Breath of Beelzebub by Larry Sternig

Breath Of Beelzebub
By LARRY STERNIG
All that had been distilled from the curious
vegetation of the doomed planetoid was half
an ounce, a mere timbleful of blue liquor.
But it was enough to drive a universe mad.

[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Winter 1946.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

The martian servant stopped at my desk, coughed faintly to attract my attention. I looked up and he handed me a calling card on which was printed “Slane O’Graeme.” It was a limp, thumb-marked and discouraged-looking emissary.

“‘E wishes to see Mr. Ames,” the wedge-faced servant told me. The high disdain in his tone of voice revealed more clearly than words his opinion of the visitor.

I shrugged and dropped the card on my desk. “Oh, well, send him in. I’ll give him the brush-off.”

The Martian faded away and I turned back to the 1999 capitulation figures Mr. Ames wanted. I forgot about Slane O’Graeme, whoever he was, until a timid “hello” made me look up from the reports.

“You’re Mr. Fleming Ames?” he asked diffidently.

He was an odd-looking little guy with a head like an oversize cue-ball and a narrow fringe of fuzzy graying hair that looked like a misguided halo. He wore green-tinted contact lenses that made his eyes seem unusually large and bright.

“No, I’m not Fleming Ames,” I told him. “I’m Bill Dineen, Mr. Ames’ confidential secretary. What can I do for you?”

“Uh—Mr. Ames is president of Universal Liquors, Incorporated, isn’t he?”

I nodded.

“I have something I’d like to show him, Mr. Dineen. It’s something new. I found it on Planetoid Y-145.”

I stared at him almost incredulously. He didn’t look like a spaceman.

“You mean a kind of drink? But I didn’t think any of the planetoids were inhabited. How did you—”

“It isn’t a drink exactly, Mr. Dineen. And Planetoid Y-145 isn’t inhabited—in fact, there isn’t any Planetoid Y-145 any more. A meteor hit it last week, I read in the astrogation reports. Busted it to smithereens.”

He reached in his pocket and held up a little transpariplast vial, which held about half an ounce of a murky blue fluid.

“So this is all there is anywhere, as far as I know,” he revealed. “It’s the juice of a kind of lichen that grew on the planetoid. I stopped there last month looking for minerals, and I took some of the lichen along just to see what it was. I didn’t know then. I distilled this on the way back and threw out the lichen, so this is all—”

“—there is,” I finished for him, a bit impatiently. “But what is it? And if there isn’t any more, what good can it do us?”

“Your laboratories can synthesize things, can’t they? Yes, I know it’s an expensive process, but this stuff is very concentrated and a little goes a long way. So, even if it did cost quite a bit to make, just think of the—”

“But get to the point, Mr. O’Graeme. What is it?”

“Uh—I’ve named it ‘Breath of Beelzebub’. You put a drop of it in water, and—oh, boy! You don’t even drink the water. The gas works through your skin. Osmosis, or something. I found it out accidentally.”

I frowned at him. “What do you mean ‘Oh, boy!’? If you’ve read anything about our policies, you know that we discourage the use of strong intoxicants. Ever since the Martian uprising ten years ago, we’ve been promoting beers, ales and Venusian klorah, and weaning drinks away from anything stronger. What effect does this have?”

O’Graeme took the stopper out of the vial and set it carefully upright on my desk.

“It works without water, too,” he said. “But it’s less efficient this way. One drop in water is more potent than a whole vial plain. Feel it?”

I did, before he even finished speaking. My hands were resting on the desk and it began there, and worked its way up my arms—a warm throbbing glow of sensation that was unlike anything I’d ever felt before. Must have gone right through clothing, for it reached my shoulders and started up my neck and down my body from there.

It was a mildly pleasant tingling—until it reached my head. Then suddenly I realized that it was more than pleasant. It was—well, it just wasn’t like anything I’d ever felt before. A feeling of utter happiness is the nearest I can come to describing it, although it was only partly that.

I knew that I hadn’t a care in the system worth worrying about. I knew that it didn’t matter the least bit whether or not I got those figures co-ordinated for Mr. Ames. If he fired me for not doing them, so what? Wasn’t I going to marry his daughter—Margie Amelita Ames? You can bet your last rocket charge I was, and if he or that fat, snooty, dictatorial wife of his objected, I’d just tell them to—

O’Graeme with the bulging green eyes, picked up the vial and carefully replaced the stopper. He was smiling. He started to say, “Well, what do you—”

I stood up, and leaned forward across the desk. “Slane, ol’ bosom pal of mine,” I said, “You’ve got something there. Listen, why let a stuffed shirt like Fleming Ames in on it? I’ll handle it for you. I’ll make us millions.”

Slane O’Graeme looked at me and frowned a little. “Ummm,” he said skeptically. “I’m sure you mean well, Mr. Dineen, but hadn’t you better wait until you get over feeling—”

“Feeling what?” I demanded. “I assure you, palsy, that I’m not in the slightest upset—”

“Have you a laboratory, like Mr. Ames’? Can you synthesize—”

I waved a hand airily. “Laboratory? Don’t need one for something simple as that. I studied chemistry in high school, and I assure you, pal, that I can quite easily—”

O’Graeme shook his head slowly. “I’ve tried this stuff often, Mr. Dineen, and I’m used to it, but I see that you—Perhaps I’d better come back tomorrow evening instead of—”

“And lose a whole day?” I scoffed. “Why, we’ll be rich by then. Come on, palsy. Let’s go back and join Fleming Ames’ dinner party. I want you to meet Margie Ames. The old folks don’t know it yet, but Margie and I are engaged. Besides,” I added with a sly grin, winking at him, “there is a tank full of mermaids back there that’ll knock your eyes out. It cost a fortune to have them brought in from Mercury.”

I took O’Graeme by the arm and propelled him out into the long corridor. The Polaroid glass walls of the huge building looked down upon the great City of Mars with its network of shuttle-car tubes, the ‘copter landings and—We passed a section of wall that opened onto the sky parkway and a draft of cold fresh air hit me. I stopped suddenly.

“Whew!” I said, closing my eyes and then opening them again slowly. “Say, I’ve been talking like a—Will you please forget everything I’ve said?”

The little guy grinned. “I discounted it. I’ve been there myself. The first time I tried it—on my way back to Mars—I put three drops in water, and I radioed on ahead to tell them that I was buying the whole fleet of Interplanetary, and to get me an option on—”

“Listen,” I cut in soberly. “I will take you back to Mr. Ames, though, dinner party or not. Unless he objects because it’s too potent, I’m sure he’ll be interested if we demonstrate. What’s a safe dose—nothing like the one I just had?”

“One drop, if it’s a large room. Mild exhilaration and release from care. You had about the equivalent of two drops in water; delusions of grandeur, if you’ll pardon my—”

“Sure,” I grinned. We’d been walking and were almost back to the big drawing-room where Fleming Ames would be entertaining his dinner guests. “What happens if you use—not that I’m suggesting it—four or five drops?”

“Partial dissociation of personality, and with six or seven drops, you might find yourself in the body of whoever happens to be in the room with—” His voice trailed off absently and his green-tinted eyes actually popped as we stepped through the doorway.

He gulped. “You—you really meant that about—”

“The mermaids?” I laughed as he fumbled in his pocket and brought out the vial to make sure the stopper was on tight. “Sure. You needn’t have discounted that, my friend!”

I led him to the glowing, plexiglass tank in the center of the room. It was a drum-like affair, about five feet high and eight in diameter; complete with bright green sea weed and a glittering red cave-like shelter of Mercurian coral.

But that wasn’t what we were looking at, nor the dozens of goldfish that swam merrily about the coral and bumped their snouts against the plexiglass sides of the tank. It was the ten tiny mermaids that crowded around the coral base, wiggling gracefully toward us one by one to stare at us staring at them.

They were much like the fabled marine creatures I’d read about on Earth, only smaller—like little dolls—and far more beautiful than those imaginative ancients ever dreamed of.

From the waist up they were pocket-editions of perfectly-formed girls. Their eyes were amber, with the sparkle of a coquette, their hair luxuriantly long and golden. Silver nails tipped each tiny finger and the silver was repeated in the gleaming scales which covered the tapering lower half of the graceful bodies.

O’Graeme peered in delighted fascination at the strange sight. “Fantastic!” he breathed.

“Stupendous!” I corrected. “Aren’t they honeys?”

Just then the dinner party filed in from the adjoining room. I caught Mr. Ames’ eye, and he gave me the nod. So I introduced Slane O’Graeme. Besides Mr. Ames and his wife and Margie, there were three guests, Roger Wescott, Interplanetary Transport magnate, and his wife, and Senator B. Peerpont Weems.

Fleming Ames turned the little vial over in his hands and examined it frowningly. “You say, Bill, that the effect is a mild and pleasant exhilaration?”

I smiled. “Well, Mr. Ames, it was more than mild, but then I got an overdose, I suppose. There was no physical incoordination, though. Just mental stimulus. I had a momentary inclination to—” I paused—it didn’t seem wise to tell my employer just what that momentary inclination had been.

Mr. Ames carefully uncorked the vial. “Well,” he said, “I guess, if you’ve tried it and found it safe we’ll give it a group test. Try it as an after-dinner cordial. Anyone mind?”

He glanced about the huge air-cushioned divans and lounging chairs where the guests were comfortably settled. Both Mr. Wescott and Senator Weems nodded approvingly.

Mrs. Ames stiffened in her overstuffed chair and said a bit tensely, “Fleming, I simply will not tolerate—” But Margie put a hand on her mother’s arm and said, “Now, Mother, don’t be a spoilsport. I’m sure Bill wouldn’t let Dad try it if it wasn’t all right.”

I smiled at Margie gratefully.

Then Mr. Ames turned toward the mermaid tank behind him, and Slane O’Graeme said quickly, “Be careful, Mr. Ames. Don’t drop—”

And then it happened.

The opened vial slipped from the liquor magnate’s hand as he lifted it over the rim on the tank. It hit the top of the water with a soft plop, sank and struck the coral with a faint clink. Diffusion in the water must have been almost instantaneous; it was light blue throughout even before the vial hit bottom.

I heard a low exclamation from O’Graeme, and then he yelped excitedly, “Quick, everyone, get out of—” His voice trailed off there and a beatific expression came over his face. I was only a bit farther from the tank than he, and it hit me almost at the same time.

It was the same sensation I had experienced in my office. Not much stronger, but far more sudden and complete.

My eyes were still on the mermaid tank, and I thought for an instant that it was empty, that the mermaids and goldfish had mysteriously vanished into nothingness. Then a pair of golden streaks, faintly visible, followed by the flash of a mermaid’s body, showed me my error.

Suddenly it came to me: This was the time to tell Mrs. Ames about wanting to marry Margie. Now! Tell her, and tell her to go to Jupiter if she didn’t like it.

I whirled around, and paused aghast. Mrs. Ames was slumped down in her chair, and her eyes were vacuous. Her mouth was wide open and her fat arms were making wriggling motions as though her hands were flippers and she was trying to swim. She looked like a fish out of water—certainly not like a mermaid.

Slowly, I turned back to O’Graeme. I grabbed his arm and he looked up, obviously startled. “Listen,” I said. “What did you say an overdose of this Breath of Beelzebub would do?”

His popping green eyes opened wide. “Why, darling,” he said, “how should I know? And how did I get over here?”

I sort of swayed on my feet and closed my eyes. I was looking down at a bald-headed little man, and hearing Slane O’Graeme’s voice, but—but—

It couldn’t be! I opened my eyes and looked across the tank at Margie Ames. My Margie. Her beautiful blue eyes were wide with astonishment and she was staring down at her own arms and hands in the blankest sort of bewilderment. Then she looked up and caught my eye and said, “Mr. Dineen, what the devil—Didn’t I tell you that six or seven drops would—”

I shook my head and closed my eyes again. And something seemed to slip. I didn’t open them, but they were open just the same, and all I was seeing was a blur of motion and I seemed to be going in circles through something wet and blue. I got dizzy and tried to close my eyes again, but they wouldn’t close. But I did manage to stop moving—and I shuddered, and the shudder wasn’t because the water in the tank was cold.

A beautiful young woman, with long flowing hair of gold, swam by. But she didn’t have any clothes on and where her legs should have been there was the tail of a fish. I thought suddenly here was my chance to kiss a mermaid, but she flung some sea weed in my face and ducked into what looked like a cave.

I tried to look out of the tank, but everything was distorted and I couldn’t make out much. I could hear sounds as though several people were talking at once, but the sounds, too, were distorted and I couldn’t make out what was being said.

I tried to groan and found I couldn’t do that, either. And that made me, strangely, want to giggle. And, oddly enough, I was giggling.

Then someone was saying, “Stop that!” and shaking my shoulder and it didn’t seem to be wet and cold any more. My shoulder was bare, and the hand hurt and I looked up, and suddenly a nursery song of long ago that I’d heard in my childhood came back to me and I started to sing, “I fwam and I fwam right over the—” until the shock of hearing my voice come out a rich throaty contralto made me stop and bring my eyes into focus.

And I was looking up at myself leaning over me, and the other I was saying in my voice, “Listen, I’m Margie Ames, and I’m curious to know who is in my body.”

“I’m Bill,” I said. “What in the—”

“Bill!” she cut in. “Where were you? This Mr. O’Graeme (he’s over in Senator Weems right now) was explaining what happened and we took a roll-call and you weren’t around.”

I closed my eyes (or Margie’s eyes) again. I should have had it by then, but I was still confused. Coming down the hallway, O’Graeme had told me that four or five drops of the fluid, in water, would cause “partial dissociation of personality.” More than that would make it complete. And Mr. Ames had dropped the whole vial into the mermaid tank!

“It’s temporary,” Margie said. “We change around every few minutes or so and it’ll all come out right when the stuff wears off, but—”

I was looking down at my—temporary—shapely arms and bare shoulders, and I started to chuckle. Suddenly—possibly it was the realization that whatever was happening was temporary—I began to see the humor of the situation. It isn’t funny unexpectedly to find oneself in the body of a goldfish. But it had been a rare experience—and I’d almost kissed a mermaid!

I said, “This is a beautiful dress we have on, Margie.”

She blushed and stamped her big foot on my dainty little open-toed slipper. “Bill!” she wailed. “How could you? You of all people! It isn’t decent! It—it’s—”

And then the funny side of it struck her too, and we were both laughing like a couple of lunatics. I saw she was waving my arms around in glee. I sobered up a moment, and warned, “Be careful of that watch-candid on your—my—wrist. It set me back a hundred credits.”

I stood up and looked around. And my scope of interest widened as I found myself in the center of a lot of confusion.

Roger Wescott, the Interplanetary Transport magnate, was chasing his mouse-like wife around the mermaid tank. She ran past me with a frightened look on her face and I grabbed Wescott’s arm.

“Look, Wescott,” I said. “Isn’t that a bit—”

He grinned at me. “That’s Mrs. Ames, and she’s down to the size now where I can give her the spanking I’ve always wanted—” He jerked and I let go his arm. If anyone wanted to spank Mrs. Ames while the spanking was good, he had my blessing.

When they came around again, I yelled, “But who are you?”

He winked and didn’t answer and that was enough of a tip-off. There are times when a confidential secretary shouldn’t even pretend to recognize his boss.

I turned back to see if I was still standing beside myself, and I was, so I said, “Listen, Margie—”

My voice interrupted, “Margie? I thought you were Miss Ames. I’m O’Graeme. I was going to say—”

I grabbed myself by the lapels. “See here, O’Graeme,” I said. “Are you sure this is all right? I mean, everybody seems to be having lots of fun, but what if we get stuck this way? And, listen, can’t everyone just walk out of range of that stuff? It must affect only a given area.”

He grinned my best grin. “I suggested it. But nobody wants to. Do you?”

I hadn’t thought about it before, but I didn’t. I looked across to where Mr. Ames was lying on the floor trying to make like a mermaid, and then I glanced at the tank and wondered who was in there, for nine little mermaids were trying to get away from the tenth one!

And I began to howl with laughter. No, not for a million credits would I want to walk out on a party like this. Even if it cost me my job, and I was beginning to have a hunch it would.

Not for a million credits would I walk out on a party like this!

Then I had an idea that it might be fun to stir the water in the mermaid tank and see what—I started toward it and nearly fell over a chair. The chair hadn’t been there before and I saw I was facing in the opposite direction than the one I’d started out, so I muttered, “What the—” and looked down and recognized my own suit, my own hands, and my own watch-candid on my wrist.

I was back home!

Just me, or everyone? No, Mr. Ames was still trying to wiggle his way across the floor, and at one end of the divan Mrs. Ames was smoking a big black Venusian cigar.

Senator B. Peerpont Weems—or was it?—banged me on the shoulder and said, “Some fun, huh? Nobody knows who’s who, so nobody can—” He glanced across my shoulder and grinned and started to move past me. I looked back and saw Margie’s cute little French maid coming in from the dining room. Her eyes were wide with amazement—and then I saw her face go blank for a moment. So she’d gone under, too!

I grabbed the senator’s arm—or was it the senator?—as he tried to pass me, and warned, “Hey, none of that. What if it’s Mrs. Ames?” and he shuddered, and started the other way.

Mr. Ames was starting to get up from the floor. I saw him gazing down at himself with blank bewilderment, and then he looked across at me. “What ees thees?” he asked.

I grinned and turned to O’Graeme—I think it was O’Graeme. “A newcomer in our midst,” I said, jerking a thumb toward Mr. Ames. “Better explain things to her before she takes her turn in the tank, or she’s in for a worse shock.”

I didn’t want to bother with explanations myself, because I’d just remembered my watch-candid. It could take fifty pictures without reloading, and I had a reload in my pocket, if I stayed inside my own coat long enough to use it. It was a Undex B-29, the kind that can photograph the inside of your hat by starlight.

Margie came up and touched my arm and said, “Bill?” I nodded, and she said, “This is me. Kiss me quick while we have a chance.”

It was a proposition I’d never turn down, but I’ll admit I looked a bit scared when I put my arms around her and complied.

She grinned impishly. “Sure, darling, Mother and Dad are probably looking, but so what? For all they know it’s Mr. Wescott kissing the maid or your Slane O’Graeme making love to a mermaid, or the Senator—”

When her lips were free again, she said, “Bill, I took some shots on your candid before, when I—when I had the chance. Some of them are wows, too! Look, quick! Don’t miss that!”

I laughed, and swung the candid around to get the shot.

When I awoke it was ten o’clock, but I felt as though I’d had one hour’s sleep instead of six. At four o’clock in the morning, I’d left Mr. Ames talking to Slane O’Graeme. And when Mr. Ames had said he’d want to talk to me in the morning, I’d already kissed my job goodbye.

The first thing I wanted to do was destroy those all-too-candid shots. But I wanted to develop them and have a look-see first. Maybe there’d be one or two mild ones it would be safe to take along as souvenirs.

I was taking the last of the positives out of the acid when there was a knock on my door, and I said, “Come in.”

Mr. Ames, wearing a lounging robe, pushed through the door. I made a mental note to look in the mirror later to see if my face looked as bad as his. But, surprisingly, he grinned at me and sat down on the edge of the bed.

“What a night!” he sighed. “But—”

“But never again,” I finished for him. “Yeah, I feel the same way. That stuff would have been dynamite to turn loose on the natives.”

He nodded gloomily. “I suppose so, but—Well, it was my fault it’s all gone. There isn’t a trace left for analysis, and because it was my fault, I gave O’Graeme his price for it. Somehow I liked the little cuss. What’re you doing?”

“Look,” I said, and passed him the quick-drying rack.

He stared from one to another of the shots, and gulped. Then he stared some more and his face turned red, then pale.

“Bill,” he said, “do you know these photographs would be worth a million credits to my enemies, and those of Wescott and the Senator? I hope you’re not thinking of—”

I shook my head firmly. “Just developed them out of curiosity. I’m destroying them right now, and the films, too. Then if you say so, I’ll leave.”

I took the pictures back and started to tear them up.

“Leave? Oh, you think I—” He laughed at the gloomy expression on my face. “Now that you mention it, Bill, you are leaving. I’ve had you in mind for the Venusian Branch. We need a good man there to get things organized. You’re taking over on the first.”

I had another picture in my hand to tear up, but my heart was making flip-flops. Manager of the Venusian Branch! Why, that meant I’d be able to offer Margie a real home!

“Uh—Mr. Ames,” I said, “Margie and I are in love. We want to get married.”

He shrugged, his face suddenly gloomy. “Margie’s told me that, Bill. But her mother—Well, you’re not blind. You know how much say so I—Hey, don’t tear those up!”

The yell was so sudden and unexpected that I jumped and dropped the rack from which I’d been peeling the pictures while we talked. I’d torn up only a few.

Fleming Ames picked up the rack, his eyes gleaming. He looked it over eagerly and picked off four pictures. I walked around to see which they were, and grinned as I suddenly understood.

One was Mrs. Ames seated with her feet on the coffee table smoking a big black cigar. Another was Mrs. Ames, her hair in wild disarray and her mouth open, trying to swim across the room. A third was Mrs. Ames—but why go into details?

“Bill,” said Mr. Ames, his face happier than I’d ever seen it before, “your wedding day is next Saturday. And that’s from a man who knows—from the present and future boss of the Ames household. And you can take my new space-cruiser for your honeymoon.”

He stood up and stuck out his hand and I shook it.

“And Bill,” he added wistfully. “If you should stop on any planetoids, and see any peculiar-looking species of lichen—”