Chapter VIII.

3 Jun

The secretary in navy blue suit knocked a second time on the door of Cam’s office. From across the corridor, Hekla Knax opened her door and peered out.

“Looking for Dr. Bingen?” asked the Head of Psychiatry.

The young man whirled around. “There is a message for him, but I couldn’t locate him on his wire line.”

“I believe he was tired and left here early. Is it important enough to send on to his hotel?”

The office assistant thought a moment. “No, Dr. Knax. I am certain that it can wait until tomorrow.”

“He will be leaving for consultations at the ice stations tomorrow,” she reminded the secretary. “The only thing to do is leave him a note on his reckoner recorder.”

So it was that Cam Bingen failed to learn of one patient’s departure for the algoid icecap. The change in her whereabouts was not to be communicated to him. He could not foresee that Sunda would be traveling in the same direction as he was.

Six o’clock, and the fading afternoon rays of the daystar covered Bifrost City with its yellowish green light. The night’s darkness would prevail for the next four and a half hours. At the Central Icecap Terminal, a methane-fueled packet began to lumber forward along the recessed tracks of a channel cut into the solid ice.

The great iceboat, its three stories encased in transparent sheets of silicon, plodded forward with freight and passengers at a cautious, careful speed. As the city fell behind, Razo the musician came out of his cabin on the second level, making his way to the top floor where the star singer had been assigned a special suite.

When she opened her door for him, he surprised her with a proposal.

“If you are hungry, we could go to the dining room now and eat together.”

“I’d rather do that later, Razo,” she replied. “Why don’t you and I take a look from the observation deck, though?”

“That’s fine,” he said with a smile.

Thus it was that the pair found themselves on the canopied porch above the wheelhouse of the packet ship. Only a couple of tourists had climbed there to see the algae plantations on the southern horizon. The large vessel moved slowly toward the clearly visible border of brown vegetation in the distance. There were no similar or comparable sights anywhere on the Continent.

“Did the tour manager tell you what our first stop is to be?” asked Sunda with eager curiosity.”He gave me no information at all about the itinerary we are taking. You know as much as I do.”

Razo turned toward her. “One of the juggler twins on the program with us told me that he heard that we will make two stops tomorrow. In the morning and afternoon, at Monera. Then, in the evening, we will give a show at Protista Station.”

“That sounds very strenuous and tiring,” complained the singer.

“He told me that the entire idea of this tour came from on high.”

She gave him a searching stare. “Mr. Kvaloz?”

Razo gave her a silent nod.

“I never expected he would be so demanding when I first came to the Hiberna,” she mused aloud. “The tour, sprung in one day, was a startling surprise to me. There was no time or opportunity to prepare for this at all.”

“That is the way our employer is, Sunda,” said the musician with a deep sigh.

The pair peered out at a brownish purple belt of algae to the south of them. “Is that violet vegetation out there?” the singer asked her companion.

He squinted into the reflected band of algoid growth.

“I believe that the stationers call it puce,” answered Razo. “Is this your first trip into the heart of the icecap?”

“Yes,” admitted the songstress with a sad frown.

“By the time we return to Bifrost City, you will know and recognize all the varieties that grow out here. Wait till you see the fields of magenta and cinnabar. You will be astonished at how beautiful they look.”

“The entire Continent imports the raw algae, I know.” She thought a moment. “Seeing all that algae ahead has made me happy, Razo. Let’s go down and have at least a light salad or something.”

As they descended from the observation deck, neither of them noted a dark figure lurking in a small, shadowy alcove where room supplies were stored for passenger use.

If only one of the pair had spotted the person watching them from his hideout!

Cam had napped longer than he had planned to.

His first thought as he raised himself from the still covered bed was of the folksinger who had become his patient.

Why not invite her to dinner? There would be no breach of professional rules, he was certain of that. Just a little relaxation together, informal and pleasant. Perhaps the two of them could establish the beginning of a close friendship. There was no rule, he told himself, against a therapist becoming a friend of one of his patients. And that was precisely what Cam Bingen had in mind. It could be of great value in the course of her treatment, that was evident to him.

A few steps took him to the holophone in the sitting room. Touching the hotel’s central tab, he saw an operator appear on the optical screen.

“Yes, sir?”

“I would like to link with the room of Miss Sunda Vipur, the hotel performer, please.”

The young woman’s face became saddened.

“That is not possible, sir.”

“What?” said Cam with a start.

“She has left on a trip. That is what has been reported to us by management. There is no forwarding address or holophone code, I’m sorry to inform you.”

“When is she expected back?”

“That is not certain at all, sir.”

“Is there nothing else that you know?”

“I’m very sorry,” she said with an artificial grin. “Is there anything else I can do?”

“No, thank you.”

The green screen turned a snowy gray, the would-be caller still staring at it as if in hypnotic enchantment.

What now?

How was Sunda’s therapy going to proceed with her gone?

There might be something to learn downstairs in the casino or the nightclub, he decided. Perhaps some clue or trace might be picked up there, he mused, as he hurried out of his room, toward the vertical going down to the casino’s level.

The manager of the tour, spotting the singer and her accompanist, walked over to their table in the main eating hall of the ice packet.

“Do not forget to go to bed soon, both of you,” he warned them with an expression close to a sneer. “All of us will be busy in Monera tomorrow. Our first show is an early one.”

Sunda and Razo exchanged blank looks as the big man departed for his own quarters.

“There is one thing I can’t understand,” whispered the musician. “Why weren’t we told about this tour in time to prepare ourselves adequately? It makes no sense. The decision must have been reached hurriedly. But that is not at all in the style of Mr. Kvaloz. He tends to be slow, careful, and deliberate in what he does. You can see, then, why the sudden order was so surprising. I’d deeply like to find out how this tour was put together, and the true reason for it.”

Sunda looked down at the tiny horologe on her finger ring.

“Those matters will have to wait till tomorrow, my friend. Are you as tired as I am?”

Razo was already on his feet, waiting for her to get up. But she hesitated, her eyes focused on the opposite end of the nearly empty dining room. Her fixed gaze had a shadow of subconscious dread in it. He thought he saw trembling on her face.

“What was it you saw?” her companion asked once she was on her feet.

All at once, she displayed a smile of sudden courage.

“Nothing,” she answered as the two made for the swinging door leading to the deck. “There was something I thought I saw when two passengers went out.”

“What did it look like?” he asked, his curiosity aroused.

Her face visibly flushed red.

“A ghost, perhaps,” she said lowly. “I thought of a foggy apparition.”

“Some sort of specter?”

Both of them stopped before the double wings of the door.

“A tall, skeletal form,” she continued. “It reminded me of certain recent experiences at the Hiberna. That’s all.”

Razo at once knew what she was referring to.

“The son of Mr. Kvaloz?” he cautiously uttered.

Silence, as well as the terror in her brown eyes, told him that he had guessed correctly.

“Imagination can make us see eldritch forms lurking inside our brains, Sunda,” he assured her as he held open one half of the swinging door.

The two made their way along the open corridor of the bottom deck. Already the daystar had fallen in the far northwest. A frigid fog was rising from the sides of the ice channel. The three hour darkness of night was fast approaching. Soon they would be surrounded by the gloom of summer night. The daystar, hiding behind the icy horizon, would take a short leave while continuing to light the sky with dim, diffused rays. No wonder that for eons the Bifrostians called this period of time the Ghost Night. It was shortly to make its presence known to those watching it from the packet. There was no way for anyone to escape from this unworldly circumstance.

Razo walked the songstress to her suite on the top storey of the iceship.

“Good night, Sunda,” he told her. “Rest up for tomorrow.”

Once the cabin door was closed, he started toward the stairs from that deck.

A sudden stop gave him a moment to think over what she had just said.

Before he knew it, Razo had decided to stay here on the top storey, watching and waiting. Who could say what he might or might not see tonight? There were signs that someone dangerous could be present aboard the vessel.

Razo had to know whether Sunda’s strange premonition was a warning of impending peril for her. Standing on guard, his eyes scanned the semidarkness of the silent, empty top deck. He was on watch for something hard to see and catch.

Sunda returned to her room unaware that she had an unseen guard.

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