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A Plague of Demons

Chapter One

It was ten minutes past high noon when I paid off my helicab, ducked under the air blast from the caged high-speed rotors as they whined back to speed, and looked around at the sun-scalded, dust-white, mob-noisy bazaar of the trucial camp-city of Tamboula, Republic of Free Algeria. Merchants' stalls were a clash of garish fabrics, the pastels of heaped fruit, the glitter of oriental gold thread and beadwork, the glint of polished Japanese lenses and finely-machined Swedish chromalloy, the subtle gleam of hand-rubbed wood, the brittle complexity of Hong Kong plastic—islands in the tide of humanity that elbowed, sauntered, bargained with shrill voices and waving hands or stood idly in patches of black shadow under rigged awnings all across the wide square. I made my way through the press, shouted at by hucksters, solicited by whining beggars and tattooed drabs, jostled by UN Security Police escorting officials of a dozen nations.

I emerged on a badly-paved street of starved royal palms, across from a row of fast-decaying buildings as cosmopolitan in style as the costumes around me. Above the cacophony of the mob, keening Arab music shrilled from cave-like openings redolent of goat and curry, vying with the PA-borne blare of Jump and Jitter, reflecting hectic lunch-hours behind the sweat-dewed glass fronts of the Café Parisien, Die Valkyrie, the Samovar, and the Chicago Snackery.

I crossed the street, dodging the iron-shod wheels of oxcarts, the scorching exhaust of jet-peds, the stinging dust-barrage of cushion cars—snorting one almost palpable stench from my nostrils just in time to catch a new and even riper one. Under a ten-foot glare-sign lettered ALHAMBRA ROOM in phony Arabic script, a revolving door thumped monotonously; I caught it and went through into a sudden gloom and silence. I crossed an unswept mosaic floor, went down three steps into an even darker room with a scatter of gaudy cushions and a gleam of gold filigree. I waved away a yard-square red and gold menu proffered by a nicely-rounded harem slave in a brief vest and transparent trousers. I took a stool at the long bar. A bare-chested, three-hundred-pound eunuch with a cutlass, sash, and turban took my order, slid a frosty glass across the polished black marble. Behind a screen of gilded palm fronds, a small combo made reedy music.

I took a long draught; from the corner of my eye I saw a man slide onto the next stool. Casually, I angled the ring on my left forefinger; its specular surface reflected a narrow, tanned face with a bald forehead, peaked white eyebrows, a Kaiser Wilhelm mustache, and a satanic Vandyck. A pair of frosty blue eyes met mine for an instant in the tiny mirror.

"What's the get-up for, Felix?" I asked softly. "You traveling in hair-goods now?"

His eyelids flickered. For Felix Severance, that was equivalent to a yelp of astonishment. Then he gave me the trick wink that was service code of "The Enemy May Be Listening."

"Well, well, John Bravais, as I live and breathe," he said in his high-pitched voice. "Fancy meeting you here . . ."

We went through a ritual of hand pumping and when-did-I-see-you-last's, ordered second drinks, then moved over to a low table. He slipped a small gadget from a pocket, glanced around to see who was watching, then ran it over the light fixture, the salt and pepper shakers, the ashtray, babbling on:

"Martha's fine. Little Herbie had a touch of Chinese virus, and Charlotte broke a clavicle . . ." He went on point like a hunting dog, picked up a small tabukuk in the form of a frog-goddess, dropped it inconspicuously into his heavy briefcase.

"I heard you were going into mink farming," I said, carrying on the charade.

"Decided against it, Johnny." He checked the spice tray. "Too damned vicious; lousy example for little Lennie and Bertha and the others—" He finished the check, switched off the patter in midsentence, pocketed the spy-eye detector.

"Okay, Johnny," he said softly. "My little gem-dandy patented nose-counter says we're clean." He was looking me over with that quick glance of his that could count the pearls on a dowager's neck while he was bowing over her wrist. "Thanks for coming."

"I haven't run to fat yet, if that's what's bothering you," I said. "Now stop sizing me up and tell me what the false beard is all about. I heard you were here under an open cover as a UN medic."

"I'm afraid Médecin-Major de Salle attracted some unwelcome attention." He grinned. "It seems I broached security. I was advised to consider myself under house arrest; a six-footer with a sidearm was assigned to make the point clear. I ditched him in the first dark alley and faded from the scene. A schoolteacher named Brown rented the de Salle villa after the disappearance—but as Brown, I'm not free to move. That's where you enter the picture."

"Come to the point, Felix. What was so important that I had to come nine thousand miles in thirteen hours to hear? Do you know where I was?"

He held up a hand. "I know; Barnett told me you'd spent seven months in Bolivia building a cover as a disgruntled veteran of Colonna's Irregulars. Sorry and all that—"

"Another week and I'd have landed an assignment running a shipment of bootleg surgical spares—"

"The frozen kidneys will have to wait for another time." He showed me a Mephistophelean smile. "What I have is far more fun."

"The suspense is unnerving me. Go ahead and spill it."

"All right. Let's begin with the world situation."

"I'd prefer a more cheerful subject—like cancer."

"We may get to that, too, before this one's over." He hitched himself forward, getting down to business. "For most of the last century, John, the world has been at war. We haven't called it that, of course—nobody's actually used nuclear warheads. These are nothing but 'police actions,' or 'internal power realignments,' like the current rumble here in Algeria—maneuvers with live ammunition. But while the powers are whetting their claws on these tupp'ny-'ap'ny shooting matches, they're looking hard for a weapon that would give one state a decisive advantage. In the meantime—stalemate."

"Well," I said, pushing back my chair, "that was mighty interesting, Felix. Thanks for letting me know—"

He leaned across the table. There was a merry glint in his eye; he looked like a devil planning a barbecue.

"We've found that weapon, John."

I settled back into my chair. "All right, I'm listening."

"Very well: Super Hellbombs are out. The answer lies in the other direction, of course. A crowd of infantrymen killing each other isn't war—it's good, healthful sport—just the ticket for working off those perfectly natural aggressions that might otherwise cause trouble. But what if a division or two of foot soldiers suddenly became irresistible? Impervious to attack, deadly on the offensive? Your cosy little brushfire war would turn into a rout for the unlucky side—and there would go your power-balance, shot all to hell—"

"How much better can hand-weapons get? The Norge Combat Imperial weighs six pounds and fires a hundred armor-piercing rounds per second. It's radar-aimed and dead-accurate—"

"I'm talking about something new, John. We call it PAPA—Power Assisted Personal Armament. What it means is—the Invulnerable Man."

I watched Felix swallow half his drink, put the glass down, and sit back with his fingertips together, waiting for my reaction. I nodded casually.

"That's an old idea," I said carelessly. "I used to follow Batman and Robin myself."

"This isn't a Tri-D drama—it's a coordinated development in bioprosthetics, neurosurgery, and myoelectronics. Picture it, John! Microtronics-engineered sense-boosters, wide-spectrum vision, artificially accelerated reflexes, nerve-energy laser-type weapons, all surgically implanted—plus woven-chromalloy body-mail, aligned-crystal metal caps for finger-bones, shins, ribs and skull, servo-boosted helical titanium fiber reinforced musculature—"

"You left out the fast-change long-johns with the big red S on them. You know, I always wondered why Clark Kent never got himself arrested in an alley for indecent exposure."

"I had a hand in its development myself," Felix went on, ignoring me. "And I can tell you it's big. You have no idea—"

"But I'd like to have," I cut in. "Especially an idea of what it is I blew a year's work to hear."

He nodded. "I'm just coming to that. For the past six months I've been here in Tamboula, carrying out a study of battle wounds—data we require in the further development of PAPA. And I've turned up a disquieting fact." He poked a finger at me for emphasis. "The number of men reported 'missing in action' amounts to nearly twenty percent of the total casualties."

"There are always a few reluctant warriors who go over the hill."

"Not in the desert, John. I went on then to take a look at civilian missing-persons figures. The world total is close to the two million mark annually. Naturally, this doesn't include data from China and India, where one less mouth to feed is noted with relief, if at all. And the Society of American Morticians and Embalmers reports that not enough people are being buried . . ."

"I can tell you where part of them are going," I said. "The black market in human organs."

"Yes." Felix nodded. "Doubtless that nefarious trade accounts for some of the discrepancy, particularly in burial figures. But suppose someone were building up a secret force—and outfitting it with an enemy version of PAPA?"

"You can't hide men in those numbers," I said. "The logistical problems alone—"

"I know; but the men are going somewhere. I want to know where."

"I'm afraid I'm beginning to get the picture."

"You still hold your reserve Army commission, I take it?"

I nodded.

"Good. I have your recall orders in my briefcase. They're perfectly legal; I made them myself. You're a Defense Department observer. I've arranged for you to occupy one of our special rooms at the King Faisal."

"I thought CBI assignments were on a voluntary basis."

Felix raised the white eyebrows. "You are volunteering, aren't you?"

"I suppose the fact that I'm here answers that one."

"Of course. Now, there's a battle scheduled soon. I haven't been able to find out just when, but I did procure copies of the Utter Top Secret battle plans for both the Free Algerians and the Imperial Moroccans. Death penalty for possession, of course." He took a newspaper from an inner pocket—a folded copy of the Belfast Messenger—and dropped it on the table.

"What am I supposed to do, stand around on a hilltop with a pair of binoculars and watch where the men disappear to?"

Felix smiled. "I have a few gadgets for you to field-test. Find out when that battle's scheduled, and I think you'll be able to take a look at just about whatever you want to."

I took the newspaper. "So I'm back in uniform. I suppose I'd better check in with the UN Monitor General."

"Send a card over; perhaps it'll pass unnoticed in the daily mail. I want you to hold your official contacts to the minimum. Stay clear of the Embassy, the police, and the press corps. Your other instructions are within your orders. You'll find a tight-band communicator with the rest of the equipment; keep in touch with me, John—but don't try to contact me at the villa unless it's absolutely necessary."

"You've made some pretty elaborate arrangements. This sort of thing costs money. Who's footing the bill?"

"Let's just say it comes from a special fund." He finished his drink. "Go on over to the Faisal, get settled, and take a look around. I'll expect a preliminary report in a day or two." He stood, replaced the tabukuk on the table, gave me a quick handshake, and was gone.

I picked up the newspaper, leafed through it. There were sheets of flimsy paper folded between the pages. I caught a glimpse of tiny print, terrain diagrams, the words Utter Top Secret. I folded it and took the last swallow of my gin. I dropped a five cee note on the table, tucked the paper under my arm, and tried to look casual as I went outside to hail a cab.

* * *

The King Faisal Hotel was a two-hundred-story specimen of government-financed construction straight out of Hollywood and the Arabian Nights, turned slummy by five years of North African sun and no maintenance. I paid off my helicab in the shade of thirty yards of cracked glass marquee, managed my own bags through a mixed crowd of shiny-suited officials, Algerian and Moroccan officers mingling quite peaceably outside business hours, beggars in colorful costumes featuring wrist-watches and tennis shoes, Arab guides in traditional white lapel-suits, hot-looking tourists, journalists with coffee hangovers, and stolid-faced UN police in short pants with hardwood billies.

I went up the wide steps, past potted yuccas and a uniformed Berber doorman with a bad eye that bored into me like a hot poker. I crossed the lobby to the registration console, slapped the counter, and announced my arrival in tones calculated to dispel any appearance of shyness. A splay-footed Congolese bellhop sidled up to listen as I produced the teleprinted confirmation of my reservation that Felix had supplied. I asked for and received verbal assurances that the water was potable, and was directed to a suite on the forty-fifth level.

It was a pleasant enough apartment. There was a spacious sitting room with old-fashioned aluminum and teak-veneer furniture, a polished composition floor, and framed post-neo-surrealist paintings. Adjoining was a carpeted bedroom with a four-foot tri-D screen, a wide closet, and a window opening onto a view of irregular brickwork across a twelve-foot alley.

Behind the flowered wallpaper, there were other facilities, unknown to the present management—installed, during construction, at the insistence of one of the more secret agencies of the now defunct South African Federation. According to the long, chatty briefing papers Felix had tucked into the newspaper, the CBI had inherited the installation from a former tenant, in return for a set of unregistered fingerprints and a getaway stake.

I looked the room over and spotted a spy-eye in a drawer knob, a microphone among the artificial flowers—standard equipment at the Faisal, no doubt. I would have to make my first order of business a thorough examination of everything . . . as soon as I had a cold shower. I turned to the bedroom—and stopped dead. My right hand made a tentative move toward my gun, and from the shadows a soft voice said, "Uh-uh."

* * *

He came through the sitting-room door with a gun in his hand—a middle-sized, neatly dressed man with wispy hair receding from a freckled forehead. He had quick eyes. An inch of clean, white cuff showed at his wrist.

"I was supposed to be gone when you got here," he said quietly. "The boys downstairs slipped up."

"Sure," I said. "They slipped up—and I'm dancing tonight with the Ballet Russe." I looked at the gun. "What was I supposed to do, fall down and cry when I saw that?"

His ears turned pink. "It was merely a precaution in the event you panicked." He pocketed the gun, flipped back a lapel to flash some sort of badge. "UN Police," he stated, as though I had asked. "Regulations require all military observers to report to UN Headquarters on arrival—as I'm sure you're aware. You're to come along with me, Mr. Bravais. General Julius wants to interview you personally."

"When did the UN start hiring gun-punks?"

He looked angry. "You can't make me mad, Mr. Bravais."

"I could try. You don't shoot anybody without orders from the boss, do you?" I advanced on him, giving him the kind of grin tri-D villains practice in front of a mirror.

"I could make an exception." His nostrils were white.

"Oh, to hell with it," I said in a careless tone, relaxing. "How about a drink?"

He hesitated. "All right, Mr. Bravais. You understand that there's . . . nothing personal in this."

"I guess you've got a job to do like the rest of us. You're pretty good with that holding-the-breath bit." I grinned happily, demonstrating that I was satisfied, now that I'd shown the opposition that I was nobody's dummy.

"I planned to see the General this afternoon anyway," I said. We had a short one and left together.

* * *

Brigadier General Julius was a vigorous-looking, square-jawed, blond-crew-cut type, with an almost unbelievably smooth complexion that might have earned him the nickname Baby-face, if two fierce, coal-black eyes hadn't dominated the composition. The gray UN uniform he wore had been tailored by an artist, and the three rows of service ribbons on his chest indicated that, in spite of his youthful appearance, he had been at the scene of most of the shooting wars of the past twenty years.

He was wearing the old-fashioned Sam Browne belt and engineers' boots that the UN High command liked to affect, but the hand-gun protruding from the holster at his hip wasn't a pearl-handled six-shooter; it was the latest thing in pulse-energy weapons, stark and ugly, meant for murder, not show.

"American Defense Department, eh?" He glanced at the copy of the orders Felix had managed for me, laid them to one side on the bare, highly polished desk-top. He looked me over thoughtfully. It was quiet in the office. Faraway, a voice spoke sing-song Arabic. A fly buzzed at a window.

"I just arrived this afternoon, General," I offered. "I took a room at the King Faisal—"

"Room 4567," Julius said sharply. "You were aboard BWA flight 87. I'm aware of your movements, Mr. Bravais. As UN Monitor General, I make it my business to keep informed of everything that occurs within my command." He had a flat, unpleasant voice, at variance with the wholesome, nationally-advertised look of him.

I nodded, looking impressed. I thought about the death penalty attached to the papers in my pocket, and wondered how much more he knew. "By golly, that's remarkable, General."

He narrowed his eyes. I had to be careful not to overdo the act, I reminded myself.

"Makes a man wonder how you can find time for your other duties," I added, letting a small gleam of insolence temper the bland smile I was showing him.

His eyes narrowed even further; I had the feeling that if he squeezed any harder, they would pop out like watermelon seeds.

"I manage, Mr. Bravais," he said, holding his voice smooth. "Just how long can we expect your visit to last?"

"Oh, I wouldn't call it a visit, General. I'm here on PCS, an indefinite tour."

"In that case, I hope you find Tamboula to your liking. You've come at a fortunate time of year. The racing is starting next week, and of course our grouse season is in full swing."

"I've heard a great deal about the ecological projects here," I said. "Quite remarkable to see woodlands springing up from the desert. But I'm afraid I'll have little time to devote to sports. My particular interest is close-support infantry tactics."

"Mr. Bravais." Julius raised a hand. "The feeling seems to have gained wide currency in some quarters that conflicts such as the present one are spectacles carried out for the diversion of the curious. Such is far from the case. A political question is being resolved on the battlefield. UN control will, we trust, limit the scope of the hostilities. Undue attention by representatives of major powers is not likely to assist in that effort. I suggest you consult the official History—"

"I believe the principle of the right of observation has been too well established to require any assertion by me," I stated.

"That is a matter quite outside my cognizance," the General broke in. "My responsibility is to insure that the provisions of the Manhattan Convention are adhered to. You'll understand that the presence of outsiders in the theater unduly complicates that task." He spoke with a curious, flat intensity, watching me with an unwinking gaze, like a gunfighter waiting for the signal to go for his hip.

"General, I'm an accredited official observer; I hope you don't intend to deny me access to my subject?"

"Just what is it you wish to observe?"

"Action—at close range."

Julius shook his head. "That will not be possible tonight—" He stopped abruptly. I permitted myself the liberty of a grin.

"Tonight, eh?"

Julius leaned toward me. He was holding his temper pretty well, but a glint of red fire showed in his eyes.

"You will not approach closer than five miles to the line of action," he said distinctly. "You will report to my adjutant daily at oh-eight hundred hours and submit a schedule of your proposed movements. You will observe a nine o'clock curfew—"

I got to my feet. "You've made a point of calling me 'mister'; if your intelligence apparatus is as good as you say, you're aware that I handle the rank of Brigadier. I haven't asked for any courtesies, and I damned sure haven't gotten any, but don't bother planning my day for me—and don't send out any more gun-handlers. I'll be on my way now, General. Just consider this a courtesy call; I'll operate on my own from now on."

He came around the desk, strode to the door, wrenched it open, turned to face me.

"General Bravais, I cannot be responsible for your safety if you disregard my orders." His voice had the grate of torn steel. I wondered what he'd do if he got just a little madder . . . 

"You're not responsible for me in any event, Julius," I snapped. "I suggest you get back to your desk and cook up another chapter of that warmed-over, predigested, salt-free History of yours—"

He was standing rigidly, holding the glass doorknob in a firm clutch. He stiffened as I spoke, then jerked his hand away from the knob; his lip was raised, showing a row of even white teeth.

"I'm not accustomed to insolence in my own headquarters," he grated.

I glanced down at the doorknob. The clear glass was shot through with a pattern of fracture planes.

"I guess you squeezed it too hard, General," I said. He didn't answer. I went on down the narrow, gray-painted corridor and out into the hard, white, North African sunshine.


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