'We pulled out of the war,' he said.
'Did we? You and Phyllis Ackerman? Or you and somebody else?'
'Everybody was there. Not just Phyllis.' He wondered what he could fix for dinner; his stomach was empty and in a state of complaint. As yet, however, there were no pains. Perhaps that came later.
'Any special reason why I wasn't asked along?' Her voice snapped like a lethal whip, making his flesh cringe; the natural biochemical animal in him dreaded the exchange which was in store for him – and also for her. Obviously she, like himself, was compelled to press head on; she was as much caught up and helpless as he.
'No special reason.' He wandered into the kitchen, feeling a little dulled, as if Kathy's opening had flattened his senses. Many such encounters had taught him to shield himself on the somatic level, if at all possible. Only old husbands, tired, experienced husbands, knew to do this. The newcomers... they're forced on by diencephalic responses, he reflected. And it's harder on them.
'I want an answer,' Kathy said, appearing at the door. 'As to why I was deliberately excluded.'
God, how physically appealing his wife was; she wore nothing, of course, under the black dress and each curved line of her confronted him with its savory familiarity. But where was the smooth, yielding, familiar mentality to go with this tactile form? The furies had seen to it that the curse – the curse in the house of Sweetscent, as he occasionally thought of it — had arrived full force; he faced a creature which on a physiological level was sexual perfection itself and on the mental level—
Someday the hardness, the inflexibility, would pervade her; the anatomical bounty would calcify. And then what? Already her voice contained it, different now from what he remembered of a few years back, even a few months. Poor Kathy, he thought. Because when the death-dealing powers of ice and cold reach your loins, your breasts and hips and buttocks as well as your heart – it was already deep in her heart, surely – then there will be no more woman. And you won't survive that. No matter what I or any man chooses to do.
'You were excluded,' he said carefully, 'because you're a pest.'
Her eyes flew open wide; for an instant they filled with alarm and simple wonder. She did not understand. Fleetingly, she had been brought back to the level of the merely human; the goading ancestral pressure in her had abated.
'Like you are now,' he said. 'So leave me alone; I want to fix myself some dinner.'
'Get Phyllis Ackerman to fix it for you,' Kathy said. The super-personal authority, the derision conjured up from the malformed crypto-wisdom of the ages, had returned. Almost psionically, with a woman's talent, she had intuited his slight romantic brush with Phyllis on the trip to Mars. And on Mars itself, during their overnight stay—
Calmly, he assumed that her heightened faculties could not genuinely ferret out that. Ignoring her, he began, in a methodical manner, to heat a frozen chicken dinner in the infrared oven, his back to his wife.
'Guess what I did,' Kathy said. 'While you were gone.'
'You took on a lover.'
'I tried a new hallucinogenic drug. I got it from Chris Plout; we had a jink session at his place and none other than the world-famous Marm Hastings was there. He made a pass at me while we were under the influence of the drug and it was – well, it was a pure vision.'
'Did he,' Eric said, setting a place for himself at the table.
'How I'd adore to bear his child,' Kathy said.
'"Adore to." Christ, what decadent English.' Ensnared, he turned to face her. 'Did you and he—'
Kathy smiled. 'Well maybe it was an hallucination. But I don't think so. I'll tell you why. When I got home—'
'Spare me!' He found himself shaking.
In the living room the vidphone chimed.
Eric went to get it and when he lifted the receiver he saw on the small gray screen the features of a man named Captain Otto Dorf, a military adviser to Gino Molinari. Dorf had been at Wash-35, assisting in security measures; he was a thin-faced man with narrow melancholy eyes, a man utterly dedicated to the protection of the Secretary. 'Dr Sweetscent?'
'Yes,' Eric said.'But I haven't—'
'Will an hour be enough? We'd like to send a 'copter to pick you up at eight o'clock your time.'
'An hour will do,' Eric said. 'I'll have my things packed and will be waiting in the lobby of my conapt building.'
After he had rung off he returned to the kitchen.
Kathy said, 'Oh my God. Oh Eric – can't we talk? Oh dear.' She slumped at the table and buried her head in her arms. 'I didn't do anything with Marm Hastings; he is handsome and I did take the drug, but—'
'Listen,' he said, continuing to prepare his meal. This was all arranged earlier today at Wash-35. Virgil wants me to do it. We had a long, quiet talk, Molinari's needs are at present greater than Virgil's. And actually I can still serve Virgil in org-trans situations but I'll be stationed at Cheyenne.' He added, 'I've been drafted; as of tomorrow I'm a medic in the UN military forces, attached to Secretary Molinari's staff. There's nothing I can do to change it; Molinari signed the decree to that effect last night.'
'Why?' Terror-stricken, she gazed up at him.
'So I can get out of this. Before one of us—'
'I won't spend any more money.'
'There's a war on. Men are being killed. Molinari is sick and he needs medical help. Whether you spend money or not—'
'But you asked for this job.'
Presently he said, 'I begged for it, as a matter of fact. I gave Virgil the greatest line of hot fizz ever strung together at one time in one place.'
She had drawn herself together now; she had become poised. 'What sort of pay will you receive?'
'Plenty. And I'll continue to draw a salary from TF&D, too.'
'Is there any way I can come with you?'
'No.' He had seen to that.
'I knew you'd dump me when you finally became a success – you've been trying to extricate yourself ever since we met.' Kathy's eyes filled with tears. 'Listen, Eric; I'm afraid that that drug I took is addictive. I'm terribly scared. You have no idea what it does; I think it comes from somewhere off Earth, maybe Lilistar. What if I kept taking it? What if because of your leaving—'
Bending, he picked her up in his arms. 'You ought to keep away from those people; I've told you so goddam many times—' it was futile talking to her; he could see what lay ahead for both of them. Kathy had a weapon by which she could draw him back to her once more. Without him she would be destroyed by her involvement with Plout, Hastings, and company; leaving her would simply make the situation worse. The sickness that had entered them over the years could not be nullified by the act he had in mind, and only in the Martian babyland could he have imagined otherwise.
He carried her into the bedroom and set her gently on the bed.
'Ah,' she said, and shut her eyes. 'Oh Eric—' She sighed.
However, he couldn't. This, too. Miserably, he moved from her, sat on the edge of the bed. 'I have to leave TF&D,' he said presently. 'And you have to accept it.' He stroked her hair. 'Molinari is cracking up; maybe I can't help him but at least I can try. See? That's the real—'
Kathy said, 'You're lying.'
'When? In what way?' He continued stroking her hair but it had become a mechanical action, without volition or desire.
'You would have made love to me just now, if that was why you were leaving.' She rebuttoned her dress. 'You don't care about me.' Her voice held certitude; he recognized the drab, thin tone. Always this barrier, this impossibility of getting through. This time he did not waste his time trying; he simply went on stroking her, thinking, It'll be on my conscience, whatever happens to her. And she knows it, too. So she's absolved of the burden of responsibility, and that, for her, is the worst thing possible.
Too bad, he thought, I wasn't able to make love to her.
'My dinner's ready,' he said, rising.
She sat up. 'Eric, I'm going to pay you back for leaving me.' She smoothed her dress. 'You understand?'
'Yes,' he said, and walked into the kitchen.
'I'll devote my life to it,' Kathy said, from the bedroom. 'Now I have a reason for living. It's wonderful to have a purpose at last; it's thrilling. After all these pointless ugly years with you. God, it's like being born all over again.'
'Lots of luck,' he said.
'Luck? I don't need luck; I need skill, and I think I have skill. I learned a lot during that episode under the effects of that drug. I wish I could tell you what it is; it's an incredible drug, Eric – it changes your entire perception of the universe and especially of other people. You don't ever view them the same again. You ought to try it. It would help you.'
'Nothing,' he said, 'would help me.'
His words, in his ears, sounded like an epitaph.* * *
He had almost finished packing – and had long since eaten – when the doorbell of the conapt rang. It was Otto Dorf, already here with the military 'copter, and Eric soberly went to open the door for him.
Glancing about the conapt, Dorf said, 'Did you have an opportunity to say good-by to your wife, doctor?'
'Yes.' He added, 'She's gone now; I'm alone.' He closed his suitcase and carried it and its companion to the door. 'I'm ready.' Dorf picked up one suitcase and together they walked to the elevator. 'She did not take it very well,' he remarked to Dorf as they presently descended.
'I'm unmarried, doctor,' Dorf said. 'I wouldn't know.' His manner was correct and formal.
In the parked 'copter another man waited. He held out his hand as Eric ascended the rungs. 'Doctor; it's good to meet you.' The man, hidden in the shadows, explained, 'I'm Harry Teagarden, chief of the Secretary's medical staff. I'm glad you're joining us; the Secretary hadn't informed me in advance but that's no matter – he invariably acts on impulse.'
Eric shook hands with him, his mind still on Kathy. 'Sweet-scent.'
'How did Molinari's condition strike you when you met him?'
'He seemed tired.'
Teagarden said, 'He's dying.'
Glancing at him swiftly, Eric said, 'From what? In this day and age, with artiforgs available—'
I am familiar with current surgical techniques; believe me.' Teagarden's tone was dry. 'You saw how fatalistic he is. He wants to be punished, obviously, for leading us into this war.' Teagarden was silent as the 'copter ascended into the night sky and then he continued, 'Did it ever occur to you that Molinari engineered the losing of this war? That he wants to fail? I don't think even his most rabid political enemies have tried that idea out. The reason I'm saying this to you is that we don't have bales of time. Right at this moment Molinari is in Cheyenne suffering from a massive attack of acute gastritis – or whatever you care to call it. From your holiday at Wash-35. He's flat on his back.'
'Any internal bleeding?'
'Not yet. Or perhaps there has been and Molinari hasn't told us. With him it's possible; he's naturally secretive. Essentially he trusts nobody.'
'And you're positive there's no malignancy?'
'We can't find any. But Molinari doesn't allow us to conduct as many tests as we would like; he bolts. Too busy. Papers to sign, speeches to write, bills to present to the General Assembly. He tries to run everything singlehandedly. He can't seem to delegate authority and then when he does he sets up overlapping organizations that immediately compete – it's his way of protecting himself.' Teagarden glanced curiously at Eric. 'What did he say to you at Wash-35?'
'Not much.' He did not intend to disclose the contents of their discussion. Molinari had beyond doubt meant it for his ears exclusively. In fact, Eric realized, that was the cardinal reason for being brought to Cheyenne. He had something to offer Molinari that the other medics did not, a strange contribution for a doctor to be making... he wondered how Teagarden would react if he were to tell him. Probably – and for good reason – Teagarden would have him put under arrest. And shot.
'I know why you're going to be with us,' Teagarden said.
Eric grunted. 'You do?' He doubted it.
'Molinari is simply following his instinctive bias, having us double-checked by infusing new blood into our staff. But no one objects; in fact we're grateful – we're all overworked. You know, of course, that the Secretary has a huge family, even larger than that of Virgil Ackerman, your paterfamilias-style former employer.'
'I believe I've read it's three uncles, six cousins, an aunt, a sister, an elderly brother who—'
'And they're all in residence at Cheyenne,' Teagarden said. 'Constantly so. Hanging around him, trying to wangle little favors, better meals, quarters, servants – you get the pic. And—' He paused. 'I should add there's a mistress.'
That Eric did not know. It had never been mentioned, even in the press hostile to the Secretary.
'Her name is Mary Reineke. He met her before his wife's death. On paper Mary's listed as a personal secretary. I like her. She's done a lot for him, both before and after his wife's death. Without her he probably wouldn't have survived. The 'Starmen loathe her ... I don't quite know why. Perhaps I've missed out on some fact.'
'How old is she?' The Secretary, Eric guessed, was in his late forties or early fifties
'As young as it's humanly possible to be. Prepare yourself, doctor.' Teagarden chuckled. 'When he met her she was in high school. Working in the late afternoons as a typist. Perhaps she handed him a document... nobody knows for sure, but they did meet over some routine business matter.'
'Can his illness be discussed with her?'
'Absolutely. She's the one – the only one – who's been able to get him to take phenobarbital and, when we tried it, pathabamate. Phenobarb made him sleepy, he said, and path made his mouth dry. So of course he dropped them down a waste chute; he quit. Mary made him go back on. She's Italian. As he is. She can bawl him out in a way he remembers from his childhood, from his mama, perhaps... or his sister or aunt; they all bawl him out and he tolerates it, but he doesn't listen, except to Mary. She lives in a concealed apt in Cheyenne guarded by lines of Secret Service men – because of the 'Star people. Molinari dreads the day they'll—' Teagarden broke off.