The shuttle Winds of Mars dropped like a stone from Mars Station, taking an angle of descent that would have burnt her up in Earth's atmosphere. Some of the human passengers groaned as their stomachs climbed up into their throats. Ben and Charlie sat, completely unconcerned, as the planet grew larger and larger. The thinner air meant their pilot could show off his skills a little more, at least until they neared ground level. Then he had to use more thrust to brake and maneuver, as the shuttle's stubby wings developed only a fraction of the lift they might have in a denser atmosphere.
In less than twenty minutes the shuttle was carefully maneuvering across the paved landing stage of New Pittsburg, stirring a huge cloud of the reddish Martian grit with the downthrust of her engines. At last, she settled onto her main gear and the engines began a descending whine. The robotic flight attendant mechanically repeated its litany of disembarking instructions as the jetway was attached to the craft and pressurized. They paid it little mind. It wasn't even an android, but a clanking old mechanical that ran on an inflexible program with about as much intelligence and personality as a toaster. To Charlie and Ben, it wasn't even worthy of a second look, let alone any respect.
They strolled down the jetway and into customs, lugging their carry-on bags and looking every bit the vacationing travelers. They had reservations at the Mars Hilton and it was almost dinnertime. Their bags were checked through and fluoroscoped and sniffed by robo-dogs, then they were officially allowed into the booming settlement of New Pittsburg.
Charlie had never been to Mars proper and, of course, neither had Ben. Ben had never really been anyplace. He had been activated on Ganymede and would have spent his entire service life there, had it not been for Charlie. They stepped out of the small terminal and into chaos. Sixteen thousand people living under a dome a mile in diameter. Of course, a lot of the homes, shops and public areas were underground, going several stories down and a like number above the surface.
The dome itself was tinted blue, some engineer's idea so that Earth-born people wouldn't have to look at a pink sky. All he had succeeded in doing was to make everything take on a purplish hue, so that true colors were more difficult to identify.
In spite of the ventilation and air scrubber systems the place had a definite stench of too many people living in too little space. When the smells of cooking odors and ozone from every electric motor in the place were combined with the natural smells of sixteen thousand humans, one could expect that it might get a little ripe under the dome. Charlie and Ben both wrinkled their noses and looked at each other as their olfactory nodes struggled to separate and identify odors.
"Whew! Goddamn!" Charlie said, "This is gonna take some getting used to."
"No kidding. What is that?"
"People. I don't even think DSM #4 was anywhere near this rank."
"Not as I remember, but I don't remember much about the mine."
"Just as well. I wouldn't want you getting homesick on me." Charlie was grinning, and soon the big blonde android was, too. "Not much danger of that." he said.
They stepped to the cab stand and opened the doors on the first cab in line, tossing in their bags and sliding into the back seat. The doors slowly closed and the cab's driver module cut on.
"Where to, Sir?" it questioned. There was a faint odor of cigar smoke in the cab, and Charlie wondered if they really allowed smoking under the dome or if the smell was produced artificially to make the cab seem more authentic to off-worlders such as he and Ben.
"Mars Hilton, please."
"Swipe your card, please." the cab answered, going nowhere.
Charlie produced one of his major credit cards and ran it through the card slot that was affixed to the clear plastic bulkhead in front of them. There was a momentary pause while the cab checked his credit.
"Thank you." the cab intoned and ground its way slowly out into the street, headed toward center dome. The Hilton would be at or near the center, to accommodate as many floors as possible.
"Would you like the tour, gentlemen?" the cab inquired.
"What's the tour?" Ben asked.
"For an additional twenty credits I can take you around New Pittsburg and point out the sights."
"We'll pass on that," Charlie said, "just take us to the Hilton, most direct."
"Thank you, sir."
Their rooms at the Hilton were Spartan by comparison with Hilton hotels elsewhere, but the place was clean and a lot of the smell of New Pittsburg was filtered out. As soon as they were in their suite Charlie picked up the phone and called the cops.
He got an emergency dispatcher first, got shifted to a secretary in the detective section, then to records, where he inquired about getting a personnel printout of the permanent population. Then he got transferred to a detective named Harms.
"Raymond Harms, how can I help you?"
"Detective Harms, my name is Charlie Ramos. I run Eagle Eye Investigations. I'm here from Earth, looking into a matter, and I need a printout of the personnel who are permanently stationed here."
"Looking for anybody specific?"
"Well, it's not that easy. All I know is, it's probably a kid and he might be named Joey."
There was a long pause, then detective Harms said, "Where are you now, Mr. Ramos?"
"We're at the Hilton, room 4440, why?"
"Stay there." Harms said, and the line went dead.
Charlie walked out onto the balcony, where Ben was admiring the view, carefully closing the doors behind him to keep the filtered air inside. Out here, close to the top of the dome, the air was thick and nasty, and moving at a good clip with artificially generated wind. The dome was not a perfect half-sphere, but shaped more like a lens, being much lower in height than its diameter. Still, building a forty-six story structure under the dome must have been quite a feat.
"Get hold of anyone?"
"Yeah, guy named Harms. He's on the way over, I guess. Anyway, he said not to leave."
"Sounds ominous." Ben said.
"Maybe he'll have some useful information."
"I'm going back inside. It's too smelly out here for me."
Just as they walked back into their suite, the door burst open and three uniformed cops and a man in a suit came briskly inside, weapons drawn. Charlie and Ben were spread against the walls and expertly frisked, then allowed to sit down. While the three uniforms prowled the rooms, the plainclothes cop pulled up a chair and began interviewing them.
After the preliminary questions were over, they got down to the meat of the problem.
"What exactly is your business on Mars, Mr. Ramos?" Detective Harms was large, stocky and red-faced, with bushy eyebrows and piercing hazel eyes that had seen it all. His necktie was loosened and a visible sweat ring stained his collar. He looked like he'd been up for days.
"I... that is, we, were hired by the Mindgames Federation to find a telepath who's been disrupting the games."
"From Mars? All the way to Earth? You'll have to do better than that."
"It's true," Ben chimed in, "according to a telex we got as soon as we arrived, it may be a child named Joey."
Detective Harms shifted his gaze to Ben, then back to Charlie. "Tell your android sidekick that when I need to hear from him, I'll flip his switch." There was sarcasm in his manner and Charlie felt some emotional files click open that he rarely felt.
"Gonna flip my switch, too, Detective?"
"I am also an android, although we prefer the term 'Artificial Human'. I'm also the owner of Eagle Eye Investigations. Ben, here, is my property. He is a generation two and I am a generation three. We both have artificial emotions as well as artificial intelligence. I can see by your reaction that you're surprised, not only that I'm an android, but that androids on Earth can now own property."
"I...I'm sorry, Mr. Ramos. I didn't mean to seem..."
"Prejudiced? We get that all the time. We're used to it." Charlie sensed that he had the big detective at a disadvantage, at least momentarily, and he decided to press it. "So, tell me, Detective Harms, Natural Human, why did you come bursting in here?"
The detective looked at the floor, obviously avoiding Charlie's eyes while he sorted out what he was able to divulge, then he looked back up and said, "We've had a disappearance. A whole family. Mother, father and son. A miner, his wife, who's a caretaker of a greenhouse and the kid." He paused for effect, then said, "Kid's name is Joey."
"Ah. So as soon as I said 'Joey' on the phone, alarm bells started going off in your Natural Human mind, as they would in my own, and you shot right over here to see if we were involved in snatchin' the family. Very good."
"Yeah. That's about it. Can we drop the 'Natural Human' stuff now? I said I was sorry. I really meant no offense. I've been up about thirty-six hours, and my patience is about at an end."
"So you did. Okay. No offense taken. Can you divulge anything about the crime scene?"
"Not much to tell. Somebody came in, fast and efficient, and snatched 'em. Took down the front door, immobilized 'em in some way, and slipped out with 'em, all unseen. Neighbors swear there was no noise, no disturbance, nothing to indicate trouble, but the house was tossed, front door clear off its hinges. There had to be noise, but nobody heard a thing."
"Maybe they just don't wanna get involved." Ben said.
"Look, here on Mars, it's different than it is on Earth. You guys probably see a lot of that stuff, folks not wantin' to get involved, but not here. Up here, everybody depends on everybody else, not just for friendship and social issues, but for survival. If there's any criminal activity, it gets reported, and if they can, people get involved, to the point that we often have to save a perp from getting his ass kicked by the citizens."
"Do you suppose we could go to where this occurred and have a look?" Charlie asked.
"I suppose we might...but it's kinda against the rules...bringin' in private dicks, y'know..."
"Look, Detective Harms, you're tired, you've been up several days on this thing, your ass is draggin'. We're fresh and we have enhanced abilities. Maybe you might have overlooked something. Something we might catch. Give us a look at the crime scene, we'll record it, then we can come back here. I'll spring for dinner and we'll go over it. Then you can go get a good night's sleep."
"It shows that bad, huh?" Harms asked, passing a tired hand down over his face.
"Yep. You look like shit, Raymond."
Charlie never knew whether he was really that persuasive or if it was the mention of dinner at the Mars Hilton that turned the trick, but Harms abruptly stood up and said simply, "Let's go."
The electric patrol cars were a larger, souped-up version of the cab they had ridden in, but they were driven manually, each by a uniform. Charlie, Ben and Harms piled into one and the rest of the crew brought up the rear. In less than two minutes they pulled up in front of a small, neat bungalow on 'G' street. It seemed to be white with blue trim, but in the fading, uncertain light, it was hard to tell. As they got out of the car, Charlie said to Ben, "You record in infrared and I'll do visible spectrum."
They began a slow, methodical sweep that took in the small, manicured yard in front, then the front porch and on into and through the house. Everything was just as Harms had said. The place had been searched so quickly and violently that there had to have been noise-lots of it-and it had required a crew of people to conduct the search, not to mention carrying away a family.
As they finished their walk-through and returned to the cars, Ben diverted momentarily to the front two corners of the yard, then called Charlie and Harms over.
"Look at this. What do you make of it?" He knelt down and pointed out three depressions in the grass where something heavy had been placed.
"Looks like something sat here for a while, maybe on a tripod?" Harms ventured.
"There's another set of spots just like it over in the other corner."
"Damn," Harms said, with some consternation, "we didn't catch those at all."
"Not surprised. They show up better on infrared." Ben said.
"Holographic projectors?" Charlie said.
"That would make sense," Ben answered, "record the house the way it normally looks, then play it back through the projectors and the neighbors see everything as normal."
"But would it be that realistic? Couldn't they tell?" Harms asked.
"You ever been to the Mindgames on Earth?" Charlie asked.
"Never even been to Earth." Harms said. There was a definite air of contempt in his voice when he said 'Earth'.
"Believe me when I say this, Detective: They make holograms now so realistic they scare the crap out of you. Ya can't tell 'em from the real thing."
"Yeah, but what about the noise?"
Once again, Ben had the answer. "Probably masked it with a white-noise generator, high frequency job. The human ear would hear only silence from over here."
"Yeah," Charlie confirmed, "you could walk right by here and never hear them in there, wrecking the place."
"Too damn technical for me." Harms said.
"You really should consider adding a few androids to your investigative team." Charlie said, unable to resist rubbing it in a little.
"I understand it's already in the works." Harms replied. "Are you fellas ready to go eat? I'm starved."
"Me, too." Ben replied, giving Charlie a wink.
"So, Detective, any idea where they might have taken the Blanchard family?"
They were seated in the dining room of the Hilton and the first course, the shellback soup, had been served.
"Could be most anywhere by now." Harms said.
"How tough would it be to get them off-planet? Would they go through customs?"
"Yeah, but we've got the spaceport and Mars station covered. That's routine on all kidnap cases, in light of all the slave trade nowadays."
"If you were going to take a family off-world, how would you do it?" Ben asked.
"Hell, I don't know." Harms replied, "Probably sedate 'em and crate 'em up to look like somethin' else. Hope customs didn't wanna open the crates."
The steaks came, along with the red wine, then flaming peach surprise and liqueurs. At the end of the meal, cigars were offered around, but declined.
Soon, Harms' eyelids started growing heavy and Charlie said, "You need sleep, Detective. Go on home and we'll look for you in the morning."
Raymond Harms made no argument and left a few minutes later, after rounding up his driver, and wishing them a good night.
Ben also got up from the table and it was apparent that he was headed somewhere other than back to their room. He had that excited, expectant look about him as he pushed in his chair.
"Where you off to?" Charlie asked.
"The Galileo is still in port. She leaves in the morning. If it's okay, I thought I'd go see Cindy one last time."
"I thought you two said your good byes last night."
"We did, 'cause I didn't know if we'd be busy tonight. If we've got things to do."
"Nothing that won't keep until morning, I guess."
"Charlie, if we're busy, we're busy. Just say the word."
"Go!" Charlie said, then, when Ben still hesitated, "Go! I'll see you in the morning!"
Ben grinned, nodded and practically sprinted for the door.
Charlie went up to the suite to route a message to the World Mindfighting Federation, outlining their progress.
At about three in the morning, Charlie became aware of someone else in the suite. He cautiously brought himself up to full power, while remaining in his same position of sleep. If it was Ben, back from a night of tomcatting with Cindy, he didn't particularly want to see him, at least not tonight. Charlie figured the light of day would be a better time for discussion of Ben's love life.
As he continued to listen to the sounds though, he soon realized it wasn't Ben. There were three persons in the suite and they were trying to move as silently as possible. Now what? Should he get up and try to defend himself? Against three of them? He could probably give a good accounting of himself in a fight, but what if they had weapons? Just because there were no firearms allowed in New Pittsburg, it didn't mean that criminals went about unarmed. He, however, was unarmed.
On the other hand, what if he just let them do whatever they'd come for? It was unlikely that they'd kill him, and perhaps he could learn something.
He continued to fake sleep and in a few moments the men were at his bedside. He felt the needle go into his arm, not as a stinging sensation, but as pressure, quickly withdrawn. He allowed himself to stay completely limp as they lifted him, running down through all of his voluntary motor responses and cutting them off. As he was carried out of the bedroom by one of the men, a damn big one, to be able to carry Charlie by himself, he could hear them going through his belongings. Whoever they were, they were well trained, for they made no conversation. Not a word had been spoken since they came in.
Out of the suite and down the hall. Then the whine of the service elevator. Soon the coolness of the parking garage and the smells of New Pittsburg, unfiltered. Then Charlie was dumped into the trunk of a car and the lid was closed. Doors slammed and they were driving. Charlie started up a new file, feeling and recording each turn the car made for later review.
He turned up the receptors of his human threshold hearing and attempted to listen to any conversation from the passenger compartment. There was a lot of whine from the car's electric motors and he had to filter that out, then he was able, just barely, to pick up snatches of conversation.
".be easier to just dump this rube out in the desert." a voice said.
".boss said keep him alive." another voice answered.
".pain in the ass."
".I agree, but orders are orders."
".goddamn kid, and now this friggin' guy."
".will you knock off the bitchin'?.guys are gettin' paid pretty good for this."
".well, they hang people for kidnappin'.case you didn't know."
".well aware of the consequences.almost there."
The car cruised to a leisurely halt and there was the rumble of machinery, possibly a door, then the car moved forward a few feet and the door rumbled again. Then with a jerk, the car started descending. They were taking him into the underground of New Pittsburg.
Joey Blanchard was scared. As scared as he had ever been. When the men had come several nights ago, his father had made a valiant effort to defend their home, as he had every right to do, but he was so badly outnumbered and the men were so ruthless, being gentle with no one except Joey himself.
He had awakened to the sound of the front door coming down and the shouting of men, then he heard his dad challenging the intruders. It was a good thing there were no firearms allowed in New Pittsburg, for if he'd had a gun, Ron Blanchard would have shot someone and probably been in turn killed. As it was, they were all still alive, but Joey had no idea where his mom and dad were.
Joey had tried to run, tried to get away and he would never forget the surreal aspect of the strange flickering light that came into their home with the men and the strange hissing noise that seemed to want to drown out all other sounds. The men were in strange suits and they had weapons and wore masks. They had communicated with hand signals and Joey got the distinct impression that they were military. He and his parents had been stuck with needles and knocked out and as they became sleepy they were shoved rudely into insulated aluminum shipping cartons. Joey could just remember seeing that the container he was packed into was labeled "Computer Parts".
Where they had been taken from there was anybody's guess. He had thought about using the gift to drift out of his body and see where he was, but he was afraid that if it was someplace unfamiliar he might not find his way back.
Ben returned to the suite at the Hilton a little after five in the morning. The Galileo was to sail at 0600 hrs. and he had reconciled himself to not seeing Cindy for a long time. They had spent the night together, more in tenderness than in pleasure and Ben was again feeling emotions he hadn't been aware his complex innards could produce.
When he saw that Charlie wasn't in the suite, he went to the coffee shop and had breakfast, assuming his boss would soon return from wherever he'd gone. When Charlie hadn't returned by eight, Ben was becoming concerned and he called Detective Harms at the police department. Harms had just come in, and didn't seem too concerned.
Ben was becoming more worried by the minute. It wasn't like Charlie to just leave and give no indication as to his destination. He would have left a note, a recording, something. Ben contacted the hotel desk and asked for messages and when there were none, he asked if they knew where Mr. Ramos might have gone. They had no idea. When he mentioned that Mr. Ramos seemed to be missing, they sent a security man to contact him.
Thirty minutes later, Ben had convinced the security man to let him view the tapes from their in-house camera system and they were in the security office, watching monitors.
They found a single frame that was taken at 0319 hours, showing a large man coming off the service elevator on the garage level, with a smaller man draped over his shoulder. Ben asked the security supervisor for a paper copy and with the still-warm picture in hand, set off to find Raymond Harms.
Charlie wasn't bothered by the cold. He just turned up his internal thermostat a notch and dealt with it. The isolation didn't bother him either. What did bother him was his lack of knowledge. Why was he brought here? Who were these guys? And where were the Blanchards? How long could he expect to be here? Would they decide to kill him?
Charlie didn't think about death in the same way as a real person. To him, death was the end of his service life and that was all. It was a fact that lurked somewhere in his future, but like most people, he'd like to postpone the event as long as possible.
He was fairly certain these thugs weren't hired by the World Mindfighting Federation. Why would they hire him to conduct an investigation, then derail it by locking him up here? And, precisely where was here? Somewhere in the underground, for sure. His cell was obviously improvised. There was a bunk and a chemical pot and a lot of bare concrete walls and floor. There was a single bulb in the ceiling, covered by wire mesh, too high to reach and providing weak light that never went out. The presence of the toilet told him that they were unaware he was android.
Joey Blanchard was becoming more desperate as time went by and at last, he let his mind venture out of the tiny room, at first just barely outside the door, where he saw a featureless hallway. There were weak lights at intervals and the sound of dripping water and that was all. As he got braver, he ventured farther afield until he was sure of his location. He was six levels down below the city, in an area intended as storage and as shelter, in case the dome failed. He spent an hour looking into other rooms and he soon found his mother and dad, in separate rooms. He also found a stranger in a third room, and his curiosity was immediately aroused. He was unable to read anything from the strange man with the dark eyes and that was the first time that had ever happened. Whenever he would push at the man's psyche, there seemed to be nothing there for him to see, yet he watched the man living, breathing and he heard him occasionally mutter to himself.
Joey was more intrigued than afraid. How could someone have defenses so strong? Or was it defenses? There was something here he was missing, but he was baffled as to what it might be. What had the stranger done to deserve being locked away as he and his parents were? Was he a part of their same situation?
Ben got in touch with Raymond Harms at the police building. He looked better and seemed to be in a good mood until Ben showed him the picture. Then he exploded in fury.
"Son of a bitch! What's goin' on here? Do these people think they can just snatch anybody?"
"It would seem so, by all indications." Ben answered.
Harms looked more closely at the photo. Though he could not see the face of the large man, there was something familiar about the shape of him.. "What do you suppose they did to Charlie to render him that compliant? Would drugs work?"
"Nope. At least, nothing that you would consider a drug."
"I don't know. Maybe he was faking."
"Why would he do that?"
"Maybe there were several men. We only see one, but there could have been a dozen, for all we know. Maybe they thumped him or stuck him with a syringe and he decided to play along, to learn whatever he could."
"Maybe," Harms said, "but that still doesn't answer the main question: where is he?"
"Could they get him off-planet?"
"Hmmm.difficult, but not impossible. But, why would they want to?"
"No way we can know until we get a line on who they are."
Harms picked up his phone and began dialing.
"Who're you calling?" Ben asked.
"All the snitches I can think of, out on the streets. Somebody's gotta know somethin'".