The mocking program by Alan Dean Foster

There were no battlements, no turrets, no weapons ports designed to allow alerted security personnel to sweep the waterway and walkways with ravening gunfire. It looked like an ordinary warehouse, painted green to blend in with both its natural and artificial surroundings. On its side, in tall white letters of industrial plastic, was the name TAIEESH IMPORT AND EXPORT. At first glance, it was a building no different from the dozens with which it shared the waterway.

Standing on the landing for twenty minutes, Cardenas had yet to see anyone go in or out. That did not mean it was abandoned. Those who worked inside might very well be busy at their assigned tasks. Or there could be a submerged entrance, out of view of passing traffic as well as any patrolling authorities. Given the nature of much of The Mock’s business, Cardenas all but expected it.

Fortuna favet fortibus, the philosopher Barks had oft declared. Readying himself, the Inspector headed for the nearest visible doorway. Pausing before the inset metal door that was as nondescript as the rest of the structure, he buzzed for admittance. Aware that he was certainly being scanned, he strove to appear as innocuous as possible.

There was no response. He tried again, several times, each time to no effect. Either no one was presently monitoring this particular entrance, or they were neglecting their job. Stepping back, he examined the fluted green wall that rose before him. The trio of seagulls reposing on the edge of the rooftop studiously ignored his presence.

The few windows that interrupted the building’s smooth side were long, narrow, and inset high up on the wall. Far too high to reach.

Endeavoring to give the impression of a man lost, alone, and harmless, he started to walk around the building. The rear was identical to the front, except that instead of the open water of the intracoastal waterway, it faced another, much larger industrial structure from within which arose the sounds of thrumming machinery. A narrow strip of water, canal as alleyway, divided West Padre #4 from West Padre #3.

There was a large roll-up access door whose dimensions were designed to accommodate sizable deliveries. Using a suction crane, a quartet of workers was in the process of unloading a pair of large packing crates from a shuttle barge moored in the service canal. The gruff, impatient barge operator was offering loud, helpful, and not always serious suggestions to the men working on the quay.

Taking a deep breath, Cardenas adopted his most businesslike mien and approached the workers. They ignored the casually dressed stranger, intent on the task at hand. The Inspector watched for a moment, like any interested sightseer, before confronting the man he took to be the supervisor.

“I’m looking for your boss. Got a special delivery all the way from Nogales.”

Neither question nor statement aroused the slightest suggestion of suspicion on the part of the foreman. Attention focused on the heavy crates, he jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Inside. Tall guy with the blue hardcap.”

“Thanks.” Turning, Cardenas entered the main structure. No one moved to stop him.

He found himself in a large warehouse lit by reflectors suspended from the peaked ceiling. Crates and cylinders were neatly stacked on clearly marked pads or stored in oversized shipping bins. Loading machinery idled where it had been left, awaiting direction.

Other workers of both sexes were busy shunting goods or instructing robotics at various tasks. An air of quiet efficiency permeated the area. More than half the staff in evidence wore custom-molded hardcaps to protect their heads from falling objects.

Cardenas worked his way toward the center of the operation, occasionally pausing to ask for further directions—until at last the individual he sought strode into view. The man was as tall as Hyaki, but not nearly as massive. Disdaining a depilatory, he flaunted heavy stubble on dark, almost Middle Eastern skin. His eyes were as black as his hair, and his nose prominent. In one hand he held a slender commercial spinner, gesturing with it as he spoke to two other workers.

Turning away, Cardenas made a show of scrutinizing a nearby cylinder labeled “Perishable—Flash Dried Fruits” in both English and Portuguese. When the conversation taking place behind him ended and the two workers wandered away, he turned and moved quickly toward the tall man in the blue hardcap. One hand slipped over the shocker riding in his pocket, his index finger easing onto the trigger.

Dark eyes turned to look down at him. Curiosity but not suspicion showed openly on the man’s face.

“Yes, can I help you?”

“Got a special delivery from Nogales.” His hand tightened on the shocker. “For The Mock.”

Honest puzzlement further contorted the man’s features. “For what?”

“Not what—who. For The Mock.” Something was wrong, Cardenas saw. “For Cleator Mockerkin.”

Plainly bemused, the tall overseer shook his head slowly. “Never heard of him. I’m Yogesh Chanay, day shift supervisor. You sure this guy works here?”

The man’s confusion was open and forthright, Cardenas saw. No competent intuit could fail to see that, and the Inspector was far more than competent. “Then I need to speak to your boss, or whoever you take orders from.”

“There’s nobody like that here,” Chanay informed him without resentment. “During the day, I’m in charge of the whole facility.” Pushing back the brim of his hardcap, he scratched his forehead as he pondered his visitor’s request. “I can get you some corporate addresses in Nueva York. Would that help?”

“No, that’s not necessary.” Momentarily adrift, Cardenas mulled over his next step. “I really need to make the delivery to this particular guy. I was told he worked here.”

“Well,” responded the cheerful Chanay, “it looks like somebody steered you wrong.” He started to turn away, paused. “Say, maybe he works in the annex.”

Cardenas tried not to show more than casual interest. “What annex?”

“Downstairs. Company maintains a data-processing annex. For compiling and research, that sort of thing. You know, crunch-munch? Not real exciting stuff.” He grinned. “I’m not big on thick compilations of statistics, myself. Never been down there. Hardly ever see anybody go in or out. I imagine most of the operation is automated. As it should be. Got nothing to do with me and my crew up here.”

The Inspector nodded gratefully. “I suppose I could check and ask.”

“You can try.” Chanay was less than encouraging. “If there’s nobody down there today you won’t be able to get in.”

“I guess I’ll give it a shot, anyway.”

The supervisor pointed. “Through that storm door over there. There’s an elevator, but you won’t be able to operate it without a passkey. Fire stairs to the left. It’s only two floors down. The intracoastal here isn’t that deep.”

Cardenas nodded. “Thanks.” Heading for the doorway in question, he cast more than one surreptitious glance over his shoulder. There was no sign of alarm or unease in the supervisor’s face, nothing suggestive about his body posture. He appeared wholly oblivious to the visitor’s movements.

Chanay’s remarks were as accurate as his directions: the elevator Cardenas encountered beyond the storm door did not respond to his requests. Neither did the opaque polycarbonate barrier marked FIRE escape. The electronic lock did, however, finally yield to one of the compact devices he carried. Descending the stairwell, he went through a second storm door and down plastic steps, treading as quietly as possible. At the bottom, a final door opened to reveal a dark hallway. Overhead lighting responded to his presence by fluttering to life, illuminating a hard-floored passageway that ran off to the east, toward the rocky underpinnings of South Padre. Unseen fans kept the air fresh and cool.

Advancing cautiously, he walked perhaps thirty meters down the unadorned, bare-walled corridor, uncomfortably aware that there was nothing beyond the ceiling over his head and the floor beneath his feet but tepid Gulf salt water. The corridor terminated in a cul-de-sac boasting three doors. His hand hovering in the vicinity of the shocker, he tried the one on his left first. It opened at a touch to reveal a multistall bathroom. The second door accessed a storeroom that was a jumble of office supplies and equipment. The third—he hesitated outside the third. Licking his lips, he finally pushed on the access switch. Like its predecessors, the barrier folded inward without complaint.

Half a dozen old-fashioned desks flanked by ancillary cabinets greeted his entrance. There were communicators, desk processors, and nondescript pictures hanging from the walls. One wall boasted a passable holovit of what looked like a snow-fed lake high in the Rocky Mountains. Synthesized sunlight dappled the clear blue water while virtual trout swam in the pellucid shallows. At the far end of the room a trio of expensive, but stock, commercial parallel compilers hummed softly as they efficiently and without human supervision processed data. As with the bathroom and storeroom, the workplace was devoid of human presence.

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster