Saturday, December 29, 2007

Chapter seventeen: No one ever saw or heard from him again

Previous Chapter

It was a small dinner, just the four of us, and elegant, befitting the social standing of our host. The dining room to the Low residence was at the topmost level of Sky City, with a transparent ceiling and side walls that gave us a panoramic view of the City below and the Skyhook stretching up as far as the eye could perceive. The furniture was solid, not inflatable, but well designed for both comfort and appearance. The table itself was a transparent glass. The settings were fused crystal, so thin that they looked like soap bubbles, and the food was delicious, delivered unobtrusively to the table by servants, each of whom Marjori referred to as "James."

I told the tale of my bloon fall and glider ride, and the two women were suitably impressed. I explained that I had no idea who had perpetrated the deed, and considered the likelihood that I would find out who did it to be slim to nonexistent. Nor did the adventure give me any new insights into the murder investigation, damn the luck. Fumio was concerned about whether Joey might have to answer any more questions, and I told her, 'no.' She seemed relieved.

Beyond that, I was unwilling to talk about an investigation in progress, especially with one of the witnesses present. Not that this had stopped me from going to bed with her, I noted to myself.

I was so tired by this time that I was beginning to slur my words. Marjori picked up on it and turned the conversation to Lewis, asking him polite questions of his background and expressing her fascination at the concept and history of Stochasticism. Apparently it was somehow related to her mother's religion of Experiencialism, but I never got that part straight. I struggled to stay awake while Lewis talked; Stochasticism had, after all, saved my life, if you cared to look at it that way, and that seemed worth keeping awake for.

"I'm not really sure how serious it was when it started out," Lewis told us. "Oh, there's been a lot of woo-woo mystical stuff written about quantum physics over the centuries, usually half-assed and more of an excuse for some other religious ideas." He looked at us with a grin. "You know. Bullshit.
[T]he Founder, we never refer to him by name, by the way, 'cause he used so many of them that nobody is sure what his real name was.

"Personally," he continued, "I've thought sometimes that it was just a good excuse to run casinos under the guise of being a Church. There've been a lot of places and times where that was a good dodge.

"But the Founder, we never refer to him by name, by the way, 'cause he used so many of them that nobody is sure what his real name was. Anyway, the Founder wrote some sort of pamphlet about a hundred and fifty years ago, called 'The Moral and Religious Implications of the Everett-Wheeler Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.' History says it had quite a fashionable following among tech folks, especially on Luna, where the Founder lived. It also caused some sort of schism among the Bobists, but I'm not too clear on that, and it appealed to some Unitarian communes also." He looked at Marjori. "That's where it collided with Experientialism, I think, but a Church historian would know more than I do about it.

"Anyway, the Founder followed up the original text with a lot of commentary, some lectures, letters, most of it is collected in our main book called Dice Doctrine. The Church grew to considerable size, then there was some sort of backlash by the Lunar Authorities, who didn't like all the gambling. The Founder set up some independent biospheres on Luna about that time, but there were some financial scandals. You know, the usual. Membership leveled off, then declined quite a bit as some of the personality conflicts began to show."

Lewis took another sip of wine and wiped his mouth on a silk napkin. He continued. "This would all be, what? A hundred and thirty years ago? Maybe more. Then on one particular Chancing on Luna, the Founder got a weird set of dice and card runs and he announced that he'd been chanced to immigrate to Venus, and that all his loyal followers should toss the dice and either follow him or leave the Church.

"Well, you can imagine the ruckus that caused. There were maybe about a thousand hard-core followers left, and I dunno how many fringe folk. Among the truly devout there were families split up, lives yanked out of socket, you name it. But six months later, about five hundred Everites left Luna for Venus, which was a bare backwater at the time. The bloons had just been introduced, but the ecology hadn't stabilized yet. The only way for immigrants to get down was by full velocity orbital entry, and it was pretty much a one-way ride. The only way off of Venus was the Planetary Exploration Vehicles that the research satellites ran, and there weren't many of them and they didn't take passengers. So the whole thing was quite a long shot."

"What happened to the ones who stayed behind?" Fumio asked. "Did they all just -- what do you call it? -- excommunicate themselves?"

"Not all of them," he said. "Some of them must have worked out what we call 'fingers crossed' options on the dice. There is still a small sect of Stocasticists on Luna, and we exchange messages frequently. We also got a few new immigrants 'way back around the aftermath of the Plague hitting Earth."

"What was the reaction to that?" Marjori asked. "I can just imagine, the dice give you a message to get out, just before..."
"Some of them must have worked out what we call 'fingers crossed' options…

"Well, it wasn't immediately before the Plague; there was about ten years between the Migration and the Plague. But when it happened, there was another big wave of converts, that's for sure. Until the big post-Plague migration from Luna, right after the Skimmer showed up, Stochasticism was the biggest religion on Venus. Even after the Skimmer there were a lot of conversions from the immigrants, right up until the time the Skyhook came down."

He paused, looking for comprehension in our faces, perhaps. "The Skimmer travels at orbital speed," he explained. "So entry was still pretty much like the older meteoric entries. Of course, with the Skimmer, they could pick you up again with a drop line, so that was an improvement.

"But even with the Skimmer, the best they could do was to lower a line, then let you drop. Then it was drop, drag, and hope your balloon inflates. Then you had to link up with someone down below to transfer to a bloon. And comm technology on Venus was pretty precarious in those days. Before the Skimmer, it was risky as hell, sort of a case of catch as catch can."

He rubbed his chin, trying to remember old lessons, no doubt. He said, "Almost all the first group made it, though. Of the five hundred who started out, over four hundred and fifty of them made it to living bloons at the other end. There were somewhere between a dozen and a hundred other political and religious groups who migrated to Venus at about the same time, nobody quite knows for sure. The ones we have records for averaged something like twenty five percent mortality. One group of fifty was lost entirely because of some defective equipment.

"But the first Everite group lost less than ten percent. Some of those died on the voyage out, too, so the entry loss was 'way low, the lowest of any group that came to Venus at the time, or at least that's the way the Church teaches it. There may be some dissenters.

"One of those who were lost, though, was the Founder. His entry trail was tracked on radar until the plasma sheath stopped reflecting. The known trajectory should have put him within easy reach of the pickup crew. But no one ever saw his drag chute open, and his transponder never came on line. His balloon didn't inflate either. No one ever saw or heard from him again."

# #

I drifted off to sleep sometime in the middle of dessert. Some time later, they woke me, to my mild embarrassment, and made it known that Fumio and Lewis were returning to the hotel. "Since you are to be at Police Headquarters early tomorrow, I told them that you would spend the night here," Marjori explained.

I hugged Fumio goodbye and whispered to her that I would take care of any room expenses for Lewis, fully expecting the full-throated chuckle that this provoked. Okay, so Lewis wasn't going to need to rent a room for the night.

Lewis shook my hand and winked, a gesture that could have been salacious, but which seemed entirely innocent and friendly. The guy had class, I had to admit. Maybe four or five generations of life on Venus living by rolls of the dice had achieved something profound, damned if I knew what.

Then they left. Marjori had to almost prop me up as we walked to her bedroom. "I'm not much use tonight," I apologized and she squeezed my arm.

"Yes, you are," she told me.

I don't remember anything after that. Presumably we reached her bedroom and someone removed my clothing. Maybe she did it or she had one of the James do it. At any rate, my next memory comes from near the next clock morning.

It was pain that woke me, nothing intense, just the protest of muscles that had exceeded their specs by a considerable margin during my little airfoil ride. I awoke stiff and sore to a semi-darkened room, and I had a little feeling of panic before I remembered where I was.

"Hello," Marjori said from where she lay beside me, propped up on one elbow. "It's not quite morning yet, but you've still had quite a slumber."

I found my voice and asked, "Have you been awake long?"

"A while," she said. "I was watching you as you slept. I hope you don't mind."

"No," I told her.

"At one point you had a bad dream, I think," she said. "You tossed a little and your mouth moved, like you were saying something. But there was no sound."

"Curious," I replied.

I didn't tell her that it was a conditioned response. When I sleep there is a paralysis block on my vocal cords, and most of my other muscles, too, though bits of movement do sometimes get through. Another little set of mementoes.

"I like watching you while you sleep," she said. "I can pretend that I'm your protector, your guardian angel, keeping the devils away. But it's only pretend, isn't it? The devils come anyway."

"I don't remember any from tonight," I told her. "That's something. Quite a lot, actually. More than I usually get."

"Do you have the dreams often?"

"Often enough," I replied. "Far too often in fact."

"What are they about?" she asked. "No, wait, don't tell me that. Forget I asked that question. It was impertinent."

"Not impertinent," I said. "But it is not a question that I answer."

"I understand," she said.
"I can pretend that I'm your protector, your guardian angel, keeping the devils away. But it's only pretend, isn't it? The devils come anyway."

I wish I did, I thought. But I said nothing. Instead I embraced her.

"You make an old lady feel very appreciated," she said after a bit.

"Don't," I said.

"Don't what?" she asked. "Don't refer to myself as an old lady? But I am, darling. Maybe not old enough to be your mother, but old enough to know better. And old enough not to care, I suppose."

"I meant don't say ordinary things," I said. "What you're saying is very ordinary. It's beneath you. You're extraordinary, so don't say ordinary things."

She rolled her eyes a little bit, but she smiled. She snuggled closer and put her hands to my face. "You're really good, you know that?" she said.

I moved still closer to her, feeling the warmth from her body alongside mine. I grinned. "Once you learn how to fake sincerity," I told her, "The rest is easy."

She laughed out loud as she moved to kiss me.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Chapter sixteen: And That Explained Everything

Previous Chapter

His name was Lewis, just the one name both first and last. He told me with a laugh that he'd had another name, but he'd lost it in a poker game several years back. I didn't know whether he was pulling my leg, but then he told me he was a Stochastacist and that explained everything.

Stochastacists are also called Everites, not after their founder, but after some guy who wrote a paper in physics, ‘way back in the 20th century. It has something to do with quantum mechanics and alternate realities, and nobody really takes it too seriously except the Stochasticists who have built a sort of religion around gambling and luck. Lewis told me about some of the Chancings he'd been to, that's what they call a certain kind of ceremony, a Chancing, and they sounded very strange. Sometimes, at the instigation of tossed coins, or dice, or turned cards, or any number of other things, a Stochastacist would just up and change his or her entire life, going off to look for something or someone that they might never find, or going back to school, emigrating offworld, God only knows what all, and that may be the point for all I know.

Lewis himself had recently been at loose ends, so he went to a Chancing to see where he might go, and the fortune telling seemed to point him towards Sky City. Since the only skill he had that might be salable there was bloon piloting, he thought he'd try to get his near City sail license.

"Have you ever been to Sky City before?" I asked him.

"Nope," he replied with a grin.

"Does this bloon even have a transponder?" I asked, looking around and not seeing evidence of one.

"Nope again," he said, his grin getting even bigger.

"Do you have any money?" I asked, knowing full well what the answer would have to be.

"Third time nope," he said.

"Didn't anybody tell you that you needed these things even to dock at Sky City?"

He shrugged. "Oh, I didn't expect it to be easy," he said. "But you roll the cubes and see what turns up. If the wave function never collapsed, well, I could always head north again."

"But," he said with another lopsided grin, "I don't need any of those things now, do I? The dice came up eleven for me on this one."

I was still groggy from anoxia. "What do you mean?" I asked him.

"I've got you," he told me. "And you're going to help me out."

Hell, I thought. He's right.
Lewis told me about some of the Chancings he'd been to… and they sounded very strange.

"You know, pardner," he said as he watched my reaction with amusement. "We Everites think that odd happenstances are what life is all about. Every one of us is an odd happenstance when you think about it; life itself is an oddity, and conception and birth are highly unlikely events. Now here you are, somebody blows you out of the sky, and you climb onto a damn topfoil and managed to fly it back up from down below, and who should you happen to snag onto but me? The one guy in the whole sky here who can really appreciate what this is. Man, I was actually starting to question my faith, and the dice pulled up a goddamn miracle for me. Hell's bells, I could take you to my minister and he'd nominate you for Stochastic Sainthood. Anybody as unlikely as you to be alive is a Saint as far as we're concerned. And now you're going to help me get into Sky City, just like the dice told me to do, aren't you?"

I smiled weakly and shook my head in bemusement. What do you do when you find yourself as a bit player in somebody else's movie? "Yes, I guess I will," I told him. "One of us at least got really lucky today, and I'd just as soon say it was you."

# #

My fall had taken me farther out than I'd figured, and so far down that the differential drift had been sizable. Apparently I'd also wound up gliding almost due east in my frantic search, with the net result that we were now about 30 kilometers northeast of Sky City. Lewis had been doing a zigzag tack to slowly catch up to the City when I'd entered the picture, and we had lost some distance in the interim. I figured that our best approach was to connect to the Circle, and take it from there.

The first large cluster on the Circle east of the City is Norville, and the second is Howston. The third is Hagentown, and that's where Lewis and I pulled in. I used my deb card to berth his bloon, and rented a motor squid for the ride back to the City. But first I called Marjori Low.

"Hello, darling," were her first words, and I noticed that I still liked the way they sounded in her voice. "Where are you?"

"Hagentown," I answered. "It's a long story."

"You can tell me over dinner," she suggested.

I sighed. My back was beginning to seize up from the strain of muscling the topfoil around, and my skin felt like I'd gone swimming in vitriol. It occurred to me that before we even started back, I needed to wash off.

"Look," I told her, "Remember that part about 'mad, bad, and dangerous to know?" I felt her stiffen at the other end.

"Yes?" she said, her voice tightening as well.

"I may have just gotten considerably more dangerous to know. Somebody just tried to kill me, I have no idea who."

"Oh, dear," she said, her voice reflecting genuine concern. "Is there any way that I can help?"

"I hadn't really thought about that," I told her. "I'm more concerned with your safety. I seem to have become a bit radioactive all of a sudden, and you might want to reconsider getting close to somebody this hot."
"Somebody just tried to kill me, I have no idea who."

She was silent long enough to make me wonder if I'd said something tactless. But finally she said, "Ed, this is on the level, right?"

"I wouldn't lie about something this important," I said.

"So it's my call, yes?" she asked.

I thought about that a moment. Yes, I thought to myself. She was an adult and able to make her own decisions. "Yes," I told her. "This one is really your call."

"Okay, then listen up," she said. "For the past several years I've been frozen in a goddamn ice cube. Liquor couldn't melt it, and neither could any of a stupid series of strange men in stranger circumstances. I was beginning to wonder if I'd ever get warm, and then you come along, and for some reason, the ice cracks and I begin to thaw. Now you think I might want to get clear because you're too hot? Darling, I want that heat in the pit of my stomach, got that? I need you and I want you and I'm not going to let you out of my clutches, so forget that idea, just fold it up and toss it. Now are you coming to dinner tonight, or what?"

I felt a smile creep out from under my own private cloud. "Can I bring a new friend?" I asked her. "His name is Lewis. He and his dice just saved my life."

# #

We first headed back to Fumio's hotel. I'd hosed off with some water from a vending machine, but I needed a real shower and a change of clothing. Besides, I had to report Bess's loss and check on some other things.

Joey was naturally puzzled when Lewis and I pulled up in a rented squid with no Bess in sight. "Meet me down in the lobby," I told Lewis, and he nodded. I'd already told him about Joey, and I wasn't looking forward to this meeting.

"Where's Bess, Mr. Honlin?" he asked, straight off, the concern evident on his face and in his voice.

I lie a lot, but not to children, and Joey would always remain a child. And there wasn't much I could do to soften this one.

"I have bad news, Joey," I told him. "Bess is dead. Somebody tried to kill me and they got Bess as part of the try."

His face screwed up like he was going to cry, but he didn't. "How did it happen?" he asked.

"Somebody put some incendiaries on her outer skin. There were at least three of them and they blew too many holes in her for her to stay up."

He was still fighting the tears back, I could tell. I tried to soften it as best I could. "It was real quick, Joey, and bloons don't feel much pain anyway. I don't think she suffered."

Most people don't think much about bloons as living creatures; a lot of people don't make the distinction between living and dead ones, except as a matter of convenience. But Joey loved bloons probably like Sheila loved her plants. They are beneficial creatures without a trace of evil in them, and Joey responded to that.

He nodded at my words. "Who did it?" he asked.

I took a deep breath. "I don't know," I told him. "I was hoping you might remember something. Did you have to leave here for any stretch of time earlier today? To go to the bathroom maybe, or to take any sort of long break? It would have been at least ten or fifteen minutes."
Joey loved bloons probably like Sheila loved her plants.

His eyes darted a little, and his chin quivered. "It wasn't your fault, Joey," I told him. "It's not your job to be here every second, and you couldn't have known."

My words calmed him a little and he appeared to think. "There may have been once," he told me. "There was some guy with a lot of bags and he told me to help him take them to the lobby."

"Where was the front hop?" I asked.

"He told me to do it," Joey replied. "Even after I told him that I don't walk so well."

"How long were you gone?"

Joey shrugged. "I don't do so well with time, Mr. Honlin. You know that."

I put my hand on his shoulder. "You do fine, Joey," I told him. "You didn't see anybody else when this guy told you to carry his bags?" He shook his head.

"Would you recognize him again?" I asked.

"Maybe," he replied. "But he didn't check in. Maybe a half hour later he left again. He had the front boy carry his bags out again."

He looked at me seriously. "I didn't like him very much," he told me.

"No, I guess not," I said. "What did he look like?"

"Shorter than you are, but still big. Good muscles. He walked a little funny, like many of them do. Like everything is too heavy. Brown hair." He scrunched his forehead. "I can't remember what color his eyes were."

"That's okay," I told him. "You did very well. I wish all witnesses were as good as you."

Which was the honest truth, as I verified immediately. The front desk clerk had almost no recollection of the guy, who'd come in claiming a reservation that didn't exist. When the clerk had offered to book him anyway, the man refused and walked off. The desk clerk had forgotten his face by the time he was out of sight.

That made the man a decoy, probably, but whose? Thinking about that led to the question of who would want me dead, and that thought produced a depressingly long list. Especially since the bombs probably had a less than fifty-fifty chance of killing me, so it could have been someone just trying to scare me or maybe even just distract me a little. Someone who didn't care if the distraction went so far as turning my body into falling char.

So with those cheery thoughts on my mind, I went to look for Lewis.

I found him in the lounge, his back toward me, chatting with Madame Fumio. She was otherwise unescorted. She waved when she saw me, and when Lewis turned in my direction, she mouthed "Meren," silently and turned her thumb down in a quick gesture of dismissal.

Lewis, I thought to myself, you really are one lucky son of a bitch.

"Hi, Ed," said Lewis as I joined them. Madame Fumio here was just telling me how you used to be a cop on Luna."
Funny how nearly getting killed makes an attractive woman seem downright beautiful.

"That's me," I said cheerfully. "I'm going to get cards made up. 'Ed -- I used to be a cop on Luna, you know -- Honlin. No job too small or degrading. Special rates for cloud diving.'"

Fumio scowled fleetingly as her eyes took in my still macabre appearance. "I just asked Lewis how you two met and he told me that you just showed up out of the blue, and that I'd better ask you about it. Is there something I should know?"

I sighed. "Tell you what," I said. "I'm in urgent need of a full shower and change of clothes. Then I'd like to make a phone call." I smiled at her. Funny how nearly getting killed makes an attractive woman seem downright beautiful. "Then, if you can wait that long, and if Marjori says it's okay, I can tell everybody the whole thing over dinner."

Next Chapter

Friday, December 14, 2007

Chapter fifteen: Apparently, I was going to try to stay alive

Previous Chapter

The nightmares that besieged me that night were the ones about being somebody else, somebody who stared back at me from mirrors with a sick, evil expression on his face. I heard his voice, in my dreams, with the appalling not-quite-familiarity of my own recorded voice played back to me. Sometimes I had to watch his hands doing terrible things. Then there were the screams, and the blood.

I awoke with a convulsive effort, just after dawn, when Darkunder gets a few fugitive rays of sunshine, just before the sun disappears behind the City that floats overhead. I figured that it was too early to call Marjori Low, so I tried Calvin Lee at City Center. He answered on one ring.

"Oh, hi Ed," he said, so cheerfully I was glad I wasn't near enough to throttle him. "We've got the raid set for tomorrow afternoon."

"During daylight?" I asked.

"Yeah, we figure that they won't be expecting anything at that time. It's down nearly on the bottom level, so there won't be all that much light anyway."

"What do you figure to find?" I asked.

"Well, plant extracts, of course. And we might get lucky and find it's a crank mill. We've had a little flare up of smokable amphetamine recently."

"That usually doesn't last long," I told him. "It burns out the users too fast. It's good for prepping the market for narcotics, though."

"Yes," he agreed. "Express riders need something to cool off after a while. So anyway, are you coming along?"

Sometimes I had to watch his hands doing terrible things.

"I said I would and I haven't changed my mind," I told him.

"Good," he told me. "Check in tomorrow morning for the briefing." Then we said goodbye and clicked off.

I went uplevel to the coffee shop and had some wake up, then some breakfast. Then I plugged into the news channel for a while, something I seldom do. No obscure facts presented themselves to resolve all our mysteries at once.

I needed to think some things through and I figured that some free sail might clear my head. So I buzzed Joey to check and see if there were air slot available. He said sure, so I told him I'd be right up.

But first I called Marjori.

She answered on the fourth ring, in a husky morning sort of voice. "Did I wake you?" I asked.

"No, darling," she said. "I was just lying here in bed like a useless slug enjoying the morning light. You should be here."

"I make a dreadful slug," I told her. "Slimy trail, always looking for some snail to dispossess..."

"Ah, darling, it's so good to hear your voice. You don't mind do you? My calling you darling, I mean?"

"Not at all," I replied. "Like water off a duck."

"Pssh," she said. "Besides, have you ever seen a duck?"

"Deciduous Littoral Biome on Luna," I told her. "They have thousands of them. "All from a single breeding pair that made it through the famine."

"You'll have to tell me about them sometime."

"Yes," I agreed. "I'm about to do some air jockey work," I said. "I'll call you in a few hours, and maybe we can have dinner tonight."

"That would be lovely," she said.


"Besides, have you ever seen a duck?"

I went uplevel and got a transport bloom from Joey's stable. "I've got Old Bess for you, Ed," Joey told me.

I once called her "Old Bess" and Joey has called her that ever since. Most bloons used for free sail are corpses, just the skin and skeleton of once living organisms. This makes some sense. Any transport bloon has to be bald, the root tendrils underneath would get in the way of drag line deployment. Also, a sail bloon has to have quite a few openings in it that a living bloon doesn't have naturally, and it's easier to work dead bloonskin, since the live stuff has a tendency to heal up any cuts.

Old Bess was really old, however, and her healing powers were pretty well gone. She was naturally bald besides, which is why I called her Bess, from something I read once about Queen Elizabeth I of England. Joey and I had kept Bess alive long past her natural span by continuing to feed her sugar and amino acids in her inner mouth, and by generally treating her right. In the wild, she would have long ago been eaten by sharks, squids, or taken by fishermen.

Part of the reason why I did it, is that I prefer to free sail in live bloons. When they did the genetic engineering on the Portuguese Man-O-War jellyfish last century, they tried out a lot of different ways of making an organism that was capable of floating and feeding in the upper atmosphere of Venus. One of the things they paid special attention to was the lifting organs. God only knows how many they tried, and whether all of them survive in the plethora of bloon species there are on Venus, but there are three or four main ones that are common.

The green bloons are filled with oxygen or sometimes oxynitrogen. It's usually oxynitrogen for bloons with people in them, though I've heard of some high altitude bloons that have their inhabitants breathing pure O2 under low pressure. The green bloons make the O2 from the CO2 in the air, and they control their ballast by making charcoal in an excretory organ. The nitrogen is either made internally from ammonia and nitrates that are fixed by special root tendril nodes, or else it enters through membranes that are permeable to N2 but not CO2. The nitrogen pass membranes are a main feature of another organ that some bloons have called the 'stiff body.' The stiff body is a cage of stiff cartilage wrapped in a nitrogen pass membrane. When the bloon descends, the stiff body resists compression at the lower depths, and nitrogen passes through the membrane to equalize the pressure.

Another kind of altitude control organ is filled with ammonia, since the vapor pressure of ammonia can be easily controlled by varying the temperature in the organ. Except for the stiff body, all of the bloon lifting organs inflate and deflate to maintain or change the altitude of the bloon according to either the creature's needs or those of the occupant.

Bess still had both her stiff body and ammonia bags, which is rare, since both are usually taken and sold before a bloon is put into service for sailing. But I preferred the greater altitude stability that they gave her, and I would have paid to keep them in. Also, Joey had asked Fumio to keep Bess alive, and since the removal of her stiff body and ammonia bags would have certainly killed her, Fumio acquiesced.

I called her Bess, from something I read once about Queen Elizabeth I of England.

I took Bess out to the edge of the City, and sent a quick transponder beep to let the herders know I was there. The green bloon herders are the other half of the oxygen supply transaction, free sailors who don't have City sail licenses, and who round up strings of green bloons, preferably of the pure oxy kind, and bring them to the City Edge. There an air jockey can make a quick cheap buy and not have to go out searching himself. I worked the herding areas before I got my City sail license and some of the herders would give me a price break, hoping that I'd help them if they ever made it to shadowville.

Doing an air run is mostly reflex and exercise, hauling lines, setting and resetting fins, watching to make sure you don't get near enough to anybody else to tangle your lines. It's a good way to let your unconscious work on a problem, since it only occupies a little bit of your mind. That day I just sort of generally let things sift and watched what my intuition came up with.

First there was Sheila, of course. She was tortured and killed. More and more it felt like she was killed because she maybe knew where Doria or Thomas were hiding out (if that's what they were doing, I reminded myself that we couldn't be sure that they were even alive). All it took was somebody thinking that she knew where they were. And there were probably drugs involved in it, unless it was a rank coincidence that both Sheila and Doria worked at a place where they grew the stuff. But there wasn't really enough profit to drugs like tobacco, coca, and hemp, not on Venus anyway. So that suggested that there was a link to some offworld smuggling operation.

Everything pointed to Robert Whitley Grayling. He had the offworld connections and some of his companies traded in pharmaceuticals. If you want to smuggle rock, it's a lot easier to do it if you traffic in mountains.

Then there was the fact that Grayling wanted his son back. Lunars are wiggy about their offspring; population control is the most central feature of Lunar existence. Grayling's father had only the one son, and Grayling himself only a single son, despite the both of them having emigrated to Venus, where birth restrictions don't apply. It would be a good bet that Grayling had tried to spawn at least a few more times with women other than his wife and had been unsuccessful. I let myself speculate for a while on the nature of Grayling's wife's depression.

Then there was the fact that he'd tried to turn me into his own mole, by waving money and other inducements at me. Indicative of something, but maybe no more than a father desperate to get his son back. On the other hand, maybe he wanted a bit of an edge on the police.

And why had he gotten so furious at his son for skimming dope? Because he didn't want an addict son? Or because he didn't want people going over his books?

If there was anything fishy about Grayling's operation, it was probably being deodorized at that very moment. The heat was on, and Grayling himself was raising the thermostat in an effort to find his son. Calvin Lee's lab raid was looking like a better and better idea, opening up a new front, shaking the tree by a different branch to see what would fall. If there was a drug smuggling and refining setup working out of Sky City's dark underbelly, this might be useful exploratory surgery.

Everything pointed to Robert Whitley Grayling.

# # #

My first air run that day was smooth as silk. I got three fat oxybloons in tow and made it back to Fumio's in less than two hours. That took care of Fumio's needs, so the next run was for a restaurant cluster a couple of klicks further in toward the City Center. The way out got tricky in a several places where a couple of dunderheads were asking to get their lines tangled, so I hauled in the drag line and powered out of their way.

I was just lowering the drag and raising the topfoil again when I heard it.

It wasn't exactly an explosion, more like a sharp and sudden whoosh! The sound of it got a little garbled coming through my bubble mask, so I first turned the wrong way. When I did turn in the direction of the sound, the glow from the charge was just fading.

Someone had planted a bomb or some sort of incendiary device on Bess's exterior. The sudden heat of it had burnt a hole in the bloon's outer skin, and the upper nitrogen bag had been breached.

This did not make me happy. I dumped my ballast and hit the transponder to send a distress call. Then the next one went off.

The upper chambers of a bloon are segmented, partly to protect against the effects of a catastrophic breech. Two upper bags were now leaking badly, and I wasn't at all surprised when a third flare bomb went off.

It wasn't a particularly good way to try to kill somebody. If I'd been within sight of a green herder I'd have been okay, probably. If I'd been towing the oxybloons, I could have just transferred over and cut Bess loose. As it stood, though, there was nothing substantial between me and Hell below.


It wasn't exactly an explosion, more like a sharp and sudden whoosh!

Bess tipped backwards and began to drop. I cut the drag line immediately, which only slowed the rate of descent a little bit. There was no way that anyone was going to get to me in time, so I ignored the transponder, grabbed my spare peroxypack, put on a couple of wrist claws, and climbed outside, wondering if today was going to be the day I died.

I'd been running the topfoil about fifty meters above the bloon. The topfoil is the upper counterpart to the drag line, a trefoil-shaped lifting body that can catch the wind at higher levels and help to steer a free sailing bloon. Under power, it sits right atop the bloon, but I'd been letting it out as I went to free sailing. Now I needed it back.

The topfoil is filled with nitrogen usually, although you can fill them with H2 if you need a very high fetch or extra lift. I was wishing that mine was hydrogen filled at the moment, since that would give me more lift, though even a hydrogen topfoil won't support a full grown man.

But a topfoil is aerodynamic, and I might be able to get it to fly. There are bubble domes on Luna where you can fly body gliders, things that look a little like a topfoil, and I'd heard other Luna natives speculate that you might be able to ride a topfoil that way.

I'd never heard of anybody stupid enough to try it, though. Or desperate enough. At least one of those now applied to me. Apparently, I'd decided to put up a fight. Apparently, I was going to try to stay alive.

I clawed my way around Bess's exterior until I was atop the bloon. The topfoil has three sets of double lines set too far apart where they connect to the main bloon to grab all at once. I pulled my new knife from my ankle scabbard, severed the rear lines, and wrapped them around my wrist while I clawed forward to get the other two sets.

When I cut the last line, Bess dropped away rapidly and my descent slowed. Just before Bess fell out of earshot, I heard a sickening crunch as her stiff body organ imploded, unable to meet the sudden increase in atmospheric pressure. It was one of the most horrible sounds I'd ever heard.

Apparently, I'd decided to put up a fight.

It was already getting hot; I was well below the 310 Kelvin level already, easily a full kilometer down from where we'd started. I knew it would get much hotter before I could climb to the topfoil and try to control it.

Bloonsilk is similar to spider silk, the protein comes from the same cloned genes. Bloon cable lines are thin and strong, hard to grab hold of. I hauled myself up the triple set of lines, sometimes wrapping a loop around me as I went, in case my grip slipped.

I favored the forward lines as I climbed, trying to pull the topfoil level, so it would give more parachute drag. I forgot what would happen when the topfoil tipped forward. I was still maybe fifteen meters from the topfoil when I finally overbalanced it, so its nose dipped and with a sickening lurch we started a dive.

The plus side was that for a few moments, my weight relative to the topfoil went negative, and I scampered up the last few meters to the top foil. But the sudden acceleration of the lifting body put it out ahead of me, which meant that when the lines went taut, I became a rearward drag. The nose of the trefoil pulled up, then when the dive pulled up, the topfoil stalled. My glider and I started to tumble backwards.

I loosed the rear lines and let myself drop a meter or so, and the jolt on the front lines yanked the nose down again. This time I was nearer to the topfoil, and didn't pendulum enough to kill the dive. I used the time of reduced weight to wrap the rear lines around my feet and each of the forward lines around my wrists. Then I tried pushing my weight down on the rear line.

That maneuver worked. I pulled the dive into a strong horizontal glide. By pulling down on the right line, I managed to give the topfoil enough of a flex to turn the flight into a circle. That was something, anyway. I was no longer falling so much as making a winged descent.

My left earring buzzed and I realized that I was getting short of air. I reached over and squeezed the peroxypack under my arm, a normally simple action made fiendishly difficult by the fact that I had to maintain constant tension in the control lines. A quick squirt of O2 puffed into my bubble mask, but I noticed that it had the telltale scent that's put in the peroxypacks to let you know when they are about at the end of their charge. I had one more pack with me; normally you don't use them much in a sail bloon, since there's plenty of O2 in the bloon air, you just need the bubblemasks to filter out the CO2 that leaks in. But soon all my O2 was going to be from my one last peroxypack in my hip pocket.

I was no longer falling so much as making a winged descent.

Besides which it was goddamn hot, well over 320 Kelvin, headed into sauna territory. And I was putting out my own calories fast enough to melt ice in a refrigerator. All the water in the air is in the sulfuric acid droplets in the clouds, so the natural air on Venus is so dry that it makes a desert biome look humid. The arid heat made most of my sweat dry almost instantly, even through the layers of clothing I wore, but my bubble mask was water impermeable, and my face was soon covered with sweat, running down into my eyes, blinding me, not that I could see anything much, because I was well into the cloud layer now. Besides, my bubble mask was trying to plaster itself to my face. Bubble masks aren't made for facing into a stiff airstream wind.

I contorted around trying to get the spare peroxypack out of my rear pocket without dropping it, and onto the valve under my arm. I speculated that I probably wouldn't have time to run out of O2. A peroxypack hold 20-30 minutes of breathing time, and I'd almost certainly pass out from the pressure, heat, and dehydration before that.

Then I hit the updraft. I'd just finished cinching the O2 valve on my peroxypack, and a good thing, too, or I'd have dropped it. As it was, the blast of hot air from down below shook the topfoil, and made it flex enough to yank my arms out to the sides, like I was being crucified.

The updraft was hot but it felt good. It meant that I might have a chance. Updrafts aren't uncommon near the equator of Venus, since the overall circulation pattern for the entire atmosphere is for air to rise at the equator and sink at the poles. I'd been counting on using updrafts to recover some of the altitude I'd lost. With real luck, somewhere down below a storm might be brewing, feeding on the upwelling air from the planet's equatorial zones. Even the most powerful storms rarely penetrate very far into the wind shear layer near the cloud tops where Sky City floats, but I was far enough down so that I was getting some major benefit.

I turned the topfoil to the left, and immediately lost the updraft. Okay, I thought, and followed my circle around until I hit the chimney again. I lifted up again and this time I turned to the right, and felt the draft get even stronger. Good. Let's see how high I could ride it.

It was hard work, harder than running lines or clawing your way on the outside of a bloon. I was panting, even though I'd pumped my bubble mask to excess pressure, which gave it considerably above 1 atmosphere partial pressure of O2 and the feel of it was harsh in my throat. If I'd thought about it, I could have also worried about overloading my CO2 filter, but I had too many other things on my mind.

The updraft was hot but it felt good. It meant that I might have a chance.

After a few minutes, that seemed much longer, I hit a small break in the clouds; nothing large, just a sudden increase in visibility from a few meters to maybe tens of meters. It was beginning to cool as well, down from the torrid air below. Checking my wrist gauge was out of the question, but I guessed that I'd managed to reach the 320 K level at least, maybe as high as the 315.

The updraft was weakening. The likelihood that anyone had caught my short distress signal was pretty slim. Sky City control probably had it as part of the continuing record, but no human beings would ever know what had happened to me unless someone went looking specifically for the transponder sequences. Besides, I'd fallen a good way, and glided even farther. Who knows how far away from my original position I was? And I wouldn't be able to get up to the height of the green herders or the air jockeys. Not on one little updraft.

But I might find a drag line, or even a free floating bloon. An oxybloon would come in mighty handy in about, oh, say ten or fifteen minutes. Maybe less. I was already beginning to get a whiff of the telltale scent from my peroxypack, but that might have been from overheating.

At what I judged to be pretty close to the top of the updraft, I peeled off, took a little bit of a dive to pick up speed, and turned my flight into a straight line. If I was going to find anything at all, I needed to cover a lot of sky, and I needed some daylight.

I hit daylight almost at once. The updraft had pushed a wedge of cloud up above the nominal cloud deck, a pretty typical effect, and one that I'd already figured on. Visibility still wasn't great, there's a sulfate haze that extends for a couple of klicks even when you're out of the clouds themselves, but at least I could see now, more or less, through my sweat streaked bubble mask.

I dipped again to boost my air speed. If I was going to get lucky, it had better come soon.

Something caught my eye in the distance. I swung around to look at it, but it had vanished. I aimed for it anyway, wondering whether I'd just manufactured an illusion out of desperation. But then I caught it again in my peripheral vision. It seemed to be just slightly below my present height, and I hoped that I could maintain enough lift to reach it.

It had to be somebody's drag bubble, a single bloon chamber cut free and weighted to act as a keel for sailing the bloon above. Drag lines are so thin that I couldn't see the ones connecting to this on until I was nearly on top of it. When I did see the lines, they looked gorgeous.

As I neared the drag bubble, I saw that my original sighting had been off, and it was a full hundred meters below my height. That was okay by me; I was more than happy to go for the drag line, and I could always lower myself to the bubble itself.

I aimed myself for the line, reached out for it¾and the topfoil wing hit it ahead of me and pushed it out of my grasp as I flew by. I almost lost it right there, trying to turn so tightly that I nearly stalled. So I pulled in my legs, dropped the nose, and managed to save my glide. The next time I took the whole thing in a wide circle.

I'd seen plenty of videos of how birds do a landing: they pull up at the last moment and flap their wings. Body gliders on Luna use the same trick to get stabilized on lofty perches, but they are dealing with only a sixth of a G. I weighed five and a half times what I would on Luna, and I couldn't flap my wings worth a damn.

But I could do a long swoop, beginning my rise a couple hundred meters from the line then yanking everything up at the last moment. If I'd missed the line I would have stalled, but I didn't miss it. I grabbed onto it with every last bit of energy I had.

The topfoil bobbed up over my head, again trying to push the line out of my grasp, as if it were jealous of my new savior. Not this time, bubby, I told it. I hugged the drag line to my body and let myself slide down it to the bubble below. My feet bounced when I hit the bubble, but I held tight to the drag line.

I weighed five and a half times what I would on Luna, and I couldn't flap my wings worth a damn.

I couldn't really see my unknown benefactor above; the drag line was well over a kilometer down from the free sailing bloon above. But the commotion down below had obviously been felt and he began to haul me up. I imagine that the extra weight came as a surprise. Sometimes a drag line will tangle with a free bloon, more often it gets tangled in someone else's line. Either way, the sailor above must be cursing, I knew, but there was no way he was going to be prepared for my entrance.

Assuming that I made it, of course. There was only a whisper left in my peroxypack by now and my earring was beginning to buzz.

I was starting to gray out by the time the bloon above me was in full view, and my breath was coming in gasps. But God bless him, once my unknown benefactor saw that there was an actual human being down below, he triggered the drag bloon to dump its ballast and began to really haul it. He dumped some gas trim, too, so the sail bloon was actually coming down to meet me.

"Where the Hell did you come from?" he asked as he pulled me into his bloon. I made face contortions and he saw my difficulty. My hands were beyond working and my vision was drifting patterns of black, so he put a peroxypack on my valve unit and gave it a squeeze. Nothing ever tasted so good as that odorless, colorless gas. I inhaled a few deep breaths and almost passed out from the hyperventilation.

But my intentions were the very best

"Go easy for a bit," he told me and I nodded my head.

He looked me over, and I'm sure I wasn't a pretty sight. I'd been down far enough into the acid clouds that my clothing had developed odd pitted discolorations and weird stains at my underarms and groin, where the sweat had evaporated and reacted with the sulfuric leaving little white patches of acid sulfate salt. My gloves were in shreds and scraps of bloon skin still clung improbably to my climbing claws. We'd had to cut me out of my impromptu rig on the topfoil, and the topfoil itself was now tied to the outside of his bloon like a hunting trophy.

"You know," he said with a bit of amusement. "Cancel that question. I'm not really sure I want to know where you've been."

"You had it right the first time," I told him, noticing that my voice sounded like a babble. "I've been on a little trip to Hell. But my intentions were the very best, oh yes, the very, very best."

Next Chapter

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Chapter fourteen: "…you talk as if being a policeman were a lowly thing."

Previous Chapter

It was still early afternoon by the clock, when I got back to the hotel, hours before my dinner date with Mrs. Low. Although it was still light night, I figured I would put in an air run or two. I'd missed several slots in the informal rotation that we used at Fumio's, and I didn't want to slip off the roster entirely.

Every free cluster in Darkunder keeps a few taxi bloons tied to it, since no one likes to be dependent on the commercial call services. During off hours these tend to get used for air runs by the floating population of air jockeys, people like me who don't like regular hours, and are willing to work for pickup wages. Fumio's operation triples up as a small commercial call service, as I've already mentioned. They don't guarantee to get you there quickly, but they will get you there cheap. As I've also said, I hate taxi work for myself, but I've done it a few times, especially in my first few months at Fumio's when I needed the work.

Today it was just air runs. There's always a market for more O2 in the City's shadow. The population density of Darkunder is a constant tension between people wanting more living space, and the need to keep the sail lanes clear so supplies can be brought in. As motor squids become cheaper, I expect the cluster density to increase, and free sail will keep moving out towards the periphery. But the City above keeps growing, so there's more periphery to move to. Maybe it evens out.

Night runs aren't really profitable, since you can't even use short lines without a real danger of tangling with somebody else, and you have to use powered flight almost exclusively. The plus side about a powered run is that you can get to the front edge quickly, then do a differential drift back in. It's rare that anyone needs O2 enough for it to even out, though, but tonight I was doing it just to keep my hand in.
It says something when a woman is early for a date, though I'm not sure exactly what.

My timing was good. I got back to Fumio's at 8320, gave Joey a smile and a tip, and went down to my room for a change of clothes. Nobody had been there snooping lately, which was a pleasant change.

Mrs. Low was already in the lobby when I got there at 8340, twenty minutes before our agreed upon meeting time. It says something when a woman is early for a date, though I'm not sure exactly what.

She was talking to Fumio and Meren in the lounge when I arrived. "Hello, Mr. Honlin," said Marjori Low in that voice of hers. "I was just speaking to your Madame Fumio, and she has invited the two of us to dinner. I accepted. I hope that is all right with you?"

I gave her my best smile. "Quite all right," I told her. "Fumio is both my landlord and employer, and I never pass up a chance to butter her up. You are looking wonderful tonight, Madame Fumio. I am very glad that I do not have to judge a beauty contest between you and Marjori, since that would probably kill me with indecision."

Both women rolled their eyes and made protests of disbelief, which meant that they enjoyed every word of my flattery. A quick flash of a scowl passed over Meren's face, an indication that he considered the praise of moneyed women to be his job, but he immediately replaced it with a smile as he assured both Fumio and Marjori that I was an oaf who could only say such things because they were true.

"I think perhaps we should go eat before the guano reaches our knees," Fumio said.
A quick flash of a scowl passed over Meren's face…

It was hours before the floor show in the lounge, and the place was nearly deserted at that time of day, which meant that the chef could devote his entire attention to the preparation of our dinner. The fact that he would be feeding his boss was also of note, and I expected that we would be well-served.

Earlier, Fumio and Marjori had been comparing notes, the subject being me, and of course they began a recap even before our first drinks arrived.

"I was telling Marjori about when you first came here, Ed," Fumio explained. She looked over at Marjori. "It was a couple of years ago, and he'd just gotten his City free sail license. He was quite dreadful at it, of course, but one of my regulars had just gotten his line tangled for the third time in six months, and even though it wasn't his fault, it's an automatic three month suspension."

"That seems a bit unfair," Marjori said.

"The City doesn't run on fair," Fumio said. "It runs on what works. You can get your line tangled through your own incompetence or someone else's or just because it's gotten too crowded out there. So they reduce the number of pilots, figuring that will ease the problem. By forgoing the fault investigation, they save themselves time and trouble.

"Anyway, I hired Ed. One friend of mine, Joanna, who thinks of herself as a psychic, told me that he had the most dangerous aura she'd ever seen. On the other hand, my nephew Joey took to Ed straight off, and Joey is usually very good at judging people."

Marjori made a small show of looking me over. "So which one do you believe?" she asked Fumio. "Joanna or Joey?"

"Oh, I'm sure they are both right," Fumio said, and she and Mrs. Low both laughed.

Marjori leaned over and touched Fumio on the arm. "You know," she said in a mock conspiratorial whisper, "I had a friend of mine downtown pull Mr. Honlin's personal file."

"Oh Christ," I said. "I should just have the damn thing printed up and hawk it from street corners. Or maybe not. Hell, who would buy it? Everybody has already read it."

"I haven't read it," said Meren, anxious to not be left out of the conversation entirely. "What does it say, Marjori?"

I caught the familiarity and saw a small flicker across Fumio's face. Ah, Meren, I thought uncharitably, very bad move. Your days are numbered, I think.

"Oh," Marjori said airily, "Just that Mr. Honlin was from a very good family on Luna, and he used to be a policeman. Then four years ago shipped off to Venus. What it doesn't say is much more interesting, yes?"

Fumio had seen my file, too, no doubt. It was not all that difficult to gain access to personal files, and I never imagined that she would hire someone sight unseen. But Meren wasn't very quick on the uptake and he missed what Marjori was actually saying. Instead, he asked about something else.

"Why would someone from a wealthy family want to become a policeman?" he asked.

"My family wasn't wealthy," I told him. "Wealth doesn't count for very much on Luna, at least not until recently. And you talk as if being a policeman were a lowly thing."

"Well, isn't it?"

"Not on Luna," I told him.

"I don't understand," Meren said.

"Too bad," I told him.
"'Mad, bad, and dangerous to know,'" she quoted. Does that shoe fit?"

He was about to get angry, then looked at the two women and thought better of it, so he forced a laugh, as if I had told a joke. Then, fortunately for the tone of the evening, our drinks arrived.

Meren drank a little too much that evening, all through the appetizer and the main course of spun soya beef stroganov. Even so, he was a professional charmer and he was charming. He told jokes that were genuinely funny, his stories were self-deprecating and revealing, he knew quite a lot about art and literature and he had the knack of drawing someone out, provided they were at all interested in being drawn out.

Marjori Low needed no real provocation to be revealing, however, as Calvin and I had seen the first time we met her. She told stories of private scandals, and of low embarrassments in high places, like the time that a wealthy socialite discovered that her beau was a male dancer in a gay strip joint in a Shadowville cluster, or the time when Marjori and her husband seduced a young couple only to find that one of the two had taken the whole thing seriously and filed for divorce, much to the consternation of the other three.

Fumio must have found the atmosphere of confession contagious. She began to talk about her early days as a stripper, and how her feather act had gradually transformed into a fan dance. Many of the stories were funny, but quite often the steel in her would show through, like the time she dumped a grabby manager into a waste chamber, then called in a couple of tough friends to make sure he didn't get out too soon.

Meren, as I said, drank too much. And he paid just a little too much attention to Marjori Low, laughing a beat too long at her jokes, glancing in her direction when he though Fumio wasn't looking.

Fumio, of course, can see things with her eyes closed. After the main course, but before dessert, when Meren had excused himself to go to the rest room, Fumio got up and said, "When Meren comes back, tell him that I've gone back to my room."

"How much longer do you give him?" I asked.

"Well," she said, "He will attempt to prove his undying ardor tonight, and that may be enough to keep him through tomorrow night, but I doubt it. Physical prowess was never his strong suit, I'm afraid."

She looked at Marjori Low and smiled apologetically. "I fear also that he will probably call you at some point. I can't give him much of a recommendation, though. He's really only about a forty watt gigolo, and you don't look like the sort with a screw in socket, if you know what I mean."

Marjori gave her a smile of sunlight warmth. "Madame Fumio, it has been an absolute honor to be in your company. May I reciprocate sometime? Would you come to my place for dinner?"

Fumio returned the smile. "You'll have to give me a few days to find a presentable replacement for Meren," she said. "I hate to go out alone. But yes, I'd like that."

Fumio looked at me. "Be careful, Ed," she told me.

"About what?" I asked.

"You'll think of something," she replied, and turned to go.
"He will attempt to prove his undying ardor tonight, and that may be enough to keep him through tomorrow night, but I doubt it."

When Meren came back a few moments later, his complexion went slightly pale for a moment when we told him that Fumio had left. He looked toward the door and back at us, as if torn between fantasy and reality, then he excused himself and hurried off. Marjori Low shook her head.

"I hope I did not behave indecently," she said. "Or accidentally cause trouble."

"No," I told her. "Meren wasn't long for the fold anyway. He was beginning to think he was good instead of just lucky, and they usually don't last long with Fumio after that."

"Do you really think he thought that I could be interested in him?" she asked.

"The self-ignorant get many delusions," I told her. "I expect he thought he might be able to trade up."

"Trade up?" she said. "That sounds as if I were an appliance or an air car."

"That's how Meren considers himself, so why shouldn't he think the same of others?" She thought about this.

"So how do you think of me?" she asked. "You've said very little all evening."

"I thought I was being garrulous," I said.

"You tell jokes," she said. "And stories. About other people you have met, things you have seen. But there is nothing of yourself in them. You don't give anything away."

"I don't think of myself as being very interesting," I replied.

"That is a lie," she informed me. "You are a very good liar, also. That is perhaps part of your charm. That and your dangerous aura."

"I think Fumio just made that up," I said.

"'Mad, bad, and dangerous to know,'" she quoted. Does that shoe fit?"

I shook my head. "No," I said. "I was a cop on Luna, which is a dull job. A little dangerous maybe, but dull all the same. All the glamour jobs turn out to be dull when you actually do them.

"So I got fed up and I came to Venus. Here, I'm still dull. I work out to keep in shape and my main source of income is dropping lines and setting fins so I can haul some air to places in the shadow of the City. I like to drift in the air and watch the clouds, because it's so very different from how I grew up. I don't own anything worth stealing, so I don't have to lock my room. It doesn't even have electricity or any light but chembulbs and a cheap flashlight. The shower is down the hall, and so is the nearest reading lamp, so I don't go to my room except to go to bed."

She tilted her head forward a little and regarded me with upward gazing eyes. The light in the lounge was not bright, so maybe her pupils were dilated for that reason, but the faint flush to her features was from something else. She pursed her lips slightly, then reached out to touch my arm.

"Please take me to your room, then," she said.

# #

Several hours later I watched as she dressed by the light of a chembulb, her skin a cool green in its light. At one point, just after she had put on her bra, she stopped and dropped back down beside me, looking at my face while she hugged her knees to her chest.

"This doesn't commit you to anything," she said. "You don't have to feel obligated to see me again."

I reached out and touched her leg. "It's not an obligation," I told her. "I want to see you again." I thought for a moment. "Unless this is your way of saying that you would rather I not."

"That would be awfully devious of me, wouldn't it?" she asked.

I shrugged. "No more than the usual," I said.

She leaned over and kissed me again. When it stopped she whispered in my ear, "I'm not devious, at least not about this."

She released me and got up again. "Where is my blouse?" she asked. I pointed to where I thought it had gotten thrown. She walked over and retrieved it.

"I think it's missing a button now," she said.

"I can't imagine how that happened," I said.

"Yes, you can," she said. "You got impatient."

"Oh, right," I said. "I was impatient."

"Well, so was I," she admitted. "When should I see you again?" She stopped. "Oh, hell, I sound anxious, don't I?"

"You sound fine to me," I answered. "I think there are some police matters happening tomorrow, but I'll call you either way."

"Oh, right," she said. "Police matters. That reminds me." She reached into her bag and pulled out a post card. "The one I told you about. From Doria." She handed to me.

I read it while she finished dressing. "Dear Marj," it read. "I'm working in temptation's pit. But I love it and I haven't been too bad a girl. I tried calling Thomas, but the number turned out to be fake, the cute little bastard. Or maybe I just used the wrong code. Anyway, there's plenty here to keep me busy, and I'll try to stop by next time I'm in City. Love and kisses, Doria."

"Did she?" I asked.


"Did she 'stop by the next time' she was in City?"

"No," she said. "She never did. Her next card was an apology for why she hadn't. Something about running into an old friend. That was a couple of months ago."

I got up and padded over to her. She was fully clothed now, and I was completely naked. I embraced her. There is something exciting about someone else's clothes on your own naked skin, and I briefly considered starting all over again. But the flesh has limits, and we'd done a good job of finding mine.

"You can call me if you want," I told her.

"I know," she said.

"The corridor hasn't much light," I said. "You should take the bulb with you."

She smiled. "Thank you," she said.

"I'll call you tomorrow," I repeated again.

"I believe you," she said, as if there was a wonder to it.

Then she left the room, and it was dark when she was gone.

Next Chapter

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Chapter thirteen: The person who taught me this hold used to warn us

Previous Chapter

I returned to my bloon through the trapdoor and dumped enough trim to drop me to the 300 K level, the same as my Darkunder digs. I powered back to the hotel, so it only took about 10 minutes. On the way there I changed out of my now bloody shirt and dropped it over the side. The darkness swallowed it without comment.

Joey had a smile waiting for me when I got back, and I tipped him big. Then I went back to my room, switched off the buzz on the comm, and enjoyed an unbroken eight hours of sleep.

I awoke late the next morning and the message light was flashing twice. The first one was from Calvin Lee, the second from Marjori Low. I called Calvin first.

"How would you like to go on a raid?" was the first thing he said to me.

"Duh?" I replied. "Who are you going to bust?"
Another bit of Big Brother bridges the gulf of space.

"A renegade chem lab, we think," he said. "I took your advice and got some biosniffers from Skyhook. We turned a search team loose in the corridors above the route that the Marley Farm transport bloon always takes when it makes a delivery to the City once every two weeks. I guessed that maybe someone at Marley Farm does a little side trip sometimes, so they'd have to come up through the floor somewhere along the route. If someone is doing extractions to nicotine, cannabinol, or any other plant derived products, I figured that the lab would probably be somewhere near the entry point. Moving a lot of contraband over any distance would be a risky."

"That sounds like a long shot," I said, not mentioning the fact that I'd never given any such advice about biosensors. If he got the idea of trying some biosniffing from anything I said, it was his idea, not mine. "I'd have thought that you'd just pick up a lot of closet ganja heads."

"We'd be willing to bust them too," he told me cheerfully. "Smoking in the City is a misdemeanor. Fire and health hazard. If you do nick or cannabis it's supposed to be by patch, extract, or chewing leaves."

Great, I thought to myself. Biosensors on the alert. Another bit of Big Brother bridges the gulf of space. "So did you turn up anything?" I asked.

"Maybe," he said. "We're checking into them and having the warrants cut. We should make the play tomorrow. Are you in or out?"

"Count me in," I said. "I might want to have a quick crack at any violators before they recover from the shock."

"I thought you'd be happy," he said, and clicked off.

I didn't have much hope for the idea that a drug bust would give us information about Sheila's murderer, or the whereabouts of Doria Adams or Thomas Grayling, but if there was a Marley Farms connection, it was an outside chance. More likely they'd just hit a coincidental thing. Following the trail to the top might get interesting, though. I shook my head and called Marjori Low.

She came on the line as soon as I identified myself to her servant. I'd forgotten how pleasant her voice sounded. "Mr. Honlin?" she asked. "You asked my to contact you if I found either of Doria's postcards?"

"Hello, Mrs. Low," I replied. "Does this mean that you've found them?"

"One of them, anyway," she said. "The first one. It's just a little note, of course, and I can't imagine its being important to your investigation, but I could bring it by for you."

It was not lost on me that she was offering to bring it to me rather than the police. "Yes, that would be excellent," I told her. "I have to go out this afternoon, but if it wouldn't inconvenience you too much to bring it by this evening, I could buy you dinner."

"Why yes," she said. "I think I'd like that."

"About 8400 then?" I asked. "In the lobby of Fumio's Deluxe Hotel and Lodging Establishment." I gave her the address listing.

"Yes, I will be there," she said.

# # #

I shaved, showered, dressed and caught a squid for the City's edge. My timing was pretty good, I got to Fields Clinic just before lunchtime. I loitered outside for a few minutes until I saw Chan's secretary leave and head toward the airtubes. Bon App├ętit, I wished her silently.

I entered the clinic, ducked by the receptionist while she was on the comm to someone, and climbed the couple of flights to Chan's personal office. I was hoping he didn't have any sessions during the lunch hour and also that he was the sort of overachiever who worked through lunch. I was right on both counts. He was sitting behind his desk, engrossed in the reading of some journal or case file.

He didn't hear me enter, or when I padded over to stand in front of his desk. "So hey," I said in a moderately loud voice. "What's up, Doc?"

He gave a start at my voice and another one when he looked up to see me standing there. "Oh," he said in that voice that people use when they have temporarily forgotten which way their breath is moving, "I didn't hear you come in. My secretary..."

"Has gone to lunch," I said. "I know. I thought it would be more private this way."

"Well," he said, pushing his papers aside. "To what do I owe the pleasure of your presence, Mr. Honlin?"

"Oh, irony," I said to him. "Good. I like a man who is familiar with the elements of style. Next we'll try for anastrophe and onomatopoeia."

"Beg pardon?" he said, by way of a snappy comeback.

"It's called 'using non-sequitur to keep the interrogatee off balance,'" I told him. "I'd have thought a top psychologist like you would be up on all these clever police techniques."

"Please get to the point, Mr. Honlin," he said. "I do have work to do."

"So do I, Dr. Chan," I replied. "So do I. Lately, part of that work has involved going over reports that were prepared by some private investigators, who were in the employ of Mr. Robert W. Grayling. Are you familiar with the name?"

"Yes, of course," he said, trying to put on a poker face. He wasn't very good at it.

"Maybe you are even acquainted with Mr. Grayling's son, one Robert Thomas Grayling. Does that name ring a bell?"

"Mr. Honlin," Chan began. "Please believe me when I tell you..."

I cut him off. "Not yet," I told him, holding up one hand. "The part where you tell me things hasn't come yet. I'm still telling you stuff."

I put both my hands behind my back and looked up at the ceiling. "Now Robert Thomas Grayling turns out to be the same guy as a patient of yours who went by the name of Thomas Roberts. Not a good pseudonym, but that's okay, nobody is giving points for originality, here. Now I'm betting that you knew Thomas' real name when my buddy Calvin Lee and I were in here to see you the other day. True or false?"

He said nothing for a moment. "This is where you get to answer the questions," I told him. "Try it."
"The part where you tell me things hasn't come yet. I'm still telling you stuff."

At length, he said, "Yes, Mr. Honlin, I did know Thomas Roberts was Thomas Grayling. Thomas' father is a very wealthy and influential man, and I was trying to protect him. I know that my actions do leave me open to sanctions. I can only say in my own defense that I was trying to uphold the basic mission of this clinic, which is to aid and protect our clients."

"Especially if those clients are filthy rich and give your clinic large sums of money each year, yes?"

"I admit that to be one consideration," he said grudgingly.

"How long have you known Grayling Sr.?" I asked him.

"Quite a number of years," he told me. "I'm sure you've done some checking on these matters, so I doubt that I can surprise you by saying that I've know Robert W. Grayling for nearly twenty years."

Actually, I hadn't bothered to do the checking yet, but I would be doing it later. No matter, Chan wasn't likely to lie about anything that could be found in City records.

"So you probably knew the late Mrs. Grayling, as well," I suggested.

"Yes, of course," he said. "A tragic case. A very gracious lady, but prey to serious depression and several other illnesses that led to her drinking and substance abuse."

"Grayling called her death a suicide," I told him.

"I believe that the official verdict was accidental suicide," Chan told me.

"Did you ever treat her?"

"No," he said. "But her death was one of the reasons why I decided to set up this clinic."

"With Grayling's help," I said.

"With Mr. Grayling's generous support," he said.

"So how well did you know Robert Thomas?" I asked him.

"Almost not at all," he said. "At least until he became my patient here. "I might have met him a few times, but I cannot say if he even remembered the incidents."

"And when the private detective came to ask about his whereabouts a few days ago, what did you tell them?" I asked him.

His face developed a look of genuine puzzlement. "No private detectives came to call," he said.

I smiled at him. "I know," I told him. "At least they didn't put anything about it in their reports. Now isn't that interesting? Thomas was last seen in the company of a girl he met in one of your little groups here, and yet the private detectives that papa hired to find him didn't bother to come to you to ask if you knew anything. If nothing else you might have been able to give them some insight based on your therapy group experience. But nobody asked. Why is that?"

He kept silent and I stared at him. A few little beads of sweat had appeared on his forehead and he was fighting the urge to take out his handkerchief to mop his brow. "Perhaps because Mr. Grayling had already called me directly," he said.

"And perhaps Mr. Grayling already had a complete report of the therapy sessions involving his son," I suggested. "Perhaps a report that had been given to him over a year ago."

His mouth set into a tight line. "That is an insult, Mr. Honlin. I would never..."

I reached over the desk and grabbed both his shoulders and pushed down, hard. Inflatable furniture is wonderful. He bounced a little bit, and I used to bounce to help yank him out of his chair and across his desk, turning his body as it came. He was too startled to do anything, even when I reached down and grabbed his collar in the choke hold. By the time he realized what was happening, the grayout had already begun. He struggled briefly, then passed out.

I relaxed my grip, and put my free hand over his torso and gave in a little rap to the solar plexus. His breath returned in a choking gasp, and he tried to sit up. I slapped the side of his head and said, "Keep still, or I'll kill you."

He froze.

"Good," I told him. "Now we get to do this a different way. This isn't a game, but it has some rules. The rules are that I ask questions, and you answer them. If I like the answers, which is to say that if you tell me the truth, then I'll ask another question, and we'll keep on that way until we're done.

"If I don't like the answers, which is to say that if you try to lie or otherwise hold out on me, then you get another trip to blackout. We'll keep that up until you do tell me the truth. Now I should warn you that after a few times, your brain gets a little oxygen starved and it becomes harder and harder to remember things, so you don't really want to let it get ahead of you. The person who taught me this hold used to warn us when we practiced it. 'You have to be very careful or you might not get your subject back' is the way he put it. Actually, I'm pretty good at it. In fact, I've never accidentally killed anyone with it." I put a small bit of emphasis on the accidentally.

"You're insane," he whispered.

"Maybe so, Doc," I told him. "But I'm not the guy who's flat on my back helpless here.

"So," I continued. "You fed Grayling Senior reports on his son, right?" He nodded.

"Good," I told him. "Now, where did Thomas get the stuff to feed his habit?"

Chan squeezed his eyes shut, but answered, "He stole them."

"From whom?"

"His of the businesses that his father owned."

"Did he just take enough for himself, or was there more?"

"Considerably more, I think," Chan answered. "He was supplying quite a number of others." He paused and I considered tightening a little to encourage him, but he started up again.

"Thomas thought very poorly of himself," Chan said. "His background, his mother's death, a lot of things left him with a feeling of inadequacy. He thought of himself as damaged goods, and he was almost painfully shy. He found that he was less shy when he took various drugs, 'Speedball' combinations, that sort of thing, and he also found that he could buy friends with drugs, as well. So he started using and giving them away, skimming what he needed off of the warehouse inventory for one of his father's pharmaceutical distribution firms."

"Did he cover his tracks?" I asked. "Did he try to cook the books to hide his thefts?"

"Yes," replied Chan. "He gained access to the accounting system and changed some of the entries. That's how his father found out, when an audit showed the discrepancies."

"Just clever enough to get into trouble, eh? How did the father react?"

"He was furious, of course. He forced Thomas into a drug rehabilitation program, obviously. He told me to report to him any other illicit activities that Thomas admitted during therapy."

"So Thomas didn't know that you were a spy for his father."

Chan winced again. "I...Thomas was very circumspect in his therapy sessions. He admitted to nothing beyond the petty thievery."

"Give the kid credit for some smarts," I said. "How often have you done this sort of thing?"

"I don't understand," he said.

"Don't make me send you sleepy-bye," I warned him. "Grayling is a big man in pharmaceuticals. This can't be the only instance of inventory shrinkage, or the only time that one of the help started sampling the merchandise. I imagine that one of the reasons why Grayling helped you set this place up was to keep tabs on his employees. As long as you don't publicize the connections between the two of you, he can get a lot of useful information out of you, right?"

He nodded. His eyes had started watering like he was about to cry. Well, that can happen when the do-good mask starts to slip. Admitting your own motives can be a real tear-jerker.

"How often do you report to him?"

"Once every month or so."

"What's in the report besides the dirt on any of his employees that happen to come through?"

He knew better than to try to act dumb, by now. "Some of Mr. Grayling's competitors have similar problems, from time to time. I'm to inform him of the details."

"Anything else?"

"I keep general records of the kinds of drugs that come in and out of fashion. Mr. Grayling calls it the 'black market report.' I send him copies of those records."

"Any idea if Grayling has any other medical moles? Does he have other informants?"
"What's in the report besides the dirt on any of his employees that happen to come through?"

"That I wouldn't know," he said, his body tensing slightly.

"I believe you," I told him, and I felt him relax. "For now." I released my grip and he slowly turned himself and pushed off of his desk. His knees nearly gave way and he sat heavily back into his chair. A couple of tears made tracks down his face, and he wiped them away with his hands.

I smiled at him. "Thanks for your cooperation," I said cheerily. "Don't bother to stand, I can find my own way out." Then I turned and left him to his conscience.

Next Chapter

Monday, November 26, 2007

Chapter twelve: I'm from the goddam planet Krypton

Previous Chapter

I gave them a few minutes to get to the bloon docks and get clear, then I headed up there myself. Sleep was completely out of the question. The images were roiling and the pressure was building and I needed something to blow it off. When it got this far, liquor wouldn't help, and I wasn't fit for civilized company. I needed to find some uncivilized company now.

Joey was working the hotel dock that evening, just like he does about sixteen hours a day. "Hi, Joey," I said to him and he gave me a smile.

"You going out now?" Joey asked me, just a little uncertain, because I usually made air runs for the hotel during the day. Pretty much all night runs have to be under power, you can't expect to control a one or two klick drag line in the dark, and an air run under power is just about a break-even proposition. Fumio runs a taxi service, too, but I don't like to do taxi runs, because you have to meet too many people. Given my distaste for taxi work Joey was wondering why I'd be taking a bloon out in the complete dark.

"Yeah, Joey, I'm going out now." I winked at him. "Just a little free float. To be by myself for a while, you know."

Joey gave me his smile again. He didn't really know, but he liked being in on things. "Do you want to take Bess out?" he asked, naming my favorite bloon, an old one that was still improbably alive after all she'd been through.

"No," I said. "We'll let Bess rest for tonight." I reached into the nearest bloon and pulled the transponder from its position by the entrance flap. "Hang onto this for me, won't you?" I told him.

This time he gave me a wicked grin. He knew that it was illegal to pilot a bloon this near the City without a transponder, so I must have some mischief in mind. There were only a few of Fumio's air jockey's that were allowed to play transponder tag, and I was one of them. Of course the deal was that Fumio was never supposed to know about it. If I were caught I was in a stolen bloon, but I wouldn't get caught, not where I was going. And the deal always meant an extra tip for Joey.

"Sure, Mr. Honlin," he said. "You take care of the bloon, and I'll take care of the box." He carefully put the transponder in a recess under his seat.

I winked at him again. "I won't be too long," I told him. Then I got into the bloon and pushed off.

I needed to find some uncivilized company now.

Like I said, a power run costs enough in fuel expenses to eat up the profit on an air jockey assignment, so the more free sail you can do, the better your pay. I have a full sail license and I'm good enough to do a straight cross wind tack from the uppermost free sail level, just below the Darkunder clusters.

But even novices can do it the easy way, by dropping down a few more levels to where the planetary jet is slower and letting the City pass by up above. That's just differential drifting, of course, and if you want to return the same way, you have to go up above the City level, where the differential is much less, so the travel is much slower. But no one is allowed to free sail above the City proper, so you still have to do some tack work to get outside. The round trip for a differential drift and a short tack line can take a day or longer. The round trip gives you a nice overall view of the City, though, and during the day, the drift tours are a tourist attraction.

That night I had a different plan in mind. I was using the smugglers' route, by powering a short way over to the north, then dropping down to the lowest transport level. Then I drifted.

This part was no real risk at all. You can lose your license if you're caught free floating without a transponder near Sky City, but on the lowest drift levels, the likelihood of being caught is pretty much nil. Bloons don't have that much of a radar cross section, that's why they carry transponders in the first place, that and for identification purposes. Besides, the lower levels get some uninhabited bloons from time to time that drift up from the lower depths. Policing Darkunder's basement would be a waste of time.

I stabilized my bloon at the 310 Kelvin level, about two kilometers below the City floor. The differential drift rate at that level is only a bit over a meter per second, not more than a slow walk, but I didn't have all that far to go. It took maybe 45 minutes for the triangulator to count out the required distance, and I used the time to adjust the bloon's external fins for a slow spiral.

When the triangulator told me I was in the right spot, I dumped half my charcoal ballast and began my assent.

This was the risky part if there was any risk to the run at all. If someone happened to notice my bubble up maneuver, they'd know instantly what I was up to. But no one was likely to see me in the dark, and unless the geography of shadowville had changed in the past couple of hours, there was nobody between me and the City floor.

More of the underside floor of the City is warehouse space, and except for a few entry points, docks, and air shafts, the warehouses are packed side by side, with no roads or alleyways between them. The bottom is uneven, since the storage bloons are not all the same size. So there are thousands of nooks, crannies, and clefts in the underside floor, perfect for trapdoors.

My bloon was on an upward spiral, right toward one particular cleft, one that contained an illegal entry hatch. Every so often I adjusted the external bloon fins to modify the spiral slightly. Overall, the maneuver was a cakewalk, since the triangulator had my position to within a meter, and I had plenty of time to adjust my trajectory as I reached my target nook. The most challenging part of it was trying to time the spiral so that my bloon wound up with the right orientation. This didn't matter much, since the docking was largely self-correcting, but I'm a purist. When the gentle thump came, announcing that my bloon was sliding upward into the correct position, I noted with satisfaction that the bloon settled in with practically no rotation.

[U]nless the geography of shadowville had changed in the past couple of hours, there was nobody between me and the City floor.

I already had my bubble mask on, you always do when free sailing, and I squeezed the peroxypack under my armpit to enrich the oxygen a little for the exit and climb into the warehouse. The illegal hatch had no airlock, and the warehouse was nitrogen only, with no O2 in the mix. I'd used this particular hole only a couple of times before, running some blank comm chips that I'd assumed were hot, either stolen or slipped under the excise collectors. Most likely they were both, come to think of it.

It wasn't one of the better shadow holes. It was just a random bloon tear that had been patched with ziplock instead of sticktight, by somebody who had then sold the location to some people who needed to make a quick run. But it was small, and the warehouse opened onto a corridor that was too busy to carry a lot of contraband without somebody noticing. So after a few small deals, the hole fell into disuse, forgotten by everybody except me. I used it when I needed to.

Most often my need would take the form of wanting to get into the City but not being able to bear the idea of going through a checkpoint. Sometimes this was just for bar hopping, but most of the time I headed for the most deserted areas of Sky City, the big warehouse corridors after hours.

There's not much security in the warehouse corridors. A few of them have motion sensors, or surveillance cameras, fewer still are patrolled by guards. Mostly though, costs of security outweigh the benefits. Too much stuff moves through Sky City for thievery to make much of a dent, and most of that stuff has a high bulk-to-value ratio. If a thief wants to spend his time loading raw bloonsilk, bloonskin, or activated charcoal, he might as well get a job.

But hidden away in some of the storage areas are things worth stealing, microchips, pharmaceuticals, exotic produce, vid glasses, and digistores. Usually these go into the security areas, but sometimes someone gambles that you can safely hide them under a bale of bloonsilk. Usually, they are right.

I climbed through the hole into the warehouse and ziplocked it behind me. The warehouse was packed with bloonskin that day, with rolled bolts of it stacked high. I threaded my way between them to the outer door. It was locked, but it was easy to gimmick the lock from the inside. They are made easy to get out of in case a worker gets trapped; the only tricky part is evading the alarm switch.

The corridor was deserted, which was to be expected at that hour. I pulled my bubble mask off my head and stuffed it into my pocket. The air was a bit stale, but my earring and the telltale strips on the walls both agreed that there was plenty of O2. Occasionally they put a whole corridor to pure nitrogen to kill vermin so it's a good thing to always have a peroxypack with you.

What I wanted that night, at least in part, was to walk. And to be alone. One or the other is easy enough, but in bloon culture both are hard to come by. Back on Luna I'd sometimes suit up and go out topside, just to get away from everybody and everything. But being in a vacuum suit still carries a little bit of claustrophobia with it, and a morbid imagination can always get to wondering what would happen if you pulled the release valves of your helmet, just like it's always so easy to imagine stepping over the side of a bloon and plunging toward the planet below.

The other thing I sometimes did on Luna was to go prowling the lower corridors after lights-off, when most citizens were supposed to be in bed. The lower levels could never keep their sensors in repair; fix one and it would get vandalized within a week. Anybody you found out in the lower corridors after hours was apt to be up to no conventional purpose. Sometimes it was just teenagers looking for a place that wasn't under their parents' eyes. Sometimes it was meetings of like-minded insomniacs, trying to walk off the deep black blues. Other times, people I met were clearly up to no good. There's a deep need for violence in the human psyche, I think, and almost everywhere there are places where men go looking for a fight.

That's another reason why people go to the lower warehouse levels late at night.

I kept up a brisk walk for a couple of hours, occasionally taking a pull off of a water bottle I'd brought with me. I'd done this a number of times before, usually not running into another living soul for hours on end. Those times I'd end up my walk with a sense of disappointment, sometimes a sense of relief. Occasionally I'd find somebody else who was looking for a rumble, sometimes alone, sometimes in twos or threes. Then it was fight or flight, and I was always curious to see which I would do.

That night I hit the jackpot; I stumbled onto a burglary in progress. The odds weren't greatly against it, I guess. If I cared to check the insurance statistics I'd know how lucky I was. Maybe the gods sometimes arrange to give a man what he truly needs.

There were three of them, and they'd cut open a door with a skill saw. One was stationed at the outer door, and the other two were using a pry bar on some sealed crates insides. It looked like the crates were full of vid sticks, or maybe high density storage crystals. They were loading a pallet outside the door with the goods, and I guessed that they would then haul it over to some small storage space that they'd rented nearby for later transfer and fencing.
There's a deep need for violence in the human psyche, I think

The one at the door saw me round the corner, and he gave a short bark to the two inside. They expected me to turn tail and run to give an alarm, I guess, thinking that I was a security guard. When I kept walking straight for them, I saw them tense up. When I was about four meters away, they moved to block the corridor. Two of them pulled knives, the third still had the pry bar in his hand.

"Where the hell did you come from?" said the one who had been at the door, who I took to be the leader.

"I'm from the goddam planet Krypton, pal," I told him. "I've got a Science Police warrant to kick your ass."

He relaxed a little with that, figuring me to be crazy or brain damaged. "Take care of this guy, Leo," he said to the one holding the pry bar.

The one called Leo came at me, swinging the bar as if he expected me to jump away from it. That made it easy. I tossed my water bottle into his face, and slipped in underneath his swing, giving him a stiff arm right to the nose. I felt the bone and cartilage go crunch, and Leo's head snapped back as the pry bar thudded to the floor. The sight of their own blood enrages some people; others faint. Leo was closer to the second sort, or maybe I'd rattled his brain. Either way, his legs turned to string, and he fell right over.

The other two should have attacked immediately, or they should have run. Instead, they tried to flank me. Maybe they even moved fairly quickly, but you couldn't prove it by me. I'd hit the slowdown, where the adrenal rush sends everything into slow motion. I'd first experienced it years earlier in my first tournament competition, and it had become a regular companion over the years.

It was obvious which one of the guys in front of me was the better fighter. The one who called the shots was smooth and he held his knife like he knew what to do with it. So I charged the other guy. This one held his knife out in front of him like I was going to do him the favor of impaling myself on it. I let him think that until the last moment, when I rotated off the line, snagging his knife hand as I slid by. A quick pull and a twist, and I heard a series of popping noises in his hand. He gave a scream of pain and went down hard, trying to contort his body around his hand in an inept parody of proper ukemi. I kicked him in the temple as he went down. I don't think I killed him.

Then there was just the Leader. He knew enough not to charge me outright, even when I reached down to pick up the knife from his fallen buddy. I moved the knife from hand to hand and saw that he kept looking at my eyes, not the knife. I held it up in front of me and pretended to examine it closely. Still no charge.

"What a piece of crap," I said of the knife. "Epoxy blade and cheap plastic handle. Switchblade mechanism. Feh." I held it between my two hands and pushed. Blade and handle snapped apart.

I tossed the pieces over toward him and they landed at his feet. "You can still walk away," I told him. "You don't owe anything to these two losers."
I'd hit the slowdown, where the adrenal rush sends everything into slow motion.

"Fuck you," he told me.

I shrugged. "So many offers, so few meaningful encounters," I said.

The guy with the broken nose moaned and the blood on his face his face bubbled with it. I glanced over at him, taking my eyes off the Leader.

He took the bait and launched himself at me. He was as good as I expected, his knife getting close enough to slice my shirt sleeve as I parried the thrust. Then I had him in a wrist and elbow lock that let me twirl and suddenly he was staring at his own knife, still held in his own immobilized hand.

I looked into his eyes and let my own demons feed on what they saw there. "I could make you eat it now, you know," I told him. "That's one of the standard endings. Or I could just take it away from you and send you on your way." His eyes blazed with hatred still, enough to cover the fear.

"Let's split the difference, shall we?" I told him and squeezed. His knife fell from his grasp. Then I gave a little downward pull. From that position, the alternative to elbow and shoulder dislocation is to drop, and he dropped. I followed him down until he was flat on his back. His other arm flailed madly, trying to reach across his body to get at me, but that was impossible. I steadily increased the pressure until I felt his shoulder give. He exhaled noisily from the pain, then pretended to pass out. I reached down and claimed his knife, watching for any sign that he would try some other move. Some people don't know when to quit.

"Move and I'll kick your teeth out," I told him as I got up.

He realized that I hadn't fallen for it, so he opened his eyes and looked up at me. "Why?" he asked. I felt my body go warm at the evidence of human contact. Real communion is so hard to find.
Real communion is so hard to find.

"I thought I might need a knife sometime soon," I told him. I looked at his. Real metal blade and handle, good balance, none of this switchblade shit. A collector's item for sure. I smiled at him.

"Thanks for the blade," I told him. "I owe you one."

Next Chapter