A plague of Demons And Other Storiesby Keith Laumer

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3He was standing on a steep hillside, looking down across a sweep of meadows to a plain far below. There were clumps of trees, and a river. In the distance a herd of animals grazed among low shrubbery. No road wound along the valley floor; no boats dotted the river; no village nestled at its bend. The far hills were innocent of trails, fences, houses, the rectangles of plowed acres. There were no contrails in the wide blue sky. No vagrant aroma of exhaust fumes, no mutter of internal combustion, no tin cans, no pop bottles—In short, no people.Dan turned. The portal still shimmered faintly in the bright air. He thrust his head through, found himself staring into the locker room. The yellow-clad Neanderthaloid glanced at him."Say," Dan said, ignoring the sensation of a hot wire around his neck, "can't we talk this thing over?""Better get your head out of there before it shuts down," the guard said cheerfully. "Otherwise—ssskkkttt!""What about some reading matter? And look, I get these head colds. Does the temperature drop here at night? Any dangerous animals? What do I eat?""Here." The guard reached into a hopper, took out a handful of pamphlets. "These are supposed to be for guys that are relocated without prejudice. You know, poor slobs that just happened to see too much, but I'll let you have one. Let's see . . . Anglic, Anglic . . ." He selected one, handed it to Dan."Thanks.""Better get clear."Dan withdrew his head. He sat down on the grass and looked over the booklet. It was handsomely printed in bright colors. WELCOME TO RELOCATION CENTER NO. 23 said the cover. Below the heading was a photo of a group of sullen-looking creatures of varying heights and degrees of hairiness wearing paper hats. The caption read: Newcomers Are Welcomed Into a Gay Round of Social Activity. Hi, Newcomer! Dan opened the book. A photo showed a scene identical to the one before him, except that in place of the meadow, there was a parklike expanse of lawn, dotted with rambling buildings with long porches lined with rockers. There were picnic tables under spreading trees, and beyond, on the river, a yacht basin crowded with canoes and rowboats.* * *"Life in a Community Center is Grand Fun!" Dan read. "Activities! Brownies, Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Sea Scouts, Tree Scouts, Cave Scouts, PTA, Shriners, Bear Cult, Rotary, Daughters of the Eastern Star, Mothers of the Big Banana, Dianetics—you name it! A Group for Everyone, and Everyone in a Group!"Classes in conversational Urdu, Sprotch, Yiddish, Gaelic, Fundu, etc; knot-tying, rug-hooking, leatherwork, Greek Dancing, finger-painting and many, many others!Little Theatre!Indian Dance Pageants!Round Table Discussions!Town Meetings!* * *Dan thumbed on through the pages of emphatic print, stopped at a double-page spread labeled A Few Do's and Don'ts. All of us want to make a GO of relocation. So—let's remember the Uranium Rule: Don't Do It! The Other Guy May Be Bigger!Remember the other fellow's taboos!What to you might be merely a wholesome picnic or mating bee may offend others. What some are used to doing in groups, others consider a solitary activity. Most taboos have to do with eating, sex, elimination, or gods; so remember, look before you sit down, lie down, squat down or kneel down!Ladies With Beards Please Note:Friend husband may be on the crew clearing clogged drains—so watch that shedding in the lavatories, eh, girls? And you fellas, too! Sure, good grooming pays—but groom each other out in the open, okay?NOTE: There has been some agitation for "separate but equal" facilities. Now, honestly, folks; is that in the spirit of Center No. 23? Males and females will continue to use the same johns as always. No sexual chauvinism will be tolerated.A Word to The Kiddies!No brachiating will be permitted in the Social Center area. After all, a lot of the Dads sleep up there. There are plenty of other trees!Daintiness Pays!In these more-active-than-ever days, Personal Effluvium can get away from us almost before we notice. And that hearty scent may not be as satisfying to others as it is to ourselves! So remember, fellas: watch that P.E.! (Lye soap, eau de Cologne, flea powder and other beauty aids available at supply shed!)* * *Dan tossed the book aside. There were worse things than solitude. It looked like a pretty nice world—and it was all his—so far.The entire North American continent, all of South America, Europe, Asia, Africa—the works. He could cut down trees, build a hut, furnish it. There'd be hunting—he could make a bow and arrows—and the skins would do to make clothes. He could start a little farming, fish the streams, sun bathe—all the things he'd never had time to do back home. It wouldn't be so bad. And eventually Dzhackoon would arrange for his release. It might be just the kind of vacation—"Ah, Dan, my boy!" a bass voice boomed. Dan jumped and spun around.Blote's immense face blinked at him from the portal. There was a large green bruise over one eye. He wagged a finger reproachfully."That was a dirty trick, Dan. My former employees were somewhat disgruntled, I'm sorry to say. But we'd best be off now. There's no time to waste.""How did you get here?" Dan demanded."I employed a pocket signaler to recall my carrier—and none too soon." He touched his bruised eye gingerly. "A glance at the instruments showed me that you had visited the park. I followed and observed a IDMS Portal. Being of an adventurous turn, and, of course, concerned for your welfare, I stepped through—""Why didn't they arrest you? I was picked up for operating the carrier.""They had some such notion. A whiff of stun gas served to discourage them. Now let's hurry along before the management revives.""Wait a minute, Blote. I'm not sure I want to be rescued by you—in spite of your concern for my welfare.""Rubbish, Dan! Come along." Blote looked around. "Frightful place! No population! No commerce! No deals!""It has its compensations; I think I'll stay. You run along.""Abandon a colleague? Never!""If you're still expecting me to deliver a time machine, you're out of luck. I don't have one.""No? Ah, well, in a way I'm relieved. Such a device would upset accepted hyper-physical theory. Now, Dan, you mustn't imagine I harbor ulterior motives—but I believe our association will yet prove fruitful."Dan rubbed a finger across his lower lip thoughtfully. "Look, Blote, you need my help. Maybe you can help me at the same time. If I come along, I want it understood that we work together. I have an idea—""But of course, Dan! Now shake a leg!"Dan sighed and stepped through the portal. The yellow-clad guard lay on the floor, snoring. Blote led the way back into the great hall. IDMS officials were scattered across the floor, slumped over desks, or lying limp in chairs. Blote stopped before one of a row of shimmering portals."After you, Dan.""Are you sure this is the right one?""Quite."Dan stepped through in the now familiar chill and found himself back in the park. A small dog sniffing at the carrier caught sight of Blote, lowered his leg and fled."I want to pay Mr. Snithian a visit," Dan said, climbing into a seat."My idea exactly," Blote agreed, lowering his bulk into place."Don't get the idea I'm going to help you steal anything.""Dan! A most unkind remark. I merely wish to look into certain matters.""Just so you don't start looking into the safe."Blote tsk!ed, moved a lever. The carrier climbed over a row of blue trees and headed west. 4Blote brought the carrier in high over the Snithian Estate, dropped lower and descended gently through the roof. The pale, spectral servants moving about their duties in the upper hall failed to notice the wraithlike cage passing soundlessly among them.In the dining room, Dan caught sight of the girl—Snithian's daughter, perhaps—arranging shadowy flowers on a sideboard."Let me take it," Dan whispered. Blote nodded. Dan steered for the kitchen, guided the carrier to the spot on which he had first emerged from the vault, then edged down through the floor. He brought the carrier to rest and neutralized all switches in a shower of sparks and blue light.The vault door stood open. There were pictures stacked on the bunk now, against the wall, on the floor. Dan stepped from the carrier, went to the nearest heap of paintings. They had been dumped hastily, it seemed. They weren't even wrapped. He examined the topmost canvas, still in a heavy frame; as though, he reflected, it had just been removed from a gallery wall—"Let's look around for Snithian," Dan said. "I want to talk to him.""I suggest we investigate the upper floors, Dan. Doubtless his personal pad is there.""You use the carrier; I'll go up and look the house over.""As you wish, Dan." Blote and the carrier flickered and faded from view.Dan stooped, picked up the pistol he had dropped half an hour earlier in the scuffle with Fiorello and stepped out into the hall. All was silent. He climbed stairs, looked into rooms. The house seemed deserted. On the third floor he went along a corridor, checking each room. The last room on the west side was fitted as a study. There was a stack of paintings on a table near the door. Dan went to them, examined the top one.It looked familiar. Wasn't it one that Look said was in the Art Institute at Chicago?There was a creak as of an unoiled hinge. Dan spun around. A door stood open at the far side of the room—a connecting door to a bedroom, probably."Keep well away from the carrier, Mr. Slane," a high, thin voice said from the shadows. The tall, cloaked figure of Clyde W. Snithian stepped into view, a needle-barreled pistol in his hand."I thought you'd be back," he piped. "It makes my problem much simpler. If you hadn't appeared soon, it would have been necessary for me to shift the scene of my operations. That would have been a nuisance."* * *Dan eyed the gun. "There are a lot more paintings downstairs than there were when I left," he said. "I don't know much about art, but I recognize a few of them.""Copies," Snithian snapped."This is no copy," Dan tapped the top painting on the stack. "It's an original. You can feel the brushwork.""Not prints, of course. Copies," Snithian whinnied. "Exact copies.""These paintings are stolen, Mr. Snithian. Why would a wealthy man like you take to stealing art?""I'm not here to answer questions, Mr. Slane!" The weapon in Snithian's hand buzzed. A wave of pain swept over Dan. Snithian cackled, lowering the gun. "You'll soon learn better manners."Dan's hand went to his pocket, came out holding the automatic. He ai

ed it at Snithian's face. The industrialist froze, eyes on Dan's gun."Drop the gun," Dan snapped. Snithian's weapon clattered to the floor. "Now let's go and find Kelly," Dan ordered."Wait!" Snithian shrilled. "I can make you a rich man, Slane.""Not by stealing paintings.""You don't understand. This is more than petty larceny!!""That's right. It's grand larceny. These pictures are worth millions.""I can show you things that will completely change your attitude. Actually, I've acted throughout in the best interests of humanity!"Dan gestured with the gun. "Don't plan anything clever. I'm not used to guns. This thing will go off at the least excuse, and then I'd have a murder to explain.""That would be an inexcusable blunder on your part!" Snithian keened. "I'm a very important figure, Slane." He crossed the deep-pile rug to a glass-doored cabinet. "This," he said, taking out a flat black box, "contains a fortune in precious stones." He lifted the lid. Dan stepped closer. A row of brilliant red gems nestled in a bed of cotton."Rubies?""Flawless—and perfectly matched." Snithian whinnied. "Perfectly matched. Worth a fortune. They're yours, if you cooperate.""You said you were going to change my attitude. Better get started."* * *"Listen to me, Slane. I'm not operating independently. I'm employed by the Ivroy, whose power is incalculable. My assignment had been to rescue from destruction irreplaceable works of art fated to be consumed in atomic fire.""What do you mean—fated?""The Ivroy knows these things. These paintings—all your art—are unique in the Galaxy. Others admire but they cannot emulate. In the cosmos of the far future, the few surviving treasures of your dawn art will be valued beyond all other wealth. They alone will give a renewed glimpse of the universe as it appeared to the eyes of your strange race in its glory.""My strange race?"Snithian drew himself up. "I am not of your race." He threw his cloak aside and straightened.Dan gaped as Snithian's body unfolded, rising up, long, three-jointed arms flexing, stretching out. The bald head ducked now under the beamed ceiling. Snithian chuckled shrilly."What about that inflexible attitude of yours, now, Mister Slane?" he piped. "Have I made my point?""Yes, but—" Dan squeaked. He cleared his throat and tried again. "But I've still got the gun.""Oh, that." An eight-foot arm snaked out, flicked the gun aside. "I've only temporized with you because you can be useful to me, Mister Slane. I dislike running about, and I therefore employ locals to do my running for me. Accept my offer of employment, and you'll be richly rewarded.""Why me?""You already know of my presence here. If I can enlist your loyalty, there will be no need to dispose of you, with the attendant annoyance from police, relatives and busybodies. I'd like you to act as my agent in the collection of the works.""Nuts to you!" Dan said. "I'm not helping any bunch of skinheads commit robbery.""This is for the Ivroy, you fool!" Snithian said. "The mightiest power in the cosmos!""This Ivroy doesn't sound so hot to me—robbing art galleries—""To be adult is to be disillusioned. Only realities count. But no matter. The question remains: Will you serve me loyally?""Hell, no!" Dan snapped."Too bad. I see you mean what you say. It's to be expected, I suppose. Even an infant fire-cat has fangs.""You're damn right I mean it. How did you get Percy and Fiorello on your payroll? I'm surprised even a couple of bums would go to work for a scavenger like you.""I suppose you refer to the precious pair recruited by Blote. That was a mistake, I fear. It seemed perfectly reasonable at the time. Tell me, how did you overcome the Vegan? They're a very capable race, generally speaking.""You and he work together, eh?" Dan said. "That makes things a little clearer. This is the collection station and Blote is the fence.""Enough of your conjectures. You leave me no choice but to dispose of you. It's a nuisance, but it can't be helped. I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to accompany me down to the vault."Dan eyed the door; if he were going to make a break, now was the time— The whine of the carrier sounded. The ghostly cage glided through the wall and settled gently between Dan and Snithian. The glow died.Blote waved cheerfully to Dan as he eased his grotesque bulk from the seat."Good day to you, Snithian," Blote boomed. "I see you've met Dan. An enterprising fellow.""What brings you here, Gom Blote?" Snithian shrilled. "I thought you'd be well on your way to Vorplisch by now.""I was tempted, Snithian. But I don't spook easy. There is the matter of some unfinished business.""Excellent!" Snithian exclaimed. "I'll have another consignment ready for you by tomorrow.""Tomorrow! How is it possible, with Percy and Fiorello lodged in the hoosegow?" Blote looked around; his eye fell on the stacked paintings. He moved across to them, lifted one, glanced at the next, then shuffled rapidly through the stack. He turned."What duplicity is this, Snithian?" he rumbled. "All identical! Our agreement called for limited editions, not mass production! My principals will be furious! My reputation—""Shrivel your reputation!" Snithian keened. "I have more serious problems at the moment! My entire position's been compromised. I'm faced with the necessity of disposing of this blundering fool!""Dan? Why, I'm afraid I can't allow that, Snithian." Blote moved to the carrier, dumped an armful of duplicate paintings in the cage. "Evidence," he said. "The Confederation has methods for dealing with sharp practice. Come, Dan, if you're ready . . .""You dare to cross me?" Snithian hissed. "I, who act for the Ivroy?"Blote motioned to the carrier. "Get in, Dan. We'll be going now." He rolled both eyes to bear on Snithian. "And I'll deal with you later," he rumbled. "No one pulls a fast one on Gom Blote, Trader Fourth Class—or on the Vegan Federation."Snithian moved suddenly, flicking out a spidery arm to seize the weapon he had dropped, aim and trigger. Dan, in a wash of pain, felt his knees fold. He fell slackly to the floor. Beside him, Blote sagged, his tentacles limp."I credited you with more intelligence," Snithian cackled. "Now I have an extra ton of protoplasm to dispose of. The carrier will be useful in that connection." 5Dan felt a familiar chill in the air. A Portal appeared. In a puff of icy mist, a tall figure stepped through.Gone was the tight uniform. In its place, the lanky Australopithecine wore skin-tight blue jeans and a loose sweatshirt. An oversized beret clung to the small round head. Immense dark glasses covered the yellowish eyes, and sandals flapped on the bare, long-toed feet. Dzhackoon waved a long cigarette holder at the group."Ah, a stroke of luck! How nice to find you standing by. I had expected to have to conduct an intensive search within the locus. Thus the native dress. However—" Dzhackoon's eyes fell on Snithian standing stiffly by, the gun out of sight."You're of a race unfamiliar to me," he said. "Still, I assume you're aware of the Interdict on all Anthropoid-populated loci?""And who might you be?" Snithian inquired loftily."I'm a Field Agent of the Interdimensional Monitor Service.""Ah, yes. Well, your Interdict means nothing to me. I'm operating directly under Ivroy auspices." Snithian touched a glittering pin on his drab cloak.Dzhackoon sighed. "There goes the old arrest record.""He's a crook!" Dan cut in. "He's been robbing art galleries!""Keep calm, Dan," Blote murmured. "No need to be overly explicit."The Agent turned to look the Trader over."Vegan, aren't you? I imagine you're the fellow I've been chasing.""Who, me?" the bass voice rumbled. "Look, officer, I'm a home-loving family man, just passing through. As a matter of fact—"The uniformed creature nodded toward the paintings in the carrier. "Gathered a few souvenirs, I see.""For the wives and kiddie. Just a little something to brighten up the hive.""The penalty for exploitation of a sub-cultural Anthropoid-occupied body is stasis for a period not to exceed one reproductive cycle. If I recall my Vegan biology, that's quite a stretch.""Why, officer! Surely you're not putting the arm on a respectable, law-abiding being like me? Why, I lost a tentacle fighting in defense of peace—" As he talked, Blote moved toward the carrier."—your name, my dear fellow," he went on. "I'll mention it to the Commissioner, a very close friend of mine." Abruptly the Vegan reached for a lever—The long arms in the tight white jacket reached to haul him back effortlessly. "That was unwise, sir. Now I'll be forced to recommend subliminal reorientation during stasis." He clamped stout handcuffs on Blote's broad wrists."You Vegans," he said, dusting his hands briskly. "Will you never learn?""Now, officer," Blote said, "you're acting hastily. Actually, I'm working in the interest of this little world, as my associate Dan will gladly confirm. I have information which will be of considerable interest to you. Snithian has stated that he is in the employ of the Ivroy—""If the Ivroy's so powerful, why was it necessary to hire Snithian to steal pictures?" Dan interrupted."Perish the thought, Dan. Snithian's assignment was merely to duplicate works of art and transmit them to the Ivroy.""Here," Snithian cut in. "Restrain that obscene mouth!"Dzhackoon raised a hand. "Kindly remain silent, sir. Permit my prisoners their little chat.""You may release them to my custody," Snithian snapped.Dzhackoon shook his head. "Hardly, sir. A most improper suggestion—even from an agent of the Ivroy." He nodded at Dan. "You may continue.""How do you duplicate works of art?" Dan demanded."With a matter duplicator. But, as I was saying, Snithian saw an opportunity to make extra profits by retaining the works for repeated duplications and sale to other customers—such as myself.""You mean there are other—customers—around?""I have dozens of competitors, Dan, all busy exporting your artifacts. You are an industrious and talented race, you know.""What do they buy?""A little of everything, Dan. It's had an influence on your designs already, I'm sorry to say. The work is losing its native purity."Dan nodded. "I have had the feeling some of this modern furniture was designed for Martians.""Ganymedans, mostly. The Martians are graphic arts fans, while your automobiles are designed for the Plutonian trade. They have a baroque sense of humor.""What will the Ivroy do when he finds out Snithian's been double-crossing him?""He'll think of something, I daresay. I blame myself for his defection, in a way. You see, it was my carrier which made it possible for Snithian to carry out his thefts. Originally, he would simply enter a gallery, inconspicuously scan a picture, return home and process the recording through the duplicator. The carrier gave him the idea of removing works en masse, duplicating them and returning them the next day. Alas, I agreed to join forces with him. He grew greedy. He retained the paintings here and proceeded to produce vast numbers of copies—which he doubtless sold to my competitors, the crook!"Dzhackoon had whipped out a notebook and was jotting rapidly."Now, let's have those names and addresses," he said. "This will be the biggest round-up in IDMS history.""And the pinch will be yours, dear sir," Blote said. "I foresee early promotion for you." He held out his shackled wrists. "Would you mind?""Well . . ." Dzhackoon hesitated, but unlocked the cuffs. "I think I'm on firm ground. Just don't mention it to Inspector Spoghodo.""You can't do that!" Snithian snapped. "These persons are dangerous!""That is my decision. Now—"Snithian brought out the pistol with a sudden movement. "I'll brook no interference from meddlers—"* * *There was a sound from the door. All heads turned. The girl Dan had seen in the house stood in the doorway, glancing calmly from Snithian to Blote to Dzhackoon. When her eyes met Dan's she smiled. Dan thought he had never seen such a beautiful face—and the figure matched."Get out, you fool!" Snithian snapped. "No; come inside, and shut the door.""Leave the girl out of this, Snithian," Dan croaked."Now I'll have to destroy all of you," Snithian keened. "You first of all, ugly native!" He aimed the gun at Dan."Put the gun down, Mr. Snithian," the girl said in a warm, melodious voice. She seemed completely unworried by the grotesque aliens, Dan noted abstractedly.Snithian swiveled on her. "You dare—!""Oh, yes, I dare, Snithian." Her voice had a firm ring now.Snithian stared at her. "Who . . . are you . . . ?""I am the Ivroy."Snithian wilted. The gun fell to the floor. His fantastically tall figure drooped, his face suddenly gray."Return to your home, Snithian," the girl said sadly. "I will deal with you later.""But . . . but . . ." His voice was a thin squeak."Did you think you could conceal your betrayal from the Ivroy?" she said softly.Snithian turned and blundered from the room, ducking under the low door. The Ivroy turned to Dzhackoon."You and your Service are to be commended," she said. "I leave the apprehension of the culprits to you." She nodded at Blote. "I will rely on you to assist in the task—and to limit your operations thereafter to non-interdicted areas.""But of course, your worship. You have my word as a Vegan. Do visit me on Vorplisch some day. I'd love the wives and kiddie to meet you." He blinked rapidly. "So long, Dan. It's been crazy cool."Dzhackoon and Blote stepped through the Portal. It shimmered and winked out. The Ivroy faced Dan. He swallowed hard, watching the play of light in the shoulder-length hair, golden, fine as spun glass . . . "Your name is Dan?" Her musical voice interrupted his survey."Dan Slane," he said. He took a deep breath. "Are you really the Ivroy?""I am of the Ivroy, who are many and one.""But you look like—just a beautiful girl."* * *The Ivroy smiled. Her teeth were as even as matched pearls, Dan thought, and as white as—"I am a girl, Dan. We are cousins, you and I—separated by the long mystery of time.""Blote—and Dzhackoon and Snithian, too—seemed to think the Ivroy ran the Universe. But—"The Ivroy put her hand on Dan's. It was as soft as a flower petal."Don't trouble yourself over this just now, Dan. Would you like to become my agent? I need a trustworthy friend to help me in my work here.""Doing what?" Dan heard himself say."Watching over the race which will one day become the Ivroy.""I don't understand all this—but I'm willing to try.""There will be much to learn, Dan. The full use of the mind, control of aging and disease . . . Our work will require many centuries.""Centuries? But—""I'll teach you, Dan.""It sounds great," Dan said. "Too good to be true. But how do you know I'm the man for the job? Don't I have to take some kind of test?"She looked up at him, smiling, her lips slightly parted. On impulse, Dan put a hand under her chin, drew her face close and kissed her on the mouth . . . A full minute later, the Ivroy, nestled in Dan's arms, looked up at him again."You passed the test," she said.  

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