"Every man is as Heaven made him,
and sometimes a great deal worse."
-- Miguel de Cervantes
FULL OF FOREBODINGS AND THE GREATEST TENSIONS that an adult Chem had ever experienced, Kelexel the Investigator came down into the storyship where it hid beneath the ocean. He pressed his slender craft through the barrier that stood like lines of insect legs in the green murk and debarked on the long gray landing platform.
All around him flickering yellow discs and globes of working craft arrived and departed. It was early daylight topside and from this ship Fraffin the Director was composing a story.
To be here, Kelexel thought. Actually to be on Fraffin's world.
He felt that he knew this world intimately -- all those hours before the pantovive, watching Fraffin's stories about the place unroll before his eyes. Background study for the investigation it'd been called. But what Chem wouldn't have traded places with him then -- gladly?
To be on Fraffin's world!
That morning topside -- he had seen such mornings many times, caught by Fraffin's shooting crews: the torn sky, cloud-pillars of gilded cushions. And the creatures! He could almost hear a priestmother murmuring, her voice firmly hesitant before a Chem posing as a god. Ah, such buttersoft women they were, generous with their barbed kisses.
But those times were gone -- except for Fraffin's reels. The creatures of this world had been herded into new avenues of excitement.
In the pangs of remembering Fraffin's stories, Kelexel recognized his own ambivalence.
I must not weaken, he thought.
There was an element of grandiose posturing in the thought (hand on breast) and Kelexel permitted an inward chuckle at himself. Fraffin had done that for him. Fraffin had taught many a Chem a great deal about himself.
In spite of the confusion on the landing platform, the Dispatcher noted Kelexel almost immediately and sent a hovering robot questioner before whose single eye Kelexel bowed and said: "I am a visitor, Kelexel by name."
He did not have to say he was a rich visitor. His craft and his clothing said that for him. The clothing was the quiet forest green of neversoil and cut for comfort: leotards, a simple tunic and an all-purpose cape. It gave his squat, bow-legged form a look of rich dignity, setting off the silvery Chem-of-Chem skin, forcing attention onto the big face with its rock like angles and planes, the sunken and penetrating brown eyes.
The craft which he left in a rest slot beneath the traffic lanes for the working crews was a needleship which could stitch its way across any void in the Chem universe. Only the wealthiest entrepreneurs and Servants of the Primacy owned such ships. Even Fraffin didn't possess one, preferring (so it was said) to plow his wealth back into the world which had brought him such fame.
Kelexel, a visitor -- he felt confidence in the cover. The Bureau of Criminal Repression had prepared his role and trappings with care.
"Welcome, visitor Kelexel," the Dispatcher said, his voice amplified through the robot to override the story-ship activity. "Take the flex ramp on your left. Please register with our Greeter at the head of the ramp. May your stay with us relieve boredom."
"My gratitude," Kelexel said.
Ritual, everything was ritual, he thought. Even here.
He fitted his bowed legs to the riding clamps. The ramp whisked him across the platform, up through a red hatch, along a blue passageway to a glistening ebony orifice. The orifice expanded to reveal a small room and the Greeter's flashing lights, couch and dangling connections.
Kelexel eyed the robo-couplings, knowing they must be linked to the storyship's Central Directory. Here was the true moment of test for his cover, the heart of Ship Security.
The tensions boiling in him filled Kelexel with sudden wonder. He felt no fear for his person; under his skin -- part of his skin -- lay the web armor which immunized all Chem from violence. It was improbable that they could harm him. Something approaching the entire Chem civilization was required to harm an individual. Such decisions came rarely and then only because of a clear and positive threat to all Chem.
But four previous investigators had come here and returned to report "no crime" when all surface evidence pointed to something profoundly wrong in Fraffin's private empire. Most disquieting was the fact that all four had left the Service to start their own story-ships out on the rims.
Kelexel held this knowledge to him now, secure in the Chem oneness, the shared unity that Tiggywaugh's web gave each Chem with his immortality.
I'm ready for you, Greeter, he thought
He already knew the Primacy's suspicions must be correct. Senses trained to respond to the slightest betrayal recorded more than enough here to bring him to full alert. Signs of decadence he'd expected. Storyships were outposts and outposts tended that way. But there was a surfeit of other symptoms. Certain of the crew moved with that air of knowledgeable superiority which flashed like a warning light to the police eye. There was a casual richness of garb on even the lowliest menials. There was a furtive something here which oozed from the oneness of the web. He'd seen inside several of the working craft, noted the silver sheen on handles of concealment controls. The creatures of this world had long since passed the stage where Chem could legally reveal themselves on the surface. It was one thing to nudge and herd and manipulate intelligent creatures for the sake of entertainment -- "to relieve boredom" -- quite another thing to sow the seeds of an awareness that could explode against the Chem.
No matter Fraffin's fame and stature, he'd taken a wrong turning somewhere. That was obvious. The stupidity of such an action put a sour taste in Kelexel's mouth. No criminal could escape the Primacy's endless searching -- not forever.
Still, this was Fraffin's storyship -- Fraffin who had given the Chem surcease from immortal boredom, given them a world of profound fascination in story after story.
He felt those stories in his memory now, sensed the ringing of old bells, their sound falling, lingering, falling-the parapets of awareness roaring there to willy-nilly purpose. Ahhh, how Fraffin's creatures caught the mind! It was in part their similarity to the Chem, Kelexel felt. They made one disregard their gigantism. They forced one to identify with their dreams and emotions.
Remembering, remembering, Kelexel heard the music of bowstrings, warcries and whimpers, kite-shadowed silences on bloody fields-all Fraffin's doing. He remembered a fair Gutian female, a slave being marched to Babylon in the time of Cambyses -- an Egyptian woman taken with her child.
The spoil of the bow, Kelexel thought, recalling the sweep of that one story. One lost female, yet how she lingered in his memory. She had been sacrificed before Nin-Girsu who blessed commerce and litigation and was in reality the voice of a Chem Manipulator in Fraffin's pay.
But here were names and creatures and events the Chem would never have known were it not for Fraffin. This world, Fraffin's storyship empire, had become a byword in the Chem universe. It would not be easy (nor popular) to topple such a one, but Kelexel could see that it must be done.
I must destroy you, Kelexel thought as he coupled himself to the Greeter. He stared with quiet interest up at the scanners which flowed across him, searching, searching. This was normal and to be expected from Ship Security. To be a Chem immortal was to submit to this as a matter of course. There could be no threat to any Chem except from his fellow Chem united -- and the Chem could be united by false ideas as well as true ones. False assumptions, fantastic plots -- only the Primacy was supposed proof against such base maneuvers. Fraffin had to satisfy himself that the visitor wasn't a competitor's spy intending secret harm.
How little you know of harm, Kelexel thought as he felt the Greeter probe him. I need only my senses and my memory to destroy you.
He wondered then what specific criminal act would trip up Fraffin. Was he breeding some of his creatures for short stature, selling them as pets? Were his people openly fraternizing with their planet-bound giants? Was secret knowledge being fed to the creatures? They did, after all, have crude rockets and satellites. Was theirs an unreported infectious intelligence, full of immunes, ready to blast out into the universe and oppose the Chem?
It must be one of these, Kelexel thought. The signs of secrecy were all here on Fraffin's world. There was guilty knowledge in the storyship.
Why would Fraffin do such a stupid thing? Kelexel wondered. The criminal!