I slammed the drawer and looked up at my visitor. He was unremarkable enough, pausing in the doorway to eyeball the office, though his dark blue unisuit was definitely on the conservative side for the casino managers who generally sought my services in designing new games or modifications.
I punched up my calendar and the console screen scrolled as his eyes tracked across the plain desk, the subdued resinlay floor, and the three loungers around the alterant dispenser. Standard stuff, except for the skin of the big, freckled cat stretched on one wall, which usually got some sort of revealing reaction. The man’s square face didn’t alter beneath his topknot of graying hair. He turned back to me, his eyes running coolly over my grubby robe.
I laughed. “You caught me out. I didn’t check my console this morning and I guess I forgot your appointment, Fra—?” He didn’t help me out, so I glanced at the screen display. There was no appointment listed.
I looked back at him. He was still giving me the stone face. A little irritated, I gestured toward the loungers. “I take it you’d like to discuss some consulting work? How about a drink, or maybe a smoke?”
A thin smile appeared. “I’d prefer to sit here.” He walked over to the desk and reached a hand palm up across it, extending the formal two fingers. “I rejoice in our meeting, Kurtis:P385XL47:Ruth.”
I automatically crossed his fingers with two of mine. “I rejoice in our meeting, Fra—”
He still didn’t supply his name. He sat across from my desk and managed to maintain an erect posture in a chair that was supposed to make you lean back and relax. “Shall we talk?”
I wiped my forehead with the towel and threw it down. I sat across from him. “Am I supposed to know you, or what?” Maybe this was a new con game.
The thin smile passed over his face again as brown eyes studied me. “We could have contacted you through the console, of course, but we concluded—”
Something clicked. I jerked angrily to my feet. “Why aren’t you wearing a breast badge?”
He gave me an approving nod. “We expected you to be quick. Not many people notice.”
“How many of you are there?”
“That needn’t concern you. I understand your surprise, of course, but there’s no need to feel defensive.”
I aired one of my most creative Sethar curses.
He gave me a regretful smile. “So often angry, Sra Kurtis. We had hoped to minimize such a reaction by making our approach as personal as possible.” He gestured toward himself. “But if you’d prefer the console—”
I shook my head, blew out a breath, and sat down. “You’re here now.”
I couldn’t help giving him an admiring once-over. He cooperated by rising from the chair, walking over to the spotted ferial skin, examining it, and returning to sit. He was pretty smooth. He breathed evenly, his hand had been warm, his face more expressive than a lot of people I could name.
He was almost human. A far cry from the awkward mechmen who so helpfully maintained order inside the huge orbiting rock that was Casino.
“What do you want?” No use wasting politeness on—him.
He actually blushed. “Can’t we make this pleasant?”
I let him answer that himself. He had my psych profile.
He sighed. “Your ten-year limit has nearly expired. You have apparently rejected your renewal option, but we have decided that would be detrimental to your well-being. You should make the visit to your homeworld, before you lose your clearance.”
“Home!” My voice made the word a mockery. I swiveled in my chair to face the vid, glad I’d blanked out that wheat field. But he probably knew what I’d programmed, anyway. Even though I gritted my teeth, I couldn’t kill the faint stirring under too many layers, the regret, the wondering . . .
I pounded my fist on the armrest and jerked back to face him. “Turn it off, damn you!”
The music hadn’t even been audible, more like a whisper between my ears. Everyone used it in the casinos, it was no big deal, but that was at audible levels and the gamblers seemed to expect it. But this was me, and this was personal, and I didn’t like it.
He blushed again, and the gentle tug inside me faded. He faced my glare. “I do apologize. We’d simply like to make this easier for you.”
“Easier! Make what easier?”
“Your renewal visit to Poindros, of course. We’ve decided. You’re going home.”
I stared at the cyberserf.
I found my mouth hanging stupidly open and snapped it shut. “You’ve decided! I’m going home!” I gave a short laugh. “Look, take my word, you’ll never make it as a comedian.”
He frowned. “I did not intend to trigger a humor response.”
“Come on. I know the limits of the cybernetic benevolence directives—I’ve had to know. You’re here to serve us. So, okay, I appreciate your concern. But I’m not going to be persuaded.” I stood up. “You know the way out.”
“I’m afraid you don’t yet understand. We’ve decided you must go. You’re mature enough to accept a helpful nudge.”
“Like hell I am! The answer is no.”
He sighed and reached over my desk to pick up my sunburst-crystal dice. “I would regret having to employ other means of persuasion.”
Shaking the dice absentmindedly—absentmindedly!—in one fist, he reached down the neck of his suit and pulled out what looked like a cyberserf breast badge with a skin-cling clip, inserting it into the slot used for IDiscs. He touched his fingers to the screen, then punched up a display of my business account on the monitor readout. He obviously didn’t need the voice-linked code. As I watched, the cheery figures faded and reassembled into a displeasing configuration.
I clenched my teeth.
“Or we could be more creative. Perhaps you’d enjoy that?”
I hoped one of us was enjoying his performance as he perched on the side of my desk and rolled the dice onto the surface in front of me.
“Two sixes. A good roll. One that would win me credits in a casino. I’d like to see it again.” And he did. Enough times without a break from double sixes that it got to be boring.
He cocked his head sideways. “Or perhaps snake-eyes? You’ve found them profitable.” He rolled the dice once more, the fiery crystals flashed, and I stared down at the two dots staring back up at me.
My hand jerked out and swept them off the desk. I paced the room and back. There was a cold, empty feeling spreading out from my stomach. I stopped by the desk. He sat calmly, waiting.
“You can’t be doing this. The benevolence directives. You’re here to serve us.” I glanced over at the dice where they sparkled on the floor. “Are you telling me you cybers fix the games? You control who wins?”
“At times, yes.”
I blinked. “But why? What’s the point?”
“You do realize this is a Taboo conversation, Sra Kurtis. However, at this point it would be meaningless to register more violations for you.”
“Wait!” The cold was rising in a swamping tide, but I could feel sweat breaking out again on my back and palms. No doubt he was reading that, along with my increased heartbeat. “I’m way below the limit right now. You know that. You can’t take me in for the Steps of Healing.”
“You’re mistaken. We could if we determined that to be the best solution for you.” He tilted his head toward the spotted skin on the wall. “We’re well aware of your transgressions of the visitor Rules on Sethar. That alone could qualify you for the Steps.”
“But . . .” There was no way the cybers should have known. My hostess, for reasons best unexamined, had covered for me, and Setharians rarely used their consoles anyway. No one had reported me for ducking the required relocation orientation.
“While a straight-line projection indicates low probability that someone of your worldplan would experience the hunting customs of the Setharians as gratifying, you were obviously strongly bonded to the tribe and your friend Jared. Is that why you’ve refused skin grafting to remove that scar?”
Jared. I raised a defensive hand to the thin scar down my cheek, the initiation mark I usually concealed beneath the colored face-slicking currently the vogue among sophisticated transients and leasers in Casino. I glared at the cyberserf. “Fill in the gaps in my profile yourself, damn you!”
“Well, well. But we needn’t look that far back for violations, need we?” He rose and strolled over to the door to my workout area, the locked membrane spiraling open at his touch. He raised an eyebrow, glancing in at the tall chimney of bars I’d built by breaking through into the second, illegally leased apartment above mine.
“You consistently choose the hard way, don’t you, Sra Kurtis? Casino’s public exerstim facilities do maintain quite painlessly the muscle and heart tone necessary for health, you know.” He returned to his chair.
I sat, staring blankly at him—at it.
I couldn’t even hang on to my anger. The cold tide of fear was drowning me. None of it made sense. Were they going to send me for the Steps of Healing? The thought sent another icy wave running through me. I didn’t want to be happy that way. Maybe that meant I was truly sick. Maybe that was why everything was turning upside down and spinning, like the galaxies on the vids when I spun on the bars.
The cybers were ordained by the sacred Founders to serve us. And lo, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of war, the cybers are with me and I will fear no evil. The Book of Words couldn’t be wrong about our guardians. It couldn’t be true that we were only pawns in their game.
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