Savannah, Piedmont Republic
14 October, 2107 AD:
The envelope slipped under his door had no stamp or return address, but what fried Drew's mind was its contents: an invitation to the biggest thing to hit Savannah since Sherman's March To The Sea.
He'd heard about the show the aliens were putting on. Hell, there was no way to avoid it. It was all over the street-Ic'nichi this, Ic'nichi that-Gawd, he was sick of hearing it. The humans and aliens signed another treaty recently, and some Ic'nichi diplomats were touring the Alliance of Nations trying to improve their public image. They were in town for three nights of open forum interviews at the old Civic Center, and you had to be God's nephew to get in there. Only here was an ornate invitation addressed to 'Master Andrew Jerome Dawson, esq.' in handwritten gold ink. More perplexing-and ominous-was the attached note:'Hope you can make it. You should find the discussion most interesting. About your condition, the restrooms are on the right at the main entrance.'
"Condition?" He tended to mutter to himself when he was confused or worried, which was pretty often. "What's this blubber? I got no 'condition'."
He held the invitation up to the dim light of his battered oil lamp, and studied it from various angles, hoping further enlightenment might be scribbled on the back. No such luck. "What they have to say, huh?" Someone clearly wanted face time, and what spooked him was where they wanted to meet. That whole neighborhood would be crawling with apes. Jeez, 'they' must walk down the middle of the damned street. Way out-freakin'.
He dithered for the longest time over it, got chewed by his boss for not paying attention at work, wondering what to do. At lunch he went off in a corner and studied the enigma again. "What the hell is this?" he wondered. "Why pick on me?"
As much as he denied it to himself, he was nobody: a loner; a scrawny, acne-scarred misfit with no friends and no interest in space exploration. He couldn't figure it. Who would go to all that trouble? He was Downtown: the only people who knew he existed were the apes who hounded him and the junkies he dealt with. His first instinct was to go to ground somewhere deep, deep down in the sewers where 'they'-whoever 'they' were-couldn't find him. The more he thought about it, the more freaked he got. But as shook as he was, the idea that someone important wanted face time intrigued him. Whoever sent that envelope clearly carried some horsepower, and what 'they' had to say would interest him? Like it or not, he was hooked.
"Aw right, Master Andrew Jee-rome Dawson, Esquire." The Boss ape at the third checkpoint in six blocks gave him a hard look. "You're free t' go."
Drew gave him a sullen glare-they had history-and tried to keep his hands steady as he zipped up his tattered 'Sharks' team jacket. The late autumn night was brisk, and they'd about stripped him naked right there on the sidewalk. There was an edgy silence, then Drew stuck out his palm.
Boss ape frowned. "Ah'll jus' bet you stole this." He pondered Drew's invitation suspiciously, then handed it back. "Killed someone t' get it, sure. But, they tell me you're on the list, which is th' only reason ah don't slam yo' lousy ass."
"Maybe we should slam him jus' t' be sure, sarge?" The other harness apes were hovering around close enough to unnerve him, like they do. He was a welcome break from the tedium of a chilly night.
Boss ape's calculating look was interrupted by another limousine pulling up to the checkpoint. "Naw, we got enough t' do. Another time, sure." No time for this scumbag, it seemed. "Aw right, blubber, move it," Boss ape snarled, and sent him packing.
Drew had a half-dozen biting remarks bottled up inside, but Boss ape's eyes told him anything he said would get him slammed, sure. He brushed a stringy lock of hair back under his cap, put his head down and his hands in his jacket pockets, shivering in fear and humiliation and the brisk October night as he headed down the crumbling street.
"What the hell am I doing?" he mumbled for the umpteenth time. Aside from the guv'ment compound, this was a bad place to be in broad daylight, and no one in their right mind would be caught here at night. Even Downtowners avoided this area. The scavengers were laying low for the moment, not that it was any comfort. There were apes everywhere; the sight of them made him itch. What's worse, the militia with their automatic rifles were patrolling the patch of overgrown woods that used to be a city park. He could see them searching the bare trees with infrared night scopes, hunting. A movement caught his eye: there was a sniper on the roof of a half ruined tenement up the street. This was a no-shit war zone!
"I gotta be crazy," he muttered as he eyed the mob up ahead. There were limousines and carriages everywhere. The bright lights and glitter made him painfully aware of how he stood out in his faded jeans and team jacket. The plantation class from miles around were headed for the Civic Center in sublime disregard for the rats watching from the ruins. The few who noticed regarded him with mixed curiosity and contempt. With all the apes and militia around, they didn't need to worry.
Whoever sent that note, whatever 'they' wanted with him, he was sure it couldn't be good. But as much as he wanted to run, the mystery of the whole thing bugged him, nudging him along as he dithered and fretted. What the hell did 'they' want with him? That mysterious 'they' really pushed his buttons. This whole thing had him floating, it was so unreal. He tried to be invisible as he worked his way through the aristocratic crowd converging on the crumbling slums of downtown Savannah.
The last obstacle, at the Civic Center entrance, was a team of hard-case Alliance Protective Agency suits who made his skin crawl like those harness apes could never hope to. "You need to turn around now, idiot," he grumbled to himself as they gave his invitation a suspicious going over...consulted their list...whispered among them-selves...talked to someone on their radios...who came out to join the fun. Boss suit was a tall, thin man in a cheap overcoat, and his sour expression said that 'Master Andrew Jee-rome Dawson, Esquire' was important for reasons he was not happy about. If Drew didn't know better, he'd swear this long drink of water was expecting him.
Drew was about ready to cave in when another limousine pulled up to the steps. The local apes were all over it, with plenty of 'yes-sir-no-sir' for its load of autocrats from one of the suburban plantations. 'Bastards,' Drew cursed in the silent rage of the dispossessed. 'Hope you burn.' What hurt worst was how the apes jumped to open limo doors while treating him like a dangerous animal. 'Hope you rot in hell,' he fumed to himself. 'And I got something special for you, slutbitches.' Rich fat-cats' ho's in sleek, skimpy threads, showing off for their 'gentlemen'. They got plenty of 'yes-miss-no-miss' too.
That excitement past, the suits got back to him, and it soon turned into an argument. The local Boss ape wanted to slam him, supported by the APA suits who clearly didn't like the cut of his jib. Boss suit stood up to them quietly but firmly, although he didn't seem any happier about this than his people were. And all the while more autocratic 'gentlemen' and their flashy ho's styled past them without receiving a second glance.
The whole thing left Drew burning with impotent rage by time they finally, reluctantly, let him in. "About damned well time," he grumbled. His fear was submerged by anger again, and whatever dirty work 'they' were up to, he wanted in. He remembered something as he headed for the door. "Hey..." he confronted Boss suit. "Where's the bucket?"
"Down there." He pondered Drew unhappily, then gestured down a darkened hallway-to the right, as promised.
"You're hyperventilating," he muttered. This was just too out-freakin'. "You'll pass out, you keep it up." That scene at the entrance scared him white, now his anger wore off. Why was Boss suit covering him? He sure as hell didn't want to jack the Alliance Protective Agency. Worse, his mysterious 'they' used the APA to run errands? He about fainted when he belatedly caught that one. Angst battled curiosity battled his well-honed survival instincts, making him a nervous wreck.
"You better run, fool." That hall was a thousand klicks long, uphill all the way, and darker than pharaoh's tomb. His hands shook and his stomach churned as he crept along, wondering if it was too late to back out. "Time to hit the sewers," he muttered. The one thing that kept him going was the thought of doing those assholes some dirt, and even that was not so appealing now.
It took forever, but he got to the end of the hall. No bucket: he about bolted then. A right turn sent him further into the stygian gloom, and the restroom doors were a short way down, on his right, as promised. He dithered for a long time, finally took a deep breath and...
"Mister Dawson," a soft voice came from behind him. He jerked like he'd been stung, and looked around guiltily.
"Here, Mister Dawson, if you please."
The voice came from an office door on the other side of the hall. The office was dark, the door open a crack. He stood there uncertainly, frozen with fear. Fantasies of class revenge faded again as he wondered what the hell to do?
"We need to chat, Mister Dawson." The voice was becoming impatient.
Galvanized into shaky motion, he crept across the hall, eased the door open, looked around anxiously, and went in.
The security lamps outside gave just enough light for him to pick out the furniture. From what he could see, the place seemed perfectly normal. There was a desk, some chairs, some filing cabinets, all the usual...there was movement to his left. Drew recoiled in terror, backing away behind the desk, hands out before him as a vague animal shape emerged from the gloom.
"That's better." The soft voice had a trace of a British accent, pronouncing each word clearly. "Thank you for coming, Mister Dawson."
Then the impossibility of it all soaked through his panic. There were no dinosaurs any more, and they certainly wouldn't wear neatly tailored gray suits and talk with old-school panache. It never occurred to Drew that his mysterious 'they' might not be human. Talk out-freakin'!
"You needn't be concerned, Mister Dawson," the alien assured him. "We mean you no harm. We wish to ask a small favor of you, if you would be so kind."
It took Drew a moment to absorb that, and another to comprehend it. The alien studied him calmly across the desk, waiting for him to pull himself together. It-he-was like a big lizard standing on two legs; body stretched out flat, tail swaying left and right, head up, triangular cats' ears alert, arms folded across his chest. The lamplight glittered on his fine scales and the polished insignia on his collar.
"Ah...I...w-what do you want?"
"Much better. I do hope we can work together. I dare say you will find our gratitude most rewarding."
"Um..." As shaken as he was, that got his attention. What could the Ic'nichi possibly want from him? More important, what were they offering? "...rewarding?"
"Indeed." The alien reached into a pouch hung under his belly-Drew noticed the strange-looking firearm next to it-and drew out a card, which he passed over. "If you can run a small errand for us in a timely and satisfactory manner, this account will be credited with a million Alliance Kroner."
Drew studied the plastic teller card like it was something from another world, which it might as well have been for Downtowners like him. A million Kroner? Total out-freakin'!
"Wha...what do you want?"
"You work as an orderly at the University Hospital." That was not a question.
"And the human known as Admiral MacKenna is presently being treated there."
"We understand he suffered a massive stroke, his condition is hopeless, and his family has requested he be allowed to die."
"Sad." The alien seemed genuinely hurt. "He was a great leader, instrumental in building up your space fleet during the Contact Crisis." He focussed on Drew again. "We respect a formidable foe."
"So...what about it? Where do I come in?"
The alien shook off his funk, picked an object up off the floor, and laid it on the desk between them. It was the size of a small suitcase, with a molded handle and a hump on one side.
"This is a device for recording memories: a new technology; a proposed education tool, actually. We used a local activist group to delay the Admiral's demise with legal proceedings while our courier made a fast trip home for this prototype." He pulled a bowl shaped disk off the side of the case, and drew out its thick connecting cable. "Place this on top of his head, and push this button." He indicated the chin strap and a large blue knob. "The process is painless, and takes about twenty minutes. When done, return the device to us, and your task will be complete."
"Hey, no way, boss." He finally realized that the alien's gray suit was a uniform. This big lizard was military, and was trying to recruit him as a spy. This was just too heavy for his sewer rat instinct. "No chance, boss. I'm not your boy."
"This is important, Mister Dawson, and you are the only one in a position to help. As I said, you'll find our gratitude most rewarding." He pushed the case forward a bit.
"Hey, I'm no spook, and I don't jack no alien Goldberg." He wanted the hell out of there, but the alien had carefully positioned himself in the way.
"Your racial fear of technology is understandable after the Collapse, but I can assure you this 'Goldberg', as you put it, is harmless."
"And I don't wanna jack them suits outside. How am I supposed to get this thing past them?"
"Those 'suits' will not concern you. We have arranged a limousine for your use."
"Not me, hombre. No chance."
"Your country has a very good record keeping system."
"A very good computerized records system, speaking of technology." The alien eyed him closely. "Your police, for example, know you steal pharmaceuticals from the hospital and sell them on the underground market. It's all there in their files. We understand they plan to arrest you shortly."
That sent another chill down Drew's spine. He thought he'd covered his tracks so perfectly. Now the apes were on him, as well as these aliens. They'd slam him for life! He had to run...but where? And how, with no money? He felt the darkness closing in around him, choking him, his panic rising like a tidal wave...
"Interesting thing, computerized records," the alien mused. "So convenient, yet so vulnerable. It's amazing how easily files can be inserted, reports amended, financial transactions recorded." He gave Drew another sharp look. "But then, files can be erased, reports misplaced, records lost." He shoved the case forward a bit more. "With the right incentive...and the right technology."
'God, I'm in it,' Drew thought. And he'd been half-seduced by that smooth talk. He stood petrified, eyes flicking back and forth between the alien and the ominous gray case as he tried desperately to think of a way out.
"N-no, it's too risky, boss. Not gonna happen." As scared as he was of the apes, jacking with this alien was too much. "What's this all about, anyway?"
The alien sighed wearily and pondered him for a long moment. "Perhaps it will help if you understand how important this is," he said at last. "Your Admiral was the last of a kind. He understood high-tech global warfare like no one who hasn't fought through your Collapse can. Mercifully, you humans are too depleted to fight wars like that any more, and we Ic'nichi simply don't have the mindset for it. Your Admiral's memories are a priceless resource which we hope to preserve."
"But...that's treason!" Hell of a time to come all patriotic! "That'd tell you everything about our space fleet! You lizards got a lot-a nerve comin' on like that!"
"I have been polite, Mister Dawson!" The alien rocked back on his tail in indignation. "You can surely offer the same courtesy. Humans use that term as a derogatory slur. That was uncalled for." His ears were twitching this way and that, which made him all the more intimidating.
"And for your information, we already know about your space fleet. You have a grand total of nine starships, only four of which are real combatants, and two of them are still under construction. Our defense force alone outnumbers your entire fleet three to one, and your flimsy, hastily armed transports are no match for our patrol ships." He was regaining that damned cool composure, coming down off his tail. "So you can see we don't need the Admiral's secrets, except as an historical record."
The silence stretched out as thick as the nighttime gloom. 'Well...yeah...that may be,' Drew realized at last. The alien's relentless cool was dampening his panic, allowing him to think it through. 'So...what do I care, anyway? And why should I?'
The alien patted the case affectionately. "You may rest assured we would not want this sort of knowledge to get around."
'...uh...yeah...' It was almost like he knew what Drew was thinking. Out-freakin'.
"And it bears repeating, Mister Dawson, being on our good side has its rewards."
There was another long, uncomfortable silence.
'So...what if they are up to something?' he told himself. A million Kroner would take him a long, long way from here; all the way to the Republic of Mendocino, out west. 'Their blubber don't matter to me.'
The alien pushed the case forward until it rested against his belly. "We will be here for two more nights. Return this in that time, and we'll let that 'lizard' remark go by."
A million Kroner.
It hung in the air between them, as conspicuous as a torch-lit parade. The silence stretched out again as the alien folded his arms and waited for Drew's next move.
A million Kroner.
It was his way out: out of prison, out of Savannah, out of a life of groveling poverty. His only way out.
'It'll be risky.' He made his choice without realizing, and started talking himself into it. The Admiral was in Intensive Care. He'd have to slip the gismo in in his laundry cart, and hope the ward nurses didn't get suspicious while he puttered around the Admiral's room for twenty eternal minutes.
A million Kroner.
It'd set him up like those rich plantation bastards. Yeah. He reached hesitantly for the handle...
"Oh, and I recommend you don't try opening the case."
Drew froze again. He'd read enough spy novels to know what the alien was hinting at.
A million Kroner.
He'd never have to mop up puke and piss again, ever.
'El Dawson Ranchero.' Yeah. Visions of autocratic excess danced before his eyes, submerging his last lingering doubts. 'With a whole stable full of good-lookin' ho's.' Yeah. Fuckit. 'Nuke Savannah, see if I care.' He picked up the case. It was surprisingly heavy. 'Good bye Piedmont Republic, and fuck you.'
The alien gave him a toothy smile.