Authors: Alan Dean Foster
Flinx left the hotel in a hurry. Not to flee New Riviera and Sphene, as the message demanded, but to find Clarity. What might have seemed a daunting task to anyone else proved surprisingly easy for Flinx. Buried in the communication was a supposedly secure electronic signature that identified the location from which it had been sent. One of the clever little devices secured to his belt deciphered it immediately.
The ease with which the trace had been performed only heightened his sense of danger. He made a couple of quick stops at specialized shops around the city. If a man does thee once, it’s his fault. If he does thee twice, it’s thy fault. Flinx had no intention of being done twice by Bill Ormann.
It took some time for his rented aircar to find the exact spot from which the message had been sent. It was high in another convolution of Nur’s beautiful mountains, surrounded by taller takari trees than any Flinx had seen so far. He approached with caution. Just because the message had been sent from here did not mean he would find anyone alive. He relaxed slightly when he drew near enough to sense a flow of anxiety whose source he instantly identified as Clarity. It was accompanied by indications of discomfort, which angered him, but not of pain.
He circled the house from above while Pip fretted on his shoulder. If the place was booby-trapped, neither he nor the instruments on board would be able to detect the method. Despite Ormann’s message, Flinx didn’t think Ormann wanted to hurt Clarity. He just wanted her, period. It was unlikely that someone else’s arrival would trigger an explosion intended to kill them both. Nevertheless, in proceeding, he had to assume a worst-possible-case scenario.
He made several passes over the primitive-looking cabin while bathing it in scans from one of the devices he had purchased in town. Satisfied that nothing explosive lay within, he set down nearby and alighted from the aircar.
“Pip, no!” Ignoring his warning shout, the minidrag immediately winged toward the house. He raced after her. It was entirely possible for traps to be sprung by mechanical means.
But nothing erupted from the building, the purple-and-gold weeded grounds, or the nearby woods to blast the flying snake from the sky. He slowed as he approached the cabin. There was no mistaking who was inside: this close, he could isolate Clarity’s emotions as well as his own. Apprehension, unease, discomfort—these were present in abundance. But she was not in pain, nor did she radiate any fear of the threat of imminent physical harm. Most important, insofar as his talent could tell, she was alone.
He became doubly wary.
Accompanied by the dulcet songs of the
and a couple of querulous, wide-eyed, long-armed
watching from the nearby trees, he approached slowly on the cabin. From the outside it looked like nothing more than a retreat from city work and stress. The faux-wood logs had the advantage over real wood of providing excellent insulation, not leaking, and being impervious to bugs and fire. They were also conveniently easy to penetrate with the small scanner Flinx unlatched from his belt.
The instrument reported two organic life-form signatures to be inside. One was clearly Clarity. Flinx assumed the other was Scrap. Pip’s agitation provided confirmation.
He steathily circled the building, seeing nothing to threaten or impede his entry. He wouldn’t, of course. Ormann was jealous, not stupid. Clarity might have been left alone, but he would not have left her unguarded.
Pausing behind a dense bush whose delicate long leaves curled away from his body heat, he slipped a filtering mask over his face. Ormann might assume that what had worked once would work again. The gun he had brought with him drawn and ready, Flinx sprinted toward the cabin.
No one materialized to challenge him as he reached the back of the cabin. No sounds emanated from within. He edged carefully around the building, ducking below first one and then another window as he did. Peering around a corner gave him a good line on the only door. It might be locked or it might not.
He removed and activated a custom-made packet from his belt. The result was an inflated, minimally articulated replica of himself. For something so light it gave a remarkable impression of solidity. The decoy was capable of only the most limited degree of programmed action, but all he needed was for it to approach the door.
He waited with both hands on his gun. The inflated hand reached out and depressed the control buried in the old-fashioned door handle. The door swung open, and the ground erupted on either side of the decoy.
The ambushing mechanisms were thin, tall, and lethal guns programmed so their deadly cross fire cut the decoy to shreds. Flinx sidled around the corner just far enough to take aim with his own gun. Having adjusted the weapon’s targeting settings from Organic to Mechanical, he fired twice. A neural disruptor makes very little sound—no loud percussive bang, no roar, just a soft crackle, like foil being crumpled.
Each of the weapons at the door twitched as its circuitry was paralyzed, then collapsed. Flinx waited several minutes to see if they would move, heedful that they might be equipped with diversionary delay backups. When they did not, he advanced and shot them again. Standing over their camouflaged burrows, he methodically fried the subsurface instrumentation that had governed their actions. Only then did he scan the door for additional surprises. Finding none, he fingered the locked handle.
For someone with his experience at breaking and entering, the lock might as well have been made of paper. In barely more than a minute it clicked open. Holding the disruptor, he pushed the door inward.
He saw a great deal all at once: the kitchen to the left, a small den, and sitting area to his right. On the couch a familiar figure lay on her side, tightly bound and gagged, feet toward him, eyes wide as he started toward her. Simultaneously, Pip soared toward the container on the kitchen table. At her approach, it began to bounce and shake violently. Urgent, excited hisses issued from within.
Every sense alert, he was halfway to Clarity when she managed to spit out enough of the gag to make herself understood. “Flinx, the chair—watch out!”
He whirled just as it began a silent metamorphosis. At once simpler and more sophisticated than the guns outside, it unfolded multiple spiderlike limbs and came for him at astonishing speed. Some of the arms were tipped with blades. Flinx took quick aim at its center and fired.
It dodged smartly. One arm-mounted ceramic blade shot out a meter and with a single low, sicklelike swipe tried to reduce him in height by half a dozen centimeters. He leaped over it, used a stiffened left forearm to parry a second strike from a different cutting edge, and fired again. This time the transformed chair was flailing wildly, striking out in all directions, its circuits destroyed.
While it was fizzing to a stop, the attendant footrest nearly got him. Spotting the padded stool advancing furtively on her master from behind, Pip spat at a vent in its rear. The corrosive minidrag venom wreaked sufficient havoc on the footstool’s innards to send it lurching off course toward the kitchen. A burst from Flinx’s pistol stilled it permanently.
Clarity was smiling with relief. “Bill thought he could get to you with machines, with something you couldn’t hypnotize or drug.” She gestured with her bound wrists. “Get me out of this and I’ll give you all the details.”
He moved toward her but stopped. “So he thinks I hypnotize people or drug them? As you do?”
She nodded. “That’s what he believes.” She gestured with her hands a second time. “Feels like I’m bleeding. I’ve been stuck here since this morning. Can’t feel my legs, either.”
“That’s not surprising.” With great deliberation, he raised his pistol and pointed it at her torso where the AI cortex would be located.
She gaped at him. “Flinx? What are you doing? It’s me, Clarity!”
It looked like Clarity. It acted and talked like Clarity. But it wasn’t Clarity. Having made use of self-motivating simulacra of himself on more than one occasion, Flinx was familiar with the sophisticated technology. Anyone else would have assumed this was the real Clarity Held. Certainly William Ormann believed that Flinx would do so. Except that there was one very important thing Ormann did not know. Flinx neither mesmerized nor drugged other people. He simply read their emotions, when his talent was functioning. And it was definitely functioning now.
If it wasn’t, he was about to make perhaps the most serious mistake of his life.
The Clarity Held lying bound on the couch was not panicking or projecting fear or anger or uncertainty. It was projecting nothing. As one of its not-so-very-tightly-bound hands started to come around, he squeezed the disruptor’s trigger. Shocked by the shot, the hand’s three middle fingers fired at the ceiling. Three small explosions left a big hole in the roof as the miniature missiles struck. He raised one arm to ward off the dust and fragments of insulation that snowed down on him. Watching the pop-up guns and the spider-settee convulse in the course of their mechanical death throes had been much easier than standing by while sparks and fluid flew from the humanoid figure on the couch.
He approached cautiously and poked the simulacrum’s smoking remnants with the tapered tip of his pistol. The epidermal material gave eerily, like actual flesh, but the illusion was destroyed by the sparking, flaring, failing components within. Ormann was no dummy. If the guns failed, the cabin contained sufficiently murderous backup in the form of the homicidal chair and footstool. If both of them proved unsuccessful, he could rely on the far more stylish and elegant simulacrum of Clarity to fool her would-be rescuer.
Pretty clever, Flinx thought as he moved toward a door at the back of the room, to have the simulacrum deliberately warn him about the chair and thereby put him off his guard. Had Ormann known the truth of Flinx’s talent, he no doubt would have engineered an entirely different ploy.
The locked door gave him no trouble. Inside, he found Clarity gagged and bound on a smaller couch. On the floor nearby was a transparent case within which a young minidrag, its frantically beating wings a blaze of color, was banging and snapping like a gigantic dragonfly. Landing atop the container, Pip began hunting for an opening. Within, her offspring’s iridescent green head tracked her every movement.
Flinx reassured Clarity with calming words. He had no intention of removing his filtering mask until both of them were safely outside. It was hot in the room and she was sweating profusely. Doubtless she had heard the commotion and wondered what was taking place.
Now her eyes widened as he removed her gag. “He didn’t get you.”
“No. He didn’t get me,” Flinx reassured her softly. With a small vibraknife he began to slice through the restraints that bound the rest of her body, starting with her wrists and ankles. “Smarter sentients than William Ormann have tried.”
“I know. But I was still worried.” With his assistance, she sat up on the couch, rubbing her wrists. “He’s gone over the edge, Flinx. Completely lost it—in his quiet, controlled, ice-cold managerial fashion. I told him he wouldn’t be able to hurt you.” Looking up, her eyes bored into his. “I’m not always right, but this time I’m really glad I was.”
“So am I.” Slipping his hands under her arms, he helped her to stand, steadying her while sensation returned to her numbed feet and legs. She was surprised at how strong he had become. Perspiration made it difficult for him to maintain a grip that was firm but not impolite. After a minute or two, he started to release her and step back.
“It’s all right, Flinx. I can manage now.”
He turned to the cage that held Scrap. The seal on the container proved no match for old skills. In a couple of minutes, Scrap was free. The minidrag stretched its wings before taking joyously to the air. Pip pirouetted around him. This aerial ballet continued for a couple of minutes before both flying snakes settled back to the ground, their upper bodies entwining affectionately as they folded their blue-and-pink wings flat against their diamond-patterned sides.
Still walking tentatively, Clarity started toward the outer room. Flinx hastily put a supportive arm around her back.
“Thirsty,” she told him. “Water would be nice.”
Leaving her, he advanced into the kitchen. Taking a glass from a cabinet, he filled it from the sink, but not until he had first checked the water with the analyzer he always carried with him. There was, it insisted primly, nothing in the glass but plain old dihydrogen oxide.
Taking the glass, she held it in both hands and drank greedily. Pushing past him, she refilled it. Only when she had drained the contents a second time was she able to flash Flinx the familiar smile of which he had grown so fond.
He gestured toward the open front door. “I’ve got an aircar outside. Can you make it?”
“To get out of this place I’d crawl through mud and refuse.” She glanced around at the deceptively simple surroundings. “Funny. I used to like this place. But then, I used to like Bill.” Starting forward, she noticed that Flinx was hesitating. “Was there something else?”
“I . . .” With a suddenly unsteady hand, he reached up and felt his mask, but the filter was still in place, still sealed against his face. Nothing could get through to him. “Feel strange, all of a sudden.” He took a step backward. Alarmed, she moved toward him.
“Flinx? Flinx, what’s wrong? You feel all right?”
“I feel fine.” Anxiously, she looked all around the room. She could smell, hear, sense nothing out of the ordinary. The front door was open and fresh air was pouring in. What was the matter?
Stumbling again, he managed to sit on the couch at the foot of the simulacrum he had destroyed. He was blinking frequently now and occasionally shaking his head as if trying to clear it. “What’s wrong?” she asked him.
“I don’t know,” he mumbled, his words slurred. “Feel funny. Can’t be gas. Don’t—understand.”
Pip and Scrap rejoined their masters, Pip crawling into her master’s lap while apprehensively fluttering her wings. As Flinx started to pass out, Clarity rushed forward to catch him. But he was too heavy for her, and she was forced to ease him down against the back of the couch.