Authors: Jack L. Chalker
Sam nodded. "There are always four faces on the cube. Four directions other than continuing in the tunnel. Good Lord! I never thought of that. You mean each cube goes in four different directions?"
"Uh huh. Now, take any of the sides and go through and you're in a world, right? That's why we think of the cubes as the only avenues to each of the worlds. That's wrong, though. Each face represents an alternative, a potential siding. Most just go to specific worlds, but many are through. Some of those old extensions were simply curved around to take advantage of temporal differences-a siding between two switches that would effect near-instantaneous travel, for example, from our point of view-while others were simply closed off and abandoned. But they still get power. We can't shut power down to any area without causing feedback and potentially dangerous disruption to the whole system. These shut down and unused sidings were taken off the system maps, access was closed off, and they were as if they had never been-but they were still there."
Sam nodded. "And after our Company fiend was through with the security and master database computers, the only guy left with a system map of all those shut down sidings is our Doctor Carlos. I begin to see the problem, Bill. It also answers a few questions, though, like how they were able to walk so easily and undetected up and down the line. How many of these unknown crossing points do you think there are?"
"We don't know. The computers guess it could run into the thousands. You see, in the early days,
there wasn't a single monolithic Company. Development was by a government-supervised consortium of companies instead, and each wanted in on the potential profits in knowledge, new products, new markets, you name it. They all began building competitively, since due to the consortium they all had the technology, while whoever built the accesses to the worlds got first rights in them. Find a weak point, build a siding and a temporary station, and it was yours. Many are automated and use antiquated and sometimes proprietary means of switching-proprietary to the companies that built them many generations ago by Company standards. There aren't even many surviving, records of the smaller companies that were quickly absorbed or went broke. What we have, Sam, isn't a straight line of track with charted sidings but a fantastic maze to which we don't have the key."
"But surely you can find them if you look." "Sure we can-but it takes experts to locate them, then you have to know how the switch works or figure it out without damaging it or the power grid, then you can re-map and explore one siding. Multiply that by the length of the Labyrinth itself and it becomes a nightmare. It is possible to hide in the Labyrinth, Sam, and it is possible to travel sometimes great distances by bypassing existing switch points. The only time we have a chance at catching them is when they make a mistake and we know they're there."
"My God, Bill! You're telling me we could have whole
going back and forth and we might not know about it. If this Carlos organization could tie into them, we're talking an
here. That certainly explains the world and the big
organization on it where Brandy was trapped and addicted and how they're able to pull in so many duplicates. I can see why they pulled you off anything else."
Markham nodded. "It's been tough, but we've had several advantages. For the most part they've stuck with Type Zero worlds-worlds with people like us. That narrows it. There might be some Zero-Bs there-worlds where the people look human but aren't-but mostly they stick close to home, in worlds where they understand the rules. By selective monitoring and random probes just of our own region-which is big enough-we've managed to find several switches and identify a few worlds. They've got some key advantages, though, in that there's only one way in or out. The first time we got massacred going up one of their sidings, we learned that you either invade in strength, in which case you take the tunnel cube by cube but don't know the territory, or we seal it off. We got smart fast. Now we don't tell them when we find them-we just monitor the hell out of the access. That's given us a small but valuable catalog of worlds they frequently visit and a rogue's gallery of people in this rebel organization. We've managed some infiltration of their organization at lower levels but it's tough getting messages in and out."
"Are you telling me that Dash might be anywhere in one of these sidings?" Sam seemed very uncomfortable. "That we might still have lost him?"
"No, no! I doubt it! We've got every weak point from here to Australia covered from the inside and we have this world sealed off as tight as we can. We
know this world as good as we know any, Sam. There are no uncovered weak points. They got in, some with false authorizations, some with exploiting lax weak spots like this one-sorry
but this one was covered far too soon for a group that size to make an exit and get away into their maze, and the others were sealed within hours and show no signs of use. Even if they faked out a station master there would be records. No, Sam, they're still here. They're
still here. What bothers me is that they must have known that would happen from the start. I just can't figure out their game."
Sam gave a low smile. "With what you've told me, which fills in a
of gaps, Bill, I can assure you, I think I at least understand some of it. This might be
interesting at that, provided they don't know that I am in the possession of certain facts. The question really is, just how subtle
these jokers? They've been pretty ham-handed and theatrical up to now, and that's dangerous. But if they
a little too clever for their own good, then things are looking up."
"Never mind. The proof will come in the next few hours--a day or two at most. For my own interests, Bill, I simply can't go further with this right now. Just keep us bottled up tight and I'll do the rest."
Markham studied the detective. "I wish I didn't feel like Watson sitting around 221B Baker Street," he grumbled, then sighed. "Okay, okay, we'll play it your way for now. I wouldn't want in any way to cause Dash to come to harm because I interfered."
"Thanks." And Sam sincerely meant that.
"What about Brandy? Considering how much of a team you two are, I'm surprised we didn't have this conversation upstairs. Is she that bad off?"
"Oh, no. In fact, she's coming along just fine. She got some sleep and when she woke up she had feeling and movement again in her arms and shoulders. Tingles, but it's fading, kind of like a numbness slowly ebbing. She'll be up and around in a couple of days the way it looks now. But she's a hands-on type and Dash's kidnapping has about driven her crazy. I keep her informed and the like but she's better off recovering than getting in my way here while I do what I do best. She'll have her role to play, but not yet. Uh-any luck on that Yusha expletive?"
"Not yet. It's so close to a lot of things and the voice is so obviously distorted by something that we can't be absolutely certain that Yusha is the real word. And, of course, it's so obvious a traceable buzzword that we're half inclined to feel that it was dropped just to send our teams into insanity and occupy a lot of us following red herrings up and down the line. The same with the bodies they left. Nothing particularly distinguishing about them, yet the comment on the recording implied we should know where they were from right off. No oddball tattoos, no genetic markers, no oddball haircuts or green skins or purple hair, and their clothing might as well be local and probably is. Just people. I think we were just getting our noses tweaked."
"Could be," Sam admitted. "I think it's less significant that they left the bodies of those men than that they didn't leave any of the Ginzu bodies. Why not take all or none?"
"Maybe because they figured that the Master would see who they were and that would lead him to the traitors," Markham suggested.
"Uh huh. Or maybe another red herring. We don't even know if there were any Ginzu involved, or, if so, whether any were killed or badly wounded. We have only the dialogue on the recordings to lead us to that, along with Brandy's description of the black-clad warriors, and they were masked. In a way, it's a master stroke. As long as we can't be sure, we can't use any of the Ginzu at all. We can't use our incorruptible bodyguards for the big shots or our effective local security mercenaries. They've been factored out."
"Well, there are others we can use that are quite good," Markham noted.
"Uh huh, but they're new. Replacements. Green and not known to the folks they're guarding and ignorant themselves of the territory and the tricks." Sam leaned forward and used his cigar stub as a pointer. "The game's afoot, Watson. Dark business; very dark indeed. The trouble is, at this point, we don't know whether we are the game, or they are."
Information began to come in thick and fast. The London number led to a small office not recently occupied in which there was a desk, a chair, and a working phone. The phone had a neat little device on it that included a recorder and a separate line. A phone company check showed no incoming long distance calls, so clearly the trick was to use three local London lines-one to be called by the remote caller, then it would call the second line in town, which would then spool a
delay on the tape and then feed it back out the third line that called Sam. It was a clever arrangement. The guy could have called from anywhere, even the phone booth down on College Avenue, to the first London number. That then automatically dialed the second number in the office, which triggered the tape and then initiated the final call to Sam. Without knowing from where the call was placed or the first local London number the entire conversation would be untraceable even if they had been sitting in that office during the call.
More interesting was the fact that the tape was continuous record and play at only four second intervals, but it removed almost all background noise and was just slightly off-speed in a more or less random way so that the voice itself sounded normal but wouldn't voice print correctly and would sound just slightly off.
Well, he had expected that to be a dead end. More interesting was the envelope that arrived in the afternoon mail. It bore a local postmark two days old-the good old post office had taken two days to deliver it perhaps two miles-and was essentially clean of fingerprints and whatever. The message was typewritten but he didn't have to run any checks to see if he could find its origins. The very slight impression problem, particularly with the lower case "a," was very familiar. The bastards had typed it on his own machine, in his office, while they were still ransacking the place.
"If you want to see your son again, then on Tuesday next, at eight in the evening, enter the Labyrinth at your substation, then proceed past the main switch and down line towards Headquarters. Be alone and unarmed and destroy this note and tell
the Company nothing. Any sign of security or an electronic security scan and we will send your boy back to you in very tiny pieces. Believe us when we say that. We promise that if you play fair, we will, too. We have a proposition for you."
An offer I can't refuse,
Sam thought with a dry chuckle. Well, they were giving him more than enough time. Brandy might not be perfect but she should be up and around by Tuesday, and his own string would be played out here by then. Certainly Markham would have a
tail on him, but he knew he could shake a tail and create a plausible reason for going down line. That wasn't a real problem. The real problem was that he now had a deadline.
On Friday, they found the vans, abandoned, near Ashville, North Carolina. They had underestimated the Company's resources, though, and their own relative invisibility. They were using rented and leased vehicles still, although with a different credit card on a different company. They had done a good cover job, but they hadn't created additional fake driver's licenses and they had to show licensing information on at least one to get the new ones. The jerks should have had a third party buy a couple of used busses, which would have made the job slower and tougher, but they didn't.
Most important in the rental information was that none of the vehicles had snow tires. Now, this was the South, all right, but Ashville was high in the Smokies and the only way out that didn't mean mountains and snow and ice for sure was east. On Saturday, Company helicopters spotted them in spite of several precautions they'd taken. Somewhere along the road they'd given the three big
vans a spray paint job, changing them from their original colors into black, but three black vans moving in a virtual convoy stood out pretty well. When they all stopped at a motel outside of Wilmington, North Carolina, agents were ready, and Sam's phone rang.
"It's them," Bill Markham told him. "No question. We've even seen your boy. You'll never know how many people and how much time and money went into this. I'm sending the chopper for you now. We don't dare do anything until well after dark anyway, so we're just setting up and reconnoitering the place. I assume you want in on this."
"I don't want you doing a thing until I get there, Bill, and I mean it," Sam growled. "One slip and my son's a memory and I will hold anybody and everybody responsible for that."
The Many Faces of the Enemy
It was your standard, garden-variety motel, mostly empty in the off season and not very fancy, with several rectangular blocks of single-room units in back of a combination office and restaurant. They had taken only two rooms, but it wasn't crowded. In spite of the temperature, the bulk of the kidnappers-the Company agents estimated that they totaled fifteen-remained in the vans and rotated inside the rooms.
"They pretty well stay in the vans except at shift change or when one from inside comes out to talk," Markham told Sam. "The better to guard the rooms with big guns without being seen. We've checked the area and I'm pretty sure that there's nobody on the roofs and no ugly surprises. They have the vans at each end of the block and that gives them pretty good coverage. Nobody's going out the back-it's a cinderblock wall, no windows."