THE ROAD TO THE CATMASTER

Rod, C’mell and A’gentur had had to hold the sides of the shaft several times as the traffic became heavy and large loads, going up or down, had to pass each other and them too. In one of these waits C’mell caught her breath and said something very swiftly to the little monkey. Rod, not heeding them, caught nothing but the sudden enthusiasm and happiness in her voice. The monkey’s murmured answer made her plaintive and she insisted,

“But Yeekasoose, you must! Rod’s whole life could depend on it. Not just saving his life now, but having a better life for hundreds and hundreds of years.”

The monkey was cross: “Don’t ask me to think when I am hungry. This fast metabolism and small body just isn’t enough to support real thinking.”

“If it’s food you want, have some raisins.” She took a square of compressed seedless raisins out of one of her matching bags.

A’gentur ate them greedily but gloomily.

Rod’s attention drifted away from them as he saw magnificent golden furniture, elaborately carved and inlaid with a pearlescent material, being piloted up the shaft by a whole troop of talkative dog men. He asked them where the furniture was going. When they did not answer him, he repeated his question in a more peremptory tone of voice, as befitted the richest Old North Australian in the universe. The tone of demand brought answers, but they were not the ones he was expecting. “Meow,” said one dog-man, “shut up, cat, or I’ll chase you up a tree.” “Not to your house, buster. Exactly what do you think you are — people?” “Cats are always nosy. Look at that one.” The dog-foreman rose into sight; with dignity and kindness he said to Rod, “Cat fellow, if you feel like talking, you may get marked surplus. Better keep quiet in the public dropshaft!” Rod realized that to these beings he was one of them, a cat made into a man, and that the underpeople workmen who served Old Earth had been trained not to chatter while working on the business of Man.

He caught the tail of C’mell’s urgent whisper to A’gentur: “…and don’t ask him. Tell Him. We’ll risk the people zone for a visit to the Catmaster! Tell Him.”

A’gentur was panting with a rapid, shallow breath. His eyes seemed to protrude from their sockets and yet he was looking at nothing. He groaned as though with some inward effort. At last he lost his grip on the wall and would have floated slowly downward if C’mell had not caught him and cuddled him like a baby. C’mell whispered, eagerly,

“You reached Him?”

“Him,” gasped the little monkey.

“Who?” asked Rod.

“Aitch Eye,” said C’mell. “I’ll tell you later.” Of A’gentur she asked, “If you got Him, what did He say?”

“He said, ‘E’ikasus, I do not say no. You are my son. Take the risk if you think it wise.’ And don’t ask me now, C’mell. Let me think a little. I have been all the way to Norstrilia and back. I’m still cramped in this little body. Do we have to do it now? Right now? Why can’t we go to Him—” and A’gentur nodded toward the depths below — “and find out what we want Rod for, anyhow? Rod is a means, not an end. Who really knows what to do with him?”

“What are you talking about?” said Rod.

Simultaneously C’mell snapped, “I know what we are going to do with him.”

“What?” said the little monkey, very tired again.

“We’re going to let this boy go free, and let him find happiness, and if he wants to give us his help, we will take it and be grateful. But we are not going to rob him. Not going to hurt him. That would be a mean, dirty way to start being better creatures than we are. If he knows who he is before he meets Him, they can make sense.” She turned to Rod and said with mysterious urgency,

“Don’t you want to know who you are?”

“I’m Rod McBan to the hundred and fifty-first,” said he promptly.

“Sh-h-h,” said she, “no names here. I’m not talking about names. I’m talking about the deep insides of you. Life itself, as it flows through you. Do you have any idea who you are?”

“You’re playing games,” he said. “I know perfectly well who I am, and where I live, and what I have. I even know that right now I am supposed to be a cat-man named C’roderick. What else is there to know?”

“You men!” she sobbed at him, “You men! Even when you’re people, you’re so dense that you can’t understand a simple question. I’m not asking you your name or your address or your label or your great-grandfather’s property. I’m asking about you, Rod, the only one that will ever live, no matter how many numbers your grandsons may put after their names. You’re not in the world just to own a piece of property or to handle a surname with a number after it. You’re you. There’s never been another you. There will never be another one, after you. What does this ‘you’ want?”

Rod glanced down at the walls of the tunnel, which seemed to turn — oh, so far below — very gently to the North. He looked up at the little rhomboids of light cast on the tunnel walls by the landing doors into the various levels of Earthport. He felt his own weight tugging gently at his hand as he held to the rough surface of the vertical shaft, supported by his belt. The belt itself felt uncomfortable about his middle; after all, it was supporting most of his weight, and it squeezed him. What do I want? thought he. Who am I that I should have a right to want anything? I am Rod McBan CLI, the Mister and Owner of the Station of Doom. But I’m also a poor freak with bad telepathy who can’t even spiek or hier rightly.

C’mell was watching him as clinically as a surgeon, but he could tell from her expression that she was not trying to peep his mind.

He found himself speaking almost as wearily as had A’gentur, who was also called something like “Yeekasoose,” and who had strange powers for a little monkey:

“I don’t suppose I want anything much, C’mell, except that I should like to spiek and hier correctly, like other people on my native world.”

She looked at him, her expression showing intense sympathy and the effort to make a decision.

A’gentur interrupted with his high clear monkey voice, “Say that to me, Sir and Master.”

Rod repeated: “I don’t really want anything. I would like to spiek and hier because other people are fussing at me about it. And I would like to get a Cape of Good Hope twopenny triangular blue stamp while I am still on Earth. But that’s about all. I guess there’s nothing I really want.”

The monkey closed his eyes and seemed to fall asleep again: Rod suspected it was some kind of telepathic trance.

C’mell hooked A’gentur on an old rod which protruded from the surface of the shaft. Since he weighed only a few grams, there was no noticeable pull on the belt. She seized Rod’s shoulder and pulled him over to her.

“Rod, listen! Do you want to know who you are?”

“I don’t know,” said he. “I might be miserable.”

“Not if you know who you are!” she insisted.

“I might not like me,” said Rod. “Other people don’t and my parents died together when their ship went milky out in space. I’m not normal.”

“For God’s sake, Rod!” she cried.

“Who?” said he.

“Forgive me, father,” said she, speaking to no one in sight.

“I’ve heard that name, before, somewhere,” said Rod. “But let’s get going. I want to get to this mysterious place you are taking me and then I want to find out about Eleanor.”

“Who’s that?”

“My servant. She’s disguised as me, taking risks for me, along with eight robots. It’s up to me to do what I can for her. Always.”

“But she’s your servant,” said C’mell. “She serves you. Almost like being an underperson, like me.”

“She’s a person,” said Rod, stubbornly. “We have no underpeople in Norstrilia, except for a few in government jobs. But she’s my friend.”

“Do you want to marry her?”

“Great sick sheep, girl! Are you barmy? No!”

“Do you want to marry anybody?”

“At sixteen?” he cried. “Anyhow, my family will arrange it.” The thought of plain honest devoted Lavinia crossed his mind, and he could not help comparing her to this wild voluptuous creature who floated beside him in the tunnel as the traffic passed them going up and down. With near weightlessness, C’mell’s hair floated like a magic flower around her head. She had been brushing it out of her eyes from time to time. He snorted, “Not Eleanor.”

When he said this, another idea crossed the mind of the beautiful cat-girl.

“You know what I am, Rod,” said she, very seriously.

“A cat-girl from the planet Earth. You’re supposed to be my wife.”

“That’s right,” she said, with an odd intonation in her voice. “Be it, then!”

“What?” said Rod.

“My husband,” she said, her voice catching slightly. “Be my husband, if it will help you to find you.”

She stole a quick glance up and down the shaft. There was nobody near.

“Look, Rod, look!” She spread the opening of her dress down and aside. Even with the poor light, to which his eyes had become accustomed, he could see the fine tracery of veins in her delicate chest and her young, pear-shaped breasts. The aureoles around the nipples were a clear, sweet, innocent pink; the nipples themselves were as pretty as two pieces of candy. For a moment there was pleasure and then a terrible embarrassment came over him. He turned his face away and felt horribly self-conscious. What she had done was interesting but it wasn’t nice.

When he dared to glance at her, she was still studying his face.

“I’m a girlygirl, Rod. This is my business. And you’re a cat, with all the rights of a tomcat. Nobody can tell the difference, here in this tunnel. Rod, do you want to do anything?”

Rod gulped and said nothing.

She swept her clothing back into place. The strange urgency left her voice. “I guess,” she said, “that that left me a little breathless. I find you pretty attractive, Rod. I find myself thinking, ‘what a pity he is not a cat.’ I’m over it now.”

Rod said nothing.

A bubble of laughter came into her voice, along with something mothering and tender, which tugged at his heartstrings. “Best of all, Rod, I didn’t mean it. Or maybe I did. I had to give you a chance before I felt that I really knew you. Rod, I’m one of the most beautiful girls on Old Earth itself. The Instrumentality uses me for that very reason. We’ve turned you into a cat and offered you me, and you won’t have me. Doesn’t that suggest that you don’t know who you are?”

“Are you back on that?” said Rod. “I guess I just don’t understand girls.”

“You’d better, before you’re through with Earth,” she said. “Your agents have bought a million of them for you, out of all that stroon money.”

“People or underpeople?”

“Both!”

“Let them bug sheep!” he cried. “I had no part in ordering them. Come on, girl. This is no place for a boudoir conversation!”

“Where on Earth did you learn that word?” she laughed.

“I read books. Lots of books. I may look like a peasant to you Earth people, but I know a lot of things.”

“Do you trust me, Rod?”

He thought of her immodesty, which still left him a little breathless. The Old North Australian humor reasserted itself in him, as a cultural characteristic and not just as an individual one: “I’ve seen a lot of you, C’mell,” said he with a grin. “I suppose you don’t have many surprises left. All right, I trust you. Then what?”

She studied him closely.

“I’ll tell you what E’ikasus and I were discussing.”

“Who?”

“Him.” She nodded at the little monkey.

“I thought his name was A’gentur.”

“Like yours is C’rod!” she said.

“He’s not a monkey?” asked Rod.

She looked around and lowered her voice. “He’s a bird,” she said solemnly, “and he’s the second most important bird on Earth.”

“So what?” said Rod.

“He’s in charge of your destiny, Rod. Your life or your death. Right now.”

“I thought,” he whispered back, “that that was up to the Lord Redlady and somebody named Jestocost on Earth.”

“You’re dealing with other powers, Rod — powers which keep themselves secret. They want to be friends with you. And I think,” she added in a complete non sequitur, “that we’d better take the risk and go”

He looked blank and she added,

“To the Catmaster.”

“They’ll do something to me there.”

“Yes,” she said. Her face was calm, friendly, and even. “You will die, maybe — but not much chance. Or you might go mad — there’s always the possibility. Or you will find all the things you want — that’s the likeliest of all. I have been there, Rod. I myself have been there. Don’t you think that I look like a happy, busy girl, when you consider that I’m really just an animal with a rather low-down job?”

Rod studied her, “How old are you?”

“Thirty next year,” she said, inflexibly.

“For the first time?”

“For us animal-people there is no second time, Rod. I thought you knew that.”

He returned her gaze. “If you can take it,” said he, “I can too. Let’s go.”

She lifted A’gentur or E’ikasus, depending on which he really was, off the wall, where he had been sleeping like a marionette between plays. He opened his exhausted little eyes and blinked at her.

“You have given us our orders,” said C’mell. “We are going to the Department Store.”

“I have?” he said, crossly, coming much more awake. “I don’t remember it!”

She laughed, “Just through me, E’ikasus!”

“That name!” he hissed. “Don’t get foolhardy. Not in a public shaft.”

“All right, A’gentur,” she responded, “but do you approve?”

“Of the decision?”

She nodded.

The little monkey looked at both of them. He spoke to Rod, “If she gambles her life and yours, not to mention mine — if she takes chances to make you much, much happier, are you willing to come along?”

Rod nodded in silent agreement.

“Let’s go, then,” said the monkey-surgeon.

“Where are we going?” asked Rod.

“Down into Earthport City. Among all the people. Swarms and swarms of them,” said C’mell, “and you will get to see the everyday life of Earth, just the way that you asked at the top of the tower, an hour ago.”

“A year ago, you mean,” said Rod. “So much has happened!” He thought of her young naked breasts and the impulse which had made her show them to him, but the thought did not make him excited or guilty; he felt friendly, because he sensed in their whole relationship a friendliness much more fervent than sex itself.

“We are going to a store,” said the sleepy monkey.

“A commissary. For things? What for?”

“It has a nice name,” said C’mell, “and it is run by a wonderful person. The Catmaster himself. Five hundred some years old, and still allowed to live by virtue of the legacy of the Lady Goroke.”

“Never heard of her,” said Rod. “What’s the name?”

“The Department Store of Heart’s Desires,” said C’mell and E’ikasus simultaneously.

The trip was a vivid, quick dream. They had only a few hundred meters to fall before they reached ground level.

They came out on the people-street. A robot-policeman watched them from a corner.

Human beings in the costumes of a hundred historical periods were walking around in the warm, wet air of Earth. Rod could not smell as much salt in the air as he had smelled at the top of the tower, but down here in the city it smelled of more people than he had ever even imagined in one place. Thousands of individuals? hundreds, and thousands of different kinds of foods, the odors of robots, of underpeople and of other things which seemed to be unmodified animals.

“This is the most interesting-smelling place I have ever been,” said he to C’mell.

She glanced at him idly. “That’s nice. You can smell like a dog-man. Most of the real people I have known couldn’t smell their own feet. Come on though, C’roderick — remember who you are! If we’re not tagged and licensed for the surface, we’ll get stopped by that policeman in one minute or less.”

She carried E’ikasus and steered Rod with a pressure on his elbow. They came to a ramp which led to an underground passage, well illuminated. Machines, robots and underpeople were hurrying back and forth along it, busy with the commerce of Earth.

Rod would have been completely lost if he had been without C’mell. Though his miraculous broadband hiering, which had so often surprised him at home, had not returned during his few hours on Old Earth, his other senses gave him a suffocating awareness of the huge number of people around him and above him. (He never realized that there were times, long gone, when the cities of Earth had populations which reached the tens of millions; to him, several hundred thousand people, and a comparable number of underpeople, was a crowd almost beyond all measure.) The sounds and smells of underpeople were subtly different from those of people; some of the machines of Earth were bigger and older than anything which he had previously imagined; and above all, the circulation of water in immense volumes, millions upon millions of gallons, for the multiple purposes of Earthport — sanitation, cooling, drinking, industrial purposes — made him feel that he was not among a few buildings, which he would have called a city in Old North Australia, but that he himself had become a blood-cell thrusting through the circulatory system of some enormous composite animal, the nature of which he imperfectly understood. This city was alive with a sticky, wet, complicated aliveness which he had hitherto not even imagined to be possible. Movement characterized it. He suspected that the movement went on by night and day, that there was no real cessation to it, that the great pumps thrust water through feeder pipes and drains whether people were awake or not, that the brains of this organization could be no one place, but had to comprise many sub-brains, each committed and responsible for its particular tasks. No wonder underpeople were needed! It would be boredom and pain, even with perfected automation, to have enough human supervisors to reconnect the various systems if they had breakdowns inside themselves or at their interconnections. Old North Australia had vitality, but it was the vitality of open fields, few people, immense wealth, and perpetual military danger; this was the vitality of the cesspool of the compost heap, but the rotting, blooming, growing components were not waste material but human beings and near-human beings. No wonder that his forefathers had fled the cities as they had been. They must have been solid plague to free men. And even Old Original Australia, somewhere here on Earth, had lost its openness and freedom in order to become the single giant city-complex of Aojou Nambien. It must, Rod thought with horror, have been a thousand times the size of this city of Earthport, (He was wrong, because it was one hundred fifty thousand times the size of Earthport before it died. Earthport had only about two hundred thousand permanent residents when Rod visited it, with an additional number walking in from the nearer suburbs, the outer suburbs still being ruined and abandoned, but Australia — under the name of Aojou Nambien — had reached a population of thirty billion before it died, and before the Wild Ones and the Menschenjager had set to work killing off the survivors.)

Rod was bewildered, but C’mell was not.

She had put A’gentur down, over his whined monkey-like protest. He trotted unwillingly beside them.

With the impudent knowledgeability of a true city girl, she had led them to a cross-walk from which a continuous whistling roar came forth. By writing, by picture, and by loudspeaker, the warning system repeated: KEEP OFF, FREIGHT ONLY, DANGER, KEEP OFF. She had snatched up A’gentur-E’ikasus, grabbed Rod by the arm, and jumped with them on a series of rapidly moving airborne platforms. Rod, startled by the suddenness in which they had found the trackway, shouted to ask what it was:

“Freight? What’s that?”

“Things. Boxes. Foods. This is the Central Trackway. No sense in walking six kilometers when we can get this. Be ready to jump off with me when I give you the sign!”

“It feels dangerous,” he said.

“It isn’t,” she said, “not if you’re a cat.”

With this somewhat equivocal reassurance, she let them ride. A’gentur could not care less. He cuddled his head against her shoulder, wrapped his long, gibbon-like arms around her upper arm and went soundly to sleep.

C’mell nodded at Rod.

“Soon now!” she called, judging their distance by landmarks which he found meaningless. The landing points had flat, concrete-lined area where the individual flat cars, rushing along on their river of air, could be shunted suddenly to the side for loading or unloading. Each of these landing areas had a number, but Rod had not even noticed at what point they had gotten on. The smells of the underground city changed so much as they moved from one district to another that he was more interested in odors than in the numbers on the platforms.

She pinched his upper arm very sharply as a sign that he should get ready.

They jumped.

He staggered across the platform until he caught himself up against a large vertical crate marked Algonquin Paper Works — Credit Slips, Miniature — 2mm. C’mell landed as gracefully as if she had been acting a rehearsed piece of acrobatics. The little monkey on her shoulder stared with wide bright eyes.

“This,” said the monkey A’gentur-E’ikasus firmly and contemptuously, “is where all the people play at working. I’m tired, I’m hungry, and my body sugar is low.” He curled himself tight against C’mell’s shoulder, closed his eyes, and went back to sleep.

“He has a point,” said Rod. “Could we eat?”

C’mell started to nod and then caught herself short—

“You’re a cat.”

He nodded. Then he grinned. “I’m hungry, anyhow. And I need a sandbox.”

“Sandbox?” she asked puzzled.

“An awef,” he said very clearly, using the Old North Australian term.

“Awef?”

It was his turn to get embarrassed. He said it in full: “An animal waste evacuation facility.”

“You mean a johnny,” she cried. She thought a minute and then said, “Fooey.”

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

“Each kind of underpeople has to use its own. It’s death if you don’t use one and it’s death if you use the wrong one. The cat one is four stations back on this underground trackway. Or we can walk back on the surface. It would only be a half hour.”

He said something rude to Earth. She wrinkled her brow.

“All I said was, ‘Earth is a large healthy sheep.’ That’s not so dirty.” Her good humor returned.

Before she could ask him another question he held up a firm hand. “I am not going to waste a half hour. You wait here.” He had seen the universal sign for “men’s room” at the upper level of the platform. Before she could stop him he had gone into it. She caught her hand up to her mouth, knowing that the robot police would kill him on sight if they found him in the wrong place. It would be such a ghastly joke if the man who owned the Earth were to die in the wrong toilet.

As quick as thought she followed him, stopping just outside the door to the men’s room. She dared not go in; she trusted that the place was empty when Rod entered it, because she had heard no boom of a slow, heavy bullet, none of the crisp buzzing of a burner. Robots did not use toilets, so they went in only when they were investigating something. She was prepared to distract any man living if he tried to enter that toilet, by offering him the combination of an immediate seduction or a complimentary and unwanted monkey.

A’gentur had waked up.

“Don’t bother,” he said. “I called my father. Anything approaching that door will fall asleep.”

An ordinary man, rather tired and worried-looking, headed for the men’s room. C’mell was prepared to stop him at any cost, but she remembered what A’gentur-E’ikasus had told her, so she waited. The man reeled as he neared them. He stared at them, saw that they were underpeople, looked on through them as though they were not there. He took two more steps toward the door and suddenly reached out his hands as if he were going blind. He walked into the wall two meters from the door, touched it firmly and blindly with his hands, and crumpled gently to the floor, where he lay snoring.

“My dad’s good,” said A’gentur-E’ikasus. “He usually leaves real people alone, but when he must get them, he gets them. He even gave that man the distinct memory that he mistakenly took a sleeping pill when he was reaching for a pain-killer. When the human wakes up, he will feel foolish and will tell no one of his experience.”

Rod came out of the ever-so-dangerous doorway. He grinned at them boyishly and did not notice the crumpled man lying beside the wall. “That was easier than turning back, and nobody noticed me at all. See, I saved you a lot of trouble, C’mell!”

He was so proud of hisfoolhardy adventure that she did not have the heart to blame him. He smiled widely, his cat-whiskers tipping as he did so. For a moment, just a moment, she forgot that he was an important person and a real man to boot: he was a boy, and mighty like a cat, but all boy in his satisfaction, his wanton bravery, his passing happiness with vainglory. For a second or two she loved him. Then she thought of the terrible hours ahead, and of how he would go home, rich and scornful, to his all-people planet. The moment of love passed but she still liked him very much.

“Come along, young fellow. You can eat. You are going to eat cat food since you are C’roderick, but it’s not so bad.”

He frowned. “What is it? Do you have fish here? I tasted fish one time. A neighbor bought one. He traded two horses for it. It was delicious.”

“He wants fish,” she cried to E’ikasus.

“Give him a whole tuna for himself,” grumbled the monkey. “My blood sugar is still low. I need some pineapple.”

C’mell did not argue. She stayed underground and led them into a hall which had a picture of dogs, cats, cattle, pigs, bears, and snakes above the door; that indicated the kinds of people who would be served there. E’ikasus scowled at the sign but he rode C’mell’s shoulder in.

“This gentleman,” said C’mell, speaking pleasantly to an old bear-man who was scratching his belly and smoking a pipe, all at the same time, “has forgotten his credits.”

“No food,” said the bear-man. “Rules. He can drink water, though.”

“I’ll pay for him,” said C’mell.

The bear-man yawned, “Are you sure that he won’t pay you back? If he does, that is private trading and it is punished by death.”

“I know the rules,” said C’mell. “I’ve never been disciplined yet.”

The bear looked her over critically. He took his pipe out of his mouth and whistled, “No,” said he, “and I can see that you won’t be. What are you, anyhow? A model?”

“A girlygirl,” said C’mell.

The bear-man leapt from his stool with astonishing speed. “Cat-madame!” he cried, “A thousand pardons. You can have anything in the place. You come from the top of Earthport? You know the Lords of the Instrumentality personally? You would like a table roped off with curtains? Or should I just throw everybody else out of here and report to my Man that we have a famous, beautiful slave from the high places?”

“Nothing that drastic,” said C’mell. “Just food.”

“Wait a bit,” said A’gentur-E’ikasus, “if you’re offering specials, I’ll have two fresh pineapples, a quarter-kilo of ground fresh coconut, and a tenth of a kilo of live insect grubs.”

The bear-man hesitated. “I was offering things to the cat-lady, who serves the mighty ones, not to you, monkey. But if the lady desires it, I will send for those things.” He waited for C’mell’s nod, got it, and pushed a button for a low-grade robot to come. He turned to Rod McBan, “And you, cat-gentleman, what would you like?”

Before Rod could speak, C’mell said, “He wants two sailfish steaks, fried potatoes, Waldorf salad, an order of ice cream, and a large glass of orange juice.”

The bear-man shuddered visibly. “I’ve been here for years and that is the most horrible lunch I ever ordered for a cat. I think I’ll try it myself.”

C’mell smiled the smile which had graced a thousand welcomes.

“I’ll just help myself from the things you have on the counters. I’m not fussy.”

He started to protest but she cut him short with a graceful but unmistakable wave of the hand. He gave up.

They sat at a table.

A’gentur-E’ikasus waited for his combination monkey and bird lunch. Rod saw an old robot, dressed in a prehistoric tuxedo jacket, ask a question of the bear-man, leave one tray at the door, and bring another tray to him. The robot whipped off a freshly starched napkin. There was the most beautiful lunch Rod McBan had ever seen. Even at a state banquet, the Old North Australians did not feed their guests like that.

Just as they were finishing, the bear-cashier came to the table and asked,

“Your name, cat-madame? I will charge these lunches to the government.”

“C’mell, servant to Teadrinker, subject to the Lord Jestocost, a Chief of the Instrumentality.”

The bear’s face had been epilated, so that they could see him pale.

“C’mell,” he whispered. “C’mell! Forgive me, my lady. I have never seen you before. You have blessed this place. You have blessed my life. You are the friend of all underpeople. Go in peace.”

C’mell gave him the bow and smile which a reigning empress might give to an active Lord of the Instrumentality. She started to pick up the monkey but he scampered on ahead of her. Rod was puzzled. As the bear-man bowed him out, he asked, “C’mell. You are famous?”

“In a way,” she said. “But only among the underpeople.” She hurried them both toward a ramp. They reached daylight at last, but even before they came to the surface, Rod’s nose was assaulted by a riot of smells — foods frying, cakes baking, liquor spilling its pungency on the air, perfumes fighting with each other for attention, and, above all, the smell of old things: dusty treasures, old leathers, tapestries, the echo-smells of people who had died a long time ago.

C’mell stopped and watched him. “You’re smelling things again? I must say, you have a better nose than any human being I ever met before. How does it smell to you?”

“Wonderful,” he gasped. “Wonderful. Like all the treasures and temptations of the universe spilled out into one little place.”

“It’s just the Thieves’ Market of Paris.”

“There are thieves on Earth? Open ones, like on Viola Siderea?”

“Oh, no,” she laughed. “They would die in a few days. The Instrumentality would catch them. These are just people, playing. The Rediscovery of Man found some old institutions, and an old market was one of them. They make the robots and the underpeople find things for them and then they pretend to be ancient, and make bargains with each other. Or they cook food. Not many real people ever cook food these days. It’s so funny that it tastes good to them. They all pick up money on their way in. They have barrels of it at the gate. In the evening, or when they leave, they usually throw the money in the gutter, even though they should really put it back in the barrel. It’s not money we underpeople could use. We go by numbers and computer cards,” she sighed. “I could certainly use some of that extra money.”

“And underpeople like you — like us—” said Rod, “what do we do in the market?”

“Nothing,” she whispered. “Absolutely nothing. We can walk through if we are not too big and not too small and not too dirty and not too smelly. And even if we are all right, we must walk right through without looking directly at the real people and without touching anything in the market?”

“Suppose we do?” asked Rod defiantly.

“The robot police are there, with orders to kill on sight when they observe an infraction. Don’t you realize C’rod,” she sobbed at him, “that there are millions of us in tanks, way below in Downdeep-downdeep, ready to be born, to be trained, to be sent up here to serve Man? We’re not scarce at all, C’rod, we’re not scarce at all!”

“Why are we going through the market then?”

“It’s the only way to the Catmaster’s store. We’ll be tagged. Come along.”

Where the ramp reached the surface, four bright-eyed robots, their blue enamel bodies shining and their milky eyes glowing, stood at the ready. Their weapons had an ugly buzz to them and were obviously already off the “safety” mark. C’mell talked to them quietly and submissively. When the robot-sergeant led her to a desk, she stared into an instrument like binoculars and blinked when she took her eyes away. She put her palm on a desk. The identification was completed. The robot sergeant handed her three bright disks, like saucers, each with a chain attached. Wordlessly she hung them around her own neck, Rod’s neck, and A’gentur’s. The robots let them pass. They walked in demure single file through the place of beautiful sights and smells. Rod felt that his eyes were wet with tears of rage. “I’ll buy this place,” he thought to himself, “if it’s the only thing I’ll ever buy.”

C’mell had stopped walking.

Rod looked up, very carefully.

There was the sign: THE DEPARTMENT STORE OF HEARTS’ DESIRE. A door opened. A wise old cat-person face looked out, stared at them, snapped, “No underpeople!” and slammed the door. C’mell rang the doorbell a second time. The face reappeared, more puzzled than angry.

“Business,” she whispered, “of the Aitch Eye.” The face nodded and said, “In, then. Quick!”

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