OTTLEY BISSAL WALKED the streets of Limbo City, straining to be invisible, willing himself to vanish into the hustling, bustling, early-morning crowd, watching his back to be sure there was no one watching him. It was the last leg of the journey, and he was close, so very close. He had parked the aircar on one side of town, and walked from there straight through the busiest sections of the city.
Limbo was a classic boomtown, growing by leaps and bounds, stepping on its own feet as it struggled to keep up with its new role as the world headquarters of the reterraforming team. Technicians, designers, scientists, and construction workers were everywhere, with New Law robots hurrying everywhere on this urgent errand or that, and survey teams and speciality workers coming and going from every corner of the world.
Even on a normal day, there was not a room to be had in the city, and building new accommodations space was always a low priority to all the other vital projects. The onslaught of YIP visitors to the Residence had only made matters worse.
But Bissal had no need to worry. They had taken care of him, seen to it he had a place to stay until it was allover.
Certain that he was not being followed, Bissal shouldered his way through the worst of the crowds and made it to a less congested part of town, to an old warehouse.
As instructed, he tried his hand at the side door security panel. It read his palm and the door slid open.
He stepped inside, and the door slid closed. It was a rustbacking lab, with all the hardware of the trade. But one side of the place had been set up as a rather cozy little apartment, with a bed, a mini-kitchen, a refresher, and ample stocks of food and water. Now all he had to do was stay here, out of sight, until they called for him, until the heat was off, until someone came for him.
Bissal was exhausted-but he was also hungry, and he was probably too wound up to sleep, anyway. A quick snack would give him a chance to relax and unwind before he turned in. He hurried to the mini-kitchen and started rummaging around for something to eat.
It's good to be safe, he thought as he opened up a fastmeal and sat down to eat. Very good.
"Your pardon, sir, but there is an urgent call for you."
"Hmmm? What? Excuse me?" Shelabas Quellam, President of the Legislative Council, was not yet fully awake. He sat up in bed and blinked sleepily at his personal robot. "What is it, Keflin?"
"A call, sir, " the robot replied. "It seems to be most urgent, coming on a government channel. "
"Oh, dear. Well, then, I'd best take it at once. "
A second robot appeared, carrying a portable comm-link unit. The second robot held the unit with one hand as it activated it with the other. Quellam watched the screen as it cleared and saw that it was that Sheriff fellow. Klesh? Klersh? Something like that. In any event, he looked perfectly dreadful. And no wonder, at this time of night. But what in the world could it all be about?
"Good evening, Sheriff. Or rather, good morning. What can I do for you?"
"Sir, forgive me for calling at this hour," Kresh said, "but I have some very bad news. The Governor has been murdered."
The Governor has been murdered. It later seemed to Shelabas that the Sheriff must have said more after that-he even remembered acting on advice Kresh must have given him at that moment-but he could not recall hearing any of it at all.
He was too busy trying to contain his sense of glee while trying to pretend he was sorry Grieg was dead. Too bad the poor fellow was gone, but Shelabas Quellam suffered no illusions. He knew what people in general thought of him-and he knew very well what Grieg in particular had thought of him. Grieg might have named Quellam his Designate, but Grieg had never respected Quellam.
But now, at last, at long last, he, Shelabas Quellam, would be the Governor.
At last, long last, the world was going to find out that Shelabas Quellam was a man to be taken seriously.
Sheriff Alvar Kresh stood alone before the robot camera in the Residence's broadcast studio.
Justen Devray stood by his side, but that did not matter. Alvar was alone, as alone as he had ever been. Even as he spoke, he knew the words he spoke would be the image that the world would remember. Twenty years from now, if anyone spoke of Alvar Kresh, it would be to talk of his standing before this camera, haggard and exhausted, speaking words he did not want to say, speaking to a world that would not want to hear.
Not that many would be awake to hear, not at this hour. Few would be tuned in to the news channels. Some nets might not even carry the announcement live. But everyone would see it, soon enough. People would call each other, retrieve the record, listen to the words, over and over again through the day, the week, the month.
Only a handful of people would hear him now. But all the people of this world-and people on other worlds, and people not yet born-would hear what he had to say, sooner or later.
Strange to think that when all he had for an audience now was Justen Devray and a robot camera operator.
"People of Inferno. Good morning to you. I am deeply grieved to make the following announcement," Kresh said" At approximately 0200 hours last night, I, Sheriff Alvar Kresh, discovered the body of Governor Chanto Grieg at the Governor's Winter Residence. He had been shot through the chest at close range by a blaster, by parties unknown and for reasons unknown. I immediately called in a team of Sheriff's office investigators. I then obtained the assistance of Commander Devray of the Governor's Rangers, and we secured the Winter Residence as a crime scene. I have notified Shelabas Quellam, the President of the Legislative Council.
"Legislator Quellam, Commander Devray, and I are all determined to use all the personnel and resources at our disposal, both to find the perpetrators of this crime and to insure the stability of our government during this time of crisis. I realize that I have left a great deal unsaid, but there is little more I can say that would be useful or reliable at this time. We will, of course, provide as much information as we possibly can, as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the requirements of a thorough investigation. "
Kresh paused for a moment, looked down at his notes, and then back at the camera. That was all he had written down, but it seemed as if there was something more he should say.
"This is-this is terrible news for all of us, and a shock as deep as any our people have ever known. Though I rarely agreed with Chanto Grieg, I always respected him. He was a man who could see ahead, to the dangers and the promises of the future. Let us not lose sight of his vision now, or let him die for things that were not to be. I ask all of you for strength and forbearance in the days ahead, and I thank you. Good morning-and good luck to us all. "
Gubber Anshaw, the noted robotic theorist, went through phases concerning his daily routine. There were times he worked late into the night, and other times he rose with the sun and got to bed not much past sunset. It was Gubber who had invented the gravitonic brain that made New Law robots possible, and he was kept constantly busy in the effort to study the New Law robots, learn what made them tick. He wanted to find ways to make them more efficient, more productive, and that meant observing his creations at work. That, in turn, often meant working at odd hours.
There were pleasures in seeing every hour of the day, to be sure. Few men saw as many sunrises, as many sunsets, as many of the midnight stars, as Gubber Anshaw. But the dawn gave him no pleasure that morning. Not with the terrible news.
He was in the solarium, his personal robot serving him breakfast, when he heard the first report. Almost before he knew it, he was rushing to the bedroom, bursting in on Tonya, still asleep.
Tonya. Tonya Welton. Even in that moment of horror and panic, there was still a tiny part of him that paused to marvel at the fact that the beautiful, hard-edged, tough-minded Settler leader loved him, lived with him, lived with a soft-spoken robot designer. There were not many Spacer-Settler couples in the universe, and there were good reasons for that. It was never easy living with Tonya. But it was always exciting, and always worth it.
"Tonya!" Gubber went to the bed and shook Tonya's shoulder. "Tonya! Wake up!"
"Hmmn'? Hmm? What?" Tonya sat up in bed, yawning., 'Gubber, what in the stars is it?"
"It's Grieg! Governor Grieg! He's been assassinated!"
"Shot dead! Sheriff Kresh just announced it a few minutes ago. No real details yet-but Grieg's dead!"
"Burning hell," Tonya said, shock and astonishment in her voice. "Last night. I saw him, talked to him last night. And he's dead?"
"Dead," Gubber agreed.
"And they don't know who did it?"
"I don't think so. They said they were still investigating. But they aren't going to say anything for a while, no matter what happens."
Tonya reached for him, and they threw their arms around each other, held each other tight. "This is trouble, Gubber," said Tonya, her voice a bit muffled with her face in Gubber's chest. "Trouble for everyone."
"But who did it?" Tonya asked, pulling back a little to look into Gubber's face. "Some lunatic? Was it a plot? Why did they do it?"
Gubber shook his head and thought a minute. "I don't know," he said, forcing himself to settle down and think it through, forcing himself to be rational. "It doesn't matter. The chaos will be the same. All sorts of people will try and take advantage of Grieg's death. If it wasn't someone trying to take over who killed him, then someone else is going to try taking over now that he's dead."
Tonya Welton nodded, her expression dazed and confused. "I'm sure you're right," she said.
"Maybe we should try and get away," Gubber said. "Get off-planet. There's going to be trouble."
"No," Tonya snapped. Her face took on a hard, set expression. "We can't. I can't. I'm here to lead the Settlers on Inferno, not to run off and leave them when there's trouble. " She stared deep into Gubber's eyes, but then she seemed to be looking right through him, past him, at something else "Oh, no," she said. "Oh, no."
"What is it?" Gubber asked, grabbing her by the shoulders, trying to get her attention. "Tonya, what is it?"
"The dust-up last night," Tonya said. "I told you about it when I got in. The two men who got in a fight with me, and were taken away by the phony SSS agents."
"Yes, what about it?"
"Don't you see?" she said. "Don't you get it? Kresh will assume-will have to assume-that the attack on me was part of it, part of the plot. A diversion, or something. That it was staged for some reason to do with Grieg being killed."
And then Gubber did understand, and he pulled Tonya close and held her tight. He knew instantly that it would be impossible to talk her into leaving, that the Rangers or the Sheriffs Department would stop her from leaving even if she tried. Because he did understand, and understood far more than what she had told him. Kresh would assume the attack on her was staged because of Grieg's murder: He would also assume that Tonya was one of the people who helped to stage it.
But far worse than that was the tiny bit of Gubber's own heart. The part who knew how tough, how hard, Tonya could be. How she never flinched from doing what was necessary. She and Grieg never had seen eye to eye. Besides, Tonya and he had both been suspects in the Caliban case.
And Tonya Welton was a good actress. She could always convince Gubber of anything.
Never mind that Kresh would have to suspect Tonya of complicity in the Governor's murder. The worst of it was that Kresh's suspicion might even be justified.
Captain Cinta Melloy of the Settler Security Service was angry, and when Cinta Melloy was angry, no one else nearby was likely to find much peace and quiet-not that Kresh would have been likely to get much in any event.
She was leaning over Kresh's makeshift desk in the ops center. I am shoving myself into your territory, her posture told him. You have slighted me, and I have to bully you to make sure you know to respect me in future. "Why the double-damned hell did I have to find out the Governor was dead off the morning news?" she demanded.
Because we suspected you in the plot-and we still do, Kresh thought. He couldn't tell Melloy that, of course. Sooner or later that explanation was going to occur to Melloy, if it hadn't already. If she chose to do something about it, then there would be major trouble, to put it mildly.
For the time being, however, Kresh was resisting the temptation to give Cinta her own back. One rarely got anywhere trying to bully a bully. "This is a Spacer matter, Cinta, pure and simple," Kresh said in his most diplomatic tones. "A Spacer citizen was shot on Spacer territory. I agree that perhaps we should have contacted you as a courtesy, but there is nothing that required us to do so, and, to be honest, we had other things on our minds besides protocol. "
"Didn't it occur to you that my SSS has jurisdiction over nearly this whole damned island besides the Residence?" Melloy demanded. "Didn't it cross your minds that you might need my help? Didn't it occur to you that I might decide to see to it you got booted out of your job?"
Yes, and I took the risk eyes-open. "Cinta, we will take all the help we can get. I promise you there was no intent to insult you. " Just to keep you isolated, and to make sure you weren't running the investigation. "It was an oversight in the midst of a crisis situation, not a deliberate slight," Kresh lied, his voice sincere and his expression solemn. "Our head of state was murdered eight hours ago. Most of my people are still in a state of shock. I'm still in a state of shock. With all due respect, under the circumstances, contacting you was not the first thing on anyone's mind. I'm sorry."
Melloy took her hands off the desk, and stood up straight, slightly mollified, but nowhere near satisfied. "I'm not quite sure I believe you," she said. "It all sounds a bit too damned reasonable to be coming out of your mouth, Kresh. "
"Be that as it may, Cinta, we could use your help," Kresh said, attempting to move the conversation on into other topics. That is, we could use your help now that we're fairly sure you can't hurt us by suborning the investigation. "There are a hell of a lot of people being detained at Purgatory's transport center. The people from the long-range aircars we diverted back from Hades and other spots on the mainland could cause us some trouble. We still have all airspace shut down for the time being, and things are likely to get a bit unruly."
It was unusual for a place the size of Limbo to have a major transport center, but Purgatory was far enough from the mainland to be out of safe range for the average private aircar. The average citizen either had to use public air transport or a special-purpose long-range aircar to make the journey.
"How much longer can we keep the transport center shut down?" Melloy asked.
"Not long," Kresh admitted, not failing to notice that Melloy had said "we. " That was at least somewhat promising. "In fact, come to think of it, I didn't have the authority to shut it down in the first place. Closing the ports was almost a reflex action, I suppose. First thing I thought of. " That much at least was true. The odd supporting fact always made a lie seem much more plausible. "Limbo City and the island's airspace are in your jurisdiction. You'll have to decide when to lift restrictions. " In other words, I've made a mess and I'm leaving it for you to clean up.
"Oh, the hell with jurisdiction," Melloy said, though she didn't sound entirely sincere; How could she, given the battles she had fought over the most trivial threat to her turf? "What are you looking for? What sort of person?"
"I'm not looking for anyone, yet," Kresh said. At least no one I'm going to tell you about. Tierlaw Verick had identified Caliban and Prospero as the last ones to see the Governor alive, and they were still at large, but Kresh had no wish for a trigger-happy SSS agent to blast one or both of them down to slag. Kresh knew too many stories about SSS suspects conveniently silenced by "accident."
Kresh was suspicious of Cinta's cooperative attitude. Her behavior from anyone else would be gross belligerence. Coming from Cinta Melloy, it was all a bit too friendly.
"If you aren't looking for anyone, why are you holding people?" Cinta asked.
"Mostly what I'm after is names and addresses, identifications. Something we can run against a list of all the people who were here last night or in the vicinity. I'd like to get as many of them as possible to account for their movements last night-and I'd like to have a list of those who can't."
"It's a tall order," Melloy said.
"It's a big case," Kresh replied. "Can you imagine the consequences if we don't solve it?" Kresh hoped Cinta noticed his use of the word "we. " He did not know if she was sincerely offering her cooperation, but he was determined that he was going to rope her in as thoroughly as possible-while doing what he could to keep her away from more sensitive areas of the investigation.
Getting her people involved in dull, slogging, but essential spadework might be no bad thing at all. But there was no need to be utterly transparent about it. "Can your agents do some of that ID and interview work? I've got teams of my deputies flying in right now. I was planning to turn some of them loose on photographing and interviewing the airport detainees-but the more bodies we have on the job, the faster it will go. And, after all, it is your jurisdiction. It might be smart to make sure your people are on the scene. "
Cinta sat down, moving slowly into the seat without taking her eyes off Kresh. "We'd be delighted to help out," she said, speaking in a measured, cautious voice.
"Good," Kresh said. Kresh was rather proud that he had thought of using the SSS for all the grunt work on the case. Not that processing the people at the transit center was makework, far from it. He really did need to know who was trying to leave the island. "There's every chance that someone at the transport center was at the reception and saw or heard something-perhaps without even being aware of it. For that matter, I wouldn't be surprised if the perpetrator is out there with the rest of the stranded passengers. "
"That would be pretty sloppy work," Cinta said. "Sure, the killer would want to get off the island, but wouldn't he or she have found a way to get off without being caught? Hell, all you have to do to escape this island is disguise yourself as a rustback. "
The cheap shot about rustbacks annoyed Kresh, but he didn't allow himself to show it. "You're right, except that the killer-or killers-weren't expecting Grieg to be found so soon. They went to some trouble to insure that he wouldn't be. If his body had been discovered in the morning, I'd agree with you that the killer would be long gone by now. As it is, maybe-maybe-we were able to shut down the transit system in time."
"But what good does the killer being there do if you don't know who the killer is?" Cinta asked.
"Maybe a lot. Maybe we'll get lucky and the killer will make a slip or panic. But even if the killer doesn't reveal himself, or herself, and manages to slip through our fingers for now, having a photo and name and address-even a false one-could be damned useful later on. "
"Hmmph. Yeah. Your killer might be the only one with a phony name. Maybe. Do you expect any sort of trouble from the people out at the transport center?" Cinta asked.
"Well, Infernals aren't used to being told where they can and can't go," Kresh said. "They might get a bit unruly. We're going to need all the help we can get in crowd control and air patrol operations to keep things under control."
"You planning on my people being anything but traffic cops and crowd control in all this?" Melloy asked, a little of her old assertiveness showing through.
"Oh, of course," Kresh lied. If and when he had cleared her of complicity in the plot, then maybe he would give her people something a bit more challenging. But not just yet. "I want-I need-your agents involved in every phase of this thing. " So I can have them tied down and where my people can keep an eye on them. "But right now we have several hundred people to deal with at the transport centers, maybe a couple of thousand. We're going to need all the help we can get to sort through them all. I can't tell you what else we're going to do because I haven't figured it out yet."
Cinta grunted and folded her arms in front of her chest., 'You just see that you keep me posted. No more surprises, all right?"
"Absolutely," Kresh said, having not the slightest intention of holding himself to that. Devray had finally given him the Huthwitz lead from Ranger Resato. That he planned to sit on for a while. The one Ranger who happened to be killed guarding the Governor, the Ranger wherein Cinta Melloy had known his name without being told, just happened to be a Ranger involved in the rustbacking trade that the Governor wanted to shut down. That was just too much of a coincidence. There had to be a connection.
But damnation, when would he get a chance to deal with Huthwitz? Suddenly Kresh realized just how exhausted he was. He no longer had the slightest idea what time it was, or how long he had been awake. He wanted to keep going, to press on, but he knew that would be a mistake. This case needed a chief investigator who could think clearly, not a muzzy-headed fool playing the hero. "Look, Cinta," he said, "I'm just about to drop dead at my desk. I need to find a bed somewhere and get some rest. Can we meet a little later, when I'm awake?"
Cinta nodded. "Of course. You've been up all night. But there is one other thing. Something that seems incredibly suspicious to me, but no one else seems to be bothered by it."
"The empty house. Grieg was all alone in this-this palace. No one else at all. Doesn't that strike you as odd?"
"This Tierlaw Verick fellow was here," Kresh said. "But there's nothing unusual about there only being one person in a house. If anything, Verick spending the night is the unusual thing. "
"Let me understand this," Melloy said. " Apart from Verick and the Governor-and the assassin-there was no one in the house? In a house this large? There were no other humans at all? Just robots?"
"That's right," Kresh said, a trifle bewildered. "What is it you're getting at?"
"What I'm getting at is that there wasn't a room to be had in Limbo last night. The city was packed to the rafters-and yet Grieg's enormous residence stands empty on the night he wanted to play the host. If that happened back on Baleyworld, and the host woke up dead, I'd be damned suspicious. I'd think someone had arranged to keep the place empty so the killers would have a clear field."
Kresh frowned. "That honestly never occurred to me. Sharing your home-giving up some of your own turf-is a very difficult and unusual thing for a Spacer to do. We value our privacy very highly. Probably too highly. I suppose from the Settler point of view, it does seem very implausible. Not to a Spacer, though. We'll feed you dinner, care for you if you're hurt or sick, rescue you from danger, defend your civil rights to the hilt. We'll even put you up for the night-someplace besides our own home."
"Hmmph. Some things about you Spacers I never will get used to. I'm sure you're right, but it still seems more than a little odd to me. "
"Well, it couldn't do any harm at all to look into the point," Kresh said. "Maybe you're right. Maybe Grieg was used to a house full of people and last night was the aberration. "
"Mind if I take enough people off traffic duty to check it out?" Cinta asked.
Kresh hesitated a moment. Sandbagged. She had set him up and knocked him right over. The last thing in the world he wanted to do was let her choose what part of the investigation to head up. Suppose this was the very point she needed to muddy up in order to protect herself? How Grieg's choice of slumber-party guests could possibly matter, Kresh could not imagine, but never mind that. The problem was he could not see any way of saying no to Cinta without flatly stating that he didn't trust her. And he was far too tired to deal with the twelve kinds of hell that would be sure to kick up. "No, Cinta," he said. "You go right ahead."
But even as he spoke, he found himself wondering if he had just made the first big mistake of the investigation.READ MORE >>