The Silver Plague
By ALBERT DE PINA
Like a tide, the horror of the silver
death was sweeping to inundate the
inhabited worlds—with only Varon to
halt its flood—and he was already
marked by the plague he fought.
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Spring 1945.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Fermin, the Arch-Mutant, had risen before dawn and in the garnet-colored light that passed for morning on Ganymede, repaired to the magnificent austerity of his cloister where he received an endless series of reports.
He had been reading Seville-Lorca the previous evening, delighting in the incredible pages which had been the great historians’ dying contribution to their worlds, and to which he had every intention of adding an ironic anti-climax of his own. He sat in an austere Jadite chair basking in the archaic warmth of an open hearth, and watched whimsically for a moment how the darting flames reflected a bright patina on the fur of the somnolent Felirene at his feet. There was a chapter on the Jovian Societies he wanted to re-read. Not for the brilliant, facile style in which Seville-Lorca presented the distilled chronicles of the Jovian Moons, but for that deeper purport which is the notation of the heart.
Slowly, Fermin became absorbed in the photo-plastic record on the stand before him, unrolling in synchronized timing with his own reading speed.
“… It seems natural, I suppose, human nature being as it is—that the Mother Planet should maintain an attitude of supercilious aloofness. But then, it is axiomatic we can never quite love those we have wronged. And the history of the colonization of the major Jovian Moons is anything but exalting.
“When at the close of the ‘Great Unrest,’ as the twenty-third century is popularly known, it was definitely established that the ratio of Mutants to the grand total of normal populations was becoming an increasingly dangerous potential, they were given their choice of a charter to the newly explored Jovian Moons—a magnanimous gesture which ignored with olympic indifference the fact that at least one—Ganymede—had already a civilization of its own.
“The fact that ‘Mutants’ were the direct result of malignant rays and fiendish gases to which their ancestors had been exposed during the endless wars that ravaged Terra until the twenty-second century, thus damaging and modifying their chromosomes until Mutants began to appear in increasing numbers, was beside the point.
“Terra was not interested in ‘origins’ it was only interested in ‘conclusions’—and that the sooner the better! For these silver-haired Mutants the color of old ivory, with the piercing silver-grey eyes, were a constant reminder of a recent barbarism, of fratricidal wars so damning that the new apostles of the ‘Great Peace’ would rather avert their minds. Besides, and this was the deciding factor, the Mutants’ infinite capacity for intrigue bid fair to upset Terra’s idyllic applecart!
“For in a world devoid of want, where strife had ceased under scientific control, where obedience was taken for granted, and robot-labor performed an endless variety of tasks, the blessed Mutants found ways and means of fomenting discontent with admirable logic. Had it been confined to their own ranks, it would have been no problem at all, for as yet their number were negligible—scarcely a million. But the perversity of human nature is sometimes appalling to behold; thus, under the persuasive eloquence of the Mutants, great numbers of the population of the World State began audibly to long for freedom!
“What manner of freedom they longed for, was a little difficult for the World-Council to establish. For surely, in the face of universal plenty, freedom from want had been accomplished. Since the Government was a benevolent bureaucracy staffed by scientists, oppression was unknown. And, in the absence of need for labor, thanks to robots, anyone could and did pursue such bents and careers as best suited them, within certain limits. Even pleasure palaces; rejuvenation centers—and pleasures had been socialized. The Government furnished Cinemils, mild stimulants; even the more esoteric delights to all who performed a minimum of work per day.
“Of course, we now know (thanks to three hundred years of perspective), what the World-State failed to perceive: That human beings need not so much ‘Freedom’ per se, as the ‘conditions of freedom.’ For in a Social Order where everything is provided without effort, effort itself is hopelessly circumscribed. Where the ‘Will to Achievement’ is subtly neutralized by an established way of life, that precludes ‘friction,’ such a ‘Will’ becomes atrophied and progress stagnant. Just as ‘resignation’ is an inadequate word to describe the psychic exhaustion of a wounded soldier who contemplates with indifference the immediacy of death, so is ‘exaltation’ insufficient to describe the spiritual change that came over large segments of the World-State under the fine ivory hands of the Mutants.
“Fortunately, the Terran Government had the wit to sense an impending explosion that would have scattered their precious ‘Peace’ to Kingdom Come. Thus began the hurried exodus of both Mutants and malcontents to the Jovian system of Moons. The Mutants went first by unanimous decision of the Council. They demanded to be taken to Ganymede, where with a sigh of infinite relief (on the part of the World-State), they were deposited bag and baggage. Then the malcontents were taken to Callisto, to Io, to Europa, and some even to one or two of those smaller Moons hardly bigger than asteroids. Even in exile, however, the parental hand of Terra followed its strange and wayward children.
“For we can suppose without fear of error, that the stately World-State Government felt much as an old and weary hen that has hatched a particularly bewildering brood of ducks. Deep in its heart, Terra felt a guilty sense of blame, and had anyone been able to reach that cold and battered throne, he would have discovered the angry pity and vast misgivings with which it undertook the colonization of the Moons.
“But as usual, they failed to take into consideration the ‘Unpredictable,’ that cosmic accident that recurs always in the lives of men—thus the World-State never even dreamed of what were later on to be called ‘The Societies.'”
Fermin the Arch-Mutant paused meditatively in his reading, and wondered with faint amusement if Seville-Lorca peering from the summit of some remote Nirvana could see the stupendous drama that was being enacted in the Moons, and write on the spectral pages of a book, a new addition to his “Annals.” But his sardonic reverie was suddenly arrested in mid-flight, for at his feet the great, golden Felirene had stirred with the preternatural awareness of the feline, its immense green eyes feral as it sensed….
“O Moon of my delight
That knows no waning…”
In the semi-darkness, the vast crysto-plast observatory was deserted. For the fifteen Tiers devoted to the feast, overflowed with celebrants who observed the three hundredth anniversary of their landing.
All Io seemed devoted to the chief preoccupation in their lives, and, had managed to make of an historic fact, the excuse for a planet-wide bacchanale. Julian Varon removed his black silk mask and stepped to the wide balcony overhanging the plains. The frosty air was like a benison on his narrow, high-cheek-boned face, and the silence was a greater blessing still. Vaguely, he remembered the lines of an ancient poem of the twentieth century, which, by one of those ironies of Fate, had been preserved when far greater masterpieces had faded into oblivion:
“The brandy’s very good—
Blue space before me and no sign of man.”
Meditatively, he raised the fragile Bacca-glass to his lips and sipped the fiery liquor that Ionians distilled from the fragrant stems and leaves of the Clavile plant. For days, his mind had whirled in hopeless circles, and he wondered with a curious sense of detachment, whether he wouldn’t be better off to leave the problem to the scientists. Only, it was his duty as much as any scientist, to search for clues.
Julian raised his eyes and gazed at the great tiers of stars that glittered above the towering, purple crags of the Mallar range. Throughout the hours of the Ionian night, the skies had been peopled by the singing of these constellations. But there had been none to hear it, for despite the ravages of the Silver Plague, the inhabited Moons of Jupiter had gone mad with revelry, as if they would distill the last drop of pleasure from each passing hour that brought them closer and closer to extinction.
“I wonder,” Julian spoke aloud, “why decadence always hastens the tempo of pleasure!” He smiled acidly as his own voice sounded strange in his ears. Below him, the blazing tiers within the transparent enveloped, that was Atalanta, capital of Io, the great Galilean satellite, sparkled polychromatically in the night. In the utter silence, a stream of music faint and far away, like a tiny goblin orchestra reached him, as the icy wind plucked with elfin fingers at his cape.
And something else reached him, too, that sent the blood racing through his veins as his hypersensitive awareness of danger, translated the sound of stifled breathing behind him into a signal for action.
He whirled with a speed that was an index of Jovian training, for in the vastly lighter gravities of the Moons, his muscular coordination was breath-taking.
Before him stood a Mutant in the act of crouching for a leap. He was huge, squarely built, his silver mane standing straight out as he sprang with a murderous rush. Julian stepped aside with calculated ease and his left hand moved like a piston into the Mutant’s face. There was no time to seek the hidden “electro” under his arm-pit, and power-rapiers had to be checked before entering pleasure palaces. The Mutant bellowed with fury, and rammed a right deep into Julian’s ribs, then brought up his left and Julian tasted the claret in his mouth. The silver-haired, silver-eyed being was obviously fighting to kill. And suddenly Julian’s vast amazement changed to a cold fury that turned his blue-grey eyes to a smouldering black.
He slid two sharp jabs into his enemy, then crossed his right and felt bone give under his fist. He moved in, blasting with both fists like rocket exhausts, and heard the Mutant’s breath exploding from his body. The Mutant with supreme effort tossed a fist grenade at him, but Julian had caught the rhythm of the battle and swayed away with it; he made the assailant miss again, then with all his dynamic power sent his right hand crashing home.
He saw the Mutant, face askew, slide drunkenly to the blood-patterned floor. Then cool hands were on his wrists, on his brow, and sanity began to return again.
“Darling!” Narda said in a husky voice that was distilled music, and drew down his golden head against a priceless gown that was all blue shadows and pin-points of lights, to stanch the blood from his cut lips. Her violet eyes were bright with unshed tears, but in the odd, slurred melody of her haunting voice there was no tremor as she asked, “What on Io’s happened? Were you recognized by any chance? And a Mutant…!”
“Hardly think so … still…. Oh, forget it, this is not a night for problems. Did anyone ever tell you that your eyes are in Heaven,” he grinned irresistibly with a charm that made him seem younger.
“No! None of your … what was it your barbaric ancestors called it?… blarney!” It was then she noticed the tell-tale silver flood at the roots of his yellow mane, and her heart stood still. The Silver Plague! Carefully she lighted a cigarette and blew a perfect smoke-ring into the icy air, she brushed an imaginary tobacco speck from lips that were like red roses. And when she spoke Narda was perfectly calm.
“I came to find you because they’re going to play the Ecstasiana with a native orchestra from Ganymede—the muted viols and flute-like instruments, and those weird violins of that strange race…. We danced it the first time we met. Remember, my dear?” Her eyes were radiant as if all her tears were concentrated in her heart, leaving only their sparkle behind.
He nodded silently. He was too full of the racking knowledge that all his dreams had been destroyed by this alien malady that turned the hair to gleaming silver, and rendered them sterile. That, and his terrible love for this exquisite, gallant being who had consecrated her youth and brains and loveliness to the only ideal in the chaos of their lives—The Dekka. And as they turned to go, the tiny tele-rad on Julian’s wrist began to flash a pin-point of light in a complicated code.
They both watched instantly alert, translating the urgent message with the ease of years of experience. The message was peremptory—final. They were to repair to the Dekka’s ancestral Hall without delay for a plenary session. The laconic order ceased as the instrument went blank. Julian Varon looked at Narda for a long moment. Then he shrugged his shoulders. “We’ll have to leave right away, it may be emergency!”
Narda nodded. “We’ll have barely time to change in the spacer.”
From below, the strain of the Ecstasiana rose to engulf them in a flood of melody.
She laid a sculptured hand on his arm. She was silent. She was waiting. The Dekka’s summons brooked no delay. For this was no game of mere intrigue, but a gigantic fight instinct with the overwhelming drama of the unseen. The huge Mutant on the floor groaned and rolled to one knee. He had the strength and courage of a Felirene. He got up and rushed with scorn and hatred written on his features. He came with all rockets firing. Julian stood there in the battering storm and fought back. He dug his left into the flesh of the Mutant inches deep, then ripped a hook to his jaw. In the clinch that followed he could hear Narda’s sobbing breath, as the Mutant’s laces pounded low; he countered with secret, murderous tactics of his own. Then, he pulled the trigger on his left hand, aiming with precision at a vital spot. He let it go. He heard the Mutant crash against the floor and lay still. Julian stood for a moment with his tongue on fire, his lungs heaving like bellows with the effort. He bent down and forced himself to search the man, but there were no clues on the giant.
From above, Atalanta was like a gargantuan bottle left behind by some god in his cups. Narda at the controls brought the intra-Moon spacer spiraling down expertly to a landing behind a concealing rampart of rock. Ahead of them a black, basaltic cliff reared its jagged crags, its boulder-strewn base seemingly impassable. Nevertheless, the two masked and cloaked figures hurried their steps toward the desolate barrier.
“We’re probably late!” Julian observed. “We seem to be the last to arrive.” He drew his dark, Felirene-lined cloak closer about him and led the way forward.
“Small loss if we’ve missed the preliminaries!” Narda replied. “I wonder how much longer the Dekka’s going to wait? For fifty years Mutants have been appearing in our midst in small numbers—changed overnight, rendered sterile—and the scientists did nothing about it. Lately it has become a plague that threatens the Moons with extinction, and still we’re fumbling in the dark! Oh, Julian!” Her voice rose in an ascending scale of grief.
“Don’t move!” Julian whispered harshly and froze into immobility. He’d detected motion—something that had stirred among the boulders to his right. Instinctively his fingers groped for the handle of the tiny weapon under his arm-pit. No bigger than a toy-gun, its electronic stream was devastating at close quarters. He aimed it at the spot where he had sensed movement and fired as a darker shadow catapulted out of the gloom.
The spectral-blue beam of radiance from the weapon met the creature in midair and melted a jagged hole in its side; there was a fiendish scream of agony, then briefly a muffled tumult among the boulders.
“What on Jupiter was it?”
Narda stepped forward to investigate, but Julian stopped her. “No time now.” It mattered little what manner of beast had waylaid them. The Jovian satellites, even frigid Callisto, had teemed with life of their own before colonization by Man. And, since the Terrans had preferred to build stupendous cities within transparent, berylo-plastic shields, shaped like bottles, there had been small point in the systematic destruction of native fauna. The cities were largely self-sustaining, anyway. All commerce and intercourse was carried on by air. Only adventurers and fools would venture into the wastelands … adventurers and fools, and perhaps, members of the Dekka.
As they reached the base of the cliff, Julian glanced back at Narda and smiled. “Be alert, I’m forcing issues tonight … inaction’s killing me!” He was like a Martian eagle—poised for battle.
Narda sensing his mood smiled thinly in the shadows.
She wondered silently what new, macabre mission would be assigned to them this time. And hoped that the summons meant something far more than the usual battle between rival Societies striving to milk the venom from each other’s fangs. For on at least three major Moons, Io, Europa and Callisto, men and women were struck by an invisible foe that left them trembling with fever, and when that dwindled away, a tide of silver rose from the roots of their hair, and even the eyes became luminous with the deadly patina. Nothing was known of Ganymede. It was hard to tell in the absence of reports, for Ganymede, aside from its own native civilization, had been colonized by Terran Mutants, who could and did procreate, thus perpetuating their race. But the victims of the Silver Plague were left sterile. It was hard to differentiate. Meanwhile the Moons were dying!
And yet, a stubborn feeling in her heart kept insisting that perhaps the Plague was something man-made, and like all poisons should have an antidote. She glanced at Julian and shuddered with anguish—there would be no progeny for them—her own turn might be next! What a fiendish weapon, if it was a weapon, she thought. The ultimate in refinement of warfare—a refinement that in their Moons had been going on for three hundred years!
Narda shivered again, increasingly cold, as she let her mind rove briefly over their past history and their centuries of spurious peace. For nothing as crude as open, physical warfare disturbed ever the equilibrium of the various Moons. On the surface, the various governments maintained the most cordial relations—idyllic almost. But underneath—that was a different story! The most ruthless strife had never abated for even an hour. It might take the form of secretly systematic destruction of vibroponic farms of a world desperately in need of food; or perhaps the categorical embargo of essential supplies non-existent in another Moon. Or the proselyting of vast members of colonists from a sister world by means of economic lures. The loser always paid enormous ransom in whatever it was the victor coveted.
Thus the subterranean warfare was carried on by secret Societies, much as hitherto the Ancients on Terra had employed secret agents, members of the powerful “Intelligence.” Only that on the “Moons,” the Societies had much greater power than the laissez-faire governments themselves. Each Moon had its “Society,” disavowed, legendary, invisible. They maintained secret armies of Astro-operatives and space navies always in readiness for any eventuality—or an initial open break that none of them had the courage to be the first to start. But more important still, in their vast, secret laboratories, armies of scientists and technicians toiled ceaselessly on new techniques and inventions. Delved into intricate psychological data that was a miracle of ingenuity, calculated always to prepare as far as possible against the unpredictable.
The murmuring wind of Io swirled among the stones and laved them with its icy caress, and Narda trembled violently again. This time the spasm failed to abate, and she whispered through chattering teeth:
“Please, Julian … hurry. I’m chilled to the marrow … d-dear….”
“You’re what?” His voice was suddenly a rasping in his throat.
Julian straightened slowly from where he kneeled at the base of the cliff, where he’d been activating the mechanism of the concealed entrance with the wrist transmitter. He eyed the convulsed form of Narda then touched her burning forehead; he noted the tendons corded at her throat. A cold sweat of anguish beaded his brow as he said casually, “It is cold, darling,” and then he punched carefully, precisely, and cried with agony as he felt his hand touch her flesh. He caught her tenderly as she slumped in his arms without a sound. He kissed her cold cheek and sought consolation in the fact that she would not suffer the first harrowing convulsive fever of the Plague. It would last for two hours. How well he knew from experience the course of the disease! And he hoped Narda would not come to before then.
Quickly he retraced his steps to where they had left the ship, and deposited her inert form in the control room. Then he prepared a note which he placed in her hand, it read: “It was the kindest thing to do, darling. Wait until I return. There’s hope.”
He finally adjusted the wrist-transmitter to the exact wave-length required to open the entrance to the Dekka’s Hall of Sessions, raced swiftly toward the cliff like a disembodied shadow. In the distance a golden Felirene wailed its banshee love-call, urgent, savage—as savage as the burning agony that stifled Julian’s breath, and as primordial.
“For this is wisdom—
Not to love and live
But to question what Fate
Or the Gods may give….”
“I for one, have no intention of being sterilized by—shall we say—remote control!” The sardonic voice paused for emphasis. That would be Astran, Julian thought as he entered the great Hall, vast enough to encompass an army. The satirical tones were all too familiar; he had heard them many, many times during the years he had risen from a mere Astro-operative, through the successive stages of “Facet,” Section-Facet Arch-Guardian; Techno-Star and finally had become Control-Facet, representing the flat, top-most facet of the stupendous jewel that hung above the Dais of the Dekka. “Dekkans,” the voice continued, “despite my great age, I can think of less inglorious ends than to die impotent!” The flaming glory of the immense diamond cut in the shape of a ten-point double star, veiled the speaker.
“Perhaps we’re not facing a conscious enemy at all—that is, none that we have been able to discover,” Astran amended with a dry chuckle distilled of acid. “And believe me, the resources of the Dekka are anything but negligible! However, it may be that through a weakening of our race as a whole because of our existence under a different environment than Earth, we have succumbed to a microorganism native to these Moons, which originally were too alien to fit in mankind’s metabolic processes. But now, now that through centuries of adaptation we have subtly changed. It … whatever it is, filtrable virus, microorganism, or whatever, has had a chance to take hold. All of you know the effects of the disease—hypertrophy of pigmentation glands—silver hair and eyes, as well as its one single deadly result—sterility!” Astran paused on the ghastly thought and let it sink in.
“Our scientists have been unable to isolate the germ, it must be a filtrable virus … that is their problem. But, if as I suspect there is a … what was it the barbaric, ancient Romans called it?… a Deux ex machina behind it, then, by the perdurable glory of our Moon, gentlemen, I pledge a holocaust that’ll dwarf Jupiter’s Red Spot into insignificance!” The capacity for destruction in Astran’s cold, dispassionate voice was awesome.
In the ensuing silence, Julian’s mind trained to the apex of its wide-awakedness, felt the horror-vibration that swept the audience of Dekkans. He saw the coruscating streamers of living fire that blazed from the stupendous double star, and, with a feeling of shock saw that ahead of him an Astro-operative’s mask had slid imperceptibly to one side, enough to expose a tell-tale silver tide that had reached half-an-inch above the hair-roots!
Casually almost, Julian moved with his strange, smooth elegance over the ethereal blueness of the safiro-plast flooring, and the imperturbable gaze of his frigid eyes probed into the suddenly startled glare of the man. Without warning his hand flashed out and came away with the torn mask. A wealth of hair that had been tinted gold but showed unmistakable silver at the roots and parting cascaded to his shoulders.
The narrow face of the Mutant, with its thin, high-bridged nose and silver eyes, flushed crimson as he was exposed, and the long claw-like hand darted to his side, groping for the deadly Power-rapier that was de rigeur. All in one sinuous motion he lunged with the weapon that described a silver vortex under the fulgurant star. In the utter silence Julian, too, had drawn.
The breath of all present seemed to pause for a startled second, then their ranks split to give them room. There could be no interference in a duel, that was the law. There was courage in the Mutant, a fanatical valor that was mirrored in his eyes. He knew his life to be forfeit—and he intended to sell it as dearly as he possibly could.
Only the singing impact of the blades was heard, as the darting swords parried and cut, swirling streamers of unleashed power. And suddenly, the Mutant seemed to recoil upon himself, as if gathering all his reserves of strength, then he launched himself forward in a vertiginous fury of unholy speed. And that was his undoing, for Julian trained under Jovian gravity could more than match it, and the Mutant staking all on speed, had had to sacrifice his guard. There was a soundless flash, like the glare from a gigantic glass, and where the Mutant’s chest had been there was only space, space lit by the spectral-blueness of the Dekka Star. The body fell a charred and twisted thing from which the watchers averted their eyes. The peculiar odor of disintegrated flesh stung their nostrils.
For the first time in living memory, a spy had contrived to enter their midst. Julian didn’t care to think what would happen to the units who guarded and activated the Neuro-graphs that were posted the length of the entrance corridor. Still, it was obvious that only a mind of great power could have had the satanic ingenuity to plan an invasion of the Dekka’s Hall of Sessions.
Julian Varon bent over the mutilated form suppressing an impulse to retch. It was unmistakably a true Mutant from Ganymede, where the dark flower of their civilization had reached obscure heights. The features of the man were unmistakeable. As he straightened, Julian raised his left arm exposing the tiny double star at his wrist, symbol of his rank, and belatedly reported to the Dekka.
“A Ganymedean Mutant, Serenity!” Julian spoke, facing toward the Dais where he knew Astran stood behind the veiling curtain of light shed by the diamond star. “This dubious honor is the second one tonight,” Julian said with a mirthless laugh. “I’ve fought one bare-handed, the other with Power-rapiers, I should like the next encounter to be with ‘Electro-cannon!’ However, perhaps these two encounters are something of a clue. Surely,” he paused and swept the assembled Dekkans with his eyes, “they must form part of a definite pattern.”
“Please continue, Control-Facet,” Astran’s voice held a note of suppressed excitement.
“Simply that it has occurred to me, that while we on Io, the dwellers on Europa and even Callisto have been ravaged by this hellish disease, Ganymede has failed even to mention the scourge in their reports. Even taking for granted their genius for silence and intrigue—their aloofness from their sister-worlds’ affairs, such a catastrophe as this Plague should have blasted them out of their shells, if they have been ravaged, too! If not,” Julian paused deliberately, and into these words he put all the dynamic, irresistible power of his trained voice, “we should investigate, regardless of consequences!”
“Investigate!” Astran’s voice held a grim sardonicism. “If what I intuit is true, we, the Dekka are prepared to underwrite Jovian history for the next hundred years!”
Julian sighed with a sudden feeling of exultance, and he knew why. Wryly, he was aware that what Astran termed “intuit” was an integer of vastly complicated cerebro-geometric figures; graphs of brainpower coordinates and emotional integers, whose tendrils root-like delved into the innermost recesses of the human mind. And Astran was perhaps the greatest Cerebro-Geometrician of them all. Quite obviously the scientists of the Dekka had been far from idle. And, the expose of the Mutant spy had been like a piece in a jig-saw puzzle falling into place and revealing the beginnings of a pattern of some sort, but as yet not clear.
“Quorum!” Astran’s voice rose imperatively. “Astro-operatives and Facets clear the Hall. All others remain.”
The real session was about to begin. Julian Varon knew it all by heart. The endless series of individual reports on every nook and corner of their worlds, so that each member of the Dekka present would be acquainted with the sum total of their individual experiences. Still they remained masked.
A great multitude of lesser members surged toward the exit, while those chosen to remain grouped forward under the flaming diamond star, whose light veiled the ten members of the Dekka. For the ten leaders of their order of whom Astran was the foremost, might be known by their names, recognized by their voices, but they were never seen. There was a saying that all others “could enter the light, but could never touch the flame.”
All the waning night, while Io revelled in a fantastic carnival of pleasure, they gave their reports in minute detail, and the ten minds on the dais that formed the Dekka, made calculations with infinite patience and fed them to the Neuro-graphs by their desks complicated cerebro-geometric figurates were set up, and woven into the matrix of their problem. The possible influence of certain key figures in the Societies of other Moons whose intelligence, emotional stability and intellectual attributes were known, was reduced to high-level variables, and again fed to the marvelous machines together with the relevant data culled from the members present. Astran was like a raging juggernaut, asking questions, prodding laggard memories, directing the other nine members of the Dekka. He was tireless, and pitiless. How at his great age he could accomplish it, was a mystery. But it had been that boundless energy and stupendous will that had been responsible for the greatness of Io—not to speak of the Dekka.
He must be over two hundred! Julian thought with awe, recalling dimly the “Memoirs” of an earlier historian whom Astran had commissioned to compile a history of Io, and in so doing had managed to bedevil that poor man’s life to such an extent, that the historian had counted the cessation of Astran’s visits as among the compensations for dying!… That had been fifty years ago, when already for a century Astran had led the Dekka.
At last, the Neuro-Graph machines, marvelous as they were could do no more. Out of that welter of figures, endless reports and calculations, one master mathematical conclusion remained. The answer lay in Ganymede!
It suddenly occurred to Julian just how ghastly was the irony of their position. For their ancestors in gaining all the “conditions of freedom,” had gained far more than they’d bargained for, including this epidemic of Mutations that in rendering them sterile sealed the doom of their Moons. Had Terra known it, this was the perfect answer—a few decades and all of them would remain only as a Mars-dry chapter in history.
They had sown the whirlwind … and were reaping extinction!
And Julian found a kindred feeling in the vast capacity for sheer destruction that Astran had hinted at tonight.
If the answer lay in Ganymede with its dual civilization of Terran mutants and their descendants, and the original Ganymedean race, he meant to visit that stupefying world of cabals and intrigues and unrivaled luxury.
Julian stood alone at last beside the spacer where lay Narda’s unconscious form. He glanced up into the ultra-marine skies blazing with myriad fiery roses, and gazed at the red ruby that was Ganymede reflecting the great Red Spot of the parent world.
Finally Julian entered the spacer and tenderly raised Narda’s head to pour Sulfalixir down her throat. First he had to take her where she would be cared for, and then … and then…. With a sigh he took the controls and set the drive. In seconds he was soaring, above the deserted plains.
“Terra glances—Men bend low—
As Death dances, on tip-toe!”
Like a shallow bowl hooded in starlight, the secret Ganymedean landing fields came rushing upward as Julian coasted the muted spacer, descending in a great rush of wind.
It seemed deserted and bleak, coldly uninviting. There was a brief jar as Julian made contact and brought the small but almost invulnerable semi-cruiser to a partial stop. His fingers were still over the banked keys when it came with mind-shattering suddenness—a burst of intolerable light! The spacer trembled, shuddered like a living thing. Instantly the hidden depression was alive with shadow-shapes as the first shot struck home. Again the livid-orange flare blotted out the starlight with a macabre radiance, and Julian reeled against the panel. He had time for but one thought: “Hidden! Secret, eh!”
He pressed the stud and drove the “Drive” forward one quarter. The spacer reared like a mammoth stallion and plunged vertiginously into the mass of men and projectors, scattering rocks and limbs in a welter of crushed metal and torn flesh. The pandemonium of screams and explosions was drowned in the roar of the hurtling ship. The warm blood spurted out of Julian’s ears and its acrid scent was in his nostrils. The momentum had carried the spacer across the entire field before Julian could bring it to a stop. Reeling with the effects of concussion he drove himself out of the wounded vessel and into the darkness of the tumbled terrain. The city was very near, he knew, even if no garish brilliance heralded it. He had to get to it…. He had to! The “plan” was complete, and even if only one small phase of the plan were defeated, the whole pattern would have to be reconstructed and the element of surprise would be lost.
And then he realized grayly that an awareness of the Plan existed. Else how explain such a reception? Violence was out in the open now. And, the Dekka had not been the one to force the issue. Still, the pressure of the thought in his mind—the overwhelming responsibility of his task—was so great, that it drove him with cyclonic power. It lent wings to his strength as he covered the distance in great leaps, and was profoundly grateful for his Jovian training. The tumult behind him receded into the distance, became indistinct. But Julian knew that transmitters would be crackling with warning. His instinctive ruse with the spacer had worked like a miracle, but he knew he could not hope to have disposed of all his attackers. They would be on his trail like bloodhounds in short order!
The darkness now was but faintly suffused with the shimmer of starlight, and great sections of the sky were blotted out. He came up against a solid barrier and realized he was in the city. Ahead loomed a vast shadow whose upthrust towers caught glimmers of faint luminescence.
“The Temple!” he breathed, and darted like a hunted animal into the silent sanctuary. He didn’t deceive himself that he would be inviolate, although that was the law; but it was a respite. Time to get his bearings in the damnable city of darkness and tortuous ways.
Once within the lofty nave of the temple, Julian took swift stock of his surroundings. It was illuminated with surpassing skill, soothing, caressing almost. But it suddenly struck him that the perfection of the workmanship had a double purpose—it served primarily to mask the impregnability of the place. It was a veritable fortress instantly convertible if the need arose. It had been built to withstand a siege!
Ahead of him was a lofty, jewel-encrusted altar. But no idol was enthroned there. No inscription even. Only the raging inferno of a miniature atomic-vortex held under control by some unknown means and enclosed in a transparent substance which he rightly judged to be an illusion, and was a field of force, in reality. There seemed to be no exit anywhere, except the entrance through which he had come. Julian had suddenly come to the end.
He searched like a trapped creature, his whole being convulsed by the urgency of his will, while the tumult of the chase drew nearer and nearer with desperate urgency he explored the altar. “Surely,” he reasoned, “there must be some way the priests of the temple reach the nave!” With frantic fingers he explored the gemmed surfaces, driving his mind to intuit the logical means of ingress not to speak egress. The chromatic shimmer of the gems blurred and merged together, formed curiously fantastic patterns, as his senses reeled through the after-effects of concussion. Imperceptibly almost, his probing fingers felt a slight projection on a flat surface. With a swift, jabbing motion he pushed in, and a circular section the size of a small coin slid to one side. There was a thin metallic ring beneath. He twisted it, and the whole section large enough for a stooping man to enter swung silently inward. He hesitated briefly gazing into the dark aperture. He could already hear clearly the shouted commands of his pursuers, as the troops deployed into the branching streets. He entered and the aperture closed.
When the golden Felirene sprawled on the fabulous rug twitched its plumed tail and narrowed its lambent eyes to slits of emerald fire, Fermin, the Arch-Mutant did not move. He did not raise his head.
The silver-grey eyes remained fixed, the slightly narrow skull immobile; outwardly, he seemed absorbed in the photo-plastic record. But the long, fragile finger of his hand pressed one of the gems that studded the milky whiteness of the Jadite chair on which he sat. Imperceptibly the jewel depressed. In the open hearth before him, a burning log of aromatic wood crackled and sent up a shower of sparks like shooting stars against the blue glory of the aquamarine glass columns that flanked it.
“The slightest movement means death!” Fermin said softly, in a voice that was calm and poised and unhurried. “Even a spoken word might set it off.” In the brooding silence, the subdued hissing of the flames could be heard.
“You see, intruder, you’re standing in a radio beam that controls a Neuro-flash. The slightest movement disturbs the beam, which in turn releases the “flash.” A most deplorable accident….” His voice trailed into a melodious undertone faintly etched with laughter. Then he rose and flung back the folds of his jewelled scarlet robe, bright as fresh blood, with a gesture of fastidious elegance.
“Come, Sappho … let us welcome our guest!” he bade the now crouching, six-foot-long beast whose formidable claws were bared. “This is a memorable occurrence!” He moved with an effortless surety remarkable in its economy of movement; there was something oddly regal and imperturbable in his stride. Beside him, Sappho, the feral creature, paced with a fluid motion almost like flight, its golden fur gleaming with firelight reflections.
Across an invisible, if lethal barrier they met.
Fermin gazed into the inscrutable eyes, blue-grey and silvered, almost like his own. He appraised the astonishing shoulders of the man, the golden hair with the unmistakable rising tide of silver. Noted the absence of weapons except for the usual power-rapier. “What a magnificent addition to our cause,” he meditated. Unhurriedly Fermin retraced his steps to the chair, and depressed another flashing gem that shut off the radio-beam, then came back to the silent man. “How,” he inquired in a voice like ice, “did you get in here?” Inwardly Fermin was torn between the desire to let Sappho display her peculiar talents, and that of adding yet another valuable recruit to the cause. He smiled slowly as if reading the intruder’s thoughts: “It is safe to speak now,” he pointed out. “I’ve shut off the power.”
“My entrance is but a detail,” Julian answered. His eyes traveled slowly, noting the shock of translucent hair, the silver eyes, then paused briefly at the power-rapier hanging from Fermin’s belt. For a second he had an almost uncontrollable desire to laugh at the ghastly irony of it. After waiting for hours in the secret passage, he had to blunder headlong into the presence of the one being in all Ganymede he would have avoided at all costs!
“I sought sanctuary and there was the Temple-nave. It’s inviolate, isn’t it?” (The point was, should he brazen it out or fight.)
“But obviously, I couldn’t remain in the Temple forever, so … I had to find an exit.” (Wonder if the paralysis ray works on a Felirene!)
“Continue, please,” Fermin’s voice was a smooth purr.
“The atomic vortex drew my attention and I found beneath it what I sought. Then, when I came in here and saw you absorbed in those records … why, I hesitated….”
“As simple as that.” A world of irony lay in Fermin’s pellucid tones. The smile of ancient Medusa, would have been mild compared with the change that came over the Arch-Mutant’s face. “No doubt, it is also a mere detail that the Atomic-vortex—which represents, incidentally, the Absolute—is absolutely fatal! That secret exit beneath the altar is known only to five other persons besides myself. And, that the slightest miscalculation in manipulating the secondary controls of the last door that leads to this chamber, releases an electronic current sufficient in itself to incinerate a squadron! Remarkable!” Fermin’s eyes were flashing molten silver. “And casually strolled through!” The hooded eyes were shadowed with death now. “However,” the unhurried voice continued, “we expected you, Julian Varon.”
“Yes, I am Varon,” Julian answered with a sort of sardonic calm he reserved for moments when death loomed very near. “I am too near the flame to have dispensed with your attention. The point is, Fermin, I thought you a gentleman, while you seem to consider me a knave. I’m afraid we are both mistaken!” His generous mouth curved in a contemptuous smile, as the taunt struck home. Death was something the members of the Dekka had to learn to accept in advance.
Fermin chuckled, if anything as vulgar as a chuckle might be said to issue from those chiselled, aristocratic lips, but his face was ashen as his hand grasped the neutralized hilt of his Power-rapier.
“My rank is higher than a Prince, Dekkan—I don’t have to be a gentleman! My mistake lay in thinking that you might be interested in an offer I was about to make. After all, you’re a sterile Mutant now.”
The savage Felirene licked its golden muzzle and gave a muffled roar as if tired of waiting, its prodigious musculature rippled under the metallic sheen of its priceless fur. Fermin stroked it caressingly.
“See, even Sappho has lost patience. I regret I must subject you to the Psycho-graph—that is, unless you prefer to tell me the reason for your visit of your own accord.” The mellifluous accents were a study in modulation—clear, precise—sardonic.
Julian had a flashing remembrance of what a Psycho-graph could do to him. It had happened once before during his twenty-nine years of existence. He relived for an instant the burst of dazzling light, the agonizing fury in his brain, while voices that mocked and danced and probed penetrated deeper and deeper into his consciousness until they became a searing Babel in his mind. Julian had vowed it would never happen again. Suddenly he blanked his mind with swift ruthlessness.
And with the same savage ruthlessness he struck. A tiny paralysis beam flashed from the ring on his left little finger and stretched out the Felirene without a sound. His right hand already had sought the Power-rapier and the flashing blade described a scintillant wheel before him. But Fermin’s reflexes were quite as swift. His own blade leaped into his long, aristocratic hand, as he sought cunningly to back toward the Jadite chair.
But Julian didn’t give him that chance he needed, his onslaught drove forward with appalling speed, slashing, parrying, probing like a living thing, until the Arch-Mutant’s face went gray, shadowed by the first fear he had known in his extraordinary life. Craftily, the scarlet-robed Arch-dynast feinted to the left, in the secret Ganymedean lure, and to his vast astonishment saw the lure engaged, and then, a searing flash that coruscated before his dazzled eyes left him only the neutralized hilt of his rapier in his hand! Fermin had a confused picture of molten drops spilling from the weightless hilt and of golden motes dancing before his eyes, when the paralysis beam convulsed him in a frozen shudder and he tumbled slowly to the rug—graceful even in unconsciousness.
Julian did not waste a single precious second. Both Fermin and his alter ego would be out for at least two or three hours, he knew. But his presence might be discovered there any moment. He search the jewelled cabinets that lined one wall. Feverishly he scanned the photo-plastic record on the stand, and even read the flowing hieroglyphics of Ganymede, so much like the written Arabic of forgotten antiquity, which he found in a special compartment over the hearth, and found … nothing! Nothing but a single word, frozen and faded in a now neutralized telesolidograph screen that flanked the white splendor of the Jadite chair. The word was “Paradisiac.” And that was the name of perhaps the most glamorous, and the most dangerous pleasure den in their known universe.
At last in desperation, he searched the fallen body unceremoniously. The jewelled garments of the Arch-Mutant yielded no records, no secret notes, only a tiny vial fashioned of a single blood-red Panagran, which contained a colorless liquid. This, Julian thrust into a pocket. Then like a wraith he melted into the aquamarine penumbra of the titanic columns and disappeared as soundlessly as he had come.
Once out in the diluted scarlet of Ganymede’s morning, he saw that the temple was ringed with guards. Most of them lounged in the careless sense of security that comes with routine. Julian, the pupils of his eyes dilating, slid along the side of one wall, there was only one guard there—beyond was a wide avenue somewhere along which the Paradisiac was located. He moved as quietly as a Felirene, as implacable as death. The guard never even felt the blow that felled him. Then Julian was sprinting madly as shouts rose behind him in the roseate gloom.
“Damn this pink fog!” he exclaimed through clenched teeth.
Behind him the muffled stamp of scurrying feet and the metallic scraping of power-rapiers became distinct; oaths and imprecations in various dialects grew loud.
He swerved aside into a half-concealed doorway to hide his progress, for it wouldn’t do to have his pursuers see him. A badly aimed power-beam from an old-fashioned heat-ray gun splashed off a wall not a block distant, in incandescent fury. “The fools!” he thought contemptuously. But his eyes scanned the buildings for a sign of the “Paradisiac.” He was beyond fear—beyond emotion even. But what bothered him in a sort of dazed wonderment was that the word “Paradisiac” should have been frozen in the neutralized telesolidograph. For his assignment as part of the “Plan” was to meet another member of the Dekka, a Techno-Star, at the “rendezvous!” How Fermin, the Arch-Mutant had managed to obtain that information was incredible! It was an index to plans and forces he had not previously conceived.
But the problem now was to find the Paradisiac, he had merely a matter of minutes in which to seek concealment. And in this world of tortuous cabals not to speak of instant death, no blatant signs advertised pleasure, shelter or concealment. The latter was an art that was subtly applied to itself. One either did, or did not, know where to go. Sanctuary was there for the asking—at a price. But the signs were only for the initiate to recognize.
Desperately Julian tuned in the secret wave-length of the Dekka, and turning his wrist-transmitter to full force, sent out in code a streamlined account of what had transpired since his landing, as a last detail he told briefly of his encounter with Fermin, and of taking the curious vial from the Arch-Mutant. It was then that out of the soft, roseate haze, a brilliant, vari-colored pinwheel flashed briefly, then vanished as if it had never been, not fifty paces from where he stood. And Julian without hesitation was at the blank, beryloid wall in a few strides.
With his rapier-scabbard, he tapped a series of sounds, and the wall seemed to part, just wide enough for him to squeeze through the aperture. Behind him, the incredibly resistant plastic wall had closed.
In silence he waited, trying to control his labored breathing. Knowing that he was being inspected, and that the translucent barrier before him would or would not open—as they willed. The thought flashed through his mind that perhaps this sub-rosa stronghold of the Dekka, kept ostensibly as a pleasure-den, might have become tainted—a trap instead of a refuge. And in that brief instant of harrowing suspense, Julian became conscious of a presence, something cold and weirdly impersonal, that pervaded the cubicle with its aura. He shifted uneasily, poised with a grim determination. The blood-stained fabric moulded to his superb torso gleamed with the sheen of wet metal under the soporific illumination. There was no sound save his audible breathing.
After what seemed eternity—in reality seconds—the wall before him slid silently aside. A long corridor stretched before him. It led to the public rooms. The sudden shock of overwhelming relief had the quality of vertigo. The quadrangle walls seemed to lose solidity and become curved. He shut his eyes briefly. When he opened them again, the wall on the left side of the quadrangle bore a message in brilliant letters as if they’d emerged glowing from the plastic substance itself. It was a message and a question:
“PUBLIC ROOMS NOT NEUTRAL. DISGUISE DESIRED?”
Julian stared. Behind the silver-grey brilliance of his eyes, a mind trained to irrevocable decisions worked at the level of maximum awareness. His judgment balanced factors and variables. True, his instructions had been to seek sanctuary here, at this place, and on this street that for all its seemingly deserted obscurity was honeycombed with palaces fabulous for luxury and unlimited pleasures. Even the exotic tastes of jaded minds whose more esoteric interests could only be aroused by pain—the wild suffering of crucified flesh—were catered to.
Fugitives from half a dozen worlds lost their identity in the opulent warrens where “life” so often could be bought and sold with oblique indifference. But he had to visit the Public Rooms—his only contact with what he had come to seek was there! Someone who had devoted a lifetime to the Dekka, in Ganymede. Imperturbably he re-read the fading words, and with a mental squaring of his shoulders, he replied:
“Yes. Nothing organic, of course. But it must be more than merely skillful!”
Instantly the wall glowed again:
“THE SIXTH PANEL TO YOUR LEFT AWAITS YOUR PLEASURE.”
Julian strode down the hall and paused before the sixth panel, it opened inwardly with the same silent precision that characterized everything in the place. Thus far he had seen no one. The maximum anonymity was, of course, essential. Still, there was something eerie in the atmosphere of complete detachment. He entered and found himself in a circular room with curving, almost translucent walls. The floor was firm, yet resilient under foot. He felt like a fop at a rejuvenation center, and laughed suddenly at the thought. His whole countenance was lit by that rare smile. From somewhere a slim, completely masked creature glided silently into the room.
Julian judged its height at slightly less than five feet; however, beyond the fact that its body was undeniably human, and exquisitely proportioned, Julian was unable to go, for the being’s skin-tight garment left not an inch of surface exposed—except its hands. These were long, and marvelously sensitive, with a nervous life of their own as if they acted independently of the Ganymedean’s guiding brain.
They were measuring him now, taking in the magnificent breadth of shoulder, the long, flat thighs and narrow waist, above which rose the inverted pyramid that was Julian’s torso. At last they carefully removed his helmet and paused as if appraising the great shock of golden hair. With a swift motion that took in Julian’s entire body, the designer indicated that Julian strip. Again the exquisite hands repeated the gesture—impatiently this time—but Julian, his face set, still hesitated.
The designer was a native Ganymedean, beyond doubt—Julian knew that much. But, was it a man or a woman? Julian was well aware that the exquisite beings of fabulous Ganymede, who even when confronted with the outrage that was The Dynasty, foisted upon them by the Terran Mutants had disdained arming themselves to the teeth as the rest of the Moons had done, had some very strange ideas about things. And the “Control-Facet” had no intention of disrobing before a woman—even as alien and anonymous a being as the Ganymedeans. His face was beginning to flush with sheer annoyance.
As if reading Julian’s thoughts, the masked designer shook its head and made an expressive gesture with its hands, as if Julian’s nudity would be a thing of such utter unimportance, that it would scarcely be noticed, except as a foundation upon which to achieve a superlative disguise. And Julian had no alternative. It was either disrobe or enter the Public Rooms as he was. Mentally he consigned the stubborn race of Ganymede to the most sulphuric region he could think of, and palming his electro-beam, undressed. The coldly unemotional designer was unable to suppress a gasp! Its ancient, long-forgotten Gods must have been like this; theirs was a cult of beauty, and in Julian it was witnessing a masterpiece. Almost, reverently, the fluttering hands began their work.
The Ganymedean’s artistry was very great. “Part of their accursed stubbornness!” Julian thought. For the Ganymedeans had an exasperating tenacity of purpose which brooked no obstacles until they achieved their ends—it bordered on genius, or madness, or both. Had they devoted it to the art of War, Seville-Lorca’s “Jovian Annals” would have been a vastly different story.
The space-tanned face with its slightly flaring nostrils, and large silver-grey eyes, crowned by the shock of golden mane, began to change subtly under the magical hands of the designer. Slowly the shoulder long hair took on a dull, ruddy sheen, while the coppered complexion paled and a temporary irritant brought a deep flush to his cheeks. With deft movements, the winged brows were darkened and narrowed, and the generous, full lips were pulled slightly inwards and taped with invisi-plastic, until only a thin, cruel curve remained. The Ganymedean stepped back and scrutinized the effect. Quickly it crossed to a part of the circular chamber and then pressed a stud. A great section of the wall sank downward, revealing tier after tier of dazzling costumes already composed. There were gossamer silks from Venus, lustrous as moonlight pools; the opulent gleam of stiff brocades from Mars, as unyielding as the character of that supercilious race. Velvets like crushed petals, embroidered in Starlimans, the priceless green diamonds of Mercury; vivid fabrics from distant Neptune, which were not woven at all, but secret plastics worth a small fortune each. And, they were all green—in an infinite gradation of shades, nuances, hues. The artist’s hands reached and drew forth a single garment open at the back. And then the real work began.
Julian’s eyes were inscrutable. He had not been asked what effect was to be achieved, or indeed how he wished to be changed. True, nothing of an organic nature had been attempted. But he was not used to this.
The Ganymedean designer, whatever it was, was a great artist. Great enough to take liberties, or else possessed of the effrontery of genius. But then, Julian meditated, Ganymedeans were like that. There were times when one didn’t know whether to slay them or leave them. Then it occurred to Julian that perhaps the instructions of the Dekka had been specific. But dismissed the thought with a wry smile. Even the Dekka’s instructions as to the actual disguise would have been quietly ignored by this creature. It was a work of art, and in that realm, Ganymedeans listened to no one. But his meditation was cut short by the gestures of the artist, which clearly indicated that Julian tilt his head. In his hands he held a tiny bottle, and something like an eye-dropper.
“I said nothing organic!” Julian reminded him coldly.
“A tint, nothing more,” the Ganymedean spoke for the first time in soft, slurred accents. “It will only last a few days, then disappear. And, without it, the work is incomplete.” Julian submitted reluctantly.
The artist was at last finished. One graceful hand motioned toward a huge moon of a mirror suspended by anti-gravitic means, and Julian turned curiously to see what the creature had transformed him into.
His astounded gasp was audible in the silent alcove. For he saw a tall, disdainful Martian whose violet eyes looked coldly out a face he couldn’t recognize as his own; a mane of ruddy, curling ringlets fell to the neck-line, while thin, cruel lips curving slightly expressed unutterable boredom. For the rest, his body was sheathed in palest silver-green, of a texture like human epidermis—satiny, rippling with his every movement, while a great belt of Panagrans circled his narrow waist.
The Ganymedean held up an expressive finger, then flew to a drawer hidden beneath the folds of the costumes. He extracted something and came swiftly back. Julian felt a sharp pain in his left ear-lobe, then the icy sensation of a cauterizer stanching the capillary flow, and something was fastened to his ear. When he gazed into the reflecting moon, he saw a huge, solitary Starliman swirling green fire from his left ear-lobe. The picture of a ruthless, interplanetary fop was superbly complete. Only a Neuro-Graph machine could possibly have revealed his identity now.
Julian went over to where his former garments lay on the floor, and fastened his Power-rapier to the jeweled belt, then extracted the vial he had taken from Fermin, taking care that the designer didn’t see it, and secreted it on his person. When he straightened up again, the Ganymedean was holding a cloak of rich ocelandian fur which Julian threw about his shoulders. The artist gazed at him for a brief instant, with something like a smile in its brilliant eyes—all that could be seen of his masked face. Then as silently as he had come, he literally walked into a section of the panelling which gave way before him and disappeared in the endless labyrinth that was the Paradisiac. The door of the circular room opened soundlessly. Julian’s hand flew to the electro-beam under his arm-pit, but no one came. It was a mute invitation to depart.
The long corridor led him to the balcony overhanging the Public Rooms. Below him was a hall so vast, built on a scale so great, that it imparted a feeling of limitless distances, yet he knew this was an illusion. To his right, a crysto-plast conveyor spiralled down in a swirl of imprisoned waters, foaming like a rushing stream, while at the bottom, freed by the deliberately lessened gravity, the worst and best from all the inhabited worlds sat at individual platforms or revolved lazily in the upper levels. The enchantment of fantastic harmonies wove a subtle spell of desire and nameless longings. But although he felt the magic of the extravagantly honeyed chords, Julian reminded himself that was not there to propitiate the eternal caprice of the flesh.
“Within my heart, all ecstasy,
Within my eyes, all visions dwell.
Life—Death, I turn to rhapsody—
I am the deathless Philomel.”
He swept the assemblage with a glance. Purposely he had stood for seconds in full view. A perfect fop—as frivolous, as dangerous as anything the Paradisiac harbored. The ultimate in elegance.
Julian stepped on the conveyor and had the illusion of being borne along on a cataract of foam to where an immaculately garbed Ganymedean bowed and led the way to a secluded platform embowered in the geometrical interlacings of frost crystals. The panel in the table’s center instantly suffused with softest light as he sat down, and a note like the echo of a forgotten song rang subdued.
“Venusin … undiluted!” Julian ordered laconically.
Mentally he enjoyed in anticipation the exhilarating power of the treacherous drink. It was precisely what a successful adventurer would have ordered there.
He waited calmly, conscious that he was the cynosure of many eyes. He knew a thousand dramas were being enacted in the sumptuous den, under the masking surface of convention and social intercourse.
The place was like a gigantic cup abrim with beauty—so much of it—in the decors, in the music, in the flesh, left him cold. A glowing core of contempt burned within him at the overwhelmingly seductive weakness it induced. Julian knew he had to be as invulnerable as berylo-plast—deaf to all the mellower dictums of the heart. He was here for one single, solitary purpose that was the all-embracing, the tremendous now. To meet a bearer of information so secret, so profoundly vital, that its possessor had not dared even transmit it in the highly complicated secret code of the Dekka. For that he had braved what he now realized was certain death. It was his task to receive it, and pass it through channels that would reach the ten Dekkan patriarchs.
Once more, as he had done when he’d paused at the top of the conveyor, Julian raised his arm and almost imperceptibly made the secret, immemorable gesture of the Dekka. He was impatient. There was no time. Disguise or no disguise, he knew that any minute now, the Paradisiac might erupt like a long-seething volcano. Why wasn’t the person he was to meet here yet? Mechanically his fingers groped for the vial he had taken from Fermin, and paused startled as he felt the unmistakable outline of something hard beside the shape of the miniature vial. He drew it out slowly, palmed so that no observer could discern it from even a short distance. It was a tiny plastic disc bearing the words: SUB ROHAN SQUARE. As Julian raised the glass of Venusin to his lips, he swallowed the disc, which he knew would dissolve. He already had met the informant! The thought was almost shocking in its intensity. It could only have been the Ganymedean designer! And yet, the message in itself was disappointing. What could there be beneath Rohan Square, the central plaza before the Temple where he’d met Fermin?
Already amidst the perfect glamour, the seductive illusions of the Paradisiac, forces were gathering that no Ganymedean art could dispel, and which were far from being illusory.
Neighboring platforms had drawn increasingly near; implacable eyes, devoid of languor or of drugs, gazed with cold intensity at the frost-trellised bower and its solitary occupant. The lighting effects of the Paradisiac had changed, dimmed to an idyllic, translucent twilight, while the music sank to undulations of the B flat tonality that were magical—plucking at the emotions with unerring skill.
A draft of fragrance—the heady florestan of Ganymede—made Julian turn his head. Up the brief stairs of his platform a woman was ascending calmly. Julian rose, a tiny frown between his eyes. He had not sent for a companion; then he remembered his brief flash of passion on the conveyor and wondered with startled dismay if these Ganymedeans went so far as to read the most intimate thoughts of their guests! But no, it could not be.
He shot a clear violet glance of keen appraisal at the girl. She was a true Mutant. Her utter refinement of features, the classical loveliness stamped with intolerable pride were beyond doubt Ganymedean, as was the hair, almost crystalline, that fell in shining waves to her shoulders. The eyes, an enchanting shade of silvered blue, were smiling with a secret amusement.
“Shall one intrude?” The ghost of a smile parted her lips as she sat down, her priceless gown sweeping the platform with the crystal sheen of water. She threw back a shawl as sheer and fantastic as the Veil of Tanit must have been, with a gesture that only a very beautiful woman can achieve.
“Enchanted,” Julian answered conventionally, but entirely without warmth. He offered her a drink. Maliciously he suggested Venusin, certain it would be refused.
The girl let her glance rove over the wondrous spectacle on the stage that had emerged from the floor in the center of the hall, and, her smile was an adventure as she replied:
“Venusin … weaver of chimeras … like all this,” she waved an alabaster hand, “illusion … dreams. But even our greatest dreams betrays us sometimes. Yes, let it be Venusin!”
Julian wondered, straining all his faculties, whether the veiled warning were a prophecy of things to come, or the ironical skating on thin ice of the enemy itself! And was aware that part of his mind kept harping on the loveliness of this cryptic stranger. What was her purpose? Had she penetrated his disguise? Was she there to make sure that under the miracle of art there was some one far more dangerous than a dissipated Martian fop? His answer came from her slender, fragile hands. They were twining and untwining like lilies bending before the wind!
“Let’s dance,” Julian said suddenly with an emotion he would not analyze. He rose and caught her roughly up to him. He saw her eyes go expressionless with surprise, she was stunned a little. And before she could recover, the irresistible power of Julian’s arms had borne her to the greater anonymity of the dance floor in seconds. One moment the lyric quality of the atmosphere was part of them, and then the illusion was shattered as the frost-trellised bower vanished almost simultaneously with their leaving it. Lurid pencils of unleashed power impinged on the crysto-plast table charring it, while the fragile walls disappeared under the barrage. Julian saw a burly Mutant searching for him, atom-blast in hand, while beside him another Dynast, his face stamped with the excesses of Vanadol slipped into the pandemonium the dance-floor had become.
With cold ruthlessness Julian aimed his electro-beam and saw the upper part of the Mutant’s torso disappear. He saw the other one near the conveyor and the “electro” flashed again. The beam went through the creature and struck the great conveyor releasing the imprisoned waters. An icy geyser of liquid shot upward, and pandemonium broke loose. All the lights went out and madness stalked the swirling humanity that desperately sought to escape. He was in a maelstrom of fighting, shrieking beings and a chaos of noise as tables and chairs crashed.
“Let me lead … my eyes are conditioned to darkness!” Julian felt a tiny hand grasp his arm.
“So are mine … but who….” He could see dimly a tiny, slender figure, scarcely five feet in height, completely masked. Then he remembered the slurred accents of the artist who had achieved his disguise. The Ganymedean already was scurrying toward the same direction in which Julian wanted to go, to the right of where the conveyor had been. Icy water already swirled around his ankles, and the babel of sounds had risen to a crescendo of unleashed fear, when Julian reached the plastic wall. The Ganymedean was ahead of him, and Julian saw him press a spot in the smooth barrier. A draft of icy air struck his face as an aperture appeared. He dived in.
They must have traveled miles before Julian’s Ganymedean guide began to falter, then stopped. The being had silently ignored every question thus far, and twice had asked for silence. Now he turned on a tiny pencil beam and surveyed their surroundings. It was a cavern, musty and icy in temperature; great festoons of dust held together by age-old cobwebs hung from the curved ceiling.
The Ganymedean went directly to a section of the rocky wall on the left, and searched the crumbling surface minutely with the pencil-beam until he found what he sought; he made an odd twisting motion with fingers pressed to the wall, and a circular section slid inward; beyond was another tunnel ending in a seemingly blank wall.
“You will find a metal disk in the exact center of the wall,” the Ganymedean explained hurriedly. “Blast it with your electro-beam. It is the mechanism of a door, the combination to which we do not possess. Be prepared to destroy instantly everything that meets your eyes—everything!” He motioned for Julian to enter the tunnel. “You will have only seconds to achieve your purpose. And remember, your life’s already forfeit, so do not hesitate now!”
“But what is behind that door?” Julian asked, exasperated. “I have a right to know!” He laid a detaining hand on the Ganymedean’s shoulder. “I must know!”
By the spectral radiance of the pencil-beam, the artist eyed Julian with a strange expression in his eyes. “As you will, Dekkan,” the being shrugged his shoulders. “You will find a laboratory … if you live to reach it. It is doubly guarded, although even the Dynasty does not suspect the existence of that door, for it is part of the remains of our own subterranean system. Beyond it …” the Ganymedean paused, “in that laboratory is stored the blood-plasma of Mutants who have voluntarily submitted to innoculation with a certain disease. The resulting modified virus is the Plague. It’s like a vaccine magnified a thousand times—its victims do not die, they merely become sterile!” The Ganymedean turned toward where the corridor curving to the right was lost to view. “I go that way,” he said simply. “My place is here.”
“But … your message on the disc … you mentioned Rohan Square!” Julian exclaimed. “If I survive this, how can I….”
“You are standing beneath Rohan Square, and the Temple, Dekkan!”
And that was all. Suddenly he was gone like a wraith that melted into the darkness and the silence, his footsteps muted by the velvet carpet of dust. Julian hesitated no longer.
He found the metal disc in the wall, and with the “electro” at low power destroyed the ancient mechanism of the door. As if released from the bond that for so long had held it, the great section rolled back with a crash, carrying away with it a jagged section of plastic covering from its other side. Julian had a vivid glimpse of startled, silver-haired technicians who stared unbelieving at the strange apparition. In that dazed moment of inaction, Julian acted. He was in! The lethal power of the electro-beam in his hand swept like a scythe through the group of Mutants. It was ghastly. The blasted sides of culture vats poured their viscous contents on the floor. There was a livid, billowing flare of incandescence as acids were struck. It was a welter of destruction and supernal fire that roared into the laboratory before any of the Mutants had a chance to act. The acrid smoke, the odor of disintegrated flesh was like a heavy pall. Through it, galvanized figures could be seen descending a winding staircase that led upward from the subterranean lab. The Guards!
Julian poured a withering barrage at the plastic staircase, and saw it disintegrate into golden, dancing motes that merged with the advancing curtain of fire. He could hear frantic commands shouted from above as power beams crossed and criss-crossed the lab. The raging maelstrom was unbearable now, and Julian retreated toward the tunnel. Almost at the doorway a ponderous section of plastic from the caving ceiling struck him on the left shoulder and fractured his collar bone. He held his left arm at the elbow to support the broken clavicle and sprinted down the tunnel to the corridor. Muffled explosions behind him fed the cataract of fire. He pushed shut the circular section of wall and followed as fast as he was able in the direction he had seen the Ganymedean disappear.
The corridor seemed endless. Even his tremendous strength was taxed. Charred, the magnificent costume in tatters, his left side a gory welter of blood, he kept on doggedly, on and on, the unnerving fear in his heart—not for his life—but that he might not be able to transmit to the Dekka the ghastly solution of their problem. He kept forcing his legs, and was amazed when a draft of pure, frigid air smote his feverish face. He found himself by the shores of Ganymede’s one and only shallow sea. Above him the stars were like freshly washed diamonds; the icy harshness of the wind was like a tonic.
He saw a tiny light describe a parabola overhead, and to his mind, inconsequentially came the lines from a famous poem:
“And an errant star falls rapt and free,
In the blue cup of the sea….”
And then Julian realized it was no star. He followed with a vast unbelieving wonder, the tiny light winking on and off. He knew that code! Beyond he saw the tremendous looming shadows he had thought to be clouds. For an instant, Time stood still. Julian reeled with a surging wave of relief that was like pain in its intensity. Frantically he worked the wrist transmitter on his useless left arm, while waves of nausea rolled over him, receded and rolled again. He would never know how long he stood there, sending that long-repeated, incoherent message, until his mind spinning down the labyrinth of unconsciousness brought peace….
It was a universe later. The blessed peace of Vanadol had vanished pain. Sulfalixir was cutting through the darkness in his brain like a bright sun. Julian opened his eyes and stared … stared into a face that reminded him of tele-photos that preserved archaic illustrations of ancient Saints. It was hallowed in the bright patina of silver hair, but it was no Mutant, a virile aura of power shone in those intensely blue eyes.
The “Saint” smiled; the fact was illumined as if with an inner light. “Peace, Varon! There’s no need to speak for we have the information. You gave it to us—piece-meal—I must say.” He smiled with kindly humor. “But you gave it. We have synchronized and correlated what you told us in the transmitter before you went to the Paradisiac, and your later message from the shore.”
“That voice … that voice!” The thought blotted out all else in Julian’s mind. It could not be, it was incredible, and yet, no one else in his experience had just that tonal quality … those ironic overtones….
“You probably wondered,” the “Saint” was speaking again, “when you saw our signal, how the Dekkan fleet could be above Ganymede unchallenged. Look!” He activated a telesolidograph standing by the side of Julian’s bed.
“Every inhabited Moon has its fleet here tonight, my son. When we flashed them the news you gave us of the laboratory where the Plague germs were kept, and of the incredible plan of the Dynasts—the Mutants, they came on at full power. Enough to blast Ganymede out of its orbit! The plan was the most fiendish, the most ingenious weapon of war ever conceived! You must have guessed it of course … for fifty years they infected our people in slowly increasing numbers, until at last they let loose the Plague.”
“Narda ….” Julian began as memory agonizingly came back.
“That is the name you kept repeating with every other word in your delirium,” the stranger smiled. “A Techno-Star, as we found out. She of course, will be one of the very first to be given the antidote, Varon.”
“Antidote….” Julian’s voice was opaque with wonder, it was as if his heart had lurched in his chest.
“You brought it,” the silver-haired stranger replied. “In the Panagran vial you took from the Arch-Mutant. Our scientists are already reproducing it. It acts both as an immunizer and an antidote. The Mutants had to develop it as a safeguard for the native Ganymedeans. It was the only way they could be assured of even their reluctant loyalty. And the Mutants didn’t dare war against the Ganymedeans—they still possess ancient weapons that the Dynasty could not cope with. I wish we could obtain some of them,” he sighed wistfully. “What a strangely stubborn race….”
But Julian was scarcely listening, an upsurging volcano of hope had set his whole being afire with the immortal, singing flame. Narda … himself!… He closed his eyes against the tremendous psychic strain.
“Once more open war has been averted by a hair’s breadth—I’m a little bit sorry, in a way, Serenity.”
Julian opened his eyes startled. “Serenity? You mean ‘Control-Facet.’ You are Astran, aren’t you?”
“Of course, my son! Don’t try to tell me what I mean!” He smiled with feral delight, then: “We’re going to bomb the temple to its foundations—a mere token, of course. I shall have you carried to the observation tower…. It will be a welcome sight. Will you do us the honor of directing the routine, Serenity?”