IT WAS A dark and quiet killing. A grunt, a gasp, a faint groan muffled by the pouring rain as the dying man breathed his last, a thud as the body dropped to the ground. No scream, no flash and roar of a blaster, nothing but a new corpse in the night and the splattering of raindrops.
But the man was dead for all of that.
The quiet would help. With no sound to attract attention, it could easily be hours before anyone found the Ranger's body. And by then, of course, it would be too late.
No one would know until it was all over.
The killer smiled, the expression on his pale face revealing a satiated blood lust, rather than happiness. Revenge was a pleasure of a rare and delicate nature, and one that could be savored long after the event that inspired it. But enough of his own private business. He had another job, a professional matter, to deal with.
Ottley Bissal stepped over the body, and moved toward the light and glitter of the party at the Governor's Winter Residence.
The South Hall of the Winter Residence was getting more crowded, and louder. To an untutored eye, it might well appear to be a calm and pleasant gathering, the movers and shakers of this world brought together for a night of celebration, a recognition of solidarity and cooperation.
Sheriff Alvar Kresh, watching the proceedings from a quiet corner as far from the bandstand as possible, did not see it that way. Not one little bit. "Well, Donald," he said, turning toward his companion. "What do you think?"
"Most unsatisfactory, sir," Donald replied. Donald 111 was Kresh's personal assistant, and one of the more advanced robots on the planet-certainly the most advanced police robot. He was painted the sky-blue of the Sheriffs Department, and built in a short, rounded-off approximation of the human form.
High-function, high-intelligence police robots like Donald had their Three-Law potentials adjusted so as to allow them a large degree of independent action and that tended to put people off just a trifle. For precisely that reason, Donald had been carefully designed to be as unimposing, unintimidating, as possible. Donald was a robot of unassuming appearance, all rounded corners and gentle contours. "Captain Melloy's Settler Security Service forces have shown themselves to be even more inept than reputation would have them," he said. "Their main accomplishment tonight seemed to be getting in the way of the Governor's Rangers."
"As if the Rangers needed help getting muddled," Kresh growled.
Alvar Kresh leaned back against the wall and felt the thrumming vibration that seemed to pervade everything on the south shore of the island. The Terraforming Center, of course, its powerful force field generators at work, quite literally straining to turn the wind around, struggling to rechannel the planetary airflows into new and more beneficial patterns.
He glanced out the window, seeing nothing but the driving rain. Most nights on the island of Purgatory you could see the force fields shimmering in the far-off, high-up darkness, sheets of rippling, flickering color that flashed across the sky. Not tonight. Ironic that a reception concerned with the politics of terraforming was being held in the middle of a torrential downpour.
But so far as Kresh was concerned, the only question was whether the rain made the situation safer or more dangerous. It made things tough on the perimeter guards standing out in it, of course-but then, maybe a potential assassin would have a problem or two as well.
Alvar shook his head sadly. Things were a mess. If only he could bring his own deputies and robots in here to provide security. But neither they nor he had any jurisdiction outside the city of Hades. He was here merely as a member of the Governor's entourage, part of the window dressing.
Jurisdiction! He was sick to death of even hearing the word. Still, even if he wasn't supposed to do anything more than smile and make polite conversation, Alvar Kresh was not the sort of man who could stop worrying just because he was supposed to be off-duty.
Kresh was a big man, burly and determined-looking. His face was what might be politely described as strong-featured. Whatever his expression, it always seemed as if his face revealed more of his emotional state than he really wanted. Perhaps that was why he usually looked worried. His skin was light in color, and his hair, once black as Space, was now a thick thatch of white that never seemed entirely under his control. His thick eyebrows were still jet-black. They served only to make his face more expressive still. Tonight he was in his formal uniform, a rather somber black jacket worn over trousers in the sky-blue of the Sheriff s Department. His many decorations were prominent by their absence. The room was full of men and women who had done far less than Kresh, wearing medals and ribbons that would make it seem as if they had done far more, until a chestful of medals didn't mean anything anymore. Let everyone else wear fruit salad on their chests. People didn't have to know about every commendation Kresh had ever received. Kresh knew what he had done, and that was enough.
But right now he was more concerned about what else he could do. Back in Hades, the Governor's safety was his responsibility, and he was determined to do everything he could to make sure the man got back to Hades safely. Even if it meant sending his robot on an unauthorized security survey. "Go on, Donald," Kresh said. "What else?"
"I counted no less than four unsecured ground-level entryways, quite apart from the upper-story windows and the underground tunnelways, all of which have been sealed but unmonitored in recent days. I must also report that I have checked security procedure records, and these were also most disturbing. "
"What did you find?"
"The house was unoccupied for three days straight during the week just past. It was sealed, but unguarded, during that time, even though it had been publicly announced that the Governor would soon be in residence. Anyone with the simplest knowledge of security devices could have gained access during that time to make any sort of preparations."
"I assume you made your own weapons sweep of the building."
"Yes, sir. First Law required it of me. The results were negative; I found no weapons. That does not leave me easy in my mind. The fact that I did not find any weaponry does not mean there is none here. It is most difficult to prove a negative. My internal instrumentation would have detected any power weapon-unless, of course, the weapon was specifically designed to be shielded against such detectors.
"I might add, sir, that the ban on Three-Law robots adds greatly to my concern."
"Tell me about it. It took a great deal of argument before the Settlers would allow you onto the island. " The Governor's Winter Residence and its grounds remained under Spacer jurisdiction, but most of the rest of the island was controlled by the Settlers, and subject to their laws. The Settlers had a flat rule, no exception: nothing but New Law robots on their turf. Their leader, Tonya Welton, had taken an interest in New Law robots.
It was yet another example of the absurd tit-for-tat bickering between the Spacers and the Settlers. The Spacer government had banned New Law robots on the mainland. Therefore the Settlers were damned well going to ban normal, proper Three-Law robots on the island of Purgatory. All Three-Law robots shipped to the Governor's Compound from the mainland had to be powered down and shipped in sealed containers during their transit across the Settler-controlled area of the island. Kresh had obtained a waiver from the rules for Donald, but that didn't make him like the situation any more.
And the posturing and nonsense didn't stop even at the banning and counterbanning of the two forms of robots. All the Spacer movers and shakers had another audience to play to-the folks back home, the voters. And the voters were none too happy about the sudden shortage of household robots.
Of course, the very idea of a robot shortage was absurd. The latest estimates were that robots outnumbered humans on Inferno by just under a hundred to one. But most of those robots were no longer with the people. Grieg had confiscated them, sent them off to plant trees in the northern wastes of Terra Grande. Maybe-just maybe-Grieg was right. Maybe excessive use of personal robots had been wasteful. Maybe, in the current emergency situation, it made sense for robots to be put to work rebuilding the planet rather than serving as uselessly redundant servants.
But all that to one side, these days, wealth was equated, more than ever, with robots. And in these days of hardships, one simply did not flaunt one's wealth.
Kresh, however, equated robots not with wealth but with safety. The First Law turned every robot into a superb bodyguard-and suddenly Kresh didn't have any such bodyguards handy.
The Governor's Compound had a full staff of service robots, of course. They had been shipped in from the capital just a week before in preparation for the visit. Tonight, however, all but a handful of them were back in their air-cargo transport, powered down and out of sight. The Governor's Rangers were providing the catering staff-and most of the Rangers on duty seemed none too happy about it. They were, after all, law enforcement professionals, more or less, not waiters.
After the reception tonight, the household robots would be permitted to make their appearance. But tonight, with all the powerful and elite on hand, and the reception being recorded for broadcast on all the news feeds, it would not do for the Governor to be seen surrounded by robots.
Tonight, when the crowds around him were thickest, the Governor would have the least protection. In normal times, Kresh would not have worried so much. But these were not normal times.
The planet Inferno was changing, experiencing the most wrenching of upheavals. The change was needed and, perhaps, would be for the best-but for all of that, it would leave unhappy and frustrated people in its wake.
Change hurt, and some of the people it was hurting had already tried to strike back. There had been more than a few unpleasant incidents in recent weeks. Kresh's deputies had been going half mad trying to keep the lid on. It was Kresh's professional opinion that there was no way he could feel certain of the Governor's safety in public. Not without an army of robotic bodyguards.
Aside from Donald, there was not a single powered-up robot in the entire building. They should have been serving the drinks, opening the doors, circulating with trays of food, catering to whatever whim one of the guests might have-and protecting against any chance of one human harming another.
Even the guests had no personal robots in tow. It would be political suicide for any of the Governor's friends to be seen here with a flock of robots. Indeed, the whole point of the evening was to be seen without robots during the shortage. Politics made for very strange logic sometimes.
Most of the Spacer dignitaries looked a trifle lost, out by themselves. For some of them, this was the first time in their lives they had ever set foot outside their own doors without robotic servants following along.
Punishment. Shortage. It was all nonsense, of course. The new regulations limited each household to a maximum of twenty robots. Somehow, to Kresh's point of view, getting through the day with only twenty personal servants at one's beck and call did not seem that much of a hardship.
But right now, Alvar Kresh had little or no patience with politics or economics. The plain fact was that it was a lot tougher for an assassin to act if there were robots allover the place, and there weren't any such here.
In the old days, with a swarm of robots always there, always taken for granted, security had been so easy, so taken for granted, that even the most prominent and controversial public figures never gave it a thought. Not anymore. Now they could not take any chances at all. "Anything more, Donald?"
"I was more or less finished, sir. I only wished to say that the Residence is not anywhere near our usual standards for a secure area. While no threat has been detected, I am worried about the current security environment."
When Donald worried, Kresh worried. "Put our normal standards to one side for a moment. Do you regard the area to be sufficiently secure?"
"No, sir. Were these calm and tranquil times, I would be far more sanguine. However, considering the unstable political situation, and the general level of turmoil, I must urge you to speak with the Governor once again about modifying the arrangements-or, better still, canceling the reception altogether."
"I don't need any urging to talk with him," Kresh said. "I don't like this setup any better than you do. Come on, Donald, let's go have a word with Governor Grieg."READ MORE >>