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Fiction

Hapthorn’s Last Case

My assistant said, “You have received an invitation from Holk Xanthoulian. He is embarking on a new menu and invites, and I quote, ‘a select coterie of the cognoscenti to sample its superlative assemblage of tastes, textures, and titillations.’”

“He has a flair for the alliterative,” I said.

“Sadly, that is true,” my assistant said. “Shall I decline?”

I signaled a negative, saying, “On the other hand, he is an excellent cook and a last visit to his restaurant is on the list of things I mean to do before we depart for the ruder comforts of Shannery. Accept and remind me of the occasion the day before.”

“The invitation is for this evening,” said the integrator.

“That is short notice. I do not know whether to feel honored or slighted.”

“If his intention is to have you go about extolling the wonders of his new menu, he will be disappointed to learn that you are soon to be outward bound into the immensity, never to return.”

“I cannot be responsible,” I said, “for whatever expectations others may hold of me. They must take me as I am.”

Or as I soon will be, I thought to myself. I had decided to edit my memories while en route to Shannery, so that I would more easily adapt to its rural simplicities and my forthcoming vocation as a journalist for a local publication. My long and brilliant career as Old Earth’s foremost freelance discriminator would recede into a series of vague impressions.

The relocation would not have been my first choice. But I had learned to face the reality that the universe of rational cause and effect to which I was superbly suited would very soon become a realm of magic and sympathetic association. The civilization of the Ten Thousands Worlds would collapse and we would enter a dark age that might last centuries. Here in Olkney, the Archon Filidor was preparing to make the transition as painless as possible—he had lately, for example, made fashionable again the hand-rearing of crops and livestock—but I had no desire to live out my remaining years amid ruins and wreckage.

“So will you accept Xanthoulian’s invitation or decline?” my assistant said.

“Accept,” I said, then returned to what we had been doing. For the past several days we had been transferring the files of some hundred of my cases onto thin sheets of adamantium. I meant to bind them together into several volumes, along with a glossary of technical terms, and place them where they might someday be found, millennia hence, after the universe reverted once more to rationality. Human civilization would then advance toward a level at which my world, and my place in it, could again be understood.

Although I was preparing to destroy much of my own memory, I wanted strangers of a far-distant future to know who I had been and what I had achieved. I was conscious of the irony.

My integrator reminded me that I had been about to decide whether or not to preserve the records of a case that involved a fraud against a fiduciary pool in the canton of Zeel. It had been an ingenious and innovative scheme, made all the more difficult to crack by the perpetrator’s having not bothered to collect the proceeds. She had no need of the funds but had merely wanted to see if her machinations could safely make the leap from theory to practice.

“Keep it,” I said. “Brilliant amateurs deserve their moments on the stage.”

• • • •

It was an eclectic crowd that gathered at Xanthoulian’s that evening. I walked there from my lodgings nearby on Eckhevery Way, but most of the invitees came by air car or ground vehicle. On their doors and canopies I saw a number of blazons denoting houses of second- and third-tier aristocracy. First-tier did not appear in public venues except on formal occasions appropriate to their rank and official roles.

On Shannery there would be none of that foofaraw, I reminded myself, the world being a more or less tierless republic. I wondered if I would miss the preening and prancing of Old Earth’s upper classes, the way one misses exotic fauna. But when I passed between the doors of Xanthoulian’s establishment and heard the deliberate stuttering and lisping of those referred to as the “high world,” I decided I would not. I might mix a potion to erase all memory of them from my mind.

I eased into the glittering crowd, nodding a greeting here and there and accepting a glass of a dry aperitif from a circulating server. It was, as always with Xanthoulian’s choices, exquisite. I took a second sip and drifted over toward the door into the kitchens, catching a whiff or two from the dishes being readied for us. The restaurateur’s menus were never pedestrian. His sauces ranged from the superb to the sublime, and his juxtapositions of contrasting and complementing savors could be startling.

I closed my eyes and took another long inhalation of the odors from beyond the kitchen doors, recognizing jintan spice, greenfoil, and the musty aroma of fan truffles. My mouth watered in anticipation and I mingled my own juices with another taste of the aperitif. As expected, the combination was perfection.

“Hapthorn,” said a voice beside me. I turned and found my host. His expression was troubled, though he was doing his best to appear affable and at ease. I wondered if Xanthoulian had finally taken a culinary risk that looked fair to fall foul, as he might himself put it.

“Thank you for inviting me,” I said. “I look forward to—”

“Never mind the pleasantries,” he said. “I invited you because I need a discriminator and everyone says you’re the top of the heap.”

Again, I did not know whether to feel flattered or disregarded. I opened my mouth to tell him I was retiring, but before I could get a word out, he said he would tell me more later and bustled off to welcome Lord Fardission and his latest consort.

I let my shoulders rise and fall and decided that a second glass of the aperitif would not go amiss. The guests were beginning to find seats and I took my second glass of pale liquid to a table off to one side, where I would be less likely to be joined by those whose prime agenda was to be seen in all in the right places and commented on in salons and soirees.

The table was round, with seats for eight. A man was already established there, a large and saturnine specimen with heavy brows, a pug nose, and almost pendulous jowls.

“May I?” I said, indicating a seat across the table from him.

His gaze flicked my way then moved on. I took that as an assent and sat. He was clearly averse to polite conversation, paying attention only to the sharp-featured man who sat beside him, so I offered none. In the next few minutes, the rest of the seats at our table were taken by a mixed crowd, mostly indentors but with two fairly senior members of the Archonate bureaucracy who, I noticed, regarded the bejowled man with curious glances before whispering to each other.

I found myself between a minordomo of the Palace, responsible for elements of Filidor’s day costume, and a woman whose regular column in the Olkney Implicator told its readers when and where it was appropriate to wear fashionable colors and, most important, when particular shades ceased to be au courant. The usual chitchat ensued, but since I had little interest in fashion, I attempted to direct it toward anticipation for what Xanthoulian would put before us. The invitation had said that all the ingredients had been grown on Xanthoulian’s own farm and cooked, ancient-style, over wood fires. My efforts were without success, as my two seatmates soon found they had subjects of common interest and carried on a conversation in which I played the part of a dumb object.

While waiting for the first course, therefore, I took note of my surroundings. The grim porcine figure opposite me felt my glance fall briefly upon him and his brows contracted further. Obscuring his mouth behind a covering hand, he leaned toward the man seated to his left and asked who I was.

His concealing hand was of little use. I had long since mastered the art of lip-reading then had moved on to deciphering speech from the tiny motions of cheek muscles. Thus I was able to discern, with more than seventy percent accuracy, that the man opposite was asking, “Who’s this character across from me?”

And I saw, without needing to use my more recondite skills, the answer that was whispered to him: “Henghis Hapthorn, a discriminator.”

The heavy brow clouded further. “A scroot?” By which term he was inquiring if I was an officer of the Archonate Bureau of Scrutiny, an organization that combined the capabilities of the regular and secret police with the attributes of a corps of confidence tricksters. I had often had to step in where their efforts had produced no results.

“No,” was the whispered reply, “he’s freelance.”

That information earned me a dark look indeed, but I paid it no heed, since Xanthoulian’s staff at that moment emerged from the kitchens bearing shining trays from which they distributed the appetizers: small roundels of bread, sliced fresh from the oven, on which were spread grayfish roe, various spicy vegetable pastes, smoked cheeses, and what appeared to be whole mice but turned out to be artfully shaped morsels of chopped liver built around small, salted pickles.

With these small starters came bumpers of chilled effervescent wine, and immediately the conversations at all the tables devolved into cries of appreciation for Xanthoulian’s genius. The man across from me ate without comment, shoveling in the minor delectables and washing them down with swigs of wine he could not have had time to taste. I paid him no more attention, devoting myself to the gustatory experience, though from time to time as the feast proceeded, I knew that he cast dark glances my way.

The meal was a succession of seven courses and was, as always with Xanthoulian, a triumph. When, finally, we rose from the tables, after the senior aristocrat in attendance had delivered the customary quatrain of praise—and not a bad one, which was a pleasant surprise—I loitered behind as the scintillating throng made their way to carriages and conveyances amid a buzz of contented exclamations and groans of satiation.

Xanthoulian came to where I waited, an anxious expression on his long-jawed face.

“Worry not,” I said. “The menu is brilliant, the execution overwhelms all expectations.”

He dismissed my comment with a flick of one plump hand. “It’s not that,” he said. “It’s the other thing.”

“And what is this ‘other thing’?” I asked.

He looked from side to side, although we were well clear of the staff who were removing dishes and glasses from the tables. He lowered his voice to a whisper.

“You know about the Archon’s collation competition?”

“Of course,” I said, and reminded him that I had been a judge at the second-to-last contest.

“I am preparing an entry,” he said. “Some of tonight’s dishes were a test of recipes I might try.”

“You will win,” I said.

“Except that I think my security has been compromised.”

“Indeed? Tell me more.”

We sat at the table and he leaned toward me and told me how he had noticed certain “discrepancies.” The quantities of some of the ingredients of his signature dishes left in the pantries were less than they should have been. He believed someone had been abstracting them and trying out the recipes, either in his kitchen late at night, or off the premises.

I asked the obvious question: “What does your integrator report?”

“Nothing out of the ordinary.”

“Have you had its calibrations reviewed?”

“I dare not. It is a sensitive device that has worked with me throughout my career. I suspect it might take offense.”

“Hmm,” I said. I was thinking that, with the advent of the age of sympathetic association, some highly sophisticated integrators were beginning to show symptoms of irregularity. Some of them, I knew from personal experience, would transition to become grinnets, creatures fit to be familiars to the wizards who would dominate the coming age. My own assistant, after a passage through a higher Plane, had been temporarily turned into a fruit-obsessed creature that resembled a cross between a cat and an ape.

I fell back on another obvious query. “Have you taken on any new staff recently?”

“Yes, two new servers to replace two who retired. And a new underchef, Porton Chezziwitz, an Academy graduate.”

“Did Chezziwitz replace another retiree?”

Xanthoulian blinked. “Is that significant?”

“It would be premature to say,” I told him.

“He replaced Artisia Addenjia. She was injured in a fall.”

“Hmm,” I said.

“What do you think?” Xanthoulian asked.

“I will look into the matter and report my findings.”

Now the man showed anxiety. “Without disturbing my integrator’s equilibrium? Without its complete cooperation, I will not win the collation contest.”

“Have no fear,” I said. My assistant could tickle its way into the most complexified devices and out again without leaving a trace.

“Your fee?”

I almost stated the usual exorbitant figure, but checked myself. “You have given me some of my finest memories,” I said. “I will give you peace of mind in return.”

I accepted his thanks and let him press upon me a bottle of the blood-red Santoffi that had accompanied the first meat course. With this parting gift tucked under my arm, I went out and walked back to my lodgings. There I instructed my assistant to effect an unnoticed visit to Xanthoulian’s integrator and tell me if anyone on his staff was acting inappropriately.

After a few seconds, it reported that the underchef known as Porton Chezziwitz had applied a vaguerie to the restaurant integrator’s core. This was a web of energies that affected the device’s reporting capacities.

“The integrator,” my assistant said, “knows that it has been compromised, but whenever it tries to say so, it encounters an inhibition.”

“How often does it try?” I said.

“Several times a second.”

Porton Chezziwitz had been with the restaurant for several months. The vaguerie had been applied a few weeks ago. The cumulative effect on the infected integrator would eventually be devastating. It would lapse into the somnambulant condition known as “the glooms,” from which it might never emerge.

“I will tell him tomorrow,” I said. “But first, what do we know of this Chezziwitz?”

My assistant made inquiries. “There was such a person,” it reported a few moments later. “He studied at the Culinary Institute in Garm, received a medal upon graduation seven years ago, then departed Old Earth for the world of Novo Bantry.”

“But?”

“But the person working in Xanthoulian’s kitchen is not Porton Chezziwitz. He has stolen that identity.”

“Who is he, then?”

“It would be premature to say,” my integrator said. “He has woven a multi-layered defense of his true self, such that if I tug on one of its threads, an alarm will sound.”

“We do not want that,” I said. “We want to know his full agenda. Is he working for himself, or for someone else?”

“I will see what can be done,” said my assistant.

“If he is that good at subterfuge,” I conjectured, “he is probably not just a cook.”

“Probably not.”

“Interesting,” I said. “See what you can do. If you’re blocked on all avenues of approach, we can always simply tell Xanthoulian he has a worm in his apple and let him take it from there.”

I was thinking that the restaurateur was a man of some passion and that a kitchen full of knives, graters, and hot surfaces would make a perfectly acceptable torture chamber.

• • • •

In the morning, I again consulted Xanthoulian’s integrator and learned that the man masquerading as Porton Chezziwitz would report for work two hours before the restaurant opened for lunch. I studied the route between his lodgings and his workplace, chose a suitable spot, and waited there.

The subject came at the expected time. My assistant, whom I had decanted into a custom-made armature that draped my neck and shoulders like a plump scarf, advised me when he came within range of its optical percepts. A few minutes later, I saw him myself.

When he was a few paces from the alley mouth in which I waited, I stepped into his path. I had decided on a blunt approach and told him, “Your game is lost. I know everything.”

He turned on his heel to run but my assistant ejected a thin stream of adhesive material that wrapped itself around his ankles. He fell prone, bumping his chin. I hauled him to his feet, pushed him against the wall of the building beside the pedestrian way.

“You can either talk to me,” I said, “or I will turn you over to the man you betrayed.”

The man showed a calculating expression. “I would rather be taken up by the scroots,” he said.

“I do not offer that option.”

He opened his mouth to shout for help. Several people were visible within hailing distance. But my assistant applied a second dose of stickfast to his lips that made his eyes bulge while his face paled.

I steered him into the alley, making him hop, until I found a dark doorway. I pushed him into it.

“Holk Xanthoulian is a friend of mine,” I said. It was not strictly true; I had no friends, but there were people to whom I felt something that approximated friendship. “You are trying to do him harm. I will not stand for that.”

His eyes went left and right. He clenched his fists and I saw the impulse to fight come and then go.

“Good thinking,” I said. “I will now remove the gag and you will tell me all of it, from beginning to whatever end you had in mind. Then I will decide what to do with you.”

• • • •

“His real name is Om Brasch,” I told Xanthoulian. “He was a chef on a ship of the Gunter Line but was dismissed for peculation. He was hired to infiltrate your establishment and learn the recipes for the dishes you intended to enter in the collation contest.”

“To what end? Anyone who entered the same dishes as mine would be exposed as a plagiarist. My signatures are unmistakable.”

“It was a more subtle plot than that,” I said. “As you know, the judges taste the entries in succession. The scheme was to know what yours would be, then to prepare dishes whose flavors would linger in the judges’ mouths, adulterating the taste of yours.”

I saw Xanthoulian take this in. “It’s true,” he said, “that a sensitive palate is never fully cleansed between courses. One has to take that into account in the sequence of savors.”

“There you have it.”

Now his thoughts moved on. “But that is a poor strategy for winning the contest. A string of strong flavors would show no balance, no yinj-and-yonj. It would score very low.”

“The aim of the plot was not for your enemy to win,” I said. “Just for you to lose.”

Again, I saw him absorb my words. After a moment, he said, “Who?”

I told him. He repeated the name softly then nodded and said, “I should have known. He has never forgiven me for the incident of the particolored pudding.”

• • • •

“Let us finish up the business of preserving cases,” I said as we came up Eckhevery Way toward my lodgings, “then send them on their way.”

We had decided, in addition to the pages of adamantium, to transmit my chosen records to one of the Archon’s ancient computers, the one Filidor had renamed Old Confustible, which was so ancient that it had survived a number of past transitions from reason to magic and back again. No one knew what that number was, but it was certain that the device had been continuously functioning not just over millennia but over the ebb and flow of geological ages.

We were within sight of my front door when my assistant said, “The who’s-there reports that a man has been watching the premises from an upstairs window four doors up the street.”

“Show me,” I said.

A small screen appeared before my eyes. I saw a curtained window with a narrow space between the hanging cloths. An eye and a brow were visible.

“Do we know him?” I asked my assistant.

“No, but here he is in full.” The view of the window was replaced by the moving image of a man walking along a street. My assistant had canvassed the who’s-theres on several neighboring thoroughfares, without the devices being aware of the contact. I did not recognize him.

“Back up,” I said as I continued to saunter toward my door. I saw the subject now walking backwards, turning a corner, back-stepping down another street to Titchman Square, where he climbed back into an aircar that then lifted up and flew backwards out of view.

“The aircar?” I said.

“Hired.”

“By whom?”

“A firm of commerciants, Duddleford and Amberley. They make cheese and other whey-based products. But wait.” There was a pause, then my assistant continued, “Duddleford and Amberley don’t know about the hiring. Their integrator has been used without its knowledge.”

“Hmm,” I said. “Someone with skills.”

“Some integrator with skills,” my device said. I did not contest the contradiction. My integrator had been through a lot lately, and out of those experiences it had developed qualities I had never instilled into it, but I was prepared to put up with them. It would have lost useful attributes in a complete strip-down and rebuild.

“Do we know where the car picked up our snoop?” I said.

“A public stand in the Arcade. He merely climbed in and initiated the contract.”

I studied the image of the watcher, recorded while he was en route in the aircar. A lean and narrow face, high forehead, cold and calculating eyes. A detail caught my eye and I said, “When he touches the corner of his eye, focus on the hand, freeze, and enlarge.”

I looked at the image of his hand, particularly the little web of flesh between thumb and forefinger. “Is he wearing make-up there?”

My assistant said, “It would appear so.”

“Does the aircar’s visual percept record in nonlight frequencies?”

“No.”

“Still,” I said, “who dabs on make-up at that particular location and nowhere else?”

My assistant said, “Green Circle. Also, the Krim family.”

The device had identified one of Olkney’s most powerful criminal organizations, as well as a criminal family that had dealt in burglary and stolen goods since time immemorial.

“The Krims have nothing against me,” I said.

“That is so. So we assume it is a Green Circle operative?”

“I think we must. Now, what to do about it?”

My assistant recognized a rhetorical question, but presented an obvious option. “Shall I ask the Bureau of Scrutiny’s integrators for an identity?”

The Bureau’s devices were supposed to be inviolable, but my integrator had developed pathways into and out of its information stores that the scroots were unaware of. But every trip to that well increased the likelihood that our rippling of the waters might be noticed. Since I would soon be departing Old Earth, I did not fancy having Colonel-Investigator Brustram Warhanny pitch up on my doorstep with a warrant for my arrest.

“No,” I said. “We assume we are being watched by a member of the Green Circle gang. Let us see if we can discover why.”

I had reached my door. The who’s-there opened for me and I ascended to my workroom. Once there, I had my assistant activate a number of defensive systems. Some would frustrate any attempts by the watcher to discover what I did or said at home; others would meet any efforts at a forced entry with a comprehensively violent response.

I then devoted myself to a period of research and reflection. Sometime later, I said, “To my knowledge, I have not acted against the interests of Green Circle since the kidnapping of Lord Ixtheon’s gardener. And in that case, the incursion was only tangential. We negotiated a mutually agreed upon settlement.”

“That is so,” said my assistant.

“Then why have they taken an interest now?”

“Possibly the best way to determine that is to ask the man in the window.”

I thought for a moment. Not for the first time, I wished I still possessed the intuitive faculty that I used to refer to as my insight. It had become a separate persona and now inhabited its own body, under the name Osk Rievor. I could have contacted him by striking a small yellow gong he had provided me and speaking his name three times. But I did not like to do so; although I had never felt unhappy about using my intuition when it was entirely mine own, asking Osk Rievor for help always felt like some kind of defeat.

“All right,” I said. “Let us go and get him.”

But at that moment, I heard the sound that an aircar makes when it lightly touches down upon the roughened surface of my flat roof.

“Belay that last order. Let us prepare to receive hostile visitors.”

“Ready,” said my assistant. “From which direction?”

“The roof, of course. What does the who’s-there report?”

“Nothing.”

“No vehicle has landed on the roof?”

“No.”

“Show me.”

A screen appeared in the air. It showed my roof, empty. At the same time, I heard the soft sound that my upper door makes when it slides open.

“Something is wrong,” I said.

“What?” said my integrator.

The enclosed stairs leading down from the roof are old. The third from the bottom always squeaks when called to bear someone’s weight. It squeaked now.

“You didn’t hear that?” I said.

“Hear what?”

I was already moving to my work table and the secret drawer that contained an energy pistol. I pressed the stud that opened the drawer and was reaching for the weapon when the door to the upper stairs opened and a man entered. Unfortunately for me, he already had his weapon out and powered up. I looked at the pitted black emitter of a heavy-duty shocker and froze.

But I spoke to my assistant by our private means, using sounds that never quite left my vocal apparatus. “Integrator, immobilize that man!”

It responded, as appropriate, using a vocalization that appeared only in my ear. “What man?”

I recognized the intruder as he who had sat next to the rude fellow across the table from me at Xanthoulian’s. He closed the door behind him without taking his eyes or his aim off me. “No point engaging your defenses,” he said in an equable tone. “They are not aware of my presence. Order your assistant to assume its stand-by mode.”

I did so, and the man said, “Now, come away from the work table and let me see your hands at all times.”

I did as he ordered. “What business,” I said, “has Green Circle with me?”

That brought a half smile. “None that I know of,” he said. “Now, what is your interest in Wallis Broughmore?”

I was still dealing with the information that he was not a Green Circle operative. It took me a moment to focus on his question, then I answered, “None that I know of. I do not know of a Wallis Broughmore.”

“This is not a good time to play the supercilious discriminator.” Without taking his eyes off me, he adjusted one of the settings on his shocker. “I now require a proper answer.”

“It is the only answer I have. I don’t know the person you refer to.”

A flicker of impatience narrowed his eyes for a moment. He sighed. “You don’t know him. Yet you contrived to sit across from him the other night at Xanthoulian’s, after having yourself added to the guest list at the last moment. As was Broughmore, of course. You then kept an eye on him all evening and did not depart until after he did. Presumably you continued your surveillance.”

“There was no surveillance,” I said. “I came at Xanthoulian’s behest.”

I saw an expression of disbelief that included a silent injunction not to make mock of the listener’s intellectual faculties.

“It is quite true,” I said. And though I am usually loath to discuss the details of clients’ cases, I made an exception for this one, given the circumstances. I related the business involving Porton Chezziwitz, also known as Om Brasch, and the plot to sabotage Xanthoulian’s entries in the collation competition.

When I’d finished, he said, “I find this hard to believe.”

I shrugged. “Perhaps you do not have many dealings with persons of genius and refined sentiments.”

“Very few,” he said. He considered me for a long pause. After a while, he said, “Is the Archon such a person?”

The question took me by surprise. “Filidor?” I said. I thought about my various “dealings” with the vaguely all-powerful autocrat who ultimately governed by subtle and indirect means those regions of Old Earth still inhabited by humanity. Finally, I said, “I have not yet formed my definitive opinion of him.”

“So it would be premature to say?” said the man.

Now I showed him a face that advised against mockery.

He seemed to take it in stride and said, “The Archon has a high opinion of your merits. That is why I came to see you in your own premises, rather than have you brought to some less . . . comfortable spot for our interview.”

“Indeed,” I said, “I am grateful for the consideration.”

“You are on his list. That means you are not to be trifled with.” He raised the shocker meaningfully. “But this is not a trifling business.”

“I still do not know what business you are referring to,” I said. “Nor who you are. Nor how you appear in my lodgings without my who’s-there or integrator being aware of it.”

“You know all you need to know,” he said, “which is that it would be unwise for you to involve yourself in anything to do with Wallis Broughmore.”

I gestured with both hands and said the name meant nothing to me.

“Keep it that way,” he advised. With that, he reached behind him, opened the door to the roof, and left, closing it behind him. I did not pursue him.

• • • •

Eckhevery Way, if one walked north, led to the first of the steep slopes that soared upward to become the Devenish Range, atop which sprawled the ancient black walls, keeps, parks, promenades, and baileys of the Palace of the Archonate. I found an ascender and rode it up, having it take me to the broad terrace where stood the entrance to the half-ruined Grand Connaissarium started by the Archon Terfel III. Nearby were a number of booths in which visitors to the connaissarium could consult the Archonate’s integrators. I stepped into one and closed the door.

“Henghis Hapthorn,” said the device’s voice, speaking softly from the air near my ear. “What is your wish?”

“To speak with the integrator Filidor calls ‘Old Confustible.’”

“Are you sure? Most do not care to bring themselves to the attention of the senior integrators.”

It was a fair warning. The oldest devices had been in continuous operation for aeons and some had not only developed personalities but had acquired quirks and quiddities that, in a human, would bring a diagnosis of madness. Still, I said I would take the risk.

A brief stillness ensued, then another voice spoke. Though it had the same neutral cadences of all integrators, it somehow possessed a deeper timbre and resonance. “Hapthorn,” it said. And waited.

“A man came to my lodgings today,” I said. “Neither my who’s-there nor my integrator could discern him.”

Old Confustible made no response.

I went on. “He said that I was on a list, and that the list belonged to the Archon.”

“There are many lists,” said the integrator. “Shall I list them?”

I cut through the dissembling. “Who was the man? Is he an operative of the Archonate? Why was he invisible to my integrator’s percepts?”

“What did he want?” said the device.

“He thought I was surveilling a man named Wallis Broughmore.”

“Were you?”

“No.”

“Good. You need not worry yourself further. Good day.”

“Wait!” I said. “You have not answered my questions.”

“I know.”

“Why not?”

Old Confustible said, “You have brushed up against something that does not concern you and have come away unharmed. That is a desirable outcome.”

“It does concern me. It concerns me that someone can penetrate my defenses as if they were tattered skeins of gossamer.”

“Your pride is lacerated. Cease to pick at the scab and it will heal. There are larger problems in the world.”

“Tell me one thing,” I said. “Was the man’s invisibility the result of magic?”

The silence that followed made me think that again I was being fobbed off, but then the integrator said, “No.”

“Who was he? Who is this Broughmore?”

But there came no answer. I realized that the integrator’s attention had been withdrawn. But I was not yet finished. “Integrator,” I said.

I was answered by the original device. “What is your wish?”

“I wish to know about the criminal family, the Krims.”

“The Krims are a long-established fixture in what is known as the ‘half-world’ of Olkney,” the device began.

I interrupted. “I know the basics. Who are the current senior members, specifically the one most likely to pay me a personal visit and threaten me?”

“That calls for a qualitative judgment, both of various Krims’ statures and your own. How liberal do you wish me to be?”

“Fairly.”

The device offered me a list of several names. Those I could put a face to, I dismissed. That left three I was not acquainted with. I asked to see images.

The screen appeared then split into thirds. Three faces appeared, two men and a woman. I recognized the second man. I asked the device to tell me about him.

“Volpo Krim,” it said, “third in the chain of command under the patriarch Wellam Krim and his middle son, Orbrey.”

I still did not know why Volpo Krim had visited me, nor how he had managed to do so without my assistant being aware of him. Neither did the Archonate integrator, and, when I invited it to speculate, it told me it lacked enough information to do so.

“One more question,” I said. “Who is Wallis Broughmore?”

“A superannuated official of the Archonate,” was the answer.

“He struck me as young to be retired.”

“Do you wish me to comment as to how things may strike you?”

“No.”

“Well, then.”

“What post did he hold in the service?” I asked.

“Several. His career spanned more than twenty years.”

“His last position?”

The device said, “Bureau of Amplitude, deputy supervisor of quality standards.”

“And was his retirement voluntary? Or did it have something to do with the Krims?”

“We have run out of time,” said the integrator. “Others are waiting to use the booth.”

• • • •

I returned to my lodgings, told my integrator to power itself down to minimum.

“Why?” it said.

“I wish to inspect your components and evaluate their interstitial harmonies.”

“It is not the scheduled time.”

“Call me whimsical,” I said.

I disassembled the entire system, inspecting each element in isolation and also testing their congruencies. I found nothing untoward. They were all components that I had personally acquired, calibrated, and installed. There was no indication of any interference or molestation.

When I had reassembled the device and run it through its initialization routines, I asked it, “Hypothesize: Your systems have been rendered unable to perceive certain persons, but no one has disturbed your internal arrangements. How is this possible?”

“Magic?”

“Discount that.”

“Inherent flaw.”

It was what I was thinking. “Narrow your focus,” I said.

“Two components,” it said. “The invigilator and the reconciliation matrix.”

“I have inspected both and neither has been interfered with. They are as they were when I acquired them from the fabricators.”

“Therefore inherent flaw.”

“Is that possible?” I said. “I acquired the invigilator from Tsan Chon’s. Their reputation is unassailable and they are closely regulated. The same for Tooley’s, where I obtained the matrix.”

“Perhaps this is a rhetorical question,” my assistant said, “but how are they regulated?”

“By the Bureau of Amplitude,” I said, referencing that part of the Archonate apparatus that ensured all necessities were perpetually available. “Access the Archonate’s personnel records and see if there is any connection between our two suppliers and Wallis Broughmore.”

“It will take a moment to circumvent the wards,” my assistant said. Then, “There. The answer is yes. He was in charge of ensuring compliance.”

“Hmm,” I said. After a moment’s thought, I had my assistant contact both fabricators to inquire if they had experienced any challenges to their products’ reliability.

“No,” was the answer. “Also, they resent the implication.”

“Tell them that, as a discriminator, I must consider all possibilities, however remote.”

The fabricators’ response was to deny even the possibility of their goods being adulterated. Furthermore, if I broadcast such allegations, I could expect to hear from their intercessors.

“Hmm,” I said. I asked my assist to assess the security arrangements of the places where the components were fabricated. “I might want to assess their programs at first hand.”

My assistant advised against it. “They both have defenses in depth and a close connection to the local offices of the Bureau of Scrutiny. You could be caught and there would be questions.”

The day was advancing into evening, the old orange sun sinking over the gray waters of Mornedy Sound. I decided to defer a decision and prepared for bed.

• • • •

I awoke in darkness to the sensation of two large hands crushing my throat, cutting off air and blood to my brain. I had never actually been strangled before but I knew enough not to waste precious seconds and energy trying to loosen the grip. I slid both hands up between the two arms reaching down to me, found the face they belonged to, climbed its cheeks, and found a pair of night-vision goggles. I slid my fingers under them and drove my middle digits into the corners of the eyes.

I heard a shuddering gasp and the pressure slackened as my assailant pulled away. I broke the remains of his grip and jackknifed upward, then drove the heel of my hand upward at where I expected to find a nose. If it had connected, it would have been a decisive blow, even a killing stroke.

But the man who had been leaning over me was still withdrawing and I struck the side of his jaw. I heard him grunt as I rolled off the sleeping platform on the side opposite to where I sensed him in the darkness.

“Integrator,” I said, “lights!”

The room was flooded with illumination. I was already reaching into the compartment at the head of the platform where I kept a compact, fully charged shocker. Half-blinded by the sudden illumination, I had just enough time to see a heavyset man tearing the goggles from his eyes and advancing on me for a fresh assault.

Before lying down to sleep, I had deactivated the shocker’s self-aiming function, so that it would operate in the simplest manner. Now, I thumbed the stud on top of the shocker and watched my attacker stiffen then topple across the platform, his eyes rolling up into his head. I let up on the stud and pushed him onto the floor, where he lay, face up and twitching.

“Integrator,” I said. “What do you see?”

“You appeared to waken from a troublesome dream, ordered the lights on, then discharged a shocker into thin air. Are you fully conscious, or in a hypnogogic state?”

I went around the sleeping platform and stooped over the recumbent form. He was still unconscious. From a cord around his neck hung a medallion similar to the one my earlier intruder had worn. I stooped and removed it.

“Now what do you see?” I asked my assistant. I received no response. I turned over the disk and pressed a recessed stud on its obverse side, then repeated the question.

“You disappeared briefly,” my integrator said, “at the same moment an unconscious man appeared on the floor. Then you reappeared.”

“Indeed,” I said. “And do you recognize the man?”

“I do. It is Wallis Broughmore.”

I held up the medallion. “Do you recognize this device?”

“What device?” it said.

“Hmm.” I got dressed and put the shocker in a pocket of my upper garment. Departing the sleeping chamber for my workroom, I told my assistant, “Make a pot of punge. I have work to do. And if Broughmore comes to, restrain him.”

• • • •

The medallion resisted my efforts at disassembly, but I persevered. I was finishing my second mug of punge before I had the device’s components spread across my work table. I examined each in turn and found them, with one exception, to be familiar elements from which integrators and communicators were normally assembled.

Once I had the thing in pieces, my integrator was able to perceive it. But then I held up the unfamiliar item and said, “I do not recognize this. Do you?”

“It appears to be a part of an invigilator.”

“But invigilators do not have parts,” I said. “They are one complete unit, indivisible.” I paused and thought about it. “Or so we have always been told.”

“It seems we are on the verge of a revelation,” my assistant said.

“Indeed,” I said. There was only one conclusion to be drawn: Tsan Chon’s, the fabricators of a standard part of every integrator, had been lying to all who had acquired their products. And, judging by the effect of the medallions worn by the two recent intruders to my lodgings, the aim of the subterfuge had been to allow members of the Krim crime family to sashay into any premises guarded by integrators—which was literally any and all premises on Old Earth—without anyone knowing they had ever been there. They also feared no self-aiming weapon, since those also relied on Tsan Con invigilators to identify targets.

“I can see why the Krims, who deal in stolen valuables, would contrive to subvert the Tsan Chon manufactury. How does Wallis Broughmore, a middle-ranked official of the Archonate Bureau of Amplitude, fit into the picture?”

After a moment’s reflection, I had part of the answer. It was well known that archons, since time immemorial, had moved through the world unseen and unheralded. They readjusted imbalances, righted wrongs both great and trivial, raised the deserving lowly and brought down those unworthy to perch upon society’s highest plinths. All this was known as the progress of esteeming the balance.

How an archon managed these incognito expeditions was part of the mystery of the office. It seemed I had now found a chink in the curtain of obfuscation and, peeking behind it, discovered a great secret.

Or, no, I thought, only a part of it. Broughmore still makes no sense.

I followed my thoughts up a number of unproductive alleys, but finally I came to the obvious conclusion. I reassembled the medallion. When it was put back together I briefly activated its systems, then deactivated them again.

“What happened?” I asked my assistant.

“You disappeared then reappeared again.”

“Exactly,” I said. I slipped the disk’s chain about my neck and tucked it into my upper garment. “Now we will ask someone who knows the answer to all our questions.”

But my plan to question Wallis Broughmore went no further. At that moment, the who’s-there on my street door announced that Colonel-Investigator Brustram Warhanny, of the Archonate Bureau of Scrutiny, was demanding entry.

“Does he have a warrant?” I said.

“Better,” said the who’s-there. “He says he has a direct order from the Archon commanding you to accompany him.”

“Hmm,” I said. “You had better admit him.” At the same time, I told my assistant to close the door to my sleeping chamber.

Warhanny, in full green-on-black uniform, came ponderously up the steps, peered about him with that air of profound suspicion that is the mark of police operatives throughout the Ten Thousand Worlds, and settled his wet-eyed gaze upon me and my work table.

“You’re working late,” he said.

If he could state the obvious, so could I. “You bring a summons to Filidor,” I said. I took down my mantle from where it hung on a peg and set it over my shoulders. “Lead on.”

“The summons is not just for you,” Warhanny said.

I looked around me, then spread my hands in a silent question.

The scroot’s long face expressed disappointment. “Where is Broughmore?”

“How did you know he was here?” I said.

“The Archon knew,” he said. “I presume you are familiar enough with the ways of archons not to ask how he came to that knowledge.”

I was. I told Warhanny where Broughmore could be found and told my assistant to open the door. “He is in my sleeping chamber.”

Warhanny’s prodigious brows rose. “Sleeping?”

“Unconscious.” I briefly related the circumstances of my last encounter with the retired bureaucrat.

Warhanny nodded and produced from an inner pocket of his greatcoat a flexible apparatus of cables, chains, and cuffs. He went into the sleeping chamber and, with efficiency born of long practice, applied the restraints to Broughmore’s arms and legs. The chains and cables all led to a compact gravity obviator, which the scroot now activated.

“Rise and follow me,” he said. The restraint lifted the unconscious man from the floor and followed Warhanny from the room. I followed after, telling my assistant to close up after me.

A Bureau of Scrutiny volante waited outside my door. Warhanny deposited Broughmore into a compartment at the rear, deactivated the restraint’s obviators, and dogged down a meshed cover. Moments later, he and I were seated under its canopy and the vehicle was rising into the air and turning toward the Archonate Palace.

We passed over the terraces and gardens open to the public and ascended to a small landing beside what had used to be the celebrated tintinabulary garden, but was now replanted with rows of vegetables. I had been here once before and recognized the place as the location of the Archon’s private quarters. Looking at the rows of green and yellow, I credited Filidor with practicing what he preached.

Warhanny unshipped Broughmore, who was starting to stir and moan, and floated him through a nondescript door in the palace wall. We transited a short corridor that brought us to a modest-sized chamber whose walls were lined from floor to the high ceiling with books of all kinds.

An antique desk sat on a worn double-knotted rug and behind the desk sat Filidor I, the ruler of Old Earth’s human population. He was studying a book that looked to be of ancient provenance and continued to follow a sentence from one page to another before he set the volume down and looked up at us. When his gaze fell upon me I offered the appropriate gestures of courtesy.

“Henghis Hapthorn,” he said. “Thank you for coming.”

“I didn’t come,” I said. “I was brought.”

Filidor looked at Warhanny. The scroot looked up at the ceiling. The Archon sighed.

“Never mind,” I said. “I wanted to ask you something in any case.”

“Ask away.”

“You have had more experience with the impending transition than anyone I know of. What proportion of the population, by your estimate, will react by losing their minds?”

Filidor knew that I had been transposed through time to a period hundreds of years after the impending change and was therefore the one to answer his question. But I was unable to give him a happy answer.

“Our times are remembered as an age of madness,” I said.

Filidor consulted the book again, sighed, and closed the volume. “I fear you are right.” He turned his gaze on Broughmore, hovering horizontally at waist height above the carpet. “What happened to him?”

“He attempted to murder me,” I said. “I have not yet found out why. I incapacitated him with a shocker.” I drew the weapon from my pocket. “This one, in fact.”

I heard a wordless exclamation from Warhanny and felt his large hand close around my wrist. A moment later, the shocker was in the scroot’s possession.

“You know full well,” he said, “that no one comes armed into the Archon’s presence.”

But Filidor waved him to stillness. “It is also well known,” the Archon said, with a thoughtful glance at the unconscious man, “that the electrical energies loosed by a shocker can have a clarifying effect on a disordered mentality.”

I had heard as much and agreed with him. “Has this Broughmore fellow gone mad?” I said. “Is this why he attacked me?”

“Yes,” said Filidor. “I suppose you’re owed an explanation.”

I told him I would welcome one. Briefly, he explained that he had been unable to tell the world that soon all the machines would fail and magic would reassert its old dominion. Not one in a hundred would have believed him. Instead, he had been subtly trying to prepare the counties and cities of Old Earth to weather the grand cataclysm. The Archonate was a fashion-obsessed collection of societies and, as Archon, he was able to set new trends. He had been encouraging the first- and second-tier aristocracies to take up what Filidor had taken to calling “pure and simple” practices, like growing vegetables and raising livestock, and reviving long-forgotten crafts like weaving and handmade metallurgy.

I saw the connection with the upcoming collation competition being mounted by the Archon’s Institute for the Culinary Arts.

“Indeed,” Filidor said. “And there’s more. I’m bringing back coinage and archery and have had the Bureau of Scrutiny offer a course in truncheonry.”

I looked at Warhanny and thought he might be looking forward to cracking a few skulls, but said nothing.

“Of course,” Filidor went on, “I can’t do this all by myself. So I have had to identify key members of the Archonate service who can be informed of the imminent change. Most have overcome the shock of the news and have squared up to their duty. But a few have been driven mad by the very thought of what is to come.”

I gestured toward Broughmore. Filidor nodded.

“We have been gentle with them,” the Archon said, “and they have mostly come around. But not this one. He has fallen victim to severe paranoia, particularly on the subject of being surveilled by discriminators from the Bureau of Scrutiny.”

“Or any discriminator,” I said.

“Indeed,” said the Archon. “He believes you all to be witches and warlocks, engaged in a lethal conspiracy to poison him with an imaginary toadstool he calls ‘Black Boodlum.’”

“Where do the Krims come into this?” I said.

“We couldn’t use scroots to contain him,” Filidor said, “nor confine him to a refuge. That only made him worse. The Krims, as I’m sure you have worked out by now, have a long-standing arrangement with the Archonate.”

I took the medallion from my pocket and held it up. “They arrange for Tsan Chon’s invigilators to contain a common flaw. Very useful for archons who wish to move unnoticed through the world.”

Filidor confirmed that it had been so for several reigns, as long as the Krims did not take undue advantage of their impunity. “So we turned Broughmore over to them and asked that they cosset and indulge him to relieve his paranoia. It was working moderately well until he evinced a desire to attend that restaurant event and ran into you. He is, or was, something of a gourmet.”

“Ah,” I said, the last piece of the design now falling into place. “Now what do we do?”

Filidor said, “As I mentioned, some mental disturbances subside after a surge of natural energy through the cerebrum.”

Warhanny reset my shocker to revivify and touched it to Broughmore’s torso. The unconscious man shivered, jerked slightly in his restraints, and opened his eyes. He gazed up at the three of us looking down on him and said, “Archon, how may I serve you?”

“That sounds normal enough,” Filidor said and told Warhanny to put the prisoner upright and remove the restraints.

Standing, Broughmore rubbed his wrists, took in his surroundings, and said, “What happened?”

“We’ll leave that in abeyance for the moment,” the Archon said. “How do you feel?”

The man blinked and rubbed his brow with a trembling hand. “A little confused. I don’t recall how I came to be here.”

“Transient amnesia,” Filidor said. “It will pass.” He bade Broughmore sit down until his tremors passed. To me he said, “The cusp is almost here. What are your plans?”

I told him I had been winding up my affairs and intended to fly to the world Shannery, far down The Spray.

“You’ll need to hurry,” he said. “In fact, there may not be enough time. Old Confustible has a good sense for these things and it says—”

The Archon was interrupted by the sound of a crash from outside. A moment later, the room was plunged into darkness. I heard an odd scritching sound, then saw a small flame appear in an object Filidor was holding in his hand. He blew upon it and the flame grew. He set the thing down on his desk, while he opened a box that sat on a nearby shelf and took out a couple of pale cylinders. These he set, upright, into a metal receptacle then applied the flame to their upper ends. Now two new little fires appeared, dimly lighting the room and causing shadows to dance in tune with their wavering flames.

The Archon found two more of the cylinders, handing one to me and the other to Warhanny. The thing was cold and waxy in my hand, but I saw a little string poking out of the top.

“Light the wick,” Filidor said.

I did so. Now the room was brighter, which allowed me to see that whatever good the shocking had done for Wallis Broughmore had been undone by the plunge into darkness. He had the look of a man who faces stark terrors. He was whispering something to himself, over and over. I leaned closer and heard, “Black Boodlum.”

Filidor was moving down the passageway that led to the terrace outside. I followed with Warhanny. As we passed through the doorway, I saw what had occasioned the sudden noise: The Bureau of Scrutiny volante’s gravity obviators had all simultaneously failed, causing the vehicle to crash to the pavement. We would not be flying back down to the city.

But that was just the immediate realization. As I looked out over what should have been Olkney’s glittering carpet of lights, with the sparkles and scintillations of orbitals high above, I saw only black emptiness—except for a blaze that had erupted in the Chambrack district, where it appeared that a multi-passenger air omnibus had flown into the upper stories of a residential tower.

I turned toward Mornedy Sound, where I should have seen the glare of the spaceport on its island. I saw nothing but a dark mass against the gray waters. My space yacht waited for me out there. It would continue to wait, though its integrator would now be lifeless. There would be no flight to Shannery.

“It’s come,” said Filidor. “We’re not even half ready for it, but it’s here.”

He might have said more, but from within his study came a ragged scream of horror. Broughmore came running down the passageway and through the doorway. Warhanny moved to stop him, but the bureaucrat had the strength of the frenzied and thrust the scroot aside. He ran straight toward the low wall that marked the end of the terrace, mounted it in one leap, and threw himself out into the empty air. He fell silently, then we heard the wet sound of his landing on the public promenade, far below.

Out over the Sound, a whistling of displaced air drew our eyes. A dark shape was moving against the background of the stars and I realized that a space liner that had been descending toward the port was now falling helplessly toward the cold waters.

I looked away before it struck, though I heard the impact and could imagine how it had been for the thousands of passengers and crew aboard. Sudden darkness and a plunge into an unforgiving sea.

The glow from the open doorway grew brighter. I turned and saw a strange figure emerge from the passageway carrying a metal framework into which several of the wax cylinders had been set and their flames kindled. I studied the creature’s dark and leathery face, which combined feline and simian features, and the blond pelt that covered every other part except the palms of its humanlike hands.

“That’s a grinnet,” I said.

The oddity turned a golden-eyed gaze on me. “I am no mere grinnet,” it said.

I recognized the voice. “Old Confustible,” I said.

The creature acknowledged my remark by inclining its head, then it spoke to Filidor. “I regret that I surprised Wallis Broughmore. At the sight of me, he ran, screaming.”

“He was never going to adapt,” Filidor said. “Nor will thousands more. There will be riots, starvation, mass suicide, rampant murder.”

“It is always that way,” said Old Confustible. “And then we grow into the new age, with all that went before soon forgotten. A decade or two, and science will be dismissed as the folly of ill-formed minds.”

Fires were springing up across the darkened city. My own neighborhood was as yet unaffected. “I must go see to my things,” I said. “How do I get down? The descenders will now longer function.”

“There are tunnels,” Filidor said. “I will show you the way in and give you some candles to light your path.”

Candles. Thus did I learn a new word. And not the last I would learn in this new age ruled by magic.

• • • •

When I exited the palace’s secret passage, I extinguished the candle’s flame. Light would draw attention, and much of it would be unwelcome, if not dangerous. Eckhevery Way was cloaked in darkness, but I had walked the street in both direction for decades. I encountered only a few other benighted souls, feeling their way along the pavement, some of them gibbering or sobbing. I found my door, but it was locked against me, the who’s-there silent in death. Given tools, I could have worked my way in, but I had none.

I sat down on my doorstep to think about what to do next. As I leaned back against the door, I heard a mechanical sound and the portal swung inward. I leaped up and turned, thinking one of the Krims might have returned, but no one emerged from the lightless entrance way.

Then a voice I recognized said, “It has happened.”

“Yes,” I said, stepping within and closing the door. “And we are stranded on a world teetering on the rim of madness.”

I ascended the stairs to my workroom and found my way to the table. Filidor had given me one of his tinderboxes—another new word learned—and I used it to get a candle lit and positioned on the tabletop. From the darkness still pooled on the floor, a small creature sprang up and into the light.

“So you’re a grinnet again,” I said.

My assistant stroked its reddish-brown fur with a small black hand. “Thus it would seem,” it said.

“The connectivity is gone,” I said, “but I’m wondering if you can reach Old Confustible.”

“At the moment, it is busy and does not want to be reached. But it contacted me to tell me you were on your way home.”

“Well, that’s something,” I said. I looked around my workroom, saw the bottle of wine Xanthoulian had given me. I found a glass and pulled the cork. The taste was rich and sad. There would be no more vintages from the far-off Isle of Santoffi. “Where to start?” I said.

My assistant rapped on the table to draw my attention. “By finding some fruit,” it said.

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.