SF39Advance Agent by Christopher Anvil

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Title: Advance Agent



Author: Christopher Anvil



Release Date: February 21, 2016 [EBook #51273]



Language: English



Character set encoding: ASCII



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Advance Agent

By CHRISTOPHER ANVIL

Illustrated by FINLAY

[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Galaxy Science Fiction February 1957.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


Raveling Porcy’s systematized enigma, Dan
found himself with a spy’s worst break—he
was saddled with the guise of a famed man!


I

Dan Redman stooped to look in the mirror before going to see the director of A Section. The face that looked back wasn’t bad, if he had expected strong cheekbones, copper skin and a high-arched nose. But Dan wasn’t used to it yet.

He straightened and his coat drew tight across chest and shoulders. The sleeves pulled up above hands that felt average, but that the mirror showed to be huge and broad. Dan turned to go out in the hall and had to duck to avoid banging his head on the door frame. On the way down the hall, he wondered just what sort of job he had drawn this time.

Dan stopped at a door lettered:

A SECTION
J. KIELGAARD
DIRECTOR

A pretty receptionist goggled at him and said to go in. Dan opened the inner door.

Kielgaard—big, stocky, expensively dressed—looked up and studied Dan as he came in. Apparently satisfied, he offered a chair, then took out a small plastic cartridge and held it in one hand.



“Dan,” he said, “what do you know about subspace and null-points?”

“Practically nothing,” admitted Dan honestly.


Kielgaard laughed. “Then I’ll fill you in with the layman’s analogy, which is all I know. Suppose you have a newspaper with an ant on the middle of the front page. To get to the middle of page two, the ant has to walk to the edge of the paper, then walk back on the inside. Now suppose the ant could go through the page. The middle of page two is just a short distance away from the middle of page one. That going through, instead of around, is like travel in subspace. And a null-point is a place just a short distance away, going through subspace. The middle of page two, for instance, is a null-point for the middle of page one.”

“Yes,” said Dan patiently, waiting for the point of the interview.

Kielgaard pushed the plastic cartridge he’d been holding through a slot in his desk. A globe to one side lighted up a cottony white, with faint streaks of blue. “This,” he said, “is Porcys.”

Dan studied the globe. “Under that cloud blanket, it looks as if it might be a water world.”

“It is. Except for a small continent, the planet is covered with water. And the water is full of seafood—edible seafood.”

Dan frowned, still waiting.

“Galactic Enterprises,” said Kielgaard, “has discovered a region in subspace which has Porcys for one null-point and Earth for another.”

“Oh,” said Dan, beginning to get the point. “And Earth’s hungry, of course. Galactic can ship the seafood straight through subspace at a big profit.”

“That’s the idea. But there’s one trouble.” Kielgaard touched a button, and on the globe, the white layer vanished. The globe was a brilliant blue, with a small area of mingled green and grayish-brown. “The land area of the planet is inhabited. Galactic must have the permission of the inhabitants to fish the ocean. And Galactic needs to close the deal fast, or some other outfit, like Trans-Space, may get wind of things and move in.”

Kielgaard looked at the globe thoughtfully. “All we know about the Porcyns could be put on one side of a postage stamp. They’re physically strong. They have a few large cities. They have an abundant supply of seafood. They have spaceships and mataform transceivers. This much we know from long-distance observation or from the one Porcyn we anesthetized and brain-spied. We also know from observation that the Porcyns have two other habitable planets in their solar system—Fumidor, a hot inner planet, and an Earthlike outer planet called Vacation Planet.”

Kielgaard drummed his fingers softly. “Granting the usual course of events, Dan, what can we expect to happen? The Porcyns have an abundance of food, a small living area, space travel and two nearby habitable planets. What will they do?”

“Colonize the nearby planets,” said Dan.


“Right,” said Kielgaard. “Only they aren’t doing it. We’ve spied both planets till we can’t see straight. Fumidor has a mine entrance and a mataform center. Vacation Planet has a mataform center and one or two big buildings. And that’s it. There’s no emigration from Porcys to the other two planets. Instead, there’s a sort of cycling flow from Porcys to Vacation Planet to Fumidor to Porcys. Why?

“The Porcyn we brain-spied,” he went on, “associated Vacation Planet with ‘rejuvenation.’ What does that mean we’re up against? Galactic wants to make a contract, but not till they know what they’re dealing with. There are some races it’s best to leave alone. This ‘rejuvenation’ might be worth more than the seafood, sure, but it could also be a sackful of trouble.”

Dan waited, realizing that Kielgaard had come to the crux of the matter.

Kielgaard said, “Galactic wants us to find the answers to three problems. One, how do the Porcyns keep the size of their population down? Two, what is the connection between rejuvenation and ‘Vacation Planet’? And three, do the Porcyns have a proper mercantile attitude? Are they likely to make an agreement? Will they keep one they do make?”

Kielgaard looked intently at Dan. “The only way we’re likely to find the answers in a reasonable time is to send someone in. You’re elected.”

“Just me?” asked Dan in surprise. “All your eggs in one basket?”

“In a situation like this,” said Kielgaard, “one good man is worth several gross of dubs. We’re relying on you to keep your eyes open and your mind on what you’re doing.”

“And suppose I don’t come back?”

“Galactic probably loses the jump it’s got on Trans-Space and you miss out on a big bonus.”

“When do I leave?”

“Tomorrow morning. But today you’d better go down and pick up a set of Porcyn clothes we’ve had made for you and some of their money. It’d be a good idea to spend the evening getting used to things. We’ve implanted in your brain the Porcyn language patterns we brain-spied and we’ve installed in your body cavity a simple organo-transmitter you can use during periods of calm. Because the Porcyns are physically strong and possibly worship strength, we’ve had your body rebuilt to one of the most powerful human physique patterns—that of an American Indian—that we have on record.”

They shook hands and Dan went to his room. He practiced the Porcyn tongue till he had some conscious familiarity with it. Then he tried his strength to make sure he wouldn’t accidentally use more force than he intended. Then, while the evening was still young, he went to bed and fell asleep.

It was Dan’s experience that everything possible went wrong the first few days on a new planet and he wanted to be wide-awake enough to live through it.


II

The next day, Dan left in a spacetug that Galactic was sending on a practice trip through subspace to Porcys. From the tug, he went by mataform to the lab ship in the Porcyn sea. Here he learned that he had only twenty minutes during which conditions would be right to make the next mataform jump to a trawler close to the mainland.

Dan had wanted to talk to the men on the lab ship and learn all they could tell him about the planet. This being impossible, he determined to question the trawler crew to the limit of their patience.

When Dan reached the trawler, it was dancing like a blown leaf in a high wind. He became miserably seasick. That evening, there was a violent electrical storm which lasted into the early morning.

Dan spent the whole night nauseously gripping the edge of his bunk, his legs braced against the violent heave and lurch of the trawler.

Before dawn of the next day, aching in every muscle, his insides sore and tender, his mind fuzzy from lack of sleep, Dan was set ashore on a dark, quiet and foggy strip of beach. He stood for a moment in the soft sand, feeling it seem to dip underfoot.

This, he thought, was undoubtedly the worst start he had ever made on any planet anywhere.

From around him in the impenetrable fog came distant croakings, whistlings and hisses. The sounds were an unpleasant suggestion that something else had gone wrong. Between bouts of sickness, Dan had tried to arrange with the crew to land him near the outskirts of a Porcyn city. But the sounds were those of the open country.

What Dan wanted was to go through the outskirts of the city before many people were moving around. He could learn a great deal from their homes, their means of transportation and the actions of a few early risers. He could learn from the things he expected to see, or from the lack of them, if he was there to see them.

Dan moved slowly inland, crossed a ditch and came to what seemed to be a macadam road. He checked his directions and started to walk. He forced the pace so his breath came hard, and hoped it would pump some life into his dulled brain and muscles.

As his senses gradually began to waken, Dan became aware of an odd swish-swish, swish-swish, like a broom dusting lightly over the pavement behind him. The sound drew steadily closer.

Dan halted abruptly.

The sound stopped, too.

He walked on.

Swish-swish.

He whirled.

Silence.


Dan listened carefully. The sound could be that of whatever on Porcys corresponded to a playful puppy—or to a rattlesnake.

He stepped sharply forward.

Swish-swish. It was behind him.

He whirled.

There was a feeling of innumerable hairy spiders running over him from head to foot. The vague shape of a net formed and vanished in the gloom before him. He lashed out and hit the dark and the fog.

Swish-swish. It was moving away.

He stood still while the sound faded to a whisper and was gone. Then he started to walk. He was sure that what had just happened meant something, but what it meant was a different question. At least, he thought ruefully, he was wider awake now.

He walked on as the sky grew lighter. Then the fog shifted to show a solid mass of low blocky buildings across the road ahead. The road itself disappeared into a tunnel under one of the buildings. To one side, a waist-high metal rail closed off the end of one of the city’s streets. Dan walked off the road toward the rail. His eye was caught by the building ahead. Each was exactly the same height, about two to three Earth stories high. They were laid out along a geometrically straight border with no transition between city and farmland.

There was a faint hum. Then a long, low streak, its front end rounded like a horseshoe crab, shot out of the tunnel under the building beside him and vanished along the road where he’d just been walking.

Now Dan saw a small modest sign beside the road.

Care
High-Speed
Vehicles Only
Swept

Dan crossed the rail at the end of the street with great caution.

The Porcyn clothing he was wearing consisted of low leather boots, long green hose, leather shorts, a bright purple blouse and a sky-blue cape. Dan bunched the cape in his hand and thrust it ahead of him as he crossed the rail, for some races were finicky about their exits and entrances. The straight, sharp boundary between city and farmland, and the identical buildings, suggested to Dan that here was a race controlled by strict rules and forms, and he was making an obviously unauthorized entrance.

It was with relief that he stood on the opposite side, within the city. He glanced back at the sign and wondered what “Swept” meant. Then he gave his attention to the buildings ahead of him.


Low at first, the buildings rose regularly to a greater height, as far as the fog would let him see. Dan remembered the storm of the night before and wondered if the progressive heightening of the buildings was designed to break the force of the wind. The buildings themselves were massive, with few and narrow windows, and wide heavy doors opening on the street.

Dan walked farther into the city and found that the street took right-angle bends at regular intervals, probably also to break the wind. There was no one in sight, and no vehicles.

Dan decided he was probably in a warehouse district.

He paused to look at a partly erected new building, built on the pattern of the rest. Then he heard from up the street a grunting, straining sound interspersed with whistling puffs. There was a stamping noise, a thud and the clash of metal.

Dan ran as quietly as he could up the street, stopped, glanced around one of the right-angle bends. He was sure the sound had come from there.

The street was empty.

Dan walked closer and studied a large brass plate set in the base of a building. It looked about twenty inches high by thirty wide with a rough finish. In the center of the plate was a single word:

SWEEPER

Dan looked at this for a moment. Then, frowning, he strode on. In his mind’s eye, he was seeing the sign by the road:

Care
High-Speed
Vehicles Only
Swept

Dan couldn’t decide whether the word “Swept” was part of the warning or just an afterthought. In any case, he had plainly heard a struggle here and now there was nothing to be seen. Alert for more brass plates, he wound his way through the streets until he came out on a broad avenue. On the opposite side were a number of tall, many-windowed buildings like apartment houses. On the sidewalks and small lawns in front, crowds of children were playing. They were wearing low boots, leather shorts or skirts, brightly colored blouses and hose, and yellow capes. Walking quietly among them was a tawny animal with the look and lordly manner of a lion.

It was a lion.

As far as the rapidly dispersing fog let him see, the avenue ran straight in one direction. In the other, it ended a block or so away. Apparently the crooked, wind-breaking streets were only on the edge of the city.

Dan thought of the questions Kielgaard wanted him to answer:

1, how do the Porcyns keep the size of their population down?

2, what is the connection between rejuvenation and Vacation Planet?

3, do the Porcyns have a proper mercantile attitude? Are they likely to make an agreement? Will they keep one they do make?

To find the answers, Dan intended to work his way carefully through the city. If nothing went wrong, he should be able to see enough to eliminate most of the possibilities. Already he had seen enough to make Porcyns look unpromising. The rigid city boundary, the strict uniformity of the buildings and the uniform pattern of the clothing suggested a case-hardened, ingrown way of living.


Across the street, a low door to one side of the apartment building’s main entrance came open. The lion walked out.

It was carrying a squirming little boy by his bunched-up cape. The big creature flopped down, pinned the struggling boy with a huge paw and methodically started to clean him. The rasp of the animal’s tongue could be heard clearly across the street.

The boy yelled.

A healthy-looking girl of about twelve, wearing a cape diagonally striped in yellow and red, ran over and rescued the boy. The lion rolled over on its back to have its belly scratched.

Dan scowled and walked toward the near end of the street. On less advanced planets, where the danger of detection was not so great, agents often went in with complex, surgically inserted organo-transmitters in their body cavities. Unlike the simple communicator Dan had, these were fitted with special taps on the optic and auditory nerves, and the transmitter continuously broadcast all that the agent saw and heard. Experts back home went over the data and made their own conclusions.

The method was useful, but it had led to some dangerous mistakes. Sight and sound got across, but often the atmosphere of the place didn’t. Dan thought it might be the same here.

The feeling that the city gave him didn’t match what his reasoning told him.

He crossed a street, passed an inscription on a building:

Freedom
Devisement
Fraternity

Then he was back in a twisting maze of streets. He walked till the wind from the sea blew in his face.

The street dipped to a massive wall and the sea, where a few brightly colored, slow-moving trawlers were going out. Dan turned in another street and wound back and forth till he came out along the ocean front. On one side of the street was the ocean, a broad strip of sand, and the sea wall. On the other side was a row of small shops, brightly awninged, with displays just being set in place out in front.

In the harbor, a ship was being unloaded. Flat-bottomed boats were running back and forth from several long wharves. On the street ahead, a number of heavy wagons, drawn by six-legged animals with heads like eels, bumped and rattled toward the wharves. Behind them ran a crowd of boys in yellow capes, a big tawny lioness trotting among them. On the sidewalk nearby strode a few powerfully built old men, their capes of various colors.

Dan glanced at the displays in front of the shops. Some were cases of fish on ice. Others were piles of odd vegetables in racks. Dan paused to look at a stack of things like purple carrots.

A man immediately came forward from the rear of the store, wiping his hands on his apron. Dan moved on.

The next shop had the universal low boots, shorts, skirts, blouses and hose, in assorted sizes and colors, but no capes. Dan slowed to glance at the display and saw the proprietor coming briskly from the dark interior, rubbing his hands. Dan speeded up and got away before the proprietor came out.

The Porcyns, he thought, seemed at least to have a proper mercantile attitude.


III

Dan passed another fish market, then came to a big, brightly polished window. Inside was a huge, chromium-plated bar-bell on a purple velvet cloth. Behind it were arranged displays of hand-grips, exercise cables, dumb-bells and skipping ropes. The inside of the store was indirectly lighted and expensively simple. The place had an air that was quiet, lavish and discreet. It reminded Dan of a well-to-do funeral establishment. In one corner of the window was a small, edge-lighted sign:

You Never Know What the
Next Life Will Be Like.

In the other corner of the window was a polished black plate with a dimly glowing bulb in the center. Around the bulb were the words:

Your Corrected Charge—
Courtesy of Save-Your-Life Co.

A tall, heavily muscled man in a dark-blue cape stepped outside.

“Good morning, Devisement,” he said affably. “I see you’re a stranger in town. I thought I might mention that our birth rate’s rather high just now.” He coughed deferentially. “You set an example, you know. Our main store is on 122 Center Street, so if you—”

He was cut off by a childish scream.

Down the street, a little boy struggled and thrashed near an oblong hole at the base of a building, caught in a tangle of the mysterious ropes.

“A kid!” cried the man. He sucked in his breath and shouted, “Dog! Here, Dog! Dog!

On the end of a wharf, a crowd of children was watching the unloading. From their midst, a lioness burst.

Here, Dog!” shouted the man. “A sweeper! A sweeper! Run, Dog!”

The lioness burst into a blur of long bounds, shot down the wharf, sprang into the street and glanced around with glaring yellow eyes.

The little boy was partway inside the hole, clinging to the edge with both hands. “Doggie,” he sobbed.

The lioness crouched, sprang into the hole. A crash, a bellow and a thin scream came from within. The lioness reappeared, its eyes glittering and its fur on end. It gripped the little boy by the cape and trotted off, growling.

“Good dog!” cried the man.

Men in the shops’ doorways echoed his shout.

“A kid,” said the man. “They have to learn sometime, I know, but—” He cut himself short. “Well, all’s well that ends well.” He glanced respectfully at Dan. “If you’re here any length of time, sir, we’d certainly appreciate your looking into this. And if you’re planning to stay long—well, as you see, our sweepers are hungry—our main store is on 122 Center Street. Our vacation advisor might be of some service to you.”

“Thank you,” said Dan, his throat dry.

“Not at all, Devisement.” The man went inside, muttering, “A kid.”

Dan passed several more shops without seeing very much. He turned the corner. Across the street, where the boy had been, was a dented brass plate at the base of the building. On Dan’s side of the street, trotting toward him, was a big, tawny-maned lion. Dan hesitated, then started up the street.

There was a faint clash of metal.

Swish-swish.


A net seemed to form in the air and close around him. There was a feel of innumerable hairy spiders running over him from head to foot. The net vanished. Something wrapped around his ankle and yanked.

The lion growled.

There was a loud clang and Dan’s foot was free. He looked down and saw a brass plate labeled SWEEPER.

Dan decided it might be a good idea to see the Save-Your-Life Co.’s vacation advisor. He started out to locate 122 Center Street and gave all brass plates a wide berth on the way.

He strode through a briskly moving crowd of powerfully built men and women in capes of various colors, noticing uneasily that they were making way for him. He studied them as they passed, and saw capes of red, green, dark blue, brown, purple, and other shades and combinations of colors. But the only sky-blue cape he had seen so far was his own.

A sign on the corner of a building told Dan he was at Center Street. He crossed and the people continued to draw back for him.

It began to dawn on Dan that he had had the ultimate bad luck for a spy in an unknown country: He was marked out on sight as some sort of notable.

Just how bad his luck had been wasn’t clear to him till he came to a small grassy square with an iron fence around it and a man-sized statue in the center. The granite base of the statue was inscribed:

I DEVISE

The statue itself was of bronze, showing a powerful man, his foot crushing down a mass of snapping monsters. In his right hand, he held together a large circle of metal, his fingers squeezing shut a cut in the metal, which would break the circle if he let go. His left hand made a partially open fist, into which a wrench had been fitted. The statue itself, protected by some clear finish from the weather, was plain brown in color.



But the statue’s cape was enameled sky-blue.

Dan stared at the statue for a moment, then looked around. In the street beside it, a crowd of people was forming, their backs toward him and their heads raised. Dan looked up. Far up, near the tops of the buildings, he could make out a long cable stretched from one building to another across the street. Just on the other side of the crowd was the entrance to the main store of the Save-Your-Life Co.


Dan crossed the street and saw a very average-looking man, wearing an orange cape, come to a stop at the corner and look shrewdly around.

Dan blinked and looked again. The man in orange was no Porcyn.

The man’s glance fell on the statue and his lips twisted in an amused smile. He looked up toward the rope, then down at the crowd, and then studied the backs of the crowd and the fronts of the stores around him, the lids of his eyes half-closed in a calculating look.

A brass plate nearby popped open, a net of delicate hairy tendrils ran over him, and something like a length of tarred one-inch rope snaked out and wrapped around his legs. An outraged expression crossed his face. His hand came up. The rope yanked. He fell on the sidewalk. The rope hauled him into the hole. The brass plate snapped shut. From inside came a muffled report.

It occurred to Dan that Galactic was not the only organization interested in Porcys.

Dan looked thoughtfully at the brass plate for a moment, then walked toward the entrance of the Save-Your-Life Co., past display windows showing weights, cables, parallel bars, trapezes and giant springs with handles on each end.

He tried the door. It didn’t move.

A clerk immediately opened the door and took Dan along a cool, chaste hallway to an office marked “Vacation Advisor.” Here a suave-looking man made an offhand remark about the birth rate, took a sudden look at Dan’s cape, blinked, stiffened, glanced at Dan’s midsection and relaxed. He went through his files and gave Dan a big photograph showing a smiling, healthy, middle-aged couple and a lovely girl about nineteen.

“These are the Milbuns, sir. Mr. Milbun is a merchant at present. Quite well-to-do, I understand. Mrs. Milbun is a housewife right now. The daughter, Mavis, is with a midtown firm at the moment. The mother became ill at an awkward time. The family put their vacation off for her, and as a result their charge has run very low. If you can get to their apartment without being—ah—swept, I feel sure they will welcome you, sir.” He scribbled a rough map on a piece of paper, drew an arrow and wrote “6140 Runfast Boulevard, Apartment 6B,” and stamped the paper “Courtesy of Save-Your-Life Co.”

Then he wished Dan a healthy vacation and walked with him to hold open the outer door.

Dan thanked him and went outside, where the crowd was now almost blocking the sidewalk. He forced his way free, saw someone point, and glanced at the statue.

The wrench in the statue’s left hand had been replaced by what looked like a magnifying glass.

Dan had gone a few steps when there was a thundering cheer, then a terrified scream high in the air behind him. He turned around and saw a man come plummeting down. Dan gaped higher and saw a line of tiny figures going across high up on the rope. One of the figures slipped. There was another cheer.

Dan hurriedly turned away.

He had already convinced himself that the Porcyns had a “proper mercantile attitude.” And he thought he was beginning to get an idea as to how they kept their population down.


IV

Carefully avoiding brass plates, Dan made his way along an avenue of shops devoted to exercise and physical fitness. He came to Runfast Blvd. and located 6140, which looked like the apartment houses he had seen earlier.

He tried the outer door; it was locked. When someone came out, Dan caught the door and stepped in. As the door shut, he tried it and found it was locked again. He stood for a moment trying to understand it, but his sleeplessness of the night before was catching up with him. He gave up and went inside.

There were no elevators on the ground floor. Dan had his choice of six ropes, two ladders and a circular staircase. He went up the staircase to the third floor, where he saw a single elevator. He rode it up to the sixth, got off and found that there was a bank of four elevators on this floor.

He looked at the elevators a minute, felt himself getting dizzy, and walked off to locate apartment 6B.

A powerfully built gray-haired man of middle height answered his knock. Dan introduced himself and explained why he had come.

Mr. Milbun beamed and his right hand shot forward. Dan felt like a man with his hand caught in an airlock.

“Lerna!” called Milbun. “Lerna! Mavis! We have a guest for vacation!”

Dan became aware of a rhythmical clinking somewhere in the back of the apartment. Then a big, strong-looking woman, obviously fresh from the kitchen, hurried in, smiling. If she had been ill, she was clearly recovered now.

“Ah, how are you?” she cried. “We’re so happy to have you!” She gripped his hand and called, “Mavis!

The clinking stopped. A beautifully proportioned girl came in, wearing a sweatshirt and shorts. “Mother, I simply have to get off another pound or so—Oh!” She stared at Dan.

“Mavis,” said Mr. Milbun, “this is Mr. Dan Redman. Devisement, my daughter Mavis.”

“You’re going with us!” she said happily. “How wonderful!”

“Now,” said Mr. Milbun, “I imagine his Devisement wants to get a little rest before he goes down to the gym.” He glanced at Dan. “We have a splendid gym here.”

“Oh,” said Mavis eagerly, “and you can use my weights.”

“Thanks,” said Dan.

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” Milbun told him. “The birth rate’s still rising here, and last night the charge correction went up again. A little more and it’ll take two of us to get a door open. It won’t inconvenience you to leave tomorrow?”

“Not at all,” said Dan.

“Splendid.” Milbun turned to his wife. “Lerna, perhaps our guest would like a little something to eat.”


The food was plain, good and plentiful. Afterward, Mavis showed Dan to his room. He sank down gratefully on a firm, comfortable bed. He closed his eyes….

Someone was shaking him gently.

“Don’t you want to go down to the gym?” asked Mr. Milbun. “Remember, we’re leaving tomorrow.”

“Of course,” said Dan.

Feeling that his brain was functioning in a vacuum, Dan followed the Milbuns into the hall, climbed down six stories on a ladder, then into the basement on a rope. He found himself in a room with a stony dirt track around the wall, ropes festooning the ceiling, an irregularly shaped pool, and artificial shrubs and foliage from behind which sprang mechanical monsters. The Milbuns promptly vanished behind imitation vine-covered doors and came out again in gym clothes.

Dan went through the doorway Mr. Milbun had come out of and discovered that the Save-Your-Life Co. had a machine inside which dispensed washed, pressed and sterilized gym clothes for a small fee. The machine worked by turning a selector dial to the proper size, pressing a lever, and then depositing the correct fee in an open box on the wall nearby. Dan studied this a moment in puzzlement, guessed his proper size and put the correct payment in the box.

He put on the gym clothes and went outside.

For forty-five minutes, mechanical creatures of odd and various shapes sprang at him from behind shrubbery, gripped him when he passed holes in the floor and wound themselves around his legs as he tried to swim in the pool.

His temper worsened. He stopped to look at Mavis as she swayed, laughing, on a rope above two things like mobile giant clamshells.

Mr. Milbun shook his head. “Mavis, remember, we’re leaving tomorrow.”

Just then, something snarled and lunged at Dan from the side. There was a flash of teeth.

Dan whirled. His fist shot out. There was a scream of machinery, then a crash and a clatter. An imitation monster with a huge jaw and giant teeth lay on its back on the floor.

Milbun let out a slow whistle. “Dismounted it. Boy!”

“A one-bite, too,” breathed Mavis.

Mrs. Milbun came over and looked at Dan approvingly.

Dan had been about to apologize, but checked himself when the others smiled cheerfully and went back to what they were doing. This consisted of dodging, tricking or outrunning the various contraptions that lunged at them, chased them, tripped them, trailed, stalked and sprang out at them from nearly every place in the room.

Finally the gym began to fill up with other people. The Milbuns got ready to leave and Dan followed.


Dan lay in his bed that night and tried to summarize the points he didn’t understand. First was the question of vacation. But he supposed he would learn about that tomorrow. Next was “charge.” Apparently one went on vacation when his “charge” was low, because the vacation advisor had said, “The family put their vacation off for her, and as a result their charge has run very low.” But just what was “charge”?

Dan remembered the flickering bulb in the store window, ringed by the words “Your Corrected Charge—Courtesy of Save-Your-Life Co.” Apparently he had some charge, because the bulb had flickered. But where did he get it?

Then he thought of the waterfront and of the little boy caught at the hole. What was the point of that? And why did that produce such an uproar when, a little later, a grown man could get dragged out of sight on a well-traveled street and never cause a single notice?

Dan felt himself sinking into a maze of confusion. He dismissed the problems and went to sleep clinging to one fact. The Porcyns mustbe honest people who would keep an agreement, once made. On what other planet could anyone find a slot machine with no slot, but just an open box for the money?

Dan fell asleep, content that he had the answer to that part of the problem, at least.

Before it was light, he awoke to an odd familiar buzz inside his head.

“Dan,” said Kielgaard’s voice, small and remote.

Dan rolled over, lay on his back and spoke sub-vocally. “Right here.”

“Can you talk?”

“Yes,” said Dan, “if I can stay awake.”

“Can you give us a summary?”

“Sure.” Dan told him briefly what had happened.

Kielgaard was silent a moment. Then he said, “What do you think ‘charge’ is?”

“I haven’t been in any condition to think. Maybe it’s a surgically implanted battery, set to run down after so long.”

“Too clumsy. What about radioactivity?”

“H’m. Yes, you mentioned a mine on the inner planet. Maybe they mine radioactive ore. That would explain why I have some charge. There’s residual radioactivity even in the atmosphere of Earth.”

“That’s so,” said Kielgaard. “But not every planet has it. I’m wondering about this other agent you mentioned seeing. He sounds to me like someone from Trans-Space. And that’s bad.”

“They play dirty,” Dan conceded.


“Worse than that,” said Kielgaard’s tiny voice. “They recruit their agents from Lassen Two. Maybe that’s a break. Unlike Earth, Lassen Two is nearly radiation-free. And Trans-Space doesn’t use finesse. They’ll pump Porcys full of agents loaded down with organo-transmitters. Visual, auditory and olfactory. They’ll broadcast on every wave-length, suck out as much information in as short a time as they can, then either pull some dirty trick or slam the Porcyns an offer. That is, if everything goes according to plan.

“But meanwhile,” he added, “one or more of their agents is bound to stand in front of a free ‘Your charge’ device somewhere in the city. Very likely, that agent will be radiation-free and some Porcyn, for the first time in his life, is going to see a bulb that doesn’t even flicker. If the Porcyns are as scientifically advanced as we think, and if Trans-Space is as dirty as usual, there may be a rat-race on before we know it.”

Dan lay gloomily still.

“Dan,” said Kielgaard, “where were you standing in relation to the other agent? Did he come up from behind or was he in front of you when you reached the statue?”

“I was in front of him. Why?”

“Because then you were in his range of vision. He may not have noticed you, but his organo-transmitter would. The chances are you appeared on the screen back at Trans-Space headquarters. They record those scenes as they come in and their experts go over them frame by frame. Unless you happened to be behind someone, they’ll see your image on the screen, spot you here and there in other scenes from other agents, study your actions and recognize you as an agent just as surely as you recognized their agent.”

“Yes,” said Dan wearily, “of course they will.” He was thinking that if he had been more awake yesterday, he would have thought of this himself and perhaps avoided it. But he couldn’t be alert without sleep and who could sleep in a heaving boat in a thunderstorm?

“This changes things,” Kielgaard was saying. “I’m going to see if we can get a little faster action.”

“I think I’d better get some more sleep,” Dan answered. “I may need it tomorrow.”

“I agree,” said Kielgaard. “You’ll have to keep your eyes open. Good night, Dan, and good luck.”

“Thanks.”

Dan rolled over on his side. He tried for a moment to remember how the other agent had been standing and whether anyone had been between them to block his view, but he couldn’t be sure. Dan decided there was nothing to do but assume the worst. He blanked his mind. Soon a feeling of deep weariness came over him and he fell asleep.


In the morning, Dan and the Milbuns ate a hurried breakfast. Dan helped Mr. Milbun grease his rowing machine, weights, springs and chinning bar, so they wouldn’t rust in his absence. Milbun worked in a somber mood. All the Milbuns, in fact, were unusually quiet for a family going on vacation. When they went out into the hall, carrying no baggage, they even took the elevator to the third floor.

“Better save our strength,” said Mr. Milbun.

The street seemed to Dan to have a different atmosphere. People were walking quietly in groups, their eyes cool and alert. The Milbuns walked in front of the apartment houses Dan had passed the day before, and across the street he saw the place where the chiseled motto had read:

Freedom
Devisement
Fraternity

It was gone. Some workmen nearby were lifting a stone slab onto a cart. Dan blinked. The motto now read:

Alertness
Devisement
Vigilance

The Milbuns plainly noticed it, too. They drew closer together and looked around thoughtfully. Carefully keeping away from brass plates labeled SWEEPER, they followed a devious route that led to the statue.

The statue had changed, too. The hand that gripped the circle was now hidden by a massive shield. The other hand still held what looked like a magnifying glass, and the motto was still “I Devise.” But the shield gave the whole statue a look of strange menace.

Across the street, near the place where Dan had seen the Trans-Space agent, stood several men wearing orange capes, barred black across the shoulders. Nearby, the brass plate opened and a man in work clothes handed out a box and went back in.

At a store entrance up the street, watching them, stood an average-looking man in a purple cape, his look intent and calculating.

Mavis glanced at the statue and took Dan’s arm. “Devisement,” she said, “they won’t take you now, will they, before vacation?”

Dan kept an uneasy silence and Mr. Milbun said, “Of course not, Mavis. Where’s the belt?”

Mavis glanced at the statue. “Oh.”

Dan looked at the statue, then at Mavis and Mr. Milbun, said nothing and went on.

They came to a large building with a long flight of broad wide steps. Across the face of the building was boldly and sternly lettered, high up:

HALL OF TRUTH

Lower down was the motto:

“Speak the Truth—
Live Yet a While With Us.”


V

On one side of the stairs as they climbed was a statue of a man, smiling. On the other side was an urn with a bunch of carved flowers lying beside it.

A big bronze door stood open at the top. They walked through into a large chamber with massive seats in triple rows along two walls, and a single row of yet more massive seats raised along the farther wall.

A bored-looking man got up from a low desk as the Milbuns sat down in three of the massive seats.

The man asked in a dreary voice, “Have you, to the best of your knowledge, committed any wrong or illegal act or acts since your last vacation?” He picked up a whiskbroom and pan and waited for their answers.

“No,” said the three Milbuns in earnest quavering voices.

The man looked at each of them, shrugged and said boredly, “Pass through to your vacations, live law-abiding citizens.” He beckoned impatiently to Dan, turned to scowl at him, saw Dan’s cape, stiffened, looked hastily out to the statue framed by the doorway, relaxed slightly and inquired respectfully, “Is it time for you to go on vacation, Devisement?”

“It seems to be,” said Dan.

“I think you should, sir. Then you’d be still more helpful if called.”

Dan nodded noncommittally and sat down in one of the massive chairs. His glance fell on an ornamental carving above the big doorway. It was a set of scales held by a giant hand. In one pan of the scales sat a smiling man. In the other was a small heap of ashes.

“Have you,” asked the bored man, “to the best of your knowledge, committed any wrong or illegal act or acts since your last vacation?”

He readied the dustpan and whiskbroom.

The Milbuns watched anxiously at a door in the back of the room.

Uneasily, Dan thought back and remembered no wrong or illegal acts he had committed since his last vacation.

“No,” he said.

The functionary stepped back. “Pass through to your vacation, live law-abiding citizen, sir.”

Dan got up and walked toward the Milbuns. Another bored functionary came in wheeling a cartful of urns. He stopped at a massive chair with a heap of ashes on the seat, a small pile on either arm, and two small piles at the foot. The functionary swept the ashes off and dumped them in the urn.

A cold sensation went through Dan. He followed the Milbuns out into a small room.

He felt an out-of-focus sensation and realized the room was a mataform transmitter. An instant later, they were in a spaceship crowded with thoughtful-looking people.


Life on the spaceship seemed to be given over to silent, morose meditation, with an occasional groan that sounded very much like, “Oh, give me just one more chance, God.”

When they left the ship, it was again by mataform, this time to a building where they stood in a line of people. The line wound through a booth where the color of their capes was marked on their foreheads, thence past a counter where they received strong khaki-colored capes, blouses and hose, and new leather shorts and boots to replace those they were wearing. They changed in tiny private rooms, handed their own clothing in at another counter, had a number stamped on their left shoulders and on their boxes of clothing.

Then they walked out onto a strip of brilliant white sand, fronting on an inlet of sparkling blue water.

Here and there huddled little crowded knots of people, dancing from one foot to another on the hot sand and yet apparently afraid to go in the water. Dan looked to the Milbuns for some clue and saw them darting intense calculating glances at the beach and the water.

Then Mr. Milbun yelled, “Run for it!

A slavering sound reached Dan’s ear. He sprinted after the Milbuns, burst through the crowd in a headlong bolt for the cove, then swam as fast as he could to keep up with them as they raced for the opposite shore. They crawled out, strangling and gasping, and dragged themselves up on the sand. Dan lay, heaving in deep breaths, then rolled over and sat up.

The air around them was split by screams, laced through with sobs, curses and groans. On the shore opposite, a mad dog darted across the crowded beach and emptied people into the cove. In the cove, a glistening black sweep of hide separated the water for an instant, then sank below. People thrashed, fought and went under.

Dan looked up. On the wooden building beyond the cove and the beach was a broad sign:

PORCYS PLANET
REJUVENATION CENTER

Dan read the sign three times. If this was rejuvenation, the Porcyns could have it.

Beside Dan, Milbun stood up, still struggling for breath, and pulled his wife and Mavis to their feet.

“Come on,” he said. “We’ve got to get through the swamp ahead of the grayboas!”


The rest of the day, they pushed through slimy muck up to their knees and sometimes up to their necks. Behind them, the crowd screamingly thinned out.

That night, they washed in icy spring water, tore chunks of meat from a huge broiled creature turning on a spit and went to sleep in tents to the buzz and drone of creatures that shot their long needle noses through the walls like drillers hunting for oil.

The following day, they spent carefully easing from crevice to narrow toehold up the sheer face of a mountain. Food and shelter were at the top. Jagged rocks and hungry creatures were at the bottom. That night, Dan slept right through an urgent buzz from Kielgaard. The next night, he woke enough to hear it, but he didn’t have the strength to answer.

Where, he thought, is the rejuvenation in this?

Then he had a sudden glimmering. It was the Porcyn race that was rejuvenated. The unfit of the Porcyns died violently. It took stamina just to live from one day to the next.

Even the Milbuns were saying that this was the worst vacation ever. Trails slid out from under them. Trees fell toward them. Boulders bounded down steep slopes at them.

At first, the Milbuns tried to remember forgotten sins for which all this might be repayment. But when there was the dull boom of an explosion and they narrowly escaped a landslide, Milbun looked at the rocks across the trail with sunken red eyes. He sniffed the air and growled, “Undevised.”

That afternoon, Dan and the Milbuns passed three average-looking men hanging by their hands from the limb of a tree beside the trail. The faces of the hanging men bore a surprised expression. They hung perfectly still and motionless, except for a slight swaying caused by the wind.

Dan and the Milbuns reached a mataform station late that afternoon.

A very hard-eyed guard in an orange cape, barred across the shoulders in black, let them through and they found themselves in another spaceship, bound for Fumidor, the mining planet.


Dan sat back exhausted and fell asleep. He was awakened by a determined buzz.

Dan!” said Kielgaard’s voice.

“Yes.” Dan sat up. “Go ahead.”

“Trans-Space is going to try to take over Porcys. There’s nothing you can do about that, but they’ve landed agents on Vacation Planet to pick you off. Look out.”

Dan told Kielgaard what had happened to the agents on Vacation Planet, such as the “undevised” explosion and being hung up by the hands.

Kielgaard whistled. “Maybe the Porcyns can take care of themselves. Trans-Space doesn’t think so.”

“How did you find out?”

The tiny voice held a note of grim satisfaction. “They ran an agent in on us and he gave himself away. He went back with an organo-transmitter inside him, and a memory bank. The bank stores up the day’s impressions. The transmitter squirts them out in one multi-frequency blast. The agent is poorly placed for an informant, but we’ve learned a lot through him.”

“How are they going to take over Porcys?”

“We don’t know. They think they’ve found the Porcyns’ weak point, but if so, we don’t know what it is.”

“Listen,” urged Dan, “maybe we ought to put a lot of agents on Porcys.”

“No,” said Kielgaard. “That’s the wrong way to play it. If we go in now, we’ll be too late to do any good. We’re still counting on you.”

“There’s not very much I can do by myself.”

“Just do your best. That’s all we can ask.”

Dan spent the next week chipping out pieces of a radioactive ore. At night, Kielgaard would report the jubilant mood of Trans-Space. On the following days, Dan would chop at the ore with vicious blows that jarred him from his wrists to his heels.

The steady monotonous work, once he was used to it, left his mind free to think and he tried furiously to plan what he would do when he got out. But he found he didn’t really know enough about Porcys to make a sensible plan. Then he began trying to organize what he had seen and heard during his stay on the planet. At night, Kielgaard helped him and together they went over their theories, trying to find those that would fit the facts of Porcys.

“It all hinges on population pressure,” said Kielgaard finally. “On most planets we know of, overpopulation leads to war, starvation, birth control or emigration. These are the only ways. At least, they were, till we discovered Porcys.”


“All right,” agreed Dan. “Grant that. The Porcyns plainly don’t have any of those things, or not to any great extent. Instead, they have institutions such as we’ve never seen before. They have ‘sweepers,’ so-called ‘vacations’ and a rope from building to building. All these things cut down population.”

“Don’t forget their ‘truth chairs,'” said Kielgaard.

“Where you either tell the truth or get converted to ashes—yes. But how does it all fit in?”

“Let’s take one individual as an example. Start at birth.”

“He’s born,” said Dan. “Probably they have nurseries, but we know they stick together as families, because we have the Milbuns to go by. He grows up, living at his parents’ place. He goes with other children to school or to see different parts of his city. A lion—which he calls a ‘dog’—protects him.”

“Yes,” said Kielgaard. “It protects him from sweepers. But most grownups don’t need protection. Only those whose charge is low.”

“Of course. The boy hasn’t been on vacation yet. He’s not radioactive. Apparently you have to be radioactive to open doors. At the apartment house, the boy comes in a small door to one side. The lions, or what resemble lions, like the children but don’t like the sweepers. And the sweepers are afraid of them. All right. But what about when he grows up?”

“Well, for one thing, he has to use the regular doors now. And they won’t open unless he’s been on vacation. And if he hasn’t been on vacation and if his charge isn’t high, the sweepers will go out and grab him. That must be what that sign you saw meant. ‘Swept’ was a warning that there was no escape in that direction.”

“I begin to see it,” said Dan. “I was safe on that road because the birth rate in that section wasn’t high. But in the city, the birth rate was high, so, to keep the population down, the standards were raised. Apparently the sweepers were fed less and got more hungry. People had to go on vacation more often. But what about the rope?”


“I don’t think we really know enough to understand the rope,” said Kielgaard, “but maybe it’s a face-saving device. People who don’t think they’re in good enough shape to get through ‘vacation,’ and who don’t want to die a slow death avoiding sweepers and waiting to go through locked doors, can go across on the rope. Or perhaps it’s a penance. If a man has done something wrong and he’s afraid to deny it in the truth chair, perhaps he’s allowed to confess and go so many times across the rope as punishment. The people cheered. That must mean it’s honorable.”

“That makes sense,” Dan agreed. “All right, but why don’t they just ship their surplus population to the other two planets?”

“We’ve studied that back here,” said Kielgaard. “We think it’s because they wouldn’t dare. They’ve got their little mainland allotted and rationed down to the last blade of grass. They can do that because it’s small enough to keep control of. Now suppose they try to enforce the same system on a new planet with a hundred times the land area—what’s going to happen? They’ll have unknown, uncontrollable factors to deal with. Their system will break down. That statue of theirs shows they know it, too. The man in the blue cape ‘devises’ and his strong right hand does nothing but keep the circle—their system—from flying apart. What puzzles me is that they’re satisfied with it.”

“There’s another point,” Dan said, “but I think I see it now. They’ve got a caste system, but people must be able to move from one caste to another. There must be a competitive exam or some system of choice. The vacation advisor said Mr. Milbun was ‘at present’ a merchant. His wife was ‘now’ a housewife. And no one ever asked my name, though I told it voluntarily to Milbun. It was always ‘Yes, Devisement,’ or ‘Is it time to take your vacation, Devisement?’ There were no personal titles like ‘Sir Moglin,’ or ‘First Magistrate Moglin,’ such as we’ve encountered on other planets.”

Kielgaard grunted. “That would explain the differently colored capes, too. No one would care if a man was a street-cleaner ten years ago. They’d see his cape was blue and give him immediate, automatic respect.”

“Yes,” said Dan. “That’s it. And no one would dare cheat about the color of the cape he wore, because, regardless of his position, sooner or later his charge would be gone. Then he would have to go on vacation. And to do that, he has to sit in the truth chair and tell the truth or get incinerated.” Dan stopped suddenly and sucked in a deep breath.

“What’s wrong?” asked Kielgaard.

That’s the weak point.”


VI

By the end of the week, Dan was able to pass through a door with a specialized type of Geiger counter in the locking circuit.

And by that time, Kielgaard had noted sharp fluctuations in the mood at Trans-Space. There had been an interval of wild confusion, but it hadn’t lasted. Many more Trans-Space agents had gone to Porcys and Trans-Space seemed to be on top again.

The instant Dan stepped from the mines through the door marked “Out,” he was rushed through a shower, a shave and a haircut, shoved into a truth chair and asked questions, given a new cape and clothes, and buckled into a glittering belt by a purple-caped man addressed as “Reverence.” No sooner was the belt in place than all, including “Reverence,” snapped to attention.

“Devisement,” said a man in an orange-and-black cape, “we need your decision quickly. At home, men have usurped cloaks of devisement and given orders contrary to the public good. They wore belts of power, but did not die when their false orders were given. In the Central City, they convened a council, seated themselves in the Hall of Truth, and on the very first oath every single one of them present was thrown into the life beyond.

“Because the statue was already belted, men wearing cloaks of devisement had to give the orders. But now they were all gone. Looters roamed the streets, breaking in doors. These men were vacation-dodgers—out so long that they couldn’t even make a charge-light flicker—and the sweepers cleaned up some of them. But they killed the sweepers! Devisement, I tell you the truth!”

“I believe you,” said Dan.

“Thank heaven. Devisement, something must be done. A young boy passed and graduated to the devisement cape, but before he could take action, he was shot from ambush. We found an old man of the right cape out in the country, and when we finally convinced him, he rounded up one hundred and fifty-seven vacation-dodgers and executed them. We had things in order, but now a glut of lunatics in devisement capes and belts of power have burst into the streets. Their orders are silly, yet their belts don’t kill them. They have no fear of the Truth. Business is stopped and men are hungry. The people are going wild. Strange boats have appeared offshore. Mataform transmitters of odd design are being set up near the shore. This cannot go on without breaking the circle!”

Dan’s throat felt dry.

“Sir,” said the Porcyn desperately, “you must devise something! What shall we do?”

A faint tingling at Dan’s waist suggested to him that he choose his words carefully. One lie or bad intention and the belt of power would probably finish him.

He thought carefully. The total power of the Porcyn planet must be at least the equal of even the huge Trans-Space organization. And Porcys had its power all in one place. The planet was organized to the last ounce of energy, if only it could be brought to bear in time.

Dan ordered his anxious companions to take him to Porcys.


Far under the Central City, which was the city he had seen, he found a weary, powerful old man in a light-blue cape and glittering belt, directing operations from a television command post. The console showed street scenes of men in sky-blue capes and flashing belts, who danced and jabbered, their faces aglow with lunacy as they rapped out conflicting orders and the people jerked and dashed this way and that, tears running down their faces.

Near the statue, before the Hall of Truth, close ranks of Porcyn men in orange-and-black capes stood massed on the steps, holding sleek-bored guns. On the street below, gibbering lunatics in sky-blue danced and shrieked orders, but the eyes of the men on the steps were tightly shut. By a technicality, they avoided obedience to the lunacy, for with their eyes shut, how could they be sure who gave the command?

At the belted statue itself, a man in blue was clinging to one bronze arm as he slammed down a hammer to knock loose the partly broken circle. The statue obstinately refused to let go. At the base of the statue, holding a microphone, stood an average-looking man in a sky-blue cape, his lips drawn back in an amused smile. He gestured to men with crowbars and they tried to jam them between the statue and its base. This failing, they took up chisels and hammers. The man working on the circle shrugged and jumped down.

At the console, the old man looked up at Dan. He put his hand out and felt Dan’s belt. Apparently the tingle reassured him and he seemed to accept Dan without further question.

“This is about the end,” he said. “When that statue goes, those men will feel the jolt and open their eyes. They’re the last formed body of troops on the planet, and when they go, we’ll have nothing to strike with. There must be something I could devise for this, but I’ve been up three nights and I can’t think.”

“Can you delay it?” asked Dan, grappling with the beginning of his plan.

“Oh, we’ll delay it. I’ve got the last of the sweepers collected at the holes opening into the square. Just when that statue begins to tip, I’ll let the sweepers out. That will stop things for a while. Then they’ll kill the sweepers and my bolt is shot.”

“Won’t the men you’ve got here fire on those blue-caped fakes?”

“Devisement,” said the old man, shaking his head, “you know better.”

“Are there any fire hoses? Will your men squirt water on the blue-caped ones?”

“Yes,” said the old man, leaning forward. “They’ll get shot. But yes, they will. What is it? What are you devising?”


Dan outlined his plan. The old man’s eyes lighted. He nodded and Dan went out and climbed with guides through a grim, dark tunnel where the sweepers were kept. He peered out the hole, and as across the street the statue began to tip, he burst outside and sprinted into the square.

The Trans-Space leader raised his microphone.

Dan ripped it out of his hand and knocked him off his feet, then knelt and picked up the heavy shield that had been taken off the statue to get at the ring.

A bullet hummed over Dan’s head.

With a rush of air and a heavy smash, the statue landed full length on the ground. Dan hauled himself up onto its base. Another bullet buzzed past him. Then there was a yell, and Dan looked down in the street.

The sweepers were horrible as they poured from their holes, but they looked almost beautiful to Dan. He glanced at the Porcyns massed on the steps, their faces white with near-hysteria. Their eyes were open and watching him; the Trans-Space men were too busy to give orders.

Dan raised the microphone and his voice boomed out:

Close your eyes till you hear the roar of the lion! Then obey your true leaders!

He repeated the order three times before it dawned on the Trans-Space technicians that this was not according to plan. The loudspeaker gave a booming click and cut off. By then, the sweepers had been killed and Dan became aware of bullets thrumming past him. Suddenly he felt weak with panic that the rest of the plan had fallen apart.

Up the street, Porcyn men were unscrewing a cap on the face of a building. They connected a hose. A sky-blue-caped Trans-Space agent ordered them away. The Porcyns turned, wads of wax in their ears, and raised the hose.

A stream of water knocked the agents backward. Shots rang out. Porcyns fell, but other Porcyns took their places. The stream arched and fell on the Trans-Space agents and abruptly a whirl of color tinged the water. Blots and blobs of green, orange, pink and yellow spattered the blue-caped agents.

At the end of the street, someone ran up tugging a lion by the mane.

Go, dog! Run!

Somewhere a child cried out in terror.

The lion roared.

The troops on the steps opened their eyes.

An old man’s voice, amplified, spoke out with icy authority:

Deploy for street-fighting! First rank, move out along Center Street toward North Viaduct. Rifles at full charge. Wide intervals. Use every scrap of cover. Shoot the false-belted usurpers on sight.

Second rank, move out along West Ocean Avenue toward the sea wall….

Shots rang out.

There was a faint thrumming hum, like wires in the wind, and streaks of cherry radiance criss-crossed in the air.


The lion roared, unable to find the child. The roars of other lions joined in.

Dan was aware that he was lying atop the hard base of the statue, but he didn’t know how he had come to be there. He tried to stand up.

He heard voices screaming orders, then falling still, and a scene swung into his line of sight like something watched through the rear-view mirror of a turning groundcar.

Half a dozen men, guns in their hands, their bodies and blue capes spattered and smeared till they could hardly be recognized, lay motionless on the pavement

Then the scene swung up and away, and Dan felt weightless. Something hit him hard. His head bounced and he rolled over. Soft grass was in his face. It smelled fresh.

There was a dull boom that moved the ground under him.

He twisted his head to look up.

A massive arm was stretched out over him, its hand firmly gripping the cut edges of a big metal ring.

Somewhere a drum took up a steady monotonous beat.

He fell into a deep black quiet and all the sights and sounds grew smaller and fainter and disappeared entirely.


He awoke in a Porcyn hospital. Kielgaard was there, wearing a broad grin and brilliant Porcyn clothes and promising Dan a huge bonus. But it was all like a dream.

Kielgaard said the Porcyns were as mad as hornets. They had raised a battle fleet and it had taken a corps of diplomats and the Combined Intergalactic Space Fleet to argue them out of personally chopping Trans-Space into fine bits. No one knew what would finally happen, but meanwhile Galactic had its contract and everyone was tentatively happy.

His account finished, Kielgaard grinned more broadly yet and switched on a bedside televiewer.

Dan lifted his head off the pillow and looked at the screen. Then he stared.

It was the statue, solid once more on its base, the ring grasped firmly in one hand and a big wrench in the other. But something seemed different.

Dan at last saw what it was.

It was the face. It wasn’t a bad face, if one expected to see strong cheekbones, copper skin and a high-arched nose.

“What a compliment!” he said, embarrassedly pleased. “I—hell, I feel like blushing.”

“Make it a good one,” said Kielgaard. “After tomorrow, you’ll have to blush with your own face again.”

Tomorrow?

“Sure. You’re still working for us, remember.”

Dan sank back on the pillow and gazed up speculatively at the ceiling. “All right, but I want some time off. I have a fat bonus to spend.”

“You could use a holiday,” Kielgaard agreed. “Why not try the Andromedan cloud gardens? Pretty expensive, but with your bonus—”

“I’ve got a place picked out,” said Dan. “I’m going to take a vacation on Porcys.”

Kielgaard started. “You’re joking! Or you’ve gone twitchy!”

“No. Before I have to give this face back to Surgery, I ought to get a little enjoyment out of it. And what could be more enjoyable than hanging around the statue, letting people see the resemblance? Besides, they can’t make me take my vacation on the Vacation Planet—I’ve already had it.”









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SF38The Valor of Cappen Varra by Poul Anderson

Project Gutenberg's The Valor of Cappen Varra, by Poul William Anderson



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Title: The Valor of Cappen Varra



Author: Poul William Anderson



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Language: English



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We have said that there are many and strange shadows, memories surviving from dim pasts, in this FANTASTIC UNIVERSE of ours. Poul Anderson turns to a legend from the Northern countries, countries where even today the pagan past seems only like yesterday, and tells the story of Cappen Varra, who came to Norren a long, long time ago.

the
valor
of
cappen
varra

by … POUL ANDERSON

“Let little Cappen go,” they shouted. “Maybe he can sing the trolls to sleep—”

The wind came from the north with sleet on its back. Raw shuddering gusts whipped the sea till the ship lurched and men felt driven spindrift stinging their faces. Beyond the rail there was winter night, a moving blackness where the waves rushed and clamored; straining into the great dark, men sensed only the bitter salt of sea-scud, the nettle of sleet and the lash of wind.

Cappen lost his footing as the ship heaved beneath him, his hands were yanked from the icy rail and he went stumbling to the deck. The bilge water was new coldness on his drenched clothes. He struggled back to his feet, leaning on a rower’s bench and wishing miserably that his quaking stomach had more to lose. But he had already chucked his share of stockfish and hardtack, to the laughter of Svearek’s men, when the gale started.

Numb fingers groped anxiously for the harp on his back. It still seemed intact in its leather case. He didn’t care about the sodden wadmal breeks and tunic that hung around his skin. The sooner they rotted off him, the better. The thought of the silks and linens of Croy was a sigh in him.

Why had he come to Norren?

A gigantic form, vague in the whistling dark, loomed beside him and gave him a steadying hand. He could barely hear the blond giant’s bull tones: “Ha, easy there, lad. Methinks the sea horse road is too rough for yer feet.”

“Ulp,” said Cappen. His slim body huddled on the bench, too miserable to care. The sleet pattered against his shoulders and the spray congealed in his red hair.

Torbek of Norren squinted into the night. It made his leathery face a mesh of wrinkles. “A bitter feast Yolner we hold,” he said. “‘Twas a madness of the king’s, that he would guest with his brother across the water. Now the other ships are blown from us and the fire is drenched out and we lie alone in the Wolf’s Throat.”

Wind piped shrill in the rigging. Cappen could just see the longboat’s single mast reeling against the sky. The ice on the shrouds made it a pale pyramid. Ice everywhere, thick on the rails and benches, sheathing the dragon head and the carved stern-post, the ship rolling and staggering under the great march of waves, men bailing and bailing in the half-frozen bilge to keep her afloat, and too much wind for sail or oars. Yes—a cold feast!

“But then, Svearek has been strange since the troll took his daughter, three years ago,” went on Torbek. He shivered in a way the winter had not caused. “Never does he smile, and his once open hand grasps tight about the silver and his men have poor reward and no thanks. Yes, strange—” His small frost-blue eyes shifted to Cappen Varra, and the unspoken thought ran on beneath them: Strange, even, that he likes you, the wandering bard from the south. Strange, that he will have you in his hall when you cannot sing as his men would like.

Cappen did not care to defend himself. He had drifted up toward the northern barbarians with the idea that they would well reward a minstrel who could offer them something more than their own crude chants. It had been a mistake; they didn’t care for roundels or sestinas, they yawned at the thought of roses white and red under the moon of Caronne, a moon less fair than my lady’s eyes. Nor did a man of Croy have the size and strength to compel their respect; Cappen’s light blade flickered swiftly enough so that no one cared to fight him, but he lacked the power of sheer bulk. Svearek alone had enjoyed hearing him sing, but he was niggardly and his brawling thorp was an endless boredom to a man used to the courts of southern princes.

If he had but had the manhood to leave— But he had delayed, because of a lusty peasant wench and a hope that Svearek’s coffers would open wider; and now he was dragged along over the Wolf’s Throat to a midwinter feast which would have to be celebrated on the sea.

“Had we but fire—” Torbek thrust his hands inside his cloak, trying to warm them a little. The ship rolled till she was almost on her beam ends; Torbek braced himself with practiced feet, but Cappen went into the bilge again.

He sprawled there for a while, his bruised body refusing movement. A weary sailor with a bucket glared at him through dripping hair. His shout was dim under the hoot and skirl of wind: “If ye like it so well down here, then help us bail!”

“‘Tis not yet my turn,” groaned Cappen, and got slowly up.

The wave which had nearly swamped them had put out the ship’s fire and drenched the wood beyond hope of lighting a new one. It was cold fish and sea-sodden hardtack till they saw land again—if they ever did.

As Cappen raised himself on the leeward side, he thought he saw something gleam, far out across the wrathful night. A wavering red spark— He brushed a stiffened hand across his eyes, wondering if the madness of wind and water had struck through into his own skull. A gust of sleet hid it again. But—

He fumbled his way aft between the benches. Huddled figures cursed him wearily as he stepped on them. The ship shook herself, rolled along the edge of a boiling black trough, and slid down into it; for an instant, the white teeth of combers grinned above her rail, and Cappen waited for an end to all things. Then she mounted them again, somehow, and wallowed toward another valley.

King Svearek had the steering oar and was trying to hold the longboat into the wind. He had stood there since sundown, huge and untiring, legs braced and the bucking wood cradled in his arms. More than human he seemed, there under the icicle loom of the stern-post, his gray hair and beard rigid with ice. Beneath the horned helmet, the strong moody face turned right and left, peering into the darkness. Cappen felt smaller than usual when he approached the steersman.

He leaned close to the king, shouting against the blast of winter: “My lord, did I not see firelight?”

“Aye. I spied it an hour ago,” grunted the king. “Been trying to steer us a little closer to it.”

Cappen nodded, too sick and weary to feel reproved. “What is it?”

“Some island—there are many in this stretch of water—now shut up!”

Cappen crouched down under the rail and waited.

The lonely red gleam seemed nearer when he looked again. Svearek’s tones were lifting in a roar that hammered through the gale from end to end of the ship: “Hither! Come hither to me, all men not working!”

Slowly, they groped to him, great shadowy forms in wool and leather, bulking over Cappen like storm-gods. Svearek nodded toward the flickering glow. “One of the islands, somebody must be living there. I cannot bring the ship closer for fear of surf, but one of ye should be able to take the boat thither and fetch us fire and dry wood. Who will go?”

They peered overside, and the uneasy movement that ran among them came from more than the roll and pitch of the deck underfoot.

Beorna the Bold spoke at last, it was hardly to be heard in the noisy dark: “I never knew of men living hereabouts. It must be a lair of trolls.”

“Aye, so … aye, they’d but eat the man we sent … out oars, let’s away from here though it cost our lives …” The frightened mumble was low under the jeering wind.

Svearek’s face drew into a snarl. “Are ye men or puling babes? Hack yer way through them, if they be trolls, but bring me fire!”

“Even a she-troll is stronger than fifty men, my king,” cried Torbek. “Well ye know that, when the monster woman broke through our guards three years ago and bore off Hildigund.”

“Enough!” It was a scream in Svearek’s throat. “I’ll have yer craven heads for this, all of ye, if ye gang not to the isle!”

They looked at each other, the big men of Norren, and their shoulders hunched bear-like. It was Beorna who spoke it for them: “No, that ye will not. We are free housecarls, who will fight for a leader—but not for a madman.”

Cappen drew back against the rail, trying to make himself small.

“All gods turn their faces from ye!” It was more than weariness and despair which glared in Svearek’s eyes, there was something of death in them. “I’ll go myself, then!”

“No, my king. That we will not find ourselves in.”

“I am the king!”

“And we are yer housecarls, sworn to defend ye—even from yerself. Ye shall not go.”

The ship rolled again, so violently that they were all thrown to starboard. Cappen landed on Torbek, who reached up to shove him aside and then closed one huge fist on his tunic.

“Here’s our man!”

“Hi!” yelled Cappen.

Torbek hauled him roughly back to his feet. “Ye cannot row or bail yer fair share,” he growled, “nor do ye know the rigging or any skill of a sailor—’tis time ye made yerself useful!”

“Aye, aye—let little Cappen go—mayhap he can sing the trolls to sleep—” The laughter was hard and barking, edged with fear, and they all hemmed him in.

“My lord!” bleated the minstrel. “I am your guest—”

Svearek laughed unpleasantly, half crazily. “Sing them a song,” he howled. “Make a fine roun—whatever ye call it—to the troll-wife’s beauty. And bring us some fire, little man, bring us a flame less hot than the love in yer breast for yer lady!”

Teeth grinned through matted beards. Someone hauled on the rope from which the ship’s small boat trailed, dragging it close. “Go, ye scut!” A horny hand sent Cappen stumbling to the rail.

He cried out once again. An ax lifted above his head. Someone handed him his own slim sword, and for a wild moment he thought of fighting. Useless—too many of them. He buckled on the sword and spat at the men. The wind tossed it back in his face, and they raved with laughter.

Over the side! The boat rose to meet him, he landed in a heap on drenched planks and looked up into the shadowy faces of the northmen. There was a sob in his throat as he found the seat and took out the oars.

An awkward pull sent him spinning from the ship, and then the night had swallowed it and he was alone. Numbly, he bent to the task. Unless he wanted to drown, there was no place to go but the island.

He was too weary and ill to be much afraid, and such fear as he had was all of the sea. It could rise over him, gulp him down, the gray horses would gallop over him and the long weeds would wrap him when he rolled dead against some skerry. The soft vales of Caronne and the roses in Croy’s gardens seemed like a dream. There was only the roar and boom of the northern sea, hiss of sleet and spindrift, crazed scream of wind, he was alone as man had ever been and he would go down to the sharks alone.

The boat wallowed, but rode the waves better than the longship. He grew dully aware that the storm was pushing him toward the island. It was becoming visible, a deeper blackness harsh against the night.

He could not row much in the restless water, he shipped the oars and waited for the gale to capsize him and fill his mouth with the sea. And when it gurgled in his throat, what would his last thought be? Should he dwell on the lovely image of Ydris in Seilles, she of the long bright hair and the singing voice? But then there had been the tomboy laughter of dark Falkny, he could not neglect her. And there were memories of Elvanna in her castle by the lake, and Sirann of the Hundred Rings, and beauteous Vardry, and hawk-proud Lona, and— No, he could not do justice to any of them in the little time that remained. What a pity it was!

No, wait, that unforgettable night in Nienne, the beauty which had whispered in his ear and drawn him close, the hair which had fallen like a silken tent about his cheeks … ah, that had been the summit of his life, he would go down into darkness with her name on his lips … But hell! What had her name been, now?

Cappen Varra, minstrel of Croy, clung to the bench and sighed.

The great hollow voice of surf lifted about him, waves sheeted across the gunwale and the boat danced in madness. Cappen groaned, huddling into the circle of his own arms and shaking with cold. Swiftly, now, the end of all sunlight and laughter, the dark and lonely road which all men must tread. O Ilwarra of Syr, Aedra in Tholis, could I but kiss you once more—

Stones grated under the keel. It was a shock like a sword going through him. Cappen looked unbelievingly up. The boat had drifted to land—he was alive!

It was like the sun in his breast. Weariness fell from him, and he leaped overside, not feeling the chill of the shallows. With a grunt, he heaved the boat up on the narrow strand and knotted the painter to a fang-like jut of reef.

Then he looked about him. The island was small, utterly bare, a savage loom of rock rising out of the sea that growled at its feet and streamed off its shoulders. He had come into a little cliff-walled bay, somewhat sheltered from the wind. He was here!

For a moment he stood, running through all he had learned about the trolls which infested these northlands. Hideous and soulless dwellers underground, they knew not old age; a sword could hew them asunder, but before it reached their deep-seated life, their unhuman strength had plucked a man apart. Then they ate him—

Small wonder the northmen feared them. Cappen threw back his head and laughed. He had once done a service for a mighty wizard in the south, and his reward hung about his neck, a small silver amulet. The wizard had told him that no supernatural being could harm anyone who carried a piece of silver.

The northmen said that a troll was powerless against a man who was not afraid; but, of course, only to see one was to feel the heart turn to ice. They did not know the value of silver, it seemed—odd that they shouldn’t, but they did not. Because Cappen Varra did, he had no reason to be afraid; therefore he was doubly safe, and it was but a matter of talking the troll into giving him some fire. If indeed there was a troll here, and not some harmless fisherman.

He whistled gaily, wrung some of the water from his cloak and ruddy hair, and started along the beach. In the sleety gloom, he could just see a hewn-out path winding up one of the cliffs and he set his feet on it.

At the top of the path, the wind ripped his whistling from his lips. He hunched his back against it and walked faster, swearing as he stumbled on hidden rocks. The ice-sheathed ground was slippery underfoot, and the cold bit like a knife.

Rounding a crag, he saw redness glow in the face of a steep bluff. A cave mouth, a fire within—he hastened his steps, hungering for warmth, until he stood in the entrance.

Who comes?

It was a hoarse bass cry that rang and boomed between walls of rock; there was ice and horror in it, for a moment Cappen’s heart stumbled. Then he remembered the amulet and strode boldly inside.

“Good evening, mother,” he said cheerily.

The cave widened out into a stony hugeness that gaped with tunnels leading further underground. The rough, soot-blackened walls were hung with plundered silks and cloth-of-gold, gone ragged with age and damp; the floor was strewn with stinking rushes, and gnawed bones were heaped in disorder. Cappen saw the skulls of men among them. In the center of the room, a great fire leaped and blazed, throwing billows of heat against him; some of its smoke went up a hole in the roof, the rest stung his eyes to watering and he sneezed.

The troll-wife crouched on the floor, snarling at him. She was quite the most hideous thing Cappen had ever seen: nearly as tall as he, she was twice as broad and thick, and the knotted arms hung down past bowed knees till their clawed fingers brushed the ground. Her head was beast-like, almost split in half by the tusked mouth, the eyes wells of darkness, the nose an ell long; her hairless skin was green and cold, moving on her bones. A tattered shift covered some of her monstrousness, but she was still a nightmare.

“Ho-ho, ho-ho!” Her laughter roared out, hungry and hollow as the surf around the island. Slowly, she shuffled closer. “So my dinner comes walking in to greet me, ho, ho, ho! Welcome, sweet flesh, welcome, good marrow-filled bones, come in and be warmed.”

“Why, thank you, good mother.” Cappen shucked his cloak and grinning at her through the smoke. He felt his clothes steaming already. “I love you too.”

Over her shoulder, he suddenly saw the girl. She was huddled in a corner, wrapped in fear, but the eyes that watched him were as blue as the skies over Caronne. The ragged dress did not hide the gentle curves of her body, nor did the tear-streaked grime spoil the lilt of her face. “Why, ’tis springtime in here,” cried Cappen, “and Primavera herself is strewing flowers of love.”

“What are you talking about, crazy man?” rumbled the troll-wife. She turned to the girl. “Heap the fire, Hildigund, and set up the roasting spit. Tonight I feast!”

“Truly I see heaven in female form before me,” said Cappen.

The troll scratched her misshapen head.

“You must surely be from far away, moonstruck man,” she said.

“Aye, from golden Croy am I wandered, drawn over dolorous seas and empty wild lands by the fame of loveliness waiting here; and now that I have seen you, my life is full.” Cappen was looking at the girl as he spoke, but he hoped the troll might take it as aimed her way.

“It will be fuller,” grinned the monster. “Stuffed with hot coals while yet you live.” She glanced back at the girl. “What, are you not working yet, you lazy tub of lard? Set up the spit, I said!”

The girl shuddered back against a heap of wood. “No,” she whispered. “I cannot—not … not for a man.”

“Can and will, my girl,” said the troll, picking up a bone to throw at her. The girl shrieked a little.

“No, no, sweet mother. I would not be so ungallant as to have beauty toil for me.” Cappen plucked at the troll’s filthy dress. “It is not meet—in two senses. I only came to beg a little fire; yet will I bear away a greater fire within my heart.”

“Fire in your guts, you mean! No man ever left me save as picked bones.”

Cappen thought he heard a worried note in the animal growl. “Shall we have music for the feast?” he asked mildly. He unslung the case of his harp and took it out.

The troll-wife waved her fists in the air and danced with rage. “Are you mad? I tell you, you are going to be eaten!”

The minstrel plucked a string on his harp. “This wet air has played the devil with her tone,” he murmured sadly.

The troll-wife roared wordlessly and lunged at him. Hildigund covered her eyes. Cappen tuned his harp. A foot from his throat, the claws stopped.

“Pray do not excite yourself, mother,” said the bard. “I carry silver, you know.”

“What is that to me? If you think you have a charm which will turn me, know that there is none. I’ve no fear of your metal!”

Cappen threw back his head and sang:

“A lovely lady full oft lies.The light that lies within her eyesAnd lies and lies, in no surprise.All her unkindness can deviseTo trouble hearts that seek the prizeWhich is herself, are angel lies—”

Aaaarrrgh!” It was like thunder drowning him out. The troll-wife turned and went on all fours and poked up the fire with her nose.

Cappen stepped softly around her and touched the girl. She looked up with a little whimper.

“You are Svearek’s only daughter, are you not?” he whispered.

“Aye—” She bowed her head, a strengthless despair weighting it down. “The troll stole me away three winters agone. It has tickled her to have a princess for slave—but soon I will roast on her spit, even as ye, brave man—”

“Ridiculous. So fair a lady is meant for another kind of, um, never mind! Has she treated you very ill?”

“She beats me now and again—and I have been so lonely, naught here at all save the troll-wife and I—” The small work-roughened hands clutched desperately at his waist, and she buried her face against his breast.

“Can ye save us?” she gasped. “I fear ’tis for naught ye ventured yer life, bravest of men. I fear we’ll soon both sputter on the coals.”

Cappen said nothing. If she wanted to think he had come especially to rescue her, he would not be so ungallant to tell her otherwise.

The troll-wife’s mouth gashed in a grin as she walked through the fire to him. “There is a price,” she said. “If you cannot tell me three things about myself which are true beyond disproving, not courage nor amulet nor the gods themselves may avail to keep that red head on your shoulders.”

Cappen clapped a hand to his sword. “Why, gladly,” he said; this was a rule of magic he had learned long ago, that three truths were the needful armor to make any guardian charm work. “Imprimis, yours is the ugliest nose I ever saw poking up a fire. Secundus, I was never in a house I cared less to guest at. Tertius, ever among trolls you are little liked, being one of the worst.”

Hildigund moaned with terror as the monster swelled in rage. But there was no movement. Only the leaping flames and the eddying smoke stirred.

Cappen’s voice rang out, coldly: “Now the king lies on the sea, frozen and wet, and I am come to fetch a brand for his fire. And I had best also see his daughter home.”

The troll shook her head, suddenly chuckling. “No. The brand you may have, just to get you out of this cave, foulness; but the woman is in my thrall until a man sleeps with her—here—for a night. And if he does, I may have him to break my fast in the morning!”

Cappen yawned mightily. “Thank you, mother. Your offer of a bed is most welcome to these tired bones, and I accept gratefully.”

“You will die tomorrow!” she raved. The ground shook under the huge weight of her as she stamped. “Because of the three truths, I must let you go tonight; but tomorrow I may do what I will!”

“Forget not my little friend, mother,” said Cappen, and touched the cord of the amulet.

“I tell you, silver has no use against me—”

Cappen sprawled on the floor and rippled fingers across his harp. “A lovely lady full oft lies—

The troll-wife turned from him in a rage. Hildigund ladled up some broth, saying nothing, and Cappen ate it with pleasure, though it could have used more seasoning.

After that he indited a sonnet to the princess, who regarded him wide-eyed. The troll came back from a tunnel after he finished, and said curtly: “This way.” Cappen took the girl’s hand and followed her into a pitchy, reeking dark.

She plucked an arras aside to show a room which surprised him by being hung with tapestries, lit with candles, and furnished with a fine broad featherbed. “Sleep here tonight, if you dare,” she growled. “And tomorrow I shall eat you—and you, worthless lazy she-trash, will have the hide flayed off your back!” She barked a laugh and left them.

Hildigund fell weeping on the mattress. Cappen let her cry herself out while he undressed and got between the blankets. Drawing his sword, he laid it carefully in the middle of the bed.

The girl looked at him through jumbled fair locks. “How can ye dare?” she whispered. “One breath of fear, one moment’s doubt, and the troll is free to rend ye.”

“Exactly.” Cappen yawned. “Doubtless she hopes that fear will come to me lying wakeful in the night. Wherefore ’tis but a question of going gently to sleep. O Svearek, Torbek, and Beorna, could you but see how I am resting now!”

“But … the three truths ye gave her … how knew ye…?”

“Oh, those. Well, see you, sweet lady, Primus and Secundus were my own thoughts, and who is to disprove them? Tertius was also clear, since you said there had been no company here in three years—yet are there many trolls in these lands, ergo even they cannot stomach our gentle hostess.” Cappen watched her through heavy-lidded eyes.

She flushed deeply, blew out the candles, and he heard her slip off her garment and get in with him. There was a long silence.

Then: “Are ye not—”

“Yes, fair one?” he muttered through his drowsiness.

“Are ye not … well, I am here and ye are here and—”

“Fear not,” he said. “I laid my sword between us. Sleep in peace.”

“I … would be glad—ye have come to deliver—”

“No, fair lady. No man of gentle breeding could so abuse his power. Goodnight.” He leaned over, brushing his lips gently across hers, and lay down again.

“Ye are … I never thought man could be so noble,” she whispered.

Cappen mumbled something. As his soul spun into sleep, he chuckled. Those unresting days and nights on the sea had not left him fit for that kind of exercise. But, of course, if she wanted to think he was being magnanimous, it could be useful later—


He woke with a start and looked into the sputtering glare of a torch. Its light wove across the crags and gullies of the troll-wife’s face and shimmered wetly off the great tusks in her mouth.

“Good morning, mother,” said Cappen politely.

Hildigund thrust back a scream.

“Come and be eaten,” said the troll-wife.

“No, thank you,” said Cappen, regretfully but firmly. “‘Twould be ill for my health. No, I will but trouble you for a firebrand and then the princess and I will be off.”

“If you think that stupid bit of silver will protect you, think again,” she snapped. “Your three sentences were all that saved you last night. Now I hunger.”

“Silver,” said Cappen didactically, “is a certain shield against all black magics. So the wizard told me, and he was such a nice white-bearded old man I am sure even his attendant devils never lied. Now please depart, mother, for modesty forbids me to dress before your eyes.”

The hideous face thrust close to his. He smiled dreamily and tweaked her nose—hard.

She howled and flung the torch at him. Cappen caught it and stuffed it into her mouth. She choked and ran from the room.

“A new sport—trollbaiting,” said the bard gaily into the sudden darkness. “Come, shall we not venture out?”

The girl trembled too much to move. He comforted her, absentmindedly, and dressed in the dark, swearing at the clumsy leggings. When he left, Hildigund put on her clothes and hurried after him.

The troll-wife squatted by the fire and glared at them as they went by. Cappen hefted his sword and looked at her. “I do not love you,” he said mildly, and hewed out.

She backed away, shrieking as he slashed at her. In the end, she crouched at the mouth of a tunnel, raging futilely. Cappen pricked her with his blade.

“It is not worth my time to follow you down underground,” he said, “but if ever you trouble men again, I will hear of it and come and feed you to my dogs. A piece at a time—a very small piece—do you understand?”

She snarled at him.

“An extremely small piece,” said Cappen amiably. “Have you heard me?”

Something broke in her. “Yes,” she whimpered. He let her go, and she scuttled from him like a rat.

He remembered the firewood and took an armful; on the way, he thoughtfully picked up a few jeweled rings which he didn’t think she would be needing and stuck them in his pouch. Then he led the girl outside.

The wind had laid itself, a clear frosty morning glittered on the sea and the longship was a distant sliver against white-capped blueness. The minstrel groaned. “What a distance to row! Oh, well—”


They were at sea before Hildigund spoke. Awe was in the eyes that watched him. “No man could be so brave,” she murmured. “Are ye a god?”

“Not quite,” said Cappen. “No, most beautiful one, modesty grips my tongue. ‘Twas but that I had the silver and was therefore proof against her sorcery.”

“But the silver was no help!” she cried.

Cappen’s oar caught a crab. “What?” he yelled.

“No—no—why, she told ye so her own self—”

“I thought she lied. I know the silver guards against—”

“But she used no magic! Trolls have but their own strength!”

Cappen sagged in his seat. For a moment he thought he was going to faint. Then only his lack of fear had armored him; and if he had known the truth, that would not have lasted a minute.

He laughed shakily. Another score for his doubts about the overall value of truth!

The longship’s oars bit water and approached him. Indignant voices asking why he had been so long on his errand faded when his passenger was seen. And Svearek the king wept as he took his daughter back into his arms.

The hard brown face was still blurred with tears when he looked at the minstrel, but the return of his old self was there too. “What ye have done, Cappen Varra of Croy, is what no other man in the world could have done.”

“Aye—aye—” The rough northern voices held adoration as the warriors crowded around the slim red-haired figure.

“Ye shall have her whom ye saved to wife,” said Svearek, “and when I die ye shall rule all Norren.”

Cappen swayed and clutched the rail.

Three nights later he slipped away from their shore camp and turned his face southward.

Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from Fantastic Universe January 1957. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and typographical errors have been corrected without note.








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SF37Sentiment, Inc. by Poul Anderson

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Title: Sentiment, Inc.



Author: Poul William Anderson



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Cover
Dr. Kennedy's examination room

the machine

The way we feel about another person, or about objects, is often bound up in associations that have no direct connection with the person or object at all. Often, what we call a “change of heart” comes about sheerly from a change in the many associations which make up our present viewpoint. Now, suppose that these associations could be altered artificially, at the option of the person who was in charge of the process….


Sentiment, Inc.
by POUL ANDERSON

SHE was twenty-two years old, fresh out of college, full of life and hope, and all set to conquer the world. Colin Fraser happened to be on vacation on Cape Cod, where she was playing summer [6]stock, and went to more shows than he had planned. It wasn’t hard to get an introduction, and before long he and Judy Sanders were seeing a lot of each other.

“Of course,” she told him one afternoon on the beach, “my real name is Harkness.”

He raised his arm, letting the sand run through his fingers. The beach was big and dazzling white around them, the sea galloped in with a steady roar, and a gull rode the breeze overhead. “What was wrong with it?” he asked. “For a professional monicker, I mean.”

She laughed and shook the long hair back over her shoulders. “I wanted to live under the name of Sanders,” she explained.

“Oh—oh, yes, of course. Winnie the Pooh.” He grinned. “Soulmates, that’s what we are.” It was about then that he decided he’d been a bachelor long enough.

In the fall she went to New York to begin the upward grind—understudy, walk-on parts, shoestring-theaters, and roles in outright turkeys. Fraser returned to Boston for awhile, but his work suffered, he had to keep dashing off to see her.

By spring she was beginning to get places; she had talent and everybody enjoys looking at a brown-eyed blonde. His weekly proposals were also beginning to show some real progress, and he thought that a month or two of steady siege might finish the campaign. So he took leave from his job and went down to New York himself. He’d saved up enough money, and was good enough in his work, to afford it; anyway, he was his own boss—consulting engineer, specializing in mathematical analysis.

He got a furnished room in Brooklyn, and filled in his leisure time—as he thought of it—with some special math courses at Columbia. And he had a lot of friends in town, in a curious variety of professions. Next to Judy, he saw most of the physicist Sworsky, who was an entertaining companion though most of his work was too top-secret even to be mentioned. It was a happy period.

There is always a jarring note, to be sure. In this case, it was the fact that Fraser had plenty of competition. He wasn’t good-looking himself—a tall gaunt man of twenty-eight, with a dark hatchet face and perpetually-rumpled clothes. But still, Judy saw more of him than of anyone else, and admitted she was seriously considering his proposal and no other.

He called her up once for a date. “Sorry,” she answered. “I’d love to, Colin, but I’ve already promised tonight. Just so you won’t worry, it’s Matthew Snyder.”[7]

“Hm—the industrialist?”

“Uh-huh. He asked me in such a way it was hard to refuse. But I don’t think you have to be jealous, honey. ‘Bye now.”

Fraser lit his pipe with a certain smugness. Snyder was several times a millionaire, but he was close to sixty, a widower of notably dull conversation. Judy wasn’t—Well, no worries, as she’d said. He dropped over to Sworsky’s apartment for an evening of chess and bull-shooting.


IT WAS early in May, when the world was turning green again, that Judy called Fraser up. “Hi,” she said breathlessly. “Busy tonight?”

“Well, I was hoping I’d be, if you get what I mean,” he said.

“Look, I want to take you out for a change. Just got some unexpected money and dammit, I want to feel rich for one evening.”

“Hmmm—” He scowled into the phone. “I dunno—”

“Oh, get off it, Galahad. I’ll meet you in the Dixie lobby at seven. Okay?” She blew him a kiss over the wires, and hung up before he could argue further. He sighed and shrugged. Why not, if she wanted to?

They were in a little Hungarian restaurant, with a couple of Tzigani strolling about playing for them alone, it seemed, when he asked for details. “Did you get a bonus, or what?”

“No.” She laughed at him over her drink. “I’ve turned guinea pig.”

“I hope you quit that job before we’re married!”

“It’s a funny deal,” she said thoughtfully. “It’d interest you. I’ve been out a couple of times with this Snyder, you know, and if anything was needed to drive me into your arms, Colin, it’s his political lectures.”

“Well, bless the Republican Party!” He laid his hand over hers, she didn’t withdraw it, but she frowned just a little.

“Colin, you know I want to get somewhere before I marry—see a bit of the world, the theatrical world, before turning hausfrau. Don’t be so—Oh, never mind. I like you anyway.”

Sipping her drink and setting it down again: “Well, to carry on with the story. I finally gave Comrade Snyder the complete brush-off, and I must say he took it very nicely. But today, this morning, he called asking me to have lunch with him, and I did after he explained. It seems he’s got a psychiatrist friend doing research, measuring brain storms or something, and—Do I mean storms? Waves, I guess. Anyway, he wants to measure as many different kinds of people as possible, and Snyder had suggested me. I was supposed to come in for three afternoons running—about[8] two hours each time—and I’d get a hundred dollars per session.”

“Hm,” said Fraser. “I didn’t know psych research was that well-heeled. Who is this mad scientist?”

“His name is Kennedy. Oh, by the way, I’m not supposed to tell anybody; they want to spring it on the world as a surprise or something. But you’re different, Colin. I’m excited; I want to talk to somebody about it.”

“Sure,” he said. “You had a session already?”

“Yes, my first was today. It’s a funny place to do research—Kennedy’s got a big suite on Fifth Avenue, right up in the classy district. Beautiful office. The name of his outfit is Sentiment, Inc.”

“Hm. Why should a research-team take such a name? Well, go on.”

“Oh, there isn’t much else to tell. Kennedy was very nice. He took me into a laboratory full of all sorts of dials and meters and blinking lights and os—what do you call them? Those things that make wiggly pictures.”

“Oscilloscopes. You’ll never make a scientist, my dear.”

She grinned. “But I know one scientist who’d like to—Never mind! Anyway, he sat me down in a chair and put bands around my wrists and ankles—just like the hot squat—and a big thing like a beauty-parlor hair-drier over my head. Then he fiddled with his dials for awhile, making notes. Then he started saying words at me, and showing me pictures. Some of them were very pretty; some ugly; some funny; some downright horrible…. Anyway, that’s all there was to it. After a couple of hours he gave me a check for a hundred dollars and told me to come back tomorrow.”

“Hm.” Fraser rubbed his chin. “Apparently he was measuring the electric rhythms corresponding to pleasure and dislike. I’d no idea anybody’d made an encephalograph that accurate.”

“Well,” said Judy, “I’ve told you why we’re celebrating. Now come on, the regular orchestra’s tuning up. Let’s dance.”

They had a rather wonderful evening. Afterward Fraser lay awake for a long time, not wanting to lose a state of happiness in sleep. He considered sleep a hideous waste of time: if he lived to be ninety, he’d have spent almost thirty years unconscious.


JUDY was engaged for the next couple of evenings, and Fraser himself was invited to dinner at Sworsky’s the night after that. So it wasn’t till the end of the week that he called her again.[9]

“Hullo, sweetheart,” he said exuberantly. “How’s things? I refer to Charles Addams Things, of course.”

“Oh—Colin.” Her voice was very small, and it trembled.

“Look, I’ve got two tickets to H. M. S. Pinafore. So put on your own pinafore and meet me.”

“Colin—I’m sorry, Colin. I can’t.”

“Huh?” He noticed how odd she sounded, and a leadenness grew within him. “You aren’t sick, are you?”

“Colin, I—I’m going to be married.”

What?

“Yes. I’m in love now; really in love. I’ll be getting married in a couple of months.”

“But—but—”

“I didn’t want to hurt you.” He heard her begin to cry.

“But who—how—”

“It’s Matthew,” she gulped. “Matthew Snyder.”

He sat quiet for a long while, until she asked if he was still on the line. “Yeah,” he said tonelessly. “Yeah, I’m still here, after a fashion.” Shaking himself: “Look, I’ve got to see you. I want to talk to you.”

“I can’t.”

“You sure as hell can,” he said harshly.

They met at a quiet little bar which had often been their rendezvous. She watched him with frightened eyes while he ordered martinis.

“All right,” he said at last. “What’s the story?”

“I—” He could barely hear her. “There isn’t any story. I suddenly realized I loved Matt. That’s all.”

Snyder!” He made it a curse. “Remember what you told me about him before?”

“I felt different then,” she whispered. “He’s a wonderful man when you get to know him.”

And rich. He suppressed the words and the thought. “What’s so wonderful specifically?” he asked.

“He—” Briefly, her face was rapt. Fraser had seen her looking at him that way, now and then.

“Go on,” he said grimly. “Enumerate Mr. Snyder’s good qualities. Make a list. He’s courteous, cultured, intelligent, young, handsome, amusing—To hell! Why, Judy?”

“I don’t know,” she said in a high, almost fearful tone. “I just love him, that’s all.” She reached over the table and stroked his cheek. “I like you a lot, Colin. Find yourself a nice girl and be happy.”[10]

His mouth drew into a narrow line. “There’s something funny here,” he said. “Is it blackmail?”

“No!” She stood up, spilling her drink, and the flare of temper showed him how overwrought she was. “He just happens to be the man I love. That’s enough out of you, good-bye, Mr. Fraser.”

He sat watching her go. Presently he took up his drink, gulped it barbarously, and called for another.


2

JUAN MARTINEZ had come from Puerto Rico as a boy and made his own way ever since. Fraser had gotten to know him in the army, and they had seen each other from time to time since then. Martinez had gone into the private-eye business and made a good thing of it; Fraser had to get past a very neat-looking receptionist to see him.

“Hi, Colin,” said Martinez, shaking hands. He was a small, dark man, with a large nose and beady black eyes that made him resemble a sympathetic mouse. “You look like the very devil.”

“I feel that way, too,” said Fraser, collapsing into a chair. “You can’t go on a three-day drunk without showing it.”

“Well, what’s the trouble? Cigarette?” Martinez held out a pack. “Girl-friend give you the air?”

“As a matter of fact, yes; that’s what I want to see you about.”

“This isn’t a lonely-hearts club,” said Martinez. “And I’ve told you time and again a private dick isn’t a wisecracking superman. Our work is ninety-nine percent routine; and for the other one percent, we call in the police.”

“Let me give you the story,” said Fraser. He rubbed his eyes wearily as he told it. At the end, he sat staring at the floor.

“Well,” said Martinez, “it’s too bad and all that. But what the hell, there are other dames. New York has more beautiful women per square inch than any other city except Paris. Latch on to somebody else. Or if you want, I can give you a phone number—”

“You don’t understand,” said Fraser “I want you to investigate this; I want to know why she did it.”

Martinez squinted through a haze of smoke. “Snyder’s a rich and powerful man,” he said. “Isn’t that enough?”

“No,” said Fraser, too tired to be angry at the hint. “Judy isn’t that kind of a girl. Neither is she the kind to go overboard in a few days,[11] especially when I was there. Sure, that sounds conceited, but dammit, I know she cared for me.”

“Okay. You suspect pressure was brought to bear?”

“Yeah. It’s hard to imagine what. I called up Judy’s family in Maine, and they said they were all right, no worries. Nor do I think anything in her own life would give a blackmailer or an extortionist anything to go on. Still—I want to know.”

Martinez drummed the desk-top with nervous fingers. “I’ll look into it if you insist,” he said, “though it’ll cost you a pretty penny. Rich men’s lives aren’t easy to pry into if they’ve got something they want to hide. But I don’t think we’d find out much; your case seems to be only one of a rash of similar ones in the past year.”

“Huh?” Fraser looked sharply up.

“Yeah. I follow all the news; and remember the odd facts. There’ve been a good dozen cases recently, where beautiful young women suddenly married rich men or became their mistresses. It doesn’t all get into the papers, but I’ve got my contacts. I know. In every instance, there was no obvious reason; in fact, the dames seemed very much in love with daddy.”

“And the era of the gold-digger is pretty well gone—” Fraser sat staring out the window. It didn’t seem right that the sky should be so full of sunshine.

“Well,” said Martinez, “you don’t need me. You need a psychologist.”

Psychologist!

“By God, Juan, I’m going to give you a job anyway!” Fraser leaped to his feet. “You’re going to check into an outfit called Sentiment, Inc.”


A WEEK later, Martinez said, “Yeah, we found it easily enough. It’s not in the phone-book, but they’ve got a big suite right in the high-rent district on Fifth. The address is here, in my written report. Nobody in the building knows much about ’em, except that they’re a quiet, well-behaved bunch and call themselves research psychologists. They have a staff of four: a secretary-receptionist; a full-time secretary; and a couple of husky boys who may be bodyguards for the boss. That’s this Kennedy, Robert Kennedy. My man couldn’t get into his office; the girl said he was too busy and never saw anybody except some regular clients. Nor could he date either of the girls, but he did investigate them.

“The receptionist is just a working girl for routine stuff, married,[12] hardly knows or cares what’s going on. The steno is unmarried, has a degree in psych, lives alone, and seems to have no friends except her boss. Who’s not her lover, by the way.”

“Well, how about Kennedy himself?” asked Fraser.

“I’ve found out a good bit, but it’s all legitimate,” said Martinez. “He’s about fifty years old, a widower, very steady private life. He’s a licensed psychiatrist who used to practice in Chicago, where he also did research in collaboration with a physicist named Gavotti, who’s since died. Shortly after that happened—

“No, there’s no suspicion of foul play; the physicist was an old man and died of a heart attack. Anyway, Kennedy moved to New York. He still practices, officially, but he doesn’t take just anybody; claims that his research only leaves him time for a few.” Martinez narrowed his eyes. “The only thing you could hold against him is that he occasionally sees a guy named Bryce, who’s in a firm that has some dealings with Amtorg.”

“The Russian trading corporation? Hm.”

“Oh, that’s pretty remote guilt by association, Colin. Amtorg does have legitimate business, you know. We buy manganese from them, among other things. And the rest of Kennedy’s connections are all strictly blue ribbon. Crème de la crème—business, finance, politics, and one big union-leader who’s known to be a conservative. In fact, Kennedy’s friends are so powerful you’d have real trouble doing anything against him.”

Fraser slumped in his chair. “I suppose my notion was pretty wild,” he admitted.

“Well, there is one queer angle. You know these rich guys who’ve suddenly made out with such highly desirable dames? As far as I could find out, every one of them is a client of Kennedy’s.”

“Eh?” Fraser jerked erect.

“‘S a fact. Also, my man showed the building staff, elevator pilots and so on, pictures of these women, and a couple of ’em were remembered as having come to see Kennedy.”

“Shortly before they—fell in love?”

“Well, that I can’t be sure of. You know how people are about remembering dates. But it’s possible.”

Fraser shook his dark head. “It’s unbelievable,” he said. “I thought Svengali was outworn melodrama.”

“I know something about hypnotism, Colin. It won’t do anything like what you think happened to those girls.”[13]

Fraser got out his pipe and fumbled tobacco into it. “I think,” he said, “I’m going to call on Dr. Robert Kennedy myself.”

“Take it easy, boy,” said Martinez. “You been reading too many weird stories; you’ll just get tossed out on your can.”

Fraser tried to smile. It was hard—Judy wouldn’t answer his calls and letters any more. “Well,” he said, “it’ll be in a worthy cause.”


THE elevator let him out on the nineteenth floor. It held four big suites, with the corridor running between them. He studied the frosted-glass doors. On one side was the Eagle Publishing Company and Frank & Dayles, Brokers. On the other was the Messenger Advertising Service, and Sentiment, Inc. He entered their door and stood in a quiet, oak-paneled reception room. Behind the railing were a couple of desks, a young woman working at each, and two burly men who sat boredly reading magazines.

The pretty girl, obviously the receptionist, looked up as Fraser approached and gave him a professional smile. “Yes, sir?” she asked.

“I’d like to see Dr. Kennedy, please,” he said, trying hard to be casual.

“Do you have an appointment, sir?”

“No, but it’s urgent.”

“I’m sorry, sir; Dr. Kennedy is very busy. He can’t see anybody except his regular patients and research subjects.”

“Look, take him in this note, will you? Thanks.”

Fraser sat uneasily for some minutes, wondering if he’d worded the note correctly. I must see you about Miss Judy Harkness. Important.Well, what the devil else could you say?

The receptionist came out again. “Dr. Kennedy can spare you a few minutes, sir,” she said. “Go right on in.”

“Thanks.” Fraser slouched toward the inner door. The two men lowered their magazines to follow him with watchful eyes.

There was a big, handsomely-furnished office inside, with a door beyond that must lead to the laboratory. Kennedy looked up from some papers and rose, holding out his hand. He was a medium-sized man, rather plump, graying hair brushed thickly back from a broad, heavy face behind rimless glasses. “Yes?” His voice was low and pleasant. “What can I do for you?”

“My name’s Fraser.” The visitor sat down and accepted a cigarette. Best to act urbanely. “I know Miss Harkness well. I understand you made some encephalographic studies of her.”[14]

“Indeed?” Kennedy looked annoyed, and Fraser recalled that Judy had been asked not to tell anyone. “I’m not sure; I would have to consult my records first.” He wasn’t admitting anything, thought Fraser.

“Look,” said the engineer, “there’s been a marked change in Miss Harkness recently. I know enough psychology to be certain that such changes don’t happen overnight without cause. I wanted to consult you.”

“I’m not her psychiatrist,” said Kennedy coldly. “Now if you will excuse me, I really have a lot to do—”

“All right,” said Fraser. There was no menace in his tones, only a weariness. “If you insist, I’ll play it dirty. Such abrupt changes indicate mental instability. But I know she was perfectly sane before. It begins to look as if your experiments may have—injured her mind. If so, I should have to report you for malpractice.”

Kennedy flushed. “I am a licensed psychiatrist,” he said, “and any other doctor will confirm that Miss Harkness is still in mental health. If you tried to get an investigation started, you would only be wasting your own time and that of the authorities. She herself will testify that no harm was done to her; no compulsion applied; and that you are an infernal busybody with some delusions of your own. Good afternoon.”

“Ah,” said Fraser, “so she was here.”

Kennedy pushed a button. His men entered. “Show this gentleman the way out, please,” he said.

Fraser debated whether to put up a fight, decided it was futile, and went out between the two others. When he got to the street, he found he was shaking, and badly in need of a drink.


FRASER asked, “Jim, did you ever read Trilby?”

Sworsky’s round, freckled face lifted to regard him. “Years ago,” he answered. “What of it?”

“Tell me something. Is it possible—even theoretically possible—to do what Svengali did? Change emotional attitudes, just like that.” Fraser snapped his fingers.

“I don’t know,” said Sworsky. “Nuclear cross-sections are more in my line. But offhand, I should imagine it might be done … sometime in the far future. Thought-habits, associational-patterns, the labeling of this as good and that as bad, seem to be matters of established neural paths. If you could selectively alter the polarization of individual neurones—But it’s a pretty remote prospect; we hardly know a thing about the brain today.”[15]

He studied his friend sympathetically. “I know it’s tough to get jilted,” he said, “but don’t go off your trolley about it.”

“I could stand it if someone else had gotten her in the usual kind of way,” said Fraser thinly. “But this—Look, let me tell you all I’ve found out.”

Sworsky shook his head at the end of the story. “That’s a mighty wild speculation,” he murmured. “I’d forget it if I were you.”

“Did you know Kennedy’s old partner? Gavotti, at Chicago.”

“Sure, I met him a few times. Nice old guy, very unworldly, completely wrapped up in his work. He got interested in neurology from the physics angle toward the end of his life, and contributed a lot to cybernetics. What of it?”

“I don’t know,” said Fraser; “I just don’t know. But do me a favor, will you, Jim? Judy won’t see me at all, but she knows you and likes you. Ask her to dinner or something. Insist that she come. Then you and your wife find out—whatever you can. Just exactly how she feels about the whole business. What her attitudes are toward everything.”

“The name is Sworsky, not Holmes. But sure, I’ll do what I can, if you’ll promise to try and get rid of this fixation. You ought to see a head-shrinker yourself, you know.”

In vino veritas—sometimes too damn much veritas.


TOWARD the end of the evening, Judy was talking freely, if not quite coherently. “I cared a lot for Colin,” she said. “It was pretty wonderful having him around. He’s a grand guy. Only Matt—I don’t know. Matt hasn’t got half of what Colin has; Matt’s a single-track mind. I’m afraid I’m just going to be an ornamental convenience to him. Only if you’ve ever been so you got all dizzy when someone was around, and thought about him all the time he was away—well, that’s how he is. Nothing else matters.”

“Colin’s gotten a funny obsession,” said Sworsky cautiously. “He thinks Kennedy hypnotized you for Snyder. I keep telling him it’s impossible, but he can’t get over the idea.”

“Oh, no, no, no,” she said with too much fervor. “It’s nothing like that. I’ll tell you just what happened. We had those two measuring sessions; it was kind of dull but nothing else. And then the third time Kennedy did put me under hypnosis—he called it that, at least. I went to sleep and woke up about an hour later and he sent me home. I felt all good inside, happy, and shlo—slowly I began to see what Matt meant to me.[16]

“I called him up that evening. He said Kennedy’s machine did speed up people’s minds for a short while, sometimes, so they decided quick-like what they’d’ve worked out anyway. Kennedy is—I don’t know. It’s funny how ordinary he seemed at first. But when you get to know him, he’s like—God, almost. He’s strong and wise and good. He—” Her voice trailed off and she sat looking foolishly at her glass.

“You know,” said Sworsky, “perhaps Colin is right after all.”

“Don’t say that!” She jumped up and slapped his face. “Kennedy’s good, I tell you! All you little lice sitting here making sly remarks behind his back, and he’s so, much bigger than all of you and—” She broke into tears and stormed out of the apartment.

Sworsky reported the affair to Fraser. “I wonder,” he said. “It doesn’t seem natural, I’ll agree. But what can anybody do? The police?”

“I’ve tried,” said Fraser dully. “They laughed. When I insisted, I damn near got myself jugged. That’s no use. The trouble is, none of the people who’ve been under the machine will testify against Kennedy. He fixes it so they worship him.”

“I still think you’re crazy. There must be a simpler hypothesis; I refuse to believe your screwy notions without some real evidence. But what are you going to do now?”

“Well,” said Fraser with a tautness in his voice, “I’ve got several thousand dollars saved up, and Juan Martinez will help. Ever hear the fable about the lion? He licked hell out of the bear and the tiger and the rhinoceros, but a little gnat finally drove him nuts. Maybe I can be the gnat.” He shook his head. “But I’ll have to hurry. The wedding’s only six weeks off.”


3

IT CAN be annoying to be constantly shadowed; to have nasty gossip about you spreading through the places where you work and live; to find your tires slashed; to be accosted by truculent drunks when you stop in for a quick one; to have loud horns blow under your window every night. And it doesn’t do much good to call the police; your petty tormentors always fade out of sight.

Fraser was sitting in his room some two weeks later, trying unsuccessfully to concentrate on matrix algebra, when the phone rang. He never picked it up without a fluttering small hope that it might be Judy, and it never was. This time it was a man’s voice: “Mr. Fraser?”

“Yeah,” he grunted. “Wha’dya want?”[17]

“This is Robert Kennedy. I’d like to talk to you.”

Fraser’s heart sprang in his ribs, but he held his voice stiff. “Go on, then. Talk.”

“I want you to come up to my place. We may be having a long conversation.”

“Mmmm—well—” It was more than he had allowed himself to hope for, but he remained curt: “Okay. But a full report of this business, and what I think you’re doing, is in the hands of several people. If anything should happen to me—”

“You’ve been reading too many hard-boileds,” said Kennedy. “Nothing will happen. Anyway, I have a pretty good idea who those people are; I can hire detectives of my own, you know.”

“I’ll come over, then.” Fraser hung up and realized, suddenly, that he was sweating.

The night air was cool as he walked down the street. He paused for a moment, feeling the city like a huge impersonal machine around him, grinding and grinding. Human civilization had grown too big, he thought. It was beyond anyone’s control; it had taken on a will of its own and was carrying a race which could no longer guide it. Sometimes—reading the papers, or listening to the radio, or just watching the traffic go by like a river of steel—a man could feel horribly helpless.

He took the subway to Kennedy’s address, a swank apartment in the lower Fifties. He was admitted by the psychiatrist in person; no one else was around.

“I assume,” said Kennedy, “that you don’t have some wild idea of pulling a gun on me. That would accomplish nothing except to get you in trouble.”

“No,” said Fraser, “I’ll be good.” His eyes wandered about the living room. One wall was covered with books which looked used; there were some quality reproductions, a Capehart, and fine, massive furniture. It was a tasteful layout. He looked a little more closely at three pictures on the mantel: a middle-aged woman and two young men in uniform.

“My wife,” said Kennedy, “and my boys. They’re all dead. Would you like a drink?”

“No. I came to talk.”

“I’m not Satan, you know,” said Kennedy. “I like books and music, good wine, good conversation. I’m as human as you are, only I have a purpose.”

Fraser sat down and began charging his pipe. “Go ahead,” he said. “I’m listening.”[18]

Kennedy pulled a chair over to face him. The big smooth countenance behind the rimless glasses held little expression. “Why have you been annoying me?” he asked.

“I?” Fraser lifted his brows.

Kennedy made an impatient gesture. “Let’s not chop words. There are no witnesses tonight. I intend to talk freely, and want you to do the same. I know that you’ve got Martinez sufficiently convinced to help you with this very childish persecution-campaign. What do you hope to get out of it?”

“I want my girl back,” said Fraser tonelessly. “I was hoping my nuisance-value—”


KENNEDY winced a bit. “You know, I’m damned sorry about that. It’s the one aspect of my work which I hate. I’d like you to believe that I’m not just a scientific procurer. Actually, I have to satisfy the minor desires of my clients, so they’ll stay happy and agree to my major wishes. It’s the plain truth that those women have been only the minutest fraction of my job.”

“Nevertheless, you’re a free-wheeling son, doing something like that—”

“Really, now, what’s so horrible about it? Those girls are in love—the normal, genuine article. It’s not any kind of zombie state, or whatever your overheated imagination has thought up. They’re entirely sane, unharmed, and happy. In fact, happiness of that kind is so rare in this world that if I wanted to, I could pose as their benefactor.”

“You’ve got a machine,” said Fraser; “it changes the mind. As far as I’m concerned, that’s as gross a violation of liberty as throwing somebody into a concentration camp.”

“How free do you think anyone is? You’re born with a fixed heredity. Environment molds you like clay. Your society teaches you what and how to think. A million tiny factors, all depending on blind, uncontrollable chance, determine the course of your life—including your love-life…. Well, we needn’t waste any time on philosophy. Go on, ask some questions. I admit I’ve hurt you—unwittingly, to be sure—but I do want to make amends.”

“Your machine, then,” said Fraser. “How did you get it? How does it work.”

“I was practicing in Chicago,” said Kennedy, “and collaborating on the side with Gavotti. How much do you know of cybernetics? I don’t mean computers and automata, which are only one aspect of the[19] field; I mean control and communication, in the animal as well as in the machine.”

“Well, I’ve read Wiener’s books, and studied Shannon’s work, too.” Despite himself, Fraser was thawing, just a trifle. “It’s exciting stuff. Communications-theory seems to be basic, in biology and psychology as well as in electronics.”

“Quite. The future may remember Wiener as the Galileo of neurology. If Gavotti’s work ever gets published, he’ll be considered the Newton. So far, frankly, I’ve suppressed it. He died suddenly, just when his machine was completed and he was getting ready to publish his results. Nobody but I knew anything more than rumors; he was inclined to be secretive till he had a fait accompli on hand. I realized what an opportunity had been given me, and took it; I brought the machine here without saying much to anyone.”

Kennedy leaned back in his chair. “I imagine it was mostly luck which took Gavotti and me so far,” he went on. “We made a long series of improbably good guesses, and thus telescoped a century of work into a decade. If I were religious, I’d be down on my knees, thanking the Lord for putting this thing of the future into my hands.”

“Or the devil,” said Fraser.

Briefly, anger flitted across Kennedy’s face. “I grant you, the machine is a terrible power, but it’s harmless to a man if it’s used properly—as I have used it. I’m not going to tell you just how it works; to be perfectly honest, I only understand a fraction of its theory and its circuits myself. But look, you know something of encephalography. The various basic rhythms of the brain have been measured. The standard method is already so sensitive that it can detect abnormalities like a developing tumor or a strong emotional disturbance, that will give trouble unless corrected. Half of Gavotti’s machine is a still more delicate encephalograph. It can measure and analyze the minute variations in electrical pulses corresponding to the basic emotional states. It won’t read thoughts, no; but once calibrated for a given individual, it will tell you if he’s happy, sorrowful, angry, disgusted, afraid—any fundamental neuro-glandular condition, or any combination of them.”

He paused. “All right,” said Fraser. “What else does it do?”

“It does not make monsters,” said Kennedy. “Look, the specific emotional reaction to a given stimulus is, in the normal individual, largely a matter of conditioned reflex, instilled by social environment or the accidental associations of his life.

“Anyone in decent health will experience fear in the presence of[20] danger; desire in the presence of a sexual object, and so on. That’s basic biology, and the machine can’t change that. But most of our evaluations are learned. For instance, to an American the word ‘mother’ has powerful emotional connotations, while to a Samoan it means nothing very exciting. You had to develop a taste for liquor, tobacco, coffee—in fact most of what you consume. If you’re in love with a particular woman, it’s a focusing of the general sexual libido on her, brought about by the symbolizing part of your mind: she means something to you. There are cultures without romantic love, you know. And so on. All these specific, conditioned reactions can be changed.”

“How?”


KENNEDY thought for a moment “The encephalographic part of the machine measures the exact pulsations in the individual corresponding to the various emotional reactions. It takes me about four hours to determine those with the necessary precision; then I have to make statistical analyses of the data, to winnow out random variations. Thereafter I put the subject in a state of light hypnosis—that’s only to increase suggestibility, and make the process faster. As I pronounce the words and names I’m interested in, the machine feeds back the impulses corresponding to the emotions I want: a sharply-focused beam on the brain center concerned.

“For instance, suppose you were an alcoholic and I wanted to cure you. I’d put you in hypnosis and stand there whispering ‘wine, whisky, beer, gin,’ and so on; meanwhile, the machine would be feeding the impulses corresponding to your reactions of hate, fear, and disgust into your brain. You’d come out unchanged, except that your appetite for alcohol would be gone; you could, in fact, come out hating the stuff so much that you’d join the Prohibition Party—though, in actual practice, it would probably be enough just to give you a mild aversion.”

“Mmmm—I see. Maybe.” Fraser scowled. “And the—subject—doesn’t remember what you’ve done?”

“Oh, no. It all takes place on the lower subconscious levels. A new set of conditioned neural pathways is opened, you see, and old ones are closed off. The brain does that by itself, through its normal symbolizing mechanism. All that happens is that the given symbol—such as liquor—becomes reflectively associated with the given emotional state, such as dislike.”

Kennedy leaned forward with an air of urgency. “The end result is in no way different from ordinary means of persuasion. Propaganda[21]does the same thing by sheer repetition. If you’re courting a girl, you try to identify yourself in her mind with the things she desires, by appropriate behavior…. I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have used that example…. The machine is only a direct, fast way of doing this, producing a more stable result.”

“It’s still—tampering,” said Fraser. “How do you know you’re not creating side-effects, doing irreparable long-range damage?”

“Oh, for Lord’s sake!” exploded Kennedy. “Take your mind off that shelf, will you? I’ve told you how delicate the whole thing is. A few microwatts of power more or less, a frequency-shift of less than one percent, and it doesn’t work at all. There’s no effect whatsoever.” He cooled off fast, adding reflectively: “On the given subject, that is. It might work on someone else. These pulsations are a highly individual matter; I have to calibrate every case separately.”

There was a long period of silence. Then Fraser strained forward and said in an ugly voice:

“All right You’ve told me how you do it. Now tell me why. What possible reason or excuse, other than your own desire to play God? This thing could be the greatest psychiatric tool in history, and you’re using it to—pimp!”

“I told you that was unimportant,” said Kennedy quietly. “I’m doing much more. I set up in practice here in New York a couple of years ago. Once I had a few chance people under control—no, I tell you again, I didn’t make robots of them. I merely associated myself, in their own minds, with the father-image. That’s something I do to everyone who comes under the machine, just as a precaution if nothing else, Kennedy is all-wise, all-powerful; Kennedy can do no wrong. It isn’t a conscious realization; to the waking mind, I am only a shrewd adviser and a damn swell fellow. But the subconscious mind knows otherwise. It wouldn’t let my subjects act against me; it wouldn’t even let them want to.

“Well, you see how it goes. I got those first few people to recommend me to certain selected friends, and these in turn recommended me to others. Not necessarily as a psychiatrist; I have variously been a doctor, a counsellor, or merely a research-man looking for data. But I’m building up a group of the people I want. People who’ll back me up, who’ll follow my advice—not with any knowledge of being dominated, but because the workings of their own subconscious minds will lead them inevitably to think that my advice is the only sound policy to follow and my requests are things any decent man must grant.”[22]

“Yeah,” said Fraser. “I get it. Big businessmen. Labor-leaders. Politicians. Military men. And Soviet spies!”


KENNEDY nodded. “I have connections with the Soviets; their agents think I’m on their side. But it isn’t treason, though I may help them out from time to time.

“That’s why I have to do these services for my important clients, such as getting them the women they want—or, what I actually do more often, influencing their competitors and associates. You see, the subconscious mind knows I am all-powerful, but the conscious mind doesn’t. It has to be satisfied by occasional proofs that I am invaluable; otherwise conflicts would set in, my men would become unstable and eventually psychotic, and be of no further use to me.

“Of course,” he added, almost pedantically, “my men don’t know how I persuade these other people—they only know that I do, somehow, and their regard for their own egos, as well as for me, sets up a bloc which prevents them from reasoning out the fact that they themselves are dominated. They’re quite content to accept the results of my help, without inquiring further into the means than the easy rationalization that I have a ‘persuasive personality.’

“I don’t like what I’m doing, Fraser. But it’s got to be done.”

“You still haven’t said what’s got to be done,” answered the engineer coldly.

“I’ve been given something unbelievable,” said Kennedy. His voice was very soft now. “If I’d made it public, can you imagine what would have happened? Psychiatrists would use it, yes; but so would criminals, dictators, power-hungry men of all kinds. Even in this country, I don’t think libertarian principles could long survive. It would be too simple—

“And yet it would have been cowardly to break the machine and burn Gavotti’s notes. Chance has given me the power to be more than a chip in the river—a river that’s rapidly approaching a waterfall, war, destruction, tyranny, no matter who the Pyrrhic victor may be. I’m in a position to do something for the causes in which I believe.”

“And what are they?” asked Fraser.

Kennedy gestured at the pictures on the mantel. “Both my sons were killed in the last war. My wife died of cancer—a disease which would be licked now if a fraction of the money spent on armaments had been diverted to research. That brought it home to me; but there are hundreds of millions of people in worse cases. And war isn’t the[23] only evil—there is poverty, oppression, inequality, want and suffering. It could be changed.

“I’m building up my own lobby, you might say. In a few more years, I hope to be the indispensable adviser of all the men who, between them, really run this country. And yes, I have been in touch with Soviet agents—have even acted as a transmitter of stolen information. The basic problem of spying, you know, is not to get the information in the first place as much as to get it to the homeland. Treason? No. I think not. I’m getting my toehold in world communism. I already have some of its agents; sooner or later, I’ll get to the men who really matter. Then communism will no longer be a menace.”

He sighed. “It’s a hard row to hoe. It’ll take my lifetime, at least; but what else have I got to give my life to?”

Fraser sat quiet. His pipe was cold, he knocked it out and began filling it afresh. The scratching of his match seemed unnaturally loud. “It’s too much,” he said. “It’s too big a job for one man to tackle. The world will stumble along somehow, but you’ll just get things into a worse mess.”

“I’ve got to try,” said Kennedy.

“And I still want my girl back.”

“I can’t do that; I need Snyder too much. But I’ll make it up to you somehow.” Kennedy sighed. “Lord, if you knew how much I’ve wanted to tell all this!”

With sudden wariness: “Not that it’s to be repeated. In fact, you’re to lay off me; call off your dogs. Don’t try to tell anyone else what I’ve told you. You’d never be believed and I already have enough power to suppress the story, if you should get it out somehow. And if you give me any more trouble at all, I’ll see to it that you—stop.”

“Murder?”

“Or commitment to an asylum. I can arrange that too.”

Fraser sighed. He felt oddly unexcited, empty, as if the interview had drained him of his last will to resist. He held the pipe loosely in his fingers, letting it go out.

“Ask me a favor,” urged Kennedy. “I’ll do it, if it won’t harm my own program. I tell you, I want to square things.”

“Well—”

“Think about it. Let me know.”

“All right.” Fraser got up. “I may do that.” He went out the door without saying goodnight.[24]


4

HE sat with his feet on the table, chair tilted back and teetering dangerously, hands clasped behind his head, pipe filling the room with blue fog. It was his usual posture for attacking a problem.

And damn it, he thought wearily, this was a question such as he made his living on. An industrial engineer comes into the office. We want this and that—a machine for a very special purpose, let’s say. What should we do, Mr. Fraser? Fraser prowls around the plant, reads up on the industry, and then sits down and thinks. The elements of the problem are such-and-such; how can they be combined to yield a solution?

Normally, he uses the mathematical approach, especially in machine design. Most practicing-engineers have a pathetic math background—they use ten pages of elaborate algebra and rusty calculus to figure out something that three vector equations would solve. But you have to get the logical basics straight first, before you can set up your equations.

All right, what is the problem? To get Judy back. That means forcing Kennedy to restore her normal emotional reactions—no, he didn’t want her thrust into love of him; he just wanted her as she had been.

What are the elements of the problem? Kennedy acts outside the law, but he has blocked all official channels. He even has connections extending through the Iron Curtain.

Hmmmm—appeal to the FBI? Kennedy couldn’t have control over them—yet. However, if Fraser tried to tip off the FBI, they’d act cautiously, if they investigated at all. They’d have to go slow. And Kennedy would find out in time to do something about it.

Martinez could help no further. Sworsky had closer contact with Washington. He’d been so thoroughly cleared that they’d be inclined to trust whatever he said. But Sworsky doubted the whole story; like many men who’d suffered through irresponsible Congressional charges, he was almost fanatic about having proof before accusing anyone of anything. Moreover, Kennedy knew that Sworsky was Fraser’s friend; he’d probably be keeping close tabs on the physicist and ready to block any attempts he might make to help. With the backing of a man like Snyder, Kennedy could hire as many detectives as he wanted.

In fact, whatever the counter-attack, it was necessary to go warily.[25] Kennedy’s threat to get rid of Fraser if the engineer kept working against him was not idle mouthing. He could do it—and, being a fanatic, would.

But Kennedy, like the demon of legend, would grant one wish—just to salve his own conscience. Only what should the wish be? Another woman? Or merely to be reconciled, artificially, to an otherwise-intolerable situation?

Judy, Judy, Judy!

Fraser swore at himself. Damn it to hell, this was a problem in logic. No room for emotion. Of course, it might be a problem without a solution. There are plenty of those.

He squinted, trying to visualize the office. He thought of burglary, stealing evidence—silly thought. But let’s see, now. What was the layout, exactly? Four suites on one floor of the skyscraper, three of them unimportant offices of unimportant men. And—

Oh, Lord!

Fraser sat for a long while, hardly moving. Then he uncoiled himself and ran, downstairs and into the street and to the nearest pay phone. His own line might be tapped—

“Hello, hello, Juan?… Yes, I know I got you out of bed, and I’m not sorry. This is too bloody important…. Okay, okay…. Look, I want a complete report on the Messenger Advertising Service…. When? Immediately, if not sooner. And I mean complete…. That’s right, Messenger…. Okay, fine. I’ll buy you a drink sometime.”

“Hello, Jim? Were you asleep too?… Sorry…. But look, would you make a list of all the important men you know fairly well? I need it bad…. No, don’t come over. I think I’d better not see you for a while. Just mail it to me…. All right, so I am paranoid….”


JEROME K. FERRIS was a large man, with a sense of his own importance that was even larger. He sat hunched in the chair, his head dwarfed by the aluminum helmet, his breathing shallow. Around him danced and flickered a hundred meters, indicator lights, tubes. There was a low humming in the room, otherwise it was altogether silent, blocked and shielded against the outside world. The fluorescent lights were a muted glow.

Fraser sat watching the greenish trace on the huge oscilloscope screen. It was an intricate set of convolutions, looking more like a plate of spaghetti than anything else. He wondered how many frequencies were involved. Several thousand, at the very least.[26]

“Fraser,” repeated Kennedy softly into the ear of the hypnotized man. “Colin Fraser. Colin Fraser.” He touched a dial with infinite care. “Colin Fraser. Colin Fraser.”

The oscilloscope flickered as he readjusted, a new trace appeared. Kennedy waited for a while, then: “Robert Kennedy. Sentiment, Inc. Robert Kennedy. Sentiment, Inc. Robert Kennedy. Sentiment—”

He turned off the machine, its murmur and glow died away. Facing Fraser with a tight little smile, he said: “All right. Your job is done. Are we even now?”

“As even, as we’ll ever get, I suppose,” said Fraser.

“I wish you’d trust me,” said Kennedy with a hint of wistfulness. “I’d have done the job honestly; you didn’t have to watch.”

“Well, I was interested,” said Fraser.

“Frankly, I still don’t see what you stand to gain by the doglike devotion of this Ferris. He’s rich, but he’s too weak and short-sighted to be a leader. I’d never planned on conditioning him for my purposes.”

“I’ve explained that,” said Fraser patiently. “Ferris is a large stockholder in a number of corporations. His influence can swing a lot of business my way.”

“Yes, I know. I didn’t grant your wish blindly, you realize. I had Ferris studied; he’s unable to harm me.” Kennedy regarded Fraser with hard eyes. “And just in case you still have foolish notions, please remember that I gave him the father-conditioning with respect to myself. He’ll do a lot for you, but not if it’s going to hurt me in any way.”

“I know when I’m licked,” said Fraser bleakly; “I’m getting out of town as soon as I finish those courses I’m signed up for.”

Kennedy snapped his fingers. “All right, Ferris, wake up now.”

Ferris blinked. “What’s been happening?” he asked.

“Nothing much,” said Kennedy, unbuckling the electrodes. “I’ve taken my readings. Thank you very much for the help, sir. I’ll see that you get due credit when my research is published.”

“Ah—yes. Yes.” Ferris puffed himself out. Then he put an arm around Fraser’s shoulder. “If you aren’t busy,” he said, “maybe we could go have lunch.”

“Thanks,” said Fraser. “I’d like to talk to you about a few things.”

He lingered for a moment after Ferris had left the room. “I imagine this is goodbye for us,” he said.

“Well, so long, at least. We’ll probably hear from each other again.” Kennedy shook Fraser’s hand. “No hard feelings? I did go to a lot of trouble for you—wangling your introduction to Ferris when you’d[27] named him, and having one of my men persuade him to come here. And right when I’m so infernally busy, too.”

“Sure,” said Fraser. “It’s all right. I can’t pretend to love you for what you’ve done, but you aren’t a bad sort.”

“No worse than you,” said Kennedy with a short laugh. “You’ve used the machine for your own ends, now.”

“Yeah,” said Fraser. “I guess I have.”


SWORSKY asked, “Why do you insist on calling me from drugstores? And why at my office? I’ve got a home phone, you know.”

“I’m not sure but that our own lines are tapped,” said Fraser. “Kennedy’s a smart cookie, and don’t you forget it. I think he’s about ready to dismiss me as a danger, but you’re certainly being watched; you’re on his list.”

“You’re getting a persecution-complex. Honest, Colin, I’m worried.”

“Well, bear with me for a while. Now, have you had any information on Kennedy since I called last?”

“Hm, no. I did mention to Thomson, as you asked me to, that I’d heard rumors of some revolutionary encephalographic techniques and would be interested in seeing the work. Why did you want me to do that?”

“Thomson,” said Fraser, “is one of Kennedy’s men. Now look, Jim, before long you’re going to be invited to visit Kennedy. He’ll give you a spiel about his research and ask to measure your brain waves. I want you to say yes. Then I want to know the exact times of the three appointments he’ll give you—the first two, at least.”

“Hmmm—if Kennedy’s doing what you claim—”

“Jim, it’s a necessary risk, but I’m the one who’s taking it. You’ll be okay, I promise you; though perhaps later you’ll read of me being found in the river. You see, I got Kennedy to influence a big stockowner for me. One of the lesser companies in which he has a loud voice is Messenger. I don’t suppose Kennedy knows that. I hope not!”


SWORSKY looked as if he’d been sandbagged. He was white, and the hand that poured a drink shook.

“Lord,” he muttered. “Lord, Colin, you were right.”

Fraser’s teeth drew back from his lips. “You went through with it, eh?”

“Yes. I let the son hypnotize me, and afterward I walked off with a dreamy expression, as you told me to. Just three hours ago, he dropped around here in person. He gave me a long rigmarole about the[28] stupidity of military secrecy, and how the Soviet Union stands for peace and justice. I hope I acted impressed; I’m not much of an actor.”

“You don’t have to be. Just so you didn’t overdo it. To one of Kennedy’s victims, obeying his advice is so natural that it doesn’t call for any awe-struck wonderment.”

“And he wanted data from me! Bombardment cross-sections. Critical values. Resonance levels. My Lord, if the Russians found that out through spies it’d save them three years of research. This is an FBI case, all right.”

“No, not yet.” Fraser laid an urgent hand on Sworsky’s arm. “You’ve stuck by me so far, Jim. Go along a little further.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Why—” Fraser’s laugh jarred out. “Give him what he wants, of course.”


KENNEDY looked up from his desk, scowling. “All right, Fraser,” he said. “You’ve been a damned nuisance, and it’s pretty patient of me to see you again. But this is the last time. Wha’d’you want?”

“It’s the last time I’ll need to see you, perhaps.” Fraser didn’t sit down. He stood facing Kennedy. “You’ve had it, friend; straight up.”

“What do you mean?” Kennedy’s hand moved toward his buzzer.

“Listen before you do anything,” said Fraser harshly. “I know you tried to bring Jim Sworsky under the influence. You asked him for top-secret data. A few hours ago, you handed the file he brought you on to Bryce, who’s no doubt at the Amtorg offices this minute. That’s high treason, Kennedy; they execute people for doing that.”

The psychologist slumped back.

“Don’t try to have your bully boys get rid of me,” said Fraser. “Sworsky is sitting by the phone, waiting to call the FBI. I’m the only guy who can stop him.”

“But—” Kennedy’s tongue ran around his lips. “But he committed treason himself. He gave me the papers!”

Fraser grinned. “You don’t think those were authentic, do you? I doubt if you’ll be very popular in the Soviet Union either, once they’ve tried to build machines using your data.”

Kennedy looked down at the floor. “How did you do it?” he whispered.

“Remember Ferris? The guy you fixed up for me? He owns a share of your next-door neighbor, the Messenger Advertising Service. I fed him a song and dance about needing an office to do some important work, only my very whereabouts had to be secret. The Messenger[29]people were moved out without anybody’s knowing. I installed myself there one night, also a simple little electric oscillator.

“Encephalography is damn delicate work; it involves amplifications up to several million. The apparatus misbehaves if you give it a hard look. Naturally, your lab and the machine were heavily shielded, but even so, a radio emitter next door would be bound to throw you off. My main trouble was in lousing you up just a little bit, not enough to make you suspect anything.

“I only worked at that during your calibrating sessions with Sworsky. I didn’t have to be there when you turned the beam on him, because it would be calculated from false data and be so far from his pattern as to have no effect. You told me yourself how precise an adjustment was needed. Sworsky played along, then. Now we’ve got proof—not that you meddled with human lives, but that you are a spy.”

Kennedy sat without moving. His voice was a broken mumble. “I was going to change the world. I had hopes for all humankind. And you, for the sake of one woman—”

“I never trusted anybody with a messiah complex. The world is too big to change single-handed; you’d just have bungled it up worse than it already is. A lot of dictators started out as reformers and ended up as mass-executioners; you’d have done the same.”

Fraser leaned over his desk. “I’m willing to make a deal, though,” he went on. “Your teeth are pulled; there’s no point in turning you in. Sworsky and Martinez and I are willing just to report on Bryce, and let you go, if you’ll change back all your subjects. We’re going to read your files, and watch and see that you do it. Every one.”

Kennedy bit his lip. “And the machine—?”

“I don’t know. We’ll settle that later. Okay, God, here’s the phone number of Judy Harkness. Ask her to come over for a special treatment. At once.”


A MONTH later, the papers had a story about a plausible maniac who had talked his way into the Columbia University laboratories, where Gavotti’s puzzling machine was being studied, and pulled out a hammer and smashed it into ruin before he could be stopped. Taken to jail, he committed suicide in his cell. The name was Kennedy.

Fraser felt vague regret, but it didn’t take him long to forget it; he was too busy making plans for his wedding.

THE END


Transcriber Notes:

This etext was produced from Science Fiction Stories 1953. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.

Obvious punctuation errors have been repaired.

page 17 original: on the mantel: a midle-aged woman and two young men

replacement: on the mantel: a middle-aged woman and two young men

page 20 original: inpulses corresponding to your reactions of hate, fear, and disgust into

replacement: impulses corresponding to your reactions of hate, fear, and disgust into

page 25 original: Another woman? Or merely to be reconciled, artifically, to an otherwise- intolerable situation?

replacement: Another woman? Or merely to be reconciled, artificially, to an otherwise- intolerable situation?

page 26 original: “As even, as we’ll ever get, I suppose,” said Fraser.

“Well, I was interested,” said Fraser.

“I wish you’d trust me,” said Kennedy with a hint of wistfulness. “I’d have done the job honestly; you didn’t have to watch.”

replacement: “As even, as we’ll ever get, I suppose,” said Fraser.

“I wish you’d trust me,” said Kennedy with a hint of wistfulness. “I’d have done the job honestly; you didn’t have to watch.”

“Well, I was interested,” said Fraser.

page 29 original: “I don’t know. We’ll settle that later. Okay, God, here’s the phone-number

replacement: “I don’t know. We’ll settle that later. Okay, God, here’s the phone number (no hyphen used on page 10)










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SF36The Sensitive Man by Poul Anderson

The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Sensitive Man, by Poul William Anderson



This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with

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Title: The Sensitive Man



Author: Poul William Anderson



Release Date: March 4, 2010 [EBook #31501]



Language: English



Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1



*** START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK THE SENSITIVE MAN ***









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Transcriber’s Note:

This etext was produced from Fantastic Universe January 1954. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.

 

Conspiracy seems to be as much a part of our times as it was in the times of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. Hence it finds frequent reflection in all branches of fiction, including science fiction. Yet, as in life, something new has been added, the most gigantic conspiracy of all, the human conspiracy against conspirators. Which makes for a fine stirring story in this short novel of the future by Mr. Anderson, one of our best young authors.

 

the
sensitive
man

 

by … Poul Anderson

 

One man stood between a power-hungry cabal
and world mastery—but a man of unusual talents.


The Mermaid Tavern had been elaborately decorated. Great blocks of hewn coral for pillars and booths, tarpon and barracuda on the walls, murals of Neptune and his court—including an outsize animated picture of a mermaid ballet, quite an eye-catcher. But the broad quartz windows showed merely a shifting greenish-blue of seawater, and the only live fish visible were in an aquarium across from the bar. Pacific Colony lacked the grotesque loveliness of the Florida and Cuba settlements. Here they were somehow a working city, even in their recreations.

The sensitive man paused for a moment in the foyer, sweeping the big circular room with a hurried glance. Less than half the tables were filled. This was an hour of interregnum, while the twelve to eighteen hundred shift was still at work and the others had long finished their more expensive amusements. There would always be a few around, of course—Dalgetty typed them as he watched.

A party of engineers, probably arguing about the compression strength of the latest submarine tank to judge from the bored expressions of the three or four rec girls who had joined them. A biochemist, who seemed to have forgotten his plankton and seaweed for the time being and to have focussed his mind on the pretty young clerk with him. A couple of hard-handed caissoniers, settling down to some serious drinking.

A maintenance man, a computerman, a tank pilot, a diver, a sea rancher, a bevy of stenographers, a bunch of very obvious tourists, more chemists and metallurgists—the sensitive man dismissed them all. There were others he couldn’t classify with any decent probability but after a second’s hesitation he decided to ignore them too. That left only the group with Thomas Bancroft.

They were sitting in one of the coral grottos, a cave of darkness to ordinary vision. Dalgetty had to squint to see in and the muted light of the tavern was a harsh glare when his pupils were so distended. But, yes—it was Bancroft all right and there was an empty booth adjoining his.

Dalgetty relaxed his eyes to normal perception. Even in the short moment of dilation the fluoros had given him a headache. He blocked it off from consciousness and started across the floor.

A hostess stopped him with a touch on the arm as he was about to enter the vacant cavern. She was young, an iridescent mantrap in her brief uniform. With all the money flowing into Pacific Colony they could afford decorative help here.

“I’m sorry, sir,” she said. “Those are kept for parties. Would you like a table?”

“I’m a party,” he answered, “or can soon become one.” He moved aside a trifle so that none of the Bancroft group should happen to look out and see him. “If you could arrange some company for me….” He fumbled out a C-note, wondering just how such things could be done gracefully.

“Why, of course, sir.” She took it with a smoothness he envied and handed him a stunning smile in return. “Just make yourself comfortable.”

Dalgetty stepped into the grotto with a fast movement. This wasn’t going to be simple. The rough red walls closed in on top of him, forming a space big enough for twenty people or so. A few strategically placed fluoros gave an eerie undersea light, just enough to see by—but no one could look in. A heavy curtain could be drawn if one wanted to be absolutely secluded. Privacy—uh-huh!

He sat down at the driftwood table and leaned back against the coral. Closing his eyes he made an effort of will. His nerves were already keyed up to such a tautness that it seemed they must break and it took only seconds to twist his mind along the paths required.

The noise of the tavern rose from a tiny mumble to a clattering surf, to a huge and saw-edged wave. Voices dinned in his head, shrill and deep, hard and soft, a senseless stream of talking, jumbled together into words, words, words. Somebody dropped a glass and it was like a bomb going off.

Dalgetty winced, straining his ear against the grotto side. Surely enough of their speech would come to him, even through all that rock! The noise level was high but the human mind, if trained in concentration, is an efficient filter. The outside racket receded from Dalgetty’s awareness and slowly he gathered in the trickle of sound.

First man: “—no matter. What can they do?”

Second man: “Complain to the government. Do you want the FBI on our trail? I don’t.”

First man: “Take it easy. They haven’t yet done so and it’s been a good week now since—”

Second man: “How do you know they haven’t?”

Third man—heavy, authoritative voice. Yes, Dalgetty remembered it now from TV speeches—it was Bancroft himself: “I know. I’ve got enough connections to be sure of that.”

Second man: “Okay, so they haven’t reported it. But why not?”

Bancroft: “You know why. They don’t want the government mixing into this any more than we do.”

Woman: “Well, then, are they just going to sit and take it? No, they’ll find some way to—”

HELLO, THERE, MISTER!!!

Dalgetty jumped and whirled around. His heart began to race, until he felt his ribs tremble and he cursed his own tension.

WHY, WHAT’S THE MATTER, MISTER? YOU LOOK—

Effort again, forcing the volume down, grasping the thunderous heart in fingers of command and dragging it toward rest. He focussed his eyes on the girl who had entered. It was the rec girl, the one he had asked for because he had to sit in this booth.

Her voice was speaking on an endurable level now. Another pretty little bit of fluff. He smiled shakily. “Sit down, sweet. I’m sorry. My nerves are shot. What’ll you have?”

“A daiquiri, please.” She smiled and placed herself beside him. He dialed on the dispenser—the cocktail for her, a scotch and soda for himself.

“You’re new here,” she said. “Have you just been hired or are you a visitor?” Again the smile. “My name’s Glenna.”

“Call me Joe,” said Dalgetty. His first name was actually Simon. “No, I’ll only be here a short while.”

“Where you from?” she asked. “I’m clear from New Jersey myself.”

“Proving that nobody is ever born in California.” He grinned. The control was asserting itself, his racing emotions were checked and he could think clearly again. “I’m—uh—just a floater. Don’t have any real address right now.”

The dispenser ejected the drinks on a tray and flashed the charge—$20. Not bad, considering everything. He gave the machine a fifty and it made change, a five-buck coin and a bill.

“Well,” said Glenna, “here’s to you.”

“And you.” He touched glasses, wondering how to say what he had to say. Damn it, he couldn’t sit here just talking or necking, he’d come to listen but…. A sardonic montage of all the detective shows he had ever seen winked through his mind. The amateur who rushes in and solves the case, heigh-ho. He had never appreciated all the detail involved till now.


There was hesitation in him. He decided that a straightforward approach was his best bet. Deliberately then he created a cool confidence. Subconsciously he feared this girl, alien as she was to his class. All right, force the reaction to the surface, recognize it, suppress it. Under the table his hands moved in the intricate symbolic pattern which aided such emotion-harnessing.

“Glenna,” he said, “I’m afraid I’ll be rather dull company. The fact is I’m doing some research in psychology, learning how to concentrate under different conditions. I wanted to try it in a place like this, you understand.” He slipped out a 2-C bill and laid it before her. “If you’d just sit here quietly it won’t be for more than an hour I guess.”

“Huh?” Her brows lifted. Then, with a shrug and a wry smile, “Okay, you’re paying for it.” She took a cigarette from the flat case at her sash, lit it and relaxed. Dalgetty leaned against the wall and closed his eyes again.

The girl watched him curiously. He was of medium height, stockily built, inconspicuously dressed in a blue short-sleeved tunic, gray slacks and sandals. His square snub-nosed face was lightly freckled, with hazel eyes and a rather pleasant shy smile. The rusty hair was close-cropped. A young man, she guessed, about twenty-five, quite ordinary and uninteresting except for the wrestler’s muscles and, of course, his behavior.

Oh, well, it took all kinds.

Dalgetty had a moment of worry. Not because the yarn he had handed her was thin but because it brushed too close to the truth. He thrust the unsureness out of him. Chances were she hadn’t understood any of it, wouldn’t even mention it. At least not to the people he was hunting.

Or who were hunting him?

Concentration, and the voices slowly came again: “—maybe. But I think they’ll be more stubborn than that.”

Bancroft: “Yes. The issues are too large for a few lives to matter. Still, Michael Tighe is only human. He’ll talk.”

The woman: “He can be made to talk, you mean?” She had one of the coldest voices Dalgetty had ever heard.

Bancroft: “Yes. Though I hate to use extreme measures.”

Man: “What other possibilities have we got? He won’t say anything unless he’s forced to. And meanwhile his people will be scouring the planet to find him. They’re a shrewd bunch.”

Bancroft, sardonically: “What can they do, please? It takes more than an amateur to locate a missing man. It calls for all the resources of a large police organization. And the last thing they want, as I’ve said before, is to bring the government in on this.”

The woman: “I’m not so sure of that, Tom. After all, the Institute is a legal group. It’s government sponsored and its influence is something tremendous. Its graduates—”

Bancroft: “It educates a dozen different kinds of psychotechnicians, yes. It does research. It gives advice. It publishes findings and theories. But believe me the Psychotechnic Institute is like an iceberg. Its real nature and purpose are hidden way under water. No, it isn’t doing anything illegal that I know of. Its aims are so large that they transcend law altogether.”

Man: “What aims?”

Bancroft: “I wish I knew. We’ve only got hints and guesses, you know. One of the reasons we’ve snatched Tighe is to find out more. I suspect that their real work requires secrecy.”

The woman, thoughtfully: “Y-y-yes, I can see how that might be. If the world at large were aware of being—manipulated—then manipulation might become impossible. But just where does Tighe’s group want to lead us?”

Bancroft: “I don’t know, I tell you. I’m not even sure that they do want to—take over. Something even bigger than that.” A sigh. “Let’s face it, Tighe is a crusader too. In his own way he’s a very sincere idealist. He just happens to have the wrong ideals. That’s one reason why I’d hate to see him harmed.”

Man: “But if it turns out that we’ve got to—”

Bancroft: “Why, then we’ve got to, that’s all. But I won’t enjoy it.”

Man: “Okay, you’re the leader, you say when. But I warn you not to wait too long. I tell you the Institute is more than a collection of unworldly scientists. They’ve got someone out searching for Tighe and if they should locate him there could be real trouble.”

Bancroft, mildly: “Well, these are troubled times, or will be shortly. We might as well get used to that.”

The conversation drifted away into idle chatter. Dalgetty groaned to himself. Not once had they spoken of the place where their prisoner was kept.

All right, little man, what next? Thomas Bancroft was big game. His law firm was famous. He had been in Congress and the Cabinet. Even with the Labor Party in power he was a respected elder statesman. He had friends in government, business, unions, guilds and clubs and leagues from Maine to Hawaii. He had only to say the word and Dalgetty’s teeth would be kicked in some dark night. Or, if he proved squeamish, Dalgetty might find himself arrested on a charge like conspiracy and tied up in court for the next six months.

By listening in he had confirmed the suspicion of Ulrich at the Institute that Thomas Bancroft was Tighe’s kidnapper—but that was no help. If he went to the police with that story they would (a) laugh, long and loud—(b) lock him up for psychiatric investigation—(c) worst of all, pass the story on to Bancroft, who would thereby know what the Institute’s children could do and would take appropriate counter-measures.

II

Of course, this was just the beginning. The trail was long. But time was hideously short before they began turning Tighe’s brain inside out. And there were wolves along the trail.

For a shivering instant, Simon Dalgetty realized what he had let himself in for.

It seemed like forever before the Bancroft crowd left. Dalgetty’s eyes followed them out of the bar—four men and the woman. They were all quiet, mannerly, distinguished-looking, in rich dark slack suits. Even the hulking bodyguard was probably a college graduate, Third Class. You wouldn’t take them for murderers and kidnappers and the servants of those who would bring back political gangsterism. But then, reflected Dalgetty, they probably didn’t think of themselves in that light either.

The enemy—the old and protean enemy, who had been fought down as Fascist, Nazi, Shintoist, Communist, Atomist, Americanist and God knew what else for a bloody century—had grown craftier with time. Now he could fool even himself.

Dalgetty’s senses went back to normal. It was a sudden immense relief to be merely sitting in a dimly-lit booth with a pretty girl, to be no more than human for a while. But his sense of mission was still dark within him.

“Sorry I was so long,” he said. “Have another drink.”

“I just had one.” She smiled.

He noticed the $10-figure glowing on the dispenser and fed it two coins. Then, his nerves still vibrating, he dialed another whiskey for himself.

“You know those people in the next grotto?” asked Glenna. “I saw you watching them leave.”

“Well, I know Mr. Bancroft by reputation,” he said. “He lives here, doesn’t he?”

“He’s got a place over on Gull Station,” she said, “but he’s not here very much, mostly on the mainland, I guess.”

Dalgetty nodded. He had come to Pacific Colony two days before, had been hanging around in the hope of getting close enough to Bancroft to pick up a clue. Now he had done so and his findings were worth little. He had merely confirmed what the Institute already considered highly probable without getting any new information.

He needed to think over his next move. He drained his drink. “I’d better jet off,” he said.

“We can have dinner in here if you want,” said Glenna.

“Thanks, I’m not hungry.” That was true enough. The nervous tension incidental to the use of his powers raised the devil with appetite. Nor could he be too lavish with his funds. “Maybe later.”

“Okay, Joe, I might be seeing you.” She smiled. “You’re a funny one. But kind of nice.” Her lips brushed his and then she got up and left. Dalgetty went out the door and punched for a top-side elevator.

It took him past many levels. The tavern was under the station’s caissons near the main anchor cable, looking out into deep water. Above it were store-houses, machine rooms, kitchens, all the paraphernalia of modern existence. He stepped out of a kiosk onto an upper deck, thirty feet above the surface. Nobody else was there and he walked over to the railing and leaned on it, looking across the water and savoring loneliness.

Below him the tiers dropped away to the main deck, flowing lines and curves, broad sheets of clear plastic, animated signs, the grass and flowerbeds of a small park, people walking swiftly or idly. The huge gyro-stabilized bulk did not move noticeably to the long Pacific swell. Pelican Station was the colony’s “downtown,” its shops and theaters and restaurants, service and entertainment.

Around it the water was indigo blue in the evening light, streaked with arabesques of foam, and he could hear waves rumble against the sheer walls. Overhead the sky was tall with a few clouds in the west turning aureate. The hovering gulls seemed cast in gold. A haziness in the darkened east betokened the southern California coastline. He breathed deeply, letting nerves and muscles and viscera relax, shutting off his mind and turning for a while into an organism that merely lived and was glad to live.

Dalgetty’s view in all directions was cut off by the other stations, the rising streamlined hulks which were Pacific Colony. A few airy flex-strung bridges had been completed to link them, but there was still an extensive boat traffic. To the south he could see a blackness on the water that was a sea ranch. His trained memory told him, in answer to a fleeting question, that according to the latest figures eighteen-point-three percent of the world’s food supply was now being derived from modified strains of seaweed. The percentage would increase rapidly, he knew.

Elsewhere were mineral-extracting plants, fishery bases, experimental and pure-research stations. Below the floating city, digging into the continental shelf, was the underwater settlement—oil wells to supplement the industrial synthesizing process, mining, exploration in tanks to find new resources, a slow growth outward as men learned how to go deeper into cold and darkness and pressure. It was expensive but an over-crowded world had little choice.

Venus was already visible, low and pure on the dusking horizon. Dalgetty breathed the wet pungent sea-air into his lungs and thought with some pity of the men out there—and on the Moon, on Mars, between worlds. They were doing a huge and heart-breaking job—but he wondered if it were bigger and more meaningful than this work here in Earth’s oceans.

Or a few pages of scribbled equations, tossed into a desk drawer at the Institute. Enough. Dalgetty brought his mind to heel like a harshly trained dog. He was also here to work.

The forces he must encounter seemed monstrous. He was one man, alone against he knew not what kind of organization. He had to rescue one other man before—well, before history was changed and spun off on the wrong course, the long downward path. He had his knowledge and abilities but they wouldn’t stop a bullet. Nor did they include education for this kind of warfare. War that was not war, politics that were not politics but a handful of scrawled equations and a bookful of slowly gathered data and a brainful of dreams.

Bancroft had Tighe—somewhere. The Institute could not ask the government for help, even if to a large degree the Institute was the government. It could, perhaps, send Dalgetty a few men but it had no goon squads. And time was like a hound on his heels.


The sensitive man turned, suddenly aware of someone else. This was a middle-aged fellow, gaunt and gray-haired, with an intellectual cast of feature. He leaned on the rail and said quietly, “Nice evening, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Dalgetty. “Very nice.”

“It gives me a feeling of real accomplishment, this place,” said the stranger.

“How so?” asked Dalgetty, not unwilling to make conversation.

The man looked out over the sea and spoke softly as if to himself. “I’m fifty years old. I was born during World War Three and grew up with the famines and the mass insanities that followed. I saw fighting myself in Asia. I worried about a senselessly expanding population pressing on senselessly diminished resources. I saw an America that seemed equally divided between decadence and madness.

“And yet I can stand now and watch a world where we’ve got a functioning United Nations, where population increase is leveling off and democratic government spreading to country after country, where we’re conquering the seas and even going out to other planets. Things have changed since I was a boy but on the whole it’s been for the better.”

“Ah,” said Dalgetty, “a kindred spirit. Though I’m afraid it’s not quite that simple.”


The man arched his brows. “So you vote conservative?”

“The Labor Party is conservative,” said Dalgetty. “As proof of which it’s in coalition with the Republicans and the Neofederalists as well as some splinter groups. No, I don’t care if it stays in, or if the Conservatives prosper or the Liberals take over. The question is—who shall control the group in power?”

“Its membership, I suppose,” said the man.

“But just who is its membership? You know as well as I do that the great failing of the American people has always been their lack of interest in politics.”

“What? Why, they vote, don’t they? What was the last percentage?”

“Eight-eight-point-three-seven. Sure they vote—once the ticket has been presented to them. But how many of them have anything to do with nominating the candidates or writing the platforms? How many will actually take time out to work at it—or even to write their Congressmen? ‘Ward heeler’ is still a term of contempt.

“All too often in our history the vote has been simply a matter of choosing between two well-oiled machines. A sufficiently clever and determined group can take over a party, keep the name and the slogans and in a few years do a complete behind-the-scenes volte-face.” Dalgetty’s words came fast, this was one facet of a task to which he had given his life.

“Two machines,” said the stranger, “or four or five as we’ve got now, are at least better than one.”

“Not if the same crowd controls all of them,” Dalgetty said grimly.

“But—”

“‘If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em.’ Better yet, join all sides. Then you can’t lose.”

“I don’t think that’s happened yet,” said the man.

“No it hasn’t,” said Dalgetty, “not in the United States, though in some other countries—never mind. It’s still in process of happening, that’s all. The lines today are drawn not by nations or parties, but by—philosophies, if you wish. Two views of man’s destiny, cutting across all national, political, racial and religious lines.”

“And what are those two views?” asked the stranger quietly.

“You might call them libertarian and totalitarian, though the latter don’t necessarily think of themselves as such. The peak of rampant individualism was reached in the nineteenth century, legally speaking. Though in point of fact social pressure and custom were more strait-jacketing than most people today realize.

“In the twentieth century that social rigidity—in manners, morals, habits of thought—broke down. The emancipation of women, for instance, or the easy divorce or the laws about privacy. But at the same time legal control began tightening up again. Government took over more and more functions, taxes got steeper, the individual’s life got more and more bound by regulations saying ‘thou shalt’ and ‘thou shalt not.’

“Well, it looks as if war is going out as an institution. That takes off a lot of pressure. Such hampering restrictions as conscription to fight or work, or rationing, have been removed. What we’re slowly attaining is a society where the individual has maximum freedom, both from law and custom. It’s perhaps farthest advanced in America, Canada, and Brazil, but it’s growing the world over.

“But there are elements which don’t like the consequences of genuine libertarianism. And the new science of human behavior, mass and individual, is achieving rigorous formulation. It’s becoming the most powerful tool man has ever had—for whoever controls the human mind will also control all that man can do. That science can be used by anyone, mind you. If you’ll read between the lines you’ll see what a hidden struggle is shaping up for control of it as soon as it reaches maturity and empirical useability.”

“Ah, yes,” said the man. “The Psychotechnic Institute.”

Dalgetty nodded, wondering why he had jumped into such a lecture. Well, the more people who had some idea of the truth the better—though it wouldn’t do for them to know the whole truth either. Not yet.

“The Institute trains so many for governmental posts and does so much advisory work,” said the man, “that sometimes it looks almost as if it were quietly taking over the whole show.”

Dalgetty shivered a little in the sunset breeze and wished he’d brought his cloak. He thought wearily, Here it is again. Here is the story they are spreading, not in blatant accusations, not all at once, but slowly and subtly, a whisper here, a hint there, a slanted news story, a supposedly dispassionate article…. Oh, yes, they know their applied semantics.

“Too many people fear such an outcome,” he declared. “It just isn’t true. The Institute is a private research organization with a Federal grant. Its records are open to anyone.”

“All the records?” The man’s face was vague in the gathering twilight.

Dalgetty thought he could make out a skeptically lifted brow. He didn’t reply directly but said, “There’s a foggy notion in the public mind that a group equipped with a complete science of man—which the Institute hasn’t got by a long shot—could ‘take over’ at once and, by manipulations of some unspecified but frightfully subtle sort, rule the world. The theory is that if you know just what buttons to push and so on, men will do precisely as you wish without knowing that they’re being guided. The theory happens to be pure jetwash.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said the man. “In general terms it sounds pretty plausible.”

Dalgetty shook his head. “Suppose I were an engineer,” he said, “and suppose I saw an avalanche coming down on me. I might know exactly what to do to stop it—where to plant my dynamite, where to build my concrete wall and so on. Only the knowledge wouldn’t help me. I’d have neither the time nor the strength to use it.

“The situation is similar with regard to human dynamics, both mass and individual. It takes months or years to change a man’s convictions and when you have hundreds of millions of men….” He shrugged. “Social currents are too large for all but the slightest, most gradual control. In fact perhaps the most valuable results obtained to date are not those which show what can be done but what cannot.”

“You speak with the voice of authority,” said the man.

“I’m a psychologist,” said Dalgetty truthfully enough. He didn’t add that he was also a subject, observer and guinea pig in one. “And I’m afraid I talk too much. Go from bad to voice.”

“Ouch,” said the man. He leaned his back against the rail and his shadowy hand extended a pack. “Smoke?”

“No, thanks, I don’t.”

“You’re a rarity.” The brief lighter-flare etched the stranger’s face against the dusk.

“I’ve found other ways of relaxing.”

“Good for you. By the way I’m a professor myself. English Litt at Colorado.”

“Afraid I’m rather a roughneck in that respect,” said Dalgetty. For a moment he had a sense of loss. His thought processes had become too far removed from the ordinary human for him to find much in fiction or poetry. But music, sculpture, painting—there was something else. He looked over the broad glimmering water, at the stations dark against the first stars, and savored the many symmetries and harmonies with a real pleasure. You needed senses like his before you could know what a lovely world this was.

“I’m on vacation now,” said the man. Dalgetty did not reply in kind. After a moment—”You are too, I suppose?”

Dalgetty felt a slight shock. A personal question from a stranger—well, you didn’t expect otherwise from someone like the girl Glenna but a professor should be better conditioned to privacy customs.

“Yes,” he said shortly. “Just visiting.”

“By the way, my name is Tyler, Harmon Tyler.”

“Joe Thomson.” Dalgetty shook hands with him.

“We might continue our conversation if you’re going to be around for awhile,” said Tyler. “You raised some interesting points.”

Dalgetty considered. It would be worthwhile staying as long as Bancroft did, in the hope of learning some more. “I may be here a couple of days yet,” he said.

“Good,” said Tyler. He looked up at the sky. It was beginning to fill with stars. The deck was still empty. It ran around the dim upthrusting bulk of a weather-observation tower which was turned over to its automatics for the night and there was no one else to be seen. A few fluoros cast wan puddles of luminance on the plastic flooring.

Glancing at his watch, Tyler said casually, “It’s about nineteen-thirty hours now. If you don’t mind waiting till twenty hundred I can show you something interesting.”

“What’s that?”

“Ah, you’ll be surprised.” Tyler chuckled. “Not many people know about it. Now, getting back to that point you raised earlier….”

The half hour passed swiftly. Dalgetty did most of the talking.

“—and mass action. Look, to a rather crude first approximation a state of semantic equilibrium on a world-wide scale, which of course has never existed, would be represented by an equation of the form—”

“Excuse me.” Tyler consulted the shining dial again. “If you don’t mind stopping for a few minutes I’ll show you that odd sight I was talking about.”

“Eh? Oh-oh, sure.”

Tyler threw away his cigarette. It was a tiny meteor in the gloom. He took Dalgetty’s arm. They walked slowly around the weather tower.

The men came from the opposite side and met them halfway. Dalgetty had hardly seen them before he felt the sting in his chest.

A needle gun!

The world roared about him. He took a step forward, trying to scream, but his throat locked. The deck lifted up and hit him and his mind whirled toward darkness.

From somewhere will rose within him, trained reflexes worked, he summoned all that was left of his draining strength and fought the anesthetic. His wrestling with it was a groping in fog. Again and again he spiraled into unconsciousness and rose strangling. Dimly, through nightmare, he was aware of being carried. Once someone stopped the group in a corridor and asked what was wrong. The answer seemed to come from immensely far away. “I dunno. He passed out—just like that. We’re taking him to a doctor.”

There was a century spent going down some elevator. The boat-house walls trembled liquidly around him. He was carried aboard a large vessel, it was not visible through the gray mist. Some dulled portion of himself thought that this was obviously a private boat-house, since no one was trying to stop—trying to stop—trying to stop….

Then the night came.

III

He woke slowly, with a dry retch, and blinked his eyes open. Noise of air, he was flying, it must have been a triphibian they took him onto. He tried to force recovery but his mind was still too paralyzed.

“Here. Drink this.”

Dalgetty took the glass and gulped thirstily. It was coolness and steadiness spreading through him. The vibratto within him faded, and the headache dulled enough to be endurable. Slowly he looked around, and felt the first crawl of panic.

No! He suppressed the emotion with an almost physical thrust. Now was the time for calm and quick wit and—

A big man near him nodded and stuck his head out the door. “He’s okay now, I guess,” he called. “Want to talk to him?”

Dalgetty’s eyes roved the compartment. It was a rear cabin in a large airboat, luxuriously furnished with reclining seats and an inlaid table. A broad window looked out on the stairs.

Caught! It was pure bitterness, an impotent rage at himself. Walked right into their arms!

Tyler came into the room, followed by a pair of burly stone-faced men. He smiled. “Sorry,” he murmured, “but you’re playing out of your league, you know.”

“Yeah.” Dalgetty shook his head. Wryness twisted his mouth. “I don’t league it much either.”

Tyler grinned. It was a sympathetic expression. “You punsters are incurable,” he said. “I’m glad you’re taking it so well. We don’t intend any harm to you.”

Skepticism was dark in Dalgetty but he managed to relax. “How’d you get onto me?” he asked.

“Oh, various ways. You were pretty clumsy, I’m afraid.” Tyler sat down across the table. The guards remained standing. “We were sure the Institute would attempt a counterblow and we’ve studied it and its personnel thoroughly. You were recognized, Dalgetty—and you’re known to be very close to Tighe. So you walked after us without even a face-mask….

“At any rate, you were noticed hanging around the colony. We checked back on your movements. One of the rec girls had some interesting things to tell of you. We decided you’d better be questioned. I sounded you out as much as a casual acquaintance could and then took you to the rendezvous.” Tyler spread his hands. “That’s all.”

Dalgetty sighed and his shoulders slumped under a sudden enormous burden of discouragement. Yes, they were right. He was out of his orbit. “Well,” he said, “what now?”

“Now we have you and Tighe,” said the other. He took out a cigarette. “I hope you’re somewhat more willing to talk than he is.”

“Suppose I’m not?”

“Understand this.” Tyler frowned. “There are reasons for going slow with Tighe. He has hostage value, for one thing. But you’re nobody. And while we aren’t monsters I for one have little sympathy to spare for your kind of fanatic.”

“Now there,” said Dalgetty with a lift of sardonicism, “is an interesting example of semantic evolution. This being, on the whole, an easy-going tolerant period, the word ‘fanatic’ has come to be simply an epithet—a fellow on the other side.”

“That will do,” snapped Tyler. “You won’t be allowed to stall. There are questions we want answered.” He ticked the points off on his fingers. “What are the Institute’s ultimate aims? How is it going about attaining them? How far has it gotten? Precisely what has it learned, in a scientific way, that it hasn’t published? How much does it know about us?” He smiled thinly. “You’ve always been close to Tighe. He raised you, didn’t he? You should know just as much as he.”

Yes, thought Dalgetty, Tighe raised me. He was all the father I ever had, really. I was an orphan and he took me in and he was good.

Sharp in his mind rose the image of the old house. It had lain on broad wooded grounds in the fair hills of Maine, with a little river running down to a bay winged with sailboats. There had been neighbors—quiet-spoken folk with something more real about them than most of today’s rootless world knew. And there had been many visitors—men and women with minds like flickering sword-blades.

He had grown up among intellects aimed at the future. He and Tighe had traveled a lot. They had often been in the huge pylon of the main Institute building. They had gone over to Tighe’s native England once a year at least. But always the old house had been dear to them.

It stood on a ridge, long and low and weathered gray like a part of the earth. By day it had rested in a green sun-dazzle of trees or a glistering purity of snow. By night you heard the boards creaking and the lonesome sound of wind talking down the chimney. Yes, it had been good.

And there had been the wonder of it. He loved his training. The horizonless world within himself was a glorious thing to explore. And that had oriented him outward to the real world—he had felt wind and rain and sunlight, the pride of high buildings and the surge of a galloping horse, thresh of waves and laughter of women and smooth mysterious purr of great machines, with a fullness that made him pity those deaf and dumb and blind around him.

Oh yes, he loved those things. He was in love with the whole turning planet and the big skies overhead. It was a world of light and strength and swift winds and it would be bitter to leave it. But Tighe was locked in darkness.

He said slowly, “All we ever were was a research and educational center, a sort of informal university specializing in the scientific study of man. We’re not any kind of political organization. You’d be surprised how much we differ in our individual opinions.”

“What of it?” shrugged Tyler. “This is something larger than politics. Your work, if fully developed, would change our whole society, perhaps the whole nature of man. We know you’ve learned more things than you’ve made public. Therefore you’re reserving that information for uses of your own.”

“And you want it for your purposes?”

“Yes,” said Tyler. After a moment, “I despise melodrama but if you don’t cooperate you’re going to get the works. And we’ve got Tighe too, never forget that. One of you ought to break down if he watches the other being questioned.”

We’re going to the same place! We’re going to Tighe!

The effort to hold face and voice steady was monstrous. “Just where are we bound?”

“An island. We should be there soon. I’ll be going back again myself but Mr. Bancroft is coming shortly. That should convince you just how important this is to us.”

Dalgetty nodded. “Can I think it over for awhile? It isn’t an easy decision for me.”

“Sure. I hope you decide right.”

Tyler got up and left with his guards. The big man who had handed him the drink earlier sat where he had been all the time. Slowly the psychologist began to tighten himself. The faint drone of turbines and whistle of jets and sundered air began to enlarge.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

CAN’T TELL YOU THAT. SHUDDUP, WILL YOU?

“But surely….”

The guard didn’t answer. But he was thinking. Ree-villa-ghee-gay-doe—never would p’rnounce that damn Spig name … cripes, what a God-forsaken hole!… Mebbe I can work a trip over to Mexico…. That little gal in Guada….

Dalgetty concentrated. Revilla—he had it now. Islas de Revillagigedo a small group some 350 or 400 miles off the Mexican coast, little visited with very few inhabitants. His eidetic memory went to work, conjuring an image of a large-scale map he had once studied. Closing his eyes he laid off the exact distance, latitude and longitude, individual islands.

Wait, there was one a little further west, a speck on the map, not properly belonging to the group. And—he riffled through all the facts he had ever learned pertaining to Bancroft. Wait now, Bertrand Meade, who seemed to be the kingpin of the whole movement—yes, Meade owned that tiny island.

So that’s where we’re going! He sank back, letting weariness overrun him. It would be awhile yet before they arrived.

Dalgetty sighed and looked out at the stars. Why had men arranged such clumsy constellations when the total pattern of the sky was a big and lovely harmony? He knew his personal danger would be enormous once he was on the ground. Torture, mutilation, even death.

Dalgetty closed his eyes again. Almost at once he was asleep.

IV

They landed on a small field while it was still dark. Hustled out into a glare of lights Dalgetty did not have much chance to study his surroundings. There were men standing on guard with magnum rifles, tough-looking professional goons in loose gray uniforms. Dalgetty followed obediently across the concrete, along a walk and through a garden to the looming curved bulk of a house.

He paused just a second as the door opened for them and stood looking out into darkness. The sea rolled and hissed there on a wide beach. He caught the clean salt smell of it and filled his lungs. It might be the last time he ever breathed such air.

“Get along with you.” An arm jerked him into motion again.

Down a bare coldly-lit hallway, down an escalator, into the guts of the island. Another door, a room beyond it, an ungentle shove. The door clashed to behind him.

Dalgetty looked around. The cell was small, bleakly furnished with bunk, toilet and washstand, had a ventilator grille in one wall. Nothing else. He tried listening with maximum sensitivity but there were only remote confused murmurs.

Dad! he thought. You’re here somewhere too.

He flopped on the bunk and spent a moment analyzing the aesthetics of the layout. It had a certain pleasing severity, the unconscious balance of complete functionalism. Soon Dalgetty went back to sleep.

A guard with a breakfast tray woke him. Dalgetty tried to read the man’s thoughts but there weren’t any to speak of. He ate ravenously under a gun muzzle, gave the tray back and returned to sleep. It was the same at lunch time.

His time-sense told him that it was 1435 hours when he was roused again. There were three men this time, husky specimens. “Come on,” said one of them. “Never saw such a guy for pounding his ear.”

Dalgetty stood up, running a hand through his hair. The red bristles were scratchy on his palm. It was a cover-up, a substitute symbol to bring his nervous system back under full control. The process felt as if he were being tumbled through a huge gulf.

“Just how many of your fellows are there here?” he asked.

“Enough. Now get going!”

He caught the whisper of thought—fifty of us guards, is it? Yeah, fifty, I guess.

Fifty! Dalgetty felt taut as he walked out between two of them. Fifty goons. And they were trained, he knew that. The Institute had learned that Bertrand Meade’s private army was well-drilled. Nothing obtrusive about it—officially they were only servants and bodyguards—but they knew how to shoot.

And he was alone in mid-ocean with them. He was alone and no one knew where he was and anything could be done to him. He felt cold, walking down the corridor.

There was a room beyond with benches and a desk. One of the guards gestured to a chair at one end. “Sit,” he grunted.

Dalgetty submitted. The straps went around his wrists and ankles, holding him to the arms and legs of the heavy chair. Another buckled about his waist. He looked down and saw that the chair was bolted to the floor. One of the guards crossed to the desk and started up a tape recorder.

A door opened in the far end of the room. Thomas Bancroft came in. He was a big man, fleshy but in well-scrubbed health, his clothes designed with quiet good taste. The head was white-maned, leonine, with handsome florid features and sharp blue eyes. He smiled ever so faintly and sat down behind the desk.

The woman was with him—Dalgetty looked harder at her. She was new to him. She was medium tall, a little on the compact side, her blond hair cut too short, no makeup on her broad Slavic features. Young, in hard condition, moving with a firm masculine stride. With those tilted gray eyes, that delicately curved nose and wide sullen mouth, she could have been a beauty had she wanted to be.

One of the modern type, thought Dalgetty. A flesh-and-blood machine, trying to outmale men, frustrated and unhappy without knowing it and all the more bitter for that.

Briefly there was sorrow in him, an enormous pity for the millions of mankind. They did not know themselves, they fought themselves like wild beasts, tied up in knots, locked in nightmare. Man could be so much if he had the chance.

He glanced at Bancroft. “I know you,” he said, “but I’m afraid the lady has the advantage of me.”

“My secretary and general assistant, Miss Casimir.” The politician’s voice was sonorous, a beautifully controlled instrument. He leaned across the desk. The recorder by his elbow whirred in the flat soundproofed stillness.

“Mr. Dalgetty,” he said, “I want you to understand that we aren’t fiends. There are things too important for ordinary rules though. Wars have been fought over them in the past and may well be fought again. It will be easier for all concerned if you cooperate with us now. No one need ever know that you have done so.”

“Suppose I answer your questions,” said Dalgetty. “How do you know I’ll be telling the truth?”

“Neoscopolamine, of course. I don’t think you’ve been immunized. It confuses the mind too much for us to interrogate you about these complex matters under its influence but we will surely find out if you have been answering our present questions correctly.”

“And what then? Do you just let me go?”

Bancroft shrugged. “Why shouldn’t we? We may have to keep you here for awhile but soon you will have ceased to matter and can safely be released.”

Dalgetty considered. Not even he could do much against truth drugs. And there were still more radical procedures, prefrontal lobotomy for instance. He shivered. The leatherite straps felt damp against his thin clothing.

He looked at Bancroft. “What do you really want?” he asked. “Why are you working for Bertrand Meade?”

Bancroft’s heavy mouth lifted in a smile. “I thought you were supposed to answer the questions,” he said.

“Whether I do or not depends on whose questions they are,” said Dalgetty. Stall for time! Put it off, the moment of terror, put it off! “Frankly, what I know of Meade doesn’t make me friendly. But I could be wrong.”

“Mr. Meade is a distinguished executive.”

“Uh-huh. He’s also the power behind a hell of a lot of political figures, including you. He’s the real boss of the Actionist movement.”

“What do you know of that?” asked the woman sharply.

“It’s a complicated story,” said Dalgetty, “but essentially Actionism is a—a Weltanschauung. We’re still recovering from the World Wars and their aftermath. People everywhere are swinging away from great vague capitalized causes toward a cooler and clearer view of life.

“It’s analogous to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, which also followed a period of turmoil between conflicting fanaticisms. A belief in reason is growing up even in the popular mind, a spirit of moderation and tolerance. There’s a wait-and-see attitude toward everything, including the sciences and particularly the new half-finished science of psychodynamics. The world wants to rest for awhile.

“Well, such a state of mind has its own drawbacks. It produces wonderful structures of thought but there’s something cold about them. There is so little real passion, so much caution—the arts, for instance, are becoming ever more stylized. Old symbols like religion and the sovereign state and a particular form of government, for which men once died, are openly jeered at. We can formulate the semantic condition at the Institute in a very neat equation.

“And you don’t like it. Your kind of man needs something big. And mere concrete bigness isn’t enough. You could give your lives to the sciences or to inter-planetary colonization or to social correction, as many people are cheerfully doing—but those aren’t for you. Down underneath you miss the universal father-image.

“You want an almighty Church or an almighty State or an almighty anything, a huge misty symbol which demands everything you’ve got and gives in return only a feeling of belonging.” Dalgetty’s voice was harsh. “In short, you can’t stand on your own psychic feet. You can’t face the truth that man is a lonely creature and that his purpose must come from within himself.”

Bancroft scowled. “I didn’t come here to be lectured,” he said.

“Have it your way,” answered Dalgetty. “I thought you wanted to know what I knew of Actionism. That’s it in unprecise verbal language. Essentially you want to be a Leader in a Cause. Your men, such as aren’t merely hired, want to be Followers. Only there isn’t a Cause around, these days, except the common-sense one of improving human life.”

The woman, Casimir, leaned over the desk. There was a curious intensity in her eyes. “You just pointed out the drawbacks yourself,” she said. “This is a decadent period.”

“No,” said Dalgetty. “Unless you insist on loaded connotations. It’s a necessary period of rest. Recoil time for a whole society—well, it all works out neatly in Tighe’s formulation. The present state of affairs should continue for about seventy-five years, we feel at the Institute. In that time, reason can—we hope—be so firmly implanted in the basic structure of society that when the next great wave of passion comes it won’t turn men against each other.

“The present is, well, analytic. While we catch our breath we can begin to understand ourselves. When the next synthetic—or creative or crusading period, if you wish—comes, it will be saner than all which have gone before. And man can’t afford to go insane again. Not in the same world with the lithium bomb.”

Bancroft nodded. “And you in the Institute are trying to control this process,” he said. “You’re trying to stretch out the period of—damn it, of decadence! Oh, I’ve studied the modern school system too, Dalgetty. I know how subtly the rising generation is being indoctrinated—through policies formulated by your men in the government.”

“Indoctrinated? Trained, I would say. Trained in self-restraint and critical thinking.” Dalgetty grinned with one side of his mouth. “Well, we aren’t here to argue generalities. Specifically Meade feels he has a mission. He is the natural leader of America—ultimately, through the U.N., in which we are still powerful, the world. He wants to restore what he calls ‘ancestral virtues’—you see, I’ve listened to his speeches and yours, Bancroft.

“These virtues consist of obedience, physical and mental, to ‘constituted authority’—of ‘dynamism,’ which operationally speaking means people ought to jump when he gives an order—of …. Oh, why go on? It’s the old story. Power hunger, the recreation of the Absolute State, this time on a planetary scale.

“With psychological appeals to some and with promises of reward to others he’s built up quite a following. But he’s shrewd enough to know that he can’t just stage a revolution. He has to make people want him. He has to reverse the social current until it swings back to authoritarianism—with him riding the crest.

“And that of course is where the Institute comes in. Yes, we have developed theories which make at least a beginning at explaining the facts of history. It was a matter not so much of gathering data as of inventing a rigorous self-correcting symbology and our paramathematics seems to be just that. We haven’t published all of our findings because of the uses to which they could be put. If you know exactly how to go about it you can shape world society into almost any image you want—in fifty years or less! You want that knowledge of ours for your purposes!”

Dalgetty fell silent. There was a long quietness. His own breathing seemed unnaturally loud.

“All right.” Bancroft nodded again, slowly. “You haven’t told us anything we don’t know.”

“I’m well aware of that,” said Dalgetty.

“Your phrasing was rather unfriendly,” said Bancroft. “What you don’t appreciate is the revolting stagnation and cynicism of this age.”

“Now you’re using the loaded words,” said Dalgetty. “Facts just are. There’s no use passing moral judgments on reality, the only thing you can do is try to change it.”

“Yes,” said Bancroft. “All right then, we’re trying. Do you want to help us?”

“You could beat the hell out of me,” said Dalgetty, “but it wouldn’t teach you a science that it takes years to learn.”

“No, but we’d know just what you have and where to find it. We have some good brains on our side. Given your data and equations they can figure it out.” The pale eyes grew wholly chill. “You don’t seem to appreciate your situation. You’re a prisoner, understand?”

Dalgetty braced his muscles. He didn’t reply.

Bancroft sighed. “Bring him in,” he said.

One of the guards went out. Dalgetty’s heart stumbled. Dad, he thought. It was anguish in him. Casimir walked over to stand in front of him. Her eyes searched his.

“Don’t be a fool,” she said. “It hurts worse than you know. Tell us.”

He looked up at her. I’m afraid, he thought. God knows I’m afraid. His own sweat was acrid in his nostrils. “No,” he said.

“I tell you they’ll do everything!” She had a nice voice, low and soft, but it roughened now. Her face was colorless with strain. “Go on man, don’t condemn yourself to—mindlessness!”

There was something strange here. Dalgetty’s senses began to reach out. She was leaning close and he knew the signs of horror even if she tried to hide them. She’s not so hard as she makes out—but then why is she with them?

He threw a bluff. “I know who you are,” he said. “Shall I tell your friends?”

“No, you don’t!” She stepped back, rigid, and his whetted senses caught the fear-smell. In a moment there was control and she said, “All right then, have it your way.”

And underneath, the thought, slowed by the gluiness of panic, Does he know I’m FBI?

FBI! He jerked against the straps. Ye gods!

Calmness returned to him as she walked to her chief but his mind whirred. Yes, why not? Institute men had little connection with the Federal detectives, who, since the abolition of a discredited Security, had resumed a broad function. They might easily have become dubious about Bertrand Meade on their own, have planted operatives with him. They had women among them too and a woman was always less conspicuous than a man.

He felt a chill. The last thing he wanted was a Federal agent here.

The door opened again. A quartet of guards brought in Michael Tighe. The Briton halted, staring before him. “Simon!” It was a harsh sound, full of pain.

“Have they hurt you, Dad?” asked Dalgetty very gently.

“No, no—not till now.” The gray head shook. “But you….”

“Take it easy, Dad,” said Dalgetty.

The guards hustled Tighe over to a front-row bench and sat him down. Old man and young locked eyes across the bare space.

Tighe spoke to him in the hidden way. What are you going to do? I can’t sit and let them—

Dalgetty could not reply unheard but he shook his head. “I’ll be okay,” he answered aloud.

Do you think you can make a break? I’ll try to help you.

“No,” said Dalgetty. “Whatever happens you lie low. That’s an order.”

He blocked off sensitivity as Bancroft snapped, “Enough. One of you is going to yield. If Dr. Tighe won’t, then we’ll work on him and see if Mr. Dalgetty can hold out.”

He waved his hand as he took out a cigar. Two of the goons stepped up to the chair. They had rubberite hoses in their hands.

The first blow thudded against Dalgetty’s ribs. He didn’t feel it—he had thrown up a nerve bloc—but it rattled his teeth together. And while he was insensitive he’d be unable to listen in on….

Another thud, and another. Dalgetty clenched his fists. What to do, what to do? He looked over to the desk. Bancroft was smoking and watching as dispassionately as if it were some mildly interesting experiment. Casimir had turned her back.

“Something funny here, chief.” One of the goons straightened. “I don’t think he’s feeling nothing.”

“Doped?” Bancroft frowned. “No, that’s hardly possible.” He rubbed his chin, regarding Dalgetty with wondering eyes. Casimir wheeled around to stare. Sweat filmed Michael Tighe’s face, glistening in the chill white light.

“He can still be hurt,” said the guard.

Bancroft winced. “I don’t like outright mutilation,” he said. “But still—I’ve warned you, Dalgetty.”

Get out, Simon,” whispered Tighe. “Get out of here.

Dalgetty’s red head lifted. Decision crystalized within him. He would be no use to anyone with a broken leg, a crushed foot, an eye knocked out, seared lungs—and Casimir was FBI, she might be able to do something at this end in spite of all.

He tested the straps. A quarter inch of leatherite—he could snap them but would he break his bones doing it?

Only one way to find out, he thought bleakly.

“I’ll get a blowtorch,” said one of the guards in the rear of the room. His face was wholly impassive. Most of these goons must be moronic, thought Dalgetty. Most of the guards in the twentieth-century extermination camps had been. No inconvenient empathy with the human flesh they broke and flayed and burned.

He gathered himself. This time it was rage, a cloud of fury rising in his mind, a ragged red haze across his vision. That they woulddare!

He snarled as the strength surged up in him. He didn’t even feel the straps as they popped across. The same movement hurtled him across the room toward the door.

Someone yelled. A guard leaped in his path, a giant of a man. Dalgetty’s fist sprang before him, there was a cracking sound and the goon’s head snapped back against his own spine. Dalgetty was already past him. The door was shut in his face. Wood crashed as he went through it.

A bullet wailed after him. He dodged down the corridor, up the nearest steps, the walls blurred with his own speed. Another slug smacked into the paneling beside him. He rounded a corner, saw a window and covered his eyes with an arm as he leaped.

The plastic was tough but a hundred and seventy pounds hit it at fifteen feet per second. Dalgetty went through!

Sunlight flamed in his eyes as he hit the ground. Rolling over and bouncing to his feet he set out across lawn and garden. As he ran his vision swept the landscape. In that state of fear and wrath he could not command much thought but his memory stored the data for re-examination.

V

The house was a rambling two-story affair, all curves and planes between palm trees, the island sloping swiftly from its front to a beach and dock. On one side was the airfield, on another the guard barracks. To the rear, in the direction of Dalgetty’s movement, the ground became rough and wild, stones and sand and saw-grass and clumps of palmettos, climbing upward for a good two miles. On every side, he could see the infinite blue sparkle of ocean. Where could he hide?

He didn’t notice the slashing blades through which he raced and the dry gulping of his lungs was something dreadfully remote. But when a bullet went past one ear, he heard that and drew more speed from some unknown depth. A glance behind revealed his pursuers boiling out of the house, men in gray with the hot sunlight blinking off their guns.

He ducked around a thicket, flopped and belly-crawled over a rise of land. On the farther side he straightened again and ran up the long slope. Another slug and another. They were almost a mile behind now but their guns had a long reach. He bent low, zigzagging as he ran. The bullets kicked up spurts of sand around him.

A six-foot bluff loomed in his path, black volcanic rock shining like wet glass. He hit it at full speed. He almost walked up its face and in the instant when his momentum was gone caught a root and yanked himself to the top. Again he was out of their sight. He sprang around another hulk of stone and skidded to a halt. At his feet, a sheer cliff dropped nearly a hundred feet to a white smother of surf.

Dalgetty gulped air, working his lungs like a bellows. A long jump down, he thought dizzily. If he didn’t crack his skull open on a reef he might well be clawed under by the sea. But there was no other place for him to go.

He made a swift estimate. He had run the upward two miles in a little over nine minutes, surely a record for such terrain. It would take the pursuit another ten or fifteen to reach him. But he couldn’t double back without being seen and this time they’d be close enough to fill him with lead.

Okay, son, he told himself. You’re going to duck now, in more than one sense.

His light waterproof clothes, tattered by the island growth, would be no hindrance down there, but he took off his sandals and stuck them in his belt pouch. Praise all gods, the physical side of his training had included water sports. He moved along the cliff edge, looking for a place to dive. The wind whined at his feet.

There—down there. No visible rocks though the surf boiled and smoked. He willed full energy back into himself, bent his knees, jack-knifed into the air.

The sea was a hammer blow against his body. He came up threshing and tumbling, gasped a mouthful of air that was half salt spray, was pulled under again. A rock scraped his ribs. He took long strokes, always upward to the blind white shimmer of light. He got to the crest of one wave and rode it in, surfing over a razorback reef.

Shallow water. Blinded by the steady rain of salt mist, deafened by the roar and crash of the sea, he groped toward shore. A narrow pebbly beach ran along the foot of the cliff. He moved along it, hunting a place to hide.

There—a sea-worn cave, some ten feet inward, with a yard or so of fairly quiet water covering its bottom. He splashed inside and lay down, exhaustion clamping a hand on him.

It was noisy. The hollow resonance of sound filled the cave like the inside of a drum but he didn’t notice. He lay on the rocks and sand, his mind spiraling toward unconsciousness, and let his body make its own recovery.

Presently he regained awareness and looked about him. The cave was dim, with only a filtered greenish light to pick out black wall’s and slowly swirling water. Nobody could see much below the surface—good. He studied himself. Lacerated clothes, bruised flesh and a long bleeding gash in one side. That was not good. A stain of blood on the water would give him away like a shout.

Grimacing, he pressed the edges of the wound together and willed that the bleeding stop. By the time a good enough clot was formed for him to relax his concentration the guards were scrambling down to find him. He didn’t have many minutes left. Now he had to do the opposite of energizing. He had to slow metabolism down, ease his heartbeat, lower his body temperature, dull his racing brain.

He began to move his hands, swaying back and forth, muttering the autohypnotic formulas. His incantations, Tighe had called them. But they were only stylized gestures leading to conditioned reflexes deep in the medulla. Now I lay me down to sleep….

Heavy, heavy—his eyelids were drooping; the wet walls receding into a great darkness, a hand cradling his head. The noise of surf dimmed, became a rustle, the skirts of the mother he had never known, come in to bid him goodnight. Coolness stole over him like veils dropping one by one inside his head. There was winter outside and his bed was snug.

When Dalgetty heard the nearing rattle of boots—just barely through the ocean and his own drowsiness—he almost forgot what he had to do. No, yes, now he knew. Take several long, deep breaths, oxygenate the bloodstream, then fill the lungs once and slide down under the surface.

He lay there in darkness hardly conscious of the voices, dimly perceived.

“A cave here—a place for him to hide.”

“Nah, I don’t see nothing.”

Scrunch of feet on stone. “Ouch! Stubbed my damn toe. Nah, it’s a closed cave. He ain’t in here.”

“Hm? Look at this, then. Bloodstains on this rock, right? He’s been here, at least.”

“Under water?” Rifle butts probed but could not sound the inlet.

The woman’s voice. “If he is hiding down below he’ll have to come up for air.”

“When? We gotta search this whole damn beach. Here, I’ll just give the water a burst.”

Casimir, sharply—”Don’t be a fool. You won’t even know if you hit him. Nobody can hold his breath more than three minutes.”

“Yeah, that’s right, Joe. How long we been in here?”

“One minute, I guess. Give him a couple more. Cripes! D’ja see how he ran? He ain’t human!”

“He’s killable, though. Me, I think he’s just rolling around in the surf out there. This could be fish blood. A ‘cuda chased another fish in here and bit it.”

Casimir: “Or if his body drifted in, it’s safely under. Got a cigarette?”

“Here y’are, Miss. But say, I never thought to ask. How come you come with us?”

Casimir: “I’m as good a shot as you are, buster, and I want to be sure this job’s done right.”

Pause.

Casimir: “Almost five minutes. If he can come up now he’s a seal. Especially with his body oxygen-starved after all that running.”

In the slowness of Dalgetty’s brain there was a chill wonder about the woman. He had read her thought, she was FBI, but she seemed strangely eager to hunt him down.

“Okay, le’s get outta here.”

Casimir: “You go on. I’ll wait here just in case and come up to the house pretty soon. I’m tired of following you around.”

“Okay. Le’s go, Joe.”

It was another four minutes or so before the pain and tension in his lungs became unendurable. Dalgetty knew he would be helpless as he rose, still in his semi-hibernating state, but his body was shrieking for air. Slowly he broke the surface.

The woman gasped. Then the automatic jumped into her hand and leveled between his eyes. “All right, friend. Come on out.” Her voice was very low and shook a trifle but there was grimness in it.

Dalgetty climbed onto the ledge beside her and sat with his legs dangling, hunched in the misery of returning strength. When full wakefulness was achieved he looked at her and found she had moved to the farther end of the cave.

“Don’t try to jump,” she said. Her eyes caught the vague light in a wide glimmer, half frightened. “I don’t know what to make of you.”

Dalgetty drew a long breath and sat upright, bracing himself on the cold slippery stone. “I know who you are,” he said.

“Who, then?” she challenged.

“You’re an FBI agent planted on Bancroft.”

Her gaze narrowed, her lips compressed. “What makes you think so?”

“Never mind—you are. That gives me a certain hold on you, whatever your purposes.”

The blond head nodded. “I wondered about that. That remark you made to me down in the cell suggested—well, I couldn’t take chances. Especially when you showed you were something extraordinary by snapping those straps and bursting the door open. I came along with the search party in hope of finding you.”

He had to admire the quick mind behind the wide smooth brow. “You damn near did—for them,” he accused her.

“I couldn’t do anything suspicious,” she answered. “But I figured you hadn’t leaped off the cliff in sheer desperation. You must have had some hiding place in mind and under water seemed the most probable. In view of what you’d already done I was pretty sure you could hold your breath abnormally long.” Her smile was a little shaky. “Though I didn’t think it would be inhumanly long.”

“You’ve got brains,” he said, “but how much heart?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, are you going to throw Dr. Tighe and me to the wolves now? Or will you help us?”

“That depends,” she answered slowly. “What are you here for?”

His mouth twisted ruefully. “I’m not here on purpose at all,” Dalgetty confessed. “I was just trying to get a clue to Dr. Tighe’s whereabouts. They outsmarted me and brought me here. Now I have to rescue him.” His eyes held hers. “Kidnapping is a Federal offense. It’s your duty to help me.”

“I may have higher duties,” she countered. Leaning forward, tautly, “But how do you expect to do this?”

“I’m damned if I know.” Dalgetty locked moodily out at the beach and the waves and the smoking spindrift. “But that gun of yours would be a big help.”

She stood for a moment, scowling with thought. “If I don’t come back soon they’ll be out hunting for me.”

“We’ve got to find another hiding place,” he agreed. “Then they will assume I survived after all and grabbed you. They’ll be scouring the whole island for us. If we haven’t been located before dark they’ll be spread thin enough to give us a chance.”

“It makes more sense for me to go back now,” she said. “Then I can be on the inside to help you.”

He shook his head. “Uh-uh. Quit making like a stereoshow detective. If you leave me your gun, claiming you lost it, that’s sure to bring suspicion on you the way they’re excited right now. If you don’t I’ll still be on the outside and unarmed—and what could you do, one woman alone in that nest? Now we’re two with a shooting iron between us. I think that’s a better bet.”

After a while, she nodded. “Okay, you win. Assuming”—the half-lowered gun was raised again with a jerking motion—”that I will aid you. Who are you? What are you, Dalgetty?”

He shrugged. “Let’s say I’m Dr. Tighe’s assistant and have some unusual powers. You know the Institute well enough to realize this isn’t just a feud between two gangster groups.”

“I wonder….” Suddenly she clanked the automatic back into its holster. “All right. For the time being only though!”

Relief was a wave rushing through him. “Thank you,” he whispered. Then, “Where can we go?”

“I’ve been swimming around here in the quieter spots,” she said. “I know a place. Wait here.”

She stepped across the cave and peered out its mouth. Someone must have hailed her, for she waved back. She stood leaning against the rock and Dalgetty saw how the sea-spray gleamed in her hair. After a long five minutes she turned to him again.

“All right,” she said. “The last one just went up the path. Let’s go.” They walked along the beach. It trembled underfoot with the rage of the sea. There was a grinding under the snort and roar of surf as if the world’s teeth ate rock.

The beach curved inward, forming a small bay sheltered by outlying skerries. A narrow path ran upward from it but it was toward the sea that the woman gestured. “Out there,” she said. “Follow me.” She took off her shoes as he had done and checked her holster: the gun was waterproof, but it wouldn’t do to have it fall out. She waded into the sea and struck out with a powerful crawl.

VI

They climbed up on one of the hogback rocks some ten yards from shore. This one rose a good dozen feet above the surface. It was cleft in the middle, forming a little hollow hidden from land and water alike. They crawled into this and sat down, breathing hard. The sea was loud at their backs and the air felt cold on their wet skins.

Dalgetty leaned back against the smooth stone, looking at the woman, who was unemotionally counting how many clips she had in her pouch. The thin drenched tunic and slacks showed a very nice figure. “What’s your name?” he asked.

“Casimir,” she answered, without looking up.

“First name, I mean. Mine is Simon.”

“Elena, if you must know. Four packs, a hundred rounds plus ten in the chamber now. If we have to shoot them all, we’d better be good. These aren’t magnums, so you have to hit a man just right to put him out of action.”

“Well,” shrugged Dalgetty, “we’ll just have to lumber along as best we can. I oak we don’t make ashes of ourselves.”

“Oh, no!” He couldn’t tell whether it was appreciation or dismay. “At a time like this too.”

“It doesn’t make me very popular,” he agreed. “Everybody says to elm with me. But, as they say in France, ve are alo-o-one now, mon cherry, and tree’s a crowd.”

“Don’t get ideas,” she snapped.

“Oh, I’ll get plenty of ideas, though I admit this isn’t the place to carry them out.” Dalgetty folded his arms behind his head and blinked up at the sky. “Man, could I use a nice tall mint julep right now.”

Elena frowned. “If you’re trying to convince me you’re just a simple American boy you might as well quit,” she said thinly. “That sort of—of emotional control, in a situation like this, only makes you less human.”

Dalgetty swore at himself. She was too damn quick, that was all. And her intelligence might be enough for her to learn….

Will I have to kill her?

He drove the thought from him. He could overcome his own conditioning about anything, including murder, if he wanted to, but he’d never want to. No, that was out. “How did you get here?” he asked. “How much does the FBI know?”

“Why should I tell you?”

“Well, it’d be nice to know if we can expect reinforcements.”

“We can’t.” Her voice was bleak. “I might as well let you know. The Institute could find out anyway through its government connections—the damned octopus!” he looked into the sky. Dalgetty’s gaze followed the curve of her high cheekbones. Unusual face—you didn’t often see such an oddly pleasing arrangement. The slight departure from symmetry….

“We’ve wondered about Bertrand Meade for some time, as every thinking person has,” she began tonelessly. “It’s too bad there are so few thinking people in the country.”

“Something the Institute is trying to correct,” Dalgetty put in.

Elena ignored him. “It was finally decided to work agents into his various organizations. I’ve been with Thomas Bancroft for about two years now. My background was carefully faked and I’m a useful assistant. But even so it was only a short while back that I got sufficiently into his confidence to be given some inkling of what’s going on. As far as I know no other FBI operative has learned as much.”

“And what have you found out?”

“Essentially the same things you were describing in the cell, plus more details on the actual work they’re doing. Apparently the Institute was onto Meade’s plans long before we were. It doesn’t speak well for your purposes, whatever they are, that you haven’t asked us for help before this.

“The decision to kidnap Dr. Tighe was taken only a couple of weeks ago. I haven’t had a chance to communicate with my associates in the force. There’s always someone around, watching. The set-up’s well arranged, so that even those not under suspicion don’t have much chance to work unobserved, once they’ve gotten high enough to know anything important. Everybody spies on everybody else and submits periodic reports.”

She gave him a harsh look. “So here I am. No official person knows my whereabouts and if I should disappear it would be called a deplorable accident. Nothing could be proved and I doubt if the FBI would ever get another chance to do any effective spying.”

“But you have proof enough for a raid,” he ventured.

“No, we haven’t. Up till the time I was told Dr. Tighe was going to be snatched I didn’t know for certain that anything illegal was going on. There’s nothing in the law against like-minded people knowing each other and having a sort of club. Even if they hire tough characters and arm them the law can’t protest. The Act of Nineteen Ninety-nine effectively forbids private armies but it would be hard to prove Meade has one.”

“He doesn’t really,” said Dalgetty. “Those goons aren’t much more than what they claim to be—bodyguards. This whole fight is primarily on a—a mental level.”

“So I gather. And can a free country forbid debate or propaganda? Not to mention that Meade’s people include some powerful men in the government itself. If I could get away from here alive we’d be able to hang a kidnapping charge on Thomas Bancroft, with assorted charges of threat, mayhem and conspiracy, but it wouldn’t touch the main group.” Her fists clenched. “It’s like fighting shadows.”


“You war against the sunset-glow. The judgment follows fast my lord!” quoted Dalgetty. Heriots’ Ford was one of the few poems he liked. “Getting Bancroft out of the way would be something,” he added. “The way to fight Meade is not to attack him physically but to change the conditions under which he must work.”

“Change them to what?” Her eyes challenged his. He noticed that there were small gold flecks in the gray. “What does the Institute want?”

“A sane world,” he replied.

“I’ve wondered,” she said. “Maybe Bancroft is more nearly right than you. Maybe I should be on his side after all.”

“I take it you favor libertarian government,” he said. “In the past it’s always broken down sooner or later and the main reason has been that there aren’t enough people with the intelligence, alertness and toughness to resist the inevitable encroachments of power on liberty.

“The Institute is trying to do two things—create such a citizenry and simultaneously to build up a society which itself produces men of that kind and reinforces those traits in them. It can be done, given time. Under ideal conditions we estimate it would take about three hundred years for the whole world. Actually it’ll take longer.”

“But just what kind of person is needed?” Elena asked coldly. “Who decides it? You do. You’re just the same as all other reformers, including Meade—hell bent to change the whole human race over to your particular ideal, whether they like it or not.”

“Oh, they’ll like it,” he smiled. “That’s part of the process.”

“It’s a worse tyranny than whips and barbed wire,” she snapped.

“You’ve never experienced those then.”

“You have got that knowledge,” she accused. “You have the data and the equations to be—sociological engineers.”

“In theory,” he said. “In practice it isn’t that easy. The social forces are so great that—well, we could be overwhelmed before accomplishing anything. And there are plenty of things we still don’t know. It will take decades, perhaps centuries, to work out a complete dynamics of man. We’re one step beyond the politician’s rule of thumb but not up to the point where we can use slide rules. We have to feel our way.”

“Nevertheless,” she said, “you’ve got the beginnings of a knowledge which reveals the true structure of society and the processes that make it. Given that knowledge man could in time build his own world-order the way he desired it, a stable culture that wouldn’t know the horrors of oppression or collapse. But you’ve hidden away the very fact that such information exists. You’re using it in secret.”

“Because we have to,” Dalgetty said. “If it were generally known that we’re putting pressure on here and there and giving advice slanted just the way we desire, the whole thing would blow up in our faces. People don’t like being shoved around.”

“And still you’re doing it!” One hand dropped to her gun. “You, a clique of maybe a hundred men….”

“More than that. You’d be surprised how many are with us.”

“You’ve decided you are the almighty arbiters. Your superior wisdom is going to lead poor blind mankind up the road to heaven. I say it’s down the road to hell! The last century saw the dictatorship of the elite and the dictatorship of the proletariat. This one seems to be birthing the dictatorship of the intellectuals. I don’t like any of them!”

“Look, Elena.” Dalgetty leaned on one elbow and faced her. “It isn’t that simple. All right, we’ve got some special knowledge. When we first realized we were getting somewhere in our research we had to decide whether to make our results public or merely give out selected less important findings. Don’t you see, no matter what we did it would have been us, the few men, who decided? Even destroying all our information would have been a decision.”

His voice grew more urgent. “So we made what I think was the right choice. History shows as conclusively as our own equations that freedom is not a ‘natural’ condition of man. It’s a metastable state at best, all too likely to collapse into tyranny. The tyranny can be imposed from outside by the better-organized armies of a conqueror, or it can come from within—through the will of the people themselves, surrendering their rights to the father-image, the almighty leader, the absolute state.

“What use does Bertrand Meade want to make of our findings if he can get them? To bring about the end of freedom by working on the people till they themselves desire it. And the damnable part of it is that Meade’s goal is much more easily attained than ours.

“So suppose we made our knowledge public. Suppose we educated anyone who desired it in our techniques. Can’t you see what would happen? Can’t you see the struggle that would be waged for control of the human mind? It could start as innocuously as a businessman planning a more effective advertising campaign. It would end in a welter of propaganda, counter-propaganda, social and economic manipulations, corruption, competition for the key offices—and so, ultimately, there would be violence.

“All the psychodynamic tensors ever written down won’t stop a machine-gun. Violence riding over a society thrown into chaos, enforced peace—and the peace-makers, perhaps with the best will in the world, using the Institute techniques to restore order. Then one step leads to another, power gets more and more centralized and it isn’t long before you have the total state back again. Only this total state could never be overthrown!”

Elena Casimir bit her lip. A stray breeze slid down the rock wall and rumpled her bright hair. After a long while she said, “Maybe you’re right. But America today has, on the whole, a good government. You could let them know.”

“Too risky. Sooner or later someone, probably with very idealistic motives, would force the whole thing into the open. So we’re keeping hidden the very fact that our most important equations exist—which is why we didn’t ask for help when Meade’s detectives finally learned that they know.”

“How do you know your precious Institute won’t become just such an oligarchy as you describe?”

“I don’t,” Simon said, “but it’s improbable. You see, the recruits who are eventually taught everything we know are pretty thoroughly indoctrinated with our own present-day beliefs. And we’ve learned enough individual psych to do some real indoctrinating! They’ll pass it on to the next generation and so on.

“Meanwhile we hope the social structure and the mental climate is being modified in such a way that eventually it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to impose absolute control by any means. For as I said before, even an ultimately developed psychodynamics can’t do everything. Ordinary propaganda, for instance, is quite ineffective on people trained in critical thinking.

“When enough people the world over are sane we can make the knowledge general. Meanwhile we’ve got to keep it under wraps and quietly prevent anyone else from learning the same things independently. Most such prevention, by the way, consists merely of recruiting promising researchers into our own ranks.”

“The world’s too big,” she said very softly. “You can’t foresee all that’ll happen. Too many things could go wrong.”

“Maybe. It’s a chance we’ve got to take.” His own gaze was somber.

They sat for awhile in stillness. Then she said, “It all sounds very pretty. But—what are you, Dalgetty?”

“Simon,” he corrected.

“What are you?” she repeated. “You’ve done things I wouldn’t have believed were possible. Are you human?

“I’m told so.” He smiled.

“Yes? I wonder! How is it possible that you—”

He wagged a finger. “Ah-ah! Right of privacy.” And with swift seriousness, “You know too much already. I have to assume you can keep it secret all your life.”

“That remains to be seen,” Elena said, not looking at him.

VII

Sundown burned across the waters and the island rose like a mountain of night against the darkening sky. Dalgetty stretched cramped muscles and peered over the bay.

In the hours of waiting there had not been much said between him and the woman. He had dropped a few questions, with the careful casualness of the skilled analyst, and gotten the expected reactions. He knew a little more about her—a child of the strangling dying cities and shadowy family life of the 1980’s, forced to armor herself in harshness, finding in the long training for her work and now in the job itself an ideal to substitute for the tenderness she had never known.

He felt pity for her but there was little he could do to help just now. To her own queries he gave guarded replies. It occurred to him briefly that he was, in his way, as lonesome as she. But of course I don’t mind—or do I?

Mostly they tried to plan their next move. For the time, at least, they were of one purpose. She described the layout of house and grounds and indicated the cell where Michael Tighe was ordinarily kept. But there was not much they could do to think out tactics. “If Bancroft gets alarmed enough,” she said, “he’ll have Dr. Tighe flown elsewhere.”

He agreed. “That’s why we’d better hit tonight, before he can get that worried.” The thought was pain within him. Dad, what are they doing to you now?

“There’s also the matter of food and drink.” Her voice was husky with thirst and dull with the discouragement of hunger. “We can’t stay out here like this much longer.” She gave him a strange glance. “Don’t you feel weak?”

“Not now,” he said. He had blocked off the sensations.

“They—Simon!” She grabbed his arm. “A boat—hear?”

The murmur of jets drifted to him through the beating waves. “Yeah. Quick—underneath!”

They scrambled over the hogback and slid down its farther side. The sea clawed at Dalgetty’s feet and foam exploded over his head. He hunched low, throwing one arm about her as she slipped. The airboat murmured overhead, hot gold in the sunset light. Dalgetty crouched, letting the breakers run coldly around him. The ledge where they clung was worn smooth, offered little to hold onto.

The boat circled, its jets thunderous at low speed. They’re worried about her now. They must be sure I’m still alive.

White water roared above his head. He breathed a hasty gasp of air before the next comber hit him. Their bodies were wholly submerged, their faces shouldn’t show in that haze of foam—but the jet was soaring down and there would be machine-guns on it.

Dalgetty’s belly muscles stiffened, waiting for the tracers to burn through him.

Elena’s body slipped from his grasp and went under. He hung there, not daring to follow. A stolen glance upward—yes, the jet was out of sight again, moving back toward the field. He dove off the ledge and struck into the waves. The girl’s head rose over them as he neared. She twisted from him and made her own way back to the rock. But when they were in the hollow again her teeth rattled with chill and she pressed against him for warmth.

“Okay,” he said shakily. “Okay, we’re all right now. You are hereby entitled to join our Pacific wet-erans’ club.”

Her laugh was small under the boom of breakers and hiss of scud. “You’re trying hard, aren’t you?”

“I—oh, oh! Get down!”

Peering over the edge Dalgetty saw the men descending the path. There were half a dozen, armed and wary. One had a WT radio unit on his back. In the shadow of the cliff they were almost invisible as they began prowling the beach.

“Still hunting us!” Her voice was a groan.

“You didn’t expect otherwise, did you? I’m just hoping they don’t come out here. Does anybody else know of this spot?” He held his lips close to her ear.

“No, I don’t believe so,” she breathed. “I was the only one who cared to go swimming at this end of the island. But….”

Dalgetty waited, grimly. The sun was down at last, the twilight thickening. A few stars twinkled to life in the east. The goons finished their search and settled in a line along the beach.

“Oh-oh,” muttered Dalgetty. “I get the idea. Bancroft’s had the land beaten for me so thoroughly he’s sure I must be somewhere out to sea. If I were he I’d guess I’d swum far out to be picked up by a waterboat. So—he’s guarding every possible approach against a landing party.”

“What can we do?” whispered Elena. “Even if we can swim around their radius of sight we can’t land just anywhere. Most of the island is vertical cliff. Or can you…?”

“No,” he said. “Regardless of what you may think I don’t have vacuum cups on my feet. But how far does that gun of yours carry?”

She stole a glance over the edge. Night was sweeping in. The island was a wall of blackness and the men at its foot were hidden. “You can’t see!” she protested.

He squeezed her shoulder. “Oh yes I can, honey. But whether I’m a good enough shot to…. We’ll have to try it, that’s all.”

Her face was a white blur and fear of the unknown put metal in her voice. “Part seal, part cat, part deer, part what else? I don’t think you’re human, Simon Dalgetty.”

He didn’t answer. The abnormal voluntary dilation of pupils hurt his eyes.

“What else has Dr. Tighe done?” Her tone was chill in the dark. “You can’t study the human mind without studying the body too. What’s he done? Are you the mutant they’re always speculating about? Did Dr. Tighe create or find homo superior?”

“If I don’t plug that radio com-set before they can use it,” he said, “I’ll be homo-genized.”

“You can’t laugh it off,” she said through taut lips. “If you aren’t of our species I have to assume you’re our enemy—till you prove otherwise!” Her fingers closed hard on his arm. “Is that what your little gang at the Institute is doing? Have they decided that mere humanity isn’t good enough to be civilized? Are they preparing the way for your kind to take over?”

“Listen,” he said wearily. “Right now we’re two people, very mortal indeed, being hunted. So shut up!”

He took the pistol from her holster and slipped a full clip into its magazine. His vision was at high sensitivity now, her face showed white against the wet rock with gray highlights along its strong cheekbones beneath the wide frightened eyes. Beyond the reefs the sea was gunmetal under the stars, streaked with foam and shadow.

Ahead of him, as he rose to his feet, the line of guards stood out as paler darknesses against the vertiginous island face. They had mounted a heavy machine-gun to point seaward and a self-powered spotlight, not turned on, rested nearby. Those two things could be dangerous but first he had to find the radio set that could call the whole garrison down on them.

There! It was a small hump on the back of one man, near the middle of the beach. He was pacing restlessly up and down with a tommy-gun in his hands. Dalgetty raised the pistol with slow hard-held concentration, wishing it were a rifle. Remember your target practice now, arm loose, fingers extended, don’t pull the trigger but squeeze—because you’ve got to be right the first time!

He shot. The weapon was a military model, semi-noiseless and with no betraying streak of light. The first bullet spun the goon on his heels and sent him lurching across sand and rock. Dalgetty worked the trigger, spraying around his victim, a storm of lead that mustruin the sender.

Chaos on the beach! If that spotlight went on with his eyes at their present sensitivity, he’d be blind for hours. He fired carefully, smashing lens and bulb. The machine-gun opened up, stuttering, wildly into the dark. If someone elsewhere on the island heard that noise—Dalgetty shot again, dropping the gunner over his weapon.

Bullets spanged around him, probing the darkness. One down, two down, three down. A fourth was running along the upward path. Dalgetty fired and missed, fired and missed, fired and missed. He was getting out of range, carrying the alarm—there! He fell slowly, like a jointed doll, rolling down the trail. The two others were dashing for the shelter of a cave, offering no chance to nail them.

Dalgetty scrambled over the rock, splashed into the bay and struck out for the shore. Shots raked the water. He wondered if they could hear his approach through the sea-noise. Soon he’d be close enough for normal night vision. He gave himself wholly to swimming.

His feet touched sand and he waded ashore, the water dragging at him. Crouching, he answered the shots coming from the cave. The shriek and yowl were everywhere around him now. It seemed impossible that they should not hear up above. He tensed his jaws and crawled toward the machine-gun. A cold part of him noticed that the fire was in a random pattern. They couldn’t see him then.

The man lying by the gun was still alive but unconscious. That was enough. Dalgetty crouched over the trigger. He had never handled a weapon like this but it must be ready for action—only minutes ago it had tried to kill him. He sighted on the cave mouth and cut loose.

Recoil made the gun dance till he caught onto the trick of using it. He couldn’t see anyone in the cave but he could bounce lead off its walls. He shot for a full minute before stopping. Then he crawled away at an angle till he reached the cliff. Sliding along this he approached the entrance and waited. No sound came from inside.

He risked a quick glance. Yes, it had done the job. He felt a little sick.

Elena was climbing out of the water when he returned. There was a strangeness in the look she gave him. “All taken care of?” she asked tonelessly.

He nodded, remembered she could hardly see the movement, said aloud, “Yes, I think so. Grab some of this hardware and let’s get moving.”

With his nerves already keyed for night vision it was not difficult to heighten other perceptions and catch her thinking … not human. Why should he mind if he kills human beings when he isn’t one himself?

“But I do mind,” he said gently. “I’ve never killed a man before and I don’t like it.”

She jerked away from him. It had been a mistake, he realized. “Come on,” he said. “Here’s your pistol. Better take a tommy-gun too if you can handle it.”

“Yes,” she said. He had lowered his reception again, her voice fell quiet and hard. “Yes, I can use one.”

On whom? he wondered. He picked up an automatic rifle from one of the sprawled figures. “Let’s go,” he said. Turning, he led the way up the path. His spine prickled with the thought of her at his back, keyed to a pitch of near-hysteria.

“We’re out to rescue Michael Tighe, remember,” he whispered over his shoulder. “I’ve had no military experience and I doubt that you’ve ever done anything like this either, so we’ll probably make every mistake in the books. But we’ve got to get Dr. Tighe.”

She didn’t answer.

At the top of the path Dalgetty went down on his stomach again and slithered up over the crest. Slowly he raised his head to peer in front of him. Nothing moved, nothing stirred. He stooped low as he walked forward.

The thickets fenced off vision a few yards ahead. Beyond them, at the end of the slope, he could glimpse lights. Bancroft’s place must be one glare of radiance. How to get in there without being seen? He drew Elena close to him. For a moment she stiffened at his touch, then she yielded. “Any ideas?” he asked.

“No,” she replied.

“I could play dead,” he began tentatively. “You could claim to have been caught by me, to have gotten your gun back and killed me. They might lose suspicion then and carry me inside.”

“You think you could fake that?” She pulled away from him again.

“Sure. Make a small cut and force it to bleed enough to look like a bullet wound—which doesn’t usually bleed much, anyway. Slow down heartbeat and respiration till their ordinary senses couldn’t detect them. Near-total muscular relaxation, including even those unromantic aspects of death which are so rarely mentioned. Oh yes.”

“Now I know you aren’t human,” she said. There was a shudder in her voice. “Are you a synthetic thing? Did they make you in the laboratory, Dalgetty?”

“I just want your opinion of the idea,” he muttered with a flicker of anger.

It must have taken an effort for Elena to wrench clear of her fear of him. But then she shook her head. “Too risky. If I were one of those fellows, with all you’ve already done to make me wonder about you, the first thing I’d do on finding your supposed corpse would be to put a bullet through its brain—and maybe a stake through its heart. Or can you survive that too?”

“No,” he admitted. “All right, it was just a thought. Let’s work a bit closer to the house.”

They went through brush and grass. It seemed to him that an army would make less noise. Once his straining ears caught a sound of boots and he yanked Elena into the gloom under a palmetto. Two guards tramped by, circling the land on patrol. Their forms loomed huge and black against the stars.

Near the edge of the grounds Dalgetty and Elena crouched in the long stiff grass and looked at the place they must enter. The man had had to lower his visual sensitivity as they approached the light. There were floodlights harsh on dock, airfield, barracks and lawn, with parties of guards moving around each section. Light showed in only one window of the house, on the second story. Bancroft must be there, pacing and peering out into the night where his enemy stirred. Had he called by radio for reinforcements?

At least no airboat had arrived or left. Dalgetty knew he would have seen one in the sky. Dr. Tighe was here yet—if he lived.

Decision grew in the man. There was a wild chance. “Are you much of an actress, Elena?” he whispered.

“After two years as a spy I’d better be.” Her face bore a hint of puzzlement under the tension as she looked at him. He could guess her thought—For a superman, he asks some simple-minded questions. But then what is he? Or is he only dissembling?

He explained his idea. She scowled. “I know it’s crazy,” he told her, “but have you anything better to offer?”

“No. If you can handle your part….”

“And you yours.” He gave her a bleak look, but there was an appeal in it. Suddenly his half-glimpsed face looked strangely young and helpless. “I’ll be putting my life in your hands. If you don’t trust me you can shoot. But you’ll be killing a lot more than me.”

“Tell me what you are,” she said. “How can I know what the ends of the Institute are when they’re using such means as you? Mutant or android or”—she caught her breath—”or actually a creature from outer space, the stars. Simon Dalgetty, what are you?”

“If I answered that,” he said with desolation in his voice, “I’d probably be lying anyway. You’ve got to trust me this far.”

She sighed. “All right.” He didn’t know if she was lying too.

He laid the rifle down and folded his hands on top of his head. She walked behind him, down the slope toward the light, her submachine-gun at his back.

As he walked he was building up a strength and speed no human ought to possess.

One of the sentries pacing through the garden came to a halt. His rifle swung up, and the voice was a hysterical yammer: “Who goes?”

“It’s me, Buck,” cried Elena. “Don’t get trigger-happy. I’m bringing in the prisoner.”

“Huh?”

Dalgetty shuffled into the light and stood slumped, letting his jaw hang slack as if he were near falling with weariness.

“You got him!” The goon sprang forward.

“Don’t holler,” said Elena. “I got this one, all right, but there are others. You keep on your beat. I got his weapons from him. He’s harmless now. Is Mr. Bancroft in the house?”

“Yeah, yeah—sure.” The heavy face peered at Dalgetty with more than a tinge of fear. “But lemme go along. Yuh know what he done last time.”

“Stay on your post!” she snapped. “You’ve got your orders. I can handle him.”

VIII

It might not have worked on most men but these goons were not very bright. The guard nodded, gulped and resumed his pacing. Dalgetty walked on up the path toward the house.

A man at the door lifted his rifle. “Halt, there! I’ll have to call Mr. Bancroft first.” The sentry went inside and thumbed an intercom switch.

Dalgetty, poised in a nervous tautness that could explode into physical strength, felt a clutch of fear. The whole thing was so fiendishly uncertain—anything could happen.

Bancroft’s voice drifted out. “That you, Elena? Good work, girl! How’d you do it?” The warmth in his tone, under the excitement, made Dalgetty wonder briefly just what the relationship between those two had been.

“I’ll tell you upstairs, Tom,” she answered. “This is too big for anyone else to hear. But keep the patrols going. There are more like this creature around the island.”

Dalgetty could imagine the primitive shudder in Thomas Bancroft, instinct from ages when the night was prowling terror about a tiny circle of fire. “All right. If you’re sure he won’t—”

“I’ve got him well covered.”

“I’ll send over half a dozen guards just the same. Hold it.”

The men came running from barracks, where they must have been waiting for a call to arms, and closed in. It was a ring of tight faces and wary eyes and pointing guns. They feared him and the fear made them deadly. Elena’s countenance was wholly blank.

“Let’s go,” she said.

A man walked some feet ahead of the prisoner, casting glances behind him all the time. There was one on either side, the rest were at the rear. Elena walked among them, her weapon never wavering from his back. They went down the long handsome corridor and stood on the purring escalator. Dalgetty’s eyes roved with a yearning in them—how much longer, he wondered, would he be able to see anything at all?

The door to Bancroft’s study was ajar and Tighe’s voice drifted out. It was a quiet drawl, unshaken despite the blow it must have been to hear of Dalgetty’s recapture. Apparently he was continuing a conversation begun earlier:

“… science goes back a long way, actually. Francis Bacon speculated about a genuine science of man. Poole did some work along those lines as well as inventing the symbolic logic which was to be such a major tool in solving the problem.

“In the last century a number of lines of attack were developed. There was already the psychology of Freud and his successors, of course, which gave the first real notion of human semantics. There were the biological, chemical and physical approaches to man as a mechanism. Comparative historians like Spengler, Pareto and Toynbee realized that history did not merely happen but had some kind of pattern.

“Cybernetics developed such concepts as homeostasis and feedback, concepts which were applicable to individual man and to society as a whole. Games theory, the principle of least effort and Haeml’s generalized epistemology pointed toward basic laws and the analytical approach.

“The new symbologies in logic and mathematics suggested formulations—for the problem was no longer one of gathering data so much as of finding a rigorous symbolism to handle them and indicate new data. A great deal of the Institute’s work has lain simply in collecting and synthesizing all these earlier findings.”

Dalgetty felt a rush of admiration. Trapped and helpless among enemies made ruthless by ambition and fear, Michael Tighe could still play with them. He must have been stalling for hours, staving off drugs and torture by revealing first one thing and then another—but subtly, so that his captors probably didn’t realize he was only telling them what they could find in any library.


The party entered a large room, furnished with wealth and taste, lined with bookshelves. Dalgetty noticed an intricate Chinese chess set on the desk. So Bancroft or Meade played chess—that was something they had in common, at least, on this night of murder.

Tighe looked up from the armchair. A couple of guards stood behind him, their arms folded, but he ignored them. “Hello, son,” he murmured. There was pain in his eyes. “Are you all right?”

Dalgetty nodded mutely. There was no way to signal the Englishman, no way to let him hope.

Bancroft stepped over to the door and locked it. He gestured at the guards, who spread themselves around the walls, their guns aimed inward. He was shaking ever so faintly and his eyes glittered as with fever. “Sit down,” he said. “There!

Dalgetty took the indicated armchair. It was deep and soft. It would be hard to spring out of quickly. Elena took a seat opposite him, poised on its edge, the tommy-gun in her lap. It was suddenly very still in the room.

Bancroft went over to the desk and fumbled with a humidor. He didn’t look up. “So you caught him,” he said.

“Yes,” replied Elena. “After he caught me first.”

“How did you—turn the tables?” Bancroft took out a cigar and bit the end off savagely. “What happened?”

“I was in a cave, resting,” she said tonelessly. “He rose out of the water and grabbed me. He’d been hiding underneath longer than anybody would have thought possible. He forced me out to a rock in the bay there—you know it? We hid till sundown, when he opened up on your men on that beach. He killed them all.

“I’d been tied but I’d managed to rub the strips loose. It was just a piece off his shirt he tied me with. While he was shooting I grabbed a stone and clipped him behind the ear. I dragged him to shore while he was still out, took one of the guns lying there and marched him here.”

“Good work.” Bancroft inhaled raggedly. “I’ll see that you get a proper bonus for this, Elena. But what else? You said….”

“Yes.” Her gaze was steady on him. “We talked, out there in the bay. He wanted to convince me I should help him. Tom—he isn’t human.”

“Eh?” Bancroft’s heavy form jerked. With an effort he steadied himself. “What do you mean?”

“That muscular strength and speed, and telepathy. He can see in the dark and hold his breath longer than any man. No, he isn’t human.”

Bancroft looked at Dalgetty’s motionless form. The prisoner’s eyes clashed with his and it was he who looked away again. “A telepath, did you say?”

“Yes,” she answered. “Do you want to prove it, Dalgetty?”

There was stillness in the room. After a moment Dalgetty spoke. “You were thinking, Bancroft, ‘All right, damn you, can you read my mind? Go ahead and try it and you’ll know what I’m thinking about you.’ The rest was obscenities.”

“A guess,” said Bancroft. There was sweat on his cheeks. “Just a good guess. Try again.”

Another pause, then, “‘Ten, nine, seven, A, B, M, Z, Z …’ Shall I keep on?” Dalgetty asked quietly.

“No,” muttered Bancroft. “No, that’s enough. What are you?”

“He told me,” put in Elena. “You’re going to have trouble believing it. I’m not sure if I believe it myself. But he’s from another star.”

Bancroft opened his lips and shut them again. The massive head shook in denial.

“He is—from Tau Ceti,” said Elena. “They’re way beyond us. It’s the thing people have been speculating about for the last hundred years.”

“Longer, my girl,” said Tighe. There was no emotion in his face or voice save a dry humor, but Dalgetty knew what a flame must suddenly be leaping up inside him. “Read Voltaire’s Micromegas.”

“I’ve read such fiction,” said Bancroft harshly. “Who hasn’t? All right, why are they here, what do they want?”

“You could say,” spoke Dalgetty, “that we favor the Institute.”

“But you’ve been raised from childhood….”

“Oh yes. My people have been on Earth a long time. Many of them are born here. Our first spaceship arrived in Nineteen Sixty-five.” He leaned forward in the chair. “I expected Casimir to be reasonable and help me rescue Dr. Tighe. Since she hasn’t done so I must appeal to your own common sense. We have crews on Earth. We know where all our people are at any given time. If necessary I can die to preserve the secret of our presence but in that case you will die too, Bancroft. The island will be bombed.”

“I….” The chief looked out the window into the enormity of night. “You can’t expect me to—to accept this as if….”

“I’ve some things to tell you which may change your mind,” said Dalgetty. “They will certainly prove my story. Send your men out though. This is only for your ears.”

“And have you jump me!” snapped Bancroft.

“Casimir can stay,” said Dalgetty, “and anyone else you are absolutely certain can keep a secret and control his own greed.”

Bancroft paced once around the room. His eyes flickered back and forth over the watching men. Frightened faces, bewildered faces, ambitious faces—it was a hard decision and Dalgetty knew grimly that his life rested on his and Elena’s estimate of Thomas Bancroft’s character.

“All right! Humphrey, Zimmermann, O’Brien, stay in here. If that bird moves shoot him. The rest of you wait just outside.” They filed out. The door closed behind them. The three guards left posted themselves with smooth efficiency, one at the window and one at either adjoining wall. There was a long quiet.

Elena had to improvise the scheme and think it at Dalgetty. He nodded. Bancroft planted himself before the chair, legs spread wide as if braced for a blow, fists on hips.

“All right,” he said. “What do you want to tell me?”

“You’ve caught me,” said Dalgetty, “so I’m prepared to bargain for my life and Dr. Tighe’s freedom. Let me show you—” He made a move as if to rise.

“Stay where you are!” snapped Bancroft, and three guns swiveled around to point at the prisoner. Elena backed away until she stood beside the one near the desk.

“As you will.” Dalgetty leaned back again, casually shoving his chair a couple of feet. He was now facing the window and, as far as he could tell, sitting exactly on a line between the man there and the man at the farther wall. “The Union of Tau Ceti is interested in seeing that the right kind of civilizations develop on other planets. You could be of value to us, Thomas Bancroft, if you can be persuaded to our side, and the rewards are considerable.” His glance went for a moment to the girl and she nodded imperceptibly. “For example….”

The power rushed up in him. Elena clubbed her gun butt and struck the man next to her behind the ear. In the fractional second before the others could understand and react Dalgetty was moving.

The impetus which launched him from the chair sent that heavy padded piece of furniture sliding across the floor to hit the man behind him with a muffled thud. His left fist took Bancroft on the jaw as he went by. The guard at the window had no time to swing his gun back from Elena and squeeze trigger before Dalgetty’s hand was on his throat. His neck snapped.

Elena stood over her victim even as he toppled and aimed at the man across the room. The armchair had knocked his rifle aside. “Drop that or I shoot,” she said.

Dalgetty snatched up a gun for himself, leveling it at the door. He more than half expected those outside to come rushing in, expected hell would explode. But the thick oak panels must have choked off sound.

Slowly, the man behind the chair let his rifle fall to the floor. His mouth was stretched wide with supernatural fear.

“My God!” Dr. Tighe’s long form was erect, shaking, his calm broken into horror. “Simon, the risk….”

“We didn’t have anything to lose, did we?” Dalgetty’s voice was thick but the abnormal energy was receding from him. He felt a surge of weariness and knew that soon the payment must be made for the way he had abused his body. He looked down at the corpse before him. “I didn’t mean to do that,” he whispered.

Tighe collected himself with an effort of disciplined will and stepped over to Bancroft. “He’s alive, at least,” he said. “Oh my God, Simon! You could have been killed so easily.”

“I may yet. We aren’t out of the woods by any means. Find something to tie these two others up with, will you, Dad?”

The Englishman nodded. Elena’s slugged guard was stirring and groaning. Tighe bound and gagged him with strips torn from his tunic. Under the submachine-gun the other submitted meekly enough. Dalgetty rolled them behind a sofa with the one he had slain.

Bancroft was wakening too. Dalgetty located a flask of bourbon and gave it to him. Clearing eyes looked up with the same terror. “Now what?” mumbled Bancroft. “You can’t get away—”

“We can damn well try. If it had come to fighting with the rest of your gang we’d have used you as a hostage but now there’s a neater way. On your feet! Here, straighten your tunic, comb your hair. Okay, you’ll do just as you’re told, because if anything goes wrong we’ll have nothing at all to lose by shooting you.” Dalgetty rapped out his orders.


Bancroft looked at Elena and there was more than physical hurt in his eyes. “Why did you do it?”

“FBI,” she said.

He shook his head, still stunned, and shuffled over to the desk visiphone and called the hangar. “I’ve got to get to the mainland in a hurry. Have the speedster ready in ten minutes. No, just the regular pilot, nobody else. I’ll have Dalgetty with me but it’s okay. He’s on our side now.”

They went out the door. Elena cradled her tommy-gun under one arm. “You can go back to the barracks, boys,” said Bancroft wearily to the men outside. “It’s all been settled.”

A quarter hour later Bancroft’s private jet was in the air. Five minutes after that he and the pilot were bound and locked in a rear compartment. Michael Tighe took the controls. “This boat has legs,” he said. “Nothing can catch us between here and California.”

“All right.” Dalgetty’s tones were flat with exhaustion. “I’m going back to rest, Dad.” Briefly his hand rested on the older man’s shoulder. “It’s good to have you back,” he said.

“Thank you, son,” said Michael Tighe. “I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to be free again.”

IX

Dalgetty found a reclining seat and eased himself into it. One by one he began releasing the controls over himself—sensitivities, nerve blocs, glandular stimulation. Fatigue and pain mounted within him. He looked out at the stars and listened to the dark whistle of air with merely human senses.

Elena Casimir came to sit beside him and he realized that his job wasn’t done. He studied the strong lines of her face. She could be a hard foe but just as stubborn a friend.

“What do you have in mind for Bancroft?” he asked.

“Kidnapping charges for him and that whole gang,” she said. “He won’t wriggle out of it, I can guarantee you.” Her eyes rested on him, unsure, a little frightened. “Federal prison psychiatrists have Institute training,” she murmured. “You’ll see that his personality is reshaped your way, won’t you?”

“As far as possible,” Simon said. “Though it doesn’t matter much. Bancroft is finished as a factor to be reckoned with. There’s still Bertrand Meade himself, of course. Even if Bancroft made a full confession I doubt that we could touch him. But the Institute has now learned to take precautions against extra-legal methods—and within the framework of the law we can give him cards and spades and still defeat him.”

“With some help from my department,” Elena said. There was a touch of steel in her voice. “But the whole story of this rescue will have to be played down. It wouldn’t do to have too many ideas floating around in the public mind, would it?”

“That’s right,” he admitted. His head felt heavy, he wanted to rest it on her shoulder and sleep for a century. “It’s up to you really. If you submit the right kind of report to your superiors it can all be worked out. Everything else will just be detail. But otherwise you’ll ruin everything.”

“I don’t know.” She looked at him for a long while. “I don’t know if I should or not. You may be correct about the Institute and the justice of its aims and methods. But how can I be sure, when I don’t know what’s behind it? How do I know there wasn’t more truth than fiction in that Tau Ceti story, that you aren’t really the agent of some non-human power quietly taking over all our race?”

At another time Dalgetty might have argued, tried to veil it from her, tried to trick her once again. But now he was too weary. There was a great surrender in him. “I’ll tell you if you wish,” he said, “and after that it’s in your hands. You can make us or break us.”

“Go on then.” Her tone withdrew into wariness.

“I’m human,” he said. “I’m as human as you are. Only I’ve had rather special training, that’s all. It’s another discovery of the Institute for which we don’t feel the world is ready. It’d be too big a temptation for too many people, to create followers like me.” He looked away, into the windy dark. “The scientist is also a member of society and has a responsibility toward it. This—restraint—of ours is one way in which we meet that obligation.”

She didn’t speak, but suddenly one hand reached over and rested on his. The impulsive gesture brought warmth flooding through him.

“Dad’s work was mostly in mass-action psych,” he said, making his tone try to cover what he felt, “but he has plenty of associates trying to understand the individual human being as a functioning mechanism. A lot’s been learned since Freud, both from the psychiatric and the neurological angle. Ultimately, those two are interchangeable.

“Some thirty years ago one of the teams which founded the Institute learned enough about the relationship between the conscious, subconscious and involuntary minds to begin practical tests. Along with a few others I was a guinea pig. And their theories worked.

“I needn’t go into the details of my training. It involved physical exercises, mental practice, some hypnotism, diet and so on. It went considerably beyond the important Synthesis education which is the most advanced thing known to the general public. But its aim—only partially realized as yet—its aim was simply to produce the completely integrated human being.”

Dalgetty paused. The wind flowed and muttered beyond the wall.

“There is no sharp division between conscious and subconscious or even between those and the centers controlling involuntary functions,” he said. “The brain is a continuous structure. Suppose, for instance, that you become aware of a runaway car bearing down on you.

“Your heartbeat speeds up, your adrenalin output increases, your sight sharpens, your sensitivity to pain drops—it’s all preparation for fight or flight. Even without obvious physical necessity the same thing can happen on a lesser scale—for example when you read an exciting story. And psychotics, especially hysterics, can produce some of the damnedest physiological symptoms you ever saw.”

“I begin to understand,” she whispered.

“Rage or fear brings abnormal strength and fast reaction. But the psychotic can do more than that. He can show physical symptoms like burns, stigmata or—if female—false pregnancy. Sometimes he becomes wholly insensitive in some part of his body via a nerve bloc. Bleeding can start or stop without apparent cause. He can go into a coma or he can stay awake for days without getting sleepy. He can—”

“Read minds?” It was a defiance.

“Not that I know of.” Simon chuckled. “But human sense organs are amazingly good. It only takes three or four quanta to stimulate the visual purple—a little more actually because of absorption by the eyeball itself. There have been hysterics who could hear a watch ticking twenty feet away that the normal person could not hear at one foot. And so on.

“There are excellent reasons why the threshold of perception is relatively high in ordinary people—the stimuli of usual conditions would be blinding and deafening, unendurable, if there weren’t a defense.” He grimaced. “I know!”

“But the telepathy?” Elena persisted.

“It’s been done before,” he said. “Some apparent cases of mindreading in the last century were shown to be due to extremely acute hearing. Most people sub-vocalize their surface thoughts. With a little practice a person who can hear those vibrations can learn to interpret them. That’s all.” He smiled with one side of his mouth. “If you want to hide your thoughts from me just break that habit, Elena.”

She looked at him with an emotion he could not quite recognize. “I see,” she breathed. “And your memory must be perfect too, if you can pull any datum out of the subconscious. And you can—do everything, can’t you?”

“No,” he said. “I’m only a test case. They’ve learned a great deal by observing me but the only thing that makes me unusual is that I have conscious control of certain normally subconscious and involuntary functions. Not all of them by a long shot. And I don’t use that control any more than necessary.

“There are sound biological reasons why man’s mind is so divided and plenty of penalties attached to a case like mine. It’ll take me a couple of months to get back in shape after this bout. I’m due for a good old-fashioned nervous breakdown and while it won’t last long it won’t be much fun while it does last.”

The appeal rose in his eyes as he watched Elena. “All right,” he said. “Now you have the story. What are you going to do about it?”

For the first time she gave him a real smile. “Don’t worry,” she said, “Don’t worry, Simon.”

“Will you come hold my hand while I’m recuperating?” he asked anxiously.

“I’m holding it now, you fool,” Elena answered.

Dalgetty chuckled happily. Then he went to sleep.










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SF35Security by Poul Anderson

The Project Gutenberg EBook of Security, by Poul William Anderson



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Title: Security



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BY POUL ANDERSON

ILLUSTRATED BY EBEL

In a world where Security is all-important, nothing can ever be secure. A mountain-climbing vacation may wind up in deep Space. Or loyalty may prove to be high treason. But it has its rewards.

It had been a tough day at the lab, one of those days when nothing seems able to go right. And, of course, it had been precisely the day Hammond, the Efficiency

inspector, would choose to stick his nose in. Another mark in his little notebook—and enough marks like that meant a derating, and Control had a habit of sending derated labmen to Venus. That wasn’t a criminal punishment, but it amounted to the same thing. Allen Lancaster had no fear of it for himself; the sector chief of a Project was under direct Control jurisdiction rather than Efficiency, and Control was friendly to him. But he’d hate to see young Rogers get it—the boy had been married only a week now.

To top the day off, a report had come to Lancaster’s desk from Sector Seven of the Project. Security had finally cleared it for general transmission to sector chiefs—and it was the complete design of an electronic valve on which some of the best men in Lancaster’s own division, Sector Thirteen, had been sweating for six months. There went half a year’s work down the drain, all for nothing, and Lancaster would have that much less to show at the next Project reckoning.

He had cursed for several minutes straight, drawing the admiring glances of his assistants. It was safe enough for a high-ranking labman to gripe about Security—in fact, it was more or less expected. Scientists had their privileges.

One of these was a private three-room apartment. Another was an extra liquor ration. Tonight, as he came home, Lancaster decided to make a dent in the latter. He’d eaten at the commissary, as usual, but hadn’t stayed to talk. All the way home in the tube, he’d been thinking of that whiskey and soda.

Now it sparkled gently in his glass and he sighed, letting a smile crease his lean homely face. He was a tall man, a little stooped, his clothes—uniform and mufti alike—perpetually rumpled. Solitary by nature, he was still unmarried in spite of the bachelor tax and had only one son. The boy was ten years old now, must be in the Youth Guard; Lancaster wasn’t sure, never having seen him.

It was dark outside his windows, but a glow above the walls across the skyway told of the city pulsing and murmuring beyond. He liked the quiet of his evenings alone and had withstood a good deal of personal and official pressure to serve in various patriotic organizations. “Damn it,” he had explained, “I’m not doing routine work. I’m on a Project, and I need relaxation of my own choosing.”

He selected a tape from his library. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik lilted joyously about him as he found a chair and sat down. Control hadn’t gotten around to making approved lists of music yet, though you’d surely never hear Mozart in a public place. Lancaster got a cigar from the humidor and collapsed his long gaunt body across chair and hassock. Smoke, whiskey, good music—they washed his mind clean of worry and frustration; he drifted off in a mist of unformed dreams. Yes, it wasn’t such a bad world.


The mail-tube went ping! and he opened his eyes, swearing. For a moment he was tempted to let the pneumo-roll lie where it fell, but habit was too strong. He grumbled his way over to the basket and took it out.

The stamp across it jerked his mind to wakefulness. OfiSal, sEkret, fOr adresE OnlE—and a Security seal!

After a moment he swallowed his thumping heart. It couldn’t be serious, not as far as he personally was concerned anyway. If that had been the case, a squad of monitors would have been at the door. Not this message tube…. He broke the seal and unfolded the flimsy with elaborate care. Slowly, he scanned it. Underneath the official letterhead, the words were curt. “Dis iz A matr uv urjensE and iz top sEkret. destrY Dis letr and Du tUb kontAniN it. tUmOrO, 15 jUn, at 2130 ourz, U wil gO tU Du obzurvatOrE, A nIt klub at 5730 viktOrE strEt, and ask Du hedwAtr fOr A mistr Berg. U wil asUm Dat hE iz an Old frend uv yOrz and Dat Dis iz A sOSal EveniN. Du UZUal penaltEz ar invOkt fOr fAlUr tU komplI.”

There was no signature. Lancaster stood for a moment, trying to imagine what this might be. There was a brief chill of sweat on his skin. Then he suppressed his emotions. He had nothing to fear. His record was clean and he wasn’t being arrested.

His mind wandered rebelliously off on something that had occurred to him before. Admittedly the new phonetic orthography was more efficient than the old, if less esthetic; but since little of the earlier literature was being re-issued in modern spelling not too many books had actually been condemned as subversive—only a few works on history, politics, philosophy, and the like, together with some scientific texts restricted for security reasons; but one by one, the great old writings were sent to forgetfulness.

Well, these were critical times. There wasn’t material and energy to spare for irrelevant details. No doubt when complete peace was achieved there would be a renaissance. Meanwhile he, Lancaster, had his Euripides and Goethe and whatever else he liked, or knew where to borrow it.

As for this message, they must want him for something big, maybe something really interesting.

Nevertheless, his evening was ruined.


The Observatory was like most approved recreation spots—large and raucous, selling unrationed food and drink and amusement at uncontrolled prices of which the government took its usual lion’s share. The angle in this place was astronomy. The ceiling was a blue haze a-glitter with slowly wheeling constellations, and the strippers began with make-believe spacesuits. There were some rather good murals on the walls depicting various stages of the conquest of space. Lancaster was amused at one of them. When he’d been here three years ago, the first landing on Ganymede had shown a group of men unfurling a German flag. It had stuck in his mind, because he happened to know that the first expedition there had actually been Russian. That was all right then, seeing that Germany was an ally at the time. But now that Europe was growing increasingly cold to the idea of an American-dominated world, the Ganymedean pioneers were holding a good safe Stars and Stripes.

Oh, well. You had to keep the masses happy. They couldn’t see that their sacrifices and the occasional short wars were necessary to prevent another real smashup like the one seventy-five years ago. Lancaster’s annoyance was directed at the sullen foreign powers and the traitors within his own land. It was because of them that science had to be strait-jacketed by Security regulations.

The headwaiter bowed before him. “I’m looking for a friend,” said Lancaster. “A Mr. Berg.”

“Yes, sir. This way, please.”

Lancaster slouched after him. He’d worn the dress uniform of a Project officer, but he felt that all eyes were on its deplorable sloppiness. The headwaiter conducted him between tables of half-crocked customers—burly black-uniformed Space Guardsmen, army and air officers, richly clad industrialists and union bosses, civilian leaders, their wives and mistresses. The waiters were all Martian slaves, he noticed, their phosphorescent owl-eyes smoldering in the dim blue light.

He was ushered into a curtained booth. There was an auto-dispenser so that those using it need not be interrupted by servants, and an ultrasonic globe on the table was already vibrating to soundproof the region. Lancaster’s gaze went to the man sitting there. In spite of being short, he was broad-shouldered and compact in plain gray evening pajamas. His face was round and freckled, almost cherubic, under a shock of sandy hair, but there were merry little devils in his eyes.


“Good evening, Dr. Lancaster,” he said. “Please sit down. What’ll you have?”

“Thanks, I’ll have Scotch and soda.” Might as well make this expensive, if the government was footing the bill. And if this—Berg—thought him un-American for drinking an imported beverage, what of it? The scientist lowered himself into the seat opposite his host.

“I’m having the same, as a matter of fact,” said Berg mildly. He twirled the dial and slipped a couple of five-dollar coins into the dispenser slot. When the tray was ejected, he sipped his drink appreciatively and looked across the rim of the glass at the other man.

“You’re a high-ranking physicist on the Arizona Project, aren’t you, Dr. Lancaster?” he asked.

That much was safe to admit. Lancaster nodded.

“What is your work, precisely?”

“You know I can’t tell you anything like that.”

“It’s all right. Here are my credentials.” Berg extended a wallet. Lancaster scanned the cards and handed them back.

“Okay, so you’re in Security,” he said. “I still can’t tell you anything, not without proper clearance.”

Berg chuckled amiably. “Good. I’m glad to see you’re discreet. Too many labmen don’t understand the necessity of secrecy, even between different branches of the same organization.” With a sudden whip-like sharpness: “You didn’t tell anyone about this meeting, did you?”

“No, of course not.” Despite himself, Lancaster was rattled. “That is, a friend asked if I’d care to go out with her tonight, but I said I was meeting someone else.”

“That’s right.” Berg relaxed, smiling. “All right, we may as well get down to business. You’re getting quite an honor, Dr. Lancaster. You’ve been tapped for one of the most important jobs in the Solar System.”

“Eh?” Lancaster’s eyes widened behind the contact lenses. “But no one else has informed me—”

“No one of your acquaintance knows of this. Nor shall they. But tell me, you’ve done work on dielectrics, haven’t you?”

“Yes. It’s been a sort of specialty of mine, in fact. I wrote my thesis on the theory of dielectric polarization and since then—no, that’s classified.”

“M-hm.” Berg took another sip of his drink. “And right now you’re just a cog in a computer-development Project. You see, I do know a few things about you. However, we’ve decided—higher up, you know, in fact on the very top level—to take you off it for the time being and put you on this other job, one concerning your specialty. Furthermore, you won’t be part of a great organizational machine, but very much on your own. The fewer who know of this, the better.”

Lancaster wasn’t sure he liked that. Once the job was done—if he were possessed of all information on it—he might be incarcerated or even shot as a Security risk. Things like that had happened. But there wasn’t much he could do about it.

“Have no fears.” Berg seemed to read his thoughts. “Your reward may be a little delayed for Security reasons, but it will come in due time.” He leaned forward, earnestly. “I repeat, this project is top secret. It’s a vital link in something much bigger than you can imagine, and few men below the President even know of it. Therefore, the very fact that you’ve worked on it—that you’ve done any outside work at all—must remain unknown, even to the chiefs of your Project.”

“Good stunt if you can do it,” shrugged Lancaster. “But I’m hot. Security keeps tabs on everything I do.”

“This is how we’ll work it. You have a furlough coming up in two weeks, don’t you—a three months’ furlough? Where were you going?”

“I thought I’d visit the Southwest. Get in some mountain climbing, see the canyons and Indian ruins and—”

“Yes, yes. Very well. You’ll get your ticket as usual and a reservation at the Tycho Hotel in Phoenix. You’ll go there and, on your first evening, retire early. Alone, I need hardly add. We’ll be waiting for you in your room. There’ll be a very carefully prepared duplicate—surgical disguise, plastic fingerprinting tips, fully educated in your habits, tastes, and mannerisms. He’ll stay behind and carry out your vacation while we smuggle you away. A similar exchange will be affected when you return, you’ll be told exactly how your double spent the summer, and you’ll resume your ordinary life.”

“Ummm—well—” It was too sudden. Lancaster had to hedge. “But look—I’ll be supposedly coming back from an outdoor vacation, with a suntan and well rested. Somebody’s going to get suspicious.”

“There’ll be sun lamps where you’re going, my friend. And I think the chance to work independently on something that really interests you will prove every bit as restful to your nerves as a summer’s travel. I know the scientific mentality.” Berg chuckled. “Yes, indeed.”


The exchange went off so smoothly that it was robbed of all melodrama, though Lancaster had an unexpectedly eerie moment when he confronted his double. It was his own face that looked at him, there in the impersonal hotel room, himself framed against blowing curtains and darkness of night. Then Berg gestured him to follow and they went down a cord ladder hanging from the window sill. A car waited in the alley below and slid into easy motion the instant they had gotten inside.

There was a driver and another man in the front seat, both shadows against the moving blur of street lamps and night. Berg and Lancaster sat in the rear, and the secret agent chatted all the way. But he said nothing of informational content.

When the highway had taken them well into the loneliness of the desert, the car turned off it, bumped along a miserable dirt track until it had crossed a ridge, and slowed before a giant transcontinental dieselectric truck. A man emerged from its cab, waving an unhurried arm, and the car swung around to the rear of the van. There was a tailgate lowered, forming a ramp; above it, the huge double doors opened on a cavern of blackness. The car slid up the ramp, and the man outside pushed it in after them and closed the doors. Presently the truck got into motion.

“This is really secret!” whistled Lancaster. He felt awed and helpless.

“Quite so. Security doesn’t like the government’s right hand to know what its left is doing.” Berg smiled, a dim flash of teeth in his shadowy face. Then he was serious. “It’s necessary, Lancaster. You don’t know how strong and well-organized the subversives are.”

“They—” The physicist closed his mouth. It was true—he hadn’t the faintest notion, really. He followed the news, but in a cursory fashion, without troubling to analyze the meaning of it. Damn it all, he had enough else to think about. Just as well that elections had been suspended and bade fair to continue indefinitely in abeyance. If he, a member of the intelligentsia, wasn’t sufficiently acquainted with the political and military facts of life to make rational decisions, it certainly behooved the ill-educated masses to obey.

“We might as well stretch ourselves,” said the driver. “Long way to go yet.” He climbed out and switched on an overhead light.


The interior of the van was roomy, even allowing for the car. There were bunks, a table and chairs, a small refrigerator and cookstove. The driver, a lean saturnine man who seemed to be forever chewing gum, began to prepare coffee. The other sat down, whistling tunelessly. He was young and powerfully built, but his right arm ended in a prosthetic claw. All of them were dressed in inconspicuous civilian garb.

“Take us about ten hours, maybe,” said Berg. “The spaceship’s ‘way over in Colorado.”

He caught Lancaster’s blank stare, and grinned. “Yes, my friend, your lab is out in space. Surprised?”

“Mmm—yeah. I’ve never been off Earth.”

“Sokay. We run at acceleration, you won’t be spacesick.” Berg drew up a chair, sat down, and tilted it back against a wall. The steady rumble of engines pulsed under his words:

“It’s interesting, really, to consider the relationship between government and military technology. The powerful, authoritarian governments have always arisen in such times as the evolution of warfare made a successful fighting machine something elaborate, expensive, and maintainable by professionals only. Like in the Roman Empire. It took years to train a legionnaire and a lot of money to equip an army and keep it in the field. So Rome became autarchic. However, it was not so expensive a proposition that a rebellious general couldn’t put some troops up for a while—or he could pay them with plunder. So you did get civil wars. Later, when the Empire had broken up and warfare relied largely on the individual barbarian who brought his own weapons with him, government loosened. It had to—any ruler who got to throwing his weight around too much would have insurrection on his hands. Then as war again became an art—well, you see how it goes. There are other factors, of course, like religion—ideology in general. But by and large, it’s worked out the way I explained it. Because there are always people willing to fight when government encroaches on what they consider their liberties, and governments are always going to try to encroach. So the balance struck depends on comparative strength. The American colonists back in 1776 relied on citizen levies and weapons were so cheap and simple that almost anyone could obtain them. Therefore government stayed loose for a long time. But nowadays, who except a government can make atomic bombs and space rockets? So we get absolute states.”


Lancaster looked around, feeling the loneliness close in on him. The driver was still clattering the coffee pot. The one-armed man was utterly blank and expressionless. And Berg sat there, smiling, pouring out those damnable cynicisms. Was it some kind of test? Were they probing his loyalty? What kind of reply was expected?

“We’re a democratic nation and you know it,” he said. It came out more feebly than he had thought.

“Oh, well, sure. This is just a state of emergency which has lasted unusually long, seventy-two years to be exact. If we hadn’t lost World War III, and needed a powerful remilitarization to overthrow the Soviet world—but we did.” Berg took out a pack of cigarettes. “Smoke? I was just trying to explain to you why the subversives are so dangerous. They have to be, or they wouldn’t stand any kind of chance. When you set out to upset something as big as the United States government, it’s an all or nothing proposition. They’ve had a long time now to organize, and there’s a huge percentage of malcontents to help them out.”

“Malcontents? Well, look, Berg—I mean, you’re the expert and of course you know your business, but a natural human grumble at conditions doesn’t mean revolutionary sentiments. These aren’t such bad times. People have work, and their needs are supplied. They aren’t hankering to have the Hemispheric Wars back again.”

“The standard revolutionary argument,” said Berg patiently, “is that the rebels aren’t trying to overthrow the nation at all, but simply to restore constitutional and libertarian government. It’s common knowledge that they have help and some subsidies from outside, but it’s contended that these are merely countries tired of a world dominated by an American dictatorship and, being small Latin-American and European states, couldn’t possibly think of conquering us. Surely you’ve seen subversive literature.”

“Well, yes. Can’t help finding their pamphlets. All over the place. And—” Lancaster closed his mouth. No, damned if he was going to admit that he knew three co-workers who listened to rebel propaganda broadcasts. Those were silly, harmless kids—why get them in trouble, maybe get them sent to camp?


“You probably don’t appreciate the hold that kind of argument has on all too many intellectuals—and a lot of the common herd, too,” said Berg. “Naturally you wouldn’t—if your attitude has always been unsympathetic, these people aren’t going to confide their thoughts to you. And then there are bought men, and spies smuggled in, and—oh, I needn’t elaborate. It’s enough to say that we’ve been thoroughly infiltrated, and that most of their agents have absolutely impeccable dossiers. We can’t give neoscop to everybody, you know—Security has to rely on spot checks and the testing of key personnel. Only when organizations get as big as they are today, there’s apt to be no real key man, and a few spies strategically placed in the lower echelons can pick-up a hell of a lot of information. Then there are the colonists out on the planets—our hold on them has always necessarily been loose, because of transportation and communication difficulties if nothing else. And, as I say, foreign powers. A little country like Switzerland or Denmark or Venezuela can’t do much by itself, but an undercover international pooling of resources…. Anyway, we have reason to believe in the existence of a large, well financed, well organized underground, with trained fighting men, big secret weapons dumps, and saboteurs ready for the word ‘go’—to say nothing of a restless population and any number of covert sympathizers who’d follow if the initial uprising had good results.”

“Or bad, depending on whose viewpoint you take,” grinned the one-armed man.

Lancaster put his elbows on his knees and rested his forehead on shaking hands. “What has all this got to do with me?” he protested. “I’m not the hero of some cloak-and-dagger spy story. I’m no good at undercover stuff—what do you want of me?”

“It’s very simple,” Berg replied quietly. “The balance of power is still with the government, because it does have more of the really heavy weapons than any other group can possibly muster. Alphabet bombs, artillery, rockets, armor, spaceships and space missiles. You see? Only research has lately suggested that a new era in warfare is developing—a new weapon as decisive as the Macedonian phalanx, gunpowder, and aircraft were in their day.” As Lancaster raised his eyes, he met an almost febrile glitter in Berg’s gaze. “And thisweapon may reverse the trend. It may be the cheap and simple arm that anyone can make and use—the equalizer! So we’ve got to develop it before the rebels do. They have laboratories of their own, and their skill at stealing our secrets makes it impossible for us to trust the research to a Project in the usual manner. The fewer who knew of this weapon, the better—because in the wrong hands it could mean—Armageddon!”


The run from Earth was short, for the space laboratory wasn’t far away at the moment as interplanetary distances go. Lancaster wasn’t told anything about its orbit, but guessed that it had a path a million miles or so sunward from Earth and highly tilted with respect to the ecliptic. That made for almost perfect concealment, for what spaceship would normally go much north or south of the region containing the planets?

He was too preoccupied during the journey to estimate orbital figures, anyway. He had seen enough pictures of open space, and some of them had been excellent. But the reality towered unbelievably over all representations. There simply is no way of describing that naked grandeur, and when you have once experienced it you don’t want to try. His companions—Berg and the one-armed Jessup, who piloted the spaceboat—respected his need for silence.

The station had been painted non-reflecting black, which complicated temperature control but made accidental observation of its existence almost impossible. It loomed against the cold glory of stars like a pit of ultimate darkness, and Jessup had to guide the boat in with radar. When the last lock had clanged shut behind him and he stood in a narrow metal corridor, shut away from the sky, Lancaster felt a sense of unendurable loss.

It faded, and he grew aware of others watching him. There were half a dozen people, a motley group dressed in any shabby garment they happened to fancy, with no sign of the semi-military discipline of a Project crew. A Martian hovered in the background, and Lancaster didn’t notice him at first. Berg introduced the humans casually. There was a stocky gray-haired man named Friedrichs, a lanky space-tanned young chap called Isaacson, a middle-aged woman and her husband by the name of Dufrere, a quiet Oriental who answered to Hwang, and a red-haired woman presented as Karen Marek. These, Berg explained, were the technicians who would be helping Lancaster. This end of the space station was devoted to the labs and factories; for security reasons, Lancaster couldn’t be permitted to go elsewhere, but it was hoped he would be comfortable here.

“Ummm—pardon me, aren’t you a rather mixed group?” asked the physicist.

“Yes, very,” said Berg cheerfully. “The Dufreres are French, Hwang is Chinese, and Karen here is Norwegian though her husband was Czech. Not to mention…. There you are, I didn’t see you before! Dr. Lancaster, I’d like you to meet Rakkan of Thyle, Mars, a very accomplished labman.”


Lancaster gulped, shifting his feet and looking awkwardly at the small gray-feathered body and the beaked owl-face. Rakkan bowed politely, sparing Lancaster the decision of whether or not to shake the clawlike hand. He assumed Rakkan was somebody’s slave—but since when did slaves act as social equals?

“But you said this project was top secret!” he blurted.

“Oh, it is,” smiled Karen Marek. She had a husky, pleasant voice, and while she was a little too thin to be really good-looking, she was cast in a fine mold and her eyes were large and gray and lovely. “I assure you, non-Americans are perfectly capable of preserving a secret. More so than most Americans, really—we don’t have ties on Earth. No one to blab to.”

“It’s not well known today, but the original Manhattan Project that constructed the first atomic bombs had quite an international character,” said Berg. “It even included German, Italian, and Hungarian elements though the United States was at war with those countries.”

“Come along and we’ll get you settled in your quarters,” invited Isaacson.

Lancaster followed him down the long hallways, rather dazed with the whole business. He noticed that the space station had a crude, unfinished look, as if it had been hastily thrown together from whatever materials were available. That didn’t ring true for a government enterprise, no matter how secret.

Berg seemed to read his thought again. “We’ve worked under severe handicaps,” he said. “Look, just suppose a lot of valuable material and equipment were ferried into space. If it’s an ordinary government deal, you know how many light-years of red tape are involved. Requisitions have to be filled out in triplicate, every last rivet has to be accounted for—there’d simply have been too much chance of a rebel spy getting a lead on us. It was safer all around to use whatever chance materials could be obtained from salvage or through individual purchases on other planets. Ever hear of the Waikiki?”

“Ummm—seems so—wasn’t she the big freighter that disappeared many years ago?”

“That’s the one. A meteor swarm struck her on the way to Venus. Furthermore, one of them shorted out her engine controls, so that she swooped out of the ecliptic plane and fell into an eccentric skew orbit. When this project was first started, one of our astronomers thought he’d identified the swarm—it has a regular path of its own about the sun, though the orbit is so cockeyed that spaceships hardly ever even see the things. Anyway, knowing the orbit of the meteors and that of the Waikiki at the time, he could calculate where the disaster must have taken place—which gave us a lead in searching for the hulk. We found it after a lot of investigation, moved it here, and built the station up around it. Very handy. And completely secret.”

Lancaster had always suspected that Security was a little mad. Now he knew it. Oh, well—


His room was small and austere, but privacy was nice. The lab crew ate in a common refectory. Beyond the edge of their territory, great bulkheads blocked off three-fourths of the space station. Lancaster was sure that many people and several Martians lived there, for in the days that followed he saw any number of strangers appearing and disappearing in the region allowed him. Most of these were workmen of some kind or other, called in to help the lab crew as needed, but all of them were tight-lipped. They must have been cautioned not to speak to the guest more than was strictly necessary.

Living was Spartan in the station. It rotated fast enough to give weight, but even on the outer skin that was only one-half Earth gravity. A couple of silent Martians prepared undistinguished meals and did housework in the quarters. There were no films or other organized recreation, though Lancaster was told that the forbidden sector included a good-sized room for athletics.

But the crew he worked with didn’t seem to mind. They had their own large collections of books and music wires, which they borrowed from each other. They played chess and poker with savage skill. Conversation was, at first, somewhat restrained in Lancaster’s presence, and most of the humor had so little reference to things he knew that he couldn’t follow it, but he became aware that they talked with more animation and intelligence than his friends on Earth. Manners were utterly informal, and it wasn’t long before even Lancaster was being addressed by his first name; but cooperation was smooth and there seemed to be none of the intrigue and backbiting of a typical Project crew.

And the work filled their lives. Lancaster was caught up in it the “day” after his arrival, realized at once what it meant, and was plunged into the fascination of it. Berg hadn’t lied; this was big!

The perfect dielectric.

Such, at least, was the aim of the project. It was explained to Lancaster that one Dr. Sophoulis had first seen the possibilities and organized the research. It had gone ahead slowly, hampered by a lack of needed materials and expert personnel. When Sophoulis died, none of his assistants felt capable of carrying on the work at any decent rate of speed. They were all competent in their various specialties, but it takes more than training to do basic research—a certain inborn, intuitive flair is needed. So they had sent to Earth for a new boss—Lancaster.

The physicist scratched his head in puzzlement. It didn’t seem right that something so important should have to take the leavings of technical personnel. Secrecy or not, the most competent men on Earth should have been tapped for this job, and they should have been given everything they needed to carry it through. Then he forgot his bewilderment in the clean chill ecstasy of the work.


Man had been hunting superior dielectrics for a long time now. It was more than a question of finding the perfect electrical insulator, though that would be handy too. What was really important was the sort of condensers made possible by a genuinely good dielectric material. Given that, you could do fantastic things in electronics. Most significant of all was the matter of energy storage. If you could store large amounts of electricity in an accumulator of small volume, without appreciable leakage loss, you could build generators designed to handle average rather than peak load—with resultant savings in cost; you could build electric motors, containing their own energy supply and hence portable—which meant electric automobiles and possibly aircraft; you could use inconveniently located power sources, such as remote waterfalls, or dilute sources like sunlight, to augment—maybe eventually replace—the waning reserves of fuel and fissionable minerals; you could…. Lancaster’s mind gave up on all the possibilities opening before him and settled down to the immediate task at hand.

“The original mineral was found on Venus, in the Gorbu-vashtar country,” explained Karen Marek. “Here’s a sample.” She gave him a lump of rough, dense material which glittered in hard rainbow points of light. “It was just a curiosity at first, till somebody thought to test its electrical properties. Those were slightly fantastic. We have all chemical and physical data on this stuff already, of course, as well as an excellent idea of its crystal structure. It’s a funny mixture of barium and titanium compounds with some rare earths and—well, read the report for yourself.”

Lancaster’s eyes skimmed down the sheaf of papers she handed him. “Can’t make very good condensers out of this,” he objected. “Too brittle—and look how the properties vary with temperature. A practical dielectric has to be stable in every way, at least over the range of conditions you intend to use it in.”

She nodded.

“Of course. Anyway, the mineral is very rare on Venus, and you know how tough it is to search for anything in Gorbu-vashtar. What’s important is the lead it gave Sophoulis. You see, the dielectric constant of this material isn’t constant at all. It increases with applied voltage. Look at this curve here.”

Lancaster whistled. “What the devil—but that’s impossible! That much variability means a crystal structure which is—uh—flexible, damn it! But you’ve got a brittle substance here—”

According to the accepted theory of dielectricity, this couldn’t be. Lancaster realized with a thumping behind his veins that the theory would have to be modified. Rather, this was an altogether different phenomenon from normal insulation.

He supposed some geological freak had formed the mineral. Venus was a strange planet anyway. But that didn’t matter. The important thing now was to get to know this process. He went off into a happy mist of quantum mechanics, oscillation theory, and periodic functions of a complex variable.

Karen and Isaacson exchanged a slow smile.


Sophoulis and his people had done heroic work under adverse conditions. A tentative theory of the mechanism involved had already been formulated, and the search had started for a means to duplicate the super-dielectricity in materials otherwise more suitable to man’s needs. But as he grew familiar with the place and the job, Lancaster wondered just how adverse the conditions really were.

True, the equipment was old and cranky, much of it haywired together, much of it invented from scratch. But Rakkan the Martian, for all his lack of formal education, was unbelievably clever where it came to making apparatus and making it behave, and Friedrichs was a top-flight designer. The lab had what it needed—wasn’t that enough?

The rest of Lancaster’s crew were equally good. The Dufreres were physical chemists par excellence, Isaacson a brilliant crystallographer with an unusual brain for mathematics, Hwang an expert on quantum theory and inter-atomic forces, Karen an imaginative experimenter. None of them quite had the synthesizing mentality needed for an overall picture and a fore-vision of the general direction of work—that had been Sophoulis’ share, and was now Lancaster’s—but they were all cheerful and skilled where it came to detail work and could often make suggestions in a theoretical line.

Then, too, there was no Security snooping about, no petty scramble for recognition and promotion, no red tape. What was more important, Lancaster began to realize, was the personal nature of the whole affair. In a Project, the overall chief set the pattern, and it was followed by his subordinates with increasingly less latitude as you worked down through the lower ranks. You did what you were told, produced results or else, and kept your mouth shut outside your own sector of the Project. You had only the vaguest idea of what actually was being created, and why, and how it fitted into the broad scheme of society.

Hwang and Rakkan commented on that, one “evening” at dinner when they had grown more relaxed in Lancaster’s presence. “It was inevitable, I suppose, that scientific research should become corporate,” said the Chinese. “So much equipment was needed, and so many specialties had to be coordinated, that the solitary genius with only a few assistants hadn’t a chance. Nevertheless, it’s a pity. It’s destroyed initiative in many promising young men. The top man is no longer a scientist at all—he’s an administrator with some technical background. The lower ranks do have to exercise ingenuity, yes, but only along the lines they are ordered to follow. If some interesting sideline crops up, they can’t investigate it. All they can do is submit a memorandum to the chief, and most likely if anything is done it will be carried out by someone else.”

“What would you do about it?” shrugged Lancaster. “You just admitted that the old-time genius in a garret can’t compete.”

“No—but the small team of creative specialists, each with an excellent understanding of the others’ fields, and each working in a loose, free-willed cooperation with the rest, can. Indeed, the results will be much better. It was tried once, you may know. The early cybernetics men, back in the last century, worked that way.”

“I wish we could co-opt some biologists and psychologists into this,” murmured Rakkan. His English was good, though indescribably accented by his vocal apparatus. “The cellular and neural implications of dielectricity look—promising. Maybe later.”

“Well,” said Lancaster defensively, “a large Project can be made more secure—less chance of leakage.”

Hwang said nothing, but he cocked an eyebrow at an almost treasonable angle.


In going through Sophoulis’ equations, Lancaster found what he believed was the flaw that was blocking progress. The man had used a simplified quantum mechanics without correction for relativistic effects. That made for neater mathematics but overlooked certain space-time aspects of the psi function. The error was excusable, for Sophoulis had not been familiar with the Belloni matrix, a mathematical tool that brought order into what was otherwise incomprehensible chaos. Belloni’s work was still classified information, being too useful, in the design of new alloys, for general consumption. Lancaster went happily to work correcting the equations. But when he was finished, he realized that he had no business showing his results without proper clearance.

He wandered glumly into the lab. Karen was there alone, setting up an apparatus for the next attempt at heat treatment. A smock covered her into shapelessness, and her spectacular hair was bound up in a kerchief, but she still looked good. Lancaster, a shy man, was more susceptible to her than he wanted to be.

“Where’s Berg?” he asked.

“Back on Earth with Jessup,” she told him. “Why?”

“Damn! It holds up the whole business till he returns.” Lancaster explained his difficulty.

Karen laughed. “Oh, that’s all right,” she said in the low voice he liked to hear. “We’ve all been cleared.”

“Not officially. I’ve got to see the papers.”

She glared at him then and stamped her foot. “How stupid can you get without having to be spoon fed?” she snapped. “You’ve seen how much we think of regulations here. Let’s have those equations, Mac.”

“But—blast it, Karen, you don’t appreciate the need for security. Berg explained it to me once—how dangerous the rebels are, and how easily they can steal our secrets. And they’ll stop at nothing. Do you want another Hemispheric War?”

She looked oddly at him, and when she spoke it was softly. “Allen, do you really believe that?”

“Certainly! It’s obvious, isn’t it? Our country is maintaining the peace of the Solar System—once we drop the reins, all hell will run away from us.”

“What’s wrong with setting up a world-wide federation of countries? Most other nations are willing.”

“But that—it’s not practical!”

“How do you know? It’s never been tried.”

“Anyway, we can’t decide policy. That’s just not for us.”

“The United States is a democratic country—remember?”

“But—” Lancaster looked away. For a moment he stood unspeaking, and she watched him with grave eyes and said nothing. Then, not really knowing why he did it, he lifted a defiant head. “All right! We’ll go ahead—and if Berg sends us all to camp, don’t blame me.”

“He won’t.” She laughed and clapped his shoulder. “You know, Allen, there are times when I think you’re human after all.”

“Thanks,” he grinned wryly. “How about—uh—how about having a—a b-beer with me now? To celebrate.”

“Why, sure.”


They went down to the shop. A cooler of beer was there, its contents being reckoned as among the essential supplies brought from Earth by Jessup. Lancaster uncapped two bottles, and he and Karen sat down on a bench, swinging their legs and looking over the silent, waiting machines. Most of the station personnel were off duty now, in the arbitrary “night.”

He sighed at last. “I like it here.”

“I’m glad you do, Allen.”

“It’s a funny place, but I like it. The station and all its wacky inhabitants. They’re heterodox as the very devil and would have trouble getting a dog catcher’s job back home, but they’re all refreshing.” Lancaster snapped his fingers. “Say, that’s it! That’s why you’re all out here. The government needs your talents, and you aren’t quite trusted, so you’re put here out of range of spies. Right?”

“Do you have to see a rebel with notebook in hand under every bed?” she asked with a hint of weariness. “The First Amendment hasn’t been repealed yet, they say. Theoretically we’re all entitled to our own opinions.”

“Okay, okay, I won’t argue politics. Tell me about some of the people here, will you? They’re an odd bunch.”

“I can’t tell you much, Allen. That’s where Security does apply. Isaacson is a Martian colonist, you’ve probably guessed that already. Jessup lost his hand in a—a fight with some enemies once. The Dufreres had a son who was killed in the Moroccan incident.” Lancaster remembered that that affair had involved American power used to crush a French spy ring centered in North Africa. Sovereignty had been brushed aside. But damn it, you had to preserve the status quo, for your own survival if nothing else. “Hwang had to go into exile when the Chinese government changed hands a few years back. I—”

“Yes?” he asked when her voice faded out.

“Oh, I might as well tell you. My husband and I lived in America after our marriage. He was a good biotechnician and had a job with one of the big pharmaceutical companies. Only he—went to camp. Later he died or was shot, I don’t know which.” Her words were flat.

“That’s a shame,” he said inadequately.

“The funny part of it is, he wasn’t engaged in treason at all. He was quite satisfied with things as they were—oh, he talked a little, but so does everybody. I imagine some rival or enemy put the finger on him.”

“Those things happen,” said Lancaster. “It’s too bad, but they happen.”

“They’re bound to occur in a police state,” she said. “Sorry. We weren’t going to argue politics, were we?”

“I never said the world was perfect, Karen. Far from it. Only what alternative have we got? Any change is likely to be so dangerous that—well, man can’t afford mistakes.”

“No, he can’t. But I wonder if he isn’t making one right now. Oh, well. Give me another beer.”

They talked on indifferent subjects till Karen said it was her bedtime. Lancaster escorted her to her apartment. She looked at him curiously as he said good night, and then went inside and closed the door. Lancaster had trouble getting to sleep.


The corrected equations provided an adequate theory of super-dielectricity—a theory with tantalizing hints about still other phenomena—and gave the research team a precise idea of what they wanted in the way of crystal structure. Actually, the substance to be formed was only semi-crystalline, with plastic features as well, all interwoven with a grid of carbon-linked atoms. Now the trick was to produce that stuff. Calculation revealed what elements would be needed, and what spatial arrangement—only how did you get the atoms to assume the required configuration and hook up in the right way?

Theory would get you only so far, thereafter it was cut and try. Lancaster rolled up his sleeves with the rest and let Karen take over the leadership—she was the best experimenter. He spent some glorious and all but sleepless weeks, greasy, dirty, living in a jungle of haywired apparatus with a restless slide rule. There were plenty of failures, a lot of heartbreak and profanity, an occasional injury—but they kept going, and they got there.

The day came—or was it the night?—when Karen took a slab of darkly shining substance out of the furnace where it had been heat-aging. Rakkan sawed it into several chunks for testing. It was Lancaster who worked on the electric properties.

He applied voltage till his generator groaned, and watched in awe as meters climbed and climbed without any sign of stopping. He discharged the accumulated energy in a single blue flare that filled the lab with thunder and ozone. He tested for time lag of an electric signal and wondered wildly if it didn’t feel like sleeping on its weary path.

The reports came in, excited yells from one end of the long, cluttered room to the other, exultant whoops and men pounding each other on the back. This was it! This was the treasure at the rainbow’s end.


The substance and its properties were physically and chemically stable over a temperature range of hundreds of degrees. The breakdown voltage was up in the millions. The insulation resistance was better than the best known to Earth’s science.

The dielectric constant could be varied at will by a simple electric field normal to the applied voltage gradient—a field which could be generated by a couple of dry cells if need be—and ranged from a hundred thousand to about three billion. For all practical purposes, here was the ultimate dielectric.

“We did it!” Friedrichs slapped Lancaster’s back till it felt that the ribs must crack. “We have it!”

“Whooppee!” yelled Karen.

Suddenly they had joined hands and were dancing idiotically around the induction furnace. Lancaster clasped Rakkan’s talons without caring that it was a Martian. They sang then, sang till heads appeared at the door and the glassware shivered.

Here we go ’round the mulberry bush,The mulberry bush, the mulberry bush—

It called for a celebration. The end of a Project meant no more than filing a last report and waiting for the next assignment, but they ran things differently out here. Somebody broke out a case of Venusian aguacaliente. Somebody else led the way to a storeroom, tossed its contents into the hall, and festooned it with used computer tape. Rakkan forgot his Martian dignity and fiddled for a square dance, with Isaacson doing the calling. The folk from the other end of the station swarmed in till the place overflowed. It was quite a party.

Hours later, Lancaster was hazily aware of lying stretched on the floor. His head was in Karen’s lap and she was stroking his hair. The hardy survivors were following the Dufreres in French drinking songs, which are the best in the known universe. Rakkan’s fiddle wove in and out, a lovely accompaniment to voices that were untrained but made rich and alive by triumph.

“Sur ma tomb’ je veux qu’on inscrive:‘Ici-git le roi des buveurs.’Sur ma tomb’ je veux qu’on inscrive:‘Ici-git le roi des buveurs.Ici-git, oui, oui, oui,Ici-git, non, non, non—'”

Lancaster knew that he had never been really happy before.


Berg showed up a couple of days later, looking worried. Lancaster’s vacation time was almost up. When he heard the news, his eyes snapped gleefully and he pumped the physicist’s hand. “Good work, boy!”

“There are things to clean up yet,” said Lancaster, “but it’s all detail. Anybody can do it.”

“And the material—what do you call it, anyway?”

Karen grinned. “So far, we’ve only named it ffuts,” she said. “That’s ‘stuff’ spelled backward.”

“Okay, okay. It’s easy to manufacture?”

“Sure. Now that we know how, anybody can make it in his own home—if he’s handy at tinkering apparatus together.”

“Fine, fine! Just what was needed. This is the ticket.” Berg turned back to Lancaster. “Okay, boy, you can pack now. We blast again in a few hours.”

The physicist shuffled his feet. “What are my chances of getting re-assigned back here?” he asked. “I’ve liked it immensely. And now that I know about it anyway—”

“I’ll see. I’ll see. But remember, this is top secret. You go back to your regular job and don’t say a word on this to anyone less than the President—no matter what happens, understand?”

“Of course,” snapped Lancaster, irritated. “I know my duty.”

“Yeah, so you do.” Berg sighed. “So you do.”

Leavetaking was tough for all concerned. They had grown fond of the quiet, bashful man—and as for him, he wondered how he’d get along among normal people. These were his sort. Karen wept openly and kissed him good-bye with a fervor that haunted his dreams afterward. Then she stumbled desolately back to her quarters. Even Berg looked glum.

He regained his cockiness on the trip home, though, and insisted on talking all the way. Lancaster, who wanted to be alone with his thoughts, was annoyed, but you don’t insult a Security man.

“You understand the importance of this whole business, and why it has to be secret?” nagged Berg. “I’m not thinking of the scientific and industrial applications, but the military ones.”

“Oh, sure. You can make lightning throwers if you want to. And you’ve overcome the fuel problem. With a few ffuts accumulators, charged from any handy power source, you can build fuelless military vehicles, which would simplify your logistics immensely. And some really deadly hand guns could be built—pistols the equivalent of a cannon, almost.” Lancaster’s voice was dead. “So what?”

“So plenty! Those are only a few of the applications. If you use your imagination, you can think of dozens more. And the key point is—the ffuts and the essential gadgetry using it are cheap to make in quantity, easy to handle—the perfect weapon for the citizen soldier. Or for the rebel! It isn’t enough to decide the outcome of a war all by itself, but it may very well be precisely the extra element which will tip the military balance against the government. And I’ve already discussed what that means.”

“Yes, I remember. That’s your department, not mine. Just let me forget about it.”

“You’d better,” said Berg.


In the month after his return, Lancaster lived much as usual. He was scolded a few times for an increasing absent-mindedness and a lack of enthusiasm on the Project, but that wasn’t too serious. He became more of an introvert than ever. Having some difficulty with getting to sleep, he resorted to soporifics and then, in a savage reaction, to stimulants. But outwardly there was little to show the turmoil within him.

He didn’t know what to think. He had always been a loyal citizen—not a fanatic, but loyal—and it wasn’t easy for him to question his own basic assumptions. But he had experienced something utterly alien to what he considered normal, and he had found the strangeness more congenial—more human in every way—than the norm. He had breathed a different atmosphere, and it couldn’t but seem to him that the air of Earth was tainted. He re-read Kipling’s Chant-Pagan with a new understanding, and began to search into neglected philosophies. He studied the news in detail, and his critical eye soon grew jaundiced—did this editorial or that feature story have any semantic content at all, or was it only a tom-tom beat of loaded connotations? The very statements of fact were subject to doubt—they should be checked against other accounts, or better yet against direct observation; but other accounts were forbidden and there was no chance to see for himself.

He took to reading seditious pamphlets with some care, and listened to a number of underground broadcasts, and tried clumsily to sound out those of his acquaintances whom he suspected of rebellious thoughts. It all had to be done very cautiously, with occasional nightmare moments when he thought he was being spied on; and was it right that a man should be afraid to hear a dissenting opinion?

He wondered what his son was doing. It occurred to him that modern education existed largely to stultify independent thought.

At the same time, he was unable to discard the beliefs of his whole life. Sedition was sedition and treason was treason—you couldn’t evade that fact. There were no more wars—plenty of minor clashes, but no real wars. There was a stable economy, and nobody lacked for the essentials. The universal state might be a poor solution to the problems of a time of troubles, but it was nevertheless a solution. Change would be unthinkably dangerous.

Dangerous to whom? To the entrenched powers and their jackals. But the oppressed peoples of Earth had nothing to lose, really, except their lives, and many of them seemed quite willing to sacrifice those. Did the rights of man stop at a full belly, or was there more?

He tried to take refuge in cynicism. After all, he was well off. He was a successful jackal. But that wouldn’t work either. He required a more basic philosophy.

One thing that held him back was the thought that if he became a rebel, he would be pitted against his friends—not only those of Earth, but that strange joyous crew out in space. He couldn’t see fighting against them.

Then there was the very practical consideration that he hadn’t the faintest idea of how to contact the underground even if he wanted to. And he’d make a hell of a poor conspirator.

He was still in an unhappy and undecided whirlpool when the monitors came for him.


They knocked on the door at midnight, as was their custom, and he felt such an utter panic that he could barely make it across the apartment to let them in. The four burly men wavered before his eyes, and there was a roaring and a darkness in his head. They arrested him without ceremony on suspicion of treason, which meant that habeas corpus and even the right of trial didn’t apply. Two of them escorted him to a car, the other two stayed to search his dwelling.

At headquarters, he was put in a cell and left to stew for some hours. Then a pair of men in the uniform of the federal police led him to a questioning chamber. He was given a chair and a smiling, soft-voiced man—almost fatherly, with his plump cheeks and white hair—offered him a cigarette and began talking to him.

“Just relax, Dr. Lancaster. This is pretty routine. If you’ve nothing to hide then you’ve nothing to fear. Just tell the truth.”

“Of course.” It was a dry whisper.

“Oh, you’re thirsty. So sorry. Alec, get Dr. Lancaster a glass of water, will you, please? And by the way, my name is Harris. Let’s call this a friendly conference, eh?”

Lancaster drank avidly. Harris’ manner was disarming, and the physicist felt more at ease. This was—well, it was just a mistake. Or maybe a simple spot check. Nothing to fear. He wouldn’t be sent to camp—not he. Such things happened to other people, not to Allen Lancaster.

“You’ve been immunized against neoscop?” asked Harris.

“Yes. It’s routine for my rank and over, you know. In case we should ever be kidnapped—but why am I telling you this?” Lancaster tried to smile. His face felt stiff.

“Hm. Yes. Too bad.”

“Of course, I’ve no objection at all to your using a lie detector on me.”

“Fine, fine.” Harris beamed and gestured to one of the expressionless policemen. A table was wheeled forth, bearing the instrument. “I’m glad you’re so cooperative, Dr. Lancaster. You’ve no idea how much trouble it saves me—and you.”

They ran a few harmless calibrating questions. Then Harris said, still smiling, “And now tell me, Dr. Lancaster. Where were you really this summer?”

Lancaster felt his heart leap into his throat, and knew in a sudden terror that the dials were registering his reaction. “Why—I took my vacation,” he stammered. “I was in the Southwest—”

“Mmmm—the machine doesn’t quite agree with you.” Harris remained impishly cheerful.

“But it’s true! You can check back and—”

“There are such things as doubles, you know. Come, come, now, let’s not waste the whole night. We both have many other things to do.”

“I—look.” Lancaster gulped down his panic and tried to speak calmly. “Suppose I am lying. The machine should tell you that I’m not doing so out of disloyalty. There are things I can’t tell anyone without clearance. Like if you asked me about my work on the Project—I can’t tell you that. Why don’t you check through regular Security channels? There was a man named Berg—at least he called himself that. You’ll find that it’s all perfectly okay with Security.”

“You can tell me anything,” said Harris gently.

“I can’t tell you this. Not anybody short of the President.” Lancaster caught himself. “Of course, that’s assuming that I did really spend the summer for something other than my vacation. But—”

Harris sighed. “I was afraid of this. I’m sorry, Lancaster.” He nodded to his policemen. “Go ahead, boys.”


Lancaster kept sliding into unconsciousness. They jolted him back to life with stimulant injections and vigorous slaps and resumed working on him. Now and then they would let up and Harris’ face would swim out of a haze of pain, smiling, friendly, sympathetic, offering him a smoke or a shot of whiskey. Lancaster sobbed and wanted more than anything else in the world to do as that kindly man asked. But he didn’t dare. He knew what happened to those who revealed state secrets.

Finally he was thrown back into his cell and left to himself. When he recovered from his faint—that was a very slow process—he had no idea of how many hours or days had gone by. There was a water tap in the room and he drank thirstily, vomited the liquid up again, and sat with his head in his hands.

So far, he thought dully, they hadn’t done too much to him. He was short several teeth, and there were some broken fingers and toes, and maybe a floating kidney. The other bruises, lacerations, and burns would heal all right if they got the chance.

Only they wouldn’t.

He wondered vaguely how Security had gotten onto his track. Berg’s precautions had been very thorough. So thorough, apparently, that Harris could find no trace of what had really happened that summer, and was going only on suspicion. But what had made him suspicious in the first place? An anonymous tip-off—from whom? Maybe some enemy, some rival on the Project, had chosen this way of getting rid of his sector chief.

In the end, Lancaster thought wearily, he’d tell. Why not do it now? Then—probably—he’d only be shot for betraying Berg’s confidence. That would be the easy way out.

No. He’d hang on for awhile yet. There was always a faint chance.

His cell door opened and two guards came in. He was past flinching from them, but he had to be supported on his way to the questioning room.

Harris sat there, still smiling. “How do you do, Dr. Lancaster,” he said politely.

“Not so well, thank you.” The grin hurt his face.

“I’m sorry to hear that. But really, it’s your own fault. You know that.”

“I can’t tell you anything,” said Lancaster. “I’m under Security oath. I can’t speak of this to anyone below the President.”

Harris looked annoyed. “Don’t you think the President has better things to do than come running to every enemy of the state that yaps after him?”

“There’s been some mistake, I tell you,” pleaded Lancaster.

“I’ll say there has. And you’re the one that’s made it. Go ahead, boys.” Harris picked up a magazine and started reading.


After awhile, Lancaster focused his mind on Karen Marek and kept it there. That helped him bear up. If they knew, out in the station, what was happening to him, they—well, they wouldn’t forget him, try to pretend they’d never known him, as the little fearful people of Earth did. They’d speak up, and do their damnedest to save their friend.

The blows seemed to come from very far away. They didn’t do things like this out in the station. Lancaster realized the truth at that moment, but it held no surprise. The most natural thing in the world. And now, of course, he’d never talk.

Maybe.

When he woke up, there was a man before him. The face blurred, seemed to grow to monstrous size and then move out to infinite distances. The voice of Harris had a ripple in it, wavering up and down, up and down.

“All right, Lancaster, here’s the President. Since you insist, here he is.”

“Go ahead, American,” said the man. “Tell me. It’s your duty.”

“No,” said Lancaster.

“But I am the President. You wanted to see me.”

“Most likely a double. Prove your identity.”

The man who looked like the President sighed and turned away.


Lancaster woke up again lying on a cot. He must have been brought awake by a stimulant, for a white-coated figure was beside him, holding a hypodermic syringe. Harris was there too, looking exasperated.

“Can you talk?” he asked.

“I—yes.” Lancaster’s voice was a dull croak. He moved his head, feeling the ache of it.

“Look here, fellow,” said Harris. “We’ve been pretty easy with you so far. Nothing has happened to you that can’t be patched up. But we’re getting impatient now. It’s obvious that you’re a traitor and hiding something.”

Well, yes, thought Lancaster, he was a traitor, by one definition. Only it seemed to him that a man had a right to choose his own loyalties. Having experienced what the police state meant, he would have been untrue to himself if he had yielded to it.

“If you don’t answer my questions in the next session,” said Harris, “we’ll have to start getting really rough.”

Lancaster remained silent. It was too much effort to try to speak.

“Don’t think you’re being heroic,” said Harris. “There’s nothing pretty or even very human about a man under interrogation. You’ve been screaming as loud as anybody.”

Lancaster looked away.

He heard the doctor’s voice. “I’d advice giving him a few days’ rest before starting again, sir.”

“You’re new here, aren’t you?” asked Harris.

“Yes, sir. I was only assigned to this duty a few weeks ago.”

“Well, we don’t put on kid gloves for traitors.”

“That’s not what I mean, sir,” said the doctor. “There are limits to pain beyond which further treatment simply doesn’t register. Also, I’m a little suspicious about this man’s heart. It has a murmur, and questioning puts a terrific strain on it. You wouldn’t want him to die on your hands, would you, sir?”

“Mmmm—no. What do you advise?”

“Just a few days in the hospital, with treatment and rest. It’ll also have a psychological effect as he thinks of what’s waiting for him.”

Harris considered for a moment. “All right. I’ve got enough other things to do anyway.”

“Very good, sir. You won’t regret this.”

Lancaster heard the footsteps retreat into silence. Presently the doctor came around to stand facing him. He was a short, curly-haired man of undistinguished appearance. For a moment they locked eyes, then Lancaster closed his. He wanted to tell the doctor to go away, but it wasn’t worth the trouble.

Later he was put on a stretcher and carried down endless halls to another cell. This one had a hospital look about it, somehow, and the air was sharp with the smell of antiseptics. The doctor came when he was installed in bed and took his arm and slipped a needle into it. “Sleepy time,” he said.

Lancaster drifted away again.


When he woke up, he felt darkness and movement. He looked around, wondering if he had gone blind, and the breath moaned out between his bruised lips. A hand was laid on his shoulder and a voice spoke out of the black.

“It’s okay, fella. Take it easy. There’ll be no more questions.”

It was the doctor’s voice, and the doctor looked nothing at all like Charon, but still Lancaster wondered if he weren’t being ferried over the river of death. There was a thrumming all about him, and he heard a low keening of wind. “Where are we going?” he mumbled.

“Away. You’re in a stratorocket now. Just take it easy.”

Lancaster fell asleep after awhile.

Beyond that there was a drugged, confused period where he was only dimly aware of moving and trying to talk. Shadows floated across his vision, shadows telling him something he couldn’t quite grasp. He followed obediently enough. Full clarity came eventually, and he was lying in a bunk looking up at a metal ceiling. The shivering pulse of rockets trembled in his body. A spaceship?

A spaceship!

He sat up, heart thudding, and looked wildly around. “Hey!” he cried.

The remembered figure of Berg came through the door. “Hullo, Allen,” he said. “How’re you feeling?”

“I—you—” Lancaster sank weakly back to his pillow. He grew aware that he was thoroughly bandaged, splinted, and braced, and that there was no more pain. Not much, anyway.

“I feel fine,” he said.

“Good, good. The doc says you’ll be okay.” Berg sat down on the edge of the bunk. “I can’t stay here long, but the hell with it. We’ll be at the station soon. You deserve to know some things, such as that you’ve been rescued.”

“Well, that’s obvious,” said Lancaster.

“By us. The rebels. The underground. Subversive characters.”

“That’s obvious too. And thanks—” The word was so ridiculously inadequate that Lancaster had to laugh.


“I suppose you’ve guessed most of it already,” said Berg. “We needed a scientist of your caliber for our project. One thing we’re desperately short of is technical personnel, since the only real education in such lines is to be had on Earth and most graduates find comfortable berths in the existing society. Like you, for instance. So we played a trick on you. We used part of our organization—yes, we have a big one, and it’s pretty smart and powerful too—to convince you this was a government job of top secrecy. More damn things can be done in the name of Security—” Berg clicked his tongue. “Everybody you saw at the station was more or less play-acting, of course. The whole thing was set up to fool you. We might not have gotten away with it if we’d used some other person, more shrewd about such things, but we’d studied you and knew you for an amiable, unsuspicious guy, too wrapped up in your own work to go witch-smelling.”

“I guessed that much,” admitted Lancaster. “After I’d been in the cells for awhile. Your way of living and thinking was so different from anything like—”

“Yeah. I’m sorry as hell about that, Allen. We thought you could just return to ordinary life, but somehow—through one of those accidents or malices inevitable in a state where every man spies on his neighbor—you were hauled in. We knew of it at once—yes, we’ve even infiltrated the secret police—and decided to do something about it. Quite apart from the danger of your betraying what you knew—we could have eliminated that by quietly murdering you—there was the fact that we’d gotten you into this and did owe you something. We managed to get Dr. Pappas transferred to the inquisitory where you were being held. He drugged you, producing a remarkably corpse-like figure, and smuggled you out as simply another one who’d died under questioning. I used my Security papers to get the body for special autopsy instead of the usual immediate cremation. Then we simply drove till we reached the stratorocket we’d arranged to have ready, and you were flown to our spaceboat, and now you’re on the way back to the station. You were kept under drugs most of the way to help you rest—they’d knocked you around quite a bit in the inquisitory. So—” Berg shrugged. “Pappas can’t go back to Earth now, of course, but we can always use a medic in space, and it was well worth the trouble to rescue you.”

“I’m honored,” said Lancaster.

“I still feel like hell about what happened to you, though.”

“It’s all right. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but now that I’ve learned some hard facts—oh, well, forget the painful nature of the lesson. I’ll be okay. And I’m going home!”


Jessup supported Lancaster as they entered the space station. His old crew was there waiting to greet him. They were all immensely pleased to have him back, though Karen wept bitterly on his shoulder.

“It’s all right,” he told her. “I’m not in such bad shape as I look. Honest, Karen, I’m all right. And now that I have gotten back, and know where I really belong—damn, but it was worth it!”

She looked at him with eyes as gray as a rainy dawn. “And you are with us?” she whispered. “You’re one of us? Of your own will?”

“Of course I am. Give me a week or two to rest, and I’ll be back in the lab bossing all of you like a Simon Legree. Hell, we’ve just begun on that super-dielectricity. And there are a lot of other things I want to try out, too.”

“It means exile,” she said. “No more blue skies and green valleys and ocean winds. No more going back to Earth.”

“Well, there are other planets, aren’t there? And we’ll go back to Earth in the next decade, I bet. Back to start a new American Revolution and write the Bill of Rights in the sky for all to see.” Lancaster grinned shyly. “I’m not much at making speeches, and I certainly don’t like to listen to them. But I’ve learned the truth and I want to say it out loud. The right of man to be free is the most basic one he’s got, and when he gives that up he finishes by surrendering everything else too. You people are fighting to bring back honesty and liberty and the possibility of progress. I hope nobody here is a fanatic, because fanaticism is exactly what we’re fighting against. I say we, because from now on I’m one of you. That is, if you’re sure you want me.”

He stopped, clumsily. “Okay. Speech ended.”

Karen drew a shivering breath and smiled at him. “And everything else just begun, Allen,” she said. He nodded, feeling too much for words.

“Get to bed with you,” ordered Pappas.


Jessup led Lancaster off, and one by one the others drifted back to their jobs. Finally only Karen and Berg stood by the airlock.

“You keep your beautiful mouth shut, my dear,” said the man.

“Oh, sure.” Karen sighed unhappily. “I wish I’d never learned your scheme. When you explained it to me I wanted to shoot you.”

“You insisted on an explanation,” said Berg defensively. “When Allen was due to go back to Earth, you wanted us to tell him who we were and keep him. But it wouldn’t have worked. I’ve studied his dossier, and he’s not the kind of man to switch loyalties that easily. If we were to have him at all, it could only be with his full consent. And now we’ve got him.”

“It was still a lousy trick,” she said.

“Of course it was. But we had no choice. We had to have a first-rate physicist.”

“You know,” she said, “you’re a rat from way back.”

“That I am. And by and large, I enjoy it.” Berg grimaced. “Though I must admit this job leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I like Allen. It was the hardest thing I ever did, tipping off the federal police about him.”

He turned on his heel and walked away, smiling faintly.

Transcriber’s Note:
This etext was produced from Space Science Fiction February 1953. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and typographical errors have been corrected without note.









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SF34Inside Earth by Poul Anderson

The Project Gutenberg EBook of Inside Earth, by Poul Anderson



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Title: Inside Earth



Author: Poul Anderson



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Language: English



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*** START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK INSIDE EARTH ***









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INSIDE EARTH

By POUL ANDERSON

Illustrated by DAVID STONE

[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Galaxy Science Fiction April 1951.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


Obviously, no conqueror wants his subjects to
revolt against his rule. Obviously? This one
would go to any lengths to start a rebellion!


I

The biotechnicians had been very thorough. I was already a little undersized, which meant that my height and build were suitable—I could pass for a big Earthling. And of course my face and hands and so on were all right, the Earthlings being a remarkably humanoid race. But the technicians had had to remodel my ears, blunting the tips and grafting on lobes and cutting the muscles that move them. My crest had to go and a scalp covered with revolting hair was now on the top of my skull.

Finally, and most difficult, there had been the matter of skin color. It just wasn’t possible to eliminate my natural coppery pigmentation. So they had injected a substance akin to melanin, together with a virus which would manufacture it in my body, the result being a leathery brown. I could pass for a member of the so-called “white” subspecies, one who had spent most of his life in the open.

The mimicry was perfect. I hardly recognized the creature that looked out of the mirror. My lean, square, blunt-nosed face, gray eyes, and big hands were the same or nearly so. But my black crest had been replaced with a shock of blond hair, my ears were small and immobile, my skin a dull bronze, and several of Earth’s languages were hypnotically implanted in my brain—together with a set of habits and reflexes making up a pseudo-personality which should be immune to any tests that the rebels could think of.

I was Earthling! And the disguise was self-perpetuating: the hair grew and the skin color was kept permanent by the artificial “disease.” The biotechnicians had told me that if I kept the disguise long enough, till I began to age—say, in a century or so—the hair would actually thin and turn white as it did with the natives.

It was reassuring to think that once my job was over, I could be restored to normal. It would need another series of operations and as much time as the original transformation, but it would be as complete and scarless. I’d be human again.

I put on the clothes they had furnished me, typical Earthly garments—rough trousers and shirt of bleached plant fibers, jacket and heavy shoes of animal skin, a battered old hat of matted fur known as felt. There were objects in my pockets, the usual money and papers, a claspknife, the pipe and tobacco I had trained myself to smoke and even to like. It all fitted into my character of a wandering, outdoors sort of man, an educated atavist.

I went out of the hospital with the long swinging stride of one accustomed to walking great distances.


The Center was busy around me. Behind me, the hospital and laboratories occupied a fairly small building, some eighty stories of stone and steel and plastic. On either side loomed the great warehouses, military barracks, officers’ apartments, civilian concessions, filled with the vigorous life of the starways. Behind the monstrous wall, a mile to my right, was the spaceport, and I knew that a troopship had just lately dropped gravs from Valgolia herself.

The Center swarmed with young recruits off duty, gaping at the sights, swaggering in their new uniforms. Their skins shone like polished copper in the blistering sunlight, and their crests were beginning to wilt a little. All Earth is not the tropical jungle most Valgolians think it is—northern Europe is very pleasant, and Greenland is even a little on the cold side—but it gets hot enough at North America Center in midsummer to fry a shilast.

A cosmopolitan throng filled the walkways. Soldiers predominated—huge, shy Dacors, little slant-eyed Yangtusans, brawling Gorrads, all the manhood of Valgolia. Then there were other races, blue-skinned Vegans, furry Proximans, completely non-humanoid Sirians and Antarians. They were here as traders, observers, tourists, whatever else of a non-military nature one can imagine.

I made an absent-minded way through the crowds. A sudden crack on the side of my head, nearly bowling me over, brought me to awareness. I looked up into the arrogant face of one of the new recruits and heard him rasp, “Watch where you’re going, Terrie!”



The young blood in the Valgolian military is deliberately trained to harshness, even brutality, for our militarism must impress such backward colonies as Earth. It goes against our grain, but it is necessary. At another time this might have annoyed me. I could have pulled rank on him. Not only was I an officer, but such treatment must be used with intellectual deliberation. The occasional young garrison trooper who comes here with the idea that the natives are an inferior breed to be kicked around misses the whole point of Empire. If, indeed, Earth’s millions were an inferior breed, I wouldn’t have been here at all. Valgol needs an economic empire, but if all we had in mind was serfdom we’d be perfectly content with the plodding animal life of Deneb VII or a hundred other worlds.

I cringed appropriately, as if I didn’t understand Valgolian Universal, and slunk past him. But it griped me to be taken for a Terrie. If I was to become an Earthling, I would at least be a self-respecting one.


There were plenty of Terries—Terrestrials—around, of course, moving with their odd combination of slavish deference toward Valgolians and arrogant superiority toward mere Earthlings. They have adopted the habits and customs of civilization, entered the Imperial service, speak Valgolian even with their families. Many of them shave their heads save for a scalp lock, in imitation of the crest, and wear white robes suggesting those of civil functionaries at home.

I’ve always felt a little sorry for the class. They work, and study, and toady to us, and try so hard to be like us. It’s frustrating, because that’s exactly what we don’t want. Valgolians are Valgolians and Earthlings are men of Earth. Well, Terries are important to the ultimate aims of the Empire, but not in the way they think they are. They serve as another symbol of Valgolian conquest for Earth to hate.

I entered the Administration Building. They expected me there and took me at once to the office of General Vorka, who’s a general only as far as this solar system is concerned. Had there been any Earthlings around, I would have saluted to conform to the show of militarism, but General Vorka sat alone behind his desk, and I merely said, “Hello, Coordinator.”

The sleeves of his tunic rolled up, the heat of North America beading his forehead with sweat, the big man looked up at me. “Ah, yes. I’m glad you’re finally prepared. The sooner we get this thing started—” He extended a silver galla-dust box. “Sniff? Have a seat, Conru.”

I inhaled gratefully and relaxed. The Coordinator picked up a sheaf of papers on his desk and leafed through them. “Umm-mm, only fifty-two years old and a captain already. Remarkably able, a young man like you. And your work hitherto has been outstanding. That Vegan business….”

I said yes, I knew, but could he please get down to business. You couldn’t blame me for being a bit anxious to begin. Disguised as I was as an Earthman, I felt uncomfortable, embarrassed, almost, at being with my ex-countrymen.

The Coordinator shrugged. “Well, if you can carry this business off—fine. If you fail, you may die quite unpleasantly. That’s their trouble, Conru: you wouldn’t be regarded as an individual, but as a Valgolian. Did you know that they even make such distinctions among themselves? I mean races and sub-races and social castes and the like; it’s keeping them divided and impotent, Conru. It’s also keeping them out of the Empire. A shame.”


I knew all that, of course, but I merely nodded. Coordinator Vorka was a wonderful man in his field, and if he tended to be on the garrulous side, what could I do? I said, “I know that, sir. I also know I was picked for a dangerous job because you thought I could fill the role. But I still don’t know exactly what the job is.”

Coordinator Vorka smiled. “I’m afraid I can’t tell you much more than you must already have guessed,” he said. “The anarch movement here—the rebels, that is—is getting no place, primarily because of internal difficulties. When members of the same group spit epithets at each other referring to what they consider racial or national distinctions which determine superiority or inferiority, the group is bound to be an insecure one. Such insecurity just does not make for a strong rebellion, Conru. They try, and we goad them—but dissention splits them constantly and their revolutions fizzle out.

“They just can’t unite against us, can’t unite at all. Conru, you know how we’ve tried to educate them. It’s worked, too, to some extent. But you can’t educate three billion people who have a whole cultural pattern behind them.”

I winced. “Three billion?”

“Certainly. Earth is a rich planet, Conru, and a fairly crowded one at the same time. Bickering is inevitable. It’s a part of their culture, as much as cooperation has been a part of ours.”

I nodded. “We learned the hard way. The old Valgol was a poor planet and we had to unite to conquer space or we could not have survived.”

The Coordinator sniffed again at his silver box. “Of course. And we’re trying to help these people unite. They don’t have to make the same mistakes we did, long ago. They don’t have to at all. Get them to hate us enough, get them to hate us until all their own clannish hatreds don’t count at all…. Well, you know what happened on Samtrak.”

I knew. The Samtraks are now the entrepreneurs of the Empire, really ingenious traders, but within the memory of some of our older men they were a sore-spot. They didn’t understand the meaning of Empire any more than Earth does, and they never did understand it until we goaded them into open rebellion. The very reverse of divide and rule, you might say, and it worked. We withdrew trading privileges one by one, until they revolted successfully, thus educating themselves sociologically in only a few generations.


Vorka said, “The problem of Earth is not quite that simple.” He leaned back, made a bridge of his fingers, and peered across them at me. “Do you know precisely what a provocateur job is, Conru?”

I said that I did, but only in a hazy way, because until now my work had been pretty much restricted to social relations on the more advanced Empire planets. However, I told him that I did know the idea was to provoke discontent and, ultimately, rebellion.

The Coordinator smiled. “Well, that’s just the starter, Conru. It’s a lot more complex than that. Each planet has its own special problems. The Samtraks, for example, had a whole background of cutthroat competition. That was easy: we eliminated that by showing them what real cutthroat competition could be like. But Earth is different. Look at it this way. They fight among themselves. Because of their mythical distinctions, not realizing that there are no inferior races, only more or less advanced ones, and that individuals must be judged as individuals, not as members of groups, nations or races. A planet like Earth can be immensely valuable to the Empire, but not if it has to be garrisoned. Its contribution must be voluntary and whole-hearted.”

“A difficult problem,” I said. “My opinion is that we should treat all exactly alike—force them to abandon their unrealistic differences.”

“Exactly!” The Coordinator seemed pleased, but, actually, this was pretty elementary stuff. “We’re never too rough on the eager lads who come here from Valgol and kick the natives around a bit. We even encourage it when the spirit of rebelliousness dies down.”

I told him I had met one.

“Irritating, wasn’t it, Conru? Humiliating. Of course, these lads will be reconditioned to civilization when they finish their military service and prepare for more specialized work. Yes, treating all Earthlings alike is the solution. We put restrictions on these colonials; they can’t hold top jobs, and so on. And we encourage wild stories about brutality on our part. Not enough to make everybody mad at us, or even a majority—the rumored tyranny has always happened to someone else. But there’s a certain class of beings who’ll get fighting mad, and that’s the class we want.”

“The leaders,” I chimed in. “The idealists. Brave, intelligent, patriotic. The kind who probably wouldn’t be a part of this racial bickering, anyway.”

“Right,” said the Coordinator. “We’ll give them the ammunition for their propaganda. We’ve been doing it. Result: the leaders get mad. Races, religions, nationalities, they hate us worse than they hate each other.”


The way he painted it, I was hardly needed at all. I told him that.

“Ideally, that would be the situation, Conru. Only it doesn’t work that way.” He took out a soft cloth and wiped his forehead. “Even the leaders are too involved in this myth of differences and they can’t concentrate all their efforts. Luron, of course, would be the other alternative—”

That was a very logical statement, but sometimes logic has a way of making you laugh, and I was laughing now. Luron considered itself our arch-enemy. With a few dozen allies on a path of conquest, Luron thought it could wrest Empire from our hands. Well, we let them play. And each time Luron swooped down on one of the more primitive planets, we let them, for Luron would serve as well as ourselves in goading backward peoples to unite and advance. Perhaps Luron, as a social entity, grew wiser each time. Certainly the primitive colonials did. Luron had started a chain reaction which threatened to overthrow the tyranny of superstition on a hundred planets. Good old Luron, our arch-enemy, would see the light itself some day.

The Coordinator shook his head. “Can’t use Luron here. Technologies are entirely too similar. It might shatter both planets, and we wouldn’t want that.”

“So what do we use?”

“You, Conru. You get in with the revolutionaries, you make sure that they want to fight, you—”

“I see,” I told him. “Then I try to stop it at the last minute. Not so soon that the rebellion doesn’t help at all—”

The Coordinator put his hand down flat. “Nothing of the sort. They must fight. And they must be defeated, again and again, if necessary, until they are ready to succeed. That will be, of course, when they are totally against us.”

I stood up. “I understand.”

He waved me back into the chair. “You’ll be lucky to understand it by the time you’re finished with this assignment and transferred to another … that is, if you come out of this one alive.”

I smiled a bit sheepishly and told him to go ahead.

“We have some influence in the underground movement, as you might logically expect. The leader is a man we worked very hard to have elected.”

“A member of one of the despised races?” I guessed.

“The best we could do at this point was to help elect someone from a minority sub-group of the dominant white race. The leader’s name is Levinsohn. He is of the white sub-group known as Jews.”


“How well is this Levinsohn accepted by the movement?”

“Considerable resistance and hostility,” the Coordinator said. “That’s to be expected. However, we’ve made sure that there is no other organization the minority-haters can join, so they have to follow him or quit. He’s able, all right; one of the most able men they have, which helps our aims. Even those who discriminate against Jews reluctantly admire him. He’s moved the headquarters of the movement out into space, and the man’s so brilliant that we don’t even know where. We’ll find out, mainly through you, I hope, but that isn’t the important thing.”

“What is?” I asked, baffled.

“To report on the unification of Earth. It’s possible that the anarch movement can achieve it under Levinsohn. In that case, we’ll make sure they win, or think they win, and will gladly sign a treaty giving Earth equal planetary status in the Empire.”

“And if unity hasn’t been achieved?”

“We simply crush this rebellion and make them start all over again. They’ll have learned some degree of unity from this revolt and so the next one will be more successful.” He stood up and I got out of my chair to face him. “That’s for the future, though. We’ll work out our plans from the results of this campaign.”

“But isn’t there a lot of danger in the policy of fomenting rebellion against us?” I asked.

He lifted his shoulders. “Evolution is always painful, forced evolution even more so. Yes, there are great dangers, but advance information from you and other agents can reduce the risk. It’s a chance we must take, Conru.”

“Conrad,” I corrected him, smiling. “Plain Mr. Conrad Haugen … of Earth.”


II

A few days later, I left North America Center, and in spite of the ominous need to hurry, my eastward journey was a ramble. The anarchs would be sure to check my movements as far back as they could, and my story had better ring true. For the present, I must bemy role, a vagabond.

The city was soon behind me. It was far from other settlement—it is good policy to keep the Centers rather isolated, and we could always contact our garrisons in native towns quickly enough. Before long I was alone in the mountains.

I liked that part of the trip. The Rockies are huge and serene, a fresh cold wind blows from their peaks and roars in the pines, brawling rivers foam through their dales and canyons—it is a big landscape, clean and strong and lonely. It speaks with silence.

I hitched a ride for some hundreds of miles with one of the great truck-trains that dominate the western highways. The driver was Earthling, and though he complained much about the Valgolian tyranny he looked well-fed, healthy, secure. I thought of the wars which had been laying the planet waste, the social ruin and economic collapse which the Empire had mended, and wondered if Terra would ever be fit to rule itself.

I came out of the enormous mountainlands into the sage plains of Nevada. For a few days I worked at a native ranch, listening to the talk and keeping my mouth shut. Yes, there was discontent!

“Their taxes are killing me,” said the owner. “What the hell incentive do I have to produce if they take it away from me?” I nodded, but thought: Your kind was paying more taxes in the old days, and had less to show for it. Here you get your money back in public works and universal security. No one on Earth is cold or hungry. Can you only produce for your own private gain, Earthling?

“The labor draft got my kid the other day,” said the foreman. “He’ll spend two good years of his life working for them, and prob’ly come back hopheaded about the good o’ the Empire.”

There was a time, I thought, when millions of Earthlings clamored for work, or spent years fighting their wars, gave their youth to a god of battle who only clamored for more blood. And how can we have a stable society without educating its members to respect it?

“I want another kid,” said the female cook. “Two ain’t really enough. They’re good boys, but I want a girl too. Only the Eridanian law says if I go over my quota, if I have one more, they’ll sterilize me! And they’d do it, the meddling devils.”

A billion Earthlings are all the Solar System can hold under decent standards of living without exhausting what natural resources their own culture left us, I thought. We aren’t ready to permit emigration; our own people must come first. But these beings can live well here. Only now that we’ve eliminated famine, plague, and war, they’d breed beyond reason, breed till all the old evils came back to throttle them, if we didn’t have strict population control.


“Yeah,” said her husband bitterly. “They never even let my cousin have kids. Sterilized him damn near right after he was born.”

Then he’s a moron, or carries hemophilia, or has some other hereditary taint, I thought. Can’t they see we’re doing it for their own good? It costs us fantastically in money and trouble, but the goal is a level of health and sanity such as this race never in its history dreamed possible.

“They’re stranglin’ faith,” muttered someone else.

Anyone in the Empire may worship as he chooses, but should permission be granted to preach demonstrable falsehoods, archaic superstitions, or antisocial nonsense? The old “free” Earth was not noted for liberalism.

“We want to be free.”

Free? Free for what? To loose the thousand Earthly races and creeds and nationalisms on each other—and on the Galaxy—to wallow in barbarism and slaughter and misery as before we came? To let our works and culture be thrown in the dust, the labor of a century be demolished, not because it is good or bad but simply because it is Valgolian? Epsilon Eridanian!

“We’ll be free. Not too long to wait, either—”

That’s up to nobody else but you!

I couldn’t get much specific information, but then I hadn’t expected to. I collected my pay and drifted on eastward, talking to people of all classes—farmers, mechanics, shopowners, tramps, and such data as I gathered tallied with those of Intelligence.

About twenty-five per cent of the population, in North America at least—it was higher in the Orient and Africa—was satisfied with the Imperium, felt they were better off than they would have been in the old days. “The Eridanians are pretty decent, on the whole. Some of ’em come in here and act nice and human as you please.”

Some fifty per cent was vaguely dissatisfied, wanted “freedom” without troubling to define the term, didn’t like the taxes or the labor draft or the enforced disarmament or the legal and social superiority of Valgolians or some such thing, had perhaps suffered in the reconquest. But this group constituted no real threat. It would tend to be passive whatever happened. Its greatest contribution would be sporadic rioting.

The remaining twenty-five per cent was bitter, waiting its chance, muttering of a day of revenge—and some portion of this segment was spreading propaganda, secretly manufacturing and distributing weapons, engaging in clandestine military drill, and maintaining contact with the shadowy Legion of Freedom.

Childish, melodramatic name! But it had been well chosen to appeal to a certain type of mind. The real, organized core of the anarch movement was highly efficient. In those months I spent wandering and waiting, its activities mounted almost daily.


The illegal radio carried unending programs, propaganda, fabricated stories of Valgolian brutality. I knew from personal experience that some were false, and I knew the whole Imperial system well enough to spot most of the rest at least partly invented. I realized we couldn’t trace such a well-organized setup of mobile and coordinated units, and jamming would have been poor tactics, but even so—

The day is coming…. Earthmen, free men, be ready to throw off your shackles…. Stand by for freedom!

I stuck to my role. When autumn came, I drifted into one of the native cities, New Chicago, a warren of buildings near the remains of the old settlement, the same gigantic slum that its predecessor had been. I got a room in a cheap hotel and a job in a steel mill.

I was Conrad Haugen, Norwegian-American, assigned to a spaceship by the labor draft and liking it well enough to re-enlist when my term was up. I had wandered through much of the Empire and had had a great deal of contact with Eridanians, but was most emphatically not a Terrie. In fact, I thought it would be well if the redskin yoke could be thrown off, both because of liberty and the good pickings to be had in the Galaxy if the Empire should collapse. I had risen to second mate on an interstellar tramp, but could get no further because of the law that the two highest officers must be Valgolian. That had embittered me and I returned to Earth, foot-loose and looking for trouble.


I found it. With officer’s training and the strength due to a home planet with a gravity half again that of Earth, I had no difficulty at all becoming a foreman. There was a big fellow named Mike Riley who thought he was entitled to the job. We settled it behind a shed, with the workmen looking on, and I beat him unconscious as fast as possible. The raw, sweating savagery of it made me feel ill inside. They’d let this loose among the stars!



After that I was one of the boys and Riley was my best friend. We went out together, wenching and drinking, raising hell in the cold dirty canyons of steel and stone which the natives called streets. Valgolia, Valgolia, the clean bare windswept heights of your mountains, soughing trees and thunderous waters and Maara waiting for me to come home! Riley often proposed that we find an Eridanian and beat him to death, and I would agree, hiccupping, because I knew they didn’t go alone into native quarters any more. I sat in the smoky reek of the bars, half deafened by the clatter and raucousness called music, trying not to think of a certain low-ceilinged, quiet tavern amid the gardens of Kalariho, and sobbed the bitterness of Conrad Haugen into my beer.

“Dirty redskins,” I muttered. “Dirty, stinking, bald-headed, sons of bitches. Them and their god-damn Empire. Why, y’know, if ‘t hadn’ been f’ their laws I’d be skipper o’ my own ship now. I knew more’n that slob o’ a captain. But he was born Eridanian—God, to get my hands on his throat!”

Riley nodded. Through the haze of smoke I saw that his eyes were narrowed. He wasn’t drunk when he didn’t want to be, and at times like this he was suddenly as sober as I was, and that in spite of not having a Valgolian liver.

I bided my time, not too obviously anxious to contact the Legion. I just thought they were swell fellows, the only brave men left in the rotten, stinking Empire; I’d sure be on their side when the day came. I worked in the mill, and when out with the boys lamented the fact that we were really producing for the damned Eridanians, we couldn’t even keep the products of our own sweat. I wasn’t obtrusive about it, of course. Most of the time we were just boozing. But when the talk came to the Empire, I made it clear just where I stood.


The winter went. I continued the dreary round of days, wondering how long it would take, wondering how much time was left. If the Legion was at all interested, they would be checking my background right now. Let them. There wouldn’t be much to check, but what there was had been carefully manufactured by the experts of the Intelligence Service.

Riley came into my room one evening. His face was tight, and he plunged to business. “Con, do you really mean all you’ve said about the Empire?”

“Why, of course. I—” I glanced out the window, as if expecting to see a spy. If there were any, I knew he would be native. The Empire just doesn’t have enough men for a secret police, even if we wanted to indulge in that sort of historically ineffective control.

“You’d like to fight them? Like really to help the Legion of Freedom when they strike?”

“You bet your obscenity life!” I snarled. “When they land on Earth, I’ll get a gun somewhere and be right there in the middle of the battle with them!”

“Yeah.” Riley puffed a cigaret for a while. Then he said, “Look, I can’t tell you much. I’m taking a chance just telling you this. It could mean my life if you passed it on to the Eridanians.”

“I won’t.”

His eyes were bleak. “You damn well better not. If you’re caught at that—”

He drew a finger sharply across his throat.

“Quit talking like a B-class stereo,” I bristled. “If you’ve got something to tell me, let’s have it. Otherwise get out.”

“Yeah, sure. We checked up on you, Con, and we think you’re as good a prospect as we ever came across. If you want to fight the Eridanians now—join the Legion now—here’s your chance.”

“My God, you know I do! But who—”

“I can’t tell you a thing. But if you really want to join, memorize this.” Riley gave me a small card on which was written a name and address. “Destroy it, thoroughly. Then quit at the mill and drift to this other place, as if you’d gotten tired of your work and wanted to hit the road again. Take your time, don’t make a beeline for it. When you do arrive, they’ll take care of you.”

I nodded, grimly. “I’ll do it, Mike. And thanks!”

“Just my job.” He smiled, relaxing, and pulled a flask from his overcoat. “Okay, Con, that’s that. We’d better not go out to drink, after this, but nothing’s to stop us from getting stinko here.”


III

Spring had come and almost gone when I wandered into the little Maine town which was my destination. It lay out of the way, with forested hills behind it and the sea at its foot. Most of the houses were old, solidly built, almost like parts of the land, and the inhabitants were slow-spoken, steady folk, fishermen and artisans and the like, settled here and at home with the darkling woods and the restless sea and the high windy sky. I walked down a narrow street with a cool salt breeze ruffling my hair and decided that I liked Portsboro. It reminded me of my own home, twenty light-years away on the wide beaches of Kealvigh.

I made my way to Nat Hawkins’ store and asked for work like any drifter. But when we were alone in the back room, I told him, “I’m Conrad Haugen. Mike Riley said you’d be looking for me.”

He nodded calmly. “I’ve been expecting you. You can work here a few days, sleep at my house, and we’ll run the tests after dark.”

He was old for an Earthling, well over sixty, with white hair and lined leathery face. But his blue eyes were as keen and steady, his gnarled hands as strong and sure as those of any young man. He spoke softly and steadily, around the pipe which rarely left his mouth, and there was a serenity in him which I could hardly associate with anarch fanaticism. But the first night he led me into his cellar, and through a well-hidden trapdoor to a room below, and there he had a complete psychological laboratory.

I gaped at the gleaming apparatus. “How off Earth—”

“It came piece by piece, much of it from Epsilon Eridani itself,” he smiled. “There is, after all, no ban on humans owning such material. But to play safe, we spread the purchases over several years, and made them in the names of many people.”

“But you—”

“I took a degree in psychiatry once. I can handle this.”

He could. He put me through the mill in the next few nights—intelligence tests, psychometry, encephalography, narcosis, psycho-probing, everything his machines and his skill could cover. He did not find out anything we hadn’t meant to be found out. The Service had ways of guarding its agents with counter-blocks. But he got a very thorough picture of Conrad Haugen.

In the end he said, still calmly, “This is amazing. You have an IQ well over the borderline of genius, an astonishing variety of assorted knowledge about the Empire and about technical subjects, and an implacable hatred of Eridanian rule—based on personal pique and containing self-seeking elements, but no less firm for that. You’re out for yourself, but you’ll stand by your comrades and your cause. We’d never hoped for more recruits of your caliber.”

“When do I start?” I asked impatiently.

“Easy, easy,” he smiled. “There’s time. We’ve waited fifty years; we can wait a while longer.” He riffled through the dossier. “Actually, the difficulty is where to assign you. A man who knows astrogation, the use of weapons and machines, and the Empire, who is physically strong as a bull, can lead men, and has a dozen other accomplishments, really seems wasted on any single job. I’m not sure, but I think you’ll do best as a roving agent, operating between Main Base and the planets where we have cells, and helping with the work at the base when you’re there.”


My heart fairly leaped into my throat. This was more than I had dared hope for!

“I think,” said Nat Hawkins, “you’d better just drop out of sight now. Go to Hood Island and stay there till the spaceship comes next time. You can spend the interval profitably, resting and getting a little fattened up; you look half starved. And Barbara can tell you about the Legion.” His leather face smiled itself into a mesh of fine wrinkles. “I think you deserve that, Conrad. And so does Barbara.”

Mentally, I shrugged. My stay in New Chicago had pretty well convinced me that all Earthling females were sluts. And what of it?

The following night, Hawkins and I rowed out to Hood Island. It lay about a mile offshore, a wooded, rocky piece of land on which a moon-whitened surf boomed and rattled. The place had belonged to the Hood family since the first settlements here, but Barbara was the last of them.

Hawkins’ voice came softly to me above the crash of surf, the surge of waves and windy roar of trees as we neared the dock. “She has more reason than most to hate the Eridanians. The Hoods used to be great people around here. They were just about ruined when the redskins first came a-conquering, space bombardment wiped out their holdings, but they made a new start. Then her grandfather and all his brothers were killed in the revolt. Ten years ago, her father was caught while trying to hijack a jetload of guns, and her mother didn’t live long after that. Then her brother was drafted into a road crew and reported killed in an accident. Since then she hasn’t lived for much except the Legion.”

“I don’t blame her,” I said. My voice was a little tight, for indeed I didn’t. But somebody has to suffer; civilization has a heavy price. I couldn’t help adding, “But the Empire’s lately begun paying pensions to cases like that.”

“I know. She draws hers, too, and uses it for the Legion.”

That, of course, was the reason for the pensions.

The boat bumped against the dock. Hawkins threw the painter up to the man who suddenly emerged from the shadow. I saw the cold silver moonlight gleam off the rifle in his hand. “You know me, Eb,” said Hawkins. “This here’s Con Haugen. I slipped you the word about him.”

“Glad to know you, Con.” Eb’s horny palm clasped mine. I liked his looks, as I did those of most of the higher-up Legionnaires. They were altogether different from the low-caste barbarians who were all the rebels I’d seen before. They had a great load of ignorance to drag with them.

We went up a garden path to a rambling stone house. Inside, it was long and low and filled with the memoirs of more gracious days, art and fine furniture, books lining the walls, a fire crackling ruddily in the living room.

“Barbara Hood—Conrad Haugen.”


Almost, I gaped at her. I had expected some gaunt, dowdy fanatic, a little mad perhaps. But she was—well, she was tall and supple and clad in a long dark-blue evening gown that shimmered against her white skin. She was not conventionally pretty, her face was too strong for all of its fine lines, but she had huge blue eyes and a wide soft mouth and a stubborn chin. The light glowed gold on the hair that tumbled to her shoulders.



I blurted something out and she smiled, with a curious little twist that somehow caught in me, and said merely, “Hello, Conrad.”

“Glad to be here,” I mumbled.



“The spaceship should arrive in a month or so,” she went on. “I’ll teach you as much as I can in that time. And you’d better get your own special knowledge onto a record wire, just in case. I understand you’ve been in the Vegan System, for instance, which nobody else in the Legion knows very much about.”

Her tone was cool and business-like, but with an underlying warmth. It was like the sea wind which blew over the islands, and as reviving. I recovered myself and helped mix some drinks. The rest of the evening passed very pleasantly.

Later a servant showed me to my room, a big one overlooking the water. I lay for a while listening to the waves, thinking drowsily how rebellion, when its motives were honest, drew in the best natives of any world, and presently I fell asleep.

The month passed all too quickly and agreeably. I learned things which Intelligence had spent the last three years trying to find out, and dared not attempt to transmit the information. That was maddening, though I knew there was time. But otherwise—

I puttered about the place. There were only three servants, old family retainers who had also joined the anarchs. They had little modern machinery, and of course Earthlings weren’t allowed robots, so there was need for an extra man or two. I cut wood and repaired the roof and painted the boathouse, spaded the garden and cleared out brush and set up a new picket fence. It was good to use my hands and muscles again.

And then Barbara was around to help with most of what I did. In jeans and jersey, the sun ablaze on her hair, laughing at my clumsy jokes or frowning over some tough bit of work, she was another being than the cool, lovely woman who talked books and music and history with me in the evenings, or the crisp bitter anarch who spat facts and figures at me like an angry machine. And yet they were all her. I remembered Ydis, who was dead, and the old pain stirred again. But Barbara was alive.

She was more alive to me than most of Valgolia.

I make no apologies for my feelings. I had been away from anything resembling home for some two years now. But I was careful to remain merely friendly with Barbara.


She didn’t know a great deal about the rebel movement—no one agent on Earth did—but her knowledge was still considerable. There was a fortified base somewhere out in space, built up over a period of four years with the help of certain unnamed elements or planets outside the Empire. I suspected several rival states of that!

Weapons of all kinds were manufactured there in quantities sufficient to arm the million or so rebels of the “regular” force, the twenty million or so in the Solar System and elsewhere who held secret drills and conducted terrorist activities, and the many millions more who were expected to rise spontaneously when the rebel fleet struck.

There was close coordination and a central command at Main Base for the undergrounds of all dissatisfied planets—a new and formidable feature which had not been present in the earlier uprisings. There were rumors of a new and terrible weapon being developed.

In any case, the plan was to assault Epsilon Eridani itself simultaneously with the uprisings in the colonies, so that the Imperial fleet would be recalled to defend the mother world. The anarchs hoped to blast Valgolia to ruin in a few swift blows, and expected that the Empire’s jealous neighbors would sweep in to complete the wreckage.

This gentle girl spoke of the smashing of worlds, the blasting of helpless humans, and the destruction of a culture as if it were a matter of insect extermination.

“Have you ever thought,” I asked casually once, “that the Juranians and the Slighs and our other hypothetical allies may not respect the integrity of Sol any more than the Eridanians do?”

“We can handle them,” she answered confidently. “Oh, it won’t be easy, that time of transition. But we’ll be free.”

“And what then?” I went on. “I don’t want to be defeatist, Barbara, but you know as well as I do that the Eridanians didn’t conquer all mankind at a single swoop. When they invented the interstellar engine and arrived here, man was tearing the Solar System apart in a war between super-nations that was rapidly reducing him to barbarism. The redskins traded for a while, sold arms, some of their adventurers took sides in the conflict, the government stepped in to protect Eridanian citizens and investments—the side which the Eridanians helped won the war, then found its allies were running things and tried to revolt against the protectorate—and without really meaning to, the strangers were conquering and ruling Earth.

“But the different factions of man still hate each other’s guts. There are still capitalists and communists, blacks, whites and Browns, Hindus and Moslems, Germans and Frenchmen, city people and country people—a million petty divisions. There’ll be civil war as soon as the Eridanians are gone.”

“Some, perhaps,” she agreed. “But I think it can be handled. If we have to have civil wars, well, let’s get them over with and live as free men.”

Personally, I could see nothing in the sort of military dictatorship that would inevitably arise which was preferable to an alien, firm, but just rule that insured stability and a reasonable degree of individual liberty.

But I didn’t say that aloud.


Another time we talked of the de-industrialization of Earth. Barbara was, of course, venomous about it. “We were rich once,” she said. “All Earth was. We have one of the richest planets in the Galaxy. But because their own world is poor, the redskins have to take the natural resources of their conquests. Earth is a granary and a lumberyard for Valgolia, and the iron of Mars and the petrolite of Venus go back to their industry. What few factories they allow us, they take their fat percentage of the product.”

“Certainly they’ve made us economically dependent,” I said, “and their standard of living is undoubtedly higher than ours. But ours has, on the whole, gone up since the conquest. We eat better, we’re healthier, we aren’t burdened with the cost of past and present and future wars. Our natural resources aren’t being squandered. The forests and watersheds and farmlands we ruined are coming back under Eridanian supervision.”

She gave me an odd look. “I thought you didn’t like the Empire.”

“I don’t,” I growled. “I don’t want to be held back just because I’m white-skinned. But I’ve known enough reddies personally so that I try to be fair.”

“It’s all right with me,” she said. “I can see your point, intellectually, though I can’t really feel it. But not many of the people will out at Main Base.”

“Free men,” I muttered sardonically.

We went fishing, and swam in the tumbling surf, and stretched lazily on the beach with the sun pouring over us. Or we might go tramping off into the woods on a picnic, to run laughing back when a sudden rain rushed out of the sky, and afterward sit with beer and cheese sandwiches listening to a wire of Beethoven or Mozart or Tchaikovsky—the old Earthlings could write music, if they did nothing else!—and to the rain shouting on the roof. We might have a little highly illegal target practice, or a game of chess, or long conversations which wandered off every which way. I began to have a sneaking hope that the spaceship would be delayed.

We went out one day in Barbara’s little catboat. The waves danced around us, chuckling against the hull, glittering with sunlight, and the sail was like a snow mountain against the sky. For a while we chatted dreamily, ate our lunch, threw the scraps to the hovering gulls. Then Barbara fell silent.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“Oh, nothing. Touch of Weltschmerz, maybe.” She smiled at me. “You know, Con, you don’t really belong in the Legion.”

“How so?” I raised my eyebrows.

“You—well, you’re so darned honest, so really decent under that carefully rough surface, so—reasonable. You’ll never make a good fanatic.”

Honest! I looked away from her. The bright day seemed suddenly to darken.


IV

Spaceships from Main Base had little trouble coming to Earth with their cargoes of guns, propaganda, instructors, and whatever else the rebels on the planet needed. They would take up an orbit just beyond the atmosphere and send boats to the surface after dark. There was little danger of their being detected if they took the usual precautions; a world is simply too big to blockade completely.

Ours dropped on noiseless gravitic beams into the nighted island woods. We had been watching for it the last few days, and now Eb came running to tell us it was here. The pilot followed after him.

“Harry Kane, Conrad Haugen,” Barbara introduced us.

I shook hands, sizing him up. He was tall for an Earthling, almost as big as I, dark-haired, with good-looking young features. He wore some approximation of a uniform, dark-blue tunic and breeches, peaked cap, captain’s insignia, which gave him a rather dashing look. It shouldn’t have made any difference to me, of course, but I didn’t like the way he smiled at Barbara.

She explained my presence, and he nodded eagerly. “Glad to have you, Haugen. We need good men, and badly.” Then to her: “Get Hawkins. You and he are recalled to Main Base.”

“What? But—”

A dark exultation lit his face. “The time for action is near—very near! We’re pulling all our best agents off the planets. They can work more effectively with the fleet now.”

I tried to look as savagely gleeful as they, but inwardly I groaned. How in all the hells was I going to contact Vorka? If I were stranded out in space when the fleet got under way—no, they must have an ultrabeam. I’d manage somehow to call on that even if they caught me at it.

We sent Eb in a boat to get Hawkins while Barbara and I packed a few necessities. Kane paced back and forth, spilling out the news from Main Base, word of mighty forces gathering, rumors of help promised from outside, it was like the thunder which mutters just before a gale.

Presently Hawkins arrived. The old man’s calm was undisturbed: he puffed his pipe and said quietly, “I called up my housekeeper, told her my sister in California was suddenly taken sick and I was leaving at once for the transcontinental jetport. Just to account for disappearing, you know. There aren’t any Eridanians or Terries hereabouts, but we desperate characters—” he grinned, briefly—”can’t be too careful. Brought my equipment along, of course. I suppose they want me to do psychometry on fleet personnel?”

“Something on that order. I don’t know.”

We made our way through a fine drizzle of rain to the little torpedo of the spaceboat. I looked around into the misty dark and breathed a deep lungful of the cool wet wind. And I saw that Barbara was doing the same.


She smiled up at me through the night and the thin sad rain. “Earth is a beautiful world, Con,” she whispered. “I wonder if we’ll ever see it again.”

I squeezed her hand, silently, and we crowded into the boat.

Kane made a smooth takeoff. In minutes we were beyond the atmosphere, Earth was a great glowing shield of cloudy blue behind us, and the stars were bitter bright against darkness. We sent a coded call signal and got a directional beam from the ship. Before long we were approaching it.

I studied the lean black cruiser. She seemed to be of about the same design as the old Solarian interplanetary ships, modified somewhat to accommodate the star drive. Apparently, she was one of those built at Main Base. Her bow guns were dark shadows against the clotted cold silver of the Milky Way. I thought of the death and the ruin which could flame from them, I thought of the hell she and her kind bore—atomic bombs, radiodust bombs, chemical bombs, disease bombs, gravity snatchers, needle beams, disintegrative shells, darkness and doom and the new barbarism—and felt a stiffening within me. Fostering this murderousness was a frightful risk. The main defense against it was Intelligence, and that depended on agents like myself. Perhaps only myself.

The crew was rather small, no battles being anticipated. But they were well disciplined, uniformed and trained, a new Solarian army built up from the fragments of the old. The captain was a stiff gray German who had been a leader in the earlier revolt and since fled to space, but most of the officers, such as Kane, were young and violent in their eagerness.

We orbited around the planet for another day or so till all the boats had returned. There was tension in the ship—if the Imperial navy should happen to spot us, we were done. Off duty, we would sit around talking, smoking, playing games with little concentration.

Kane spent most of his free hours with Barbara. They had much to talk about. I swallowed a certain irrational jealousy and wandered around cautiously pumping as many men as I could.

We got under way at last. By this time I had learned that Main Base was a planet, but no more. Only the highest leadership of the Legion knew its location, and they were pledged to swallow the poison they always carried if there seemed to be any danger of capture.

For several days by the clocks we ran outward, roughly toward Draco. Our velocity was not revealed, and the slow shift in the outside view didn’t help much. I guess that we had come perhaps ten parsecs, but that was only a guess.

Approaching Main Base. Stand by.


When the call rang hollowly down the ship’s passageways, I could feel the weariness and tautness easing, I could see homecoming in the faces around me. I stole a glance at Barbara. Her eyes were wide and her lips parted, she looked ahead as if to stare through the metal walls. She had never been here either, here where all her dreams came home.

So we landed, we slipped down out of the dark and the cold and the void, and I heard the rattle and groan of metal easing into place. When the ship’s interior grav-field was turned off, I felt a sudden heaviness; this world had almost a quarter again the pull of Earth. But people got used to that quickly enough. It was the landscape which was hard to bear.

They had told us that even though Boreas had a breathable atmosphere and a temperature not always fatally low, it was a bleak place. But to one who had never been far from the lovely lands of Earth, its impact was like a blow in the face. Barbara shuddered close to me as we came out of the airlock, and I put an arm about her waist, knowing the sudden feeling of loneliness which rose in her.


Save for the spaceport and other installations, Main Base was underground. There was no city to relieve the grimness of the scene. We were in a narrow valley between sheer, ragged cliffs that soared crazily into a murky sky. The sun was low, a smouldering disc of dull red like curdling blood; its sullen light glimmered on the undying snow and ice and seemed only to make the land darker. Stars glittered here and there in the dusky heavens, hard and bright and cruel, almost, as in space.

Dark sky, dark land, dark world, with the sheer terrible mountains climbing gauntly for the upper gloom, crags and glaciers like fangs against the dizzy cliffs, with the great shadows marching across the bloody snow toward us, with a crazed wind muttering and whining and chewing at our flesh. It was cold. The cold was like a knife. Pain stung with every breath and eyes watered with tears that froze on suddenly numb cheeks. A great shudder ripped through us and we ran toward the entrance to the city. The snow crunched dry and old under our boots, the cold ate up through the soles, and the wind whistled its scorn.

Even when an elevator had taken us a mile down into the warmth and light of the base, we could not forget. It was a city for a million men and other beings and more than a few women and children, a city of long streets and small neat apartments, hydroponic farms and food synthesizers, schools, shops and amusement places, factories, military barracks and arsenals, even an occasional little flower garden. Its people could live here almost indefinitely, working and waiting for their day of rising.

There was little formality in the civilian areas. Everyone who had come this far was trusted. A man came up to us new arrivals from Earth, asked about conditions there, and then said he would show us to our quarters. Later we would be told to whom we should report for duty.

“Let’s go, then, Con,” said Barbara, and slipped a cool little hand into mine. I could not refrain from casting a smug backward glance at the somewhat chapfallen Kane.


V

We slipped quickly into the routine of the place. It was a taut-nerved, hard-working daily round. I could feel the savage expectancy building up like a physical force, but intelligent life is adaptable and we got used to it. There was work to do.

Hawkins was second in command of the psychological service, testing and screening and treating personnel, working on training and indoctrination, and with a voice in the general staff where problems of unit coordination and psychological warfare were concerned. Barbara worked under him, secretary and records keeper and general trouble-shooter. Those were high posts, but both were allowed to retain the nominally civilian status which they preferred.

Their influence and my own test scores got me appointed assistant supervisor of the shipyards. That suited me very well—I was reasonably free from direct orders and discipline, with authority to come and go pretty much as I pleased. They kept me busy; sometimes I worked the clock around, and I did my best to further production of the weapons which might destroy my planet. For whatever I did would make little difference at this late date.

A good deal of my time also went to drill with the armed forces of which, like every able-bodied younger man, I was a reserve member. They put me in an engineer unit and I soon had command of it. I did my best here too, whipping my grim young charges into a sapper group comparable to the Empire’s, for I had to be above all suspicion, even of incompetence.

We worked at our learning. We went topside and shivered and manned our guns, set our mines and threw up our bridges, in the racking cold of Boreas. Over ancient snow and ice we trotted, lost in the jumbled wilderness of cruel peaks and railing wind, peeling the skin from our fingers when we touched metal, camped under scornful stars and a lash of drifting ice-dust—but we learned!

My own, more private education went on apace. I found where we were. It was a forgotten red dwarf star out near the shadowy border of the Empire, listed in the catalogues as having one Class III planet of no interest or value. That was a good choice; no spaceship would ever happen into this system by accident or exploration. The anarchs had built their hopes on the one lonely planet, and had named it Boreas after the god of the north wind in one of their mythologies. My company called it less complimentary things.

The base, including the attached city, was under military command which ultimately led up to the general staff of the Legion. This was a council of officers from half a score of rebellious planets, though Earthlings predominated and, of course, Simon Levinsohn held the supreme authority. I met him a few times, a gaunt, lonely man, enormously able, ridden by his cause as by a nightmare, but not unkindly on a personal level. With just that indomitable heart, the Maccabees had faced Rome’s iron legions—Valgolia was greatly interested in the ancient history of a conquered province, knowing how often it held the key to current problems.

There was also a liaison officer from Luron sitting at staff meetings. Luron!


When I first saw him, this Colonel Wergil, I stood stiff and cold and felt the bristling along my spine. He looked as humanoid as most of the races at the base. Hairless, faintly scaled greenish-yellow skin, six fingers to a hand, and flat chinless face don’t make that breed hideous to me; I have reckoned Ganolons and Mergri among my friends. But Luron—the old and deadly rival, the lesser empire watching its chance to pounce on us, hating us for the check we are on the ambitions of their militarists, Luron.

I have no race prejudices and am willing to take the word of our comparative psychologists that there is no more inherent evil in the Luronians than in any other stock, that the peculiar cold viciousness of their civilization is a matter of unfortunate cultural rather than biological evolution and could be changed in time. But none of this alters the fact that at present they are what they are, brilliant, greedy, heartless, and a menace to the peace of the Galaxy. I have been too long engaged in the struggle between my nation and theirs to think otherwise.

Other states had sent some clandestine help to the Legion, weapons and money and vague promises. Luron, I soon found, had said it would attack us in full strength if the uprising showed a good chance of success, and meanwhile, they gave assistance, credits and materiel and the still more important machine tools, and Wergil’s military advice was useful.

I know now, as I suspected even then, that Levinsohn and his associates were not fooled as to Luron’s ultimate intentions. Indeed, they planned to make common cause with what remained of Valgolia, as well as certain other traditional foes of their present ally, as soon as they had gained their objectives of independence, and stop any threat of aggression from Luron. It was shrewdly planned, but such a shaky coalition, still bleeding with the hurts and hatreds of a struggle just ended, would be weaker than the Empire, and Luron almost certainly would have sowed further dissension in it and waited for its decay before striking.

The Earthlings have a proverb to the effect that he who sups with the Devil must use a long spoon. But they seemed to have forgotten it now.

The attack, I learned, was scheduled for about four months from the time the agents were recalled. The rebels were counting on the Valgolian power being spread too thinly over the Empire to stand off their massed assault on a few key points. Then, with the home planet a radioactive ruin, with revolt in a score of planetary systems and the ensuing chaos and communications breakdown, and with the Luronians invading, the Imperial fleet and military would have to make terms with the anarchs.


It would work. I knew with a dark chill that it would work. Unless somehow I could get a warning out. That had to be done for more than the protection of Epsilon Eridani, which, even in a surprise attack could defend itself better than these conspirators realized. But all bloodshed should be spared, if possible—and the rebellion did not yet deserve to succeed, for the unity achieved thus far had been the unity of a snake pit against a temporary enemy.

Did it all rest on me? God of space, had the whole burden of history suddenly fallen on my shoulders?

I didn’t dare think about it. I forced the consequences of failure out of my forebrain, back down into the unconscious, the breeding ground of nightmares, and lived from one day to the next. I worked, and waited, learned what I could and watched for my chance.

But it was not all grimness and concentration. It couldn’t be; intelligent life just isn’t built that way. We had our social activities, small gatherings or big parties, we relaxed and played. At first I found that gratifying, for it gave me a chance to pump the others. Then I found it maddening, because it kept me from snooping and laying plans. Finally it began to hurt—I was coming to know the anarchs.

They lived and laughed and loved even as humans do. They were basically as decent and reasonable as any similar group of Valgolians. Many were as tormented as I by the thought of the slaughter they readied. There were embittered ones, who had lost all they held dear, and I realized that, while civilization has its price, you can’t be objective about it when you are the one who must pay. There were others who had been well off and had chucked all their hopes to join a desperate cause in which they happened to believe. There were children—and what had they done to deserve having their parents gambling away life?

In spite of their appearance, to which I was now accustomed, they were human. When I had laughed and talked and sung and drunk beer and danced and arranged entertainments with them, they were my friends.

Moodily, I began to see that I would be one of the price-payers.

I saw most of Hawkins and Barbara, and after them—because of her—Kane. The old psychologist and I got along famously. He would drop into my room for a smoke and a cup of coffee and a drawled conversation whenever he had the chance. His slow gentle voice, his trenchancy, the way the little crinkles appeared around his eyes when he smiled, reminded me of my father. I often wish those two could have met. They would have enjoyed each other.

Then Barbara would stop by on her way from work, or, better yet, she would ask me over to her apartment for a home-cooked dinner. Yes, she could cook too. We would sometimes take long walks down the corridors of the city, we even went up once in a while to the surface for a breath of cold air and loneliness, and it was the most natural thing in the world for us to go hand in hand.

There was no sunlight underground. But when the fluorotube glow shone on her hair, I thought of sunlight on Earth, the high keen light of the Colorado plateaus, the morning light stealing through the trees of Hood Island.

Ydis, Ydis, I said, once your violet eyes were like the skies over Kalariho, over Kealvigh, our home, pasture land of winds. But it has been so long. It has been ten years since you died—

I fought. May all the gods bear witness that I fought myself. And I thought I was winning.


VI

I will never forget one certain evening.

Hawkins and I had come over to Barbara’s for supper, and the three of us were sitting now, talking. Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto cried its sorrow, muted in the background, and the serene home she had made of the bare little functional apartment folded itself around us. Then Kane dropped in as he often did, with a casualness that fooled nobody, and sat with all his soul in his eyes, looking at Barbara. He was a nice kid. I didn’t know why he should annoy me so.

The talk shifted to Valgolia. I found myself taking the side of my race. It wasn’t that I hoped to convert anyone, but—well, it was wrong that we should be monsters in the sight of these friends.

“Brutes,” said Kane. “Two-legged animals. Damned bald-headed, copper-skinned giants. Wouldn’t be quite so bad if they were octopi or insects, but they’re just enough different from us to be a caricature. It’s obscene.”

“Sartons look like a dirty joke on mankind,” I said. “Why don’t you object to them?”

“They’re in the same boat as us.”

“Then why mix political and esthetic prejudices? And have you ever thought that you look just as funny to an Eridanian?”

“No race should look odd to another,” said Nat Hawkins. He puffed blue clouds. “Even by our standards, the redskins are handsome, in a more spectacular way than humans, maybe.”

“And Barbara,” I smiled, with a curious little pang inside me, “would look good to any humanoid.”

“I should think so,” said Kane sulkily. “The redskins took enough of our women.”

“Well,” I said, “their original conquistadores were young and healthy, very far from home, and had just finished a hard campaign where they lost many friends. At least there were no half-breeds afterward. And since the reconquest none of their soldiers has been permitted to have anything to do with an Earthwoman against her consent. It’s not their fault if the consent is forthcoming oftener than you idealists think.”

“That sort of thing was more or less standard procedure at home with them, wasn’t it?” asked Hawkins.


I nodded. “The harshness of their native world forced them to develop their technology faster than on Earth, so they kept a lot of barbarian customs well into the industrial age. For instance, the rulers of the state that finally conquered all the others and unified the planet took the title Waelsing, Emperor, and it’s still a monarchy in theory. But a limited monarchy these days, with parliamentary democracy and even local self-government of the town-meeting sort. They’re highly civilized now.”

“I wouldn’t call that spree of conquest they went on exactly civilized.”

“Well, just for argument’s sake, let’s try to look at it from their side,” I answered. “Here their explorers arrived at Sol, found a system richer than they could well imagine—and all the wealth being burned up in fratricidal war. Their technical power was sufficiently beyond ours so that any band of adventurers could do pretty much as it wanted in the Solar System, and all native states were begging for their help. It was inevitable that they’d mix in.

“Sure, the Eridanians have been exploiting Solarian resources, though perhaps more wisely than we did. Sure, they garrison unwilling planets. But from their point of view, they’re slowly civilizing a race of atomic-powered savages, and taking no more than their just reward for it. Sure, they’ve done hideous things, or were supposed to have, but there’ve been plenty of reforms in their policy since our last revolt. They’ve adopted the—the red man’s burden.”

“Could be. But Sol wasn’t their only conquest.”

“Oh, well, of course they had their time of all-out imperialism. There are still plenty of the old school around, starward the course of empire, keep the lesser breeds in their place, and so on. That’s one reason why the highest posts are still reserved for members of their own race, another being that even the liberal ones don’t trust us that far, yet.

“Their first fifty years or so saw plenty of aggression. But then they stabilized. They had as much as they could manage. To put it baldly, the Empire is glutted. And now, without actually admitting they ever did wrong, they’re trying to make up what they did to many of their victims.”

“They could do that easily enough. Just let us go free.”


“I’ve already told you why they don’t dare. Apart from fearing us, they’re economically and militarily dependent on their colonies. You’re an American, Nat. Why didn’t our nation let the South go its own way when it wanted to secede? Why don’t we all go back to Europe and let the Indians have our country?

“And, of course, Epsilon Eridani honestly thinks it has a great civilizing mission, and is much better for the natives than any lesser independence could ever be. In some cases, you’ve got to admit they’re right. Have you ever seen a real simon-pure native king in action? Or read the history of nations like Germany and Russia? And why do we have to segregate races and minorities even in our own organization to prevent clashes?”

“We’re getting there,” said Nat Hawkins. “It’s not easy, but we’ll make it.”

Only you’re not there yet, I thought, and for that reason you must be stopped.

“You claim they’re sated,” said Barbara. “But they’ve kept on conquering here and there, to this very day.”

“Believe it or not, but with rare exceptions that’s been done reluctantly. Peripheral systems have learned how to build star ships, become nuisances or outright menaces, and the Empire has had to swallow them. Modern technology is simply too deadly for anarchy. A full-scale war can sterilize whole planets. That’s another function of empire, so the Eridanians claim—just to keep civilization going till something better can be worked out.”

“Such as what?”

“Well, several worlds already have donagangor status—self-government under the Emperor, representatives in the Imperial Council, and no restrictions on personal advancement of their citizens. Virtual equality with the Valgolians. And their policy is to grant such status to any colony they think is ready for it.”

Hawkins shook his head. “Won’t do, Con. It sounds nice, but old Tom Jefferson had the right idea. ‘If men must wait in slavery until they are ready for freedom, they will wait long indeed.'”

“Who said we were slaves—” I began.

“You talk like a damned reddie yourself,” said Kane. “You seem to think pretty highly of the Empire.”


I gave him a cold look. “What do you think I’m doing here?” I snapped.

“Yeah. Yeah, sorry. I’m kind of tired. Maybe I’d better go now.” Before long Kane made some rather moody good nights and went out.

Nat Hawkins twinkled at me. “I’m a little bushed myself,” he said. “Guess I’ll hit the bunk too.”

When he was gone, I sat smoking and trying to gather up the will to leave. There was a darkness in me. What, after all, was I doing here? Gods, I believed I was in the right, but why is right so pitiless?

On Earth they represent the goddess of justice as blind. On Valgolia she has fangs.

Barbara came over and sat on the arm of my chair. “What’s the matter, Con?” she asked. “You look pretty grim these days.”

“My work’s developing some complications,” I said tonelessly. My mind added: It sure is. No way to call headquarters, the rebellion gathering enormous momentum, and on a basis of treachery and racial hatred.

Barbara’s fingers rumpled my hair, the grafted hair which by now felt more a part of me than my own lost crest. “You’re an odd fellow,” she said quietly. “On the surface so frank and friendly and cheerful, and down underneath you’re hiding yourself and your private unhappiness.”

“Why,” I looked up at her, astonished, “even the psychologists—”

“They’re limited, Con. They can measure, but they can’t feel. Not the way—”

She stopped, and the light glowed in her hair and her eyes were wide and serious on mine and one small hand stole over to touch my fingers. Blindly, I wrenched my face away.

Her voice was low. “It’s some other woman, isn’t it?”

“Other—? Well, no. There was one, but she’s dead now. She died ten years ago.”

Ydis, Ydis!

“Your wife?”

I nodded. “We were only married for three years. My daughter is still alive; she’s going on twelve now. But I haven’t seen her for over two years. She’s not on Earth. I wonder if she even thinks of me.”

“Con,” said Barbara, very softly and gravely, “you can’t go on mourning a woman forever.”

“I’m not. Forget it. I shouldn’t have spoken about it.”

“You needed to. That’s all right.”

“My girl ought to have a mother—” The words came of themselves. What followed thereafter seemed also to happen without my willing it.

Presently Barbara stood back from me. She was laughing, low and sweet and joyous. “Con, you old sourpuss, cheer up! It isn’t that bad, you know!”

I managed a wry grin, though it seemed to need all the energies left in me. “You look so happy your fool self that I have to counter-balance it.”

“Con, if you knew how I’d been hoping!”

We talked for a long time, but she did most of it—the plans, the hopes, the trip we were going to take and the house we were going to build down by the seashore—”Mary,” my daughter, was going to have a home, along with the dozen brothers and sisters she’d have in due course—after the war.

After the war.

I left, finally, stumbling like a blind man toward my quarters. Oh, yes, I loved her and she loved me and we were going to have a home and a sailboat and a dozen children, after the war, when Earth was free. What more could a man ask for?

It had been many years since I’d needed autohypnosis to put myself to sleep, but I used it now.


VII

A month passed.

The delay was partly due to the slowness with which I had to work, even after a plan had been laid. I could only do a little at a time, and the times had to be well separated. Each day brought the moment of onslaught closer, but I dared not hurry myself. If they caught me at my work, there would be an end of all things.

But I cannot swear that my own mind did not prompt me to an unnatural slowness and caution. I was only human, and every day was one more memory.

They had all been very good to us; our friends had a party to celebrate our engagement and we were universally congratulated and all the rest of it. Yes, Kane was there too, shaking my hand and wishing me all the luck in the world. Afterward he went back to his work and his pilot’s practice with a strange fierceness.

If at times I fell into glum abstraction, well, I had always been a little moody and Barbara could tease me out of it. Most of the times I was with her, I didn’t think about the future at all.

There had been a certain deep inward coldness to her. She had carried the old wound of her losses with bitter dignity. But as the days went on, I saw less and less of it. She would even admit that individual Valgolians might be fine fellows and that the Empire had done a few constructive things for Earth. But it was more than a change of attitude. She was thawing after a long winter, she laughed more, she was wholly human now.

Human

We sat one evening, she and I, in one of the big lounges the base had for its personnel. There were only one or two muted lights in the long quiet room, a breathing of music, snatches of whispering like our own. She sat close against me, and my lips kept straying down to brush her hair and her cheek.

“When we’re married—” she said dreamily. Then all at once: “Con, what are we waiting for?”


I looked at her in some surprise.

“Con, why do we assume we can’t get married before the war’s over?” Her voice was low and hurried, shaking just a little. “The base here has chaplains. It’s less than a month now till the business starts. God knows what’ll happen then. Either of us might be killed.” I heard her gulp. “Con, if they killed you—”

“They won’t,” I said. “I’m kill-proof.”

“No, no. We have so little time, and it may be all we’ll ever have. Marry me now, darling, dearest, and at least there’ll be something to remember. Whatever comes, we’ll have had that while.”

“I tell you,” I insisted, with a sudden hideous dismay, “there’s nothing to worry about. Forget it.”

“Oh, I’m not asking for pity. I’ve more happiness now than is right. Maybe that’s why I’m afraid. But, Con, they killed my father and they killed my mother and they killed Jimmy, and if they take you too, it’ll be more than I can stand.”

The savage woe of an old Earthly poet lanced through my brain:

The time is out of joint
O cursèd spite,
That ever I was born
To set it right!

And then, for just a moment, there came the notion of yielding. You love the girl, Conru. You love her so much it’s a pain in you. Well, take her! Marry her!

No. I was not excessively tender of heart or conscience, but neither was I that kind of scoundrel.

I kissed her words away. Afterward, alone in the darkness of my room, I realized that Conrad Haugen had no good reason to hang back. It was true, all she said was true, and no other couple was waiting for an uncertain future.

It was the time for action.


I had been ready for days now, postponing the moment. And those days were marching to the time of war, the rebels were quivering to go, a scant few weeks at most lay between me and the ruin of Valgolian plans and work and hope.

In my steadily expanding official capacity, I could go anywhere and do almost anything in an engineering line. So, bit by bit, I had tinkered with the base’s general alarm system.

We had scoutships posted, of course, but by the very nature of things they had to be close to the planet or an approaching enemy would slip between them without detection. And the substantial vibrations of a ship traveling faster than light do not arrive much ahead of the ship itself. Whatever warning we had of a hypothetical assault would be very short. It would be signaled to all of us by a siren on the intercommunications system, and after that it would be battle stations, naval units to their ships and all others to such ground defenses as we had.

But modern warfare is all to the offense. There is no way of stopping an attack from space except by meeting it and annihilating it before it gets to its destination. The rebels were counting on that fact to aid them when they struck, but it would, of course, work against them if their enemy should happen to hit first. Everyone was understandably nervous about the chance of our being discovered and assailed.

Working a little at a time, I had put a special switch in the general alarm circuit. It showed up merely as one of many on a sector call board near my room; no one was likely to notice it. And my quarters were not those originally given me. I had moved to a smaller place farther from Barbara, ostensibly to be near my work at the shipyards, actually to be near the base’s ultrabeam shack.

Now it was time to act.

I needed an excuse for not going to the gun turret where I was assigned. That involved faking a serious fever, but like all Intelligence men, I had been trained to full psychosomatic integration. The same neural forces that in hysteria produce paralysis, stigmata, and other real symptoms were under my conscious control. I thought myself sick. By morning I was half delirious and my veins were on fire.

The surgeon general came to see me. “What the hell’s the trouble?” he wondered. “This place is supposed to be sterile.”

“Maybe it’s too damn sterile,” I murmured with a perfectly genuine weakness. Then, fighting the light-headedness that hummed and buzzed in me: “Tsitbu fever, Doc. I’m sure that’s what it is.”

“Can’t say I’ve ever heard of it.”

“You’ll find it in your medical books.” He would, too. “It’s found on the planet Sirius V, where I once visited. Filter-passing virus, transmitted by airborne spores. Not contagious here. In humans it becomes chronic; no ill effects except a few days’ fever like this every few years. Now go ‘way and lemme die in peace.” I closed my eyes on the distorted and unreal world of sickness.


Later Barbara came in, pale and with her hair like a rumpled halo. I had to assure her many times that I was all right and would be on my feet in two or three days. Then she smiled and sat down on the bunk and passed a cool palm over my forehead.

“Poor Con,” she said. “Poor squarehead.”

“I feel fine as long as you’re here,” I whispered.

“Don’t talk,” she said. “Just go to sleep.” She kissed me and sat quiet. Hers was the rare gift of being a definite personality even when silent and motionless. I clasped her hand and pretended to fall into uneasy sleep. After a while she kissed me again, very softly, and went out.

I told my body to recover. It took time, hours of time, while the stubborn cells retreated to a normal level of activity. I lay there thinking of many things, most of them unpleasant.

It was well into the night, the logical time to act even if the factories did go on a twenty-four hour basis.

I got up, still swaying a little with weakness, the dregs of the fever ringing in my head. After I had vomited and swallowed a stimulant tablet, I felt better. I put on my uniform, but substituted a plain service jacket without insignia of rank for the tunic. That should make me fairly inconspicuous in the confusion.

Strength came. I glanced cautiously along the dim-lit corridor, and it was empty and silent. I stole out and hurried toward the ultrabeam shack. My hidden switch was on the way; I threw it and ran on with lowered head.

The siren screamed behind me, before me, around me, the howling of all the devils in hell—Hoo! hoo! Battle stations! Strange ships approaching! Battle stations! All hands to battle stations! Hoo-oo!

I could imagine the pandemonium that erupted, men boiling out of factories and rooms, cursing and yelling and dashing frantically for their posts—children screaming in terror, women white-faced with sudden numbness—weapons manned, instruments sweeping the skies, spaceships roaring heavenward, incoherent yelling on the intercoms to find out who had given that signal. With luck, I would have fifteen minutes or half an hour of safe insanity.

A few men raced by me, on their way to the nearest missile rack. They paid me no heed, and I hurried along my own path.

The winding stair leading up to the ultrabeam shack loomed before me. I went its length, three steps at a time, bounding and gasping with my haste, up to the transmitter.

It was the tenuous link binding together a score of rebel planets, the only communication with the stars that glittered so coldly overhead. The ultrabeam does not have an infinite velocity, but it does have an unlimited speed, one depending solely on the frequency of the generating equipment, and since it only goes to such receivers as are tuned to its pattern—there must be at least one such tuned unit for the generator to work—it has a virtually infinite range. So men can talk between the stars, but are their words the wiser for that?


Up and up and up, round and round, up and up, metal clanging underfoot and always the demon screech of the siren—up!

I sprang from the head of the stairs and crossed the areaway in one leap to the open door of the shack. There was only one operator on duty, a slim boyish figure before the glittering panel. He didn’t hear me as I came behind him. I knocked him out with a calculated blow to the base of the skull. He’d be unconscious for at least fifteen minutes and that was time enough. I heaved his body out of the chair and sat down.

The unit was set for the complicated secret scrambler pattern of the Legion, one which was changed periodically just in case. I twirled the dials, adjusting for the pattern of the set I knew was kept tuned for me at Vorka’s headquarters.

The set hummed, warming up. I lifted my eyes and stared into the naked face of Boreas. The shack was above ground, itself dominated by the skeletal tower of the transmitter, and a broad port revealed land and sky.



Overhead the stars were glittering, bright and hard and cruel, flashing and flashing out of the crystal dark. The peaks rose on every side, soaring dizziness of cliffs and ragged snarl of crags, hemming us in with our tiny works and struggles. It was bitterly, ringingly cold out there; the snow screamed when you walked on it; the snapping thunder of frost-split rock woke the dull roar of avalanches, and there was the wind, the old immortal wind, moaning and blowing and wandering under the stars. I saw them running, little antlike men spilling from their nest and racing across the snow before they froze. I saw the ships rise one after the other and rush darkly skyward. The base had come alive and was reaching up to defy the haughty stars.

The set buzzed and whistled, warming up, muttering with the cosmic interference whose source nobody knows. I began to speak into the microphone, softly and urgently: “Calling Intelligence HQ, Sol III, North America Center. Captain Halgan Conru calling North America Center. Come in, Center, come in.”


The receiver rustled with the thin dry voice of the stars. Dimly, I could hear the wind outside, snarling around the walls.

“Come in, Center. Come in, Center.”



“Captain Halgan!” The voice rattled into the waiting stillness of the shack. “Captain Halgan, is it really you?”

“Get General Vorka at once,” I said. “Meanwhile, are you recording? All right, be sure you get this.”

I told them everything I knew. I told them what planet this was, and where we were on its surface, and what our strength and plans were. I gave them the disposition of the scoutship pickets, as far as those were known to me, and the standard Legion recognition signals. I finished with an account of the savage differences still existing between Earthman and Earthman, and Earth and its treacherous allies. And all the time I was talking to a recording machine. Nobody was listening.

When I was through, I waited a minute, not feeling any particular emotion. I was too tired. I sat there, listening to the wind and the interstellar whistling, till Vorka spoke to me.

“Halgan! Halgan, you’ve done it!”

“Shut up,” I said. “What’s coming now?”

“I checked the Fleet units. We have a Supernova with escort at Bramgar, about fifteen light-years from where you are. You are at their base, aren’t you? Can you hold out for two days more?”

“I think so.”

“Better get into the hills. We may have to bombard.”

“Go to hell.” I turned off the set.

Now to get back. They must already know it was a trick; they must be scouring the base for the saboteur. As soon as all loyal men were back, the hunt would really be on.

I had, of course, worn gloves. There would be no fingerprints. And the operator wouldn’t know who had attacked him.

I changed the scrambler setting to one picked at random. And in a corner, as if it had fallen there by accident, I dropped a handkerchief stolen from Wergil of Luron. The tiny fragments of tissue which adhere to such a thing could easily be proven to be from him or one of his associates, for the basic Luronian life-molecules are all levo-rotatory. It might help.

I slipped back down the stairs, quickly and quietly. It was over. The base was as good as taken. But there was more to be done. Apart from the saving of my own life, there was still a desperate need for secrecy. For if the rebels knew what was coming, they might choose to stand and fight, or they might flee into the roadless wildernesses of space. Whichever it was, all our work and sacrifice would have gone for little.


The provocateur policy is the boldest and most farsighted enterprise ever undertaken. It is the first attempt to make history as we choose, to control the great social forces we are only dimly beginning to understand, so that intelligence may ultimately be its own master.

Sure. Very fine and idealistic, and no doubt fairly true as well. But there is death and treachery in it, loneliness and heartbreak, and the bitterness of the betrayed. Have we the right to set ourselves up as God? Can we really say, in our omniscience, that everyone but us is wrong? There were sane, decent, intelligent folk here on Boreas, the ones we needed so desperately for all civilization. Did we have to make them our enemies, so that their grandchildren might be our friends?

I didn’t know. Wherever I turned, there were treason and injustice. However hard I tried to do right, I had to wrong somebody.

I ran on, back to my cabin. I peeled off my clothes and dived into bed, and by the time they looked in on me I had worked back most of my fever.

Don’t think, Conru. Don’t think of this new victory and the safety of the Empire. And, perhaps, a step closer to the harshly won unity of Earth. Don’t think of the way the light catches in Barbara’s hair and gets turned into molten gold. You’ve got a fever to create, man. You’ve got to think yourself sick again. That ought to be easy.


VIII

Barbara came in. She was white and still, and presently she leaned her head against my breast and cried quietly, for a long time.

“There is a spy here,” she told me.

“I heard about it.” I stroked her hair and held her to me, clumsily. “Do you know who it was?”

“I don’t know. Somehow, they seem to think the Luronians may be guilty, but they aren’t sure. They arrested them, and two were killed resisting. Colonel Wergil is in the brig now, while they decide if Luron can still be trusted.”

“It can’t,” I said. “Earth must win alone.”

“We’ll win,” she said dauntlessly. “With Luron or without it, we’ll win.” Then, like a little frightened girl, creeping close to me: “But we needed that help so much.”

I kissed her and remained silent.

The next day I got on my feet again, weak but recovered. I wandered aimlessly around the base, waiting for Barbara to get through work, listening to people talk. It was ugly, the fear and tension and wolfish watchfulness. Whom can we trust? Who is the enemy?

Mostly, they thought the Luronians were guilty. After all, those were the only beings on the planet who had not had to pass a rigorous investigation and psychological examination. But nobody was sure.

Levinsohn spoke over the televisor. His gaunt, lined face had grown very tired, yet there was metal in his voice. The new situation necessitated a change of plans, but the time of assault would, if anything, be moved ahead. “Be of good heart. Stand by your comrades. We’ll still be free!”

I went to Barbara’s apartment and we sat up very late. But even in this private record I do not wish to say what we talked about.


And the next day the Empire came.

There was one Supernova ship with light escort, but that was enough. Such vessels have the mass of a large asteroid, and one of them can sterilize a planet; two or three can take it apart. Theoretically, a task force comprising twenty Nova-class battleships with escorts can reduce one of those monsters if it is willing to lose most of its units. But nothing less can even do significant damage, and the rebel base did not have that much. Nor could they get even what they had into full action.

The ships rushed out of interstellar space, flashing the recognition signals I had given. Before the picket vessels suspected what was wrong, the Valgolians were on them. One managed to bleat a call to base and the alarm screamed again, men rushed to battle stations. Then the Imperials blanketed all communications with a snarl of interference through which nothing the rebels had could drive.

So naturally they were thought to have been annihilated in a few swift blazes of fire and steel, a quick clean death and forgetfulness of defeat. But only the drivers were crippled, and then the Supernova yanked the vessels to its titan flanks and held them in unbreakable gravity beams. The crews would be taken later, with narcotic gas or paralyzer beams—alive.

For the Empire needs its rebels.

I knew the uselessness of going to battle stations, so I hung behind, seeking out Barbara, whose place was with the missile computer bank. I met her and Kane in the hallway. The boy’s face was white, and there were tears running down his cheeks.

“This is the end,” he said. “They’ve found us out, and there’s nothing left but to die. Good by, Barbara.” He kissed her, wildly, and ran for his ship. Moodily, I watched him go. He expected death, and he would get only capture, and afterward—

“What are you doing here, Con?” asked Barbara.

“I’m too shaky to be any good in the artillery. Let me go with you, I can punch a computer.”

She nodded silently, and we went off together.


The floor shook under us, and a crash of rock roared down the halls. The heavy weapons on the Supernova were bloodlessly reducing our ground installations and our ships not yet in action to smashed rubble. They would kill not a single one of us, except by uncontrollable accident, and save many Valgolian and Earth lives that way, but it wasn’t pleasant to be slugged. The girl and I staggered ahead. When the lights went out, I stopped and held her.

“It’s no use,” I said. “They’ve got us.”

“Let me go!” she cried.

I hung on, and suddenly she collapsed against me, crying and shaking. We stood there with the city rumbling and shivering around us, waiting.

Presently the Valgolian commander released the interference and contacted Levinsohn, offering terms of surrender. It seemed to Levinsohn, and it was meant to seem, that further resistance would be useless butchery. His ships were gone and his foes need only bombard him to ruin. He capitulated, and one by one we laid down our arms and filed to meet the victors.

The terms, as announced by messengers—the intercom was out of action—were generous. Leading rebels and those judged potentially “dangerous” would go to penal colonies on various Earthlike planets. Except that they weren’t penal colonies at all, but, of course, the Earthlings wouldn’t know this. They were indoctrination centers, and, with all my bitterness, I still longed to observe a man like Levinsohn after five years in one of the centers. He’d see things in a different perspective. He’d see the Empire for what it was—even if I sometimes had a little trouble seeing that now—and he’d be a better rebel for it.

Someday Levinsohn and his kind would be back on Earth, the new leaders ready to lead the way to a new tomorrow. And I would be with them.

I’d be back with Levinsohn and the rest, and with Barbara, too, and we’d try to pave the way to the peace and friendship. But meanwhile there’d be other revolutions—striving and hoping and breaking their hearts daring what they thought would be death to win what they called freedom and what we hoped would be evolution.

It was the fire to temper a new civilization.

We walked down the hall, Barbara and I, hand in hand, alone in spite of all the people who were shuffling the same way. Most of them were weeping. But Barbara’s head was high now.

“What will happen to us?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “But, Barbara, whatever happens after this, remember that I love you. Remember that I’ll always love you.”

“I love you too,” she smiled, and kissed me. “We’ll be together, Con. That’s all that matters. We’ll be together.”

That was important—and it made me feel good. Yes, we’d be together; I’d see to that. But for a while Barbara would hate me through all the long years of the indoctrination. Someday, perhaps, she would understand … the indoctrination could do it, and I could help. But by the gods of space, how would it be to take that hate all that while?


We came out into the central chamber where the prisoners were gathering to be herded up to the ships. Armed Valgolian guards stood under the glare of improvised lights. Other Imperials were going through the city, flushing out those who might be hiding and removing whatever our armed forces could use. The equipment would do no one any good here, and Boreas would be left to its darkness.

It was cold in the vast shadowy room. The heating plant had broken down and the ancient cold of Boreas was seeping in. Barbara shivered and I held her close to me. Nat Hawkins moved over to join us, wordlessly.

I was questioned in a locked room by one of the big Valgolian officers. He looked at a stereograph in his hand and he took me aside, but it was not unusual. Many of the starbound prisoners were being questioned by their guards, and I was merely one of them.

“Colonel Halgan?” the officer asked with an eagerness close to hero-worship. He was obviously fresh from school and military terminology came from his lips as if it really meant something to a Valgolian. The colonel, of course, meant that in a titular sense I had been elevated for my work. Funny, if you use the language enough, you get to believe it yourself.

“Sir,” the young officer continued, “this is one of the greatest pieces of work I’ve ever seen. I am to extend the official congratulations of—”

I let him talk for a while and then I raised my hand peremptorily and I told him that the girl with the Earthling Hawkins was to go along for indoctrination, despite the fact that her name did not appear on his lists. He nodded, and I went back to Barbara, but half a dozen men had come between us.

Levinsohn and five guards. The man’s carriage was still erect, the old unbreakable pride and courage were still in him. Someone among the prisoners broke loose and rushed at him, cursing, till the Valgolians thrust him back into line.

“Levinsohn!” screamed the man. “Levinsohn, you dirty Jew, you sold us out!”

There you see why this rebellion had to be crushed. Earth still had a long way to go. The Levinsohns, the Barbaras, the more promising of the anarchs would be educated and returned and the civilizing process would go on. Earth’s best and bravest would unite and fight us, and with each defeat they would learn something of what we had to teach them, that all races, however divergent, must respect each other and work together, learn it with an intensity which the merely intellectual teaching of schools and propaganda could not achieve alone—or, at any rate, soon enough.

Valgolia is the great and lonely enemy, the self-appointed Devil since none of us can be angels. It is the source of challenge and adversity such as has always driven intelligence onward and upward, in spite of itself.

Sooner or later, generations hence, perhaps, all the subject worlds will have attained internal unity, forgetting their very species in a common bond of intelligence. And on that day Valgolia’s work will be done. She and her few friends, her donagangors, will seemingly capitulate without a fight and become simply part of a union of free and truly civilized planets.

And such a union will be firmer and more enduring than all the tyrant empires of the past. It will have the strength of a thousand or more races, working together in the harmony which they achieved in struggling against us.


That is the goal, but it is a long way ahead; there may be centuries needed, and meanwhile Valgolia is alone.

Barbara would understand. In time she would understand what she as yet did not even know. But first would be the hatred, the cold stark hatred that must come of knowing who and what I really am. I could only wait for that hatred to come after she learned, and then wait for it to go, slowly, slowly….

Lines of the Earthlings were filing forward, and, with Nat Hawkins, Barbara waited for me. I walked to her and took her hand. Her head was high, as high as Levinsohn’s. She expected all of us to die, but she’d meet the relatives and friends she thought were dead.

It would be a great, a crushing humiliation, to know one’s martyrs were alive and being well treated and intensively educated by the foe, who was supporting and encouraging one’s supposedly dangerous revolution.

“It won’t be so bad as long as we’re together, darling,” I said.

She smiled, misunderstanding, and kissed me defiantly before our Valgolian guards.









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SF33Innocent at Large by Karen Anderson and Poul Anderson

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INNOCENT AT LARGE

By POUL AND KAREN ANDERSON

Illustrated by WOOD

[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Galaxy Science Fiction July 1958.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


A hayseed Martian among big-planet slickers … of course
he would get into trouble. But that was nothing compared
to the trouble he would be in if he did not get into trouble!


The visiphone chimed when Peri had just gotten into her dinner gown. She peeled it off again and slipped on a casual bathrobe: a wisp of translucence which had set the president of Antarctic Enterprise—or had it been the chairman of the board?—back several thousand dollars. Then she pulled a lock of lion-colored hair down over one eye, checked with a mirror, rumpled it a tiny bit more and wrapped the robe loosely on top and tight around the hips.

After all, some of the men who knew her private number were important.

She undulated to the phone and pressed its Accept. “Hello-o, there,” she said automatically. “So sorry to keep you waiting. I was just taking a bath and—Oh. It’s you.”

Gus Doran’s prawnlike eyes popped at her. “Holy Success,” he whispered in awe. “You sure the wires can carry that much voltage?”



“Well, hurry up with whatever it is,” snapped Peri. “I got a date tonight.”

“I’ll say you do! With a Martian!”


Peri narrowed her silver-blue gaze and looked icily at him. “You must have heard wrong, Gus. He’s the heir apparent of Indonesia, Inc., that’s who, and if you called up to ask for a piece of him, you can just blank right out again. I saw him first!”

Doran’s thin sharp face grinned. “You break that date, Peri. Put it off or something. I got this Martian for you, see?”

“So? Since when has all Mars had as much spending money as one big-time marijuana rancher? Not to mention the heir ap—”

“Sure, sure. But how much are those boys going to spend on any girl, even a high-level type like you? Listen, I need you just for tonight, see? This Martian is strictly from gone. He is here on official business, but he is a yokel and I do mean hayseed. Like he asked me what the Christmas decorations in all the stores were! And here is the solar nexus of it, Peri, kid.”

Doran leaned forward as if to climb out of the screen. “He has got a hundred million dollars expense money, and they are not going to audit his accounts at home. One hundred million good green certificates, legal tender anywhere in the United Protectorates. And he has about as much backbone as a piece of steak alga. Kid, if I did not happen to have experience otherwise with a small nephew, I would say this will be like taking candy from a baby.”

Peri’s peaches-and-cream countenance began to resemble peaches and cream left overnight on Pluto. “Badger?” she asked.

“Sure. You and Sam Wendt handle the routine. I will take the go-between angle, so he will think of me as still his friend, because I have other plans for him too. But if we can’t shake a million out of him for this one night’s work, there is something akilter. And your share of a million is three hundred thirty-three—”

“Is five hundred thousand flat,” said Peri. “Too bad I just got an awful headache and can’t see Mr. Sastro tonight. Where you at, Gus?”


The gravity was not as hard to take as Peter Matheny had expected. Three generations on Mars might lengthen the legs and expand the chest a trifle, but the genes had come from Earth and the organism readjusts. What set him gasping was the air. It weighed like a ton of wool and had apparently sopped up half the Atlantic Ocean. Ears trained to listen through the Martian atmosphere shuddered from the racket conducted by Earth’s. The passport official seemed to bellow at him.

“Pardon me for asking this. The United Protectorates welcome all visitors to Earth and I assure you, sir, an ordinary five-year visa provokes no questions. But since you came on an official courier boat of your planet, Mr. Matheny, regulations force me to ask your business.”

“Well—recruiting.”

The official patted his comfortable stomach, iridescent in neolon, and chuckled patronizingly. “I am afraid, sir, you won’t find many people who wish to leave. They wouldn’t be able to see the Teamsters Hour on Mars, would they?”

“Oh, we don’t expect immigration,” said Matheny shyly. He was a fairly young man, but small, with a dark-thatched, snub-nosed, gray-eyed head that seemed too large for his slender body. “We learned long ago that no one is interested any more in giving up even second-class citizenship on Earth to live in the Republic. But we only wanted to hire——uh, I mean engage—an, an advisor. We’re not businessmen. We know our export trade hasn’t a chance among all your corporations unless we get some—a five-year contract…?”

He heard his words trailing off idiotically, and swore at himself.

“Well, good luck.” The official’s tone was skeptical. He stamped the passport and handed it back. “There, now, you are free to travel anywhere in the Protectorates. But I would advise you to leave the capital and get into the sticks—um, I mean the provinces. I am sure there must be tolerably competent sales executives in Russia or Congolese Belgium or such regions. Frankly, sir, I do not believe you can attract anyone out of Newer York.”

“Thanks,” said Matheny, “but, you see, I—we need—that is…. Oh, well. Thanks. Good-by.”

He backed out of the office.


A dropshaft deposited him on a walkway. The crowd, a rainbow of men in pajamas and robes, women in Neo-Sino dresses and goldleaf hats, swept him against the rail. For a moment, squashed to the wire, he stared a hundred feet down at the river of automobiles. Phobos! he thought wildly. If the barrier gives, I’ll be sliced in two by a dorsal fin before I hit the pavement!

The August twilight wrapped him in heat and stickiness. He could see neither stars nor even moon through the city’s blaze. The forest of multi-colored towers, cataracting half a mile skyward across more acreage than his eyes reached, was impressive and all that, but—he used to stroll out in the rock garden behind his cottage and smoke a pipe in company with Orion. On summer evenings, that is, when the temperature wasn’t too far below zero.

Why did they tap me for this job? he asked himself in a surge of homesickness. What the hell is the Martian Embassy here for?

He, Peter Matheny, was no more than a peaceful professor of sociodynamics at Devil’s Kettle University. Of course, he had advised his government before now—in fact, the Red Ankh Society had been his idea—but still he was at ease only with his books and his chess and his mineral collection, a faculty poker party on Tenthday night and an occasional trip to Swindletown—

My God, thought Matheny, here I am, one solitary outlander in the greatest commercial empire the human race has ever seen, and I’m supposed to find my planet a con man!

He began walking, disconsolately, at random. His lizardskin shirt and black culottes drew glances, but derisive ones: their cut was forty years out of date. He should find himself a hotel, he thought drearily, but he wasn’t tired; the spaceport would pneumo his baggage to him whenever he did check in. The few Martians who had been to Earth had gone into ecstasies over the automation which put any service you could name on a twenty-four-hour basis. But it would be a long time before Mars had such machines. If ever.

The city roared at him.

He fumbled after his pipe. Of course, he told himself, that’s why the Embassy can’t act. I may find it advisable to go outside the law. Please, sir, where can I contact the underworld?

He wished gambling were legal on Earth. The Constitution of the Martian Republic forbade sumptuary and moral legislation; quite apart from the rambunctious individualism which that document formulated, the article was a practical necessity. Life was bleak enough on the deserts, without being denied the pleasure of trying to bottom-deal some friend who was happily trying to mark the cards. Matheny would have found a few spins of roulette soothing: it was always an intellectual challenge to work out the system by which the management operated a wheel. But more, he would have been among people he understood.

The frightful thing about the Earthman was the way he seemed to exist only in organized masses. A gypsy snake oil peddler, plodding his syrtosaur wagon across Martian sands, just didn’t have a prayer against, say, the Grant, Harding & Adams Public Relations Agency.


Matheny puffed smoke and looked around. His feet ached from the weight on them. Where could a man sit down? It was hard to make out any individual sign through all that flimmering neon. His eye fell on one that was distinguished by relative austerity.

THE CHURCH OF CHOICE
Enter, Play, Pray

That would do. He took an upward slideramp through several hundred feet of altitude, stepped past an aurora curtain, and found himself in a marble lobby next to an inspirational newsstand.

“Ah, brother, welcome,” said a red-haired usherette in demure black leotards. “The peace that passeth all understanding be with you. The restaurant is right up those stairs.”

“I—I’m not hungry,” stammered Matheny. “I just wanted to sit in—”

“To your left, sir.”

The Martian crossed the lobby. His pipe went out in the breeze from an animated angel. Organ music sighed through an open doorway. The series of rooms beyond was dim, Gothic, interminable.

“Get your chips right here, sir,” said the girl in the booth.

“Hm?” said Matheny.

She explained. He bought a few hundred-dollar tokens, dropped a fifty-buck coin down a slot marked CONTRIBUTIONS, and sipped the martini he got back while he strolled around studying the games. He stopped, frowned. Bingo? No, he didn’t want to bother learning something new. He decided that the roulette wheels were either honest or too deep for him. He’d have to relax with a crap game instead.

He had been standing at the table for some time before the rest of the congregation really noticed him. Then it was with awe. The first few passes he had made were unsuccessful. Earth gravity threw him off. But when he got the rhythm of it, he tossed a row of sevens. It was a customary form of challenge on Mars. Here, though, they simply pushed chips toward him. He missed a throw, as anyone would at home: simple courtesy. The next time around, he threw for a seven just to get the feel. He got a seven. The dice had not been substituted on him.

“I say!” he exclaimed. He looked up into eyes and eyes, all around the green table. “I’m sorry. I guess I don’t know your rules.”

“You did all right, brother,” said a middle-aged lady with an obviously surgical bodice.

“But—I mean—when do we start actually playing? What happened to the cocked dice?”


The lady drew herself up and jutted an indignant brow at him. “Sir! This is a church!”

“Oh—I see—excuse me, I, I, I—” Matheny backed out of the crowd, shuddering. He looked around for some place to hide his burning ears.

“You forgot your chips, pal,” said a voice.

“Oh. Thanks. Thanks ever so much. I, I, that is—” Matheny cursed his knotting tongue. Damn it, just because they’re so much more sophisticated than I, do I have to talk like a leaky boiler?

The helpful Earthman was not tall. He was dark and chisel-faced and sleekly pomaded, dapper in blue pajamas with a red zigzag, a sleighbell cloak and curly-toed slippers.

“You’re from Mars, aren’t you?” he asked in the friendliest tone Matheny had yet heard.

“Yes. Yes, I am. M-my name’s Peter Matheny. I, I—” He stuck out his hand to shake and chips rolled over the floor. “Damn! Oh, excuse me, I forgot this was a church. Never mind the chips. No, please. I just want to g-g-get the hell out of here.”

“Good idea. How about a drink? I know a bar downshaft.”

Matheny sighed. “A drink is what I need the very most.”

“My name’s Doran. Gus Doran. Call me Gus.”

They walked back to the deaconette’s booth and Matheny cashed what remained of his winnings.

“I don’t want to—I mean if you’re busy tonight, Mr. Doran—”

“Nah. I am not doing one thing in particular. Besides, I have never met a Martian. I am very interested.”

“There aren’t many of us on Earth,” agreed Matheny. “Just a small embassy staff and an occasional like me.”

“I should think you would do a lot of traveling here. The old mother planet and so on.”

“We can’t afford it,” said Matheny. “What with gravitation and distance, such voyages are much too expensive for us to make them for pleasure. Not to mention our dollar shortage.” As they entered the shaft, he added wistfully: “You Earth people have that kind of money, at least in your more prosperous brackets. Why don’t you send a few tourists to us?”

“I always wanted to,” said Doran. “I would like to see the what they call City of Time, and so on. As a matter of fact, I have given my girl one of those Old Martian rings last Ike’s Birthday and she was just gazoo about it. A jewel dug out of the City of Time, like, made a million years ago by a, uh, extinct race … I tell you, she appreciated me for it!” He winked and nudged.

“Oh,” said Matheny.


He felt a certain guilt. Doran was too pleasant a little man to deserve—

“Of course,” Matheny said ritually, “I agree with all the archeologists it’s a crime to sell such scientifically priceless artifacts, but what can we do? We must live, and the tourist trade is almost nonexistent.”

“Trouble with it is, I hear Mars is not so comfortable,” said Doran. “I mean, do not get me wrong, I don’t want to insult you or anything, but people come back saying you have given the planet just barely enough air to keep a man alive. And there are no cities, just little towns and villages and ranches out in the bush. I mean you are being pioneers and making a new nation and all that, but people paying half a megabuck for their ticket expect some comfort and, uh, you know.”

“I do know,” said Matheny. “But we’re poor—a handful of people trying to make a world of dust and sand and scrub thorn into fields and woods and seas. We can’t do it without substantial help from Earth, equipment and supplies—which can only be paid for in Earth dollars—and we can’t export enough to Earth to earn those dollars.”

By that time, they were entering the Paul Bunyan Knotty Pine Bar & Grill, on the 73rd Level. Matheny’s jaw clanked down.

“Whassa matter?” asked Doran. “Ain’t you ever seen a ecdysiastic technician before?”

“Uh, yes, but—well, not in a 3-D image under ten magnifications.”

Matheny followed Doran past a sign announcing that this show was for purely artistic purposes, into a booth. There a soundproof curtain reduced the noise level enough so they could talk in normal voices.

“What’ll you have?” asked Doran. “It’s on me.”

“Oh, I couldn’t let you. I mean—”

“Nonsense. Welcome to Earth! Care for a thyle and vermouth?”

Matheny shuddered. “Good Lord, no!”

“Huh? But they make thyle right on Mars, don’t they?”

“Yes. And it all goes to Earth and sells at 2000 dollars a fifth. But you don’t think we’d drink it, do you? I mean—well, I imagine it doesn’t absolutely ruin vermouth. But we don’t see those Earthside commercials about how sophisticated people like it so much.”


“Well, I’ll be a socialist creeper!” Doran’s face split in a grin. “You know, all my life I’ve hated the stuff and never dared admit it!” He raised a hand. “Don’t worry, I won’t blabbo. But I am wondering, if you control the thyle industry and sell all those relics at fancy prices, why do you call yourselves poor?”

“Because we are,” said Matheny. “By the time the shipping costs have been paid on a bottle, and the Earth wholesaler and jobber and sales engineer and so on, down to the retailer, have taken their percentage, and the advertising agency has been paid, and about fifty separate Earth taxes—there’s very little profit going back to the distillery on Mars. The same principle is what’s strangling us on everything. Old Martian artifacts aren’t really rare, for instance, but freight charges and the middlemen here put them out of the mass market.”

“Have you not got some other business?”

“Well, we do sell a lot of color slides, postcards, baggage labels and so on to people who like to act cosmopolitan, and I understand our travel posters are quite popular as wall decoration. But all that has to be printed on Earth, and the printer and distributor keep most of the money. We’ve sold some books and show tapes, of course, but only one has been really successful—I Was a Slave Girl on Mars.

“Our most prominent novelist was co-opted to ghostwrite that one. Again, though, local income taxes took most of the money; authors never have been protected the way a businessman is. We do make a high percentage of profit on those little certificates you see around—you know, the title deeds to one square inch of Mars—but expressed absolutely, in dollars, it doesn’t amount to much when we start shopping for bulldozers and thermonuclear power plants.”

“How about postage stamps?” inquired Doran. “Philately is a big business, I have heard.”

“It was our mainstay,” admitted Matheny, “but it’s been overworked. Martian stamps are a drug on the market. What we’d like to operate is a sweepstakes, but the anti-gambling laws on Earth forbid that.”


Doran whistled. “I got to give your people credit for enterprise, anyway!” He fingered his mustache. “Uh, pardon me, but have you tried to, well, attract capital from Earth?”

“Of course,” said Matheny bitterly. “We offer the most liberal concessions in the Solar System. Any little mining company or transport firm or—or anybody—who wanted to come and actually invest a few dollars in Mars—why, we’d probably give him the President’s daughter as security. No, the Minister of Ecology has a better-looking one. But who’s interested? We haven’t a thing that Earth hasn’t got more of. We’re only the descendants of a few scientists, a few political malcontents, oddballs who happen to prefer elbow room and a bill of liberties to the incorporated state—what could General Nucleonics hope to get from Mars?”

“I see. Well, what are you having to drink?”

“Beer,” said Matheny without hesitation.

“Huh? Look, pal, this is on me.”

“The only beer on Mars comes forty million miles, with interplanetary freight charges tacked on,” said Matheny. “Heineken’s!”

Doran shrugged, dialed the dispenser and fed it coins.

“This is a real interesting talk, Pete,” he said. “You are being very frank with me. I like a man that is frank.”

Matheny shrugged. “I haven’t told you anything that isn’t known to every economist.”

Of course I haven’t. I’ve not so much as mentioned the Red Ankh, for instance. But, in principle, I have told him the truth, told him of our need; for even the secret operations do not yield us enough.

The beer arrived. Matheny engulfed himself in it. Doran sipped at a whiskey sour and unobtrusively set another full bottle in front of the Martian.

“Ahhh!” said Matheny. “Bless you, my friend.”

“A pleasure.”

“But now you must let me buy you one.”

“That is not necessary. After all,” said Doran with great tact, “with the situation as you have been describing—”

“Oh, we’re not that poor! My expense allowance assumes I will entertain quite a bit.”

Doran’s brows lifted a few minutes of arc. “You’re here on business, then?”

“Yes. I told you we haven’t any tourists. I was sent to hire a business manager for the Martian export trade.”

“What’s wrong with your own people? I mean, Pete, it is not your fault there are so many rackets—uh, taxes—and middlemen and agencies and et cetera. That is just the way Earth is set up these days.”


Matheny’s finger stabbed in the general direction of Doran’s pajama top. “Exactly. And who set it up that way? Earthmen. We Martians are babes in the desert. What chance do we have to earn dollars on the scale we need them, in competition with corporations which could buy and sell our whole planet before breakfast? Why, we couldn’t afford three seconds of commercial time on a Lullaby Pillow ‘cast. What we need, what we have to hire, is an executive who knows Earth, who’s an Earthman himself. Let him tell us what will appeal to your people, and how to dodge the tax bite and—and—well, you see how it goes, that sort of, uh, thing.”

Matheny felt his eloquence running down and grabbed for the second bottle of beer.

“But where do I start?” he asked plaintively, for his loneliness smote him anew. “I’m just a college professor at home. How would I even get to see—”

“It might be arranged,” said Doran in a thoughtful tone. “It just might. How much could you pay this fellow?”

“A hundred megabucks a year, if he’ll sign a five-year contract. That’s Earth years, mind you.”

“I’m sorry to tell you this, Pete,” said Doran, “but while that is not bad money, it is not what a high-powered sales scientist gets in Newer York. Plus his retirement benefits, which he would lose if he quit where he is now at. And I am sure he would not want to settle on Mars permanently.”

“I could offer a certain amount of, uh, lagniappe,” said Matheny. “That is, well, I can draw up to a hundred megabucks myself for, uh, expenses and, well … let me buy you a drink!”

Doran’s black eyes frogged at him. “You might at that,” said the Earthman very softly. “Yes, you might at that.”

Matheny found himself warming. Gus Doran was an authentic bobber. A hell of a swell chap. He explained modestly that he was a free-lance business consultant and it was barely possible that he could arrange some contacts….

“No, no, no commission, all done in the interest of interplanetary friendship … well, anyhow, let’s not talk business now. If you have got to stick to beer, Pete, make it a chaser to akvavit. What is akvavit? Well, I will just take and show you.”

A hell of a good bloke. He knew some very funny stories, too, and he laughed at Matheny’s, though they were probably too rustic for a big-city taste like his.

“What I really want,” said Matheny, “what I really want—I mean what Mars really needs, get me?—is a confidence man.”

“A what?”

“The best and slickest one on Earth, to operate a world-size con game for us and make us some real money.”

“Con man? Oh. A slipstring.”

“A con by any other name,” said Matheny, pouring down an akvavit.


Doran squinted through cigarette smoke. “You are interesting me strangely, my friend. Say on.”

“No.” Matheny realized his head was a bit smoky. The walls of the booth seemed odd, somehow. They were just leatheroid walls, but they had an odd quality.

“No, sorry, Gus,” he said. “I spoke too much.”

“Okay. Forget it. I do not like a man that pries. But look, let’s bomb out of here, how about it? Go have a little fun.”

“By all means.” Matheny disposed of his last beer. “I could use some gaiety.”

“You have come to the right town then. But let us get you a hotel room first and some more up-to-date clothes.”

Allez,” said Matheny. “If I don’t mean allons, or maybe alors.”

The drop down to cab-ramp level and the short ride afterward sobered him; the room rate at the Jupiter-Astoria sobered him still more.

Oh, well, he thought, if I succeed in this job, no one at home will quibble.

And the chamber to which he and Doran were shown was spectacular enough, with a pneumo direct to the bar and a full-wall transparency to show the vertical incandescence of the towers.

“Whoof!” Matheny sat down. The chair slithered sensuously about his contours. He jumped. “What the dusty hell—Oh.” He tried to grin, but his face burned. “I see.”

“That is a sexy type of furniture, all right,” agreed Doran. He lowered himself into another chair, cocked his feet on the 3-D and waved a cigarette. “Which speaking of, what say we get some girls? It is not too late to catch them at home. A date here will usually start around 2100 hours earliest.”

“What?”

“You know. Dames. Like a certain blonde warhead with twin radar and swivel mounting, and she just loves exotics. Such as you.”

“Me?” Matheny heard his voice climb to a schoolboy squeak. “Me? Exotic? Why, I’m just a little college professor. I g-g-g, that is—” His tongue got stuck on his palate. He pulled it loose and moistened uncertain lips.

“You are from Mars. Okay? So you fought bushcats barehanded in an abandoned canal.”

“What’s a bushcat? And we don’t have canals. The evaporation rate—”

“Look, Pete,” said Doran patiently. “She don’t have to know that, does she?”

“Well—well, no. I guess not No.”

“Let’s order you some clothes on the pneumo,” said Doran. “I recommend you buy from Schwartzherz. Everybody knows he is expensive.”


While Matheny jittered about, shaving and showering and struggling with his new raiment, Doran kept him supplied with akvavit and beer.

“You said one thing, Pete,” Doran remarked. “About needing a slipstring. A con man, you would call it.”

“Forget that. Please. I spoke out of turn.”

“Well, you see, maybe a man like that is just what Mars does need. And maybe I have got a few contacts.”

“What?” Matheny gaped out of the bathroom.

Doran cupped his hands around a fresh cigarette, not looking at him. “I am not that man,” he said frankly. “But in my line I get a lot of contacts, and not all of them go topside. See what I mean? Like if, say, you wanted somebody terminated and could pay for it, I could not do it. I would not want to know anything about it. But I could tell you a phone number.”

He shrugged and gave the Martian a sidelong glance. “Sure, you may not be interested. But if you are, well, Pete, I was not born yesterday. I got tolerance. Like the book says, if you want to get ahead, you have got to think positively.”

Matheny hesitated. If only he hadn’t taken that last shot! It made him want to say yes, immediately, without reservations. And therefore maybe he became overcautious.

They had instructed him on Mars to take chances if he must.

“I could tell you a thing or two that might give you a better idea,” he said slowly. “But it would have to be under security.”

“Okay by me. Room service can send us up an oath box right now.”

“What? But—but—” Matheny hung onto himself and tried to believe that he had landed on Earth less than six hours ago.

In the end, he did call room service and the machine was trundled in. Doran swallowed the pill and donned the conditioner helmet without an instant’s hesitation.

“I shall never reveal to any person unauthorized by yourself whatever you may tell me under security, now or at any other time,” he recited. Then, cheerfully: “And that formula, Pete, happens to be the honest-to-zebra truth.”

“I know.” Matheny stared, embarrassed, at the carpet. “I’m sorry to—to—I mean of course I trust you, but—”

“Forget it. I take a hundred security oaths a year, in my line of work. Maybe I can help you. I like you, Pete, damn if I don’t. And, sure, I might stand to get an agent’s cut, if I arrange—Go ahead, boy, go ahead.” Doran crossed his legs and leaned back.

“Oh, it’s simple enough,” said Matheny. “It’s only that we already are operating con games.”

“On Mars, you mean?”

“Yes. There never were any Old Martians. We erected the ruins fifty years ago for the Billingsworth Expedition to find. We’ve been manufacturing relics ever since.”

Huh? Well, why, but—”

“In this case, it helps to be at the far end of an interplanetary haul,” said Matheny. “Not many Terrestrial archeologists get to Mars and they depend on our people to—Well, anyhow—”

“I will be clopped! Good for you!”


Doran blew up in laughter. “That is one thing I would never spill, even without security. I told you about my girl friend, didn’t I?”

“Yes, and that calls to mind the Little Girl,” said Matheny apologetically. “She was another official project.”

“Who?”

“Remember Junie O’Brien? The little golden-haired girl on Mars, a mathematical prodigy, but dying of an incurable disease? She collected Earth coins.”

“Oh, that. Sure, I remember—Hey! You didn’t!”

“Yes. We made about a billion dollars on that one.”

“I will be double damned. You know, Pete, I sent her a hundred-buck piece myself. Say, how is Junie O’Brien?”

“Oh, fine. Under a different name, she’s now our finance minister.” Matheny stared out the wall, his hands twisting nervously behind his back. “There were no lies involved. She really does have a fatal disease. So do you and I. Every day we grow older.”

“Uh!” exclaimed Doran.

“And then the Red Ankh Society. You must have seen or heard their ads. ‘What mysterious knowledge did the Old Martians possess? What was the secret wisdom of the Ancient Aliens? Now the incredibly powerful semantics of the Red Ankh (not a religious organization) is available to a select few—’ That’s our largest dollar-earning enterprise.”

He would have liked to say it was his suggestion originally, but it would have been too presumptuous. He was talking to an Earthman, who had heard everything already.

Doran whistled.

“That’s about all, so far,” confessed Matheny. “Perhaps a con is our only hope. I’ve been wondering, maybe we could organize a Martian bucket shop, handling Martian securities, but—well, I don’t know.”

“I think—” Doran removed the helmet and stood up.

“Yes?” Matheny faced around, shivering with his own tension.

“I may be able to find the man you want,” said Doran. “I just may. It will take a few days and might get a little expensive.”

“You mean…. Mr. Doran—Gus—you could actually—”

“I cannot promise anything yet except that I will try. Now you finish dressing. I will be down in the bar. And I will call up this girl I know. We deserve a celebration!”


Peri was tall. Peri was slim. Peri smoldered when she walked and exploded when she stretched. Her apartment was ivory and ebony, her sea-green dress was poured on, and the Neo-Sino mode had obviously been engineered to her personal specifications.

She waved twelve inches of jade cigarette holder, lifted her glass and murmured throatily: “To you, Pete. To Mars.”

“I, I, I,” stammered Matheny. He raised his own glass. It slopped over. “Oh, damn! I mean … gosh, I’m so sorry, I—”

“No harm done. You aren’t used to our gravity yet.” Peri extended a flawless leg out of her slit skirt and turned it about on the couch, presumably in search of a more comfortable position. “And it must seem terribly cramped here on Earth, Pete,” she continued. “After roaming the desert, hunting, sleeping under the twin moons. Two moons! Why, what girl could resist that?”

“Uh, well, as a matter of fact, the moons are barely visible,” floundered Matheny.

“Must you spoil my dreams?” she said. “When I think of Mars, the frontier, where men are still men, why, my breast swells with emotion.”

“Uh, yes.” Matheny gulped. “Swell. Yes.”

She leaned closer to his chair. “Now that I’ve got you, don’t think you’ll get away,” she smiled. “A live Martian, trapped!”

Doran looked at his watch. “Well,” he said, “I have got to get up tomorrow, so I had better run along now.”

“Ta-ta,” said Peri. Matheny rose. She pulled him down beside her. “Oh, no, you don’t, Mars lad. I’m not through with you yet!”

“But, but, but,” said Matheny.

Doran chuckled. “I’ll meet you on the Terrace at fourteen hundred hours tomorrow,” he said. “Have fun, Pete.”

The door closed on him.

Peri slithered toward her guest. He felt a nudge and looked down. She had not actually touched him with her hands. “Gus is a good squiff,” she said, “but I wondered if he’d ever go.”



“Why, why … what do you mean?” croaked Matheny.

“Haven’t you guessed?”

She kissed him. It was rather like being caught in a nuclear turbine with soft blades.

Matheny, said Matheny, you represent your planet.

Matheny, said Matheny, shut up.

Time passed.

“Have another drink,” said Peri, “while I slip into something more comfortable.”

Her idea of comfort was modest in one sense of the word: a nightdress or something, like a breath of smoke, and a seat on Matheny’s lap.

“If you kiss me like that just once more,” she breathed, “I’ll forget I’m a nice girl.”

Matheny kissed her like that.

The door crashed open. A large man stood there, breathing heavily. “What are you doing with my wife?” he bawled.

“Sam!” screamed Peri. “I thought you were in Australia!”


“And he said he might settle out of court,” finished Matheny. He stared in a numb fashion at his beer. “He’ll come to my hotel room this afternoon. What am I going to do?”

“It is a great shame,” said Doran. “I never thought…. You know, he told everybody he would be gone on business for weeks yet. Pete, I am more sorry than I can express.”

“If he thinks I’ll pay his miserable blackmail,” bristled Matheny, “he can take his head and stick—”

Doran shook his own. “I am sorry, Pete, but I would pay if I was you. He does have a case. It is too bad he just happened to be carrying that loaded camera, but he is a photographer and our laws on Earth are pretty strict about unlicensed correspondents. You could be very heavily fined as well as deported, plus all the civil-damage claims and the publicity. It would ruin your mission and even make trouble for the next man Mars sent.”

“But,” stuttered Matheny, “b-but it’s a badger game!”

“Look,” said Doran. He leaned over the table and gripped the Martian’s shoulder. “I am your friend, see? I feel real bad this happened. In a way, it is my fault and I want to help you. So let me go talk to Sam Wendt. I will cool him off if I can. I will talk down his figure. It will still cost you, Pete, but you can pad your expense account, can’t you? So we will both come see you today. That way there will be two people on your side, you and me, and Sam will not throw his weight around so much. You pay up in cash and it will be the end of the affair. I will see to that, pal!”

Matheny stared at the small dapper man. His aloneness came to him like a blow in the stomach. Et tu, Brute, he thought.

He bit his lip. “Thanks, Gus,” he said. “You are a real friend.”


Sam blocked the doorway with his shoulders as he entered the room. Doran followed like a diminutive tug pushing a very large liner. They closed the door. Matheny stood up, avoiding Sam’s glare.

“Okay, louse,” said Sam. “You got a better pal here than you deserve, but he ain’t managed to talk me into settling for nothing.”

“Let me get this—I mean—well,” said Matheny. “Look, sir, you claim that I, I mean that your wife and I were, uh, well, we weren’t. I was only visiting—”

“Stow it, stow it.” Sam towered over the Martian. “Shoot it to the Moon. You had your fun. It’ll cost you. One million dollars.”

One mil—But—but—Gus,” wailed Matheny, “this is out of all reason! I thought you said—”

Doran shrugged. “I am sorry, Pete. I could not get him any farther down. He started asking fifty. You better pay him.”

“No!” Matheny scuttled behind a chair. “No, look here! I, Peter Matheny of the Martian Republic, declare you are blackmailing me!”

“I’m asking compensation for damages,” growled Sam. “Hand it over or I’ll go talk to a lawyer. That ain’t blackmail. You got your choice, don’t you?”

Matheny wilted. “Yes.”

“A megabuck isn’t so bad, Pete,” soothed Doran. “I personally will see that you earn it back in—”

“Oh, never mind.” Tears stood in Matheny’s eyes. “You win.” He took out his checkbook.

“None of that,” rapped Sam. “Cash. Now.”

“But you claimed this was a legitimate—”

“You heard me.”

“Well—could I have a receipt?” begged Matheny.

Sam grinned.

“I just thought I’d ask,” said Matheny. He opened a drawer and counted out one hundred ten-kilo-buck bills. “There! And, and, and I hope you choke on it!”

Sam stuffed the money in a pocket and lumbered out.

Doran lingered. “Look here, Pete,” he said, “I will make this up to you. Honest. All you have got to do is trust me.”

“Sure.” Matheny slumped on the bed. “Not your fault. Let me alone for a while, will you?”

“Listen, I will come back in a few hours and buy you the best dinner in all the Protectorates and—”

“Sure,” said Matheny. “Sure.”

Doran left, closing the door with great gentleness.


He returned at 1730, entered, and stopped dead. The floor space was half taken up by a screen and a film projector.

“What happened, Pete?” he asked uncertainly.

Matheny smiled. “I took some tourist movies,” he said. “Self-developing soundtrack film. Sit down and I’ll show you.”

“Well, thanks, but I am not so much for home movies.”

“It won’t take long. Please.”

Doran shrugged, found a chair and took out a cigarette. “You seem pretty well cheered up now,” he remarked. “That is a spirit I like to see. You have got to have faith.”

“I’m thinking of a sideline business in live photography,” said the Martian. “Get back my losses of today, you know.”

“Well, now, Pete, I like your spirit, like I say. But if you are really interested in making some of that old baroom, and I think you are, then listen—”

“I’ll sell prints to people for home viewing,” went on Matheny. “I’d like your opinion of this first effort.”

He dimmed the transparency and started the projector. The screen sprang into colored motion. Sam Wendt blocked the doorway with his shoulders.

“Who knows, I might even sell you one of the several prints I made today,” said Matheny.

“Okay, louse,” said Sam.

“Life is hard on Mars,” commented Matheny in an idle tone, “and we’re an individualistic culture. The result is pretty fierce competition, though on a person-to-person rather than organizational basis. All friendly enough, but—Oh, by the way, how do you like our Martian camera technology? I wore this one inside my buttonhole.”



Doran in the screen shrugged and said: “I am sorry, Pete.” Doran in the chair stubbed out his cigarette, very carefully, and asked, “How much do you want for that film?”

“Would a megabuck be a fair price?” inquired Matheny.

“Uh … huh.”

“Of course, I am hoping Sam will want a copy too.”

Doran swallowed. “Yeah. Yes, I think I can talk him into it.”

“Good.” Matheny stopped the projector. He sat down on the edge of the table, swinging one leg, and lit his pipe. Its bowl glowed in the dimness like the eye of a small demon. “By the way,” he said irrelevantly, “if you check the newscast tapes, you’ll find I was runner-up in last year’s all-Martian pistol contest. It’s a tough contest to win. There are no bad shots on Mars—survival of the fittest, you know.”


Doran wet his lips. “Uh, no hard feelings. No, none at all. But say, in case you are, well, you know, looking for a slipstring, what I came here for was to tell you I have located the very guy you want. Only he is in jail right now, see, and it will cost—”

“Oh, no!” groaned Matheny. “Not the Syrtis Prospector! Kids are taught that swindle in kindergarten.”

Doran bowed his head. “We call it the Spanish Prisoner here,” he said. He got up. “I will send the price of those films around in the morning.”

“You’ll call your bank and have the cash pneumoed here tonight,” said Matheny. “Also Sam’s share. I daresay he can pay you back.”

“No harm in trying, was there?” asked Doran humbly.

“None at all.” Matheny chuckled. “In fact, I’m grateful to you. You helped me solve my major problem.”

“Huh? I did what? How?”

“I’ll have to investigate further, but I’m sure my hunch will be confirmed. You see, we Martians have stood in awe of Earthmen. And since for a long time there’s been very little contact between the two planets except the purely official, impersonal sort, there’s been nothing to disabuse us. It’s certainly true that our organizations can’t compete with yours, because your whole society is based on organizations. But now, by the same token, I wonder if your individuals can match ours. Ever hear of the Third Moon? No? The whipsaw play? The aqueduct squeeze? Good Lord, can’t you even load a derrel set?”

Matheny licked his chops. “So there’s our Martian export to Earth. Martian con men. I tell you this under security, of course—not that anyone would believe you, till our boys walk home with the shirt off the Terrestrial back.”

He waved an imperious pipe-stem. “Hurry up and pay me, please. I’ve a date tonight with Peri. I just called her up and explained the situation and she really does seem to like Martians.”









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SF32Industrial Revolution by Poul Anderson

Project Gutenberg's Industrial Revolution, by Poul William Anderson



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Title: Industrial Revolution



Author: Poul William Anderson



Illustrator: Leo Summers



Release Date: January 15, 2010 [EBook #30971]

[This file last updated January 29, 2011]



Language: English



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*** START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION ***









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Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net













Transcriber’s Note:

This etext was produced from Analog Science Fact & Fiction September 1963. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.

 

 

 

INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

 

Ever think how deadly a thing it is
if a machine has amnesia—
or how easily it can be arranged….

 

BY WINSTON P. SANDERS

 

ILLUSTRATED BY LEO SUMMERS


W

ell, yes,” Amspaugh admitted, “it was a unique war in many ways, including its origin. However, there are so many analogies to other colonial revolutions—” His words trailed off as usual.

“I know. Earth’s mercantile policies and so forth,” said Lindgren. He fancies himself a student of interplanetary history. This has led to quite a few arguments since Amspaugh, who teaches in that field, joined the Club. Mostly they’re good. I went to the bar and got myself another drink, listening as the mine owner’s big voice went on:

“But what began it? When did the asterites first start realizing they weren’t pseudopods of a dozen Terrestrial nations, but a single nation in their own right? There’s the root of the revolution. And it can be pinned down, too.”

“‘Ware metaphor!” cried someone at my elbow. I turned and saw Missy Blades. She’d come quietly into the lounge and started mixing a gin and bitters.

The view window framed her white head in Orion as she moved toward the little cluster of seated men. She took a fat cigar from her pocket, struck it on her shoe sole, and added her special contribution to the blue cloud in the room after she sat down.

“Excuse me,” she said. “I couldn’t help that. Please go on.” Which I hope relieves you of any fear that she’s an Unforgettable Character. Oh, yes, she’s old as Satan now; her toil and guts and conniving make up half the biography of the Sword; she manned a gun turret at Ceres, and was mate of the Tyrfing on some of the earliest Saturn runs when men took their lives between their teeth because they needed both hands free; her sons and grandsons fill the Belt with their brawling ventures; she can drink any ordinary man to the deck; she’s one of the three women ever admitted to the Club. But she’s also one of the few genuine ladies I’ve known in my life.

“Uh, well,” Lindgren grinned at her. “I was saying, Missy, the germ of the revolution was when the Stations armed themselves. You see, that meant more than police powers. It implied a degree of sovereignty. Over the years, the implication grew.”

“Correct.” Orloff nodded his bald head. “I remember how the Governing Commission squalled when the Station managers first demanded the right. They foresaw trouble. But if the Stations belonging to one country put in space weapons, what else could the others do?”

“They should have stuck together and all been firm about refusing to allow it,” Amspaugh said. “From the standpoint of their own best interests, I mean.”

“They tried to,” Orloff replied. “I hate to think how many communications we sent home from our own office, and the others must have done the same. But Earth was a long way off. The Station bosses were close. Inverse square law of political pressure.”

“I grant you, arming each new little settlement proved important,” Amspaugh said. “But really, it expressed nothing more than the first inchoate stirrings of asteroid nationalism. And the origins of that are much more subtle and complex. For instance … er….”

“You’ve got to have a key event somewhere,” Lindgren insisted. “I say that this was it.”

A silence fell, as will happen in conversation. I came back from the bar and settled myself beside Missy. She looked for a while into her drink, and then out to the stars. The slow spin of our rock had now brought the Dippers into view. Her faded eyes sought the Pole Star—but it’s Earth’s, not our own any more—and I wondered what memories they were sharing. She shook herself the least bit and said:

“I don’t know about the sociological ins and outs. All I know is, a lot of things happened, and there wasn’t any pattern to them at the time. We just slogged through as best we were able, which wasn’t really very good. But I can identify one of those wriggling roots for you, Sigurd. I was there when the question of arming the Stations first came up. Or, rather, when the incident occurred that led directly to the question being raised.”

Our whole attention went to her. She didn’t dwell on the past as often as we would have liked.

A slow, private smile crossed her lips. She looked beyond us again. “As a matter of fact,” she murmured, “I got my husband out of it.” Then quickly, as if to keep from remembering too much:

“Do you care to hear the story? It was when the Sword was just getting started. They’d established themselves on SSC 45—oh, never mind the catalogue number. Sword Enterprises, because Mike Blades’ name suggested it—what kind of name could you get out of Jimmy Chung, even if he was the senior partner? It’d sound too much like a collision with a meteorite—so naturally the asteroid also came to be called the Sword. They began on the borrowed shoestring that was usual in those days. Of course, in the Belt a shoestring has to be mighty long, and finances got stretched to the limit. The older men here will know how much had to be done by hand, in mortal danger, because machines were too expensive. But in spite of everything, they succeeded. The Station was functional and they were ready to start business when—”


It was no coincidence that the Jupiter craft were arriving steadily when the battleship came. Construction had been scheduled with this in mind, that the Sword should be approaching conjunction with the king planet, making direct shuttle service feasible, just as the chemical plant went into service. We need not consider how much struggle and heartbreak had gone into meeting that schedule. As for the battleship, she appeared because the fact that a Station in just this orbit was about to commence operations was news important enough to cross the Solar System and push through many strata of bureaucracy. The heads of the recently elected North American government became suddenly, fully aware of what had been going on.

Michael Blades was outside, overseeing the installation of a receptor, when his earplug buzzed. He thrust his chin against the tuning plate, switching from gang to interoffice band. “Mike?” said Avis Page’s voice, “You’re wanted up front.”

“Now?” he objected. “Whatever for?”

“Courtesy visit from the NASS Altair. You’ve lost track of time, my boy.”

“What the … the jumping blue blazes are you talking about? We’ve had our courtesy visit. Jimmy and I both went over to pay our respects, and we had Rear Admiral Hulse here to dinner. What more do they expect, for Harry’s sake?”

“Don’t you remember? Since there wasn’t room to entertain his officers, you promised to take them on a personal guided tour later. I made the appointment the very next watch. Now’s the hour.”

“Oh, yes, it comes back to me. Yeah. Hulse brought a magnum of champagne with him, and after so long a time drinking recycled water, my capacity was shot to pieces. I got a warm glow of good fellowship on, and offered—Let Jimmy handle it, I’m busy.”

“The party’s too large, he says. You’ll have to take half of them. Their gig will dock in thirty minutes.”

“Well, depute somebody else.”

“That’d be rude, Mike. Have you forgotten how sensitive they are about rank at home?” Avis hesitated. “If what I believe about the mood back there is true, we can use the good will of high-level Navy personnel. And any other influential people in sight.”

Blades drew a deep breath. “You’re too blinking sensible. Remind me to fire you after I’ve made my first ten million bucks.”

“What’ll you do for your next ten million, then?” snipped his secretary-file clerk-confidante-adviser-et cetera.

“Nothing. I’ll just squander the first.”

“Goody! Can I help?”

“Uh … I’ll be right along.” Blades switched off. His ears felt hot, as often of late when he tangled with Avis, and he unlimbered only a few choice oaths.

“Troubles?” asked Carlos Odonaju.

Blades stood a moment, looking around, before he answered. He was on the wide end of the Sword, which was shaped roughly like a truncated pyramid. Beyond him and his half dozen men stretched a vista of pitted rock, jutting crags, gulf-black shadows, under the glare of floodlamps. A few kilometers away, the farthest horizon ended, chopped off like a cliff. Beyond lay the stars, crowding that night which never ends. It grew very still while the gang waited for his word. He could listen to his own lungs and pulse, loud in the spacesuit; he could even notice its interior smell, blend of plastic and oxygen cycle chemicals, flesh and sweat. He was used to the sensation of hanging upside down on the surface, grip-soled boots holding him against that fractional gee by which the asteroid’s rotation overcame its feeble gravity. But it came to him that this was an eerie bat-fashion way for an Oregon farm boy to stand.

Oregon was long behind him, though, not only the food factory where he grew up but the coasts where he had fished and the woods where he had tramped. No loss. There’d always been too many tourists. You couldn’t escape from people on Earth. Cold and vacuum and raw rock and everything, the Belt was better. It annoyed him to be interrupted here.

Could Carlos take over as foreman? N-no, Blades decided, not yet. A gas receptor was an intricate piece of equipment. Carlos was a good man of his hands. Every one of the hundred-odd in the Station necessarily was. But he hadn’t done this kind of work often enough.

“I have to quit,” Blades said. “Secure the stuff and report back to Buck Meyers over at the dock, the lot of you. His crew’s putting in another recoil pier, as I suppose you know. They’ll find jobs for you. I’ll see you here again on your next watch.”


He waved—being half the nominal ownership of this place didn’t justify snobbery, when everyone must work together or die—and stepped off toward the nearest entry lock with that flowing spaceman’s pace which always keeps one foot on the ground. Even so, he didn’t unshackle his inward-reeling lifeline till he was inside the chamber.

On the way he topped a gaunt ridge and had a clear view of the balloons that were attached to the completed receptors. Those that were still full bulked enormous, like ghostly moons. The Jovian gases that strained their tough elastomer did not much blur the stars seen through them; but they swelled high enough to catch the light of the hidden sun and shimmer with it. The nearly discharged balloons hung thin, straining outward. Two full ones passed in slow orbit against the constellations. They were waiting to be hauled in and coupled fast, to release their loads into the Station’s hungry chemical plant. But there were not yet enough facilities to handle them at once—and the Pallas Castle would soon be arriving with another—Blades found that he needed a few extra curses.

Having cycled through the air lock, he removed his suit and stowed it, also the heavy gloves which kept him from frostbite as he touched its space-cold exterior. Tastefully clad in a Navy surplus Long John, he started down the corridors.

Now that the first stage of burrowing within the asteroid had been completed, most passages went through its body, rather than being plastic tubes snaking across the surface. Nothing had been done thus far about facing them. They were merely shafts, two meters square, lined with doorways, ventilator grilles, and fluoropanels. They had no thermocoils. Once the nickel-iron mass had been sufficiently warmed up, the waste heat of man and his industry kept it that way. The dark, chipped-out tunnels throbbed with machine noises. Here and there a girlie picture or a sentimental landscape from Earth was posted. Men moved busily along them, bearing tools, instruments, supplies. They were from numerous countries, those men, though mostly North Americans, but they had acquired a likeness, a rangy leathery look and a free-swinging stride, that went beyond their colorful coveralls.

“Hi, Mike…. How’s she spinning?… Hey, Mike, you heard the latest story about the Martian and the bishop?… Can you spare me a minute? We got troubles in the separator manifolds…. What’s the hurry, Mike, your batteries overcharged?” Blades waved the hails aside. There was need for haste. You could move fast indoors, under the low weight which became lower as you approached the axis of rotation, with no fear of tumbling off. But it was several kilometers from the gas receptor end to the people end of the asteroid.

He rattled down a ladder and entered his cramped office out of breath. Avis Page looked up from her desk and wrinkled her freckled snub nose at him. “You ought to take a shower, but there isn’t time,” she said. “Here, use my antistinker.” She threw him a spray cartridge with a deft motion. “I got your suit and beardex out of your cabin.”

“Have I no privacy?” he grumbled, but grinned in her direction. She wasn’t much to look at—not ugly, just small, brunette, and unspectacular—but she was a supernova of an assistant. Make somebody a good wife some day. He wondered why she hadn’t taken advantage of the situation here to snaffle a husband. A dozen women, all but two of them married, and a hundred men, was a ratio even more lopsided than the norm in the Belt. Of course with so much work to do, and with everybody conscious of the need to maintain cordial relations, sex didn’t get much chance to rear its lovely head. Still—

She smiled back with the gentleness that he found disturbing when he noticed it. “Shoo,” she said. “Your guests will be here any minute. You’re to meet them in Jimmy’s office.”


Blades ducked into the tiny washroom. He wasn’t any 3V star himself, he decided as he smeared cream over his face: big, homely, red-haired. But not something you’d be scared to meet in a dark alley, either, he added smugly. In fact, there had been an alley in Aresopolis…. Things were expected to be going so smoothly by the time they approached conjunction with Mars that he could run over to that sinful ginful city for a vacation. Long overdue … whooee! He wiped off his whiskers, shucked the zipskin, and climbed into the white pants and high-collared blue tunic that must serve as formal garb.

Emerging, he stopped again at Avis’ desk. “Any message from the Pallas?” he asked.

“No,” the girl said. “But she ought to be here in another two watches, right on sked. You worry too much, Mike.”

“Somebody has to, and I haven’t got Jimmy’s Buddhist ride-with-the-punches attitude.”

“You should cultivate it.” She grew curious. The brown eyes lingered on him. “Worry’s contagious. You make me fret about you.”

“Nothing’s going to give me an ulcer but the shortage of booze on this rock. Uh, if Bill Mbolo should call about those catalysts while I’m gone, tell him—” He ran off a string of instructions and headed for the door.

Chung’s hangout was halfway around the asteroid, so that one chief or the other could be a little nearer the scene of any emergency. Not that they spent much time at their desks. Shorthanded and undermechanized, they were forever having to help out in the actual construction. Once in a while Blades found himself harking wistfully back to his days as an engineer with Solar Metals: good pay, interesting if hazardous work on flying mountains where men had never trod before, and no further responsibilities. But most asterites had the dream of becoming their own bosses.

When he arrived, the Altair officers were already there, a score of correct young men in white dress uniforms. Short, squat, and placid looking, Jimmy Chung stood making polite conversation. “Ah, there,” he said, “Lieutenant Ziska and gentlemen, my partner, Michael Blades, Mike, may I present—”

Blades’ attention stopped at Lieutenant Ziska. He heard vaguely that she was the head quartermaster officer. But mainly she was tall and blond and blue-eyed, with a bewitching dimple when she smiled, and filled her gown the way a Cellini Venus doubtless filled its casting mold.

“Very pleased to meet you, Mr. Blades,” she said as if she meant it. Maybe she did! He gulped for air.

“And Commander Leibknecht,” Chung said across several light-years. “Commander Leibknecht. Commander Leibknecht.

“Oh. Sure. ‘Scuse.” Blades dropped Lieutenant Ziska’s hand in reluctant haste. “Hardjado, C’mander Leibfraumilch.”

Somehow the introductions were gotten through. “I’m sorry we have to be so inhospitable,” Chung said, “but you’ll see how crowded we are. About all we can do is show you around, if you’re interested.”

“Of course you’re interested,” said Blades to Lieutenant Ziska. “I’ll show you some gimmicks I thought up myself.”

Chung scowled at him. “We’d best divide the party and proceed along alternate routes,” he said, “We’ll meet again in the mess for coffee, Lieutenant Ziska, would you like to—”

“Come with me? Certainly,” Blades said.

Chung’s glance became downright murderous. “I thought—” he began.

“Sure.” Blades nodded vigorously. “You being the senior partner, you’ll take the highest ranking of these gentlemen, and I’ll be in Scotland before you. C’mon, let’s get started. May I?” He offered the quartermistress his arm. She smiled and took it. He supposed that eight or ten of her fellows trailed them.


The first disturbing note was sounded on the verandah.

They had glanced at the cavelike dormitories where most of the personnel lived; at the recreation dome topside which made the life tolerable; at kitchen, sick bay, and the other service facilities; at the hydroponic tanks and yeast vats which supplied much of the Station’s food; at the tiny cabins scooped out for the top engineers and the married couples. Before leaving this end of the asteroid, Blades took his group to the verandah. It was a clear dome jutting from the surface, softly lighted, furnished as a primitive officers’ lounge, open to a view of half the sky.

“Oh-h,” murmured Ellen Ziska. Unconsciously she moved closer to Blades.

Young Lieutenant Commander Gilbertson gave her a somewhat jaundiced look. “You’ve seen deep space often enough before,” he said.

“Through a port or a helmet.” Her eyes glimmered enormous in the dusk. “Never like this.”

The stars crowded close in their wintry myriads. The galactic belt glistened, diamond against infinite darkness. Vision toppled endlessly outward, toward the far mysterious shimmer of the Andromeda Nebula; silence was not a mere absence of noise, but a majestic presence, the seething of suns.

“What about the observation terrace at Leyburg?” Gilbertson challenged.

“That was different,” Ellen Ziska said. “Everything was safe and civilized. This is like being on the edge of creation.”

Blades could see why Goddard House had so long resisted the inclusion of female officers on ships of the line, despite political pressure at home and the Russian example abroad. He was glad they’d finally given in. Now if only he could build himself up as a dashing, romantic type … But how long would the Altair stay? Her stopover seemed quite extended already, for a casual visit in the course of a routine patrol cruise. He’d have to work fast.

“Yes, we are pretty isolated,” he said. “The Jupiter ships just unload their balloons, pick up the empties, and head right back for another cargo.”

“I don’t understand how you can found an industry here, when your raw materials only arrive at conjunction,” Ellen said.

“Things will be different once we’re in full operation,” Blades assured her. “Then we’ll be doing enough business to pay for a steady input, transshipped from whatever depot is nearest Jupiter at any given time.”

“You’ve actually built this simply to process … gas?” Gilbertson interposed. Blades didn’t know whether he was being sarcastic or asking a genuine question. It was astonishing how ignorant Earthsiders, even space-traveling Earthsiders, often were about such matters.

“Jovian gas is rich stuff,” he explained. “Chiefly hydrogen and helium, of course; but the scoopships separate out most of that during a pickup. The rest is ammonia, water, methane, a dozen important organics, including some of the damn … doggonedest metallic complexes you ever heard of. We need them as the basis of a chemosynthetic industry, which we need for survival, which we need if we’re to get the minerals that were the reason for colonizing the Belt in the first place.” He waved his hand at the sky. “When we really get going, we’ll attract settlement. This asteroid has companions, waiting for people to come and mine them. Homeships and orbital stations will be built. In ten years there’ll be quite a little city clustered around the Sword.”

“It’s happened before,” nodded tight-faced Commander Warburton of Gunnery Control.

“It’s going to happen a lot oftener,” Blades said enthusiastically. “The Belt’s going to grow!” He aimed his words at Ellen. “This is the real frontier. The planets will never amount to much. It’s actually harder to maintain human-type conditions on so big a mass, with a useless atmosphere around you, than on a lump in space like this. And the gravity wells are so deep. Even given nuclear power, the energy cost of really exploiting a planet is prohibitive. Besides which, the choice minerals are buried under kilometers of rock. On a metallic asteroid, you can find almost everything you want directly under your feet. No limit to what you can do.”

“But your own energy expenditure—” Gilbertson objected.

“That’s no problem.” As if on cue, the worldlet’s spin brought the sun into sight. Tiny but intolerably brilliant, it flooded the dome with harsh radiance. Blades lowered the blinds on that side. He pointed in the opposite direction, toward several sparks of equal brightness that had manifested themselves.

“Hundred-meter parabolic mirrors,” he said. “Easy to make; you spray a thin metallic coat on a plastic backing. They’re in orbit around us, each with a small geegee unit to control drift and keep it aimed directly at the sun. The focused radiation charges heavy-duty accumulators, which we then collect and use for our power source in all our mobile work.”

“Do you mean you haven’t any nuclear generator?” asked Warburton.

He seemed curiously intent about it. Blades wondered why, but nodded. “That’s correct. We don’t want one. Too dangerous for us. Nor is it necessary. Even at this distance from the sun, and allowing for assorted inefficiencies, a mirror supplies better than five hundred kilowatts, twenty-four hours a day, year after year, absolutely free.”

“Hm-m-m. Yes.” Warburton’s lean head turned slowly about, to rake Blades with a look of calculation. “I understand that’s the normal power system in Stations of this type. But we didn’t know if it was used in your case, too.”

Why should you care? Blades thought.

He shoved aside his faint unease and urged Ellen toward the dome railing. “Maybe we can spot your ship, Lieutenant, uh, Miss Ziska. Here’s a telescope. Let me see, her orbit ought to run about so….”


He hunted until the Altair swam into the viewfield. At this distance the spheroid looked like a tiny crescent moon, dully painted; but he could make out the sinister shapes of a rifle turret and a couple of missile launchers. “Have a look,” he invited. Her hair tickled his nose, brushing past him. It had a delightful sunny odor.

“How small she seems,” the girl said, with the same note of wonder as before. “And how huge when you’re aboard.”

Big, all right, Blades knew, and loaded to the hatches with nuclear hellfire. But not massive. A civilian spaceship carried meteor plating, but since that was about as useful as wet cardboard against modern weapons, warcraft sacrificed it for the sake of mobility. The self-sealing hull was thin magnesium, the outer shell periodically renewed as cosmic sand eroded it.

“I’m not surprised we orbited, instead of docking,” Ellen remarked. “We’d have butted against your radar and bellied into your control tower.”

“Well, actually, no,” said Blades. “Even half finished, our dock’s big enough to accommodate you, as you’ll see today. Don’t forget, we anticipate a lot of traffic in the future. I’m puzzled why you didn’t accept our invitation to use it.”

“Doctrine!” Warburton clipped.

The sun came past the blind and touched the officers’ faces with incandescence. Did some look startled, one or two open their mouths as if to protest and then snap them shut again at a warning look? Blades’ spine tingled. I never heard of any such doctrine, he thought, least of all when a North American ship drops in on a North American Station.

“Is … er … is there some international crisis brewing?” he inquired.

“Why, no.” Ellen straightened from the telescope. “I’d say relations have seldom been as good as they are now. What makes you ask?”

“Well, the reason your captain didn’t—”

“Never mind,” Warburton said. “We’d better continue the tour, if you please.”

Blades filed his misgivings for later reference. He might have fretted immediately, but Ellen Ziska’s presence forbade that. A sort of Pauli exclusion principle. One can’t have two spins simultaneously, can one? He gave her his arm again. “Let’s go on to Central Control,” he proposed. “That’s right behind the people section.”

“You know, I can’t get over it,” she told him softly. “This miracle you’ve wrought. I’ve never been more proud of being human.”

“Is this your first long space trip?”

“Yes, I was stationed at Port Colorado before the new Administration reshuffled armed service assignments.”

“They did? How come?”

“I don’t know. Well, that is, during the election campaign the Social Justice Party did talk a lot about old-line officers who were too hidebound to carry out modern policies effectively. But it sounded rather silly to me.”

Warburton compressed his lips. “I do not believe it is proper for service officers to discuss political issues publicly,” he said like a machine gun.

Ellen flushed. “S-sorry, commander.”

Blades felt a helpless anger on her account. He wasn’t sure why. What was she to him? He’d probably never see her again. A hell of an attractive target, to be sure; and after so much celibacy he was highly vulnerable; but did she really matter?

He turned his back on Warburton and his eyes on her—a five thousand per cent improvement—and diverted her from her embarrassment by asking, “Are you from Colorado, then, Miss Ziska?”

“Oh, no. Toronto.”

“How’d you happen to join the Navy, if I may make so bold?”

“Gosh, that’s hard to say. But I guess mostly I felt so crowded at home. So, pigeonholed. The world seemed to be nothing but neat little pigeonholes.”

“Uh-huh. Same here. I was also a square pigeon in a round hole.” She laughed. “Luckily,” he added, “Space is too big for compartments.”

Her agreement lacked vigor. The Navy must have been a disappointment to her. But she couldn’t very well say so in front of her shipmates.

Hm-m-m … if she could be gotten away from them—”How long will you be here?” he inquired. His pulse thuttered.

“We haven’t been told,” she said.

“Some work must be done on the missile launchers,” Warburton said. “That’s best carried out here, where extra facilities are available if we need them. Not that I expect we will.” He paused. “I hope we won’t interfere with your own operations.”

“Far from it.” Blades beamed at Ellen. “Or, more accurately, this kind of interference I don’t mind in the least.”

She blushed and her eyelids fluttered. Not that she was a fluffhead, he realized. But to avoid incidents, Navy regulations enforced an inhuman correctness between personnel of opposite sexes. After weeks in the black, meeting a man who could pay a compliment without risking court-martial must be like a shot of adrenalin. Better and better!

“Are you sure?” Warburton persisted. “For instance, won’t we be in the way when the next ship comes from Jupiter?”

“She’ll approach the opposite end of the asteroid,” Blades said. “Won’t stay long, either.”

“How long?”

“One watch, so the crew can relax a bit among those of us who’re off duty. It’d be a trifle longer if we didn’t happen to have an empty bag at the moment. But never very long. Even running under thrust the whole distance, Jupe’s a good ways off. They’ve no time to waste.”

“When is the next ship due?”

“The Pallas Castle is expected in the second watch from now.”

“Second watch. I see.” Warburton stalked on with a brooding expression on his Puritan face.


Blades might have speculated about that, but someone asked him why the Station depended on spin for weight. Why not put in an internal field generator, like a ship? Blades explained patiently that an Emett large enough to produce uniform pull through a volume as big as the Sword was rather expensive. “Eventually, when we’re a few megabucks ahead of the game—”

“Do you really expect to become rich?” Ellen asked. Her tone was awed. No Earthsider had that chance any more, except for the great corporations. “Individually rich?”

“We can’t fail to. I tell you, this is a frontier like nothing since the Conquistadores. We could very easily have been wiped out in the first couple of years—financially or physically—by any of a thousand accidents. But now we’re too far along for that. We’ve got it made, Jimmy and I.”

“What will you do with your wealth?”

“Live like an old-time sultan,” Blades grinned. Then, because it was true as well as because he wanted to shine in her eyes: “Mostly, though, we’ll go on to new things. There’s so much that needs to be done. Not simply more asteroid mines. We need farms; timber; parks; passenger and cargo liners; every sort of machine. I’d like to try getting at some of that water frozen in the Saturnian System. Altogether, I see no end to the jobs. It’s no good our depending on Earth for anything. Too expensive, too chancy. The Belt has to be made completely self-sufficient.”

“With a nice rakeoff for Sword Enterprises,” Gilbertson scoffed.

“Why, sure. Aren’t we entitled to some return?”

“Yes. But not so out of proportion as the Belt companies seem to expect. They’re only using natural resources that rightly belong to the people, and the accumulated skills and wealth of an entire society.”

“Huh! The People didn’t do anything with the Sword. Jimmy and I and our boys did. No Society was around here grubbing nickel-iron and riding out gravel storms; we were.”

“Let’s leave politics alone,” Warburton snapped. But it was mostly Ellen’s look of distress which shut Blades up.

To everybody’s relief, they reached Central Control about then. It was a complex of domes and rooms, crammed with more equipment than Blades could put a name to. Computers were in Chung’s line, not his. He wasn’t able to answer all of Warburton’s disconcertingly sharp questions.

But in a general way he could. Whirling through vacuum with a load of frail humans and intricate artifacts, the Sword must be at once machine, ecology, and unified organism. Everything had to mesh. A failure in the thermodynamic balance, a miscalculation in supply inventory, a few mirrors perturbed out of proper orbit, might spell Ragnarok. The chemical plant’s purifications and syntheses were already a network too large for the human mind to grasp as a whole, and it was still growing. Even where men could have taken charge, automation was cheaper, more reliable, less risky of lives. The computer system housed in Central Control was not only the brain, but the nerves and heart of the Sword.

“Entirely cryotronic, eh?” Warburton commented. “That seems to be the usual practice at the Stations. Why?”

“The least expensive type for us,” Blades answered. “There’s no problem in maintaining liquid helium here.”

Warburton’s gaze was peculiarly intense. “Cryotronic systems are vulnerable to magnetic and radiation disturbances.”

“Uh-huh. That’s one reason we don’t have a nuclear power plant. This far from the sun, we don’t get enough emission to worry about. The asteroid’s mass screens out what little may arrive. I know the TIMM system is used on ships; but if nothing else, the initial cost is more than we want to pay.”

“What’s TIMM?” inquired the Altair’s chaplain.

“Thermally Integrated Micro-Miniaturized,” Ellen said crisply. “Essentially, ultraminiaturized ceramic-to-metal-seal vacuum tubes running off thermionic generators. They’re immune to gamma ray and magnetic pulses, easily shielded against particule radiation, and economical of power.” She grinned. “Don’t tell me there’s nothing about them in Leviticus, Padre!”

“Very fine for a ship’s autopilot,” Blades agreed. “But as I said, we needn’t worry about rad or mag units here, we don’t mind sprawling a bit, and as for thermal efficiency, we want to waste some heat. It goes to maintain internal temperature.”

“In other words, efficiency depends on what you need to effish,” Ellen bantered. She grew grave once more and studied him for a while before she mused, “The same person who swung a pick, a couple of years ago, now deals with something as marvelous as this….” He forgot about worrying.


But he remembered later, when the gig had left and Chung called him to his office. Avis came too, by request. As she entered, she asked why.

“You were visiting your folks Earthside last year,” Chung said. “Nobody else in the Station has been back as recently as that.”

“What can I tell you?”

“I’m not sure. Background, perhaps. The feel of the place. We don’t really know, out in the Belt, what’s going on there. The beamcast news is hardly a trickle. Besides, you have more common sense in your left little toe than that big mick yonder has on his entire copperplated head.”

They seated themselves in the cobwebby low-gee chairs around Chung’s desk. Blades took out his pipe and filled the bowl with his tobacco ration for today. Wouldn’t it be great, he thought dreamily, if this old briar turned out to be an Aladdin’s lamp, and the smoke condensed into a blonde she-Canadian—?

“Wake up, will you?” Chung barked.

“Huh?” Blades started. “Oh. Sure. What’s the matter? You look like a fish on Friday.”

“Maybe with reason. Did you notice anything unusual with that party you were escorting?”

“Yes, indeed.”

“What?”

“About one hundred seventy-five centimeters tall, yellow hair, blue eyes, and some of the smoothest fourth-order curves I ever—”

“Mike, stop that!” Avis sounded appalled. “This is serious.”

“I agree. She’ll be leaving in a few more watches.”

The girl bit her lip. “You’re too old for that mooncalf rot and you know it.”

“Agreed again. I feel more like a bull.” Blades made pawing motions on the desktop.

“There’s a lady present,” Chung said.

Blades saw that Avis had gone quite pale. “I’m sorry,” he blurted. “I never thought … I mean, you’ve always seemed like—”

“One of the boys,” she finished for him in a brittle tone. “Sure. Forget it. What’s the problem, Jimmy?”

Chung folded his hands and stared at them. “I can’t quite define that,” he answered, word by careful word. “Perhaps I’ve simply gone spacedizzy. But when we called on Admiral Hulse, and later when he called on us, didn’t you get the impression of, well, wariness? Didn’t he seem to be watching and probing, every minute we were together?”

“I wouldn’t call him a cheerful sort,” Blades nodded. “Stiff as molasses on Pluto. But I suppose … supposed he’s just naturally that way.”

Chung shook his head. “It wasn’t a normal standoffishness. You’ve heard me reminisce about the time I was on Vesta with the North American technical representative, when the Convention was negotiated.”

“Yes, I’ve heard that story a few times,” said Avis dryly.

“Remember, that was right after the Europa Incident. We’d come close to a space war—undeclared, but it would have been nasty. We were still close. Every delegate went to that conference cocked and primed.

“Hulse had the same manner.”


A silence fell. Blades said at length, “Well, come to think of it, he did ask some rather odd questions. He seemed to twist the conversation now and then, so he could find things out like our exact layout, emergency doctrine, and so forth. It didn’t strike me as significant, though.”

“Nor me,” Chung admitted. “Taken in isolation, it meant nothing. But these visitors today—Sure, most of them obviously didn’t suspect anything untoward. But that Liebknecht, now. Why was he so interested in Central Control? Nothing new or secret there. Yet he kept asking for details like the shielding factor of the walls.”

“So did Commander Warburton,” Blades remembered. “Also, he wanted to know exactly when the Pallas is due, how long she’ll stay … hm-m-m, yes, whether we have any radio linkage with the outside, like to Ceres or even the nearest Commission base—”

“Did you tell him that we don’t?” Avis asked sharply.

“Yes. Shouldn’t I have?”

“It scarcely makes any difference,” Chung said in a resigned voice. “As thoroughly as they went over the ground, they’d have seen what we do and do not have installed so far.”

He leaned forward. “Why are they hanging around?” he asked. “I was handed some story about overhauling the missile system.”

“Me, too,” Blades said.

“But you don’t consider a job complete till it’s been tested. And you don’t fire a test shot, even a dummy, this close to a Station. Besides, what could have gone wrong? I can’t see a ship departing Earth orbit for a long cruise without everything being in order. And they didn’t mention any meteorites, any kind of trouble, en route. Furthermore, why do the work here? The Navy yard’s at Ceres. We can’t spare them any decent amount of materials or tools or help.”

Blades frowned. His own half-formulated doubts shouldered to the fore, which was doubly unpleasant after he’d been considering Ellen Ziska. “They tell me the international situation at home is O.K.,” he offered.

Avis nodded. “What newsfaxes we get in the mail indicate as much,” she said. “So why this hanky-panky?” After a moment, in a changed voice: “Jimmy, you begin to scare me a little.”

“I scare myself,” Chung said.

“Every morning when you debeard,” Blades said; but his heart wasn’t in it. He shook himself and protested: “Damnation, they’re our own countrymen. We’re engaged in a lawful business. Why should they do anything to us?”

“Maybe Avis can throw some light on that,” Chung suggested.

The girl twisted her fingers together. “Not me,” she said. “I’m no politician.”

“But you were home not so long ago. You talked with people, read the news, watched the 3V. Can’t you at least give an impression?”

“N-no—Well, of course the preliminary guns of the election campaign were already being fired. The Social Justice Party was talking a lot about … oh, it seemed so ridiculous that I didn’t pay much attention.”

“They talked about how the government had been pouring billions and billions of dollars into space, while overpopulation produced crying needs in America’s back yard,” Chung said. “We know that much, even in the Belt. We know the appropriations are due to be cut, now the Essjays are in. So what?”

“We don’t need a subsidy any longer,” Blades remarked. “It’d help a lot, but we can get along without if we have to, and personally, I prefer that. Less government money means less government control.”

“Sure,” Avis said. “There was more than that involved, however. The Essjays were complaining about the small return on the investment. Not enough minerals coming back to Earth.”

“Well, for Jupiter’s sake,” Blades exclaimed, “what do they expect? We have to build up our capabilities first.”

“They even said, some of them, that enough reward never would be gotten. That under existing financial policies, the Belt would go in for its own expansion, use nearly everything it produced for itself and export only a trickle to America. I had to explain to several of my parents’ friends that I wasn’t really a socially irresponsible capitalist.”

“Is that all the information you have?” Chung asked when she fell silent.

“I … I suppose so. Everything was so vague. No dramatic events. More of an atmosphere than a concrete thing.”


“Still, you confirm my own impression,” Chung said. Blades jerked his undisciplined imagination back from the idea of a Thing, with bug eyes and tentacles, cast in reinforced concrete, and listened as his partner summed up:

“The popular feeling at home has turned against private enterprise. You can hardly call a corporate monster like Systemic Developments a private enterprise! The new President and Congress share that mood. We can expect to see it manifested in changed laws and regulations. But what has this got to do with a battleship parked a couple of hundred kilometers from us?”

“If the government doesn’t want the asterites to develop much further—” Blades bit hard on his pipestem. “They must know we have a caviar mine here. We’ll be the only city in this entire sector.”

“But we’re still a baby,” Avis said. “We won’t be important for years to come. Who’d have it in for a baby?”

“Besides, we’re Americans, too,” Chung said. “If that were a foreign ship, the story might be different—Wait a minute! Could they be thinking of establishing a new base here?”

“The Convention wouldn’t allow,” said Blades.

“Treaties can always be renegotiated, or even denounced. But first you have to investigate quietly, find out if it’s worth your while.”

“Hoo hah, what lovely money that’d mean!”

“And lovely bureaucrats crawling out of every file cabinet,” Chung said grimly. “No, thank you. We’ll fight any such attempt to the last lawyer. We’ve got a good basis, too, in our charter. If the suit is tried on Ceres, as I believe it has to be, we’ll get a sympathetic court as well.”

“Unless they ring in an Earthside judge,” Avis warned.

“Yeah, that’s possible. Also, they could spring proceedings on us without notice. We’ve got to find out in advance, so we can prepare. Any chance of pumping some of those officers?”

“‘Fraid not,” Avis said. “The few who’d be in the know are safely back on shipboard.”

“We could invite ’em here individually,” said Blades. “As a matter of fact, I already have a date with Lieutenant Ziska.”

“What?” Avis’ mouth fell open.

“Yep,” Blades said complacently. “End of the next watch, so she can observe the Pallas arriving. I’m to fetch her on a scooter.” He blew a fat smoke ring. “Look, Jimmy, can you keep everybody off the porch for a while then? Starlight, privacy, soft music on the piccolo—who knows what I might find out?”

“You won’t get anything from her,” Avis spat. “No secrets or, or anything.”

“Still, I look forward to making the attempt. C’mon, pal, pass the word. I’ll do as much for you sometime.”

“Times like that never seem to come for me,” Chung groaned.

“Oh, let him play around with his suicide blonde,” Avis said furiously. “We others have work to do. I … I’ll tell you what, Jimmy. Let’s not eat in the mess tonight. I’ll draw our rations and fix us something special in your cabin.”


A scooter was not exactly the ideal steed for a knight to convey his lady. It amounted to little more than three saddles and a locker, set atop an accumulator-powered gyrogravitic engine, sufficient to lift you off an asteroid and run at low acceleration. There were no navigating instruments. You locked the autopilot’s radar-gravitic sensors onto your target object and it took you there, avoiding any bits of debris which might pass near; but you must watch the distance indicator and press the deceleration switch in time. If the ‘pilot was turned off, free maneuver became possible, but that was a dangerous thing to try before you were almost on top of your destination. Stereoscopic vision fails beyond six or seven meters, and the human organism isn’t equipped to gauge cosmic momenta.

Nevertheless, Ellen was enchanted. “This is like a dream,” her voice murmured in Blades’ earplug. “The whole universe, on every side of us. I could almost reach out and pluck those stars.”

“You must have trained in powered spacesuits at the Academy,” he said for lack of a more poetic rejoinder.

“Yes, but that’s not the same. We had to stay near Luna’s night side, to be safe from solar particles, and it bit a great chunk out of the sky. And then everything was so—regulated, disciplined—we did what we were ordered to do, and that was that. Here I feel free. You can’t imagine how free.” Hastily: “Do you use this machine often?”

“Well, yes, we have about twenty scooters at the Station. They’re the most convenient way of flitting with a load: out to the mirrors to change accumulators, for instance, or across to one of the companion rocks where we’re digging some ores that the Sword doesn’t have. That kind of work.” Blades would frankly rather have had her behind him on a motorskimmer, hanging on as they careened through a springtime countryside. He was glad when they reached the main forward air lock and debarked.

He was still gladder when the suits were off. Lieutenant Ziska in dress uniform was stunning, but Ellen in civvies, a fluffy low-cut blouse and close-fitting slacks, was a hydrogen blast. He wanted to roll over and pant, but settled for saying, “Welcome back” and holding her hand rather longer than necessary.

With a shy smile, she gave him a package. “I drew this before leaving,” she said. “I thought, well, your life is so austere—”

“A demi of Sandeman,” he said reverently. “I won’t tell you you shouldn’t have, but I will tell you you’re a sweet girl.”

“No, really.” She flushed. “After we’ve put you to so much trouble.”

“Let’s go crack this,” he said. “The Pallas has called in, but she won’t be visible for a while yet.”


They made their way to the verandah, picking up a couple of glasses enroute. Bless his envious heart, Jimmy had warned the other boys off as requested. I hope Avis cooks him a Cordon Bleu dinner, Blades thought. Nice kid, Avis, if she’d quit trying to … what? … mother me? He forgot about her, with Ellen to seat by the rail.

The Milky Way turned her hair frosty and glowed in her eyes. Blades poured the port with much ceremony and raised his glass. “Here’s to your frequent return,” he said.

Her pleasure dwindled a bit. “I don’t know if I should drink to that. We aren’t likely to be back, ever.”

“Drink anyway. Gling, glang, gloria!” The rims tinkled together. “After all,” said Blades, “this isn’t the whole universe. We’ll both be getting around. See you on Luna?”

“Maybe.”

He wondered if he was pushing matters too hard. She didn’t look at ease. “Oh, well,” he said, “if nothing else, this has been a grand break in the monotony for us. I don’t wish the Navy ill, but if trouble had to develop, I’m thankful it developed here.”

“Yes—”

“How’s the repair work progressing? Slowly, I hope.”

“I don’t know.”

“You should have some idea, being in QM.”

“No supplies have been drawn.”

Blades stiffened.

“What’s the matter?” Ellen sounded alarmed.

“Huh?” A fine conspirator I make, if she can see my emotions on me in neon capitals! “Nothing. Nothing. It just seemed a little strange, you know. Not taking any replacement units.”

“I understand the work is only a matter of making certain adjustments.”

“Then they should’ve finished a lot quicker, shouldn’t they?”

“Please,” she said unhappily. “Let’s not talk about it. I mean, there are such things as security regulations.”

Blades gave up on that tack. But Chung’s idea might be worth probing a little. “Sure,” he said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry.” He took another sip as he hunted for suitable words. A beautiful girl, a golden wine … and vice versa … why couldn’t he simply relax and enjoy himself? Did he have to go fretting about what was probably a perfectly harmless conundrum?… Yes. However, recreation might still combine with business.

“Permit me to daydream,” he said, leaning close to her. “The Navy’s going to establish a new base here, and the Altair will be assigned to it.”

“Daydream indeed!” she laughed, relieved to get back to a mere flirtation. “Ever hear about the Convention of Vesta?”

“Treaties can be renegotiated,” Blades plagiarized.

“What do we need an extra base for? Especially since the government plans to spend such large sums on social welfare. They certainly don’t want to start an arms race besides.”


Blades nodded. Jimmy’s notion did seem pretty thin, he thought with a slight chill, and now I guess it’s completely whiffed. Mostly to keep the conversation going, he shrugged and said, “My partner—and me, too, aside from the privilege of your company—wouldn’t have wanted it anyhow. Not that we’re unpatriotic, but there are plenty of other potential bases, and we’d rather keep government agencies out of here.”

“Can you, these days?”

“Pretty much. We’re under a new type of charter, as a private partnership. The first such charter in the Belt, as far as I know, though there’ll be more in the future. The Bank of Ceres financed us. We haven’t taken a nickel of federal money.”

“Is that possible?”

“Just barely. I’m no economist, but I can see how it works. Money represents goods and labor. Hitherto those have been in mighty short supply out here. Government subsidies made up the difference, enabling us to buy from Earth. But now the asterites have built up enough population and industry that they have some capital surplus of their own, to invest in projects like this.”

“Even so, frankly, I’m surprised that two men by themselves could get such a loan. It must be huge. Wouldn’t the bank rather have lent the money to some corporation?”

“To tell the truth, we have friends who pulled wires for us. Also, it was done partly on ideological grounds. A lot of asterites would like to see more strictly home-grown enterprises, not committed to anyone on Earth. That’s the only way we can grow. Otherwise our profits—our net production, that is—will continue to be siphoned off for the mother country’s benefit.”

“Well,” Ellen said with some indignation, “that was the whole reason for planting asteroid colonies. You can’t expect us to set you up in business, at enormous cost to ourselves—things we might have done at home—and get nothing but ‘Ta’ in return.”

“Never fear, we’ll repay you with interest,” Blades said. “But whatever we make from our own work, over and above that, ought to stay here with us.”

She grew angrier. “Your kind of attitude is what provoked the voters to elect Social Justice candidates.”

“Nice name, that,” mused Blades. “Who can be against social justice? But you know, I think I’ll go into politics myself. I’ll organize the North American Motherhood Party.”

“You wouldn’t be so flippant if you’d go see how people have to live back there.”

“As bad as here? Whew!

“Nonsense. You know that isn’t true. But bad enough. And you aren’t going to stick in these conditions. Only a few hours ago, you were bragging about the millions you intend to make.”

“Millions and millions, if my strength holds out,” leered Blades, thinking of the alley in Aresopolis. But he decided that that was then and Ellen was now, and what had started as a promising little party was turning into a dismal argument about politics.

“Let’s not fight,” he said. “We’ve got different orientations, and we’d only make each other mad. Let’s discuss our next bottle instead … at the Coq d’Or in Paris, shall we say? Or Morraine’s in New York.”

She calmed down, but her look remained troubled. “You’re right, we are different,” she said low. “Isolated, living and working under conditions we can hardly imagine on Earth—and you can’t really imagine our problems—yes, you’re becoming another people. I hope it will never go so far that—No. I don’t want to think about it.” She drained her glass and held it out for a refill, smiling. “Very well, sir, when do you next plan to be in Paris?”


An exceedingly enjoyable while later, the time came to go watch the Pallas Castle maneuver in. In fact, it had somehow gotten past that time, and they were late; but they didn’t hurry their walk aft. Blades took Ellen’s hand; and she raised no objection. Schoolboyish, no doubt—however, he had reached the reluctant conclusion that for all his dishonorable intentions, this affair wasn’t likely to go beyond the schoolboy stage. Not that he wouldn’t keep trying.

As they glided through the refining and synthesizing section, which filled the broad half of the asteroid, the noise of pumps and regulators rose until it throbbed in their bones. Ellen gestured at one of the pipes which crossed the corridor overhead. “Do you really handle that big a volume at a time?” she asked above the racket.

“No,” he said. “Didn’t I explain before? The pipe’s thick because it’s so heavily armored.”

“I’m glad you don’t use that dreadful word ‘cladded.’ But why the armor? High pressure?”

“Partly. Also, there’s an inertrans lining. Jupiter gas is hellishly reactive at room temperature. The metallic complexes especially; but think what a witch’s brew the stuff is in every respect. Once it’s been refined, of course, we have less trouble. That particular pipe is carrying it raw.”

They left the noise behind and passed on to the approach control dome at the receptor end. The two men on duty glanced up and immediately went back to their instruments. Radio voices were staccato in the air. Blades led Ellen to an observation port.

She drew a sharp breath. Outside, the broken ground fell away to space and the stars. The ovoid that was the ship hung against them, lit by the hidden sun, a giant even at her distance but dwarfed by the balloon she towed. As that bubble tried ponderously to rotate, rainbow gleams ran across it, hiding and then revealing the constellations. Here, on the asteroid’s axis, there was no weight, and one moved with underwater smoothness, as if disembodied. “Oh, a fairy tale,” Ellen sighed.

Four sparks flashed out of the boat blisters along the ship’s hull. “Scoopships,” Blades told her. “They haul the cargo in, being so much more maneuverable. Actually, though, the mother vessel is going to park her load in orbit, while those boys bring in another one … see, there it comes into sight. We still haven’t got the capacity to keep up with our deliveries.”

“How many are there? Scoopships, that is.”

“Twenty, but you don’t need more than four for this job. They’ve got terrific power. Have to, if they’re to dive from orbit down into the Jovian atmosphere, ram themselves full of gas, and come back. There they go.”

The Pallas Castle was wrestling the great sphere she had hauled from Jupiter into a stable path computed by Central Control. Meanwhile the scoopships, small only by comparison with her, locked onto the other balloon as it drifted close. Energy poured into their drive fields. Spiraling downward, transparent globe and four laboring spacecraft vanished behind the horizon. The Pallas completed her own task, disengaged her towbars, and dropped from view, headed for the dock.

The second balloon rose again, like a huge glass moon on the opposite side of the Sword. Still it grew in Ellen’s eyes, kilometer by kilometer of approach. So much mass wasn’t easily handled, but the braking curve looked disdainfully smooth. Presently she could make out the scoopships in detail, elongated teardrops with the intake gates yawning in the blunt forward end, cockpit canopies raised very slightly above.

Instructions rattled from the men in the dome. The balloon veered clumsily toward the one free receptor. A derricklike structure released one end of a cable, which streamed skyward. Things that Ellen couldn’t quite follow in this tricky light were done by the four tugs, mechanisms of their own extended to make their tow fast to the cable.

They did not cast loose at once, but continued to drag a little, easing the impact of centrifugal force. Nonetheless a slight shudder went through the dome as slack was taken up. Then the job was over. The scoopships let go and flitted off to join their mother vessel. The balloon was winched inward. Spacesuited men moved close, preparing to couple valves together.

“And eventually,” Blades said into the abrupt quietness, “that cargo will become food, fabric, vitryl, plastiboard, reagents, fuels, a hundred different things. That’s what we’re here for.”

“I’ve never seen anything so wonderful,” Ellen said raptly. He laid an arm around her waist.

The intercom chose that precise moment to blare: “Attention! Emergency! All hands to emergency stations! Blades, get to Chung’s office on the double! All hands to emergency stations!”

Blades was running before the siren had begun to howl.

Rear Admiral Barclay Hulse had come in person. He stood as if on parade, towering over Chung. The asterite was red with fury. Avis Page crouched in a corner, her eyes terrified.

Blades barreled through the doorway and stopped hardly short of a collision. “What’s the matter?” he puffed.

“Plenty!” Chung snarled. “These incredible thumble-fumbed oafs—” His voice broke. When he gets mad, it means something!

Hulse nailed Blades with a glance. “Good day, sir,” he clipped. “I have had to report a regrettable accident which will require you to evacuate the Station. Temporarily, I hope.”

“Huh?”

“As I told Mr. Chung and Miss Page, a nuclear missile has escaped us. If it explodes, the radiation will be lethal, even in the heart of the asteroid.”

“What … what—” Blades could only gobble at him.

“Fortunately, the Pallas Castle is here. She can take your whole complement aboard and move to a safe distance while we search for the object.”

“How the devil?”

Hulse allowed himself a look of exasperation. “Evidently I’ll have to repeat myself to you. Very well. You know we have had to make some adjustments on our launchers. What you did not know was the reason. Under the circumstances, I think it’s permissible to tell you that several of them have a new and secret, experimental control system. One of our missions on this cruise was to carry out field tests. Well, it turned out that the system is still full of, ah, bugs. Gunnery Command has had endless trouble with it, has had to keep tinkering the whole way from Earth.

“Half an hour ago, while Commander Warburton was completing a reassembly—lower ranks aren’t allowed in the test turrets—something happened. I can’t tell you my guess as to what, but if you want to imagine that a relay got stuck, that will do for practical purposes. A missile was released under power. Not a dummy—the real thing. And release automatically arms the war head.”


The news was like a hammerblow. Blades spoke an obscenity. Sweat sprang forth under his arms and trickled down his ribs.

“No such thing was expected,” Hulse went on. “It’s an utter disaster, and the designers of the system aren’t likely to get any more contracts. But as matters were, no radar fix was gotten on it, and it was soon too far away for gyrogravitic pulse detection. The thrust vector is unknown. It could be almost anywhere now.

“Well, naval missiles are programmed to reverse acceleration if they haven’t made a target within a given time. This one should be back in less than six hours. If it first detects our ship, everything is all right. It has optical recognition circuits that identify any North American warcraft by type, disarm the war head, and steer it home. But, if it first comes within fifty kilometers of some other mass—like this asteroid or one of the companion rocks—it will detonate. We’ll make every effort to intercept, but space is big. You’ll have to take your people to a safe distance. They can come back even after a blast, of course. There’s no concussion in vacuum, and the fireball won’t reach here. It’s principally an anti-personnel weapon. But you must not be within the lethal radius of radiation.”

“The hell we can come back!” Avis cried.

“I beg your pardon?” Hulse said.

“You imbecile! Don’t you know Central Control here is cryotronic?”

Hulse did not flicker an eyelid. “So it is,” he said expressionlessly. “I had forgotten.”


Blades mastered his own shock enough to grate: “Well, we sure haven’t. If that thing goes off, the gamma burst will kick up so many minority carriers in the transistors that the p-type crystals will act n-type, and the n-type act p-type, for a whole couple of microseconds. Every one of ’em will flip simultaneously! The computers’ memory and program data systems will be scrambled beyond hope of reorganization.”

“Magnetic pulse, too,” Chung said. “The fireball plasma will be full of inhomogeneities moving at several per cent of light speed. Their electromagnetic output, hitting our magnetic core units, will turn them from super to ordinary conduction. Same effect, total computer amnesia. We haven’t got enough shielding against it. Your TIMM systems can take that kind of a beating. Ours can’t!”

“Very regrettable,” Hulse said. “You’d have to reprogram everything—”

“Reprogram what?” Avis retorted. Tears started forth in her eyes. “We’ve told you what sort of stuff our chemical plant is handling. We can’t shut it down on that short notice. It’ll run wild. There’ll be sodium explosions, hydrogen and organic combustion, n-n-nothing left here but wreckage!”

Hulse didn’t unbend a centimeter. “I offer my most sincere apologies. If actual harm does occur, I’m sure the government will indemnify you. And, of course, my command will furnish what supplies may be needed for the Pallas Castle to transport you to the nearest Commission base. At the moment, though, you can do nothing but evacuate and hope we will be able to intercept the missile.”

Blades knotted his fists. A sudden comprehension rushed up in him and he bellowed, “There isn’t going to be an interception! This wasn’t an accident!”

Hulse backed a step and drew himself even straighter. “Don’t get overwrought,” he advised.

“You louse-bitten, egg-sucking, bloated faggot-porter! How stupid do you think we are? As stupid as your Essjay bosses? By heaven, we’re staying! Then see if you have the nerve to murder a hundred people!”

“Mike … Mike—” Avis caught his arm.

Hulse turned to Chung. “I’ll overlook that unseemly outburst,” he said. “But in light of my responsibilities and under the provisions of the Constitution, I am hereby putting this asteroid under martial law. You will have all personnel aboard the Pallas Castle and at a minimum distance of a thousand kilometers within four hours of this moment, or be subject to arrest and trial. Now I have to get back and commence operations. The Altair will maintain radio contact with you. Good day.” He bowed curtly, spun on his heel, and clacked from the room.

Blades started to charge after him. Chung caught his free arm. Together he and Avis dragged him to a stop. He stood cursing the air ultraviolet until Ellen entered.

“I couldn’t keep up with you,” she panted. “What’s happened, Mike?”

The strength drained from Blades. He slumped into a chair and covered his face.


Chung explained in a few harsh words. “Oh-h-h,” Ellen gasped. She went to Blades and laid her hands on his shoulders. “My poor Mike!”

After a moment she looked at the others. “I should report back, of course,” she said, “but I won’t be able to before the ship accelerates. So I’ll have to stay with you till afterward. Miss Page, we left about half a bottle of wine on the verandah. I think it would be a good idea if you went and got it.”

Avis bridled. “And why not you?”

“This is no time for personalities,” Chung said. “Go on, Avis. You can be thinking what records and other paper we should take, while you’re on your way. I’ve got to organize the evacuation. As for Miss Ziska, well, Mike needs somebody to pull him out of his dive.”

“Her?” Avis wailed, and fled.

Chung sat down and flipped his intercom to Phone Central. “Get me Captain Janichevski aboard the Pallas,” he ordered. “Hello, Adam? About that general alarm—”

Blades raised a haggard countenance toward Ellen’s. “You better clear out, along with the women and any men who don’t want to stay,” he said. “But I think most of them will take the chance. They’re on a profit-sharing scheme, they stand to lose too much if the place is ruined.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s a gamble, but I don’t believe Hulse’s sealed orders extend to murder. If enough of us stay put, he’ll have to catch that thing. He jolly well knows its exact trajectory.”

“You forget we’re under martial law,” Chung said, aside to him. “If we don’t go freely, he’ll land some PP’s and march us off at gunpoint. There isn’t any choice. We’ve had the course.”

“I don’t understand,” Ellen said shakily.

Chung went back to his intercom. Blades fumbled out his pipe and rolled it empty between his hands. “That missile was shot off on purpose,” he said.

“What? No, you must be sick, that’s impossible!”

“I realize you didn’t know about it. Only three or four officers have been told. The job had to be done very, very secretly, or there’d be a scandal, maybe an impeachment. But it’s still sabotage.”

She shrank from him. “You’re not making sense.”

“Their own story doesn’t make sense. It’s ridiculous. A new missile system wouldn’t be sent on a field trial clear to the Belt before it’d had enough tests closer to home to get the worst bugs out. A war-head missile wouldn’t be stashed anywhere near something so unreliable, let alone be put under its control. The testing ship wouldn’t hang around a civilian Station while her gunnery chief tinkered. And Hulse, Warburton, Liebknecht, they were asking in such detail about how radiation-proof we are.”

“I can’t believe it. Nobody will.”

“Not back home. Communication with Earth is so sparse and garbled. The public will only know there was an accident; who’ll give a hoot about the details? We couldn’t even prove anything in an asteroid court. The Navy would say, ‘Classified information!’ and that’d stop the proceedings cold. Sure, there’ll be a board of inquiry—composed of naval officers. Probably honorable men, too. But what are they going to believe, the sworn word of their Goddard House colleague, or the rantings of an asterite bum?”

“Mike, I know this is terrible for you, but you’ve let it go to your head.” Ellen laid a hand over his. “Suppose the worst happens. You’ll be compensated for your loss.”

“Yeah. To the extent of our personal investment. The Bank of Ceres still has nearly all the money that was put in. We didn’t figure to have them paid off for another ten years. They, or their insurance carrier, will get the indemnity. And after our fiasco, they won’t make us a new loan. They were just barely talked into it, the first time around. I daresay Systemic Developments will make them a nice juicy offer to take this job over.”

Ellen colored. She stamped her foot. “You’re talking like a paranoiac. Do you really believe the government of North America would send a battleship clear out here to do you dirt?”

“Not the whole government. A few men in the right positions is all that’s necessary. I don’t know if Hulse was bribed or talked into this. But probably he agreed as a duty. He’s the prim type.”

“A duty—to destroy a North American business?”


Chung finished at the intercom in time to answer: “Not permanent physical destruction, Miss Ziska. As Mike suggested, some corporation will doubtless inherit the Sword and repair the damage. But a private, purely asterite business … yes, I’m afraid Mike’s right. We are the target.”

“In mercy’s name, why?”

“From the highest motives, of course,” Chung sneered bitterly. “You know what the Social Justice Party thinks of private capitalism. What’s more important, though, is that the Sword is the first Belt undertaking not tied to Mother Earth’s apron strings. We have no commitments to anybody back there. We can sell our output wherever we like. It’s notorious that the asterites are itching to build up their own self-sufficient industries. Quite apart from sentiment, we can make bigger profits in the Belt than back home, especially when you figure the cost of sending stuff in and out of Earth’s gravitational well. So certainly we’d be doing most of our business out here.

“Our charter can’t simply be revoked. First a good many laws would have to be revised, and that’s politically impossible. There is still a lot of individualist sentiment in North America, as witness the fact that businesses do get launched and that the Essjays did have a hard campaign to get elected. What the new government wants is something like the Eighteenth Century English policy toward America. Keep the colonies as a source of raw materials and as a market for manufactured goods, but don’t let them develop a domestic industry. You can’t come right out and say that, but you can let the situation develop naturally.

“Only … here the Sword is, obviously bound to grow rich and expand in every direction. If we’re allowed to develop, to reinvest our profits, we’ll become the nucleus of independent asterite enterprise. If, on the other hand, we’re wiped out by an unfortunate accident, there’s no nucleus; and a small change in the banking laws is all that’s needed to prevent others from getting started. Q.E.D.”

“I daresay Hulse does think he’s doing his patriotic duty,” said Blades. “He wants to guarantee North America our natural resources—in the long run, maybe, our allegiance. If he has to commit sabotage, too bad, but it won’t cost him any sleep.”

“No!” Ellen almost screamed.

Chung sagged in his chair. “We’re very neatly trapped,” he said like an old man. “I don’t see any way out. Think you can get to work now, Mike? You can assign group leaders for the evacuation—”

Blades jumped erect. “I can fight!” he growled.

“With what? Can openers?”

“You mean you’re going to lie down and let them break us?”

Avis came back. She thrust the bottle into Blades’ hands as he paced the room. “Here you are,” she said in a distant voice.

He held it out toward Ellen. “Have some,” he invited.

“Not with you … you subversive!”

Avis brightened noticeably, took the bottle and raised it. “Then here’s to victory,” she said, drank, and passed it to Blades.

He started to gulp; but the wine was too noble, and he found himself savoring its course down his throat. Why, he thought vaguely, do people always speak with scorn about Dutch courage? The Dutch have real guts. They fought themselves free of Spain and free of the ocean itself; when the French or Germans came, they made the enemy sea their ally

The bottle fell from his grasp. In the weak acceleration, it hadn’t hit the floor when Avis rescued it. “Gimme that, you big butterfingers,” she exclaimed. Her free hand clasped his arm. “Whatever happens, Mike,” she said to him, “we’re not quitting.”

Still Blades stared beyond her. His fists clenched and unclenched. The noise of his breathing filled the room. Chung looked around in bewilderment; Ellen watched with waxing horror; Avis’ eyes kindled.

“Holy smoking seegars,” Blades whispered at last. “I really think we can swing it.”

Captain Janichevski recoiled. “You’re out of your skull!”

“Probably,” said Blades. “Fun, huh?”

“You can’t do this.”

“We can try.”

“Do you know what you’re talking about? Insurrection, that’s what. Quite likely piracy. Even if your scheme worked, you’d spend the next ten years in Rehab—at least.”

“Maybe, provided the matter ever came to trial. But it won’t.”

“That’s what you think. You’re asking me to compound the felony, and misappropriate the property of my owners to boot.” Janichevski shook his head. “Sorry, Mike. I’m sorry as hell about this mess. But I won’t be party to making it worse.”

“In other words,” Blades replied, “you’d rather be party to sabotage. I’m proposing an act of legitimate self-defense.”

If there actually is a conspiracy to destroy the Station.”

“Adam, you’re a spaceman. You know how the Navy operates. Can you swallow that story about a missile getting loose by accident?”

Janichevski bit his lip. The sounds from outside filled the captain’s cabin, voices, footfalls, whirr of machines and clash of doors, as the Pallas Castle readied for departure. Blades waited.

“You may be right,” said Janichevski at length, wretchedly. “Though why Hulse should jeopardize his career—”

“He’s not. There’s a scapegoat groomed back home, you can be sure. Like some company that’ll be debarred from military contracts for a while … and get nice fat orders in other fields. I’ve kicked around the System enough to know how that works.”

“If you’re wrong, though … if this is an honest blunder … then you risk committing treason.”

“Yeah. I’ll take the chance.”

“Not I. No. I’ve got a family to support,” Janichevski said.

Blades regarded him bleakly. “If the Essjays get away with this stunt, what kind of life will your family be leading, ten years from now? It’s not simply that we’ll be high-class peons in the Belt. But tied hand and foot to a shortsighted government, how much progress will we be able to make? Other countries have colonies out here too, remember, and some of them are already giving their people a freer hand than we’ve got. Do you want the Asians, or the Russians, or even the Europeans, to take over the asteroids?”

“I can’t make policy.”

“In other words, mama knows best. Believe, obey, anything put out by some bureaucrat who never set foot beyond Luna. Is that your idea of citizenship?”

“You’re putting a mighty fine gloss on bailing yourself out!” Janichevski flared.

“Sure, I’m no idealist. But neither am I a slave,” Blades hesitated. “We’ve been friends too long, Adam, for me to try bribing you. But if worst comes to worst, we’ll cover for you … somehow … and if contrariwise we win, then we’ll soon be hiring captains for our own ships and you’ll get the best offer any spaceman ever got.”

“No. Scram. I’ve work to do.”

Blades braced himself. “I didn’t want to say this. But I’ve already informed a number of my men. They’re as mad as I am. They’re waiting in the terminal. A monkey wrench or a laser torch makes a pretty fair weapon. We can take over by force. That’ll leave you legally in the clear. But with so many witnesses around, you’ll have to prefer charges against us later on.”

Janichevski began to sweat.

“We’ll be sent up,” said Blades. “But it will still have been worth it.”

“Is it really that important to you?”

“Yes. I admit I’m no crusader. But this is a matter of principle.”

Janichevski stared at the big red-haired man for a long while. Suddenly he stiffened. “O.K. On that account, and no other, I’ll go along with you.”

Blades wobbled on his feet, near collapse with relief. “Good man!” he croaked.

“But I will not have any of my officers or crew involved.”

Blades rallied and answered briskly, “You needn’t. Just issue orders that my boys are to have access to the scoopships. They can install the equipment, jockey the boats over to the full balloons, and even couple them on.”

Janichevski’s fears had vanished once he made his decision, but now a certain doubt registered. “That’s a pretty skilled job.”

“These are pretty skilled men. It isn’t much of a maneuver, not like making a Jovian sky dive.”

“Well, O.K., I’ll take your word for their ability. But suppose the Altair spots those boats moving around?”

“She’s already several hundred kilometers off, and getting farther away, running a search curve which I’m betting my liberty—and my honor; I certainly don’t want to hurt my own country’s Navy—I’m betting that search curve is guaranteed not to find the missile in time. They’ll spot the Pallas as you depart—oh, yes, our people will be aboard as per orders—but no finer detail will show in so casual an observation.”

“Again, I’ll take your word. What else can I do to help?”

“Nothing you weren’t doing before. Leave the piratics to us. I’d better get back.” Blades extended his hand. “I haven’t got the words to thank you, Adam.”

Janichevski accepted the shake. “No reason for thanks. You dragooned me.” A grin crossed his face. “I must confess though, I’m not sorry you did.”


Blades left. He found his gang in the terminal, two dozen engineers and rockjacks clumped tautly together.

“What’s the word?” Carlos Odonaju shouted.

“Clear track,” Blades said. “Go right aboard.”

“Good. Fine. I always wanted to do something vicious and destructive,” Odonaju laughed.

“The idea is to prevent destruction,” Blades reminded him, and proceeded toward the office.

Avis met him in Corridor Four. Her freckled countenance was distorted by a scowl. “Hey, Mike, wait a minute,” she said, low and hurriedly. “Have you seen La Ziska?”

“The leftenant? Why, no. I left her with you, remember, hoping you could calm her down.”

“Uh-huh. She was incandescent mad. Called us a pack of bandits and—But then she started crying. Seemed to break down completely. I took her to your cabin and went back to help Jimmy. Only, when I checked there a minute ago, she was gone.”

“What? Where?”

“How should I know? But that she-devil’s capable of anything to wreck our chances.”

“You’re not being fair to her. She’s got an oath to keep.”

“All right,” said Avis sweetly. “Far be it from me to prevent her fulfilling her obligations. Afterward she may even write you an occasional letter. I’m sure that’ll brighten your Rehab cell no end.”

“What can she do?” Blades argued, with an uneasy sense of whistling in the dark. “She can’t get off the asteroid without a scooter, and I’ve already got Sam’s gang working on all the scooters.”

“Is there no other possibility? The radio shack?”

“With a man on duty there. That’s out.” Blades patted the girl’s arm.

“O.K., I’ll get back to work. But … I’ll be so glad when this is over, Mike!”

Looking into the desperate brown eyes, Blades felt a sudden impulse to kiss their owner. But no, there was too much else to do. Later, perhaps. He cocked a thumb upward. “Carry on.”

Too bad about Ellen, he thought as he continued toward his office. What an awful waste, to make a permanent enemy of someone with her kind of looks. And personality—Come off that stick, you clabberhead! She’s probably the marryin’ type anyway.

In her shoes, though, what would I do? Not much; they’d pinch my feet. But—damnation, Avis is right. She’s not safe to have running around loose. The radio shack? Sparks is not one of the few who’ve been told the whole story and co-opted into the plan. She could

Blades cursed, whirled, and ran.

His way was clear. Most of the men were still in their dorms, preparing to leave. He traveled in huge low-gravity leaps.

The radio shack rose out of the surface near the verandah. Blades tried the door. It didn’t budge. A chill went through him. He backed across the corridor and charged. The door was only plastiboard—

He hit with a thud and a grunt, and rebounded with a numbed shoulder. But it looked so easy for the cops on 3V!

No time to figure out the delicate art of forcible entry. He hurled himself against the panel, again and again, heedless of the pain that struck in flesh and bone. When the door finally, splinteringly gave way, he stumbled clear across the room beyond, fetched up against an instrument console, recovered his balance, and gaped.

The operator lay on the floor, swearing in a steady monotone. He had been efficiently bound with his own blouse and trousers, which revealed his predilection for maroon shorts with zebra stripes. There was a lump on the back of his head, and a hammer lay close by. Ellen must have stolen the tool and come in here with the thing behind her back. The operator would have had no reason to suspect her.

She had not left the sender’s chair, not even while the door was under attack. Only a carrier beam connected the Sword with theAltair. She continued doggedly to fumble with dials and switches, trying to modulate it and raise the ship.

“Praises be … you haven’t had advanced training … in radio,” Blades choked. “That’s … a long-range set … pretty special system—” He weaved toward her. “Come along, now.”

She spat an unladylike refusal.

Theoretically, Blades should have enjoyed the tussle that followed. But he was in poor shape at the outset. And he was a good deal worse off by the time he got her pinioned.

“O.K.,” he wheezed. “Will you come quietly?”

She didn’t deign to answer, unless you counted her butting him in the nose. He had to yell for help to frog-march her aboard ship.


Pallas Castle calling NASS Altair. Come in, Altair.”

The great ovoid swung clear in space, among a million cold stars. The asteroid had dwindled out of sight. A radio beam flickered across emptiness. Within the hull, the crew and a hundred refugees sat jammed together. The air was thick with their breath and sweat and waiting.

Blades and Chung, seated by the transmitter, felt another kind of thickness, the pull of the internal field. Earth-normal weight dragged down every movement; the enclosed cabin began to feel suffocatingly small. We’d get used to it again pretty quickly, Blades thought. Our bodies would, that is. But our own selves, tied down to Earth forever—no.

The vision screen jumped to life. “NASS Altair acknowledging Pallas Castle,” said the uniformed figure within.

“O.K., Charlie, go outside and don’t let anybody else enter,” Chung told his own operator.

The spaceman gave him a quizzical glance, but obeyed. “I wish to report that evacuation of the Sword is now complete,” Chung said formally.

“Very good, sir,” the Navy face replied. “I’ll inform my superiors.”

“Wait, don’t break off yet. We have to talk with your captain.”

“Sir? I’ll switch you over to—”

“None of your damned chains of command,” Blades interrupted. “Get me Rear Admiral Hulse direct, toot sweet, or I’ll eat out whatever fraction of you he leaves unchewed. This is an emergency. I’ve got to warn him of an immediate danger only he can deal with.”

The other stared, first at Chung’s obvious exhaustion, then at the black eye and assorted bruises, scratches, and bites that adorned Blades’ visage. “I’ll put the message through Channel Red at once, sir.” The screen blanked.

“Well, here we go,” Chung said. “I wonder how the food in Rehab is these days.”

“Want me to do the talking?” Blades asked. Chung wasn’t built for times as hectic as the last few hours, and was worn to a nubbin. He himself felt immensely keyed up. He’d always liked a good fight.

“Sure.” Chung pulled a crumpled cigarette from his pocket and began to fill the cabin with smoke. “You have a larger stock of rudeness than I.”

Presently the screen showed Hulse, rigid at his post on the bridge. “Good day, gentlemen,” he said. “What’s the trouble?”

“Plenty,” Blades answered. “Clear everybody else out of there; let your ship orbit free a while. And seal your circuit.”

Hulse reddened. “Who do you think you are?”

“Well, my birth certificate says Michael Joseph Blades. I’ve got some news for you concerning that top-secret gadget you told us about. You wouldn’t want unauthorized personnel listening in.”

Hulse leaned forward till he seemed about to fall through the screen. “What’s this about a hazard?”

“Fact. The Altair is in distinct danger of getting blown to bits.”

“Have you gone crazy? Get me the captain of the Pallas.”

“Very small bits.”

Hulse compressed his lips. “All right, I’ll listen to you for a short time. You had better make it worth my while.”

He spoke orders. Blades scratched his back while he waited for the bridge to be emptied and wondered if there was any chance of a hot shower in the near future.

“Done,” said Hulse. “Give me your report.”

Blades glanced at the telltale. “You haven’t sealed your circuit, admiral.”

Hulse said angry words, but complied. “Now will you talk?”

“Sure. This secrecy is for your own protection. You risk court-martial otherwise.”

Hulse suppressed a retort.


“O.K., here’s the word.” Blades met the transmitted glare with an almost palpable crash of eyeballs. “We decided, Mr. Chung and I, that any missile rig as haywire as yours represents a menace to navigation and public safety. If you can’t control your own nuclear weapons, you shouldn’t be at large. Our charter gives us local authority as peace officers. By virtue thereof and so on and so forth, we ordered certain precautionary steps taken. As a result, if that war head goes off, I’m sorry to say that NASS Altair will be destroyed.”

“Are you … have you—” Hulse congealed. In spite of everything, he was a competent officer, Blades decided. “Please explain yourself,” he said without tone.

“Sure,” Blades obliged. “The Station hasn’t got any armament, but trust the human race to juryrig that. We commandeered the scoopships belonging to this vessel and loaded them with Jovian gas at maximum pressure. If your missile detonates, they’ll dive on you.”

Something like amusement tinged Hulse’s shocked expression. “Do you seriously consider that a weapon?”

“I seriously do. Let me explain. The ships are orbiting free right now, scattered through quite a large volume of space. Nobody’s aboard them. What is aboard each one, though, is an autopilot taken from a scooter, hooked into the drive controls. Each ‘pilot has its sensors locked onto your ship. You can’t maneuver fast enough to shake off radar beams and mass detectors. You’re the target object, and there’s nothing to tell those idiot computers to decelerate as they approach you.

“Of course, no approach is being made yet. A switch has been put in every scooter circuit, and left open. Only the meteorite evasion units are operative right now. That is, if anyone tried to lay alongside one of those scoopships, he’d be detected and the ship would skitter away. Remember, a scoopship hasn’t much mass, and she does have engines designed for diving in and out of Jupe’s gravitational well. She can out-accelerate either of our vessels, or any boat of yours, and out-dodge any of your missiles. You can’t catch her.”

Hulse snorted. “What’s the significance of this farce?”

“I said the autopilots were switched off at the moment, as far as heading for the target is concerned. But each of those switches is coupled to two other units. One is simply the sensor box. If you withdraw beyond a certain distance, the switches will close. That is, the ‘pilots will be turned on if you try to go beyond range of the beams now locked onto you. The other unit we’ve installed in every boat is an ordinary two-for-a-dollar radiation meter. If a nuclear weapon goes off, anywhere within a couple of thousand kilometers, the switches will also close. In either of those cases, the scoopships will dive on you.

“You might knock out a few with missiles, before they strike. Undoubtedly you can punch holes in them with laser guns. But that won’t do any good, except when you’re lucky enough to hit a vital part. Nobody’s aboard to be killed. Not even much gas will be lost, in so short a time.

“So to summarize, chum, if that rogue missile explodes, your ship will be struck by ten to twenty scoopships, each crammed full of concentrated Jovian air. They’ll pierce that thin hull of yours, but since they’re already pumped full beyond the margin of safety, the impact will split them open and the gas will whoosh out. Do you know what Jovian air does to substances like magnesium?

“You can probably save your crew, take to the boats and reach a Commission base. But your nice battleship will be ganz kaput. Is your game worth that candle?”

“You’re totally insane! Releasing such a thing—”

“Oh, not permanently. There’s one more switch on each boat, connected to the meteorite evasion unit and controlled by a small battery. When those batteries run down, in about twenty hours, the ‘pilots will be turned off completely. Then we can spot the scoopships by radar and pick ’em up. And you’ll be free to leave.”

“Do you think for one instant that your fantastic claim of acting legally will stand up in court?”

“No, probably not. But it won’t have to. Obviously you can’t make anybody swallow your yarn if a second missile gets loose. And as for the first one, since it’s failed in its purpose, your bosses aren’t going to want the matter publicized. It’d embarrass them to no end, and serve no purpose except revenge on Jimmy and me—which there’s no point in taking, since the Sword would still be privately owned. You check with Earth, admiral, before shooting off your mouth. They’ll tell you that both parties to this quarrel had better forget about legal action. Both would lose.

“So I’m afraid your only choice is to find that missile before it goes off.”

“And yours? What are your alternatives?” Hulse had gone gray in the face, but he still spoke stoutly.

Blades grinned at him. “None whatsoever. We’ve burned our bridges. We can’t do anything about those scoopships now, so it’s no use trying to scare us or arrest us or whatever else may occur to you. What we’ve done is establish an automatic deterrent.”

“Against an, an attempt … at sabotage … that only exists in your imagination!”

Blades shrugged. “That argument isn’t relevant any longer. I do believe the missile was released deliberately. We wouldn’t have done what we did otherwise. But there’s no longer any point in making charges and denials. You’d just better retrieve the thing.”

Hulse squared his shoulders. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

“Well, you can send a man to the Station. He’ll find the scooters lying gutted. Send another man over here to the Pallas. He’ll find the scoopships gone. I also took a few photographs of the autopilots being installed and the ships being cast adrift. Go right ahead. However, may I remind you that the fewer people who have an inkling of this little intrigue, the better for all concerned.”

Hulse opened his mouth, shut it again, stared from side to side, and finally slumped the barest bit. “Very well,” he said, biting off the words syllable by syllable. “I can’t risk a ship of the line. Of course, since the rogue is still farther away than your deterrent allows the Altair to go, we shall have to wait in space a while.”

“I don’t mind.”

“I shall report the full story to my superiors at home … but unofficially.”

“Good. I’d like them to know that we asterites have teeth.”

“Signing off, then.”

Chung stirred. “Wait a bit,” he said. “We have one of your people aboard, Lieutenant Ziska. Can you send a gig for her?”

“She didn’t collaborate with us,” Blades added. “You can see the evidence of her loyalty, all over my mug.”

“Good girl!” Hulse exclaimed savagely. “Yes, I’ll send a boat. Signing off.”


The screen blanked. Chung and Blades let out a long, ragged breath. They sat a while trembling before Chung muttered, “That skunk as good as admitted everything.”

“Sure,” said Blades, “But we won’t have any more trouble from him.”

Chung stubbed out his cigarette. Poise was returning to both men. “There could be other attempts, though, in the next few years.” He scowled. “I think we should arm the Station. A couple of laser guns, if nothing else. We can say it’s for protection in case of war. But it’ll make our own government handle us more carefully, too.”

“Well, you can approach the Commission about it.” Blades yawned and stretched, trying to loosen his muscles. “Better get a lot of other owners and supervisors to sign your petition, though.” The next order of business came to his mind. He rose. “Why don’t you go tell Adam the good news?”

“Where are you bound?”

“To let Ellen know the fight is over.”

“Is it, as far as she’s concerned?”

“That’s what I’m about to find out. Hope I won’t need an armored escort.” Blades went from the cubicle, past the watchful radioman, and down the deserted passageway beyond.

The cabin given her lay at the end, locked from outside. The key hung magnetically on the bulkhead. Blades unlocked the door and tapped it with his knuckles.

“Who’s there?” she called.

“Me,” he said. “May I come in?”

“If you must,” she said freezingly.

He opened the door and stepped through. The overhead light shimmered off her hair and limned her figure with shadows. His heart bumped. “You, uh, you can come out now,” he faltered. “Everything’s O.K.”

She said nothing, only regarded him from glacier-blue eyes.

“No harm’s been done, except to me and Sparks, and we’re not mad,” he groped. “Shall we forget the whole episode?”

“If you wish.”

“Ellen,” he pleaded, “I had to do what seemed right to me.”

“So did I.”

He couldn’t find any more words.

“I assume that I’ll be returned to my own ship,” she said. He nodded. “Then, if you will excuse me, I had best make myself as presentable as I can. Good day, Mr. Blades.”

“What’s good about it?” he snarled, and slammed the door on his way out.

Avis stood outside the jampacked saloon. She saw him coming and ran to meet him. He made swab-O with his fingers and joy blazed from her. “Mike,” she cried, “I’m so happy!”

The only gentlemanly thing to do was hug her. His spirits lifted a bit as he did. She made a nice armful. Not bad looking, either.


“Well,” said Amspaugh. “So that’s the inside story. How very interesting. I never heard it before.”

“No, obviously it never got into any official record,” Missy said. “The only announcement made was that there’d been a near accident, that the Station tried to make counter-missiles out of scoopships, but that the quick action of NASS Altair was what saved the situation. Her captain was commended. I don’t believe he ever got a further promotion, though.”

“Why didn’t you publicize the facts afterwards?” Lindgren wondered. “When the revolution began, that is. It would’ve made good propaganda.”

“Nonsense,” Missy said. “Too much else had happened since then. Besides, neither Mike nor Jimmy nor I wanted to do any cheap emotion-fanning. We knew the asterites weren’t any little pink-bottomed angels, nor the people back sunward a crew of devils. There were rights and wrongs on both sides. We did what we could in the war, and hated every minute of it, and when it was over we broke out two cases of champagne and invited as many Earthsiders as we could get to the party. They had a lot of love to carry home for us.”

A stillness fell. She took a long swallow from her glass and sat looking out at the stars.

“Yes,” Lindgren said finally, “I guess that was the worst, fighting against our own kin.”

“Well, I was better off in that respect than some,” Missy conceded. “I’d made my commitment so long before the trouble that my ties were nearly all out here. Twenty years is time enough to grow new roots.”

“Really?” Orloff was surprised. “I haven’t met you often before, Mrs. Blades, so evidently I’ve had a false impression. I thought you were a more recent immigrant than that.”

“Shucks, no,” she laughed. “I only needed six months after the Altair incident to think things out, resign my commission and catch the next Belt-bound ship. You don’t think I’d have let a man like Mike get away, do you?”










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SF31Duel on Syrtis by Poul Anderson

The Project Gutenberg EBook of Duel on Syrtis, by Poul William Anderson



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Title: Duel on Syrtis



Author: Poul William Anderson



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Language: English



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Transcriber’s Note:

This etext was produced from Planet Stories March 1951. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.

 

 

Wearily, Kreega scrambled up on top of the rock and

crouched there....Wearily, Kreega scrambled up on top of the rock and

crouched there....Wearily, Kreega scrambled up on top of the rock and crouched there….

 

duel on SYRTIS

 

by POUL ANDERSON

 

 

Bold and ruthless, he was famed throughout the System as a big-game hunter. From the firedrakes of Mercury to the ice-crawlers of Pluto, he’d slain them all. But his trophy-room lacked one item; and now Riordan swore he’d bag the forbidden game that roamed the red deserts … a Martian!

T

he night whispered the message. Over the many miles of loneliness it was borne, carried on the wind, rustled by the half-sentient lichens and the dwarfed trees, murmured from one to another of the little creatures that huddled under crags, in caves, by shadowy dunes. In no words, but in a dim pulsing of dread which echoed through Kreega’s brain, the warning ran—

They are hunting again.

Kreega shuddered in a sudden blast of wind. The night was enormous around him, above him, from the iron bitterness of the hills to the wheeling, glittering constellations light-years over his head. He reached out with his trembling perceptions, tuning himself to the brush and the wind and the small burrowing things underfoot, letting the night speak to him.

Alone, alone. There was not another Martian for a hundred miles of emptiness. There were only the tiny animals and the shivering brush and the thin, sad blowing of the wind.

The voiceless scream of dying traveled through the brush, from plant to plant, echoed by the fear-pulses of the animals and the ringingly reflecting cliffs. They were curling, shriveling and blackening as the rocket poured the glowing death down on them, and the withering veins and nerves cried to the stars.

Kreega huddled against a tall gaunt crag. His eyes were like yellow moons in the darkness, cold with terror and hate and a slowly gathering resolution. Grimly, he estimated that the death was being sprayed in a circle some ten miles across. And he was trapped in it, and soon the hunter would come after him.

He looked up to the indifferent glitter of stars, and a shudder went along his body. Then he sat down and began to think.


I

t had started a few days before, in the private office of the trader Wisby.

“I came to Mars,” said Riordan, “to get me an owlie.”

Wisby had learned the value of a poker face. He peered across the rim of his glass at the other man, estimating him.

Even in God-forsaken holes like Port Armstrong one had heard of Riordan. Heir to a million-dollar shipping firm which he himself had pyramided into a System-wide monster, he was equally well known as a big game hunter. From the firedrakes of Mercury to the ice crawlers of Pluto, he’d bagged them all. Except, of course, a Martian. That particular game was forbidden now.

He sprawled in his chair, big and strong and ruthless, still a young man. He dwarfed the unkempt room with his size and the hard-held dynamo strength in him, and his cold green gaze dominated the trader.

“It’s illegal, you know,” said Wisby. “It’s a twenty-year sentence if you’re caught at it.”

“Bah! The Martian Commissioner is at Ares, halfway round the planet. If we go at it right, who’s ever to know?” Riordan gulped at his drink. “I’m well aware that in another year or so they’ll have tightened up enough to make it impossible. This is the last chance for any man to get an owlie. That’s why I’m here.”

Wisby hesitated, looking out the window. Port Armstrong was no more than a dusty huddle of domes, interconnected by tunnels, in a red waste of sand stretching to the near horizon. An Earthman in airsuit and transparent helmet was walking down the street and a couple of Martians were lounging against a wall. Otherwise nothing—a silent, deadly monotony brooding under the shrunken sun. Life on Mars was not especially pleasant for a human.

“You’re not falling into this owlie-loving that’s corrupted all Earth?” demanded Riordan contemptuously.

“Oh, no,” said Wisby. “I keep them in their place around my post. But times are changing. It can’t be helped.”

“There was a time when they were slaves,” said Riordan. “Now those old women on Earth want to give ’em the vote.” He snorted.

“Well, times are changing,” repeated Wisby mildly. “When the first humans landed on Mars a hundred years ago, Earth had just gone through the Hemispheric Wars. The worst wars man had ever known. They damned near wrecked the old ideas of liberty and equality. People were suspicious and tough—they’d had to be, to survive. They weren’t able to—to empathize the Martians, or whatever you call it. Not able to think of them as anything but intelligent animals. And Martians made such useful slaves—they need so little food or heat or oxygen, they can even live fifteen minutes or so without breathing at all. And the wild Martians made fine sport—intelligent game, that could get away as often as not, or even manage to kill the hunter.”

“I know,” said Riordan. “That’s why I want to hunt one. It’s no fun if the game doesn’t have a chance.”

“It’s different now,” went on Wisby. “Earth has been at peace for a long time. The liberals have gotten the upper hand. Naturally, one of their first reforms was to end Martian slavery.”

Riordan swore. The forced repatriation of Martians working on his spaceships had cost him plenty. “I haven’t time for your philosophizing,” he said. “If you can arrange for me to get a Martian, I’ll make it worth your while.”

“How much worth it?” asked Wisby.


T

hey haggled for a while before settling on a figure. Riordan had brought guns and a small rocketboat, but Wisby would have to supply radioactive material, a “hawk,” and a rockhound. Then he had to be paid for the risk of legal action, though that was small. The final price came high.

“Now, where do I get my Martian?” inquired Riordan. He gestured at the two in the street. “Catch one of them and release him in the desert?”

It was Wisby’s turn to be contemptuous. “One of them? Hah! Town loungers! A city dweller from Earth would give you a better fight.”

The Martians didn’t look impressive. They stood only some four feet high on skinny, claw-footed legs, and the arms, ending in bony four-fingered hands, were stringy. The chests were broad and deep, but the waists were ridiculously narrow. They were viviparous, warm-blooded, and suckled their young, but gray feathers covered their hides. The round, hook-beaked heads, with huge amber eyes and tufted feather ears, showed the origin of the name “owlie.” They wore only pouched belts and carried sheath knives; even the liberals of Earth weren’t ready to allow the natives modern tools and weapons. There were too many old grudges.

“The Martians always were good fighters,” said Riordan. “They wiped out quite a few Earth settlements in the old days.”

“The wild ones,” agreed Wisby. “But not these. They’re just stupid laborers, as dependent on our civilization as we are. You want a real old timer, and I know where one’s to be found.”

He spread a map on the desk. “See, here in the Hraefnian Hills, about a hundred miles from here. These Martians live a long time, maybe two centuries, and this fellow Kreega has been around since the first Earthmen came. He led a lot of Martian raids in the early days, but since the general amnesty and peace he’s lived all alone up there, in one of the old ruined towers. A real old-time warrior who hates Earthmen’s guts. He comes here once in a while with furs and minerals to trade, so I know a little about him.” Wisby’s eyes gleamed savagely. “You’ll be doing us all a favor by shooting the arrogant bastard. He struts around here as if the place belonged to him. And he’ll give you a run for your money.”

Riordan’s massive dark head nodded in satisfaction.


T

he man had a bird and a rockhound. That was bad. Without them, Kreega could lose himself in the labyrinth of caves and canyons and scrubby thickets—but the hound could follow his scent and the bird could spot him from above.

To make matters worse, the man had landed near Kreega’s tower. The weapons were all there—now he was cut off, unarmed and alone save for what feeble help the desert life could give. Unless he could double back to the place somehow—but meanwhile he had to survive.

He sat in a cave, looking down past a tortured wilderness of sand and bush and wind-carved rock, miles in the thin clear air to the glitter of metal where the rocket lay. The man was a tiny speck in the huge barren landscape, a lonely insect crawling under the deep-blue sky. Even by day, the stars glistened in the tenuous atmosphere. Weak pallid sunlight spilled over rocks tawny and ocherous and rust-red, over the low dusty thorn-bushes and the gnarled little trees and the sand that blew faintly between them. Equatorial Mars!

Lonely or not, the man had a gun that could spang death clear to the horizon, and he had his beasts, and there would be a radio in the rocketboat for calling his fellows. And the glowing death ringed them in, a charmed circle which Kreega could not cross without bringing a worse death on himself than the rifle would give—

Or was there a worse death than that—to be shot by a monster and have his stuffed hide carried back as a trophy for fools to gape at? The old iron pride of his race rose in Kreega, hard and bitter and unrelenting. He didn’t ask much of life these days—solitude in his tower to think the long thoughts of a Martian and create the small exquisite artworks which he loved; the company of his kind at the Gathering Season, grave ancient ceremony and acrid merriment and the chance to beget and rear sons; an occasional trip to the Earthling settling for the metal goods and the wine which were the only valuable things they had brought to Mars; a vague dream of raising his folk to a place where they could stand as equals before all the universe. No more. And now they would take even this from him!

He rasped a curse on the human and resumed his patient work, chipping a spearhead for what puny help it could give him. The brush rustled dryly in alarm, tiny hidden animals squeaked their terror, the desert shouted to him of the monster that strode toward his cave. But he didn’t have to flee right away.


R

iordan sprayed the heavy-metal isotope in a ten-mile circle around the old tower. He did that by night, just in case patrol craft might be snooping around. But once he had landed, he was safe—he could always claim to be peacefully exploring, hunting leapers or some such thing.

The radioactive had a half-life of about four days, which meant that it would be unsafe to approach for some three weeks—two at the minimum. That was time enough, when the Martian was boxed in so small an area.

There was no danger that he would try to cross it. The owlies had learned what radioactivity meant, back when they fought the humans. And their vision, extending well into the ultra-violet, made it directly visible to them through its fluorescence—to say nothing of the wholly unhuman extra senses they had. No, Kreega would try to hide, and perhaps to fight, and eventually he’d be cornered.

Still, there was no use taking chances. Riordan set a timer on the boat’s radio. If he didn’t come back within two weeks to turn it off, it would emit a signal which Wisby would hear, and he’d be rescued.

He checked his other equipment. He had an airsuit designed for Martian conditions, with a small pump operated by a power-beam from the boat to compress the atmosphere sufficiently for him to breathe it. The same unit recovered enough water from his breath so that the weight of supplies for several days was, in Martian gravity, not too great for him to bear. He had a .45 rifle built to shoot in Martian air, that was heavy enough for his purposes. And, of course, compass and binoculars and sleeping bag. Pretty light equipment, but he preferred a minimum anyway.

For ultimate emergencies there was the little tank of suspensine. By turning a valve, he could release it into his air system. The gas didn’t exactly induce suspended animation, but it paralyzed efferent nerves and slowed the overall metabolism to a point where a man could live for weeks on one lungful of air. It was useful in surgery, and had saved the life of more than one interplanetary explorer whose oxygen system went awry. But Riordan didn’t expect to have to use it. He certainly hoped he wouldn’t. It would be tedious to lie fully conscious for days waiting for the automatic signal to call Wisby.

He stepped out of the boat and locked it. No danger that the owlie would break in if he should double back; it would take tordenite to crack that hull.

He whistled to his animals. They were native beasts, long ago domesticated by the Martians and later by man. The rockhound was like a gaunt wolf, but huge-breasted and feathered, a tracker as good as any Terrestrial bloodhound. The “hawk” had less resemblance to its counterpart of Earth: it was a bird of prey, but in the tenuous atmosphere it needed a six-foot wingspread to lift its small body. Riordan was pleased with their training.

The hound bayed, a low quavering note which would have been muffled almost to inaudibility by the thin air and the man’s plastic helmet had the suit not included microphones and amplifiers. It circled, sniffing, while the hawk rose into the alien sky.

Riordan did not look closely at the tower. It was a crumbling stump atop a rusty hill, unhuman and grotesque. Once, perhaps ten thousand years ago, the Martians had had a civilization of sorts, cities and agriculture and a neolithic technology. But according to their own traditions they had achieved a union or symbiosis with the wild life of the planet and had abandoned such mechanical aids as unnecessary. Riordan snorted.

The hound bayed again. The noise seemed to hang eerily in the still, cold air; to shiver from cliff and crag and die reluctantly under the enormous silence. But it was a bugle call, a haughty challenge to a world grown old—stand aside, make way, here comes the conqueror!

The animal suddenly loped forward. He had a scent. Riordan swung into a long, easy low-gravity stride. His eyes gleamed like green ice. The hunt was begun!


B

reath sobbed in Kreega’s lungs, hard and quick and raw. His legs felt weak and heavy, and the thudding of his heart seemed to shake his whole body.

Still he ran, while the frightful clamor rose behind him and the padding of feet grew ever nearer. Leaping, twisting, bounding from crag to crag, sliding down shaly ravines and slipping through clumps of trees, Kreega fled.

The hound was behind him and the hawk soaring overhead. In a day and a night they had driven him to this, running like a crazed leaper with death baying at his heels—he had not imagined a human could move so fast or with such endurance.

The desert fought for him; the plants with their queer blind life that no Earthling would ever understand were on his side. Their thorny branches twisted away as he darted through and then came back to rake the flanks of the hound, slow him—but they could not stop his brutal rush. He ripped past their strengthless clutching fingers and yammered on the trail of the Martian.

The human was toiling a good mile behind, but showed no sign of tiring. Still Kreega ran. He had to reach the cliff edge before the hunter saw him through his rifle sights—had to, had to, and the hound was snarling a yard behind now.

Up the long slope he went. The hawk fluttered, striking at him, seeking to lay beak and talons in his head. He batted at the creature with his spear and dodged around a tree. The tree snaked out a branch from which the hound rebounded, yelling till the rocks rang.

The Martian burst onto the edge of the cliff. It fell sheer to the canyon floor, five hundred feet of iron-streaked rock tumbling into windy depths. Beyond, the lowering sun glared in his eyes. He paused only an instant, etched black against the sky, a perfect shot if the human should come into view, and then he sprang over the edge.

He had hoped the rockhound would go shooting past, but the animal braked itself barely in time. Kreega went down the cliff face, clawing into every tiny crevice, shuddering as the age-worn rock crumbled under his fingers. The hawk swept close, hacking at him and screaming for its master. He couldn’t fight it, not with every finger and toe needed to hang against shattering death, but—

He slid along the face of the precipice into a gray-green clump of vines, and his nerves thrilled forth the appeal of the ancient symbiosis. The hawk swooped again and he lay unmoving, rigid as if dead, until it cried in shrill triumph and settled on his shoulder to pluck out his eyes.

Then the vines stirred. They weren’t strong, but their thorns sank into the flesh and it couldn’t pull loose. Kreega toiled on down into the canyon while the vines pulled the hawk apart.

Riordan loomed hugely against the darkening sky. He fired, once, twice, the bullets humming wickedly close, but as shadows swept up from the depths the Martian was covered.

The man turned up his speech amplifier and his voice rolled and boomed monstrously through the gathering night, thunder such as dry Mars had not heard for millennia: “Score one for you! But it isn’t enough! I’ll find you!”

The sun slipped below the horizon and night came down like a falling curtain. Through the darkness Kreega heard the man laughing. The old rocks trembled with his laughter.


R

iordan was tired with the long chase and the niggling insufficiency of his oxygen supply. He wanted a smoke and hot food, and neither was to be had. Oh, well, he’d appreciate the luxuries of life all the more when he got home—with the Martian’s skin.

He grinned as he made camp. The little fellow was a worthwhile quarry, that was for damn sure. He’d held out for two days now, in a little ten-mile circle of ground, and he’d even killed the hawk. But Riordan was close enough to him now so that the hound could follow his spoor, for Mars had no watercourses to break a trail. So it didn’t matter.

He lay watching the splendid night of stars. It would get cold before long, unmercifully cold, but his sleeping bag was a good-enough insulator to keep him warm with the help of solar energy stored during the day by its Gergen cells. Mars was dark at night, its moons of little help—Phobos a hurtling speck, Deimos merely a bright star. Dark and cold and empty. The rockhound had burrowed into the loose sand nearby, but it would raise the alarm if the Martian should come sneaking near the camp. Not that that was likely—he’d have to find shelter somewhere too, if he didn’t want to freeze.

The bushes and the trees and the little furtive animals whispered a word he could not hear, chattered and gossiped on the wind about the Martian who kept himself warm with work. But he didn’t understand that language which was no language.

Drowsily, Riordan thought of past hunts. The big game of Earth, lion and tiger and elephant and buffalo and sheep on the high sun-blazing peaks of the Rockies. Rain forests of Venus and the coughing roar of a many-legged swamp monster crashing through the trees to the place where he stood waiting. Primitive throb of drums in a hot wet night, chant of beaters dancing around a fire—scramble along the hell-plains of Mercury with a swollen sun licking against his puny insulating suit—the grandeur and desolation of Neptune’s liquid-gas swamps and the huge blind thing that screamed and blundered after him—

But this was the loneliest and strangest and perhaps most dangerous hunt of all, and on that account the best. He had no malice toward the Martian; he respected the little being’s courage as he respected the bravery of the other animals he had fought. Whatever trophy he brought home from this chase would be well earned.

The fact that his success would have to be treated discreetly didn’t matter. He hunted less for the glory of it—though he had to admit he didn’t mind the publicity—than for love. His ancestors had fought under one name or another—viking, Crusader, mercenary, rebel, patriot, whatever was fashionable at the moment. Struggle was in his blood, and in these degenerate days there was little to struggle against save what he hunted.

Well—tomorrow—he drifted off to sleep.


H

e woke in the short gray dawn, made a quick breakfast, and whistled his hound to heel. His nostrils dilated with excitement, a high keen drunkenness that sang wonderfully within him. Today—maybe today!

They had to take a roundabout way down into the canyon and the hound cast about for an hour before he picked up the scent. Then the deep-voiced cry rose again and they were off—more slowly now, for it was a cruel stony trail.

The sun climbed high as they worked along the ancient river-bed. Its pale chill light washed needle-sharp crags and fantastically painted cliffs, shale and sand and the wreck of geological ages. The low harsh brush crunched under the man’s feet, writhing and crackling its impotent protest. Otherwise it was still, a deep and taut and somehow waiting stillness.

The hound shattered the quiet with an eager yelp and plunged forward. Hot scent! Riordan dashed after him, trampling through dense bush, panting and swearing and grinning with excitement.

Suddenly the brush opened underfoot. With a howl of dismay, the hound slid down the sloping wall of the pit it had covered. Riordan flung himself forward with tigerish swiftness, flat down on his belly with one hand barely catching the animal’s tail. The shock almost pulled him into the hole too. He wrapped one arm around a bush that clawed at his helmet and pulled the hound back.

Shaking, he peered into the trap. It had been well made—about twenty feet deep, with walls as straight and narrow as the sand would allow, and skillfully covered with brush. Planted in the bottom were three wicked-looking flint spears. Had he been a shade less quick in his reactions, he would have lost the hound and perhaps himself.

He skinned his teeth in a wolf-grin and looked around. The owlie must have worked all night on it. Then he couldn’t be far away—and he’d be very tired—

As if to answer his thoughts, a boulder crashed down from the nearer cliff wall. It was a monster, but a falling object on Mars has less than half the acceleration it does on Earth. Riordan scrambled aside as it boomed onto the place where he had been lying.

“Come on!” he yelled, and plunged toward the cliff.

For an instant a gray form loomed over the edge, hurled a spear at him. Riordan snapped a shot at it, and it vanished. The spear glanced off the tough fabric of his suit and he scrambled up a narrow ledge to the top of the precipice.

The Martian was nowhere in sight, but a faint red trail led into the rugged hill country. Winged him, by God! The hound was slower in negotiating the shale-covered trail; his own feet were bleeding when he came up. Riordan cursed him and they set out again.

They followed the trail for a mile or two and then it ended. Riordan looked around the wilderness of trees and needles which blocked view in any direction. Obviously the owlie had backtracked and climbed up one of those rocks, from which he could take a flying leap to some other point. But which one?

Sweat which he couldn’t wipe off ran down the man’s face and body. He itched intolerably, and his lungs were raw from gasping at his dole of air. But still he laughed in gusty delight. What a chase! What a chase!


K

reega lay in the shadow of a tall rock and shuddered with weariness. Beyond the shade, the sunlight danced in what to him was a blinding, intolerable dazzle, hot and cruel and life-hungry, hard and bright as the metal of the conquerors.

It had been a mistake to spend priceless hours when he might have been resting working on that trap. It hadn’t worked, and he might have known that it wouldn’t. And now he was hungry, and thirst was like a wild beast in his mouth and throat, and still they followed him.

They weren’t far behind now. All this day they had been dogging him; he had never been more than half an hour ahead. No rest, no rest, a devil’s hunt through a tormented wilderness of stone and sand, and now he could only wait for the battle with an iron burden of exhaustion laid on him.

The wound in his side burned. It wasn’t deep, but it had cost him blood and pain and the few minutes of catnapping he might have snatched.

For a moment, the warrior Kreega was gone and a lonely, frightened infant sobbed in the desert silence. Why can’t they let me alone?

A low, dusty-green bush rustled. A sandrunner piped in one of the ravines. They were getting close.

Wearily, Kreega scrambled up on top of the rock and crouched low. He had backtracked to it; they should by rights go past him toward his tower.

He could see it from here, a low yellow ruin worn by the winds of millennia. There had only been time to dart in, snatch a bow and a few arrows and an axe. Pitiful weapons—the arrows could not penetrate the Earthman’s suit when there was only a Martian’s thin grasp to draw the bow, and even with a steel head the axe was a small and feeble thing. But it was all he had, he and his few little allies of a desert which fought only to keep its solitude.

Repatriated slaves had told him of the Earthlings’ power. Their roaring machines filled the silence of their own deserts, gouged the quiet face of their own moon, shook the planets with a senseless fury of meaningless energy. They were the conquerors, and it never occurred to them that an ancient peace and stillness could be worth preserving.

Well—he fitted an arrow to the string and crouched in the silent, flimmering sunlight, waiting.

The hound came first, yelping and howling. Kreega drew the bow as far as he could. But the human had to come near first—

There he came, running and bounding over the rocks, rifle in hand and restless eyes shining with taut green light, closing in for the death. Kreega swung softly around. The beast was beyond the rock now, the Earthman almost below it.

The bow twanged. With a savage thrill, Kreega saw the arrow go through the hound, saw the creature leap in the air and then roll over and over, howling and biting at the thing in its breast.

Like a gray thunderbolt, the Martian launched himself off the rock, down at the human. If his axe could shatter that helmet—

He struck the man and they went down together. Wildly, the Martian hewed. The axe glanced off the plastic—he hadn’t had room for a swing. Riordan roared and lashed out with a fist. Retching, Kreega rolled backward.

Riordan snapped a shot at him. Kreega turned and fled. The man got to one knee, sighting carefully on the gray form that streaked up the nearest slope.

A little sandsnake darted up the man’s leg and wrapped about his wrist. Its small strength was just enough to pull the gun aside. The bullet screamed past Kreega’s ear as he vanished into a cleft.

He felt the thin death-agony of the snake as the man pulled it loose and crushed it underfoot. Somewhat later, he heard a dull boom echoing between the hills. The man had gotten explosives from his boat and blown up the tower.

He had lost axe and bow. Now he was utterly weaponless, without even a place to retire for a last stand. And the hunter would not give up. Even without his animals, he would follow, more slowly but as relentlessly as before.

Kreega collapsed on a shelf of rock. Dry sobbing racked his thin body, and the sunset wind cried with him.

Presently he looked up, across a red and yellow immensity to the low sun. Long shadows were creeping over the land, peace and stillness for a brief moment before the iron cold of night closed down. Somewhere the soft trill of a sandrunner echoed between low wind-worn cliffs, and the brush began to speak, whispering back and forth in its ancient wordless tongue.

The desert, the planet and its wind and sand under the high cold stars, the clean open land of silence and loneliness and a destiny which was not man’s, spoke to him. The enormous oneness of life on Mars, drawn together against the cruel environment, stirred in his blood. As the sun went down and the stars blossomed forth in awesome frosty glory, Kreega began to think again.

He did not hate his persecutor, but the grimness of Mars was in him. He fought the war of all which was old and primitive and lost in its own dreams against the alien and the desecrator. It was as ancient and pitiless as life, that war, and each battle won or lost meant something even if no one ever heard of it.

You do not fight alone, whispered the desert. You fight for all Mars, and we are with you.

Something moved in the darkness, a tiny warm form running across his hand, a little feathered mouse-like thing that burrowed under the sand and lived its small fugitive life and was glad in its own way of living. But it was a part of a world, and Mars has no pity in its voice.

Still, a tenderness was within Kreega’s heart, and he whispered gently in the language that was not a language, You will do this for us? You will do it, little brother?


R

iordan was too tired to sleep well. He had lain awake for a long time, thinking, and that is not good for a man alone in the Martian hills.

So now the rockhound was dead too. It didn’t matter, the owlie wouldn’t escape. But somehow the incident brought home to him the immensity and the age and the loneliness of the desert.

It whispered to him. The brush rustled and something wailed in darkness and the wind blew with a wild mournful sound over faintly starlit cliffs, and it was as if they all somehow had voice, as if the whole world muttered and threatened him in the night. Dimly, he wondered if man would ever subdue Mars, if the human race had not finally run across something bigger than itself.

But that was nonsense. Mars was old and worn-out and barren, dreaming itself into slow death. The tramp of human feet, shouts of men and roar of sky-storming rockets, were waking it, but to a new destiny, to man’s. When Ares lifted its hard spires above the hills of Syrtis, where then were the ancient gods of Mars?

It was cold, and the cold deepened as the night wore on. The stars were fire and ice, glittering diamonds in the deep crystal dark. Now and then he could hear a faint snapping borne through the earth as rock or tree split open. The wind laid itself to rest, sound froze to death, there was only the hard clear starlight falling through space to shatter on the ground.

Once something stirred. He woke from a restless sleep and saw a small thing skittering toward him. He groped for the rifle beside his sleeping bag, then laughed harshly. It was only a sandmouse. But it proved that the Martian had no chance of sneaking up on him while he rested.

He didn’t laugh again. The sound had echoed too hollowly in his helmet.

With the clear bitter dawn he was up. He wanted to get the hunt over with. He was dirty and unshaven inside the unit, sick of iron rations pushed through the airlock, stiff and sore with exertion. Lacking the hound, which he’d had to shoot, tracking would be slow, but he didn’t want to go back to Port Armstrong for another. No, hell take that Martian, he’d have the devil’s skin soon!

Breakfast and a little moving made him feel better. He looked with a practiced eye for the Martian’s trail. There was sand and brush over everything, even the rocks had a thin coating of their own erosion. The owlie couldn’t cover his tracks perfectly—if he tried, it would slow him too much. Riordan fell into a steady jog.

Noon found him on higher ground, rough hills with gaunt needles of rock reaching yards into the sky. He kept going, confident of his own ability to wear down the quarry. He’d run deer to earth back home, day after day until the animal’s heart broke and it waited quivering for him to come.

The trail looked clear and fresh now. He tensed with the knowledge that the Martian couldn’t be far away.

Too clear! Could this be bait for another trap? He hefted the rifle and proceeded more warily. But no, there wouldn’t have been time—

He mounted a high ridge and looked over the grim, fantastic landscape. Near the horizon he saw a blackened strip, the border of his radioactive barrier. The Martian couldn’t go further, and if he doubled back Riordan would have an excellent chance of spotting him.

He tuned up his speaker and let his voice roar into the stillness: “Come out, owlie! I’m going to get you, you might as well come out now and be done with it!”

The echoes took it up, flying back and forth between the naked crags, trembling and shivering under the brassy arch of sky. Come out, come out, come out—

The Martian seemed to appear from thin air, a gray ghost rising out of the jumbled stones and standing poised not twenty feet away. For an instant, the shock of it was too much; Riordan gaped in disbelief. Kreega waited, quivering ever so faintly as if he were a mirage.

Then the man shouted and lifted his rifle. Still the Martian stood there as if carved in gray stone, and with a shock of disappointment Riordan thought that he had, after all, decided to give himself to an inevitable death.

Well, it had been a good hunt. “So long,” whispered Riordan, and squeezed the trigger.

Since the sandmouse had crawled into the barrel, the gun exploded.


R

iordan heard the roar and saw the barrel peel open like a rotten banana. He wasn’t hurt, but as he staggered back from the shock Kreega lunged at him.

The Martian was four feet tall, and skinny and weaponless, but he hit the Earthling like a small tornado. His legs wrapped around the man’s waist and his hands got to work on the airhose.

Riordan went down under the impact. He snarled, tigerishly, and fastened his hands on the Martian’s narrow throat. Kreega snapped futilely at him with his beak. They rolled over in a cloud of dust. The brush began to chatter excitedly.

Riordan tried to break Kreega’s neck—the Martian twisted away, bored in again.

With a shock of horror, the man heard the hiss of escaping air as Kreega’s beak and fingers finally worried the airhose loose. An automatic valve clamped shut, but there was no connection with the pump now—

Riordan cursed, and got his hands about the Martian’s throat again. Then he simply lay there, squeezing, and not all Kreega’s writhing and twistings could break that grip.

Riordan smiled sleepily and held his hands in place. After five minutes or so Kreega was still. Riordan kept right on throttling him for another five minutes, just to make sure. Then he let go and fumbled at his back, trying to reach the pump.

The air in his suit was hot and foul. He couldn’t quite reach around to connect the hose to the pump—

Poor design, he thought vaguely. But then, these airsuits weren’t meant for battle armor.

He looked at the slight, silent form of the Martian. A faint breeze ruffled the gray feathers. What a fighter the little guy had been! He’d be the pride of the trophy room, back on Earth.

Let’s see now—He unrolled his sleeping bag and spread it carefully out. He’d never make it to the rocket with what air he had, so it was necessary to let the suspensine into his suit. But he’d have to get inside the bag, lest the nights freeze his blood solid.

He crawled in, fastening the flaps carefully, and opened the valve on the suspensine tank. Lucky he had it—but then, a good hunter thinks of everything. He’d get awfully bored, lying here till Wisby caught the signal in ten days or so and came to find him, but he’d last. It would be an experience to remember. In this dry air, the Martian’s skin would keep perfectly well.

He felt the paralysis creep up on him, the waning of heartbeat and lung action. His senses and mind were still alive, and he grew aware that complete relaxation has its unpleasant aspects. Oh, well—he’d won. He’d killed the wiliest game with his own hands.

Presently Kreega sat up. He felt himself gingerly. There seemed to be a rib broken—well, that could be fixed. He was still alive. He’d been choked for a good ten minutes, but a Martian can last fifteen without air.

He opened the sleeping bag and got Riordan’s keys. Then he limped slowly back to the rocket. A day or two of experimentation taught him how to fly it. He’d go to his kinsmen near Syrtis. Now that they had an Earthly machine, and Earthly weapons to copy—

But there was other business first. He didn’t hate Riordan, but Mars is a hard world. He went back and dragged the Earthling into a cave and hid him beyond all possibility of human search parties finding him.

For a while he looked into the man’s eyes. Horror stared dumbly back at him. He spoke slowly, in halting English: “For those you killed, and for being a stranger on a world that does not want you, and against the day when Mars is free, I leave you.”

Before departing, he got several oxygen tanks from the boat and hooked them into the man’s air supply. That was quite a bit of air for one in suspended animation. Enough to keep him alive for a thousand years.










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SF31Duel on Syrtis by Poul Anderson

The Project Gutenberg EBook of Duel on Syrtis, by Poul William Anderson



This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with

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Title: Duel on Syrtis



Author: Poul William Anderson



Release Date: May 19, 2010 [EBook #32436]



Language: English



Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1



*** START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK DUEL ON SYRTIS ***









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Transcriber’s Note:

This etext was produced from Planet Stories March 1951. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.

 

 

Wearily, Kreega scrambled up on top of the rock and

crouched there....Wearily, Kreega scrambled up on top of the rock and

crouched there....Wearily, Kreega scrambled up on top of the rock and crouched there….

 

duel on SYRTIS

 

by POUL ANDERSON

 

 

Bold and ruthless, he was famed throughout the System as a big-game hunter. From the firedrakes of Mercury to the ice-crawlers of Pluto, he’d slain them all. But his trophy-room lacked one item; and now Riordan swore he’d bag the forbidden game that roamed the red deserts … a Martian!

T

he night whispered the message. Over the many miles of loneliness it was borne, carried on the wind, rustled by the half-sentient lichens and the dwarfed trees, murmured from one to another of the little creatures that huddled under crags, in caves, by shadowy dunes. In no words, but in a dim pulsing of dread which echoed through Kreega’s brain, the warning ran—

They are hunting again.

Kreega shuddered in a sudden blast of wind. The night was enormous around him, above him, from the iron bitterness of the hills to the wheeling, glittering constellations light-years over his head. He reached out with his trembling perceptions, tuning himself to the brush and the wind and the small burrowing things underfoot, letting the night speak to him.

Alone, alone. There was not another Martian for a hundred miles of emptiness. There were only the tiny animals and the shivering brush and the thin, sad blowing of the wind.

The voiceless scream of dying traveled through the brush, from plant to plant, echoed by the fear-pulses of the animals and the ringingly reflecting cliffs. They were curling, shriveling and blackening as the rocket poured the glowing death down on them, and the withering veins and nerves cried to the stars.

Kreega huddled against a tall gaunt crag. His eyes were like yellow moons in the darkness, cold with terror and hate and a slowly gathering resolution. Grimly, he estimated that the death was being sprayed in a circle some ten miles across. And he was trapped in it, and soon the hunter would come after him.

He looked up to the indifferent glitter of stars, and a shudder went along his body. Then he sat down and began to think.


I

t had started a few days before, in the private office of the trader Wisby.

“I came to Mars,” said Riordan, “to get me an owlie.”

Wisby had learned the value of a poker face. He peered across the rim of his glass at the other man, estimating him.

Even in God-forsaken holes like Port Armstrong one had heard of Riordan. Heir to a million-dollar shipping firm which he himself had pyramided into a System-wide monster, he was equally well known as a big game hunter. From the firedrakes of Mercury to the ice crawlers of Pluto, he’d bagged them all. Except, of course, a Martian. That particular game was forbidden now.

He sprawled in his chair, big and strong and ruthless, still a young man. He dwarfed the unkempt room with his size and the hard-held dynamo strength in him, and his cold green gaze dominated the trader.

“It’s illegal, you know,” said Wisby. “It’s a twenty-year sentence if you’re caught at it.”

“Bah! The Martian Commissioner is at Ares, halfway round the planet. If we go at it right, who’s ever to know?” Riordan gulped at his drink. “I’m well aware that in another year or so they’ll have tightened up enough to make it impossible. This is the last chance for any man to get an owlie. That’s why I’m here.”

Wisby hesitated, looking out the window. Port Armstrong was no more than a dusty huddle of domes, interconnected by tunnels, in a red waste of sand stretching to the near horizon. An Earthman in airsuit and transparent helmet was walking down the street and a couple of Martians were lounging against a wall. Otherwise nothing—a silent, deadly monotony brooding under the shrunken sun. Life on Mars was not especially pleasant for a human.

“You’re not falling into this owlie-loving that’s corrupted all Earth?” demanded Riordan contemptuously.

“Oh, no,” said Wisby. “I keep them in their place around my post. But times are changing. It can’t be helped.”

“There was a time when they were slaves,” said Riordan. “Now those old women on Earth want to give ’em the vote.” He snorted.

“Well, times are changing,” repeated Wisby mildly. “When the first humans landed on Mars a hundred years ago, Earth had just gone through the Hemispheric Wars. The worst wars man had ever known. They damned near wrecked the old ideas of liberty and equality. People were suspicious and tough—they’d had to be, to survive. They weren’t able to—to empathize the Martians, or whatever you call it. Not able to think of them as anything but intelligent animals. And Martians made such useful slaves—they need so little food or heat or oxygen, they can even live fifteen minutes or so without breathing at all. And the wild Martians made fine sport—intelligent game, that could get away as often as not, or even manage to kill the hunter.”

“I know,” said Riordan. “That’s why I want to hunt one. It’s no fun if the game doesn’t have a chance.”

“It’s different now,” went on Wisby. “Earth has been at peace for a long time. The liberals have gotten the upper hand. Naturally, one of their first reforms was to end Martian slavery.”

Riordan swore. The forced repatriation of Martians working on his spaceships had cost him plenty. “I haven’t time for your philosophizing,” he said. “If you can arrange for me to get a Martian, I’ll make it worth your while.”

“How much worth it?” asked Wisby.


T

hey haggled for a while before settling on a figure. Riordan had brought guns and a small rocketboat, but Wisby would have to supply radioactive material, a “hawk,” and a rockhound. Then he had to be paid for the risk of legal action, though that was small. The final price came high.

“Now, where do I get my Martian?” inquired Riordan. He gestured at the two in the street. “Catch one of them and release him in the desert?”

It was Wisby’s turn to be contemptuous. “One of them? Hah! Town loungers! A city dweller from Earth would give you a better fight.”

The Martians didn’t look impressive. They stood only some four feet high on skinny, claw-footed legs, and the arms, ending in bony four-fingered hands, were stringy. The chests were broad and deep, but the waists were ridiculously narrow. They were viviparous, warm-blooded, and suckled their young, but gray feathers covered their hides. The round, hook-beaked heads, with huge amber eyes and tufted feather ears, showed the origin of the name “owlie.” They wore only pouched belts and carried sheath knives; even the liberals of Earth weren’t ready to allow the natives modern tools and weapons. There were too many old grudges.

“The Martians always were good fighters,” said Riordan. “They wiped out quite a few Earth settlements in the old days.”

“The wild ones,” agreed Wisby. “But not these. They’re just stupid laborers, as dependent on our civilization as we are. You want a real old timer, and I know where one’s to be found.”

He spread a map on the desk. “See, here in the Hraefnian Hills, about a hundred miles from here. These Martians live a long time, maybe two centuries, and this fellow Kreega has been around since the first Earthmen came. He led a lot of Martian raids in the early days, but since the general amnesty and peace he’s lived all alone up there, in one of the old ruined towers. A real old-time warrior who hates Earthmen’s guts. He comes here once in a while with furs and minerals to trade, so I know a little about him.” Wisby’s eyes gleamed savagely. “You’ll be doing us all a favor by shooting the arrogant bastard. He struts around here as if the place belonged to him. And he’ll give you a run for your money.”

Riordan’s massive dark head nodded in satisfaction.


T

he man had a bird and a rockhound. That was bad. Without them, Kreega could lose himself in the labyrinth of caves and canyons and scrubby thickets—but the hound could follow his scent and the bird could spot him from above.

To make matters worse, the man had landed near Kreega’s tower. The weapons were all there—now he was cut off, unarmed and alone save for what feeble help the desert life could give. Unless he could double back to the place somehow—but meanwhile he had to survive.

He sat in a cave, looking down past a tortured wilderness of sand and bush and wind-carved rock, miles in the thin clear air to the glitter of metal where the rocket lay. The man was a tiny speck in the huge barren landscape, a lonely insect crawling under the deep-blue sky. Even by day, the stars glistened in the tenuous atmosphere. Weak pallid sunlight spilled over rocks tawny and ocherous and rust-red, over the low dusty thorn-bushes and the gnarled little trees and the sand that blew faintly between them. Equatorial Mars!

Lonely or not, the man had a gun that could spang death clear to the horizon, and he had his beasts, and there would be a radio in the rocketboat for calling his fellows. And the glowing death ringed them in, a charmed circle which Kreega could not cross without bringing a worse death on himself than the rifle would give—

Or was there a worse death than that—to be shot by a monster and have his stuffed hide carried back as a trophy for fools to gape at? The old iron pride of his race rose in Kreega, hard and bitter and unrelenting. He didn’t ask much of life these days—solitude in his tower to think the long thoughts of a Martian and create the small exquisite artworks which he loved; the company of his kind at the Gathering Season, grave ancient ceremony and acrid merriment and the chance to beget and rear sons; an occasional trip to the Earthling settling for the metal goods and the wine which were the only valuable things they had brought to Mars; a vague dream of raising his folk to a place where they could stand as equals before all the universe. No more. And now they would take even this from him!

He rasped a curse on the human and resumed his patient work, chipping a spearhead for what puny help it could give him. The brush rustled dryly in alarm, tiny hidden animals squeaked their terror, the desert shouted to him of the monster that strode toward his cave. But he didn’t have to flee right away.


R

iordan sprayed the heavy-metal isotope in a ten-mile circle around the old tower. He did that by night, just in case patrol craft might be snooping around. But once he had landed, he was safe—he could always claim to be peacefully exploring, hunting leapers or some such thing.

The radioactive had a half-life of about four days, which meant that it would be unsafe to approach for some three weeks—two at the minimum. That was time enough, when the Martian was boxed in so small an area.

There was no danger that he would try to cross it. The owlies had learned what radioactivity meant, back when they fought the humans. And their vision, extending well into the ultra-violet, made it directly visible to them through its fluorescence—to say nothing of the wholly unhuman extra senses they had. No, Kreega would try to hide, and perhaps to fight, and eventually he’d be cornered.

Still, there was no use taking chances. Riordan set a timer on the boat’s radio. If he didn’t come back within two weeks to turn it off, it would emit a signal which Wisby would hear, and he’d be rescued.

He checked his other equipment. He had an airsuit designed for Martian conditions, with a small pump operated by a power-beam from the boat to compress the atmosphere sufficiently for him to breathe it. The same unit recovered enough water from his breath so that the weight of supplies for several days was, in Martian gravity, not too great for him to bear. He had a .45 rifle built to shoot in Martian air, that was heavy enough for his purposes. And, of course, compass and binoculars and sleeping bag. Pretty light equipment, but he preferred a minimum anyway.

For ultimate emergencies there was the little tank of suspensine. By turning a valve, he could release it into his air system. The gas didn’t exactly induce suspended animation, but it paralyzed efferent nerves and slowed the overall metabolism to a point where a man could live for weeks on one lungful of air. It was useful in surgery, and had saved the life of more than one interplanetary explorer whose oxygen system went awry. But Riordan didn’t expect to have to use it. He certainly hoped he wouldn’t. It would be tedious to lie fully conscious for days waiting for the automatic signal to call Wisby.

He stepped out of the boat and locked it. No danger that the owlie would break in if he should double back; it would take tordenite to crack that hull.

He whistled to his animals. They were native beasts, long ago domesticated by the Martians and later by man. The rockhound was like a gaunt wolf, but huge-breasted and feathered, a tracker as good as any Terrestrial bloodhound. The “hawk” had less resemblance to its counterpart of Earth: it was a bird of prey, but in the tenuous atmosphere it needed a six-foot wingspread to lift its small body. Riordan was pleased with their training.

The hound bayed, a low quavering note which would have been muffled almost to inaudibility by the thin air and the man’s plastic helmet had the suit not included microphones and amplifiers. It circled, sniffing, while the hawk rose into the alien sky.

Riordan did not look closely at the tower. It was a crumbling stump atop a rusty hill, unhuman and grotesque. Once, perhaps ten thousand years ago, the Martians had had a civilization of sorts, cities and agriculture and a neolithic technology. But according to their own traditions they had achieved a union or symbiosis with the wild life of the planet and had abandoned such mechanical aids as unnecessary. Riordan snorted.

The hound bayed again. The noise seemed to hang eerily in the still, cold air; to shiver from cliff and crag and die reluctantly under the enormous silence. But it was a bugle call, a haughty challenge to a world grown old—stand aside, make way, here comes the conqueror!

The animal suddenly loped forward. He had a scent. Riordan swung into a long, easy low-gravity stride. His eyes gleamed like green ice. The hunt was begun!


B

reath sobbed in Kreega’s lungs, hard and quick and raw. His legs felt weak and heavy, and the thudding of his heart seemed to shake his whole body.

Still he ran, while the frightful clamor rose behind him and the padding of feet grew ever nearer. Leaping, twisting, bounding from crag to crag, sliding down shaly ravines and slipping through clumps of trees, Kreega fled.

The hound was behind him and the hawk soaring overhead. In a day and a night they had driven him to this, running like a crazed leaper with death baying at his heels—he had not imagined a human could move so fast or with such endurance.

The desert fought for him; the plants with their queer blind life that no Earthling would ever understand were on his side. Their thorny branches twisted away as he darted through and then came back to rake the flanks of the hound, slow him—but they could not stop his brutal rush. He ripped past their strengthless clutching fingers and yammered on the trail of the Martian.

The human was toiling a good mile behind, but showed no sign of tiring. Still Kreega ran. He had to reach the cliff edge before the hunter saw him through his rifle sights—had to, had to, and the hound was snarling a yard behind now.

Up the long slope he went. The hawk fluttered, striking at him, seeking to lay beak and talons in his head. He batted at the creature with his spear and dodged around a tree. The tree snaked out a branch from which the hound rebounded, yelling till the rocks rang.

The Martian burst onto the edge of the cliff. It fell sheer to the canyon floor, five hundred feet of iron-streaked rock tumbling into windy depths. Beyond, the lowering sun glared in his eyes. He paused only an instant, etched black against the sky, a perfect shot if the human should come into view, and then he sprang over the edge.

He had hoped the rockhound would go shooting past, but the animal braked itself barely in time. Kreega went down the cliff face, clawing into every tiny crevice, shuddering as the age-worn rock crumbled under his fingers. The hawk swept close, hacking at him and screaming for its master. He couldn’t fight it, not with every finger and toe needed to hang against shattering death, but—

He slid along the face of the precipice into a gray-green clump of vines, and his nerves thrilled forth the appeal of the ancient symbiosis. The hawk swooped again and he lay unmoving, rigid as if dead, until it cried in shrill triumph and settled on his shoulder to pluck out his eyes.

Then the vines stirred. They weren’t strong, but their thorns sank into the flesh and it couldn’t pull loose. Kreega toiled on down into the canyon while the vines pulled the hawk apart.

Riordan loomed hugely against the darkening sky. He fired, once, twice, the bullets humming wickedly close, but as shadows swept up from the depths the Martian was covered.

The man turned up his speech amplifier and his voice rolled and boomed monstrously through the gathering night, thunder such as dry Mars had not heard for millennia: “Score one for you! But it isn’t enough! I’ll find you!”

The sun slipped below the horizon and night came down like a falling curtain. Through the darkness Kreega heard the man laughing. The old rocks trembled with his laughter.


R

iordan was tired with the long chase and the niggling insufficiency of his oxygen supply. He wanted a smoke and hot food, and neither was to be had. Oh, well, he’d appreciate the luxuries of life all the more when he got home—with the Martian’s skin.

He grinned as he made camp. The little fellow was a worthwhile quarry, that was for damn sure. He’d held out for two days now, in a little ten-mile circle of ground, and he’d even killed the hawk. But Riordan was close enough to him now so that the hound could follow his spoor, for Mars had no watercourses to break a trail. So it didn’t matter.

He lay watching the splendid night of stars. It would get cold before long, unmercifully cold, but his sleeping bag was a good-enough insulator to keep him warm with the help of solar energy stored during the day by its Gergen cells. Mars was dark at night, its moons of little help—Phobos a hurtling speck, Deimos merely a bright star. Dark and cold and empty. The rockhound had burrowed into the loose sand nearby, but it would raise the alarm if the Martian should come sneaking near the camp. Not that that was likely—he’d have to find shelter somewhere too, if he didn’t want to freeze.

The bushes and the trees and the little furtive animals whispered a word he could not hear, chattered and gossiped on the wind about the Martian who kept himself warm with work. But he didn’t understand that language which was no language.

Drowsily, Riordan thought of past hunts. The big game of Earth, lion and tiger and elephant and buffalo and sheep on the high sun-blazing peaks of the Rockies. Rain forests of Venus and the coughing roar of a many-legged swamp monster crashing through the trees to the place where he stood waiting. Primitive throb of drums in a hot wet night, chant of beaters dancing around a fire—scramble along the hell-plains of Mercury with a swollen sun licking against his puny insulating suit—the grandeur and desolation of Neptune’s liquid-gas swamps and the huge blind thing that screamed and blundered after him—

But this was the loneliest and strangest and perhaps most dangerous hunt of all, and on that account the best. He had no malice toward the Martian; he respected the little being’s courage as he respected the bravery of the other animals he had fought. Whatever trophy he brought home from this chase would be well earned.

The fact that his success would have to be treated discreetly didn’t matter. He hunted less for the glory of it—though he had to admit he didn’t mind the publicity—than for love. His ancestors had fought under one name or another—viking, Crusader, mercenary, rebel, patriot, whatever was fashionable at the moment. Struggle was in his blood, and in these degenerate days there was little to struggle against save what he hunted.

Well—tomorrow—he drifted off to sleep.


H

e woke in the short gray dawn, made a quick breakfast, and whistled his hound to heel. His nostrils dilated with excitement, a high keen drunkenness that sang wonderfully within him. Today—maybe today!

They had to take a roundabout way down into the canyon and the hound cast about for an hour before he picked up the scent. Then the deep-voiced cry rose again and they were off—more slowly now, for it was a cruel stony trail.

The sun climbed high as they worked along the ancient river-bed. Its pale chill light washed needle-sharp crags and fantastically painted cliffs, shale and sand and the wreck of geological ages. The low harsh brush crunched under the man’s feet, writhing and crackling its impotent protest. Otherwise it was still, a deep and taut and somehow waiting stillness.

The hound shattered the quiet with an eager yelp and plunged forward. Hot scent! Riordan dashed after him, trampling through dense bush, panting and swearing and grinning with excitement.

Suddenly the brush opened underfoot. With a howl of dismay, the hound slid down the sloping wall of the pit it had covered. Riordan flung himself forward with tigerish swiftness, flat down on his belly with one hand barely catching the animal’s tail. The shock almost pulled him into the hole too. He wrapped one arm around a bush that clawed at his helmet and pulled the hound back.

Shaking, he peered into the trap. It had been well made—about twenty feet deep, with walls as straight and narrow as the sand would allow, and skillfully covered with brush. Planted in the bottom were three wicked-looking flint spears. Had he been a shade less quick in his reactions, he would have lost the hound and perhaps himself.

He skinned his teeth in a wolf-grin and looked around. The owlie must have worked all night on it. Then he couldn’t be far away—and he’d be very tired—

As if to answer his thoughts, a boulder crashed down from the nearer cliff wall. It was a monster, but a falling object on Mars has less than half the acceleration it does on Earth. Riordan scrambled aside as it boomed onto the place where he had been lying.

“Come on!” he yelled, and plunged toward the cliff.

For an instant a gray form loomed over the edge, hurled a spear at him. Riordan snapped a shot at it, and it vanished. The spear glanced off the tough fabric of his suit and he scrambled up a narrow ledge to the top of the precipice.

The Martian was nowhere in sight, but a faint red trail led into the rugged hill country. Winged him, by God! The hound was slower in negotiating the shale-covered trail; his own feet were bleeding when he came up. Riordan cursed him and they set out again.

They followed the trail for a mile or two and then it ended. Riordan looked around the wilderness of trees and needles which blocked view in any direction. Obviously the owlie had backtracked and climbed up one of those rocks, from which he could take a flying leap to some other point. But which one?

Sweat which he couldn’t wipe off ran down the man’s face and body. He itched intolerably, and his lungs were raw from gasping at his dole of air. But still he laughed in gusty delight. What a chase! What a chase!


K

reega lay in the shadow of a tall rock and shuddered with weariness. Beyond the shade, the sunlight danced in what to him was a blinding, intolerable dazzle, hot and cruel and life-hungry, hard and bright as the metal of the conquerors.

It had been a mistake to spend priceless hours when he might have been resting working on that trap. It hadn’t worked, and he might have known that it wouldn’t. And now he was hungry, and thirst was like a wild beast in his mouth and throat, and still they followed him.

They weren’t far behind now. All this day they had been dogging him; he had never been more than half an hour ahead. No rest, no rest, a devil’s hunt through a tormented wilderness of stone and sand, and now he could only wait for the battle with an iron burden of exhaustion laid on him.

The wound in his side burned. It wasn’t deep, but it had cost him blood and pain and the few minutes of catnapping he might have snatched.

For a moment, the warrior Kreega was gone and a lonely, frightened infant sobbed in the desert silence. Why can’t they let me alone?

A low, dusty-green bush rustled. A sandrunner piped in one of the ravines. They were getting close.

Wearily, Kreega scrambled up on top of the rock and crouched low. He had backtracked to it; they should by rights go past him toward his tower.

He could see it from here, a low yellow ruin worn by the winds of millennia. There had only been time to dart in, snatch a bow and a few arrows and an axe. Pitiful weapons—the arrows could not penetrate the Earthman’s suit when there was only a Martian’s thin grasp to draw the bow, and even with a steel head the axe was a small and feeble thing. But it was all he had, he and his few little allies of a desert which fought only to keep its solitude.

Repatriated slaves had told him of the Earthlings’ power. Their roaring machines filled the silence of their own deserts, gouged the quiet face of their own moon, shook the planets with a senseless fury of meaningless energy. They were the conquerors, and it never occurred to them that an ancient peace and stillness could be worth preserving.

Well—he fitted an arrow to the string and crouched in the silent, flimmering sunlight, waiting.

The hound came first, yelping and howling. Kreega drew the bow as far as he could. But the human had to come near first—

There he came, running and bounding over the rocks, rifle in hand and restless eyes shining with taut green light, closing in for the death. Kreega swung softly around. The beast was beyond the rock now, the Earthman almost below it.

The bow twanged. With a savage thrill, Kreega saw the arrow go through the hound, saw the creature leap in the air and then roll over and over, howling and biting at the thing in its breast.

Like a gray thunderbolt, the Martian launched himself off the rock, down at the human. If his axe could shatter that helmet—

He struck the man and they went down together. Wildly, the Martian hewed. The axe glanced off the plastic—he hadn’t had room for a swing. Riordan roared and lashed out with a fist. Retching, Kreega rolled backward.

Riordan snapped a shot at him. Kreega turned and fled. The man got to one knee, sighting carefully on the gray form that streaked up the nearest slope.

A little sandsnake darted up the man’s leg and wrapped about his wrist. Its small strength was just enough to pull the gun aside. The bullet screamed past Kreega’s ear as he vanished into a cleft.

He felt the thin death-agony of the snake as the man pulled it loose and crushed it underfoot. Somewhat later, he heard a dull boom echoing between the hills. The man had gotten explosives from his boat and blown up the tower.

He had lost axe and bow. Now he was utterly weaponless, without even a place to retire for a last stand. And the hunter would not give up. Even without his animals, he would follow, more slowly but as relentlessly as before.

Kreega collapsed on a shelf of rock. Dry sobbing racked his thin body, and the sunset wind cried with him.

Presently he looked up, across a red and yellow immensity to the low sun. Long shadows were creeping over the land, peace and stillness for a brief moment before the iron cold of night closed down. Somewhere the soft trill of a sandrunner echoed between low wind-worn cliffs, and the brush began to speak, whispering back and forth in its ancient wordless tongue.

The desert, the planet and its wind and sand under the high cold stars, the clean open land of silence and loneliness and a destiny which was not man’s, spoke to him. The enormous oneness of life on Mars, drawn together against the cruel environment, stirred in his blood. As the sun went down and the stars blossomed forth in awesome frosty glory, Kreega began to think again.

He did not hate his persecutor, but the grimness of Mars was in him. He fought the war of all which was old and primitive and lost in its own dreams against the alien and the desecrator. It was as ancient and pitiless as life, that war, and each battle won or lost meant something even if no one ever heard of it.

You do not fight alone, whispered the desert. You fight for all Mars, and we are with you.

Something moved in the darkness, a tiny warm form running across his hand, a little feathered mouse-like thing that burrowed under the sand and lived its small fugitive life and was glad in its own way of living. But it was a part of a world, and Mars has no pity in its voice.

Still, a tenderness was within Kreega’s heart, and he whispered gently in the language that was not a language, You will do this for us? You will do it, little brother?


R

iordan was too tired to sleep well. He had lain awake for a long time, thinking, and that is not good for a man alone in the Martian hills.

So now the rockhound was dead too. It didn’t matter, the owlie wouldn’t escape. But somehow the incident brought home to him the immensity and the age and the loneliness of the desert.

It whispered to him. The brush rustled and something wailed in darkness and the wind blew with a wild mournful sound over faintly starlit cliffs, and it was as if they all somehow had voice, as if the whole world muttered and threatened him in the night. Dimly, he wondered if man would ever subdue Mars, if the human race had not finally run across something bigger than itself.

But that was nonsense. Mars was old and worn-out and barren, dreaming itself into slow death. The tramp of human feet, shouts of men and roar of sky-storming rockets, were waking it, but to a new destiny, to man’s. When Ares lifted its hard spires above the hills of Syrtis, where then were the ancient gods of Mars?

It was cold, and the cold deepened as the night wore on. The stars were fire and ice, glittering diamonds in the deep crystal dark. Now and then he could hear a faint snapping borne through the earth as rock or tree split open. The wind laid itself to rest, sound froze to death, there was only the hard clear starlight falling through space to shatter on the ground.

Once something stirred. He woke from a restless sleep and saw a small thing skittering toward him. He groped for the rifle beside his sleeping bag, then laughed harshly. It was only a sandmouse. But it proved that the Martian had no chance of sneaking up on him while he rested.

He didn’t laugh again. The sound had echoed too hollowly in his helmet.

With the clear bitter dawn he was up. He wanted to get the hunt over with. He was dirty and unshaven inside the unit, sick of iron rations pushed through the airlock, stiff and sore with exertion. Lacking the hound, which he’d had to shoot, tracking would be slow, but he didn’t want to go back to Port Armstrong for another. No, hell take that Martian, he’d have the devil’s skin soon!

Breakfast and a little moving made him feel better. He looked with a practiced eye for the Martian’s trail. There was sand and brush over everything, even the rocks had a thin coating of their own erosion. The owlie couldn’t cover his tracks perfectly—if he tried, it would slow him too much. Riordan fell into a steady jog.

Noon found him on higher ground, rough hills with gaunt needles of rock reaching yards into the sky. He kept going, confident of his own ability to wear down the quarry. He’d run deer to earth back home, day after day until the animal’s heart broke and it waited quivering for him to come.

The trail looked clear and fresh now. He tensed with the knowledge that the Martian couldn’t be far away.

Too clear! Could this be bait for another trap? He hefted the rifle and proceeded more warily. But no, there wouldn’t have been time—

He mounted a high ridge and looked over the grim, fantastic landscape. Near the horizon he saw a blackened strip, the border of his radioactive barrier. The Martian couldn’t go further, and if he doubled back Riordan would have an excellent chance of spotting him.

He tuned up his speaker and let his voice roar into the stillness: “Come out, owlie! I’m going to get you, you might as well come out now and be done with it!”

The echoes took it up, flying back and forth between the naked crags, trembling and shivering under the brassy arch of sky. Come out, come out, come out—

The Martian seemed to appear from thin air, a gray ghost rising out of the jumbled stones and standing poised not twenty feet away. For an instant, the shock of it was too much; Riordan gaped in disbelief. Kreega waited, quivering ever so faintly as if he were a mirage.

Then the man shouted and lifted his rifle. Still the Martian stood there as if carved in gray stone, and with a shock of disappointment Riordan thought that he had, after all, decided to give himself to an inevitable death.

Well, it had been a good hunt. “So long,” whispered Riordan, and squeezed the trigger.

Since the sandmouse had crawled into the barrel, the gun exploded.


R

iordan heard the roar and saw the barrel peel open like a rotten banana. He wasn’t hurt, but as he staggered back from the shock Kreega lunged at him.

The Martian was four feet tall, and skinny and weaponless, but he hit the Earthling like a small tornado. His legs wrapped around the man’s waist and his hands got to work on the airhose.

Riordan went down under the impact. He snarled, tigerishly, and fastened his hands on the Martian’s narrow throat. Kreega snapped futilely at him with his beak. They rolled over in a cloud of dust. The brush began to chatter excitedly.

Riordan tried to break Kreega’s neck—the Martian twisted away, bored in again.

With a shock of horror, the man heard the hiss of escaping air as Kreega’s beak and fingers finally worried the airhose loose. An automatic valve clamped shut, but there was no connection with the pump now—

Riordan cursed, and got his hands about the Martian’s throat again. Then he simply lay there, squeezing, and not all Kreega’s writhing and twistings could break that grip.

Riordan smiled sleepily and held his hands in place. After five minutes or so Kreega was still. Riordan kept right on throttling him for another five minutes, just to make sure. Then he let go and fumbled at his back, trying to reach the pump.

The air in his suit was hot and foul. He couldn’t quite reach around to connect the hose to the pump—

Poor design, he thought vaguely. But then, these airsuits weren’t meant for battle armor.

He looked at the slight, silent form of the Martian. A faint breeze ruffled the gray feathers. What a fighter the little guy had been! He’d be the pride of the trophy room, back on Earth.

Let’s see now—He unrolled his sleeping bag and spread it carefully out. He’d never make it to the rocket with what air he had, so it was necessary to let the suspensine into his suit. But he’d have to get inside the bag, lest the nights freeze his blood solid.

He crawled in, fastening the flaps carefully, and opened the valve on the suspensine tank. Lucky he had it—but then, a good hunter thinks of everything. He’d get awfully bored, lying here till Wisby caught the signal in ten days or so and came to find him, but he’d last. It would be an experience to remember. In this dry air, the Martian’s skin would keep perfectly well.

He felt the paralysis creep up on him, the waning of heartbeat and lung action. His senses and mind were still alive, and he grew aware that complete relaxation has its unpleasant aspects. Oh, well—he’d won. He’d killed the wiliest game with his own hands.

Presently Kreega sat up. He felt himself gingerly. There seemed to be a rib broken—well, that could be fixed. He was still alive. He’d been choked for a good ten minutes, but a Martian can last fifteen without air.

He opened the sleeping bag and got Riordan’s keys. Then he limped slowly back to the rocket. A day or two of experimentation taught him how to fly it. He’d go to his kinsmen near Syrtis. Now that they had an Earthly machine, and Earthly weapons to copy—

But there was other business first. He didn’t hate Riordan, but Mars is a hard world. He went back and dragged the Earthling into a cave and hid him beyond all possibility of human search parties finding him.

For a while he looked into the man’s eyes. Horror stared dumbly back at him. He spoke slowly, in halting English: “For those you killed, and for being a stranger on a world that does not want you, and against the day when Mars is free, I leave you.”

Before departing, he got several oxygen tanks from the boat and hooked them into the man’s air supply. That was quite a bit of air for one in suspended animation. Enough to keep him alive for a thousand years.










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