Inferno (Isaac Asimov's Caliban #2)

Chapter 5

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TONYA WELTON STALKED away from Shelabas Quellam, trying to calm herself. Could the man be that much of a fool? Did he really believe that Tonya would want to limit Settler smuggling operations? Surely the Spacer intelligence services knew what she had been up to. Did Quellam even read the intelligence reports? Or maybe the intell services didn't bother-or didn't dare-to give their reports to the President of the Legislative Council.

Could anyone be that dense? Perhaps it all was nothing more than an act. But an act in aid of what? What purpose could it serve for Quellam to put the Settlers' leader in an awkward position?

"Hey! You're the Settler lady, aren't you?" a rather thick-sounding voice bellowed from behind her.

Tonya turned with a frown and found herself face-to-face with a rather bleary-faced man wearing the latest version of the Ironhead uniform. The severely cut black-and-grey outfit was rather disheveled, to put it mildly, and it was cut a half size too tight for the wearer. A few of the fasteners looked as if they were likely to give way. "Yes," she said. 'Tm the Settler lady. Tonya Welton. " Sometimes it was best to be polite to drunks. If you brushed them off too abruptly, they could get belligerent.

"Yeah, I thought so," the Ironhead said. "Robot hater. You're a robot hater," he said, and nodded to himself, as if he had just revealed some hidden truth.

"I don't know if I'd put it quite that strongly," Tonya said, "but no, I don't approve of them. Now if you'll excuse me, I really must-"

"Wait a second!" the Ironhead said. "Jus' a second. You got it all wrong. Let me explain about robots, and then you'll see."

"Thank you, no," Tonya said. "Not just now."

She turned and walked away.

"Hey!" the man cried out from behind her. "Jus' a second!"

And then he put his hand on her shoulder.

Tonya shoved his hand away and spun around to face him.

"Don't you walk away from me," the man said, and reached for her. Maybe he just wanted to grab at her again, maybe he was taking a deliberate swing at her. His open hand caught her hard across the chin, a hard slap. Trained reflex took over as Tonya dropped back a step or two and gave the man a kick to the head, sending him sprawling.

"Hey!" another voice shouted from behind, giving Tonya all the warning she needed. She heard the one behind her grunt as he lunged for her, and she ducked down to make him hit her higher than he meant to.

He slammed into her from the back, knocking the wind out of her. She grabbed for his collar and pulled him forward, using his momentum to throw him over her shoulder.

He hit the ground with a hard slap. Another Ironhead, all right, but this one in good enough shape not to look ridiculous in the uniform. He was already up, shaking off the impact, heading for her-

And then strong robotic arms were on her, and another robot made a grab for her second attacker. It was over.

Tonya struggled to escape, even though she knew it was pointless.

She hated it when someone else finished what she had started.

Now. Now. Now was the moment. The SSS guards on the door had pulled out twenty-five minutes before, just as Bissal had been promised. Nothing to worry about besides whatever Rangers might be by the door.

Ottley Bissal, hovering at the edge of a crowd of late arrivals, checked his watch for the dozenth time. Now. He pulled his quite legitimate invitation from his pocket, to have it ready in case he was challenged. He stepped into the knot of laughing, happy people and allowed himself to be swept up as they went inside.

Inside. Inside the Governor's Residence. He was here, he had made it. It was all happening just the way they had promised it would.

He felt a sense of triumph wash over him. But now was not the time for such things. Keep your mind on the task at hand. He had something under two minutes to get where he was going.

Unseen, unnoticed, Ottley Bissal hurried toward his goal.

The first Alvar Kresh knew of the altercation was the sound of it, muffled shouts and cries corning from the great hall as he was waiting to be admitted into the Governor's private office. He ran back down the hallway, with Donald far out in the lead.

Kresh rushed down the stairs, but stopped three or four stops from the bottom. A remarkable tableau greeted him. The robot Caliban was holding Tonya Welton from behind, keeping her arms pinned behind her and struggling-without much success-to keep her from kicking out with her legs.

Another robot, jet-black and somewhat shorter than Caliban, was doing his best to keep a man in an Ironhead uniform out of range of Welton's rather well-aimed kicks. As the man was doing his best to break free and rush at Welton, the second robot was not having an easy time of it. Damnation! Now Kresh remembered. The black robot was Prospero, one of the more visible of the New Law robots.

The robots and the humans they were restraining were surrounded by a pack of astonished party-goers, four or five Rangers in waiter's uniforms clearly on the alert, but not quite sure what to do. The whole room was in a general state of turmoil.

Kresh realized that another Ironhead was out cold, flat on his back, a bit too close to the flailing would-be combatants for anyone to get to him and render aid without risking the receipt of a misaimed punch or kick. Donald, however, had no reason to fear injury from anything a human could dish out, and would not have cared if he did. He rushed between Welton and the conscious Ironhead and got to the man who was down.

"All right, quiet! " Kresh shouted, with enough authority behind it that the crowd went quiet. Kresh made his way down the last few stairs, and the wall of people parted in front of him. He was tempted to ask what had happened, but he knew damn well that was the best way to get everyone talking and shouting allover again. At least Welton and the still-conscious Ironhead had been distracted enough by his entrance to calm down a bit. Kresh turned to the Ironhead first, still being held by the black robot.

"You," he said. "You, the Ironhead. What's your name?"

"Blare. Reslar Blare," the man said. "She started it. Deam was just corning up to talk to her, and she kicked him in the head!"

"Talk!" Welton said. "He talked to me with a punch in the head."

"Sheriff Kresh! Sheriff Kresh! " Kresh turned to see Simcor Beddle pulling at his sleeve, looking rather more flustered and anxious than a short, fat man in a uniform could without looking ridiculous. "These two men are not Ironheads," Beddle announced.

"Then why are they wearing your damned comic opera uniforms?" Welton demanded.

"They are not Ironheads, I tell you!" Beddle protested. "I know all the men and women entitled to wear uniforms of their rank-and I have never seen these two before! Someone has sent them to cause a provocation and blame us!"

That was nearly plausible, Kresh admitted to himself. Beddle had been trying to move his people a bit closer to respectability in recent months, with more of an eye toward the ballot box than bullyboy techniques.

"All right, Beddle," he said. "We'll find out who's who. " Kresh turned to Tonya Welton. This could be tricky, damned tricky, if she decided to make trouble. A diplomatic incident and then some. Best to try to smooth her feathers, if he could. "Let her go," he said to Caliban, careful not to address him by name. Why get the crowd agitated allover again by reminding them which robot this was?

Caliban hesitated. Damnation, Kresh thought. Hard to remember he doesn't have Second Law. On the other hand, he doesn't have First Law either. What the devil was he doing breaking up a fight? "It's all right. I don't think Madame Welton is going to do anything unwise."

Caliban let the Settler leader go, and she pulled herself away from his grip without a great deal of good grace.

"Don't take it out on the robots, Madame Welton," Kresh said, before she could say anything to Caliban. " All they did was break up the fight. "

"Maybe so," Welton said, "but I don't have to like it. "

"No, you don't," Kresh agreed. He looked around the room full of staring faces and decided he didn't want this much of an audience while he was sorting this out. Not unless he wanted a fresh shouting match-or fistfight-to break out. What with a New Law and a No Law robot and allegedly false Ironheads and a Settler mixed up in this already, he didn't need any further complications.

Just then, three Settler Security Service agents came rushing into the room. They had been dozing somewhere on duty, no doubt, when someone had summoned them. Well, they could be of some use now, just the same. "You three. Take charge of these two men," he said, pointing out Blare and Deam. "Donald!" Kresh called out. "Front and center!"

Donald was still kneeling by Deam. "Sir, this man is unconscious-"

"Is he in any immediate danger?" Kresh demanded, bullying Donald just a bit. "Will he come to harm if these SSS agents take care of him?"

"No, sir," Donald conceded. "He is in no immediate danger."

"Then let someone else care for him and find someplace for me to talk to Madame Welton in private."

Kresh always assumed that, in the case of a public brawl, witnesses would contradict each other and get muddled about what happened when and who did what to whom.

With luck, he could calm Tonya Welton down here and now, get a coherent story, and find some way to slap her attackers on the wrists without a lot of formalities, and make it all go away by morning. It was, after all, just a brawl, and it did not make much sense for it to take up too much of his time or anyone else's. He doubted that Tonya Welton would wish to spend much time as a witness in a police court.

In short order, Donald had found a vacant sitting room and ushered Tonya Welton in. She sat down on a low couch, while Kresh took a chair opposite. The three robots, Donald, Caliban, and Prospero, came in as well, and remained standing.

Kresh was not too sure about having Caliban and Prospero there. Although standard Three-Law robots could not lie, there was, so far as Kresh was aware, nothing to prevent these two from telling any story that came into their heads. On the other hand, there was no danger that their reactions or memories would be colored by panic or surprise.

"All right, Tonya," Kresh said. "What happened?"

"Not that much to tell," she said. "I had been talking to Sero Phrost and Shelabas Quellam. I was crossing the room when this Deam fellow came up to me. He was almost polite at first, if maybe a bit drunk and aggressive. I think he wanted to explain some fine point of Ironhead philosophy to me. Maybe he thought that if I just got this one point, then the scales would fall from my eyes and I would be converted to the true way, or something. "

"Sounds familiar," Kresh said.

"Anyway, as I said, he seemed a bit drunk, and I really didn't want to talk with him, so I made some sort of polite excuse and started to leave. He grabbed me by the shoulder, and I pushed his hand off. Then he either made a grab for me and missed when I ducked, or else he tried to punch me and succeeded. Anyway, he caught me a good one right on the jaw. I fell back and then gave him a kick in the side of the head. It was all reflex reaction. Then the other one came and grabbed me from behind. I threw him, he got up-and then the two robots grabbed us. "

"Neither of us saw the beginning of it, but that is how Prospero and myself saw it end," Caliban said.

Kresh ignored the robot. He shouldn't have spoken unless spoken to in the first place. "Well, that should be all we need to know, Madame Welton. We'll try not to pester you with any more questions if we don't have to. My sincere apologies, and I'm sure the Governor will wish to add his own at the first opportunity. "

"I quite understand," Tonya said, standing up. "Feelings are running rather high just at the moment. There are bound to be-ah-incidents. So long as the two men who attacked me are properly punished, I will be quite satisfied."

"Thank you for that, Madame Welton. That is a most generous attitude. " Kresh thought for a moment. Maybe they could get all this over with right now. "If you wish, Madame Welton, I could question the two men here, now, in your presence, with Donald recording. We could have you done with your part in all this in a few minutes."

"I would appreciate that. "

"Fine. I'll call them in."

"Sir, perhaps now would not be the most-"

"No, Donald. The sooner the better. " Kresh had worked with Donald long enough to know what he would have said next. The suspects should not be questioned in front of their accuser. Strictly speaking, Tonya Welton should be treated as just as much of a suspect as the Ironheads, as it was her word against theirs. That might all be strictly true from a standpoint of criminal investigation, but it wasn't much good in terms of politics. "Private voicephone, Donald," Kresh said. No sense in Welton and the robots listening in. "Put me through to the head of the SSS Residence detail."

Donald opened a compartment on his side and extracted a telephone handset. It gave off a gentle beep as Kresh put it to his ear. "Senior Agent Wylot here," a hard-edged voice announced.

"Yes, hello. This is Sheriff Kresh. We're in Room 121, on the south side of the ground floor. Could your people escort the two Ironhead suspects in here?"

"Ah, what Ironhead suspects would those be, sir?"

Kresh frowned. "The ones three of your agents took into custody ten minutes ago. "

"Sir, I don't understand. We got the order to withdraw from our posts in the Residence half an hour ago. I'm talking to you from my aircar, heading back to base. "

"Then who the hell took charge of those men?" Kresh demanded.

"I don't know, sir-but I can tell you they weren't SSS. We never use a three-person team."

"Why the hell not?"

"Bad tactics in a security operation. The third agent gets in the way. We use single agents and pairs, but the next largest formation is six. "

"Was the entire SSS unit withdrawn?"

"Not so far as I know, sir. Just the agents working the front door. It was all arranged beforehand. Once the guests had arrived, we did a handoff to the Rangers. Their turf."

"I see," Kresh said, though he definitely did not. "Thank you, Agent Wylot. " He handed the phone back to Donald and looked to Welton. "Those weren't SSS agents who picked up Deam and Blare," he said. "Impostors, it would appear."

"What?" Welton said. "Why in the devil would anyone pose as SSS agents?"

"To extract their men before we could ask any questions, presumably."

"But why?"

Kresh smiled coldly. "As we can't ask any questions, we don't know, do we? How about it, Donald? Do you have anything?"

"Sir, I have used a hyperwave link back to headquarters and run an ID check on the names and images of the two men involved in the-incident," Donald said. "They do not appear on any of our Ironhead watch lists. Indeed, they are not listed in any database of residents of, or visitors to, this planet. They are on no list to which I have access."

"So who the hell were they?"

"I have no idea, sir. They are either off-worlders or locals operating under elaborate disguise, or Infernal residents who have either never been registered or have found some way of altering or expunging their records. Sir, if I may pose yet another question," Donald said. "Where was the SSS during the attack? Surely they should have been able to get to the scene faster than they did. "

The agent on the phone had an explanation for that, but Donald could not know what it was from hearing Kresh's side of the conversation. Nor could Welton, for that matter. It might be worth hearing her version. "Madame Welton? They're your agents. Can you tell us that much, at least?"

"What the hell are you trying to accuse me of?" Welton snapped. "Staging an attack on myself?"

It's an interesting possibility, Kresh thought. But I'll worry about that later. Besides, i/you did have it staged, you'll have a plausible explanation for why your people never showed up. "Furthest thing from my mind," Kresh lied smoothly. "But you are the senior Settler present. Perhaps your Security Service agents were ordered to some other duty for some reason."

Welton shook her head. "Not to my knowledge. I checked the deployment plan four hours ago, and there were supposed to be six agents based at the front door."

"There were indeed six SSS agents on duty when Prospero and I arrived," Caliban said.

Kresh ignored that as well. "Did you know of any arrangement to withdraw them or redeploy then?" he asked, still addressing Welton.

"No, but there's no particular reason why I would. I don't keep track of where every Settler on the planet is. My staff has more sense than to bother me with such trivia. "

"Trivia? That's just the problem," Kresh said. "Why in the devil would anyone bother with such an elaborate scheme to extract two barroom brawlers from the scene of a trivial offense? It had to be riskier than leaving Deam and Blare to face charges."

"It is a rather cumbersome way of doing business," Tonya Welton agreed. "But there's another odd feature-it makes it look very much like the whole thing was planned. "

Kresh nodded. "You're right," he said. "The phony SSS agents came in right on cue."

"Begging your pardon, sir," Donald said, "but there is a rather clear inference to be drawn. As the effort involved was too great to justify the minor attack on Madame Welton, it seems to me that the attack on her was part of some larger operation. The attack was a diversion."

"Hell! You're right, Donald," Kresh said. "And it's worked beautifully."

"But what?" Tonya Welton asked. "Diverted you from what?"

"It's like the questions we can't ask the men that aren't here," Kresh said. "We don't know precisely because it worked."

He stood up and shook his head. "One thing I do know. Donald and I were on our way to have a little chat with the Governor on the subject of security before all this happened. I don't think we'd best delay it any longer. " Sheriff Kresh nodded to the leader of the Settlers and left the room, followed by Donald.

Kresh was halfway down the hallway before something else very strange occurred to him. He stopped for a moment to think it through. Caliban and Prospero. They were neither of them bound to prevent harm to humans. Caliban had no Laws at all, while Prospero's First Law was modified. He was enjoined against doing harm to humans-but there was nothing that forced him to prevent harm. Once he had left the scene of the fight, Kresh hadn't thought about it, any more than he would have been surprised to find that the rain made him wet. After all, it was part of the natural order of things for robots to break up fights.

"Donald," he said. "You seemed unconcerned to see Prospero and Caliban restraining the combatants, yet you knew neither of them was possessed of the full First Law. Weren't you at all concerned?"

"No, sir, I was not. My dealings with New Law beings have been rather limited, and I have but rarely encountered Caliban. However, I have thought a great deal on the question of how to predict the behavior of sentient non-humans that do not have the Three Laws. "

"'Sentient nonhumans that do not have the Three Laws. ' That's a mouthful."

"I do not feel it appropriate to refer to beings such as Caliban and Prospero as robots," Donald replied.

Kresh couldn't help but be amused by Donald's hairsplitting, but he did have a point. "How about calling them 'pseudo-robots' instead?"

"That does seem less cumbersome. In any event, I concluded some time ago that the best way to deal with such pseudo-robots is to assume they will react in the same way as a rational human being would-with a basis of self-interest, and with a certain limited amount of altruism. Once the two pseudo-robots had restrained the combatants, I had no reason to fear for the humans at their hands, any more than I would have feared them being attacked by two humans acting to restrain them."

"But why did they do it?" Kresh asked. "They were under no compulsion to act. "

"As I said, sir, enlightened self-interest. To put it somewhat crudely, by acting to protect human beings, they made themselves look good."

"Donald, I am surprised. I never suspected you of cynicism."

"It would depend on the subject under discussion," Donald said, a bit primly. "On the question of beings who pretend to be human for gain, I think you will find me to be nothing if not suspicious. Shall we go talk with the Governor?"

"By all means," Kresh said, working hard to hide a smile from Donald.

Tonya Welton watched the Sheriff and Donald leave, then got up from her seat and smiled at Caliban and Prospero. "I have not had a chance to thank both of you properly, " she said. "I fear I wasn't very gracious about your restraining me, Caliban, but you were quite right to do so. Things could have been much worse. "

"I am pleased to have been of help," Caliban replied, feeling a bit uncertain.

"Thanks to you as well, Prospero," she said.

"It was a pleasure to be of service," he replied.

"I must return to the party," Madame Welton said, "but once again, I do thank you for your assistance. "

Caliban watched as she left. Of all the humans Caliban knew, Madame Welton was perhaps the most baffling of all. She seemed to insist on treating any robot, all robots, as full-fledged human beings, even in the case of low-end units where it was patently absurd. Perhaps it was some strange principle or other that she felt obliged to uphold, but even so it was confusing. Did she treat Caliban and Prospero with respect because she felt they deserved respect? Or only because doing so annoyed the Spacers?

"Do you think we did the right thing?" Prospero asked. "Was it wise to ape the behavior of standard robots?"

"I am not sure," Caliban said. Things were so difficult to judge. He, Caliban, was capable of things Prospero was not, and that might well prove useful in the near future. It would be wise to avoid reminding people of that. "Certainly no one could fault us for it, and certainly we could not have stood idly by-that would have looked very bad indeed. But bringing ourselves to the attention of Sheriff Kresh-if things go wrong, that could have a very high price indeed. We must tread most carefully if our plans are to succeed. "

Alvar Kresh and Donald found Chanto Grieg, Governor of the planet Inferno, standing in the shadows on the upper landing, looking down, unseen, over the room full of smiling, laughing people. "The evening is off to a good start, aside from Beddle's entrance and the Welton incident," Grieg said as he saw them approaching.

"Aside from those things, yes, sir," Kresh said. "But they are a great deal to leave to one side."

"Oh, Beddle was bound to do a little grandstanding, and I don't think that one little scuffle is anything to concern us. I should be able to make my entrance to good effect," the Governor said. "And make it strictly according to plan. Don't you think so, Sheriff Kresh?"

Sheriff Alvar Kresh grunted noncommittally as he stepped to the Governor's side. Maybe to a politician, a room jam-packed with all manner of people was a good thing. Not to a policeman-and especially not to a policeman who was outside his jurisdiction and standing next to a man who received a half-dozen death threats a week. But still, the question deserved some sort of polite answer. "It's a splendid party, Governor."

Alvar leaned over the rail next to Grieg and ran his fingers through his thick white hair-something he only did when he was on edge. He glanced over his shoulder at Donald. It had to be his imagination, of course, but it seemed to him that Donald looked just as ill at ease as Alvar was himself.

The thought was ridiculous, of course. Donald didn't have expressions-or emotions to express, for that matter. His face was nothing more than two immobile, glowing eyes and a speaker grill, as motionless and unreadable as could be.

But for all of that, Donald did seem edgy. Kresh shook his head to himself. He was imagining things. It happened when he got jumpy.

The Governor should never have come to Purgatory with the situation as unsettled as it was. But then, from the politician's point of view, it was the very fact of things being unsettled, out of control, that made a visit here necessary. The Governor needed to be seen as in command, in charge, secure enough to host a party and a conference. That he plainly wasn't in control only made the need all the more urgent.

Grieg glanced over at Alvar and smiled again, but there was something stiff, theatrical, about the expression, and a glint of something very like fear in the man's eyes. He knows, Kresh thought. That was the damned thing about it. Grieg knew perfectly well that he was taking his life in his hands tonight. It wasn't that he was deluding himself, or ignoring the danger, or brushing the warnings aside. He knew-and yet he went on anyway. Kresh could admire the man's courage, but that didn't mean it didn't scare the hell out of him.

Chanto Grieg was a bit over fifty standard years, barely more than a youth by the standards of the long-lived Spacers. He was a short and dark-skinned man. Tonight he was wearing his shoulder-length black hair in a thick, ropy braid at the back of his head. He was a bit on the sharp-faced side, with dark brown eyes. He was wearing a handsome burgundy suit, set off with black piping at the shoulders and waist. His black trousers had a burgundy stripe down the outer seam. He presented a striking appearance.

There had always been something hunted-looking about him, however much he might try to hide it with charm and smiles. These days, the charm was as strong as ever, but the hunted look was getting easier and easier to see. Chanto Grieg was a man who heard footsteps behind him, and was trying to pretend he did not.

And Alvar Kresh heard the footsteps just as loudly-and he could not afford to pretend otherwise. Dammit, he had to try one more time. He had to. "Sir, a word, just a quick word. Can we go back to your office for a moment?"

Grieg sighed and nodded. "Very well. It won't do any good, but very well."

"Thank you, sir. " Kresh took Grieg by the arm and led him back up the stairs, back toward Grieg's office. At least it had a proper armored door. No one could get in or out unless Grieg let them in.

Grieg put his palm on the security plate and the door slid open. They stepped into the room, a handsome, if spartan, chamber. Alvar Kresh looked around with more than passing interest. He had only been in here once before, briefly, years before, during some sort of signing ceremony Grieg's predecessor had put on. It was, after all, a famous room. A lot of historic occasions in the life of the planet had happened here-back in the days when Inferno had history. The island of Purgatory had been the first part of the planet to be settled, centuries ago, and there had been some sort of Residence for the Governor on the island ever since. The current building was only a century or so old, but it still had the resonances of a planet's biography.

A desk with a black marble top sat at one end of the room, the desk's surface completely empty, not so much as a fingerprint on it. A vaguely thronelike chair stood behind the desk; facing the desk were two slightly uncomfortable-looking audience chairs, just a trifle lower than standard height.

Amazing. Alvar thought. Even here, in the private working office of the Governor's winter vacation home, they had played the game.

A game that was a relic of the past, of the last century, as much as the room itself. Back then, Inferno's architects and craftsmen were still at least willing to play up to the cultural mythology of the Spacers, even if they did not, strictly speaking, believe in it anymore.

Infernals were Spacers, and, the myths told them, Spacers were a proud and mighty people. in the vanguard of human progress. It was therefore fit and proper for the Governor who represented a planet of such splendid people to appear a little larger than life. Put him in a higher chair, arrange things so he looks down upon his visitors.

This place had been designed and built in the last century. These days, no one would even bother with all that nonsense. No one had the confidence, the arrogance, to pull it off anymore. No, that's not quite it, Alvar told himself. It'd be closer to the truth to say they could no longer bring themselves to go through the motions. Back then they could still brazen it out. Even a hundred years ago, no one had believed the myth anymore, but they had all played along. Now, no one could even pretend to believe. And yet Inferno was covered with buildings of that era, palaces of thundering arrogance, constructed to demonstrate wealth and power and influence that had already been ebbing away when their first stones were being set in place. Inferno was full of rooms like this, symbols of power that had shriveled away, become no more than memorials to power.

There were other clues to show how much the state of affairs had changed, some of them in the form of things that were no longer there. No fewer than four robot niches lined the wall behind the Governor's chair. Time was, the Governor could not be seen in public with anything less than a full quartet of robots in attendance. Now the niches stood empty. Governor Grieg rarely used even a single personal robot.

But the biggest clue was no doubt off in the far corner of the room, as far as possible from the Governor's desk, as if no one wanted to put the terrible truth of the future too close to the glorious fictions of the past. It was a simglobe unit, smaller than the one back in Government Tower in Hades, but still sleek and impressive. It was a holographic display system that could display the planet's appearance and condition as of any moment in its recorded past, or any moment in its future, projecting planet Inferno's response to varying circumstances. The main projection unit was a metal cylinder about a half meter across and a half-meter high. It could display the globe of Inferno in hundreds of different ways, from short infrared to a false-color image of the projected humidity at two thousand meters above sea level a hundred years from now.

It was a Settler-built simglobe, of course. The Settlers made all the best terraforming and terraforming computation gear. In fact, they pretty much made the best of everything, these days. Except robots, of course. Robots were the only thing Spacers did better, and that was by default. No Settler wanted anything to do with robots.

Spacers were on the way down. The Settlers had passed them by, leaving them so far behind that they didn't even consider the Spacers a threat. These days, Spacers were charity cases.

After all, the Settlers were here to help reterraform Inferno, supposedly out of the goodness of their hearts-though Alvar doubted that. And, most galling of all, the government of Inferno had no choice but to accept their help-or watch the planet die.

Grieg stepped into the room, turned his back on the grandiose desk, and sat down in the center of a low couch near the simglobe. Choosing the real future over the imagined past, Kresh thought. Grieg seemed to be putting on a show of being relaxed and at ease. He stretched out his legs in front of him and put his hands behind his head.

Alvar sat down in an easy chair facing the couch, but there was nothing easy or relaxed about his posture. He sat down on the edge of the chair, leaning forward, his arms resting on his knees. Donald followed a discreet distance behind Kresh and stood at the back of his chair, just far enough off so as not to seem to be intruding.

"All right, Sheriff," Grieg said. "What's on your mind?"

Kresh didn't know exactly how to begin. He had already tried all the logical, sensible approaches, produced all the subtle, vague bits of intelligence that told him something was wrong without telling him what. None of it had worked. Tonya Welton's vanishing attackers, and the false SSS agents, were the most concrete things he could point to-but even they were maddeningly unclear.

The hell with it, then. Nothing careful or reasoned. No recourse to rumor or vague whispers of threat. Just blurt it out. "Sir, I have to ask you once again to think about a lower profile here. This island-this whole planet-is in chaos. It is my professional judgment that you are placing yourself in extreme danger by attending this function. "

"But the reception has already begun," Grieg objected. "I can't cancel out now."

And up until now, you've put me off by saying you could cancel at the last minute if things got out of hand, Alvar thought. Typical of the man that he would try to have it both ways. But there was no point in saying that. "Plead off with a headache or something," Kresh said. "Or just let me come out and take the blame. Let me cancel the whole party right now, blame it on a security alert. Blame it on the attack on Welton. I could say there was a threat to your life. " That much at least would be true. Alvar Kresh's desk was overflowing with threats against the Governor-half of them linked to this visit.

"But what in Space does an attack on Welton have to do with me?" the Governor asked.

Kresh told him about the bogus SSS agents whisking away the attackers. "It's a very strange circumstance," Kresh said. "It's the sort of thing that seems like it should be a diversion-but a diversion for what? What is the direction we weren't supposed to look in? I have to assume that it was related to you in some way."

"Sheriff, be reasonable," Grieg said. "Half the most powerful Infernals and Settlers on the planet are here already. Can you imagine the political damage if I hustled them all out into the night and the pouring rain because some drunk got the worst of it in a scuffle with the Settlers' leader? How am I supposed to explain to my guests that the Sheriff of Hades was worried one of them might take a shot at me? I have to negotiate with these people tomorrow morning. I can't make much progress with someone I've accused of attempting my murder."

"Then plead illness, " Kresh said. " Announce pressing business back in the capital. Get back to Hades, and hold a party there. A bigger one. A better one. Hold it in Government Tower, where we can do a decent job of protecting you."

"Kresh, can't you see that it would defeat the whole point of the exercise to entertain the Settlers there? That would as much as confess to the whole planet that the Spacers own the island of Purgatory. One island is just the thin edge of the wedge, they'll say. Next thing you know they'll be taking over the planet. You know the Ironhead line. You've heard Beddle spout it often enough."

"Yes, sir. "

"Then you know why I had to entertain them all here, be the host here. Show them this is still the Governor's Winter Residence. Here, on the island of Purgatory. Show that Purgatory is still Spacer territory, Infernal territory. I'm here showing this is still our planet, our land, even if we have temporarily ceded some jurisdiction for the moment. I can't make that statement by hunkering down in that fortress of a tower."

"Sir, how much can any of that matter?" Kresh asked. "Who the devil cares about all that posturing? No one outside of the Ironheads cares if the Settlers have partial jurisdiction over the island."

"Damnation, Kresh, don't you think I know all that? Do you think I care who runs this or that patch of this damned rock? It's all nonsense, and it sucks up my energy and attention, takes me away from all the things that do matter. "

"Then why risk your life with all these appearances? It's not as if this is the first time. "

"Because if I don't look to be in control, I can't govern. The bill of impeachment cleared the first subcommittee today, did you know that? Or did you know that twenty percent-twenty percent-of the voting population has already signed that damned recall petition?"

"I didn't know the numbers were that high, sir, but all the same-"

"All the same, if they get me out of office, Quellam takes over. He'll cave in to the pressure to hold a special election rather than serve out my term, and in one hundred days Simcor Beddle will be Governor of the planet! He'll kick the Settlers off-planet the second the last vote is counted-"

"And the terraforming project will collapse without the Settlers around to support it. I understand all that. "

"Then try and understand that as of right now, I still have the political strength to fend off the recall and the impeachment. Just barely. I can ride it all out, until the situation starts to improve. But if I show any weakness, or indecision, or if I even appear to knuckle under to the Settlers, I go down, Quellam takes over, and Beddle comes in. "

"Then can't you talk to the Settlers? Ask them to back down just a bit? Renegotiate the jurisdiction agreement?"

Grieg laughed and shook his head. "You do amaze me sometimes, Kresh. You're so good at your job, and certainly that involves politics enough. You proved that when you solved the Caliban case. So consider the politics in my job. It shouldn't be too hard-there's nothing else to my job. Don't you think the Settlers know that if I go down, Beddle comes in?"

"Yes, sir, I suppose so. "

"The Settlers also know that they aren't exactly the most popular group on the planet. If they were seen as supporting me, they'd be cutting their own throats. They know that if they want to build me up, they have to be ready to lose a fight or two in order to do it."

"So they're going to cave in?" Kresh asked. "You've talked to them? The fix is in?"

Grieg smiled, but in a cold, hard-edged way. There was nothing of pleasure about his expression. "Oh, no. Far from it. I can't afford to have secret agreements with the Settlers. Not with the number of people out there trying to dig up any dirt they can on me. And I assume that Tonya Welton and the other Settler leaders would find it just as embarrassing if someone uncovered a secret codicil between us.

"I believe the Settler leaders have come to the conclusion I have just described, but I don't dare ask them-and they certainly aren't going to volunteer the information. And bear in mind, they have to placate their own reactionaries. It may well be that Tonya Welton feels obliged to take the jurisdiction issue right to the wall."

"But you don't think so," Alvar suggested.

"No, I don't. I think that she and I will work through our little ritual battle for the sake of the masses, and at the end of this weekend I will be able to announce a settlement on terms highly favorable to us. And then, next time, it will be my job to do a favor for Welton. There will be some battle she needs to win more than I do, and I will put up a good fight and then surrender gracefully."

"Politics," Alvar said, scorn in his voice.

"Politics," Grieg agreed cheerfully. "The pointless, useless, self-absorbed, time-wasting charade that makes everything else possible. Without the meetings, the compromises, the smoothing out, the posturing and posing, we would not be able to deal with each other. Politics is the way we try and get along with each other-and we do try. Think about the mess things are in most of the time. Can you imagine the state of affairs if we didn't make the attempt?"

"But staging a fake confrontation with the Settlers just to keep the Ironheads happy? Pretending you care about who owns which scraps of useless wasteland just to keep the electorate happy? What possible use can that be?"

Grieg lifted his hand and shook an admonitory finger at Alvar. "Be more careful with the facts, Sheriff. I only said I thought it was a false confrontation. It might actually turn out to be real. I must assume it is real in any event, so what difference does it make? Besides, I would submit that keeping the people happy does me a great deal of good. The more content the people are, the fewer recruits there will be for the Ironheads. "

"But you're wasting your time on all this nonsense when there is a planet to save! You should be concentrating on the terraforming project."

Grieg's expression grew serious. "You must understand, Sheriff. All this is nonsense-but it is an integral part of the terraforming effort. I need political cover if I am to have room to maneuver. If I am to get labor and materials and data, I am going to have to get them from the people that control them. It would do me no good at all to stare at engineering plans all day if the Ironheads got strong enough to pressure the engineers into refusing to provide their services."

"But what use is it expending so much of your energy on this charade over jurisdiction?"

"Oh, it's a very great deal of use. It short-circuits the Ironheads, keeps them from having an issue to use against me. It reassures the people that I am looking out for their interests-and perhaps by my bowing to their wishes this time, I will earn a bit of credit with them. Perhaps they will be patient with me, willing to go along with me on some other, more meaningful issue. I need to do some things to maintain my political standing. I might have the best intentions in the world, but I can't do much good if I am impeached."

"Well, to be blunt about it, Governor, you can do even less good if you're assassinated. "

"That thought has crossed my mind," the Governor said with a note of grim humor. "But if I just holed up in some bunker under Government Tower to hide from the assassins, then not only would there be no way to kill me-but there would be no need to kill me. It would be such an admission of weakness and fear that I could do no good anyway."

"Sirs, if I might interject-"

"Yes, what is it, Donald?" Kresh asked. To an outsider, it would surely have seemed incongruous, to say the least, for a mere robot to interrupt a conversation between the planetary Governor and the Sheriff of the planet's largest city. But Donald had worked with Kresh for years, and Kresh knew that Donald would not speak unless it was something that would be of help to Kresh.

The robot turned and addressed the Governor directly. "Sir, there is a factor that you have not considered. "

"And what might that be?" the Governor asked, smiling a bit more openly this time. Clearly, he found the idea that Donald could contribute to the conversation highly amusing.

Careful, Governor, Alvar thought. Don't underestimate Donald. It's always a mistake. People often assumed Donald was as subservient as his appearance made him seem. They were wrong to do so.

"I cannot permit you to attend the reception," Donald told the Governor. Scarcely the words of a meek robot.

"Now just a minute-"

"I am sorry, sir, but I am afraid that the conversation I have just heard, coupled with the incident downstairs, has so heightened my concern for your safety, and my belief that the evening as planned will be dangerous to you, that First Law constrains me to prevent you from leaving this room."

" 'A robot may not, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm,' " Kresh quoted with a chuckle.

Grieg looked at Donald, opened his mouth as if to protest, and then thought better of it. Sensible of him, Kresh thought. There was no appeal against a robot driven by a First Law imperative-especially an Inferno-built robot. The planet had a tradition of setting First Law potential very high indeed. Grieg had to know that arguing with Donald would be about as effective as shouting at a stone wall.

Grieg turned toward Kresh. "You set him up to this," the Governor protested. "You had this planned."

Alvar Kresh laughed and shook his head. "Sir, I wish I had set it up. But Donald deserves all the credit."

"Or all the blame," Grieg said, still rather irritated. He turned to the robot. "You know, Donald, it's remarkable, really, how soon one forgets."

"Forgets what, sir? The need to take reasonable precautions?"

"No. It's remarkable how soon one forgets the habits of slavery."

"I am afraid I don't understand, sir. "

"Not so long ago I sent my own personal robots away," Grieg said. "I started taking care of myself. And I discovered that I no longer had to be careful about what I said or did. All my life, up until that time, I had been careful. I knew that if I phrased something a bit too adventurously, or stood a trifle too close to an open window in a tall building, or reached for a piece of fruit that had not been sterilized, you robots would rush in to protect me from myself. A year ago, I never would have dared discuss my personal safety in front of a robot-precisely because the robot would overreact in just the same way you have now. I would not have dared say or do anything that might upset a robot. My robots controlled my actions, my words, my thoughts. Who controls whom, Donald? Human or robot? Which is the slave, and which is the master?"

"I wouldn't suggest repeating that pretty speech in public, sir," Kresh cut in, thinking it was probably best not to give Grieg the chance to play any more word games. "Not unless you wanted to face an Ironhead lynch mob."

Grieg laughed without humor. "You see, Donald? I am a slave to robots. I am the Governor of this world, and yet I dare not speak out against them, for fear of my life. How does that square with your First Law? How does a robot deal with the knowledge that its very existence could cause harm to humans?"

"There are low-function general-purpose robots who would experience significant First Law cognitive dissonance when asked that question," Donald said. "However-"

"Donald, damnation," Kresh said. "The Governor was asking a rhetorical question. "

"Forgive me if I was in error. I thought the Governor required me to answer."

"As I do, Donald," Grieg said, grinning at the Sheriff. Kresh sighed. "You were saying?"

"I was saying that I am a police robot, with my Third Law potential especially strengthened so as to allow me to witness unpreventable harm to a human in the course of my work and survive. The bald statement that my existence harms humans does not cause me any meaningful distress, as I know it to be untrue. Beyond that, I would observe that you did not make any statement to the effect that robots harmed you. "

"I did not?"

"No, sir. You said that being near robots caused you to be more careful of your safety, and that expressing your opinion of robots-not robots themselves-might expose you to danger at the hands of your enemies."

"This has ceased to be amusing," Grieg said. "I am going to attend my own reception."

"No, sir," Donald said. "I am prepared to restrain you physically in order to prevent it."

"Excuse me, but I think there is a compromise possible," Kresh said. "Donald, would you regard the Governor as being sufficiently protected if the security robots in the basement were activated and deployed? Protected enough so you could allow him to attend the party?" There were fifty Security, Patrol and Rescue robots in the basement. SPRs, or Sappers, were sentinel robots. They were powered down for the moment, but ready for use if needed in an emergency. Ten more SPRs had been flown in with the Governor, but those were still stored in a cargo flier, a deep reserve. The ones in the basement could be deployed much more quickly.

Donald hesitated a moment. "Very well," he said at last. "I could permit it under those circumstances."

"Governor?"

"The publicity of all those robots around," the Governor said. "I don't know."

Good. He was weakening. "We play up the security threat," Kresh said. " And we urge the camera crews to keep the robots out of frame as much as possible."

"Hmmm. The camera crews were supposed to clear off shortly after my entrance in any event. All right-if you make an announcement beforehand that it is a security precaution. If you cause the trouble, Kresh, you're going to take the blame. "

"Believe me," said Alvar Kresh, "nothing could make me happier than taking the blame for surrounding you with robots."

It took far less time to change all the arrangements than anyone had expected. It took a mere twenty minutes for a pair of Rangers to power up the security robots and deploy them, and it would have taken less time than that if they hadn't lost time working on one defective robot.

It didn't take much convincing at all to get the press to cooperate, once Kresh made a few dark hints about an unexpected security problem and the possibility of remaining danger. Normally, the Governor was fair game for all sorts of sour coverage-but no one in the press pool was going to twit him for accepting security precautions in the face of a real threat to his life.

And so, in very short order, Governor Grieg was able to attend his own party, making a first-rate entrance from the top of the formal staircase, with a grand and swelling fanfare playing as he descended with everyone cheering and applauding even more loudly than they had for Beddle. Somehow, it all fell into place, and Grieg got exactly the boost he had been looking for. In the twinkling of an eye, the Governor stopped being the man in danger of impeachment and became the dynamic leader, the man of the hour. It could all change back just as fast, of course, but that was in the nature of the beast. For now, it was working. Grieg was in the center of a swirl of noise and light, a focus for adulation.

He stepped off the bottom of the stairs. He spotted Kresh in the crowd and came. over. He pumped Kresh's hand, patted him on the back, and leaned toward him. "I think it's going to be all right," Grieg half shouted into his ear. "But thank you for your concern. We'll talk again tomorrow, you and I. There are some important things I need to tell you. There isn't time to cover them properly tonight."

"Yes, sir," Kresh bellowed back. "But first you go and have a good time tonight. "

"I will, Sheriff, I will," the Governor said, and made his way into the press of the crowd.

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