The Stainless Steel Rat Goes to Hell
CHAPTER 1I POURED A GOOD MEASURE of whiskey over the ice, scowled at it--then added a splash more. But, as I lifted the glass and drank it with glugging pleasure, my raised eyes drifted across the clock that was set into the wall above the bar.It was just ten in the morning."My, my, Jim, you are hitting the sauce a little earlier each day," I growled wordlessly. So what? It was my liver wasn't it? I gurgled the glass empty just as the house computer spoke to me in rich, educated--and possibly sneering?--tones."Someone is approaching the front door, Sire.""Great. Perhaps it is the booze shop delivery?" Venom dripped from my voice; but all computers are immune to sarcasm."Indeed not, Sire, for Garry's Grog and Groceries delivers by freight tube. I identify the person approaching as Rowena Vinicultura. She has stopped her popcar on the front lawn and is emerging from it."My morale plummeted as the name slithered across my eardrums. Of all the beautiful bores on Lussuoso, Rowena was possibly the most beautiful--and certainly the most boring. I had to flee--or commit suicide--before she came in. I was alreadyheading for the back of the house, to possibly drown myself in the swimming pool, when the housebot's computer voice stopped me in my tracks."Ms. Vinicultura appears to have fallen down onto the plastic mat outside the door that spells out WELCOME in six languages.""What do you mean fallen?""I believe the description is an apt one. She closed her eyes and her body became limp. Then she descended slowly towards the ground and is now lying, unmoving, with her eyes still closed. Her pulse appears to be slow and irregular as detected by the pressure plate in the mat. Lacerations and bruises on her face ..."The thing's voice followed me as I ran back through the house."Open the door!" I shouted. It swung wide and I dived through.Her cameo face was pale, her dark hair tousled gracefully, her ample bosom rising and falling slowly. There was blood on her cheeks and a darkening bruise on her forehead. Her lips moved and I leaned close."Gone ..." she said, barely audible. "Angelina ... gone ..."It felt as though my body temperature had dropped thirty degrees. This did not slow me in the slightest. While I was still reaching down for her I managed to tap the number 666 into my wrist communicator."Where is the home medical treatment center?" I shouted as I slipped my arms under warm thighs, soft back, and lifted her as carefully as I could."The settee in the library, Sire."I ran, ignoring the cold knot of despair her words had punched into me. Since both Angelina and I were strenuously healthy we had never used the medical services in this house. I had glanced at the specs when I signed the rental agreement; . with the price we were paying, the medical arrangements should equal that of a provincial hospital at least. By the time I had carried Rowena to the library the settee had vanished into thewall and an examining bed had risen in its place. Even as I laid her on the bed the detectors were snaking down from the medbot that had popped out of the ceiling. An analyzer fastened onto the back of my neck and I slapped it away."Not me! Her, on the bed, you moronic machine."I stepped back out of reach while it set to work with mechanical enthusiasm. A glistening row of readouts sprang to life on the screen. Everything from temperature and pulse to endocrine balance, liver function, hair-follicle growth and anything else that could be measured or assessed was there."Speak! Tell!" I commanded and there was a rustle of electronic activity as the various expert programs shuffled and sorted their input, compared and interacted and agreed on the results in a speedy microsecond."The patient is concussed and contused." The computer-generated voice was deep, male and reassuring. "The bruises are superficial and have been cleansed and sealed," there was a scurry of flashing apparatus, "and the appropriate antibiotics injected.""Bring her to!" I snapped"If you mean, sir, that you wish the patient restored to consciousness that is now being done." If a computer can sound miffed--this one was miffed."Whasha?" she muttered, blinking lovely purple eyes that were blurrily out of focus."You've got to do better than that with her," I said. "Stimulants, something. I must talk to her.""The patient has been traumatized ...""But not badly--you told me that. Now get her to talk, you overpriced collection of memory chips or I'll short-circuit your ROM, PROM and EPROM!"This seemed to do the job. Her eyes blinked again and looked at me."Jim ..."In the flesh, Rowena my sweet. You're going to be fine. Now tell me about Angelina.""Gone ..." she said. And fluttered her luxurious eyelashes.I felt my teeth grating together and forced a smile."You said that before. Gone where? Gone why? Gone when--" I shut up since I was getting into a rut."The Temple of Eternal Truth ..." was all that she said as her eyes closed again. It was enough.I shouted to the housebot as I bolted out the door."Cure her. Guard her. Call an ambulance."I did not mention the police since I didn't want their flat-footed presence interfering with my investigation."Switch on!" I shouted to the atomcycle as I jumped into the garage. "Door open!"I landed in the saddle, hit full power and tore off the bottom half of the garage door, it wasn't opening fast enough, as we burst through it. I managed to miss a strolling couple on the pavement, shot between two vehicles and roared down the road. Shouting into the atomcycle's phone since it would be nice to know where I was going."AdInfo, emergency access. The Temple of Eternal Truth--coordinates."A street map was projected onto the now-cracked windscreen and I screeched tires around the first corner. As I straightened out I saw that the com light was blinking. It could only be an answer to my emergency call since only Angelina, James or Bolivar could access this number after that call went out."Angelina is that you?!" I shouted."Bolivar here. What's up, Dad?"I explained briefly and curtly, then repeated myself when James signed on. I had no idea where they were--I would find out later--but it was enough to know that they were informed and on the way. This was the first time we had used the 666 call. Major emergency. Drop everything and assemble. I had set it up when they had left home and both gone their individual ways. To help them in the future, I had imagined; now I was the one who was calling. They clicked off, not wasting my time or attention with needless comments. They were listening and would be here.I blasted around the last corner and stood on the brakes.Oily smoke was billowing into the air--already dying down as white spray from a fire copter played over the wrecked building. The cold clutch on my chest was physical now. I took a moment to regain control, to breathe carefully. Then ran towards the ruins. Two men in blue uniforms were in my way and both sprawled and bounced. Then there was a bigger one before me with lots of gold braid; massed minions closed ranks behind him. I got control of my adrenaline-zapped reflexes and put my brain into gear."My name is diGriz. I've reason to believe that my wife is in there ...""If you will step back and--""No." I spat the word like venom and he recoiled automatically. "I pay taxes. Lots of taxes. To pay you. I am more experienced in police operations than you are." I neglected to add on which side of the law I had gained that experience. "What do you know about this?""Nothing. Fire and police have just arrived. There was an automatic alarm call.""I'll tell you what I know. This is--or was--the Temple of Eternal Truth. A survivor just came to my house. Rowena Vinicultura. She said that my wife was here."I could hear the police computer buzzing in his earphone. "Admiral Sir James diGriz. We will do everything we can to find your wife ... Angelina. I am Captain Collin and I note that your status permits you to accompany this investigation under your own cognizance and responsibility."Purely by reflex I had established my forged bona fides as an Admiral of the Fleet when we had first come to Lussuoso. Basic precautions always pay off.We followed a large and well-insulated firefightbot into the ruins. It plowed a careful path, occasionally spraying a smoking remnant, recording for later examination every movement that it made, every obstacle it put aside. A hanging door screeched and fell and we entered the smoking interior of what had been a good-sized meeting hall. Roblights suspended fromwhirring blades floated by above us and illuminated the smoke-filled interior.Destruction on all sides--but no bodies to be seen. The cold knot was still in my midriff. The room had been seriously decorated with carved wood paneling and--now smoking--draperies. Rows of pews faced towards the destroyed side of the room where the smoke was thickest. Precipitators soon cleared the air and the floating lights glinted from wrecked and twisted machinery."We'll hold it here," Captain Collin said. "The disaster team takes over now."The disaster team was embodied in a single metallic gray robot. It was undoubtedly packed full of expert programs produced. in collaboration with fire and forensic investigators, along with detectors and probes of microscopic efficiency. Logically I knew it would do an infinitely better job than we fumbling humans: I still wanted to kick it aside and rush in."Do-you see any ... bodies?" I called out."No living creatures. No corpses of humans or animals detected. No--yes. Correction. Red liquid on the floor. Detection processing. It is human blood."My throat was almost closed. My voice grated and I had trouble talking. "Primary test. Blood type?""Testing. O positive, Rh negative."I didn't hear the rest--nor did it matter. Angelina was a sturdy type B--and Rh positive. I relaxed, but only so slightly.In a very few minutes two important facts were made clear. Other than the drops of blood, there were no visible human remains or traces of anyone living or dead. There was the ruined hall and next to it the burnt and crushed room that had held large amounts of electronic equipment. All of it now apparently--and deliberately--destroyed beyond any possibility of recognition.But where was Angelina?
I waited until the ruined building had been examined and reexamined. Nothing new was discovered and I was just wastingmy time at the site. The police had vetted every spacer that had left the planet since the explosion and would keep on doing so. Neither Angelina--nor even anyone who resembled her in the slightest--had been recorded as being aboard any of them. There was nothing I could do here.I drove slowly home, obeying all traffic regulations. Stopping for pedestrians and waving them on. I rolled through the remains of the garage door and parked the bike. Went straight to the bar where I threw out the flat drink sitting there and prepared a small but stiff replacement before I dug into the E-mail printouts. The twins were on the way. Both were off-planet so it would be a few days at least before they arrived. They did not go into details but I knew that they were now buying, cajoling, bribing--perhaps stealing--the fastest means of transportation in the known universe. They would be here. Our little clan may have rejected the outside worlds and their values--but this made our own cohesion that much stronger.But now we had to wait for plodding technology to sift, examine and assess the ruins of the Temple of Eternal Truth--and present a coherent picture of what had happened there. There was nothing I could do until I got the police report. I tried to contact Rowena in the hospital but was given the brush-off. Querying her more would have to wait until she had recovered a bit. Lussuoso was rich and technically efficient and would do the search-and-analyze job as well as--or better than--any other planet we had visited. I hated this place but gave it all credit for technical competence. My mind kept trying to numerate all the terrible possibilities of Angelina's disappearance ... .Don't dwell on it, Jim, I told myself firmly. You have chosen to lead what others might consider a strange and possibly criminal life. I began to wish I had stayed with crockery and away from the Special-Corps. I was always uneasy on the right side of the law. Even more I regretted coming here. Yet it had seemed like a good idea at the time.This was a paradise planet and unbelievably expensive. To move here I had had to tap into bank accounts untouched for years. I even had to draw in some long-overdue debts and thathad not been easy to do. I mean not easy in the sense of heavy weapons and a number of people in the hospital before the accounts were closed. A life of crime is not always profitable--particularly when I had some unwelcome assignments from the Special Corps. Certainly my saving the universe had been exciting, but not money-making in the slightest. The same thing happened when I ran for president of Paraiso Aqui. Good fun, but again no money involved. So between these kinds of legal jobs, Angelina and I had done a number of other jobs that filled our coffers while depleting those of others. Enough had been stored away for a rainy day that had proved to be a sunny one here. It had all been well worth it since Angelina was happier here than she had ever been before. I even forgot how much I hated the place when she smiled and kissed me. It had all started simply enough."Have you ever heard of Lussuoso?" she had asked."A new drink--or something you rub onto the skin?""Don't always play the fool, Jim diGriz. I mean every day there is something about it in the news--""Vicarious thrills and sheer jealousy. There isn't one person in a trillion who could even afford a day's visit there.""We could. I'm sure.""Of course--"Of course. Famous Last Words. Springing to my lips engendered by relaxation and mental sloth. By hindsight it was obvious that every word of that simple conversation was planned and orchestrated by my dearest. She was a woman who, when she knew what she wanted done, got it done.Lussuoso. Famous in myth and legend and galactic soap operas. A paradise planet. Populated only by the very, very rich and those who were richer. I had been intrigued by this phenomenon at first and had done a bit of research. I was in an exotic enough income bracket to quickly discover why it was so attractive.It was the galactic center for rejuvenation treatments. These were so hideously expensive that you had to be a millionaire to even see their price list. The treatments were painless but timeconsuming. Depending upon the degree of customer decay this could take years. Since a clinic would be a bore, and there was no shortage of money in the project, an entire planet had been terraformed into a holiday world. Luxury villas rivaled each other in exuberance. Operas, theaters and entertainments of all kinds abounded. All the sports from deep-sea diving and fishing to mountain climbing and hunting were there for the taking. But hidden away from all this consumptive capitalism were the clinics and surgeries where the rich got younger and, if possible, poorer. This was the taboo subject and never mentioned--but was the real reason why the planet existed in the first place.I had discovered all this and had instantly forgotten it. Angelina had not. I knew that my fate was sealed, my goose well-cooked, served and carved, when she stopped in front of the hall mirror one day just before we left for dinner. She patted her immaculately groomed hair as women are wont to do--then leaned closer. Touching the corner of one eye with a delicate fingertip."Jim--is that a line, right here?""Of course not. Just the way the light is falling."Even as I spoke these polite, truthful and simple words my thoughts were briskly whirring forwards. Years of happy marriage had taught me one important fact--if not a lot of important facts. Women speak with many levels of meaning. As simple a question as Are you hungry? can mean I am hungry. Or have you forgotten we have a dinner appointment? Or I'm not hungry but I'm sure you will be bothering me about lunch soon. Or any other of countless convoluted interpretations. So a possible line in the corner of an eye, following soon after a simple query about Lussuoso and the chance appearance of a gilt brochure on the end table could mean only thing. I smiled."I am beginning to feel that this world has worn out its welcome and is starting to bore more than a little. Have you ever thought of passing a spell on, I don't know, some grander and more exciting planet?"She whirled about and kissed me enthusiastically. "Jim--you must be a mind reader! What do you think about ..."I really didn't have much to think about. Other than remembering long-forgotten bank accounts.But it had been well worth it. For awhile. Angelina absented herself from time to time--but we never discussed the rejuvenation treatments. I am forced to admit that, after noting my touches of gray hair, as well as a slight tendency to be short of breath after serious exercise, I was not that adverse to a medical session or two myself. After all I was paying for it. And Lussuoso was as jolly and entertaining as the brochures had said. Our house was lovely and our friends lovelier still. I don't know how beautiful these people had been before they had become beautiful people--but they were sure good to look at now. Neither age shall wither nor time detract. They used to say that money couldn't buy everything, but this cliche had long been extinct. On Lussuoso they were all young, handsome and rich. Or rather rich first--therefore young and handsome.It did not take me long to discover that they were also boring beyond belief.Making a lot of money seems to produce people who care only about making money.Now I am not a snob--far from it. My circle of friends and acquaintances contains weird and wonderful examples from all walks of life. Conmen and connoisseurs. Forgers and foresters, police and politicians, scientists and psalm singers. All of them entertaining and good company in a variety of strange and interesting ways.Yet after a month on Lussuoso I was ready for anything but more of Lussuoso. Suicide perhaps, or back into the army again, maybe swimming in a lake of sulfuric acid; any of these would be preferable.But I bided my time and increased my drinking for two reasons. Firstly I had paid a satellite-sized bundle for the medical treatments and I was going to get my money's worth. Secondly, and more importantly, Angelina was having an incredibly good time. Our lifestyle had previously prevented her from having female acquaintances or close lady friends. Her early and murderouslife, before the psych treatments that had turned her into a more civilized, though still criminal, person, was far in the past and hopefully forgotten. We never discussed those early years when I-for a rare change!--was on the side of law enforcement. And she was a criminal on the run. A very nasty criminal indeed and I could not understand how one so beautiful could be so devious and cruel. Until she trusted me, perhaps she loved me even then, and had opened the locket with the secret of her past. Her beauty had been the product of the surgeon's knife. That had changed her from what she had been to how she looked now. Only her criminal existence had enabled her to pay for the operations. Because of this, and our extra-legal standard of living, we might have had a lonely existence in many ways. We had not led a solitary life, but it had certainly been a different kind of life from the normal ones led by the other 99.99 percent of mankind.Having the twins had been a novel experience for both of us. One that I had not looked forward to with a great deal of enthusiasm. But I had changed, for the better Angelina always said, and she should know. When the boys were growing up we had seen that they had received the best education. We had discussed it a lot and had finally agreed that they could choose the style of life that most appealed to them. In all fairness, when they were old enough, we had introduced them to some of the more interesting aspects of our lifestyle. I am happy to say that they took to it instantly. All of this kept us busy enough and, since Angelina had never had any close friends, she apparently had never missed the acquaintance of those of the fairer sex. Now she had them in abundance.They went out together and did things together. Just what I was never quite sure. But she--and they--did enjoy themselves. She had even mentioned lightly, and oh how I wish I had listened more closely, the Temple of Eternal Truth. She hadn't seemed terribly interested but had gone there at a friend's insistence.Now this. I sipped long and hard at my drink and resisted a refill."DiGriz here," I called out at the instant the communicator buzzed."It is Captain Collin, Admiral. We have some more--and very puzzling--information about the Temple of Eternal Truth. Do you think you could come to my office ..."I was out the door even while he was still speaking.Copyright © 1996 by Harry Harrison