“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.