AT NIGHT the streets of Nimal were twisting threads of shadowed mystery faced by high walls and shuttered windows, looping and curving as they followed the dictates of some ancient plan. The city itself was a place of brooding silence broken only by the sough of the wind from the plains beyond, the discordant chiming of prayer bells suspended from the peaked and gabled roofs. Pale lanterns hung like ghostly stars, their ineffectual light augmented by the haze from the landing field and the great floodlights of the workings to the north where men and machines tore into the planetary crust for the wealth buried deep; all was reflected from the lowering clouds in a dim and artificial moonlight.
Frost paused as he reached an intersection, eyes watchful as he studied the streets curving to either side. They appeared deserted but that meant little; men could be lurking in the black mouths of doorways, the shadowed alleys, ready to leap out and kill any who passed. He would not be the first to be found robbed and murdered in the light of the rising sun.
Cautiously, keeping to the middle of the road, he headed down one of the streets, his boots making soft padding noises as he trod the cobbled way. It was late; an entrepreneur had brought in a troupe of dancing girls, little things of graceful movement, doll-like in ornate costumes, their hands fluttering in symbolic gestures as they pirouetted to the beat of gong and drum, and entranced by their charming innocence he had lingered to see the final performance. Now he was beginning to regret his self-indulgence. Nimal was an old city steeped in ancient tradition, resentful of the new activity which threatened its brooding introspection. And, in the winding maze of streets, it was all too easy to get lost.
Frost reached the end of the street, turned left and was twenty yards from the corner when he heard the pound of running feet coming from behind. Immediately he sprang to one side, turning, pressing his back against a wall, his right hand dipping to lift the nine-inch blade from where it nestled in his boot. A vagrant beam caught the polished steel, shining from the razor edge and the needle point, the betraying gleam vanishing as, recognizing the man who loped towards him, he sheathed the knife.
"What—" The man staggered to a halt his face ghastly in the dim light. He was stooped, one hand clamped to his side, the fingers thick with oozing blood. His eyes widened as Frost stepped toward him. "Jason! Thank God it's you! I thought—" He broke off, head turned to where other racing footsteps broke the silence."The guards! They're after me, Jason. They'll get me, too. You'd best keep out of the way."
"Forget it," said Frost. He caught hold of the other's free arm and swung it over his shoulders. Half carrying, half dragging the injured man he ran down the street. The dark mouth of an alley gaped to one side, and he turned down it as the approaching footsteps grew louder. The alley was a trap, a blank wall closing the far end. Frost turned and ran back as lights shone at the mouth of the alley. The fingers of his free hand scraped the wall, felt the wood of a door, and he thrust himself against it. The panel was locked. He thrust again and felt something yield with a dull snapping of wood. The door swung inward and he almost fell into darkness. Supporting the weight of the injured man, he closed the panel and leaned against it as boots echoed from the cobbles beyond.
Light blossomed from somewhere. "Who is that? What do you want?" "Be quiet!" Frost turned and saw a woman sitting upright on a bed, a candle guttering in her hand.
"It's all right," he said quickly. "We mean you no harm. Just be silent."
She rose and came toward him. Her feet were bare, the nails gilded, her height almost that of his own. Her hair was curled, gilded, as were her fingernails, in the sign of her profession.
"You're late," she whispered, "But I'm always ready for business. What's the matter with your friend? Is drunk?"
"Silence!" Frost reached out and dropped his hand on the candle, killing the dancing flame. From beyond the door came the sound of harsh voices.
"Well, he isn't here. Damned if I can see how a man can run like that with the burn we gave him."
"He's tough," said a second voice. "And scared. A scared man can do a lot of surprising things. He must have run faster than we thought. He isn't here, anyway. I guess we'd better call it a night."
The rasp of their boots grew faint as they moved away. "Jason!" Tony stirred in the grip of the supporting arm. "Jason, I—"
His voice died as Frost clamped his hand over his mouth. Silk rustled as the woman moved in the darkness, the scent of her perfume heavy in the air.
"They've gone now," she said. "May I relight the candle?"
"No," said Frost. "And make no sound."
For ten minutes he waited, standing immobile against the door, the weight of the injured man dragging at his arm. The silence felt thick and heavy, broken only by the soft rustle of garments, the ragged breathing of Tony. And then, from outside, boots rang against the cobbles.
“It's a bust," said a harsh voice disgustedly. "If he'd holed up in here he would have come out by now. I guess he must have given us the slip somehow."
"It doesn't matter." The second guard was philosophical. "He didn't get away with anything so there's nothing to cry about. And with that burn we gave him he can't get far. We'll check with the field and see if he made it as far as there. If not, we'll say that he's dead. We lose the bonus but save ourselves a lot of work. Agreed?"
"Sure," said his companion. "Who's going to worry about a crumb like that anyway."
The sound of their boots grew faint as, genuinely this time, they moved away; the scrape of leather on stone merged with and drowned in the chimes of prayer bells from high above.
Tony was dying. Frost could see it as he stared at the man in the light of the relit candle. The dancing flame threw shadows over the prominent bones of his cheeks and temples, accentuating the shadowed sockets of his eyes, the thin bloodlessness of his lips. Beads of sweat dewed his forehead, and the muscles of his jaw were knotted in pain.
"Jason," he whispered. "I tried something stupid. I got paid off at the workings. You quit, but I got fired. I was desperate for a stake and went to Harrys Bar. I hoped to win but I lost. I guess I went a little crazy then. He keeps his money in a safe in a rear office behind the tables and I tried to take some. Not all of it, just enough to buy a passage back home. His guards caught me before I could get anything. They shot me but I got away. The rest you know." He coughed and inhaled, the sharp hiss of indrawn breath betraying his agony. "God, Jason! It hurts! It hurts!"
The woman said, "What's the matter with him? Is he sick?"
"He's hurt." Frost looked at the room. It was typical of its kind. A large, double bed filled one corner, the mattress piled high with soft fabrics. A table, chairs, a wardrobe, a large cabinet holding both food and implements for cooking, a curtained stall containing a shower, a washbasin, toilet facilities, the usual furnishings.
"Get a sheet," he ordered. "Clear the table and spread it over. Get another for use as a bandage. Hurry!"
"You'll pay?" Her voice was soft with trained intonations; an instrument of pleasure for the ear, but there was steel beneath the softness. "He's been hurt, and those men outside were guards. If he's on the run I could get into trouble."
"There'll be no trouble," said Frost. "And we can pay."
He lifted Tony as the woman cleared the table and spread wide a purple sheet, placed the limp figure on the flat surface, stepped back to ease the ache in his arm and shoulder before he stooped to inspect the wound. It was bad. Blood welled from a seared opening as he pulled the clamping hand away, the black of char clJasony ran deep in the intestine. The laser had hit hard and strong. How the man had been able to run at all was a mystery.
"Jason!" Tony writhed in pain. "God, Jason, do something!" "Give him wine," said Frost to the woman. "Spirits if you have any. And where is that other sheet?"
He bound it tightly around the injured man as she fed him sips of brandy, compressing it over the wound in an effort to staunch the blood. It was a hopeless gesture. With immediate medical attention the man might have stood a chance; now he had none at all.
"Jason?" Tony pushed aside the woman's hand. The brandy had given him momentary strength, bringing a false flush to his pallid cheeks. "How bad is it, Jason?"
"Yes," said Frost emotionlessly. Tony was not a boy, and a man should be told when to ready himself for the final adventure. "Are you in pain?"
"Not now," said Tony. "Not as I was. It seems to have eased a little." He turned his head the dancing candlelight giving his face the somber appearance of a skull. "So much to do," he whispered. "And now there's no time to do it. If only the cards had fallen right I—" He broke off, his smile a rictus of approaching death. "Listen, Jason, will you do something for me?"
"What is it?"
"A wise man," said Tony. "You don't promise until you know what it is I ask. But it isn't much, Jason. I just want you to carry a message for me. To my brother on Earth. Tell him that there is no answer on any of the planets on the Outer Rim. Will you do that?"
"Couldn't I send it?"
"No, Jason, there are reasons why it must be kept private. That is why I want you to carry it. To Earth, Jason. My brother will pay you well."
Frost leaned forward, his face intent in the fitful illumination. "His name?"
"Watson, Jason. David Watson. He owns a big place and he is a collector of antiquities. Go to him, Jason. Talk to him. I promise that he’ll pay you well."
Frost hesitated. A wasted journey? A disappointment?
"Please, Jason." Tony's hand lifted, gripped his own. "I'm dying and we both know it. You're leaving anyway so why not head for Earth? Carry my message and maybe you'll help to save a world."
Exaggeration? Dying men saw things from a distorted viewpoint but there was no denying the urgency in his voice, the appeal in his eyes. And why not? One planet was as good as another, and it was barely possible that there was a reward at the end of it.
"All right," said Frost. "I'll carry your message."
"God bless you, Jason." The hand fell from his own, fumbled at a pocket. "The address ... in here . . . my brother's a good man . . . help." Tony swallowed and said: "You won't regret this, I'm sure of it."
"He's dying," said the woman suddenly. "Does he want anything?" She stepped forward, the candle in her hand.
"No," said Frost.
Gold shimmered as she looked at him, the candlelight bright in the gilded tresses of her hair, more gold flashing from her nails, matching the gleam in her eyes. "You're hard," she said. "By God, you're hard. And you call yourself his friend?"
"I did," said Frost quietly. He looked at Tony. While they had argued the man had died. Reaching out, he closed the staring eyes. "But not now. A dead man has no need of friends."
"He's gone?" She sighed and put down the candle. "Well, what do we do now?"
There was still unfinished business to be settled. He reached into a pocket and produced money, the thick, triangular coins of the local currency. Taking the woman's hand he filled her palm with precious metal.
"For your trouble," he said. "For what you have done and have yet to do. Is it enough?"
Gold shimmered as she bent her head, counting the coins. She whispered. "You are generous."
To Frost's questions as to how she would dispose of the body she shrugged.
"There are men who will do anything for money. I will bribe a couple. The dead man will be found in a street far from here. Not today, but tomorrow. There is no time now to make the arrangement, anel there will be no questions and no suspicion as to my part in the affair. A dead man, one from the workings, who is going to be concerned about such as he?"
Satisfied, Frost nodded.
"Now I wait, at dawn I leave."