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Chapter 6

Several facts and their implications thrust themselves forcibly into his consciousness almost immediately upon hitting the pavement outside the Amaterasu. The ride down the historical elevator and walk through the mallway of mirrors were dream-like, and he used those moments to allow the preceding experiences to slowly file themselves in organic and cybernetic memory banks; and to gingerly feel out any damage that might remain after his psychic abduction.

But now the cooler, thicker air of the street brought him abruptly into the present tense, and he allowed to surface several factors that had until that moment been percolating in his unconscious. First, the abduction had been immediately preceded by the appearance of the steward with -- Spaxter spontaneously named them -- the beads; second, he had himself until mere minutes ago been "beaded". Presumably whatever agency was responsible for both these effects had been closely monitoring his activities and knew his present whereabouts, possibly even his intended destination. The likelihood that this power had other agents at its disposal like the steward, that there was another beaded man in Tokyo who might even now be making his way to rendezvous with Spaxter, possibly to execute the function that his body had been about to perform on that Japanese businessman, was worth giving serious consideration.

He had exited the Amaterasu by one of the lesser doors, and now found himself in a deserted backstreet, a local community shopping concourse. Raising his Gauntlet he fired off a full-spectrum, full-power Rasper spray, the shimmering waves and blue-white lightning bolts describing in the air a dazzling arc of power that lit the shop fronts like daylight and left heatwaves and an ozone tang in their wake. He ran the Meld through a similar diagnostic, finding at the limit of its range a half dozen groups of people in the nearby buildings involved in sleeping or gambling or coupling or indulging in various combinations of chemical and electronic stimulants or sedatives.

His power levels were good, and he seemed damage-free. Except for the intensely disturbing psychological residue of his body kidnap, he seemed to have suffered no obvious ill effects from the incident, and this raised his hopes of being able to handle whatever robotic assassins his unknown antagonists might throw against him. But what was he really dealing with here?

Analyzing the code the Gauntlet had extracted from the lift on his exit from the tower Spaxter had discovered that his body had been about to murder Tadashi Oyada, Chairman and CEO of Sabaki Industries, a research and development firm with connections to virtually every major electronic and robotic company in Japan, and with absolutely nothing distinguishing about him in any of Spaxter's files. He seriously contemplated trying to contact Oyada, or one of his representatives, and advising him to upgrade his security, but decided that would have to wait until he could establish that his friend Nijiri was not, as he suspected, in immediate danger.

He had reached the end of the concourse and scanned the intersection for any kind of ground-based communication terminal, even an antique voice-only phone booth, with which he could verify Tai's status and still hope to disguise his location. Across the street on the adjacent corner an all-night karaoke bar was in full swing, the drunken patrons singing wildly out of key in approximate unison with what sounded like a Soviet transsexual performing a badly translated rendition of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps".

Between the bar and a servo-bank he spotted a standard com terminal that would allow him a respectable interface, and was about to step out of the shadow to cross the street, when he suddenly stopped.

It hadn't been a movement, glimpsed subliminally somewhere in his visual field, but it had something of that effect. The meld was on, lightly probing in a flowing cardioid pattern that he had just sent sweeping up and down the two streets in preparation for his transit. Something in the area had not moved in the strangest fashion. Now he froze, geared the meld up to optimal power, and slowly focused on a few suspect areas past the egress of a pedestrian underpass about a hundred yards beyond the bank. There was something... odd... about that one strip of shadow beyond the animated come-on sign for a Shiatsu-tician.

As he played his synthetic sense over the area he realized that the Meld was blind-spotting on that shadow, ever-so-slightly, and he quickly came to the conclusion that he had discovered a blank brain, the beaded body no doubt of his intended assassin.

As if in response to this revelation there was a movement in the shadow, a man's profile briefly catching a piece of the sign's illumination as its owner shifted position in the dark. Spaxter needed no more information than that to construct the probable size and weight of the lurking robot/man, and its possible speed. He wondered now what its weapons capacity was, and if it was watching him now, or at least the shadow in which he was now standing, just as he was observing its hiding place. It seemed reasonable to presume that it hadn't any great firepower at its disposal or it might have finished him right away...

No, wait, these powers weren't going to kill him, if they could avoid it. He knew this now with a chill certainty. They wanted him alive, and beaded. Doubtless they had grand plans for him; once they could figure out the subtleties of his Meld\Gauntlet he would become their principal robot field operative. This lurking agent's task would be to catch him unawares, subdue him, plant a new bead on each temple and let the Powers take care of the rest. They had underestimated him once, but they would not make that mistake again.

Spaxter had a sudden experience of gestalt related to the way these beadings operated, based to a certain extent on a feeling left over from his own period of possession, and partially on the faint negative impression of the blank brain in meld. He had a sudden unshakeable conviction that at the simplest level of the creature's functioning it was somehow mathematical; that its guiding technology was not so awesome that it could easily process all the information coming from all the living bodies it was controlling, and that much of these earthly dealings were operated on a vastly automated basis for that reason; that whatever was monitoring the situation down here had other tasks as well, and placed some simple filters on the sensory input so as to alert it when anything interesting was happening. He had an irrational certainty that the man/machine in the shadows was at this moment running relatively low-power pattern-recognition programs, probably keyed first to regular motion in its visual field.

And so he started moving. Irregularly. He would slide a foot forward, pause, jerk both feet a bit further, pause, execute a dipping roll like a wind-tossed groundsheet, a jerk into a crouch, pause, jerk, pause, a lope that changed direction twice in a heartbeat, then a slide, pause, slow sinuous sidle on all fours, a backtracking hop....

Someone watching him now, and according to the Meld there was one woman sitting in a street front window of the bar that had a clear view of his actions, would have seen a man performing insane, disconnected body motions, like some kind of preternatural epileptic or a mechanical mime run by random generators. From moment to moment there was such a discontinuity to his actions that the woman was not at all certain that she was watching a man slowly making his way across the street; she gave as much weight to the idea that she was witnessing some chance atmospheric effect interacting with the polarized glass interposed between them. But as this woman was in a latter stage of intoxication and actually gave his performance no more attention than any of the numerous alcohol-inspired visions presently entertaining her perceptions, Spaxter paid her no notice.

What mattered was that apparently essentially the same effect was taking place with the beaded agent, that despite fully observing all activities on the street it failed to register his presence because of the utter non-regularity of his motion. His physical existence had been filtered out of the scene because it fit no models in the pattern recognition program that was presently running.

In approximately thirty seconds Spaxter had made his bizarre transit of the street, slipped into the shadowed alcove which held the com box, and prepared to make his call. Lightly touching the auxiliary input interface, he let the Gauntlet automatically seek out optimal routing while he systematically reviewed the situation.

The golem in the shadows out there must have been very nearby to have responded so quickly to his defection. Now Spaxter recalled parts of his semi-conscious observation of his own body's earlier activities and distinctly remembered overhearing his own voice speaking as to a companion. He surmised that up until the Amaterasu he had been accompanied by this man, the two of them either actually exchanging verbal information for some reason or carrying on a mock-conversation to support the illusion of their normality. No doubt this man's real function was to monitor Spaxter's assignment, to lend assistance should there be complications, to remedy the situation should a problem arise such as this. He had waited outside the mallway and when things had gone wrong his superiors had ordered him to intercept their wayward agent. It seemed that even without the beads they were able to monitor his position with disturbing accuracy.

And yet, his little trick in the street had apparently worked. When that profile became briefly visible again -- the man seemed to shift his weight to his right leg about once a minute -- the direction of the gaze had not moved from the corner shadow Spaxter had so recently occupied.

His call had reached the main Mutéikoo switchboard and he immediately pulsed the code for Nijiri's private sanctum. Even before the call cleared and his friend's face coalesced out of corporate logos, Spaxter had a bad feeling. With a reflexive twitch of the Gauntleted hand he cut the circuit just as Tai's smiling face formed on his inner screen. Even then he knew he was too late, that the damage had been done, his worst fears realized.

He called up again the microsecond of visual information he had just recorded, an image from the camera in Tai's temple office, and looked at it in closer detail. Behind his friend the office looked slightly strange. The chaotic order was still evident, but there were areas that looked like they had exploded somehow, and then been methodically rearranged. One of the sections of fishtank was empty and dark, and he thought he could make out a jagged fissure in the glass that had been half-repaired. Nijiri himself had changed from the loose kimono he had been wearing in their earlier conversation, and now wore a badly coordinated suit and tie. His hair then had been wild, now it lay flat and oiled. His skin then had been sallow and drawn, now he glowed as with a high fever. His eyes, with their prismatic ocular implants, were unnaturally wide, his mouth fixed in as insincere a smile as Spaxter had ever seen. And a disc of silver glinted at each temple.

Glancing cautiously out the alcove Spaxter watched the shadow, and presently the face became visible, the head turning this way and that, evidently scanning the area for a place where Spaxter could be making a call, and finally settling on his as the only nearby com terminal and so the only likely candidate, however unlikely. The man stepped from the shadow full into the light of the animated sign, and Spaxter got a good look at him.

He was a short, slightly stocky Eurasian wearing the blue denim posture-support suit of a Tokyo cabbie. He was wearing a black and pink baseball cap backwards, which was a likely sign that until his recent abduction he had been a vertical-cab driver servicing the outside of the downtown Tokyo transit tower at which Spaxter had been scheduled to arrive. A blue-black lump in his right hand was doubtless a low voltage paralysis gun, standard service industrial security device that most English-speaking cabbies called a Fare Warning. Now the man stepped forward and stopped again, indecisive, or awaiting further orders. Then the order must have come, because raising the stun gun the cabby began striding purposefully, with a slight limp, straight towards his present position.

Spaxter stepped out of the shadow into the street with the illumination from the Karaoke bar to his back, facing the approaching man. The blank-faced cabby stopped abruptly, lowering the weapon. A second later he was moving forward again, now less than fifty yards away, the empty hand extended palm outwards. He began speaking in a toneless, clipped English as his face adopted the characteristically vapid smile that Spaxter was now beginning to associate with the beaded. "Say, friend, do you know your way around here? I seem to have gotten lost..."

Spaxter didn't respond (how would a local cabby not know his way around, and how would he know this random stranger spoke English?) but turned as if in answer and walked casually across the sidewalk, and into the bar.

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