Authors: Charles Sheffield
Tags: #Biological Control Systems, #High Tech, #General, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Fiction
Proteus in the Underworld
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 1995 by Charles Sheffield
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
How do you capture a legend?
Sondra Dearborn had rehearsed and varied her opening speech over and over as the skimmer flew across the open expanse of the southern Indian Ocean.
I have a question . . . I have a difficult problem . . . I would like to show you something . . .
She was arriving unannounced, without invitation. From everything that she had heard the first minute would be crucial. Excite his interest and curiosity, and there was no end to his time and patience. Fail that first minute and there would be no second chance.
The water below the speeding skimmer was glassy calm, dark and gleaming in the April sunlight like oiled fabric. At a height of ten meters and a speed of three hundred knots, Sondra felt no sense of motion. Her destination lay in the most remote part of the emptiest ocean on Earth. The nearest sea-city was five hundred kilometers to the north. All she saw, ahead or behind, was the unvarying horizon. The operation and navigation of the solo skimmer was wholly automatic. Sondra was left with nothing to do but brood on her options.
That had to be the answer. Words could fail, they could be badly delivered or misunderstood. But once he had
it . . .
Sondra looked behind her and down to the fine-meshed cage in the bottom of the hold. She could see movement within, a slow twisting of metal chains. When she listened hard she fancied a rustling of rough skin against the grille. It could not escape. All the same, she was constantly aware of its presence just a few feet behind her.
"We will be arriving in two minutes." The skimmer was merely providing its regular status update, but it was almost as though it had sensed Sondra's desire for the journey to end. "Wolf Island now lies directly ahead."
Less than twenty kilometers. But the island was small, a low one-kilometer circular pinprick in the waste of open ocean. Sondra found herself seeking it anyway, at the same time as she told herself that it was too soon.
It had seemed a self-indulgent and even arrogant name when she first heard it. Only later did she discover that Behrooz Wolf had not named the island after himself. Rather, in a quixotic gesture he had upon his retirement sought out an uninhabited island that had carried his name for four hundred years, since it was first discovered by the mad explorer—deemed mad in an age of madness—Captain Guido Wolf. No relation to Behrooz Wolf, so far as Sondra could tell; or indeed to her, Sondra Wolf Dearborn.
But there at last the island was visible, a flattened lop-sided pyramid of green and black appearing against the metallic blue of sky and sea. As they came closer and descended to surface travel mode the skimmer changed course, circling the green shoreline to make its final approach to a narrow spit of black rock that formed Wolf Islands southern tip. The only dock was there, with inland from it a small beach of white sand. A set of steps in the rock led upward from the beach, ascending to a house whose brown rooftop was just visible from sea level.
Sondra took a deep breath as the skimmer completed its arrival and halted at the jetty. The moment of truth was almost here. She stepped down into the hold and lifted the cage by its metal handles. It was heavy, at least twenty kilos, but she tried to hold it away from her body, wrinkling her nose at the musky smell that came from inside. She heard a hiss, of surprise or anger. She struggled across the beach and up the stairs with eyes averted, sand and bare rock hot beneath her sandaled feet.
The house she came to was a mixture of solid strength and openness. It could take advantage of balmy days of summer breezes, or close itself tight against the gales that scoured land and sea at latitude thirty degrees south. Sondra approached the front of the house and set down her burden. The sliding door was slightly open. She went to it, pushed the tinted glass wide enough to put her head through, and found she was looking into an empty room. It was sparsely furnished; by someone, Sondra decided, who valued possessions for their utility and worried not at all about appearances.
"Hello. Mr. Wolf? Is anyone home?"
The room's high wooden ceiling echoed her voice. There was no other reply. Sondra paused at the threshold, then went inside. This was something she had never anticipated. Behrooz Wolf had returned to the island three months ago. There was no evidence that he had left since then. But if he had, and she had come eight thousand miles for nothing, she was the biggest fool on Earth.
Nothing. Sondra went on through the empty house until she found herself at another door in the rear. That too was ajar. It led outside to a garden, surprising in the planned luxuriance of its growth. To the far left stood an odd row of brown conical boxes, each about two feet tall, while a paved path curved away to the right. Tall flowering shrubs bordered the stones of the path and made its turning course invisible after the first thirty meters.
Sondra followed the twisting trail between the line of bushes. It was almost flat but it curved steadily. She realized that it was leading her around the rocky outcrop that formed the center of Wolf Island. She was ready to turn back, convinced that there was nothing to be found in that direction, when suddenly she emerged from the shrubs and found herself standing at the edge of another narrow beach of white sand. Before she could take another step forward two mastiff hounds appeared from nowhere. They raced across to Sondra and crouched at her feet, fangs bared. Their growl was a unison rumble of menace.
Sondra froze. She was usually not afraid of dogs, but the two huge specimens only a few inches from her exposed toes were too big to take chances with.
"Janus! Siegfried! We can do without that noise." The quiet voice came from Sondra's left. A moment later a man came strolling her way along the pebbled margin of the beach.
She recognized him at once from his pictures at the Office of Form Control. He was of medium height, dark-haired, thin-faced and thin-lipped. His eyelids drooped, half hiding dark eyes. He was barefoot, dressed in a simple outfit of uniform grey, and he looked about thirty years old. Thanks were due there to the biofeedback machines of the Biological Equipment Corporation, because Sondra knew that he was in fact seventy-eight, almost seventy-nine.
It was Behrooz Wolf: Bey Wolf, the legend. The former Head of the Office of Form Control; the man who had solved the mystery of Robert Capman's disappearance; the man who had pursued Black Ransome into the Halo, and vanquished him there in his own dark stronghold; the only man whose messages to the Logian forms on Saturn were guaranteed a reply; the sole inventor and developer of the multiform; the ultimate human authority and undisputed master of practical form-change.
The man who refused to work with anyone.
Sondra had left the heavy metal cage behind her at the front door. Every prepared word vanished from her head. What she
like saying would certainly do nothing to help her case:
But you look so ordinary, not at all like anyone special.
In any case, Wolf beat her to it. "You don't look like my mental image of Friday," he said. "Or Crusoe, either. Don't worry about the hounds, they're just being playful." And, as the dogs moved away from her feet in response to his snapped fingers he went on, "The last shipwreck in this ocean was a hundred years ago. No one comes here by accident. I own the island, and I'm sure you know that this is all private property."
"I'm Sondra Dearborn. Sondra
Dearborn. We're actually related to each other." And when that near-platitude produced nothing, not even a raised eyebrow, she had to keep going even though she was convinced that she had already blown any chance she ever had. "I'm with the Office of Form Control, I joined them a couple of years ago. I really need your help."
"Do you now? I wish you knew how many people have told me that in the past three years." He didn't sound interested, he didn't sound angry—he didn't sound
He just turned to walk down the beach toward the placid water with its rippling two-inch wavelets. "Before you go any further, let me mention that I told all of them the same thing:
Your form-change problems are yours, not mine. I'm retired."
"I came a long way to see you." Sondra slipped off her sandals and hurried after him across the soft sand.
"I know. Eight thousand miles." He pointed off to the left along the beach, almost directly at the sun. "West-north-west, the Office of Form Control Headquarters lies right in that direction. I didn't hear your flier. More to the point, nor did they." He pointed to where the two dogs were running in and out of the water and scratching for something in the wet sand.
"I came the final fifteen hundred kilometers by skimmer."
At last there was a hint of interest, a puzzled expression. "Why? Why didn't you fly?"
It occurred to Sondra that this was his first direct question. And her opportunity.
"The pilot who was supposed to fly me here took one look at my luggage and refused to carry it."
But Wolf didn't take the bait. He simply whistled to the dogs and turned back toward the house. "The skimmer trip must take at least three hours," he said over his shoulder. "I was going indoors anyway, for a cold drink and a bite to eat. If you like you can join me before you start back."
"That would be nice." Sondra, walking along the path to the house right behind Wolf, resisted the urge to jump up and down in triumph. "Can I at least show you what I brought with me?"
Hardly an enthusiastic reaction. But at least part of Wolf's frozen old-man attitude was contrived. He could move quickly enough if he wanted to. When the two hounds, Janus and Siegfried, came close and shook themselves to spray both Wolf and Sondra with cold sea-water, she saw his agile leap away from them. She was hugely pleased. She hadn't lost yet. He would change his mind as soon as he saw what was in the cage.
When he went through to order food in the kitchen she hurried to the front door and carried the cage through to the middle of the living-room. She peered in through the heavy mesh to make sure that the chains were still secure. Gritting her teeth, she unlocked the cage's top and slid it open. There was an immediate silent rush of movement within, followed by the snap of taut links and a hiss of rage. Sondra took a deep breath, wishing that she could somehow close her nose. Bey Wolf was going to change his mind about eating or drinking when that smell hit him.
And then she realized that he was already present. He had come up silently behind her, to lean over and peer right down into the cage.
"Mm. Yes, odd enough." He was casually straightening up again. "I ordered hot food, and it will take a few minutes for the house to prepare it. But here's your drink."
He was holding a glass full of dark-brown liquid out to Sondra while he sipped his own.
"Don't you want to . . ." Sondra gestured at the cage. "I mean, I'm sorry about bringing this in just before we eat. I know it's disgusting. But if you want to take a closer look . . ."
"I hardly think that will be necessary." Wolf settled down onto a rocking-chair that faced the garden beyond. He had the look of a man who spent a lot of time sitting there.
". . . for you to really see what it's like . . ."
"I already know what it's like." Wolf leaned back and closed his eyes. The wet dogs padded forward to slump at his feet. "Physically: male, about eleven or twelve kilos. Hypertrophied mandible and upper jaw, with enlarged incisors and sharpened super-prominent canines. General body structure shows some achondroplasia—typical dwarfism. Ichthyotic skin in an extreme form, fully scaled on arms and legs and back. Enhanced reactions, about three times as fast as a normal human. Behavior is clearly feral, and the present form represents a purposive but regressive change. I judge that the chance of a successful form-change correction is close to zero. That enough?"
"But you hardly even looked!"
"You are wrong." Wolf sighed and leaned back in the rocking-chair. "I have looked and looked and looked, more than you are able to imagine. I have been studying the results of purposive form-change for over fifty years. I have seen the avian forms, the cephalopod and serpentine variations, the ectoskeletal forms, the wheeled forms, the Capman lost variations, all the mistakes and mishaps and blind alleys of half a century." Wolf sipped again at his drink, eyes still closed. "What you have there is well within the envelope of familiar alternatives. Illegal, of course, but not even close to an extreme form. Why don't you close the cage now? I can tell that you are uncomfortable with it open."