Orel Reeder, category suspected borderline psychopath, woke with a jolt on a yielding surface. It was platinum quartz-sand, dry, sea-ground over centuries. He could hear a rushing of waves. Knee-high breakers were foaming away to nothing about twenty metres away. The sun was high and hot, boiling sweat away as soon as it emerged from his pores. He felt very heavy as he metabolized the last of the knock-out drug.
There was a slick object under his left hand. The shoe of tough, clear plastic contained a Molliner IW-92, the most powerful hand-gun on the planet, and four 20-round magazines in separate, internal pockets. Reeder, lying on his left side on the sand, kept his body still as he brought the gun-shoe closer to his face.
He examined the weapon through the sun-softened, clear plastic. The Molliner was fitted with the latest reactive recoil-adapter for greatest on-target reliability, and the pencil-tube of a search-mark-lock laser targetting aid on the right side of the barrel. The Molliner Corporation had reduced the art of killing virtually to the will to squeeze the trigger.
Reeder looked beyond the gun-shoe to the limit of his surroundings. Sand and sea curved to meet a wall of rock shot with quartz-sparkles about 500 metres ahead. Reeder rolled onto his back and turned his head to the right. He saw much the same. He was lying in the middle of a crescent-shaped bay about one kilometre wide. Apart from some light-coloured birds, he seemed quite alone.
Taking no chances, he rubbed his hands together to clear them of sand, then he slotted a magazine into the butt of the Molliner. Now armed and dangerous, he dropped the gun-shoe into a long pocket on the thigh of his blue overall and then trotted over to the spiky grass beyond the beach. He retired into the shade of one of a cluster of weathered boat-houses to think. There was a strong smell of fuel in the gloomy interior despite the abandoned look.
His recent memories came to a stop in Arkhurst. He had been getting ready for a night on the town. Then he had woken up on an empty beach. His head began to ache when he tried to recall what had happened in between. He had an identity, he had a life of living on his wits, he had good and bad memories - and then everything came to a stop for an unknown reason. His head ached more furiously the harder he tried to explore lost territory.
He examined his surroundings from the grimy windows of the boat-house. The tide line was marked out with shrivelled seaweed and scraps of sun-bleached debris. The boat-houses lay a few metres back, slotted into hollows in the grass-stabilized dunes. Behind the dunes was a rock wall that rose a good twenty metres high. A wooden staircase, painted bright blue, climbed to the top.
As far as he could tell, he was alone and unobserved. Reeder checked the other five boat-houses. One of them actually contained a cabin cruiser. The rest were open and empty. He found an empty beer can in the last one. Taking a firm grip on the butt of the Molliner, which released the safety catch, he walked out into the open. Left-handed, he hurled the can high into the air. His right hand moved in an intersecting arc, lifting the weapon. With a minor pop, it fired a projectile on reaching the optimum impact projection. Reeder released the trigger. The slow, muffled clicks of the target-search signal faded away.
Reeder glanced at the rounds-available display. It was glowing 19. He switched the Molliner to manual to avoid accidents before returning the weapon to his belt holster. He had heard that the so-called intelligent weapons can identify a moving foot as a threat.
Reeder retired again to the shade of the empty boat-house. He had confirmed that the Molliner was in functioning order, and that he was still an expert shot. There had been virtually no tug on his right hand as the weapon had acquired the target in mobile-defence mode.
Reeder checked through his pockets in the boat-house. There was a light hat in the left-thigh pocket, which would stop the sun frying his brain. He found some money - notes and change - in the right-side pocket, a handkerchief in the left-side pocket, a comb in one of the back pockets and cigarettes and a lighter in the breast pockets of his overall.
He saw no future in remaining on the beach. He resisted the temptation to have a smoke until he reached the top of the blue staircase. Peeping cautiously over the edge of the cliff, he came face to face with a large tabby cat. Reeder stretched out a hand to stroke it. The cat grabbed at him with teeth and claws, then ran away. Reeder withdrew his hand with a gasp of pain and anger. He considered blowing the fleeing cat to pieces, but he admitted that it was his own fault. Just because he liked cats, that was no reason to expect every cat to trust him.
Four angry depressions showed where canine teeth had dug into his flesh, but they had not broken the skin. Small beads of blood welled from two scratches. Reeder wiped them away with a handkerchief moistened with antiseptic saliva. He told himself that he was in some sort of test. His head began to ache again as he wondered what sort of test it could be.
There was a small town about five minutes' walk inland. He headed straight for a bar when he reached the main street through a sprawl of block-like buildings. Some information not relevant to his remembered life seeped out of a corner of his memory. All areas with orange doors and orange floors were neutral. Someone had briefed him on aspects of conduct in this unknown area. The beginnings of another headache confirmed that he was right to think that he was being tested to find out if he could follow a set of rules.
He pushed through an orange swing door and into a bar with an orange floor. The beer was cold, the glass slippery with dew - and his glass was cracked.
"This glass is cracked," Reeder told the slobbish bartender.
"So?" The bar-tender's size made him look rather bear-like - grizzly bear.
A dozen pairs of eyes focussed on Reeder in a spreading silence. He dropped his right hand to the belt holster as a reflex. Then, on impulse, he opened his left hand and let the glass fall to a floor of hard, orange, wooden blocks.
"So give me a drink in a glass that isn't cracked," Reeder growled.
The growing buzz of disappointed conversation told him that he had passed one of a series of trials. Another glass skated along the polished counter to stop precisely in front of him.
Reeder examined it then drained the golden contents in one long swallow. He dropped two coins onto the slick counter. Another chilled glass arrived. He drained it and dropped another coin onto the counter.Thirst satisfied, he took the next glass to a vacant table, where he lit a cigarette and thought about his next move. Leaking through from the implanted briefing came the news that he was not allowed to spend the night in an orange zone.
He was on an island. The wind had been blowing into his face on the way into the town but he had been able to smell the sea and rotting seaweed until the town smells had over-powered them. The realization was part deduction, part leak-through from his briefing. There was about an hour of daylight left. He needed to get on with a quick reconnaissance while the light lasted.
The people in the bar ignored him when he left. They had to be residents or strangers with a secure bolt-hole for the night. Reeder bought a couple of ration packs and a cluster of chill-cans of beer. He attached them to his belt - well clear of the holster - then he left the main street, heading out into an area of two-storey, prefabricated buildings, which looked like abandoned factories.
He sensed a movement overhead as he was prowling along an alley between two buildings. Reeder tried to throw himself out of the way. A heavy object caught him a glancing blow, spoiling his aim. The Molliner ripped three rounds into a dark window-hole. The weapon was on manual. It would not have fired on automatic, lacking a target.
Wild shots served to keep the unknown and unseen assailant under cover until he had turned a corner. Looking back, he saw a man-length baulk of timber on the ground. Had it landed squarely on his head, it would have killed him.
Reeder staggered to the next door. He drew the Molliner to blow the lock off, then he thought better of it. Instinct prompted him to avoid leaving traces. A clinical kick, delivered with just enough energy to wrench screws from wood, left no external sign of damage. Safely inside, he drained one of the cans of beer, then crushed it to use the can as an improvised wedge to prevent anyone from opening the door from the outside.
His head was throbbing but there was no blood. He could feel a tender, swollen area but the skin remained unbroken. He wondered what he had done to be there, in a large empty room with a pain in his head. An answer seeped out of his real memory. He had been arrested for killing someone.
His head had reached a pain threshold. The damaged suffered in the alley was blocking signals from the post-arrest conditioning. Reeder had killed Raklan Torres in circumstances that pointed to self-defence. The police had turned him over to a diagnoster. Reeder realized that he was involved in some sort of social compatibility test.
He could not be sure of the reality of his surroundings. For all he knew, he was strapped to a bed, drugged and receiving images by direct mental implantation. He knew that the capacity to kill another human being didn't make him a sociopath automatically. The diagnoster was assessing him now. In effect, they were both on trial. The unknown diagnoster would put his or her professional reputation on the line over reaching a conclusion about Orel Reeder.
The easiest thing to do would be to write Reeder off as a sociopath. Fellow professionals would lump part of the blame on his diagnoster if Reeder were released to kill illegally again. On the other hand, sentencing an innocent man to rehabilitation would have an equally damaging effect on the diagnoster's reputation. The assessment would be a skilled and probing experience for both parties.
Orel Reeder felt that his forbidden knowledge gave him an edge. He was programmed to develop a splitting headache if his thoughts strayed toward why he was on the island. The lucky chance of a painful but non-serious head injury had interfered with that process. When his tissues recovered from the shock, he would lose that block. He would have to devise a plan within the next hour or so.
Thinking back over his conduct since waking on the beach, he decided that it had been unhelpful to his diagnoster. He had tried out the Molliner Individual Weapon, which was just natural curiosity. His behaviour in the bar had been mildly anti-social, but dropping a cracked glass on the floor was just a protest against bad service and a matter between himself and the bar's management. Society in general, as defended by the diagnoster, had not been involved.
It would be a good idea to keep the Molliner on manual, he decided. Then, he had the option of shooting to frighten or to wound. The automatic setting was meant to ensure an automatic kill, even for a poor marksman. It would impress the diagnoster, and Reeder was confident that he could defend himself as just effectively when doing his own aiming and firing.
His immediate priority was personal safety through the coming night. High ground was what he needed, so that he could see enemies approaching. And he needed a decent line of retreat. The door was made of a rigid material. The beer can wedge would hold it closed to anything short of a determined assault.
Breaking into the building would not be held against him, Reeder decided. And necessary destruction of property had to be okay too. Only life was sacred.
He drained another can of beer and felt the throbbing in his head diminish. He crushed the can into an auxiliary wedge, then examined the room. The ceiling with its white humps of inactive lights was a good eight metres above his head. There were no windows on the alley side. The door was the only opening in that wall.
There was a row of tall, whitened windows on the opposite wall. Peering through a scratch, Reeder saw an external metal grill and an empty courtyard. Buildings formed three sides of the rectangle and one of the short sides was closed by a curtain wall. A solid gate filled the gateway in the wall completely.
Reeder found that he could open the two doors to the courtyard. A workbench with drawers stood between the doors and it was the only item of furniture in the double-cube room. Reeder found a few tools and a tube of hi-strength glue in the drawers. Smiling to himself, looking to score points with his unseen diagnoster, he repaired the damage to the exterior door's frame. Bonding the receiver for the lock's bolt back into place also improved his security.
He drained another beer can, then used steel tools to wedge the three doors in case someone with keys tried to disturb him. Then he investigate a ladder on one of the end walls. The ladder was lengths of steel rod with two right-angle bends, which projected just over a foot-length from the wall. Reeder climbed up to a hatch in the ceiling.
He went through the hatch quickly, the Molliner in his hand. His left hand fell naturally on a light switch. When he pressed it, he found himself alone in the long wedge of space between the ceiling and the roof. There was dust on the light switch. More dust billowed away when he shook the resilient mattress on the folding bed. He was in a bolt-hole that had not been used for some time. The emergency exit was a locked, shuttered skylight on the courtyard side of the roof.
Scratches on the paintwork showed him that one leg of the folding bed normally rested on the hatch as a security measure. Reeder moved the bed, then sat down to eat half a ration pack. Then he lay down to sleep after switching the light out. He was asleep quickly. He had the knack of snatching rest when the opportunity arose.
A scream woke him in still blackness. Hand on the Molliner's butt, he searched for signs of danger. The screaming was outside. It went on for ten minutes. It sounded like a woman being flayed alive, but Reeder couldn't be sure. Extreme agony distorts the human voice and it could as easily have been a man. When the screaming stopped, he went to sleep again. He could have helped, or tried to, but he saw no point in risking his life by blundering about in the dark on totally unfamiliar territory. And the screamer might have deserved whatever was happening.
Compassion is a desirable but not an essential human quality, he reminded himself. A growing tension above his eyes reminded him of the conditioning. He discarded he thought and emptied his mind ready for further sleep.
Reeder awoke in solid darkness, feeling refreshed. He moved the bed and peeped cautiously through the hatch. The ground-floor room was empty. Long bars of light cast through tall windows by the rising sun told him the time of day. Reeder opened the repaired street door cautiously. The alley was empty. He slipped out.
He heard a skittering of claws on a hard surface as he reached the next corner. The black attack dog was almost on him, its mouth open to bite not bark. Then it was dead, a great hole torn in its chest. Reader thrust the Molliner back into his belt holster. Drawing and setting it to automatic had been a reflex. The weapon had acquired and destroyed the target virtually unaided. Risking a headache, he told himself that animals don't count.
He reached an orange-doored eatery without further incident. He gave his order on the way to the refresher at the rear. Eventually, feeling clean and well fed, he let his conditioning take over. He was required to make his way to the other end of the island. He bought more beer and cigarettes, then he left the town.
He met the woman on the other side of a hill, about two kilometres from the town. She was brunette, slim, not bad looking and she seemed thoroughly fed up. She was sitting on a shelf of rock, dipping bare feet into a rushing stream, enjoying the warm sun and the cold shock of the water. As far as Reeder could tell, she was unarmed - apart from the natural weapons that an attractive female can use against an interested male.
"Well, hi, there," she called when she spotted Reeder. "Got a spare cigarette?"
Reeder crossed five metres of tall grass between the metalled trail and the river. He parted with a cigarette and a chill-can of beer. Then he opened a can for himself, perched on a neighbouring slab of rock and lit a cigarette.
"I'm Thania," said the woman, blowing out smoke with relish. "Going far?"
"Orel," said Reeder. "How far can you get on a small lump of rock like this island?"
"A good question," said Thania with an enigmatic smile. She dried her feet on a square of towel, which she hung from her belt to dry in the warm sun. Then she buckled on a pair of sandals. She too was wearing a soil-proof blue overall, but she had sandals instead of boots, like Reeder.
They made small talk about the island, the weather, the beer and what the next town might be like. The road meandered round a series of small hills, which closed off the view behind as new ground opened up ahead. Reeder had climbed one of the hills earlier. He had seen a few bits of roof, and chimneys belonging to the town that he had just left, and more hills in every other direction.
When they had finished their beer, they set off along the trail together. Not knowing how far they would have to walk, they set a leisurely pace. After about two hours, the trail crossed another stream by a low, stone bridge. Thania suggested a meal break. She had nothing much in her pockets, and just a square of towel attached to her belt, so it was clear that Reeder would be providing the rations. But if he was right about being involved in some sort of diagnostic test, then the government had paid for everything that he had bought in the last town.
They followed the stream up-sun until a belt of bushy shrubs cut off a view of the trail. They sprawled on warm grass to finish the ration pack that Reeder had started the night before. Then they had a beer and a smoke. And another beer.
Thania suggested a swim. The stream had broadened into a slow-moving, sun-warmed pond beside them. They shed their overalls, each admiring the other's physique, and then dived into the inviting water to splash around for a while.
After drying their hands with Thania's towel, they lay down on the grass for another beer and a smoke while the sun dried their bodies. They set the cans carefully upright to preserve the rest of the contents, and threw the cigarettes away half-smoked, and got on with the inevitable. Reeder's head throbbed a little when he allowed himself the thought that there is nothing anti-social about sex for pleasure when both parties are willing. With any luck, it would drive a spying diagnoster wild with frustration.
Reeder was almost ready for the betrayal when Thania went across to his overall for cigarettes and turned with the Molliner in her small fist. He felt like an actor as he blustered through an indignant protest. He knew that she would not shoot him if it was part of a test. Alternatively, if she was being tested too, she would not be allowed to shoot
Just the same, he realized, he would have to make some attempt to engineer his own salvation.
He tried a subtle approach. He let his eyes slide from her face to a point behind and to her right because she was holding the weapon in her right hand. Then he brought his eyes back to her face quickly.
"Do I get that last cigarette before you shoot me?" he remarked, trying to give the impression that he was hiding a confident smile.
Thania lit a cigarette left-handed, then threw him the packet and the lighter. Then she started to climb into her overall. The Molliner moved off-target constantly but Reeder could hear a sinister, muffled chattering of the target-acquisition signal every time the laser beam touched him.
Thania suddenly realized that Reeder was following something behind her with his eyes. She put together the sudden shifts of his gaze and his badly concealed air of unconcern. She tried to turn quickly and lost her balance.
Reeder crossed the ten metres between them in two strides and a leap. He landed on top of her with enough force to drive the breath out of his body. He rolled onto her right arm, pinning it to the grass. She lay still - unconscious.
Reeder dressed quickly. When he had his boots strapped, he kicked Thania's left thigh with brutal force. She remained immobile, unprotesting. She had to be unconscious still. He stripped off her overall and collected her sandals. He took them with him when he headed back to the shrubs and the trail.
In any fair society, Reeder had every right to kill Thania. Even in his unfair society, several test cases had established that facing another human with a Molliner IW set on automatic constitutes intent to kill. If he had gone on to break her pretty neck, no court would have been able to convict him. But he was being tested because of an act of self-defence.
That he could kill was no secret. What he had to do was demonstrate that he knew the boundary of legal violence. His diagnoster could hardly complain if he left Thania naked and armed with just those weapons that she had used to gain possession of his Molliner. If she was part of his test, she would be picked up to face the derision of her colleagues when he was out of the area. If she was being tested herself, she was on the edge of failure.
Reeder made a compact bundle of the sandals and the overall. He dumped it under a convenient flat rock about a kilometre further on. The he lit a cigarette, opened another can and marched toward his ever-retreating shadow and the next town.
He rounded yet another of the endless sequence of low hills and found himself looking down on a coastal town. The sun had reached its highest point in the sky. He felt hot and dusty. The sea, blue and sparkling, looked very inviting. On the outskirts of the small town, he came to a sign that read Orangeville. His briefing told him now that he had reached a safe haven.
The whole place was painted a rather psychedelic shade of orange. Orel Reeder resisted an impulse to make an entrance into the town. He just walked up to the hotel, booked a room, ordered a big meal and dived under the shower to wash off the grime of his journey. Full of a large steak, chips, onions and mushrooms, and a whole bottle of red wine, Reeder lay down on his bed to gloat inwardly.
He had handled everything that the diagnoster had thrown at him. The trial for unlawful killing would be a formality. The prosecution would have to accept his plea of self-defence with token resistance for form's sake. Somewhere, there was a diagnoster with egg all over his or her face. He or she had been tested by Orel Reeder and found wanting. Reeder held in a grin as he surrendered to sleep.
Orel Reeder, true category undiagnosed psychopath, woke slowly and without a care in familiar surroundings. He was in his own bed in his own apartment in Arkhurst. He threw off the coverett and made a quick tour of the four rooms.
Everything looked undisturbed. His head was throbbing slightly, as if he had enjoyed a planned night out, but there was a tender area on the back of his head where he had been slugged.
His Molliner - a Model IW35, not the ultra-advanced Model IW92 - was locked in the personally keyed safety compartment. Reeder used the refresher, then he made himself a cup of coffee and lit the first cigarette of a new day.
A sudden thought stopped him dead in his tracks.
He had been confident that he had fooled the diagnoster. Now, he felt a rush of doubt. Reeder was a city-dweller. He didn't go wandering about on islands by choice, even with sex for pleasure in prospect. He could find as much of that as he needed in the city.
What he had to work out now was if he had been released or whether the test continued in a diabolical reconstruction of his own chosen environment. If he had to kill someone days, weeks, months, even years ahead, how would he know whether he was experiencing the passage of real time or whether he was in an artificial time-frame created in a diagnoster's laboratory?
The quick way to find out would be to kill someone under what would be safe circumstances in the real world. It was also a quick route to the rigours of reconstruction and rehabilitation.
Trapped in a mental cage, possibly of his own construction, Orel Reeder drank his coffee and tried to work out how he could live with his question mark. How would he ever know that the test was over? ■