still Monday, Halgary 22nd
28. Demirell Reports To The Duke of Atmain
The Duke of Atmain did not appreciate the programs offered by the holovision service of his adopted homeland. But his hilltop concrete castle lay well within the transmission area of NHV, the station which served the country of Neal, across the Straits in Camerland.
The Duke left his living quarters and crossed the corridor to his office in the north-eastern tower of his castle's keep. The fifteen minute News at 22 had just finished. The Duke's videolink was pulsing with the white ‘calling' disc as he lowered himself into the well-padded chair behind an uncluttered desk. Charles Demirell's face was wearing a shadow of a frown when it formed in the screen. They exchanged brief greetings, then Demirell began his report.
"We're having trouble with the PSF. They've suffered some unexpected losses over the weekend," Demirell began.
"Unexpected?" The Duke picked out the key word, which had received a delicate stress for his benefit.
"Yes, sir. Some of them have been rather careless, if not stupid. But the rank and file have been going down at a rate that suggests the Camerlish police are receiving higher grade information suddenly. And there have been accidents."
"Accidents?" Again, a word received a subtle emphasis.
"Deaths of high-ranking members, sir. Individually, our computer gives a ninety-eight per cent probability they're true accidents. Taken together, it drops to sixty-two per cent."
"And you think this is significant?" frowned the Duke.
"The Popular Socialist Front do, sir," replied Demirell. "The inner council is on the point of suspending assaults on RecCens until things cool off. They say they don't think further destruction would fall in line with their objectives. I think they're scared blue. Especially with the CSP jumping all over their organization in Stanton yesterday. And then one dead and one captured in the north-east this afternoon. They're starting to feel vulnerable."
"Yogar!" The Duke thumped the arm of his chair with a fist. He and took in a deep breath then released it slowly through his teeth to express his disgust at the faint hearts of Camerlish terrorists. "How does this affect our plans?"
"Fairly seriously in the short term. In order to keep the pressure on our competitors, we'll have to make use of much smaller lunatic groups. I'll need more personnel, more equipment, and..."
"More money?" finished the Duke.
"A certain amount, yes." Demirell nodded in meaningless apology. He knew that his demands would be met. The importance of his mission overruled all other considerations. Seeking to strike an optimistic note, he added, "We're not completely stuck, though. While our capacity to inflict new damage on the competition may have decreased, there's a lot we can do to disrupt the Refuse Barons' attempts to make good the damage already caused. I don't have to tell you how easy it is to bring a certain type of person out on strike in this country, given a grievance, real or imaginary, to believe in. And the kick they get out of the sense of power at being able to affect the lives of a lot of other people."
"You don't have to tell me that," nodded the Duke. "That's why I'm over this side of the Straits."
"Yes, sir. As regards establishing your position over here, we're able to use this time of disruption we're created to build up our chain of RecCens and getting businesses used to coming to us instead of going to the Refuse Barons."
The Duke nodded approval, then he slipped into a frown. "I thought we had a majority on the PSF inner council? Enough to make any vote go our way?"
"We did – until this afternoon," Demirell pointed out.
"The accidents and the arrests, yes. I think you'd better drop the PSF completely. Our competitors might discover too much," decided the Duke.
"I'm in the process of severing all links and checking our tracks are completely covered," said Demirell, glowing self-satisfaction.
"You don't think they could be suspicious?" A trace of worry folded the ducal brow.
"Oh, no," replied Demirell confidently. "The Camerlish Refuse Barons and the PSF are old enemies. There's no reason for them to look any deeper. It's just a routine precaution on our part – no action, no contact."
"That's good," murmured the Duke from behind the finger and thumb which were stroking his disciplined black moustache. "Well, carry on with the good work."
"Yes, sir." The confident gleam in Charles Demirell's dark and sinister eyes faded with his holographic projection.
29. Dortmann Discontented
Monday in Belldon had half an hour left to run. A figure in a dark green uniform was pacing the corridor outside the Duke of Atmain's private rooms. Ilse Dortmann, his security executive, knew better than to disturb her employer while he was watching the videolink. A small monitor screen strapped to her left wrist told her that the late film on NHV had not yet reached a commercial break.
As usual, the film was a pre-holovision ‘flattie', but in colour. The rival national channel was having another of its festivals – an excuse to repeat ancient, flat programs in black and white. Both alternatives, one national channel and one commercial, had closed down for the night.
At last, the film faded into a caption. Dortmann ground a honey-flavoured cigarette into a container of sand and dabbed at her helmet of dark blonde hair. Then she touched the call button. The door retreated, allowing her to enter a small anteroom.
"Come in, Herta," called the Duke.
Dortmann pushed through a door padded with dark green leather which matched her uniform. The Duke rotated his armchair in her direction.
"Could I have a word, sir?" she asked deferentially.
"As long as it doesn't take too long."
The Duke climbed to his feet and headed for the door, travelling from a personal to a business environment. His wife turned to give Dortmann an awkward smile. Dortmann responded with a brief smile and a grave nod. Joyce Chatelle turned back to watch a herd of large animals in a dust cloud trampling a carpet as part of a durability test. She never felt comfortable in the presence of ‘Norman's female military'
The Duke accompanied Dortmann to her office in the south-eastern tower of the keep. Dortmann offered him a comfortable chair, then retired to the bar.
"We have a problem?" invited the Duke with a smile.
"The perennial problem, sir – Demirell," responded his security executive grimly. She handed the Duke a glass containing orange liqueur, chinchon water and lemon juice.
Her employer rotated his chair slowly, running his eyes idly over his surroundings while Dortmann poured herself a glass of wine. The office was an uncomfortable room, constantly at war with itself. Oppressive, dark, close-grained, wood-textured panelling sought to close the walls in, fighting shadowless, concealed lighting.
The room lacked an exterior window. Instead, behind the ordered desk, there was a holowindow, which was just a dormant grey blur and amplified the sense of enclosure. Dortmann found that the room gave her a psychological edge over visitors. Her employer was a conspicuous exception; the Duke was fairly insensitive to atmosphere. Dreams of a glorious future occupied most of his attention.
"What's Demirell done now, Herta?" asked the Duke patiently when Dortmann was sitting behind her desk.
"My department is being crippled, sir," she replied, fighting the irritation generated by her employer's patronising tone. "Six of my section heads are either packing or on their way to Camerland at this very moment. And I only found this out tonight because two of them had the courtesy to make a personal videolink call to me instead of just dropping a note into the internal mail."
"Charles needs more personnel, Herta," interrupted the Duke. "This was something of an emergency."
"Everything Demirell does is an emergency," growled Dortmann. "There's also the question of the arms, ammunition and other equipment he's requisitioned. Are we at war with Camerland, by any chance, sir?"
The Duke started guiltily, then he decided that the question was too absurd to merit an answer – but not before Dortmann had noted the twitch of his glass. "These are difficult times for all of us, Herta," he pronounced. "We must all cope as best we can. Now you really must excuse me." His late night viewing beckoned now that he had given tacit approval to Demirell's demands.
"I'd like to go to Camerland to see Demirell, sir," persisted Dortmann. "To sort out this mess. We can't go on like this, without any lines of communication."
"No, no. Not at the moment. I need you here." The Duke shook a prohibitory hand to amplify the message of his head. "I'm sure you can cope. I have every confidence in you. Good night, Herta." He drained his glass and hurried to the door to block further argument. His wife would have put the videolink on record so that he would miss none of the film.
Dortmann put the Duke's empty glass into the washer and topped up her own glass with white wine. It was dry and grapey, and came from Heitain's Zinder Valley. Her throat felt dry from too many cigarettes. She drank half of the wine in a single swallow, then filled up the glass again. Back at her desk, she lit another cigarette automatically as an aid to thought and stared at the regular grain of the desk top.
Her position was becoming impossible on top of intolerable. Demirell's constant predations on her personnel and equipment had stretched the Duke's defences at his Belldan Refuse Reclamation Centres to a dangerous façade. The way he called his security executive ‘Herta' as if she were a maid was another source of major irritation. But most serious of all, in Dortmann's opinion, were the hints at the true scope of Demirell's mission in Camerland. If he was waging a covert war of sabotage and he provoked retaliation in kind from the Camerlish Refuse Barons, Dortmann's department would be hard pushed to provide adequate protection for the Duke's Belldan interests.
Reluctantly, Dortmann was coming to terms with the only sensible solution to her problems – to get out before the whole house of cards collapsed.
A section of the panelled wall slid to the left to admit Clive Westwood, the commander of the castle guard. He threw a friendly salute in Dortmann's direction and removed his riot helmet. He had been inspecting the castle night guard.
"Not very nice out there," he remarked. "Hot as a bakery and much too quiet. Sticky, that's what it is. I think there's a storm brewing."
Dortmann looked up and nodded absently, her thoughts elsewhere. Westwood tramped across the gloomy carpet to pour himself some wine, then dropped into the chair beside the desk. He waved a hand in front of Dortmann's face to attract her attention.
"Hello, anyone there? If so, I'd like to report the castle secure for the night."
Dortmann blinked reflexively and refocussed her eyes. She smiled a belated greeting. "Just thinking a few evil thoughts, Clive."
"I'm not surprised in this dismal office of yours. I hope it's not me in for the tough time?"
"As long as you behave yourself," smiled Dortmann. "Clive, have you ever thought about a change?"
"What, leave this place?" laughed Westwood. "Good pay, good food and the prettiest SecEx I've ever had? I may look bockan daft but I'm not stupid. Or are you trying to get rid of me?"
"No, no," Dortmann told him with a smile. "It was just a thought. Who knows, Demirell might have plans for you."
"Next time he shows his face here, I've got a good mind to shove him off the highest battlement after I've told him just what I think of him," snarled Westwood.
"I'm first in that particular queue." Dortmann glanced up at the concealed security camera reflexively.
In theory, the automatic system which covered the offices of senior personnel was for use in the event of an emergency, such as a fire. But Dortmann could no longer feel certain that someone loyal to Demirell wasn't spying on her.
Westwood noted the direction of her glance and returned the conversation to a casual level. "You know, I have a recurring nightmare. There's a huge mob of 'lensters bearing down the gates, but when I get to the guardroom, there's no one there. Just a note saying, ‘Sorry. Gone to Camerland. Demirell's orders.'"
"That's not funny, Clive," said Dortmann gloomily.
Tuesday, Halgary 23rd
30. Trouble For Sandy
Just about the time when some of the digital clocks and watches in the world were showing 24:00 and the rest were insisting that it was 00:00 for the next minute, Devrel Sovershend became aware of growing tension somewhere close at hand. A sudden gap in the mob in the club stayed open long enough for him to spot Sandy and a giant locked in mortal confrontation. He approached.
A woman who looked like a sporty, the current euphemism for a prostitute, was urging the giant to pound Sandy to a crimson pulp. The intended victim had acquired a desperate expression and he had been trying to edge out of range while hoping to catch the eye of one of the club's security men. His edgings had brought him up against the plastic and chrome bar.
"Forget it," said Sovershend, coming between the two parties. He found that his eye level corresponded with the giant's mouth level, which made for easier lip reading.
"Geigem, sobok," advised twenty stones of correctly-placed muscle, sparing Sovershend a moment of his attention in passing.
"We don't want any trouble," Sovershend insisted, holding his ground and preparing for a fast draw of his sleeve gun.
"Move," returned the giant, flexing his thumping muscles.
Sovershend's jacket was hanging open to reveal an unimpressive physique. He could scrape together only slightly more than half of the giant's mass, and he looked in deadly danger of being wafted away by the draught of the big man's first swipe at Sandy.
"What's going on?" demanded one of the club's security men in as menacing a tone as he could manage.
"S'vogan, sobok," invited the giant, towering over him. "This is private business."
"S'vogan yourself," returned the guard, bring his riot club to the ready position. A violet glow outlined the business end.
"He insulted my woman," blustered the giant, realizing that no matter what he did, one of the security men would get in at least one touch with his riot club. No one who has ever experienced the agonizingly intense muscle cramps induced by that permitted defence weapon courts an encore. Certainly not someone with more muscle than most.
"Your woman?" yelled an anonymous voice from a safe distance. "I thought she was anyone's for a fiver."
"Who said that?" roared the giant, blowing up in a different direction.
"I did!" yelled another voice from across the room.
Two more security men arrived on the scene, riot clubs glowing gently. The most senior came to a decision. "You! Out!" he told the giant. "And take your woman with you."
The heavyweight snarled an indistinct oath, but he moved toward the door to the street. His woman followed, screaming threats at Sandy.
"Sorry about that, sir," the senior guard told Sandy smoothly. "Frank," he added to a hovering barman, "give the vreitar a drink on the house." As a matter of pure economics, Sandy had to be in the right. He obviously had much more money to spend that the bigger man.
"Thank you," whispered Sandy. He was drenched with sweat and quivering visibly. The crowd turned away. The fun was over. Released from the pressure of eyes on all sides, Sandy picked up free drink and downed it in one, not caring what the glass contained.
"Can I buy you a drink?" he added to the security men, who were still hovering.
"Not on duty, sir. Not now." The words ‘duty' and ‘now' received a subtle emphasis.
"I see. Later, then?" Sandy passed each of them a £10 coin.
‘Two' Sovershend mouthed, preserving protocol by nodding to the senior guard.
Sandy parted with another coin with the easy grace of someone who was not spending his own money.
"Thank you, sir. Glad to be of service. I hope you enjoy the rest of your evening." The guards dispersed to their lurking positions.
"What was that all about?" Sovershend asked.
"That woman," quivered Sandy indignantly. "She offered her services to me. And when I turned her down, she started screaming something or other. Then that great ganar ape appeared and started threatening me."
"Sounds like you've been having fun."
"I can do without that sort of fun," returned Sandy angrily.
Sovershend shrugged. "Cheer up. Nothing happened. The rescue party arrived at the first minute, not the last."
"I suppose so," Sandy conceded.
Sovershend had been trying without success to attract one of the barmen. Sandy just snapped his fingers in a commanding fashion. The head barman broke off in the middle of an order to rush two half pints of fort-beer over to a good tipper.
Sandy washed down a trank from his pocket pharmacy, then he retired to the washroom for a mopping up session. When he returned, he was looking slightly more composed. His face was as pale as before, but his tremble had been tranquillized away.
He soon became involved in a discussion about some obscure wordsmith with a collection of young and very earnest people with literary pretensions. One of them had a thing about one hundred and eighty thousand word novels, but he seemed to have little idea of the amount of work involved in producing a work of that length. Sovershend stayed close, determined that nothing was going to happen to Sandy – until the job was over.
Sandy had soaked in enough of the city's night life by one-thirty. Sovershend, too, was starting to feel rather tired and the best of the entertainment was over by then. They pushed through a mob of people for whom Tuesday was not a working day in search of an exit. It was light and dark outside. White and rainbow splashes from neon signs alternated with misty, grey shadows along the almost empty streets. All of the action was indoors.
"It's very quiet out here," remarked Sandy, glancing idly at the whole-food menu whitewashed on a window.
"The beginning of the week's usually fairly quiet," said Sovershend. "Thursday to Sunday, though, the streets are packed all night."
They turned a corner, cutting down a gloomy side street.
"Perhaps it's just as well..." Sandy began.
A large arm reached out of the mouth of an alley and grabbed Sandy. His comment became a squeak as he disappeared into deep shadow. Sovershend slipped on a pair of Ferran image-converter glasses and followed rapidly but cautiously. In ghostly grey-green, he saw the heavyweight from the club sitting Sandy on a dustbin.
"I'm going to break every bone in your bockan body," gloated the giant, waving a massive fist under Sandy's nose.
Sandy's vision was a blur of decaying after-images, but the tone of voice and the powerful grip brought recognition and paralysis.
"I think you ought to change your mind," Sovershend remarked in an even tone.
Sandy's assailant turned rapidly, maintaining a grip on his victim's shoulder. He saw Sovershend standing about five yards away, nicely silhouetted against the glow in the street. "Change my mind?" he asked with an unpleasant laugh.
"That's what I said." Sovershend flicked his sleeve gun into his hand and extended his arm, catching a blue glint with the barrel of the needler. "Back off."
"You wouldn't dare use that toy, sonny." The tone was a challenge.
Sovershend lowered his aim and squeezed the trigger. Four steel needles struck beside the giant's right foot, skipping sparks and chips of paving stone up his trouser leg. The big man leapt back, leaving Sandy perched on the dustbin, paralyzed by fear. Sovershend put two more needles through the material of the heavyweight's trousers, near the ankle, then he lifted his hand.
"The rest of the clip goes between your eyes if you're still here in five seconds." Sovershend's voice related cold, emotionless fact. "And it's explosive shot from now on."
His fleshy face contorted into an expression of mingled amazement and disbelief, the giant took to his heels. All his strength was no match for explosive needles travelling at over twice the speed of sound.
"You're pretty good at making enemies," Sovershend told Sandy as he helped him to his feet. His employer rose from the dustbin dreamily, still trying to decide whether to believe in the events of the previous two minutes. Sovershend located Sandy's pocket pharmacy and extracted a trank. Sandy crunched it wordlessly.
"The thing that lights my fuse is the way these soboks step in and take your life over, and then expect you to do nothing about it," remarked Sovershend. "Come the next war, I think we'll shoot them when we start on the politicians."
"War?" repeated Sandy, alarmed.
"The one they've been talking about for the last ninety years to dig us out of our continent-wide stagnation. The one they say's inevitable unless we elect alternative leaders who aren't self-seeking, greedy soboks like the lot in power now."
"Oh, that war," groaned Sandy.
The trank had worked by the time the pair had reached Mitton Gardens. Sandy had the air of someone who had been struck by something large and solid. But he could navigate without prompting and he did not appear to be on the point of collapse from reaction.
"I don't think this country of yours is very safe," he told Sovershend. There was a trace of a foreign accent, but not enough for Sovershend to pin down.
"Oh, it's not too bad," he replied.
"Would you have shot him? That man?" Sandy sounded doubtful.
"Bet your boots I would," Sovershend assured him. "That big kerel could have taken the pair of us to pieces without breaking into a sweat."
"Really?" Sandy seemed both reassured and repelled. "You could kill someone?"
"If he's about to cancel your membership card, you don't agonize about taking a human life. A survivor takes aim and pulls the trigger."
"Somewhat unfair, though, against an unarmed man?"
"You don't think you could have given him a fair fight with your bare hands, do you?"
"Well, no," admitted Sandy.
"Well, then. Which would you rather be – smashed to pieces because you couldn't stand up to him man to man? Or still alive and kicking because I'd shot him?"
"Well, if you put it like that..."
"That's what hits the floor. And don't forget: he started it."
They turned a corner at the bus station, which was ablaze with lights in the middle of the night and the scene of a surprising amount of activity.
"Thanks, anyway," said Sandy as they crossed the road towards a row of shops.
"Glad to prevent the mayhem." Sovershend felt honoured. Sandy was not the sort of person to offer gratitude.
A pair of CSP Auxiliaries followed them with their eyes until Sovershend and Sandy reached the entrance to the Mitton Gardens Hotel. The night receptionist at the desk seemed disgustingly wide awake for one forty-two on a Tuesday morning.
"I'm glad I'm going north later on," Sandy remarked when they were in the lift and on their way up to the fourth floor.
I'll bet, thought Sovershend. "Till when?" he added aloud.
"Tonight. I'll come back with the goods."
"I hope you don't get scooped up."
"Thank you!" Sandy gave Sovershend a look of faint surprise.
"You still owe me half my fee, remember?"
"As good a reason as any for wishing me well," decided Sandy. "Would you like to come along? You'd be useful to have around." He was under orders to involve Sovershend as deeply as possible in the venture.
"For the ride? I don't know. Might be fun."
"I'll be leaving at eleven," said Sandy, pausing at the door of his suite. "Let me know at breakfast."
"Right," nodded Sovershend. It might not be such a bad idea, he thought. Protecting a large investment of time and knowledge makes sense. And I don't really have anything better to do.
Before going to sleep, Sovershend toyed with the alarm, then he decided not to set it. He made a deal with his body. If it managed to wake up in good time unaided, then he would take it to Norland.
31. Negative Reports
Alex Cardinal intended to begin that Tuesday with a quick job as a favour to a friend and colleague. Chris Fox, a private investigator, had been entrusted with the task of serving a summons on an elusive and allegedly violent Heitainan businessman and he preferred not to be alone. Although Cardinal's eleven and a half stones spread over five feet ten inches did not add up to more than a very average physique, he was slightly taller and more massive than Chris Fox, and he was definitely faster on the draw.
Cardinal left a message is the office videolink's memory to tell his secretary where and how to contact him, and how long he expected to be away from the office. A gentle chiming began as soon as he touched the END panel on the keyboard.
A projection of Sir Nigel Grantby formed in the screen. It charged through a series of dizzy convolutions when Cardinal activated a scrambler. He was still working for the Refuse Baron. Grantby had accepted his increase in charges without a murmur – assuming, correctly, that the revision included danger money.
"Morning, Cardinal," rumbled Grantby, leaning towards the videolink as if slightly short-sighted. The investigator held his ground as the craggy face with its bushy eyebrows seemed to intrude deeper into his personal space. "I had a brief message from Major Tarpigan about the captured Zinders," added the Refuse Baron. "But no great detail."
"The Zinders, yes," temporized Cardinal. "Ah! He traced them back to a Belldan arms dealer. But the trail stopped there."
"The sobok won't talk, eh?"
"It's more a question of finding him. He's thought to be up to no good in the Tropics at the moment."
Annoyance and disappointment flitted across the Refuse Baron's face. "Still, I assume he's following up something else?"
"Oh, yes," nodded Cardinal.
Grantby assumed from the lack of follow-up that the Major was operating against the PSF and he had not, of course, discussed his plans with Cardinal.
"We discussed a security consultant who would act for your Group as a whole some time ago," the investigator added before the conversation could swing round to his plans for the day and a progress report. "I've heard the security executive of the Chatelle organization in Belldon could be open to offers."
"A tall, dark fellow called Dortmann?" said the Refuse Baron through a frown of recollection.
"Dortmann's a she," corrected Cardinal.
"Then who was the bloke with Norm at the trade fair at Meermond last year?"
"Perhaps you're thinking of the second in command, Charles Demirell?" suggested Cardinal.
"I knew the name began with a ‘d'," nodded Grantby. "Struck me as a bright lad, did Demirell."
"I've heard, well, let's say his judgement at times can be questionable. But it's his boss who's thinking of a move."
"Well, I'll think about it." Grantby promised nothing. "How are you getting on?"
"Following leads," Cardinal returned cautiously. "Mostly clearing the picture by eliminating irrelevancies."
Three bursts on the door buzzer allowed him to draw a veil over his lack of progress. "Ah, he's here."
"A contact, eh?" approved Grantby, drawing back from his videolink. "I'll let you get on with it."
His videolink screen shimmered into a random colour swirl. Alex Cardinal switched it off, then he hurried across his office to let Chris Fox in before he wore out the door buzzer.
32. Illegal Entry / Clandestine Exit
Devrel Sovershend surprised himself by waking in time to join Jules Sandford for a late breakfast. Sandy wished him good morning, handed him an envelope, then disappeared behind a morning news sheet.
"What's this?" asked Sovershend, punching out orange juice, sausages, scrambled eggs and tomato halves on the menu, and hoping that they would not arrive in the same container as the coffee.
"Your new identity card and passport," Sandy told him.
"What do I need these for?"
"So that there won't be any questions in future if you're shown to have entered Norland and never left."
"Where I normally cross the border, no one ever asks to see an Ident card. And I don't need a passport to go north."
Sandy shrugged. "This is part of the plan." His tone suggested that there was no scope for alteration in his plan.
"Well, all right," Sovershend surrendered.
Perhaps friend Sandy's not the cross-border sneaking type, he told himself. And he must have been pretty sure I'd go with him if he got all this together. And the man with the money is always right.
"All right, who am I now?" he continued aloud, examining the contents of his envelope. "Svey yoget! This picture even looks a bit like me. Silv Hander. A madky Tombrian! I can't speak that."
"How about Belldan?" Sandy asked.
"Yes, I can manage that. Why, have you got another set of papers?"
"No, but I'll be travelling as a Belldan citizen. All you have to do is speak Belldan with a Tombrian accent."
"I can't even do Ferran with a Tombrian accent, never mind bockan Belldan!" protested Sovershend. "Why couldn't I have been Belldan too? Or better still, stayed Camerlish?"
"It's all a matter of getting hold of appropriate papers," Sandy told him with unusual patience. "Which isn't easy at short notice."
"Oh, well," Sovershend conceded as his breakfast arrived. "I suppose we'll manage somehow. But Silv, though. Every sobokandar Tombrian on the vid's called that."
Sandy just shrugged to tell him that he would have to live with the name for a few hours.
Before they caught the O/U train for Dungard South airport, Sovershend followed Sandy's instructions and reserved their suites for one more day, glad that he was not paying the bills. But Sandy seemed unconcerned by the cost of his expedition. He was too used to being shielded from the horrors of poverty by an apparently inexhaustible UniCredit card.
Tarbolt airport, which lies seven miles inland of the west coast Norlish city of the same name, was still a mass of coronation decorations a week after the event. Norlish flags of various authenticities tangled with sags of bunting, and the souvenir stalls were still doing brisk business.
The Customs and Immigration officer glanced through Sovershend's Tombrian passport, but subjected the photograph to a lingering scrutiny. Sandy received the same treatment. A Camerlish businessman behind them just held up his identity card and was allowed to stroll down the outside of the queue to the autochecker. Without breaking his stride, he slipped his identity card into one slot and recovered it from another a yard and a half further on.
Having been graciously granted permission to enter Norland, Sovershend and Sandy headed for one of the car rental agencies. Sandy hovered in the background, allowing ‘Silv Hander' to take care of the details. Sovershend checked that the car was fuelled, wearing four decent tyres and maintained up to date. Then he applied an illegible signature to an endless succession of forms, nodded goodbye to the girl at the counter, failed to return her smile and marched out into a dull Norlish afternoon. Anyone who associated herself with so much form-filling had to be an enemy, no matter how outwardly attractive. Sovershend had never been one for smiling at enemies.
Sandy was leaning against the car, smoking a small cigar when Sovershend reached him. Before they moved off, Sandy passed a square envelope across to his companion and told him to put the false passport and identify card in it. Sovershend obeyed, then he moved across the hire car compound to the gate.
The barrier rattled to the right as he approached, allowing Sovershend to roll out onto the roadway and tag on to a line of traffic. The hand holding the envelope drifted to Sandy's window. When he wound it up again, apparently losing his taste for fresh air, the envelope had disappeared. A man crossed the road behind the car, walking at a casual pace and not appearing to be tucking an envelope into his pocket.
The line of traffic rolled forward twenty yards, then stopped again. Sovershend adjusted his mirror to follow the man whom he assumed had picked up Sandy's envelope. The fairly anonymous figure turned into one of the airline offices; possibly Ferran International. Sovershend's thoughts turned to his friend Cool Cal, who was also an agent of Ferran Overseas Intelligence. He began to wonder why the FOI was supplying Sandy with false identity documents. Nothing sensible came to mind.
"It says here that Camerland is in danger of becoming Norland's poor relation," remarked Sandy, quoting from his news sheet.
"Some Norlish news sheets are famous for their ridiculous optimism," scoffed Sovershend. "Which way?"
"Left. Take the road for Tarbolt. It says here Norland will become the whole island's power house if the tidal power generation scheme off the Minkies is a success."
"Oh, sure!" scoffed Sovershend. "That's very long-term. They haven't even decided what to build, never mind starting to build it."
"Then there's their mutant strain of euphorbiaceae, if that's how you pronounce it. You know, the shrubs they process to make synthetic motor spirit."
"Years before they get a high-yield strain adapted to the colder climate. And they'll need all they can grow when their oilfields in the Inland Sea run out. What does it say about the experimental fusion reactor the international consortium is building near Leviton?"
"It doesn't seem to be mentioned," Sandy admitted.
"What about the oilfields Camerland hasn't even touched in the western approaches to the South Channel?"
"There you are then," said Sovershend, resting his case. "That's how comprehensive it is."
The road headed for the sea and the town of Tarbolt, which came and went in an unreasonable length of time thanks to an unexplained hold up in the centre of the town. Sovershend followed the coast road. Four miles north of the city, the road divided.
Sandy directed his driver along the left-hand, coastal branch. Black rocks, very green vegetation and white water lay on either side of the road. They passed through three small towns in twenty-five miles before reaching the neck of land which prevented the Beck of Morival from becoming an island like Mink, its cousin of almost equal size.
With the sea on his right for a change, Sovershend continued his westward progress. High ground closed in almost immediately as the road turned directly for the town of Elms at the tip of the beck. After a further eighteen miles, Sandy told his driver to turn right, onto a track of marshy ruts on either side of a strip of very healthy grass. A small wood swallowed them briefly. Then they emerged into a roughly circular clearing. Sovershend crossed it and stopped beside a series of humps which were shrouded with camouflage nets.
The objects were matt black and looked rather like helicopters – until Sovershend noticed that their tails and rotors had been removed and to make room for huge black tyre-shapes attached to the back of the motor housing. Sandy slid out of the car, stretched furiously, then strolled over to three men who were lurking beside one of the mysterious machines.
Sovershend followed him. Part of the camouflage net had been thrown back, revealing an aircraft-type cockpit behind a plastic bubble nose. The interior of the vehicle was a solid, non-reflecting black, broken only by instruments and labels. One of the men beside it was sitting at the controls of a power loader. The other two were doing something to a black box on the side of the machine.
"All right," invited Sovershend, catching up with Sandy, "you've baffled me. What are these things?"
"They're called Mobys," said Sandy, providing a label but not an explanation.
One of the men beside the machine looked around, then nudged his companion. "Here he is."
"About time too," responded the other man. In both cases, the language was Ferran but the accent Belldan.
This is a bit cheeky, thought Sovershend. A bunch of Belldans smuggling uisge into Camerland.
"Where are you up to?" asked Sandy in his impeccable Camerlish Ferran.
"This is the last one," replied the most observant of the Belldans. He looked as though he had been deflated, forced into his coverall, and then allowed to expand to his natural bulk. He managed to bulge in places where ordinary people don't have places. His round face shone with sweat, which had pasted his sparse, almost invisibly blonde hair to his sun-tanned dome. When he struggled to his feet, the top of his head barely reached Sandy's nose. A cloud of violent aftershave or deodorant drifted over to Sovershend.
"Right, finished," said the man on the power loader. He backed away from the strange vehicle and drove across the clearing and into the trees.
"We're ready to go now," said the third Belldan, who looked about Sovershend's age. He was not too tall, but the right height for his weight. His face was tanned very dark and he wore his hair as a cool, black stubble.
"This is Sovershend, by the way," said Sandy, hooking a thumb to his right. "John and Marco. I'll check with the others." Sandy had become very brisk and business-like now that he was among his own people and reasonably distant from the kill-crazy Camerlish.
"Right, see you later," said Sovershend casually, dismissing Sandy before he could do the same to him.
"Yes," agreed Sandy, feeling certain that Sovershend had scored off him but not sure how. He drifted away with John at his heels, following the flattened loader tracks across the grassy clearing.
"Right," Sovershend said to the remaining Belldan. "Tell me about this thing."
"This thing," replied Marco, "is a Ferran invention, what else? Based on the GE principle." He paused expectantly.
"Yes, I've heard of the ground effect," said Sovershend, undismayed by the initials.
"How about STAMP, heard of that?"
Sovershend found that he had to concentrate quite hard to understand the other man's words, which were masked both by his natural Belldan rhythms and by a drawn-out and half-swallowed Ferran influence. "All right," Sovershend admitted. "What the fervoek is a STAMP if it's not something you stick on a letter?"
Marco's superior grin became one of budding friendship when Sovershend produced a packet of honey-flavoured cigarettes and offered him one. "It stands for ‘Small Tactical Aerial Mobility Platform'," he recited.
"Of course, it does. Which leaves me none the wiser," Sovershend added.
"The idea was to build a vehicle similar to an air-cushion floatcraft. For terrain too rough for a wheeled vehicle, too steep for a floatcraft and too enclosed for a helicopter. For wooded hills, light jungle, that sort of thing. It also had to be able to operate above ground effect heights. To actually fly, if necessary. These are Mark Fours. The Ferries are up to about Mark Nine, so we were able to rent these fairly cheap."
"How cheap?" Sovershend took a professional interest.
"Five thousand lobsters a day for the four of them."
"A thousand pounds? That's not bad."
"Not for something that cost the Ferries about a million lobrons to build. Don't forget the running costs, though. They work out at fifteen hundred lobsters per Moby per flying hour. But they're very nice to fly."
"I suppose this is the cargo?" Sovershend pointed to the black box on the side of the machine.
It looked like a double coffin for beings almost half as tall again as the average person. Sovershend estimated its dimensions as eight feet long by three feet square. The container could hold ninety-six cases of uisge.
"There's another one on the other side for balance," agreed Marco.
Sandy trotted over to them, looking disturbed and not a little cheated. "Is this all there is, Marco?" he demanded.
"All?" frowned Marco. "Vr. Demirell was quite satisfied when he looked things over."
Sandy impaled him with an uncharacteristically fierce glare which told Sovershend that the name Demirell was not to be uttered in front of strangers. He affected not to have noticed the slip or attached any significance to the name. But he filed it away in his memory for future reference.
"Just eight of these containers?" Sandy persisted. "Didn't anyone listen when I gave you the carrying capacity of a Moby?"
"Why, how much do you think one of them weighs?" Marco asked in a very neutral tone.
"Half a ton?" said Sandy dismissively.
"They weigh three times that," laughed Marco.
Sandy stared at him in disbelief. When Marco had proved that each container held ninety six cases of uisge by opening one up, Sovershend produced a pocket computer and ran through a calculation to verify the weight. Then he prodded at the keyboard again.
"And if you bought the whole load retail in Camerland," he added, "you'd have to find more than a quarter of a million pounds to pay for it."
"Satisfied?" demanded Marco.
Sandy nodded, ignoring the offensive tone from an underling as Sovershend ran through the calculation a second time. He nodded again, offering grudging agreement, when he saw the final figure.
Sovershend consulted his watch. "Time for a brew."
"The Camerlish afternoon tea-break?" scoffed Marco.
"There should be come coffee." Sandy waved a hand towards a tent in the shadows at the edge of the clearing. "I don't know about tea, though."
"Let's find out," said Sovershend, leading the rush.
"This is the time to invade your country," remarked Marco. While you're all drinking tea."
"Who'd want to invade us?" scoffed Sovershend.
"He's right," agreed Sandy. "No invader would be safe in his country."
An hour or so after sunset, a light breeze began to gather strength. Heavy clouds rallied to blacken the sky prematurely. Sandy looked up nervously at the rustling tree tops and started to drop hints about the weather.
"It's going to be cloudy but calm for most of the run," one of the pilots assured him with enough conviction to dissolve most of Sandy's fears. "The rain won't come till we're ready for it."
The road vehicles had left the camp, taking with them all surplus equipment and personnel. Only Sandy, Sovershend, four pilots and the Mobys remained – plus the tent with its vital thermal containers of food and coffee.
The commander of the flight of Mobys was a fierce-looking woman of about Sandy's age. Va. Farges, who also answered to ‘Tiger' pronounced as a Beldan word, rapped on the table and announced: "Time to go, vreitei."
Sovershend dragged his attention away from a portable videolink and strolled out into the night. He could see torches waving in the clearing. Splashing noises from somewhere nearby in the trees told him that someone else had decided to have a quick leak before the journey. Then muffled starter-explosions and the rising whine of jet engines running up to speed drowned every other sound.
Sandy climbed into Tiger Farges' Moby and groped helplessly at the seat harness. Sovershend joined Marco. The balloon-shaped John, and a young, very average man called something like Andrayem, started the other two Mobys.
Tiger took the lead down a winding path through the trees, followed by John, Andrayem and then Marco with Sovershend. They moved out in single file onto a long lakan, which was open to the sea at its northern end. Flying about two yards above the dull, grey water, the Mobys were enveloped in miniature inverted rain storms of spray raised by their lift thrusters.
"We'll be able to see a bit more clearly when we put on some more speed," Marco told Sovershend.
"I thought pilots did everything by instruments?" he replied.
"Not quite everything," grinned Marco.
The Mobys moved into a blunt arrow-head formation, which took the back markers out of the leaders' spray. Tiger set a course down the centre of the lakan. The eastern sky had merged without a break with the land, but a faint glow could be seen beyond the trees to the west.
"Is that miles an hour?" remarked Sovershend, pointing to dial which was hovering around the 60 mark.
"Right, but you don't get much of a sensation of speed in the dark," said Marco.
"What's our range?" Sovershend added, accepting one of Marco's honey-flavoured Belldan cigarettes.
"About a hundred and sixty miles with this sort of load."
"It's further than that to Dungard. Quite a bit further."
"That's why we're making a refuelling stop at Lesten Island. We do think of these things, you know."
"Surprise, surprise! When do we get there?"
Marco glanced at the map in the clear plastic pouch on his right thigh, which was lit by a downward-directed, pink-tinted lamp. "Twenty-three forty-five. No one told you that?"
"I know the end of the run, but Sandy was a bit vague about the early part."
"That sounds like just him. I hope it's all right to tell you all this. You might be a spy."
"Bit late to worry about that now we're on the move. Is this the first time Sandy's made a run with you?"
"It shows, doesn't it? Can't think why the boss had to come along. He's a marvellous planner but he's no man of action."
"I wonder how his janglers are doing?" grinned Sovershend.
"He's probably got so many pills rattling around inside, he's incapable of feeling anything," grinned Marco.
The Mobys raced on into the night, riding five yards above a rising swell. They reached the mouth of the lakan, turned westwards and then set a south-westerly course to run between the Beck of Mortival and Mink. Time passed slowly and uneventfully.