The Widowmaker: Volume 1 in the Widowmaker Trilogy

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Copyright ©1996 by Mike Resnick

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CONTENTS

Prologue

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

7.

8.

9.

10.

11.

12.

13.

14.

15.

16.

17.

18.

19.

20.

21.

22.

23.

24.

25.

26.

27.

28.

Epilogue

* * * *
To Carol, as always,
And to Ann Groell and Jennifer Hershey,
for encouragement and patience
Prologue

A mile beneath the glittering surface of Deluros VIII, the capital of mankind's sprawling Oligarchy, two men rode a slidewalk down a long, dimly-lit corridor, their voices echoing in the vast emptiness. One wore gray, one white. They passed a door, then four more.

"I wonder what he'll be like?” mused the man in gray.

The man in white shrugged. “Old and sick."

"I know,” agreed the man in gray. “But I've seen so many holos of him when he was ... well, you know."

"When he was the most famous killer in the galaxy?” asked his companion sardonically.

"He did most of his killing on the side of the law."

"So the legend goes."

"You sound like you think otherwise,” said the man in gray.

"No. But I know how legends get made."

The slidewalk brought them to a security checkpoint, then stopped until their ID badges and retinas had been scanned. It began moving again, only to stop once more at a second checkpoint fifty yards farther on.

"Is this really necessary?” asked the man in gray.

"The richest men and women in the Oligarchy lie helpless down here,” came the answer. “They are totally defenseless—and believe me,
nobody
gets that rich without making enemies."

"I know,” said the man in gray. He gestured ahead to two more checkpoints. “I was just wondering if we're going to have to pass through one of these stations every forty or fifty yards."

"Absolutely."

"I was afraid of that."

"Add it to your bill,” said the man in white.

After another two hundred yards the corridor branched off, and they chose the slidewalk that veered to the right. The doors came more frequently now, as did the checkpoints, but finally they came to a halt in front of a door that appeared no different from any of the others.

"We're here,” said the man in white, allowing the scanner above the door to verify his retina and his palm print.

"I feel nervous,” said the man in gray, as the door slid into the wall long enough for them to pass through.

"It's a simple enough procedure."

"But he doesn't know who we are."

"So?"

"What if he's happy the way he is? What if we annoy him? What if he kills people for bothering him?"

"If he was in any condition to kill people, he wouldn't be here,” said the man in white. “Lights!"

The room was instantly bathed in a dim blue light.

"Can't you make it any brighter than this?” asked the man in gray.

"He hasn't opened his eyes in more than a century,” replied his companion. “The room will wait until it knows his pupils are adjusting before it gets any brighter.” He walked past a number of drawers built into the wall, checking their numbers, then came to a stop. “Drawer 10547."

A drawer slowly emerged from the wall, stretching to its full eight-foot length. The two men could barely make out the shape of a human body beneath the transluscent covering.

"Jefferson Nighthawk,” mused the man in gray. “
The
Jefferson Nighthawk.” He paused. “It's not what I expected."

"Oh?"

"I thought there's be all kinds of wires and tubes attached to him."

"Barbaric,” snorted the man in white. “There are three monitoring devices implanted in his body. That's all he needs."

"How does he breathe?"

"He's breathing right now."

The man in gray stared, trying to detect the tiniest sign of movement.

"I don't see anything."

"He's doing it so slowly that only the computer can tell. DeepSleep slows the metabolism down to a crawl; it doesn't
stop
it, or we'd be down here with thirty thousand corpses."

"So what do you do now?"

"I'm doing it,” said the man in white. He walked over to the drawer where the body lay, laid his hand over a scanner until it identified his fingerprints, then tapped in a code on a keyboard that suddenly extended from the scanner.

"How long will this take?"

"For you or me, probably a minute. For the people we've got down here, maybe four or five minutes."

"Why so long?"

"If they weren't dying, they wouldn't be here in the first place. In their weakened conditions, they take longer to respond to external stimuli.” The man in white looked up from the body. “More than one has died from the shock of being awakened."

"Will he...?"

"Not likely. His heart reads pretty close to normal, considering."

"Good."

"But if I were you, I'd brace myself for when he finally wakes up."

"You've already told me he won't die, and that he's too sick to pose a threat even if he wanted to, so what's the problem?"

"Have you ever seen a man in the advanced stages of
eplasia
?"

"No,” admitted the man in gray.

"They're not pretty. And that's an understatement."

They both fell silent as the body in front of them gradually began acquiring color. After two more minutes the transluscent top slid into the wall, revealing an emaciated man whose flesh was hideously disfigured by the ravages of a virulent skin disease. Patches of shining white cheekbone protruded through the flesh of the face, knuckles pierced the skin of the hands, and even where the skin remained intact it looked like there was some malignancy crawling across it and discoloring it.

The man in gray turned away in disgust, then forced himself to look back. He half expected the air to smell of rotting flesh, but it remained pure and filtered.

Finally the eyelids flickered, once, twice, and then, slowly, they opened, revealing light blue, almost colorless eyes. The diseased man remained motionless for a full minute, then frowned.

"Where did Acosta go?” he croaked at last.

"Who is Acosta?” asked the man in gray.

"My doctor. He was here just a minute ago."

"Ah,” said the man in white, smiling. “Dr. Acosta has been dead for more than eighty years. You yourself have been here for one hundred and seven years, Mr. Nighthawk."

Nighthawk looked confused. “One hundred and...?"

"And seven years. I am Dr. Gilbert Egan."

"What year is it?"

"5101 G. E,” said Egan. “May I help you sit up?"

"Yes."

Egan lifted the frail, skeletal figure until it was sitting erect. The moment he stopped supporting it, it collapsed onto its side.

"We'll try again when you're feeling a little stronger,” said Egan, adjusting Nighthawk so that no ravaged limbs flopped over the side. “You've been asleep a long time. How do you feel?"

"I'm starving,” said Nighthawk.

"Of course you are,” said Egan with a smile. “You've gone more than a century without a meal. Even with your metabolism slowed down a hundredfold, your stomach has probably been empty for a decade or more.” Egan attached a tube to Nighthawk's left arm. “Unfortunately, you're in no condition to eat, but this will supply your body with the nourishment it needs."

"I might as well get used to eating,” rasped Nighthawk, “now that I'm cured.” He paused. “A hundred and seven years. It sure as hell took you long enough."

Egan looked at the frail, diseased man with some compassion. “I am afraid that a cure for
eplasia
has not yet been developed."

Nighthawk turned and stared at the doctor. It was the kind of stare that made Egan happy that his patient was not armed and healthy.

"I left explicit instructions that I wasn't to be awakened until I was cured."

"Conditions have changed, Mr. Nighthawk,” said the man in gray, stepping forward.

"Who the hell are
you
?” demanded Nighthawk.

"My name is Marcus Dinnisen. I am your solicitor."

Nighthawk frowned. “My lawyer?"

Marcus Dinnisen nodded. “I am a senior partner in the firm of Hubbs, Wilkinson, Raith and Jiminez."

"Raith,” said Nighthawk, nodding vaguely. “He's my lawyer."

"Morris Raith joined the firm of Hubbs and Wilkinson three years before his death, in the year 5012. His great-grandson worked for us until his retirement last year."

"All right,” said Nighthawk. “You're my lawyer. Why did you feel I had to be awakened?"

"This is somewhat awkward to explain, Mr. Nighthawk,” began Dinnisen uneasily.

"Spit it out."

"At the time you elected to undergo DeepSleep, you turned your entire portfolio over to my firm."

"It wasn't a portfolio,” said Nighthawk. “It was six and a half million credits."

"Exactly so,” said Dinnisen. “We were instructed to invest it and to keep up the payments for this facility in perpetuity, or until a cure for your disease was developed."

"So it took you one hundred and seven years to lose all my money?"

"Absolutely not!” said Dinnisen heatedly. “Your money remains intact, and has been earning an average of 9.32% per annum for more than a century. I can supply you with all the figures if you wish to review them."

Nighthawk blinked his eyes, a puzzled expression on his grotesque face. “Then if I'm not broke and I'm not cured, what the hell is going on?"

"Your account has been earning slightly more than six hundred thousand credits a year,” explained Dinnisen. “Unfortunately, due to an inflationary spiral in the Deluros economy, this facility now charges a million credits a year. This makes for a shortfall of almost four hundred thousand credits per annum. We cannot make the payments with your dividends, and if we dip into capital, you will be destitute in a decade, and there is no guarantee that a cure for
eplasia
will be found by then."

"So you're telling me that I'm being thrown out of here?” asked Nighthawk.

"No."

"Well, then?"

"I require a decision from you,” responded Dinnisen, staring at the hideous countenance in fascination. “If anyone else could make it, I would never have awakened you until..."

"Until I was broke,” Nighthawk concluded wryly. “All right, go on."

"We—that is to say, your solicitors—have received a most unusual communication, one that may solve your financial problems and allow you to remain here until the cure for your disease has finally been found."

"I'm listening."

"Have you ever heard of Solio II?"

"It's a planet on the Inner Frontier. Why?"

"The governor of Solio II was assassinated six days ago."

"What's that got to do with me?"

"Simply this,” said Dinnisen. “Knowledge that the notorious Widowmaker was still alive has somehow reached the Frontier, and the planetary government of Solio II has offered you a bounty of seven million credits to hunt down the killer—half now, half when you succeed."

"Is this some kind of joke?” demanded Nighthawk. “I can't even sit up!"

Dinnisen turned to Egan. “Doctor, would you explain, please?"

Egan nodded. “While we have not yet effected a cure for your disease, Mr. Nighthawk, we
have
made progress on other fronts, especially in the field of bio-engineering. When the offer was tendered to Mr. Dinnisen, he came up with a proposal that is acceptable to the government of Solio II if it is acceptable to you."

"Bio-engineering?” repeated Nighthawk. “You're going to clone me?"

"With your permission."

"When I went into DeepSleep, I was told that I had no more than a month to live,” said Nighthawk. “How do you expect me to wait until the clone has grown to manhood? Or, if you're going to put me away and awaken me in another twenty or thirty years, what makes you think Solio will be willing to wait?"

"You don't understand, Mr. Nighthawk,” said Egan. “We no longer have to raise a clone from infancy to maturity. During the past quarter century, we have devised a method whereby we can create a clone of you at any age: sixty minutes or sixty years. We propose to create a 22-year-old Jefferson Nighthawk, a young version of yourself at the peak of your physical abilities."

"Will he have the disease?"

"If we took the cells from you today, the answer would be yes. But there is a museum on Binder X that has on display a knife with which you were stabbed when you were a young man. Do you recall the incident?"

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