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Proteus Unbound

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Proteus Unbound

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Author: Charles Sheffield
Publisher: Del Rey / Ballantine, 1989
New English Library, 1989
Series: Proteus: Book 2
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Delfeye
3.5




Synopsis

There were problems with the Form Change process. One or two malfunctions at first: people emerging from the tanks in an incorrect form or completely unchanged.

For three years it had been getting worse. Now there had been deaths, and on the Space Farms panic was setting in. People were refusing to go into the tanks. Yet out in the Cloudlands, they needed continuous small form corrections just to stay effective. As the faults increased, their society was on an exponential curve to disaster.

Behrooz Wolf, down in the Inner System, was sent for. But far gone in despair, he was in no state to help. He himself was going mad.

Like a hallucination, the Dancing Man would come capering across his field of vision. Dressed in skin-tight scarlet, he danced up to him, mouthing gibberish, then skipping backwards, tantalisingly, out of sight.

While, hidden in the Kernel Ring, Black Ransone bided his time, waiting for the disintegration of the empires, waiting to inherit the universe.


Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

"When change itself can give no more
'Tis easy to be true."
--Sir Charles Sedley

They found Behrooz Wolf on the lowest levels of Old City, in a filthy room whose better days were far in the past.

In the doorway, Leo Manx paused. He looked at the sweating, moldy walls and cobwebbed ceiling, gagged at the rank smell, and retreated a step. The floor of the room was covered with old wrappers and scraps of food. The man behind pushed on through. He was grinning for the first time since they had met. "There's a breath of Old Earth for you. Still sure you want him?"

"I have to have him, Colonel. Orders from the top." Manx tried to breathe shallowly as he moved forward. He knew Hamming was goading him, as everyone had done since he had arrived on Earth and explained what he wanted. Manx ignored Hamming; the mission was too important to let small issues get in the way.

The furnishings were minimal: a single bed, a food tap, a sanitary unit, and one padded chair. As Manx moved farther inside, the stink became stronger; it was definitely coming from the man slumped in that chair. Bald, sunken-eyed, and filthy, he stared straight ahead at the life-size holograph of a smiling blond woman that covered most of one spotted and water-stained wall. The lower part of the holograph displayed a verse of poetry in letters three inches high.

Ignoring both the man and the 'graph, Colonel Hamming crouched to inspect a little metal box on the floor next to the chair. Plaited braids of multicolored wires ran from the box to the electrodes on the seated man's scalp. Hamming peered at the settings, his nose just a couple of inches away from the control knobs.

"You're in luck. It's so-so, a medium setting."

Manx stared at the seated man's lined, grimy neck. "Meaning what?"

"Meaning he's been emptying his bladder and his bowels when he needs to, and maybe he ate something now and again, so he shouldn't need surgery or emergency care. But he won't have bothered with much else."

"So I see." Leo Manx examined the man with more disgust than curiosity, knowing that in a few more minutes he might have to touch that greasy, mottled skin. "I thought Dream Machines were illegal."

"Yeah. So's cheating on taxes. All right, Doc, tell me when you're ready. When I turn this off, he may get nasty. Violent. Losing all his nice dream reinforcement. I've got a shot ready."

"Don't you want to check that we have the right man before we begin? I mean, I've seen pictures of Behrooz Wolf, and this--he's--well..."

The security man was grinning again. "Not quite up to your expectations? Don't forget Wolf is seventy-three years old. You've probably only seen pictures when he's on a conditioning program. We'll check the chromosome ID if you like, but I'll vouch for him without that. It's not the first time, you know. He did this three other times, before he was kicked out as head of the Office of Form Control. He always comes here, and he always looks pretty much like this. Never quite so far gone before. When he still had his official position, we came and got him earlier. Can't let a government bureaucrat die on the job."

"You mean this time, if I hadn't asked to find him..."

"You, or someone else." Hamming shrugged. "I don't know how you Cloudlanders do it," he said, contempt in his voice, "but here on Earth a free citizen can die any damn way he chooses. Get ready, now--I'm pulling the plug. We'll go cold turkey."

Manx hovered impotently near as the security officer flipped four switches in quick succession, then ripped taped electrodes from the bald scalp. There was no sound from the biofeedback unit, but the man in the chair shivered, gasped, and suddenly sat upright. He stared wildly around him.

"Wolf. Behrooz Wolf," Manx said urgently. "I must talk--"

"Grab his other arm," Hamming ordered. "He's going to pop."

The man was already on his feet, glaring about with bloodshot eyes. Before Leo Manx could act, Behrooz Wolf had spun around to pull free and was feebly reaching for him with scrawny, taloned hands. The security officer was ready. He fired the injection instantly into Wolf's neck and watched calmly as the scarecrow figure froze in its tracks. Hamming waved a hand in front of Wolf's face and nodded as the eyes moved to follow it.

"Good enough. He's still conscious. But he has no volition; he'll do what we tell him." Hamming was already turning to pack away the cables in the compact biofeedback kit. "Let's get him aloft and dump him into his own form-control unit before he starts to get lively again."

Manx could not take his eyes away from the frozen tormented face. Behrooz Wolf was still glaring at the hologram, not interested in anything else. "Do you think that the form-control unit will work? He has to want it to. He seems to want to die."

"We'll have to wait and see. Hell, you can't make somebody want to live. You'll know in a few hours. Carry the feedback unit, would you?" Hamming took Wolf's arm and began to walk him toward the door. "Oops. Mustn't forget her. It's the first thing he'll want if he makes it through the form-control operation." He detoured to the wall and pointed to the verse. "That's the way Wolf was feeling. And here--" He poked the projection of the woman in her bare navel. "--is the reason for it."

Manx read the verse below the picture.

My thoughts hold mortal strife; I do detest my life,
And with lamenting cries, peace to my soul to bring,
Oft call that prince which here doth monarchize,
But he, grim-grinning king,
Who caitiffs scorns, and doth the blest surprise,
Late having decked with beauty's rose his tomb,
Disdains to crop a weed, and will not come.

"Gloomy thoughts. What does it mean?"

"Damned if I know. Wolf was always a nut for old-fashioned things--poetry, plays, history, useless crap like that. He must have thought the poem applied to him."

"That's terrible. He must have loved her very much to break down like this when he lost her."

"Yeah." Hamming had switched off the projection unit and put the cube into his pocket. He shrugged. "It's odd. I knew her, and she wasn't much of a looker. Good in bed, I guess."

"How long ago did she die?"

"Die? You mean Mary there?" Hamming had taken hold of Wolf's arm again and was leading him firmly out of the room. He gave a coarse, loud laugh. "Who mentioned dying? Mary Walton is alive and well. Didn't you know? She dumped him! Buggered off to Cloudland with one of your lot, some guy she met on a lunar cruise. Me, I'd have said good riddance to her, but he took it different. Come on, let's get Wolf up to his tank. I've had enough stink for today."

Copyright © 1989 by Charles Sheffield


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