This story is reprinted courtesy of Project Gutenberg. View the source text.
WALL OF CRYSTAL, EYE OF NIGHT
By Algis Budrys
He was a vendor of dreams, purveying worlds beyond imagination to others. Yet his doom was this: He could not see what he must learn of his own!
Soft as the voice of a mourning dove, the telephone sounded at Rufus Sollenar’s desk. Sollenar himself was standing fifty paces away, his leonine head cocked, his hands flat in his hip pockets, watching the nighted world through the crystal wall that faced out over Manhattan Island. The window was so high that some of what he saw was dimmed by low clouds hovering over the rivers. Above him were stars; below him the city was traced out in light and brimming with light. A falling star—an interplanetary rocket—streaked down toward Long Island Facility like a scratch across the soot on the doors of Hell.
Sollenar’s eyes took it in, but he was watching the total scene, not any particular part of it. His eyes were shining.
When he heard the telephone, he raised his left hand to his lips. “Yes?” The hand glittered with utilijem rings; the effect was that of an attempt at the sort of copper-binding that was once used to reinforce the ribbing of wooden warships.
His personal receptionist’s voice moved from the air near his desk to the air near his ear. Seated at the monitor board in her office, wherever in this building her office was, the receptionist told him:
“Mr. Ermine says he has an appointment.”
“No.” Sollenar dropped his hand and returned to his panorama. When he had been twenty years younger—managing the modest optical factory that had provided the support of three generations of Sollenars—he had very much wanted to be able to stand in a place like this, and feel as he imagined men felt in such circumstances. But he felt unimaginable, now.
To be here was one thing. To have almost lost the right, and regained it at the last moment, was another. Now he knew that not only could he be here today but that tomorrow, and tomorrow, he could still be here. He had won. His gamble had given him EmpaVid—and EmpaVid would give him all.
The city was not merely a prize set down before his eyes. It was a dynamic system he had proved he could manipulate. He and the city were one. It buoyed and sustained him; it supported him, here in the air, with stars above and light-thickened mist below.
The telephone mourned: “Mr. Ermine states he has a firm appointment.”
“I’ve never heard of him.” And the left hand’s utilijems fell from Sollenar’s lips again. He enjoyed such toys. He raised his right hand, sheathed in insubstantial midnight-blue silk in which the silver threads of metallic wiring ran subtly toward the fingertips. He raised the hand, and touched two fingers together: music began to play behind and before him. He made contact between another combination of finger circuits, and a soft, feminine laugh came from the terrace at the other side of the room, where connecting doors had opened. He moved toward it. One layer of translucent drapery remained across the doorway, billowing lightly in the breeze from the terrace. Through it, he saw the taboret with its candle lit; the iced wine in the stand beside it; the two fragile chairs; Bess Allardyce, slender and regal, waiting in one of them—all these, through the misty curtain, like either the beginning or the end of a dream.
“Mr. Ermine reminds you the appointment was made for him at the Annual Business Dinner of the International Association of Broadcasters, in 1998.”
Sollenar completed his latest step, then stopped. He frowned down at his left hand. “Is Mr. Ermine with the IAB’s Special Public Relations Office?”
“Yes,” the voice said after a pause.
The fingers of Sollenar’s right hand shrank into a cone. The connecting door closed. The girl disappeared. The music stopped. “All right. You can tell Mr. Ermine to come up.” Sollenar went to sit behind his desk.
The office door chimed. Sollenar crooked a finger of his left hand, and the door opened. With another gesture, he kindled the overhead lights near the door and sat in shadow as Mr. Ermine came in.
Ermine was dressed in rust-colored garments. His figure was spare, and his hands were empty. His face was round and soft, with long dark sideburns. His scalp was bald. He stood just inside Sollenar’s office and said: “I would like some light to see you by, Mr. Sollenar.”
Sollenar crooked his little finger.
The overhead lights came to soft light all over the office. The crystal wall became a mirror, with only the strongest city lights glimmering through it. “I only wanted to see you first,” said Sollenar; “I thought perhaps we’d met before.”
“No,” Ermine said, walking across the office. “It’s not likely you’ve ever seen me.” He took a card case out of his pocket and showed Sollenar proper identification. “I’m not a very forward person.”
“Please sit down,” Sollenar said. “What may I do for you?”
“At the moment, Mr. Sollenar, I’m doing something for you.”
Sollenar sat back in his chair. “Are you? Are you, now?” He frowned at Ermine. “When I became a party to the By-Laws passed at the ’98 Dinner, I thought a Special Public Relations Office would make a valuable asset to the organization. Consequently, I voted for it, and for the powers it was given. But I never expected to have any personal dealings with it. I barely remembered you people had carte blanche with any IAB member.”
“Well, of course, it’s been a while since ’98,” Ermine said. “I imagine some legends have grown up around us. Industry gossip—that sort of thing.”
“But we don’t restrict ourselves to an enforcement function, Mr. Sollenar. You haven’t broken any By-Laws, to our knowledge.”
“Or mine. But nobody feels one hundred per cent secure. Not under these circumstances.” Nor did Sollenar yet relax his face into its magnificent smile. “I’m sure you’ve found that out.”
“I have a somewhat less ambitious older brother who’s with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. When I embarked on my own career, he told me I could expect everyone in the world to react like a criminal, yes,” Ermine said, paying no attention to Sollenar’s involuntary blink. “It’s one of the complicating factors in a profession like my brother’s, or mine. But I’m here to advise you, Mr. Sollenar. Only that.”
“In what matter, Mr. Ermine?”
“Well, your corporation recently came into control of the patents for a new video system. I understand that this in effect makes your corporation the licensor for an extremely valuable sales and entertainment medium. Fantastically valuable.”
“EmpaVid,” Sollenar agreed. “Various subliminal stimuli are broadcast with and keyed to the overt subject matter. The home receiving unit contains feedback sensors which determine the viewer’s reaction to these stimuli, and intensify some while playing down others in order to create complete emotional rapport between the viewer and the subject matter. EmpaVid, in other words, is a system for orchestrating the viewer’s emotions. The home unit is self-contained, semi-portable and not significantly bulkier than the standard TV receiver. EmpaVid is compatible with standard TV receivers—except, of course, that the subject matter seems thin and vaguely unsatisfactory on a standard receiver. So the consumer shortly purchases an EV unit.” It pleased Sollenar to spell out the nature of his prize.
“At a very reasonable price. Quite so, Mr. Sollenar. But you had several difficulties in finding potential licensees for this system, among the networks.”
Sollenar’s lips pinched out.
Mr. Ermine raised one finger. “First, there was the matter of acquiring the patents from the original inventor, who was also approached by Cortwright Burr.”
“Yes, he was,” Sollenar said in a completely new voice.
“Competition between Mr. Burr and yourself is long-standing and intense.”
“Quite intense,” Sollenar said, looking directly ahead of him at the one blank wall of the office. Burr’s offices were several blocks downtown, in that direction.
“Well, I have no wish to enlarge on that point, Mr. Burr being an IAB member in standing as good as yours, Mr. Sollenar. There was, in any case, a further difficulty in licensing EV, due to the very heavy cost involved in equipping broadcasting stations and network relay equipment for this sort of transmission.”
“Yes, there was.”
“Ultimately, however, you succeeded. You pointed out, quite rightly, that if just one station made the change, and if just a few EV receivers were put into public places within the area served by that station, normal TV outlets could not possibly compete for advertising revenue.”
“And so your last difficulties were resolved a few days ago, when your EmpaVid Unlimited—pardon me; when EmpaVid, a subsidiary of the Sollenar Corporation—became a major stockholder in the Transworld TV Network.”
“I don’t understand, Mr. Ermine,” Sollenar said. “Why are you recounting this? Are you trying to demonstrate the power of your knowledge? All these transactions are already matters of record in the IAB confidential files, in accordance with the By-Laws.”
Ermine held up another finger. “You’re forgetting I’m only here to advise you. I have two things to say. They are:
“These transactions are on file with the IAB because they involve a great number of IAB members, and an increasingly large amount of capital. Also, Transworld’s exclusivity, under the IAB By-Laws, will hold good only until thirty-three per cent market saturation has been reached. If EV is as good as it looks, that will be quite soon. After that, under the By-Laws, Transworld will be restrained from making effective defenses against patent infringement by competitors. Then all of the IAB’s membership and much of their capital will be involved with EV. Much of that capital is already in anticipatory motion. So a highly complex structure now ultimately depends on the integrity of the Sollenar Corporation. If Sollenar stock falls in value, not just you but many IAB members will be greatly embarrassed. Which is another way of saying EV must succeed.”
“I know all that! What of it? There’s no risk. I’ve had every related patent on Earth checked. There will be no catastrophic obsolescence of the EV system.”
Ermine said: “There are engineers on Mars. Martian engineers. They’re a dying race, but no one knows what they can still do.”
Sollenar raised his massive head.
Ermine said: “Late this evening, my office learned that Cortwright Burr has been in close consultation with the Martians for several weeks. They have made some sort of machine for him. He was on the flight that landed at the Facility a few moments ago.”
Sollenar’s fists clenched. The lights crashed off and on, and the room wailed. From the terrace came a startled cry, and a sound of smashed glass.
Mr. Ermine nodded, excused himself and left.
—A few moments later, Mr. Ermine stepped out at the pedestrian level of the Sollenar Building. He strolled through the landscaped garden, and across the frothing brook toward the central walkway down the Avenue. He paused at a hedge to pluck a blossom and inhale its odor. He walked away, holding it in his naked fingers.
Drifting slowly on the thread of his spinneret, Rufus Sollenar came gliding down the wind above Cortwright Burr’s building.
The building, like a spider, touched the ground at only the points of its legs. It held its wide, low bulk spread like a parasol over several downtown blocks. Sollenar, manipulating the helium-filled plastic drifter far above him, steered himself with jets of compressed gas from plastic bottles in the drifter’s structure.
Only Sollenar himself, in all this system, was not effectively transparent to the municipal anti-plane radar. And he himself was wrapped in long, fluttering streamers of dull black, metallic sheeting. To the eye, he was amorphous and non-reflective. To electronic sensors, he was a drift of static much like a sheet of foil picked by the wind from some careless trash heap. To all of the senses of all interested parties he was hardly there at all—and, thus, in an excellent position for murder.
He fluttered against Burr’s window. There was the man, crouched over his desk. What was that in his hands—a pomander?
Sollenar clipped his harness to the edges of the cornice. Swayed out against it, his sponge-soled boots pressed to the glass, he touched his left hand to the window and described a circle. He pushed; there was a thud on the carpeting in Burr’s office, and now there was no barrier to Sollenar. Doubling his knees against his chest, he catapulted forward, the riot pistol in his right hand. He stumbled and fell to his knees, but the gun was up.
Burr jolted up behind his desk. The little sphere of orange-gold metal, streaked with darker bronze, its surface vermicular with encrustations, was still in his hands. “Him!” Burr cried out as Sollenar fired.
Gasping, Sollenar watched the charge strike Burr. It threw his torso backward faster than his limbs and head could follow without dangling. The choked-down pistol was nearly silent. Burr crashed backward to end, transfixed, against the wall.
Pale and sick, Sollenar moved to take the golden ball. He wondered where Shakespeare could have seen an example such as this, to know an old man could have so much blood in him.
Burr held the prize out to him. Staring with eyes distended by hydrostatic pressure, his clothing raddled and his torso grinding its broken bones, Burr stalked away from the wall and moved as if to embrace Sollenar. It was queer, but he was not dead.
Shuddering, Sollenar fired again.
Again Burr was thrown back. The ball spun from his splayed fingers as he once more marked the wall with his body.
Pomander, orange, whatever—it looked valuable.
Sollenar ran after the rolling ball. And Burr moved to intercept him, nearly faceless, hunched under a great invisible weight that slowly yielded as his back groaned.
Sollenar took a single backward step.
Burr took a step toward him. The golden ball lay in a far corner. Sollenar raised the pistol despairingly and fired again. Burr tripped backward on tiptoe, his arms like windmills, and fell atop the prize.
Tears ran down Sollenar’s cheeks. He pushed one foot forward … and Burr, in his corner, lifted his head and began to gather his body for the effort of rising.
Sollenar retreated to the window, the pistol sledging backward against his wrist and elbow as he fired the remaining shots in the magazine.
Panting, he climbed up into the window frame and clipped the harness to his body, craning to look over his shoulder … as Burr—shredded; leaking blood and worse than blood—advanced across the office.
He cast off his holds on the window frame and clumsily worked the drifter controls. Far above him, volatile ballast spilled out and dispersed in the air long before it touched ground. Sollenar rose, sobbing—
And Burr stood in the window, his shattered hands on the edges of the cut circle, raising his distended eyes steadily to watch Sollenar in flight across the enigmatic sky.
Where he landed, on the roof of a building in his possession, Sollenar had a disposal unit for his gun and his other trappings. He deferred for a time the question of why Burr had failed at once to die. Empty-handed, he returned uptown.
He entered his office, called and told his attorneys the exact times of departure and return and knew the question of dealing with municipal authorities was thereby resolved. That was simple enough, with no witnesses to complicate the matter. He began to wish he hadn’t been so irresolute as to leave Burr without the thing he was after. Surely, if the pistol hadn’t killed the man—an old man, with thin limbs and spotted skin—he could have wrestled that thin-limbed, bloody old man aside—that spotted old man—and dragged himself and his prize back to the window, for all that the old man would have clung to him, and clutched at his legs, and fumbled for a handhold on his somber disguise of wrappings—that broken, immortal old man.
Sollenar raised his hand. The great window to the city grew opaque.
Bess Allardyce knocked softly on the door from the terrace. He would have thought she’d returned to her own apartments many hours ago. Tortuously pleased, he opened the door and smiled at her, feeling the dried tears crack on the skin of his cheeks.
He took her proffered hands. “You waited for me,” he sighed. “A long time for anyone as beautiful as you to wait.”
She smiled back at him. “Let’s go out and look at the stars.”
“Isn’t it chilly?”
“I made spiced hot cider for us. We can sip it and think.”
He let her draw him out onto the terrace. He leaned on the parapet, his arm around her pulsing waist, his cape drawn around both their shoulders.
“Bess, I won’t ask if you’d stay with me no matter what the circumstances. But it might be a time will come when I couldn’t bear to live in this city. What about that?”
“I don’t know,” she answered honestly.
And Cortwright Burr put his hand up over the edge of the parapet, between them.
Sollenar stared down at the straining knuckles, holding the entire weight of the man dangling against the sheer face of the building. There was a sliding, rustling noise, and the other hand came up, searched blindly for a hold and found it, hooked over the stone. The fingers tensed and rose, their tips flattening at the pressure as Burr tried to pull his head and shoulders up to the level of the parapet.
Bess breathed: “Oh, look at them! He must have torn them terribly climbing up!” Then she pulled away from Sollenar and stood staring at him, her hand to her mouth. “But he couldn’t have climbed! We’re so high!”
Sollenar beat at the hands with the heels of his palms, using the direct, trained blows he had learned at his athletic club.
Bone splintered against the stone. When the knuckles were broken the hands instantaneously disappeared, leaving only streaks behind them. Sollenar looked over the parapet. A bundle shrank from sight, silhouetted against the lights of the pedestrian level and the Avenue. It contracted to a pinpoint. Then, when it reached the brook and water flew in all directions, it disappeared in a final sunburst, endowed with glory by the many lights which found momentary reflection down there.
“Bess, leave me! Leave me, please!” Rufus Sollenar cried out.
Rufus Sollenar paced his office, his hands held safely still in front of him, their fingers spread and rigid.
The telephone sounded, and his secretary said to him: “Mr. Sollenar, you are ten minutes from being late at the TTV Executives’ Ball. This is a First Class obligation.”
Sollenar laughed. “I thought it was, when I originally classified it.”
“Are you now planning to renege, Mr. Sollenar?” the secretary inquired politely.
Certainly, Sollenar thought. He could as easily renege on the Ball as a king could on his coronation.
“Burr, you scum, what have you done to me?” he asked the air, and the telephone said: “Beg pardon?”
“Tell my valet,” Sollenar said. “I’m going.” He dismissed the phone. His hands cupped in front of his chest. A firm grip on emptiness might be stronger than any prize in a broken hand.
Carrying in his chest something he refused to admit was terror, Sollenar made ready for the Ball.
But only a few moments after the first dance set had ended, Malcolm Levier of the local TTV station executive staff looked over Sollenar’s shoulder and remarked:
“Oh, there’s Cort Burr, dressed like a gallows bird.”
Sollenar, glittering in the costume of the Medici, did not turn his head. “Is he? What would he want here?”
Levier’s eyebrows arched. “He holds a little stock. He has entree. But he’s late.” Levier’s lips quirked. “It must have taken him some time to get that makeup on.”
“Not in good taste, is it?”
“Look for yourself.”
“Oh, I’ll do better than that,” Sollenar said. “I’ll go and talk to him a while. Excuse me, Levier.” And only then did he turn around, already started on his first pace toward the man.
But Cortwright Burr was only a pasteboard imitation of himself as Sollenar had come to know him. He stood to one side of the doorway, dressed in black and crimson robes, with black leather gauntlets on his hands, carrying a staff of weathered, natural wood. His face was shadowed by a sackcloth hood, the eyes well hidden. His face was powdered gray, and some blend of livid colors hollowed his cheeks. He stood motionless as Sollenar came up to him.
As he had crossed the floor, each step regular, the eyes of bystanders had followed Sollenar, until, anticipating his course, they found Burr waiting. The noise level of the Ball shrank perceptibly, for the lesser revelers who chanced to be present were sustaining it all alone. The people who really mattered here were silent and watchful.
The thought was that Burr, defeated in business, had come here in some insane reproach to his adversary, in this lugubrious, distasteful clothing. Why, he looked like a corpse. Or worse.
The question was, what would Sollenar say to him? The wish was that Burr would take himself away, back to his estates or to some other city. New York was no longer for Cortwright Burr. But what would Sollenar say to him now, to drive him back to where he hadn’t the grace to go willingly?
“Cortwright,” Sollenar said in a voice confined to the two of them. “So your Martian immortality works.”
Burr said nothing.
“You got that in addition, didn’t you? You knew how I’d react. You knew you’d need protection. Paid the Martians to make you physically invulnerable? It’s a good system. Very impressive. Who would have thought the Martians knew so much? But who here is going to pay attention to you now? Get out of town, Cortwright. You’re past your chance. You’re dead as far as these people are concerned—all you have left is your skin.”
Burr reached up and surreptitiously lifted a corner of his fleshed mask. And there he was, under it. The hood retreated an inch, and the light reached his eyes; and Sollenar had been wrong, Burr had less left than he thought.
“Oh, no, no, Cortwright,” Sollenar said softly. “No, you’re right—I can’t stand up to that.”
He turned and bowed to the assembled company. “Good night!” he cried, and walked out of the ballroom.
Someone followed him down the corridor to the elevators. Sollenar did not look behind him.
“I have another appointment with you now,” Ermine said at his elbow.
They reached the pedestrian level. Sollenar said: “There’s a cafe. We can talk there.”
“Too public, Mr. Sollenar. Let’s simply stroll and converse.” Ermine lightly took his arm and guided him along the walkway. Sollenar noticed then that Ermine was costumed so cunningly that no one could have guessed the appearance of the man.
“Very well,” Sollenar said.
They walked together, casually. Ermine said: “Burr’s driving you to your death. Is it because you tried to kill him earlier? Did you get his Martian secret?”
Sollenar shook his head.
“You didn’t get it.” Ermine sighed. “That’s unfortunate. I’ll have to take steps.”
“Under the By-Laws,” Sollenar said, “I cry laissez faire.”
Ermine looked up, his eyes twinkling. “Laissez faire? Mr. Sollenar, do you have any idea how many of our members are involved in your fortunes? They will cry laissez faire, Mr. Sollenar, but clearly you persist in dragging them down with you. No, sir, Mr. Sollenar, my office now forwards an immediate recommendation to the Technical Advisory Committee of the IAB that Mr. Burr probably has a system superior to yours, and that stock in Sollenar, Incorporated, had best be disposed of.”
“There’s a bench,” Sollenar said. “Let’s sit down.”
“As you wish.” Ermine moved beside Sollenar to the bench, but remained standing.
“What is it, Mr. Sollenar?”
“I want your help. You advised me on what Burr had. It’s still in his office building, somewhere. You have resources. We can get it.”
“Laissez faire, Mr. Sollenar. I visited you in an advisory capacity. I can do no more.”
“For a partnership in my affairs could you do more?”
“Money?” Ermine tittered. “For me? Do you know the conditions of my employment?”
If he had thought, Sollenar would have remembered. He reached out tentatively. Ermine anticipated him.
Ermine bared his left arm and sank his teeth into it. He displayed the arm. There was no quiver of pain in voice or stance. “It’s not a legend, Mr. Sollenar. It’s quite true. We of our office must spend a year, after the nerve surgery, learning to walk without the feel of our feet, to handle objects without crushing them or letting them slip, or damaging ourselves. Our mundane pleasures are auditory, olfactory, and visual. Easily gratified at little expense. Our dreams are totally interior, Mr. Sollenar. The operation is irreversible. What would you buy for me with your money?”
“What would I buy for myself?” Sollenar’s head sank down between his shoulders.
Ermine bent over him. “Your despair is your own, Mr. Sollenar. I have official business with you.”
He lifted Sollenar’s chin with a forefinger. “I judge physical interference to be unwarranted at this time. But matters must remain so that the IAB members involved with you can recover the value of their investments in EV. Is that perfectly clear, Mr. Sollenar? You are hereby enjoined under the By-Laws, as enforced by the Special Public Relations Office.” He glanced at his watch. “Notice was served at 1:27 AM, City time.”
“1:27,” Sollenar said. “City time.” He sprang to his feet and raced down a companionway to the taxi level.
Mr. Ermine watched him quizzically.
He opened his costume, took out his omnipresent medical kit, and sprayed coagulant over the wound in his forearm. Replacing the kit, he adjusted his clothing and strolled down the same companionway Sollenar had run. He raised an arm, and a taxi flittered down beside him. He showed the driver a card, and the cab lifted off with him, its lights glaring in a Priority pattern, far faster than Sollenar’s ordinary legal limit allowed.
Long Island Facility vaulted at the stars in great kangaroo-leaps of arch and cantilever span, jeweled in glass and metal as if the entire port were a mechanism for navigating interplanetary space. Rufus Sollenar paced its esplanades, measuring his steps, holding his arms still, for the short time until he could board the Mars rocket.
Erect and majestic, he took a place in the lounge and carefully sipped liqueur, once the liner had boosted away from Earth and coupled in its Faraday main drives.
Mr. Ermine settled into the place beside him.
Sollenar looked over at him calmly. “I thought so.”
Ermine nodded. “Of course you did. But I didn’t almost miss you. I was here ahead of you. I have no objection to your going to Mars, Mr. Sollenar. Laissez faire. Provided I can go along.”
“Well,” Rufus Sollenar said. “Liqueur?” He gestured with his glass.
Ermine shook his head. “No, thank you,” he said delicately.
Sollenar said: “Even your tongue?”
“Of course my tongue, Mr. Sollenar. I taste nothing. I touch nothing.” Ermine smiled. “But I feel no pressure.”
“All right, then,” Rufus Sollenar said crisply. “We have several hours to landing time. You sit and dream your interior dreams, and I’ll dream mine.” He faced around in his chair and folded his arms across his chest.
“Mr. Sollenar,” Ermine said gently.
“I am once again with you by appointment as provided under the By-Laws.”
“State your business, Mr. Ermine.”
“You are not permitted to lie in an unknown grave, Mr. Sollenar. Insurance policies on your life have been taken out at a high premium rate. The IAB members concerned cannot wait the statutory seven years to have you declared dead. Do what you will, Mr. Sollenar, but I must take care I witness your death. From now on, I am with you wherever you go.”
Sollenar smiled. “I don’t intend to die. Why should I die, Mr. Ermine?”
“I have no idea, Mr. Sollenar. But I know Cortwright Burr’s character. And isn’t that he, seated there in the corner? The light is poor, but I think he’s recognizable.”
Across the lounge, Burr raised his head and looked into Sollenar’s eyes. He raised a hand near his face, perhaps merely to signify greeting. Rufus Sollenar faced front.
“A worthy opponent, Mr. Sollenar,” Ermine said. “A persevering, unforgiving, ingenious man. And yet—” Ermine seemed a little touched by bafflement. “And yet it seems to me, Mr. Sollenar, that he got you running rather easily. What did happen between you, after my advisory call?”
Sollenar turned a terrible smile on Ermine. “I shot him to pieces. If you’d peel his face, you’d see.”
Ermine sighed. “Up to this moment, I had thought perhaps you might still salvage your affairs.”
“Pity, Mr. Ermine? Pity for the insane?”
“Interest. I can take no part in your world. Be grateful, Mr. Sollenar. I am not the same gullible man I was when I signed my contract with IAB, so many years ago.”
Sollenar laughed. Then he stole a glance at Burr’s corner.
The ship came down at Abernathy Field, in Aresia, the Terrestrial city. Industrialized, prefabricated, jerry-built and clamorous, the storm-proofed buildings huddled, but huddled proudly, at the desert’s edge.
Low on the horizon was the Martian settlement—the buildings so skillfully blended with the landscape, so eroded, so much abandoned that the uninformed eye saw nothing. Sollenar had been to Mars—on a tour. He had seen the natives in their nameless dwelling place; arrogant, venomous and weak. He had been told, by the paid guide, they trafficked with Earthmen as much as they cared to, and kept to their place on the rim of Earth’s encroachment, observing.
“Tell me, Ermine,” Sollenar said quietly as they walked across the terminal lobby. “You’re to kill me, aren’t you, if I try to go on without you?”
“A matter of procedure, Mr. Sollenar,” Ermine said evenly. “We cannot risk the investment capital of so many IAB members.”
Sollenar sighed. “If I were any other member, how I would commend you, Mr. Ermine! Can we hire a car for ourselves, then, somewhere nearby?”
“Going out to see the engineers?” Ermine asked. “Who would have thought they’d have something valuable for sale?”
“I want to show them something,” Sollenar said.
“What thing, Mr. Sollenar?”
They turned the corner of a corridor, with branching hallways here and there, not all of them busy. “Come here,” Sollenar said, nodding toward one of them.
They stopped out of sight of the lobby and the main corridor. “Come on,” Sollenar said. “A little further.”
“No,” Ermine said. “This is farther than I really wish. It’s dark here.”
“Wise too late, Mr. Ermine,” Sollenar said, his arms flashing out.
One palm impacted against Ermine’s solar plexus, and the other against the muscle at the side of his neck, but not hard enough to kill. Ermine collapsed, starved for oxygen, while Sollenar silently cursed having been cured of murder. Then Sollenar turned and ran.
Behind him Ermine’s body struggled to draw breath by reflex alone.
Moving as fast as he dared, Sollenar walked back and reached the taxi lock, pulling a respirator from a wall rack as he went. He flagged a car and gave his destination, looking behind him. He had seen nothing of Cortwright Burr since setting foot on Mars. But he knew that soon or late, Burr would find him.
A few moments later Ermine got to his feet. Sollenar’s car was well away. Ermine shrugged and went to the local broadcasting station.
He commandeered a private desk, a firearm and immediate time on the IAB interoffice circuit to Earth. When his call acknowledgement had come back to him from his office there, he reported:
“Sollenar is enroute to the Martian city. He wants a duplicate of Burr’s device, of course, since he smashed the original when he killed Burr. I’ll follow and make final disposition. The disorientation I reported previously is progressing rapidly. Almost all his responses now are inappropriate. On the flight out, he seemed to be staring at something in an empty seat. Quite often when spoken to he obviously hears something else entirely. I expect to catch one of the next few flights back.”
There was no point in waiting for comment to wend its way back from Earth. Ermine left. He went to a cab rank and paid the exorbitant fee for transportation outside Aresian city limits.
Close at hand, the Martian city was like a welter of broken pots. Shards of wall and roof joined at savage angles and pointed to nothing. Underfoot, drifts of vitreous material, shaped to fit no sane configuration, and broken to fit such a mosaic as no church would contain, rocked and slid under Sollenar’s hurrying feet.
What from Aresia had been a solid front of dun color was here a facade of red, green and blue splashed about centuries ago and since then weathered only enough to show how bitter the colors had once been. The plum-colored sky stretched over all this like a frigid membrane, and the wind blew and blew.
Here and there, as he progressed, Sollenar saw Martian arms and heads protruding from the rubble. Sculptures.
He was moving toward the heart of the city, where some few unbroken structures persisted. At the top of a heap of shards he turned to look behind him. There was the dust-plume of his cab, returning to the city. He expected to walk back—perhaps to meet someone on the road, all alone on the Martian plain if only Ermine would forebear from interfering. Searching the flat, thin-aired landscape, he tried to pick out the plodding dot of Cortwright Burr. But not yet.
He turned and ran down the untrustworthy slope.
He reached the edge of the maintained area. Here the rubble was gone, the ancient walks swept, the statues kept upright on their pediments. But only broken walls suggested the fronts of the houses that had stood here. Knifing their sides up through the wind-rippled sand that only constant care kept off the street, the shadow-houses fenced his way and the sculptures were motionless as hope. Ahead of him, he saw the buildings of the engineers. There was no heap to climb and look to see if Ermine followed close behind.
Sucking his respirator, he reached the building of the Martian engineers.
A sounding strip ran down the doorjamb. He scratched his fingernails sharply along it, and the magnified vibration, ducted throughout the hollow walls, rattled his plea for entrance.
The door opened, and Martians stood looking. They were spindly-limbed and slight, their faces framed by folds of leathery tissue. Their mouths were lipped with horn as hard as dentures, and pursed, forever ready to masticate. They were pleasant neither to look at nor, Sollenar knew, to deal with. But Cortwright Burr had done it. And Sollenar needed to do it.
“Does anyone here speak English?” he asked.
“I,” said the central Martian, his mouth opening to the sound, closing to end the reply.
“I would like to deal with you.”
“Whenever,” the Martian said, and the group at the doorway parted deliberately to let Sollenar in.
Before the door closed behind him, Sollenar looked back. But the rubble of the abandoned sectors blocked his line of sight into the desert.
“What can you offer? And what do you want?” the Martian asked. Sollenar stood half-ringed by them, in a room whose corners he could not see in the uncertain light.
“I offer you Terrestrial currency.”
The English-speaking Martian—the Martian who had admitted to speaking English—turned his head slightly and spoke to his fellows. There were clacking sounds as his lips met. The others reacted variously, one of them suddenly gesturing with what seemed a disgusted flip of his arm before he turned without further word and stalked away, his shoulders looking like the shawled back of a very old and very hungry woman.
“What did Burr give you?” Sollenar asked.
“Burr.” The Martian cocked his head. His eyes were not multi-faceted, but gave that impression.
“He was here and he dealt with you. Not long ago. On what basis?”
“Burr. Yes. Burr gave us currency. We will take currency from you. For the same thing we gave him?”
“For immortality, yes.”
“Im—This is a new word.”
“Is it? For the secret of not dying?”
“Not dying? You think we have not-dying for sale here?” The Martian spoke to the others again. Their lips clattered. Others left, like the first one had, moving with great precision and very slow step, and no remaining tolerance for Sollenar.
Sollenar cried out: “What did you sell him, then?”
The principal engineer said: “We made an entertainment device for him.”
“A little thing. This size.” Sollenar cupped his hands.
“You have seen it, then.”
“Yes. And nothing more? That was all he bought here?”
“It was all we had to sell—or give. We don’t yet know whether Earthmen will give us things in exchange for currency. We’ll see, when we next need something from Aresia.”
Sollenar demanded: “How did it work? This thing you sold him.”
“Oh, it lets people tell stories to themselves.”
Sollenar looked closely at the Martian. “What kind of stories?”
“Any kind,” the Martian said blandly. “Burr told us what he wanted. He had drawings with him of an Earthman device that used pictures on a screen, and broadcast sounds, to carry the details of the story told to the auditor.”
“He stole those patents! He couldn’t have used them on Earth.”
“And why should he? Our device needs to convey no precise details. Any mind can make its own. It only needs to be put into a situation, and from there it can do all the work. If an auditor wishes a story of contact with other sexes, for example, the projector simply makes it seem to him, the next time he is with the object of his desire, that he is getting positive feedback—that he is arousing a similar response in that object. Once that has been established for him, the auditor may then leave the machine, move about normally, conduct his life as usual—but always in accordance with the basic situation. It is, you see, in the end a means of introducing system into his view of reality. Of course, his society must understand that he is not in accord with reality, for some of what he does cannot seem rational from an outside view of him. So some care must be taken, but not much. If many such devices were to enter his society, soon the circumstances would become commonplace, and the society would surely readjust to allow for it,” said the English-speaking Martian.
“The machine creates any desired situation in the auditor’s mind?”
“Certainly. There are simple predisposing tapes that can be inserted as desired. Love, adventure, cerebration—it makes no difference.”
Several of the bystanders clacked sounds out to each other. Sollenar looked at them narrowly. It was obvious there had to be more than one English-speaker among these people.
“And the device you gave Burr,” he asked the engineer, neither calmly nor hopefully. “What sort of stories could its auditors tell themselves?”
The Martian cocked his head again. It gave him the look of an owl at a bedroom window. “Oh, there was one situation we were particularly instructed to include. Burr said he was thinking ahead to showing it to an acquaintance of his.
“It was a situation of adventure; of adventure with the fearful. And it was to end in loss and bitterness.” The Martian looked even more closely at Sollenar. “Of course, the device does not specify details. No one but the auditor can know what fearful thing inhabits his story, or precisely how the end of it would come. You would, I believe, be Rufus Sollenar? Burr spoke of you and made the noise of laughing.”
Sollenar opened his mouth. But there was nothing to say.
“You want such a device?” the Martian asked. “We’ve prepared several since Burr left. He spoke of machines that would manufacture them in astronomical numbers. We, of course, have done our best with our poor hands.”
Sollenar said: “I would like to look out your door.”
Sollenar opened the door slightly. Mr. Ermine stood in the cleared street, motionless as the shadow buildings behind him. He raised one hand in a gesture of unfelt greeting as he saw Sollenar, then put it back on the stock of his rifle. Sollenar closed the door, and turned to the Martian. “How much currency do you want?”
“Oh, all you have with you. You people always have a good deal with you when you travel.”
Sollenar plunged his hands into his pockets and pulled out his billfold, his change, his keys, his jeweled radio; whatever was there, he rummaged out onto the floor, listening to the sound of rolling coins.
“I wish I had more here,” he laughed. “I wish I had the amount that man out there is going to recover when he shoots me.”
The Martian engineer cocked his head. “But your dream is over, Mr. Sollenar,” he clacked drily. “Isn’t it?”
“Quite so. But you to your purposes and I to mine. Now give me one of those projectors. And set it to predispose a situation I am about to specify to you. Take however long it needs. The audience is a patient one.” He laughed, and tears gathered in his eyes.
Mr. Ermine waited, isolated from the cold, listening to hear whether the rifle stock was slipping out of his fingers. He had no desire to go into the Martian building after Sollenar and involve third parties. All he wanted was to put Sollenar’s body under a dated marker, with as little trouble as possible.
Now and then he walked a few paces backward and forward, to keep from losing muscular control at his extremities because of low skin temperature. Sollenar must come out soon enough. He had no food supply with him, and though Ermine did not like the risk of engaging a man like Sollenar in a starvation contest, there was no doubt that a man with no taste for fuel could outlast one with the acquired reflexes of eating.
The door opened and Sollenar came out.
He was carrying something. Perhaps a weapon. Ermine let him come closer while he raised and carefully sighted his rifle. Sollenar might have some Martian weapon or he might not. Ermine did not particularly care. If Ermine died, he would hardly notice it—far less than he would notice a botched ending to a job of work already roiled by Sollenar’s break away at the space field. If Ermine died, some other SPRO agent would be assigned almost immediately. No matter what happened, SPRO would stop Sollenar before he ever reached Abernathy Field.
So there was plenty of time to aim an unhurried, clean shot.
Sollenar was closer, now. He seemed to be in a very agitated frame of mind. He held out whatever he had in his hand.
It was another one of the Martian entertainment machines. Sollenar seemed to be offering it as a token to Ermine. Ermine smiled.
“What can you offer me, Mr. Sollenar?” he said, and shot.
The golden ball rolled away over the sand. “There, now,” Ermine said. “Now, wouldn’t you sooner be me than you? And where is the thing that made the difference between us?”
He shivered. He was chilly. Sand was blowing against his tender face, which had been somewhat abraded during his long wait.
He stopped, transfixed.
He lifted his head.
Then, with a great swing of his arms, he sent the rifle whirling away. “The wind!” he sighed into the thin air. “I feel the wind.” He leapt into the air, and sand flew away from his feet as he landed. He whispered to himself: “I feel the ground!”
He stared in tremblant joy at Sollenar’s empty body. “What have you given me?” Full of his own rebirth, he swung his head up at the sky again, and cried in the direction of the Sun: “Oh, you squeezing, nibbling people who made me incorruptible and thought that was the end of me!”
With love he buried Sollenar, and with reverence he put up the marker, but he had plans for what he might accomplish with the facts of this transaction, and the myriad others he was privy to.
A sharp bit of pottery had penetrated the sole of his shoe and gashed his foot, but he, not having seen it, hadn’t felt it. Nor would he see it or feel it even when he changed his stockings; for he had not noticed the wound when it was made. It didn’t matter. In a few days it would heal, though not as rapidly as if it had been properly attended to.
Vaguely, he heard the sound of Martians clacking behind their closed door as he hurried out of the city, full of revenge, and reverence for his savior.