Friday, страница 35
Yesterday there was a holo at the Stardust Theater that I wanted to see, a musical comedy, The Connecticut Yankee and Queen Guinevere. It was supposed to be quite funny, with romantic-revival music, and loaded with beautiful horses and beautiful pageantry. I avoided my swains and went alone. Or almost alone; I could not avoid my guards.
This man—“number three” in my mind, although the passenger list said that he was “Howard J. Bullfinch, San Diego”—followed me in and settled down right behind me…unusual, since they normally stayed as far away from me as the size of a room permitted. Perhaps he thought he might lose track of me after they lowered the lights; I don’t know. His presence behind me distracted me. When the Queen sank her fangs into the Yankee and dragged him into her boudoir, instead of thinking about the fun going on in the holotank, I was trying to sort out and analyze all the odors that reached me—not easy in a crowded theater.
When the play was over and the lights came up, I reached the side aisle just as my shadow did; he gave way. I smiled and thanked him, then made exit by the forward door; he followed. That exit leads to a short staircase, four steps. I stumbled, fell backward, and he caught me.
“Thank you!” I said. “For that I am taking you to the Centaur Bar to buy you a drink.”
“Oh, not at all!”
“Oh, most emphatically. You are going to explain to me why you have been following me and who hired you and several other things.”
He hesitated. “You have made some mistake.”
“Not me, Mac. Would you rather come quietly…or would you rather explain it to the Captain?”
He gave a little quizzical smile. (Or was it cynical?) “Your words are most persuasive even though you are mistaken. But I insist on paying for the drinks.”
“All right. You owe me that. And then some.”
I picked a table in the corner where we could not be overheard by other customers…thereby ensuring that we could be overheard by an Ear. But, aboard ship, how can one avoid an Ear? You can’t.
We were served, then I said to him almost silently, “Can you read lips?”
“Not very well,” he admitted at the same low level.
“Very well, let’s keep it as low as possible and hope that random noise will confuse the Ear. Mac, tell me one thing: Have you raped any other helpless females lately?”
He flinched. I don’t think anyone can be hit that hard and not flinch. But he paid me the courtesy of respecting my brain and showed that he was a brain, too, by answering, “Miss Friday, how did you recognize me?”
“Odor,” I answered. “Odor at first; you sat too close to me. Then, as we left the theater, I forced on you a voice check. And I stumbled on the stairs and forced you to put your arms around me. That did it. Is there an Ear on us here?”
“Probably. But it may not be recording and it is possible that no one is monitoring it now.”
“Too much.” I worried it. Walk side by side on the promenade? An Ear would have trouble with that setup without continuous tracking, but tracking could be automatic if Mac had a beacon on him. Or I myself might be booby-trapped. Aquarius Pool? Acoustics in a swimming pool are always bad, which was good. But, damn it, I needed more privacy. “Leave your drink and come with me.”
I took him to cabin BB. Shizuko let us in. So far as I could tell she stood a twenty-four-hour watch except that she slept when I did. Or I thought she did. I asked her, “What do we have later, Shizuko?”
“Purser’s party, Missy. Nineteen o’clock.”
“I see. Go take a walk or something. Come back in one hour.”
“Too late. Thirty minutes.”
She answered humbly, “Yes, Missy”—but not before I caught her glance at him and his scant five-millimeter nod.
With Shizuko gone and the door bolted I said quietly, “Are you her boss or is she yours?”
“Some argument,” he admitted. “Maybe ‘cooperating independent agents’ describes it.”
“I see. She’s quite professional. Mac, do you know where the Ears are in here or will we have to work out some way to defeat them? Are you willing to have your sordid past discussed and recorded on tape somewhere? I can’t think of anything that would embarrass me—after all, I was the innocent victim—but I want you to speak freely.”
Instead of answering he pointed: over my couch on the lounge side, over the head of my bed, into my bathroom—then he touched his eye and pointed to a spot where the bulkhead met the overhead opposite the couch.
I nodded. Then I dragged two chairs off into the corner farthest from the couch and out of line of sight for the Eye location he had indicated. I switched on the terminal, punched it for music, selected a tape featuring the Salt Lake City Choir. Perhaps an Ear could reach through and sort out our voices but I did not think so.
We sat down and I continued, “Mac, can you think of any good reason why I should not kill you right now?”
“Just like that? Without even a hearing?”
“Why do we need a hearing? You raped me. You know it, I know it. But I am giving you this much of a hearing. Can you think of any reason why you should not be summarily executed for your crime?”
“Well, since you put it that way—No, I can’t.”
Men will be the death of me. “Mac, you are a most exasperating man. Can’t you see that I don’t want to kill you and am looking for a reasonable excuse not to do so? But I can’t manage it without your help. How did you get mixed up in so dirty a business as a gang rape of a blindfolded, helpless woman?”
I sat and let him stew and that’s just what he did. At last he said, “I could claim that I was so deep into it by then that, if I balked at raping you, I would have been killed myself, right then.”
“Is that true?” I asked, feeling contempt for him.
“True enough, but not relevant. Miss Friday, I did it because I wanted to. Because you are so sexy you could corrupt a Stylite. Or cause Venus to switch to Lesbos. I tried to tell myself that I couldn’t avoid it. But I knew better. All right, do you want my help in making it look like suicide?”
“Not necessary.” (So sexy I could corrupt a Stylite. What in the world is a Stylite?—must find out. He seemed to mean it as a superlative.)
He persisted. “Aboard ship you can’t run away. A dead body can be embarrassing.”
“Oh, I think not. You were hired to watch over me; do you think anything would be done to me? But you already know that I intend to let you get away with it. However, I want explanations before I let you go. How did you escape the fire? When I smelled you, I was astonished; I had assumed that you were dead.”
“I wasn’t at the fire; I ran for it before that.”
“Two reasons. I planned to leave as soon as I learned what I had come for. But mostly on your account.”
“Mac, don’t expect me to believe too many unlikely things. What was this you had come there to learn?”
“I never found out. I was after the same thing they were after: why you had gone to Ell-Five. I heard them interrogate you and I could see that you did not know. So I left. Fast.”
“That’s true. I was a carrier pigeon…and when does a carrier pigeon know what a war is about? They wasted their time, torturing me.”
Swelp me, he looked shocked. “They tortured you?”
I said sharply, “Are you trying to play innocent?”
“Eh? No, no, I’m guilty as sin and I know it. Of rape. But I didn’t have any notion that they had tortured you. That’s stupid, that’s centuries out of date. What I heard was straight interrogation, then they shot you with babble juice—and you told the same story. So I knew you were telling the truth and I got out of there. Fast.”
“The more you tell me, the more questions you raise. Who were you working for, why were you doing it, why did you leave, why did they let you leave, who was that voice that gave you orders—the one called the Major—why was everybody so anxious to know what I w
“They did that to you?” (Swelp me, Mac’s face was utterly impassive until I mentioned damage done to my starboard milk gland. Will somebody explain males to me? With diagrams and short words?)
“Oh. Complete regeneration, functional as well as cosmetic. I’ll show you—later. If you answer my questions fully. You can check it against how it used to look. Now back to business. Talk.”
Mac claimed to have been a double agent. He said that, at the time, he was an intelligence officer in a quasi-military hired out to Muriel Shipstone Laboratories. As such, and working alone, he had penetrated the Major’s organization—
“Wait a minute!” I demanded. “Did he die in the fire? The one called the Major?”
“I’m fairly sure he did. Although Mosby may be the only one who knows.”
“Mosby? Franklin Mosby? Finders, Incorporated?”
“I hope he doesn’t have brothers; one is too many. Yes. But Finders, Inc. is just a front; he’s a stooge for Shipstone Unlimited.”
“But you said you were working for Shipstone, too—the laboratories.”
Mac looked surprised. “But the whole Red Thursday ruckus was an intramural fight amongst the top boys; everybody knows that.”
I sighed. “I seem to have led a protected life. All right, you were working for Shipstone, one piece of it, and as a double agent you were working for Shipstone, another piece of it. But why was I the bone being fought over?”
“Miss Friday, I don’t know; that is what I was supposed to find out. But you were believed to be an agent of Kettle Belly Bal—”
“Stop right there. If you are going to talk about the late Dr. Baldwin, please do not use that dreadful nickname.”
“Sorry. You were thought to be an agent of System Enterprises, that is to say, of Dr. Baldwin, and you confirmed it by going to his headquarters—”
“Stop again. Were you part of the gang that jumped me there?”
“I am happy to say that I was not. You killed two and one died later and none of them was unhurt. Miss Friday, you’re a wildcat.”
“Ket—Dr. Baldwin was a mugwump, a maverick, not part of the system. With Red Thursday being mounted—”
“What’s Red Thursday got to do with this?”
“Why, everything. Whatever it was that you carried was bound to affect the timing, at least. I think the Council for Survival—that’s the side Mosby’s goons were working for—got the wind up and moved before they were ready. Perhaps that’s why nothing much ever came of it. They compromised their differences in the boardrooms. But I’ve never seen an analysis.”
(Nor had I, and now I probably never would. I longed for a few hours at the unlimited-service terminal I had had at Pajaro Sands. What directors if any had been killed on Red Thursday and its sequelae? What had the stock market done? I suspect that all really important answers never get into the history books. Boss had been requiring me to learn the sort of things that would eventually have led me to the answers—but he had died and my education stopped abruptly. For now. But I would still feed the Elephant’s Child! Someday.)
“Mac, did Mosby hire you for this job? Guarding me in this ship.”
“Eh? No, I’ve only had that one contact with Mosby and that under a phony. I was hired for this through a recruiter working for a cultural attaché of the Ambassador for The Realm in Geneva. This job isn’t one to be ashamed of, truly. We are taking care of you. The best care.”
“Must be dull with no rape.”
“What are your instructions about me? And how many of you are there? You’re in charge, are you not?”
He hesitated. “Miss Friday, you are asking me to tell my employer’s secrets. In the profession we don’t do that…as I think you know.”
“Fiddlesticks. You knew when you walked in that door that your life depended on answering my questions. Think back to that gang that jumped me on Dr. Baldwin’s farm—think what happened to them. Then speak up.”
“I’ve thought about it, many times. Yes, I’m in charge…except, possibly, for Tilly—”
“Which one is Tilly?”
“Sorry. Shizuko. That’s a professional name. At UCLA she was Matilda Jackson. We all had been waiting in the Sky High Hotel almost two months—”
“‘We,’ plural. Name them. Ship’s roster names. And don’t try to stall me with guff about the mercenary’s code; Shizuko will be back in a few minutes.”
He named them—no surprises; I had spotted them all. Clumsy. Boss would never have tolerated it. “Go on.”
“We waited and the Dirac warped without us and only twenty-four hours before warping time for the Forward we were suddenly alerted to leave in the Forward. Then I was supplied with color holos of you for us to study—and, Miss Friday, when I saw your picture, I almost fainted.”
“Pictures were that bad? Oh, come, now.”
“Huh? No, they were quite good. But consider where I saw you last. I thought that you had died in that fire. I, uh, well, you might say I had grieved over you. Some at least.”
“Thank you. I think. Okay, seven, with you in charge. This trip isn’t cheap, Mac; why do I need seven chaperons?”
“I had thought that you might tell me. Not that it is any of my business why you are making this trip. All I can tell you are my instructions. You are to be delivered to The Realm in perfect condition. Not a hangnail, not a bruise, not a sniffle. When we arrive, an officer of the palace guard comes aboard and then you’re his problem. But we don’t get paid our delivery bonus until you’ve had a physical examination. Then we are paid, and we deadhead home.”
I thought about it. It was consistent with Mr. Sikmaa’s worry over the “most valuable package a courier ever carried”—but there was something phony about it. The old belt-and-suspenders redundant backups principle was understandable—but seven people, full-time, just to see that I did not fall downstairs and break my neck? It did not taste right.
“Mac, I can’t think of anything else to ask you now, and Shizuko—I mean ‘Tilly’—is due back. We’ll talk later.”
“Very well. Miss Friday, why do you call me Mac?”
“That’s the only name I’ve ever heard you called. Socially, I mean. At a gang rape we both attended. I’m reasonably sure that you are not ‘Howard J. Bullfinch.’ What do you prefer to be called?”
“Oh. Yes, I was Mac on that mission. But I’m usually called Pete.”
“Your name is Peter?”
“Uh, well, not exactly. It’s—Percival. But I’m not called that.”
I refrained from laughing. “I don’t see why not, Pete. Brave and honorable men have been named Percival. I think that’s Tilly at the door, anxious to bathe me and to dress me. One last word: Do you know why you are still breathing? Not dead?”
“Because you let me pee. Thank you for letting me pee before you handcuffed me to that bed.”
He suddenly looked wry. “I got chewed out for that.”
“You did? Why?”
“The Major intended to force you to wet the bed. He figured that it would help to make you crack.”
“So? The bloody amateur. Pete, that was the point at which I decided that you were not totally beyond hope.”
Outpost isn’t much. Its sun is a G8 star, which puts it pretty far down the list of Sol-like stars since Sol is a G2. This is markedly cooler than our solar system star. But the star is not that important as long as it is a sol-type (G-type) star. (It may be possible to colonize around other types of stars someday but it seems reasonable to stick to stars with spectral distributions that match the human eye and don’t pass out too much lethal radiation—I’m quoting Jerry. Anyhow there are over four hundred G-type stars no farther from Earth than is The Realm—so says Jaime Lopez—which could keep us bus
But assume a G-type star. Then you need a planet the right distance from it for it to be warm but not too warm. Then its surface gravity should be strong enough to hold its atmosphere firmly in place. That atmosphere must have had time to cook, in connection with evolving life, long enough to offer air suitable for life-as-we-know-it. (Life-as-we-don’t-know-it is a fascinating subject but has nothing to do with colonization by Earth people. Not this week. Nor are we discussing colonies of living artifacts or cyborgs. This is about colonists from Dallas or Tashkent.)
Outpost just barely qualifies. It’s a poor relation. Its sea-level oxygen is so scanty that one needs to walk slowly, as on top of a high mountain. It sits back so far from its star that it has just two sorts of weather, cool and freezing. Its axis stands almost straight up; it gets its seasons from an eccentric orbit—so you don’t go south for the winter because the winter comes to you wherever you are. There is a growing season of sorts about twenty degrees each side of the equator but the winter is much longer than the summer—of course. That “of course” refers to Kepler’s Laws, the one about radius vectors and equal areas. (I cribbed most of this out of the Daily Forward.) When the prizes were handed out, Outpost was ahint the door.
But I was frantically eager to see it.
Why? Because I had never been farther away from home than Luna—and Luna almost is home. Outpost is over forty light-years from Earth. Do you know how many kilometers that is? (Neither did I.) Here’s what it is:
300,000 x 40.7 x 31,557,600 = 385,318,296,000,000 kilometers.
Round it off. Four hundred million million kilometers.
Ship’s schedule called for us to achieve stationary orbit (22.1 hours’ orbital period, that being the length of the day at Outpost) at oh-two-four-seven and for the starboard landing boat to drop away very early in the morning (ship’s time “morning”)—oh-three hundred sharp. Not many signed up for the ride—that’s all it would be since no passenger would set foot on the ground—as the midwatch isn’t too popular an hour with most of our passengers.
But I would as lief miss Armageddon. I left a good party and went to bed at twenty-two hundred in order to soak up several hours of sleep before rise and shine. I got up at two o’clock and ducked into my bathroom, latching the door behind me—if I don’t latch it, Shizuko comes straight in behind me; I learned that my first day in the ship. She was up and dressed when I woke up.