A mile beneath the glittering surface of Deluros VIII, the capital of mankind's sprawling Oligarchy, two men rode a slidewalk down a long, dimly lit corridor, their voices echoing in the vast emptiness. One wore gray, one white. They passed a door, then four more.
"I wonder what he'll be like?" mused the man in gray.
The man in white shrugged. "Old and sick."
"I know," agreed the man in gray. "But I've seen so many holos of him when he was...well, you know.
"When he was the most famous killer in the galaxy?" asked his companion sardonically.
"He did most of his killing on the side of the law."
"So the legend goes."
"You sound like you think otherwise," said the man in gray.
"No. But I know how legends get made."
The slidewalk brought them to a security checkpoint, then stopped until their ID badges and retinas had been scanned. It began moving again, only to stop once more at a second checkpoint fifty yards farther on.
"Is this really necessary?" asked the man in gray.
"The richest men and women in the Oligarchy lie helpless down here," came the answer. "They are totally defenseless--and believe me, nobody gets that rich without making enemies."
"I know," said the man in gray. He gestured ahead to two more checkpoints. "I was just wondering if we're going to have to pass through one of these stations every forty or fifty yards."
"I was afraid of that."
"Add it to your bill," said the man in white.
After another two hundred yards the corridor branched off and they chose the sidewalk that veered to the right. The doors came more frequently now, as did the checkpoints, but finally they came to a halt in front of a door that appeared no different from any of the others.
"We're here," said the man in whites allowing the scanner above the door to verify his retina and palm print.
"I feel nervous," said the man in gray, as the door slid into the wall long enough for them to pass through.
"It's a simple enough procedure."
"But he doesn't know who we are."
"What if he's happy the way he is? What if we annoy him? What if he kills people for bothering him?"
"If he was in any condition to kill people, he wouldn't be here," said the man in white. "Lights!"
The room was instantly bathed in a dim blue glow.
"Can't you make it any brighter than this?" asked the man in gray.
"He hasn't opened his eyes in more than a century," replied his companion. "The room will wait until it knows his pupils are adjusting before it gets any brighter." He walked past a number of drawers built into the wall, checking their numbers, then came to a stop. "Drawer 10547."
A drawer slowly emerged from the wall, stretching to its full eight-foot length. The two men could barely make out the shape of a human body beneath the translucent covering.
"Jefferson Nighthawk," mused the man in gray. "The Jefferson Nighthawk." He paused. "It's not what I expected."
"I thought there'd be all kinds of wires and tubes attached to him."
"Barbaric," snorted the man in white. "There are three monitoring devices implanted in his body. That's all he needs."
"How does he breathe?"
"He's breathing right now."
The man in gray stared, trying to detect the tiniest sign of movement.
"I don't see anything."
"He's doing it so slowly that only the computer can tell. DeepSleep slows the metabolism down to a crawl; it doesn't stop it, or we'd be down here with thirty thousand corpses."
"So what do you do now?"
"I'm doing it," said the man in white. He walked over to the drawer where the body lay, laid his hand over a scanner until it identified his fingerprints, then tapped in a code on a keyboard that suddenly extended from the scanner.
"How long will this take?"
"For you or me, probably a minute. For the people we've got down here, maybe four or five minutes."
"Why so long?"
"If they weren't dying, they wouldn't be here in the first place. In their weakened conditions, they take longer to respond to external stimuli." The man in white looked up from the body. "More than one has died from the shock of being awakened."
"Not likely. His heart reads pretty close to normal, considering."
"But if I were you, I'd brace myself for when he finally wakes up."
"Why? You've already told me he won't die, and that he's too sick to pose a threat even if he wanted to. So what's the problem?"
"Have you ever seen a man in the advanced stages of eplasia?"
"No," admitted the man in gray.
"They're not pretty. And that's an understatement."
They both fell silent as the body in front of them gradually began acquiring color. After two more minutes the translucent top slid into the wall, revealing an emaciated man whose flesh was hideously disfigured by the ravages of a virulent skin disease. Patches of shining white cheekbone protruded through the flesh of the face, knuckles pierced the skin of the hands, and even where the skin remained intact it looked like there was some malignancy crawling across it and discoloring it.
The man in gray turned away in disgust, then forced himself to look back. He half expected the airs to smell of rotting flesh, but it remained pure and filtered.
Finally the eyelids flickered, once, twice, and then, slowly, they opened, revealing light blue, almost colorless eyes. The diseased man remained motionless for a full minute, then frowned.
Excerpted from The Widowmaker
by Mike Resnick. Copyright (c) 1996 by Mike Resnick. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Spectra, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.