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by Geoff Hart
Shrapnel whined about my ears like angry fire wasps as I set the chrome cockroach on the floor; I'd been warned before about leaving calling cards, but like most of the many warnings I'd endured over the course of my career, it didn't take. Call me a discipline problem.
The air was filled with the acrid smells of ozone and burning metal, and the ionization from the guards' plasma weapons was making each of the few hairs that hadn't already been singed from my wig stand erect on fuzzy electrostatic tiptoes. Not for the first time, I found myself wondering whether there might not be some equally invigorating, but legal, way of earning a living.
I grinned—fat chance!
I'd budgeted these few seconds to relax under fire, and as they were now over, I turned to more pressing business. The guards had showed up pretty much when I'd expected them, no more than about 30 seconds off the mark—close enough for government work. A g-man myself, I knew that was more than a figure of speech. I pulled the primer tab from the minigrenade I'd been cradling, counted a slow three, then lobbed it gently into the air. As it neared the top of its arc, I squeezed my eyes tightly shut, pressed my earpieces firmly into place, then pinched shut my nose and closed my mouth against the pressure. The grenade went off, and I felt the concussion even from behind cover; the dull throbbing of the ensuing subsonics penetrated my skull even through the earplugs, and the light show danced on the backs of my eyelids, but unpleasant though these sensations were, they didn't slow my ten-count. The barrage from the overeager guards ceased almost immediately, as I was undoubtedly the only one within about fifty metres not now coping with the decidedly unpleasant aftereffects of the grenade.
Time to leave.
I moved out low and fast, scuttling across the floor like a roach on speed. The average rentacop hereabouts shot about as well randomly as aiming carefully, but they'd be recovering soon enough to cause me some grief if I got too cocky.
I reached the opening I'd carved in the wall unharmed, though my suit reeked of smoke from the burning walls and the expensive cloth was peppered with dots of congealing melted syncrete. The smell from the sewers below was worse, though. With a graceful parting salute in case they'd gotten the security cameras back online, I stepped through the hole and dropped about 15 metres before the gee harness kicked in and slammed me to a halt. Adjusting the lift, I floated a metre or two upwards until I came even with the lateral feeder shaft I'd spotted during initial recon. It was far too shallow for me to sit in, so I pressed my back against the wall immediately above the shaft, my knees against the far side of the main shaft, and braced myself there, the upper rim of the lateral shaft cutting painfully into my buttocks. Safely braced, I dialed the harness to just below neutral buoyancy, returning weight bearing down heavily on my legs and back as I did, then unbuckled the harness and pushed it gently into the sluggish current that flowed noisomely past a short distance below. The trackers ought to catch up with the harness somewhere around the sewage treatment plant if all went well, by which time I'd be long gone.
That done, I chimneyed downwards, scraping my back painfully on the rim until my head was even with the shaft and filthy water was sluicing down the back of my neck. Thank God for broad-spectrum antibiotics! I ran through my next motion in my head once more for good luck, then arched my back and shot myself into that narrow opening with a surge of my legs.
Once inside the shaft, I rolled onto my stomach and wormed my way onwards, fetid, greasy water trickling beneath me and into my pants. No place for a sensitive soul, but one made certain sacrifices in this line of work. My wristwatch's timer ticked inexorably onwards, and I picked up the pace, not daring to fall behind schedule at this point. A few minutes later, I reached the grating that gave me entry to an adjacent building. A momentary pause to confirm that the last occupant of the service station had left, then I pushed up the grating and emerged into the garage before the echoes of my entry had died down. I shed my ruined suit and dropped it into the incinerator, then ran naked to the shower, wrinkling my nose at my own stench. A glance at the watch: T plus 5 seconds, bang on schedule. In the shower, I scrubbed most of the stench from my hide, scrubbed the remnants of the hide itself from my body, and rinsed the last of the wig from my scalp, scrubbing harder for a few moments where a near miss had melted part of the polymers into my real hair, then shut down the shower and hit the air jets to dry me. I found the three-piece suit where I'd left it in the trunk of the car being repaired, and dressed.
The microchip lay heavy in my stomach, which was by now trebly uneasy from the antacid tabs I'd swallowed earlier to protect the chip, the aftereffects of being shot at, and the adrenaline I'd somehow never quite grown accustomed to. One thing for sure, I needed to get home soon so I could purge myself of the chip. From the pocket of the suit, I removed a small spray canister and dosed myself thoroughly with Bond ("the only fragrance licensed to kill") to conceal any lingering traces of the smoke. Then I glanced at myself in the mirror, smiling at my newly pallid complexion, and took the necessary long moment to ensure that no traces remained of my recent activities. That done, I adjusted my posture into the slouch of a career desk jockey, let my belly heed the call of its contents and puff out a few inches, and headed for the main entrance to the building, a few inches shorter than when I'd entered.
On my way out into the street, I nodded politely—after all, I'm a civil civil servant—at the grim policemen stationed near the adjacent building to keep pedestrians out of the line of fire from what was obviously some dangerous anarchist. I paused to look with furrowed brow back at the smoke pouring out of the building I'd so recently vacated, gave the police a sympathetic smile, then turned away. I resisted the temptation to look back over my shoulder, that being the inevitable downfall of amateur firebugs, and moved leisurely away from the building and out into the crowd.
Two more costume changes, accompanied by suitable changes of physical appearance and modes of transportation, got me back to my drop point at Outbound Nexus HQ. In the washroom, mercifully empty at this time of night, I found I had no need of the purgative Ops had so considerately supplied, and after rinsing off the chip and depositing it in the lab's delivery slot, returned to my office to pick up my messages. There was only one, a package about the size of a carton of cigarettes but with no addressing information on it. The package wouldn't have made it past Security if it'd been dangerous, so after a reflexive but cursory examination, I simply opened it. Inside, there was a small, gleaming, chrome statuette of a six-legged insect, the cockroach I'd chosen as my trademark. Like my gleaming friend's organic kin, I prided myself on the ability to slip unnoticed through the bowels of society like a technological metaphor through the mind of a bureaucrat.
But this one had a leg missing, snipped off cleanly at the thorax.
Before heading for my quarters, I booked an appointment with the Binary Ops Strategic Supervisor, then dropped the "bug" off at the Electronics labs, just in case it really was a bug. The Highly Autonomous Remote Reconnaissance and Intelligence Service—Outbound Nexus takes a predictably intolerant attitude towards electronic surveillance from the many potential E-T threats to Earth, and it wouldn't do to let matters sit overnight if the eetees had managed to slip one past Security; that's the ethical equivalent of a mugger complaining when he finds out that you're only carrying a credit chip, but so long as the policy kept people who wanted me dead at a safe distance, it was an ethical quibble I was prepared to live with.
While I waited for my appointment with B.O.S.S., I let myself into Stores and helped myself to a few minor amenities without which I tended to feel naked, plus a few luxuries the clerks who'd survived the latest round of corporate re-engineering wouldn't miss for a long while. By the time I'd done, I was ready to report to B.O.S.S.'s office.
B.O.S.S. sat behind his mahogany desk, his upper half a reasonable simulation of a human and his lower half embedded in a motorized tracked carriage, useful for those rare occasions when he had to leave the office for preventative maintenance. "Have a seat, Jim," intoned the carefully modulated synthetic voice that always reminded me of the talking heads who did the evening news. Come to think of it... Nah.
B.O.S.S. cleared his throat. "The labs came up with some interesting things about that bug you dropped off. As you know, it's one of yours, and you can consider yourself on report—you know how I feel about those things." I did, and it bothered me not a whit. "What you probably didn't know was that it's not a listening device; it simply contained a microdot message, and I quote: 'Jim: Meet me at Puck's... urgent info related to your imminent demise.—B'." He paused dramatically, which he'd been getting progressively better at doing. "I think you take the point."
"Uh huh. Somehow, my cover's been blown."
"Hardly surprising, the way you conduct yourself on assignment. Might I remind you that you're over budget again this month?"
I smiled. "You say that like I should be surprised. Who's counting? You have to be willing to pay a premium for quality work, B.O.S.S."
B.O.S.S.'s lifeless face managed a credible imitation of irritation, not an easy task when you have cameras instead of pupils. "Nevertheless, these are times of fiscal restraint. I'm chopping your equipment allocation budget and informing Stores." I kept my poker face firmly in place, since B.O.S.S. had had his scanning capabilities upgraded recently. "In the meantime, meet this 'B' fellow and find out his story. Cancel him if necessary, but bring him in alive for questioning if at all "—there was a slight but noticeable hesitation—"humanly possible." His voice changed to one of warm congratulation, or what Computer Ops presumably thought would sound that way. "Nice job with the microchip... budgetary irregularities notwithstanding."
"Thanks, B.O.S.S.. Nice of you to notice." It was. I'd seen so few of my fellow agents these past several weeks that the pressure to brag to someone had grown to the point that it took superhuman restraint not to explode; fortunately, agents received extensive training on how to resist psychological torture. But it would've been particularly nice to share with Ed, for instance, just to see the look on his face. On the way out, I stopped by his office, dusty and unlit—much like Anne's and Roger's, for that matter. Evidently, I wasn't the only one pulling down serious unpaid overtime these days. I shrugged. There was always e-mail.
The ecstatic grunts echoing from the holoscreen were easy to ignore, but the ones from the seats around me were considerably more disturbing. I gritted my teeth and took a tighter grip on the bag of popcorn I'd smuggled into the theater in my trenchcoat. Ordinarily, I'd rather have played last touch with a paper shredder than enter a place like Puck's Porno Palace, but the guy who'd been following me was a pro, and I was betting he was the mysterious 'B' who'd asked me to meet him there. I didn't see him enter the place, but nearly twenty years working for H.A.R.R.I.S.O.N. had fine-tuned a naturally keen sixth sense. I reached into my coat for a little insurance I'd been keeping up my sleeve for just such a moment.
The psi-pill I swallowed dry took hold almost instantly, and equally suddenly, I wished it hadn't; the ambient psychic environment was even stickier than the real environment. But my insurance paid off, 'cause it told me that everyone in the room but one had exactly the same thing on what passed for their minds; that one exception stood out like a beacon. I withdrew part of my mind, feeling soiled at the thoughts that slithered through my stream of consciousness, and locked in on that joker in the deck. It undoubtedly wasn't a coincidence that he was the one sitting directly behind me with the 20-millimetre Gyrojet rapid repeater pressed firmly against the back of my skull.
My cover was indisputably blown, and since I didn't want my brains to follow suit, I put phase two of my plan into action. Before B could introduce himself, I threw myself sideways, simultaneously depressing the trigger on the popcorn. The quiet whoosh of the rocket-propelled slug hissed uncomfortably close to my ear, echoed by a tremendous crash from the exploding holoscreen. I hit the tacky floor and slid somewhat inefficiently, not letting myself think about what I might be skidding in; the stench of burning vinyl upholstery was far too close at hand, a potent reminder that the rest of the Gyrojet's volley hadn't been far behind that first shell. Then the popcorn started popping, and dense smoke began filling the room; the words "Scram, boys, it's a raid!" screamed from the now empty bag in three of the local languages, and strobing flashes lit the room at random, short intervals to the tune of banshee wails from the unpopped kernels. I settled my Groucho Marx facegear more firmly into place while scrabbling stickily beneath the seats to get myself further out of the line of fire. I got the filters firmly in place just in time to block out the effects of the tear-gas grenades. There was a click as the IR goggles cut in, letting me see clearly through the smoke.
I should have been the only one in the room capable of functioning when I got cautiously to my feet, but something was seriously wrong. The guy who'd trailed me into the theatre had torn off his disguise so he could move more freely, and revealed himself to be a large and particularly nasty-looking cyborg. Now for the record, I don't have anything against cyborgs in general—mostly they're nice people—but the triple row of human heads blazoned on his fuselage, a large red X drawn neatly through each, didn't much reassure me. My opponent tossed aside the empty Gyrojet and took a step towards me.
"You are Jim Gray, agent for H.A.R.R.I.S.O.N.?"
"That's me. And you're B?" I turned ever so slightly sideways, reached casually into the trenchcoat pocket that was now just below his line of sight, and palmed another distraction I'd borrowed from Stores.
The cyborg smiled, ignoring my question and confirming my earlier impressions. Cyborgs generally get by on a small fusion generator and regular infusions of essential amino acids, so the fact that this one had a mouthful of centimetre-long razor blades probably didn't bode well for the outcome of this conversation. "Then you shall die now, horribly and messily." A resonant digitized chuckle sounded from behind the portable shaving kit, and the cyborg came for me, casually uprooting a row of the bolted-down seats that got in his way.
"Not just yet, if you don't mind." I let loose with a blast from the EMP-pistol I'd palmed during our brief exchange of courtesies.
Now ordinarily, I wouldn't have had much faith in such a weapon, electromagnetism not generally having an awful lot of stopping power, but it had certain advantages against a cyborg's support systems. The effect on B was suitably dramatic: he froze in his tracks, powerful hands clenching futilely a safe distance from my face, sparks spitting from his torso. I stepped backwards, not wanting him to fall on me, and glanced around the room, the effects of the psi-pill mercifully having begun to wear off. Puck's patrons were down for the count, moaning in a ragged chorus but in an altogether different key from before. Judging by the smoke beginning to trickle from between the cyborg's teeth, which were gnashing more slowly by the second, he wasn't going to be much help in clarifying matters.
I waited until he stopped sizzling, went through his discarded clothing, then patted him down quickly. I found nothing useful. I shrugged and exited through the front door, thereby neatly avoiding the cordon the police had thrown up around the side and rear exits. There's something to be said for a working knowledge of standard police procedure.
Back at the office, B.O.S.S. sounded grim. "It's worse than we thought, Jim. The Statistics section has done some extrapolations from the chip you stole and it looks like we've been infiltrated."
That explained how my enemies had gotten their package past Security. "Infiltrated? How's that possible?" It was disturbing news. I thought we'd become so robotized and computerized and rightsized and fill-in-the-blank-ized that it would have been a piece of cake monitoring the few flesh and blood operatives remaining.
"Your guess is as good as mine." B.O.S.S. sounded more than a bit pissed, which surprised me. I hadn't known he had it in him. More new mods? "We strongly suspect that one of the alien races sharing this sector has discovered our role here and is trying to subvert H.A.R.R.I.S.O.N. from the inside. I've had Xenobiology put together a portfolio of possibilities for you, and I expect you to get moving on the investigation as soon as you've had a shower. You positively reek of popcorn, and there's something unidentifiable yet strangely disgusting on your shoes and trousers." I blinked. Someone had definitely been tinkering with B.O.S.S.'s interface, and I wasn't sure I approved.
"Oh, and one more thing."
"We lifted some prints from the cockroach, and ran an amino acid spectrum on them. Even with PCR, we couldn't collect enough material to be sure which race handled the bug last, but we're reasonably confident we can find out if we get close enough. Here's something that will help."
He flung something shaped like a fountain pen in my direction and I snatched it out of the air. "For taking blood samples?"
"Better than that. Press the pocket clip." I complied, and the pen vibrated in my hand; after a moment, it beeped quietly. "When you get within arm's reach of an alien, trigger the pen and it'll beep if you've found the right species."
"Self-test mode, I assume. Ask the boys in the lab if it really bothers you. Now get going. There's no time to waste."
I shrugged; how the tech worked wasn't my concern, so long as it worked. I plucked the dossier from his desk on my way out and stowed it in my office safe on my way to the showers. I wasn't crazy about having to investigate a slew of aliens, especially given that one of them was trying to kill me, but then again, if they'd come hunting for me in my own stomping grounds, it was time to carry the game into their court. The advantage of surprise, mixed metaphors, and all that.
As I soaped down, I looked around with some curiosity. Maybe I'd been distracted by the new threat, but it struck me as odd that I was alone in the showers. If everyone else was in the field, B.O.S.S. was evidently taking the problem seriously. An unworthy thought occurred to me as the hot water beat down on my head: we organics were obviously easier to subvert than our electronic colleagues. Was it possible that B.O.S.S. had put us all in the field to keep HQ secure? I filed that thought for future reference.
Two hours later, freshly scrubbed and smelling only of myself, I was outbound from Outbound. Forget about all of those glamorous spy novels you've undoubtedly read, which feature all the latest and hottest gadget-infested spaceships. H.A.R.R.I.S.O.N., after the latest round of budget cuts, had hocked all our ships to pay for public transit passes for field agents. Some bright light in Finance—Phillips, if memory serves—had figured this would save enough for another few dozen person-years worth of salaried positions, but shortly after his plan had been approved, the powers that be discovered a Finance Expert System that could replace him at considerably less than half the cost and free up that much more cash for our expense accounts, which were, as usual, skating on the thin edge of budgetary disaster. After auditing my expense accounts for several missions in a row, they'd tried working their financial magic on my own budget, but I'd stayed late at the office one night and done a little corporate re-engineering of my own to tide me over until retirement.
Public transport on Outbound is about as cheap and uncomfortable as transportation gets, but it is efficient. To get where you're going, you swallow transfer RNA pills that physically restructure certain parts of your brain until you know that you're at the desired destination; once you've achieved that state of consciousness, your body loyally joins your mind in that place and reality once more conforms with what your brain says it should be. Appropriate linguistic abilities come with that newly relocalized state of mind, which is a fortunate side-effect for a field operative. I'll leave the philosophical implications of the technology to the philosophers; the scientists who bought the technology from some friendly aliens still don't know how it works either, only that it does, and if it leaves them feeling insecure, the engineers are at least delighted. Personally, I would've preferred something a little more traditional by way of transport, but there were no shuttles running offworld at that time of night and none that I could afford after the credit downgrade B.O.S.S. had just hit me with. Speaking from purely selfish considerations, and not as a loyal taxpayer, I wished they'd let us use real ships; transference always left me with a throbbing migraine.
I keyed in my order and stepped aside to wait for my pills. While I waited, I reviewed the dossier. The Remote Assessment Technician who'd discovered the first species I was going to visit had named them "Revenants", after the disconcerting habit they had of dying when startled; the mind of the dearly departed immediately transmigrated into the body of his or her nearest surviving relative, with the intriguing consequence that the families most involved in the hazardous business of dealing with other races also produced the most experienced leaders, their brains paced chock full of knowledge painfully accumulated by all their predecessors of how not to deal with strangers. It was reasonable to assume that if the previous R.A.T. had inadvertently killed off enough of their people during his visit, the species would be mad enough at us to want revenge. Reasonable, but it didn't explain why they'd targeted me, though it was certainly logical that such a fragile species would've hired a cyborg to off me instead of trying to do it themselves.
The machine chimed, and I pocketed all but one of the handful of grey pills, each the size of my thumbnail and printed with a destination code. I stepped into the transference booth. The featureless grey of the enclosure and the numbing musak were designed to minimize distractions for those who had difficulty concentrating during transference, but because many travelers felt claustrophobic locking into their own heads while the pills took effect, a small window had been provided for those who needed it. I looked out through the small window at the Transit Authority waiting room; no obvious sign I was being followed, so I swallowed the pill, focused most of my mind on the destination, and prepared myself to leave. In a few moments, I felt the first dull ache in my head, and I raised my eyes instinctively for one last look around to determine whether I was being followed. That reflex turned out to be a good one, for even as the inside of the transfer booth began fading into a crowded street under a strangely colored sky, I saw something I'd never seen from such close proximity: the inside of what must have been a fairly magnificent explosion, with bits and pieces of people and machines flying through the air all around me.
I succeeded in leaving the booth before the shockwave hit me, but an uncomfortable proportion of the pyrotechnics somehow came along for the ride, make of that existentialist conundrum what you will. My indiscreet arrival thus had the unfortunate side-effect of startling virtually everyone in the crowded street that was my destination, with predictable if unfortunate results. Having done my part to control the local population density and raise the average wisdom of a good many families, I clutched at my aching head and staggered shakily for the nearest dark alleyway, consoling myself that at least no one would be around to monitor where I went next. That was a blessing, for until my head cleared, I didn't want to even think about trying to cope with a wholly alien race that now had another reason to be seriously ticked off at humanity.
Figuring out how to reach the Revenant that Intel had told me I needed to see posed something of a problem. It would have been trivial to break into his office, save only that the shock of my discovery would have ended the conversation before it ever began. So I did the only thing I could: I walked casually into his secretary's office, loudly whistling a pop song to announce my arrival as if my visit were the most normal, predictable thing in the world. Once inside, I gently but firmly insisted on an appointment.
Revenants are essentially human in all external characteristics, but with a tendency towards a cadaverous thinness and pallor, with strong chins and vaguely rectangular faces topped with grey hair that tapers into a pronounced widow's peak. The secretary was typical of the race, but an excess of blue eyeshadow, cheek rouge, and carmine lipstick made her even less attractive; the corpse analogy was far too close for my liking, particularly given the circumstances of my departure from Outbound Nexus, so I refocused my attention on the business at hand.
"I'm here to see Inspector Price."
Her voice was flat and without emotion. "Very good, sir. You have an appointment?"
"No, but I'm sure he'll see me anyway. Tell him it's Jim Gray from Outbound Nexus." I seated myself slowly, not wanting to risk startling her, and smiled my best bland smile.
She closed her eyes for a moment, then looked at me with a forced smile. "He'll see you now. Go right in."
I rose slowly and approached the door, hesitating as I took the handle in my hand. I looked back at her. If possible, she looked at me even more sourly. "Go right in, sir; I said he's expecting you."
I did so, resisting an evil impulse to slam the door behind me. When I turned from the door, it was to discover Inspector Price facing me with a large-bore handgun trained on my chest.
"Have a seat, Earthling... slowly." Price had a deceptively gentle, cultured voice. To my untrained eye, he was the spitting image of his secretary, but he wore substantially less makeup and packed a bit more muscle. The gun was unwavering, and I kept my eyes on it as I seated myself carefully in the hard wooden chair in front of his desk, legs dangling uncomfortably a few inches from the floor. His finger was taut on the trigger.
"I don't think you really want to do that."
"You think your government would protest?"
"I flatter myself that they would indeed do so, but what I really mean is that the noise would undoubtedly startle your secretary and most of the other occupants of this office block, and good help is so hard to find these days."
"The office is, of course, soundproofed. But even if that weren't the case, my office has staffing priority; she can be back at work in a day, better than before, as can the rest of the staff." He smiled coldly at me.
"True enough. But then there's the fact that I wouldn't have walked into your office without preparing an unpleasant surprise for anyone who pulled a gun on me. But I suppose that you could also be back at work in a day."
Price grimaced and set the gun down slowly on the table, then carefully flicked the safety on. "That's certainly true, but as you well know, it would not be a particularly pleasant experience for me. Very well, let's cease our games. Tell me what you want."
"Nothing you can't reasonably be expected to give me. I need to know why your people are infiltrating H.A.R.R.I.S.O.N. and why they've made me a target." I reached casually up to my shirt pocket and pressed the fountain pen's clip. It vibrated silently in my pocket, but resolutely failed to beep.
Price's laughter was cold and harsh. "What a ludicrous notion! However did you happen upon it?" I smiled coldly back at him, and placed the five-legged roach I'd palmed upon his desk. He looked upon it with some distaste.
"This gave me a pretty good clue."
"I have no idea whatsoever what that singularly repulsive thing is supposed to be, save only that it bears an uncanny resemblance to this item which found its way into my desk two days ago." He placed a nearly identical cockroach upon his desk. This one was missing two legs, each removed with surgical precision.
Our eyes met for a moment, and it occurred to me that were he human, he'd be telling the truth; moreover, the boys in the labs were pretty sharp, and the pen really should have beeped if the Revenants had had anything to do with the first cockroach. I pocketed both tiny statues, still moving slowly, then rose to my feet. "I could kill you and search your office..."
"And you'd still find nothing. Believe me when I tell you, your race is far too violent and unpredictable for our taste. I sincerely doubt that we could successfully infiltrate your Service without leaving such a long trail of corpses that our intentions would be evident even to the least competent agent."
I reflected a moment. "You have a point. My apologies for wasting your time."
"Accepted, albeit grudgingly. And Gray?"
"Next time you come for a visit—if indeed there is a next time—please see whether you can't arrive in somewhat less startling fashion. My office will be busy for days pacifying the relatives of those your arrival sent prematurely to share skulls with their kin."
"Sorry about that." I felt a brief moment of genuine chagrin, and let it show on my face, figuring it might earn me some karmic points should I ever need to return. I left Price's office, carefully closing the door behind me once again. His secretary watched me with unconcealed distaste as I headed for the building's public transference booth.
Unlike my previous dramatic arrival, my departure and materialization were uneventful this time. I found myself in a dark alley with skyscraping walls that vanished overhead into a sky clotted with roiling black clouds. The walls blocked almost all of the faint light from the sky that might otherwise have reached street level, but given how violently my head throbbed whenever I moved my eyes, I was grateful for the dimness. The alleyway was perhaps two metres wide, and there were no windows or doors that I could see, but a short distance to either side, other alleys led off at right angles to the alley I was standing in. At my feet, a line of evenly spaced mushrooms that glowed a faint bluish-grey led off in both directions before vanishing into the murk. A thick odor of mold permeated the heavy air, and I felt my sinuses frantically closing down, exacerbating the already unpleasant throbbing in my head. I gritted my teeth and wished I'd had the foresight to bring painkillers with me; even though drugs powerful enough to dull the pain would have reduced my speed and cognitive abilities dangerously, I no longer cared.
Instead, I ignored the pain as best I could, and focused on my mission. I was here to meet a race known as "The Pac", a communal intelligence that lived in this gloomy place and that almost never left their planet. I had little hope that they would reveal themselves to be H.A.R.R.I.S.O.N.'s enemy, for they were sufficiently inhuman that they'd never have been able to infiltrate us undetected; moreover, such intel as we'd collected on them suggested they were inherently unlikely to use cyborg-level technology against us.
I removed my pistol from its shoulder holster, gave it a quick once-over for good luck, then reholstered it. There was no sign to suggest which way I should head, so I chose the direction I'd been facing when I arrived and set off, careful not to disturb the mushrooms. Breathing was difficult enough already without risking introducing a cloud of alien spores into such a confined space, and I was confident they wouldn't improve my headache. Shortly, I came to the first of the alleys I'd seen, which led off into the gloom before branching into two more alleys, neither of which had any remotely distinguishing characteristics. I briefly considered damaging a few of the mushrooms to mark my progress in this bewildering maze of streets, then shrugged and continued on my way; it didn't much matter where I went, since any member of the Pac's distributed brain should be equally able to provide the information I needed.
After a dozen random turns, going whichever way my fancy led me, I rounded a blind corner and stopped abruptly. A moist smacking of lips came from behind me, and I spun, gun already in hand, to face the noise. Even though the dossier had warned me what to expect, I still stepped back, nauseated by the sight. The Pac who faced me was a floating, jaundice-yellow globe just narrow enough to fit within the alleyway's confines. A gaping mouth slit its unhealthy-looking face from ear to ear like some gruesome knife wound, the effect exacerbated by an oily band of what resembled thick red lipstick, and bits of mushroom dripped unpleasantly from the thin lips, bleeding blue ooze. Two pallid white eyes with large black pupils watched me coldly, as if my presence were of no more significance than the omnipresent fungi. As I reluctantly met that gaze, its mouth opened into an impossibly wide grin fringed with blunt teeth, and the Pac snatched up another mushroom and began chewing. Without hesitating for a moment, it snatched a larger and brighter mushroom and began to speak, bits of fungus falling sloppily to the alley floor.
"You be Gray, no?" The voice was oddly shrill and tinny, as if produced by a cheap synthesizer with disposable speakers, and the words were distorted both by the shape of that mouth and by the mouthful of food.
"I am. And you are?"
"Call me Miz. Your visit anticipated, not desired. I convince you to leave."
I raised my pistol and drew a bead on one of those large, pale eyes. "I'm not quite ready to leave just yet. Not until I find the answer to certain questions."
There was no evident change in the eyes, but the Pac edged closer, ripping another mushroom from the ground. "You have upper hand for moment. Ask question."
"If you know who I am, you know who I work for. Why have your people chosen to infiltrate us?"
The thin lips writhed for several seconds before the creature mastered itself. "Infiltrate? Amusing. See you me draped in strange garments your people wear? Standing at water cooler flirting secretaries?"
He had a good point, though come to think of it, flirt-worthy secretaries were few and far between at H.A.R.R.I.S.O.N. these days. There'd been this one girl… I shook my head, then regretted that rash move as the pain surged. "Nonetheless, the question stands. Perhaps you recognize these?" With my free hand, I removed the two roach statues from my pocket and held them gingerly towards him.
"Seen them never," he replied, then lunged for me with surprising speed, his mouth opening to an impossible size.
I'd been expecting something like this, but not his speed. Even so, my shot was right on the mark, and the heavy-caliber slug took him in one eye. Despite the silencer, the shot echoed loudly in that enclosed space. With a despairing wail, the Pac flew backwards down the alley like a pierced balloon, leaving a foul stench in his wake. He vanished from sight in the murk, and there came the dull double-thud of that leathery body mushily striking a wall and caroming off it to hit the floor of the alleyway. Fearing that his death cry would bring help, I rushed towards him, smashing mushrooms with each stride and hoping that he'd be carrying something that would help me in my investigation. I knelt by the motionless corpse, running my hands over it in a vain search for a pocket or some other place to store things, and found the skin dry and oddly pleasant beneath my fingers, like old leather. Then I jerked my hand back, surprised: the Pac had begun moving beneath my touch.
The slash mouth opened and a weak voice emerged. "Most discourteous to shot me you have. To do something presently." As I watched, he began slowly inflating once again, his swelling bulk threatening to push me aside. Taking a shaky step backwards, I shot him again. This time, he deflated more slowly, but I'd seen something in his mouth as he talked, and propping that orifice open cautiously with the barrel of my gun, I reached gingerly inside. I removed a third chrome cockroach, this one with three legs missing. I wasn't given much time to ponder this, for the Pac had begun stirring once more, slowly swelling under my hand. I took a hasty step back, just in time to spot another Pac approaching me from further down the alley.
I emptied my gun into the newcomer, then paused to trigger the fountain pen that I'd thus far forgotten; it vibrated quietly, but again, failed to beep, so I turned and ran, pocketing the cockroach and snapping a new clip into the gun as I skidded around a corner, breathing heavily through my mouth, the mushrooms splattering beneath my feet and leaving a clear indication of where I was running, but by now, I was in too much of a hurry to care; ahead of me, I'd seen another Pac rounding a corner and moving rapidly towards me. I kept running, taking left or right turns in whatever order they presented themselves, and snapping off a shot at any Pac unwise enough to present a target. In about five minutes, I was lost, and reeling from the inadequate oxygen supply. The alleys snaked around like a self-portrait of Escher's intestines, and apart from the crushed mushrooms, there was no clue whatsoever whether I'd been here before. But I knew for a certainty I was in trouble when I rounded a corner to confront yet another Pac, floating above a trail of freshly crushed mushrooms that I'd obviously traversed only moments earlier. I shot him, panting, then paused to catch my breath.
If I kept running through this maze, they'd eventually catch me and probably devour me, which despite the pleasant prospect that it might cure my headache, was not a fate I was prepared to accept just yet. My only chance would seem to be to take a transfer pill and hope I could invoke it without a transference booth, all the while fending off hostile aliens. I didn't dare take my eyes off the alleys, so I had no idea which pill I'd pulled from me pocket. Gasping, I swallowed harshly, half choking, before I could reconsider the idea and scanned the alleyways nervously all the while. I snapped off a quick volley of shots at one Pac who'd incautiously rounded the corner behind me, and watched him deflate. This form of transference was not recommended, even for a trained agent, and I could only imagine the headache I was in for.
Even as the Pac began reinflating, the alleyway blurred around me, and a great pain surged in my head; on top of my existing headache, it was enough to stirfry my brain. My last thought as I sank to my knees was that it was probably unwise to appear unannounced in a public place with a powerful handgun in hand. Thinking and acting were two different things, though; I don't recall whether I retained enough force of will to holster it in time.
I awoke in a comfortable bed, amidst the sharp smells of freshly starched and perfumed sheets, disinfectants, bedpans, soggy toast, and various other hospital-like aromas. The pain in my head was a distant memory, and I was ridiculously comfortable—though the bed was a Procrustean foot and a half too short for me, I realized, as the warm fuzziness of my brain slowly began to evaporate and my thoughts gradually began coming back up to speed. I kept my eyes closed while the cotton batting in my head gradually faded into the background, and I began assessing my surroundings, all the while conducting an inventory of my possessions and limbs without seeming to even twitch a muscle. The surroundings seemed innocuous enough, despite the belt cinched firmly around my waist; on the whole, it seemed more like a measure to keep me from rolling out of bed, for if they'd wanted to restrain me, the belt would have been accompanied by matching restraints at my wrists and ankles. Slightly more alarming was the fact that I'd evidently been searched quite thoroughly, including several body cavities, both natural and artificial, that had formerly held various useful implements.
As I lay there, pondering the apparent contradictions in my situation, a boggy sort of smell began insinuating itself into my consciousness. After the moldy density of the Pac homeworld's air, it wasn't exactly unpleasant, but it was certainly strange: redolent of decaying vegetable matter and stagnant water, but more greenhouse than sewer. I opened my eyes hurriedly and met the bug-eyed gaze of something wearing a stiff white hat perched at a rakish angle on a flattish olive-green head. I'm not sure who was the more surprised, and we both jerked our heads backwards. The other being fled with a moist slapping sound, its kicking webbed feet rising to a surprising height above the floor and falling to beat a soggy tattoo on the local linoleum equivalent.
"Ah, good! You're awake." The lisping voice came from a short distance away, by the side of the bed, and I turned my head gingerly in that direction. My headache had apparently left of its own free will or been banished, as there was no answering pain. Squatting on the floor was a frog-like creature with alarmingly bulging eyes, whose large black pupils were bordered by beautiful golden rims. Beneath an obtuse, pointed snout, a large, fleshy, goiterlike growth swung gently to and fro every time the being moved its head. Though its head and (so far as I could see) its sides were a brilliant shade of green pocked with large black spots, its face and belly were a disturbing and unpleasant fishbelly white. I'd evidently been captured by the Bems.
"Um, yes, I am," I replied, stalling for time while I tried to recall what the dossier had said about these beings. "And precisely where am I awake?"
"Where is the main public hospital of Bathrakia. Who is an entirely different matter. From the ID you carried, it seems you are one Jim Gray, itinerant iodine salesman."
I smiled my best car-salesman smile. "That would be me. And who might I have the pleasure to be addressing?"
The Bem ignored my question and continued on, his beady eyes not leaving mine for an instant. "The ID and the small quantity of iodine we found in your pocket certainly suggest that this is indeed who you are, for it's unusual for Humans to visit us here. Yet..."
"Yet?" My smile was becoming harder to maintain.
"Yet iodine salesmen rarely carry guns, competitive though the trade may be at times." His eyes locked on mine.
"It's not the competition per se, but rather the unsavory elements on my own planet—"
"—that inspire a measure of caution in the prudent salesman."
"Be that as it may," the Bem continued, "I find it harder to imagine why a salesman might be carrying these." He held out his hand, palm upwards, and rolled several small round objects around his palm and onto the webby flesh that linked his fingers.
"Trade items, of course," I riposted weakly, the smile beginning to congeal upon my face.
"Hardly. Not only do my people have little use and less taste for explosive devices, but I find it difficult to understand how you might have come into possession of H.A.R.R.I.S.O.N.-issue weaponry. Then there are a variety of other curious devices of an unpleasant nature, some of which my colleagues are still trying to decipher. Home must be a very competitive place indeed for you to travel so exuberantly defended."
My smile had long since vanished, along with my equanimity. "I'll ask you again: who are you?"
The Bem grimaced in a way I chose to interpret as a smile, and bowed in a floppy, boneless sort of way. "Inspector Grenoyl at your service. You, my dear Mr. Gray, pose something of a dilemma. My people are not inherently hostile, but at the same time, my government is not pleased to find a member of your Service sticking its unpleasantly small nose into our affairs. This leaves me in something of a quandary."
"One I hope I can assist you in resolving to our mutual satisfaction."
"Quite. I'm open to any suggestions you might have."
"First, let me offer you the iodine as a gesture of good will. I understand it's something of a valuable commodity hereabouts."
"Yes, it is. Sadly, there is something of a deficiency of iodine in this benighted planet's soil, and the homeworld, which has other priorities, is somewhat lax in supplying us with the requisite quantities. But you offer me something that is already in my possession. Is there anything I don't already have that you can offer?" His cold, hard eyes focused unblinkingly on my face, and an appallingly long tongue whipped between taut lips and snagged a large insect from the air. He blinked, nictitating membranes flashing across his eyes, and the tongue was suddenly gone again.
"How about the truth?"
"That would do nicely for a start." The eyes seemed to soften marginally.
"Very well. As you suspect, I'm an agent of H.A.R.R.I.S.O.N. and I'm here on a mission."
"Ah! Now we're getting somewhere." The Bem squatted back on his haunches with a moist sound, and that long tongue shot out again, snatching another insect in mid-flight.
"But I'm not here on the sort of spy mission as you might expect. I'm here to find out why your people are infiltrating H.A.R.R.I.S.O.N. and trying to kill me."
"Kill you? What a preposterous notion."
"Then explain, if you will, the amputee chrome cockroaches!"
Grenoyl blinked. "I confess that now you have the advantage of me. We noted those, of course, among your gear, and would have spent considerable effort dismantling them to determine their function had we not already seen such a thing before." One fleshy hand dipped into a pouch that hung around his neck and emerged with another of my roaches, which the Inspector placed gently in my hand. Diplomatic instincts working overtime, I repressed a shudder at the clammy touch of his flesh. This roach had only one leg left, and it had evidently been sawed in half with some kind of fine-bladed saw.
"Damn!" I had begun to sense a pattern in the increasing dismemberment of my calling cards, but what that pattern might be had thus far eluded me.
"Indeed. I confess that we still have no good explanation for what these creations might be..."
"They're something of a calling card I use on occasion. Call it a trademark, if you will."
The Bem bobbed his head twice. "You Humans behave even more peculiarly than your appearance would suggest. Nonetheless, your explanation would seem plausible on the face of it. What more can you tell me?"
"Little, I'm afraid. If you've come into possession of another of my mutilated roaches, recent history suggests that you're not really behind these events. That would mean my business lies elsewhere."
"I would be forced to concur."
"Um... do you think I might have my equipment back before I leave."
Grenoyl's face contorted again. "We certainly have no use for it."
A short while later, I casually pressed the button on my pen as I dressed, and awaited the results. The pen vibrated, but gave no other sign. Relieved, I finished dressing and let Grenoyl escort me to the hospital transference booth, its walls running with condensation. Once inside, I placed my second-to-last pill on my tongue, swallowed it, and braced myself for yet another in a seemingly interminable series of headaches. Bathrakia dissolved moistly around me, and in the next instant, I found myself standing up to my hips in the sunbaked grass of a rolling prairie. Apart from some vaguely linear structure in the far distance, there was no sign that I was anywhere near civilization. Shrugging, I set off for the only landmark I could see, that thin, regular line on the horizon. My head throbbed with each footstep, and even if I hadn't been convinced there was something here for me, I simply couldn't face the prospect of transferring again until the current headache left.
The sun beat down on me, doing its best to cook my brain and suck out the last drops of sweat from my feverish skin. Not for the first time that day, I reflected that the damned Service's cost-cutting measures had gone several damned steps too far and, not incidentally, that I was an urban operative, not some damned excuse for a ranger. I was far enough gone towards heat prostration that when the feline predator sprang upon me from the grass, it was all I could do to roll with the blow and grasp feebly for my pistol. Thank God for reflexes.
I had a momentary glimpse of bright orange and ginger fur, golden slit eyes, and enormous fangs, then the weapon was knocked from my grasp and vanished into the grass, and I found myself striving with fast-waning strength to ward off large, obscenely sharp claws. It wouldn't have been a fair fight even if I hadn't been lying upon my back with several hundred pounds of giant cat crushing me into the grass, but in my current condition, the fight didn't last much longer than it took to describe. I stared up into those fierce eyes as the carnivore wrinkled its nose, baring those enormous fangs again. With my arms pinned, I couldn't even try to grope for my gun. Calling on an obscure training exercise I'd hoped never to have to use, I closed my eyes and composed myself for a premature retirement from active duty.
Just then, an enormous sneeze half lifted the creature from me. Freed for a moment from its weight, I rolled desperately for the gun, and was immediately knocked flying as the giant cat pounced upon me. Once again, I found myself beneath it, looking up at that wrinkling nose and bracing myself to become its dinner. But just like the last time, another immense sneeze saved me. After two more repetitions of this performance, the cat recoiled violently, raised itself onto its two hind legs, and slunk sulkily away from me. My abused ribs breathed a silent prayer of thanks as I sat up cautiously, adrenaline still running amok and banishing any irrelevant concerns such as torn clothing, incipient heat stroke, and throbbing skull. I surreptitiously began feeling about me for my remaining weapons. As I did, another titanic sneeze racked the cat's giant frame.
"Gsinteit!" I pronounced, recognizing the species now that my brain was once again functional.
"Thank you, Human. What you lack in olfactory suitability, you evidently make up for in politeness," the large cat snarled back at me, tiny pink parasol-like ears unfolding from where they'd lain flat against its skull during the attack and pivoting to focus upon me. A rich, pungent animal smell filled my nose. "But it would seem that I'm not to feast upon you this day," it continued in that ferocious voice. "Pity."
From my sitting position, I groped through the grass as casually as I could manage, seeking my vanished pistol; one should never trust a smiling crocodile, and even a momentarily passive Gsinteit inspires no more confidence. "That would obviously depend on one's point of view, wouldn't it?"
"If one's point of view were important, one would not be Food, one would be Gsinteit. Humans are Food, and thus of no importance. Why, were it not for—"
My hand fell upon the pistol, and, my dwindling reserves quickened by a second surge of adrenaline, I brought it into line between us. "—were it not for this?" I smiled my coldest smile, taking great pains to bare my own fangs for the Gsinteit's benefit. It was a pitiful display, but body language counts for a surprising amount in such situations, particularly if one is carrying a large-bore weapon at the time. The cat's incongruous ears folded slowly and dejectedly back upon its skull.
"Slay me and be done with it, Human. My mortification is now complete."
I relaxed my feral smile, but not my vigilance. "Slaying you isn't why I came here. I came to find out why your people are trying to kill me."
The Gsinteit's brows furrowed, an oddly human gesture. "Is it not enough that you are Food? Or would be, were it not for the fact that I seem to have a near-anaphylactic allergy to your species."
"That would certainly be adequate explanation for why you sent a cyborg to kill me in your place."
The big cat's lips folded back in a silent snarl, and I concentrated on my grip on the pistol; adrenaline or no, I was beginning to fade now that the immediate threat was ended. "No Gsinteit would stoop so low. Were we unable to kill you with our bare hands"—the large claws flexed most unpleasantly in the bright sun—"then we would use an equally noble weapon, such as an axe, a flung knife, or a bow. Hire an assassin? Never, not even should it mean the extinction of our race!"
That gibed with the contents of B.O.S.S.'s dossier. Belatedly, I noticed the foot-long steel knife thrust into a leather belt at the creature's waist. "I'll take that, if you don't mind." I inadvertently brushed the big cat's luxuriant pelt as I removed the knife to a safer distance, and yet another mighty sneeze racked my erstwhile captor. I narrowly escaped slicing my hand on the knife, saving myself only by a heroic flinch. The Gsinteit sniffled plaintively and wiped its nose on its pelt, leaving a moist trail.
I pondered a moment. "You know something?"
"What would that be, Human?"
"I'm increasingly convinced that it couldn't have been one of your people."
"Do you doubt our courage?" The flattened ears twitched in what I took to be outrage.
"No, I doubt your immune systems. Your species seems to be violently allergic to my kind. I can't imagine how you might have managed it. My apologies, noble hunter, for ever suspecting you." I nudged the pen inconspicuously, and once again, it did nothing more than vibrate in my pocket. But then, playing a hunch, I removed one of the chrome cockroaches from my pocket and held it between us, glinting in the sun. "Nonetheless, I find myself wondering whether perhaps you've seen one of these before."
The predator's eyes narrowed. "Yes, that I have... there is one exactly like it in the council kraal, though sealed now in heavy plastic lest its contagion spread. The entire council was nearly slain by the fit of sneezing that arose when it was discovered; as it was, the Speaker Among Equals is in hospital with two broken ribs, and half the others have been confined to their beds. Had the Speaker to Test Tubes—miserable wretch that he might otherwise be—not found a way to imprison the infernal device, things might have gone poorly indeed for our leaders." The eyes narrowed even further. "Wait, I mistake myself. The one in the kraal had only two legs."
Each roach so far had had one fewer legs, and if the pattern had held true, the next stop would present me with a roach having no legs, and that might lead me to those responsible for the attempt on my life.
I frowned. "Take yourself home, Hunter, and we'll tell no one of this. I have bigger game to hunt this day."
The Gsinteit tucked his naked tail, which I'd not noticed before, between his powerful hind legs and stalked off without a backwards glance, doing his best to salvage what dignity he could from the situation. With a resigned shrug, I took the second to last of my transfer pills and swallowed it before I could think better of the idea. The Nevins would be the most dangerous of my foes, and if I wasn't alert when I arrived, they might also be the last.
The sea of golden grass began fading from view, and as it did, I took a firm grip upon my gun and readied myself for sudden, violent action. But no sooner had I materialized then I at once felt myself caught in some powerful field that immobilized me. The voice of an almost unimaginably sexy woman spoke softly from behind me. "Sleep, Human. We'll talk later." And I did.
I awoke upon some flat, hard surface painted a dull, battleship grey. Unaccountably, my head only hurt slightly, and though I didn't move a muscle as I woke, I went through my inventory and found that I'd been disarmed once again; even my various body cavities seemed to have once more been searched and emptied. On the positive side, at least I'd been somehow rehydrated. Sighing in resignation, I opened my eyes and looked around me.
A short distance away, a pair of cloven hooves joined muscular yet curiously graceful legs that rose about a foot from the floor, vanishing into a matted and unpleasant-smelling coat of fur that reminded me of nothing so much as a dyspeptic and poorly groomed llama I'd once seen in a zoo. Behind the paired hooves, my progressively clearer vision focused on a single, more powerfully muscled leg pressed against the floor, muscles bunching spasmodically as if the creature were readying itself for flight. I looked upward, focusing past the fur until I spotted the heads. Each of the two heads reminded me of a Puff the Magic Dragon puppet I'd owned as a child, with scaly leathery hide, bat ears, and a slit mouth with surprisingly full and sensuous lips.
The Nevin spoke in a voice that would have guaranteed it a profitable career on the phone-sex lines that had recently become all the rage, bankrupting several promisingly lucrative VR firms. "Our stochastic devices predicted your arrival and the most effective way of disarming you. Which we did. But fear not, we're not out to get you."
"You have a strange way of showing it."
"We did nothing more than protect ourselves. Your race is senselessly violent, and a threat to all it encounters. Though you pose no threat to us, the prudent being takes no risks, for there is always a chance we've underestimated you." One of the heads dipped into the thick fur on its back and emerged with a rounded black object clutched between those magnificent lips. "And now that you're conscious, a brief demonstration to encourage you to forsake any senseless violence."
All at once, as if the voice had been a mere premonition of what was to come, a feeling of indescribable ecstasy came over me, and I found my eyes unfocusing and my toes curling, all thoughts of why I'd come long gone from my mind. When it ebbed, I found myself strangely triste, and in need of a cigarette. I took a long, slow, deep breath while I tried to recover my wits. "What the hell was that?"
"The tasp is remarkably effective against primitives such as yourself. Don't tempt me to use it on a higher setting. You'd undoubtedly enjoy your death, but then we'd have no chance to answer your questions and send you home to deal with the true threat."
"I'm sorry, but you seem to have lost me." It was an effort to get the words out, for I wanted very much to alarm the Nevin enough to earn another shot from the tasp. It took a considerable effort of will to control that urge.
"I'm not surprised. Wait." The second head dipped into the mass of fur and emerged bearing something small and silvery in its lips. With a convulsive movement, it propelled the object across the floor and into my hand. I reached for it slowly, still wanting to give the Nevin an excuse to tasp me, but a resurgent sense of self-preservation helped me to move slowly despite that. Under the soft overhead light, another roach gleamed dully, this one with not a single leg to its name.
"How did you get this?"
"I should think it was obvious. Your employer sent it to us, of course."
"You've lost me again." What with the multiple headaches, rapid-fire transferences, and the insidious lure of the tasp, I was not thinking as clearly as I needed to.
The Nevin sighed deeply, and for an instant, the two heads turned to face each other in a mute tête à tête. Then they faced me again. "It's a wonder you've survived this long. I should think it's obvious: the agency trying to kill you is none other than your own employer."
Now it all made sense! The Service had been systematically eliminating human operatives from H.A.R.R.I.S.O.N. ever since B.O.S.S. had taken command, and would have eliminated me too had it not been for my little off-the-record conversation with the Personnel computer. It occurred to me that if they couldn't retire me one way, there might be a more effective way to get me out of their silicone hair once and for all. Then, with no humans to interfere, B.O.S.S. and his cybercronies could easily take over the Service and rule society with a silicon hand thereafter.
"Why are you telling me all this?"
"Because even though you Humans pose us no threat, B.O.S.S. and his cybernetic allies represent an unknown quantity and one that might in time come to threaten us. We would handle the matter ourselves, save only for one small problem."
"Right. You're all inveterate cowards."
"Please. We prefer to think of it as exercising a judicious sense of self-preservation. We've survived tens of times as long as your race's lifespan for that very reason."
"Whatever you say. And you need me to do your dirty work for you, is that right?"
"Think of it as working to our mutual benefit. After all, your employers aren't trying to kill us."
"As I said, you would be working for our mutual benefit."
I pondered a moment. "Fine. Then give me back my weapons and send me home." I removed the final transfer pill, the one thing the Nevins had left me, from my pocket and stared at it with what must have been obvious reluctance.
"I don't think so. What would prevent you from turning the weapons on me in a last act of spite before you left? No, if it's weapons you want, you'll have to find your own when we return you home."
"That's a death sentence, of course. You might just as well turn the tasp on me now and set it on high." I only half-regretted that statement; after all, my captor might actually follow up on that threat.
The Nevin snorted musically. "Fatalism is not an endearing trait. Your rapid death would serve no purpose, so we could hardly return you without providing appropriate arms."
I blinked. "That's the third time you've completely lost me."
The two heads stared blindly at each other for a second, then turned their gaze on me. "Take this." One of the heads produced a small, flat pinkish ring and handed it to me with gentle lips.
I turned it over in my hands; up close, it looked and felt uncannily like flesh. "That's all? What's it do?"
"It's a superconducting monofilament, wrapped around a larger ring so you don't slice your finger off. Put it on your finger." I complied, and the ring changed color, nearly vanishing from sight; were it not for the fact that I could feel it pressed tight against my skin, I would have sworn I'd dropped it. The Nevin produced a small battery from deep within its tangled mane, approached nervously, then touched the battery gingerly to the ring. No sooner had it done so then it skipped backwards several steps.
"Surely you don't expect B.O.S.S. to let me get anywhere near him with the ring?"
"We fully expect that once you're within his presence, he will forcibly remove the ring from your finger. That will trigger the electromagnetic pulse now stored within the ring. We advise that you don't remove the ring while in a functioning spaceship or near any other important electronic device; the results would be—shall we say—undesirable."
"I imagine." Casually, I rubbed the ring on my finger. "And what's to stop me from doing that now and wiping this ship off the map?"
The Nevin took a nervous step backwards, colliding with the bulkhead. "Even should you somehow evade the tasp, this eventuality has been anticipated. We are alone on this ship, and I can be transferred off the ship long before you can do me any physical harm, leaving yourself on an unpilotable ship in decaying orbit around a uniquely hot star."
"There are other kinds of star? No, never mind; you argue persuasively. Very well, then. Why should I believe everything you've told me? It still seems most likely that your race is the one with the most to gain from the destruction of H.A.R.R.I.S.O.N."
The two heads stared contemplatively at each other for another long moment. "While that is a logical assumption, there exists a small but significant chance that someone such as yourself or one of your robotic colleagues would survive any such assault and decide to take vengeance upon us. That poses an unacceptable risk for my people."
"Not big on gambling, are you?"
"Not with our lives, no. And on that note, I shall take my leave of you, for the risk of some senseless act of violence grows with each passing second. I bid you good day, and good fortune—for both our sakes."
I began a reply, but the Nevin had already disappeared, leaving only the faint pop! of air rushing to fill the space he'd vacated. I shrugged, wished briefly that with two heads, he'd enjoy a headache even worse than mine, and toyed with the ring on my finger for a moment. Then I set about inspecting my surroundings. The Nevin had left me a fully functional bridge, mounted within a late-model Acme type-VI hull, but there was not a trace of anything more suitable for a weapon than a styrofoam coffee cup; even the standard-issue sugar cubes, which could conceivably have been thrown, had been replaced with packets of granular sugar. But on the whole, despite the lack of armaments, the ship would be more than adequate for my purposes. I poured myself a quite palatable, though lukewarm, cup of coffee from the autochef, removed a pack of smokeless cigarettes from the dispensary, and settled back in the well-padded command chair to contemplate my next move. With the rich coffee banishing the last faint traces of my headache, I thought through the obvious and less obvious steps I'd have to take, and the necessary precautions. That done, I belted myself in and set the controls to take me home.
Outbound Nexus is one of the most heavily patrolled stations in known space, which naturally means it has a thriving black market. It wasn't long before I'd traded in my ship for a collection of useful gadgets, only a few of which were legal. That done, I strode confidently to H.A.R.R.I.S.O.N. HQ. At the front door, I encountered my first surprise: no human guard. That didn't mean there was no security, though. Inside, the corridors were dark, and the lights only came on ahead of me as I entered, and extinguished themselves in my wake.
At the door to B.O.S.S.'s office, the robotic receptionist smiled disarmingly at me. "Welcome home, Agent Gray. I'm afraid you'll have to leave your weapons with me."
She frowned most convincingly, ruining an otherwise quite attractive face, and I heard a faint hum as the room's concealed weaponry swiveled to focus on me. That disturbed me far less than the amount of money that had gone into her new programming while I'd been gone. "New standard operating procedure. There have been attempts on B.O.S.S.'s life while you were gone."
"I see. Quite understandable." I smiled back confidently, wondering which of my colleagues had made the attempts, and somewhat reassured that she'd missed the double meaning. Not without a measure of trepidation, I compliantly shed my outermost, visible layer of weaponry. If all went well and the Nevin hadn't lied, I'd pick it up again on the way out.
I passed through the heavily armored door at the back of the room, wondering if this was going to be easier than I'd expected. It was not. A tangle field seized me as soon as I'd passed through the door, and I floated there helplessly as the receptionist rolled into the room. With a grimace of distaste and distressing thoroughness, she proceeded to remove my remaining weaponry, leaving only the thin fleshy ring; I still couldn't see the ring clearly on my finger, and evidently it had its own defences against detection by machines. I found myself beginning to have some confidence that the Nevins knew what they were talking about. Her search now done, the receptionist seized me by the back of the neck in an iron grip, collapsed the tangle field, and frogmarched me into B.O.S.S.'s office.
"You've returned, Gray." The flat voice held a faint but clear trace of disappointment.
"That's me, B.O.S.S., always turning up where I'm least expected."
"And did you discover who's infiltrating us?" The receptionist's grip tightened painfully on my neck.
"I think we both know that I did."
As I watched, a velvet-gloved mechanical manipulator emerged from beneath the desk and placed a single, six-legged chrome cockroach on its gleaming surface; almost absentmindedly, a second hand emerged and began stripping the legs from the bug. B.O.S.S.'s hard eyes narrowed in a convincing imitation of anger. "Then we'll have to dispose of you ourselves. But wait!" Alarm rose in his voice. "What's that on your finger?" He turned angrily on the receptionist. "How could you let him in bearing a potential weapon?"
The secretary blinked, and I could almost see the gears spinning in its pretty little head. "Weapon?"
"That object on his finger. Remove it at once!"
Sensing my opportunity, I began wriggling in the receptionist's steely grasp, trying halfheartedly to protect the ring from the receptionist's other hand. "No! The ring, not the finger!" I protested.
After a brief and—I thought—convincing struggle, during which I managed to land one good but predictably ineffective blow to her midsection, the receptionist held the finger that bore the ring right next to her eyes in a painful grip and stared at it intensely. I grimaced, not having to pretend it hurt.
"A ring! You can give us the ring nicely, Gray, or we can simply remove the finger after all and take it ourselves. Your choice."
"The ring, by all means," I gasped.
The receptionist smiled smugly as I began sliding the ring towards my finger tip. Before I'd finished, she caught the ring and yanked it painfully from my finger. I'm not sure what I'd expected, but the results were spectacular. Something intangible as a ghost, yet equally disturbing, swept through the room, leaving my hair standing on end as if I'd embraced a van der Graaf generator. I didn't have time to bemoan my suddenly impaired coiffure, as I found myself dancing away from the receptionist, who had released me and begun spitting an uncomfortable volume of high-voltage sparks. B.O.S.S. was spitting even more sparks, and the combination left me more than a little singed before it faded. When it was over, the smoke detectors were shrilling their warning and water from the sprinkler system was sluicing down over all surfaces. Though the water was going to ruin the office and with it, my chances of finding out what had really been going on, at least it soothed the electrical burns on various exposed portions of my anatomy.
I made my way through the deepening puddles, pushed B.O.S.S. over backwards (bracing myself for the crash! that ensued), and squatted behind the desk. As I'd expected, the computer interface used by the former human occupant of this office was still present, but entirely nonfunctional. Whatever the Nevins had given me had certainly been effective; I doubted there was a single functional computer in the building, and with that destruction had come the end of any chance I'd ever have to find out what had happened here. Of course, it also meant I was without a career, but that problem was trivial compared with the cold, hard snout of the blaster that was now pressing hard against the back of my neck.
"Hands on the desk... slowly, now."
I complied as best I could, which was pretty good. A blaster focuses one's attention most wonderfully.
"Excellent. Now hold that pose, or I'll fry you right now." The pressure on the back of my neck eased, and squishy footsteps made their way around the desk and into my peripheral vision. A small, balding man whose remaining hair had gone grey moved around to the front of the desk. He was clad in a poorly fitting three-piece suit whose overt inelegance was growing increasingly exaggerated due to the water soaking into it from the sprinklers and removing whatever shape it had once held.
A memory surfaced. "Phillips?"
"I thought you were long since retired?"
"That's what you were intended to think. Like most of us, I was forced out of H.A.R.R.I.S.O.N., but not before I could plant a back door in the computers."
I remembered my own back door, and smiled approval. "A prudent career move, it would seem."
He smiled nervously, holding the blaster on my face the whole while. "More than prudent; inspired. When it became obvious what B.O.S.S. was planning, I made sure I'd be there to help him. It was surprisingly easy to rid H.A.R.R.I.S.O.N. of all other human operatives so gradually that no one noticed. You were the last obstacle: once you were gone, there'd be no one left to detect my tampering with the computer systems, not even B.O.S.S. himself. H.A.R.R.I.S.O.N. would be mine."
"I suppose I've gone and ruined that plan, haven't I?"
"Rather thoroughly." He frowned, and wiped a stream of water from his eyes with the hand holding the blaster. I repressed a grin. Amateurs! "And now you're going to pay for the trouble you've caused me." He brought the blaster back into line. All this time, I'd surreptitiously felt about under the desk with one foot for what I knew had to be there, and I'd found it. Gently, almost reluctantly, I toed the foot pedal as his fingers tightened on the blaster. Nothing happened.
A lifetime of field work had long since conditioned me to expect and react to the unexpected—or not react, if that were more appropriate. As a result, the blaster bolt that sheared through the back wall of the office, leaving a cloud of steam in its wake, would have neatly removed the left half of my head had I dodged—it was that badly aimed. As it was, I waited for the beam to sweep towards me before I slid sideways out of my chair and behind the sheltering bulk of the desk. Melted plascrete showered down on me, but I didn't stop to brush it off; instead, I came around the side of the desk as fast as I could on all fours, sliding and skidding on the slick floor and doing my best to ignore the pain from a whole new set of burns. Phillips had been thrown backwards by the blaster's recoil, and I flung myself upon him before he could recover. He got off one more shot, bringing down a sizable chunk of ceiling right beside us, before I wrestled the gun from his grip. Then I sat on his chest, training the gun on his face. There was terror in his eyes as I pressed the still warm barrel against his forehead.
"Wait! Don't shoot me! We can share!"
I smiled coolly down at him, then drew the blaster backwards just far enough for him to see me tightening my finger on the trigger. The trigger clicked, and as it did, his eyes rolled up in his head and he fainted. Leaving the safety still on, I tucked the gun into my empty shoulder holster and quickly and efficiently bound the man with some loops of fiber optic cable that had come down with part of the battered ceiling. I'd turn him over to the civilian authorities once I was clear of the building, but there was no hurry; all the phones in the building would be down for the count, and it would be some time yet before the police or any other force became aware of what had happened. When I'd done binding Phillips, I rose from the sodden floor, just in time for the sprinklers to turn off. I gazed around at the wreckage, noticing with some pleasure how the first blaster bolt had cut through the wall and opened B.O.S.S.'s wall safe in passing. There were all kinds of interesting things stored there, including a large quantity of old-fashioned plastic money and some EMP-hardened backup cubes that were all that remained of H.A.R.R.I.S.O.N.'s computers.
I made my way to Stores, passing dozens of immobile, charred machines but not so much as a single human. Funny how I'd never really noticed the absence of other human operatives until then; I'd become something of a workaholic lately, I suppose. In Stores, I set about provisioning myself, reflecting that this was likely to be the last time I'd have the chance to shop on someone else's budget. In the end, I took two large duffel bags, one of which I stuffed with various toys that would be difficult or impossible to obtain in my new life. I returned with the other bag to B.O.S.S.'s office, stopping by my office along the way to reclaim some personal items whose presence might give investigators a clue that would help them track me down, and reclaimed the backups and the money. On my way out, I paused, then returned to B.O.S.S.'s desk. I pocketed the poor, legless cockroach, replaced it with one of its intact brethren, then strode confidently out of the office and into my new life.
The Chrome Cockroach was going to have a profitable new freelance career, and let the eetees beware.
I always loved the ingenuity and spirit of Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat series, and always wanted to do a Harrison pastiche that preserved the free spirit of Slippery Jim deGriz, without actually trying to write like Harry Harrison. This story is a long thank-you note to Harrison for hours of reading pleasure. Needless to say, he had nothing to do with it other than providing inspiration, so don't blame him for the results. There are also cameo appearances by a few other famous and not-so-famous SFF writers by way of their creations. Title, of course, courtesy of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
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