The Forgetters
 
1:  Escape
 

    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 side.

     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 meal.

     "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...."

     "Spy."

     "A field operative for the Syoomean Intelligence Corps."

     "Im-pressive!" she 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 away.

     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 work?"

     "Why didn't you tell me," she retorted, "that you didn't know what the word 'marriage' means?"

     "I know what it means," he said quietly, turning to go.

     "Then you should know it means putting me first."

     "Ah, but perhaps I am."

     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 forest.

     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 quite recent.

     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 proposal?"

     "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."

     "Hmm...."

     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 concerned.

     "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.  Fair comment?"

     Athness would not agree.  She would say it's the other way round.

     "Fair comment, yes, sir."

     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 Vemorth Stazel."

     The Society of Forgetters.

     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 wanted.

     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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