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7. Sane Looie

“This is a bad idea,” Berzher said again.

“Just get me the ball,” Merola repeated.

“Get it yourself,” he said, feeling defiant.

“I’m too big. Someone might notice me.”

“I could report you,” he said warningly.

“As if you had never taken a souvenir yourself?” Merola taunted him. “I seem to remember something called a ‘multi meter’ that you wanted once. You stole it right off that technician’s bench at Intel, and I never reported you.”

“That was different. I was in love.”

“Will you get going?”

“All right.”

Ten minutes before this exchange, they had landed in a field of closely trimmed herbaceous sedge—a wild DNA strain, he guessed, longing to cut a sample—in the dead of night, time on mark 00:06:06 local. All around their liteship rose tier on darkened tier of seats that Berzher scanned as being sized for human bodies, like an amphitheater in ancient Athens, although the structure was on a much grander scale. What bothered him was that the coordinates Merola had given were almost 2,800 kilometers due east and more than two years upstream of their official mission target. “What place is this?” he had asked, feeling as nervous as an intelligence ever felt.

“It is an arena for viewing non-lethal athletic competitions,” she replied. “The building above us is called Boosh Stadium.” She spelled it out for him: B-U-S-C-H in the remarkable, mid-millennial Anglish manner.

“We are not in Safronesco,” he observed.

“No, this town is called Sane Looie. But it is located in the same administrative district,” she added defensively.

“And the date is wrong.”

“These are mission parameters of which you are not aware.”

“I already guessed that,” he replied sourly.

At which point, Berzher distinctly remembered, he had said, “You must be sure to take an imprint—or we’ll both be lost.” But he noticed that, even then, with a warning, she neglected this essential precaution, required by protocol of all Jongleurs on Search.

And so, having conceded everything, including his own integrity, Berzher now found himself inside the building, having followed Merola down several twisting corridors from that grassy place. Together they confronted a door with the legend: Umpire Locker Room.

The words intrigued him. “Umpire” clearly expressed dominion, derived from the term for a sort of super-nation-state that had once ruled other nations. “Locker”—from the verb “to lock”—suggested a high level of security. The designation “room” spoke for itself: what Merola sought was highly valuable, of national consequence, well guarded, and he was entering an enclosed space to steal it.

Berzher listened on various frequencies for signs of a watching intelligence. There were none. He climbed up the doorjamb, applying alternate pressure to one side and then the other with his foot pads, and studied the handle: a globular metal knob with a zigzag crevice in its center. He probed this with the tip of a claw, but could not penetrate more than one and a half centimeters. He focused his external communications laser, tight beam and high energy, to gave the crevice a shout. Metal vaporized. A crater formed. The knob collapsed on itself. The door started to swing inward. So much for security! Berzher clutched the glowing stub of the knob’s stalk and rode the door inward.

When the swing reached its widest arc, he dropped onto a flooring surface of soft rubber. Behind him, the door eased shut under its own weight—or maybe there was some kind of closure mechanism. Around him, the room was dark in the visible spectrum, but his infrared sensors picked out cooling trails in the floor that showed the pattern of human feet and hotspots in the walls that suggested the traceries of energy and ventilation conduits. He switched to ultraviolet and flooded the room from his illuminator.

On one side was arranged a row of narrow metal doors—too narrow for a human of the time to walk through—each fitted with a series of crudely cut-to-shape louvers. The other side of the room had a display of hard surfaces: white, vaguely fluorescent basins, metal spigots, and a broad, glasslike sheet that efficiently reflected all radiation in the visible spectrum. He dismissed each of these features as inappropriate to the specifications Merola had supplied for a “ball.” At the end of the room was a basket filled with crumbled objects of nearly spherical shape but of a consistency that Berzher took to be the fabled substance called “paper.” Not to specification. There was also a high shelf with a box on it. The outside was printed with many words, but among them was the key word he was looking for: “Rawlings.”

Berzher climbed to the shelf, opened the box, and extracted from it one of the balls. It was imperfectly spherical, covered with soft white leather, and stitched with red, waxed thread in a complicated yin-yang pattern that approximated the ancient sign for infinity. Specification.

Clutching the thing to his carapace, he climbed down from the shelf, recrossed the room, and left, pulling the door fully closed behind himself.

Merola, who was facing the other way down the long, dark hallway, turned when he tapped the ankle of her boot, and looked at the object he was holding out to her. “You got it! Perfect!”

She took the ball from him, holding it against her palm with fingers curled around the edges. She crouched on the floor and—whack!—brought the ball down hard on the tiles.

“That is to simulate the place where it was hit,” she explained.

“I see,” Berzher said, although he really did not. “Won’t someone notice the damage to this door?” he asked. “They will suspect a missing ball.”

“Not in time,” she countered. “Our objective is twenty-eight hours upstream from local now.”

“Before we actually arrived,” he said, marveling at her cleverness.

“Time on mark 20:18 CDT, September 8, 1998 Anno Domini.

“So the theft has already taken place.”

“Not theft—just a trade.”

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