I. Morning: Jackson Rim City, East Central Sector, Tertia
A suicide patch is never painless, no matter what the package may claim.
Sarah 3028's husband came in from the exercise lounge, towel-tousled and damp, to find her sprawled on their primary-room floor, yellow froth strung from the corner of her lips. The Hands scampered about, frightened and confused, unable to comprehend.
He didn't need to check for the small green disc on her wrist to know what killed her; he knew what a patch death looked like, though he hadn't seen one in many years.
He wasn't sure what to do with the body. He started to arrange her limbs, then stopped, thinking that perhaps he shouldn't touch her until the Peacekeepers came. Then he remembered that he hadn't called security at all, and started to go do that; then he remembered that they had surely been watching all along, and decided to compose himself and wait until they got here, so he started to go to the beverage dispenser to program a drink. Then he thought how Sarah never liked him to see her without her tints and implants, how she could hardly appreciate being caught in a position like this, and he surely should put her into some semblance of order before anyone else came, so he stopped again and just stood there, staring down at the mortal remains of his wife.
She didn't even look like Sarah. Her hair was gray; when had that happened? He hadn't even known, so well had she concealed it. Fine lines scattered about her lips, nose, and throat, even through skin stretched tight from cheap rejuvs. It puzzled him vaguely that she chosen to die in her natural face. Wasn't death something that people usually wanted to look good for?
As if Death would look at a housewife in her sleepshift, and look again, and mutter, "Shouldn't you put on a bit of tint or something?"
He'd only been gone for a few cendiurns, not even a twentieth, surely. So little time it took to die.
Her skin looked like wax under the cool glow of the strip lights. Surely it must be hard as wax, too, though her cheek dimpled where it pressed against the floor in a lifelike mockery of flesh. Repulsed and compelled, he reached out a hand to touch her face, to see. Her skin wasn't cold after all, but not really warm either. Cooling. It didn't feel like natural flesh but it was hard to say exactly in what way. Like the way your foot feels when you've slept it numb. Like the skinsyn they use on burn victims. Like real skin, but wrong.
He knew the feel of dead skin, god knew he'd felt it before, but he didn't remember how it felt until her cool cheek touched him. Then that powerful tactile memory opened another, and another, and they cascaded out from under him into the abyss.
The room tilted; he thought he was falling--
--falling through smoke and screams, blood everywhere; the bomb was crude, pathetic--it only killed dozens to the invaders' millions; though the Tertian bombs could slag cities to glass craters, this only shredded bodies with nails and set them ablaze. People fell screaming and torn; the survivors and the dead alike burning, covered with blood, until you couldn't tell which was which, and he couldn't breathe, only choke on the stink of burning hair and skin--oh, God, he was trying to find Kathy, he'd promised Gina he'd look after Kathy, and he was screaming her name, but everyone was screaming, and he turned over body after body, bodies so badly burned that the skin slipped off in searing handfuls, and he was standing with his hands full of dead men's flesh, and the smoke and stench was so bad he couldn't breathe--and he knew he'd never find Kathy, he hadn't seen Kathy in thirty years and the camps were long gone, he'd paid the greatest price, the price in blood--
--he couldn't breathe--
Linton 95 fell to his knees, shuddering. He clutched for a handhold that the smooth walls could not offer. The air must have turned hard and slick, for he had to claw for every breath and nails of pain drove deep into his chest. The Hands scuttled away with cries of fear.
It isn't real. He got a grip on sanity by his very fingernails, and drew himself back, one gasping breath at a time. When he could breathe again, he lay for a time, shivering and gasping as though he'd run a marathon. Through his panic came a mild surprise that he tasted only the dry, chemical flatness of recycled air, not the reek of burning flesh that he remembered from the ...
"Kathy," he said quietly, aloud. Her name filled him with a flood of longing, a love so sharp it hurt. He could feel her small body snuggling against his, and looked down half-expecting to see her curled in his lap. But there was nothing but his own legs and the jumper clinging to them in the cold sweat that comes after pain. Not even the Hands would come near him.
Linton sat still in the middle of the floor, alone with his wife's corpse, and tried to conjure up more bits and pieces of Kathy. She was his--his sister, that's right. His baby sister. She was dead. He knew all this, but he didn't know how he knew it.
He hadn't realized until that day that his childhood had vanished like a swirl of autumn leaves in the wind, a crazy time so alien to the gray routine of adulthood that he wasn't even sure if he still possessed the mental equipment to decode those old memories. Still, he sat on the floor for a long time, trying to remember, while the comfort of Kathy's warm body slowly faded away.
All he got for his effort was a headache.
Linton rose shakily to his knees and stared down at Sarah's body. For an instant he saw Kathy's face superimposed over Sarah's drawn features, and then it was gone.
He meant to leave the body alone. The Peacekeepers liked the dead to stay where they fell, at least until a team could get there to record, measure, protract, scan, bundle and dispose. But she had something in one of her hands. He couldn't see what it was; her fist was turned down toward the carpet. He gently pushed her arm around, trying to turn it a little bit, succeeded in catching a glimmer of plasticine and foil. He still couldn't see what it was. Suddenly he needed to know. Maybe she'd left a message, an explanation ... He gripped her hand firmly in his, twisted it open, like a parent prying a stolen pretty out of a child's stubborn fist.
Two jointed plasticine bubbles fell into his palm, the packaging of the suicide patch. He let her hand ease back down, unaware that he chafed the still flesh as one might rub out the marks of roughness after a lover's quarrel. His mouth twisted when he saw his prize. Robbing the dead, well, death was a fitting reward to gather in return.
Lifespan Services Ltd., the package said in bright, happy gold letters. He wondered about the marketing savvy of a company that sold suicide patches in two-paks. If you were going to bother, maybe it made sense to get enough to do the job. Limited time offer ... get the new family pak ... kids go free.
No, that wasn't even remotely funny.
He turned it over and over beneath the cool strip lights. The tab on the remaining patch showed a full dose.
Maybe she'd been thinking ahead ...
Twist, pop, slap ... wasn't that how the commercial jingle went?
Twist, pop, slap, it's over just like that ... or something along those lines. He hadn't seen the ad since the import ban had gone into effect, years ago.
His luck being what it was, Linton thought, the damn thing probably wouldn't even work. He'd slap it on and wake up in a few hours in a zone clinic with a godawful hangover, or better yet, as a half-vegetable with most of his body nonfunctional. He'd heard of it happening. You wouldn't think quality control would be that much of a problem for a product that was supposed to kill its customers. Goes to show ...
Still, it was tempting. Too tempting. He'd discovered in his youth that he was too much of a coward to go through with a suicide, or with any other sort of bodily harm. It wasn't that living was so damn great, just that dying promised to be infinitely worse, at lease in the short term. But now ...
Well, if the alternative to death was life, then death didn't look so bad.
He was old, dammit. Not by the reckoning of this day and age; with rejuvs and all, he probably had another sixty, seventy good years left before things really started to deteriorate. But he was old inside. Too old to start over on some godforsaken backwater planet halfway around the galaxy. Too old, and too set in his ways, and too much of a coward to even consider doing anything else when the orders came down.
With some reluctance, he tucked the package in his jumper pocket. Still running then, Linton, he said to himself. But it made him feel slightly better to know that it was there if he needed it. He looked about guiltily, scanning the room as if he could see the video pickups that he knew were there. No one seemed to be watching. Only the face of the President-For-Life stared back at him from flat-pix, icons, window-walls, just as in any other home on the planet. Perhaps the video feeds were behind the President's eyes, Linton thought, nurturing the irony of that heretical idea even as he cringed in the fear that his impiety was written on his face.
But no Peacekeepers came, not to collect the dead nor to cart him off for corpse-theft or heresy. He rose, feeling the ache and crack in his joints. Still feeling the gravity on this world, after all these years.
"What are you waiting for?" he asked in the direction of the ceiling, and waited, aware that he would get no answer, but half-expecting one anyway.
It didn't come.
Maybe they had more important things to do than collect the bodies of the recently deceased in a properly timely fashion. He went to the touchscreen on the wall, intending to be sure that the matter was brought to their attention--not that they could possibly have overlooked like this, of course, but what with the war and all, it was easy for routine matters to get byte-swapped under.
When he keyed up the screen, though, a message was waiting for him. It wasn't even crypted. It blinked at him steadily from the message window. It was only four words long.
Linton read the words, read them again. And closed his eyes, shaking.
The Peacekeepers were watching after all, it seemed.
The message said: WHEN CAN YOU LEAVE?
2. Afternoon: Jackson Rim City, East Central Sector, Tertia
The room was a tiny cubicle, deep within the sprawling warren of Jackson Rim City. It was three meters long, two wide, two deep. The room's occupant had spent many weeks' wages having one of the long walls converted into a full-sized window screen, and now it looked across the rooftops of first-century Rome, painted bloody in the light of a sunset that never faded to darkness, a blazing sunset the likes of which Italy might perhaps have seen in the wake of Vesuvius or Etna. With the lights in the room turned low, as they often were, and small fans in the ceiling blowing a warm Mediterranean breeze across her hair, she could look down from her balcony across the rooftops of a city that had never looked like this, on a world that no longer existed.
Along the lintel, above the window, was a single placard; it could not be told, by looking, if this placard was real or part of the simulation. It read, OF ALL THE VIRTUES, COUNT OBEDIENCE MOST GOLDEN. In the red twilight, the letters could scarcely be seen.
The girl huddled in front of the window-wall, bathed in light the color of blood. She was curled in the fetal position, and she was trembling. An open bottle of gin lay near her hand, in a spreading pool of its contents. Two Hands scuttled from the access hatch in the wall, picked it up, and scuttled out again. Another one came back to wipe up the mess, keeping a very safe distance from its trembling mistress.
After a few moments she stiffened and sat up, throwing back her shoulders, glaring around the room. "You watching that?" she snapped. "It's happening more often."
There was no reply. She got up, staggering a bit, and the Hand scurried hastily out of her way. She aimed a halfhearted kick at it, and went to sit down at the countertop that ran along one short wall. The counter, chair and bed were the only pieces of furniture in the room, and all were heavily cluttered with empty bottles, leftover food, makeup, books, clothes and a jumble of other debris the Hands had been frightened to touch.
She reached through the halfway cleared space in front of the electronic dumbwaiter. "Brandy," she said, and waited for the bottle to rise into the space.
"Computer, there's something wrong with the dumbwaiter."
"Ma'am," the computer said diffidently. "Your alcohol access privileges have been revoked for the next twelve hours."
She spun to glare at the ceiling. "Why?"
"Missive from the Bureau of External Affairs."
"It can't be another job already. I just got back from the last one two days ago. And, god, they hardly gave me a chance to reconfigure from the one before that." She shivered, fighting the weariness, fighting the fear of going back out into the field before she'd had time to reconstruct her personality from the last dump.
The text appeared overlaid on the Tuscan rooftops. The girl read it silently, twice.
"Delete," she growled, and rummaged among the empty bottles for one that still had something left in the bottom. In growing frustration, she tossed some of them onto the floor, where they shattered and Hands ran quickly from the access hatch to pick up the pieces.
"No time," she snarled under her breath. "Back in the field with no time. Fine. See how they take it when I come completely unglued. See how you like it!" she screamed at the walls, and threw a bottle. It smashed in a rain of glass. The bits glittered in the sunset, a shower of blood falling on the bed, on the floor, on her outstretched arms.
"Is it really a good idea to use her? She's highly unstable, and getting more so every job."
The other man shrugged, and glanced away from the screen showing an aerial view of the girl's room, where she was kneeling on the floor, shaking. He looked quickly over his shoulder at Linton 95, strapped to a chair in the middle of the room.
Linton's eyes were open, but unfocused; the drugs had taken effect.
The man leaned closer to his companion. "It might make her the best one for this particular assignment. Think about it. She's getting to be a liability, but she hasn't done anything blatant yet. Nothing where you can point your finger. One of these days, though, she's going to blow something wide open by accident. You've got to deal with problems like that before they occur."
"Two for one," the other agreed, also glancing at Linton.
"Two for one." He smiled. "After all ... from what I've heard, Kismet is a place where it's very easy for people to disappear."
3. Night: Kismet, Rinolo Moon, Ghost Sun System
Three moons hung in the sky. Below, the rim of the gas giant Destiny showed its orange sliver above the fourth moon's pocked surface.
The searchers were man and woman, clad in silver suits that trapped their body heat and reflected it back onto them. Otherwise, they would have died quickly in the moon's bitter cold--though the cold wouldn't have killed them nearly as quickly as decompression. Images haunted the two: burst eyeballs, lungs shredded like so much wet paper, tongue protruding and black with frozen blood. Both had seen vacuum death before. Both knew that their one-time companion was no longer alive, could not be.
"Long ago," said the man suddenly, his voice tinny in the woman's helmet. "Long ago, lovers found the moon a romantic place."
"Romantic indeed, as only an airless frozen hell can be," the woman said.
He swept a silver arm past their landfoil's half-open canopy. "Look out there. Look out there and tell me you don't find that beautiful, Colette."
"No. I don't."
"You're not looking."
So she looked, and tried to see it through his eyes. The dust plain swept out to a near and curving horizon, all reddish orange in the reflected light of the gas giant rising above them. To their right marched an endless series of mountains, black and ragged as the day they were formed--ten thousand years ago, or ten billion, it made no difference in a land where the only erosion was the slow, soft wearing of time. The landfoil's rooster-tail of dust arched behind them and fell back slowly without wind or atmosphere to disturb it. She found herself straining her eyes for a gleam at the base of the mountains, a light or reflection or anything to reaffirm the presence of the town they had so quickly left behind. The wide horizon pressed down on her, just as it seemed to lift her companion up.
Strange to think that they had both been born on this small world, so different from the warm, wet place where their ancestors went from flippers to four legs to two; stranger still that he loved it, she thought, when there wasn't anything in it to love. Only an airless wasteland, and a small frontier town where people killed each other without cause, as they had killed Zack days earlier and left him somewhere out in this awful wilderness. She wanted desperately to find him, even knowing that the thing they took back to Kismet wouldn't be the man she remembered, laughing and irreverent and so very alive, such an antithesis of everything this land stood for.
Zack had been a good man, and her friend. This place killed him. For that, if not for any other reason, she could see no beauty in it.
"It's quite lovely, really, " she said. "Silly of me not to see it before."
The man sighed, and closed the canopy, folding them safely in a small island rocketing through the waste outside. He could have repressurized, but neither had any inclination at the moment to take their helmets off, so they conserved a bit of oxygen and fuel.
"No poetry in you, Cadet," he said.
"Go ahead, Shelley, open your visor, and then we'll see how much poetry is in you--we'll need to scrape it off the sides of the car with an air hose, along with everything else." But she felt a sting, a sense of failure. He never called her Cadet unless she'd disappointed him. Not that Shelley ever pulled rank on her, or made her feel like an inferior ... but, gods, he'd been in the Port Authority forever, and surely his opinion of her should matter, if she was ever to advance beyond this godawful world.
"That's not poetry; it doesn't rhyme, and lord knows it isn't a haiku. Read 'em off, Colette."
Colette now, not Cadet. She focused on the gauges of the landfoil's ancient instrument panel. The thing must be fifty years old if it was a day; it was even a manual, driven by hand and not VR. She'd never driven a manual before and was just as glad that Shelley took the task. She knew he could read the gauges perfectly well; he knew she needed the practice."West three-oh-seven twelve mark three. North one-seven-three mark zero. Three degrees variation since the last reading. Uh, infrarometer fairly steady, rising one-zero-three. Sonometer steady, all variation mapped out to our course with a frequency differential of point oh two three--that's negligible, sir. Variance point six six. Grid overlap virtually none."
"Twenty-nine percent. We can recharge when we get to the sun zone."
"Christ. We're nowhere near the horizon. You know that, right?"
"We can make it." Colette bent industriously over her instrument displays. This became more difficult when her boss leaned on the instrument panel.
"Turn around. Goddammit, Zack, how'd you get yourself dumped in this hole?"
"Turn around?" Colette repeated.
"But, si--that is, Shelley, when we get to the horizon we can recharge, and go on as far as we have to."
"Cadet, I said we're turning around."
Colette glanced at her readouts. She couldn't be that wrong ... "We'll just make it there, sir. Not much left over, but then, we won't need it. Once we get into the--"
"Colette ... look. You keep this in mind and you might make it to thirty. Assume nothing. Leave nothing to chance. Keep an alert eye for margin-of-error and you'll be fine. Turn around."
"Good girl nothing. What the hell was that, Shelley? You're always telling me trust in myself and my own instincts. Then I try to do that but you overrule me. What the hell is your problem?"
"The fuel gauge reads high," Shelley said.
"Fuel gauge reads high. Thought about getting it fixed but it costs too much. It's accurate down to about thirty-five percent. Give or take. Under that, it sticks. We might already be past the safety margin to make it back."
Colette was silent for a moment.
"How much fuel do we really have?" she asked at last.
"We're okay. I've been watching it; we didn't go under thirty-five too long ago. I'm not kidding, Colette, don't count on chancy things like solar power to save you. What if you misjudge the distance? Or say you hit a rock that's not on the grids? There goes another half-hour or so, and all of sudden you're sitting in the middle of the desert, hoping for a handy djinn to happen along. Or your fuel to spontaneously decay, or something."
Colette stared fixedly at her screens and tuned her helmet radio to the first Top-2000 station on the dial. The airless desert rolled beneath their jets in perfect silence, and after listening to music for a while, she turned it off and said to the man beside her, "So you knew we wouldn't find him, huh?"
"I didn't know, but I pretty much figured."
"So why did we come out here, Shelley?" She wanted to snap, but it came out sounding more like a whine. "Some kind of test for me? Another of your life lessons?"
"Something like that."
"That's just cruel."
"Maybe," said the man beside her, "that's part of the lesson."
Colette turned away from him. On the view screens, the moon's surface slipped away, unchanging.
Nice view, Linton had thought, two weeks ago.
Now the thought crossed his mind that the surface of the moon Rinolo looked a lot better in Tourism Board stereograms that from 500 kem (and closing).
Linton clung to the safety straps and tried very hard not to look at the windowscreen.
Across the slingpod's small cabin, the girl turned from onrushing violent death and called, "Isn't it a lovely view from up here?"
Linton closed his eyes.
"Oh, it's so fast," the girl cried.
Fast indeed; to Linton, it felt as if they were falling into a bottomless pit, made worse by the sickening awareness that the pod they rode had no guidance or propulsion of its own. When he shut his eyes, though, there was no sense of movement apart from a slight side-to-side vibration, now that his eyes were no longer telling him that the moon was rushing up to meet them. Linton tried to muster his limited understanding of what was happening to him. He knew that the pod wasn't accelerating, but traveling at a constant speed, suspended in the Helmann field between the station and the moon. The only times in the brief journey when their bodies became aware of the speed at which they traveled were at launch, with accompanying acceleration, and at the end when they decelerated. In short, it was exactly like the transit cars back home. The difference was that the transit cars were on the ground, not plummeting toward it.
Linton wondered what would happen if the field failed. He visualized the pod plowing into the Rinolan rocks at some horrendous kem-per-second. It would probably make a dandy crater.
Somehow waiting to die with your eyes shut was worse that seeing what was about to hit you. Linton risked a peek about the cabin. Most of the other people on the pod appeared to be commuters: bored and frazzled men and women, lining the sides of the pod and slumping into their safety harness. One man was apparently asleep and his head kept lolling onto the shoulder of the woman next to him, who shrugged him off irritably. Across from Linton, a young woman with painted tribal designs on her shaved head was plugged into a newsreader. The tiny pod was crowded enough that some people were actually standing (floating, rather) in the aisle, unharnessed, secured only by their grip on safety loops lining the cabin. No one seemed particularly concerned by what Linton saw as the perfectly obvious dangers of plummeting from outer space into a moon's gravitational pull.
He couldn't help being amazed by the variety of people around him. He'd been stunned, at first, when he stepped out of the liner's airlock onto Rinolo Station. Tertia had nothing like this explosion of human variety. People out here mingled without regard for skin color or gender or class. They wore different clothes, different hairstyles, different jewelry and personal tokens. It was oddly indecent.
Gravity wrenched him out of his reverie. The passengers were flung back, then forward, then dropped awkwardly in their harnesses as the local gravity took hold. The shaved woman irritably adjusted her newsreader jack, knocked askew by the rough braking.
"Wow, is it always, like, this exciting?" the girl breathlessly asked a burly man next to her.
He turned and stared down at her. "What do you mean? Did something happen?"
Linton dared to look out the window, now that they were nearer the ground. The moon's cratered surface unrolled beneath them at a terrifying speed.
"Sheer!" the girl cried.
Her name was Valantine. ("Valantine, with an 'A'. Like the actress. Did you know my mother's an actress, by the way?") Linton knew little else about her, except that she had been granted a travel permit to visit her mother in Kismet, after years of applying, and she had never been a passenger between the stars before. Neither had Linton, but he hated to let on in front of a fourteen-year-old.
The kid had attached herself to him as they disembarked from the interstellar transport onto the station. She'd come running up to him as if she'd known him all her life, then stopped and backed away, and Linton had realized that she'd mistaken him for somebody else. But she was travelling alone, and he didn't have the heart to shove her back into the impersonal crowd.
"Hey, look at this, Linton! Look! This is so sheer, man."
Actually, she was right. Black and red rocks unfolded beneath the hurtling pod. He could see a mountain range marching along beside them, the peaks as sharp and jagged as the day they formed. No erosion here, he recalled from the Tour pamphlets.
"Where do you think Kismet is?" Valantine asked Linton.
"I don't know. In the mountains somewhere."
And then they were above it, and he had not seen it coming. The city of Kismet nestled entirely within one giant crater. He hadn't realized how big the mountains were until he saw the city for comparison. The domes looked like toys tossed carelessly onto the crater floor, with other equipment scattered around them like bits of broken plastic. Linton caught a glimpse of gleaming towers behind the crater, part of some factory or something, venting a thin jet of steam into the vacuum.
The pod dropped neatly into its socket, and with a final wrenching jerk, they were still.
"Oh, so sheer," Valantine said, unfolding her hands from the straps.
Linton took a deep breath and let go. His conditioned anti-change response had not hit him as bad as he'd feared; there had been a moment of overwhelming panic as he boarded the shuttle leaving Tertia, and another as the pod started its descent to Kismet, but other than that, he was handling it without too much trauma.
The computer told them to disembark now. They let go of their holds and joined the crowd of bodies jostling in the pod's cabin. Valantine bumped into Linton from behind and propelled him into the man in front of him, who glared back irritably.
"I'm sorry! Linton? Are you okay? I was looking at the doors. Did you see them? They open out from the inside just like those, what do you callems, but bigger. I've never seen anything so sheer in all my life!"
Not since you got onto the shuttle, Linton thought. "Yeah. I'm okay. Thanks for asking."
The pod's irising door opened onto a tunnel that looked for all the world like a utility corridor. The walls were some kind of rough plaster, and naked cables swayed from the ceiling, with a striplight stuck between them at random intervals. Linton glanced around nervously, but none of the other passengers seemed to find this odd. The girl was gaping with the same wonder that she'd used on the Rinolan scenery. Presumably this was "sheer" too. The rest of the passengers crowded past Linton with irritated mumbles. He let himself be carried along with the flow.
The walls were plastered with various advertisements, both flat paper bills and colorful holo-ads. Linton ignored them at first, until his eye was caught by a large black-and-yellow sign that he read, at first glance, as "Kismet Welcomes You." Standard tourist fare, he thought. Something niggled his subconscious until he had to look at the sign a second time; it actually said, "Kismet Tolerates You."
He slowed down to read the rest of them:
*Not responsible for lost or stolen valuables or children - The Management*
*Unattended luggage will be incinerated*
*Short-term air passes available at front counter*
*Drink the water at own risk - The Management*
*Please keep your killer android leashed at all times*
The holobill ads were even more interesting than the warning signs. Bright-colored 3D models from Stumpy Dick's Android Pleasure Palace vied for attention with Ship of the Dead Rental Coffins and Happy Harry's Contract Assassination (2-for-1 Special Today Only!).
Linton rubbed his thumb against the wall. It was cold and gritty, and he realized that what he'd taken for plaster was actually raw, natural stone. A brief surge of the anti-change conditioning threatened to overwhelm him--induced agoraphobia--and he swallowed it down.
They stepped out of the tunnel onto a metal platform where a real human attendant stood guard, scanning a quick swipe down each passenger with a handheld wand of some sort. She was very young, a homely girl with long black hair to her hips and an apparently real pistol hanging at her side. Valantine kept pushing at Linton to hurry up. She was wildly excited.
"You okay, sir?" the woman asked him.
"Yeah," Linton said, and let her swipe him through. Valantine followed a step behind him, giggling as the woman swiped her wand down and back up.
Kismet, Linton thought.
They were standing on a metal catwalk, with only a softly shimmering force-screen between them and the hundred-meter drop to the floor of the dome. Linton looked out and wished he hadn't. On Tertia, the indoors was properly partitioned into corridors, halls, shafts. It wasn't open. Here, he could look straight up to the exposed girders of the ceiling arching over him, and straight down to the vast open floor of the dome, swarming with machines and people. He could see across the tops of buildings, through the slim spires rising to touch the underside of the dome, all the way to the distant wall of natural rock where the dome abutted the crater wall. It was disturbingly like being outside, a concept he remembered only vaguely from his youth.
"Oh, look." Valantine pressed against the force-screen eagerly, giving Linton a whole new surge of vertigo at the sight of her hanging in midair. "Where's Mother? Do you see her anywhere down there?"
Linton thought about pointing out that he had no idea what her mother looked like, not to mention that no one on the ground could be identified anyway. He decided it would be pointless. "No."
"I haven't seen her in so long. She's an actress, did I tell you that?"
He wondered if it would make any difference to remind her that she had. Probably not.
"Like Valantine Risse, who I'm named for, you know. But not a simulactress like that Valantine. Simulactresses are very common. Mother is a real actress. On stage. She's been in Shakespeare. Do you know what that is?"
Linton shook his head no, and tried to look at the people around him without being obvious about it.
"Neither do I," Valantine said vaguely, "but I think it was a vid from Old Terra, very famous. Mother has done it. She said the theatre scene here is very sheer."
The lift was old and slow, and they found themselves crowded in behind two women with their arms full of parcels, clutching the packages to keep them from floating away in the lift field. They chattered to each other loudly about the air on the station, how it was so much more pure than the air downside. Between their prattling and Valantine's carrying on about her mother, Linton could barely think. Which was probably just as well, since he was trying to repress his conditioned fears.
The lift field released them on the ground level. The lift shaft was close, hot, crowded, and when they stepped out, the temperature seemed to drop about ten degrees. The air smelled like metal and had a strange, flat quality. Sounds reverberated from every direction. Linton shrank back, bumping into the shaved woman from the shuttle, who pushed him away. Carried by the moving mass of humanity, he found himself farther and farther from the safety of the tube, exposed beneath a strange metal sky.
But when he recovered his wits and oriented himself, it wasn't really so bad out here. People jostled against his shoulders, a sensation he found unpleasant, but he wasn't terrified. You could get used to the wide open space, after all.
He looked down at the sudden sensation of five chubby little fingers gripping his. Valantine grinned at him. "Come on! You can meet Mother! I will tell her that you did a fine job of showing me around and keeping me from being afraid. She'll swoon, I bet."
Swoon? Linton mused.
Valantine led him past rows of shops doing a poor business in souvenirs and cheap food items. He smelled food and his mouth watered, but Valantine led him on, then around, and back. Linton darted surreptitious glances at his chrono. He was supposed to meet his new boss at precisely fourteen hundred hours, and he still had no idea where to find him. He hated to abandon the little girl in this place, though.
Finally she flopped down on the floor. Linton, startled and somewhat concerned, squatted next to her. He noticed with some surprise that the floor was made of smooth but apparently natural stone. He could even see the grooves where it had been scored away.
"She's not here," Valantine said.
"Of course she is," Linton said. "She's just late." Speaking of which, he managed another peek at his chrono. Thirteen hundred two. He had to get going.
"She won't come. She probably forgot. Something's ... something's wrong."
"No, she'll come," Linton attempted to reassure her, while trying to figure out how to get himself out of this situation before fourteen hundred.
Valantine crossed her legs. She was wearing one of those insanely short, side-slit skirts that the kids these days seemed to fancy, and it apparently made it difficult for her to walk, because she'd been fidgeting with her legs ever since he first set eyes on her. Either that, or she thought that standing with her chubby little knees pressed together made her look sexy. She was fourteen, for pity's sake.
She looked about ready to throw a temper tantrum or something. Linton wondered if fourteen-year-old girls still threw temper tantrums. From all the reports he'd heard, they did, and he wondered if he should back away. However, she simply threw back her curly head, and sighed. She looked up at Linton.
"Why are you still here?" she asked him crossly.
"You wanted me to meet your mother."
"Why? It's not like--" Valantine stopped with an odd expression and looked away, sniffling, her arms spread out to either side. Under her shiny jacket, she was wearing nothing but a slick black V-top cut all the way down to her navel. God, Linton thought, she is trying to look sexy. On a child that young, it was obscene. So galactic, so un-Tertian.
She was a cute kid: button nose, freckles, curly brown hair. She seemed the very image of the girls in the recruitment posters and vids back home, the fresh-faced farm girl waiting virtuously for her boyfriend to come home from his first tour of duty. Only the fresh-faced farm girl didn't wear short skirts and V-tops; the farm girl didn't chatter about family problems, or look like her little freckled face was about to wrinkle up and burst into tears.
"Hey," Linton said. "Don't cry."
"Why not?" she demanded, looking away from him. "Seems like a good idea to me. Everything's wrong ..."
He had no answer to that. After a moment, she looked up at him again, her brow wrinkled in a small, puzzled-looking frown. Her face was pale, and broken capillaries stood out in a sharp speckled band against her freckles. He was startled himself, to see something like that in someone so young; it looked like the face of an alcoholic.
"Aren't you going to try to comfort me?" she asked hesitantly.
"I'm not very good at it," he said. To his surprise and profound relief, she began to laugh.
"You are not only not good at it, you're very bad at it," she said.
"I'm not that bad!" Linton protested.
Valantine took a deep breath, and wiped her hand across her face. She smiled at him.
"Can I tell you something?"
"I think you're very strong, and very brave for trying to protect me."
"Huh?" Linton said.
"I just think you're a nice guy," Valantine snapped defensively. "Thanks for looking out for me! Okay?"
"Right. Right. I know." Never pass up a compliment, he told himself, and took a quick glance towards his chrono. Sixteen after.
"I'm hungry," Valantine said. "Would you like to get something to eat while we wait for Mother?"
He wanted to, but ... "I can't. I have to meet someone."
She started to pout, then bit her lip. "Please ... Look, I know I can get a little obnoxious sometimes. Daddy used to ... I mean, back when Daddy was ... Please, it's all so strange and I don't know what's going on and you're the only person I know here and can't you please wait with me until Mother shows up? I promise I'll be quiet and only speak when I'm spoken to. Please don't go."
She quivered on the edge of tears.
"No, no, it's not you! I really do have to meet someone. It's very important. I'm sorry."
He was afraid she'd throw a fit, but she just sighed, and stood up and brushed herself off. "I understand," she said with another little sigh. "You're busy. I know."
"Look, I don't--I mean ..." Damn! He had absolutely no experience with teenage girls. It had been thirty years since his sisters were that age.
Sisters? There had been more than one! Kathy and ... who?
Valantine smiled at him. "Don't sweat it," she said. "I will just go and find a foodery ... no, I guess they call them restaurants out here, don't they? Just like in the vids?"
"I guess so," Linton said, and realized for the first time that he was not just suffering from anti-change conditioning, but homesickness as well.
"Mother will be here soon, I'm sure. If she doesn't, I'll message her. Just in case ... I know I just met you, but can I please ... no, forget it."
Valantine twisted her hands behind her, suddenly shy. "Can I have some way to get in touch with you? It's ... I don't mean to be a bother, but it's just that I don't know anyone here."
She's like me, Linton thought: confused, scared, adrift in a strange place. Yet she clung to him like a lifeline, having nowhere else to turn. "I'm booked at a sleepery called Lake Tranquility."
Valantine giggled. "Lake Tranquility? What a funny name."
"Yeah, I know, but it was cheap." Twenty-two after. He really had to go. "You can just ask the computer about it, I guess, if you need to get in touch with me. I don't mind. Good luck finding your mother. Nice meeting you, miss." He turned to go, and felt a soft touch brush his arm. He turned back. She was looking up at him, and her soft child's eyes were wide and, unexpectedly, frightened.
He leaned closer, as she beckoned him.
"I have a question," Valantine said softly.
"Have you ... have you ever heard of somebody called Signy 127?"
"I don't think so," Linton said hesitantly. "Who is she?"
"I--I don't know." Fear had dilated her pupils until the color of her eyes could no longer be seen. "But ... but I keep thinking of her name, and I keep thinking it's very important that I find out who she is."
"Why would I know who she is?" Linton protested.
Valantine shivered. "I don't know. I ... I first remembered her name when I saw you on the shuttle. I thought you might be somebody I know, and she might be somebody I know too."
Linton remembered how she'd come running up to him on the station, and how her bright, animated face had closed down in fear and confusion, and she had stopped and backed away from him.
"I'm afraid I don't know you, and I don't know this Signy 127 person, either."
"I don't know what to do, Linton. Everything's wrong somehow."
Linton hesitated, then reached out and squeezed her arm in the most comforting, big-brotherly gesture that he knew. Valantine stiffened, then a strange expression spread across her face, and she smiled at him. It was an odd smile, almost ... old? There was something cold about it.
"Thanks," she said, and turned away.
"Hey ... Valantine?"
She turned back.
Will I see you again? he wanted to say. And, Who is Signy? and, What the hell is going on here?
"Where does your mother live?"
He could not interpret the emotions on her round little face--surprise, happiness, mixed with disappointment and even--anger?
"Mother lives near the Boardwalk. I shouldn't be giving out her code. Tell you what, Linton: I'll message you at your hotel, and say hello. We can get a bite to eat somewhere."
"I'd like that," Linton said, and was rewarded by a quick smile.
Yeah, and she's fourteen, he berated himself, watching her walk away. Dirty old man.
Linton kept an eye on her, though, as she crossed the docks, conscious that the girl had never been off her homeworld before, but she moved purposefully towards the nearest food vendors.
Signy 127, he reminded himself.
Space-lagged, he told himself. It had been a long flight, and he looked forward to finding his sleepery (hotel?) and stretching out in a real bed for a change. First, though, he had to find his new commanding officer, Judas Hawkins.
He looked for Valantine one last time, but she had disappeared among the people and shops.
Kismet turned out to be every bit as big as it looked. Linton found himself in a district of some kind of warehouses or housing--blank-faced buildings stretching all the way to the impossibly high ceiling.Two workmen moving massive crates with a magneloader gave him directions to the office section, which only got him more deeply lost in the warehouses. Eventually, by luck more than design, he wandered into a more pedestrian-friendly part of town and found a streetside terminal that mapped him to the offices of the Internal Security Core: Level One, Aurora Wing, Third Office Block. After a few frustrating minutes he figured out why he was having so much trouble finding them on the map the terminal had displayed for him.
Level One was under his feet.
Well, it made sense. He had assumed that the city of Kismet was enclosed under this one dome, but even as big as the dome was, it scarcely had room for a hundred thousand people to live, work and play. According to the maps on the terminal, most of the city was underground. It was numbered downward. The top level was called, simply, Surface. So Level One should be the next one down.
They had transit tubes here, just like at home, and he found the station without too much trouble and took the tube to the first level. For once, something was going right--Aurora Wing turned out to be right off the station, not hard to find at all. He made it to Hawkins' waiting room with two minutes to spare.
No one was there.
The outer door was unlocked and Linton knocked, waited, knocked again, then opened it.
He found himself in a small room with chairs, newsreaders and terminals--clearly a waiting room. A windowscreen on one wall showed waves breaking along some dark shore. Linton had to look away from it, startled by a surge of longing.
There was a single door opposite him, closed, its glass dimmed in privacy mode and its locklight showing red. Beside it, a grille let onto some kind of receptionist's alcove, but no one seemed to be in there, either. Linton walked over and peered through to make sure. He was squinting at the glass in the other door, trying to see through it, when a quick patter of footsteps behind him made him jump.
The woman jumped, too, and the teetering stack of polyfibrithene printouts in both arms went flying. Papers skittered across the floor, under furniture, and one drifted to rest against Linton's foot.
"Damn!" the woman screamed. Linton jumped again. "Damn fucking bloody--" and she went on in this vein for a few seconds, giving Linton just enough time to panic and then to realize that it wasn't really directed at him, but at life in general.
She heaved a sigh and bent down to pick them up. Linton scrambled to help her. He couldn't tell her rank; her uniform was olive-drab, bare of insignia except a pupilless eye in a gold triangle over her breast, but he understood that women sometimes outranked men in the galaxy at large, so he wasn't sure how to react to her.
"Thanks," the woman said. "Sorry if I gave you a start. Is two bit in yet?"
At least that's what he thought she said.
"Oh, don't apologize," she sighed. "Don't start off my day like that. It's bad enough that--" She trailed off.
The outer door opened again. "Jackie!" a voice bellowed, and Linton jumped. So did the woman. Then her eyes narrowed and she swiveled around to glare at the old man who'd just limped into the room. Linton recognized him a heartbeat too late as the senior officer he'd spoken to over the vid, and saluted.
"Who the hell are you?"
"Linton. Linton 95. Class Four."
The old man continued to stare. Then the filmy blue eyes cleared somewhat. "You're Tertian."
"Oh, at ease soldier, f'r cryin' out--Jackie!" he bellowed. Linton jumped. So did the woman.
"What!" she bellowed back, in spite of being only a few steps away. "Do! You! Want! Sir!"
Hawkins dug one thumb in his ear.
"Got a set of lungs on you, woman."
"Yell at me like I'm an Iridian pleasure slave again and you'll get a good look at your lungs too, sir."
"Love it when you talk dirty. Where's my whisky? Where's my damned drugs?"
"In your office."
He hitched himself awkwardly into his office. Linton followed, nervously. "Ass got shot off in the war," Hawkins explained conversationally.
"Uh," Linton said.
"Secuban homing bullet. Never even saw the bastard and then, wham! Right in the gluteus maximus. Hurt like hell. You ever try to walk without your gluteus maximus, soldier?"
"They gave me a field transplant from a guy named, what was his name, JACKIE!"
"What!" Jackie hollered from the outer office.
"What was the name of the--"
"Billy!" she yelled.
"Billy! Yeah, that's his name, Billy. Got his head blown off. They used one of those field-mech AIs and the damn thing about killed me. I was pissing blood for a week. Damn transplant didn't take. You ever get rejection syndrome in your ass, soldier?"
"No, sir," Linton mumbled, staring at him.
"Combat's a cakewalk after that. I'll tell you. Jackie!"
"Where'd you say the--"
"Top left drawer of your desk!" Jackie yelled. "Demanding bastard," she added in a slightly lower, but no less penetrating tone of voice.
"She's hot for me. Gotta get the intercom fixed," he muttered, pawing through the contents of the desk drawer. "Tried using VR pins to communicate between the offices. Kept picking up accidental broadcasts from the entertainment channels. You try having a conversation about a serial homicide with the latest episode of The Young and the Horny playing in your cerebral cortex. Shit." He pulled out a massive handful of papers and other junk, dumped it onto the desk and picked out a card of yellow slap patches. He peeled off a square and pasted it to the inside of his wrist. "Ah. That's more like it. Want a stim?"
"Uh, no. Uh, no, sir, I mean."
"Your loss. Whaddya want?"
"Uh, I work ... I work for you. I think."
"Oh," said Judas Hawkins, picking at the corner of the stim patch on his wrist and stalling for time. His face cleared suddenly. "The new receptionist! That's you."
"I tell you what happened to the old receptionist? The shower did him in. One day he's categorizing file copy and the next, I hear the sonic head in his apartment malfunctioned and liquefied his brains."
"Yes, sir," Linton said helplessly.
"Luckily, we still have Jackie."
"Whoopdeshit," Jackie said from the other room, and Linton realized that she could hear every word they said perfectly clearly.
Hawkins rubbed at his nose with a thumb. "Unfortunately, there's a problem."
"We have an issue."
"It's a small matter of cash flow."
Hawkins squinted at him. "You some kind of robot or something?"
"What he means, Linton," Jackie said from behind him. Linton looked over his shoulder and saw that she was leaning in the doorway. "We can't afford to pay you."
"Oh. Uh, I mean, oh, ma'am."
"Are you familiar with the Kismet Port Authority?" Hawkins asked.
"No, sir," Linton said hastily, infinitely relieved to have a question that he knew the answer to.
"They lost one of their top guys a couple of weeks back. Much as I hate to kick you off again, I'd say they need you more than we do right now."
"Particularly since we can't pay you," Jackie said.
"Wait," Linton said. "Sir, I--are you saying I'm being transferred?"
"Transferred? Sure. Y'kin call it that. We're all one big family here, y'see," Hawkins said. "ISC and Port Authority. They wash my back, I wash theirs."
"Sounds like a damned incestuous family," said Jackie.
"Don't you have work to do, woman?"
She waved a hand. "I can walk Linton over to Fleetwood's office, and fill him in while we walk. Okay with you, Two-Bit?"
Hawkins shrugged, and held out the card to her. "Whatever you want to do. Stim?"
"No, thanks. Come with me--Linton? That's your name?"
"Yes, ma'am. Linton 95."
She frowned. "95? Is that your surname?"
"It's my number, ma'am."
"Oh, right. You're Tertian." She'd started to walk off without him, but stopped and looked back from the outer office. "Linton, are you coming with me?"
"Uh, yes, ma'am." Hawkins hadn't dismissed him, but Linton realized that he could be waiting around all day. He made a halfhearted attempt at a salute that Hawkins ignored, and followed her.
"Jackie Lobo." She held out a hand. Linton saluted, and stared at it. Jackie stared back at him. "Hand," she said finally. "You shake. It's a custom here."
He shook. Her grip was firm and warm. His, on the other hand, was probably cold and clammy.
"We're very informal here," Jackie said. "As you saw. Don't take Two-Bit the wrong way. He's a crazy old bastard, but not as crazy as he lets on."
"Two-Bit? Uh, ma'am."
"Please call me Jackie. I'm not your boss. Yeah, Two-Bit. Don't ask me how he got the name. I've heard at least four different explanations."
She led him back the way he'd come, and then took another turn down a winding corridor made of rough-textured, natural rock. Spaced lights in the ceiling gave adequate illumination, but it was the sort of place where a man who wasn't a Class Four with a creativity rating of 2.2 might expect moisture dripping from the walls and rats skittering on the floor. The walls were dry, however, and the only sounds the hum of distant equipment and a soft, indistinct murmur of voices, fading in and out as sound waves from other parts of the city were transmitted through rock. Linton felt a little more at home here than in the main dome with vast empty spaces above his head. It wasn't Tertia, but it was quiet, at least.
"I did the paperwork on you," Jackie Lobo said. "Tertian, huh? I'd love to get together sometime over beers and indulge my curiosity about your world. There don't seem to be too many of you folks out here in the galaxy. The only other Tertian I've ever met is Two-Bit, and he may talk about it constantly but most of what he says needs to be taken with a block of salt."
"He's Tertian?" Linton said, unable to stop himself.
"So he claims. Hard to say, with Two-Bit." Jackie shrugged. "Anyway, he didn't actually stop to find out if we could afford to hire you before he went ahead and hired you. So we'll see if Fleetwood needs an extra man."
"Lieutenant Shelley Fleetwood. Port Authority. He'll be your CO."
Finally, this was starting to make sense. "Port Authority is a branch of your militia?"
"Uh ... no. The way it works around here ... hmm. You're Tertian. This is going to be tough to explain. Kismet doesn't have a central government or what you'd call a militia. We--Hawkins' bunch--we're the Internal Security Corps, the ISC. Fancy name for a privately owned police force. It's a corporation, actually. We all have shares. Port Authority, on the other hand, is run by the guys who own the spaceport, and that's Carnelian House of Anubis. Off-worlders."
"I don't understand," Linton admitted.
Jackie laughed. "I'm not surprised. Wait'll you see how much more complicated this town can get. Anyway, I don't think you'll find working for Fleetwood is that bad. He's paranoid, mercenary and pretty corrupt in his own way, but not a bad guy, as they go."
It didn't sound like much of a recommendation, but Linton kept his mouth shut.
He was distracted by their surroundings. Plastiglass-fronted doors had begun to appear, office doors that might be found in high-rise buildings on any world. They seemed laughably out of place in this primitive stone tunnel. Side ways began to branch off also, mostly stubby dead-end tunnels at right angles to the main corridor.
"Lots of offices back here," Jackie said. "Here's our boy." She rapped at the frosted plastiglass of a door labeled LT. SHELLEY FLEETWOOD.
"C'mon in," a voice said. "She's open."
Jackie tapped the keyplate set into the rock wall. The door hesitated thoughtfully before sliding back with a few rusty wobbles.
Shelley Fleetwood's office made Hawkins' seem spacious and tidy. There was no floor in here. None. It was covered with boxes spilling their contents onto each other--stacks of polyfibrithene printouts, data cubes, other things harder to identify. Linton could have stood in the middle of the room--had there been anywhere to stand--and reached out and touched the opposing walls. The only visible furniture was a metal folding table that seemed to be doing duty as a desk in spite of missing half its legs. That end was propped up with what appeared to be half of a battered mock-wood filing cabinet. The walls were papered with pictures: holo snapshots, magazine cutouts, naked women, video stars, crime scenes, pages from calendars. One entire wall was a windowscreen. Unlike the peaceful meadows and mountains that most people seemed to prefer, this one showed a barren moonscape that looked like the Kismetian scenery the shuttle had flown over. It made Linton nervous, as if the air were about to be sucked out of the room.
Shelley Fleetwood was surprisingly young; Linton estimated his age at about thirty-five. When the door opened, he had his feet propped on one corner of the makeshift desk and a book propped on his knees. He looked up, smiled and tossed the book carelessly into the clutter. "Hey, Jackie! Come in and shut the door. The automatic reshut doesn't work. I turned it off after it caught Ash's hand last year."
"Knowing you, you probably tried to fix it with a screwdriver," Jackie said, edging a bit of the way into the room.
"Hey, I got her loose, didn't I? She only needed three stitches. Just don't stand in front of the door when it closes. Drink?"
Linton had discovered that he had no choice about standing in front of the door, which jittered occasionally in a threatening manner.
"No, thanks. I can't stick around," Jackie said. "I just came down to drop off your new guy. Then I'm out of here."
"Linton, come on in."
Linton tried to obey, and fidgeted in an effort to find a place to stand where he wasn't standing on anything.
Fleetwood looked blank. "Who are you?"
"He's our new receptionist," Jackie said. "The Tertian. We can't afford to pay him right now, so Two-Bit thought you might want a loaner until you can get someone permanent."
Fleetwood shrugged. "Sure. We can always use a warm body." He grinned, leaned over the desk with a hand extended. This strange custom again. Linton went through the motions.
"He's been in the military for thirty years," Jackie said. "You can get our files from Loki. I gotta jet."
"Dinner?" Fleetwood asked hopefully.
"No." She smiled at Linton. Her face was hard, but it softened when she smiled, and made her look younger. "But you and I--we'll have to get that drink sometime, huh?"
"Yes, ma'am," Linton said.
Jackie Lobo slapped the reshut on her way out. Linton flinched away as the door stuttered closed. He turned around to find his new commanding officer staring at him quizzically.
"So what's your secret? Turn on the old Tertian charm or what?"
"Don't call me that. Makes me feel like some stiff-necked Brit sipping sherry by the fire in the wilds of New Delhi. What's your name again?"
"Linton 95. Sir."
"Wow! You guys really do number yourselves! I'd heard about it, but I thought it was a load of the usual horse puckey--you know, like telling tourists that you eat monkey eyeballs and that kind of crap."
Linton tried to remember if he'd ever heard anyone use the phrase "horse puckey" in a sentence before. "Yes, sir," he said eventually.
"Sit." Fleetwood hefted an overloaded box off a chair jammed unceremoniously against the desk. The box tilted and disgorged most of its contents onto the floor as he set it down. Fleetwood did not seem to notice. He kicked the chair in Linton's general direction. Linton cautiously sat on the edge of it. "Drink?"
Fleetwood dived behind the desk and came up with a bottle in each hand. "Lesse. We got Iridian Scotch and whatever the hell's in this bottle here. Label's missing. Oh, nevermind. That's the lavatory disinfectant. Scotch it is. And don't call me sir."
"Yes, s--um." Alcohol at this time of day? The thought nauseated him. One didn't refuse a superior officer, though.
Fleetwood fished a cracked mug out of the mess and poured a shot or two of Scotch into it. Linton accepted it and sniffed hesitantly. It shimmered faintly, as if it had a light sheen of oil on top. He wasn't much of a drinker, particularly in the middle of the afternoon, and particularly when the alcohol turned odd colors when you tilted it towards the light.
"Now then. I'm Lieutenant Shelley Fleetwood. Your CO. I guess. You're--Lyndon, did you say?"
"Linton 95, sir."
"Call me Shelley," Fleetwood said, smiling. "Or Fleetwood, if you need to ease into it. Anything but sir. Are you in the computer? Do you have a rank?"
"I would assume so," Linton ventured. "I was a major on Tertia."
"Yeah? No kidding? You quit? Or retire? Whatever?"
"Which, quit or retire?"
"Both. Neither. I was discharged."
"I ... don't understand, sir."
"Fired. You know. Involuntary quitting. Terminated. Canned. Given the shaft. Pink slipped. Run up the ol' flagpole of unemployment."
"I don't think so," Linton said cautiously.
"Was it your choice?"
"Yes. It was."
"Then you quit. Gotcha. And you're here because ...?"
The words came to the surface as they'd been given to him, as if the story had been in his mind all along and it had only to tell itself. "My superiors had some contacts in Kismet. One of them found a new job for me."
"Awfully long way from home."
"Once you leave the military, sir, there aren't many other options for employment on Tertia. I wanted to see the outside galaxy. I'm not a young man anymore. It was time for a change."
Time for a change? Whatever. It wasn't his story; it didn't matter.
"Seems like you're throwing a lot away to start over. You sure you're not running from something, Linton?"
Fleetwood did not seem to hear him. He was shifting the papers on his desk to other parts of the mess, creating leaning towers of polyfibrithene that teetered on the edge of catastrophe. "Damn. I don't even know where the deskpad is. Loki?" he asked the office at large. "Got a listing for a Linton Ninety Five?"
"Yes, Lieutenant," the city computer's voice said calmly.
Fleetwood waited for a moment. "Uh, Loki, I meant I'd like to see it."
"Certainly, Lieutenant. The information is processing through your printer."
A soft hum began near Linton's knee.
"Wherever the hell that is," Fleetwood muttered.
"I ... think it's here, sir." Linton rose and moved out of the way, or tried to, but was balked by a tower of boxes. Fleetwood attempted to lean over the desk and reach the printer, dislodging a shower of paper and disks. "Damn," he remarked.
While Fleetwood hunted for the printouts under the mess, Linton inspected the chair he had been sitting on, tapping it lightly with a fingernail. It looked like real wood, or at least wood veneer--scarred, battered, but still quite expensive.
"Hm. Linton 95. Yep. Do I file that under N, for Ninety? Hell. Looks like they had you down for Sergeant Second Class. Sure. Whatever. Doesn't make much difference in the PA."
"Yes, s--Lieutenant, Sergeant Second Class Linton Nin--"
"Linton. Right." Fleetwood looked around. "Yeah, and get you a uniform. Some spares down in Lockers. You don't look hard to fit. Hey, Loki? Find Colette and Ash. I'll introduce you to your co-workers, Linton."
"Cadet Novak is in Monitor Station Two on surface level," the computer informed them. "Officer Griffin is not in my monitors."
"She's probably working the street," Fleetwood said cheerfully. "C'mon."
"That's how they always are," the computer lamented. "Demand, demand, never a moment of thanks ..."
Linton looked up in astonishment. Sam, the city computer in Jackson Rim City, never would speak without being spoken to. It reminded him ... He shut the door on those memories.
"Sorry, Loki. Thank you so much for your invaluable help, you bucket of rusty chips." Fleetwood gave the ceiling the finger.
Loki did not respond.
"Four quadrillion operations per second and it can't even think of a snappy comeback," Fleetwood told Linton. "Probably come up with something in a few hours and tell me in the shower."
Linton could not think of anything to say to that, either. He just nodded, and set down the untouched Scotch on a relatively clear part of the desk.
"Do you know your mythology, Linton?" Fleetwood asked him, grabbing a wholly unmilitary holo-insignia jacket from a pile of boxes beside the door and leading him out of the office.
"Heard of Loki?"
"A god in Scandinavian mythology on Old Earth, I think, si--Lieutenant."
"Norse god of mischief, in fact. Seems an odd name for a computer, I'm sure you're thinking."
"No--" Linton said.
"Don't know if it shipped from the factory with that name or had it changed at a later date, once the personality started developing. Sort of like mold cultures develop if you leave them alone in a warm slimy place. Ah, here we go."
Linton had no idea how Fleetwood could tell the unmarked door was any different from any of the other unmarked doors, but it did lead to locker rooms, no different from any locker room anywhere except these were cut from the rock. Rows of metal lockers lined the rough stone walls. There was no one else in the room.
"You wearing solido?" Fleetwood asked.
"Good. Showers are back there," Fleetwood called over his shoulder. "It's Number 47! The uniform, that is."
"Thanks," Linton murmured, and emptied his pockets outside the small shower booth at the back of the room before stepping inside. The lightstrip over his head flickered wanly, and he shivered, looking at a pale and distorted reflection in the shower's stained mirrors. He pressed DISSOLVE and shivered again as needles of tepid solvent prickled his suddenly bare skin. After the rinse cycle, he tapped out 47 and waited through the spray-on and dry, then inspected the results in the streaky mirrors.
The uniform of the Kismet Port Authority was black. Matte black, relieved only by swatches and piping of dark red. It looked like cut-rate mercenary's garb on some backwater frontier world, and it was certainly not solid Tertian blue, but it would do.
Linton stepped out to be confronted by Fleetwood, still wearing the garish jacket, and staggering beneath an armload of weaponry. He dropped it on the stone floor with an echoing clatter, and Linton jumped, half expecting to be sliced in half by a discharging photon cannon.
"Take your pick," Fleetwood said.
Linton said after a moment, "This is standard-issue armament?"
"Not exactly. All we had left was a second-hand finger pistol with a jammed firing lens. I cleaned out the evidence lockers."
"You what? Sir," he added automatically, and flinched at Fleetwood's withering look.
"Just pick something, dammit."
Linton knelt by the heap of weapons. Lord in Heaven and Long Live the President, he'd never seen anything like this. Buzzknives, spinners, pen lasers, heatwashes, pistols of all shapes and sizes, even--God!--a Rhys-Madsen telescoping phase rifle. A lot of this stuff was illegal. Some of it he'd never seen before. He picked out some of the less dangerous-looking things--a couple of knives, a Colt tap-stud.
"So what is the standard sidearm, sir?" Linton asked hesitantly, trying to strap on the Colt in a holster that didn't quite fit.
"There's not one, really. In the early days--Good Lord, not like that! You'll laser your ear off! Haven't you ever used a pistol before?--In the early days, when Kismet was a charter of S&M, uh, that's the Sylvian Mining Corporation--would you hold still?--Security wasn't allowed to use lethal weapons, so they just had netters and arc-wands. Hold still, dammit! Then the Kismet Civil War happened. Things kinda went downhill from there. We mostly buy our own stuff. Like this." He let go of Linton's belt straps long enough to flick his wrist; something slim and glassy slid into his hand, disappeared a second later. "Darter. From Klamath Hills, on Iridia. Somebody touches you and snip!--right into the veins and they're dead before they hit the ground."
"Long live the President," Linton swore.
"Uh, okay. But it's not good for intimidation, which is why I carry this." He pulled something from his belt holster that looked like a small cannon and dropped it back, then gave Linton's belt a final twist. "There! Looks like you're ready to go. Oh, here." He dropped a small slim object in Linton's palm. "You don't have to wear this 24 hours a day, but do wear it when you're on duty. It'll be your best friend. Well, besides your gun."
"A VR pin, sir?"
"Don't you have these on Tertia?"
"Well, yes, sir," Linton said. "But I was a Class Four. I wasn't allowed ..."
"You weren't allowed to use a VR pin?" Fleetwood demanded, staring.
"Crazy. Well, put it in. It's just an uplink; it's like a little terminal in your head. You can contact Loki or you can have Loki link you through to someone else."
Linton placed the pin behind his ear, felt the slight sting as the slender needle, one thousandth the diameter of a human hair, penetrated his skin.
"You look spiffy there, buddy." Fleetwood said. "We'll get an ID for you later. Wanna go meet Colette and Ash?"
"Um," Linton said, fidgeting with the weight of the gun at his hip. "Uh. Okay."
It's only for a little while, he promised himself. Then you can go home.
Deja vu, Linton thought, following his temporary CO back through the tunnels and the transit nexus, to the first level and straight back to the docks.
He caught himself looking at the people around him. Space-lag! he told himself. Don't think about it. There is no one here that you know. Your home and everyone you've ever met are light-years away.
But there was plenty to see. People in Kismet were a varied and colorful bunch. Linton and Fleetwood passed men and women, old and young, some wearing obvious cybernetic modifications, many carrying weapons. On one street corner a young man with twelve-fingered metal claws in place of hands played a hauntingly complex melody on a double-bodied stringed instrument, while passersby ignored him. On another, a woman in clown makeup painted designs onto a delighted six-year-old's shaved head, using only her fingertips. Two young women, both naked from the waist up and wearing short see-through plastic skirts, argued nearby with a middle-aged man in formal jeans. Linton supposed the women were sexual purveyors, but who knew; maybe such dress was ordinary here.
Fleetwood carried on a cheerful, random one-sided conversation, pointing out restaurants, bars, local sights, and, mostly, places of recent atrocities.
"... and over there's where the Headhunter got his last victim, the one who didn't die ... pretty girl, back when she had a face ... seventeen, what was her name? Lulu Price, I think. Dancer up at Godiva's. He stripped her skin off with acid, cut off her tongue, choked her and was about to cut off her head when the cleaning lady spotted him and he ran off. Only Price wasn't dead and she gave the I.S.C. his name. Wrote it, that is. Melvin Butts. He was an assistant drain pipe cleaner on Gaia. They found six girls' heads in his closet, and one boy's, all of 'em skinned. He swore he was innocent right up until Hawkins executed him. This all happened last year. Now, over on that corner, was where that boy was raped and shot, oh, a few months ago now ..."
Linton decided to tune out again. He trailed Fleetwood through the docks and back up the lift to the catwalk where he'd gotten his first look at Kismet.
"This is the temporary facility," Fleetwood said. "The landing field is actually out there." He waved a hand at the wall of the dome. "In the desert. All the private ships are docked out there, and that's where the freight comes in. Right now the shuttleport is under construction, so we're docking commercial shuttles from the station at a temporary airlock, actually the old airlock from back when the dome was first constructed."
They stepped out onto the catwalk. Linton noticed for the first time how the catwalk was only loosely attached to the grid of dome supports--obviously a late addition.
"All the old access stuff was torn out after the old airlock went out of use," Fleetwood went on, waving a hand at the massive girders around them. Linton tilted his head back, following a beam that ran directly over their heads, meeting another one some 200 meters above the floor, he estimated. The dome was huge. Girders and catwalks honeycombed its sides all the way to the top.
Fleetwood led the way down the catwalk. "The new port is supposed to be open again soon, but who knows. We could be in here for years, or out there in a couple of months." He laughed. "Assuming nothing happens to this airlock, of course. This is our backup, the only other place in Kismet that can handle shuttle traffic. Don't damage it, Linton, or Carnelian House will eat you alive."
"Carnelian House, sir?" Linton asked cautiously. It sounded vaguely familiar; hadn't Jackie Lobo mentioned something about it?
The catwalk was completely deserted. They passed the door through which Linton had gotten his first glimpse of Kismet's interior.
"Our employers. The spaceport is owned by offworlders. Anubians."
At the end of the catwalk an open doorway led into a narrow room slotted between the wall and another of the great beams. Fleetwood stopped talking as they walked through the door. It was cool in here, and quiet. A bank of window-screens showed most of the dock area. Linton recognized the young woman who raised her dark head from one of the screens: she was the one who'd swiped him through the gate. She gazed at him without recognition, but with curiosity.
"SSC Linton 95, this is Cadet Colette Novak."
Novak held out a hand, which Linton took reluctantly. He was already growing weary of this custom and salutes were much tidier, he thought. She had a slimmer hand than Jackie's. "Are you the new guy?" she asked.
Fleetwood shot her a dirty look. "Am I the only one who didn't know? Anybody around here ever heard of letting the boss in on the secrets?"
Colette grinned faintly. She was astonishingly young, no more than twenty or so. "Maybe if you spent more time with your working stiffs, boss, you'd learn a thing or two. No, actually, Lobo just called up here. Said you hired someone from offworld." She smiled cautiously at Linton. "I don't remember from where, I'm sorry."
"Where is that?"
"Siderea System. Uh, a few days from here on the interstellar."
Linton felt himself getting flustered. This cross-gender service was going to be harder to deal with than he'd realized. Weren't female soldiers supposed to be ... old? Hatchet-faced? He focused on the memory of his dead wife, Sarah--speaking of hatchet-faced--and picked at the pain and guilt, buried and festering like a thorn embedded in flesh. He prodded at it, pushed against it, let it strengthen him to withstand her feminine wiles--and missed most of what Colette was saying now.
"... them, but I've never been offworld. Anywhere. Tell me, what's it like?"
"It's, uh ..." Linton realized that he had no idea whatsoever how to describe his homeworld to an outsider. It's a military dictatorship best known for annihilating its sister planet's native population, thank you very much. "Different from here," he finished lamely.
"I would like to go there someday," Colette said seriously.
"To Tertia?" Linton couldn't help being surprised. Tertian was a fine place to live, but he couldn't imagine anyone wanting to visit it.
"Well, I never thought about Tertia in particular, although I'm sure it's interesting," Colette said diplomatically. "Anywhere offworld. I've lived here all my life."
"We'll have a field trip," Fleetwood said. "Is Ash around?"
"I haven't seen her since early this morning."
"I thought I told you to keep an eye--"
"It's not my job, sir," Colette snapped.
They both looked over at Linton, who was studiously trying to look elsewhere.
"I'd better give you a bit of background on our happy crew," Fleetwood said.
Colette drew a deep breath, rubbed her eyes. "Why don't we get something to eat somewhere, and finish this over lunch? I've been staring at cargo manifests all day. I'm about to go nuts."
"Hungry, Linton?" Fleetwood asked.
"Uh, yes, sir." Ravenous was more like it.
"You're the new guy," Fleetwood told Linton as the three of them left the monitor station. "You can call it. What sort of food do you like?"
"Uh ..." Panic. He had no idea. He'd been punching Standard Meal 2 into the cafeteria comp three times a day for the last twenty years. He didn't have a clue what people in the rest of the galaxy ate. "I don't know, sir." At the look on Fleetwood's face, he almost winced. Wrong answer, obviously.
"You don't know?"
"I'm in a mood for North Gaian, if nobody minds," Colette said smoothly. "I've been eating too much pull-strip lately; I need something healthy."
"Gaian 'tis, I suppose," Fleetwood said, with a final, incredulous glance at Linton. "The Tie-Dye over on Sikorsky is a nice little lunch place. They make a mean slime-mold salad."
Except for the three of them, the catwalk was still deserted. The metal grille rang hollowly beneath their boots.
"So ... Linton," Colette said. "Uh, how was your trip?"
"Different." He had not yet figured out how to relate to Colette Novak. Was she supposed to be his inferior? Certainly not his superior. But she was a woman, and you couldn't just talk to a woman as if she was a soldier under your command ... his thoughts kept winding themselves up into knots. He decided that Colette wanted to be friendly, and right now, in this strange place desperately far from home, friendliness was valuable enough to overcome any propriety.
"Different from what?"
"Well, I've never been offworld before," Linton admitted as they stepped into the tube.
"Really? Like me. Only I'm stuck ... here. I'll bet your homeworld isn't much like this."
"I haven't been here long enough to tell," Linton said, though he was inclined to wholeheartedly agree with her.
They stepped out onto the stone floor, and Linton noticed with gratitude that he wasn't quite so inclined to shrink back into the confines of the tube.
"Kismet's not so bad as she'd make out to you," Fleetwood said, flashing a grin over his shoulder. "It'll grow on you."
"Just like flesh-eating bacteria," Colette retorted. "Has he told you what happened to Zack, Linton?"
"Your predecessor," Fleetwood said. "He had an accident."
"Do you have any idea how hard it is to accidentally shoot yourself in the back and then pitch your own body through an airlock?" Colette snapped. "I'd like to see you try."
"She makes it sound like clumsy work," Fleetwood said. "It wasn't. They actually would have done a pretty neat job if a mech hadn't been out working on the solar panels that day and got a look at the corpse. They still did a nice job of hiding it. We just found the body a couple of days ago."
"... Oh," Linton said,
Colette dropped back to peer at his face. "Are you all right? I'm sorry ... you don't have death taboos on Tertia, or anything like that, do you? I didn't mean to offend you."
"Uh. You didn't. I mean, I'm not offended." Startled perhaps.
"I had heard offworlders were very religious," Colette said.
"In what way?" Linton said, thinking that it was perhaps the first intelligent question that he'd asked anybody all day, and so he wasn't very surprised when Colette looked at him with total blankness.
"Well, I don't mean to offend you," she said. "I'm sorry ..." Looking helplessly at Fleetwood, perhaps wondering how to deal with the foreigner's odd ideas.
"I'm not offended. Really." Was worshiping for the President For Life a religion? He'd never thought about it that way.
"I didn't mean anything by it, I swear."
"You didn't. Really."
She lapsed into an awkward silence, as if talking to the offworlder was too much work and she needed to regroup. In silence, then, they reached the restaurant, which turned out to be a small open-air courtyard surrounded by a low wall with wicked-looking metal spikes along the top. There were no actual structures in evidenced, no kitchens, no staff. The tables grew like squat stone mushrooms from a low carpet of bright green grass. The grass was not real, Linton realized, trailing his foot through it, but the stone appeared to be. Most of the tables were unoccupied. A hovering sani-bot drifted by at waist level, disinfecting tables at random.
"Not much privacy," Fleetwood said, "but they do the ambience thing well. Apparently the whole planet looks like this." He swung into the nearest chair.
"Like a restaurant?" Colette said.
"No. Flat." He kicked at the grass. "Plains. Apparently there's not a tree on the entire world."
Fleetwood pressed his thumb to the strip in the table, and menus flickered to life before each of them. Linton had no idea what anything on his menu even was. "This one's on me," Fleetwood said.
Money! He had another flash of panic. That's right, out here you needed money, didn't you? The necessities of life must be ... what was the word? Bought. Not provided. And people worked, not out of duty to the state, but to acquire money. What a truly barbaric system. He was suddenly, achingly homesick.
You can go home soon, he promised himself. Just do your job and go home.
"Here," Fleetwood said, leaning over and pointing to the middle of Linton's menu. "Try this one."
"Soil slug and avocado sandwich?" Linton read doubtfully.
"What's the matter? Don't like avocados?"
"The sauteed grass ticks are really good," Colette said. "I had 'em the last time I was here. They're crunchy."
"The Gaians believe in using all the resources of their planet as efficiently as possible. It's part of their life philosophy," Fleetwood said.
Linton resolved to avoid Gaian food in the future.
"I'll order for you," Fleetwood said, striking instant terror into Linton's heart. Fleetwood touched an item on his menu and then a wide "Enter" bar in from of him; reaching across the table, he tapped Linton's too. Linton watched closely. He'd never been to an offworld-style restaurant before.
"What did you order, sir?" he asked nervously.
"It doesn't say what it is," Colette said.
Fleetwood shrugged. "It'll be good. Everything's good here. They even do a good entrail platter, and normally I hate entrails."
Oh dear, Linton thought.
Colette shook her head and touched her menu. "I'm going with the grass ticks, I'm afraid."
"No sense of adventure," Fleetwood said.
As far as Linton was concerned, anyone who'd eat grass ticks had enough sense of adventure for three people.
"Drink?" Fleetwood asked him. "I'm having an ale."
He wondered if constant drinking was normal here and if he'd commit some sort of social blunder by refusing. He considered asking for whatever Colette had ordered, then reminded himself that the woman ate grass ticks. Voluntarily. "Uh ... water?"
"So," Fleetwood said, as the three menus shimmered out of existence. He crossed his hands in front of him, then uncrossed them as a drink rose out of the table in front of him--followed quickly by drinks for the others. "Slow service," he murmured, sipping from his. "This place has gone downhill. Anyway. While we're waiting for the food, I can give you a quick run-down of our general style of operations, and so forth."
Fleetwood frowned at him, and Linton wondered if he'd done something wrong, again. He felt as if he was walking through a minefield blindfolded. He had no idea how these people acted or thought.
"You don't have to call me sir."
"Yes, s-- uh..."
Fleetwood sighed. "Never mind. You can call me what you like. Now then. We're a small operation. There's only eight of us ... nine, now, counting you. We work twelve-hour shifts, and we work in pairs. You'll be working with me the first couple of days, then I'll rotate you. I like to have new people work with everybody before I assign them a permanent partner. It sounds a bit odd, but I've found it helps prevent personality conflicts to let people sample a working situation before they're committed to it. Besides, you learn more that way. Everybody's got something different to teach you."
It was amazing. Fleetwood's entire manner had changed. His spine was straighter, his gaze level and direct; he was almost a different person, someone you could take orders from.
"We're airport security, by the way," Colette said.
The mood broke and Fleetwood glared at her. "Cadet Novak, we are highly trained customs professionals, responsible for the safety and well-being of the entire city."
Colette rested her chin on her folded arms. "Yes, Lieutenant. You'll see soon enough, Linton."
"Anyway. We need one set of people at or near the docks at all times. Today's day shift is Colette and Ash." He glanced at Colette, and Linton wondered where the missing Ash was. "There's no shuttle scheduled until seventeen-fifteen anyhow, so Colette's time is mostly her own until then, as long as she remains on call."
"Barring twelve zillion cargo manifests to inventory, twenty-four mysterious packages to hand-scan and a backlog of paperwork going back two weeks because Joe's shift never fills out their forms," Colette murmured. "Not to mention that I still haven't got used to this day stuff. I liked nights better. It's a lot quieter."
"Good point," Fleetwood said. "I was getting to that. We've gone through a lot of scheduling restructuring in the last few days, Linton. Zack was our night shift supervisor. I've transferred Stella to that job and she's doing quite well. She likes it. I don't see any reason not to keep her there. I'll start you on days and maybe give you nights after you've gotten used to the routine. Most people have a little trouble adjusting to nights, because it's a different schedule than they're used to, even though there's less work. Can you deal?"
"Uh, yes, sir."
"Right. Now, Colette here was Zack's partner. Since Zack--"
"--was murdered," Colette mumbled.
"... died, I've reassigned her to Ash. Ash had been working with Joe. That left Joe without a partner, but he's experienced and does all right. I think you'll like Joe; he's a good guy to break in new people. Like I said before, I'll rotate you through all the different shifts and you can see who you click with before I assign you a permanent partner.
"Nights are Gil and Stella, and Nehalia and Carmen, the other cadet. Gil and Stella used to work days, but I put them on nights when I brought Colette up to days. Clear so far?"
"Yes, sir." Like mud, Linton thought.
"Good. You'll meet all of them over the next few days, I suppose. Colette, you're on tomorrow, right?"
"And the next day. Then Joe."
Fleetwood nodded. "Gil and Stella are on tonight, then. I'll start you out on my days on, so I'll be around if you have questions. How's that, Linton?"
"Uh, good, I think, sir," Linton mumbled. He had no idea what it meant when your superior officer was always questing for comments, for opinions. Orders were to be given, and followed ... not questioned. While he considered that, a small bubble-iris at each place on the table spun open and their dishes rose in front of them, along with a full compliment of silverware and napkins. Linton stared nervously at his food, trying to figure out what all the parts of it were. He yearned for something normal and tasty, like Protein Substitute Number Five at home.
"Looks like the secondary neck pouch is underdone again," Fleetwood complained. "Oh well. Heard they reprogrammed the oven last week, so what can you expect."
"My ticks are fine," Colette said around a mouthful.
"You've got an antennae on your cheek," Fleetwood told her.
"That's not possible. They don't have antennae. It must be a leg." She raised a hand to brush away the offending piece of insect material.
"What are you talking about? They certainly do."
"No, they don't. Those are mandibles. They eat through the tops of their heads."
Linton discovered that his appetite had completely deserted him, but he poked at his rather rubbery entrée and tried a bite. To his surprise, it tasted fine, though he didn't care for the texture; it was a bit too, well, squelchy was the word that came to mind.
At least the arrival of the food had turned the conversation to new topics... though hardly more comfortable ones. Fleetwood and Colette were arguing in a very unmilitary fashion about grass tick mandibles and pseudolegs and lots of other parts that he didn't want to hear about. Linton stared past them, absently eating bites of whatever it was in front of him ... he still wasn't sure ... and let his mind wander.
Kismet. In some indefinable way, he still couldn't believe he was actually here. After thirty years on the same world, in the same town, most of it in the same apartment, his mind was having a hard time grasping the concept that he wasn't there anymore. He knew it intellectually, but it hadn't really hit him yet, even after three days on a transport. His brain knew he wasn't still on Tertia, but everything else--heart, habits, even that deep-rooted sense of the reality of the world--couldn't quite believe it yet. He kept turning around and expecting to see the same corridors that he'd walked for the better part of his life. Every once in a while he'd get a little flash of reality, a sharp slap of homesickness in the face, and then the walls that he'd spent a lifetime constructing would box firmly around that pain, and let him forget again.
Linton had had the misfortune to be born one of those people who wants to live a quiet, boring life: the sort of life in which one eats breakfast and dinner at the same time every day, walks the same course to the same dull job with very little prospect for advancement or relocation, has an occasional drink with some co-worker he doesn't like after work, then goes home for the regularly scheduled weekly sex with his wife. The sort of person who dreads retirement because he already has no idea what to do with himself on weekends. He'd lived that way for thirty years, and dammit, he'd liked it. Now he'd lost the wife, lost the job (temporarily, he reminded himself), never had any friends in the first place, and he was stuck in a strange place where he didn't know any of the rules.
Self pity wasn't an emotion that Linton normally indulged in--he was too unimaginative, and for that matter, too used to life kicking him in various ways to bother. If nothing else, his life had taught him how to adapt, even if he hated it. He grimly swallowed another bite of his bug, or whatever it was, and paused with his fork halfway to his mouth.
For a minute he'd seen her, or thought he had, sitting at a table at another restaurant across the street (was street the right word, indoors?). In this sea of strangers, it made sense that he'd be imagining the only person he even halfway knew on this moon--but a waitron moved out of the way and he saw that it was indeed her, partly concealed from his vantage by an intervening privacy wall. She was sipping from some sort of drink and he thought she was looking straight at him, but she must not have seen him; she looked away without appearing to notice him at all.
Poor kid, he thought; guess her mom never showed up.
It didn't matter. Eventually her mother would either show up and they'd have some kind of mother-daughter reunion and all would be forgiven, or her mother wouldn't show up and Valantine would go off and find her on her own. She wasn't a five-year-old, after all. But Linton felt bad for her, all alone in a strange place. He knew what that felt like. It seemed irresponsible not to at least go over and say hi.
"You still with us, Linton?" Fleetwood asked him.
"You look like you're off in the Corrigan Cluster or something."
"I'm ... sorry, sir. I saw someone I know."
Fleetwood raised an eyebrow. "You know someone here?"
"Someone I met on the shuttle," Linton clarified. "A little girl. She was meeting her mother. It looks like her mother hasn't showed up, since she's still here."
"Probably some poor little rich kid," Fleetwood said. "Parents took off for separate ends of the galaxy as soon as the first three-year contract expired--if they were even married in the first place. Mummy doesn't show because she's off tranked out of her mind or sleeping with the pool cleaner. Kid's probably going to be in jail, pregnant or addicted to something by the time she's twelve."
Colette glared at him. "Or maybe they have a wonderful relationship and her mother already called to say she's going to be late. You don't know."
"I think she's already fourteen or so," Linton added, then wished he'd kept his mouth shut.
"Probably just got out of rehab. Mother's a burned-out socialite, fifty years old, looks sixty, should have stayed in rehab. And all this is assuming that the waif is visiting Mummy at all. Checked your wallet lately?"
"She didn't steal anything from me, sir," Linton said, annoyed. Still, he found himself suppressing an urge to check his pockets, and that annoyed him even more.
"Well, she could be a whore, for that matter, hanging around the docks and all. Most likely is." Fleetwood spoke through a mouthful of food.
Linton opened his mouth, closed it. The tone he wanted to use was highly inappropriate with a superior. "Sir, she's fourteen," he managed in something close to a normal voice.
"So? You mean to tell me you don't have teenage prostitutes on Tertia? Next you'll tell me you don't have prostitutes at all."
"We're very close to stamping out the problem, sir," Linton said grimly, thinking of the "ranches" that the higher-ranking soldiers visited on weekends. Prostitution on Tertia, like most things, seemed to have become a perk of the elite rather than a working man's pleasure, and he supposed that was progress of some sort.
"That's what they said about alcohol, during Global Prohibition on Old Earth," Fleetwood said. He was twisting around in his chair, trying to see over the wall. "What'd she look like, waif or hooker?"
Linton couldn't believe that this conversation was actually happening. "Waif," he said weakly. Very much a waif. Although he remembered the way she'd tried to wiggle her hips when she walked--Dammit! He couldn't believe he was even thinking like that...
"Oh, Shelley, don't be a bastard," Colette said, sounding tired.
Fleetwood ignored that. "I see you want to go talk to her. Go ahead if you want. But keep a tight grip on your petty cash."
Which was probably as close to "dismissed" as he'd get out of this particular C.O. "Thank you, sir." Linton rose. He wasn't sorry to leave this increasingly uncomfortable meal, although the entree wasn't half bad.
"Meet us back here when you're done," Fleetwood said.
Colette shook her head. "I have to get back to the tower."
Linton hesitated, but neither one seemed to notice him further, so he left the little restaurant compound and hurried across the street. The restaurant across from theirs was a place called Jody's. It was set up in much the same fashion as the Gaian one, compound style, but with little privacy half-walls around the tables. Valantine had been partly hidden behind one of these. He didn't see her now, but he couldn't remember which table had been hers. He wandered around the outside wall, trying to peer behind the privacy screens and feeling like an idiot as well as a snooper.
After a few minutes of this, one of the nearby waitrons noticed him and drifted up to its side of the wall. This place had something to deliver food to tables, at least, instead of the meal rising out of the table. All in all, it looked like a nicer place than he'd expect a fourteen-year-old to pick out on her own. Maybe Fleetwood was at least partly right: maybe her folks were rich.
"Can I help you, sir?"
"Uh, I was looking for a girl. About fourteen. I think she was sitting ... there ..." He waved his hand vaguely toward half the restaurant.
"I'm sorry, sir," the waitron said in a clipped accent he couldn't identify. "We are not permitted to release information about our patrons."
"I don't want information, I just want to know if she's there. Could I come in and look around?" He felt like a moron as soon as the words left his mouth.
"I'm sorry, sir. Only customers are allowed inside. Would you care to order something?"
"No ... thanks." Linton slunk away, with a final, defeated look back, a final hope of seeing a curly head half-hidden behind the wall. No luck.
So her mother had showed up after all, probably while he was, not arguing, of course not, discussing the matter with Fleetwood. Valantine was happily on her way to wherever she lived, and he'd never see her again.
He glanced across the street at the Gaian restaurant. Colette had apparently made good her threat to leave, and Fleetwood was sitting alone at the table, his back to Linton.
Linton really, really did not feel up to being alone with his C.O. at the moment. He did not want to endure prying questions about a girl he didn't know. He didn't want to listen to Fleetwood's cynical observations on life. He just wanted desperately to be alone.
Fleetwood thinks I'm in the restaurant, talking to the girl. He won't think anything of it, if I'm gone a few minutes.
President, he swore to himself. I've been here less than an hour and I'm going AWOL already.
Just for a few minutes. A few minutes that his sanity badly needed.
The only problem with going AWOL in a strange town was that he didn't have the slightest idea where to go.
The street wasn't very busy, but it seemed so to Linton, dizzied as he was by the amazing variety of people around him. He almost stumbled into an immensely tall black-skinned woman, dressed all in black, with beaded hair that rattled like a rice curtain against her broad shoulders. Backing up to avoid her contemptuous glare, he backed into a group of teenage girls, arms filled with packages, whose cream-colored school uniforms could have come straight from Tertia; but the flurry of high-pitched profanity that this gaffe provoked was anything but Tertian--or ladylike.
Linton fled the girls and tried to head against the general flow of the straggling pedestrians, seeking solitude like a miner's canary hunting for scarce oxygen in the darkness. He went where the pedestrians seemed fewest, and eventually, without annoying too many people, found himself back in the warehouse district, and alone.
It felt good to be by himself, but he was acutely aware that he'd simply walked off from, effectively, his first interview with his new commanding officer. Linton kept glancing over his shoulder, feeling the gaze of imaginary pursuers.
Only a little while, he promised himself. Just a minute or two, then I'll go back.
The warehouse district was a maze of narrow alleys between towering, windowless buildings, some stretching all the way up to the girders high above, others falling short. The high, narrow openings between the buildings' blind faces made Linton slightly claustrophobic--a feeling he'd rarely experienced before. In the shadows among the warehouses, though, he was alone. The only things that moved here were the occasional robot forklifts, trundling busily along on their treads. Linton moved out of their way and they paid no mind to him. It was just like any warehouse area in any city, and he finally began to breathe easier.
He only wished that he could shake the feeling of being followed--the not-quite-heard footsteps behind, the feeling of eyes on the back of his neck. He turned around half a dozen times and saw no one, nothing but more empty alleys. He wasn't worried about getting lost--he had a lifetime's experience at navigating corridors far more complex than these--but he began to wish, paradoxically, that he wasn't quite so alone back here. It might be nice to run into a workman or two. Just a little reassurance, just in case.
Paranoid, Linton scolded himself. Imagining things. It's too soon. You don't have to worry yet. Maybe it's the Tertians following you; that's all. Surely they've sent somebody ...
He thought he was imagining the music too, at first. It seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere, a faint thready melody, and he often would lose it upon turning a corner, or when he stopped and cocked his head to listen, only to regain it an intersection or two later. But it seemed to grow louder as he walked, and he discovered that he was concentrating on it. The half-heard melody nagged at him. He wondered if it was piped-in, but then he turned a corner and he could see the player, far down one of the long, straight alleys.
She was playing a flute, an instrument Linton had never seen before outside the vids. He walked slowly toward her, not wanting to startle her and break her concentration. The music was sweet and sad, the tune very old.
Linton was quite close to her when she stopped playing and took the silver instrument from her lips. He stopped, afraid of scaring her, but she glanced at him without surprise and he knew that she'd been aware of him all along. She was tall and broad-shouldered, and he could see little of her face; most of it was hidden in her thick black hair, and sunglasses concealed her eyes. She wore a long black velvet dress, exceedingly inappropriate for an alley between warehouses, particularly in the middle of the afternoon, but it seemed rude to ask about it.
The gun on her hip was so small that he almost didn't notice it, except by the bulge against the smooth curve of her body. It was the same glossy black as her dress. The gunbelt was black too, with a buckle in the shape of a small silver rose. Her sunglasses were dark green, the only color anywhere on her person.
As the silence started to stretch, Linton thought he ought to say something. "That was ... very nice." He'd started to say very well done, but he had no idea if it had been well done or not. He did know that it was a pretty tune and he'd liked it.
A tiny smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. "Thank you. It's Greensleeves." She had a soft husky voice, deeper than Linton had expected. "No," she added, "don't do that," and Linton realized that the last remark had been directed over his head at someone behind him. He started to turn around and found that he couldn't. A powerful hand on his shoulder and something cold against the back of his neck stopped him.
"You're one of Fleetwood's boys, aren't you?" the woman said.
"I, I, uh, uh." It was astonishingly difficult to think with an unseen person holding something also unseen but probably deadly against your neck. Linton would have been hard pressed to tell her his name at the moment.
"Oh, let him go," the woman said impatiently. "He's not hurting anyone. He was listening to me play. It's so nice to have an appreciative audience for a change."
"He was armed," a voice rumbled behind and somewhat above Linton's head. He discovered that he no longer wanted to see who was holding him. He had absolutely no desire to be face-to-face with someone who sounded that big.
"Well, he's not now, so be a good thug and put him down."
Linton, panicking, slapped his side and discovered that his gun was, indeed, no longer in its holster. Not that he'd have the slightest idea who to aim it at, assuming that he could shoot it at all. The coldness lifted from the back of his neck and his heart rate started calming down a bit, but he still didn't turn around.
The woman nodded to herself. "That's a KPA uniform you're wearing, but I don't know you. I thought I knew all of Fleetwood's people. What is your name?"
Linton moistened his lips until he had enough saliva to speak. "S-S-Sergeant S-Second Class Linton 95, ma'am."
The woman favored him with a brief bow, a dip of her dark head. "What an extraordinary name, or should I say number, Sergeant ... 95."
Linton didn't think so; he found much odder the offworld custom of keeping the same name as one's parents. "It is my name, ma'am."
The woman's lips twitched with amusement. "I like to come out here for the acoustics," she told him. "I don't normally expect an audience. Are you a music lover, Sergeant?"
"I, uh ..." He had figured out by now that he was probably in some amount of danger. On the one hand, he half-hoped that Fleetwood would notice he was missing and come looking for him; on the other, he didn't want to lose his new job within an hour of starting it. Being completely unused to wearing a VR pin, he didn't even think of calling for help. He decided to answer her questions as honestly as possible until she decided to let him go. "I don't know too much about it, ma'am."
"Oh," said the woman, "that's a shame." Her free hand, the one not holding the flute, started to go to her waist.
"Boss," the man behind Linton said, in a tone of long-suffering patience. "I thought we'd been through this, boss."
The woman gave him a razor-sharp look; although Linton could see very little of her face, besides her mouth, he thought that if he was the man behind him he'd be taking a step or two backwards, no matter how big he was. However, her hand slipped smoothly from the gun to a small black case beside it, about the size of a deck of cards. She collapsed the flute with a few deft, practiced movements and tucked it away into its case. Linton thought he heard the man behind him sigh ... in relief, Linton fancied.
"But you're bloody intriguing nonetheless," the woman said. "A regular Pied Piper, aren't you?"
"Excuse me?" Linton said.
"You're the one with the flute, Boss," the man behind Linton pointed out. Linton felt bold enough to sneak a glance at him this time. He was every bit as big as he looked, and in fact looked exactly like Linton would imagine a thug would look, except for an incongruous shock of bright red hair tufting in all directions from the top of his rather flat head.
"I know that," the woman said in a voice that could have sliced through concrete. "I'm speaking figuratively, moron." Transferring her attention back to Linton, she looked him up and down; he felt like a piece of hardware in a display case, being examined for purchase. "What do so many people want with an odd little man like you? Are you rich? Do you have powerful enemies?"
"No, and not that I know of," Linton said. "What do you mean, what do s--"
"You don't look dangerous," the woman said.
"Me? I'm not," Linton assured her hastily. "Not at all."
"What's special about you, then?"
"Nothing," Linton said with the conviction of utter self assurance--there were few things in his life he was quite so sure of as that one. Nerving himself, he asked, "What do you mean by so many p--"
"You're not handsome," the woman said. "An offworlder, I'd say from the accent. Can't have been in town too long."
She paused thoughtfully, and Linton took advantage of the hesitation to jump in quickly with: "What do you mean, what do so many people want with me?"
The woman seemed surprised. "Why, you're being followed, my little friend. Didn't you know that?"
"Well, yes." She ticked off on her fingers. "One, two ... I'd say four, at least. Quite the parade the lot of you make, wandering about through the streets."
Four? Tertians, maybe, but why so many? However, that wasn't what he was most curious about ... "You've been ... watching me?"
"Don't flatter yourself," the woman said, smiling. Linton decided that she looked a lot friendlier when she wasn't smiling. "I make it a point to keep informed about what goes on in my town. You've been wandering around trailing an entourage of very unusual people. Of course I'd notice that."
"When you say unusual, what exactly do you m--"
"What?" the woman said between her teeth.
"Uh, Boss ..." The big man shifted slightly from foot to foot. "I don't mean to interrupt nothing here, but speaking of people and so forth, you haven't seen Guido lately, have you, Boss?"
"About your height, but uglier, if that's possible."
The big man drew a deep breath, let it out. "No, Boss. I mean do you know where he is at. Right now."
"He was with you."
"I know that, Boss. But he's not now."
"Trouble?" the woman said softly.
"I don't know, Boss."
The woman gritted her teeth, and then smiled her predatory smile at Linton, and bowed her slight bow. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Sergeant 95. I must attend to my wayward associate." With that she swept by, taking the big man with her. She had an extraordinary way of walking; she did not swivel her hips as most women do, but walked flat-footed, like a man.
The two disappeared down one of the cross streets and Linton let out a long breath he hadn't know he was holding, and collapsed against the blank face of the warehouse behind him, shaking.
He couldn't figure out whether he was more relieved that the woman had finally left without hurting him, or frustrated that she hadn't answered any of his questions.
Followed? By Tertian operatives, he hoped.
He glanced over his shoulder. The alley stretched out behind him, empty as far as he could see.
Surely she'd meant Fleetwood. Or Tertians. One or the other. Or both.
Still thinking of this, he wandered around the corner and almost fell over Valantine.
He skidded to a halt, almost touching her. The curly-haired girl was hunched over on the floor, her arms wrapped around herself, shaking silently.
The fact that in a town the size of Kismet it was awfully damned convenient that she just happened to be in this exact alley at this exact time ... never occurred to him. Thirty years among the Tertians had given Linton a habit of taking his surroundings for granted.
"Valantine?" he said.
Her head snapped up. Tousled hair half-hid her chubby face, but he could still see that her cheeks were bright red. She looked as if she'd been running.
Now was the time when he'd say something clever or brave, and she'd look up at him, her fear forgotten dissolving the light of hero-worship shining from her eyes. Naturally, being Linton, he said something rather stupid instead. "Valantine? Are you okay?"
"Oh, Linton!" she cried, starting to cry. She flung her arms around his knees and he froze, hands in the air, with no idea of what to do.
"Uh--Valantine, what hap--"
"I don't know what I'm doing here!" she wailed. "I don't know where I am!"
"Hush," Linton said, still standing with his hands raised in the air, having some vague idea, since he'd never had kids, that "hush" was an intelligent and helpful thing to say in this sort of situation.
"I don't know. I ..."
She trailed off and was quiet so long that Linton looked down at her little curly head, trying to figure out if she was all right.
"Hush?" he said, since it had worked so well before.
Valantine gave a tiny cry and threw her weight against him, knocking him down to the floor of the alley.
It was quite fortunate that they both happened to fall just then, because just at that moment, in another of those remarkable coincidences that had recently started haunting Linton's life, someone began shooting at them.
After Linton left the restaurant, Fleetwood turned to Colette
"So? What do you think?"
Fleetwood jerked a thumb at Linton's retreating back.
Colette glanced after him. "Don't you think you should wait until he's out of earshot before you start talking about him behind his back?"
"No need to get touchy. Just curious."
"I've barely met him."
Fleetwood shrugged. "Sometimes first impressions are the most honest."
"Well, he seems kind of stiff," Colette said. "And really shy. That's about all I've noticed so far. What's his story, anyway?"
"I think he's a bit of a fascist. Sort of a fascist-in-training."
"That's not very nice."
"He's Tertian," Fleetwood said, as if that explained everything.
"From Tertia. Yeah, he said so earlier."
"Never been to Tertia, have you, Cadet?"
Colette glared at her boss. "Neither have you."
"No, but I've seen plenty in the newsfeeds about it. Military dictatorship. Total social control, random torturings, families dragged off in the night, that sort of thing."
"How lovely," Colette said. "So what's he doing here, with all that to go home to?"
"I have no idea. Maybe he's a spy."
Colette laughed. "What on Rinolo are you talking about?"
Fleetwood leaned forward. "From what I've heard, his homeworld is one giant war machine. Right now they're focused on beating the crap out of the rest of their solar system. There's some concern about where they might look next. Some of the Council big-shots are predicting war."
"Galactic war? That's nuts. Never happen."
"Yeah, right," Fleetwood said. "We humans managed to have four worldwide wars before we even left our home planet. Why can't it happen out here? What's stopping it?"
"Money, brains and common sense, to name just three," Colette said.
"Money? Tertia's got it. Brains? Common sense? What has that ever had to do with the basic human drive to beat the snot out of each other?"
"You're reading tabloids and drawing conclusions out of thin air. Listen. Let's say the Tertians are bent on galactic domination and that guy is some kind of agent of mass destruction, okay. What's he doing here?"
"We're awfully close to Tertia, Colette."
"Yeah, without a damn thing they could possibly want."
Fleetwood shrugged. "I don't know. We are a hub, after all. Maybe they have fifth columnists everywhere."
"Oh, is that what he's supposed to be? That guy?" Colette lowered her voice, but she gestured across the street. Linton was wandering around the perimeter wall of one of the restaurants, drawing curious glances from almost everyone who passed by.
"No," Fleetwood said. "I don't really think so, no. I'm about ninety percent sure he's exactly what he looks like. Kind of a quiet, generally incompetent older guy. A loser. This town is going to eat him alive. In fact ..." He reached in a pocket and dug out a handful of loose tokens, slapped them down on the table. "Wanna start a pool? Five credits says he doesn't last two days."
"Nope. Serious. I've seen this place consume far better men than him, Colette, in a shorter time than that. Better hope for his sake that he's a spy, because otherwise, he'd better hop on the next IP to Tertia. Come on, you in?"
"You are serious."
"Five credits. You've got that."
"Not in my pocket."
"You're good for it."
"Two days? Come on, Shelley."
"You're probably right," Fleetwood said. "Never discount dumb luck. I'll give him a week. That'd be the thirteenth. You in or not?"
"Oh, I'm in," Colette said with a sigh. "This is so wrong."
"A month? You really think so?"
"If the Tertian military is how you say it is," Colette said, "I don't see how he could possibly have made it this far without having some kind of street smarts. A month."
"You're on. You think Ash wants in?"
"I'll ask her. And Joe. You can get the night guys. They don't talk to me much since I went days."
"I'm sorry about that, Colette. I had to."
"I know. Don't worry about it."
"So you want to pick method? I'm saying suicide."
"Suicide? He doesn't seem the suicidal type to me, Shelley."
"There's a type?" Fleetwood shook his head. "There's not a type, Colette. There's only what you see in their eyes. And I see it in his eyes. He doesn't really care much, about anything. I don't want someone like that at my back. I plan on keeping him in front of me. I figure he'll do himself in before Kismet does anything to him, but I'm not taking chances. What's your pick?"
"You can't just say suicide, Shelley. That's not fair. You have to pick something. A method."
"Fine. Poison. Over-the-counter pill or patch."
"Gun seems too direct for somebody like that. Too confrontational. He's not a confrontational person. By the same token, I don't think he'd jump off a building. Too public. I think he'd do himself in private. I'll bet you he already has a patch or something in his luggage. Maybe even carries it around with him. Some people do."
"Is that a side bet?"
Fleetwood thought about it, shook his head. "No. No way to prove it."
"Yeah, you're right."
"So what's your pick?"
"He's not going to kill himself," Colette said. "Like I said--" glaring to forestall comments "--he's not the type. He's going to take a laser for somebody."
"Yeah. That's the type he seems to me. Like he'd throw his life away in some futile gesture. They'd die anyway, the other person, of course. That's how life works."
"How life works for who? For everybody."
"No, no. Who is he going to die for?"
"Whaddya mean, who? That's way too specific. He'll take a laser for somebody. I'm not getting more specific than that." She stood up. "I have to get back to work. Thanks for lunch."
"Anytime. Don't forget to ask Ash."
"I won't." She started to walk away, then stopped and said over her shoulder. "Hey, Shelley?"
"When I first started, how long did you give me? You didn't give me two days, did you?"
"No. I gave you four."
Colette winced. "Ouch."
Fleetwood grinned. "I'm wrong sometimes, Cadet, and sometimes I'm glad."
"Huh. Four days." She headed off in the general direction of the tower.
Fleetwood finished his second beer and then thought to look around for Linton, and realized that the new employee was nowhere to be seen.
Maybe he'd already won five credits.
He hadn't heard any gunshots, though, and surely there would have been some kind of commotion, unless Linton had decided to quietly take his own life in a lavatory, and Fleetwood hadn't anticipated it happening that quickly. He couldn't possibly have gotten lost on the way back, could he? There were no outbound shuttles for another few hours, so he couldn't be headed offworld.
Fleetwood silently congratulated himself for making sure the guy was wearing a VR pin. The computer could trace him.
"Loki, find Linton 95."
The briefest of brief pauses. "What's the magic word, O Master?"
"Please, you rusting hunk of machinery."
"I'm sorry, Lieutenant," Loki said. "I can't seem to find him."
"Please," Fleetwood gritted, "pretty please, with sugar on top?"
"Oh, that Linton 95. My mistake. Looks like he's in the warehouse district, about a quarter-kem north-northwest of your current position. I don't have any pickups in the area, but I can triangulate off your VR and pinpoint the exact location when you're closer."
"Thank you, Loki." As he rose from the table, Fleetwood wondered if anyone else in town had noticed how belligerent Loki had gotten lately about the simplest commands. If anyone else had noticed how sometimes the house computers malfunctioned in odd ways, or the mix of the air was not quite right. Most times he didn't think about it, either, but every once in a while the thought crossed his mind that even though city computers were supposed to be incapable of causing harm to human life, they were not incapable of going insane, and major trouble seemed to be lurking around the corner.
Speaking of major trouble, that was what Linton was going to be in when Fleetwood found him. The warehouses? What on Rinolo could he possibly be doing there? At least he wasn't dead, yet.
"Oh," said Loki, "wait a minute ..."
Fleetwood assumed correctly, but by no greater space than the width of a few hairs.
Linton fell on top of Valantine and for a moment had his hands full trying to sort out the two of them, then had his hands equally full trying to calm her down from a full-blown panic attack.
He hadn't realized that someone was shooting at them until Valantine went ballistic. After all, it wasn't as if modern weapons made loud ZAPs and sizzled white lines through the air like in the holovids. They were completely silent and generally the first indication you ever got that someone had shot at you at all was a neat hole through your midsection. In this case, because of Valantine's fall, it was a neat line of scorch marks in the wall. Linton didn't even notice the scorched spots until Valantine started screaming.
If he'd happened to think about it, that was another rather strange thing ... that a fourteen-year-old, who had undoubtedly never been shot at in her life, would recognize immediately the meaning of a line of scorch marks in a wall ... but Linton had never been the quickest on the uptake, especially under pressure.
"Ohmygodohmygod," Valantine babbled, "get against the fucking wall!!" and flattened Linton against the side of the building. "That's--that's what they do in the holovids," she stammered, against his ear. "Is that right? Eeek!" half deafening him.
"I guess so," Linton mumbled, trying desperately to remember basic training--the last time in his life that anyone had shot at him. The only thing he could remember was his brand-new uniform pinching him in uncomfortable places, and accidentally falling in one of the latrines during a training exercise. In other words, not a damn thing that might help in the current situation. He felt faintly nauseous.
Got to protect Valantine, he thought, although at the moment Valantine seemed to be doing better than he was. She was peering skyward.
"Do you see him? Or her? It?"
"No," Linton said. "What was--Mmph!" Valantine had slammed him into the wall again.
"Up there," she whispered. "I saw somebody. Ohmygod. Is there some way out of here?"
"Not that I know of--" he began.
"I thought I saw a doorway back that way. When the guy was chasing me. I was trying to find a way to escape him and I ran right by it but--come on, Linton!"
She started to drag him backwards, but he was looking up, at the tops of the buildings silhouetted against the girders. Because he did see somebody, someone slim and dressed all in dark colors, and the sense of recognition was so powerful that he almost fell down.
It was someone he knew. And he had absolutely no idea who it was, yet he knew that he should. He knew that this person was the reason why he was here, and he didn't have any idea how he knew that or, for that reason, why he was here at all.
That scared him.
Why, you're being followed, my little friend, the woman in black had said.
The person on top of the building had some kind of weapon slung in the crook of his arm. He could easily have fired, but he did not, and then vanished from Linton's field of view.
"Come on, Linton!"
He had some vague awareness of her fumbling with the door.
"Oh, wow, it's not locked. That's lucky. I--I think we should go in, don't you?"
"Sure," Linton said, only half-aware of what she'd asked him.
Valantine grabbed his arm and dragged him through the door, then proceeded to fall completely apart.
Linton had no idea what to do now. He thought it was customary to hold and comfort a girl in a situation like this, except that she was forty years younger and he was married--no, wait, not married anymore, but she was still forty years younger. So he stood there helplessly, and Valantine went and sat down on some kind of plastic tubing. She sniffled, rubbed her eyes.
"Where do you think we are?" she asked him.
"I don't know." Linton finally thought to close the door, and they were plunged into darkness.
"Well, that helped," Valantine said with a sarcastic edge to her voice. In the darkness, she sounded deceptively older than fourteen.
"Sorry," Linton mumbled and shoved it open just a crack, letting enough light in that they could see a little bit.
Valantine was still sitting on the tube, kicking her feet gently against its side. Linton had no idea what it was for and didn't really want to know; it was translucent and he thought he could see currents and eddies through its side. Eventually Valantine slid down from it and crept over to join Linton at the door. She flattened herself against the wall and took a quick peek around it, making Linton think incongruously of a soldier on a field of battle. She must have picked that up from the vids, too. What sort of things did her parents let her watch? he wondered.
"Do you think they're gone?" she whispered.
"I don't know." Linton reached for the door to widen the crack a bit, to see out.
A hand stopped it.
Linton screamed like a girl.
"Oh, for crying out loud," Shelley Fleetwood said. "What the hell are the two of you doing in here?"
"Someone was trying to kill us," Valantine whimpered, clinging to Linton.
"Oh, and who are you?" Fleetwood inquired.
Valantine let go of Linton and twisted her hands behind her back, looking like she'd been caught dipping her hand in the cookie jar.
"She, uh, she's Valantine, sir," Linton said.
"Valantine?" Fleetwood said.
Valantine giggled and held out her hand, which he took, bemusedly. "And just who the hell are you, anyway?" he asked her.
Valantine snatched her hand back. "Nice people don't use words like that," she said. "That's what Mama says. I'm meeting my mother. Well, supposed to be meeting her. She never showed."
"Sorry," Fleetwood said. "Tertian accent, is it?"
Valantine giggled again, and half-ducked behind Linton. "I'm from Jackson Rim City."
"Really?" Linton said, twisting his head around. "So am I.""
"Wow! Sheer! I bet we know all sorts of the same places and the same people. Maybe I do know you, after all."
Out of a hundred million other people, I doubt it, Linton thought, but he said nothing.
"A bit young for him, aren't you?" Fleetwood said.
"Hey!" Valantine snapped. Linton was completely speechless.
Valantine folded her arms and thrust her face up into Fleetwood's. "Hey, what are you implying, mister?"
"Implying hell," Fleetwood said. "I don't care if the two of you make out in a warehouse. I don't care if it involves handcuffs, fish and the Dead Sea Scrolls. I'd just like to know where Linton goes when I'm trying to have a conversation with him."
Linton opened and closed his mouth.
"For your information," Valantine informed Fleetwood, tilting her head archly, "someone was shooting at us."
"Yeah, I know, I know. Look, I'm serious. I really don't care what you two do."
"I'm not lying, you stupid son of a bitch!" Valantine yelled at him.
"Damn," Fleetwood said, looking at her appraisingly. "You look a lot older when you talk like that."
Valantine gasped and her face darkened with anger. Linton spoke quickly. "Sir, she's right. Someone was shooting ... at me ..."
He trailed off, as the impact hit him for the first time. Shooting at him. If Valantine hadn't stumbled into him, he would have been shot. Killed. Drilled full of holes.
"You're serious?" Fleetwood said.
"Someone tried to kill me," Linton repeated, to himself. He couldn't believe it. Couldn't wrap his mind around it.
"For God's sake, get down!" Fleetwood snapped, ducking into a crouch and drawing his gun.
"Oh, cut it out. They're gone," Valantine said, folding her arms over her chest.
"How do you know that?" Fleetwood inquired, staring up at her.
Valantine opened her mouth, started to say something, then hesitated and said, "They must've gone away. They didn't come looking for us, and nobody's shot at us again."
Made sense to Linton.
"Don't be an idiot," Fleetwood snapped. "I don't give a fuck if you are fifteen. Or whatever. You're in Kismet now. Wise up or die, kid."
She gave him a strange glare, angry beyond her years--not adolescent angry, imbued with the angstful bitterness of youth, but darkly angry, like an adult who has spent her entire life watching people being killed.
"Excuse me--" said Linton.
"So who did that to you, anyway?" Fleetwood asked, nodding toward her disheveled clothing. He was still flattened against the wall. "The Tooth Fairy? Guess it wasn't Loverboy here."
"If you must know," Valantine said, "I have no idea."
"Excuse me," Linton said.
"Don't be mean." Valantine's lip quivered. "I don't know how I got here. I was scared until I ran into Linton, and then I felt safe again." She tightened her arms over her chest. "You are an idiot and you don't care what happens to me, or to Linton here. You only care about saving your own skin. I'm telling my mom about you! You'd better tell me your name right now, Mister."
Fleetwood grinned. "Gutsy little thing, aren't you? I'm Lieutenant Shel--"
"Sir!" Linton snapped, desperate enough to interrupt his superior officer. However, neither Fleetwood nor Valantine paid the slightest attention to him.
"Good. I'll have my mom file a complaint against you."
"A complaint? For what?"
"Sexual harassment," Valantine snapped.
"You are the strangest kid. Are you sure you're fourteen?"
Linton heard their bickering, but it was only an indistinct mumble in the back of his mind. He'd given up on trying to get Fleetwood's attention, and all he could do was watch, through the door, the man with the gun.
The man was standing on the roof of one of the warehouses across the street. All Linton could see was a slim shape, outlined against the banks of lights on the underside of the dome. A slim shape, with a long-barrelled weapon in his hands.
The sniper didn't move the gun into firing position, though. He simply stood there, watching them. He must have been crouched down, Linton thought. He might have been watching for some time. Now he stood outlined against the ceiling lights as if he didn't have a care in the world. Then he turned his back and walked away. The lights glinted from his scalp beneath thinning hair.
The way he moved ...
Linton would stake his life on it. He knew that guy ...
...smoke screaming shrapnel tore through bodies and the stranger was laughing, grinning through a face that was only a bloody mask ... but he was young, young, dark haired ... and Linton could almost see his face--
Linton was barely aware of falling to his knees.
"Hey!" Fleetwood and Valantine broke off their argument. One of them was on either side of him, and Linton couldn't say how they got there.
"You okay?" Fleetwood said. "Shot?"
"Okay," Linton managed, raising his hand to his face. It came away wet and he had a horrifying flash of blood covering his fingers, running down his arm, dripping off his sleeve--but it was only sweat, cold and sticky.
"What are you looking a--holy shit!" Fleetwood hit the ground with a painful-sounding thud and half-vanished behind the warehouse door, gun at the ready.
The slim figure atop the building kept walking, until he could no longer be seen.
Linton looked around for Valantine, struck with belated chivalry, and realized that she was nowhere to be seen, further realized that she'd hidden herself behind Fleetwood. He was all alone in the doorway.
"What are you, some kind of moron? Get in here!" Fleetwood yelled at him.
Linton couldn't move. He could only stare skyward, wondering what it felt like to die, sure that any minute he was going to find out. He did know that man. He was sure that he did. He felt dizzy. He couldn't think. Why was he here?
"Get your ass in here, or I'm leaving you out there! That's an order, dammit--get in here!"
And Linton found himself standing, with no recollection of getting on his feet; found himself leaning against the wall, on legs that would barely support him. A ringing filled his head, and his mouth tasted like blood.
Fleetwood waved a hand in front of his eyes. Linton was aware of it, vaguely, a pale fluttering thing in the darkness.
"You okay? Hey!" he heard Fleetwood say.
"You tapped into his conditioning, idiot." Valantine's voice came from farther off.
Fleetwood turned to her. "Cheeky brat, aren't you? What are you talking about?"
Valantine had closed the door most of the way, leaving only a slim crack. Her voice had taken on a smooth, authoritative tone, like a teacher's. "Conditioning, I said. Everyone in the military, hell, everyone on Tertia probably, are conditioned throughout their lives. Obey orders, respond to authority, fear change. That sort of thing."
"No shit?" Fleetwood peered at Linton. "How do I wake him up?"
"He'll come out of it on his own, in a minute. Or you could order him to wake up."
"No; he can't get into any trouble, standing there. Say, can he hear us?"
"Probably. He might not remember it. He's in kinda deep."
"Yeah. Deep. It's funny. Folks don't normally go in like that unless they're triggered somehow."
Fleetwood's voice moved away. "And how do you know all this, anyway?" he inquired in a rather dangerous tone.
"Daddy was the military," she said smoothly. "In Intelligence, in fact. He couldn't talk about his work with me, not very much, but I've seen a lot more than he knew I had. Besides, I've lived on Tertia all my life. I have eyes. I can look around me."
"Are you conditioned, Valantine?"
"Of course not. Not past the basics, anyway. I'm just a kid."
"The basics? What does that mean? Basic what?"
"You know. The basics. School. We learn to do what our teachers tell us, to love the President, the usual stuff. Don't you have schools here?"
"Not like that," Fleetwood said.
At that point Linton's knees buckled and he fell down. The shock of hitting the floor seemed to loosen up whatever had stopped working in his brain. He could breathe normally. He could think again. Sort of. His brain felt strange--whenever he tried to think about what had happened, his thoughts skittered away from it.
"I think he's awake," Valantine said, unnecessarily.
Linton got to his feet. He hurt in every joint; he felt as he did after inadvertently falling asleep in the middle of the afternoon--aching, stiff, awkward.
"Hey, Linton," Fleetwood said. "Welcome back. That was damned creepy, by the way. Is that going to happen every time I tell you to do something?"
"I ... don't even know what happened, sir."
"Oh, really? Is Valantine right? Have you been, uh, conditioned somehow?"
"I know that I have, sir. Everyone has. But it's never worked like that before."
Fleetwood looked as if he'd rather be anywhere but near Linton. "And how does it normally work?"
"I ... obey," Linton said. "Like anybody, I mean." Seeing Fleetwood's nervous, uncomprehending stare, the realization finally struck him that nobody here had had the treatments. These people were like small children--completely unconditioned. Uneducated. Wild.
Surely that couldn't be true. Surely they had some local analog. Didn't they have schools? They couldn't possibly just run wild.
"Obey, huh?" Fleetwood said. "Say, did you know you're bleeding?"
Linton had a horrific vision of the front of his uniform soaked with blood--but, raising his hand to his face, he found that he'd bitten his lower lip. His hand came away with traces of blood and saliva. It didn't even hurt, except when he probed the tender spot with his tongue.
"We'll talk about this later," Fleetwood said. "And I do want to talk about this later. To both of you. Right now, why don't we get out of here. Val, be a good girl and shut the door."
"My name's not Val," she grumbled, closing the door and plunging them into darkness. Only for a moment, however; Fleetwood snapped a lightstick and lit up the area around them with a cold blue glare.
"I travel prepared," he said, holding up the pencil-sized light above his head. Its glow illuminated a network of tubes--giant conduits two meters and more in diameter, narrower corrugated piping, slim tubes no bigger than a man's finger. Here and there a giant tank loomed in the darkness, surrounded by a nest of tubing.
"Where are we, anyway?" Valantine wanted to know.
Fleetwood held the lightstick near one of the tubes. "We're in one of Spray-n-Wear's supply depots. When you get dressed in the morning, this is what comes out of your shower."
"Ugh," Valantine murmured, staring at the viscous fluid roiling inside the translucent tube. "I think I'm wearing solido from now on."
"The door we came in through is an entrance for the service mechs," Fleetwood said. "Should be others around. We're in old Kismet here, people--most of these surface structures were built a hundred years ago." As he spoke, he led the way across the floor of the warehouse, stepping over tubes, ducking under them. "All of these old warehouses are easily accessible to human beings. Had to be. Back in those Company days, the equipment was bottom-bidder and broke down all the time. Human labor was actually cheaper than service-bots in a lot of cases. The architecture shows it. The new storage banks on the west side of town--well, new in this case meaning about fifty years newer than these--don't have human access at all."
"Back in the Company days?" Valantine said. "How do you mean?"
"Kismet was a mining colony, sweetpea. The Sylvian Mining Corporation owned us. Cheap bastards. How else would you explain our computer? Bottom of the line, like I said."
They picked their way through the maze of tubing, following Fleetwood, who at least gave a convincing impression of someone who knew where he was going.
"How did you know we were hiding in here, anyway?" Valantine asked.
"VR pin," Fleetwood said. "He's wearing one. Led me right to you. Aha!"
In the flickering light they saw the outline of a man-high door against the wall. Fleetwood tested the keyplate experimentally, and shook his head. "Locked, of course. In and out. Figured it was worth a try."
"The back door wasn't, sir," Linton said.
Fleetwood gave him an odd look. "It wasn't?"
"Valantine just tried it, and it opened," Linton said.
"It was?" Valantine said. When they looked at her, she said, "I don't remember. I'm sorry."
"Nobody leaves doors unlocked in Kismet," Fleetwood muttered. "With an open door, this warehouse should be crawling with tunnel people and freerunners." He glanced nervously over his shoulder, as if expecting tunnel people--whatever those were; Linton didn't really want to know--to appear out of the shadows. "Oh well," he said, and raised his gun. A burst of sparks seared Linton's retinas and the door slid open.
"Sir, you just--"
Fleetwood peered out.
"Uh, sir, you can't just--" Linton trailed off into silence. Nobody was listening to him anyway. Fleetwood looked right and left down the narrow street outside the door, which, to Linton, looked exactly like the one they'd left.
"See anything?" Valantine whispered.
"No. I'll ask the expert." Fleetwood touched the VR stud at his temple, and his lips moved silently. He waited, then spoke again, subvocalizing. After a moment he said aloud, "Well, fuck you too, Loki," and looked at the other two. "Loki says he doesn't have vid pickups in most of the warehouse district. Just when the bastard could come in handy ..." He shook his head.
"So what do we do?" Valantine whispered. "Stay in here, or go out there?"
Fleetwood looked out at the still and silent street, and grinned like a jackal at his companions.
"If we're going to stay in here, we'll be in here all day," he said, and stepped casually out into the open.
Linton and Valantine both recoiled from the door. Fleetwood looked about, stretched and shrugged.
"It's not me they're trying to kill, whoever they are," he said.
That sounded to Linton like the kind of comment that would be immediately followed by a laser blast and the sight of Fleetwood's limp, blood-spattered body crumpling into the wall, and Linton drew a little further back, just in case the blood might splatter this far. However, nothing of the sort happened. Fleetwood continued to look around him, grinning like a maniac.
"Hey, Linton," he said. "Guess what. I think I just figured out your first official assignment as a member of the Port Authority."
They searched the warehouse district for almost two hours and found nothing. Not a footprint, not a spare scorch mark. No assassins. They did find one body, but Fleetwood rolled it over and assured them both that he knew the guy and the likely cause of death was stab wounds, probably having something to do with gambling debts. Not to worry ...
At least they didn't split up. Linton, clutching his sidearm in front of him like a club, spent much of the search terrified that Fleetwood would suggest exactly that. He was positive that if he did go off on his own, he'd be dead before he took three steps. This anxiety, combined with the fear of being randomly shot from the rooftops, left him in a state of constant jittering. The only thing that kept him from completely losing self-control was a lingering hazy feeling which provided a nice buffer between himself and reality.
No doubt about it, Linton felt ... weird. He hadn't felt right ever since seeing the curiously familiar stranger on the rooftop. Granted, he hadn't had much sleep since Sarah died, and he wondered if his chronic insomnia could be finally catching up to him. He felt disconnected from the world, as if he was no longer a part of it, and it wanted to overwhelm him and beat him back into place. Everything was too intense. Colors were too bright, so bright they hurt his eyes. Sounds made him jump. He felt cold, and his hands kept trembling.
Valantine was no longer with them. At Fleetwood's urging, and over Valantine's protests, they had taken her back to the docks and left her with Colette Novak.
"So now I'm a babysitter too?" Colette demanded, arms folded.
"Just for a little while," Fleetwood said. "Her mother is supposed to come and pick her up. What better place to find her than in the Port Authority control booth?"
"What better place, indeed. How about a restaurant? How about a day-care center? How about anywhere? Do you realize I'm by myself up here?"
"Oh, you'll get along fine," Fleetwood said. "Just keep an eye on her. She wanders off, I understand."
Colette glared at him bitterly, then turned to Valantine and put on a smile.
"Come on. You can see the big screens where we watch everything that happens on the docks. It's cool. If you're good, I can give you a ride on the loading derrick, even," said Colette, who was an only child and knew about as much about teenage girls as Linton did, in spite of having just recently been one herself.
"You can't just leave me here!" Valantine said to Linton. "I'm a part of this now."
"In what way?" Fleetwood inquired, giving her a suspicious glare.
She planted her fists on her hips. "Maybe it's me they're trying to kill. Ever think of that, smart guy? Maybe you'll come back and I'll be dead."
"Any particular reason why someone would want to kill you?" Fleetwood said. "Actually, I suppose I can think of a few reasons, but do you have any enemies in particular?"
"Enemies?" Valantine said. "I'm a kid!"
"Well, enemies of your parents, then. What do your parents do?"
"My dad's in the military, and Mom is an actress."
"An actress, really?" Fleetwood said. "That's unusual anymore. What's her name? Maybe I know of her."
"Her name is Claire Danforth. But I don't think anybody wants to hurt my mom; do you?"
"You never know," Fleetwood said. "I'd say more than likely this has nothing to do with either of you. It's some random moron with a rifle taking potshots at passing people. From what you've told me, sounds like he's a really lousy shot, too." He rubbed at his chin. "Claire Danforth. I think I have heard the name. What was she--no wait. Claire Danforth."
"She does art films," Valantine said.
"Yes," Fleetwood said, grinning. "That she does. And your father's in Intelligence, right? On Tertia?"
"He was," Valantine said. "He's dead. Two years ago. I live with Aaron, one of Daddy's friends. Does any of that help?"
"Perhaps," Fleetwood said. "Anyway, stay here with Colette. You'll be safer with her than with us."
As he and Linton descended back to the floor of the docking bay, he added, "Now whether or not Colette is safe with her..."
"She's just a little girl, sir," Linton said hesitantly.
"She's not just anything, and as for how old she is ... trust me, Linton, she's not fourteen. I don't know how old she is, but I know she's older than that. Trust me, I have a good eye for age-of-consent, and she's over it. She knows how to carry her body, the effect it has on a man. I couldn't tell you if she's a prostitute or not, but she's no virgin. Didn't you notice her flirting with you?"
Linton blushed, and said between his teeth, "I believe it would be highly inappropriate for me to notice that, sir."
"'Inappropriate'?" Fleetwood mimicked. Linton looked away, angry. Fleetwood added in a less sarcastic tone, "The age difference isn't so great as all that. Don't knock it 'til you've tried it."
"I'm married, sir," Linton said, and added, "Sort of."
Fleetwood looked at him in surprise. "I had no idea. Of course, until about two hours ago, I had no idea you were working for me, either. Is she here in Kismet?"
"She's dead, sir. Eighteen days ago."
"Wow," Fleetwood said thoughtfully. "You're either a cold bastard or a remarkably good good actor. Tough to say. I should really read your file at some point. Speaking of which ..." He touched his temple briefly. "I'll have Loki look up Claire Danforth. I have no idea if she actually has a daughter, but someone might conceivably want to kill her. I assume Claire knows some rather unscrupulous types."
"Claire Danforth is an ... art film actress, sir?" Linton said, wondering what an art film was.
"Actually, she's a porn actress. Fairly well known. I've never met her, but an ex-girlfriend of mine knew her."
Poor Valantine, Linton thought, but didn't say it aloud, not feeling in any mood for more of Fleetwood's sarcastic comments.
"So what did you do after you left the Tie-Dye, anyway? Talk to anybody? Just wander around?"
"Basically just wandered around, sir. Found Valantine. There was also a woman in black," he added.
"A woman in black?"
"Yes, she ... I never got her name, sir. She told me I was being followed." As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he wished he could call them back. It was simply too hard to resist telling the truth to superiors. Conditioning fighting against conditioning ...
Fleetwood turned on him. "And you just now decided to mention this?"
"I have no idea how she knew that, sir."
Fleetwood shrugged. "Maybe she was following you. Tell me about this woman in black."
"There's not much to tell, sir. I met her among the warehouses, before I encountered Valantine again. She was playing an instrument. She ..." Threatened me. "Warned me. Said that I was being followed."
"By who? Or what?"
"At least four people, she said." Aargh. He wanted to stop the words but they just came out.
"Four?" Fleetwood repeated.
"That's what she said, sir."
"Woman in black."
"I wonder how she fits into this," Fleetwood mused. "Anyone you knew?"
"No. I'd never seen her before, sir."
"Do you think you could stop calling me that? Let's try 'Shelley' for a change. Or, if that's too much for you, how about 'Lieutenant.'"
Colette called them, or Fleetwood rather, in the middle of their search. "Thought you'd want to know that Valantine is no longer with me."
"Where is she?"
"I have no idea. She appears to have wandered off. Maybe she found her mother, or Momma found her. She didn't even say goodbye, the little brat. I thought you ought to be aware, in case she shows up where you are."
But she didn't show up, and eventually they broke off the search.
"What we're doing is silly, and futile," Fleetwood said. "For one thing, he's long gone; for another, he probably wasn't shooting at either of you specifically. Come on. Loki says he's got some long-range vid shots of the roofs that we can try looking at, but unless it happens again, you may as well forget about it."
"Unless it happens again? Sir, someone tried to kill me."
"Someone tried," Linton repeated, trying to wrap his mind around the concept, "to kill me."
"So?" Fleetwood said. "People have been trying to kill me for years. It won't be the last time, trust me. Look on the bright side: you weren't even hurt. Not everybody's so lucky their first time."
Pondering that--and none of his thoughts were happy ones--Linton followed Fleetwood back to the Customs security station on the docks. His feet were starting to hurt. He hadn't done this much walking in years.
"No dice?" Colette said.
Fleetwood shook his head. "Long gone. I'd like to look at Loki's surveillance vids, if you don't mind."
"Be my guest, but don't be too long. The seventeen-fifteen is going to be docking in a few minutes, and you know how this place gets."
"No sign of Ash, huh?"
"Not hide nor bleach-blonde little hair," Colette said.
"I'll talk to her tomorrow."
"I'd appreciate it, but I really don't know if it will help or not. She knows you won't fire her; you can't. We're understaffed enough as it is."
"Look, it's a different story if she's actually here. Seems like lately the options are .... pay her a day's wages to not show up, or not pay her a day's wages to not show up. I'd say it's pretty clear-cut." He went to the bank of screens in the corner.
"Ash is a nice person," Colette said to Linton. "She really is. But she's self-employed, and hasn't quite learned to keep her other occupation and her job with the I.S.C. separate."
"What else does she do?" Linton asked.
Linton frowned at her in confusion. Colette became aware of his puzzled gaze. "Prostitution," she clarified. "Ash is a hooker. Shelley--I mean, Lieutenant Fleetwood doesn't care what she does in her off time, but I think he does have a bit of a problem with her doing it wearing a KPA uniform."
Linton opened and closed his mouth a couple of times. He was saved from having to answer by Fleetwood, who called, "Hey, Linton! Come take a look at this guy, would you?"
The three of them crowded around the screen. The image quality was terrible--enlarged to a blurry haze, shot from odd angles.
"The only cameras that show most of the warehouse district are on the underside of the dome," Fleetwood said. "Some of the individual companies have surveillance pickups over the doors or around the loading areas, but only where they were added after the original construction. That's why we needed the VR pins to talk to Loki down there--no audio, either." He flipped quickly through several different views of the rooftops, all equally fuzzy. "Loki, can't you enhance this any more?"
The screen blinked and the blurred view of poorly lit rooftops was replaced by a colorful cartoon of the same part of town, with happy-looking little cartoon animals skipping from building to building. "Not unless you want it to look like that," Loki's voice said. The screen blinked back to its original view. "The more I enhance, the more I have to interpolate, until it becomes complete guesswork on my part. A cartoon would be about as accurate."
"So is this as far as you can go?" Colette said, squinting at the screen. "It's so blurry I can't see anything."
"These cameras are over a hundred years old," the computer retorted. "Besides, it's all bits to me. There's no such thing as a blurry bit. Every one is perfect just as it is."
"Right," Fleetwood said. "Whatever. There's our perp, anyway." He touched the holoscreen, his finger sinking slightly into it. "That's the Spray-n-Wear complex and there's definitely somebody on the roof here. Looks like he ... or she ... goes over to the next building and down to street level--there. And disappears from the roof cameras. Loki, you can't ID somebody from this, can you?"
"No, Lieutenant. Estimated height-weight parameters are consistent with 11.39 to 16.4 percent of the male population of Kismet, and 5.3 percent of the female population. Give or take point three-seven percentage points."
"Oh, well. Thought I'd ask."
"What now?" Colette said.
"Now? Now we forget about it. I've done my bit. Watch your back for a couple of days, Linton, but I'd give you credits to cashew nuts that we won't hear anything else from this one."
"But the woman in black ..." Linton trailed off.
"What woman in black?" Colette said.
Fleetwood shrugged. "He met a woman in black who told him he was being followed. Doesn't know who she is or what she wants. Apparently she warned him and vanished. By the way, Colette, your seventeen-fifteen's on the radar."
"I know," Colette sighed.
"Actually ..." Fleetwood stared at the blurred image on the screen, tapping his fingers. "Linton, why don't you stay and help Colette until Gil and Stella relieve her? It's basically routine. Check passengers for biological weapons. Assist the cargo crew if they find anything peculiar. Break up fights if they break out ... handle petty thefts and so forth ... you know, basic security stuff. Okay with you?"
"Uh ... yes, sir. Lieutenant."
Colette smiled at Linton. "It really is routine stuff, not difficult to learn. Pretty boring most of the time. I wouldn't mind having some help, though."
Fleetwood rose. "I'll be below, if you need me. Linton, come on down to my office when Gil and Stella relieve you two."
Colette was right--the routine work of the Kismet Port Authority wasn't difficult, just slightly hectic when the shuttles came in. Most of the work, in fact, was done by Loki, with the humans acting as hands for the computer. All the equipment--scanners, surveillance screens, DNA strippers--fed their output into the computer and the results came back by way of the VR pins both Linton and Colette wore.
When they weren't scanning passengers, Colette showed Linton how to manipulate the various views of the dock area on the screen banks. "For the most part, Loki handles this part too. He'll alert us if anything peculiar happens, or I should say anything he's programmed to recognize as peculiar. He'll also give you whatever view you ask for. But I like to be able to use the controls myself. You can zoom, switch angles, even get an assumed angle--that's where the computer takes two or more existing cameras and interprets the view from an angle that's not specifically covered. It can be useful to be able to tweak it yourself--"
"Especially on the night shift. There's not a whole lot else to do."
Colette turned her head. "Hey, Gil! Linton, this is Gil Sweeney. On time, for a change."
Linton, who had given up on ever getting a decent salute out of this bunch, held out a hand, but Gil Sweeney looked at it, and at him, like something that had just oozed through the airlock. "That's a Customs uniform," he said. "You work here?"
"He answered the job opening," Colette said. Linton didn't correct her.
"You mean Zack's job."
"You mean Zack's old job." Colette lowered her head, folded her arms. "His name is Linton ... uh, 95."
"I don't really care what his name is," Gil said, and swept his gaze over both of them. "Is he going to be on nights?"
"No. Linton's working days. I'm sure Fleetwood will fill you in on all the details."
"I'm sure he will, and I can imagine why he neglected to mention this little detail to me."
"He didn't know, I think," Colette said.
"Yep. Of course he didn't." Gil slipped past her without looking at her. "Well, I'm here now, and I see your partner is nowhere to be seen, as usual, so I'm sure you've had a hard day and you can just run along, Cadet. Take him with you."
"Have a good night, Sergeant." Sarcasm dripped from Colette's voice. "Come on, Linton."
The next shuttle wasn't due for hours and the docks were nearly deserted. Linton had to break into a half-jog to keep up with Colette.
"I don't like that man," Colette said between her teeth. "I never have. I knew he was going to be a bastard about this."
"He doesn't seem to like me much," Linton said.
"It's not you, it's your job. Gil is Zack's brother. Was, I mean. Not that they ever got along at all. I mean, Gil's always been a bastard, although I must admit he's been a bit more of one since Zack died. Watch out for him, Linton."
Watch out for him? "Do you mean he'd actually try to--I mean--"
Colette smiled faintly. "No, I don't mean it like that. Gil's not a killer, but he can be a backstabber. Trust me, if you screw up, Gilbert Sweeney is the sort of guy who'd be there to make sure you take the fall. Fleetwood likes you, I think, so I don't think you have to worry much from that quarter. But watch him, okay? Watch everybody, Linton, at least until you get settled in a bit. They don't take well to new people around here."
They passed another woman in a Customs uniform coming off the lift tube; Colette saluted her briefly, and Linton promptly followed suit. "Stella, this is SSC Linton 95. He's new."
Stella returned their salute and looked Linton up and down. "Linton 95, eh? First day?"
"I'm not quite sure how to ask this, Linton. So I suppose I'll just say it. There'd been some talk about hiring a night-shift supervisor, Zack Sweeney's old position. Are you--?"
"No, ma'am," Linton said quickly. "I'm working days."
Stella smiled. "Then I believe we'll get along. Is Gil--?"
"In there." Colette jerked her thumb over her shoulder. "He'll be an utter joy to work with tonight, I assure you."
Down on the floor of the docks, Colette said, "Stella Drue is the new supervisor. She likes it, I think. Quite a bit. She's also one of the few people who doesn't seem to mind working with Gil. Not a bad lady in spite of that. Kind of odd."
They're all kind of odd, Linton thought, but he found, looking back, that he'd enjoyed the last couple of hours, at least as opposed to the previous few. Working on the docks was a nice change from getting shot at and running around the warehouses with only Fleetwood for company. No danger. No awkward social situations. Just a rather routine, mindless job--the sort of thing he'd spent the last thirty years doing. And once he got past Colette's youth and gender, she was actually a pleasant person to work with, intelligent and personable and a good teacher.
"I wonder where Valantine got off to," Colette mused.
"She probably found her mother and went home," Linton said, but he wondered, too.
They parted ways at the transit nexus, and to Linton's astonishment, Colette gripped his hand briefly, a warm, firm pressure. "You're welcome to come have dinner with me and Fithian, any time you want," she said. "Fithian's my husband. I think you two would get along."
"Thank you," Linton said, surprised and touched. Kindness was a rare thing on any world, and he had not expected to find it here.
"Watch your back, Linton," Colette said, and stepped into her tube.
Linton glanced involuntarily over his shoulder. Only clusters and small knots of people, the stragglers of the rush-hour crowd, headed home after a long day's work. He wondered if he'd ever feel at home here, and stepped into the down tube.
Outside the brightly-lit transit nexus, the main lights had been dimmed in a simulated twilight, leaving softer lamps on the walls to light the stone passages. All in all, the illusion of being in a small city at dusk was effective enough that it disconcerted Linton to look up and see only stone overhead.
Peaceful as it was in the dim light, with few people around, it made him nervous and he was glad to see the cold glow of lightstrips behind Fleetwood's frosted plastiglass door. He knocked.
"Dammit, Linton, just come in!" Fleetwood hollered at him from within.
Fleetwood was sitting cross-legged on the floor, sorting data stiks from an overflowing box beside him. He glanced up as Linton entered. "Gotta keep on top of these things or they'll get out of control," he said, grinning.
"I see," Linton murmured, looking around the office. If this wasn't getting out of control, he'd hate to see it if it ever did.
"Sit down," Fleetwood added. When Linton started for the straight-backed wooden chair, Fleetwood said, "No, there's a softchair under all this, somewhere." He started moving boxes--the only place with enough room to accommodate them was in front of the door, so he stacked them there. Linton imagined opening the door to be buried under a cascade of boxes, and decided that knocking was probably a good idea after all.
Fleetwood's efforts unearthed an overstuffed and much-patched softchair; ancient synvinyl crackled as Linton sank into it.
"I had Loki look up Claire Danforth and Valantine earlier this afternoon," Fleetwood said. "Got Claire's file right away. Still waiting to hear back on Valantine. He's got to query the Tertian computers, which he says is an incredible hassle, and just to make it more difficult, we don't know her last name, or number or whatever you people call it."
"I didn't even think of asking her, sir," Linton said, feeling foolish.
"Well, neither did I. I thought I could just get it from the passenger manifest on the shuttle, but she's registered as Valantine Danforth, which is really no help."
"Is she Claire Danforth's daughter?" Linton asked. This chair was turning out to be a little too comfortable. He was having a hard time keeping his eyes open.
"I don't know," Fleetwood said. He rose and went to sit down at his desk, where he could see his holoscreen, and scrolled down. "It doesn't mention any children, or marriages, but she is from Tertia. Emigrated twenty-something years ago. Uh, in '51. Twenty-five years. She's forty-two now."
"But that's not possible," Linton said. "Valantine is only fourteen."
"I told you: I don't think she's as young as she says she is. Although twenty-five is pushing it just a bit. Claire could have gone back, or met Valantine's father here." He scrolled a bit further. "There's not much information at all on her Tertian background. Her name's not actually Claire Danforth, of course. It was Madeline 35 on Tertia. Mother's name was Signy 127. No information whatsoever on her father. Left Tertia at sevent--What's wrong with you?"
"That name," Linton said. "Signy 127. Valantine mentioned it."
"When I first met her. I hadn't really thought about it ... she asked me if I knew anyone named Signy 127, but I don't."
"You're sure it was Signy 127? That's the right number?"
"I'm Tertian, sir," Linton said. "We remember numbers."
"Ah. Right. So she asked you about her grandmother, basically. Why?"
"I don't know."
"It's not like we have anything better to do," Fleetwood said. "Loki--"
"Maybe I have better things to do. Ever thought of that?" the computer's soft, asexual voice complained.
"Loki, I need you to look up--"
"Signy 127. Right. Another cross-beamway search; another query into the labyrinthine hell that is the Tertian computer system."
"Thank you, Loki."
"It'll take a while," the computer said.
"That's fine. You do the best you can. How's the search on Valantine coming, by the way?"
"I have fourteen thousand, two hundred ninety-three Valantines, so far. When I have the full list, I'll cross-index with Claire Danforth by date and place of birth, place of residence, occupation and so forth. I do not intend to waste processor time getting you preliminary results until I have the full list, however."
"That's fine, Loki. You do whatever you think is best." Fleetwood rubbed his forehead and looked over at Linton. "So we may be here for a while."
"That's all right with me, sir," Linton said, feeling himself sinking a bit deeper into the overstuffed softchair. It molded itself to his body in a way completely unlike the hard, utilitarian Tertian furniture he'd grown used to.
Fleetwood palmed down the holo display and propped up his feet on the desk. "While we're waiting, we can talk."
"About what, sir?"
"You," Fleetwood said. "You can't run from your past, you know. It generally catches up in some form or another."
Suddenly wide awake, Linton tried to sit up and discovered that the chair seemed to be trying to swallow him. "What do you mean, sir?"
"Most of the people who come to Kismet are running from something," Fleetwood said. "Besides, I'm not blind. You're how old, fifty standard? Older? A guy your age, who's been in the military all his life, doesn't just quit and decide to take a dead-end job in the backwater end of the universe. See the galaxy, my ass. You were, what was it, a colonel or something?"
"Major," Linton said.
"I see. And here, you're a sergeant second class. That's gotta sting."
"It does," Linton said quietly. "Sir."
"So you left all that behind--rank, pension, friends if you have any, and came out here. Because of your wife?"
"No, sir. Not exactly."
"I do have my reasons, sir. But, if you'll excuse me for saying so, they are personal."
Fleetwood leaned forward. "Linton, I'm not trying to snoop into your private life. If you knew me a little better, you'd know that I don't do things like that, not without good reason. But I'm directly responsible for the lives of eight men and women, counting you, and indirectly, for the safety of everyone in Kismet. That's a heavy load, Linton. I didn't ask for it, but it's mine to carry. Now, you didn't know this, but Zack was ... a good friend of mine. I don't know how or why he died. I doubt I'll ever know.
"So now we have you. Zack's replacement. A guy who shows up out of nowhere, for no reason, who's apparently been conditioned to obey authority and to do who knows what else. Do you see where I'm coming from here, Linton? I need enough information to keep myself alive, to keep everyone I'm responsible for alive. That's my job."
After he finished speaking, Linton was silent for a moment and then said, "I'm sorry about your friend, Lieutenant. I understand if you'd have some resentment toward me. But I'm not a threat to you. I'm not a threat to anybody."
Fleetwood sighed. "I don't resent you, Linton! I think you may encounter some resentment. Zack was a popular guy. But it won't be from me. I know you're not Zack. I don't expect you to be Zack. All I want from you ... all I want is for you to do your job and not get anyone else killed."
"No one's going to die because of me, sir," Linton said, and as he said it, he had that same strange feeling he'd gotten when he saw the man on the rooftop--as if his mind was skittering around something, something it had forgotten and didn't want to remember.
Fleetwood rubbed his eyes. He reached under the desk and brought out a bottle in a plain brown wrapper, poured some into the cracked mug.
"What is it?" Linton asked warily.
"Wine. Anubian. Cheap, but not a bad vintage. Don't worry, I'm not trying to poison you."
Linton accepted it. I've come so far from my previous life, he thought; here I am, on Kismet, drinking Anubian wine from a broken cup and talking calmly about killing people with my C.O.
Fleetwood drank straight from the bottle. "Not bad," he said. "Now then. Claire Danforth and Valantine aren't the only people I've had Loki check out today. I also finally read your I.S.C. file."
Linton swallowed half the cup of wine at a gulp. It burned his throat.
"I haven't had a chance to read it at any great length. Just skimmed, really," Fleetwood said. He swung his feet off the desk and palmed his display back on. "There are some rather odd things in here."
Linton drank the rest of the wine.
"Let's start at the beginning. I.S.C. file on 95, Linton. Did decide to file it under N, by the way, in case you care. Damn you Tertians and your naming conventions." Fleetwood shook his head, and ran his eyes down the file. "Previous commission: Major, Tertia, Quadrant 39 CPC Division of Records and Filing, Forty-Fifth Reserve, blah blah ... I guess this means you were a file clerk or something."
"Ever seen combat, Linton?"
Blood, smoke, screams ... "Not as a soldier, sir."
Fleetwood glanced at him, but let that one pass for the time being. "I kinda got the impression that you hadn't. Just a guess. We need a bit of weapons training, I think. Hmm. Moving on. Discharged 13B--what's that? That not-fired thing you were talking about?"
"An honorable discharge," Linton said, "that carries no pension or future employment options in the military."
Fleetwood thought that one over. "Sounds like being fired to me."
Damn these Kismetians and their insistence on using archaic, outdated terms to describe complex concepts. "It was an honorable discharge. There is no dishonor in it. My time with the Tertian military merely came to an end."
"Your decision, huh. That's what you said. Why?"
"I'm not at liberty to discuss that, sir."
Fleetwood raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean, not at liberty?"
"I'm not permitted to discuss my employment with the military with any unauthorized person."
"What, you mean the last thirty or forty years of your life?"
"Call me Lieutenant, please. Or anything. Look, Linton. You don't work for them any more. They have no control over you. They can't tell you what to do. It's not as if they own you."
They do, Linton thought. Always have, always will. "I'm sorry, sir, but as a former officer in the Tertian military, I still consider myself bound by the regulations I lived by then. I can't discuss it."
"Even if I torture you?"
Linton choked. "I--Would you? Uh, Lieutenant."
"Only if you really, really annoy me. More wine?"
"Oh, for God's sake, Linton, I'm just jerking you around. Don't be such an easy target." He refilled Linton's cup and took another deep drink.
Linton was starting to feel the wine, a warm tingle spreading through him, pushing him ever closer to the brink of sleep.
"Okay. Let's skip over the employment history. None of these numbers and codes mean anything to me anyway. Now we get to the part I really don't understand. It says here you were born Linton March--is that right?"
"Yes, sir." Linton March. He hadn't heard that name in so many years. It sounded strange. Foreign.
"Born in ... some little town I've never heard of ... in Outreach Seaboard, Secuba. Right?"
"Yes, sir." So odd to hear these names from his past. Outreach Seaboard. How long since he'd thought of it? When he tried to think about it, he couldn't seem to get a grip on the concept. Maybe it was only the wine and his own weariness.
"Secuba. That's funny. Now correct me if I'm wrong here, Linton, but according to everything I've seen on the newsfeeds, Tertia and Secuba are bitter enemies. They've been at war longer than I've been alive. Yet you work for the Tertians. You told me you were Tertian. You have a Tertian name."
"Being born in a place doesn't make it home," Linton said. He spoke from a sleep-haze; he had to keep struggling back to wakefulness, in order to compose his next sentence. "Secuba ... is fighting a losing battle. In fact, most of it is Tertian soil now. I cut my losses long ago and joined the winning side. Long, long ago. That's all."
He became aware of Fleetwood studying him thoughtfully. "You don't seem like that type to me," Fleetwood said. "I'm usually a pretty good judge of character."
Linton closed his eyes. "People change over time, sir. Maybe I was different then. I don't know. Maybe you're wrong about me."
"Could someone want to kill you for that?" Fleetwood asked.
"I don't know." He was drifting now, in a haze of smoke. He saw a face in the smoke--the stranger's face, dark-eyed and young. He still couldn't put a name to it. He didn't want to think about what it meant to him. "No one ever tried before."
"People change," Fleetwood said dryly, and added, "You had the entire Tertian military to protect you before."
"And now I have nothing. I know." Truer words were never spoken. Nothing. No one.
A stranger in the smoke, who wasn't a stranger at all.
Fleetwood said something else, but it faded to an indistinct mumble. Linton slept. His dreams were disturbing--not the blatant nightmares of the last few nights, but fuzzy and unsettled, shifting randomly from one place to another. He saw the stranger's face more clearly now, and knew his name, the way you know things in dreams. Daniel ...
"Linton? Hey, Linton, you in there?"
A hand on his shoulder shook him gently, then a bit harder.
Linton blinked his eyes. They felt gritty, and his body ached. He felt more tired than when he'd fallen asleep. He pushed himself into the closest position to upright that the chair would allow.
"How long have I been asleep?" he asked Fleetwood, wiping at his eyes.
"Oh, an hour or two. Not too long." Fleetwood sat on the edge of the desk. He was still holding a bottle of wine, but this one had a different label, and it was almost full. "Loki's got our results back from Tertia. Who would you like to start with?"
"Valantine. Mm-hm." Fleetwood swiveled the holo display so he could read it without moving behind the desk. "Nothing definite there. Apparently Valantine was one of the most popular girls' names in the galaxy twenty years ago, because of that soap opera simulactress Valantine Risse. Lots of star-struck housewives--not to mention horny teenage boys--named kids after her. The fact that we can't narrow down Valantine's age any closer than a few years doesn't help, either. I wonder if it's her real name."
"How many Valantines do you have? Sir."
"Well, she said she was from Jackson Rim City, so that does narrow it down a tad. Girls named Valantine, between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, with deceased fathers in the military and mothers either dead or absent ... three hundred seventy-three."
"Three hundred ..."
"Yep. Making it more difficult than that ... I never knew that Tertian children don't stay with their birth parents. I guess you knew that?"
"It's not thought of that way, sir," Linton said. "A child's parents are the couple who raise him, not those who gave him birth. Most children are born in CPC's anyway. How does--"
"Citizen production centers. Where children are ... born. Does that make it more difficult, sir?"
"It makes it exponentially more difficult, Linton. Is Claire Danforth her birth mother or her adopted mother? Or someone who was once married to her father, or involved with him?"
"She said she lives with a friend of her father's," Linton said.
"Named Aaron. Yeah, that's about as useful as tires on a landfoil. You have any idea how common the name is? I checked to see if Claire was ever involved with a guy named Aaron; nothing, at least not anything that would leave any records. Valantine didn't ever mention her father's name, did she?"
"I don't remember that she did."
"No, I didn't think so. I'd say she was more vague than the occasion called for, Linton. Either Valantine's not her real name, or she's hiding something."
"Claire Danforth is a real person, I suppose, sir," Linton said. "All we have to do is ask her if she has a daughter or not."
"It's got to be more complicated than that," Fleetwood muttered. "It's always more complicated than that."
"What about Signy 127, sir? Valantine's grandmother?"
"Or Claire Danforth's mother, at any rate. I wouldn't say there's anything shocking there. At least nothing that isn't classified too tightly for Loki to get hold of it. Signy 127 was, or still is--Loki's not sure--in the Intelligence division of your military. She was a spy, and she might still be. Loki says that there's no record of her ever retiring or getting killed. On the other hand, she's 84 years old. It's hard to imagine an eight-four-year-old spy."
Linton tried to visualize Valantine in fifty years. "Not if she's related to Valantine, I think, sir."
Fleetwood grinned, a bit wearily. "That's a good point. And incidentally, I should probably point out that Claire Danforth, or Madeline 35, is Signy 127's birth daughter. She was born before the, um, CPC's went into full swing. Hence she's a blood relative of Valantine, if Valantine is actually who she says she is."
"It doesn't matter, sir," Linton said. "Not to her, not to me. We Tertians have moved beyond the old reliance on blood kinship. That's why we use numbers, not surnames. There can't be equality until we eliminate the effect of birth, of parentage. Sir."
"Is equality what you have on Tertia, then?" Fleetwood asked quietly. "No, don't answer that. I haven't been there. I don't know. Just think about it." He snapped the top back on the bottle of wine, and stowed it away in his desk. "Ready to head out of here?"
"I suppose so ... sir."
"I'm going to get something to eat. You're welcome to join me."
Linton wanted a hot shower and a real bed--badly. He was also hungry, however, and while he wasn't sure if he cared that much for Fleetwood's company, it was better than trying to find a place to eat by himself in an unfamiliar town.
"Thank you, sir."
So it was that Linton 95 found himself in a bar called The Moons of Destiny, half a street over from Kismet's red-light district, The Avenue, and half over from the upscale Boardwalk. This was a quietly desperate part of town, unassuming in its stark, simple cruelty. Sitting in a side booth, Linton was fascinated by the night-life of Kismet. Drugs and sex exchanged hands scant meters from the two of them. He watched a breastless young girl, no older than twelve, scream obscenities at a much taller, much older man, before he put an arm around her waist and led her upstairs. Two men at the bar exchanged heated words and flashed incandescent buzzknives before a mechanical bouncer, brandishing an iron clamp at the end of one arm and a rotor-saw at the other, hustled them outside.
Yet for all that, the place was relatively quiet and clean. The light was poor, but Linton supposed that might be for the best, considering the nature of the place. A reasonable facsimile of a potted palm concealed them somewhat from the rest of the room. The food, to Linton's relief, was bland and contained no obvious insect parts, and it was delivered the old-fashioned way by an actual human girl directing a hovering mechanical cart. Linton sat in the sort of hard, straight-backed chair that he favored, while Fleetwood reclined on a couch along the wall.
Linton wasn't particularly interested in getting drunk; he couldn't remember the last time he'd gotten drunk, in fact. He sipped slowly on a Gaian ale. Fleetwood, however, was amassing quite a collection of bottles on the table in front of him.
"Where'd that waitress go? That, whatsername. Lydia. Redhead. Cute. Fake breasts. Bodysculpted out the wazoo. Seen her?"
Linton looked around for the girl, Lydia, and shook his head.
"Oh, well. Probably humping some john upstairs. Too bad. Good looking girl. Oh, hey, there she is! Hey Linton, wave her this way, huh?"
Linton, embarrassed, tried to appear inconspicuous. The girl saw Fleetwood beckon her, however, and brought him another drink, giggling at his flirting looks.
"Sir ... with all due respect ..."
"Linton ..." Fleetwood lay back on the couch, propped his head on one hand. "Don't drink much, do you? You've hardly touched that."
"Sir, I hardly see what that has to do with--"
"Sir. Sir," Fleetwood mocked. "Don't you ever say anything else? Don't they teach you how to think for yourself on that planet you're from?"
"Tertia. Right. But you're not from Tertia, you're from Secuba."
"Only by birth, sir."
"Birth. Right. So why'd you leave?"
"Because Secuba is a war-torn hell, sir," Linton snapped, and, embarrassed, tried to return his attention to the beer he'd hardly touched.
"Sounds like you have more reason to drink than I do," Fleetwood said, and drained the drink the waitress had brought him in one long gulp.
"I don't solve my problems that way, sir." Though frankly, he was starting to wonder what advantage his method might have ...
"Why not?" Fleetwood echoed his thoughts.
"I have no idea. Why do you, sir?"
"Sir. There's that word again." Fleetwood straightened, a bit unsteadily, and leaned his elbows on the table. "You want to know why I drink? Look here, Linton."
Linton leaned forward, compelled in spite of himself.
"I drink, Linton, because it makes it all ... new. Look there. Look at that little girl." He indicated the waitress, Lydia, who was walking back to the bar with a slow swing of her hips. "She's probably eighteen. I know she's a whore. But now, you see, I can see her cheekbones, her legs--see, Linton? She is graceful. Beautiful. She'll live maybe thirty-some-odd years, in our world of technological magic where the average age of death is over a hundred. See those thighs? Enjoy 'em while you can. They'll be string-cheese inside ten years. She'll draw a knife to her wrist because she needs to. Women need to find themselves beautiful to live. It doesn't matter if they're ugly or not--only if they think they are." Fleetwood laughed--oblivious to Linton's stare of horror--and started to take another drink, only to find his glass was empty.
"I've taken my ease with enough sixteen-year-olds, Linton. You probably guessed that. I'm no hero like your officers back on Tertia. But while those men rationalized their sixteen-year-old cream, then slunk home to their wives, I never did that. They might say she wanted it, she was a beautiful young woman as they humped her bones. I never did. I've always known those girls were whores feeding their kids, themselves, their drug habit--and ugly to themselves, however beautiful and soft their faces may be." Fleetwood laughed quietly. "Who does that damn, Linton? Me? Or them? Or no one?"
Linton just stared.
"Think what you like," Fleetwood said, "but I am not a hypocrite. Lydia!"
She brought him another drink. "Thanks, hon." She smiled at him, and Linton felt sick, watching it.
"Sir, please ... please stop."
"Why?" Fleetwood looked at him; his green eyes were like two dark holes. "Am I bothering you?"
"Just a bit," Linton admitted.
Fleetwood sighed and drank. "You're the last great innocent, aren't you, Linton?"
"Excuse me, sir?"
"The last great innocent. You're an odd one, all right. Next you'll have me believe that you've never crouched above a sixteen-year-old whore."
"I haven't!" Linton snapped, more vehemently than he intended.
"Of course not," Fleetwood said.
"I haven't." Linton was almost speechless with anger. He didn't even know where this blank rage had come from, except that it seemed to rise from the smoke, the fire ... "My sister," he snapped, and fell silent.
He was surprised to see Fleetwood flinch.
"Your sister?" Fleetwood said.
"Slept with soldiers. Made some money that way." Odd, he'd almost forgotten about that. No, hell, he had forgotten until this very moment.
"Shit. Sorry, man. I didn't mean to--"
"It was in the camps, sir." Somehow the genuine regret in Fleetwood's eyes was even harder to withstand than his nihilism. "A long time ago."
"Is she still there?"
Linton laughed shortly, and finished off his Gaian ale, hardly noticing it. "I doubt it. I guess she's dead."
"I'm sorry," Fleetwood said.
Linton didn't look at him. "These things happen."
Fleetwood drew a deep breath and let it out. He was uncharacteristically silent for long enough that Linton looked over at him. Fleetwood's clear green eyes were watching the bar's patrons, past the fern, so Linton followed his gaze. Under the dim lights, they seemed, to Linton's eyes at least, to blur into one giant moving mass of humanity, writhing like a headless snake. It was a disturbing vision and he had to look away.
"You know, it's occurred to me, Linton," Fleetwood murmured. "We've wrought many wonders, we humans, and bettered ourselves in so many ways, and yet for all that we've done, it wouldn't do the galaxy a lick of harm if we all just disappeared one night, never to return."
Linton looked back at the writhing headless snake. He thought of the camps on Secuba. His mind still wanted to slide away from those memories, almost out of his control. And yet ... "I don't believe that. I think people are basically good at heart. I know it sounds silly, but I think they are."
Linton closed his eyes, and opened them again, and Fleetwood was still looking at him. "No, I'm not."
"You're an odd one, Linton." Fleetwood set down his empty glass on the table, and stood, swaying only slightly. "Ready to blow this place?"
"Are you ... paying, sir?" The concept of money was still strange to him.
Linton vaguely resented it, but couldn't phrase it in words, so he muttered, "Thanks," and stood up. Fleetwood smiled to the waitress, Lydia, as they left the bar. She giggled.
"I think she likes me," Fleetwood said as they stepped out into the darkened street.
"Well, if you wanted--I mean, she's ..." Linton trailed off. It seemed wrong to finish the thought.
"With Lydia? God, no. She's cute, but I've known her since she was this high. She's just a kid. Come on, Linton. Where's your hotel?"
"I'm ... not sure. I've never been there."
"Oh. What's it called? I can probably tell you."
Yeah, he probably could. "Lake Tranquility."
"Oh, a sleepery. It's next to The Sleepaway, right behind Meredith Court. Uh, go down this street, the way we're facing now, then left on Long Avenue. Straight three blocks. Right on Conaway. You'll see the sign."
Fleetwood slapped him on the shoulder, to Linton's discomfiture. "No--thank you, Linton. For joining me. Come see me in my office at seven hundred tomorrow, all right?"
"Uh, yes, sir."
Fleetwood grinned briefly. "Fine. Call me sir, if it's all you can handle. See you tomorrow?"
"Yes, sir. Lieutenant. Tomorrow."
"Watch yourself," Fleetwood said, echoing Colette's parting words earlier that day.
No one tried to kill Linton on his walk to Lake Tranquility. He wasn't sure whether to feel relieved or slighted.
Lake Tranquility was fronted with a flat holo-facade of pouring water and tropical plants. Cheap. Behind the facade he found a small office where a mechanical attendant gave him directions to his room. "Your thumb is your key, sir. Good day."
Linton went up two stories or so, in a shaft bored straight through the rock, and walked down a straight hallway with a faded red carpet. He thumbed himself into his room.
Sleeperies were not hotels, not exactly. Sleeperies were much cheaper, and were meant for crashing in. Period. The room was vaguely similar to his berth on the interplanetary flight from Tertia, but smaller. It was a cylinder about a meter in diameter and three meters long. The near end was the door; the far end a locker where he supposed he'd find his luggage. It was warm and claustrophobic, lit by a pale pink strip in the ceiling.
Linton closed the door, and for good measure locked it. He crawled to the other end of the room and fished out his luggage. Two bags. Not much to represent a lifetime, but he'd never been a sentimental man. At least not about his life.
Linton opened one of his bags and realized that it had been searched.
One of the advantages of being compulsively tidy was the immediate awareness that someone else had touched your things since you last laid a hand on them.
He shouldn't be surprised; it had probably happened on Tertia, before he left. Still, he entertained brief, unpleasant fantasies of the effects of a suitcase bomb on a human body in a small, enclosed space such as this one. He had to thoroughly examine the contents of both bags before he felt safe enough to lie down and try to sleep.
Linton, you're getting paranoid, he thought.
Paranoia keeps you alive, another voice answered. It sounded vaguely like Fleetwood.
Sarah waited for him in the darkness. She looked at him without speaking, from sad, accusing eyes.
But you never liked me, he tried to say to her. And I never liked you. The computer matched us and we had some good times and we had some bad times, and we never really liked each other, not at all. It's not my fault you're dead.
She just looked at him, and went on looking at him, with eyes the color of faded shadows, and he could see blood-colored light reflected along their rims, the color of Tertia's small moon. After Sarah left, he dreamed about Daniel and the others, unpleasant dreams filled with smoke and blood. He couldn't remember them when he woke up.
Linton would have expected Fleetwood to be hung over the next morning, but he wasn't, at least not visibly. His sardonic good humor had reasserted itself, and he took Linton up to the docks.
This time, Ash Griffin was on duty. She turned out to be a plump, pretty blonde wearing a rather individualistic version of the basic Port Authority uniform: a black, red-striped jacket combined with a black miniskirt and spike heels. It was cute but didn't look very practical.
"Ah, Ash," Fleetwood said. "We need to have a little chat."
"Morning, Linton," Colette said.
"Morning," Linton replied, and her answering smile indicated to him that he'd come up with the correct response. He renewed his determination to learn the social mores of their world, for the short time that he would actually be staying here. If only he could remember what he was supposed to do that would get him home ...
While Fleetwood blatantly chewed out Ash at the far end of the catwalk, Colette took Linton over to the screens and ran him through an overview of the controls, a review of what she had taught him the previous day.
"So Gil was still being a butt when I came back on duty this morning," she said. "Wouldn't even talk to me."
"Sorry," Linton said. "I didn't mean to be the cause of that."
Colette shook her head. "You couldn't possibly make Gil any more of a bastard than he already was. He just needs an excuse. Right now, you're his excuse. Next week his girlfriend will dump him, assuming that any woman could stand him long enough to be his girlfriend, or his favorite zero-g combat bowling team will lose the tournament, or whatever. He and Zack couldn't have been more different. Zack liked everybody. Gil doesn't like anybody."
"I've heard good things about Zack," Linton said hesitantly.
"Whatever you heard, it's all true. He was one of those people that everybody gets along with. Well, except for Gil, but that's understandable. I know this sounds like a horrid thing to say, but it's kind of sad that it was Zack and not Gil--I mean, if one of them had to--oh, that does come out awfully cruel. You must think I'm a terrible person."
"No, I don't," Linton said, although he found himself feeling almost sorry for Gil, in spite of the man's rudeness the day before. If anyone had cause to feel resentment of him, Gil probably did, especially if Colette's attitude towards him was representative of Kismet in general.
"Hey, Linton!" Fleetwood called. "Linton, could you come out here for a moment, please?"
Colette and Linton looked at each other, and walked out of the control booth. Outside, Fleetwood and Ash were bending over a small figure sitting on the catwalk, its arms wrapped about its knees. Valantine.
"What are you, some kind of Port Authority groupie or something?" Fleetwood was saying.
Valantine looked up, and upon seeing Linton, her face brightened in a broad grin. "Oh, hi, Linton!"
Linton stopped. "Hi," he said weakly.
"So did you ever find your mother?" Fleetwood inquired, arms crossed.
Valantine tilted her chin to look up at him. "Yes, thanks. You'll never guess what! She didn't come to meet me because she got the days mixed up. She thought I was coming in on a flight tomorrow."
"How tragic," Fleetwood said.
Valantine looked over at Linton and smiled that bright smile, sending a happy thrill through him in spite of himself--Dammit! She's fourteen!
"I'm glad I found you, Linton. I didn't know where else to look for you but here. Mom wants to meet you. I told her all about you, how you helped me and everything. She said she wants to thank you herself."
"Oh, Mom wants to meet us?" Fleetwood said. "How appropriate. I'd really like to meet Mom, too."
"I wasn't talking to you," Valantine retorted. "I was talking to Linton."
"Uh ..." Linton said.
Valantine scrambled to her feet and dusted herself off. "Say you would? Mom says you could meet us for lunch or something. She'll make tea."
"Thank you very much for the invitation," Fleetwood said. "We accept."
Valantine glared at him.
"I did not invite you, okay? I was talking to him."
"For crying out loud, Linton," Fleetwood said. "Don't go running off on your own again."
Colette, who had been looking back and forth between them, spoke up suddenly. "I could go with them. Keep an eye on things." She looked at Fleetwood. Fleetwood ignored her.
"I don't see why I can't come along," he said to Valantine.
Valantine crossed her arms, and gave him the sort of supercilious grin that only a fourteen-year-old girl can manage. "You can't come because I don't like you, so there!"
"What the hell? Why don't you like me?"
"Because you're a total jerk and I don't like the way you look at me. I don't trust you and I think you're one of those men my mother warned me about."
"Does your mother know you have a mouth on you, kiddo?"
"Valantine, Linton's new, so he can't be going off by himself," Colette said quickly. "If someone doesn't come along, he can't go anywhere. I can go with you, though. How would that be, Valantine?"
Valantine glowered, but she seemed to realize that she wasn't going to get more of a concession. "Okay, I guess."
"A moment's conference," Fleetwood said, taking Colette by the elbow.
He led her to the edge of the catwalk. "You just want to get out of the control tower for a while. We both know it."
"Wouldn't you?" Colette retorted.
"This is the problem with giving employees too much freedom to make their own decisions," Fleetwood said. "You wouldn't know a direct order if it bit you on your cute little ass."
"You wouldn't know how to give one."
Fleetwood whistled. "You dirty little girl!"
"But there's no reason why I can't go along with them. It looks like Valantine's going to throw a temper tantrum if you don't keep a restraining-order sort of distance from her. If you want to come with her and Linton, you're going to be in for a nasty fight, and you don't want that sort of fight, trust me."
"It's odd," Fleetwood said. "I can't imagine what I said to her to make her dislike me that much."
"I wasn't even there, and I can imagine."
Fleetwood rolled his eyes. "I was a perfect gentleman, Cadet."
"Yeah, I've seen your idea of being a perfect gentleman."
"Maybe her mom said something to her," Fleetwood mused.
"Has this woman ever met you?" Colette asked dryly.
"No. I swear, the only place I've ever seen her was in--never mind. In vids."
Colette looked back toward the little group. Ash Griffin had seated herself crosslegged beside the girl, and the two of them were in animated conversation, while Linton hung back uncomfortably and fidgeted.
"Looks like she and Ash are hitting it off," Fleetwood said.
"No accounting for taste. Did that slip out? Sorry," Colette said, unrepentant.
"Hm." Fleetwood hooked his fingers in his belt and stared down at the docks below them. "I think I'd rather send Ash, instead of you." When Colette opened her mouth, indignant, he raised a hand: "Hold it! Don't take it the wrong way. If it was possible, I'd rather have you in both places; but given the choice, I think I'd rather keep you here."
Colette raised both eyebrows. "You don't want to leave Ash here alone?"
"That's it exactly."
"Damn it, Shelley, why don't you just fire her?"
"I can't. We don't have the people. Maybe once Linton gets up to speed, if the I.S.C. lets us keep him. I sort of get the feeling he's going to need some looking after for a while. In the meantime, you can't work by yourself."
"Joe's been doing this for ten years. You haven't."
Colette crossed her arms obstinately, but didn't argue the point. "Well, what about bringing someone up from nights?"
"Who? Carmen's a ditz, worse than Ash. You know that; you've worked with her. Nehalia's got a level head, so I need her to keep Carmen from shooting herself in the foot. Stella's the supervisor, and Gil--I'm not bringing Gil back to days. Not right now. Besides, and probably the most important thing--I don't want any of the night crew working alone."
"You think .." Colette peered at him closely. "You think whoever killed Zack is still--"
"I don't know who killed Zack. I have my suspicions, sure, but I don't know ... I'm not taking any chances, Colette. I hate it when people who work for me die."
"We hate it too," Colette said. "Don't worry, I plan on staying alive. Is that why you want someone to go with Linton, to make sure he stays alive, too?"
"To be perfectly honest with you, I really haven't decided whether it's to protect Linton from Valantine or her from Linton or to find out if they're actually working together. Could be any of the above. I just don't want anyone going off alone these days."
"Are you telling me you think Valantine's a spy, too?" Colette said, laughing.
Fleetwood looked over his shoulder again. "She could be. Who knows. One thing's for sure, I don't buy this dizzy little-girl act. I don't know if she's fourteen or not, but she's certainly got a lot more on the ball than she lets on. And I'd still like to know why she's taken this sudden dislike to me."
"Well, I'm not going to take it personally if you send Ash along. I don't believe for a minute that Linton's involved in anything shady. I like him, Shelley."
"Remember that conversation at the Tie-Dye? Remember how long I gave you?"
"Now you know why."
"I'm not naive, goddammit, Shelley. Stop making out like I'm some kind of trusting little Pollyanna."
"If the little patent leather shoe fits ..."
"You can be a jerk sometimes, Shelley."
"I'd never deny it. And if you're still alive this time next year, I'll have done my job."
"Send Ash along with them," Colette said quietly. "I don't mind. But don't lock me up and keep me from doing my job because you like me. Because you're afraid I'm going to get killed. That would make me more useless to this department than Ash and Carmen put together. And it's pretty damn unfair to me."
"I would never do that," Fleetwood said.
"You'd better not."
They rejoined the others, in time to hear Valantine say in a tone of wonder, "White? You're kidding! That's so--last year!"
"What are they talking about?" Fleetwood murmured to Linton.
"Lipstick, sir," Linton said, wearing a pained look.
"Hey, Ash," Fleetwood said. "Sorry to break in, but if you want to carry this fascinating little discussion down to your mom's place, Ash could come along. We can spare her for a while."
"Hey, can you?" Valantine asked Ash. "That'd be sparky."
Ash gave Fleetwood a look that was one part curiosity, one part suspicion; but she said to the girl, "I agree. It'd be sparky. We can get to know one another better."
"Dismissed," Fleetwood said to Linton.
"Yes, sir!" Linton saluted him and followed Valantine and Ash toward the lift tube.
"My God, I was kidding," Fleetwood said to Colette. "Y'know, he stands so stiff it's a wonder his spine isn't sticking out his ass."
"That's a lovely image. Thank you for that, Shelley. And here it's getting to be lunchtime, too."
Claire Danforth lived in a part of town that Linton hadn't seen yet. It was below the level of the I.S.C. offices and the Moons of Destiny. When he asked Ash how far down they had come, she said she didn't know, and Linton soon realized why. This city wasn't neatly divided into floors, like an office building. Its tunnel-streets curled under and above each other, twining into a snake-knot in which direction and even up and down lost meaning. Linton wondered how anyone ever found anything in here.
"So where exactly are we going, Valantine?" Ash asked the girl.
"Mobius Strip. Mom lives about halfway down."
Ash waved her hand. "Oh, piece of cake. Why are you taking the long way around?"
"Long way?" Valantine asked suspiciously.
"Sure. All we have to do is cross the Galleria and we'll be there in no time."
"You've never heard of the Galleria?" Ash peered at her companions, as if she couldn't imagine anything odder. "Since we're meeting your mom, kid, we'll take a bridge this time, but we have to go see it soon. You'd love it. C'mon, this way."
Linton and Valantine shared a look of mutual worry, but they followed her, since she seemed to know where she was going. Valantine seemed deep in thought.
They heard the noise before they saw anything. It was like approaching an ocean, breaking against a beach--the way the million different sounds of the water on the beach merged into one low, uniform roar from a distance, and then slowly, as you walked closer, resolved themselves into each individual slapping wavelet and rattling pebble. At first there was only noise. Then, after walking on for a time, the noise became voice, and music, and shrill cries and sounds that Linton could not even identify.
Ash led them out onto a balcony and Linton heard Valantine's small gasp.
Linton had thought of lower Kismet in terms of what he had already seen--winding streets, low ceilings, closed-in places. This place was wide and deep and long, like the topside dome, but somehow more intimidating for the tons of rock on top of it. Tier upon tier of balconies lined the stone walls, plunging to the marketplace below them. Peering over the side, Linton could see the tops of bright awnings and people milling about below like ants.
"It's a mall!" Valantine cried in delight. "I never saw something like this under the ground! How did they make this great big hole?"
"This is an old ice cave," Ash said."They converted it into the Galleria, oh, years ago now. Seems like a shame to let this much space go to waste, doesn't it?" She tugged lightly on Linton's hand. "Come on. You'll get to see the whole thing from the bridge."
"Bridge?" Linton squeaked.
So that's what those things were. He'd noticed them, arcing across the great space, thin as spider-flung silk. Linton could not believe that those thin spans could support the weight of one human, let alone three.
"Come on," Ash said impatiently.
Setting foot on the bridge, Linton discovered two things: first, that although it looked fragile it was made of plasticrete and was a good meter wide; and second, a force shield bounded all sides, repelling his hand when he reached toward the terrifying drop beneath him.
"Want to go shopping?" Ash was saying. "Fleetwood'll be pissed as usual, but I don't care."
"Mom will be worried about me," Valantine said. "We can go after, maybe."
They crossed the bridge without incident and paused for one last look down before continuing on their way. It wasn't really that much of a drop, Linton reminded himself. It was farther to fall, but much less actual space than the area under the surface dome. The rock surrounding the shaft made it seem bigger than it actually was, accentuating the openness with its looming weight.
Hmm, bad thought. Linton decided to avoid dwelling on the amount of rock between them and the surface. The moon wasn't geologically active. He thought. He asked Ash.
"A little bit. Something about gravitational pull and the gas giant and all the other moons. I don't really understand it all."
"As long as it's not going to crush us with an earthquake," Valantine said, and Linton felt gratified to know that he wasn't the only claustrophobic one.
"No, of course not. I've lived here all my life and never felt more than a shiver or two." She giggled, and laced her hand through Linton's. "Well, you know what I mean."
Linton tried to sidestep her and almost walked into the wall. Valantine gave the two of them an almost-glare, not so much like a child disgusted by the adults' behavior, but more--jealous?
Uh oh, Linton thought.
"Oh, turn here," Ash said. "Here's Mobius Strip. See? Much faster."
Mobius Strip bent around and doubled back on itself like a great bow knot. Linton wondered how all these passageways were formed, if they were natural or manmade. After Ash's answer about the geological history of the moon, he didn't think she'd be the most reliable person to ask.
"Here it is," Valantine said.
Claire Danforth lived in an apartment complex, a row of doors stretching down the street, with each door having its own little yard and a balcony up near the ceiling as if the construction crew had tried to simulate an outdoor streetfront. It even had a picket fence. The effect was rather sad. Linton preferred the other housefronts they'd passed, which seemed more comfortable with the underground setting. Valantine unlatched the gate for them.
"Mom! Hey, Mom, we're here!"
The door opened upon chaos. Piles of dirt and bowls and plant parts covered the floor. In the middle of it all, a woman in a scarf and slacks knelt and spoke to the heating duct.
"Come on out of there, baby. You know you can't stay in there all day."
"Mom? What on earth are you doing?"
Claire Danforth looked up. "Oh, hello, m--my darling. Excuse the mess. You must be Linton!"
"It's a pleasure to meet you, uh, Mrs. Danforth." Linton didn't have the foggiest idea what the protocol was for addressing people with surnames. First name? Last name? Honorific. Damn--"Mrs" was the title for a married woman, and he had no idea if Claire Danforth was married or not.
"Come on in. Pardon my mess. I'm repotting."
"What's in the hole, Mom?" Valantine said. "Is it Amanda again?"
"You know how she gets. She won't listen to me at all."
"Oh, if you want something done right--" Valantine strode past her mother.
A flicker of irritation crossed Claire's face, but she said, "Oh, darling, do you think you could try to talk her out? She won't come to me. She doesn't want to be repotted. You have a way with her."
Valantine got down on her hands and knees in front of the opening. "Amanda! Get out here, you sorry excuse for a plant. Come to Mama. That's a good plant."
Linton stared as three meters or so of leafy vine undulated from the heating duct to curl around Valantine's arms, torso and neck. It reminded him of a snake in slow motion, a snake that had inexplicably sprouted foliage.
"Oh, wow!" Ash cried from behind Linton. "I've never seen a kraken that big! I've kept one for years and it's still just a little vine. Whatever do you feed it?"
"I don't do anything unusual. I think they need a little love, that's all, and they need to be talked to, like any plant. Are you one of Valantine's friends?"
"My name is Ash, Ash Griffin. I work with Linton."
"Oh, how lovely. Come on in. I kept lunch waiting for you."
"Mom, I told you, you didn't have to do that." Valantine straightened up, covered from head to waist in leaves. "Hey, Linton! You wanna hold her?"
Ash saved Linton from having to respond. "I'd love to, if you don't mind. Maybe I can figure out what I'm doing wrong with mine."
Valantine coaxed the vine to uncoil itself from her shoulders and transfer to Ash's arms. Linton watched in horrified fascination. "Is that thing a plant, or an animal, or both?" he asked Claire Danforth, following her into the kitchen.
"It's a kraken. It's neither. And both." She opened the rewarmer and lifted out a covered dish with each hand. "Here, hold this. Valantine! Do you want something to drink? Lemonade? Beer?"
"Mom, don't joke like that," Valantine snapped from the doorway. "You know I'm not old enough to drink."
Claire stumbled. "Just seeing if you were listening, hon. You can set that down over there," she said to Linton. "Can I get you some lemonade, or something stronger?"
"Uh, lemonade would be fine." He had no idea what it was, but he didn't want anything alcoholic.
The four of them ate at the kitchen counter. The food was, finally, something vaguely familiar to Linton--sandwiches and soup. Granted, he wasn't sure what was in the warm pasty spread on the sandwiches, nor what those chunks floating in the soup might be, but it tasted good so he decided not to ask: he was learning. Claire Danforth seemed nice enough, but something was odd about her relationship with her daughter. Strained.
"It must be hard to be a parent, if you never see your child," Ash said to Claire.
Claire didn't answer; she looked at Valantine, who raised her head, saw her mother looking at her, and raised her eyebrows quizzically. "It is," Claire said at last.
"Who did you say you live with on Tertia?" Linton asked Valantine.
"Uncle Aaron," Valantine said around a mouthful of sandwich. "Well, he's not my real uncle. He's a friend of Daddy's. He's nice. He had a little girl but she died."
"What about your grandmother?"
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Claire give him a startled look. "Grandma Lily?" Valantine said. "She died a long time ago."
"Your mom's mother. Signy."
"How did you know my mother's name?" Claire snapped, looking from Valantine to Linton and back.
Linton stumbled, flustered. He knew because Valantine had told him her grandmother's name, but now he wasn't sure why she had told him, or why she hadn't even seemed to know who Signy 127 was. Ash was looking at him as if she thought he'd lost his mind.
Valantine stared intently at Linton. She opened her mouth, as if to speak, then closed it, then opened it in a laugh. The laugh sounded forced to Linton. "She's dead too. Both my grandmas are dead. Don't be silly. Grandma died before Mom left Tertia, isn't that what you told me, Mom?"
"That's right. That had a lot to do with my leaving, and I'd rather not talk about it, if you don't mind."
"I'm sorry," Linton said, now utterly confused. "I didn't mean to bring up a touchy subject."
Ash spoke into the sudden silence. "Can I have more of that wonderful soup? I have got to get your recipe."
"It's from a can," Claire murmured, studying Valantine, who was eating again.
"Well, I've got to get the brand name, then."
The conversation passed on to other topics. Claire Danforth was happy to talk about her acting career; slightly edited, Linton supposed, remembered what he'd been told about Claire's acting. After lunch Claire showed them to the door. "We'll have to do this again sometime," she said.
"How about tomorrow?" Valantine said immediately. "Can Linton and Ash come over tomorrow, Mom? Please?"
The longer Linton had been in their house, the more his feeling of unease had grown. "I'm afraid I can't make it," he said. "I'm supposed to be working, and we work twelve-hour days. Not much time for socializing."
"Well, what about dinner?" Valantine pressed, as much to him as to her mother.
"I'll call and let you know," Linton said. "Is that all right, uh, Claire?"
Claire Danforth looked to her daughter, and said, "Yes, that would be fine."
"I bet I see you again soon," Valantine said. "This is a very small town. Be careful, Linton. Be very, very careful, please."
Her tone was light, but the words caused an unpleasant chill to crawl up Linton's spine. "I will try," he said. As he turned away, Valantine was staring at him in that odd way, as if she wanted to bore a hole directly through to his brain.
"My, what a strange family," Ash said, when they were out of earshot. "What a very odd pair they are. Did you notice the way Valantine talks to her mother?"
"Not really," Linton said.
"The way she pushes her around. And her mother lets her do it. I guess that's how parents get when they don't see their kids very much. The kids are brats, and the parents let them get away with it." She laughed. "That's how my brother and I were. We lived with Dad, and when we'd visit Mom, we knew she'd give us whatever we asked for. We were such brats." She nudged Linton's shoulder. "I bet you weren't like that. I bet you were a model little boy."
"I didn't know my parents very well. They're dead." Linton was aware of that slippery sensation at the back of his mind that happened whenever he tried to think too closely about his parents, his siblings, and their death. Why had he never noticed it before? Or had he? Had he been so successful at forgetting that he'd even forgotten about forgetting?
"Do you mind if we don't go straight back?" Ash said. "I've got some people I need to see."
"I'd rather go back."
Ash shrugged. "Up to you. But I'll show you some sights along the way."
As it turned out, they didn't go back to the docks at all that day. It started with a detour through the Galleria, Ash tugging Linton by the hand, showing him the booths and rides. The marketplace was quite spectacular, but Linton couldn't help thinking of how many hiding places it offered a determined assassin, how easy it would be for someone with a knife to slip close and plant it between his ribs.
He couldn't explain why he was so sure that the man on the rooftops had been shooting at him, nor could he explain why, if that was the case, he hadn't gone ahead and put a laser through Linton's head when he'd had the opportunity. It was a man, Linton was sure; and his name was Daniel. Whenever he tried to think of Daniel, though, his thoughts skittered away like oil on water. Just like what happened when he tried to think about going back to Tertia. He was here for a reason. He was absolutely positive. But he couldn't remember what ...
Linton relaxed and let Ash drag him passively through the marketplace. He let the noise and sights and smells blur into a mandala spinning about him. He wanted to remember. He tried to recall his dreams the night before, tried to let his mind fall back into that relaxed, dreaming state.
Daniel. Daniel. When he thought of Daniel, he thought of Kathy. Little Kathy, his sister. He saw himself standing on a beach, holding Kathy in his arms. She was only a baby, and he knew where he was: the beach at Outreach Seaboard, with the pseudosquid boats coming in, bearing their catch to sell to for the offworld luxury-food market.
Kathy. Daniel. More names: Gina, Beryl, Margy--Margy! A more powerful memory this time: Margy March, hunching her shoulders and pretending to be much younger than her seventeen years, so that she'd go in the line with the children when they split them up in the camps. With the children, because Mother had to go with the adults and there was no one to take care of the children--
He remembered that so well. It was raining and muddy and Kathy was crying, clinging to his hand. Linton was the next-oldest, so he always took care of her. Why could he remember some things so clearly, when other memories blurred and faded as he reached for them?
He felt close now, though. The camps. Something had happened in the camps, something important. He tried to step into that memory, physically, as if he could pierce the veil of time with his body. Daniel. Kathy. Gina. Margy. Beryl--
Beryl March's face, covered with blood. She'd fallen facedown and he turned her over. One side of her head was crushed. She was still clutching the baby in her arms. She'd been trying to protect him with her body when they trampled her, crushing the baby, the baby--
"Linton? Are you all right?"
Ash's voice came from far away. He tried to push her away, because he didn't want to be pulled back to the present just then. He was close. So close. The veils were parting and he wanted them to open for him.
Then the bottom fell out of his world, as it had the day Sarah died, and he plunged into a fiery hell.
Kathy--he had to find Kathy--He screamed her name, and he heard Ash speaking to him, but couldn't understand her words. His head was splitting in two. He touched his forehead, sure that shrapnel had struck him and he'd take his hand away covered with blood and brains. Linton had seen a man do that--his face had been shot away, and he didn't know he was dead, he just kept touching what used to be his head in disbelief until his nervous responses caught up with the state of his body and he fell over. Into the mud. The corpse-filled mud--
"Kathy!" He clutched her shoulders.
"No, it's me, Ash." Ash's face looked back at him, astonished and worried. "What's wrong with you? I'm going to call a doctor. You were screaming--"
"No. No doctors. There's nothing wrong with me. I've never felt better in my life." Then the pain in his head became a searing agony and, for the first time in his adult life, Linton passed out.
He woke to grayness. For an instant he thought he was blind, or still dreaming. Then he realized that he was looking at the ceiling and lowered his eyes slowly. He was lying on a padded table with a silver therm-blanket over his legs.
His first thought was: I know who Daniel is. How could I have forgotten that?
His second: I'm in a hospital. Shit! How long have I been unconscious?
He heard voices not too far away. "--that I know. Not very well, anyway," one of them was saying. It sounded like Ash. A curtain drew back and light fell across his face. It was Ash, all right, with an older man at her elbow.
"What time is it?" Linton tried to sit up. The man moved quickly to push him back down.
"Hold on. Let me look at your eyes."
Linton submitted and let the stranger shine a light in his eyes. He assumed the man was a doctor, but he didn't look like a doctor. He appeared to be a few years older than Linton, his gray hair pulled back in a long ponytail. He wore a loose, bright-colored shirt and his bare arms were tattooed with Celtic knots.
"Your pupil response looks normal. It's not a migraine or a concussion. Have you been eating any unfamiliar foods lately?"
Unfamiliar is one way to put it ... "Yeah, but that's not what's causing it. I've had these headaches before and it goes away quickly. Can I sit up now?"
"Go ahead. I'm Imre, by the way. Doctor Imre." He held out a hand to help Linton sit up, turning it gracefully into a handshake. "I can't find anything wrong with you. I can have some neurological tests run for you, if you'd like, but not here. You'd have to go over to the hospital."
He'd thought this was a hospital. "Where are we now?"
"The Kismet Clinic," Ash said from behind Imre. "He's new here, Imre. He doesn't know about the hospital."
"It's not that bad," Imre said with a slight smile, "if you don't owe anyone money. It's certainly got access to facilities that I can only dream of here. The hospital is run by the mafia, Linton. They bought out the corporation that held it, and have taken an active interest in running it ever since. Not to the benefit of the community, in my opinion, but they certainly do have the money to keep it state-of-the-art. For a town of this size, we have one of the best hospitals in the galaxy."
"Yeah, if waking up after surgery isn't high on your priority list," Ash said darkly.
"I--I feel fine," Linton said. It was true; the pain had faded, leaving only a lingering ache, more the memory of pain than anything real. "Really. Uh ... you seem to know my name."
"She told me." Imre nodded to Ash. "She didn't know your last name, though."
"I'm Tertian. I don't have one."
"Tertian? How interesting! My brother is dating a Tertian."
Linton was saved from answering this by a woman's voice from the other side of the curtain. "Imre? Are you back there? There's a man here to see you and he's--excuse me, sir, you can't go back--"
"Hi, Linton," Fleetwood said cheerfully, tugging back the curtain enough to slip through. "Ash. Imre."
"I called him," Ash said to Linton.
"Afternoon, Fleetwood," Imre said, appearing not at all irritated at the interruption. "How's life on the mean streets? Haven't seen you around much lately."
"Life is groovy, except for the odd laser shot from nowhere, and employees who scream and pass out in public places in broad daylight." Fleetwood sat on the edge of Linton's bed. "Is he all right? Well, as much so as normal."
Ash, following Fleetwood's example, sat down on Linton's other side. He felt hemmed in.
"I can't find anything wrong with him," Imre said. "No concussions, no tumors. It's not epilepsy. Like I told him, you can have some more tests done at the hospital."
"I told him about the hospital," Ash said to Fleetwood, around Linton.
"Has this kind of thing ever happened before?" Imre addressed the question to Linton and Fleetwood equally.
"No," Linton said, at the same time that Fleetwood said, "Yes."
"Yes?" Linton repeated.
"Yes. Don't you remember? In the warehouse? You wigged out and practically passed out."
Linton stared at him. "What do you mean, sir? When?" He had a wild suspicion that Fleetwood was making it up to check on him, a suspicion that passed when he saw the confused look on Fleetwood's face.
"In the warehouse, Linton. When that guy on top of the building was shooting at us. Are you telling me you don't remember that?"
"I remember being shot at." Quite well. "But I don't remember ... wait ..." His temples twinged and for a moment he thought the headache was coming back. But Fleetwood was right. He did remember falling down, and he couldn't understand how he could have forgotten it ... unless he'd been conditioned to forget. "I did, didn't I? But I didn't pass out. It was--it was--Valantine said--"
"Conditioning." Fleetwood edged just a little farther from him on the bed.
Imre and Ash had listened to this exchange, Ash confused, Imre interested. Now he spoke: "Tell me more. Conditioning? Deepcon, you mean?" He looked excited.
Fleetwood's look at Linton was even more nervous than before. "I don't know, tell you the truth. Hope not."
"I've never seen a case before. Look, I'm sorry, Linton." Imre raised his hands apologetically. "I don't mean to treat you like a brain on a platter. But I'd definitely like to run a electrostim, at least. I've never seen a deepcon before and I'd like to compare the results to a normal brain-map."
"Can I ... refuse?" Linton asked hesitantly.
"Yes, of course."
"I'd rather not, then."
"If that's what you want. I can't force you. But if you're having blackouts, I might be able to help you. You do know what deepcon is, correct?"
"I don't," Ash put in.
"Yes," Linton said, ignoring her. "That's how I know you can't help me."
Fleetwood shook his head at Ash. "Tell you later." To Imre, he said, "How do you feel about him going back to work?"
Imre looked surprised at the question. "Well, nothing's changed with him. I suppose the question is how do you feel about it." His eyes kept returning to Linton.
"I want to know what's in your head before I trust you at my back," Fleetwood told Linton.
"I--You can trust me, sir. I promise." Although at the moment he wasn't even sure he could trust himself. "I'll tell you everything, but in private, please."
Fleetwood studied him, and nodded.
"Imre?" The woman's voice again. This time Linton got a glimpse of her; she was small and dark-haired. "Mrs. Wilkins wants to know how long it's going to be. I'm sorry, doctor, but she won't take no for an answer."
"Tell her I'll be right out, Ru." The woman nodded and withdrew.
"I'm sorry to keep you," Fleetwood said. "We'll be going. I really appreciate you looking at Linton without an appointment."
Imre shrugged. "It's my job. I'm sorry, too, that I can't offer you more. Linton, I don't need to keep you any longer; you're fine now, and there's nothing I can do for you unless it happens again. It's up to you of course, but I'd really like it if you could come back sometime, even if you don't have any more episodes, and get a brain-map done for me. It's quick and painless and it could help me a lot, and you too."
"Thank you. I'll think about it." He had no intention of doing anything of the sort, but he wondered if the antagonism he felt towards the idea was another symptom of the conditioning.
Fleetwood hung back to talk to Imre. As soon as Linton and Ash reached the clinic lobby, she said, "So what was that all about?"
"What was what?"
"That whole thing. Deepcon. I've never heard of it. What is it?"
"It's illegal in most places, I've heard," Linton said. "Not on Tertia. Fleetwood can probably explain better than I can. He seems to know what it is."
They paused outside to wait for Fleetwood. "Fine," Ash said, chewing the tip off a stimstick. She offered Linton one; he shook his head. "If nobody wants to tell me anything, that's fine. I only dragged you over here when you had your fainting fit. It's not like you owe me anything."
"I do appreciate it. Really. I don't mean to sound ungrateful. Uh, what time is it, if you don't mind my asking?"
"Half past seventeen hundred," Fleetwood said from the top of the stairs.
"I was out for three hours?" Linton said in disbelief.
Fleetwood nodded. "Ash called me when she couldn't wake you up. Initially, we took you back to my office, and when we still couldn't wake you, she brought you down here. By the way, I definitely want a full debriefing, soldier, but it'll have to wait. Nehalia invited you out to dinner. She wants to meet you."
"Nehalia Singh. Night shift. She and Carmen are on tonight, so we need to meet her over at the restaurant soon, since she has to start work at nineteen hundred. If you're feeling up to it. If not, we can tell her some other time."
"I don't mind," Linton said. He wasn't very hungry, but he wasn't looking forward to talking to Fleetwood alone, either.
"Ash, Colette's all by herself dealing with the traffic. Head on back over there, how about it?"
Ash took another nibble on her stimstick. "Isn't anyone going to tell me what's going on around here?"
"Later," Fleetwood said. "If you're a good girl. Ash, please go help Colette. She can't do it by herself and I have to meet Nehalia."
Ash leaned over and kissed him quickly on the mouth. "You know I love you, Shelley." She took off at a trot.
"She's such a bitch, but she has her endearing side," Fleetwood murmured. "Just don't trust her with your heart, wallet or any secret you don't want blabbed across half of Kismet. Come on, Linton. Restaurant's this way. While we walk, will you answer three questions for me?"
"Yes, sir," Linton said warily.
"No, that's not an order. Just a friendly request. Question number one: do you know who the guy we saw on top of the building is?"
"Who is it?"
"Daniel," Linton said reluctantly. "My brother."
Fleetwood missed a step. "Oookay. Why didn't you mention this sooner?"
"Because I just remembered, sir. I mean, I just figured out who he is."
"So who is he? Daniel--Daniel March, right? That name sounds familiar but I don't know why."
The words went on, without Linton's conscious control, a conditioned response deeper than the one trying to force him not to talk about it. If your superior asks a question ... "He's a terrorist. Fairly well known. A few months ago, a shuttle taking off from a spaceport on Tertia--Glory Heights, if it matters--exploded during takeoff. Everyone on board was killed. Daniel is supposed to be the one who did it."
"What is he, some kind of mad bomber?"
"No. He's--he was with a radical Secuban front. They're trying to blockade Secuba, shut out all Tertian contact. They don't exist anymore. After the bombing, the Tertian government hunted them down and killed them all."
"Obviously not all of them."
"Linton. Hey." Fleetwood gripped his arm. "Do you believe that your brother is trying to kill you?"
"What makes you think someone is trying to kill me? Sir. Why not ... someone else."
"Like Valantine? Or me?"
"Do you think Daniel would want to kill you?"
"I don't know, sir."
"Look, Linton, I'm trying to help. And not get shot myself. Could you cooperate for a minute?"
"I'm trying, sir."
"Yeah, right. I want to talk about this later. Not right now."
"Look, I have an ulterior motive for coming here tonight. The place we're meeting Nehalia is where Frank eats. From your description, I think I know who the woman you talked to in the warehouses might have been. Boy, are you in for a shock. However, nobody's got their finger on the pulse of Kismet quite like Frank. Admittedly, he's a megalomaniac with the I.Q. of a turnip, but he does keep abreast of current events. I'd also like to introduce you to him, for your own continued health. Frank knows my people are off limits."
None of that made any sense to Linton, so he just nodded. "Yes, sir."
"And I haven't even asked how it went with Claire Danforth this afternoon. What do you think? Valantine's mother or well-paid actress?"
The coincidence of Claire being an actress had not occurred to Linton until then. Perhaps he wasn't devious enough. "I don't think she was faking, sir. I really don't."
"I should have come along, regardless of what Valantine wanted. Ah well, hindsight is twenty-twenty, they say."
The restaurant was down the street from the Moons of Destiny bar. For a change, this one seemed like a fairly classy place, with privacy screens for the tables and a warm, plant-heavy decor. A human waitron showed them to a corner table, where a tall, dusky woman rose to greet them.
"Linton?" She held out a hand. Linton took it, tongue-tied. He could not remember the last time he'd seen such a beautiful woman. With her almond eyes, caramel skin and high-piled dark hair, she looked more like a model than a security officer. He felt the wiry strength in her grip, though, and her palm was callused.
"I have been looking forward to meeting you," Nehalia said. "I'm Officer Nehalia Singh. I doubt if we'll see each other much, but I like to get to know the day crew."
"Is Frank here, do you know?" Fleetwood asked, taking a seat facing the door.
"I haven't seen him. Is that why you suggested this place?" She wagged a finger at him. "You're such a bad boy, Shelley. I do not intend to bankroll your flirtations."
"My what? Look, Officer, Frank and I are over. Long over. I need to ask him some questions."
"Oh, that's fine. You can do that while Linton and I get to know one another."
"I thought Pimur was going to be joining us."
Nehalia shook her head. "No, I thought he could make it but he has a date tonight. He hadn't mentioned a thing about it. He must stop sneaking around or he's going to upset me. He hasn't even introduced me, the naughty boy." She laughed. "Wouldn't it be a riot if they walked through the door? It is a small town after all."
"A regular riot," Fleetwood agreed, eying the door.
Nehalia said to Linton, "Pimur is my husband."
"I had guessed."
"Pimur and I have an open contract, so we can see other people," Nehalia said. "Are you married, Linton?"
"I--was. She died."
"Oh, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to bring up a painful subject. I'll not mention it again."
The waiter, who had been standing patiently by, took their drink orders. "Food should be out shortly," Nehalia said. "When the two of you didn't show up, I took the liberty of ordering for you, I hope you don't mind. Linton, I don't know what you like, so if you don't like it, you can send it back and order something else. It's on me."
"I'm sure it'll be fine." The thought crossed his mind that he hadn't paid for a meal since coming to Kismet. His sleepery berth was prepaid for two weeks by the Tertians, as well as his ticket to Kismet; his clothes were provided by his job; he hadn't needed money for anything yet, which was fortunate since he had none and would not until he was paid. If he was paid before he went back to Tertia. He wished he could figure out why he was so positive that he was going back ... or why it seemed to have something to do with Daniel.
The food was more than fine, it was excellent, and they chatted while they ate. Linton thought that between lunch with Claire and Valantine, and dinner with Fleetwood the night before, he was starting to get the hang of what they called "small talk." It wasn't really so hard. It also helped that his dinner companions knew each other well and seemed quite talkative, so they could carry the conversation while he listened and tried to file things away.
"Wonder where Frank is," Fleetwood said.
"Perhaps he is dining elsewhere this evening," Nehalia said. She checked her chrono. "Well, I must be to work. Linton, it's been a pleasure."
"My pleasure too," Linton said, taking her hand almost suavely. She smiled.
"We'll stay here for a bit," Fleetwood said. "See if Frank comes in. We can put the table on my account if you've already paid for dinner."
"I'll speak to the maitre d' on my way out. Ciao, boys. Happy hunting."
"Would you believe that Nehalia and I have never done the horizontal tango?" Fleetwood said, watching her walk out with her hands crossed under his chin. "I've never gone and asked. I don't think she'd say no. She seems to like you, too."
"I wouldn't feel free, sir." Only a couple of days ago, he would have been repulsed at the idea of sleeping with a married woman. Perhaps he was starting to get used to the strange mores of this place. His thoughts were far away, too--thirty years and half a galaxy away.
"She was wrong, though," Fleetwood said. "Frank is here. I saw him when we came in, and I haven't seen him leave. I'm sure he saw us. Don't know if he's watching us, or what. I wanted to wait until Nehalia was gone, but now that she is, let's go say hi to him."
Linton, still feeling that he was missing large pieces of what went on around him, followed Fleetwood to a table at the far side of the room. When they reached the privacy screen, someone stepped through it to block them. Linton recognized him, with a shock, as the redheaded bodyguard of the woman in black.
"Hi, Seymour. You're breathing in my face. Move along now, that's a good gorilla." Fleetwood shoved on Seymour's arm, lightly at first, then harder. Seymour did not budge.
"The boss is eating dinner and I don't believe he wants to be disturbed."
"The boss has been eating dinner for the last hour and I'm sure he's pretty well finished by now. Besides, he's already disturbed, Seymour. I won't disturb him further."
"Who is it, Seymour?" said a familiar voice from behind the screen--the soft, husky voice of the woman in black.
"Lieutenant Fleetwood, boss. And a ... guest."
"Let them in, Seymour."
The woman in black sat alone at the table, sipping from a champagne flute. She was dressed as she had been the day before, but the evening gown and sunglasses seemed more appropriate in the restaurant than they had in the alley. Another bodyguard, also red-headed, with one side of his face swollen and bandaged, stood behind them with his hands clasped behind his back.
"Why, hello, Fleetwood. I was starting to think you were going to leave without saying hi. That would have been rude."
Fleetwood sat down in an unoccupied chair. "I can't help wondering why you've been just sitting there waiting for me to come over and say hi. You up to something, Frank?"
The woman in black didn't answer, but looked past Fleetwood's shoulder, at Linton. "We're not ignoring you, my little friend. I almost didn't see you standing there. Come on in, and sit down. Your boss has already made himself at home."
Linton did so, nervously.
"Damn it, Frank, I asked you a question."
"Did you?" Frank sipped from her--his--glass of champagne. "So that's what it was supposed to be. It's a bit of a general statement. Up to something? I have several dozen projects going on right now. I keep a lot of balls in the air, Lieutenant."
"Are any of these balls mine?" A smile twitched his lips.
Frank grimaced. "Yours? Of course not. We have an understanding, right? Would you like a drink?"
"Sure," Fleetwood said. "What you're having would be fine. Linton?"
Frank poured another glass from the open bottle on the table, and handed it across. "Good taste. South Anubian '42. Are you aware how much this bottle cost, Lieutenant?"
"Probably more than they make." Fleetwood nodded to the bodyguards and took a sip. "Nice. A little sweet. Want some?" He held the flute above his head, to Seymour, at his back.
"Uh ..." Seymour said, startled. "I'm on duty."
"Oh, go ahead," Frank said.
Seymour took a nervous gulp and handed the glass back. "It's, uh, good, boss. Lieutenant."
"You realize that the delicate bouquet of flavors is completely lost on them," Frank said. "You can throw a seven-course dinner of pheasant's eggs and Sylvian oysters before swine, but you can't make them drink."
"No one mixes a metaphor like you, Frank. You are unique. If you ever get out of the family business, life in Kismet will never be the same. I have some questions. Friendly, of course."
"Oh, of course," Frank said. "Unfortunately, you seem to be forgetting that friends do things for each other. Have you done anything for me lately?"
"Do you want me to?"
"Lemme think." Frank tapped the rim of the glass against his teeth. They were white and very even.
"Wait a minute," Fleetwood said. "You do owe me one. The rats in the ventilation ducts."
Frank snorted. "That? I'd say the whole deal with the little charity girl was more than payment for that one."
"You got your money."
"The money is nothing. I should have given you a good shot in the head for what you did to me, but I controlled myself. Nor did I damage any of your friends. See? More than payment."
"Damn. That's right. Well, what about the forged birth certificates?"
Frank waved a dismissive hand. "Oh, those. Anyone could have done those. I could have done those."
"Yeah, but you didn't, I did, remember?"
"I could have done."
"Come on, Frank. You're making excuses. That's a favor that hasn't been paid."
"Call it half, then."
"Half a favor? Frank, what the hell is half a favor?"
"A very small favor."
"Well, all I want is a very small favor, too."
"Information is very powerful currency, Lieutenant."
"Well, I'll see your half favor and raise you a few doctored documents, okay? Let's just say I owe you a very small favor. Minus a few increments of small for annoying me."
Frank shrugged. "What do you want to know?"
Fleetwood slapped Linton's shoulder, and Linton jumped. "Did you talk to Linton in the warehouse districts yesterday?"
"We had a nice discussion about music," Frank said, twitching back a lock of his long dark hair.
"Did you happen to mention, in the course of that discussion, that someone is following him?"
"Oh, that's right," Frank said. "I think I did."
"Any idea who that person or persons might be?"
The bodyguard behind Frank spoke up suddenly. "The bitch that broke my nose, for one."
"Shut up, Guido. He wasn't talking to you," Frank said. "He's right, though. The little chick who beat up Guido."
Guido blushed and snapped, "She's vicious, boss! She kicks, hard."
"What chick would this be?" Fleetwood said. "Chest high and loud? Curly hair?"
"Yeah," Guido said. "Short and bitchy."
"You seem to know who she is," Frank said. "Return favor?"
"She's a theoretically fourteen-year-old schoolgirl who started talking to Linton on the shuttle down, for no apparent reason," Fleetwood said. "Ever since then she keeps turning up, again for no reason. If she's not following him, she's cloned herself."
"Oh, she's definitely following him," Frank said. "At least, she was yesterday. That's how she attracted Guido's attention, just sneaking around and acting odd. Guido, you can tell them."
Guido shrugged. "I lost sight of her and the next thing I know, I'm laying on the ground and she's standing on my chest. Told me she didn't have any quarrel with me and that I should stop following her. I wasn't really in much of a condition to follow anybody at the moment on account of she kicked me once in the nuts and several times in the face. Then she screamed, started crying and ran away like a maniac."
"Valantine?" Linton said. When everyone turned to look at him, he muttered, "Never mind," and tried to occupy himself staring at the napkins.
"That's her name," Fleetwood said. "Ring any bells, Frank?"
"No. I don't know her and neither do my boys. Whatever her game is, she hasn't played it here before, that I know of."
"Huh," Fleetwood said. "Interesting. What about the others?"
"The other people following Linton, Frank. Don't make me revoke my very small favor into no favor."
"A couple of Tertians and some other guy. One of the Tertians is at the bar, in fact. Over there."
Linton jumped and swiveled to follow Frank's pointing finger.
"Which one?" Fleetwood asked.
"The one in the gray shirt."
The man in the gray shirt was young-looking and drinking something pink with little umbrellas in it. Linton had to resist the urge to shrink down into his chair, reminding himself that although he could see out of the privacy screen just fine, the stranger at the bar couldn't see in.
"How do you know they're Tertians?" Fleetwood said. "Every Tertian I've ever seen looks just like any other person."
Frank grinned. "Mmm. Careful observation and astute guesswork. That, and the fact that they came off that small Tertian military transport that's been docked at the station for the past week. You're in the Port Authority; you ought to know that."
"I know nothing about what goes on overhead," Fleetwood said.
"Well, it's my business to know, and while it's not unusual for Tertian ships to pass through this spacelane, it's quite unusual for one to stay. Especially when the crew does nothing for days and then mobilizes as soon as a certain IP passenger liner gets into port. We've been keeping an eye on the passengers off that vessel, I can assure you."
"So you knew Valantine came in with Linton all along," Fleetwood said.
"Yes, but not that you'd met her, or what she'd told you about herself. Interesting."
"So let's get back to the Tertians for a while. Do you mind?"
"Not at all, but your favor class just went up a notch, because these are difficult things to find out."
"That's fine," Fleetwood said. "How many of them are there?"
"Crew of four. One up there, three down here. Before you ask, I have no idea where they are now. I haven't been watching them that closely, but I do know the fellow at the bar is one of them."
Linton felt cold chills. Something important here ... something he should remember ... damn it ...
"What about the other person? The one who's not a Tertian."
Frank shrugged. "Just another of the usual riff-raff that we get passing through. Some Secuban terrorist."
"He stops in here occasionally, whenever it gets too hot at home," Frank went on. "Never actually met the guy, but anyone who's on the Tertians' hit-list bears watching."
"Is his name Daniel March, by any chance?" Fleetwood inquired.
Frank raised a sculpted brow. "I sense there's something that you're not telling me."
"Tell you what, Frank: you tell me everything you know about Daniel March, and I'll tell you everything I know about him, but not right now."
"Well, that's easy. I know exactly what I've told you. He's wanted in Siderea System, and he hides out here from time to time. That's the sum total of my knowledge."
Fleetwood glanced at Linton, and said, "I appreciate your help, Frank. I really do. Is there anything else you think we need to know?"
"Just one thing," Frank said. "I am not, repeat not, getting involved in anything that smells like Tertians. Just as I keep my nose clean of Anubian business. Information I can deal to you, but anything else, you'll have to go someplace else. I have to make a living, and I do not want the Tertians pissed at me. Bad enough they're going to be pissed at you if you screw up whatever they have going down."
"Deal," Fleetwood said.
"Don't forget, you owe me now. And I don't believe in letting debt pile up very deep before I start to cash in on it."
"I know. Enjoy the rest of your meal, Frank."
"Have a good evening, Fleetwood."
"C'mon," Fleetwood murmured, tugging on Linton's arm.
They left the safety of Frank's privacy screen. As they crossed the floor, Linton's head turned, following the man in the gray shirt. Fleetwood kicked him in the shin. "Don't stare at him, you moron."
Linton hopped along on one leg for a couple of steps. "Ow."
They stepped out onto the street. Linton looked over at Fleetwood and saw his head lowered, his lips moving in a silent VR-pin conversation. He noticed Linton looking at him. "I asked Loki to keep tabs on that guy. He's wearing a VR pin, so it won't be a problem. We have a quick stop to make, and then we're going to pay a little unannounced visit to Claire Danforth."
"Where are we going?"
Fleetwood didn't answer. He walked rapidly up the street, Linton trying to keep up. Just before they turned off, Fleetwood took a quick look back and said, "That's odd. He's not following us. Loki says he's still in the bar. I wonder if he's really following you at all ...?"
They walked a few blocks and Fleetwood turned down a deserted side street. "What's wrong, sir?" Linton ventured.
"I don't know. I don't like this, not one tiny bit." He kept looking over his shoulder. "I know they're following us. I'm sure of it. I can taste it. Where are they?" He stopped. "Maybe they're tracking you some other way. You're not wearing any solido clothing, are you? Any jewelry or anything that's been out of your sight recently?"
"No," Linton said. "I think my luggage was searched, but I'm not wearing anything that was in it."
"Your luggage was searched? Dammit, man, do you always have to keep these happy revelations to yourself?" Fleetwood looked over his shoulder again, and then he moaned. "Oh, shit. I'm such a moron." He brought his hand quickly to his head. For one terrifying moment Linton thought someone was shooting at them, and he dropped to his knees, trying futilely to duck. But Fleetwood took his hand away with his palm cupped.
"Linton, take ou--what the hell are you doing on the ground? Take out your VR pin."
"What's going on?" Linton asked plaintively.
"They're using the VR pins, I suppose. Every VR pin in this city broadcasts on Loki's particular frequency, but that doesn't mean they couldn't find the frequency, or even hack into the computer, if they have the facilities on their ship. Loki might not even know."
"Oh," Linton said,.
"I doubt they're monitoring us constantly. Probably just checking at intervals. But they'll notice in a minute. Hmm ..." Fleetwood had acquired an expression Linton was beginning to dread.
Fleetwood stuck his hands in his pockets and strolled back onto the main thoroughfare.
"Sir, uh, sir ..."
"Come on, Linton. Look, Gray Shirt just came out. This should be fun."
They walked back to the restaurant. The man in the gray shirt was standing under its awning, watching the people in the street. His eyes passed over them without any recognition that Linton saw. Fleetwood sidled up next to him.
"Lovely weather we're having," Fleetwood said conversationally.
The man jumped and did a credible impression of surprise. "What are you trying to do, buddy, give me a heart attack?"
"Nope," Fleetwood said. "Just wanted to ask you a question."
"How's the weather on Tertia this time of year?"
This time his surprise was more along the lines of shocked horror. "How should I know?"
"Just thought you might." Fleetwood lowered his head close to the other man's. "Have a good evening. Pass that along to your buddies. Including the guy back up on the ship."
Linton was standing in shock as deep as the Tertian's.
"Oh, and by the way, what do you want here?" Fleetwood's hand was at the Tertian's chin. Linton could see a glimmer between his fingers. "Most life forms on Iridia are poisonous to Terran life, did you know that? This contains a toxin from the Iridian jumping hawk. It will kill you before you hit the ground. Come with me, please. Walk slowly."
"If you want to rob me, my wallet's in my jacket--"
"Shut up. I don't want your wallet. I want information. What is your name?"
"First of all," the man hissed back, "you are nothing but a common thief. Second, whatever you're holding at my throat is no more poisoned than my left foot." Over Fleetwood's shoulder, he looked at Linton as if he was trying to telegraph some kind of message, but Linton didn't have the slightest idea what.
"Oh, really--" Fleetwood choked as his hostage rammed his shoulder into Fleetwood's gut. Linton jumped back from the brief struggle in alarm. It was a very brief struggle.
"Told you so," Fleetwood said, dropping the Tertian's limp body unceremoniously. "Goddammit, you moron!"
"Sir," Linton breathed. "Did you just kill him?"
"Not on purpose! I knew I should've used the gun. Nobody messes with a gun. I didn't want to alarm anybody, and the darter is the most inconspicuous weapon I have. Next time, I'm pulling out the goddamn gun or else loading the darter with something nonfatal. I didn't mean to pull the trigger; he bumped me. I hope he was a spy. I'd feel terrible otherwise."
A passing group of young women glanced at the body and then looked away without apparent surprise. Fleetwood knelt beside it and turned the man's head to one side. "Well, he is wearing a VR pin. I'll bet we can expect company shortly. How are you at tailing people, Linton?"
"I don't know, sir. I've never tried." Linton decided to try total honesty. "Terrible, sir, I would imagine."
"So would I. Never mind." He popped loose the VR pin and patted down the man's pockets, removing and pocketing two guns and a knife, and stood up. "I'd say 'spy' is looking more and more likely. Come on, Linton. This way."
"Where are we going? Sir?"
"Where I was going before. I need to get some things."
"Don't you have to report the body--or--uh, something?"
"The Tertians will take care of it, I'm sure."
They half-walked, half-jogged to the office district. It was only a couple of streets over. This town was tiny, compared to the sprawling, many-layered city where Linton had lived for the last thirty years. Fleetwood went into the locker room. Linton hesitated, looking back, with some panic, for pursuers. He opened the door and peered nervously into the dim room. "Lieutenant?"
"Back here. Come on in."
Linton did, and almost ran into Fleetwood coming back out.
"Here," Fleetwood said, and shoved something cold and heavy into his hands. Linton held it like a poisonous snake. The gun was snub-nosed and gleaming black. It had a lethal weight to it, far more menacing than his light little Colt.
"What's this, sir?"
"Projectile gun. Explosive bullets. Look, you and I both know you couldn't hit the broad side of an interstellar liner. A laser is a precision weapon. You have to actually hit what you're aiming at. With this thing, all you have to do is point it in the general direction of whatever you want to kill and pull the trigger. It's got a bit of a kick, though."
Linton fumbled, almost dropped it, caught it only out of sheer terror of what might happen if it hit the ground. Explosives? Fleetwood expected him to strap explosives next to the most vital parts of his body? "Sir, isn't this--dangerous?"
"It's a gun, Linton. Of course it's dangerous. Just don't point it at anything you don't want to kill."
"But what if it ... explodes? When I'm holding it, I mean." He felt foolish, especially when Fleetwood gave him a dark stare, but if the choice was between looking silly and dying in a very unpleasant fashion ...
"Is that what you're worried about? God. Look, it won't go off until you pull the trigger, okay? Well, I suppose in very rare circumstances ... but don't worry, most of the situations I can think of that would cause it to explode while you're holding it would also kill you first. Falling headfirst into an active volcano, for example."
Linton wanted to argue; he'd seen plenty of historical vids where projectile weapons blew up in people's hands, and even if they were exaggerating somewhat for melodrama, he knew it did happen. But Fleetwood was still glaring at him, so he took off the Colt and reluctantly strapped the bigger gun in its place.
"It's not dynamite, Linton."
Dynamite, exploding bullets, I don't want either one tied to my waist, Linton thought.
Fleetwood peered both ways up and down the hall before stepping out of his office. His pockets bulged, and Linton decided that he didn't want to know what was in them. "Now. I have a suggestion. Why don't you go up top and hang out with the girls on the docks for a while. Assuming that there is some danger, you should be safer there than anywhere else in Kismet. Now put your VR pin back in."
"What if they--find me?"
"That's the plan."
"But, sir ..."
"Darn it, Linton, what do the Tertians want with you anyway? You had an honorable discharge, right? At worst, they'd probably just want to talk to you, for Chrissake. Having the Tertians around should be the best possible defense against Daniel anyhow."
"Yes, sir," Linton muttered.
"Put the damn VR pin in and just walk up to the docks. Take your time. I'll be a few hundred meters behind you. Trust me. If you don't see any Tertians, just hang out with Nehalia and Carmen for a while. I'll be around."
"Yes, sir," Linton said miserably.
He slipped the VR pin under his skin with a shudder and started walking. Why don't you just paint a bullseye on my back while you're at it, he thought grimly. At this point he hardly cared if someone did shoot him, but of course, no one did. It never happens if you're expecting it, he thought grimly. For the first time since he'd been in Kismet, he didn't look over his shoulder to see if he was being followed, because he simply didn't care.
The docks were comfortingly well-lit after the darkness of the city streets. They could probably lower the crime rate quite a lot if they'd just keep the lights turned up twenty-four hours a day, Linton thought, taking the lift tube up to the catwalk.
He stood for a time, looking down over the empty floor, to the shadows beneath the warehouses. No sign of Fleetwood; no sign of Tertians. Finally he went into the control booth.
"Linton!" Nehalia said, smiling. She introduced him to her partner, Carmen, a giggly girl who reminded him somewhat of a younger Ash Griffin. Carmen had a farm-girl wholesomeness about her, though, that Ash had probably never possessed.
"I'm glad you're here, Linton," Nehalia said. "I don't know what it is with me tonight, but I can't stay awake. Too much heavy food. You can entertain us!"
"Uh, me? I'm not that entertaining, trust me."
Carmen giggled. "Tell us about Tertia!"
Everyone seemed to know he was from Tertia. "It's not that exciting, trust me."
"Carmen!" Nehalia said. "Would you go down to Willamette's and get us some coffee? Want anything, Linton?"
"No thanks. I'm fine."
"I'd like hazelnut and cream," Nehalia said. "Get one for Linton too."
Carmen rolled her eyes. "Yes, ma'am. Coffee gofer on duty."
As soon as Carmen had left, Nehalia turned to Linton with query in her lovely almond eyes. "Now why are you up here?"
"I--uh, that is--" He was terrible at lying and decided to trust Nehalia, at least to a certain point. He liked her, and she struck him as a level-headed, intelligent person. Linton told her about meeting Valantine, and being shot at in the warehouses, and what Frank had said about the Tertians. He didn't mention Daniel.
Nehalia's fine nose wrinkled when he mentioned Frank, an amusingly girlish trait in a woman her age. "Don't trust that man, Linton. I'm sure you've known people like him where you come from. He may not flat-out lie to you, but he'll tell you only what he thinks you need to know, and only in the ways he wants to tell it. Fleetwood has a blind spot where Frank is concerned. Always has. He gives him far too much benefit of the doubt, even when he gets burned. One of these days Fleetwood's going to get himself killed that way. Where did you say he is now, by the way?"
"I don't know. Somewhere near here, I think. All I know is that he doesn't have his VR pin."
"Isn't that just like him," Nehalia said wearily, and went to meet Carmen with the coffee. To his relief, Nehalia did not mention his problems to Carmen, only that Linton would be watching for a while to learn the night-shift routine.
The routine turned out to be exceedingly routine. The night shift's primary duties were catching up on the paperwork and minor tasks that the day shift didn't have time to do. Nehalia told Linton that another shuttle would be coming in at 02:00, but other than that, the nights were quiet.
"I know you haven't really been here long enough to know yet, but I think you should consider asking Fleetwood to put you on nights," Nehalia said, sitting companionably at Linton's shoulder, sipping her coffee and overseeing him backing up the day's logfiles. "You strike me as a quiet sort of person, very suited to this work."
Actually, he'd been thinking the same thing. This was a lot more like the kind of thing he was accustomed to, a nice change from all the rushing around, getting shot at.
"I'll give it some time," he said. "You're right, I don't think I've been here long enough to tell."
Nehalia smiled at him, and looking over at Carmen, dropped her voice. "I wonder how Fleetwood is doing? It's been over an hour."
Linton was wondering the same thing. "Can I ask Loki?"
"Go ahead. Mmm, you can use your VR pin for privacy if you want."
That's right, he was still wearing the thing. "Thank you," Linton said, and when she stepped away, he closed his eyes and concentrated. The only time he'd ever used one was during training, thirty years ago, before Class Fours in the military were deemed too much of a security risk to have them. Loki, he thought. Loki.
My gracious, you're disorganized, the computer's quiet voice said into his head. It was a creepy sensation, not a voice speaking into his ear but more like having thoughts injected directly into his brain. Try subvocalizing if it helps. Gives the recipient something to focus on.
"Is this better?" he whispered.
Much. Try forming the words with your lips, but not speaking them. You'll actually concentrate on them harder that way.
Something like that.
"Can you read my mind?"
He sensed the computer's amusement, though he had no idea how he felt it, let alone how a computer could be amused. No. Strong thoughts, maybe. I understand humans find the sensation far more disturbing when they're talking to each other than when they speak to me, because irrelevant sensations creep in. I cannot read your mind, Sergeant, and I doubt I'd want to.
Linton felt rather insulted. "Can you tell me how Fleetwood's doing?"
Clarify request, please.
"Uh, can you find where he is in the city? And if he's all right?"
Searching ... Search results negative. The Lieutenant's last known location is the corner of Grenville Way and Amaranth. At this time his VR pin was deactivated. I do not find him on any of my video monitors.
"Thank you for looking, Loki. Um ... can you tell ..." He wasn't quite sure how to ask. "Is anyone else listening into this conversation? Can you tell?"
Clarify request, please.
"I guess I should ask, is it possible for anyone else to listen in on a conversation over VR pin."
It's just like any other form of wireless communication, the computer informed him. All VR pins in the city broadcast on a unique frequency. I receive and decode it. I can also tell which hardware originated the signal. Anyone else with appropriate equipment can do the same.
"Can you tell if it's being done?"
I have no way to do that.
"Oh. Thank you, Loki."
Again he sensed its amusement. You're welcome, Sergeant.
Linton had a thought then, a bold, daring, frightening thought. He closed his eyes again. It was easier, this time, to focus on the VR pin. Kind of like the way that when you think very hard about moving your leg, about the exact neural responses and muscle groups involved in moving your leg, about what exactly it feels like to move your leg, it becomes impossible. You can't move until you forget about the exact nature of the process and just do it.
Much more practiced. I think you're a natural.
He couldn't tell if it was making fun of him or not. "Can you connect me to somebody? I don't know how this is done."
Of course I can.
"He's not someone who lives here."
If he is not in Kismet, or if he's not wearing a VR pin or near a terminal, there's nothing I can do for you.
"He may be. It's Daniel March. My brother."
Brief pause. I do not find that name in a search, except in your file.
Of course Daniel wouldn't use his real name. "He's the man who was in the warehouses. The man who was looking down at us." Linton's heart beat fast. He might actually have thought of something that Fleetwood hadn't. "Was he wearing a VR pin?"
I have no record of it, Sergeant. Either he was not, or he was wearing one broadcasting on a frequency I do not scan.
Damn. So much for that. But another thought occurred to him. "What about Valantine? Does she wear one?"
Yes. She does. Sometimes.
How peculiar, for a schoolgirl. But Valantine was a very peculiar schoolgirl. "Is she wearing one now?"
His pulse sped up again. "Can I talk to her?"
I can query and ask her if she wants to talk to you.
On an impulse, he said, "Don't tell her who I am, please. Just tell her that someone wants to talk to her."
Immediately, Loki responded, She says what is the code?
Code? "Tell her I don't need the code. I'm too high-ranked for codes."
She says to tell you that I've lost contact with her. Obviously I am obeying the letter but not the spirit of her instructions.
"Obviously," Linton said dryly. He wondered, not for the first time, if the computer had motives, and wants, and loyalties. "Can you make a connection if she doesn't want it?"
No. It must be confirmed from both ends. The VR pins have a built-in safeguard against breaking and entering, as it's called.
"Tell her it's me."
She has deactivated her pin. She has--no-- The computer seemed, to Linton's surprise, confused. She is scrambling me, I think, or has switched to a different channel in a manner I cannot detect. I can't find her. That's sophisticated technology.
"She's afraid," Linton said. "We frightened her."
How strange. I cannot sense her at all now, but I don't think she's turned it off. There were odd signals before she vanished from my sensors. I am broadcasting on her frequency. I am telling her who is calling. Pause. She now says that she will talk to you.
"I take it she's back." His mouth was dry.
Yes. She's back.
And then he saw her, ghostly, in front of his eyes. Her image ran and shimmered like paint in the rain. She looked--wrong. Strange. Distorted. Valantine, but different.
You are seeing her self-concept, Loki informed him.
He had a sudden, unpleasant thought. "What do I look like?" He tried to direct the thought at Loki, not Valantine.
Amusing. But I find all of you amusing.
"Linton?" Valantine squealed into his skull. "Hi, Linton!"
"Hi," he thought back at her. Now that he had her on the line, he had no idea what to say.
He saw, now, what Loki meant by the confusion of communicating with humans. He could feel all sorts of feelings coming from her in incoherent little spurts. Emotions that he could not sort out. And her face--suddenly it wasn't her face. It was a woman's face, older and hard-featured, with long, bright-colored hair. Linton was too stunned at the sudden change to think about breaking the contact, and emotions washed over him: fear, confusion, anger.
"Valantine?" he asked hesitantly.
"Who are you?" the strange woman demanded. "What are you doing on this channel? This is all wrong. All fucked up to hell. Talk to me, bastard! What do you know about me?"
Her anger shocked him, the ferocity of it. Could Loki have accidentally patched him through to the wrong person? "Who are you?" he asked.
Confusion. "You don't know?"
"I--I was talking to Valantine. A Tertian schoolgirl. And then I was talking to you."
"Ohhh ... Linton," she breathed. Her face shimmered, blurred, ran. With an effort that Linton could feel through their connection, she pulled herself back together. "I can't believe you're on my line. This is all karked up. I knew we shouldn't have used you. You haven't been very reliable, Linton 95."
Tertian. She was Tertian.
"Well, what do you expect?" he flung back at her, glad to have someone to vent on. "I'm a file clerk, for cryin' out loud! Up until yesterday, the only time I'd ever held a gun was in basic training. I've never shot at anybody. I've never been shot at before. I've never had people trying to kill me. Why does everyone want to kill me? I don't even remember what I'm supposed to do in order to get home!"
"Of course not, idiot. If you remembered, you'd blow the whole thing. Like you're doing now. Where are you?"
"On the docks," he said, and then cursed himself for a fool.
"Well, stay there."
Linton was abruptly, deeply scared. He looked around him. Nothing had changed in the control booth. Carmen was sitting at the other end, entering numbers in a handheld from stacks of printed cargo reports, Nehalia leaning over her shoulder. Linton walked to the open door and looked out, down the deserted catwalk. Nothing moved in the bright lights. The light no longer seemed a friend, but an enemy, outlining him to hidden stalkers in the darkness below. He withdrew into the comparative safety of the enclosure.
"Are you all right?" Nehalia asked him.
"Yes, I'm fine," he said aloud.
His brain was scrambling frantically. All he knew was that he had to get away from the docks, as far away as possible. He hoped she couldn't hear that thought.
The VR woman was still speaking. Her voice turned soft and pedantic: the same tone Valantine had used to lecture Fleetwood about mental conditioning in the warehouse. "Linton. I know this is all very strange to you, but you're doing fine. Soon it'll all be over and you can go home, where you'll be a Class Three. It's all worth it, isn't it?" Her features shimmered, solidified, shimmered again.
"Yes, ma'am," Linton said ... as he'd said to them on Tertia, when they explained the situation and then made him forget it ...
"That's excellent. Just stay there, Linton." And the contact was severed from the other end.
"Valantine?" Linton asked hesitantly.
Linton leaned on a console for support. He was bathed in cold sweat, but to his relief, he didn't seem to be slipping away into a memory-fugue this time. Nehalia gave him a curious glance, but went back to her work, leaving him to his privacy.
"Loki," Linton subvocalized.
My, you're catching on quickly, aren't you? Much better!
"Loki, who was that woman I was just talking to?"
The computer's response was slightly diffident. Sergeant 95 ... it was broadcast from Valantine's VR pin. That is all I can tell you.
"But someone must have hacked into it, or something. I was talking to Valantine, and then suddenly ..."
But he knew. He knew.
The VR pin must be in direct neural contact, Sergeant.
That woman, that Tertian woman ...
That woman was Valantine.
No ... that woman was in Valantine's head. And Valantine didn't know she was there.
Linton remembered Guido's words: She kicked me once in the nuts and several times in the face. Then she screamed, started crying and ran away.
Valantine the teenage girl ... and that other woman, that hard-faced woman. Two personalities. One body. Somehow.
"Loki, are you still there?"
"Loki, can you tell me where Valantine is?"
I can no longer read her VR signature. She is scrambling me.
Linton tried to think fast, to think military. "But you can tell me where she was the last time you picked it up, right?"
"Please tell me how to get there."
Loki did one better: the computer showed him a holographic map of the city, with the route glowing in blue. This VR technology was something, all right.
A hand settled on his shoulder. Linton jumped. "Are you all right?" Nehalia asked. "You've been quiet for an awfully long time."
"Yeah. I'm all right."
Linton knew that he could be a little slow on the uptake sometimes, but, he thought, I don't have to be hit over the head with a steel pipe to get some clues every now and again.
"Nehalia? How do you turn a VR pin off and on?"
She looked surprised by the question. "Just take it off or put it on. It will be active as long as it's in contact with your neurons, that's all."
"Thank you." He took his pin out with a surge of relief, and tucked it away.
"Are you all right?" Nehalia asked.
"Yes. Nehalia, I'm going to go meet ... Valantine, that girl I told you about. If I'm not back in half an hour or so, can you please--try to get in touch with Fleetwood?"
Nehalia looked surprised. "Yes, I suppose so. Where are you going?"
"I can suggest some nice little romantic places," Carmen said, grinning at him. Nehalia gave her a look of annoyance. Linton decided that maybe she wasn't as much of an innocent farm-girl as she looked.
"In the warehouse district," Linton said.
"I can suggest much more romantic places than that," Carmen said.
"I think he knows what he's doing, Cadet," Nehalia said.
Linton almost laughed at that, except for being too scared to laugh.
Think about it, he reminded himself. You don't have any real evidence that anyone's trying to hurt you at all. One shot yesterday, and that one missed completely. The only people you think are involved are your own former employers, who have no reason to want you dead; and your brother, who has no reason to want you dead, either.
Well, maybe one reason. But if he wanted revenge for that, it doesn't make sense that he'd wait thirty years to come looking for you.
Come to think of it, the Tertians do have a reason, don't they? You were standing right there when one of their agents was murdered.
Damn Fleetwood and his hair trigger.
And why was he here in Kismet at all? He wished he could remember. He wanted to get off the docks, but he knew he wouldn't be any safer out there in the darkness.
"Tell you what," Nehalia said. "If you're not back in half an hour, or if you don't call, I'll come look for you myself, all right?"
"You people are so cloak-and-dagger," Carmen said, and giggled. "Kismet's not that dangerous, Linton. Don't let her fool you."
"Thanks," Linton said to both of them. "See you later." After a moment, he added, "Be careful."
"Fleetwood?" Linton called softly, as he left the comfort of the well-lit docks. For a few minutes he managed to hold out hope that Fleetwood was still lurking around the dock area, but he gave up when no answer came.
Linton found it eerie how most of Kismet shut down at night. He walked through the part of town where he'd eaten lunch yesterday (was it only yesterday?) with Fleetwood and Colette. He couldn't recognize the specific restaurant; all were dark and ghostly. It was like walking through an abandoned house, past unrecognizable pieces of furniture with sheets thrown over them. The only light came from the dome lights, high above him, and even those were dimmed for night.
In spite of his best intentions to stay alert and focused on his surroundings, he soon lost himself in speculation on how long it was going to take him to lose the thread of Loki's map. Check that: he was pretty sure he was already lost. Navigation was not his forte. In fact, he was starting to suspect that he didn't have a forte.
Thus preoccupied, he not only was unaware of his surroundings, but also that he was no longer alone in the dimness, until hands seized him and dragged him behind the nearest handy building.
Linton's military training, never before used, came to the fore in usual Linton fashion: he bent his knees and lurched forward to throw his attacker over his head, his knees gave out, he pitched forward under his attacker's weight and banged his forehead on the rim of a Trash-B-Gon disposal unit.
"Better stop fighting before you hurt yourself," Fleetwood's voice whispered in his ear.
Linton staggered to his feet, touched his forehead cautiously and felt the sticky wetness. He wondered if you could tell when your brain was hemorrhaging. "Are you trying to kill me? Uh, sir."
"You're being followed," Fleetwood said.
"Yes, by you!"
"Shh, keep your voice down. No, not by me. Well, I suppose technically by me, but by someone else as well."
"So Frank tells me," Linton muttered, pressing his hand against his forehead and wishing he had enough light to tell whether or not he was bleeding to death. "Why didn't you answer me when I called your name, sir?"
"I didn't want to alert her," Fleetwood whispered back.
"Yeah, didn't I--oh, sorry, guess I didn't. It's Valantine."
Linton took his hand away from his forehead and held it in the light of the streetlamps, trying to gauge the extent of the damage from the amount of blood. His palm was dark and wet. After tilting his hand several directions, trying to imagine the severity of the wound that had produced the blood, he turned to Fleetwood. He wondered if the Kismet Port Authority would court-martial one for grabbing one's superior officer and ramming his badge down his throat.
"You dragged me into an alley just to tell me that?"
"Hey," said Fleetwood. "Did you know that you're bleeding?"
Linton silently counted to ten, then started over again.
Fleetwood gripped a handful of Linton's jacket and dragged him backward, setting off a fresh round of throbbing in his head. "There she is! In the shadows, under that sign."
Linton gritted his teeth.
"Sir, I need to tell you--"
"I know, I know, she's a helpless little girl. Little girl, my ass. What's she doing out at this time of night? She's dangerous, Linton." Fleetwood peered more closely at Linton's face. "You really are bleeding. Sure you're all right?"
"I'm fine," Linton snapped. "If I should collapse, please move my body to one side so the rats don't trip over it."
"Ah," Fleetwood said. "Sarcasm." He grinned. "Your delivery needs a bit of practice, but I think you're getting the idea."
"Would you listen to me for a minute, sir?"
"Sure. Looks like she lost you, by the way."
"Sir, I came down here to meet her."
He had the satisfaction of seeing Fleetwood look surprised. "You what?"
"I've been in touch with her. By VR. I asked Loki if it was possible to contact her, so he tried it and she turned out to have a VR pin. She--"
"By VR, huh?" Fleetwood said. "What's a teenage girl doing out here in the middle of the night, wearing a VR pin?"
"Playing video games? I don't know," Linton snapped, pushed to the edge.
"Hang on." Fleetwood pushed in his VR pin. "Loki?" he said. "Fleetwood here. Is Linton's little friend Valantine still wearing a pin?"
"Sir, are you listening to me?"
"What do you mean, you don't know?" Fleetwood said to thin air, and then looked at Linton in surprise. "Loki says she's scrambling him."
"Linton, civilian-grade VR pins can't do that. Not well enough that the computer can't trace them. Not only is the technology not up to it, but it takes a kind of mental discipline that you just wouldn't find in a fourteen-year-old girl. That tears it. She's not fourteen. I knew it." He shook his head and popped out the pin into his hand.
Linton hesitated, desperately torn. Valantine, or rather the woman he'd spoken to over the VR, had to be one of the people he was working for. If he mentioned her to Fleetwood, he'd damage her cover.
"Linton?" Fleetwood was saying. "Yo, Linton? You zoned out again?"
Linton shook himself back to reality. "No, sir. I was just ... thinking."
"Thinking? Really? It's about time. What are you doing down here, stumbling around in the dark, waiting to get shot at? What's Valantine doing down here?"
"Lost," Linton said quickly. It was the only plausible thing he could think of. "I--I don't think she can control her VR pin very well. Maybe that's what's causing the problems with Loki. She--she knew she was in the warehouses somewhere, and I said I'd come down and try to find her--"
"Linton, you're the worst excuse for a liar I've ever met in my life. When they sew up that cut on your head, can you have them stitch 'sucker' into it? You may as well warn people."
"Huh?" Linton said.
"She asked you to meet her here, didn't she? You call this girl, who is up and about in the middle of the night and just happens to be wearing a VR pin. She asks you to leave your nice safe well-lighted place and come meet her at a spot where someone tried to kill you both yesterday. Does anything strike you, oh, I dunno, unwise about this plan? Oh, shit!"
Linton didn't resist as Fleetwood pushed him against the wall. "What is it, sir?"
"Where'd she go? She was standing over there, wasn't she? Right under that sign, wasn't she?"
"Yeah," Linton said. "I guess so. Sure."
"That girl's like a hornet. It's not so bad having her in a room with you, as long as you know where she is at all times." Fleetwood's hand left Linton's chest. "Stay here. If anything moves, shoot it, unless it's me."
"How am I supposed to tell? Sir? Lieutenant?"
Fleetwood had vanished into the darkness.
"He's enjoying this," Linton muttered aloud. "Crazy. My superior officer is crazy."
He couldn't tell where Fleetwood had gone. He felt a guilty twinge and wondered if he should have told Fleetwood that Valantine was possibly much more dangerous than an ordinary fourteen-year-old girl. Then he remembered that Fleetwood already thought she was dangerous, and a horrifying image of the real Valantine, the wide-eyed child, brutalized at Fleetwood's hands made him clutch reflexively at the wall.
What was the right thing to do?
A sudden crash and thump from behind him jolted Linton out of his reverie. He felt his way toward the source of the sound, heard more thumps, a grunt and scuffling noises. Then everything was silent, except for fast, hard breathing. It was pitch dark back here, surrounded by walls that shut out all the light.
Linton flattened himself against the wall.
"Linton?" said Fleetwood's voice. "Do you have a light?"
Linton felt at his belt. "No, sir. You never gave me one."
"Damn. Well, I do. Can you find me?"
Linton groped forward until his hand fell into a soft mass of hair.
"That's my head, you idiot. It's just a tad farther down. And if you touch anything you shouldn't, I swear I will shoot you. Unless I enjoy it, in which case, I won't."
Linton felt his way very carefully down Fleetwood's back with his fingertips until he found Fleetwood's belt, followed it around and got Fleetwood's handlight. The narrow blue beam showed Fleetwood kneeling on top of a flattened figure with a curly mop of hair.
"Good, it is you," Fleetwood said. "I've killed one bystander already today. I wouldn't have ruled out the possibility of beating up another."
"You're the one!" Valantine gasped.
"The one? The one who--" Fleetwood prompted, shaking her gently by the scruff.
"You killed Shaun," she gritted.
Linton recognized the cadence of the voice, and knew in that instant, with a sinking heart, that he had been right. The person who was currently speaking, through whatever strange alchemy, was not Valantine.
"Shaun's the idiot with no knowledge of Iridian poisons?" Fleetwood said. "I'd suggest you add Poison 101 to the spy training courses at home, lady."
"You're a cold-blooded bastard," Valantine rasped, her words distorted by the stone pressing into her face. "What are you going to do now? Rape me? Have fun. I couldn't care less."
"I'll let Linton do that," Fleetwood said.
"He's here?" Valantine tried to twist her head around, and made a slight choking sound as Fleetwood tightened his grip.
"Yeah, but you won't get a crack at him tonight, lady."
"You think I was going to kill him? What kind of idiot are you?"
"A live one," Fleetwood said grimly. "I expect you to sing for your supper, Valantine or whatever you call yourself. So start singing."
"Let me up. I--"
She took a few deep, gasping breaths, and Linton took a step backwards.
She kicked me once in the nuts and several times in the face. Then she screamed, started crying and ran away.
Linton wasn't sure what triggered the changes from Valantine to that other personality, but he suspected that stress had a lot to do with it, and he had a feeling what was about to happen.
"Oh, come on," Fleetwood snapped. "I'm not holding you that tightly. You can still breathe."
Valantine let out a tiny whimper, and Linton closed his eyes in despair.
"No point in trying the sympathy stuff at this late date, little lady." Fleetwood gave her a sharp, hard shake.
Valantine wailed and burst into tears.
"Sir," Linton said. "Sir, she's--"
"Shut up, Linton." Fleetwood shook Valantine again, harder, causing her to wail louder. "I said, cut it out! You've as much as admitted that you're Tertian. Should've tried the crying bit in the first place, not the third or fourth."
"Shut up, Linton."
"I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" Valantine was sobbing into the rock. "I don't know what I did, but I'm sorry! Please don't hurt me! Please! Mom! Linton! Mom! Help me!"
The pitiful tone in the girl's voice managed to break through Linton's conditioning-induced paralysis. "Sir, she really is fourteen," he said, forcing the words out. "She's just a kid."
"Oh, really?" Fleetwood twisted his head around to peer at Linton from the corner of his eye, without easing his grip on Valantine. "So what was she ranting about a minute ago, huh? Fourteen and a Tertian spy to boot?"
"No," Linton said. He spoke fast before either his conditioning or his own fear could stop him. He hadn't been able to help Kathy, all those years ago, but maybe he could help Valantine, whose wails had subsided to faint sniffles now that Fleetwood was no longer shaking her.
"She really is fourteen, sir, but there's another personality in her mind. That's the one I spoke to over the VR, and probably the one that's scrambling Loki. That other personality works for the Tertians, and she's a lot older. Valantine ... she seems to slip back and forth randomly. Sometimes Valantine's in charge. Usually when the other personality ..." He paused, remembering Valantine's strange mood shifts, the way she would be clinging one minute and avoiding him the next. "When the other personality is in charge, she goes ahead and pretends to be Valantine, but she's different. Don't you remember how she sometimes acts different? How she didn't remember why she was in the warehouse district the other day?"
"Sheee-it," Fleetwood whispered. He leaned over Valantine. The girl's breath caught in a terrified sob. "Hey there. Valantine. Does any of this ring a bell?"
"Please don't hurt me," the girl whimpered.
Linton flinched. The voice had changed. "I don't think that's Valantine anymore. It's the other one, pretending."
Linton couldn't see what Fleetwood did, but Valantine squealed and then cursed him, adding, "That's sexual abuse of a minor, jerk."
"Well, well," Fleetwood said. "Hey, Valantine or whoever you are. That thing you feel around your thoracic vertebrae is a laser, my dear. If you twitch, there will be two of you, but you won't be alive to enjoy it."
"Shut up, Linton." Fleetwood eased his weight slowly off Valantine's back, but he kept the gun pressed against her spine. She placed her hands above her head and stood with slow grace. "Divest yourself of all weapons of destruction and kick them towards my companion, dear. Slowly."
"Right away, boss," Valantine murmured, and she drew a small pistol and two knives, dropping them one by one and nudging them toward Linton with her toe.
"Obviously Tertian schoolgirls are a bit rougher than the local flavor," Fleetwood said. "And that's saying something, believe me."
"A girl has to defend herself."
"Yeah, right. What's your name?"
She smiled lazily, though she was pale beneath her freckles. Tear-tracks glistened on her cheeks in the wan glow of the handlight, and there was a streak of snot on her upper lip. "Sorry. You'll have to try a bit harder than that to get information out of me."
Fleetwood stuck another gun in her ear. Linton wondered how many he had. "How's this? Take out your VR pin and throw it away."
"What's your name, sister? Signy 127? I bet that's who you really are."
"Is it worth dying for, Signy? Valantine?" Fleetwood murmured into her ear. "Hey, Valantine. Come out and talk to me."
Now her body went rigid; her eyes rolled until all Linton could see was the whites. "You bastard," she hissed. "Don't you dare do that."
"Who's Valantine?" Fleetwood asked, his lips touching her hair.
"Valantine's my cover," she said, staring fixedly into the darkness. She was chewing on her lower lip, and a trickle of blood ran down her chin.
"Is she a real person?"
"No," she hissed. "Nor am I, anymore. This body ..." She trailed off, shaking.
"You can't really control her, can you? Linton's right. Valantine's a separate personality from yours."
"She's not a person!" she shouted at him, balling her hands into fists. "She's not a person! She's a cover. I'm a matahari, jerk. When I'm acting the part of a little girl, I let Valantine handle it. But she's not real. She's not me. I made her up."
"Seems like she's become real."
"Only because they've sent me on too many jobs. They've done too much conditioning. My mind is slipping. Look how I'm talking to you! I'm a matahari. I was never supposed to do the guns-and-explosions stuff. I'm not good at it."
"What's a matahari? A sex spy, something like that?"
"Yes," she breathed.
"You look young for it."
"Young is better," she whispered. "There are plenty of people out there--women as well as men, but more often men--who'd actually pay for this, let alone get it for free. From an espionage perspective, it's better than seducing them as an adult, because they're bound into a conspiracy of secrecy. They can never talk about it, and they believe I'm bound the same way."
"How old are you then? Are you really eighty-four?"
"Yes." A whisper now.
"Who's talking now? You or Valantine."
"M--me! Me, Signy."
"I think you're both in there."
"I think you're nuts."
"How'd they get you to look so young? Body sculpting?"
"No. It's a new body. It ... the body is actually in its thirties now. Puberty-suppression drugs keep it young."
"And where's the real you, the real Signy?"
Signy/Valantine opened her eyes and looked at him. "This is the real me. I died, Lieutenant. I got a little careless with the wrong person and I died. They took a four-year-old from the centers and prepared her body by wiping out the existing personality. Sensory deprivation, electroshock, that kind of thing. Then they downloaded me from the backup tapes, thirty years ago."
Linton leaned against the wall, trying to imagine such a thing, and failing. He vaguely remembered his own treatments before they'd sent him here--lots of drugs, and a voice repeating certain things over and over, giving him his cover story, talking about--
"You Tertians are disgusting," Fleetwood was saying. "What about Claire? How does she fit into this?"
"She's my daughter. Valantine thinks she's her mom. She does occasional jobs for us ... helps keep up my cover ... nothing too dangerous ..."
Linton's eyes widened.
A voice ... a man's voice ...
One of these days, though, she's going to blow something wide open by accident. You've got to deal with problems like that before they occur.
"They're going to kill you!" he blurted out loud.
Valantine and Fleetwood both looked at him in annoyance. "What are you talking about?" Fleetwood asked.
"Valantine. S ... Signy. Your bosses are planning on getting you killed here. Just like ..." He trailed off, unable to finish the thought, but he knew the truth. He'd known it all along, really. There was no upgrade to Class Three waiting for him at home, no promotion. He was supposed to die here, just like her.
Two for one, the man had said. Linton had been in a haze from the psychotropic drugs, but he remembered the voice now that most of the memory barriers were down.
Two for one. After all ... from what I've heard, Kismet is a place where it's very easy for people to disappear.
Two for one, he thought. Two. Two problems to eliminate. Signy ... and me.
"Just like what?" Fleetwood said.
"I--" Linton wasn't sure what he was going to say. He couldn't breathe. Couldn't think. His mind was slipping around ... thoughts would try to emerge and then fade ... the darkness around him was less real than the smoke and fire in his brain.
"I've been deepconned," he managed to say. But he was remembering it all now. They hadn't even bothered to put in efficient blocks. He was probably supposed to be dead by this time.
"You just now realized this?"
Linton drew a few deep breaths. The barriers of memory were falling on him, but he didn't dare succumb to them. "Daniel," he breathed.
It all hit him in a blinding flash of clarity. He was bait for Daniel March. That was all. Human bait to draw his brother out of hiding. He was only a Class Four. He was never going home.
"You remember anything now?"
"Yes?" Fleetwood repeated. "Really? How convenient for you."
Linton looked at him, desperate, wanting sympathy, seeing none. "Sir, I..."
"I'm here to trap Daniel," he whispered. "That's it, isn't it? To get D--Daniel out into the open where the Tertians can kill him. I was never supposed to work here for more than a few days. But ..."
Sarah. She'd died because of him, hadn't she? They had killed her, or maybe driven her to suicide, but either way, they'd done it because they needed his help and he'd told them no the first time they'd asked. And after she was dead, he'd said yes... because he had nothing left to lose, and they knew it.
"Did you know about this all along?" Fleetwood asked him, a warning note in his voice.
"Yes, I did," Linton said, crushed by the weight of horror and despair. "They said they'd let me come back. They'd make me a Class Three."
"What's a Class Three?"
"A citizen, sir. I can remarry. Have children."
Fleetwood shook Signy. "Is that true? What he's saying?"
She smiled lazily. "Oh, yes. All of it. He's bait, and we're going to kill him when we're done."
Linton drew some deep, shaky breaths, and became aware of Fleetwood looking at him with eyes like chips of green glass, glinting in the handlight's beam.
"So you really are a spy," he said softly. "You let me hire you, let me trust you, but all you came here to do was get your brother killed and then go home and get your damn status upgrade. You lied to me."
"They made me forget ..." Linton whispered.
"How much did you forget, really? Did you know why you were here?"
"I knew--" Linton looked away. "I knew I had a job to do here and then I would be able to go home. That's all."
"You sold out your brother. You sold out me."
"They offered me a citizenship, sir!"
"For that, you put my people in jeopardy. For that, you betrayed your brother. Is that what you did all those years ago, Linton? Is that why you call yourself a Tertian now, not a Secuban? Because they gave you a better deal? Linton, you little rat."
"I don't have a brother!" Linton cried desperately. "I'm Tertian! We don't recognize blood ties."
"Once a traitor, always a traitor," Fleetwood said.
"Daniel's a terrorist. He killed people. Innocent people. He's an enemy of the people! He deserves to die!"
"Honestly, I don't care. He probably does," Fleetwood said. "But what about my people, huh, Linton? Where do you get off dragging us into your mess, you little shit? Why'd the I.S.C. stick you into my organization? Because they didn't want to deal with you? Are they involved too?"
"I don't know!" Linton wailed. "They made me forget!"
"Go," Fleetwood said quietly.
"Don't 'sir' me. Go. Get away from me. If you go near the docks, I'll kill you. Get as far away from my people as possible. You're a time bomb, Linton. God, I trusted you. Get away from me."
Linton stared at him, stunned and horrified and afraid.
"Go. Right now. Go get killed like you're meant to. Don't bother me any more."
"You're screwing everything up," Signy said between her teeth. "You're the one who's going to get your people killed, Lieutenant. We don't care about your little organization. We're not out to get you. We just want to nab our terrorist and go home."
"Linton, you're still here," Fleetwood barked at him. "Get away from me!"
"Yes, sir." He looked at Signy, a long terrified look, and then snapped off the handlight and ran off into the darkness.
"You're making a big mistake," Signy said. In the sudden darkness, he couldn't see her, but he could feel her and the location of her hands. She hadn't made any sudden moves for a weapon.
"Oh, I'm the one who's making a mistake? I'm the one?" He ground the gun against her head. "What about what he said to you? Are they really out to off you, too? If they're killing their own operatives, who else are they planning on killing? Anyone who knows about them? Me? The people who work for me?"
"He was lying. There's no way he could have known that."
"Fuck you," Fleetwood said quietly. "Fuck you and your mission. Fuck you and the horse you rode in on, honey."
"You can't wash your hands of this now, Lieutenant. You're involved up to your eyebrows. If you want to get out of this alive, the only way is to help me. You can start by finding Linton, now that you've chased him off."
"Oh, what happened to the sweet little girl act? 'Oh dear, we're only Tertians and we'd never deliberately hurt a soul'? Now it's threats, eh?"
"You can't honestly have any sympathy for Daniel March. He hides behind a veil of patriotism and kills women and children. We're just going to remove him and go home. You can help us or hinder us; it's your choice."
"Personally, lady, I think people like Daniel are scumbags and I don't give a shit what happens to them. But I also don't give a shit what happens halfway around the galaxy from here. You spend your whole life worrying about what's going on in your neighborhood, lady, and you try to fix that, and you don't waste time on fucking grand ideals when there's things to fix at home, okay? That's what I do. And you people have fucked up the place where I live. That's personal, lady. You'll pay for that. So will Linton. Now where's Daniel?"
He felt her twitch. She hadn't moved for a weapon ... but she hadn't opened her hands, either.
After living his entire life in Kismet, Fleetwood was hypersensitive to certain sounds. One of those sounds was the high whine of a buzzknife, just barely within the realm of human hearing. A practiced assassin will not activate the buzzknife until it is within reach of the victim's skin, and someone who has never heard the sound before will either ignore it, or pause, mistaking it for some kind of electronics. Since the hand is already on the move, it's generally too late.
Fleetwood ducked and a burning pain shot up his side from ribs to neck, along with the sound of shredding cloth. He fell and kicked as he fell. One of his feet connected with Signy's leg. She gasped and they both fell in a tangle of arms, legs and the whining knife. Fleetwood could see its faint purple glow waving in jerky figure eights above his head as they fought for possession of it. Finally he knocked it out of her hand, got his knees up to his chest and kicked her repeatedly in the breast and groin, knocking her off him. Signy/Valantine groaned, whimpered and began to cry again.
"Shit." He rolled on top of her. His shirt was stuck to his back and he could feel warmth trickling down his side, but from the stinging of the cut, he doubted it was deep. "Goddammit, Signy or Valantine or whoever the hell you are--Who are you, anyway? Tell me your name!"
"V--V--Valantine," she sobbed. "Ow! Please don't hurt me any more. I'm sorry ... I'll give you all my money ..."
"Get up." Fleetwood yanked her to her feet, found another gun and pressed it against her side. To his amazement, he could feel a change in the muscle tone of her body. Signy had been rigid, tense, hovering on the balls of her feet. Valantine sagged against him like a sack of cement. If she was play-acting, she was very, very good at it.
She mumbled something incoherent.
"Valantine. Listen to me. Who is Signy 127? Do you know that name?"
"Please don't hurt--"
"Shut up! Settle down and answer my questions. Do you know the name Signy 127?"
"I--I don't know who it is," she whimpered. "I asked Linton but he didn't know either. Where is Linton? He was here a minute ago. Did you kill him? I want my mom. My stomach hurts. You hurt me."
Fleetwood got an arm around her, pressing her against his body. "Look, kid, if it's really you, if you're not some game that bitch is playing, I'm really, really sorry about this. You may not really exist, but you think that you do, and you didn't ask to get caught up in this mess. Unfortunately, you're just too dangerous. I can't let you go and I can't trust you, because any minute now the Ice Queen is going to come back and then I'll be screwed. You're a hostage now, so just do what I say, and come with me."
As gently as possible, but keeping a firm grip, he led the sobbing girl back towards the docks.
Linton walked quickly through the darkness. Just a few minutes ago, walking the other way, he had been nervous and jumpy, but not afraid. Now he was near terror. Daniel was out here, stalking him. Fleetwood couldn't help. Fleetwood wouldn't help. From the look on Fleetwood's face when they'd parted, Fleetwood wanted him dead as badly as anybody else. Linton drew his gun, but that didn't help. He felt horribly exposed.
Fleetwood's right, he thought. I really am a rat. The Tertians killed my wife because she tried to talk me into staying on Tertia, and then they bribed me. And I went for it. Folded like a house of cards.
And Signy, no, Valantine. What about her? Valantine is a good kid. I know she isn't Signy. I don't care if they're in the same body. What's Fleetwood going to do to her? How could I leave her there?
All I want to do is get out of this alive. I don't care if I stay here or go back to Tertia. I just want to stay alive.
He yearned for the comforting lights of the docks. And in spite of Fleetwood's words, in spite of Fleetwood's threats, he realized that he was going back there. He wanted to get on the next shuttle and get out of this town. It didn't matter if the Tertians killed him, or what Nehalia would have to say. He didn't even care. He just wanted to get away from this town.
But the docks were dark. In that great darkness, he didn't realize where he was until he sensed the great mass of the dome wall looming before him, and he tilted his head back and saw the girders and clean lines of the catwalk, outlined against the dim lights in the ceiling.
He stared upward, confused. Slowly his surroundings began to come into focus as he figured out where he was, and he oriented himself.
What happened to the lights?
He could see light up on the catwalk, now that he squinted. Cool light coming from the control booth. The glow of the every-present screens. The dock lights were out for some reason.
I knew it, he thought. I left and something horrible happened to them. Now I'm going to find their mangled bodies. My life is turning into a lousy horror vid.
"Carmen?" Linton called softly. "Officer Singh?"
He started backing away slowly. His boot struck something on the ground, and he jumped, and stood still, shivering. He knew it was going to be a body. Either Carmen or Nehalia. He reached down, and jumped when his trembling fingertips encountered resistance. Then he realized that it was cold and hard. Some kind of metal. He ran his fingers up and down its length until he realized that it was a rail, one of many crisscrossing the stone floor.
He straightened up, and something fell on him.
Linton screamed and jumped backwards, collapsing with a sodden limp weight on top of him. Somehow he managed to retain possession of the gun. Shivering, he reached up and felt bone. A nose. A face. It was wet.
Linton screamed again. He fumbled for Fleetwood's handlight. Its blue light illuminated the planes of Nehalia Singh's fine-boned face. Her eyes were open. Linton's hand, groping downward, plunged into a raw dark mess where her throat should be.
Linton scrabbled backwards, pulling himself out from under her. He sat stupidly on his backside, as the coldness of the rock seeped through his pants, freezing his flesh. Suddenly he remembered the light and flicked it off.
"I can still see you," a soft voice said from above him. "Do you remember when you used to pretend to be invisible, as a child? I remember that. You never were, but the rest of us played along because you were the baby and we couldn't help ourselves. It was so cute."
The lights came on. There should have been a sound, a click or something, but there was only light, flooding the docks. Linton sat in the middle of it, knees spread wide, squinting. He could see a figure kneeling on the catwalk. A slim, dark figure.
"I'm done playing," the figure said.
Linton brought his hand to his mouth, remembered too late that his fingers were covered with Nehalia's blood. He jerked his hand away with revulsion. The heavy metallic smell threatened to send him over the edge, back into the hell of his memories. For once, he managed to stay anchored in the present, though the solid rock tilted around him.
Daniel straightened. "Aren't you going to run?" He stood in a position that Linton recognized, from the warehouses: loose-legged and confident, a rifle supported in one hand, aimed with the other. Linton could see his face now. Daniel's face. But it wasn't Daniel's face. The face he saw in his dreams was the face of a boy, smooth and round, a fuzz of beard shading his chin. The smooth skin had crumpled and stretched tight across the bones of his skull; his thick hair shortened, thinned, wisping about his ears.
The only thing Linton couldn't see were his eyes, shaded and hidden by the light from above, and for that, he gave thanks to a god he didn't believe in. He knew they wouldn't be Daniel's eyes any more. They would be dead. Flat. Empty.
"Would it help?" Linton managed to say, at last. "If I run?"
"No," Daniel said. "Probably not."
"Are you going to kill me, Daniel?" Stupid question. He couldn't believe he'd asked it.
"Of course I am," Daniel said. "Eventually. I could have killed you before, but--"
"It's a trap," Linton said, his mouth dry. Why stop at betraying just ONE side? "A trap, Daniel. They're going to kill you. Get out. Run."
"Who? The Tertians?" Daniel laughed.
"What's so funny?"
"Your pet Tertians went the way of the cop with the overactive gun reflex," Daniel said, gesturing at Nehalia's body. "Want to know how many people the Tertians had in Kismet? Four. Your cop buddy killed one of them. I killed two. And the fourth one, the woman, is much too far away to do anything useful."
Linton's stomach sank all the way down to his feet. Some distant part of his brain had been holding out a thin hope that the Tertians would show up--not that he would necessarily be any safer with them than with Daniel, but it was still a hope, the only one he had left.
He realized with surprise that he wasn't scared anymore. He'd gone clear out the far side of terror. It was an interesting feeling, clear-headed and rational. Panic was down there somewhere in the depths, but he could ignore it if he tried. And with panic out of the way, anger started to climb up over it.
"Nehalia," he said. "Her name's Nehalia Singh. She's married."
"Not any more," Daniel said.
Linton squinted up at him and said, "Do you have any idea how much I always admired you?"
"Me?" Daniel laughed, a cold and unpleasant sound. "How touching."
"No, really. Ever since we were little kids. You were the brave one, Daniel. You were the strong one. The one who didn't sell out to the Tertians, like I did. But you know what--I don't think I understood until right now the difference between admiring someone and just being afraid of them. It's been so long that I honestly can't remember if I ever did admire you or if I was always scared of you. A little of both, I think."
"Isn't that analytical. I suppose this is where you point out how I've become the very thing I was trying to destroy, et cetera and so on."
Linton paused, flustered. "Yeah, that was kind of what I was going to say."
"Well, I should reciprocate by letting you know that I did kinda like you at one time. Long ago. Contrary to what you may think, I don't hate you, Linton. It's just not possible to hate somebody for that long. I don't even hate the Tertians any more. But I don't like you, either. I haven't liked you for a very long time. Mostly, I pity you."
"I--don't want your pity."
"I'm glad you came," Daniel said.
Linton frowned up at his brother. "Huh?"
"I'm glad you came here. I knew all along it was just a Tertian trap, and I knew you were working for them. I don't care. I'm glad that I had a chance to look at your face and see what you've become. I'm glad the Tertians gave you to me. It'll allow me to close one chapter of my life, with your death, and move on."
Linton stared up at his brother, and it seemed to him that he came closer to understanding Daniel than he ever had, maybe even to the point of sympathizing a little bit.
Then Daniel's face disappeared in a shower of blue and purple sparks. Through a haze of splintered fire, Linton saw Daniel fling himself down to the catwalk.
It took Linton a moment to realize that he himself hadn't cried out. Someone else had spoken, from outside the circle of light.
"You're Daniel, right?" the voice said again, and Linton recognized Fleetwood's voice, to his utter disbelief. "That looks like someone who works for me, there, Daniel, in front of Linton. Bleeding. Is she dead?"
Daniel raised himself a little bit from the edge of the catwalk, only to roll backward, toward safety. He moved stiffly and Linton could tell that Fleetwood had hit him, but not where he was injured, or how badly. "Yes," Daniel said. "I cut her throat. You're the cop who killed that Tertian, right? You missed me."
"I didn't miss. I should've guessed you'd be armored," said Fleetwood's voice. "I killed the Tertian by accident, but I'm going to kill you on purpose, because you never had to kill Nehalia. In the meantime, I brought you something."
With a scream, Signy/Valantine stumbled into the light. She fell to her knees, whimpering.
Linton's mouth dropped open. Oh Fleetwood. Oh, you bastard.
"Why, hello," Daniel said. He'd dragged his way along the catwalk and was trying to stand up behind a girder. His left leg kept crumpling under his weight. Armor or not, Fleetwood had apparently succeeded in shooting out his kneecap.
"H--hello," Valantine said, standing up slowly. She held out her hand as if they didn't belong to her anymore.
"So that's the game," Daniel said, and laughed. He'd managed to stand up, supporting himself on the girder. He was mostly hidden behind it; Linton could only see a little of his side and hip. "Are you giving me a chance to finish my business here, cop? Or is this some kind of distraction?"
Fleetwood didn't answer. Valantine started to speak. "Shut up!" Daniel said, and she shut up. "I know you. You spoke to me. Several times. You helped me. You explained where I could go to find the traitor. You said you were Gina's friend, one of the few survivors. I knew you were a spy all along, of course. Now your friends are all dead, and you're alone."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Valantine whispered, and began to cry again. Linton's heart wrenched. Kathy ...
Signy fought her way back, struggling through the unfamiliar maze that her own brain had become. It took all her concentration, these days, just to hold onto her own awareness of self. Any lapse or distraction, and Valantine bubbled back up to the surface.
But Valantine couldn't survive this. Only Signy could get them out of it alive ... if she could somehow manage to hang on long enough to do it.
She was vaguely aware of the events that had transpired while Valantine was in control, but it was dreamlike and hazy. All she knew was that she was in terrible danger. Daniel March. Shit.
She looked around, her limbs tingling with the new awareness of them, her gut and chest aching where Fleetwood had kicked her. That asshole ... she'd told him the truth, hoping he could help her, and all he'd done was throw her out here to die, and run off again.
She could see Linton out of the corner of her eye. He wasn't even trying to run away while Daniel was talking to her; he just stood there stupidly by the dead cop's body. No help would be coming from that quarter.
Signy understood that the life of a spy, or a cop or a firefighter or space prospector or any of a hundred other dangerous occupations, was a game of playing the odds. And someday there might come a moment in her life when she would be forced to stare the odds in the face and admit that this time, she had not beaten them. The odds had beaten her.
She stood unprotected in the middle of the floor, unarmed. She could dodge for the shadows, but she'd be dead before she hit the floor. She wouldn't even have the satisfaction of taking Daniel with her.
An inarticulate whine of rage rose in her throat. After all this time, that it should end like this, on an assignment that should have been easy ...
All you had to do was get him killed. Instead you're getting yourself killed. You used to know how to protect yourself. When did you get sloppy?
Sloppy--that's what it was. She'd gotten careless because she didn't care any more. Fleetwood was right after all, damn the double-crossing bastard. Half a century of doing the dirtiest of the Tertians' dirty work was long enough. Much too long. Signy raised her eyes to meet Daniel's. She raised her hands, held them out to either side, open.
Maybe it was fitting that a Secuban should be the one to do the job, after all. She smiled. "See you in Hell, asshole."
Someone shot her. But it wasn't Daniel. The shot came from low, to her left. And it wasn't a laser. The explosive bullet blew off the entire side of her body. She crumpled in a shower of blood and bits of tissue, a look of astonishment permanently frozen on her freckled face.
Daniel's finger tightened convulsively on his own trigger at the blast. He didn't go ahead and shoot. Instead he laughed softly.
"Heavy ammo you're packing these days, Linton."
Linton swallowed a surge of nausea. He'd meant to shoot Valantine in a non-fatal area, so she'd fall and Daniel wouldn't kill her, like people did in the vids. He had completely forgotten about Fleetwood's explosive ammunition. He'd meant to save her life, not spray the room with what used to be her guts. He also had not expected the gun to wrench his arm out of its socket. He'd never heard of "recoil"; all he knew was that his arm ached all the way up to the shoulder, and his ears rang from the concussion. He couldn't see; his vision was blocked with an image of Valantine's astounded face, as he had glimpsed it through a spray of crimson blood and flesh, with Kathy's features hovering beneath it.
"I thought she was on your side," Daniel added. "I suppose traitors don't change their yellow stripes."
Once a traitor, always a traitor, Fleetwood had said, and then left him to die.
An uncontrollable shudder started deep in Linton's gut and worked its way outward, cramping his muscles and almost causing him to drop the gun. But deep in his brain, a tiny little voice, that same little voice that had helped him survive five years in the camps, was talking to him. It's all or nothing, boy. Valantine was dead. He'd killed her, blown her to little oozing bits. And her death might be his chance to live. In the next few seconds, he'd either huddle here and die along with her, or go for broke and maybe, just maybe, use her death to get out of here alive.
If I get out of here, I'm going to find Fleetwood, and kill him. He'd never wanted to kill anyone as much as he wanted to kill Fleetwood now.
Linton worked up everything he had to say, out loud, "No." It emerged as a squeak. He swallowed, and said, louder, "No, Daniel. She's not."
"Not on my side. Not any more. I just killed a Tertian operative, Daniel. I'm as much an outlaw as you are, now."
Daniel's short laugh was not amused. "You're nothing like me, little brother."
No, you're wrong. I am like you now, far more than I'd like to be. His skin stung where drops of Valantine's blood had struck it.
All or nothing.
He felt suddenly free.
"We're in the same boat here, Daniel. Like it or not."
"No," Daniel said. "You're doing what you did on Secuba. Exactly what you did on Secuba. Your current allegiances have become inconvenient, so you're severing them. Betraying those who trusted you--the Tertians, now; your family, then; who knows how many others since. People like you are the reason why the atrocities on Secuba have gone on ... and on ... and on. If I told you to get down on your knees and beg for your life--if I told you I'd let you live if you'd do that--then you would, wouldn't you? If I told you to renounce all loyalties to Tertia, would you? Go ahead. Do it. Tell me that you're sorry, Linton."
"I am sorry!" Linton cried. "I'm sorrier than you'll ever know, Daniel! Maybe you're right about me, because if I could go back, if I could do it over again, I'm afraid I would. I tried so hard to forget, Daniel. I think they helped me forget, when I joined them."
"You never looked back."
"I couldn't. Daniel--all I could have done if I'd stayed was die with the rest of you. Or lose whatever made me be me. What purpose would that serve? I--"
Linton's voice faltered. He's seen something move off to Daniel's left. Fleetwood. He was 50 meters or so off the ground, crouched on one of the big support struts for this side of the dome: the one Linton had noticed yesterday that ran over the top of the catwalk. Linton had no idea what he was doing there or how he'd gotten there.
Daniel saw Linton look over to the side. He spun and fired in one fast balletic move. The move should have carried him into a crouch but he tried to catch himself on his bad leg and fell flat to the catwalk.
"Linton, you moron!" Fleetwood screamed, flattening himself to the girder as sparks showered all around him. "Give me away, why don't you! Little jerk ..."
"Sorry," Linton said. Then he realized that Daniel was, for once, not watching him--facing the other way, in fact. He ran under the catwalk, only to realize that it wasn't strictly opaque. Through the crisscrossed beams and metal grill, he could see Daniel edging around to put the girder between himself and Fleetwood's new position.
So Fleetwood hadn't run away, after all. True, he had been using Linton as a distraction, but at least he hadn't run away ...
Linton came to the conclusion that he really, really didn't want to shoot Daniel. Not with this gun. He cast a quick glance at Valantine's body, or what was left of it. The blood spray stretched from her still form all the way to the shadows. It was bad enough watching her die that way, let alone being the cause, but he didn't think he had it in him to look Daniel in the face and watch his brother's body collapse into a mess of blood and bone.
He looked back and forth. The catwalk was supported between two crossed beams. At one end was the lift tube, with metal stairs zig-zagging up its side; at the other end, the control booth, a plastic bubble snugged against the side of the dome. By staying against the dome wall and keeping beams between himself and Daniel, he could probably make it to the shadows without being seen. Especially since Daniel was now preoccupied with Fleetwood.
Who's the bait now? Linton thought grimly.
Yet he hated leaving Fleetwood to die.
Fleetwood tried to get me killed, he reminded himself. Fleetwood hates me. Fleetwood killed Valantine.
No, you killed Valantine.
His eyes wandered farther up. He couldn't see Fleetwood, from his new vantage point, but he could see Daniel firing off the occasional shot at the beam overhead, and from the placement of Daniel's shots, it appeared that Fleetwood was still crawling along the beam, using it for cover. He was nearly overhead.
Linton could imagine what Fleetwood's plan might have been: crawl along the beam until he was over Daniel, then shoot him or jump onto him from above. Linton had pretty much destroyed the element of surprise for him.
As much as he disliked Fleetwood at the moment, he felt that he should make it up somehow. Someone was going to die in the next few minutes. He didn't know who it would be ... and he didn't even know who he wanted it to be.
"Hey, Daniel," he called.
"What?" Daniel snapped, not taking his eyes off the beam. "Where are you?"
Daniel glanced down quickly. "I should've shot you. I should've just shot you at the warehouse."
"Why didn't you?"
Daniel sighed. "Why haven't you shot me?"
"I don't know," Linton admitted.
"Neither do I," said Fleetwood's voice, above them. "If you two'd just kill each other, it would make my job a lot easier. Sayonara, sucker. Sorry about this, Linton. I really am sorry ... for everything."
He threw something over the edge of the beam.
It seemed to Linton, afterward, that he saw everything happen one piece at a time. He could not possibly have seen it all at once, he must have taken it in as one flash and then pieced it together later and filled in the parts he hadn't seen. But he saw the dark object falling, flipping end over end; and he saw Daniel flinging himself off the edge of the catwalk, and Fleetwood flattening himself onto the beam; and he saw the world crumble in smoke and fire, and he heard himself scream, Kathy--!
The explosion tore the catwalk loose from the wall, and Linton saw it all happen, one piece at a time: each support squealing, bending, snapping; the catwalk itself bending in the middle, twisting like a giant piece of taffy. He couldn't see Daniel in the smoke, or Fleetwood either. He stood staring up at the catwalk swaying overhead, and if it had fallen onto his head right then and there, he would not have run, he would have watched everything, clearly and lucidly, until the steel beams crushed his skull. But the catwalk twisted and bent outward and finally in a shriek of tortured metal ripped itself loose from the lift tubes and hit the stone floor with a noise like the end of the world.
Linton stood still, coughing. He was still standing in the same place, tears running down his face from the smoke, when Fleetwood climbed to the ground and scrambled over ragged metal to reach him.
"Hey, there," Fleetwood said. "Alive, I see."
"You sound disappointed," Linton retorted, coughing.
"You're a traitorous little rat," Fleetwood said. "Still, I wasn't trying to kill you. I swear. I knew you were under there, but I didn't really see any other choice. My big worry was that the explosion would tear a hole in the side of the dome and kill us all. I guess the kinetic energy spent itself on the metal. It actually worked better than I'd hoped. Why didn't you shoot him, you dingbat? I gave you every opportunity."
"Yeah," said Linton.
He started forward, picking his way slowly through a battle zone. Twisted, blackened girders rose over his head out of the mess. He noticed that he hadn't had a panic attack this time, or passed out or done anything, well, blatantly stupid, unless freezing counted as a stupid thing to do. In this case, his rabbit-in-the-headlights response to danger had probably saved his life. If he'd run, he would have been crushed, as Fleetwood had possibly intended.
"Linton?" Fleetwood called after him. "Hey!"
Linton raised his hand absently to his face. The blood from the earlier injury had dried on his forehead. He felt a wetness on his cheek, tears mixed with blood. Shrapnel lacerations. They stung, now that he thought about it.
Daniel had jumped before the grenade went off. Linton had seen it. And he might have even hit the ground without serious injury. No way to tell now. The catwalk had cut him in half. His head was intact and his eyes were open, staring at the ceiling. Sunken, dark-rimmed eyes. Not the eyes of the boy he remembered, not at all.
Fleetwood caught up with Linton as he stood looking down at Daniel's corpse. "You know, I think you might want to sit down," Fleetwood said. "I think you might be in a bit of shock there, if you don't mind my saying."
"Why didn't you shoot him?"
"Huh?" Fleetwood said. "Who?"
"Daniel. You could have. I know you were out there in the dark, watching us, listening to us. And even after you missed the first time, you could have shot him from the beam. Why did you do it this way?"
"I didn't miss," Fleetwood said patiently. "He was wearing laser armor. Didn't you see the sparks? You're right, I was waiting to get a good shot at him, and when I saw one, I shot him in the chest. Then got him in the leg before he dropped. The armor didn't extend down his legs, but it covered all his vitals. No way I could have pierced it with the gun I was carrying, not from that distance; and, idiot that I am, I lost all my projectile guns fighting with Signy."
"But you had a grenade."
"I do travel prepared for most problems."
"I don't think you had to kill him," Linton said. "Not like that."
"Oh, really? Is that why you didn't shoot, or were you too senseless to move? Listen, Linton. He was trying to kill us. Not just me. You too. He was going to shoot you. Keep in mind he'd already killed three people in the last half-hour. Probably four, including Carmen. This guy isn't Mister Happy Sunshine, you know."
"I know," Linton said.
Fleetwood left him alone and went over to Valantine. The falling catwalk had missed her completely, and so had the flying pieces of shrapnel and debris. Thank goodness for small favors.
"Holy shit," Fleetwood said, bending over Valantine's shattered body. "Hey Linton, you have to come here and see this. I think she's breathing. Tough bitch to kill."
Linton approached reluctantly. Valantine's left side was a ruin of blood and gore and shattered bones. He couldn't even tell what part was her arm and what part her leg. He looked away, nausea surging through him, and then made himself look back. Fleetwood was right. Her curly head twitched, turning to one side. One of her eyes was open, and it blinked.
"She's going to need massive reconstructive surgery, though," Fleetwood mused, gazing at the mass of bleeding tissue that had once been her body.
Valantine's bloody lips moved, but no sound emerged.
Fleetwood bent down until his hair brushed her cheek.
"What's she saying?" Linton whispered.
Fleetwood was silent for a moment, listening. "I think she's saying, 'Linton, I'm going to kill you.'"
"It's not my fault!" Linton protested. "I was trying to save her life! You're the one who threw her out there." He felt a surge of relief that Signy was in control at the moment, not Valantine. He thought that if he'd had to deal with the child's melting, accusing stare, he would have completely fallen apart.
"She also said, 'Fuck you, Fleetwood,'" Fleetwood said. "Loki, we need medical assistance on the docks, please."
"Yes, Lieutenant," the computer's soft voice said.
"I was trying to save her life," Linton said again.
"Well, you did," Fleetwood said. "Sort of." After a moment he took off his jacket and covered Valantine's torso, more out of the need to do something useful than any hope it might actually help. She was bleeding from so many places that even trying to staunch the flow was useless. For the next few minutes at least, her survival seemed to be strictly between Signy/Valantine and whatever gods she prayed to.
"By the way, Linton, maybe the projectile gun wasn't such a good idea," Fleetwood added. "Maybe you should stick to lasers from now on."
"Maybe?" Linton said. "Maybe?"
All at once the strength went out of his legs and he had to sit down on the nearest girder.
"I wonder where Carmen's body is," Fleetwood said.
Linton shook his head. He couldn't find it in him to care.
Fleetwood found Carmen Miranda Wallingford when he climbed up the girders to the stranded control booth. Carmen was squeezed into a tiny space between one of the consoles and the wall. Fleetwood later said that he would have sworn there wasn't room to fit a small child, let alone an adult. But Carmen was there, wide-eyed and terrified and very much alive, having hidden at the first sign of trouble. Fleetwood helped her out, and then discovered that Carmen Miranda Wallingford was afraid of heights. She refused to climb down. He had to leave her there until a rescue crew could arrive. Fleetwood climbed back down by himself. Sitting on a girder near Linton, he found his VR pin and slipped it beneath his skin. Then he looked at Linton.
"What now, Linton?" Fleetwood asked.
"Huh?" Linton had to shake himself out of torpor. Shock, he thought; maybe this is psychological shock.
"You going back to the Tertians? Think they'll make you a Class Three? Or just kill you, like they were planning to anyhow?"
"I don't know," Linton whispered.
Fleetwood leaned closer.
"You make the choice now," he said quietly. "If you want to disappear, this is one of the best places in the galaxy to do it. We don't extradite."
"Why?" Linton said, amazed. "Why do you trust me?"
"I don't. Don't like you much either. But I believe in second chances. It's just about the only thing I do believe in."
Linton hesitated for a long moment. Trust ... And he held out his hand, covered with soot and blood.
Fleetwood shook it, without smiling.
"Loki? There should be a Tertian vessel in port, at the station. Can you uplink me to them?" He took a camera out of his pocket and turned on its transmitter. "And patch this into it, if possible."
"Hailing," Loki said.
Linton looked up, dazed and uncomprehending, as Fleetwood stood up from the girder and held the camera over his head, sweeping it over the wreckage.
"That's right," he said aloud, ignoring Linton. "I'm an officer in the Kismet Port Authority. You don't need to know my name. You're looking at the interior of Kismet's main dome after your companions made an, um, unsuccessful attempt to capture the terrorist Daniel March ... Yes, I'll bet you were. But they didn't answer, did they? ... Quiet. I'll do the talking. Here's March, by the way." He held the camera over Daniel's body, so there could be no question of his identity. "And here's your operative, Signy 127. Yes, we know who she is." He panned the camera by Signy. Linton had to admit that she looked pretty convincingly dead, even up close. "Your other boys are around here somewhere." He wandered off into the darkness; Linton heard him say, "Ah, here's one," and from a different direction, "There we go. March did this. Signy's last act before he shot her was to throw the concussion grenade that killed him. No, I have no idea where she got it. Handy things to have, aren't they?"
His voice lowered and Linton could still hear him speaking, but not the words.
"Oh, Loki," Fleetwood added. "Cancel the two o'clock shuttle, please. The facilities seem to be in a state of disrepair."
He put away the camera and came back to join Linton again. He shrugged. "I don't know what the Tertians will do. I know what I'd do if I was that guy up there, and that's hightail it back to Tertia with my tail between my legs and let my superiors deal with the problem. Everybody who came here with him is dead, and Tertians never have been popular in this part of the galaxy. He's gotta be pretty nervous."
"Mm," Linton said.
"Token for your thoughts."
Linton managed, to his own surprise, a halfhearted smile. "I could almost take you up on that, sir. I need the money."
"I was wondering what you're planning to do with the bodies."
"Well, Signy's not dead yet, assuming that she lives until some sort of medical person gets here, and as for the Tertians and your brother, I know lots of places in this town that could absorb three bodies, hell, three nothing, a hundred bodies without leaving a ripple." He waved his hand at the wreckage around them. "This is going to be a bit harder to hide, but not impossible."
"I'm not even going to ask."
"Probably better," Fleetwood said. "Listen, do you want Daniel's body? I mean, you are next of kin and all. I don't know where you'd want to put it."
Linton thought about it, and slowly shook his head. "No, thank you. That's not Daniel to me. I think Daniel's been dead, in my mind, for thirty years. Just--could you please find a place for it that's not, you know, too unpleasant."
"I won't defile the corpse, if that's what you mean. I'll find a decent place to put him. I might tell you where it is, someday."
Fleetwood didn't answer, and Linton reminded himself that the man hated him, and not without reason. His eyes dropped to stare at his hands. The knuckles were bruised and scraped. He had no idea how they'd gotten that way. Falling down in the Galleria? Protecting his head from shrapnel? He couldn't remember.
"Do you ever think about going back into the past, sir?" he asked dreamily, staring at his battered hands. "Changing it?"
"Yeah," Fleetwood said. "I think everybody does. And every time I do, I come to the same conclusion. I'm glad we can't. If I could go back and mess with things, I wouldn't touch a damn thing. Not in my life nor anyone else's. We have enough problems as a species without playing God."
"Is that what it would be?"
"I'd say so. We have free will, Linton, and we choose our own path, usually while we believe we're being pushed into it. But once things have happened--well, events branch into more events, and those branch out from there, and I think you'd have to be God to unravel it well enough to change anything in any way that you'd want it changed."
"I just can't believe that none of it mattered. I mean, me coming out here. Sarah ... dying. I don't even know if the Tertians killed her or if her suicide was just a--a happy accident for them. I'm just a totally insignificant part of some big plan that has nothing to do with me. How do you think that feels, Lieutenant, sir? Knowing I'm just a bit player in someone else's life?"
Fleetwood laughed again. "Welcome to the club."
Linton closed his eyes. Suddenly just staying upright was almost more than he could manage. He'd never been so tired in his life.
"Can you get back to your hotel all right?" Fleetwood said.
Linton mustered the energy to say, "I suppose so."
"You coming in to work tomorrow?"
Linton turned to stare at him. Fleetwood looked back at him, expressionless. Finally Linton said, "I still have a job?"
Linton tried to smile, but it faltered under Fleetwood's steady stare. "Yes. I'll be at work, sir."
"Good," Fleetwood said. He pushed himself to his feet. "Well, if you're going to sleep at all tonight, you'd better go do it now, then. I called Dr. Imre, and I called some folks I know, who work with Frank, to help with evidence disposal. The I.S.C. investigation comes later, but probably before morning."
"Do you need any help? Moving, uh, bodies or anything."
"You can go sleep if you want."
"I don't think I could," Linton said. "I mean, I'm falling over here, but I know that once I lay down--I don't want to lay down tonight, if I can help it."
"I understand that, too," Fleetwood said. He rubbed his chin. "Well, do you want to learn how to move a body? They're not as heavy as they look, but they're a little awkward to handle at times."
"I know how," Linton said.
"Yeah. I was on camp cleanup detail back in--back when I was a kid."
"In the camps on Secuba."
"Yeah. Most of the kids took their turn stacking the dead." Linton rose, staggered a bit, and tried exercising the fatigue-fighting biofeedback techniques that he'd learned as a young man. It did nothing except make him aware of how tired he was.
Fleetwood checked Valantine for a pulse. She was unconscious, but still breathing.
"It'd probably solve a lot of headaches for us if she did die here," he said. "I have no idea what to do with her. Valantine's a nice kid, but Signy's a cold bitch. She tried to stab me."
"Signy, idiot." Fleetwood turned around and showed Linton the shallow gash in his back.
"That doesn't look fatal."
"It's not. Are you sure you wouldn't rather go to bed?"
"Uh huh. Well, let's get a move on, then. You can give me tips on dragging corpses and I can show you where to put them."
Carmen Wallingford watched them from the open door of the control booth, sitting and swinging her legs where the catwalk used to be.
"Comfortable up there?" Fleetwood said.
"I guess so." She rested her head against the side of the doorframe. "Nehalia's dead, isn't she?"
"Yes. She is."
"I'm sorry I ran away." She pressed her face to the metal, shivering. "I saw that guy and I--I didn't know what to do. I totally forgot about calling for help or anything. I guess I even had a gun, but I forgot about that too. All I could think about was trying to hide."
Fleetwood rested his hands on one of the girders, looking up at her. "'Sokay, kid. I know how scary it is to look down the wrong end of a gun barrel. We're going to have to work on those stress reflexes just a tad ... but right now, just calm down a bit, and don't blame yourself. Everybody chokes at some point. It's human to be afraid."
Linton saw Fleetwood glance at him as he spoke, and wondered if the words were meant for him as well. Linton hesitated, and then said, "Sir, if you don't mind my asking, are you really going to try to cover this up?"
"Only the Tertian involvement. That's a can of worms we do not want to open. I think the official story at this point is a terrorist bombing. After all, we have a terrorist." He pointed at Daniel. "Unfortunately he got caught in his own bomb. Tragic, but it happens a lot, actually. Carmen didn't see any Tertians, did you, Carmen?"
"No," Carmen said. "Uh, what Tertians? What do you mean?"
"No Tertians, never mind, kid. And we have an innocent bystander tragically shot down." He pointed to Valantine. "And you and me were walking home from the docks when we heard a noise and came to investigate. It's very straightforward. And Linton ... well, the Tertians discharged you and sent you to work for us, right? Doesn't matter what they really had in mind or if they were ever going to hire you back--which we all know they weren't. They can't admit to it in public anyhow."
"Sure," Carmen said blankly.
Linton stared at Fleetwood, but his superior officer was no longer looking at him.
Why are you doing this for me, sir? You know what I am.
But no answer was coming from that quarter.
In any other town, Linton thought as he helped Fleetwood drag the Tertians' bodies away, the scene of the explosion would be surrounded by emergency vehicles, by reporters, by curious onlookers. Here, if anything, it seemed to have driven people away. Which Linton supposed was a much healthier reaction to sounds of trouble, but an atypical one. He wondered what kind of place Kismet must be, to breed that wariness in its people.
I guess I'll find out, Linton thought; won't I?
He stopped and stood in the darkness. The lights of the docks, those lights undamaged in the explosion, did not reach him here. Darkness and silence lapped over him like the warm waves of the Secuban oceans. His hands were sticky with blood, and he realized that it hardly seemed strange at all to be hiding bodies, covering up a double murder. He shivered, feeling the person he had been slipping away, one bloody piece at a time.
He was too tired to grasp for it, or even to mourn its loss.
It's ironic, isn't it, Daniel? he thought. I didn't leave the camps because I was afraid of dying. Death was so common to us that none of us feared it any more. No, I feared a deeper loss. If I had stayed, I would have lost what made me human. I would have become an animal. I saw it happening to people. I saw it happening to you.
It almost happened to me again on Tertia. I'm afraid it's going to happen to me here.
But he thought then of Colette Novak, and Nehalia, poor Nehalia; and Carmen and Ash; and yes, maybe even Fleetwood. There are good people here too, I guess, Daniel. Civilized people. The trick is finding them. Just like on Tertia.
He wiped the blood off his hands and went back to work.