It was the solidity of the new palace that struck Muligan first. It wasn't just some lightweight, temporary structure like every other building in this habitat; you could see from the way it emitted infra-red that the walls were solid heat-sinks. The new Headbull takes his security seriously, he thought. In the flat, treeless grassland around the walls, a large herd of buffalo grazed, each of them covered in wearable technology that discreetly blinked occasionally. Only one or two of them bothered to watch him as he approached; most of them knew him, anyway, and quite a few of them blamed him for the recent deaths. He knew that they were all very much aware of him.
A figure approached through the herd, covered in the same kind of wearable tech. Doyel.
"Come on, Lefty, let's not keep the boss waiting," he said, sardonically, rubbing his hands together.
"Thank you for arranging this -" cyber-Mulligan started, but Doyel cut him short.
"Yeah, yeah, all the old bollix. Turns out he's just as keen to meet you as you are to meet him. So let's get a move on, eh?"
Muligan wondered if they had been wasting their time, infiltrating Doyel into the Herd gang structure. This had taken several tendays, during which time the Mbuto herd had taken over practically every other gang and racket in Ivonya-Ngaia. There had been other deaths, a few of them permanent. The Representative was pressing for results, although even she seemed to have lost interest lately for some reason. Perhaps all he had needed to do was ask nicely.
As he entered the doors — huge, metal slabs, more than high and wide enough to admit an elephant — he sent out a burst of hypersonics, which proved to his satisfaction that the walls were solid enough to withstand a siege by most kinds of swarm, including the butterflies he had under his control.
"Don't do that, Lefty," said Doyel. "Makes my head hurt and the boss unhappy."
Inside the palace floor gently sloped upwards towards the centre, although this close to the centre of the hab there was only minimal gravity so he barely noticed. ~Where did all this mass come from?
hu-Mulligan wondered to his other self, who answered promptly. ~Imported from the Belt, I'd guess. Must be another one the same mass on the other side of the Disk, or we'd be feeling the imbalance by now. A lot of bother to protect one sophont.
As they went further into the palace, Muligan felt all his data-links dissolving. The metal walls of this place must act as a shield, cutting off 'net access and all other services. Losing linkage was a profoundly disconcerting experience. At length they came to a large, echoing hall, with a beaten earth floor, and beyond that a pair of even larger and more ornate doors which were firmly closed. Waiting in this space were two figures; the recently deceased regimenti Ricard deGarnie, and a nervous-looking Doran, minus his stiltsuit, who barely came up to the minotaur's waist.
"Greetings, deGarnie," said cyber-Muligan.
"So you are no longer dead, then" added his other half, who was facing forwards.
"The condition was temporary, as you can see," said the bull-man.
"The Headbull caused him to be re-engenerated. Must like him around," said Doyel.
"I believe he felt sorry for my son, who is not yet of age, and would benefit from my influence," said deGarnie.
"You have a son? Congratulations," cyber-Mulligan said.
Hu-Muligan added, "You've got him a present, I see."
DeGarnie held a small data device, shaped like a flattened balloon and garishly coloured. "Yes, an educational toy, nothing more"
"That a fact; I though it was yours, Ricardo," said Doyel.
"Jealous, Doyel? I'll get you one if you like."
The Doran dwarf shuffled restlessly. "Better not keep the boss waiting, heh?" he said.
"Impatient, Lofty?" Doyel said. "Right, I'll knock on the door then." He didn't move or make a sound, but he must have made some signal, as the door swung open.
Inside, bathed in bright white light, they could see a massive figure in silhouette. Cyber-Mulligan rapidly tweaked the settings on his various visual systems, but could only improve the image slightly for all his efforts. It was a massive elephant, with extravagantly wide ears and long, curving tusks that terminated in mechanical handtech. Glints of silver on its body hinted at some exotic outer covering, clothes or jewellery, perhaps, or maybe circuitry.
"I greet you, Padrig Muligan. I am the new Headbull, but you may call me Erinle, yes," said the 'phant. "I have been keen to meet you." The bull elephant's voice was a deep rumble with more than a hint of subsonics.
"And I you," Muligan said with both of his voices, an effect that was usually impressive but sounded feeble compared to the voice of the 'phant. "I have always made a point of maintaining a relationship with the head of the Mbuto herd, within certain parameters, of course."
"Yes, I understand. Your most important relationship is with whoever can pay you the most. Well, my responsibilities have expanded somewhat beyond the Mbuto herd; I now also lead the Caffer herd, and since this morning, the Hildago clan as well. Thanks to the — capitulation, shall we say — of the last opposition within the Doran hierarchy, yes."
"You left me no choice," said the dwarf, quietly. He did not look up at the glistening figure, but stared fixedly at the floor.
Hu-Mulligan could contain himself no longer. "Zar Erinle — my curiosity overwhelms me. Is it true that you represent the race of elephants who built this habitat, now suddenly returned from transcendence to reclaim their property? What will happen to the millions of people who live here, and know no other home?"
"Ha, ha, ha," the elephant enunciated, slowly and mirthlessly. "I was one of that race, long ago; we all passed into the realm of the transingular, and there we lived for subjective aeons on a plane of existence your limited minds could never appreciate. But that existence has its own — inadequacies - and annoyances, so much so that in the end I decided to give it all up, yes. I renounced transcendence, and returned here to the world that I helped to build.
I must say it is in a bit of a mess.
You all need my help — my guidance — to put it all back together. And I need your help to do that, Padraig Muligan, yes indeed."
"Perhaps we see this thing differently, Zar Erinle. You might see this as some kind of job interview, where you get to acquire me as just another asset in your project to re-acquire all of Ivonya-Ngaia. But I'm here for a different reason; I'm here to investigate a string of murders. Someone is killing all of your rivals, and not all of the victims are being reincarnated. Even the ones who have been reconstructed are being treated as losers. Just tell me if you, or any of your associates, know anything about this carnage."
"You aren't accusing me, are you, Mulligan?" deGarnie broke in. "You have seen me killed and brought back to life, but this hasn't affected my position and responsibilities at all. This breaks all the conventions of our culture, you are thinking. Do you find this suspicious, policeman?"
"Why, do you?" hu-Muligan snapped back. The minotaur fell silent.
"Ricard, I think it is best that you leave us," rumbled the elephant."I am satisfied that we have the person responsible for your temporary demise right here, yes. And I know how to deal with him. Go home and attend to your child; they are rare flowers in this day and age."
The minotaur snapped his heels, and left, glowering at Muligan. The dwarf watched him go, then started yammering -"You know it wasn't me; I didn't kill anyone."
"No, but you gave the order. And your hitmen killed Zar Muligan's associate, as well — the inestimable Beni O'Braian, yes indeed."
"Ach, ye little bastard," spat Doyel.
"O'Braian's been re-engenerated, last I heard," said the Doran. His small, shuffling feet were bare, and his scrawny legs didn't look like they could have held him up in normal gravity.
"No credit to you there," said Erinle. He swung his massive head towards Muligan and Doyel. "You came here to investigate these killings, yes. I can furnish you with ample evidence connecting this creature with at least two of them. His name, if you are interested, is Sarku Hildago."
"The brother of Zanik?" said cyber-Muligan. This was posed as a genuine question; Muligan could not access the public net, or the private database belonging to Invicta Corps, so he had to rely on his own portable memory. Which was quite comprehensive, but nothing compared to being online.
"The same, yes, indeed. Zar Muligan; if you accept my proposal and my custom, I would like you to undertake one initial service for me. For which you will be amply compensated, but it is a service that I like to think you would wish to perform in any case."
"What is that service?" Muligan didn't like the way the elephant was looking at him, staring with one unblinking eye after the other, wagging eir head slowly back and forth, only a few metres from his face now.
"You have several lethal weapons dotted about your body; nothing that could kill me, but sufficient to terminate this scum, yes. I invite you; execute him for me. Call it a test of loyalty. This is the man who killed your friend."
"I'm sorry, I won't do that. Even if the creep has himself fully backed up, I don't kill for revenge."
Doyel said, "Lefty- for krek's sake, what does it matter? He won't be dead long. And this is the guy who killed Beni. I'd do it in an instant."
"You're not me, Daggs. This is not the way we work. Just help me take him to the Representative's rehab cells and let him do his time."
Erinle backed away slowly, skimming the ground lightly in the low gravity.
"You disappoint me, Muligan. Perhaps Zar Doyel might oblige me then, yes,"
"Daggs-" Muligan looked at Doyel with his one human eye, and gave a quick shake of his head.
"Sorry, boss," Doyle said to the elephant. "Can't do it. Pointless anyway — no fun in kabooming someone who's already been caught."
"I see where your true loyalty lies," said Erinle. "This is unacceptable. I feel that I must therefore act myself."
The Dwarf looked up at last, and started backing away. "You can't wait to have me dead, can you? You know that if I am reconstructed from my last back-up I won't remember the truth."
"What truth?" hu-Muligan said, but suddenly he found himself knocked aside, tumbling end over end in the weak centrifugal gravity. The elephant knocked the dwarf down with his tusks, and rolled him along the floor, crushing him with the weight of his skull. Despite the elephant's great mass, this was not as effective as it would have been in a more impressive gravity field. When the elephant paused to catch his breath, the dwarf was still conscious, if somewhat damaged.
Muligan attempted to call his diamond-tipped butterflies from the walls of Inoya-Ngaia, butterflies which had been designed long ago with the specific purpose of elephanticide. But the metal walls of the palace blocked the signal.
"Yes now, Zar Muligan," said Erinle, "I can detect your attempts to call down the local defence systems upon my head. Space alone knows how you gained access to them, but they won't help you here."
"Shtop pretendin'!" slurred the dwarf from his ruined mouth. "All wronn! Elepash mashimus mashimus!" Erinle wrapped his trunk with its single digit around the dwarf's mouth and silenced him, and soon the Doran's body went limp. Muligan selected the largest calibre bullet in his armgun's arsenal, and fired it at the elephant; but the bullets bounced off Erinle's strange silver-patterned skin.
"Are you going to help, or what?" Muligan said to Doyel.
"Can't - these stupid overalls are binding me somehow. I can't move."
"A little measure to ensure your obedience, human," rumbled the elephant, who tossed the ruined body of the dwarf aside. "It seems that I cannot rely upon anyone but myself today, yes. But you do have one chance to redeem yourself. I find that I cannot trust your former colleague, because he is cursed with a conscience; but I know that you are not so troubled by such things." Erinle rooted around on the floor among a small pile of seemingly insignificant objects, and chose one which looked like a cross between a melon and a radio transmitter. "Here is a device that will neutralise the mechanical portions of Zar Muligan's body. I brought it here today specifically to allow you to use it; in this way you will demonstrate where your loyalties lie."
The bull handed the device to Doyel, who found himself free to move once more.
"Um — thanks, but no thanks," he said, and flipped it over his shoulder. Just before the device left his hands, the suit froze him again, and slowly he was forced to bring the weapon back round to point it at Muligan.
"Not much I can do about this, Lefty- no hard feelings, of course." The weapon activated, and Muligan slowly crumpled sideways as his cyborg side ceased to function. When hu-Muligan's head hit the floor, he felt a burst of pain (unmitigated by technology) that left him senseless. He did not hear the elephant's deep voice as he force-marched Doyel away, saying, "Now we must find some fitting punishment for you, yes, my disloyal friend." BACK
- Head of the Herd main page
By Steve Bowers (2015)
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