Vinson Gant paced back and forth restlessly, his heels clicking in staccato beats off the bare stone floor. Carpet would have been more pleasant to walk on, and deaden the sounds of his footfalls that even he found irritating, but would have been impossible. The beakers and pipettes of multicolored liquids, the flaming lamps over which fluids in glass tubes bubbled, and the steel trays set out for dissection all marked the room as an alchemical laboratory. Caustic spills and vile-smelling stains would have long defaced any carpet laid beneath.
Once again Gant looked over at the dully ticking clock set out on his recording desk. Since precise timing was vital for many of his experiments he had imported the finest timepiece available, and so he knew that when it read eleven minutes past two this was the actual hour. Where were they? He'd told them repeatedly that he absolutely had to have this delivery by two-thirty! Without it, days of work and hundreds of meseta's worth of reagents would go to waste! It would mean delays, intolerable delays!
"Where could they be? They've rarely been later than midnight before, quarter to one at the latest! What's keeping them?" Gant did not even realize that he'd spoken aloud in his agitation.
Time crept agonizingly by, the ticking clock echoed by the sharper, higher-pitched noise of Gant's footfalls. A minute passed, then two, then three, then four. Finally, a new sound cut through Gant's awareness, a dull, muffled thump. The sound of a gloved hand knocking softly on the back door!
With a speed one would not have expected from his withered frame, Gant sprang to the door, slid back the two heavy bolts holding it shut, and flung the iron-bound wood portal open.
"Quickly, quickly!" he hissed, beckoning to the two men who stood with their heavy burlap sack between them.
"We've done this before, Doctor," grumbled the elder of the two brothers. Named Atto, he was as always stubble-faced and his clothes were rumpled. Rikh, the younger one, was a bit shorter and plumper but more nattily dressed.
"Why are you so late?" Gant asked as they brought the sack inside. He quickly closed and relocked the door. "It's almost--"
"Two-thirty; we know. You've got fifteen more minutes before you've got a right to whine. We ought to be the ones complaining. You're lucky you're getting this at all."
Atto and Rikh levered the sack up onto a table. The elder brother loosed the drawstring.
"Yeah!" Rikh contributed, his voice surprisingly shrill. "The first couple times they just put on some new locks and had a watchman make rounds, but after that third job we pulled for you last week, the town guard took things seriously! There were four soldiers and two cyborgs on guard, and all the doors and windows locked and bolted! We were lucky to be able to sneak in!"
"Darn lucky if you ask me," Atto added. "If those three watching the back hadn't all gone after our little diversion at once, we'd never have gotten in at all."
"Maybe you should have thought of that before you killed that watchman last time, then!" Gant snapped. "I hired you to steal bodies, not make fresh ones."
"Well, I think you'll be happy with this one," Atto said, and he pulled down the sack to reveal the figure of a young, red-haired woman. She was dressed in the same shade as her hair, though with white gloves and boots, and there was a faint creamy blush to her skin not ordinarily associated with the bloodless dead.
"My word!" Gant exclaimed. "Is she...I mean, she almost looks alive!"
"Yeah. Sure she's alive. Lots of people go on living with no breath or heartbeat."
"'Course, we made sure of that," Rikh chipped in. "Sort of a guarantee for the merchandise."
"What do you mean?" Gant rounded on him. "If you've damaged the specimen in any way with your clumsy perversions..."
The younger resurrection man took a sudden, involuntary step back, as if there was something in Gant's vehemence that was more than anger. Perhaps there was; Atto and Rikh might have stolen corpses from the morgue, but they did it for money. Their inhumanity lay in their lack of respect for the dead, but neither one could conceive of actually wanting a dead body. They certainly didn't understand Gant's experiments in the subtleties of alchemy, their vital importance to the Orakian people.
Most people did find the unknown to be fearful.
"He just means," Atto interjected, "that we held a pillow over her face to smother her, just in case we'd got it wrong. No damage to the goods, Doctor."
"Yes," Gant replied, slowly nodding. "Yes, I suppose so. It would not do, say, to have a living cataleptic to work on. Such things have occurred before."
"Hadn't you better be paying us our money? It's getting closer to two-thirty, and I'm sure you want to be on with your work."
Atto was right. The alchemist had allowed himself to become distracted by the corpse when time was of the essence! He all but sprang to the battered roll-top desk where the clock sat and pushed aside experimental journals and ledgers so he could reach out a steel strongbox from one of the pigeonholes. This he unlatched--he never bothered with the lock--and began to count out meseta.
"Here!" he said, turning to the men. "Five hundred for each of you, as promised." He poured the money into their outstretched hands.
"One thousand meseta? Is that all corpse-theft and murder go for these days?" a woman asked, her voice carrying an almost wistful note in it.
"Guards!" Gant exclaimed. "You fools; you were followed!"
"We weren't!" Rikh protested. "We took every precaution. No one could have followed us unseen!"
"I didn't have to follow you."
The three men watched in wide-eyed horror as the corpse sat up.
"Not only have I witnessed your theft, but also the purchase of a stolen corpse. Plus, I have your confessions to previous acts, including the murder of the watchman. You'll certainly pay the price for breaking Orakio's Law."
The two body-snatchers reacted in exactly opposite fashions. Rikh shrank back into the nearest corner with a shriek of fear at this risen corpse who spoke of judgment, while Atto instead leapt at her with a drawn knife and a wild yell.
She caught her attacker's upraised arm at the wrist, the arisen body's strength much greater than her relatively slight frame would suggest. Her free hand struck out, stunning Atto with a single counterblow. She let him fall, then extended her claws, triple blades of steel sliding from recessed sheaths in her forearms.
"I think we should go along quietly, don't you?" she asked with mock politeness. Time was of the essence, after all.
"Wh-what are you?" Gant babbled.
"I am a combat cyborg, designation Mieu type. My master, Prince Rhys, thought your depraved crimes might be connected to the Layan fiend who stole his bride." She shook her head. "He won't be happy that we've wasted three days waiting for you to take the bait. Now please do surrender. As an android I am technically exempt from Orakio's Law, but I'd still have to hate to kill you, especially since you all thought my organic sheath was so much like a living person's. After a few centuries, a girl really starts to worry if she's showing her age, you know."