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The Infinity Gambit
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With his thick, horn-rimmed spectacles and boyish mop of sandy hair, Dr. Felix Velker looked even younger and more student-like in the flesh than in the picture Fallon had seen in General Thombert's file.

"I'm a doctor. I came out here originally to do doctor's work -- my thesis was on tropical diseases. And as I got to know the ZRF better, I associated myself with their cause. It's the same cause of people anywhere who care about decency in the human race." His voice had a note of resignation and futility.

Ironically, that was virtually the role that the Zugendans had conceived for Hannegen, Fallon thought as he steadied the head of the man stretched out on the couch and used tweezers and a cotton ball moistened with surgical spirit to swab blood away from the gash in his head while Velker stitched the flesh with a needle and forceps. The man had been beaten and robbed on the street that afternoon. Behind them, in the shadows beyond the desk lamp by which Velker was working, a girl dabbed water on the brow of a woman tossing deliriously in a fever. Around the room, other forms lay covered by scarps of blanket and linen on camp cots or makeshift mattresses on the floor. In a far corner, under another lamp, a youth was washing bandages in a sink next to a large pot of water heating over a kerosene burner.

Velker went on: "So I evolved into a political animal . . . I mean, you've got to try and do something, haven't you? To do something about putting the bigger problem right, that is. What's the point of setting a bone here and maybe saving a life there if crimes that maim and kill millions can be committed with impunity?"

"And Zugenda was a good place to start," Fallon said.

"Any of these socialist police states. . . . How can ordinary people be expected to form any principle or ethic when the greatest violator of their freedom becomes the state itself? Anyway, I don't have much to offer as a military adviser, I'm afraid. So I devoted what effort I could to furthering their case in the international forum."

"How has the response been?" Fallon asked.

"Pretty miserable," Velker answered candidly. "You've seen the version that gets pumped into the world's head. I do what I can in London, but it's a bloody uphill battle. It's money that talks, as they say, and what do these people have?"

"Billions get poured into these countries," Fallon said. "What happens to it?"

"It just makes the problem worse. That's what hall these do-good, bloody politicians don't understand -- or don't care about, as long as it sounds good and polishes their image. All it does is subsidize dictators like Molokutu, who no longer need support from the people. The people don't matter anymore, and so they can starve."

"But it's all right for some," Fallon said.

Velker pulled the threat taut, raising a hummock of scalp, snipped the end of the thread with scissors, and reached for a dressing. "Did you see the big ranches over to the east of Sorindi province on your way in?"

"On the way to Kinnube? Yes, I did."

"They belong to government officials and other favorites." Velker made a distasteful face. "They drive around in Mercedes-Benzes but still count their money the way their grandfathers did: in cattle. They don't sell them, or kill them to eat. The herds are there simply as displays of their owners' wealth."

"Thousand-acre bank accounts?"

"Exactly. And they pay experts to protect them. They put up fences, divert the water and block migration trails, and destroy anything inside that might carry disease or threaten the cattle. The people's lives are destroyed along with the animals, while a few enrich themselves with foreign money and foreign guns. . . . And this while they preach an ideology of equality!"

"How do they get away with it?"

"Through politics. Without the aid programs they couldn't survive. The people don't need them. They took care of themselves for ten thousand years -- when they were left alone. It's the parasites who need the aid programs."

"And you think it would change if the ZRF did take over?"

"Oh, yes. Barindas means it. He'll deliver what he promises, if he ever gets the chance."

"That's what they all say. How can you be sure?"

"Still the professional cynic, eh. Mr. . . . What am I suppose to call you these days?"

"Let's stick with Hannegen."

"Very well. You see, Barindas doesn't have the kind of arrogance that makes some think they're fit to direct the lives of others. He isn't looking for the power to impose anything. But hearing these kinds of things from me isn't going to change anything. You have to get among them, get to know them. With luck you'll meet him yourself when you get down there." Velker smoothed the dressing over and straightened up. "There. This chap has been luckier than a lot that I've seen."

"It doesn't sound as if you'd give much credit to the atrocity stories that get told about them, then," Fallon commented.

"Largely fabricated, without a doubt . . . although, admittedly, you always get some ugly happenings in this kind of situation."

"Are you saying they never happened?" Fallon asked.

"I'm saying that the occurrences that have been getting all the publicity weren't handiwork of the ZRF."

"Whose, then? Do you know?"

Velker dropped the instruments that he had been using into a tray. "Let's go into the back room and talk over coffee," he suggested. He went over and rinsed his hands at the sink. "Can you manage on your own for a while, Arnold?" he asked the youth who was washing bandages.

"What if the gunshot case in the corner starts acting up again?"

"Give him another two mils if you have to . . . but that's all we can spare."

"Okay."

Velker moved to the girl tending the delirious woman while Fallon cleaned his hands. "Any change?"

"I think she's quieter now."

"Make sure that she keeps drinking water. Lots of water. She mustn't dehydrate."

"Yes, doctor."

Velker led the way through a door to a dingy back room that had an old kitchen dresser at one end, its shelves lined with bottles and jars. There was also a table and cabinet, both cluttered with boxes, medical books, and trays of instruments, a battered, leather-upholstered easy chair with it's stuffing coming out, and a couple of wooden chairs. Fallon came in behind him and closed the door.

On the far side, away from the light, Candy, wrapped in a blanket and with the quilted jacket folded as a pillow, was asleep on a cot. Velker went over, checked her pulse at the temple, and then laid a hand on her forehead to feel the skin. "She seems stronger," he murmured. "Another blanket good night's rest should help a lot." He adjusted the blanket then moved over to a coffee pot simmering on a low cupboard in a corner and took down two chipped mugs hanging from nails in the wall.

He handed Fallon one of the mugs, then lowered himself into the easy chair, took a sip, and emitted a grateful sigh. Fallon moved a pack of field dressings from one of the wooden chairs and sat down. He tasted the coffee and nodded approvingly. "The real stuff. There are some perks in being a doctor around here, then?"

"Oh, God. Was that suppose to be a pun?" Velker asked tiredly.

"No, an accident. Sorry."

Velker snorted. "The dealer who got it for me is in jail. Have you hard about Molokutu's latest brilliant inspiration in progressive economics?"

"What's that?"

"He's discovered how to correct the deficiencies of capitalism by socialist decree; in other words, the optimum combination of private and state power. Quite simply, you set a quota for profits, just as you set a quota for anything else, and make it a punishable offense not to achieve them."

There was a pause. Fallon looked across at Candy. She seemed to be sleeping soundly. That was good. He was anxious for them to be on their way as soon as she was fit to move.

"We were talking about somebody framing the ZRF," he said, turning his head back again.

Velker nodded. "Yes. . . . Well, I'll give you an example of what goes on. You must have passed through a place called Elinvoro on the way in."

"I did. The army was there, giving everyone a hard time. The story was that they'd been intimidated into helping the ZRF by having their head man and his family carved up."

Velker shook his head. "They weren't ZRF. They were from one of Embatto's Special Action detachments, disguised as rebels."

"How do you come to know?" Fallon asked.

"The ZRF captured one of them in an ambush on an SS patrol a week later, and a couple of the villagers recognized him. He'd taken a piece of shrapnel in the leg. I happened to be down that way and they got me to patch him up." Velker looked own at the mug in his hand for a moment and smiled humorlessly. "I gathered that afterward he was, ah, induced to make an admission of the whole thing. . . . I did say that things always get ugly in this kind of wretched business. But the ZRF don't go in for indiscriminate terrorism.

"So the bomb at Jaquesville wasn't theirs, for instance?"

"Oh, you heard about that. The complicity isn't complete, of course - it never is. The local police chief - a man called Denyaka - had got a few whiffs of what was going on and couldn't condone it." Velker took a sip of coffee and shrugged. "So obviously someone decided to shut him up before he could blow the lid."

"And found a way of hanging another one on the ZRF at the same time," Fallon completed.

Velker nodded. "Although I don't get the impression that it's had an exactly devastating impact outside. Such is the onward march of civilization that the world's getting inured these days to the idea of killing innocent people to get prime time on TV."

That had been pretty close to his own initial reaction too, Fallon reflected. "And then there was Elizabeth Bouabbas - I know she was part of the same cell here in Kinnube as you and Parnum and Candy."

"Yes . . . she was."

"I assume she got a bit too zealous."

An unnaturally long silence elapsed before Velker replied. Finally he said, "I think there might have been more to it than that. I think that possibly she was onto something."

"What kind of thing?" Fallon asked, shifting his weight forward on the chair and looking interested.

"I'm not sure - she worked mainly with Roger, you understand, and in this kind of business you stay out of affairs that don't concern you. But it had to do with certain kinds of weapons that Embatto's state-security people are suppose to have hidden in one of their bases somewhere."

"What kind of weapons? Do you have the types, designations?"

Velker shook his head. "I know nothing about such matters, I'm afraid. They're all hideous creations as far as I'm concerned. Apparently these aren't listed on the official inventory, for some reason."

Fallon thought for a few seconds. This sounded like something in Parnum's line, all right. But now that Parnum and Mamu had left, there would be no way of delving further until they met up again - if all went well - inside rebel-controlled territory. Then he remembered something that Parnum had mentioned when they first met in the bar at the Independence.

"Is this at the headquarters that state security have got here in Kinnube?" he asked. "Roger described it as a 'complex.'"

"That's the administrative offices, main barracks, transport depot, and an armory, which are all together in the city," Vekler confirmed. "But I think that place that Elizabeth was interested in was Djamvelling. She took a lot of illicit pictures of the machines flying in and out."

"That's the place where they fly the helicopters from, isn't it?"

"Yes. It's about fifteen miles west from here: a state-security operations base for activities farther afield, outside the city - where the Special Action detachments are normally based. Nasty characters. They have their helicopters based there, used for counterinsurgency work out in the bush. Russian types. . . . I can't tell you what kind."

"And that's all you know?"

Velker stared over the rim of his mug for a few seconds. "No, actually. Elizabeth had a box of notes and things -- I mean aside from the usual journalistic stuff. She left it with me rather than Roger, because of the harassment he was constantly being subjected to."

"Have you still got it?" Fallon asked.

"Not here . . . but it's in a safe place. I take it you'd like to see it?"

"Yes. Very much."

The door opened suddenly and Arnold appeared. "Dr. Velker, I think we've got hemorrhaging out here."

"Excuse me." Velker got up, set the mug down by the chair, and hurried out.

Fallon sat thinking while he finished his own coffee. Then a stirring from the cot in the corner made him look across. Candy's eyes were open. Fallon rose and went over.

"Welcome back to the world. You're doing fine."

It took a few second for her eyes to focus. Then she murmured in a faltering voice, "It seems . . . I was wrong."

Fallon grinned faintly. "I'll get over it."

Candy's eyes moved to take in the room. "It's real, yes?"

"You'd better believe it."

"He's dead, isn't he? We killed him."

Fallon nodded. "He was just a sprat. Now we go for the big fish."

He ran a finger lightly along her brow. Her face softened into a contented expression, and she drifted back into sleep.

The next day Fallon walked across the city to state-security headquarters and took his time sauntering around the outside before going in, ostensibly to pick up signed permits for him to travel, as Konrad Hannegen, in the Glimayel region. The place was virtually a fortress, with wide streets on all sides denying cover to would-be attackers and affording open fields of fire for the defense, and sandbagged gun emplacements covering the main entrance and other gates. The five-story main building stood at the front, with reinforced lower walls and steel shuttered on the ground-floor windows. The barracks, armored-car and truck depot, and other facilities of the state-security department's urban presence were enclosed in a walled compound behind. An outer wire fence ran along most of the perimeter, separated from the wall by ten-foot gap, mined and filled with barbed-wire entanglements.

Once inside, he went through the formalities of filling in the forms for the permit to travel south, then produced a sealed envelop and handed it to the desk clerk to be passed to the official whose name was written on it. The clerk smirked knowingly and slipped it inside the file folder.

"It might take some time getting to him," the clerk said. We are extremely busy." Fallon dug into his pocket again and added ten Zugendan shillings.

The envelope contained a long list of numbers. Later that evening the list was included as part of an outgoing message stream encrypted in a diplomatic code and radioed to the Zugendan embassy in London.

 
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