Down The Mushroom Ladder

I'd been expecting someone to try to kill me all the way back from the Belt. Not too much at first, because the information about what I was carrying could only propagate so fast, and I'd left the only other person who knew behind on a chunk of rock with just enough air to get him to his ship if he didn't try anything stupid like chasing after me. So I had some lead time, and the odds that any of my fellow passengers to the Main Belt Terminus had been planted were slim. Though I wouldn't put it past Rax to have left someone on there just in case I did get away with anything.

The Terminus was where I really started to worry. Thousands of people passed through here every day, on their way to local Belt transports, or to any of the major orbital, planet- or satellite-based stations. Rax was sure to have set up some of his flunkies here somewhere. But he had no way of knowing which way I was going to fly from here. Insystem was a fair bet, because the information I had decreased in value as time went on, and a side-trip to Ganymede or Triton would make it more likely that one of Rax's men would be able to rediscover what I had. But which of dozens of ships?

I put on a fake facial tattoo and spent half a day pretending to be a porter, before putting on a different tattoo and paying a real porter handsomely to get me a ticket on the next Lunar express. I then set up a reasonably noticeable false trail leading to Deimos. Still, Rax wasn't stupid, and he might have had someone on the Lunar transport as well. Certainly he'd unravel the tangle before I arrived at the Moon. I transferred immediately onto a short-hop from the Lunar base to the Mushroom, but my fake credit chip didn't stand up to their scrutiny, and I'm sure flags went up all over the System when I was forced to pay with my real one.

My tension didn't ease any when the Mushroom came into view. It didn't really look that much like a mushroom--the stem was far too narrow to support such a cap on a real fungus. And too long, since it stretched from orbit all the way down to its base in Ecuador.

I knew Rax would have someone on there. He wouldn't have time to organize too much, what with the lag time, but he would have someone. So I readied myself thoroughly as we slid into the docking bay.

The Mushroom had the advantage that Rax couldn't get away with too much there. Any assassin would have to be extremely circumspect, and the death untraceable. Standard assassin's contract included a clause disclaiming all responsibility for any disclosures made to Mushroom authorities, who were ruthless in keeping their facility safe. I know--I'd signed a few in my time, and had never tested the Mushroom's security. But Rax pretty much had to, because all I needed was a few minutes once I reached Earthside and I'd be home free.

I relaxed a little going through Customs, which was something Rax wouldn't be able to get into at all. No, I figured he'd make his move on the Ladder. It was really an elevator--how'd you like to climb down a few thousand kilometers of rungs?--but the name had stuck, though fortunately not the "Jacob's" part of it. (That was mostly the doing of a certain multimillionaire named Jacob whose corporation didn't get the contract for it, and was damned if his name would be associated with something he didn't build.)

Because the trip took close to a day, the Ladder's facilities were extensive. A thousand people could fit on it, but they were rigidly compartmentalized, for considerations of both security and equilibrium. Another beanstalk had been dangerously destabilized when all the Ladder's passengers crowded to one side to see a particularly spectacular meteor shower. Talk was that it hadn't been stable in the first place, but no one was taking chances. So at least I only had to worry about the few dozen people in my compartment. Assuming Rax's goons didn't have a high-powered laser, and if he'd been able to sneak that past Mushroom security he'd have been able to trace me to Lunar station and finish me there, so I didn't worry.

I had a facial tattoo on again, but I didn't think that would fool anybody who was really looking for me, since they'd have an image processor to match my face under anything less than a big plaster mask, and maybe even that. I sat in the corner of the compartment, carefully scrutinizing my companions.

Nobody looked like an assassin, no obvious steroids, no mirrorshades, no six- inch steel-plated fingernails. There were a couple of guys with athletic bodies, but careful scrutiny showed they were mostly suited to half-gee, and weren't enjoying the ride. A pair of pretty girls with butterfly tattoos were comforting and giggling over a third who would have been equally pretty had she not been obviously space-sick. An elderly Sikh--whose sword was, in deference to the security regs, 100% holographic(though it would be dangerous for me to assume it was necessarily harmless)chatted with two tall Japanese, a man and a woman, in business garb. A family of obvious tourists rounded out the compartment, with a sullen preteen boy, a small but rambunctious girl, a chubby man and three women. Two of the women were probably the mothers, since the children didn't resemble each other closely; the other, her mouth pursed prunelike at the girl's antics, was a grandparent, or perhaps governess, though these didn't look affluent enough to afford one. All in all, nothing obvious enough for me to suspect, or rule out, any of them. I'd have been disappointed if there had been, but relieved nonetheless.

I remained vigilant, though not obviously so, and managed to stay alive at least until we reached about the halfway point, when the lights suddenly started to fade. Not necessarily Rax's doing, but either way I didn't doubt it would be capitalized upon. In the remaining light(a little bit of reflected Earthlight came in through a tiny port, but my eyes would have to adjust first)I quickly scanned to see who might be making a move. The half- gee athletes couldn't do much of anything; the girls were just screaming prettily, except for the sick one who was filling up a barf bag; the Sikh's sword glowed incongruously, but didn't seem to be assuming a menacing attitude; the little girl--

The little girl was looking curiously at her grandmother(?), who was pursing her lips at me--

I rolled forward and heard only the tiniest clink as the tiny sliver-dart she blew out hit the wall behind me. Nobody but the two of us and the little girl noticed my motion, and I wanted to keep it that way so I couldn't be pulled in my Mushroom security myself. She knew her cover was blown, unless she killed me in this blackout--presumably nobody would listen to the little girl, who probably had no idea what was going on anyway.

I didn't have much to defend myself, only that which could be regarded as having a peaceful purpose. Like my medicinal syringe, which I probably didn't have time to get out. Like my hypersonic whistle, which was a bit indiscriminate in its effects. Like my hardskin gloves, which I had had the foresight to wear.

I came up from my roll to see her pursing her lips again, and, hoping my timing was good enough, brought my hand up in an arc which was less than an inch from her mouth at the closest. I felt nothing, but her eyes went wide and she started to choke, so I must have deflected the sliverdart properly. "Oops, how clumsy of me," I said for the girl's benefit. "Hey, lady, are you all right?" Of course, I didn't go to her aid, but to the Earthers it would only have been a social gaffe anyway.

The lights were restored after only a few minutes, and the Mushroom security staff whisked off the now-still body. I hoped they'd find the unactivated sliverdarts in her mouth, and the remains of the implanted launcher, and not hold me up any.

Except for the half-gee folks and the spacesick girl, everyone else caught a few winks on the rest of the way down. I took a shot of stims, not trusting Rax to have planted only one assassin. But I got to the surface of the Earth, and in five minutes the heat was off me.

After a courier job I always swore that being an assassin was easier. But I'd also been known to say the exact opposite, so you can't go by me.

[Barb Moreau gave me the words:

Mushroom Ecuador Flying Prunes]

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The Den of Ubiquity/ Aaron V. Humphrey /