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It sounded like the Soviet cross-dresser had finished his loose interpretation of the Beatles and as Spaxter entered the bar he saw that what appeared to be a middle-aged Middle American couple had been coerced onto the stage. Despite the unseasonably cool temperatures they were both wearing neon shorts and see-thru tan-shirts, and had chosen to sing the equally unseasonal "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town". In spite of the deep gloom of the bar they both wore sunglasses fitted with expensive fibre optic video delivery lenses which were doubtless sending the signal to hardware either in their high voltage anti-theft money belts or somewhere in the gaudy broad-brimmed pixel hats that were flashing edited sequences from early American black & white television shows and movies in time to the music.
Having amply captured the spirit of the event these two were obviously relishing the spotlight, swinging back and forth arm in arm, leading the room with grand gesticulations. Holographic lensing was projecting on the air around them bouncing-ball follow-along phonetic versions of the song, in characters corresponding to whatever nationalities had logged onto the bar computer tonight; Russian, Chinese, Arabic, even the strange pyramidal signs of New Atlantean were represented.
At once Spaxter discovered why the earlier song had sounded so odd. The club's computer evidently had a glitch in it, and the phonetic versions with which the general patrons were accompanying the featured singers were not exact in their rendering. Thus while the American couple boisterously intoned "You better not shout, you better not cry" the majority of the crowd sang what sounded like "Your peter's got clout, a putter my eye". Santa Claus had become "Panther Claws" and he wasn't so much coming to town as "gumming a clown".
As soon as he had crossed the threshold Spaxter's physical presence had alerted the bar's serving systems, which immediately slid into his path a semi-transparent ordering panel suspended from the ceiling on tight magnetic strands. Scrolling down the panel's face was a brief menu and price-list in half a dozen languages and an illuminated map highlighting available seating, with colour codes corresponding to the nationalities, and in some cases religions, of those in the occupied areas.
At a glance he took in the club's layout and clientele, and with a flurry keyed in an order for sake and an indication as to his seating of choice, sliding the coded index of the Gauntlet across the credit terminal to transfer without delay enough funds so that the unit wouldn't bother him for a while. The panel would have disappeared at that moment, and automatic systems built into the platforms and railings of the crowded bar would have created a path for him to his seat selection, except that he then tapped a hold button on the panel's leading edge and it stopped, pulsing lightly as in anticipation.
He let the Gauntlet roam over the surface and edges of the device, seeking out a main interface or service juncture, and soon found on the lower right corner the connection pad for the club's floor manager. In moments he had laid a half dozen minor programming instructions into that port through the glove, and tapped the hold button again to reactivate his earlier order.
The entire sequence had taken less than eight seconds, but that was all the time he had before his pursuer reached the bar entrance and stepped in behind him. After the glare of the club's external lighting the golem/cabby had to stop briefly in the comparative gloom of the entranceway to get his bearings and allow his eyes to adjust, and in that moment the panel had flashed out of Spaxter's path and he had slipped into the programmed route it opened up for him, almost directly across the club to the far side of the stage. He made his way quickly, the dynamic human terrain closing in behind him, and he nestled with a twist into a single seat half-hidden from the rest of the room by a flashing light column. He watched, then.
The cabby had pocketed his paralyzer before stepping into the room. Even then the club security system would have detected the common pattern of that device's power cells and kindly requested him to leave them in a coded alcove by the door or his entrance would be denied -- if not for the instructions Spaxter had just given the electronic maitre d'. As it was the fellow found no obstruction to his passage into the room, and in fact a pathway opened up before him through the crowd that seemed to almost propel him forward.
Seemingly before he had time to consider where he was or what might have become of his quarry the hapless cabby found himself standing by the stage, partially blinded by the ambient glare. The American couple had just at that moment given up on their festive caroling (around about "he knows if you've seen mad old Gord so be hoodwinked Ludwig snakes") and run laughing off the stage, shorts glowing, hats flashing Rawhide and Beaver.
Suddenly, out of the roar of applause and laughter which accompanied this retreat, the bold tones of the club's digital host boomed the following announcement in several languages, targeting with focused acoustics specific translations appropriate to tables:
"Ladies and gentlemen, we are extremely privileged to have with us tonight an actual bona fide international performing star!"
The room plunged into a hushed expectancy.
"Please welcome him onto the stage, folks. Let's hear it for MAXELVA SINATRA!!"
Maxelva Sinatra was a moderately popular Hawaiian/Italian who did passable imitations of many of the media megastars of the preceding ten decades. The cabbie was a foot shorter, of darker complexion, and, especially in his present beaded state, carried none of that performer's grace of motion. And besides, he was wearing the uniform of a Tokyo transit tower hack, he had been in this bar several times before, and a couple of the locals present should have remembered him buying them a round of drinks less than a week past. Two of the Soviets had been in his cab earlier that day.
But most of the room was deeply intoxicated on a variety of substances, and the rest might have never even heard of Maxelva Sinatra; the majority were tourists on a limited budget and all that mattered to any of them was that beyond all expectation, here in a backstreet karaoke in the small hours of an average night, a real and genuine international performer was about to take the stage. When the servo-spots swung into position and pinned the cabby in a blazing crossfire the room erupted as if he were the Second Coming itself.
The cabby stood blinking stupidly for a full half minute, and still the ovation continued. Several of those closest pressed up to him, gently urging him onto the stage, all silly grins and brimming eyes.
Spaxter smiled slightly, imagining the situation in Bead Control where somebody, or something, was even now trying to figure out how to handle this unusual turn of events.
And now the cabby had been virtually manhandled onto the stage, and it seemed that in lieu of more specific instructions from its controllers the man's native personality was beginning to respond to what was probably not a completely unfamiliar situation for him. A small smile rose, a bit of the blankness left the eyes, the hands came up and the jaw began to move. A small squeaking sound came from his mouth, greatly amplified by the ambient microphones. The announcer continued:
"Mr. Sinatra is here promoting a new movie, and has kindly agreed to perform for us one of that production's feature numbers, "Last Train To Clarksville"!"
The room erupted again. Spaxter began to feel bad. He had planted this program so quickly, throwing in details at random. The original idea had just been to tie the agent up so he could make an effective escape. The seat he had chosen was about ten paces from a rear emergency exit, and he could at any time have accomplished this without any difficulty at all. Why had he decided to stay and watch?
He knew the reason at once. He himself had recently been a subject of this insidious body-napping and he could feel nothing but pity for any man so victimized. He saw now that in his reflexive prank was hidden the seed of just the sort of transcendence that he himself had been able to achieve over the psychic hammerlock of the beads. The intense sensory stimulation of the stage combined with the obvious lack of direction from the bead programmers was creating within the cabby a condition in which he just might regain self control.
"Last Train To Clarksville" in a stark electro-acoustic version was a big hit in Japan at the moment, which was why it was at the top of the song lists that Spaxter had called up; now as the opening strains of the backing track filled the room the cabby was clearly beginning to respond, rocking back and forth, smile broadening, jaw working, hands waving. The sounds coming from him were not yet exactly musical, but they had at least the semblance of lyric.
The ever-forgiving crowd had decided he was doing just fine and had already started singing along, for the most part ignoring the floating words which would have had them intone "Cake the last drain at quark's bill".
And now Spaxter started to move, sudden love swelling in him for this brave little cabby who had no idea that he was singing on death's door, who had until just minutes before been to Spaxter nothing but a robotic assassin from a faceless enemy to be immediately and emotionlessly dispatched.
But Spaxter was forced to move against the traffic lines built into the club's floating design, and so could take no advantage of the automatic aisle-making potential; he was still six feet from the stage when he sensed something happening. His meld, focused on the man, had started to pick up the first traces of self awareness, and he had watched them grow as the song progressed. But now there was a jolt as a control program came free and the man woke spasmodically to partial sentience. On stage the cabby stumbled a bit, and there were a few gasps in the crowd.
Spaxter knew from his own experience that he had the barest seconds left in which to act, and radiating a repellent charge from his glove he thrust through the last human barrier, leapt onto the platform, and dove towards the collapsing man.
There were cries, some people thinking an assassination attempt was taking place. More people laughed, as a drunk or two joining the featured singer on stage was a fairly common occurrence. Very few saw Spaxter pluck the silver discs from the man's head, or how in the next moments those discs flared incandescent, then puffed out of existence.
They did see Spaxter loop one arm under the sagging cabby, whisper something into his ear, and help him achieve a firmer footing. They saw the man lose his state of near-shock, latch back onto the pumping rhythm of the music. In a minute both he and Spaxter, arm in arm, were doing ample justice to the tune.
After a verse and chorus Spaxter slipped away, applauding the "star" politely as he made his way discretely to stage-side. From there he sang and clapped with the rest, with genuine pleasure, while the newly-liberated cabby, in a state of befuddled ecstasy over his sudden dream-like fame, was prevailed upon to perform no less than four more numbers. He was no Maxelva Sinatra, but you couldn't have convinced very many in the club of that on this night.
On stage Spaxter had whispered into the cabby's ear simply: "Karaoke. You've been drinking. You had a blackout. Now you're singing." It was basically just feeding back to him what he himself had first suspected as he woke to blurred consciousness in the middle of a bar he had been in more than once, on a stage he had sung on more than once. He had not often experienced blackouts from drinking, but neither was he a total stranger to the idea. However, never had he experienced anything quite like this. His last memory was at work, waiting for a fare. As far as he could tell he had no other symptoms of intoxication. Yet here he was singing in a bar with a roomful of foreign strangers calling him "Maxel!" and throwing their personal data-chips at him like he was some kind of screen idol.
He decided he had had enough after the reprise of "Last Train" during which the crowd started getting on the tables and swinging from ceiling-mounted security netting. In looking around the room he realized that he knew absolutely nobody here well enough to go drinking with, and so must be here on his own! No, on second thought there was that strange fellow with the hat that had steadied him... and now he scanned the front rows for Spaxter.
He found him far to stage right, and when he saw that the cloaked man was smiling and waving to him with a gloved hand he instantly headed that way, acknowledging the crowd with grins and salutes as he went. He had no idea who this stranger might be, but in this present state of disorientation a friend of a few minutes was better than none at all.
Spaxter helped him down from the stage, using body language to communicate to those excited patrons near them that clearly he was Mr. Sinatra's personal bodyguard and would broach no harmful contacts. Wrapping him once again in a protective arm he selected the optimal traffic corridor through the crowd and headed for the door. He kept a discouraging stun setting on the out-thrust glove and a general meld on the immediate crowd to make sure it held nothing other than frenzied adulation, simultaneously monitoring his shaken charge for any signs of shock, panic or incipient unconsciousness.
The cabby had so far ridden out his unusual stage awakening with relative ease, placating his confusion with a variety of very plausible explanations for his loss of memory. Plus there was the undeniable pleasure associated with the ovation he had just received for what he knew to be a merely average vocal performance. But now the weight of unreality was beginning to take its toll, and the intensity of the crowd response as this mysterious stranger rushed him through the mob began to fill him with real fear. These people thought he was some kind of superstar! At last enough fragments of what the crowd was screaming at him fell into place, and he became even more confused; they thought he was Maxelva Sinatra?? He remembered a horror program he had seen once where a man had woken up in another man's body and couldn't convince anybody he wasn't that man... and then he caught a glimpse of himself in a mirrored wall segment and was satisfied that at least he still seemed to look the same.
And now they had reached the entranceway. All the lights were on in the doorside panel that related to automatic club security systems, and already several of the crowd control nets with their nerve-induction sedatives were being deployed in areas of greatest upheaval. What looked to be the floor manager and his assistant, quite possibly the only humans on duty at this hour, were trying to override the automatic entertainment program. Melding them in passing Spaxter discovered that the crude system was designed, in the absence of other information, to keep building on whatever excitation potential was available in the club entertainment, and it was about to take the present energy level as a cue to run a hardcore sex program of some kind. It seemed that the security systems were too involved with their own maintenance problems to inform the entertainment systems that a riot was rapidly developing, and so these two underpaid shift-workers were frantically trying to override.
With the cabby in tight rein Spaxter stopped by the security panel and turned to face the wave of adoring inebriates who had decided to attend their new idol's every footstep. The gathering swarm was brought up short by Spaxter's menacing glare, and he reached out and palmed the security access port with the Gauntlet. In a second there was a blast of hydraulic venting and the shimmering symmetrical grid of a prime police barrier began to descend smoothly to the floor. The patrons fell back, and were caught in one of the nets which were now falling in a wave that blanketed every part of the club; all except one narrow woman in a long form-fitting robe who slipped with agility under the lowering wall and stood passively on the other side as it slid into place.
Now what? thought Spaxter. The cabby had started to relax for the first time and in a few seconds would need some serious explanations, and now - ? The woman's green hooded garment with the subliminal three-dimensional pyramid in its design marked her as a New Atlantean. Spaxter melded her. Her mind was a rhythmic intonation, with the suggestion of a mantra:
"Has always as always as will be as shall be as has been has always as always as will be as shall be as has been..."
Now the woman spoke:
"I saw you take the temple stones from off the servitor. Are you one of the New Builders? The time is near, very near, I can feel it. Will we be called? I have given my life, shall I not know even the hour of my deliverance?"
Spaxter tuned the meld, powered up. This time he saw past the mantra level to where the Atlantean was a crystal lattice of controlled passion and anchoring belief, all focused on the dominant image of the pyramid. He had rarely seen such mental control, such a structured will. He wondered what she might be doing in a karaoke bar. When he dug for it he discovered she was chaperoning a gaggle of New Atlanteans who were in some ways being decommissioned from the cult, reintroduced to normal society. She had considered herself one of the most devout, a true leader, and so found this assignment an unlooked-for and unmerited punishment. Slowly and sadly she was coming to the realization that she, also, was being decommissioned, and the thought was borderline unbearable.
"Deliverance?" he asked. And there appeared in the woman's mind the place of the pyramid, the "hall of passage", an entire realm of New Atlanteans, and a great power rising from within and below that pyramid and emerging as a glorious beam of divine power from its apex, piercing the heavens and changing everything. Spaxter was astounded. He had always assumed the N.A. was just another crackpot cult of apocalyptics with no particular fixed address, and that the rumours of an actual resurrection of the mythical lost kingdom was just good p.r. on their part. Even now he took the vision, however convincing, with a good dose of psychic salt.
The young woman read Spaxter’s face well enough to understand that he was not a “New Builder” and was unlikely to put in a good word for her anywhere that mattered, so her shoulders sank and she adopted a placid smile. "Blessed awakening,” she said, softly, and this time Spaxter melded only mantra.
"Say friend," said the cabby suddenly, shifting uneasily in Spaxter's grip, "can we talk?" English was not his first language, and his accent was thick, his delivery halting. Spaxter shifted the meld to him and found him close to withdrawal, this last episode with the Atlantean being just the topper to an already bizarre sequence that could very possibly push him over the edge.
And yet he was boldly rallying, struggling to keep a grip on his rational mind against the time when he felt sure everything would come clear. Spaxter could not help but admire him again. He looked back at the Atlantean.
"You'll have to excuse me," he said, unable to disguise the suspicion and perplexity that this woman brought to him; but while she still stood there, apparently smiling at them, her mind was elsewhere. Through the police barrier the muffled cries were subsiding. Spaxter took his charge and made his way rapidly out the entrance, down the sidewalk, and around the corner. He had only programmed the barrier to stay in place for a couple of minutes, and his time would soon be up.
"Say friend," he said to the cabby, who seemed to immediately brighten at the prospect of a normal conversation, "you put on quite a show in there. Listen, I don't want you to worry a bit, I think I can answer all your questions. You don't know me but we have a mutual acquaintance. First thing, would you happen to have any idea where we could find a cab at this hour?"