The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Ethic Of The Assassin, by Hayden Howard
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Title: The Ethic Of The Assassin
Author: Hayden Howard
Release Date: January 16, 2021 [eBook #64308]
Language: English
Character set encoding: UTF-8
Produced by: Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at



Incorruptible, The Assassin. The best you
could do was to buy the delicate Kri-Kri death.

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories July 1953.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

The monotonous cry of the kri-kri hushed with a clap of silence that snapped the young doctor upright in bed. Konrad had stolen his lovely wife. Was it a dream? His hand moved to find Kit's smooth, gently slumbering back. He smiled, already fuddled as to what had awakened him, and settled back comfortably again, stroking his hand along the curve of her body with a certain sleepy pride.

Three months, he thought, and Kit would bear him their first child, a pioneer five light-years from the ancestral home of his protoplasm. I wonder if he will take as long to settle down as I did?

I wonder what's the matter with the kri-kri?

As his eyes widened to note the cluster of seventeen small moons whirling past the window he heard the sputtering flight of the skar.

Quickly he faced the explosion of moonlight that silhouetted the kri-kri's cage against the window screen.

Taen said it isn't strong enough, he thought, fumbling for the light switch, then thinking better of it. The light might attract the skar.

Louder than the ventilators atop the transparent dome of the city rose the staccato airblasting of the skar. With a haunting shriek, it collided with its long, wingless shadow against the window screen. A twang, the glint of a spear quivering in the wire. A hiss and a rustle and it was gone.

By the time it struck again, Jeff had lifted the amulet Taen gave him from the night table. As he squeezed the release button, he could feel the angry vibration of the minute warrior within. A mosquito-like whine faded after a red fleck of light no larger than the eye of an insect. Like a tiny meteor, the prisoner of the amulet flashed across the mirror and quenched within the skar.

The long airsquid stuttered and blundered against the laughing mask with a crackle of its exoskeleton. As it tumbled out of sight behind the foot of the bed, Jeff slid his feet to the rug and fished for his slipper. He was in time to catch the skar slithering weakly across the rug, pumping air like a man with a crushed chest. It popped when he hit it with his slipper. Bending, white-muscled, across the moonlight, he searched for his minute defender. But its light had gone out. What he did see was the ugly gleam of man-made poison on the beak of the skar.

"Konrad, no, please," Kit's little-girl voice called from her sleep. Then she breathed regularly again.

The young doctor gritted his teeth as he closed the window and cautiously fished his pajamas from beneath the bed covers.

Tip-toeing down the cold tile hallway, buttoning up against the cold breath of the dome ventilators with his left hand while he gripped the skar with the strong, surgeon's fingers of his right, he looked more like a tousled-headed boy than a doctor, until a year ago chief surgeon on an intergalactic liner.

Quiet as he was, Taen's huge, fierce eyes met his around the varicose-veined marble pillar in the vestibule.

"Poisoned, sire." Taen's harsh voice contained more statement than question as he hopped forward, three-jointed legs still folded in his servile stance, for erect he would have stood even taller than Jeff, and rising from one's customary place indoors, according to Taen, was unthinkable. At Jeff's suggestions that he stand, he would wave his white, prosthetic hands in horror. It was not in accord with "the unwritten laws."

"Sire, see the three-circle brand on its thorax. And listen: it is said The Assassin has repurchased the necklace of his profession from the moneylenders. A very broad-shouldered Earthman masked in brass climbed the long path to The Assassin's crags two nights ago. No doubt he purchased your wife's life, enabling The Assassin to reclaim his necklace."

Jeff leaned wearily against the pillar. "Konrad."

Taen raised his kauri on its perch-staff in assent. "No doubt he retained clothing that had touched her body and with that The Assassin was able to train the skar." Taen whipped the hood from the kauri and it clattered its beak and hummed its incredibly small wings. "Are we in turn to purchase the death of Konrad?"


With the mismatched hands the doctor had fitted him from the Body Bank, Taen unsheathed his kauri's spurs. A year before, when Jeff found this mountain man lying with bleeding wrist stumps in the jungle he readily admitted he had killed without hiring The Assassin. Caught, he had been maimed and left to die in the jungle. Since only The Assassin could directly take life, since he was too expensive to be hired to execute any but the most aristocratic murderers, Taen had been merely maimed and deserted. Against his protests of the unthinkableness of it, the young doctor had saved his life and given him arms.

Taen rasped, "Then The Assassin shall not profit from my master. Though I again shatter tradition, though Konrad is Manager of the City and guarded by walking machines and ones of my people who love the imitation of power, I will do the job myself if you so wish, sire."

"You misunderstand," Jeff replied. "I would buy Konrad's life in the customary way if it would give me back my wife's. But while he lives there is a chance he will relent and leave us in peace."

"Peace is gone, sire. The bargain has been made. The honor of the countless generations of his clan demands The Assassin do his job. It has always been so. For him to fail or to accept a bribe is unthinkable. Only the purchasing party, Konrad, could cancel the agreement."

"You can't visualize Konrad doing that, can you."

"Sire, it is said that in this last year he has become a mad man of steel and poison."

The young doctor shook his head. His voice rushed out, a pressure leak of his tension. "No Taen, he was always that way. But before he lost Kit he felt safe. He felt he owned us both. He felt he owned the power of the city, and, since few clashed with his managerial decisions, for they were usually wise ones, this illusion grew in him until he felt like a god holding the world in the palm of his hand. Kit's loss is a blow at everything he thinks he holds. Now he strikes back desperately at Kit and me, at anything that threatens his power."

Jeff fumbled in his pajama pocket for his cigarettes, but they weren't there. "What can I do? He has always been set to go that way. I saw his inability to take the loss of anything, the way he identifies even small possessions with the core of himself. When I first accompanied him into the jungle to hunt suri," Jeff smiled grimly, "he lost his wrist watch, a very ordinary wrist watch, but he made us camp two days while we looked for it. He drove those beaters like animals. We had exhausted our supply of tablets for purifying the water of the jungle puddles, but, no matter, we must find his watch. He had won it in some sort of athletic contest in his youth. Although he began to blister with the fever, that fool wouldn't go to his hammock. He could hardly stand, but he kept thrashing the bushes, looking for his watch. He shouted and raved and finally tried to shoot some of the beaters. We stayed until we found his watch."

Taen shifted uneasily. "Your wife is safe until the spies of The Assassin report they see her alive, that the skar failed. Skars are expensive. He won't send another till then. We have at least until morning to do the only thing we can do, to go to him, to give him presents and please him with us so that he will rub the most expensive poison on the beak of the next skar and let your wife die as painlessly as possible."

Jeff flashed Taen a look of utter hatred. With a curse he smashed the skar against the pillar. Then he swung his fist against it with a grunt of pain, again, as though he would smash the inevitable.

"Don't punish yourself, sire. It is Konrad who must suffer."

Kit ran down the hallway to them with her hair streaming across her sleep-swollen face and her negligee clutched tight across her swelling bosom. She threw her arms about Jeff.

His face must have been very strange, for she said, "Jeff, have I done something? You wanted a baby, you said you did."

Wearily he stroked her brow. "I'm all right. Nightmare. Walking in my sleep."

Taen nodded eager assent, then stalked off as he always did in the face of sentimentality.

"Smile, Kit. I dreamt I was defending you—and our son. Of course I want a son. What gives you such funny ideas?"

She sniffed and rubbed her cheek against his chest. "I don't know. Sometimes when I start thinking of all the planets you've seen, the strange and wonderful people, the monsters and kings you've healed, I get frightened. This one planet—and I—won't be enough to hold you. I'll wake up some morning and where your head should rest I'll find a dent in the pillow. I'll hear the rockets blast off and you'll be gone wandering among the stars the way Konrad said you would."

He stiffened at Konrad's name. But she rushed on: "He used to call you The Wanderer, you know." Then she smiled at him. "I think wanderers are afraid of babies, just like seafaring men in story books were afraid of reefs and mudbanks."

Jeff managed a smile. "You're wrong, dimple cheeks, babies aren't mudbanks, they're anchors. Sure they're troublesome. You have to lug them around, hoist them up and down, clean off the rust. But without an anchor in a storm, a ship, a man and a woman, will go on the rocks.

"Taen?" Jeff called. Hawklike eyes appeared around the pillar. "Would you ask Garth to come sit with Kit."

"You going someplace at this time of night." Then she inhaled with a great gasp of breath as she noticed the crushed skar. "Konrad!"

"Very unlikely. He's probably more interested in bossing the city than in carrying out any crazy threats he once made. This airsquid undoubtedly blundered through the dome ventilators. It's a wild one. Now you go back to bed while Taen and I go raise a fuss with the Security Guards."

"Couldn't you use the telephone?" Quickly she cupped her palm over his lips. "Don't answer that if you don't want to, Doctor Jeff," she laughed. "Keep your secrets. I'm not like—like Konrad." Her voice trailed away.

As Jeff watched her hurrying back down the hall, he felt as though he could close his hands on something solid again. He didn't have a plan yet, but he had a plan for determining one. It was poker, it was play-by-ear, it was the exploratory operation. No one was going to kill his wife.

"Garth," he whirled at the ponderous jungle man. "Get the gas gun out of my gun rack. Taen, give him an amulet with an extra lively skar-killer. Here, I'm writing a note to Kit, Garth. If she should wake up before I get back and want to go outside, give it to her. It will explain why she mustn't. It will explain what I've got to do."

Jeff dressed in his study, slung his sten gun and, pressing the signal-emitter in his pocket, opened the spike-topped gate characteristic of all the great houses of the dome city. They stepped echoingly along the sidewalk.

"Sire," Taen's voice hissed. His face was searching the shadows. "I wouldn't take that sten gun. It would give The Assassin the fear to kill you. The excuse too, if your life has been purchased. If you are unarmed while you are on his territory it would be hardly honorable to kill you. And he may believe you have come to purchase the life of Konrad or to pay a smaller sum to assure that the inevitable death of your wife will be a painless one."

"My intentions are different," Jeff retorted, but at the corner he threw the gun over the wall into his garden.

Taen crowhopped behind, still in his shortlegged stance.

"But sire, to purchase the life of Konrad and a painless end for your wife is the way these things are done. Where could you hide her? There is no rocket leaving this planet for two months, and even in the jungle The Assassin's followers would find her."

Jeff did not reply as they rode the all-night street escalator up the hilly side of the city past the steep-roofed granite houses of the wealthier mountain men, constructed centuries before the city was domed over, past the flat-roofed, functional houses of the Earthmen who cared nothing for the traditional architecture, all for comfort.

"Sire, Konrad's house is still alight."

A waltz tune rose above the drone of the ventilators.

"He's having a party, sire. We could go back for the guns. We may never have another chance like this."

"No. While he lives there is still hope for Kit."

"But such a man does not relent."

"We shall see. But first I want to try to learn The Assassin's thoughts. Perhaps Taen, there are certain conditions under which he does not operate entirely by custom that you do not know about."

"He is incorruptible, sire."

"Sometimes a man's price is not wholly monetary." Jeff fitted on his respirator, then inserted their pass cards into the mouth slot of the automatic gate guard. The rush of wind as the gate of the city swung outward swept them into the ammoniated world of jungles and mountains. A dozen jetcopter drivers rushed at them, jabbering, tugging at their arms. But Taen motioned as if to loose his kauri, rasping: "Back, sons of suri," then to Jeff: "To approach The Assassin afoot is more traditional."

The quick climb up the mountain made Jeff's breath whistle back and forth through his respirator. Below, the city was a glistening bubble, and below it the alien jungle was soft black fur, its lakes and rivers mirrors for The Dancers.

"Sire," Taen fairly screamed with exhilaration. "This clean air sweeps the thick oxygen from my lungs. My soul awakes. Anything is possible."

Hitching up to full height, he raced ahead like a great ground bird and with a challenging war screech hurled his kauri from its perch stick toward the crags of The Assassin, bulbous and black, close-packed like a herd of great bulls upon the field of the Milky Way, a long climb, a high flight for skar or kauri.

The bird arched back in the windmoan, hissed over their heads, plunging toward the dome of the city.

"Sire, she stoops. A mountain man!" Taen shrilled his recall whistle frantically as the kauri pursued and struck repeatedly at a leaping, dodging shadow that silhouetted smaller and smaller against the dome in its pell-mell retreat toward the gate. Finally the bird soared up and back like a dark meteor across the stars and glided with a smack onto her perch.

"The Assassin's spy?"

"Or Konrad's, sire. A pity I called her off without thinking. We could have searched the body and learned whose."


The Assassin's outguards picked them up long before they reached the crags. Jeff could see nothing. But the rattle of pebbles, the rumble of dislodged boulders from so many directions was not encouraging. The Assassin had quite an army.

The crag tops winked yellow, flashlight eyes as Taen led the young doctor up a narrow, rock-overhung trail to a moss-bearded hole where an old mountain man motioned them inside with his spear.

Taen forestalled Jeff's question: "Yes sire, it is hardly what one would expect. You see, The Assassin's palace was magicked to sand and steam by the weapons of the first of your comrades to land upon this planet. They did not understand—they never have understood—that The Assassin's person is inviolate. They have blown away his prestige with their own mightier weapons. Every man can now be his own assassin, they say, or at least so my people have understood. Many of The Assassin's followers have joined your Security Guards. Many of his wealthiest clients now deal through them. So he is forced to haggle over the prices of his victims like a common tradesman, not in his mighty castle but in a poor cave." He pointed down the taper-lit passageway that stretched ahead of them.

"But be sure not to offer a bribe for your wife's life, sire. The Assassin will never come to that."

The monster bowed low and his tuberculed face smiled without intelligence as his charred, fingerless paw pointed their way into the labyrinth.

"That was Garnak," whispered Taen. "Sire, the ancestors of The Assassin netted him in the swamps. For generations he was their chief agent of death for those who could not afford a skar; a quick-moving creature with the understanding of a man, they trained him to kill without a sound. He was The Assassin's most prized possession. But the great mushroom of fire and dust your people made rise from The City of Three Spears scorched all the worth from Garnak. The Assassin beat his own head against the altar when they brought back the Garnak that you saw."

A glowing green man stepped from a side passage, and Taen gasped, pointing an unsteady finger at the apparition. But as the green man approached, Jeff realized Taen was not impressed by his luminescence, which was probably the result of a recent bath in a cave pool containing one of the species of phosphorescent algae for which the planet was noted. The mountain man was pointing at his hands, or rather his lack of them. Like Taen, this man had undergone the "treatment" for murder and survived. He was joined by another, a handsome young man convicted of some minor crime, without ears.

"The Assassin awaits, Doctor," said the green man.

"Here, light up a torch for the gentleman, Astro," said the earless one with a voice of minor authority. Turning to Jeff: "Would you care to leave your servant here?"

"My advisor," corrected the young doctor. "Of course he will accompany me."

Carrying the sputtering torch in a mount upon his head, the green man lighted their way toward a water-stained archway that cast faint shadows in their direction from lights within. They walked slowly, for the path was deeply eroded by cave drip.

"Taen," Jeff whispered. "Are all of his followers like that? It seems to me the old man at the entrance had a bent back—there was something wrong with him too."

"No doubt, sire. The Assassin has recently come to favor those who are not whole. They have greater loyalty, for there is no place else they could earn food, and there is another reason he likes their company which you shall soon see."

"Don't they know about the Training House for the Handicapped that we have opened?"

"Perhaps they have heard of it, sire, but what matter. They will have starved long before the waiting line moves up for them." His voice trailed off as they entered the flickering chamber of The Assassin.

A glint of silver shivered into a face. A pool of blood lumped into a red silken pillow. Between the two was brown, wrinkled flesh, old, etched in shadow, backed by candles and shapeless watchers with bright spears, mirrors with spider-cracked glass, and further back, dark holes, the nesting holes of skar.

Jeff's eyes refocused on The Assassin. The face was a mask, that of a newly-made, ruggedly handsome robot. The mouth was a cupid's bow smile. But the flesh of the torso was real. The ribs pushed against it and rearranged the shadows as The Assassin breathed. The arms stretched from it in an open-handed welcome.

Taen bowed low and Jeff followed his example.

"Be seated, reputed healer," croaked the voice of a very old man. "The other may go."

It was not until then, as he tried to find a clue to action, that Jeff noticed the mask had dents, no eyeholes.

"My advisor is inseparable to me, great one," the young doctor replied carefully. "At your pleasure, he will seat himself at my left hand." He wondered if this was too bold a reply.

Indeed, the earless young man stepped quickly from the shadows, poising a skar at shoulder height.

But The Assassin's mask turned with the pulsing of the airsquid. His voice rasped with such painful effort that the doctor in Jeff tentatively listed it as a symptom of cancer of the larynx: "Whoever you are, return my weapon to its cote. If the doctor so wishes, his advisor may remain." His mask stared straight ahead once more. "You have come to purchase the life of Konrad. Good. If I were not The Assassin, with an ethic more rigid than man's, I would have ended him myself, for it is said that he is the Earthman who ordered death to the City of Three Spears."

Jeff glanced at Taen and the mountain man nodded significantly, stroking his prosthetic hands together as if counting out money. The shadows leaned forward eagerly.

"No," Jeff's voice exploded. "I want only the return of Kit's life. Of course I do not ask you to consider anything unethical," he added with more care. "I want to learn from your own lips if there are any legitimate steps I can take to have her restored to me."

"Konrad purchased a life," croaked the voice behind the mask. "Thirty thousand credits made me the instrument of the contract, a traditional one, no side alleys or higher offers. Now only the purchaser may cancel, and will forfeit a third of his purchase price in doing so. For that you must see him."

"It is as I feared," Jeff replied slowly while a germ of a plan propagated in his mind. "All now rests with your skars. I have said I do not wish the life of Konrad. I could easily afford it. But I am a healer and, like you, have responsibilities greater than those of a common man. My purpose is to save life, just as yours is to serve others in its removal. I do not stoop to personal revenge, just as you have not. I will trouble you no more with my personal affairs."

"That is right," replied The Assassin. "You recognize that I am disadvantaged among men. I am a symbol, an institution. For my hereditary self to exact revenge for my personal self would be unthinkable. It would destroy the impartial death symbol for which I stand, for which my clan has stood for generations. Although Garnak was ruined by him and other insults as well have been inflicted on me by Konrad and his followers, like you, I cannot stoop to personal revenge."

"It is good to hear such wisdom in these law-smashing days," Jeff replied, as Taen raised his eyes in disgust toward the vague ceiling.

"Prince of Assassins," Jeff continued. "We will now speak as kindred minds, not buyers and sellers of life. Although as a doctor I can see your life is flickering out, as a friend, I feel what you feel, that to see again, to open one's eyes to the flame of the sunset, the strength of the black crags, would be the pinnacle of life."

The mask nodded quickly.

Jeff continued, his mind eyeing his plan from many angles, "I am a healer. Apart from desire for my wife's life, without obligation, I offer you sight."

The Assassin's fingers rose trembling to his mask.

"This is not a bribe?"

"It is not a bribe unless you accept it in that spirit?"

"I had not realized an Earthman would help a mountain man."

"Let your attendants tell you of my advisor's hands."

As the earless one spoke quickly in The Assassin's ear, the old man's hands struggled clumsily with the straps of his mask. When the equally nervous fingers of the earless young man replaced them, The Assassin croaked breathlessly: "If you can give me sight and your advisor hands, perhaps you will return the arms and legs, the eyes and ears of my followers. Since you are by no means a wealthy man, we will contrive to pay you for your work."

As his hands rose to the heavy circle of gold about his neck, the mask clattered across them to the floor.

Shock of horror stiffened Jeff's face. He had expected the external eye processes to be atrophied but hardly the great, scar-blackened holes that stared at him. It would be a wonder if there was any optic nerve left to tie into. Even the optic chiasma might be dead. This extreme degeneration might extend all the way to the frontal lobe of the brain.

"Let us begin your magic at once," croaked The Assassin, his death-pale face acrease with hope.

"This is not magic to be worked with the wave of a hand," Jeff replied. "It is a series of delicate operations done in quick succession: one to clear away dead tissue and see exactly what repairs need be made; a second to prepare surviving afferent and efferent nerve paths and the necessary artery and eye-muscle attachments; the third, extremely difficult, to plant the eye, to make the nerve, vein and muscle connections. These electrolystic, hormone-catalyst splices are so minute I will have to do most of the work under at least fifty power magnification."

"Then let us begin at once. There is little time."

Jeff wondered what the old man meant by that. His time? Whose time?

"As you say. My advisor and I go now to select eyes from the Body Bank. Your spies can no doubt lead you to my house. The consulting room opens on Harspa Way."

When the Earthman rose to go, a thin voice spoke from the shadows: "If this should be your idea of revenge. If our master should die upon your operating table, your end, and that of your wife, will be particularly unpleasant."

"That one is next in line when I am finished," croaked The Assassin.

Although he strained to see among the dancing shadows Jeff could not make out that one's face.


Dawn turned the great dome a delicate pink, but the chilled layer of smog within gave the jagged forms of the city a bluish cast. Cold, distorted roofs swept past them as the street escalator bore them down the interior hill. A tiny figure walked with bowed head beside a glint of water in the gray courtyard behind a kidney shaped roof.

"Look sire, it is Konrad. Perhaps he cannot sleep because he knows death is at his shoulder too. From here I could loose my kauri and before the guards awake—"

"No. I'm going to speak with him."

"But sire, if you enter his garden that would give him an excuse to kill you for trespass."

"He wouldn't risk the unfavorable publicity. That is why he is dealing through The Assassin."

When they reached the fog-snaked street that led to Konrad's, Taen found his voice in a rush of complaints. He even forgot to say, "sire."

"You are doing this all wrong. Treating The Assassin is craziness. What will it do except bring your death if you fail? Your wife is already doomed. The Assassin's bargain is made. And Konrad, he won't speak with you. He'll order his machines to shoot you. Go home and be with your wife while there is time."

But Jeff reached for the iron handle. Konrad's door swung in, as an electric eye buzzed in the wall, revealing a small metal-lined vestibule with slots in its low ceiling, for gunfire or for gas. A recorded voice rasped: "The master is not at home."

"I wish to see Konrad," Jeff shouted in a loud clear voice that set hidden mechanisms buzzing frantically.

As they droned into silence, Konrad's face, appearing drawn and strangely aged, flashed on the visa-screen.

"Go away Jeff, or I shall call the Security Guards."

"Why don't you kill me, not Kit," Jeff shouted.

At this Konrad's eyes opened huge and bright. Then they squinted again and a tiny smile rippled across his lips. "I don't know what you're talking about."

The screen blanked out and the stinging odor of chlorine began to flood the vestibule, a hint to depart, for the door was still open.

Not until they reached the spiked gate of the doctor's house did either speak.

"Sire, in my helpless anger I underestimated your wisdom. Now I see that giving The Assassin sight, if you succeed, will surely cause him to give your wife a most painless death in his gratitude, and of course he will withhold his skars until the operation is—Look sire," Taen interrupted himself, "that man at the corner, he turns his face away, Konrad's spy. Shall I—"

But Jeff was gone to find his wife.

As he held her tightly so she would not see his face he told her the truth; she had the note in her hand; she had guessed it anyway, what little she had not already known. But she didn't begin to cry until he came to the eye operation.

"Don't do that, Jeff. Since I've known you you've never done any complicated eye operations. Even the man with the ripped cornea, you sent him on the rocket back to Earth. If that murderer doesn't see, he'll kill you too. You've got so much to live for."

"Not without you, dimples. Show me your smile. That's doctor's orders. There, that's the way." Jeff forced a grin across his face. "Your hubby's subtler than he looks. Taen's underestimated me and so have you. I may not have performed this operation, but when I was an intern at Johns Hopkins I witnessed several. We'll give The Assassin sight, but by a somewhat roundabout method with rather surprising consequences. Your hubby may look dumb, but he can think more than a couple of moves ahead."

"Taen," he called, then to Kit: "Now you take good care of that son of mine. We're going to have a lot of fun watching him grow into a man."

"Pardon me sire."

"Taen, have you anyone you can absolutely trust?"

"No sire."

"Garth?" The bulky jungle man who had been leaning quietly against the pillar nodded.

"Sire, I have a brother."

"Does he closely resemble you?"

"It is said, sire, that he does not."

"Good. Take 20,000 credits from the safe behind Kit's portrait and give them to him. Tell him that when The Assassin's party reaches my house he must go to the Body Bank and purchase all the eyes—I think there are eleven pair—all they have in stock. Now he must let it slip to the attendants while he waits for the eyes to be capsuled that he was sent by Konrad. And when he is outside again, he must go to the river, open the capsules and throw the eyes far out into the water."


"Do you understand?"

"Yes sire."

"Taen, you will assist me as usual. I won't need you for this, Kit. Taen will be pretty enough for this patient. So you can catch up on your knitting. Right now I'm going to study up on the nervous systems of mountain men." As he pulled open one of the drawers of the capacious files in his study he called to Taen: "Sterilize and lay out the instruments as if we were going to do a Class 9 operation. I'll add anything else I'll need later."

When he came out to look for his cigarettes he saw Garth. Jeff's Adam's apple jerked nervously as he addressed Garth for there was frighteningly little written about the brain structures of mountain men. What there was indicated major physiological differences from Earthmen. "Garth; take your gas gun and go help Kit with her knitting. If you should hear the mountain men killing us, sneak her out her bedroom window onto the side street. She'll be completely in your care."

Taen blurted: "You could give him sight if you had the eyes from the Body Bank. Garth can't hide her very long at best. I don't understand sire."

"You will. Remember, we're playing this by ear. Things will open up as we go along. I want to see The Assassin's reaction before I decide exactly what will be your part in my next move."

"Even assuming you have a plan, sire, how will The Assassin get past the Security Guards to come here for the operation?"

"That's his worry," Jeff retorted curtly. "Fight his way, bribe his way. He knows what he's doing." Already the young doctor's fingers were stiffening. He was painfully conscious of the aches in his legs and back from the long climb. His head hummed. He needed sleep. Not so good for a delicate operation. He shrugged and went back to his reading.

When The Assassin finally came, he came in style. Jeff heard the firing while the mountain men were still blocks away.

Bursting in, bristling with sten guns, bomb throwers, dripping-beaked skars, they carried the old man in their midst like a sack of tubi.

"The guard who is regularly stationed at the hill gate had been replaced by an idealist," the earless young man panted. "But the master has sent twenty men to the Coliseum to create a diversion that may give us a few hours."

"Even under the best conditions this operation takes six hours," Jeff exclaimed.

As Taen stripped off his filthy robes, The Assassin croaked: "It had better take much less. I have not that many men to throw away."

He snarled as Taen in his haste nicked his blue-veined skull with the razor. And he muttered with senile detachment as he was swabbed with K2X, sheeted and strapped down upon the table. His black eye cavities turned with suspicion, as though they could see, when Jeff's damp hands squeaked into the rubber gloves.

"May the gods lean over your shoulder, sire," Taen whispered.

The two stepped into the glare of germicidal lamps, steel instruments, steel table, glinting knives of light, while the followers of the old man like dark crags lined the wall, a barrier to the door.


The Assassin's breathing was as thunderous as the air blasting of a skar.

"Crank down the variable reflection viewer."

Desultory gunfire echoed through the dome city as Jeff focused the eyepiece until the scar tissue appeared like two black radishes extending into the gray blur of the forebrain. But when he increased the reflective depth the myelin covering of the optic chiasma glistened whitely. He exhaled with relief. There was still a gateway to the cerebrum.

The Assassin's breathing subsided to a gentle whisper.


While the gunshots rattled closer, Jeff cored into the dead tissue with the apparent unconcern of a boy cutting out the eye of a potato. But when he reached tissue of a pinkish tinge he moved with infinite caution.

The doctor was conscious of the huge cables of the efferent nerves that lay beneath his low-powered microscope and of the delicate two-fingered probe that moved among them, guided by control knobs rather than the coarse direct hand of man, testing, searching for life.

A sound so quick it eroded diseased tissue, yet did not harm the living cells, an ultra high frequency vibration that sand-blasted with the molecules of the air for sand, became his tool. It cleared the way where muscles would be soldered with quick-growing hormone and cell solutions. It brought neurons to the surface like the skeletons of dinosaurs and made them wince visibly beneath the microscope. It cut with inhuman precision for it was the extension of a semi-robot who saw with echoes and obeyed Jeff's hands only in the broad, general plan of the operation. It found live muscles and made their striated bodies shorten and lengthen agonizingly like great slugs when it laid them bare. It did all the work in an area less than an inch square.

A copter roared low and someone near the wall dropped a sten gun with a hand-shaking clatter. Straightening quickly, Jeff blinked his eyes and swore at the world in general. Taen nudged his side, then wrote on a pad: "What do you intend to do for eyes?"

Jeff's paw sagged. Lost on his microscopic battleground he had forgotten primary considerations. It took him a moment to remember what they were.

"No eyes, yes. Eyes. Send the earless one to the Body Bank to get them."

"But Garth's brother has thrown them away...."

"Yes, but send for them anyway. The description and order are in my shirt pocket. Also my personal check. Get him started."

Long before the outer door clicked shut Jeff was lost in his microscopic universe, snipping veins and small arteries, lightly sealing them so they could be opened again.


By the time the earless one returned, wide-eyed and breathless, Jeff had stepped away from the table for a cigarette. The Assassin was moaning gently in the short time of consciousness the young doctor had planned for him between rounds. It was important that the old man be conscious. To make sure, Jeff had given him a hypo of a far different action than the first.

"Gone," The Assassin echoed his follower's words.

As he struggled feebly against his straps, the earless one managed to gasp that an agent of Konrad's had bought them just a short time before, all eleven pair.

Jeff swore appropriately.

"Let him up," hissed the earless one, "You Earthmen are all in this together."

"Don't stand there, you fool," Jeff shouted theatrically. "Konrad is in this alone. He could not permit the power of an Assassin with sight. Go to him. Take back those eyes."

"Quickly," The Assassin echoed.

"But you must go too," Jeff exclaimed as he unfastened the old man from the table. "Only you can lead them against such a one as Konrad. Taen, give me those bandages. Great Assassin, here I give you an injection to give you strength. And Taen will accompany you."

While his followers helped the old man into his robes, the young doctor drew Taen aside.

"Take a robe from one of these men so that you will not be recognized. You have said you understood these people, how to handle them. Now is your chance to show me, for our lives, yours included, depend on it. All you have to do is plant the proper suggestions in their minds. They will force you to do the rest." He handed Taen a satchel of surgical tools and a small tubular freezer, and he explained in detailed steps what he had in mind.

Finally Taen nodded, his eyes fierce with excitement. "I understand, sire. There are moments when men will agree to anything."

"Let him suggest it himself. Just plant the thought there."

Taen patted the satchel and followed the motley crowd of mountain men out into the morning.

Pacing the empty room, Jeff lit another cigarette, threw it away and lit another. Maybe he should have gone himself? But he would have been recognized. Then it would be the Security Guards—

"Somebody shot a hole in my wall," a small voice announced.

Jeff surprised himself with laughter. It seemed like everybody was out to get them.

"Shall I plug it with my finger, dimples?"

She bluffed as if to spill the coffee on him.

"No sugar this time, sugar." He stepped quickly to the window and fitted his eye between the drawn curtains, but the siege apparently had turned into a pursuit of the mountain men for the street was empty except for a Security Guard curled in a pool that reflected the redness of the morning sun. The mountain men could take care of themselves, handicaps or no. They had better. His life and Kit's depended on it. It would be ironic if The Assassin were killed.

"What are you staring at?"

"Just ogling a jungle Venus." The strain of the operation had lifted with such sudden relief that he could take nothing seriously. Even the thousand things that could go wrong did not weigh upon him as he sipped the scalding coffee. It was the moment between pains.

"I keyholed the operation even though Garth got angry. You were wonderful, hubby. At least I guess you were. But isn't that old murderer apt to die of shock."

"If he does that, and his men come back here, Garth will take you out of the window. But he's a tough old devil, have to be to last this long." He explained that Konrad had bought all the eyes, cauterizing the lie with scalding coffee. His nerves were beginning to hum again. This was dirty business, he thought, as he watched her over the coffee cup, memorizing the tilt of her head, the gloss of her eyelids, the gentle S-curve of hair down her cheek with a little roll-over where it touched her shoulder; but nobody was going to hurt Kit.

He closed his eyes, saw her as he first saw her, bright with silk, twirling beneath the masks at the Festival Ball. But the man with broad shoulders who bent her back and whispered in her hair, then looked up for all the world to see his pride, was Konrad. Even after his threats, she had said very little against him. Perhaps she had a vaguely guilty feeling too. People were the way they were. Konrad was a prime example. When you pressed the proper buttons they did what they were set to do. Could you blame such a man as Konrad? He shivered and prayed Kit would never learn what was happening to Konrad just then.

When the next rocket came in two months, they'd be on it. She'd be happier if she never knew.

"It's awfully quiet Jeff."

"Not for long."

The Assassin's men returned in comparative silence. Bloodsoaked and weary, they filed in and laid the old man upon the table. Immediately, Jeff prepared another hypo, for The Assassin was white and shallow-breathing from shock. It would be better to postpone the last phase of the operation, but Taen was already opening the freezing cylinder to show him their success.

The earless man set a moist package on the floor beneath the table. "Guards fought like women," he smiled. "We can keep them off till you're done."

Jeff looked around. Kit had already left the room. Quickly he stripped off the bandages as Taen raised his hands to the germicidal light, then moved rather clumsily to assist.

"What happened?" Jeff hissed from the corner of his mouth.

Taen failed to answer. Jeff cursed softly. Without knowing what had passed between Konrad and The Assassin, how was he to act?

With an unsteady hand that could ruin the operation, Taen jabbed the suction hose at the orbital cavity. As Jeff turned to him the mountain man fell heavily against the table, reeled back with an apologetic expression on his oddly pale face and sat down with a thud on the floor.

"What's the matter, you hurt?"

The mountain man's jaw opened and closed like that of a stranded fish. His eyes bulged and perspiration beaded his brow but words would not come.

The earless man squatted beside them. "Perhaps when he was cutting out the eyes he stayed too long in the room where the gas was."

"What kind of gas?"

"I don't know the names of gases."

"Dammit, what did it smell like? Salty? Stinging?"

"No, like the flower with the red and white petals. Leave him alone," the young man's voice rose in sudden authority. "You haven't time for him. Put in the eyes."

But Jeff hastened to the medicine cabinet and took out an emetic and a heart stimulant. He knew that gas.

"Get to work on the master, I said." The earless one's voice rose a notch. "Quick or I shall kill you." He brought the large muzzle of his sten gun in line with Jeff's eyes.

"And The Assassin will die on the table," the doctor retorted as he pried open Taen's mouth.

"Garth," he shouted as he injected the heart stimulant into the now retching Taen.

When the jungle man came in, Jeff said, "Put him to bed. I'll be in to see him in a little while. You, throw away that sten gun and stick your hands close to that light. You're going to assist me with the operation."

"Me?" shrilled the young man.

"Yes. Turn the palms of your hands to the light. If you don't follow my directions, if you make the slightest mistake, you will have killed your master." Jeff examined the eyes in the solution. A neat job of removal, he thought. Plenty of surrounding meat to fill in the spaces. The one way to play this was as if the plan had worked. "Come here, stupid, let me show you the correct way to hold the hose."

As he pruned unnecessary tissue from the right eye, and injected the cell-stimulating pro-op into the six loosely hanging muscles that would turn it, Jeff tried to find out, without giving his plan away, what had passed between The Assassin and Konrad, presuming that they found Konrad. But the earless one was so nervous his replies didn't make sense.


A grenade exploded outside, followed by a moaning voice. A mountain man burst into the operating room. "We can't hold them much longer. They must have finished the boys at the Coliseum because now there are hundreds of them. They're shooting at the house down the block. Pretty soon they'll figure out this is the house. Hurry it up."

Deliberately Jeff forgot the outside world and concentrated on the operation. With steady hands he drew out the end of the optic nerve like a small white worm and brought it close to the cross street of nerves in the old man's forehead, the optic chiasma. Wielding the high frequency sound nozzle with more speed than care, he eroded plenty of working area from the frontal bone. If he lived, this old man's forehead would be a veritable silver mine.

Nudging the earless one to use the suction hose so he could see what he was doing, Jeff slid the eye closer into its socket. He cranked down the reflection viewer and focused its rays through the eyeball. Now he had to work down through the cut between eye and forebrain and the going, even with the help of the semi-robot's steady hand, was uncertain. He didn't bother too much with the muscles, just sewed them in and injected the growth catalyst. The arteries he sealed neatly together, squinting through the micro of the reflection viewer and focusing tediously on each one. A lot of blood was leaking down the old man's cheek though. If Taen were there to help he'd order a small transfusion.

As he worked on the second eye, The Assassin grew paler. Jeff gave him a hypo.

It was then that he saw what he should have seen all along—the golden necklace was gone.

An honest old devil, he thought. Probably left it on Konrad's chest, I hope. Unless he dropped it somewhere, the deal must be cancelled. Kit's safe—unless the old devil dies on me or can't see.

He stopped worrying about that and concentrated on making The Assassin see.

When it was over Jeff grinned with more confidence than he felt. The young man sat down on the floor with his head lowered between his knees. The Assassin began to groan very faintly. A grenade exploded against the side of the house.

Fumbling in his pants pocket for a match, Jeff addressed the few assassins that remained. "Better get him out of here right away."

"But how do we know it wasn't a trick? How do we know he can see?" A short, weary-faced mountain man leaned against the door jamb, a skar cradled under his arm. His voice had the unpleasant sound of the one The Assassin said was to be successor. "He sees or you die."

"Come here." Jeff raised one of the eyelids. As he shadowed the staring eye with his hand the pupil enlarged perceptibly.

"But can he see out of it?"

"It may be some days before he can even distinguish light from darkness," Jeff replied cautiously.

With luck the old man might be able to do that now but there was no use sticking his neck out with his and Kit's lives depending on it.

"Then you are coming with us."

As Jeff opened his mouth to protest, the old man groaned loudly, then croaked: "The sky so blue. My crags, my people, the bright and glorious sun." He strained toward the germicidal light.

The earless young man rose to his side gasping: "He is dying."

"No," Jeff insisted. "He has just distinguished light from darkness. You'd better get him out of here before the Security Guards close in on this house."

"But first I must see the woman," the old man cried. "The cancellation of her death has cost me my necklace. After we disarmed Konrad, your advisor spoke alone with him; that accursed one begged me to cancel our agreement. To be ethical I had to give him the necklace since it was where the money went." He paused for breath. "I must see this woman who is worth more than a necklace. While Konrad was screaming some nonsense about your advisor double-crossing him, I swore I would see her who has cost me my necklace and the waste of a skar."

"But your eyes won't focus yet."

"We shall see. Let me up. Shade me from the sun."

So what if she sees him, Jeff thought. He will be just "that old murderer" with stranger's eyes.

He switched off The Assassin's "sun." Kit entered. The followers sidled from her advance, until the old man sat alone before her upon the operating table, turning his head vainly from side to side. For there was little current in the great nerves of his eyes as yet. The unused synapses did not make full contact.

"Woman, I hear your breathing. Your scent is close to me. Ranad, give me light again."

The heir swept back the curtain, throwing a beam of sunlight across the operating room. It gilded the side of the old man's face and as he turned his head blindly toward it, it lighted his strange eyes huge and bright.

Wide and deep, with buried spiders of red, fringed by lashes that beat as frantically as the wings of a wounded kauri, the eyes glowed. Their small black centers mirrored in duplicate Kit's face. They reflected in miniature her slow collapse into Jeff's arms in the instant of silence that followed her one word: "Konrad."

As Jeff carried her from the room, the earless young man crowded ahead of him, unwrapping his damp package.

"Please sire, am I not next?" He waved a freshly cut pair of ears in Jeff's face.

"Not right now," the doctor mumbled absently as he pushed through the doorway.

The door closed. The weapons of the assassins clashed bravely as they prepared the retreat to the crags and the old man croaked ecstatically of the beautiful woman he could not possibly have seen.

Two months later the outgoing rocket carried two passengers who held hands. A third passenger was on the way, an Earthman to be.

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