He was sunny in temper and
placid in manner, like a good-natured, overgrown boy; she, by contrast,
was a live wire humming with passion and impatience. Both were
young, handsome, rich.... Taldis Norkoten and his wife Athness
Keprella lived in Vyanth, the largest and most splendid city of Syoom,
which boasted nigh on a thousand palaces during the Osmium Era.
Their home was one of these opulent mansions, a massive pedestalled
globe, linked by walkways to other buildings above, below and to the
It took a considerable staff of
servants to look after it, but the servants had made themselves scarce
now, as Athness unleashed her fury on Taldis at the end of their mid-day
"I am sick and tired of your
excuses," the raven-haired goddess flashed at him, blasting his senses
with her scornful beauty. "It's not as though we even needed your
wretched salary to get along. Yet you insist on spending half your
time risking your life for THEM, when we could be comfortably
off without them. And to cap all of that," she added,
almost gasping, "you refuse to do your share of our house-admin this
afternoon because you have a meeting - an SIC meeting!"
"But wait," he said helplessly,
"you already knew, you've known for a long time, that I am
"A field operative for the
Syoomean Intelligence Corps."
intoned. "How lucky can a girl get!"
"And therefore," he persisted,
"I take it as I should. Loyalty is loyalty, and the interruptions
are part of the job."
Athness squeezed her eyes
shut. "Oh you goody-good being," she sighed, realizing, not for
the first time, that this was the root of the trouble between them:
there was something too-goody-goody-to-be-true about
Taldis. Despite having the sordid job of "spy", he was morally
untouched by the cynicism which pervaded the SIC. Rather, he acted
like some character dreamed up by simple-minded thriller-writers who
routinely portrayed SIC agents as heroes forever foiling dastardly
Quonian agents in their plots to subvert civilization. And though
all this was surely too much to swallow, you could not touch Taldis
about it at all - he was not even priggish; you couldn't fault him in
that or in any other way. So, detached as it was from the seamy
side of real life, his stance was impossible to believe in, impossible
to smash - he was impenetrably good. Something, no doubt,
was going on inside that curly head; but what?
"Go on," Athness shrugged
tiredly, "go to your meeting."
"So I shall," Taldis
said. He rose from his chair. She was silently waving him
Knowing he might be looking at
her for the last time, he said, against his better judgement:
"Why didn't you tell me,
Athness, before we were married, that you weren't in sympathy with my
"Why didn't you tell me," she
retorted, "that you didn't know what the word 'marriage'
"I know what it means," he said
quietly, turning to go.
"Then you should know it means
putting me first."
"Ah, but perhaps I
She grinned, "You mean, by
saving Syoom from the evil Quonians? Thanks, Taldis, for assuring
me life and liberty," she said sweetly. Seeing he did not turn
round she let out one final hiss of exasperation and called after him
the insult which no decent Syoomean ever used in public: "You're
such a foregrounder, Taldis!"
That word - he must not hear
it, must not react to it. No matter that it hurt like a wallop in
the guts. There was nothing he could do - except wonder what had
happened to the lovely woman he had married 1200 days ago. To
admit that things were partly his own fault would merely invite another
blast, on the lines of, "Why don't you do something about it,
then?" And he did not wish her to know that this afternoon he
was going to do something about it.
So he merely shook his head as
if to dislodge the nightmare of mutual incomprehension which his
marriage had become. He couldn't afford to have it preying on his
mind during his meeting with Director Woth.
The oval outer door swished
open at the touch of a button. On the instant that he stepped
across the threshold of the mansion, the magnificent cityscape of Vyanth
gripped his attention and gave the needed tonic to his morale.
Taldis' inner strength came largely from his capacity never to take
anything for granted. Though he had seen it thousands of times
before, he was still struck by the wonder of it all. The irregular
lattice of globular palaces and walkways, like a model of some complex
organic molecule, lanced and inter-threaded by the helical towers and
pierced by the polyhedra which housed the economic and record-keeping
functions of any great Uranian city - all were vibrant with colour and
movement, as skimmers raced along the ways, and laden hover-rafts
floated up and down.
Spurning the use of skimmers,
rafts or escalators, Taldis tramped along a pedestrian walkway which
sloped upwards into the sparser, loftier regions of the geometric urban
SIC headquarters appeared as a
discreet thickening in the branches of this "forest". The
thickening was caused by a larger-than-usual number of jutting or
dangling rooms in that region. The rooms still gleamed with new
paint: the relocation of Headquarters from Skyyon to Vyanth had been
As he crossed the lobby Taldis
became briefly aware of a tingling sensation, which told him that the
identifier ray was searching him. He took the lift to the third
floor, where a pretty receptionist, who was trained to kill if
necessary, waved him through the door beyond her desk.
It was not a good sign that
there was so little paperwork on the much larger desk which he now
faced. Director Woth was known for clearing the polished top
before inviting someone in to be fired. On the other hand it
wasn't quite empty; there was one file lying there.
Under the slope of Woth's
gleaming forehead, deep-set eyes brooded as Taldis advanced. "You
haven't been doing too well lately, T-N," remarked the Director, giving
the file a shove. "Is that why you drew up this
"It is, sir." In more
ways than one. He saw no reason to detail all his motives;
the mission plan was valid in its own terms, or so he hoped.
"Sit down, T-N."
To sit opposite that body lean
head, that face with its jutting downward curve, was to feel pinned by
the Director's ruthless will, even if the man's glance was pointed
elsewhere. And when the glance became direct.... even the toughest
agents were given to subservience. Taldis, however, having escaped
from his miserable home, having entered the consoling zone of work,
possessed an inner resource of somnambulistic calm.
"This is the very first time,"
Woth was saying, fixing Taldis in his full glare, "that one of my agents
has suggested employing the services of the Vemorth Stazel. You
realize, don't you, that the Stazel is used nowadays merely by clients
with business or engineering problems, who require nothing more than a
dose of partial amnesia to get a fresh, unbiased look at a particular
problem? You realize that the kind of 'global forgetting' you
suggest undergoing is a much more rarely-used technique?"
"I know, sir, but the Stazel
themselves have admitted to me that the global stuff is still available
for one who cares to use it."
And from the tone of this "hmm"
Taldis knew that he had won his point.
"It's typical of your rather
quaint approach," Woth continued, "that you present a plan which does
not involve assassinating anyone, or framing anyone. I rather like
it. I must be getting soft, like you."
"Somehow I doubt that,
sir." Woth was always telling him that a civilization engaged in a
perpetual cold war with a ruthless adversary will inevitably descend to
the moral level of its foes, at least as far as secret operations were
"Well," went on the Director,
"though your idea lacks kick, it's certainly sly enough.
I dare say that if we don't try it, some day the Quonians will.
You know how it has always bothered me, the way we persistently
underestimate the Quonians. Your idea amounts to a neat little
move we can make to forestall them in a minor way, at no risk to our own
organization, while at the same time giving you, T-N, an opportunity to
restore some of your credit with us. None too soon, either.
During the last couple of hundred days you have been allowing your
personal problems to interfere with your professional competence.
Athness would not
agree. She would say it's the other way round.
"Fair comment, yes,
Woth smiled that cold smile
which was all he ever allowed himself. "You're an unusual agent,
T-N. I hope you continue to be as unpredictable to the enemy as
you are to your own side. Be off with you now. I've sent on
your authorization ahead of you; you'll find it when you report to the
The Society of
Taldis said, "Thank
you, sir," and meant it. Not bad, he thought elatedly as
he strode out of the building; it was no common achievement to get away
from that chisel-face with the feeling that one has got what one
The next step was to deposit a
farewell cube in a transmission booth.... He did not reproach
himself for this seeming callousness. Just leaving a message might
seem cruel, but he was in the right. To maximise his chances of
survival, he must preserve his effectiveness as much as possible, which
meant, for a start, avoiding the ordeal of another reproachful
good-bye. After all, Athness' complaint was that he kept risking
his life. Well, then!
Click - in it went. Now
he was free.
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