Vickers, page 1
This book was previously published in Great Britain (August 1986) by the New English Library, under the title Corpse.
Copyright © 1986 by Mick Farren.
Cover art by Kang Yi.
It was one of the second generation of shuttles, the kind that were already being called "Roman candles" by the. media. Two of them had roman candled inside of eighteen months. Vickers' pessimism did its best to convince him that he was riding on number three. He imagined that burning up in the atmosphere would be fast. A streak of fire when the heatshield ruptured and good-bye. Would you char-broil or would the smoke get you first?
Vickers remained doggedly in his cocoon like the kid who gets to the beach and won't take off his jacket. He'd removed neither the H-bar nor the straps. He glared out balefully at the banks of electronics. LEDs rippled and twitched back at him. The cabin was filled with pulse, whistle and ramble. Vickers also glared at the crew as they moved fluidly around, reaching with their slippered feet for the velcro anchor pads. He didn't want to hear that freefall was fun. Also, he had thrown up when the shuttle started to decelerate. The contents of his stomach were still spread around the cabin in a fine floating fog of tiny droplets that tended to cluster around the larger pieces of more solid material. Vickers saw it as a microcosm of the universe. The crew hated him. On the ride out, he had thrown up three times. That crew had hated him even more.
From the very first moment, Vickers had decided that freefall was one of the nastiest things he had ever encountered. He couldn't remember many things that remained so consistently unpleasant. It was like a continuous bad dream, one of the falling kind. It went against all the lessons his ancestors had learned while they were still furry and living in a tree. His instincts told him that the conclusion of freefall was splat! No amount of logic could dispel that yawning anxiety.
The crew tended to stay as far away from Vickers as was possible in the extremely confining cabin. It wasn't just the vomit. The community of those who ventured beyond the atmosphere was small and not much could be hidden. The crew undoubtedly knew why he'd been sent from earth and what he had done. To Vickers' knowledge, he was the first man to kill in space. It had to be worth a dubious something even if it was only a measure of privacy.
The target had been short and balding with a gut and a goatee. His name was Wilson Theodore Dewhurst, age 35, chemist. Vickers usually didn't ask why. The information was never volunteered although there was always rumor. Rumor had it that Dewhurst had developed some wild theory that the continuously recycled water on the big donuts contained contaminants that would have everyone who drank it down with liver cancer in five to seven years. A story like that can run through a donut crew with potentially disastrous results. Dewhurst had had to go.
As Dewhurst was a Contec employee and working on the Contec donut, it was therefore down to a Contec corpse to put him to sleep. Since Vickers was generally acknowledged as the best of the Contec corpses, it had fallen to him to do the deed.
There were four of the big donuts, each one owned and operated by one of the Big Four. The smaller corporations had to make do with drones and robots. The satellites of the Big Four contained men. They hung in their geosynchronous orbits some forty thousand klicks out with human creatures inside them going about their weird business. Originally the agency had wanted to call the donuts RWs—rotating wheels—but ABC News had called the first one a donut and the name had stuck.
All corporations constantly generated their own words and expressions. Some were euphemistic, others were just bizarre. The designation Corpse was an example of the sickness of corporate humor. CORPorate Security Exec. Corpse. Get it? A killer for the corporation. There was an ambiguous saying among corpses and those who dealt with them. "The best killers have already died." It probably started with the Japanese. Their lives are run by that kind of thing.
In theory, the hit had been a simple one. Vickers thought that it was a particularly stupid decision. Killing the sucker would only validate his theory. As usual, though, he bit down on his opinion and scrolled through the program. As the computer told it, the round trip on the shuttle was the dangerous part. All he had to do was to walk in and garrote Dewhurst in his sleep. It is, of course, a very foolish and dangerous act to fire a gun in a spacestation.
According to the data, Dewhurst slept alone. This wasn't true. At the time in question, Dewhurst had, in fact, been in bed with a physicist five years his junior, called George. From the way they were breathing, it sounded like they were both drunk. Vickers had raised a silent eyebrow. The computer had told him that Dewhurst was heterosexual and a non-drinker. Maybe the strain was getting to him.
Vickers had raised Dewhurst's head by the back of his hair. He had deftly flicked the length of thin stainless steel wire around his neck and jerked outwards on the black plastic handles. Dewhurst didn't know a thing. George was something of a problem. The request had called for a single termination. It had not called for a witness. Dewhurst and George were pressed together in a narrow bunk, buttoned in by a safety web. Dewhurst had spasmed briefly before he died. George grunted and moved his hand. He seemed to be attempting to caress Dewhurst's shoulder. Vickers had held his breath and readied the garrote. George sighed. He slumped and inhaled with a loud snore. In that instant he'd saved his life. Vickers slipped out of the cubical. George's certain hysteria when he woke with a hangover and a strangled lover could cause some useful confusion.
As always, the soulsickness began immediately after the deed. Disgust gnawed at him. Inner voices, thick with contempt, reproached and berated him. There was nothing he could do to fight it. The sickness followed a kill as surely as the tension preceded it and the brief flash of exultation accompanied it. He was unclean. He hated himself and the huge, devious, slithering mass of the corporation that owned him. The voices told him that it was a vicious dog world, corrupt with creeping life. He was the one that did their dirty work. Perhaps the Japanese were right. "The best killers have already died." When you're dead inside you don't feel the sickness. Vickers' only consolation was that the sickness would pass. The station execs who escorted him to the shuttle looked like they wanted to handle him with long tongs. It was as though they thought that he was leaving a trail of slime in their bright, white, sterile corridors. Okay suckers, you want to put your hands on your hearts and say that you don't have anything ugly or dangerous brewing in your labs? As they walked, it appeared they were permanently in the bottom of a concave dip. It was an illusion of the centrifugal force that passed as gravity on the donuts.
He caught one of the station execs looking at him out of the corner of his eye. It was a look that he'd seen a hundred times after a kill. They all wanted to know how it felt. How did it feel to kill another of your species? They were fascinated by the idea of being able to inflict death. Vickers could remember one time when he himself had looked with that look. He had been about thirteen. The checkout clerk in the corner store had been shot dead in a robbery. He had been standing on the sidewalk watching when the killer was brought out in handcuffs. The young Vickers had wondered how it felt.
The trouble with squares was that they equated death with sex. These fools were looking at him like small boys in the schoolyard who know that one of their number has gone all the way with a girl.
As Vickers crawled from the umbilical and into the cabin of the shuttle, the execs' contempt was echoed in the faces of the crew. At that point Vickers had resolve
The shuttle started to vibrate; it shuddered and bucked. Vickers was leaking sweat from every pore. It sounded like it was tearing itself apart. A terrible metallic clanging echoed through the ship. Vickers was unashamedly terrified. At any moment he expected to see white-hot gas fountaining through a hole in the hull. A voice crackled in his headset.
"Nothing to get twisted about, my friend. We're just hitting the atmosphere. If you look forward through the ports you can see the glow of the heatshield."
Vickers muttered under his breath. "I'm not a tourist. What happens if there's a tile missing?"
If anybody heard him they didn't acknowledge. Someone shut off the interior lights. All that remained was the red glare of the heatshield, blazing as it absorbed the first contact with the atmosphere. The cold green, amber and red of the electronics was punctuated by the occasional small patch of cathode blue. Vickers tugged off the headset, tightened his grip on the cocoon's grabholds and resolutely shut his eyes.
The violent motion of the shuttle became more controlled and regular. The random whomps and shudders organized themselves into a series of measured, heavy bounces, like a rock that's been skimmed across the surface of a lake. Vickers tentatively opened one eye. The glow increased just before each bounce and faded a little afterwards. Vickers closed his eyes again. He wanted as little as possible to do with the mechanics of what he was still convinced would be his death.
The bouncing went on for quite a long time. Vickers was almost getting used to it. Despite himself, he had started to ride the rhythm. Then there was a bounce that was nothing like those that had gone before. The shuttle wallowed. It seemed to slide sideways. The grabholds were slick under his palms. The ship was dropping away. He was convinced that it was falling. He hated any situation in which he was powerless. He knew it. The damn thing was falling away to the side. Something was pulling him down into the cocoon. They'd lost it. The crew had screwed up and lost it.
And then the shuttle was behaving like a plane. It was flying. He opened his eyes. Sunlight flooded through the forward windshield. Freefall had gone and reliable gravity was back. His arms and legs felt impossibly heavy. He didn't think that he could lift his head. The crew were heaving themselves out of their cocoons. One of them was leaning over him, standing on the cabin floor like a real person. She pointed to the headset, indicating that he should put it on. Vickers scowled and did as he was told. He noted in passing that she was really quite pretty. Even in space, she wore eyeshadow. She was probably Korean. Koreans seemed driven to excel. A male voice grunted out of the headset. "We'll be down within the hour. You might as well climb out of some of that webbing. You'll only need a lapstrap, just like on a regular scheduled flight."
Vickers sniffed and flexed his fingers. He hadn't realized how tightly he'd been squeezing the grabholds.
"I think I'll stay as I am."
"It's up to you, friend, but if you do, you're a damned fool. If we have any problem on landing, you'll never get out of all that stuff."
Vickers made a low growling sound deep in his throat but he touched the cocoon's attitude control and returned it to a sitting position. He swung up the rubber-padded H-bar and started unhooking the webbing. A man had to know the difference between stubbornness and stupidity. A couple of the crew were grinning at him. He ignored them. He went right on ignoring them until the wheels touched. At the very last moment, the shuttle popped a wheelie. It was like a final insult, a final tweak at his nerves.
* * *
Vickers took a limousine into Manhattan from Kennedy. Originally, he had intended to take a taxi, even a train or a bus, as anonymous as his blue jeans and his white lightweight jacket. On the commercial flight up from New Mexico, he had cleanslated himself. At thirty thousand feet, the few credentials of Hamilton Dryden, the identity who had gone into space and killed, had been carefully cut into plastic slivers and flushed down the lavatory and into the septic tank of the 921.
In that moment, he was Mort Vickers again. When a man changed identities as often as he did, it was hard to stay in touch with who you really were. It took an act of faith to believe that he had always been Mort Vickers. He had stared at himself in the mirror of the 921's lavatory. He was tall, he was slim and, at the moment, his hair was dark. The problem was his face. He could swear that it was starting to blur into something like one of those composite photographs that are supposed to be a picture of Mister Average, the kind that has no discernable features and no discernable character. He reminded the mirror who he was. Mort Vickers, thirty-four and the best executioner that Contec had ever had. How could it be otherwise? His past was little more than a series of bloody traumas of which he was usually the sole survivor. How was it that none of the deaths and none of the pain showed in his face?
In the beginning, he'd had no choice. He'd been drafted and he'd been too macho dumb to weasel out of it. Six months later, he had been in Yemen. After what had gone down there, there was no possibility of turning back. He had re-upped and volunteered for the debacle in Panama. After that, there had been the freelance jobs and finally the invitation to the corporation. Neither the slaughter nor the horror ever stopped. It only ebbed and flowed. The best killers are already dead. The desire to travel by limo was clearly a product of a need to be someone other than Mort Vickers as fast as possible. He reflected on this as he picked up the courtesy phone under the Laverne Continental sign. If he was going to fall straight away into a new ID, it might as well be an affluent one. He hated assignments where he had to shuffle around as a wino. Pride dictated that he do them, but he didn't have to like poverty. Once inside the womblike back of the stretch Lincoln, he poured himself a drink, turned on the TV and selected a new identity from the small collection in his case. Joseph Pope. He half smiled. Pope was the richest of the collection. He could live very handsomely as Joseph Pope for the few days before he was plugged back in. Joseph Pope would be a man who knew how to unwind. He told the driver to take him to the Plaza.
The driver was a strange combination of black and blond in a severely jackbooted uniform. The blonde came from a bottle but the black was natural. As he'd climbed into the car, she'd snapped off a flashy salute. He'd forgotten that Laveme Continental was strictly a showtime operation. The competition between limo lines was intense. They'd never really recovered from the Millennium Fair. She spent most of the ride sizing him up. Vickers pretended not to notice, and stared, stonefaced, at the TV. All you could get in the car was the networks. On ABC, Grab was in its second hour. The contestants were on the floor howling and fighting for money. Vickers turned the sound up and waited. It took until almost the Midtown Tunnel before the intercom flashed. Vickers killed off Grab.
"We'll be in Manhattan in a few minutes. Is there anything I can do for you before we reach the Plaza?"
"Anything you might want but not know how to get."
"I can always use a few pills."
"What sort of pills?"
"Greenies, Marvols ..."
"You'll have to get those from the bellhop at the Plaza. I can sell you twenty eighty-eights."
"Let down the security glass."
Vickers hesitated for an instant before he touched the button. It could be an elaborate trap but it was unlikely. If they'd been meaning to hit him they'd have done it way back in Queens. A hand reached through with a small baggie in it. Twenty eighty-eights. Vickers went to take it but the hand held back. "Fifty."
"Can I charge it on the bill?"
"Fuck no, this is free enterprise."
There were two schools of thought about Manhattan. Some said that you cleanslated it so nobody noticed you. Others claimed that you took on the strongest ID and hoped that if anybody did notice you they'd be
Bounts were what stopped the occupation of corpse from being a very attractive one. Bount was corpse talk for bounty hunter. They were a product of corporation policy. Bounts had a twisted Darwinism about them. Involuntarily, they policed the ranks of corpses. They picked off the stragglers. They preyed upon the weak and unwary. Each corporation had a price on the head of every known corpse of every other corporation. Bounts came out of the woodwork to claim the money. You could get the information from a terminal in any bank, hotel or train station, descriptions, pictures, all known ID that a particular corpse might be using. ID departments were constantly being penetrated and each time any corpse so much as used a credit card, there was a flash of fear.
The real trouble was that anyone could be a bount. Anyone could get a bunch of descriptions and start going after corpses. It was legalized murder. Nothing would happen to you if you killed a corpse as long as you didn't do it right in front of a cop. On the other side of the coin, though, nothing would happen to the corpse if he killed you. Such was the power and also the nature of the corporations. Bounts were invariably the worst.
They were psychos and short-spans, and terrorists without a cause, the drug wreckage of five continents and those who just liked to ultimately do it to others.
The corpses had fought the system for as long as it had been in existence. Their argument was simple. A corpse's life was hard enough. Why complicate matters with a lot of homicidal amateurs lurking around each corner waiting to ventilate you. The end result was that highly trained operatives went nuts from anxiety long before their natural time. It was needless and inefficient. Naturally, the argument cut no ice with the corporate execs. Something like the bounty system was a way for them to get their kicks. They saw it as a bolder, more absolute version of the way they perceived their own lives. It was competition brought to a razor's edge, and wasn't competition what fueled the free enterprise system?
by Mick Farren have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes