His real name, unlikely as it seemed, was John Smith.
Like his name, he was not a type of person to command a second glance. Yet there was a certain chameleon-like charm that those who employed him appreciated and exploited.
True enough, there were legions of John Smiths scattered throughout the Axis worlds, living out their lives in appropriate anonymity. But it was behind the bland facade of just such a common name that a man with hidden motives might seek to cloak his true identity. Therefore, on the very probable chance that someone would be looking for him (or someone like him), certain efforts to hide might have had the reverse of their intended effect. It was best not to appear as if he were <i>trying</i> to blend in.
“Please stay fastened in your seats,” a steward was saying over the ship’s sound system. He floated on the far side of the cavernous passenger reentry hive, too far to be seen with identifying clarity. “If you have any loose items,” he said, holding up something sleek and golden, “personal spiritware, corporate cipheromones, mementos —toys— please drop them into the article dispenser, yes, there to your left.” Using gentle air currents and handholds, he calmly navigated the tiered honeycombed chamber, one of thirteen shuttle attendants passing administering pressure shots of relaxants to whoever needed or wanted them. A dozen giant paperscreens displayed color-saturated video of the gracefully tumbling shuttle personnel. “Personal items can be, of course, claimed at immigration processing.”
Accordingly, Kelly Robinson (the name Smith had chosen for this run; it was an inside joke, the name of a twentieth century fictional spy) folded his hands prayerlike, touching finger tips to his nose, and surrendered to the gentle molding warmth of the canine couch, awaiting planetfall. Kelly felt the webbing slither snugly about him with fetal-like security. When the steward finally hovered near him Kelly declined the proffered relaxant. The first few hours after debarking would be the most dangerous, and he needed his wits about him. The shuttle soporifics could be a kiss of death. He put his hand into the inside pocket of his eight-piece suit of black Jovian silk, retrieved a small triangle of folded tissue, and unwrapped his own medicine.
“We’ll be landing at Jaxport Interplanetary within thirty minutes.” The steward, who was about to float behind Kelly’s line of sight, smiled and momentarily locked eyes him with a lingering familiarity. Kelly made a casual show of looking away.
The TSE shuttles had no windows, but the huge video paper screens stitched themselves together into several IMAX displays. Saint Catherine’s World loomed large and imposing in the air, a clear and precise rendition in rich, high definition chromatic glitterings; blurry clouds appeared to move hurriedly across the face of the most beautiful world in all the Scattering. <i>We’re moving fast</i>, thought Kelly. He made a note of the mental laziness that gave birth to the thought, and shook his head. <i>Keep thinking like that and you’ll be dead before you leave the starport</i>. He took in a series of deep, slow breaths, his hands open, fingers curled and touching in a meditative circle above his lower belly, chanting coruscating through his mind, mantras tailored for centering and focus. Whatever else might be said of them, Icemen were the most esoteric branch of the Axis Co-military Enforcement enclaves. Like the assassins they sometimes were, they were cautiously respected.
It was late morning at the touchdown point.
With over two hundred passengers, disembarking could be a trying and time-consuming chore. Kelly had, however, planned well, and was one of the first of his group to exit down one of ten escalating ramps. Long, smooth-running waves of quicksilver carried the passengers away from the black scarred and blistered tiles of the huge commercial shuttle toward the dwarfing multistoried structures and esplanades of Jocasta Axis Interplanetary. The starport was as lively as a robust anthill, people elbowing their ways to and from terminal zones, a steady flow of myriad faces leaving for or arriving from planets distant and near.
Amazing, thought Kelly, all the while eyeing the swirling masses for any face that might reflect a hostile intent yoked with any surreptitious surveillance. The silver-rose tinted ovals of his smartshades had slipped a little on the oily bridge of his nose; he pushed them back up, head bowed deceptively as he continued scanning with minimal head movement.
Despite his adrenalated state, he paused in his tracks and exhaled heavily. <i>West Jocasta</i>, he thought and breathed without words, <i>queen jewel of the Diaspora’s most famous world</i>.
He had visited St. Catherine’s in his student days, just before he’d become an Iceman, but that had been before the War. Even then, however, the rich, cosmopolitan grandeur of the city had impressed him. Being Terran, he was more than adequately familiar with beauty, diversity and richness. There wasn’t any world that rivaled humanity’s home planet. Not yet anyway. The Colonial Empire was over two centuries old, but things moved slowly; they could not compete with the heady flavor of Terran history.
Yet this was a history as written by the Axis scholars and apologists. Kelly knew that the Solarian propaganda machine (of which he was an active member) painted the current colonial situation with a palette of carefully selected colors. Their portrait would not clearly describe the official encouragement of lower class emigration (for the needed offworld labor), but it would detail Terra Alba’s reputation as the center of the Axis universe. <i>The light of every star</i>, went the phrase, <i>leads to Earth</i>.
Being of Terran birth, he had not been prepared in his youth for the cultural faceting and historical complexity of a diamond like St. Catherine’s, its mixture of races, religions and customs second (albeit a distant second) only to Terra.
Kelly looked about and reflected that, at least superficially, West Jocasta had emerged from the war relatively unscathed. Other colonial worlds had not fared so well. Ninevah, the second to St. Catherine’s in what had once been known as the Twin Worlds, had become a textbook example of what Axis military might, jealousy and rancor, was capable of.
Kelly glanced at his watch, noting that it had already synced with the local Net, downloading the codes to synchronize it with this world’s, and with this geographic zone’s, public data. It was almost St. Catherine’s noontime.
Sections of the fifteen-story terminal were cast in expansive floors of transparent metal. Kelly frowned pensively, idly trying to recall what were, and were not, proscribed technologies to the colony worlds. Although he could not recall seeing it on other colony worlds, transparent metallics were apparently low tech enough. He gazed through a large section of the transparent floor that looked down into the circulating core of starport; people like progressively smaller and smaller insects bustled about, waving, talking, gesticulating. He could feel the swirl about the column of his spine as a tingle, a manic insect vibration that droned and egged him on.
He worked his way to a corner information kiosk papered with small posters of livescript and imagery, showcasing the wonders of the Outer Worlds, many of which were still unfamiliar to him. <i>I’ll stop off on Egypt Borealis</i>, he thought decisively, <i>after this is all over</i>. He’d never visited the Dead Cities, or any of the Splinter Galaxy’s fabled Nine Manifestations.
Instead of the standard cybiogent he found a human attendant at the counter. <i>Times must be rough</i>, Kelly thought, <i>when humans occupy jobs traditionally held by mechanicals</i>. The maintenance on a simulacrum apparently exceeded the current local minimum wage for human labor.
“Can I help you?” the man asked in a heavily accented Albanese.
“Yes,” said Kelly, shifting his leather arm tote from left to right shoulder. “My cell doesn’t seem to be working.” Although he had the Solarian sanctioned norm of implants and plugs, they were more often than not useless out in the Diaspora, away from a Solarian technology. “Do you have any, ah, combooths?”
“The Net is temporarily down,” said the man. “There’s a row of telephone booths. Over there,” he pointed, “just behind the gift shop at terminal Three-Blue-Zero. On vacation?” he asked.
Kelly smiled, well-acquainted with telephone booths, which were not uncommon on the frontier, but unheard of on Earth. He fished out a half-centime token and put it on the counter top. Hard money also was something exclusively colonial. “Yes, I am. <i>Grazime</i>.”
<i>”Tres pique, Soltero.”</i>
Kelly stiffened at the mild insult. He was debating an appropriate response when he locked eyes with another man, improbably culled from the peaking swells of faces and features, staring intently in his direction. The man was grimacing. He had black-browed weasel eyes which rode a large and long but straight-edged nose; a full moustache crowned and a small comma of hair supported thin, compressed lips. Eye contact lasted but the flicker of a picosecond, but it had been too intense to have been inadvertent. The stranger’s head jerked to and fro in the starport ritual of seeking someone out.
<i>Nice touch</i>, thought Kelly, glancing back at the fellow at the info kiosk, whose attention was already elsewhere.
Kelly turned swiftly and curved around the Roman columns of ersatz pink granite, toward the row of telephone booths along Terminal Three’s north wall. He needed a moment to create a window of solitude.
He had none of his standard bureau weaponry available to him, weapons which could have triggered the starport security systems in a city already vigilant because of a recent increase in terrorist activity. He was authorized to carry them, but it would have been inconsistent with his cover.
He approached a stylish telephone both, a cylinder-shaped space of smoked plastics and brushed aluminum alloy, its green neon sign blinking “UNOCCUPIED” over the lighting of autumn glaze within. The door slid open with a barely perceived hiss, and he seated himself on a stool of an inert leather-like material, comfortable to those unfamiliar with canine furniture. With one hand he undid the thin leather strapping that held the spinepick against his right calf; the other hand quickly slipped off the protective sheath of pumice-lined steel. He barely had time to grasp the black taped handhold when the booth’s curved door slid open anew.
The ferret-faced man was quick, but Kelly was quicker. Before the colonial could pull his right hand from under his jacket, Kelly unhesitantly reached out and grasped the man’s shirt front. The man’s center of gravity was thrown completely off; he hadn’t bargained on Kelly’s unforgivingly immediate paranoid response. Buttons popped and scattered on the tiles as Kelly violently twisted him around, the man landing like a puppet in its master’s lap, face forward. Kelly sunk the three-inch pick of gleaming platinum straight into the soft spot behind the man’s right ear, exactly where his mother used to kiss him as a child.
A little shudder, even less blood, and the gentle cacophony of starport music and conversation continued in a swirl of sound approximating the monotony of silence.
No one seemed to have noticed.
Kelly smoothed his slightly ruffled suit, adjusted his thin double tie and combed his hair with his fingers. The smell of the dead man’s feces forced Kelly to frown, but he was already moving away into the crowd. Behind him the telephone booth’s sign continued blinking “OCCUPIED” in red Arial Black capitals. It would be a while before the surprised-faced corpse would be discovered. Kelly would make his call later. He allowed himself to be carried away by the random currents of the crowd.
Outside he shuffled with the vociferous procession leaving the starport grounds. A few hovercraft taxis mingled with a mixture of the more common hydrogen cell autos, electric vehicles, bicycle rickshaws. Concerned faces surveyed calling voices. People found each other and embraced while others sat on or near their luggage, looking impatient, bored, or forlorn, waiting to be met.
The western exit debouched<i> </i>into a huge public square, a free market of sorts. Bordering a two acre perimeter, bunches of long grass twitched with cooling winds from glaciers up north while flags snapped, helium balloons bobbed, light scarves and coat tails danced.
It was a colorful and noisy welcome to Saint Catherine’s. Park musicians and story tellers plied their talents between carts of fruit and vegetable treats; braziers cooked breads, pastries, and native delicacies, rotating shiskabobs of savory lamb and mounds of golden rice with pine nuts and golden raisins tempted the hungry. Savory odors pleasantly invading Kelly’s nostrils, and his mouth watered, but he stayed focused, scanning the crowds and he headed toward the main thoroughfares.
Kelly spotted two tall, lanky youths wearing the uniforms and dark blue berets of the local ACE troops, on rotation from their Canister World. They both shouldered their standard issue rifles — offworld Heckler & Koch MP7 clones — rather than the infinitely more valuable and famous Ice-9 Devastators, which commanded a steep price on the thriving black market. One of the Icemen was eating something that looked like a fat and fuzzy bright red peach while he listened intently to the other’s animated perorations. In a small clearing behind them, a trio of young female contortionists in polycarbon leotards that curvaceously screened the swirl of ambient colors, were conducting a complexly braided dance of backward flips, a push-me-pull-me train working its way through political party and welcome-wagon booths.
Approaching the busy circle of a transport nexus that let out on Avenida Celestina, Kelly arrived at lull when the choices had thinned out. “Une pesolaria, soltero!” called out an approaching dark-skinned man with manic eyes from one of six bicycle rickshaws that were stationary among an arbored stop with benches of bioluminescent factory quartz that appeared a violent electric dazzle as viewed through Kelly’s smartshades. Kelly removed the glasses and waved the young man away. He called to another rickshaw operator, a small Japanese woman with a lopsided smile. She bowed like a praying mantis, secured his spartan luggage, withdrew the negotiated credits with a pass of a stylus over Kelly’s watch, and they rode away together. The woman pedaled furiously, Kelly warily drinking in the sights like a nervous Pasha.
“The Eco House,” specified Kelly, “Pan-American Quarter.”
Kelly’s nerves were still tingling with the neural kick of the meripidine-laced slam, making the Jocastan morning sing with unnatural brightness. The sun dappled the breeze-kissed leaves of lime trees which lined the wide boulevards, filling the air with a crisp hint of spring. The scent of freshness mingled with a thousand other smells peculiar to this world, this city, and Kelly felt an inchoate nostalgia that, in his current state of mind, suggested feelings and subliminal imagery from his student days. He began feeling less paranoid as they put distance between themselves and the starport. As each minute passed, the odds mathematically increased that he would find safe haven. He cracked his knuckles and leaned back.
The Giordano Bruno Resistance had been expecting him. He would have to reconfirm the security leak to HQ, but in the meantime his hands were full. It could wait. The ACE mole who had infiltrated one of the GBR’s terrorist cells had proven the existence of the breach quite convincingly. The informant had been later found (at least the most identifiable portions of his body) floating in the French-operated Nile.
“Jah meri aye, ’em Kelly!” called out the driver. Something about this bothered Kelly.
It is in the nature of assumed names that people don’t respond to them as readily as they do to their true ones. Kelly had been so caught up in watching the passing parade of potential assassins that this fact did not occur to him until it was far too late.
With a physical surge of panic that immobilized him, he realized that he had not given his name, assumed or otherwise, to the rickshaw driver.
<i>Molotov!</i> thought Kelly as the QMMD bomb detonated from beneath the carriage, turning his inside joke, in sub-particle terms, inside out.
The explosion was so powerful that it was heard as far away as Rebel Court, almost seven city blocks away. Kelly’s inchoate thought lingered in the vaporized air a fragment of a splinter of a picosecond after the body which gave rise to it no longer existed, after the explosion returned him to the basic common atomic elements that were as plentiful in the universe as John Smiths were in the Axis.