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Pulling Strings

By Marian Mendez
Page 1 of 3

Blake had gone. Gan's heart resumed beating. Cautiously, all too aware of the precarious balance of the rubble piled atop his lower body, he began shifting debris. He winced as the main slab creaked and slid sideways several inches. Exploring with his hands, he discovered that the beam pinning him was what had kept him from being crushed. It had saved his life, but now it had him trapped. That was the way life was, a tangled maze of contradictions. Or perhaps, not a maze, but a series of strings, pulling one in different directions, dancing like a puppet to fate's whims.

      No use bewailing his fate. He, more than any other, should bow gracefully to the ultimate puppet-master. He remembered how it had all started...

      

      

      

      He rubbed at his eyes, dispelling sleep yet again. Wading through the entire economic and socio-political situation in the Federation was an enormous undertaking, even for a man with an eidetic memory. It was a pity he couldn't assign the task to his staff. Those bright young Alphas and Betas were capable of compiling the statistics of crop failures and factory recalls of defective goods, but only the peculiar, multi-leveled insight of a psychostrategist of the first rank could link disconnected facts and rumours into a cohesive scenario.

      The Federation was falling victim to its own success. Their leaders had no limits on their power. Ancient laws regarding personal freedom were discarded, while harsh penalties were enacted for dissension. If the future trends he extrapolated from the records were not radically altered, the Federation would fall and humanity with it.

      And everyone was blind to the terror that lay in wait. He had been as placidly smug as any, until his eyes were opened by the merest chance. He had stayed after his normal hours in his office, with the lights off, doing a little soul-searching. In his early years at the Psychostrategists' College he had eagerly embraced the philosophy that understanding others begins with self-knowledge, both physical and mental. He even learned to control his autonomic system. Not that there was a great deal of use in being able to stop one's heart at will.

      While he sat in the dark, contemplating, the Delta cleaners came on shift. He listened to their complaints about the brutality of security and the privations of rationing without undue distress. After all, everyone knew Deltas liked to complain and tell tall tales. Then the light came on and the workers saw him. Their absolute terror and groveling pleas for him not to report them were no stereotyped reaction.

      His curiosity led him to access records. He found horrors he'd thought banished with the Dark Ages - modification into mutoids, memory revision, outright torture. For the most part, the higher classes were restricted subtly, but the pressure on the underclasses was blatant. Protest was dealt with by escalating proportions of drugs in water and food. This kept the workers from outright revolt, but it also made them dull and unproductive. This, combined with their poor education, made many of them resort to crime - which gave the government an excuse to treat them more harshly. This vicious cycle was now beginning to be repeated on the subject worlds. Logically, the eventual result would be a human anthill, with most of humanity unthinking automatons. Then would come the attack.

      History was clear on one point: when an empire rotted, there was always someone waiting to take over. Or something. He was greatly afraid that it would not even be a human enemy and that the death-knell for the human race was already sounding.

      He had always been an optimist. There must be a way to change the pattern, either from within the Federation or without. The rebels were a hopelessly muddled lot, so he pinned his hopes on the High Council. As a psychostrategist he was entitled to a hearing, and he had earnestly petitioned the more moderate members to consider his proposed changes. He'd appealed to their fear and to their greed, attempting to show them that under more lenient laws, the masses had been more cheaply controlled and more productive. They had seemed disturbed by his charts and findings, but demanded more proof.

      So he concentrated on his computer and sighed with weariness.

      "Oliver."

      The quiet voice behind him startled the man at the computer, but he showed no sign of his surprise. The teacher should never let the student see any weakness.

      "Carnell." Oliver shut down the computer and turned, smiling. His smile faded when he saw the gun in the other man's hand. Carnell was as brightly cheerful as ever, his blue eyes sparkling and his blonde hair impeccably groomed. The boy had a definite future as a consultant. "Come for a talk?"

      Oliver had never possessed that sleek Alpha look, even in his younger days. It was a disadvantage when seeking to impress the powerful. His powerful build and broad features shouted 'peasant' no matter how cultured his words.

      "I am afraid it has gone too far for talk, Oliver." Carnell sounded honestly regretful. But he was a games player, no doubt relishing the opportunity to prove his superiority over his teacher.

      "And so the gun? Really, that's not very subtle." Oliver shook his head. "I had thought better of you. You were such an apt student."

      Carnell's grin widened. "Pity the teacher didn't take his own lessons to heart. You told us often enough, 'When you work with individuals, know their strengths and weaknesses.' Councillor Grimes is addicted to one of those substances which you so nobly asked him to outlaw."

      Oliver shook his head in disgust at himself. "I allowed the urgency of the situation to cloud my judgment. Always a mistake." He eyed the gun, calmly. "A fatal mistake?"

      "Oh, no. I do owe you something for your dedication as a teacher." Carnell lifted the muzzle of the gun slightly. "This is a stun weapon."

      The scenarios Oliver had automatically been running from the instant he heard Carnell's voice were becoming grimmer. "I might prefer to die."

      "Never. You have such big plans. If I thought you had a faint chance of success, I would be on your side, but as it is..." He shrugged, gracefully. "Grimes spoke to the Psychostrategist Academy. They want you to stop meddling. I was able to persuade them to let me handle it - they had something much more permanent in mind."

      "Did they see my data?"

      "Yes. They drew a different conclusion." Carnell let his smile fade. "They're cautious old men, Oliver, unwilling to risk their immediate safety for the benefit of future generations. I rather think you're right, and that's why I'm going to do the best I can for you." He looked regretful again. "Unfortunately, it isn't much."

      Oliver paused to deduce Carnell's options. Familiar with his teacher's habit of unfocussing his outer vision to clarify the inner, Carnell waited to hear what his mentor would say.

      "First, arrest and trial," Oliver began. "Not for treason - too many questions raised - something simple, yet serious enough to call for the ultimate penalty. Murder?" Carnell allowed an eyeflicker of agreement. Oliver continued, "If you aren't going to kill me, that leaves life imprisonment - not on Earth, though. One of the penal planets. A short life among criminals and rebels. You couldn't tell them I was a 'puppeteer' or I wouldn't last a day. So, a false name and identity. Gavin Oliver ceases to exist."

      "And you would be unable to tell anyone the truth."

      Now Oliver was frightened. "Not memory revision. " He'd never forgotten anything in his life. He didn't think anything could make him forget - not without destroying his mind entirely.

      "No, not that. They won't touch your mind, Oliver. But you won't be able to lead a gang of criminals back to Earth as you are so fondly dreaming. You see, no one will follow a man who can't defend himself."

      "A limiter!" Oliver felt the blood drain from his face as the true horror struck. He gathered himself for a suicidal lunge, but Carnell knew his old teacher too well and fired. The last thing Oliver saw was his prize pupil smiling regretfully down at him.

      Oliver woke from the stunning gradually. Never having more than an occasional glass of wine at a gathering, he could only associate his queasiness and headache with illness. After concluding that his stomach contents would remain where they were, he opened his eyes and sat up. He was in a cell, dressed in coarse worker's garb. Strange, how he missed the comforting drape of his loose academic robes. He wrinkled his nose in distaste. Carnell didn't have to be quite so authentic - at least the garments could have been laundered. He stared at his image blurred and distorted in the semi-reflective surface of the translucent panel sealing his cell away from the guard post. Oliver looked like a rustic - perhaps a farmer. To keep up Carnell's cover story, he would have to be sure people didn't look closely at his hands. They were large enough, but soft, uncallused by hard labor.

      The guard seated at a desk in the centre of the outer room looked up and noticed Oliver. He came over to stand in front of his cell. "Awake, are you, scum? That's good. Your trial will be starting any time now, and it would be a shame if you didn't enjoy the whole thing."

      "Trial?" Oliver was still vague, muddled by the stunning. "What trial?"

      "Your trial, you thick bastard. Olag Gan - charged with murder - the murder of a Federation guard! The courts don't like that. No, they don't. You'll be lucky to spend the rest of your life on some rock in space."

      "Yes, I expect so," Oliver replied mildly. The man was looking for an excuse to inflict pain on a helpless prisoner. He didn't see any reason to add to his woes by obliging. "I am sorry. I couldn't help it."

      "That's your story. Try telling the arbiter that you were only protecting your woman. You're all alike, you criminals. You use your women to lure men into your dens to rob them. Only this time you picked the wrong victim. At least, Sason killed her before you got him."

      Oliver shuddered. Could Carnell have killed two people, merely to strengthen the story? He couldn't care less about the guard, but the woman: poor soul.

      Seeing the pain on Oliver's face, the guard was satisfied - for the moment - and returned to his desk.

      Oliver's counsel arrived soon after his awakening. She was a young, earnest woman, who apparently believed the system was fair. He did not disillusion her. Why add her to the list of victims? The trial was brief and the verdict as he had predicted. Carnell had kept his word, and Oliver - no, Olag Gan, he must be only Olag Gan from this moment - was granted a one-way passage to Cygnus Alpha. Sentence to be carried out after the limiter was implanted. His counsel argued that there was no need for the implant, not for a man who would never see civilization again, but was overruled.

      Olag Gan was disturbed by the London's condition. The ship was a far cry from the luxury liner he had taken on his last holiday. He was afraid the ship might not survive the trip. If it didn't fall apart, that fire-eater, Blake, would make a good try at ripping it apart with his bare hands. He'd already approached Gan with his wild ideas. The man had charisma, but he needed stability if he was ever to achieve any of his goals against the Federation. With guidance, perhaps Blake could be the outside force to save humanity.

      Gan could not be Blake's anchor without stepping out of character. In the weeks spent in various holding areas, he had created a gentle, not-too-bright, giant's image for himself. It was what people expected of a man his size, which helped. The rationale appeared to be that nature would not bless the same individual with both brain and brawn.

      It was just as well. Blake would not have responded properly to him in an semi-antagonistic role. It was a side effect of Blake's conditioning- subconsciously, he remembered being tormented while helpless and reacted with instinctual hatred to anything smacking of coercion. Blake's anchor had to be - physically at least - a little smaller to avoid that gut reaction, but he could not be timid, as Vila was, or Blake would be paternalistic. There was a prisoner who suited Gan's specifications as if made for them. He was even gifted with an intellect that Blake respected. If only the man hadn't withdrawn into his own private world.

      Gan had waited with what patience he could muster, studying his quarry. Kerr Avon was fanatically defensive, deliberately rude and totally self-centered. Predictable and therefore controllable.

      At the moment, Gan was alone with the thief, Vila. He'd assessed Vila long before and could relax in his presence, devoting his thoughts to Avon. Gan smiled. Vila was also predictable. His survival strategy was similar to Gan's, in that he made himself harmless, but he went a step further by making himself amusing. He had ingratiated himself with most of the guards and nearly all the prisoners. Avon, of course being the exception. And even Avon tolerated Vila's presence, as he did Gan's.

      "Are you going to bet, or what?" Vila asked, tired of waiting while Gan stared at his cards.

      "What?" Gan folded up his cards and smiled at the thief's confusion. "Why don't we ask Avon to join us? The game would be better with another player, and everyone else is listening to Blake's anti-Federation speech."

      "I don't know why the guards let him get away with that," Vila said nervously.

      "Oh, well, I suppose they don't see any harm in it. After all, we aren't going to go back to Earth and cause trouble, are we?"

      "Not likely." Vila sighed and gathered up the cards, neatly shuffling them together. "Avon wouldn't want to play, Gan. I have never met a more serious man in my life. Talk about your stiff upper lip, why, his is practically rigid."

      "Well, then, he needs to learn to play, doesn't he?" He stood up.

      Vila shrugged. "When he bites your head off don't say I didn't warn you. "

      The psychostrategist laughed. "All right, I won't blame you, Vila. " He walked over to the computer tech's semi-isolated retreat. Avon made no attempt to get along with the others. In fact, his sullen air of superiority practically begged for retaliation from the lower classes. Undoubtedly, he had more personal reasons for his anti-social behaviour than a failed fraud and his exile, but Gan could not waste time analyzing Avon's neuroses. Just getting Avon together with Blake would take enough work.

      "Avon," Gan said gently.

      "What?" Avon didn't look up from the piece of paper he was studying, but wasn't overtly hostile. Probably because life was quieter for him in Gan's proximity. The others enjoyed harrying the mighty brought low. They made an exception in Blake's case, because he convinced them that despite his Alpha status he was one of them.

      "I thought you might like to join us - Vila and me, I mean." Gan was not deterred by Avon's sharp head-jerk, a sub-vocal "no" that was as clear as a shout. "Vila got a deck of cards from somewhere, and he's been trying to teach me how to play poker." The big man sat down next to Avon, meticulously just beyond the man's personal space.

      "Then you don't need me. I am certain Vila is well versed in all forms of dissolute entertainment." Avon folded the paper and pocketed it. He was suspicious, and his suspicions were not entirely unfounded. The computer tech was a good-looking man, a tempting target for a number of the prisoners whose tastes ran that way. Several times, Gan had warned off predators and he'd not been subtle about it. Avon had seen and had to wonder what Gan wanted from him.

      Gan spread his hands. "Oh, it's not Vila, it's me - I'm just no good at it," he said sadly. "The rules don't seem that complicated, but somehow... Well, I just keep losing. I already owe Vila six months worth of whatever sort of wages I'll make once we arrive on Cygnus Alpha."

      "He's probably cheating. "

      "I don't think so." This time, Gan let out a huge sigh. "I never was much good at games." He tapped the side of his head. "Too thick - at least, that's what all my teachers used to say."

      Avon bristled, angered by Gan's calm acceptance of inferiority. "They were undoubtedly very poor teachers." He looked at Gan, mulling things over. "Get Vila's cards. I'll show you how to play poker."

      "Would you?" Gan grinned. "That's great, Avon. I'd really appreciate it." He lumbered off, leaving Avon to think Gan was trying to acquire intelligence by association. He wasn't that far off. What Gan intended was to get Avon's intelligence associating with Blake. Once the ice was broken, the psychostrategist knew he could induce Avon to join Blake. Every human being has a deep desire to belong, and Blake had a positive genius for leading. Why, the man could almost be a natural-born psychostrategist. It would be simple to drop Blake a few hints on handling Avon. Once those two got together, nothing would be impossible.



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