Crown of the Serpent first pages

Prologue

The Federation encompasses hundreds of inhabited worlds among thousands of star systems. It is, on the whole, a utopia, at the peak of its golden age. Each world is independent, with its own idea of the good life, free to make its own laws as it sees fit, to define for itself its ideal culture. Thus, not every Federal world is itself a utopia. Some have achieved a stable society that Plato would envy. Others are in a dynamic state of growth and decay, flux, change. Still others, such as Nowarth, have made a wrong turn somewhere.

Most people who live in a utopia are happy with their situation — that’s part of what makes it a utopia. Crime and trouble are quite rare. But another aspect of utopia is that it’s boring.

Some people are just not content with the easy life. For these, the Gestae, the ancient Chinese curse is not a curse at all — they seek interesting times. They live by their wits, moving from world to world, looking for something exciting to see or to do or to be. They do what they do not for wealth, or for power, but for fun. For a Gesta, the greatest thrill comes not from breaking a law but from slipping through the cracks. Which doesn’t mean they don’t frequently find themselves in trouble.

Nowarth was not a world any Gesta would have chosen to visit, at least not without a rather specific reason. Its towering city-buildings were partially empty or wholly abandoned. Its single, planet-wide government was one of the most conservative and restrictive in the Federation. But the man who was calling himself Jack Begin, and his companion, now known as Ann Tropius, had a reason. It was here that Jack’s “client” insisted that they do business.

Jack and Ann had come to Nowarth well ahead of their appointed meeting time. It was a simple matter for them to pick up the local dialect, learn how to wear local clothing, adapt to the average daytime schedules. Good camouflage was, of course, part of the repertoire of any Gesta.

Good camouflage would not, however, help them if they were caught exploring the empty, monolithic city-buildings late at night.

Part One

1

The two Gestae rode up silent lifts toward the top of the abandoned city which, like its neighbors not many kilometers away, was an irregular tower that seemed shorter than it was by virtue of its girth. In fact, when it had been alive, its upper floors had been pressurized to compensate for its height, though now there were too many windows missing, and occasional places where the outer wall had been broken out and, with the cessation of the air-conditioning, pressure had been lost. The tower was only about a kilometer and a half tall, however, so the reduced pressure was little more than an inconvenience.

The tower had not been abandoned that long ago, and for the most part was intact, the only damage being that caused by vandals rather than due to the weathering of the elements. Indeed, though most of the city was dark, many of its systems were still powered, a function of the automatic backup generators and batteries rather than feed from the planetary grid.

There was enough power, at least, so that the gravity lifts were working. There were few lights on in the tower, but the lifts that Jack and Ann chose, and their lobbies, were near the outer edge of the tower, and dimly illumined by the skylight coming through the great window walls. None of the lifts went more than a couple of hundred floors, however, so they had to change frequently. But at last they neared the top, yet still below the penthouse levels, and stepped off the last lift into a small but luxurious lobby.

Jack, as he called himself, was twenty-eight in Earth years, still a youth by the standards of the day when two centuries was the average life expectancy. He was very tall and slender and rather dark, but not very handsome. He moved with a lazy grace that made him seem almost sleepy, though now he was alert to every sound and shadow. Beside him, the woman who called herself Ann seemed even shorter than she was — her head barely came up to his shoulder. She was a couple of years younger than he, attractive in a hard, smooth way, and where Jack seemed lazy, she was like a compressed spring.

There was no one else in the lobby, though they were not the first to have been here, and the corridor on their right showed reflected light from beyond a corner. There was rubbish on the floor — fragments of ragged clothes, papers, broken cardboard boxes, other things less identifiable — and the dust on the now-gray carpet was thick enough to show footprints. The window wall of the lobby was intact, and somebody had smeared something unpleasant across it just at eye height. Beyond the window they could see several other towers, some black and silhouetted against the night sky, others lit or partly lit.

Jack had been carrying a heavy case the whole way, and now he put it down to adjust the belt with its holster and heavy six-shot .75 caliber pistol so that he could draw quickly — his long coat tended to get in the way. “I would have thought,” he said, almost in a whisper, “that our friend would have chosen a place where nobody came at all.”

“On the contrary,” Ann said. In spite of her youth, she had many more years’ experience than he. “If you’ re the only one here, then you can’t escape notice. But if you’re just one among many, then you won’t seem special to anybody who might be watching.” Her holstered laser pistol was strapped to her right thigh, just below the edge of her short jacket.

They did not go up the lighted corridor, but instead turned to the left, following the instructions Djentsin had given them when they’d agreed to meet in this place. Their feet crunched occasionally in the near darkness, where they trod on the remains of the baseboard security lights, each of which had been methodically knocked out. Jack felt the scar on the palm of his right hand itching. He flexed his fingers, but did not scratch, did not grab the butt of his gun.

The corridor paralleled the outside of the building. The doors on the inside of the corridor they could just barely make out as they passed. Those on the outside were sometimes solid, others windowed. What light there was in the corridor came from those, from the offices beyond on the outer side of the building, themselves only dimly lit through their window walls. This had once been a very exclusive part of this city, though its decline had begun long before it was abandoned. Most of the rooms that they could see into were empty, the furniture either broken by vandals or removed by scavengers.

They had not gone very far before the broad corridor ended in an L to the left. The corridor around the corner was short, without any doors that they could see, and absolutely dark, though at the far end was a pale gray luminance. Jack could not make out anything about what was at the end until they got there and found themselves in a large, interior plaza.

The dim luminance came down from security lights on the narrow balcony along all four sides on the floor above them. There were three other corridors entering the plaza; benches arranged in sociable clusters; containers that held now-dead trees and plants and, around the outside wall, the remains of a few small service shops, their contents stolen or smashed. A central lift, unenclosed, stood in the center of the plaza. A broad and ornamental stair spiraled squarely around it to an intermediate landing below the balcony, then to another landing that surrounded the lift at the balcony level and with narrow walkways leading to it, then rising uninterrupted to a deeper mezzanine one floor above that.

They paused to listen, but there was no sound other than their breathing. Jack thought he could even hear his pulse. He turned to look at the dark corridor behind him, but heard nothing anywhere.

This was just the way Djentsin had told them it would be, but that didn’t make Jack feel any easier. He and Ann had met Djentsin on Balshpor a quarter of a standard year previously, when trying to find a buyer for certain cultural artifacts they had “liberated” after having taken care of certain other obligations of a more public nature. They had been using different names then, as had Djentsin, not the ones they had been known by during their more public business. But though Djentsin had made them an offer they found hard to refuse, he was not a Gesta. He’d tried to pretend to be one, and Jack didn’t trust him. This place was too good for an ambush.

“So what do you think?” Jack asked at last. It was hard to speak above a whisper. The security lights on the balcony, reflecting as they did off the carpeted floor and then back from the mezzanine above, cast too many shadows for his comfort. In spite of that, the plaza was all but black.

“Too good to believe,” Ann answered. “But if he had wanted to just pick us off, there were plenty of opportunities at all the lift changes we had to make.”

“But none of the lobbies offered as many opportunities as this.”

“You only need one clear shot,” Ann said.

In spite of the itching scar on his right palm, Jack did not put his hand on his pistol butt. He took a deep breath and stepped out into the plaza. Nothing happened. He turned to look back at Ann, who was standing where she had been, almost invisible in the darkness.

“Not taking any chances?” he asked.

He could not see her smile, but he knew it was there. She stepped out to stand with him. Together they walked to the lift.

But the lift wasn’t working. Either the power had been cut off at this level, or the lift itself had been disconnected. They went to the broad, shallow-stepped stairs that climbed around it, and went up.

At the first landing they paused. There was no movement, no sound. They went on to the balcony level. Still everything was silent and dead. Jack’s hand itched abominably. They went up to the mezzanine.

It was, except for the opening to the lower levels, one vast lobby. The security lights were lit up here. Eight alcoves, in the center of each wall and in each corner, opened off the mezzanine, which held only couches in groups, planters of dead things, and low tables with low comfortable chairs. “Right corner from the top of the stairs,” Ann said, reciting Djentsin’ s instructions.

So that was where they went, and found a smaller lobby opening off the alcove, and a stair going up, as they had been told. They went up, to another lobby over the one below but not open to it, with corridors where the alcoves had been on the lower level. Set into the walls between the corridor entrances were at least one restaurant, what looked like it might have been a hair parlor, a bar now totally demolished, and several other suites that they could not identify. This had been for the convenience of the penthouse residents only.

They could go no higher here. Only a hundred of the richest and most important families of this city could have lived in the penthouses to which these corridors gave access.

“Seems like he’s making it awfully difficult,” Jack said.

The residences were on the outer edge of the tower, surrounding this last lobby area, large enough in itself to have accommodated a dozen families on the world in which Jack had grown up. He and Ann did not pause to look around, but went up the corridor, directly opposite the top of the stairs, its security lights still intact but shining only dimly, and took the left hand of the T at its end. The doors on this corridor opened only off the outer side, double doors, massive and ornate, each with a symbol instead of a number. At the far end of the transverse corridor was a thin edge of light near the floor, as if the door there were just slightly ajar.

And that was where they found the symbol they were looking for, a triskelion in green and yellow and black, the significance of which Jack did not know, over leather-padded double doors that were, indeed, slightly ajar. With a tentative hand, Ann pushed open the righthand leaf.

Beyond was a foyer as large as the average living room, with closets on either side, and another double door opposite the entrance. This stood open, and was from whence the light was coming. They entered the foyer and now could see past the inner door to a spacious living room, even by this tower’s standards. The outer wall, which had once been all window, was smashed and open to the high night air. They were impressed in spite of themselves.

As they went on into the living room they could hear, through the gaping window wall, the dim sounds of night outside — the noise of the living cities not that far away, the susurration of the wind. After the darkness of the outer halls, the skylight seemed bright, and it was that only which they had seen through the hairline crack below the leathern double doors.

To their right was a spacious dining room which, lit by its own intact window wall, seemed large enough for a banquet of twenty or more. To their left, through an arch, was a parlor, less formal than the living room, the place where, obviously, the family that had once lived here had spent most of its time. Unlike the lower floors of the penthouse level, this place had not been vandalized. Its outer doors must have remained locked until just recently.

Another arch opened off the far side of the parlor, and from there a corridor, its security lights in the baseboard still glowing, led back into the private part of the suite. There was a bathroom, an office, a library, a study, and at the end a sitting room with three other doors. They were all shut tight, and if there were lights behind any of them, they could not be seen.

They chose the door in the middle, as they had been instructed. There was light on inside, enough to let them see a luxuriously comfortable but understated sitting room, separated by a broad arch from the bedroom beyond where, sitting in the dim light of a table lamp beside the bed, was a man, looking at them as if waiting for them. It was Djentsin. In his lap was a 6cm scattergun pistol, a “defender.”

“Come in,” he said as he let his hand rest on the butt of his gun. “You’ re right on time.”

Jack tried to make his movements seem casual as he went halfway to the middle of the room and stopped. On his right, Ann walked easily but angled away from him a bit so as to make a more difficult target if Djentsin should decide to shoot. The “defender,” at that distance, could hit anything within half a meter of its aiming point.

Djentsin, as they did this, remained seated, looking very calm. “You brought it with you?” he asked.

“We did,” Jack said. He put the case down on the floor. “You have the Leaves?”

“Just one this time. It’s on the bed.” He did not gesture or take his eyes off Jack.

Jack turned to the bed, where he could see the dim glimmer of the elongated diamond shape of a silver Leaf of Ba’Gashi. But even as he took the first step toward it, Djentsin raised his gun and pointed it steadily at Jack’s head.

“You’re in no hurry,” Djentsin said. “You can see the Leaf, but where’s the Shanteliar?”

Jack glanced down at the case. “In there.”

“Like hell it is, unless you’ve broken it up. And if you’ve done that, you’ re dead.”

“It’s a special case,” Ann said. “It’s a lot bigger than it looks.”

Djentsin’s eyes never flickered, his hand did not waver. “I’ll just bet it is,” he said.

Jack had to admire his poise. “The only way to find out,” he said, “is to look inside.” He gave a small smile. “Do you want to open it or shall I?”

“You open it,” Djentsin said.

Jack went to kneel behind the case and turned it on its side so he could work the latch. For the first time Djentsin’ s eyes moved to Ann. “You,” he said to her, “stand behind Msr. Begin, with your hands on his shoulders where I can see them.”

Jack waited until he could feel Ann’s hands on him. There was no tremor, but then the armor under his clothes wouldn’t have let him feel anything as delicate as that. The armor wouldn’t do him any good, however, if Djentsin shot him in the head.

He thumbed the catches on either side of the case and it split in half. He raised the top half and let it open all the way back to the floor. The inside appeared to be solid. He glanced up at Djentsin. The man was watching his eyes.

In the middle of each of the two newly exposed surfaces was another catch, recessed into the interior cover. Jack reached for them and-

“How convenient,” came a male voice from beyond the doorway behind him.

Jack was so startled that he almost knocked Ann off her feet as he half turned to see who was there. She barely regained her balance by clutching his shoulder so hard that it hurt, and they both stared into the doorway, but it was too dark to see the intruder. Jack caught his breath, and heard a small rustle of coat sleeves folding as Djentsin changed his aim.

“Easy,” said the unseen man, “easy.” His voice was smooth but uncultured, his accent that of a lower-class local. “I got a hair trigger on this thing,” he went on, “and it can take out the whole room.” Then the shadows moved and the man stepped forward, just into the doorway and the edge of the light. In his right hand was a battered blaster, aimed negligently in their general direction.

“What do you want?” Djentsin asked. Jack glanced back to see Djentsin’ s “defender” now pointed unwaveringly at the intruder. He let his right hand fall negligently to the butt of his own pistol, but a fold of his coat was covering it.

“I want,” the intruder said, “whatever you’ve got. You’re trespassing, this is my scally. Now you just riff out your pockets, and you can go home. Otherwise I’ll drop a bolt in front of your chair and the whole room will go out the wall.”

“That won’t leave you much,” Jack said. He tried to ease the flap of his coat from the butt of his gun.

“I’ll just pick up whatever’ s left and be clear of you.”

“Maybe that blaster doesn’t work anymore,” Ann said. “It looks pretty old.”

“One sure way to find out,” the man said with a smile. “Now you, unbuckle that laser and let it drop.”

Ann did so without hesitation, but the man wasn’t looking at her.

He was smiling at Djentsin. With a snort, Djentsin tossed his gun on the bed, just beyond the Leaf. The man didn’t blink, but just turned his gaze to Jack. “You too,” he said. It had been a long time since Jack had seen eyes that hard.

Jack held a beat, then pulled his coat aside and, with both hands, getting to his feet as he did so, undid the buckle of his holster. He let the belt fall.

“Now,” the man said, “let’s see what you’ve got. Back away.”

Jack moved to one side of the case, Ann to the other. The man smiled softly, and they backed further.

The man came up to within a meter of the case and looked down at it but did not crouch. “Fancy bag,” he said. “I’ll look into it later. Now, empty your pockets, put everything down on the floor. You, fella, get to your feet.”

They did as they were told. Then, while the man was looking at Ann, Jack reached under his collar, as if to adjust the chain he wore around his neck, as if to ensure that it was properly concealed. And as he had hoped, the man noticed this small action.

“What you got there?” the man asked even as Jack let his hands fall to his sides. Jack stepped back just a little bit. “Come on,” the man insisted. His head was slightly tilted to one side. “Let’s see what it is.”

Jack, feigning reluctance, reached up with both hands and took the chain from under the collar at the back of his neck, so that when he drew it over his head, the end down the front of his shirt was still concealed. He hesitated, then the man reached out and took the chain and pulled it away from Jack’s shirt. Dangling from the long loop was a large gem set in a simple gold clasp.

The man’s eyes flickered when he saw it, and a slow smile crept over his face. “Pretty fancy for a guy to be wearing, ain’t it.” He stepped back a couple of paces, then jerked the chain so that the gem swung up into the palm of his hand, all the while keeping his eyes on Jack. “This just might make it worth the trouble you’ve caused me,” he said. He held his blaster steady, aimed at the floor between Jack and Ann where the bolt would take them both out if he fired.

Then he opened his other hand palm up, glanced down at the gem, held a beat, glanced back up at Jack with a very odd expression on his face, looked down at his hand again, which he brought closer to his face, the better to see the fire-colored gem sparkling on his palm. His eyes widened, he took a deep breath, then he stopped moving, as if he had been hypnotized.

Jack glanced at Ann. She was smiling. Then he stepped up to the man and bent down to look up into his enraptured face.

“What…?” Djentsin started to ask.

Jack did not touch the gem, but gently removed the blaster from the man’s right hand. He looked over the weapon and turned back to Djentsin. “It’s old,” he said, holding out the blaster, “but it works.” Then he returned to the case and knelt again, put the blaster down beside it, looked up at Djentsin, and said, “I really want to make this deal.”

Ann bent down to retrieve her laser as Djentsin came around Jack to look at the immobile man. Jack knelt back. This would take a moment. Djentsin stared into the man’s face, then looked at the gem in his hand, and started to touch it.

“Leave it be,” Ann said, “or he’ll wake up again.”

Djentsin pulled his hand back and looked down at Jack. “That’s dialithite,” he said, waving vaguely at their paralyzed intruder. Jack said nothing. “You don’t need the Leaves,” Djentsin went on, “that gem is worth more than all of them put together.”

“That may be,” Jack said. “If I wanted to sell the stone, it would certainly bring enough to let Ann and me live comfortably for the rest of our lives. But then I wouldn’t have it anymore, and sometimes the effect it has on people is worth more than money — like right now for example. Shall I open the case, or do you want to call the deal off?”

Djentsin stared at him a long moment, then, “Open the case,” he said.

Djentsin didn’t seem concerned for his safety anymore, or for any possible treachery. He stood beside the case as Jack thumbed the inner catches. The case seemed to split in two once more, in the other direction this time, and Jack opened the two sides away from each other, so that now the case was twice as wide and twice as long and a quarter as deep as it had originally been. But once again the inside was covered by panels.

“Damn funny case,” Djentsin said.

“It is that,” Jack said. “Cost a small fortune, but like the dragongem, it comes in handy.” He undid four more recessed latches, in the middle corners of the panels, and one by one opened them. The space beneath them was very dark, and something about it made the eyes dance. He reached in, his hands seemingly swallowed by shadow darker than it should be, and grabbed at something invisible within. He got to one foot, pulled up, and drew out a thing like a double scroll, wrapped in figured leather, the staff-ends long and elaborately carved. It was almost two meters tall and half a meter wide.

Djentsin’s breath changed, deep and slow.

“What would you rather have,” Ann said, “the dragongem or this and the rest of the Reliquiture ?”

“It’s the Shanteliar,” Djentsin said. His voice was almost reverential. “God damn. But… what else you got in there?”

“Just this this time,” Ann said as Jack handed the object to Djentsin. “It’s about all that would fit, actually.”

The Shanteliar was heavy. Djentsin took it from Jack carefully and reverently. It was as if the apartment, Jack and Ann, and their strangely hypnotized intruder had all ceased to exist. He carried the leather-covered double scroll over to the bed, and carefully propped it up against it, so that it was almost vertical. Then he stood back and looked at it.

“This,” he said, “has been lost since my people left the Valrein Worlds in the middle of the Old Federation.” He turned a very serious face to Jack. “The symbolism of the Shanteliar and the other things that were lost with it are still remembered. They are the core of what makes us who we are. If I could bring this back to the Archipopulos on Derolos, I would be the hero of my people.” He looked at the Shanteliar for a long time. When he turned back to Jack and Ann, his face was more than grim, it was also exultant. “Do you really have the rest of the Reliquiture?”

“We do,” Jack said. “As art objects, they are probably worth more than the Leaves.”

“But you don’t want the Leaves because of their artistic value,” Djentsin said, “or because of the money you might gain from their sale. Do you? Neither do I want this and the rest of the Reliquiture because of their monetary value. I think you understand me. I don’t need money. My present occupation provides me with more than I could spend in a lifetime —  unless I learn some new vices. But this —” And again he gazed at the twin scrolls of the Shanteliar, with their stave-ends like miniature crowns. “If I can restore the Reliquiture, I will become the hero of my people, and more than that no man could ask.” He took a deep breath and turned to face Jack and Ann again.

Ann went around to the other side of the bed and picked up the Leaf. This time Djentsin didn’t object. She held it up to him, until he took notice. “Fair trade?”

“I feel like I’m cheating you,” Djentsin said. There was an odd, wry smile on his face.

“Not at all,” Jack said. “The Shanteliar and the other things are worth only money to me, the Leaves only money to you. Neither one of us will lose on this deal.”

“That is for sure,” Djentsin said. His smile was broad, but there was fear somewhere underneath his composure. He could hardly breathe. “It so very seldom works out that way. But reassure me, what more do you have?”

“There is a kind of cloak,” Ann said, “with a heavy collar but no hood, though it looks as though there should have been one.” Djentsin just stared at her. “Then there are two staffs, one like a walking stick but very crooked, with what looks like odd chunks of iron embedded in it, and the other more than two meters tall, also crooked and seemingly wrapped in varin thread or silk.” Djentsin’ s face became absolutely blank.

“There’s a large goblet,” Jack said. “I think it’s made of silver, or maybe platinum since it hasn’t tarnished, narrower at the lip than in the body, and a large platter kind of thing with gems around the outer edge, and a small table with what looks like solid ivory legs, inlayed with a geometric pattern I don’t recognize.”

“That’s it,” Djentsin said. His breathing was heavy, his smile wolfish. “That’s the full Reliquiture. I can hardly believe that it’s true.”

“And you?” Ann asked. “How many Leaves do you have?”

“Twelve more.” His breath was a pant. “That’s all there were.”

“That’s right,” Jack said. “Where shall we make the trade?”

It took Djentsin a moment to respond. “Not here,” he said at last, “I was just being cautious. Do you know Total Foam?”

“I’ve been there,” Jack said.

“Fine. It will take me at least two quarters to get the rest of the Leaves and get there.”

“We might need a bit more time than that,” Ann said. “The rest of the Reliquiture are still-where they’ve been all this time. Say three quarters of a standard year?”

“All right,” Djentsin said. “That will give me time to put the Shanteliar in a safe place, where the senechals can find it if I don’t get back. I’ll meet you at the Chessi Morphica Hotel, you know where that is?”

“That’s where I stayed,” Jack said. “Excellent. In twenty-seven decads then.”

2

“Wait a minute,” Ann said. Her words brought them all back to the present. Jack glanced at her, then followed her staring eyes to the far side of the bedroom. It should have been dark. Instead, a comcon screen was glowing. Djentsin looked too.

“How long has that been on?” Jack said. He started to walk toward it.

“I don’t know,” Ann said as she dropped the Leaf into Jack’s case. “It was on when I looked up.”

“Some of his friends?” Djentsin asked, gesturing to the still immobile intruder.

“We should be so lucky,” Jack said, “but it doesn’t fit in with his mode of entry.” He stopped halfway to the comcon. He didn’t want its camera, if it were on, to pick up his face.

“Let’s assume it’s the cops,” Ann said in a low voice. “Which means they knew somebody would be here tonight.” She looked at Djentsin, but his face betrayed no guilt, only anxiety.

“Shall we just wait at the hotel?” Jack asked Djentsin.

“I’ll be there before you. I’ll be visible — for someone like you.”

“Then let’s get out of here,” Ann said, and even as she spoke they could hear the distant echoes of footsteps coming from the shops area at the center of the tower-heavy, mechanical footsteps that could only be made by troopers wearing battle armor.

“Holy shit,” Jack whispered. He strode to where his gun belt was lying and hurriedly picked it up and put it on.

Djentsin picked up the Shanteliar and lugged it to a side door. “Have you got a way out?” he asked in a hoarse whisper from the doorway.

“We can make it,” Jack said as he closed up his case.

“I’ll see you there, then,” Djentsin said, and hefted the double scroll out the door. A moment later, over the sound of the approaching troopers, Jack could hear the faint snick of a hatch closing, and almost immediately the subtle hum of a gravity drive coming on. The window on that side of the bedroom brightened, as if a vehicle were pulling away from another window or a hole in the wall.

“What are we going to do?” Ann whispered. The sounds of the troopers — and the clank of some kind of automated machinery — were getting nearer. The steps did not hesitate or turn aside to check out alternate routes. The cops knew exactly where they were going. “Shall we follow Djentsin?”

“That’s probably the first place they’ll look,” Jack said. He went to their uninvited visitor and gently took the dragongem from his hand. For a moment the man stood as he had, but even as they left the bedroom by the way they had come, he began to awaken from the trance.

They hurried up the hall toward the sound of the approaching troopers and into the living room. They could even hear muttered voices now, and see reflected lights coming up the outer corridor. Quickly, and carefully, they went out the broken main window onto a narrow ledge on the outer side of the city tower. Jack led the way along the ledge, as broad as his foot was long, away from the window to a projecting spine.

From where they clung they could see the room brightening, then lights flashing around inside. The troopers had been closer than Jack had thought. He worked his way around the spine, which wasn’t easy with the heavy case he was carrying. Ann followed close behind. Then they heard shouts coming from the apartment they had just left. One voice was unmistakably that of their surprise intruder. There were shots, then a blaster bolt that blew out a whole section of the wall into the night. After that, a hesitation, then more shots, then silence.

Then the lights inside began to move again, and they could hear the heavy steps of the troopers. The projecting spine offered some protection, but if anybody leaned out the window or the new hole in the wall and looked in their direction, they would be easily seen.

They crept along the ledge, away from the apartment, to a recessed section of the wall. The windows all along the inner face were intact, and never meant to open against the reduced atmospheric pressure at this height. But there was decorative work on the inside corners of the recess, not much, but enough to let them slowly climb down several floors toward a broader ledge.

Even as they went they could hear voices coming from up above.

Most were muffled and unintelligible, but one came clearly. “There’s nobody out here, he must have had a flier.” He was answered by someone within, then started to say something more, but the voice was drowned out by the whine of vehicles landing on the roof of the penthouse.

“That wasn’t just a casual search,” Ann said as she joined Jack on the half-meter ledge.

“It’s either us or Djentsin,” Jack said. He leaned out over the edge and looked down. The wall was smooth there, but at the far end of the ledge was another column of decorative work. “Maybe we can find another broken window.”

They went to the decorative column and started down. The descent here was trickier, and the next ledge was only five floors lower. Below this was a two-hundred floor drop to a roof. Jack held Ann as she leaned out to scan the walls to either side.

“Nothing,” she said, “unless we want to go back.” She looked up. The dim reflections of rotating red and blue lights revealed the continued presence of the police vehicles.

The sky off in the east was no longer a dead flat black. Beyond the lights of the tower cities nearby were the first signs of approaching dawn. The near silence of the night air was no longer perfect either — distant traffic traveling between lit cities could now be heard, and within another hour or so there would be plenty of air traffic around this abandoned city. Directly across from them, only two kilometers away, was a tower fully lit. Even at that distance, in the upcoming dawn, they could be too easily seen if anybody happened to look out while they were moving.

“I hate to do it,” Jack said, “but I don’t see any other way.”

“It’s what we brought them for,” Ann reminded him.

Jack carefully crouched down on the projecting ledge and set down the case between him and Ann. There wasn’t much room on the ledge, and it took both of them to keep the case in place while Jack undid first one set of latches, then the inner set, and at last the four security panels. As it was, he couldn’t open it all the way.

He reached inside, his arm going in up to the shoulder though the case was only twenty centimeters thick. He groped around for a moment, then pulled out a cumbersome thing that looked like part of a floater engine, fitted with straps and harness. Ann took it from him, and rested it on the ledge behind her but had to hold it with one hand to keep it from falling. With the other hand she kept a firm and steadying grip on the case while Jack reached in again and brought out another similar device. With one hand he then closed up the case again, until he could set it safely down on the ledge.

The objects were heavy. Their weight had been partially compensated for by nullifiers built into Jack’s case. Now Jack and Ann had to bear the full weight, and it was tricky getting them up onto their backs and securely strapped in place while maintaining their balance on the ledge. The harness buckled in front, where there was a set of jury-rigged controls with trailing wires that ran over the shoulder to the devices on their backs. What looked liked parts of floater engines were in fact the scavenged parts of floater engines, the floater plates themselves, refitted to work along the long axis, and with minimal power provided by batteries.

Jack turned his on. There was a faint hum and he felt his weight drop to about ten percent of normal. “I wasn’t sure it would work this high up,” he said. Floater coils were designed to neutralize large masses close to the ground. Fliers and aircars used other means to gain altitude. But Jack had never intended to fly with these things. Ann switched hers on too.

They turned to face the wall and, holding the case between them to share its weight and to keep them from getting separated, they stepped backward off the ledge and started falling down the side of the wall. Below the first roof was another drop of twenty floors, which ended on a narrow ledge with overlooking windows. One of these had been broken out, and rather than continue their descent outside in the first light of dawn, they went in.

Beyond the broken window was what had probably been a private apartment, though little enough of what it had once contained remained intact. As soon as they were safely inside they removed their floater packs and put them back in the case. Ann couldn’t help but glance at the comcon screen against the wall. It was smashed.

From the apartment they felt their way along dark corridors, not to the lift shaft by which they had come up, which would be watched by the police, but to a different set of lifts far on the other side of the city tower. There were no guards there.

They went down. The security lights within the shaft were not all working, so for the most part they descended in darkness. They had to change lifts several times on the way down, but they met no one. At last they came to the bottom of the express shafts just above the ten floors of the main public levels.

From here they had to use larger lifts that went only a floor or two, or sometimes broad, public stairs, and at last a back stair to get down to the parking levels under the city. They went at a fast walk, sometimes running down ramps, ever deeper into the underground. Near the bottom were many cars and service vehicles that had been abandoned along with the city.

Still legible codes on support posts told them their position, and they quickly found their way to the right place, where their car was just one among many. Jack put the case in the trunk while Ann got into the driver’s seat and started the car. Then Jack got in the other side and unbuckled his gun. Ann glanced at him, then did the same. He took her belt and gun and put it with his in the backseat.

She drove slowly, without lights, toward one of the back ramps. They went up level after level, the silence broken only by the faint hum of their own vehicle. At last they came to the top level, with only one more ramp to go to the paved apron that surrounded the city. The exit was a brighter square in the darkness.

“Shut it down,” Jack whispered suddenly. Ann switched off the ignition, and the floater settled to the concrete on residual power. In the silence they could both hear the hum of another, more powerful vehicle, just outside near the top of the ramp. A few seconds later the exit darkened as a large car pulled slowly up to block the way out. It shone no lights, but the outline of a patrol car was unmistakable.

Jack hoped that the cops would think this vehicle was just a derelict — except that there were no other derelicts here. Then doors opened on either side and two cops got out. Both were heavily armed. They came around to the front of the patrol car and stood there a moment, whispering to each other. Then they drew their sidearms and started down the last ramp into the parking deck.

The scar on the palm of Jack’s right hand itched intolerably, but he resisted the urge to scratch it. He glanced at Ann, saw her catch his eye. Their guns were in the backseat, no sense trying to go for thembesides, they were caught. As the cops halved the distance to them, Jack heaved a very audible sigh, muttered “damn.”

He saw Ann glance at him, then nod as she agreed with his plan, as flimsy as it was. “I told you we should have gone to my place,” she whispered. Jack bet that, even though the whisper was soft, the cops had heard it.

But if they had they didn’t care. They came on, one toward each side of the car and well separated, guns raised but not directly aimed.

“Not a good place for a makeout,” the cop, a woman, on Ann’s side said.

“Just get out nice and easy,” the other cop said, “and keep your hands in view all the time.”

Jack couldn’t think of anything to say, so he kept silent as he carefully opened the door and, with his hands up in front of him, slid out of the seat.

“We were just looking for some privacy,” Ann said from the other side of the floater.

“Wrong place to find it,” the cop on her side said. “Now turn around, hands on the roof, two steps back.”

They took the standard position for the search. The cops were quick, thorough, and not unnecessarily intimate. Jack watched Ann’s immobile face across the roof of the car.

“All right,” Jack’s cop said when the search was done, “you can stand up now, but keep your hands up.”

They did as they were told, and the patrol car at the top of the ramp came to life. Now with its lights on, it backed around till it was heading toward them. Its headlights were on bright. The cops were carrying 10mm machine pistols, a bit heavy for standard patrol work.

“Put your hands out,” Jack’s cop told him. He took a security flex out of its case on his belt. The driver of the patrol car was talking on the mike.

“But officer,” Jack protested as the cop put the node between his hands and the metal cables coiled around his wrists. “What have we done?”

“Trespassing, for starters. Now get in the car.” He stood back to give Jack room to walk to the patrol car. “Just in the parking level,” Ann said. She too was handcuffed. “We didn’t even get out of the car.”

“Good enough,” the cop with her said. She was holding the keys to the floater. “Now get moving.”

Two other patrol cars pulled into the space on either side of the first, their headlights illumining the whole scene. Jack and Ann walked to the arresting car. Its backdoors opened automatically, and they got in. Jack’s cop got in front with the driver, while the one with Ann’s keys went back to the floater and started it up.

The two other patrol cars backed away, the one they were in backed out and turned around. Jack caught a glimpse of their floater following before the cop in the front told him to face forward.

The patrol cars were wheeled vehicles, and in spite of the heavy suspension the ride over long unused highways was rough. There was a security panel between the front and backseats, but there was also a speaker grill, and it was open, presumably so the cops could hear anything Jack and Ann might say to each other. They didn’t say anything.

But they could hear the cops too. There wasn’t much talk, and what there was, in the brief phrases people use when they don’t have to explain things to each other, seemed to be about the search at the top of the abandoned city. From what he could make out, Jack figured it wasn’t them the search had been after, but Djentsin, though the name by which he knew the man wasn’t used.

Apparently three cops had been killed by the outlaw who had intruded on Jack and Ann, when the cops had come on him, still dazed but in possession of his blaster. The outlaw, in turn, had been shredded by riot-gun fire.

What the cops in the front seat were most concerned about was having been posted on the ground and missing the real action. Still, it was lucky that they hadn’t been one of the three fatalities. How theyhad known Jack and Ann were in the parking levels was never mentioned.

After a while the passenger cop turned around to look back at Jack and Ann. “You just kind of picked the wrong place,” he said. “There are a lot of squatters in there who are going to go to jail tonight-if they don’t get killed resisting arrest. If you’ re clean, all we’ll charge you with is trespassing and vagrancy — we’ll let the violation of curfew go. If you’re not clean, tough shit.” He turned away.

All Jack could think was that they must have wanted Djentsin very badly.

At last they came to a city-tower, one of those nearest the one where they’d been arrested, and were driven directly into the building to the police station on one of the lower levels.

They were searched again, separately, and very thoroughly. The police found Jack’s dragongem and were more than a little impressed, but they knew what it was and handled it gingerly. Jack wasn’t afraid that they might “lose” it — their own regulations were too strict.

The search included a complete X ray, and the cops could make nothing of the implant in Jack’s hand, arm, and skull, which was fine with him, but it made them suspicious. Their retinas were also recorded to be compared with the IDs they carried — again Jack wasn’t too concerned; he’d forged the IDs carefully to include retinal identification. And then they were taken, together, to routine interrogation.

The questioning, which was just a preliminary, lasted four hours or so, and was for the most part rather low-key. The arresting officers, who had to be present, were a bit more cheerful than they had been, since the presence of a .75 pistol in Jack’s car qualified them for special credit, and bonuses for hazardous service. No one on Nowarth could own firearms without special permits, and lasers were strictly for military and police use, but .75s were illegal in and of themselves. All other charges, even the cops’ inability to open Jack’s case all the way, hardly mattered compared with that.

Jack and Ann stuck to their story, saying as little as possible. Everything they had done since their arrival, up to the time they’d gone to the abandoned city-tower, they admitted to, but let their real anxiety lend authenticity to their act of confusion, fear, reluctance. Apparently the cops bought it.

At last the interrogation was finished, and Jack and Ann were led to the temporary detention block and locked up in adjoining cells, where they could see and talk to each other. They did not avail themselves of the opportunity, there was no sense giving the cops anything more to work on. Instead they decided to catch up on some sleep.

They were wakened by the arrival of the public prosecutor with the lawyer who had been assigned to handle their case — whose presence had not been necessary during the preliminaries. They were taken from the cells and led into an interview room.

The lawyer was a woman, Msr. Cheevy, somewhere in her second century. “I’m here to protect you as much as I can,” she told them. She set an attache case on the table opposite which Jack and Ann were sitting, and opened it. “I’ve checked the records of your arrest,” she went on as she started the recorder inside, “and everything seems to have been done according to the law.” She then told them what they could and couldn’t say and do during the interview with the prosecutor.

He, a man of around sixty or so named Dregoff and rather young for his position, started out by putting their ID cards on the table. “If I didn’t know for a fact,” he said, “that you are not who these say you are, I’d swear they were authentic. In fact, they’ re so good that I don’t think I could make a charge stick. Traveling under false names, yes, but not forgery.”

The young man who’d been calling himself Jack Begin leaned back in his chair and looked at his companion. Her face was blank, her expression rigidly controlled. He forced a small smile, then turned back to Dregoff. “Who are we then?” he asked.

“Rikard Braeth,” Dregoff said, “and Darcy Glemtide. You might have gotten away with it except for the fact that you were rather thoroughly identified and recorded when you were involved with that business on Seltique. I guess I heard something about it back then, though I don’t pay much attention to things like that. I’ve read all the reports now, of course. Quite a piece of work it was.”

“So what happens now,” Darcy Glemtide asked.

“Not quite what we’d planned,” Dregoff said. “You’ re famous, you know, in your own way-at least in certain circles. We still intend to press all charges, including illegal entry and possession of false credentials. But I expect some pressure from the Federal government to ease up on you because of what you did for the Taarshome and the Belshpaer. And I can sympathize with that. But the laws you broke you broke here under our jurisdiction —”

“That hasn’t been proven yet,” the lawyer said.

“Pardon me, Msr. Cheevy. The laws you are suspected of breaking are Nowarth laws, not Federal laws, and as such the prosecution is under our jurisdiction, not Federal jurisdiction. You will stand trial. And I have every confidence that we will prove our case.” He got to his feet and glanced at the lawyer. “They’re all yours, Msr. Cheevy.” Then he left. The door closed with a rather final sound.

Cheevy put some papers down on the table and sorted them, more to enforce a pause than anything else. “I’m going to be straight with you,” she said with a sigh. “I’ll do everything I can to get the charges dismissed, but I don’t think you have much of a chance.

“The trespassing charge is pretty solid, but it might be reduced to a misdemeanor. The guns were in your car, and hence technically in your possession, but we might be able to keep Msr. Dregoff from proving that you had knowledge of them. As for the false credentials … ”

She sighed again as she looked at one of the papers, a list. “And that case they found in your trunk, they’ll get it open eventually, even if they have to destroy it in the process — you’ll be compensated for its cost, of course, unless it, too, proves to be a confiscatable item like the guns.

“If everything goes perfectly, and the courts are lenient and take your work on Seltique into account, you might get off with transportation and a fine — the dialithite crystal they found on you,” she tapped the list,“should cover most of that. But if they have their way, you’re looking at exemplary punishment — they won’t want people to think, just because you are famous, that you can get away with anything. That would mean up to twenty years of cognizant stasis and possibly partial reprogramming.”

“We have resources,” Rikard said. “We can afford to pay for anything you can legitimately use.” But he looked at her in a way that said he’d be willing to pay, too, for work that was less than legitimate.

“That might help,” Cheevy said, “but I wouldn’t count on it. Msr. Glemtide is known to be a Gesta, and you are assumed to be one by association. That in and of itself makes you persona non grata here.”

“But we haven’t done anything,” Darcy said, “other than park for a while in the bottom of that tower.”

“If you even got out of the car,” Cheevy said, “they’d get you for attempted vandalism as well. And what about those ID cards?”

“A legitimate name change,” Rikard said. “We couldn’t find any privacy after we introduced the Taarshome to the Senate chambers and reinstated the Belshpaer. Wherever we went the news services always found us. We don’t like being famous, Msr. Cheevy.”

“You’ll have to provide me with information so I can get the records of the change,” Cheevy said. “If they exist. Of all the worlds in the Federation to come visit, why did you choose this one?”

“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” Darcy said.

“Well, it wasn’t. I’ll do the best I can. You should know, that according to the laws of Nowarth, you can be questioned while under the influence of certain electronic devices and chemical substances. You won’t feel any pain. And you won’t be damaged. If you are, the inquisitor loses her job and your compensation would be enough to hurt the city budget. But you will be examined.”

“You don’t sound very encouraging,” Rikard said.

“I wish I could be. Unlike Msr. Dregoff, I did follow the events on Seltique. I have to admit that I admire you for what you did, what you were able to do. I’ll do my best for you.”

She stood up, and guards came in to escort Rikard and Darcy back to their cells.

They didn’t have much of a respite before the inquisitors came.

*  *  *