The mocking program by Alan Dean Foster

Cardenas hastily checked his calendar. He had ten days left.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

Pangborn stood with one hand on the door of his cruiser. Around them, the Nogales Central garage surged with activity: the whine of cruisers coming and going, specialized service vehicles shuttling back and forth, the yammering of officers and support personnel echoing off the underground walls, with the occasional curse or spark of excitement rising above and then falling below the general din. The noise within, like that of the Strip itself, was unrelenting around the clock.

Missing the Captain in his office, Cardenas had tracked him to the subterranean facility. Confronting him when he was on his way home was probably not the best way to secure permission for what the Inspector had in mind, but he was loath to waste even a minute’s time.

“I’ve thought it through very carefully.”

Pangborn rolled his eyes. “You always do, Angel. But that’s not what concerns me here. Not even you can just walk into a place like that and ask to see the boss.”

“I don’t want to see him. I want to arrest him and bring him back.”

“Oh, well,” Pangborn responded with blunt sarcasm, “that makes it easy, then! That eliminates all my concerns.” He eyed his friend and subordinate closely. “I don’t want to lose you, Angel. You’re the best intuit I’ve ever seen. You’re also a great poker partner.”

“I’m retiring in a few years, so you’re going to lose me anyway, verdad?” He smiled winningly, the tips of his profound mustache elevating in tandem with his cheeks.

“I’d rather not retire you on permanent disability. Or worse.” Pangborn could have escaped the conversation simply by slipping into the driver’s seat of the cruiser and closing the door behind him. That he did not was a sign of the respect he had for the Inspector— and also because he was wavering. Cardenas sensed it—of course.

“Until this cabron is put away somewhere, his daughter will never be entirely safe. No matter what Witness Protection says or does. Besides,” he argued, “even if no one else was involved, even if the future of an innocent twelve-year-old wasn’t at stake, this homber should be removed from circulation.”

Pangborn was obviously torn. Locking up someone like The Mock wouldn’t hurt his record one bit. “At least take Hyaki with you.”

Cardenas shook his head. “This one has to be done solo. If I go in with a squad, even if they’re opto incog people, there’s too much risk of them being recognized. Individuals like Mockerkin are always alert to unusual arrivals in their neighborhood. That’s why the smart ones don’t live in busy, crowded areas. Too much folk-flux. As for Fredoso, he’s as big as a whole squad himself, and draws even more attention. Me, I can blend in. I’ve always been able to do that. Besides, I can usually tell—”

“How people around you are going to react; yeah, yeah, I know.” Pangborn chewed his lower lip. “You might miss him. Research might be wrong and he could be off fishing in the Bahamas or cogering his current pos somewhere.”

Cardenas gave an eloquent shrug. “Then I miss him. I know there’s a chance of that. But I’d like to try. For the girl’s sake.”

The other man gave up and gave in. “I know it’s no use arguing with you. You’re always going to be able to anticipate my arguments. That doesn’t mean,” he added sternly (and largely for appearance’s sake), “that I can’t order you not to go.”

“Then I can requisition transportation?”

“I suppose. If not, I know I’m going to have to listen to you for the next ten days, and it’s hectic enough around here as it is. Go on, go on. Get out of here.” He waved diffidently and finally did take a seat in his cruiser, “Take another trip, spend the Department’s money. I only see you when you need something, anyway.” One hand on the door handle, he looked up at the satisfied senior officer gazing down at him. “Where is this criminal command center that Research found, anyway? You said it was in the Strip.”

Cardenas nodded. “Masmatamoros.”

The Captain grunted. “Just barely in our jurisdiction. Too far for the tube. Take a flight. It’s right in Masmata’?”

“Not exactly. According to the specs who traced it down, it’s all the way at the east end, out on the water. On the artificial archipelago they built landside of South Padre back in the thirties.”

Pangborn nodded thoughtfully. “It makes sense. Easy to spot trespassers, a couple dozen ways to escape an assault. I read about it once. Never been there myself.”

“That’s why I have to go in alone,” Cardenas told him.

“I wish I could say that I think you’re crazy, except I know that you’re not. Your personnel file says so. Watch yourself, Angel. I want to tell all the best jokes at your retirement myself. Unless I end up quitting before you.”

Cardenas stepped back as Pangborn closed the door of the cruiser. The powerful hydroelectric engine whined to life and the vehicle slid smoothly out of its charging cradle. The Inspector watched until it turned and disappeared, swallowed up by the vehicular maelstrom of the garage. Then he spun on his heel and headed for the nearest elevator.

For the second time in as many months, he had a shuttle ticket to book.

Coming in low over Masmatamoros, he was barely able to distinguish through the pervading haze the extensive industrial-commercial development that covered this gentle coastal curve of Namerica like brown algae on a stale tortilla. Strict environmental controls prevented the release into the atmosphere of the worst contaminants and toxins, but industrial discharges could not be eliminated entirely. Only mitigated.

They sure as hell mitigated the view, he reflected disappointedly. It didn’t matter. He was not here on vacation.

Masmata’ was the end of the Strip, the terminus, the last stop on the induction tube line that ran all the way across the continent to distant Sanjuana. Beyond lay the powder blue-green of the Gulf of Mexico. In between there was only the enormous harbor complex of Port Isabel, its deep-dredged and artificially maintained waterfront uniting this easternmost end of the Strip with the rest of Namerica and the world.

Cisneros International Airport had been constructed well inland, north of the main commercial belt and away from any threat of hurricane storm surge. A rapid-phase induction car carried him from the terminal direct to downtown Masmata, from where he took a local out to Port Isabel. So far, he had not worried about being noticed and had been able to blend in effortlessly with the crowds. Beyond Port Isabel, outside the commercial center of the Strip, he would have to be more careful.

The narrow spit of sand that ran for dozens of miles up the Texas and down the Tamaulipas coast consisted, on a map, of North and South Padre Islands as well as those that bordered the great Laguna Madre to the south. In reality, these attenuated strips of Gulf sea bottom were a ceaselessly shifting maze of unstable sand and soil. As a barrier to hurricane storm surges, they were an invaluable natural resource. Protected for more than a hundred years as recreation and wildlife refuges, they boasted little commercial development except at their very northern and southern extremities.

But the explosive expansion of the Montezuma Strip from Sanjuana on the Pacific coast eastward along the old U. S.-Mexican border and then on down the Rio Grande had its oceanic terminus at Masmatamoros and, finally, Port Isabel. Having exhausted some decades earlier the available developable coastal land in the vicinity of the Port, numerous powerful and impatient mercantile interests had banded together, lobbied for, and eventually secured permission to build not on protected South Padre Island, but behind it.

Thousands of noncorrosive composite pilings were sunk and computer-stabilized floats put in place. One after another, floating or fixed structures rose behind the sand spit. Directly behind the island itself, moderate to very expensive homes and codos went in, allowing their inhabitants access to the waterways of the South Bay, the Bahia Grande, and the Gulf of Mexico. Behind the booming residential area, commercial and low-impact industrial development was allowed to blossom. At its back and still closer to the mainland was the intracoastal waterway, busier than ever shipping products north from the maquiladoras of the Strip. It was an arrangement that suited everyone but the greenies. Having long since given up trying to save anything but isolated fragments of the Strip’s original ecology, they had shifted their fight to more receptive climes.

Both bays, the mouth of the Rio Grande, and the heavy development in the region known loosely as West Padre were served by a motley, colorful assortment of large ferries and small water taxis. Sleek, high-speed personal hydrofoils crossed paths with slower but more flexible amphibious hovercraft and ancient powerboats. In the midst of this inspired marine chaos, seemingly suicidal pleasure sail-boaters cruised back and forth with improbable aplomb. Looming over them all were the huge bulk carriers and transports flying flags of convenience from dozens of nations.

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster