II / DEVELOPMENT
Saturday, Halgary 20th
13. Sir Miles Dunstan Assaults A Piano
"...but are expected to improve," said the holovision newsreader. She looked squarely at another camera, projecting seriousness mingled with a certain intimacy. "A large group of terrorists attacked a Refuse Reclamation Centre in Mirbank last night. The centre and many of the neighbouring buildings suffered extensive damage following a massive explosion in the incinerator plant. For an on-the-spot report, over now to Martin Ellston in Mirbank."
The newsreader's serious expression dissolved into a scene of destruction as seen from the air. After an abrupt jolt, the aerial camera settled on a brick wall to show the viewers its collapse in full three-dimensional colour.
"...dead and nine injured." As usual, the voice-over began in the middle of a sentence. "Several terrorist groups have claimed responsibility for the attack, but police sources are discounting all such claims as attempts to gain notoriety by association. Units of the local Special Service Troop were on the scene within minutes of the alarm being raised, but were unable to prevent the explosion that demolished the heart of the reclamation centre.
"A police spokesman said that the attack was pressed home rapidly and with great determination. A number of simultaneous diversion calls split the police forces in the vital early states. It is thought that the bulk of the raiders were so-called NeoKirlans, but the pattern of the raid suggested the involvement of a certain political fringe group."
"If he means the bockan PSF, why doesn't he say so?" demanded Sir Miles Dunstan, the Refuse Baron victim of the outrage. He snatched his shoulder-length blond wig from his bald dome and threw it into the air. It landed on his wife's breakfast news sheet. She threw the wig straight back.
"The Terrorist Information Act, Miles," she told her husband patiently. "They're not allowed to encourage extremists with publicity. And there's no need to take it out on me."
"You're handy," snapped Dunstan furiously. "Sorry."
"...Dunstan of Dunstan Disposal had no comment to make," continued the reporter. "It is thought that the Refuse Barons are planning a massive up-grading of security at their reclamation centres. In anticipation of this, firms such as the Security Advisory Corporation and General Security are expected to improve on their gains of Friday when the stock market reopens on Monday.
"This is the most destructive of a series of recent attacks on Refuse Reclamation Centres. In a statement made at his home, the Prime Minister, Gordon Bennet, repeated his earlier assurance that the government is seriously concerned about these attacks, which strike at the heart of the economy. He does not, however, consider the situation serious enough to warrant government action. ‘There are far too many people prepared to overstate our difficulties,' he said. ‘The country is not on the brink of disaster, and we will not be panicked into hasty action.' A parliamentary select committee is to be set up to study the whole problem of violence against industry as a form of political protest."
"And a fat lot of good that's going to do anyone," snarled Dunstan. "This Bennet idiot will have to go."
"He's got so much Union backing, it'd take a bomb to shift him," observed his wife.
The scene on the holovision set changed to a section of elevated expressway. A broken guard rail filled the screen, then the camera dived beyond it to a column of smoke rising from a crumpled, blackened heap of scrap metal. There was no way of telling what the object had been.
Sir Miles Dunstan gouged at the off panel of the controller savagely. "I feel like breaking something. What is there?"
"There's always that dreadful piano Julia wished on us," suggested his wife.
"Bockan good idea!"
The Refuse Baron jammed his blond wig on like a hat and strode across the room to a cabinet full of implements of destruction. He selected a double-headed axe and a mace and chain. A grapefruit-sized steel ball studded with wicked spikes hung from the chain. Lady Jean Dunstan continued to scan her morning news sheet. An absent smile drifted onto her delicately-lined face when the sounds of pianolic destruction and wild cries reached the breakfast room.
After a few minutes, she set the news sheet aside and located the holovision controller. The screen shimmered into life in the middle of an account of an attack on a Refuse Reclamation Centre at Sulport in the south-west. Three cars fitted with two-inch light mortars had sprayed the centre with smoke bombs and a token sprinkling of high explosive. All three carloads of terrorists had escaped after causing severe disruption and very little damage.
At the end of the report, Lady Jean switched the set to its communication function. She keyed the number of their doctor. Her husband could not be restrained when he was in one of his destructive moods. Lady Jean saw it as her duty to have the family physician standing by in case Miles overtaxed himself. Smashing pianos was not a particularly suitable hobby for a seventy-year-old.
14. Sovershend And Sandy Make Plans
As his watch was slithering towards the hour of thirteen. Devrel Sovershend was keying out a number on his videolink. He wanted to tell Sandy that he was prepared to do business. The white ‘calling' disc pulsed for over a minute.
At last, the screen swirled into a picture. Sandy's name described his hair, which was abundant, unkempt and flattened on the right side. He looked every one of his fifty years – and a few more besides. Most of his bedroom was lost in semi-darkness, yet his eyes were screwed to slits. A comical expression of misery drooped his mouth. He was alone in the disorder of a double bed, the lower part of his legs covered by a dark, shiny sheet, the rest of him encased in a rich purple sleepsuit.
"Sorry to drag you out of your coffin so early in the afternoon," grinned Sovershend. "But I think we have some business to discuss."
Sandy groaned and kicked his feet free of the sheet, struggling to get his brain working. From the angle of view, Sovershend judged that the videolink was mounted on a bedside cabinet. Exhausted by his brief exertion, Sandy lay back and closed his eyes. "Meet me here in an hour," he managed. Then he gave an address in Iston, the district to the north of the city centre.
"Make sure you tell your building's security to expect me," Sovershend warned, not trusting Sandy to think of this basic precaution himself.
"Right, right. Just get here on time." Sandy broke the connection with evident relief.
"I don't know what the older generation's coming to," Sovershend told the vid screen. His reflection in the newly formed mirror seemed to agree with the sentiment.
The roads were crowded with Saturday shoppers and delivery vehicles when Sovershend set a north-easterly course. Thanks to the twin ‘blessings' of the cyclo-charged engine with its high fuel economy and the Clinton Process, which offered the immediate prospect of manufacturing petrol from humble weeds, private motorists were facing the future with greater optimism.
Doom and gloom merchants continued to make bleak forecasts about the levels of oil reserves under the Inland Sea, but encouraging survey reports from the western approaches to southern Camerland had restored a few smiles. And the ‘petrol plants' for industrial-scale trials of the Clinton process could be seen growing almost visibly from early spring to late autumn in most of the national parks.
An increasing burden of legislation in favour of heavily-subsidised public transport had failed to relieve congestion on the streets of larger towns and cities. The basic unreliability of strike-prone public transport, coupled with a growing mood of individual independence, had kept private cars on the roads, especially in the capital. The reckless parker was a perennial problem.
As usual, the Traffic police were hard at work. Commonly knows as Wasps after the yellow band on their police blue riot helmets, they were to be seen on all the main roads, collecting spot fines from outraged motorists and applying to the wheels of unattended and illegally parked vehicles their massive, cast iron clamps, which were known as Robbin Boots after the Minister of Transport who had introduced them.
Crawling along at an occasional 20 mph, but often slower, Sovershend noticed the odd inert figure lying tidily at the edge of the pavement, awaiting collection and revival. Some people would never learn that it was futile to attack a Wasp who pounced on thoughtless or illegal parking. But a Boult riot gun merely delivered a stunning nerve shock, which rendered an assailant non-violent for about one hour. And at least one survey had arrived at the conclusion that some people derived a strange satisfaction from the non-lethal death-encounter of being shot by a riot gun.
It took Sovershend a good twenty minutes to cover just over four miles. After an interminable wait, he managed to turn right across the road and approach his destination. He entered a brightly-lit cavern at the side of an apartment block. A series of blinking green lights guided him down a ramp and into a three-sided concrete pen. He locked his sleeve gun in the dashboard as a pair of beefy security guards approached. They checked him over with a weapons detector, and ran an explosives snooper over the car, maintaining what was intended to be an intimidating silence.
"All right," grunted the larger of the guards with an air of disappointment. "He's clear."
The other guard returned Sovershend's identity card, maintaining his strong silence. Satisfied that Sovershend had business in the building, he escorted the visitor to the lift. The building's security computer began to keep track of another source of infra-red radiation, adding to its store of constantly up-dated information on human numbers and locations for use during an emergency, such as a fire.
Sandy was looking almost human when he dismissed the escort and let Sovershend into his flat complex. He had exchanged his sleepsuit for a safari blue pullover and a pair of loose, chalk-stripe trousers. His bare feet were thrust into light sandals.
The miracles of modern medicine, thought Sovershend. Svey joget! He paused at the end of the short entrance hall. What an addle! It's like a junk shop after a gas explosion.
The apartment's living area looked as though it had been hit by a 'lenster convention. Judging from the state of the furniture, the 'lensters had brought a car crusher with them. And there was something odd about the room. Sovershend realized that the furniture had been moved from the centre to provide space, and placed in such a way as to frustrate its normal use. A dining chair stacked on top of an armchair obscured the videolink. There was another of the dining set standing in front of a cupboard, reversed to prevent anyone sitting from on it and hiding the door handle. An armchair pushed right up against a holowindow sported a bright red plastic helmet.
Someone, Sovershend decided, had been mixing booze and travel greens, and then tuning in to an emotive image pattern tapped from the holowindow.
Sandy dismissed the state of the room with an inclusive wave. "Had a bit of a party last night. Still, not much damage done."
"No more than a lot," agreed Sovershend, finding himself with an unexpected view of the kitchen.
"Party games. They sometimes get a bit out of hand," said Sandy, explaining away the neat circular hole in the wall.
Rather your place than mine, thought Sovershend. He picked up a glass from a tray on the cocktail cabinet to sample the fortbeer dripping from a leaky barrel into a huge silver ice bucket. Sandy found a packet of Heitainan cigars among a heap of wrapping papers and empty cans.
"You have news for me?" he prompted, offering the cigars.
"Right," nodded Sovershend. "I've been in touch with some people in Dungard. The job's on if you're delivering enough cargo to interest them."
"Good! Martin said you were the right man for the job."
"Well? How much are you bringing in?" asked Sovershend.
"Oh! Er, seven hundred and sixty-eight cases. Which sounds rather an odd figure, but it's correct."
Sovershend took out a pocket computer and tapped at the keyboard. "It's the way they pack them. In multiples of thirty-two."
"Is it?" Sandy's tone was one of total lack of interest.
"My fee will be £5,161," added Sovershend, taking an extra profit of one shilling.
"How do you arrive at that?" asked Sandy, querying the method of calculation, not the result.
"You sell to the large distributors at eleven pounds four shillings a bottle, forty-five per cent of the shop price. I'm getting five per cent of the value of your shipment, remember?"
"Hmmm," nodded Sandy, not too impressed by the cold facts. He disappeared into another room for a moment, and returned with five one-ounce gold currency wafers in blue plastic wallets. "Half now, half afterwards. That's usual?"
"Fine by me." Sovershend accepted without protest a very generous half.
"I'd like to meet these people in Dungard," added Sandy.
"I've fixed a meeting for Monday morning."
"Ah, good!" Sandy looked surprised and impressed. "Is there somewhere decent we can stay overnight on Sunday? I always find travelling a long distance before a business meeting puts one at an immediate disadvantage."
"We could try the Mitton Gardens." Sovershend suggested the most expensive hotel in the city.
Sandy just shrugged, which told Sovershend that he was either very rich or he didn't know Dungard. Sovershend rolled the armchair away from the videolink and keyed GEN INF on the keyboard. Then he consulted the air travel section of the general information directory.
"There's a flight from Blake Airport at seventeen-thirty tomorrow," Sovershend told Sandy, choosing one which fitted his plans for the day.
"Fine," called Sandy. "Fix it up."
Sovershend made travel and accommodation arrangements wearing a ghost of a smile. There was plenty of money to be made out of Sandy – as long as he could take his associate's unconsciously arrogant treatment of the hired help without developing a desire to shoot him.
"How do we pay for all this?" Sovershend asked when his videolink negotiations were complete. Silence answered him. Sandy had wandered off somewhere. Sovershend investigated a chalk-striped jacket, which was peeping out from beneath a shapeless mass of fabric and safety foam.
The name on the UniCredit card was Jules Sandford, but it was one of the ‘any user' sort. Sovershend dropped it into the slot beside the videolink's keyboard. A green credit confirmed light glowed when he touched the ADJ key.
"I'll meet you at Landitch Station about sixteen tomorrow," Sandy called through the hole in the kitchen wall, proving that he had some idea of the Sunday timetable of O/U trains to the airport.
"I've left all the details in your vid memory," replied Sovershend. Realizing that he had been dismissed, he replaced the credit card in the packet of the abandoned jacket and looked for an ashtray. His cigar had started to disintegrate. Someone had hidden the ashtrays or they had been stolen. He solved the problem by dropping the dying smoke into the ice bucket beneath the dripping tap of the fort-beer barrel.
When he reached his home again, Sovershend placed a call to the local office of Ferran International Airlines. A young girl with a wide display of perfect, white teeth switched the call through to a man with hole-black hair and an olive tan.
"Hello, here's someone with a job for me," grinned Calvin Laurence, who used his job with Ferran International as a cover for his activities as a part-time agent of the Ferran Overseas Intelligence Department, one of many tentacles which spread from the land-locked Republic of Ferron.
"Just a simple check-up," Sovershend told him. "A kerel called Jules Sandford and a UniCredit card. The number is LDC-417-62114."
"And what do you want to know?" asked Laurence, who was known to his friends as Cool Cal because he had once spent three desperate hours locked in a cold store in the line of duty as a spy.
"Is he anything to do with His Majesty's Customs and Excise? Trying to entrap me into being a bad lad?"
"Cost you a bottle of uisge, Dev," grinned Laurence.
"Grabbing sobok! When are you and Lynn going to drop in to say hello?"
"We're going back home for a month later today."
"Drop in when you get back," invited Sovershend.
"We'll do that," promised Cool Cal. "Hello, we're getting something." He read from a line of green type, which had just appeared on his screen. "No Jules Sandford in your CustEx. And that UniCredit card was issued in Belldon."
"Interesting!" commented Sovershend. "Give my love to your charming wife. Isn't it useful knowing a spy with access to official files?"
"Isn't it?" laughed Cal. "Wish I knew one. 'Bye, Dev."
Sovershend saluted and broke the connection, relieved that Sandy's credentials had survived the check. The Ferran intelligence services were second to none, having been tried and tested over thousands of years.
The Ferran empire had once surrounded the Inland Sea. And even though Kraagen in the north and Belldon and Heitain in the south had squeezed the Ferran-speaking population of the mainland into a relatively small area, the Republic of Ferron continued to keep an eye on its former possessions. The eye tended to take a slightly rosy view of Camerland and Norland because their shared island had resisted domination by foreign tongues.
15. Major Tarpigan Reports
Long lines of vehicles jammed both lanes of the expressway. Impatient drivers leaned on their horns every so often, just to prove that they were there. Others settled back to listen to the sports results. Two of the drivers were in no hurry. They were prepared to wait for as long as it took to clear the wreckage ahead of human debris and drag away the twisted shells of vehicles.
Like many of the others, they were conversing with others in the jam on their radiolinks. Unlike the mob, however, they were broadcasting a low power, tight beam, which had a synchronized frequency shift to ensure complete privacy.
"That was quick work," said Sir Nigel Grantby, chairman of the Camerlish Refuse Barons.
"You saw it on the vid, then?" replied Major Rufus Tarpigan, the leader of Grantby's small band of mercenaries. Tarpigan was taking part in the ridiculous performance with the radios because his client expected it of him. He would have been quite happy to brief the Refuse Baron in a pub somewhere.
"I must admit your, ah, accident had a certain theatrical quality," remarked Grantby.
"Cars diving off expressways always appeal to the HV lot," said Tarpigan drily. "Especially if the wreck's still burning when the camera crew gets there. They reckon it's a waste of time otherwise. Mind you, some of them aren't above splashing a bit of petrol about and getting it going again. Make the news report look fresh and ‘to the second'."
"It came as something of a shock, though," interrupted Grantby. "I didn't realize you meant that Harold Wakefield."
"Why, how many do you know?"
"Well, none, I suppose. Now," admitted Grantby. "I'll probably have to go to his funeral. A member of parliament involved in PSF terrorist policies! Cardinal was right when he said they may have strange friends. Pity about his secretary."
"The luck of the draw," Tarpigan replied unsympathetically. "There are no innocent by-standers where the PSF is involved. And he wasn't all that innocent, the secretary. The other one didn't make the news."
"What other one?" asked Grantby, slightly alarmed at the Major's efficiency. He had been expecting the mercenary to take at least a week to arrange the first accident for a PSF policy maker, not a single day.
"A kerel called Trench," returned Tarpigan. "The smallest of the Big Eight, as the PSF call their policy circle. He was a teacher at a rather tough school in south Leviton. The police reckon he ran into some of his pupils, who were on the way home from a party last night. They decided to do him over, but they did a little too hard."
A shudder chased along Grantby's spine. He found himself both repelled and fascinated by Tarpigan's casual attitude to human life. But he felt that he was doing a necessary surgeon's job – using the mercenary as a knife to cut out diseased, rotten growths to make society a better place. Tarpigan, of course, had no such delusions. His business was solving human problems, and one of the most direct methods was to remove the person or persons causing the problem.
"I see the PSF were busy again last night," the mercenary observed into a pause.
"At Mirbank and Sylport, yes. It cost Dunstan a piano."
"A piano?" repeated Tarpigan in puzzlement.
"Miles finds breaking something at times of stress does him far more good than all the pills in his medicine cabinet. As long as he doesn't work himself up to a coronary. And he had a tough meeting with the Union later on. They didn't like the Kirlan centre's staff being laid off because there's nothing for them to do any more."
"Should make them think twice before they make another contribution to PSF funds. But I doubt it."
"Future plans?" prompted Grantby.
"We're going to keep chipping away at the higher levels of the PSF as opportunities present themselves. We'll have to be careful, though. We don't want them to realize they're targets too soon and go underground. No sense in making life more difficult for ourselves. As for the rank-and-file, most of them have committed firearms or explosives offences. It's just a question of pointing the police at them and letting the law take its natural course."
"The law's too much on the side of the criminal, these days," growled Grantby. "Especially when there's supposed to be a political element to the crime."
"We can balance that by helping the police with gathering evidence."
"Pity I can't mention your successes to my colleagues. It would cheer them up a little."
"If not a lot, Sir Nigel."
"Hello, is that some movement ahead?" Grantby added.
The sounds of revving engines drifted down the line of stationary vehicles.
"You never know your luck. Yes, we're off." Tarpigan started his own engine. "I'll get in touch with you in the usual way the next time I have anything to report."
"Very good, Major," said Grantby in dismissal, feeling like a combination of spymaster and field marshal.
16. Bleiler and Pnight with CHASM
Terry Bleiler and Brian Pnight, members of the Duke of Atmain's security staff, were trudging reluctantly along a deserted street in a clearance area of a Camerlish town. The buildings around them were four or five storeys high and built of stone or red brick. The materials grime-blackened and interchangeable at a distance. Despite half a century's erosion, most of the structures seemed intact to a casual glance. They could have been waiting for the start of a new business week. Lack of money for demolition rather than archaeological significance had kept the assortment of offices and warehouses standing.
Forty minutes had passed since sunset. The summer sky was deepening blue and cloudless, and shadows had started to thicken ominously at street level. Staying close to the succession of buildings on their left, Bleiler and Pnight were trying to keep a lookout in every direction. They were in typical 'lenster country.
At least three teenage gangs were known to roam the area, discouraging outsiders in a variety of fiendish ways. Bleiler and Pnight had no desire to find out how much truth lay behind the horror stories associated with the district. They would rather have spent their Saturday night in a pub with Richmore, the third and youngest member of their team. He had dropped them on the fringes of the empty quarter, and he had wagered that he would not be picking them up again.
"The things we do for bockan Demirell," muttered Bleiler, a thirty-one-year-old extrovert, who believed that life should be a succession of wild parties separated by no more than a modicum of work. "Here we are, risking life and limb to make sure Bekker and Ambrose of Nottridge get black eyes. And where's sobokandar Demirell?"
"Off enjoying himself somewhere," replied Pnight, who was four years older, an inch and a half taller, nine pounds heavier and, in his own opinion, ten times brighter than Bleiler, the team leader. "Why don't you quit if you don't like weekend work?"
"The pay's too good," said Bleiler shortly. "And I wouldn't give that sobok Charlie a free laugh. You're not telling me you're happy about strolling through 'lenster country?"
"We're not the only ones risking our lives. I take comfort from that. And we're not exactly empty-handed." Pnight patted his Mac-40, fourth-generation sub-machine gun affectionately. The compact, easily concealed weapon could empty its forty-two-round magazine as either a two-second stream of death or as a succession of three-round bursts.
"What a bockan daft thing to say," groaned Bleiler. "Who else is risking his life? And how does that help us?"
"The kerel linking for Sandy. He's not going to be doing much breathing after next Wednesday. Not after Lilly Mellbury gets her hands on him."
"Oh, yes, that does us a lot of good, doesn't it? That sobok Sovershend getting done in. Still, it serves him right for getting mixed up in something illegal like smuggling. Demirell's got a nerve, sending us out on a job like this."
"He doesn't approve of CHASM. I bet they wouldn't let him join," Pnight added with a soft, cynical laugh.
"There's something wrong with a bloke who makes jokes at a time like this," muttered Bleiler, gripping his police-issue Mac-40 in a white-knuckle clutch. "Yog' Demirell. I don't like the way some of these doors are wide open but none of the windows are broken. The two don't go together."
"Unbreakable glass." Pnight stopped at a corner and peered round it cautiously. "All clear."
"I know that," said Bleiler, trotting at his colleague's heels to the next corner. "It still looks wrong. And we should be at squad strength for a penetration this dangerous."
"Two of us are less conspicuous. And we're nearly there." Pnight pointed to the end of the block. The street opened into a small square on the right.
"Maybe we might just get there after all," Bleiler muttered pessimistically.
Pnight quickened his pace, concentrating on his footing as he skirted the rim of a wide crater in the road.
"Stop! Stop!" hissed Bleiler urgently. "Look!"
He pointed to a column of grey smoke climbing raggedly from the middle of the square, where there was a sunken, paved section, which was surrounded on three sides by overgrown grassy banks. Wide, broken steps led down to it on the fourth side. A formless scream echoed from the hollow. Feet scraped on rotting concrete. A wave of dark-clad 'lensters charged towards Bleiler and Pnight, splitting the night apart with screams and the 'len's battle cry.
"Fervoek! Run for it!" gasped Pnight.
Bleiler was already running, flicking his sub-machine gun from safe to burst. They sprinted to the first intersection, paused to loose off half a clip at the 'lensters to prove that they were armed, then ducked round the corner. The half-light and their sombre clothing made it impossible to guess the number of pursuers.
"In here," gasped Bleiler.
He ran blindly into an open doorway. Their feet raised clouds of dust from the rotting carpet in the foyer. A synthetic marble staircase gleamed whitely in one corner. Bleiler raced upwards, then paused at the first turning, at a moderately defensible position. Pnight skidded to a stop beside him. They held their breath and changed magazines as shouts, screams, and running feet approached – then charged on past the doorway.
"That was close!" gasped Pnight.
The footsteps grew fainter, slowed, stopped, then grew louder. Screaming their battle chant, the 'lensters poured into the building and formed an untidy mob in the gloom of the foyer. One of them, in the middle of the group, raised her hands over her head and spun round slowly. Then she let out a wild shriek and pointed towards the stairs.
Another of them echoed the scream of triumph and excitement then fired a shotgun at the ceiling. The explosion brought down a shower of plaster on the heads of his fellow eulengangers.
"No! Freeze!" Bleiler yelled loudly enough to deafen Pnight.
His colleague caught himself with his finger tightening on the trigger of his Mac-40, on the point of spraying forty rounds into the tightly-packed group of 'lensters. The targets had become a writhing, terrified mass on the floor. To an accompaniment of liquid, grinding noises, they slowed to misshapen, inert lumps.
"What the fervoek?" gasped Pnight in utter amazement.
"Put it on safety," ordered Bleiler, pointing to Pnight's sub-machine gun.
Bleiler released all his breath in a long sigh of relief, then relaxed from his crouch to sprawl on his back across the staircase. Pnight reached over and helped himself when Bleiler took a cigarette case full of lifters from the inside pocket of his camouflage coveret.
"What the fervoek happened?" repeated Pnight, his scowl of bafflement barely visible in the liquid gloom.
"You've not seen it before?" Bleiler answered a question with a question.
"Seen what?" demanded Pnight.
All movement in the foyer had ceased. Occasional crunching noises drifted to the stairs.
"Tangleweb," said Bleiler. He lit the javon, then tested his torch to find out if it was still working. A white beam carved into the gloom.
"I've not really seen it now," protested Pnight.
"It's all around us," grinned Bleiler, feeling tension draining from his body. "It's something the Ferrans developed as a passive security device. But around here, it's being used as an anti-vandalism system. The idea is, you spread this stuff on the walls and ceilings, and hook it into a system of sensors. Normal things like walking around, shifting the furniture or having a smoke get ignored. But if you start smashing the place up or setting fire to it – pchung! The stuff grabs you."
"And what? Is it poisoned or something?"
"Nope. It clingy and contracts," said Bleiler with relish. "Squashes the life out of you."
"How bockan pleasant," shuddered Pnight, moving to the exact centre of the staircase. "There's something down there."
He directed his torch into the foyer. An object the size of a large suitcase was shoving what looked like plastic refuse sacks towards a black hole in the floor.
"Clearing up the wreckage," murmured Bleiler.
A head became detached from the main body of 'lensters and rolled to the door. The miniature bulldozer turned toward it, but lost interest when the head bounced down two steps and out into the street.
"How do know so much about this stuff?" asked Pnight.
"Demirell wants it in the castle grounds for the 'lensters. He needed someone to demonstrate it to and I was handy."
"To or on?" wondered Pnight. "And did he put it in the castle grounds? I won't every go for a walk again."
"The Duke wouldn't agree. He likes his walks too. And the stuff's illegal just about everywhere. Including this country. CHASM must have put it in here to keep the 'lensters frightened of them. Come on, let's get moving again."
Bleiler and Pnight descended the stairs as the mechanical janitor drifted away and the hole in the floor closed with a self-satisfied lack of haste. A series of dark splotches ran ahead of them into the street. The severed head had landed right way up in the gutter, and it was staring at a bedraggled terrier dog with an expression of uncomprehending horror.
The Duke of Atmain's agents set course for their destination in a slightly more optimistic frame of mind, which was not due entirely to the effects of Bleiler's javon. They knew that 'lensters are very territorial creatures. Now that the local tribe had been eliminated, there was every chance that they would not run into further trouble. Following a thread of smoke from the unattended fire, Bleiler and Pnight continued on at right-angles to their previous direction.
"That's it, there," said Pnight. He pointed down a gloomy street to a pub sign, which looked strangely out of place among a collection of closed warehouses.
"Must be," agreed Bleiler.
Bricks, stones, pieces of broken concrete, broken bottles, crushed cans and wind-blown, grimy shreds of news sheets littered the narrow street. Several years' bombardment by various missiles had rendered the sign indecipherable, but the pub was in the right place. Bleiler used a handy stone to tap out a recognition signal on a steel door set in the pavement. Moments later, the door lifted and parted in the middle, split by the steel arch on a goods lift. Bleiler and Pnight stepped aboard and descended into the depths.
Brilliant light washed over them as soon as the steel pavement door had closed. Eyes slitted, Bleiler and Pnight assumed an automatic defensive position, back to back, until they realized that the underground room held no immediate threats. Two huge, intimidating figures were waiting for them, wearing floor-length black robes and helmet/masks which made them a head taller than the visitors, both of whom were six feet tall in their rubber-soled combat boots.
"You can leave the weapons here, gentlemen," said one of the members of the Church of His Aweful Satanic Majesty. A complex design of silver crescents adorned his left sleeve. "My name is Ackroyd," he added in a deep voice.
"I'm Scott," said Bleiler, handing over his Mac-40 and a Noiseless personal protection pistol. "He's Bond."
"As in Carson," added Pnight, mentioning the main character in a popular holovision series.
The room's single item of furniture was a column table of a crystal-like material with a rosy, internal glow. Ackroyd's unadorned companion deposited the weapons on restless golden designs, which seemed to distort their shapes.
"This way, vreitei," said Ackroyd. He gestured to a blank wall, which sprouted a door as if by magic. "You're a few minutes early."
"We're lucky to be here at all, Brother Ackroyd," said Pnight as they entered a tenebrous corridor panelled in dark wood. "We had some 'lenster trouble on the way."
"You were shielded by His Hand," pontificated Ackroyd. "And it's just plain Ackroyd. Only the opposition and primitive trade unionists call each other ‘brother'."
"Oh, right," said Pnight alias Bond. "Yeah, the whole bockan 'len got crushed by tangleweb."
"Best thing for them. If you would care to wait in here?" Their guide magicked another door into existence.
Bleiler and Pnight found themselves in a dimly-lit lounge. The room was about the size of a precinct shop-unit. They threaded a path through a group of easy chairs to the inviting sparkle of the bar.
"What can I get you, sirs?" asked the topless barmaid. The subtle flattery of the bar's lights was unnecessary. She was easily the most beautiful woman that either Bleiler or Pnight had ever seen.
"How about excited?" wondered Bleiler, admiring the magnificent view.
"If you wish," agreed the barmaid, much to his surprise.
"Pity we've only got a few minutes," he remarked with sincere regret. "How about a large marivodka as a very poor alternative?"
"Certainly," beamed the barmaid. "And your friend?"
Pnight tried to retract his eyeballs.
"Oh, please stare," encouraged the barmaid, aiming herself directly at him. "It's expected."
"Same again, please," mumbled Pnight. "Svey yoget! I never thought it was all true."
"Oh, yes," enthused the barmaid. "We of the Church of His Aweful Satanic Majesty are dedicated to the pleasures of the flesh. It's our solemn duty to bring pleasure to all, whether or not they wish to be pleased. It's the duty of the Church Militant to take our message to all mankind. Only through the release of repression can mankind reach true fulfilment."
Bleiler and Pnight gulped down marivodka, hoping that CHASM would send round a few missionaries to brighten their Sunday. The light of the lounge had a reddish cast, which was intended either to represent a hellish glow, or to tint faces in order to conceal embarrassment. As the barmaid seemed quite comfortable, despite her state of semi-undress, Pnight decided that he was sweating because the room was warm.
"We're ready for you now, vreitei." Ackroyd materialized behind them.
The visitors finished their drinks, gazed longingly at the barmaid one last time, then followed Ackroyd to the door. By some miracle, it gave not into the corridor but into a large, high space filled with shifting, rather sinister shadows. All five walls of the ceremonial chamber were decorated with unfathomable shapes in shades of red flame paint ranging from livid flesh tones to almost-black. A dark blue ceiling was dotted with stars arranged into unfamiliar constellations labelled with ciphers which appeared to be first cousins of astrological symbols.
The floor was dominated by a huge, shining white pentacle and a bordering mosaic which depicted a fair number of the pleasure of the flesh encouraged by CHASM. A weird glow pulsing from the five-pointed star enclosed by the white lines of the pentacle suggested colours, but none of the familiar rainbow spectrum. Ackroyd led them round the perimeter of the room, taking care not to step inside the pentacle. "Don't cross the white lines," he warned.
"Why not?" asked Pnight fearfully.
"Oh, the system is so delicately balanced, it takes ages to get rid of footprints," replied Ackroyd casually.
Pnight radiated confusion. Expectations of black magic, and possibly a human sacrifice on the altar at the heart of the pentacle, had come to nothing. Just how seriously do this bunch take themselves? he wondered.
Three men in flame suits were waiting for them in a small conference room. Ackroyd bowed to one of them, then withdrew. A table three yards long by one and a half yards wide took up most of the floor space but left an aisle one yard wide around its perimeter. Restful green walls formed a backdrop for a series of rather disgusting etchings, which began at the door and became more embarrassing in an anti-clockwise direction.
"Welcome, vreitei," said the tallest of the three men. "I am One."
Bleiler caught himself on the edge of a sarcastic retort. He waded across the dark green carpet to shake the outstretched hand. "I'm Scott, he's Bond."
"As in Carson," added Pnight.
"My colleagues are Two and Three," continued One.
All three were fractionally taller than their guests, aged around forty and they appeared to have all their own hair and teeth. They seemed to glow with good health – not the trained, rugged fitness of Bleiler and Pnight, but an effortless and very enviable well-being.
If this Is Satanism, thought Pnight, they can put my name down for it.
"Shall we be seated?" suggested Two.
Another gigantic figure in a black robe appeared with a tray of drinks. Pnight watched the servant covertly when he left, apparently straight through a solid wall, trying to work out how CHASM performed its conjuring tricks. Bleiler unfolded a map of the county of Neal. He indicated a pencil cross on the coast, then repeated the information given to the National Temperance Front by his colleagues Mortlake and Pinder the night before.
The man known as Three filled a sheet of notepaper with times, strengths of smugglers and NTF squads, and other essential details.
"And how do you know all this?" prodded One at the end of the account.
"Pure luck," grinned Bleiler. "We were buying some noble rope-plant off an NTF kerel, and we told him we wanted to try the stuff before we made a deal. Like you do. We all got a bit bashtal, it was good stuff, and this kerel started going on about an ambush."
"He wouldn't shut up about it, more like," added Pnight, supporting the tale. "When he wasn't laughing his head off. Jumping all over Ambrose of Nottridge's Number Two was the funniest thing in the world to him."
"And it seemed daft to all that booze go to waste," Bleiler added. "So we though the best thing to do was tell you so you can stomp on the NTF and put the booze to good use."
"An excellent thought, vreitei," nodded One. "We see it as out duty to combat the NTF's rather narrow outlook. You deserve a reward for your efforts."
Bleiler assumed an expression of pleased embarrassment, indicating that he expected CHASM to be more rewarding than Ambrose Mellbury's organization.
"Perhaps a visit to our executive pleasure lounge?" suggested Two. "Wouldn't you agree, Vr. Bond?"
Bleiler tapped Pnight's shin with his foot to remind his colleague of his alias.
"Well, I don't know.." said Pnight. He had been expecting a more portable reward – which would allow them to leave the area as soon as possible. Bleiler delivered a kick instead of a tap to shut him up.
"Well, if you insist," Bleiler said to One with a smile of appropriate anticipation.
"Ackroyd will show you the way," said One.
"If you would follow me, vreitei?" There was a gowned and helmeted figure behind the visitors, extending a hand toward the open door in invitation.
Russell Richmore, the third member of Bleiler's team, had been ordered to call at the pick-up point every hour on the hour from midnight onwards. He had already made five fruitless journeys and he was convinced that the sixth would be an equal waste of time. The empty quarter of the town was said to be haunted. Richmore was convinced that the dismal canyons had swallowed up his unfortunate colleagues.
The morning was warm and fair, the sun a quarter of an hour above the horizon. Richmore, his fleshy face locked into a sulk, his full lips set in a pout, reached the rendezvous point – a disused car showroom. He dared not give up Bleiler and Pnight for lost until six o' clock.
The pattern of a tedious night continued. He had to spend five endless minutes in the showroom, seeing danger in every shadow, expecting to be attacked at every second. Then he would be allowed the relief of the ten-minute drive back to the group's temporary headquarters in a run-down motel.
Following a previous set of tyre tracks in the filth on the floor, Richmore backed to the rear of the four-by-ten-yard cave. He closed the ventilator to exclude a nauseating smell of illness and excess, and lit a honey-flavoured cigarette. His eyes were dry and gritty, the lids heavy despite a recent stimtab. He had managed a total of under two hours' severely disrupted rest during the night.
An unsettling, rhythmic noise intruded into rebellious thoughts. Richmore opened his window slightly. Two uncertain voices were singing happily, the words lost in the steady ticking of the car's engine. Richmore was about to close the window again when the word Demirell caught his attention. Concentrating, he picked out more words, and recognized the unofficial anthem of the Duke of Atmain's security staff. His colleagues were past the section on shared delights with Ilse Dortmann, the security executive, and they were cataloguing the evil torments that they would like to inflict on her deputy.
Ever cautious, Richmore tugged a Mac-40 from its travelling clips on the driver's door and jacked a cartridge into the chamber. He set the weapon to full automatic, then he left the car and crept over to the office. The cubicle measured roughly two yards by three. It was glazed with milky jigsaw puzzles held together by plastic laminations, and painted the same dreary yellow as the walls of the showroom. Bleiler and Pnight were there, sprawled on a seat torn from the back of a car and smoking javon to maintain a pleasant haze.
"Where the fervoek have you soboken been?" demanded Richmore, taking advantage of his superiors' condition to give vent to his feelings. "I've just about worn a bockan groove in the road, driving up here to look for you."
"We've been in paradise," murmured Pnight dreamily.
"You can say that again," sighed Bleiler.
"The car's here," snapped Richmore. He turned on his heel and stalked back to their vehicle. If his superiors were unable to walk, then he had no intention of carrying them.
To Richmore's displeasure, Bleiler and Pnight were able to stagger. They had acquired a case of marivodka on their travels.
During the interminable ten minutes of their journey back to the motel, Bleiler and Pnight sprawled in the back of the car, giggling and tantalizing Richmore with hints of their adventures in CHASM's executive pleasure lounge. It was a frustrating and intensely annoying journey for Richmore.
He tried desperately not to believe his colleagues, but he was forced to admit that some of their tales were beyond their limited imaginations. He even began to wish that he had been chosen for the dangerous part of the assignment. CHASM's rewards sounded more than fair compensation for risking one's life in 'lenster country.