Read 03. The Maze in the Mirror Online

Authors: Jack L. Chalker

03. The Maze in the Mirror (3 page)

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Of course, there were worlds where one of them existed, or neither existed or were now alive, and ones where Colonel Barker's only child had been a son and Mrs. Horowitz had borne a Jewish-American Princess. But when you had a duplicate, he or she might be, at least physically, a perfect copy. Same genes, same fingerprints, everything. That was a favorite Company method of taking control of something. Nabbing a real person in authority and switching them for a duplicate, well briefed, hypnoed, and absolutely identical to everybody else, but who was really a Company stooge.

Of course, that was also a favorite trick of enemies of the Company who could gain illicit use of the Labyrinth.

That's how she'd met her twin and both of them hooked on the juice and under the control of a Company enemy engaged in a not so gentle attempt at a Company takeover. He'd been pathetic for all his cleverness and callous cruelty, though. The kind of folks he'd recruited from various worlds to do his dirty work had hated him as much as the rest of the Company. They were fanatics with access to the Labyrinth and its powers and it had been real hell rooting them out-if they had been. At least one, the most dangerous of the bunch, was still out there, somewhere. She had met him only a few times, and always under the worst of conditions, but still he haunted her nightmares. The Company admitted they couldn't find him, couldn't even identify him or his home world, but they were confident that he was now bottled up, contained somewhere where he could not use the Labyrinth without them knowing and catching him.

She doubted it. She was certain that Carlos was out there, somewhere, perhaps in a world that ran at a slower rate than hers but with a higher level of technology, plotting and planning and recruiting and solving the new roadblocks the Company had put in his way.

The speaker suddenly brought the sound of the man upstairs crying out and coughing horribly. She jumped up and went up to him.

He was delirious, thrashing about on the bed, mumbling "No, no! Insanity! It is all insanity!"

She tried to calm him down, tell him it was all right, get through to him. Suddenly he startled her by seeming to come awake, eyes wide, looking straight at her. "The maze! Monstrously twisted,
plot so grandiose it might just work! Got to warn them. Got to . . ."

"What plot? Whose?" she asked, trying to get what she could. Every little bit of time saved might help.

He stared at her, wild-eyed and uncertain, and she realized that she neither looked nor sounded like the sort of folks he was used to dealing with. What he saw was a black woman, possibly thirty or about that, perhaps five five or so in her bare feet, weighing in at over two hundred pounds, with a huge, thick mane of woolly black hair and big brown eyes that looked far older than the rest of her.

"I'm Brandy Horowitz, Company Station Manager here," she told him. "You're in my house near the station. You came in without triggering our alarms, cut and frostbitten. A doctor who's retained by the Company has looked at you, but nobody else knows you're here."

He hesitated a moment, still a bit wild-eyed and uncertain. "Says you, Madam." He paused a moment, frowning. "Did you say your name was

She nodded.

"Different sort of world you must have here," he commented dryly, seeming to get hold of himself. "You say you are a station manager? Then I must use your master communications system immediately."

"This is just a minor stop," she told him. "No real traffic. This is less a real station than just a security post for a weak spot. This place got misused a bit much a few years back so we're keeping it closed down-or so we thought. We
ain't got no big installation here, not even a direct link up the line. We got to go inside and up to the switch to do that. Ain't been no need for much more. My security manager's up there now lettin' the Company know about the breach."

That worried him. "No direct communications. Blast! How many people do you have here?"

"Normally there'd be several, but right now, inside the house, there's just you, me, and my young son. On the grounds my live-in staff is here but that's just Diane in the security shack and Cal, who's a kind of foreman and handyman."

He was appalled. "That's
? Two women, a kid, and a cowboy?"

She bristled. "No need for much more here, Mister. It's just a little station on a weak point for convenience sake-the closest big one is like three thousand miles from here on the other side of the country-with no cargo access. And don't you sell us women short."

"Oh, I never sell women, and never sell short," he responded, a bit flip. He tried to sit up, grimaced, and settled back down again. "I assume you at least have a security system on this house?"

She nodded. "Good one, too. But we thought the one in the woods was even better so don't count on this one."

He thought for a moment. "What about the Company here? Does it have full operations?"

"You better believe it! They're into everything, as always."

"If I could just get out of this bed to ring them . . ."

"You don't have to," she told him, then left and returned with one of the Company's cheap plug-in handset telephones. She plugged the cord into the modular outlet, then handed it to him. He watched her do it, fascinated, as if he'd never seen a phone with a modular plug before, then studied the one-piece phone.

"How do you turn it on?" he asked her.

"It's on. Just push the buttons with the number I tell you and you should get through to the eastern branch. There's always somebody on duty there."

He did as instructed, then listened and shook his head. "No sound. Nothing."

She took it from him, checked, and it was definitely dead. She wasn't worried-yet. These cheap phones gave out for no reason all the time. When she checked the solid, better phone in the master bedroom, though, and found it dead as well, she began to worry. She hit the intercom and was relieved when Diane answered.

"Our visitor's awake," she told the security officer, who otherwise was the one who cared for the horses around here, "but the phone's dead. Can't call out."

"I've checked it-they've been calling in regularly until a half hour ago. I checked the CB to see what the townies had and discovered that phone service is generally out throughout the area. I reported it to the Company over the ham radio- even there the static is awful-and they are concerned, but it doesn't appear sinister."

Brandy frowned. "Maybe not to them, but comin' when it does . . . You or Stan check to see why we didn't know our visitor come through until he showed up?"

"Yes, but no help. Everything seems to be working normally. Even if for some reason we didn't get the energizing bell here the trip on the top of the fence should have gone when he came over it. Hopefully Stan will bring back a couple of system analysts to check it out.".

"Well, you keep in touch with Philadelphia on the ham radio and keep yourself sealed in there and monitoring." What they called the security "shack" was actually a bunker, well underground and almost a self-contained apartment, and about as secure as a nuclear missile launch site. That wasn't really to keep an enemy out, although it would serve for that in this case, but rather to hide anything that the locals weren't supposed to wonder about from prying eyes. She had a thought. "Could you patch the intercom into the ham radio? This fellow's got somethin' real important to tell the Company."

"Too garbled for that. We've tried that before with the ham microphone. It's one of those things that should have been thought of but wasn't. I could relay his message, though."

She nodded. "I'll see." She switched off and started up stairs, then got a small bout of dizziness and then a couple of uncontrollable yawns. She wasn't in shape for no sleep all night any more, and she was dead on her feet.

Bond, however, was having none of it. "It's rather complex and I still don't know half of it myself," he told her. "It would just cause more trouble and confusion if I couldn't go back and forth with somebody who knew what he was talking about. And I'm feeling very tired and very weak right now."

She nodded. "Want to tell me what you know, or something of it? I used to be line security myself.

My husband and I have handled many big cases for the Company, including the Directors. We ain't amateurs. You was mumblin' something about the maze."

He looked surprised. "I was? Oh, dear." He thought a moment. "I'll give you a little, just for insurance sake, although I rather think that the less you know the safer you'll be."

"I'll take the chance. It's what they pay me for." He sighed. "All right. For close to a year now we've had indications that someone has been coming and going between various worlds without going through the switch points, and coming out at places where there are no Company stations."

She frowned. "How's that possible?" "That was the point. The evidence was there but you couldn't get anyone to take it seriously because it
possible. The old method, shipping people between switch points in fake cargo containers using the cargo line, is blocked now, and in any event they still had to use our stations. I was one of a number of agents assigned to check it out anyway and it took me months to get any real leads. After a long while of monitoring energy pulses and finally getting a couple of people to follow, I managed to get inside one of their own substations. What I discovered was frightening. Someone else has a labyrinth of their own."

That was startling. "Wait a minute. It'd take more power than could possibly be snitched. They told me once that this one was powered by some kind of gadget that fed on the sun itself in a universe where there weren't no decent planets. Who would have the kind of people and machines to do that?"

"They didn't. The power comes from our own grid. What they built were hidden additional switch points and then sidings to whatever worlds they wished. Whole sections of line all over not on any map. Weak points too minor for the Company to bother with or on worlds the Company hadn't gone into yet were developed. If you didn't know the switches were there you could neither see nor detect them, and the drain on the system power is not enough to show up on the power meters. They've been quite clever."

She was appalled, although it explained a lot. Nobody built something like that in a few years. Nobody. That was the work of decades at least, and real long-term planning. It had to be part of that old operation they'd thought they'd broken. That was how and why they were able to go from point to point without ever meeting a security man. And that cube where they'd ambushed and shot Sam ... A hidden switch point, maybe? Then they shut it down and the facet simply goes to the world where it's supposed to.

"This is big," she told him. "We got to tell the Company this."

"I did," he responded. "I told them what I've told you. They refused to believe it, refused to believe that it was even possible. They said the sort of resources needed to build such a network and remain undetected all this time were beyond concealment. Only the Company could have done it and there were no records or expenses or anything. They said the only fellow who could possibly have managed it was a traitorous former Director and that they'd not only had him isolated, they'd drained everything he knew from his mind ahead
of that. They demanded incontrovertible proof or it was suggested that perhaps I'd been in this business too long and should take a holiday."

She nodded. The iron-bound arrogance of the Company was its weakest point. Always had been. It had been obvious almost from the start which director had been the bad guy. If it'd been a murder mystery then unmasking the villain would have been a snap. The trouble was, he was high up, one of the ultimate bosses, and no one would believe that such a one could betray the Company or beat the Company's security unless he could be caught and unmasked with his finger on the trigger and in the act of committing treason. She had solved it, but it was Sam who figured out how to nail the bastard.

"Maybe he didn't know-any more. With them mind control things they got you can get parts of anything erased. If he had set it up and then got it erased so it never showed, then nobody'd know- but his gang could use it Maybe just a few key folks in the gang that never got caught. I'm pretty sure most nobody knew about this even if they was usin' it. That bastard was so smug and arrogant himself he violated the biggest rule of bein' a crook-he got a gang workin' for him that was smarter than he was. They're all a pack of racists who think that they're the be-all and end-all of human creation. And, hell, he wouldn't
to build 'em. If he got to the big data bank and simply erased the records of certain built but not operational switches and sidin's, then they wouldn't show up at all on the maps. Damn! This is
big!" I wish Sam was here for this,
she added to herself.

He nodded. "Yes. A herd of elephants running
amok on the system and nobody notices. But now I
proof. Or, at least, I can
them proof. I know the location of a siding and how and when it operates. I was discovered. They can shut it down but they jolly well can't unbuild the thing. I got in through a casino sub-basement private station on the Riviera. I tripped some alarms, and they were waiting for me. I was on the run into the main branch when I was cornered and had to take the first facet out that I could find. Here, blast it." He realized how that sounded.

"Nothing personal, dear lady," he added quickly, "but if this had been a main station then it would be all over for them."

She nodded. But it wasn't a main station, and it was isolated and not well manned. And if they got Bond before Bond got into Company protection, men they'd still be safe and secure. That meant they would be coming in, if they weren't already here, and fast. Tonight-and probably in numbers.

"Get some rest," she told him. "If we can hold out tonight there'll be plenty of help coming tomorrow."

Damn! She was so tired and it looked like one of those nights she hadn't had since Dash was a baby. At least, maybe, he'd sleep through all this. She cut the lights in the living room, then went to the front window and looked out. It was a stark, eerie scene at night, with the yellowish floodlights casting an Ugly soft glow over the snow, making the structures and shadows look grotesque and monstrous. All looked, however, quiet.

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