…Went The Bell

The gravel crunched as he turned the vehicle off the highway; there was no paving on the over-large parking lot. He pulled the utility vehicle up alongside the row of similar vehicles up against the side of the building; he recognized most of them.

All of them, checking again, except one: The one was obviously a rental, the kind of utility that you’d rent if you were from somewhere off-planet, visiting a backwater and not really sure just how much vehicle you might need. It was overbuilt and oversturdy, obviously expensive. It had a stovepipe snorkel that would keep its engine running if it was mostly submerged.

Tamien Fisk was the kind of guy who noticed things like that. Part of being that kind of guy was that things like that bothered him. He leaned over and undid the catch on the passenger’s side utility compartment, withdrew a small but well-used plasma pistol. He checked the charge on it and tucked it into the waistband of his trousers.

As he stepped out of the vehicle, dropping down to the gravel and letting the door shut itself, he considered just going home. If he really though there was trouble, he should just avoid it, and if he didn’t think there was trouble, the bulge in the back of his waistband was just going to keep him in hyper vigilance mode, which made a trip to the combination tavern and brothel almost ridiculous: The whole point was to relax.

In the end, the sunk cost of the drive here, completely around the other side of the mountain, won out, along with a mental reassurance that it was probably nothing, that there were any number of reasons an off-planet stranger might be drinking here. Not everything was to do with him.

He set that self-reassurance on mental auto-replay and walked into the tavern, under eves steep for shedding snow in winter but now just picturesque, through double doors and a small foyer that would keep the place cozy in winter but were now propped open. Nobody was standing at the little lectern at the front of the place; it was early yet.

Fisk stood for a few minutes and let his eyes adjust to the gloom inside; there were very few windows — again, a cold climate adaptation — and most locals considered the low light comforting.

It also helped a wider range of working girls find work.

After standing for a minute, looking around the big room, he found what he was looking for: A big man at a table near the stage, talking to one of the girls and sipping a beer. Nothing about him said “local” — clothes, haircut, even the way he sat said, “Not from here.”

Well, thought Fisk, might as well go talk to the guy. He’d turn out to be a big-game hunter who’d somehow wandered off the beaten path, and Fisk could get on with his evening of understated debauchery; otherwise he’d just keep watching and waiting…

He stepped around in front of the guy, careful not to give any sign he was doing anything but walking past, but his step caught, and so did his breath, when he realized who it was.

“Tay-tay,” said the girl. Her name was Candy — really Kara, from two towns over. Twenty-two, thought Tamien, unmarried, no kids, no formal education, not tied to one of the extensive clans. “Sit down, Tay-tay, this guy has the same tattoos as you.”

“Yeah,” said the guy, looking up to meet Fisk’s surprised gaze. “Have a seat, Tay-tay.”

Reggie Ghandour had both hands on his drink; he was wearing a very short-sleeved shirt that showed off his distinctive tattoos. As his fingers moved on the glass, the muscles in his forearm rippled, making the trollycar tattoo seem to move along his arm.

Fisk sat down, eyes on Ghandour, and put his own hands on the table.

“Candy, honey,” said Ghandour, “Why don’t you go get Tay-tay something to drink?”

Candy looked back and forth between the two men, who were suddenly looking like trouble to her. “Sure,” she said, “But when I get back, you gotta tell me what those tattoos mean.” She reached over and touched Tamien’s arm. “You guys work on trains, or something?”

Ghandour chuckled, the most un-genuine expression of mirth Fisk had ever heard. “No,” he said, “We didn’t work on trains. We were Trolleymen.”

Candy put her hands on her hips and got a pouty expression on her face. “Well, what the hell’s that mean?” she said.

In the thousand worlds where Humanity had settled — that was just a figure of speech, there were lots more than a thousand — they brought with them flora and fauna of all varieties. Most of the planets where humans settled had had to be terraformed first, which meant importing plants and animals. Some few had already been suitable for life, and most of those had had some, though in many cases it hadn’t evolved beyond molds and lichens. Humanity had taken them, too, and spread them around throughout the stars.

The biodiversity of the thousand settled worlds was immense. There was no universal government, nor even a single government that occupied a place dominant enough to throw its weight around and force everybody else into its gravity; most of the thousand worlds had between ten and a hundred of their own local national entities, each fiercely independent.

Some of the more advanced ones had a loose central governing committee.

For all their fractious independence, the thousand worlds were obsessively connected: Faster than light travel, via the Harlan drive, had made it easy and fast — relatively — to get from one world to another in days or weeks, rather than years or decades.

So when, on some remote mountain in the back end of a backwater state in a nothing nation on a world that nobody who didn’t live there had heard of, a hunter and a — whatever, a bear, a monkey, a wild pig — when they made contact and exchanged blood, and a lucky virus which had been stewing in the local hog population for a millennia made the jump and caused a disease that made the hunter sick, but not sick enough that he couldn’t go home and infect everyone else he knew before he died of it — or worse, failed to die of it, and just kept passing it on — when that happened, there wasn’t a central governing body who would track down the disease as it spread its way across that backwater nation, spread over the nothing nation, sent the world nobody had heard of spiraling into a depression of plague.

There was the Zoonotic Foundation, who maintained viral listening posts throughout the thousand worlds — remote stations, robotic fecal collection swarms, secret rooms in sewage treatment plants, miniature mosquito-bots for random sampling — and watched for the jumps to happen, watched for the new diseases to begin to spread; and then they sent in the teams with the antivirals, with the custom plague-killing nanobots, with the teachers and the social workers and counselors, and they saved the day.

Sometimes, though, it wasn’t enough. The sort of response that the Zoonotic Foundation specialized in required cooperation, required that people want to have the plague stopped; it required that people believe in a plague. Later, if things went unchecked for a while, that became easy; when the whole planet is wracked with fever and the tiny coffins begin to stack up, everybody gets cooperative.

But it’s always preferable to catch a new pathogen in its infancy, to kill it in its cradle, so to speak; but that means showing up at someone’s house, telling them that they’ve got a new sickness that will cause a plague if left unchecked, convincing them to allow themselves to be quarantined for a period of between weeks and the rest of their lives, taken away from family and friends and job and…

People got remarkably uncooperative. And honestly, they hadn’t done anything wrong, other than be there when a fantastically unlikely event happened — well, fantastically unlikely in smaller populations. With a trillion humans, anything was possible.

So when someone said no, when they stared incredulously at the Zoonotic Foundation people in the nice lab coats and the pleasant smiles and said, “I’m not sick, get off my porch,” and they slam the door, and then they do that several more times, and just generally refuse to cooperate with the effort to save the state, the nation, the world, the species — the next thing that happens is that they get a visit from the Trolleymen.

You know the story: There’s three people tied to a trolley track, and a trolley is coming. The trolley man can pull a switch, divert the trolley onto another track… where but a single person is tied to the track. A person who is innocent of any crime, as innocent as the other three people, and who is safe — as long as the trollyman doesn’t pull that switch.

Fisk smiled grimly as he remembered the look on the young prostitute’s face as Ghandour explained what it was that they did. The sort of quizzical look, like she wasn’t sure… the very existence of the profession he’d pursued for a decade and more blew people’s mind, shorted out their ability to think rationally.

The little plasma-effect shuttle descended out of the clouds and he could see the sky-slums spread out: The skeletons of a couple of hundred old-fashioned skyscrapers, never completed, standing in a low bay that hadn’t been there when the massive project had been started. The skeletal city was home to better than a million people, moved here as part of an effort to settle this section of this world all at once, an entire city suddenly created by fiat, until an earthquake had destroyed a natural levy and suddenly it all became untenable.

So a million people and more lived in a sort of massive shantytown, hundreds of stories above the ground, strung together with skybridge and ziplines and even a zeppelin-based public transit system.

And somewhere down there, the target lived.

“I’m retired, Reggie.” He’d said it as soon as the girl walked away to get them their drinks. “I stopped doing the job, I have a nice little life up here…”

“Monitoring poop stations,” said Ghandour dismissively. “Come on. You’re the best track and trace man I ever saw, and you’re spending your time monitoring poop stations.”

“It’s legitimate work,” said Fisk, defensively. “It needs to be done.”

“It’s beneath you,” said Ghandour. “I’ve got real work for you. Come on, the service needs you.”

“The service does not need me,” said Fisk. “I did my twenty, and I’m done. Find someone else.”

“There isn’t anybody else.” Ghandour held up a hand, five fingers out. “Carson is off on the other side of the thousand worlds, chasing down a guy with a bat virus. Nelson is in quarantine. Golibe is already working the same case on a different world…” Every name, a finger came down.

“What about Tenzig?” Fisk cut straight to it: Tenzig was actually the best tracker in the service, no matter what Ghandour was willing to say to get his cooperation.

Ghandour was silent for a few moments. “Tenzig,” he said finally, “Is the job.”

The shuttle descended between two buildings, hovered briefly, then edged sideways into a clear space, sixty stories above the water. The two men stumbled out of the little aircraft, basically a box when the plasma systems were turned off. Walking a few feet, they were in what appeared to be a moderately vibrant city, albeit a poor one with notably sub-par city planning.

“Okay,” said Fisk, “Now what?”

Ghandour sighed. “Tenzig has a long-dormant retrovirus that looks like it crossed over from a species of flightless bird. He was involved in tracking down the group of bird-farm workers — they were seasonal, and they went back to a different part of the continent when they weren’t working.

“About a month ago, that same retrovirus was picked up by a monitoring station in the sewage treatment plant here in Gish, and subsequently localized to this tower by swarm-samplling. Given that Tenzig was last reported living in Gish, running a soup stand, it’s not much of a leap to realize that he got infected during the op on Karziguanan and that it remained latent until now.

“Unfortunately, just after the samples tracked him to this particular tower, they stopped getting positives altogether; so either Tenzig has gone latent again, or he’s not here anymore.”

“Which is where I come in,” said Fisk. He had his hands in his pockets as they walked down what amounted to a narrow alleyway; there was a ceiling maybe twenty feet overhead, and ramshackle buildings on either side of the alleyway. They seemed to favor a type of adobe here, a hard clay-mud caked over a frame. Individual buildings were more or less carefully constructed; they tended to run two stories, sometimes three, mostly leaving just a little space between their roof and the ceiling of the tower-floor.

They came to an intersection, right about the center of the tower. There were stairs leading to adjacent levels, people streaming up or down them; there was a guy with an amplification device shouting something in a language Fisk didn’t recognize.

There were two soup stands and a stand selling some sort of sweet fried dough.

Fisk walked straight up to one of the soup vendors, pulled out a service photo of Tenzig, held it up to the man at the soup pot. The man said something that sounded involved; Fisk just blinked and tried to look confused.

“I don’t have any idea what you’re saying,” he said. The guy probably wouldn’t understand what he was saying, either, but at least he’d make the point that he didn’t speak the language.

The man held up three fingers, then pointed up.

Fisk gave the man a nod, then passed him a chip with enough coin on it to buy a dozen bowls of soup. The man nodded back.

He passed Ghandour as he walked back toward the stairs.

“That wasn’t so hard, was it?” He put his hands in his pockets and began climbing the stairs, pointedly not looking to see whether Ghandour followed him.

Three floors up was like an upscale version of the floor where they’d landed: There were a wider variety of stands — a large percentage of which served soup, but there seemed to be a wider variety of soups on offer — and a wide, brick-covered plaza covered much of the square, with tables that seemed to be for public use.

The level of dress was nicer, the hurley was less burley, and everything seemed almost genteel.

Fisk walked to the center of the square and stood, hands in his pockets. He moved his eyes in a steady, repeating pattern, looking systematically at every piece of his visual field, while turning slowly with his feet. He didn’t see Tenzig at any of the stands; didn’t see him anywhere. He did see a couple of promising next steps; so when he’d turned a complete three hundred sixty degrees, he moved quickly to the closest next step.

There was a young man sitting at a table by himself, a buffer of empty tables surrounding him. A beat-up satchel was open on the table, and a scattering of art supplies, mostly pencils, made a fan-arc arms length from where the kid was sitting.

The notebook open in front of him showed a drawing of a short, dark man with trolly-themed tattoos.

Fisk stood over the kid for a second, turning his head to get a better look at the drawing but really just making small movements to call attention to himself; eventually he had to resort to clearing his throat.

The kid looked up with a startle, gripped the edge of the table like he was ready to flip it up at Flynn and run. Flynn took a step back and raised his hands to face level, showing that they were empty.

Fisk smiled, big.

They froze like that, for maybe a minute, until the kid relaxed.

Fisk pointed at the drawing and said, “Where’d you see those tattoos?” He was pretty sure the kid wasn’t going to understand him, but nevertheless asking the question seemed like a reasonable place to start.

The kid looked at Fisk, and then looked at the tattoos on Fisk’s arm, and then at his drawing. He looked right at the empty soup stand that was going to be Fisk’s second stop; and then he looked over Fisk’s shoulder. Fisk followed his gaze and there was Ghandour, standing right behind him.

The kid began babbling, loudly, obviously telling some sort of story; he pointed at the empty soup stand, and then he pointed at Ghandour.

Fisk looked back at Ghandour again.

“Seems like the kid knows you,” he said.

Ghandour gave a shrug. “I don’t know,” he said. “You see the tattoos, you seen ’em before, it’s like you recognized somebody.”

After a while the kid’s story seemed to wind down a bit. Fisk looked back at Ghandour, and then at the kid, but he wasn’t sure what was being said at all.

Fuck it, he flipped the kid another one of his chips, said a brief goodbye, and walked over to the empty soup stand.

It was more substantial than the one downstairs; this was a box, a little shed on wheels, and the proprietor could stand inside and run a soup bucket, serve and interact with customers via a window cut in the shed and a countertop installed…

He hadn’t known Tenzig well at all. The broad-built little man had been new when Fisk’s time with the Trolleymen was coming to an end; he remembered an always-smiling figure, ready to do hard work and uncomplaining.

It was, Fisk realized, in their complaints that he often got to know people; when someone just smiled and did what they were supposed to, it didn’t tell you anything about them.

The big soup pot was hung on a hook on the wall; there was a sort of gas stove on the floor that looked like it was supposed to fit the soup pot. It all looked like it had been cleaned to be put away for a while, rather than just for the night.

“Looks all packed up,” he said, turning away from the stand.

Ghandour was standing right behind him, an odd look on his face. It took Fisk a moment to realize that Ghandour had a gun in his hand.

“What the fuck, Reggie,” Fisk said.

“They don’t track anything on his planet, anything at all,” said Ghandour, and shot him.

The sixth time he woke up, he was able to claw his way to the surface of consciousness and grab onto something, something familiar, some piece of psychic debris that let him keep his head above the darkness.

It was a fan. An actual spinning thing with blades and a complicated clockwork system for moving the spinning blade apparatus back and forth. It made repetitive whirring and clicking noises that annoyed him so badly he woke up.

He stared at it wonderingly for a while: It was obviously some sort of hobbyist toy. You could buy a machine that produced a plasma impeller every minute or so by leeching carbon out of the air and forming it into matter, and that impeller-making machine would cost less than the time required for some poor bastard to cut the gears out of that fan…

It was hot, and wet, and when he moved it hurt. He tried sitting up, but something was wrong with the muscles in his stomach, so he made it half way to seated and then fell back. He closed his eyes, breathing hard from the effort of trying to sit up.

“Is your name Tamien Fisk?”

The voice was female, authoritative. He had no idea what the accent was, something completely outside his experience.

“Probably,” he said. He thought about it for a minute; the set of sounds was familiar enough to be his name.

“Mister Fisk, your order has been contacted, and they have pledged to send someone to claim you. Unfortunately, your immediate… excuse me, I do not know the hierarchy of the Trolleymen… your immediate unit does not seem to be… available.”

“Stick,” said Fisk, surprising himself by knowing something. “It’s called a stick.” And just like that, it came back to him: His own stick, three men and a lead, except that he’d retired and the stick… he laughed, rough and painful on his throat and chest.

“My stick leader…”

“No one else was brought here with you,” said the woman. “A group of people brought you to the hospital’s crisis center, said that you’d been in some sort of altercation on a high level of one of the… seedier… arrival towers…”

Fisk stared at the ceiling, walking through events, from finding Ghandour at his whorehouse to finding Tenzig’s soup stand empty and then…

“I’m sorry,” said Fisk, “I’m not sure what to tell you, I appear to be completely in the dark.”

The woman sighed. “I am aware,” she said, ‘That it is the practice of the Trolleymen to maintain rigid autonomy among the various…” she looked lost for a second.

“Sticks,” said Fisk.

“Sticks,” she said, “So that the organization as a whole has the ability to disavow the actions of a particular group, and so the record keeping is not all that it could be…”

Fisk shook his head. Records were never what they could be. The thing is, the stuff they did, tracking down basically innocent people and kidnapping or killing them for the sake of preventing disease from spreading amongst humanity.. It was ethically greyest. The ability to raise their eyebrows and say, “We had nothing to do with it,” was what kept the Trolleymen, as a thousand-world-spanning organization, alive for centuries.

“Mister Fisk,” she said, “Whatever you were doing here, it seems to have gone very, very wrong.” He looked up at her through narrowed eyes. “And we need to know,” she said. “Are we facing some sort of outbreak? Is there going to be a plague?”

Fisk closed his eyes, quickly reviewing everything that had happened, everything Ghandour had said to him. He would bet that Golibe, Carson, Nelson — he didn’t know Nelson — he imagined that he’d find that they’d been murdered somehow, just like he had been. Nearly had been. Like Tenzig probably had been.

Now, why the hell would a stick leader at retirement age murder his stick and then follow up by killing the two best track and trace…


He opened his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said, “Ms… I didn’t get your name.”

“Farrah,” she said. “Novi Farrah.”

“Ms. Farrah, I imagine — and I can’t be sure, so it’s purely what I imagine — I imagine that my colleague is infected with something not particularly infectious and long-lived enough to let him lead a long retirement but just dangerous or unknown enough that the exit screenings wouldn’t let him loose into the thousand worlds.”

“I see,” she said. “But how can we be sure he didn’t pass it on while he was here?”

Fisk sighed, looked back at the fan, clicking and turning. “We don’t,” he said, “We can’t, until I find him.”

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