Saturday, April 26, 2008

Chapter eleven: "…don't push him if you value your life."

Previous Chapter

The next day promised to be busy. The night before, Marjori had called to tell me that she arrived back in the City that evening, which was good news to me. I promised to meet her at her place when she arrived. But first I had to meet with the Higher Authorities who had Taken An Interest In Me.

City Center is not really the center of Sky City, if that makes any sense. It's really just a hub around Skyhook, and the Skyhook is the real center of the City and the world. Most of the trade between Venus and Luna passes through the Skyhook and Anchorage terminus at the other end. Down below, the Hook is surrounded with short term storage and administration offices.

I was supposed to meet with someone from Anchorage itself, but rather than make the hours long trip up the Hook, we were going to use one of the holoconference rooms connected directly to the Skyhook. There are a few such setups on Luna, but they are seldom used; the longest trip on Luna by high speed tube is still less than a tenth of the full Skyhook traverse, so there's less of a need.

I signed in at the main Skyhook entrance gate, and gave them both a thumb and retinal scan; they run a real belt-and-suspenders operation at Skyhook. I was met by a bright young thing of indeterminate sex, at least the way that she/he was dressed, and followed her/him to a gocart where we spent the next few minutes dodging the frenetic traffic in the corridors at the center of the world.

"Here you go, Mr. Honlin," said my androgynous guide. "Conference room number one. I'll be here when you come out."

I thanked her/him and opened the door.

The lights came up as I walked into the room. There was a desk for me to sit at, and three walls looked to be full holorez viewscreens. See the world from your desk, I thought, and I wondered how much a setup like this would cost to a private individual. I wondered if I had ever met anyone that rich. Maybe Grayling. Maybe.

Then the screen in front of me came on, and I was looking at another office, much like the one I was in, with another desk, and another occupant behind the desk. Only the desk looked like it was permanently occupied, with papers strewn all over the top, and various data lines leading off of it into the farther wall.

"Hello, Mr. Honlin," said the man behind the desk. "My name is Grant Landau. Dr. Landau, if titles matter, which they don't. I'd rise and shake your hand, but circumstances do not permit it."

He got up anyway and stood leaning on his desk. I was still checking out the place. The setup was impressive, I'll give it that. The wall was full holorez, and the illusion was nearly perfect. The only discrepancy that I could really notice was when Landau sat down again. Normally you can feel the movement in a room through the floor, but Landau felt like a ghost. He looked a little like one, too; his skin was pallid, and he had dark circles under his eyes. His round face looked a little puffy, as if he'd had a recent weight gain. Stress will do that to some people. They overeat as a compensation.

"So what's on your mind, Dr. Landau," I asked him. "You look like a very busy man and I'd hate to waste your time."

He smiled a thin smile and sighed. "Yes, and I'd hate to waste yours. But however much we'd like to cut to the chase, some chases are a bit harder than others. So you'll have to bear with me a little bit."

He paused, his face a grimace that was an attempt at a smile. "Are you a man of faith, Mr. Honlin?" he asked me.

"I doubt it," I said to him. "I can't think of many things that need faith to make them run, and the rest of it doesn't seem to matter much to me these days. Or did you have a more specific sort of faith in mind?"

He shook his head. "No, I think I'm talking about the most general sort of faith. Faith in faith, even. Faith that somewhere, somehow, there is something or someone that it's proper to believe in."

"I think you've lost me," I told him, hoping that the correct phrase wasn't really lost it.

He shook his head again. "No matter," he said, almost to himself. "Maybe I'll just have to put my faith in you."

"That might be a bad idea," I told him.

"It might be the only idea I've got," he said.

He shook himself, like someone coming awake. "Enough of this," he said, reminding himself that he had something important to tell me, I expect. "I first heard your name eighteen months ago, I daresay that you know in what connection."

I shrugged. "Grayling, no doubt."

"No doubt," he said. "A couple of reports crossed my desk and suddenly, a smuggling ring that was completely unknown to me is broken apart, largely by your efforts, it would seem. That in itself would be impressive enough. But the background checks showed you to be a most unusual man. Very highly connected, good family, with a wide range of very important personages on Luna willing to give you their highest recommendations. As nearly as I can tell, you could have written your own ticket Luna-side, yet you chose to immigrate to Venus and live in what, if I may speak frankly, can only be called 'squalor.'"

"Oh, I think we could come up with some other names for it," I told him.

"Ah, yes," he said. "Then there is the matter of your attitude. I read Mr. Lee's reports on the case, and they are quite confusing. He started out thinking you a total burnout, and by the end of the matter, he'd walk through fire for you. Literally."

"The fire wasn't our idea," I said.

"No, I imagine not," he replied.

He looked closely at me, with one of those attempted mind reading looks that people get sometimes. "Of course I looked at your file," he said. "And you know what I found."

"Yeah," I said. "A lot of people have had that frustration." There is a total blank in my personnel file dating from about ten years back until I came to Venus five years ago. It looks like it's been encrypted, but if you break the code, it's just noise. They wiped the records of that period in my life. Completely. I've sometimes wished they could have done the same for me.

"Then a few months back, your name comes up in another context," he continued. "We have a . . . problem," he said, then paused again. "Which I will shortly explain to you. And that problem is being investigated by a couple of agents from the Guard to the Special Cabinet on Luna. Are you familiar with that agency?" he asked me.

"Every Luna cop knows the Special Guard," I told him, truthfully, if somewhat noncommittally.

"We here at Skyhook know the Guard, as well," he said. "They are the big guns that get called if things look to be getting seriously out of hand. Needless to say, we prefer not to see them very often."

I nodded. That was pretty much the attitude of cops on Luna, too.

"During the years for which your record does not speak, you were in the Guard," he said. It was not a question.

"What gives you that idea?" I asked him, thinking that he was fishing. But he wasn't.

"Does the name Martin Fisk ring any bells?" he asked me.

I said nothing.

"Dr. Fisk treated you for an extended period just before you came to Venus," he said. "I have been in communication with him for the past several months."

"That is a violation of doctor/patient privilege," I said, but without heat. Hell, I'd seen that happen enough times not to harbor any illusions. I was a little surprised, though. I thought that Fisk was too afraid to talk. Too afraid of me and what I represented.

Landau seemed to read my mind on that one, at least. "There are some privileges that go with being a fellow member of the medical community," he said. "He was very reluctant to speak, of course. I also had to threaten him with the Guard a little bit. And some other things, as well. That Dr. Fisk was willing to communicate with me tells you something about the problem we face."

"I'd say it's about time to tell me about it, then," I told him.

He held up his hand. "Soon, soon," he told me. "I'm giving you this background to let you know that I'm going into this with open eyes. Through Dr. Fisk and several other contacts that I have, I have learned something of what actually happened to you during that blank period. I know the sort of things that you are capable of, in other words."

He let that sink in for a bit. I began to wonder just how desperate he was.

"What does the Guard say about this?" I asked him.

"I haven't told them," he said. "Early on, they had some interest in using you because you were already in place, with some experience in areas that they need to investigate. But they decided against it. I think that some of them think that you are too unpredictable. Or they may have other reasons."

I snorted a little on that one. "Yeah, I expect they have a reason or two," I said.

He shrugged. "In any case, I don't entirely trust the agents of the Guard," he said. "I'm sure you understand."

"Yeah, I'm sure I do," I told him.

"You may be interested to know," he told me, "That Dr. Fisk still considers you to be an outstanding individual. He was of the opinion that, if you could be induced to work for us, you were our best hope."

"Now I know you're desperate," I said.

He ignored the jibe. "In truth, I think that Dr. Fisk was a little surprised that you were still alive. He said that you weren't suicidal, but that he thought that you might arrange for a situation that would lead to your demise. A 'death wish,' I've heard it called, although he didn't use that phrase. Dr. Fisk also said that you were as thoroughly immune to pressure or threats or bribery as any human being can be. He told me that the only way that you would work for us is if you decided that you were going to do it. That's it, just a personal decision. Nothing else would work. He told me 'Tell him the truth, lay it out for him, and hope he says yes. And if he says no, that's it, don't push him if you value your life.'"

"Dr. Fisk can be a little melodramatic," I said.

"I thought that too," Landau said. "Until about ten minutes ago. Now that I've seen you, I think he might have you pegged."

I felt myself give a little sigh. "Okay," I told him. "You have my attention, anyway. Maybe it's time to lay it out for me."

So he began to tell his story.

Next Chapter

Monday, April 21, 2008

Chapter ten: "So you kick people in the head just because you get impatient?"

Previous Chapter

Calvin had a meeting to attend, so he left me in his office for the rest of the afternoon, a time I spent on his data access comm, running down background information that I thought might come in handy. I tried running background checks on Harmon Reed and Juliet Carlyle, the two Guards from Luna, but they were under a blackout, and Calvin didn't have enough clearance to get at their files. I tried a couple of access codes that I used to know, but they were long out of date. No surprise there.

When Calvin returned, he had that slightly glazed look of someone who had spent time trying to keep from falling asleep. "Interesting meeting?" I asked, and he gave me a dirty look.

"Budget review," he said. "Most of it was spent going over meal accounts. Somebody had the bright idea that City employees should be reimbursed for meal expenses, provided -- and this is the good part -- provided the meal is eaten during standard lunch hours, and outside of the normal range of City Center operations. Oddly enough, this has resulted in more late morning field work away from City Center. So now someone wants to make the policy apply only to amounts in excess of standard meal rates, with documentation required that there were no cheaper alternatives."

"This took two hours?" I asked, suppressing a grin.

"Oh no," he said. "There were four other items on the agenda. So the meal thing just took an hour and a half."

I shrugged. "Administrators may not know anything about police work," I told him. "But they know food. So they try to stick to what they know."

"Oh, crap," he sighed. "And speaking of food, let's go get some. We're supposed to meet Cheryl soon."

"Anything you say," I told him, and we left.


The restaurant was called The Chalet, I think, but the maitre'd pronounced it The Shallot. Maybe it was a joke. If so, it was a high priced joke; the place was one of the most expensive in the City. We got there a little early and passed the time in the bar.

The Chalet decor was polymonochrome, which was the posh decorating style that year. The rug, tablecloths, and wall hangings were of a new Lunar-import fabric with an electrically controlled tint, so the color of the place slowly shifted during the course of the evening. When we got there, it was a mild pink; by the time Cheryl arrived, it was approaching mauve.

"Hi guys," she said from behind us, just as we were finishing our drinks. We turned, and Calvin got a quick peck of a kiss as she extended her hand toward me. I shook her hand briefly, noting that she gave my palm a slight caress when she removed her grasp.

"Ed," said Calvin. "This is Cheryl Chiba. Cheryl, Ed Honlin."

Calvin's former fiance was wearing a cut-to-the-shoulders black form fitting dress, from which I guessed that she had been to The Chalet before, or at least knew about the shifting color scheme. Anyone wearing colors other than basic black or white would wind up clashing at some point during the evening. I guessed her age at early twenties, a little younger than I would have expected for Calvin, but she made up for it in sheer physical presence. She had the high cheekbones and brown eyes of a Eurasian mix that still showed some ethnic identity, unlike Luna, where the racial groups long ago vanished in a hybrid swarm. She carried herself with the controlled movements of someone who has had some sort of training in that regard, dance or gymnastics, perhaps even one of the martial arts, though I did not recognize any specifics. She was nearly as tall as Calvin, but slender, with the firm look of someone who kept thin by activity rather than anorexia.

All this I took in during the short time we took to get the attention of the maitre 'd, and on our walk to our table. I was not unaware of Cheryl's sizing-me-up glances as well. Calvin, I think, was oblivious.

After we had been seated and the water had been poured, the waiter gave us menus and asked if we wanted something to drink. We answered "no," so he left us to ponder our orders.

"Well, that's the last we'll see of him for a while," Calvin said, and Cheryl smiled.

She turned to me and said, "So, you're the mystery man who saved Calvin's life by kicking people in the head."

Calvin was sipping his water and gave a little strangled sound like he'd almost choked. He reached for a napkin (white, but it picked up the color of the entire room, which was by now nearly a royal purple), and held it in front of his mouth while he slowly turned red.

"I'm not sure about the 'saved his life' part," I told her. "Calvin is pretty good at taking care of himself."

She shrugged her bare shoulders and said, "Perhaps he embellished the tale a little. Still, it sounded like quite a fight."

Calvin had recovered his voice by now. "I told her about the lab raid, and how you took out the guy who was trying to pound my skull in," Calvin said, as if his telling her had violated a confidence.

It was my turn to shrug. "Calvin was wearing a helmet," I told Cheryl. "And the guy who did the pounding wasn't very good at mayhem. I think that Calvin would have handled it with more time. I was just impatient."

"So you kick people in the head just because you get impatient?" she said, still smiling, but the pupils of her eyes had grown larger, turning more of the brown centers of her eyes to black.

"Very rarely," I said.

"How fortunate for our waiter that you are so rarely impatient," she said, and we all laughed at this.

"Besides," said Calvin. "The guy lived."

Through most of dinner Calvin and Cheryl spoke of mutual friends and their past times together with the ease of old friends tempered by the reserve of the formerly passionate. Periodically, Cheryl would steer the conversation over to me, asking me about the way I lived, who I knew in Darkunder, how I went about my life. She confessed, with the attitude of one confiding secrets, that she found Darkunder both fascinating and repellent.

And if those occasional glances that she sent in my direction were speculative, she did not volunteer her speculations.

She left before dessert, kissing Calvin on the cheek and once more touching my hand in a parting gesture that lingered only for the briefest instant. After she was gone, Calvin looked over at me and shrugged helplessly.

"Still a little torched?" I asked him.

"A bit," he admitted. "It will pass, I expect. She's from a wealthy family, old money, I think it's called. Dating a cop was a bit of a rebellion. We're not special here on Venus. It's not like Luna."

"Cops are special everywhere," I told him. "High or low, it's all special. But she's one to cause problems, I think."

"You think right," he said, but he said no more about it and then our coffee came.

Next Chapter

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Chapter nine: “"I should have known better than to set you loose”

Previous Chapter

I awoke in the near darkness of the Venus night, the only light coming from the intermittent flashes of distant lightning down below. It was afternoon by the clock, though; it's not unusual for Venus dwellers to sleep late during the first hours of darkness, since we tend to skip sleep during the light days and make up for it in the dark.

I got up and had a four liter shower, then dressed and headed toward the City without bothering to eat. As we checked out the bloon that I was going to use for the trip, Joey commented that I looked better than I had before. A trick of the light, I told him, but in truth I did feel better.

I checked into City Center and, before I went into Police Headquarters, I used a public comm to place a call to Marjori. A child answered the phone, one of Marjori's daughter's children by the sound of it; then Marjori came on line.

"Hello, darling," she said, in a slightly breathless voice. "Are you missing me?"

"Yes," I told her. "You sound out of breath."

"I've been downstairs playing with the youngest boy," she said. "I think I need to get more exercise; I'm out of shape."

"You couldn't prove that by me," I told her.

"Flattery will get you a great deal," she said with a laugh. I do enjoy hearing her laugh.

"So when are you coming back?" I asked.

"Tomorrow or the day after," she said.

"Let me know exactly when," I said. "I may have a favor to ask."

"Oh?" she said. "What sort of favor?" She laughed again, and a slight shiver went up my spine.

"Not that sort," I said. "Well, maybe that sort, too. But the thing I'm thinking of...hmm, actually I'm not really clear on it just yet, though I should be soon. There's a case I'm involved with that could maybe use a woman's touch."

"Going to turn me out on the street are you?" she said teasingly.

"Oh, sure, definitely," I said. Then after a pause, "I do miss you."

"Good," she said. "I like that a lot." Then we said a few more things along those lines and hung up. One of the things about Marjori is that she knows what questions not to ask.


Calvin was in his office when I arrived at PDH. "Hi, Ed," he said to me as I came in. "I'm just running those numbers you asked for. Have a seat." I bounced one of his chairs around beside his desk so I could watch the data screen while he worked.

"You're looking better," he told me as he tapped at the keyboard in front of him.

"So I'm told," I replied. "Sleep that knits the raveled sleeve...."

"Finally broke down and took a sleeping pill?" he asked absently.

I hesitated. I rarely take pills because I often get paradoxical reactions, to put it mildly. Also, I have a certain fear of being helpless while I sleep.

"Sort of," I said, noncommittally.

"Here we go," he said as some numbers came onto his screen. "Not many of them, actually. Taylorville gets a fair number of outside calls, but they are usually from standard places, people they do business with, other farming clusters, that sort of thing. I've weeded those out, like you said. So we get...."

"Only four numbers," I said. "What are they?"

"Two from the City, one from the Rim, and one from Darkunder. The City calls are public comm units. The one from the Rim is a private residence. The one in Darkunder is a business listing."

"What's the business?" I asked.

"'Night club,'" he told me. He tapped a few more keys. "Basically it's a brothel." He looked at me. "That's the one, isn't it?" he said. "You're not surprised."

"No," I told him. "Betty Laird, Molly's mother never told anyone what she did for the years surrounding Molly's birth. She had no significant skills and she came home when her looks were beginning to fade. That narrows the field."

I told him about the things that Lewis and I had learned in Taylorville. When I was done, he gave a low, soft whistle.

"Oh, great," he said. "I should have known better than to set you loose on finding next-of-kin for dead girls."

"Meaning that you'd rather I hadn't found any?" I said.

He sighed. "No, I guess I don't mean that. But it complicates things, doesn't it?"

I shrugged. "This is still all hypothetical, you know," I told him. "We don't know for a fact that Molly had a child."

"Yeah, but it makes sense," he said, and I agreed.

"So now what?" he asked me.

"I'm going to hold off on going to this 'night club' for a couple of days," I said. "I want Marjori to accompany me when I go."


"Oh come on," I told him. "Molly probably spent time there as a child, which is why she went back when she was in trouble. We're guessing that they still have her child. Do you think they're going to be thrilled at the idea of turning her over to someone like me?"

He had to laugh at that one. "Point taken," he said.

"How about the gun?" I asked him. "Have you tried to trace it?"

"Oh, yeah," he said. "Let me show you." With that he called up another file, and pointed to a set of names.

"Perfect tie-in," he said to me. "That particular antique was last registered on Luna, to Emerson Grayling, Robert Grayling's grandfather. Passed from father to son to grandson to...."

"Daughter," I finished for him. "Actually, I suspect that it was more complicated than that. But it does make the connection pretty strong. And the DNA typing?"

"That's as near as matters to one hundred percent," he said. "That one is courtroom solid."

"Not on Luna," I said. "On Luna, it's irrelevant."

"Yes," he said. "So I've heard. When are you going to pay a visit to Jesse Grayling to break it to him that he has a blood relative that he didn't know about?"

"I think I'll hold off on that for a while," I said. "I'd like at least to wait until we know for sure that there is such a person—the child, I mean."

"So you're not going to go charging in and rattling the cages to see what slips out through the bars?" he asked. He made it sound like he was joking, but I caught the undertone.

"You know me better than that," I said.

"Do I?" he asked. The joking tone was less apparent now.

"Whatever." I gave it a gesture of dismissal. "There are times to stir things up, and times to let things settle. I already told you, I'd rather that none of the Grayling's know that they're under suspicion."

He nodded, then took a deep breath. "Okay," he said. "Uh, now I have to bring something up."

I felt my eyebrows move. "A piper that wants to be paid?" I asked him.

"Um, maybe," he said. "It sure didn't take them long."

"Who wants to see me?" I asked.

He sighed again. "You don't have to do this if you don't feel like it," he said. "Oh, hell, of all the people to say that to. Anyway, there's a guy by the name of Landau, Grant Landau. He's part of Skyhook Security, not one of the crime units, but public health and safety. In fact, he's head of the epidemiology section. He's sent me a request for a meeting with you."

"When?" I asked.

"Anytime that is convenient, but the sooner the better, he says."

I must have been in a good mood that day. I said, "Well, I'm not doing anything tomorrow."

"Good," he said, with obvious relief. It can get troublesome when the upper levels lean on you.

Then his comm buzzed. He picked up the receiver and said, "Calvin Lee, here." Then the tone of his voice changed substantially. "Oh, hi Cheryl, how are you? No, I was just in a meeting with a someone, Ed Honlin. Yeah, that's the guy. What? Oh." He looked over at me. "Are you busy for dinner?" he asked me. I shook my head. "Yeah," he told the comm. "I'll ask him along. Say about six." Then he hung up.

He looked over at me. "That's Cheryl, my ex-fiance. We still meet for dinner every now and then, and she's going to be downtown tonight. Want to come along?"

"Cheryl is the one who didn't want to marry you because you were a cop, right?" I asked.

He grimaced. "That turned out to be a mixup, I think," he said. "I eventually found out that being a cop was maybe the only thing she really liked about me. No, that's not quite fair. Anyway, we're still 'friends,' I guess. And I'd appreciate your company at dinner."

I was dubious about the entire thing. Three's a crowd even for ex-couples. But I was also a little curious. "Okay," I told him. "But I may decide that I have business elsewhere, even before the main course."

He smiled. "She knows enough about you not to be surprised," he said.

"What have you been telling her?" I asked.

"Nothing not known to dozens of people," he joked, referring to the way my files had been accessed by what seemed to be everyone we'd encountered during the Sheila Mason case. Luna computer records aren't known for their privacy.

"Well, I'm always happy to meet one of my adoring fans," I told him.

Next Chapter

Monday, April 7, 2008

Chapter eight: Like the dreams of alien gods.

Previous Chapter

After William Anderson had left, I told Lewis that we were leaving; there was no way I was going to sleep that clock night, and I figured I might as well take us back to the City. Lewis agreed. I don't think he wanted to stay any longer in Taylorville, either.

I did most of the work setting the airfoils, drag line, all the rest. Lewis realized that I needed the activity and sat over by the side near one of the aft viewports, watching the sky. About the time I had everything set and we were at full drift, he spoke.

"Do you think she was?" he asked me. "Pregnant, I mean."

He hadn't needed to clarify. I'd been thinking the same question.

"Yes," I answered. "It would make sense. I think she'd have spurned the money, otherwise. She was young. Pride."

"And she had the child?"

"She'd never have aborted it, if that's what you mean," I told him.

"You talk like you know a lot about a girl you only met once," he said.

I'd thought about that, too, but I didn't have an answer to it. "I guess so," I said. "It's always possible that I'm wrong. But I'm not uncertain about it. Some people are obvious. Not shallow or transparent, but obvious. You feel like you know them from the first. Maybe it's just a projection on my part."

He said nothing for a long while. "If there is a child," he said finally. "How messy does that make things?"

"Very," I told him. "A direct descendant of Robert Grayling. But not through a legal marriage. On Luna, that's no relationship at all. All children have a legal mother and father at birth, or they aren't allowed to come to term. There are some cuckoos, of course, but legally they are still only related to their parents."

"That's a stern system," Lewis said.

"Luna is a stern place," I told him.

I continued. "On Venus, as I understand it, the laws of the local cluster prevail, the same as for most everything else. Then there is Sky City, which has developed its own legal code. City law is more flexible than Lunar law, and blood relations count, even when not formalized by legal marriage. It pretty much has to work that way, since so many City residents are originally from free clusters, and the City management doesn't want to try imposing a single code on people who didn't grow up under it. If someone dies in the City, no one wants to tell his mother that she isn't legally his mother."

Lewis nodded. "And Grayling?" he asked.

"A lot would depend on where the estate is settled. Grayling owned property on Venus, Skyhook, and Luna. That makes it a hell of a tangle. One of Grayling's cousins, a guy named Jesse Grayling, is trying to untangle the matter right now, I'd say."

"Do you think that this Jesse knows about the child?" Lewis said. "Or even that there might be a child?"

"I hope not," I said. "If I have to get involved in another matter involving the Graylings, I'll need every edge I can get."


We got back to the City as the sun was in its final descent toward the forty-eight hours of blackness that are true night. As the cloudtops begin to cool the storms in the clouds below often begin to make their presence felt, a distant growling sound that can be felt in the belly if the mood is right, and if one is prepared to listen to things from the depths.

"The weather service says that a megastorm may be brewing, pardner," Lewis told me as we were pulling in the lines in preparation to go to powered flight. "We haven't had one of those in five or six years now."

"There hasn't been one since I've been on Venus," I told him. "I thought that they were mostly polar events."

"They are," he told me. "But the whole atmosphere gets a bit more turbulent for a while. And the bloons really get a feed after one hits. The dust from below gets a high ride."

"Should I make any preparations?" I asked. Lunar natives such as myself don't really have a handle on weather. It seems too much like magic, or the dreams of alien gods.

"Nah," he said. "Just find a place with full holo and watch the show. It's pretty impressive, so they usually have some crews up there taping it. Some go on tours to the things."

"Isn't that dangerous?" I asked.

"Not so much for a small bloon. The big ones get sheared pretty good, and a megastorm will rip a cluster apart. They don't kill as many as it seems they ought to, though. That's the advantage of riding the winds."


We docked back at Madame Fumio's after the new clock day had started, just before 5000 hours, 0200 hours by the twenty four hour clock. Lewis had napped in the bloon on our way back; he said good bye and left to collect what remained of a night's sleep. I was still jumpy from the trip and whatever the events of the past few days had stirred up.

So after I let Lewis off, I took the bloon out again and took it down to the drift level under the City, and turned off both the fans and the transponder. That's mildly illegal, but it's never enforced, because most free drifting bloons at that level are unmanned strays, and it's too much trouble to police the area. That far down is pretty warm, too, and the pressure begins to tell. You can only go for a half hour or so at drift level before you have to worry about decompressing when you rise again.

My route puts me at the higher pressure just long enough to get a little dreamy from nitrogen narcosis, but not long enough to cause problems. During the time I'm down, the City above moves forward without me, west to east, so I wind up near the western edge.

At the right moment, I dump my ballast and bubble up, heading for an illegal entry point to the City, an entry point that's pretty much mine alone by now, because it isn't worth much as a smuggler's hole. It's just a zippatched section on a warehouse bloon, but it's my own little bolt hole, a City entry without going through the checkpoints. Once my bloon's snug in its nest, a minor indentation between two much larger bloons, I enter the warehouse, spring the lock on its door, and go prowling in the lowest level of Sky City.

There are certain sections of any city that are known to the people who need them to be the way that they are. This section of Sky City is mostly storage areas, with a few bars and such for the longshoremen and teamsters who lug material out of transport bloons and onto transport vehicles or pneumotube. Some of those bars have rough reputations, and some of the men who frequent them like to prowl. Sometimes they prowl for women of a certain sort; sometimes they prowl for men.

You can find most kinds of people much easier in Darkunder. There is at least one cluster for almost every sort of need down below. The big exception is for those who find the prowling almost as important as the object of the search. Look on it as primal Stocasticism. Look on it as another way of tossing the dice. If you need some free range, you still need to go Cityside.

When I search out the lower levels of the up and up, I'm never quite sure what I'm looking for, and most often, I'm disappointed. That's okay, too. Sometimes even disappointment helps me to sleep. And that's what I was looking for that night, a way to get some sleep.

I walked for a couple of hours that night, finding no one on my usual routes except the prostitutes and the men looking to find them. None of them were what I was looking for, a fact made plain by the way most of them shrank from my gaze when it found them. By 5300 hours, I was beginning to think I was wasting my time.

Then I saw them. They weren't much to look at actually, just five young men, boys really, marching through the corridors as if they owned them. A gang, I guessed, looking for solidarity and a group to give them identity. They were each carrying a short stick, less than a meter long. Call them canes, though none of them was using them to walk.

They walked more or less shoulder to shoulder, taking up the entire width of the corridor. The idea was that anyone who saw them should turn and run away, I expect. Anyone who didn't, well . . .

I decided to find out what happened if someone didn't.

If I'd been a smaller man, I expect that they would have just come at me straight out, sticks swinging or whatever. But I'm sufficiently large to give most people pause, even when they're part of a group that outnumbers me five-to-one. When I didn't stop my ambling walk in the appropriate place, the two of them on either end of the line sped up a bit, to move around me on either side and flank me from the rear. The three of them in front of me spread out to block my progress.

They weren't very good at it. Not good at all. They held their sticks down at their sides, as if by doing so they could gain some element of surprise. The down side of that was that when the one behind me began his swing at my head, I had all the time in the world to react. The strike was telegraphed six ways from Sunday, by the feel of shifting weight through the yielding floor, by the way the eyes of the three punks in front of me followed the motion, by the sound and feel of air displacements from behind. It came from the guy to my right rear, who was right-handed besides, so the trajectory of it was easy to spot, even without seeing it. I pivoted on my left foot, entered his safety zone, and joined his motion before it had even reached the top of its arc. The easiest move at that point was a projection throw that I put too much muscle into -- Sensei Mac would have scowled and snorted. But it got the job done, and lifted the guy off his feet and into the one directly in front of me at about knee level. I heard the pop of cartilage as his knee dislocated, the sound immediately drowned out by his yelp of pain.

Whatever scenarios they had in their heads evaporated with that yelp, and the two still standing in front of me froze. That gave me time to snap out a kick to the other one at my rear. Contempt made me sloppy on that one as well; I put it right into his solar plexus. It's dangerous to kick that high against someone who knows what he's doing, but these were just children, playing at being tough. Welcome to show biz, guys.

The two in front of me came out of their daze and started swinging wildly with their sticks. That was the first flash of danger that I felt, not because they were any good with the things, but because they weren't. You can never tell when someone is going to get lucky with a weapon, long odds though that might be. I dodged back and picked up the stick from the guy behind me who was on the floor gasping for breath and came around at the other two. Deflecting a blow from the one on my right, I jabbed in at the one on my left and caught him in the throat. That was all for him. The punk standing to my right turned and fled. He was followed by the fellow who had struck the first blow. That one had scrambled to his feet after I'd thrown him, and he decided to become the better part of valorous.

None of the others moved from their positions on the floor. They were watching me with fear on their faces, and I liked that part. It was the only satisfying thing that had happened, really. They hadn't been enough to properly feed the demon until then. The one I'd gotten in the throat was making little gurgling noises. I considered whether or not I'd crushed his windpipe, and decided I hadn't used that much force. I might have been wrong about that though, and if so, he'd probably die soon. I didn't care enough to investigate further. I twirled the stick in my hands, to test the balance of it, then resumed my walk, heading back toward my exit hole and my hidden bloon. Not the best of late night entertainment, but not the worst either. The tightness in my chest had eased somewhat, and by the time I got back to my hotel, I was getting drowsy.

I slept a full eight hours after that, and if I dreamed I don't remember of what, or of who, or of when.

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