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Fiction

And Then Some

Erm Kaslo came to Cheddle on the Adelaine, a tramp freighter that didn’t mind taking passengers who didn’t mind the quality of the accommodations. He could have come on a liner, but he preferred, when working, to make his entrances unnoticed.

Carrying his valise, he disembarked along with the crewmen, but when the little knot of spacers turned left out of the spaceport gate, heading for the huddle of taverns and bump-houses that catered to transients whose needs were pressing but whose standards were low, he turned right and climbed the rise into the town of Upper Pulluch.

This was a middling-sized community of one- and two-story buildings built of the dark-hued local stone and roofed in slate. Even in the wan sunlight of Bessan’s Star, it looked a stern and unwelcoming place, a town that had seen better days without ever having seen really good times. Kaslo hoped his business would be done and he off-world before he had to experience one of the frequent month-long rains the freightermen had warned him against. They must turn Upper Pulluch into a grim setting indeed.

He inquired of a passerby and received directions to his destination, got lost anyway, but was steered aright in the end by another pedestrian. The Adelaine’s purser had bid him be careful in approaching Cheddlites—theirs was an uncommunal society, in which no man felt obliged to aid another, and they were quicker than most to take offense and to assuage their injured feelings by doing sudden violence.

But Erm Kaslo was the kind of man who could make even the quickest temper cool. He was not particularly large, but he was well-knit, with a hard-planed face and eyes as gray as winter. And today he had about him a purposeful air that invited the Cheddlites he encountered to offer him quick cooperation that would move him on and out of their lives.

He recognized the police prefecture by the blue light above the entrance. Inside was a small lobby with wooden benches around the drab walls, a strong door leading into the building’s interior, and a chest-high counter, above which was a metal grill pierced by a wicket. The window framed the head and shoulders of a mature man in a green uniform with rank markings on its sleeve. He was making notes on a sheet of paper but looked up when Kaslo entered. He regarded the newcomer with a face that had long ago registered its last surprise.

Kaslo approached and presented a folded paper. He identified himself and said, “Here is an arrest warrant signed by the Chief Constable of the Commune of Indoberia on Novo Bantry.” He brought forth another document. “And here is a certificate of deputization authorizing me to act, in the execution of the warrant, as a special agent for the Constabulary.”

The policeman behind the wicket examined both papers in a leisurely manner. Then he handed them back to Kaslo and said, “You will have to see Captain Maduc, the Deputy Prefect.”

“Then I will see him,” said Kaslo.

“He is not here.”

“Where is he?”

The policeman made a noncommittal gesture.

Kaslo said, “When will he return?”

Again, the man behind the counter silently implied that no definite answer would be forthcoming.

“Should I wait?”

“I wouldn’t.”

“Then what do you advise?”

The other man gave it some thought. “Find accommodations and remain there,” he said after a while. “When the Captain is ready to see you, someone will come to collect you.”

Kaslo restrained himself. “Can you recommend somewhere?”

Again, the policeman appeared to consider alternatives. Finally, he said, “Are you wealthy?”

“Not in material terms,” said Kaslo.

The uniformed shoulders shrugged. “Then the Old Bastable will do you.” He gave directions, then it was as if Kaslo had ceased to become visible to him.

After the silence had lengthened, Kaslo pointedly cleared his throat. “My documents,” he said.

The policeman looked at the warrant and the certificate. “You’re sure?” he said.

“I am.”

Another shrug, and the papers were slid through the opening. Kaslo took them and folded them into an inner pocket. He saw that he had again ceased to hold the other man’s attention.

He left and followed the directions to the New Bastable Inn. It was in an even less appealing part of Upper Pulluch than the spaceport and the prefecture. The lobby smelled of stale beer and last night’s dinner entree. The clerk who eventually emerged from the inner office to answer Kaslo’s repeated tappings on the bell had neither bathed nor shaved in long enough for the results to be easily noticeable.

Kaslo engaged a room with a bath and went upstairs. He did not bother to unpack his valise, but sat on a hard chair near the window that looked out onto the unswept street in front of the hotel. It was just after noon when he began to watch. It was near to sundown when a low-slung groundcar with official insignia on the door pulled up to the far curb. A fat man in civilian clothes got out, followed by a heavy-shouldered individual in prefecture green.

Apparently, Kaslo was not to be sent for. He wondered if his status had gone up or down.

The fat man looked up and saw the face in the upstairs window. His face registered no expression. The uniformed man followed his gaze and Kaslo saw what might have been a smile briefly touch his lips. Or it might have been a smirk.

The two men crossed the street toward the hotel and disappeared from view. Twenty seconds later, there was a knock on Kaslo’s door. He opened it and they came in, stood close together just inside the doorway. Both men gave Kaslo the looking-over that police on all worlds give to people they encounter in their line of work: the sizing-up that asks and answers the question, Are you going to be trouble?

“You’ve got a warrant for the arrest of Binnie Varshun?” said the fat one.

“I do,” said Kaslo. “Captain Maduc?”

The only answer he received was a grunt and a hand extended in a gesture that said, Hand over the warrant. He did so, then waited as the fat man read every word of the document. The uniformed one used the time to fix Kaslo with a hard, unblinking stare, the kind policemen give to people they are trying to intimidate.

Maduc looked up from the warrant, and said, “And you’re some kind of deputy?”

Kaslo handed over the certificate and waited while it was subjected to the same detailed scrutiny. When the fat man had finished, he let his hands drop to his sides. Both papers fell to the floor.

“Well,” he said, “what to do about this?”

“That’s easy,” said Kaslo. “Assist me in serving the warrant.”

“You want to arrest Binnie Varshun?” said the Deputy Prefect. “And what? Take him back to this . . .”—he looked down at the warrant, lying on the floor, and nudged it with his toe to turn it around so that he could spell out the name—“In-do-be-ria?”

Kaslo did not look at the warrant, but straight into the fat man’s eyes. “Yes, I do.”

The two Cheddlites exchanged a glance. The door to the room had remained open. Now the big one in the uniform used his boot heel to slam it shut. The fat one sighed and said, “Maybe we could convince you that that’s not a good idea.”

“Binnie Varshun has committed fraud,” Kaslo said, “in the amount of two million Indoberian SDUs—”

The uniformed man spoke for the first time. “What’s an SDU?” He did not seem greatly interested in the matter, unless being interested included finding the situation faintly amusing.

“Sovereign Debt Unit,” said Kaslo. “Ours is a credit-cyclic economy. Varshun conducted a confidence scheme, selling shares in a mining venture—”

The uniform interrupted again. His smirk had reappeared. “What’s credit-cyclic mean?”

Kaslo ignored the question. He stooped and recovered the warrant and certificate. “Varshun raised funds for a mining operation that did not exist. He published a false prospectus, offered bank guarantees that turned out to be forged. These are crimes on Novo Bantry and on Cheddle. My warrant is legally enforceable.”

The policeman opened his mouth to say something, but the Deputy Prefect forestalled him by raising one plump finger. To Kaslo he said, “Are you acting for yourself?”

“No, I am a licensed confidential operative.”

The fat man smiled. “An op? And your client is . . . ?”

His client was Diomedo Obron, a landed magnate of Indoberia, but Kaslo saw no need to divulge that information. He said, “Someone who wishes to remain anonymous.”

“That may pose difficulties. Cheddlites are entitled to confront their accusers.”

“Produce Varshun and I shall confront him.” He straightened out the papers. It was clear, however, that his representations were having no effect on the fat man. “If the Upper Pulluch prefecture cannot help me, I will go to the federal police in your capital city.”

The fat man thoughtfully scraped his upper lip with his lower teeth. “In that case, there’s only one thing we can do.”

The uniformed one’s smile widened. His right hand had been shielded by the other man’s body since they’d come through the door. Kaslo stepped back, reaching inside his upper garment. But he was too late. He glimpsed something black and solid in the policeman’s hand, saw it emit a flash of dark light almost at the end of the visible spectrum.

Then he saw nothing.

***

“Get up!”

Someone was toeing him in the ribs, none too gently. Kaslo tried to focus his eyes, his head still hissing with white noise from the policeman’s stunner. He saw a striated gray landscape stretching away into a blurred distance, a dark island just at the edge of his vision.

“I said get up!” The second kick came harder, sent a jolt of pain through Kaslo’s side. His head jerked up and the dull landscape became a plank floor, dirt laid deep in the grain of the wood, the island an empty knothole.

He had been lying on his belly. Now he got his arms under him, fought down the trembling of the aftershock, and pushed himself onto his hands and knees. He paused to let his head catch up with his body’s motion, then levered himself back until he was kneeling, his buttocks resting on the backs of his legs. A wave of dizziness washed through him. He used his knuckles to try to wipe some of the film from his eyes.

A hand took hold of his upper arm, pulled him upwards. “Come on,” said the voice. “You’re in the way.”

He staggered to his feet, the room swimming. Another voice said, “Put him over there. Somebody get him a cup of skreek.”

Shapes and motion around him. He felt other people’s footsteps through the loosely sprung floor, realized his own feet were bare. Now they had hold of both of his arms. He was led a short distance, then turned and sat down on a rough bench against a wall. He lowered his head into his hands, took a couple of long breaths, wiped his eyes again, and began to bring the world into focus.

He was at one end of a big room, no, a single-roomed building: windowless walls, floor, roof-joists, all of unpainted wood gone gray with age; one side lined with bunks that were little more than bare shelves with rags for bedding; in one corner, a flat-topped, wood-burning stove; a long table made of greasy planks laid across trestles; benches made of the same planks set on short, upended sections of tree trunk. Something in a blackened pot atop the stove was giving off steam.

And there were men: all of them dressed in tatters, shoeless like him, unbarbered and dirty, with grime deep in the seams of their faces. They crowded around the common pot, dipping in cups and bowls of battered metal, then took their food to the table, sat and drank whatever they’d got, in between tearing off chunks from a couple of huge, round loaves of coarse bread.

“Here.” Someone looming in front of him, a hand offering a tin mug. He took it, sniffed the dark liquid it contained. He took a sip, found it hot and bitter, but as the brew bathed his tongue he realized he was desperately thirsty. He drank more, swallowing the liquid as quickly as its heat would let him.

He felt better now. He lifted his head. The man who had brought him the mug was standing, watching him. He was middling-sized, balding, and gifted by nature with a face made for mourning, dressed in the ruins of a commerciant’s single-suit. He was examining Kaslo with eyes webbed by red veins.

“You all the way back now?” he said.

Kaslo took stock. “I think so.” In fact, the after-effects of the stunner were evaporating. His mind felt sharp, his vision preternaturally clear. A shimmering, shivering sensation ran through his limbs and made a lightness in his chest. When he took in air, his breath wavered pleasantly.

“That’s the skreek kicking in,” said the other man. “You’d better go get something more in your belly ’fore you get to twitching.”

He beckoned Kaslo toward the steaming cauldron, and led the way there. Kaslo copied his actions, picking up a bowl from a shelf beside the stove, dipping it into the thick liquid, and carrying his meal over to the table. They sat across from each other. The man tore off a big chunk of bread, pulled it apart, and tossed one of the pieces to Kaslo.

There were no spoons. Kaslo sucked salty soup from the bowl, then put it down to spare his fingers the heat of the metal. He dipped bread into the pottage, chewed, and swallowed. He looked down the table, saw a dozen unwashed scarecrows hunched over their bowls, jaws chewing, lips slurping, nobody talking.

The man who had brought him the drink said, “My name is Vanandaramatan. It used to be a significant name. Now it is not. Most people call me Van.”

“Erm Kaslo. What is this place?” he said.

“If you’re a poet,” said the balding man, “this is Sheol, Nifflheim, the Land Beyond the Dark River, the Undersphere.”

“I’m no poet,” said Kaslo.

Van scraped his bowl with a cob of bread. “Then it’s just the place where the crap ends up.”

Outside, a whistle blew. The men got up. “Come on,” said Kaslo’s sad-faced informant, “you can see for yourself.”

***

Outside it was just past dawn. Kaslo saw a fenced area on a piece of flat ground. On the far side of the open space, the ground rose and became a broad hill covered by the same dense forest that surrounded the compound. Because the trees were of a kind that did not begin to sprout branches until their trunks were twice the height of a man, he could see a long way between the trees into the shaded space. The fence looked none too hard to scale, but it was hung in many places by loose pieces of metal that would make a noise if they were moved. There were no guard towers.

“Don’t think about it,” Van said. “The fence isn’t to keep us in.”

Kaslo looked a question at him, and the man went on, “Anybody dies, they put the body out there at sunset. At night we hear the beasts fighting over it. Come morning, not even the bones are left. Sometimes a pack of them come sniffing around the perimeter. If they try to dig their way under, the alarms sound and the guards come out and crisp them.”

They crossed the compound from the barracks to a shed. A well-fed man with a club hooked to his belt unlocked its door. Kaslo saw two other guards in the open space. None wore a uniform, but one of them wore a garment he recognized.

“That one has my jacket,” he said. He had already noticed that he was dressed in filthy cast-offs: pants made of heavy cloth and a one-sleeved shirt that was stiff with dirt.

“A perquisite of guardhood,” said the balding man. “Another perk is that they can make us dance for their amusement,”—he indicated the nearest warder’s club, and Kaslo recognized it as a neuromuscular inducer, illegal on most worlds—“so let us get tools and move out of here.”

The tools in the shed were basic: shovels, picks, a floatbarrow whose untuned gravity obviators made Kaslo’s teeth buzz when one of the men activated it, some long pry bars, and a couple of wide-bladed hoes. Some broken tools were piled in a corner. Kaslo took one of the hoes and slung it over his shoulder, followed the barrow and the others to the far side of the compound and along a dirt track fenced in on either side. The land started to rise the moment they left the open space, and they climbed for a few minutes until the rough trail ended at a hole in the hill. To one side of the cavern, a squat machine sat on a framework of squared timbers.

No guards had accompanied them. Kaslo remarked on that. “We don’t produce,” said Van, “we don’t eat. A simple system, but remarkably effective.”

The men filed into the hole, which revealed itself to be the mouth of a tunnel leading into the hill. Kaslo was no expert miner, but he saw that the passage seemed to be well braced with timber and there was a wide air hose running along the floor to one side. As well, the darkness was partly dispelled by lumens set at intervals into the wall.

“It’s an old mine,” said Van, “abandoned years ago. Now someone has reopened it.”

“Someone,” said Kaslo, “who wants it worked on the shush.” The name Binnie Varshun hung unspoken in his thoughts.

The tunnel was almost tall enough for him to walk without stooping. He followed Vanandaramatan through the half-light, counting his paces. At just over a hundred, the passage widened and became a high-ceilinged cavern, the kind that underground streams carved out over millennia. The floor and roof were thick with stalactites and stalagmites.

There were two workplaces in the cavern and the men divided themselves up, half a dozen going to each spot where the walls of the cave had been hacked away. Kaslo followed Van to one of the sites and the balding man explained the process.

He pointed out a narrow band of rock that was a different color. “It’s a vein, some kind of ore we don’t know the name of,” he said, “but when you get it out it looks like this.” He dug a pick into the friable rock and pried loose a pebble the size of a thumb joint. The piece had a dull metallic sheen to it where the pick had split it from the native rock.

“We fill the barrow, then take it out to the refiner and process it into something that looks like lead. I can’t imagine it’s worth much. At the end of the day, we deliver the goods to the guards and they feed us. Mid-day, they bring out bread and skreek.”

“Always the same guards?” said Kaslo. “How many of them are there?”

The other man gave him a considering look. “Oh, dear,” he said, “another strategist.”

“What do you mean?”

“If the guards think you’re going to be trouble,” Van said, “they put you outside the wire. Alive.” He applied his pick to the rock and broke off another piece. “Though not for long.”

***

Kaslo spent the morning scraping fragments of paydirt and valueless overburden into piles. A man with a shovel put the piles into the floaterbarrow and, when it was full, it was steered out to the refiner. The barrow lifted itself above the intake hopper and deposited its load. A man named Quai—the one who’d toed Kaslo in the ribs and given orders—threw a switch and the machine made noises. After a minute or so, a shower of grit issued from a vent at the side of the device, to land on an up-sloping conveyor belt that carried it beyond the fence and dumped it at the top of a conical spoil heap. Then a panel opened on the top of the refiner, revealing a recess in which sat a droplet of dull gray stuff about the size of a pea. Quai put it in a leather pouch he wore at his belt.

“Not very rich ore,” Kaslo commented, scraping another pile.

“Couldn’t tell you,” said Van, hoisting his pick. “You know anything about mining?”

“Some.” He changed the subject. “Might one of the guards have taken my boots?”

“Were they good quality?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Then probably.”

Quai said, “Less talk, more work.” They did as they were told.

By lunchtime, they had made five trips with the barrow, producing five gray peas of varying sizes. A carryall came along the track from the compound, two guards in the front, a bag of bread and a pot of hot skreek in the back. Before the guards would let them unload the meal, Quai had to turn over the morning’s production. The guard who had operated the carryall weighed the peas in his hand and grunted. He stepped back and let the prisoners get their rations.

The carryall turned and took the guards away. Kaslo chewed the tough bread and watched it go. The man who had received the metal was wearing his boots.

The bread was rudimentary fuel for the body; the skreek supercharged it. They went back to work and, by the time Cheddle’s short day was drawing to a close, they had made another seven little round ingots of whatever they were mining. By then, the effects of the skreek had worn off. Kaslo was tired, having spelled Van with the pick for the last two hours of the day—none of his fellow prisoners had much stamina.

They trooped back to the camp to deliver their gray peas, crowded into the shed to store their tools, and were allowed to go into the barracks. A pot of soup simmered on the stove and there was a heap of round loaves on the trestle table. No skreek, Kaslo noticed. They were expected to sleep.

“Do the guards patrol at night?” he asked Van.

The sad-faced man was nodding over his bowl, almost too exhausted to chew his bread. “They check the perimeter fence if they hear anything trying to dig its way in. Otherwise, they stay in their quarters.”

“Huh,” Kaslo said.

Van looked at him, bleary-eyed. “Don’t do anything stupid, okay?”

“Okay.”

“I mean, we don’t even know where we are. We all arrived in the same condition as you.”

“You all crossed Binnie Varshun?”

The other man blinked at him. “Who?”

“Never mind.”

Van yawned and stood. He went to one of the rag-strewn benches, sat, then more or less toppled over until he was lying on his side. Kaslo followed him.

“How did you all get here?” he said.

Van was fading fast. “Taken up by the Upper Pulluch prefecture. Vagrancy. Drunk and disorderly. Mopery with intent to gawk. One of the guys when I first came was a freighterman who took on a skinfull and missed his ship’s departure. He got drunk again and woke up here.”

“No court, no judge?”

“Nope. And no time off for good behavior.”

“Where’s that guy now?” Kaslo said.

Van made a head motion that indicated the barracks wall and the fence beyond.

Kaslo was quiet for a while, thinking. When he said, “Hey, Van . . .” the only answer was the other man’s quiet breathing. He heard snores coming from farther down the room, and the first of many screeches and calls from the night forest.

***

Kaslo had always had the ability to wake when he needed to, and he came out of sleep after two hours. Before he’d allowed himself to drift off, he’d investigated the rags on which he’d made his bed. One of them was a sack of coarse material with a drawstring at its mouth. He’d worked the cord loose.

Now he eased himself off the sleeping platform and crept through the darkness to the door. It was solidly barred from the outside, as he’d expected, but he’d had to give it a try. By the residual heat of the stove he felt his way to its corner, testing the plank floor with his feet until he found the one that had squeaked when he’d stepped on it at suppertime, carrying his bowl of pottage to the table.

He knelt and felt along the wood until he located the end of the plank, which was raised up a quarter inch above its neighbors. Kaslo sat down cross-legged and took out the piece of broken hoe blade he’d rolled up in the waistband of his ragged pantaloons. He’d spotted it in the morning and made sure to collect it when he took his tool back to the shed.

The shard of metal was a little longer than his longest finger and twice as broad, flat at one end and pointed at the other. It would have made a primitive knife, but it was better suited to the task at hand. He wrapped the sharp end in a piece of rag and slipped the broad end into the crack at the end of the plank. Then he began to pry.

The process took time, but he had plenty of it. The plank had squeaked because it was able to move, and it could move because the joist to which it was nailed had half-rotted away. Gradually, he got one end of it clear of the floor. Then he prised it high enough to fit his fingers underneath. He squatted and lifted, alternating steady pressure with short sharp tugs.

There was a screech as a nail came free of a joist, but the sound was lost in the cacophony of animal sounds from outside. He used the plank as a lever to lift the adjacent floorboard, and now he had room enough to slip through the floor and into the crawlspace beneath the barracks. He took his string and tool and belly-crawled toward the open space and the fence beyond. He chose the part of the perimeter that was shielded by the barracks from the guards’ view in their hut.

He crawled to the base of the fence and worked quickly with the piece of metal and his bare hands, scooping out a passage beneath the wire. He was careful not to touch the fence, and its hanging pieces of tubular steel and clappers that would jangle if disturbed. When he’d made a hollow big enough for a man to fit through, he attached his piece of string to the bottom of the fence a few feet away. Then he crawled back under the barracks and lay belly-down, facing out.

He pulled on the string. The tubular alarms jangled and gonged. He waited a moment, then tugged again. Waited, then another pull. From the end of the barracks he saw a moving light. He backed farther under the building, out of the range of the hand lumen carried by the guard come to investigate the noise.

The man came down the line of the fence, the lumen’s beam playing on the wire and the ground beneath. It caught the shadow of the hole Kaslo had dug and stayed on it, the guard coming closer. He stopped at the gouge in the ground, shone his lumen around looking for tracks, then directed the beam out into the forest. By the light spilled round the lumen’s edges, Kaslo saw him use his free hand to scratch the back of his head.

By then, Kaslo had come silently out from under the barracks and crossed the short distance between them at a run. One forearm snaked around the guard’s neck, pulling his head back. The fingers of his other hand slid under his own arm, found the carotid sinus, and pressed. The man struggled an instant before his body went limp. The lumen fell from his grasp.

Kaslo lowered the unconscious man to the ground, took up the lumen, and shone its light on the guard’s feet. He grunted with relief when he saw his own boots—he wouldn’t have to do this a second time, let alone a third.

He placed the light on the ground and took hold of the heel of the right boot. A pull, a slide, and a twist, and the bottom of the heel came off, revealing a cavity filled with a small, flat, oblong object. Kaslo removed the concealed item and closed up the heel again. Then he dragged the unconscious guard over to the hole under the fence, laid him on his back, and pushed so that his head and shoulders went down into the hollow and partially up the slope on the far side of the fence.

He did not want to do it this way, but he could think of no other. He took up the light and shone it into the darkness under the trees. Several pairs of glowing orbs looked back at him, edging nearer. He set the lumen on the ground, recovered his string, and scooted back under the barracks. Moments later, he was back inside the building and pushing the floorboards back into place, the nails fitting neatly into the half-rotten wood from which he had pulled them. He dropped the piece of metal through a gap in the floorboards, then got back onto the sleeping platform in time to hear snarls and slaverings from outside. There was a short scream of terror as the guard regained consciousness, but it was cut off by a bubbling, choking sound.

Now came shouts and running boots, the snap of an energy pistol, then a stream of hoarse-voiced profanity as someone discovered what was left of the dead man. Another voice overrode the swearer’s, giving orders. Kaslo heard the sound of a body being dragged across dry ground, saw beams of light coming through chinks in the rough wooden walls and through gaps between the floorboards as the area outside was searched. Then the door flew open and men with lumens and inducers in their hands stormed into the barracks and rousted the sleeping prisoners.

They were pushed and kicked outside, made to line up, and counted. The guards were angry, on edge, slapping and punching, but with many looks over their shoulders at the darkness under the trees. Finally, they shouted and shoved the ragged, frightened men back to their sleep, barred the barracks door, and went away. Kaslo heard the scrape of a shovel as someone filled in the hole he had dug.

When all was quiet, the exhausted prisoners back asleep, he removed the miniaturized device from where he had kept it, between his cheek and his molars. He twice-touched a stud on its edge and saw a red pinpoint light up in the darkness. After a moment, it turned green.

Good, Kaslo said, in the privacy of his mind. He slid open a hatch on the device’s side and pushed the stud beneath it. He waited, watching, for several seconds. Then the green light blinked three times. Very good, he thought and closed up the hatch. He rolled the device up in the waistband of his pantaloons and lay down to sleep.

A far distance away, in the refuse receptacle behind the New Bastable Inn, Erm Kaslo’s valise was now wide awake, assessing its environment and beginning to make plans.

***

Kaslo was in his lodgings in the Parslaine district of Che, capital of the Grand Foundational Domain of Novo Bantry, packing for two weeks of fishing. He felt that he had earned the vacation and could certainly afford it: He had received not only his customary fee and expenses for delivering Binnie Varshun to the Adjudication but an additional ex gratia award from the federal authorities on Cheddle for exposing gross corruption in the Upper Pulloch police prefecture.

He had just closed his suitcase—an ordinary bag, not the special valise he had personally designed and constructed for operations in the more rough and ready corners of the Ten Thousand Worlds—when his integrator informed him that his client Diomedo Obron wished to speak with him. The magnate’s majordomo had settled the account, but Kaslo assumed that the man wished to express personally his satisfaction with the outcome of the operation; he told his integrator to allow the connection.

A screen appeared in the air and the narrow, sharp-eyed face regarded him. Obron’s gaze went to the suitcase hovering expectantly beside Kaslo. “You are going somewhere?”

“Grand Shoals. The brimtails are spawning. I am in need of renewal.”

“I wish to engage you again. Immediately.”

“You haven’t been defrauded again?” The client did not seem the type to make the same mistake twice.

“No.”

“Varshun hasn’t escaped?”

“Not as such.” It was the kind of remark that required amplification. Kaslo cocked his head in a way that invited Obron to carry on. The man said, “We have come to an agreement. I will drop the charges and he will continue to work on the project in which I invested.”

Kaslo blinked, bemused. “I thought the ‘project’ was a tissue of fabrication.” That had been the opinion of the Colonel-Detective of the Cheddle federal police who had interrogated the fraudster.

Obron’s face took on the expression of a man who is deciding how much of his knowledge he can risk divulging. “Some would call it far-fetched. Others would say it is not beyond the bounds of possibility.”

“Obviously, you fall into the latter category.”

“I do. As well, as part of my agreement to end the prosecution, Varshun has yielded me a controlling interest in the venture.”

Kaslo kept a straight face, but asked the obvious question. “And why would you trust him again?”

“I do not,” said Obron. “That is why I wish to engage you.”

“In what capacity?”

“As a regulator.”

“Of Varshun’s behavior? It is not my line of work.”

The flash of irritation that crossed Diomedo Obron’s face said he was not used to having his wishes thwarted. “You made an impression on him, when you burst through the door, threw him to the floor, and put the holdtight on him.”

Kaslo smiled slightly. “It did seem to come as a shock,” he said.

“In your presence,” said the other man, “he will be more tractable.”

“Or he will scheme more shrewdly.”

“You were a match for him once. Why do you fear he might be one too many for you this time?”

Kaslo did not let his resentment show. “I have no such fear.”

“Then accept the assignment.”

“How long for?”

Based on what Varshun had shown him, Obron estimated another three weeks to complete the project, once they were back on Cheddle. Kaslo added travel time and said, “A month then.” He looked with regret at his packed baggage.

“The brimtails will spawn again next year,” said Obron. “What is your monthly rate?”

“I do not have one. I charge by the day.”

“Then how much for a month of days?”

Kaslo made the calculation, named a figure. Obron doubled it. “Plus expenses,” he added.

The newly hired regulator told his suitcase to prepare for unpacking.

***

Diomedo Obron kept a space yacht, a Grand Itinerator from the Berry shipyards on Grim, all in black with yellow farings and sponsons. He met the client and his new responsibility at the south end of the Indoberia spaceport a few hours after agreeing to Obron’s terms. Binnie Varshun, a plump, pleasant-faced man with thinning blond hair and eyes of a supposedly guileless blue, was waiting at the yacht’s hatch, flanked by two officers of the Constabulary, there to see him put aboard.

They all gathered in the ship’s salon, where the senior officer signed a chit and declared that henceforth the fraudster was Diomedo Obron’s problem. His expression as he said it indicated that of the many foolish acts he had seen civilians perform, this one was well up in the listings.

The officers gone, Obron instructed the ship’s integrator to negotiate their departure from the port at the earliest. A few moments later, the in-atmosphere drive vibrated the decking beneath their feet and they rose smoothly into the sky.

Kaslo escorted Varshun to his cabin. “You will be confined for the voyage. If you have any needs, communicate them to the ship’s integrator.”

The other man went into the small space, turned before Kaslo could close the door and said, “Can you and I come to an understanding?”

“We had this conversation once before, when I arrested you.”

“That was in the heat of the moment. We are cooler now.”

Kaslo said, “Very well. Let us both understand that your actions caused me suffering and threatened my life. Moreover, I had to kill a man by means that still trouble me. I will have no truck with you, and I will not hesitate to kill you.”

“Diomedo Obron needs me alive,” Varshun said.

“He has his needs and priorities,” said Kaslo. “I have mine.” He closed the cabin door and locked it.

***

They did not go to a spaceport on Cheddle, but touched down directly in the compound beside the secret mine. The barracks was empty, but two men from a private security firm were guarding the premises.

“What happened to those who were here?” Kaslo asked Obron.

“The guards were arrested, the vagrants released.”

“And Captain Maduc of the Upper Pulloch prefecture?”

Obron shrugged. “He fled, along with his closest accomplice. Apparently he had sources in the federal police who warned him. But his other associates in the local force were taken attempting to escape.”

Kaslo grunted. He preferred to imagine the Deputy Prefect in a contemplarium. He looked around at the scene of his own detention. The scar where he had dug underneath the fence was still there. “What are we doing here?”

“Collecting the naphralite.”

“That is the mineral we were mining?”

“Yes,” said Obron. “Now that Varshun and I are partners again, the material is ours.”

The client was eager to inspect the goods. They went to the guards’ hut where a strongbox waited. Varshun told it to open and display its contents, adding a series of coded syllables while forming the fingers of one hand into precise arrangements in front of the box’s percepts. The device hummed and revealed its contents.

Obron dipped into it and came out with a heavy leather pouch. He opened it and peered inside, then fished out a single metal pea, which he rolled between finger and thumb. “What is the total weight?” he asked the strongbox, then his brows drew together when it cited a figure.

He rounded on Binnie Varshun “That is not enough.”

The fraudster’s smile betrayed no concern. “Then we will dig out some more and refine it.” His gaze wandered to Kaslo as he spoke.

“I have done my digging,” said the op.

“I think,” Obron told Varshun, “that it is your turn to make an effort.”

They dismissed the guards, who flew off in a carryall. Kaslo showed Varshun where the tools and floaterbarrow were stored and indicated the direction to the diggings. But Varshun already knew the way. When they arrived, he took a pick and went to the rock face where the vein of naphralite was widest. He set his feet and swung the tool.

Kaslo gave the man plenty of room and made sure that his stunner was loose in its holster. He also had a compact energy pistol in a leg pocket of his pantaloons. Varshun seemed far too content with his situation. He voiced his concern to Obron.

“He is a psychopath,” the narrow-faced man said. “His moods are not like ours.”

“Why do you trust him?”

“I do not. That is why you are here.”

“I do not know enough about what is going on to be comfortable in my work,” said Kaslo. “What happens when you have enough of this mysterious metal?”

“We will use it to build a machine.”

“We?”

Obron expression conceded the point. “Varshun and I will do the work. It was the . . . shall we say the design plans he showed me that convinced me to invest the SDUs.”

Kaslo realized there were too many questions he should have had answered before they left Indoberian. “What kind of machine? How does the naphralite come into it? What exactly is naphralite?”

Varshun gouged out a fist-sized lump of ore that showed a metallic sheen where it had been fractured from the vein. He nudged it with a foot toward a heap that was building behind him and took another swing at the rock. Diomedo Obron watched him, speaking to Kaslo out of the side of his mouth.

“You do not need to know these things. Just guard him.”

Kaslo shook his head. “What if the machine is dangerous, lethal? He builds it, presses a stud, and I am consumed in a pillar of flame.” He waited for an answer and when it was not forthcoming he said, “I believe I will summon a taxi and terminate our agreement.”

Obron started. Kaslo saw fear in his eyes. “You cannot!”

“I can and I will, unless my concerns are addressed.”

Varshun had paused to listen to their conversation. Obron told him to get back to work and he did so, whistling. The client seemed to be having trouble coming to a decision. Kaslo decided to help the process along by going to the cave mouth and taking out his communicator.

Obron came after him. “Wait!” His face twisted with an inner conflict. “I will increase your fee.”

Kaslo shook his head. “Pillars of flame cannot spend.” He activated the communicator and it told him that he was linked to the Cheddle connectivity.

“All right! All right!” said Obron. “Put it away!”

Kaslo pocketed the device and stood expectantly. Obron still appeared reluctant to begin, so he started for him. “What is naphralite? I am familiar with mining operations on several worlds, but I have not come across it before.”

Obron sighed. “It is a naturally occurring alloy of two transuranic minerals,” he said.

The op let his skepticism show. “Then it ought to be highly unstable. Instead it looks like common lead.”

Obron actually lowered his voice, though there was no one to overhear them. “It is formed,” he said, “under the influence of . . .” he looked about and dropped into a whisper, “. . . interplanar forces.”

Kaslo was practiced in keeping a straight face. He did not let his smile show itself. “Interplanar forces?” he said.

“Yes.” Obron’s face said, So now you know.

“I see,” said Kaslo. He knew, as did all educated persons of the Ten Thousand Worlds, that phenomenality was spread across nine different planes, each radically different from the others in its physical underpinnings. The nine dimensions were separated from each other by powers—interplanar forces—even stronger than those that prevailed within each plane. But there were some leakages from one to another. For example, the force known as gravity in the third plane—which contained our universe—was a solid though volatile substance widespread throughout the second plane, something like salt in our own realm. And the force we called “evil” was a naturally occurring climatic condition in the fourth.

What Kaslo also knew was that the alleged ability to harness interplanar forces was a favorite gambit of swindlers and hoodwinkers. Diomedo Obron was still being played for a noddy by Binnie Varshun. It had often amazed the operative to see how persons who might be highly accomplished in demanding careers could nonetheless be gulled like yokels from some backwater world flocking to a traveling circus that touched down, to be fleeced within its gaming tents.

“I see,” he said again. “And his machine will offer opportunities that are also of an interplanar nature?”

Obron’s face hardened. “I am not some nibblewit begging to be pruned,” he said. “I have researched the matter thoroughly. It was I”—here his voice took on a conclusive note—“who discovered Varshun and his project. He did not bring it to me. Indeed, he tried to keep it to himself.”

“I see.”

“Stop saying that!” Obron folded his arms. “You do not see at all!”

Kaslo sighed. “Very well. Your decisions are your own. Still,” he said, looking at the battered barrow, “I have to wonder what the two million SDUs were for.”

The client’s tone wandered somewhere between defensive and determined. “You’ll see. The materials from which the armature must be crafted are rare and expensive.”

“I’m sure,” said Kaslo.

“Then you’ll stay?”

“I suppose I must.”

“Do you wish to take part in the digging? It would go faster.”

Kaslo took a look at Varshun, who was still working away at the rock face. “One of us must keep an eye on him. And that is what you are paying me for.”

***

They had arrived at mid-morning. An hour after noon, they went back to the ship, a small gray pearl in Diomedo Obron’s possession. After a meal and a rest, they returned to the diggings and the client assisted the fraudster in gouging out more naphralite ore for the refiner to process. Neither man was a competent miner but as they dug deeper into the rock face, the vein widened. By evening, they had a larger sphere to add to the pouchful.

Days passed. A routine established itself. Varshun and Obron dug, while Kaslo guarded them—the one from the other, and both from the creatures that came to the fence, their broad muzzles white with drool and their upthrusting lower canines gleaming. At night the three men retreated to the ship where Kaslo locked the fraudster away.

The dam of secrecy having broken, Obron proved eager to regale the op with his hopes and aims. The device they would build, from gems and refined naphralite, would offer a narrow portal into three of the other eight planes. They would be able to reach into the higher realms and extract natural materials and even manufactured objects, the value of which to collectors of esoterica would be simply beyond price. Obron, who already enjoyed a comfortable situation on one of the Grand Foundationals, would become a supermagnate and win the envy of the loftiest moguls.

“I will have it all,” he told Kaslo, as they sat in the comfort of the yacht’s salon, while the ship’s curative system repaired the damage that manual labor was doing to his hands. “All and then some.”

***

On the morning of the fourth day, when Kaslo went to fetch Varshun from his nightly confinement, the fraudster made a surreptitious gesture to draw the op into the cabin. “Obron has told you what he means to gain from our project?” he said.

“To grow richer, plucking gewgaws from other realms.”

“You mock his ambition?”

Kaslo sighed. “Don’t try to slip one under me,” he said. “I do not share Diomedo Obron’s weakness, that renders him pluckable by the likes of you.”

Varshun returned him a bland smile. “That weakness is?”

“The willingness to believe that there are secret shortcuts to fabulous prizes, known to only an exclusive few.”

“Surely you believe there are other planes?”

“I was taught in school that they exist. When we came here from Indoberia, the ship passed through a whimsy that routed us through another dimension. Apart from that, the other eight planes do not seem to intrude on this one, and certainly not on my existence.”

“You are right about Obron,” Varshun said. “He is a fool, but not for the reason you think.”

Here it comes, thought the op. He said, “Enlighten me.”

Varshun bid him close the cabin door. When they were private, he asked Kaslo if he was familiar with the theory that every few millennia the fundamental operating principle of the universe switched from rationalism—that is, cause and effect—to sympathetic association.

“Sympathetic association?” said the op. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It’s the phrase that describes a sophisticated spectrum of phenomena,” Varshun countered. “The word you’d be more familiar with, the vulgar term, is ‘magic.’”

Kaslo’s single-word reply was an even more vulgar term.

The blond man’s smile remained insipid. “And yet, it’s true. By my calculation, we’ve now had several thousand years of rationalism since the last turnover. But it’s about to end. There will be a social collapse. Technologies will fail. Then out of the wreckage will arise a new age, ruled by those who have the gift, and especially those who have the willpower, to comprehend and use magic.”

“Of which you will be one.”

“Indeed. And you could be my assistant.”

“I haven’t had my breakfast,” said Kaslo, opening the door. “Come.”

“One thing more,” Varshun said. “I did defraud your client. I already had the naphralite deposit, and enough capital of my own to pay Captain Maduc to set up this camp. But the funds needed to acquire the other materials for the speculon were beyond my means.”

“Speculon?”

“What Obron refers to as the ‘machine’ I intend to build. He thinks of it as a kind of trapdoor. It is not. It is more like a window into other realms.”

Kaslo made no attempt to hide his ridicule. “More magic?”

“You’ll see.” The fraudster got off his bunk. “Let me tell you what I want from you.”

“Oh, please do.”

“I thought Maduc would serve, but you bested him easily. The change you don’t believe in is coming. We are nearing the cusp. When it happens, the speculon will become a conduit of immense power, power beyond your imagining.”

“Of course,” Kaslo said.

“I am not the only one preparing for the transition. There are others like me. We keep an eye on each other’s doings. At least two or three have an inkling of what I’m up to. They may try to wrest the speculon from me. I have some means to defend myself—”

“Spells and cantrips?”

“Yes, if you want to know. But until the change comes, they lack full power. So I need a man of action—a practiced and practical pair of hands, with a functioning brain behind them.”

Kaslo looked at his hands. “All that’s behind these, right now, is an empty stomach,” he said. “Let’s go.”

Varshun went through the door. “I ask only,” he said, “that you keep an open mind.”

“To be sure,” said the op. “But at the moment I need to fill an open mouth.”

***

Two more days of mining and smelting, then Binnie Varshun announced that they had enough refined naphralite to work with. Diomedo Obron told the yacht to take them back to Novo Bantry and to Manderling, his estate in the parkland outside Indoberia. The voyage involved a two-day flight through normal space to the whimsy that put them within a few hours of Novo Bantry. Obron displayed an increasing tension as they neared their destination. Sometimes he conducted whispered conversations with the fraudster; other times, he sat smiling to himself at whatever inner visions were presenting themselves to his expectations.

They landed at Manderling early in the morning, local time. Obron hoisted the satchel that contained the naphralite and declared that work must immediately begin. The sidewise look he gave Kaslo spoke silently of a belated regret about having spoken so freely concerning his project. The op wondered if the magnate would dismiss him now, and rely on his servants to keep Varshun in line. But after a brief vacillation, Obron gestured for Kaslo to go along with the fraudster and to be watchful.

They went into the main house and Obron led the way to an underground corridor that ended at a door made of hewn timbers with heavy iron fittings and several locks. Beyond it was a windowless room containing a scarred and stained workbench covered with metalworking tools and equipment. Obron locked the three of them in, then laid the satchel on the bench. He knelt beside one of the flagstones that formed the floor, touched its corners in a certain pattern, then spoke two words. The slab tilted up on a hidden hinge, exposing a cavity into which the magnate reached, bringing forth a rectangular shape swaddled in a dark cloth.

He placed it on the bench and removed the wrapping. Kaslo saw a book that gave every appearance of great age, bound in stained red leather that had worn away at the corners. When the magnate opened its wrinkled pages, an odor of ancient smoke cut by a more acrid reek filled the room.

“There,” said Obron, pointing to the place at which he’d opened the tome. It showed an inked diagram of a curved object and a calligraphic text spread across two pages. He made a nervous, get to it gesture to Binnie Varshun.

The blond man approached the bench, his fingers and thumbs rubbing against each other. He studied the sketch and read the text, his mouth silently forming the words. Then he turned to Obron. “Where are the materials?”

The thin-faced man returned to the pit and brought forth a brass coffer, unlocked it, and poured onto the benchtop a multicolored heap of jewels. He went again to the hiding place and fetched two ingots of gold.

Varshun separated the gems into sizes and colors, picked up each one and studied it through a lens taken from the bench. Grunting his satisfaction, he next examined each of the heavy bars of precious metal, then said to Obron, “These are as specified? It must be virgin gold, unworked and fresh from the earth.”

“They are,” said the magnate.

Varshun turned back to the bench, took a deep breath, and rubbed his pale palms together. “Then let us begin.”

Kaslo had no part in the proceedings, but he stepped forward now and said, “Let me see the book.”

Varshun showed a flash of irritation, quickly suppressed. “Why not?” he said, and gave way.

Near to, the ammoniac smell was even sharper. The op held his breath and looked at the tome, touched the uneven edges of the pages. It had a primitive, homemade look, but there could be no doubt of its great age. The hand-inked text was in a language, indeed in a script, that he had never encountered before—and his profession had made him a well-traveled man. The leather binding, on close examination, showed traces of scales, as if it had been tanned from the hide of some great reptile. To the touch, though, it was greasy, like powdered graphite.

“Seen enough?” said Binnie Varshun.

Kaslo stepped away, positioned himself in a corner of the room from where he could watch. The reality of the book—clearly the “design plans” Obron had spoken of—had disturbed him. If it was a fake, a maguffin Varshun had constructed to gull Obron into his scheme, then the fraudster was a master of artifice. But, much as the op did not want to wrap himself in the web the blond man had spun, there was something about the ancient tome that chilled the skin of his forearms and caused the hairs of his nape to prickle.

Varshun took the lead in what followed, with the op’s client as his willing helper. They began by placing the gold bars into a tabletop smithy. Varshun set the controls and activated the device; moments later, it began to extrude a curved strip of gold, two fingers wide with upturned edges. The process continued until the band formed an oval frame, such as would hold a windowpane or a mirror. When the strip had all emerged from the machine, Varshun bought the two ends together and used a thermal intensifier to weld them into an unbroken whole about the size of a groundcar’s wheel.

He laid the golden loop upon the bench, then he and Obron set about stationing the individual jewels at precise intervals within the frame, using calipers and protractors to check and recheck the relative positions against the diagram, finally gluing each glittering stone in place. It was a painstaking business, with arguing and crosstalk, and it was nearly an hour before both men pronounced the job properly done.

“Now,” said Varshun, “the naphralite.”

Obron fed the gray pearls into the smithy’s hopper while Varshun made minute adjustments to the controls. He set the output emitter to its widest setting, then with a meaningful glance toward Diomedo Obron, said, “Ready the frame.”

The magnate picked up the frame with its inset jewels and held it, despite its substantial weight, so that it lay flat, a little distance above the smithy. Varshun activated the device, then reached to help Obron keep the golden oval where they wanted it.

Kaslo watched. The moments fled by, but nothing happened. The other two men held their stance, the loop of gold with its inset jewels trembling between them. The op saw sweat bead upon Varshun’s pale brow, his tongue come out to wet dry lips.

And then, between one eye blink and another, there was a sheet of luminous gray enclosed within the oval. The jewels inset within the golden rim were no longer to be seen, but from each of their positions, a stream of colored light—red, green, blue, amber—briefly shimmered across the pearlescent surface before fading into the overall sheen.

Varshun exhaled a long-held breath. “It is done,” he said. “Careful with it.”

He and Obron together lifted the object and turned it upright. To Kaslo, it resembles a mirror of clouded glass, or a sheet of gray metal, semipolished. Except, when he looked at it from an angle, he saw colors dancing across its flat sheen, as transient and insubstantial as those that would appear on his inner screen were he to close his eyes and press upon his eyelids.

It should not have come from the smithy the way it did—in an instant, fully formed—yet he had seen it happen. And now, the more he looked at it, the more it seemed somehow more real than anything else in the room, including himself and the other men, as if it were a solid and they but shadows. He looked away from it, feeling a shiver between his shoulder blades.

The gold frame, before the smithy had done its work, had been an arm-tremblingly heavy weight for Obron and Varshun. But now, they carried the mirror—it was the word that came to Kaslo and it stuck—as if it weighed almost nothing. They took it over to a sideboard that stood against a wall. A groove had been cut into the sideboard’s top, and into this they inserted the bottom of the gold frame, then gingerly leaned the rest of the object against the wall.

Both creators stepped back and gazed at what they had done.

“Well,” said Diomedo Obron.

“Well enough,” said Binnie Varshun.

And Erm Kaslo said, “Now what?”

Criminal and magnate looked at each other. “We must give it a try,” said Obron, his eyes bright.

“We should study more, first,” said Varshun. “Map the other realms, learn how to adjust reach and orientation.”

“Just a little one,” said the thin-faced man. To Kaslo, he sounded like a boy arguing for a treat. “I’ve prepared a grapple like the one in the book.” He stooped and opened a door in the sideboard, brought out a long-handled pair of tongs with spoon-like cups at the business end, wrought in gleaming gold.

Varshun licked his lips. “I suppose just once couldn’t hurt,” he said. “Though we’re likely to get nothing more than a scoop of dirt.”

Obron’s face was pale with excitement, two red spots glowing on his cheekbones. “All right. Here we go.” He extended the implement toward the mirror.

“Just in and out,” Varshun said.

“Agreed.” The magnate moved forward. The tongs approached the shimmering surface. Gold touched pearl and a shiver went through Obron’s sparse frame. “I felt that,” he whispered.

“Keep going,” Varshun said, “but slow, and careful.”

Kaslo had remained in his corner, his attention tightly focused on what the two men were doing. But as the magnate pressed the tongs through the grayness, which allowed their entry as if it was no more than a thick mist, he heard a noise from the corridor beyond the heavy door. Neither Obron nor Varshun, intent on their experiment, noticed.

With only the handles of the tongs protruding from the grayness, Obron spread them then closed them again. Slowly, he withdrew the implement from the mirror and Kaslo saw that the portion that had gone through to the other realm—he had no doubt now that such was what he was seeing—was now a gold of a different color: richer, brighter, deeper.

Something was held between the upper ends of the tongs. Obron lowered them to the top of the sideboard and spread them wide. There on the polished wood lay a heap of dazzling light, so bright that Kaslo had to squint against the glare. Obron covered his eyes with one hand and dug with the other into the cupboard from which he’d taken the tongs. He came out with goggles of darkened crystal, slipped one pair over his eyes, and gave the others to Varshun and the op.

“From the sixth plane,” the magnate was whispering as he gazed at the pile of shining stuff.

Kaslo put on the glasses and came closer to join Obron and Varshun, where the two men bent over the interplanar material. Obron took a silver probe from the workbench and touched the treasure, which, now that Kaslo was not blinded, was revealed to be a conical heap of beads and globules, of a hundred colors and shades, each glowing like an ember fired by a bellows.

But when the tip of the silver instrument touched one of the little orbs, the metal seemed to shrivel like a leaf brought to a flame. In one moment, it became as a twig of charcoal; in the next, it was a whiff of smoke vanishing into the air as Obron opened fingers and thumb.

“The sideboard!” said the op. “It’s on fire!”

The polished wood was indeed smoldering, tiny tongues of flame coming from beneath the scoop of sixth-plane matter. Varshun acted quickly, using the tongs to pick up the shining stuff. Hastily, he thrust the implement back through the grayness and opened it. When he withdrew it from the mirror, the end cups were empty.

Meanwhile, the room’s protective systems had created a localized vacuum over the burning wood, extinguishing it. The smoke was being sucked from the room.

Obron examined the tongs, which seemed unaffected. “Virgin gold,” he said.

“And the probe?” Varshun said.

“Old silver. I didn’t think.”

“From now on,” said the blond man, “we must do nothing but. No more forays into the other planes until we know what we are doing.”

“Agreed,” said the magnate. “We will have to construct vessels of virgin—”

He broke off as the workroom was shaken by a powerful blast, half-filling with smoke. The strong door to the corridor flew from its hinges, blown inward by explosives that had been shaped around its ironwork. Its edge struck Kaslo and knocked him sprawling so that he fell, landing half under its heavy weight. By the time he recovered enough to focus, the house’s systems were doing their best to draw off the smoke, and the doorway was filled by two large figures he recognized.

Captain Maduc brandished a heavy-duty disorganizer, moving its emitter from side to side to cover Obron and Varshun. “Move away,” he said, indicating with the weapon that he wanted them far from the sideboard and the interplanar portal. Then, to the man behind him, “Get it.”

The smirking policeman Kaslo had met at the New Bastable Inn, now minus his green uniform, squeezed past the fat man and approached the gray object. He stepped on the door, causing Kaslo to groan and the two newcomers to notice him for the first time.

“Well, look who it is,” said the henchman. His smile at full cruelty, he lifted a booted foot and stomped on the door.

Kaslo made a sharper sound, writhing beneath the pressure.

“Stop it!” said Maduc. “We’re here for the goods!” He indicated the thing on the sideboard. “Get it!”

“You don’t know what you’re doing!” Diomedo Obron said.

“Sure I do,” said the man with the weapon. “I always did. While this cake-faker was paying me to staff his little mine,”—he pointed the emitter toward Varshun—“somebody else was paying me to be kept apprised of his progress. He even lent me a private spaceship to get us off Cheddle. And to follow you on your travels to the mine and back. When I informed my benefactor you’d arrived back from the camp, he paid me a very handsome sum to come and collect whatever you had.”

His eyes swept the room and settled on the ancient tome. “We’ll take that, too. My client has a shelf of old books like that. I’ll bet he’ll pay a bonus.”

“Who is it?” Varshun said. “Whatever he’s paying, I’ll double it.”

“With what?” said Maduc, his chin indicated Obron. “His funds?”

“He’ll pay,” the fraudster said. He turned to the magnate, his face a plea. “Offer him whatever he wants,” he said. “Soon it won’t matter—”

But Maduc cut him off. “I’m satisfied with my present arrangements,” he said. “I don’t like complications. And I never liked you.”

He aimed the disorganizer and pressed its stud. A beam of non-light reached out to Binnie Varshun, wrapped him in a cocoon of swirling black sparkles, converted him into discrete wavelengths of energy, and transmitted those back to the disorganizer’s storage matrix—a vicious weapon, but an efficient one.

His hulking sideman had meanwhile stepped over the door—and Kaslo underneath it—to reach the sideboard. He examined the mirror briefly, wearing the skeptical expression of a low-browed individual confronted by a piece of highly conceptual art. Then he reached out both hands and picked it up.

He was surprised by the thing’s lightness. And shifted his grip as he peered into the pearly surface. “What is this?” he said. “Some kind of mir—”

But as he spoke, one of his thumbs touched the grayness. He froze, a look of complete surprise beginning to form on his heavy features. It never fully arrived, though, because in an instant he disappeared, leaving behind only a man-shape composed of something that appeared to be fine white powder. This visual echo lasted only long enough to be perceived before it fell apart and drifted down to the floor, only to disappear completely before it got there.

The mirror remained exactly where the thug had held it, suspended in the air.

“What the—” the ex-captain began, but he, too, would not finish his expostulation. Erm Kaslo’s writhings under the boot-stomp of the henchman had served to conceal his drawing of the energy pistol he kept in a side pocket of his pantaloons. He now brought it to bear on Maduc and turned the fat man’s head into an incandescent lump. The boiling of brains in a confined space caused the back of his skull to blow out, smearing the wall behind him and entailing yet more work for household maintenance.

The op slid out from under the door, rose to his feet, and put the pistol back where it had come from. “I would be obliged,” he said to Diomedo Obron, “if you would provide me with transport to Indoberia. I will send you an invoice in the morning.”

“What about . . . ?” the magnate indicated the headless corpse, which had now slumped to its knees and toppled over.

“That is not my line of work,” Kaslo said. He looked at the gold-framed grayness still hanging in the stench-filled air of the underground room. “And neither, I am glad to say, is that.”

The magnate made further representations, but Kaslo would not hear them. He waited on the lawn for the hired aircar the estate’s integrator summoned from the city. As soon as he was back in his lodgings he instructed his own integrator to accept no further communication from Diomedo Obron.

Then he told it to book him in for a week at Grand Shoals. Binnie Varshun had given him a great deal to think about. At the very least, if the universe’s fundamentals were about to undergo a drastic change, Kaslo was resolved to get in all the angling he could.

© 2013 by Matthew Hughes.
Originally published in Asimov’s
Science Fiction.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

Matthew Hughes

Matthew Hughes

Matthew Hughes writes science-fantasy. His SF novels are: Fools Errant and Fool Me Twice, Black Brillion, Majestrum, The Commons, The Spiral Labyrinth, TemplateHespira, The Damned Busters, The Other, Costume Not Included, and Hell to Pay. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Postscripts, Storyteller, Interzone and a number of “Year’s Best” anthologies. Night Shade Books published his short story collection, The Gist Hunter and Other Stories. Formerly a journalist, he spent more than twenty-five years as a freelance speechwriter for Canadian corporate executives and political leaders. His works have been short-listed for the Aurora, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Awards. His website is at matthewhughes.org.