Authors: Jack L. Chalker
Maria entered the tunnel with me in her birthday suit, it was true, but hardly defenseless. The computer had given directions on how to find Yugarin; I wasn't gonna get lost in the process, so we started off, her a bit in front of me and pushing that chair, making one hell of a sight.
The guy was good; I'll give him that. But if you know you're being followed, and you train yourself to spot a tail, there's almost nobody who can stay completely hidden or nondescript, particularly in the barrenness of the Labyrinth. What was real impressive was how he hung back from us, not just in the third cube back, which was about the limits of our visibility, but near the back of that cube, just beyond our sight. The thing was, nobody you're following ever keeps a steady pace unless you're following soldiers on the march or a precision drill team, so by just easing up a bit or occasionally stopping, as if to adjust a shoe or something, anyone that far back would become visible for a short while until they realized that we'd slowed or stopped and faded back.
In a way, I kind of felt sorry for him. In the sterile confines of the Labyrinth there wasn't any real way to follow somebody without going a little bit nuts. Kind of like when I had a small-time punk back in Bristol try and use me to locate a witness
he wanted to ice and that I had to talk to. I wasn't real sure he was back there, so instead of taking the police car I took a bus. Busses stop every block or two and even when they're going they stop and start and keep to the curb side. Imagine you're in a car following a transit bus sometime when you're in a city and you'll begin to see what I put that punk through. This was kind of like that-now that we knew he was there.
The other thing was, if he was far enough back for us not to see him clearly, then the same was true in reverse. He was depending more on his little tracker than his eyeballs, and we counted on that. Maria had already picked her spot, and now we were there. She gave me a hand signal, and I could see a nice, tropical kind of scene on the right cube face that looked like the sort of place I wouldn't mind going to myself, and I suddenly stopped, whirled, and began walking briskly
towards the shadow.
He was real startled for a moment, and for just an instant I caught a detailed glimpse of him- fairly tall, dressed in some kind of brown uniform, and I got the idea he was young, somehow, as well. He stopped as soon as he saw me walking, of course, and immediately began back-tracking, but by this time I'd left Maria two cubes behind. As soon as I saw the tail vanish to my eyes, I stopped, turned again, and walked back, this time to my trusty office chair. There was no sign of Maria, not even in the tropical scene, so I wasn't sure whether that was the one she used or if it was some disguised one on one of the black faces or what, but that one nice scene was the one
I began walking forward again, casually pushing
the chair with the clothes draped over it ahead of me. It was well made; the casters were a dream to push.
Now I'd really started the tail, and he'd acted the way you or I might act when faced with an instant decision, but now he'd recovered, and checking his board, he still got two close blips, and since neither of us seemed to be challenging him and both of us were going in the other direction, he took no other action but just reestablished his tail. That was just fine.
I was a little nervous that Yugarin's switch might be attuned to the two of us, or at least might balk at registering an office chair, but when I got there I was automatically shoved to a siding, chair and all. The thing was obviously keyed to my code as well as Maria's, and I began to relax. When I'd gone three cubes in on the siding, though, I did another panic stop and reverse and was surprised to find that the shadow was no longer there. Either that or he was being doubly cautious.
Well, there wasn't any reason to give the trick away more than I had to. When I got to the exit, the only exit allowed, I left the chair and clothes in the cube just outside. If the shadow made it in he'd know he'd been tricked but then it would be his problem explaining that. Me, I didn't want to push that damned chair any more.
I came out inside some structure. Not really a station, more a substation and of fairly limited access, kind of like the one in my back yard. It wasn't staffed or heated, and it was damp and chilly, although not super-cold. The thing seemed to be a wooden shack, and I spotted a door, went over to it, and pushed, walking out onto a pastoral
scene of rolling hills and far-off trees and lots and lots of grass. I turned and examined the structure and, so help me, it looked from this side like one double pot outhouse. Not that it would fool anybody if that was what it was intended to look like; no smell and no flies.
I had kind of expected a welcoming committee or something. The place looked pretty but uninhabited and desolate. I wondered if I had been stood up, or if maybe Yugarin was going to come in behind me. I hoped not. Wherever it was it was autumn-maybe forty, forty-five degrees with a light wind and half the leaves colorfully on the trees and the other half decomposing on the ground. Not the best or most comfortable conditions for a picnic, that was for sure.
Suddenly two guys strode up the side of a nearby hill and came towards me. They were wearing funny-looking uniforms of blue and red with the big buttons and braid and all, like maybe the Queen's guard or something, or guys out of a Foreign Legion movie. They had more conventional shiny-billed army type hats matching the blue of their tunics, and high-topped boots that looked well worn. One of 'em had a fancy moustache, the other gigantic sideburns, and they both had that posture of military men.
One came up, gave me an unexpected salute which I didn't return, having been honorably discharged years ago from my own service, and said, "Meestar Hovarvitz, dere vas to be two uv you."
So that's why they'd laid low right off. "We were being tailed in the Labyrinth," I told them, then realized that to a guy who spoke English like he did
that would make no sense at all. "Followed. We didn't know by whom. So as soon as I came in here, my-partner-went to see if she could find or trap whoever it was. She may join us later, although I expect that she'll try and set a trap for whoever it is to be sprung when I leave. She is not important here anyway, not with ones like you to guard and help me."
The one guy thought about it a moment, and I could tell he was the type who didn't like anything to be out of place or out of order, but he finally decided that my logic was impeccable. Besides, what the hell else could he do?
"Pliz come vith us," he said at last, making his decision.
I didn't even want to guess at the accent, but it sure wasn't American or Spanish or west European.
"I hope it's not too far," I replied. "I'm a little out of shape."
"Ve haff de horzes chust a bit beyond here," he responded. "Uh-you
know how to ride de horzes?"
"I can ride one of them," I responded. The guy sounded like a cross between somebody deliberately doing bad German with something of a Russian accent mixed in and a little of Scandinavia just to add total incomprehensibility.
Yugarin was supposed to know English. I hoped this wouldn't be the brand of English he knew.
They had a horse for me, with a decent military saddle, and I climbed aboard, glad to ride, although I was out condition even for riding and I knew from bitter experience that my thighs and rear would kill me in a little while. There was
another, empty, for Maria, and I was surprised when they didn't at least take it along. I began to suspect we weren't alone.
I took a look around and was startled to spot several figures in the trees nearby, nicely hidden. Snipers or guards or lookouts of some kind, that was for sure, but primitive. Of course, Yugarin controlled the switch and there was no telling what nice little traps he-or probably Pandross- had laid.
They took it easy on me, adopting a fairly conservative pace, but after maybe a half an hour we'd gotten well away from the substation and in fact had come to a modest dirt road. We turned on to it, me getting chillier and wishing I had one of their nice wool uniform coats, and followed it for some miles more.
We came, eventually, to the sea-or, rather, some mighty big lake since I couldn't smell salt- and to a small settlement on a bluff overlooking the shoreline. There was something of a small town there, with a fair number of uniformed soldiers and, surprising to me, a number of women as well, all wearing long, heavy wool dresses and fur caps.
There was a lot of shouting and comments to us and to one another as we rode in, all in a language that sounded like nothing I'd heard before-and a little of everything I'd heard before. Kind of like somebody had taken all the languages and dialects of northern and eastern Europe and shuffled them all together and come up with something new out of the old.
I had been pleased with my performance on horseback and didn't really feel it at all. I wondered if maybe the dampness and cold was great enough so I didn't notice, or maybe it was like riding a bicycle-something which, once you got it, you kept. But when we pulled up outside this one big wooden building with a fancy insignia painted on it and a lot of words in what looked like the Cyrillic alphabet, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, and I got down off that horse that I almost collapsed from the pain and stiffness. I wondered what kind of first impression I'd give if I duck-walked in. .
Steeling myself and trying not to let the snickers from the small crowd watching get to me, I straightened up and followed the pair into the big place.
It was kind of cozy inside, particularly after the ride and the chill. There were thick rugs on the floor and on the wall, in the Slavic tradition and also providing a fair amount of insulation, and a substantial wood stove in the center surrounded by a fire pit. Around the stove and room were many chairs, reclining mats, and the like, and some small wooden tray tables. The place looked more rustic than primitive from this vantage point; kind of like you'd expect some national park lodge to look.
There was nobody else there, but there was a door to an inner area, and I stood there and waited for my cue.
"Vait here. I vill tell de Profezzor dat you are here."
He walked over to the inner door, snapped more or less to attention, and knocked smartly three times. There was a muffled answer from inside, and he opened the door, walked in, and closed it
again behind him. I decided that there was no reason for me to stand at attention and sank into one of the chairs.
I had to say that most of these guys didn't pick comfort or convenience for their hideaways, and went more for security than really burying themselves deep. They controlled the ins and outs of their little private preserves, and apparently weren't terribly concerned that somebody might blow their private switch and trap them inside. That, of course, implied that they picked worlds with back doors, as it were, and could if need be access the main Labyrinth at another point known only to them. You'd probably have to go a long distance and then have a lot of inconvenience and travel, but the back door was a certainty.
Still, you had to wonder. Voorhes had that Amazon colonial place where even the ice had to come from a private refrigerator in the station, and Tarn had his mountain castle with no central heating and no running water, and now this. Mancini was probably different-his sort wouldn't want to be more than two rooms from a computer terminal-but he hadn't been interested in letting me see his place, which might even be the kind of
cul de sac
they found for my own office.
The door opened, and Moustache Mouth came out, beckoned to me, and said, "De Profezzor vill zee you now. Come."
I got up, feeling every mile of the ride, and entered what could only be described as a typical if a bit out of character private office. There were maps and papers everywhere-Yugarin hadn't made any particular concessions to my arrival nor did he seem to feel the need to meet elsewhere, as Mancini had. In a way, that worried me.
a mess, though, almost as bad as mine. Add to the extreme clutter the fact that Yugarin was a heavy cigarette smoker and you got some of the picture. In the center of it all, in a comfortable office chair in front of a long table filled with papers, was the great man himself, dressed somewhat like a monk in the old Russian tradition, with brown fitted robe and big gold cross around his neck. With that wild hair and scraggly, unkempt beard, he kinda looked like Rasputin.
But it is the eyes that are often the most revealing part of a person's personality and intent. These blazed with a kind of intensity that almost shouted,
"I'm nutty as a fruit cake and meaner than a drill sergeant."
What he actually said, in pretty good and fairly neutral English, was, "Well, Mister Horowitz- where is your guardian angel?"
"Chasing phantoms," I responded. "What's the difference? She's of no real use here, and I'm not exactly going to lead a revolution or overthrow the empire all by myself and in your domain. By the way-what the heck is this place, anyway?"
He laughed, got up, and cleared off a pile of junk that revealed an otherwise totally hidden chair Sherlock Holmes couldn't have deduced, and waved me to sit. I was sore and I sat.
"This place," he said, lighting a cigarette, "is what is somewhat jokingly called the Holy Tartar Empire. It's none of those, but they had to call it
It is what remains of a once great and proud people laid waste by chemical and bacteriological weapons. Never underestimate the human mind, Horowitz. They never invented nuclear
weaponry and worse here, but they still managed to find a way to reduce a population of four thousand million plus to a few widely isolated pockets of desperate humanity. The switch you used was a Company switch, not one of the old ones, abandoned and sealed
in quarantine and listed as not to be entered for thousands of years."
I grew uncomfortable. "I assume it's not as deadly as all that now."