The Search for Krazy Kat

By Frederick Rustam

Datamaster Eldon Roath was making an entry in the ship's online crewlog when Captain Harold Brickbender, Jr. entered his plazglass-enclosed office. Outside the office, the day-shift datadopes raised their tired eyes from their displays and craned their necks to observe the two officers, even though they couldn't hear what they were saying.

The Captain spoke to his Datamaster in a tone of respect befitting the man's age and reputation. "Will you be making your usual foray into the city's book market, Eldon?"

"Aye, Captain. And I won't forget to look for that rare 1969 volume of George Herriman's Krazy Kat comics you need to complete your collection. I have a permanent jognote in my memocorder about it." The elderly Datamaster hadn't tried to conceal his failing memory from his Captain. At sixty-nine, he was well-beyond the customary retirement age for dataship officers, but he just couldn't bring himself to leave a vocation he'd been active in since adolescence.

The Captain appreciated his DM's wry pessimism. "Your jognote needn't be permanent, Eldon. You can delete it when you find the book. And if anyone can get it for me, that'll be you. Happy hunting." Reassured, he headed for the bridge, sweeping past his datadopes, who quickly resumed studying their displays.

Roath filed an entry in the crewlog, where it could be read by any crewmember with access to the ShipNet. One of the datadopes had awaited it anxiously, and now she read it to verify her assumption. The entry described Roath's planned visit to the city near the spaceport where the TerrInforma2 had just landed. It was customary for the ship's senior officers to log their offship plans. A crewlog entry would serve as the starting point for a search in the event an officer failed to return. The commercial slums surrounding the spaceport could be hazardous for crewmembers. Careless spacers sometimes ended up in the spaceport hospital, or simply disappeared, never to be heard-from again. However, Datamaster Roath had long-ago cast off his youthful vices. Now, his offship visits were mostly to bookstores, data shops, libraries, and museums.

Nonetheless, he took precautions. From his desk he retrieved some protective devices. A small alert-radio disguised as a cheap wristwatch could notify his ship that he was in trouble, and where. A multishot pneumatic dartgun on his forearm beneath his sleeve could disable attackers. Frangible gas capsules from his pockets would distract those with evil intentions. Lockpicks already concealed in the heels of his shoes could get him into, or out of, a prohibited place. And a thumb-ring with a mirror on its outer surface ground to his optical prescription allowed him to see behind him while he pretended to scratch his forehead. "Everything a data organizer needs," he mumbled to himself.

The door to his office opened, and DO/1c Wang Jun stuck her head inside. "I see you're going book hunting, Datamaster. Is there any chance I could accompany you?" Wang was the ship's best data organizer and a favorite of Roath's. She was a plain young Chinese woman whose forename meant "truthful," and who wore windowglass spectacles offship for the intellectuality she felt they proclaimed.

"Of course, Jun. Glad to have your company. Bring along your wireless handheld in case we need info from the ship or from the planetary net. And steel yourself: we have to make an exhaustive search for Krazy Kat." He rolled his eyes toward the overhead. The Captain's obsession with this ancient newspaper comicstrip was well-known.

She smiled, shyly. "Some people love Krazy Kat, Master. But I'm not sure why they do." When she had first learned of the Captain's favorite comic strip, she'd researched it but had been unable to conclude for certain whether it was obscurely profound or just simplistic.

"It's an acquired taste, Jun."


Although FTL starships had allowed Terrans to populate much of the known galaxy, telecommunication between the Terran colonies remained unfeasible even in this age of miracles. Electromagnetic radiation was still limited to light speed. Message transmission by FTL ultrawaves was hypothetical and science-fictional, although rumored to have been developed by the reclusive, alien Rutulavani. Practical interstellar communication was accomplished instead by message-carrying jumpships, as it had been done in ancient times on Earth by sailing vessels. Newly-arriving jumpships were as welcome in the colonies as those ancient ships had been for the news and information they brought in addition to their cargo.

The cargo of dataships was mostly static information. They plied the sea of stars, their storage bins filled with ebook cards and their dataservers with webpages of books, news, citizen essays, academic papers, bureaucratic pronunciamentos---and of course, email. The largest dataships stocked their servers with webpages from the mother of all human planetary networks, Earth's World Wide Web. Then, they circulated between key colony worlds, where their cargo was downloaded to the smaller dataships of regional distributors and to trampships which reached the more-hazardous worlds. The TerrInforma2 was the largest and best-known of the Terran dataships. It was the successor to the TerrInforma, captained by Harold Brickbender, Sr. The Latin motto of Brickbender Jr.'s ship was the same as that of his father's: RETICULUM IN LAGONAE---The Net in a Bottle.


The two data organizers sat in the frontmost seat of the public transit vehicle which took workers and visitors from the spaceport through its surrounding commercial slums to the clean, ordered streets of Saigon, the capital city of planet Nuviet. The vehicle's age-loosened coachwork squeaked and rattled. Its trolleypoles proclaimed their encounters with the switches and crossovers in the overhead wires by the metallic drumbeats they transmitted to the roof.

"This is an atavistic vehicle, Master. Beijing had these long ago before hydrogen fuel cells freed buses from dependence on overhead wires and petroleum."

"You've never been to the city, Jun. You'll find much atavism here on Nuviet. I'm surprised we aren't riding to the city in a streetcar. The planet's Autarch, Dominic Bui, often prefers the old to the new. He's a well-known collector of antiquities. Much of his palace is lighted only by candles and firebaskets. He sometimes rides through the streets in an open pedicab. It's believed that he built this trolleybus line from the spaceport as a way of introducing visitors to his respectful view of the past. Even his capital's name was rescued from the dustbin of history long after the Terran original had been officially changed to 'Ho Chi Minh City.' Bui once said, 'The name "Saigon" must not be allowed to die.'"

Roath prattled on in the way of an old man who has learned too much to keep it within himself. His self-deprecating humor allowed him to admit to his datadopes that he was "ten kilos of stale info in a nine-kilo bag." DO/1st Wang had researched Nuviet, but she had never before left the spaceport to visit Saigon. Although the Autarch and his planet's pioneer citizens were Vietnamese, Nuviet's population was now a diverse group of humans and nonhumans. The planet was located in the region of the galaxy where these two groups of beings first met.

Roath continued, "They say Bui sometimes wanders his capital in disguise to learn what his people are saying and doing. If so, he's probably accompanied by a cadre of discrete Viet bodyguards, suitably disguised." He chuckled. "Imagine these men scrambling to keep themselves discretely-but-tactically dispersed around their perambulating leader."

"Master, there's an oriental man dressed in the old style right here on this bus. He's sitting all by himself on the wide rear seat at the end of the aisle."

"Really? I didn't notice." Roath silently reproached himself for not noticing. He raised a hand to his forehead so he could surreptitiously view the scene behind him with his ringmirror. "So there is."

"Could it be the Autarch in disguise?" questioned Wang. "There are some younger oriental guys among the other passengers, and they don't seem to be looking out the windows very much."

Roath scanned the other passengers as he cautioned his subordinate. "Don't gawk at them, Jun.... I don't know. The mandarin all by himself on that wide rear seat could be Bui. But I can't picture even a disguised Autarch riding on a rattletrap omnibus with the unwashed masses from the spaceport."

Just then, the bus's trolleys clattered loudly through an overhead switch. Both crewmembers started, gave each other guilty smiles, and felt somewhat ill-at-ease for the remainder of the ride. Roath wondered, Might we be under surveillance?

They alighted at the bus terminal in downtown Saigon and began walking toward the city's bookstore district. Roath's ringmirror and Wang's discrete looks while window shopping revealed that the bearded mandarin from the bus was walking well-behind them.

"He's following us, Master. So are the other Viets from the bus, but they're not all bunched together."

"If they're bodyguards, they wouldn't be. But are they really following us? Maybe we're just preceding them. The old boy's probably a wealthy collector headed for the bookstores. He would, of course, employ bodyguards to prevent him from being kidnapped for ransom."

"A wealthy collector riding an omnibus from the spaceport slums?"

Roath winked at his subordinate. "There are some useful services available in those slums, Jun."

They headed toward their first bookstore-of-interest. To their relief, the mandarin and the younger Viets continued past it, but not without peering inside. "They're gone, Master" said Wang. "You're right: they weren't shadowing us."

"Your Datamaster is always right, Jun," he joked. "Now, our immediate concern is the elusive Krazy Kat."

Bargain Barrel

Helga's was a small used-book shop located on the fringe of the bookstore district. An old-fashioned brass bell on the door jangled to announce them.

"Datamaster Roath, how nice to see you again." The plump, widowed owner of the small bookstore recognized him from his previous visits and purchases. "But I'm sorry to say I still don't have that Krazy Kat cartoon book you seek. I've tried to obtain it, but it's very rare and highly sought, as you know." She spoke Universal with an unshakable Austrian accent. She had migrated to Nuviet from one of the Deutsche Volk colonies.

"Greetings, Helga. This is my DO/1st, Wang Jun. She's assisting me in my fruitless search."

"Guten tag, gnaediges Frau." said Wang, respectfully. "Guten tag, Fraulein," replied the bookseller. To Roath she asked, "Will your Captain Brickbender will be quite disappointed if you can't find that rare volume he needs to complete his collection?"

"He may have me keelhauled, Helga, but Ms. Wang will live to search another day." Wang made a face of mock disapproval.

"I do have an ebook of those Krazy cartoons. Because you're looking for a printed volume, I didn't put it aside for you. It's uncataloged and somewhere in my bargain barrel."

"We'll have a look-see. If it's a digital version of one of the printed books the Captain has, it'll be useful." The crewmembers moved to the bargain barrel at the rear of the store. In the dim illumination, they began picking through the bookcards.

"This is not good organization, Master."

"This is bibliojunk, Jun. Junk doesn't usually require much organization. For each of her better ebooks, though, Helga has a computer record scanned from the publisher's zebra code on its label."

They worked their way through the barrel's bookcards, putting aside the nonrelevant ones, and hoping that their growing toroidal pile of these wouldn't collapse into the pit they were making before they found the Krazy Kat. The sounds of their search were almost the only ones in the shop. Up front, the owner sat behind her counter reading a printed volume of Goethe poems.

"I found it!" From the bottom of the barrel, Wang picked out a bookcard. "The label says it's a collection of Sunday supplement comics from 1935 to 1944."

"Let me see that. I don't believe it." With difficulty, Roath managed to keep his voice down. "This isn't junk. It's a very rare digital reproduction, one not listed in any dealer's catalog I've seen. If the label's correct, it contains all the color comics George Herriman ever did for the Sunday papers---nine years of his best work in a medium that's long turned to dust. The Captain will be delighted with this."

"Especially when he learns how little it cost him, Master. Frau Helga doesn't seem to value 'cartoons' very much." Wang whispered her opinion because the bookseller had been distracted from her poetry reading by their victorious talk and was watching them.

"I almost feel bad about not telling her how valuable this ebook is. But if I do, she won't sell it to anybody until she discovers how much it's worth in the colonial rare book market."

"What's this, Master?" Wang handed Roath a bookcard she'd noticed at the bottom of the barrel. Its label was in an unknown alphabet. "Is this alien; I don't recognize the letters?"

Roath looked at the label. "I don't know for sure which one, but I think it's an old Terran language, one probably still spoken in a planetary colony somewhere. This ...two-credit... bookcard must have ended up in Helga's bargain barrel because it's not in Universal or German.

"I think I'll buy it and see if I can decipher it."

"An impulse purchase? It does present an interesting challenge. A literary puzzle. And if you can't read any of it, you can have it fashioned into an objet d'art. Note the quality of the material." He handed the card back to Wang. "Note the NeObsidian body and gold-plated terminals: unusual material for an ordinary commercial bookcard."

At the counter, the bookseller put down her Goethe.

"We found the Krazy Kat ebook, Helga. I'll buy it. I have to take something back to Captain Brickbender or he won't let me retire. I know I'm not going to find that rare 1969 volume he wants, anytime soon."

"I hope he can afford it when you do find it, Datamaster. But this little ebook of cartoons will cost you only twenty credits, a bargain by comparison."

"Yes, a bargain," he agreed.

"And I'll take this one." Wang put her bargain-barrel bookcard and a two-credit coin on the counter.

The bookseller scanned the price into her cash register. "Can you read this writing?" she asked Wang.

"I'm going to try to translate it."

"Good luck. I don't usually stock foreign language stuff. I can't recall where this one came from. But it's good riddance, anyway." She placed both ebooks in a two-slot plastic bag and handed it over. "Please come again."

Outside on the street, Wang commented on the bookseller's remark. "Every language is a foreign language to people who don't speak it, Master."

"True, Jun.... And I know a scholar who might be able to tell us something about that 'foreign' ebook. Emeritus Professor Godfrey Williamson knows Terran history and culture like the back of his hand. He's retired from the University of Saigon. After we visit the other bookstores, we'll drop by his place and show him what we've bought. He appreciates Krazy Kat. He'll enjoy viewing some atavistic Sunday comics.... At least, I hope he will. To tell the truth, he's even more irascible now then he was when he was a classroom tyrant and editor of academic papers."

"How many more bookstores do we have to visit, Master?"

Roath shrugged. "All of them."

The Foreign Book

The two weary data organizers from the TerrInforma2 made their way down the avenue from the monorail transit station. They saw few pedestrians, and only an occasional vehicle raced by.

"The professor lives in a strange neighborhood, Master," opined Wang. She looked around her at the grimy warehouses and industrial buildings. The so-called "Light Industry District" was located on the other side of the broad Saigon River from the city's fashionable downtown shopping and entertainment zones.

"Perhaps he doesn't want to be easily available. Not everyone would want to come here to visit him." He added, "But despite its appearance, this isn't a high-crime area."

"There don't seem to be many potential victims here---except us," Wang offered.

"Smile when you say that, Jun."

They turned into a residential side street lined with small worker houses. "This is it: Jasmine Place. The professor's house is the middle one on this side." They climbed the steps of a dimly-lighted porch. "He turned the light on for us; that was considerate of him." Before Roath could push the annunciator button, the door opened.

"Come in, quickly." Williamson waved his visitors inside, then stuck his head outside and looked around. This behavior did not reassure his visitors.

Their abrupt welcome typified the post-academic Williamson. The professor was short, rotund, white-haired, bearded. His rumpled clothes included a gravy-stained vest brightened with a paisley inner lining. His bare feet were in old leather house slippers. Residue from brushed-off ashes showed that the pipe in his mouth was functional, not decorative. He sometimes excused his irascible nature by mentioning his divorce, his reluctant retirement from collegiate life, and his high blood pressure. But not tonight.

The visitors settled onto the sofa facing the professor's easychair. Their host came quickly to the point, dispensing with talk about Krazy Kat. "Let me see that bookcard with the old Terran alphabet."

Wang handed him the plastic bag with the ebooks they'd purchased at Helga's and pointed at the one with the golden terminals. "I hope you can tell us something about this one, professor," she said, politely.

"Yes, yes." The professor squinted impatiently through the transparent bag at the bookcard's label. As he read it, he screwed up his face in an agonized expression which greatly impressed his visitors. "Hmmm." He grunted as he read. "Hmmm." Then, he removed the card from its bag and inserted it into a portable reader from his chairside table. More grunting was interspersed with periods of silence as he manipulated the reader's display keys. Roath chose not to interrupt the professor's reading with anxious questions. After a seemingly interminable period, the reading and grunting stopped. The professor removed the card from the reader, put it back in the bag, but held onto it.

He glared at Roath. As if the Datamaster hadn't briefed him during his voicecomm call for an appointment, he asked, "Where did you say you got this?"

"DO/1st Wang bought it at Helga's used-book shop."

Roath hadn't introduced Wang, whose youth made her look too much like a student. Williamson had never cared much for students. His reputation as a classroom bully was well-deserved. He had delighted in grading-down student papers for minor infractions of usage and format. The professor chose to ignore Wang and to address only Roath, whose office of Datamaster earned him a modicum of respect.

"Was it was lying right out in the open?"

"Oh no. She found it at the bottom of a bargain barrel."

"Thank goodness."

"What exactly is the book about, professor?" Wang dared to query.

The old academic's perpetual frown turned into a scowl. He shook the bag at her. "Young lady, this is a book of death."

Wang and Roath stared at him, muted by his bold assertion.

"You must leave this with me and return to your ship, immediately. You mustn't stay in the city. Please, I tell you this for your own good."

Roath sought an explanation for this unacademic advice. "Perhaps you'll explain why we must do this, Dr. Williamson."

"I can't tell you why. But I can tell you this: if you even knew the title of this book, you'd be in great danger."

"From whom?"

"Assassins. They call themselves 'Watchmen.' They have me under constant surveillance, not just because I know of this book but because others might guess that I know of it. As we speak, they may be on their way here. They won't believe that you know nothing about it. They've killed unknowing persons before to collect the few copies there are of it."

"Killed? Why? I must insist that you tell us."

"Your curiosity will be the death of you, Datamaster." The professor slowly relit his pipe and puffed blue smoke as he formulated his presentation. After years of grave secrecy, he seemed relieved to unburden himself.

"All right. Know then that this book is an authorized early history of a Terran colony, a history its colonists strongly desire to keep secret. A history they feel they must keep secret or suffer great humiliation and perhaps more. My tongue burns for telling you even this much."

Wang asked, acidly, "This humiliation of which you speak---would it be a humiliation of the guilty?"

"Yes. Of the guilty."

She leaped up and grabbed the dangling bag from the professor's hand. "Then their history is something the universe must know."

"Jun!" exclaimed Roath.

Williamson threw up his arms. "I wash my hands of it! Do what you will, but do it solely on your own recognizance. Now, please leave, and don't mention my name in anything you disseminate about this book. I've had nothing to do with it."

As they left, Roath offered Williamson an apology for having involved him in a nasty business, but the old academic shrugged it off. He sought only to be rid of his visitors.

Flight and Concealment

"It seems that our successful day in Saigon has taken a turn for the worse," judged Roath, dryly. They stood on the sidewalk in front of Professor Williamson's home, looking up and down Jasmine Place for signs of approaching Watchmen. There was nobody in sight; the autumn night was too chilly for porch sitting. (Despite its historical name, Saigon was a faux-tropical city.) The sallow street lamps offered little more illumination of the street than the professor had offered about the mysterious "book of death." But there was enough light for Roath to make a tactical decision. "Let's not walk directly back to the avenue, Jun."

They scurried past the other houses to Bamboo Lane. As they left Jasmine Place, they saw the headlights of a groundcar entering it from the avenue.

"They've arrived, Master, just as the professor said. The Watchmen must have his house bugged."

"No doubt. Using a catchword bug, they probably set up the professor as a trap for people who might learn something about their book. He must be the only man on the planet who can read its language. I'd really like to know how something like that got into Helga's bargain barrel."

The two data organizers hastened down Bamboo Lane through intersections with other residential streets. At the lane's end they entered a small public park with a children's playground. When they were safely out of sight behind the park's utility building, they sat on a play appliance shaped like a turtle. There, Roath made another decision.

"Use your handheld to access the city website, Jun," he whispered. "Don't use voice commands. Bring up a display of the sewer system for this area. We may have to use the sewers to escape. When the professor tells the Watchmen we've just left him, they'll probably put a man at the monorail station, then cruise the streets looking for us."

Wang knew something of the Datamaster's adventurous early life, and she trusted his instinct for escape. To relieve their work boredom, he occasionally told the ship's DOs anecdotes about his escapes from data-pirate captivity and other tricky situations. As her thumbs flew over the keyboard of the wireless, Roath noticed that the nails at the tips of her slender finders were trimmed to a minimum to allow for keyboard dexterity. Skilled DOs didn't depend upon computer voice control. Wang was a no-nonsense data organizer; with her intelligence and determination, she had quickly risen to become the TerrInforma2's only DO/1st at the youthful age of twenty seven.

Sooner than Roath expected, she retrieved the sewerage display. They examined it carefully. Wang pointed to a symbol for a walk-in access portal on the avenue near the park. "That's the easiest way into the drainage tunnels, Master---if you can pick the lock on its door."

"We'll wait for awhile, then head for it. But we should be prepared to drop and squeeze into a curbside drain opening, if we have to. Meanwhile, I'll try my old lockpicking skills on the park supervisor's shack."

"Should I textcomm the TerrInforma2 and ask for help?"

Roath considered this course of action. "No. I don't want to involve the ship in this affair, just yet. Let's see if we can extricate ourselves by our own efforts."

He removed a lockpick from the heel of a shoe and used it to open the building's door on the side opposite Bamboo Lane. Inside, they settled into chairs to wait out the searching Watchmen. They dropped to the floor when men in a groundcar stopped to sweep the playground with a spotlight, then resumed their chairs when these left.

"Plug the Krazy Kat card into your wireless, Jun. Let's transform our unfortunate situation. But don't tell the Captain that we were the first to enjoy the Sunday adventures of his favorite comic character." Until Roath felt it was safe for them to leave, they viewed the antics of Krazy Kat, Ignatz Mouse, Offisa Pup, and Herriman's other talking animals in their surrealistic Coconino County settings.

"This comic requires some thought to understand it, Master. It sure doesn't offer many bellylaughs."

* * *

"This lock is a simple one," remarked Roath as he picked it and pulled open the rusting steel door of the sewer access portal. He gestured for Wang to enter. "Youth before age, and light before darkness." His subordinate possessed their only source of illumination. "We'll leave the door unlocked, in case we have to exit through here quickly." Wang used her penlight to illuminate the winding stairs on which they descended to the working level of the drainage tunnel.

"Phew," commented Jun. "This is one of those interconnected sanitary and storm drain systems. If it rains while we're down here, we'll be in deep... trouble."

The tunnel had a one-meter ledge running along one side. Debris from sewage overflows littered its surface. The other two meters of its bottom accommodated a channel in which a generous stream of gray sewage made its way to the river. Along its walls were outfall openings from a parallel storm drain. During a heavy rain, excess storm water spilled from these outfalls into the tunnel and mixed with the sewage. "This system was outmoded on Earth before Terrans left for the stars," commented Wang. "The Nuviets should have separated their two drainage systems to prevent pollution of the river."

"Less-expensive alternatives have a permanence all their own, Jun. Let's head for the next walk-in portal."

They had hardly begun walking when Wang halted and put a cupped hand to an ear. "I thought I heard something, Master." They listened for a moment. Roath was about to remark that he heard only the flowage beside them, when...


The sound of the portal's entrance door being slammed shut behind someone energized the two data organizers. They raced down the tunnel, their new goal the next manhole alcove.

They reached this and ducked into it. "Climb up and see if you can move the manhole cover aside," ordered Roath. "I'll stay here to delay them."

As Wang climbed the steel ladder, Roath peered into the tunnel. Behind them, flashlight beams played upon the ledge and walls, and the footfalls of two pursuers grew louder. "The fabled Watchmen, no doubt," muttered Roath as he hastily gathered gas capsules from his pockets. "I'll need all of these."

At the top of the ladder, Wang grunted as she tried manfully to push up the heavy manhole cover. With a heroic strength derived from fear, she managed to raise the cover from its seat and push it aside. She was relieved that the wheel of a groundcar hadn't been resting on it.

Below, Roath was carefully gauging the loud approach of the Watchmen. In his right hand, he held several of the frangible capsules he had previously found useful in times of danger. He hefted them and mentally prepared himself for decisive action.

"It's open, Master! Come on!" Wang yelled down at Roath, then pulled herself out of the manhole.

Roath lingered until their pursuers had almost reached the alcove. "Now." He stepped out onto the ledge and dashed the capsules onto it in front of him.


As they burst, he ducked back into the alcove and pulled himself up the ladder as fast as his weak old body allowed him. He had no intention of remaining to see the effects of the emetic gas which was flooding the tunnel.

He emerged from the manhole to find Wang in the custody of two uniformed policemen. A small Vietnamese man in a Security bureaucrat's leather coat cast the beam of his flashlight into Roath's face.

"Please close the manhole behind you, Datamaster Roath. We don't want to spend this lovely night puking like the unfortunates below us."

Honored Guests

Roath was awakened by his DO/1st. "The Security man told me our host will be arriving in an hour, Master."

Under the blanket, he stretched his sleep-deadened body. "Well then, perhaps we'll get to the bottom of our current situation." He arose and tottered toward the bathroom of the luxurious hotel penthouse suite.

Instead of the dungeon they expected, he and Wang had been transported here by the policemen waiting for them at the manhole. These had refused to tell the captives anything, and they'd kept them under guard at the suite. After a brief discussion of their situation, the two data organizers had retired and slipped into welcome sleep.

* * *

As instructed, Roath and Wang were seated on a sofa in the suite's living room. On two sides, floor-to-ceiling windows with their drapes pulled back gave them vistas of the city. On a third side, the suite's large-screen infotainment center tempted the two data organizers; but for now, it was off limits.

Their guard, the leather-coated Viet Security man, put a hand to his inconspicuous earphone. "His Excellency, the Autarch, is arriving."

Roath and Wang stood as the elderly oriental man from the spaceport bus entered the room. Without a word, he sat in an easychair facing them, as professor Williamson had. He motioned for them to sit, and he stroked his wispy beard as he silently observed them for some suitable moments. He was dressed in a traditional mandarin robe, and he wore a cap with a gold button on top.

Roath politely broke the silence. "We're in the presence of the Autarch Bui, I presume."

The Autarch acknowledged this with a nod of his head. "And you two are Datamaster Roath---disarmed of his weapons---and DO/1st Wang. Now, at the denouement of the game, we meet as fellow informationists." With a graceful gesture, Roath accepted this premise, although he knew nothing of the Autarch's interest in infotrieval. Bui responded by holding up the bagged bookcards which had been confiscated from the crewmembers. "It was, of course, with these that the game began."

"With you as the gamemaster, Your Excellency?"

"Indeed. I personally placed these rare books at the bottom of Helga's bargain barrel for you to find. I do apologize for surreptitiously using you as pawns to apprehend the two secret Watchmen from..." He paused. "...From Colony X. For your protection, I'll not name it.

"I guessed that you two would be unable to resist the mystery offered by, as professor Williamson aptly labels it, 'the book of death.' You were under close surveillance from the moment you bought it. This beautiful NeObsidian edition is from my own collection of rare and dangerous books, but of course the professor didn't know its provenance. It gave him an unpleasant surprise, I'll warrant."

"Could it be that your surveillance of us actually began earlier, Your Excellency?" queried Wang. "We considered this, but we found it difficult to believe that Your Excellency would be riding in ...uh... a transit vehicle." She sneaked a glance at Roath, who gave her a smile of approval for her tactful failure to quote him exactly.

"I couldn't resist observing you from the beginning of your quest. Besides, I enjoy riding that line. I do it often, perhaps more often than I should."

Roath changed the subject. "Will your revelations extend to the subject of the aforenamed 'book of death,' Your Excellency? The professor gave us but a minimal explanation of it."

"I'll add only this: the Earth colonists in question settled a planet inhabited sparsely by a 'primitive' people. They viewed these as troublesome natives. At first, they forced them onto bleak reservations. But when the aboriginals became sufficiently desperate to mount an insurrection against the colonists, they were wiped out to the last individual."

"Genocide," offered Wang. "That explains the professor's remarks."

"But it doesn't quite explain why the 'book of death' prompts the assassination of those who discover it," added Roath. "Aboriginal genocide is not all that rare in the history of human colonization. Some bold colonists even boast of it."

"The Colony X people are quite bold, but they have a good reason for not boasting." said Bui. "They're a rejectionist offshoot of a Terran people who have a long history of persecution, some of it genocidal in intent. For these people, victimization has become the central element of their self-characterization. This ethnic reality strongly motivates the rejectionist colonists to conceal their own genocidal activities."

"I see," said Roath.

"To discourage more assassinations on Nuviet, I'll send the two Watchmen you gassed back to their homeworld in hibernation boxes---when they stop vomiting." In reproach, he shook a long-nailed finger at Roath. "Logically, I should also exile Professor Williamson, but my strong respect for distinguished scholars won't allow me to rid myself of him. Instead, I'll keep him ensconced on Jasmine Place as a trap for future operatives from Colony X, should any more dare to show up."

"And our, or rather, your ebooks, Your Excellency?" Wang was concerned about their loss of those confiscated items.

Bui stroked his beard. "The book of death must be sequestered; there's no question about that. But you may have the ebook of Krazy Kat comics---in return for your silence about this matter."

The officers of dataships customarily received accommodating treatment on the colony worlds. A serious offense against them or their vessel could result in a planet's being placed under "administrative suspension," i.e., an information boycott by the Dataship Association. No world wanted this to happen. Hunger for offworld information was too great.

"Of course, Your Excellency. I've already forgotten about the matter." Contrary to this agreement, though, Roath intended to infosearch Colony X thoroughly when he returned to his ship. And so did Wang.

"Good," affirmed Bui. He understood that he could never suppress the curiosity of the Datamaster, and he had a plan for his continued surveillance. "There's something else I'd like you to consider: your retirement. I'll be needing a new Director of the Nuviet Central Library. You, with your unmatched data organization experience, would be a most-appropriate replacement."

"I'm honored, Your Excellency. But I'd planned to continue directing data organization aboard the TerrInforma2 until my powers of organization diminish below a threshold level." This cryptic assertion relieved Wang's sudden apprehension at the discussion of Roath's retirement. She was apprehensive about serving under a younger Datamaster recruited by Captain Brickbender from another dataship. Many Datamasters were arrogant to a fault; Roath was a welcome exception.

"I understand," reassured Bui. "But if you should reconsider my offer, you have only to textcomm me from your ship, and I'll make the arrangements for your new career.... Well now, I have some pressing business elsewhere." He removed the "book of death" from the bag but left the ebook of Krazy Kat Sunday comics in its slot. He placed the bag on the glass-topped coffeetable between them and turned to leave.

"Uh, Your Excellency?"


"Will my forearm dartgun be returned? There'll be other assassins on other worlds."

Bui's smirked. "Another reason for retiring, Datamaster Roath. But your weapon will be returned." As he swept majestically from the room, their guard came forward with Roath's empty dartgun and handed it to him. "I'll give you the darts at the bus station."

"What? No limousine back to our ship?" cracked Wang.

Roath raised his eyebrows. "Don't press our luck, Jun. After all, we've had ourselves a grand adventure, I've received a stellar job offer, and last-but-not-least: we found Krazy Kat. That should be enough success for one day."

As he left them, the unsmiling guard responded revealingly to Wang's flippant question.

"There'll be no limousine back to the spaceport, Ms. Wang. You'll just have to ride there on one of His Excellency's 'rattletrap omnibuses.'"

More Mysteries

Captain Brickbender flourished his new Krazy Kat bookcard. "This is wonderful, Eldon. Over four hundred color comics. I'll ration myself to one of them each Sunday."

"I hate to follow our Krazy Kat success with this matter, Captain, but I've been doing some serious thinking about the Autarch's job offer."

"So you want to retire, after all?"

"I've come to feel it's time for me to do so. My failing memory makes the Nuviet National Library sound like a good place for me to bask in semi-retirement. Of course, I'll regret leaving the ship, but..."

"Don't trouble yourself about that, Eldon. With your many accomplishments dating from my father's time, you've earned several retirements. What Bui pays you as Director of his library will royally add to your meager Dataship Association pension.... Tell me, do you have a recommendation for your replacement as Datamaster?"

"Yes, Captain. I believe it's time the TerrInforma2 had a datamistress, so to speak."

The ship's master grinned. "I agree."

* * *

"Congratulations, Datamaster Wang," said Roath, after her promotion ceremony. The collar of Wang Jun's uniform now bore the open-book-shaped, gold-and-enameled insignia which had been Roath's for so long. "The Captain made the best possible choice for my replacement."

"Thanks to your recommendation, Director Roath," she smiled.

"Yes. And I'd be honored to have you visit me at the Library during the ship's next visit, Jun. I'll give you the grand tour of the place and tell you about its mysteries that I've managed to plumb."

"Another 'book of death,' maybe?"

"I hope not. I anticipate solving benign bibliographic mysteries. Libraries do more than just supply information; they create wonderful intellectual challenges."

And that's the way it would be.

The End

Copyright © 2004 by Frederick Rustam

Bio:Frederick Rustam is a retired civil servant. He formerly indexed technical reports for the Department of Defense. He finds writing stories more enjoyable than indexing documents.



Read more by Frederick Rustam

Visit Aphelion's Lettercolumn and voice your opinion of this story.

Return to the Aphelion main page.