The mocking program by Alan Dean Foster

But whoever was stumbling along beneath the fabric facade knew of his interest in Cleator Mockerkin. As that interest was something less than common knowledge, Cardenas was quietly burning to learn how his unseen guide had become aware of it. Also, it had, or claimed to have, information. Trailing the figure deeper into the alley, the Inspector let one hand cradle the frac he always carried in his righthand pants pocket. It was capable of stunning a small mob; he did not doubt its ability to incapacitate one wandering masque, no matter how spizzed its owner might happen to be.

Near the end of the passage, the figure turned. Its appearance was now that of a tall, handsome young man. The scene was so quiet you could hear the condensation drip from the arterial network of conduits that served the buildings’ air-conditioning systems. No water actually reached the ground, of course. Within the Strip, casual evaporation of recyclable water resources was a crime punishable, if not by law, then by the severe opprobrium of one’s neighbors.

The morphmasque suddenly flared, and the image of a young man turned into that of a slender middle-aged woman. The Inspector’s fingers tightened around the frac. But the display was a prelude to dialogue, not a threat. For a moment, Cardenas was afraid he had been lured sideways simply to view some adverts. If so, he had to admire the masquer’s gall.

No, that couldn’t be right, he told himself. The unseen wanderer knew of his interest in The Mock.

“You going to talk, compadre, or just flash me?”

The owner of the masque shuddered slightly, though whether from the effects of sparkle, degeneration, or laughter, Cardenas could not intuit. Young man became middle-aged woman became teenage ninloco became white-robed saint as multiple identities morphed rapidly before the Inspector’s eyes. Having watched morphmasquing in action before, he had only a cursory interest in the process of shell-shifting. “You want to dock The Mock. The Turtle heard.”

At least now it had a name, the Inspector reflected. “How do you know that?”

Continuously reinventing themselves, lights and landscapes undulated across the masque; the inverse of camouflage. The unseen owner became a street light, a postbox, a charging station and an altar, and, perhaps most tellingly, a garbage bin. “When you turn tortuga, you learn how to listen. I hear things on the backStrip, I do.” The quavering voice grew louder. “Things they say, ‘That intuit who’s straight, he wants to know about The Mock’s woman.'” Cardenas tensed slightly. “Your rep precedes you, fedoco.”

The Inspector ignored the compliment. “What do you know about Surtsey and Katla Mockerkin? Are they all right? Are they still in the Strip?”

The masque became a flickering bipedal pillar of crackling lights and spinning optos. “It’s caramba time, fedoco. Tiempo tempo. Time for all turtles to find a hole to crawl into and be very still.” The trembling intensified. That reaction Cardenas could interpret: this would-be informer was scared. Scared bad, right down to the bottom of his masque’s swaddling skirt.

“I won’t involve you. What do you want?”

“For the sequence? Nada, homber. But The Turtle has suffered too much tampo tiempo. Too much time in jail.” The figure morphed into a quite detailed image of a narrow, barred cell. “Next time I’m in dock, maybe I call on my good compadre Cardenas the intuit, and they cut me a crease, you know so?” Again the serious shudder. “In Rehab they take away your shell!”

Trying to envision what lay beneath the morphmasque, Cardenas realized he still could not tell if the speaker was male or female. “You can always find me through the NFP box. I never forget a friend.” He moved a little closer until the masque, now presenting the likeness of a small horse standing on its hind legs, flailed warningly with its front feet and flared a nervous red. “What about The Mock’s family?”

“There’s yakk on the backStrip.” Beneath the masque, something shrugged. It might have been a shoulder. “You need to visit a certain infomaniac.” The voice fell slightly. “You sabe Mocceca’s Mall?”

Cardenas nodded. “I know where it is.”

“In the back back past the bake rack. Talk to the Indian2. He’ll know.” Turning, the ungainly figure abruptly bolted from the alley.

“Wait!” The Inspector hurried after him. “One more question!”

He slowed when he reached the street. A few curious pedestrians glanced in his direction. Their stares did not linger. Cardenas was not in uniform. In the absence of NFP turquoise blue, he was not readily identifiable as an officer of the law. That meant he could be an officer of something else, so citizens did not stare. At night, even in well-traveled parts of the Strip, a lingering gaze was not a prudent accoutrement.

Of The Turtle, there was no sign. It might already have crossed the street, or entered a nearby building. Or he/she could be standing a foot or two away from Cardenas. The morphmasque would allow its denizen to blend in indistinguishably with its surroundings. A morph was not as sophisticated as an al-Levi military chameleon suit, but in an urban environment, it was effective enough.

He checked his ident. It was still early, although the time mattered only to him. Playplaces like Mocceca’s stayed open 24/7, and no time off for good behavior. As he headed north, in the direction of the nearest public induction tube, he found himself pondering the identity of the individual who had been identified to him by The Turtle. Cardenas knew plenty of Indians. But an Indian “squared”? That was an ethnic description that was new to him. Did the designation refer to the indicated individual’s shape, or his mind-set?

Damn morphmasque, he muttered to himself as he lengthened his stride. You couldn’t intuit through the damn thing, any more than you could see through a turtle’s shell. Which, of course, was the intent of both kinds of animals.


MOCCECA’S MALL WAS BUT ONE OF TWO DOZEN interconnected commercial sites that occupied a peninsula jutting out into the shallow body of water that had been euphemistically named by its developers Lake Fox. That there had never been a lake in the sandy depression until its developers had contracted for it to be filled with recycled effluent did not trouble the owners. Such was the name-game of enthusiastic property mavens. The two artificial islands in the center of the lake had been given over to recreational ends, and were inhabited by robot foxes that energetically hunted robot mice. The real rats that had arrived to join them ignored their scentless mechanical counterparts as they patrolled the shore for tadpoles, frogs, fish, and the detritus of human fast food that eventually washed up on the islands’ shores. It was an irony of contemporary life that the wrappers of hamburger and tostada, noodle and pizza, biodegraded faster than the scraps of food that adhered to them, for which the real rodents, as opposed to the automatonic ones, were ever grateful.

Like its companion malls, Mocceca’s was a garish, brassy architectural album of small shops designed to appeal to visitors and residents alike. Within the one- and two-story faux Mexican village and Indian pueblo buildings could be found quaint regional eateries, fast I food restaurants, clothing boutiques, stim dispensers, demo outlets for the major box distributors, and, if one knew how and where to look, less savory entertainments and goods that bordered on antisoc.

A few casual inquiries were sufficient to guide Cardenas to the comercio of the proprietor known colloquially as Indian2. The reason for the unusual designation became clear as soon as the Inspector entered the souvenir shop and introduced himself to the owner. Behind the counter, Mashupo Mingas displayed pictures of his Hindu mother and Zuni father. He was not twice-Indian, boasting lineage from two tribes, but Indian squared, with parents from opposite sides of the world. As an ethnic background it was distinctive, but not exceptional. Not in these days of massive migrations of human beings from every corner of every continent. It was, however, a combination the Inspector had not previously encountered in person.

Mingas remained cordial even after Cardenas revealed himself as a representative of the NFP. Slight but sinewy of build, he smiled readily as he pointed out the attractions of his comercio, which ranged from attractive canvases of southwestern scenes that glowed with the light of their quantum bead paint, to cheap, hoary traditional tourist take-homes like scorpions and tarantulas embedded in Lucite paperweights. As the taking of live desert arachnids was proscribed, the highly detailed creatures were sterile clones raised exclusively for the souvenir trade. There were also vits for sale, and map wafers, and an impressive range of regional foodstuffs, many boasting highly imaginative and often humorous packaging. A small porch out back was set with a pair of tables and chairs, where patrons could sit and sip drinks while gazing out at the distant islands and their robot foxes. A well-dressed Amerind couple was there now, their attention focused on the lake.

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57

Categories: Alan Dean Foster