The banker, who was new to the movie-making branch of his business, spoke first. "I presume," he said finally, "that you're aware of the current feeling in our New York office?"
The movie magnate gestured carelessly with a Saxony gun-club sleeve, revealing a platinum wristwatch strap. "We hear rumors now and again," he said. "It's about our science fiction films." Bezdek avoided making it a question. He was far too shrewd for that.
The banker, finding himself thus at a disadvantage, said amicably, "It's not that the fantasy series isn't making money, understand." He paused, looking faintly distressed. "It's just that, frankly, we feel they're getting too far away from reality. Trips to Mars and Venus--strange creatures.... It's not real--it's not dignified. Frankly, we question whether an institution like ours can afford to be connected with anything so--so ephemeral. After all ..."
He paused as sounds of a scuffle in the corridor penetrated the room and something or somebody was banged hard against the door. Bezdek, frowning, jumped up nervously and went to the door, opened it, looked out.
"What's going on out there?" he inquired tartly. "Ty!"
"Sorry, Mr. Bezdek," said Ty Falter, the mogul's private secretary, bodyguard and constant companion. He was leaning against the far wall of the corridor, mopping a cut lower lip with a bloody handkerchief. He was a tall, deceptively sleepy-looking young man who virtually never slept.
At the end of the corridor two lesser aides were half-dragging a tall figure between them. Bezdek frowned as he caught a glimpse of a nodding head in half profile--a near-perfect profile which showed no sign of a bruise.
"How did that creep get in here?" he snapped. "That's the same character who tried to nail me at the K.C. airport."
"Yes, sir," said Ty Falter apologetically. He glanced at his skinned knuckles. "It was like hitting a brick," he said. He shook his head, added, "Sorry, Mr. Bezdek. I don't know how he got in here."
"Your job is to keep crackpots like that away from me," said the mogul. He turned and went back inside the compartment. Dorwin was still sitting as before.
"Eavesdroppers?" the banker inquired with unruffled poise.
"Not likely," said Bezdek, dropping into his seat. "Probably a movie-crazy kid trying to chisel a screen test."
The incident had brought back his heartburn. He wanted to take a couple of his pills but not in front of Dorwin. The banker might think he was cracking up. These damned New Yorkers had no idea of the pressure under which he labored. He sipped a glass of flat soda water.
"Where were we?" Dorwin said quietly. Somehow to Bezdek he gave the impression of remorseless rationality. "Oh, yes, these fantasy movies--we're a little worried about them."
"I thought you might be," said Bezdek, leaning forward and using the full magnetism of his personality. Now that the issue was out in the open his discomfort was eased. "Actually we don't think of our interplanetary cycle as fantasy, Dorwin. We think of them as forecasts of the future, as prophecy."
"They're still a far cry from reality, or even the usual escapism," said the banker. "Confidentially, I happen to know that it will be years--perhaps decades--before we make any live contact with the other planets. Our national interests demand that we prevent atomic power from superseding older methods before investments have realized on their holdings to the fullest extent. And it is upon development of atomic power that space-flight hinges at present."
"Certainly I understand that--sound business," said Bezdek with his one-sided smile. "I hope they wait for many years."
Dorwin looked faintly astonished. "From these pictures of yours I must confess I had derived a totally different impression of your theories," he said slowly, flicking two inches of pale grey ash into the silver tray at his elbow.
"Listen to me," said the movie-maker, again leaning toward his vis-a-vis. "We're making these pictures now because when the first man or men come back from other planets our science fiction cycle is finished. It will cease to be escape. We will then be faced with the reality of what they really find--and that's bound to be a great deal different from the sort of thing we're feeding them now."
"It's a point I hadn't considered," said the banker, reaching for the brandy. He nodded to himself as he poured it, then looked up at Bezdek and asked, "But why this--space opera is the colloquial term, I believe? Why not stick closer to real life?"
Bezdek sat back and the slanting smile creased his features again. "Minorities," he said. "That's why. Crackpot minorities object loudly at being portrayed in films they don't like. We don't want to tread on anybody's toes--there's trouble enough in the world as it is. People want villains. But unless we make our villains--even minor villains--people from nowhere we get boycotted somewhere by somebody. And that costs us money."
"Yes, of course," said the banker, "but I fail to see--"
"It's simple." Bezdek was in full cry now and interrupted openly. "People like conflict in their movies. If it's a Western they want their heroes to fight Indians or Mexicans or rustlers. The Indians and Mexicans object to being the villains and they've got big sympathetic followings. Okay, so we use rustlers or renegade white men and we still make Westerns--but not many. No plot variety."
He sipped more soda water. "It's the same with everything else. Unless we're in a war with a legitimate enemy to hate we can't use villains. It's almost enough to make a man wish--"
"Not with the H-bomb, Bezdek," said Dorwin frigidly.
"Of course not--I was only speaking figuratively," said the movie-maker hastily. "I'm as much against war as anyone. But that's what makes these interplanetary movies great stuff. We can run in all the villains we want--make them just as bad as we want. Audiences really like to have someone they can hate."
"I see," said Dorwin. He permitted himself to look faintly pleased. "After all, a Martian can hardly protest what we do with him. I see your point now."
"You've got it," said Bezdek, beaming now. He leaned forward and added, "Furthermore, we've got four new pictures in the works for the space cycle that are really going to--"
He broke off, interrupted by a knock at the door. He stared at the banker, seeking someone to share his annoyance, found Dorwin staring out the window, frowning.
"The train seems to have stopped," said the banker.
Bezdek turned to the window. It was true. The night was clouded and dark but he could make out a single tree in faint silhouette and it was not moving. The knock on the stateroom door came again.
"I'd better see who it is," said Bezdek, rising. "Maybe something is wrong."
He opened the door quickly--all but fell back into his seat. The tall young man with the too-perfect features--the man who had tried in vain to speak to him at the Kansas City airport, who had been forcibly evicted earlier from the car--stood there!
The young man smiled and it was much too cold to be ingratiating if that was its intent. He said, looking down on both men, "I think you will wish to talk to me now."
The sheer effrontery of it rendered Cyril Bezdek speechless for the first time in years. Looking past the intruder through the angle of the open door he could see Ty Falter sitting on the corridor floor, leaning against the wall. His eyes were closed, his head canted at an odd angle.
It was Dorwin who first found words. "Who are you?" he inquired. "What do you want?"
"I am from Mars," said the stranger. "I have come here to enter a protest against the manner in which Mr. Bezdek's motion pictures are portraying my people."
The movie-maker's mouth dropped open. He closed it quickly, glanced across at the banker, saw equal bewilderment on that usually poker-face. On impulse, Bezdek reached for the buzzer that would summon aid and pressed it firmly several times.
"No one will answer," said the intruder in a voice remarkable not for its accent but for its lack of any. "We have been forced to--to immobilize this train in order to see you. It has been very difficult to reach you, Mr. Bezdek, I am sure through no fault of your own. But the people of my planet feel very strongly about this matter and I must get some satisfaction for them."
"So help me," said the mogul, his thin face purple with anger, "if this is a gag I'll see you jailed for it! And before you're jailed you're going to have a very unpleas--"
"No, Mr. Bezdek--Mr. Dorwin--this is not a joke. We of Mars are proud of our culture, our civilization. We do not like being portrayed as evil and ridiculous creatures. We're not like those filthy Venerians. We Martians have a great self-respect."
"Ostrich feathers!" Bezdek roared at the dead-panned intruder. "You may not be aware of it but there are severe penalties for holding up a train on this--in this country. You can't go around slugging people either. Look at Ty out there."
"Your servant will be all right," said the intruder, "as will the others aboard this train. I can release them whenever you agree that my mission is to be taken seriously."
"All right," said Bezdek, whose mind was nothing if not acrobatic. "Suppose you are from Mars. Tell me why your people object to our movies. Surely they aren't seeing them on Mars?"
"No. But your Earthmen will reach our planet soon and your opinion of us will be shaped in some degree by these movies they have seen. And since the relationships of the near-future are of vital import to us now we must not be represented as other than we are. Such misconceptions could breed interplanetary war." He shuddered.
"I think you're crazy!" said Bezdek. He turned to the banker, who was again staring out the window.
"There's something out there--look," said Dorwin.
"That is our ship," the intruder told them blandly. "That is why we stopped the train here. It is the only flat area sufficiently unsettled for our landing and departure without detection. We must return at once or lose perihelion."
"Let me see," said Bezdek. He peered through the window. There was something out there--something black and vague and shaped like an immense turtle with jagged projections. He tried to tell himself he was seeing things, failed.
"Amazing!" said E. Carter Dorwin. "It's utterly amazing!"
"Incredible is the word for it," Bezdek said wearily. He faced the intruder, said bluntly, "Very well, you say you're from Mars. And I say to your face that you aren't!"
"You seem remarkably sure, Mr. Bezdek."
"And why not?" The movie-maker was in his element now, delivering the clincher in an argument. "Our scientists have proved conclusively that Earthmen cannot exist on Mars without space-suits. You say you're a Martian. Yet you look like one of us. So if you can live on Mars, how can you live in our atmosphere without a space-suit of some sort? There's one for you to answer!" He chortled.
"But I am wearing protection--a protective suit arranged to give the impression that I am an Earthman." A flicker of something akin to distaste passed over his singularly immobile face.
"I'd like to see what you do look like," said Dorwin, suddenly entering into the eerie conversation.
Something like a sigh escaped the intruder. Then he said, "Very well. It is important that you believe me, so--" His hands went to the top of his scalp and deliberately he peeled the life-like mask slowly from the hidden features of his thoroughly Martian face!
It was a very odd face--not at all human. It reminded Bezdek a little of an immutably sad Bassett Hound he kept in his Hollywood kennel. It made Dorwin think of his mother-in-law. It was not a frightening face and the single eye in the center of the forehead held them with its mournful regard, held them, held them ...
When they were thoroughly under its hypnotic spell the Martian began to speak softly ...
Ty Falter was slow in waking up. But when he realized that he was lying there in the corridor he came to with a start. If Bezdek ever found out about this he'd be cooked as far as Hollywood went!
He got to his feet, his unsteadiness helped not at all by the fact that the train chose that moment to start with a jerk. He grabbed at the wall as a meteor flashed through the dark of the Kansas night outside the window.
Funny, he thought, the damned thing was going up, not down. But he forgot about the meteor as he heard the voices coming from the stateroom he was being paid to guard. He reeled over to the partly opened door and listened.
Bezdek was talking volubly, enthusiastically as he did when he spoke of the actual making of a picture. "... so we'll only have to reshoot a few sequences, Dorwin. The cost will be nothing compared to the returns. Think of it! Our space-pilot hero crashes on Venus. He has to fight horrible slimy swamp creatures--we can make them look like crocodiles with six or eight legs--to reach the mountaintop where the girl is hiding ..."
He paused and Dorwin said gravely, "I'm glad, since these space operas seem to be necessary, that you have decided to locate them on a real planet like Venus rather than a fictitious one like Mars. If minority pressure groups force us to use fantasy then it is as well to stay as credible as possible."
"Right, Dorwin! Right on the nose!" cried Bezdek. "And we can make real villains out of these Venerians, real bang-up nasty heavies!"
The banker's voice came through the door again. He said doubtfully, "But how can we be sure about the Venerians ..."
"Because I can feel it here!" cried the movie-maker. The thump that accompanied his final word told Ty that his boss had smote himself dramatically over the heart as he delivered the climactic line.
SONG IN A MINOR KEY.
By C. L. Moore
He had been promising himself this moment for how many lonely months and years on alien worlds?
Beneath him the clovered hill-slope was warm in the sun. Northwest Smith moved his shoulders against the earth and closed his eyes, breathing so deeply that the gun holstered upon his chest drew tight against its strap as he drank the fragrance of Earth and clover warm in the sun. Here in the hollow of the hills, willow-shaded, pillowed upon clover and the lap of Earth, he let his breath run out in a long sigh and drew one palm across the grass in a caress like a lover's.
He had been promising himself this moment for how long--how many months and years on alien worlds? He would not think of it now. He would not remember the dark spaceways or the red slag of Martian drylands or the pearl-gray days on Venus when he had dreamed of the Earth that had outlawed him. So he lay, with his eyes closed and the sunlight drenching him through, no sound in his ears but the passage of a breeze through the grass and a creaking of some insect nearby--the violent, blood-smelling years behind him might never have been. Except for the gun pressed into his ribs between his chest and the clovered earth, he might be a boy again, years upon years ago, long before he had broken his first law or killed his first man.
No one else alive now knew who that boy had been. Not even the all knowing Patrol. Not even Venusian Yarol, who had been his closest friend for so many riotous years. No one would ever know--now. Not his name (which had not always been Smith) or his native land or the home that had bred him, or the first violent deed that had sent him down the devious paths which led here--here to the clover hollow in the hills of an Earth that had forbidden him ever to set foot again upon her soil.
He unclasped the hands behind his head and rolled over to lay a scarred cheek on his arm, smiling to himself. Well, here was Earth beneath him. No longer a green star high in alien skies, but warm soil, new clover so near his face he could see all the little stems and trefoil leaves, moist earth granular at their roots. An ant ran by with waving antennae close beside his cheek. He closed his eyes and drew another deep breath. Better not even look; better to lie here like an animal, absorbing the sun and the feel of Earth blindly, wordlessly.
Now he was not Northwest Smith, scarred outlaw of the spaceways. Now he was a boy again with all his life before him. There would be a white-columned house just over the hill, with shaded porches and white curtains blowing in the breeze and the sound of sweet, familiar voices indoors. There would be a girl with hair like poured honey hesitating just inside the door, lifting her eyes to him. Tears in the eyes. He lay very still, remembering.
Curious how vividly it all came back, though the house had been ashes for nearly twenty years, and the girl--the girl ...
He rolled over violently, opening his eyes. No use remembering her. There had been that fatal flaw in him from the very first, he knew now. If he were the boy again knowing all he knew today, still the flaw would be there and sooner or later the same thing must have happened that had happened twenty years ago. He had been born for a wilder age, when men took what they wanted and held what they could without respect for law. Obedience was not in him, and so-- As vividly as on that day it happened he felt the same old surge of anger and despair twenty years old now, felt the ray-gun bucking hard against his unaccustomed fist, heard the hiss of its deadly charge ravening into a face he hated. He could not be sorry, even now, for that first man he had killed. But in the smoke of that killing had gone up the columned house and the future he might have had, the boy himself--lost as Atlantis now--and the girl with the honey-colored hair and much, much else besides. It had to happen, he knew. He being the boy he was, it had to happen. Even if he could go back and start all over, the tale would be the same.
And it was all long past now, anyhow; and nobody remembered any more at all, except himself. A man would be a fool to lie here thinking about it any longer.
Smith grunted and sat up, shrugging the gun into place against his ribs.
By Andre Norton
Nahuatl's larger moon pursued the smaller, greenish globe of its companion across a cloudless sky in which the stars made a speckled pattern like the scales of a huge serpent coiled around a black bowl. Ras Hume paused at the border of scented spike-flowers on the top terrace of the Pleasure House to wonder why he thought of serpents. He understood. Mankind's age-old hatred, brought from his native planet to the distant stars, was evil symbolized by a coil in a twisted, belly-path across the ground. And on Nahuatl, as well as a dozen other worlds, Wass was the serpent.
A night wind was rising, stirring the exotic, half-dozen other worlds' foliage planted cunningly on the terrace to simulate the mystery of an off-world jungle.
"Hume?" The inquiry seemed to come out of thin air over his head.
"Hume," he repeated his own name calmly.
A shaft of light brilliant enough to dazzle the eyes struck through the massed vegetation, revealing a path. Hume lingered for a moment, offering a counterstroke of indifference in what he had always known would be a test of wits. Wass was Veep of a shadowy empire, but that was apart from the world in which Ras Hume moved.
He strode deliberately down the corridor illuminated between leaf and blossom walls. A grotesque lump of crystal leered at him from the heart of a tharsala lilly bed. The intricate carving of a devilish nonhuman set of features was a work of alien art. Tendrils of smoke curled from the thing's flat nostrils, and Hume sniffed the scent of a narcotic he recognized. He smiled. Such measures might soften up the usual civ Wass interviewed here. But a star pilot turned out-hunter was immunized against such mind clouding.