Rita left the funeral early and took a cab to the airport. Rain mixed with snow swirled through streets almost devoid of traffic, but she would not have to put up with that sort of weather for long, perhaps never again. It did delay her, and she was barely in time for her flight. She ran, with her ski bag racing along behind her.
The security droid raised its eyebrows at the ski bag, although the scanners showed that it contained neither skis nor firearms. What it did contain was not forbidden, but it had to be sealed for stowage in the baggage compartment. She was the last passenger to board.
Normally Rita could put herself to sleep on planes even when she was forced to fly sardine class, and she had expected the funeral to provide some closure, but she found the week-long nightmare was not yet willing to release her. She tried reading up on Sungoback, but all she could see was Sarah's face. Sorrow and guilt haunted her all night, all the way across the Atlantic. She did start to nod as the plane crossed the Spanish coast, but then in no time it was preparing to land in Madrid.
She had a long layover to endure there. She bought light beige-colored shorts and tops, two of each, in the overpriced airport boutiques, and changed in the restroom of the Higher Flier Lounge, leaving her mourning dress and other discards in full view for the cleaner droids to remove. She ate, not because she wanted to, but because she knew she should.
Again she tried to read up on Sungoback. She ought to know all about it, for she had been born on Sungoback Night. As a child she had been endlessly teased about that. The great financial crash had been all her fault, the others had said. Her arrival had caused the planes and satellites to fall, the stock markets of the world to follow them down, and so on. Now she discovered that there were many things she did not know about it, but she was too tired to take it in.
Even on the flight to Casablanca, sleep eluded her. It was early morning when she landed in Morocco. The immigration officer was human, tall, dark, and sexy. He summed her up swiftly and correctly as an American business executive, mature but not over the hill, and undoubtedly very wealthy by his standards, but his smile vanished when he saw her one-way ticket.
"Purpose of visit?"
"Sungoback," she said.
"Madame is aware that her country has laws against travel to Sungoback?"
"But yours does not."
He stared at her for a few moments, then shrugged sadly and stamped her passport. He muttered, "Bonne Chance," as he returned it.
The customs official demanded to know what was in her ski bag, so she opened it for him. He frowned and said, "Sungoback?"
He disapproved. "You know the odds, madame?"
"You are going alone?"
"I'm hoping to meet my brother there." Which was true so far as it went.
He rolled his eyes at the craziness of Americans, but he let her through. She called the hotel she had booked to confirm that her room was ready, then fell asleep in the cab, which had to shout to waken her. After showering she put on fresh underwear, but the same outer garments she had bought in Madrid.
Even so, the mirror was reasonably reassuring. She was thirty now, no denying it, but well preserved, and a natural blonde. She had avoided the surgeon's knife so far, and wrinkles were currently the least of her problems. Although she had been starved of sleep for over a week now and was already feeling jet lag, she must waste no time. Malcolm had a ten-day start, which she was determined to make up.
She suspected that Free Time itself owned the hotel, for its office was only two blocks away, so she walked along the bustling sidewalk with her ski bag following at her heels like the periscope of some subterranean submarine. The gaudy loose clothing, the sharp smells of spices, the unfamiliar jabber of tongues—all were bewildering. She was no novice travellor, but her experience of foreign cities was fancy hotels, hasty interviews in office towers, and airports, airports, airports. This swimming through noisy crowds was utterly alien to her.
She came at last to a five-story office block. The entrance reeked of money. A holographic directory board in six or seven languages listed Free Time as being on the top floor, but there was no elevator, which she guessed was a deliberate test of applicants' physical fitness. She hoisted the ski bag on her shoulder and ran up the stairs. She waited at the top to catch her breath, which did not take long, for she had kept in trim: tThe fancy hotels had always provided gyms Comment .
The door was opaque, with the company name in English, French, Spanish, and Arabic squiggles. No doubt English was placed first because the company specialized in English-speaking clients. There were hundreds of companies in Africa willing to promise safe trips into Sungoback and back; but safety was a relative term, and back even more so.
Rita went in—and almost reversed right out again, repelled by a steamy stink of sweat, ordure, bad meat, and exotic cooking. She was in a rank and derelict hut, whose single window overlooked a junkyard and more tumbledown shanties beyond it, but the pane was fortunately so grimy and obscured by thorns and thistles as to be almost opaque. Comment Comment The only furniture was a pair of battered wooden chairs, each with its own view screen Comment Comment , both badly balanced on a sagging plank floor. The only decoration was a potpourri of squashed mosquitoes and dead cockroaches Comment . Those were definitely overkill.
A small, brownish man leered at her from one of the chairs. He was bare-chested, white-haired, and ugly, and his teeth were few and yellow. He was a sagging grease blob, with a wrinkle count suggesting he was well into his sixties. Repellent, in short. In the dim light it was impossible to tell if he was human or droid.
"Good morning, pretty lady! How may we please you?"
As a reception area, this would drive Heather insane; Wrightaway Inc. placed much emphasis on first impressions. Rita's briefing had warned her that Free Time did, too, in its way. She just wasn't prepared for anything so extreme.
"You could start by excusing this disgusting decor."
He leered again. "You no like? You go away."
"I thought that might be it." Rita scowled at the second chair, wondering how much of the dirt would soil her shorts. She sat down anyway. "I want to go to Sungoback."
"Is only reason anyone come here. First you must most carefully read the waiver form." He indicated the screen beside Rita, which now bore a forbiddingly dense text.
Rita liked the look of the form even less than she liked the surroundings. "I'll have to read the contract first," she said.
"No contract. We do not sign anything. You do. The waiver must come first."
"You expect me to give you a sizable fortune with no legal protection whatsoever?" She already knew the answer.
"You are protected by our worldwide reputation." He smirked.
"Am I? Your reputation is that you kill four fifths of your clients. Why does a huge multinational corporation like yours try to drive away potential customers with a toxic dumpster for an office?"
He showed nasty brown teeth in a smile. "Questions later, please. When you have read each page most carefully, sign it with your name and the last five digits of your UP code."
"I am not required to give more than four digits for adequate identification in any civil transaction."
The little man sighed. "American law, is that? I suggest, Rita, that you apply to one of our competitors. Free Time Inc. makes no exceptions to its rules."
This hectoring went beyond any business technique she had ever heard of. It was almost laughable. In any normal transaction she and her ski bag would be out in the street already, but her present urgency to find Malcolm overrode everything. "How do you know my name?"
Of course either the airline or someone in the airport had told him. It would be easy enough to pinpoint travellers entering the country on one-way tickets from English-speaking countries—all of which forbade their citizens to visit Sungoback. Her motorized ski bag would have made her conspicuous. She wondered if Magic Worlds would be more welcoming, but Free Time had a better reputation than Magic Worlds, and the knowledge of her name did indicate efficiency.
"I will sign your form if you will tell me one thing. I am looking for my brother, Malcolm Ravenscroft. I know he came to see you ten days ago. Did he go on to Sungoback?"
The gnome shrugged expressively, showing both palms. "Confidentiality does not allow answer."
The lights went out, including the view screens and the supposed sunlight beyond the grimy window.
"Ach! Power outage. We get those a lot. It may not last too long."
ita could hear air conditioning running, and very faint street noises, which had not changed to indicate that traffic lights had failed.
"Doesn't it harm the computers?" she asked. "How about your recording devices?"
"Is a pleasure to do business with you, Ms. Wright. How badly do you want to know about Malcolm Laville Ravenscroft?"
"You mean how much am I willing to pay you to give me an answer that I will have no means of confirming or disproving?"
"Correct. I could show you pictures when the power comes back on, but pictures can be faked. Give me a few minutes and I will show you him paddling a kayak on Lake Baikal and reading today's grocery flier."
"In cash, of course? All I have on me is four thousand unions."
"But think of all my poor children! All my wives!" The nasty little slug was enjoying himself, and so, in a perverted way, was she. The set-up was so disgusting it was funny. She didn't care about money. She just wanted Malcolm.
"If that is all you can afford, pretty lady."
She reached in her purse, fumbled out five one-thousand uni coins, and held them out. That ought to feed all his children for a week, assuming he had about six hundred of them. The money was removed from her palm and a second later the lights came on. Either he—it—either it was a droid with infrared vision or he must have some special gadget that let him perform that specific trick: a handheld metal detector, perhaps? Free Time was good at extracting payment, but was it as efficient in delivering the services it promised?
"Your brother did check in here on the tenth. Nice, well-spoken gentleman, as I recall, if somewhat on the chubby side for his age. In much of a hurry, he was. He signed the waiver and departed for Xanadu, which is our establishment on the border of Sungoback."
She knew most of that already, because the money had gone from a company bank account that Malcolm should not have been able to access. The detectives had lost track of him right here in this office.
"And where is he now?"
"Who knows? He crossed into Sungoback yesterday morning."
Damn! If she believed that, then Malcolm had actually gone through with it. She was surprised.
The nasty little man's nasty little fingers fiddled with his view screen, which Rita could not see. "The next adventure group is still being assembled, but is filling up quite fast. We provide four days' orientation, you know."
Even if she skipped the orientation part—and what use was orientation in Sungoback?—she would still be at least two days behind Malcolm. But two was a lot better than ten. She pulled her screen around to her lap and scrawled "Rita-73451" with her finger on the bottom of the page; the words appeared on the signature line. She flicked for the next page to come up. It didn't. She had no doubts that this interview was being filmed, which was why the fake power outage had been staged to hide the bribery.
"You must read it, Rita."
"I retrieved it from the infoglobe. I read every word of it very carefully," she lied. "It seems to cover everything imaginable. I must consent to being gang raped, barbecued alive, and served on toast for appetizers."
"Such is our intention. Very well, on that understanding, proceed. On the last page you must also fill in your reason for wishing to journey into the Warp."
"That is my business."
"Is also ours. No exceptions."
Although she had heard about this treatment and expected it, she was finding it absurdly hard not lose her temper. The second page did appear, and all the others to the final, the eleventh, page where she filled in her Reason for Visit with "Search for missing relative." The display vanished.
"And next the first instalment of the fee, which is, as I am sure you know, non-refundable."
"First tell me why Free Time's reception room is a midden and you are such a horrid little asshole."
He—or it—smiled to show gutter teeth again. "Many of our clients, Rita, suffer a failure of nerve at the last moment and turn back instead of entering Sungoback. That is bad publicity for us. Others simply want a vacation in the world's most luxurious resort. Both types waste our time and resources, so our fees are both excessive and non-refundable. If these surroundings oppress you, then I assure you that conditions in Sungoback will be much, much worse. I suggest you forget it and leave now."
She was tempted. There were other people-smugglers who would charge a lot less, but Sungoback was enormous and she needed to enter through Free Time's own access point to have any chance of catching up with Malcolm. Magic Worlds' establishment was the closest to Free Time's, but even that was more than twenty miles away.
"Or is it just that what you do is illegal and you have to cover yourselves against accusations of soliciting?"
"Clever girl! This is a test of dedication. No one can ever accuse us of encouraging people to use the services we provide. We try always to discourage. Your own government has laws forbidding its citizens to deal with us, so you, too, are acting in a criminal fashion. I warn you now, although I am not supposed to, that as soon as you have paid the first instalment of the fee, you must undergo a detailed identity inspection, including finger prints, retina pattern, dental X-rays, and DNA sample."
"What on earth for? Isn't my money enough?"
"Of course not. This information will be fed into the infoglobe. If you are named in a warrant issued by any authority in the world, then you will be arrested, deported, and lose your deposit." He chuckled.
But the briefing she had struggled to read on the plane had warned her that this was one way Free Time and others like it managed to survive the international outrage against the death toll among their clients. They were merchants of death, but they were also flypaper for criminals on the run. Interpol and others like it relied on Free Time to catch the big ones.
“Do you manage to collect often?"
"More often than you would think, Rita. Crooks are stupid, by and large. Often we can claim rewards as well. Although the take does not provide a major portion of our revenues, it is still a substantial amount. The deposit, if you please."
She connected to the infoglobe and transferred U100,000 to Free Time Inc. The little man nodded in satisfaction as the deposit registered.
"Thank you. Rita, I am required to ask you now if you understand that eight out of every ten of our clients to enter Sungoback never return?"
"Eighty-two point five percent."
"Quite. Most of them are certainly dead, so your chances of tracking down your brother are infinitesimal. That completes the formalities. If you would be so kind as to step through that door there, the identity inspectors will process you through the next stage.
He rose and offered a hand with black-rimmed nails.
Rita ignored it and departed, closely followed by her ski bag.
The clinic on the other side of the door was starkly hygienic and impeccably professional, a contrast so great that it could have been located on another star. No dust or germ had ever set foot near these white-plastic machines.
The woman who advanced to meet her was young and lovely, and might have just escaped from some fashion magazine, had she not been wearing medical white. Her smile and handshake were both convincing—meaning well taught and well practiced—but no amount of skill could stop Rita believing that she was a player on a stage set, processing clients like a machine skinning chickens.
Droids were not allowed to have eyes as human as those.
"Rita! Welcome to Free Time Inc. I am Sharmila. I am required to run a few medical tests on you, and also to vaccinate you against some African diseases. It will only take a minute. If you would be so good as to come this way?"
Rita had no choice if she wanted to get anything back for the fortune she had just handed over, so she submitted to a series of jabs and ray scans. They took longer than a minute, but not much longer.
After that, Sharmila led her to the next door and along a corridor of many doors to exactly the sort of grandiose executive corner office one would expect to find in a multi-trillion dollar corporation. One window wall looked out on the Atlas Mountains, and the other down on the blue Atlantic, but the views were undoubtedly projections. The decor emphasized the current "soft" look, which Rita detested, with the walls cushioned, and everything toned in rose and chartreuse, today's "modish" colors. The carpet needed mowing. Nothing as mundane as a desk was in sight anywhere, only seductive chairs and arty coffee tables. Nothing hinted at anything as indelicate as work, not a single screen. All communication would be by neural resonance.
"Do sit down, Rita, please. I am required to make one last attempt to talk you out of this while we wait for the lab results. Can I offer you something? Coffee? Tea?"
Rita sank into a chair. The ski bag took up position beside it like a bodyguard.
Sharmila smiled at it, balanced on its single wheel and taller than she was. "You surely don't expect to find a ski resort in Sungoback?"
"I expect to find much stranger things. No refreshment, thanks."
"But bows and arrows? You're an archer?"
"I used to be. I realize that the steel and fibreglass bows won't survive very long where I am going, but the yew and braided horsehair one should."
"Zone Seven or Eight." Sharmila flashed the professional smile again. "But if you're skilled enough, it may keep you in food until you get that far. You do realize that you can't just walk into Sungoback, take a photo or two, then walk out again? Or at least you can't count on walking out again. Some people have done it."
"Yes. But my brother's idea of exercise is strenuously mixing martinis while watching a football game from the living room couch. He won't go very far in. He's not a natural outdoor type at all."
"And you are? Being vice-president of a company with several hundred thousand employees doesn't sound like a rugged mountain-man type of existence."
How much of this must Rita put up with? "You'd be surprised. I'm a very keen bird-watcher. Any time I can grab a day or two away from my job, I head out to the nearest place with rocks, trees, and as few people as possible. I've photographed birds on every continent except Antarctica, more than four thousand species."
"They all wear black and white down there," Sharmila said, expertly backing off a sensitive topic.
"I'm quite sure Malcolm is planning to enter the outermost zone and walk around the edge until he can emerge somewhere else, like the Magic Worlds resort, for instance. I know that plans don't always work in Sungoback; I'm not sure that he knows that."
The chair was seductively soft, and the atmosphere as relaxing as a whiff of oxytocin, which it might well contain.
Sitting opposite, Sharmila smiled as she had been taught. "I'm sorry about Diego, the man you met earlier. He does tend to be a little too conscientious."
"He is human, then?"
"Oh, yes. He loves his work. We must be careful, you know. We must make sure that all our clients are sincerely motivated. Obviously you are, but I am curious to know why you are going there."
"I am looking for my brother."
Sharmila shook her head without disturbing one hair of her expensive coiffure. "You don't register as the type to throw your life away. Is he feeble minded? How old is he?"
"He is older than I am."
"You are a levelheaded, calculating type, so what is the real reason?"
Enjoying the sensuous chair, but tired in general and especially tired of being questioned, Rita said, "I know you lose four-fifths of those who go in. Tell me what you do with the ones who come out."
This time the smile was a little thinner. "Rush them to hospital. And the medics there will usually turn them over to the shrinks, or send them home if they're still functioning. Your chance of finding your Malcolm are very remote, you know. Even if he were blazing a trail for you, the rules are so different in Sungoback that you would be unlikely to find him. People can step around a tree and disappear. But if you don't want to tell, then that is your right."
Rita suddenly yawned, then apologized.
"No offense. I see jet lag every day. You were born in the Community Hospital in.... Of course! I could have guessed that from your accent. You are thirty years old, passing for twenty-six. Convincingly, if you'll pardon my saying so."
The harpy didn't use a screen, or a crystal ball, she was reading all this by neuron resonance.
"Not a virgin, but never borne children. Your parents are listed as.... Oh, that Lewis Wright? We detect several patches in your DNA, all of them types used a century or so back. Modern geneticists would want to replace some of those, especially the anti-peanut-allergy fix. The new ones are much safer. No upgrades detected—that so-striking Nordic hair that you inherited from your mother is genuine wild stock."
"What do you do about the visitors who come out who are not your clients?"
"I've no idea. I wouldn't be surprised if we just turn them over to the Malian immigration authorities, but I'm only guessing. Is your visit actually professional, then?"
Rita said, "We've all heard claims of visitors who come back years after they went in, looking no older. Have you ever had any come out before Comment they went in?"
Sharmila laughed, but for a moment a hairline crack in her facade exposed the mindless boredom inside. At least that confirmed that she was human, and not an illegally disguised droid. Rita could almost feel sorry for her, playing the role of millions-a-year power broker in this office, but doing the same menial job day in and day out.
"Rita, Rita! You've been plugging into kids' vids too much. No, we don't, and neither does anyone else. All those impossible claims fall apart when they're properly investigated. We've had some people who were gone a week, believed it was only two days, and had aged ten years."
"I know some people who have looked into those stories and are convinced that some of them are genuine. What do you really think?"
"What I think doesn't matter. Ah, you will be pleased—but I hope not surprised—to hear that almost one hundred governments have now checked your identity against their wanted lists and reported that you are not a match. They are now trying to decide whether you could be an agent of any of the other governments. That takes a little longer, of course."
Rita's eyelids were growing heavier by the second. The chair was doing it. "Why in the world would any government want to send an agent into Sungoback, except perhaps to get rid of her?'
"Don't expect me to know why any government does anything," Sharmila said cheerfully.
Rita yawned again. "There are theories that anyone who can reach the center of Sungoback will be able to control the world. I suppose governments might believe that."
"Most governments never believe anything, dear, because nobody ever tells them the truth. There are other people who believe that time stops altogether at the center of Sungoback, so you can live there for ever. Why anyone would want to live even a minute in the conditions that must prevail there is completely beyond me. No claim of meeting dinosaurs has ever convinced the paleontologists. Your bank account shows a balance just adequate to cover the balance of our fee, but almost all of it was deposited yesterday. Who is backing you—the Wright family fortune?"
"Talking of fees, Sharmila, tell me how Free Time justifies charging such outrageous amounts for so little service."
"Ah, you sound like a journalist. Since I know you aren't, I will admit that most of it goes in bribes. Mali is a poor country, bound by UN resolution to keep people away from suicidal attractions like Sungoback, but this is Africa. Our fees are more reasonable than our competitors', considering the quality of service we provide, but most of that money goes to various levels of government."
"You mean ministers' palaces and mistresses?"
"Or yachts and joy boys. You are obviously not going to listen to reason and your clearance has just come through. I assume that the extraordinary bag is your luggage and you wish to get to work immediately?"
"I wish to begin my search as soon as possible, yes."
"And I cannot possibly talk you out of it?"
Despite her weariness, Rita controlled her temper. "Even when I was a child, Sharmila, people said that my middle name ought to be Always—Rita Always Wright. Understand? I do not blow five hundred big ones and then change my mind."
"Then the balance of the fee, if you please."
Rita connected to the infoglobe, and transferred another U400,000.
A brief pause before Sharmila said, "Thank-you." Then another.... "We have a private plane ready to take you to Timbuktu."
"Fine." No—wonderful! Suddenly a great load seemed to slide off Rita's shoulders, an avalanche of worry. She had done it, gone through with it, rolled the dice. She was actually on her way to Sungoback. At last she knew that she was on Malcolm's trail, although not hot on it. From now on there would be no decisions to face, hurdles to leap. Other than staying alive, of course, and for that she must rely on instincts.
"You will be met by...." A head-and-shoulders image of a dark-complexioned young man appeared in front of Rita. "This is Sven."
He smiled down at her. "Hi, Rita."
He vanished again.
Sharmila stood up and sighed. "I hate this part, truly I do. Eighty percent of the people I meet here are going to their deaths. I often think that all our clients are insane."
Rita rose also. "Or everybody else is. Thanks for your help. I really am looking for someone, you know."
"Then I hope you find him. Er, Rita? May I whisper a word of advice? Off the record, strictly from me?"
"Of course." Rita was surprised to realize that she almost believed the offer.
"We send clients out in parties of ten or twelve, and there are always more men than women. Choose a partner before you leave—preferably the biggest one, who can keep the others away. Brawn before charm."
"Thank you. I'll look over the beef cake parade carefully." When Rita had sworn to go after Malcolm, she had known the job would be rough, and very possibly fatal. She had not thought to include prostitution in her calculations, but even that would not be too high a price to pay.