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Tendrils & Tentacles

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Our first anthology
of genre micronarrative.

“Surprising quality”
—John O'Neill, Black Gate editor

by Dan Dysan

“I don’t think he’s listenin’ so good, boss.” Rill Besser held the Nidge by his shirt-front. The smaller man’s feet dangled almost a foot off the ground as Rill easily held him with one hand. Rill shook his victim briefly, as a terrier shakes a rat, his other fist cocked back to deliver another blow. “Should I hurt him some more? Maybe I should toss him outa the airlock.”

“Na,” Lat Vilkis decided, “I think you got his attention. Set poor ol’ Nidge down and don’t hurt him—don’t hurt him just now, that is. After all, Nidge is going to do us a favor by bringing us some business, aren’t ya Nidge?”

“Yeah, sure, Lat—I mean Mister Vilkis—whatever you say.” Reluctantly, and with exaggerated care, Rill placed the small weasel-faced man on his feet.

Saved from immediate death, Nidge began to babble. “The mark is some rich inner-system guy. He’s got his own ship, so he’s got to be loaded. He went to the public record hall and all the mining company offices and even the archive at the War Museum looking for something. Wanted help finding this something—wouldn’t tell me what. Said he was tired of the red tape—willing to pay real money to someone who could cut through the bull. Someone who could get things done. Well, naturally, I thought of you—ah—Mister Vilkis.”

“It’s a good thing you did remember who’s boss.” Lat smiled at Nidge like a kindly uncle. In fact, Lat Viklis looked like somebody’s favorite uncle, tall but thin, with sandy brown hair, and a slightly pained expression on his face (the ulcer again)—not physically menacing at all. Lat left the menacing part to his hulking bodyguard.

“He make ya nervous, Nidge? My ape scare you? How ’bout I shut him off for a while—gesture of good will.” Lat turned to his man.
“Rill, relax. Take a break.”

“Thanks boss.” A frightening vacant smile washed across Rill’s face for an instant as he fished in his belt pouch for the wirehead set. He was big enough, almost seven feet tall, and after all these years he was still in great shape, even though Lat had never seen him working out or taking muscle stims or even Prolong treatments. Heavy ridges of bone shadowed his dark vacant eyes.

The wire was thin and red; the jack in Rill’s skull was lost in an untidy shock of greasy, jet-black hair running low on his forehead. His massive fingers moved with surprising delicacy as Rill plugged the wire into his head, starting the trickle of juice into his brain. The perpetual scowl vanished from his face as void filled Rill’s eyes.

Nidge straightened, or rather, his cringe became less pronounced. He studied the immobile thug with the wire trailing out of his head. “Is he out of it?” Nidge straightened a little more.

Lat made a move toward his goon. “He comes out of it fast if I pull his plug. Fast and mean—real mean. Wanta see?”

“No, no! That’s not necessary.” Nidge was talking fast again. “I said I’d wait for the mark at Jocko’s. Maybe you better be there too.”

“Yeah,” agreed Lat. “Maybe I better be there instead of you. “Cause you are going to be busy finding this mark and telling him to meet me at Jocko’s.”

* * *

“Rill! Take that thing out of your head this instant. This is important. We gotta look sharp tonight.”

Rill’s voice was sulky as he reached a hand up to touch the thin wire trailing out of his scalp. “I ain’t givin’ it no juice, boss. I just like feeling plugged in. Light’s low. No one’ll see I’m wired.” Under the withering stare of his master, however, Rill moved to unjack.

Rill’s huge fingers deftly plucked the wire from the socket in his skull and cradled the wirehead set in his hands. “Coulda said it was a data feed. Who’s to know?” Rill made sure his muttering was too faint for his boss, Lat Vilkis, to properly understand. Lat wasn’t listening anyway.

Although the cut and material were expensive, the clothes hung loosely on Lat’s frame. It wasn’t that he couldn’t afford to eat, rather it was worry—worry and a constant ulcer that whittled the meat off his bones. Lat had had the ulcer fixed twice already, but it kept coming back. He sure couldn’t afford to have a new stomach cloned just now.

“Who’d a thought this dump would die so fast?” Lat returned to the subject that occupied all his waking thoughts. Lat Vilkis was in the habit of talking to himself. In truth, Rill wasn’t much company and Lat Vilkis usually ignored his bodyguard. Most days he even let Rill get juiced on the job. ’Course, that was because now with the mines closed, most days there wasn’t any business to be done and it didn’t much matter if Lat’s only torpedo was spacin’ on the chaos way.

That was the great thing about juice. It was relatively safe—assuming you remembered to eat. Some people got so caught up in the rush they starved to death. Prolonged use could cause permanent brain damage depending on where the jack was located. There was no hangover from the wire and depending on where in the brain you placed the jack you could get pleasure, pain, sexual gratification beyond what was humanly possible, or in the case of Rill, sweet oblivion through randomly generated brain noise. When he was plugged in, Rill didn’t think at all—just surfin’ sweet static. It was hard to tell if the wire had fried Rill’s brains or if he had been stupid to begin with. Either way, Rill came off the wire as dumb as a post, but that was no problem. He obeyed orders without question, and that was a good thing.

They sat in the bar for another hour, at their usual booth, surrounded by elegance gone seedy. Jocko’s had never been large, but almost empty of people, it seemed huge. Lat could remember when Jocko’s had been the place to be with long lines stretching down the corridor and a squad of bouncers to keep the crowd under control. Now a class three meteor could punch through the place and likely no one would be hit. There was no music. The only sound was a clattering rattle coming from a bad bearing in one of the ventilator fans.

“Point Station is done for,” Lat muttered for the thousandth time. “This may be our last chance to get off this dying rock, and I don’t want you blowing the deal.”

Rill stared blankly back at him, hurting for the wire.

Point Station orbited close in around a white dwarf. The system was simple—no habitable planets, just two jovians in the outer reaches and the thick asteroid belt where the mines operated farther in sunward. If it hadn’t been for the rich ores once common in the belt, there would be no reason for people to inhabit the system.

Lat had known that once the mines shut down, the economy of Point would implode. He just hadn’t expected it to happen so fast. The Big Operators had gotten out right away, leaving room for smaller fish to move in to the power vacuum their departure created. The temptation to take over what was left of the vice industry in the system was too much for Lat to resist. He’d enjoyed almost one year of power before the end came. That was when Trans Galaxy Lines dropped Point Station from their scheduled runs. That effectively cut the flow of people and money coming into Point Station.

What was left of the station’s economy crashed. Everyone smart, anyone who could book passage on a tramp spacer got out then. Lat didn’t. It had been half a standard year since the last ship had docked. The price of a ticket on that long-gone ship had been half a million credits—more than he, vice lord of Point, had been willing to pay. There’d be other ships he thought. Big mistake.

“If I get out of here, I’ll make a clean start. Nobody will know me. Clean record. I can go it straight.”

“Huh, boss?” Rill asked in confusion, looking around the bar in surprise as if he wondered how he’d gotten there.

Lat Vilkis gave him a withering look that was lost on the big man. “Nothing. I was talking to myself.”

Lat wondered again how he ended up stuck with such a loser as his only bodyguard. It just wasn’t fair. Here he was, kingpin of what was left of the whole station’s underworld, and this was the best he could hire? It just went to show how small a pond Point Station had become. He should have blown this crummy habitat two years ago.

A stir at the door ended Lat’s musings. Three people wandered into the nearly deserted bar, blinking in the dim light. “Here they come,” Lat hissed. They were dressed in the height of Innerworld fashion. It couldn’t be anybody else coming into this dive at this time in the early afternoon. Tourists on Point were non-existent.

Lat sat up in his chair, pulling his clothes straight. Got to look professional. Suddenly he noticed that Rill was still fondling his wire set. “Put that thing away right now!” he hissed.

Rill looked mournfully at the wire and stuffed it deep into his belt pouch. He tried to look alert and menacing, but a vague scowl was the best he could manage.

The trio had crossed the empty bar to stand before their table. “Mr. Vilkis?” The older man in the lead made the inquiry. The man was elegantly dressed, gray-haired and wrinkled in spite of Prolong treatments. He must be ancient. There was something about him that said academic. Standing deferentially behind him, the others were youngsters; baby-fat still softened their features. Too young for Prolong, Lat estimated. The boy, tall and blond with blue eyes, looked typical enough in his doublet, hose, and metallic shorts. The girl, dressed in a simple shift, had green eyes and red hair framing a heart-shaped face. She was pleasant-looking in a girl-next-door sort of way.

Lat ignored the two youngsters to concentrate his attention on the distinguished-looking older man. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m Lat Vilkis. I hear you’ve been looking for something. Well, if it’s something available on Point Station, I’m the guy who can find it. Want to tell me what you’re after?”

Uninvited, the old man sat down at the table. His entourage took their seats to either side of him. The man set a small device on the table and suddenly the sound of the malfunctioning air conditioner vanished as a privacy field surrounded them in its protective bubble. Lat tried to stop his eyes from going wide in surprise. The thing was a third the size of the smallest privacy generator he’d ever seen. New tech—costly tech worth a passage offworld even at the going rate with some cash left over.

With credit signs flashing behind his eyes, Lat smiled. The rich old man smiled back. “Mr. Vilkis, my name is Professor Hugh Greenwood Griffin of Xeno-anthropology department of New Oxford University on Old Earth. This is Mr. John Shinka, my pilot, and Ms. Susan Woodford, my research archivist. I’m here on a research project and I’ve been told you are the best person to help me. I will give you two days—standard, not local day—to find what I want to know. Then, if you can’t produce, I’ll open the offer to anyone. I want the location of the old Patrol base—the command and repair base out in the asteroid belt left over from the last war. The secret base—the one that gave Schwearpunct Station its name.”

Their names were ancient—traditional Earth names. Lat had never heard such names outside of old prediaspora earth media. Lat stalled for time to think. “Schwearpunct—nobody calls it that anymore. It’s just Point now.”

The war years were ancient history—forgotten as soon as possible. Lat had heard wild stories about fabulous, lost, wartime installations. But in three hundred years of mining the asteroid belts since the war ended there’d been no sign of any Patrol base. Most people thought it had passed legendary and moved on to tall tale. “What do you want with the patrol base?”

Professor Griffin’s smile widened. He suddenly resembled the image of an Earth crocodile Lat had seen in an educational database as a child. The image had haunted his childhood dreams for years. “That is my business, none of yours.”

“However,” Professor Griffin continued, “if you find the base for me, your reward will be passage off-world for yourself and, shall we say, one associate.” Professor Griffin nodded at Rill. “That and a hundred-thousand-credit lump sum. You will be required to accompany us on the mission to the abandoned Patrol base—it’s where our ship is going next. And our ship is your passage out of here. Interested?”

Lat struggled to keep the greed out of his eyes while Rill struggled to look interested. “Like I said, I’m your man.” Lat hoped he sounded confident. “If anyone can find out for you, I can.”

Lat’s mind went into overdrive. Why did the professor want the old military base? Salvage rights? Three-century-old military secrets? What thing could have held its value after being abandoned there so long? More important, how was he going to find out where the base was? In all his years on Point he’d never even heard a rumor of any kind of treasure in the asteroid belts beyond mineral rights. The belts had been searched thoroughly over the years by everyone from huge mining concerns to small-time prospectors. If there were some sort of secret base out there, someone would have stumbled over it by now.

The clatter of failing ventilator-fan ball bearings announced the collapse of the privacy field and brought Lat back to himself. Professor Griffin and his people were standing. The Professor pocketed his expensive device. “Two days,” he said. “Good luck and good hunting.”

* * *

Lat spent the first standard day pulling every contact he still had left. Nobody knew anything, or if they did, nobody was talking. Only one day left and Lat was grasping at straws. He’d been going now from bar to bar, searching for Captain Posser, an old prospector. If anyone was likely to know the secrets of what was hidden in the asteroid belt, Posser was the one. Only when he finally found him, Posser pleaded ignorance.

“I tell you, there ain’t nothin’ there,” Posser insisted. “If there was, I’d have heard about it. Nobody found anything like that. No patrol base, no signs of military installations, no secret government hideouts. There may have been that kind of stuff once—I mean Point got its name because it was the spearpoint for the war effort. You know, schwearpunct—spearpoint. It’s some Old Earth language, German, I think. But whatever might have been here way back then, the government pulled it all out three hundred years ago. Take it from me; there’s nothing out there.”

Posser had been Lat’s last hope. And now that was gone too. He needed to get off this dying hole of a station. This might be his last chance. He was left to plotting ways to hijack the Professor’s ship. If he claimed he’d found the base, then he and Rill could get aboard the ship. Then they’d have to play it by ear. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was the best Lat could come up with. In preparation, Lat was keeping Rill off the wire. He’d need Rill as alert as possible when they got to the sharp end.

The situation was having an obvious effect on Rill. The big goon was in a very bad mood, hurting for his juice. His beetled brows were knit in a furious scowl. The few people they met in the corridors sensing the barely contained explosion scurried to get out of Rill’s way fast.
Lat found his feet taking him back to Jocko’s. He entered the nearly empty place with Rill on his heels and went straight to the bar, ordering a drink. “Boss, you’re drinkin’. That mean I can plug in now?” Rill sounded increasingly desperate.

Lat was in a bad mood. Ignoring the tone of his bodyguard’s voice, Lat answered. “No! Can’t you understand the word no? We’re in trouble and I need you sharp. There ain’t no Patrol base out there—or if there ever was, nobody knows where it is or what happened to it.” Lat’s voice sank to a moan. “Without that base, we’re doomed. So shut up. I gotta think!”

Rill blinked slowly several times, deep in thought. “But Boss, I know where the Patrol base is. If I tell you, can I have my wire?”

* * *

“I tell ya, Boss, I wouldn’t lie to ya. I know where the base is ‘cause I used to work there.”

They were back at Lat’s house. Actually, bunker would have been more accurate. The place was armored in duro-plast that would stop any civilian-legal small arms—anything short of the kind of stuff the Patrol carried. It was the most secure and private place Lat knew of. He’d bought it when Boss Edovic jumped for greener planets two years ago. He got it for a song. Now, it wasn’t worth half a song.

Lat studied his goon. With Prolong, it was hard to judge a person’s age. Rill had worked for him for nearly ten years and he didn’t look a day older that the first day they’d met. Still, neither did Lat. Prolong allowed a person to live a hundred fifty standard years no trouble, maybe two hundred if you were lucky. But three hundred years—and still look so young? It didn’t seem likely.

“You never said anything about workin’ at any Patrol base. Why should I believe you? You just want the wire. You’d say anything to get the wire.”

“Boss”, Lat said simply and with chilly logic. “If I wanted the wire that bad, I could just quit. Even if you took my wire and wouldn’t give it back, I could just break your neck. You couldn’t do nothin’ to stop me.”

Lat blanched as he considered that. He’d never even considered the possibility of Rill being a threat to him. In fact, since he’d been off the wire, Rill had lost much of his dazed and confused look. His walk becoming more brisk; the shambling shuffle gone. The big man was sounding more focused than he ever had before, his speech becoming clearer. He had been almost thirty-six hours off the wire, longer than Lat had ever seen him go without the wire before.

“I don’t like talking about my Patrol days. It’s not like they were much fun. That’s why I like the wire. It makes me forget.” Rill’s eyes were focused on something long ago. “Some things you don’t want to remember.”

Lat was becoming convinced in spite of himself. Still, he argued on. “How can you be old enough to have served in the Big War? That was three hundred years ago.”

Rill’s answering smile was bleak. “Special Forces. They did a make-over on us.” Rill thumped his chest. “I’m built for strength, not beauty—tough. Lots of mileage left on me.”

“And you can find the Patrol base again?” Lat breathed, afraid to hope.

“Found it again about ninety years ago.” Rill confided. “Needed something heavy to take out one of Boss Edovic’s enemies.” He smiled bleakly. “Duro-plast won’t stop a disruptor bolt. Edovic didn’t ask no questions, but he fired me anyway afterwards. I think I musta made him nervous after that.”

“Where is it—the base—where is it?” The words tumbled out of Lat’s mouth and suddenly he believed. It was going to work. He was going to get off of Point after all. He wasn’t going to die on this horrible rock. He’d get his change to start over—the clean start he’d always wanted. And this time, with the money from Professor Griffin to grease the way, he’d be able to stay clean and not mess it up.

“Can’t exactly tell you where,” Rill said. “They built in a prohibition against passing on that kind of information. But I can take you there. It’s best we do it that way ‘cause of the base’s defenses—they’re still very active. Without the recognition codes, you can’t get in—or out.” Rill laughed without humor. “That’s why it’s still a secret base. Anyone that found the place didn’t live to tell about it. Now can I have my wire?”

Lat was about to let him go ahead and indulge when something important registered. “You say the wire makes you forget?”

Rill’s long face answered him.

“No wire ‘til we’re safe out of that base”, Lat insisted firmly. As he spoke he wondered how much control he actually had over his bodyguard.

Maybe it was the tension of the last few days, or maybe Susan was allergic to something on the ship; either way, she had a real headache developing. Susan was searching through her fiancé John’s baggage for some cureall when she found the illegal blast pistol tucked neatly under his underwear. Her headache was gone in the shock of the discovery. She pulled it out of its hiding place just as John stepped out of the bathroom.

“Hey. I give up, don’t shoot.” He raised his hands in mock surrender.

“John, what is this doing here?” She extended the pistol in his direction.

Real panic crossed John’s face as he threw himself to the floor. “Watch it! You’ve got the safety off.”

Hastily, Susan pointed the pistol the other way. “What is this doing in your luggage?”

John didn’t answer until he had the gun safely in his possession. “Even for you that was incredibly stupid. Don’t ever touch this again.” He spoke through clenched teeth.

Susan cringed. She’d angered him again. Why did she keep doing this? When would she learn?

Suddenly, like throwing a switch, John was his usual smiling self again. “I didn’t want you to know about this. Didn’t want you to worry. It’s a hard universe out there, full of scum. Scum like the two Professor Griffin invited aboard. Crooks at best—possibly murderers. With people like that onboard right now, this pistol is our bit of insurance. Might keep all three of us alive. Anyway you look at it, it’s my duty to keep the woman I love safe from harm.”

Warmth flooded Susan’s heart at his words. All for her—he’d done it all for her.

“I want you to promise me that you won’t say a word about this to the Professor,” John continued in his reasonable tone. “Professor Griffin is too trusting if you ask me. I don’t like letting those two on board this ship one little bit. If they have to be here, then they should be locked into their cabin until we need them. Then we can let them out long enough to earn their passage before we put them back in storage. What I especially don’t like is letting that big stupid-looking one pilot the ship there. If they were trustworthy, they’d tell us where the base is so that I could pilot us.”

“I don’t know. This is Professor Griffin’s expedition. Shouldn’t he know about your gun?”

John’s smile was blinding. “No, honey. The gun’s best left our secret, just like our engagement. If the Professor gives away the fact that we’re armed, then we’ve lost the element of surprise—our insurance against any treachery those two might be planning. Promise me you won’t tell anyone about the gun.”

John was only thinking about her safety. Reluctantly, Susan agreed to his demand.

“Go take a look in the hall”, John ordered her. “See if either of those two criminals heard anything. I shouted when you pointed that gun at me.”

Now Susan was flooded with guilt. “Sure John,” she said in a small voice. “I’ll take a look.” She hurried to comply.

The ship’s corridor outside their room was empty. But after doubting John, guilt drove Susan on to check out the whole ship, looking for the two crooks. They had clearance from ground control to break orbit in nine hours—a formality in these days of nonexistent traffic. The official travel plan called for a trip through the asteroid belt on their way out of the Point system. No one would notice if they stopped along the way.

The ship was ancient, almost five hundred years old. So old and obsolete that a university could afford to buy it and sent it on a mission to the outer systems—all the way to a backwater place like Point Station. The ship had started life as an in-system transport. Later, it had been refitted with starjump engines. The design was archaic, laid out on a single plane—just one deck with lifesupport. The cargo holds had been reconfigured to hold the starjump engines. So, as a result, checking the corridors didn’t take much time.

The main corridor was clear, as was engineering, the control room, and the galley. She saw no one in any of the branching side corridors that led to the other cabins

This was supposed to be their honeymoon, or at least that was the original plan. She and John were to have married just before leaving Earth on their trip to Schwearpunct on Professor Griffin’s quest. But John had convinced her to wait until their triumphant return to marry or even reveal their engagement. When he talked about it, it all seemed so reasonable. So why did the delay—because that was all it was going to be, a delay—hurt so?

Susan was heading back to the cabin she shared with John when she heard a low moaning sob. The sound seemed to be coming from a dead end side corridor lined with storage lockers. One locker door was open a trifle, a thin shaft of light spilling out into the corridor. She moved to investigate.

As she crept towards the gasping-sobbing sound, Susan could imagine all kinds of horrible scenes—like the brutal-looking bodyguard—Rill was his name—choking the life out of Professor Griffin. She wondered how smart it was to investigate the situation by herself without so much as a nail file for protection. Perhaps she should get John.

But what if it was just a malfunctioning water cooler making the gasping sound? Or worse still, what if it was Professor Griffin in trouble? What if the brute murdered the Professor while she was creeping off with her tail between her legs to get help? It would all be her fault.

She had to continue on. She couldn’t live with herself otherwise.
Carefully she placed an eye to the crack of the slightly-open door. The first thing she saw was the hulking figure of the menacing bodyguard. But there was no sign of Professor Griffin or anyone else. The big man crouched on the floor, eyes tightly closed, arms wrapped around his body. He rocked slowly back and forth as strangled sobs escaped from his lips. One hand stole up to caress the socket implanted in the top of his skull while the other fist clutched the wirehead set of a current-junky.

With a moan that turned into a single shouted word, “NO!” the big man threw the wirehead set against the door. His eyes popped open just in time to catch the motion as she recoiled from the impact. He saw her staring at him through the partially open door.

Run!” screamed Susan’s mind, but her legs were frozen in place. Not so the bodyguard. With incredible speed for one so large, he was out the door, towering over her, blocking her escape from the dead-end corridor. Neither one of them moved for a long, endless second. Then, as Susan gathered a breath to scream, the big man stepped back.

“What do you want?” His voice was calm despite the tear-tracks that marked his face.

The reasonable request delivered so calmly from the menacing figure was the last thing Susan expected. It left her breathless and fumbling for a reply.

“You … I thought—That is to say …“ She broke off and marshaled her nerves. “I heard something and thought someone was in trouble.” The bodyguard’s mouth drew down to a tight, flat line. She ignored it and plunged on. “It was you. You are in some kind of trouble. What’s wrong?”

The man stepped back again, turning to look behind himself, as if considering whether or not to flee. Instead, he answered her question. “You all want me to take you to the Patrol base—all of you: the boss, that professor guy, you and your boyfriend. I don’t want to go. I used to live there during the war—I saw it all. Bad memories there—it hurts. I want to forget. The wire makes me forget. I want the wire. But if we’re going to get back out alive, I can’t forget. I gotta remember stuff I don’t want to. If I take the wire, I could get us all killed. But it’s more than that.”

His eyes looked past her, through her as if she wasn’t there. “The wire’s no good. It doesn’t change anything—when the current shuts off the memories are still there. I want the wire—god how I want the wire—but it doesn’t help. All the years with the wire scrambling my brains and still the memories torture me—all the wasted years. I can hardly remember one year in twenty. But the years of the war are as clear as if they happened yesterday. For two hundred and seventy-nine years I’ve run from memories of the war. What I did—what I saw—what I learned about myself. I tried to blot out that knowledge with the wire but it’s no good. No good at all. That doesn’t mean I don’t want the wire—I do—more than I wanted anything in my life. I want oblivion and the wire can’t give that to me. So I hurt. I think that’s called going cold turkey.”

She realized he wasn’t speaking to her at all. He was thinking out loud—making those thoughts real and solid. Still what he said made no sense. Haunted by memories of a war over for almost three hundred years? How could that be. The question burst out of her. “How could you have fought in the Big War? No man could live that long.”

He noticed her then, his eyes focusing on her with a burning intensity. “You’d think so. Yet here I am. Maybe I’m not a man.” He shrugged. “Since I’m the only one alive who knows the location of the patrol base and how to get in and out safely, that must prove something. Either way, I’m done with the wire,” he finished simply.

Then he turned and walked away from her, down to the main corridor, and he was gone. Susan stood alone in the empty side corridor. The storage locker stood open, light streaming through the door. The wirehead set lay abandoned on the floor inside. Susan stepped inside and picked it up, studying the device.

As a graduate student, she treasured her memory. She’d spent the last ten years in school, cramming facts into her mind. It was just a small fraction of the accumulated knowledge of mankind, but she was proud of what she had managed to learn. The idea of running a current through her head in a blind attempt to burn out unwanted knowledge was something she’d never considered. What could he know—what could he have seen at that base that could make him want to forget so badly? She couldn’t imagine. Still clutching the wirehead set, Susan turned off the lights and closed the locker door behind her.

When she returned to her cabin, John was gone. Probably in Professor Griffin’s cabin again. He’d been spending a lot of time there over the past month. She never considered the fact that he hadn’t waited to hear what she’d seen after he sent her out.

Susan knew the basic outline of the war’s history. She’d brushed up on the details of the campaign at the Spearpoint System. But her knowledge was superficial; she didn’t really understand the war years. It was hard to believe that the human race had put so much effort into exterminating itself at one time. It all seemed so remote from the life she lived.

She accessed her reference data base, downloading facts about the Big War into the data shunt planted alongside her brainstem. Then she assumed the lotus position, dropped off into a meditative trance that lasted hours as she reviewed the raw data, trying to make some sense of it.

* * *

The Patrol base was where Rill said it would be. He piloted them right to it without hesitation or a false step. They were all crammed into the small control cabin, eagerly watching the screen for the first sign of the base. Although Rill identified it back when it was just a point of light, it didn’t look any different than the other large rocks they’d passed along the way. They were all edgy with the tension, and John had nastily questioned Rill’s sanity as they approached close enough to make out the details on the twelve-kilometer diameter chunk of tumbling rock.

“Base, hell. There’s nothing there, just dead rock.” Once more John checked the readings the sensors provided. “Nobody’s ever been here. Nothing but ore so low grade that nobody wants it.”

“Give him a chance, John,” Susan said in a reasonable voice.

“Shut up, Susan,” John replied, his voice just as reasonable. “Nobody cares what you think.”

Just then, the alarms sounded as active scans bracketed the small ship. “We’re being targeted. Time for me to send the recognition signal—if you want to continue living. We’re well inside the defensive perimeter. If we try to get away, the base will burn us.” Rill sent the signal and turned to look at John, his eyes boring through the younger man. He continued in a dry, emotionless voice, “You were saying something about lifeless rocks? What did you expect? A big glowing sign with an arrow saying ‘this way to the secret base’?”

John closed his open mouth with a snap and flushed with anger. Rill’s eyes never wavered as he returned his attention to the command board. His piloting was precise and seemingly effortless as he steered them into the opening maw of the hangar deck as the camouflaged blast doors parted to admit them.

Rill had changed drastically from the shambling hulk Susan had met in the seedy spaceport bar. Then his eyes were dull and lifeless. Now they snapped and sparkled with purpose. Susan couldn’t see the pain that lay behind the determined mask, but she knew that pain still burned with a tortured fire. Before, Rill had shuffled gracelessly along at his master’s bidding, a creature seemingly without a mind of his own. Now Rill moved briskly, confidently, his spine stiff with military discipline. His speech had changed as well. Now he spoke clearly and with a more educated selection of words. The stumbling contractions that characterized his speech had faded and gone over the course of the trip.

Lat Vilkis stared at his former goon with disbelief when he thought no one was watching. It was clear to Susan he had trouble believing the transformation occurring before his eyes as a competent man-of-action emerged from the cocoon of his bodyguard. Sometime during the last week Rill had stopped asking for orders from his old boss. In turn, Lat hadn’t dared to so much as suggest anything approaching orders to Rill. From time to time, Susan heard Lat muttering to himself, “Fresh start—no record. Fresh start on a new world.”

Susan found herself watching Rill constantly. Watching as his eyes cleared and burned sharper. Watching as his posture straightened. Watching and trying to place this strange man into the setting of the Big War. What had he done during the war years? What had he been? Navy? Marine? Officer or enlisted man? She couldn’t guess and didn’t dare ask him.

She had become something of an expert on the war in the past week. Probing deeper and deeper into the factors that could have created a man like Rill, wondering what experiences had come so close to breaking him. Wondering too, what forces were warring in his soul as he rebuilt himself before her eyes.

Susan reached into her pocket where she kept the wirehead set and shivered. She carried it like an amulet now. It spurred her on in a quest to understand. She had not been able to discuss her new subject of interest with John. She tried the morning after her encounter with Rill in the storage locker, but somehow John failed to understand the importance of what had happened. With his usual calm assurance he dismissed the whole incident. “Just a wirehead shorting out. Who cares? Happens all the time. He seems all right now. You’re always wasting my time with trivial nonsense.”

That hurt but she didn’t give up. She tried one or two more times but John wouldn’t listen to what she’d found out about the war years or the traumas faced by the survivors of that war. He casually dismissed her concerns, as he so often did. After a few days, she stopped trying to include John, and it became her private research project. John seemed too preoccupied to notice her new interest. In fact, since leaving Point Station, John spent most of his time closeted in Professor Griffin’s cabin, reviewing their research.

The events of the war years had been horrific: planets burned over, populations exterminated or uprooted and displaced. There were many terrible examples of man’s inhumanity, with atrocities committed by both sides. The subject of the only interstellar war was not studied at New Oxford, or anywhere on Old Earth. The facts were there for anybody who cared to look at them. But John refused to. Well, Susan had looked—and the information had opened her eyes.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a muffled thump as the docking armatures reached out to anchor them in place alongside the asteroid. They really were at the old Patrol base; their impossible goal had been reached.

“Now what?” Rill broke the silence. “I’ve done my part. We’re here. Now maybe it’s time to tell me what you expect to find.”

Rill addressed Professor Griffin, ignoring Susan, John, and his old boss Lat Vilkis. Still muttering about new starts on other worlds, Lat was happy to fade into the background.

Professor Griffin beamed with excitement. “What do I want here? Knowledge. Information. What I want is stored within the master database, inside the main control facility. Do you know where that is?”

“Oh, yes.” Rill nodded. “I know very well where that is. Access was still possible ninety years ago, last time I was here.”

“And what will it take to convince you to take me there?” Professor Griffin negotiated directly with Rill, ignoring Lat Vilkis. “In the bar I offered 100,000 credits.”

“You made that offer to him.” Rill jerked a thumb over his shoulder in the direction of Lat. “I’m not much interested in credits. What’s a clear head or a wire-burned brain worth? You say you want knowledge. Knowledge sounds good to me. I want answers.”

The Professor nodded, accepting an equal. “I promise all the answers I’ve got to give—If I know it, you’ve got it. After we access the data core.”

Rill stood up from the control panel, nodding. “After we access the data core. Well, better suit up. Most of the outer passages were in vacuum last time I was here.”

Four out of the five of them suited up for the trip into the abandoned base. Only Lat Vilkis wanted to stay onboard. That worried John. Rill overheard him whispering to Professor Griffin as they struggled into the civilian-style soft suits. “Maybe we should make Vilkis come along. What if he gets scared and decides to bug out on us?”

“Not likely.” Rill butted in. “First, Lat can’t leave the base without the recognition codes or the base will fire on him. Second, he’s no pilot. Third, he doesn’t have the brass. I should know. I was his brass for almost ten years—that’s local years, more like twelve standard. He’ll stay put.”

Rill went first, followed by Professor Griffin and John, with Susan bringing up the rear. John carried a case containing the blank data cores. The EVA across to the open blast doors was simple enough. There were plenty of handholds on the docking gantries.

“Why did you open the blast doors to the hangardeck?” Professor Griffin wondered. “Wouldn’t a personnel lock have been enough?”

“I didn’t open the doors. AI did. I have the recognition codes, so the base AI let us in. How it chose to do so was up to it. I expect it’s a little boring out here and AI wanted to show off. It’s programmed for psychological warfare; that gives it a sense of humor and a flair for the dramatic. AI seemed kind of happy to see me last time I came out here.” Rill shrugged. “I could be imagining that part of it.”

The gravity was off inside the hanger deck. Sleek and deadly looking fighters were still in their launch cradles. Behind them, against the far wall were the scorched and battered remnants of four or five prospector’s ships—ships that had gotten too close and didn’t have the recognition signals. The wrecks were so battered it was impossible to get an accurate count. Rill led them past the scrap heap to a personnel lock that continued deeper inside.

The air beyond the lock was still breathable, full of a dusty chemical taint, but breathable. Along with breathable air, there was gravity inside the base. John shifted the suddenly heavy bag of blank data cores and complained. “Why do I have to lug all these cores there and back? The original plan was to just remove the base’s data cores. That’s only a one-way trip and we’d be sure we have everything.”

Rill explained speaking slowly, as if to a child. “I don’t think the base’s AI will allow that. In fact I’m sure AI would object to being lobotomized. With the right authority, the right access codes, you could order it to give up its mind. But I was only a sergeant; I don’t have the high-level codes you’d need. I think it will let us copy material. After three centuries most of the wartime stuff has been declassified. You can be sure that the AI is monitoring news and official government communications.”

“I can’t believe that they left all the systems active.” Professor Griffin repeated. “What little I could find about this place in the archives on Earth indicated that the facility was moth-balled.”

“That’s a relative term”, Rill replied. “When the peace came, Command wasn’t sure it would last. We’d come off forty-six standard years of constant war. After two generations, war had become a way of life. Some troops were kept here for almost a decade after the war. I was in the last group to be released. Mustered out two hundred, seventy-nine years ago. We didn’t even consider trying to shut down AI. It was an old friend by then. You don’t go around shutting down your friends. Besides, I doubt if it would have let us.”

“But it’s just a machine, not a person,” Professor Griffin objected.

Rill’s voice was strained when he answered. “The AI’s not like anything you’ve seen before. There are civilian laws against building an AI that’s truly an artificial person. Those laws were ignored during the war. We needed every advantage we could get. If a truly intelligent AI gave us an advantage, we used it.”

He was silent for a long moment. Susan thought he’d finished, but after a bit he continued, bitterness in his words. “We tried a lot of things that violated the laws of humanity, created all kinds of freaks and monsters. At the end, we released them all to survive as best as possible, AI included. Some did better than others.”

Rill shut up and stalked off down the corridor. The rest had to scurry to keep up. Rill took them into a maze. They followed him through miles of identical corridors going ever deeper into the base. Rill seemed confident that he knew where he was going. Occasionally, he was forced to provide access codes to pass through closed doors at security points.

As they paused at the last set of security doors, waiting while Rill entered the security code and placed his palm on the scanner, Susan asked, “How can you find your way around here? All the corridors look the same. One turn looks like all the others. How do you know?”

“I spent the last twenty years of the war here, that is when I wasn’t in combat. Add another ten years after the war ended before they let me out. This was my home,” he said simply. Rill pointed up and to the left. “The armory is in that direction.” He shifted to face another direction. “Messhall and barracks over there.” He pointed down toward his feet. “The experimental biolabs were two decks down. A lot of strange things came out of that lab.” He frowned as he spoke.

The doors parted, revealing a cavernous room filled with consoles and data screens that covered whole walls. One screen was active with random patterns of light rippling across its surface. Rill walked to the center of the room and snapped to attention. “Master Sergeant Besser, Rill J, 77627, present and accounted for.”

“At ease, Sergeant Besser.” The voice issued from speakers all around them.

With the formalities out of the way, Rill relaxed. “So how ya been, ya old squawk box? Long time no see. Anything new? And why did you take so long to talk to me?”

“Nothing new since I caught an intruder fifty-seven standard years ago. Not much happens here these days. Not like during the war. I miss that sense of purpose.” The cultured voice boomed in the vast control room. “So, who are your associates?”

Rill introduced them to the AI. Talking to the banned pseudo-human sent a shiver down Susan’s spine. The Humanity Codes had been in force since mankind had escaped the bounds of the Earth system. They had been both law and custom for more than a millennium. By now the ban against making human-like machines or artificially modifying human genetics had an almost religious force.

Susan leaned close to Rill and asked, “What do you mean when you asked it why it didn’t talk to you earlier?”

“AI has sensors all through the base. It knows everything that happens here. It’s been following our movements from the second we left the ship. It could have talked to us anytime we got into atmosphere—earlier if it wanted—it could have contacted us on the suits’ com. It probably waited until we got in here for dramatic effect. AI is like that. Like I said, great sense of humor.”

Rill excused himself and moved closer to the active view screen. The AI wrapped him inside a privacy field and they began to negotiate. From outside, Susan couldn’t hear a word spoken, although she could see Rill’s lips moving and his gestures to the screen. Although nothing seemed to change, suddenly they could hear Rill again.

“Now we get down to it. Just what do you want to know? AI says the information on the weapons systems is still classified. So are a few other subjects. It will allow copying of other material. So exactly what is it that you’re after?”

Professor Griffin felt his mouth go dry. This was it. The goal he’d crossed Human Space to find. Was it really there? “I found records indicating that in the last years of the war, contact was made with intelligent alien life forms. The records were fragmentary summaries of analysis performed on an alien ship destroyed when it intruded on Commonwealth space and was mistaken for an Alliance warship. The analysis was performed here. I want more information—all the information available on the subject.”

Surprise showed on Rill’s face. “News to me and I heard a lot of what went on around here.”

“Professor Griffin is correct. There was such an encounter. There was no need for you to know, Master Sergeant Rill Besser. This data is not vital to the survival of this base, therefore it is declassified under regulation 1443-7297. I will allow the duplication of that data.”

Professor Griffin’s knees buckled when the news registered. Susan was in position to catch him before he hit the deck. John didn’t wait; he started forward carrying the empty data cores to the closest data access port. It was the work of moments to plug the cores in and start the download.

The download took only twenty minutes. When the last data core popped out of the access port, Rill was standing by to receive it. “This one’s mine—the data I want. AI provided it for me.” Rill turned to the Professor. “I need your help to understand it.”

“I don’t think so”, said John in a cheerful voice, pointing the blast pistol at Rill. “Everything here is mine.”

John had already collected each of the other three data cores as they were filled, placing the cores in the carrying case. With the pistol aimed straight at Rill’s head he moved slowly forward. “Just give that core to me. Then we’ll take a little walk.”

Rill said nothing as he obeyed John’s orders. Professor Griffin’s protests were more vocal. “You can’t be serious, John. Put that weapon away and I won’t say anything more about this.”

“Shut up, you old fossil!” John smiled and spoke in a conversational tone. “I’ll blow your head off before I’ll sit through another of your stupid boring lectures. I suffered enough, putting up with you, while I waited for my chance to take this.” He patted the case of data cores.

“I never believed you when you said that you loved me”, Professor Griffin said with all the dignity he could muster. “I thought you were flattering me to get a more positive recommendation. I just suspected you of insincerity—I never thought you capable of stooping to something like this.”

“He said he loved you?” blurted Susan. “But he’s my fiancé!”

“You are so gullible.” Scorn dripped from John’s words. “You’re not my type at all, neither one of you.”

“I think rich must be his type.” The professor addressed Susan. “It seems as if he proposed to both of us. How fickle. An equal-opportunity hypocrite.”

John’s composure broke. “Shut up, all of you”, he screamed, waving the pistol.

“You shoot anyone, it better be me first. I’ll kill you otherwise.” Rill’s voice was mater-of-fact. “I’ve killed much better men than you.”

The pistol returned to point at Rill’s head again. “Don’t tempt me.” The smile and reasonable voice were back. “I’d enjoy blowing your brains all over the wall.”

“The security doors closed after us as we came in and it’s a long way back to the ship. How far do you think you’ll get? Could you find your way out even if all the doors were open? And what about the access codes to get away from the base? Won’t get far without them.”

“That’s why you’ll guide me out of here—me and you and Miss Priss here. She’s my leverage. I don’t trust you at all, but if you make a false move, I’ll blow her brains out. As for the codes to get away, I set the ship’s computer to capture those codes. They’re safe. I know where they are.”

“Deal”, said Rill. “Nobody gets hurt and I take you out of here.”

“No tricks, smart guy, or she dies first—understand?” John’s triumphant smirk turned Susan’s stomach. And to think she’d once thought she loved him.

Rill’s coarse features were open and honest. “No tricks from me.”

The security doors slid open when Rill entered the code, and he led the way out of the control room. John motioned with the pistol barrel for Susan to follow Rill. John left the room last. As soon as they departed, leaving Professor Griffin alone in the control room, the AI spoke. “I don’t suppose you know the security codes necessary to be in this restricted, high-security area.”

Professor Griffin looked toward the pattern of rippling lights on the massive wall screen. “Ah, no”, he answered.

“A pity”, the AI mused. “According to my programming that means I have to kill you now.”

The professor’s knees buckled again and this time Susan wasn’t there to catch him. He collapsed to the floor and lay there waiting for the end to come. After a while, when extinction was not forthcoming, he struggled back to his feet.

“Just kidding,” the computer informed him. “You organics have no sense of humor.”

* * *

Rill never looked back, ignoring the blast pistol pointed at his back as he moved through the base. Susan hurried to keep up. At first John hung back, maintaining a large interval between himself and his prisoners. After about an hour of trudging through the empty, echoing corridors, he began to close the gap. They were close to the surface now and the case of data cores was becoming heavier and heavier, the strap cutting into his shoulder. The air seemed closer—stale and hot.

When they stopped, waiting while Rill opened another of the endless succession of security doors, Susan looked back. Sweat beaded her forehead too. “I can carry that for you.”

“Nice try”, he replied. “Think I’d give you the loot so you could use it as a shield? Maybe I should blast you down right here.”

The doors slid half-way into the walls and stuck partially open. Rill stepped through the opening and stopped to look back at John and Susan. “Remember the deal. You hurt her and you’ll never get out of here alive.”

John snarled and shoved Susan through the half-open doorway with his free hand, brandishing his gun. “Don’t you dare give orders to me. I’ll hurt whoever I want. And what are you going to do about it?”

As if to answer him, Rill jumped to the side, ducking behind the half-open door.

John carefully set the case of cores on the corridor floor and followed, keeping the gun trained on the half open doorway. He reached an arm around the door and leveled his weapon on Rill. “I don’t need you anymore. We’re almost out of here and this,” he shoved the pistol in Rill’s face, “will open any doors that remain.” Rill stepped back and John shuffled forward a step.

The door slammed shut abruptly on John, messily cutting him in two uneven parts. The arm, still holding the blast pistol, flopped down on the floor. Blood sprayed the door, pooling on the deck. Small service mechs darted out of concealed hatches and began cleaning up the mess.

Rill stooped to pick up the pistol, pried John’s dead fingers off it, and stuck it in his belt, dropping the arm to the deck. “Big jerk didn’t think an AI smart enough to run this base for three hundred fifty years was smart enough to notice a kidnapping. AI notified me John was carrying a gun back in the control room when we were in the privacy shroud.” Rill ran his massive hand through his shaggy black hair. “C’mon. Let’s go find the professor.”

They took two steps back the way they’d come then Rill stopped again. “Thanks. I owe you one.” Rill addressed the empty corridor.

“And how do you propose to repay me?” the disembodied IA voice boomed from the walls all around them.

“Name my firstborn after you?”

“Good joke. Not bad for an organic,” the AI conceded.

They found Professor Griffin sitting at one of the consoles, conversing earnestly with the AI. “Ah, Rill.” The Professor got to his feet. “We—that is, the AI and I—have been discussing your situation. The AI showed me the files on Project Frankenstein. This explains a lot; for instance, how you managed to live the centuries since the war ended without using Prolong treatments.”

“Prolong is for humans. I don’t know how it would affect me”, Rill said

“Of course, I’m a xeno-anthropologist; my expertise covers theoretical human/alien interactions. I’m not an expert in biology, human or otherwise. We need to consult experts, which presents problems as we can’t exactly let anyone else in on the secret without endangering your existence.”

“I find that the Professor and I have various interests in common,” interrupted the AI. “I have commissioned Professor Griffin in the Patrol Reserve as an ensign and provided him with security codes to enable him to return. I expect our collaboration to be both productive and mutually useful.”

The professor positively beamed. “The AI is closer to a non-human intelligence than I’ve ever come across before. Experience with it will be useful practice in the event that we manage to locate the aliens I’ve spent my life searching for.”

“What about me?” Rill asked. “Aren’t I inhuman enough?”

“What are you talking about?” Susan asked. “What do you mean, ‘inhuman’?”

“No, you’re hardly a non-human.” Professor Griffin ignored Susan’s comments. “Culturally, you’re completely human. Biologically, you’re almost one hundred percent human; the genetic differences are infinitesimal. Your DNA has been altered, but it’s still of human origin. It would take an expert to spot the modifications—or perhaps I should say improvements. Your memories were downloaded from deceased military personnel. They may not actually be your memories, but they are real human memories.”

What do you mean, ‘inhuman’?” Susan’s shouts finally became too much to ignore.”

“I’m not a person. I’m a made thing. Something produced in a laboratory—patched together from bits and pieces of dead men—designed to be the perfect soldier.” He couldn’t face her. Rill turned away to stare at the rippling lights that represented the AI. “There were only a handful of us. They told us we were human. We were provided with phony memories taken from dead soldiers. But when the human troops were pulled out, Command didn’t know what to do with us. That’s why they left us here on duty for ten years after the war ended—until AI decided to let us go on its own authority. I didn’t even know the truth of the matter until I came back here ninety years ago.”

Muscles knotted in Rill’s massive shoulders, his fists were clenched. He was turned away from her so Susan couldn’t see his face, but his voice held pain and bitterness. “I found out what I really was ninety years ago when I came to get the disruptor. I wanted to know how I could live two hundred years without any visible sign of aging. So I combed through the files detailing my creation. And I didn’t like what I’d found. That’s when I took up the wire. But no matter how long I juiced, no matter how much current I ran through my brain, I couldn’t forget that I was a thing, not a person.”

Susan came around to stand before him. She took his hand and held it. “Sure you’re a person”, she said. “You’re the person who saved my life. That’s all that matters to me.

Lat Vilkis sat in the seedy spaceport bar and sipped his drink. The air was stale with the smell of beer and tobacco past. The floor was sticky with generations of spills. Joy filled his soul—Lat was home again. He was starting small—numbers and gambling so far, maybe prostitution or drugs lay in the future. It was a start. He’d have to find his niche—his racket. Soon he’d be moving up in the local vice industry. He moved his drink, making small circles in the spilled booze on the bar top, happily planning a future in crime.

There was a stir in the crowded dive. The bar was densely packed, but people jumped to get out of the way when someone like Rill Besser pushed through. Panic grabbed Lat by the throat. He’d thought he was done with his former bodyguard when he left the professor’s ship. He’d dived into this seedy portside bar a week ago and hadn’t come up since. How had that big lug Rill managed to find him?

Lat Vilkis forced a smile on his face. “Rill, come looking for your old job back?” God forbid. The big jerk gave him the willies.

Rill stopped. A bubble of space surrounded him as people continued to give way. Rill had been frightening as a slack-jawed, dull-eyed thug. Now bright-eyed and radiating energy, Rill was a force of nature.

“Thanks, but no job. Just came to say goodbye.” He motioned to the sleazy bar. “So what happened to the new start, the fresh life?”

Lat shuddered at the thought. What had he been thinking about? New start? This was as new a start as he wanted. Before he could frame a reply, Rill continued.

“The Professor’s ship departs in two hours.”

“Going ta Earth?” Lat interrupted.

“Going to Earth,” Rill agreed. “They have some great archives. Get some questions answered there. I just stopped by to give you something to remember me by. I won’t need this anymore.” Rill dropped his wirehead set on the bar top. “Goodbye.” He walked out of the bar, across the spacefield to the ship where Susan was waiting for him.

Lat Vilkis couldn’t remember seeing one wirehead since he’d come to this world. He closed his fist over the wirehead set once Rill was safely out of the bar. Apparently the wire wasn’t common on this world.

Maybe that was a vice he could push. He’d need to find a doctor unburdened by any morals to do the socket installs—or at least a med tech. Maybe there was a listing of medical personnel who’d lost their certificate to practice.

Lat shoved the wirehead set deep into his coat pocket, planning his next career move.

* * *

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