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The Paratwa are back, wreaking wholesale slaughter, destroying everything in their path without rhyme or reason. And as the body count grows, it looks like the question isn't whether or not the Paratwa will succeed in decimating the last vestiges of mankind--but when. Martin's Press.
To Susan Quint, there was nothing at all remarkable about the four-mile-wide, eighteen-mile-long space community of Honshu. Like the other two hundred and seventeen floating cylinders that comprised the Irryan Colonies, Honshu orbited the devastated Earth at a perigee of over one hundred thousand miles. Like that of most of the other colonies, the cylinder's inner surface was divided into six lengthwise strips—alternating land and sun sectors—the latter three arcs composed of thick slabs of cosmishield glass. Honshu's citizens lived on the inside of the vast cylinder, on the three land sectors, under a gravitational pull of 1G induced by the cylinder's slow and carefully regulated rotation rate. For a medium-sized colony with a service economy, Honshu's population fit the normal curve; slightly more than five million people breathed the air of its self-contained ecosystem. Most of those citizens lived in this capital city of Yamaguchi.
In almost every respect, Honshu was an ordinary colony. In almost every respect, Susan Quint was glad to be leaving it.
She took one last look at the triple image of the noonday sun, reflected through the three cosmishield glass strips by rows of mirrors, and then entered a glittering red archway between two office buildings. The archway, typical of shuttle terminal entrances in Yamaguchi, was shaped like an ancient pagoda. Inside the portal, the pagoda arch collapsed into a luminescent tunnel: a glowing ramp descending into the bowels of the city.
Susan squinted. Shuttle entrances were notoriously overilluminated, and this tunnel had to be at least twice as bright as the filtered sunlight out on the street. A monumental waste of electricity, she thought, but then everybody wasted electricity. Few colonies ever had to worry about the cost of energy; community power needs were adequately satisfied by keeping the northern ends of the cylinders aimed at the sun. Solar power was cheap and abundant, and Honshu, like many other midsized colonies, flaunted its electrical wealth.
But no matter how well Honshu lit itself, no matter how exotic its shuttle-port entrances appeared, this colony, like all others, faded into the shadows when contrasted against the light and decor of Irrya.
Susan could hardly wait to get back home. She certainly enjoyed her job and the fantastic travel privileges it afforded her. But on this trip, she had been away from Irrya for almost a week, and to be out of touch with the Capitol for that length of time did nothing to help her career, to say nothing of her social life. Maintaining status was not an easy task in Irrya; the crown jewel of the Colonies demanded constant attention, and the competition for that attention was intense.
Susan allowed herself a smile. Of course, she did have a rather unfair advantage. Not everyone could boast that their great-aunt was an Irryan councilor—one of five human beings whose decisions determined the political course of the Colonies.
Aunt Inez was the chief executive of La Gloria de la Ciencia—the science and technology advocacy group—and it was in that capacity that she had gotten Susan this job, as a progress inspector for the organization.
The brightly lit entrance tunnel continued curving downward. A few hundred feet later, it opened into the equally well illuminated underground concourse. Five other inlet ramps poured into the terminal from ground level, depositing multitudes from Yamaguchi's various street entrances. In addition, there were six ramps to handle outbound traffic as well as a plethora of escalators and elevators leading to the actual shuttle docks a hundred feet below. Susan sighed. Honshu did share one unfortunate characteristic with Irrya. Like shuttle terminals everywhere, it was overcrowded.
At least she would not have to wait in line at any of the automated ticket machines that rimmed the concourse. Susan's shuttle pass, issued by La Gloria de la Ciencia, enabled her to move from Colony to Colony with minimal delay. La Gloria de la Ciencia took care of all travel arrangements and Susan consciously thanked them for that little perk each time her duties necessitated plunging into a corpulent terminal like this one.
Gripping her transit bag tightly, and with a glance upward at the color-coded ceiling grid, she began squirming her way through the mass of people, heading for the departure gates. She walked briskly, eyes straight ahead, ignoring the usual profusion of social fatix and outcasts who seemed to gravitate to shuttle terminals throughout the Colonies.
There were beggars and barterers. There were hordes of silkies, male and female, wearing every imaginable style of enticing garment, their eyes alert for bored travelers with enough time—and money—to afford a sexual romp at one of the nearby hotels. Missionaries garbed in flowing blue-green robes solemnly handed out invocation disks, seeking converts for their Reformed Church of the Trust. Even today, the Church remained a powerful institution, albeit a pale shadow of its progenitor, the original C of the T, which had splintered following the debacle of fifty-six years ago, when its bishop had been exposed as the tway of an Ash Ock Paratwa.
Dealers and traders drifted through the crowd, offering every sort of merchandise, from rare Earth coins and hologames to scrap antiques, aural encyclopedias, and authentic Costeau odorant bags—the fumigated variety. Phony C-ray ignors stumbled back and forth, eyes vacant, message plates strapped to bare and dirty chests, neon words begging for enough cash cards to provide them with a meal. A few years ago, Susan might have been taken in by these helpless-looking creatures, but these days she was too much the experienced traveler to be fooled. Authentic, genetically retarded individuals, whose ancestors had suffered overexposure to cosmic rays, were a rarity in 2363. Susan found it amazing that people continually stooped to such depths to make money.
She passed by a quartet of Costeaus—the mainstreamed variety—two men and two women, sans odorant bags. They were dressed in stunning purple leisure suits of a style that Susan recognized as being designed by the high-fashion house of A-la Pa-pa-la in Irrya's North Epsilon District. But Costeaus remained Costeaus, and this bunch was not about to let anyone forget the fact. One of the women wore a miniature thruster housed in a silver-and-pink belt strap. Legal, but extremely unorthodox. And the taller of the two men had his shaved skull implanted with staggered rows of detoxified beryllium spikes. Susan flinched. That was positively grotesque. No matter how well mainstreamed into colonial society they might appear to be, and no matter how much everyone seemed to brag about the Grand Infusion, pirates remained pirates.
"That's a fine ass, silky," uttered a male voice from directly behind her.
Susan did not turn. She instinctively knew that the man was talking to her and she also knew that it would be a mistake to even acknowledge his existence.
"Let's trade, silky. Fresh bread for fresh white meat."
She sighed. He wasn't going to let it go, either—one stupid remark would not be enough.
"Hey, silky—today's payday, if you'll only take a chance."
Not just an ordinary hustler, she thought, but a dumb one as well. Silk-trading was technically illegal in many colonies, although authorities everywhere tried to ignore the cylinders' oldest profession. Still, a little subtlety was called for when propositioning in public places. Local patrollers did police shuttle terminals, and if Susan was bold enough to formally complain, the patrollers would at least have to give the bastard a citation.
But her tormentor doubtlessly realized that Susan—along with most other sexual quarries—would be in too much of a hurry to make an issue out of a few noxious remarks.
Having been mistaken for a prostitute enough times in the past, she had gotten used to it. Still, the lewd remarks were annoying. She sighed. Nothing to be done about it. She was twenty-six years old and naturally attractive, and those advantages were too important to disguise by dressing herself like some sort of pre-Apocalyptic nun. And it certainly wasn't Susan's fault that many of the high-priced silkies also seemed to have adopted the latest fashion in Irryan bunhuggy slacks.
The voice tried again. "Hey, silky! With an ass like that you should ..."
The words degenerated into a loud, obscene gurgle. Susan twisted her lips in disgust. Enough was enough. Just because she would not involve patrollers in the matter did not mean that she had to put up with this sort of blatant harassment. She spun around, fully prepared to throw the bastard a few choice words.
He stood three yards behind her—an older man with a pudgy face and deep-set brown eyes. He looked astonished. A full-circle white cape flowed outward to cover an obvious potbelly and the front of the cape bore an odd design of large red splotches. For just an instant, Susan thought that his startled expression had to do with her turning around. But then he opened his mouth and gurgled again, and huge globs of blood poured out and splattered onto the front of his cape, creating a fresh arrangement of gross red stains.
Susan retreated in horror.
The man shuddered and collapsed facedown onto the terminal floor. The back of his cape was torn and shredded; he had been stabbed from behind.
A woman shouted. Off to Susan's left, a rapid series of thruster blasts thundered above the din of the terminal, and then the entire crowd seemed to erupt into a screaming mob.
Someone shoved her from behind and she stumbled forward, almost tripping over the body of the caped man. Pivoting at the last moment, she avoided touching the bloody corpse. But she was thrown off-balance, and she had to run several feet forward to regain equilibrium, and then suddenly there was no crowd, but there were bodies littering the floor—everywhere—and she was tripping over arms and legs and some of them were no longer attached to anything, and then her toe smacked into the back of a woman's head, and the head went rolling across the deck—an attractive young face with smiling eyes ...
Susan froze. A scream erupted from deep down inside her chest, but it just seemed to blend into the other screams, as if Susan were just one miniscule fragment of some total entity, one huge creature, overwhelmed by terror.
But the force that maintained Susan Quint as a discrete being erupted to life, and that inner spirit whispered into consciousness.
Run! Get away from here!
And then she was leaping over bodies, head twisting wildly from side to side, simultaneously looking for the killer and scanning the leading edge of the retreating crowd, knowing that she would be infinitely safer as a part of a group, rather than out in the open like this ...
Everything seemed to slow down for her; the slightest micromotion became perceptible. She could feel muscles tensing and compressing as her legs carried her through the air, over still-writhing torsos and flopping appendages—a video ballerina, operating at some heightened level of awareness, more alert than she could ever recall ...
Noise. A shock wave of insane melodies, blasting into her head: the endless mass scream of a thousand terrified people, the deep bass roar of thruster fire and, high above it all, the shrill echoes of fresh victims. And Susan suddenly realized that she was moving closer to those primal cries, closer to the source of death.
And there he was, not more than ten feet away from her, a madman with a pair of flashing daggers. Susan felt abruptly unreal, as if her body had gone blind, as if this were all just a bad dream, happening in some other place, some other time.
He looked like a typical ICN banker, wearing a sharply creased gray suit, with a stylish sunshield visor circling his forehead, draping a pair of faintly polarized disks across his eyes. He had short-cropped blond hair, a hooked nose, and a slate-colored blade in each hand.
And there was something bizarre about the daggers.
Susan could not focus on them, could not actually see the knives clearly. It was as if she were looking at a kinetic holoprojection with the beams out of alignment, creating blurred edges. A crazed killer with three-dimensional cartoon images clutched in his fists.
But those images were administering death—real and final.
He spun to face her and for a fraction of a second, their eyes locked. And then Susan experienced the strangest shock of all, for she saw a spark of recognition play across the killer's face, and she knew—in one infinitesimal moment—that somehow, somewhere, they had met.
But even as her eyes confirmed the acquaintance, her mind tried to deny it. I could not know such a monster.
The moment of recognition passed. His face returned to a blank stare. With frightening speed, he lunged forward, right hand extended, an indistinct blade coming at her, a gray blur seeking her chest. It was too late to react—her forward speed would thrust her straight onto the dagger.
And she thought: I'm going to die—away from Irrya.
The Costeau saved her life.
He lunged at the killer from behind, his beryllium-spike hairdo glimmering weirdly under the terminal's intense lighting, a serrated dagger poised at his side, ready to strike.
The killer whirled, and Susan experienced a sense of confusion, for the madman's movement was unnatural, overly delicate—liquid speed—precise beyond what should have been humanly possible. One of the killer's daggers seemed to leap forward, as if the blade itself had somehow doubled in length.
A flash of red—a blur piercing the pirate's chest. The Costeau fell. The madman spun back to face Susan, but the crowd had changed direction again, and she was enveloped by a wave of screaming people—a primal force with its own sense of orientation.
She caught one last glimpse of the killer, indistinct knives cutting into new prey, and then the crowd mercifully carried her away.
The thundering roar of thruster fire came to an abrupt halt. Rising above the wails of the panicked mob, a man yelled:
"The Paratwa must not return! Long live the Order of the Birch!"
It was the killer with the knives. Susan was sure of it.
And from further away, from the source of the thruster fire, came a second male voice: "Long live the Order of the Birch!"
The horrendous thruster erupted again and the crowd instantly reacted. Susan felt herself being squeezed on all sides, almost lifted into the air by the enormous pressure of the terrified mob. She fought to stay upright, maintain her balance, flow in the direction of the mob, knowing that if she should fall, or attempt to fight this human current, that she would be trampled to death.
The crowd funneled insanely into one of the exit ramps and she experienced another episode of distorted time. But this time, awareness seemed to descend into some incredibly ancient pathway of body knowledge, and it was as if she had suddenly gained access to a place beyond ordinary memory, a primal environment where only physical rhythm carried meaning. She felt herself struggling for life in that place and she had the sense that she was being squeezed through a womb, fighting to be born. In some strange and inexplicable way, Susan knew that she was actually reliving a fragment of her own birth experience.
And then the lights dimmed and the pressure relented and there was space to breathe again as the screaming mob plunged out through the pagoda archway, onto the Yamaguchi street. Birth memories dissolved under Honshu Colony's noonday sun and she was in the present again—alive. The golden light of Sol, repeated in triplicate through the three strips of cosmishield glass, splashed across her face, burning away the madness and fear.
Susan did not stop to savor the emotion. She kept running, until she was far from the terminal.
Excerpted from Ash Ock by Christopher Hinz. Copyright © 1989 Christopher Hinz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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