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The mocking program by Alan Dean Foster

He tried to access one of the compilers. Its security was minimal, and he slipped in almost effortlessly. Too easy. Nor did it appear to contain anything more than the most banal lists and records of information pertaining to the business operating above his head.

Backing out, he stood in the hallway and speculated. The annex made no sense—unless Taieesh Import and Export was a legitimate business in which The Mock had no interest, and all the effort that had been expended by himself and the Research people at the National NFP database had produced nothing better than a false lead.

There was much to be said for hiding in plain sight, except that nothing and no one appeared to be hiding here. Fuming silently, Cardenas resolved to conduct the same kind of thorough inspection of his surroundings that any federale would carry out. Retracing his steps, he began near the front of the office. Finding nothing insinuative, he moved on to the storeroom. How much time he had, he didn’t know. It largely depended on whether or not the amiable Yogesh Chanay would remember his visitor and think to have someone check to see if he had taken his leave of the building.

So he worked as rapidly as possible, his depression increasing as each successive room proved to be nothing more than what it appeared to be. In the bathroom, he paused to make use of the facilities before concluding his inspection.

A small service door at the back of the room, beyond the last stall, did not even have an electronic handle. The undemanding latch yielded to a moderate tug. On the other side was a closet with shelves to left and right piled high with paper, disinfectant, soap, and other lavatory supplies. A couple of ancient mops leaned up against one set of shelves. He started to close the door, hesitated. There were no shelves on the back wall.

Silly, he mused, but he felt he still had a little time, and he was almost finished here anyway. He fumbled at the service belt concealed beneath the waistband of his pants until he found the pouch holding the tool he wanted. Without much enthusiasm, he proceeded to run the Schlage sesame over the back wall. Nothing. Reaching the bottom, he was about to slip the device back onto his belt when a pair of telltales abruptly and utterly unexpectedly changed from red to green. Crouching, eyes narrowing, he began to slowly pan the tool over the floor near the base of the rear wall. The green lights brightened. A muted beeping began.

Gently setting the device on the floor, he flicked a couple of switches on the front plate and stepped back. Thirty seconds passed, following which there sounded a virtuous click. This was followed by a deep-throated mechanical whirring sound.

As he took a another step back, the floor fell away and the back wall swung up to reveal a brightly lit, downward-sloping ramp. Placing his right hand over the shocker again, he started down and in.

FIFTEEN

THE WELL-LIT CHAMBER AT THE BOTTOM OF THE ramp was spacious and carefully laid out, the ceiling low but not uncomfortably so. Planar walls of taupe-tinted Hitach firecoat were devoid of the animated pictures and holovit that had decorated the office on the level above. Individual Suva-Shiva box stations were alive with lights, and the floor underfoot was pebbled and cool to the touch. At the far end of the room was a plain door flanked by a two-meter-wide slash of mirrored glass.

Movement. Off to his left. Drawing the shocker, he whirled and crouched—only to relax and drag the back of his other hand across his forehead, as if that could somehow erase the tension there.

A pair of identical half-meter-high robot cleaners trundled into view. Ignoring him, they proceeded to sweep and vacuum the composite tile floor. Designed to operate in office environments while work was in progress, they went about their business in eerie silence, as soundless as a pair of mechanical undertakers.

Relieved, he started to rise, when something else made him turn. Whether it was intuition, or a sound that did not quite belong, or a hint of shadow, he was not sure. He didn’t have time to analyze it. Whirling, he saw a large, winged shape diving straight for his face. At the last possible instant he threw himself to one side. Only his extraordinary reflexes, honed by decades on the force and coupled with his unique training, saved him.

A seagull, one of the phlegmatic, roof-sitting trio that had observed his disembarkation at the passenger dock, smashed into the floor next to his feet, skidded several meters, and slammed into the wall. Rolling over just in time to witness the impact, Cardenas expected to hear bones snap and see feathers flying. Instead, bits and pieces of plastic and metal and teased glass flew in all directions as the synthetic Laridae shattered into a hundred or more pieces.

On hands and knees, keeping a wary eye out for any other unexpected arrivals, he crawled over to inspect the ruined apparatus. It was wonderfully, even imaginatively, made. Though twisted sharply to one side, the head was still largely intact, the tiny tracking cameras located behind the eye shields still locked in scanning position. The beak was cracked open, so he could see inside the mouth.

A sharp pinging emerged from the debris and he yanked his hand back. The extendable pressure dermic that occupied the place where a bird’s tongue would be just missed making contact with his exploring fingers.

Rising, he brought his right foot down hard on the quivering head, and applied his weight. Struts and supports molded from finely wrought composite cracked noisily. Like the stinger of a dying wasp, the dermic stabbed wildly, seeking flesh to penetrate. Only when Cardenas was certain the device was utterly defunct did he draw back his foot, and only then did the dermic, nearly as long as his hand when fully extended, cease trying to impale him.

Breathing hard, he looked around warily, his gaze flicking from walls to ceiling, from the open doorway behind him that led to the facade of a bathroom to the darkened glass at the opposite end of the workplace. The attack had caught him almost completely off guard. Who needed human sentries? They were conspicuous, likely to draw suspicion to themselves, potentially corruptible, and expensive. The seemingly deserted annex was not so deserted after all.

Overhead, Taieesh Import and Export provided perfect camouflage. What better cover for a center of illicit operations than a legitimate business whose employees were utterly and honestly ignorant of the unlawful activities that were going on beneath their very feet? It was akin to running a counterfeiting operation from inside a bank vault.

His eyes continued to scrutinize the far corners of the chamber. There had been three of the birds. How the devil had they gotten in? It occurred to him that ventilators that brought in clean air could also admit other things. Things that had been programmed to navigate their way through tubes and conduits. To navigate—and to kill.

Lights glowing dimly behind the swath of dark glass hinted at the existence of still another room, accessible through the single rear door. There was no sign of movement save for the cleaning robots. Did The Mock and his underlings do their work only at night? That would go a long way toward explaining the emptiness in which he found himself. It did not mean that Mockerkin left his principal place of business unattended, relying for defense only on the sham reality of the import-export enterprise above. The shattered remains of the wrecked aerial assassin that lay in a still crackling and popping pile at his feet attested to that.

Standing in the middle of the room, he was too exposed. There was too much room for flying killers to maneuver. He wanted more cover.

Something told him not to try for the passageway that led to the surface. The short ramp that led to the storage closet and the bathroom beyond would be a perfect place to stage an ambush. Anyway, he wasn’t ready to leave.

Keeping an eye on the temptingly vacant exit, he turned from where he was standing and strode briskly toward the rear door. Almost as soon as he turned his back on the exit, a second replicant gull came lunging in through the rear passage, having to turn sideways so that its wings would fit through the opening. A glance was sufficient to allow Cardenas to spot the fully extended dermic that was aimed right at him.

Pulling the shocker from his windbreaker pocket as he ran, he fired once, and missed. With only enough time for one more quick shot before the vacant-eyed assassin reached him, he stopped running, whirled, and dropped. Taking the best aim he could as he slid backward on the floor, he fired. The bird-thing erupted in a shower of sparks less than a meter from his face as he threw up his free hand and turned away from it. He felt the warmth of a secondary explosion as it banked sharply to the right and crashed into the floor behind him.

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster
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