Inferno (Isaac Asimov's Caliban #2)

Chapter 8



COLD. COLD. COLD. Ottley Bissal struggled to keep the aircar flying but he could not stop shaking. He was chilled to the bone, drenched by the pouring rain, but there was more to it than that. Fear, terror, reaction, whatever the demons might be called, they were with him, inside him, freezing his blood, making his teeth chatter.

Keep steady, he told himself. Concentrate. Focus on your flying. He was well inside the Limbo City traffic pattern now. By now he should be safe-but Bissal had never been the best of pilots, and he had just been through flying conditions to challenge the most skillful of fliers. He was spent, exhausted.

Huthwitz. Huthwitz had been a mistake. They had found the body, and he had had far too close a call.

At least now the worst was over, but there had been plenty of worst. The nightmare of mistakes and improvisation at the Residence, the close call in evading the police, the long walk through the drenching rain to the hidden aircar, the struggle to find it and get it open, the flight back to the city at low, detection-dodging altitudes-there was none of it he would ever want to go through again. But he had made it now. All he had to do was ditch the car and get to the safehouse. No problem. It was over. Everything was going to be all right.

But he still could not stop shaking.

Fredda Leving came in out of the rain and stepped into the Grand Hall of the Governor's Residence. Alvar Kresh was there to meet her, Donald at his side.

Fredda took one look at the Sheriff and knew, knew that it had nothing to do with Prospero. There was nothing angry, or accusatory, in his expression. It was nothing to do with her-and yet she instantly found herself wishing that it were. For there was a great deal more to read in Kresh's expression. Something much, much worse than robotic misbehavior.

"Grieg is dead," Kresh said. "A blaster shot through the chest."

Fredda blinked, shook her head, stared at Kresh. "What?"

"Dead. Murdered. Assassinated," Kresh said.

Fredda could find nothing to say. She wanted to deny it, to say no, it couldn't have happened, but one look at Kresh's face told her that it had. Finally words, some sort of words, came to her. "Sweet burning hell. How could that happen?"

"I don't know," Kresh replied, his voice flat and hard. "Come in. " He turned and led her down the hallway to a small room that had been pressed into service as a command post. The place was swarming with robots and Sheriff s Department deputies, working, conferring, talking into comm units, faces tight and grim. "Sit down," Kresh said, and Fredda obeyed, setting herself down in an absurdly festive-looking couch with an overdone floral pattern.

Somehow everything seemed extra real, excessively solid, every meaningless detail suddenly vitally bright and hard. sitting there, at that moment, Fredda knew that every moment of this night would be with her forever, burned into her memory and her soul for all time. "How did it-did it-"

"We don't know," Kresh said. "But I need you to help me find out, and I have very little time. Grieg's security robots should have protected him-but they didn't. I need to know if someone tampered with them. You have to find that out for me, now, tonight. But-"

"But what?" Fredda demanded. And yet, somehow, she already knew the answer.

"But we haven't been able to move him yet," Kresh said. "My robots and technical people are still examining the crime scene. It's not pretty."

Fredda nodded, feeling nothing more than numb. "No," she said. "No, I don't expect it would be."

Fredda had never seen a dead man before, let alone a murdered one. That much she had in common with mainstream Spacer society. Death was too distasteful to be permitted to intrude on one's life. But even if she had seen a roomful of corpses, it would not have prepared her for the sight of Chanto Grieg slumped over, murdered in his bed. His body-his ruined corpse-was all the more ghastly a sight for the sheer normalcy of it all. A tired man at the end of a long party goes to his rest, sits up in bed to read for a time before turning out the lights.

And someone puts a blaster bolt through him. There he lay, in his pajamas, in his bed. A private, almost intimate setting. She felt like an intruder, an interloper. She did not belong here. She had no right to see this. No one did. She felt a strange impulse to chase them all out, the deputies, the Crime Scene robots, Kresh and Donald. She wanted to chase them all out, leave herself, and let the man have his death in private.

"Let him rest in peace," she said, the words a half whisper.

"I beg your pardon, Dr. Leving?" Donald asked. "What did you say?"

"Peace," she said. "Why can't you let him rest in peace?" She shut her eyes, tried to blot out the sight. She wanted to turn her back on him, let him be-but she could not help herself. She opened her eyes and looked again.

Chanto Grieg was-had been-her friend, her sponsor, her patron. But all that was as nothing. What matter who or what this man was to her when the time and manner of his death was a catastrophe for the planet? This was history, a moment she would be called upon to remember for the researchers and the archivists for the rest of her life. She would be remembered for being here, tonight. And Chanto Grieg would be remembered, not as the man who saved Inferno-or at least tried to save it-he would be remembered as the Governor somebody killed. His place, his rightful place, in history had been warped and distorted for all time. And that felt like the worst intrusion of all-

"All right," Fredda said, though nothing at all was right. "All right. Let me look at the robots. "

"Over here, Doctor," Donald said. There was something gentle, careful about his voice. Fredda felt the slightest of pressure on her arm as he turned her around and she saw the ruined security robots, still in their wall niches. She saw instantly what had bothered Kresh. None of them had moved before they were shot.

"That can't be," she said. "No one should have been able to get past one SPR, let alone three. Sappers are too fast. "

"That's what I thought," Kresh said. "And it's worse than that. Every single one of the upper-floor SPRs was destroyed by blaster fire. "

"But the whole idea of Sappers is that they keep in continuous contact with each other," Fredda said. "Almost like a linked mind. If one of them saw something, all of the others would know about it. There's no way anyone could have shot one unit in an SPR team without the other SPRs being instantly aware of it-and calling for help. So why didn't that happen?"

Kresh gestured toward the blasted robots. "There they are, Doctor. You tell me."

"Is it all right for me touch them?" Fredda asked. "What about fingerprints and so on?"

"The Crime Scene robots have already done a full exterior scan, " Donald replied. "I think if you wear surgical gloves, and have a Crime Scene robot do an interior scan of any compartments you open, that should suffice. You are quite right to be concerned about fingerprints. With a bit of luck, whoever tampered with the machines left a fingerprint or two somewhere on one of the robots' interior surfaces. "

"Good. Good," Fredda said, a bit distractedly. She wasn't really listening all that hard. There was a puzzle for her to solve, and it was already absorbing her attention. Which was fine with her if it got her mind off the dead man in bed on the other side of the room. "Then let's get to it."

Fredda made no move toward the robots. Something was missing, something she wasn't seeing. And then she got it. The robots had been shot through the chest, the same as Grieg. Even to Fredda's unpracticed eye, they were obviously aimed shots, precise enough so that it could not be mere chance the robots were all shot in the same place.

But chest shots didn't make sense. The best way, the only sure way to kill a robot, was with a shot to the head, where you would be certain to destroy the positronic brain. There was no particular reason why a shot to the chest would kill. There were no equivalent structures to the heart or lungs whose destruction would insure instant death.

If you did enough damage, cut enough circuits, yes, that would do it. But you could not be absolutely sure to the degree you wanted to be with a trio of fast-moving, aggressive security robots corning at you.

Unless, of course, you knew everything there was to know about this particular model of security robot, knew exactly how powerful a blaster shot it would take for a chest shot to kill-and if you knew they were not about to come at you.

Well, all right, that would at least explain why the shooter didn't need a head shot. But that didn't explain why the shooter did need a chest shot.

Unless-unless there were something in the chest the killer wanted to conceal. And if that were so, vaporizing that something would certainly serve to hide it. There was a way to test that idea.

"I don't need to examine these robots just now," Fredda said. "Maybe later. First I want to see one of the other Sappers that was shot. "

"Of course, Doctor," Donald said. "Come this way."

Donald led Kresh and Fredda out into the hallway and toward a slumped-over heap on the floor. Fredda knelt down beside it and looked it over.

"This one at least looks like it was in motion, heading toward the scene, when it went down," Kresh said.

"No," Fredda said. "I don't know much about blasters, but I do know how paint reacts to heat on robot bodies. Welding, laser cutting, that sort of thing. Maybe you were meant to think this robot was moving when it was shot, but it was as inert as the others when the blaster got it. "

"How can you be so sure?" Kresh asked.

Fredda pointed to the blaster shots. "Look at the chest shot. Virtually identical to the shots on the bedroom robots. That was the one that killed it. "

"So?" Kresh said.

"So look at the paint-melts. The melts from the two smaller shots overlap the death shot. The killer blasted the robot in the chest from close up, then he or she got artistic. Either the robot fell over or the killer knocked it over and then backed off to do the other shots from a greater distance after the robot was already down."

"You're right," Kresh said. "I should have spotted that. "

"Well, your weapons analysis people would have seen it sooner or later. I only saw it because I was looking for it."

"Looking for it?" Kresh asked. "Why?"

"Because these robots were not shot because the killer needed them dead," Fredda said. "They were shot because that was the fastest way to destroy the evidence of tampering. My guess is that there was some sort of gadget attached to the circuitry in the center of the chest, right under the central access panel. "

Fredda realized she was still staring down at the dead robot. A shot just like the one that killed the other robots. Just like the one that killed Grieg. Grieg dead. Sweet stars in the sky, Chanto Grieg was dead. She shut her eyes, took a deep breath, and tried to pull herself together. This was not the time to grieve. Not when the whole planet was about to fall apart.

"Sir, Doctor, if I might interject?"

"Yes, yes, Donald," Fredda said, collecting herself. "What-what is it?"

"The Crime Scene robots have just posted some initial results to the hyperwave datanet. It concerns weapons analysis that might have some bearing on all this."

"What sort of results?" Kresh asked.

"Range, power, and sequence estimates, sir. "

"What are those?" Fredda asked.

"Ways of determining various characteristics of the weapon that fired a given sequence of shots," Donald said. "The energy front of a blaster shot widens out as it moves forward. Measuring the radius of the blaster wound or mark gives an indication of range. By combining measures of the intensity of the wound or mark with the range estimate, we can derive the power of the blaster during each shot. As blasters drain their power somewhat with each shot, the first shot tends to be the most powerful, with each subsequent shot less and less powerful."

"It doesn't always work, though," Kresh said. "With a high-capacity power supply, the power fall-off from one shot to the next can be undetectable."

"In the present case, sir, we are more fortunate. Preliminary analysis shows a pronounced power fall-off with every shot. "

"All right, Donald," Kresh said, a note of weary patience in his voice. "What's the punchline?"

"The shot that killed Governor Grieg was indeed the first one fired. "

"I'll be damned," Kresh said. "Score one for you, Dr. Leving. If he was shot first, then the robots had to be shut down already. No reason to shoot them unless there was something that needed hiding. Except most of the robots downstairs weren't shot. Why not?"

"Maybe if I take a look at some of them, I can find out what the-the assassins were trying to hide," Fredda said. She had an idea or two already, but she was not ready to say anything yet. Not until she had something more than a theory.

"I'll leave you to that," Kresh said. "There are certainly plenty of SPR robots for you to examine. I do appreciate your help. You've already done me a larger service than you know. However, there is another duty I must perform in the meantime. Donald, you're with me."

"Yes, sir. " The short blue robot made a slight bow toward Fredda. "Dr. Leving, it is good to be working with you again, albeit under such grim and unpleasant circumstances."

"Thank you, Donald, " Fredda said. The robot and the policeman headed down the stairs toward their improvised command center. Fredda stood up and looked down at the ruined robot. What a waste, she thought. What a miserable, useless waste.

Alvar Kresh knew the evil moment could not be put off any longer. It was time to put in a call to Justen Devray of the Governor's Rangers. Two hours had passed since Kresh had discovered the body. The one bright spot was that, having thought about it, he could see no jurisdictional reason to call Cinta Melloy or the SSS at all. So far, at least, this was strictly an Infernal affair.

No doubt sooner or later the SSS would get mixed up in it as well. Major investigations had a way of spreading out. But at least he did not have to deal with them now. As little as he trusted the Rangers at the moment, he trusted the SSS even less.

Kresh sat down at the portable comm station his team had set up and punched the call to Devray.

Fredda Leving stood in front of Sapper 23. The robot was still standing, even though its power had been cut. It, along with most of its fellows on the ground floor and a few on the upper floor, had simply stopped dead, instead of being shot with a blaster. Why?

It was an inert lump of metal, literally dead on its feet. Fredda pushed down on the release stud, and there was a click from inside the robot's chest. Now she could open the panel.

Fredda, feeling awkward in her surgical gloves, and distracted by the Crime Scene Observer robot hovering over her shoulder, pressed down on the lower exterior stud that would pop open the front access panel, now that it was unlatched. Sapper 23 stared down at her, unseeing, unnerving her. Most robots had power-down controls in the back, with a simple access cover anyone could open. But that, clearly, would never do for a security robot. You had to be right in front of a Sapper, watching it watching you, and you had to open a panel it controlled before you could shut it off. Except this robot was already off-and that was not supposed to happen.

The access plate swung open and Fredda stepped back, allowing the tiny Crime Scene Observer robot to hover in and do a full surface scan of the interior before she touched anything. The CSO flitted down until it was directly in front of the access panel. It extruded a tiny probe and directed it over every surface of the panel's interior. The probe moved rapidly, fussily over the interior. At last it beeped to indicate it had done the scan and then backed off. Something about its motions reminded Fredda of the hummingbirds that the Settlers had just introduced onto Purgatory.

Fredda's tool kit was open on the table next to her. She pulled out a clip light and a defastening tool. She attached the light to the lip of the power access panel and then used the defastener to pop open the maintenance panel inside. She lifted out the panel and set it down on the table, then stepped back to let the CSO robot do its job.

The maintenance chamber's interior was far more complex than the switch chamber, and it took Fredda a moment to find what she was looking for.

Or, more accurately, to confirm that what she was looking for was not there. But it had most decidedly left its mark.

She smiled and stepped back from the Sapper. "Get me a magnified scan of the entire exposed surface in there. Maximum definition. "

The tiny robot moved in and set to work, and Fredda watched. It was a good first step. There were all the other robots to check, of course, and she would have to be careful, thorough. But she felt a bit of excitement, of pleasure, all the same. She was starting to see how they did it-whoever they were.

But that sensation of pleasure did not last long. Because then she remembered what they had done.

Justen Devray was at his desk, working on the Huthwitz case, when the call came. "Damnation, Kresh, why the devil did you wait two hours to tell me?" Justen Devray was angry, and felt he had the right to be. He glared at the comm screen, feeling dead tired, horrified, and angry all at once. But not surprised. Somehow, he did not feel the least bit surprised.

"I had my reasons, Commander. Not the most pleasant reasons, but reasons-and I would prefer not to discuss them over a hyperwave line-even one that is supposed to be secure."

"Very well," Devray said. "I will be at the Residence in twenty minutes. Have you informed the SSS yet, or did you call me before Cinta Melloy?"

Kresh's image in the viewtank shifted a bit, and the man looked uncomfortable. "I was not proposing to inform the SSS at all at this point. They will find out soon enough. "

"The hell you say. Kresh-have you taken leave of your senses? This is not some drunk who's been rolled in an alley. It's the assassination of the Governor. You have to call in every law enforcement service available. "

"I agree, Commander. However, I am not certain whether it is wise to consider the SSS to be a law enforcement service so far as this case is concerned."

"What the hell are you saying?" Devray demanded.

"I'm saying I don't know whose security the Settler Security Service is interested in. It is possible that it is not ours. Please get here as soon as you can. "

Kresh cut the connection before Devray could say anything more-but Devray realized he had very little to say in any event. Kresh had all but come out and said he suspected the SSS of complicity in Grieg's death. And, try as he might, Devray had to accept that it was possible.

But there was something far worse than that. The only reason Devray could see for Kresh to delay notifying the Rangers was that he suspected them as well.

And while it pained Devray to the depths of his soul to admit it, he knew damned well that was possible as well. He thought of Emoch Huthwitz, dead in the rain, and of all the things Devray had learned about Huthwitz in the last few hours.

He got moving.

The rain was letting up, and the sun was showing signs of rising in the east as Fredda Leving popped open the interior maintenance chamber on yet another SPR robot. Fredda was vaguely aware that the world outside the windows was getting lighter, but she was too tired for more than that.

She had lost track of the number of robots she had examined, but that didn't matter. She could do a count later. Right now her job was to be thorough, to check every single SPR. At least she was getting faster at the job. If not for the need to do the interior scans searching for evidence, she could have been in and out of a given robot in twenty seconds. That in itself was an important piece of information.

But it was not enough. So far, she had only found minute traces, all but undetectable signs of what she was looking for. She could see the tiny scratches left behind when some sort of device had been removed from the robots-two tiny marks in the main power bus. Fredda was all but certain that those marks were the traces of some sort of cutoff device, some way of deactivating the robots by remote control. But guesses and being all but certain were not enough. So far, whoever had removed them had been as thorough removing them as she had been in checking.

But maybe that was not going to hold. After all, she had all the time in the world, and the fact that daylight was coming on did not concern her. She had no fear of sudden detection or something going wrong with the plan. But whoever had done this the night before-with the corpse of the Governor upstairs, the rain lashing down, with the clock running and all the lights off, that person might well make a mistake.

Fredda wanted to get on to the next robot, and skip the scan. She resisted the temptation, knowing that the scans were important. The robot could detect any number of things that might be hidden from human view. A bit of dust or a smear of dried sweat or a flaked-off bit of skin or a piece of tom thread that might reveal something about the person who left it behind. Perhaps even a fingerprint. Perhaps something unexpected.

So far nothing. The opposition had been very careful. But if they had made just one mistake-and Fredda found that one mistake-that would be all it would take.

At last the scan was done and the observer robot moved back out of the way. Fredda closed the robot's inner and outer access panels and moved on to the next unit.

It was disconcerting to stare up into those dead, designed-to-intimidate eyes and then reach down and open the robot up. Not so long ago, the average Spacer would not, could not, have imagined being afraid of a robot. But Fredda knew times had changed. She herself was the one who had let the genie out of the bottle. She had made dangerous robots with her own two hands. There was no longer any technical barrier to making a robot without any Laws at all. And nothing to stop someone from dressing a killer robot up to look like, for example, an SPR unit. After all, she had established to her own satisfaction that these SPRs had been tampered with. Someone could install a No-Law gravitonic brain in one of them and then-and then-

No. It did not bear thinking about. Fredda was so tired she could hardly see straight, let alone think straight. Concentrate. Concentrate. Open the outer panel. Let the observer hover in and sniff around. Try and keep your eyes open. Pop the inner panel and-

– And swear to yourself in a low monotone. Fredda didn't need any observer scan to tell herself she had found something. The opposition had made a mistake, all right.

A big one.

Simcor Beddle, leader of the Ironheads, stood in front of his comm unit in his fine silken pajamas, a soothing cup of tea in his hand. He watched as his robots operated the comm unit-though, at the moment at least, he had no interest in calling anyone. He was far more interested in who other people were calling. He had ways-not all of them strictly legal-of finding out.

His comm unit was highly sophisticated, capable of pulling in all sorts of signals not generally available to the general public. Right now it was tracking encrypted police traffic, and Beddle's staff had not managed to crack those particular encryption routines. But still, one could learn a lot by listening, even if one did not know the language. The robots operating the system were pulling in the signals, analyzing message traffic density patterns, getting triangulations to find signal sources.

It was one of Simcor Beddle's basic beliefs that there was no such thing as a secret. True, if a matter was of no importance, it could be kept quiet-but then what did it matter? A secret was only a secret when people wanted to know it. But when the people in the know cared about some supposedly hidden news or event, they would act on what they knew. By so doing, they would reveal at least some part of the secret to anyone who cared to pay attention.

The Ironheads always paid attention. Beddle saw to that. Their transition from a mob of bullyboys to a legitimate political force was far from complete, and they needed every possible advantage. The right bit of information at the right time could be of the most vital importance-and so Beddle's household staff robots had awakened him the moment police-band hyperwave message traffic had started to build. It didn't matter that the messages themselves were encrypted-that police band activity had taken off exponentially was in itself a rather loud and clear message.

So too was the command to turn back all outgoing air traffic from the island. That certainly could not be kept quiet for any length of time-but no explanation had been offered for it. Even so, Beddle could see the aircraft being turned back on his extremely illegal repeater displays of Purgatory Traffic Control. Beddle could likewise see the stream of vehicles with Sheriff s Department designation codes, corning straight from Hades for the Governor's Residence. The latest development was the stream of Ranger vehicles converging on the Residence. It was not lost on Beddle that the SSS was yet to stir.

What the devil was going on? It was plainly obvious that the Governor's Residence was the focal point of it all, but what did it mean?

In plain point of fact, Beddle had a theory or two about what had happened. Simcor Beddle was a man willing to set loose cannons in motion, if the potential benefit outweighed the danger. But the days when Beddle or the mainstream Ironheads could tolerate being directly linked to violence were over. Covert links were another question, of course.

Beddle thought for a moment. No. There was no one who could be traced back to him. Unless one of the old plots from the old days had come alive again, unexpectedly. There were one or two old operatives who had simply disappeared. If it were one of them who had come to the surface again-

No. No. That could not be. The odds against it were too long.

But never mind the question of who. The question of what was far more important. And if he was right about what the police were reacting to with such energy, it was time to move, and move fast. This turn of events could be a tremendous opportunity, assuming one moved with a certain degree of care.

But suppose he was guessing wrong? Reacting to news that had not happened might put him in a rather awkward position, to put it mildly.

Simcor frowned, displeased by the conundrum. But then his face cleared and he smiled as he handed his teacup to his attendant robot. There was no need to worry. It was impossible to keep a secret. All would be known within a few hours, and that would be soon enough for the sort of actions Simcor had in mind. There was no hurry at all.

He smiled to himself and gestured for his attendant robot to lead him back to bed. He walked behind the robot, his rolling gait stately, dignified, calm. All was going well.


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