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Two sections of floor collapsed and armed figures began to leap upward into the electronics emporium above. Two of the three Commissioners scowled as they watched the projection sphere, though they knew that the scene had actually occurred more than a year before. Lemba, the Chief Commissioner, was fat and black and too experienced to show emotion except as a ploy. He gestured toward the sudden chaos in the sphere. "At the start, no one was killed. Knocked around, threatened if they got in the way of the looters, but—"

A red-capped policeman burst through the outside door, carrying his heavy-duty stunner at high port. The projection brightened as a dazzling crossfire cut the patrolman in half.

Arcadio, the other male Commissioner, swore under his breath. "Powerguns, when we can't get them ourselves."

Lemba nodded.

Except for the Commissioners themselves, the sixty-meter room was empty of its usual crowd. Further, though scanning cameras recorded the events of the room as they did the events of all other rooms in the State, the data of this meeting were restricted to the Security Police alone. Newshawks could appeal the Interdict to the courts, but even if they were successful, the delay of several months would kill news value in a society that lived from day to day.

Chains of pale, ragged looters were shifting equipment down through the gaps in the floor. Others guarded the hundreds of frightened hostages and the outside doors. The raiders were armed with a variety of weapons, including the powerguns which were supposedly only in the hands of the military. A stocky, red-haired woman raised her pistol and fired. One of the scanning cameras exploded into gobbets of burning plastic. The looter turned and blew apart a second camera. The scene in the projection sphere lost much of its precision, but the computer directing the simulacrum still managed to import an illusion of three-dimensionality.

The woman turned to face the remaining scanner. What looked like a bead necklace trembled on her bare bosom. As she leveled her powergun she grinned and extended the middle finger of her left hand. The whole screen spurted cyan, then went transparent.

"At the end of it there were five dead," Lemba said to his colleagues. "The one you saw, and a patrol car that exploded in the air. Red Teams were dispatched automatically, of course, and they weren't equipped to deal with powerguns."

"It isn't just the dead, though," objected Arcadio.

"That's right," agreed Kuhn, whose hair today matched the giraffe-patterned brown-on-blond polygons of her suit. She slapped the data print-out in front of her. "Of the 212 persons inside when the raid began, 27 are missing. Some—most—can be presumed to have been abducted for reasons one can guess. But there were several others, men and women who nobody'd have grabbed for a brothel or ransom. They were just ordinary people who opted to go Underground when they found the way clear. And that's the frightening thing."

"Not in comparison to the reason for this particular raid," Lemba replied equably. "Perhaps you thought this incident"—he waved at the vanished projection—"merely underscores the fact that Underground is organized and controlled by persons who are utterly ruthless?"

Arcadio and Kuhn stared at the fat man. Their expressions were compounded of disgust and irritation. "If you've requested an Interdict merely to play games—" Arcadio began.

"What's really frightening," Lemba went on, tapping his own data sheet with a callused index finger, "is that this raid provided all the necessary control components for a fusion powerplant. Coupled with other recent raids and . . . various other sources of information, Central has determined that Underground has a fusion unit in operation now. Beneath the City, where it will kill ten or twenty million people when it fails. And it's up to the three of us to decide how to shut that plant down before the disaster."

The hard faces of the subordinate Commissioners went blank. After a moment, Lemba continued, "Since I had a little advance notice of this—"

"Something this critical should have been routed to all of us, immediately!" Kuhn interrupted.

"—I was able to get a possible answer from Central Records. The data bank states that while a full-scale assault would almost certainly fail, an individual infiltrator might be able to eliminate the plant . . . and its personnel. It's probable that we will get only one opportunity, so we need to choose the most effective person for the task. The man the data bank recommends is a Crime Service employee in Southern Region. His name is—"

* * *

"Field Agent Jed Lacey?" queried a young man in a crisp yellow uniform. The legend printed on his cap band read, "take pride in our city."

Lacey looked up abruptly. His mastoid implant was useless out of Greater Greensboro Subregion. He felt naked without it, his link to all the knowledge in the State. For that matter, Lacey missed the needle stunner which normally rode high on his hip. "Right, I'm Lacey," he said when he had identified the speaker from among the throng filling the airport terminal. "You my driver?"

"Well, I'm your guide, citizen," the City employee said with a false smile. "My name is Theron Barbee. We'll be taking public transit to the Commission offices. We don't approve of the waste of air cars here, you see."

"Right, I see," Lacey said sourly. He nodded toward the sky. Air cars streamed among the buildings like foam on a rocky strand.

"Well, of course that's private sector," the guide said with a sniff as he led Lacey toward the long queue for the buses.

"Sure," agreed Lacey. "Well, if they won't give their people tools to do their jobs right, they needn't be surprised when the jobs get done half-assed. But it's not my City."

The sprawling crowds were an emotional shock to Lacey, though intellectually he had known what to expect and had tried to prepare for it. His suit of red-orange covered him throat to digits in high style. He liked the color, though it was too blatant for him to have worn it while working. Lacey had stopped working the moment he boarded the airliner in Greater Greensboro, answering a summons relayed through his superiors.

But more than the color, Lacey liked the fact that the suit left only his face bare to a woman's touch. For fifteen years, physical contact with a woman was all that it took to crumple Lacey as effectively as a kidney punch could; and in the crowded City, he knew he could not avoid such contact.

When the third bus hissed up to their stop, Barbee called, "Quick now!" and swung aboard without further warning. Lacey followed the yellow-clad man, using his locked fists as a prow to split the would-be passengers who had pushed ahead of him. He ignored the yelps, the elbows chopping at his ribs and the boot-spikes gouging his shin armor. He had tried to ignore the other people, because half of them were women; and if he even let himself think of that for a moment, he would collapse in uncontrollable nausea. Though his suit kept him from actual contact, Lacey's real problem was a psychic one: a repulsion implanted in his mind by a Psycomp after his conviction for rape.

The bus moved off slowly. A dozen people gripped the door jambs with all but their fingers and toes outside the vehicle. "It's an express," the guide shouted to Lacey over the babble. The powerplant itself keened through a hole in its condenser tubing. "It'll take us straight to the City Complex."

Lacey muttered something under his breath.

Actually, they were still a kilometer from the Complex when the bus halted in a traffic jam the like of which Lacey had never imagined. "Well," Barbee said with a bright smile, "I guess we'll just walk from here."

"This happen often?" Lacey asked as he jumped to the sidewalk. The buildings glowered down at him. They had been too massive to demolish and rebuild at heights which could be served by stairs. Though the cost of power for elevators was almost prohibitive, there were people who would pay it for the privilege of living and working in this giant replica of a termite colony.

"Well, it happens," the guide replied ambiguously. He set off at a rapid pace.

They climbed over and scraped between the vehicles which had mounted the sidewalks in vain attempts to clear the jam. At last Lacey saw what the trouble was. An entire block was covered, building-front to building-front, by a roiling party of more than 5,000 people. They were dressed and undressed in a multiplicity of styles. Banners shaded the gathering with slogans which were meaningless to the Southerner. As he began to thread his way through the celebrants, Lacey realized that they were homosexuals.

The squat field agent bumped a man whose nude body was tattooed in a pair of polychromatic starbursts. The man turned and raised a cup of something amber and alcoholic. "Join us, love," he offered.

"Thanks anyway, friend," Lacey said and moved on by. When he had caught up with Barbee—the local was far more adept at slipping through the dense crowd—Lacey demanded, "Where the hell are your cops?"

The guide looked back with distaste. "You'd better get rid of your provincial sexual attitudes fast," he said with a sniff.

Lacey snorted back. "Look, if they're out of my subregion, I don't care what they do to who with what. I just mean I'd expect your Red Teams to pay some attention to people blocking a street—in the middle of town, in the middle of the bleeding day!"

"Well, they're quiet, they're not hurting anybody," the man in yellow said. Then, with some embarrassment, he added, "Besides, the patrols are understrength now. Finances are, well. . . ."

"Sure," Lacey said, glancing over his shoulder at the party. He was visualizing how twenty men could clear the street with a tanker of stun gas and enough trucks to hold the bodies. It wasn't his city, though; and Lacey was far too intelligent to believe the State would be a better place if everyone's instincts were like his. Control was the key . . . but no control was as important as his own self-control.

Barbee stopped finally in front of one of a line of concrete buildings, new enough to be twenty stories high instead of eighty. The windows were opened in more facets than a beetle's eyes. "Here you are," said the guide, "the Tweed Building. You're to report to Captain Max Nootbaar on Level Twenty. He'll have your instructions."

Lacey looked upward. Yellow-painted air cars burred to and from the landing stage on the building's roof. At least somebody on the City payroll had access to transport that couldn't be mired by block parties. "Crime Service headquarters?" the Southerner queried.

"That's right."

"And no elevators, I'd guess."

"Of course not."

Barbee was already walking away, toward a more distant building of the vast Complex. Lacey let out an inarticulate scream and leaped upon the slimmer man, throwing him to the ground. The Southerner brought a flat tube from under his tunic. It snicked out a 5-cm blade when he squeezed. "I'll kill you!" he shouted to the guide. "I'll cut your heart out!" Only someone who had seen Lacey in a killing rage before would have noticed that this time his neck scar did not writhe against flushed skin.

The street was straight and broad; a dozen scanning cameras on it recorded the incipient mayhem. Relays tripped, panels glowed red, and a patrol car slowing to land on the Tweed Building instead plunged down toward Lacey. In contrast, the pedestrian traffic surged outward like a creek against an obstructing rock. The passers-by continued to move as if they were oblivious of the mingled screams of victim and assailant.

Lacey suddenly stood, closing and slipping away his knife. He reached out a hand to help Barbee up. The guide screamed again and tried to crawl away. Fear wedged his body against the seam of building and sidewalk.

The ten-place patrol car slammed to the pavement behind Lacey. "Get 'em up!" a hoarse voice shouted.

Lacey raised his hands and turned with a quizzical expression. The four uniformed policemen had him covered with needle guns and a stun gas projector. "Good morning, sergeant, patrolmen," Lacey said calmly. "I'm Field Agent Jed Lacey from Greater Greensboro. I'm due for an appointment with Captain Nootbaar. My guide here tripped on that crack in the pavement. Must say I'm a little surprised to have a Red Team react to that." He smiled. "I'd have expected Public Works, if anyone."

The sergeant frowned. Barbee saw that Lacey's back was turned. He began running down the sidewalk, first in a crouch and then full-tilt. Lacey glanced at him. "Must be in as much of a hurry as I am," he remarked disinterestedly.

The patrolmen wore puzzled expressions. Their sergeant queried his mastoid implant, then waited for the answer with his hand cocked. When it came, he spat disgustedly and reslung his gas gun. "Yeah, Captain Nootbaar says send him up," he said. "Two bleeding false alarms in one day."

"If you don't mind, I'll ride up with you," Lacey said, lowering his hands as the Red Team locked its weapons back on safe. "I was afraid for a moment I'd have to climb twenty flights of stairs."

"Sure, room we got," the sergeant grunted. "Men, no, but we got room." The driver lifted them vertically, faster than they would have dropped in free-fall. "First the computer crashes us in on a strangling. That turns out to be two kids screwing under a sheet. Then we're held over our shift 'cause the bloody Streets Department sits around with its thumb up its ass instead of fixing the sidewalks. I swear, a bit more of this and they'll have to look for me Underground too."

Captain Nootbaar had been alerted by the sergeant's call. He waved toward the doorway to attract Lacey's attention. The captain's desk was a little larger than most of the hundreds of others crowding the unpartitioned room, and extensions from the desk supported three scanner helmets instead of just one. Lacey made his way to Nootbaar with practiced care; governmental offices were just as crowded in Southern Region as they were here. At a glance, Lacey assessed the captain as sixty, softly massive, and a better cop than this place had any right to hope for.

"Expected you by the stairs," the big man said as they shook hands. He tapped his scanner helmet. "Interesting replay here of how your guide tripped."

Lacey smiled. "I'm an honored guest of the City," he said. "They could find me a car. Besides, it's been a while since you've climbed any stairs yourself, hasn't it?"

Nootbaar looked down ruefully at his gut. "Well, there's a patrol inbound past my block every morning at 0655. Wouldn't be efficient for me to waste energy walking, would it?" His eyes raised and caught Lacey's. "You know, if I'd realized you weren't just some rube the brass was wasting my time with, there'd have been a car at the airport. Sorry."

Lacey smiled more broadly. "Guess if I'd needed your help, I wouldn't have deserved it, hey?" The smile passed. "Though you can help me learn what the hell I'm doing here."

Nootbaar shrugged. "Pull down some headgear," he said as he reached for one of the scanner helmets himself. "I'm supposed to give you background," he went on, his voice muffled by the two helmets. "I don't know quite what they want you to do with it; but if they give you a chance to back out, Lacey, don't wait for them to ask twice."

Lacey's helmet formed a dull image in response to Nootbaar's direction. "I'm picking this pretty much at random," the local man explained obscurely to Lacey. They were watching a sub-surface level of an old building converted to residential occupancy. Sparse glow strips provided less light than would suffice for reading. Transparent panels, waist high, marked off narrow aisles and living units scarcely more spacious. "Do you have a district, a tolerated zone, where you are?" Nootbaar asked.

"You mean, no scanners, no police?" Lacey said. "Enter at your own risk?"

"That sort of thing, yeah. A place all the decent folk kind of ignore, unless they need something that's sold there. Violates State statutes as well as local, but let the State try and enforce it if they think it's so damned important."

"I know the theory," the Southerner replied. "There's places I've been that have them. But not Greensboro. Christ, there's nothing you can't buy legally, unless it'll permanently injure somebody else. And if it's just that you don't want the scanners watching—" Lacey paused, his flesh trembling with the memory of his own needs being satisfied under a scanner's glare—"that's tough."

"We got a district here," Nootbaar said. "It's called Underground."

On the helmet screens a figure rose from out of the floor and began scuttling toward the open staircase. "There's one for sure!" the captain exclaimed. He boosted the magnification. First the scanner focused on the wooden grating that had been shifted to give entry to the level. Then Nootbaar switched to close coverage of the figure itself as it scurried up the stairs. "Probably an old heating duct," Nootbaar said, presumably referring to the access hole. Lacey waited with the silent patience of a sniper who moves only enough to start a bullet toward an opponent's heart.

After walking up three levels of stairs, the figure exited to the outside. Street cameras automatically shunted their data to the watching helmets. The subject was a woman in flowing gray coveralls and a hat whose brim flopped over her eyes. She turned into the doorway of a quality clothing emporium. The floor within was leased on a square-meter basis to scores of individual boutiques.

Without warning, the woman scooped up three dresses awaiting alterations on a counter. The boutique manager shouted and leaped atop the counter. The thief ran for the door as the manager collapsed. A "customer" standing in the next booth had stitched him through the chest with a needle stunner before following the woman out the door.

Thief and guard burst back outside. The light-sensitive fabric of the stolen garments blazed like a sodium flare. There was no patrolman in sight. Heedless of the slow traffic, the pair darted to a pedestrian island in the middle of the six lanes. A metal plate there hinged downward. In the instant before it closed again over the fugitives, Lacey caught a glimpse of stone steps and a dozen other faces.

"Old subway entrance," Nootbaar said with dismal satisfaction. "That's all the show. We may as well look at each other for a while."

Lacey swung up his counterweighted helmet. "You've got a Coventry for thieves up here?" he said incredulously. "You just ignore them if they make it to ground before you catch them?"

The bigger man sighed. "Maybe there was a choice once," he said, "but the size of it scared people. The subways'd been closed because they were inefficient and the surface streets were enough without private cars. There were water and sewer mains; some of them forgotten, some operating but big enough to hide in anyhow, to splash through . . . almost all the time at least. Cable vaults and steam ducts and sealed-off sub-basements; parking garages and a thousand other things, a maze twenty levels below you.

"You close one off and somebody breaks into it again before the crew's out of sight. Set up a scanning camera and in ten minutes it shows you a man reaching toward it with a crowbar. Send down a Red Team and nobody comes back." Nootbaar looked up. "And it's all so easy to say, 'They want to live like rats, what's that to you or me or the State?'"

"So it's a separate society?" Lacey offered.

"It's a worm in the guts of the City!" Nootbaar snapped back. "It's fences who sell goods at a tenth their surface price; cribs where they hose the girls off because they're too wasted to clean themselves. It's a family living in a section of 36-inch pipe, with no water and no light within a hundred meters. It's slash shops that generally poison their customers even when they don't mean to. And Lacey—" the captain leaned across his narrow desk, his eyes black and burning with furious despair—"it's ten thousand people, or a hundred thousand, or just maybe—and they don't believe me, Lacey, but I've been down there—just maybe a million rotting devils and more every day."

Nootbaar shook himself and leaned back in his chair. "It's called Underground," he repeated.

Lacey traced his neck sear with one stubby finger. "What do they expect me to do?" he asked.

The heavy captain spread his palms. "I don't know," he said. "I don't think anything can be done. We can't cut them off from water or electricity—they tap the distribution lines. We'd have to shut the whole City down. We can't close off the exits from their warrens, because there's at least one opening in every block in the City. If we arrested everybody who came out of Underground, we'd have half the population in the slammer by Sunday morning. It's a cut that's bleeding us day by day, and some day it'll bleed us out; but there's nothing we can do."

"So take the gloves off," Lacey said. The captain's ironic smile grew broader. Lacey ignored it. "Get the State to send help. Hell, get the military in, it'll be a change from the Cordillera Central. Go in with stun gas, back it with powerguns; and when you've cleared a stretch, seal it for good with a long-term toxin like K2 so nobody'll try moving back in fifty years or so. It'll cost something, cost a lot; but it's still cheap at the price."

"You'd have enjoyed talking to Director Wheil," Nootbaar said reminiscently. "He planned it just that way, ten years ago."

Lacey frowned. "Don't tell me you couldn't shoot your way through a bunch of untrained thugs, even if they were tough," he said.

Nootbaar shook his head. "We were making good headway—not cheap, but like you say cheap at the price—when about a thousand of 'em came outa the ground and took over Stuyvesant Armory." Nootbaar paused and sucked his lips in, his eyes focusing on the close-chewed nails of his left hand. "It wasn't the powerguns they took, though the fighting down below'd been hot enough already," he continued. "And it wasn't just that they got enough explosive to crater the City Complex like an asteroid hit it. The real thing was, they got all the K2 we'd stockpiled to close Underground after we'd cleared it. Used right, there was enough gas in Stuyvesant to wipe out the whole City; and nobody thought the people who'd planned the raid couldn't figure out how to use the goodies they'd taken."

Nootbaar looked at Lacey. "We hadn't figured a counter-attack, you see. Everybody we could trust with a gun had been sent Underground. So they recalled us without waiting for a demonstration; and that was the end of the only chance this city was going to have of getting shut of Underground."

Lacey drummed his left middle and index fingers. "You know pretty much what goes on down there?"

Nootbaar shrugged. "Sure, Intelligence Section runs people in all the time. For that matter, cops get laid and get drunk and buy hot goods too. But any time we've really tried to assassinate the leaders down there—Bill Allen, Butcher Bob Poole, Black May . . . especially Black May—the people we send don't come back. There's lines from here to Underground, and they go a ways up. They've got access to the scanners for sure."

Lacey massaged his short hair with both hands. "What's the drill, then? What am I supposed to do?"

"I'm to send you over to the Fernando Wood Building and the Commissioners'll tell you themselves," Nootbaar said, rising. He grinned, a transfiguring flash. "Wouldn't be real surprised if there was a patrol headed that way about now. After all, it's only a hundred meters—unless you have to go down and up twenty flights of stairs in the meantime."

Lacey laughed and shook the heavy captain's hand. Nootbaar sobered and added, "Look, if there's anything I can do for you. . . ."

"You gave me some good advice at the start of this," the Southerner assured him. "I'll go listen to what your Commissioners have to say, but I'll bet I'm going to do just like you said. I'll get my ass back South where it belongs."

Nootbaar frowned. "I'm not telling you anything you don't know," he said, "but remember: all you need to get elected Commissioner is a constituency. You don't need brains or ability, and you sure as death don't need ethics. Don't give them anything they haven't paid you cash for."

* * *

Save for a narrow anteroom, the City Commissioners' offices filled the whole top level of the Wood Building. The anteroom had its own trio of scanning cameras, along with four clerks and a dozen uniformed guards who checked all would-be visitors before they were allowed into the Commissioners' sanctum.

Lacey bore the questioning with equanimity and even some interest. He had never met the elected powers of his own subregion. The whole business amused him.

When Lacey passed through the inner doorway, an alarm bell rang. Scores of people, both petitioners and functionaries, were already within the larger room. They got up at once and began to stream outside. Many stared at Lacey as they passed.

Puzzled, the Southerner turned to follow the crowd. From the center of the room, a fat, black man in a pneumochair with synchronized desk called, "No, not you, Citizen Lacey. Come over here."

The door closed. Lacey was in a huge chamber, alone except for the scanners and the three seated persons: the City Commissioners. Off-hand, Lacey did not believe he had ever before shared so large an enclosed space with so few people. Carefully, fighting an impulse to look over his shoulder, he walked into the semicircle of desks.

"I've placed an Interdict on this discussion, Citizen Lacey," the fat man said. The woman to his right glared from under a mass of green hair that matched her dress. The black grinned and corrected himself, saying, "Pardon, I should have explained that we placed the Interdict. Commissioner Kuhn—" he nodded right; the woman's glare transferred itself to Lacey—"Commissioner Arcadio—" he nodded left at the man with long, nervous fingers and a nose like an owl's beak—"and I myself am Chief Commissioner Lemba. I mention the Interdict only so you realize how important the matter you are about to learn is considered by ourselves . . . and by the State."

"All right," Lacey said quietly. There was a small secretary's console nearby. He slid it over to him, sitting on the desk rather than the low-slung seat.

Lemba continued, "you've been given the background on Underground. It's an unfortunate situation, especially since there appears to be a misguided minority which thinks it better to live in squalor and anarchy—" his voice swelled—"than as a part of the greatest city this world has ever known!"

"I've never voted in my life, Citizen Lemba," Lacey interjected, hunching a little as he sat. "And I couldn't vote in this region if I wanted to."

Lemba blinked, Arcadio smiled for the first time, and even Kuhn's eyes had briefly less of hatred in them than before. She must have seen his life stats, Lacey thought. Couldn't expect her to like them.

"The problem, citizen," Lemba continued in less rounded tones, "is that some of those who have gone Underground are scientists of international reputation. One of them—" a head formed in a projection sphere over the desk on which Lacey was sitting. The Southerner stood and walked back a few steps to where he had a good view of a balding, white-haired man with a look as sour as Kuhn's—"Dr. Jerry Swoboda, seems to have built a fusion powerplant down there."

The Chief Commissioner took a deep breath, more as a rhetorical device than from any onset of emotion. "I don't have to tell you how dangerous fusion power is. Environmental groups and the State Regulatory Board shut off even research on it two decades ago. And I don't have to tell you how many innocent men, women and children would die horribly in the event such a plant failed beneath the City.

"Will die. Unless the plant is shut down and destroyed, and Dr. Swoboda and his associates are—" Lemba looked up at one of the room's scanners, still operating even though its output was restricted—"prevented from building another such death machine. Central Records says you are the best man to carry out this crucial mission."

Lacey filled his cheeks, then puffed the air out glumly. "Do the data banks give any reason why I'd want to carry out your 'mission'?" he asked.

"How about ten million lives, citizen?" Commissioner Kuhn snapped. Her irises had been dyed to match her hair and clothing. "Or don't you care about lives?"

Lacey met her glare. It did not bother him—as Lemba's growing smile did. "Look, it's not something we can argue about," the Southerner said in a reasonable voice. "You want to save them, then you go down and save them. Myself, I can live the rest of my life without your City. I've lived the past fifteen years without things that were a lot more impor—"

Lacey's voice died. He turned again to face Lemba. "You son of a bitch," he said to the commissioner in awe. "You knew I wouldn't be able to go down there without being able to touch women. . . ."

"What a Psycomp did, a Psycomp can undo," Lemba agreed in satisfaction. "Your psyche, Citizen Lacey, isn't the sort of thing that everyone would care to own. Still, I thought that in exchange for our unblocking it again, you'd be willing to do the City a little service."

Commissioner Kuhn was standing, her face flushed in ugly contrast to her clothes. "It's bad enough a man like this still walks the earth!" she shouted at Lemba. "Did you see what he did to get wet-scrubbed? You're not going to turn him loose the way he was before!"

Arcadio interrupted her for the first time. "What happened fifteen years ago doesn't matter," he said. "What's important is what is going to happen right here if we don't act promptly."

"Citizen Kuhn," Lacey said.

She whirled on him, mouth opening to rasp insults; but ungoverned behavior had not brought her to a commissionership. She waited for Lacey to speak.

"I'm not, I won't be, the guy I was before they . . . wet-scrubbed me," the Southerner said. His hands were locked tightly together. "I don't say I'm any better; but I'm not as young. I won't risk my—mind—on another gesture. Unless the gesture is more important than I ever expect anything to be again."

Kuhn looked at Lacey in disgust, then looked back at Lemba. "I won't argue with two votes," she spat. "But if he comes back alive, it's on your consciences. And it's up to you to explain to the female voters of this City."

Kuhn walked out of the meeting room, letting the door bang to behind her. Lemba beamed at the standing agent and said, "Dr. Kabiliak is waiting on Level 3 with a Psycomp team—I rather suspected you were going to volunteer. We'll prepare everything else you'll need during the three days you're in the tank. We need to hurry on with this, you know." The Chief Commissioner chuckled.

Lacey turned and walked toward the door. He was already planning his insertion into Underground. He had as little feeling as he would have had if someone else were wearing his flesh.

* * *

Lacey vaulted the stair railing and dropped the eight feet to the floor of the lowest level. His bent knees absorbed the shock, then thrust him down the dim aisle at a run. Boots clattered on the stairs one level up, growing louder.

Two women were gossiping across the aisle as they would have done over the back fence of earlier ages. They lunged away, calling to their children in high voices. Lacey squirmed through an opening in the floor that had been an 18-inch drain pipe. A few feet down it made a 90° bend. Someone shouted from the stairs and a sheaf of stun needles clicked against the concrete flooring and vitril partitions. Lacey shoved himself forward with an echoing curse, heedless of the nub of ceramic pipe that was gouging his suit and the thigh beneath it.

A pair of needles flicked his boot-sole, minuscule taps like a sparrow's kisses. Then Lacey was through, worming toward a dimness only less black than the tile tube itself. He could have been frozen and dragged back if one of the Red Team in pursuit had simply lowered a needle gun into the drain and fired a burst down its axis; but no one bothered to take that obvious step. Underground was safe, Lacey thought disgustedly; a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one.

When Lacey fell into the sixty-inch pipe under the street, the first thing he noticed was the stench. In part, that was because his eyes had not adjusted to the absence of light. Still, the fetor would have been overpowering under any conditions. Thousands of fans pulled a draft into the tunnels, but tens of thousands of people breathed and sweated and excreted in them.

There were whispers and scrabbling. Lacey tensed for attack from unseen direction. Fingers traced his throat and down his torso. "Come for a good time, honey?" a voice croaked. Other fingers, arthritic and cold, sought Lacey's hand and tried to drag it toward their owner's body. "Crystal'll show you a good time, better'n any a' those—"

Lacey shook himself loose. "I didn't come for that," he said. "I just needed to get away."

He crawled toward the main drain. Part of the evidence for a functioning fusion plant Underground had been the suddenly-increased theft and even purchase of lights and glow strips. Power pilfering had, if anything, decreased at the same time. The blackness here emphasized the enormous volume of tunnels which not even epic banditry could illuminate.

Hunched over, Lacey began to walk toward the diffused light twenty meters away. The pipe, sloping upward to either side, made footing tricky. Hands caught him again.

"No!" Lacey shouted.

There was a blur in front of him, another figure or figures. More groping hands at his belt, his pockets, his groin. Lacey blazed with conscious loathing spawned by fifteen years of necessary avoidance. His boots and elbows slashed out. The little knife was in his hand, its blade already smeared with dried blood. The hands dropped away. Cracked voiced lifted in a chorus of ecstatic pain.

The light came through a gap hacked without finesse into a subway line. The tracks had been reclaimed for their metal after the system was shut down, leaving an echoing waste of concrete and ballast. Now the axis of the great hollow was lumped with cribs and shanties of every style and construction. At intervals of twenty meters or so, glow strips were spiked to the tunnel ceiling. Their light would have been called inadequate even in the cheapest tenements above ground, but here it formed luxurious pools.

Lacey paused to get his bearings. He tucked away his knife. A grizzled woman was leaning the back of her chair against the tunnel wall beside the opening. She dropped the chair legs to the ground and whistled toward a seated trio fifty meters away. Near them a flight of steps led upward to a subway entrance. The three men rose and began walking toward Lacey and the woman. Weapons trembled in their hands.

Lacey glanced at them, then took a step toward a near-by canvas shanty. Four patrons were drinking from mugs and arguing with the blocky bartender. The woman behind Lacey tapped him on the shoulder. In the dim light she had seemed to be carrying a short bamboo cane. It was in fact a length of steel reinforcing rod.

"Where you going, buddy?" she demanded.

Lacey's tongue touched his lips. "Look, I got in a little trouble—" he shrugged one shoulder in the direction he had come—"topside. Thought I'd—"

"Says he's a mole, sure enough, Mooch," the woman cackled to the leader of the approaching trio. "He thinks he is." Then, "Watch him, he's got a knife."

"Does he?" said Mooch. He was taller than Lacey and his broad shoulders supported arms so long his hands dangled near his knees. Mooch's bare torso sagged over his belt. Despite the fat, the muscles were there as well, and the many scars suggested how they had been used. "Funny, I got one too." He caressed the hilt of a long bread knife thrust bare between his belt and waist-band. Slung across Mooch's back was a gunpowder weapon whose magazine protruded over his right shoulder.

"Let's see your knife, boy," the burly man ordered flatly. The two men with him tensed. Lacey heard a whisper of metal as the woman moved behind him.

The Southerner's tongue touched his lips again. Very carefully, he brought the little weapon from its concealed pocket and handed it to Mooch. The bigger man turned the hilt over as he inspected it, looking for the mechanism. His thumb and forefinger accidentally squeezed together on opposite sides near one end. The blade shot out and nicked his palm. Mooch cursed, swapped ends of the knife, and snapped the blade off with a sideways flick of his thumb. He let the pieces clatter to the ground. A drop of his blood splashed on them.

"Cute," the leader said. More to the others than to Lacey, he added, "Bill's coming, I buzzed soon as Angel here whistled . . . but I don't guess he'll mind if we see what this mole's got on him."

"Bet you thought you could just come Undergound and nobody'd think twice, hey?" said one of Mooch's henchmen, a twisted black in a caftan.

Lacey felt himself edging backward even though he knew the woman was there with the steel rod. "Christ, there's a million people come down here each week," he stammered.

The black laughed and spun the chain in his hands as if it were a short jump rope. "Sure, but you wanna stay, you wanna be a mole. And we got word to watch out for moles for a while. Well, you may stay at that."

"Turn your pockets out," Mooch said.

Lacey obeyed without protest. He handed the burly man his stylus and his wallet with $32 and a Class IV bank card. Mooch frowned. "Where's the rest?"

"Look, I didn't mean for this to happen," Lacey whined. "I didn't make any plans."

"Strip," Mooch ordered. His right hand was flexing on the hilt of the bread knife.

Again Lacey obeyed, folding his jacket and laying it on his neatly-arranged boots. Mooch snatched it up. He squeezed it into a tight ball to see if anything crinkled or poked within. Nothing did. He dropped the sheer fabric to the ballast and stepped on it.

Lacey swallowed but said nothing. He took off his trousers. The fresh scrape was a scarlet pennon on his thigh. He wore no underclothing. Mooch took the trousers from him, wadded them, and dropped them on the jacket. Then he punched the Southerner in the stomach.

Lacey kept his feet for the first few blows. He knew that however punishing the big hands might seem, the boots would be worse once he was down. His bare buttocks touched the concrete wall. The next side-thrown fist slammed him to the ground.

In his scanner helmet, Lacey had seen every form of mayhem humans could inflict on one another. Years before he had been beaten himself by the experts of the Red Team that had arrested him for rape. He kept his fists pressed against his eyes and his knees high up to protect his groin. It wasn't enough, but it was all there was to do. The pain lessened after a boot drove his head back against the concrete. Then all Lacey's nerves seemed to be coated in honey.

"Here comes Bill," the woman said.

The boots stopped pounding. "Took him long enough," Mooch grumbled.

The guard's chair was where Lacey had marked it as he went down. He reached for it, rolling to his feet in a motion that seemed too smooth for the red pain it brought him.

"Mooch!" one of the guards cried.

Lacey swung the chair horizontally, not in a downward arc that could have been avoided. Mooch had time to turn his head toward Lacey's fury. A corner of the chairseat caught him in the ribs, just below his slung weapon. Mooch yelped as the air was smashed out of his lungs. The impact lifted the leader's feet from the roadbed. He flew forward, stopping only when his skull slammed the wooden frame of the nearest shanty. The structure sagged while its shouting owner tried to brace it with his hands.

Faces turned from either end of the tunnel, interest spreading like ripples in a long pool.

Lacey's body was white except where blood marked it. The scar on his neck was molten steel. He backed against the wall, waggling the chair. "Who's next?" he wheezed. "Which a' you bleeders is next?"

The chair legs wavered like a forest of spears in the face of the black with the chain. He stepped back, then stared into Lacey's eyes. He took another step backwards.

"Okay, buddy, you made your point," said a new voice. The speaker was also black and a head taller than anyone else in sight. He wore a powergun in an Army-issue holster. It was as much a badge of authority as it was a weapon, an authority underlined by his score of armed followers. "Now, put the chair down or I'll blow you in half."

Lacey lowered his makeshift weapon. He leaned on it, breathing hard.

"Bill," said one of Mooch's subordinates, "he—"

"Shut up," ordered Bill, and one of his own men lowered a shotgun in response to the tone. "Next time Mooch works somebody over before I get there, I'll do worse to him myself."

As if in answer, the fallen thug vomited a mass of bright orange blood. His back arched, the shattered ribs clicking together like knitting needles. The next instant, Mooch went limp and still.

The black chieftain scratched at the butt of his pistol. "I'm Bill Allen," he said, "and you're in my territory. Who are you, and what do you think you're doing here?"

Lacey swallowed. The pain he had suppressed for a chance at revenge was returning. "I'm Jed Lacey," he said, "From Southern Region . . . Greater Greensboro. I . . . am on the street, a bloody queer . . . with his prick out, and he touched me, touched me . . . I don't know how people can live with slime like—" He looked up, blinking the glaze from his eyes. Bill Allen was frowning. "I cut the bastard," Lacey said. "Every way but loose. So I had to run, and I ran here."

"What did he have with him?" Allen asked at random.

The female guard nodded twice to herself and said, "His clothes. And a little knife. And his wallet and a stylus. Mooch searched the clothes and that was all."

"Then put your clothes on, buddy," Allen said to Lacey. To the woman he ordered, "Bring me the rest of his gear."

Lacey limped to his clothing. As the Southerner shrugged on the jacket, his hands tangled with the sleeves, Allen drew the pistol. "Now freeze right there, sucker, until you tell me how a stranger knew that pipe would lead to Underground."

Lacey held as still as a poised mantis. "Because I'm a cop," he said. "Because I was being briefed to lead a hundred men from my subregion down here next month. Us, and maybe fifty other subregions, and the Army; and every goddam cop in this city. Because they're planning to shut this place down for good and all."

No one within hearing made a sound. Allen's hand tensed on his gunbutt, then relaxed.

In the same wooden voice with which he had made the announcement, Lacey said, "Now can I put my pants on, citizen?"

"Put your pants on," Allen agreed. He knuckled his forehead with his gun hand. To no one in particular, he added, "We'll take this one to see Black May, he can talk to her . . . and god help him if he lies."

* * *

They moved fast through the hollow layers beneath the City. The number of people in the dim tunnels was amazing. Even more surprising was the constant traffic up and down passageways to the upper world. Underground was no less a part of the City than intestines were parts of the body that housed them. Say rather, an intestinal cancer.

At first Lacey thought there was no pretence of sanitation; then the Southerner noticed a gang of persons chained in pairs at the ankles. They were shovelling manure into a cart which two of them pushed along the aisles beside the cribs. The chains made them awkward, but they could not dash up one of the outlets to the surface. They appeared to be unsupervised.

"What're they?" Lacey asked Allen as they squeezed by the wagon.

"Umm?" the big man grunted. "Committee slaves. Those're mine, though I guess May thinks she's the Committee all by herself. They don't carry a full honeywagon down to the Basement, they don't get fed."


"Where they grow the plants and crap," Allen said. "You know." He looked more sharply at Lacey. "Or if you don't, you don't need to. So shut it off."

Because there were so many entrances to Underground, there had been neither need nor effort to group its pleasures by type or quality. To get from one parlor house to another, a squeamish customer could walk a block on the surface and thus avoid entering a warren of slash shops and dollar cribs.

One huge establishment, The Boxcars, completely blocked a tunnel intersection with walls of transparent sheeting. Girls paraded nude behind the wall when they were not working customers. Passage through the armed guards at either end of the house required purchase of a drink at the bar filling the lowest of the three levels, or a trick with one of the girls. The drinks were slash distilled from anything that would ferment. For additional kick, it was mixed with stolen industrial alcohols of which methanol was one of the least harmful. The whores were cheaper than the slash and, on the average, probably a greater risk to the user's health.

The guards nodded obsequiously when the recognized Bill Allen. "Any calls?" the big chieftain asked.

"Noonan put some messages on your desk," the guard captain said, nodding toward an opaque door at the end of the bar. "Nothing that won't keep."

Allen grunted and lead the way through the far door. Lacey noted that two of the party had dropped off in The Boxcars instead of continuing on with their leader. The organization Underground was beyond anything Lacey could have imagined without seeing it, but the discipline appeared to be something short of a military ideal.

They had walked over two kilometers. There had been at least a single guard at each direct outlet to the surface. Despite the darkness and the maze of passageways, Lacey was sure he could find his way back. It was an ability demanded by his years of service beneath a scanner helmet, tracking subjects by rapid leaps from camera to camera and keeping his orientation at all times.

Allen's entourage turned from a subway spur into a dry 8-foot main of some sort and then to a new opening burned through concrete and bedrock by the most modern mining equipment. Just inside the cutting was another band of guards lounging in a pathetic mixture of squalor and finery. There were more of them even than accompanied Allen—and they were better armed. Over half the men and women carried powerguns. The remainder had gunpowder weapons of one type or another, in addition to an arsenal of edged or blunt instruments. A small brazier warmed the fetid air. To Lacey's surprise, a telephone was glued to the rock wall. Shadows of microwire ran both inside and out in the direction from which Allen had led them.

"Got somebody to show to May," Allen announced.

The guards were rising, pocketing their dice and drawing weapons more for display than out of apparent need. Their leader was pale as boiled rice and missing his left arm from the elbow. "Got the hit man that's s'posed to be coming?" he asked.

Allen shrugged nonchalantly. "Maybe so, maybe not. We stripped him clean."

The guard chief shrugged in turn. "He goes down in chains anyway," he said. "You know the rules." He pointed his powergun at Lacey's midriff. "Get over there by the fire," he ordered, "so we can fit you for some new jewelry."

Lacey obeyed as humbly as he had Mooch. His mind was on something else. Nootbaar had warned him that Underground had a pipeline into the City administration, but Lacey had not expected confirmation so quickly or so off-hand. Not that he was a hit man, exactly. . . . 

As directed, he rested his feet one at a time on a stool. A scabby dwarf tried hinged leg irons for size above his ankles. When a pair fit, another guard held the halves together while the smith fitted a hot rivet to the hole. He peened the ends over against a piece of subway rail. The shackles were locked to both legs with half a meter of chain between them. Lacey could shuffle, but he could not run or even walk normally.

And if the Underground's source of information were good enough, Lacey would not even be able to shuffle for long.

"Zack, Slicer," Allen ordered as soon as the second cuff was riveted home. A pair of husky cut-throats lifted Lacey by his shoulders and ankles. They carried him toward a steep flight of stairs. Allen's party had entered toward the middle of a multi-level parking garage. The two porters, followed by their chief and the rest of his entourage, descended the stone steps at a deliberate pace. As he passed doorways, the Southerner caught glimpses of barracks and equipment filling the large open areas. Each level was guarded by a separate contingent, bored-looking but armed to the teeth.

On the fourth level down, the lowest, no one looked bored. Lacey was momentarily startled that none of the crew of hard-faced guards meeting them carried powerguns. Despite the lack of that symbol, they were clearly an elite group. Lacey took in the pallets standing in floor-to-ceiling blocks. He grunted in disbelief. At least half the level was stacked with gray military containers of high explosive and bright orange tanks of toxic gas. A powergun bolt here would rock the whole city like an earthquake. The Southerner could suddenly appreciate Nootbaar's concern for how Underground could respond to an all-out attack.

In the midst of the aisles of lethal material was a throne room. A dais and a massive arm-chair, both draped with cloth-of-gold, shimmered under a solid sheet of glow strips. On the throne sat the queen—black and perhaps fifty years old, with no hair on the left side of her head. On one arm of her throne lolled a white man less than half her age. He was dressed in tights and a cloak of rich purple.

"May," said Bill Allen in a subdued voice, "I brought a cop who says he's on the run. Says topside's getting ready to shoot their way down here the way they tried before."

The white youth giggled. Black May did not, but she thumbed toward the stacks of Amatex and K2. She said, "They weren't crazy ten years ago, what happened to them since?" She stared at Lacey, her eyes disconcertingly sharp. "Okay, what's your story?" she demanded.

"They seconded me from Greater Greensboro," Lacey began. In a few terse sentences he repeated the partial lie he had told Mooch and Bill Allen: they planned attack, the chance contact with a homosexual in the crowded streets; the knifing and escape down one of the routes his command was to have used for the attack. The story was as real as Lacey's foresight and utter ruthlessness could make it.

"Wank, check this out," Black May ordered. The man at an ordinary secretarial console beside the dais began speaking into his telephone. Radio would be useless for contact within the maze of tunnels. While ground-conduction equipment would have worked, it could not have doubled as a link to the normal communications of the City proper. It was obvious that such links were important to the governance of Underground. Lacey fleetingly wondered whether the Commissioners had any real insight into their counterparts Underground, or whether topside intelligence sources stopped with estimates of bars, whores, and weapons.

"All of a sudden they don't care if everybody on the street at rush hour turns black and dies?" May asked rhetorically. She gestured again at the gas and high explosive ranked about her. The boy laid a proprietary hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it off impatiently. He drew back with a moue.

Lacey tongued his lips. "They've got an insider," he said. "I never heard the name but I saw him. He's supposed to take you out—and all this—before it drops in the pot."

There was a sudden silence in the big room, marred only by the whisper of the telephone. Black May leaned forward, frozen.

"An old guy, about a meter seventy," Lacey went on. "White hair in a fringe behind his ears. But mostly bald, you know? Very thin, with a nose that's twice as long and half as thick as it ought to be."

"Swoboda!" somebody hissed behind Lacey. May's hand slashed him to silence as she thought.

Wank, bent over the telephone, missed the byplay. "Colosimo checked it on the scanners, May," he said. "Says it's just like the fellow says, a fag turns around and bumps him and this guy cuts the shit out of him. Blade wasn't very long, but it wasn't no fake. The crash crew had to collapse a lung, and if the flit pulls through, he'll do it on one less kidney than God meant him to have. It was real."

The news deepened the tense silence.

Lacey met Black May's eyes for a moment, then blinked. "Look," he said, "I got to take a crap."

The woman chuckled. "Well, don't look at me, sweetie," she said. "You'll have to ease it yourself."

The tension broke in general laughter. Lacey flushed and said, "Look, I mean . . . where?"

Black May waved her hand. "Take your choice," she said. "The honeywagon'll get to it sooner or later."

As if embarrassed, Lacey moved off into the shadow of a stack of explosives. A suspicious thug—courtier was too pretentious a word—peered around the corner a moment later, but she disappeared when she saw the Southerner was squatting with his pants down.

A thirty-gram ball of C-9 plastic explosive had been concealed in Lacey's rectum. He molded it quickly into the seam between the floor and a container of Amatex. Its detonator pellet lay against the stone flooring. If all went well, Lacey would be able to retrieve the charge and place it as intended, at the controls of the fusion plant. If not, it was where it would do some good as soon as somebody sent the right ground-conduction signal. Nature had left Lacey no choice but to remove the tiny bomb from its hiding place soon.

Lacey shuffled back into Black May's presence. The queen broke off in the middle of an order to the lanky red-head captaining her guard. "You!" she snapped, pointing a finger as blunt as a pistol's barrel at the Southerner, "How'd you come to see this traitor?"

Lacey shrugged. "A captain, Nootbaar, was briefing me three weeks ago Thursday when they first brought me up from Greensboro," Lacey lied. He had ordered a computer scan of the data banks to cull out any appearance of Swoboda on the surface during the past year. As the Southerner had expected, the physicist had come topside a score of times. The most recent instance had been three weeks previous; Swoboda had talked to a former faculty colleague in the latter's living area. If the City hierarchy had been alert, they could have arrested Swoboda then without difficulty—but that would have raised questions as to why the physicist was wanted. Besides, the search would have tied up great chunks of computer time in a subregion in which availability was already far below requirements.

For now, all that mattered was that Swoboda could have been doing just what Lacey described. "This bald geezer walked through the room on his way up to twenty. Nootbaar pointed to him and said he was going to zap the big bosses and their goodies just before we dropped in on them."

"Wank?" Black May queried.

The secretary spread his hands. "No way to tell, May; a precinct helmet won't get us into the City Central scanners. Colosimo can follow Swoboda himself, maybe, if he keeps it to short segments and don't get the oversight program in the data bank interested. But Swoboda was topside that day—I met him as he went out and told him to get a tan for me, why didn't he."

"That son of a bitch!" the half-bald woman snarled. "And I trusted him. Bill!"


"You and a few of your crew come on with me to the Basement. If this turns out to be straight, Swoboda's gonna get it where the chicken got the axe." May glanced at Lacey. "You come too," she ordered. "And somebody bring extra chains."

* * * ä ä ä

Half a dozen of Allen's cut-throats accompanied their leader in the vanguard. May's personal guards jostled after them. Lacey was thrust into the midst of May's entourage, shuffling quickly to avoid the possibility of a knife jabbed with more enthusiasm than care. They moved down an aisle between gray canisters. Lacey's chains clinked discordantly, like the background to a Vietnamese opera. The Southerner pressed his palms together, as close to a prayer as he had made in twenty-nine years.

At the end of the aisle was a steel door, massive and obviously of recent installation. It reminded Lacey of a vault door or of a pressure lock, rather than any lesser type of portal. Allen swung it open; the four locking dogs had not been turned. There was a hint of suction as the door opened out from a meter-by-two-meter slot cut deep in the living rock beyond. Allen and the others began to enter, stepping carefully over the steel sill. It was pitch dark within.

"Keep your hand on one wall," Black May suggested. "There's bends."

"Bends" was not the word for the right angles that broke the narrow tunnel every few meters. Lacey bumped and cursed. "What the hell is this?" he demanded.

May chuckled behind him. "Anybody who came Underground looking for me was gonna have the devil's own time at this end, especially with all the tunnels full a' K2, hey?" she explained cheerfully. Then her mood changed and she snarled. "Unless some bastard thought he'd cut me off on the outside of this!"

There was another heavy door at the far end. It also pivoted outward from the tunnel. In the pause before Bill Allen shoved it open, Lacey felt an edge of claustrophobia. Then there was light in the tunnel, more light than Lacey had seen since he came Underground. Blinking, Lacey stumbled with the pack of killers out into muggy brightness.

There was a squad of the same ilk guarding the inner door. They nodded respectfully to Allen and his men, then shuffled to their feet when they saw Black May was present as well. "Swoboda and the rest a' the needleheads here?" May asked the squad leader, a stocky redhead. She wore a necklace of what appeared to be dried fingers against her bared breasts.

"Unless they left before our shift started, May," the guard said. She grinned. "Hey, want us along?" she asked, touching the long sheath knife at her belt.

"Just don't let anybody out without I tell you, Minkie," Black May replied grimly. "Maybe nothing's wrong, maybe it is. . . ."

The huge cavern through which they began to stride was incredible to Lacey. Rank after rank of algae tanks marched in all directions. Though stone pillars studded the greenery, there were no walls as far as Lacey could see down any of the aisles they crossed. The roof, three meters above the floor, was bright with daylight-balanced glow strips. "Where the hell did you find this place?" Lacey asked in open amazement.

"Find?" May sneered. "Built, sonny, excavated it and sold the rock topside to the outfit filling ocean to build Treasure Isle. Honest business!" she added with a guffaw. "Bought the strips, too; there wasn't any place in the City where we could liberate as much as we needed. No problem, money we got. Only thing we needed then was the power to run them, and I guess we twisted that tail all right too." But the Queen of Underground scowled, and Lacey knew that her mind was on the man who had built her that powerplant.

There were men and women tending the algae tanks. They were as different from the crew surrounding Lacey as rabbits are from weasels, and they eyed the scarred cut-throats with rodent-like concern. May's henchmen, for their part, appeared as ill at ease in the lush surroundings as they were out of place. This orderly Eden had been created for technicians, not blood-letters, and both sides knew it.

"If we depend on topside, they own us," Black May said, as much to herself as to Lacey. "Down here, now, we got synthizers and enough algae to work from to feed the whole City. We got power, a well four hundred meters down for fresh water, and a pair of ducts into the East River to dump waste heat. If we got to, there's the power and the tools here to punch a line out to the ocean. There's a thousand techs to work it, and I got ten thousand guns I can put topside without emptying the bars." May knuckled Lacey's shoulder to make sure she had his attention as she concluded, "They were too late up there, sonny. I got a base. I own the City. I just haven't gone up to tell 'em—yet."

They had finally reached the far side of the artificial cavern. Apartments of opaque sheeting were built against the stone. There was a neatness and order to these dwellings which was missing from what passed for human habitation elsewhere Underground—or topside, for that matter. Some of the buildings appeared to be shops and offices as well.

"Where's your power come from?" Lacey asked idly.

Black May looked at him. "It's here in the Basement," she said. "Don't worry about it, sonny."

A group of nervous techs was drifting out of the nearest building. A few of them carried tools in feigned nonchalance, hammers and hand cultivators. Against May's crew, they were as harmless as dolphins facing killer whales.

"I need to talk to Doc Swoboda," May boomed jovially. The listeners stirred, frowning.

"He's not—" a young black woman began. She broke off when a man stepped out into the bright light. He was old, balding, and knife-nosed.

Lacey pointed at him. "That's the one," he said. "That's the informer."

All but one pair of eyes followed Lacey's gesture. The exception was a squat thug with curling black hair so thick on his arms that it made his pallid skin seem swarthy. His fellows had called him Horn. The girl who had spoken saw where the cut-throat's gaze was focused. Her mahogany skin flushed deeper and she crossed her arms over her breasts, bare in the clean warmth.

"I don't understand," Jerry Swoboda was saying, drumming both forefingers nervously on his sternum. "Is something wrong, May?"

"Hard telling, Doc," the queen said, arms akimbo, "but I need to take you back for a while to see. Put the irons on him, Boxie."

"No!" the black girl shouted. As she leaped forward, Bill Allen blew her head apart with a bolt from his powergun. At the shot, a thug with a sub-machine gun sprayed a burst into the stone floor and his own feet. The lead splashed and howled. The clot of technicians flew apart screaming. The gunman toppled in silence, too stunned for a moment to feel pain.

"For Chris' sake!" Black May stormed. A chip of jacket metal had cut her cheek so that it drooled a fat line of blood down to her jawbone. "Get them chains on and let's get outa here."

There was no question as to where the powerplant was located. A great conduit lined across the rock ceiling. Lacey had seen its exit into Underground proper through its own opening above the air-lock door. Wire tendrils from it fed the thousands of glow strips, and the roots of the conduit were somewhere in or beyond the apartment from which Swoboda had appeared. When the time came, Lacey would have no difficulty in locating his target.

His non-human target. Swoboda's eyes had the glassy stare of a fear-drugged martyr. Two women wearing knives were fastening his shackles. They used small padlocks through the holes in lieu of rivets. The physicist was given twice the length of chain that hobbled Lacey; no one was concerned about what the old man could do with a moment's inattention and a sudden leap.

At Black May's order, her entourage turned back the way they had come—with one exception. Lacey had already noticed Horn and what he was doing. Now Bill Allen noticed also and shouted, "Hey!"

There was no response. The chief's face hardened. He took two steps and kicked his subordinate in the buttocks. Horn leaped up from the tech's corpse. His eyes for the instant were as blank as Swoboda's had become. "You stupid bastard!" Allen shouted. "Save that for later!"

"Aw, Bill," the hairy man muttered. He fell into line shamefacedly behind Lacey.

The returning party's pace was faster than it had been as they entered the uncomfortable caverns. Enthusiasm at leaving made up for the need to carry Swoboda and the wounded gunman. Lacey had learned to throw his own chain forward with short, quick steps. He kept up with the others without being goaded. Rather to his surprise, the Southerner found that his mind was no longer on how best to accomplish his real mission. All the way back to the throne room, he was considering how to kill Horn and Bill Allen.

Black May sat down on her gold-draped chair and stared at the chained men. Her boy stopped pouting and began to massage the bare side of her scalp. Lacey tried to look nonchalant. If May didn't order his release now, he was in trouble.

"Bill," she said, "I want them where they're out a' the way." The bald side of her head was faceted by scar tissue. "Keep 'em where you've got prisoners for ransom—or do you have any now?"

"Naw, two got paid off and the woman's working The Boxcars right now."

"Good. Keep this pair there and keep a guard on 'em. That one for starters—" she pointed a finger at Horn; she hadn't forgotten either. "I'm going to get 38th Precinct to run Doc here's movements for the last few times he was topside. It'll maybe take a couple of days, 'cause it'll have to go in as routine street-sweeps; but if our fink's right, it'll be hard lines for the Doc."

Lacey grinned broadly. It made him look cruel and confident, both of them qualities Black May would appreciate. Besides, it genuinely amused the Southerner that he would soon be unmasked by the very data banks he had served for fifteen years.

As he shuffled toward the steps beside Allen, Lacey suggested, "If you cut these damned chains now, it'll save you having to lug me up these stairs."

The big chieftain snorted. "Sure. I watch you lay out Mooch and I'm supposed to take your chains off when May says not to. Besides, it ain't my back you'll ride on. Horn, Ledder—get this bastard up the steps. If you drop him, I'll kick your butts all the way to the bottom myself."

* * *

The trip back through the tunnels gave Lacey a charleyhorse in each thigh. Since that came on top of the beating he had taken from Mooch, Lacey was dizzy with pain by the time they stopped. According to his reckoning, they were in a branch tunnel near The Boxcars. Allen unlocked what had probably been an equipment closet. The door was sheet metal and not particularly substantial. Some of the customers in nearby booths watched what was going on. The shills and bartenders did not: they knew Bill Allen, and they knew that his business was none of theirs.

The rock on the other side of the small closet had been cut away recently. Allen shone a hand light within. The new opening gave into what seemed to be a blocked-off elevator well. The area was choked with trash, but in the middle of it stood a massive eyebolt, its base sunk deep into the concrete floor. "Home, simps," Allen said with a chuckle. "Till May gives the word."

A pair of his subordinates had appeared from the direction of The Boxcars, carrying shackles and a glowing brazier. Wank must have summoned them by phone. Allen nodded to the pair and said, "Lock this pair by the wrists, Becky. You can give 'em three meters to be comfortable; but don't knock the leg irons off, hey?"

The smith and her helper riveted a manacle to Lacey's right wrist with a few expert blows, using the eyebolt as an anvil. Then they ran the attached length of chain through the eye itself and manacled the other end to Swoboda.

"Horn," Allen said grimly, "you sit right there at the doorway. Anybody tried to get in or out, you cut 'em apart with your toy there. I'll have a meal sent down in a couple hours. And you do any goddam thing but what you're told to, I make a belt of your hide and give the rest of you to May. Understood?"

Horn grunted sullenly. As his colleagues strode off toward drinks and ease, he glared at the prisoners. "You pull any goddam thing," he snarled in unconscious mimickry, "and I cut you apart." He fingered the hilt of the fighting knife in his belt. Then, with his back to the doorframe, he began to throw a pair of dice morosely.

"Why did you lie about me?" Dr. Swoboda asked in a low voice.

Lacey started, but the words were calm and not the prelude to an attack. He could just make out the physicist's form in the light that filtered through the open door. He did not reply.

"You can't just be a boaster who thought he'd denounce somebody important," Swoboda went on. "I don't think anyone in Underground but May herself really thinks that what I've done is important." He paused. "Oh," he said, "of course—anyone Underground. But by now the State had probably decided the blackout eight months ago was caused by the load from me starting up a fusion powerplant."

"You've built a fusion plant?" Lacey said, snorting as if incredulous.

"Of course," Swoboda repeated, and it was an instant before Lacey realized that the words were in answer to his question. "It would have been the one hope for the world itself, but that was impossible. Still, there's a self-sufficient colony in the, in the Basement now. Perhaps that will be able to continue, whatever happens to me."

"One hope for this whole island to be blown to slag," Lacey gibed. He brushed a spot cleared of varied garbage and sat down on the floor. "Go on," he said, "you wouldn't have built a fusion plant down here with all those people living over it. Why, I hear it wouldn't even be possible to shut one down safely if it was to blow up."

"Nonsense!" the physicist snapped with more spirit than he had shown since being taken into custody. "All that it takes to shut down the plant is to open the fuel feed and chill the reaction. Two turns on a petcock! And the rest of you're saying is just as absurd. People have always wanted to live fifty years in the past, and that was all right . . . but it isn't all right any more, it's suicide! Yesterday's fears are going to kill us, kill all human civilization."

"Such as it is," Lacey chuckled. He felt a sudden added coldness when he realized that he was no longer merely leading his quarry on, that he was actually becoming involved in the discussion.

"That's the point, you know," Swoboda said, returning to the emotionless delivery with which he had begun the discussion. "I couldn't convince the authorities that what I was offering would be safe. They wouldn't even let me experiment in an unpopulated area. They were afraid the newshawks would watch the scanners. They'd report that the laws were being flouted—and they're stupid laws!—and that a 'bomb of unguessable destructiveness' was being built; and every person who'd had anything to do with approving my project would be voted out or fired. Myself, I'd go under a Psycomp to have my brain cleaned. But whatever the risk—without power for growth, what will this City be in ten years? What will the world itself be like in fifty? What kind of death would be worse?"

Lacey shrugged. "You're talking to the wrong guy," he said.

The physicist sighed. "No doubt, no doubt; but there isn't anyone else to talk to, is there?" He glanced toward Horn, who looked up from his dice to glower back. "No human being, at any rate."

Swoboda started to clear a place on the floor, but he was too nervous to sit. He began walking and turning, a pace in either direction so as not to foul the chain. "I felt like this three years ago," he said, "when I finally realized that I was never going to be allowed to build even a pilot model. The energy source that could save civilization, and it could never be built because the world saw too much and understood too little. That's when Leah Geilblum visited me." The physicist looked at Lacey. The Southerner's eyes had adapted to the dark well enough to catch a sheen of remembered hope in the older man's expression.

"I knew her by reputation, of course," Swoboda continued, "as she knew me. As an anthropologist, she saw even more clearly than I the horror, the irreversible horror, into which the world was slipping; and she saw the hope that my power source could provide.

"Black May had already recruited several biologists, planning her 'base'. It wasn't hard for her, you know. The more intelligent someone is, the more clear the need for a, a bolthole, becomes. And word of mouth moves swiftly in the academic community. Leah—she died only last month—she was 83 and it wasn't at all for herself that the concern lay—she convinced me to try to work with Black May, now that Underground had a single, intelligent leader. And Leah was right. It just seems that that wasn't enough."

There was an interruption from the doorway. Horn scooped up his dice and stood, trying to embrace the lithe woman who carried three meal packets and a canteen. "Rickie, hey, how about a trick, hey?" the guard rasped. "Look, I can pay—"

The woman dropped her burden without ceremony and elbowed Horn in the stomach. "Think I haven't heard, creep? Keep the hell away from me!"

"Look, just a feel, then, Rickie," Horn begged, crouching in desire and extending his hands. Rickie reached behind her back, then extended her right fist wrapped in barbed-wire claws.

"I'll feel the heart right outa your chest, I will!"

Horn's mouth pursed and his hands dropped to his knife. Booth personnel were beginning to view the disruption blackly, and a few customers seemed to be drifting toward other parts of the tunnels. The woman swiped at Horn's eyes. "You try that," she hissed, "and I'll feed it to your asshole. And if I don't, cutie, what d'ye suppose Bill and May'll do?"

Horn cursed and turned and slammed his fist into the open door. It boomed thunderously. The woman walked back the way she had come. Horn saw the food containers and kicked all three of them violently into the closet. One of them sailed through the opening to the elevator shaft. Lacey ducked. The ruptured plastic spewed juices. Its integral heating element stank with only the empty container to absorb its energy.

Lacey smiled. It was as well for Swoboda's peace of mind that the dim light kept him from seeing the hunter's face clearly. Lacey tugged his companion silently toward the eyebolt so that the old man's hand rested on the metal. All the slack in the chain was on Lacey's side of the bolt.

"Hey Horn," he called to the guard, sitting again in the doorway. "There's rats in here."

"Hope they chew your eyes out!"

"No, I mean they're screwing in the corner," Lacey said. "Shine your light so's we can get a better look at 'em, will you?"

Horn bounced to his feet and raised the flashlight Bill Allen had left with him. Then he paused and shifted the light to his left hand. He drew his knife and gestured with it. "Get smart and I'll spread you all over the room," he said.

Lacey nodded and stepped back. Out of the bright disk of the flashlight, he thumbed a chunk of potato into the pile of trash in the far corner. The litter rustled.

Horn stepped through the opening to the shaft. His knife pointed up at Lacey's throat, but his eyes were on the quivering circle of light. "Where—" he began.

Lacey flipped a loop of chain over the guard's head and jerked him backward. Swoboda squealed. Horn could not shout with the chain crushing his throat, but he slashed out with his knife. Lacey threw himself aside, tugging frenziedly at the chain. His body knocked the physicist down.

Horn tried to rise. He cut wildly to the side; his wrist struck the eyebolt. A cry wheezed past the chain and the knife sailed loose in the darkness. Horn's hand twisted toward the blackjack in his hip pocket, but his fingers would not close.

Lacey moved nearer. The manacle on his right wrist gave him an unbreakable grip on the chain. He planted both feet on the other side of the loop, pinning it to the floor. Then he pulled upward with his whole body. Horn thrashed furiously. Blood flecked his chin and the hairs on his chest. The motions became instinctual, like those of a fish on the sand. He gave a final, backing-arching convulsion and lay still.

Lacey tossed the loop of chain free and collapsed beside the body. His gasping breaths came like sobs. "Get me the knife," he whispered to his companion.

"But we're still chained," Swoboda protested.

"Get me the bloody knife!"

Using the light, the physicist located the weapon. Diffidently, he set it beside Lacey's hand. The Southerner picked it up. The knife was of the finest craftsmanship. Its blade was 7 mm across the flats. Both the edge and the false edge had the yellow sheen which indicated they had been treated to triple density after grinding.

"Hold your shackle against the bolt and keep the light on the rivet," Lacey directed. He slipped Horn's blackjack from his pocket and stood.

Swoboda caught at his lower lip with his teeth. Lacey positioned the manacle as he wanted it. He set the knife edge against the peened end of the rivet, then struck the back of the blade sharply with the sap. The 3-mm rivet sheared.

"Why, that's incredible!" Swoboda blurted.

"Nothing incredible," Lacey said sourly. "Just a hell of a thing to do to a good knife." He pried at the manacle carefully, using the false edge and trying not to cut the physicist's wrist. There was already bleeding from the damage the shackle had inflicted during the struggle with Horn.

The iron popped apart. "Now you get mine," Lacey said, handing the tools to Swoboda.

It took repeated blows by the older man before the second rivet parted, but even so it was only the matter of a minute. Lacey struck off their leg irons. He paused, staring into the physicist's eyes. "Can you get back to your Basement and dog the doors shut?" he asked.

Swoboda thought calmly, then nodded. "Probably. It isn't necessary to pass through the throne room, and the guards at the entrance door should have changed shift by now. They're used to me entering and leaving, so that shouldn't cause any comment unless I chance upon someone who saw my . . . arrest."

The older man rubbed his forehead. "As for dogging the inside door, the guards will probably believe me if I say it's necessary for a few days because we're, oh, raising the humidity briefly to enhance growth."

Lacey nodded. "I'll give you half an hour," he said. "That's all; and if it's not enough, that's too bad. Now get moving."

"Why?" Swoboda asked unexpectedly.

"Why the hell do you care?" the hunter blazed. He flung the knife away from him. It clanged and sparked on the concrete. "Mostly I do what I'm told. It doesn't make any difference, you see? I know we're all going down the tubes, I'm not blind. So it's easier." Lacey took a deep breath, fingering his scar. "Only maybe this time it makes a difference. To somebody. Now just get out of here."

Swoboda touched Lacey's hand, then squeezed it. As he turned, the hunter called after him, "You'll have to handle the guards inside yourself, afterwards. But I can't do it all."

No one shouted when the physicist slipped out into the tunnels. People Underground minded their own business; and besides, the thin old man was of small interest, even to the whores.

Lacey waited briefly, then strolled out to a bar. It had more pretensions than the blind pigs around it and there was a twenty-four-hour clock on its back wall. Horn had had some money in his pockets. Lacey used part of it to buy a beer. The liquid was thin and bland—and therefore safe from being loaded with knock-out drops.

Lacey smiled as the bartender eyed him. Actually, there was nothing unusual about the Southerner's appearance compared to that of many others Underground. It was just unusual that someone as battered as Lacey was would have enough money left for a drink.

Lacey nursed the beer for the half hour he had promised Swoboda. He ignored the prostitutes who approached him. If the bartender felt he was not drinking fast enough, he had better sense than to push the matter with the scarred man in red.

When the time came, Lacey up-ended his glass and strode out of the stew. As he neared The Boxcars, the hunter began to jog and then run. His face grew wild and he shoved people out of his way. The guards at the entrance to the brothel braced to stop him. Lacey thrust the remainder of Horn's money out with both hands. "Bill Allen," he wheezed. "I gotta talk to Bill!"

The guard chief frowned, then thumbed inside. "He's in his office," she said. "If he sees you or not's his business."

Lacey pushed through the cordon of naked women who tried to entice him and strip his empty pockets. He flung open the door to Allen's office before a house man could stop him. "Bill, I gotta see you!" he said, slamming the door.

"What the bleedin' hell!" the black chieftain snarled. He was alone in the room, punching buttons on a computer console with one hand while the other held a sandwich. An open floor safe protruded 200 mm from the rock beside him. He banged the heavy lid closed with his foot. "How did you get loose?"

"Bill, Black May's going to kill all of us," Lacey whined. The enclosed privacy of the office was disconcerting to him. "She's going to take her buddy-buddies into the Basement and gas us, gas all Underground to keep the topsiders from finding where she's hid!"

Allen was frowning, but he set down his sandwich. Before the chieftain spoke, Lacey blurted, "Look, Bill, I'm afraid your guards'd grab me 'f I tried to go topside alone. You need to get out too—you can take me! Bill, you ever seen what K2 does to a guy?"

"Balls," Allen said flatly. "Let's see what May says about this." He began to punch out a phone code, keeping a corner of his eye on Lacey.

The Southerners' face tightened into intersecting planes of despair. "Bill," he pleaded, "Take me topside and I'll give you a gadget you wouldn't believe."

Allen paused, his finger above the last digit of the code. "Talk," he said.

Lacey licked his lips. "Well," he said, "You got the stylus Mooch took off me?"

Allen nodded, his forehead wrinkling. He slid open a drawer in the console and pulled the ivory-colored instrument from the varied truck within.

"It's not just a stylus," the hunter said truthfully. "They learned a trick from Tesla—its a laser that'll cut forever if you just hold the base against a good ground. The wall behind you'd do. You press the button on the side and it shoots forever."

Allen stared eye to eye at the smaller man. "You're lying," he said. With the beginning of a smile, the leader touched the back of the stylus against the wall and pressed the button. The tip was centered on Lacey's breast.

The ground conduction signal shivered into the rock. Nothing visible occurred in the room.

Lacey relaxed. He smiled like a shark feeding. Bill Allen blinked in surprise, not at the failure of the "weapon," but at the hunter's reaction to his attempted murder. "This far away, there's maybe a ten-second delay," Lacey said. He dropped flat on the floor beside the safe.

"What—" Allen began. He groped for the powergun in his belt. The shock wave from the explosion in Black May's quarters reached him before he could draw. The wave front drove the mahogany bar at an angle before it, pulping all of Allen's body between his neck and his diaphragm.

Lacey did not really expect to live through the blast. It drove down the hundreds of kilometers of tunnels like a multi-crowned piston, shattering whatever stood in its way. The Boxcars and everything in it were gone, driven meters or kilometers down the tunnel in a tangle of plastic and splinters and blood; everything but Lacey and the safe that shielded him.

There was no sound, but Lacey found he could see after the ground stopped quivering like a harpooned manta. A hundred meters of tunnel roof had been lifted by the blast. It collapsed when it fell back, close enough to Lacey that his feet touched the concrete morraine when he tried to straighten from the ball into which instinct had curled him.

The air was choking, but with dust and not K2—yet. The rebounding shock waves of the blast would suck the stockpiled gas into every cranny of the tunnel system soon, but at least the lethal cargo had not ridden the initial wave front. Even with the safe to turn it, the blast had pounded Lacey like a rain of fine lead shot. He rose slowly, sucking air through the hard fabric of his sleeve. Once the ground beside him came into focus, he saw a dropped powergun. Lacey picked it up and began to stagger toward an unblocked staircase.

Those who knew Jed Lacey best thought he was merciless. They were wrong. He used his weapon repeatedly before he climbed to the street. That was the only mercy desired or available to the hideously mangled forms who mewled at him in agony.

* * *

The guards at the anteroom of Level 20 were nervous and confused, like everyone else in the City. The lower levels of some buildings had burst upward, killing thousands. Long sections of traffic-laden streets had collapsed, adding their loads to the death tolls. K2 was denser than air, but the swirling currents raised by the explosion had blown tendrils of the gas to the surface in many places. Where the odorless hemotoxin touched, skin blackened and flesh swelled until it sloughed. Red Teams wearing atmosphere suits were patrolling streets that were otherwise deserted by the living.

Lacey pushed through the shouting clot of newshawks. He was gaunt and cold. His suit had been shredded into the garb of a jester mocking the Plague. No one who looked at Lacey stayed in his way.

The door from the Commission Room slid open to pass a uniformed captain in full riot harness. "Max!" Lacey croaked. His fingers brushed the heavy man's wrist to keep him from leveling the slung needle gun.

"Where the hell did you come from, Lacey?" Nootbaar grunted. The guards stood tense and featureless behind their faceplates.

Lacey grinned horribly. "That's right, Max," he said. "Now I need to see the brass—" he thumbed toward the closed door—"bad. I know what happened."

Nootbaar bit a knuckle. "Okay," he said, and he held the door open for Lacey.

Commission staff and uniformed police made the room itself seem alive with their motion. Lacey slipped among them, headed for the three desks in the middle. A projection sphere was relaying the horror of a dwelling unit where three levels had sunk into a pool of K2.

Characteristically, it was Lemba who first noticed Lacey's approach. He spoke silently to his implant. A klaxon hooted and the projection sphere pulsed red for attention. The Chief Commissioner's voice boomed from ceiling speakers, "Clear the room! Clear the room!"

"What the—" Commissioner Kuhn began, but she too saw the ragged figure and understood. "Did he—"

"Silence!" Lemba growled. "Until the room's cleared." The woman glared but accepted the logic of secrecy. Her gown was a frothy ball of red. It was much the same shade that Lacey's suit had once been.

The door closed behind the last pair of armed guards.

"I've done what you wanted," Lacey lied. But he had done what the world needed instead, protected one seed of civilization against the day when it could sprout . . . "Now give me a pardon for what I did for you. Then you'll never have to see me again."

"Nothing was said about a pardon," Arcadio muttered over tented fingers.

"I did what you wanted!" Lacey repeated. He did not raise his voice, but his eyes were balefires licking the bones of each Commissioner. "Give me a pardon and no one will ever know about it. Even you won't have to learn."

"The explosion, the gas . . . ," Commissioner Kuhn whispered. "All these people dead in the streets—"

"They died!" Lacey snarled. "It was cheap at the price, do you see? You've got your city back now, because the scum below blew themselves apart. The ones down there were tougher than you and smarter than you worms'll ever be—but they're dead. Don't clear the K2, just seal all the openings. You're safe forever now—from Underground. You're safe from the dead."

"We aren't going to turn that loose, are we?" Kuhn asked slowly. There was nothing rhetorical in her question.

"The alternative is to try to keep it caged," Lemba noted. He shrugged toward Arcadio. "I doubt that would be a profitable undertaking. And we have a great deal else to concern ourselves with at the moment."

"All those dead," Kuhn said. "And we directed . . ."

The Chief Commissioner coughed. Neither of the others spoke. "Citizen Lacey," Lemba said, "by virtue of the powers civil and criminal vested in me by the Charter of this City, and with the concurrence of my co-commissioners—" he looked at each of them. Arcadio nodded minusculy; Kuhn did not, her cheeks as bright as her garments, but she did not gainsay Lemba—"I do hereby pardon you for all crimes, actual or alleged, which you may have committed within this subregion to the present date."

Lacey nodded. "That pardon's the only thing I'll take with me from this City, then," he said, "besides my mind." He slipped the powergun from beneath his tunic and laid it on the smooth floor. His toes sent it spinning toward the frozen Commissioners. At the door, Lacey called over his shoulder, "Careful of that. There's still one up the spout and two more behind it."

The door closed behind him.

* * *

The six-year-old was blind with tears as she ran into his legs. Lacey lifted her one-handed. "Can I help?" he asked.

"The street fell!" she blubbered. "I can't go home because the street fell!"

"Umm. What building?" By now the gas would have seeped back into Underground, but a windrow of blackening bodies kept the thoroughfare empty. The dead did not touch Lacey any more. Only the living mattered.

"Three-oh-three-oh forty-ninth street level ten," the child parroted, her arms locking about Lacey's neck.

"Sure, Level 10, no problem," the Southerner said. He glanced around to get his bearings. "Your parents'll be looking for you, so we better get you home, hey?"

Humming to himself and the girl, Lacey skirted a wrecked truck still lapped with burning alcohol. Lacey was alive, maybe for the first time in fifteen years. It was going to take work, but he thought he liked being a human being again.



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