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Fear

By Tom Beck
Page 1 of 31

Prologue

The planet isn't much, he reflects, but it will do. Under the circumstances it will have to. Anywhere will do. He is in no position to quibble. Fontina is as good a place as any. After all, he chose it for this very purpose.

As he exits the shuttle onto the plasmac of the landing field, his eyes begin on their own to search around and behind him. He has survived only by expecting trouble and anticipating it. The cost bothers him only a little. His life is worth any number of sleepless nights.

Ahead of him bulks an observation tower. Without knowing why, he heads for it. A look at his new world may help him decide exactly what to do next.

He climbs the tower, using the stairs instead of the lift. He wants physical activity now; he has grown used to it, after years of sedentary intellectualizing. His previous life shielded him from hard labor, insulated him. Isolated him. He has learned the difference between life and work.

The view from the top is superb. It is an extremely tall tower. The day is bright and clear, despite the weakness of the sunlight. The only clouds seem to be hanging over the huge city far away to the north. He can see for miles in every direction. He feels lordly, for the first time in months. He surveys his new planet, his new city.

The spaceport looks the same as every other planet's. Hundreds of nondescript buildings are piled like children's blocks; pipelines crisscrossing in every possible direction, belching steam or possibly worse; huge ships and tiny shuttles strewn according to no imaginable plan; minuscule ground vehicles darting hither and thither and microscopic people crawling like ants. There is no order to the activity, no pattern. Too bad. He likes patterns.

He isn't sure if he has been followed here or not he has no way of making sure. He has done his best to hide, to cover his trail, to avoid detection. He wasn't always good at it. Recently he has gotten much better. He feels fairly confident now that he will not be caught. Not until...

So this is where I have ended up, he thinks, as he continues to catalog and inventory this world, his world. What little he knows of it. He hopes it is enough. Fontina isn't in the Federation now. The Galactic War has seen to that. When the troops left and the ships departed, the population here celebrated. But he can't see that what they have now is any better. Merely one oligarchy replacing another, it seems to him. Many of the oligarchs are the same, except that the taxes they collect they no longer send to Earth. He smirks sardonically, as he always does when contemplating his foolish fellow humans.

Time to disappear. Again. How many times, for how long? Planet to planet, new identity following new identity. He can't even remember all the names he's used, all the fake records and occupations, all the made-up backgrounds, all the lies. All the money he's stolen, or credit faked. It's so easy to do, he marvels, so easy to fool the idiots who man the checkpoints, immigration controls, customs stations, ticket offices, police barriers...he could probably even get to Earth without being caught.

But that's no solution. He can never escape. There is almost no pardon for what he's done. He shudders at what will happen to him if they find him. The only thing he fears is being caught...before he's ready.

He needs time. Time to carry his plan through. To atone. To win her back.

One last thing to do before leaving the spaceport. Into the huge terminal building he goes, looking for a public message center. He stops at a sanitary, enters a stall. From a hidden compartment inside his belt he withdraws a small square of plastic. It is the one thing he has left from the old days, the one piece of identification he has that isn't forged. This is only the fourth time he has risked using it.

At the PMC he must wait for a free booth. He cannot trust this message to the ears of those at the open machines. Surveillance is unlikely, but possible. Safety means preventing even the possible. He requires privacy, something he once accepted and expected as his due. He has not yet grown used to the crowds, to the jostling and the noise and the inconvenience. He may never grow used to it. In fact, he hopes and prays that he won't. Still, he has come to value the anonymity and protection afforded him by the presence of masses.

Finally he reaches the head of the line, enters the shielded booth. With practiced hands he manipulates the machines, codes in his message and its intended recipient. His heart is pounding. This may be it, he thinks. He inserts his credit chip, watches as the screen announces the charge and extracts it from his account SEND MESSAGE? it asks. YES, he selects. On wings of electrons it speeds off.

It is done. He has made his decision, issued his challenge; on Fontina he will make his stand. If it all works, if a lifetime of planning is finally about to bear fruit...no, there is no point in all this speculation. It will work or it won't. Anything can happen, most of it unpleasant. Considering what has already happened to him in his suddenly eventful life, he knows how dangerous it is to plan. More dangerous not to, though. Mustn't stay here very long.

He leaves the PMC, antennae alert to the suspicions of others, searching, always searching for the attention that shouldn't be there. It wouldn't do to get picked up now, of all times.

Time to go. He blends with the crowd, makes his way into the city.


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Tom Beck

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