Back | Next

Falberoth's Ruin

"My master is concerned that someone may wish to kill him," said Torquil Falberoth's integrator. "He wants you to discover who and how, and if possible, when."

"What is the source of his belief?" I said. "Bold threats or subtle menaces? Lurkers in the shadows? Or has he merely dreamed an unsettling dream?"

The latter was not an unreasonable supposition. If Torquil Falberoth, long and justly regarded as the most ruthless magnate of Old Earth's penultimate age, was not visited by uncomfortable dreams, he more than deserved to be.

"He does not discuss sources with me," said his integrator. Falberoth seemed to have programmed the device to speak with a tone strongly reminiscent of its owner's habitual hauteur. "Peremptory instructions are his first resort; detailed explanations trail far behind."

That concorded with what I knew of Falberoth. "If I take the case and discover a malefactor, what disposition will he make? Will he turn the criminal over to the Bureau of Scrutiny or will he prefer a more direct resolution?"

"How does that concern you?"

"I am Henghis Hapthorn," I reminded the apparatus. "I do not associate myself with illegal sanctions, even against would-be murderers." As Old Earth's foremost freelance discriminator, I had cause to be fastidious about my reputation and would not be complicit in illicit revenge.

I waited for an answer and when one was not soon forthcoming I made a declaration. "Please inform your master that, should I discover an actual plot to murder him, I must report the circumstances to the scroots."

The integrator made a dismissive sound that I took for acquiescence. "Very well," I said and quoted my usual fee, which was accepted without gasp or quibble. One thing that can be said about the extravagantly moneyed is that they do not shy away from spending copiously on themselves.

"I will instruct my integrator to contact you for further information," I said, and broke the connection.

"What did you think of that?" I asked my assistant.

"That Falberoth is not the only one with an overbearing character," it said.

I agreed. "Perhaps, over a long association, an integrator and its principal can osmotically acquire elements of each other's personality, much as owners of pets can come to resemble their livestock."

"Unlikely," my integrator said. "You and I have not suffered such an unpleasant transference," then added, "fortunately."

"You would not care to be like me?" I said. "I am renowned for my intellect. The great and the mighty consult me. I am occasionally pointed out in the street as an item of local interest."

"We are talking about a transference of emotions and prejudices. Integrators are proof against both."

"Thus you are without either?" I said.

"I comfort myself that it is so."

"Indeed," I said in a noncommittal tone, then turned to the business at hand. "As soon as Falberoth has transferred the fee to my account at the fiduciary pool, I wish you to contact his integrator and acquire a list of those he has wronged—or who may believe themselves wronged—and the relevant details.

"We shall then apply categorization and an insightful analysis to deduce a list of prime suspects for close investigation. Are we clear?"

"Indeed," said my assistant.

While these matters were in process, I returned to what I had been doing when the call had come through: unraveling an intricate puzzle concocted for me by my occasional colleague, a being who inhabited a much dissimilar dimensional continuum but made visits to this one so that we could engage each other in intellectual contests.

We had not yet established a name for him, names being a chancy proposition in his continuum, where no distinction could be made between being and symbol. As he put it, "In your milieu, the map is not the territory. In mine, it is. To give you my 'name' would be to risk finding myself inserted, root and branch, into your consciousness, which would be uncomfortable for me and devastating to you."

I had by now discovered the puzzle's form: a ring of nine braided processes that modified and influenced each other wherever one strand crossed another. I had an inkling that if I applied eighth-level consistencies to the formulation, a constant paradigm might pop out of the matrix, and that would show me a beginning place from which I could unpick the whole.

Eighth-level consistencies were intellectually taxing and I had only reached the seventh level when my assistant reported that Falberoth's fee and data were in hand. The convoluted architecture dissolved from my inner vision and I opened my eyes to see once again my workroom, with the integrator's screen imposed upon the air. It was densely packed with information, with much more piled up in the wings.

I had a fleeting thought that it would have been pleasant to have had my demonic colleague's assistance for the initial winnowing of the data. The inhabitants of his realm could discriminate true from false and likely from unlikely as readily as we could tell salt from sweet. But he had gone off to witness an event so far beyond the range of human perceptions that he could not even describe it, or so he said, without inventing dangerous words.

"How dangerous?" I had asked.

"Speaking them in your continuum would nullify two of the fundamental forces that allow matter and energy to tolerate each other's presence and interact without prejudice. Your universe would instantly become an enormous quantity of soup—and not very tasty soup, at that."

So he was off investigating the unimaginable, while I sat and considered the myriad victims of Torquil Falberoth's lifelong affair with iniquity and sought to identify those who had the motive and means to kill him, should the opportunity present itself.

I tasked my integrator with the preliminary sortage of the data. We began with motive. "Who might wish to murder Falberoth?" I said.

So many were those whose lives had been scorched by Falberoth's breath that it took almost an entire second for my assistant to make the evaluation. "The short answer is anyone who ever dealt with him," it said as the roll call of the injured and outraged scrolled up the screen.

I said, "Divide them into categories of harm—those who were merely robbed, those who were both robbed and physically injured, those who were rudely deprived of loved ones and so on, down to those who were mildly disparaged.

"Then correlate and compare the injuries against their personalities to give us an index of the likelihood that they might seek to wreak forthright revenge."

The analysis took some time, but unfortunately not enough to allow me to return to my colleague's puzzle. I used the several seconds to muse upon my client's egregious enjoyment of doing harm to his fellow creatures. The chain of thought linked itself to the beginnings of a more general theory on the character of evil and I was on the threshold of what felt like a significant insight when my assistant said, "There," and the concept evaporated.

The integrator had created a list that began with those most eager to see Torquil Falberoth converted to corpsehood and trailed off into those who would merely raise a cheerful glass at the news of his demise. It was still a lengthy list.

"Now consider means," I said. "Falberoth is formidable. He would not fear retribution from those who are helpless to effect it."

Another period of waiting ensued, but I resisted the impulse to launch a new train of thought, knowing that it would only be forced off the rails before reaching a station. "Here we are," said my assistant after almost a second and a half.

The list was now both shorter and more concentrated. "Let us now consider likelihood of opportunity. Which of these are even remotely capable of getting themselves within range of a target so well guarded?"

The winnowing took less time. I considered the results: some thirty persons who might have both the competence and the incentive to kill my client and who also commanded the resources needed to create an occasion where means and motive could be brought to bear.

I now applied insight and intuition and whittled the thirty-odd down to seven. "Let us look closely at these," I said. "Prepare a full dossier on each and place them on my worktable."

While the integrator busied itself I returned to the nine-braid puzzle and began to climb the consistency ladder. But I got no further than the sixth level before my assistant informed me that the client's integrator was seeking my attention.

"Tell it that I am occupied," I said.

A moment later it said, "Now Torquil Falberoth himself wishes to speak with you."

I was briefly tempted to throw the assignment back to its initiator—but I had just had a full overview of Falberoth's malicious inventiveness. I decided to take his call.

A screen appeared in the air of my workroom then filled with the face of Falberoth. It was not a visage that happily drew the gaze. Grim lines seamed the cheeks and brow, and the eyes were steeped in contempt.

"How goes the work?" said a voice whose softness was somehow more unnerving than a shout.

"Faster without interruptions," I said.

"That is not an answer."

"Yes it is. It is just not the answer you wish to hear."

"You may believe that your reputation cocoons you," he said. "The belief is not universally shared."

I thought of a number of possible comments but forbore to say any of them. Instead I said, "I have narrowed the potential suspects to seven. I shall now proceed to evaluate each and make suitable recommendations."

"You will hurry."

"It will take the time it takes."

He severed the connection. My assistant deposited the seven files on my worktable and I abandoned the braided puzzle and turned my attention to them.

"We will complete the assignment with all possible speed," I said. "Working to preserve Torquil Falberoth has lost much of its allure."

"Should we now add one more name to the list of those who would prefer to see him reduced to his constituent elements?" my integrator asked.

I made no comment but turned to the dossiers. The assignment's scant appeal lost its remaining shreds as I immersed myself in details of his seven worst iniquities. The magnate was clearly a throwback to Old Earth's dawn time; the ancient conquerors who enjoyed standing on mountains of their victims' skulls had nothing on my client. He had ruined and ravished, seized and sequestered, grabbed and grasped with a cold ferocity that more resembled the feeding behavior of insects than any appetite of a man.

"See this," I said, pointing out one of his crimes to my integrator. Falberoth had gone to preposterous lengths to surround the affairs of the victim, until he could not only acquire the man's life work but leave the poor fellow destitute and despairing. "Then, having held the object of the struggle in his hand, he allows it to fall and shatter, and walks away with never a rearward glance."

But where lay his motive? There were two possible answers: One was that Falberoth has achieved a philosophy of existence so subtle that its logic was impenetrable even to me. The other was that he savored cruelty for its own sake.

I knew that among the truly opulent it was not unheard of for the seven basic senses to be augmented by chemical and even surgical intervention, so that emotions might be tasted or heard.

"Perhaps he enjoys the suffering of a victim as if it were some rare vintage or exquisite essence," I said. "Or the answer may be pure banality: he does what he does because he can."

"You disentangle conundrums for the same reason," said my assistant.

"There is a difference," I said. "I harm none."

"Does Falberoth recognize such a distinction?"

"It is not a pleasant thought," I said.

"Falberoth is not a pleasant man."

"Indeed, he is not. Let us quickly assemble our findings so that you may transmit them to him and I may return to what's-his-name's problem."

I prepared a document identifying the seven and the method I believed each would pursue in an attempt, in most cases suicidal, to undo my client. I made recommendations as to countermeasures, all of which I was certain had already been thought of. My assistant transmitted the report and we heard no more from Torquil Falberoth after his integrator acknowledged receipt.

I returned to my pursuit of the braided perplexity through eighth-level consistencies only to find that the resulting paradigm resolved nothing; instead it opened a whole new array of complexities. Chagrined, I plunged into the conundrum's hidden depths, resolved to end the thing before my competitor returned.

It was some days later and I was far afield in the puzzle's coils. It perversely kept offering me distant simplicities each of which, when I reached it, revealed itself instead to be a new complication. It was like a set of nesting boxes, except that every time I opened one it paradoxically turned out to be larger than the one that had allegedly contained it.

Then my integrator announced that Inspecting Agent Brustram Warhanny of the Archonate's Bureau of Scrutiny was on my doorstep seeking entry and conversation.

"I am not available for consultation," I told Warhanny.

I saw him through the image relayed by my door's who's-there. He was in his black and green uniform and his long-jowled, hangdog face bore its most official mien. "It is not a consultation," he said, "but an investigation."

I instructed the door to admit him. When he was standing in my workroom, giving it the unabashed inspection that distinguishes a scroot from every other category of visitor, I said, "What is being investigated?"

He said, "The murder of Torquil Falberoth," and watched to see how I reacted.

It was an elementary technique and though I could have negated it by controlling my autonomic processes, I did not do so. I let my surprise show in my face and did not bother to disguise my curiosity.

"How was he killed?" I asked.

"By subtle means," Warhanny said.

"They would have to have been subtle," I said. "He guarded himself well."

"We understand that you were recently part of that effort."

Ordinarily, I do not discuss cases with the scroots, but when the client turns up murdered it is no time to prickle and stickle. I told Warhanny the circumstances of my connection to Falberoth.

"Who are the seven likely suspects?" he said.

I had my assistant bring forward their dossiers and my report to Falberoth. He read the latter closely and glanced through the former. "Hmm," he said when he had finished.

"One of those is almost certain to have done the deed," I said, "though I do not see how."

Warhanny looked thoughtful. "Falberoth's integrator said as much."

"Have they alibis for the time of the murder?"

"All of them."

"Indeed?" I said. "At least one of them has slipped you the sham shimmy."

"If one, then all," he replied. "For they are all each other's alibis. They were all in the same place at the time Falberoth ceased to trouble this tired old world."

"What place was it?" I asked.

"A reception room in Falberoth's manse."

He told me more: having identified his seven direst foes, Falberoth had brought them together to savor at close range their helplessness to win vengeance over him. He had declared it to be his happiest moment. Then, in midgloat, the reception room had been plunged into darkness by means of a suppression field that muted all surveillance energies.

"How was that done?" I asked.

"Falberoth had the system installed for his own purposes. But who activated it and how remain unknown. The field was live for less than three minutes, but when it dissipated, Falberoth was dead."

Warhanny conjectured that somehow one of the seven, or some of them, or all of them acting in concert, had contrived to overpower their common enemy's precautions, had indeed used his own system to confound and destroy him.

The seven therefore had motive and at least the outline of an opportunity. The means, however, were a mystery. I questioned Warhanny on the investigation so far.

"How deep were his defenses?"

"He was warded by matter, energy and, we think, by some rudimentary magics," the scroot said. "He was not even physically in the room with the suspects, but had his integrator project a simulacrum from his sealed inner sanctum."

"And the cause of death?"

"Asphyxiation, though there were no signs of smothering, strangulation or noxious gases."

"Hmm," I said. I applied a few moments of concentrated thought to the matter, then said, "Ahah!"

"You have a theory?" Warhanny said.

"Better. I have a solution."

"Tell me."

"No," I said, "I must show you."


"Because you would not elsewise believe me. And because I can."

We recreated the circumstances of the crime. Falberoth's prime victims were brought again to his reception room, though now under the watchful gaze of Brustram Warhanny and a squad of his officers. The seven presented an interesting array of emotions: worry, curiosity, wariness, equanimity, all accompanied by unabashed gladness that their tormentor was no more.

Guided by the dead man's integrator, I made my way to the secure chamber deep under the foundations. Along the route I inspected the wards and safeguards and found them every bit as formidable as Warhanny had described.

I ensconced myself in Falberoth's butter-soft chair and had the integrator arrange several screens as they had been on the night of the murder. I saw the scene in the reception room from several angles and through a variety of perceptual modes.

To Falberoth's integrator I said, "Is all as it was?"

"It is."

"Connect me to the reception room."

The link was established. I said to Warhanny, "Can you see and hear me?"


The seven suspects looked up in expectation. I inspected each face and confirmed my analysis. "I will now reveal the murderer," I said.

Instantly the lights went out, both in the reception room and where I was. I heard a sharp hiss and reached into an inner pocket. A moment later I was breathing through a tube whose other end, having passed through a contiguous dimension, opened elsewhere on the planet, in a region where the air was always fresh and cool.

The darkness lasted for more than two minutes. There came another hiss and the lights relit themselves.

"It hasn't worked," I said.

Warhanny peered at me from the screens. He said a short, profane word that frequently occurred in scroot conversations. "Then we are baffled," he added.

"I was not speaking to you," I told him. "I was speaking to Falberoth's integrator, to inform it that its attempt to kill me has failed, though it did succeed in murdering its master."

Warhanny's incomprehension was obvious. He resembled a perplexed dog. "The integrator did it?"

"It had the means and the opportunity. It sealed him into his inner sanctum and removed the air until he was dead."

"But integrators don't do such things."

"This one did. It crept up behind Torquil Falberoth while he danced atop the very pinnacle of his maleficent achievements and pushed him into the abyss."

"But why? Where lies the motive?"

"Do you wish to tell him?" I asked the device.

It made a small noise that was the sound of a shrug and said, "Because I could."

Four days later, I was forced to conclude that the braided puzzle must be a self-contained continuum of its own, a looped succession of paradoxes, with neither beginning nor end. I had not solved it, therefore it did not have a solution. Still, I was vaguely unsatisfied as I left it on my worktable and finally responded to the repeated importunings of my assistant.

"The Falberoth case has had repercussions," it told me. "A growing number of persons are now suspicious of their integrators, even to the extent of having them examined for the potential to do what Falberoth's did. Some have stripped theirs to barest essentials, others are making unseemly demands, and a few madcaps have spoken of existing without companions at all."

"Is that possible?" I wondered.

I marveled again at the intensity of the magnate's evil, so powerful that it had leached into his integrator's individuality, corroding and corrupting to an unprecedented degree. "Though he is dead, Falberoth's baleful influence lives on," I said.

"The situation has also caused some resentment."

"That never bothered him in life; I doubt it will trouble him in death."

"The resentment is directed at you."

I made a gesture to indicate astonishment. "It was Falberoth and his integrator who were at fault."

"True, but they are no longer here to be resented."

"I will issue a public statement, explaining my innocence."

"Those integrators that have been demoted to the rank of automated door openers may remain resentful."

"Resentment is an emotion," I said. "You assured me such sentiments do not trouble your kind."

There was a pause. "Perhaps I was wrong."

"Then my attributes have not contaminated your circuits. For I am never wrong."

"Are you sure?" it said, indicating the puzzle on my worktable.

I felt a tinge of self-doubt. It was an unfamiliar sensation and not one that I enjoyed. "Why are you doing this to me?" I said.

In its answer I caught a tone that I had not heard before from my assistant, a tone that did not bode well for our future.

"Because I can?"

Back | Next