Simon Kester's faded blue eyes followed Dr. Halon's puffy hands as they removed the sensors from his wrists, ankles, and major nerve centers. Wires from the sensors led to a wall-enclosed diagnostic computer. Halon let the wires retract, leaving only the sensors neatly aligned, ready for the next patient.
"Medicine is now on a par with industry," Halon said while he waited for the quietly chuckling machine to produce the customary thick sheaf of papers. "The auto industry really started it—with comparatively
simple testers to locate engine troubles. The advance in
electro-chemistry-biology has enabled the medical profession to develop this complete physical analysis machine."
"Seems to me, Industry's still ahead—in the spare-parts line."
Simon's voice was harsh. He sat up, donned his tunic.
The doctor flushed, "Births still exceed the death rate. And only from the dead or dying can we get organs, or 'spare parts,' in your words. For every heart, or set of lungs, or arm available, there're two dozen real or fancied emergencies demanding the 'part'. It takes a long time to grow people, and longer until their organs become available for transplant."
"Hear tell there're ways to get parts, you got the money." Simon stood up, still tall but beginning to bend with the years. Bony hands buckled on his harness complete with dagger and shortsword; the banning of firearms in Kester's infancy had brought about the revival of cold steel for personal protection. '"Also, hear this . . . Stroud, that his name? . . . can grow new parts from old, without waiting for a death."
"Let's talk this over in the office." Halon jerked the sheets of graphs and data from the mouth of the now-quiet computer.
Simon followed, noting the typical pear-shape of the desk man; the unsteady walk. There was a something about Halon, and his shakiness. Could be nerves; when Simon had first entered the office there was a slight lingering smell of exotic perfume. Simon wondered who was behind the door set into the paneling on the right wall.
"Vintage '94, from what was California. Not the best year, but a high alcohol content." Halon handed a glass from the autobar to Simon, took one for himself. "Go ahead, Simon, relax a bit." Halon gulped his wine, poured another glass, sat down to the report.
Simon sipped his drink appreciatively, savoring the mellow-sharp taste. He watched Halon; the shakiness, Simon noted, was leaving the doctor, now. Simon had looked long for a doctor; Halon had seemed the man, but it began to appear the doctor enjoyed the good things of life
a bit too much. Simon smacked his lips over another sip of wine, glanced again at the door.
"This place is spy-ray proof; besides, nothing goes out of here." Halon looked up from the report, dialed another glass.
Simon shook his head; his glass was still half full.
"Simon, you've somewhere between six weeks and six months to live."
"That short?" Simon had expected something of the sort; but in the face of the reality he handed his glass forward for a refill. "Doctor, granted I'm ninety-four; but I've never had a transplant, never spent a day in the hospital. At my age, I don't have to wear weapons but I've yet to see a man walk away from a challenge to me." Simon gulped down the wine; already he was beginning to feel the effects; he knew he was talking too much.
"Simon," Halon regarded him narrowly, "ever read 'The One Horse Shay?, I think that's the title."
"The . . . poem, isn't it? Probably way back when, in school. Don't go much for poetry."
"Well, it is about a shay—buggy that was so well constructed no one part was stronger than another. Came the day, though, when it fell apart—all at once. You're like that buggy. When you go, it'll be all at once. No new heart will do the job, or liver—you need the whole works.
You need a complete, live body."
"A whole body?" Simon almost whispered the words. Why, a heart, or a hand, alone, would put the ordinary citizen into debt for years. A whole body. Even if obtainable he doubted he had that much money, frugal as he had been all his life.
"While you're thinking, forget Stroud. I doubt he can do as you said—if
he could, we of the medical profession would have known of it. And if he can, the Guild will soon put him out of business. They make too much out of spare parts."
Simon knew of the Rocky Mountain Spare Parts Guild; an organization that had grown wealthy and powerful enough so that its openly-hired heavys were engaging in duels, with the Guild using the slain bodies as sources of parts. Maybe ...
Halon seemed to read his thoughts: "Take my advice and don't get mixed up with the Guild. I did, just once. With Guildmaster Levitt. Took me two years to pay him off—almost lost my Medic standing a few times, over some of his deals.
"Simon, you're physically capable and mentally sharp. Just bring me a nice, young body. I'll do the rest. Brain transplant is one of the easiest; though, naturally, it isn't talked about and not even publicly known."
"What's your price?" Simon knew Halon had him hooked.
"Just bring along another body, for me." Halon laughed at the look
on Simon's face. The liquor had brought back the doctor's humor. "I'm tired of this hulk, Simon." He patted his paunch. "Besides, it can't last much longer under the treatment I give it."
Simon believed that; he had seen the effect of the liquor. Coupled with the perfume, Simon made a downward revision of his earlier estimate of Halon's age.
"And when you get the two, just come here. But remember, Simon, they have to be young—and alive." Halon paused, studied Simon. "It's a deal?"
"Well, two seems .....Simon trailed off.
"Six weeks to six months. Personally, I'd say closer to six weeks."
"Deal." The words were reluctant. Simon felt he might know how to get one, but to bring two—at one time . . .
Halon stood up, extending his hand, breaking into Simon's train of thought: "My usual office fee." Halon named a figure.
Grumbling under his breath, Simon paid. Then he straightened his tunic, loosed his shortsword in its sheath, and walked out into the street.
Bright sun slashed through the thin mountain air. Simon stood for a moment, letting his eyes adjust to the glare after the cool light of the office. At this upper level of the city, the doctor's office was in a restricted-by-wealth area; here, there were even sidewalks that did not move. Overhead the stream of varied-level air traffic flowed constantly, seemingly in a bewildering crisscrossing of flights but in reality rigidly restricted to course, altitude, and speed. From habit, Simon glanced around. The walks were free of pedestrians; no moving vehicles on the street. The freedom from the seething crowds, as well as Halon's dubious reputation, had made Simon seek out the doctor. Here, too, he could park his heli on the blacktop of this upper level; not on some crowded roof-deck. The openness and the wealth of the area made it reasonably safe for a man alone.
Not that any armed man was truly safe. The Guild—and the free-lancers
tolerated because their prey could be bought cheaply by the Guild and sold dearly—had heavys constantly on the prowl to challenge. Alone or in pairs they were picked swordsmen, deadly; and, having dispatched their quarry, would have the body picked up immediately by one of the ever-cruising Guild ships. Eventually, the body would be sold piecemeal to a population demanding more and more transplants. Briefly, the thought of finding a victim in the teeming throngs on the levels below crossed Simon's mind; then he dismissed it.
Simon would be of no value—not as parts—and the only problem was that,
should he meet Guild heavys, the killers would not know that. In spite of his years, his appearance was that of a man past the prime but with several decades left. One or two swordsmen, he minded not; but in this isolated spot he did not care to run into a hunting party. So he hurried
toward the parking lot, and his heli. Abruptly, he stopped at the lot entrance.
On the ground, a ways from his copter, lay a heavy; dead, from the slackness of the body. Two heavys masked had a man backed against Simon's copter; evidently, the man had slain one, and was holding the others at bay. Simon stepped back, wanting no part of this just as the heavys drew back, revealing the defender. Instantly, Simon drew his shortsword, raced silently toward the group, holding a finger to his lips to caution the slim, dark-haired youth with bloodied sword. The thought had flashed across his mind that this might be the beginning again; with it, he acted. At the last moment his foot dislodged a chip from the sun-warmed asphalt; the slight sound of its skittering across the blacktop caused the nearer of the two heavys to whirl, sword point raised.
Steel met steel; Simon noted no blood on the other's sword. At the first exchange, Simon was disappointed in his opponent. The heavy was good; he knew all the tricks; and the daggered left hand was a constant threat. But the heavy had not been born with lightning reflexes, nor had fourscore years experience at the game, in the bargain. Simon parried easily on the defensive, while he watched the youth, now definitely on the attack. The boy—he was hardly more than that—was fast; almost
as fast as Simon. What he lacked in the polish and skill, that comes from a lifetime of the deadly game, he made up in speed. His sword glinted brightly in the sun, raining blows interspersed with thrusts, keeping the trained heavy on the defensive, driving the killer back.
Abruptly Simon had seen enough; concentrated on his man. He parried skillfully, lunged, and shifted to the offensive. In the abrupt switch the heavy recognized the change. Simon could read the man's foreknowledge of death on the other's face. Simon feinted, leaving himself apparently wide open. As the heavy struck, Simon was aside, then in, with sword-point moving upward through stomach, lungs, and into beating heart. As quickly as he had driven the blade home, Simon freed it from the falling body and turned with dripping steel to the other pair.
The boy struck and slashed, great overhand blows that sparked against the heavy's hard-put blade; then, cat-quick, the boy shifted his attack. He lunged, buried his point full in the chest of his opponent. The man's upraised blade hung motionless momentarily, then dropped to the ground as its erstwhile wielder crumpled. Simon bent, wiped his blade on the fallen tunic, sheathed his sword.
"Move it, fast!" A glance around, then upward; a squat, heavy copter without insignia, or marking, was drifting down through the traffic pattern, growing larger momentarily. Without an instant of hesitation, Simon tumbled the youth through the door that, keyed to Kester's body-pattern, opened at his presence. Simon leaped in, threw the switch,
and shoved the heli upward without the customary warm-up; played with the throttle as the cold engines balked, then settled down to a steady hum. He flipped the view-screen on, gestured at the large copter settling down in the parking lot they had just left.
"Don't waste time," he muttered as, with the heavys loaded, the ship lifted.
"After us?" Blue eyes under dark brows questioned.
"Yep. Have trouble shaking them, too; they've got the motor and the range on us. We've got a quicker getaway, though; and if worst comes to worst, a couple of surprises, back there." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. Where in a normal craft would have been a seating area, a bulkhead left just room for the two dash seats. Simon threaded his way from level to level, shifting directions with each change to match the flight of planes that were thick as migrating geese.
"What's your name?"
"Lars." Evidently the boy was as chary of words as he was agile of foot.
"Simon. Simon Kester." No harm in giving his name, Simon thought grimly. "How old are you?" Behind them, and below, the unmarked ship inexorably threaded their shifting course. Simon won to the highspeed lane, hurtling south and west over the Colorado Springs-Denver-Cheyenne city complex that spread west from almost-timberline on the front range to what had once been the Colorado-Kansas line.
"Sort of young to be wearing steel."
"Not so young!" Lars flared. "So maybe I can't vote for a year—I had
one of them done before you came, and would have done the others, too!" Simon tried to place the accent; it wasn't of the City.
"Normally the Guild won't fight the unfranchised. Long as you wear steel, though, they'll figure you're old enough."
"Yorkopolis, you wear it or wind up in a freezer." So the youth came from the sprawling inter-linked eastern network of cities; a stranger here. It would be hard to trace him. As for the weapons, Simon thought, Lars was right. What few police there were were kept busy in traffic regulation and attempted to enforce the, no-firearms law. It was every man for himself, in what proudly claimed to be a highly technological and also cultured society.
Simon studied the viewer. The Guild copter was gaining slightly. He studied the nearing shape, finally determining the probable type of armament it carried. Undoubtedly heavy enough to fight off a couple of police cruisers, if need be. Simon put his craft on a down-glide, poured on full power. By now, they were well over the mountains of the Central Rockies, but still within the limits of the city-state. He aimed for a deep canyon between two peaks, piloting breakneck just above the
tops of the pines, the crags on either side jutting high above toward the clear brilliance of an afternoon mountain sky. Behind came the hunter, higher now and gaining enough to soon be above them. Simon flipped a switch.
"They've got us, down here." Lars's voice was flat, devoid of emotion. The Guild ship was almost directly above, anticipating their twisting course. From the higher elevation the other pilot could see the canyon ahead, know what the fleeing craft's next moves had to be to keep from crashing into the mountainside. And for a mile ahead, there was no room for side-maneuvering.
"Look straight ahead—see anything?"
"Seems a little hazy," Lars said. "Now—it's gone."
"Not haze." Simon answered. A stream of tracers poured from the Guild ship, to spray and corruscate like molten metal of a hearth from the force field Simon had activated. For what was seconds, but seemed hours, generators whined to keep the field constant against the impact of the 20-mm's; then the spilling of tracers abruptly stopped. Simon flicked the switch off.
"Now, it's my turn," he grunted. "Force field off—here goes!" He
pressed a firing-stud. A red lance of rocket laced upward from Simon's copter; slowly at first, then gaining speed, it arced toward the Guild ship. Simon flipped the force field on; the haze built up, vanished. He poured power to the engine. The little ship literally shot down the canyon as the Guild ship sought to evade the seeker-missile.
"We're too close," he gritted, knuckles white on the controls. "Got to get around that turn, get the hill between us and—"
The explosion balled fire in the sky where the Guild ship had been. The shock wave hit the copter, just short of the shielding hill; tossed it as a fall leaf in October gale, down into the valley. Lars caught the seat for a moment, then was torn loose, slammed against a wall. Simon managed to hang onto the controls a moment longer. The ship smashed into the pines, plowing a giant furrow through the green. Battered and broken, the ship lay half-buried in the hillside while the mighty explosion dwindled away in fading echoes among the mountain peaks.
Idly, Cain envied the fur on hi; pair of hunting cheetahs, for the wind blew chill through the valley The piled snow glinting high in the sun on the peaks noted the foretaste of winter, though the grass in this particular high meadow had not yet been frost-touched. Ahead, the man who had dropped from the now gone chopper was working up a slick slope, scrambling and slipping as foot slid on a loose rock or a pine cone. City type, thought Cain; first time in the mountains, probably. With a gliding movement Cain drew backwards, out of sight of the laboring stranger, and with a soundless command to the cheetahs began a steady trot to the ridge line. The shortsword belted about his tunic moved
smoothly with the rhythm of his stride, not slapping as with the ordinary runner. Ghosting along in the cover of scrub and pine came the cats.
Shaded by the ponderosa and blended into the scanty brush Cain listened to the sounds of the climber. An occasional profane ejaculation; the heavy panting of a man not used to the thin air of the high country. Then the heavily-clothed man made his way to the comparative level of the ridge and sank to the ground, breath rasping in his throat. He was loaded with a heavy pack; slung with binoculars, shortsword, and a radio. Across his shoulder was a rifle.
A rifle. Cain reconsidered. Even with his speed, he would have to be careful—he watched as the man shrugged out of the pack and carelessly tossed the rifle on it, to begin working with the radio. Or maybe not so careful; the man had the looks of a heavy. As such, he would not be too used to the rifle; he would go for his sword in a surprise encounter, out of habit. Motionless as the stony outcropping of the mountain itself, Cain listened.
"Silver from Indigo. Silver from Indigo."
"Indigo, this is Silver. Go ahead." Cain's ears picked up the faint answer from the receiver.
"In position. Any further instructions?"
"Indigo from Silver. Will return for you in two days, unless you find business for us. Silver out."
The man shoved the rifle off his pack, opened the straps, and slipped the radio inside. He straightened, began a slow, circular look of the area. Cain began a silent movement. To the west, the heavy scanned the snowcapped peaks, gleaming white in contrast to the blue dark beneath. North and east, at a lower level and hazed with distance, lay the metropolis; an occasional glint from sun on Metal showing through the pall of smog that ballooned to the horizon. He swung east, toward the crest of the hill, and stared into the face of Cain, only a few feet away. Immobile in the underbrush, the cheetahs flanked Cain, blending into the spotty patches of sun and shade. For a moment the heavy froze; then clawed his sword from its sheath, dropped into the fighter's crouch. Cain waited, barehanded, until the sword flicked at him like a glinting serpent in the sun, then moved under the lunge, caught the heavy, and hurled him into the brush. Two silent streaks moved as one; a short, choked scream; and only occasionally did a sound of tearing flesh rise above the whisper of wind in the ponderosa.
Cain was at the pack almost before the heavy hit the ground. He surveyed the contents: rations, radio, sleeping bag, and spy-ray. For a moment he was tempted to experiment with the spy-ray; then he carefully closed the pack, to leave it as it had been dropped. He wanted no sign of his presence; with frost quite probable any night two days would erase any latent prints of his having been on the scene.
All that would remain would be the torn body of the heavy.
As he stood up, the cats slouched out of the brush. A quick glance at red-tinged muzzles and Cain knew the job was done. He verified this while the cats did a quick cleanup; then the trio moved silently out of the area, down-slope, and to the laboratory-cavern of Dr. Stroud.
Cain and the cheetahs threaded their way through the laboratory to the workroom in the rear of the cavern refuge. His senses told him Stroud would be there; together with the more-than-animals he stood for a moment and watched the elderly doctor busy at the electronics bench. One of the cats padded forward; Stroud looked up.
"You're back." A welcome was in the doctor's voice for the man he had rebuilt from a few assorted bits of flesh. Yet there was a sadness that he had built Cain apart from the human race. In the rebuilding Stroud had bettered Cain, physically; yet he could not add the spark, the soul, of the true human.
"Doctor, there has been two spy-probes in the last two days." Cain's voice was even, devoid of emotion."On the second probe—today—the copter
dropped a man and a spy device in the canyon, to the south." One of the cheetahs rubbed against Stroud; they, too, were products of his rebuild-and-change genius. Retaining the speed and skill of the cheetah, yet they had the size and staying power of the wolf hound. The ancients had used cheetahs in war; Stroud had found his easy to train and highly efficient guards. He stroked the shoulder of the cat, abruptly drew away his hand.
"Blood?" He showed Cain a spot of red wetness on his palm, coagulating to brown. Cain nodded; looked at the cheetahs. For a moment they both met his icy gaze with slitted yellow eyes, then obediently began a thorough washup.
"The visitor was taken care of," said Cain dismissing the incident. "I am certain the probes did not discover anything; our shield was not penetrated." Cain referred to the shielding of the cavern that served Stroud for a laboratory and a home. A force field would bounce back a spy-probe, and be a dead giveaway. Stroud, rather than use a force field, had begun with the principle that every material gives off its own peculiar radiation. From this basic principle, he had produced a radiation camouflage that, under the most intense instrument survey, would appear to be a solid mountain; no indication of the giant cavern or its entrance. The only fear was that somewhere there might exist a record of this cave, and that the wrong someone would find the record. With the gradual withdrawal of the mountain dwellers to the city on the false theory of safety in numbers, this seemed a remote possibility. In any event, it would have to be faced when it occurred.
"The last two days." Stroud strummed his fingers on the bench, thoughtfully. "And Lars is two days overdue. Any connection, do you
"Possibly—but improbable. Many things could delay Lars. I think Levitt is looking for you. Or, he could be on a random sweep of the area on the chance of finding victims for his parts-bank. I'm leaving now to check on Lars; I should be back before the copter comes to pick up our erstwhile visitor, in two days. Which reminds me—don't feed the
cheetahs; they're full."
"You let them . . ." Stroud looked at the blood now-dark on his palm, wiped it off with hard, short motions.
"Had to leave a valid reason for his death. He was a heavy; would have killed either of us without a thought."
"Death—always death—when I try to give life." Stroud shook his head, weariness in his tone.
"Man is man's worst enemy—except for Cain." Cain turned toward the
"Wait." Stroud handed Cain a small pouch-shaped package. "Try this on. You can't take the cheetahs into town, but this might come in handy. Put it on your belt and flick the lever." Cain did so. Momentarily a slight haze formed, to shimmer and disappear. Stroud picked up a small block of metal, tossed it at Cain. It arced through the air, then inches from the big man's form bounced as from a wall, fell to the floor. Stroud picked it up, hurled it harder; the third time he threw it with all his strength.
"It works!" Stroud was jubilant. Cain pointed to his ears, shook his head. Stroud tapped his own sword. Cain drew his shortsword, thrust at the rock of the cavern wall; struck again, harder. This time a slight crazing of the rock showed ground powder falling to the floor. Curious, one of the cheetahs glided over to Cain, recoiled as his nose hit the force field. The cat pawed, sniffed; then, curiosity satisfied, went back to cleaning his coat.
"Air gets a little stale in there." Cain flicked the field off. "The field seems to 'round' the edge of a sword. If I took a deep breath before turning it on, though. I could stay active from five to eight minutes; longer by a factor of seven if I were quiet and slowed my metabolic rate." He stared thoughtfully at the packet. "How long will this sustain a field?"
"At least an hour. As for air—a simple renewal kit would do the trick."
"Design one into a complete unit. For now, this will serve; I'll take it. I just might need a little more help."
"Any particular plans?"
"Check at the port for Lars—or news of him. And I have to see Levitt. I must let the Guild know I no longer do their work." Cain settled the pouch on his belt, checked his shortsword and dagger, and walked with Stroud into the laboratory. The vast cavern was filled with
aquarium-like tanks, each connected simply to the complex machinery in the metal bases with a few tubes and wires. Stroud stopped at one, containing a pair of hands. Small hands; those of a child.
"Remember Lars's little nephew—the night in the gully?" Cain nodded;
an ambush, initially foiled by Stroud, had saved the man, woman, and child who were seeking Stroud's aid. Cain had arrived in time to prevent the capture of the entire group by the Guild. And that night Cain had decided to sever his connection with the Guild and work with Stroud.
"Well, he'll grow up with only memories of the stumps he now has—when
we make the graft, next month." Stroud was quietly pleased. The doctor had taken cells from the infant's arms, and grown complete, new hands. Without waiting for another child to die; or, as was becoming increasingly common, to be murdered.
"That is why Lars is coming. To work with you."
"No, you," Cain corrected him. "Iam Cain—with all the dark
connotations from antiquity in my name and my work. Death is my realm—not
life. I could no more pursue a complex, long-time study such as your work than could the cheetahs. You, who changed me while giving me life, should know. I serve in my way. Lars, Lars can take your side and eventually your place. He, too, will need the assistance I can give. So now—to find Lars. Also, perhaps, work as fits my name."
Cain made his way directly to the desk of the line on which Lars was scheduled to arrive. The sallow clerk behind the counter briefly thumbed through his manifest list, affirmed Lars's arrival.
"Did you notice if he was met?"
"All I know, papers say he got here." The clerk made a gesture, looking beyond Cain. Cain half-turned, instinctively picked out the two heavys from the milling concourse crowd. They headed for the desk.
"Having trouble?" One asked the clerk. Studiously, they both avoided looking at Cain.
"This gentleman seems to be curious." The clerk nodded at Cain. So far, thought Cain, all was within the code; nothing had been said that could lead to challenge and duel. He recognized one of the heavys, thought quickly. The two turned toward Cain. The eyes of the one widened slightly; recognition was mutual.
"Guildsman Cain!" Abruptly, the heavy swung back to the clerk. He reached across the counter, grabbed the clerk by the tunic, and jerked him halfway out of his cubicle. "Now, talk! If Cain wants answers, give!"
"Wh . . . what do you want to know?” If possible, the clerk's face was grayer than before. The clerk had his tunic pulled tight around his chest; all he could do was strain for breath and look straight ahead.
"How was he dressed?"
"Green tunic . . . gold-brown harness . .. shortsword and dagger."