The mocking program by Alan Dean Foster

“No police haiku.” Cardenas turned down a corridor. “Not before lunch.”

While the cruiser found its own way to Olmec, the two federales discussed possible scenarios. Though none were particularly plausible, neither was either officer more than usually concerned. They had a confused, possibly panicoed woman on their hands, and a demised citizen whose identity was curiously conflicted. The combination fell well short of a national emergency.

Their destination did not stand out among the neat, sun-baked homes that fronted a neighborhood green belt running along a dry wash—although in the Sonoran Desert, “green belt” meant something less than in other parts of the country. Nonetheless, the winding procession of landscaped nature, with its defiant cactus and struggling paloverde, was far more pleasant to look out upon than yet another row of tract homes, however appealing developers might try to make them. The front yard of the Anderson residence boasted mature, genetically engineered saguaro and ocotillo. A pair of topiaried pyracanthas posed invitingly. The outer wall’s electronic security yielded uncomplainingly to Hyaki’s police sesame, and the two men approached the house.

A residence of this class would be protected by two or three individual security sensors, Cardenas knew. Generale Electric or Thompson, maybe a Dynamo if they had the money. The units would be concealed among the decorative stone facing. He was not surprised when no one hailed them from within. Semagarya had said that the place was empty. So far the two officers had seen nothing to contradict that assessment. The door, and the garage, were locked. The Inspector stepped back to give his partner room.

“Open it.”

There was, of course, no visible lock or door plate. Hyaki ran a tracer over the wood-grained composite until he located the upper and lower bolt. It took his tracer less than a minute to unravel the electronic combination, and only seconds to undo the first. As he was sliding the unit down the front of the door preparatory to snapping the second, the inner lock slid back. A voice greeted them from an artfully concealed speaker.

“Please excuse the delay. I was in the tub. Won’t you come in?” Emitting a soft, disengaging click, the door popped inward a couple of centimeters. Hyaki pushed it aside.

Air-conditioning enveloped them in its comforting, artificial embrace as Cardenas shut the door behind them. “I’m in back,” exclaimed the voice of Surtsey Anderson. “Getting dressed. Make yourselves at home. I’ll be out in just a few minutes.”

The two officers wandered out of the entryway and into an open, circular den. Polarized light filtered down through the translucent material of the domed ceiling. Cardenas recognized their surroundings immediately: it was the first room Semagarya had remotely viewed. The Madrasink vit phone the spec had accessed was still in its charger.

Hyaki settled down on a curving couch that had been designed to resemble a pile of red sandstone. It was soft as silk. He patted the faux rock. “Designer furniture.” Absently, he hunted for a label. “Whatever this poor dead homber promoted brought in some real green.”

Cardenas was admiring the art on the walls and in the display cases. It was far more impressive in person than it had been when viewed via the phone’s pickup. “Anyone can have money. Our friends the Andersons also have good taste.” Raising his voice, he addressed himself to the rest of the house. “Take your time, Ms. Anderson. Did you forget about our appointment this morning?”

“Just another couple of minutes,” came the response.

Cardenas paused before a pedestal on which a Seri mobile signed “Francisco” revolved in stately polished procession. At the same time, something he’d heard in Anderson’s voice nagged at him. On the couch, Hyaki had spread out a hardzine and was manipulating the core projection with his fingertips, adjusting it so it could be viewed from different angles. Nothing in the woman’s straightforward reply or tone had unsettled him. But then, he was not trained to detect, or suspect, miniscule variations in human voice patterns that were discernible only to perhaps one hundred-millionth of the population.

It was not that Anderson had failed to apologize for missing their rendezvous at the morgue, or even that she had declined to acknowledge it. No, it was something in the tone, in the timbre, of her response. Every person was different, of course. Everyone reacted differently to moments of personal crisis. The eccentric might respond with unaccountable cheerfulness, to the point where most folk would be repelled. Surtsey Anderson’s response had been neither awash in sorrow, nor tinged with remorse, nor flickering with false jollity. What Cardenas had detected instead implied an entirely unnatural ordinariness.

Turning away from the gleaming, dark brown wooden carvings, ignoring their whispered plea for him to linger and admire, he headed for a back hallway that opened onto the den. Hyaki’s brows rose, but the sergeant kept his scat and said nothing. No hallway sensors or interior security attempted to bar the Inspector’s way.

He passed an open door that revealed a bedroom beyond. It was neat and tidy. There was no indication that it had been abandoned in haste, no sign that its occupant had fled in confusion. From the holos of metazon stars that blinkered on the walls to the clothing projector to the silent audibub generator that ejected floating sound bubbles, the room reeked visually of contented preadolescent female. One audibub drifted close. He burst it with a fingertip, releasing a five-second yowl of what passed these days for popular music.

As he approached a second bedroom, the voice they had heard earlier made him halt. “I’m just putting on some clothes. Please wait in the den.” Surtsey Anderson again. Reassuring, polite, friendly— inviting, even. Cardenas’s eyes widened ever so slightly. There was one important overtone missing from that voice.


For all anyone could tell, today was a day like any other. A day for shopping, for work, for visiting her daughter at soche, for making a date at the beauty parlor, for having lunch with friends. Anything but a day for identifying a murdered maybe-husband. And still no apology for missing her meeting at the morgue. For that matter, she had not even asked her visitors to identify themselves. He and his partner might as well be two spizzers out for an afternoon’s larking slice-and-dice.

“Ms. Anderson, it’s me, Rocko Sanchez from the Nobodega Brothel. You’re late for work.”

“Just one more minute—I’m still putting on my face,” replied the voice.

Whirling, the Inspector broke into a desperate sprint.

He shouted at the startled Hyaki as he burst out of the hallway, racing for the front door, his lungs pounding. Observing the expression on his partner’s face, the sergeant erupted from the couch where he had been relaxing, scattering hardzine and peanuts in several directions. Cardenas’s hand reached for the door handle.

There was no door handle.

He had not looked to see if one was present when they had entered the house. It was, after all, a not unnatural assumption that there would be a handle on the inside of the door. But there was nothing: only smooth, wood-grained composite. Nor did the barrier before him respond to verbal command, or the anxious press of hands. From behind them, from somewhere within the distant bedroom, a feminine voice chillingly declared, “Almost ready. I hope you’re not getting too bored waiting for me.”

Waiting for what? an increasingly frantic Cardenas wondered apprehensively as he scanned the sides of the doorway. Of one thing he was now confident: it would not be an appearance by Surtsey Anderson.

Stepping back, he pulled his gun and flipped up the projectile barrel. Hyaki turned his head away and closed his eyes as the Inspector fired. In the narrow enclosed space of the entrance hallway, the sound of the shell striking the door was ear-rattlingly loud. When the minced composite cleared, it revealed a hole in the material the size of a man’s head. Unfortunately, behind the hole flashed the hard gleam of solid metal.

“Interesting door for a mid-income cleanie to have installed,” he rumbled as he stepped aside to make room for Hyaki. Throwing himself against the barrier, the sergeant hit the obstruction with every kilo of his considerable mass. It shook but failed to give. With a second charge, he bent one hinge.

“Maybe together,” he rasped tersely, his broad chest heaving.

On the third try, the two men succeeded in snapping the middle hinge and bending the door halfway outward, though Cardenas gave himself no credit for the accomplishment. Scrambling through the opening, he stumbled out onto the sun-drenched glassite walkway. A look back showed Hyaki struggling to fit through the gap they had made.

“Need a hand?”

The sergeant did not smile. “I’m not overweight—I’m just like the coffee I drink. Papua Robusta.” Behind him a cheery, by-now familiar voice piped up clearly, “I’m ready—thanks for waiting for me!”

Then the house blew up.

The central dome that roofed the den vomited vertically, a half hemisphere of composite and wood and metal building materials erupting skyward. Shattered fragments of 482236 West Minero rained down on desert landscaping, empty street, and stunned neighbors alike. The force of the blast blew the struggling Hyaki through the gap in the front door, and carried the damaged door along with him. It knocked Cardenas two meters backward and half out of his shoes. Shaking off the effects of the concussion, he climbed to his feet and staggered over to where his partner lay, shell-shocked and bleeding, on the decorative decomposed granite that in the Southwest often took the place of grass. Absently he noted that the back of the sergeant’s jacket and most of his trousers had been blown away. Only the lightweight but virtually impenetrable forcewear he wore underneath had saved him from being torn to shreds by fragments of suburban house that had been unexpectedly transformed into lethal shrapnel.

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster