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A Plague of Demons And Other Stories
By Keith Laumer
Baen BooksISBN: 0-7434-3588-5
Chapter OneIt was ten minutes past high noon when I paid off my helicab, ducked under the air blast from the caged high-speed rotors as they whined back to speed, and looked around at the sun-scalded, dust-white, mob-noisy bazaar of the trucial camp-city of Tamboula, Republic of Free Algeria. Merchants' stalls were a clash of garish fabrics, the pastels of heaped fruit, the glitter of oriental gold thread and beadwork, the glint of polished Japanese lenses and finely-machined Swedish chromalloy, the subtle gleam of hand-rubbed wood, the brittle complexity of Hong Kong plastic-islands in the tide of humanity that elbowed, sauntered, bargained with shrill voices and waving hands or stood idly in patches of black shadow under rigged awnings all across the wide square. I made my way through the press, shouted at by hucksters, solicited by whining beggars and tattooed drabs, jostled by UN Security Police escorting officials of a dozen nations.
I emerged on a badly-paved street of starved royal palms, across from a row of fast-decaying buildings as cosmopolitan in style as the costumes around me. Above the cacophony of the mob, keening Arab music shrilled from cave-like openings redolent of goat and curry, vying with the PA-borne blare of Jump and Jitter, reflecting hectic lunch-hours behind the sweat-dewed glass fronts of the Café Parisien, Die Valkyrie, the Samovar, and the Chicago Snackery.
I crossed the street, dodging the iron-shod wheels of oxcarts, the scorching exhaust of jet-peds, the stinging dust-barrage of cushion cars-snorting one almost palpable stench from my nostrils just in time to catch a new and even riper one. Under a ten-foot glare-sign lettered ALHAMBRA ROOM in phony Arabic script, a revolving door thumped monotonously; I caught it and went through into a sudden gloom and silence. I crossed an unswept mosaic floor, went down three steps into an even darker room with a scatter of gaudy cushions and a gleam of gold filigree. I waved away a yard-square red and gold menu proffered by a nicely-rounded harem slave in a brief vest and transparent trousers. I took a stool at the long bar. A bare-chested, three-hundred-pound eunuch with a cutlass, sash, and turban took my order, slid a frosty glass across the polished black marble. Behind a screen of gilded palm fronds, a small combo made reedy music.
I took a long draught; from the corner of my eye I saw a man slide onto the next stool. Casually, I angled the ring on my left forefinger; its specular surface reflected a narrow, tanned face with a bald forehead, peaked white eyebrows, a Kaiser Wilhelm mustache, and a satanic Vandyck. A pair of frosty blue eyes met mine for an instant in the tiny mirror.
"What's the get-up for, Felix?" I asked softly. "You traveling in hair-goods now?"
His eyelids flickered. For Felix Severance, that was equivalent to a yelp of astonishment. Then he gave me the trick wink that was service code of "The Enemy May Be Listening."
"Well, well, John Bravais, as I live and breathe," he said in his high-pitched voice. "Fancy meeting you here ..."
We went through a ritual of hand pumping and when-did-I-see-you-last's, ordered second drinks, then moved over to a low table. He slipped a small gadget from a pocket, glanced around to see who was watching, then ran it over the light fixture, the salt and pepper shakers, the ashtray, babbling on:
"Martha's fine. Little Herbie had a touch of Chinese virus, and Charlotte broke a clavicle ..." He went on point like a hunting dog, picked up a small tabukuk in the form of a frog-goddess, dropped it inconspicuously into his heavy briefcase.
"I heard you were going into mink farming," I said, carrying on the charade.
"Decided against it, Johnny." He checked the spice tray. "Too damned vicious; lousy example for little Lennie and Bertha and the others-" He finished the check, switched off the patter in midsentence, pocketed the spy-eye detector.
"Okay, Johnny," he said softly. "My little gem-dandy patented nose-counter says we're clean." He was looking me over with that quick glance of his that could count the pearls on a dowager's neck while he was bowing over her wrist. "Thanks for coming."
"I haven't run to fat yet, if that's what's bothering you," I said. "Now stop sizing me up and tell me what the false beard is all about. I heard you were here under an open cover as a UN medic."
"I'm afraid Médecin-Major de Salle attracted some unwelcome attention." He grinned. "It seems I broached security. I was advised to consider myself under house arrest; a six-footer with a sidearm was assigned to make the point clear. I ditched him in the first dark alley and faded from the scene. A schoolteacher named Brown rented the de Salle villa after the disappearance-but as Brown, I'm not free to move. That's where you enter the picture."
"Come to the point, Felix. What was so important that I had to come nine thousand miles in thirteen hours to hear? Do you know where I was?"
He held up a hand. "I know; Barnett told me you'd spent seven months in Bolivia building a cover as a disgruntled veteran of Colonna's Irregulars. Sorry and all that-"
"Another week and I'd have landed an assignment running a shipment of bootleg surgical spares-"
"The frozen kidneys will have to wait for another time." He showed me a Mephistophelean smile. "What I have is far more fun."
"The suspense is unnerving me. Go ahead and spill it."
"All right. Let's begin with the world situation."
"I'd prefer a more cheerful subject-like cancer."
"We may get to that, too, before this one's over." He hitched himself forward, getting down to business. "For most of the last century, John, the world has been at war. We haven't called it that, of course-nobody's actually used nuclear warheads. These are nothing but 'police actions,' or 'internal power realignments,' like the current rumble here in Algeria-maneuvers with live ammunition. But while the powers are whetting their claws on these tupp'ny-'ap'ny shooting matches, they're looking hard for a weapon that would give one state a decisive advantage. In the meantime-stalemate."
"Well," I said, pushing back my chair, "that was mighty interesting, Felix. Thanks for letting me know-"
He leaned across the table. There was a merry glint in his eye; he looked like a devil planning a barbecue.
"We've found that weapon, John."
I settled back into my chair. "All right, I'm listening."
"Very well: Super Hellbombs are out. The answer lies in the other direction, of course. A crowd of infantrymen killing each other isn't war-it's good, healthful sport-just the ticket for working off those perfectly natural aggressions that might otherwise cause trouble. But what if a division or two of foot soldiers suddenly became irresistible? Impervious to attack, deadly on the offensive? Your cosy little brushfire war would turn into a rout for the unlucky side-and there would go your power-balance, shot all to hell-"
"How much better can hand-weapons get? The Norge Combat Imperial weighs six pounds and fires a hundred armor-piercing rounds per second. It's radar-aimed and dead-accurate-"
"I'm talking about something new, John. We call it PAPA-Power Assisted Personal Armament. What it means is-the Invulnerable Man."
I watched Felix swallow half his drink, put the glass down, and sit back with his fingertips together, waiting for my reaction. I nodded casually.
"That's an old idea," I said carelessly. "I used to follow Batman and Robin myself."
"This isn't a Tri-D drama-it's a coordinated development in bioprosthetics, neurosurgery, and myoelectronics. Picture it, John! Microtronics-engineered sense-boosters, wide-spectrum vision, artificially accelerated reflexes, nerve-energy laser-type weapons, all surgically implanted-plus woven-chromalloy body-mail, aligned-crystal metal caps for finger-bones, shins, ribs and skull, servo-boosted helical titanium fiber reinforced musculature-"
"You left out the fast-change long-johns with the big red S on them. You know, I always wondered why Clark Kent never got himself arrested in an alley for indecent exposure."
"I had a hand in its development myself," Felix went on, ignoring me. "And I can tell you it's big. You have no idea-"
"But I'd like to have," I cut in. "Especially an idea of what it is I blew a year's work to hear."
He nodded. "I'm just coming to that. For the past six months I've been here in Tamboula, carrying out a study of battle wounds-data we require in the further development of PAPA. And I've turned up a disquieting fact." He poked a finger at me for emphasis. "The number of men reported 'missing in action' amounts to nearly twenty percent of the total casualties."
"There are always a few reluctant warriors who go over the hill."
"Not in the desert, John. I went on then to take a look at civilian missing-persons figures. The world total is close to the two million mark annually. Naturally, this doesn't include data from China and India, where one less mouth to feed is noted with relief, if at all. And the Society of American Morticians and Embalmers reports that not enough people are being buried ..."
"I can tell you where part of them are going," I said. "The black market in human organs."
"Yes." Felix nodded. "Doubtless that nefarious trade accounts for some of the discrepancy, particularly in burial figures. But suppose someone were building up a secret force-and outfitting it with an enemy version of PAPA?"
"You can't hide men in those numbers," I said. "The logistical problems alone-"
"I know; but the men are going somewhere. I want to know where."
"I'm afraid I'm beginning to get the picture."
"You still hold your reserve Army commission, I take it?"
"Good. I have your recall orders in my briefcase. They're perfectly legal; I made them myself. You're a Defense Department observer. I've arranged for you to occupy one of our special rooms at the King Faisal."
"I thought CBI assignments were on a voluntary basis."
Felix raised the white eyebrows. "You are volunteering, aren't you?"
"I suppose the fact that I'm here answers that one."
"Of course. Now, there's a battle scheduled soon. I haven't been able to find out just when, but I did procure copies of the Utter Top Secret battle plans for both the Free Algerians and the Imperial Moroccans. Death penalty for possession, of course." He took a newspaper from an inner pocket-a folded copy of the Belfast Messenger-and dropped it on the table.
"What am I supposed to do, stand around on a hilltop with a pair of binoculars and watch where the men disappear to?"
Felix smiled. "I have a few gadgets for you to field-test. Find out when that battle's scheduled, and I think you'll be able to take a look at just about whatever you want to."
I took the newspaper. "So I'm back in uniform. I suppose I'd better check in with the UN Monitor General."
"Send a card over; perhaps it'll pass unnoticed in the daily mail. I want you to hold your official contacts to the minimum. Stay clear of the Embassy, the police, and the press corps. Your other instructions are within your orders. You'll find a tight-band communicator with the rest of the equipment; keep in touch with me, John-but don't try to contact me at the villa unless it's absolutely necessary."
"You've made some pretty elaborate arrangements. This sort of thing costs money. Who's footing the bill?"
"Let's just say it comes from a special fund." He finished his drink. "Go on over to the Faisal, get settled, and take a look around. I'll expect a preliminary report in a day or two." He stood, replaced the tabukuk on the table, gave me a quick handshake, and was gone.
I picked up the newspaper, leafed through it. There were sheets of flimsy paper folded between the pages. I caught a glimpse of tiny print, terrain diagrams, the words Utter Top Secret. I folded it and took the last swallow of my gin. I dropped a five cee note on the table, tucked the paper under my arm, and tried to look casual as I went outside to hail a cab.
* * *
The King Faisal Hotel was a two-hundred-story specimen of government-financed construction straight out of Hollywood and the Arabian Nights, turned slummy by five years of North African sun and no maintenance. I paid off my helicab in the shade of thirty yards of cracked glass marquee, managed my own bags through a mixed crowd of shiny-suited officials, Algerian and Moroccan officers mingling quite peaceably outside business hours, beggars in colorful costumes featuring wrist-watches and tennis shoes, Arab guides in traditional white lapel-suits, hot-looking tourists, journalists with coffee hangovers, and stolid-faced UN police in short pants with hardwood billies.
I went up the wide steps, past potted yuccas and a uniformed Berber doorman with a bad eye that bored into me like a hot poker. I crossed the lobby to the registration console, slapped the counter, and announced my arrival in tones calculated to dispel any appearance of shyness. A splay-footed Congolese bellhop sidled up to listen as I produced the teleprinted confirmation of my reservation that Felix had supplied. I asked for and received verbal assurances that the water was potable, and was directed to a suite on the forty-fifth level.
It was a pleasant enough apartment. There was a spacious sitting room with old-fashioned aluminum and teak-veneer furniture, a polished composition floor, and framed post-neo-surrealist paintings. Adjoining was a carpeted bedroom with a four-foot tri-D screen, a wide closet, and a window opening onto a view of irregular brickwork across a twelve-foot alley.
Behind the flowered wallpaper, there were other facilities, unknown to the present management-installed, during construction, at the insistence of one of the more secret agencies of the now defunct South African Federation. According to the long, chatty briefing papers Felix had tucked into the newspaper, the CBI had inherited the installation from a former tenant, in return for a set of unregistered fingerprints and a getaway stake.
I looked the room over and spotted a spy-eye in a drawer knob, a microphone among the artificial flowers-standard equipment at the Faisal, no doubt. I would have to make my first order of business a thorough examination of everything ... as soon as I had a cold shower. I turned to the bedroom-and stopped dead. My right hand made a tentative move toward my gun, and from the shadows a soft voice said, "Uh-uh."
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