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England, 18th century
Gareth Pugh wished he couldn’t trust his eyes and nose in the darkness. There was an infant girl lying in a rough bed next to his. And she stank. Her rags stank. The room itself reeked and what light passed through the oiled paper window barely differentiated bed from stone, body from dirt. He lay in a space that had surely never known a breeze, and he suffocated in a body that was not his own.
That wasn’t supposed to happen. He couldn’t recall it happening before, no matter how much Anis he took. And he couldn’t recall anything going wrong in the morning’s preparation. It had been just like old times. Though he no longer needed to eat, drink, or even inhale Anis to achieve his ends, he made sure to talk with it beforehand. It primed them both, bonded them, and gave them both pleasure. The nature of this intelligent fungus made you want to be intimate with it. So he had talked with it, silently, feeling its pulse deep in his mind. He had felt the same thrill of old – part dread, part awe – that was the precursor of mind flight.
But that was a distant morning, not this one. He studied the workman’s hand that clutched the blanket to his chin. Blistered, with blood from scars coagulated in dirt, the hand spoke of hard labor. And he, Gareth Pugh, was trapped in this laborer, in an 18th century room. Trapped inside this great block of a human, who snored through a mouth tombstoned with diseased teeth. His head lolled backwards over the bed’s edge, the mouth open, sawing prayers to heaven.
Gareth Pugh had simply taken the wrong artery in the Great Nobodaddy’s mind, he told himself. Easy to fix, no?
Time-space voyaging was fraught with nasty, bent surprises. Hopping time through the minds of others was fine if they were stable, decent people. The feat was a tough one, but relatively safe – with your real body left at home. Safe enough when he was in his prime, strong and patient. But his fifty-three years had sabotaged his control. He was afraid to venture out again. Who knew where the next leap would land him? And the madness out there now found its parallel in the cloying darkness which held him, undeniably, to this space and time. As if he belonged.
He definitely did not belong. He would even welcome Dr. Buckleigh, or the FBI, who had been doing surveillance at his home, with their nanotech bees and bluebottle flies He would welcome a return to his real-time body, to Toronto, to Buckleigh, and the never-ending renovation of the warehouse-home once known as the Wilson Candy Factory.
The cats would be dozing in the flower box, heads in their furled tails. And Adrianna, his daughter, would be in the kitchen perhaps, cracking a boiled egg while the tea-kettle sang quietly on the stove.
Thoughts of her clutched at his stomach. It was fatherly love, but it was also guilt. For all of her twenty years he had been abysmal as a father. And now, with this latest adventure, she would be right to abandon him altogether.
Stupid. Stupid. He never knew when he was well off. Just yesterday morning they had felt so right together, the two of them surveying the undergrowth sweeping up from the disused railway lines, down by the marsh behind the warehouse.
He imagined moving his lips to speak to her. “I love you Ade.” But the laborer’s lips responded to the dream urge, smacking in the dull, still air. The stubbornness of the fact hit him hard and plundered his courage. It was no longer the year 2035, and it did not look like he would celebrate Adrianna’s upcoming 21st birthday. He was stuck – here, now, in a life defined by filth and pain…
… Pugh had disobeyed. He had done something. Pugh was not supposed to do anything. He had bloody well woken up, and gone off again: After five years of medicated coma, he had managed to wake up. And now he was gone. Sure, his body was still here, in that same room he had always used for traveling; but his psyche had gone, and he might not come back for weeks, months. Pugh had a plan, and his plans were always a threat. The Foundation would have to know, and soon. And a report of even a minor failure would damage his reputation. Buckleigh was too vain to let that happen. He would not report: he would solve the problem.
The Foundation had demanded perfection in his service to the political and economic status quo. He had given them decades of faultless service, protecting the power and wealth of the few who managed the world. Keeping the disadvantaged helpless; by any means necessary; making the self-realization efforts of the educated and ‘empowered’ classes’ futile; spreading disease, turning brother against brother, making addicted whores out of abused women; Buckleigh had done his bit. The ship of state barely rocked, despite violent civil unrest and terrorism, because he and thousands of other operatives implemented the plans that made everyone but the power-mongers expendable and impotent.
Buckleigh spoke date and time into his phone wand, then voice-faxed a tel-call. There was still time to manage this. He thumped the button for the freight elevator. Pugh’s two cats, damn them, appeared under his feet again: as if they had been skulking in wait all this time. Little bastards had it in for him. He kicked out at the black – and white one, who leapt out of range and sat watching through amber eyes.
“Piss off, you horrible parasite.”
He thundered onto the freight platform and heaved the gate closed. The cats blinked at him in unison, and seemed to smile in the wavering sunlight.
There was one immediate option. Buckleigh exited and walked to the Jaguar, clicked the key once. The car unlocked luxuriously and lifted the driver’s door like silk. Buckleigh slid his portly bulk into the driver’s seat, adjusting the phone wand. Voice operated, the phone responded to his arm implant, connecting with his private assassin.
“Hey, Sangster!” he cried when the man’s voice came through. “Got a quickie for you, if you could use a few thousand.”
“Who couldn’t? Sure, as long as it ain’t this Thursday an’ Friday. I’m in L.A. then.”
“Not Thursday: Tonight.” Buckleigh looked at the time on the dashboard and stroked the starter button. The vehicle hummed into an oiled crawl. They flanked the building, turned onto an empty Sorauren Avenue where the Jaguar broke into life, pushing Buckleigh into the bucket seat.
“You okay for tonight, say within the next hour?”
“Shit. I was just ordering dinner.” Buckleigh could hear Sangster pulling the cigar from his lips. “Seven or so? Where exactly? I’m down at the Harbourfront. Why don’t you join me first? Amazing sea-food. We can talk then and I can do the business after.”
“No good, Sangster. I want it done now, while you’re sober. A steady hand with the hypo, one puncture, and you’re done. The guy dies of a heart-attack. No guns, no blood. C’mon. Ten thousand …”
Buckleigh detailed the warehouse layout, exits and entrances, the third floor where Sangster would find Gareth. Sangster didn’t need to know anything else.
“I don’t know, Bucky,” came Sangster after hearing the price. “Spoiling my night will cost you double that.”
“Okay, you shit. Twenty thousand. “ Buckleigh grinned as Sangster agreed. “Tell you what. You get it done, then meet me where you are now. Dinner on me.”
Minutes later, Buckleigh’s Jaguar slipped into underground parking. He smiled all the way to the restaurant, where he stroked the butt of the gorgeous hostess. Seated in a plush velvet booth, he smiled more, lit a cigarette and hummed happily into a snifter of brandy.
An hour later, he stopped feeling happy. Sangster had not arrived and a cloud of doubt irritated Buckleigh. He refused a third brandy. Waited another twenty.
A half hour later, he was on his knees on the warehouse third floor, puking next to Sangster’s body. Behind Buckleigh’s back, Pugh lay as stiffly formal as ever, untouched. In front of Buckleigh’s face, Sangster’s hand clutched the hypodermic, unused. The assassin’s face was blue, white-blotched and decorated with laces of blood. His eyes bugged out, frozen in fear, and blood caked his eyelids, ears, nose and mouth.
Buckleigh scrabbled at the zipper of Sangster’s blood-stiffened jacket and pulled it open. There was no chest, no abdomen, no pelvis – just crushed flesh and bone. Buckleigh retched again.
He groped his way out of the room and bent in the hallway, puked, then sucked in air. He needed cleaners, now. He spoke the alert for the local cleaners into his wand. Never had he needed cleaners before. Never. Not once. He had been proud of that. Proud of his aesthetic, elegant work.
That crushed splatter in there, not aesthetic at all. It was shit. Stinking shit.