Un man and other novella.., p.1

Un-Man and Other Novellas, page 1

 

Un-Man and Other Novellas
 


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Un-Man and Other Novellas


  Table of Contents

  THE MAKESHIFT ROCKET

  MARGIN OF PROFIT

  THE LIVE COWARD

  UN-MAN And Other Novellas

  by

  POUL ANDERSON

  ACE BOOKS, INC.

  THE MAKESHIFT ROCKET

  THEY WERE gone, their boat whispering into the sky with all six of them aboard. Donner had watched them from his balcony—he had chosen the apartment carefully with a view to such features—as they walked out on the landing flange and entered the shell. Now their place was vacant and it was time for him to get busy.

  For a moment hesitation was in him. He had waited many days for this chance, but a man does not willingly enter a potential trap. His eyes strayed to the picture on his desk. The darkly beautiful young woman and the child in her arms seemed to be looking at him, her lips were parted as if she were about to speak. He wanted to press the button that animated the film, but didn’t quite dare. Gently, his finger stroked the glass over her cheek.

  “Jeanne,” he whispered. “Jeanne, honey.”

  He got to work. His colorful lounging pajamas were exchanged for a gray outfit that would be inconspicuous against the walls of the building. An ordinary featureless mask, its sheen carefully dulled to non-reflection, covered his face. He clipped a flat box of tools to his belt and painted his fingertips with collodion. Picking up a reel of cord in one hand, he returned to the balcony.

  From here, two hundred and thirty-four stories up, he had a wide view of the Illinois plain. As far as he could see, the land rolled green with com, hazing into a far horizon out of which the great sky lifted. Here and there, a clump of trees had been planted, and the white streak of an old highway crossed the field, but otherwise it was one immensity of growth. The holdings of Midwest Agricultural reached beyond sight.

  On either hand, the apartment building lifted sheer from the trees and gardens of its park. Two miles long, a city in its own right, a mountain of walls and windows, the unit dominated the plain, sweeping heavenward in a magnificent arrogance that ended sixty-six stories above Donner’s flat. Through the light prairie wind that fluttered his garments, the man could hear a low unending hum, muted pulsing of machines and life-^the building—itself like a giant organism.

  There were no other humans in sight. The balconies were so designed as to screen the users from view of neighbors on the same level, and anyone in the park would find his upward glance blocked by trees. A few brilliant points of light in the sky were airboats, but that didn’t matter.

  Donner fastened his reel to the edge of the balcony and took the end of the cord in his fingers. For still another moment he stood, letting the sunlight and wind pour over him, filling his eyes with the reaching plains and the high, white-clouded heaven.

  He was a tall man, his apparent height reduced by the width of shoulders and chest, a curious rippling grace in his movements. His naturally yellow hair had been dyed brown, and contact lenses made his blue eyes dark, but otherwise there hadn’t been much done to his face—the broad forehead, high cheekbones, square jaw, and jutting nose were the same. He smiled wryly behind the blank mask, took a deep breath, and swung himself over the balcony rail.

  The cord unwound noiselessly, bearing him down past level after level. There was a risk involved in this daylight burglary—someone might happen to glance around the side wall of a balcony and spot him, and even the custom of privacy would hardly keep them from notifying the unit police. But the six he was after didn’t time their simultaneous departures for his convenience.

  The looming facade slid past, blurred a little by the speed of his descent. One, two, three— He counted as he went by, and at the eighth story down tugged the cord with his free hand. The reel braked and he hung in midair.

  A long and empty way down— He grinned and began to swing himself back and forth, increasing the amplitude of each arc until his soles were touching the unit face. On the way back, he grasped the balcony rail, just beyond the screening side wall, with his free hand. His body jerked to a stop, the impact like a blow in his muscles.

  Still clinging to the cord, he pulled himself one-armed past the screen, over the rail, and onto the balcony floor. Under the gray tunic and the sweating skin, his sinews felt as if they were about to crack. He grunted with relief when he stood freely, tied the cord to the rail, and unclipped his tool case.

  The needle of his electronic detector flickered. So there was an alarm hooked to the door leading in from the balcony. Donner traced it with care, located a wire, and cut it. Pulling a small torch from his kit, he approached the door. Beyond its transparent plastic, the rooms lay quiet: a conventional arrangement of furniture, but with a waiting quality over it.

  Imagination, thought Donner impatiently, and cut the lock from the door. As he entered, the autocleaner sensed his presence and its dust-sucking wind whined to silence.

  The man forced the lock of a desk and riffled through the papers within. One or two in code he slipped into his pocket, the rest were uninteresting. There must be more, though. Curse it, this was their regional headquarters!

  His metal detector helped him about the apartment, looking for hidden safes. When he found a large mass buried in a wall, he didn’t trouble with searching for the button to open it, but cut the plastic facing away. The gang would know their place had been raided, and would want to move. If they took another flat in the same building, Donner’s arrangement with the superintendent would come into effect; they’d get a vacancy which had been thoughtfully provided with all the spy apparatus he could install. The man grinned again.

  Steel gleamed at him through the scorched and melted wall. It was a good safe, and he hadn’t time to diddle with it. He plugged in his electric drill, and the diamond head gnawed a small hole in the lock. With a hypodermic he inserted a few eubic centimeters of levinite, and touched it off by a UHF beam. The lock jangled to ruin, and Donner opened the door.

  He had only time to see the stet-gun within, and grasp the terrible fact of its existence. Then it spat three needles into his chest, and he whirled down into darkness.

  II

  ONCE OR TWICE he had begun to waken, stirring dimly toward light, and the jab of a needle had thrust him back. Now, as his head slowly cleared, they let him alone. And that was worse.

  Donner retched and tried to move. His body sagged against straps that held him fast in his chair. Vision blurred in a huge nauseous ache; the six who stood watching him were a ripple of fever-dream against an unquiet shadow.

  “He’s coming around,” said the thin man unnecessarily.

  The heavy-set, gray-haired man in the conservative blue tunic glanced at his timepiece. “Pretty fast, considering how he was dosed. Healthy specimen.”

  Donner mumbled. The taste of vomit was bitter in his mouth. “Give him some water,” said the bearded man.

  “Like helll” The thin man’s voice was a snarl. His face was dead white against the shifting, blurring murk of the room, and there was a fever in his eyes. “He doesn’t rate it, the—Un-man!”

  "Get him some water,” said the gray-haired one quietly. The skeletal younger man slouched sulkily over to a chipped basin with an old-fashioned tap and drew a glassful.

  Donner swallowed it greedily, letting it quench some of the dry fire in his throat and belly. The bearded man approached with a hypo.

  “Stimulant,” he explained. “Bring you around faster.” It bit into Donner’s arm and he felt his heartbeat quicken. His head was still a keen pulsing pain, but his eyes steadied and he looked at the others with returning clarity.

  “We weren’t altogether careless,” said the heavy-set man. “That stet-gun was set to needle anybody who opened the safe without pressi
ng the right button first. And, of course, a radio signal was emitted which brought us back in a hurry. We’ve kept you unconscious till now.”

  Donner looked around him. The room was bare, thick with the dust and cobwebs of many years, a few pieces of old-style wooden furniture crouched in ugliness against the cracked plaster walls. There was a single window, its broken glass panes stuffed with rags, dirt so thick on it that he could not be sure if there was daylight outside. But the hour was probably after dark. The only illumination within was from a single fluoro in a stand on the table.

  He must be in Chicago, Donner decided through a wave of sickness. One of the vast moldering regions that encompassed the inhabited parts of the dying city—deserted, not worth destroying as yet, the lair of rats and decay. Sooner or later, some agricultural outfit would buy up the nominal title from the government which had condemned the place and raze what had been spared by fire and rot. But it hadn’t happened yet, and the empty slum was a good hideaway for anybody.

  Donner thought of those miles of ruinous buildings, wrapped in night, looming hollow against a vacant sky-dulled echoes in the cracked and grass-grown streets, the weary creak of a joist, the swift patter of feet and glare of eyes from the thick dark, menace and loneliness for further than he could run.

  Alone, alone. He was more alone here than in the outermost reaches of space. He knew starkly that he was going to die.

  Jeanne. O Jeanne, my darling.

  “You were registered at the unit as Mark Roberts,” said the woman crisply. She was thin, almost as thin as the bitter-eyed young man beside her. The face was sharp and hungry, the hair close cropped, the voice harsh with purpose. “But your ID tattoo is a fake—it’s a dye that comes off with acid. We got your thumbprint and that number on a check and called the bank central like in an ordinary verification, and the robofile said yes, that was Mark Roberts and the account was all right.” She leaned forward, her face straining against the blur of night, and spat it at him. "Who are you really? Only a secret service man could get by with that kind of fake. Whose service are you in?”

  “It’s obvious, isn’t it?” snapped the thin man. “He’s not American Security. We know that. So he must be an Un-man.” The way he said the last word made it an ugly, inhuman sound. “The Un-man!” he repeated.

  “Our great enemy,” said the heavy-set one thoughtfully. “The Un-man—not just an ordinary operative, with human limitations, but the great and secret one who’s made so much trouble for us.”

  He cocked his gray head and stared at Donner. “It fits what fragmentary descriptions we have,” he went on. “But then, the U.N. boys can do a lot with surgery and cosmetics, can’t they? And the Un-man has been killed several times. An operator was bagged in Hong Kong only last month which the killer swore must be our enemy—he said nobody else could have led them such a chase.”

  That was most likely Weinberger, thought Donner. An immense weariness settled on him. They were so few, so desperately few, and one by one the Brothers went down into darkness. He was next, and after him—

  "What I can’t understand,” said a fifth man—Donner recognized him as Colonel Samsey of the American Guard— “is why, if the U. N. Secret Services does have a corps of— uh—supermen, it should bother to disguise them to look all alike. So that we’ll think were dealing with an immortal?” He chuckled grimly. “Surely they don’t expect us to be rattled by that!”

  “Not supermen,” said the gray-haired one. “Enormously able, yes, but the Un-men aren’t infallible. As witness this one.” He stood before Donner, his legs spread and his hands on his hips. “Suppose you start talking. Tell us about yourself.”

  “I can tell you about your own selves,” answered Donner. His tongue felt thick and dry, but the acceptance of death made him, all at once, immensely steady. “You are Roger Wade, president of Brain Tools, Incorporated, and a prominent supporter of the Americanist Party.” To the woman: “You are Marta Jennings, worker for the Party on a full-time basis. Your secretary, Mr. Wade—” his eyes roved to the gaunt young man—“is Rodney Borrow, Exogene Number—”

  “Don’t call me that!” Cursing, Borrow lunged at Donner. He clawed like a woman. When Samsey and the bearded ■man dragged him away, his face was death-white and he dribbled at the mouth.

  “And the experiment was a failure,” taunted Donner cruelly.

  “Enough!” Wade slapped the prisoner, a ringing open-handed buffet. “We want to know something new, and there isn’t much time. You are, of course, immunized against truth drugs—Dr. Lewin’s tests have already confirmed that— but I assume you can still feel pain.”

  After a moment, he added quietly: “We aren’t fiends. You know that we’re patriots.” Working with the nationalists of a dozen other countries! thought Donner. “We don’t want to hurt or kill unnecessarily.”

  “But first we want your real identity,” said the bearded man, Lewin. “Then your background of information about us, the future plans of your chief, and so on. However, it will be sufficient for now if you answer a few questions pertaining to yourself, residence and so on.”

  Oh, yes, thought Donner, the weariness like a weight on his soul. That’11 do. Because then they’U find Jeanne and Jimmy, and bring them here, andr-

  Lewin wheeled forth a lie detector. “Naturally, we don’t want our time wasted by false leads,” he said.

  “It won’t be,” replied Donner. “I’m not going to say tny-thing.”

  Lewin nodded, unsurprised, and brought out another machine. “This one generates low-frequency, low-voltage current,” he remarked. “Quite painful. I don’t think your will can hold out very long. If it does, we can always try prefrontal lobotomy; you won’t have inhibitions then. But we’ll give you a chance with this first.”

  He adjusted the electrodes on Donner’s skin.- Borrow locked his lips with a dreadful hunger.

  Donner tried to smile, but his mouth felt stiff. The sixth man, who looked like a foreigner somehow, went out of the room.

  There was a tiny receiver in Donner’s skull, behind the right mastoid. It could only pick up messages of a special wave form, but it had its silencing uses too. After all, electric torture is a common form of inquisition, and very hard to bear.

  He thought of Jeanne, and of Jimmy, and of the Brotherhood. He wished that the last air he was to breathe weren’t stale and dusty.

  The current tore him with a convulsive anguish. His muscles jerked against the straps and he cried out. Then the sensitized communicator blew up, releasing a small puff of fluorine.

  The image Donner carried into death was that of Jeanne, smiling and bidding 'him welcome home.

  III

  BARNEY ROSENBERG drove along a dim, rutted trail toward the sheer loom of the escarpment. Around its comer lay Dry-gulch. But he wasn’t hurrying. As he got closer, he eased the throttle of his sandcat and the engine’s purr became almost inaudible.

  Leaning back in his seat, he looked through the tiny plastiglass cab at the Martian landscape. It was hard to understand that he would never see it again.

  Even here, five miles or so from the colony, there was no trace of man save himself and his engine and the blurred track through sand and bush. Men had come to Mars on wings of fire, they had hammered out their cities with a clangorous brawl of life, mined and smelted and begun their ranches, trekked in sandcats and airsuits from the polar bogs to the equatorial scrubwoods—and still they had left no real sign of their passing. Not yet. Here a tin can or a broken tool, there a mummified corpse in the wreck of a burst seal-tent, but sand and loneliness drifted over them, night and cold and forgetfulness. Mars was too old and strange for thirty years of man to matter.

  The desert stretched away to Rosenberg’s left, tumbling in steep drifts of sand from the naked painted hills. Off to the sharply curving horizon the desert marched, an iron barrenness of red and brown and tawny yellow, knife-edged shadows and a weird vicious shimmer of pale sunlight. Here and there a crag lifted, harsh with mi
neral color, worn by the passing of ages and thin wind to a fluted fantasy. A sandstorm was blowing a few miles off, a scud of dust hissing over stone, stirring the low gray-green brush to a sibilant murmur. On his right the hills rose bare and steep, streaked with blue and green of copper ores, gashed and scored and murmurous with wind. He saw life, the dusty thom-bushes and the high gaunt cactoids and a flicker of movement as a tiny leaper fled. In one of the precipices, a series of carved, time-blurred steps went up to the ruin of a cliff dwelling abandoned—how long ago?

  Overhead the sky was enormous, a reaching immensity of deep greenish blue-violet, incredibly high and cold and remote. The stars glittered faintly in its abyss, the tiny hurtling speck of a moon less bright than they. A shrunken sun stood in a living glory of corona and zodiacal light, the winged disc of royal Egypt lifting over Mars. Near the horizon a thin layer of ice crystals caught the luminescence in a chilly sparkle. There was wind, Rosenberg knew, a whimpering ghost of wind blowing through the bitter remnant of atmosphere, but he couldn’t hear it through the heavy plastiglass and somehow he felt that fact as a deeper isolation.

  It was a cruel world, this Mars, a world of cold and ruin and soaring scornful emptiness, a world that broke men’s hearts and drained their lives from them—rainless, oceanless, heatless, landless, where the great wheel of the stars swung through a desert of millennia, where the days cried with wind and the nights rang and groaned with frost. It was a world of waste and mystery, a niggard world where a man ate starvation and drank thirst and finally went down in darkness. Men trudged through unending miles, toil and loneliness and quiet creeping fear, sweated and gasped, cursed the planet and wept for the dead and snatched at warmth and life in the drab colony towns. It’s all right when you find yourself talking to the sandbuggeTS—but when they start talking back, it’s time to go home.

  And yet—and yet— The sweep of the polar moors, thin faint skirl of wind, sunlight shattered to a million diamond shards on the hoarfrost cap; the cloven tremendousness of Rasmussen Gorge, a tumbling sculptured wilderness of fairy stone, uncounted shifting hues of color and fleeting shadow; the high cold night of stars, fantastically brilliant constellations marching over a crystal heaven, a silence so great you thought you could hear God speaking over the universe; the delicate dayflowers of the Syrtis forests, loveliness blooming with the bitter dawn and dying in the swift sunset; traveling and searching, rare triumph and much defeat, but always the quest and the comradeship. Oh, yes, Mars was savage to her lovers, but she gave them of her strange beauty and they would not forget her while they lived.

 
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