"I'm sorry," Ramsey said. "Were you talking to me?"
"I thertainly wath," lisped the Irwadian, his eyes blazing with drunken hatred. "I thaid I won't have any Earthman thnooping over my thoulder while I gamble, not unleth he'th gambling too."
"Better tell that to your Security Police," Ramsey said coldly but not angrily. "I'm out of a job, so I don't have money to throw around. Go ahead and tell me--" with a little smile--"you think it was my idea."
The Irwadian looked up haughtily. Evidently he was looking for trouble, or could not hold his liquor, or both. The frenzy of planetarization, Ramsey knew from bitter experience on other worlds, made irrational behavior like this typical. He studied the drunken Irwadian carefully. In all the time he'd spent on Irwadi, he'd never been able to tell a native's age by his green, scale-skinned, fish-eyed poker-face. But the glossy green scales covering face and body told Ramsey, along with the sturdy muscles revealed by the lack of clothing, that the Irwadian was in his prime, shorter than Ramsey by far, but wider across the shoulders and thicker through the barrel chest.
"You outworlderth have been deprething the thandard of living on Irwadi ever thince you came here," the Irwadian said. "All you ever brought wath poverty and your ditheath germth and more trouble than you could handle. I don't want your thtink near me. I'm trying to enjoy mythelf. Get out of here."
It was abruptly silent in the little gambling hall. Since the establishment catered to outworlders and was full of them, the silence, Ramsey thought, should have been both ominous and in his favor. He looked around. Outworlders, yes. But not another Earthman present. He wondered if he was in for a fight. He shrugged, hardly caring. Maybe a fight was just what he needed, the way he felt.
"Get out of here," the Irwadian repeated. "You thtink."
Just then a Vegan girl, blue-skinned and fantastically wasp-waisted like all her kind, drifted over to Ramsey. He'd seen her around. He thought he recognized her. Maybe he'd even danced with her in the unit-a-dance halls reserved for humanoid outworlders.
"Are you nuts?" she said, hissing the words through her teeth and grabbing Ramsey's elbow. "Don't you know who that guy is?"
"He's Garr Symm, that's who."
Ramsey smiled at her without mirth. "Do I bow down in awe or run from here screaming? I never heard of Garr Symm."
"Oh you fool!" she whispered furiously. "Garr Symm is the brand new number one man of the Irwadi Security Police. Don't you read the 'casts?"
Before Ramsey could answer or adjust to his surprise, the Irwadian repeated: "I'm telling you for the third time. Get out."
Ostentatiously, Ramsey reached into his cloak-pocket for a single credit bill and tossed it on the table.
"The denomination is not sufficient, sir," the albino Sirian croupier said indifferently. Ramsey had known it was not.
Garr Symm's face turned a darker green. The Vegan girl retreated from Ramsey's side in fright. Symm raised his hand and an Irwadian waiter brought over a drink in a purple stem glass with a filigree pattern of titanium, bowing obsequiously. Symm lurched with the glass toward Ramsey. "I'm telling you to go," he said in a loud voice.
Ramsey picked up his credit note but stood there. With a little sigh of drunken contentment, Garr Symm sloshed the contents of his stem glass in Ramsey's face.
The liquor stung Ramsey's eyes. Many of the other outworlders, neither Irwadian nor Earthmen, laughed nervously.
Ramsey wiped his eyes but otherwise did not move. He was in a rough spot and he knew it. The fact that their new Security Chief went out drunk at night with a chip on his shoulder was the Irwadian government's affair, not Ramsey's. He'd been insulted before. An Earthman in the outworlds, particularly an Earthman fugitive who knew he dared not get into the kind of trouble that could bring the Earth consul to investigate, was used to insults. For Earth was the leading economic and military power of the galaxy, and the fact that Earth really tried to deal fairly with its galactic neighbors meant nothing. Earth, being top dog, was resented.
The thing which got Ramsey, though, was this Garr Symm. He had never heard of Garr Symm, and he thought he knew most of the big shots in the Irwadian Security Police by name. But there must have been a reason for his appointment. A government throwing off outworld influence had a reason for everything. So, why Garr Symm?
"You, Mith Vegan!" Garr Symm called suddenly. "You whithpered to the Earthman. What did you tell him?"
"Not to look for trouble," the Vegan girl said in a frightened voice.
"But what elth?"
"Honest, that's all."
"Come here, pleath."
Her blue skin all at once very pale, the Vegan girl walked back toward Garr Symm. He leered at her quite drunkenly and took hold of her slender arm. "What did you tell him? For the latht time."
The girl whimpered: "You are hurting my arm."
Thoughts raced through Ramsey's mind. As an administrator, as an Irwadian public servant in a touchy job, Garr Symm, a drunkard, was obviously grossly incompetent. What other qualifications did he have which gave him the top Irwadian Security job? Ramsey didn't know. He sighed. The Vegan girl's mouth formed a rictus of pain. Ramsey had a hunch he was going to find out.
He said curtly: "Let go of her, Symm. She told me nothing that would interest you."
Garr Symm ignored him. The blue-skinned girl cried.
Ramsey grimaced and hit Garr Symm in the belly as hard as he could.
Symm thudded back against the table. It overturned with a crash and the Security Chief crashed down on top of it. There wasn't a sound in the gambling hall except Ramsey's sudden hard breathing, the Vegan girl's sniffling, and Garr Symm's noisy attempts to get air into his lungs. Then Garr Symm gagged and was sick. He writhed in pain, still unable to breathe. His hands fluttered near his weapons belt.
"Come on," Ramsey told the Vegan girl. "We'd better get out of here." He took her arm. Dumbly she went with him. None of the outworlders there tried to stop them. Ramsey looked back at Garr Symm. The Irwadian was shaking his fist. He had finally managed to draw his m.g. gun, but the crowd of outworlders closed between them and there was no chance he could hit Ramsey or the girl. Retching, he had dirtied the glossy green scales of his chest.
"I'll get you," he vowed. "I'll get you."
Ramsey took the girl outside. It was very cold. "I'm so afraid," she said. "What will I do? What can I do?" She shook with fear.
"You got a place to sleep?"
"Y-yes, but I'm the only Vegan girl in Irwadi City. He'll find me. He'll find me when he's ready."
"O.K. Then come home with me."
"For crying out loud, I don't look that lecherous, do I? We can't just stand here."
"I--I'm sorry. I'll go with you of course."
Ramsey took her hand again and they ran. The cold black Irwadian night swallowed them.
"So you live in the Old Quarter too," the Vegan girl said.
"Heck yeah. Did you expect a palace?"
Ramsey had a room, rent one Irwadi month in arrears, in a cold-water tenement near the river which demarked the Old and the New Quarters. The facade of the old building was dark now. His landlady was probably asleep, although you never could tell with that old witch. Ramsey knew it wouldn't be the first time she stayed up through half the night to await a delinquent tenant.
"I--I never went to a man's room before," the blue-skinned Vegan girl said. She was rather pretty in a slender, muscleless, big-eyed, female-helpless mode.
"You're a dance-hall girl, aren't you?"
"Still, I never spent the night in a man's--"
"What's the matter with you? You think we're going to spend the night here? Somebody over at those gaming tables will be able to identify me. Garr Symm'll be on his way before long."
"Then what are we going to do?" The girl was shivering with cold.
"Hide," Jason Ramsey said. "Somewhere. I just came back to get my things. There isn't much, but there's an old m.g. gun which we might need."
"But they'll find us, and--"
"You coming upstairs or will you wait out here and freeze to death in the cold?"
They went upstairs together, on tip-toe. Ramsey's room was on the third floor, with a besooted view of the industrial complex on the river by day. The narrow hall was dark and silent. Behind one of the closed doors an outworlder cried out in his sleep. Ramsey had to cup a hand over the Vegan girl's mouth so she wouldn't scream in empathic fear. He opened the door of his room, surprised that it was not locked. He thought he had left it locked.
At once he was wary. It was dark in the hall, just as dark in the room. He could see nothing. The door hinges squeaked.
"Come in, Captain Ramsey," a voice said. "I thought you would never get here."
He stood on the threshold, uncertain. The voice had spoken not Interstellar Coine, but English. It had spoken English, without a foreign accent.
And it was a girl's voice.
Still, it could have been an elaborate trick. It was unlikely, but not impossible, that Garr Symm had learned Ramsey's identity already and had sent an operative here to await him. Ramsey and the Vegan girl had come on foot. It was a long walk.
"I'm armed," Ramsey lied. "Come over here. Slowly. Don't put any lights on." He could feel the Vegan girl trembling next to him. Not able to understand English, she didn't know what was going on.
"You're armed," the unseen girl's voice said in crisp, amused English, "like I'm a six-legged Antarean spider-man. You have an m.g. gun, Ramsey. It's in this room. I have it. That's all you have. No, don't try to lie to me. I'm a telepath. I can read you. Come in and put the light on and shut the door. You may bring the girl with you if you want. Brother, is she ever radiating fear! It's practically drowning your own mind out."
The unseen girl wasn't kidding, Ramsey knew. She could read minds. She had proved it to him. Which left him this choice: he could grab the Vegan girl's arm again and get the heck out of there, or do what the unseen Earth girl told him to do. He wanted that m.g. gun. He took the Vegan girl's hand and advanced over the threshold and closed the door and switched on the light.
The girl was sitting on the bed. She was an Earthgirl, all right. She had come in a toggle-cloak of green Irwadian fur, which was folded neatly at her side on the bed. Under it she wore a daring net halter of the type then fashionable on Earth but which had not yet taken over the outworlds. It left her shoulders bare and exposed a great deal of smooth, tawny skin through the net. Her firm breasts were cupped in two solid cones of black growing out of the net. Her midriff was bare to an inch or two below the navel. Her loins were covered by an abrevitog which formed a triangle in front and, Ramsey knew, would form one in back. Her long, well-formed legs were bare down to the mid-calf boots she wore. She had a beautiful body and had dressed so Ramsey couldn't miss it. Her face was so provocatively beautiful that Ramsey just stood there staring at it--after he had taken in the rest of her. She wore her hair quite long. She seemed perfectly composed. In her right hand she held Ramsey's m.g. gun, but she wasn't pointing it at them.
She looked at the timid Vegan girl and smiled. "Oh, I am sorry, Captain Ramsey," she said. "I couldn't know, of course, you'd be coming home with--company."
"It isn't what you think it is," Ramsey said, surprised to find himself on the defensive. "The girl's in trouble. So'm I."
The Earthgirl laughed. "Already? You looked the type, but I thought it would take a little time."
"What do you want?" Ramsey said. They were speaking in English. The Vegan girl tugged at Ramsey's arm. She wanted to get out of there and hoped Ramsey would go with her. Abruptly the Earthgirl burst out laughing.
"What's so funny?" Ramsey demanded.
"Your little Vegan friend. I read her mind, Ramsey. She thinks I'm your wife. She thinks I'm mad at you for bringing her home."
"Then why don't you talk in Coine," Ramsey said in the interstellar language, "and make her feel better? She might as well know I never saw you before in my life." He was annoyed.
The Vegan girl smiled timidly, taking hope.
"But you did," the beautiful Earthgirl said. "I was on the Polaris today, Captain. You were to be the pilot, until Interstellar Transfer here on Irwadi was planetarized."
"I didn't see you. Dressed like that I wouldn't have forgotten you."
"I wasn't dressed like this." The girl smiled, very sure of herself. "I read your mind when you came in. The costume's had the desired effect, I see. But you needn't broadcast your animal desires so blatantly."
"Nobody asked you to read my mind. Besides, you needn't broadcast your physical assets so blatantly."
"Touche," said the Earthgirl.
"Listen," Ramsey began. "We're in a jam. We're in a hurry."
"So you told me. I couldn't have wished for more. It looks like I didn't need this costume and its obvious inducements at all, if you're really in a jam."
"What the devil is that supposed to mean?"
"My name is Margot Dennison, Captain Ramsey. I have managed to buy an old starship, small and held together by spit and string and whatever the Irwadians use for prayer--"
"They're atheists," Ramsey said a little pointlessly. It was the girl. Darn her hide, she was beautiful! What did she expect? Looking at her, how could a man concentrate.... "Hey!" Ramsey blurted suddenly. "Did you say Margot Dennison? The tri-di star?"
Margot Dennison smiled. "That's right," she said. "Stranded five hundred light years from nowhere, Captain Ramsey. With a ship. With money. In need of a hyper-space pilot. That's why I'm here, or didn't you guess?"
"Isn't it clear? I'll pay you to take me away from here."
"Through hyper-space to Earth. Well?"
"I've been grounded. If I take you through hyper-space, I lose my license."
"You really don't believe that, do you? After the Irwadians grounded all of you without warning, and grounded all ships until they can train a few more pilots. You don't really think I.T.S. would take your license away if you took a ship up and through hyper, do you? Under the circumstances? Especially since you're in a jam with a totalitarian government gone wild? Do you?"
Ramsey said abruptly: "I'm sorry. I can't take you to Sol System."
Margot Dennison smiled. It wasn't the kind of smile designed to make a man roll over on his back and wave all fours in the breeze. Margot Dennison didn't need that kind of smile.
"Oh, I'm sorry," she said. "I read your mind, you see. Very well, Captain. If you're a fugitive from Earth--I assume Ramsey isn't your real name, by the way--you may take me through hyper to Centauri. That will be quite satisfactory. I will make my way from Centauri. Well?"