Back | Next


Chapter 1

The dancers leaped and swayed in the circle of blue-green light. They wore stylized, semi humanoid masks because their own faces might have been displeasing to the Earthly viewers, but otherwise their silvery bodies were unadorned. There were seven of them. Angular and curiously jointed, their movements seemed grotesque at first, and only gradually, as they wove their intricate patterns, did their extreme grace become apparent.

Sandra shivered. "They give me the creeps," she muttered.

"Now, now," said Kettrick. "You're letting your species discrimination show."

"I don't care. I'm just a poor little Earthbound provincial, and I don't like people-sized things that talk, but aren't people." She twirled her glass between tapering, perfectly manicured fingers. "I need another drink, Johnny."

He ordered it, watching the dancers.

"You're really enjoying it," Sandra said, and shrugged her perfect shoulders. It was the fashion that winter to be covered up, and her considerable stock of perfections were largely concealed beneath a sort of ornate sack that fell to the floor and was buoyed out over the hips by a light hoop. Her hair, artificially padded and stiffened, curved out in two sweeping circles over her ears, and in the centers of these circles jeweled bells chimed and swung when she moved her head. "But then," she went on, "I guess you got pretty used to the beastie types out there in the Hyades."

"Mm," said Kettrick. "Well, now. Australopithecus Africanus was a fine little fellow. He was my grandfather, and I inherited a great deal from him. But he was just as much a beastie as any other prototype, and I'll tell you something else, my pretty. They all think of themselves as human, and the rest of us as not quite. So don't get too toplofty."

"All right, Johnny, don't get sore." She accepted a fresh glass from the waiter and sipped it, "I guess you miss being out there a lot, don't you? I mean, every time I mention it you get all snappish."

Kettrick smiled. "The solution to that should be quite simple, shouldn't it?"

"I don't know." Her eyes were a light blue, heavily outlined and shadowed under artificial brows of white metal that glittered even in the dim light. "I used to think it was all that money you lost, and being barred out and all, but now I don't think so. Not all of it, anyway. I've been going with you for two years, and I still can't get through to you, not really, not to touch you, if you know what I mean. Johnny, was there a woman out there in the Hyades?"

The dancers on the floor struck their final attitudes, bowed gracefully to the applause, and glided away. The lights went up. The music started again and couples began to move out onto the floor. After a while Kettrick reached over and patted Sandra's hand with a curious gentleness.

"Don't try to think," he said. "It'll only get you a bad pain in the head. Just take things the way they are, and if you aren't happy with them, you can always quit."

In a small choked voice she said, "Johnny, let's dance. And he realized that she was afraid of him, that she had deliberately waited until they were in a public place to ask him that, and he was ashamed. He stood up and held out his hand, and her big shiny eyes looked at him worriedly, and he suddenly thought what a shabby trick he had done her, choosing her as he had because she was everything he despised in a woman and so he could have both the present flesh and the untouched memory.

She put her hand in his and stood up, and she must have seen the change in his expression because she smiled, rather tremulously. And that was when Tighe came up and touched Kettrick's shoulder, and said, "Johnny, there's a couple of men who want to see you."

He pointed to the silk-draped entrance where two men stood with the snow melting on the shoulders of their insulated suits, unfestive, unsmiling, waiting.

Kettrick looked at them. He patted Sandra's hand again and said, "I'll only be a minute." She sat down slowly and watched him as he walked away with Tighe.

The two men greeted him quietly, their faces remotely pleasant and very businesslike. They might have been a superior class of salesman. They were not. Kettrick looked stonily at the identification they showed him—he didn't need any, but it was regulation—and he said, "What the hell more do you want from me?"

One of the men said, "I don't know, Mr. Kettrick. But we have orders to bring you in."

They waited. Kettrick stood still. He stood easily, his shoulders dropped slightly forward, his dark eyes regarding the two men with a kind of bright speculation. Tighe, who towered over him by several inches and outweighed him by some fifty pounds, said pleadingly, "Please, Johnny, do your arguing outside? Please?"

Kettrick shrugged. "What's the use of arguing?" He glanced back to where Sandra was still watching him anxiously, and he waved to her. He gave Tighe a fifty credit note and said, "See that she gets home all right." He reclaimed his evening cloak, snicked the thermostat to on, pulled the hood over his head and walked out between the two quiet men, and that was the last time Sandra ever saw him.

The cold air hit his face with a clean ringing slap that was very pleasant after the overwarm, overscented air of the club. Snow was still falling, melting on the heated roadways. There was a dark unobtrusive car standing at the curb. The driver lounged behind the steering lever with the timeless patience of a man who had waited just so outside a million doors on a million days and nights. Kettrick and his escort got in and the car glided off, its turbine humming softly.

For a time it kept to the streets, running between the banked-up lights of the buildings that reared enormously into the sky, and Kettrick expected to be taken to the government building that had become familiar to him through far too many previous visits. He noticed that the rear-mounted fisheye was operative, and that the men were watching the traffic behind them on the small monitor screen. He wondered who they thought would be following them, or him, but he did not bother to ask. He knew from experience that these lads did not answer questions.

They passed through the gaudy brilliance of Times Square, and then one of the men said something to the driver and the car turned aside into the narrower crosstown streets and began a series of well-calculated maneuvers, which a skillful tail might follow but only at the price of betraying himself. And now Kettrick began to be really curious.

The monitor showed only the normal random traffic behind them. One of the men said, "Okay, Harry," and the driver grunted and sent the car spinning down the nearest high-speed road to Long Island.

They were not going to the government building, that much was sure. Kettrick tightened his jaw and waited.

The eventual road was long and lonely, running dark between the walled gardens of estates. The car slowed and turned into a barred gateway, which presently opened to admit them into a place of snowy lawns and skeletal shrubbery, with a clean-scraped driveway curving up to a large house with lights shining from its windows.

Kettrick went inside with his escort.

In a broad and beautiful hall, a butler took his cloak and bade him wait. The two men remained with him, impassive, until the butler returned. Then they accompanied him to a doorway and saw him through it, and closed it firmly behind him.

Kettrick looked around the room. It was a library, solid, masculine, and comfortable. Heavy curtains masked the windows. An archaic but pleasant wood fire blazed on the hearth. Kettrick was aware, in a vague fashion, of the warm tones of book bindings and polished wood and leather, and the subdued glow of a magnificent carpet. But only vaguely. It was the faces of the men who sat looking at him that held all his attention.

There was Fersen, Under-Secretary for Interstellar Trade representing Earth in that sector of space that contained the Hyades. Him Kettrick knew, personally and too well. The others, except one, he knew only by reputation, but he knew them. And a small pulse of alarm began to beat deep inside him, because it was unnatural that these men should have sat in this room waiting for one Johnny Kettrick.

They studied him, these men, for a long quiet moment. Howard Vickers, thin and stooped and schoolmasterish, responsible for the safety of nine planets and a sun. His aide, a deceptively willowy chap with the most perfectly trimmed mustache Kettrick had ever seen, Marshall Wade. Fersen, sour-faced and frowning. The bull-shouldered, big-jawed man from the Department of Prosecutions, Arthur Raymond, otherwise known as The Minotaur. Dr. Hayton Smith, the astrophysicist. And two tall slender dusky-gold men who sat close to the fire and watched him with eyes of a bright and startling blue.

Howard Vickers, Chief of Solar System Security, broke the silence.

"Please sit down, Mr. Kettrick."

Kettrick hesitated, and the younger and shorter of the two dusky-gold men said, in the sweet slurred cadence of his native speech, "Better do it, Johnny. It may be a very long night."

Back | Next