It’s Friday again, and you know what that means, right? Right! Time for another free first chapter to whet your appetite for more. This week, we decided to bring you the first chapter — the very first chapter EVER, written in 1984, for the book titled Agent of Change, published in 1988 by Del Rey, as a paperback original
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Excerpt from Agent of Change, © Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, 1988
Standard Year 1392
THE MAN WHO was not Terrence O’Grady had come quietly.
And that, Sam insisted, was clear proof. Terry had never done anything quietly in his life if there was a way to get a fight out of it.
Pete, walking at Sam’s left behind the prisoner, wasn’t so sure. To all appearances, the man they had taken was Terrence O’Grady. He had the curly, sandy hair, the pug nose, and the archaic black-framed glasses over pale blue eyes, and he walked with a limp of the left leg, which the dossier said was a souvenir of an accident way back when he’d been mining in the Belt of Terado.
They stopped at a door set deep into the brick wall of the alley. Up in front, Russ raised his fist and struck the heavy kreelwood twice.
They waited, listening to the noises of the night city beyond the alley. Then the door opened silently on well-oiled hinges, and they were staring down a long hallway.
As he stepped over the threshold, Pete gritted his teeth and concentrated on the back of the man before him. The man who was not Terrence O’Grady. Maybe.
It was in no way a remarkable back: slightly stoop-shouldered, not quite on a level with Pete’s own. Terrence O’Grady, the dossier noted, was short and slender for a Terran, a good six inches below the average. This made him a valuable partner for bulky Sam, who handled the massive mining equipment effortlessly, but was not so well suited to exploring the small gaps, craters, and crevices where a rich vein might hide.
Sam and Terry made money in the Belt. Then Terry quit mining, bought himself some land with atmosphere over it, and settled into farming, child raising, and even politics.
Eight years later Sam got a bouncecomm from Terry’s wife: Terrence O’Grady had disappeared.
Sam went to talk to wife and family, as an old friend should; he asked questions and nosed around. No corpse had been found, but Sam declared Terry dead. He’d been too stubborn a dreamer to run out on all of them at once. And, given Terry’s luck, someone would have had to kill him to make him dead before old age.
Sam said Terry had been murdered three years ago.
But recently there had been rumors, and then this person here—wearing a dead man’s face and calling himself by a dead man’s name.
Pete shook himself as they rounded a sharp corner and barely avoided stepping on the prisoner.
“Look sharp!” Sam whispered harshly.
They turned another corner and came into a brightly lit, abandoned office.
The man who was not Terrence O’Grady nearly smiled.
From this point on, he knew the layout of each of the fourteen suites in this building, the voltage of the lighting fixtures, the position of doors and windows, the ambient temperature, and even the style and color of the carpets.
Within his mental Loop, he saw a number shift from .7 to .85. The second figure changed a moment later from .5 to .7. The first percentage indicated Chance of Mission Success; the second, Chance of Personal Survival. CMS recently had been running significantly above CPS.
His escort halted before a lift, and both numbers rose by a point. When the lift opened onto an office on the third floor, the Loop flickered and withdrew—the more imminent the action, the less precise the calculations.
* * *
THE DESK WAS beautiful, made of inlaid teak and redwood imported from Earth.
The man behind the desk was also imported from Earth and he was not beautiful. He had a paunch and an aggressive black beard. Soft hands laced together on the gleaming wood, he surveyed the group with casual interest.
“Thank you, gentlemen. You may stand away from the prisoner.”
Russ and Skipper dropped back, leaving the man who was not O’Grady alone before Mr. Jaeger’s desk.
“Mr. O’Grady, I believe?” Jaeger purred.
The little man bowed slightly and straightened, hands loose at his sides.
In the depths of his beard, Jaeger frowned. He tapped the desktop with one well-manicured finger.
“You’re not Terrence O’Grady,” he said flatly. “This readout says you’re not even Terran.” He was on his feet with a suddenness surprising in so soft an individual, hands slamming wood. “You’re a damned geek spy, that’s what you are, Mr.—O’Grady!” he roared.
Pete winced and Sam hunched his shoulders. Russ swallowed hard.
The prisoner shrugged.
For a stunned minute, nobody moved. Then Jaeger straightened and strolled to the front of the desk. Leaning back, he hooked thumbs into belt loops and looked down at the prisoner.
“You know, Mr. …O’Grady,” he said conversationally. “There seems to be a conviction among you geeks—all geeks, not just humanoid ones—that we Terrans are pushovers. That the power of Earth and of true humans is some kind of joke.” He shook his head.
“The Yxtrang make war on our worlds and pirate our ships; the Liadens control the trade economy; the turtles ignore us. We’re required to pay exorbitant fees at the so-called federated ports. We’re required to pay in cantra, rather than good Terran bits. Our laws are broken. Our people are ridiculed. Or impersonated. Or murdered. And we’re tired of it, O’Grady. Real tired of it.”
The little man stood quietly, relaxed and still, face showing bland attention.
Jaeger nodded. “It’s time for you geeks to learn to take us Terrans seriously—maybe even treat us with a little respect. Respect is the first step toward justice and equality. And just to show you how much I believe in justice and equality, I’m going to do something for you, O’Grady.” He leaned forward sharply, his beard a quarter-inch from the prisoner’s smooth face. “I’m going to let you talk to me. Now. You’re going to tell me everything, Mr. O’Grady: your name, your home planet, who sent you, how many women you’ve had, what you had for dinner, why you’re here—everything.” He straightened and went back around the desk. Folding his hands atop the polished wood, he smiled.
“Do all that, Mr. O’Grady, and I might let you live.”
The little man laughed.
Jaeger snapped upright, hand slapping a hidden toggle.
Pete and Sam dove to the left, Russ and Skipper to the right. The prisoner hadn’t moved at all when the blast of high-pressure water struck, hurling him backward over and over until he slammed against the far wall. Pinned by the torrent, he tried to claw his way to the window.
Jaeger cut the water cannon and the prisoner collapsed, chest pounding, twisted glasses two feet from his outflung hand.
Russ yanked him up by a limp arm; the man staggered and straightened, peering about.
“He wants his glasses,” Pete said, bending over to retrieve the mangled antiques.
“He don’t need no glasses,” Russ protested, glaring down at the prisoner. The little man squinted up at him.
“Ah, what the hell—give ’em to him, then.” Russ pushed the prisoner toward the desk as Pete approached.
“Mr. Jaeger?” he ventured, struck by an idea.
“If this ain’t O’Grady, how come the water didn’t loose the makeup or whatever?” To illustrate, Pete grabbed a handful of sandy curls and yanked. The little man winced.
“Surgery?” Jaeger said. “Implants? Injections and skintuning? It’s not important. What’s important—to him and to us—is that the readout says he’s a geek. Terry O’Grady was no geek, that’s for sure.” He turned his attention to the prisoner, who was trying to dry his glasses with the tail of his saturated shirt.
“Well, Mr. O’Grady? What’s it going to be? A quick talk or a slow death?”
There was a silence in which Pete tried to ignore the pounding of his heart. This was a part of the job that he didn’t like at all.
The little man moved, diving sideways, twisting away from Russ and dodging Skipper and Sam. He hurled a chair into Pete’s shins and flung himself back toward the desk. Sam got a hand on him and was suddenly airborne as the little man threw his ruined glasses at Jaeger and jumped for the window.
Jaeger caught the glasses absently, standing behind his desk and roaring. The former prisoner danced between Russ and Skipper, then jumped aside, causing them to careen into each other. He was through the window before Pete caught the smell of acronite and spun toward the hallway.
The explosion killed Jaeger and flung Pete an extra dozen feet toward safety.