Was that the right passage, there, off to his left? Or was it the next one down? He struggled to remember the nexus sheet the spinner had spun. Resolutely, he turned down the first narrow lane that presented itself. If he was remembering incorrectly, the worst that was likely to happen was that no one would respond to his presence. Unless someone made him for a federale, in which case he might find himself staring down the quadruple barrel of an Ithaca spitter, or something equally unpleasant.
The passageway terminated in a door that appeared to have been cobbled together from scraps of wood and scrap metal, but in actuality was a single sheet of cold-effused alloy sufficiently impervious to do any old-time bank vault proud. There were no handles, no windows or ports, no visible hinges. Equally invisible was the speaker that barked hesitantly at him.
“What is the word, byte?”
“There is no word,” Cardenas replied evenly. “There are only numbers masquerading as words.”
The hidden interrogator did not reply. Cardenas envisioned acolytes on the other side of the door conversing animatedly with one another. It would take a moment for word of his presence to be passed onward.
Finally, “What do you seek?”
“Aurilac the Wise—if he’s at home and not indisposed,” Cardenas added solicitously.
“You’re a fedoco.” The tone was slightly accusing. The Inspector did not search for the concealed vits through which he was being observed, nor the weapons that were doubtless trained on him and could easily prevent any flight to freedom down the narrow, constricting lane.
“I’m a searcher after truth, like yourself.”
“Is that what you seek from the Wise? Truth?” the voice wanted to know.
“None of us have access to true truth. Not even the Wise. We can only search for it. I’m a fellow searcher.” He smiled at the unseen speaker. “The Wise seeks the peace that lies in studying the places between man and machine. My work is ensuring the peace of the first. On behalf of that, we’ve exchanged communications previously. Sometimes information arrives in my personal box that I know comes from him. Sometimes I have the opportunity to help his Order.” He leaned forward slightly. “There are those who don’t like what you believe and what you do. Who consider you all borderline antisocs. I’m not one of them. I’m a friend.”
“And a voluble one, at that.” The door opened to admit him, not by moving inward, but by scrolling up and disappearing into the top of the lintel. “Enter, seeker.”
“I’m armed,” he warned them before stepping through.
“We know.” The door closed behind him.
Standing in a very small hallway, he found himself bathed in a pale blue light. When it shut off, an unexpectedly voluptuous young woman clad in a single garment comprised of melted-down, thin-rolled, and recast discarded electronic components greeted him with a contented half-smile. Lights winked and flashed from her uncomfortable-looking costume, but she did not seem to mind how it bunched up and bound. Seeing his eyes wander, her smile widened.
“It keeps those of us who strive to learn the Way alert,” she explained.
“What Way is that?” he asked as she turned and he followed her.
“Why, the Right Way, of course. But if you are truly a seeker, as you claim, and not just another dumb, Neanderthalic fedoco, you already know that.”
“The blue light?” he inquired as they turned a sharp corner in the featureless corridor.
“We don’t fear ordinary weapons such as you bear on your person. We have ways of dealing with those. Our concern was that you might have carried, willingly or otherwise, a disruptor on your person. That would concern us.” Glancing back at him, she smiled beatifically. “We can’t have intruders spizzing our crunch.”
“I feel exactly the same way,” he replied truthfully.
The corridor opened with unexpected abruptness into a large, darkened room. The ceiling above had been removed, allowing the ranks of coil chairs to move freely between two floors. Screens glowed and heads-up projections filled much of the available space. More than two dozen acolytes of the Wise sat or slumped before the astonishing plethora of displays. Some of the attentive operators were directly wired in via contact caps, while others murmured to sensitive vorecs or fingered keyboards. The soft rise and fall of their voices as they whispered verbal commands to their consoles reminded Cardenas of muffled Gregorian chant, though the language they were speaking had as much to do with Latin as Finnish did with Fijian.
In the center of it all, at the far end of the chamber, Aurilac the Wise reposed contentedly in a reclining lounge that pivoted in response to his murmured commands. Gray of hair and sardonic of aspect, alert of eye and swollen of body, he waved off the woman who had just finished filling his half-meter-long glycol pipe and languidly blew a cloud of aromatic smoke in Cardenas’s direction. Sampling the puff with a sniff, the Inspector identified at least three different soporifics in addition to the masking fragrance.
“Why don’t you just ingest?” He halted before the lounge. If intended to give the appearance of a throne, it was decidedly cavalier in design. The young woman who had escorted him folded her hands and remained by his side. What surprises besides her undeniably attractive self lay concealed beneath the nictitating electronic garb that covered her from head to toe he did not know, but he suspected they would be potentially lethal.
Aurilac the Wise waved the pipe like a conductor halfway through a Ravel largo and grinned. “Could. Be more efficient. But there’s no aesthetic appeal in popping a pill. This is more fun, and I really think it enhances the potency.” His gaze narrowed. “You’re an intuit.”
For the first time since he had entered the outside alley, Cardenas was surprised. “How do you know that?”
“I didn’t. But I’m a good guesser. You have to be, when you’re forced to live with my physical problems.” Wincing, he shifted his mass on the lounge.
“Is that a truth you’ve learned?”
“Better believe it, brother. There’s no truth like incurable back pain. It’s all bound up with reality. But then, reality is all about being bound to something. You’re bound to your work, Camille there is bound to her preferences.” He made a sweeping gesture, taking in the room of active acolytes. “We’re all of us bound to something. It’s those few who understand the nature of those bindings who have reached something of an understanding with their inner selves, and with life.” He took another puff of the pipe. Smoke curled upward like translucent snakes preparing to strike. “Being an intuit, you already know that.”
“I know a few things,” Cardenas replied sincerely.
“But not enough.” Coughing, Aurilac set the pipe aside. “Or you wouldn’t be here.”
The Inspector nodded imperceptibly. “I need your help. Yours, and that of your fellow believers.”
The woman attending the reclining ecclesiastic spoke up sharply. “Why should we help you? Why should we tell you anything? The NFP has never done anything for us.”
“I beg to differ, senora. We have left you alone.”
Aurilac chuckled. “Ah, the wondrous benefits of official oversight! A fedoco with a sense of humor. Humor is a wedge for opening reluctant truths.” Sitting up, he winked at his visitor. “Part of being a successful cleric is knowing how to dispense pithy aphorisms.”
“You’re good at it,” Cardenas told him truthfully.
“Something else that binds us together. I suppose you’re bound to ask me some questions. Doesn’t mean I’ll answer them.”
“You don’t have to. This isn’t about you, or your sect. I’m trying to find a woman.”
Beside him, Camille laughed softly. When she did so, the lights adorning her raiment flickered more brightly. “You need to look in a sextel, not the Bonezone.”
Cardenas eyed her tolerantly. “A woman and her daughter.”
Camille returned his gaze. “I rest my case.”
With a sigh, the Inspector turned his full attention to the mildly curious Aurilac. “Others are looking for them as well. Some want to question them, some to kill them.”
Aurilac grunted. “And which is it you intend?”
Cardenas took a deep breath. “I just want to find out what the hell is going on.”
Exhibiting unexpected energy, the ecclesiastic sat up sharply, so quickly that he startled his doting attendant. Closing his eyes, he brought both hands down in front of him and genuflected in his visitor’s direction. A look of satisfaction creased his features.
“Wonder of wonders! All praise to the Universal Box. A fedoco who not only has a sense of humor, but hints at wisdom. Who would have thought to see such a thing.” Leaning back, he recovered his pipe. “That, my friend, is as close to a universal truth as any I have heard expounded. At least in the past week. I’m not saying we can help you, but what is it you want to know about these two females. Why do others want to question them, or wish them dead?”