Irla Grayson was a museum piece.
At least, this is how Commander John Craig thought of her as he stared across the red-checked tablecloth where a lone candle showed her smooth bare shoulders in a tight black night-hours gown. As a wind eddy made the candle flame waver, dark shadows shifted across the red glossiness of her up-swept hair.
She was the most beautiful museum attendant he had ever wined and dined; the only one, to tell the truth, but there was one thing about her which troubled him.
This night she was going to die. Her green eyes studied him carefully. “Headquarters told me you were on Afrikaal Planet and to get in touch with you,” she said. "I was happy to do so. You're a famous man, Commander.”
He made a gesture with his hand, modestly. "I'm supposed to be going on vacation,” he told her.
"Dan Ingalls promised me a rest when I came back from the black enigma.” He shook his head. “I can't believe anyone would want to kill you. It doesn't make sense.”
Irla Grayson sighed and turned away from the man whose craggy face was so heavily tanned by the suns of a dozen planets that it was a dull bronze. His close-cropped blond hair seemed almost white against that suntan. In his white Empire uniform, he made a striking figure.
He was a legend in his own time. It had been Craig who had taken a spaceship into the black enigma and exposed the secret of that expanding cloud which threatened to destroy a universe. Before that, he had spent twenty weeks on the jungle planet of Lyrosia, discovering the euxenite crystals which blanked out the telepathic thoughts of the intelligent beasts which were that planet's life form, and which interfered with human thought.
There were other places, other deeds of equal merit, to the credit of this fascinating man. When Empire Intelligence found a nut it could not crack, it handed it to John Craig. And Craig always found the crack in the shell by which he could get at the kernel.
Irla Grayson hoped desperately he would succeed with her problem as he had with those others. He gave her a feeling of confidence. Without him, she would never have agreed to come here to the Lower City. Her eyes moved around the big room, and she shivered.
At the next table, three hulking men, sand miners from the Demon Desert, bald and with thick muscles rippling under their sun-blackened skins, were staring at the low dais on which a naked woman was rotating her smooth belly in a provocative dance. Beyond them were three men whose faces bore the telltale acid brands of chronic criminals. In this crowd of the always battling Lower City sects, there were also stevedores and space-dock wallopers, sandhogs and tough musclemen.
No Upper City woman in her right mind came here after dark. Yet Irla was here, in a night-hours gown that clung with faithful honesty to her curving body. But she had no fears because John Craig sat across from her.
She wondered how he would handle himself if one of the sand miners, for instance, should attempt to take her away from him. She had heard stories of society women kidnapped from their escorts and kept in some little cubicle in the Lower City for days, even weeks. It may have been the rayer in its black leather holster at his hip that warned them off, or the sight of the campaign ribbons that covered half his chest. Or maybe the sand miners and chronic criminals knew and respected him.
"Tell me,” he said quietly. “Who wants you dead?"
"L.O.O.T.,” she murmured.
"L.O.O.T.?” he wondered, eyebrows rising. The league of outer-space thieves. The most important single branch of criminal activity in the Empire. It was an octopus with a thousand, perhaps even a million tentacles reaching through space to one planet and another, dipping into their cities and their lonely places. Now and again part of a tentacle would be chopped off, L.O.O.T. would lose a man or a score of men in some activity that failed, but this was an occasional setback. The odds were always twenty to one in its favor.
Craig grinned. “You can't be such a menace as all that. Sure, you're one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen but L.O.O.T. has nothing against pretty girls. L.O.O.T. uses them all the time, I understand.”
She leaned closer. The lone candle flame created a shadow between the inner slopes of her breasts. "This is the trouble, Commander. You do not understand.”
He sensed her worry, her deep fright. His hand went out, closed his fingers around her own hand. “Go on, tell me.” Irla Grayson liked the feel of his fingers. It was almost as if he were taking her into the palm of his hand, cupping it about her protectively. A warmth possessed her body, and she smiled.
"Three days ago, a man fired an explosi-pellet at me.” She had been on her way home from the museum. She had been on a moviwalk, resting against its rail, letting the platform on its pressurized rollers propel her between the metal risers. The moviwalks were everywhere in the Upper City. They ran in the middle of the main streets, raised on glistening metallic rods to a height of one foot. Slow platforms were on the outer rim, with faster platforms bordering the middle strip which was a high speed conveyor belt. Every minute the platforms halted for passengers, then resumed their movement as the magnetic grapples caught hold.
There was a seat attached to every platform, but Irla Grayson had been sitting most of the day, hunched over proofs for a new catalog, and preferred to stand. It was that decision which saved her life, for as the platform moved out of the Upper City on their way across the Intholian Plain toward the dwelling places, she felt tired suddenly and sat down.
At that moment the L.O.O.T. man fired. The explosi-pellet whipped past her ear, buried its length in a distant tree. The tree went up in a flare of red just as the L.O.O.T. man screamed.
"An Empire man was on the platforms, just behind my attacker. He got him with a paralysis needle.” The woman shivered and drew in her breath. "They took the L.O.O.T. man to local headquarters and put electrodes to his brain. The electrical stimuli made him tell the truth.
"He was a L.O.O.T. killer. His job—he honestly didn't know why, he'd have had to tell if he had, you know, with those neuro-needles in his temporal lobes—was to kill me. No reason given. He was to be paid a thousand krollen for the job.”
She frowned. "One thing more. The killer said I must be dead by the seventh day of Al-month. That's tomorrow."
Commander Craig sighed. "If L.O.O.T. wants you dead, they'll hit when we leave here. As soon as we step from the door, when we enter an air-car or while we walk along an alleyway—I don't know when or where. But they'll hit us in the Lower City.”
"Is this why you brought me here?” A wry smile touched his lips. “I told you I'm supposed to be on vacation. I want to get this thing over and done with. I'm offering them a gold plated invitation to have at you.”
She said a word under her breath and scowled. Craig laughed and squeezed her hand when she would have pulled it away.
"I suppose I should have gone home with you and let them make their try in your bedroom but—”
"Well!” she exclaimed, straightening.
“—but I want to save my energies for my vacation and so—”
This time she succeeded in freeing her hand. "—and so I figured the Lower City was the perfect place. In an alleyway out there, nobody pays any attention to dead bodies except the Sanitary Corps that has to clean the streets.”
Irla Grayson might have said something—she never quite knew what words were at her lips—when the waitress appeared at their table with a levitray balanced on an anti-grav beam. From it she lifted off tukkal steaks and marsh herb salad topped with a creamy Orkk cheese dressing.
Craig said, "The tukkal steak should be smoked for seven days precisely, for it to be really flavorful,” he told the blond girl in the transparent bolero and cling-pants as she bent to set the meat platter before him.
She looked at him with bright eyes. “Oh, yes, Commander. The cook learned you were coming and sent a boy to the Upper City for a special cut.”
“And the Orkk cheese?"
"The way you like it, Commander. From the dairies out Karinth way.” Her cheeks dimpled as she smiled. "The marsh herbs are from the Lambarth fens by way of Tokkar.”
"Madie, you're a jewel,” he told her. She breathed deeply as she stared down at him. Irla Grayson scowled when she saw the worship in the eyes of the blonde. Then the girl was gone and the Commander was lifting a bottle of chilled wine she had left in a metal container.
"Revere Planet 31 is the finest wine ever devised for sipping with tukkal steak," he told her, pouring the red liquid into her glass goblet.
"Women adore you, don't they?" she mused. His eyebrows rose. “Women? Oh, you mean Madie. I've been eating in here off and on for the past half dozen years. Madie's always waited on me. She knows just how I like my food. I always call a little in advance to let them prepare for me.”
“And they do,” she marveled. His wide shoulders shrugged. “We have an understanding.”
He sipped at the Revere 31, nodding. “Yes, yes. The true vintage. And chilled perfectly. I must compliment Gorlon.” At her look he said, "Gorlon is the cook, or perhaps I should say—chef.”
She sniffed politely, at which he protested, "No, no, my dear, don't misjudge Gorlon. He can cook with the best of them. Years ago he used to work for the Karanac. There was a little scandal—a guest in his bed, you know the sort of thing. To avoid prosecution he came down here and opened this place, the Slops Pail. His food is good, it's clean, he gives a lot for the money. By now, Gorlon must be a rich man."
"And he's a friend of yours.”
“I have a lot of friends. On many planets.” His eyes narrowed as he stared at her. "Surely you don't think I brought you down here without the proper safeguards? Oh, Cromm! I'm not an idiot!”
Irla Grayson began to understand why the sand miners and the spaceport stevedores paid her no attention. These men knew Commander Craig, some of them might even be working with him now. There would be other men out in the alleyways, men who pretended to be drunk, to be high on TFC powder, to be panhandlers or perhaps even women posing as prosties, just to keep their eyes open for him.
Suddenly she was ravenous. Lifting her electiknife, she cut into the steak. It peeled back, red and juicy. Irla Grayson knew that she would never forget this meal, for suddenly she understood it was not to be her last. Even if it were, it would be a memorable one, she told herself.
Later, over balls of frozen frigicream, he told her, “Everything is ready. For those not in the know, you and I are simply visitors from the Upper City, down here to slum it up a little. I'm hoping L.O.O.T. thinks the same thing.”
She shivered. “I’ve never played live target before.” His fingers stroked the back of her hand. The skin was soft, like flower petals. Craig wondered if she were this smooth, all over. It would be very pleasant to find out later. Right now, there were things to be done.
He came to his feet, lean and hard in his white Empire uniform. Were it not for the faint lines at the corners of his eyes, due to years of squinting against one star-sun or another, he might have passed as a youth.
Irla Grayson went weak as his hand touched her elbow; he seemed to raise her off her chair almost by some form of anti-gravity. His hand was at the small of her back—warm, moving gently as it caressed even while it guided her across the room—and her nostrils caught the faint scent of soap and tobarette. Being a woman, she could understand the attraction he held toward other women. And being a Woman, wanting him for her own embraces, she resented the very attractiveness which lured her flesh.
Between the tables, her rounded hips swaying, (Was he admiring them as he followed her?) she drew him after her. She stood a moment by the big oaken door as he dropped a credit coin into a plate. From a pretty girl he took his duty cap, white cloth and black plastic with close to a pound of gold braid rimming the visor. Then he was at her side and they were moving out into the crisp air of the Lower City.
The wind was cool with coming winter. The stars were brilliant in the sky seconds before a moon went hurtling overhead like a maddened comet. Behind it came a second moon, and then a third. To Irla Grayson, who had lived all her life on Afrikaal Planet, this was nothing unusual, yet it seemed to catch and hold the eyes of Commander Craig. "I visit so many worlds,” he mused. “Each is different. Earth has one moon, Korys has more than thirty. Your Afrikaal, for instance, has seven. Three of them whip their way around the planet, the other four are stately giants.”
Their footfalls were loud in the crisp air. A man lay in a gutter up ahead, a hand wrapped around a wine flask. A woman spoke in low tones to two men soliciting her favors in the shadows. In the next block a fight was breaking out. It was a normal night in the slum alleys.
Craig tugged at her arm, pulling her to a halt. His hand waved at a carving on the wall of a building. The stone face and figure was half erased by time and the winds that blew forever across these streets off the Utharian Sea.
“By the gods, it's Krarrl of the Seven Swords. Look, Irla—look! You know, of course, this Lower City was once an important seaport? Oh, maybe fifty, sixty thousand years ago. It was called Lysthine, then. And Krarrl was its great folk hero.
"It was Krarrl who drove out the Red Rulers, who brought a form of democracy to Lysthine and then to all Afrikaal. It was Krarrl and his desire for the beautiful Lolillane that enabled peace to come to his world for twenty centuries. Men say that Krarrl had many women. . . .”
His arm was about her waist, holding her close. Irla Grayson could feel his tense muscles, the hardness of his body. It was like a magnet to her own soft flesh. She swayed to him, certain that he was planning to kiss her. His voice was deep, hypnotic. By focusing her attention on the statue above her head, he was using it as a hypnotist uses a rotating disc.
She turned in the crook of his arm, let her middle touch him and offered her mouth. She quivered, waiting.
“Lie still,” he breathed—and hurled her from him. She hit the alley cobblestones and skidded. Her skirt went up to the middle of her stockinged thighs. For a moment Irla Grayson could not have moved, even if she wanted to. The breath was knocked from her lungs as she lay like dead with her arms flung wide.
She saw Commander Craig whirling and diving in one fluid move, his rayer coming out of his holster in his big hand. He seemed to draw, aim and fire all at the same time.
A man screamed in the far shadows. Her eyes caught a glimpse of a man framed all in red radiation where the rayer beam had caught him. He stood bent at his waist, screaming, before he fell face forward and lay motionless. Two men came from those same shadows, hurling needle beams ahead of them.
Craig was on his belly, firing. Another man went red where the rayer hit him, but the second man skidded on the cobbles and dove for shelter in a nearby cul-de-sac. Craig rolled toward the scarcely breathing girl.
"You all right?” She nodded, lips open and eyes wide. His hand gripped her wrist, yanked her up and into a run. Her tight skirt was not made for running. She wanted to lift it to free her legs, but there was no time. Craig was yanking her too hard.
She was dragged along, she ran as best she could; she ducked when he told her to and a green protonic beam missed her head by the fraction of an inch. Her lungs were on fire, her muscles ached, she wanted to scream out
A hand caught her, swung her sideways. Arms gripped her by thighs and back. She was plumped down into the plastizine seat of a small air-car. Commander Craig vaulted over her, hitting the driver seat hard, hands going out.
The air-car engine had been warmed to go. It rose swiftly, easily into the night air over the Lower City. The rush of air against her face, the fright in her veins, the sheer shock of vivid action, held her speechless. She wanted to cry out in protest but her tongue was glued to the roof of her mouth.
"I don't see—” she began, when the air-car fell. A red needle-ray burned the air above them. "Close, by Cromm,” Craig laughed. "It was a near thing.”
Irla Grayson turned her head. Three sleek air-cars were coming for them, fast. A man in each of those cars held a long-barreled ray-gun. From time to time he would lift the weapon, trigger it, and a red ray or a green protoniray would come sizzling toward them.
Craig always avoided those beams. It was as if eyes in the back of his head and electronic sensors in his fingertips enabled him to gauge the exact moment when the air-car was in danger. The girl glanced over the side of the speeding aircraft.
She wanted to be sick. She wanted to die from the fear and the churning in her stomach. The sight of the forest lands below made her forget her illness. Her face turned to the man, white and desperate.
“You’re going away from the Upper City!” she screamed.
"Of course I am, my love.”
“But—but there are air police in the Upper City. They'd put an end to these men who are attacking us.”
“Ah, yes. And we mustn't have that, must we?" She stared at him in utter horror. "Are you mad? Are you really Commander Craig? Are you trying to get us killed?"
"Yes to every question!” He laughed. The air-car dipped. A green beam touched it and there was the stink of heated metal. Irla Grayson began to scream. She clenched her fists and opened her mouth and let her fright and her frustration come out in an ululating scream.
"Quiet, my dear. Quiet!” To her own surprise, she bit off a screech. “This is necessary, do you understand? You must die, I must die, and the air-car must be destroyed. Now please—adapt yourself.”
She could only stare at him even as her hands gripped the edge of her seat door and hung on when in making a turn he nearly somersaulted the air-car. His face was gleeful, there was the blaze of excitement in its every line. His lips smiled and his eyes glowed.
Commander John Craig was having the time of his life. "Pretty soon now, lover girl,” he promised. "I am not your lover girl,” she rasped. "Not yet, perhaps,” he admitted. His hands tightened on the wheel. The cars were closer. Irla Grayson could hear their motors roaring as they made their sweep to follow his turn.
"Get ready,” he breathed. “For What?" The air-car began to dive. Irla Grayson could see nothing in the blackness below her except for a faint shimmering light. The air-car was diving swiftly. She could not get her breath even to scream. All she could do was hang on.
A green beam hit the underside of the air-car. Metal blazed. The heat was torture. It seemed to lap about Irla Grayson, searing her flesh.
"Now,” said Commander Craig. His arms went around her, he yanked her in against his chest and held her with the heavy muscles of his powerful arms. Then the world blew up under Irla Grayson and she was rising upwards into the darkness, held tight and turning over and over slowly.
Oh my God, I’m going to die! A fiery meteor to one side of her showed where the burning air-car was falling. She could have been in that blazing coffin were it not for the man who held her so tightly. High above, the L.O.O.T. air-cars went by and she seemed to hear the triumphant shout from a man in one of those flying wings.
The ejector seat touched the peak of its upward jump. Now it began to drop faster and faster; the girl whimpered and clung with arms and hands and legs to the man. She Writhed against him, and the thought touched her that were it not for the intense danger in which they found themselves, John Craig might think her a shameless woman.
"Take a deep breath,” he growled. She obeyed him mindlessly. Then they hit the water and went deep, deep, weighed by the ejector seat to which the Commander was still strapped. His hands pushed her free of him and upward. Then his own hands went to his belt and loosened the clasp.
As the ejector seat fell away, John Craig felt the flush of triumph in his veins. By Cromm of the Hundred Victories! Everything had worked to perfection. L.O.O.T. believed both him and Irla Grayson to be dead and charring cinders inside the air-car that was even now burning high on the edge of this watery swamp. He had judged to a nicety the angle of fall and the nanosecond of impact when he could let a green beam hit the car.
He swam upward, weighted by his clinging uniform. When he broke the surface, he saw Irla struggling, splashing in the cold water. Her red hair was a mess, dangling all over her face and shoulders. Her thin gown lay plastered against her flesh. She was wailing out loud with anger white-hot inside her.
He came up beside her, stroking easily. "Can you swim, my love?”
"Yes, but—oooh! Listen to me, you—”
"Then swim,” he laughed, and showed her the way. He swam, glancing back to make certain that she followed. It was slow going with their clothes on; he could hear her floundering. He treaded water, unfastening the clasps of his uniform jacket and thrusting down the trousers until she came up to him.
"Get out of that dress,” he told her. "I will not,” she gasped. "We have a long way to go, sweetness. I may not be able to support you. And I want to keep you alive."
Her eyes were like hot coals as she stared at him through the damp strands of red hair that hung before her face. Sheer rage and helplessness kept her speechless, but her tight lips were expressive.
"Oh! Oh, you—you. . . .”
"Shh, my dear. Here, let me help.” She slapped at his hands and went under. Craig put a hand under her armpit and hoisted her head out of the marsh waters. At the same time his fingers caught a shoulder-strap and brought it down past her elbow.
"I can do it, I can do it,” she wailed. She wiggled and worked beneath the dark water, scowling at him every moment. She said once, "This sheath cost me a hundred credits'
"I'll put it on my expense account,” he chuckled. Irla Grayson snarled a word that made Craig whistle softly. Then she turned and began stroking swiftly through the water. Craig raked her smooth white back with his eyes, sighed and followed after her.
They swam for close to half an hour, until there was firm land underfoot and they could walk. Irla went out of the shrouding marsh first, just as the three meteor moons of Afrikaal blazed overhead. Craig found himself staring at her smooth white body. Her red hair lay plastered to her shoulders and back, enhancing the whiteness of her skin. She turned when he came up to her, raised her hands to her tangled hair and lifted some strands away from her flushed face. Her firm breasts rose upwards, trembling.
“Well, I suppose this is what you've been after all along. Stare your fill, Commander.”
"Why, that I will, sweetling. But I want you to remember one thing. To me, you're just a ghost. L.O.O.T. killed us both back there. Remember?”
Irla Grayson drew back her hand to slap him.