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The wall was high, the night chill. Mutant crickets sang, unafraid of the intruder, providing a cover of sound that masked the inevitable noises of his ascent. Glossy foliage swayed against the wall in intermittent gusts, throwing speckled moon-shadows that camouflaged the climber's motions. Nature was cooperative—but the mechanisms of man that lay ahead would not be kind.
Jeff Font heaved his body to the top and lay flat against the lingering warmth of the stone. His chest labored, but he forced air through his nostrils steadily, smoothly, allowing his body to recover from the exertion. The wind cut into his eyes, bringing tears, for a moment carrying him to a time he had cried as a child for another reason, not so very far from this spot.
But this was not the time for such memories. He had to slash away the hypocrisy that had destroyed three lives and elevated a usurper.
The moon faded. Jeff's hand slid across the inner edge of the wall, finding the rope and its adhesive plastoid terminus. He worked it free, coiled it, and dropped it into the darkness ahead. He listened for the muffled impact and shivered in Earth's exterior climate.
The moon returned, flooding the enclosed grounds and the mansion beyond with its radiance. Jeff gathered his black fiber cloak, checked the four bulbs nestled in its fastened pockets, rolled over and dropped the shorter distance to the inner garden. The wind whipped up his cloak and fingered his naked body as he fell. He hit the lawn and tumbled behind shaped shrubbery. The damp green odor of cut grass rose about him as he found the rope in the dark and set it against the wall; then he began running.
The incredibly opulent home of George McKissic loomed before him, in this light a psychedelic skeleton of translucent timbers. Jeff dodged around the nude statuary, the woman-shaped pool, the suggestively curvaceous pathways and hedges, resenting the wasteful space they occupied in an overcrowded world, and the impact the symbols were having upon him. He tried to concentrate on the heat-perceptor units he was sure were there, the subsonic emplacements, the nightbeams. One miscalculation, one distraction would expose him, and that would be his exit.
He reached the house, again restraining his urgent breathing, and stood within its shadow. He had made it. Unless McKissic had converted to silent alarms ...
But no; his informant had been positive on that score. Jeff had to assume that his precautions had been effective. There was no metal on his body, not even in his teeth, and he had studied the estate defenses intimately.
A sound? He listened, far more anxious now that he was stationary than while he moved. A routine noise, carried by a freak of the wind; a sniffing, shuffling ...
He had almost forgotten the hounds. The giant synthetics with bulblike noses, steelbone fangs, supercanine speed ... watchdogs, partly flesh, partly metal, mostly savagery. Electronic circuitry for nerves, computer cells for brains and a taste for blood.
Prickling uncomfortably, Jeff felt in a pocket for one of the soft bulbs. His thumb touched the circular cavity in its base; his fingers closed about its small mass. Moving as though there were no hurry, he nipped the spout with his teeth. A few drops squirted into his mouth: the quintessence of machine oil, mansweat and fermented animal urine.
He suppressed the gag reflex and spat the stuff out gently. It was intended for the caninedroids, not humanoids. He aimed the nozzle at the ground and sprayed a tight little circle. He moved over and squirted a second, larger circle intersecting the first; then, as the bulb gave out, he dropped it in the center. There was no certain technique to foil the hounds, but this was his best hope. He stepped back, spitting again.
A shimmering above betrayed a balcony rail of glastic. He leaped for it, caught hold and swung his body astride. He had performed similar maneuvers many times on Alpha IV, and the poor light was hardly a handicap. Glastic was transparent in varying degrees so that plants could grow beneath it, but it withstood stress as well as steel. McKissic's entire house seemed to be made of it.
Eight feet above the ground, he shuffled along what appeared to be midair. How easy it would be to omit a single panel, and thus dump the intruder into the house. But no—not with the exotic ornamentals he could see growing beneath, black-leafed in the filtered moonglow. McKissic might not care whether a visitor fell, but he would hardly permit his valuable plantings to be crushed.
Jeff walked beside the opaque second-story wall, matching the architecture to the floor-plan he had memorized. He stopped. This was the room—the one she should be sleeping in. The panel was secure, and he knew better than to try to break it physically. A full blow with a sledgehammer would make a very small scratch—and a very high-decibel noise.
He reached for the second bulb. He knew which pocket it occupied, but his fingers quested over the surface again, reading the pattern of indentations in its base. Two circular depressions, this time. Check. He brought it out, handling it with greater care than he had the first, though he knew it was quite sturdy until the seal was broken.
He paused. The hounds had come up; he could hear their distinctive snuffling within fifty feet. They could not reach him here; they were too stupid to desert the trail long enough to come at him by way of the stairs farther along the wall. If they were not entirely deceived, they would bay, and he would be finished.
He could make out the gross hulks of them, noses swelling and shrinking like breathing balloons, occasional glints from their metallic haunches. And what rough beast, he thought, knowing the words for a quotation but unable to place it, its hour come round at last ... The rest was lost. He reprimanded himself once more for delaying unnecessarily; why he remembered such fragments he could not say.
The hounds trotted aimlessly, sniffing the spray-pattern: they had not bayed. The scent was working.
He unwound the tape and depressed the special tap to break the interior seal, pointing the nozzle away from his body. He touched the tip to the glastic surface and squeezed. The potent acid welled out and dribbled thickly down; he could trace its descending shadow.
His hand moved unsteadily. He was afraid now, and he suspected that the dangerous fluid he employed was a flimsy pretext. It was what lay beyond this entry that set his pulses pounding. Who lay beyond ...
Two tiny tri-pronged suction clasps to hold the pane; five minutes for the acid to eat through. He set the empty container aside, knowing that it too would disintegrate before morning, now that air had activated its content.
Three minutes. His muscles tightened. Fourteen years—and now a wait of a few more minutes was tearing him apart.
Time. He pushed against the panel, and it broke loose easily. Holding tight to the suction handles, he tilted it endwise and maneuvered it out. It would not be safe to touch for several minutes, until the acid neutralized itself on the overdose of glastic. He set the panel flat, pried off the handles, listened momentarily for some possible alarm, and stepped into the room.
Except for the opaque floor and the interior furnishings, it was as though he were still on the balcony. He glanced back through walls that were completely transparent from inside, and wondered what kind of person would revel in the illusion of exhibition. He had been plainly visible all this time, had anyone watched.
There was a breathing. The hounds? No, it was gentle and even. It was the whispering respiration of her he had come for, audible in the utter stillness of the bedroom.
He had made his entry quietly, but not without some unintentional noises. Either Pamela was a sound sleeper, or she had taken a depressant. No matter—if it was sleepnol, a second dose would not harm her; if something else, there was unlikely to be any adverse reaction.
He found the bulb with three dents and a hard glastic cap. He uncovered the needle and aimed it, weaponlike. He trod silently to the bed.
A beam of moonlight descended slantwise through the ceiling and haloed the enormous full-circle mattress. Jeff stared at the form outlined by the clinging, static-charged sheet. God, she was a woman! He had not seen her since she was a child of eight, and hardly knew what she looked like now, but the sight of that body was reassurance enough. He could imagine the curves and valleys and the secret shadow places, and had done so, until this moment.
He leaned over her, his shoulder intercepting the beam and throwing her head into a delicate penumbra. He studied the fair curve of her cheek, the sleek diaphane of her hair spread out upon the pillow, the tilt of her face up and a little to the side. Even so might a girl sleep in the arms of her lover. Even so—but not tonight.
He brought the needle to her exposed neck, an inch away, and held his other hand above her mouth in case she tried to scream. He squeezed the bulb; the spray shot across, a jet so fine he couldn't see it in the shadow. Her breathing paused, then she sighed faintly and relaxed again. She had not really struggled against the drug. She hadn't tried to scream.
He looked about. Her robe was hanging neatly beside the bed. He fetched it and laid it out upon the sheet. His fingers pinched the edge of the covering and tugged it back.
She was wearing a sheer nightgown. He was relieved not to have to dress her. As it was, he had to concentrate to keep his mind on his mission.
He slid his arms under her knees and shoulders and lifted her to the robe. He drew it about her, not bothering with the sleeves, and picked her up again. She was light, as he had expected. The long hair brushed his arm, the glossy black tresses that had fascinated him from childhood. Again he had to cut off his thoughts.
He carried her through the hole in the wall and onto the balcony. The dusky forms still ranged below, perplexed by the pattern of scents; if they did not hear him, there would be no pursuit.
He was not supporting his burden properly. He had no hand free to explore the brush and branches of the garden below, or to hold the fourth bulb—the weapon—in case he should be discovered before reaching the wall. He had let his infatuation blind him to business.
He maneuvered Pamela's body into an unceremonious drape over his right shoulder, her slim legs dangling down his front. He walked to the end of the balcony and descended the curving steps there. This was the reason he had taken the more dangerous direct route in: to leave the easier one free for the burdened return. By this time the noses of the hounds should be saturated with the concentrated decoy scent, so that even an upwind passage would not betray him.
He made it without event. He deposited her against the base of the wall and found the coiled rope. He unclamped it, held the end and flung the coil up over the wall; it unwound in air until only the adhesive plastoid remained. This thunked against the far side.
He tested it, making sure the shock of contact had jellied the plastoid enough to adhere firmly to the stone before freezing in place. It had.
This was the most difficult part of the retreat, because he had to scale the wall while carrying the girl and making no noise. He was ready: he had scaled the cliffs of Alpha IV with heavy loads of explosive, and done it hampered by the cumbersome airsuit. Earth's breathable atmosphere was not the least of its wonders.
This time he had only a few feet to cover and a jar or drop would not blast him across the landscape. Still, the burden was not properly harnessed, and he was out of condition; four years in space had sapped his endurance in gravity, though exercise had maintained the muscles. He had been surprised by his exhaustion when he scaled the wall coming in. Now he had a harder job to do.
He shifted her to lie facing him across his shoulders and biceps, so that he could grip the rope with both hands without worrying about her support. He could do it with a quick effort, then recover on top of the wall before going on. This time he did not hesitate. He hauled on the rope and walked up the wall, wedging his chin against the girl's hip to keep her from sliding off to the side.
He manhandled her to the top, rolling her roughly over his forearms to lie on the stone, and clambered up beside her. He had done it—but this time it was impossible to quell his tumultuous panting. The wind played over his body, refreshing now, although he knew it was colder than before.
A bright column of light stabbed through the foliage and splashed against the wall. One of the rolling mechanicals! Jeff pressed the girl flat and covered her as well as he could with his cloak, knowing that the patroller would not leave its runway unless it became suspicious. He had not won free yet. If it spotted him—
He fumbled into the last pocket, cursing mentally as the folds of the tunic bunched resistively, and worked out the bulb. He held it lightly, his fingers tensed and quivering as though eager to break the restraint of the mind and crush its flexible shell.
The robot halted, its searchlight steady. Jeff knew what that meant. He crushed the bulb and held it, waiting.
The shadows of the trees leaped along the wall as the beam moved—and the machine rolled on, silently. Incredibly it had missed them.
Jeff sighed. The worst was over, and he knew he would not get a break like that again. He remembered the grenade he held. He could not let go now, since it had been activated by the pressure of his hand against the key grooves. It would go off upon release.
Well, he no longer needed it. He flipped it back the way he had come and ducked his head. One, two, three seconds, then a whistling puff, silence.
He looked. Taffylike white strings were draped over several cubic yards of bushes, an eerie network. Had that bomb struck in the vicinity of man, animal or machine, that target would have been severely entangled. The plastoid strands would stretch but not break, and were exceedingly sticky and slightly corrosive.
Jeff smiled. It was said that robots never lost their tempers, but this stuff brought them marvelously close to it.
He adjusted the rope, made the descent, and carried her across the phosphalt pavement to his rented monocar. It had been almost too easy, apart from that one scare.
The car was standing at less than a fifteen degree angle, tilting west. Good—that meant he had been gone less than an hour, despite the time the adventure had seemed to consume. He had had to do without a watch, since some of its works were metallic and would have activated the estate sensors. But a gyrocar was both compass and clock. It held its position without regard to the motion of the planet, which meant that it leaned to the west—when parked—at a rate of fifteen degrees per hour, unless set on its side with the gyro oriented east-west. Let Earth spin, fashioning day and night; the gyro was indifferent.
He deposited the girl in the front seat, watched the safety harness clasp her firmly, and activated the drive motor. He turned up the gyro, allowing it a moment to accelerate from standby torque, then got out and trod on the south bumper. The vehicle resisted, but slowly responded by tilting east, righting itself. That was precession: the gyro converted the stress he put upon it to a force acting at right angles. Such correction of a gyro's attitude was elementary physics, and the average driver did it routinely without being aware of the complex theorems defining the action.
White light again, turning the road dark. One of the roving highway robots was coming. McKissic certainly was well guarded! Jeff could not hope to outrun the cruiser in this middle-aged vehicle.
Well, if he could not run, he could pretend. He jumped into the car and shoved the steering bar out of the way. The police mechanicals were notoriously stupid, and programmed to ignore certain types of activities. Theoretically the colossal Vicinc industry provided for all needs of the flesh—but the lads and ladies still parked in the country lanes.
The spotlight swung over the shrubbery, igniting it in jumping patches as though a will-o'-the-wisp were dancing. Jeff leaned over to kiss Pamela.
The beam cut between them, illuminating her face and blinding him with its dazzle. He shielded his eyes with one hand, seeing the black-haired afterimage as he recovered. The cop was coming in to investigate.
"Damn flattread!" he muttered. The machine should have swerved away once it picked up the embracing figures—unless it had other instructions. Unless McKissic had already discovered the abduction of his daughter.
He gunned the wheeldrive, grabbed the steering bar, and slapped the reverse button. Dry sticks crackled under the single tire as it bounced over the side embankment, and the gyro vibrated against the stress of uneven terrain.
Excerpted from The Ring by Piers Anthony, Robert E. Margroff. Copyright © 2002 Piers Anthony and Robert E. Margroff. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted November 15, 2013