Shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award

The Other: A Luff Imbry novel
Chapter One

The subtle simplicity of the trap took Luff Imbry by surprise.

Ordinarily, he would never have agreed to a meeting in a setting as insecure as the Belmain sea-wall. In recent years, Imbry had grown far too corpulent for energetic foot-races, which would be his only recourse for escape if agents of the Bureau of Scrutiny interrupted the proposed transaction with Barlo Krim. His heroic girth was the main reason he now conducted almost all of his business at Bolly’s Snug, an ancient tavern with a warren of rentable private rooms that offered absolute privacy and, for those who paid the extra tariff, unconventional exits in times of emergency.

But Barlo Krim was as trustworthy and careful a contact as Imbry could have thought of, a scion of an extensive family whose members operated throughout the halfworld, as the criminal underpinnings of the impossibly ancient city of Olkney were wont to call themselves. Since time immemorial, the Krims had acquired and sold goods, always of fine quality and high value, though their provenances would not bear too-close inspection. Imbry had done business with a dozen of them, finding them always to be consummate professionals, if hard bargainers. But, then, Imbry found that a good haggle stimulated both mind and body, if the dickerers were practiced in the art.

Barlo was now midway through his career, a settled family man who rarely “went out” himself, and then only if the prospects were exceptional and if the house’s defenses were such as to yield only to an expert’s nudges and tickles. He had long since moved up in the family hierarchy to become a middler, receiving from younger Krims and their associates, and selling on to fronters such as Imbry, who would deal directly, or almost so, with the eventual purchasers.

So when Barlo Krim contacted Imbry through a secure channel, offering to sell a set of custom-made knuckle-knackers, the fat man was immediately interested and said, “I will reserve a room at Bolly’s for tomorrow after lunch, if that will suit.”

“No,” said the middler, “Ildefons is away to visit her sister all this week, and I am taking care of little Mull. Ildy would have my teeth for tiddlywinks if I took the child into Bolly’s, or anywhere like it.”

Imbry had asked where he proposed to make the exchange, and Krim had suggested the sea-wall, near the playground where his daughter loved to play on the bubble-pops and flip-sliders. The fat man had suggested that they defer their business until Ildefons returned, but Krim had foreclosed that option.

“I have them only for three days,” he said, “and if I cannot move them in that time, the consigner will take them back and seek another intermediary.”

“He is in a great hurry,” Imbry said.

“An off-worlder,” was the explanation, “a freighterman here on a brief stopover. When his ship departs he must go with it, and if he has not sold the items on Old Earth, he will try on some other world.”

Hurry-ups always aroused Imbry’s suspicions. “He came well vouched for?”

“By the Osgroffs on Tock,” Krim said.

“Code and grip?”

But the middler assured him that the seller had spoken the right syllables and interlocked his fingers with Krim’s in the appropriate manner.

“And the knuckle-knackers, they are first-rate?”

“Prime. Custom-made for a discerning client who intended to visit a rough-and-risky little planet out near the Back of Beyond. He wanted a back-up in case he was ever relieved of his external weaponry.”

“They cannot have done him much good, though,” said Imbry, “if some crewman off a common-carrier is hawking them.”

He was told that the knuckle-knackers’ owner had bought passage on the tramp freighter, after hailing it to stop at some rude little world where he was stranded and where no passenger liner would ever call. Unused to the rudimentary standards of such vessels he had stepped into an open hatch above a cargo hold while under the mistaken impression that a descender would automatically bear him lightly down. Instead, he had plunged to a neck-snapping impact on the unyielding deck plates. Since he carried no identification, custom permitted that he be buried in space and his effects gambled for among the crew. The six small hemispheres had ended up in the possession of the under-supercargo, who went looking for a buyer at the freighter’s next port of call, the foundational domain Tock. /p>

“And the Osgroffs didn’t want them?” Imbry said.

“A virulent new social dynamic is at play on Tock,” Krim said. “Radical pacifism. Anyone who has truck with weapons will not be received in even the meanest establishment.”

“Curious,” said the fat man. “I wonder how the Osgroffs maintain discipline?”

“Harsh words and cold looks, I am told.”

“Remarkable,” said Imbry. He thought for a moment, then said, “As it happens I heard recently that a sometime client of mine is in the market for knuckle-knackers, if they are of a fine cut.”

“They are that,” said Krim.

And so a price was agreed upon, contingent on the goods being as advertised, and Imbry agreed to meet the middler and his freckle-faced daughter that afternoon along the strand of dressed black stone that separated the gray waters of Mornedy Sound from the tip of the long peninsula on which Olkney sprawled. But it was not for nothing that he had remained free from the close attention of the Bureau of Scrutiny, nor from several members of the half-world who believed that Luff Imbry was owed a come-uppance. Before he left for the rendezvous he equipped himself with both a shocker and a needle-thrower, and sent aloft a whirlaway fitted with surveillance percepts.

Five minutes walk from the meeting point, Imbry contacted the whirlaway and was informed that a man answering the middler’s description was standing at the edge of the seawall, accompanied by a short person who fit Mull Krim’s specifications. The latter was taking small objects from a bag and throwing them toward several water birds which were contending with each other to snap them up. No other persons or nonpersons were in the vicinity.

Imbry advanced along the gently curving promenade until he spotted the two. The whirlaway reported no change in the situation. The fat man stepped up to them, one hand in his pocket clutching the needle-thrower while the other offered Krim a particular arrangement of fingers. A specific counter-signal from Krim would indicate that all was as it should be.

Krim raised his hand, his fingers taking the right positions, but Imbry’s gaze went to the middler’s face, which was stark and pale. He was already raising the needle-thrower, even as he heard the middler say, “What could I do, Luff? They’ve got Mull and Ildy.”

But even as the last words were spoken, the girl’s hand was already out of the bread bag, except that it wasn’t a girl’s hand, but a hairy, stub-fingered fist that, instead of crumbs, was wrapped around a crackler — the emitter of which was trained on Imbry. He saw a pulse of blue light and felt a rush of cold fire spread from a spot in his chest out first to his limbs, with which he immediately lost touch, and then to his head, which rang like a silent bell.

The face framed by the girl’s bonnet was coarse-featured and stubble-darkened; the eyes were pale and hard as half-polished agate; and the angry sneer that disfigured the lips now widened as the half-man stepped clear of Barlo Krim and gave the hapless decoy a long dose of the crackler’s energies. By now, Imbry was lying on his side, immobile on the stone flagging of the promenade, from where he saw the middler topple head-first toward the sea, to the squawks of outraged avians who preferred bread.

The small man came and kicked the needle-thrower clear of Imbry’s inert hand, then used the same short limb and boot-clad foot to drive the air from his lungs. The impact caused the fat man to sprawl onto his back and now he could see, descending rapidly toward him, a carry-all of the kind used to ferry passengers to orbiting space ships that did not wish to incur port charges by landing. The little man looked up at the vehicle and when he looked back down at Imbry he was wearing an expression Imbry found odd, as if he had put his assailant to a great deal of trouble and was resented for it.

Then the half-man aimed the crackler again, the blue pulsed once more, and Luff Imbry fell into the deep cold.

He awoke on a utilitarian bunk in a small metal room. The wall beside him vibrated almost imperceptibly. His throat was dry and his head was full of dull thunder. He moved his tongue to encourage saliva, then swallowed. “Ship’s integrator,” he said.

“Yes?” came a neutral voice that spoke as if from the air.

“I am thirsty.”

Only a moment passed before a panel levered itself down from the opposite wall to form a rudimentary table. A portion of the floor rose to form a seat. A hatch opened at the rear of the table and produced a sealed pitcher and a tumbler.

Imbry rose stiffly from the bunk and made his way to the table. There was just enough room to fit the dome of his stomach between the stool and the table. He unsealed the pitcher and sniffed its contents: a good red ale that he often ordered when lunching at Labonian’s tavern, one of his favorite haunts. He poured a few drops into the tumbler and sampled it. If the brew had been adulterated, not even his finely honed palate could detect it. He discounted the possibility; if his captor wanted to poison him, or alter the responses of his cerebrum, there were a dozen gases that could be emitted into the cabin. He filled the tumbler and drank it down, following the draft with a capacious belch.

The ale quieted the rawness in the back of his throat, and seemed even to moderate the ache in his head. “I am also hungry,” he told the ship’s integrator.

“What would you like?” it said.

For Imbry, that was never an idle question. He had not acquired his extraordinary shape–he was easily the most corpulent man in all of Olkney–by dint of mere volume of intake. He was a gourmet, not a gourmand, and his gustatory apparatus was exquisitely tuned. Without much hope, he said, “Can you make a gripple egg omelet?”

“No.”

Imbry was disappointed though not surprised. “How about a five-layered ragout?”

“Do you mind if it is reconstituted?”

“Then you are not a luxury yacht?”

“You must henceforward draw your own conclusions,” the ship said. “You have tricked me into giving you information. I will prepare the ragout.”

Imbry refilled the tumbler and sipped the ale, while he thought about what he had learned. The exchange with the integrator provided the fat man with information that was simultaneously reassuring and worrisome. Whoever had snatched him up did not intend to demean and insult him by making him beg for stale crusts. But anyone who knew him well and cared for his comforts would have laid in a supply of high-end comestibles. The fact that the ship’s larder contained no gripple eggs meant that he could abandon the faint hope that he was being hired by someone off-world who knew that the thief would not have responded warmly to a conventional approach. Such a person would almost certainly have been wealthy enough to own a yacht it could dispatch for the operation. With that hope dashed, Imbry had to assume that his kidnapper harbored darker plans. His captivity was likely connected to someone’s long-held grudge, not to be settled quickly or easily.