He died in an outburst of majority resentment, punctuated by heat-beams. Newlin returned behind the counter and buzzed for Careld's stand-in. Then clutching the girl's arm, he left the place, dragging her along.
The street was dim, silent, deserted. "Where to?" asked Newlin.
Her quick nod indicated direction.
"Walking distance?" he persisted. "Inside the city? If not, I'll have to get protection suits from a public locker."
"Just inside. Monta Park."
Newlin whistled. "Nice neighborhood. Do you live there?"
"No," she faltered. "I'm just in from—Earth."
Earth! It was a long time since Newlin had seen Earth. Few of his memories were pleasantly nostalgic. Born there, in the poorest quarter of the international spaceport of Sahara City, his early life had been hard. Both parents had died there, broken from strain and poverty, and Newlin escaped only by stowing away in the dangerous after-holds of a rocketship bound for Mars, risking the unpleasant death from leaking radioactives in preference to being poor on Earth.
He had been poor since, in many places, but never with the grinding hopelessness of those early nightmare years. Their mark stayed with him and colored his life. He knew every rathole of the system, with the same intimacy the rats knew them. Once, on a non-stop express rocket from Mars to Pluto, he had lost a finger and all the toes from his left foot in ceaseless guerilla warfare with rats which had disputed possession of the hold in which he stowed away. More than once he had bummed passage near the atomic fuel vats of cranky old space-freighters that were mere tin cans caulked with chewing gum. As boy and man, he slept in jails from the dark, mad moons of Neptune to the fiery beach-head colonies of Mercury. And with fists, brain and nimble fingers he had written an epic biography in Security Police annals.
Like other cities of the space frontier, Venusport was raw and crude, exotically beautiful and cruelly violent. To Newlin it was old stuff, picturesque, with the spicy flavor of a perilous vacation spot. After abrasive years on a dozen planets and habitable moons, the ugly savageries of Venus had only a quaint charm. Survival was always comparatively easy there, and a man shed normal fears with the shredding, blistered skin of spaceburns. He was surprised when the girl shuddered and drew close to him. Her instinctive trust amused him, and he laughed brutally. The sound slashed between them like a chilled blade.
They went together, in silence. Faint, flat breeze from the city's air-conditioners fanned their faces. It was dark enough, and for Venus, reasonably cool. Buildings strewn like a careless giant's toys formed a vague and monstrous backdrop. Street-lighting was poor, for such luxuries are expensive and the city fathers cared little what happened to the poor, diseased, half-starved nonentities. All streets were crooked aimless alleys, all black and empty. Only near landing stages and space-freight elevators was there any activity. Darkness and the Cyclopean setting gave more menace than intimacy to the dim tangles of avenues and parkways.
The girl stopped, panting for breath. Newlin waited for her.
"You're a fool to trust yourself alone with me in a place like this," he told her grimly.
She hugged the loose mantle tightly across her shoulders and tried vainly to read his face in the murk.
"If you're trying to frighten me, you're wasting time," she said, "I have more important fears."
Newlin chuckled. Skinny wench, but she had something. There was pride in her, and scorn, and a hot spark that burned through the tones of cold scorn. Something else, too. A hint of desperate courage that baffled him.
"I still think you should have tried the panther sweat at the Spacebell," he suggested. "One sip and—"
"I know," she snapped. "And I hope you've had yours for tonight. You'll need it. We're almost there."
"In that case, we'd better talk," he said curtly. "I still know nothing about you. Who you are, what you want? I don't even know your name."
She spoke in low, vibrant tones, but the language seemed unfamiliar to her. She groped for exact words, extracted subtle meanings. But there was a hesitance, an uneasiness, about speech itself, as if she found it a tedious and inflexible medium for thought expressions.
"I told you. In a—building, there is a man I must see. He does not wish to see me, and there are barriers I cannot pass. The building is a combination workshop and living quarters, and something else you would not understand. You must go inside for me and induce him to come out to me. My name is Songeen. Tell him that. He will know me, and perhaps he will come. But it has been so long—"
Newlin grunted. "That man I must see. One who wouldn't come when you whistled. However long it has been?"
"He has changed—greatly. He may be insane. He may be dangerous. In self-defense, it may be necessary for you to kill him. For your protection, I have provided a weapon. Use all other means to persuade him first, but threaten if you have to. And be ready to kill if he attacks you. But dead or alive, bring him to me."
Suddenly Newlin disliked his errand. Even more, he disliked himself. For a brittle moment, he was moved to turn back, refuse to carry out a bargain he now regretted. Killing for pay, at the whim of a jealous or scorned woman, was too ugly even for his calloused morality.
"Preferably dead?" he asked thinly.
"Preferably alive," Songeen murmured. "You would not understand, of course. It is because I love him. He will not come, but he must have the chance. And I must send a stranger to kill him, because he has—forgotten."
Newlin stiffened angrily. He was on the point of rejecting the girl and her project when a battery of lights moved toward them from the winding lanes of the Park. Too well he knew what they meant.
As the wealthiest district of Venusport, Monta Park was smug, respectable, luxurious—and protected. Roving radio-patrols of Protection Police—privately hired thugs—guarded its dwellers and their possessions. A prowling mono-car slowed and maneuvered to cast a revealing spotlight on the loitering pair. Newlin, had he been alone, might have dodged into the dense shrubbery, but the girl knew better.
Calmly she turned to face down the occupants of the PP car, and her haughty expression would have chilled the blood of any PP constable presumptuous enough to question her. Her attitude and the obvious richness of her clothing seemed to satisfy the patrol, for the beam swung briefly and hesitated on Newlin. He dropped behind her like a servant bodyguard and hoped his scuffed space-leather was not too noticeable. The beam held for seconds, then flicked out. Soundlessly the patrol car vanished.
Neither spoke as the pair moved quickly into the precincts of the Park. As residence area, it was splashy; a series of interlocked estates rather than expensive mansions packed closely together. Each unit sat alone in sprawling, neatly sheared grounds, landscaped with flowering trees and set with the chill sophistication of statuary in gold, silver and platinum. Botanical splendors from exotic worlds rioted in orderly tangles of aromatic greenery, with sculpture of glass, marble and the noble metals glinting like pale ghosts against the darker masses.
Shadows parted before them. Half-hidden among trees rose a slender spire, needle-shaped, tall as a tower, but unwindowed. For a dwelling, its design was curious, and the interior must consist of circular rooms one above the other. At the base, an arched, oval aperture should have been the door, but neither handle nor keyhole showed on the flat, polished plate.
"Here we are," the girl said needlessly, her voice soft as a hint of pain trembled in it. A tremor ran through her body as she thrust out two objects toward him. A key and a gun.
"You will need these," she went on. "He will be in one of the upper rooms. His name is Genarion. Perhaps he will talk with you, especially if you surprise him. But remember, he is deadly. His scientific knowledge is a more frightful weapon than this. So do not hesitate to use violence."
Newlin fumbled the gun into a pocket, fingered the key. It was slim as a needle and as smooth. Without comment, he stared at her as weariness and disgust strangled him.
"Tell me your price," she said quickly, as if in haste to get words out before either could think too much. "I will pay—now."
Shabby bargaining, he thought. But he would call her bluff and force her to back down. "Not money," he said savagely. "I don't kill for money. For a woman, yes. I want you."
He expected anger, scorn, even hatred. She gasped and her face went pale and hard. Wilting under his glare, she nodded.
"Yes, even that—if you wish. I have no choice."
Newlin felt sick, empty. He no longer desired her, even if she were willing. He despised her and himself. But a bargain was still a bargain. He shrugged.
Like an outsize toy, a child's model of a spaceship, the oddly graceful structure towered upward into arching darkness. Like her, it was slender, radiant, beautiful. Bitterly, he caught the girl, dragged her to him, felt her flesh yielding to him. She leaned and met his lips with hers. The kiss was cold and ugly as writhing snakes. Cold. Ugly. Alien....
The key went in smoothly, did not turn. It must have been impregnated with magnetism. Somewhere electronic relays clicked switches faintly. The door was open, its movement indescribable in familiar terms. It neither slid, nor swung on hinges. There was no door, much as if a light had switched off.
A rush of air came out. It had the high, sharp tang of ozone, and something unfamiliar.
Newlin stood inside what was obviously an airlock valve. A door inside had opened soundlessly.
He went on. Beyond the inner doorway was a large circular room. Its dimensions seemed far greater than Newlin would have guessed from the exterior of the building.
This was no mere dwelling, no laboratory or workshop. It was a spaceship of radical design. Elfin stair-ladders spiralled up and down. The girders seemed impossibly delicate and fragile, as if their purpose was half-decoration, half-functional; and stresses involved were unimportant. Such support framework was insane—in any kind of spaceship. It had the quality of fairyland architecture, a dream ship woven from the filaments of spiderwebs.
But there was hidden strength, and truly functional design, as may be found in spiderwebs. Newlin was no engineer, but he sensed solidity and sound mathematics behind the toy structure's delicacy.
The stair ladder supported him without vibration, without give or any feeling of insecurity. He climbed.
Walls and the floor and ceiling bulkheads were rigid to his touch, supported his weight firmly, despite their eggshell-thin appearance of fragility. There were no corners; everything fused together seamlessly in smooth curves. Walls were self-luminous and oddly cool.
The lower chambers were bare of all furnishing. Higher levels contained a hodge-podge of implements, all in the same light, strong formula of design. But none familiar, either as to material or their possible function. There were machines, but all too simple. Neither the bulk of atomic engines nor the intricate complexities inseparable from electric or combustion motors.
Newlin was puzzled.
He stopped to listen, feeling like an intruder into a strange world. The building, or spaceship, ached with silence.
Another stairwell beckoned. He climbed, slowly, with increased caution. It would do no harm to have the gun in hand, ready. Where was the man who lived in such a place? And what sort of man could he be? What would he have in common with the frightened, haughty girl outside? The obvious explanation no longer satisfied.
As Newlin ascended, another floor opened and widened to his vision. The stair-ladder ended here. It was the top floor. But this chamber seemed infinitely larger than the others. At first there was no sight of the man. Newlin stood alone in the center of a vast area. He did not seem indoors at all.
Endless vistas extended to infinity in all directions. In all directions save one, in which stood a tall shadow. Newlin gasped. It was his shadow, detached, seemingly solid.
Three-dimensional, it stood stock still. It moved when he moved. He gasped, then found the answer. By the shadow's echo of his movements, he could trace a vague outline of encirclement.
The walls were a screen, a circle about the room upon which were cast pictures so perfect that the beholder had illusion of being surrounded by eery, exotic landscapes. The scenes were panoramic, all taken at the same angle, by the same camera, and so cunningly fused into a whole that the effect was beyond mere artifice. For a moment, Newlin had stood within the strange world, its crystalline forms and strange jeweled life as tri-dimensional and real as himself.
It was a large screen, alive with light, alive with dancing, flickering figures. There was no visible projector, and the images were disturbingly solid and real. There was depth, without any perception of perspective. It was a reflection of reality, cast upon the plane of circling walls.
Then a man stepped from the screen. He had been invisible, because the projected images had flowed and accommodated themselves to his metal-cloth smock. For the moment, he had been part of the screen.
Newlin could not tear his eyes from that glaring plane of illusion. Something about the glare played havoc with nerves, and a faint hint of diabolical sound tortured his brain. No such world could exist in a sane universe. Not even with its terrible and heartbreakingly poignant beauty. It was a vision of Hell, bright with impossible octaves of light, splendid with raging infernos of blinding color, some of it beyond the visible range of human sight. And there was sound, pouring in maddening floods, sound in nerve-shattering symphonies like the tinkling clatter of many Chinese windbells of glass, all pouring out cascades of brittle, crystalline uproar.
Sound and light rose in storming crescendos, beyond sight and beyond hearing. They ranged into madness.
Newlin screamed, tried to cover eyes and ears at once. He tried to run, but nerve-agony paralyzed movement. He was chained to the spot.
Sound and color descended simultaneously into bearable range.
He stared at the man he had come to see. He stared and the man stared back.
"Genarion?" Newlin asked, his voice thin and vague among the tumultuous harmonies bursting from the screen.
"Who are you that calls me by that name?" cried Genarion. He spoke in the same curious manner as the girl. He showed amazement, mixed with an ugly kind of terror. "You're not one of them!"
"Them?" Newlin said, striving for sanity as sound and light swelled again. His brain reeled. "Songeen sent me—!"
Speech itself was a supreme effort.
Genarion was beyond speech. Tigerishly, he moved. He leaped upon Newlin and thrust him back. Newlin sprawled painfully, his back arched and twisted by invisible machinery.
Genarion stood with a gun in his hand. Aiming hastily, he pressed trigger. The beam flashed and licked charred cloth and smoking leather from Newlin's sleeve. There was an odd jangle from the invisible machinery which gouged so tangibly into Newlin's body.
Instinctively, Newlin fired. He did not bother to aim. For him, such a shot was point blank, impossible to miss.
Genarion staggered. Part of his body vaporized and hung in dazzling mist as the projected images of light played over it.
Dazed, Newlin scrambled to his feet. He was sick. But the screen held him. He stared, hypnotized. Images jigged and flowed in constant, eery rhythms. They moved and melted and rearranged themselves in altered patterns, without ever losing their identities or the illusion of solidity. The scene was not part of Venus, or of any world Newlin had seen. He had seen every planet or moon in the Solar system. But this was different, alien, frightening.
And the screen was not really a screen at all, for the body of Genarion, hideous in the distortion of death, lay halfway through its plane. And it was changing, subtly, as he watched. It was no longer even a man, totally unhuman, as alien as the world it lay partway in. The body flowed, molten, hideous.
The screen was a surrealist painting, come alive, solid and real. And the solid, physical body of Genarion was part of it. He was dead, but real. His alien form was a bridge between two worlds, and now dead, Genarion was alien to both of them.
It was madness. The madness of the screen communicated itself to Newlin. Before his shocked eyes, Genarion's body began to steam and rise in a cloud of vaporous, glittering crystals. Swiftly the haze dissipated. It was gone, gone invisibly into the alien world. Whatever Newlin had killed, it was not human, not a man.
Newlin turned and fled down the fairy stair-ladder.
He went through the still-open airlock doors and out into the screaming night. Behind him alarms were ringing frantically. Now they would be ringing in the stations of the Protection Police and call orders would go out to the radio-equipped prowl cars. Police would converge swiftly.
Sound shattered the night stillness. From far away, coming closer, was the shrill wail of a siren. Other sirens.
There was a harsh bleat of police whistles, near at hand. Newlin's imagination quivered with the possibility of blaster beams thrusting at his back. He fled.
The alarms had burst into sound too quickly. Had the girl set the police on him, waiting only long enough to make sure he would accomplish his mission?
Whatever he had been set to kill, had not been human. Not a man. Intuitively, Newlin realized that the girl had anticipated everything. She knew what would happen, he reflected bitterly. She had promised payment only on delivery of a corpse, when there could be no corpse.
Spud Newlin, Sucker No. 1.
Conscience did not trouble him. After all, the man—or the thing—had fired first, without warning, without waiting to hear him out. Without waiting for details like identity, or even asking to hear the message he brought. It was self-defense, in a peculiar way.