The mocking program by Alan Dean Foster

Panting, the shocker hanging from his fingers, he rose to his feet and assessed the damage. Thrashing and twitching like a live thing, the artificial gull spewed sparks and smoke for more than a minute before it finally stopped flailing its composite wings and lay still. He looked up.

No voices rang out challengingly. The cleaning robots continued to run their preprogrammed routines as though nothing had happened. One was already busy sweeping up the remains of the first gull. Otherwise, the chamber was as silent as the seabed on which it rested.

Where, he wondered as he cautiously resumed walking toward the back door, was the third bird?

Though it boasted only an ordinary plastic handle and no visible security, the door would not respond to his tug. Expression tight, keeping a cautious eye alert for mechanical sea birds, he pocketed the shocker and removed the compact instrument he had previously utilized to access the concealed doorway in the bathroom storage closet. Starting at the top of the door, just as he had done with the closet’s rear wall, he began slowly and methodically running the device over the door. This time he would not neglect to check the floor.

“Hello there, son. Watcha doing?”

Swapping the sesame from his left hand to his right, Cardenas fumbled awkwardly for his pistol. At the sight of his questioner, he relaxed slightly. But he kept his hand near his chest, in the vicinity of the gun, as he pretended to scratch at the front of the windbreaker.

Framed in the entranceway at the bottom of the ramp that led to the bathroom storage closet was an old man. Too old, the Inspector knew instantly, to be The Mock. Although in an age of synthollagen injections and epidural neuron massage and skin replacement therapy it was difficult at a glance to tell anyone’s age for certain, Cardenas was reasonably confident that the intruder who had surprised him was at least in his seventies, and quite possibly older.

The Inspector would also have been surprised if the man weighed much more than fifty kilos. He was considerably shorter than Cardenas. Amerind characteristics sharpened the highs and lows of his weather-worn face, the type of environmental facial sandblasting that began early in life in the kind of small villages that were scattered all through southern Namerica. Instead of weaponry or communications gear, the service belt encircling his waist contained janitorial supplies. Both hands clutched an electrostatic broom.

“Looking for someone,” Cardenas finally thought to respond.

The old man flipped a switch on the broom and began to work it methodically back and forth in one corner, occasionally pausing to move a chair out of the way. The idling box terminals and busy floor robots ignored him, and he them. While adding an invigorating flow of ions to the air, the broom’s charged fibers silently sucked from crevices, cracks, and other hiding places the dust and debris that the tunnel-visioned robot sweepers had missed.

“Ain’t nobody here. Ain’t been nobody here for a while. I reckon you belong, or you wouldn’t have been able to find your way in.”

Cardenas saw no reason to disabuse the elderly custodian of this useful assumption. He fell back on the same story he had recounted to the warehouse supervisor. “That’s right. I have a special delivery from Agua Pri, for The Mock.” Hesitating only briefly, he added, just to make certain, “You’re not by any chance The Mock, are you? That’s not a clever disguise?” Able to tell in most cases whether someone was lying or not, he waited expectantly for the custodian’s reply.

It took the form of a quiet chuckle. “Me, The Mock? Why would you say something like that? C’mon, son; you’re having fun with an old man.” He flashed a smile replete with man-made teeth. “I’m Rodrigo. I do the cleaning.”

Pointedly, Cardenas indicated the still-active floor robots. “What about them?”

“They need cleaning and maintenance, too. They are a big help to me, since the owners of this place seem to want as few people in here as possible. But they are not as good as a person. They miss some spots.” He shook his head diffidently. “I don’t know why. I could use some nonmechanical help, and it can get lonely down here.” The smile returned. “But it pays well.” And with that, he returned to his sweeping.

Still on the alert for murderous airborne mechanicals, Cardenas walked back to the ramp and peered upward. Nothing flew in at him, nor was there a downward charge of mataros, security guards, ninjacs, or anything else. Nor were representatives of the Inzini, the Ooze from Oz, or any other malevolent organization waiting in the bathroom to monitor and sponge off his progress. Except for the old man preoccupied with his cleaning and the meticulous floor robots, he was alone in the sanctum.

“Do you happen to know,” he inquired carefully, “where I might find The Mock?”

Halting his sweeping, the grizzled senior leaned on his broom and regarded the visitor. “I guess you really do not know. Not if you are trying to make a personal delivery to him. Siryore Mockerkin died three months ago.” His elderly expression wrinkled with remembrance. “I think it was three months.” With a shrug, he resumed his sweeping. “It might have been three and a half.”

Standing in the center of the underwater command center, surrounded by dynamic online consoles and multiple readouts burning bright, Cardenas gaped at the custodian. The old man’s reply was, to say the least, not what he had expected to hear.

“What do you mean he’s dead? He can’t be dead.”

Rodrigo kept working as he spoke. “We can all of us be dead, siryore. I was told about it by Ms. Larrimore, who worked in here. Mr. Mockerkin was coming out of the Brazos Mall in Harlingen after doing some shopping. He was with two other employees when they were hit by a bus that had gone out of control. Mr. Mockerkin and one of the other men were killed immediately. The other went to hospital.” The maintenance man scratched at his thinning gray-brown hair. “I think he got out last month, but I am not sure.”

Cardenas’s thoughts were churning furiously. “Would Mr. Chanay, the supervisor of the warehouse upstairs, know about this?”

The custodian shrugged again. “I do not know. You would have to ask him. I never see the people who worked down here and the ones who work in the import-export place mix with each other. I believe they are different businesses. But I do not know. I am only a janitor.” He smiled easily, Cardenas noted. “I do the cleaning.”

“What about the other people who do work down here?” The Inspector indicated the empty chairs that faced the multiple consoles.

“I don’t know, siryore. It’s not my business. I don’t concern myself with such things.” He looked contemplative. “I suppose they are working when I am not here. Or maybe they were told to stay away for a while, after Mr. Mockerkin was killed. I really don’t know.”

Was killed, Cardenas found himself repeating. Months ago. This was crazy! It made no sense. If Cleator Mockerkin had really perished in an accident on the streets of Harlingen, then who the hell these past several months had been furiously, even ferociously, directing the ongoing effort to abduct Katla Mockerkin, and who had continued the hunt that had resulted in her mother’s murder?

“Might someone besides yourself show up here today?”

Rodrigo was beginning to sound tired. “Please, siryore. I do not know. You would probably know better than I.”

Cardenas nodded slowly. “All right. I won’t bother you anymore, Go ahead and finish your work.”

Rodrigo was patently grateful. Cardenas waited until the janitor had finished sweeping the floor and airdusting the softly humming electronics. As he was preparing to leave, the old man looked back at him from the bottom of the ramp.

“Are you going to wait here, siryore?”

“Yes,” Cardenas told him. “Yes, I think I’ll wait for a while longer, to see if anyone shows up. If you don’t mind, that is.” He smiled engagingly.

Rodrigo pushed out his lower lip. “Why should I mind? It’s not my business. I’m a custodian, not a watchman.” He started up the ramp.

“One more question,” Cardenas called after him. The old man paused and looked back. “If what you’re telling me is true, and your employer is dead, then why do you keep coming down here and cleaning this place?”

The old man eyed him tolerantly, as one would a child. “Because when I access my bank, the money is always there. I keep getting my pay.”

Cardenas could not let it go. “Who pays you? One of the other employees, someone who’s not here right now?”

The aged head swung slowly from side to side. Visibly tiring of the endless string of questions, Rodrigo injected a note of impatience into his reply. “Once again, siryore, I do not know. I just know that when I check my account, my pay is there. As long as that is so, I will keep doing my work. Until someone tells me to stop, or until the money stops being paid. I never thought much about it. I suppose it is a program of some kind, that pays me automatically.” He shook his head again. “Often I think some things were better in the old days, when not so many things were automated.” He winced slightly. “Do you have any more questions?”

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster