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They injected the Minstrel Boy with the maximum dose of cycla¬trol. Afterwards his eyes glazed over and he began to scream. He screamed non-stop for two hours. They had to shut him in a sub¬-basement cell until he stopped. Bannion wouldn’t let him leave the LDC building until he’d calmed down. Bannion was very sensitive about accusations of police brutality. In the meantime he and Jeb Stuart Ho concluded a deal whereby Chief-Agent Bannion on behalf of the Litz Department of Correction would sell the brotherhood a lightweight armoured car that would enable Jeb Stuart Ho to pursue AA Catto. The Litz Department of Correction charged a grossly inflated price, which Jeb Stuart Ho paid after a polite period of ritual haggling.
When the Minstrel Boy finally became quiet, two patrolmen brought him up from the depths of the lock-ups. They had to support him on either side. His movements were uncoordinated, his eyes were vacant and his mouth hung open. Jeb Stuart Ho was alarmed at his con¬dition.
‘How can he lead me anywhere like that?’
Bannion smiled and tapped the side of his nose with his forefinger. ‘He’ll do what you want.’
‘Yes. Are you sure?’
‘Sure I’m sure. You’ll see.’
Bannion ordered the car brought round to the front of the building. He and Jeb Stuart Ho went out to inspect it. It was a squat, ugly, square-sided machine. It had long armoured engine housing, and a small three-seat cab. The windscreen and side windows were mere slits of toughened glass, and the whole vehicle was covered in dull grey, bullet¬proof steel. It was supported on six balloon-tyred wheels, four at the rear and two at the front. Bannion opened the passenger door.
Jeb Stuart Ho was confused.
‘Surely I will have to drive the machine?’
‘Just get in.’
Jeb Stuart Ho, got in. Bannion signalled to the patrolmen who were holding the Minstrel Boy just inside the building. They hurried down the steps. Bannion opened the driver’s door. They pushed the Minstrel Boy inside and strapped him in. He hung there with his mouth half open. Bannion poked his head in the window beside Jeb Stuart Ho.
‘Okay. Tell him what you want.’
Ho looked dubiously at the slack-jawed Minstrel Boy.
‘Will he understand?’
‘Just tell him.’
Jeb Stuart Ho took a deep breath.
‘We have to pursue and catch AA Catto.’
The Minstrel Boy didn’t respond. Bannion grinned at Ho.
‘Tell him to drive.’
Jeb Stuart Ho felt a little ridiculous. He couldn’t imagine what kind of obscure joke Bannion was attempting to involve him in. He raised his voice a little.
‘You will start the car and drive.’
Like a man in a dream, the Minstrel Boy placed his hands on the wheel. Bannion withdrew his head. The Minstrel Boy put on the power. The engine came to life. The Minstrel Boy dumped it into gear with a crash. The car lurched forward. They swerved drunkenly away from the kerb. Bannion laughed. They began to pick up speed. Bannion yelled after them.
‘Don’t come back.’
The drive through the traffic of downtown Litz was like a drawn-out suicide bid. A dozen times Jeb Stuart Ho could see no way out of a fatal collision, but at the very last minute the Minstrel Boy somehow managed to avoid disaster. As they had begun to move, his jaws had clamped together and he appeared to stare fixedly along the length of the bonnet. Jeb Stuart Ho wasn’t certain whether he could actually see, or whether he was steering the car by some other sense produced by the cyclatrol. On a comparatively clear stretch of road, Jeb Stuart Ho looked in the glove compartment to check that the little black case of refills of the drug was still there. It was. When Bannion had given it to him, he’d told Jeb Stuart Ho to give the Minstrel Boy a shot every twelve hours. He hadn’t told him how long the Minstrel Boy would survive under those conditions.
At last, to Jeb Stuart Ho’s relief, they emerged from the city traffic and swung on to one of the wide straight roads that radiated out from Litz to the edge of the nothings. There was almost no traffic, apart from the occasional wheelfreak’s truck that flashed past, blazing with lights. Ho felt that he could relax a little. The Minstrel Boy had manoeuvred the car into the middle of the highway. He held it there with one limp hand.
Jeb Stuart Ho looked carefully at the Minstrel Boy. It was hard to know, apart from the tightly clenched jaws, whether he was really conscious. Even with all his training, Ho found it difficult to visualize what was going on in his mind. Ho was taken by surprise when the Minstrel Boy made a sudden move. His hand flashed down to a part of the control panel between the seats. Harsh metallic music blared from a set of speakers fitted in the back of the cab. In the confined space it made Jeb Stuart Ho’s head ring. He shouted to the Minstrel Boy.
‘Does it have to be so loud?’
The Minstrel Boy gave no indication that he had heard him. He continued to stare blankly through the windshield. Jeb Stuart Ho stretched out a hand to adjust the volume control. Without warning the Minstrel Boy slapped his hand away. He didn’t take his eyes off the road. Jeb Stuart Ho said nothing and settled back to endure it.
They were reaching the limits of the Litz generators. Circular holes filled with grey nothing started to appear in the road in front of them. The Minstrel Boy pressed the control that activated the car’s own stasis generator. He made no attempt to avoid any of the holes, but continued to hold the car steady in the very centre of the road, at just under maxi¬mum speed. The car began to bump and lurch as though its own stasis field was unable to produce an approximation of a flat surface beneath the car, but only the reading on the speedometer and the constant buck¬ing and lurching gave any indication that they were moving at all. The razor-sharp music pounded on, and Jeb Stuart Ho began to perform the preliminary exercises to close down his mind. The Minstrel Boy’s face still showed no sign of life.
In many ways, this trip through the nothings was very similar to the lizard ride they had made to Litz. Ho’s sense of time quickly began to ebb away. He had to keep glancing at the dashboard to grasp some kind of orientation. The chronometer was little help. In many ways it increased his confusion. Sometimes the digits would flip over at a rate that made it unreadable. Other times a single figure would hang for what seemed like hours. Similar things happened to the music. It would alternately hammer frenetically and then lurch sideways in howling cadences. He was sorely tempted to seek refuge in an intermediate trance, but the constant sight of the transformed Minstrel Boy beside him kept him firmly in the material world inside the car.
It was around the point when the chronometer was telling him that they’d been in the nothings for just over four hours that things started to appear. First it was the white dog with black nose and ears. It jerked its paw at them in a hitch-hiking gesture, and then, through the rear window, Jeb Stuart Ho could see it cursing them from the distance after the Minstrel Boy had failed to stop. Next came the billboards, huge illu¬minated signs that appeared to stand on nothing. Floodlights blazed down on them, making it impossible to miss the slogans in strange, unreadable, alien script. Jeb Stuart Ho wondered if they were real objects or hallucinations. He was at a loss to tell. There was too much about the nothings that he didn’t know.
After seven hours they hit the road. It just appeared out of the shift¬ing greyness, exactly under their wheels. It was a dark blue colour, and ran dead straight for as far as the eye could see. Tiny red and green marker lights lined its outer edges. Beyond them was the absolute shim¬mering grey. Jeb Stuart Ho held on to his mind with meticulous care. The awful music wailed on, punctuated by wrenching cast-iron power chords. Nothing else moved on the road, and it seemed to have no end.
The chronometer claimed they were nine and three quarter hours out of Litz. Jeb Stuart Ho was just wondering if it was safe to give the Minstrel Boy another shot of cyclatrol, when he began to slow the car. He pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. In a strange kind of way, it seemed to Ho that the Minstrel Boy was cooperating with the plan. He reached into the glove compartment and took out the black case. He fitted a refill into the injector, pushed up the Minstrel Boy’s sleeve and pressed the release. There was a faint hiss as the cyclatrol was forced through the pores of his skin. This time he only screamed for thirty-five minutes.
When he calmed down, he seemed to need no instructions. He started the engine, made the same violent gear change and continued on down the road.
The lines of lights flashed past in a continuous stream. The road was absolutely smooth. The Minstrel Boy kept the car rock steady in the middle of the road. Jeb Stuart Ho avoided looking out of the narrow window. Despite all his training, the grey shimmer of the nothings made him uneasy. It disturbed the sense of order that was so much a part of his life in the brotherhood.
Jeb Stuart Ho felt closer to the edge of his control than he had ever been during all his years of rigorous instruction. The blue road was so smooth that there was no sense of movement at all. Time seemed to stop. The lights formed themselves into solid strips of red and green. The silent staring presence of the Minstrel Boy, and the clanging music combined with all the other factors to push Jeb Stuart Ho towards a wild, twisting part of his mind that he had never experienced before. It took all his powers of discipline to resist plunging into that chaos.
Just as he was beginning to feel that his strength was about to give out, something appeared ahead. It was far down the road, but it was coming towards them, and it instantly restored the concepts of time and space. At first it was only a tiny point of light in the extreme dis¬tance, but Jeb Stuart Ho felt himself filled with an immediate sense of relief.