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Monster of the Maze

By Elaine Rice,2014-11-04 20:22
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The Richard Blade novels were a series of adventures featuring the titular character (MI6A's special agent Richard Blade), who was teleported into a random alternate dimension at the beginning of each novel and forced to rely on his wits and strength. Richard Blade was distinctly British, and all the stories are set in England (at least at the beginning and end, with Blade being teleported to some other dimension for the bulk of each tale). Published by Pinnacle Books (Mm) on 1972/08/14

Monster of the Maze

    ?Jeffrey Lord

Book 6 of the Richard Blade Series

    Chapter 1

    Richard Blade had not given much thought to getting bald. He was too young and his hair muchtoo luxurious, though well kept and clipped, for such worries. Old age, senility, the palsiedpace-all that was years in the future. If he lived. If he made this final trip through thegreat computer and came back alive.

    But at the moment he was bald. He was wearing a most expensive toupee-courtesy of Her Majesty'sGovernment-and beneath his shorn skull, implanted in the dura mater enveloping his left frontallobe, was a paper-thin wafer of crystal. Blade's brain was in direct communication with LordLeighton's computer. That monster, really a connected bank of nine 7th-generation computers,was telling Blade exactly what to do. At the precise moment it directed him to leave BayswaterRoad at Marble Arch and stroll down Park Lane to Piccadilly, then to his right to WellingtonPlace and into Constitution Hill and past Buckingham Palace into the Mall. He was headed forthe Thames now, and the tang of salt and the sludgy smell of oily mud mingled with the fumes ofa million cars.

    No stranger, nor even a friend, could have guessed that Blade was at the moment little morethan an automaton; and this was not, in the usual sense, true. The computer, directed by LordL, was directing his steps, but in no other way did it interfere with his sentience. He smiledback at the pretty miniskirted birds that smiled at him-and many did-and walked briskly on. Hewas still Richard Blade, never mind the sliver of crystal in his brain, and he was a handsomeand superbly conditioned young giant. He had been through the computer five times and was soonto go for the sixth and last time and then his life would be his own again. He could go back toworking for J and MI6, instead of for Lord L and MI6A, and never in all his thirty years had hebeen happier about anything. It was nearly over. One more time into the dangerous mystery andit was over-he had done his time in hell, served England and St. George and Westerncivilization and all the other rot, and he would be alive and his own man and free of it all.

    Blade came to Northumberland Avenue and turned toward the river. It was an early November day,dour and with what the Scots call a louring sky, and dusk was falling. The amber-silver splashof car lights on Hungerford Bridge was incessant. He came to the Victoria Embankment and swungto his left toward Blackfriars. When he reached the Temple Steps he halted and stood at therail, gazing out at the busy river, here known as King's Reach, and watched the tugs bullytheir barges to and fro and admitted that, to a point, Lord L's experiment with the braincrystal was a success. He had just walked the route chosen by his Lordship, who at the momentwas in his lab far below the Tower of London. Lord L, using an ordinary street map of London,had penciled a route and fed it into his computer and Blade had obeyed. He had, of course, beencooperating. He had exercised no volition of his own. He felt sure now, as he realized that thecomputer control had ended, that he could have broken away from the machine at any time hechose. Or could he?

    Richard Blade grinned, shrugged his big shoulders and went in search of a taxi. At that hour inLondon it was not easy and, as he turned back toward Waterloo and then over to the Strand,hailing cab after cab with no luck, it occurred to him that here was a minor irony. Blade wasthe only man in the world, the only man born, ever to escape his own dimension and go out intoX, into spaces that the ordinary mortal was not even capable of conceiving, and he could notget a taxi.

    As he waited impatiently at the curb on the Strand, a group of youths approached and demanded"something for the Guy." They had blacked their faces and wore rags and tatters and carriedbags of chalk dust to mark those who did not pay.

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    and more he had come to dislike Lord L, and all scientists, and he had struggled against it andlost.

    Now he said, "Funk it, Richard? Not you. You never funked anything in your life, much less amission of this importance."

    "I might this one," said Blade. He smiled at J. Theirs was very nearly a father-and-sonrelationship. Blade was fond of the older man even though they were opposite types and thegeneration gap was great. J was dry as dust, Establishment to the core, something of a fussyold woman in dress and manner-and as much a genius as Lord L in his own line of work. He was asecurity man, head of MI6 and also of MI6A, the special security branch created for Project DX.He did his job superbly and hated it. As he spoke again he found himself almost wishing thatBlade would funk it, would drop out and refuse the upcoming mission. They had a new man on tap,a trainee, and though he was no Richard Blade he would do.

    Lord Leighton said: "Look, my boy. You don't really understand the problems. The telemetry isworking, and the laser microprogramming is coming along, but there is still a tremendous amountof work to be done on the encephalographic code. And that is the crux of the whole matter! Whatwe have just done, directing your route this afternoon by computer impulses, is primitivecompared to what I hope to do. I tell you, Richard, the possibilities are limitless. There isliterally no end-"

    "And that," said J dryly and with some malice, "is just the trouble. There never is any end toit, Lord L. There never will be, if you have your way. In any case, I'm sure that Dick has hisreasons for wanting to start the mission now"

    They were in the office suite far below the Tower of London. All three men were at presentliving there. J had given up his comfortable quarters on Half Moon Street and Blade had closedhis flat in Kensington. His Lordship, though he owned a house in Prince's Gate, had to allintents and purposes lived under the Tower since the missions into Dimension X began. It wasJ's private opinion that Lord L would have slept with his precious computers if possible.

    They were waiting for his answer. Lord L left his chair and shuffled about, looking frail andwith his hump grotesque beneath his smock. Blade recognized the implicit appeal and steeledhimself-he had seen it all before: Lord L representing himself as an old man, an aging geniusabout to die, a poor old fellow with a polio-wracked body who must be granted this last favor.Let things be done his way, just this last time.

    J also recognized the gambit and his smile was icy. He nodded to Blade. "Speak up, Dick. Youhave never complained before, or tried to interfere in any way. You have obeyed orders, keptyour mouth shut and performed splendidly. Surely you must have your reasons now. We'relistening."

    The trouble was that Blade could not put his finger on it, really could not explain thefeeling, the hunch or intuition, or whatever you wanted to call it, that had swept over him sosuddenly when he leaped into the taxi. One moment it had not been there. The next moment itwas. The urge to go, to begin the mission. It was almost as though the computer itself, workingthrough the crystal in his brain, had spoken to him.

    Blade did the best he could. "It is a feeling I have," he told them. "A strong, an overpoweringfeeling, that I should go now. I can't name it and I won't try, but it's there. I think I hadbetter obey it."

    Lord L snorted and said something vulgar. He was given to bad language when thwarted.

    J nodded and smiled and said, "If you feel that strongly about it, my dear boy, by all means Ithink you should go. As soon as you like. I see no drawbacks, no reason for delay. The PrimeMinister need not be consulted, though he will have to be informed after the fact. So I think-"

    "Who gives a bloody good goddamn about the Prime Minister!"

    Lord L hobbled around and around his desk. His thin white hair floated atop his pink skull andhis leonine eyes had a baleful gleam. He pointed a graphite-stained finger at J.

    "You know what you can bloody well do with the PM! It is my experiment I'm concerned with. Thisis our last chance, damn it. You know that, J. After this mission they will cut off our funds,and that will be the end of Project DX. It's a shame, a crime, a criminal waste and worsestupidity, but that is what they will do."

    J crossed his tweedy knees, blew on his pipe and gave the old man an insincere smile. "Maybenot. Not if we bring back some treasure this time."

    Lord L clenched a gnarled fist and shook it at the ceiling. "Treasure shit. Those fools canonly think in terms of material things-gold, platinum, gems, uranium! Stupid pots that can'tsee beyond their noses. Project DX is treasure, damn it. The greatest discovery ever made byman. DX makes the moon landings look like a row on the Thames. We send a man into newdimensions, into dimensions that people do not even know exist, cannot conceive of existing,and we get him back safely. Five times we have done this, and those misbegotten bastards wantto close us down because we aren't showing a profit. Suppose the Americans had thought so-theywould never have landed on the moon!"

    "A nation of shopkeepers," J said smugly. "Profit or we don't play." He began to ream his pipe.The worst was over. Lord L had forgotten his immediate displeasure with Blade, and with J, andhad taken off on the powers that be. The thing was-and J, even loathing the X missions as hedid, had to admit it-that the old man was right.

    The outburst was over. Lord L went back to his desk and slid into his chair like an old crab,easing his hump.

    Blade said: "About being out there five times, Lord L-I am the man who has done it and it hasbeen my intuition, my hunches, if you please, that have kept me alive more often than not. Ihave survived all those various hells because I have followed my instincts. I think I hadbetter follow my instinct now."

    The old man was making scribbles on onion-skin paper. He did not look up. "Very well. If youare so determined-it is your life, Richard, and you know best how to safeguard it. And, nomatter what J thinks, your safety has always been my chief concern. It was, in fact, my mainreason for implanting the crystal in your brain-so the machine could tap your stream ofconsciousness and, by means of the encephalographic code, give me a printout of your thoughtsat the very instant they were occurring. I would know, Richard, exactly what you were thinkingevery moment. I would be aware of every situation in which you found yourself. In times ofgreat danger I might be able to help by reversing the process and feeding my thoughts to youthrough the machine. Two heads are often better than one, Richard. It might save your life."

    Both Blade and J recognized the last appeal. The old man did not give up easily.

    Richard Blade went to a chair, sat down quietly and did not speak for a few minutes. He hadgiven much of himself to the DX experiments and he had not shirked duty. His body was stillintact, but for the myriad scars, and he was not mad. Yet his brain was not the same and neverwould be again. Each time the computer altered his brains cells, restructuring them so he couldperceive and exist in a new dimension, new deviation from the norm took place. The machinenever restored the cellular configuration to exactly what it had been. The Blade who sat inthis room now, thinking these thoughts, was as different from the Blade who had undertakenMission No. I as the puling infant Blade was different from the grown man who had graduatedOxford and gone straight into MI6. No help for it. But there was a law of averages. Once moreto the brink and let that be an end to it. He did not particularly fear the physical dangers,the battles he fought, the monsters he faced, the sexual exhaustion at times forced on him. Hefeared that his brain would be destroyed. He feared death, yes, but that was a secondary fear.Lord L and J . . . they could not dream of what it was like out there. He could not tell them.Words did not do the job. It was like war. You had to undergo it personally to know what it waslike.

    And there was this urge, this hunch or intuition, telling him to go now.

    He tried to tell them. He spoke briefly and saw, after a few moments, that even J did notunderstand. Lord L sulked and only half listened.

    Blade faced them. "So if you like, sir, I am refusing to obey an order." This to Lord L. "I gotonight, sir, or I do not go at all. You do have a backup man, after all, and maybe it would bebetter if-"

    Lord Leighton suddenly looked like a peevish child. He waved a pencil and said, "Come now, myboy. Nobody said anything about orders or any of that rot. Forget that. It is just that I am ascientist and I distrust intuition. But have it your way, by all means. I will make the settingon the machine-it may take me an hour or so before the cycle is right and then we will go. Byall means."

    The old man hobbled out of the room, mumbling to himself even as he fussed with a slide rule.

    J had his pipe going at last. He peered at Blade through blue smoke. "You are feeling allright, my dear boy?"

    Blade shrugged his massive shoulders. "Never better. In the pink. I really can't explain any ofthis, sir, except that somehow I know it is better to go now. Other than that I suppose it isjust another DX mission. Routine. I am sorry to upset Lord L's schedule, but it is the way Ifeel and-"

    J nodded. "You do as you damn well think best, boy. Don't let that bloody old boffin get toyou. He really can't help it, you know. He doesn't mean to be insensitive or inhuman-he justis! He is a scientist, not really a person."

    Blade had to chuckle. "Oh, come now, J. He really isn't all that bad."

    J very seldom used bad language. Now he said, "The hell he isn't. But as I say-he can't helpit. Well, lad, this is the last time out."

    "I hope so," Blade said. "I sincerely hope so, sir."

    And he did. He had had quite enough. Yet he knew that if there was a reason for more ventures,if duty called him, if his country needed him, he would go. He did not foresee the possibility,and never had he more devoutly wished that a circumstance would not arise. He had had it up tohis neck with Dimension X. He knew now what a bomber pilot must feel like before embarking onhis last mission before going home.

    J, his pipe steaming, had picked up a ruler and was tapping it on his palm. "You've beenworried about your mind, eh?"

    "A little, sir."

    J would never understand that, either. The nightmare of black sweat and screaming, the pitilessalcoholism, the raging drive of satyriasis, the double and triple vision and loss of memory,the old friends offended and the girls lost because he could not explain. The Official SecretsAct that bound him like a net.

    And the blackouts, the terrible and frightening blackouts. He had wakened once in Liverpoolwith some doxy by his side and absolutely no recollection of the events of the week before.True, he had sought help and it had been given by J and Lord L and the most famous specialistsin England-but it was not enough. There were times when a million famous doctors could not havehelped him.

    J said, "Lord L has always assured me that the machine restructures the brain cells, but itdoes not cause them to deteriorate."

    "I know."

    And he did know. He trusted and admired Lord L. And yet he did not really believe.

    Lord L hobbled back into the office and waggled a finger at Blade. "I have the cycle upcomingon the machine. Half an hour. You had better get ready. Unless-you've changed your mind?"

    "No," said Blade.

    J came to shake hands. "I don't believe I'll go with you to the computer room this time, mydear boy. Not in person, at least. But I will be-well, you know."

    "Of course, sir."

    They shook hands. "Bless and keep," said J.

    Lord L glanced at his wristwatch. "Best get a move on, lad. If we miss the cycle it will be alost twenty-four hours. And since you're so dead set on going now . . . ."

    Blade grinned. The old man died hard. "I am," he said. "Let's go."

    As Blade followed Lord L through the maze of corridors and past the various security checksinto the computer complex, he conceived the weird fantasy that Lord L was not really Lord L atall, but a white-smocked Apollyon leading him into the Pit. Which might well be. You neverknew, until you had gone through the computer and landed in Dimension X, whether it was to behell or paradise. In most cases it was a bit of both. Which this time, and in what proportions?

    They passed the final security check and walked amidst the smaller computers, heading for theroom that housed the monster machine that would launch Blade. All around him the lesser broodhummed and clicked and flashed and rang bells and made complex decisions in a billionth of asecond. The big man felt his usual antipathy taking over; he did not like computers and no usepretending he did. Now and then, when they passed a white-smocked figure in attendance, a humanbeing in charge of all these electronic brains, Blade felt a small positive charge of relief.The machine had not entirely taken over. Not yet.

    At last they came to the central room that housed the master computer. Lord L did what he hadnever done before: he followed Blade into the little disrobing cubicle. The old man talked asBlade stripped and donned a loincloth and began to smear himself with the tar salve thatprevented computer burns.

    Blade took off his toupee and flung it into a corner. His naked skull glistened blue in thefluorescent light. The toupee looked like some small dead animal; it would serve, Bladethought, as a reminder to take care of his hair when he returned from the mission. If he did.

    It came hard for Lord Leighton to beg, but he was near it now.

    "I wanted this word alone with you, Richard, away from J. He is against me in everything thesedays. And he treats you like a child, you know. He is like a mother hen with a chick. That'sall wrong, Richard. You're the dominant one, the hero, the adventurer. It is you who must gointo DX and suffer whatever comes. So all final decisions should be yours."

    Blade smeared tar salve on his bottom. "Exactly, Sir. I agree. I do. I am-making the finaldecisions."

    Was there ever such an obdurate old boffin?

    "If you would only wait for a month, Richard? Surely that isn't asking too much and I, er, haveso much to do yet."

    Blade shook his head. "No. I also have things to do, sir. I want to get into Dimension X andget it over with. Now."

    "You don't understand," said Lord L. "None of you really understands what I am trying to do."There was real despair in his voice. "The computer-cortex link, my boy, is only the first stepin what I am trying to do, what I can do. Even Dimension X is of secondary importance comparedto what I am really after. I want to change the world, Richard! I want to change people and sothe world. But I need time and I haven't much. I am an old man and my sands are running out."

    Blade rubbed tar salve between his toes. The old boy was never so dangerous as when he waxeddramatic and turned to florid usage. In self-defense Blade was flip.

    "I'm sorry, sir, but there is nothing I can do about your sands. Shall we get on with it?"

    Lord L glanced at his wrist. "Another ten minutes. I had thought, Richard, to implant anotherelectrode in your brain. In the hypothalamic region. As a part of the new ESB experiments I amundertaking. It would not take very long and if we delay-"

    "No," Blade said. For the first time he began to understand what the old man was really up to.The computer-cortex experiments had evolved into something new, something of such a magnitudeand importance that Lord L had all but forgotten DX. He was trying to phase one experiment outand leap headlong into a new one. And he needed Blade, for of all the men alive in the worldonly Blade had a brain already geared to receive and react to computer signals.

    Lord Leighton was afraid-afraid that Blade would not come back from this mission and that he,Lord L, would have to start all over again with a new subject. Blade knew then that hisunderstudy, the trainee whom he had never met, had not proved out. Something had gone wrong.

    "Hear me," said Lord L. "I foresee the day, Richard, when this earth can be a paradise. Becausemen can make it that way. They can do that because they will be able to control their ownmental functions. It will be a psychocivilization and as near to perfection as we dare notdream today. Each man will carry his own computer, no larger than a hearing aid, and by meansof it will control his thoughts and his passions. It is complex, Richard, and there is no timefor detail now, but believe me-I can rid the world of evil, Richard! I can. I know I can. Giventime and money and the proper personnel."

    Blade was ready to go. His huge brawny body glistened with tar salve. He gave the old scientista smile and said, "Quite apart from all you've said, sir, and the fact that if you can do whatyou say you can there will be, sooner or later, a brain dictator, I am not very interested.Now-do we go through with it or do I resign and get dressed again?"

    Lord L stepped aside and let Blade precede him through the door. He said nothing.

    As Blade took the last few steps into the computer launch chamber, the words of Sir CharlesSherrington echoed in his brain. The brain that Sir Charles had been describing when he calledit "an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern."

    Yes. It was all of that. The thought only hardened Blade's resolve. After this time no moretampering. Fini. Kaput. All over.

    The small glass cage stood as always, containing the chair with its straps and electrodes.Blade hesitated for just a moment, then strode over to the chair and sat down. Lord L began totape the shiny-headed electrodes to his greased body. The old man worked silently and intently,frowning and mumbling to himself, the usual bandinage missing. Once, as he taped an electrodeto Blade's naked skull, Lord L did pat his shoulder. I am not forgiven, Blade thought, but heis a professional and it is business as usual.

    The preparations went on. Blade felt himself going rigid and tense, though he willed againstit, and the queasy liquid of fear began to seep through him. There was no way to dam the fear,to hold it back-not in these latter days-and so he let it flow. It would vanish soon enoughwhen he went through the computer and found himself in a new dimension fighting for his life.It always came to that. It was never easy.

    Blade stared at the instrument panel on the far wall, concentrating on the red toggle that, ina minute or so now, Lord L would pull and so catapult Blade into-what?

    Lord L taped the last electrode into place and went to the instrument board. His hand hoveredover the red toggle.

    "A final chance, Richard. Won't you consider-wait a month or so-or perhaps we can scrub yourmission altogether and let your backup man do this mission?"

    Blade's nerves were screaming. He knew that if he hesitated he would be screaming. The batteryof his courage, sapped cumulatively by so many trips into DX, was running low.

    "Pull the lever," he said. "Pull the lever, you damned old fool!"

    He had only time to read the amazement and shock on Lord L's face before the red toggle camedown. No one had ever spoken to his Lordship in that manner.

    The current washed through him like bloody surf. For a moment there was pain, pain that couldnot be borne and yet must be, and then his body vanished and with it the pain and he was only abrain on a stalk..

    The stalk was planted in purple gravel and atop it his brain waved and moved in a hot wind.Lights flashed and bells rang and behind a shadow screen he saw horned figures copulating. Aclown ran up from nowhere and smote his raw brain with a bladder and there was more pain. Theclown and the pain locked hands and danced off into silver fog. A girl with fur all over hercame out of the fog and stood looking at him. She sucked her thumb and stared at him andmouthed words that he could not understand. As his brain watched she grew a penis, a huge poleof flesh, and laughed and began to toy with herself and then went off turning cartwheels.

    His brain detached itself from the stalk and began to rise like a balloon into polychromaticclouds wreathed around the base of a gigantic chryselephantine statue. The statue washermaphroditic and towered into eternity and filled the cosmos and the brain knew that it wasseeing GOD.

    GOD smiled. GOD smote. The brain fell and fell and fell ....

    Chapter 3

    At first Blade thought he was in a forest. Gradually, as the computer shock wore off, herealized that he lay not among trees, but among reeds, weeds, amid spindly stalks and bushes.As always he lay still, unmoving, waiting until his senses fully returned and he could assaythe situation. It was his usual procedure upon entering Dimension X and so far it had ensuredhis survival.

    As time passed he became aware that something was terribly wrong. Things, objects, were all outof kilter, out of proportion and in false perspective. Why should weeds, or reeds, look liketrees to him? Unless?

    Blade did not believe it. He did not want to believe it. The computer had played strange tricksbefore, but this? Was he a Tom Thumb, reduced in size to a minikin? Or was he still his normalself and had landed in a dimension where everything was so massive that he was dwarfed?

    It was much worse than that. So far he had not moved a muscle, he stared straight ahead of himand a bit upward. Now he tried to flex his muscles. Nothing much happened. His fingers movedand his fist clenched and relaxed, but there was no strength. He was as weak and uncoordinatedas a baby.

    Blade looked at his hand. It was small and pink and chubby. Tiny. He was a baby. The computerhad reduced him to an infant.

    In body only. For that Blade was grateful even as the curses formed in his brain. He damned thecomputer and Lord L and J and the gods and himself for a fool. And found some satisfactiontherein. His brain was all right, unchanged, crystal and all. He was Richard Blade still, buthis tiny pink body was that of a newborn babe.

    He tried to raise his head. Too heavy. He could not even move it. That made sense, if any ofthis made sense, because his brain was full grown and must be housed in the cranium of a fullgrown man. He must be a hell of a looking sight, Blade thought. A macrocephalic horror. Whoeverfound him would probably kill him on sight and either stuff him or preserve him in a bottle.Monster babe.

    Survival. How to live, how to beat this nasty turn of events? Think, Blade. Think harder thanyou have ever thought in your life. For this is it! This is all the trouble there is and theworst, the most dangerous, spot you have ever been in. Think. Because only your brain can saveyou now, the brain so seared, and distorted and twisted and restructured. Think fast, Blade!

    He was going to need luck and about that he could do nothing. It came or it did not. He wouldneed all the luck in the world and he was helpless to summon it. What could he do?

    Always before he had been able to depend on his body, on his superb physique and conditioning,and on the fact that he adapted so rapidly to each new dimension. He could fight, do battle,kill or run as the circumstances dictated. Not this time. All he had was his brain-cunning,scheming, already beginning to adapt and take on the psychic coloration of his environment. Nomuscles, no strength. Only his brain in a grotesquely oversize head.

    Richard Blade squirmed over on his back and waved his chubby pink arms and legs in the air. Heglanced down and saw his little worm of a penis and said: "Goddamn the fucking luck!"

    The words came out clear and distinctly. He could talk! That was something, he supposed, thoughhe could not see how it would aid him at the moment. It might even be wise to forget it. Babieshis age didn't talk.

    Blade clasped his little fists in rage and began to howl. He grew red in the face and howledon. Might as well get it over with and be found, if there was anyone to find him. He couldn'tdo anything for himself, not a damn thing, and someone had to find him and help him or he wouldstarve to death. Between his cries and his sobs, he let an adult curse slip in now and then. Hehoped that the crystal was working, however imperfectly, and that the computer was picking uphis brain waves and encoding them and handing them to Lord L on a printout.

    Strange, but Blade smelled the women before he saw or heard them. His more primitive senseswere sharpening as they always did when he entered DX-smell and sight and hearing and taste andall the guile of his primary and noncivilized brain. They were all working. And small good itdid him.

    Female bodies nearby. A mixture of perfume and sweat, the musky woman odor he had known in athousand beds. Close by. Very near. Blade began to hope. If a woman found him ....

    A woman said, "What was that, Valli? Did you hear it?"

    "Shhh-be quiet a moment. Yes, I heard something. It sounded like a baby crying."

    "A baby! How could that be, Valli? You know babies aren't allowed in the harem. I must havebeen mistaken. Come on. It was only the wind in the reeds."

    "Be quiet, I say. I'm sure I heard something. And we both know, Stel, that some of the womenhave babies and put them out to die."

    The woman Valli had a light and pleasant voice, with some force in it, and, Blade thought, atinge of kindness. He made his decision. With a woman like this he might stand a chance. He letout a series of wails and waved his hands and feet frantically in the air. He felt hissphincter muscles let go and cursed as he wet himself.

    The reeds parted and the two women stood looking down at him. Blade closed his eyes, butcontinued to kick and scream. It would not do to let them see his eyes. Adult eyes. Not yet.Not until he had established a claim to their affections.

    "It is a baby," said the woman called Stel. "You were right, Valli. One of the women has had achild and put it out here to die. Come away. We mustn't touch it. You know the penalty forconcealing babies in the harem."

    Damn it. Blade almost stopped crying. He must have strayed into a pretty weird dimension ifthey killed off babies.

    "I can't leave it," said she called Valli. "I just can't, Stel. Look at it-so helpless. Poorlittle thing. It's all wet and dirty."

    "And deformed, too. Look at its head. See how big it is. Ugh-no wonder the mother got rid ofit. It's a monster."

    Blade stopped crying and smiled up at them. His gums hurt him and for the first time herealized that he was toothless. He smiled on, sweetly, and felt an intense dislike for thewoman called Stel.

    As his fate hung in the balance he stared at their feet. Four bare feet with red-paintedtoenails and jeweled rings on each great toe. These were harem women and babies were forbiddenthem. It was going to be a near thing-already he was feeling the pangs of hunger in his smallbelly. How long did it take a baby to starve to death?

    Valli had not spoken. The woman Stel said, "Come on now, before we get into trouble. If theIzmir finds you with a child he'll have your head off just like that. You know the law, Valli.And this little monster isn't worth breaking it."

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