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                                                   CYBER WAY

 

 

 

                                              By Alan Dean Foster

 

 

 

 

 

If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.

 

—Rene Descartes

 

Principles of Philosophy, 1644

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

 

 

THE POLARIZED BUBBLE glass in the window turned Greater Tampa into a fish bowl. It was a view which never failed to please Kettrick, and why not? He'd worked hard to earn it.

 

By rights he shouldn't be where he was. For years engineers had insisted anything over thirty-five stories high built within a half mile of the beach would eventually begin to sink into the saline muck that was coastal Florida, The bubble glass that lined his office was on the fiftieth floor. So much for engineering. There was sufficient solid ground here, just as there were always solid business opportunities. That had been one of his father's many mottoes. Nobody was better than the old man when it came to digging up business. The actual construction work he left to his son.

 

Whenever Kettrick thought of his father it was always with fondness. The old man had fought bravely against the weak heart which had killed him early, leaving the company to his son. Kettrick had built on that, just as he'd built this impossible structure on this inadequate land.

 

From the fiftieth floor you could see far out into the Gulf. Like a sheet of pressed sky, the lazy blue water stretched westward until it melted into a pale white horizon. Inland lay the industrial corridor that crawled northeast to Orlando, framed and constrained by the greenbelts which offered sanctuary to wildlife, recreation to workers, and salve for the consciences of those who had built the plants. Southward somewhere lay the eternal Glades, still surviving in spite of the pollution. Nature could be a tough old bitch.

 

Kettrick had seen pictures of early Florida. Flat two-dimensional images recorded on paper, old videotapes reconstructed for mollystorage. Cypress and pine, swamp and mud. Funny how the wildlife had adapted. Blue herons, snowy egrets, gators, and manatees thrived in the city parks as lustily as in the Glades themselves. The three gators who made their home in the indoor garden of this very building had never expressed any desire to move on.

 

Man adapts to the world, and the world adapts to man. The only thing man couldn't seem to adapt to was himself, which was why Kettrick had pushed the security switch the instant his unannounced visitor had appeared. He appraised, then relaxed, seeing no weapon, sensing no threat. Security personnel would arrive momentarily. Had he been truly concerned, he would have thumbed the red button instead of the orange one disguised as an inlay in his desk. Concealed nozzles would have buried the intruder in a shell of quick-drying immobilizing foam.

 

Kettrick knew mere was no need to employ such measures. No need, because he recognized the intruder. Silently he vowed that this would be the last time he would indulge this particular individual. Even the traditional Kettrick courtesy had its limits, and these had now been exceeded.

 

No need to be nervous. His visitor was not psychotic. Merely obsessed.

 

The man gazed at the door through which he'd entered, as if aware his time was limited. Then, before speaking, he turned to nod at the sweeping panorama visible through the bubble glass behind the desk.

 

"I can see that you are an admirer of the natural order.

 

It causes me to wonder anew why you will not sell me the picture."

 

"My love of beauty is what attracted me to the picture in the first place," Kettrick replied. "Why would I want to turn it over to you? We've been through this before. I thought I'd made it perfectly clear that I never sell anything from my collection. I told you that the last time."

 

"I needed to hear it from you again. There is always a first time. I must have the painting."

 

Since he had not invited him to come in, Kettrick did not invite him to sit down. He left him standing, convinced that the man posed no immediate threat- Kettrick chuckled to himself. Now, his son-in-law, the gargantuan white boy his daughter had married, that was a threatening personality. Cody had to be, since by profession he played backup nose-guard for the Bucs. This irritation who had burst into his office was only a little more than average height and of slim build. Hardly an imposing physicality. Kettrick thought that the man's straight black hair was exceptionally dark even for an Amerindian. The industrialist found himself wondering if Indians could tan. The intruder's clothing was simple and utilitarian.

 

All you really noticed were the obsidian eyes. You noticed mem because they didn't notice you. They seemed to be focused on something behind Kettrick even though the man was gazing directly at him. Odd. Nor was his visitor out-grabed. He was much too coherent for that. There was no telltale clouding of the corneas, no nervous trembling in the fingers. Though come to think of it, this fellow did hold his hands in a strange fashion, with the fingers curved back and up like hooks. Or like paws.

 

He could be wrong, and although he wasn't an expert, Kettrick knew an addict when he saw one. Friends of his son-in-law were always hinting that it would be nice if he could obtain the latest designer steroids for them. All be-

 

cause a small chain of drugstores was included among his diverse holdings.

 

Of course he refused all such requests, no matter how oblique. Should it come out in the media, a single such story could harm the business, not to mention his social standing in the community, in which be took considerable pride. He had no intention of risking any of that simply to do a favor for some of his son-in-law's buddies or even to improve the team, on whose behalf he annually expended far too much money for season tickets. Of course the company paid for those, but still...

 

Strange face it was, and not only because of those eyes. It was sharp of side, like a piece of dark marble whose rough edges had been hacked off but not yet polished smooth. High cheekbones, nothing anywhere soft or rounded, the result a perpetually questioning expression. Lines ran from the base of his nose up into his forehead, which was itself unlined. The crow's-feet at the corners of the eyes seemed transplanted from someone far older. What might appear to some as arrogance was in truth only preoccupation. It was as if this stranger were too busy with his thoughts to pay much attention even to the conversation he had begun.

 

A single earring of silver and blue, as pure as the Gulf outside the window, called attention to one ear. He bad yet to smile. Kettrick studied the strange visage and decided it was an expression foreign to this face. In contrast to the dark hair, his eyebrows were astonishingly light—almost not there. The few wispy hairs seemed to grow flush with the skin. He stood with a slight slouch, as though suffering from curvature of the spine. After a while Kettrick realized there was nothing physically wrong with his visitor. It was simply his natural stance.

 

And all the while, he kept the fingers of both hands curved up and backward. At any moment Kettrick half expected

 

him to drop to all fours and approach on his knuckles. Distant he was, yet intense.

 

Well, if he was wrong about him, there was always the red button in case the visitor made a sudden move toward his host. Kettrick's fingers tapped on the desk close to the false inlay.

 

What might he be besides a truly odd duck? A collector like himself? Collectors could be fanatics.

 

Where the hell was Security, anyway?

 

"You've gone to a lot of trouble to force your way in here just to hear the same thing I've been telling you over the phone. So one more time: the picture is not for sale."

 

"You won't even discuss price with me?"

 

Kettrick gestured expansively at his surroundings. "I presume that by now you have some idea of who I am. Whatever you might offer me, I've no need of it, and I must add you don't look like you could offer much. If it's any consolation to you, the amount wouldn't matter. I don't sell anything out of my collection."

 

For a long moment the visitor did not reply, just stood mere staring at Kettrick with those obsidian eyes. It made the industrialist uneasy, though he was careful not to show it.

 

"Suppose that I was the richest man in the world," the visitor said suddenly. "Suppose that I could offer you anything and everything you ever dreamed of."

 

Kettrick smiled condescendingly. "But I already have everything I ever wanted. A fine family, grandchildren, even a moderately famous son-in-law. I live out in the Gulf in a grand house that's half above and half below crystal clear waters. Business is good, the economic climate for the next year even better. I head one of the few corporations in Florida that has no tariff war with the EEC and we're free reciprocals with the West African Economic Union. I even like my work. So why should I part with something I love just for money?"

 

Kettrick saw the fingers of his visitor's right hand flexing. So, he could move more than his mouth and legs.

 

"I understand. I will bother you no longer about buying the picture. It is clear I cannot persuade you. I will manage without the painting itself if you will let me have one copy of it. Holo, vid, still flat color anything wUl do."

 

Kettrick's patience was running out. He had work to do. "If you're anything of a collector yourself, you must know I can't allow that. If it was just up to me, I'd say sure, go ahead. But it would cost me my insurance. Regulations forbid reproductions. Nothing to do with you personally, but once you let reproductions of items you own out in public, potential thieves have a way of finding out what you own that's worth stealing. It lets mem steal to order. It's an annual problem at museums. My collection stays private and out of the public eye." He leaned forward curiously. "In fact, I'd give a lot to know how you found out about mis particular piece.

 

"ft does not matter," said the visitor quietly.

 

"It matters to me."

 

"If I tell you, will you let me make a copy of the painting?"

 

Kettrick shook his head. Pity. The fellow seemed intelligent enough. He just had one big blind spot where the painting was concerned.

 

He wasn't through. "It belongs with me. It is a part of my heritage, not yours. You don't know what you have."

 

"Yes, I do. I have a beautiful, special, and according to you yourself, a most unique piece of primitive art. It fits in very nicely with the rest of my collection. As for it not being a part of my particular ethnic heritage, my collection contains primitive art from all over the world. I have my share of African and early Black American art, yes, but also work from China, Tibet, and most of the South Pacific. I'm sure there must be hundreds, thousands of reproductions of this particular type of art widely available in public coir

 

CYBER UJRY 7

 

lections for your perusal. Why not content yourself with some of them?"

 

"There is no other like this one."

 

"So you say. I've only your word for that. Again, it doesn't matter. The painting stays in my collection, and my collection stays private until I decide to donate it or tour it some day. At that time, and only at that time, you can take all the pictures you want—along with everyone else."

 

"That is no help to me. I need the image now."

 

"I can't help what you need."

 

"I have told you mat it has to do with my religion."

 

"Again, I've only your word for that. Even so, you're not part of some official delegation seeking its recovery. You're an individual acting on his own with motives of his own. For all I know, you're just another collector who wants a copy of my painting for your own personal use. Who do you think you're dealing with here, friend? This isn't downtown. We're not dealers swapping formula on the street."

 

The visitor shifted his weight but not his stare. "This is the fourth time I have made this request of you. You cannot refuse me a fourth time."

 

Kettrick couldn't keep from chuckling aloud. "That's one of your customs, not one of mine. I'm not bound by it. You can make all the requests you want. It won't do you any good. Is four a special number for you?" It was not necessary for the visitor to reply.

 

"Well, in this case it's a special number for me too, because this is the last time I'm going to talk to you."

 

The three men from Security had entered so silently that Kettrick hardly noticed their arrival. If the visitor had, he did not acknowledge their presence.

 

"Now I happen to be a very busy man," Kettrick explained, "and you'll excuse the cliche', because in my case it happens to be true. So I'll only say this once more. I've given you rather more of my time man I intended to. You've used k all up, bom on the phone and in person. It's clear

 

you've come a long way and so I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you're a collector or lover of primitive art like myself, and not a thief.

 

"If you bust in here again like you did a little white ago, I'll have you arrested. The jails here in the Bay are as modern as you'll find anywhere—but sometimes the air treatment systems do break down, and even though it's almost spring, I still think you'd rind mat kind of environment unpleasant. Also, Florida is kind of a seine for the East coast, a net that stretches from St. Pete to Miami, and we catch all kinds of Caribbean sludge in it. A lot of crazyboys high on abbreviations that represent chemical combinations you don't want anything to do with. Pupapapas peddling Brazilian and Peruvian babies. Snuff-film importers. Great guys to share a holding cell with.

 

"You take my advice and go back where you came from. Concentrate your energies on a different piece of art."

 

"I cannot do that," the visitor said softly. "The enterprise I am engaged in requires precision and timing. I need mis particular piece, or a copy, and I cannot wait any longer."

 

"That's too bad." Kettrick gestured slightly and two of the security guards moved forward until they were flanking the visitor. One of them put a big hand on the man's shoulder. He ignored it.

 

"Then I suppose I will have to find some way to work around your intransigence."

 

"That sounds like the sensible thing to do," agreed the industrialist, nodding and smiling.

 

The security team escorted the stranger out of Kettrick's office. From the rear the visitor looked like a splinter of black oak embedded in a mass of white flesh. Kettrick felt sorry for the guy. Under different circumstances the two of them might have spent an enjoyable evening together discussing early American art. Not that he'd been especially friendly. Distant without actually being impolite.

 

No, his attitude would have ruled out dinner. Sarah wouldn't have liked him. She preferred people whose eyes met your own. Kettrick knew she wouldn't cotton to someone who daydreamed while you were trying to hold a conversation with them.

 

That business about not being able to refuse a fourth request would probably mean something to an anthropologist. It meant nothing to Kettrick. That was one of the pleasures of being a wealthy collector. You could affect an attitude of great knowledge without having to go to the trouble of actually acquiring it, because all of your friends knew infinitely less about the subject than you did.

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

 

 

MOODY DIDNT LIKE leaving his car. In the patrol cruiser be felt safe and protected from an uncompromisingly hostile world, encased in armored flexan and carbonate, coddled by air conditioning, lunch, the drink dispenser, and as many other creature comforts as the department could pry out of the taxpayers by claiming they were vital to ongoing police operations. It was unfortunate, but every now and then he had to leave his office and get in the car, and less frequently, abandon the car to work in the real world. There were two real worlds as far as Moody was concerned: the one he worked in and the one he fled to as often as possible. All they had in common was that both were located on the same planet.

 

You had to leave the car to net outgrabed crazyboys, or interview witnesses, or check the backbays for waterstriders trying to run pharmecuties up from Koobah or Whackara-gua. At least the waterstriders made life exciting, though things had quieted down some since Haiti had become a U.S. Territory, providing the DBA with an ideal base from which to monitor flights out of SudAm. There was a rumor the striders were using trained porpoises to bring the stuff right into the bay. The bastards never gave up. You could almost admire then- persistence and ingenuity, until the first time you saw some eleven-year-old outgrabed on sizzle, standing over his dead six-year-old sister with a bloody kitchen knife in his hand, the familiar feral glaze in his eyes and that horrid unknowing grin on his face. A couple of encounters like that would kill any admiration for the stri-ders.

 

Moody had suffered through more than a couple.

 

Nobody, including the Interdiction Corps, had actually found a porp running drugs. That didn't mean they didn't exist. Only that they hadn't been caught. The detective wondered if you could hook a porp on pharmacuties. He wouldn't put anything past a damn strider.

 

It was so very different from Mississippi. In many ways the Sip was much nicer than Flo-ree-dah: quieter, friendlier, laid-back and relaxed. Less need to flinch when someone approaching you on the street reached into his coat. It was also a helluva lot duller, he reminded himself. Which was why after graduating from the Academy he'd moved to the Greater Tampa area with his first wife. His appraisal of his prospects in West Florida had been borne out by quick advancement. He'd also lost his wife, married a second time, and lost her as well, along with the physical conditioning he'd acquired at the Academy.

 

Every year when the regular examinations came round he always managed to shed just enough poundage to scrape by, subsequent to which profuse ingestion of beer rapidly returned him to the rotund form to which his colleagues had become accustomed.

 

Another reason for his early move to Florida had been a misplaced desire for excitement and sophistication. What a letdown to discover that in a highly charged urban environment those were only euphemisms for more degenerate forms of crime. He stayed anyway.

 

He could have joined a Mississippi department but without ever enjoying the prospect of rapid and regular pro-

 

motion, simply because there weren't as many people to police. Nevertheless, he was surprised when he'd made detective. His background and lack of personality worked against him, not to mention the fact mat he was no ass-kisser like half the kids in the department.

 

What he did have was a dogged, pit-bull persistence that insisted no case was unsolvable, no mystery too convoluted to crack. When others gave up, he persevered. Turn out to be right a few times in such matters and even disinterested higher-ups take notice. Apparently one or two had done just that. His was an attitude that would have been a hindrance on a SWAT team but which in a detective was a positive attribute.

 

Even after his unexpected promotion they rarely threw any of the glamour jobs his way. That suited Moody just fine. He didn't like seeing his picture on the vid, because he took a lousy picture. If someone stuck a vocup in his face he became helplessly inarticulate. When not assigned to the street he actually enjoyed being stuck at a desk, accessing the mollys with his desk spinner, doing the tedious, boring, dirty bits of police work that never made the evening news. He abhorred publicity. If a vid wit showed up at the station asking questions about a case he happened to be involved with, Moody always managed to find a colleague willing to usurp his place in the spotlight. No wonder his fellow officers loved him.

 

An officer who actually enjoyed mollywork was an invaluable component of whatever police department happened to be fortunate enough to have the use of his services. Moody knew he could have hooked on with any department in the country. Maybe that was why he'd received the unexpected promotion. No matter. He was comfortable enough in Greater Tampa, just a good of Southern boy with maybe ''•} a few more brains than his buddies back home and a few | less man some of the men and women he worked with daily.

 

Whatever they thought of him privately, none of them ever called him out in public. Because if you were caught making fun of Vernon Moody, why then when you needed his services he might decline to sit down and do the weeks of tedious research vital to your case. Moody's work had probably been responsible for more promotions than any other single factor in the department. So if any of his fellow cops laughed at his background or his girth, they did so well behind his back.

 

Only the insecure were guilty of that. The majority respected Moody and his abilities. He socialized readily if quietly, and had made a few casual friends—easygoing types like himself. He wasn't the only one in the department content to parlay his off-time into a few beers, a ball game, fishing trips to the Glades, or the company of women not too much younger than himself. In a department aswarm with ambitious hares, the presence of a happy tortoise or two was more than welcome.

 

It helped too that Moody's appearance was not threatening. He looked fat, slow, and stupid. Striders and ninlocos had discovered to their dismay that in the detective's case, appearances were more than slightly deceiving.

 

Despite his usefulness on the street, he much preferred spending his time at his desk, sieving the departmental molly spheres, researching and preparing reports. You didn't have to be smart to use a spinner. Just persistent and good at following directions. The ability to follow directions had extracted him from a din-poor existence in Mississippi, had made him a detective on the largest police force in Florida. He enjoyed the respect of his peers, the admiration of the folks back home, a decent income, and the prospect of a comfortable retirement if some nameless crazyboy didn't someday expunge his guts on a filthy downtown back street. None of that could help him now. No vehicles were allowed on Steel Key, not even those representing municipal authorities. The call which had come in demanded that he leave his office. Now he was forced to abandon his beloved cruiser as well.

 

Was a time when there 'd been no barrier islands between Honeymoon Key and the Anclote Refuge. Then the gulf waters had been forced to make way for Steel, Steadman, Briarwood, and Cypress Keys. Artificial islets all, built of fill dredged from the gulf bottom and fortified with vitamins and minerals. Not to mention polycrete and titanium. Rich imported soil from the mainland provided regular employment for a small army of gardeners, and Bahamanian sand fringed each island like vanilla cream on a wedding cake.

 

There were no bridges to die artificial keys. Instead they were connected to the mainland and to one another by a tube which ran from Steel to just south of Tarpon Springs. Though fragile in appearance, die tube was in fact far more stable and secure than any roadway. Come a hurricane, Moody would much rather be trapped on artificial Briarwood than organic Caladesi. The latter was composed solely of natural materials, and no matter what the ecoengineers said, he'd take titanium over pulverize...

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