Authors: Steve Perry
A small matter.
In the hall outside the closed meditation chamber a student sweated, bacteria thriving in the altered salts of his perspiration, their microscopic life and tiny works making him smell sour with nervousness. A faint remnant of incense lingered, clinging to the fine-grained black walnut planks, wood that had a hundred years of careful hand polishing and honing so it was almost thincris-smooth. Kifo identified the stink of sweat and the more pleasant incense, noting the bitter-but-sweet tang of muste, a local inkwood the poets liked to claim was dark as original sin.
Neither did these things matter.
When he opened his eyes, his vision matched in its clarity his other senses. On a cushion of diamond-grade ghostsilk from Rangi ya majani Mwezi lay the Sacred Glyph. It was a flat gunmetal blue-black against the pale material, a cloth ranked as the finest ever done by the best weaver the Green Moon had yet produced. The covering of the cushion had cost more than a rich man's home, yet the silk, too, was nothing.
But the Glyph. Ah. The Glyph mattered.
It was the holiest of all relics in any religion, made by the Gods Themselves, and outside of the Few, no one knew it existed. In the eighty years since its discovery, no member of the Few had ever revealed his or her knowledge of the Sacred Glyph to any outside the order. To even speak the name aloud anywhere save the electronically shielded and regularly swept meditation room was worth instant death, administered by any within earshot. To fail to strike down such a transgression was itself worth death.
Only those initiated into the Very Few-never more than nine, never less than six-were considered trustworthy enough to learn of the existence of the Sacred Glyph, and only the Unique, the Leader of the Few, knew more than that.
The previous Unique, Ndugu Maumivu-Brother Pain-had taught Kifo all he knew of the mysteries even as he lay dying, kept alive by money-powered medical machines only just long enough to finish his instructions. Kifo was the sole man living who knew the secrets; more, he had himself added to them, divining greater depths, and his death, did it come suddenly and unexpected, would put an end to the knowledge. The Unique must take care that such a thing did not happen. Thus the vouch, standing vigilant, ready to defend Kifo's body from illness or injury at any instant.
Kifo smiled at that thought. For a man whose holy-nom meant "Brother Death" to be protected by the acme of galactic civilization carried with it a certain irony he appreciated.
The smile faded. No time for such thoughts, not when he was about to take in hand the Sacred Glyph.
He banished the humor from his mind, composed himself, took a deep breath and allowed most of it to escape. Reached for the Glyph.
It didn't look particularly impressive, though some of the more sensitive among the Very Few had said they could feel the Glyph's power from across the room. It looked something like a human foot sheared off cleanly below where an ankle would join with it, the toes fused into a smooth plane. True, the ball and arch were somewhat more pronounced than real ones would be; there were indentations along the sides, the butt was thicker than a heel would be in proper proportion; the top was smooth, a flat plane with a slight incline from the back to the front. The Glyph was half a centimeter longer, perhaps, than Kifo's thumb, and as big around at the widest as his large toe. Hardly an impressive relic, as these things went. It would be virtually invisible if viewed against the Burning Bishop's pectoral jewelry; would hardly turn anyone's gaze away from the Trimenagist's Gold Triangle; would certainly get lost in the least of the glittering detritus from Tut's Tomb.
Ah, but even so, the Sacred Glyph was unlike any of these ornaments, unlike any talisman or focus for any other religion in all the galaxy. Because the Sacred Glyph worked. Kifo himself had discovered after years of meditations the final key.
Kifo reached forth, took the Glyph into his hand, felt it slide into proper position as if on its own. It had been designed for the hands of the Gods, of course, but a human's grasp found it grippable enough. His index finger curled under the plane of the toes, his middle finger in the arch, his ring finger wrapped itself around the indented heel. His thumb naturally lay upon the smoothness of the top.
It was like holding a carved chunk of ice. It sucked energy from his fingers. No matter what the temperature in the roomand the Very Few over the years had tested it through a range a hardy man could barely survive-the Sacred Glyph was always this way. It felt cold at twenty below, it felt cold at forty above. Always.
Now that he held it, he was ready.
"Brother Mkono," he said. He did not raise his voice, but the student outside was listening, waiting.
Before the word finished echoing in the corridor, the student would already be running to fetch Mkono, appointed Third among the Nine.
The door opened a moment later and Mkono entered.
He was big, Brother Mkono, two meters tall, a hundred and fifty kilos, spawned by parents created for heavy-gravity worlds. He wore the loose, draped robe of the order, but under it he was a physically perfect specimen and even the voluminous folds could not hide the power when he moved. He was a mountain of a mue, and perhaps he should have been named something that reflected it, but his holy-nom spoke to his function and not his form. Mkono meant "hand."
Among the Few it was the Hand who went forth to deal justice. Among the Few-and among the enemies of the Few.
"I have a mission for you," Kifo said.
Brother Mkono closed his eyes and nodded, once.
In his own hand, the Sacred Glyph seemed almost to pulse. Cold it was. Cold as death.
Customs was embarrassed. The woman in charge of the peace sealer unit kept shaking her head and looking away, unable to meet Taz's gaze.
"We've checked and rechecked, Amaniafzsir Bork."
When Taz had arrived on the planet, they'd called her "Po," the more common and somewhat less than respectful designation used on the streets for cools. That was before they fucked up and lost her pistol, of course. Now they were falling all over themselves to be polite. Now the customs agent used the honorific, addressing Taz as "peace officer." In their shoes, she would be real polite, too.
"No one entered or left the vault after lockdown, and the seals were clean when the computer threw the bolts. The seal alarm beeped at 2306, but the simadam monitoring assumed it was a computer glitch-he was at the door station, it was closed, and it's the only way in or out. The vault door is a quarter-meter squashed-steel-sandwich plate with stun gas inserts and full electronics. It never moved, according to every alarm system we have and a guard's sworn and verified visual. The walls, floor and ceiling are all made of ten-centimeter-thick carbonex and there are no signs of tampering with any of them; we've had them inspected with an electron deepscan. It's impossible that anybody got in there."
Taz pulled her pistol from under her jacket, where it rode comfortably in her orthoflex holster. Held the weapon pointed up at the ceiling. Waved it a little.
The customs agent colored. Shook her head again, spread her hands and fingers. She had to be thinking that Taz thought her people were fools or liars. And she wouldn't have been wrong, had not the cools on Tembo recently found themselves making similar explanations.
Taz holstered the weapon. Whoever this guy was, he was involved with the stuff going on back on Tembo, she was certain of that. The mysterious deaths, getting past locked doors and alert guards, it had to tie in.
So far, the local cools hadn't gotten anything out of the guy, either. Hadn't spoken a word.
Galactic regulations made it possible to get a scan, if all the proper legal niceties were observed.
Electropophy and related invasive techniques were easy to abuse, so after the Confed went down, Republic laws concerning such machineries had been tightened. Careless brain-drain could leave somebody a mindless husk, and the public should be protected from such things. Taz thought it was a good idea in principle, but she also wanted whatever this guy knew pried out of him any way it took.
While more than a few felons had swung at or shot at her over the years, it sure didn't endear this guy to her that he was among them. Besides, he had answers that would help her solve the murders on her homeworld, she was fairly certain of it.
Taz left the customs office and went out into the sunshine. Almost immediately, Saval arrived to retrieve her from her meeting. His flitter fanned to a stop at the curb, but didn't settle to the plastcrete, bobbing a handspan off the road on the air as might a cork on a calm pond. The passenger door gullwinged up.
He'd been watching for her, she realized, and now he kept the repellors running. Careful, her brother.
"How'd it go?" he asked, as she got in. She noticed he was wearing his spetsdods. She'd never actually seen him shoot, but if half the stories were true about how good the matadors were with those little back-of-the-hand dartguns, they could use them to swat flies at close range. She felt safe enough with her own pistol snugged over her right hip, but she didn't mind that Saval was armed.
"Apparently the thief was Merlin the Magician," she said. "Invisible, able to walk through walls, and faster than the halflife of a gotcha-chronon particle."
"That a professional opinion?"
He returned her smile.
"Where are we going?"
"Jail," he said. "The boss talked to some people before he and Juete left. Speeded up things some.
They're going to do a scan on your dance partner in about an hour. We can watch, you're interested."
"Oh, I'm interested."
The chamber was not much different from a standard interrogation and medical exam room, Bork saw.
Form-chair, diagnostic bank, cabinets, a sink. But the man in the chair was restrained, pressor field clamps pinning his wrists and ankles and hips. His head was free to move, the scanner being a fairly wide induction field that was not affected by motion. With a competent tech running the gear, they could peel him like an onion; he couldn't run and he couldn't hide. Next to the prisoner, a tech adjusted controls on the medical scanner.
The viewing window was cleared, though it could be opaqued or mirrored as needed. Bork stood next to Taz; a young and attractive blonde woman rep from Legal Aid stood on the other side of her, wearing puce skintights and holding an inducer; two cools in blue and gray work uniforms leaned against the wall behind the Legal. One was the officer in charge of the Crimes Against Persons section, the other the Medical Procedures Commander.
"You about ready, Lu?" the MPC asked.
The tech next to the prisoner nodded. "Yeh, we can fire it up any time."
A voice from the speaker on the wall said, "Recording. Baseline and feed are green and green."
"Okay, Lu, give us a nice, clean insertion and for-the-record ID."
"Extruding," Lu said.
The MPC leaned toward the young woman Legal. "This is your first one of these, right?"
"Well, we start by pulling the guy's ID, a name, cit number, occupation, like that. The scanner strums a dendritic chord that makes the brain call up what we want. Real simple stuff. Hooks him like a fish on a line." He put a hand on her shoulder and nodded at the prisoner, then smiled at her. She smiled back.
Bork felt a small grin tug at his lips. Watch yourself, kid, he thought. Pretty soon the MPC'll be asking you to his cube so you can see the great holoproj he's got installed on his bedroom ceiling. Just lie right here, hon, and you can see it perfectly. Here's an idea-what say you get out of those hot old tights and let me rub your back for you . . . ?
Well, she was an attractive enough woman, she didn't have any problems showing it off, he could see why the MPC was interested. But Bork was spoiled. Nobody compared to his wife.
The man in the chair jerked his head from side to side; his eyes went wide, he bared his teeth. He growled, the sound coming clearly from the speaker, then said something Bork didn't understand.
"Something's wrong," the CAP said.
The MPC dropped his hand from the Legal's shoulder and stared. "Lu, what's happening in there?"
"Got a block," Lu said. "I'm compensating-"
The prisoner opened his mouth, clacked his teeth together hard. Repeated the word he'd said before.
"What language is that?" the CAP said.
"Sounds like Tembonese," Taz put in. "Maybe Numish."
"I'm getting a spike=" Lu began. "Oh, shit!" he said.
"He's flatlining, chief!"
"Fuck!" The MPC ran to the door. Three seconds later he ran into the interrogation chamber. He moved the tech aside and fiddled with the instruments. "Goddammit!"
The Legal blinked, puzzled. "What is it?"
"I think maybe this fish just slipped off the hook," Taz said quietly.
They were scheduled on a short-hop ship that would connect them with the starliner Bellicose for the trip to Tembo. The man Saval had called Cream was alive and in the jail's hospital but he wasn't going to be helping solve anything. He was brain-dead, checked out, nobody home. His lungs worked and his heart beat, but his mind was a ruin, destroyed by an implanted block the scan had triggered. Taz knew such things existed; even on a backrocket world like Tembo the police had come up against them.
Usually the implants were nanomechanical or some kind of fast viral or explosive charge that would wipe or destroy certain areas of memory. Cream's block was different, hypnotic or something else undetectable by ordinary checks. The single word he had spoken, duly recorded by the telemetric computer, had been "Moja," and according to the translation program, had meaning in sixteen of the archived languages or dialects to which the computer had access. If Cream had been, as Taz suspected, speaking Tembonese, then the term meant, depending on how one used it, "lone," or "single," or "one."
In some of the other languages the word could have been "power," or "evening," perhaps "party," or even "earlobe."