ROSEL GEORGE BROWN
The sign scabbed to the dog-yellow wall read:
For Sale—Viable Human Embryos
Genuine Terrestrial Strain
"This is the place, Bella," Raff Cornay said. "By God, we're a long way from home."
Bella smiled up at him and bit at her dyed lips. Having them dyed hadn't really made her look twenty years younger—or even a year younger. She moved closer to his side, put lean, grayish fingers on his thick, brown arm, looking up the dark ravine of the stairway.
"Raff, it's so. . ." she started, and then left it, because when you've been married twenty years all those words aren't necessary.
Raff hitched at the harness that crossed his heavy, rounded shoulders, brushed with a finger the comforting bulge of the short-barreled power pistol.
"We'll be all right, Bella." He patted her thin hand, moved ahead of her to the high, narrow steps, worn into hollows pocketing oily puddles. The heat and sounds of the plaza faded as they climbed through layered odors of decay and alien cookery, passed a landing railed with twisted iron, reached a towering, narrow doorway hung with a dirt-glazed beaded arras that clashed softly as Raff held it aside.
There was a leathery rustle, a heavy thump, the clack of clawed feet. An enormously tall, stooped figure in ornately decorated straps and bangles minced forward from yellowish gloom, ruffling molting plumage. It settled itself on a tall stool, clattering stiff, flightless feathers, blinking translucent eyelids from Raff to Bella.
"What do you want?" the Rheops chirped. "There is no charity here."
"There's a lady here'd like to sit down too, maybe," Raff said sharply.
Raff looked around. There was no other chair. He looked at the proprietor, eyeing the red, leathery neck, the tarnished beak.
"I never knew one like you before," he said. "What are you, you don't know how to treat a human lady?"
"Human?" The alien clacked its beak contemptuously, staring at Bella's gray Yill skin.
"Don't, Raff." Bella put her hand on his arm. "We don't care nothing about him. All we want's the baby." Through the ill-fitting youth suit he had bought for the trip, she could feel him forcing himself not to care. Maybe he was too old for the legal adoption agency, but he was as good as any man a hundred years younger.
"We've got money," Raff said tightly. "We're here on business." The big eyes blinked at him. "How much money?"
"Well—almost five hundred credits."
The tall creature on the stool closed its eyes, opened them again. "I can offer you something in a sturdy mute, guaranteed I.Q. of 40 . . ."
"No," Raff and Bella said together. "No defective stock," Raff went on. "Your sign down on the square said Genuine Terry Strain."
"Too much intellect in a slave is undesirable. Now, this line of stock . . ."
"You think we'd make a slave of a human child?" Raff snapped. "Can't you see we're Terries—Terry stock, anyway," he added, as the round eyes flicked over him, then Bella. She stirred and wrapped her cloak closer. The dealer clacked its beak contemptuously. "Five hundred credits—and for this, I should produce perhaps a conquistador, complete with Sc.D. certificate?"
"Just an ordinary boy," Raff said. "Just so he's normal. Earth normal. We don't mind if he's maybe color blind—"
The dealer cocked its head, eyed Raff. "What kind of citizenship do you have?"
"What? Why, we're Freeholders, from Granfont."
"You have papers?"
"Sure. Otherwise we'd never . . ."
The dealer half turned, raised its voice in a sharp cry. A small slave in trailing rags came in from a side room.
"Bring benches for my valued customers—and brandy. The Fleon, '49." It turned back to Raff, its hooded eyes sharp and interested now. "A happy blending of rain, sun, sulphur, and fungi . . ."
"We don't need the buildup," Raff said. "We didn't come here to socialize . .
." He stopped. It wasn't a thing you could put words to. We came to buy a human child . . . to buy a son . . .
"Ah, but I like people with resources. I confide in them." The dealer was beaming owlishly now. "You wish an heir. I understand. You have come at a fortunate time. I can offer a most exceptional embryo—a son fit for an emperor."
"We're not emperors," Raff said. "Just plain folks. We want a plain Terry boy . . . "
"So." The dealer ruffled limp shoulder plumes indifferently, its expression abruptly cold again. "If you want to rear inferior stock, I can sell you something cheap—"
"Good. How much?" Raff rose, resting his hand on his credit coder.
"Wait!" Bella cried. "I want to know what he means. What's the . . . the other kind you was talking about?" She pulled Raff back into his chair as the slave returned with a tray bearing a clay pot and bell-shaped glasses. The dealer placed spidery, plucked-chicken fingers together, waiting while the slave poured and withdrew. It cocked an eye at Bella.
"As it happens, I am in a position to offer top price for freehold citizenships—"
"Are you crazy?" Raff started. "How'd we ever get back—" Bella picked up a glass and said, "Wait, Raff." She made a great thing of sipping the brandy, making it a compliment.
"Sell our citizenships!" Raff snorted. "It takes us for ignorant rubes, Bella." The Rheops hunched on its stool, fragile feathers raised in a halo around its head, eyes on Bella now.
"I happen, at this moment, to have in my tanks," it said with impressive gravity, "a prime-quality fetus intended for the personal service of—a most high official. A magnificent blastophere, large, vigorous, and of a superior intellectual potentiality."
"What's wrong with it, this high official didn't take delivery?" Raff asked bluntly.
The round eyes blinked. "Alas, the Shah is . . . er . . . dead—together with his heirs and assigns. One of these annoying uprisings of the rabble. By great good luck, an agent of mine— But no matter. I lost two valuable servants in the acquisition of this prize, which now, frankly, must be transferred soon to a suitable artificial placenta, or be lost. I confide this in you, you see."
"This is just sales talk, Bella," Raff said. "To build up the price."
"A rustic's shrewdness is the merchant's joy," the dealer quoted sharply. It raised its head and shrilled for the slave again, chirped instructions. Raff and Bella waited. The slave returned, toiling under a small, glittering, stone-encrusted box. At a sign from the dealer, it handed the casket to Raff. He took it; his hands sagged under the unexpected weight.
"This golden incubator, set with diamonds, awaited the favored tot; now heavy-footed bucolics haggle for his destiny. The price is two thousand credits—or two freehold citizenships."
"That's twice the going black-market price," Raff said weakly, overwhelmed by the box and what was in it.
"You're not bargaining for black-market goods now. I'm a legitimate trader, licensed by the Sodomate!"
"I'll give you one citizenship," Raff said. "Mine. I can earn another with a few years' work."
The dealer snapped horny lips together. "I'd decant this jewel among lads into the hive sewers before I'd cut my price a demi-chit! The descendant of kings deserves no less."
"Raff . . . " Bella said, appeal in her voice.
"How do we know he's telling the truth, Bella?"
"I have a license to protect, outlander," the tall creature said. "You think I'd risk my reputation for your paltry custom? The Shah paid fifty thousand Galactic credits—in rhodium ingots—"
"But if you don't sell it quick—"
"I've told you my price. Take it or leave it—and then get out!"
"Well . . . " Raff hesitated.
"We'll take it," Bella said.
They moved through the noise of the plaza, Raff leading the way among hawkers' stalls, Bella clutching a two-inch glass cylinder to her lean chest. Yellow dust swirled, stirred by a fitful desert wind. The second sun was low in a bronze-black sky.
"We shouldn't have spent all that credit," Raff said. "How're we going to get back, Bella?"
"We'll find a way," Bella said. "But first, we got to find a Man doctor." Raff halted. "Bella—you ain't coming down sick?"
"We got to have the baby implanted—right away, Raff."
"Bella, you know we can't afford that now. We'll wait till we're back on Granfont, like we planned—"
"We thought we'd have time, Raff—but we don't. He'd never have sold so cheap if time hadn't been short—awful short."
"But we were going to use Len's stock brooder. Where'd we ever find a mammal brooder here? And we'd have to stay nine months—"
"We won't have to stay, Raff. I'll have the baby implanted—in me." Raff stared at her. "Bella—you sure? I mean, could you . . . could it . . . ?" She nodded. "I asked Doctor about it once—a long time ago. He said—first he took a lot of tests—and then he said I could."
"But, Bella, you're . . . you're not . . . "
"He said I could—even if I'm not human." Her vertical-slitted eyes were bright in her still piquant face. "I'll be the mother of our son, Raff. He'll be our human boy, born to me . . . "
Beside Bella, Raff raised his head suddenly. He moved closer to Bella, put a protective arm around her.
"What is it, Raff?"
"Bella—somebody's following us."
"Following . . . why?"
"I don't know. Give me the boy. And stay close."
They turned into a canyon hung with harsh lights, pushing through the jostling crowd. Alien hands plucked at their sleeves, alien eyes stared, alien voices implored, cursed, begged, threatened. The dust rose, hot and corrosive.
"Down here," Raff gasped. In the shelter of a narrow way they clung together, coughing.
"We shouldn't have left the main plaza," Bella said. "Tourists don't come here . . . "
"Come on." Raff led the way, thirty feet back, where the twisted path ended between high walls in a cul-de-sac. They turned—
Two figures, one squat, one tall, both wrapped in heavy, dun-colored togas, waited at the alley mouth.
"Stay behind me." Raff tucked the cylinder in a harness pouch, put his hand inside his tunic to rest on the pistol butt, started forward; the short creature came to meet him, waddling on thick, bowed legs. Ten feet apart, they halted. Raff looked down into dead eyes like black opals in a face of bleached and pocked wood.
"We are stronger than you," the alien grated. "Give us the royal slave and go in peace."
Raff brought the gun into view. There was blue stain across his throat where the cheap dye of the youth suit had dissolved in sweat.
"Get out of our way." His dry mouth made his voice rasp. There was a moment of silence. Then:
"We will pay," the alien said. "How much?"
"I'll sell you nothing. Just clear out of my way." Raff licked sweat from his upper lip.
The tall alien had moved up behind his dwarf companion. Beyond, a heavy, lizard-bodied cuspoid with a scaled hide painted in garish colors moved into view; and behind him were others.
Raff took a step forward. The gun was almost touching the dusty folds of the other's toga. "Out of my way or I'll shoot sure as hell—" A stumpy arm whipped out; Raff fired—a momentary flare of blue; then the gun was flying as the weight of the alien slammed against him, and he reeled back, grappling for a hold on horny hide. He caught a sinewy arm, twisted with all his strength, heard gristle creak, snap. He hurled the alien from him, leaped past him, swung at the tall one, missed as he leaned aside. The gun lay two yards away; he dived for it—and a vast weight slammed against him, driving out his breath in an explosive grunt. He was aware of the roughness of the cobbles against his face, a fiery pain that rolled in waves from his shoulder. Far away, Bella's voice wailed. Raff rolled over, came to his knees; a wide foot in a ragged sandal smashed at his face. He caught at it, held on, dragged a kicking, fighting body down, hearing himself cry out at the agony in his shoulder; and then he found a grip on yielding flesh and clung, crushing, feeling cartilage crackle under his thumbs. He grunted, hunching his shoulders as talons raked his face once, twice, then scrabbled and fell away. Hard hands hauled at him, threw him on his back. He struck out blindly, rolling over to protect the cylinder with his body. A red-hot vise closed on his leg. He tried to crawl toward the gun, but a boulder, falling from an immense height, had crushed his body and his lungs were charred pits in his chest. His arms and legs moved, though he had forgotten now why he must crawl . . . A last, brilliant light flared and died into bottomless darkness, and Raff felt himself fading, fading, winking out . . .
He lay on his back, hearing their voices.
"This one fought like a scalded dire-beast!"
" . . . cartilage like rods of granite!"
"Break them . . . "
The blows were remote, like distant thunder. The beating went on for a long time. Raff didn't notice when it stopped; he floated in a silence like a sea of molten lead. But voices penetrated the silence. There was the deep rumble of one who demanded, and a thin cry . . .
Raff moved an arm, groped over his face, wiped blood from his eyes, feeling broken flesh under his fingers. He blinked, and through a red blur saw Bella, held pinned against a wall by a cloaked figure. Its arm rose and fell, rose and fell again . . .