Polar City Blues: Sample

Polar City Blues by Katharine Kerrby Katharine Kerr

Chapter One

Hagar’s enormous sun sets in an opalescent haze, the sky brindled a metallic red-orange that seems insultingly gaudy, as if a cheap holopix director were designing an alien sky. As the red fades into an offensive little-girl pink, the real show begins above Polar City. The northern lights crackle, hang long waves of rainbow over the skyline that resembles nothing so much as egg-cartons set on end, and at times wash the high gantries of the space-port in purple and silver. Although most of the inhabitants (just getting out of bed, checking their kids or their incubating eggs, brushing their teeth or washing their beaks) ignore them, tonight Police Corporal Baskin Ward stops on his downtown beat and leans against the blue plastocrete wall of the public library to watch the sky. He has a lot to think over, and it is very hot, as it always is in Polar City. In an hour or so, the town will come alive, but he wants to take it easy so he’ll be fit for the sergeant’s exam on the morrow. If he passes, he’ll be able to marry the woman he’s loved for three years, a clerk/comp-op over in Traffic Control who wants, as he does, two children and a transfer off this God-damn low-tech desert world with the continually gaudy sky. If he does well as a sergeant, he’ll be able to request posting to Sarah, his home planet, a world of rains and jungles—if, of course, he passes the exam in the first place.

The blue arc street lamps wink on, floating in their maglev field some twenty feet above the pale gray sidewalks and the shiny black movebelts that flow beside them. The Civic Center Plaza in front of him is empty except for a woman hurrying across, her high-heeled boots echoing and slapping on the rammed earth tiles, the sound competing with the endless snap of magnetism in the sky above. In a little while, office workers and bureaucrats will pour in from the underground condos rimming the city proper. Ward hopes for an easy beat. Most likely it’ll be a few drunks and more than a few dreamdusters, all to be lectured, ticketed, and entered into the rehab computer via the terminal on his belt, while the most exciting arrest is likely to be a pick-pocket. Basically, Ward is there to be seen in his kelly-green uniform with its imposing gold braid and shiny silver stun-gun, a visible symbol of the Republic’s power to protect and punish.

He settles his cap, peels himself off the library wall, and steps onto the movebelt that runs across the plaza toward City Hall, a enormous black basalt building as glum as a tombstone. In the center of the plaza is a roughly-defined square bordered by holm oaks. Just as the belt carries Ward inside this square, some unseen worker far below the surface turns on the public hologram in the center. A tall fountain snaps into being, the illusionary water spraying in dead silence for a minute before the hiss-and-splash tape goes on. When the ion generator joins in, Ward can almost believe that it’s cooler near the fountain. He steps off the belt and ambles over to the real railing that keeps kids, lizlets, and pets out of the imaginary water. In the middle of the big white plastocrete pool, he sees his first drunk or druggie of the night, lying half-hidden in the murk of the illusion.

“Okay, amigo, need a little help, huh?”

As Ward wades through the holo, he’s irrationally irritated that his legs stay dry and thus hot. The doper never even moves, merely waits, lying on his back with his hands folded over his chest. Then Ward sees the stain, more black than red in the arc light, spreading over the whiteness.

“Jeezchrist!”

Ward kneels down fast, reaching for his combox. He sees that he’s dealing with a male carli, about five feet tall, even skinnier than most of his species, the three fingers on each hand like long twigs and tufted with pale gray fur. The dark gray fur visible on his face, arms, and neck is dull and matted. His eyes are wide open; the skin-flaps around each ear, fully extended and rigid; his thin slit of a mouth, shut tight. Since Ward knows carli ways, he realizes that these particular facial expressions indicate a certain mild surprise and nothing more. The victim must have suspected nothing, seen no danger coming, until the exact moment that someone slashed his throat open to the spine.

o0o

“Since he’s a carli, sir, he got to be part of the Confederation embassy.”

“Safe enough bet, Ward.”

Chief Al Bates, an enormous, burly man whose skin is so dark that it glitters with bluish highlights, and his corporal, about half his size and on the pale side, stand off to one side of the plaza and watch the ’grammers and techs swarming around the corpse. Since the fountain has been shut off, they can see the body clearly, dressed in luxurious blue robes of natural fiber. On its left wrist is a multi-function chrono with a solid gold band, its expensive presence eliminating a nice routine robbery-with-bodily-harm. Although the chief wants to find a simple motive—unpaid gambling debts, say, or an affair with some other carli’s female—deep in his heart he suspects that politics lies at the root of this killing, simply because major crimes on Hagar almost always have something to do with politics. Just six blocks to the west of them stands the embassy of the powerful Interstellar Confederation; eight blocks to the east, that of the enormous Coreward Alliance. Polar City Hall, seat of the provincial administration of this portion of the pitifully small Republic (seven inhabited planets in four systems, two asteroid belts, and a couple of minable moons), stands symbolically in between, caught, as the citizens like to say, between the Cons and the Lies. This joke is not meant kindly.

By now the office workers are arriving, popping up like sandworms out of the metro exits, and of course, they stop to gawk. Without waiting for orders Ward trots away to keep them moving—a good officer, in the chief’s estimation, and one worthy of a set of sergeant’s stripes. He also sees the Vulture Detail weaving through the crowd—a medic and two body techs, with a maglev platform bobbing along after them. Bates wonders why the killers left the body in the middle of the plaza, especially in the fountain, a damn strange place to dump a corpse. Perhaps the killers were new to Polar City and didn’t know about the fountain? Perhaps they were deliberately insulting the dead man? The carli are extremely touchy about the disposal of their corpses. He reminds himself to access a databank on carli burial customs to see if water might be a source of ritual pollution.

“It looks horrible, chief.”

“Jeez! Mulligan!” Bates swirls around, his stun-gun half-drawn before he catches himself. “Will you stop creeping up on me like that? One of these nights you’re going to get a skull full of shock waves.”

Mulligan merely smiles his open, boyish grin, one of the things that the chief particularly dislikes about him. Although Bates is willing to admit that a free society should tolerate psychics, and that indeed, the Republic often finds them useful, he has never felt at ease around psionic jocks and particularly not around Mulligan. Tonight Mulligan looks even messier than usual, all skinny six feet of him dressed only in a pair of filthy white walking-shorts and a green shirt open to the waist, both of them much too large. His hair though permanently shaggy is temporarily turquoise blue, a color that clashes with the bright red, mandatory ‘p’ tattooed on his left jaw, just beside the ear. (While the Republic tolerates psychics, it also brands them to protect its other citizens.) In the street lights, his eyes glare like a reptile’s—reflective gold contact lenses, the chief notes in disgust. He cannot quite stop himself from thinking that after all, white people, los Blancos, are mostly this way, out of touch with hard reality, caught up in some faked image of themselves. Then he feels ashamed of himself for lapsing into old prejudices.

“Can I help?” Mulligan waves vaguely at the corpse.

“What do you want the bucks for? Dreamdust?”

“Never use the stuff. How about, like, rent? My landlord’s going to throw me out. Y’know?”

Bates snorts in skepticism, then hesitates, thinking. Mulligan has the virtue of being right there on the scene, and early, before whatever vibrations it is that psychics read have weakened or even dissipated completely.

“Yeah, sure. Follow me.”

Mulligan trots meekly behind as the chief shoves his way through the crowd to the coroner’s techmen around the corpse. They are just loading the gray-shrouded bundle onto the maglev platform.

“Got a registered psychic here,” Bates says. “So hold off moving him for a moment.”

Obligingly the techmen let the corpse fall back onto the fountain floor. Mulligan kneels down, slumps back onto his heels, then holds his long-fingered pale hands out over the body. For a moment he sits quietly, while one techman gets out a recorder and primes it to catch whatever he says and the other corpse-handler gets himself a pinch of chewing spice out of his shirt pocket. Then Mulligan goes rigid, his head snapping back, his back arching, and howls once, a high-pitched shriek of pain. One techman swallows his spice and rushes away to puke it back up in the privacy of the gutter. The other, who is apparently more familiar with psionic techniques, flicks on the recorder and yawns. Bates hunkers down close.

“What do you see?”

His mouth half-open, Mulligan turns his head to look the chief’s way. Because of the reflective contacts, it’s some moments before the chief realizes that something is badly wrong, that Mulligan’s acting blind, that he’s desperately trying to force out a few words and to raise his hands. When Bates grabs him, he howls again, but this time he sounds like he’s choking. For all his big-bellied bulk, the chief can move fast when he has to. Dragging Mulligan with him he jumps to his feet and leaps back. The result appears to be exactly the same as dragging someone away from an electrical shock. At first Mulligan spasms, then faints in the chief’s arms. Turquoise sweat streaks down his face.

“Medic!” Bates’s voice booms over the murmurs of the gawking crowd. “Get me a medic! Pronto!”

o0o

Mulligan wakes up on an examining table in a cubicle down at Polar City Emergency Center. The bright pink walls are stained along the baseboard by the urine of two different species, and the smell of disinfectant makes his dry throat constrict further. A strong overhead light stabs his eyes. When he tries to roll over onto his stomach, the pain in his head makes him moan aloud. In one corner of the room is a sink: water if he can only reach it. His legs and shoulders ache so badly that he doubts if he can. For some minutes he lies perfectly still and tries to remember what sent him to the hospital. The only thing he can think of is that he was knocked down by an errant skimmer or even by some hobbyist on an antique bicycle. He can remember walking across a street to talk to Chief Bates; then nothing.

From out in the corridor he hears footsteps, big, shuffling, slapping footsteps, and another mind touches his.

Okay little brother, Nunks now. My home>safe my home>safe my home>safe.

Tears form in Mulligan’s eyes. When he goes to wipe them on his sleeve, he realizes that someone has taken out his contacts. He finds this infuriating for a reason he can’t verbalize to himself. A soothing warmth touches his mind.

<Nursewoman give< Nunks pocket now.

At that the door opens, and Nunks pads in. Seven feet tall, vaguely hominoid in that he has two legs, two arms, and a head all coming off a central torso, he is wearing a pair of striped black and white overalls, cut off at the knee, over his thick coat of curly gray fur, but as always, he’s barefoot. Bluish fur covers his skull, which is bifurcate: that is, it looks as if he has two wedge-shaped skulls, each striped with a pinkish ear-strip, that join in the middle lump of bone and flesh, about the size of a baseball, where his perfectly round mouth and three eyes reside. He gets Mulligan a plastic cup of water, helps him drink it, then lays one huge, bare-palmed hand on Mulligan’s forehead. The pain disappears.

Cure\block it? Mulligan asks.

Block. Not-know cure.

Okay. Thanks.

Go home> Lacey know? Buddy know?

Lacey maybe.

Go home> Nunks nods in a firm, paternal manner. Find nurseman, go not-here>

The nurse, however, finds them, slamming into the room as if he expects to find Nunks murdering his patient. His dark brown face is set in grim lines. In one hand he carries a com-cube; in the other, a typer.

“Okay, white boy,” he snaps at Mulligan. “Does your…ah…friend speak Merrkan?”

“He no speak anything, but he, like, understands Merrkan.”

“Well, you no should be in here,” this last addressed to Nunks. “Who let you in, anyway?”

Nunks regards him with two of his large, green eyes for a long moment; then he steps forward and raises one hand.

“You no should be in here! Hey, what are you doing? Dunt touch me, you jerk! Dunt…”

The moment Nunks’ hand reaches his forehead, the nurse smiles, sighs, and falls unconscious to the floor.

Little brother walk\not walk?

Not walk. Mulligan lets some of his body pain flow outward.

With a wince, Nunks acknowledges that he understands.

Little brother mindshroud\not mindshroud?

Can do.

When Nunks picks him up, Mulligan wraps his arms around Nunks neck and lets his friend carry him like a child. They link minds, then send out a vast and misleading amount of pure signal that acts as a virtual screen of invisibility as they go down the hall. Past the gray and silver triage station, where four sentients in white coats are standing around gossiping, through the crowded lobby, outside to the plaza and down to the robocab stand—no one notices them go by; no one says a word to stop them, not even when they have to wait a good five minutes for an empty cab to swing their way. Although Nunks can open the door and get Mulligan into the seat, Mulligan has to punch in the co-ordinates of Porttown, because Nunks’ fingers are too broad. The effort leaves him gasping.

Porttown proper begins about two miles from Civic Center where First Avenue dead-ends into the customs building, and that’s where the robocab stops to let them off, because its programming forbids it to go any deeper into the neighborhood. By then, Mulligan’s muscles have relaxed enough that he can stumble along provided Nunks keeps one arm around him for support. They amble down D Street, past the gray plastocrete facades, the pawnshops and the cheap hotels, the drunks in doorways and the dream-dusters sprawled openly on the sidewalk. Every now and then a tired whore calls down a bad joke from a window, or a Fleetman in full uniform staggers past on his or her way to the skyport after a night of liberty. Twice they are followed by lizzie gangs, but not only is Nunks very large, he is also broadcasting a psychic projection of danger and hostility that makes all the passers-by instinctively feel that he’s a bad sentient to cross. After a block or two, the gangs fade away.

They’re within sight of the port gates when they turn down an alley that dead-ends against the side of a faux-brick warehouse that takes up the entire city block. It sports slide-up cargo doors and a loading dock, but the doors are padlocked and rusty, the windows painted over, the dock heaped with wind-blown trash. At one corner is an ordinary door and a faded, three-dee block sign that reads “A to Z Enterprises.” Mulligan doubts if the sign ever fooled anyone but the occasional Outworlder who had the ill luck to wander this way, because the set-up was never truly intend to deceive. Rather, it announces to the authorities that Lacey is willing to pretend that she’s trying to make them believe she runs a legitimate business, so that the authorities can go on pretending that they’ve been fooled. On Hagar, there are proper ways of doing things.

When Nunks presses his palm into the autolock, the door slides back with a clogged groan. Just stepping inside makes Mulligan feel better. What looks like a solid block’s worth of warehouse from the outside is in fact a hollow shell, only one room or corridor thick. Inside blooms a garden, green row after green row of fruits, vines, and vegetables. All around the edge of the open space are trees, mostly Old Earth apples. Although a good many government officials might wonder if they let themselves where Lacey gets the extra water rations to keep this paradise alive, none ask hard questions. If they did, where would they go when they wanted exotic fruit to impress a lover or fresh greens to pamper a pregnant wife? The apple brandy that Nunks and Lacey brew is too valuable a bribe to risk losing it to a fuss over regulations. Besides, much of the water comes from legitimate sources, because Lacey is a fanatic about recycling every drop the household uses.

At night, under the ever-shifting colors of the northern lights, the garden seems to breathe as the iridescent shadows flicker and swell. As they make their way carefully between two rows of grayish-green bread ferns, Mulligan notices a young woman standing in a spill of light from an open doorway behind her. About sixteen, she’s a lovely child, small and slender with her bleached white hair, just frosted with purple, setting off the perfect smooth darkness of her skin. One side of her face, however, is bruised as purple as her hair, and even in the bad light he can see red marks on her neck that are about the size and shape of fingertips.

Big brother? New girl/Lacey friend/live here?

Yes/no/yes. <Street find\last noon.

When she sees them the girl ducks back into her room and slams the door. Mulligan hears old-fashioned bolts being shot and the rattle of a chain for good measure. Feeling her fear takes his mind off his own physical pain long enough for him to struggle up the outside stairway to the second floor. Nunks shoves open the heavy door at the top and half-carries him into a corridor purring with air conditioners. About ten feet along Lacey’s door stands open, and he can hear her husky voice snapping with anger.

“Listen, panchito. I told you that if you want to stay here, you have to follow the rules. Rule One: when Nunks gives an order about the gardens, you obey him. Get it?”

“Yezzir.” A boy’s voice, but soldier crisp.

“Okay. One more chance. Another snafu, and you’re gone.”

The boy trots out, glances their way, then runs down the hall. Maybe twenty if that, he crouches as he runs, ducking unseen laser fire. Mulligan vaguely remembers that he’s a deserter from one space force or another—Alliance Marines, he thinks, but by then his head is swimming so badly that he doesn’t really care. Nunks picks him up and carries him the last few feet into the room, then lays him down on the gray foam-cube sofa that stands by the far wall. Lacey looks up in surprise. She is sitting in a gray vinyl armchair with her feet up on a royal blue comp-desk and watching a baseball game on the three-dee hanging on the wall. Because of his condition Mulligan indulges himself with only a brief, abstract pang of the hopeless lust that he usually feels at the sight of her. Although she’s only of average height, Lacey always seems taller because of her ramrod-straight posture. Thanks to rejuv drugs, she looks about twenty-five and rather girlish, with her big blue eyes and quick, triangular smile, but she is, in fact, a thirty-year veteran of the Republic’s deep space fleet, as one might guess from the cut of her blonde hair, an efficient military bob. Although she would have risen to a high rank in any fleet bigger than four frigates, three cruisers, and one aging battleship, she recently retired as a lieutenant commander. Those who don’t know the true story say that if only she weren’t white she would have gotten that last promotion to full command rank. Be that as it may, she lives on her pension in this warehouse, a property inherited from an uncle.

“What in God’s name’s happened to you?” Lacey flips off the sound on the game and comes over to the couch. This particular night she’s wearing a pair of cut-off jeans and a loose blue shirt that says ‘official zero-gee bowling league’ across the back. “You in a fight?”

“No remember,” Mulligan mumbles. To his surprise, voice-speaking hurts his mouth. “Thought you knew.”

Puzzled, Lacey looks at Nunks, who shrugs, turning his hands palm-up. Although his naturally psychic race never developed suitable speech-organs for talking aloud, he’s learned to mimic a wide range of human and lizzie gestures. For her part, Lacey has learned to ask the correct questions.

“Let’s see,” she starts out. “You knew Mulligan was in trouble.”

Nunks nods yes and taps his skull to indicate that he picked up his friend’s pain psionically, then raises a hand to suggest that she wait.

Little brother>tell Lacey. <strong force< {evil} break mind <you scream{there<<way back} <murder/carli/police-friend<.

<Not-remember >how tell?

Try>

With a little groan Mulligan nestles into the cushions and tries to send his memory backwards. Immediately he encounters a wall of pain, sheeting through his mind. When he gasps, Nunks hurries over and lays a hand on his forehead, but not even he can block the agony. Mulligan draws back, away from the hidden memory; the pain eases.

<Blood smell<< Nunks says. Only thing{there<<way back} I feel now> tell, little brother>>

“There’s something, like, blocking my mind,” Mulligan says, his voice little more than a whisper. “It hurts when I try to remember. But Nunks think I was doing a police job, a murder, maybe, cause he picked up a blood smell.”

“For Chief Bates?”

Police-friend now, Nunks prompts.

“Yeah, must’ve been.” BUT| not-friend mine now <not-friend< >not-friend> Just know-police now.

[surprise] Sorry.

“Well, I can give him a call easy enough. I take it you want to know what happened.”

“I’m no sure if I do or not.”

Yes, little brother. Must know now, must know>

“I take that back, Lacey. Yeah, sure, course I got to know.”

“Okay. Want a drink? I’ve got some honest-to-god Old Earth whiskey.”

“Please, oh jeez, please.”

She goes over to the wet bar, a gleaming, spotless thing of gray and royal blue enamel. In the midst of a collection of bottles and glasses, all precisely arranged by size in neat rows, is an electric ice-maker. She rations Mulligan out two small cubes into a glass, then pours a generous amount of whiskey over them. When she hands it to Mulligan, Nunks shakes his head in sour disapproval.

[irritation] Please big brother, I now feel need to >blunt mind edge.

[resignation, mild contempt]

“You want to get real drunk?” Lacey says.

“To the max. I’ll, like, pay you for the booze when I get some bucks.”

“No problem. But after that glass, I’m going to pour you the cheap stuff. You won’t know the difference anyway.”

“Sure. Swell by me.”

Mulligan takes a long sip of the whiskey, then sighs in anticipated pleasure. In just a little while and for just a little while, he’ll be able to turn off the mental ‘gifts’ that have poisoned half his life.

“Hey, Lacey? Who’s the kid with the purple hair?”

“Name’s Maria. She got beaten by her pimp when she tried to leave his stable. He left her for dead in an alley close by here. Nunks found her and hauled her in.”

“Jeez. Poor kid.”

[Rage.] >Find, beat him> BUT [fear] /police trouble>

Yes, big brother. There> big police trouble. Pimp pay now big money/ police protection>

Nunks abruptly leaves, striding out of the room and banging the door behind him.

“What’s he mad about?” Lacey said.

“We were talking bout the girl, Maria, like how her pimp probably pays off the cops.”

“Nunks has a real low opinion of our species sometimes.”

“He’s usually right. Y’know?”

With a shrug Lacey sits back down at her desk and begins running her fingers over the touch-sensitive toggles sunk into the edge.

“You’re going to input what I told you?” Mulligan says.

“Yeah, a murder’s always important to the old biostat scheme of things. And I want to cross-file this story of something blocking your mind. I can maybe pull up some explanation for you.”

“Guess I want one. Oh, yeah, for sure. Jeez, Lacey, you sure love gossip.”

“I never. You know the old joke: you gossip, but I exchange significant data. In this city, pal, the right kind of data means bucks. My stupid pension dunt keep me in the kind of luxury I deserve.”

Mulligan has another sip of whiskey, watching as she flips up the pale green screen. A panel in the desk-top slides back and her keyboard rises—an old-fashioned museum quality piece of hardware that only she can keep in working condition. Although her comp unit of course operates by voice like everyone else’s, Lacey has installed this antique so she can enter data privately while someone else is in the room with her. After all, Mulligan reflects, any sentient who could access Lacey’s comp banks could become a very rich being indeed. Unfortunately for anyone with such a larcenous turn of mind, she’s also programmed the unit to respond in some peculiar language—Mulligan suspects that it’s her own invention.

“Say, think the news I brought you’s good for, like, some breakfast tomorrow?”

“What, you broke again?”

“I’m always broke, y’know.”

“You ought to get a regular job. Your civil service needs YOU!”

“Have mercy! I tried that for a while. You no savvy how damn boring it gets, doing past life readings for job applicants. Nobody who wants a desk job ever’s got any like interesting karma. I dunt know why they even bother to keep a psychic on the staff. Y’know?”

“If you tried it again, maybe you’d find out.”

Mulligan feels a sudden stab of guilt. Here he is, trying to sponge off Lacey after he promised himself that he’d never do it again. He decides that the least he can do is tell her the truth.

“Well, y’know, I no can go back to the civil service. They fired me.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah, well, I just dint fit in. Like, I mean, that’s what they said, though I had to kind of agree with them.”

“Let’s see, translated that means you were always late and always a mess, and you talked back to your supervisor.”

“Jeez, if you’d’ve known her you would’ve talked back too. She was, like, one of those psychic donnas who wear gauzy scarves and dresses with flowing sleeves and sort’ve sweep around real mysteriously while they talk about Other Realms and their Sensitivity and Talents—all with capital letters, y’know?”

“Yeah, I savvy.” Lacey favors him with a smile. “But hell, when I was in the Fleet I had lots of superior officers that I no could stand. You just follow your orders and ignore the bastards best you can.”

“You got a military mind. I dunt.”

“We will now award Señor Mulligan the prize for best understatement of the year.”

“Ah lay off! But I really did, like, try at that damned job.”

Lacey raises a skeptical eyebrow, then gets to work. Although he can’t see the keyboard, Mulligan can see her face, her mouth slack, her eyes half-shut, as if she’s day-dreaming about an absent lover, or perhaps communing with a very much present one while she works the keys. At times he hates her comp unit.

“Okay,” she says at last. “Now I’m going to call the chief himself and feed his data right into the file.”

“Always efficient, that’s you. Say, before I drink myself blind, there’s, like, something I want to ask you. I no want to forget it.”

“Sure. Fire away.”

“That deserter. It’s safe to have him here?”

“You and Nunks both vetted him, told me he was legit.”

“I no mean that, I mean if that old Alliance catches you harboring him, they’ll pull every string they can to get their hands on you. Y’know? Then it’ll be, like, the old fatal injection and the recycling lab. For sure.”

“Yeah, I know, I know. I’m arranging fake papers to get him off-world with the merchant marine.”

“Jeezchrist! That’s how many thousand bucks?”

“Oh, I’m just calling in a few favors. Listen, the pobrito panchito in his innocent way has already repaid me about six times over. Here I am, a brother officer though ex, right? So he likes to sit and talk to me, babbling everything in his little head about the Alliance fleet’s disposition and their new weaponry and all the special deep space manouevres he saw when he was in training. I can sell each byte of that about three ways.”

“Jeez! Nunks and I agreed that the kIDs, like, too dumb to lie, so it must all be straight dope.”

“You bet. Basically the Alliance is better off without a software deficient dude like him. He’ll do okay in the merchant service.”

“What made him jump ship, anyway?”

“One flogging too many. His captain sounds like a sadistic bastard, and that’s no way to run a God-damn navy anyway, flogging personnel.”

“You know, like if worse ever comes to worst, I think I’d like rather get conquered by the Cons than the Lies. Y’know?”

“Dunt say it aloud! But yeah, you got a point.”

o0o

“Yeah, glad to know he’s all right,” Bates says, but his image on the screen looks suspiciously indifferent to Mulligan’s state of health. “It scared the holy crap out of me, Lacey. Thought he was going to die on me. Did Nunks figure out what Mulligan did wrong?”

“Fraid not, but he’s working on it.”

“Let me know if he does. It’s maybe relevant.”

“Will do. Hasta la vista.”

As Lacey powers out of the tie-in, Mulligan holds out his empty glass with a small piteous moan. She gets him a refill, makes a drink for herself, then stands up to sip it and watch him as he gulps whiskey like a greedy child.

“Nunks was right. There was a murder, a carli, and you were walking by at the time. Bates asked you to help, and boom! Something blew your circuits good and proper.”

“I hate it when you talk about my mind that way, like circuits and shit. It’s flesh and blood, y’know, not wiring.”

“Ah, it’s all the same principle.”

“No! Wish it was. Then I no would be a damn psychic.”

“Say, man, a lot of people’d give their eyeteeth to have the talent you do.”

“Then they’re like loco or stupid or both. Ah jeez, Lacey, all I ever wanted was to play ball. Y’know? For chrissakes, I could’ve been in the major leagues.”

“Yeah, I savvy. It sure was a tough break, pal.”

Mulligan looks away with tears in his eyes while Lacey hopes that he isn’t going to tell her the story yet again. Sometimes when he’s in these beery moods he seems to have a real need to repeat it, like picking at a scab or biting on a sore tooth. When Mulligan was in high school he was the star of his baseball team, confidently expected to go on to the big leagues as soon as he graduated. Then, as the hormone changes of adolescence began to settle down around eighteen, all his latent psionic talents surfaced. Although he did his best to hide them, some of his classmates reported him to the proper authorities, and he was corralled, sent to the National Institute for testing, registered, and branded. That was the end of his chance at pro ball. Even though Mulligan has absolutely no psychokinetic ability, no hope in hell, in short, of influencing the movement of a baseball, he would have always been under suspicion of somehow changing the course of play. No team wanted to spend money drafting him only to have a public outcry make the league officially prohibit psionic players the way it prohibits bionic ones.

“It’s no fair,” he says, his voice thick. “I mean, jeez, even if I could have, like, read the pitcher’s mind and seen he was going to throw a curve, like, I’d still have to hit it, y’know. It’s no fair.”

“Well, yeah.”

“Like, it ruined my life.” He has a long gulp of whiskey. “Whole damn thing ruined my life. Y’know? Here I am, stuck playing semi-pro ball for a lousy five bucks a game when I could’ve been in the majors.”

“That team you were telling me about—it took you on?”

“Yeah. Dint I tell you? They no care about my God-damned mind, they need a shortstop so bad. Y’know? Lousy semi-pro ball. Mac’s Discount City Appliances Marauders, and I could’ve been in, like, the majors.”

Lacey goes tense, afraid that he’s going to cry. She never knows how to deal with someone in tears. After a minute, though, he merely sighs and mutters something under his breath.

“You’re real articulate tonight.”

“I just want to be like left alone.” His voice is a bare mumble.

Out of sympathy, not pique, Lacey does just that. First she gets the bottle of local whiskey and puts it where he can reach it, then goes back to her desk and armchair. Up on the viewer, the Polar City Bears are thrashing the New Savannah Braves eight to two in the seventh inning. Since the Bears have the best bullpen in the Interplanetary League and the Braves one of the worst, she decides there’s no use in watching further carnage and switches it off.

Soon, she knows from experience, Mulligan will drink himself into a stupor. Since in the meantime he can be safely ignored, she switches her comp unit over to voice op, but she doesn’t quite trust Mulligan enough to speak in standard Merrkan where he can overhear. Instead she uses Kangolan, a language so obscure that only about two million sentients in the Mapped Sector even know it exists and only about five hundred thousand of those actually speak it. Lacey learned it during a tour of duty spent as comp-officer on a frigate guarding against pirates at a hyperspace entry nexus that happened to be near the planet. She had plenty of time to study local customs because in the entire five years only two pirate vessels ever appeared, and one of them turned tail and ran as soon as its sensors picked up the frigate.

“I am awake and operating.” Buddy’s voice is a pleasant if somewhat brisk tenor, Lacey’s own programming, overriding the seductive female voice provided by the factory.

“I am pleased to hear it, Buddy. Did you dream of the new data I gave you while you were in silent mode?”

“I did. It is incomplete in its current state.”

“I know. I am hoping to access more sources as time goes along. File it and cross-reference with all murders in Polar City during the last year period. Then search and collate any instances of psychics being unable to access their memory banks because of pain. Both searches in the first extension only for now.”

The unit makes a soft sound which Lacey always describes as “humming under his breath.”

“I am finished. The cross-reference command is complete. The search and collate command is incomplete. I have no more examples of such instances in my current files. Is it possible that the Mulligan unit is providing false data?”

“It is impossible. Why do you think the data would be false?”

“The Mulligan unit is unsatisfactory.”

“In what way?”

“In every way. It is messy, ill-regulated, and prone to neural breakdowns.”

“Say ‘he,’ Buddy, not ‘it.’ Mulligan is a human being.”

“If my programmer insists, I will categorize him so.”

“I do insist. As for the neural breakdowns, the proper term for that is intoxication or getting drunk.”

“Only a previous neural breakdown would lead the unit to desire to drink himself to stupefaction.”

“Well, maybe, but still, he’s also useful, even if what you say about him is true.”

“If my programmer says so, I will define him as useful.”

“Do it, yeah.”

“Command executed. Mulligan unit is redefined as a useful human being. Next command?”

“Go into waiting mode while I think about this.”

Leaving the unit on Lacey gets up and strolls over to the wet bar to make herself another drink. Mulligan has already passed out, his empty glass half-overturned in his fingers, a thin trickle of watery whiskey staining his shirt. When she plucks the glass away, he sighs in his sleep and squirms like a restless child. Most of the turquoise hair coloring has ended up on his face in long streaks, letting the normal straw-color of his hair show through. She gets a damp towel from the sink and wipes his face, but even though the water’s cold, he stays asleep, merely squirms again and sighs.

“Poor bastard,” Lacey remarks. “He’s just lucky he was born in the Republic.”

“My data banks tell me that psychics are killed in worlds dominated by the Alliance.”

“Usually as children, yeah. They’re not exactly welcomed with open arms by the Cons, either.”

“Checking that assumption. I have found the file. In the Confederation those with psionic talents are considered mentally ill and are confined in comfortable if restricted nursing homes until those talents are destroyed by psychotropic drugs.”

“As I say, he was lucky to be born here. Though, I don’t know, Buddy. Mulligan keeps saying he would have been happier with a mind-wipe.”

“The Mulligan unit is inherently unstable. No rational intelligence desires the loss of some area of its prime programming.”

“I wish you’d stop insulting Mulligan. He’s my friend.”

Buddy hums for a brief moment.

“I have recalled the definition of that term. Why do you care about his inherent welfare above and beyond his usefulness to you?”

“Come off it! You know damn well that understanding feelings like friendship has been built right into your CPU. Who do you think you are, Mr. Spock?”

“No. I am not in the habit of defining my personality module in terms of characters from ancient literature.”

“You just watch it, pal, or I’ll flip you into automode so fast—”

The monitor screen flashes half-a-dozen colors, then subsides to its normal dark gray.

“I am ready to complete another command if my programmer so wishes.”

“That’s better, yeah. Okay. Define relevant memory banks for carli burial customs and laws governing murder, the current political situation in Polar City, past murders, so on and so forth; search said banks and collate all information to the fourth degree of extension relevant to first the murder, second what happened to Mulligan when he attempted to perform his reading. Print the collation.”

“Do I understand this implied directive? Relevant memory banks are to be defined thus: not only those in my immediate possession, but also those that I can access using assorted passwords and entry codes.”

“You are correct. When accessing banks beyond those that belong to us, use a false ID.”

“That was understood, programmer.”

While Buddy hacks, Lacey paces restlessly around the room and wonders just why she does put up with Mulligan. He drops in at all hours of the day or night to interrupt her work; he drinks large quantities of her alcohol and barely says a thank you; he’s always scrounging meals or turning up without a place to sleep for the night; he has even on occasion borrowed money that he’s never paid back. She feels sorry for him, she supposes, a psychic fighting against a talent that he never wanted and that has quite literally branded him as a semi-outcast in society. Yet beyond the pity she has to admit that she genuinely enjoys his company. Mulligan sober can turn any ordinary morning into a party or a trip downtown into an adventure. There have been moments, usually when she’s had a couple of drinks herself, when she wonders if she might possibly be fonder of him than simple friendship would explain. For a Blanco, he’s a very good-looking man, with his soft full mouth and high cheekbones. Usually, as she does now, she dismisses such thoughts the second they appear.

“Say, Buddy, check the comm channel listings, will you? If there’s another ballgame on, put it on screen. I need a distraction.”

“There are no ballgames.” Buddy sounds both annoyed and absent-minded, as he always does when someone asks him to fulfill one of his multi-function sub-programs. “This might interest the programmer.”

“This” turns out to be a news special, the President of the Republic standing at her imposing lectern in the bare press room of her residence, her hair hastily swept back into a messy braid and her make-up a little off, too—a carefully calculated effect, no doubt, to convince people that she has rushed away from something crucial in order to read this bland, soothing prepared statement about the murder of a member of the Confederation Embassy. His name, or rather his special name of the kind that carlis pick when they are forced to deal with aliens, turns out to be Imbeth ka Gren, roughly translatable as He who Smooths the Way, fitting since he was an undersecretary of protocol. The President also assures everyone that the police are working full time, and with the aid of the Public Bureau of Investigation, too.

“Bet Chief Bates will just love that,” Lacey remarks in Merrkan. “A couple of PBI boys hanging around at his elbow.”

“Indeed,” Buddy says. “The chief has made his views on the Bureau well-known in the past.”

“And so,” the President looks straight into the camera, her large, dark eyes so utterly sincere that Lacey feels like throwing something at the screen. “We’re calling on all our fellow citizens to aid the police in this matter. It’s super important that we get this here mystery solved just as soon we can.”

“So the Cons don’t bomb the hell out of us, she means.” Lacey grabs the remote and mutes the sound.

“Do not agitate yourself, programmer. The Alliance would not allow it.”

“One of these days, one empire’s bound to call the other’s bluff over us. Then we’ll be well and truly liberated—blown to hell for our own damn good.”

“It will not occur over this murder. I estimate that we have at least fourteen point six years left before escalating tensions make confrontation inevitable.”

“You are a true comfort and joy.”

Since he’s been programmed to recognize the subtle voice changes that indicate sarcasm, Buddy merely hums at her. On the screen, the camera zooms in for a shot of the Great Seal of the Republic, a large predatory bird of some sort, with a bunch of leaves clutched in one claw, a stylized space cruiser in the other, and a striped shield across its belly. In a band round the edge is the motto: e stellis pluribus una.

All at once the screen flickers in long bands of ice-blue static. From outside she hears a rumble that rises first to a roar, then a shriek. She gets up and strolls to the window to watch as a shuttle launches from the port and cuts a swathe of silver across the lambent sky. She seems to have picked up something of Mulligan’s mood, because her eyes fill with tears, just briefly before she wipes them away. Although Mulligan may have had a chance at the majors, she’s had something greater taken away: the endless freedom of deep space. Trite images of birds in cages come to her mind; she dismisses them with a stoic act of will and has another swallow of whiskey.

o0o

Since carlis, the dominant race of the Confederation, value the visual arts highly, the Cons’ embassy is a beautiful building, a graceful half-circle made of pale beige plastocrete scored to look like stone blocks. In the embrace of the crescent are small diamond-shaped flower beds, filled with red and blue blooms native to the carli home planet, and thorn trees pruned and shaved into some semblance of symmetry. On guard by the enormous double door, made of a rich brown wood imported from Sarah, are two humans in stiff gray uniforms. As Chief Bates strolls up, just a bit after midnight, they salute with great precision, then open the door.

Stepping inside the big reception room makes the chief feel twenty degrees cooler. The walls are pale blue-green, the thick carpet a darker shade of the same, and in the center of the room a real fountain murmurs and splashes as it runs over purple tile into an ivory basin. All along the walls are metal sculptures, the carli race’s most famous art form—thin twisted plates of gold, silver, oxidized copper, and the occasional jewel or piece of precious stone arranged in amazingly complex patterns, each one a good three meters by two. Bates is sincerely glad that the security of these treasures is someone else’s responsibility. Just beyond the fountain stands a heavy desk of imported rosewood, so highly polished that the comp unit is reflected down to the last toggle switch and key.

Sitting at the desk is another human, a young woman, this time, with red-blonde hair and green eyes. Although many of the humans that live in the confines of the Confederation (and there are over twenty systems worth,) are white, Bates always finds them different from what he thinks of as “his” white people. The Con lot all seem to have thin lips, cold eyes, and no sense of humor. This young woman is no exception. When he gives her his best reassuring smile she merely looks him over as if making a mental inventory of the pieces of his uniform.

“You must be the Republic policeman.”

“I’m the chief of police in Polar City, yeah.”

“I have orders to send you straight in.” Her tone of voice implies that she thinks this order is a big mistake. “If you’d go through the door on your left?”

The door in question bears a sunken brass plate with both carli and Merrkan lettering, announcing that here officiates the chief secretary of protocol. Since he was hoping to see the ambassador himself, Bates is briefly annoyed; then he remembers that in the carli world no high personage is readily available in any emergency short of total war. That the chief secretary is willing to see him without making him wait for an hour in the lobby bespeaks a great willingness to co-operate. With a quick knock he steps in to another huge room, this one decorated in sandy pale browns and tans except for a four meter square tapestry that’s mostly turquoise on the far wall. The chief secretary’s desk is even larger and shinier than the receptionist’s. Pacing restlessly in front of it is a golden-furred male carli in the long green robes of the warrior caste. His ear flaps droop at half mast, indicating a real sadness.

“Your excellency,” Bates says. “Allow me to tender my sincere sympathy for your loss.”

“Thank you, sir.” His Merrkan is startlingly good, without the slight growls on the r’s typical of carlis, and Bates reminds hilf that formal speaking is the order of the day. “Ka Gren was developing into a fine officer. My name is Hazorth ka Pral li Frakmo.”

“Ka Pral, I am honored. I am Albert Bates.”

“Bates, the honor is mine.”

They bow, then consider each other warily for a moment. The chief is inclined to like this carli. Since his chosen name means He who Walks Narrow Bridges, the equivalent of the Merrkan phrase He who Splits Hairs, the secretary apparently has a strong sense of humor about his job, and senses of humor among the carli are rare. His ear flaps gradually stiffen to full extension, a sign that he finds Bates reassuring.

“Will you sit and take a drink?” The secretary gestures at a low green divan under the vast tapestry.

Refusing would be rude, so Bates bows and perches gingerly on the edge of the piled cushions while the secretary rings for a servant. A young female carli in a plain gray jumpsuit pops in like clockwork with a crystal decanter and two glasses on a bronze tray. She sets the tray on the waiting stand by the divan, then bows so low her nose almost touches the carpet.

When the secretary snaps out a word in their language, she turns and rushes out of the room.

“She is learning,” the secretary says approvingly. “When she first arrived, she was slack.”

“Ah,” Bates says. “Perhaps being so far from her home world was disorienting.”

“You know, I never considered that. You may well be right.”

The secretary pours out a pale green liqueur, hands Bates a glass, then takes the other and sits on the far end of the divan. They each raise their glasses, consider the color, then have a small sip. Bates is profoundly thankful to find the drink sweet and only slightly alcoholic; there are some carli liqueurs that can knock a BetaPic dragon flat on its many-spiked back with a single sip.

“His excellency has exquisite taste in tapestries,” Bates says, with a polite nod toward the turquoise monster. “I would assume that this one was not produced here on our humble and unworthy planet.”

“It comes from our homeworld, truly.” With a sigh of satisfaction Ka Pral settles himself among the cushions. “It was woven in a most unusual way.”

About an hour later the conversation finally drifts toward the reason for Bates’ visit. After the chief learns that the murdered carli was just beginning to put together a fine collection of flat-woven rugs in the Old Earth style, Ka Pral remarks that Ka Gren was missing from the Embassy yesterday, that he left on some mysterious errand two hours after sunrise and never returned.

“Since he was off-duty, of course I had no complaint, but it was distinctly odd. Like most of our young men, Ka Gren needed a great deal of sleep. Normally he went to bed immediately after his dinner and stayed there until woken for breakfast.”

“I see, your excellency. Would it be presumptuous of me to ask who was in the habit of waking him?”

“Our head housekeeper, Kaz Trem. Her main comp terminal is programmed to send automatic wake-ups to the auxiliary units in the rooms of our various personnel, but she always waits by the monitor until they’ve all punched in a response. As I say, our young people sleep very heavily; it is a function, or so I understand, of our being carnivorous. When Ka Gren didn’t answer, Kaz Trem went to his room. All the locks are keyed to her palm, except, of course, those in the ambassador’s suite and offices. When she opened the door, she saw that Ka Gren’s bed had never been slept in, and she came straight to me. We were just discussing what to do when we received your commcall.” His ear flaps turn flaccid and droop in grief. “As soon as you said that you had one of our personnel, I was sure it was Ka Gren. He was the only one unaccounted for.”

“And of course, your security head came down and identified him. I am both sorry and humiliated to have been the bearer of bad news.”

“I share your grief but I wipe clean your humiliation.”

“Your excellency has my humble thanks. I realize that I presume greatly to question you and yours during this time of mourning, but it is necessary that we—”

“We will be glad to answer what we can. Bates, my species is like yours in savoring revenge. I want whoever murdered Ka Gren found and brought to your justice—well, if this sentient can ever be tried in your courts, of course.”

Bates hesitates, then finally sees the subtle meaning. Ka Pral is hinting that the murderer may be part of the Alliance Embassy by implying that he, she, or neuter might have diplomatic immunity.

“I am glad to hear it, your excellency. Then do you know of any reason at all that young Ka Gren would have gone into town without telling anyone?”

“I know nothing, but I do have two speculations. The first is that he might have found somewhere to gamble. As I’m sure you know all too well, our young men are usually fanatically fond of human-style card games. The other speculation is much more complex. One reason that Ka Gren was such a good officer was that he was very zealous, what you humans would call gung-ho, I believe. He always took on duties above his strict obligations. Now, of course, for all of us here in the Embassy our prime duty lies in establishing and maintaining good relations with your glorious and admirable Republic.”

“Of course.”

The carli hesitates, his ears at half-mast as if he’s wondering whether or not he was too subtle for the chief.

Since Bates isn’t quite sure if he’s understood the implication or not, he decides to try a subtlety of his own.

“Of course there are other sovereign states that are not so admirable.”

“Of course.”

Again Ka Pral hesitates. It’s obvious that there is something that he wants very badly to make clear without ever having to say it aloud.

“When something dishonorable lies in our midst,” Bates says. “It is important that we stay on guard with open eyes.”

Ka Pral sighs in profound relief.

“That is very true, Chief Bates, and very beautifully expressed.”

So, the kid he was doing some junior-level spying on the Lies, was he? That can be dangerous as all hell.

At the door comes the low whistle that conveys the same message to the carlis as a knock does to humans. Ka Pral’s ear flaps tighten and furl in annoyance.

“You will excuse my rudeness and that of my staff, Chief Bates?”

“Of course, Your Excellency. I wipe clean any stain of discourtesy.”

In a rustle of robes the secretary sweeps across the room and throws open the door. So frightened that she’s stammering the young servant female blurts out a message in their speech.

The chief secretary throws both hands out to the side in surprise.

“Chief Bates, we have a new development.” With a flick of one hand he sends the girl away and shuts the door. “One of our staff, a cook named Gri Bronno, has disappeared, and one of our skimmers seems to have gone with him.”

Bates heaves himself out of the soft cushions and hurries over.

“If you’ll just give me a description of the car, your excellency, I’ll get my men right on that.”

_______________

Copyright © 1990 Katharine Kerr



Polar City Blues by Katharine Kerrby Katharine Kerr

$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-063-7

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