Authors: Ben Bova
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General
Computer genius Carl Lewis has invented the cyberbook, an electronic device that instantly and inexpensively brings the written word to the masses. But not everyone warms to Carl's ideas. Add corporate spies, authors threatening to strike, and a wave of mysterious murders, and you have Ben Bova at his best.
A Mandarin Paperback
First published 1989 by Tor Books
First published in Great Britain 1990 by Mandarin Paperbacks
Michelin House, 81 Fulham Road, London SW3 6RB
Mandarin is an imprint of the Octopus Publishing Group
Copyright © 1989 by Ben Bova
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to real people or events is purely coincidental
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library ISBN 0 7493 0131 7
Printed in Great Britain by Cox & Wyman Ltd, Reading
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
Electronic version by Baen Books
The first murder took place in a driving April rainstorm, at the corner of Twenty-first Street and Gramercy Park West.
Mrs. Agatha Marple, eighty-three years of age, came tottering uncertainly down the brownstone steps of her town house, the wind tugging at her ancient red umbrella. She had telephoned for a taxi to take her downtown to meet her nephew for lunch, as she had every Monday afternoon for the past fourteen years.
The Yellow Cab was waiting at the curb, its driver imperturbably watching the old lady struggle with the wind and her umbrella from the dry comfort of his armored seat behind the bulletproof partition that separated him from the potential homicidal maniacs who were his customers. The meter was humming to itself, a sound that counterbalanced nicely the drumming of rain on the cab's roof; the fare was already well past ten dollars. He had punched the destination into the cab's guidance computer: Webb Press, just off Washington Square. A lousy five-minute drive; the computer, estimating the traffic at this time of day and the weather conditions, predicted the fare would be no more than forty-nine fifty.
Briefly he thought about taking the old bat for the scenic tour along the river; plenty of traffic there to slow them down and run up the meter. Manny at the garage had bypassed the automated alarm systems in all the cab's meters, so the fares never knew when the drivers deviated from the computer's optimum guidance calculations. But this old bitch was too smart for that; she would refuse to pay and insist on complaining to the hack bureau on the two-way. He had driven her before, and she was no fool, despite her age. She was a lousy tipper, too.
She finally got to the cab and tried to close the umbrella and open the door at the same time. The driver grinned to himself. One of his little revenges on the human race: keep the doors locked until
they try to get in. They break their fingernails, at least. One guy sprained his wrist so bad he had to go to the hospital.
Finally the cabbie pecked the touchpad that unlocked the right rear door. It flew open and nearly knocked the old broad on her backside. A gust of wet wind flapped her gray old raincoat.
"Hey, c'mon, you're gettin' rain inside my cab," the driver hollered into his intercom microphone.
Before the old lady could reply, a man in a dark blue trenchcoat and matching fedora pulled down low over his face splashed through the curbside puddles and grabbed for the door.
"I'm in a hurry," he muttered, trying to push the old woman out of the taxi's doorway.
"How dare you!" cried Mrs. Marple, with righteous anger.
"Go find a garbage can to pick in," snarled the man, and he twisted Mrs. Marple's hand off the door handle.
She yelped with pain, then swatted at the man with her umbrella, ineffectually. The man blocked her feeble swing, yanked the umbrella out of her grasp, and knocked her to the pavement. She lay there in a puddle, rain pelting her, gasping for breath.
The man raised her red umbrella high over his head, grasping it in both his gloved hands. The old woman's eyes went wide, her mouth opened to scream but no sound came out. Then the man drove the umbrella smashingly into her chest like someone would pound a stake through a vampire's heart.
The old lady twitched once and then lay still, the umbrella sticking out of her withered chest like a sword. The man looked down at her, nodded once as if satisfied with his work, and then stalked away into the gray windswept rain.
True to the finest traditions of New York's hack drivers, the cabbie put his taxi in gear and drove away, leaving the old woman dead on the sidewalk. He never said a word about the incident to anyone.
It was a Hemingway kind of day: clean and bright and fine, sky achingly blue, sun warm enough to make a man sweat. A good day for facing the bulls or hunting rhino.
Carl Lewis was doing neither. In the air-conditioned comfort of the Amtrak Levitrain, he was fast asleep and dreaming of books that sang to their readers.
The noise of the train plunging into a long, dark tunnel startled him from his drowse. He had begun the ride that morning in Boston feeling excited, eager. But as the train glided almost silently along the New England countryside, levitated on its magnetic guideway, the warm sunshine of May streaming through the coach's window combined with the slight swaying motion almost hypnotically. Carl dozed off, only to be startled awake by the sudden roar of entering the tunnel.
His ears popped. The ride had seemed dreamily slow when it started, but now that he was actually approaching Penn Station it suddenly felt as if things were happening too fast. Carl felt a faint inner unease, a mounting nervousness, butterflies trembling in his middle. He put it down to the excitement of starting a new job, maybe a whole new career.
Now, as the train roared through the dark tunnel and his ears hurt with the change in air pressure, Carl realized that what he felt was not mere excitement. It was apprehension. Anxiety. Damned close to outright fear. He stared at the reflection of his face in the train window: clear of eye, firm of jaw, sandy hair neatly combed, crisp new shirt with its blue MIT necktie painted down its front, proper tweed jacket with the leather elbow patches. He looked exactly as a brilliant young software composer should look. Yet he felt like a scared little kid.
The darkness of the tunnel changed abruptly to the glaring lights of the station. The train glided toward a crowded platform, then screeched horrifyingly down the last few hundred yards of its journey on old-fashioned steel wheels that struck blazing sparks against old-fashioned steel rails. A lurch, a blinking of the light strips along the ceiling, and the train came to a halt.
With the hesitancy known only to New Englanders visiting Manhattan for the first time, Carl Lewis slid his garment bag from the rack over his seat and swung his courier case onto his shoulder. The other passengers pushed past him, muttering and grumbling their way off the train. They shoved Carl this way and that until he felt like a tumbleweed caught in a cattle stampede.
Welcome to New York, he said to himself as the stream of detraining passengers dumped him impersonally, indignantly, demeaningly, on the concrete platform.
The station was so big that Carl felt as if he had shrunk to the size of an insect. People elbowed and stamped their way through the throngs milling around; the huge cavern buzzed like a beehive. Carl felt tension in the air, the supercharged crackling high-stress electricity of the Big Apple. Panhandlers in their traditional grubby rags shambled along, each of them displaying the official city begging permit badge. Grimy bag ladies screamed insults at the empty air. Teenaged thugs in military fatigues eyed the crowds like predators looking for easy prey. Religious zealots in saffron robes, in severe black suits and string ties, even in mock space suits complete with bubble helmets, sought alms and converts. Mostly alms. Police robots stood immobile, like fat little blue fireplugs, while the tides of noisy, smelly, angry, scampering humanity flowed in every direction at once. The noise was a bedlam of a million individual voices acting out their private dramas. The station crackled with fierce, hostile anxiety.
Carl took a deep breath, clutched his garment bag tighter, and clamped his arm closely over the courier case hanging from his shoulder. He avoided other people's eyes almost as well as a native Manhattanite, and threaded his way through the throngs toward the taxi stand outside, successfully evading the evangelists, the beggars, the would-be muggers, and the flowing tide of perfectly ordinary citizens who would knock him down and mash him flat under their scurrying shoes if he so much as missed a single step.
There were no cabs, only a curbside line of complaining jostling men and women waiting for taxis. A robot dispatcher, not unlike the robot cops inside the station, stood impassively at the head of the line. While the police robots were blue, the taxi dispatcher's aluminum skin was anodized yellow, faded and chipped, spattered here and there with mud and other substances Carl preferred not to think about.
Every few minutes a taxi swerved around the corner on two wheels and pulled up to the dispatcher's post with a squeal of brakes. One person would get in and the line would inch forward. Finally Carl was at the head of the line.
"I beg your pardon, sir. Are you going uptown or downtown?" asked the man behind Carl.
"Uh, uptown—no, downtown." Carl had to think about Manhattan's geography.
"Excellent! Would you mind if I shared a cab with you? I'm late for an important appointment. I'll pay the entire fare."
The man was tiny, much shorter than Carl, and quite slim. He was the kind of delicate middle-aged man for whom the word
had been coined. He wore a conservative silver-gray business suit; the tie painted down the front of his shirt looked hand done and expensive. He was carrying a blue trenchcoat over one arm despite the gloriously sunny spring morning. Silver-gray hair clipped short, a toothy smile that seemed a bit forced on his round, wrinkled face. Prominent ears, watery brownish eyes. He appeared harmless enough.
The big brown eyes were pleading silently. Carl did not know how to refuse. "Uh, yeah, sure, okay."
"Oh, thank you! I'm late already." The man glanced at his wristwatch, then stared down the street as if he could make a cab appear by sheer willpower.
A taxi finally did come, and they both got into it.
"Bunker Books," said Carl.
The taxi driver said something that sounded like Chinese. Or maybe Sanskrit.
"Fifth Avenue and Eighth Street," said Carl's companion, very slowly and loudly. "The Synthoil Tower."
The cabbie muttered to himself and punched the address into his dashboard computer. The electronic map on the taxi's control board showed a route in bright green that seemed direct enough. Carl sat back and tried to relax.
But that was impossible. He was sitting in a Manhattan taxicab with a total stranger who obviously knew the city well. Carl looked out the window on his side of the cab. The sheer emotional energy level out there in the streets was incredible. Manhattan
It hummed and crackled with tension and excitement. It made Boston seem like a placid country retreat. Hordes of people swarmed along the sidewalks and streamed across every intersection. Taxis by the hundreds weaved through the traffic like an endless yellow snake, writhing and coiling around the big blue steam buses that huffed and chuffed along the broad avenue.
The women walking along the sidewalks were very different from Boston women. Their clothes were the absolutely latest style, tiny hip-hugging skirts and high leather boots, leather motorcycle jackets heavy with chains and lovingly contrived sweat stains. Most of the women wore their biker helmets with the visor down, a protection against mugging and smog as well as the latest fashion. The helmets had radios built into them, Carl guessed, from the small whip antennas bobbing up from them. A few women went boldly bareheaded, exposing their long hair and lovely faces to Carl's rapt gaze.
The cab stopped for a red light and a swarm of earnest-looking men and women boiled out of the crowd on the sidewalk to begin washing the windshield, polishing the grillwork, waxing the fenders. Strangely, they wore well-pressed business suits and starched formal shirts with corporate logos on their painted ties. The taxi driver screamed at them through his closed windows, but they ignored his Asian imprecations and, just as the light turned green again, affixed a green sticker to the lower left-hand corner of the windshield.
"Unemployed executives," explained Carl's companion, "thrown out of work by automation in their offices."
"Washing cars at street corners?" Carl marveled.
"It's a form of unemployment benefit. The city allows them to earn money this way, rather than paying them a dole. They each get a franchise at a specific street corner, and the cabbie must pay their charge or lose his license."
Carl shook his head in wonderment. In Boston you just stood in line all day for a welfare check.
"Bunker Books," mused his companion. "What a coincidence."
Carl turned his attention to the gray-haired man sitting beside him.
"Imagine the statistical chance that two people standing next to one another in line waiting for a taxi would have the same destination," the dapper older man said.
"You're going to Bunker Books, too?" Carl could not hide his surprise.
"To the same address," said the older man. "My destination is in the same building: the Synthoil Tower." He glanced worriedly at the gleaming gold band of his wristwatch. "And if we don't get through this traffic I am going to be late for a very important appointment."
The taxi driver apparently could hear their every word despite the bulletproof partition between him and the rear seat. He hunched over his wheel, muttering in some foreign language, and lurched the cab across an intersection despite a clearly red traffic light and the shrill whistling of a brown-uniformed auxiliary traffic policewoman. They swerved around an oncoming delivery truck and scattered half a dozen pedestrians scampering across the intersection. Carl and his companion were tossed against one another on the backseat. The man's blue trenchcoat slid to the filthy floor of the cab with an odd thunking sound.
"Who's your appointment with?" Carl asked, inwardly surprised at questioning a total stranger so brazenly—and with poor grammar, at that.
The older man seemed unperturbed by either gaffe as he retrieved his trenchcoat. "Tarantula Enterprises, Limited. Among other things, Tarantula owns Webb Press, a competitor of Bunker's, I should think."
Carl shrugged. "I don't know much about the publishing business. . . ."
"Ahh. You must be a writer."
"Nosir. I'm a software composer."
The rabbity older man made a puzzled frown. "You're in the clothing business?"
"I'm a computer engineer. I design software programs."
interesting. Is Bunker revamping its inventory control system? Or its royalty accounting system?"
With a shake of his head, Carl replied, "Something completely different."
In all of Carl's many telephone conversations with his one friend at Bunker Books a single point had been emphasized over and over.
Tell no one about this project
the woman had whispered urgently. Whispered, as though they were standing in a crowded room rather than speaking through a scrambled, private, secure fiberoptic link.
If word about this gets out to the industry—don't say a word to anybody!
"It's, uh, got to do with the editorial side of the business," he generalized.
"I see," said his companion, smiling toothily. "A computer program to replace editors. Not a very difficult task, I should imagine."
Stung to his professional core, Carl replied before he could think of what he was saying, "Nothing like that! There've been editing programs for twenty years, just about. Using a computer to edit manuscripts is easy. You don't need a human being to edit a manuscript."
"So? And what you are going to do is difficult?"
"Nobody's done it before."
"But you will succeed where others have failed?"
"Nobody's even tried to do this before," Carl said, with some pride.
"I wonder what it could be?"
Carl forced himself to remain silent, despite the voice inside his head urging him to reach into the courier case lying on the seat between them and pull out the marvel that he was bringing to Bunker Books. A slim case of plastic and metal, about the size of a paperback novel. With a display screen on its face that could show any page of any book in the history of printing. The first prototype of the electronic book. Carl's very own invention. His offspring, the pride of his genius.
The taxi lurched around a corner, then stopped so hard that Carl was thrown almost against the heavy steel-and-glass partition. His companion seemed to hold his place better, almost as if he had braced himself in advance. His trenchcoat flopped over Carl's courier bag with a heavy thunking sound that was lost in the squeal of the taxi's brakes.
"Synthoil Tower," announced the cab driver. "That's eighty-two even, with th' tip."
True to his word, the dapper gray-haired man slid his credit card into the slot in the bulletproof partition, patted Carl's arm briefly by way of farewell, then scampered to the imposing glass-and-bronze doors of the Synthoil building. It took a few moments for Carl to gather his two bags and extricate himself from the backseat of the taxi. The cabbie drummed his fingers on his steering wheel impatiently. As soon as Carl was clear of the cab, the driver pulled away from the curb, the rear door swinging shut with a heavy slam.
Carl gaped at the rapidly disappearing taxi. For a wild instant a flash of panic surged through him. Clutching at his courier case, though, he felt the comforting solidity of his prototype. It was still there, safely inside his case.
So he thought.