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The Wit and Wisdom of the Dead

By Neil Faulkner
Page 2 of 8

It's a strange universe, and I've seen some strange things in journeying through it, but one of the strangest has to be what I saw on a wharfside in the immigrant quarter of Sherman City, Acadiros. The city lies at a nexus of ancient canal routes (it was renamed during recolonisation), and all through the night the immigrant quarter rumbles with the passage of container barges. I was looking for Docholli, who by then I knew as Garrant. The trail was only beginning to warm, so I knew he had almost certainly left Acadiros, but I still had to find out where he might have gone to. Careful questioning had led me to discover that I wasn't the only one looking for Docholli, and I immediately guessed who my rivals were. Central Intelligence, still trying after all these years to plug the gap in their security. I arranged a meet, and made sure I brought my Space Command credentials with me. There was a good chance they knew nothing about my change of status.

      The woman who met me on the wharfside looked about forty, very timeworn and hardened. She had the typical mongrel appearance of the sub-Delta degenerates who infest places like this. If she was a Central agent, I decided, she had to be a very deep cover recruit. In her peel-on leggings and thick sleeveless two-stud jacket, she could have passed for any one of a thousand ten-credit desperantinos.

      She refused to talk at our rendezvous point. Elsewhere, she insisted, and pointed towards a block of warehouses, gutted shells with roof-girder ribs black against the spaceport lights. I had to walk ahead of her. A hydrofoil barge rolled past, a hundred metres of featureless hull. It churned the sluggish canal waters, left a shining wake of pollution-eating phosphorescent algae. The sharp high heels of her calfhugger boots clacked on the concrete behind me. And then she stopped, very suddenly.

      I turned around. She was standing very still, head slightly cocked as if listening for some small half-heard noise. Then she span round, fingers groping at her waistpouch. With my left eye, I could pick out movement against a shadowed wall. She pulled out a pocket laser, and sent a needle-thin beam arcing along the wall's length. With so much mist in the air, I doubt if it could have scalded at anything more than ten metres. Then she ran, clattering past me as if I wasn't there, but stopped again after just a few steps. Whoever was hunting her, there were two more of them dead ahead. I thumbed the palm dial of my lazeron up to maximum and looked for the nearest cover. All I could see was a graffiti-smeared bollard. Then she turned the laser on herself. Burnt her own throat out.

      I hung back as she fell. Outnumbered four to one, the last thing I wanted was a shoot-out. I could hear the sound of running feet pitching muffled echoes off the walls, drawing closer, but my attention was entirely distracted by something I could never have believed if I hadn't seen it for myself. The woman's skin split, invisible seams bursting up her cheeks, across the back of her head, down the line of her arm. Something green and amorphous spilled out, expanding like a balloon. Then her skin, her hair, and everything she wore, even her thick leather boots, began to dissolve, turn into a flowing, steaming, dark sludge that mingled with the green. The whole revolting thing was phosphorescent, reminding me of the algae in the canal.

      By the time I'd got over the shock, I was no longer alone. There were four of them right beside me, and two were pointing pistols at my head.

      "Quite a sight," I remarked.

      "You should feel privileged," said the nearest. He was a lean black with a chinmat of coarse, frizzy hair. The slumside patchwork of third-hand casuals he wore failed to disguise his Alpha origins. "It's something few people get to see."

      The other one drawing a bead on me, a dark-haired woman in a tasteless mix of mock leather and coarseweave, smiled grimly. "And even fewer get to see it twice." She was an obvious Alpha too. I knew who they were now.

      I gave them my name, and my identity chip. The black ran it through his palmtop. He was satisfied with what it told him, and by the way he looked at me, glancing only briefly at my left arm and eye, I suspected he knew me by reputation. He asked me what I was doing on Acadiros. I told him I was looking for Blake, which elicited no surprise, and asked in return what the shapeless thing on the ground might be.

      "Andromedan," he said, after careful consideration. "You may not believe it, Space Commander, but our galaxy is under threat of alien invasion."

      He was right, I couldn't believe it. Not at first. We talked more while two of his colleagues shunted the body into the back of a skimmer van. Very impressive, they brought it in by remote control. I noted that they wore protective gloves when handling the remains.

      By mentioning the alien's coincidental interest in Garrant with my own, I convinced the black - his name, or at least his current alias, was Lonardo, Operations Field Leader - that Blake might have connections with the Andromedans. That led him to open up further. The Andromedans had somehow managed to sneak in teams of agents and were looking for Star One. Lonardo knew about Star One, though probably not its full significance. He and his team were members of a secret Central Intelligence department trying to stall the alien threat. So far they had failed to capture one alive.

      "They seem to conceal themselves very effectively," I said. "I took that one to be human."

      "Elastomorph," Lonardo told me. "We still don't know if it's innate or technological. They can pass themselves off as anybody."

      "How do you know I'm not one myself?"

      Lonardo winked. "We've got apparatus for that. Checked you out straight away. You're clean."

      I was impressed. I hadn't noticed.

      Lonardo offered me a ride back to their headquarters. On the way I picked up a little more information, but not much. Lonardo watched what he said. In return, I had to feed him scraps of my own activities, which required some fast thinking. I don't think he was entirely satisfied. He seemed to think it strange I was working alone and undercover.

      Headquarters was a derelict workshop filled with the rusting shells of scavenged vehicles. Over a plate of tank-grown chicken, Sinoi-style, we agreed to pool information of mutual interest. Lonardo gave me a contact number, a rented exchange box. I had one of my own to pass him in return. Within an hour I was leaving, to resume my hunt for Garrant, and I knew I had left no small amount of suspicion behind me.



      Something I've overlooked about the ROMstruct. It has a limited floating memory. When it hits capacity, it starts to lilo. Without a regular recap, it loses the fundamentals. Such as what it is, where, who it's talking to. Between us, we learn to cope with that. It taps into the flight computer's memory store and dumps everything in there, then sifts the essentials at leisure.

      It wants to know about Lurgen, the real Lurgen. Yes, as far as I know, he is still alive. Surprisingly, at least to me, it refers to him as someone else, distinctly different. Not 'I'. 'He'.

      It wants to know a lot of things. Sometimes I tell it, sometimes I don't. The flight to the rendezvous grinds on. To pass the time, we talk. Sometimes we argue, or play evasive games with each other. But on the whole, we just talk. And the more the ROMstruct comes to terms with what it is, the more it tells me about Lurgen.

      <Taking the brainprint with him, that's exactly the kind of stupid thing he would do. I wouldn't do it myself if I were him.>

      Nothing sounds more disconcerting than a computer with a sense of humour.

      "Why would he do it if it's so stupid? He's a cybersurgeon. Intelligent by definition." By tacit convention, the man is never named, by either of us. Lurgen - the only Lurgen - sits in a chipscan slot.

      <Not that line of smart. He's very attached to himself. Like those people who like to take their gallstones home with them. Did you know he kept his academy notes for twenty years before his wife threw them out?>

      "I didn't even know he was married."

      <He isn't, not now. She divorced him. That cut him up a bit. I know it would me.>

      "Yet they assigned him to the Star One project."

      <Perfect choice, given the end they had in mind for him. No ties, you see. A one-track professional, buried in the big machine. No-one to notice him disappear. You know what I mean?>

      "Oh yes." My right hand balls into a fist. I feel my fingernails gouging the soft flesh of my palm. I can't feel that with the left. I don't have a left hand, only a prosthetic. "I know exactly what you mean."

      I think, if I had any gallstones out, that I probably would take them home with me.




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Neil Faulkner

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