Rouben McAllenby, by trade immortal and slaveholder in the third district of the 832nd quadrant directly under the cross of the South Pole, woke bathed in sweat. His jaws ground. He had a cramp in both calves, which were hard as iridium iron. He was an expert in this area, but now his favorite heart, which he had worn so long, was flickering, and a rattle more agonized than anything his tortured creatures had ever uttered escaped his throat.

The bedroom, rocked in a hydropneumatic frame as if in gentle arms, was flooded with the light of the five moons which now hung in the sky. The last two were missing. That was not a good sign, for he had had his last heart attack under just this constellation, when he was eighty years younger than today. In that time lay a shadow which came slanting out of space, as he was told by his personal physician, Doctor Bundschuh, in whom he had complete confidence. The experts were of differing opinions about the dimensions of this shadow.

The man in bed groaned. Sweat streamed over his dry body and robbed him of his reserves. He could no longer think. His left hand twitched. With it he tried to grope toward the other side of the bed. Where was Helen? He could not turn his head. The fever which had descended upon him as a young man, a thousand years ago, was in his back. He cried out almost soundlessly, while his lips began to dry out as intensely as they had usually filled with life. He hesitated, vacillated. What was reality, what was madness?

Down there on the bed were the blood plasmas, swimming in saline solution. When he raised his head, with an effort, he seemed to be able to see them. He lifted his hand like the claws of a vulture. Now his whole body was trembling, and salty tears ran down his withered cheeks, taking with them the last remnants of fluid in his body.

Where was Helen? He could not help shuddering at the thought of her. After his last attack he had married her in the impetuous desire to savor his life to the full and without any holding back, as a man, which the doctors' art made him once again, as a young god who rose from modernity's fountain of youth and at whose feet the universe lay once more with all its miserable and shabby creatures.

Where was Helen? She embodied not only Woman, life once hotly loved, but also his capital investment; with refined and well-thought-out contracts he had invested in her a certain percentage of his fortune, which was scattered throughout all the planets of these seven worlds. She was his future, for some day, when the injections and the sulfate solutions no longer did any good, he would die. Yes, one day, and then his century-old children would take his place and assume responsibility for his factories, mines, shafts and the energy tunnels which ran through space and time and made him one of the greatest potentates in this space quadrant.

Where was Helen? The tears stopped trickling. He was too weak to sob. His thoughts wavered as the dawning truth nearly overwhelmed them. He was unable to reach a single one of the many bells which guarded his slumber and his dreams so that nothing could happen to him. The fever began to spread through his body. His legs must have been black already, now that the gangrene had reached them. His lips were hot and salty, and he pictured himself surrounded by frankincense, candles, myrtle and salts. He woke in a dark room, the tubes of the apparatus hanging down from his body.

Where was Helen? The bed beside him was empty as the apparatus relaxed him. He was alone in his room. He drank a sip of water, anger already swelling behind his brow. Vital plasma stung in his veins and trickled slowly, spread through his body, slowly and restrained, to prevent the shock of mighty life. Life was already in his liver, and glided down his stomach through tubes.

Where was Helen? He felt it enter his loins, moistening them. His heart stumbled, stuttered and retched for a while, while behind its glasses the mainframe computer networked the data of its patient in silicon, fiberglass and wires: protein, glucose, the alien intruders which raged in the master's body, squadrons of viruses swimming in his blood, whole armies of tiny cells which came from heart, spleen and stomach, and the scourges of these new times which overwhelmed all the body's defenses with their insidious armadas.

Where was Helen? He grew stronger. Blood, thick and red, rose nearly violet in his lips. His eyes, nearly as cold as those of a vulture, took on a dark tinge. The blood flooded his ears uncontrollably as he was overcome by rage mixed with impotence, and outside the machine pumped, foaming, so that both combined in fury like a mighty breaker

Where was Helen? The bell nearly shattered in his hands. Outside the domestics hurried down the corridor. Television cameras, pre-warmed in vacuum tubes, woke to sluggish life and spat the pictures of his palace at him. With fingers which had grown soft and warm he typed into the computer the code which contained Helen's perfume, her neglige and above all her perspiration intensity when she was aroused.

Where was Helen? The machine reached for him with its broad fingers and began to massage him. The muscles of his legs and his back, sore from so much lying, grew soft and relaxed. He was pounded by many hands which knew how to garnish tender flesh.

Oil poured over him from a tub. His hair fell out; it had grown long and brittle. The cramp left his back, and flies buzzed around him, taking with them his hard prickly beard. He gleamed replete and fleshy like a suckling pig, held inexorably by the soft, supple frame.

A mirror of crystal appeared before his bed. The man he saw reflected in it was imposing and supple, with dark hair and hard gray eyes, his mouth twisted with a hint of cruelty, the chin with its cleft somewhat angular; in the last struggles some of the bone marrow had been extracted.

Where was Helen? He could think again. His thoughts, which just now had been crushed together as if in a steel fist, ran free again. And as he took the flagons of cologne and perfumes in his hand, choosing among them and spraying himself, he called off the big, heavy dogs which growled outside in the courtyard, which he had wanted to chase through the time tunnel.

But now he smiled again, as his heart contracted. He had to think. He had to be strong and pure in his head, as he had always been as a young god. He pulled a card from his sleeve, the ace of hearts, as he noticed, seeing the traces which drink and gluttony had left on the little piece of paper.

Where was Helen? He did not notice the machine draw back from him, devoted and polite, its surface blinking with hundred-percent values, leaving behind a tiny, thin trace of all the colognes and perfumes which he, Rouben McAllenby, tycoon and immortal, had ever used in his life. He waved the machine away from him as its wavering shadow asked him whether he still required its services at this moment.

A scratching came at the door. The curtain moved. He remembered how fond he had always been of his narrow moustache, which he now stroked with his thumbnail. With one hand he slipped the ace of hearts into his sleeve, with the other he made a sweeping gesture: that entry was permitted.

From the curtain stepped a shadow with long, blue hair, black eyes in which the hue of lust glowed moistly, a purple shadow upon the dark face where the blood pounded over the cheekbones. It was a mulatto. He had never seen her before. But memory throbbed in the back of his head.

The most dangerous moment for an immortal is always that of transformation. Then he is defenseless. If an enemy gains entrance, it takes no more than the poison which would fit under a fingernail to kill the immortal. This is in part because the thoughts have not yet found coherence in his head.

Yes, where was Helen? She could have explained it to him. Whenever he woke she had been at his side. In good and bad dreams. When they burst all fetters and when they plummeted deep into the time tunnel. His heart pounded a little, and the automatic orderly behind the wallpaper, which he suddenly remembered now, hummed quietly.

It was a weakness to display helplessness and ignorance even when no one could possibly know a thing. The dogs which growled outside smelled a man's weakness. The lord of the universe, God himself, born from the foam, is strong and sure.

And another thing which occurred to him now, as thoughts overwhelmed him in the gentle dawn of realization: He had not gotten where he was by thinking like the wild animals, but because he had cultivated in himself both instinct and consciousness, raising both to the knowledge of the greatest caution appropriate for one who strides far and wide through the universe.

And although he still did not know what he, according to these thoughts, considered appropriate for himself, he felt something of the calm which comes to a gambler who never lets himself in for a game which he could lose. Yes, the spies behind the walls, which now, at this thought, entered his memory. The glass recording machine in one corner, pointing each to his bare thoughts. Indeed, as a quick, unobtrusive glance showed: the mirror in the corner was slightly clouded, as if his rage, his hatred and his irritation just now had built up inside it.

Very well, thought Rouben McAllenby, for the mulatto was approaching. So let's reshuffle the cards, and from the great void he pulled a joker, an old German card, he thought, with big bells and wide eyes. The joker, crossing his legs, grinned. Where had he been last night?

The perfume of the mulatto, seeping into his brain, only made his heart stumble, falter for a moment. It was natural that he knew her. Her skin was like silk and velvet. Her aura glided through his fingers as she turned to the side like a light feather, mischievous, teasing.

At some point he remembered her name again: She was called Belladonna and rose in his arms like a sun, while two or three of the large dogs, which had slunk into the room, stood about the bed, whimpering, wagging their tails, moist-nosed. The feast of which they partook after a stroll through the extensive park - there were flamboyed tongues with essences and the immortal sauce Gambit - lay suddenly stiff and heavy in his stomach, and sweat formed on his brow.

Then came a telephone call, though he had not wanted to be disturbed. It was his broker, wearing a black tie. In a dry voice he reported the sale of assets, securities and planets which were deep in debt. In the background the contracts which he himself, Rouben McAllenby, had signed shone on the screen.

Those are not your capillaries, not your consciousness values, said the broker after looking at the impression on the security screen. The broker seemed taken aback. The dogs growled. The immortal felt the fire rising in his body. He leaned to the side to vomit. Another card fell from his sleeve.

"Sir," said Leuw, the broker, "if you're not feeling well, I'll call again after midnight. Though the transactions which you ordered are urgent, they can be put off for a few time units."

The immortal stared at the tie. The memories in the back of his head remained oddly vague. He saw a roulette wheel bouncing. What did the cards mean? Why did they glide through his fingers so smoothly and elegantly?

Then speech came to him again, light and natural, just as he had always used it, and he said in a voice which now was almost deep again: "Put it off for another decade!"

"But, sir. . . ."

The broker seemed frightened, ran his hands through his hair and tugged at his black tie. Now his face changed color.

"That means. . . ."

"A decade," said the immortal in a hard voice and switched off the broker.

"So, my sweet," he said, turning on his heels.

The mulatto had vanished from the bed. He heard the water rushing. Steam billowed through a crack in the door. Only the dogs growled, and the spies hummed quietly. The spies. The wall paneling slid aside. Behind it was a switchboard. The image glowed on one of the monitors, slightly warmed from the night, showing a room decorated with green, in which green-covered tables stood, untidy and in complete chaos. A roulette wheel protruded around a corner. Everywhere lay small heaps of chips and cards, and on the side rose a pile of empty glass ampoules which must have been opened in great haste.

The timepiece hummed. It was one of the domestics: a shadow behind it, broad as a wardrobe. A business card revolved on the lens. This district belonged to the fourth security precinct, the immortal remembered. Also Long Island, Long Beach, Manhattan. And the beaches beyond, where the great casinos for the immortals stood.

"Sir, the officer would like to speak to you," said the domestic, red in the face from the pressure behind it.

"About what?" the immortal asked.

"He would like to tell you that in confidence, sir," answered the domestic.

"Tell him to come back after lunch," came the brusque reply.

"That's impossible," the officer Morrow, whose name was emblazoned on his collar patches, broke in from the background.

He was a captain, dressed in his gala uniform, with two stripes on his sleeves, candidature for years of long life, as the tiny star beneath the strips showed.

"Well?"

"Because time is slipping away," replied the officer, now moving fully into the picture.

"Wait a few minutes," said the immortal, "I'd just like to get dressed first."

"Very good, sir," said the captain, saluting.

He closed the door to the bathroom firmly and raised a barrier, one of the kind which take with them even the magnetic imprint of the person, and he heard Belladonna cry out as he left her. Then fog, muffled weeping and a scratching at the lock which could not be broken. The police officer entered the room.

"Well," he said to the man behind him, as he stared down into the park.

"I'm terribly sorry," came the wooden voice of his marionette.

McAllenby waved his hand impatiently, gazing down in fascination at the crystal net which a spider was weaving in one corner of his park.

"Well?"

"Sir, we weren't able to find her."

"Express yourself more precisely," said the immortal in a dangerously quiet voice.

"We've combed the inner and outer districts. Nothing of significance. She isn't on the outer planets either. All her summer residences, sir, are abandoned."

"And Andromeda in the Perseids?"

"No answer."

"No answer?"

"Sir, we can't penetrate the natural magnetic barriers."

"Oh, yes," said the immortal distractedly, as if he had forgotten that.

"Anything else, sir?"

"What about the scent and vibration patterns, Morrow?"

"Nil return."

"Thank you. Remain available, Morrow."

"Thank you, sir. May I ask one more question?" The immortal smiled distractedly with a cold face and stroked his beard and lips.

"No, not now, Morrow, later."

"Very good, sir. I wish you immortal days."

"Thank you, Morrow, may you have a few more good years."

"Thank you."

He could hardly wait until the doors had closed again behind the policeman. He shook inwardly with tension, and the glass in the bathroom doors rattled. It was as if some immense pressure which had borne down upon him had now fallen away. So that was how it was. He leafed through the dossier which Morrow had left him.

The immortal Helen had vanished, and no one could be allowed to know that; otherwise his empire would begin to wobble. But why had he himself forgotten the state of things? The mulatto scratched at the walls. The bathroom doors rattled. He smiled very weakly and glanced once more at the spider down there in the park and garden.

He stroked the muzzle of the first dog, tied the second to the bedroom door, and tethered the other outside the small kitchen in the back which most people did not know about. He still had that grim smile on his lips as he removed the seal from the bathroom doors, for he was considering slipping into the time tunnel right away, with Belladonna in a terrycloth towel and dripping hair, when an inner voice warned him.

No seal was secure enough to prevent a contact, a certain aura, something of the other's personality from being present. Such were the riddles of these times, which none could solve. Besides, he now tasted the salt on his lips, which told him that he had not eaten or drunk for a long time.

And as Belladonna, more beautiful yet than he had seen her when she entered, came through the fluid door, an ace of spades fell toward him out of the void, which could never have been there. It made him feel a pang in his heart, as if he were unfaithful, a scoundrel; yet he was only following the paths which Doctor Bundschuh had calculated from the movements of the infinite stars.

Belladonna was calm again now, once he said that he had had a visitor. As he lay in bed with her, he judged her to be less than seven hundred years old. She bespoke the experience of the years which were embodied within her. Purity and innocence were not to be expected. Instead, the hunger for still longer days, which brought eternal life with them. For each who wanted to become immortal there was a threshold which he must cross. Whoever chose life from then on would never decay.

"Don't you remember," she said as they sat at breakfast, "you won me at roulette."

The moment of hesitation and vacillation was over. He grabbed the mulatto by the hair and the hands. She was still dazed by the time shadow which reached her, and did not realize that he was putting her in the truth-seeker. The minutes ticked by while the machine examined her.

She told seven hundred synthetic years. She was a virgin for the twenty-first time. The hair on her head were of alabaster cotton from the planet Styx. The metabolism of her body, based on hydrogen, was in perfect condition. She had her twelfth false teeth. Her capacity for pleasure would surely be greater than seventy.

The number of lovers she had taken was legion. Men and women, hybrids and aliens, as far as she was able even, anti-beings which hung on long, thin threads. The immortal shuddered as the figures, more or less faded, darkened by time and never retouched, flickered across the screen.

His face flushed as the minutes passed. That was not what he was seeking. He stared darkly at the screen, where a complete view of the mulatto's skeleton revolved. Her flesh, which was being burned in the simulation, smoked. Surely she had not been raised in the greenhouses. She must stem from a noble plantation.

But there was a gap, as the computer spat out at him. The sum of bits was wrong. There, he had guessed it before he knew. She did not belong to the upper classes. There were traces of fertilizer and nitrates in her flesh. Then he saw the crystalline pattern which spread evenly over her cells, and in it, as he viewed it in maximum magnification on the screen, the faded, fuzzy impression which looked as if someone had tried to erase it in vain: Even now, she still belonged to the casino.

There, the immortal trembled now, sweated, and his blood count sank as if a cold hand had touched him. The error in the bit pattern was caused by the fact that the mulatto used Helen's perfume. And there were traces of loathing which the immortal would not have thought possible.

Now the eyes of the immortal were red and angry. He boxed the ears of the mulatto, who now came to herself again, sighing in his arms, and he held Helen's perfume, mixed for him by the synthetic generator, under her nose. At the smell of the perfume, the mulatto fainted. She had convulsions. He saw the white of her eyes. He thrust a flat iron between her teeth so that she would not bite her tongue. He took the perfume away from her, corked it carefully and put it in his pocket.

He removed the addresses of three gamblers from the mulatto's memory; then they plummeted down the space-time channel and entered a dark room, in which rotting orchids stood in a large pot on the windowsill. The man who lay on the bed was dead and fully dressed. Cards lay near the bed.

The second man they found, walled into the foundations of a skyscraper, was badly knocked about. He had been throttled with a time noose which tightened around the neck with the movement of the watch hand. In his mouth was a tiny yellow bird which came to life as they passed the time lock over it. On the bird were brown spatters of the life-water which must have been in the veins of the second man for a few moments as well, and which had then been released.

There was a smell of bitter almond in the space-time channel. It was nearly impossible to get through, for all around, to the left and the right, but above and below as well, and even distorted and mirrored, floated drained corpses, the last scream of terror and madness on their lips. Women and men, children most of all, whose young life and future had been taken away so that the immortals could live a few days longer.

The hall they entered was magnificent. There was gold on the walls. The curtains swayed in the silk harvested from the alabaster plants, and the candles which dripped from the heavy wallpaper won their fire from concave mirrors aimed at the Olympian Planets. In the niches stood domestics with faces as inconspicuous as their dark livery, ready to react to every murmured word of their masters.

It was the night of the long knives and the gamblers; and the ladies with powder and with tassels, the quasi-elixir of life behind them (quicksilver, which made them nimble, in their veins), kept to the side in the chambers and the love-rooms, when it was time to help their own masters take heart, exhausted from the game, and provide them with immortal drive and energy; for he who lost, lost for ever: his life, his serum, the immortal shortage which was divided in the game. Thus the evening passed. There were the first corpses, which were put in the glass cases, the apparatuses, to drain the immortality from them and divide it among the winners.

Where was Helen? Had she not been brought there in one of the glass cabinets according to his will, when money, luck, above all the dice abandoned him? All at once poison was in his veins. His skin was like leather as the burden of centuries bowed him in the seeping stream of life. Youth, strength, health, which were borrowed, bought, obtained by fraud, disappeared. Illusion was the healing machine which in reality sucked the strength away from him, sinking false memories of bygone days into his brain. He could no longer swallow. In the corner of his eye he saw the gambling luck which had abandoned him. The mulatto, illusion and delusion, was gone.

Then came the intoxication, the dizziness and the frenzy. Poison and drugs circulated in his veins as the machine drained the life from him. He saw Helen in the cabinet and the garden, weaving her immortal nets, whom he had pawned like his children. Through the doors came Morrow, Leuw the broker, Doctor Bundschuh with a big hypodermic needle in his hands. Feet shuffled on the floor. The knives of the hired murderers flashed.

Then came the dizziness and the frenzy. Faces which drifted over his body like vultures. Hands which reached for the tubes and drew the immortal life out of him. There were swabs on his veins, and beneath them he could see the pulsing of his immortal blood.

The pains of abstinence grew stronger. He rested the wheel of the sun in his head. All at once he saw the stars in an unheard-of clarity. The Milky Way stretched out its long arms, in which young blue stars hung.

There was sweat on his chest and his back. He rang for Doctor Bundschuh. He heard the static of the Big Bang on the line. There was a droning in his ears. He cried for Helen, then for his children, but none of them moved. Then Leuw, the broker, appeared, presenting him papers which said that he had lost the murder game according to the rules.

Then at last he shut his eyes. And he felt his heart beat. And he fell down into a dark tunnel, in which light flashed and the stars turned and the comets had long trails. And he heard the wind whistle, resounding through the long tunnel, and the noise of an express train which struck him, pressing him through hard tubes and carrying him out into the night of games in which the long knives flashed and in which the immortals played for the scarce resource of their own lives.

CONTENTS


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