That night, in the spacehands end of the city, they ate the dinner that he usually had with Mona at a nightclub, or alone looking for a good pickup in an expensive cocktail lounge. It was in the shipping area around the docks, at the opposite end of the city from his usual haunts. The ceiling was low and the glasses shivered and danced with the constant muted thunder of jets that shuddered through the floor from the nearby landing fields.
His new assistant and bodyguard was pleasantly deferential, lighting cigarettes for him, listening respectfully to his opinions, drawing him out with questions that showed he understood what he was listening to.
Bryce could not remember having had such a good time talking since he left the company of the meteorite miners at the Belt. Everything he said seemed right and even brilliant. As he talked and told anecdotes of his life and sketched some of his plans he saw his past life with peculiar vividness as if he were a stranger seeing it for the first time. In the reflected light of the interest and enthusiasm of his audience, events took on a new glow of entertainment and adventure and success where they had seemed to be just work and risk and routine at the time.
They had an evening to pass. Somehow Pierce got into conversation with a little Egyptian who could have stood for Cyrano and had the same merry impetuous way about him. Raz Anna was his name. He claimed to be the Caliph of Baghdad, still incognito, or perhaps a professional explorer disguised as a native. After a few drinks he enlisted them, somewhat confusedly, as the two missing musketeers and they found themselves wandering arm in arm from bar to bar and up and down dark alleys interviewing the heathen natives.
Bryce realized that he was laughing steadily and enjoying himself in a way that had nothing to do with the small number of drinks he had had.
He couldn't get any deference out of Raz. Raz wouldn't have deferred to God himself, and it was no use trying to impress him, for nothing impressed him. Apparently the hook-nosed, merry little man had no ambition and no envy of anyone, and wanted no better of life than he had at the moment.
It was a strange new world they led Bryce through--Not the ragged, starving, crowded viciousness of his childhood--not the fighting equality of spacemen and rock miners, many of them wanted by the law--not the simple barren hospitality of the settlers in the Belt who owed him money, and who invited him to their sparse dinners in gratitude--Those he had always managed to keep in their places and exact a certain measure of respect.
Even the smooth powerful men of wealth around him now accorded him a certain measure of deference that was an acknowledgement of strength. But the two musketeers he was with and the world they opened for him seemed to respect neither distance nor politeness, nor hold any fear for strength. Friendly insults, and uncritical friendliness mingled oddly with the mock-solemn pretense of the fairy tale, and that part was genuine and spontaneous. It didn't seem to be a different kind of people he was meeting exactly: it was the same kind of people approached differently. He didn't know exactly how it was done, and he let the other two take the lead.
Perhaps he had drunk too much, he thought as he rode the hotel elevator. For in retrospect, the evening was a haze of pleasure that was hard to pin his attention to. Everything he had said, everything that had happened seemed profoundly right, an atmosphere which he had encountered rarely before and only then in the last stage of drunkenness. But he was sober. He had had only a few drinks, and his perceptions seemed sharpened rather than blurred. Yet, where there should have been critical thoughts and regrets for errors and restless plans in his mind, there was only a pleasant empty buzz.
"Too much talk," he thought, yawning as he walked down the luxurious hotel corridor to his room.
It was that night that he first noticed something wrong with the mirror.
He glanced into it casually while undressing, then not so casually, walking up to it and inspecting his face. A slight, unpleasant tingle coursed along his nerves.
A stranger--When he tried to focus on what was wrong he could find nothing that looked any different, yet the total effect was completely wrong. He decided that it must be the mirror, some subtle distortion of the reflection. The old one must have been broken in cleaning and a new one put in.
The chill passed and still the good blank feeling lasted. He went to bed reviewing the evening and smiling, and went to sleep without resorting to the mental arithmetic that he generally used to clear his mind of dissatisfactions.
The next morning the mirror still looked peculiar. There seemed to be nothing wrong with the reflected image of the room, but when he gave himself the usual inspection before stepping out into the corridor the feeling of strangeness returned and his eyes felt as if they were blurring.
He put his hand up to his eyes instinctively and felt a distinct shock when the mirrored image did the same.
A slender smiling young man joined him in the lobby, rising and falling into step with him as he passed, going through doors before him with the inconspicuous alertness and precaution. He did his duties as a bodyguard well, Bryce noted, but that was only to be expected. Efficiency is, and should be, unnoticeable.
One thing he discovered during the working morning at the office. There had been nothing wrong with the mirror in his hotel room. The washroom mirror was worse!
He stood for a while, frozen in midstep, while he looked at a lean tanned and freckled face which looked like a color movie of his, every feature in its proper place as he remembered it, but yet not his. It didn't belong to him. He made faces at it, and it made faces back as if it were his, while he tried to believe that he was looking out of the gray eyes which looked back at him, then he heard someone coming in and left suddenly and sheepishly.
That afternoon, after Pierce got into the swing of the work, he began to be useful, fitting himself into the work routine as though he had always been part of it, making the right calls and contacts and appointments on the barest hints, handing him the phone intuitively as he needed it, always at the right time with almost telepathic instinct. While checking over the decisions and plans of Kesby and the staff that needed his okay, and signing typed letters Bryce talked the thoughts and plans which came half formed to mind, almost thinking aloud. And when his remarks struck something that sounded like it would be good to do soon, he saw Pierce jotting them down, later detailing the preliminary steps for Bryce's use.
And too, all the small tasks were being taken from him with easy naturalness, saving him much time. His assistant was being what he had claimed he would be, a genuinely useful left hand. Bryce found himself proud of the kid's manifest efficiency, for he was a product of the same school that Bryce himself had climbed from.
On the way back to the hotel, after work, he caught Pierce glancing at him with a thoughtful expression, and realized that he had been faltering and giving a second glance to every public mirror that he had passed. He was momentarily embarrassed, wondering if any strain had showed on his expression.
There was a party he had to go to that night so he changed to formal clothes and stepped off again for the home of the FN Administrative Governor of the Moon.
He did not want to attend. It would be another of those stiff, lonesome dinners he had suffered through before, but he had to learn to make friends on his own social level, and be easy and convivial with the kind of people he would be associating with the rest of his life.
After the first hour had given him a good test, Bryce decided that the evening was as bad as he had anticipated. He stood on the outskirts of a small group, holding a drink and watching resentfully as a startlingly beautiful woman laughed and talked with the others of the group and not with him. She had been introduced to him as Sheila Wesley. The jokes she had with the others were quick and subtle flashes of wit and insight, and seemed to be based on a mutual understanding that he could not share, even though some of the others had just been introduced and had been strangers to each other a few minutes back; it was something he grasped vaguely as a common background and approach to life that they shared, perhaps through education.
There were quick references to political situations they all seemed familiar with, or a name that could have been some character in a book they might all have read, or could have been somebody in history, each reference followed by a subdued laugh and an added witty statement from some other quarter. No one of them gave a word to him or noticed that he was there.
Why should they? He was dressed well and expensively, but so were they all. He was a person of prominence and power, but so were they all, and bored by it. He could not talk like the others. Then what could he do to make Sheila Wesley smile at him the way she smiled down at the ridiculous little fat man beside her as he excitably stuttered out his opinions.
Sheila Wesley was not like Mona, to be captured by money and clothes and influence. Would she be impressed even by the power he would have later? He tried to picture her as tremulous and awed, hanging on his words and flattering him, but he couldn't believe it. She probably wouldn't notice him any more than now. There was nothing he could do to impress her. He had thought Mona had poise, but now he saw that her manner was just an inadequate carbon copy of a completely spontaneous original. The woman, Sheila, managed to be poised, aloof, and yet friendly to everyone, simultaneously warm and unattainable.
He desired to be bitingly rude. That, at least, would make her admit that he existed. She was smiling at that ridiculous little fat man again.
He drained his glass and, completely unnoticed, left the party. Nobody would miss him, he was sure.
Outside in the corridor, Roy Pierce, his assistant, was engaged in conversation with two young men and two girls.
"There he is now," he heard Pierce say.
And one of the young men came toward him laughing.
"Is it true that this lunatic cannot go and make up with the lady of his heart because she has had him banned? If we all try to smuggle him in--"
And one of the girls, a really gorgeous blonde, called, "He was just telling us about that time you were in space with the pirates after you and they had stolen the big focusing mirror from the first Belt foundry furnace. I'm sure you can tell it better--you tell it."
He was surrounded by the five then. "Go ahead," they were urging, laughing, "Go ahead!" "It didn't really happen did it?"
This accusation was made by the pretty blonde. He looked at her half indignantly. "I don't know how he tells it but it happened." And he began to tell what had happened.
The two girls and the two young men listened, adding occasional startled interjections and admiring laughter.
Pierce inserted an occasional question and Bryce became aware that in answering them he was guided to stress and amplify points that made clearer the danger and comedy. Later he became aware that he was half consciously following the clues of Pierce's expression for the right stress and mood of the telling, now off-hand and smiling in telling what he had done, now heavily dramatic mimicking and burlesquing the tones and threats of the outlaws, now ironic and bitterly indifferent in passing over damage and deaths--as a wryly lifted eyebrow in the dark young face listening, and a faint imperceptible shrug made him see what had happened from a different angle than he had seen it then. Pierce apparently had something he needed, a good story sense. Following him must be something he had learned unconsciously last night, but it worked. He could see how well it worked in the expressions of his audience.
Someone leaving the party had stopped to listen, standing behind his right shoulder. When he finished, amid the exclamations and sighs of his listeners a cool, familiar voice drawled.
"That's quite a story. I picked up something about that at the new foundry on reef five, but it was already an old yarn then." She stood before him, still smooth and poised and lovely, offering her hand. "I'm glad to hear it from the horse's mouth. Aren't you Bryce Carter? We were introduced in there, I think, but the name didn't click."
It was Sheila Wesley.
That evening was something to remember.
First they were a private party at a nightclub, then at a small restaurant. Tom, Betty, who was the pretty blonde, Ralph and the pretty brunette whose name was Marsha, Pierce, himself and Sheila. The talk ranged wildly over a multitude of subjects, breaking sometimes into collective fantasies of nonsense like a hat full of fireworks that left them laughing helplessly, sometimes shifting to philosophy and mutual confidences. Every so often Pierce brought the subject around to something that struck home to Bryce and he found himself holding forth with unexpected passion and eloquence, and he was surprised to see that the others were keenly interested.
Pierce rarely said more than an occasional cheerful remark, but in the more subtle plays of conversation Bryce found himself still half consciously consulting the cues of his expression to find what his own reaction should be, to find the right word and the right attitude that pleased the table and urged them all on to greater and more fantastic heights of talk. It was obvious that Pierce never had any difficulty understanding anyone. He had an instinct that Bryce lacked, and Bryce willingly surrendered to superior skill and followed his silent lead.
Sheila he discovered, besides being a member of one of the top diplomatic families, had worked for a short while as a consultant at the Belt plastic manufactory when it was being set up, and had taken to space life. She shared his enthusiasm about the future of the Asteroid Belts.
It was an unprecedented evening. At the close of it he had four new friends, and had discovered that "Tom" was Thomas Mayernick, one of the attorneys of the Spaceways Commission, and one of the men whom he had gone to the dinner to meet.
And Sheila, tall and slender and beautiful, pressed his hand as the group parted, and said in her wonderful voice, "I want to see you again Bryce," she smiled. "I eat at the technicians' end of town, you know. I'll be with a Group at Geiger's Counter, tomorrow lunch. If you bear the company of slide rule artists we'd be glad to see you any time."
He stood for a moment, oddly surprised.
"Say thank you to the lady." Pierce smiled. And to Sheila, "You shouldn't startle people like that, Ma'm. His heart's weak."
"I just dropped dead," Bryce said, finding words. "You aren't leading me on? You'll be there?"
"On my honor," she smiled. "Good night, Bryce." She was used to such tributes. Half mocking as they were, she knew how much they were basically sincere, and accepted their tribute to her beauty as a matter of course. What a wife to have and introduce as his wife to other men, and see the look in their eyes.
He remembered suddenly that he had not once mentioned that he was a Director of UT. Somehow the conversation had never been led to a subject where he could have said it. He made a mental note to tell her next time. It seemed strange that he had been with five people so many hours without informing them that he was a Director of UT. He had done the same thing last night, now he remembered. But they had seemed to like him without it.
He let himself into his hotel room and turned on the light, but the first sidewise glimpse of himself in the mirror was disturbing. He solved that problem by the remarkably simple expedient of turning the light out again, and undressed in the dark, grinning foolishly.
Approaching the scientists' and technicians' row along the subsurface arcades, the expensive restaurants grew fewer and were replaced by German-type beer halls, schools with courses advertised in their posted schedules whose titles were completely unintelligible to him, and second hand bookstalls selling battered technical books and journals whose titles were undecipherable in any tongue Bryce could think of. The lunch hour crowds were beginning to pour out into the arcades from elevators and tube trains in a rush to get first place in their favorite eating places.
Pierce half turned as if his eyes caught on the expression of a face behind them.
"Carter! There you are, you bastard!" The voice came from behind him, thick with rage, but more than that was the insult. It meant challenge. This was nothing in which Pierce could defend him!
Bryce wheeled, left hand automatically plucking out his magnomatic, wondering if the attacker would be the honorable kind of duelist who would hold fire long enough for him to get his gun out.
Miraculously it seemed to be happening. He already had his sights halfway on to the speaker when he recognized him, a gross heavy figure he had seen a hundred times. Mr. Beldman of the Board of Directors. What was he doing on the Moon?
Beldman stood with his fists on his hips and his legs spraddled, sneering at Bryce. "That's right," he said, heavily sarcastic, "start shootin' when you're surrounded by innocent spectators; when you know I can't draw on you. That's the way of a crook." The husky base voice echoed from the walls. Behind him to the bend of the corridor people were scattering hastily out of the firing line.
Crook was the central word. Somehow Beldman had found out that Bryce was responsible for the corruption of UT, and he was dealing with the matter in the most direct way that it could be dealt with, for a death in a private duel would be laid to a quarrel and not investigated.
How had he found out? Bryce forced down the question as he stiffly reholstered his magnomatic. There was no use thinking of that until the question of surviving the next five minutes was settled. He stood with his hands empty, feeling curiously empty inside, oddly missing the white rage and love of murder that usually carried him through such things.
It seemed too good a day to spoil. He would rather have continued his way to lunch with Sheila, and let the man live--or let himself live. This would be no duel for a little bloodletting. Beldman's purpose was to kill. And Beldman himself, knowing what he knew, had to die. "Do you understand what you have said, sir?" Bryce used the formal words of the dueling countries.
"You're damn well right I do!"
"Are you prepared to take the consequences, sir?"
"More ready than you are," Beldman said, his hands still on his hips. He amplified his remark with a few well chosen words that harked back to his truck driving days.
"How many shots?" Bryce asked more softly, beginning to want to kill.
"Until one of us is down with his gun out of his hand."
Bryce repeated the provision to the crowd that had drawn up discreetly along the side-lines. "We fire until one of us is both down and disarmed."
There was a murmur of surprise among the crowd for that was an unusual and deadly provision for a formal duel. As Bryce paced backward the required number of paces, counting aloud, two men volunteered as seconds. They came forward to compare the guns rapidly and show them to the duelists. It had to be done and finished rapidly, for lunch hour had begun with its flood of people into the corridors, and they were holding up traffic.
Bryce's gun was a .42 magnomatic, working on an electrical acceleration of the slug by electromagnetic rings in the thick barrel. It was soundless except for a legal built-in radio yeep that announced its firing and number to the police emergency receivers. Beldman's gun was another maggy of the same make but heavier with a wide-mouthed barrel apparently throwing a much heavier caliber slug.
"Ready?" The second stepped back to the edge of the crowd and began counting off half a minute by seconds.
The faces of the crowd faded from his consciousness. Bryce stood with his hands empty at his sides as the seconds were counted. "Thirty, twenty-nine, twenty-eight, twenty-seven," came the voice, counting evenly and loudly. The world narrowed to a corridor of space with the blocky figure of Beldman at one end and himself at the other. Funny, Bryce thought, that he had never considered that bull-headed impatience and strength as dangerous. He was a massive block of a man; where Bryce was thick with muscle, J. H. Beldman was so wide in shoulder and barrel and so thick in arm that he looked almost round. Like Bryce he had worked up from the bottom, Bryce remembered, starting as a truck driver and labor organizer, and then owning his own line and giving UT a stiff battle before being bought out. Crude, but that didn't mean that there wasn't a lightning brain behind that round face.
"Twenty-six, twenty-five, twenty-four, twenty-three--"
He had underestimated the deadliness of the man. Beldman was obviously subject to rages, and in the grip of one now, and if he had survived all the duels and battles that his rages had brought long enough to grow as old as he was then his age was an indication not of weakness, but of the degree of his deadliness. The irritable thought came that he might well be killed by this ox.
"Twenty-two, twenty-one, twenty, nineteen--"
He flexed his fingers restlessly, and felt in his mind the speed and sureness of his draw and firing. That big blocky figure was just another obstacle standing in his way, to be blasted aside. A loud mouth to be shut.
"Ten, nine--" He concentrated on the counting, "--six, five, four--" sureness growing like a coiled spring in every muscle. "--three--" He crouched slightly. That blocky figure that was all the rest of the world was no more than a target. A big target.
Something confusing happened. As the word came it seemed that a gigantic blow hit him somewhere on his left shoulder, twisting him around so he couldn't see his target. He spun back, willing himself to shoot again quickly, but his legs buckled oddly as he turned. He reeled, finding his balance with great effort.
Heavy slug, he thought, seeing as delayed memory the coiled spring speed with which Beldman had moved. Bryce's left arm did not seem to have any connection with his mind. Glancing down briefly he saw that it dangled.
But the maggy was still there, held in the numb, unfeeling hand, pointed limply at the ground.
He wondered if he had fired it yet.
"Drop it and fall down," advised Pierce's clear voice from somewhere.
There was a stirring and whisper from the blur of the crowd who stood watching to see that the rules were observed. Beldman was walking towards him.
"Do you end the duel?" asked someone, probably the second.
"No," the blur of Beldman answered and suddenly he came into focus, walking up, his wide mouthed gun unwavering in his hand. Bryce remembered the provisions of the duel. Fire until one is down and weaponless. There was nothing said about remaining at a fixed distance. Beldman intended to walk up close enough to shoot him between the eyes. It was too late to let himself fall and end the duel. Beldman would fire if he saw Bryce begin to fall now. He was already close enough for a sure head shot.
Feeling was returning to his left arm. It dangled abnormally far and probably looked broken and useless, but there was nothing actually wrong with it, only something in his shoulder was broken. After the first cold numbness of impact, sensation returned tingling in his fingers, and pain was beginning to burn in his shoulder. Bryce waited a few more seconds, feeling the control returning to his fingers, not changing the glazed off focus of his eyes. How many duels had Beldman won like this? The impact of one of those heavy slugs hitting bone was a dazing blow, enough to stun some men, and he probably counted on that effect.
The square figure lumbered closer, a lumpish clumsy caricature of the self-made man, brutally strong, unashamedly misfit to the society of the smooth-wise, smiling, easy mannered people that he and Bryce had joined; a model of everything that Bryce was trying to destroy in himself.
With a quick twist of the wrist Bryce swung his palm flat up flipping the magnomatic muzzle into line with it and put a bullet into the round face.
In that position of his hand the back kick of the shot twisted his arm back in its broken shoulder and pulled the maggy from his hand, but it didn't matter. The duel was over.
The motionless crowd dissolved again into talking individuals going to lunch.
Pierce picked up the maggy and made the usual query of those who chose to remain.
"Which of you has any complaint of unfairness or advantage taken by either party of this duel?"
Most of them were leaving, anticipating the arrival of the police with their time-consuming questions, but twenty or so crowded close around Bryce and the corpse. "Press a thumb on your shoulder sub-clavian, man," someone advised Bryce. "You're bleeding like a faucet."