Foundation and Chaos

Page 13

The noose was closing. “What do I do with this?” Klia asked, lifting the thin box under her arm.

“I take nothing and pay nothing, that’s the word. Now slink!”

Klia glanced at him for less than a second. The boy shook his head as if touched by a buzzing insect, then looked right through her. He would not report having seen her.

If everybody wanted her to vanish, and there was no longer any work or reason to stay, it really was time to vanish. The thought scared her; she had never been outside Dab! for more than a few hours. She had less than two weeks’ living in credits, a lot of those black-market exchanges good only for local merchants--who might shun her business now anyway.

Klia walked up the street to a less prosperous neighborhood, known euphemistically as Softer Fleshplay, and ducked through a fractured plastic front into an abandoned food stall. There, among scattered old wrappers and broken sticks of furniture, she cut the security seal on her package and opened it, to see if it contained anything valuable outside Dahl.

Papers and a bookfilm. She leafed through them and examined the seal on the bookfilm; personal stuff, in code, nothing she could decipher or sell anywhere. She had known that before she opened the package. She was handling only cut-rate deliveries anyway, often enough backup deliveries, information too tricky to risk being sent where security eyes could intercept it, yet not so tricky anyone wanted to pay large sums for better couriers...

And once she had been the very best of couriers, one of the highest paid in Dahl, inheritor of a tradition thousands of years old, as convoluted and ornate with language and ritual as any religious commerce off Trantor. Sometimes, even official and public papers were handed to the Dahlite couriers by legitimate day bosses, just to ensure faster delivery now that other communications systems were so often stalled or subject to surveillance by the Commission.

For her, it had all come to nothing, in just a few days!

With a jerk, she realized she was crying, silently, but nevertheless crying.

She wiped her face and blew her nose on a reasonably clean if dusty wrapper, dropped the package in the litter, and took to the street again.

Once outside, she crossed the street and waited for a few minutes. Soon enough Klia saw her tail, the one she expected would be after her if the delivery failed. It was a small, thin girl only a few years younger than she, pretending to play in the streets, dressed in a scaled-down version of a black heatsink work jumper. Klia was too far away to exert any persuasion, or learn anything; but she did not need to.

The girl darted into the abandoned stall and emerged a few seconds later with the shredded wrappings and contents of the package.

Klia had tailed couriers at the very beginning, sometimes cleaning up after failed deliveries. Now, it was being done to her. This was the last slap in the face, the final insult.

The street traffic was increasing. With the darkening ceil, the lights on the marquees above the streets would become brighter and more frantic, the crowds would jam shoulder to shoulder, looking for a moment’s relief from dreary lives. For a hunted person, such a crush could be fatal. Anything could happen in a crowd, and she would be hard-pressed to persuade, hide, make the masses forget, or even just get away quickly; she might be found and killed.

She thought of the man in dusty green. The memory of him did not make her scalp itch, but she would have to fall much lower before she gave up her independence and actually joined a movement, even if they claimed to be like her...

Perhaps especially if they were like her! The thought of being among people who could do what she did

Suddenly, everyone around her made her scalp itch. With a moan, she pushed through the roiling crowds, looking for the entrance to a plunger, the large, ancient elevators that worked the levels in Dahl and most of the other Sectors of Trantor.

Vara Liso, exhausted and haggard, begged the stolid young major by her side to let her rest. “I’ve been here for hours,” she groaned. Her head ached, her clothes were drenched in sweat, her vision blurred.

Major Namm plucked at his Imperial insignia absently, chewing on his lower lip. Vara focused on him with a hatred she had seldom felt before--but she dared not hurt him.

“Nobody?” he asked in a gruff tone.

“I’ve found nobody for the last three days,” she said. “You’ve scared them all away.”

He stepped back from the edge of the balcony overlooking the crowded Trans-Dahl thoroughfare through Fleshplay. Throngs on foot passed below the balcony, while trains and robos on elevated rails and narrow slaveways rumbled a few meters above them, rattling the empty apartment. Vara had been surveying the crowds from that location for seven hours; dark was falling quickly and the bright street signs across the thoroughfare were beginning to give her a headache. She simply wanted to sleep.

“Councilor Sinter would appreciate some results,” the young man said.

“Farad must have some concern for my health!” Vara shot back. “If I become ill or burn myself out, what will he do then? I’m all the ammunition he has in this little war of his!” Her tone surprised her. She was close to the limits of her endurance. But rather than keep the focus on Farad’s need for her, she pushed the onus onto the major. “If you’re responsible for my effectiveness being reduced...What will Councilor Sinter say then?”

The young man considered this possibility with little apparent emotion. “You’re the one who has to answer to him. I’m just here to watch over you.”

Vara Liso held back a sharp bolt of anger. How close they come! They don’t even know!

“Well, take me to a place where I can rest,” she demanded sharply. “She’s not here. I don’t know where she is. I haven’t sensed her for three days!”

“Councilor Sinter is especially concerned that you should find her. You told us she was the strongest--”

“Other than me!” Vara shouted. “But I haven’t felt her!”

The blond major seemed to get it through his head that she wasn’t going to work anymore today.

“The councilor will be disappointed,” he said, then bit his lower lip again.

Is everybody here an idiot? Vara raged inwardly, but realized anger, letting her exhaustion control her, would get her nowhere, and could even harm her chances of getting what she wanted from Sinter. “I need to be alone for a while, rest, not talk,” she said hoarsely. “We can try again tomorrow, in another Sector. I need a smaller area to work in--a few blocks at most. We need more agents and better reports.”

“Of course,” the major said, matching her tone with a more reasonable approach of his own. “Our intelligence has been a little weak. We’ll try it again tomorrow.”

“Thank you,” she said softly. The major walked through the empty apartment and stood by the door, holding it open for her. She was almost through the door when a sharp spike of what she could only call envy shot through her: the sudden awareness she was close to a fellow human with talents like her own. Her face went white, and she stammered, “N-n-not yet. She’s here!”

“Where?” the major demanded, pushing her back to the window.

“Yes, yes, yes,” Vara muttered as he propelled her. They treat me like a despicable runt! But the excitement of the chase was strong. She pointed a trembling finger and wiped her lips with the back of her other hand. “Down there! She’s close!”

The agent peered down into the crowd, following the line of the small woman’s finger. He saw a female figure, swift and almost colorless, dart through the crowds toward the entrance of a plunger.

Immediately, he used his comm to alert other agents on the street below.

“You’re sure?” he demanded of Vara, but she could only point and rub her lips, the sensation was so great. She had to work hard to keep from trembling. She hated this sensation--had come to know it whenever she was around the others in Wanda and Stet tin’s group, but never as strongly as this. Envy like an ache in her chest, as if this girl could steal everything in life from her and leave only empty expectations and endless disappointment!

“Her!” she said. “Get her, please!”

Something made Klia’s scalp feel as if it were on fire, and she cried out as she darted into the plunger cab. Two older men with heavy black-and-gray mustaches looked at her with mild concern.

Klia could not see over their shoulders. She jumped and caught a glimpse of two square-featured men running as fast as they could toward the open plunger doors. The doors started to close; the agents shouted for it to stop, and even flashed code blinkers to take control of the mechanism.

Klia dug into her pocket and produced a maintenance key, illegal but standard issue for couriers. The elevator doors hesitated, then stopped. She plunged her key into the control panel and shouted, “Emergency! Down now!”

The doors resumed closing. The two men could not make it and pounded on the outside, shouting for her to stop.

The older males gave her a wide berth. “Where would you like to get off?” she asked breathlessly, smiling.

“The next level, please,” one of them said. “Fine.” She gave the plunger its instructions, then made the older males forget they had seen her or experienced anything out of the ordinary.

They stepped out onto the next level, and she quickly ordered the doors to close again. With a sigh, she leaned against the dirt-smeared wall. A scratchy mechanical voice said, “Emergency instructions. Which maintenance level?”

She reached out with all her strength and found spots of trouble for many levels above and below. Her scalp still hurt. She had to get out of range of the teams sent to find her. There was only one likely direction--down.

“Bottom,” she answered. “Zero.”

Four kilometers beneath all the occupied levels--

The suburban rivers.


Tritch met Mors Planch in neutral territory, far from the hold but aft of the crew quarters, in a weightless service hallway. If she had hoped to have him at a disadvantage in weightless conditions, she had hoped in vain; Planch was as much at home weightless as in standard gravitation.

“Your corpse has some remarkable talents,” she said as Planch pushed into view around the curve of the bulkhead.

“Your crew suffers some remarkable ethical lapses,” Planch replied.

Tritch shrugged. “Ambition is a constant curse these days. I found Gela Andanch outside the hold, in very bad condition. He’s stable now in the infirmary.”

Planch nodded; Lodovik had not heard the man’s name, and had just happened to run into Planch while carrying the limp body forward. Planch had taken Andanch and told Lodovik to return to the hold. Presumably, he was still there.

“What were they looking for?”

“Someone paid them off,” Tritch said lightly. “I presume it was someone opposed to the party or parties paying you. If they delivered Lodovik Trema, they’d each get fifty times what I pay them in a standard year. That’s a lot of money, even for Imperial corruption.”

“What are you going to do with them?” Planch asked.

“I presume they would have taken the ship and put us out of action, maybe killed us. Trin is in my cabin now, drinking heavily--and not Trillian, either. When she’s drunk enough, I might just toss her out of the hold over Trantor, and hope she burns up over the Palace.” Tritch’s eyelids fluttered slightly, and her lips grew tight. “She was a good first mate. My problem now is, what should I do with you?”

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