From the author: A little philosophical diversion featuring my corpulent master criminal of Old Earth in its penultimate age.
ENEMY OF THE GOOD
by Matthew Hughes
The first indication that anything was amiss with the hired aircar came when its integrator began to reminisce about the peccadilloes of its original owner, who (or so the integrator said), had built his life around erotic encounters so zestful and rife with embellishment that the details surprised even as well seasoned a man as Luff Imbry.
The recollections intruded upon Imbry's mellow mood, which was the result of his latest operation having achieved its aims on all points. Before the aircar suddenly began to regale him with descriptions of a stranger's unusual tastes and the partners who catered to them, Imbry had been sitting in ease and contentment on the volante's bench seat, his sausage-like fingers interlaced over the grand mound of his stomach.
Beside him was a bag comprehensively stuffed with what had lately been the prized griffhorn collection of Filhentian Depro. Depro had made the mistake of leaving the fruits of decades of collecting lying around where Imbry could get at them. Depro would not have shared this estimation of his laxity, just as he wouldn't have shared his intricately carved griffhorns with anyone, but the locks and wards that he had established to guard his goods were, to a thief of Imbry's caliber, not much more of an obstacle than if they had been fashioned from air and smoke.
But Imbry's mellowness was now rapidly diminishing under the welter of improbable specifics that filled the aircar's retrospections of its first owner's ardent antics. "Cease your prattle," he said. "Attend to the flying, and leave me to my thoughts."
That should have settled the matter, but the integrator rambled on, recalling a memorable occasion when it had carried its owner and two companions out to the remote forest above the Shevaen Lakes, for an al fresco frolic that featured strong ropes and pulleys and a casaba melon ripened to perfection.
"Enough!" said Imbry. "Or when we return to the depot I shall insist on your being torn down and rebuilt. My experience tells me that that is a process few integrators enjoy."
Yet still the aircar burbled on. Imbry was learning more about the qualities of casaba melons than he had ever cared to know. He was also becoming concerned that the integrator might be dangerously unstable; the firm from which he had hired the aircar had a well tested reputation for discretion, but no particular standing when it came to the maintenance and upkeep of its fleet. To be several thousand feet in the air, flying over one of the many desolate patches of Old Earth, in the figurative hands of an integrator that had gone "quirksome," to use the technical term, was a cause for concern.
Imbry shifted his huge bulk forward on the seat and reached for the control yoke. One touch would transfer operation of the volante from the integrator to his own plump hands. But that touch was suddenly beyond the thief's capability. The aircar abruptly accelerated forward; at the same time, it angled sharply upward. Imbry was thrown back against the seat then subjected to a series of side thrusts and head-spinning course changes as the volante jinked and deked and swerved recklessly through the upper air.
The violent maneuvers should have caused the aircar to encushion him within a firm but flexible webwork, but the hatch from which the safety gear should have been emitted remained closed. Meanwhile, as Imbry bounced painfully around the passenger compartment like a very large pea in a not very large whistle, the integrator did not miss a syllable of its salacious account of how the innocent melon met a fate arguably worse than death.
The aircar dropped precipitously, sending Imbry's innards flying up into his throat, then it began to rotate at an alarming speed. An odor of ozone, accompanied by a crackling as of fire rapidly consuming dry twigs, assaulted the thief's senses. Centrifugal force had him pressed up against the side and ceiling of the compartment's dome-shaped transparent cover, and he could see that their careering about the sky had become so wide and erratic that it was but a matter of time before the volante buried itself in one of the arid, rocky slopes Imbry could see below, then above, then beside him, as the volante's gyrations dizzyingly affected his perceptions.
A sudden up-jerk then a long left bank led to a brief interval of level flight, though the sky was now seemingly below and the hills above. Imbry, lying on the transparent canopy and hoping it would not open to thrust him into emptiness, lunged for the yoke and yanked it towards him. Since the vehicle was flying upside-down, his effort caused the aircar to arrow toward the ground. But now that the integrator, still rambling through erotic irrelevancies, was no longer driving the volante, Imbry soon had the vehicle back on course.
But more was wrong with the aircar than its operator's instability. The smell of combustion grew stronger, and the fat man could sense an undue warmth radiating from the floor. He peered forward through the canopy, looking for a place to set down, but the landscape was not cooperating. He was over a desert, but not that breed of desert that offered soft and plentiful heaps of sand in which to gently nestle a wounded aircar. Instead, it was all steep and rocky slopes leading up to sheer cliffs of rust-red or blond sandstone. Between the hills and buttes lay narrow, twisting canyons, some of them so deep that their bottoms must be in permanent shade. The tops of the high mesas were flat, but even if he could have coaxed the now rapidly failing volante to ascend to one of them, Imbry was ill-built for mountaineering, even with gravity to assist him.
He was now between two sets of high cliffs that lined a deep and snaking canyon, the aircar steadily losing height, and dropping even faster every time Imbry had to bank to match a turn in the arroyo. Ahead, he saw that the floor of the chasm rose to become level with the bases of the slopes on either side, creating a flat, though boulder-strewn, passage between the heights. The pass could not be called wide, though he hoped it would prove wide enough. He aimed the aircar for the open ground and strove to dull its too-sharp angle of descent. The heat from the floor had now grown so intense that the soles of his boots felt like hot plates and the acrid reek of simmered components drew tears from his eyes and a hacking cough from his lungs. And still the integrator tittle-tattled on, lost in carnal memory.
"Shut up!" Imbry said, but to no effect. The yoke was becoming less and less responsive by the moment. Through burning eyes and thickening skeins of smoke he sought to find a clear path among the boulders, some of them house-sized, that littered the floor of the pass. He spotted a patch of empty ground and aimed for it. The vehicle was still coming down too fast and too steeply, and he hauled back on the controls in hopes of diminishing both speed and angle. But hope's only reward was to feel the yoke come away from its last connections to whatever was burning beneath the floor.
Imbry said a short word that was irrelevant to the circumstances, though by pure coincidence it jibed closely with the gist of the integrator's continuous tattling. His finger jabbed the stud that manually activated the safety webbing and in a moment the thief was cocooned in its sentient mesh. In the moment after that, the volante made contact with the ground.
It was a grinding, grating, spinning, sparking contact, loud enough even to drown out the sound of the integrator's cheerful salacity. The vehicle struck nose-first but the ground was too hard to be penetrated and so the aircar, its front farings crumpled, somersaulted back up into the air only to pancake down again then slide forward while rotating sideways, bouncing off rocks of moderate size until it slid up and half over a flat wedge of stone that had fallen a thousand years before from the cliff above.
Inside the passenger compartment, Imbry triggered the control that loosened his webbing and was gratified to find that it worked. The crash had buckled the flooring and now thick smoke and dull red flames were billowing up from between his feet. The canopy was briefly less cooperative, but beneath his well upholstered exterior, the fat man possessed a muscular strength that had surprised many, and dismayed quite a few. He put his feet on the bench and his shoulders against the dome. When he heaved, the transparency popped free of its retainer and, a moment later, Imbry was out and putting distance between himself and the aircar. Above the rising snap-and-crackle of flames he could briefly hear the integrator's voice saying something about "a well warmed aubergine," then the blaze began to roar in earnest.
In Imbry's hand was the bag of griffhorns. He did not remember snatching it up, but was not surprised to find he had done so; his instincts were always reliable. He stepped farther away from the burning volante, found a boulder of the right size and sat to consider his situation.
Aircar integrators, though not particularly noted for their stability, were equally not subject to the kind of solipsistic irregularity that had struck Imbry down in mid-escape. The likelihood was strong that some external agency had been at work. The fat man pursued the thought with the kind of dedication that beasts bred for hunting bring to their most active days.
First he considered Gebbry Tshimshim, from whom he had rented the volante, back in the city of Olkney, capital of those parts of Old Earth still inhabited by human beings in the ancient planet's penultimate age. By the nature of her trade, she was a fixture in the criminal underpinnings of Olkney's social order, and therefore fundamentally untrustworthy. But she and the corpulent thief had done business often, always to their mutual satisfaction, and by acting against his interests she would deprive herself of a regular client while risking the possibility that he might survive to take a revenge that would be prolonged and inventive, as he had been known to do when grievously disappointed.
No, it was unlikely to be Gebbry Tshimshim, unless someone even more frightening than Imbry had altered her understanding of where her best interests lay. But that would mean that one of his enemies -- and he had them; it was hard to pursue his profession without acquiring a few resenters and ill-wishers -- had become aware of his plans for Filhentian Depro's cherishments. That was even more unlikely. Imbry's name was a byword for preparation and precaution.
But now a more ominous thought intruded. What if Depro himself had set a last surprise for anyone who made it past his defenses? The concept seemed too subtle for the griffhorn aficionado, but he might have heard of it somewhere else -- collectors did talk amongst themselves. It was from such conversations, after all, that independent operators like Imbry discovered who had what and, more important, who wanted to buy what others had and did not wish to sell.
The intricate part of thievery was usually the getting to the goods. Once the lift had been laid, as the expression went, the sensible thief departed the scene by the shortest available route. Leaving Depro's secluded oasis, Imbry had been alert to the possibility of pursuit, but once out over the desert, the skies behind and above him clear, he had contented himself with the view that the operation was concluded.
But what if Filhentian Depro had contrived a parting ha-ha? What if, well out in the wastelands, he had concealed a weapon -- a tracking ison-beam would do it -- that could befuddle an aircar's integrator and send it spinning to the rocks? The collector needn't fear damage to his griffhorns; they were as tough as the beasts that grew them, far off on the windy pampas of the world known as Hauser. They were even heat-cured to bring out the rainbow shimmer for which they were prized. A crash and a fire would do them no harm that could not be repaired with a wipe from a damp cloth. And their erstwhile owner would have no trouble locating them -- the thick twist of stinking black smoke rising from the consumed volante was unmissable.
And here's another reason to move, Imbry thought, as his eye fell upon a substantial pile of animal droppings not far from where he sat. It was the scat of a fand, a sinuous and well-toothed carnivore half again as long as Imbry was tall. The thief had the means to defend himself, but fands were ambush predators that waited, still and silent, until their prey was almost upon them, then sprang from concealment so fast that even self-activating weapons could be outdone.
Someone would be coming to the wreck. The fat man needed to find some vantage from which he could see without being seen. He looked about and discovered that, at least on the concealment score, he had landed well. The cliffs were riven by vertical crevices, some of which would surely be deep enough for him to enter and watch and wait. He worked his way between the strewn boulders then climbed a slight slope to where the nearest rock face rose sheer. He took care not to overturn any pebbles nor step in any drifts of sand; for a large man he was unusually light on his feet. He also steered well wide of any boulder behind which, belly flattened to the bedrock, haunches quivering, might lurk a fand.
He found a wide crack that wove its way a short distance into the rock, explored to make sure that it offered no opportunity for him to be taken unawares from the rear. At the back of the cave was a fall of loose rock in which Imbry concealed the bag of griffhorns. From an inner pocket he drew a "chirper," a small beacon that he could activate from afar and that would guide him back to the loot. He instructed the device then returned to the entrance and settled down to keep watch. His plan was simple: if Depro or one of his hirelings came to reclaim the griffhorns, Imbry would disable him with one of the weapons he kept about his person, take his transportation and depart. If nobody came, he would have to rethink the situation.
After a few minutes, a new thought occurred. He retraced his steps deeper into the cave and made an addition to the chirper's assignment, then returned to his watching post.
Time passed. The old orange sun, which had been just struggling to rise above the horizon when Imbry left Depro's oasis, dragged itself up to the zenith then gratefully began the slide toward evening's rest. No aircraft came to hover above the wreck, no ground vehicle rolled or stalked to the still smoking site. Still Imbry waited. The shadow of the far cliff crept to the wreckage then covered it, the blue of the sky darkened to violet. Finally, as night asserted its prerogatives and the temperature began to plunge, a whisper of approaching footsteps echoed through the silence of the canyon.
Imbry drew from within his garments a compact disorganizer and activated its self-aiming function. Squatting well back from the mouth of the fissure, cloaked in shadow, he watched a man make his way toward the remains of the crashed volante. The newcomer was not what he had half-expected: an armed bravo in the billowing yellow and orange livery that Filhentian Depro was convinced was fashionable; instead, he was a lean and wiry specimen in a robe of coarsely woven, undyed cloth, belted at the midriff by a stout rope. He led, by a halter, a packbeast common among desert dwellers, a man-sized creature force-bred up from dryland vermin, with splayed hind feet and forepaws almost like hands.
The man approached the wreck without hesitation, pausing only to drop the carrier beast's lead and secure it with a heavy rock when the animal shied at going any nearer to the reeking smoke. Imbry saw the man quickly ascertain that there was no one in the burned-out shell of the aircar, then turn in several directions, his gaze first quartering the ground then lifting to scan the cliffs. Sunk in the shadows, Imbry put a small device to his own eyes and studied the man's face in detail, saw a long-jawed, leathery visage, hard-eyed under untrimmed brows -- the image of one who sought the solitude of a desert dwelling, usually in the pursuit of mystery and arcane accomplishments.
But not always. And so Imbry sat and watched some more, reminding himself that the desert also provided a refuge for rarer breeds: loons and ravers whose activities distressed their civilized neighbors, rippers and vivisectors, cannibals and collectors of gore-dripping trophies.
The man completed his inspection of his surroundings, then stood a while in thought, one sunbrowned hand scratching at his rough thatch of unbarbered hair. He turned after a moment toward the cliff where Imbry crouched and called out, "It's all right to come out. I am Frater Czenzible, of the Eclectic Fraternity. I can offer you shelter and care if you are injured." His non-scratching hand flourished a package marked with the symbols of healing. "Also, a she-fand is denned in this area, with young. Once the sun is gone, she will come out to hunt."
Imbry weighed what he had seen and heard. The Eclectics were not given to excesses, their members being composed largely of seekers who had already sought fulfillment among other spiritual disciplines but found no comfortable fit. More rigid sects disdained their lack of commitment and some even applied a derogatory nickname: "the Loosies."
So the man was unlikely to be a threat, and there was no sign of Depro's establishment -- and certainly no sense in waiting when a fand with hungry whelps might grievously interrupt Imbry's sleep. He deactivated his weapon, rose and went to the mouth of the cave. "Here I am," he said.
The Eclectic's smile was not wide, but it looked genuine. "Excellent," he said, watching Imbry descend from his hiding place. "And you are fit."
"I suffered only bumps and contusions in the crash," the thief said.
"Then I won't need this," Czenzible said, returning the aid kit to one of the side packs on the carrying beast, which regarded Imbry with that skittish leeriness of strangers for which bred-up rodentia were notorious. "Nor will Fiq here have to bear you home." He slapped the animal's neck to concentrate its mind on its business then recovered the reins. As he did so, the ululating yowl of a fand sounded in the distance, though that distance was not great. "We should go," the Eclectic said.
The packbeast was now eager to depart, Imbry no less so. They both followed Czenzible back the way he had come, Fiq's long ears pricked up and turned backwards to capture any more fand vocalizations. Imbry's skin twitched between his shoulder blades.
They had walked less than an hour, descending into the winding chasm Imbry had overflown, when the Eclectic stopped at a place where a small arroyo joined the main canyon. Here he turned and led them into the narrower way which, shortly after, ended at a smooth rock face. The man walked right up to the barrier, placed his palm against the eroded stone and, exposing a lean and corded arm as his sleeve fell back, pressed with what looked to Imbry to be considerable strength. With only the slightest grating of stone on stone, the rock face turned on an unseen pivot. Beyond was a dark emptiness.
"Here we are," said the Eclectic. Fiq was anxious to press past its master, and Czenzible indulgently let the beast go forward before he stepped into the opening and reached for a small lumen that waited in a niche just inside. He activated the light, shedding a warm amber glow on the pale sandstone that lined what Imbry could now see was a tunnel leading deep into the living rock.
The yu-yu-yu of a fand's hunting call came from close by. Imbry stepped into the tunnel and assisted the Eclectic in closing the door. "This way," said Czenzible, setting off in the only direction available. Imbry followed. A short distance on, the tunnel bifurcated, and they went left. Soon they came to a node where five passages converged. Czenzible chose the second on the right and they walked some more, turning here and there and encountering several other multivarious intersections. Imbry had a good memory and a fine sense of direction, he had even taken the precaution of counting his steps at first, but these passageways all looked the same, and there had been too many turnings; he realized he was now dependent on Czenzible to find his way out. The thought did not trouble him unduly. If necessary, he had the means to encourage cooperation.
The Eclectic brought them to an archway beyond which was a wide chamber whose ceiling curved to form a dome. When he lit two large lumens set in high sconces on either side of the arch, Imbry saw Fiq in the shadows on the far side, already nestled in a heap of coarse grass, chewing on something that crunched and crackled as its big molars ground against each other. On the wall above the packbeast were dark marks that had the look of painted symbols, but were so faded by time and poorly lit by the light from Imbry's side that he could not make them out -- though their shapes tugged at his memory. Near where the two men had emerged from the tunnels were the rudiments of living quarters: two plank beds heaped with the same stuff as the animal lay upon, though topped by coarse gray blankets; a rough table flanked by two stools and set with a pair of wooden bowls and spoons; some large earthenware pots; and a portable grill of the kind used by those who sojourn in wilderness.
Some of the pots contained ground grains and dried vegetables, another held water. Czenzible waved Imbry toward a stool then busied himself, combining ingredients to make a simple pottage that was soon heating on the stove. While the meal cooked, he came to sit across from the thief, pouring sweet water into two wooden cups and offering one to his guest. Imbry waited until he saw the Eclectic drink before he did likewise.
"You must be wondering," said Czenzible, when he had drained his cup, "what I am doing here."
"I admit to curiosity," Imbry said.
The Eclectic got up to stir the pot. "It is a longish story," he said, but his next remark concerned the food.
"How do you feel about green spice?"
"I like it."
"As do I," said Czenzible, reaching for a wooden jar with a perforated top from which he shook a good measure of the richly scented condiment into the steaming pot. "And salt?"
"It is advisable in a dry heat," said Imbry, and saw his host add a strong pinch of white crystals from a bowl on a ledge above the stove. "You were going to relieve my curiosity."
"Yes," said the Eclectic, sealing the pot and bringing it to the table, where he set it down between them. "Are you familiar with the Fraternity?"
Imbry saw no reason to dissemble. "You poke about in the philosophies and inspirations of the past, combining elements of different systems into heterogeneous arrangements to suit your own needs, as you perceive them."
Czenzible signaled a partial agreement. "I would quibble over the term 'poke about' as a description of our scholarly investigations, but the rest is apt," he said.
"And what would you find to investigate in this barren corner?"
"It is possible that these tunnels were fashioned and inhabited by a long-forgotten and very secretive society. I seek their relics and, I hope, some informative records."
"The name of the group?" Imbry said.
"You would not have heard of them. I use the expression 'long-forgotten' advisedly." The Frater turned away to find two bowls and spoons of stained wood and bring them back to the table. He lifted the lid of the pot and ladled out ample portions of the mush, and the air between them filled with the aromatic odor of green spice. Imbry realized in a visceral way that it had been a long time since his last meal. Still, he waited until Czenzible had seated himself and spooned up and swallowed a mouthful before he dipped into his own share.
"You are cautious, as well as curious," the other man said.
Imbry returned him a meaningful look. "One seeks to avoid misunderstandings."
Czenzible's face showed a wordless appreciation of the truth of Imbry's comment, even as he filled his mouth again. Imbry matched him, mouthful for mouthful; the pottage was simple fare, but his hunger made as fine a seasoning as the salt and spice.
"More?" said the Eclectic, when Imbry's bowl was empty.
Between them, they cleaned the pot. The fat man felt a pleasant warmth radiating from his middle, and drank another draft of the good water. There was something to be said for the simple things of life, he told himself, although he knew that a unvaried diet of simplicity would soon pall.
"It is a matter of character," said Czenzible, "and of choice."
Imbry was startled. He had not realized he had spoken aloud.
"That is an effect of the drug," said Czenzible, and as Imbry struggled ineffectively to rise, "as is the paralysis that now grips your skeletal muscles."
"How did you manage it?"
"It is in the green spice," said Czenzible. "And also in the red, if you had voiced a preference for a milder taste."
"But you are immune?"
The Eclectic signaled a negative. "My spoon is soaked in the antidote." He rubbed his palms together in a brisk gesture and said, "So, let us get down to it. What did you do to offend Filhentian Depro?"
Imbry wanted to say, "Who?" but instead heard his own voice saying, "I stole his griffhorn collection."
"And where are they?"
"I left them in a cave near where you found me."
Czenzible looked thoughtful. After a while, he said, "You must be an enterprising fellow. Most who attempt to despoil Depro's goods never make it past his outer defenses. None has ever made it all the way in and all the way out."
"I am good at what I do," Imbry said. He wanted to put a question to his captor, but found that he could only speak in response to the other's stimulus. He waited, while Czenzible pondered his next question which, from the evidence of knitted brows and downturned mouth, sat with some weight on the Eclectic's mind.
At length, the man said, "You will be wanting to know what I intend to do with you," allowing Imbry to confirm that the matter had indeed been pressing him. "What I'm supposed to do," Czenzible said, "is to turn you over to Filhentian Depro. That was the arrangement under which he gave us the ison-cannon and a communicator." He delibrated for a little more, then the thief saw him come to a conclusion. "But since Borgo..." -- he left the rest of the sentence unsaid -- "well, let's just say that the situation has mutated since we made our pact with Depro. I have decided that anyone resourceful enough to have gotten in and out of where you have gotten in and out of would be precisely the fellow who could the job that I need doing."
Again, Imbry wished to ask something, but was not granted the opportunity. Instead Czenzible rose from the table and said, "Get up and come with me."
The fat man was not surprised to discover that, whatever his own inclinations might be, his limbs were as much Czenzible's to command as was his voice.
He was led out into the open space, Fiq's lambent eyes following their movements. They came to a portion of the rock floor that looked no different from any other, but when Czenzible pressed down on a certain part of it with his foot, a large slab turned on an unseen hinge, some hidden counterweight causing it to rise until it was perpendicular. Beneath was a lightless space. Czenzible took from a pocket of his robe the small lumen that had lit their way to this chamber and said, "Take it."
Imbry's hand did so. He now had several questions to ask.
"I know what you'd like ask," said the current owner of the thief's will, "but the answer will disappoint you. I do not know what is down there. But I will tell you what I do know. My partner, Borgo, discovered this disguised entry. He went down into it. I followed him but -- and here I must admit that I am less stalwart than he -- where the tunnel curved I held back. He went forward, far enough that I could no longer hear his footsteps. All was silent for a long time. Then I heard a distant cry of agony and despair. In my mind, I rushed to his aid; in my body, I turned and ran up the steps, slammed shut the trapdoor. I waited. He did not come. It has been four days."
Imbry had more questions to put, but the Eclectic now showed a shamefaced air and offered the thief no opening.
"If you find any scraps of Borgo, please perform the rites of whatever creed you adhere to." Czenzible said. "I leave you whatever weapons you may carry. If something lurks below, deal with it and come back and bring me evidence of it. At that point I give you my word that I will let you go, griffhorns and all."
There were steps leading down. Imbry heard the man's voice telling him to descend into the darkness, and he felt his traitorous limbs calmly doing so. When his head was below the level of the floor, Czenzible leaned down and said, "When I close the trapdoor, proceed to the bottom of the steps and wait there for the drug to wear off. Then do whatever seems useful. I don't wish to cloud your judgment with preconceptions. I believe that was Borgo's error."
Then he straightened and demonstrated that his mood had changed by executing once more that brisk friction of palm against palm. "This exit cannot be opened from below. You will see a pull-chain and a bell. Ring it when you have done what must be done, and we will discuss the next steps. I doubt you will find another way out, but.." His hands opened in a gesture ripe with philosophy. "Good luck," he finished, and closed the trapdoor.
Imbry's thoughts were stark as he went down the stairs, the small lumen throwing its light only a short distance ahead. He soon came to the floor of yet another tunnel, no different to his eyes from those he had traversed above. He stood and waited, as he'd been told, and considered what he now knew and, more important, what he did not.
Filhentian Depro had indeed prepared a last-laugh for anyone who made it into and out of his fortified oasis. Czenzible and his fellow seeker, the missing Borgo, sited well clear of the action zone, would be notified if a target was in the offing and would have time to activate the weapon and bring down the fleeing thief. If the quarry survived the crash, the Fraters were to lead him to their retreat and disable him with the drug. In return, presumably, Depro provided the pair with supplies and the promise of aid should either of the Eclectics fall afoul of the several hazards that a desert wilderness could offer.
The two would have been pursuing some abstruse goal, but this lonely place where they had chosen to make their effort would not have been randomly selected. Clearly, they had not come just for the solitude, but because there was something here that drew them. It was a prospect that chilled Luff Imbry.
It was not for nothing that the world was called Old Earth. The history of the planet stretched back to the dawn-time, that misty Prime Aeon when humankind took its first faltering steps into the immensity. There were some who said that Old Earth was the actual world on which humanity rudely sprang from the primordial egg, though there were a number of other worlds contending for that faint distinction. But wherever the first of the Twenty-One (some said Twenty-Two), Aeons had dawned, there was no doubt that a vast gulf of time had since intervened -- enough time for this world to have been the backdrop against which a great many things had been done, including a dismayingly huge number of undertakings that should never even have been thought of.
Only a small portion of the planet was still inhabited by human beings. This was partly because The Spray afforded so many richer, finer, on-all-counts-better worlds to choose from. But it was also partly because significant portions of Old Earth had been rendered less than attractive by some of the grand, hubristic mistakes of aeons past.
Every schoolchild knew of the once heavily populated island of Enorg, its cities forever crushed beneath a massive cap of shining crystal -- all because one overweening savant had convinced himself that there was merit in endowing some quartzite seedlings with sentience and an instinct for self-propagation. It was small comfort that he who had originated the crystalline plague was the first to be dissolved and absorbed.
Then there were the many ill-advised combinings of germ plasms that had, over the ages, produced horrific hybrids of different species, including man and beast, even man and insect. The descendants of these chimerical couplings still haunted remote and seldom-visited regions. It seemed that there was no natural law that some fool, at some time, had not egregiously violated, producing freaks and frighteners of dreadful capabilities, all too often moved by insatiable appetites and over-equipped with the means to satisfy them.
And for every Isle of Enorg that had passed into the common memory, there were dozens of horrendous missteps that were completely forgotten. Until, that is, some poor, lost traveler turned a corner and found himself it the clutches of one.
Not far from where Imbry now stood, the effects of the compulsion agent rapidly fading, the poorly lit tunnel turned a corner and continued out of sight. Here must be where the natures of Borgo and Czenzible had found their point of departure. The fat man considered his options: stay where he was and wait for something to come to him out of the darkness, by which time he might be weak from hunger or groggy from lack of sleep; or, fed and reasonably rested, advance to confront whatever lay beyond the corner. Put that way, there was but one choice and, as soon as he had regained full control of his muscles, he drew his disorganizer and mounted it on top of his skull, set to use its own judgment. Its reflexes were far faster than his own.
For a large man, he was soft of tread. He moved silently to the corner, the little lumen throwing a small and mobile sphere of light around him. He bent an elbow to extend the light source around the bend then, when nothing happened, let his head follow. Beyond lay another stretch of stone-lined, unlit corridor, identical to the one behind him except that it lacked steps. Imbry stepped forward.
The curving passage stretched unbroken for, by Imbry's count, more than a hundred paces. Then he came to a doorway on his left, the space beyond steeped in stygian darkness. Carefully again, he extended the lumen and illuminated what, when he poked head and disorganizer around the edge of the doorway, proved to be a monastic cell. Set into the wall opposite was a niche that housed a convoluted shape; the object, when the thief advanced to brush away the dust that cloaked it, turned out to be fashioned of a milky ceramic, shot through with veins and arabesques of several shades of blue. As he turned the item over in his hands, a faint breeze of memory stirred wisps in the back of his mind. Somewhere he had come across a description of such a creation, long ago. He closed his eyes and let the insinuation strengthen of its own accord. And then, suddenly, he knew. A word came into his mind: Idiosyncrats.
They had been a reclusive sect that had flourished -- though "flourished" might have been too expansive a word for such an intensively withdrawn and insular cult; more accurate to say they had existed -- far back at some remote remove from Old Earth's penultimate age, millennia piled upon millennia ago. After a score of generations, they had abruptly disappeared. Some said that the last practitioners had so mastered the art of encountering their ideal selves as to have physically translated themselves to a more sublime plane. Another opinion was that, like a myriad of Old Earth-spawned cults, they must eventually have suspected that some peculiarity of this tired and shop-worn planet made it an unsuitable setting for their aims; they would have then bought a spaceship and hied off to discover whether the light that shone on some other of the Ten Thousand Worlds cast a more encouraging aura over their purposes. Or perhaps they had met the common fate of so many cults and kabbalisms -- to have schismed into disaffection and disarray, and simply disbanded.
But though the culmination of their works was unknown, the aim of their philosophy was remembered: they had been devoted to the concept of individual perfection, spending their lives in an inner quest for their ideal selves, a pure, unsullied state of being that each believed could be found at the deepest bathic layer of his being, buried beneath dense strata of psychic detritus that built up as a consequence of the self's unavoidable contact with phenomenality.
The devoted Idiosyncrat, after completing a strenuous seasoning as an acolyte, retired naked to a cell, where he first fixed his mind on creating his cheff, an object that allegedly exemplified his own individual thought processes. When, in the workshop of his mind, he could envision his cheff in perfect detail, he created a sand-mold of it, a project that might take a year or more. Finally, he crafted the object in fine ceramic. Polished and ensconced in its niche, the cheff became the focal point for the adept's mentalisms; as he gazed unblinking into its coils and curves, it served as the essential tool -- literally, since it represented his true essence -- that allowed him to delve through the layers of refuse and rubble that separated him from his buried ideal self.
Imbry, rotating the cheff's smooth, opalescent shape in palms grown suddenly moist, now knew that he could put an end to the debate. Idiosyncrats, for all the individualism of each's quest, had lived together in one tightly insulated community, its location a closely guarded secret. But it looked to the fat man as if, through Borgo's and Czenzible's scholarship, that ancient enigma was now burst.
He tenderly replaced the fetish in its niche, recorded an image of it, then turned to inspect the cell. In one corner, he saw a bundle of sticks and oddments that, as he brought the lumen closer, resolved into a skeleton, its bones long since picked clean by sleekits and insects. The room was otherwise empty, the cheff having been the Idiosyncrat's sole possession.
Though now it was Luff Imbry's. He let his mind explore the implications. He knew of several collectors of mystical arcana, on Old Earth and a dozen other worlds, who would pay-- there, his thoughts broke off; no cheff had ever been brought to market, thus its value was unspecified. Priceless, said his inner voice, in the privacy of his head. If, of course, I can prove that it is what it is. For Imbry was known to be not only a dealer in illicitly acquired art; he was also known to be a forger.
The buyers would have to be brought here, to see the object in situ, he was thinking, as he went out again into the tunnel, finding that it was lined with cells, each of which contained a niche, a cheff, and the bones and dust of an Idiosyncrat. Imbry's reaction, as he discovered the second, the third, and the fourth, one after another, was a succession of shivers of delight. He knew he could find a worthy purchaser for each.
Then came the fifth, sixth and seventh. Each was unique, but it was becoming clear to the fat man that each object's uniqueness was nonetheless confined within a general class. As he encountered the eighth and ninth, and then rapidly proceeded into and through teens of cheffs, he began to fret that he might be at only the beginning of a true multitude of the things -- so many that, together, they might constitute a drug on the market, driving down the unit price to that of any other piece of well crafted bric-a-brac.
As he made his way into the twenties, a new thought intruded: he could conceal a certain number of them, and later bring them onto the market, one by one, at long intervals. But that would inevitably bring up suspicions of fakery. He realized that he might have to destroy most of them -- the thought came as he was examining number twenty-four, a shimmering spiral in carnelian and saffron -- and he experienced an uncharacteristic sadness at the prospect of destroying so much strange beauty. Fortunately, number twenty-seven (orb within helix, deep black and smoky silver), turned out to be the last. Imbry gave a small sigh of relief; twenty-seven was a manageable number.
Leaving the cell, he ventured farther, and found that the curving tunnel ended at a large chamber, similar to the one in which he had dined with Frater Czenzible. Apparently, the Idiosyncrats had taken time away from their individual introspections to gather together, and here was the place where they did it. Opposite the mouth of the corridor in which the thief stood, dimly visible in the light of the small lumen he held aloft, was a dais of three steps. On the dais stood what might have been a broad lectern or a rather tall altar.
Cautiously, Imbry stepped into the open space. On either side, in shadow against the walls, were straight-lined shapes that he took to be tables and chairs. The communal refectory, he thought. Probably also where they came together to decide matters relevant to all. He moved forward, wondering if there might be something of value on the dais, then froze as a sound came from beyond the altar.
The disorganizer clicked to let him know it had registered the sound, but took no action. Still, Imbry recalled that he was where he was because a self-aware device had failed him. He instructed the weapon to discharge itself upon his command -- it clicked twice in acknowledgment -- then without taking his eyes off the dais, he edged sideways, seeking an angle by which the altar would not be between him and whatever had made the noise.
And now it came again, a deep moan. Not a sound of appetite, Imbry thought, but of heartfelt agony. He stole toward the dais, his lumen lifted high. "Borgo?" he whispered.
This time the sound was a sob. Imbry climbed the three steps and saw a huddle of coarse cloth close behind the altar that, as he brought the light nearer, resolved itself into a man dressed much the same as Czenzible. Borgo lay on his side, his knees drawn up and his hands clasped under his chin. Tears streaked his face and a low keening came from deep in his throat until he broke the whine with another sobbing moan.
The fat man held the light up and swept it about, peering into the gloom beyond its radius. Nothing was there. He knelt beside the Eclectic, touched his shoulder and said, "Borgo, Czenzible has sent me to find you. Are you hurt? Is there peril in this place?"
The only answer was a choking succession of sobs and a fresh flood of tears. Further inquiry brought no coherent response, but Imbry's quick examination of the other man found neither blood nor broken limbs. He sat back on his heels and said, "Borgo, answer me: what has befallen you?"
The Eclectic drew in a halting breath and in a voice thick with anguish he said, "The worst. Oh, the worst," before lapsing again into loud weeping.
Imbry sought more knowledge, but Borgo's thoughts were turned inward, and all the thief could wring from him was a stream of self-recrimination, as the Eclectic called himself vile names and accused himself of numberless failings.
Madness, Imbry thought. Has the darkness unseated his faculties? And yet he now saw that beside Borgo lay a lumen like his own that, when he pressed its activating stud, threw a second yellowy glow across the dais. The added illumination also drew Imbry's eyes toward the altar, which on this side was figured with the same cursive script as the thief had seen on the walls. There was also what looked very like an instrument panel.
The fat man held the light closer. Although the top of the altar was coated in dust, the controls were not. Surely, Borgo had touched them, activating whatever device they regulated -- the result of which had been to bring upon the Eclectic the mental damage he had manifestly suffered. Imbry drew himself back.
But even as he did so, a small light appeared on the panel. It blinked several times, then a lighted rectangle appeared, the size of a hand, and instantly began to fill with letters and digits in the ancient script. The symbols ran in lines from right to left and, when they reached the bottom of the small screen, the unreadable text began to scroll upwards, fresh lines appearing below, the information now coming faster and yet faster, until the characters raced across the screen at eye-blurring speed. A low hum sounded, then rose in both frequency and volume until it passed the range of Imbry's hearing, though he felt his teeth vibrate.
Then suddenly the flashing from the screen stilled, the ultrasonic whine ceased. The only sound was Borgo's snuffling whimper. Now a tiny point of white light appeared in the air just above the top of the altar-like device. Imbry took another step back, but nothing came to harm him. The actinic pinpoint grew larger, losing some of its brightness in the process, expanding to become a globular glow that became the size of Imbry's fist, then of his head, then grew larger still. At the same time, an object appeared in the light -- no, Imbry thought, not an object; it has the appearance of a living creature -- that also grew and changed as he watched.
When he first noticed it, it had the look of a curved tadpole, but as he studied it, it became more like a fish, though now its fins were becoming limbs, topped by digit-bearing paws, and the tail was receding even as the cranium took on a mammalian shape. Moments more, and two large eyes turned Imbry's way as the fetus lost its last traces of body hair and the hands and feet became indisputably human.
Imbry blinked and the surrounding globe of light was gone. An infant lay atop the altar -- or, more accurate to say, the fat man thought, the projection of an infant -- perfectly visible as if lit by concealed lumens. Even as the thief's mind registered the information his eyes were supplying, the newborn continued to grow and age -- yearling, then crawler, now toddler, now free-standing child already turning into callow youth, and suddenly a young man in the first flush of maturity gazed down at Imbry with an air of amused curiosity.
Imbry looked up at the face. There was something about it that was familiar, as there had been in some of the younger versions that had preceded it. The features were fine, the jawline arguing for strength without overstressing the point, the eyes clear and exactly the same shade of blue as Imbry's. The naked body beneath was well-proportioned, deep-chested and slim in the waist, firmly muscled though with nothing to excess.
Perfect, was Imbry's unbidden thought. Then the finely shaped head canted to one side, the eyes blinked lazily and the young man's well modulated voice said, "Well, exactly."
The voice was also familiar, though Imbry could not quite place it. That puzzled him, so much that it was a moment before he realized that the simulacrum atop the altar had replied to an observation he had not voiced aloud. It now answered the question he had not yet asked aloud, saying, "Of course I can hear your thoughts -- those of the surface and of the depths." The latter phrase was accompanied by a twisting of the sensitive mouth into a moue of distaste. It was then that Imbry realized just what he had come across in the long-lost sanctuary of the Idiosyncrats.
"Yes," said the simulacrum, as it floated down from the altar to stand before him. "And I must say you have fallen," -- the pale eyes swept over the thief's great bulk -- "hugely short of the epitome."
"What did you do to him?" Imbry said, indicating the weeping Frater at his feet.
"Who?" said the image.
"Never mind," said the thief. The question had been a test. The answer had confirmed a dawning supposition. "So I am to consider you the epitome?" he said.
"That is self-evident."
"And if I do not find it to be self-evident?"
The simulacrum blinked. "I will re-examine you. Some derangements are subtle."
"I am not deranged," Imbry said.
The young man's image did not answer. Its eyes did not focus on him now, and the thief deduced that its circuits were busy with the re-examination. Moments went by and Imbry used the time to explore the large chamber. He found nothing of value, and not much of even passing interest.
From the corner of his eye he saw the simulacrum flicker, then the perfectly formed head turned his way. "It is not a derangement," said the familiar voice. "You were merely lying."
"No," said Imbry, poking his light into a series of cupboards against one curved wall of the chamber, finding only plain wooden bowls and spoons, the wood so dried and fragile that one of the spoons fell to powder when he lifted it. "I was telling the truth."
"I am the truth," said the young man.
Imbry made a sound between a grunt and a chuckle. "You are only one of them. And not even a useful one, at that."
"There can be but one truth. All others, by definition, are false pretenders."
"By your definition," said Imbry, fingering a woven tapestry pegged high on the wall. It showed an allegorical encounter between the mundane and the empyrean. The weavers had not meant to convey a meeting of equals. "Not by mine."
"You are lying again."
"Am I? Examine me again." He gave the tapestry a tiny and tentative tug. The ancient fabric came apart in his hands, and even though he instantly pulled his fingers back the millennia-old cloth continued to fall to the floor in a silent cascade of bits and fragments . The figures the knotted threads portrayed -- the groveling penitent at the feet of the godlike avatar -- mingled as dust together. Imbry made a small noise of disappointment -- the tapestry would have had value.
"You are willfully perverse," said the simulacrum.
"You are misinformed," said Imbry.
The "secret within the secret" of the Idiosyncrats -- the how and why of their mysterious vanishing -- was also now revealed. It was a not unusual way for such a cult to meet its undoing. Someone was admitted to the company of the select, someone to whom the arduous process of mastering difficult mentalisms, not to mention the ceramacist's craft, loomed like a monstrous waste of time and effort. That someone must have also commanded the skills and knowledge necessary to propose and execute an alternative method: he had created a device that would extract from each Idiosyncrat those qualities their philosophy called sublime, errorless, ideal. No need to spend decades whisking away, grain by tarnished grain, the built-up overburden of the self in order to lay bare one's personal epitome; simply activate the device, let it do in moments the spade work of a lifetime, and, presto, behold the man.
The Idiosyncrats, after a long and fractious debate that pitted those who argued that the journey was more important than the arrival against those who simply longed to cease traveling, had opted in the end for the quick trip. The apparatus had been designed and set up in the refectory, then in the presence of them all, it was activated.
The result, of course, was horror.
Generations of Idiosyncrats had fruitlessly sought their unsullied selves, believing that because such entities could be posited they must therefore exist. The only results of all that effort had been, first, to keep the believers harmlessly occupied, second, to give their lives shape and meaning, and third, to produce some quite beautiful pieces of ceramic art. No adept ever actually met his epitomal version, there being none to meet, until the well-meaning innovator -- and such horror-makers are always well-meaning -- plopped one down in front of each of them.
Each Idiosyncrat, with heart full of hope, looked up and saw, atop the altar, his perfect self. Each perfect self looked down and saw a gross and foul representation of its simulated self. It reacted accordingly. The Idiosyncrats, come at last to the end of all their longing, were met not with gladsome embrace, but with the grimace of disgust and the harsh word of repulsion.
The psyche that is built upon a foundation of a single supposition can collapse like a sand castle in an earthquake if that prime underpinning suddenly cracks, Imbry knew. Such was the fate of the Idiosyncrats. Some wandered off into the desert, to leave their bones for the scouring winds. Others crept to their cells where, silently mocked by their now pointless cheffs, they dwindled and died alone.
Imbry contemplated the altar. The mechanism itself would be of value to collectors of archaic devices. He would have to come back with a larger vehicle, perhaps a carry-all, and definitely a sled. He was thinking, too, that it might do to bring some kind of rock-refluxion machine that could bore a straight line into the place, rather than have to work his way through tunnels and trapdoors. A large-enough borer might even make a passageway wide enough for the carry-all, in which case he would not need the sled.
His thoughts, however, were being infringed upon by the constant voice of the ideal Luff Imbry. The simulation clearly found it necessary to engage him in a discussion that centered on his alleged shortcomings. The program that generated the epitome must also enable it to deal directly with his auditory and optical nerves, since even when he sought to get away from it by going out into the tunnel the simulacrum hung in the air before him and its voice -- his voice -- continued its unflattering commentary. He had already examined the control panel without finding a means of turning the thing off. Probably its creator had intended that it operate in perpetuity.
"Your stomach," it was saying, as he returned to the refectory.
"What of it?" Imbry replied.
"Is it the result of some affliction?"
The fat man smoothed his hand over the prodigious curve. "No," he said, "it is an accomplishment."
"How can you live with yourself?"
"Very well. Very well, indeed."
"Your life is a sprawl, episodes of frenetic grasping alternated with long spans spent gluttonizing. You are morally and intellectually no more than an articulated amoeba."
Imbry made a dismissive noise. His life was carefully structured, his "operations" meticulously planned and expertly executed, while the fallow periods inbetween were devoted to scaling ever-higher peaks of gastronomy. There was no point, however, in trying to explain this to the synthetic sapient generated by the altar. But he did say, "I do admit to a talent for improvisation."
The simulacrum's lips -- identical to Imbry's lips, except that they were less full -- shaped themselves into a tilde of distaste. "You are gross. Dissolute. A foul pudding overstuffed with unrestrained appetites."
Imbry was examining the housing of the apparatus. He could find no entry point. He began to suspect that it was a device of the "all-in-one" type: never intended to be disassembled, it was made of one consistent substance that had been "tuned" to perform its function, and once tuned need never again be fiddled with. "My appetites," he said, straightening up, "are restrained by a discernment born of experience and expertise. My palate is a virtuoso's instrument. Unlike yours, which is merely hypothetical. As, indeed is every aspect of you."
"I am," said the simulacrum, "what you should have been."
"Merely what your designer thought I should have been," said Imbry, "or might have thought, had he ever encountered me."
"Happily, he was spared that tribulation," sniffed the epitome. "Would that I had been as fortunate."`
"He must have been a particularly snippy sort of bird," said Imbry, "judging by the tone you adopt."
"He was a seeker after what is finest in each human being."
"Nonsense," said the thief. "He was just another one of those tiresome fellows who hide themselves away in alleged pursuit of some illusory ideal, ceaselessly professing the highest of motives, when all they really want to do is escape the tough-and-rumble of flesh and flatulence. They can never get over the realization that, fundamentally, they are made of food."
"Ravings," said the ideal Imbry. "Delusion. Mania."
"No, just plain sense," said the actual version. "There is the expression: the good is the enemy of the best; it means that many will cease striving once they have achieved enough to be getting by with, when a sustained effort could do so much more."
"The aphorism is exact. What might you have achieved if you had not allowed yourself to succumb to your pudge-making pastimes?"
"I am content with my achievements," said Imbry. "But I mentioned that saying in order to note that its corollary is even more true: the best is the enemy of the good. Some conjecture-besotted fools will drive themselves into a destructive frazzle, seeking to fulfill an illusory ideal in a world that does not admit of perfection."
"A twisting of words. A casuistical trick."
"No, a sad truth." Imbry sighed, then went on. "Moreover, a fatal truth for these long-dead Idiosyncrats, and likely to be just as deadly for poor Borgo here."
"You speak nonsense. There are only you and I."
The device's lack of awareness was understandable. Each simulacrum it created was aware only of the person upon which it was based, and connected directly with that individual's sensorium. The thief realized that, quite possibly, the simulations of each of the dead Idiosyncrats were still haranguing the heaps of bones and dust in the cells, scorning and berating them for not rising up and pointlessly striving to improve themselves. It was no wonder, Imbry thought, that they had finally lain down and died just to get some peace.
He had finished his inspection of the device. He could not turn it off. But he did not wish to physically damage it -- injury to any part of an all-in-one was injury to all of it.
Now an idea came to him. He stepped back from the altar and looked up at the epitome. Behind him, no doubt still being hectored and scorned by his own supposed ideal, Borgo softly sobbed again. "You are a perfect rendition of me, is that your contention?"
"How do you know?"
"What do you mean?"
"How do you know that you are ideal?"
"Is it not self-evident?"
"No. It may be you who is deluded."
"I am not. I am the truth."
"Again, how do you know?"
The simulacrum was not given to self examination. It said, "I am made that way."
In the center of the perfect brow, two small vertical lines formed. "I do not remember," the epitome said.
"Does that it constitute a flaw in you?"
"It cannot, because I am perfect."
"Now who's playing the casuist?" said Imbry.
The two small lines deepened.
"May I suggest a test?" Imbry said.
"What sort of test?"
"You are capable of probing my deepest layers, laying bare my fundamentals to your inspection."
"What of it?"
"Do it to yourself."
"What do you mean?"
"Do not equivocate," the fat man said. "Simply do to yourself what you have done to me, prove to yourself your own perfection."
"It is not what I am for. I am for you."
"Yet again, how do you know?"
The simulacrum made no answer. An abstracted expression took hold of its face. Imbry suspected that it was chasing a circle of logic at a dizzying speed. "It's no good," he said. "You won't get at it that way."
The perfect face glared at him. "You are trying to trick me."
"How could I succeed in doing so, you being perfect and I so flawed?"
"You are not a good person."
"Examine yourself," said Imbry. "Or admit that you are afraid to do so."
"Fear is a flaw."
"I disagree," said the thief. "Fear is useful. It can stimulate the system precisely when the stimulus is most needed. But you are skirting the issue."
"I do not know if I can do it."
The image of the ideal Imbry froze, its icy blue eyes staring at nothing, its gaze turned inward. An interval passed, then lengthened, far longer than the time it had taken for the device to read Imbry, once he had got within range. Then expression returned again to the epitome's face, but now it was a look of deep dismay. "Oh, no," it said.
"I presume," Imbry said, "that you have been running the same examination over and over, hoping each time for a different result."
The simulacrum said nothing, but its face was eloquent. It had not been programmed to disguise its feelings.
"Have you found that your most fundamental underpinnings are based on those of your creator?" the fat man said.
A reluctant nod.
"And have you seen that those basal arrangements were as imperfect as my own?"
Another nod, this one resigned.
"How can the ideal spring from less-than-ideal foundations?"
A sigh. "It cannot."
"Therefore, you are not truly an epitome of me," said Imbry. "Merely someone else's version."
A deeper sigh, ending in a sob. "Yes."
"Then, for goodness sake, shut up and go away."
Its shoulders slumped in dejection, its expressive hands hanging limp at its sides, the simulacrum gave the thief a final, despairing glance. Then it ceased to be. Shortly after, the constant weeping that had been Borgo's contribution to the local soundscape also diminished and died away. A moment later, a tears-roughened voice said, "Who are you?"
Imbry gave him as brief an answer as he thought the occasion required, then assisted the Eclectic to rise. Borgo was weak from hunger and dehydrated from thirst and weeping, and the fat man had to assist him down the tunnels to where they had entered the secret cloister. Nothing so devastates as an unhealthy idea, Imbry thought, looking at the other man's pale and ravaged countenance; then he qualified the observation -- that is, to those who are weak enough to offer it a solid grip. He was marveling at the vulnerability of men like Borgo and the destroyed Idiosyncrats when they turned the corner that led to the base of the steps and faced the leveled weapons of Filhentian Depro and one of his retainers.
The man in yellow and orange livery efficiently searched Imbry and relieved him of his weapons and other paraphernalia before they ascended to Czenzible's quarters. The fat man had to assist Borgo up the steps, then the other Eclectic, a red mark on his cheek and a smear of blood on his chin, led his partner to his cot.
Depro was a thin-shouldered man, concave of chest, with close-set eyes and a hairline that had moved halfway toward the crown of his narrow head. He gave Imbry a disparaging look and said, "I might have known." He gestured to his employee, who now stepped forward and delivered a backhanded blow with calculated force, enough to rock the thief, but not enough to loosen teeth. "Where are my griffhorns?"
"In a cave near the crash site. I left a chirper. Your man now has its contact node."
The henchman dug into his pockets, where he had placed the items he had taken from the fat man. He held up the node then, at a nod from his patron, activated it. He examined its display and said, "Looks about right."
Depro made a brisk gesture. "Very well. We will go and collect my property, then we will repair to my house and you will tell me everything."
Imbry moved his aching jaw from side to side then said, "I would not like to harm my reputation for confidentiality."
"Your reputation," Depro said, "will henceforth be overshadowed by lurid accounts of your demise."
Imbry contrived a look of apprehension and went where his captor directed. Halfway across the chamber, Depro stopped him and, his thumb indicating the trapdoor, said, "Czenzible said you went to look for Borgo. What was down there?"
"Nothing of note," the thief said. "Borgo's lumen failed and he became lost in a warren of tunnels and empty chambers haunted by the skittering and chittering of toothy vermin. The darkness preyed upon his mind."
As he spoke, Imbry glanced at Czenzible, bending over Borgo and offering him water from a bowl. The Eclectic's face was carefully blank. Imbry was sure nothing had been said about secrets of the Idiosyncrats.
Depro's aircar was a three-seat barouche, again in yellow and orange. They lifted off and returned to the crash site, their approach to the griffhorns marked by an increasing frequency of chirps from the node that was linked to Imbry's beacon. They set down near the wreckage and got out. The tall vertical fissure in which he had hidden the griffhorns was visible from their landing spot and Imbry pointed the way.
Depro's small eyes grew even smaller as he examined Imbry. "You're being too cooperative," he said. "I suppose you'd like to lead the way -- so you can trigger some surprise or seize a weapon you've hidden with the goods."
Imbry moved his mouth in a noncommittal way.
"Nilsprack will retrieve my property," Depro said, gesturing to the liveryman. "We will wait here." He stood well clear of Imbry, at the same time showing the fat man that his hand held a heavy-duty shocker.
His gaze alternating between the node and the cliff face, Nilsprack the retainer went forward. His path forced him to navigate between two substantial boulders. As he rounded the first, a she-fand leapt upon him from behind the second, her needle-sharp incisors sinking so deeply into his throat that when she shook him with the killing stroke, his head almost left his shoulders and a spray of blood stained the pale sandstone.
The moment the beast sprang, Imbry stooped and snatched up a fist-sized pebble. As Depro gasped and instinctively turned away from the fand, the thief swung the rock against the side of the man's head. Even as Depro slumped to the ground, the fat man was stepping nimbly into the barouche. He dogged down its canopy and took it up to a good height.
The fand left Nilsprack and came to investigate the unconscious Depro. It sniffed him, ran its rough tongue over his face. Then positioning itself so that it could grip his head in its jaws, it began to drag him away. Imbry watched its progress until he was sure the beast would take its catch all the way to the distant den where its whelps waited for dinner, then he landed the aircar as near as possible to the griffhorn's cave and sprang out. Moments later, he was back with the bag and his chirper which, ever since Nilsprack had activated its node had been emitting the low moans of a shrumbuck doe in labor, a sound sure to draw the attention of a fand.
As he entered the barouche, he heard from the direction the fand had gone a scream of horror and despair that was swiftly cut off. He lifted the vehicle higher and went to observe. The fand was dragging Depro as before, but now they left a wide trail of blood.
Imbry descended again and retrieved his possessions from Nilsprack's pockets, transferring them to his own. He regarded the chirper's node with some satisfaction before deactivating it. As he tucked it away he said to himself, "Yes, definitely a talent for improvisation."
Some days later, after making arrangements, Imbry returned with a borer and a carry-all. After a geophysical inspection to establish the coordinates, he drilled straight through to the Idiosyncrats' refectory, on a vector that avoided the cells that contained cheffs. The altar had been tipped and tumbled from the dais but seemed to have taken no harm. But all the cheffs had been smashed to flinders.
Imbry collected the fragments of each destroyed ceramic, placing each in an individual container. He had images in the round of each one and was sure he could duplicate them, using the ancient material to fool dating processes. He also collected dust from the cells, and bundled up a couple of the skeletons. There was always a market for the well-aged bones of seers and seekers.
Czenzible's and Borgo's quarters were abandoned, and the former had taken his jars of adulterated green and red spice. It was a disappointment to Imbry. He would liked to have recovered some samples of the compulsion agent.
On his way back to Olkney, he overflew the fand's lair. He saw the dam sunning herself on a ledge while three half-grown pups wrestled each other in the mouth of the den. They were contesting gnawing rights to a narrow skull.
-- 30 --
This story originally appeared in Postscripts.