Authors: Jack L. Chalker
Suddenly the pistol jerked in her hand and she
saw the red tracers head for the opening and heard a cry. She moved a little forward to give it a slightly better angle when suddenly something powerful came up behind her and grabbed her, knocking the pistol from her hand and sending it skidding along the hall.
She turned and flipped the man with one motion, but he retained control and somersaulted and landed on his feet. He was a strange looking fellow all in black with a black mask over all but his eyes. She was a little out of practice, but she knew her judo and karate, but she had the uneasy feeling that this guy knew a lot more and had lots of practice.
Suddenly there were more on her; they'd drawn her with the one trap door while coming down the other! She struggled and twisted but suddenly there was pressure on her neck and her whole body seemed to explode first in pain and then in numbness, and she dropped to the floor.
Curiously, she was fully conscious, able to hear everything, but she was unable to move and her glasses had been knocked off in the attack and she couldn't see a damned thing without them.
The black-clad men spoke that curious sing-song while making it sound like gutter speech, but suddenly there was another presence nearby, and one of the warriors spoke to it in heavily accented but understandable English.
"Bond?" asked a husky, eerie voice that might be male or female but was certainly chilling.
"In room dere," one of the warriors responded. "Him bad hurt. Lady here out with
"Check downstairs," ordered the chilling voice. "See if you can locate the master security control
and turn it off. If we can go out the front door it will save us having to haul him out the way we came in." There was a moment's pause. "By Yusha! This is a bitter cold place! The heat feels good but we must hurry. Any sign of the man?"
"No. Small boy in room dere only other one in house."
There was more sing-song from downstairs, and the warrior talking to the stranger said, "Find system. Hard to figure but can bypass. We go any time now."
"Good. I am anxious to be away from here. Too bad the man isn't here. I shouldn't want him desperately on us."
Strange. She swore she heard the sounds of vehicles driving up outside and doors slamming. She tried to move but she couldn't. Her eyelids and her breathing were about the only things she could control. All else was numbness.
"All right, let's wrap it up. They'll be coming through any minute now and I don't want to be caught here. Recover your dead and wounded but leave the others. Leave her, too, just the way she is."
"But that leave too much! You have Company up ass pretty quick!"
"I think not. I just want to make certain that both of them come-and cautiously." The voice paused. "Take the kid," it added.
No! Please God! No!
she tried to shout, but she couldn't move a muscle.
Playing with a Marked Deck
Sam Horowitz was no dashing private eye except perhaps in his own mind and in the occasionally romanticized mind of Brandy. He was five ten, well over two hundred pounds, a small-boned sort of man who dramatized a pot belly, which he most certainly had. He also had a pronounced Roman nose, small deep blue eyes, and what was not graying on his head just wasn't there any more. He was, in fact, the innocuous, bland-looking sort of fellow you'd never look twice at on the street or in a shop, which was why he was a pretty fair private detective and security agent.
Aldrath Prang, on the other hand, would stand out in most places. He looked to be a man in his thirties, perhaps, in superb physical condition, even though in reality he was well past seventy. A big man, well over six feet and muscled like a god, his complexion was golden and his features resembled Polynesians more than any other racial type on this Earth. He was not, however, from this Earth, but one of the heads of the great corporation and its present CEO and former security director. It had never been known that Prang had left the isolated and nearly impenetrable home world of the Company since attaining Board rank, and certainly it was unthinkable that a CEO would
do so, ever. And for anything less, that might be the case, but this was both personal and life or death.
Sam flicked the little recorder and Prang joined him. Together, they listened to all that had transpired, at least the upstairs part.
"Bright lady," Prang said, impressed. "They never even noticed the thing."
Sam nodded. "So we have a lot to go on, anyway. At least we know more than they think we do, which is always the best way to start a counter operation." He sighed. "This bastard was right, too, Aldrath. He's got the only two people I really care about and his type doesn't give me much play. I have to assume the worst, and that means I'll be after them until they are exposed and fried all the way to the top."
"I'm not so sure, old friend," Prang responded, thinking. "You have had a bad shock and extreme frustration and you must have all your powers and wits about you. Listen to him again. This-person -doesn't want you that way. You are dangerous to them. The only man in history to have ever caught and convicted a Corporate board member. They are afraid of you, and I don't think that was put on. As you say, there's no evidence that they knew the recorder was here, or that Diane could also pick up and record just about everything inside and out. There is more here than getting Bond before he could lead us to them. That was the catalyst, but only the catalyst. They clearly knew who lived here and they clearly picked their own spot. There is more to this than simply a chase after a man who knows too much. Something darker is afoot as well."
Sam nodded. He felt cold, empty inside, though,
and he felt only anger and a strong desire for vengeance. He sighed, got hold of himself, and asked, "How is Brandy?"
"The same. There are certain pressure points which only an expert can find as you well know. Depending on the pressure and the degree of exactitude the paralysis may be temporary or permanent. Fortunately, thanks to the recorder, we know it's a Ginzu move. I have summoned the Guild Master and he should be here some time today. I fear I was a bit forceful with him. I told him that if his Guild was going to commit treason against the Company then we could well give up the steak knives import-export business and manufacture them ourselves, and that to insure things and perhaps make an example we might also exterminate all life on their world. I think he'll come."
Sam snapped out of it and stared at Prang. "Uh-yeah. Um, Aldrath? Would you
"Of course. We are already manufacturing them right here, in New England somewhere, I believe."
"I didn't mean the damned knives. Would you exterminate a whole world?"
Prang shrugged. "It's been done. Takes a unanimous vote of the Board, but if we have this level of treason it's simple self defense. The ones who were here knew this, as did their employer. That's why they collected all their own dead and wounded, leaving only the others. Those bodies would lead us to believe that all the attackers were like them and we'd be off chasing helpless drug slaves rather than the warriors who have no such excuse."
Sam thought a while, then sat down at a writing
desk, tape recorder in front of him, and began to selectively play back the events of the night. He was deep in thought, playing small sections over and over. Finally, he sighed and went to see Prang again.
"I think I got part of it," he told the CEO. "Different parts. The easy part first. It was very faint, and maybe your lab people can really bring it out, but I heard at least one car door slam after they carried their prey out the front door. That's why we didn't catch them in the Labyrinth. They didn't go out the way they came in. They were ready and they had somebody come and pick them up and drive them away. I bet if you really enhance the background and filter out the rest you'll hear several vehicles, maybe enough for all of them. That means they might still be here, on this Earth. There's no way they could have used a station after the full security alert."
"You heard Bond saying they had their own stations. Almost a parallel network, as difficult and frightening as it is to believe."
"Yeah, but not here. I mean, the Labyrinth's been extended to perhaps a million parallel worlds, but the Company has developed only a very few of them. Most just aren't worth the trouble, and the others we just don't have the full manpower and resources to control as yet. That's not true here. Here we've explored every inch, surveyed, mapped, you name it. We know and have every weak point covered and monitored. That's why they had to come in using our substation. If they had their own they'd have had what they needed for a lot less costly assault on this place. They sure as hell knew where it was and maybe
even set Bond up to get here. How else can you explain the pick-up cars around here in bad weather in the middle of winter? No, the odds are they're still here, someplace. And while the bunch of 'em might sneak out over a long period in various stations, the odds of them getting a five-year-old kid through are pretty slim with our system."
"They seem pretty good at beating our system," Prang noted.
"Maybe, but they either didn't know or they forgot one thing. Dash is unique, genetically and otherwise. This is the only parallel Earth where Brandy and I even got married and we checked, remember? The only one. So Dash is one of the rarest of all individuals-a kid with no doubles, no duplicates. His genetic markers are unique. They put him through the Labyrinth and they're gonna get flagged."
Prang thought about it. "I hate to say this, old friend, and I hope you do not take offense, but have you considered that they might do away with him?"
"I thought about it, but it doesn't make sense, at least for now. They didn't take him for revenge, they took him for insurance. You don't burn your insurance policy, you stash it in a safe and secure place and make sure it's readily available and all in good order. No, he's alive, probably pretty pissed off, somewhere on this Earth. And he'll stay that way as long as he serves their purpose. In fact, I would say he's not just insurance, he's a bargaining chip. You heard them-they want me for some reason. Want me enough to blow cover on a world they apparently control."
Prang nodded. "That's probably true. Still, even
if they keep him here this world is a big and heavily populated place. People vanish all the time never to be seen or heard from again, and with far less resources or resolve than these. Still, we will start the worldwide search at once."
He sighed, then continued. "We haven't traced where the dead men come from as yet, by the way, but we're narrowing the possibilities. We've also shipped a couple to pathology because of Bond's comment on their being slaves to some new and even more horrible drug. I already have a suspicion as to what it might be, though, or what it might be derived from."
Sam's eyebrows went up. "Oh?"
"Most people couldn't break free of the old one. Even if they could be physically purged they would go mad without it or without something that dampened the internal biochemistry so it didn't go wild when the organism lost control. The attempt was to find a substance that could be easily and cheaply manufactured, could not be transferred like the original drug to others, and yet would provide what was needed should we take them off the old organic drug. That proved easier to do than we'd expected. It's quite simple to design a drug and tailor it to whatever characteristics you want. It's all a matter of biochemistry, nothing more, but it would allow the victims to retake their places in a more normal society and clear our own medical wards and the retreat world where we'd exiled so many."
Sam nodded. "Like methadone that's used here to allow heroin addicts to get normal lives."
"Yes, I'm familiar with that one. Of course, you remain addicted and you must have your dosage,
so you're still on a string, and, in fact, it still produces many of the pleasure center effects of the original, but it's cheap and not communicable, as it were."
"Yeah, but that can't be what had these guys on the hook. If it's cheap and easy to produce then they got a way out."
"Perhaps. If they
there's a way out, or alternate and more benign sources of supply. At least I hope that's the case. It means we might be able to get these people away from these criminals and turn them into our allies. But-"
At that moment a young security officer wearing a thick parka and snow boots entered the room. "Pardon, Excellency, but the Ginzu Master is here. He does not appear in a very pleasant mood."
"Well, neither am I!" Prang snapped. "Show him in!"
The man who entered was small, almost tiny, and very frail-looking, with an almost cartoon sinister Oriental face complete with snow-white Fu Manchu moustache. His head was shaved, and he wore a simple black tunic with a gold sash at the waist and sandals. It was little wonder he was less than pleased. This guy was dressed for summer in a tea garden. Still, he didn't look cold, or frostbitten, or anything else but just plain mad.
"What is the meaning of this?" the Ginzu master demanded to know in a low, gruff voice.
"I'm going to play you a recording," Prang told him, unimpressed with his anger. "At the end of it you may remain indignant only at your peril. Then we will discuss a young lady currently paralyzed in bed upstairs-and far deeper matters as well."
The little man was indeed angry, but he listened,
and what he heard he liked even less. Finally he said, "Enough!"
"You recognize the voices?"
"The quality is too poor for that. The only one close enough to get a real identity on is the one speaking bad English, and he could be a dozen people at least. I assume you will supply me with voice prints when you make them. I will then be able to tell you for certain."
"I do not merely want to know who they are," Prang told him firmly. "And I do not want them flayed in classic Ginzu fashion. Not yet. When we are through with them, then you can do what you wish, but first we must know who that other voice belongs to and how they were recruited for this treasonous work."