Patiently, Cren Natang awaited the screams of the two Book Lords. Despite the unpleasantness of the scene, he felt his duty demanded he remain for the final execution of his orders. Most of these vermin sought -- at first, for awhile -- to quell their natural impulses. The fire, however, always won in the end. Searing pain can be withstood only so long.
The murmurs of the crowd ebbed and flowed with anticipation. Most Gatekeepers kept themselves aloof from the commoners. Cren, however, preferred to mingle with those he protected. How better than to stand in their midst to gauge their moods, their attitudes, their fear?
Cren's tallest bodyguard, Paral Zim, rocked into him as the nearest spectators strained and shifted for a better view. Stoically, Zim planted the pillars of his legs against the surging mass. His searching gaze scanned the men and women gathered for the Purification. If any dared threaten his charge, they would soon discover the rashness of their action.
Confident in the skills of the dark-haired Zim, Cren gathered the folds of his red cloak about his arms. He leaned towards his other protector, the shorter, blond-haired Bensa Nasis, and spoke just loudly enough to be heard above the general babble.
"How many volumes did you find?" Cren asked.
Never ceasing his scrutiny of the throng, Nasis said, "Eighty volumes, Gatekeeper." A faint grin curved his youthful lips. "They make a pretty addition to the flames, don't you think?"
Cren said nothing. His gaze stuttered towards the blazing pile of branches and the crisping pages of the contraband these minor Book Lords had dared bring into his community.
Unlike some of his cohorts, the Gatekeeper tasted no pleasure in a Purification. Each blackened body, each smoldering heap of forbidden literature indicated to him not a success, but a failure.
With the shrillness of an animal snared in a predator's jaws, the first man's screams pierced the early evening air. A heavy sigh swelled from the assembled citizens. Seconds later, a deeper pitched wail escaped the second criminal. Neither perpetrator would again be able to spread his filth. The nation of Chalisa would inch closer to safety with the removal of yet another insidious threat.
Until the next time...
Despite his resolve, Cren felt his anger sharpen.
"We Purify two and how many take their place?" he murmured.
Nasis smiled uncertainly.
Waving away the words, Cren said, "Never mind. It's been a long, busy day. I'm ready for a bath, a hot meal, and a soft bed."
Not all witnesses to this justice glanced at him with fear or gratitude. Though their attention rarely lingered, many of his charges hated both him and his associates. Not everyone appreciated the good he did.
As the screams faded first with distance and then with death, Cren and his two underlings walked up the paved street towards their transport. The heavy vehicle squatted in front of the large, two-story building where the former Book Lords had been captured. Posing as simple furniture merchants, their guise had eventually been pierced by a concerned resident. For his troubles, the informant would receive his modest share of the property forfeited to the Oligarchy.
Burlier members of the block had been drafted to load the rear of the transport with the possessions of the guilty. Other guards watched their work, prodding those who appeared less than eager to assist the Gatekeeper in his official duties.
Wearily, Cren climbed into the cab and closed his eyes. His thick robe kept the gathering chill of an autumn night at bay.
This Purification marked the sixth he had attended in the past month. While removing contraband from the city cheered him, the uncharacteristic surge in Book Lord smuggling set uneasy bells of alarm tinkling in the back of his mind. Why all this activity now? Why here? A mere aberration or a sign of more significant changes in the status quo?
As the engine belched to life, Cren awoke with a start.
"Sorry, Gatekeeper," Zim said. He and Nasis sat in the seat behind Cren and the driver.
"You should have wakened me." Cren yawned and stretched, his mild remonstrance offered without annoyance.
"You need your rest," Zim said evenly.
Cren nodded absently. As soon as he returned to the Keep, he had paperwork to file. Dinner and the rest would have to wait a bit longer.
With moderate speed, Cren typed in the details of the day's events. The tip. The investigation. The discovery of the books. The capture of the transgressors upon their return from their nominal work. The judgment. The Purification. The compensation gathered in the name of the Oligarchy.
Bleary-eyed, Cren pushed back from the keyboard. Ignoring the creaking of his bones, he went to the open window and gazed across the courtyard to the high wall of the Keep. The hidden weapons and coiled energy fields protecting the enclave remained invisible beneath the doubled-shadows of the twin moons. Though grateful for that security, Cren rarely focused on the fact of its existence or pondered its implications.
Unrecognizable couples and groups of inhabitants strolled through the lush gardens lining the interior perimeter. The stark sterility of the mined earth nestled between the outer wall and the riotous growth did nothing to diminish the laughter and muffled conversations of the Keep dwellers.
The three-ascending tones of the communicator chimed behind the Gatekeeper. A flash of irritation swept through him. He suppressed it immediately.
With four large strides, he crossed the distance to the monitor and touched the appropriate key. "Gatekeeper Cren here."
The broad-faced visage of Censor Barleah blinked from the screen. "Cren. I need to talk to you."
Cren hesitated a moment.
"Now," Barleah said dryly. The connection died.
Cren swallowed. His heart skipped to a faster pace as the Censor's matter-of-fact tone filtered through.
What could his superior possibly want at this late hour?
As he scurried towards the door, Cren's gaze flickered to the ceremonial crimson robe he wore as his official badge of authority. Donning that, he could stride the streets outside the Keep and none dared challenge or question him. His word flowed naturally from the power he held as a sacred trust.
Once within the imposing barriers enveloping the Keep, however, that covering became nothing more than a length of colorful cloth. Other hierarchies reigned here. A long distance lay between his station and the top.
When Barleah did not offer him a chair, Cren felt a sliver of dread slide coldly through his veins.
Leaning back in his leather chair, his long fingers splayed across the curve of his jaw, Censor Barleah tapped a command into a keyboard. A second later, Cren's unfinished report flashed onto the screen. For agonizing seconds, the Censor read through the summaries and surmises.
Slowly, Barleah swiveled. His large hands lay limply on the richly finished wood of his desk.
"You've been with us, what? Five, six years, Gatekeeper?"
"Five years this autumn, Censor." The older man knew precisely when Cren had donned the red robe. Without effort, Barleah could recite the statistics regarding any of his myriad underlings. Cren, however, would never point out that obvious fact.
Barleah fanned through a thin sheaf of papers resting in an open folder. "You've done adequately to date." The Censor steepled his fingers and peered across their tips at Cren. "The Overseer, however, is concerned with this recent rash of arrests."
Biting back the urge to defend himself, Cren merely nodded. He would wait for an actual question before he responded.
"You are the youngest of the four Gatekeepers covering this district. Some say that might explain this jump." Barleah lifted a brow. "Some say you are especially vigilant and diligent, eager to prove yourself."
A breath of relief washed through Cren.
"Some, however, say the Book Lords have targeted you as a weak link in the chain safeguarding Chalisa." The Censor's eyes narrowed. "I am not certain whom to believe."
Cren blinked away the sweat dripping into his eyes. Furiously, his mind raced for possible explanations for this blasphemy. Who had he offended? Who sought to replace him? Who --?
"How would you reply, Gatekeeper, to such conjectures?"
To buy a fraction of time, Cren cleared his throat. The stubbornness his parents had inadvertently instilled in him thrust itself forward. His lips thinned. "I do my duty, Censor."
Silence ticked by.
"You have nothing more to say?" Barleah asked with deceptive mildness.
Brusquely, Cren shook his head. "I honor my oath to defend Chalisa. I cannot speak for the actions of the Book Lords."
A glimmer of a smile flickered on Barleah's lips. "It is true that not everyone appreciates the difficulties inherent in being a Gatekeeper." With an off-handed wave, the Censor indicated the straight-backed chair setting at an angle before his desk.
Caught off-guard by the sudden puncturing of the tension, Cren managed to plop onto the chair before his rubbery legs betrayed him and deposited him on the rug. He gave no indication that the mood of this meeting had abruptly changed.
"You know, of course," Barleah said conversationally, "that I, too, worked my way up in the Keep. I earned my position as Gatekeeper." He stabbed a finger against the desk. "Just as I earned my promotion to Censor."
Cren nodded dumbly, not yet trusting his voice.
"Before your father died, he asked me to help guide you in your career."
Cren blinked at that revelation. Though his stern father had, of course, known the Censor -- everyone living in the Keep knew everyone else -- Cren had never suspected any personal ties between the two intimidating elders. As Chief Librarian, Wenla Natang had wielded his own brand of power. Far below the dizzying heights of an Overseer or even a Censor, but still a force the Oligarchy often consulted when dealing with Outsiders.
"Not all nations wish Chalisa well," Barleah said softly. "They would love nothing more than to weaken us, corrupt us, conquer us. Indeed, even some citizens of Chalisa -- even some Keep dwellers -- might welcome such destruction. They would personally benefit from disruptions in the natural order."
A frown danced across Cren's mouth. "We must excise any who would topple the Oligarchy."
Barleah nodded. "I'm glad to hear that, Gatekeeper. Your devotion soothes my worries." He spread his hands. "Unfortunately, certain members of the Oligarchy believe a Gatekeeper must be proactive as well as reactive."
The frigid worms of doubt returned to gnaw at Cren's composure. "I seek out violators with all my energy," he blurted out. "I do not shirk my --"
Barleah held up a restraining hand. "I know. I know! Yet some prefer that no contraband pass our borders. Indeed, by the time a Purification is performed, damage to the populace has already been done. Books sold. Books read. Books defiling the innocent inhabitants of our nation. Some of the Oligarchy are displeased."
Numbness crept along Cren's spine. Surely, this cannot be happening. Surely, they do not think I have --
"To appease the doubters, I am confiscating your share of the property forfeited by the Book Lords you Purified today."
"Yes, Censor," Cren said flatly.
"Perhaps if you are able to demonstrate more...initiative...in the coming weeks, those whose duty requires making harsh judgments for the good of the people will recognize and correct their current misconceptions."
"Yes, Censor." Though his action breached protocol, he stood. The trembling rage seething at the members of the Oligarchy roared hotter within him. His initial fear evaporated as the injustice of the faceless accusations gouged into him.
Barleah did not rebuke his subordinate. "A word of caution, Gatekeeper."
"Rumors abound." The Censor paused. "Some suggest that Ratters are behind this recent rash of incidents."
Cren's eyes widened. "Ratters?" The research and trade ships -- the R.A.T. ships and their crews -- from the Freezone had not been spotted on the planet for over three decades. "Our satellites have spotted their ships?"
"No. Not yet. Not for certain, anyway." Barleah chewed on his lip. "If they have returned, however, I think the threats we have faced before will pale into insignificance compared to the menace of the near future."
At that dire prediction, Cren could only nod his agreement.
For the next three weeks, Cren seethed across his territory like a spring twister storm. If Outsiders -- especially if in league with the Ratters -- meant to destabilize Chalisan society, they would have to do so over his corpse. Apparently, all the Gatekeepers -- not only those in the capital city of Merisal -- had received warnings similar to Cren's. The nation of Chalisa witnessed a wave of Purification unlike any that had gone before.
The continent of Singa had been controlled by Chalisa for centuries. Formerly autonomous nations had been absorbed, peacefully or otherwise, until the Oligarchy commanded absolute power. On the other continent, Actix, however, disparate factions dwelled together in obscene disunity. Often the Oligarchy had coveted those distant territories, but their one attempt half a century before to subdue the unruly heathens had been slapped down with fierce resistance. Only later had they discovered how the Ratters had assisted the other inhabitants of the planet, Enchik, to defeat the invasion.
The Oligarchy had steeled itself for a counter-attack that had never materialized. The decadent citizens of Actix had been content merely to blunt the air and sea forces of their enemy. Why they had not pressed their advantage remained a mystery to the leaders. Indeed, the entire humiliating sequence had ceased to exist as an official event. Only those licensed to own books had learned of the brief conflict. Beyond those, only the Keep residents who were permitted access to higher technology such as computers, telecommunications, and the like knew precisely what types of energy weapons the Actix coalition had brought to bear from the Ratter orbital platforms.
Every individual licensed to own books endured Cren's probing. Every volume had to be reconciled with the official register of what he claimed to possess as well as the list of titles approved by the Overseer. Any discrepancies led to instant forfeiture of all books and the confiscation of the offender's personal and business property. The accused found themselves jailed awaiting trial and sentencing. Anyone suspected of trafficking in books faced immediate Purification. While Gatekeepers in other territories preferred hanging or decapitation or live burial as the ultimate punishment, Cren remained wedded to the traditional. Fire best symbolized the goal of cleansing he strove towards.
Cren studied the wrinkled face of the man standing before him. All day he had sat in this field office listening and noting remarks and marveling at the cooperation of those he had come to aid.
"You're certain you saw him reading?" Cren asked. The question had become a familiar litany.
The bearded fellow bobbed his head like a pecking bird. His pale gray eyes tracked those of the Gatekeeper with hungry intensity. His slacks and jacket bespoke reasonable wealth and station. Cren knew his best informants came not from those who could truly benefit from a portion of any forfeited wealth. The most ardent help flowed from the respectable community leaders acting from public spirited dedication.
"His business is across the street from mine," the middle-aged man said. Fleder, Cren believed his name was. "I can see him through his window," Fleder said, pointing, as though visualizing the scene even now. "Furtive, he is. Sometimes he lowers his shades in the middle of the day! I've seen the books in his hands. Always when he's alone." The man chuckled. "Or so he thinks! He's a bold one, Gatekeeper. You had best be on your guard with him."
"I appreciate your assistance, Citizen Fleder." Cren's gaze met the guard's. "I've taken down your information. We'll inform you of the result of our investigation. Now. If you'll follow the guard out."
Fleder stalled. "You won't delay? The bastard steals more of my customers every day. I wager he entices them with illicit books. I've even seen him conversing with children. Children, mind you! He's evil. You have to stop him, Gatekeeper. You have to --"
Pasting a smile over his impatience, Cren interrupted the chattering businessman. "Thank you. We'll contact you soon."
Before Fleder could elaborate on the horrors of his competitor, the guard half-lifted him from the floor and hustled him outside.
Sagging into his chair, Cren waved at Zim. "That's all for now. Have the rest come back in an hour. I need a break."
The closing door cut off the buzzing protests of the other citizens awaiting their turn to cooperate with the Gatekeeper. Cren snatched at a glass of ice water and gulped down half its contents.
"I wonder at the eagerness of these people," Cren said. "Which of them seek to use me to eliminate enemies and which come forward as a way to divert attention from themselves?"
Zim grunted. "We'll check them all, Gatekeeper. No secrets for any of them."
Cren winced. "Yes. We'll check them all." He assayed a tired smile. "Job security, eh, Zim?"
The guard nodded.
Cren gave a mental shrug. Neither Zim nor Nasis evidenced any inclination towards unnecessary conversation. Luckily, he had his fiance, Muresh, to fulfill that void in his life.
He glanced at his watch. "Damn. I'm late." Abruptly he stood and headed for the door. "Come along," he said, waving to his men. "Muresh does not tolerate tardiness."
The Seven Points Restaurant catered primarily to Keep residents. It featured dark, polished wood, tinkling fountains, and tropical plants situated tastefully about the premises. Such environs afforded the leaders of Chalisa a relaxing escape from the demands of their social responsibilities. Soothing instrumental music issued from concealed speakers. The spotlighted paintings hanging on the walls featured famous people and favorite landscapes.
Cren paused inside the entrance and presented the back of his hand to the doorman. Politely, the white-haired gentleman waved a scanner over the tattooed code. Every Singan received that insignia upon reaching his or her majority. A second stretched while the Keep's central computers verified Cren's identity, age, occupation, and other details of his life.
The scanner light changed from orange to blue, granting the Gatekeeper permission to enter. The doorman bowed. Cren nodded then headed for his usual table. Zim and Nasis imitated their leader then faded towards the anonymity of a place near the door. There, they could eat in peace yet maintain their vigil.
In practice, Cren's red robe made the data check superfluous. Anyone imitating a Gatekeeper would rapidly be separated from his head. Cren did not mind the formality, however. His duty required him to set a good example for those under his wing.
Muresh already sipped at a glass of white wine. A menu lay folded across her gold-rimmed plate.
"Hello, Muresh," Cren said, taking his chair. "Sorry I'm late. We've had more people than expected offering us leads."
A wavering whisper of pique washed across Muresh's oval features. Her short, auburn hair framed hazel eyes which met his boldly. A corner of her mouth curved wryly as though she had reconsidered her initial reaction.
"Let it never be said I take precedence over the work of a Gatekeeper."
A shiver of...annoyance?...alarm?...amusement?...swept through Cren. Automatically, he lowered his voice. "I wish you wouldn't make light of such concerns. Not all listeners would understand your true meaning."
Muresh's eyes sparkled wickedly. "Do you?"
Flustered, Cren opened his menu and scanned the selections. "Please. I just want to eat."
"Would you like some wine?" Muresh held up her glass and arched a brow.
"Oh. Fine. Yes."
Catching the waiter's attention, Muresh indicated her drink then nodded at Cren.
When the wine arrived, the couple ordered a light meal.
The Gatekeeper downed a large portion of his drink and closed his eyes. A sigh blew between his lips. "I've been running like a denth the past few weeks. I'll be glad when we get this problem under control."
"You'll be waiting a long time, dear."
Cren's brow wrinkled. "What do you mean? We've had a fifty-percent increase in arrests and forfeitures. Purifications this year are at an all-time high."
"Of course. We do this from love of our people. How else will they improve? Our duty is to save them from their baser instincts. Despite the unpleasant tasks we perform towards that end, our intentions, our motivations are pure."
They paused in their conversation as soup arrived.
Muresh gazed into the bowl of thick stock with its ragged chunks of seafood and freshly harvested vegetables.
"I've heard the rumors about the Ratters," she said.
Cren realized he should not have been surprised at that revelation. "You Librarians hear entirely too much."
Delicately blowing on a spoonful of soup, Muresh chewed then swallowed. "Hmm. Delicious. The chefs have such an artful touch with spices." She dabbed at her lips with a silky napkin. "Keeping track of information is part of our job."
Cren frowned. "That makes my job no easier."
"I thought we were on the same side...?"
"Secrets shared are secrets lost," Cren said sullenly. "We managed long ago to expunge any record of the Ratters among the general populace. Questions regarding such heretics would merely complicate our task."
"But you can't actually force a change beliefs once held."
"Perhaps not. But we can offer an incentive to avoid evil. Fear of punishment helps to stifle actions. Without thoughts expressed in deeds, the chains of unhealthy habits never form."
For a few seconds, Muresh consumed her soup. Her voice came softly. "Apparently far too many refuse to comply. As you say, books appear everywhere."
Cren's mouth firmed. "We can't abandon our healing simply because some refuse to be cured of their illness."
"I haven't heard the issue described in those terms before."
Eagerly, Cren leaned forward. "This reading of illicit material. It's like an addiction. The lower classes become hooked on false ideas, tainted beliefs, depraved stories eliciting perverse emotions. They develop insatiable appetites for these degenerate works."
"And the Book Lords are only too happy to supply them with more and more books."
"Yes! At higher and higher prices. The average Chalisan cannot afford such an abuse of his resources. If not for our devotion in safeguarding their interests, they would succumb totally to these sinister purveyors."
Deftly, the waiter removed their soup bowls and brought the entrees.
Muresh sliced off a steaming piece of medium rare steak. "Surely there are not enough books stolen or misplaced to account for the numbers you are finding."
Cren smiled wearily. "Perceptive as always. That's why I love you."
Muresh returned the expression. "Hopefully, that's not the only reason." Before Cren could decipher her comment, she said, "I love you, too."
"Um, thanks. But you're correct. Not only are we discovering purloined volumes printed by the Keeps, we're collecting titles --" Quickly, Cren glanced about. No other diners sat near them. "We're finding books privately printed."
Surprise lit Muresh's face. "How is that possible? Only those in the Keeps have the capacity to print and bind books."
Cren inhaled a deep breath. "Either the Actixans are smuggling in their own manufactures..."
"...or the Ratters are selling presses to our own people."
Cren scowled. "The mercenary bastards! Their venality, their greed... Their only goal is profit. They cavalierly ignore the salvation, the sanctity of their customers' souls. They care nothing for what is truly best for society."
Muresh chewed thoughtfully on the steak. "But what are they printing? Even if they somehow obtain unlicensed paper and ink and so forth, are they merely producing facsimiles of already approved or censored Chalisa titles? Or...?"
Cren nodded dourly. "Not only must we contend with the malignancy of Book Lords spreading unauthorized merchandise, we may be forced to expand our net to include printers...and writers. With increasing frequency, we stumble across new, deviant titles, often poorly produced, but original filth, nonetheless."
"People penning poisonous sacrilege merely to gain wealth."
"Exactly! Or adulterating the works of others."
Muresh laughed. "Next thing you know, they'll be wrapping sample pages around bits of candy to seduce the young."
Cren cringed. "Please," he hissed. "Some will not realize you're joking."
Muresh's smile faded. "Yes. I suppose you're right. None of this is particularly funny."
Cren opened his mouth to reply but did not. For some odd reason he could not quite pinpoint, his fiancé's words disturbed him.
The rest of the meal crawled by with only an occasional comment or pleasantry. The tone of Muresh's observations did nothing to melt the ice gradually accreting around Cren's heart.
Bright sunlight promised a warm autumn day.
Unpleasant dreams had kept Cren tossing throughout the night. He had risen early, eaten sparsely, then rousted Zim and Nasis from their quarters. He did not mention his agitation, but he knew it was plain to see.
As the trio passed the Keep Library, Cren glanced up the broad granite steps. Two armed guards stood ready before the locked, metal doors. Neither moved, yet the Gatekeeper felt their hooded eyes tracking even his every move.
Forgoing a heavy transport, Cren selected a passenger vehicle. The driver glared his displeasure at being called to work at such an early hour but said nothing. One did not dispute the wishes of a Gatekeeper.
Brooding, Cren studied the sheets he had printed off the night before. The candidates listed there presented the most evidence for prohibited activity.
Muresh did not fully appreciate what his station in life cost him. Destroying malevolent men and their harmful wares did nothing to brighten his days. Akin to a doctor curing disease, he acted as reality dictated. While a bleak satisfaction might be his after rooting out decay, he hardly relished the lot his father had bequeathed him.
As best he could, Cren shook off the doubts Muresh kindled in him. For not the first time since their engagement, he wondered if his future bride presented more danger than benefit. For someone immersed in shepherding the commoners towards a moral life, her attitudes bordered on cynical impiety. She knew the truth -- as least as much as the Overseer permitted them to learn. She had no excuse for her willful ignorance. Even less so did he understand her barely veiled contempt for the system that nurtured their careers and their lives.
He could not protect her forever. Indeed, he sometimes doubted he wanted to do so. One day her sly tongue would betray her. Hopefully, it would not betray him, as well.
The first three residents they visited did nothing to improve Cren's foul mood. Zim and Nasis had no difficulty breaking in the doors of the suspected lawbreakers. Half-asleep and by turns terrified or indignant, the men and their families endured the raids. Cren did not fear -- did not care -- how they reacted. Only Keep residents could possess energy or projectile weapons. The Oligarchy had ensured that proper condition long before.
When the searches revealed nothing, Cren decided he had endured enough false information.
Sliding into the back seat of their vehicle, he said, "Zim!"
"I want to visit these so-called 'informants.' If they believe they can waste the precious time of a Gatekeeper merely to harass a personal enemy, we will disabuse them of such stupidity."
Zim nodded and whispered to the driver.
As they pulled into the post-dawn streets, Cren gazed at the slowly awakening city. Vendors and apprentices made their way to places of business. Smaller children hurried off to learn their alphabets and the simple reading skills sufficient to operate in Chalisan society. Movers loaded furniture into a transport for a citizen moving to larger quarters.
Cren blinked. "Stop!" he shouted.
Whirling about, he stared out the window at two men struggling to haul a cloth-covered item up a ramp into the back of the rental transport. An early morning breeze had flapped a loosely tied corner of the wrap.
Moments passed before the strangers realized they had fallen under the scrutiny of a Gatekeeper. Immediately, they redoubled their efforts to load the mystery object.
The second man almost reached the top of the incline when he slipped on the dew-covered metal and lost his balance. Frantically, he scrambled to hold on to his end. Momentum and inertia tore the weighty piece through his clutching hands. The boxy...something...bounced heavily. A spray of tiny rectangles showered from beneath the covering and bounced onto the pavement.
Cren's eyes widened in shocked disbelief. Impulsively, he flung open the door and raced towards the opposite side of the street. The hem of his red robe fluttered like the wings of a startled bird. Seconds behind him, Zim and Nasis pushed outside.
"You!" the Gatekeeper shouted, pointing imperiously at the nearest laborer. "Come down here."
The first hauler skidded to a stop at the lip of the trailer. A sweep of his gaze painted the picture for him in stark colors. A short curse uttered with a foreign accent cut through the chill air.
Without hesitation, the man reached inside his jacket. A curiously shaped device gleaming with unnatural brightness emerged in his large hand. Grimly, he aimed the obvious weapon at Cren's head.
Before the Gatekeeper could react, he felt an unpleasant tingling coursing through his brain and along his body. Despite his raging indignation, he lost control of his limbs, his tongue, his eyes.
Consciousness constricted to a narrow tunnel of awareness. Before that passageway faded to darkness, however, he glimpsed the second miscreant producing a similar gadget. Any confusion the criminal had initially displayed had vaporized in an urgent professionalism.
Ebony blankness swallowed the last of Cren's soul.
Pain ratcheted through Cren's head. Like the shattered shards of a glittering glass puzzle, perception reassembled itself into a parody of coherence. The Gatekeeper groaned. Daggers of light bored through his half-opened lids.
As he rolled onto his side, strong hands steadied him.
"Easy there, Gatekeeper," the voice warned him.
Gradually the agony faded to a manageable level of discomfort. Worse than a massive hangover, the aftereffects of the beam which had struck him refused to disperse.
Someone shoved a sweating glass of iced water into his trembling fingers. "Drink this. You'll feel better."
Coughing, half-choking on the liquid, Cren bathed his parched throat. His voice croaked when he spoke. "What happened?" he asked, slurring the words. "Where...?"
A massive body eclipsed the yellow light digging into his skull. Grateful for the shadow, Cren peeled his lids apart and gazed towards his benefactor.
"The Book Lord who shot you is dead. His mystery beam proved no match for my bullets. Nasis rests in another bedroom. I managed to avoid the beam by shielding myself behind our vehicle."
"The other Book Lord...?"
Zim waved to the opposite side of the bedroom. The battered features of the man on the ramp -- the one who had slipped at such an inopportune time -- barely allowed Cren to identify him. He lay on the floor, moaning.
"I see you've been busy, Zim."
"I had to be certain others who might endanger you were not nearby."
Squinting, Cren turned and shielded his bloodshot eyes against the glare of the mid-morning sun. "Close those damned curtains, will you?"
Quickly, Zim pulled the drapes together.
"A citizen who witnessed the assault. He was kind enough to offer assistance."
"See that he's rewarded for his civic-mindedness." Cren gulped down more water.
"We've brought in more men. Secured the neighborhood. Performed a preliminary search of the Book Lords' home. No books there or on the transport. Paper, though. Lots of it. And ink."
"Where's the press?"
"Against the wall."
Staggering erect, Cren waved off Zim's extended hand and shuffled towards the still-covered contraband. A pile of metal type formed a mound on the rich carpet. With a flourish, he swept the cloth from the press. Primitive by Keep standards. The Oligarchy printed books electronically. This crude press, however, required no computer, not even electricity. It was portable after its fashion. Could be moved from place to place as secrecy and safety demanded.
Carelessness had cost these Book Lords dearly. A poorly tied knot had come loose. A vagrant breeze had billowed the cloth at precisely the wrong moment. Dew had literally caused them to slip up. Had sent incriminating type cascading to the street.
"Sent to the Keep under heavy guard."
Cren nodded. Damn! He had hoped to examine them personally. "They were not of Chalisan design."
"Doubtful even of Actix."
Zim offered no opinion on that score.
"Ratter...?" Cren whispered.
The Book Lord stirred.
With whatever speed he could muster, the Gatekeeper knelt beside the malefactor. "Do you recognize that word? Do you belong to those devils?"
Trembling, the criminal levered up on an elbow and opened puffy eyes. Defiantly, he met Cren's piercing gaze. "You bastard." Barely audible, the peculiarly accented insult clashed with the faint smile on the man's cracked, swollen lips. "One way or the other. Has to go. Your force. Guns, fire. My ideas. I bet on me."
A spasm wracked the prisoner. Blood founted from his mouth and down the front of his shirt in a crimson waterfall. Bonelessly, he collapsed. A final, rattling breath escaped his lungs.
Shaking his head, Cren wavered erect. "Damn it, Zim," he said painfully. "I needed to talk with him."
The guard offered no defense. In the war against the Book Lords, none was required.
Cren froze at what he saw laying on an elegant dressing table. "Whose book is that?"
"We found it in the cab of the Book Lord's transport."
Spinning on Zim, the Gatekeeper lashed out at this convenient target for his frustrations and his doubts. "Damn it, Zim! You told me you found no books."
In two strides, he reached the table and snatched up the thick volume. Bound in rich, burgundy leather with gilded paper, he stared at the alien title. A Complete History of the Freezone. By Nelius Canby. Published by Hazlitt Press, Ltd.
His fingers dug into the soft covering. "You didn't look at this, did you?"
"Gatekeeper!" At last, a hint of alarm laced the guard's voice. "I am not licensed to read. I would never risk my soul for such evil."
Mollified, Cren gripped the book as though it might somehow open itself.
What neither of them stated but which each of them knew, even as a Gatekeeper, he did not have the authority to read a book unapproved by the Overseer.
And how urgently, how badly he ached to scan the words buried between those covers! He could learn so much about his adversaries, could understand...
Silence stretched uncounted. His forehead throbbed unmercifully.
Abruptly, Cren locked eyes with Zim. "Bring your flamer. Now!"
Rushing ahead, the Gatekeeper leaped down the steps to the first floor. Like a comet, he burst through the open front doorway into the brilliant midday sun.
Across the street, locals dutifully stripped the property from the Book Lords' home and stacked it in the Keep transports Zim had summoned. Other citizens stood patiently in line answering the questions of guards assigned to gather information on the criminals' routines. Still more men, women, and children milled about the periphery, ogling and gossiping among themselves at the flurry of activity. They gasped at the sight of a disheveled Gatekeeper bounding down the stairs to the sidewalk.
Close behind Cren, Zim charged his pocket flamer.
As though it might infect him by touch alone, ensnare him in its deadly spell, Cren tossed this prime example of the printer's art onto the cold pavement.
The book landed edge-down and opened near the middle, a thick wedge of paper curling under the pressure.
"Burn it," Cren said between clenched teeth. "Burn it now."
Stooping nearer, Zim sprayed the book with the flamer. The tiny bonfire roared in a miniature volcano of freed energy. The flames arched towards the sky, the smoke turning from white to gray to black. Small though the fire was, it forced the guard to step back from its searing heat.
When at last the book had been purified, only a scorched mark on the ground and wisps of blowing ash remained as evidence that it ever existed.
Cren's heaving chest eased, his breathing slowed as the pyre disappeared.
At the curious stares of the on-lookers, his anger boiled to overflowing.
"Let this be a lesson to you!" he screamed. "The unknown can kill you. Avoid it at all costs." His finger jabbed at the dirty bits of soot polluting the sidewalk. "Someone get soap and water and clean away this filth." When no one moved to comply, his face reddened. "Now!" he roared.
As the citizens scrambled to obey, the Gatekeeper sagged back and sank onto the steps, exhausted beyond description.
As a trio of women poured sudsy water onto the stain and scrubbed fiercely at the mark left by the book, Cren felt the hollowness swell within him.
The Book Lords had both died. Their blasphemous book had been destroyed in a cloud of debris. The alien press would soon be beaten into scrap.
They had lost.
So why did it seem so real that they had won?
Leaning against the stone stairs, Gatekeeper Cren squeezed shut his eyes against the dazzling autumn sun.
The reddish radiance of the light, however, still warmed his sight. A deeply buried part of him wondered in dismay if he would ever escape that penetrating glow.
An even deeper corner of his mind hoped he would not.