Back | Next
A taster of wine, with an eye for a maid,
Never too bold, and never afraid. . . .
The crowd in Carnaval finery burst apart with a collective shriek.
The man forcing his way toward Johnnie through the revelers had a stubble beard and a wild look in his eyes. His left arm clamped a woman against his chest like the figurehead of a packet ship. Her domino mask hung from one ear. There were scratches on her collarbone, and the gauzy blouse had been shredded away from her breasts.
The man's right hand waved a butcher knife with an eight-inch blade.
"All right, you whore!" the man screamed. His dilated pupils weren't focused on anything in his present surroundings. "You want to spread it around, I'll help you spread it around!"
The knife slipped like a chord of light-struck ripple toward the woman's belly.
Johnnie's right hand dropped as he swung his hips to the left. The hem of his scarlet tunic had tiny weights in it, so that the ruffed flare stood out as his body moved
Clearing the pistol holstered high on Johnnie's right hip.
The woman's body shielded all of the madman except his arms and the wedge of face including his staring, bloodshot eyes. The Carnaval crowd was a montage of silks and shrieks surrounding the event.
Johnnie's hand curved up with the pistol; faster than a snake striking, faster than the knife. For an instant that trembled like the sun on dew, the line of the pistol barrel joined Johnnie's eye and the madman's.
The muzzle lifted with a flash and a haze of clean-burning propellant. The sharp crack! of muzzle blast slapped through the screams. The madman's right eye socket was empty as his body spasmed backward in a tetanic arch. His arms lashed apart, flinging the woman to one side and the butcher knife to the other.
Johnnie took a deep breath and loaded a fresh magazine from the pouch on his left hip, where it balanced the weight of the pistol. The holographic ambiance faded, leaving behind a large room whose walls were gray with a covering of vitalon, a super-cooled liquid which absorbed bullet impacts within its dense interior.
A red light glowed on the wall above the door. Somebody was in the anteroom, watching the sequence through closed-circuit cameras.
The muscles of Johnnie's lean face set in a pattern scarcely recognizable as the visage of the good-looking youth of a moment before. He holstered his weapon and touched the door control.
"Well," he said as the armored door rotated and withdrew, "are you satisfied, Sena"
The man in the anteroom wore a Blackhorse dress uniform, with the gold pips and braid of a commander. His only similarity to Senator A. Rolfe Gordon was that both men were in their mid-forties
And they'd been brothers-in-law before the Senator's wife ran off with a mercenary not long after she gave birth to Johnnie.
"Uncle Dan!" cried Johnnie. He started toward Commander Daniel Cooke with his arms wide . . . before he remembered that what was proper for a boy of nine should have been outgrown by nineteen. He drew back in embarrassment.
Uncle Dan gave him a devil-may-care grin and embraced Johnnie. "What's the matter?" he demanded. "Did I develop skin-rot since I last saw you?"
He stepped back and viewed the younger man critically. "Though I won't," he said, "offer to swing you up in the air any more."
"Gee it's good to . . . ," Johnnie said. "I wasn't expecting to see you."
"I have a meeting with the Senator this morning," Dan explained. "And I thought I'd come a little early to see my favorite nephew."
"Ah . . . shall we go somewhere comfortable?"
"If you don't mind," replied his uncle, "I'd like to watch you run through a sequence or two."
Dan's smile didn't change, but his voice was a hair too casual when he added, "The Senator comes to watch you frequently, then?"
"No," said Johnnie flatly. "Not often at all. But too often."
His face cleared. "But I'd love to show you the set-up, Uncle Dan. The screens in the anteroom"
"I'd prefer to be in the simulator with you," Dan said. He lifted his saucer hat and ran his fingers through his black, curly hair. "Though I won't be shooting."
"There's some danger even with the" Johnnie began until his uncle's brilliant grin stopped him.
Right, explain the danger of ricochets to Commander Daniel Cooke, whose ship took nine major-caliber hits three months ago while blasting her opponent in Squadron Monteleone to wreckage.
"Sorry, Uncle Dan."
"Never apologize for offering information that might save somebody's life," Dan said. "Got a jungle sequence in this system?"
"This system's got about everything!" Johnnie answered with pride as the gray walls dissolved into a mass of stems, leaves, and dim green terror. As the holographic simulation appeared, the climate control raised sharply the temperature and humidity of the air it pumped into the environment.
They were on the edge of a clearing, a dimpled expanse of yellow-brown mud. The surface was too thin to provide purchase for any plants save those which crawled about slowly on feather-fringed roots. Creatures with armored hides had trampled a path around the periphery of the clearing, through the brambles that were now curling to reclaim the terrain.
A bubble rose from the mud and burst flatulently.
"The trouble with the simulator," Johnnie said in a whisper, "is that you know there's something there in the mud."
The air was still and as moist as a sponge.
"Which makes it exactly like the land anywhere on Venus' surface," said his uncle, also speaking quietly. "Go on, then."
Johnnie took a step forward. If he'd been expecting to run a jungle sequence, he'd have equipped himself with a powered cutting-bar and a more powerful handgun. . . .
His left arm brushed aside a curtain of gray tendrils, roots hanging from an air plant to absorb water from the atmosphereand entangle small flying creatures whose juices would be absorbed to feed the plant. The simulator couldn't duplicate the touch of vegetation, but a jet of air stroked Johnnie's sleeve to hint at the contact.
A swamp-chopper exploded toward them from the oozing muck.
Johnnie drew and fired. His thumb rocked the grip's feed-switch forward even as the first two rounds of explosive bullets cracked out, shattering the creature's stalked eyes.
Johnnie threw himself sideways. He fired the remainder of the magazine as solids which could penetrate the swamp-chopper's armored carapace while the blinded monster thrashed in the vegetation where Johnnie had been.
Genetically, the swamp-chopper was a crab, but ionizing radiation and the purulent surface of Venus had modified the creature's ancestors into man-sized predators. They retained lesser arthropods' unwillingness to die. Despite 18 rounds into its thorax, the creature was still trying to claw through the bole of the holographic tree with which it had collided in its blind rush.
Johnnie slapped a fresh magazine into his pistol and aimed.
Dan put a hand on his arm. "Forget it," he said. "Don't worry about the ones that can't hurt you. Let's"
"Cooke?" boomed an amplified voice. "Cooke! What are you doing here?"
Both men turned. The red light which glowed in the heart of a thicket of holographic bamboo indicated that someone was in the simulator's anteroom.
"Duty calls, lad," said Dan, rising to his feet. Johnnie shut the system down, just as something green, circular, and huge sailed toward them from the middle canopy.
Dan opened the door. Senator Gordon stood in the anteroom with his legs braced apart and his hands in the pockets of his frock coat. He neither stepped forward nor offered to shake hands.
Dan offered an ironic salute. "Good to see you again, Senator," he said.
"If I'd known you had nothing on your mind but playing foolish games with my son, Commander Cooke," Gordon said, "I wouldn't have bothered making time in my schedule to see you. Particularly at this juncture."
Dan ostentatiously shot his cuff to look at the bioelectrical watch imprinted onto the skin of his left wrist. He didn't bother to say that he was still twenty-three minutes early for his appointment because Gordon was already well aware of the fact.
"The games I've come to discuss aren't silly ones, Senator," Dan said coolly.
"For that matter" he added with a raised eyebrow "these simulations aren't silly either. Which is why I offered to buy Johnnie a membership to a commercial range."
"Yes, of course," the Senator said. When he was angry, as now, a flush crept up his jowls and across the hair-fringed expanse of his bare scalp. "You'd have had John spending all his time in the warehouse district. No thank you, Cooke. I can afford to accommodate my son's whims in a less destructive way."
"Right," said Johnnie in a brittle voice that sounded years younger than that in which he had been speaking to his uncle. "You got me the simulator, all right. After you knew Dan had already taken out a membership for me at Action Sports!"
"Something I've learned over the years," Dan said mildly, "is that the reasons don't matter so long as the job gets done."
He smiled at his nephew, but his face cleared to neutrality as he focused on Senator Gordon again. "But that's not what we're here to discuss . . . and I think your office would be a better location."
Johnnie nodded. "I'm really glad to see you again, Uncle Dan," he said. "Maybe if you have time"
"No," said his uncle, "I'd like you to accompany us, Johnnie. You see" and his face segued again from smile to armed truce as his eyes locked again with those of his ex-brother-in-law "this concerns you as well as the Senator. And everyone else on Venus."
Gordon's face was just as hard as that of Commander Cooke. "Yes," he said after a moment. "All right."
As Johnnie followed the two older men into the elevator to the Senator's penthouse office, his heart was beating with a rush of excitement greater than that he'd felt minutes before in the simulator.
He didn't know what was going on.
But he knew that it wasn't a simulation.
Back | Next