Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night
WALL OF CRYSTAL, EYE OF NIGHT
By ALGIS BUDRYS
Illustrated by DICK FRANCIS
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Galaxy Magazine December 1961.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
He was a vendor of dreams, purveying worlds
beyond imagination to others. Yet his doom was this:
He could not see what he must learn of his own!
Soft as the voice of a mourning dove, the telephone sounded at RufusSollenar's desk. Sollenar himself was standing fifty paces away, hisleonine head cocked, his hands flat in his hip pockets, watching thenighted world through the crystal wall that faced out over ManhattanIsland. The window was so high that some of what he saw was dimmed bylow clouds hovering over the rivers. Above him were stars; below himthe city was traced out in light and brimming with light. A fallingstar—an interplanetary rocket—streaked down toward Long IslandFacility like a scratch across the soot on the doors of Hell.
Sollenar's eyes took it in, but he was watching the total scene, notany particular part of it. His eyes were shining.
When he heard the telephone, he raised his left hand to his lips."Yes?" The hand glittered with utilijem rings; the effect was thatof an attempt at the sort of copper-binding that was once used toreinforce the ribbing of wooden warships.
His personal receptionist's voice moved from the air near his deskto the air near his ear. Seated at the monitor board in her office,wherever in this building her office was, the receptionist told him:
"Mr. Ermine says he has an appointment."
"No." Sollenar dropped his hand and returned to his panorama. When hehad been twenty years younger—managing the modest optical factory thathad provided the support of three generations of Sollenars—he had verymuch wanted to be able to stand in a place like this, and feel as heimagined men felt in such circumstances. But he felt unimaginable, now.
To be here was one thing. To have almost lost the right, and regainedit at the last moment, was another. Now he knew that not only could hebe here today but that tomorrow, and tomorrow, he could still be here.He had won. His gamble had given him EmpaVid—and EmpaVid would givehim all.
The city was not merely a prize set down before his eyes. It was adynamic system he had proved he could manipulate. He and the city wereone. It buoyed and sustained him; it supported him, here in the air,with stars above and light-thickened mist below.
The telephone mourned: "Mr. Ermine states he has a firm appointment."
"I've never heard of him." And the left hand's utilijems fell fromSollenar's lips again. He enjoyed such toys. He raised his right hand,sheathed in insubstantial midnight-blue silk in which the silverthreads of metallic wiring ran subtly toward the fingertips. He raisedthe hand, and touched two fingers together: music began to play behindand before him. He made contact between another combination of fingercircuits, and a soft, feminine laugh came from the terrace at the otherside of the room, where connecting doors had opened. He moved towardit. One layer of translucent drapery remained across the doorway,billowing lightly in the breeze from the terrace. Through it, he sawthe taboret with its candle lit; the iced wine in the stand beside it;the two fragile chairs; Bess Allardyce, slender and regal, waiting inone of them—all these, through the misty curtain, like either thebeginning or the end of a dream.
"Mr. Ermine reminds you the appointment was made for him at the AnnualBusiness Dinner of the International Association of Broadcasters, in1998."
Sollenar completed his latest step, then stopped. He frowned down athis left hand. "Is Mr. Ermine with the IAB's Special Public RelationsOffice?"
"Yes," the voice said after a pause.
The fingers of Sollenar's right hand shrank into a cone. Theconnecting door closed. The girl disappeared. The music stopped. "Allright. You can tell Mr. Ermine to come up." Sollenar went to sit behindhis desk.
The office door chimed. Sollenar crooked a finger of his left hand, andthe door opened. With another gesture, he kindled the overhead lightsnear the door and sat in shadow as Mr. Ermine came in.
Ermine was dressed in rust-colored garments. His figure was spare,and his hands were empty. His face was round and soft, with long darksideburns. His scalp was bald. He stood just inside Sollenar's officeand said: "I would like some light to see you by, Mr. Sollenar."
Sollenar crooked his little finger.
The overhead lights came to soft light all over the office. The crystalwall became a mirror, with only the strongest city lights glimmeringthrough it. "I only wanted to see you first," said Sollenar; "I thoughtperhaps we'd met before."
"No," Ermine said, walking across the office. "It's not likely you'veever seen me." He took a card case out of his pocket and showedSollenar proper identification. "I'm not a very forward person."
"Please sit down," Sollenar said. "What may I do for you?"
"At the moment, Mr. Sollenar, I'm doing something for you."
Sollenar sat back in his chair. "Are you? Are you, now?" He frowned atErmine. "When I became a party to the By-Laws passed at the '98 Dinner,I thought a Special Public Relations Office would make a valuable assetto the organization. Consequently, I voted for it, and for the powersit was given. But I never expected to have any personal dealings withit. I barely remembered you people had carte blanche with any IABmember."
"Well, of course, it's been a while since '98," Ermine said. "I imaginesome legends have grown up around us. Industry gossip—that sort ofthing."
"But we don't restrict ourselves to an enforcement function, Mr.Sollenar. You haven't broken any By-Laws, to our knowledge."
"Or mine. But nobody feels one hundred per cent secure. Not underthese circumstances." Nor did Sollenar yet relax his face into itsmagnificent smile. "I'm sure you've found that out."
"I have a somewhat less ambitious older brother who's with the FederalBureau of Investigation. When I embarked on my own career, he told meI could expect everyone in the world to react like a criminal, yes,"Ermine said, paying no attention to Sollenar's involuntary blink. "It'sone of the complicating factors in a profession like my brother's, ormine. But I'm here to advise you, Mr. Sollenar. Only that."
"In what matter, Mr. Ermine?"
"Well, your corporation recently came into control of the patentsfor a new video system. I understand that this in effect makesyour corporation the licensor for an extremely valuable sales andentertainment medium. Fantastically valuable."
"EmpaVid," Sollenar agreed. "Various subliminal stimuli are broadcastwith and keyed to the overt subject matter. The home receiving unitcontains feedback sensors which determine the viewer's reaction tothese stimuli, and intensify some while playing down others in order tocreate complete emotional rapport between the viewer and the subjectmatter. EmpaVid, in other words, is a system for orchestrating theviewer's emotions. The home unit is self-contained, semi-portable andnot significantly bulkier than the standard TV receiver. EmpaVid iscompatible with standard TV receivers—except, of course, that thesubject matter seems thin and vaguely unsatisfactory on a standardreceiver. So the consumer shortly purchases an EV unit." It pleasedSollenar to spell out the nature of his prize.
"At a very reasonable price. Quite so, Mr. Sollenar. But you hadseveral difficulties in finding potential licensees for this system,among the networks."
Sollenar's lips pinched out.
Mr. Ermine raised one finger. "First, there was the matter of acquiringthe patents from the original inventor, who was also approached byCortwright Burr."
"Yes, he was," Sollenar said in a completely new voice.
"Competition between Mr. Burr and yourself is long-standing andintense."
"Quite intense," Sollenar said, looking directly ahead of him at theone blank wall of the office. Burr's offices were several blocksdowntown, in that direction.
"Well, I have no wish to enlarge on that point, Mr. Burr being an IABmember in standing as good as yours, Mr. Sollenar. There was, in anycase, a further difficulty in licensing EV, due to the very heavy costinvolved in equipping broadcasting stations and network relay equipmentfor this sort of transmission."
"Yes, there was."
"Ultimately, however, you succeeded. You pointed out, quite rightly,that if just one station made the change, and if just a few EVreceivers were put into public places within the area served by thatstation, normal TV outlets could not possibly compete for advertisingrevenue."
"And so your last difficulties were resolved a few days ago, whenyour EmpaVid Unlimited—pardon me; when EmpaVid, a subsidiary of theSollenar Corporation—became a major stockholder in the Transworld TVNetwork."
"I don't understand, Mr. Ermine," Sollenar said. "Why are yourecounting this? Are you trying to demonstrate the power of yourknowledge? All these transactions are already matters of record in theIAB confidential files, in accordance with the By-Laws."
Ermine held up another finger. "You're forgetting I'm only here toadvise you. I have two things to say. They are:
"These transactions are on file with the IAB because they involvea great number of IAB members, and an increasingly large amount ofcapital. Also, Transworld's exclusivity, under the IAB By-Laws, willhold good only until thirty-three per cent market saturation has beenreached. If EV is as good as it looks, that will be quite soon. Afterthat, under the By-Laws, Transworld will be restrained from makingeffective defenses against patent infringement by competitors. Thenall of the IAB's membership and much of their capital will be involvedwith EV. Much of that capital is already in anticipatory motion. So ahighly complex structure now ultimately depends on the integrity of theSollenar Corporation. If Sollenar stock falls in value, not just youbut many IAB members will be greatly embarrassed. Which is another wayof saying EV must succeed."
"I know all that! What of it? There's no risk. I've had every relatedpatent on Earth checked. There will be no catastrophic obsolescence ofthe EV system."
Ermine said: "There are engineers on Mars. Martian engineers. They're adying race, but no one knows what they can still do."
Sollenar raised his massive head.
Ermine said: "Late this evening, my office learned that Cortwright Burrhas been in close consultation with the Martians for several weeks.They have made some sort of machine for him. He was on the flight thatlanded at the Facility a few moments ago."
Sollenar's fists clenched. The lights crashed off and on, and the roomwailed. From the terrace came a startled cry, and a sound of smashedglass.
Mr. Ermine nodded, excused himself and left.
—A few moments later, Mr. Ermine stepped out at the pedestrian levelof the Sollenar Building. He strolled through the landscaped garden,and across the frothing brook toward the central walkway down theAvenue. He paused at a hedge to pluck a blossom and inhale its odor. Hewalked away, holding it in his naked fingers.
Drifting slowly on the thread of his spinneret, Rufus Sollenar camegliding down the wind above Cortwright Burr's building.
The building, like a spider, touched the ground at only the points ofits legs. It held its wide, low bulk spread like a parasol over severaldowntown blocks. Sollenar, manipulating the helium-filled plasticdrifter far above him, steered himself with jets of compressed gas fromplastic bottles in the drifter's structure.
Only Sollenar himself, in all this system, was not effectivelytransparent to the municipal anti-plane radar. And he himself waswrapped in long, fluttering streamers of dull black, metallic sheeting.To the eye, he was amorphous and non-reflective. To electronic sensors,he was a drift of static much like a sheet of foil picked by the windfrom some careless trash heap. To all of the senses of all interestedparties he was hardly there at all—and, thus, in an excellent positionfor murder.
He fluttered against Burr's window. There was the man, crouched overhis desk. What was that in his hands—a pomander?
Sollenar clipped his harness to the edges of the cornice. Swayed outagainst it, his sponge-soled boots pressed to the glass, he touched hisleft hand to the window and described a circle. He pushed; there was athud on the carpeting in Burr's office, and now there was no barrier toSollenar. Doubling his knees against his chest, he catapulted forward,the riot pistol in his right hand. He stumbled and fell to his knees,but the gun was up.
Burr jolted up behind his desk. The little sphere of orange-gold metal,streaked with darker bronze, its surface vermicular