" Dave Duncan writes rollicking adventure novels filled with subtle characterization and made bitter-sweet by an underlying darkness. Without striving for grand effects or momentous meetings between genres, he has produced one excellent book after another." - Locus
Cainsville, April 6
THERE SEEMED TO be a window in the wall opposite the door, looking out at the landscape beyond the dome. From time to time Wilkins would pause in his restless pacing to stare at that view and shudder. There was no life out there, only gaunt gray granite, forged by ancient fires, clawed into hills by old ice sheets, and cauterized by deadly radiation.
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Even the misty rain blowing out there was poison. If the Institute‘s planetologists stumbled on a terrain like that anywhere else in the universe, they would slap a Class Four label on it without a second‘s hesitation and go off to find a more interesting world.
It was not a Class Four world, though, and had not always been quite so barren. The poison rain was a soup of industrial by-products, still falling from their long sojourn in the upper atmosphere. It was so murderously potent on those siliceous hills that even the little gunmetal lakes held no life anymore. The radiation was merely the normal ultraviolet of sunlight, because in these northerly latitudes the ozone layer was too thin to filter it out. And the window was not a window. In fact, Wilkins‘s cramped quarters were buried deep in the innards of Burton Dome, a long way from that stark exterior.
He was not quite sure why he had called up that view--possibly because it suited his evil mood, or possibly as a reminder that there was no escape overland from Cainsville. There would be no pursuit, and no rescue. A fugitive could safely be left alone to wander among those tangled crags until he froze, or starved. Certainly he would not live long enough to die of the carcinogenic sunlight.
There was no airport, either, only the lev station, which Security watched always, as a matter of course. If anything went wrong, he would be hopelessly trapped.
There were other ways out of Cainsville, but they led to places far, far worse than even that accursed rocky desert outside.
He had been pacing for a long time, much too long for a man who took no exercise. Wilkins J. S.--short and swarthy, born in 2027 and already going bald. Dr. Wilkins, employed by the Institute as a camera-repair technician. Wilkins Jules Smuts, potential traitor.
Without warning his legs began to tremble. He slumped into his chair and scowled at the seeming window. Well--why not? In truth, he had known for some time what his decision was going to be.
The comset became a sheet of blank plastic and said, "Proceed."
Damp-fingered, Wilkins pulled from his pocket a tiny scrap of paper, a secret he had been hoarding for almost two years. It had been slipped into his hand at a party, with a nod and a wink and a chunk of credit to establish goodwill, plus promises of much greater joy if he ever used it in a good cause. He cleared his throat and began to read.
"Code Caesar Columbus Dimanche Einfeuchten..." Thirty-two words in all. His voice quavered by the end, for even to possess an illicit override code was a felony in Cainsville. To use one was worse than a crime--it was a blatant challenge to the deadliest security system on earth.
"Code acknowledged. Confirm activation."
It worked! Some small part of him had perhaps been hoping that it would not ... For a moment yet he hesitated, savoring a strange tingling seeping through him, a blend of fear and excitement. It reminded him of the real reason he was taking this risk--Wilkins Jules had a plugin habit, which was becoming very expensive. It had reached the point where his weekly pay transfer would barely cover both food and plugin. Soon he would have to choose between them, and his choice could never be food.
"Confirm activation," System repeated, impatient of human indecision.
"Activate." There--he had done it!
"Please wait." System began to play music at him, which he hated, and the gray plastic again became a window, now overlooking a somber view of water lilies floating on a tree-shadowed pool. To Wilkins Jules such a scene was irrelevant at best, and unattractive anyway. He fretted.
There was no reason why he should not make a call to the outside world--except that he almost never did. Everyone else did, often, but not him. Security called that "pattern breaking," and System watched for it. And if the override code itself had triggered alarms, then the call would certainly be either blocked or monitored. The illicit code and the record coin in his other pocket--either would make him a dead man. Nowhere in the world could a body be disposed of as easily as in Cainsville. Nowhere in the world.
One tune ended and another began. Why so long? He might very well have fallen into a trap. If this was all a fake, a loyalty test that he had now most certainly failed, then the goons were lining up outside the door already. The tingling had faded into an unpleasant full-bladder sensation. He always tended to sweat too much, and at the moment was dribbling like a marathon runner.
Dead man--or rich man?
He had never known a call to take this long. He must be getting through to someone very high up ... high up in something.
Then he blinked at sudden brightness, seeing through the comset into a sunlit office. The desk was shiny and empty. If that were real wood, it had cost more money than he would earn in two years. The woman across from him was being masked. She wore an outfit of hard metallic blue, but that was all he could tell. Her face was an anonymous blur, although the rest of the room was as sharp as though he were sitting in it. Whoever her employers were, they could afford a first-class System.
"Report!" Probably her voice was disguised also.
He squirmed like a hooked worm. One-sided! He should have put a bag over his head or something. "You don‘t need to know my name..."
The woman drummed a hard fog of fingers on the wood. "I already know your name. I even know you have less than forty hectos left in the bank. Thirty-eight to be exact."
Wilkins‘s heart lurched. He had not expected the bargaining to start so soon.
"Now report," she repeated. "It had better be good."
He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out the coin. "I have evidence."
She seemed to shrug. "Evidence of what?" But he heard a trace more interest in that anonymous voice.
"They lost a team!"
"It happens. How many?"
She waved a vague hand. "People get buttered over the tarmac outside this office all the time, and it‘s a poor week we don‘t drown a few million somewhere. Losing them on other worlds is a little more exotic, but not much. A hundred hectos."
She must know he would not have risked using the code unless he had more to offer than that. "One of them was an outsider--a mycologist from Moscow."
"Expert in funguses. Fungi. They‘d been overnighting--but this wasn‘t just a broken string. The skiv‘s back."
"Better," she admitted. "Two hundred. More if you‘ve got some good damage pictures."
"No damage at all," Wilkins said, starting to enjoy himself at last. "The skiv‘s untouched. Two dead men, and the woman‘s missing."
That got her. He heard a hiss of breath. "Tell me about the woman."
"Name of Gill Adele. Staff ecologist."
"Age? Looks? Got pix of her?"
He shook his head. "Middle twenties. Said to be a looker."
"Pity. Any chance she‘s still alive?"
Wilkins laughed. "Not a chance in hell--and that‘s apt, for sure. Class Three world, code name ‘Nile.‘ About two hundred Celsius and over half a bar of CO ... and she forgot to take her helmet."
The woman was silent for a minute, then admitted, "Okay! That‘s a story. She didn‘t just go fishin‘ on a Class Three. Tell me more."
"Lots of credit."
The blur nodded. "Lots of credit."
Wilkins shivered with deep-down joy. And she still had not heard the best of it! "It happened yesterday. They opened the window; got no response. So they brought the skiv back on remote control. There was a hell of a panic. The window was short, and they had no backup team standing by. Real incompetence, all shouting and no action. There‘s plenty of dirt here if you want to use it. Next window‘s not till the ninth."
The woman leaned forward. Even through the flickering, indistinct masking, her eagerness was showing. "How good‘s your clip?"
"Very good. One of the dome cameras malfunctioned. It got sent in for repairs right away. They thought it was the recording, but it was the playback. The recording was fine." He held up the coin again, to tantalize her a little.
"Any confirmation? I don‘t put it past the old hag to fake something like this."
Again Wilkins shivered, but this time for other reasons. He had wondered the same. This was so stupendously good--too good to be true, really, for a man with an expensive habit. "Not much ... I think there‘s more tension about than usual. Nothing you can use. But I don‘t think even Hubbard would fake the rest of it."
"The great Devlin shouting his head off? Almost having hysterics."
"Mmm. What‘d the two men die of?"
"Head wounds." Let her suck on that!
"Head wounds? The woman killed them?"
Now came the moment he had been dreaming of. "Maybe. But there was a weapon, too."
"What sort of weapon?"
He played his ace, the trump he had been holding back. "A stone hand ax."
"No! I don‘t believe you!"
He held up the coin without a word.
"Sentience? After all this time?"
Wilkins‘s voice became shrill with excitement. He wanted to reach into the com and thump his fist on that opulent wooden desk. "Two men clubbed to death, a woman missing, the skiv intact, blood on the floor, and a stone ax--also with blood on it! Now, do I have a story?"
"Oh, do you have a story!" the woman said. "Oh, brother, do I have a story!" She sounded awed.
"First Contact!" Wilkins was gloating. "Men killed, woman abducted. Eyewitness record. Exclusive story ... rich man?"
"You are a very rich man," she agreed.
Plugin! Lots of lovely plugin! Wilkins could feel his groin starting to glow already.