Authors: Jack L. Chalker
Inside the house a woman's muffled voice can be heard muttering, "Keep your shirt on, damn it. I'm comin' as fast as I can."
The door opens and he is face to face with a portly black woman of medium height with thick glasses and a totally confused expression as she sees him.
"What the hell is you?" she mutters, not afraid but startled.
"Pardon, Madam," he responds, in an elegant upper class London accent tempered by a crackling voice and total exhaustion. "The name is Bond. James Bond."
And then the stranger collapses half inside her door.
Doctor Macklinberg shook his head in wonder and closed the door to the guest bedroom as he exited into the hall. She looked at him quizzically. "Well?"
He shrugged. "Bad exposure. He should be in a hospital right now but you know why we can't do that. Stripping him and getting him into the hot tub in the basement was a brilliant reaction. He still might lose some toes or perhaps worse-I can't tell this soon-but if he pulls through it will be because of your quick thinking."
"I come in this house out of the storm and
stripped and jumped in that thing myself to thaw out too many times not to think of it," she responded. "You know who he said he was?"
The doctor nodded. "Yes, he's mumbled it several times to me."
She fumbled and then got out his wallet. "Says so in here, too. London address, bunch of cards for fancy clubs over half the world, a couple of credit cards on European banks, and a fair amount of these." She handed him some very large bills. He took them and frowned.
"Pound notes with King Charles VI on them. Fascinating.
Charles would only be the third, I think. That's not him, though. I wonder if the Stuarts still rule our Mister Bond's England? I wonder what else they rule?"
She shrugged. "I never pay much attention to that kind of thing. The main thing is that he's not from the here and now and that means he came in through the substation and he did it without settin' off no alarms in the house here or in Stan's security office."
"You been down there?"
"Uh uh. Not with Sam in Philadelphia and everybody else checkin' out everything. Hell, I got a kid I can't leave, Doc. You know that. Stan got down there, though. The station wasn't active but it was a hot area, and the snow all around was all crudded up. Looks like he used his coat over the barbed wire. Parts of it are stall stickin' there."
"Well, the barbed wire was probably the least of his problems. He has several gashes in him as well, all fairly new and some fairly deep, like he'd been stuck by all sorts of nasty, sharp knives. He's been through a lot tonight, that's for certain."
She nodded. "Well, Stan's gonna go in and send a message up the line to Company Security, and I already called it in to Bill in Philadelphia while you was in there. It's gonna leave me short-handed, though. They got a pretty mean storm in the east right now and it's socked in Sam by air or road. With Stan going up line that leaves only three of us here on the grounds tonight."
Macklinberg sighed. "I wish I could just stay with him but I'm on call tonight at the hospital. I have three women in labor now and what with the insurance thing I'm the only one around at the moment willing to deliver their kids. Ordinarily I'd send a nurse over or maybe a resident but I can't chance what this fellow might say if he starts babbling or comes out of it. He's definitely scared of something, though, and if he's anything at all like his fictional counterpart he doesn't scare easily. I've given him what I can to help him along-antibiotics, that sort of thing-but I didn't dare give him a sedative even though, God knows, that's what he needs. I thought that if he came out of it you'd want to know what it was all about right away."
She nodded. "Thanks, Doc. I think I can handle it here. But I got to think about how unusual short we are 'round here tonight and then this guy just comes in on us like this. I'm gonna put the security system on full tonight, and I'll call you at the hospital if there's any change. O.K.?"
"Good idea. But if you need me, call the service and they'll beep me. I may or may not be at the hospital at any given time." He paused, then said, "As soon as possible he should be moved out of here and to medical facilities better than anything
we can offer him. He's certainly going to lose some toes and both feet are in some danger. I've shot him full of every antibiotic I have but sooner or later we'll have to face treating that frostbite, and the only thing I could do here is amputate. For now, no walking. Keep him in bed. The painkillers should keep him out a while and I've left some pills just in case, but you never know. Someone like him . . . You know, I saw
She grinned. "I met this type before, Doc. They don't ever live up to their billing. He's probably a pencil pusher in MI-5 with a wife and nine kids who'd be horrified to read the books them writers made up about him here."
She saw him to the door, then sighed and went back and put on a pot of coffee, then turned on the alarm system and notified Diane in the security shack. It was gonna be a
She sat with the man for a while, but that soon became very boring, and while he was still out he was restless, would occasionally twist or thrash about, and he kept mumbling things. She went and found a voice-activated tape recorder and set it up beside him, then threw the intercom on. She then went down the hall to Dash's room and checked on him-still out, and a good thing, too-and switched off the intercom in the boy's room so he wouldn't be awakened by ghastly meanings and strange utterances coming out of the speaker. Then she went downstairs, got some more coffee and a piece of chocolate cake, and settled in the family room to watch TV off the satellite dish.
Never once fails,
she thought sourly as she looked
through the listings and paged through the satellite channels via the remote control. A
hundred damn channels and when you got to sit and watch somethin' there
ain't nothin' good on TV!
The fact was, she was often up late, and always had trouble sleeping. The dreams and the nightmares were just too great, particularly when Sam wasn't here.
Dash helped. He was a beautiful child and he was growing up smart but spoiled rotten, but she didn't care. She'd been frightened to death that he'd be damaged somehow, considering what horrors her body had been through and considering that they'd had to have a special operation just to let her have him. Sam claimed that his only worry was that all black Jewish kids would look like Sammy Davis, Jr., and when Dash looked right handsome he'd stopped the worries. But he still was busy, and that meant he was away a lot. Security consultant to the Company, they called it. They designed a security system for most anything and then he'd come in and blow holes in it, sometimes literally. It sounded like fun, but she couldn't bring herself to go back through the Labyrinth, not unless she had to. The memories were just too strong, the fears severe, even after years had passed.
She could still remember seeing part of Sam's head get blown off from raiders up top in a cube and she didn't feel confident any more. But the worst fear was the juice, the alien drug from some world so far up the line it didn't even have an official name that gave exquisite pleasure at the cost of slavery to it. Even though she'd been hooked by the nastiest bastards ever to attack the
Company and against her will, and even though she'd gone through torture and long treatments to beat it, the memory still lingered. Once you were on it you'd degrade yourself, do anything to stay on it. She'd done a lot of that. And she was one of the very few to make it back, to break the addiction without breaking her mind and body as well.
But she still wanted it. Craved it, and knew that if it was ever put in her grasp again she'd take it and never be able to get off.
It was that that scared her most. Somewhere out there the evil genius who'd come up with the diabolical plan that almost broke the ruling class of the Company world was still there. They'd caught his boss and his underlings, but the man known as Doctor Carlos, world of origin unknown, background unknown, was still out there somewhere.
Oh, the Company had finally broken the secret of the drug, which was actually a symbiotic organism that essentially took control of you, and if you took your shots from them once a year the thing couldn't infect you, but she was never sure it would work with her, even as it couldn't help those who were exiled addicts-and she didn't underestimate Carlos, either. He had had as much time as the Company to work on the thing.
The Company. You couldn't even get away from the Company on TV. Particularly not on TV. New miracle gadget cuts kitchen time in half. . . Wonderful six-record treasury from Reinhold Zeitermas, the world's best selling contrabassoon player . . . Buy MirGrow, the secret plant food of the Orient. . . All that junk was what the Company sold. Music treasuries from folks you never heard
of, crazy products that were pretty weird when they worked, you name it. Just call this toll free number now. 1-800-. . . And the home shopping networks-it looked like they were furnishing the merchandise even for the ones they didn't own or control outright.
General Ordering and Development, Inc., Des Moines, Iowa. Big rucking joke. G.O.D., Inc.
Well, they acted like their initials sometimes, that was for sure, and they had more products than the junk they pushed to the public, too, and a lot more going on around the world than their front indicated. Wherever merchandise moved, that was them. The Mafia was a wholly owned and operated subsidiary, not just here but around the world. Same went for the heroin of the Golden Triangle in Asia or the big coke trade from South America. They subsidized whole governments, bought and sold cops and politicians wholesale, and just about nobody even knew they existed. How they got what they wanted in the communist world even she didn't know, but she knew they were there in force. They probably sold all the damned bugging devices the KGB used to the Kremlin while making it look like a state factory.
In truth, they were a gigantic, amoral colonial empire, only the colonies didn't know they were colonies. That's because almost nobody knew that invasions from other worlds didn't have to come from the stars or fly around in saucers full of little green men. No, there were more than enough worlds coexisting right now, one on top of the other, for a nearly infinite distance in both directions. Parallel worlds, they called it, although it was more like parallel universes. Somewhere,
somehow, almost everything that could have ever possibly have happened did. Way up the line there were Earths where the dinosaurs never died out, and even ones where some of them evolved into intelligent life. Germany won or lost, America did or didn't break free of England, England and parts of Europe stayed Catholic, or the Moslems overran Rome and kept going all the way. Worlds in which a Roman-ruled South America battled a Chinese-settled North America.
One world had discovered this parallelism, and that world had created a means of moving between it called for good reason The Labyrinth. A sort of railroad complete with branches and switchers and dispatchers that stretched for a million worlds in both directions and still didn't reach them all. They alone could move between and they alone controlled the dual lines, one for passengers, one for freight.
And one world's bright ideas were another world's-well, junk. They ran at different speeds sometimes, and things invented one place were never invented the next. Whether one world needed the Dicing Wizard or not was irrelevant; G.O.D., Inc. made sure you wanted it anyway, at least in enough quantities to make the transshipment worthwhile. She often wondered what her world sent the others.
And James Bond is now lying in the guest bedroom.
Well, why not? She and Sam had once faced down a very villainous Lament Cranston. Sometimes the names just popped up elsewhere and elsewhen; sometimes a totally fictional character in one place might pop up as a very real and quite
similar person in another. She'd heard a lot of theories that writers were just folks sensitized, somehow, to certain people or things in the other worlds.
There were even other versions of you in those other worlds. That was the freaky part. The Company had a way of telling one from the other but nobody else could. A tiny little implant, a transmitter, deep in the bone someplace that gave you a unique signature and also both authorized you in the Labyrinth and made a record as you passed each switch point or station so they could track you. Of course, it could be beaten, and had been. They were now sure that their new system was foolproof, but she knew as well as Sam that any system declared foolproof was impervious only to fools; smart folks could always figure a way to beat it.
She had checked on the other versions of her in worlds near her own, and even met and shared some time with one of her counterparts, but they were pretty depressing overall. Whores and welfare babymakers mostly, low class and lower lives. The ones who survived the streets and weren't in jail or something. She'd been the exception, the lucky one, to whom the fluke good thing had happened. She didn't need to reflect much to realize just how lucky, and improbable, that one thing was.
Sam. Sam Horowitz, former cop, former private eye, now Company Security Specialist A cute little guy who was culturally as Jewish as they came and looked the part but who thought he was Nick Charles or Sam Spade or at least William Powell. A guy who'd given up everything and married a
black girl from Camden who was a high school dropout, chubby, and who thought of herself as more street smart than real smart, but who had also been infused with the dreams of glamour of the detective business by a fanatical father who was an ex-Army cop turned failed private eye himself and who'd wound up floating in the Schuykill River when he'd gotten his first really big case.
The real amazing thing was that there were a lot fewer Sams than Brandys in those other worlds. He'd been involved in a lot of dangerous stuff as an Air Force cop and apparently he'd been killed in most of them, or before. The survivors were mostly cynical and opportunistic skunks, crooked cops and worse, who'd sell their own grandmother for a dollar. Sam was the only man she knew in the whole Company who'd once had a gun duel with himself.