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Five-time Nebula and four-time Hugo Award-winner Silverberg paints a starkly dramatic portrait of Earth in the future--a world ravaged by ecological disaster--and of humanity perched on the edge of extinction.
That's my mark, Juanito told himself. That one, there. That one for sure.
He stared at the new dinkos coming off the midday shuttle from Earth. The one he meant to go for was the tall one with no eyes at all, blank from brow to bridge of nose, just the merest suggestions of shadowy pits below the smooth skin of the forehead. Not even any eyebrows, just bare brow-ridges. As if the eyes had been erased, Juanito thought. But in fact they had probably never been there in the first place. It didn't look like a retrofit gene job, more like a prenatal splice.
He knew he had to move fast. There was plenty of competition. Fifteen, twenty couriers here in the waiting room, gathering like vultures, and they were some of the best: Ricky, Lola, Kluge. Nattathaniel. Delilah. Everybody looked hungry today. Juanito couldn't afford to get shut out. He hadn't worked in six weeks, and it was time. His last job had been a fast-talking fancy-dancing Ukrainian, wanted on Commonplace and maybe two or three other habitat worlds for dealing in plutonium. Juanito had milked that one for all it was worth, but you can milk only so long. The newcomers learn the system, they melt in and become invisible, and there's no reason for them to go on paying. So then you have to find a new client.
"Okay," Juanito said, looking around challengingly. "There's mine. The weird guy. The one with half a face. Anybody else want him?"
Kluge laughed and said, "He's all yours, man."
"Yeah," Delilah said, with a little shudder. "All yours." That saddened him, her chiming in like that. It had always disappointed Juanito that Delilah didn't have his kind of imagination. "Christ," she said. "I bet he'll be plenty trouble."
"Trouble's what pays best," Juanito said. "You want to go for the easy ones, that's fine with me." He grinned at her and waved at the others. "If we're all agreed, I think I'll head downstairs now. See you later, people."
He started to move inward and downward along the shuttle-hub wall. Dazzling sunlight glinted off the docking module's silvery rim, and off the Earth shuttle's thick columnar docking shaft, wedged into the center of the module like a spear through a doughnut. On the far side of the wall the new dinkos were making their wobbly way past the glowing ten-meter-high portrait of El Supremo and on into the red fiberglass tent that was the fumigation chamber. As usual, they were having a hard time with the low gravity. Here at the hub it was one-sixteenth Earth-G, max. Probably the atmosphere bothered them too. It was clean here, with a lot of oxygen in it and no garbage. They were accustomed to the foul filthy soup that passed for air on Earth, the poison that they breathed all the time, full of strange stinking gases that rotted your lungs and turned your bones to jelly.
Juanito always wondered about the newcomers, what it was that had made them choose Valparaiso Nuevo in particular, of all the worlds in space. Everybody wanted to get away from Earth, sure. That was easy to understand. Earth was a mess. But there were plenty of other satellite worlds to run off to. You could get nice fresh air and a decent climate on any of them. Those who came to Valparaiso Nuevo had to have special reasons for making that choice. They fell into one of two main classes: those who wanted to hide, and those who wanted to seek.
The place was nothing but an enormous spacegoing safe house. You had some good reason for wanting to be left alone, you came to Valparaiso Nuevo and bought yourself a little privacy. But that implied that you had done something that would make other people not want to let you alone. And a lot of those people came to Valparaiso looking for the ones who didn't want to be found. There was always some of both going on here, a lot of hide-and-seek, some people hiding, some seeking—with El Supremo looking down benignly on it all, raking in his cut. And not just El Supremo.
Down below, the new dinkos were trying to walk jaunty, to walk mean. But that was hard to do when you were keeping your body all clenched up as though you were afraid that you might go drifting off into midair if you put your foot down too hard. Juanito loved it, the way they were crunching along, that constipated mudcrawler shuffle of theirs.
Gravity stuff didn't ever bother Juanito. He had spent all his life out here in the habitats, the satellite worlds, and he took it for granted that the pull was going to fluctuate according to your distance from the hub. You automatically made compensating adjustments, that was all.
Juanito found it hard to understand a place where the gravity would be the same everywhere all the time. He had never set foot on Earth or any of the other natural planets, didn't care to, didn't expect to. The settlements on Mars and Ganymede were strictly for scientists only, and Luna was a damn ugly place, and as for Earth, well, you had to be out of your mind to want to go to Earth, even for a visit. Just thinking about Earth, it could make you sick to your stomach.
The guard on duty at the quarantine gate was an android with a flat plastic-looking face. His name, his label, whatever it was, was something like Velcro Exxon. Juanito had seen him at this gate before. As he cane up close the android glanced at him and said, "Working again so soon, Juanito?"
"Man has to eat, no?"
The android shrugged. Eating wasn't all that important to him, most likely. "Weren't you working that plutonium peddler out of Commonplace?"
Juanito said, smiling, "What plutonium peddler?"
"Sure," said the android. "I hear you."
He held out his waxy-skinned hand. Even the machines had to be bribed on Valparaiso Nuevo. Juanito put a fifty-callaghano currency plaque in it. The usual fee for illicit entry to the customs tank was only thirty-five callies, but Juanito believed in spreading the wealth, especially where the authorities were concerned. They didn't have to let you in here, after all. Some days more couriers showed up than there were dinkos, and then the gate guards had to allocate. Overpaying the guards was simply a smart investment.
"Thank you kindly," the android said. "Thank you very much." He hit the scanner override. Juanito stepped through the security shield into the customs tank and looked around for his mark.
The new dinkos were being herded into the fumigation chamber now. They were annoyed about that—they always were—but the guards kept them moving right along through the puffy bursts of pink and green and yellow sprays that came from the ceiling nozzles. Nobody got out of customs quarantine without passing through that chamber. El Supremo was paranoid about the entry of exotic microorganisms into Valparaiso
Nuevo's closed-cycle ecology. El Supremo was paranoid about a lot of things. You didn't get to be sole and absolute ruler of your own little satellite world, and stay that way for thirty-seven years, without a heavy component of paranoia in your makeup.
Juanito leaned up against the great curving glass wall of the customs tank and peered through the mists of sterilizer fog. The rest of the couriers were starting to come in now. Juanito watched them going to work, singling out potential clients, cutting them out of the herd. Most of the dinkos were signing up as soon as the deal was explained, but as always there were a few who would shake off all help and insist on setting out by themselves. Cheapskates, Juanito thought. Assholes and wimps, Juanito thought. But they'd find out. It wasn't possible to get started on Valparaiso Nuevo without a courier, no matter how sharp you thought you were. Valparaiso was a free enterprise zone, after all. If you knew the rules, you were pretty much safe from all harm here forever. If not, not.
Time to make the approach, Juanito figured.
It was easy enough finding the blind man. He was very much taller than the other dinkos, practically a giant: a long- limbed massive man some thirty-odd years old, heavy bones, powerful muscles. In the bright glaring light his blank forehead gleamed like a reflecting beacon. The low gravity didn't seem to trouble him much, or his blindness. His movements along the customs track were easy, confident, almost graceful Like all the rest of the newly arrived passengers, he had the rough, blotchy skin that Earth people tended to have, flaky and reddened from frying all the time in that murderous torrid sunshine of theirs.
Juanito sauntered over and said, "I'll be your courier, sir. Juanito
Holt." He barely came up to the blind man's elbow.
"New arrival assistance service. Facilitate your entry arrangements. Customs clearance, currency exchange, hotel accommodations, permanent settlement papers if that's what you intend. Also special services by arrangement."
Juanito stared up expectantly at the blank face. The eyeless man looked back at him in a blunt straight-on way, what would have been strong eye contact if the dinko had had eyes. That was eerie. What was even eerier was the sense Juanito had that the eyeless man was seeing him clearly. For just a moment Juanito wondered who was going to be controlling whom in this deal.
"What kind of special services?"
"Anything else you need," Juanito said.
"Anything. This is Valparaiso Nuevo, sir."
"Mmm. What's your fee?"
"Two thousand callaghanos a week for the basic. Specials are extra, according."
"How much is that in Capbloc dollars, your basic?"
Juanito told him.
"That's not so bad," the blind man said.
"Two weeks minimum, payable in advance."
"Mmm," said the blind man again. Again that intense eyeless gaze, seeing right through him. He was silent for a time. Juanito listened to the sound of his breathing, quick and shallow, the way all Earthsiders breathed. As if they were trying to hold their nostrils pinched together to keep the poisons that were in the air from getting into their lungs. But it was safe to breathe the air on Valparaiso Nuevo.
"How old are you?" the blind man asked suddenly.
"Seventeen," Juanito blurted, caught off guard.
"And you're good, are you?"
"I'm the best. I was born here. I know everybody."
"I'm going to be needing the best. You take electronic handshake?"
"Sure," Juanito said. This was too easy. He wondered if he should have asked three kilocallies a week, not two, but it was too late for that now. He pulled his flex terminal from his tunic pocket and slipped his fingers into it. "Unity Callaghan Bank of Valparaiso Nuevo. That's access code 22-44-66, and you might as well give it its own default key, because it's the only bank here. Account 1133, that's mine."
The blind man donned his own terminal and deftly tapped the number pad on his wrist Then he grasped Juanito's hand firmly in his until the sensors overlapped, and made the transfer of funds. Juanito touched for confirm and a bright green +cl. 4000 lit up on the screen in his palm. The payee's name was Victor Farkas, out of an account in the Royal Amalgamated Bank of Liechtenstein.
"Liechtenstein," Juanito said, frowning. "That's an Earth country?"
"Very small one. Between Austria and Switzerland."
"I've heard of Switzerland. You live on Liechtenstein?"
"No," Farkas said. "I bank there. In Liechtenstein, is what Earth people say. Except for islands. Liechtenstein isn't an island. Can we get out of this place now, do you think?"
"One more transfer," Juanito said. "Pump your entry software across to me. Baggage claim, passport, visa. Make things much easier for us both, getting out of here."
"Make it easier for you to disappear with my suitcase, yes. And I'd never find you again, would I?"
"Do you think I'd do that?"
"I'm more profitable to you if you don't."
"You've got to trust your courier, Mr. Farkas. If you can't trust your courier, you can't trust anybody at all on Valparaiso Nuevo."
"I know that," Farkas said.
Collecting Farkas's baggage and getting him clear of the customs tank took another half an hour and cost about two hundred callies in miscellaneous bribes, which was about standard. Everyone from the baggage-handling androids to the cute snotty teller at the currency-exchange booth had to be bought. Juanito understood that things didn't work that way on most habitat worlds; but Valparaiso Nuevo, Juanito knew, was different from most habitat worlds. In a place where the chief industry was the protection of fugitives, it made sense that the basis of the economy would be the recycling of bribes.
Farkas didn't appear to be any sort of fugitive, though. While he was waiting for the baggage Juanito pulled a readout on the software that the blind man had pumped over to him and saw that Farkas was here On a visitor's visa, six-week limit. He listed his employer as Kyocera-Merck, Ltd. So he was a seeker, not a hider, here to track somebody down who was wanted by one of the biggest of the Earth megacorporations. Well, that was okay. Hider, seeker: it was possible for a courier to turn a profit working either side of the deal. Running traces wasn't Juanito's usual number, but he figured he could adapt.
The other thing that Farkas didn't appear to be was blind. Maybe he had no eyes, but that didn't seem to interfere with his perceptions of his surroundings. As they emerged from the customs tank he turned and pointed back at the huge portrait of El Supremo and said, "Who's that? Your president?"
"The Defender, that's his title. The Generalissimo. El Supremo, Don Eduardo Callaghan." Then it sank in and Juanito said, blinking, "Pardon me. You can see that picture, Mr. Farkas?"
"In a manner of speaking."
"I don't follow. Can you see or can't you?"
"Yes and no."
"Thanks a lot, Mr. Farkas."
"We can talk more about it later," Farkas said.
Juanito always put new dinkos in the same hotel, the San Bernardito, four kilometers out from the hub in the rim community of Cajamarca. "This way," he told Farkas. "We have to take the elevator at C Spoke."
Farkas didn't seem to have any trouble following him. Every now and then Juanito glanced back, and there was the big man three or four paces behind him, marching along steadily down the corridor. No eyes, Juanito thought, but somehow he can see. He definitely can see.
The four-kilometer elevator ride down C Spoke to the rim was spectacular all the way. The elevator was a glass-walled chamber inside a glass-walled tube that ran along the outside of the spoke, and it gave you the full dazzling vista: the whole great complex of wheels within wheels that was the Earth-orbit artificial world of Valparaiso Nuevo, the seven great structural spokes radiating from the hub to the distant wheel of the rim, each spoke bearing its seven glass-andaluminum globes that contained the residential zones and business sectors and farmlands and recreational zones and forest reserves. As the elevator descended—the gravity rising as you went down, climbing toward an Earth-one pull in the rim towns—you had a view of the sun's brilliant glint on the adjacent spokes, and an occasional glimpse of the great blue belly of Earth filling up the sky a hundred fifty thousand kilometers away, and the twinkling hordes of other habitat worlds in their nearby orbits, like a swarm of jellyfish dancing in a vast black ocean. That was what everybody who came up from Earth said, "Like jellyfish in the ocean." Juanito didn't understand how a fish could be made out of jelly, or how a habitat with seven spokes looked anything like a fish of any kind, but that was what they all said.
Farkas didn't say a word about jellyfish. But in some fashion or other he did indeed seem to be taking in the view. He stood close to the elevator's glass wall in deep concentration, gripping the rail, not saying a thing. Now and then he made a little hissing sound as something particularly awesome went by outside. Juanito studied him with sidelong glances. What could he possibly see? Nothing seemed to be moving beneath those shadowy places where his eyes should have been. Yet somehow he was seeing out of that broad blank stretch of gleaming skin above his nose.
It was damned disconcerting. It was downright weird.
Excerpted from Hot Sky at Midnight by Robert Silverberg. Copyright © 1994 Robert Silverberg. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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