To Lonnie, the many-acred enclosure meant nothing with its shimmering, stone-lace pillars, its tapestries that flamed with color or traced ghostlike, barely discernible outlines on the walls. Nor did any thought enter his mind of the exactness of the reflected color in the stereo cube. Hands clenched into aching fists, he stood leaning forward; striving by sheer will-power to span the void of space and force the scanner lens closer to the truncated pyramid of steps atop which, on a block of plain black stone, a dessicated mummy sat erect, hands folded in its reedy lap and on its head a blazing, coruscating radiance.
Dazedly, Lonnie was conscious of the public announcer's rhapsodizing: "... Gov-Anth's ethnologists and linguistics experts are making some progress toward deciphering the inscription carved on the plaque. Wait! Here's a note from Gawley Worin. You remember Gawley Worin, our famous leg-man, folks, don't you? Well, here's a note. It ... Listen to this, folks! Listen! This is the beginning of the first rough translation of the inscription. Listen ...
"'We, Wold, last of the Imperial Family of Wold who exercise our Power from Wold, the Imperial City, throughout Wold, the Planet. We, last of the line of Wold, who alone may wear the Tiara which is Our Power, and our Symbol of Power, and the Symbol of Our Power throughout all the edos of Raii's life-taking light, without fear, facing the fate--'"
Hissing, Lonnie cut the stereo switch. He'd seen enough. Darting across the den, he opened his communico. "Get me Sykes in our Mars unit," he ordered the operator. "Make sure what I say is scrambled. While you're waiting, get through to Denisen at Gov-Forn, then Raikes at Gov-Planet, then Butchwaeu in Gov-Int. And keep this line closed--that means you, too--while I'm talking."
Lonnie--THE Launcelot Raichi--was going after what he wanted.
Just under a mile away, Jason turned from the public stereo in the rotunda of Pol-Anx. Tapping the cold bit of his pipe against his teeth as he walked, he sought the ease of his chair. In the privacy of his office he began to ponder.
The months' developments gave him no surprise. Because it was the first contact Humanity had had with a non-human race, the Mars discoveries made an overwhelming impression on the man in the street. The result was that for the first time in Post-Synthesis history all artifacts were reserved for Earth Public!!!
Everyone Who Mattered screamed, except Lonnie. He evinced a biding calmness while attending the ceremonies marking the installation of the Tiara of Wold in the exact center of Government's own Fane of Artifacts; even smiling benignly on certain Gov-Ficials who seemed to perspire more than the coolness of the evening warranted.
Jason, loitering on the grass of Gov-Park, noted the smile and the perspiration. The perspirers reminded him of small boys expecting a whipping.
Once the dedication ceremonies were over, Lonnie never returned to the Fane to examine the Tiara.
It was Jason the Tiara seemed to fascinate. He spent more and more time, particularly evenings, crouching on the bench in Gov-Park across from the Tiara, ignoring the constant stream of awed tourists silhouetted against the blaze of light. He kept in constant touch with his desk sergeant through his pocket communico, so Annex business didn't suffer. And the summer was warm, to say the least, so that several Gov-Ficials were almost regretful that the dignity of their positions forbade following Jason's example.
But then, too, no mere cop had their responsibilities.
None of them was conscious of how habitually Jason frowned, scratched his head, moved uneasily on the pleasant bench. Occasionally, he would snap his fingers and the frown would relax. He'd switch on the communico and speak briefly. Immediately thereafter, one or the other of the hand-picked four in Jason's personal squad would raise his eyebrows slightly--safely, since the pocket communico did not project video--and take up a new position or new duties. Or, an equipment unit in Op-room at Anx would be indifferently retuned by heedless techs.
Then for a while Jason would vent smoke pleasantly from his malodorous pipe until the frown would settle back between his eyebrows and he'd begin to squirm on the bench again, glancing warily at Executive Level, feeling helpless about the inadequacy of his resources.
But Lonnie had gotten over feeling sad about his resources months earlier.
The night he'd returned from the Tiara ceremonies he'd locked himself in his den and let the on-view smile his face was wearing lapse. He tweaked Genghis Khan's nose viciously and slammed himself down in the Diamond Throne without donning a single imperial trapping, pounding his fist on the cool mineral facet and staring morosely at the grid suit hanging in its place on the wall.
The grid suit wouldn't help him this time. The cover-alls that had everything except the necessary invisibility to-- Invisibility!
Slowly, Lonnie began to grin. Very little later he had an obscure biochemist hooked, and ended his instructions with: "... don't care if it needs concentrated essence of chameleon juice. Invent it. And it better work for there's going to be a total shortage of neo-hyperacth at two-twenty-eight per cc for wifey!"
The biochemist delivered. Lonnie didn't stop to question if it really was essence of chameleon juice. He hurried with the beaker of viscous fluid to his throne room, drenched every square centimeter of the grid suit with it and watched breathlessly through the hours while it dried.
In the glowing, shadowless illumination, the suit gradually disappeared. First, the wall against which it hung shone mistily through it. Then there was wall, slightly outlined by a greyish cast. And at last, only an indescribable fuzziness that had to be sensed rather than seen.
He took the fuzziness off its hanger and threw it up in the air toward the center light. The light was undimmed. The fuzziness was air. It sprawled down across the Throne and became diamond, except for the sleeve that dangled; part air, part intricately patterned Persian carpet. It wasn't a fuzziness, exactly, it was more of a faint tone of difference in the color-texture feel. It was as though what was behind the suit was miraculously translated to its facing surface and then reflected to the eye within the nth of utter fidelity.
Grinning, slowly Lonnie's lower lip crept out and up to squeeze its mate. Then, because it was always better to be sure, he donned the suit to try it against a variety of experimental backgrounds, indoors and out.
Over at Pol-Anx, the servo-tracer went to sleep; the desk sergeant yanked the creaking joints of his bunioned feet down off Jason's desk; on the bench in Gov-Park, Jason's communico squeaked briefly and Jason and his four men rose to emergency alert.
Two hours later, the Wold Tiara still coruscating in the Fane's blaze of light, the servo-tracer picked up its placid humming. Jason's communico squeaked again and Jason's men relaxed while Jason himself clutched his head with both hands and whispered bitter things.
At the same time, Lonnie, whistling cheerfully, drew his legs out of the suit, shook it straight and hung it back on the wall. He was sure now. As sure as he was that the little biochemist and his wife and quintet of daughters would not want for neo-hyperacth or anything else any longer. He giggled a little, thinking of Jason crouched on the bench, glaring vacantly, utterly unconscious of Lonnie passing across the grass so close beside him.
At his own convenience, Lonnie selected his night; a full-moon night because his now-invisible grid suit didn't require dark. He picked a fairly early hour, too, because what matter if a few yawps gawked as the Tiara vanished? And that one of those yawps would be Jason, stodgily on his bench, gave Lonnie an extra fillip. Perhaps it was just for this he'd let Jason plug along on a cold trail all these years.
So that night, wearily from his bench in Gov-Park, Jason looked up at Friday the 13th's full moon swimming amiably through its own reflected night-brightness. His brain, tired of its everlasting shuttle between worries, presented him with a disconnected memory-fact: "As cited by Zollner," Jason found himself quoting a forgotten textbook, "the Moon's reflectivity is point one seven four ... Nuts!" Angrily, he broke off, thumbed the button of his communico, growled into the microphone on his lapel, "Report."
"Adams," came promptly back. "West Entry. Nothing."
"McGillis. Patrolling rear wall. All clear in both directions as far as I can see. An' I can see both ends of the Fane in all this moonlight, Chief."
"Holland. At Raichi House. Nothing."
"Johnson. East Entry. More of the same." Then, "Say, Jase, how about it? These double shifts are getting me."
"What's the matter with you, now?"
"My feet hurt, Jase. Neither one of us is as young as we used to be, remember. How about knocking off?"
"Hmphf ..." Johnson, Jason thought, was getting old. He'd been a good man in his day but-- Hey, he was still a good man! It was Jason's own stubbornness that was wearing Johnson down. Jason's useless stubbornness. After all, without the backing of Anx or Gov, without results from the equipment he had filched to use on Lonnie, what was the use of everlastingly sticking around the Tiara like a fly buzzing molasso-saccharine anyway? Jason opened his mouth to send them all home, pressed the communico button and--shelved the relieving order temporarily. Instead, he blasted into the microphone: "Sergeant! SERGEANT!"
From the communico, an intermittent drone became a gasping gulp; changed into a violent yawn and only then turned into startled speech. "Yeah? Huh?... Yeah, Chief!"
"Sergeant, if I ever catch you asleep again, you won't ever get your pension."
"Chief, I wasn't asleep! Honest! I--"
"All right. What's happening up there?"
"Nothin' ... nothin' ... I wasn't asleep, Chief. I'd'a called you 'f anything--"
Something bright, or was it dull, plucked at the edge of Jason's vision. Inside the Fane, far down at one end. A thin, vertical bar of difference in the blaze of light. Chin half turned, Jason stared. What?...
"Chief! That tracer's asleep--I mean--that there tracer's just GONE t'sleep! I mean--Chief! It's--"
"Shut up!" Jason hissed. "Holland! If you've let anyone slip past you out of that house--"
"Nobody did. You know me better than that, Chief."
"Adams! McGillis! Johnson! What's happening?"
"Not a thing ..."
"Johnson!" Jason licked suddenly dry lips. "Dammit, Johnson, report!... Johnson!"
Grimly, Jason watched the vertical bar of different brightness edge back to the Fane's East wall and disappear into the even dazzle of the marble. He had a feeling it wasn't any use calling Johnson again. Ever.
"Chief, what's up? What do we do?"
"Huh? Oh ... You, Holland, get over to the East Entry as fast as your legs'll stretch."
"There in three minutes flat!"
"You, too, McGillis."
"On my way!"
"Adams, you stick at that West Entry. If anything gets past you, I'll--"
"Don't worry, Chief. I've got Johnson to even up for."
Not watching how he ran, Jason hurled himself toward the East Entry; his eyes following, in the opposite direction, a dullness moving in the blaze inside the Fane. A smoothly moving, white on white, unfaced ghost of whiteness within, a part of, the blazing radionic light. Just as he rounded the East end of the Fane, he glimpsed the vertical bar of whiteness again--the edge of the marble slab that was the entry door, reflecting the blazing light at a different angle. Behind it, McGillis's tightly grinning face. Under McGillis's face, the stab of blue-white light reflected a glancing ray from the old-fashioned solid-missile service pistol that Jason had insisted all four men arm themselves with for this assignment.
Over the sound of his own labored breathing as he plunged through the East Entry, Jason heard panting behind him. Holland. Holland bettering his promised three minutes--and with a forbidden disarmer in his hand. Guiltily, Jason felt the weight of the disarmer he had himself secreted under his armpit.
Then there wasn't time for thinking or feeling, only for running down the dazzling half-mile inside the Fane to the Tiara. Up ahead, the different-white shape was motionless in front of it. Oddly, a dark, vertical line appeared from the top to what would be the waist of the shape. And for the instant it took the Tiara to vanish inside, Jason saw clearly in the radiant light the profile of Lonnie's unmistakable face. Saw Lonnie's eyes swivel in the direction of the thundering echoes of their footfalls in the silence of the Fane. Saw Lonnie turn toward them, the dark line disappearing from waist to top as if it had never been.
Once more the different-whiteness moved. Toward them. Edging for the back wall to skirt around them; one limb-shape fumbling in the palm of the other.
"No you don't!" McGillis, ahead of Jason, yelled, his howl drowned in the smacking crack of his pistol.
There seemed to be a waver in the different-whiteness. A small black dot appeared against it; hung briefly, apparently unsupported, in the air; then the undistorted bullet dropped inertly to the floor.
"You still won't!" McGillis hurled himself, shoulders low and legs driving, at the shape. Two feet from it, he rebounded sharply, trod on the rolling bullet, went down, his head splatting dully against the marble floor.
Holland grunted. Crouched to leap. Thrust his disarmer high, ready to snap into line.
"Hold it!" Jason commanded. Silently, eyelids barely separated to endure the dazzle, he stared at the different-whiteness that confronted him. "I made it this time, Lonnie," he called. "Caught up with you-- No!" His arm flung out, startling him with the feel of his disarmer now oddly in his hand.
The white-within-white's limb-shapes moved up, the hand-ends one over the other. Through the minute spaces the overlapping fingers left, glimpses of a thin dark line appeared. The hood was open a trifle at mouth level, and from the opening Lonnie's voice emerged, sifting through the protecting screen of gloves. "You can't see me! You can't!"
"No? Take one step sideways. Just one! Stop!"
The different-whiteness had moved, and Holland had moved with it; crouching now, alertly motionless, in his new position. Jason changed the angle of his own facing. "Now do you think we can't see you?"
"But ... but how!"
"Your albedo is showing," Jason chuckled harshly. "You never would take the trouble to learn the how of anything, Lonnie. Sure, your damned disguise is the same color as the marble. Maybe even exactly the same. But the material is different, and the surface texture; it doesn't have the same degree or quality of reflectivity to incident light that marble does!
"Eighty years ago, even the commercial photographers knew about albedo--one of 'em made a picture of a cat, white on white. I told you about the reflectivity in your stereo cube. But you wouldn't listen, Lonnie, would you?" Jason let out a bursting peal of laughter. "So you tripped over your own albedo!"
Through the dying echoes of his own laughter, Jason caught Lonnie's harsh whisper. "You haven't got me, copper!"
The black line marking the opening in the grid suit disappeared. The barely-discernible limb-shapes dropped, one hand-end again fumbling at the rheostat in the palm of the other.
"I'll get him, Chief!" Holland was in action, his disarmer snapping down into aim.
"No!" Jason roared. "Holland, don't!"
Too late. Under the pressure of Holland's finger, the disarmer's invisible ion-stream tightened to the thread-thin lethal intensity, leaped out against the suit's grid. Then the disarmer was luminous even in the dazzle; even through the flesh of Holland's fist. Holland screamed and squirmed and dropped. Part of him--the part that wasn't burned away--reached the floor.
The stench of carbonized flesh scoured Jason's nostrils. Stupidly, he stared down at the headless, shoulderless, armless torso; black ... sooty ... against the snowy gleam of the floor; conscious of the sidelong, round-about approach of the different-white figure. He'd failed again. Lonnie, in that damned suit, was impervious.
Slowly, he raised his eyes from the thing on the floor to the thing approaching. One consolation, he himself wouldn't go on living after this. With grim frustration, he raised his arm in a final, fruitless gesture and hurled the useless disarmer at the shape of Lonnie.
It halted, dead, in mid-air, a yard away from the shape-thing. Dropped straight down, clanging against the floor.
A quiver as of mirth appeared to shake the different-whiteness. It stooped. One hand-end fumbled at the palmed rheostat, then dropped to pick up the disarmer. Fumbled again at the rheostat while the figure straightened up to point the glistening projector at Jason's belly.
The dark opening in the hood appeared again.
Lonnie's voice chortled, "Told you I'd use whatever you tried to smear you with. Goodbye, Jasey ..."
The dark line was gone. The disarmer, turned to lethal potential, settled in the shape's hand-end and began to spout. Jason went stiff. Every muscle of his body clenching to withstand obliteration.
He waited for it. Tight ... except his eyes that, in spite of themselves, opened.
Caught within the field, the full power of the disarmer poured itself into the suit. The suit's capacity absorbed it. Almost. Then turned the combined energies on itself.
With the smell of frying organic matter, slowly the grid-coveralls appeared in dazzling radiance within the dazzle of the Fane's lights; glowed in it; red--then white--hot. Whiter than the light itself--far, far lighter than any reflected rays could make it.
Inside the all-encompassing, roasting grid of the melting suit, Lonnie writhed. Faintly, as the suit failed, his screams came through--momentarily. Then they were gone as the fused, molten heap subsided lower ... lower ... began to trickle across the dazzling, ice-white marble of the floor.
Afterward, had Jason known anything at all about Lonnie's Philosophy, he'd have immediately supplied another "rule"; making a foursome out of the "Triple Ethic": "If you do it yourself, make sure you know what you're doing."
By Robert Sheckley