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Chapter Two

There was a line of demarcation between the Aensa lands and the neighboring German countryside, as distinct as though some gigantic hand had scratched a furrow in the soil. The Aensa had not thought to put up physical barriers; there were no fences of barbed wire or electrified cable, no signs warning in multiple languages of mine fields or brain guns. These things were simply not necessary. Everyone in the world knew who the Aensa were, and where they were. Everyone knew what might happen to a spy or an idiot who crossed the boundary. And the boundary was so plainly visible.

On one side there were autumn gold leaves on tall, ancient trees, fields dotted with bundled hay, dried husks of the season’s corn. Gray hills looked down on white and red farm buildings. it was a lovely area, the kind of scene that had graced commercial calendars for scores of years. It was an agricultural area, devoted to the raising of hogs, cattle, corn, and wheat. A few large cities, whose urban sprawl had been checked by the urgent need for farming land, had grown up many centuries before and still served the same functions: manufacturing centers and trading outlets for the farmers. Stuttgart to the west, Munich to the south, Nürnberg to the north all prospered, all mixtures of the ancient glorious days and the frantic modern ones.

In the middle of this triangle, like a bullet lodged next to the heart, was the Aensa lands.

From what Karl Jaeger had seen, every square yard of the creatures’ territory looked like every other square yard: black, misshapen, dead, very dead. The smell of the air across the line had been almost more than he could bear. The sights of the blasted landscape had been chilling enough, too. He admitted that he had been unnerved. He had never before taken an assignment that had so overcome his natural talents and his acquired skills. He had an idea that the intense fear that he had experienced was not altogether natural. That would be something to investigate in the office.

Jaeger ran. The smell of the place was still in his nostrils, and the charred, crippled vegetation spread before him, perhaps another hundred yards. He concentrated on sprinting those last fifteen seconds. He did not think about the smell or the trees. They would only remind him of worse things, beasts that carried a more awful threat. It would be many hours before Karl Jaeger could think rationally about the Aensa, and longer still before he could call to mind his memories of the Dktar. Now was not the time.

He crossed the line and stumbled. He fell down gratefully in the damp, green, living grass. Only a few inches away the grass was a black, ominous parody of life. But here, across the boundary, Jaeger was safe. He felt tears on his cheeks, and he wondered when they had fallen from his eyes. He breathed deeply and slowly. After a while his heartbeat slowed to normal. He stared back into the Aensa land and cursed. Then he stood up; the sun was rising, and the scene before him was more beautiful than anything he had ever seen.

Jaeger took another deep breath and resumed his journey, walking now rather than running in terror. The countryside was peaceful and gave him a kind of therapeutic spiritual bath. The horrors of the previous hours did not diminish in his memory, but he was once again able to realize that there was something else in the world, after all, besides the golden flicker of the Aensalords and the pale blue glimmer of their hounds. The sun climbed steadily in the sky; the morning haze melted, and the last remaining clouds blew silently over the horizon. For a while Jaeger delayed going back to his office; he wanted to stay where he was, rambling over the low hills of what had been, in more nationalistic times, southern Germany.

He did not turn around again. He did not look back toward the province of the Aensa.

The sounds of grazing cattle came to him on the warm breeze. The contented mooing brought a smile to Jaeger’s lips. He had never realized before how wonderful cows were. He wondered briefly what effect the Aensa lands might have on the people who dwelt so near. Jaeger shuddered. He knew that, even never having seen the Dktar or their masters, he would not want to live so near the blasted blackness. Still, he thought, shrugging, the survivors of the eruption of Pompeii had settled right back on the volcano’s slopes afterward. Most people gave little thought to the future.

The future. All it represented to Jaeger was the chance to take a long, hot shower and settle down in his worn black swivel chair with more Jack Daniels than a person might be expected to consume. That was the order of the day, if he had anything to say about it. He wondered if he would have anything to say about it.

After the long, slow walk, Jaeger arrived at the depot some five miles outside the town of Schwäbisch Gmünd. He caught the train at the tiny hamlet that was the first stop on the way back to Nürnberg, rather than continue on into Schwäbisch Gmünd, where he would have a better chance of finding a good breakfast and a head start on the drunken bout he had promised himself. It was better that way; to the townsfolk of Schwäbisch Gmünd he had been merely mad Herr Schultz, another unfortunate who had strayed into Aensa territory for some unfathomable reason of his own. The local people would assume that he had been casually destroyed by the Aensa, like a bug beneath a huge and impersonal thumb. Rest in peace, Herr Schultz. Surely the residents of Schwäbisch Gmünd would pity him, but not for very long. Next time—if there was a next time, unlikely as it seemed—Jaeger would have to think up another disguise.

The train pulled into the Nürnberg station over half an hour late. Jaeger didn’t care; the combination of utter weariness and a few strong drinks had pushed everything else back to a comfortable distance. He stepped from the terminal’s liftshaft at street level and limped tiredly through the swirling morning crowds of downtown Nürnberg.

Karl Jaeger reached his office on Koenigstrasse without further incident. The ancient street was as hot and dusty under the brilliant autumn sun as his aching head felt; he gave a small sigh of relief as the coolness of his building’s lobby washed over him. The elevator lifted him silently to the fourth floor. He walked along the carpeted corridor and pushed through a big frosted-glass door. The black letters on the glass made him smile. They made him smile often_ They said: JAEGER, INC.

The building that housed Jaeger’s office was located in the finest, oldest section of Nürnberg. The city had been growing since prehistoric times; the first recorded mention of the city was in 1050, and it was likely that the court assembly of Emperor Henry III was held not far from Jaeger’s Koenigstrasse address. It made for an impressive business card. It let the rich old women and the divorce-seeking husbands know that Jaeger had better things to do than attend to their problems. Of course, JAEGER, INC. had not always been situated in such imposing quarters. And it was possible, thought Jaeger, that if too many people saw him running in and out of the building in his present condition, JAEGER, INC. might have to move back into more recently built yet shabbier offices. Or, simply, office. Or, if things really fell apart with this assignment, some desk space in the apartment of a close friend.

No, this business with the Aensa wasn’t going to bother Karl Jaeger. He shook his head ruefully. Karl Jaeger was much too tough, too smart, and too competent. It would take more than one staring Aensalord to rattle him. But not much more.

Inside the frosted-glass door was a small waiting room; it was richly paneled in dark wood and gave the operation its only real touch of sophisticated taste. The paneling had been in the room before Jaeger had rented the place. A thick carpet in muted colors, a few comfortable chairs, a small couch, and a table all presented an image of solidity, reliability, and culture. A desk at the far side of the waiting room indicated an immediate link to the mysterious and somewhat less-than-legitimate enterprise that potential clients imagined JAEGER, INC. to be.

Behind the desk was the only genuine beauty in the room, Jaeger’s secretary, Marga Geier. She guarded the door to Jaeger’s inner office like some mythological heavenly sentinel. Marga was tall and fair, her hair as pale_ as moonlight on snow. Her eyes always surprised Jaeger; he always expected them to be light, light blue, and they always turned out to be shiny black. Jaeger hoped they had the same effect on the clients.

He nodded to Marga and closed the front door behind him. The secretary was astonished by Jaeger’s ragged and filthy condition, and half rose from her chair. “It’s all right, Marga,” he said, waving a hand at her. “I’m all right. I’ll tell you about it later.”

“Do you want anything?” she asked. Jaeger wondered if there was anything beyond simple concern in her expression.

“No,” he said. “Hell, yes, there is. No, never mind. I’ll call you later.” Marga said nothing. Jaeger waited until she pressed a button hidden on her desk that unlocked the inner door. He went through without looking at her again.

Beyond the inner door was a short hallway, too narrow for more than one person to walk comfortably. On the left were three doors. On the right were two windows, commanding a lovely view over rooftops toward the very old twin spires of the St.-Lorenz-Kirche. The doors led into small offices; the first belonged to Herr Stahl, Jaeger’s scientific consultant. The second door was the office of Hans Weissmann, Jaeger’s business manager and closest friend. The last door was Jaeger’s own private office. He passed the door to Herr Stahl’s workshop and knocked on Weissmann’s door. A bright blond rectangle of wood shone in the light from the windows. Jaeger waited a brief time and opened the door. Inside, both Herr Stahl and Hans Weissmann were waiting. They had evidently been having a loud and emotional argument, but they both fell silent and stared as Jaeger entered.

Herr Stahl was waving a thick scientific journal in one hand. The waving ceased, and the hand holding the magazine fell slowly to his lap. He looked at Jaeger sourly. Stahl was a stubby, balding, taciturn little man who very seldom thought of anything except his work and an occasional bottle of wine. He had worked for Jaeger for several years, reluctantly at first, drawn chiefly by the opportunity to do lab work more interesting than the routine forensic techniques of the large police combines. When JAEGER, INC. became a financial success, there had been even more incentive. Nevertheless, Stahl remained outwardly unpleasant, cynical, and unsocial; he seemed always to be instigating arguments with Weissmann or Jaeger or even Marga Geier. No one paid much attention to his pessimistic attitude; he had rarely failed Jaeger in his technical projects, and he was almost as good as Fräulein Geier at playing bridge, which is what occupied the time of the employees of JAEGER, INC. between clients.

Stahl’s slow little eyes flicked over Jaeger, silently taking in his dilapidated condition. Carefully he inserted a bookmark into his scientific journal, closed the magazine, placed it on Weissmann’s desk, and arranged its edges to parallel the edges of the desk. “Guten Tag, Herr Jaeger,” he said.

Jaeger just looked at the man. For once, there was no hint of sardonicism or repressed curiosity in the clipped, neutral voice. But after a moment’s reflection, Jaeger understood that it wasn’t that Stahl was too polite to ask what had happened. Instead, it was likely that Stahl didn’t care; after all, Jaeger had returned safely. Beyond that, the details would only bore Stahl. Jaeger could have entered naked, or with a bloody corpse slung over his shoulder, and not the least glimmer of interest would have shown in Herr Stahl’s opaque, muddy brown eyes.

Jaeger sighed. “Guten Tag, Herr Stahl,” he said. He took out a crumpled piece of paper scribbled over with penciled notations made on the train ride to Nürnberg. “I’d like to see if it’s possible to make a blindcoat that will function according to these specifications. The present model proved unsatisfactory, and I think the band of wavelengths we’re blocking is too narrow. I’d like your estimate as soon as possible. It’s urgent.”

Jaeger released the paper; it fluttered down past Stahl’s blank face and drifted to a stop on the technician’s knee. Stahl’s hand scuttled sideways like a sluggish spider to catch it; he flattened the paper out, and his eyes began to crawl back and forth, examining Jaeger’s barely legible instructions. A gleam appeared in his eyes as he read, like a lantern shining dimly through a thick bank of fog. Hurriedly, Stahl got to his feet and brushed by Jaeger without speaking, the piece of paper clutched tightly in one hand. Weissmann’s door slammed; a moment later, Jaeger heard the slam of Stahl’s own door. Stahl had a technical problem to solve now, and for that man the world of humanity had ceased to exist.

Jaeger stared at Weissmann’s motionless door for an instant, a slight trace of envy in his face.

Slowly, he eased himself out of his jacket, wincing at bruises. He threw the jacket across the chair Stahl had vacated. He inspected his tattered, stained shirt, shook his head ruefully, and gently lowered himself into the chair. The office contained a bank of phones, some file cabinets arranged in a row along the wall opposite the door, Weissmann’s desk, and a small table with a portable computation machine. Everything seemed in order to Jaeger, as he made a weary, wistful inspection. Judging from this room, JAEGER, INC. might be almost any kind of operation: insurance, securities investments, at worst, illegal gambling. Nothing to indicate the kind of activity Jaeger endured the night before. He shook his head again; Jaeger realized that the only unharmonious note in the entire suite of offices was himself.

Hans Weissmann had still not spoken. Jaeger smiled at his friend, then yawned. “Karl!” said Weissmann softly, “Was ist los?”

“Euro, Hans,” said Jaeger, chiding his friend mildly. “Speak Euro. You need the practice.”

“Yes, yes, Karl,” said Weissmann impatiently. “But, my God! What happened to you? You are battered and bloody—” A spasm of bewilderment twisted his face. “And you’re not due back for days yet. Did something go wrong with the mission?”

“No, nothing went wrong except that the whole assignment was a disaster. Everything went wrong. Merciful Lord, I’ve never been involved in such a complete and utter fiasco. I managed to escape with my life, but even that was little more than luck, pure and simple. Not any credit to me, that’s for sure. Luck! That’s a hell of a thing for somebody in my job to have to rely on.” He fell silent, and from Jaeger’s expression Weissmann could guess that there were bluer things still left unsaid.

Weissmann leaned forward across his desk. His florid face, somewhat older in appearance than Jaeger’s, reflected his anxiety. “What happened? I would have sworn that we had it all figured out perfectly. Was it—”

Jaeger cut him off with a chopping motion of his hand. He swayed unsteadily as he stood, fighting waves of fatigue. “It’s too complicated to go into now. I’ve got to tackle this thing while it’s still fresh in my mind—and sometime before I agree to collapse from exhaustion.” He waved away Weissmann’s unvoiced objections.

“I’ve got a job for you, Hans, immediate rush. Check our files and then call Central Data downtown. I want a copy of everything that’s ever been reported on the Aensalords on my desk within an hour. This is urgent. I’ve got to find out why I fumbled this job, and the answer has to be there somewhere.” His battered face distorted momentarily into a wry smile. “It’s not quite as impractical as it seems. My self-confidence needs salving badly, yes, but it will also be good business. The data fiche will run to a little money, I suppose. But, remember, Herr Schiller won’t be too pleased with the way his retainer’s been spent. We have to show him that we have a way to correct our failures, eh? Ja. Sure.”

By the time Jaeger emerged from the company washroom, shaved, showered, and feeling alive again, new clothes were waiting for him in a neatly folded pile. A shaft of sunlight squeezed through a crack in the curtain covering the big bay window behind his desk and set all the dust motes in the air to dancing. Jaeger watched the sunbeam as he toweled himself off, admiring the way it glimmered from the polished desk and bleached the cloth and upholstery of the furniture.

He picked up a shirt and pulled it over his head in one ragged motion. He was a huge man, cat-muscled, deeply tanned, dark blond, with a grim weather-beaten face; his expression was dominated by a strong, almost unpleasantly massive jaw line and large, canny gray eyes, which were recessed beneath bushy eyebrows.

Jaeger slipped on the rest of his clothes, then stepped to the window and threw the curtain wide with a vehement jerk; he’d had enough of darkness for a while.

Shadows scurried insectlike from the sudden flood of sunshine, taking refuge in the constant pools of darkness that remained beneath desks and heavy furniture and in far corners. Jaeger stood looking out over his city for a few moments, then turned and walked stiffly to his desk. Rather absently, he thumbed through his memorandum book, riffled the pages of his desk calendar, and checked the desk drawers again. It was sheer habit, something he did several times a day, always sadly hoping to discover some tiny but precious item that he had overlooked. Anyway, there was nothing he could do until the files on the Aensa arrived.

Memories awoke, against Jaeger’s will, and the very strangeness of some of them served to trigger other thoughts in his mind, conflicting ones. First, the fresh tang of the earth after a rain, and the salt and pepper smell of newly mown hay. Then an afternoon filled only with animal noises and the long, ecstatic whisper of wind through tall grass. Nothing in sight but the high blue vault of sky and rustling rows of crops.

A pencil broke in Jaeger’s hand with a staccato snap. Here was a touchy, painful memory; he decided to stay away from it. He couldn’t. He had been brought up on a small farm south of the city, and probably would have remained there for the rest of his life except that his parents had decided to send him to the University.

There had been several universities, as a matter of fact. First the one at Nürnberg, then at Bonn, then at the capital of the Anglo-European League, London, where he finally ended his scholastic sampling and settled down to serious work. Not that his parents could ever have afforded the University of London; he had made the last two transfers on the strength of government scholarships, after his parents died with thousands of others in the Thirty-Day Riots. After the University had come a little post-graduate work, and then the army.

His job in the Intelligence Section of the League’s armed forces had been interesting, though demanding. His tour had been cut short by a half year, thanks to a minor brush with the Slavic Confederacy’s border guards and a hand grenade that netted Jaeger a load of shrapnel in the leg and an honorable discharge.

After a brief stay in a service hospital, it had been back to the University for more post-graduate work, enough to earn him his Master’s, and then a series—actually, the correct word might be something like “multitude”—of jobs, none entirely satisfactory. He had flirted with and rejected positions as a teacher, a research scientist, musician, engineer, lab man with the Southern European Police Group, journalist, and commercial artist when it occurred to him that he was searching for a job that didn’t exist.

He enjoyed the intellectually stimulating life in the academic world. The clean complexities of the sciences delighted him, and at the same time the subjective pleasure of painting in oils was his favorite pastime. Still, he missed the vital, dangerous life of the Intelligence Section, and his glimpse of criminology while he had been employed by the SEPG had fascinated him. That science had come to intrigue him more and more, and the almost inevitable result had been JAEGER, INC., a corporation with only one thing to sell: himself.

Sherlock Holmes, that old fiddler, had delighted often in informing people that he was the world’s first consulting detective. Jaeger was its last, and the only one at all in many years. The political and economic situations in the world had made such quasi-autonomous combines as the SEPG more efficient than the innumerable local and national police forces; at the same time, the huge networks drove the individual investigators out of business. Now, though, Jaeger believed the combines had grown too large, too ponderous to handle delicate inquiries. The SEPG and its like were leviathans; Jaeger was the single shark.

This was the age of the Big Institutions. Even criminology had been geared to a mass-consumption principle; the SEPG and its other counterparts around the world were motivated by financial profit, rather than any tarnishable ideals of justice. Thanks to the commercial aspect, the police combines often developed new techniques that seemed to increase their efficiency, techniques that governmental organizations might be too red-tape bound to care about. Of course, as Jaeger well understood, that increase in efficiency was always more apparent than real. The effects of progress were divided and shared through the entire police group, until the actual result was too small to measure.

As the only individual private investigator on Earth, as the last of an otherwise vanished breed, Jaeger caught the public’s fancy. The use of very unorthodox techniques, sound business methods, and even sounder principles of criminology held that interest. At first he had been a joke—any criminologist who would try to go it on his own, instead of staying with the SEPG or some similar group, was obviously crazy. Gradually he had won respect. Good fortune had brought him his first client, an apparently unsolvable case his second, and his success in both matters and his rapidly spreading reputation had lured the rest. In his first two years he had cracked five relatively big assignments and a host of minor ones. His exploits had been reported by the press with growing interest and enthusiasm. A failure now would damage his image.

The coffee and the files on the Aensalords arrived simultaneously.

Jaeger thumbed through the files intently at first, but then with increasing disappointment. There was nothing new there; an ocean of ink had been spilled over the Aensalords, but somehow the articles were all curiously similar. He sipped the scalding coffee wearily, hardly noticing its warmth as the numbness of fatigue once again spread through his body.

He slipped a new microfiche into the small fiche reader and projector on his desk. He turned the control knob, idly searching the microfilm card for something, anything, that might develop into an avenue of investigation. He scowled; there was something missing, something big. Although they went on at length, the articles managed to avoid saying anything. It seemed to Jaeger that it was more than the usual journalistic agility. Something was missing.

Oh, all the well-known facts were there, of course: the first tentative contact with the Aensa ships just within the orbit of Mars, ten years ago; the frightening rumors of alien invasion that had panicked the world; the inevitable military clash when two of our ships and one of theirs had vaporized in a blinding flash, one hundred miles up, turning night into day for half of Earth; a world in prayer, a world of fear and crazy hate; and then, unbelievably, the first hesitant, almost shy peace feelers; the truce; the hasty devising of an artificial language; the first face-to-face meeting in a pre-fab dome on the moon; the summit meetings with the Aensa representatives in Denver, in London, in Capetown, in Rio de Janeiro, in Moscow; the final agreement—

And so it had turned out that the hostilities had all been a mistake. The Aensalords were really friendly interstellar traders, not invaders at all, and their only thought was the making of a mutual profit for both worlds and both races. They only wanted to open up Earth to interstellar trade, as Perry had opened Japan to the rest of the world hundreds of years before. Mankind heaved a collective sigh of relief. If the Aensalords were human enough to want to exchange goods, if their society was enough like ours to make them greedy for a profit, then we could understand each other and we could get along.

The Aensalords had been given a ten-mile-square area of land in southern Germany for use as a local base of operations, in return for certain mineral and trading rights, left unspecified. Everyone had proceeded to live happily ever after.

Jaeger grunted. He slapped the switch and turned off the fiche reader. He flipped a few paper pages in the Aensa file, barely seeing the printed words on them. Happily ever after. Nowhere did it say that the Aensa hunted men by night for sport.

Nor did it mention that the poor unfortunates were dragged by the heels across the boundary, staked out naked on the ground, and left for scavengers to feed on. Nor did the articles mention the Dktar, even in passing, which Jaeger thought suspicious; the Aensahounds were a singularly large and colorful detail. Too large and colorful for copy-hungry journalists to have missed.

He had made a mistake. If the information given in these articles and books was correct, he ought to have succeeded. That he had failed was proof enough for him that the information had been false. He had based his entire plan of action on the file before him because it was all the data that was available. If the information was false, then the books were false, and if the books were false—

Then, very simply, somebody had clamped a lid on the entire matter of the Aensa. There were a lot of people who might be motivated to do just that.

Jaeger didn’t look up again until Herr Stahl entered with the news that making a blindcoat work in accordance with the new specifications was not feasible.

“Impossible?” Jaeger snapped.

“Aber nein, Herr Jaeger. Infeasible.” A slow humor flickered lazily in Stahl’s eyes. “Give me a few million dollars, a well-equipped research laboratory, my own staff, and then, perhaps, perhaps yes. But here? In that workshop, with that equipment? Never.” Stahl said nothing more, turned abruptly, and left.

Jaeger sighed. There went his present hope of regaining the offensive. It appeared that he was stymied. There was nothing he could do now but refund the retainer to Herr Schiller and accept his losses; Schiller would just have to find someone else. Jaeger didn’t enjoy thinking about that. It was much more serious than a simple failure. JAEGER, INC. enjoyed a certain success because of its growing reputation for offering services unavailable elsewhere. If Schiller publicized Jaeger’s shortcomings, it would be more than a black eye for the firm. And publicizing shortcomings was what had made Schiller’s fortune. The secret photos of the aliens’ outpost would have to be taken by someone else, if at all. Schiller’s magazines would have to deal with the SEPG, after all, as distasteful as that evidently was to the millionaire publisher. Jaeger certainly wasn’t going back into the Aensa territory as unprotected as he had been the first time, to be hunted again through the dark by slavering beasts from a Hieronymus Bosch nightmare. There wasn’t enough money in the world to make him do that.

Still, the puzzle of the lying data fiche was a tantalizing itch in the back of his mind. He shrugged. A failure was a failure, and it was better to face up to it honestly than delude himself with false hopes. If he was lucky, he might be able to hush up the whole business and keep it out of the papers. Anyway, Jaeger was too much of a professional to let mere personal curiosity lure him into a situation where he didn’t stand even a fifty-fifty chance of getting out alive.

Hans Weissmann entered softly as Jaeger swirled the black dregs of coffee in his cup. Jaeger wondered if he should finish the rest of the oily liquid or succumb to the waves of weariness that lapped with increasing frequency at his mind.

“Karl,” said Weissmann, “there has been a call for you.”

“Ja, so?”

“From the International Congress. I think they want to hire you.”

Jaeger arched an eyebrow. He was incredulous; this was unheard of. Besides, the IC had a security force of its own and an army of agents. What did they need of him? “Hans,” said Jaeger, “are you certain of this?”

“Yes. Three IC attachés are coming here tomorrow to see you. An appointment at two o’clock.”


“I don’t know their names, but two are representatives from the North American Urban League, and one a representative from the Slavic Confederacy.”

“Which part of NAUL are they from, according to the old system?”

Weissmann shook his head. “Karl, the old system has been obsolete for years. It couldn’t make any difference now. One is from the Northeastern Monocity, and one is from the—”

“That doesn’t satisfy me. What section of their respective city-states are they from?”

Weissmann muttered to himself and consulted his notebook. “One is from New York, one is from Houston. Satisfied now? Or do I have to look up their street addresses, too?”

Jaeger smiled wryly. “No, but now I’d like you to tell me what part of the Slavic Confederacy the other representative calls home.”

“All right, Karl, all right. He’s from Warsaw. But honestly, how can it be of any importance? The old world is dead, buried, and gone.”

Jaeger took a deep breath and sat back in his chair. He stared above his friend’s head, at the dusty wood paneling of the walls. “Dead and buried, perhaps,” he said, “but not gone. Old ethnic patterns make stubborn ghosts. My God, Hans, in many respects a man is what his home makes of him, his entire psychological framework is shaped by the atmosphere and traditions of the place where he has grown up and lived. If you don’t know a man’s background, how can you know the man? How can you deal with him?”

Weissmann chuckled softly. “Poor Karl. Always a perfectionist.” He rapped his knuckles on Jaeger’s desk and stretched. “Time to go, Karl. Get some sleep. You look too much like a dead man. I will watch the office as usual, like an angry hawk with little hawklings to guard.”

“Chicks,” said Jaeger tonelessly. Then he added hesitantly, “I think.”

“Hawklings, chicks, it makes no difference,” said Weissmann. He gave an airy wave of his hand and chuckled. “Get some sleep, Karl. Even you are not made of iron, although you would like to think that you are. You are just flesh and blood like the rest of us.”

“Blood,” said Jaeger. “Thanks for reminding me, Hans. Send Stahl back in. I want a sample of my blood analyzed.”

Weissmann shook his head but said nothing. He turned and left the office.

Jaeger swayed unsteadily to his feet and blinked at the wall clock. It was still early afternoon. Lunch would have to wait until some day when he could manage to keep his eyes open long enough to eat. He made it to the couch, sat down, started to take off his shirt. Then sleep washed over him like a physical thing and he did a long clean dive into soothing blackness.

Corcail Sendijen was returning from another futile night of searching when he walked right into an armed Aensa patrol.

He had just emerged from the bottom of his ventilator shaft, laboriously replaced the grating, and was preparing to follow the bend in the narrow corridor that led down to the black gang quarters, when he heard footsteps approaching rapidly up the corridor toward him, boots ringing loudly against stone. He froze. He could smell them now as well and, as they moved closer, hear the distinctive beating of their hearts. Aensa. Closing down on him fast.

Corcail Sendijen stared about wildly. This corridor was normally deserted at this hour; that alone had made his nightly forays possible. There was no cover on this stretch, no branch corridors to duck into, no furniture or machinery to hide behind. Only naked rock: floor, walls, ceiling. He had gambled that he would never encounter anyone here. Now it appeared that he had lost the bet, and the unexpected Aensa patrol would collect on it. What could he do? He had only seconds. It would take much too long to open up the ventilator shaft again, and even if he could get it open he’d never be able to get the grating back in place in time: The Aensa would see that it had been removed, investigate, and catch him in the shaft. Corcail Sendijen could cover ground very rapidly when he wished, but from here on the corridor was long and straight and empty—run as he might, he’d never be able to get out of sight before they turned the bend in the corridor and spotted him. And there was no hope of slipping by them unseen.

These and a dozen other thoughts flickered frantically through Corcail Sendijen’s mind in a fraction of a second. It was hopeless. They’d probably shoot him down as soon as they turned the bend and saw him, and they would turn the bend in a heartbeat, were turning it now—

As the first Aensa turned the bend, Corcail Sendijen leaped straight up in the air.

He spread his tentacles wide as he rose, and so powerful was the leap that he splatted hard against the smooth rock ceiling and stuck fast, like a child’s suction-cup arrow, held by the adhesive disks on his four main tentacles. He could sense the Aensa passing directly underneath him, although he dared not move to look. He was barely six feet above their heads, and would have been spotted instantly if one of them had looked up. But they did not. They weren’t expecting anyone to be there, for one thing, and even if they had been actively searching for him, beings evolved from ground-hunting animals rarely think to look up during a chase; almost instinctively, they will scan no higher than eye level, ninety-nine out of a hundred times. Corcail Sendijen had gambled that they wouldn’t, and it seemed that this gamble too had paid off.

The Aensa marched several yards further on and then stopped. At first Corcail Sendijen feared that they had spotted him after all, but they sent up no alarm. Instead, they began to speak together in conversational tones, but Corcail Sendijen was momentarily too preoccupied with his own situation to eavesdrop. His grip was slipping; already one of his tentacles had worked free of the ceiling, adhesion broken, as gravity relentlessly tried to pull him back down. Ayai! The Aensa would have to stop here for their chat! How long could he keep himself up here? Another tentacle was peeling away from the stone. If he fell, it would be practically at their feet.

Frantically, he whipped his four lesser tentacles back and forth across the smooth ceiling, searching for purchase. One of them touched a grilled light-fixture, set into the ceiling, and Corcail Sendijen gave a shudder, his equivalent of a sigh of relief. Quickly he wrapped his lesser tentacles around the grillwork, braced himself against it, and so was able to renew the adhesive grip of his four main tentacles. Now secure, he could turn his attention to spying on the Aensa. By twisting himself almost in half, he was able to get a look at them.

There were six of them: three Aensamen, two proud Aensalords, and—Corcail Sendijen’s eyes narrowed. The sixth member of the party was a bovine triped named Malmo, one of the black gang. Malmo was standing a little apart from the Aensa, his back to the corridor wall, his massive, shaggy head sunk dejectedly on his breast. The Aensalords had pistols in their hands, and they kept them loosely pointed in Malmo’s direction, with deceptive nonchalance.

One of the Aensalords was saying: “—far enough. None of the black gang will hear us now. By the morning, they will probably have forgotten that we came for this one. Or that he ever existed at all.”

“Truth,” the other Aensalord said. “Still, it is better to do it away from their sight. The death of one of their own unsettles them when it is not a part of proper work routine. Their minds are low-grade, and they are easily panicked. And they would remember a death. No creature is so low-grade that he does not remember death.”

“Death,” said the first Aensalord in a soft, caressing tone, as though he savored the word. “Ah, the Dark One is coming for Malmo with his sack! Can you not sense him, Malmo, getting nearer? Can you not feel him approach?” To the other Aensalord: “A shame to waste a slave of moderate intelligence, compared to the rest. How unfortunate that he has coincidentally seen what he has seen.”

“This is so,” the second Aensalord replied. “But it must be done. The secret is there in his mind for any competent spy to read, and why waste psychoediting on such a one? There are cheaper, more efficient ways.”

At this point, Corcail Sendijen stirred. Fighting down a distracting wave of compassion for his fellow black-ganger, he tried to probe Malmo’s mind for the information that had doomed him, information that could be the key to unlock this whole investigation. But he found, to his dismay, that it couldn’t be done. Outwardly, Malmo seemed resigned, even placid, but inside he was roaring wide open with white-hot emotion—death-fear, hate, rage, perverse sexual excitement—and this howling cacophony was enough to keep Corcail Sendijen from reading him clearly. And besides, ironically enough, Malmo’s fear had disturbed him so greatly, taken up so much of his limited mental capacity, that he had almost entirely forgotten the information he was about to be killed to protect.

“The Man with the Sack is here, Malmo!” The first Aensalord called mockingly. “Can you not smell him? Can you not smell the blood that coats the inside of his sack, wherein you soon shall be? Can you not smell the blood, Malmo, and the old brittle bones?”

Malmo said nothing, but he raised his shaggy head and looked at the Aensalords. A shudder went through his huge frame, and he shuffled his three feet nervously, but he did not move. His massive shoulders were slumped, his arms limp, the long-fingered hands hanging straight down and nearly brushing the floor. His eyes were sad and mild.

“Will you not speak, Malmo?” the first Aensalord cried. “Will you not plead? Will you not rage?”

“Lords,” Malmo said. His voice was very deep, slow and thick and patient. His eyes smoldered now, like embers. He slowly raised his arms and spread them wide apart. “Lords, I am your creature,” he said.

The first Aensalord shot him in the stomach.

There was no noise or muzzle flash, but the impact of the shot punched Malmo back against the wall. He rocked drunkenly for a moment but did not go down. Thick mahogany-colored blood was welling from the wound, and he placed one of his big hands over it. His eyes did not leave the Aensalords. He had not moved.

“Attack!” screamed the first Aensalord. “Charge us, Malmo! Gore us! Crush us! Kill us!”

“Lords,” Malmo said in a bloody, bubbling voice.

The first Aensalord shot him three more times in rapid succession. Malmo bounced off the wall, reeled, and then pitched headlong, falling with a crash that shook the corridor.

“No style,” the second Aensalord said disapprovingly. “No technique. He didn’t manage to fulfill even one of the Fifteen Stations of Death. Such a poor showing.”

“He was low-grade,” the first Aensalord agreed. He gestured to one of the Aensamen, who walked over to the spot where Malmo had fallen and, producing a squat black box with a nozzle, used it to pump out a cloud of dry silver powder. The powder settled down onto Malmo’s body. There was a brilliant flash of flame, a gout of oily black smoke that soon dissipated, and all trace of Malmo was gone.

The Aensa patrol continued on down the corridor, the two Aensalords still discussing Malmo’s deficiencies as a participant in the Noblest Game.

As soon as they were out of sight, Corcail Sendijen let himself drop lightly to the floor. He was feeling queasy in his second stomach, and guilty, and he sternly repressed both emotions. Poor stupid Malmo. Corcail Sendijen felt his fighting claws click in reflexive rage. This emotion he could not entirely repress. He had killed Aensalords in the past, and he looked forward to killing more in the future . . .

No, it was useless to lose himself in bloody daydreams. His mission was far from over. He had learned nothing from his search of the castle grounds, and he had been unable to take advantage of a unique and precious opportunity to gain the secret information he sought. He also sensed, uneasily, that he was missing something about the death of Malmo, overlooking something—that somehow he should be able to use that death against the Aensalords and to his own advantage. He couldn’t see how, but the feeling persisted.

One thing was definite: He had been given a graphic demonstration of what would happen to him if he was caught. It was a lesson, however, that he already knew too well. Too damn well.

He whirled around and scuttled for black-gang territory.

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