Authors: Jack L. Chalker
No, he didn't have all those macho skills. He once got talked into going deer hunting in the area and he'd bagged one; the sight of that beautiful animal, dead by his doing, lying there, thrashing
and then dying, still haunted him. He hadn't picked up a gun since.
No, the fun wasn't in squaring off against these guys, it was out-thinking them and out-maneuvering them. It was a mental game, deductive chess, and if you could assemble the puzzle and get the whole picture then any clod could make the collar.
And that was the other guilt pang he had. God help him, if it wasn't for Dash he'd be having the time of his life right now. He'd grown bored and somewhat stale at the pedestrian things he'd been doing the past several years;
was his element. But it was a lot easier, and a lot more fun, when the victims were not people you knew and loved, but could be just pieces in the game.
"It is good that war is so terrible lest we become too fond of it."
Robert E. Lee had said that. Perhaps, he thought, this is what he meant. I'm being punished now for becoming far too fond of this game.
At about six in the morning he'd dropped into a light and disturbing sleep in his office chair even as information continued to come in on his printers, fax, and other data collectors. The ringing of the phone startled him again to wakefulness, but it was a groggy sort and he wasn't at all clearheaded. Even so, he had the foresight to activate the small system under the phone that would automatically record and tell him the number from which the call was being placed. It was a neat service they were now selling to the phone companies themselves for resale as a point-of-call service to customers.
He picked up the phone. "Sam Horowitz," he said sleepily.
"Ah, Senor Horowitz, you sound like we thought
you would," came a heavily accented soft male voice.
He shook himself awake and ignored the headache. "Go ahead. I've been expecting your call."
"I assume you have the whole set of lines monitored, and perhaps the Company is as well, but it will do you no good," the voice told him. There was a sudden click and the quality of the line shifted a bit, became a little bit noisier. "Our technology has to be better man your technology or we would have been discovered, even caught, long ago." There was another click, and the transmission was suddenly both louder and quieter. Sam reached over and hit a timer at the next click, then stopped at the click after that. Four seconds.
"You have something of great value to me that is of no value to you except as a way to get to me," he said, hoping that made sense. "I want the boy back, unharmed, and in one piece. I assume you didn't take him just to torture me, so you want something."
"Si-yes, you are most perceptive. The boy is fine. At first he was very scared, but now he is, you might say, less frightened than pissed off, and quite a tiger, but he is being treated well, fed well, and looked after."
"What do you want?"
"That is a matter not to be discussed over telephones when one does not know who is listening, no? This is merely a reassurance call for now. I assure you we do not wish to keep the boy, but his health and his future are in your hands. Keep the Company off. We will make no second offers, no adjustments in our demands, no back up and start overs. If anything goes wrong, no matter whose
fault-even if it is nobody's fault-the boy will be killed and we will vanish like the wind. You will never find us, or him, without our help, but even if you did be assured, Senor, that all of us will kill him and then ourselves before we will be caught. Just wait, and when the summons comes do not hesitate and do not try anything at all. Your son's life depends upon it. Goodbye, Senor Horowitz, for now."
There was a final click and dead air, but he didn't immediately hang up the phone. There were ways of doing trace-backs if the line wasn't broken on both ends, particularly if you were receiving the call.
The information printed out on a strip of adding machine paper that emerged from the side of the box under the phone. He took it, looked at it, then broke the connection, waited until the phone company reset the line, then he made a call of his own.
"Harry? Sam Horowitz. Sorry to wake you up a little early but I got a real emergency here as soon as you can do it. I need a location to match a phone number and I need it yesterday."
Harry didn't even have to leave the house for it, and Sam got a callback in under ten minutes.
"It's a private phone, all right," Harry told him. "It's in London."
"No, Ontario. Canada. You know-big country up north. In the name of Argos Container and Cargo, Ltd. I'll give you the address."
Sam scribbled it down, then went to his computer, awake now. Who the hell did he have in the Toronto area? Nobody, it appeared. Nobody on
that side closer than Montreal. He tried to think. What was near there? Suddenly he snapped his fingers. Buffalo! Oh, yeah.
And Jerry the Weasel was just the guy for a quick and unobtrusive black bag job. . . .
The morality might be a little questionable, but it was real handy to have even organized crime to draw upon as needed.
The private eye business was rarely if ever as glamorous as it was portrayed in the books, movies, and TV series, but it was every bit as tense in its own way. Even he was disconcerted sometimes by the amount of information he could get on just about anyone. Get copies of somebody's checks and you knew more about them than they did about themselves, for instance. That was the trick here-getting and sorting through all that information and keeping the quarry, if at all possible, in his, Sam's, element and not outside, down the Labyrinth to God knew where.
He was pretty sure that Dash hadn't been taken into the Labyrinth-yet. As soon as Cal had reached the switch to the main line he'd reported a security violation and they had stuck on full monitoring of the access to the central Pennsylvania substation. Not even a flea could go undetected if that happened; the only reason you couldn't do it with the whole line was, that there were millions of worlds and incredible distances of parallel track, sidings, switch points, subsidiary lines-you name it. Just like you couldn't have a cop on every street corner in a city, you couldn't do a full monitor of the entire Labyrinth, but once you showed cause it was very simple to do it for a short piece. The invaders had known that as well.
Either they had all come in
in the ten to fifteen minutes tops it had taken Cal to get to the switch and report an undetected breach, or they hadn't come from the substation at all. Oh, perhaps one or two, tracking Bond, but not that army.
They had already been here, somewhere, in place, waiting. And that was the most significant fact of all.
If Doctor Macklinberg hadn't sworn that Bond's frostbitten toes were real, it smelled like even the alleged fugitive was part of the set up. Or had he just misjudged the snow and temperature and the distance involved?
It was an interesting question. There were eleven James Bonds associated in some way with the Company, and six were the sort where you just couldn't lay your hands on them at any given moment. He was almost certainly one of those- the reason why there hadn't been any alarms was because his implanted identifier was of the highest security codes. There were times when such agents didn't want the managers to know they were there.
It was a pretty puzzle, but, oddly, since the phone call and thinking things through he felt much better, even able to doze now. Things were finally moving; the load was lighter. Dash was still alive, and now there was one-on-one contact with those holding him.
Bill Markham was one of those people who aged so gracefully they looked better in middle age than when young. Of course, Bill availed himself of the same super technology that other high level Company employees did, including Brandy and Sam, and physically he was in the kind of shape a twenty-year-old athlete dreamed of being, but he also had a family and a public existence and presence and so he had to look his forty-four-year-old age. He was tall and lean and muscular, with a ruddy face and a thick crop of professionally styled graying hair, and he looked like the kind of guy you'd cast as a detective on TV.
"It's my baby, Sam," he said, sinking into a chair. "I'm now Security boss for this world and all the stations along the node, so it's in my lap as well as yours."
Sam shrugged and lit a cigar. "I know you have the big picture, Bill; but this is personal with me. So long as Dash is at risk, it has to be a lone wolf operation in a couple of key areas and you know it."
Markham shrugged. "I'm not going to work against you, Sam. You know that. In fact, I'm partly here to brief you on some of our current operations and maybe give you a better picture of who and what you're dealing with."
Sam was suddenly very interested. "You know what's going on?"
"Not exactly. As you've probably already guessed, though, this is more or less an extension of the same old case. When we busted the takeover plot we exiled the ones we apprehended, as you know, Mukasa included, and put them through the wringer in every possible way. We knew Mukasa recruited an organization using worlds where we hadn't set up shop, but we didn't know how extensive it was or how many people were really involved on that lower level. The fact was, neither did Mukasa. They worked through a minimum of middlemen, mostly that sweet little secretary-mistress of his."
"Yeah. Addison or whatever her real name turned out to be."
"So that there could be no slips, they used a stock Company security technique with all of them to prevent them from giving out information under duress, hypno, even accidentally. They all had auto-erase routines implanted in their minds. You spill anything, you suddenly forget, and for good, whatever cross references there are and all other details, and it's beyond recovery. I, for example, know an awful lot nobody else is supposed to know. What if I were kidnapped, or even turned traitor? The first unauthorized access of that information would wipe it out completely. I'd remember that I once knew it, but I wouldn't know what it was. See?"
Sam nodded. "So you had no leads on dear Doctor Carlos or anyone else who might be in the organization even when you had the leader."
was the ringleader. Remember, they were out to get Mukasa, too. The problem with the closed culture of the Company world is that they tend to think that everybody thinks like they do. They don't have moral principles, just logical positions. They think that the only reason a slave hates slavery is because he'd rather be a master and enslave somebody else. It's nearly incomprehensible to them, except on an academic level, to imagine someone who might hate slavery because it is evil, because it is morally repugnant. Concepts like evil and morally repugnant really have no meaning for them. So they went out and
recruited a huge number of very talented, even brilliant, people who for one reason or another had reason to hate the Company. It was a straight business deal to them, see? Help me break the Board and take over the Company and then
will run the Company as my underlings."
"Yeah," Sam sighed, "but the underlings
hated the Company, including the fellow who hired them. I wonder why?"
Markham shrugged. "There are always enough people who get stepped on in any large organization who generate that kind of hatred. Far less from the Company world, of course, but it's there even there, at least in any human cultures comprehensible to us. When you have access to all the personnel files and all the evaluations and Histories of everyone who ever worked in any capacity for the Company, I doubt if it would take either of us more than a day to find an entire army."
"Point taken. But a Company girl did fall into the lower camp."
"Uh huh. She was out all the time, in contact with these people on a near-constant basis. She found in these rebels something she'd never seen in her own people-passion. A total commitment to a cause, and a viewpoint that graphically illustrated just what the Company did and what it was like and which humanized the whole thing. We think she fell in love with Carlos, and that Carlos radicalized her until she identified more with them than with her own people. Sheer guilt, but stirred well with resentment that the only way she could progress in society was as a mistress and henchman. The guilt part is the same reason so many poor little pampered rich kids become Trotskyites and the like here. And, of course, they used her just like they used her boss. The problem was, we lopped off the guy who caused it all to be possible and we lopped off the radicalized agent of the real plot, but we didn't lop off the true head of the radicals and the organization remained pretty well insulated and intact. We have been trying for years now to find out who, what, and where they are."
"And you succeeded?"
"To a very low point only. Do you know how many worlds intersect the Labyrinth and how many weak points there are even where we don't have stations? Let's just say it's a geometric progression. The only thing we had going for us was that the opposition couldn't stay still forever without ceasing to be an opposition. For a year or so they fell back, licked their wounds, regrouped, and figured out what to do now. Then they started again, and we began to detect violations of security. They're good-damned good-and we always moved a fraction too slow."
"How's that possible?" Sam asked him. "If they use the Labyrinth in known and charted areas they'll eventually get picked up and trapped."
"Not necessarily. The only real control we have is at the stations and the switches. Somehow, they were getting around them, and we didn't know how. We had a lot of people on it, and the trouble was it took us the better part of a year to get the Board to allow any of us access to the computer security files on the Labyrinth itself so we could find out what the enemy already knew. I tend to think of the Labyrinth kind of like a railroad, with a straight track going from station A to station B
via switchpoint C. Of course, you and I know just from being in it that it's not that simple."