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Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom
A Novel Of Retropolis
By Bradley W. Schenck
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2017 Bradley W. Schenck
All rights reserved.
The Temple of the Spider God
TUESDAY, 1:42 PM
The Scarlet Robots of Lemuria had begun to climb the walls of the citadel by the time Dash remembered to check the time. He frowned: he really should have picked a shorter story.
He folded the magazine carefully, stowed it in his back pack, and pulled out his ray pistol.
You have to be cautious when you're sneaking around on the Moon. Dash had perfected a kind of belly-hop, all toe tips and stomach muscles, that propelled him up to the edge of the ridge in a series of tiny hops, his chest gliding about an inch above the powdered stone. He kept his helmet low. From the ridge he could see right down into the depression in the crater where two priests stood, guarding the Temple of the Spider God.
From Dash's vantage the entrance was nothing more than a rough square in the gray stone. All the action was inside. Dash stayed low behind the ridge. He'd moored the Actaeon about a quarter mile away, in a new spot — he never used the same one twice — and from here not even the tip of its nose cone could be seen. The priests of the Spider God paced back and forth before the entrance to their Temple with no idea just how much was about to change.
Dash checked the time again.
Right on schedule a powdery plume erupted in the hillside above the Temple. There was no noise, of course, but the two priests felt the rumble underfoot and turned their glassy faceplates toward the explosion. Dash had his ray gun out and was already on the move before they'd finished their turn.
The first priest went down from Dash's ray blast before he even knew that Dash was there, but the second was smarter: with one hand he swept his spear behind him while drawing his own pistol with the other — all while leaping ten feet straight up — and spotted Dash, who was still twenty feet away. The priest came down with the grace of long practice.
The priest fired off a single beam before the spear came out again to slice an arc of vacuum just in front of Dash's feet.
Dash hated those spears. You had to either close in and grapple, or dance back out of range; and once he'd gotten out of range of the spear the pistol would start up again, every time. So as soon as the spear swept past, Dash lunged forward, head first. The dome of his space helmet slammed into the priest's belly and knocked the big man over. Dash landed on top of him, only to find himself staring down the barrel of the priest's ray gun.
The priest made Dash drop his ray gun and motioned him toward the temple door. As they passed the other guard, the priest toed his midsection. The fallen priest stirred a little. They left him out there, and passed through the open doorway into the Temple's airlock. As they entered, a hatch descended silently from the lunar rock, sealing them in.
Dash tensed when he felt his captor's hand heavy on his shoulder, but he waited until the chamber had filled with atmosphere. He didn't flip the switch on his belt until the inner door rolled open.
The electromagnet in Dash's back pack came alive silently and charged the thousands of hidden threads in his clothing: Dash became a magnet that yanked him down onto the airlock's grated floor. He braced his feet and let himself fall backward. The priest, still gripping his shoulder, went down beneath him, exactly as planned.
The priest's spear clattered loose on its lanyard and his ray gun scraped across the floor. From here on out it was purely hand to hand.
Head shots were impossible — neither one of them had removed his helmet. They traded body blows and rolled across the grating, wrestling through the doorway and into the interior of the Temple. Dash got one arm around the priest's throat. But when he tried to roll on top of the other man he found his magnetized legs had stuck to the grating. Well. That was unexpected.
The big priest knocked him back, smashing Dash's helmet against the airlock wall. A hairline crack crawled out across the dome right in front of Dash's eyes. The priest pulled Dash's head back and slammed it into the wall again, and this time a couple of glass slivers rang on the helmet's rim.
Dash saw the priest's face crinkle into a grin and he grinned right back as his fingers curled around the man's fallen ray gun, on the floor under Dash's back. His grin stayed where it was: but the priest had a change of heart when Dash brought the gun's barrel around and pointed it at the man's face.
From then on, it was back to the plan.
* * *
After binding the priest's wrists and ankles with a couple of ties from his back pack, Dash retrieved his ray gun and tossed the priest's weapons into a little room off the Temple's main hallway. The walls were bare and gray with some kind of coating spread over the ancient lava tube to seal it against the vacuum outside. But as plain as the tunnels were, the rooms were furnished comfortably with wooden furniture, as well as plenty of tapestries and pillows. Dash figured that one of these little rooms ought to be the one where they were holding Princess Fedora.
But he was wrong. When he reached the hallway's end he hadn't seen a trace of her.
A gong sounded from somewhere farther inside the Temple. He wasn't sure whether that meant their rituals were ending, or if they were rolling right along — he didn't even know what went on in there. But he'd rather not be standing there when the priests filed out. Where was the Princess?
Dash walked back past the last few doorways. Hadn't he seen ...?
In the middle of one room's floor was a circular hatch. It stood conveniently open, with the top of a ladder peeking over the edge. It was like a well ... but a well on the Moon? He stepped into the room and gave the hatch a long look. You don't really want to be down there with an open door behind you, do you? But since the room's door was made of steel, with a doorframe to match, it didn't take him long to rig his electromagnet up to the thing. The door snapped shut with a muted ring. He tried it. It didn't budge.
Dash opened his back pack and shuffled through its contents; but after a moment he realized he was only stalling. He steeled himself and went down the ladder.
* * *
Dash unfastened his helmet's seal and pulled it off his head. "Princess Fedora?"
The ladder had ended just above the floor of another, smaller hall. He looked left and right. A narrow groove ran down each side of the tunnel. The grooves looked a little like the tracks for the traveling heat ray the priests had surprised him with last month. Not much of a challenge, really; he located the emitters and wedged them in place. Then he found the pressure plates and deactivated them before he started to explore the hall.
He almost missed the lava pit. Getting careless, he thought.
At the hall's far end he found a single locked hatch. He rummaged in his back pack for his lockpicks, and after a few minutes' painstaking work, the door swung open to reveal a small but luxurious stone chamber, draped with tapestries and strewn with carpets and cushions. Dash grinned. Princess Fedora lay draped across the pillows and looked up, bored, to see him standing in the doorway. Like this happened every day.
"Princess Fedora!" He reached out toward her. She spat at him, scratched his arms, darted between his boots, and ran out of the room.
"Mraaow!" she complained. Dash caught her before she got too far. He put one of the pillows in his helmet and after much effort, and a few more scratches, he got her curled up safely inside.
A few minutes later he'd made his way back to the airlock just in time to catch the first priest, now recovered and untying the second. Dash stunned him with another blast from his pistol and helped himself to the priest's helmet. The second priest glared at him while Dash arranged Princess Fedora in that new, airtight carrier. She seemed sleepy, but he knew better than to think she was finished with him. He pulled the helmet's seal extra tight.
He looked down at the second priest. "It's Thorgeir, isn't it? I'm afraid I'm gonna have to ask you for your helmet, too, seeing as you broke mine."
Dash knelt to unseal the helmet's collar. The bound priest endured the removal of his helmet with a fearsome scowl. "We'll meet again, Dash Kent."
Dash nodded toward Princess Fedora. "You could always just stop taking them, you know."
But Thorgeir seemed to be out of conversation, so after donning the priest's helmet Dash took his leave. For now he was happy to get the Princess back to his rocket, and the two of them back to Earth. He had some chores to take care of.
TUESDAY, 9:46 PM
Except for the constant, hushed rhythm of cables unplugged and replugged, the switchboard was always as quiet as a library, especially during the night shift. That persistent sound was one that Nola heard even in her dreams. She was operating for seven Info-Slate owners this evening and that took a great deal of skill, as she hoped the others had noticed.
Three of her clients were Air Safety and Astronautics officers. Nola unplugged the cable for one client's main pane and switched it, in one swift, fluid motion, to the feed for pilot registrations. Her hand hovered over the connection. She was sure she'd missed something.
Her eyes stayed on that plug even as she swapped the connections for two of her other clients. The ASAA officer had requested a registration search for a vehicle. The type of vehicle in the search was a commercial transport, yet she'd asked for the Private Registry. Nola completed another switch and with deft practice linked the first officer's sidebar connection to the Commercial Registry. Somewhere over the streets of Retropolis she knew that the officer's Info-Slate had rung a soft chime.
That should take care of that, Nola thought. Then she forgot all about it while she kept up with the new requests from all seven of the distant Info-Slates.
Between their main panes, sidebars, and message lists Nola's hands were doing a constant dance when — and this was practically unheard of — her headset buzzed. One of her clients was requesting a voice connection!
Nola slammed the button immediately. Maybe none of the other operators had heard. What had she done wrong?
"Officer da Cunha?" she whispered. "How can I help you?"
A finger tapped her shoulder. Nola blushed. It was Mrs. Broadvine, her supervisor, and she wasn't alone. Nola breathed into her microphone, "Excuse me, Officer. I'll be right with you."
Mrs. Broadvine took the headset and microphone and looked at them with the pinched expression she reserved for things that were not up to her standards. She turned to her companion. "The voice system," she explained, "is intended for emergency use in cases where the Info-Slate operator has confused a request." She looked down at Nola. "It is seldom used."
"May I?" asked the bald man in the hat. Mrs. Broadvine handed him the headset and microphone. He spoke softly for a moment, and then he listened. The constant clicks and pops that rustled up and down the bank of operators seemed full of meaning: dire, hidden meaning. Nola felt sure that every operator on the line was straining to hear the conversation. She could have just died.
The bald man in the hat handed the gear back to Nola. "Quite the opposite, this time," he informed Mrs. Broadvine. "An officer has just called to thank your operator for correcting her own mistake by providing the correct information, in addition to the information that was requested."
Mrs. Broadvine, wincing, was wrestling with Nola's cables; her eyes kept darting to each of the seven clients' panels. It must have been years since she'd worked as an operator herself. The operators on either side sat impeccably straight, eyes fixed on the switchboard, and yet somehow gave all of their attention to the drama that was playing out at Nola's station.
The man in the hat looked down at Nola from what seemed to be a very great height. "Do you make that kind of correction often?" he asked.
Nola turned away from Mrs. Broadvine's ordeal to offer the bald man a slight smile. "Oh, sometimes I do," she said. "It all depends on how familiar I am with that kind of request. I mean, I know the registration indices pretty well; if it was a zoning inquiry, though, one of the other girls would probably know better than me."
He was writing in a little notebook. "So ... it comes down to your individual experience, then." He frowned. "I don't suppose there's a ... a clearing house, a repository, of all that information?"
Nola shook her head. "There are just so many possible inquiries. ..."
The bald man snapped his notebook shut. "I see. No one operator is like another, and each one has her own strengths and weaknesses. So for every advantage it's likely that there's an equal disadvantage."
Nola wasn't quite sure what answer she could make to that, but it seemed like none was needed: the bald man's attention had already gone elsewhere. Nola rescued her clients and Mrs. Broadvine from one another, and by the time she'd gotten caught up she was alone again. She had completely forgotten the officer on the line.
"Miss Gardner?" came the voice over the headset. "I didn't mean to get you in trouble. I just wanted to say thanks."
Nola checked Officer da Cunha's panel and read the Registry connections she'd made. "I don't think that was trouble, really, but I'm not quite sure what it was. Or even who."
"He said he was Howard Pitt, that engineer from the Transit Authority. You know, the Tube Man."
The name sounded familiar. "Are you all set with your inquiry? I couldn't help but notice it was one of those old Actaeon rockets — the interplanetary ones. So of course it wouldn't be a private citizen."
"That's the odd thing," said Officer da Cunha. "It is a commercial registration, but the owner seems to be an individual named Kent. Kelvin Kent. He describes his business as 'Freelance Adventurer.' But his registration's current, anyway. I was sure surprised to see that big old rocket touching down in the city."
Nola glanced at the panel while her fingers swapped cables and flipped switches for her other clients. "Oh, yes, I see. That's unusual."
Officer da Cunha thanked her again and hung up. Nola's hands had never slowed in their dance over the switchboard. Freelance Adventurer, she thought. That sounds like an interesting line of work.
TUESDAY, 10:09 PM
The work wasn't without its challenges, Pitt was the first to admit; but it was still just a sideshow. The main event, now, that was what really required his attention. He strode down the steps of the Info-Slate Switching Station with the kind of concentrated purpose that came to him by nature. A tall man made even taller by his signature hat, Howard Pitt somehow projected the idea that he'd just returned from, say, the Grand Canyon, after having bridged it, or from the Serengeti after installing an aqueduct that would change its history forever. Howard Pitt radiated purpose and accomplishment.
It was a quality that wasn't shared by many of his colleagues. Although the engineers of Retropolis were undoubtedly accomplished and didn't lack for purpose, they were typically a bit myopic, and either rather thin or prodigiously stout, and they usually began their conversations with an "Ermm ...," a "Hmmm ...," or sometimes, an —
"Ahh, excuse me, sir."
Pitt paused and, by habit, looked down at the spectacled, rather thin person who'd spoken. Pitt shifted to rest his hand on the holstered slide rule at his hip. "It's Perkins, isn't it."
It wasn't a question; more like an assertion that happily for Perkins was true, since otherwise he might have had to offer a correction.
The contrast between the two men was remarkable. Abner Perkins was an experienced engineer with the Retropolis Transit Authority, typical of the breed described above and, in fact, although he did not know it, practically its archetype: from the ink stains on his breast pocket to the socks that he would discover, later that evening, didn't match after all. A world that could create two such different engineers might be capable of anything.
"Yes, sir. It's Perkins. I had some questions about the specifications for the Tube system."
"You will understand," said Pitt, "that I've resigned from the Transit Authority as of yesterday. From now on I have to be considered a consultant." His hand idly stroked his holstered slide rule. "You can request a meeting with me during business hours, under the terms of my contract."
"Well, yes, sir, of course I can. But I knew you'd be making another visit to the Slate Switchboard, and, erm, I happened to be near here, and ... well, I ... didn't think there'd be any difficulty."
Pitt stared down at Perkins impassively while the smaller man stared in a completely different way at the pavement. "No harm done," Pitt said at last.
"Oh, good." Perkins pulled out a sheaf of papers and held them in front of him. "I've been trying to understand the overage in the air pressures you've required in the Transport Tubes. They, ah, they seem to be roughly five hundred percent of the air pressure that the system, well, that it actually needs. It's such a significant difference that, well, I just ..." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom by Bradley W. Schenck. Copyright © 2017 Bradley W. Schenck. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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