Back | Next

Aura of Immortality

Commissioner Holati Tate had been known to state on occasion that whenever there was a way for Professor Mantelish to get himself into a mess of trouble, Mantelish would find it.

When, therefore, the Commissioner, while flicking through a series of newscasts, caught a momentary view of Mantelish chatting animatedly with a smiling young woman he stopped the instrument instantly, and with a touch of apprehension went back to locate the program in question. The last he had heard of Mantelish, the professor had been on a government-sponsored expedition to a far-off world, from which, the Commissioner had understood, he would not be returning for some time. However, Commissioner Tate had just got back to Maccadon from an assignment himself, for all he knew Mantelish might have changed his plans. Indeed, it would seem he had.

He caught the program again, clicked it in. One good look at the great, bear-like figure and the mane of thick white hair told him it was indeed his old friend Mantelish. The dainty lady sitting across the table from Mantelish was a professional newscaster. The background was the Ceyce spaceport on Maccadon. The professor evidently had just come off his ship.

His sense of apprehension deepening, Commissioner Tate began to listen sharply to what was being said.

* * *

Professor Mantelish ordinarily was allergic in the extreme to newscasters and rebuffed their efforts to pump him about his projects with such heavy sarcasm that even the brashest did not often attempt to interview him on a live show. On the other hand he was highly susceptible to pretty women. When a gorgeous little reporter spotted him among the passengers coming off a spaceliner at Ceyce Port and inquired timidly whether he would answer a few questions for her viewers, the great scientist surprised her no end by settling down for a friendly fifteen-minute chat during which he reported on his visit to the little-known planet of the Tang from which he had just returned.

It was a fine scoop for the newscaster. Professor Mantelish's exploits and adventures were a legend in the Hub and he was always good copy—when he could be persuaded to talk. On this occasion, furthermore, he had something to tell which was in itself of more than a little interest. The Tang—who could be called a humanoid species only if one were willing to stretch a number of points—had been contacted by human explorers some decades before. They tended to be ferociously hostile to strangers and had a number of other highly unpleasant characteristics; so far little had become known of them beyond the fact that they were rather primitive creatures living in small, footloose tribes on a cold and savage planet.

Professor Mantelish, however, had spent several months among them, accompanied by a team of specialists with whose help he had cracked the language barrier which previously had prevented free communication with the Tang. He had made copious recordings of their habits and customs, had even been permitted to bring back a dead Tang embalmed by freezing as was their practice. From the scientific viewpoint this was a very valuable specimen, since the Tang appeared to die only as a result of accident, murder, or in encounters with ferocious beasts. They did not suffer from diseases and had developed a means of extending their natural life span almost indefinitely . . . 

The young newscaster latched on to that statement like a veteran. Wide-eyed and innocent, she slipped in a few leading questions and Mantelish launched into a detailed explanation.

It had taken some months before he gained the confidence of the Tang sufficiently to induce them to reveal their secret: they distilled the juice of a carefully tended and guarded plant through an involved procedure. The drug they obtained in this way brought about a reversal of the normal aging process so that they retained their youthful health and vigor for a length of time which, though it had not been precisely determined, the Tang regarded as "forever."

* * *

Could this drug, the little reporter asked, perhaps be adapted for human use?

Mantelish said he could not be definite about that, but it seemed quite possible. While the Tang had not let the members of his expedition know what plant they cultivated for the purpose, they had obligingly presented him with several liters of the distilled drug for experimentation which he had brought back with him. Analysis of the drug while still on the Tang planet had revealed the presence of several heretofore unknown forms of protein with rather puzzling characteristics; the question was whether or not these could be reproduced in the laboratory. To settle the question might well take a number of years—it could not of course be stated at present what the long-term effect of the drug on human beings would be. It was, however, apparently harmless. He and several other members of his group had been injected with significant quantities of the drug while on the planet, and had suffered no ill effects.

Big-eyed again, the newscaster inquired whether this meant that he, Professor Mantelish, was now immortal?

No, no, Mantelish said hastily. In humans, as in the Tang, the effects of a single dose wore off in approximately four months. To retain youth, or to bring about the gradual rejuvenation of an older body, it was necessary to repeat the dosage regularly at about this interval. The practice of the Tang was to alternately permit themselves to age naturally for about ten years, then to use the drug for roughly the same length of time or until youthfulness was restored.

To protect both the Tang and their miracle plant from illegal exploitation, the Federation, following his initial report on the matter, was having the space about the planet patrolled. What the final benefits of the discovery to humanity would be was still open to question. It was, however, his personal opinion that the Tang drug eventually would take its place as a very valuable addition to the various rejuvenation processes currently being employed in the Hub . . . 

"The old idiot!" Commissioner Holati Tate muttered to himself. He swung around, found a redheaded young woman standing behind him, large, gray eyes intently watching the screen. "Did you hear all that, Trigger?" he demanded.

"Enough to get the idea," Trigger said. "I came in as soon as I recognized the prof's voice . . . After those remarks, he'd be safer back among the Tang! He doesn't even seem to have a bodyguard around."

Commissioner Tate was dialing a ComWeb number. "I'll call the spaceport police! They'll give him an escort. Hop on the other ComWeb and see his home and lab are under guard by the time he gets there."

"I just did that," Trigger said.

"Then see if you can make an emergency contact with that newscaster female before Mantelish strays off . . ."

Trigger shook her head. "I tried it. No luck! It's a floating program."

She watched the final minute and a half of the newscast, biting her lip uneasily, while the Commissioner made hasty arrangements with the spaceport police. To hear Professor Mantelish blabbing out the fact that he might have the answer to man's search for immortality in his possession was disconcerting. It was an open invitation to all the criminal elements currently on Maccadon to try to get it from him. The prof simply shouldn't be allowed to wander around without tactful but efficient nursemaiding! Usually, she or Holati or somebody else made sure he got it, but they'd assumed that on a Federation expedition he'd be kept out of jams . . . 

When the Commissioner had finished, she switched off the newscast, said glumly, "You missed something, Holati. Mantelish just showed everybody watching on umpteen worlds the container he's got that drug in!"

"The Tang stuff?"

"Yes. It's in that round sort of suitcase he had standing beside his chair."

The Commissioner swore.

"Come along!" he said. "We'll take my car and head for the spaceport. The police weren't sure from exactly where that newscast was coming but if they catch up with Mantelish before he leaves they'll wait for us and we'll ride in to his lab with him."

"And if they don't?"

"They'll call the car. Then we'll go to the lab and wait for him to show up."

* * *

Almost as soon as he'd bid the charming little newscaster goodbye, Professor Mantelish himself began to feel some qualms about the revelations he'd allowed to escape. He began to realize he might have been a trifle indiscreet. Walking on with the crowds moving towards the spaceport exit hall, he found himself growing acutely conscious of the Tang drug container in the suitcase he carried. Normally preoccupied with a variety of matters of compelling scientific interest, it was almost impossible for him to conceive of himself as being in personal danger. Nevertheless, now that his attention was turned on the situation he had created it became clear that many people who had watched the newscast might feel tempted to bring the drug into their possession, either for selfish reasons or out of perhaps excessive zeal for private research . . . 

The average citizen at this point might have started looking around for the nearest police officer. Professor Mantelish, however, was of independent nature; such a solution simply did not occur to him. He had advertised the fact that he was headed for his laboratory. That had been a mistake. Therefore he would not go there—which should foil anyone who was presently entertaining illegal notions about the Tang drug. Instead, he would take himself and the drug immediately to a little seaside hideout he maintained which was known only to his closest associates. Once there he could take steps to have the drug safeguarded.

Satisfied with this decision Mantelish lengthened his stride. About a hundred yards ahead was the entry to an automatic aircar rental station. As he came up half a dozen people turned into it in a group, obviously harmless citizens. Mantelish followed them in, moved over to the wall just inside the entry, turned and stood waiting, prepared, if required, to swing the weighted suitcase he held under his flowing robe like an oversized club. But half a minute passed and no one else came in. Satisfied, he hurried after the little group, catching up with them just as they reached the line of waiting cars and climbed into a car together, laughing and joking. Mantelish got into the car behind them, deposited a five-credit piece. The cars began to move forwards, rose toward the exit. He glanced back to make sure again that no one was following, placed the Tang container on the floorboards beside him, snapped the car's canopy shut and put his hands on the controls.

The aircars emerged from the fifteenth floor of the spaceport exit building, the lights of Ceyce glittering under its night-screen before them. Mantelish turned immediately to the left, directed the car up to one of the main traffic lines, moved along it for a minute, then shifted abruptly to one of the upper high-speed lanes.

* * *

He reached his hideaway a scant fifteen minutes later. It was in a residential shore area, featuring quiet and privacy. The house, overlooking a shallow, sheltered ocean bay, was built on sloping ground thirty feet above tide level. It was a pleasant place, fit for an elderly retired man of remarkable habits. None of Mantelish's neighbors knew him by name or suspected he maintained a laboratory within his walls—an installation in absolute violation of the local zoning regulations.

He locked the entry door behind him, crossed a hall, opened the door to the laboratory. He stood motionless a moment, looking around. Everything was as he had left it months before, kept spotlessly clean by automatic maintenance machinery. He went over to a table on which lay a variety of items, the results of projects he had hastily completed or left incompleted before setting out on the expedition to the Tang world. He put the Tang container on the table between a chemical gun and a packaged device which, according to the instructions attached to it, was a mental accelerator with a ratio of two hundred and eighty to one, instantly lethal if used under conditions other than those specified in the instructions. He looked about once more, went out by another door to the kitchen of the house.

A minute or two later, he heard the laboratory ComWeb buzzing shrilly. Mantelish glanced around from the elaborate open-face sandwiches he was preparing. He frowned. Among the very few people who knew the number of that ComWeb, only two were at all likely to be calling him at this moment. One was Commissioner Tate, the other was Trigger Argee. If either of them—Trigger, in particular—had caught the newscast at the spaceport just now they were going to give him hell.

His frown deepened. Should he ignore the call? No, he decided; however unnecessarily, the caller was no doubt concerned about his safety. He must let them know he was all right.

Mantelish lumbered hurriedly back into the laboratory, came to a sudden stop just beyond the door. There were two men there. One was seated at the table where he had put down the Tang container; the other leaned against the wall beside the hall door. Both held guns, which at the moment were pointed at him.

Mantelish looked from one to the other, lifting his eyebrows. This, he told himself, was a most unfortunate situation. He knew the pair from a previous meeting, the conclusion of which had been marked by a certain amount of physical violence. He didn't like the look of the guns but perhaps he could bluff it out.

"Fiam," he said with stern dignity to the man at the table, "I am not at all pleased by your intrusion. I thought I had made it clear to you last year when I threw you out of my laboratory that there was no possibility of our doing business. If I failed, I shall make the point very clear indeed immediately after I have answered this call!"

He turned toward the clamoring ComWeb. Suddenly he felt an excruciating pain in his left leg, centered on the kneecap. He grunted, stopped.

"That's enough for now, Welk," Paes Fiam said lazily from the table. "He's got the idea . . ."

The pain faded away. The man standing by the door grinned and lowered his gun. Fiam went on, "Sit down over there, professor—across from me. Forget the ComWeb. This shouldn't take long. These guns of ours, as you've noticed, can be very painful. They can also kill very quickly. So let's not have any unpleasantness."

Mantelish scowled at him but sat down. "Why have you come here?" he demanded.

Fiam smiled. "To ask you for a small favor. And a little information." He picked up the chemical gun lying on the table beside the Tang container, looked at it a moment. "This device," he said, "appears to be something you've developed. "

"It is," Mantelish said.

"What is so remarkable about it?"

Mantelish snorted. "It kills the intended victim immediately on spray contact while placing the user in no danger whatsoever, even when carelessly handled."

"So the label says," Paes Fiam agreed. "A one to four foot range. Very interesting!" He laid the gun back on the table. "I find it a little strange, professor, that a man holding the high ethical principles you outlined to me in our previous conversation should devote his time to creating such a murderous little weapon!"

Mantelish snorted again. "What I am willing to create depends on the clients with whom I am dealing. I would not place such weapons in the hands of common crooks like yourselves."

The ComWeb's noise stopped. Fiam smiled briefly, said, "Not common crooks, Professor Mantelish. We happen to be exceptionally talented and efficient crooks. As the present situation demonstrates."

"What do you mean?" Mantelish asked coldly.

"I happened to be at the Ceyce spaceport," Fiam said, "while you were bragging about your Tang immortality drug on the newscast. I took steps immediately to make sure I knew where you went. Welk and I followed you here without very much trouble. We made sure in the process that nobody else was tailing you." He patted the Tang container. "This is what we're after, professor! And we've got it."

"You are being very foolish," Mantelish said. "As I indicated during the newscast, it remains questionable whether the Tang drug can be produced under laboratory conditions. If it is possible, it will involve years of research at the highest level. I—"

"Hold it, professor!" Fiam raised his hand, nodded at Welk. "Your statements are very interesting, but let's make sure you're not attempting to mislead us."

"Mislead you?" Mantelish rumbled indignantly.

"You might, you know. But Welk will now place the pickup of a lie detector at your feet. Sit very still while he's doing it—you know I can't miss at this range." Fiam brought a small instrument out of his pocket, placed it on the table before him. "This is the detector's indicator," he went on. "A very dependable device, every time it shows me you're being less than truthful you'll get an admonishing jolt from Welk's gun. Welk's never really forgiven you for not opening the lab door before you ejected him last year. Better stick to the truth, professor!"

"I have no intention of lying," Mantelish said with dignity.

Paes Fiam waited until Welk had positioned the pickup and stepped back, went on. "Now, professor, you were suggesting that at present the Tang drug has no commercial value . . ."

Mantelish nodded. "Exactly! The quantity on the table here—and it's every drop of the drug to be found off the Tang world now—is not nearly enough to be worth the risk you'd be taking in stealing and trying to market it. It might extend the life of one human being by a very considerable extent, and that is all. And what potential client would take your word for it that it would do that—or that it wouldn't, for that matter, harm him instead, perhaps kill him within a few months?"

"A large number of potential clients would, if they were desperate enough for life," Fiam said, watching the detector indicator. "You were skirting the fringes of deception with that question, professor. But that's not the point. Does the drug have harmful physical or mental effects?"

Mantelish said, "A calculated quantity was given to six members of our expedition, including myself. During the past four months, no harmful physical or mental effects have been observed, and the overall effect has worn off again. That's all I can say."

"And the Tang drug did have a rejuvenating effect on these human subjects?"

Mantelish hesitated, admitted, "A slight but measurable one. That was in accordance with our expectations."

Fiam smiled. "I see. What other expectations did you have in connection with the use of the drug on human beings?"

Mantelish said reluctantly, "That the dosage given human subjects would wear out of the system in about four months—as it did. And that if the rejuvenation effect were to continue the treatment would therefore have to be repeated regularly at four-month intervals."

"What do you believe will happen if that is done?"

"Within a ten-year period," Mantelish said, "the subject should find that his biological age has not advanced but has been reduced by about five years. The Tang rejuvenation process is a slow, steady one. The Tang themselves select the biological age they prefer, and remain within a few years of it by a judicious use of the drug. It is, of course, impossible to reduce the biological age beyond late adolescence."

"I understand," Fiam said. "And how is the drug administered?"

"The Tang drink the extract," Mantelish said. "On human beings it has a violently nauseating effect when administered in that form. We found it more practical to administer a subcutaneous injection."

"There's nothing essentially different between that and any other subcutaneous injection?"

"No, none at all."

Paes Fiam patted the container again, smiled, said, "The drug extract in here is ready to be used exactly as it is?"


"Are there any special measures required to preserve its usefulness and harmlessness indefinitely?"

"It's self-preserving," Mantelish said. "There should be no significant difference in its properties whether it's used today or after a century. But as I have pointed out, I cannot and will not say that it is harmless. A test on six subjects is by no means definitive. The seventh one might show very undesirable physical reactions. Or undesirable reactions might develop in the six who have been tested five, or ten, or fifteen years from now . . ."

"No doubt," Fiam said. He smacked his lips lightly. "Be careful how you answer my next question. You said the drug in this container should extend the life of one human being very considerably. What does that mean in standard years?"

Mantelish hesitated, said grudgingly, "My estimate would be about three hundred years. That is an approximation."

Fiam grinned happily at Welk. "Three hundred years, eh? That's good enough for us, professor! As you may have begun to surmise, we're the clients for whom the drug is intended. We have no intention of trying to sell it. And we'll take a chance on undesirable reactions showing up in five or ten years against the probability of another hundred and fifty years of interesting and profitable living!"

He stood up, moved back from the table. "Now then, you've got the equipment to administer a subcutaneous injection somewhere around the lab. You'll get it out while I keep this gun on you. You'll show Welk exactly what you're doing, describe the exact amount of drug that is required for each injection. And you'll do all that while you're within range of the lie detector. So don't make any mistakes at this stage or, believe me, you'll get hurt abominably!

"Finally, you'll give me the initial four-month injection. I shall then give Welk an identical injection under your supervision. After that, we'll just wrap up the container with the rest of the drug and be on our way . . ."

* * *

Ten minutes later Mantelish sat at the table, gloomily watching Fiam store the container, along with several other of the finished products on the table which had caught his fancy, into the suitcase. Welk stood behind the professor's chair, gun pointed at Mantelish's neck.

"Now let me give you the rest of the story on this, professor," Fiam said. He picked up Mantelish's chemical gun, looked at it and placed it on top of the suitcase. "You've mentioned several times that I can't expect to get away with this. Let me reassure you on the point.

"For one thing, we set up a temporal scrambler in this room as soon as we came in. It's on one of those shelves over there. It will remain there and continue in action for thirty minutes after we've left, so no one will be able to restructure the events of the past few hours and identify us in that way. We're wearing plastiskin gloves, of course, and we haven't made any foolish mistakes to give investigators other leads to who might have been here.

"Also we enjoy—under other names—an excellent reputation on this planet as legitimate businessmen from Evalee. Should foul play be suspected, we, even if somebody should think of us, certainly will not be suspected of being involved in it. As a matter of fact"—Fiam checked his watch—"twenty minutes from now, we shall be attending a gay social function in Ceyce to which we have been invited. As far as anybody could prove, we'll have spent all evening there."

He smiled at Mantelish. "One more thing; you will be found dead of course; but there will be some question about the exact manner in which you died. We shall leave an interesting little mystery behind us. The Tang container will be missing. But why is it missing? Did you discover, or fancy you had discovered, some gruesome reaction to the drug in yourself, and drop it out over the sea so no one else would be endangered by it? Did you then perhaps commit suicide in preference to waiting around for the inevitable end?"

"Suicide—pfah!" growled Mantelish. "No one is lunatic enough to commit suicide with a pain-stimulant gun!"

"Quite right," Fiam agreed. He took up the professor's chemical gun from the suitcase again. "I've been studying this little device of yours. It functions in a quite simple and obvious manner. This sets the triggering mechanism—correct? It is now ready to fire." He pointed the gun at Mantelish, added, "Stand aside, Welk."

Welk moved swiftly four feet to one side. Mantelish's eyes widened. "You wouldn't—"

"But I would," Fiam said. And as the professor started up with a furious bellow, he pulled the trigger.

Mantelish's body went rigid, his face contorting into a grisly grin. He thumped sideways down on the table, rolled off it on the side away from Fiam, went crashing down to the floor.

"Ugh!" Welk said, staring down in fascinating incredulity. "His whole face has turned blue!"

"Is he dead?" Fiam inquired, peering over the table.

"I never saw anyone look deader! Or bluer!" Welk reported shakenly.

"Well, don't touch him! The stuff might hit you even through the gloves." Fiam came around the table, laid the gun gingerly on the floor, said, "Shove it over by his hand with something. Then we'll get ourselves lost . . ."

The ComWeb was shrilling again as they went out into the hall, closed the door behind them. After it stopped the laboratory and the rest of Mantelish's house was quiet as a tomb.

* * *

"It's a miracle," Trigger said, "that you're still alive!" She looked pale under her tan. The professor had lost the bright cerulean tint Welk had commented on by the time she and Commissioner Tate came rushing into the house a minute or two ago. The skin of his face was now a nasty green through which patches of his normal weathered-brick complexion were just beginning to show.

"No miracle at all, my dear," Mantelish said coolly. "Paes Fiam has encountered the kind of misfortune the uninformed layman may expect when he ventures to challenge the scientist on his own ground. He had lost the game, literally, at the moment he stepped into this laboratory! I had half a dozen means at my disposal here to foil his criminal plans. Since I was also in the laboratory at the time, most of them might have been harmful—or at least extremely disagreeable—to me. So as soon as I saw he intended to use the chemical gun, I decided to employ that method to rid myself of his presence."

Commissioner Tate had been studying the gun's label.

"This says the gun kills instantly," he observed.

"It does kill instantly," Mantelish said, "if aimed at an attacking Rumlian fire roach. I designed it to aid in the eradication of that noisome species. On the human organism it has only a brief paralyzing effect."

"It makes you look revolting, too!" Trigger said, studying him fascinatedly.

"A minor matter, my dear. Within an hour or two I shall have regained my normal appearance."

Holati Tate sighed, placed the gun back on the table. "Well, we should be able to pick up your friends since we know who they are," he said. "I'll alert the spaceports immediately and get Scout Intelligence on the job. We're lucky though that they didn't get more of a head start."

Mantelish held up his hand. "Please don't concern yourself about the Tang drug, Holati," he said. "I've notified the police and Fiam and Welk will be arrested very shortly."

The Commissioner said doubtfully, "Well, our Maccadon police—"

"The matter will require no brilliance on their part, Holati. Fiam informed me he and Welk intended to be enjoying themselves innocently at a social function within twenty minutes after leaving this laboratory. That was approximately half an hour ago . . ." Professor Mantelish nodded at the ComWeb. "I expect the police to call at any moment, to advise me they have been picked up."

"Better not take a chance on that, Professor," Trigger warned. "They might change their plans now they have the stuff, and decide to get off the planet immediately."

"It would make very little difference, Trigger. If Paes Fiam had waited until the official report on the Tang planet was out he would have known better than to force me to inject him with the immortality drug. Aside from their savage ways the Tang are literally an unapproachable people while under its influence. I and the various members of our expedition who experimented with it on ourselves had to wait several months for its effect to wear off again before we were able to return to civilization. We would not have been able to live among the Tang at all if we had not had our olfactory centers temporarily shut off."

"Olfactory centers?" said Trigger.

"Yes. It was absolutely necessary. Within half an hour after being administered to an animal organism, the Tang drug produces the most offensive and hideously penetrating stench I have ever encountered. Wherever Paes Fiam and Welk may be on the planet, they have by now been prostrated by it and are unmistakably advertising their presence to anyone within half a mile of them. I have advised the police that space helmets will be needed by the men sent to arrest them, and—"

He broke off as the ComWeb began shrilling its summons, added, "Ah, there is the call I have been expecting! Perhaps you'll take it, Trigger? Say I'm indisposed; I'm afraid the authorities may be feeling rather irritable with me at the moment."



Back | Next