Beth and I sat on the couch her father had vacated. We talked. I watched my words carefully; there were a good many commonplace things I knew nothing about. And I didn't want any more questions about myself. Fortunately, conversation between a young man and a young woman is much the same everywhere. I didn't have to pretend I was interested in Beth. She was unusually attractive. And she seemed to find me so.
We talked a bit, laughed a good deal, and when I got up to leave I knew that I had done well in the initial stage. But there was still a good deal to be done.
"May I see you tonight?" I asked. "Just a 'coke date'."
That was an expression I'd heard and had taken the trouble to make certain I understood. It seemed to be just the thing in the present case.
"I'd like that," Beth said. "Pick me up about nine."
Her choice of time could not have been more suitable. I was out of money. There was Mrs. Mara to be paid, and now the cost of the evening's entertainment.
Until darkness fell I could do nothing about that. So I went back to my room and read old newspapers I had collected. I had discovered on my first day that those were the best sources of information. Those and the moving pictures.
For one who must learn a great deal about a people in a short time there is one infallible way: watch them in their favorite sports and relaxations. The moving pictures and the comic strips had been invaluable. In another few weeks I could have passed anywhere.
At eight o'clock it was growing dark. I changed my shirt, put on a sport coat and left the room. Five minutes later I was walking down a quiet street that was lined with fashionable homes.
After that it was merely a question of time. I went around the block, found that it was still too light, and went around again, this time slowly.
There was only one man on the street on my next time around. I sized him up quickly and decided that he was prosperous. He came on toward me. I managed to be looking the other way.
We bumped into each other and he fell. I said, "Sorry" and bent to help him up. My fingers touched his throat in the proper places and he went limp.
Within a matter of seconds I had his wallet out of his pocket and extracted several bills. When his eyes flickered again I was just raising him to his feet.
"All my fault," I said contritely. "Are you all right?"
"Seem to be." He was gruff, but that was all. He didn't know that for a matter of seconds he had been unconscious.
At nine o'clock I came up the walk to the Copperd home. This time the security agent was leaning against a tree, lighting a cigarette. I made certain that he saw my face clearly.
One upstairs window showed a light, and the faint murmur of voices drifted down. That had to be Copperd's room. Then a porch light flashed on and Beth came out of the door. She was wearing a white dress and the overhead light seemed to create a golden halo above her head.
I momentarily forgot about her father.
How much can a man learn in a few weeks? I had to be so very careful. Historical matters had to be avoided at all costs. Contemporary affairs were fine. Philosophy was best.
Philosophy is always the best. Good and evil are present everywhere. They can be discussed in the vaguest terms. We discussed many things in vague terms.
And yet there was a sense of intimacy which grew between us. It was hard for me to define, and after a while I gave up trying to discover what it was. I merely enjoyed it.
When I took her home I knew that it was not fear of the dark that made her walk so close to me. The movies had taught me a great deal about this matter of love play. Although some of it was highly exaggerated, it showed clearly enough the drives of these people, and some of their methods of acting them out.
We were standing on the porch when I kissed Beth. It was the first time I had ever pressed my lips to those of anyone else. My technique was good. I felt Beth respond, pressing harder against me.
My mission was on its way to completion. I felt a moment of triumph. And then suddenly, crazily, my mission was gone from my mind. I felt only a strange exhilaration that swept over me and made my heart pound and my head grow hot.
"What's the matter, Marko?" Beth asked as I pulled away.
I didn't know what was wrong. I didn't try to figure it out. I had to get out of there and try to regain my equilibrium. On a mission like mine I had to keep my head.
"Shall I see you tomorrow?" I said.
"All the tomorrow's you want," Beth answered.
There was eagerness, and yet a note of regret. It was as though she instinctively knew that something was wrong. But my work had been well done; she was in too far, and I had cut her emotional line of retreat.
I saw Beth the next afternoon, and the next evening. My presence on the porch and in her home became such a common thing that the security agent hardly gave me a glance now.
Those few days passed by swiftly, and yet each hour in those days was long. I was very cautious; Beth and I kissed many times but I never allowed myself to be moved as on that first time.
Sunday loomed larger and larger, closer and closer. I was a constant and ever present guest. It was an elementary matter to get Beth to invite me for Sunday dinner. The invitation came on Saturday night, and that night when I came back to my room I called Ristal for the first time since we had arrived.
"Tomorrow," I said into the besnal. "Early evening."
That was all we said, but it was enough. Our frequency was too high to be picked up. Still, we were taking no chances. Ristal knew precisely what I meant and he would be ready.
I had the feeling that comes when a mission is about to be completed. There was a feeling of tension, and yet for the first time in my career I had a lowering of spirits that I could not explain.
The feeling persisted until late Sunday afternoon. Then I pushed it from my mind. I dressed carefully, slipped the besnal into my inner pocket, and put my del gun in my coat pocket.
"Take your coat off," Beth said when I came in. "You ought to know there's no formality here."
"I'm really quite comfortable," I told her. "Am I late?"
"No. Just on time. Dad will be down in a moment."
He came down the stairs from his study while we were talking. He greeted me warmly, and yet I felt that this time he was scrutinizing me. All during the dinner his eyes were on me, weighing me. I felt what was coming, and as we rose from the table it came.
"I hope you won't be offended, Marko," Copperd said. "But there are some strange things about you. Do you ever shave?"
"No," I said. I looked out the window and saw it was growing darker.
"That's odd. And about your hair ... have you ever realized that every strand of it grows in a different direction? You could never comb it. Your skin is of an unusually fine texture. And when you reached for something at the table I observed strange folds of skin between your fingers. You are somehow not like the rest of us."
"Naturally," I said. It didn't matter now. It was dark enough.
"Because," I told him, "I am a Venusian."
My tone was matter of fact. Yet they knew that I was not joking. Beth was staring at me, a growing fear and horror in her eyes. Her father seemed dazed by the revelation. I took the del gun from my pocket and showed it to them.
"This is a weapon strange to you. But it is effective at this range. Please don't make me use it."
"But what do you want?" Copperd asked.
"I want you to take a ride with me. In your car."
I let them put on their coats and then we walked out onto the porch and down the stairs. Across the street the security agent barely glanced at us. Then we got into Copperd's car, Beth and he in the front seat and I in the back. I told him in which direction to go.
At the outskirts of town we lost the car that was following us. I had planned this part of it perfectly. We pulled into a side road and turned off our lights. The agent went right past us.
"What is it you want of me?" Copperd said as we started up again.
"We want to have a long discussion with you about some matters on which you are an authority."
"And that's what this whole affair with me was for? So that you could get to my father!" Beth said accusingly. I saw her shoulders shake.
"Yes. Now turn off here."
We turned off the main road and followed a rutted trail onto an old farm.
The farmhouse was a wreck, but the barn still good. Our ship was in there.
The door opened as we walked toward the barn. Ristal's tall figure was framed in the doorway, and behind him stood Kresh, broad and ungainly. The others crowded up behind them.
"Good work, Marko," Ristal said. We went into the ship, which filled the whole interior of the barn.
"This is Commander Ristal, of the Venusian Intelligence," I told Copperd and Beth.
"What's your official title?" Beth asked bitterly.
"I am a special agent and language expert," I told her. Then I explained why I had brought them here.
"Our civilization is in some way far in advance of yours. As you see, we have mastered interplanetary travel. But it is essentially a peaceful civilization. Our weapons, such as we have, are of limited range and power.
"When it became known that Earth was developing monstrous weapons of aggression we realized that we must be prepared for the worst. There was only one way to discover what you already had and what you were working on. Once we arrived here we found that a man named Copperd was the prime figure in his country's atomic weapons research. It became our duty to seek him out."
"I see," Copperd grunted. "And now you expect me to reveal secrets which I am bound by oath to protect with my very life?"
"You will reveal them," Ristal told him.
I didn't like the way Ristal said that. There was a tinge of cruelty in his tone and in the sudden tightening of his lips. I hadn't ever worked with him before, or with Kresh, who was Ristal's second in command, but I didn't like the methods their manner implied. Copperd looked worried.
"I told you we were a peaceful people," I put in.
"Let me handle this," Ristal said. He pointed to a machine which stood in a corner.
"That," he explained to Copperd, "is a device which we ordinarily use in surgery and diagnosis. It has the faculty of making the nerves infinitely more sensitive to stimuli. Also to pain. Do you understand?"
"You can't use that on him!" I said. Ristal looked at me strangely.
"Of course not. But on his daughter, yes. No father likes to see his daughter suffer."
"That's out," I said flatly. "You know what our orders are."
"I know what they were. This is my own idea, Marko. Please remember that I am commander here."
I was duty bound to obey him, and I thought that I was going to obey. But as Kresh stepped toward Beth I found myself between them.
"I think that those higher up may have something to say about this," I told Ristal.
"With the information this man can give me I shall be in a position to ignore those higher up," Ristal grinned.
Kresh reached for Beth and I hit him. I knew now what Ristal had in mind. With atomic weapons he could make himself master of Venus, and of Earth. But even more important than that was the thought that he must not harm Beth.
Kresh was coming back at me. I hit him again and he went down. Then the others came piling in. There were four of them, too many for me. I fought like a madman but they overwhelmed me and held me helpless.
"Give him a shot of bental," Ristal ordered. "That ought to quiet him. Then dump him in a cabin. We'll dispose of him later."
Then Kresh was coming at me with the hypodermic needle. I felt it stab into my arm. He gave me a dose that might have killed an ordinary man.
I knew how bental worked. It was a drug that would throw me into a stupor, that would render my mind blank. Already it was taking effect. I pretended to be unconscious. Two men lifted me and carried me to a cabin, dropped me on the bunk and went out. The last thing I saw from beneath my lids was Beth being dragged toward that diabolical machine.
My senses were leaving me. I knew that I had to overcome the effects of the drug. I knew that I had to get out of that cabin. Somehow I dragged myself out of the bunk and got a porthole open. I crawled through it and dropped to the floor of the barn.
There were some loose boards and I pried them further apart and crawled out into the open. I no longer knew what I was doing; I no longer remembered Beth. I only knew that I had to run and keep on running.
My broken rib was stabbing into me like a knife. Across my chest the limb of the tree was a dead weight that crushed me. But now I knew who I was and what I was doing.
Despite the agony I managed to get my hands under the limb. I pushed up and felt it move. The pressure on my chest was gone. Inch by inch I slid out from beneath the huge branch. I staggered to my feet.
How much time had elapsed I didn't know. I was running again, but now I was running toward the dark barn. It wouldn't have taken Ristal long to get started. Maybe by now Beth was.... I shut the thought from my mind.
I was a few hundred yards away when the first scream came. Through the wind and the pelting rain it came, and it chilled me more than they had done.
My chest was aflame with every panting breath I took. But I ran as I had never run before. I had to get there before she screamed again. I had to stop them from doing this to her.
The barn door was locked. I got my fingers under the edge and ripped the wood away from the lock and went on through and into the ship.
None of them saw me coming. Copperd was tied in a chair, his face contorted and tears streaming down his face. Three of the men held Beth while Ristal and Kresh worked over her. The rest were watching.
They hadn't taken my del gun from me. But I couldn't use it for fear of hitting Beth. I had it out of my pocket and in my hand as I charged across the room.