Читать онлайн «Blindfold»
He took the sentry’s weapon and with fast, cold efficiency, walked from tent to tent, firing into the seven flimsy shelters. A few workers, awakened by the sound of gunfire but still groggy, staggered out, fumbling with the flap zippers even as he shot them. They sprawled on the ground, half out of their tents. Some of them groaned in pain. And he shot them again.
They had continued thinking evil thoughts even in their last moments of life. Strone could tell. He could read their sins.
Eli Strone had been brought up believing that the Truthsayers were dispensers of justice, that the white-robed telepaths kept all crime and sin in abeyance. But he had learned that not even the Truthsayers were perfect. And though they worked diligently, evil still ran rampant among the citizenry. Even in First Landing the Guild couldn’t possibly handle it all. There was just too much.
In rare and secret instances, Strone had seen others peripherally able to read thoughts, common people given a brief and illegal rush of telepathy, not the long-standing ability of a Truthsayer, but enough to know the truth. He had heard rumors about black market availability of the Veritas drug, normally held in such tight control by the Guild.
Strone, though, had his own access to the truth. He was a vigilante, who could sense the evil lurking inside the other colonists. And he would quietly assist the Truthsayers in their quest for justice. It was his mission ….
Leaving the bodies behind at the first site, Strone had walked along the path of the mag-lev rail until he found another group of seven workers and offered them his services.
The second group were all Pilgrims, the quiet religious order who wore dark woolen clothes despite the heat. The Pilgrim crew gladly accepted the help of Eli Strone, then set about attempting to convert him to their religion, but Strone had no interest. His secret powers revealed the hypocrisy in their facial expressions. He could see the hidden desires they harbored within themselves, the evil thoughts, the twisted dreams.
His killing was quieter and more efficient this time. Strone slipped from tent to tent in the deepness of the night. With a knife blade, he made no sound, and neither did the cooling bodies as they twitched and spilled their blood on the ground while Strone held a broad callused hand across their mouths and noses. A few Pilgrims thrashed and fought even after he had slit their throats, but their struggles soon faded.
He was drenched with blood when he finished punishing the second camp, his clothes sticky, his skin painted copper red. He stripped himself naked and scoured his body with handfuls of sand until his flesh felt tingly and raw, and he was cleansed, inside and out, with the purging fire of justice. He was like the Truthsayers he so greatly revered. He didn’t need the Veritas drug, because the power of rightness was on his side ….
As Kalliana touched his forehead, Strone’s thoughts continued to hammer her, cold and impersonal, a simple recitation of factual memories, like a sol-pol incident report. Despite her revulsion, she was forced to view all the flashbacks through his eyes. Strone’s lack of emotion nauseated her just as much as the vivid slaughter. He continued to pour out his thoughts eagerly, as if offering her a gift:
The members of the third camp looked at him with greater suspicion when he offered to join their detail. These were exiles guarded by two sol-pols, people convicted of crimes and put to hard work for Carsus Holding, blasting and leveling the grade for the mag-lev rail.
Strone wore a rough, ill-fitting robe stolen from one of the Pilgrims. The guards looked strangely at his tattered clothing. They asked him his name, and he gave it freely. He had nothing to hide, since no one had yet learned of the previous murders. As a former member of the esteemed elite guard, he had no blot on his record. He was a righteous man.
Warily, they accepted him because the work team had fallen behind schedule. They had several more kilometers of rail to lay down before they could take furlough back at the main village.
Within three nights it was Strone’s turn to help with the cooking, a heavily spiced rice dish. He drugged them all with a small supply of stenn, often used by sol-pols to quell disturbances. Before leaving the Guild, Strone had kept the stenn given to him as an elite guard. He put it to good use now. No one tasted the paralysis drug mingled with the pungent spices.
All the victims lay helpless as darkness fell. A line of scarlet clouds clumped on the flat desert horizon. Strone withdrew his most prized equipment, scalpels and pliers. He had planned ahead, dreaming of this day. They all deserved it.
He was in no hurry, so he took his time with this group. They were paralyzed and could not run—but they could still scream. He made one incision with the scalpel in exchange for every outcry they made, continuing his tally until they could make no more sound.
It took him all night long. These people were very evil ….
Kalliana tore herself away, reeling backward. More darkness lay deeper, more secrets, a tangled labyrinth of shock and betrayal—information Kalliana did not dare to witness. She fled, coming back to herself.
Eli Strone looked up at her with an open eagerness, like a pet waiting to be praised by its master.
“Guilty,” Kalliana choked. “Guilty!” She staggered away and fell to her knees. The sol-pols rushed forward to grab the shackled Strone as he stood gaping at her in shock, too surprised even to struggle.
“But you saw,” he said. “You saw my reasons! You know!”
In answer Kalliana felt revulsion rush upward inside her, as if a fist had plunged into her stomach, and she vomited onto the speaking platform. The thoughts of all the crowded people sliced at the edges of her mind like a whirlwind of razor blades.
“But how can you call me guilty?” Strone wailed.
Kalliana couldn’t bear to open her eyes as the elite guard caught her, supporting her by the shoulders and arms as she slumped. They rushed her back to the sanctuary of Guild Headquarters.
Craning his neck to gaze up into a sky that had been threatening rain for days, Troy Boren watched the space elevator car come down through the clouds. It hung from a braided diamond-fiber thread like fine spider silk thousands of kilometers long.
Sol-pol guards opened the chain-link security fence around the anchor point as the space elevator glided down, silently propelled by motivators along the unseverable cable. Troy squinted at the approaching shape, an artifact of old Earth technology: its armored walls were streaked with tarnish and ionization scars from daily trips to orbit and back over two centuries.
Troy imagined what it must have been like so long ago, when conditions were even more rugged than now. Upon their arrival at the raw, new planet, the original colonists had lived in orbit aboard a platform detached from the main shell of the ship. After several years they had dropped the elevator cable and anchored it at the place that would become First Landing, then they had begun their mass exodus down to the surface….
Now the cylindrical elevator car thrummed as it decelerated on the sturdy cable. A complicated network of servomotors, impellers, tension sensors, docking attachments, and control apparatus crowned its roof, looking as if someone had hammered random scrap components into place without prior planning. But the elevator worked, and it had always worked, and Troy had no doubt that it would continue to work for as long as he lived.
He hadn’t grown tired of the sight yet, not in his three weeks at the new job in First Landing. The space elevator seemed so … majestic. He squinted his bright, hazel eyes and watched the car descend. A wonder-filled smile crossed his face.
“All right, everybody, prepare for arrival,” Cren shouted. Troy’s boss worked with a feverish intensity that exhausted him just to watch. “Got it this time, Boren? Don’t screw up again. Training period is over. I don’t care who your father paid off.”
“Yes, sir!” Troy nodded, then glanced upward again, unable to tear his gaze from the elevator car’s final descent toward the anchor point.
“Oh, stop gawking,” Cren said. “You make me sick. It’s embarrassing to have such a starstruck kid on my crew. Go over there and get ready. You got the cargo manifests?”
“Uh, yes sir!” Troy waved the four paper cards printed with itemized lists of supplies, as if his boss might not believe him. He wondered how long it would take for Cren to believe in his competence.
“Be sure you get the damned numbers right this time. I don’t think it’ll stretch your mental capacity.” With a disgusted look, Cren went off to harass someone else. He clapped his hands as he flitted like a sand flea from worker to worker, double-checking, issuing orders, reinforcing his control.
Troy stared nervously down at the manifest cards in his hands, as if that could prevent him from making another mistake. Only two weeks ago he had transposed some digits in two shipments, which sent valuable cargo off to a pair of landholders who had not paid for it—and who refused, even on threat of sol-pol intervention, to return the precious resources that had arrived at their cargo stations. The Landholders Council and the Guild Mediators had been brought in and were even now working to settle the dispute. Cren had never let Troy forget just how much trouble his incompetence had caused.
“Never again,” Cren had said, leaning close enough to Troy that the young man could count the bloodshot lines on his boss’s eyeballs. Troy knew Cren got more enjoyment out of intimidating his workers than in getting the job done well. “Don’t you ever even dream of putting me through this another time.”
Troy was of medium height and thin, fidgety as he moved from one task to another. His family had been frustrated with his distractibility, unable to comprehend why he couldn’t just work hard and be content with his lot in life like the rest of them were. He just wasn’t cut out for a life as a miner, though.
He had done a brief stint on an ore hauler in one of the mine shafts, but he simply could not handle the strenuous physical toil. He had been transferred to one of the chemical leaching plants, and finally to an inventory shop, where he had received some of his training on computers. He had been reprimanded twice for letting his thoughts wander, for doodling, for letting the paperwork pile up. His mother had lectured him, making everything worse. Though he loved them, like a dutiful son, Troy couldn’t understand his family, why they were blind to dreams and possibilities, why they saw no further into the future than the next day—until it involved them directly.
Once the elevator car docked, Troy’s job was to go through the manifests and inspect every item as it came off the ramp, tallying it with the orders from various landholders, the Council, the Truthsayers Guild, merchants, or wealthy private citizens. When all the shipments had been removed and stored in the low holding warehouse for later distribution, and their totals entered into the computer systems, Troy would hand the double-checked manifests to Cren, who would then determine an equivalent amount of supplies to be sent back up to the Platform in exchange: water, canisters of air, craftwork, and hydroponically grown food or actual agricultural produce.
Under the overcast sky Troy and a dozen coworkers marched into the fenced area as the car settled onto its toroidal supports and padded bumpers. Chain links rattled as the fence gates moved apart. Two sol-pols stood at their station, looking bored; they had seen the car come and go hundreds of times.
Stalls lined the streets around the anchor point. First Landing’s marketplace bustled with merchants selling oddities, from desperately needed supplies to valueless trinkets: new fossils dug up in the mountain holdings, gaudy gemstones, exotic plants grown in private greenhouses.
The mag-lev lines from each landholding ran straight into First Landing at the large supply hub and boarding station. Single-passenger cars whistled in from the outlying areas, and cargo haulers trundled along the rails delivering supplies and resources: sweet-smelling pine lumber from Toth Holding, fish and kelp and bricks from Sardili Shores, salt and processed chemicals from the dry lakebeds of Dokken Holding.
As the other workers plodded through the elevator arrival procedures, Troy watched a big ore hauler come in from Koman Holding. As the cargo hauler locked itself down, burly miners sprang out, reminding him of his home and family up in the Mining District … how his father’s skin was always grimy from work in the ore shafts, his fingernails black no matter how much scrubbing he did. His squat mother had developed sloped shoulders and biceps as large as hams from her own backbreaking labor.
Troy’s family knew full well he could not have handled such a life. His little sister Rissbeth belittled him incessantly about being a weakling. His older sister Leisa understood and loved him unconditionally, though she had no idea what advice to give him. But Troy’s gruff father Rambra had unexpectedly rescued him. Paying a large bonus out of their family savings—all the credits he had set aside from his years of work—Rambra had petitioned their landholder, Victoria Koman herself, and she had found Troy a job in First Landing.
His job at the anchor point had been a godsend, and he knew his family had pinned all their hopes on the slim chance of his success. They gambled on him working his way up in the world, and finding a spot for them, too, so that they could escape from the mines.
If he could only establish a foothold here, perhaps Troy could find jobs for his sisters, a new position for his father, anything to free them from their cramped quarters and daily drudgery. Troy had vowed to do his best, but the way Cren treated him, he didn’t think his chances were too great.
On one of the first days, the boss had yanked him aside for a lecture. Cren jabbed a finger at Troy, keeping his voice low. “I don’t like being ordered to hire a redneck yokel from dirt-digger Koman Holding,” he said. “I don’t care who your father is or what he did, but this isn’t a free ride for you. I’m going to watch you closer than any of my other team members—because if you don’t deserve to keep your job here, there are plenty of others who do. Don’t think your father is going to get you out of trouble again.”
Troy swallowed and shook his head. “No, sir. He can’t—he has no money left. He spent it all just to get me this job.”
Now, Troy looked around him, wide eyed at the big city, where citizens went about their jobs as if everyone on Atlas was so blessed. Sol-pol guards stood at the corners, keeping order. Pilgrims in hooded robes moved about, muttering to themselves. Representatives from the outer landholdings met to make deals, trade supplies, and increase their own power. The space elevator landed with a thunking sound of locks and stabilizers.
Cren yelled at Troy again. “Hey, Boren—I’ve got a suggestion. Quit daydreaming! Come help us unload. Do your work, dammit! The car is down.”
Troy snapped out of his reverie and ran to do his job.
When the tall elevator car opened its bottom level, two passengers disembarked, stepping carefully onto the ramp the workers had rolled up and clamped into position by the access hatch. Troy was fascinated by the two Guild Mediators, in their white robes and crimson sashes, who had gone up to inspect operations on the Platform. A pair of elite guards also emerged from the elevator, escorting the Mediators.
When the passengers were clear and checked through security, Troy and his coworkers entered the cramped main chamber of the elevator, bumping shoulders as they wrestled with the containers lashed down in the lower storage bay.
Troy held the manifest cards, shuffling them as he tried to keep track of everything that came out of the elevator. He was especially careful not to get distracted and miss an item. Everything had its place on his list and in the storage warehouse.
Over by the chain-link fences Cren stood watching, checking each activity around him as if he could somehow keep control through the intensity of his scrutiny. Troy worked with greater diligence, trying not to reveal that he knew he was being watched.
Men in cargo hauler jumpsuits unloaded the sealed packages of replacement computerware: perfectly sandwiched circuits grown in orbit, sapphire films laid down in impedance paths on wafers, then sliced into specially patterned chips that followed old templates from Earth.
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