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The Wit and Wisdom of the Dead

By Neil Faulkner
Page 3 of 8

There was a time when I thought I knew how to hate. How to hate, and how to handle it. Focus it, turn it into a pinpoint beam of single-minded malice and aim it at the cause. Point Zero, the root of it all, the reason for it all. Wipe that out, and you're still in control. Point Zero was a man named Blake.

      But when I left Exbar, knowing that Servalan was out there somewhere in her command ship, watching me go, noting which way I went, it was as if I had never hated before. Blake had a rival, the worst kind. Not someone I could blast away, not someone at all. A web of lies and deceits, self-healing, self-protecting. It was everywhere, but invisible. I could walk through its heart, but I could never touch it. It was like a machine, each part in motion, playing its role in the grand design, but it offered no target. A ghost of a machine. Space Command.

      And I was part of it. I wore its uniform. Of course, I knew my history. Space Command existed to protect the Federation, to secure the borders, to serve in the maintenance of the Ultimate Order. Past presidents had abused the military power at their disposal, and Space Command had had to take steps. It needed its autonomy to fulfil its function. In order to serve the rulers, it had to be able to threaten them. But as with any other means to an end, Space Command's means of survival became an end in itself. I, as a humble field officer, could hardly be unaware of that, but I refused to be compromised in the fulfilment of my duties, in my oath of allegiance to President and Supreme Commander alike.

      I took my first step into that rotten web of a ghost when I agreed to assist Servalan in securing Orac. Later, I could salve my conscience in finding Blake on Aristo. The therapist helped as well, though I never told her that. On the whole she spouted nothing but bull. Like all mindwarpers, she could have done with a dose of her own therapy. According to her, I had turned my frustration at not being able to reach Blake into a monomaniacal sense of duty. Everything I did was supposedly refigured in my mind to conform with that. Furthermore, I had - again, according to her - come to identify myself with that sense of duty so closely, I could not distinguish between it and me and the rest of Space Command. Space Command was always right, she argued, because I always obeyed orders, and since by obeying orders I could not be wrong, so Space Command was never wrong either. Absurd, of course. I was only doing my job in the way I'd been trained. Just like everyone else.

      I'm surprised she wasn't there to testify at my court martial.

      She was wrong, anyway. After the IMIPAK affair I began to see through Servalan. Blake had escaped again. There was the usual outcry in the political ranks, but there was also the usual release of more funds, more powers, more resources. I gained little benefit from it. My Starburst flotilla had already been taken away from me, and I was forced to work in association with Central Intelligence and the covert security forces. I can see the need for these disreputable creatures, but they fall under the joint control of the Administration and the military, and ultimately answer to neither. Meanwhile the resources that should have been mine, and with which I would almost certainly have put an end to Blake, were diverted 'elsewhere'. At first I thought Servalan was merely interested in petty self-aggrandisement. She is, after all, a petty specimen in many respects, with only a token military background. Little more than a civilian, really, so I couldn't help but wonder. Suppose...

      Space Command is bound by the 104 Charter to serve the President and the people. There was a certain irony in sensing that it was a civilian Supreme Commander, appointed by the President to be his personal lackey in charge of the military he feared, who was planning to stop serving him and replace him instead. Naturally, I harboured doubts, but when Blake eluded me yet again, and on Earth itself, I couldn't help but wonder if she had had him penetrate Central Control in order to gain access to it herself.

      Not that I had much time to ponder on this. It was only as I awaited trial that I realised the extent to which I'd been trapped. An incident in the past, hitherto ignored, had been exhumed to destroy me. The failure to terminate Blake was accredited to me, rather than to her, though she had gained so much from it, and I had lost all but everything. I placed little faith in the tribunal, and I soon saw that Samor would play the game. He was a Space Fleet man anyway, with little time or interest for the doings of lowly surface soldiers like me. Or Par. Samor was part of the web that had made me, used me, pushed me aside and tried to bury me. They failed in the last.

      But my universe had already crumbled.

      

      

      

One hundred hours. Halfway there. If the aliens have a ship waiting for me, that is. If they haven't...

      It'll be there. They need the location, and only I can give it to them. And only then if Lurgen gives in. There's no sign of that yet.

      "I could always wipe you clean. Or just take you out and stamp on you."

      <Yes, you could do that. Or zap me, if you're that way inclined. Hell, dunking me in hot coffee would probably do the trick.>

      "That doesn't bother you?"

      <Not a lot. I think being a ROMstruct gives you a new perspective on life. There's no pain. No sensation at all, even. Like being in a sense dep tank. You ever tried one of those?>

      "I haven't. "

      <I'm developing this theory. I'm surprised he didn't think of it himself, being a surgeon. The impulse of life is the pathological pursuit of sensation. How does that sound?>

      "It sounds rather sweeping to me."

      <I was afraid you'd say that. But it strikes me that this total absence of sensation equates to an absence of a sense of being alive.>

      "You're not alive. You're nothing but microcircuitry."

      <I still talk. I still think. I can still generate abstract concepts. I'm doing that right now. But I can't feel. It occurs to me that I'll never, ever, sip a brandy, take a shower, get toothache, stroke the cat or have an orgasm again. And do you know what?>

      "I daresay you'll tell me regardless." He always does when he's in this mood. If it can be called a mood.

      <Damn right. What I've come to realise is - it doesn't matter. I don't miss these things. I know he experienced them, but it's all rather theoretical. I think I can safely say that I now know what it feels like to be dead.>

      "And how does it feel?"

      <That's just the point. It doesn't. And that's why you can't threaten me.>

      So it doesn't feel like anything to be dead. Isn't that what Servalan promised me - to make me a dead man? She thought she was being magnanimous.

      "So why should it matter if you tell me where Star One is?"

      <Ah, that's different. I took the oath, see?>

      "He took the oath."

      <True. But he took it for me as well. It's hard to explain.>

      "We've got time."

      <It's not really a question of time. You see->

      "Damn it! Just tell me where!"

      <Sorry, Travis. No can do.>

      

      Obsession is no refuge from the need to sleep, and when the dawn of another short day on Acadiros finally crept in I needed sleep. At least I had ascertained where Garrant - Docholli - was headed when he left planet, and there was nothing I could do except lie low until the next flight left a day later. I passed none of this on to Lonardo, and as far as I knew he had made no attempt to contact me. I did consider changing my lodgings, just as a precaution, but ultimately decided against - I was simply too distinctive to stay hidden for long.

      I went out like a light. I might have stayed that way for hours, but other people had other plans. It seemed like I'd barely dropped off before I felt the cold metal of a gun muzzle pressing hard against my cheek.

      "Ne movu, viracho!" A woman's voice, the kind that scratches glass. I did as she said and stayed still, except for opening my right eye and activating my left. A thin sun was seeping in through the blinds, throwing strips of light across the three characters crowded round my bed. A typical mix for this kind of area. On the far left was a burly caucasian with a thick head of red hair. Possibly an Erinite. Next to him was a short Sinoi with his hair tied tightly back and arms bulging under his sleeves. All I could see of the woman was one dark arm, bare to the elbow with a shapeless, fading tattoo. Too dark for a Spanic, perhaps a K'stani.

      "Bonan matenon," I greeted them lazily, and turned my head a fraction to get a better look at the woman. "Virinacho," I added, for her benefit. Mainly K'stani, but her eyes had a Togi slant. I saw she was holding a Ben Azra multi-purpose, currently stripped down to machine pistol mode. Sophisticated firepower by any standard. She took no notice of my insult.

      "To whom do I owe the pleasure?" I wondered aloud. "Terra Nostra? Mano Rojo? Union Etoile?" By now I'd had enough time to recalibrate my lazeron implant. I opted for rapid fire. Not as lethal as I'd have liked, but I couldn't afford to waste time recharging the capacitor.

      "I think you know who we are," said the Sinoi. He had his hands bunched tight in his jacket pockets, and the bunches were larger than his hands had any right to be.

      I remember smiling coldly at that. I'd already guessed. "Greetings from another galaxy."

      The K'stani smiled back. "That is correct, viracho."

      I let my gaze drift from one to the other and back and then finally up at the ceiling. I saw cracks I hadn't noticed before. "If you simply wanted me dead," I reasoned aloud, "you'd have seen to it by now."

      The red-haired oaf made a grumbling sound deep in his throat. "You assume because we look human, that we are human. That we do things the human way." Definitely Erinite.

      "Or as my original template used to think," added the K'stani, "that all you Inner World Alphas think it's a caucasian galaxy. It is not so hard to look human, and be alien." She spoke Terran fluently but very precisely. Presumably her 'original template' had done the same.

      "Very profound," I said, as drearily as I could manage. "What is it you really want?"

      There was a long pause, which suited me as it gave me more time to think. The Erinite broke the silence. "What do you know about Garrant?"

      "Garrant?" I must confess that for all my many talents, feigning innocence isn't really one of them.

      "Docholli," the Sinoi added.

      It was my turn to be silent, as realisation of the truth sank in. It only goes to show the kind of strain I'd been under recently. Lonardo had mentioned the aliens' objectives, but I'd been more concerned with feeding him a convincing cover story. Lonardo had been right, but only when I heard the Sinoi mention Docholli's name did I appreciate the true implications.

      The Sinoi was getting impatient. "Give him a leg to go with his arm," he told the K'stani. I don't believe it was an empty threat, but it was primarily voiced to start me talking. I started.

      "So you really are after Star One," I said. The reaction that induced was almost palpable. The Erinite rolled forward, round the side of my bed, and planted one meaty hand against the wall while he stared straight down into my face.

      "So what do you know about Star One, Mister Travis?"

      


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