The mocking program by Alan Dean Foster

Certainly the subgrub was startled to see the police Inspector bearing down on him as he struggled with the old-style latch that secured the rear service door. Before he could slide the illegal desense patch over the lock, Cardenas had him by the shoulder. Expecting a struggle, or at least some form of defiance, the Inspector was surprised when the kid broke out crying. Tears spilled from behind the muse lenses. He was not scared of Cardenas—something else had him utterly terrified. Embedded miragoos rippled on his slim chest.

“Leemee ‘lone! I didn’t do nada… I don’ know nada! Por favor, madre, please . . . !”

“Easy, nino, everything’s vacan. Calm down.” Gradually, the tears subsided. Breathing hard, his sallow, elaborately decorated chest heaving, Wild Whoh flipped up the muse lenses to blink uncertainly at the surprisingly strong homber who held him tightly by one arm. Without letting go of his quarry, Cardenas stepped back slightly, trying to give the still-apprehensive kid as much personal space as possible.

“You . . . you really are a federale, aren’t you? Verdad?”

Nodding slowly, Cardenas ventured his most professional paternal smile.

“You’re not gonna hurt me because . . . because I sabe Katla?”

Gently, deliberately, the Inspector let go of the kid’s arm. Rubbing it, Wild Whoh gazed back at him. For an instant, Cardenas thought the subgrub was going to bolt again. But having already fired his flashirt to disorient his captor, his chances of getting away were now much reduced, and he knew it.

“Why would I, or for that matter anybody, want to hurt you just because you know Katla Anderson?”

“Chingame,” the boy muttered. “Maybe because Katla talks to me, tells me stuff, and somebody’s maybe afraid I’m a snaffler, a horicon.”

“A jaw-jacker?” Cardenas smiled. “Why? Do you talk too much?”

Whoh shook his head rapidly. “No way. But there’s people don’ believe nothing an homber says, sabe? I know how to keep my mouth shut. But there’s always those who want to shut it for you.” His fear finally beginning to fade, he regarded Cardenas much as had Anderson’s erstwhile friends at soche. “She all right, Katla?”

“We don’t know. She didn’t show up at soche today.”

Whoh nodded slowly, as if this revelation was half anticipated. “I was afraid—I’ve always been afraid for her. Such a quiet one, Katla-key. Sweet sugar Katla.” The Inspector was afraid the kid, uncharacteristically, was going to start crying again. “She used to—tell me things.”

The throbbing din from within the depths of the Melarium was starting to give Cardenas a headache. He did not much care for contemporary music. As far as he was concerned, adding electronics, echoverb, and heavy bass to marimba was a puta-tive corruption of a fine tradition. In this he knew he was an exception. Most of his colleagues reveled in the thunderous amplified throbbing.

“What kinds of ‘things’?” he encouraged the subgrub as considerately as he could.

A little of the boy’s previous defiance resurfaced. “Why should I tell you anything, fedoco? If you’re verdad, you ain’t gonna do nothin’ to me. Everything I got on me is legale.” He tapped his skinny miragooed chest. “I’m not hiding anything.”

Cardenas indicated the flamboyant belt that still encircled the boy’s waist. “That’s an impressive accumulation.”

Slightly taken aback by the change of subject, Wild Whoh recovered quickly. With the muse lenses still flipped up, the Inspector noted that the boy had one blue eye and one black one. “No mierde, homber. Took most of a year to put together.”

“But you’re missing something.” Cardenas pointed to a gap on the belt’s right-hand side. “I can get you the Seventh Node.”

Avarice replaced the last vestiges of real fear in the boy’s eyes. “You’re chinging with me, fedoco. Nobody can get a Seven Node. They’re gone, muertoed, finished, expiated. Noburu only shipped a few before the safety boardos made ’em cease an’ defist.”

Cardenas looked away, as if utterly indifferent to anything Whoh might think. “That’s what I heard. You know, in the course of our work, we find ourselves confiscating all kinds of illegal materials that people try to sneak through places like Sanjuana and Penasco.”

“You can really get your hands on a Seventh Node?” When Cardenas maintained his silence, Wild Whoh rubbed a recently embedded miragoo with the palm of his left hand and muttered, “What you want to know, homber?”

“You’re afraid for Katla because she knows certain ‘things.’ You’re afraid for yourself because she told those things to you.” Cardenas locked eyes with the subgrub and would not let go. “Now you can pass them on to me. Don’t worry. I’ll keep your name out of anything that follows.”

Wild Whoh nodded slowly. “You better, fedoco, or you’re liable to find me at the end of a calle someday with all seven nodes shoved down my voice-hole. Katla, she was always talking about her family.”

“She had family problems?”

“Not Katla, homber, not Katla!” The kid made shushing motions and Cardenas resumed listening. “She was fine. Real fine. But tranquilo, like I said. Not a kid anymore, not a woman yet either. But here”—he tapped the side of his head, just above where the muse strap encircled it and below the hedge of green hirsuteness—”she was metal, homber. Metal an’ Muse and wetbox, you sabe?

“So she was smart.”

“Not just smart, fedoco. Me, maybe I’m antisoc, but I got good crunch, you know? Tightlike. But compared to Katla, me and my compadres, we’re krill. She wasn’t the one with the problemas. It was the rest of her family.” Leaning forward, he lowered his voice to a whisper, as if some vast, ominous presence might be lurking close, watching and listening. “You ever hear of an homber named Cleator Mockerkin?”

Cardenas thought a moment before shaking his head no.

“Katla’s papa. A real caracter feo, a bad homber, sabe? A verdad chingaringa. That’s what Katla used to tell me, anyway. He—”

“Wait a minute.” Cardenas’s tone was compassionate as always, but it still stopped the subgrub in mid-sentence. “Are you sure? ‘Cleator Mockerkin’?”

The kid did not hesitate. “Hey, fedoco, you think I could mess up a name like that?”

The Inspector persisted. “Did she ever mention a George Anderson?”

The boy’s expression contorted. “Anderson? He’s the homber Katla said lives with her mother. What do you know about him?”

It was a question that had been much on Cardenas’s mind. One to which the details, it seemed, were not to be forthcoming from this defiant yet fearful youth. “Never mind. So Katla didn’t like her papa, told you he was a malo. What about him? What did she tell you?”

From the start, Wild Whoh had not seemed particularly wild. Now he just looked worried. “Stuff I promised not to tell anybody else. Hoy, I know you can get a warrant for a truth pump.” Manchild eyes implored the watchful interrogator. “I’m asking you not to do it, man. Don’t make me ratatattle on her.”

“Take it easy.” Cardenas did his best to reassure the kid: as much as any federale could reassure a ninloco. “I’m asking you back, not pressing.”

Whoh gazed past the Inspector, past the looming, booming mass of the Melarium, into the night. “He’s rich, her papa. Dines on dinero. Keeps to himself. Katla, she didn’ know a whole lot about his business. Sometimes, she would hear him yelling into a vorec. Bad words, homber. Sewer brew. An’ not just bad nasty, but bad threatening, sabe? She told me he would say horrific things, make terrible threats, if he thought he wasn’t getting his way. Once, she was up late and she passed by his office, and she told me she thought she heard screams from inside. Screams, and loud noises.”

“What kinds of noises?” Cardenas asked patiently.

Wild Whoh thought a moment. “Like this.” Bringing his right hand down, he slapped the smooth pavement hard. “Loud but muffled, like something soft and heavy hitting the ground. She ran the rest of the way to her room. This Mockerkin, he fought with her mother, too. Surtsey?” The Inspector nodded. “Used to hit her with his hands as well as with words. Katla, she said her mother told her that the words were worse than the hands. I met her mama a couple times.” The kid made an automatic, perhaps unconscious, gesture that signified mildly obscene approval. “What a mira-kel, man!” He hastened to qualify the compliment. “For an old lady, I mean.”

“So Mockerkin used to beat up Katla’s mother. And maybe other people. Anything else? What about Katla herself?”

Whoh looked away. “I promised I wouldn’t tell, man.”

Cardenas could be very persuasive. He leaned forward. “Just me, homber. I promise it won’t go beyond here-and-now.”

Still, Whoh hesitated. Finally, he pushed his mouth closer to Cardenas’s ear. What he whispered made the skin crawl on the back of the Inspector’s neck. He said nothing, just listened, and when the jittery subgrub was finished, stood back and regarded the boy solemnly.

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster