Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
Craig stepped forward and put his arms about her. He drew her in against him and kissed her pouting red lips. Hungrily. Carefully. Thoroughly. Her fists pounded against his shoulders and she tried to twist free of his clasp.
Discovering that her movements only added to his pleasure, she lay limp against him, fighting the delight of his caress.
She did not want to give in to this big, bronzed man in such a shameless fashion. She knew well enough that he had little trouble with the women he set his eye on and she was determined not to be one of them. Ah, but his lips were so possessive, his arms about her back so powerful And the excitement of the night, her near brush with death, all fired her blood to the steaming point. He was the most attractive man she had ever known. Tomorrow he might be dead. It seemed ridiculous to waste such a glorious moment.
Slowly, her fists opened. Her lips widened, she accepted his kiss and gave it back to him with all her will.
After a moment he whispered into her lips, “Silly, I saved your life. Wasn’t that worth a kiss?”
She burrowed closer to him, nodding her head. “If we were on Thrakkan Planet, where the natives have some odd customs, you would belong to me. Did you know that? You would be my slave girl until you bought back your freedom.”
“How would I buy it back?” she breathed, kissing him. He told her and she made a crooning sound low in her throat as she buried her head in his neck and bit his flesh gently. The air was cold on her wet flesh but she would not have stirred an inch from him except that he gripped her arms and lifted her away.
“Tempting as you are, Irla sweet —we’ve work to do.” She sighed and let his arm at her back guide her between tree and over fallen logs. Now the wind roaming the Orosian marshlands made her shake with cold and the flesh of her body rose up in little bumps.
“It isn’t far,” he told her. She turned to look at the woods. “What isn’t far?”
“The marsh-van, where we’ll find a fire, clothes and, I hope, several buckets of liquor.”
“You are truly mad,” she accused, staring at him. His chuckle was lost in the sound of their footsteps squelching in the soggy ground. “I landed within fifty feet of where I aimed. The van shouldn’t be too far away.”
Irla Grayson came to a dead stop. “Are you trying to tell me that you planned everything that took place tonight?”
“Why, yes. What else? You didn’t think all this just happened? That would be trusting to luck. And I never do that.”
“B—but you c—couldn’t have known when and where L.O.O.T. would start shooting.”
“Oh, within reasonable limits, I could. The attack would be made in the Lower City. No city constables, no witnesses. L.O.O.T. would have to be stupid to pass up such a setup. And L.O.O.T. isn’t stupid.”
His hand caught her fingers, tugged her to walk beside him. She was shivering steadily now so he drew her into the crook of an arm and pressed her against him. The warmth of their bodies helped against the biting wind.
“No, I knew the L.O.O.T. agents would hit us pretty close to where they did. I had an air-car warmed and ready to take off, about a block and a half away.” His shoulders lifted in a shrug. “If L.O.O.T. had delayed—things mightn’t have gone so well.”
“Oh, come now. You’re alive, you’re going to be inside a marsh-van soon with a couple of goblets of liquor warming inside you. You’ve had an adventure you can brag about to your grandchildren.”
“If I live so long,” she chattered through chilled lips. “You’ll live.” He grinned. “As a matter of fact, you’re entering your apartment right about now, unless I miss my guess.”
He tightened his hand on her fingers when she would have pulled away in exasperation. She contented herself with snapping, “Must you always talk in riddles?”
“Sorry. I thought you understood. Why do you think L.O.O.T wants you dead?”
“I—I don’t know.”
“Then guess.” When she was silent, he went on, “Obviously, I think, so somebody can take your place. Another Irla Grayson.”
She gaped at him. She never knew what she might have said for at that moment he stopped her and pointed. Following his rigid finger she saw a dark blob up ahead of them, between the trees.
“The marsh-van. Let’s go,” he said, laughing. She could not see the door he opened, but his palm, slapping her rump, urged her into the darkness of the interior. His fingers fumbled at a light switch and then a soft radiance flooded the interior of the van. In normal use a marsh-van was filled with tools and machinery for work in these vast fenlands, but now it was fitted out as a combination bedroom and living suite.
A bed occupied one end of the interior; there was a bar with several bottles inside a metal railing; and behind a glass-paneled door a cling-suit and some female clothes hung on a long pole. The rug underfoot was thick and furry. Below a copper cone a fire glowed.
With a cry of delight, Irla leaped for the closet. Rummaging inside, she drew out a thick quilted robe and wrapped it about her. Then she went to stand in front of the glowing coals and under cover of the robe, stripped off her stockings, garters and panties.
“There,” she said with a happy sigh. “I’m human again.”
He smiled at her from the bar where he was mixing Earth gin with Loranthian vermouth, stirring the almost transparent liquids together, then pouring them into glass goblets. He carried a goblet to the woman.
“This’ll make you even more human.” She took a long sip and giggled. “I’m not at all sure I want to be more human than I am at the moment. So entertain me, Commander. Tell me more about what L.O.O.T. is planning.”
She went to sit on the edge of the bed and crossed her legs. Craig sipped his own drink, commenting, “The primitives back on Earth in the pre-space age really knew how to make drinks. This is called a Martini.”
“I like it,” she nodded. “Ever had one before?”
“Nn—nn. I’ve always stuck to sorinth.”
“Then be careful. It warms you but it can get pretty tricky if you have about three of them.”
She stuck out her tongue at him. “Don’t evade the issue, Commander. L.O.O.T. has plans for Irla Grayson. Clue me in about them.”
“L.O.O.T. doesn’t go around killing people just for the fun of it. You told me earlier that L.O.O.T. always makes a profit out of whatever it does. So then, its motive is profit. Theft. But what profit can L.O.O.T. make in the Upper City museum where Irla Grayson works?”
She bit her lip, frowning. After a moment she shook her head. “There are valuable pieces in the museum, yes. Statues. Rare weapons and armor. Art pieces. All those things, even some unusual jewels. But—but nothing that would make it worth L.O.O.T.’s going to all the trouble they have.”
He took her empty goblet and refilled it. “Are you sure? Think!”
She sipped and looked up at him. “I am thinking.”
“Any special exhibits?” he hinted. She stared at the far wall. Suddenly, her eyes widened. “Oh! The Kharkhan Scepter”
“What’s the Kharkhan Scepter?”
“The most valuable single thing in the Rim planets. It was carved from a koralth tusk about a hundred centuries ago. It was carried by every ruler of the Rim worlds since the days of Kharkhan himself.”
Craig whistled softly. “And it’s on loan to the museum. If L.O.O.T. steals it, the Rim planets won’t blame L.O.O.T. so much as they will the Empire.”
He stood up suddenly and began pacing about the small room. His face was serious. “The Rim worlds and Empire are at loggerheads now over a dozen different things—the fact that Empire won’t admit them into its United Space Worlds sessions, the strict economic barriers Empire merchants have set up against their manufacturers, the fact that the Rim worlds suffer crop failures every few years so that their teeming billions starve, the fact that—oh, I could go on for an hour about the things that stick in the Rim worlds’ craw. I’d only bore you.
“Suffice it to say that since the Rim worlds are poor relations, their pride and sensitivity to fancied insult is that much greater than it should be.”
“So when L.O.O.T. steals the Kharkhan Scepter, the Rim worlds will blame Empire and—and may even go to War?”
“The Rim rulers are hotheads. Theirs is a history of warfare from the days of Oomphad, the conqueror who first united their planets.”
“This is serious stuff.” Irla frowned a moment, then asked, “But how does my double play a part?”
Craig shrugged. “This we have to learn.”
Craig spread his hands. “Well, if you don’t want to know what your alter ego is doing, just say the word.” Seeing her perplexity, he grinned. “The girl who’s taking your place is probably in or on her way to your apartment right now.” Irla Grayson came off the bed so suddenly that she spilled a few drops of her drink on the rug. “She isn’t!” Her eyes widened as realization came to her, and horror touched her face. “You mean she’s going to wear my new Marlowe original? The one I haven’t even worn myself? Oh, Commander—you’ve got to stop her. She can’t do this to me.”
I shall never understand women, Craig thought as she came into his arms to bury her face against his chest and tremble. Danger left her fairly well oriented, but the idea of a strange female in her suite. . . .
“My lovely things, my new Sharzale perfume, my mingcat coat! Everything—all hers!” she wailed.
“The black pa—unmentionables—and the matching—ohhh! I was ke—keeping the black underwear for my wedding night—if I ever got m—married!”
“Why don’t we go and watch what she does?” She drew her face away from his chest to look up at him. She was flushed, there were tears on her cheeks, her eyes were abnormally large and moist. Her red lips were quivering. She tried to speak but she could only nod her head.
“You’ll have to be quiet,” he reminded her. She nodded so vigorously her red hair danced about her shoulders. “Just tell me what to do.”
He bent his head toward the clothes closet. First of all, get into some clothes. You’ll find a dark skin-suit with matching boots. The skin-suit will have a veil. Make sure it’s clipped in place.”
She was turning, slipping out of the quilted robe, letting it slide slowly down her back, exposing her buttocks and the rose birthmark on her right thigh. Impishly she turned her head and, seeing him staring at her nudity, thrust out her tongue. Then she reached an arm into the closet, pushed clothes along the rack and brought out a black sylkon skin-suit. Lifting a leg, she thrust it into the suit and worked it up over her calves and thighs. It was a close fit.
Flushing faintly, she decided that Commander Craig had judged well when he ordered this size.
When she turned, all black sylkon and female curves, she saw him clad as she was clad. Quite frankly, she ran her eyes over his body. It was thick muscled, deep chested and wide shouldered. There was an animal appeal to Commander John Craig, she admitted honestly. “You make a very sexy shadow,” he said. Irla glanced down at herself. If Craig had been revealed to her eyes in the clinging sylkon that showed every bulge of muscle, she was equally exposed. Her breasts held no secrets, nor did her curving hips and long legs. It was as if someone had painted them in ebony oil.
“If you’re wondering whether this is necessary, be assured it is. Here in bright lights, the answer is not so obvious, but when we’re in a dark room, staring in at your apartment, the value of total blackness will be evident.” He went out the door. A moment later she heard the van motor roar to life. There was a little delay while the motor warmed, then the van began to move. Irla Grayson sighed, crossed to the bar and refilled her goblet. She sipped it thoughtfully.
Craig drove between the tree-boles and across the soggy stretches of marshland with ease. The eyes and the hands that had taken him into the mist world of Tryphon, through the radiation curtains of Alphax and half a dozen other places on the Empire planets and off them, were his allies. A branch or two scraped the roof and side of the van, but did no damage.
For two miles he drove, until the shimmering ribbon of the causeway came into sight. He turned the wheel, the van pitched and rolled and splashed between puddles and smoking fumeroles until he saw the gyro-car hidden under the reeds and bits of torn fen grass.
He braked the marsh-van, leaped out and opened the door. Irla Grayson was standing there, smiling down at him. He did not need the sight of an empty goblet in her hand to know she had been drinking the martinis. There was a glassy stare in her eyes.
He caught her as she toppled forward, holding her sylkon-clad body soft and warm in his arms a moment before he set her on the ground. At any other time he would have carried her back inside the van to enjoy the limp surrender of her flesh, but—what was the motto of the Star Marines? Yes. “Duty calls.”
With a sigh for lost pleasure, he turned her and brought her walking unsteadily at his side to the gyro-car. He dropped her in the seat, strapped her in, and eased himself behind the wheel.
Moments later they were on the causeway, heading city-side.
Irla was asleep before they had gone a mile. She was still sleeping when he moved the gyro-car to the curb a block from her dwelling house, a huge structure that held close to a thousand apartments. It was a luxury habitation, one of the many which had been constructed by the Upper City in the past dozen years. He reached into the seat compartment, drew out a black leather belt with zip-pockets, and strapped it about his lean middle.
Then he unbuckled the girl and shook her to wakefulness. She turned towards him, threw her arms about his neck, kissing him hungrily. Her lips were moist, partly open. Very pleasant, he thought; then more sternly he remembered his mission. Gently he pushed her away and helped her out of the gyro-car.
They entered a deserted lobby and hurried to the elevator. For these ten minutes, during which he had calculated he would arrive at the apartment, Investigation Corps personnel of the United Worlds Space Fleets had sworn to keep corridors and lobby, and even sidewalks, free of visitors. He and Irla, unseen and unsuspected, were like ghosts now as they stepped into an elevator and were whisked upwards to the tenth floor.
Her room was 10M. Craig opened the door of 10M and pushed her in.
Earlier this day, before his visit to Alert Command for a last minute consultation with Commander Dan Ingalls, he had come here to memorize the furniture pattern. No light must be shown. In the darkness he pushed Irla into a leather chair and went to the west wall of the room.
This wall bordered the bedroom wall where Irla Grayson slept. Craig ran his hands over its texture. Then he fumbled in the zip-pockets of his leather belt, bringing out metal bars and units which he screwed together swiftly. When he was done, the object he had created resembled a metallic spider. He set the spider on the table which, his fingers told him in the darkness, was where it had been hours earlier.
More pockets were opened, and after assembling other parts, he now held what appeared to be a small Vue-tape projector. Tiny but incredibly powerful batteries fueled the projector and they hummed as Craig touched them into action by pressing his forefinger to the studs.
The wall between the bedroom and the room where he stood seemed to disappear. Craig found himself staring at a pink room, a pink bed and pink rug, with tinted walls upon which pictures and mirrors were hung in a tasteful arrangement.
Irla Grayson was leaning against him, giggling. “You’re a naughty boy, Commander. Anybody know you go peekin’ into li’l girls’ beddy rooms like this?”
“Only Dan Ingalls,” he whispered. “Oh, yes—and the brain behind all the gadgets I get to use, Chief of Ordnance Ray Edmunds. He calls this his “Peeping Tom.”
She kissed his throat. “Peepin’ Tom?”
“It works on the cosmic ray principle. Cosmic rays go anywhere, through roofs, walls, bodies. The peeper gadget is attuned to the cosmic rays. A planted electronic device inside your bedroom activates those cosmic rays at such a frequency that the innards of the peeper can pick them up and translate them into visual responses through the projector.”
He grinned, “I didn’t have to focus it on the wall. A screen would have done well enough. But this gives us the illusion that the wall is nonexistent. It appears that we’re looking right into your—hold it.”
Irla Grayson walked into the bedroom. The Irla Grayson leaning against him stiffened and gasped. “It’s me!” she cried. “But I’m here. I mean . . .”
Her voice trailed off as she stared. The woman in the next room glanced around her at the bedroom, nodding. Then she put her hands to the black night-hours gown, a duplicate of the one the girl in the darkened room had worn earlier this night, and began to release the magnetic clasps. The gown fell away and the woman in the bedroom pushed it down past her hips. She was wearing a black minim under it, no more.
Irla giggled. “At least they didn’t know what scanties I’d be wearing. I feel a li’l safer. L.O.O.T. doesn’t know everything about me.”
“Pretty near,” he chuckled. “Look now.” The woman in the bedroom had turned. They could see her white body from her up-swept red hair to the heels of her tiny feet. On the back of her right thigh, they saw the rose birthmark.
Irla snarled, “Why, those dirty so—and—such L.O.O.T. agents!”
“Score one for them, honey. They are thorough.”
“I’ll thorough them! If I ever get my hands on that female impersonator I’ll fracture her features.”
“Save your righteous wrath. She wouldn’t feel a thing.” Irla turned to stare up at him. “She isn’t real,” explained Craig. “She’s an android—you know, one of those robots who seem perfectly human but are only synthesized flesh and skin. Their computerized brains can be electronically taped to act just as you would act.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Well, I’m not positive, but nobody has a double with a matching birthmark. That thing had to be created. Wait. We’ll prove it a little later.”
The android woman walked naked to the closet, slid back a door, brought out a hanger with a frilly chiffon nightgown. She looked at it, shook her head, and put it back. Then she brought out a filmy gown that was like a red gossamer mist.
Irla breathed, “Ooooh, I was saving that one!” The red nightgown went up and shimmered down about the white body of the android woman. It was almost perfectly transparent.
“Lucky him,” smiled Craig. “The man you were saving that red temptation for, I mean.”
They waited silently while the woman went to the wall switch and pressed it. The screen-on-wall went dark. Then slowly it began to lighten as moonlight filtered into the bedroom. They could make out the android at the bed, kneeling on it, fluffing pillows. She slipped under the covers and stared up at the canopy of the four poster bed.
“Her eyes,” Craig whispered. “They’re wide open.”
“Do you sleep with your eyes open?”
“An android doesn’t need sleep. It’s been geared to stay in the bed until the alarm wakes it. Then it will get up and dress. Keep watching. I’ll bet it never makes a move all night long.”
They watched the motionless android for over an hour. Her eyes did not close, nor did she move a muscle. Finally Craig sighed.
“If your alter ego doesn’t want to sleep, I do. Come on, you can have the couch. I’ll take the easy chair.”
Within moments he was asleep. Irla remained staring at the wall, as if hypnotized by seeing herself in bed in her own room. But this palled after a while and she lay down on the couch, curling herself up into a ball. Her eyelids closed. She slept.
The chronometer on his wrist woke Commander Craig, its supersonic impulse geared to the motor portion of his brain. He came off the leather chair, saw Irla still asleep, and moved to a clothes closet in the bedroom to don the somber street garments placed there for his needs. A gray jacket and skirt hung limply, waiting for Irla Grayson to fill them out.
He walked back into the living room. The wall scene showed the android woman already dressed, wearing a white and blue synthesuit. Craig glanced down at the still sleeping Irla. He could not have two Irla Grayson’s walking around in the Afrikaal Museum. The real one was sleeping soundly. Good. Then let her sleep.
He waited until the android had left her apartment, then he went out into the corridor and locked the heavy metal door behind him. He would leave word with the Intelligence Corps agents not to answer the phone from 10M when Irla woke up, and to ignore her pounding on the door. If she made too much noise, a female agent would go in and talk cold sense into her pretty red head.
He took a moviwalk toward the museum. All about him were the sights and sounds of a great megalopolis waking to the workday. Men in suits as inconspicuous as his own, pretty girl talk-typers in rainbow garments, sheer above the waist and short enough to show their handsome legs, trotted along beside the moving walks, turning into buildings or waiting at the stations to step aboard. Overhead the swift gyro-cars dipped and darted where messengers carried stocks or cash valued into the million credits.
For the most part, Commander John Craig saw little of this urban life. His position in the Intelligence Corps normally took him to the outer planets, the worlds not yet touched by civilization—the rough and tumble places where a man could die with frightening ease in a variety of ways. His character was geared to excitement, to danger. It explained why he so rarely took vacations. They bored the hell out of him.
Craig sighed. He supposed that this might also explain why he and Elva Marlowe had broken up. The fashion designer had been his constant companion for a long time, but their natures were too dissimilar. She knew it, Commander Craig knew it, and at last they had confessed the fact to one another.
All the pretty girls of Empire were his to court now. His eyes sighted a girl with a transparent, flower-painted vinyl blouse tucked inside a tight sylkon skirt; the big red flowers covered her in front modestly enough, but her back was visible through the translucent stuff. Ultraviolet rays could penetrate the vinyl and most girls used this method to achieve stunning suntans. The flowers on their fronts were opaque, and as a result, some of the sun-stenciling done on their torsos was oddly attractive. It was the latest craze of the Empire worlds.
There were so many pretty women bouncing about, stepping from moviwalk to moviwalk that he just could not see them all. After a time he gave up and concentrated on the android three sectors ahead of him. L.O.O.T. had done a master job on Irla Grayson. If he did not know what she was, he would have assumed her to be the real woman. The museum was bulking large in the distance. Time to step off the fastest walk to the slower ones. The outer walks would be stopping soon at the station. Up ahead of him he saw the android woman on the slow walk.
He followed her onto the station, down the dropper and onto the street. She walked straight ahead, without even a sideways glance, Irla Grayson was too filled with curiosity and adventure to move in such a robotic manner. She would have turned her head this way and that, studying the hang of a dress, observing the best-looking men who passed her, perhaps even smiling and flirting a little.
It seemed even L.O.O.T. was unable to duplicate all the characteristics of a human being. At least this made his task easier. The android had no suspicion that anyone might be following her.
Inside the museum there was the familiar hush of silence. The figures in the vast diorama displays were so lifelike it seemed as if he walked between windows opening onto other worlds. As he listened to the androidal foot falls, he stared in upon a fur-clad hunter on the snow world of Ifthisane, stalking an antlered caribou. Far down on the horizon were the triple suns of Rull making a glaced splendor of the icecap where the hunter walked. The huge beast was struggling in the deep snows, having broken through the surface crust. The hunter was about to bring it down. The next window showed a splintery thorkon moving through a Beldonian jungle, while large-clawed striporiots, its hereditary enemy, crouched for the attack. A manlike creature, with a club in its hand, stared between the tree-boles at the striped felines, as if too terrified even to flee. In the glassite front of the diorama window, Craig saw the reflection of the android Irla Grayson as she moved to a desk and sat down. He wandered on into the next room, but he positioned himself so that he might watch her at all times.
She worked hard for two hours, sorting papers, making notations, checking display units. Trained to patience though he was, the commander found his task irksome. How long could he go on staring into these same windows? He dared not move out of sight of the android girl.
If he were sure it was the Kharkhan Scepter she was after, he could go there and wait—but he was not sure. The ways of L.O.O.T. were devious. They might look one way and hit another. Ah, but now—
The girl rose taking a large knitting bag from a drawer of her desk. Craig tensed. She betrayed no emotion, and Commander Craig felt admiration for her composure until he remembered that she was a creation and probably had been specifically tape-responsed against any act which might betray her.