Shifaz glanced furtively around the room. Satisfied that it was empty except for Fred Kemmer and himself, he sidled up to the Earthman’s desk and hissed conspiratorially in his ear, “Sir, this Johnson is a spy! Is it permitted to slay him?”
“It is permitted,” Kemmer said in a tone suitable to the gravity of the occasion.
He watched humorlessly as the Antarian slithered out of the office with a flutter of colorful ceremonial robes. Both Kemmer and Shifaz had known for weeks that Johnson was a spy, but the native had to go through this insane rigmarole before the rules on Antar would allow him to act. At any rate, the formalities were over at last and the affair should be satisfactorily ended before nightfall. Natives moved quickly enough, once the preliminaries were concluded.
Kemmer leaned back in his chair and sighed. Being the Interworld Corporation’s local manager had more compensations than headaches, despite the rigid ritualism of native society. Since most of the local population was under his thumb, counter-espionage was miraculously effective. This fellow Johnson, for instance, had been in Vaornia less than three weeks, and despite the fact that he was an efficient and effective snoop, he had been fingered less than forty-eight hours after his arrival in the city.
Kemmer closed his eyes and let a smile cross his keen features. Under his administration, there would be a sharp rise in the mortality curve for spies detected in the Vaornia-Lagash-Timargh triangle. With the native judiciary firmly under IC control, the Corporation literally had a free hand, providing it kept its nose superficially clean. And as for spies, they knew the chances they took and what the penalty could be for interfering with the normal operations of corporate business.
Kemmer yawned, stretched, turned his attention to more important matters.
Albert Johnson fumbled hopefully in the empty food container before tossing it aside. A plump, prosaic man of middle height, with a round ingenuous face, Albert was as undistinguished as his name, a fact that made him an excellent investigator. But he was neither undistinguished nor unnoticed in his present position, although he had tried to carry it off by photographing the actions of the local Sanitary Processional like any tourist.
He had been waiting near the Vaornia Arm on the road that led to Lagash since early afternoon, and now it was nearly evening. He cursed mildly at the fact that the natives had no conception of time, a trait not exclusively Antarian, but one which was developed to a high degree on this benighted planet. And the fact that he was hungry didn’t add to his good temper. Natives might be able to fast for a week without ill effects, but his chunky body demanded quantities of nourishment at regular intervals, and his stomach was protesting audibly at being empty.
He looked around him, at the rutted road, and at the darkening Vaornia Arm of the Devan Forest that bordered the roadway. The Sanitary Processional had completed the daily ritual of waste disposal and the cart drivers and censer bearers were goading their patient daks into a faster gait. It wasn’t healthy to be too near the forest after the sun went down. The night beasts weren’t particular about what, or whom, they ate.
The Vaornese used the Vaornia Arm as a dump for the refuse of the city, a purpose admirably apt, for the ever-hungry forest life seldom left anything uneaten by morning. And since Antarian towns had elaborate rituals concerning the disposal of waste, together with a nonexistent sewage system, the native attitude of fatalistic indifference to an occasional tourist or Antarian being gobbled up by some nightmare denizen of the forest was understandable.
The fact that the Arm was also an excellent place to dispose of an inconvenient body didn’t occur to Albert until the three natives with knives detached themselves from the rear of the Sanitary Processional and advanced upon him. They came from three directions, effectively boxing him in, and Albert realized with a sick certainty that he had been double-crossed, that Shifaz, instead of being an informant for him, was working for the IC. Albert turned to face the nearest native, tensing his muscles for battle.
Then he saw the Zark.
It stepped out of the gathering darkness of the forest, and with its appearance everything stopped. For perhaps a micro-second, the three Vaornese stood frozen. Then, with a simultaneous wheep of terror, they turned and ran for the city.
They might have stayed and finished their work if they had known it was a Zark, but at the moment the Zark was energizing a toothy horror that Earthmen called a Bandersnatch--an insane combination of talons, teeth and snakelike neck mounted on a crocodilian body that exuded an odor of putrefaction from the carrion upon which it normally fed. The Bandersnatch had been dead for several hours, but neither the natives nor Albert knew that.
It was a tribute to the Zark’s ability to maintain pseudo-life in a Bandersnatch carcass that the knifemen fled and a similar panic seized the late travelers on the road. Albert stared with horrified fascination at the monstrosity for several seconds before he, too, fled. Any number of natives with knives were preferable to a Bandersnatch. He had hesitated only because he didn’t possess the conditioned reflexes arising from generations of exposure to Antarian wildlife.
He was some twenty yards behind the rearmost native, and, though not designed for speed, was actually gaining upon the fellow, when his foot struck a loose cobblestone in the road. Arms flailing, legs pumping desperately to balance his toppling mass, Albert fought manfully against the forces of gravity and inertia.
His head struck another upturned cobble. His body twitched once and then relaxed limply and unconscious upon the dusty road.
The Zark winced a little at the sight, certain that this curious creature had damaged itself seriously.
Filled with compassion, it started forward on the Bandersnatch’s four walking legs, the grasping talons crossed on the breast in an attitude of prayer. The Zark wasn’t certain what it could do, but perhaps it could help.
Albert was mercifully unconscious as it bent over him to inspect his prone body with a purple-lidded pineal eye that was blue with concern. The Zark noted the bruise upon his forehead and marked his regular breathing, and came to the correct conclusion that, whatever had happened, the biped was relatively undamaged. But the Zark didn’t go away. It had never seen a human in its thousand-odd years of existence, which was not surprising since Earthmen had been on Antar less than a decade and Zarks seldom left the forest.
Albert began to stir before the Zark remembered its present condition. Not being a carnivore, it saw nothing appetizing about Albert, but it was energizing a Bandersnatch, and, like all Zarks, it was a purist. A living Bandersnatch would undoubtedly drool happily at the sight of such a tempting tidbit, so the Zark opened the three-foot jaws and drooled.
Albert chose this precise time to return to consciousness. He turned his head groggily and looked up into a double row of saw-edged teeth surmounted by a leering triangle of eyes. A drop of viscid drool splattered moistly on his forehead, and as the awful face above him bent closer to his own, he fainted.
The Zark snapped its jaws disapprovingly. This was not the proper attitude to take in the presence of a ferocious monster. One simply didn’t go to sleep. One should attempt to run. The biped’s act was utterly illogical. It needed investigation.
Curiously, the Zark sent out a pseudopod of its substance through the open mouth of its disguise. The faintly glittering thread oozed downward and struck Albert’s head beside his right eye. Without pausing, the thread sank through skin and connective tissue, circled the eyeball and located the optic nerve. It raced inward along the nerve trunk, split at the optic chiasma, and entered the corpora quadrigemina where it branched into innumerable microscopic filaments that followed the main neural paths of the man’s brain, probing the major areas of thought and reflex.
The Zark quivered with pleasure. The creature was beautifully complex, and, more important, untenanted. He would make an interesting host.
The Zark didn’t hesitate. It needed a host; giving its present mass of organic matter pseudo-life took too much energy. The Bandersnatch collapsed with a faint slurping sound. A blob of iridescent jelly flowed from the mouth and spread itself evenly over Albert’s body in a thin layer. The jelly shimmered, glowed, disappeared inward through Albert’s clothing and skin, diffusing through the subcutaneous tissues, sending hair-like threads along nerve trunks and blood vessels until the threads met other threads and joined, and the Zark became a network of protoplasmic tendrils that ramified through Albert’s body.
Immediately the Zark turned its attention to the task of adapting itself to its new host. Long ago it had learned that this had to be done quickly or the host did not survive. And since the tissues of this new host were considerably different from those of the Bandersnatch, a great number of structural and chemical changes had to be made quickly. With some dismay, the Zark realized that its own stores of energy would be insufficient for the task. It would have to borrow energy from the host--which was a poor way to start a symbiotic relationship. Ordinarily, one gave before taking.
Fortunately, Albert possessed considerable excess fat, an excellent source of energy whose removal would do no harm. There was plenty here for both Albert and itself. The man’s body twitched and jerked as the Zark’s protean cells passed through the adaptive process, and as the last leukocyte recoiled from tissue that had suddenly become normal, his consciousness returned. Less than ten minutes had passed, but they were enough. The Zark was safely in harmony with its new host.
Albert opened his eyes and looked wildly around. The landscape was empty of animate life except for the odorous carcass of the Bandersnatch lying beside him. Albert shivered, rose unsteadily to his feet and began walking toward Vaornia. That he didn’t run was only because he couldn’t.
He found it hard to believe that he was still alive. Yet a hurried inspection convinced him that there wasn’t a tooth mark on him. It was a miracle that left him feeling vaguely uneasy. He wished he knew what had killed that grinning horror so opportunely. But then, on second thought, maybe it was better that he didn’t know. There might be things in the Devan Forest worse than a Bandersnatch.
Inside the city walls, Vaornia struck a three-pronged blow at Albert’s senses. Sight, hearing and smell were assaulted simultaneously. Natives slithered past, garbed in long robes of garish color. Sibilant voices cut through the evening air like thin-edged knives clashing against the grating screech of the ungreased wooden wheels of dak carts. Odors of smoke, cooking, spices, perfume and corruption mingled with the all-pervasive musky stench of unwashed Vaornese bodies.
It was old to Albert, but new and exciting to the Zark. Its taps on Albert’s sense organs brought a flood of new sensation the Zark had never experienced. It marveled at the crowded buildings studded with jutting balconies and ornamental carvings. It stared at the dak caravans maneuvering with ponderous delicacy through the swarming crowds. It reveled in the colorful banners and awnings of the tiny shops lining the streets, and the fluttering robes of the natives. Color was something new to the Zark. Its previous hosts had been color blind, and the symbiont wallowed in an orgy of bright sensation.
If Albert could have tuned in on his fellow traveler’s emotions, he probably would have laughed. For the Zark was behaving precisely like the rubbernecking tourist he himself was pretending to be. But Albert wasn’t interested in the sights, sounds or smells, nor did the natives intrigue him. There was only one of them he cared to meet--that slimy doublecrosser called Shifaz who had nearly conned him into a one-way ticket.
Albert plowed heedlessly through the crowd, using his superior mass to remove natives from his path. By completely disregarding the code of conduct outlined by the IC travel bureau, he managed to make respectable progress toward the enormous covered area in the center of town that housed the Kazlak, or native marketplace. Shifaz had a stand there where he was employed as a tourist guide.
The Zark, meanwhile, was not idle despite the outside interests. The majority of its structure was busily engaged in checking and cataloguing the body of its host, an automatic process that didn’t interfere with the purely intellectual one of enjoying the new sensations. Albert’s body wasn’t in too bad shape. A certain amount of repair work would have to be done, but despite the heavy padding of fat, the organs were in good working condition.
The Zark ruminated briefly over what actions it should take as it dissolved a milligram of cholesterol out of Albert’s aorta and strengthened the weak spot in the blood vessel with a few cells of its own substance until Albert’s tissues could fill the gap. Its knowledge of human physiology was incomplete, but it instinctively recognized abnormality. As a result, it could help the host’s physical condition, which was a distinct satisfaction, for a Zark must be helpful.
Shifaz was at his regular stand, practicing his normal profession of guide. As Albert approached, he was in the midst of describing the attractions of the number two tour to a small knot of fascinated tourists.
“And then, in the center of the Kazlak, we will come to the Hall of the Brides--Antar’s greatest marriage market. It has been arranged for you to actually see a mating auction in progress, but we must hurry or--” Shifaz looked up to see Albert shouldering the tourists aside. His yellow eyes widened and his hand darted to his girdle and came up with a knife.
The nearest tourists fell back in alarm as he hissed malevolently at Albert, “Stand back, Earthman, or I’ll let the life out of your scaleless carcass!”
“Doublecrosser,” Albert said, moving in. One meaty hand closed over the knife hand and wrenched while the other caught Shifaz alongside the head with a smack that sounded loud in the sudden quiet. Shifaz did a neat backflip and lay prostrate, the tip of his tail twitching reflexively.
One of the tourists screamed.
“No show today, folks,” Albert said. “Shifaz has another engagement.” He picked the Antarian up by a fold of his robe and shook him like a dirty dustcloth. A number of items cascaded out of hidden pockets, among which was an oiled-silk pouch. Albert dropped the native and picked up the pouch, opened it, sniffed, and nodded.
It fitted. Things were clearer now.
He was still nodding when two Earthmen in IC uniform stepped out of the crowd. “Sorry, sir,” the bigger of the pair said, “but you have just committed a violation of the IC-Antar Compact. I’m afraid we’ll have to take you in.”
“This lizard tried to have me killed,” Albert protested.
“I wouldn’t know about that,” the IC man said. “You’ve assaulted a native, and that’s a crime. You’d better come peaceably with us--local justice is rather primitive and unpleasant.”
“I’m an Earth citizen--” Albert began.
“This world is on a commercial treaty.” The guard produced a blackjack and tapped the shot-filled leather in his palm. “It’s our business to protect people like you from the natives, and if you insist, we’ll use force.”
“I don’t insist, but I think you’re being pretty high-handed.”
“Your objection has been noted,” the IC man said, “and will be included in the official report. Now come along or we’ll be in the middle of a jurisdictional hassle when the native cops arrive. The corporation doesn’t like hassles. They’re bad for business.”
The two IC men herded him into a waiting ground car and drove away. It was all done very smoothly, quietly and efficiently. The guards were good.
And so was the local detention room. It was clean, modern and--Albert noted wryly--virtually escape-proof. Albert was something of an expert on jails, and the thick steel bars, the force lock, and the spy cell in the ceiling won his grudging respect.
He sighed and sat down on the cot which was the room’s sole article of furniture. He had been a fool to let his anger get the better of him. IC would probably use this brush with Shifaz as an excuse to send him back to Earth as an undesirable tourist--which would be the end of his mission here, and a black mark on a singularly unspotted record.
Of course, they might not be so gentle with him if they knew that he knew they were growing tobacco. But he didn’t think that they would know--and if they had checked his background, they would find that he was an investigator for the Revenue Service. Technically, criminal operations were not his affair. His field was tax evasion.
He didn’t worry too much about the fact that Shifaz had tried to kill him. On primitive worlds like this, that was a standard procedure--it was less expensive to kill an agent than bribe him or pay honest taxes. He was angry with himself for allowing the native to trick him.
He shrugged. By all rules of the game, IC would now admit about a two per cent profit on their Antar operation rather than the four per cent loss they had claimed, and pay up like gentlemen--and he would get skinned by the Chief back at Earth Central for allowing IC to unmask him. His report on tobacco growing would be investigated, but with the sketchy information he possessed, his charges would be impossible to prove--and IC would have plenty of time to bury the evidence.
If Earth Central hadn’t figured that the corporation owed it some billion megacredits in back taxes, he wouldn’t be here. He had been dragged from his job in the General Accounting Office, for every field man and ex-field man was needed to conduct the sweeping investigation. Every facet of the sprawling IC operation was being checked. Even minor and out-of-the-way spots like Antar were on the list--spots that normally demanded a cursory once-over by a second-class business technician.
Superficially, Antar had the dull unimportance of an early penetration. There were the usual trading posts, pilot plants, wholesale and retail trade, and tourist and recreation centers--all designed to accustom the native inhabitants to the presence of Earthmen and their works--and set them up for the commercial kill, after they had acquired a taste for the products of civilization. But although the total manpower and physical plant for a world of this size was right, its distribution was wrong.
A technician probably wouldn’t see it, but to an agent who had dealt with corporate operations for nearly a quarter of a century, the setup felt wrong. It was not designed for maximum return. The Vaornia-Lagash-Timargh triangle held even more men and material then Prime Base. That didn’t make sense. It was inefficient, and IC was not noted for inefficiency.
Not being oriented criminally, Albert found out IC’s real reason for concentration in this area only by absent-mindedly lighting a cigarette one day in Vaornia. He had realized almost instantly that this was a gross breach of outworld ethics and had thrown the cigarette away. It landed between a pair of Vaornese walking by.
The two goggled at the cigarette, sniffed the smoke rising from it, and with simultaneous whistles of surprise bent over to pick it up. Their heads collided with some force. The cigarette tore in their greedy grasp as they hissed hatefully at each other for a moment, before turning hostile glares in his direction. From their expressions, they thought this was a low Earthie trick to rob them of their dignity. Then they stalked off, their neck scales ruffled in anger, shreds of the cigarette still clutched in their hands.
Even Albert couldn’t miss the implications. His tossing the butt away had produced the same reaction as a deck of morphine on a group of human addicts. Since IC wouldn’t corrupt a susceptible race with tobacco when there were much cheaper legal ways, the logical answer was that it wasn’t expensive on this planet--which argued that Antar was being set up for plantation operations--in which case tobacco addiction was a necessary prerequisite and the concentration of IC population made sense.
Now tobacco, as any Earthman knew, was the only monopoly in the Confederation, and Earth had maintained that monopoly by treaty and by force, despite numerous efforts to break it. There were some good reasons for the policy, ranging all the way from vice control to taxable income, but the latter was by far the most important. The revenue supported a considerable section of Earth Central as well as the huge battle fleet that maintained peace and order along the spacelanes and between the worlds.
But a light-weight, high-profit item like tobacco was a constant temptation to any sharp operator who cared more for money than for law, and IC filled that definition perfectly. In the Tax Section’s book, the Interworld Corporation was a corner-cutting, profit-grabbing chiseler. Its basic character had been the same for three centuries, despite all the complete turnovers in staff. Albert grinned wryly. The old-timers were right when they made corporations legal persons.
Cigarettes which cost five credits to produce and sold for as high as two hundred would always interest a crook, and, as a consequence, Earth Central was always investigating reports of illegal plantations. They were found and destroyed eventually, and the owners punished. But the catch lay in the word “eventually.” And if the operator was a corporation, no regulatory agency in its right mind would dare apply the full punitive power of the law. In that direction lay political suicide, for nearly half the population of Earth got dividends or salaries from them.
That, of course, was the trouble with corporations. They invariably grew too big and too powerful. But to break them up as the Ancients did was to destroy their efficiency. What was really needed was a corporate conscience.
Albert chuckled. That was a nice unproductive thought.
Fred Kemmer received the news that Albert had been taken to detention with a philosophic calm that lasted for nearly half an hour. By morning, the man would be turned over to the Patrol in Prime Base. The Patrol would support the charge that Albert was an undesirable tourist and send him home to Earth.
But the philosophic calm departed with a frantic leap when Shifaz reported Johnson’s inspection of the oiled-silk pouch. Raw tobacco was something that shouldn’t be within a thousand parsects of Antar; its inference would be obvious even to an investigator interested only in tax revenues. Kemmer swore at the native. The entire operation would have to be aborted now and his dreams of promotion would vanish.
“It wasn’t my supply,” Shifaz protested. “I was carrying it down to Karas at the mating market. He demands a pack every time he puts a show on for your silly Earthie tourists.”
“You should have concealed it better.”
“How was I to know that chubby slob was coming back alive? And who’d have figured that he could handle me?”
“I’ve told you time and again that Earthmen are tough customers when they get mad, but you had to learn it the hard way. Now we’re all in the soup. The Patrol doesn’t like illicit tobacco planters. Tobacco is responsible for their pay.”
“But he’s still in your hands and he couldn’t have had time to transmit his information,” Shifaz said. “You can still kill him.”
Kemmer’s face cleared. Sure, that was it. Delay informing the Patrol and knock the snoop off. The operation and Kemmer’s future were still safe. But it irked him that he had panicked instead of thinking. It just went to show how being involved in major crime ruined the judgment. He’d have Johnson fixed up with a nice hearty meal--and he’d see that it was delivered personally. At this late date, he couldn’t afford the risk of trusting a subordinate.
Kemmer’s glower became a smile. The snoop’s dossier indicated that he liked to eat. He should die happy.
With a faint click, a loaded tray passed through a slot in the rear wall of Albert Johnson’s cell.
The sight and smell of Earthly cooking reminded him that he hadn’t anything to eat for hours. His mouth watered as he lifted the tray and carried it to the cot. At least IC wasn’t going to let him starve to death, and if this was any indication of the way they treated prisoners, an IC jail was the best place to be on this whole planet.
Since it takes a little time for substances to diffuse across the intestinal epithelium and enter the circulation, the Zark had some warning of what was about to happen from the behavior of the epithelial cells lining Albert’s gut. As a result, a considerable amount of the alkaloid was stopped before it entered Albert’s body--but some did pass through, for the Zark was not omnipotent.
For nearly five minutes after finishing the meal, Albert felt normally full and comfortable. Then hell broke loose. Most of the food came back with explosive violence and cramps bent him double. The Zark turned to the neutralization and elimination of the poison. Absorptive surfaces were sealed off, body fluids poured into the intestinal tract, and anti-substances formed out of Albert’s energy reserve to neutralize whatever alkaloid remained.
None of the Zark’s protective measures were normal to Albert’s body, and with the abrupt depletion of blood glucose to supply the energy the Zark required, Albert passed into hypoglycemic shock. The Zark regretted that, but it had no time to utilize his other less readily available energy sources. In fact, there was no time for anything except the most elemental protective measures. Consequently the convulsions, tachycardia, and coma had to be ignored.
Albert’s spasms were mercifully short, but when the Zark was finished, he lay unconscious on the floor, his body twitching with incoordinate spasms, while a frightened guard called in an alarm to the medics.
The Zark quivered with its own particular brand of nausea. It had not been hurt by the alkaloid, but the pain of its host left it sick with self-loathing. That it had established itself in a life-form that casually ingested deadly poisons was no excuse. It should have been more alert, more sensitive to the host’s deficiencies. It had saved his life, which was some compensation, and there was much that could be done in the way of restorative and corrective measures that would prevent such a thing from occurring again--but the Zark was unhappy as it set about helping Albert’s liver metabolize fat to glucose and restore blood sugar levels.
The medic was puzzled. She had seen some peculiar conditions at this station, but hypoglycemic shock was something new. And, being unsure of herself, she ordered Albert into the infirmary for observation. The guard, of course, didn’t object, and Kemmer, when he heard of it, could only grind his teeth in frustration. He was on delicate enough ground without making it worse by not taking adequate precautions to preserve the health of his unwilling guest. Somehow that infernal snoop had escaped again...
Albert moved his head with infinite labor and looked at the intravenous apparatus dripping a colorless solution into the vein in the elbow joint of his extended left arm. He felt no pain, but his physical weakness was appalling. He could move only with the greatest effort, and the slightest exertion left him dizzy and breathless. It was obvious that he had been poisoned, and that it was a miracle of providence that he had survived. It was equally obvious that a reappraisal of his position was in order. Someone far higher up the ladder than Shifaz was responsible for this latest attempt on his life. The native couldn’t possibly have reached him in the safety of IC’s jail.
The implications were unpleasant. Someone important feared him enough to want him dead, which meant that his knowledge of illicit tobacco was not as secret as he thought. It would be suicide to stay in the hands of the IC any longer. Somehow he had to get out and inform the Patrol.
He looked at the intravenous drip despondently. If the solution was poisoned, there was no help for him. It was already half gone. But he didn’t feel too bad, outside of being weak. It probably was all right. In any event, he would have to take it. The condition of his body wouldn’t permit anything else.
He sighed and relaxed on the bed, aware of the drowsiness that was creeping over him. When he awoke, he would do something about this situation, but he was sleepy now.
Albert awoke strong and refreshed. He was as hungry as he always was before breakfast. Whatever was in that solution, it had certainly worked miracles. As far as he could judge, he was completely normal.
The medic was surprised to find him sitting up when she made her morning rounds. It was amazing, but this case was amazing in more ways than one. Last night he had been in a state of complete collapse, and now he was well on the road to recovery.