Saturday, May 31, 2008

Chapter seventeen: I felt like ice was thickening in my veins

Previous Chapter

It was in the third week of my slow infiltration of Carnival cluster that the megastorm hit. It was at the south pole of Venus, and Lewis had been right, the live footage of it was impressive. All the news channels were full of the thunder and lightning it and people followed the storm's course as if it were a war. There weren't many casualties; people had learned the lessons of how to ride out the fury from previous experience.

With the news of the storm, there began a mass migration of bloon fishermen from the northern to the southern hemisphere, because the dust stirred up by a megastorm causes a huge upsurge in the bloon populations in the storm's aftermath.

The storms effects were felt even at the equator; the overturning of the atmosphere at the south pole generated planetary waves that rippled along the natural stratifications in the Venusian atmosphere. The City and the Circle around Venus started a slow undulation that the control systems of the City worked hard to dampen. They were largely successful, and a good thing, too. Uncontrolled oscillations of that magnitude could rip the seams of the City apart.

In Darkunder, the altitude controls for the clusters are inferior to those of the City and the Circle. Small clusters are less at risk; they don't flex to waves that are longer that the cluster size. They do bob in the air currents, however, and the storm brought a mild sense of unaccustomed movement to the land of shadow.

I watched the storm for a few hours in the afternoon, then headed over to Carnival. I took a taxi, letting someone else drive for a change. It was light night; I wasn't sure how long I'd be away from my hotel and I didn't want to tie up one of Fumio's transport bloons for so long a time.

When we arrived at Carnival, I noticed that it had grown since the day before. Many of the traveling shows were returning for the duration of the storm, to make preparations before heading south to entertain the fishermen during the great bloon harvest that was in the forecast. Another shuffle of the cards, I guess; another Carnival hand to play.

I paid the driver and sent him on his way. Then I headed toward theater row.

There are five main theaters in Carnival, performance spaces large enough to hold as many as five hundred people at a time, though it would overload the cluster if all were to be filled at once. One of the theaters, called The Labyrinth, has been cut up into a multitude of smaller spaces, public, semi-private, and private. The Labyrinth specializes in sex, a venue for voyeurs and exhibitionists, people meeting people that they don't particularly want to ever see again, but who they want to see for a night. It's not a very good market for prostitutes, except as stage acts; The Labyrinth specialized in amateur talent. It also seemed like a good place to track certain types of disease vectors, and I'd been keeping my eye on it for a while, with no success. I had, however, checked its history well enough to have found a couple of outbreaks of hepatitis G in which it had been implicated. People never learn.

Three of the other four theaters in Carnival were general performance spaces that swung from light opera to Shakespeare to power quintets. The remaining theater was called The Arena.

The Arena was another specialized venue; it specialized in fights. Mostly this was human combat, but I saw one cockfight staged during my time there. Beyond that there was boxing, judo, full contact karate, kendo, fencing, you name it. As long as it involved a winner and a loser, The Arena liked to put it on the stage, especially if there was the possibility of blood involved. It was this aspect of it that interested me.

I'd been to The Arena three times in the three weeks I'd been investigating, and I hadn't seen the entire repertoire of the place yet. That night, there were two scheduled competitions, Olympic-style gloved boxing, and a relatively new thing called "slasher." I hadn't seen a slasher fight yet, but from its description, it was something I needed to check out.

The larger clubs and theaters are near the midway of Carnival, where the air is a swirl of light and shadow, and there is always a babble of a crowd. I trailed a parade when I arrived, a procession of costumed dancers following a drum line toward who knows what destination. The costumes seemed to have an animal theme, with wolves and tigers in the majority. People seldom dress as sheep or cattle; they prefer to fantasize about freedom and power.

I was maybe a hundred meters from the Arena when I heard a woman's voice from behind me. "Hello, Ed," someone said, and I turned around.

It was Cheryl Chiba, Calvin Lee's former girlfriend. She was with two other people, one male, one female, both about her age. All three were wearing masks, but they were for show only, black eyemasks that covered little more than eyeglasses would. Black was the central theme of the trio, in fact. Cheryl wore a striped black leatherette body suit that had a peacock sheen to it, barely visible in the shifting lights of the Carnival corridors. The stripes were dark gray on the black, and the whole things would have been unisex, except that the body that it enclosed was so obviously female. Wrapped around her at various places, as jewelry, were strands of metal, twisted together like barbed wire. Her belt band and bracelets were both fully spiked; the belt had several strands of chain dangling from it. The overall effect was an apparently deliberate traipse along the boundary between bondage and outright sado-masochism, a sexuality-in-your-face sort of outfit, with all the equipment fully tuned.

Cheryl's companions were similarly dressed, though the effect was less pronounced. They looked like xerx plant copies, following along after the original.

"Hello, Cheryl," I said, turning. "What brings you to these parts?"

She let a smile break though the intense blasé expression that young people have always worn as an attempt to appear worldly. She held out a hand to me, and I touched it briefly in greeting, wondering just how much damage a full embrace from her barbed outfit could do to a man.

"We're here for slash night at the Arena," she said. "This is John and Joan, not their real names, but an accurate simulation." Her eyes glittered behind the mask, and her voice was slightly revved, like someone with a stimulant buzz on. Her companions seemed to vibrate slightly; they didn't have the sort of muscle control that Cheryl had, and their movements were vaguely spastic. Cheryl's had a more controlled, whiplike character to them. I wondered just what mix they were on.

"Nice to meet you," I told the two of them, and offered a handshake to each of them. The girl giggled when I touched her.

"So are you headed for the fights?" Cheryl asked me. "I hear that Caine is fighting tonight."

"I'm going to The Arena, yes," I told them, as the four of us began to walk again. "I don't know any individual fighter's name; I only got interested a few weeks ago."

"Why the sudden interest," she asked. "Are you thinking of taking up a hobby?"

I shrugged. "No particular reason," I told her. "Just curious."

"Is this the guy you told us about?" said John. "It is, isn't it? The cop-oid who does the jump kicks and who did the sky dive that time?" Cheryl made a face at him.

"Jeez, John, you can be such a pleege. Why don't you just ask him his dick size while you're at it?" Then she said to me. "Sorry if I blabbed," she told me.

I shrugged again. "No matter," I said. "These stories grow with each retelling." I paused. "Rather like my dick size, in fact." Both John and Joan giggled.

Then we reached the Arena, paid our tickets and went inside.


The Arena can hold maybe four hundred people without crowding, but it was crowded that night, and the four of us had to push our way through the crush of people at the door. We'd gotten seats near the front, but there were a lot of people milling around in the standing room section behind the seats. There was an edge to the spectators. Violence as a spectator sport can do that. The main ring was an elevated platform at the center of the space, surrounded by wire mesh. From the looks of the crowd, I could see why the fighters might feel safer that way.

One guy tried to block our path as we neared the seats; I couldn't tell if he was just harassing the rich folk, or if it was meant as some sort of challenge to me. I sometimes get that, most often in a certain kind of bar, and it has always baffled me why the challengers are so often guys who can't fight worth a damn. That looked to be the case with this one, certainly.

The guy was more intelligent than some, though, or maybe my cheery smile, and "Excuse me," confused him. Anyway, the four of us slid by him without a protest. The aisle wasn't quite narrow enough to block without effort, and I don't think this guy wanted to expend much effort. Or maybe he didn't want to miss the fight.

We'd arrived between rounds of a gloved boxing match. Olympic-style boxing has lasted for centuries; it found a good match between style and bloodshed, and it has served as a crowd pleaser ever since. I've tangled with a few boxers from time to time, and they are not my favorite sport. They're tough and they know how to take and inflict pain.

Every martial art has to solve an important conundrum, which is, how do you make it real? You can do kata until your body is hard and tuned, but you still don't know how you will react in a real fight, when there is something at stake other than a raised eyebrow from the sensei.

So the fighting arts tend to divide into two categories: those that test, and those that hold competitions. Each has its drawbacks. Those that give tests can only hope that the fear of failure somehow approximates the fear of death or mayhem that comes when someone is really trying to do you harm. That it works at all gives some indication of the relative importance that we give our egos and our bodies.

Competition, even full contact competition, brings a more subtle problem. No martial art will last long if it kills its students with any regularity. But that means that the strongest techniques -- those that can kill -- must somehow be blunted. I have seen powerful and well-trained men lose an encounter because their training included too much of pulled punches, and proscribed strikes. They simply didn't get reality through to their reflexes.

The introduction of gloves into boxing (the old word was "fisticuffs" because all the hitting is done with the fists) produced another paradox. The gloves are to protect the hands; bare-knuckled fighters break their hands too often, and that shortened careers and lost students. Also, the gloves, because of the way that they cushioned the blow, actually improve the momentum transfer between a thrown punch and the body or head of the target. The paradox then, was that hand protection translated into increased risk to the head and its contents. Knockouts became far more common after the introduction of the gloves allowed a punch to bounce a man's brains back and forth inside his skull, rather than expending its energy in breaking bones. And with the knockouts came a greater risk of brain damage, and occasionally, of death.

So, although Olympic-style boxing has no truck with killing blows like elbow strikes, or choke holds, or neck breakers, it carries a significant risk to the boxer. It makes the combat real with the oldest of tricks, reality.

The reality that night was of a crowd in the opening throes of blood lust. We'd arrived just before the beginning of the fourth round, in what was billed as a twelve round fight. My first impression was that it would to go the distance. Both men were near-heavyweights, each massing easily above ninety-five kilos. There the similarity ended, however. One fighter was a short, squat, bull of a man, with a pneumotube body and a glaring expression. The other was taller, and seemingly quicker on his feet. He seemed to glide over the floor, his feet never leaving the springy surface of the cage the two of them inhabited. He was always just outside of the little one's reach, firing off short jabs that missed three-to-one and did seemingly little damage when they landed, but enough to score points with the judges and the crowd, and enough to infuriate his smaller foe.

I glanced over at my companions. They had slid into our seats before me; I'd chosen to stay in an aisle seat, Cheryl to my immediate left. Ordinary sound was drowned in the ambient noise and frequent shouts from the crowd, but occasionally, I'd hear a rasp of breath intake from one of the three. Often enough, one of them would shout encouragement to one of the fighters, adding to the surrounding din. I couldn't see her two companions, but Cheryl's brow had developed a sheen of sweat that matched the speedy glitter in her eyes.

Another roar from the crowd brought my attention back to the front. The small one had landed a vicious body strike to the abdomen of the tall one, and the tall one reached out to grab his small opponent behind the head, pulling him into a clinch. There were scattered catcalls as the referee moved in to separate them.

As the seconds passed, I began to wonder at my original judgment. The short one, for all his seeming sluggishness, was slowly modifying his style to take into account the quickness of his longer reached opponent. He already knew enough to roll away from the jabs; now he was beginning to roll forward when he wanted to attack.

The round ended, and the two men went back to their corners, and their handlers appeared through trap doors in the platform floor. The short one was bleeding through multiple cuts to his face and one fairly bloody one to his scalp. He grimaced as the styptic salve was applied to it, but was otherwise occupied in rapid conversation with his trainer. The tall one was unmarked, but he was also talking to his trainer, and he seemed a little worried.

The handlers vanished to where they had come from, and the fifth round began. The short one charged at the tall one, and just as he entered the dangerous range of his opponent's reach, his hips began an almost imperceptible rotation. The jab that was meant to stop him bounced off of his suddenly turning head, like someone punching through a swinging door. And like a swinging door, the short one's body cocked back and came at the taller opponent with a snap.

The tall one managed to get his other hand between himself and the roundhouse right that came at him, so it was primarily his own glove that jolted him. It was enough to interfere with his timing, and when he tried to pull a clinch with his free right hand, the short one ducked under it and landed a short but powerful blow to his short ribs.

The tall one should have gone down, then, to recover his breath. But he didn't and remaining erect was costly. The short one loosed a series of blows that broke through his opponent's guard and pushed him back to the padded wire mesh of the cage. I saw the tall one's legs quiver, like he was now trying to descend to the sanctuary of the floor, but he was pinned.

The crowd had leapt to its feet, and the sound of it was enough to feel as a physical thing. The referee was trying to get between the two fighters, but the small one was just pounding away at the taller man, feet set, like he was working a heavy bag. Finally, the referee grabbed his arm, the short one stepped back, and the tall man slid to the floor. Even then he wasn't limp; he kept trying to sit up, his eyes curling backwards into his head, but his body trying to continue its schedule, trying to get up and keep fighting.

The referee declared the short one the winner, and the trapdoors erupted with each fighter's handlers coming from below. The short boxer did a little victory dance while the taller man was lead off the platform, then the referee repeated the victory announcement, and everyone deserted the stage.

Then the lights came up, and a voice said, "Ladies and gentlemen, there will be a twenty minute intermission. Drinks are available at the rear, and from the roving vendors. If you leave the building and wish to be readmitted, please get your hand stamped before you leave."

"All right!" exclaimed John, who was sitting farthest from me. "And that was just the warm up act." He leaned over and kissed Joan full on the lips. She reached up to stroke his hip.

"Now, now, children," Cheryl said. "This isn't The Labyrinth, or even The Cave. Save it for later." Then she looked over at me and said, "Pretty plasmoid, eh? Maybe even coronesque?" A bead of sweat ran down her forehead and onto her cheek. I felt the cool air descend from the blowers high above us.

"Surface of the sun," I told her, but I felt like ice was thickening in my veins.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Chapter sixteen: Not when a lawyer does it

Previous Chapter

Two weeks after our visit to May B's place, two weeks after bringing little Anna Laird back with us to Marjori's place, I received a call from Marjori. I was in my room at Fumio's at the time, preparing to make an oxygen run, something that I hadn't done for too long, and which needed doing immediately, as one of the other runners had left suddednly.

"Hello, Ed?" Marjori said as I picked up the comm receiver.

"Marjori!" I said with some pleasure. "I was just thinking of you." I had seen her only once since we had brought Anna back, and I hoped that she would not think that I was neglecting either her or Anna's situation.

"That's sweet," she told me. "Even if it's just blarney. I've been talking to Leo Rhinard, my attorney. He's been checking out the laws that apply to Anna's case. Can you meet with us?"

"Any time that's convenient," I told her.

"How about this evening?" she asked. "Maybe around seven? We could have dinner."

"That would be no problem," I told her.

"Good," she said. "I'll have James fix a stir fry."


The dinner was, as usual, superb, good enough to make even a palate as coarse as mine take notice. We three agreed to not talk of the legal situation until after dinner, so Leo Rhinard and I traded stories and used the time to size each other up, as two men will always do when meeting in the presence of a lady known to them both.

Rhinard was a small man, though a better word for it would be compact. He stood maybe one hundred and sixty-five centimeters with an average build kept trim by exercise. I asked him about it and he confessed to an addiction to velk climbing, a sport where people climb walls with special cling shoes, gloves, knee and elbow pads. I told him I'd never tried it, though, in truth, I actually had.

His brown hair was graying at the temples, which gave him a definite presence, amplified by a deep and resonant voice. I told Marjori that he would make a match for Fumio, who has a weakness for beautiful voices, and Marjori laughed. She explained the joke to Rhinard and he laughed also, and suggested that I set up a meeting.

"Wait until she's between lovers, Leo," Marjori told him, and he nodded.

"Very well," he said. "I can be very patient." The barest look passed between the two of them, and I wondered what past involvements Marjori and Leo had been through. I knew from Marjori that her marriage had been somewhat adventurous, and extra-marital activities had certainly been one subset of the adventures.

I refused coffee and dessert, so Rhinard suggested that we begin our business. Marjori said, "I've heard the first part of this already, so I'm going to go check on Anna." We nodded.

He had brought a silver metal briefcase with him which he retrieved from a place by the front entrance, and we went into the main living room, which has the high window overlooking the City. Leo stopped in front of it to admire the view.

"Really quite remarkable, isn't it?" he said. "I grew up much farther down in the middle zones. We used to come up for picnics in one of the upper parks, but the view from there isn't quite as good. The moisture condenses on the windows and anyway, the windows are much smaller."

"Wealth has its advantages," I said. "There are offices on the Skyhook that have views even more impressive than this. Robert Grayling had such an office."

"And now he's dead," Rhinard said. "I understand the sentiment."

"I didn't mean any implications," I said. "We all die, but that doesn't have to make life meaningless." I paused for a moment. "So where do you work?"

"In an office on the Skyhook," he said. "My window is smaller than Grayling's was, I expect, but if you stand closer to it, I'll bet the view is pretty much the same." He broke into a grin. "Should we get philosophical about ambition and striving?"

I shook my head. "No, I think we should talk about inheritance law." I showed my teeth in a grin. I liked Leo Rhinard, though I had the impression that he was slow in making up his mind about me.

We went over to the conversation pit, a sunken area of blue chairs on a black rug, and sat down. Rhinard opened his briefcase and pulled out a sheaf of printouts. "Let's see here," he said to himself. "Judgment this, plenary session that, joint Skyhook/City Authority session . . . ah, here we go."

He looked up at me and smiled. "I've been doing some checking on Grayling's enterprises and how the probate is going. That's easy enough, because it's a massive set of business deals. Some of them are carried in the Financial Times listings, even.

"Now, for our purposes, we want to know what legal rights Anna Laird, the illegitimate granddaughter of Robert W. Grayling might have. That turns out to be a four-part tangle, because there are four overlapping jurisdictions involved."

He picked up a small piece of paper. "One part of it is easy. For the Taylorville jurisdiction, the home of Anna's putative father, Anna has no claim on any inheritance from Grayling. Taylorville is part of a circuit court system, based on a common law tradition. Under precedents established for that legal jurisdiction, no judgments within the system apply to properties held outside of the system. That is consistent with Skyhook codes, as well. So Graylings' assets don't count in Taylorville. However, Anna would have a claim on the Anderson family, should they desire to recognize the child. Marjori tells me that you think this is unlikely."

I nodded. "That family is devoted to maintaining its social position. They would be terrified of losing some of the family assets to the child."

"What if the child turns out to have a claim on a larger fortune?" he asked me.

"That might be a different story," I said. "So I'd prefer not to tell them."

Rhinard smiled a wicked smile. "Yes," he said. "I think that we might be able to file a claim in the Taylorville circuit court, asking for child support for Anna. That would get the Andersons to file a counter-motion, denying legal parentage, under something called 'presumed entrapment.' The law in Taylorville doesn't hold the father responsible unless the father was informed of the mother's pregnancy, among other things. So if William Anderson states that he didn't know, then he signs away his rights."

"That's slick," I told him. "My hat's off to you on that one."

"That's the easy case," he said. "The others get trickier." He separated out a much thicker sheaf of papers.

"First, we have Lunar law." He held up the sheaf of papers. "This is just a listing of decisions, and they all say the same thing. Illegitimate children have no standing under Lunar law. Period. That means that any portion of the Grayling estate that is found to exist under Lunar jurisdiction is denied to Anna."

He pulled off another set of papers, the thickest of the lot. "This is Sky City casework," he said. "Skyhook tried imposing Lunar law on Sky City when it first set up, and that was a total disaster, the closest thing to war that we've had since the Silence. So they started fudging it, fast. And one of the first fudges had to do with inheritance. Legitimate children have the most rights, of course, but then there is the category of acknowledged children, children who have been treated as blood relations through word or deed."

"But Grayling didn't know that Molly was his," I said.

"Didn't he?" Rhinard asked me. "How do we know that? The resemblance was there. He kept in touch with Molly's mother Elizabeth over many years. Then there is the matter of the pistol, a Grayling family heirloom that turns up in Molly's possession. If he gave it to her or her mother, then that could well be taken as acknowledgement."

"Grayling also invited Molly to his funeral," I said.

Rhinard nodded. "Another argument that could be made. Clearly Molly was special to him."

"Well," I began. "That could be..." But I broke off when his gaze shifted as Marjori returned.

"How is Anna doing?" Rhinard asked her.

"Fine," she said. "She's started to cry and Suzette and I sang her a lullaby while we rocked her. She's a very agreeable child. Adorable, too." She gave us a smirk. "I'm thinking of keeping her," she said. I couldn't tell if she was joking.

After a moment of silence, Leo said, "I've been taking Ed down the list. Where were we?" He looked over at me.

"You were about to tell me about the Skyhook laws on inheritance," I told him.

"Ah, right," he said. "Now that's an odd one. There are very few children born on the Hook itself, because you get low gravity deformities, and they don't have the space for centrifuge rooms like there are on Luna. But there is wealth there, and when someone dies, it undergoes a process called 'virtual repatriation.' That means that for the purposes of a legal fiction, the estate is held to exist elsewhere. So the buck gets passed back to the some other locality."

"So Skyhook law doesn't count?" I asked.

"Actually, it does," he said. "Grayling's business enterprise spanned the Venus/Skyhook/Luna trading system. Make that 'enterprises,' because Grayling owned literally hundreds of companies, many of them limited lifetime shipping ventures, corporations that existed long enough to capitalize the contents of a sunship, and which were liquidated when the goods were finally sold at retail.

"So you had one Grayling company buying from another Grayling company, and selling to yet another Grayling company. There were some limits, due to the way the value added taxes are administered, but within those broad limits, Grayling could shift resources between jurisdictions with impunity.

"After Grayling's death, an administrator was appointed to the estate, a Jesse Grayling…"

"Robert Grayling's cousin," I said. "We met at the funeral."

"Right," he said. "Anyway, Jesse Grayling was appointed by Skyhook Authority administrative action as executor of the estate. Skyhook Authority regulations take precedence in matters involving Venus/Luna trade. So that's why Skyhook law is a factor in this. It was a Skyhook judge who appointed Jesse Grayling, and Jesse Grayling has very broad authority over the estate, unless you can convince the Skyhook judge to overrule or remove him."

"So what's the bottom line?" I asked him.

"The bottom line is this. Since becoming executor to the Grayling estate, Jesse Grayling has been doing a rolling liquidation of the estate of Robert Grayling. The main action is for the estate proper to borrow money from some of the Lunar subsidiaries in the Grayling conglomerate, using the Venus properties as collateral. That money is then shifted up to a Skyhook bank, where it is 'repatriated' to Luna, where it can be used to buy up the notes that the Luna companies hold on the Venus holdings. Basically, the Grayling estate is buying itself and shifting the funds to Luna."

I thought for a moment. This sounded confusing. "So where would this leave Anna?" I asked.

"Nowhere," Rhinard said. "Once the process is complete, there will be precious little of the Grayling net worth left on Venus, so there would be nothing for Anna to inherit under Venus law."

"That's legal?" I asked.

"Hell, yes," he said. "In fact, Robert Grayling had done pretty much the same thing in reverse during his lifetime. All his Luna holdings were shells, with the notes held by other subsidiaries on Venus. Cousin Jesse is just reversing the process. Probably for the same reason that Robert did, actually, to allow for a centralized control. They just want that control on Luna now, rather than Venus."

"How long will this take?" I asked. "How long before there's nothing left on Venus?"

"There we have a bit of a break," he said. "The entire process will take years. The law says that everything has to be done at market rates, and you have to move slowly in order not to upset the market. I'd give it one to three years."

"Could you go after the assets immediately?" I asked him. "And get something out of it before the deal was done?"

He shook his head. "I'll file some motions, of course," he said. "But this fund shifting is perfectly legal under Skyhook Authority, and that's what takes precedence here. If Jesse Grayling wants to delay it all, then he can easily buy enough time to finish what he's doing now."

"And Sky City law gets completely overruled?" I asked.

"Sky City inheritance law does," he said. "Now if there have been other legal violations, that might be another matter. Marjori tells me that Grayling was involved in smuggling, those funds would be…"

"He didn't make any money at it," I told him. "We made sure of that." I thought for a moment. "How about other laws," I asked.

"Such as?"

I shrugged. "Suppose Jesse Grayling gets into trouble," I asked. "Suppose he were involved in smuggling, or even something worse, like extortion, or murder?"

Rhinard got very attentive. "Do you know something?" he asked.

I shook my head. "Only suspicions," I told him. "But I do mean to check into them."

"By all means do so," he told me. "Even a well-founded suspicion might be enough to go before the Skyhook judge and ask for another executor, or maybe outside oversight and an independent audit. Or Jesse might think it worthwhile to try to buy us off."

I raised an eyebrow. "Isn't that extortion?" I asked him.

"Not when a lawyer does it," Rhinard told me, and he winked.


Later that night, after Rhinard had left and after Marjori and I had gone to bed and to sleep, I awoke with a start, dreams or nightmares lurching into oblivion, alone in the large bed in Marjori's bedroom.

At first I thought that she would soon be back, but after several minutes, when she had still not returned, I got up and donned a plush robe, noting that Marjori's robe was already gone. I went out into the hall. The door to the nursery was at the end of the corridor, and it was open, a faint night light spilling from inside.

I padded down the corridor and entered the nursery; Marjori was standing motionless over the baby's crib, an abstract mobile slowly moving just above her head. I walked over to her and put my arms around her waist from behind. Her body leaned back into mine.

"Hello, Ed," she whispered. "I thought I heard Anna cry out, but it was just a dream. I came down here anyway."

"Where is Suzette?" I asked, referring to the newly hired nursemaid.

"Next door, asleep," Marjori said. "She was very tired. Babies can do that to you. Not that I know all that much about it." There was a tinge of regret in her voice.

"You raised three children," I reminded her.

"I think that the money did most of it," she said. "I've been thinking a lot about what I told you about that. It's true, you know. Enough money can make children a minor inconvenience. Enough money and enough external distraction. Or indifference."

"That sounds like self-recrimination," I told her. "You don't deserve it. I've met your children. You did fine by them. You still do."

I couldn't see her face, but I think she smiled. "Maybe so," she said. "I'm not sure I did fine by myself, though. I sometimes feel that I missed so much. It's so easy to get distracted by life."

"So you really are thinking of adopting Anna," I said.

She nodded. "Isn't that terrible of me? So dreadfully selfish? To want to take this child to fill my own emptiness?"

"More self-recrimination," I told her. "I won't stand for it." I turned her to me and kissed her. She responded warmly.

"I shouldn't second guess my good fortune," she said. "I've missed you though. I haven't seen much of you lately."

"I have a task," I told her. "I can't really talk about it. It was a special request from Skyhook, though."

"I understand," she said, turning back to watch Anna. "Well, actually, that's a lie. I don't understand. I'm not supposed to. But I accept it."

"I'll never ask for more than that," I told her. I think that I believed it at the time.

Next Chapter

Friday, May 23, 2008

Chapter fifteen: …or tell you a lie of such towering audacity…

Previous Chapter

When I was young I used to fall into dictionaries. There is a lot of human history in the history of words, and when the study of history is regulated, as it is on Luna, any glimpse of it can carry the delicious hint of the forbidden.

"Carnival" comes from the Latin, the etymological lookup tells me. "Carne vale," literally, means "Goodbye flesh." It used to be a time of merrymaking (another deliciously archaic word: merrymaking) before the asceticism of Christian Lent. The last day of it, Mardi Gras (literally: Fat Tuesday) was the big blowout. Entire cities on old Earth would give themselves over to the festivities, and tourists would come from all over the world to take part.

Somewhere in the deal, long before the Silence, another sort of carnival began. These were associated with circuses, apparently, a wandering patch of entertainment that brought amusement from town to town before the advent of mass entertainment. The people of the carnival would show off their freakish bodies, or freakish talents, connive the locals in (usually rigged) games of chance or strange skills, let the children ride animals or mechanical rides, then move on to the next town before the amusements began to pale, or the rubes began to see through the cons.

The Carnival Cluster in Darkunder was a mixture of the two sorts of carnivals, I think, a free-fire zone party and parade for people who just want to blow off steam, and a bit of a con job for those who don't mind being taken. In fact, some sections of it are still it are still itinerant, leaving the niche beneath Sky City for months at a time to go out into the distant clouds far from the equator, to bring the same sorts of timeless entertainment and chicanery to those who still lack better sources of fun. For the first few decades of Venus' colonization, such freefloating carnival clusters were the main source of amusement for a frontier existence, and a fondness for that era still lingers, or so I'm told.

When I first came to Venus, when I couldn't sleep (and that was often) I roamed the clubs and party clusters of Darkunder, seldom lingering for long, always on the move because stillness was abhorrent to me. I spent some time in Carnival, enough to get the taste of it, but not really enough to digest it entire.

It's a big place, the biggest in Darkunder, at least when the nomad clusters are hooked in. Unlike many clusters, it makes no pretense of having a center. Carnival cluster makes a long arc below City Center, a ten kilometer long semi-circle as close to the below-the-City deep descending portion of the Skyhook as is allowed by law. It's one of the oldest parts of Darkunder, a fit place for the pleasures of the hindbrain to be serviced.

It's an easy shuttle ride from the Skyhook, and Carnival cluster is a favorite entertainment spot for the highborn and the mighty, as well as those with energy and a taste for the outré. You can spend an entire evening there "en masque," anonymous, with a false face made publicly presentable by cash. Periodically there is talk about "cleaning up Darkunder," while means Carnival cluster and others like it, but the talk always leads to nothing. Too many people like it the way it is, even if they seldom admit it. Each large entertainment cluster has its own security force, and its own vague sort of law. There are two basic rules in Carnival, "Don't bother the help," and "Don't interfere with someone who is spending money." That seems to cover a lot of human existence, actually.

Carnival is a place of long broad corridors; entire bloons are given over to the thoroughfares, and on any given night you can see at least one or two impromptu parades. The corridors are lined and littered with temporary booths, and a successful booth might move to the side and become a sideshow attraction. The more permanent features are the clubs, and the largest clubs are called theaters. There are two rules for the clubs, that match the rules for the cluster: any customer can leave at any time, for any reason, and any club may ask any customer to leave at any time, for any reason. Both rules have the force of high custom, if not law, and all business, I'll say it again for emphasis, is done in cash.

When Landau of Skyhook Public Health and Safety asked for my help, I hadn't been to Carnival in over two years. It had changed in that time, of course; the layout of the place changes from night to night, and fashions come and go as rapidly as the fickle tastes that drive them. I recognized fewer than half of the clubs from my earlier excursions. In fact, the sideshow booths looked more permanent to my (perhaps ironic) eye.

Carnival holds maybe ten thousand people on any given peak time, which is well past midnight by the twenty-four hour clock. The cluster could probably hold a maximum of twenty thousand souls, more, if some of the furniture were jettisoned, an activity that does occur from time to time, though always from faux vandalism, not necessity. There are maybe one or two thousand full timers, those who live and/or work in the cluster. One of them had been Lucy Dahl, a woman with no official background (there are many such), and no address save General Delivery, Carnival 300965-4926, a semi-private Ident code.

Now Lucy Dahl was dead, of a possibly terrible disease, though more likely a coincidental one. And I was supposed to find, not Lucy herself, since she was dead, but rather where she had been. I was to search out, not the needle in the haystack, but rather the place where the needle once resided.

Ask a straight question of Carnival people and they will either ignore you or tell you a lie of such towering audacity that you feel an urge to pay them by the word, at fiction rates. Press the matter and you will be shown the door. Argue too hard and you may find that the door option has become unavailable. I was looking for a phantom in a world of fantasy.

Dr. Landau's investigators had apparently researched the mores of Carnival the hard way. In reading their reports, I was surprised that only one of them had been seriously injured. The job needed a light touch. Which is, of course, why they came to me. I am, as all will tell you, light touch personified. They may even avoid laughter until you leave the room.

However. Despite my harsh words to Calvin, I was operating under a cover story. That my cover story might be as provocative as my real intention was part of its charm. I was going to pretend that Bert Costello was a Carnival regular (which he may have been for all I knew) and try to track him. Using Landau's high level access codes, I'd modified Costello's records to give him a General Delivery address in Carnival. I'd make a few discreet inquiries to check the pressure gradients. And I'd wander around and watch. And listen. As a great philosopher said, you can see a lot by just observing.

I had a story within a story. I could spend a lot of time in Carnival as just a patron. Story number one. If I needed to ask general questions, I was looking for someone who knew Bert Costello. Story number two. Eventually, I might catch some word of Lucy Dahl; then I'd need to invent Story number three.

This was going to take time. All good recon missions do. Landau had been impatient, the impatience born of desperation. I considered the matter less urgent.

And why was that? I thought about the situation while I wandered the hectic corridors of Carnival that first night. There was always music in the air; not infrequently two or three discordant forms would wrestle for sway above the din. More often, different groups of musicians would find a common theme to hold among themselves, the hollow beat of congas dancing with the hybrid mixture of a Dixieland waltz. Or a brass band would depart from march tempo just long enough to allow the atoballet dancers to twirl by.

If it turned out that Lucy Dahl had indeed died of a contagious disease, what then? That would depend on whether or not the disease vectors could be located and isolated. It would depend on whether or not the disease was treatable, or curable, or whether an effective vaccine could be found. The specter of the Madness Plague on Earth is certainly enough to wreck a man's restful sleep (if one had it to begin with, another "advantage" that I have over so many others). But, in truth, the Madness was unique in human history, and there are few diseases that approach its impact. Landau was correct; a disease of only a fraction of the virulence of the Plague would doom Luna and the artificially maintained colonies, but only if they came between the hammer and the anvil. If none of the ordinary measures were of effect, then extraordinary measures would be used. Extraordinary measures would end or greatly limit interplanetary trade.

Twenty-five years ago, that would have been a disaster; the lifeline between Venus and Luna was stretched tight as a noose. But that equation had changed with Comet Alpha, and its hoard of hydrogen from which water could be made. Luna could go it alone if need be, though great privation would result. And the social structure on Venus would flip and flop. Sky City would shrink to a fraction of its current size without the river of trade that went through it.

But it was not clear to me that the end result would be a bad thing. Life away from Sky City seemed always various and often wonderful to me. For every Taylorville that I'd seen, there was a Marley Farm, with its ganja-loving squires; for every family like the Andersons there were people like Lewis and his tribe of Stochasticists. I admired the world that had grown up within the living bloons and I sometimes worried about what effects of the ongoing migration from Luna would have on it.

Still and all, I am by birth and rearing a conservative person. All policemen are, to a large extent, I think. Also, I did have family back on Luna, an ailing father and a young sister whom I barely knew, assorted cousins and other kin. That I never communicated with these people did not eliminate the bonds of blood. I had personal ties to Luna from my previous lifetime; I did not relish the thought of the sort of disruption that a system wide pandemic could wreak. I would work to prevent it, and if my actions seemed measured and without the frantic flurry induced by panic, well, that was good, too.

So I wandered the corridors of Carnival, thinking my thoughts, seeing the sights, and wondering who and for whom Lucy Dahl had been. This was likely to be a project of some length, and I hoped that the time would be well spent.

In the days that followed, I set to work on my various jobs. During the days of light, I spent my time as I usually did, ferrying oxygen between the light beyond the City and the Dark beneath it. On some evenings I would then go over to Carnival to sit in clubs or walk the corridors, occasionally striking up conversations with those who worked and played there. During the two days of cyclical darkness, my time there was more lengthy, more intense. Some nights I would take the mask and wander silently. Occasionally I would hire a prostitute and spend the night in one of the Carnival cribs, saying hello to the flesh, carne salve, in the flesh there may be salvation. And slowly, slowly, I began to see the weave of the place, to feel its rhythms and to learn its secrets.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Chapter fourteen: I thought you had a plan for all this.

Previous Chapter

Marjori didn't start to laugh until we pulled away, and she kept it moderate in order not to disturb the child. "Is it that funny?" I asked her.

"Oh, darling, the look on your face was priceless," she said softly. "Just 'Hi, my name is Honlin,' and she pushes a baby on you. Whoops." She gave another laugh.

Some of it was a release of tension, I knew. And she was uncertain about our circumstances as well.

"So now what?" I asked her.

"You're asking me?" she said. "I thought you had a plan for all this."

In truth, though, I did not. I'd wanted to find out more about the situation before committing to a course of action. Not much chance of that now, however.

"Well," I said, after a pause. "I suppose that we should contact the child welfare agencies."

She shook her head. "Not yet," she said. "Why do you think that Ms. Barker didn't call the City hospitals and such to inquire about Molly?"

I thought for a moment. "Because she didn't want anyone to know whose Molly's people were. If something had happened to Molly, she didn't want them tracing the child."

"Because there might be some who consider little Anna here to be an inconvenience, right? And that's dangerous for Anna."

"You're pretty sharp, lady," I told her. "So what would you suggest?"

"Anna will be safe with me," she said. "And I have a top rate lawyer. So we'll see what Leo has to say about it all."

"Won't the child be a bother to you?" I asked, thinking of Mirri and the dark circles under her eyes.

"Dear, I raised three of them already," she said. "You're just lucky I've been visiting some of my brood and that I'm feeling maternal." She gave a sharp barking laugh, and Anna stirred.

"Really, though, Ed," she continued in a whisper. "I'm rich, remember? We rich folk hire people for the drudgery. Another nursemaid or two won't cause even a ripple in my household staff. So I get all the pleasure of a little one around the place, and none of the pain."

I think that she was maybe painting a rosy picture for my benefit, sparing me the guilt of having involved her in something that she hadn't asked for. Or maybe not, what the hell did I know about it?

In any case, things were turning out well enough, and for once, I wasn't going to question good fortune, especially not little Anna's.


We returned to Marjori's place and she turned Anna over to one of the James gang while she made calls to arrange for additional servants. She also promised to set up a meeting with Leo Rhinard, her attorney. She'd call me with the meeting time, she promised. Then I left and headed home.

I didn't want to proceed with Molly's case until I learned more about the legal ramifications. Besides, there was this new matter to look into, the problem of tracing the former whereabouts of Lucy Dahl, and finding out whether or not there was a new disease vector for us all to worry about.

It occurred to me that I needed more background, plus some other things that I could only get through a secured data comm unit, and those were most easily accessed at Police Headquarters. So I changed my route to take me through City Center before I went back to Fumio's.

"So," said Calvin as I came in through his office door. "What did the high and mighty want from you? Or can you talk about it?"

"Only to the extent that it's a missing persons job," I told him. "I have to do some trace work in Darkunder, and they didn't have anyone else familiar with the place." That satisfied him for the moment, so he let it drop.

"So what can I do for you?" he asked.

"I need a terminal and privacy," I said.

"Oh," he said, his curiosity obviously again aroused. But he suppressed the urge for further questions and let me use the next office over, one of the time shares that the part-time people used. Calvin was also part-time for homicide, but he also used his office for his other assignment, which was the robbery detail.

The first thing I did was to pull the file on Bert Costello, the man who killed Molly. It wasn't much, but I printed his morgue photo, which was the only one we had. If I was going to go looking for someone in Darkunder, I wanted a cover story, and trying to backtrack Mr. Costello looked to be as good a cover as any. His last known address was in a small dive only a couple of klicks from Carnival, a coincidence that I could use to my advantage.

Next I tried for Reed and Carlyle. The first time I'd tried to access them, I'd lacked the slick, but with my new, top-of-the-line Skyhook codes, I got a partial dump. There was no mention of their current assignment in their files; that probably wasn't even recorded anywhere. But I got their descriptions, photos, some medical records, and service histories.

They were, as I expected, a double team, the Special Guard equivalent of a married couple who trained and worked together. No one in the Guard is allowed to have children; it's something of a priesthood that way, but when they retired, they'd be allowed an unlimited number, or at least as many as they could have in the few remaining years of fertility that Carlyle would have left. It's one of the carrots that gets dangled by Luna Gov to keep the troops in line.

The two had both come up through the ranks of regular police work, though Reed had spent a couple of years in hospital security when he was in his teens. The Guard had also given both of them special medical training, but the assignment that they'd used it for was blanked out. They'd apparently met during their academy years; my guess was that it had been during deep cover training. That's when a lot of the character armor gets stripped away, and it leaves some cadets vulnerable to romantic attachments. It's easier to fall in love when your personality is in a state of flux.

One of Landau's unstated missions for me was to find out what Reed and Carlyle were up to. I'd been doing some thinking about it all, and I gave Dr. Mike Morales a call.

"Hello, Mike? This is Ed Honlin."

"Hello, Mr. Honlin. Is this a secured line?" he asked me after a brief pause. There's about a half second delay for a round trip signal to Anchorage, just enough to be annoying if you notice it.

"Yes, but don't let that count for too much," I said. All Skyhook messages are recorded, and most codes can be cracked if you want to spend a lot of machine time on it. Landau might have been able to wipe yesterday's conference from the databanks, or he might not, depending on who got to it first. My best guess was that he'd made arrangements to kill the files even before the meeting. Dr. Landau seemed to have a good case of looking-back-over-his-shoulder.

"I'll bear that in mind," he said.

"This is just some background," I said. "I've been thinking about something you said, the stuff about bioengineering and the fruits thereof. Who would have that kind of capability currently?"

The pause was longer than the signal delay. After a few seconds, he said, "I honestly don't know, Mr. Honlin. We lost a great deal of technical capability when the Earth went into Silence, of course. Many things that used to be commonplace are now heroic efforts. That would include many types of protein and nucleic acid engineering. And this is not really my specialty."

"Could there be anyone currently at work who could do the sorts of things we spoke about?" I asked.

Another hesitation. "We considered that possibility," he said. "But it seems very unlikely. For one thing, we were unable to come up with a motive for such a bizarre action. Most of the probable causes of the previous . . . um, example, are long dead or defunct."

"Things don't always work the way that they are planned," I said. "Could there have been an accident?"

"Possibly," he said. "The nature of the work is such that only deep black organizations would be allowed to do it, however. So there would be no public record."

"How about the physical facilities themselves?"

"My guess would be that there are no more than three or four such laboratories in the system," he said. "Two in the L-4 cluster, one in L-5, and one on Luna."

"I see," I said. "You say that this is not your specialty, though. Do you have the names of anyone whose specialty this is?"

"I'm not privy to that information, either," he said.

"Okay," I said. "I'll settle for the names of those facilities."

"Well, there's the main biochemical research lab on Luna, of course," he said. "That's the LunaGov Institute for Biomedical Research. Then there's the Sloan Institute in the L-5 cluster, plus Hoffla Research and Clarke-Saunders in L-4."

"Would it be possible for you to ask Dr. Landau to get me a personnel roster for those?" I asked him.

"I doubt that it would be complete," he said. "Some of the work there is deep black, like I told you."

"I understand," I told him. "But something is better than nothing."

"I'll ask him," he said.

Then I thanked him and clicked off.


I got up and went back to Calvin's office. "This is on the QT," I told him, "But Molly Laird did have a child. A three-month old daughter. She's safe for the moment; Marjori is taking care of her."

He looked at me and blinked. "Oops," he said. "That does complicate matters, doesn't it?"

I nodded. It complicated a lot of things. "I think we'd better keep quiet about it for a while."

"Anything else you want from me?" he asked. He looked like he was expecting bad news.

I shrugged. "Can you get the Laird case reopened? Nothing fancy. I'd just like to try to do a traceback on this Costello guy. I won't try anything in the City without your say-so, but I'd like to ask around in the shadows." I showed him the picture.

He looked relieved, but also puzzled. Costello was the least likely lead on the whole deal. If he was a hired hand, whoever hired him would have had the brains to cover the tracks. Checking out the Grayling organization would have made more sense at this point. Then the mental gears worked a bit and he grinned. "Ah, I get it. An excuse to ask around. You're going undercover to . . ."


I cut him off. Maybe my voice had an edge to it and it surprised him.

"This is not undercover work," I said evenly. "No fake identity, no phony cover story. I'm doing a real investigation on a real case, and anything else I turn up just happens to turn up."

"Anything you say," he said, but he sounded dubious.

I tried a smile. It felt real enough. "Just a little legwork for the exercise," I told him. "And maybe a way to stretch a City contract for a few more days."

"Hell, from the kind of pressure I got to get you back on board, you could stay on until you retire," he told me.

"I'm already retired," I told him. "This is just killing time."

"Don't kill too much of it," he said. "We don't have that much room in the morgue."

I had no idea what he meant by that, but it seemed like a good snappy exit line, so I smiled at him again and I left.


It wasn't really that much of a coincidence that Costello had lived near Carnival cluster. He was muscle, a bouncer or enforcer type, and it made sense that he'd try to find work at the largest sleaze palaces in Darkunder. His trips to the City showed no obvious pattern, so I'd start with his hotel and then head for the clubs.

His hotel was a dive that made Fumio's look like the Ritz. Where I live is as cheap as they come, but it's an unfurnished lift bloon in a place that has better digs. Fumio's has the bar and lounge downstairs, places to sit comfortably in the lobby, and a courteous staff. And it doesn't stink.

As you may have guessed, I mention these things about Fumio's to contrast it with Costello's last abode, a place without a name, as nearly as I could tell, just an ad in the Directory that said, Rooms for Rent, and an address code.

The desk clerk wasn't much help, either. I showed him Costello's picture and he said, "He looks dead." The clerk was a runt with beady eyes and an expression that wasn't much better than Costello's picture.

"Sharp eyes," I told him.

"The management won't be happy about that," he said. "I think he owes money."

"Probably because he didn't check out before he checked out," I said. I love to say things like that, but the clerk wasn't up to appreciating my wit. He just nodded.

"What can you tell me about him?" I asked.

"Nothing," he told me. "He came, he went. Then he didn't come."

"Visitors?" I asked him. Another shake of his head. "Any calls?"

"I don't pay much attention to that," he said.

I shook my head and flipped him the smallest denomination note I had on me. His face was a study in disappointment. "Next time pay more attention," I told him, with some disgust, and then I left.

As I pulled the squid from the docking bay, I took stock of the situation. It was beginning to get late and the sun was nearly set. I hadn't even had dinner. I could go back to my hotel, have dinner, call Marjori, and leave my Quixotic quest for another day. Or I could check out the Carnival cluster. I flipped a coin and it came up heads. So I set my sights for the Carnival and put the fans on full.

Next Chapter

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Chapter thirteen: The truth is a hard act to pull off.

Previous Chapter

On my way over to the home of Marjori Low, I had plenty of time to think about the way that life doesn't ask if you're hungry before it fills your plate. Nor does it ask if your plate is full before it dumps another load on you.

And it could care less about your dining preferences.

Landau had offered me money, which I refused; I didn't want to show up on any payment files, and I have enough money to operate. The only thing I took from Landau were a couple of high level access authorization codes and some secured comm line numbers. I don't have that much confidence in secured lines, either, but there are some tricks you can play to make them nearly trustworthy.

Beyond that, what? I didn't know. Lucy Dahl's case probably was a coincidence, for all the fear lurking in Landau's gut. And for all the fact that the phrase, it wouldn't hurt to look into it, felt to my own gut like famous last words.

There was also the possibility that I was being set up. I only had the word of two public health officials that there might be a variant of the Plague virus at large. Was that really enough to risk a tangle with the Special Guard?

Well, that was for later. Tonight, I had other plans. Tomorrow as well. After that . . . we'd see what happened.

I went back out through the checkpoint, and through City Center to my waiting bloon. Marjori lived on the outer edge of The Maze, in a residential section called The Heights, where the old money of Sky City liked to live. Multi-bloon dwellings are either hotels or mansions, and Marjori lives in a mansion, a ten bloon cluster that predates the City even; it was towed into place during the wild years after the Skyhook came down and when the Maze grew like topsy.

There is no checkpoint at the front of Marjori's place, just a dock and an air curtain in front of the door. I rang the front buzzer and was ushered in by one of her servants. His real name is William, though Marjori calls him 'James' just like all the others. That night I said, "Hello, William," maybe because my experience with the Andersons in Taylorville had left me sensitive to the identities of servants.

"Hello, Mr. Honlin," William said with a smile of greeting. Something in my expression must have made him add, "Hi, Ed. Mrs. Low is in the shower. She's been here for about an hour."

"Darling!" came Marjori's voice from across the room. She was barefoot, dressed in a plush robe and her hair was still wet. She not-quite-ran across the space between us and I pulled her into my arms when she got near enough. William discreetly vanished right about then, and Marjori gave me a passionate kiss that underscored her first words.

"I missed you, dear," she said when we finally broke the clinch.

"And I missed you," I told her.

"I wasn't quite finished with my shower," she said, and shrugged her shoulders so that the robe slipped a little. "Would you like to help me finish it?"

"Of course," I told her.


Later, after we'd showered then gone to her bedroom and gotten sweaty enough to need another shower, I told her of Molly Laird and Molly's, at this point still theoretical child. I concluded, "So I'd like your help in checking up on the matter, assessing the situation, figuring out what to do next."

"What do you expect?" she asked me.

I shook my head. "This is a little out of my line," I said. "I haven't checked on the value of the antique gun, for example, but I think that it's worth quite a lot. Whether it's enough to pay for the raising of a child is another matter. But if there is a child, he or she is an orphan now, and arrangements need to be made. There's the problem of custody, for example. I don't know anyone in the Darkunder cluster where I think the child is now, but I suspect that it's not what the authorities would call a 'suitable environment.' Also, I don't know the attitude of whoever has the child now, or what their relationship was to Molly.

"Then there's the Grayling family. I don't want to even think about that bridge until I come to it."

"So tomorrow is…" she began.

"Reconnoitering," I told her. "And I suspect that people will be a lot more forthcoming to a woman than to me."

I traced her collarbone with my finger. "I'd like to have you come with me," I told her. "But you don't have to do it, I'm sure that Fumio would be willing to substitute."

She snorted a laugh. "And have me miss watching you at work again?" she said. "Why should Fumio have all the fun?"

I told her nothing about my new mission from Skyhook.


The next morning found us en route to a small cluster in Darkunder near the southern edge of the City, where the shadow is less intense. Sky City had passed into light by that time, and while the sun had already risen high enough to be obscured by the City itself, the Darkunder edge clusters still got some light from the unshadowed clouds out past the City borders.

The main planetary directory gave the owner of our destination cluster as one May Barker, formerly a licensed prostitute in Sky City itself. Although it's not required, Ms. Barker had registered a business there, probably to make it easier to request services from the City government. Madame Fumio did the same thing; she found that it made getting her weekly power tether more reliable.

The business was registered as "May B's," and also had several licensed masseuses, physical therapists, and sex workers on its official employee roster. But the designated form of business was "night club."

Marjori said, "A place for tired businessmen, perhaps? Come out to May B's, maybe baby? We'll take good care of you. Let go of the tensions of the day; our thoughtful employees will rub and stroke those cares away."

I felt another smile take over my face. "You may have a future in advertising," I told her. "Set it to music and you have the next hit jingle."

"That's jiggle," she said, and she leaned over to lick my ear.

"Not now," I told her. "I'm piloting this squid."

We were almost there, in fact. I'd reset the transponder frequency to indicate a request for docking, and someone had switched on the ready light at the cluster docking area. Marjori made some sort of comment about how the light should be red.

"I'm sensing a certain nervousness about this," I told her. "Could it have anything to do with the fact that this place is basically a bordello?"

"Ah, that could be it," she said. "Henry and I had quite a few adventures over the years, but we never got around to visiting a cat house. For purposes of academic interest, you understand."

"I understand," I said, and she punched my arm.

"Oh, be like that," she said. "So what sort of act should I put on?" She was obviously enjoying the prospect.

"I'd say cool and reserved," I said. "A posture befitting your social standing. Sympathetic and generous, of course, with just a distant hint of snootiness. Too much pleasantness would be taken as phoniness. You are a kind society matron interested in the welfare of an orphan."

She gave me an odd look. "Isn't that what I actually am?" she asked.

"Pretty much," I told her. "That's why this may be difficult. The truth is a hard act to pull off."


We docked at May B's, and pushed our way in through the air curtain. Since it was morning the place was not open for business and the docking area had no attendant. Inside, there was a single man waiting at the entrance. He was nearly as big as I am, and built like a pneumotube, being of the same circumference from hip to shoulders with his neck doing a good job of keeping up. He had the look of a professional bouncer to him.

"We're closed, folks, unless you have a special appointment."

"I did call yesterday," I said. "There was no answer, so I left a message. My name is Ed Honlin, and this is Marjori Low. We're here to see May Barker, about a girl named Molly Laird."

"I wouldn't know about that," the bouncer told us. "You'll have to wait here." It was obvious that he knew who Molly was, though.

The guy vanished through a doorway, then reappeared after only a few seconds. "Mizz Barker says to go on up," he said, his tone of voice telling us how rare a privilege we were getting.

"Thanks," I told him. I felt him looking at me until we were out of sight. I knew that look; he was wondering if he could take me. It goes with a job like his, or any kind of police and security work, actually. It's an automatic function for me as well. I expect that we'd come to the same conclusion about the matter, which is that he couldn't, not on his best day.

We climbed a short ramp to a room of modest size, bare except for a desk at the far end, and a curtain that I guessed concealed a bed. Behind the desk sat a woman who looked like she'd just gotten dressed. She was of indeterminate age, partly because of clever makeup, and partly due to the wig she wore, which was silver gray. She rose to greet us.

"You would be Mr. Honlin, and you would be Mrs. Low," she said to us. "Pardon my appearance, but this is a night club, so I'm usually still in bed at this hour."

Marjori scowled slightly and her tone of sympathy was perfect. "Oh, I'm so sorry, Ms. Barker," she said. "This is my fault, I'm afraid. I didn't think of the time. I just got back to the City last night, and I wanted to take care of this business as soon as possible."

May Barker was cautious in her reply, a hostess smile on her face that revealed nothing. "Please call me May," she told us. "Your message only said that your business involved Molly," she said. "Do you have word of her?"

Marjori looked over at me. I cleared my throat. "We were hoping that you'd already been informed," I said. "But I can see that you have not. Molly was killed about a week ago, a senseless mugging in the City. I've been hired by the City to attempt to put her affairs in order."

What little there was to May's smile vanished, then her face froze into a flat mask. She opened her mouth as if to speak, then closed it again. She did that a couple of times, then finally found her voice.

"I was afraid of something like that," she said. "I was hoping that she was just being thoughtless, but of course that would have been unlike her. My second hope was that she was kidnapped, or comatose." She gave a short bleating laugh that had no humor to it. "Imagine hoping for things like that, just so you won't have to think about worse things."

Marjori reached out and touched her shoulder. "We're so very sorry," she said.

May's back straightened and, while her eyes glistened, no tears fell from them. "So what is to happen to Anna?" she asked.

I asked, "Anna would be Molly's daughter, yes? She said something about a child before she died."

May gave me a funny look, then walked over to her desk and pressed a button. "George, could you get Mirri and have her bring the child with her?" Then she turned back to us. "How did she die?" she asked. "Don't try to spare my feelings; people will tell you that I haven't any."

"People are obviously wrong," I told her. "But I will tell you. Molly was killed with a knife and she died quickly, though she did managed to shoot and kill her assailant. The suspected motive was robbery, of course. You knew that she carried an antique pistol?"

May nodded. "Yes, she wanted to sell it in order to raise money for the child. I think that she wanted to bring some sort of legal action."

"Against the father?" I asked, meaning William Taylor.

"Against his estate," May said, misunderstanding the question. "Molly's father died recently, and he was quite wealthy, at least according to Molly. She wouldn't say who he was."

"Molly's father was Robert Grayling," I told her. "He was indeed quite wealthy."

May's eyes widened a little at the mention of Grayling's name.

"You didn't know?" I asked.

"No, Elizabeth came to us after she had already had the child. She wanted someplace to disappear into, and you can't do that as a prostitute in the City; you can be tracked through the licensing agency. I run a very discreet operation here, though, Mr. Honlin, and Elizabeth stayed with us for almost ten years. She eventually left when she felt that Molly needed a better environment." She spat out the last phrase, leaving no doubt as to how she felt about the "better environment" of Taylorville.

We turned at the sound of a baby's crying and a woman's voice saying "There, there, Anna." The woman carrying the child was herself as young as Molly had been, and she was rocking the child as she walked. She also had dark circles under her eyes.

"Mirri," said May Barker. "This is Mr. Honlin and Mrs. Low. They have come for the child."

Mirri looked at us with a mixture of sudden sadness and relief. I had the distinct feeling that child care hadn't been part of Mirri's job description when she signed on at May B's. For my own part, I was surprised that Anna was being handed over with so little fuss. May must have caught my expression.

"Surprised, Mr. Honlin?" she asked. "That I would just hand Molly's child over to a stranger? But you are not really a stranger, you see. Molly specifically told me that if anything were to happen to her, you would take care of things for Anna. She spoke of you by name. Naturally, I had you checked out, and I can see why Molly thought that you were the man to call."

Mirri had handed Anna over to Marjori, and Marjori was making little cooing noises at the infant, who had quieted down as soon as Marjori held her. Maybe practice has something to do with it.

"And I know this much," May continued. "I'm a small fish and I make my way by not making too many waves. I've heard enough of Robert Grayling, and his kin to know that their kind makes waves. Big waves. Big enough to capsize an organization like mine. So Molly's problem is yours now, Mr. Honlin. Yours and Mrs. Low's. And I thank you."

Next Chapter

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Chapter twelve: What do you know of the Plague virus, Mr. Honlin?

Previous Chapter

Landau said, "About a year ago, a woman by the name of Lucy Dahl entered Sky City Psychiatric Facility. She was complaining of a variety of ailments, including hallucinations, both auditory and visual. Ms. Dahl was not a Sky City resident; she lived in one of the larger Darkunder clusters, a place called Carnival. Are you familiar with it?" I nodded yes.

"Sky City medical facilities tend to pretty much anyone who comes to them, since we like to keep track of the public health situation on Venus, so Ms Dahl was admitted.

"After a brief observation, her doctors concluded that Ms. Dahl was in the midst of a psychotic episode of unknown origin. Therefore, she was given anti-psychotic drugs in an attempt to stabilize her sufficiently to form a reasonable diagnosis. This is standard procedure.

"Ms. Dahl then proceeded to go into anaphylactic shock and died before anyone realized what was happening to her. She was rushed to Sky City Intensive Care, but it was too late for resuscitation. The anaphylaxis had induced major encephalitis and there was extensive brain damage.

"The circumstances of death were sufficiently strange to warrant a full biochemical autopsy, so a number of tissue samples from Ms. Dahl were sent to Anchorage for testing. Unfortunately, the rest of Ms. Dahl's body was cremated shortly afterward."

Landau reached over and touched a button. "Dr. Morales, are you ready?" he asked.

"Yes, Dr. Landau," came the reply.

"Good," said Landau and he pushed another button.

A second wall flickered and suddenly there was another person in the conference. Dr. Morales looked to be another Luna émigré, short, slender, of mixed race and coloration. Darkish brown hair going bald on top. He was wearing a white lab coat, and looked like he'd just stepped away from the glassware.

"Your turn, Mike," Landau told Morales.

Morales looked at me and gave a nod of introduction. Unlike Landau, he started in immediately.

"What do you know of the Plague virus, Mr. Honlin?" he asked me.

My skin had tightened a little when Landau had told me how Lucy Dahl had died. Now the shiver of it went up my spine. I knew more about the Plague virus than is legal to know, probably, but that's one of the things I don't volunteer.

"Maybe you should pretend that I'm completely ignorant," I told him. "Better to hear it twice than to miss something."

He nodded. "Okay, first the short form that everybody knows." He sounded like he was giving a lecture for the hundredth time. "One hundred and twenty-five years ago, the Plague hit the Earth. Its effects were both dramatic and rapid. It drove people insane, with a particular tendency toward paranoid and megalomaniacal delusions. Some estimates place the incidence as high as one-quarter of the entire population of Earth, more than enough to bring down human civilization. Nuclear weapons were used, among other things, and the Earth's Skyhook was destroyed. Shortly thereafter, Earth dropped out of contact with the rest of the solar system, even to the extent of a cessation of all telecommunications. Some subset of Earth's missile defenses remained, however, even after all communication was cut off, to the effect that any powered or large ballistic craft that attempted to enter the Earth's atmosphere was destroyed. The last such attempt was over a century ago, but we can still detect the radar of the defense systems, so it's assumed that the extreme defensive posture remains in effect.

"Fear of the Earth's automatic defense systems, and the machine intelligence devices that operate them, are the stated reasons why no attempts are made to resume contact. In fact, such attempts are illegal."

I nodded at this and concentrated on Morales' face, the way his lips moved when he talked. Keep to the here and now, and don't think of the past, Honlin.

"The biological nature of the Plague is not a subject in common knowledge," Morales continued. "It's one of the restricted subjects, in fact. However, those researchers who have studied the reports from Earth and the few Plague cases that occurred on Luna and elsewhere in the system, are pretty well convinced that the Plague was artificial in origin."

"How can they tell?" I asked, because that was what I'd asked the first time I'd been told about it.

"Because the Plague is too complex a phenomenon to be an accident," Morales replied. "In fact, it is not one virus, but two, called a 'primer' and an 'activator.' That is a biological warfare technique. The primer/activator setup is also one of the reasons why the offworld colonies were spared. The primer hadn't spread very far, and the activator didn't really get off the Earth at all. There wasn't time for it.

"The primer virus was a B cell leukocyte retrovirus that passed by sweat contact. The spread was moderately rapid on Earth, but very slow offworld. We don't know why this was so, but that seems to be the case. It may simply be a matter of differences in vector opportunities. Or some of the spread on Earth may have been artificial. Whatever. The activator was a form of influenza. The effect of the primer was to modify the antigen response of B cells to influenza. Basically, certain neuropeptide chains were added to the antigens and those neuropeptide chains were unstable, breaking off into pieces that could pass the blood brain barrier. After a period of only a few weeks, insanity ensued."

He paused again, for effect, I think. "One vicious little irony of it was that you didn't need the activator per se to do the job. Attempts to immunize against the activator virus also triggered the reaction. So when it looked like there would be a bad 'flu outbreak that year, public health officials in a hundred countries did their jobs -- and poisoned their own populace. By the time anyone realized what had happened, it was far too late."

"So who did it?" I asked. "Who set off the Plague?"

"No one has any idea," Morales said. "I personally think that speculation is pointless. We weeded out all occurrences of the activator virus from Luna, Venus, and the other colonies over a century ago. That's one of the routine blood tests now given to every infant, and every traveler. As far as we're concerned, it's extinct, though obviously, that may not hold for Earth."

"So why tell this to me?" I asked.

"I'm getting to that," he said. He wiped his hands on his shirt in what I took as a nervous gesture. He continued, "One of the occasionally reported symptoms of the Plague was an allergic reaction to several classes of anti-psychotic drugs. Exactly the sort of reaction that Lucy Dahl had shown."

"So you think that she had the Plague?" I asked.

He shook his head. "No, she didn't have the Plague. I tested for that first thing, of course. So we first thought that it was just coincidence. There are plenty of other possible allergens that she could have been reacting to. And when the Plague test came up negative, her body was disposed of." Morales grimaced like a man kicking himself mentally.

"So?" I prodded.

"I didn't stop at that point, however," Morales continued. I continued with some blood tests, protein fractions, that sort of thing. After several weeks of work I found a set of proteins in Ms.Dahl's blood. Let me show you."

Morales went behind his desk and touched a few keys. Suddenly, in the space in front of his desk, there appeared a set of molecular model forms. Right, I thought to myself. One of the advantages of appearing via holovid is that you can put your three-D view screen anywhere you want.

"These two fragments here," Morales began, and as he said it, two of the four floating forms began to glow. "Are taken from Lucy Dahl's blood. The other two are peptide fragments that appear in those of Plague victims."

"They're not the same," I observed.

"Right," he said. "But look at these sections." He tapped a few more keys and parts of both pairs of the forms began to glow.

"Those have the same shape," I said.

He nodded. "The same shape and the same functionality. Those are part of the neuroactive fragments of the Plague antigens. I've isolated no less than twelve similar pairs. Lucy Dahl was probably suffering from something that was very similar in its antigen response to the Plague. Her anaphylactic reaction just underscores that similarity."

"Probably?" I asked. "So you're not certain?"

He grimaced again. "No, goddamn it, I'm not certain. I couldn't isolate a virus from the tissue samples, nor could I get one to grow, at least not that one. I got a couple of dozen viruses, from Ms. Dahl's tissues, and I managed to culture at least half of them, but none fit the profile of something that could give psychoactive antigen fragments.

"But she'd had a recent, fairly severe viral illness, there were several traces of that, things like interferon levels and so forth. And I did manage to analyze her B cell makeup sufficiently to know that it wasn't a primer/activator kind of thing. I think we're only dealing with a single virus, and my hunch is that it's not spread by casual contact. If nothing else, if it were, we'd already have seen more cases. This isn't a slow growing disease. It seems to be acute; at least it was for Ms. Dahl, unless her recent viral reaction was a complete coincidence."

"But you don't know for sure," I said.

He sighed. "No, I don't know for sure. I can't be sure about any of it. I can't rule out the possibility that this is a disease with a long incubation period, and that it's spreading through the population of Venus. I don't think that's the case, but it might be."

Dr. Landau spoke up then. "Ed, if we knew for sure, I'd have declared a medical emergency long before now. I'd put all of Venus into quarantine before I knowingly let something like this get out. But I won't…I can't shut down interplanetary trade just on the basis of some medical guesswork. That would cost lives in other ways, too. I'd be removed from my post before I could carry it out. And I can't go public; the panic would have nearly as profound a negative effect as a full quarantine."

"So what do you want from me?" I asked.

Landau looked to his right, at what I assume was his teleconnection to Morales. "That's all we need now, Mike," Landau said. Morales nodded at him and then to me. "Keep in touch, Mr. Honlin," Morales said, with a trace of irony in his voice. Then the screen went blank, taking the pretty molecular pictures with it.

Then Landau said to me, "I've tried putting some of my medical investigators on this, and they can't even get out of the starting gate. Lucy Dahl lived in Carnival Cluster in Darkunder. You know what things are like in Darkunder."

I grunted. "Yeah," I told him. "You're lucky your men didn't come back dead."

"One of them was assaulted," Landau told me. "Not badly injured, but enough to scare him off."

"So you want me to try to trace this Dahl woman," I said. "After your boys have already messed up the trail."

He moved his head wearily. Maybe it was a nod. "Yes," he said. "We've screwed this up about as badly as you could ask for. We need help. Can you give us some?"

"What about Reed and Carlyle?" I asked him.

"The agents from the Special Guard?"


"I don't know where they are," Landau said. "They don't report to me, and they've gone undercover."

I thought about that for a moment. Something tried to nag at me. One potato, two potato, three potato…

Hot potato.

"So you handed the thing over to the Guard," I said to him. "They told you, 'fine, we'll take care of it.' Is that right?" He nodded, a look of misery spreading across his face.

"Did you send your own investigators before or after the Guard got involved?"

"Before," he said. Then after a moment's hesitation he said, "Mostly before."

"But you've kept investigating," I said. "And when the Guard found out about it, they ordered you to stop." Again, that miserable nod.

"But you don't trust the Guard," I said. "You lack the necessary faith." That put a little steel back into him.

"Don't patronize me, Mr. Honlin," he told me. "This is my job here, to protect the health and safety of Skyhook, and by implication give similar protection to the population of Venus."

"And you can't just hand that responsibility over to some assholes from Luna," I prompted.

"Something like that," he answered.

He got up from behind his desk and walked toward me, stopping with his face just inches from the screen. His voice was plaintive.

"Mr. Honlin, a Plague of Madness one-tenth the incidence rate of the one that hit Earth could doom Luna and every other human colony, with the possible exception of Venus. Skyhook certainly would never survive; there are too many people in too many critical positions. We depend too much on a very advanced and touchy technology. Sometimes I lie awake at night trying to think of how to protect us against something like this, and I get no answers. Then I go to sleep and things get even worse.

"Maybe it's nothing," he said. "Maybe it's all just a coincidence, and maybe there's no danger. But my subconscious thinks otherwise. I haven't had a good night's sleep in over six months. I keep dreaming of new ways to blow up the Skyhook. I keep having visions of more ways to die."

He looked at me with that pained look of a man used to giving orders, not asking for favors. "I hope I'm wrong, Mr. Honlin," he said. "I hope that it's just me who is going crazy. I wish I didn't have the gut feeling that I really, really need your help. But that's the feeling I have. Maybe it's all just silly bullshit, but I have the firm conviction that having you investigate Lucy Dahl is the only thing that is ever going to let me get another good night's sleep."

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