Saturday, March 29, 2008

Chapter seven: …with dreams of a much larger, tiny pond.

Previous Chapter

The Andersons lived on the other side of the narrow docking area of Taylorville. As Lewis and I walked along the corridor past where our bloon was docked, we considered the town.

"Snap judgments are odious," Lewis said.


"Still, this place is a lot less pleasant than I would have thought," he continued.

"Agreed on that as well," I said, thinking of the way that Betty Laird was "welcomed" back with a job of drudgery being her only option.

"Why is that, do you suppose?" he asked.

I shrugged. "Ever read any Twain?" He nodded.

"Well," I continued, "Twain has an essay somewhere about the South, and how utterly ruined it was by trying to mimic a book. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. Chivalry. All the Southern ladies wanted to be British aristocrats, and all the gentlemen wanted to be knights errant. But not just any aristocrats. Fictional aristocrats."

"Life mimics art?" Lewis asked.

"And badly," I said.

"So what do you think these people are mimicking?" he asked me.

I shrugged again. "Some movie, some play, some image of small town life and town meetings. How many times have you seen It's a Wonderful Life?"

"That ancient Christmas monstrosity? I prefer A Christmas Carol, especially the one where Scrooge winds up in the asylum for hearing voices."

"Revisionist," I told him. "These people like their fantasies more pure."

"Ugh," Lewis said.


The Andersons lived in the big house on the hill, or the bloon equivalent thereof. Most of the upper level of Taylorville was for farming, but the Andersons had set themselves into a set of bloons that rose higher than even the farming layer. Someone had believed in panoramic views, and possibly the notion of looking down on other people.

And servants who answered the door. And not just any door, but a door that swung open rather than unzipped, a door surrounded by ornamentation that could only be called a 'facade.'

I'm used to the idea of servants; Marjori Low has several of them, all of whom she jokingly calls 'James' though none of them are named that. But Marjori treats them as valued employees and views their services as conveniences, not something that are hers by divine right. And she will answer the door herself if she is nearby.

She does not have her servants dress up in silly costumes like a period piece and them them affect silly accents. The Anderson's butler talked like he'd been forced to learn stage British as a second language.

The man who answered the door looked like someone who takes his daily dose of humiliation as a tonic before breakfast. His face was impassive, with the look of stone that had been slowly etched by dripping water, or something perhaps more vitriolic. Stiffly erect, his posture still managed to convey the look of someone carrying a heavy load. My first feeling was one of sympathy, but I let that die. Worrying about the servant problem in Taylorville was not part of my job description.

"What may I do for you, sirs?" the poor fellow asked, and Lewis and I struggled to keep a straight face.

"We are here to see William Anderson," I answered. "We attempted to call earlier, but no one answered, so we left a message."

From behind him came a woman's voice, also rich with affectation. "Let them in, Morris," the voice said. "This must be those policemen from the City."

"Yes, Madame," poor Morris said, and complied, leading us into a room just off the entrance hallway. Maybe it was the "sitting room." Certainly Mrs. Anderson had been sitting in it, but she rose to greet us.

Mrs. Anderson might have been attractive once, but I couldn't see it now. She was thin and gray with a mouth that looked like she'd just bit into something unexpected, in circumstances where she couldn't just spit it out. It isn't often that I take such an immediate dislike to someone, but Mrs. Anderson was an unusual person. If she employed poor Morris, that was reason enough to form an early opinion perhaps; there was also the matter of the furniture.

The Anderson domicile was loaded with bric-a-brac of the most tasteless sort, inflatable furniture designed and decorated to look, more or less, but mostly less, like the Earth-style furniture that we see in all the old movies and holovids. There was no particular unity to the decorating scheme, ersatz wooden tables were set next to overstuffed chairs, synthetic fur rugs used as wall hangings; a replica Tiffany lamp stood on a faux formica table. My first wild thought was that the people of Taylorville had made a mistake in not letting more drugs into town.

But I recovered. Not as quickly as Lewis, however, who said almost immediately, "Mrs. Anderson, I would imagine?"

His voice had picked up a sudden flavor of refinement, not an accent really, just a certain firmness of phrasing. Lewis can be quite a chameleon.

Lewis introduced us, and shook Mrs. Anderson's hand very briefly. She wore white gloves, I noticed, but even with that protection, she refrained from offering her hand to me. I suppressed the urge to scratch myself indecently to see how she would react.

"Mr. Honlin and I are consulting to Sky City investigators to find possible heirs to Miss Molly Laird," Lewis told her. "She died recently, leaving a modest estate, and the law insists upon trying to find someone to inherit."

I saw Mrs. Anderson perk up briefly at the mention of "inheritance." Do they get that way from being rich, or do they get rich from being that way? No, that is being unfair to other, richer, people. This woman was a small fish in a tiny pond, with dreams of a much larger, tiny pond.

"My son, William, was very briefly involved with the girl, Mr. Lewis," she replied after some consideration. "I doubt that it qualifies as a legal connection. Besides, I do not think that any money that Miss Laird possessed could tempt anyone in the Anderson family."

"Agreed," Lewis told her. "However, we were primarily inquiring about any other family connections that Miss Laird might have had. Perhaps William might know of …"

"William isn't here right now," she snapped. She was lying from the slight reaction of Morris the butler, who had retreated to the entrance hallway again, but it was not worth pursuing. "Once he got over his infatuation, William wished to have nothing to do with the girl. He found her presence to be an embarrassment, as did I. I'm sorry that Miss Laird is dead, but I am not sorry that she is gone, if you can understand the distinction."

Lewis and I both nodded, mainly because we wanted out of there.

"Well," I said to Lewis, trying to look like I was his assistant or some other properly subservient person, "It's getting late, so we should maybe have dinner, spend the night in our bloon, then head back to the City in the morning." I looked at Mrs. Anderson and spoke to her. "We'll be in docking bay six until morning, so if William can think of anything when he comes in, please have him contact us."

Then we let Morris lead us to the door.


"What a repulsive woman," said Lewis when we were far enough away from the Anderson abode.

"No argument from me," I told him. "That was worse than I expected, and I expected it to be unpleasant."

"So now what?" he asked me.

"Well, first, I have to make a call to Calvin Lee," I told him. "Then, like I told Mrs. Anderson, we're going to have dinner and go back to our bloon for the night. I expect that William Anderson will visit us there tonight. Then we'll go home."

"How sure are you about little Willy?" Lewis asked me.

"Reasonably sure," I told him. "He was probably listening in during our visit, but even if he didn't, Morris will tell him."

"Yeah," Lewis said. "Didn't look like Morris liked Mrs. A. very much, did it?"

"I just think she'd better not have him cook for her," I told him. "Food taster would be much safer."

We were at the docking area by this time, and there were several public comm units there. Lewis sat down to watch the haggling, while I placed a call to Calvin.

"Hello, Ed," came Calvin's voice after the briefest connection delay. "What's up?"

"I need you to run a few numbers for me," I told him. "Molly made a couple of calls to a woman named Josie Bush," I gave him Bush's number and the approximate dates of the calls.

"So you want a backtrack?" he asked.

"Yeah," I said. "Give me all the calls placed in the past year, but subtract out any that came in more than, oh, make it five times. With point of origin listings. Also get me the numbers for the Anderson family in this cluster. If you could cross check calls to the Bush number to the Anderson number, that would help."

"Easy enough," he told me. "Priority?"

"Not very," I said. "A few days. Tomorrow. Whatever."

"I'll get on it," he said, and hung up.

I turned to Lewis. "Okay," I told him. "Let's go get something to eat."


"Something to eat" turned out to be a small cafeteria that catered to the bloon fishermen. You'd think that people would want something different when they came to town, but most of the fare was standard stuff that can be made in any bloon: textured soy, bloon starch, and the mildly flavored drink that some call "bloon piss."

But they also had chicken, bread, and real vegetables. We were in a farming cluster, so Lewis and I made the most of it. There was even a low alcohol near-beer, and we bought an extra couple of bulbs for taking with us.

Back at the dock, Lewis excused himself briefly and went over to talk to Anne, who was still on duty. I heard her giggle again, and he shook her hand in a most charming way. When he came back, I asked, "She's a little young, don't you think?"

"You have a dirty mind, pardner. It's one of your few virtues. Actually, I just slipped her a few coins and told her to pretend that she doesn't see anybody coming out to our bloon tonight. If little Billy is as scared of mommy as the butler was, I think he might be a little skittish."

"Good idea," I told him.

Back in our bloon, we listened to some news and drank our beer, letting the day close down. The sun was nearly overhead, and most of the cluster would be staying up late, for work, or whatever else needed doing by the light.

"Still think he'll show?" Lewis asked me.

"Yeah," I told him. "But if he doesn't, that will tell us something, too."

"Like what?" he asked me. But I didn't have to answer, because then someone buzzed our comm from the external button.

I opened the flap.

William Anderson was a young man in his early twenties with the look of a golden boy about him, moderately tall, blond, with an unlined face that spoke of decisions deferred and easy choices. He was almost shy as he entered our bloon, but I expect that he lost the shyness when around his friends and cronies. He lost some of it once inside, away from prying eyes.

"Mr. Lewis?" he asked. "Mr. Honlin?" He looked from Lewis to me and back again.

"I'm Lewis," Lewis told him. "It's not really a last name; I've only got the one. This here is Ed Honlin. He's the boss, no matter what you might have heard."

Anderson looked over at me, trying to size me up, which may have been a mistake, since the longer he looked, the less like a good idea this might have seemed. Still, he found his voice quickly enough.

"I understand that you're looking for word about Molly," he said. His voice had a tight quality to it.

I nodded. "You know she's dead, I assume."

He swallowed and nodded. "I'm really sorry about that," he said.

"I expect," I said neutrally. "I only met her once, but she seemed like a fine person. Why did you break up with her?"

He looked around, as if the walls might have ears. Then he looked back at me and said, "You've met my mother." It was halfway between a question and a statement.

I nodded. "Yes, but I haven't done any digging into your family history. Frankly, I'm not much interested in it, except where it has to do with Molly. We're from a long way off, and Taylorville is not a stop on my regular itinerary. Whatever you tell me goes no further than here."

That seemed to lift some of his burden, because he relaxed a bit. "My mother has the money in the family, and she never lets anyone forget it. My dad left ten years ago; when she talks about it, she says it was to run off with some floozy, but everybody knows that he just got sick of her."

He looked over at Lewis, hoping for an extra helping of sympathy, perhaps. "She's not really a bad person, you know? She just thinks that because her money and her standing in the community is the most important thing in her life, that it should be the most important thing in everybody else's life, too. I've tried standing up to her, but, well…" His voice trailed off.

"And one of those times was over Molly," Lewis supplied.

Anderson gave a sick smile. "Yeah," he said. "I really screwed that up. I did love her. A lot. But when Mom started in on me, well, most people think I just caved in. Molly probably did, too. But it wasn't like that. It's just that I started thinking about how much of what I felt for Molly was because she wasn't my mother, if that makes any sense. It didn't seem fair to Molly, to be using her to get back at Mom."

That was as good a rationalization as I'd heard in a long time, the more so because it was probably true. I said, "So did you try to tell Molly that?"

"Yeah," he said dully. "But I don't think I said it very well. She got pretty chilly. Then Mom gave her money to go away."

He looked over at me with his eyes almost to the point of tearing. "Molly told me that I could come away with her if I wanted, that there was enough money to get us to the City, or at least one of the clusters down Under, or out on the Rim. I almost went with her."

"Why didn't you?"

"Because I didn't want to take charity," he said. "I know that sounds strange, but there it is. And it would have been charity, too."

"Why is that?" Lewis asked.

"Because Molly didn't love me any more. I lost her sometime during the arguments with Mom. You know the way that you'll make excuses for those you love? I just felt it when she stopped making excuses for me. When she stopped loving me."

That left us silent. I don't really have much of a comeback when someone just suddenly dumps his guts onto your floor. I looked over at Lewis and found him looking back at me.

"There's another thing, too," William said.

"Yes?" I asked.

"I . . ." he hesitated. "From some things she said when we said goodbye, just before she left. From the way she said some things. Nothing I could put my finger on, but…" His voice trailed off again, but I let the silence grow. Some times you have to let them start up again on their own.

After a few more seconds, he said in a small voice, "I think she may have been pregnant," he said. "I'd have been the father, but I couldn't ask her about it; I didn't feel like I had the right. But she might have been pregnant."

Monday, March 24, 2008

Chapter six: He looked like he had money but it wasn't doing him much good.

Previous Chapter

Inside the Taylorville reception area there was a small clot of bloon fishers, haggling with a buyer over the price of bloon parts. Taylorville had a sign-in protocol for visitors, and we complied. The fellow talking to the fishermen waved us through.

"Down this corridor, then right," Anne told us. "That takes you to Andrew's office. He's the Mayor. Like I said, he's expecting you."

We thanked Anne and made our way toward the Mayor's office. Every bloon cluster has its own physical rhythm, the swing and sway as it adjusts to minor changes in the wind and air. Most of the time you don't notice it; it's all part of the atmosphere, like the smells and sounds. Taylorville felt a little funny to me, at least in its centerpiece, probably because I wasn't used to clusters of that particular size and shape. It made me uneasy.

"They seem to be friendly folks," Lewis said, and I agreed with him. They did seem friendly.

Andrew Ogren was the Mayor of Taylorville. I put him at 170 centimeters and maybe 85 kilograms, a beefy man beginning to go to fat. Square-jawed, red hair, florid complexion, he talked and acted like a man who paid attention to getting elected. Most clusters of any duration are bound together well enough so that election politics gets subsumed in the sort of back room dealing that gives a less voluble appearance. Mr. Ogren was quick to tell us the town's history.

"We're a democracy, Mr. Honlin, Mr. Lewis. Founded on the principles of Athenian democracy. I'm the elected Mayor, but big decisions go down by way of town meeting. Sometimes it can be tough to get a consensus, but that's my job."

Ogren spoke in a voice that always seemed about one note away from turning into a speech. It's not a style that I'm comfortable with, but I can fake polite attention as well as I can fake anything. I was a real cop for a long time.

"About thirty years ago, we had us a real squabble," Ogren continued. "I was just a kid, but it bruised feelings in a way that took years to heal. I never was too clear on how or why it happened, but there was an election that some folks didn't like, and a section of the town voted to secede. It might have had something to do with Walt Taylor losing the election; the Taylors founded the town, and Walt was the last remaining Taylor, so I guess he figured that he should be Mayor until he decided to retire, which other folks felt was taking 'way to long. So Walt and his supporters just up and moved out. They didn't go far, you understand. A trading community depends on being in pretty much the same place from day to day, so the fishermen can find you again. And they didn't want to go too far away from Sky City, since that's where we sell most of our stuff.

"So Walt set up shop maybe a kilometer away from the main Taylorville cluster. For a little while, him and those who joined him tried to call themselves 'Taylorville' but we wouldn't let them get away with it. It was kind of funny, I guess, like two brothers in a snit who won't talk to each other except to pass messages back and forth. Anyway, that went on for a few years, then Walt got sick and died. Naturally everybody was too proud to just call the whole thing off and reunite, so what happened was that a tether line was stretched between the two clusters so we could share power and such like. And it turned out that the central line made a good docking hitch, so it got reinforced, and a walkway was built. Good thing, too, because after the first megastorm hit the pole, the bloons grew like crazy for a while, from all the new dust that was stirred up, and the fisher traffic really picked up."

Maybe I was beginning to look impatient, or maybe Ogren just knew when to wind up a speech. In any event, he shook his head and leaned forward. "So what can I help you boys with?" he asked.

I tried to smile at him. "We called earlier about Molly Laird, I believe," I said to him.

He nodded. "Yes, we only got word of her a few days ago. A tragic case."

"Does she have any family who still live here in Taylorville?" I asked.

"No," he said. "Her mother, that would be Elizabeth Laird, she died about a year ago. Both of Betty's parents, Molly's grandparents are long dead. Betty left home many years ago after they died, in fact. She was a wild one. Went off and had Lord knows what kind of adventures, then came back with a ten year old daughter in tow. They were welcome, of course, but Betty always kept quiet about what she'd done while she was away. She never said who the father was, for instance."

"How did Elizabeth's parents die?"

"I'm not sure on the details," Ogren replied. "I'm good at remembering people, but that was quite a while ago. I think her father died from a bad heart, and her mother died pretty soon thereafter. Just sort of wasted away, as I recall. Lost the will to live, whatever. Might have even taken to drugs or drink. We had a few problems with Betty that way, over the years."

"How so?" I asked.

"We don't care much for drugs or drunkenness here in Taylorville, Mr. Honlin," Ogren said. "That's been made pretty clear by a lot of voters over the years. We're not completely dry, but we'll confiscate and destroy some drugs, and public intoxication earns you a spell in detention."

I nodded. "I see," I told him. I pulled out a photograph of Robert Grayling. "Have you ever seen this man?" I asked.

Ogren made a show of studying the photo, but it was obvious that he'd seen Grayling before. "Yes, I believe I have," he said. "Don't recall his name, though. He might have visited Betty a few times."

I let the matter drop. I'd get more out of friends and associates. "Who can I ask for information about Betty and Molly? Employers, close friends, that sort of thing?"

"Well, Betty worked for Josie Bush, who runs our cleaning services. You'd best start with her. As for Molly, the real people to check with are the Andersons. Molly was engaged to Billy Anderson, but they broke it off just before Molly left. Molly's mother died right around that time, too. I imagine it was all pretty stressful and confusing for such a young woman."

"As opposed to the calm and collected way that we older people accept death and heartbreak?" I asked.

"Hmm," Ogren said. "You may have a point." He sighed. "I'm just upset at Molly's death, Mr. Honlin," he said. "These are my people and I care for them. 'Every man's death diminishes me,' okay, sure, but when my people die, I'm diminished a whole lot more."

I smiled, and it felt real this time. "I know, Mr. Ogren," I said. "I apologize for giving you a hard time. If your secretary could give us directions to..." I looked at Lewis, who was taking notes.

"Josie Bush and the Anderson family," Lewis said.

"Right," I said. "If you or your secretary could give us directions, I'd appreciate it."

"No problem," Ogren said. "If you need anything else, my door is open."

I smiled again. "Thanks," I told him. "That's a big help."


Josie Bush was a small woman who was in her fifties, at least, maybe older, and had the stern face of a school librarian. Her hair was gray, but she must have used a rinse to give in a reddish tinge that came out mildly pink. I expect that there was no one around her who dared tell her that she'd look better in her natural color. The same was probably true of her use of makeup, where she was just on the wrong side of overdoing it.

She had an office quite near to Ogren's, and it had only taken us a couple of minutes to walk over there, but we had to wait a while longer while she finished meeting with one of her employees. After we were ushered into her office, I briefly explained the purpose of our visit.

"I don't think you'll get much from the people here, Mr. Honlin," she told me. "We're mostly a small town, close-knit and close-mouthed. Betty Laird didn't endear herself to the community by running away after her parents died, and she was barely readmitted when she showed up again with a child in tow. A child of unknown parentage, I might add. That didn't sit too well with the folks here."

Her face softened a little. "I liked Betty, though" she said. "She'd gotten out of it, at least for a while, and she never seemed to regret it."

"Do you know where she was during her time away, or what she was doing?" I asked.

"I daresay that she was a prostitute," Josie said. "At least those were the accusations that were made at the meeting to decide whether or not to readmit her, and she never denied them. In the end, it all came down to whether or not we could find a job for her here. I was the only one who offered to take her on, so she came to work for me."

"Very open minded," I said.

She snorted in disgust. "Don't patronize me," she snapped. "I get no points for being a little less close minded than the folks around here. I run the cleaning service, the lowest jobs in town. I'm always short handed. I needed the help, and Betty turned out to be a good worker. Molly, too, for that matter. I just wish she hadn't gotten involved with William Anderson."

"That's Billy Anderson, the boy that she was engaged to?" I asked.

"Hah!" she said. "Engaged? Maybe for a day or two, before his mother found out. An Anderson marrying a cleaning woman? Little Billy must have been feeling pretty rebellious that day. Or maybe he just wanted to get in her pants.

"Molly was a quiet girl, not much like her mother at all," Josie said. "When her mother died she probably slipped her tracks for a little while, and got involved with Billy. He told her the usual lies, and she believed them. Then, when she learned the truth, the whole thing fell apart. The 'engagement' was called off, and the whole thing collapsed into whispers and innuendo. Molly stuck it out for a couple of weeks, then she left."

"Any idea of where she went?" I asked.

"Not really," she said. "Somewhere near the City, I think. She only called a couple of times after she left, just to let me know she was okay."

Josie looked at me and said, "I'm a hard woman, Mr. Honlin, with little in the way of maternal instincts, as nearly as I can tell. But I liked Molly, and I'm very sorry that she is dead. It pleased me when Molly called to let me know that she was all right, and it pains me to think of her dead from some ruffian's knife. I haven't cried for years, but if I were to take it up again, I'd cry for Molly."

"I see," I told her. "I understand how you feel, I think. I only met her once, but I can see how she might have had that effect."

I thought for a moment. "Can you narrow the times when she called down to any specific dates?" I asked.

She thought for a moment. "Only that she called about three weeks after she'd left here, so that would put it at last December. Then she called maybe a month ago, to ask if anyone had been looking for her. No one had, and I thought it an odd question."

"Thanks," I told her. "That's a big help." I showed her Grayling's photograph. "Have you ever seen this man?" I asked.

She examined it. "Graybob," she said. "That's what Betty called him. He visited a few times. He wouldn't sign in, though, so he stayed out on his bloon and Betty and Molly visited him. He was traveling alone, I think, but I never went to his bloon; I only saw him once. He looked like he had money but it wasn't doing him much good."

I nodded. A perceptive woman was Josie Bush. Then Lewis and I said the requisite pleasantries and we left.

Next Chapter

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Chapter five: The Atheist in Church

Previous Chapter

Lewis is a dice man, a Stochastacist, an Everite. The Everites believe that our world is one of an infinite number of universes, which are constantly branching away from ours in a flux of quantum events and alternate realities. The implications of this can be mind numbing, but the Everites take it to mean that people can create universes, or at least control the nature of the universes that are created by human action. They do this by rolling dice or using other random activities to guide their choices. I'm not sure of the exact reasoning behind it.

On the other hand, Lewis says that the whole thing might be just a front for running gambling operations. The Everites do own a few dozen floating (literally) casinos.

But that's Lewis. He was born and raised a Stochastacist, and he's had some of the same doubts of faith that other religions are prey to. In fact, he was in one of those periods of doubt when I met him. He'd put the whole thing on the line by following a series of dice rolls that told him to leave his old life, and head for Sky City, float or founder, or whatever. And on his way to the City, I'd dropped in on him, owing to a series of events that I'm still not clear on. I'd wound up in a bloon that was falling due to some sabotage, and I'd managed to use one of the steering bodies to glide over to Lewis' drag line. So Lewis' dice mission probably saved my life. It was all so unlikely that it also reaffirmed his faith, and since that time, I've been his personal totem. He's often said that he'll join me in just about anything I ask him to do, without a dice roll before the fact, because there's nothing that the dice can tell him that's more of a chance than following me.

I still haven't figured Lewis out, actually.

But he said yes to my offer of a short vacation, so the next sunrise found us boarding a sail bloon and pushing off from the hotel cluster. Sunrise is about the brightest that it gets in Darkunder; some direct light edges under the City for a couple of hours in the mornings and at sunset. It's a good time for departures, because there aren't that many bloons up and running then. We made our way to the City's northwestern edge under a combination of power and drag line, then cut our fans and settled in for the slow sail to the cluster where Molly and her mother had lived.

After the first hour of setting our wind panels, lifting trefoil and drag line, there wasn't much to do until we reached our destination. The tack was an easy one, giving us a straightedge to where we wanted to go. So mid-morning by the clock found us with our chores completed. Lewis put on some music from one of the public channels, and I leaned back against one of the pod chairs in the bloon and closed my eyes for a rest.

"How'd you sleep last night, pardner?" Lewis asked me.

"I didn't sleep very much," I admitted. "I was checking some things, packing, you know."

"Nightmares again, huh?" Lewis is so guileless that he can get away with things like that.

"Some," I said. "Pretty bad ones, as a matter of fact."

"Think it has anything to do with the dead girl? Molly?"

"Probably," I said. "I don't know why this one should get to me, though. It's not like I haven't seen plenty of stiffs before. Maybe it's just a coincidence."

"Seen many stiffs lately?" he asked. "I thought you were the quiet type."

"Those are the dangerous ones," I joked. "He always seemed so quiet. How were we to know that he'd go berserk with a plasma drill?"

"Plasma drill?"

"Miners tool," I answered. "Very dangerous. We had to investigate an accident involving one a few years after I joined the Luna City Police Force. Out away from the city in one of the meteor mines. There was some thought that one of the miners had gone psycho. Turned out to be just an accident, though. Not that the twenty guys it cooked were any the less dead."

For some reason, I'll tell Lewis things that I won't tell other people. That was the first time I'd thought about the plasma drill incident in years. When Lewis saved my life, maybe he became my father confessor or something. That would be only fair, given my religious importance to him. Of course, that would imply that I was in need of confession. And absolution.

Lewis hummed along with the Vivaldi for a while, not following up on his questions. He always seems to know when to stop.

"Tell me something," I asked him at last. It occurred to me that my ongoing lack of sleep had produced something very much like intoxication. "Have I looked particularly threatening the past few days? Even more than usual, I mean." I smiled to show that I understood that I'm not Mr. Warm and Fuzzy even at my most mellow.

"Well, you can be a pretty scary guy just ordering a sandwich," he said. "But now that you mention it, I'd have to say that it's been pretty obvious that something has been eating you, and whatever it is, it's got pretty sharp teeth."

"Sensei Mack talked said that I was holding a wild animal that was about ready to slip the leash." I told Lewis of Mack's request.

"That sounds like a case of 'atheist in church,'" Lewis said when I was finished.

"Atheist in church?" I asked. "More wise sayings from the Founder?" Lewis was not above quoting from the writings of the Founder of Stochasticism, who is never referred to by name, mainly because he gave so many names, all of them false. Quite a Trickster was the Founder.

"The very same," Lewis said. "The Founder had a lot of things to say about religion and what place it has in society. 'The Atheist in Church' is one of his best essays. He says, look, there are a whole slew of reasons for having churches. They're a form of social organization, you meet people, get moral instruction helpful for living in society. They can be a store of wealth, a means of education, all that stuff. So even an atheist might wish to join a church, regardless of what his opinion of the theology might be.

"But an atheist makes the theists nervous. He can abide by all the same rules, profess the same moral code, and still the regular churchmen don't like his presence. He's not committed to the group, you see. He doesn't say the password. A secret password can't be something that you can figure out by just being reasonable, it has to be something arbitrary. So religions make their believers do things that just don't make sense. That's what really defines the group, the things they do that don't make sense."

"So what does that have to do with me?" I asked him.

"It's a matter of freedom," he said. "We like to think that freedom is a good thing, but joining society means giving up some freedoms. And society doesn't want it to be a conditional thing. It's not supposed to be a matter of choice. We much prefer to have people who can't rather than won't transgress. Which is the better husband, the man who couldn't beat his wife no matter how he feels, or the man who simply refrains?"

I opened my eyes to see how closely he was watching me when he said that. But he was staring out a view panel at the clouds. "I thought that the whole point of it was moral choices," I said. "You talk as if not having a choice is better."

"'Lead us not into temptation,'" he quoted. "Because we might succumb." He looked over at me and grinned. In my current exhausted state it looked a little like a grimace.

"There are a lot of things in life that we don't know about until they happen to us. It's a lot of potential rather than actual freedom. And the potential may be bogus. We might not be able to do it when push comes to shove. That's part of what dice living is about. To test the limits. But if you do it from the dice, the gods might not get so angry at the freedom. That's a clear thread in most mythology. The gods get very angry when confronted by a free man."

"So do you think that it's just the gods being angry with me?" I asked. I smiled again to show that I thought it was a joke.

His face got a bit more serious though. "That's all metaphor," he said. "'A man's reach must exceed his grasp, else what's a meta for?' The gods are stand-ins for human fate in human society. Stick your head up too far and the body politic will try to shear it off. You make people nervous, pardner. They don't know what motivates you. They don't know what you're capable of, but they're pretty sure you're capable of more than they want to know. If there's the choice of having dinner with someone who hated me and wished me dead -- but couldn't do me harm no matter what -- versus someone who liked me, but could kill me without a thought if he so chose, well, most people would go for the first guy, not the second."

I sat up and looked at him carefully, but he was back to watching the cloud patterns. I looked out at them, but I knew that he saw things in them that I'd never see. And vice versa.

"What about you?" I asked. "You said 'most people,' but you don't say about yourself."

He looked at me and grinned. "Oh, I'd probably go with the first guy also; at least I'd load the dice that way." He paused for a moment. That's the secret of the punchline: timing.

"Present company excepted, of course," he said.


Sometime on the trip, and much to my surprise, I drifted off into a blessed, dreamless sleep. Hours later, Lewis woke me by turning up the volume on the music and switching it on and off. I expect he didn't want to be too close to me when I awoke.

"Hey, pardner," he called to me as I was blinking my eyes to clear them of sleep. "We're getting near to where we're going. Would you care to tell me about this place, or should I look upon the whole thing as a learning experience?"

"Uh, sure," I said as I sat up. Usually I come awake quickly, in full awareness of my surroundings. I wondered if I was coming down with a cold or something.

I pulled up the screen on my rented comm unit and refreshed my memory of what I'd gleaned from the main cluster database in the City.

"It's a light craft and trading cluster, named Taylorville for the founding family." I said. "It took up a position relative to Sky City about fifty years ago. Main export is treated and sewn bloonskin -- and water, of course. Hit a bit of a snag when the water price dropped after Luna captured Comet Alpha, but recovered well enough since then. Population is about fifteen hundred, so it's a sizable cluster. Grows most of its own food. That's all we have in the database, unless I go into the archives."

"So why are we going there?" he asked me. "From what you say, this Molly Laird girl, she left there almost a year ago."

"Yeah, but she was raised there, and her mother was born there. So her people may be here. If she has relatives, they're probably here. Or someone may know where she went. I wanted to get a feel for her background."

He nodded. "Okay, old son," he said. "We'll find out who she was. Seems only fair, actually."

"Yeah," I repeated. "Only fair."


Taylorville was a big cluster, with several layers. The top layer was farm, of course, but enough light seeps through a single bloon layer to keep the second layer viable. So the second layer of Taylorville was for living and working space. The cluster was oddly shaped, more like a flattened dumbbell than circular. I wondered why it looked like it did. The middle area that connected the two roundish outer clusters was where we docked.

There were a lot of docking bays. Taylorville did a lot of trading with bloon fishermen, as all farm and craft clusters must, so they had plenty of room for a bloon to park. Lewis was pilot as we made our approach, and he slicked it in so smoothly that we didn't have to use fans, not even at the last moment when we touched the dock grabbers. The velk grabbed our nose and we tossed our line, which was picked up by a dock attendant and wrapped around an anchor hitch.

"Yo!" Lewis called out to the attendant. "We're at Taylorville, right?"

"You bet!" came the reply, somewhat muffled through the bubble mask our greeter wore. I saw that it was a teenaged girl, small and dark, with the sort of energy that brims out of a body at that age. "You traders?"

"Naw," said Lewis. "We're from Sky City. We've got some talk business with your head guy."

"That'd be Andrew," she said as she handed us the counterweights to balance our bloon when we stepped off. "He told us to expect you. You made good time."

"Hey, any time's good when there's a pretty girl at the end of it," Lewis said. The girl giggled in response.

"I'm Anne," she said. She shook Lewis' hand then helped him step down onto the dock.

"This here is Ed," Lewis told her as I followed him down. Anne took my hand in greeting. "Don't let his looks fool you," Lewis told her. "Stands to reason that nobody can be both that mean and that ugly." Anne giggled again.

"I'm pleased to meet you, Anne," I told her.

"Howdy, Ed," she replied. "Lewis tells me good things about you."

"Lewis is a liar," I told her. And she giggled yet again.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Chapter four: "Let's go for a walk."

Previous Chapter

The first thing Calvin said to me the next morning was, "Well, you look like hell."

I'd returned to Sky City immediately after leaving Sensei Mack's. It had been a tossup whether I entered legally or illegally. In fact, I'd flipped a coin, a habit I'd picked up from Lewis. I was relieved when it came up heads, which meant that I hadn't really been ready for one of my late night prowls in the lowest sections of the City. Apparently I wasn't in the mood to hurt anyone that night, despite everything.

So I'd come in through one of the checkpoints and strolled the corridors near Central Police Headquarters, waiting for clock time to pass by, waiting for Calvin's shift to begin.

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," I told him. "Maybe I can use you for a reference."

"So what's up?" he asked me. "Why are you here at this ungodly hour?" It was 0700 by the twenty-four hour clock, 7900 by Venus mean time. Daylight was still a clock cycle away.

"You're here early, yourself," I told him.

"I need to get some paperwork out of the way," he said.

"Then I can add to it," I told him. "Get out your forms; I'll sign in blood." He gave me a strange look.

"I know when I'm licked," I said. "I need to follow up on Molly Laird. It's necessary."

He walked around to his desk and sat down. There were two desks in the office and he shared his with one other homicide detective. There was seldom more than a single detective in the office at the same time, since they had four part time guys to handle a round-the-clock duty. At a rate of only one murder a week for all of Sky City, they could afford the slack.

Calvin looked up at the ceiling and made a show of thinking things through. At length he said, "The best way to go about it would be to sign you on as a private consultant to trace Molly's relatives for the purpose of disposing of the estate. That has to be done anyway. Then, if you uncover anything, we can make modifications to the case file. The estate disposition is the only part of the case that is still open, incidentally, though that could change with additional information."

"What about her link to Grayling?" I asked him.

"I haven't checked yet," he said. He bounced his inflatable chair around a bit to better get at his comm terminal. He flipped up the screen and it lit up to illuminate his face with gray light. He tapped a few keys and waited for the access. After a few moments, he said, "Okay, this is just a preliminary, but it looks like you were probably right. Blood type and the first few sequences match. From the first tests, there's a ninety-nine percent likelihood that Molly Laird was Grayling's daughter. That's enough to make the full sequencing mandatory."

He looked over at me. "Let's go for a walk," he told me.

We made our way down to the PD ready room, through the air curtain, and out into the main corridor. Calvin didn't say anything for a while. We were well out of sight of Police Headquarters when he spoke.

"About six months ago," he began, "We had a couple of Lunars come through here. A man and a woman. Very heavy credentials. They came through Skyhook Authority and their papers said that they were on detachment from the Guard to the Special Cabinet to the Lunar Council. We were instructed to give them every courtesy and all the help we could muster.

"They didn't want much, though. They asked some questions, got a full access data terminal, went at it for a couple of days, then disappeared. They're still on Venus, I think, but I have no idea where."

He looked at me sideways. "Some of their questions were about you," he said. "I'm under orders not to tell you about it, though."

"So why are you telling me about it?" I asked him.

He ignored my question. "The man's name was Harmon Reed, the woman was Juliet Carlyle. Those names mean anything to you?" I shook my head.

He continued. "She was taller than I am, and he was quite a bit taller still. About your height, in fact. Built a lot like you, too. In fact, he reminded me of you quite a number of ways."

I shrugged, trying not to give anything away. Usually I don't have to try, but this was different. "They're both probably from one of the police families," I said. This produced a quizzical look from Calvin.

"I was fourth generation police," I told him. "There are a lot of families like mine. It's a tradition of the high born, a higher occupation for the well-to-do. Our families eat better, get better medical care, all of it. It doesn't pay to mistreat your police force, and the Luna police families aren't mistreated."

He nodded. "Anyway, they were very interested in the fact that you'd done work for us on the Mason case. They asked me if I could get you to work for us again. I told them that I doubted it, not unless you got personally interested in something. They let the matter drop, but ever since then, I've been getting subtle pressure from on high. Somebody important wants you involved in something, maybe anything. I don't think it has anything to do with this matter of Molly Laird, but they may figure that, once you're involved with us again, they can drag you in deeper."

That seemed Byzantine enough to be true. I'd have to think about the implications sometime when I was more centered. "Any idea of what Reed and Carlyle were after?" I asked him.

"Not really," he said. "They did ask a lot of questions about the shadow clusters, though. And they were tapping the medical records mostly, not the crime stats."

I shook my head. Too much to think about. "So why are you telling me this?" I asked again.

It was his turn to shrug. "Maybe I figure that you'll find out about it sometime, and I'd rather not hold out on you," he told me. He grinned. "I don't think I want you mad at me," he said. "Not even momentarily."

"Am I doing that badly at hiding it?" I asked him.

"Worse," he told me. "Much worse."


We went back to Calvin's office and filled out a few forms, and when we were done, I had a Police access card, a small expense account, and a stipend number for consultant billing. It made me marginally more official than a private citizen. The access card, plus threat and bluster, would open a few doors that might otherwise remain closed. More important, I could now tap into the normal police data banks through any protected comm unit.

I said goodbye to Calvin, left PD Headquarters by the main gate and motored back to my hotel. Joey was back at his post when I returned, and his usual smile had a bit of a worried look to it when he saw me. "Have a rough night, Mr. Honlin?" he asked me.

"It wasn't too bad, Joey," I told him. "It just lasted a lot longer than I expected." That softened his smile a bit, and I tipped him and went inside.

Madame Fumio was in the lounge, having breakfast with her most recent play boy, a long haired blonde charmer named Bart. This one was a musician, of sorts, and might manage to stay around after Fumio got tired of his bedroom manners. Madame Fumio has a fondness for musicians.

Fumio saw me from across the room and waved me over. "Leo told me you went out late last night," she said. "Anything I should know about? Or anything I shouldn't know about?" She motioned me to join them at their table. Bart forced a smile at me, too. What was it about me this morning that made people think they'd better smile?

I sat down and tried to look nonchalant. "It's nothing much," I told her. "Somebody died and I've taken a short job with the City to track down relatives or other heirs of the deceased."

She gave me a look that asked several questions and made several statements. "It's not like the last time," I told her. "It was a murder, yes, but they already know who did it. He's dead, in fact. The dead girl killed him before she died." I gave Fumio a brief account of the murder. I didn't mention that Molly was Grayling's illegitimate daughter.

When she was done, she shook her head. "So you're looking for someone to inherit a gun?" Leave it to Madame Fumio to read the bottom line.

"That's about the size of it, yes. Mostly it's an excuse to get out away from the City, for a while. In fact, I was going to ask your permission to ask Lewis to go along with me. And to rent a bloon, no use wasting a perfectly good expense account. The girl, Molly, who died, is originally from a cluster about a hundred kilometers north of here. The mother's dead, but I thought I might be able to get some leads where Molly and her mother used to live."

"Couldn't that be done by comm?" she asked me.

I shrugged. "Most of the time, that's the way it would be done. This isn't a high priority job, finding heirs, especially away from the City. But there's no rule against going in person, and I need a break, I think."

"You certainly look like it," she said.

I smiled back at her. "You, on the other hand, look as beautiful as ever, Fumio dear." She blew a raspberry and Bart suppressed a real smile. I got up and went over to the bar to talk to Lewis.

Next Chapter

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Chapter three: "You have begun to frighten me."

Previous Chapter

We went down to the Trauma Center morgue where I identified Molly Laird's body. It was a gutting wound, and I was surprised that they'd even tried to resuscitate her. Her age probably had something to do with it. Medicals really hate to lose someone that young.

"It was apparently a robbery attempt," Calvin told me. "She was walking down Corridor 23 just off of 325th on level G. The guy threatened her with a knife and she pulled the gun from her bag and shot him. Unfortunately for her, he didn't die immediately. He had just enough time for the kill, apparently; he was pronounced DOA when he got here. The noise of the shot brought a couple of people to the scene. The rest you know."

I stared at Molly Laird's face, trying to make out some answers in her features. As if the dead could talk. Maybe they can, though. Sometimes.

"What's her background?" I asked Calvin.

"I just have a few preliminaries," he told me. "We don't have an address for her. Her mother lived in a cluster maybe a hundred kilometers to the north. Mother's dead though, and her comm number was canceled eleven months ago. Molly entered the City several of times in the past few weeks. We don't know why, or where she went."

"She was at Robert Grayling's funeral," I told him.

That got his attention. "Oh, yeah?" Calvin and I had met because of a homicide case involving Grayling. On that occasion, I'd wound up working as a special consultant to the police. That was when I'd told Grayling to shut down his illegal activities, and that was when Grayling's son and so many others had died. That case had started with a girl's dead body.

Also. That case had started with a girl's dead body, also.

"What do you think she was doing at Grayling's send off," Calvin asked me.

"I think she was saying good-bye to her father," I told him.

"Come again?"

"Look at her face," I told him.

Calvin stared at Molly Laird's face for quite a while. Then he looked at me. "You might be right," he said. "Can we check?"

"Grayling was born on Luna," I told him. "He has a DNA sequencing on file there, at least. Probably one nearer to hand."

"Okay," he told me. "Let's get a typing done for Miss Laird."

"It might be a good idea to keep this under wraps," I told him.

"How so?" he asked, but I could see the wheels turn and most of it came to him before I spoke. But I told him anyway.

"If Molly Laird were Grayling's illegitimate daughter, then she might have some inheritance rights under Venus Law. She wouldn't under Lunar Law, though, so the whole thing could be messy. Maybe somebody didn't like the idea of that big a mess."

Calvin looked at me and got a calculating look in his eyes. "You say she called you and asked for your help?" I nodded.

"I'm not sure if I can keep a case open when we have the obvious perpetrator on that table over there," he told me. "I might be able to spring for another consultant's ticket, though."

Calvin had asked me about doing more work for the Sky City cops maybe five times in the eighteen months since we worked together on the Sheila Mason case. I'd turned him down every time. Recently he'd hinted that there was a big one going down somewhere, maybe hoping to entice my curiosity. That hadn't worked either. Now we had another dead girl; maybe he thought I had a weakness.

I shook my head. "I'm not that curious," I told him. "Where's the guy who killed her?" I asked him.

He pointed.

I walked over to another table and pulled back the sheet. He was dead all right. Two holes in his chest and two somewhat larger holes in his back. Exit wounds. Good thing that bloons are self-patching, the bullets probably went through the nearest wall and wound up on the surface of Venus, fifty-five kilometers below.

"In the movies, they die from wounds like this," I said to no one in particular.

"He died too," Calvin said. "He just didn't die fast enough for poor Molly."

I ignored the "poor Molly" remark. Calvin isn't very good at manipulating people.

The corpse on the table had been an ugly bastard when he was alive, and death had only worsened his condition. Close cropped blond hair, gray eyes. He'd been large, though not as big as me. He sported a couple of visible tattoos, not good enough to be sunsailor jobs and besides, they didn't cover enough to give any ultraviolet protection. His hands were mostly smooth, except for some characteristic callouses of the sort you get from holding a knife, rather than honest labor. He was some sort of muscle, a guy who actually spent time practicing his knife work.

"So who is this guy?" I asked Calvin.

"Nobody much," he told me. "Name was Costello, first name Bertrand. Not a City dweller, so our records don't show much. Comes from one of the free floating clusters 'way up north. Occupation listed as 'bouncer.'" He shrugged. "A tough guy by the look of him. Meant to scare the patrons of some dive into behaving themselves. Something like that. He came here three months ago, lived in Darkunder but came to the City two or three times a week. He fits the description of several robberies we've had during that time, but so do a lot of guys. For that matter, he fits the description of several robberies we had before he came to the City."

Great, I thought to myself. A professional tough guy takes up a hobby. Why does that scenario seem like a paint job? I covered up the body again, and went back over to where Calvin was still staring down at Molly's corpse.

"Any idea of why she wanted your help?" he asked me. I'd brought along a copy of my comm message from her and I'd given it to him on our way down to the morgue.

"Not really," I said. "To help her claim her inheritance, maybe. Too late now." Calvin nodded.

I thought the matter over for a few seconds and another thought came to me. "What happens to the gun?" I asked him. "If it's really an Earth antique, it must be worth a bundle."

He had to think about that one for a bit. "For now, nothing much," he said at last. "The case has a loose end, because Molly might be the daughter of somebody important, so I can probably keep it open for another few days while we run the DNA tests and maybe check some background on the weapon. It's probably a registered antique, but there's no requirement that you have to change the ownership listing when the things are sold."

"And then?"

"Then we do a routine search for heirs, and if we find any, the gun belongs to them. If not, then it becomes City property, and goes to auction. That takes a while. Probably a couple of years, even."

"What about Grayling's family?" I asked him. "Would they qualify as heirs? If she's his daughter, I mean."

"I have no idea," he said. "Inheritance laws are weird."

I nodded. "I think it's time for me to leave," I said. Calvin agreed with me and pulled the sheet back over Molly's face.

"Sure I can't change your mind about consulting on this?" he asked me.

I chewed my lip, fighting down an urge to snarl at him, to tell him to go to hell and take everything else with him. But I knew what the anger meant.

"Just let me know what the DNA test shows," I told him. He had the good grace not to look too obviously pleased.


There are any number of exercise clubs in Sky City. Most of the residents are first or second generation immigrants from Luna and special exercise is both a passion and a necessity for Luna dwellers. Ingrained habits die slowly, so most Lunar transplants stick to a workout schedule. I found a gym near to the Trauma Center, paid the fee, and went inside. The place was cheap; it smelled of sweat and had a faint film of charcoal dust over everything, detritus that comes from using charcoal for the weights, charcoal being the most plentiful commodity on Venus. Living bloons use it for ballast, and humans tend to used it for anything requiring bulk. It makes for outsized weights though; a one hundred kilo barbell is oversized enough to look like something that Samson might lift. But it gets the job done.

I went at it for several hours, trying to sweat out the rage that threatened to break free from my grip and drag me into things that I didn't want to do. I tried to pinpoint the source of my anger, but it just wouldn't come. A dead girl who had asked for my help? The feeling that Calvin knew something that he wasn't telling me? Memories of Robert Grayling and all the events surrounding my dealings with him?

Or was it just me, and the past I carried in a locked box, a box marked "Do Not Open" with vicious animals swarming all around it?

After a while I gave it up and went out for dinner at some bar whose name I don't remember. The beer I had with my soy sandwich was bitter and did nothing to improve my mood. So I went back to my hotel. I avoided everyone I knew when I got there, got a book from the lounge, and went to my room to try to read by chembulb light until it was time to go to sleep.

The winds of the upper air wouldn't move Sky City and the Darkunder clusters around into the light for another thirty hours or more. It was true night outside, and late night by the clock. I aspire to be a man of regular habits; I try to sleep at night.

But night is when the horrors come.

I do not dream the same dream over and over, nothing so trivial as that. The nightmare symphony comes to me as varied as the patterns seen in clouds, as manifold as patterns lurking in pools of hot, congealing blood.

During the dark theater, the screams of those who are now long dead are my personal Greek chorus. The ghosts demand payment, retribution, but I never know of whom they make their demands. My own face melts in my dreams. I look into mirrors and see a stranger's visage, more alien to me than the sound of my own recorded voice. Friends look at me and fall away in fear. Lovers touch me with caresses that leave open wounds, yet each rip of flesh gives pleasure more than pain. I hear the pleas of those who are about to die. Morituri te salutem, Caesar. Then fall, Brutus. I yam what I yam, says the Sailor.

I awoke drenched in sweat, my body rigid as a board. I hadn't had one this bad in many months. I'd hoped that I'd been given dispensation; it turned out to be only a respite. I lay awake in the dark long enough to know that I'd never get back to sleep that night.

I got up, left my room, and made my way down to the lobby, where only the night clerk nodded at me as I passed, from recognition or drowsiness I couldn't say. Even Joey was off his post at that time of night. I made a curt gesture to Leo, the late night bloon attendant and he waved me toward one of the parked bloons. I climbed inside and headed for Sensei Mack's.

His real name was McElroy, but everybody called him Sensei Mack. He teaches a form of aikido. I've heard some of his students claim it to be the original form, but then, I've heard other students of other senseis claim the same thing, and every style is different. But Sensei Mack has a way of practice and teaching that I find attractive. He never talks on the practice mat itself, and allows no talking from his students. To be one of Mack's students is to immerse oneself in pure movement.

His dojo is open to his advanced students at all times, for practice or for meditation. Sensei Mack was not awake at that hour, and the dojo was deserted, lit only by a few everlite strips around its edges. I bowed to the shrine and stepped onto the mat, then sat down into meditation posture. "Before one does something, one must learn to do nothing." I tried to do nothing for quite a long time.

Eventually my muscles began to unknot somewhat and I stood and walked over to the shrine, beneath which was a rack with practice weapons, wooden swords, and the meter and a half long wooden sticks called jo. I took down a jo and began to do a kata.

I was at it for a long time, and I didn't notice when Sensei Mack came into the room -- that's one of his gifts, the magical appearing act -- so I don't know how long he watched me at my practice. Eventually he came over and stepped out onto the practice mat and I caught his motion out of the corner of my eye. He walked over to the weapons rack and took another jo and walked over to where I stood.

Without word or warning he raised his jo and brought it down in a savage strike at my head. I moved slightly to get a better foot stance and blocked his strike with my own jo, letting the force of his blow drive my staff backwards in a curving arc that passed my left shoulder then continued to curve around into a strike directed back at him. He blocked my strike in a move that was a repetition of what I had just done, and we began a pattern of block-and-strike that became steadily more rapid and forceful. Soon the air filled with the sound of wood meeting wood, a ratatatat that recalled nature videos of woodpeckers in an Earthly forest.

It went on for a long time. For me, the slowdown had begun, the sense I often get during practice or times of real danger when everything becomes dreamlike and the gravity of Venus seems no more potent than that of the Moon I had left behind.

It felt good. Which was why the end of it was unexpected.

"Enough!" Sensei Mack blurted at me. It was the first time I had ever heard him speak on the mat. It shocked me a little, I think.

We returned our sticks to the weapons rack and bowed off the mat. Mack looked at me as if trying to make up his mind about something.

Eventually he said, "Do not take this too badly, but I think it might be better if you refrained from coming here to practice for a while."

I didn't know what to think of that, so I asked, "How exactly can I take that well? Why do you ask this of me?"

He hesitated again. Then he asked, "How old are you, Ed?"

"Forty-one," I told him. He nodded.

"Men slow down as they age," he told me. "Even those who have taken the age retarding drugs. But your reflexes are still maybe ten or twenty percent faster than my next quickest students."

I shrugged. "My family on Luna was well-to-do," I told him. "We did receive the drugs."

He nodded. "You are also very big. Only Lar and Morton are bigger than you, and they are both a little clumsy. I think that you may be stronger than either of them as well."

"I was a policeman," I told him. "Strength and size are at a premium for the Luna police."

"I know," he replied. "Forgive me. This is difficult for me. I know something of the training that you underwent on Luna. I even know a little about the other things, the treatments that they give to those destined for the police. But that is not really what troubles me, either."

He looked at me and took a deep breath. "You came to me in need of training for the higher gravity of Venus, and you've gotten that. You are big, strong, fast . . . all the physical things, you have. And you learn technique so rapidly that sometimes I think you are just remembering the things I teach.

"The other things, the use of ki, the centering, the control of the self, you are also good at them. But there is something inside of you trying to break out. You have much more control than my other students because you need that control, even to walk and talk and live. I've seen glimpses of whatever it is that you have inside you and I don't ever want to look on it straight on."

He looked at me and a look of sadness washed over his face. "This is my failing more than it is yours," he said to me. "I'm very sorry. But something is very close to escaping from you and it frightens me. Fear is something that a teacher cannot feel for a student. It is disruptive. It would not be fair to my other students."

He held out his hands in a gesture of apology. "I'm sorry," he told me. "I have to send you away for a while. You have begun to frighten me."

Next Chapter