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Cainsville, April 6
THERE SEEMED TO be a window in the wall opposite the door, looking out at the landscape beyond the dome. From time to time Wilkins would pause in his restless pacing to stare at that view and shudder. There was no life out there, only gaunt gray granite, forged by ancient fires, clawed into hills by old ice sheets, and cauterized by deadly radiation. Even the misty rain blowing out there was poison. If the Institute's planetologists stumbled on a terrain like that anywhere else in the universe, they would slap a Class Four label on it without a second's hesitation and go off to find a more interesting world.
It was not a Class Four world, though, and had not always been quite so barren. The poison rain was a soup of industrial by-products, still falling from their long sojourn in the upper atmosphere. It was so murderously potent on those siliceous hills that even the little gunmetal lakes held no life anymore. The radiation was merely the normal ultraviolet of sunlight, because in these northerly latitudes the ozone layer was too thin to filter it out. And the window was not a window. In fact, Wilkins's cramped quarters were buried deep in the innards of Burton Dome, a long way from that stark exterior.
He was not quite sure why he had called up that view—possibly because it suited his evil mood, or possibly as a reminder that there was no escape overland from Cainsville. There would be no pursuit, and no rescue. A fugitive could safely be left alone to wander among those tangled crags until he froze, or starved. Certainly he would not live long enough to die of the carcinogenic sunlight.
There was no airport, either, only the lev station, which Security watched always, as a matter of course. If anything went wrong, he would be hopelessly trapped.
There were other ways out of Cainsville, but they led to places far, far worse than even that accursed rocky desert outside.
He had been pacing for a long time, much too long for a man who took no exercise. Wilkins J. S.—short and swarthy, born in 2027 and already going bald. Dr. Wilkins, employed by the Institute as a camera-repair technician. Wilkins Jules Smuts, potential traitor.
Without warning his legs began to tremble. He slumped into his chair and scowled at the seeming window. Well—why not? In truth, he had known for some time what his decision was going to be.
The comset became a sheet of blank plastic and said, "Proceed."
Damp-fingered, Wilkins pulled from his pocket a tiny scrap of paper, a secret he had been hoarding for almost two years. It had been slipped into his hand at a party, with a nod and a wink and a chunk of credit to establish goodwill, plus promises of much greater joy if he ever used it in a good cause. He cleared his throat and began to read.
"Code Caesar Columbus Dimanche Einfeuchten ..." Thirty-two words in all. His voice quavered by the end, for even to possess an illicit override code was a felony in Cainsville. To use one was worse than a crime—it was a blatant challenge to the deadliest security system on earth.
"Code acknowledged. Confirm activation."
It worked! Some small part of him had perhaps been hoping that it would not ... For a moment yet he hesitated, savoring a strange tingling seeping through him, a blend of fear and excitement. It reminded him of the real reason he was taking this risk—Wilkins Jules had a plugin habit, which was becoming very expensive. It had reached the point where his weekly pay transfer would barely cover both food and plugin. Soon he would have to choose between them, and his choice could never be food.
"Confirm activation," System repeated, impatient of human indecision.
"Activate." There—he had done it!
"Please wait." System began to play music at him, which he hated, and the gray plastic again became a window, now overlooking a somber view of water lilies floating on a tree-shadowed pool. To Wilkins Jules such a scene was irrelevant at best, and unattractive anyway. He fretted.
There was no reason why he should not make a call to the outside world—except that he almost never did. Everyone else did, often, but not him. Security called that "pattern breaking," and System watched for it. And if the override code itself had triggered alarms, then the call would certainly be either blocked or monitored. The illicit code and the record coin in his other pocket—either would make him a dead man. Nowhere in the world could a body be disposed of as easily as in Cainsville. Nowhere in the world.
One tune ended and another began. Why so long? He might very well have fallen into a trap. If this was all a fake, a loyalty test that he had now most certainly failed, then the goons were lining up outside the door already. The tingling had faded into an unpleasant full-bladder sensation. He always tended to sweat too much, and at the moment was dribbling like a marathon runner.
Dead man—or rich man?
He had never known a call to take this long. He must be getting through to someone very high up ... high up in something.
Then he blinked at sudden brightness, seeing through the comset into a sunlit office. The desk was shiny and empty. If that were real wood, it had cost more money than he would earn in two years. The woman across from him was being masked. She wore an outfit of hard metallic blue, but that was all he could tell. Her face was an anonymous blur, although the rest of the room was as sharp as though he were sitting in it. Whoever her employers were, they could afford a first-class System.
"Report!" Probably her voice was disguised also.
He squirmed like a hooked worm. One-sided! He should have put a bag over his head or something. "You don't need to know my name ..."
The woman drummed a hard fog of fingers on the wood. "I already know your name. I even know you have less than forty hectos left in the bank. Thirty-eight to be exact."
Wilkins's heart lurched. He had not expected the bargaining to start so soon.
"Now report," she repeated. "It had better be good."
He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out the coin. "I have evidence."
She seemed to shrug. "Evidence of what?" But he heard a trace more interest in that anonymous voice.
"They lost a team!"
"It happens. How many?"
She waved a vague hand. "People get buttered over the tarmac outside this office all the time, and it's a poor week we don't drown a few million somewhere. Losing them on other worlds is a little more exotic, but not much. A hundred hectos."
She must know he would not have risked using the code unless he had more to offer than that. "One of them was an outsider—a mycologist from Moscow."
"Expert in funguses. Fungi. They'd been overnighting—but this wasn't just a broken string. The skiv's back."
"Better," she admitted. "Two hundred. More if you've got some good damage pictures."
"No damage at all," Wilkins said, starting to enjoy himself at last. "The skiv's untouched. Two dead men, and the woman's missing."
That got her. He heard a hiss of breath. "Tell me about the woman."
"Name of Gill Adele. Staff ecologist."
"Age? Looks? Got pix of her?"
He shook his head. "Middle twenties. Said to be a looker."
"Pity. Any chance she's still alive?"
Wilkins laughed. "Not a chance in hell—and that's apt, for sure. Class Three world, code name 'Nile.' About two hundred Celsius and over half a bar of CO2 ... and she forgot to take her helmet."
The woman was silent for a minute, then admitted, "Okay! That's a story. She didn't just go fishin' on a Class Three. Tell me more."
"Lots of credit."
The blur nodded. "Lots of credit."
Wilkins shivered with deep-down joy. And she still had not heard the best of it! "It happened yesterday. They opened the window; got no response. So they brought the skiv back on remote control. There was a hell of a panic. The window was short, and they had no backup team standing by. Real incompetence, all shouting and no action. There's plenty of dirt here if you want to use it. Next window's not till the ninth."
The woman leaned forward. Even through the flickering, indistinct masking, her eagerness was showing. "How good's your clip?"
"Very good. One of the dome cameras malfunctioned. It got sent in for repairs right away. They thought it was the recording, but it was the playback. The recording was fine." He held up the coin again, to tantalize her a little.
"Any confirmation? I don't put it past the old hag to fake something like this."
Again Wilkins shivered, but this time for other reasons. He had wondered the same. This was so stupendously good—too good to be true, really, for a man with an expensive habit. "Not much ... I think there's more tension about than usual. Nothing you can use. But I don't think even Hubbard would fake the rest of it."
"The great Devlin shouting his head off? Almost having hysterics."
"Mmm. What'd the two men die of?"
"Head wounds." Let her suck on that!
"Head wounds? The woman killed them?"
Now came the moment he had been dreaming of. "Maybe. But there was a weapon, too."
"What sort of weapon?"
He played his ace, the trump he had been holding back. "A stone hand ax."
"No! I don't believe you!"
He held up the coin without a word.
"Sentience? After all this time?"
Wilkins's voice became shrill with excitement. He wanted to reach into the com and thump his fist on that opulent wooden desk. "Two men clubbed to death, a woman missing, the skiv intact, blood on the floor, and a stone ax—also with blood on it! Now, do I have a story?"
"Oh, do you have a story!" the woman said. "Oh, brother, do I have a story!" She sounded awed.
"First Contact!" Wilkins was gloating. "Men killed, woman abducted. Eyewitness record. Exclusive story ... rich man?"
"You are a very rich man," she agreed.
Plugin! Lots of lovely plugin! Wilkins could feel his groin starting to glow already.CHAPTER 2
Banzarak, April 7
THE TROPICAL AFTERNOON was unbearably muggy. The air had died of heat prostration. The water in the bay was shiny-slick like polished lead, and the sky was a white pall, too bright to look at.
Alya had been walking the beach for hours, walking herself to exhaustion. Her sun block must have worn dangerously thin by now, and there were salt sores around the edges of her goggles. Her boots were slime-caked, stinking as bad as the fetid edges of the sea. They dragged like sacks of rocks as she plodded up the battered wooden steps to the Residence—steep stairs, shaded by trees and the aggressively impenetrable undergrowth. The old, old pictures showed this hillside as a formal garden. Not anymore.
Her body needed a long drink and then sleep, although it would probably agree to accept a shower and a snack somewhere after the drink. Her mind would refuse the sleep—it was churning with incoherent muddled demands like the angry mutterings of a crowd, incomprehensible mumblings, ancestral warnings. For two days these forebodings had been tormenting her. She wanted to scream and run, yet she also felt like crawling under a bed somewhere, or climbing a tree. Unable to concentrate on her studies or seek solace in company, she had gone out to walk by the sea.
She thought her pain must be like the pain of an addict deprived of his need. But what was her need except the need for the pain to stop? She knew what was happening, for she had felt it before, but never, never so strong. In a sense she had been waiting for it all her life, yet she had not expected this driving, twisting agony; and the cure, if she could find it, did not bear thinking about.
On the patio at the top of the steps she paused for a moment to catch her breath and wipe wrist across brow. Before her sprawled the Residence, her birthplace and her home; yet it had taken on a grotesque unfamiliarity. She had never thought of it as beautiful —it was a monstrosity of imperial Victorian vulgarity, all wide-eaved verandas and writhing sculptured woodwork, bijou windows and rambling halls—but in the past she had always found its awkward, ill proportions conveyed a wry friendship, like the easy-going, self-deprecating humor of a mongrel dog. Now, suddenly, she saw only a sinister and malevolent deformity which repelled her.
Even her home had been taken from her, then.
Overhead the scarlet flag of Banzarak hung limp in the damp heat, its folds hiding all of the emblem except for a glimpse of the cobra's head. She shivered and turned away, reluctant to enter the menacing shadows of the house, and yet, as she leaned on the rail and gazed out at the ash-gray bay, she was inexplicably seized with a sudden dread that she would never see all this again. The sun would still be there tomorrow, wouldn't it? Wouldn't she?
The water was a flat glare. She had never known it so calm, and she could feel the heat beating off it. Out to sea the line of the reef was barely visible, a subtle change in color and mood. Never since her childhood had she seen any real surf breaking out there. She could no longer bear to don scuba gear and visit that graveyard.
Landward was worse. The beach had gone completely, and more than half of the Old Town was underwater. On the opposite hill stood the palace, a rococo excrescence of pink and purple stucco. About a century earlier, when the British had left, her great-grandfather had given up most of his royal power and turned the palace over to the government. Now the government was billeted in the Grand Hotel, and the palace was full of refugees. The higher hills beyond were dotted with refugee camps. Banzarak was a very informal kingdom and a very small one—about a golf course and a half, her father had called it—but now many of its people had lost their homes and livelihood. Hundreds of thousands of others had flocked in from elsewhere. Food was a serious problem, and disease worse.
The hibiscuses were dying. Leaning on the half-rotted rail, staring back down the lush slope between the trunks of the higher trees, Alya wondered about the hibiscuses—why them? She would miss their beauty, joyful and transient ...
Then footsteps sounded on the platform behind her. She wheeled and saw Kas, and instantly suppressed a frantic desire to rush at him. She turned away quickly.
He paced over to her side, tall and dark and solid as a stone pillar. Something unmoving in a shifting world was Kas, her much-older brother, deep-spoken Kas.
"Is anything wrong?"
"No! I mean ... I'm a little worried about the weather—the air's so dead. Just the weather. Worried about a typhoon."
"We never get typhoons here."
She forced her hands to release their death grip on the rail before he could notice. She was not a child, she reminded herself. She had lived on every continent, visited most of the great cities—had made her first trip around the world alone when she was only thirteen. She was not a child! She was not going to weep, and she did not need to be hugged by a big brother—that would be ridiculous. A lover, fine ... but there was none handy at the moment.
"There was a typhoon here in 1717," she told the hillside. "It did a lot of damage. Think what one would do now, with no reef to stop it!" She did not look around.
"The forecast is good. Do you feel better on the shore than you do up here?"
Keeping her face as impassive as she could, Alya turned. "What do you mean, Kas?"
He smiled sadly. She noticed with surprise how much gray there was in his beard, how many wrinkles in the dusky face and how deep they were. Even in the tropics he was stupid to come outdoors without sun block and goggles.
"It started on the fifth, didn't it?" he said. "On Tuesday?"
Alya felt a mighty rush of relief. "You, too? You feel it, too?" She was not alone, not going mad.
"A little. Always I feel it a little. Not like you're doing."
So much for inscrutability! Then she did throw herself at Kas, and he squeezed her tight, crushing all the air out of her, and that was wonderful, just what she had needed. For a time she sniveled mutely against his shoulder. And Kas had the sense to say nothing at all.
"It's never been this bad," she said. "Never! It gets worse every time. When Omar went it was bad. Tal's time was worse yet—but not like this."
"This one is your call. Your kismet. That's why."
Excerpted from Strings by Dave Duncan. Copyright © 1989 D. J. Duncan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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