"That'll be two Quadits, pup," a voice behind the stall rasped,
its breath condensing in the cold air. The older man's face was heavily
pockmarked and rough looking. He held two small packages just out of reach.
Tal gave him the cash and slipped the Q-Hog
meat simulation packets into his jacket pocket.
"Its cold out here," Tal said, grabbing his shoulders. The Man
behind the stall laughed, then spat onto the filthy street. He lifted his
arm and motioned with his thumb directly behind the stall, across The Platz,
at the dirty run-down buildings of QSU 23 in the background.
"Climate control equipment keeps breakin' down, an' this time our Bigz ain't got the Quadits
ta fix it. They'll get th' boot when Kronstadt
wins th' 'lections, and then things'll get better."
"What makes you so sure of that?"
"Got th' promise right here . . ." The man pulled a small shiny
vid cylinder out of his pocket and held it up. "It's a half hour of
Kronstadt tellin' us all whats wrong an' how to fix it. He grew up around
here somewhere, y'know, and he even wants to make it legal for Reconz like me to live on the
"That's not what he's been saying on the Inner Boardz," Tal said.
"I thought you had the Inner Board look," the man said, looking
at Tal suspiciously. "Anyway, all I know is that the lan'lord at my
building's payin' a 25 Quadit rent reduction if I vote fer Mr. K and that's
jus' what me an' my people are gonna do!"
Tal's screen crackled.
"Excuse me," he said, backing away and holding up the inside of
his left arm to check his screen. Suddenly, Old
Dusty's face appeared. The professor looked shaken and was sweating.
"Tal. You can't answer this transmission, of course, or they'll track
it, but know you are being followed and that those who follow you will stop
at nothing to get it. They interrogated me for several hours and by the
time I got back to my rooms I was so confused I didn't realize how to get
in until I remembered that my keys were sown onto my robe. It seems I remember
little these days, and I am fading even more. I fear the worst, but stay
hopeful if you can. Goodbye for now."
He stared at the screen for a time, realizing that his life as a student
at The Inztitut had abruptly
ended. As he lowered his arm, Tal felt icy fear surge through his body and
looked out anxiously over the Platz at the throng of poorly clad Reconz
gathered around the steaming stalls. A Kronstadt Rallypak group entered
one end of the square and its members started shouting "Question Laneer! Question Laneer!"
Then, a competing group of Laneer sympathizers entered from the other end
screaming "The System
For a moment he was struck by the utter absurdity of what was happening,
then he thought he saw someone from the Inztitut that he had seen before,
but the sharp featured face seemed to disappear into the crowd. Again, fear
overtook him, and he shook his body and head to regain composure.
As the noise from the competing political rallies grew louder in the square,
Tal pulled his jacket up around his shoulders and made off in the opposite
direction toward a group of dingy buildings a few hundred meters away. Behind
them he saw the ugly 20 story "Grey Giants" looming up out of
the dirty swirling air at the edge of The Quadrant dome.
Hurrying to get to the cover of the buildings, he looked back at the square
and saw a heavy set man pointing in his direction. The man raised his arm
and barked something into his screen and several other men, two carrying
brodstiks, emerged out of the crowd. They immediately started for Tal. Just
behind them, another group of men followed.
Tal broke into a cold sweat and started running as fast as he could. When
he reached the buildings, he darted up a side street and disappeared.
The heavy set man stopped his men for a moment, and looked up at an airskimmer circling above.
He spoke rapidly into his screen. "Where is he?"
The screen crackled and a voice from the skimmer responded. "Approximately
300 meters north of your position, now heading west on the second street
in." The man smiled, then gave his orders, gesturing with large hands.
"Half of you up this street a few hundred meters, then cut in. The
rest of you, come with me."
Tal turned into an alleyway and stopped. He could hardly breathe and his
heart was pounding. He squirmed into a gap between two buildings and squatted
down. He was glad that he had stashed the Portal
on Recon 3. No one could retrieve it but him, and he resolved that no matter
what, he would not divulge its location. Suddenly, he heard footsteps and
a rough, loud voice.
"Hey, pup. We know where you are. Just come outta there and no harm'll
come to you!"
"Allright," Tal answered, getting up on wobbly legs. He emerged
from between the buildings and confronted several tough looking men and
the sharp featured young man he had seen earlier. He recognized the younger
man as a student from the Inztitut. The leader grabbed the student, pulling
him close to Tal.
"Is this the man?"
"Yes, yes, it's him," the younger man affirmed. The leader pushed
the student away and bore down on Tal. He pulled off Tal's coat and quickly
searched him, finding nothing.
"Where is it?"
"Where is what?" Tal answered.
The leader slapped the butt of a stingstik onto his open palm and looked
at Tal menacingly. "We know you've got it, pup, so tell us where it
"I don't know what you're talking about."
Without warning, horrible pain shot through his shoulder and Tal fell to
the ground. The leader leaned over him raising the stingstik for another
"Where is it!!!"
Suddenly, before he could answer, several other men entered the alleyway
and a fight broke out. As Tal struggled to get free, the leader struck him
again and then grabbed his screen in a powerful grip. "If we can't
have it, no one will, you stupid little fool!"
The leader gripped harder, then yanked Tal's screen off and pulled the interface
wires out of his flesh. As Tal sank into unconsciousness, the leader smashed
his screen into the ground, rose up and bashed the nearest attacker with
his stingstik, then yelled at his men.
"Undergrounders! Let's get outta here, it's over!"
As the leader and his men fled from their Underground
attackers down the alleyway, a vigorous looking bald man held two of his
men back and bent down over Tal. He picked up the bloody screen assembly,
exhaled, and looked up at the others.
"We haven't got much time," he said.