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Blindfold

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2019 год
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Cialben swallowed and looked ahead to the stadium-sized lit area where the space elevator car sat docked, ready for resupply in the morning. “I’ve just never picked up a shipment myself, that’s all. Is this the way it’s always done?”

“It’s different every time,” Maximillian answered. “Dokken insisted you come along this time.”

“He’s never done that before either, not in ten years of this kind of scut work. You don’t think that’s unusual?”

“You must learn to trust people,” Maximillian said.

“Dokken’s the one who taught me not to trust anybody,” Cialben said in exasperation.

“Stop asking questions,” Maximillian said.

Cialben muttered. The sol-pols said nothing—they rarely did.

The guards led the way through the streets with no indication of uneasiness. Cialben and Maximillian had an excuse if they were stopped and questioned … but Dokken had made it clear that he preferred they not be questioned.

The Veritas drug was rigidly controlled by the Truthsayers Guild, but Cialben managed to distribute a small fraction of it to the black market. He had never dared to ask what sort of arrangement the powerful landholder Franz Dokken had made with Kareem Sondheim up on the Platform, how he obtained capsules skimmed from the supplies allotted only to Truthsayers. By Atlas law—established by the Guild itself, of course—no one but a designated Truthsayer was allowed to use the mind-boosting drug.

That didn’t mean there was no demand elsewhere, though. Cialben fed that demand.

True, only Truthsayers could use the Veritas to maximum effect. Their bodies had built up a tolerance from a lifelong exposure to the drug. For them the psychic boost lasted hours or days, whereas in a regular human the Veritas rush was good for only a few seconds.

But, oh, those seconds! Like having a dozen minds at once, lifetimes of memories, experiences right at his mental fingertips … though they faded as fast as the drug did in his nonacclimated system. Short-term memories, like vanishing dreams.

Cialben had taken Veritas himself back in the early days, when Dokken had used him as a spy numerous times to get an edge in the constant power struggle for land. Cialben had performed admirably each time, though Dokken had been miserly with his rewards.

But Dokken had flown into a rage when Cialben had once dared to carry Veritas in his presence, intending to use it later for enjoyment among the servants … possibly even dipping into the mind of Dokken’s beautiful lover Schandra. He hadn’t anticipated Dokken’s violent reaction. In a terrifying instant Maximillian, Dokken’s faithful and powerful manservant, had locked Cialben’s arms behind his back, driving him to his knees in the private drawing room of the villa. Franz Dokken had glared down at him, his teeth bared in anger that transformed him into a beast.

“I do like secrets, Cialben,” Dokken had whispered, “especially when they belong to someone else.” His voice was low and cold. “But I want to keep my own secrets. You are never to use Veritas in my presence. Is that understood?”

Cialben, his neck aching from staring up at the landholder, tried to nod. Maximillian’s powerful fist clutched Cialben’s short graying hair, yanking his head up so that he gazed directly into Dokken’s tanned face.

“I understand,” Cialben said. “Really, I do.”

“No one on Dokken Holding is to use this drug, but you’re free to sell it to all the other landholders. I know how destabilizing Veritas can be. Let my rivals tear themselves apart.”

Since that time, they had indeed kept their understanding—but now, tonight, he and Maximillian had been sent all the way in to First Landing to obtain a large shipment of Veritas capsules, the largest delivery ever. If Guild Master Tharion found out about it, he would probably have a cerebral hemorrhage.

The group of four splashed through the darkening streets. The air jealously held on to its damp coolness, and Cialben felt his hands growing numb. He stepped in a puddle, which made his ankle cold and wet. Cialben shook his foot. Maximillian gestured for him to hurry. Faint steam curled from his breath.

The bright lights of the elevator anchor point stood in front of them. A squad of First Landing sol-pols stood around the chain-link fence, huddled together to keep warm. But Cialben knew the shipment wasn’t on the elevator. It remained in the inventory warehouse, where the computers and shipping manifests were kept, along with the supplies waiting to be distributed to the outer holdings.

The inventory warehouse was a low, one-story building made of steel supports, darkened glass windows, and adobe bricks, only one building in a district of similar warehouses. The group approached from the rear. Maximillian showed not the slightest tension.

While the regular night shift sol-pols had established a firm presence at the anchor point, the inventory warehouse had been locked and left alone. Their two sol-pols slipped toward the building. The shorter of them withdrew an access key card and slid it in to the sealed door.

The door opened silently, letting Maximillian and Cialben enter. Lined with pale bricks, the entrance yawned like a cave. Faint lights burned inside, tiny illumination resisting complete darkness and leaving only murk.

“How can you be sure the warehouse is empty?” Cialben said.

Maximillian looked down at him with scorn, his craggy face creasing in distaste. “Look how dark it is.”

They crouched inside, using their hand illuminators to send bright spears of light into the shadows. “Shouldn’t be hard to find,” Cialben whispered, moving forward, still reluctant to take the lead. One of the sol-pols remained stationed at the door while Cialben, Maximillian, and the second guard went past administrative cubicles equipped with old computer systems and paper files, to the chill warehouse section.

“This way.” Maximillian’s pale gray outfit made him look like a ghost in the dimness.

A clutter of canisters, supply crates, and cages waited in the rear. The boxes of computer chips and sterilized pharmaceuticals had been placed in neatly ordered bins along one wall. The cold concrete floor made flat echoes of their footsteps as they walked.

Cialben flashed his light around. Segmented metal doors rolled up for loading heavy transports; beside them stood bins of metal sheeting, girders, and other supplies. Sweet, resinous lumber had been stacked in the middle of the concrete pad. Outside in separate storage barns were further shipments, bulky items brought in from one holding and marked for commercial distribution to the highest bidders.

In the livestock section Cialben went to a wire cage filled with hopping, cheeping chicks. The stupid birds had spilled their water and dumped feed all over the bottom of their cages. They looked filthy.

“Here,” Maximillian said, squatting by one of the large cages. “Shine the light over here.”

Inside, the black water buffalo calf seemed eager for attention, lowing loudly. Its dark eyes were wet and glistening. It tilted its squarish nose upward as if seeking milk from a mother it had never had. The clone-grown calf knew nothing of its own existence.

“Not this one,” Maximillian said, squinting at the tattoo in the calf’s ear. He moved to a second cage. The other calf let out a bellow, demanding yet shy. “Here.”

He unfastened the catch on the wire cage and swung open the door. The calf backed away clumsily, uncertain but with nowhere to go. Maximillian banged the back of the cage with the flat of his hands rattling the wires. The startled animal stumbled out, lowing again.

Cialben gently put an arm around the calf’s neck to keep it from running loose in the warehouse. Grateful, the animal nuzzled his hands with a wet nose. An overturned aluminum water dish sat dry at the bottom of the cage.

“In a water buffalo?” Cialben said. “Is Sondheim running out of ideas? Or is this one of Dieter’s sick suggestions?”

“No one asked me how to do it,” Maximillian said, then fixed a stony glare on Cialben. “And no one asked you either.”

The water buffalo mooed again, and Cialben patted its neck to hush it. The calf nuzzled his hand, running a long, wet tongue along his palm.

Maximillian slipped a long wide-bladed knife from a sheath at his hip, and in a single lightning movement drove the blade hard against the calf’s side. A quick thrust between the ribs, then a second full-muscled shove to drive the point all the way into the calf’s heart.

The animal bleated in shock, but was dead before it could move. Its eyes rolled up, glassy. Its body shuddered and spilled blood all over the concrete floor as it fell.

Cialben stepped back to keep from being sprayed.

With the carcass still twitching, Maximillian knelt and, tugging on a pair of rubber gloves, withdrew the knife and gutted the calf. He worked without speaking, breathing hard from the strenuous activity.

Cialben watched the slaughter with eager horror, his throat dry, his lips peeled back in a combined grin and wince. Maximillian’s arms were slick with red up to his elbows, far higher than the gloves reached. Using both arms Maximillian heaved out the calf’s entrails, then sliced open the largest stomach to pull out a plastic-wrapped package.

Dokken’s manservant held the bloody packet in his gloved hands and gestured for the sol-pols. The second guard rushed forward from his post at the door. The first man bent over the carcass, choosing the best handhold. The two strong men lifted up the dead water buffalo, and together they lugged it, still dripping blood, out of the warehouse. They disappeared into the night. The fresh veal—a delicacy read about in the archives but never tasted by any living person on the planet—would bring a high price indeed.

Maximillian used his slippery fingers to unwrap the folded plastic of the hidden package. He unrolled the outer wrapping and exposed a treasure.

Cialben gasped. He had never before seen so much in a single shipment. Hundreds and hundreds of sky-blue capsules of the Veritas drug.

More truth than all of Atlas could comprehend.

ii

With a stretching sound and then a snap, Maximillian removed the rubber glove from his left hand, carefully tucking it into the pocket of his gray cotton jalaba, where it left a bloody smear.

Cialben kept his eyes fixed hungrily on the hoard of Veritas, dreaming of the huge number of credits it would bring and also eager to experience the psychic rush again. Because of Dokken’s adamant refusal to allow any use of Veritas by his own workers, Cialben had restrained himself, his fear of Dokken’s wrath greater than his desire for fleeting entertainment.

With a clean hand Maximillian delicately, reverently, picked up one of the sky-blue capsules with his thick fingers. He held it in the palm of his hand, rolling it around in the creases of his skin, studying it under the uncertain light. Cialben’s eyes followed it.

“Do you deserve this?” Maximillian said, surprising Cialben.

“Come on—after all I’ve done for Dokken?” he answered. “What does he think?”

Maximillian held Cialben’s gaze for a long moment. Around them the stillness and darkness of the warehouse seemed to smother all sound. The remaining two water buffalo snorted in their cages, smelling the blood.

The manservant flicked his wrist, tossing the sky-blue capsule toward Cialben. Grinning, he reached out to snatch it from the air.

Maximillian continued in a voice free of emotion. “One and one only,” he said. “And you have to do it here.”

Cialben held the capsule like a gem, slightly soft and filled with secrets. He looked around him in the empty warehouse. “Here?”

“And now. You know Dokken won’t allow it on his own landholding.”

Cialben didn’t know what the psychic rush would do for him in such an empty scenario. But the sleeping city lay out there, the identical dwellings, the brick homes, the steel apartment buildings. He considered the thousands of thoughts, the personal mysteries, the muddled dreams the colonists would be broadcasting into the air. The telepathic boost would last only a few seconds, but it would burn very brightly indeed, at peace, surrounded by the city.
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