring to the belt!” said the salesman. “Not to worry,
sir. The new XB-223 belt has a much better control system.” He held up the
belt for Mallory’s inspection.
“Mostly, I was referring to the fabric.”
“Just try it on, sir,” said the salesman, holding it out for him. Mallory
decided that he would waste less time by humoring the man than by arguing
with him, and allowed the salesman to help him into the robe. “Oh, it’s you,
sir, no doubt about it! Are you ready for our free field-testing?”
“Field-testing?”
“Certainly. We stand behind all our products. Come this way, sir.”
He led Mallory to a small, transparent booth, and ushered him inside.
“Put the belt on the first notch,” he instructed the detective.
Mallory did so, and a moment later he was bombarded by water from half
a dozen hidden spray nozzles. The torrent continued for thirty seconds, then
stopped abruptly.
“How do you feel, sir?” asked the salesman.
“Dry,” said Mallory, surprised.
“Now, if you’ll draw the belt into the second notch . . .”
Mallory did so, and the compartment quickly filled with snow. Then, a
moment later, it vanished.
“Warm and cozy?” asked the salesman.
Mallory nodded.
“It’s those XB-223 belts,” said the salesman. “Absolutely fabulous!” He
paused. “Would you care to field test it for deserts, tropical rain forests, or
mine shafts?”
“No,” said Mallory, stepping out of the booth. “This will be fine.”
“Shall I gift wrap it, sir?”
“No, I’ll wear it. How much do l owe you?”
“Two hundred seventy-three rupees, sir.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Two hundred seventy-three rupees, with tax.”
“How much is that in dollars?”
“It’s an Indian product, sir. I’m afraid we can’t accept American money
for it.”
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“But I don’t have any rupees.”
“No problem, sir. Shall we bill it to your account?”
“Why not?” said Mallory with a shrug.
“I’ll need your address,” said the salesman.
Suddenly an idea struck Mallory. “Do the Grundy or Flypaper Gillespie
have accounts here?”
The salesman turned pale. “The Grundy?” he whispered. “Or Flypaper
Gillespie. Why do you want to know?” stammered the man.
“They’re old friends of mine, but I’ve misplaced their addresses.”
“They’re your friends?” repeated the salesman, horrified. “Take the robe!
There’s no charge!”
“How can I find them?”
“I don’t know,” whimpered the salesman, backing away from him. “But
when you do, remember to tell them that I gave you the robe for free!”
He turned and rushed off into the crowd of shoppers. Mallory watched
him for a moment, then walked out of the store, where he found
Mürgenstürm and Felina waiting for him on the sidewalk. The cat-girl was
smiling, showing off her hat to any and all passersby.
“You owe me one hundred fifty-six pesos,” announced Mürgenstürm.
“We’re even,” said Mallory, setting the belt on the first notch and
marveling at the way it instantly protected him from the rain. “I got the
robe for free.”
“How did you manage that?”
“I have friends in high places,” said the detective dryly. “All right,
Felina—can you pick up Larkspur’s scent?”
The cat-girl walked up to Mallory, rubbed up against him, and purred.
“Don’t do that,” said the detective, looking around uncomfortably.
“Scratch my back,” she said.
“Not in front of everyone.”
She rubbed against him again. “Scratch my back or I’m leaving,” she said
insistently.
He grimaced and began rubbing her back. A blissful smile spread across
her face, and she began writhing sinuously beneath his hand.
“Enough?” asked Mallory after a moment.
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“For now,” she replied smugly, starting off again with one hand securing
her hat, and Mallory and Mürgenstürm fell into step behind her. She
remained on the thoroughfare for two blocks, then turned onto a narrow
street. She proceeded for a few yards, then paused, puzzled, looked around,
walked over to a mailbox, jumped atop it, and began licking the outside of
her left thigh.
“What’s wrong?” asked Mallory.
She continued licking herself for another moment, then turned to him.
“I’ve lost the scent,” she announced.
“But Larkspur definitely entered this street?”
She shrugged. “I think so.”
“You think so?” he demanded, as she went back to licking her thigh.
“He came this far, but there have been too many people passing by. I
don’t know where he went next.”
“Wonderful,” muttered Mallory. He walked a few feet down the street.
“How about here?”
She jumped off the mailbox, walked over to where Mallory was standing,
sniffed the air, and shrugged again.
Mallory looked down the dimly lit street, which was practically devoid of
pedestrians. A number of the buildings fronting it had been rehabilitated, and
one of them boasted a brightly illuminated open-air restaurant. Due to the icy
rain most of the tables were deserted, but one of them was occupied by two men.
The man with his back to Mallory was wearing a trench coat and a felt hat, while
the man seated opposite him, far smaller in size, wore a shopworn
double-breasted suit and was continually wiping the rain from his face with a
large silk handkerchief. As Mallory drew closer he saw that they were playing
chess.
“Well, we’ve got to start somewhere,” said Mallory, approaching the two
chess players. He stood there for a moment while they continued staring
intently at the board, then cleared his throat. “I beg your pardon.”
“No offense taken,” answered the man in the trenchcoat, without looking
up from the chessboard. “Now, go away.”
“I wonder if I might ask you a question,” persisted Mallory.
“You might,” said the man. “I probably wouldn’t answer you, though.”
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“It’ll only take a second.”
The man looked up irritably. “It’s already taken twenty seconds.” He
turned to his opponent. “This had better not be coming off my time.”
“Of course it is,” said the smaller man in a slightly nasal accent that
Mallory couldn’t identify. “Remember V-J Day? I stood up and cheered, and
you took a whole minute off my time.”
“That was different,” said the man in the trenchcoat. “Nobody said you
had to get up.”
“It was patriotic.”
“It was your decision to be patriotic. I, on the other hand, was minding
my own business when this inconsiderate dolt approached me.”
“Thirty-nine days, eight hours, six minutes, sixteen seconds, and
counting,” said the smaller man firmly.
The man in the trenchcoat glared furiously at Mallory. “Now see what
you’ve done!” he snapped.
“I heard you say something about V-J Day,” said Mallory. “Have you
guy‘s really been playing since World War II?”
“Since February 4, 1937, to be precise,” said the smaller man.
“Who’s ahead?”
“I’m down one pawn,” said the man in the trenchcoat.
“I mean, how many games have each of you won?”
“What a damnfool question! I hope you don’t think I’d be sitting here in
the rain on New Year’s Eve if I’d already beaten him.”
“You’ve never beaten him?” said Mallory. “Then why keep trying?”
“He’s never beaten me either.”
“You two must have set a record for consecutive draws,” remarked
Mallory.
“We’ve never played to a draw.”
Mallory blinked the rain from his eyes. “Let me get this straight,” he said
at last. “You’ve been playing the same game of chess for half a century?”
“Give or take,” acknowledged the man in the trenchcoat.
“Chess doesn’t take that long,” said Mallory.
“When we play it, it does,” said the smaller man with a touch of pride.
“Right” agreed his opponent. “The game’s the thing—at least the way
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me and the Weasel play it.”
“The Weasel?” asked Mallory.
“That’s me,” said the smaller man with a self-effacing smile. “And he’s
Trenchcoat.”
“Don’t you have real names?”
“We know who we are,” said Trenchcoat, lighting up a bent Camel
cigarette.
“And you’ve been sitting right here for fifty years?”
“Not really,” replied Trenchcoat. “We began in the back of a saloon down
in the Village, but they lost their lease about thirty years ago.”
“Thirty-two years, to be exact,” corrected the Weasel.
“So we’ve actually only been here about a third of a century.”
“Nonstop?” asked Mallory.
“Barring calls of nature,” said the Weasel.
“We eat right at the table,” added Trenchcoat. “It saves time.”
“And of course I catch up on my sleep when it’s his move,” said the
Weasel.
“Don’t either of you ever wonder what’s been going on in the world for
the past half century?” asked Mallory.
“Every now and then,” admitted the Weasel. “Are any wars still being
fought?”
“Thirty or forty,” replied Mallory.
“And is there crime in the streets?”
“Of course.”
“What about the Yankees?” asked Trenchcoat. “Are they still winning
pennants?”
“From time to time.”
“Well, there you have it,” said Trenchcoat with a shrug. “Nothing’s
changed.”
“Think of all the money we’ve saved by not buying newspapers,” added
the Weasel.
“But you can’t just drop out of the world and play chess for the rest of
your lives,” persisted Mallory.
“Of course we can,” said Trenchcoat.
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“At least until the game is over,” said the Weasel.
“Will it ever be over?”
“Certainly,” said the Weasel confidently. “I’ll have him in another fifteen
years or so.”
“Dream on,” said Trenchcoat contemptuously.
“It seems like such a waste,” remarked Mallory. “You’re just sitting here
vegetating.”
“He’s vegetating,” replied the Weasel. “I’m formulating a plan to break
through his Indian defense.”
Trenchcoat turned to stare at Mallory. “And what are you doing that’s so
important?”
“Hunting for a unicorn.”
“Well, you won’t find it in the city,” said Trenchcoat.
“Unicorns need water and green things. If I were you, I’d look in Africa
or Australia or someplace like that.”
“This one was stolen,” explained Mallory.
“Is it yours?”
“No. I’m a detective.”
“You know, it’s funny that you should say that,” said Trenchcoat.
“Oh? Why?”
“Because I used to be a detective.”
“What about you?” Mallory asked the Weasel. “Were you a detective
too?”
“Au contraire. I was a criminal.”
“More to the point,” added Trenchcoat, “he was my criminal.”
“I don’t think I understand you,” said Mallory.
“It’s really quite simple,” said Trenchcoat. “What is the one thing that
detectives absolutely cannot do without? Criminals!”
“And I needed him just as badly,” continued the Weasel. “In fact, we
defined each other. You can’t have a criminal without laws, and you can’t
work at enforcing laws without criminals. You might say that we had a
symbiotic relationship. I’d clock in every morning at eight o’clock and go out
to rob, pillage, and loot . . .”
“And I’d clock in at nine—it seemed only fair to give him enough time
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to break some laws—and then I’d try to apprehend him.” Trenchcoat paused,
a pleasant smile of reminiscence on his face. “We’d go at it hot and heavy all
day long, him putting on disguises and ducking in and out of shadows, me
gathering clues and trying to track him down. . .”
“Taking an hour off for lunch. . . .” interjected the Weasel.
“And then we’d clock out at five, get together for a drink, and prepare
for the next day.”
“We even coordinated our sick time and vacations.”
“Right,” said Trenchcoat. “And then one day it dawned on us that the
game was more important than the rewards.”
“I realized that matching wits with him was more gratifying to me than
stealing things. After all, I had a warehouse full of toasters and I never ate at
home.”
“And I didn’t really care about catching murderers and bank robbers;
most of them didn’t present any kind of a challenge—and besides, the courts
kept turning them loose anyway.”
“We also realized that we were both getting a little old to be chasing
around the city and shooting at each other . . .” said the Weasel.
“Not that we ever aimed to actually hit one another . . .”
“So, since it was the battle of wits that excited us, we decided to rid
ourselves of all the peripherals and get down to the basic contest.”
“I found another job for my secretary, Velma,” said Trenchcoat as Mallory
winced, “and then the Weasel and I sat down and began discussing creative
alternatives . . .”
“We gave serious consideration to cards—there’s a poker game over on
the next block for the ownership of Lincoln, Nebraska, that’s been going on
even longer than we have—but we wanted something where chance didn’t
enter into it . . .”
“So we hit upon chess,” concluded Trenchcoat.
“And here we are. I strike in the dead of night and steal his pawn . . .”
“And I trail him down dark twisting alleys between bishops and rooks,”
concluded Trenchcoat with a contented sigh. “It’s really much more
satisfying than hunting for murderers. Or unicorns, for that matter.”
“Speaking of unicorns . . .” began Mallory.
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“I thought we were speaking of chess,” said Trenchcoat.
“Only some of us were,” said Mallory. “Some of us are looking for a stolen
unicorn.”
“I hardly see how we can help you.”
“We tracked him to this street, and then we lost his trail. Has he passed
by in the last few hours? He would have had a leprechaun with him.”
“Who knows?” replied Trenchcoat with a shrug. “I’ve been
concentrating on my next move for two days now.”
“How about you?” asked Mallory.
“I was watching him to make sure he didn’t try to cheat,” answered the
Weasel.
“At any rate, I wouldn’t be in such a hurry to catch him if I were you,”
remarked Trenchcoat.
“Why not?”
“Take it from a fellow detective: you’re viewing this from the wrong
perspective. One unicorn, properly and thoroughly stolen, can provide a man
with a lifetime’s employment.”
“Thanks for your suggestion,” said Mallory. “But the lifetime is his—he
jerked a thumb toward Mürgenstürm—and it ends tomorrow morning if I
don’t find the unicorn.”
“Who’s going to kill him?” asked Trenchcoat.
“I have a feeling that it’s going to be a race between his guild and the
Grundy.”
“The Grundy?” asked Trenchcoat, arching an eyebrow. “Is he involved in
this?”
“Yes.”
“Watch out for him,” warned Trenchcoat. “He’s a mean one.”
“Can you tell me anything about him?” asked Mallory.
“I just did,” said Trenchcoat.
“Do you know anything about a leprechaun named Flypaper
Gillespie?”
“Just generically.”
“Generically?” repeated Mallory.
“Leprechauns are a vicious and surly race.”
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“I don’t suppose you’d care to join in the hunt?”
Trenchcoat surveyed the chessboard for a moment, then sighed and shook
his head. “Not when I’m closing in for the kill.”
“In that case, you could leave now,” said the Weasel.
“You do seem to have him in a bit of trouble,” agreed Mallory, taking a
quick glance at the board.
“You think so?” said Trenchcoat triumphantly. “Then watch this!”
He reached forward, picked up his queen, and placed it on the next table,
just behind a vase filled with artificial carnations.
“Mon Dieux!” muttered the Weasel, astonished. “The boldness, the
effrontery, the sheer brilliance of it!”
He immediately fell silent as he began considering how best to protect
his king’s bishop from an attack launched from a neighboring table.
“There’s no sense hanging around here any longer,” said Mallory, shaking
his head in disbelief. “Where the hell is our faithful tracker?”
Mürgenstürm pointed down the street to a mesh litter basket with a
KEEP OUR CITY CLEAN sign affixed to it, where Felina, bareheaded, was
rummaging for edible garbage.
“Call her over and let’s get this show on the road,” said Mallory. As
Mürgenstürm went off to fetch her, the detective leaned over to the Weasel
and whispered, “Saltshaker to queen’s bishop five.”
The Weasel’s eyes widened. “You know,” he said excitedly, “it’s so crazy
it just might work!” He went back to studying the board.
“What happened to your hat?” asked Mallory when Felina returned with
Mürgenstürm.
“I got tired of it,” she said with a shrug.
“What now, John Justin?” asked Mürgenstürm anxiously.
“We keep looking for Larkspur.”
“But Where? We’ve lost his trail.”
“So much for shortcuts,” said Mallory. “It looks like I’m going to have to
do it the hard way.”
“The hard way?
Mallory nodded. “Before I go hunting for Larkspur, I’ve got to know
exactly what I’m hunting for. What does a unicorn look like? What does it
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eat? Does it help to have a virgin handy? Where are they likely to hide it?
What kind of trail does it leave besides unicorn shit? Is there a particular
sound or scent it will respond to?”
“How should I know?” asked Mürgenstürm. “My job was just to guard
the damned thing, not study it.”
“Who would know?”
“I have no idea,” replied the elf as they reached the corner of the main
thoroughfare. While throngs of pedestrians passed by and scores of draft
animals traversed the street, paying no attention to the traffic lights, Felina
began climbing a lamppost in pursuit of a small bat that was fluttering
around the light. “I mean, a person who could speak endlessly about the
habits and habitats of unicorns is hardly my idea of good company.”
“What about a zoologist?” suggested Mallory.
“Sounds good to me,” replied Mürgenstürm. “Do you know any?”
Mallory merely glared at him.
Suddenly the elf snapped his fingers in triumph. “I’ve got it!”
“What?”
“The Museum of Natural History! They’ve got a stuffed unicorn on
display there. They’re bound to have all kinds of information about them.”
“Will it be open?” asked Mallory dubiously.
“I know the night watchman. He’ll let us in for a small financial
consideration.”
“How did a little green wimp like you ever come to spend any time in a
museum?”
“There’s a gallery there that’s been closed for renovation, and the weather
being what it is . . . ah . . . well, you know how these things are . . .”
“That’s where you take your conquests?” asked Mallory incredulously.
“Sometimes,” acknowledged the elf. “Just those who live in the vicinity.
No more than three or four an evening.” He drew himself up to his full, if
minimal, height. “And they’re not conquests,” he added with dignity.
“They’re not?”
“Well, not when I take them there,” said Mürgenstürm. “Only when I
leave.”
Just then Felina dropped lightly to the ground beside them and
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delicately wiped a piece of gray fur from her lips.
“I’m surrounded by appetites,” commented Mallory disgustedly. He
looked up the broad thoroughfare. “Well, let’s be going.”
Just then a newsboy, a huge stack of freshly printed papers folded under
his arm, walked by.
“Grundy Issues Warning!” he cried, holding a paper above his head with
his free hand. “Read all about it! Grundy Issues Warning!”
“See?” said Mallory confidently. “He’s so busy with other things he
probably hasn’t even seen Larkspur since he stole him.”
A second newsboy approached them from a different direction.
“Grundy Threatens Mallory!” he hollered. “Extra! Extra! Grundy
Threatens Mallory! Props and Midgets Lose Again!”
Mallory walked over to the boy.
“Let me see one of those,” he said, pulling some change out of a pocket.
The newsboy handed him a copy, and Mallory opened it up.
“‘Mallory, Go Home While You Still Can!’ Warns Grundy,” he read
aloud.
“Does he mean you?” asked Felina.
“I suppose so.”
She smiled and rubbed against him. “You’re famous!”
Mallory stared at the paper again, then looked at Mürgenstürm. “How
the hell did he get a photo of me?” he asked at last.
The little elf shrugged. “He’s the Grundy.”
Suddenly a small boy, wearing an Eastern Union uniform, raced up and
handed an envelope to Mallory.
“What’s this?” asked the detective.
“Telegram, sir.”
“You’re sure it’s for me?”
“You’re John Justin Mallory, aren’t you?”
Mallory nodded. “How much do I owe you?”
“It’s been prepaid.”
Mallory flipped him a coin, which the boy caught on the run, then
ripped open the envelope.
MALLORY, DO NOT, REPEAT, DO NOT GO TO THE MUSEUM
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OR MAKE ANY OTHER ATTEMPT TO FIND THE UNICORN OR
FLYPAPER GILLESPIE STOP YOUR LIFE IS AT RISK STOP THIS IS
YOUR ONLY WARNING STOP
Mallory handed the telegram to Mürgenstürm, who turned almost white
as he read it. A few seconds later it dropped from his trembling fingers and
fell to the wet sidewalk.
“We decided to go to the museum less than two minutes ago,” said
Mallory.
Mürgenstürm gulped. “I know.”
“Even if we were wired for sound, it takes longer than that to write and
deliver a telegram.”
“Obviously not for the Grundy,” said Mürgenstürm in a quavering voice.
“I thought you told me he didn’t have any magical powers.”
“That’s absolutely right, John Justin. Magic doesn’t work, and I’ve
always held that it’s ridiculous for anyone in this enlightened day and age to
believe otherwise.”
“Then how do you explain the telegram?” demanded Mallory.
Mürgenstürm smiled a sickly smile. “Maybe I was wrong.”
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Stalking the Vampire
A Fable of Tonight
A John Justin Mallory Mystery
Mike Resnick
“Nobody spins a yarn better than Mike Resnick.”
—Orson Scott Card
I
t’s Halloween, and John Justin Mallory’s partner, Winnifred Carruthers, has
been so busy preparing for the biggest holiday of the year (in his Manhattan,
anyway) that she seems short of energy and pale. Mallory is worried that she’s been
working too hard. Then he notices the two puncture marks on her neck . . .
On this night when ghosts and goblins are out celebrating, detective Mallory
must stalk the vampire who has threatened his assistant, Winnifred Carruthers, and
killed her nephew. With the aid of Felina, the catgirl, Mallory and Carruthers
investigate clubs and lairs that only seem to exist on this one night of the year.
His hunt takes him to Creepy Conrad’s Cut-Rate All-Night Mortuary, where he
questions the living and the dead; to the Annual Zombies’ Ball, to learn more about
the undead; to the Hills of Home Cemetery, where the vampire sleeps by day; and to
Battery Park, where all of Manhattan’s bats come to feed and sleep. Along the way
he meets a few old friends and enemies, and a host of strange new inhabitants of this
otherworldly Manhattan.
Locked in an intriguing battle of wits with the millennia-old vampire, Mallory
has until dawn if he is to save his trusted partner.
About the author: Mike Resnick has won an impressive five Hugos and been
nominated for twenty-five more. He has sold fifty-two novels and almost two
hundred short stories. He has edited forty anthologies. His work ranges from satirical
fair, such as his Lucifer Jones adventures, to weighty examinations of morality and
culture, as evidenced by his brilliant tales of Kirinyaga. The series, with sixty-six
major and minor awards and nominations to date, is the most honored series of
stories in the history of science fiction.
Visit Mike Resnick online at
www.mikeresnick.com.
Cover Illustration: ©Dan Dos Santos
ISBN: 978–1–59102–649–5
Hardcover • August 2008
6:30 PM–6:55 PM, All Hallow’s Eve
Chapter 1
It didn’t look much like a detective’s office.
One side contained a desk covered with doilies, a teapot that could only
be described as precious, pencils and pens neatly aligned by a telephone, and
a framed tintype of a chubby woman, rifle in hand, posing with her foot on
the neck of a dead gorgon.
The other side of the office looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in months,
if not years, which was exactly the case. There were a pair of pneumatic
Playmates taped to the wall, on which Mallory’s partner had meticulously
drawn bras and panties with a magic marker. There was a large waste basket,
surrounded by eleven crushed paper cups that Mallory had tossed in its
general direction, missing each time. One drawer of the desk held the office
bottle, another a stack of unread pulp magazines, a third a change of
underwear and socks.
The kitchen—the place had formerly been an apartment—held an
ancient refrigerator that, at the moment, contained three six-packs of beer, a
supply of sliced lemons for his partner’s tea, and seven half gallons of milk for
the office cat.
John Justin Mallory leaned back in his chair, feeling every one of his
forty-five years. He’d tossed his trenchcoat over a chair, but he still wore his
battered fedora. His feet rested comfortably on his desk, a fresh paper cup
held a shot of Old Peculiar, and he held the Racing Form up so that
Periwinkle, his magic mirror, could read it over his shoulder.
“So what do you think?” asked the detective.
“You know very well what I think.”
“He’s got to be ready today,” said Mallory. “I feel it in my bones. I mean,
how the hell many races can he lose in a row?”
“According to the Form, it’s sixty-four and counting,” said Periwinkle.
“But look at the odds,” persisted Mallory. “Ninety-nine trillion to one,
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in a five-horse field. Whoever heard of odds like that?”
“Probably the tote board doesn’t go any higher,” replied the mirror.
“Oh, ye of little faith. How can a horse with a name like Flyaway not win
every now and then?”
“Do you really want me to tell you?” said Periwinkle, stifling a yawn.
A feminine creature, who seemed human at first glance but decidedly
less so upon further examination, stretched her feline body languidly atop the
refrigerator. “They should make him run in handicap races, so he’ll have a
better chance,” she said.
“He’s in a handicap today,” said Mallory. “The other four horses are
spotting him from ten to sixteen pounds.”
“I meant a real handicap,” replied the catgirl, purring gently. “Like a
quarter-mile head start against a field of blind three-legged horses.”
“Try not to be so encouraging, Felina,” said Mallory. “It’ll go to my
head.”
“Good,” said Felina. “Maybe it’ll push all thoughts of betting on Flyaway
down to your left elbow.”
“Not very likely,” intoned Periwinkle.
Felina hurled herself through the air and landed on Mallory’s desk.
“Then since your elbow’s not busy, you can skritch my back.”
Mallory reached out a hand and absently scratched between her shoulder
blades while still reading the Form.
“That’s wrong!” protested Felina.
“What’s wrong?”
“You’re scratching,” she complained. “I want you to skritch.”
“What’s the difference?”
“It’s like the difference between night and almost-night,” she said
helpfully.
“Fine,” said Mallory, rubbing the small of her back. “Let me know when
I’m doing it right.”
She stretched and purred noisily, and before she could answer him—not
that he needed one—the office door opened and Mallory’s partner entered.
She walked to her own desk, set down a brown shopping bag filled with
purchases, smoothed some wrinkled out of her dress, brushed a wisp of gray
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289
hair back from her pudgy face, and exhaled deeply.
“You wouldn’t believe how crowded it is out there,” said Winnifred
Carruthers. “I’m exhausted! It took me almost an hour just to get a jar of
incense, and the line for black candles was endless. Everyone’s doing their
last-minute shopping.”
“I thought they were supposed to do it on Christmas Eve,” said Mallory.
“That’s in the Manhattan you left behind, John Justin,” she replied. “In
this Manhattan, everyone celebrates All Hallows Eve.”
“Call it what anything you like, but where I come from, it’s Halloween.”
“The younger generation calls it that,” acknowledged Winnifred. “But to
the traditionalists, it will always be All Hallows Eve. You should be more
noticing, John Justin. The whole city’s getting ready for the celebration.”
“I should think this Manhattan had suffered through quite enough
ghosts and goblins and things that go bump in the night without setting
aside a day to celebrate them,” remarked Mallory dryly.
“You’re looking at it all wrong, John Justin,” said Winnifred. “It’s a
festive occasion.” She smiled happily. “My nephew Rupert has come to visit
for a week. He just arrived yesterday. I hope he likes some of the gifts I
bought him.”
“I’m sure he will,” said Mallory. “If I know you, you bought him a big
enough selection to choose from.” He went back to studying the Form.
“Oh my goodness!” exclaimed Winnifred. “You’re reading the Racing
Form!”
“So?”
“So that poor creature is running again tonight, isn’t he?”
“Running again implies that he ever ran before,” said Felina.
“There’s an awful lot of sympathy in this office for a horse who’s never yet
worked up a sweat,” said Mallory irritably, “and not much for the guy who
keeps betting on him.”
“Perhaps it’s because the horse doesn’t know any better,” suggested
Periwinkle.
“There’s a dog down the street who keeps running away from his owner,”
said Felina. “Maybe we could feed him Flyaway and slow him down.”
“One of these days he’s going to win, and the payoff is going to make
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history,” said Mallory.
“If you bet him to show, and he starts in the fourth race of the day and
finishes third in the ninth race, do you still win?” asked Felina.
“Enough already,” said Mallory. He put the Form back down on his desk.
“All right, it’s a holiday of sorts. I’ll skip the track and take you out to
dinner.”
“It’s All Hallows Eve,” said Felina, rubbing against him. “Let’s be
generous and take the fat broad too.”
“I was talking to the . . . to my partner,” said Mallory. “You’re staying
here and guarding the office.”
“There’s nothing here worth taking,” protested Felina.
“Well, I like that!” snapped Periwinkle.
“What use is a magic mirror that never shows cat movies?” sniffed
Felina.
“There are no cat movies,” replied the mirror.
“All you ever show is women taking their clothes off,” said Felina.
“What fun is that?”
“What?” demanded Winnifred, glaring at her partner.
“That’s not so,” said Mallory defensively. “Sometimes I watch wrestling.”
“Naked ladies wrestling in the mud,” said Felina, wrinkling her nose in
disgust.
“It’s an art form,” said Mallory, “not a sporting contest.”
“It’s obscene,” said Winnifred severely.
“It’s boring,” said Felina.
“I could show you naked ladies sky-jumping, if that’s more to your
taste,” offered Periwinkle.
“Can’t you show anything but naked ladies?” said Winnifred.
“My job is pleasing my audience,” said Periwinkle. “If you asked me
what I would like to show . . .”
The mirror became a screen, and characters moved through an
exotic-looking bar.
“So it’s Casablanca,” said Mallory. “Big deal. There’s Dooley Wilson at
the piano, and here comes Peter Lorre with the letters of transit.” Then: “No,
I’m wrong.”
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“You’re right,” said Periwinkle.
“But that’s not Bogart, and the girl certainly isn’t Bergman.” He peered
at the screen. “The guy looks like Ronald Reagan in the tux.”
“And Ann Sheridan is the girl,” said the mirror.
“So it’s not Casablanca,” said Mallory.
“It is. This is the film they would have made if they’d signed their first
choices. We can make it a double feature with Clark Gable and Humphrey
Bogart, John Huston’s first choices, in The Man Who Would Be King.”
“Forget it,” said Mallory firmly. “If it isn’t Bogey and Bergman, it’s not
Casablanca.”
“All right,” said Periwinkle with a melodramatic sigh. “I did my best.
Some people are rooted in their ignorance. Some people just refuse to be
culturally uplifted.”
Reagan and Sheridan were instantly replaced by Bubbles La Tour, who
was gyrating her hips so fast that it almost made Mallory dizzy to watch her.
“That’s quite enough of that,” said Winnifred harshly.
“Whatever you say,” replied Periwinkle. Bubbles La Tour was
immediately replaced by the fifth inning of a 1938 American Association
baseball game between the Miami Monorchids and the Gainesville Geldings.
“You know,” said Mallory wistfully, “I can remember the good old days,
when all I had to contend with were thieves and muggers. And I had to leave
my office to find them. There weren’t any uppity mirrors or spoiled
ninety-pound office cats in my Manhattan.”
“For better or worse, this is your Manhattan now, John Justin,” noted
Winnifred.
“But only as long as he feeds and skritches me,” said Felina.
“You are a walking appetite,” complained Mallory.
“I’m too comfortable to walk,” replied the catgirl. “I’m a laying-down
appetite.”
“Speaking of appetites,” said Winnifred, “you mentioned something
about dinner, John Justin?”
“Yeah, what the hell, why not?” said Mallory. “If it’s really a holiday, it
seems a shame to send out for pizza.”
“Sounds good to me,” she replied. “Where shall we go?”
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“Anywhere you want. I just want to stop by Joey Chicago’s bar on the
way, and maybe lay down a sawbuck or two on Flyaway with Harry the Book.
Then, if you like, we can pick up your nephew and all have dinner together.”
“Rupert was still sleeping an hour ago,” she said. “I think it would be
better not to disturb him.”
“Sleeping?” repeated Mallory. “The kid must be a real night owl.”
“He’s a healthy young man, and he’s new to the big city,” agreed
Winnifred. “He was out exploring it all last night.”
Mallory shrugged. “If he made it back, I guess he can take care of
himself.”
“Once he gets his hours straightened away, I’m going to take him to the
art museum and the symphony,” said Winnifred.
“Yeah, a nice healthy young man will love that,” said Mallory, trying to
keep the sarcasm out of his voice.” He paused. “So where am I taking you for
dinner?”
“You know, I haven’t had unicorn steak in years.”
“Do they serve it in New York?”
“I know just the place,” said Winnifred. “The Mystic Skewer. It’s on the
corner of Sloth and Gluttony.”
“Then let’s go,” said Mallory, walking over and holding his arm out to
her. She reached for it, then suddenly swayed as if she was about to faint.
“Are you all right?” he asked solicitously as he helped to steady her.
“Just a slight dizzy spell,” replied Winnifred, leaning against him.
“Probably I overexerted myself shopping.”
“I don’t know,” said Mallory. “I’ve never seen you tired before.”
“We’re all getting older, John Justin. It’s hard for me to believe it, but
I’m in my sixties.”
“In fact,” continued Mallory in worried tones, “I’ve never seen you this
pale before. Maybe we should stop by a doctor, just to be on the safe side.”
“I’ll be fine,” Winnifred assured him. She moved free of his supporting
arms. “I just needed a moment to rest. I’m ready to go now.”
“You’re sure?”
She nodded her head. “I’m sure.”
“Do that again!” said Mallory sharply.
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“Do what again?”
“Nod your head like that,” he said, staring intently at her.
“Is something the matter, John Justin?”
“Just do it!”
She shrugged and nodded her head.
“Shit!” muttered Mallory. “Come over to the light.”
“What is it?” asked Winnifred, worried now.
“If I tell you, you’re going to think it’s some kind of Halloween joke,”
said Mallory. “Felina, get over here, look at where I’m pointing, and tell me
what you see.”
“Two little holes,” said the cat girl.
“And where are they?”
“On her neck.”
“Are you quite serious?” asked Winnifred.
“Why the hell would I lie to you?” said Mallory. “How long have you
been having these dizzy spells?”
“Just today,” she said. “Once while I was shopping I had to stop and sit
down for a moment until it passed, and then right here. But as you can see,
they don’t last for very long.”
“No others?” he demanded.
“No.”
“Think hard.”
She frowned. “Well, just one.”
“What time last night was it?”
Her eyes widened in surprise. “How did you know?”
“Because your nephew didn’t arrive until yesterday afternoon.”
“Surely you can’t be suggesting that Rupert—?”
“What else has changed in your life since yesterday afternoon?” said
Mallory. He looked out the window. “Dinner can wait. Even Flyaway can
wait. We’ve got to get over to your apartment fast.”
“Why the hurry?” asked Winnifred. “He’ll still be there, and we can put
an end to this foolishness. He told me that he wasn’t going out to celebrate
until seven or eight o’clock.”
“I’m not worried about his going out.”
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“Then what?”
“I want to make sure we confront him before it’s dark.”
6:55 PM–7:22 PM
Chapter 2
Winnifred’s apartment was three blocks from the office, in one of the
sturdiest buildings Mallory had ever seen. There was a uniformed
doorman—his tail kept peeking out beneath his long coat—who opened the
door for them, and a moment later they were in the elevator. She had a brief
dizzy spell as it approached the seventh floor, but by the time it stopped she
was fine again.
“Why are you staring at me like that, John Justin?” she asked as they got
off.
“I’m trying to decide whether you should stay home and rest, or go down
to the hospital for a transfusion.”
“I’m doing neither,” she said. “This is All Hallows Eve. It’s a night to
celebrate.”
“Start by not falling down,” said Mallory. “You can work up to
celebrating later.”
“You’re looking at this all wrong, John Justin,” said Winnifred. “If I have
been bitten by a vampire, this is the best night of the year to find the guilty
party. Every creature of the night comes out on All Hallows Eve.”
“You’ve been bitten,” Mallory assured her. “And we don’t have to go
hunting for Transylvanian counts with bad accents. The thing that bit you is
sleeping down the hall in your apartment.”
“Rupert isn’t a thing!” she said harshly. “He’s my nephew, and I’m sure
there’s a logical explanation for all this.”
“I don’t know,” he replied dubiously. “If I’ve learned anything at all
during my two years here it’s that this Manhattan doesn’t abound in logical
explanations.”
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“Nonsense,” she said firmly, seeming more like herself. “We’ll speak to
Rupert and get to the bottom of this.”
They stopped before a door.
“This is it?” asked Mallory.
“Yes.”
“Give me your key.”
“I can unlock my own door, John Justin.”
“Hand it over. You’re not going in there first. I don’t know what’s on the
other side of this door.”
“Well, I know,” she said. “This is my home, for goodness sake!”
“To quote a blonde bombshell I lusted for when I was a kid, I don’t think
goodness has a hell of a lot to do with it.”
He took the key from her, inserted it in the lock, turned it, and slowly
opened the door.
“It’s dark as a tomb in here,” he complained.
“I’m saving on electricity until we get our next case,” explained
Winnifred. She reached over to the wall and flipped a switch, and suddenly
the room was bathed in light.
“Goddamn!” exclaimed Mallory. “Now, that’s impressive!”
“I’m very proud of it.”
“You should be,” said Mallory, still staring at the wall to his left. On it
were the mounted heads of a gorgon, a chimera, a banshee, a unicorn, a
dragon, and half a dozen other beasts he couldn’t identify. Below them was a
gun rack filled with high-powered rifles of varying makes and calibers. “You
ought to will these to the museum.”
“I already have.” She paused. “The only thing missing is the Yeti. I spent
two years hunting for him in the Himalayas. I came across his tracks a few
times, but never actually saw him. The weapons are all retired, of
course—keepsakes of a more exciting life. An excitement I thought was gone
forever, before I met you.”
“Hi, Winnifred,” said a voice. “Welcome back.”
Mallory jumped back and studied the wall, trying to determine which
head had spoken.
“Who said that?” he demanded.
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“I did,” replied the voice, and suddenly a glowing bird that constantly
changed colors flew past all the doily-covered chairs and couches to perch on
Winnifred’s shoulder.
“This is Dulcet, my songbird,” said Winnifred.
“Don’t ever let Felina see her.”
Winnifred smiled. “Why do you think I keep her here instead of at the
office?”
“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anything like her,” said Mallory, fascinated
by the bird’s changing colors.
“She’s imported from Italy,” explained Winnifred. “Sing something for
my partner, Dulcet.”
The bird burst into a lilting aria from Madame Butterfly.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” said Winnifred.
“Very nice,” answered Mallory. “A little highbrow for my taste.”
Dulcet immediately began singing That’s Amore.
“That’s enough for now, thank you,” said Winnifred, and the bird fell
silent.
“What’s this?” asked Mallory, looking at a small glass case that contained
a silken veil and a crushed rose.
“It’s from a very long time ago,” she said uncomfortably, and
immediately turned her attention elsewhere. “Oh! I forgot to set food out!”
“How the hell many beggars get past your doorman and make it to the
seventh floor?” asked Mallory, following her past shelves filled to overflowing
with romance novels, DVDs of love stories, and CDs of every sentimental
love song Mallory had ever heard plus a few hundred he had thankfully
missed.
“Not for beggars,” she said, scurrying to the kitchen and pulling some
items out of the refrigerator. “Well,” she amended, “not for the kind you
mean, anyway.” She walked to a window, opened it long enough to place the
foodstuffs on a broad ledge, and closed it again. “It’s for the harpies. They get
so hungry this time of year. And there’s a darling miniature pegasus that just
began showing up two weeks ago.”
Mallory frowned. “That’s kind of contradictory, isn’t it?”
“I don’t follow you, John Justin.”
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297
He gestured first to the heads and then to the little pegasus that was just
dropping down to the window ledge. “Do you kill them or nurture them?”
“Every creature on the wall was intent on ripping me to shreds,” she
answered. “Even so, I gave each of them a sporting chance. But these poor
little babies”—she gestured to a trio of approaching harpies—“just want a
little food and a safe place to eat it.”
She suddenly reached out a hand and steadied herself against the wall.
“Damn!” said Mallory. “I’ve never been here before, and it was so
interesting I almost forgot why we came. Where’s your nephew?”
“He’s sleeping.”
Mallory looked out the window. “Twilight,” he announced. “He should
be waking up.”
And as if on cue, a slender young man, a few inches shorter than Mallory,
with unkempt wavy brown hair, suddenly opened a bedroom door and
walked out into the living room, clad in pajamas, a bathrobe, and slippers.
“I heard voices,” he said, blinking his eyes as if trying to focus them.
“Rupert, this is my partner, John Justin Mallory,” said Winnifred. “John
Justin, this is my nephew, Rupert Newton.”
“Just don’t call me Fig,” said Rupert. “I hate it when they call me that.”
“Is there anything else I should call you?” asked Mallory, stepping closer
to him.
“Like what?” asked the young man, puzzled.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said the detective with a shrug. “Vlad, maybe. Or
Nosferatu.”
Rupert jumped back as if he’d been stung. “How did you know?”
“I’m a trained detective,” said Mallory dryly. “Besides, your aunt is pale
as a ghost and keeps trying to fall down.”
“I’m sorry, Aunt Winnifred,” said Rupert. “I didn’t mean to.” “Then you
are a vampire?” she said, surprised.
“Not yet, I suspect,” said Mallory, studying the young man. “But he
knows a vampire, don’t you, Rupert?” He pointed to Rupert’s neck. “You see?
Just like yours, though he’s obviously had it a lot longer.”
“A week,” confirmed Rupert miserably.
“How’d it happen?” asked Mallory. “Did you go out with a girl who had
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a reputation for giving dynamite hickeys?”
“You’re making fun of me!” protested Rupert.
“Kid, there’s nothing funny about being one of the undead,” said
Mallory. “I’d say I want to help you, but I don’t know how. My first job is to
protect your aunt.”
“I don’t want to hurt her!”
“I believe you,” said Mallory. “But there are still a few rays of sunlight in
the sky. How will you feel about it two hours from now?”
“I’d never harm Aunt Winnifred!”
“How do you think I knew what to look for?” demanded Mallory.
“Winnifred, turn your head.” She did so, and he pointed to the two holes on
the side of her neck. “Do you even remember doing that?”
Rupert stared at his aunt, wide-eyed. “No,” he said. Then, “I thought it
was a dream.”
“Okay,” said Mallory, “so once the urge or the hunger or whatever you
want to call it hits, you don’t know what you’re doing, and after you’ve done
it you don’t remember it.” He turned to Winnifred. “Like I said, he can’t stay
anywhere near you.”
Winnifred seemed about to object, then changed her mind and remained
silent.
“You don’t want to harm your aunt,” said Mallory. “I don’t want her
harmed. Will you let me relocate you to a hotel until I can find someone who
can help you?”
Rupert nodded his agreement. “How will you keep me there? In my
dream, I got stronger at night.”
“We’ll see to it that you don’t have any reason to leave,” said Mallory.
“How?”
“The Goblins are playing the Gremlins at the Garden tonight, and it’s
on TV,” said Mallory. “If I leave you sitting in front of the television set with
a bottle of plasma and a straw, can you think of any reason why you won’t
stay there?”
Rupert started salivating slightly at the mention of plasma. “No,” he
said, wiping his mouth off with the sleeve of his robe, and Mallory could see
that his canines were a little longer than average. “No, I can’t.”
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“Where will you get the plasma, John Justin?” asked Winnifred.
“The local blood bank.”
Rupert started drooling again, and his left eyelid began twitching.
“I won’t be a party to theft,” said Winnifred firmly.
“I’m not stealing anything,” said Mallory. “I plan to buy it with the
twenty I was going to put on Flyaway.”
“They’ll never sell it to a private citizen.”
“Yes, they will.”
“What makes you think so.”
“Because I’ll have Rupert with me,” answered Mallory, gesturing to the
salivating, twitching young man. “And I’ll explain that they can either sell
it to me now, or they can hope Rupert doesn’t remember where they are an
hour or two from now when it’s totally dark out.” The detective smiled. “He
may not be as potent as your .550 Nitro Express, but there are certain
advantages to having an embryonic vampire in your arsenal.”
7:22 PM–7:51 PM
Chapter 3
“I really don’t get any stronger at night,” said Rupert as he and Mallory
walked down Second Avenue.
Mallory paused as a yellow elephant, with a driver and two passengers in
its howdah, came down the middle of the street. “I’ll never get used to what
passes for cabs here,” he muttered.
“Here?” repeated Rupert curiously. “Where are you from, Mr. Mallory?”
“I have the strangest urge to say that I’m not in Kansas any more,”
replied Mallory. He shrugged. “Oh, well. Could be worse. Could be Checker
cabs.”
“Getting back to the blood bank, Mr. Mallory . . .”
“Yeah?”
“Like I said, I really don’t get stronger at night.”
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“Okay, you know it, and now I know it. Let’s keep it our secret, and if
they don’t know it maybe we’ll get what we need.”
“I feel just terrible about this.”
“Not to worry,” said Mallory. “I don’t remember my pulp literature and
B movies all that well, but I’m pretty sure it takes more than one bite to turn
you or your aunt into a vampire.” He stared at the young man. “Who the hell
nailed you?”
The boy shuddered. “Draconis.”
“Draconis?”
“Aristotle Draconis.”
“He’s a vampire?”
“He must be. I woke up just in time to see him leaving my stateroom.”
“Your stateroom?” repeated Mallory. “You didn’t fly here from Europe?”
Rupert shook his head. “I’m afraid of heights, so I took the Queen
Hermione.”
“I won’t even ask who she was,” said Mallory. “But something doesn’t
make sense here. I thought vampires couldn’t travel across water.”
“I thought so too,” said Rupert. “I guess we were both wrong,” he added
ruefully.
“What does this Draconis look like?” asked Mallory.
“Tall,” said Rupert. “Very tall, almost seven feet. And thin, like a
skeleton. And he dressed all in black.”
“Clean-shaven?”
The young man nodded. “Yes. With dark burning eyes.”
“You want to expand on that?” said Mallory. “In my Manhattan I’d know
what it means, but here it could literally mean that his eyes were on fire or
shooting off sparks.”
“They looked like they could,” said Rupert with a shudder. “And there’s
something else.”
“Yeah?”
“I saw him walking around the deck on the first day, and he was so pale
I thought he might collapse at any minute. I mean, I know you think Aunt
Winnifred was pale, but it was nothing compared to him. He was almost
chalk-white.”
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“All right,” said Mallory. “Tall, emaciated and chalk-white. I’ll
remember it.”
“No,” said Rupert.
Mallory frowned. “But you just said—”
“He was pale the first time I saw him,” said Rupert. “But when he left
my stateroom, his coloring was normal. Darker than normal, even.”
“I think we’ll operate on the assumption that it wasn’t from a tanning
parlor,” said Mallory. “Do you know anything else about him?”
“I overheard him saying that he was looking forward to exploring
America. I got the impression he’d never been here before.”
“Good.”
“Good?” repeated the boy.
“If he doesn’t have a destination in mind, there’s every likelihood than
he’s still in Manhattan. The city’s worth a couple of days on anyone’s itinerary.
That means I might be able to find him.”
“Believe me, you don’t want to find him,” said the young man earnestly.
“Why not?”
“He’s terrifying,” said Rupert. “What are the odds that he’ll come after
Aunt Winnifred out of all the people in New York? You’ll live a lot longer if
you never meet him.”
“And what if he comes after you again?” asked Mallory.
Rupert’s eyes went wide with terror. “Why would he?”
“Maybe he likes the way you taste. Maybe he needs to bite you a few
more times to turn you into a fellow vampire, or an eternal servant. Maybe
he’s a gay vampire and he thinks you’re pretty. You could fill half a dozen
books with what I don’t know about vampires. In fact, I think a hell of a lot
of romance writers in my Manhattan already have.”
“You really think he might come after me?”
“I’d call it a possibility.”
The young man’s hand shot out, grabbing Mallory’s sleeve. “Then I take
back everything I said. You’ve got to catch him!”
“The first thing I’ve got to do is get you off display,” said Mallory as they
approached the blood bank. “Then I’ll check on Winnifred again to make
sure she’s okay, and then we’ll worry about Aristotle Draconis.”
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“But—”
“That’s the way it’s going to be,” said Mallory, increasing his pace.
Rupert watched him for a moment, then realized that he was standing there
alone, and broke into a run to catch up with the detective.
They reached the blood bank in another minute, and Mallory walked up
to the front desk.
“Excuse me,” he said, trying to get a nurse’s attention.
“That all depends on what you’ve done,” replied the nurse.
“I beg your pardon,” said Mallory, confused, “but I’m not quite sure what
you’re talking about.”
“Excusing you,” answered the nurse. “We can forgive high alcohol
contents and poor cholesterol readings, but we cannot accept blood that is
infected with measles, mumps, tonsillitis, lumbago, rheumatism, arthritis,
tennis elbow, gingivitis, flat feet, acid stomach—”
“Stop,” said Mallory before she could rattle off thirty more disqualifiers.
“We’re not here to donate blood.”
“We don’t buy it on holidays,” she said severely.
“You misunderstand. We’re here to buy some blood, or at least some
plasma, for the young man.”
“What type?”
“It doesn’t make any difference.”
“We have to know before we can inject it,” insisted the nurse.
“He’s not going to inject it,” said Mallory. “He’s going to drink it.”
The nurse stared at the pale young man. “Ah, yes,” she said. “I can see
now: the pale skin, the dilated pupils, the hint of enlarged canines, and of
course there’s no hair on the back of his hands.”
“Should there be?”
“Only if he’d been bitten by a werewolf,” said the nurse, “in which case
you’d be better advised to go to a butcher shop than a blood bank.”
“Now that that’s settled, how much for, oh, I don’t know, half a gallon
of blood?”
“That’s out of the question,” said the nurse. “We can’t spare that much.”
“We’re willing to pay . . . now,” said Mallory meaningfully. “I can’t speak
for later, when he’s desperate.”
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She stared at Rupert, who was starting to drool again. “He looks pretty
desperate right now.”
“I don’t know if I can control him,” said Mallory.
She pulled a cross and a string of garlic out from a hidden drawer under
the counter. “Not to worry,” she assured the detective. “We can control him.”
Rupert held his hands up before his face. “Take it away!” he yelled.
She put the garlic and cross back into the drawer. “You were saying?” she
asked with a pleasant smile.
“Nothing,” said Mallory. “Come on, kid—we’ll have to find it
somewhere else.”
“Just a minute,” said the nurse.
“Yes?”
“It really wouldn’t do to have your young friend attacking strangers on
the street. He might pick on the wrong one and get seriously hurt.” She
lowered her voice confidentially. “It’s not generally known, but most of the
grocery stores sell blood this one night of the year, since there are so many
creatures out celebrating. It’s not legal, but the police tend to look the other
way.”
“Thank you,” said Mallory.
“You didn’t hear it from me.”
“My lips are sealed. Come on, Rupert.”
He left the blood bank, accompanied by the young man, who took a deep
breath of the evening air and let out a heavy sigh. “Ah! That’s better!” He
turned to Mallory. “I’ve been allergic to garlic all my life.”
“Then it wasn’t because you’re turning into a vampire?”
“I never could stand the stuff. Makes my eyes water.”
“All right,” said the detective. “I think I’m going to put you up at my
apartment. Why waste the money on a hotel? If Draconis is looking for you,
he’s no more likely to look in my apartment than in a hotel room. There’s no
way he can know you’re connected to Winnifred, and even if he were to find
out, he still wouldn’t know that she’s my partner.” He paused. “There’s a
market right around the corner from my place. We’ll get the blood there.
And once you’re ensconced in my apartment, I’ll get together with
Winnifred and dope out our next step.”
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“I’m very grateful, Mr. Mallory,” said Rupert. “I’ve always hated
vampires. Now it looks like I might become one.”
“That’s something else we’ve got to do—see how to reverse the damned
thing and turn you back into a normal young man. Your aunt is a lot better
at research than I am. I think I’ll have her do that while I’m trying to locate
Draconis.”
“Pssst!”
Mallory stopped and saw a green-skinned goblin gesturing to him from
between two apartment buildings. “Hey, Mister—pretty goblin girls!”
“The name’s Mister Mallory,” said the detective in bored tones. “Mister
Pretty Goblin Girls lives on the next block.”
“A humorist,” muttered the goblin. He turned to Rupert. “Pretty goblin
girls, dirt cheap.”
“Not interested,” said Rupert.
“Well, then, exceptionally ugly goblin girls, wildly expensive, if that’s to
your taste.”
“No, thanks.”
“Goblin boys, perhaps?” said the goblin.
“Go away,” said Mallory.
“Goblin octogenarians?”
Mallory and Rupert increased their pace.
“Blind deaf mute goblin quadruple amputees?”
“You really have one?” asked Mallory.
“Sure,” said the goblin. He pulled a hatchet and a sledgehammer out of
his overcoat. “Give me five minutes.”
“Forget it,” said Mallory. “I was just curious.”
“Curiosity killed the cat,” said the goblin. Suddenly he snapped his
fingers. “How about a dead cat?”
Mallory kept walking.
“Okay for you!” yelled the goblin after him. “But don’t be surprised if
the price has tripled by midnight!”
“I’ll only be surprised if someone pays it,” said Mallory as they walked
out of earshot. “How’re you holding up, kid? It’s only another block.”
“I’ll be all right,” answered Rupert.
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“There’s the sign,” said Mallory after they’d gone another thirty yards.
“Noodnik’s Market,” read Rupert.
“Don’t let him throw you,” said Mallory. “He’s a nice enough guy. He
just likes a challenge.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will.”
They continued walking, past Ye Olde Antiquarian Book Shoppe, which
sold only volumes dealing with antiquarian books; Ming Toy Yingleman’s
authentic Greek grocery shop; the elegant Industrial Espionage Cartel, with
reinforced titanium bars over its darkened windows; and the Herbal T Store,
featuring a huge selection of T-shirts created by the famed Hollywood
designer Morris K. Herbal.
Finally they came to the grocery store and entered it. Seymour Noodnik
immediately approached them.
“Hi, Mallory,” he said. “It’s All Hallows Eve. Hell of a night to be out
on a case.”
“I’m not.”
“You’re not searching for a serial killer, or better still, a trio of lewd lady
exhibitionists?” said Noodnik, trying to hide his disappointment.
“Nope. I’m just here to buy something.”
“Crocodile wings,” suggested Noodnik. “I got a special on ’em.”
“Crocodiles don’t have wings,” said Mallory.
“Not any more,” agreed Noodnik, wiping off a butcher knife. “I can
make a price on a dozen.”
“Not interested.”
“Okay, then—canary teeth.”
“Forget it.”
“You’re a hard man to please, Mallory. How about a pair of fighting fish?”
“Let me guess,” said Mallory. “They come equipped with guns and
knives.”
“No, their names are Ethel and Wilbur, and they hate each other. She
nags, and he cheats on her with an angel fish whenever she goes to her club
meetings.”
“Will you shut up for a minute and let me tell you what I want?” said
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Mallory.
“You’re usurping my function,” said Noodnik. “My job is to sell you.”
“So let me explain what I want you to sell me.”
Noodnik frowned. “That’s not part of the job description. How about a
leather helmet with goggles for a flying snake?”
“Damn it, Seymour, are you going to shut up and listen to me or am I
going to go down the street to Gregory the Greengrocer’s?”
“All right, all right,” said Noodnik. Then, confidentially: “He used to be
Gregory the Tangrocer before he ate that bad rigatoni.”
“I need half a gallon of blood,” said Mallory.
“What kind?”
Mallory looked puzzled. “The usual—red.”
“Elf’s blood? Dragonfly’s blood? Gorgon’s blood?”
“What kind does a vampire drink?”
“It depends,” answered Noodnik.
“On what?”
“On what kind of vampire you’re talking about. Is it a Republican? A
Democrat? A Royalist? How many arms has it got? At a rough count?”
“Why don’t you just look at him yourself?” said Mallory.
“You mean he’s here?” demanded Noodnik. “Near my customers?”
“He’s harmless.”
“I’ll bet that’s what all the hadrosaurs used to say about T. Rex.”
“He’s a kid. He was just bitten last week.”
“How many times?”
“How the hell do I know?” said Mallory irritably. “Rupert, come over
here.”
There was no response.
“Rupert!” yelled Mallory. He looked around. “Where the hell did he go?”
A small, balding man with canines that were almost an inch long, giving
him the look of a chubby bulldog, approached them.
“I hate to intrude, but I believe the young man you’re looking for ran out
the door a minute ago.”
“Was someone chasing him?” asked Mallory.
“Or was he chasing someone?” interjected Noodnik.
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“I believe he was running in terror,” said the small man.
“Oh, come on,” said Noodnik. “My prices aren’t that high. Maybe I
jacked them up a couple of hundred percent for All Hallows Eve, but still
. . .”
“Did you see which way he went?” asked Mallory.
“I’m afraid not.”
“Damn!” muttered Mallory. “Where do you look for a runaway vampire
in the middle of Manhattan?”
“Perhaps I can be of help,” said the small man.
“I thought you didn’t know which way he went,” said Mallory.
“That’s quite true, sir. I lost sight of him before he’d gone five yards.”
“Well, then?”
“He is a runaway vampire, is he not?”
“Yeah.”
“And I heard Mr. Noodnik ask if you were here on a case, so clearly you’re
a detective.”
“What are you getting at?”
“Just that you and I should team up—if you will buy me the blood you
were going to buy the young man.”
“You don’t know where he is,” said Mallory. “Why the hell should I buy
you anything, and why should we team up?”
“We need each other. You know all about runaways but nothing about
vampires.” The man smiled a very toothy smile. “I, on the other hand, know
nothing about runaways, but I know almost everything there is to know
about vampires.”
Mallory looked at the little man, then out into the empty street.
“Seymour, give my friend here a bottle of blood.” He extended a hand.
“My name’s Mallory.”
“John Justin Mallory?” said the little man excitedly. “The one who found
that unicorn and solved all those other cases? This is an honor!” He took
Mallory’s hand and shook it vigorously. “Bats McGuire’s the name,
bloodsucking’s the game.”
“You sure this is a good idea, Mallory?” asked Noodnik.
“I’ll be all right,” said Mallory. He turned to Bats McGuire. “Let’s not
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waste any time. Are you ready to go?”
“Right.” The little vampire turned to Noodnik. “Keep the blood on ice
for me. I’ll be back for it once we accomplish our mission.” He led Mallory
to the door.
“Got a special on caskets,” were Noodnik’s parting words.
7:52 PM–8:26 PM
Chapter 4
“Who bit him?” asked McGuire as they walked along the street.
“Some guy called Draconis,” said Mallory. “Ever hear of him?”
The little vampire shook his head. “No. And I know most of the
vampires in town. He must be in from Chicago or maybe Kansas City.”
“Try Europe.”
“Why? I’m happy right here.”
“I mean, Draconis just arrived from Europe.”
“Well, that makes things easier,” said McGuire.
“It does?” responded Mallory. “How?”
“Those European vampires are a traditional lot. He’ll probably have
brought his coffin with him, filled with his native soil.” McGuire grimaced
as the thought. “Me, I’d much rather sleep on satin sheets at the Plaza or the
Waldorf. Anyway, the case is solved.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You’re a detective. Just track down Draconis’s coffin and wait for him.
He probably believes all that bullshit about not going out in the sunlight.”
“I take it you don’t?”
“I burn easily—but I don’t turn to dust,” answered McGuire. He stopped
as they came to a bar. “Well, now that the case is over, let’s pop in here for a
victory drink. Your treat.”
“The case isn’t over,” said Mallory. “Knowing his coffin is somewhere in
a city of seven million people and finding it are two different things.”
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“Not as different as busty naked ladies and Swedish temples, or 78 RPM
records and left-handed golf clubs,” said McGuire. “But let it pass. Let’s
think of our next move over a drink.”
“I’m starting to think that knowing everything there is to know about
vampires is not going to help you pull your weight,” said Mallory dryly.
“You should be a little more appreciative,” said McGuire defensively.
“I’ve already told you something you didn’t know about Draconis, and I’ve
only been on the case for ninety seconds.” He paused. “Now let’s get that
drink.”
“Achmed Hamib’s Desert Oasis,” said Mallory, reading the flickering neon
sign above the door. “I have a feeling they don’t serve blood here.”
“Just as well,” said McGuire. “I hate the stuff.”
“I thought you were a vampire.”
“I am.”
“Well, then?”
“When you were a kid didn’t your mother make you eat your greens?”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“You didn’t like ‘em, but they were good for you. Me, I don’t like blood,
but every now and then I have to drink a little. I find I can fool my body for
days on end by drinking Bloody Marys.”
“All right,” said Mallory. “But just one.”
They entered the bar, passed through an arched doorway past a truly
impressive display of swords, some of which weren’t made in Japan, and
found a small table in the corner. A turbaned waiter approached them.
“A beer and a Bloody Mary,” said Mallory.
“Very good, Sahib,” replied the waiter. “And for your friend?”
“I’m having the beer, he’s having the Bloody Mary.”
“And a pinch of the specialty,” added McGuire.
“Five dollars extra,” said the waiter.
“Inshallah,” said McGuire.
“Inshallah, my ass!” snapped the waiter. “You pay up front or you don’t
get a damned thing! We know you around here, Bats McGuire!”
McGuire turned to Mallory. “I hate to mention it, but you are treating.”
Mallory pulled a five out and held it up. The waiter snatched it, stuffed
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it in a pocket, and walked off.
“What specialty costs as much as the damned drink?” asked Mallory.
“Ouch!” shouted the waiter from the back room. “Goddamn, that smarts!”
“What the hell was that?” demanded the detective, startled.
“The specialty,” said McGuire. “He pricks his forefinger and mixes a
couple of drops of blood in with the drink. That’ll hold me until tomorrow.”
“Why his forefinger?” asked Mallory. “Seems to me a thumb would be
easier, or at least a little less painful.”
“By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes,” intoned
McGuire. “I’ll stick to forefingers, thank you.”
The waiter, a bandage on his finger, emerged from the back room,
carrying their drinks.
“I hope you choke on it!” he muttered as he handed McGuire his Bloody
Mary.
“Keep it up if you want a nickel tip,” shot back the vampire.
Suddenly the waiter’s entire attitude changed. “A thousand pardons,
Sahib,” he said, bowing low to Mallory. “I hope I have done nothing to
offend. May Allah give thee many strong sons and beautiful daughters.”
“I’ll settle for a fast track at Jamaica tomorrow,” said Mallory.
“It’s coming up muddy,” said the waiter. “May Allah lend wings to the
feet of Lowborn Prince.”
Mallory held up a bill. “There’s twenty in it if you and Allah can tell me
where to find Aristotle Draconis.”
“Doesn’t he play third base for the Louisiana Lechers?” said the waiter.
“He’s a seven foot tall vampire and he’s in Manhattan right now.”
The waiter frowned. “What’s he doing in Manhattan? The Lechers are
playing the Toledo Troglodytes in an hour.”
Mallory put the bill away. “Thanks anyway.”
The waiter lowered his voice. “Before you leave, Effendi, perhaps I could
interest you in some exotic belly-dancing?”
“We’re in a hurry.”
“It will only take me a few minutes to change into my costume.”
“Your costume?” said Mallory.
“Do you see anyone else here?”
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“Some other time.”
The waiter shrugged. “Your loss.”
“Doubtess,” said Mallory as the waiter walked away. The detective
turned to McGuire. “Finish that drink. I’ve got to check on my partner.”
“I thought I was your partner,” complained the little vampire.
“You’re my companion for the moment. She’s my partner. And the young
man we’re looking for nabbed her on the neck last night. I want to make sure
she’s not out doing the same thing to someone else.”
“She won’t be,” said McGuire. “It takes more than one bite to inspire the
thirst in a victim.”
“The kid was only bitten once.”
McGuire shook his head. “He only remembers being bitten once, but if he
drank some of his aunt’s blood, then you can draw one of two conclusions.
Probably Draconis was feasting on him all during the trip from Europe, and
the young man slept through it. They usually do, you know. I mean, it’s quite
painful to be bitten in the neck. Fortunately, we have a mild anesthetic in our
saliva.”
“Fine,” said Mallory. “That’s one conclusion. What’s the other?”
“That the young man is kinky beyond belief and needs to see a good
shrink.”
“Let’s stick with the first,” said Mallory. “I saw the bite marks on his
neck.”
“Okay,” said McGuire, finishing his drink. “It’s probably the more
reasonable assumption.”
“All right, let’s go.”
They walked out into the night, avoided the crowd watching dragon
races on the next block, took a pair of side streets, and soon arrived at
Winnifred’s apartment. The doorthing—Mallory had some difficulty
thinking of him as a doorman—recognized the detective and passed the two
of them in, and a moment later they emerged from the elevator onto the
seventh floor.
Mallory knocked on her door, and Winnifred, looking a little less pale,
opened it.
“Who’s your friend?” she asked, staring at Bats McGuire.
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“An expert on vampires,” replied Mallory.
“Yes, he certainly looks like one,” she said. “Come on in. May I offer you
some tea?”
“No, thanks,” said McGuire. “We just had something to drink.” He
stared at her trophy wall. “That’s quite a collection you have here, ma’am.”
“Call me Winnifred, or Colonel Carruthers.”
“I especially like the banshee.”
“You know something about banshees, Mr. . . . ah?”
“McGuire, ma’am, Bats McGuire. And yes, some of my best friends are
banshees.”
She stared coldly at him. “Banshees are a vicious and surly race.”
“Yes, ma’am, they certainly are,” he agreed promptly. “You don’t dare
turn your back on them for a second. But when you’re a 47-year-old
unemployed vampire, you take your friends where you find them.”
Winnifred turned to Mallory. “I assume Rupert is safe in some hotel
room?”
“He flew the coop,” said Mallory.
“He turned into a bat?” said Winnifred, surprised. “I didn’t think he was
that far gone.”
“Poor choice of words,” replied Mallory. “We stopped at Noodnik’s—you
know the place; we nailed Skippy the Card Shark there a few months
ago—and he saw something that scared him and ran off. It could have been
Aristotle Draconis, the vampire from the boat; it could have been something
else. We won’t know until we find him. Mr. McGuire here has offered to
help.”
“It’s a big city, John Justin,” said Winnifred. “We’d best split up.”
“You’re not going anywhere,” said Mallory. “I want you to stay home and
get your strength back.”
“Are we equal partners, John Justin?”
“You know we are.”
“Then stop giving me orders,” she said. “We’re splitting up.” She walked
toward her bedroom. “You wait here for a moment. I’ll be right back.”
She entered the bedroom and closed the door behind her.
“Probably gone to put rouge on her cheeks so she won’t appear so pale,”
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suggested McGuire.
Mallory shook his head. “Not her,” he said. “She’s got something else in
mind, but I’ll be damned if I know what.” He shrugged. “Oh well, we’ll find
out soon enough.”
“She’s quite a hunter,” said McGuire, studying her trophies.
“The best,” said Mallory.
“And a romantic, too,” added the vampire, glancing at the shelves of love
stories.
“Not quite as successful,” commented Mallory. “But she deserved to be.”
McGuire spent another few minutes looking at the accumulation of a
lifetime spent proving herself against the fiercest beasts of the jungle while
hiding from beasts of the cities—the ones that wore suits, carried briefcases,
and drank martinis. Then the bedroom door opened again, and Winnifred
stepped out.
She was dressed in khaki shirt and shorts, hunting boots, and a pith
helmet. She strode over to her gun rack, where she pulled out her favorite, a
.550 Nitro Express.
“I’m ready now,” she said.
“You can’t go out alone,” protested Mallory. “Look at you. You can barely
lift the damned gun.”
“It’s a rifle, John Justin,” she corrected him. “You carry guns in hip
pockets. You blow away vampires with a Nitro Express.” She turned to
McGuire. “No insult intended.”
“Winnifred, this is ridiculous, maybe even suicidal. You’re in no
condition to come face-to-face with something that’s probably impervious to
bullets.”
“I’ve also got my hunting knife and my wits,” she said. “They’ve served
me pretty well in the past.”
“You haven’t been in the jungle for almost ten years,” said Mallory, “and
you’ve lost a lost of blood. I don’t want you facing Aristotle Draconis alone.”
“I won’t be.”
He frowned. “I thought you said we were splitting up.”
“We are.”
“Then—“
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“There’s a phone in my bedroom,” she said. “While I was changing, I
called my former safari team—my gunbearer, skinner and tracker trolls.
They’ll be here in five minutes, and then the old crew will be off to hunt for
this Draconis.”
“I’m not going to talk you out of it, am I?” said Mallory.
“No.”
Mallory sighed. “Then I wish you a safe and uneventful hunt. The only
things I can tell you about Draconis is that his first name is Aristotle, he’s
seven feet tall, skinny as a rail, and dresses in black.”
“Then that will have to do,” she replied. “We should decide where to
meet in a few hours to compare notes and further coordinate our hunt, John
Justin.”
“Yeah, no sense going over the same ground twice. I’ll start south of
Central Park, you take from the park north, and we’ll meet”—he checked his
wristwatch—“at half past midnight.”
“Where?”
“May I make a suggestion?” said McGuire.
“Shoot,” said Mallory.
McGuire threw himself to the ground, then got up rather shamefacedly
when he realized that Mallory was not giving an instruction to Winnifred.
“There’s a charming little bistro called the Belfry at the corner of
Eldritch and Eerie, very near the south end of Central Park. I know the
owner, and he can give us a very private room where we won’t be overheard
while exchanging information.”
Mallory looked at Winnifred. “What do you think?”
“I suppose it’s as good a place to meet as any,” she replied.
“Okay,” said Mallory, walking to the door. “There’s no sense our hanging
around until your crew shows up. We might as well get busy.”
“I’ll see you at twelve-thirty,” said Winnifred. “Or perhaps sooner, if it’s
a successful hunt.”
McGuire accompanied Mallory to the elevator, and a moment later they
walked out into the night.
“All right,” said Mallory. “You’re the vampire expert. Where would a
young, very frightened almost-vampire go?”
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“I’ve been a vampire since I was seven years old,” said McGuire, “but if
it was just occurring now, I’d seek out other vampires to find out what was
happening to me, what kind of life I was facing.”
“Makes sense,” agreed Mallory. “Where is he likely to find the greatest
concentration of vampires?”
“I should think the answer would be obvious,” replied McGuire.
“The zoo?” suggested Mallory.
“Of course not,” said the little vampire.
“Maybe some graveyard?”
McGuire shook his head. “No. There’s only one place he’ll go—the
Vampire State Building.”
“The Vampire State Building,” repeated Mallory, staring at him. “You’re
kidding, right?”
“Am I smiling?” replied McGuire.
8:26 PM–9:18 PM
Chapter 5
It was the Empire State Building in the Manhattan Mallory had left behind,
but as he was constantly discovering at the most inopportune times, he
wasn’t in his Manhattan anymore.
If he’d had any doubts, they were dispelled when he and McGuire came
to the front entrance. Like most office buildings, it had a uniformed
doorman. Unlike most, this one hung upside down from the top of the
doorway.
“Hi, Boris,” said McGuire. “I wonder if you can help us out?”
“Sure,” said the doorman, stifling a guffaw. “Which way did you come
in?”
“Boris fancies himself a humorist,” explained McGuire.
“No problem,” replied Mallory. “I’ve got a fat seventy-three-year-old
aunt who fancies herself a sexpot.”
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“Boris, this is my friend, John Justin Mallory,” began McGuire. “He—”
“Mallory?” repeated the doorman, pushing off and somehow landing
lightly on his feet. “You’re the guy who found that unicorn?”
“Yeah,” said the detective. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Has he . . . uh . . . joined the club?” asked Boris.
“No,” answered McGuire. “At least not yet. We’re here on a case.”
“You’re working for him?”
“Like I said, he’s my friend. I’m just helping him out.”
“Okay,” said Boris. “Got a nice broad neck, though.”
“If anyone nabs him in the neck, it’ll be me,” said McGuire. “Now, are
you gonna listen to him or not?”
“Don’t go getting offended,” said Boris. “It was an honest question.
What can I do for you, Mr. Mallory?”
“I’m looking for a young man who’s run away,” replied Mallory. “About
five feet eight, maybe a hundred and sixty pounds, brown hair, brown eyes,
couple of puncture marks on his neck. His name’s Rupert Newton.”
“You sure he’s run away?” asked the doorman. “I mean, if he’s one of us,
he could have flown the coop, so to speak.”
“I don’t think he’s a fully-fledged member of your fraternity yet,” said
Mallory. “My guess is he’d want to seek out some vampires and find out
what’s been done to him, what he can do about it, what he can look forward
to.”
“Well, then, he’s come to the right place.”
“Have you seen him?”
“No,” answered Boris. “But then, my vision isn’t what it used to be.
Before the change, I mean.” He paused. “I suppose he could be here.”
“He’d have shown up in the last ten or fifteen minutes.”
“It’s possible, then,” said Boris. “I was off having a bite”—McGuire
giggled at his choice of words—“until about two minutes before you showed
up.”
“It’s a big building,” said Mallory. “Where would he be most likely to
go?”
“Well, it is our holy night, so most of the offices are closed,” answered
Boris. “If he’s here at all, he’ll be on the ninetieth floor.”
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“Why the ninetieth?”
“It’s the only one that’s open.”
“Thanks,” said Mallory, stepping through the doorway and into the
building. “If you see him coming out, do me a favor and grab him until I can
catch up with you.”
“Grab him?” Boris’s left eyelid began twitching and the muscles in his
jaw tightened. “With pleasure.”
“One other thing,” said Mallory, turning back to the doorman. “Does
Aristotle Draconis work in this building?”
Boris shrugged. “Check the registry. We’ve got thirty thousand people
working here.” He paused. “Well, some of them are people,” he added.
“Come on, Bats,” said Mallory, heading off to the elevator.
McGuire scurried after the detective, and a moment later the doors slid
shut behind them. The small enclosure was immediately flooded with music.
“Strangers in the Night,” commented McGuire as he identified the tune.
“Ah, the memories that brings back!”
Mallory frowned. “I don’t remember anything in the lyrics about biting.”
“What a kidder!” said McGuire. “Next, you’ll be telling me it’s supposed
to be a love song.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
The song ended at they passed the sixtieth floor, to be replaced by
another.
“Ah!” said McGuire with a happy smile. “Fangs for the Memory.”
“So what are we likely to find on the ninetieth floor?” asked Mallory.
The little vampire shrugged. “Trial lawyers, literary agents, all the usual
bloodsuckers. I mean, it is the Vampire State Building.”
“Somehow I don’t think Rupert would be looking for a lawyer or an
agent.”
“No sense guessing what we’ll find,” announced McGuire as the elevator
came to a stop and the doors slid open. “We’re here.”
The first thing Mallory saw was a huge poster announcing that a band
named Vlad and the Impalers would be performing on All Hallows Eve at
the annual Zombies’ Ball.
“Vlad and the Impalers?” said Mallory. “Are they serious?”
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“They’re the hot new group,” McGuire informed him. “Though it’ll be
tough to top last year’s band.”
“Let me guess: Lassie and the Wolfwomen?”
“Silly name,” said McGuire. “No, it was Igor and the Graverobbers.”
“It figures,” muttered Mallory.
“Personally, I always liked Guy Lombardo,” admitted McGuire, “but one
has to keep up with the times.”
“Well, let’s look around and see who or what’s up here,” said Mallory,
walking past the poster. He found himself in a broad corridor lined with
offices and tasteful store windows. He walked past a couple of doors, then
stopped and read the neatly-printed sign in a small window. “‘Bat Ecology
for the Newly Changed’. ”
“That certainly sounds likely,” agreed McGuire. “No, wait.”
He pointed to a little note taped to the door: Closed for the holiday.
Next was an AAA office. “American Auto Association?” suggested
Mallory. “What the hell would they be doing in the Vampire State
Building?”
“American Aeronautics Association,” McGuire corrected him.
Mallory peered through the window. He saw stacks of maps, a number
of books listing the best caves in America, and a desk with a sign: File Your
Flight Plans Here.
An incredibly slim woman, dressed all in black, with black hair and
bright red lips, sat at the desk. When she saw Mallory staring at her, she
winked and smiled at him.
“What do you think?” said McGuire.
“Not my type,” replied Mallory. “I prefer ’em alive.”
“I meant, do you think she can help us?”
Mallory shook his head. “The kid didn’t have wings twenty minutes ago.
I don’t imagine he’s sprouted any since then.”
“No, you’re right,” agreed McGuire. “If he’d . . . changed . . . we’d have
found his clothes. Take it from me, it’s damned hard to fly when you’ve got
a wingspan of forty inches and you’re wearing a suit, a tie, and a pair of jockey
shorts. Or even boxer shorts, for that matter.”
They passed a trio of offices, and then Mallory came to a halt before the
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Advisory Counsel for the Newly Converted. “This looks like the kind of place
he’d come,” announced the detective. “It’s certainly where I’d come if it had
happened to me.” He turned to McGuire. “You stay out here, and if you see
a kid who fits Rupert’s description, give a holler.”
“I’m not very good at hollering,” said McGuire. “I never know what to
yell. ‘Yoicks!’ seems somehow out of place, and of course ‘Excelsior!’ is just
too old-fashioned. I could scream ‘Stop thief!’, of course—but if he’s not a
thief we could have a defamation suit on our hands.”
“Okay, don’t yell,” said Mallory disgustedly. “Whistle.”
“I can’t.”
“You can’t whistle at all?”
“Only Bloody Mary is the Girl for Me.”
“Then yodel.”
“I’ve never yodeled before.”
“Goddammit, McGuire!” said Mallory impatiently. “Just pound on the
window and I’ll take it from there.”
“What if I break the window?”
“What if I break your nose?” growled Mallory.
“Okay, okay, I’ll think of something,” said McGuire.
Mallory just glared at the little vampire for a moment, then turned and
entered the office. A portly man, all smiles and dimples, stood up from
behind a desk and walked over to him, hand extended.
“Greetings, my good man, greetings!” he thundered. “How may I help
you? We represent the finest academic institutions in all Manhattan. If you’re
having difficulty finding your way around, I can arrange sonar lessons from
the great Vladimir Plotkin himself.”
“No, thanks,” said Mallory. “I—“
“Perhaps a correspondence course on Arteries and How to Find Them,”
suggested the man. “Or we have a special this week: two tickets to the opera
plus three private Squeaking On Key lessons.”
“Can I get a word in, please?” said Mallory.
“I apologize,” said the man. “My only excuse is my enthusiasm to help
the newly converted.”
“I don’t qualify,” explained Mallory. “I’m just looking for someone.”
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“Oh, we don’t arrange liaisons here, my dear sir. You’ll want the dance
studio on the fourth floor. Their advertised specialty is How to Vamp For
Your Man. Always a nice selection down there.”
“I’m looking for a young man who is among the newly-converted,” said
Mallory. “I was hoping he’d come here.”
“Are you the . . . ah . . . converter?”
“Just a friend. If he came here, it would have been in the last half hour.”
The man shook his head. “No, it’s been at least two hours since our last
visitor. You might try Ebbet’s Field; I understand the Louisville Sluggers are
in town. Our crowd just goes bats over them.” He practically choked holding
back a self-satisfied chuckle.
“How about Aristotle Draconis?” asked Mallory, ignoring his pun. “Tall,
skinny, definitely not a newcomer to the practice.”
“No, I’d remember a name like that.”
“Okay,” said Mallory with a grimace. “Thanks anyway.” He turned to
leave.
“Is your young friend from America?” asked the man.
“Yes.”
“Too bad. The Acme Coffin Company, down on forty-eight, is having a
special on soil from the Old Country. Sooner or later your young friend is
going to have to sleep—though probably not until morning. If he was from
Transylvania, he’d have to find an outlet that sells his native soil, unless he
brought it along with him. And now,” he concluded, “if there’s nothing
further, I’m going to be closing the office down until tomorrow.”
“I would have thought you did most of your business at night,” remarked
Mallory.
“Oh, absolutely we do—but this is All Hallow’s Eve, my good sir. It’s
our night to howl.” He suddenly looked embarrassed. “Well, to squeak,
anyway.”
Mallory walked to the door. “Thanks for your time.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t help you,” said the man. “But you might consider
making the usual rounds before the partying really gets hot and heavy.”
“The usual rounds?”
“The young man is aware of the pending transformation, is he not? I
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mean, that’s why you thought he might come here.”
“Right.”
“Well, then, he’s going to have to prepare for some major changes in his
lifestyle. For example, he’ll need super-strength sun screen. No more than
half a dozen pharmacies carry it. He’ll need highly polarized shades . . .
sunglasses to the uninitiated. Sooner or later he has to eat, so he’ll
undoubtedly want to buy a portable AIDS testing kit before he consumes any
of his victim’s blood. If his canines are anything like your friend’s there”—he
pointed to McGuire—“he may want to visit a cosmetic dentist before they
pierce a hole through his lip.”
“There’s a lot more to being a vampire than I thought,” remarked
Mallory.
“Oh, indeed there is, sir,” agreed the man. “If you would like to come
back tomorrow, we can continue our discussion, but I really must close up
shop now.”
Mallory walked out of the office, followed by the portly man, who locked
the door and headed off to the elevator.
“Learn anything?” asked McGuire.
“A bit about vampires,” replied the detective. “Nothing about Rupert or
Draconis.”
“There are still a few lights on,” said McGuire.
“We’ll look, but I don’t think we’re going to find anything.”
They began walking down the corridor, with Mallory reading the signs
aloud as they went: “Anemics Anonymous . . . Transformations, Inc. . . . the
Lonely Veins Club . . . You know, if I hadn’t seen the bites on Winnifred and
the kid, I’d have a hard time believing some of this.”
McGuire suddenly stopped as they came to a haberdashery. “Look at
those velvet capes!” he exclaimed. “I would kill for a cape like that!”
“I think that may be a prerequisite to wearing it,” replied Mallory.
“And that salesgirl!” enthused the little vampire. “Look at the teeth on
her! She can bite my neck any time she wants!”
“Stop drooling on my shoe.”
“My God, what a pair of wings she must have!”
The salesgirl looked up and saw McGuire staring at her. For a moment
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she looked surprised. Then she gave him a big toothy smile.
“That’s it!” announced McGuire. “I’m in love!”
“Fine,” said Mallory, starting off. “Stay here. I’ve got work to do.”
“You don’t mind?”
“No insult intended, but you haven’t been all that useful so far.”
“You cut me to the quick, Mallory.”
“Wishful thinking.”
McGuire turned back to the store, just in time to see a handsome young
man, dressed in a tuxedo, walk up to the salesgirl. She threw her arms around
him and exposed her neck to his teeth.
“Boy, talk about fickle!” muttered McGuire. “And I would have married
her!”
Mallory looked surprised. “You would?”
“Well, we’d have had the honeymoon first and maybe visited half a dozen
sex clubs to make sure we were compatible . . .”
“I’ve never seen anyone fall in love and get jilted so fast,” remarked
Mallory. “You coming or staying behind?”
“I’m coming.”
“There’s only one more store with its lights on,” said Mallory, looking
down the corridor. We’ll take a quick look and then decide what to do next.”
“It’s a poster shop,” observed McGuire as they approached it. “See, there’s
Bela Lugosi. And there’s a young Frank Langella. He’s the one who made
young girls want to be bitten. Without him, there’d be no billion-dollar
romance novel industry.”
“Is there one?”
“Young women gobble them up the way young men consume girlie
magazines.”
“Doesn’t anyone write romance novels without vampires?” asked Mallory.
“Have you been to a bookstore lately?” replied McGuire.
“Not really.”
“We’re the New Thing,” said McGuire proudly. Suddenly he frowned.
“On the other hand, getting laid anywhere but on the printed page isn’t any
easier than it ever was. I blame it on anti-vampire prejudice in high places.”
“Perhaps,” said Mallory. “Or it could just be that you’re an ugly little
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wart with bad manners and worse breath.”
“Is that any way to speak to a friend of long standing?”
“We’ve only known each other for maybe an hour,” replied Mallory.
“Well, that’s as long as most of my friendships usually last,” said
McGuire. He wrinkled his brow thoughtfully. “Probably it’s jealousy. Or
maybe envy. Or, as I was saying, it could simply be a misguided dislike of
vampires.”
“Let me know when you’re through feeling sorry for yourself,” said
Mallory.
“Right,” said McGuire. He was silent for a moment. “Five . . . four . . .
three . . . two . . . one. Okay, I’m through. For the moment, anyway. Let’s
go.”
“Just a minute,” said Mallory, staring intently through the window.
“What is it?”
“This wasn’t a wasted trip after all,” said the detective, pointing to a
poster showing a skeletally-thin black-clad man and promising that the
noted European poet Aristotle Draconis would make one of his rare public
appearances at Madison Round Garden at eleven o’clock on All Hallows Eve.
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