Authors: Jack Vance
Tags: #Science Fiction, #General, #Adventure, #Fiction
“You guys never give up on me, do you? Once and for all, get it through your collective noggins, I’m a poor ordinary business man, running my business here in Mylitta. I get taken by sharpshooters just like anybody else—yesterday for about twelve million munits.”
Magnus Ridolph slowly fixed his gaze on the ancient Martian scarab which May wore as a ring.
“That ring you wear—I recognize it. It resembles a ring worn by my old friend, Rimmer Vogel, killed in his space yacht by a pirate.”
“Picked it up at Frog Junction,” said Acco May. “The froggo said he’d just dug it out of the ruins.”
Magnus Ridolph nodded.
“I see. Well. A man’s soul is pictured in his possessions.”
Acco May languidly poured himself a glass of water from the spout at the side of his desk. “Is that all you came for? To pin the Calhoun job on me? It couldn’t have been me. Sanatoris is two weeks or more away from here. I got home yesterday.”
“Which proves nothing. The distance can be traveled in twelve days.”
Acco May narrowed his eyes, reached for the Astrogation Almanac, opened it to the index, leafed back through the book, read, scribbled a few figures. He shook his head, grinned crookedly.
“You’re out of your head, pop. If you made it in thirteen days you’d be killing yourself—unless you rode a
-three ulrad beam.”
“No,” said Magnus Ridolph. “In an ordinary space-boat.”
Acco May’s smile became wider. He sat up on the couch.
“Like to make a little bet? If I remember right, you hold my check for twelve million munits.”
Magnus Ridolph deliberated. “Yes, I’ll make you a wager—of a sort. I’ll dictate, and you write.”
“‘I admit participation in the boarding and looting of the
Acco May looked up sharply. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“‘—the murder of several crew members, if it can be proved that a space-boat is able to make the journey from Mylitta on Fan to the Space Survey station at Sanatoris Beta in or under twelve days. I make this conditional confession of guilt in consideration of the sum of twelve million munits, receipt of which from Magnus Ridolph is hereby acknowledged.’”
Acco May stared at Magnus Ridolph a long minute, suddenly turned once more to the Astrogation Almanac. His mouth twitched.
“You give me back the check if I write that confession, is that it?” he asked.
“Exactly,” Ridolph said with a nod.
“Who’s going to make the trip to Sanatoris?”
“In a regulation T.C.I. patrol boat.”
Acco May glanced once again at the Almanac. “You can’t make it in twelve days.”
“I’m willing to pay twelve million munits for the privilege of trying.”
Acco May smiled wryly. “You can’t make it.”
“Then you’ll write the conditional confession?”
Acco May hesitated an instant. “Yes, I’ll write it.”
Magnus Ridolph said, “May I use your screen? I want this done within the view of witnesses.”
“Go ahead,” said Acco May.
A large man with loose ruddy cheeks, tangled dank black hair, wearing space clothes, sat in the chair Magnus Ridolph had vacated several hours ago. Acco May paced up and down the room, kneading his fist into his palm.
“I don’t trust the old goat,” mused May. “He’s got something up his sleeve.”
“He gave you his check, didn’t he?”
“Yes,” said Acco May sardonically, “and he got my confession. Of course, he can’t make no three-eighty-year-trip in twelve days.”
“But you made the trip in twelve days,” said the big man.
“No, I didn’t!” cried Acco May in exasperation. “We used faked radio-vision shots and one of my men, who’s the living image of me, entered port on a forged passport, a day ahead of time. Later we also bribed two space inspectors at the port of entry, to give perjured testimony supporting my allegations. Even Ridolph hasn’t found out how it was worked. The whole thing was fool-proof.”
The big man nodded. “That was clever. Doesn’t Ridolph suspect your alibi is a phony?”
“Sure, he suspects—that’s why he’s out to get me,” snarled Acco May. “But he can’t prove anything. Therefore I can’t risk having Ridolph return here alive. And that’s where you come in. Get hold of Herb and Corvie and Steuben. Post their ships out along the course to Sanatoris. You take your ship out there too, and place yourselves so that, if one misses him, the others will be sure to get Ridolph. And don’t fail! Understand?”
The large man got to his feet. “Sure do.”
“You’ve got to hurry, he’s leaving at midnight.”
“We’ll be waiting for him to come past.”
“Tell the boys, a million munits to the ship that downs him.”
At three o’clock the next day the large man again entered Acco May’s office. His eyes were blood-shot, his jowls sagged, and he walked with an air of extreme fatigue.
“Well,” snapped Acco May, “what’s the story?”
The large man slumped into the chair. “He got past us.”
Acco May sprang to his feet. “How in thunder did that happen?…Four boats!”
The space-man shook his head. “I thought you said he was heading for Sanatoris Beta.”
“He is, you dumb sheepherder!”
The large man glared sullenly at the passionate May.
“We was strung out along course, straight as the Galactic Liners. He came out, we saw that, but nowhere near us. Looked like he was going off more toward Alcyone.”
Acco May chewed his lip. “Well, it’s a cinch once he gets off course he’s out of the running entirely…Okay then, Rock. I guess you’re not to be blamed. He’s off course, you say?”
“Way off course,” said Rock the space-man.
Acco May smiled grimly. “Well, it’s a quick way to make twelve million munits. Almost as quick as he made it off me.”
Several months later, the judge read sentence: “By your own admission guilty of piracy, grand larceny, assault and murder, I sentence you to comprehensive cerebral correction and five years close observation. Have you anything to say?”
Acco May stared at the judge, eyes like tiger-slits. “No.”
The guards stepped forward. Acco May turned his head toward where Magnus Ridolph sat in dignity. He thrust aside the guards.
“Just a minute,” he said. “I want to talk to that old hellion sitting yonder.”
The guards hesitated, glanced for permission to the judge. But the judge was sweeping for his chambers.
Magnus Ridolph decided the matter by stepping forward.
“You wish to speak to me?”
“Yeah. I know there’s about two hours of Acco May left, and after that a man looking like me goes around wearing my clothes. First I want to know how the devil did you make Sanatoris in twelve days?”
Magnus Ridolph raised his eyebrows. “By correct astrogation.”
Acco May made an impatient gesture. “Yes, yes, I know. But what’s the inside?”
Magnus Ridolph’s gaze wandered to the Martian scarab on Acco May’s finger. “The ring your—ah, frog-man found—I confess it has struck my fancy. I always envied my old friend Rimmer Vogel when he wore the ring which was so like it.”
Acco May wrenched it off his finger with a savage smile. “No tickee no washee, hey? Okay, here’s your fee. Now what’s the pitch?”
Magnus Ridolph gestured eloquently. “Ordinary astrogation, nothing more. With the exception, possibly, of a small refinement I have developed.”
“What’s the refinement?”
Magnus Ridolph turned Acco May the blandest of stares.
“Have you ever examined a Mercator projection of, let us say, the planet Earth?”
“The shortest course between two points, when charted on a Mercator projection, appears as a curve, does it not?”
“Classical space charts,” said Magnus Ridolph, “are constructed after the pattern of a Mercator projection. The coordinates meet rectilinearly, the grid components running perfectly parallel but to infinity. This is an admirable system for short voyages, just as use of the Mercator projection results in little error on a cruise across Long Island Sound.
“However on voyages of some duration, it is necessary to remember that the earth and—on a larger scale—space is curved, and to make the necessary correction. Then we find a very significant saving of time. A journey which by classical astrogation requires thirteen days,” said Magnus Ridolph, turning upon Acco May his wide guileless gaze, “may be accomplished in twelve days by use of the proper correction—though to the ignorant eye, it would appear as if the astrogator is far off his course.”
Acco May turned his back on Magnus Ridolph, his mouth like an inverted V. “Take me away,” he muttered. “Maybe the new me will be brighter. If he is, he’s going to go after that old goat and make him swallow his own whiskers.”
“Get goin’,” said the guard.
Magnus Ridolph dispassionately watched them leave. Then, turning his eyes to his hand, he inspected the ancient Martian scarab—breathed on it, polished it on his sleeve.
‘Mystery’ is a word with no objective pertinence, merely describing the limitations of a mind. In fact, a mind may be classified by the order of the phenomena it considers mysterious…The mystery is resolved, the solution made known. “Of course, it is obvious!” comes the chorus. A word about the obvious: it is always obvious…The common mind transposes the sequence, letting the mystery generate the solution. This is logic in reverse; actually the mystery relates to the solution as the foam relates to the beer…
The Uni-Culture Mission had said simply, “His name’s McInch; he’s a murderer. That’s all we know.”
Magnus Ridolph would have refused the commission had his credit balance stood at its usual level. But the collapse of an advertising venture—sky-writing with luminescent gases across interplanetary space—had left the white-bearded philosopher in near-destitution.
A first impression of Sclerotto Planet reinforced his distaste for the job. The light from the two suns—red and blue—struck discordantly at his eyes. The sluggish ocean, the crazy clutter of a slab-sided rock suggested no repose, and Sclerotto City, a wretched maze of cabins and shacks, promised no entertainment. Finally, his host, Klemmer Boek, chaplain-in-charge of the Uni-Culture Mission, greeted him with little warmth—in fact seemed to resent his presence as if it were due to some private officiousness of Magnus Ridolph’s own.
They rode in a battered old car up to the Mission, perched high on a shoulder of naked stone, and the dim interior was refreshingly cool after the dust and dazzle of the ride.
Magnus Ridolph took a folded handkerchief from his pocket, patted his forehead, his distinguished nose, his neat, white beard. To his host he turned a quizzical glance.
“I’m afraid I find the illumination disturbing. Blue, red—three different shadows for every stick and stone.”
“I’m used to it,” said Klemmer Boek tonelessly. He was a short man, with a melon-sized paunch pressing out the front of his tunic. His face was pink and glazed, like cheap chinaware, with round blue eyes and a short lumpy nose. “I hardly remember what Earth looks like.”
“The tourist guide,” said Magnus Ridolph, replacing the handkerchief, “describes the effect as ‘stimulating and exotic’. It must be that I am unperceptive.”
Boek snorted. “The tourist guide? It calls Sclerotto City ‘colorful, fascinating, a commonwealth-in-miniature, a concrete example of interplanetary democracy in action’. I wish the man who wrote that eyewash had to live here as long as I have!”
He pulled out a rattan chair for Magnus Ridolph, poured ice-water into a glass. Magnus Ridolph settled himself into the chair and Boek sank into another opposite.
“Now then,” said Magnus Ridolph, “who or what is McInch?”
Boek smiled bitterly. “That’s what you’re here for.”
Magnus Ridolph airily glanced across the room, lit a cigar, said nothing.
“After six years,” said Boek presently, “all I know about McInch I can tell you in six seconds. First—he’s boss over that entire stinking welter out there.” He gestured at the city. “Second, he’s a murderer, a self-seeking scoundrel. Third, no-one but McInch knows who McInch is.”
Magnus Ridolph arose, walked to the window, depolarized it, looked out over the ramshackle roofs, stretching like a tattered Persian rug to Magnetic Bay. His gaze wandered to the shark-tooth crags stabbing the sky opposite, down the bay to where it opened into the tideless ocean, out to a horizon shrouded in lavender haze.
“Unprepossessing. I fail to understand how it attracts visitors.”
Boek joined him at the window. “Well—it’s a strange world, certainly.” He nodded at the roofs below. “Down in that confusion live at least a dozen different types of intelligent creatures—expatriates, exiles, fugitives—all crowded together cheek by jowl. Unquestionably it’s amazing, the adjustments they’ve made to each other.”
“Hm…” said Magnus Ridolph noncommittally. Then: “This McInch—is he a man?”
Boek shrugged. “No one knows. And anyone who finds out dies almost at once. Twice Headquarters has sent out key men to investigate. Both of them dropped dead in the middle of town—one by the Export Warehouse, the other in the Mayor’s office.”
Magnus Ridolph coughed slightly.
“And the cause of their deaths?”
“Unclassified disease.” Boek stared down at the roofs, the walls, lanes, arcades below. “The Mission tries to stand apart from local politics, though naturally in rubbing alien noses into Earth culture we’re propagandizing our own system of life. And sometimes—” he grinned sourly “—circumstances like McInch arise.”
“Of course,” said Magnus Ridolph. “Just what form do McInch’s depredations take?”
“Graft,” said Boek. “Graft, pure and simple. Old-fashioned Earth-style civic corruption. I should have mentioned—” another sour grin for Magnus Ridolph “—but Sclerotto City has a duly elected mayor, and a group of civic officers. There’s a fire department, a postal service, a garbage disposal unit, police force—wait till you see ’em!” He chuckled, a noise like a bucket scraping on a stone floor. “That’s actually what brings the tourists—the way these creatures go about making a living Earth-style.”
Magnus Ridolph bent forward slightly, a furrow appearing in his forehead. “There seems to be no ostentation, no buildings of pretension—other than that one there by the bay.”
“That’s the tourist hotel,” said Boek. “The Pondicherry House.”
“Ah, I see,” said Magnus Ridolph abstractedly. “I admit that at first sight Sclerotto City’s form of government seems improbable.”
“It becomes more sensible when you think of the city’s history,” said Boek. “Fifty years ago, a colony of Ordinationalists was founded here—the only flat spot on the planet. Gradually—Sclerotto hangs just about outside the Commonwealth and no questions asked—misfits from everywhere in the cluster accumulated, and one way or another found means to survive. Those who failed—” he waved his hand “—merely didn’t survive.
“When you come upon it fresh, like the tourists, it’s astounding. The first time I walked down the main street, I thought I was having a nightmare. The Kmaush, in tanks, secreting pearls in their gizzards…centipedes from Portmar’s Planet, the Tau Geminis, the Armadillos from Carnegie Twelve…Yellowbirds, Zeeks, even a few Aldebaranese—not to mention several types of anthropoids. How they get along without tearing each other to pieces still bothers me once in a while.”
“The difficulty is perhaps more apparent than real,” said Magnus Ridolph, his voice taking on a certain resonance.
Boek glanced sidewise at his guest, curled his lip. “You haven’t lived here as long as I have.” He turned his eyes back down to Sclerotto City. “With that dust, that smell, that…” He struggled for a word.
“In any event,” said Magnus Ridolph, “these are all intelligent creatures…Just a few more questions. First, how does McInch collect his graft?”
Boek returned to his own chair, leaned back heavily. “Apparently he helps himself outright to city funds. The municipal taxes are collected in cash, taken to the city hall and locked in a safe. McInch merely opens the safe when he finds himself short, takes what he needs, closes the safe again.”
“And the citizens do not object?”
“Indignation is an emotion,” said Boek with heavy sarcasm. “The bulk of the population are non-human, and don’t have emotions.”
“And those of the population that are men, and therefore can know indignation?”
“Being men—they’re afraid.”
Magnus Ridolph stroked his beard gently. “Let me put it this way. Do the citizens show any reluctance toward paying their taxes?”
“They have no choice,” said Boek. “All the imports and exports are handled by a municipal cooperative. Taxes are assessed there.”
“Why isn’t the safe moved, or guarded?”
“That’s been tried—by our late mayor. The guards he posted were also found dead. Unclassifiable disease.”
“In all probability,” said Magnus Ridolph, “McInch is one of the city officials. They would be the first to be exposed to temptation.”
“I agree with you,” said Boek. “But which one?”
“How many are there?”
“Well—there’s the postmaster, a Portmar multipede. There’s the fire-chief, a man; the chief of police, a Sirius Fifth; the garbage collector, he’s a—a—I can’t think of the name. From 1012 Aurigae.”
“That’s right. He’s the only one of them in the city. Then there’s the manager of the municipal warehouse, who is also the tax collector—one of the Tau Gemini ant-things—and last but not least, there’s the Mayor. His name is Juju Jeejee—that’s what it sounds like to me. He’s a Yellowbird.”
After a pause Boek said, “Well, what do you think?”
“The problem has points of interest,” admitted Magnus Ridolph. “Naturally I want to look around the city.”
Boek looked at his watch. “When would you like to go?”
“I’ll change my linen,” said Magnus Ridolph, rising to his feet. “Then, if it’s convenient to you, we’ll look around at once.”
“You understand now,” said Boek gruffly, “the minute you start asking questions about McInch, McInch knows it and he’ll try to kill you.”
“The Uni-Culture Mission is paying me a large fee to take that chance,” declared Magnus Ridolph. “I am, so to speak, a latter-day gladiator. Logic is my sword, vigilance is my shield. And also—” he touched his short well-tended beard “—I will wear air-filters up my nostrils, and will spray myself with antiseptic. To complete my precautions, I’ll carry a small germicidal radiator.”
“Gladiator, eh?” snorted Boek. “You’re more like a turtle. Well, how long before you’ll be ready?”
“If you’ll show me my quarters,” said Magnus Ridolph, “I’ll be with you in half an hour.”
In gloomy triumph Boek said, “There’s all that’s left of the Ordinationalists.”
Magnus Ridolph looked at the cubical stone building. Small dunes of gray dust lay piled against the walls, the door gaped into blankness.
“At that, it’s the solidest building in Sclerotto,” said Boek.
“A wonder McInch hasn’t moved in,” observed Magnus Ridolph.
“It’s now the municipal dump. The garbage collector has his offices behind. I’ll show you, if you like. It’s one of the sights. Er—by the way, are you incognito?”
“No,” said Magnus Ridolph. “I think not. I see no special need for subterfuge.”
“Just as you like,” said Boek, jumping out of the car. He watched with pursed lips as Magnus Ridolph soberly donned a gleaming sun-helmet, adjusted his nasal air-filters and dark glasses.
They plowed through fine gray dust, which, disturbed by their steps, rose into the dual sunlight in whorls of red, blue and a hundred intermediate shades.
Magnus Ridolph suddenly tilted his head. Boek grinned. “Quite a smell, isn’t it? Almost call it a stink, wouldn’t you?”
“I would indeed,” assented Magnus Ridolph. “What in the name of Pluto are we approaching?”
“It’s the garbage collector, the Golespod. Actually, he doesn’t collect the garbage, the citizens bring it here and throw it on him. He absorbs it.”
They circled the ancient Ordinationalist church, and Magnus Ridolph now saw that the back wall had been battered open, permitting the occupant light and air, but shading him from the two suns. This, the Golespod, was a wide rubbery creature, somewhat like a giant ray, though blockier, thicker in cross-section. It had a number of pale short legs on its underside, a blank milk-blue eye on its front, a row of pliant tendrils dangling under the eye. It crouched half-submerged in semi-solid rottenness—scraps of food, fish entrails, organic refuse of every sort.
“He gets paid for it,” said Boek. “The pay is all velvet, as his board and room are thrown in with the job.”
A rhythmic shuffling sound came to their ears. Around the corner of the old stone church came a snakelike creature suspended on thirty skinny jointed legs.
“That’s one of the mail carriers,” said Boek. “They’re all multipedes—and pretty good at it too.”
The creature was long, wiry, and his body shone a burnished copper-red. He had a flat caterpillar face, four black shiny eyes, a small horny beak. A tray hung under his body containing letters and small parcels. One of these latter he seized with a foot, whistled shrilly. The Golespod grunted, flung back its front, tossing the trailing tentacles away from a black maw underneath.
The multipede tossed the little parcel into the mouth, and with a bright blank stare at Boek and Magnus Ridolph, turned in a supple arc and trundled around the building. The Golespod grunted, honked, burrowed deeper into the filth, where it lay staring at Boek and Magnus Ridolph—these two returning the scrutiny with much the same detached, faintly contemptuous, curiosity.
“Does he understand human speech?” inquired Magnus Ridolph.
Boek nodded. “But don’t go too near him. He’s an irascible brute.”
Magnus Ridolph took a cautious step or two forward, looked into the milky blue eye.
“I’m trying to identify a criminal named McInch. Can you help me?”
The black body moved in sudden agitation, and a furious honking came from the pale under-body. The eye distended, swelled. Boek cocked an ear.