/ Language: English / Genre:sf, / Series: The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick

The Minority Report and Other Classic Stories

Philip Dick

Many thousands of readers consider Philip K. Dick the greatest science fiction mind on any planet. Since his untimely death in 1982, interest in Dick’s works has continued to mount and his reputation has been further enhanced by a growing body of critical attention. The Philip K. Dick Award is now given annually to a distinguished work of science fiction, and the Philip K. Dick Society is devoted to the study and promulgation of his works. This collection includes all of the writer’s earliest short and medium-length fiction (including some previously unpublished stories) covering the years 1954-1964. These fascinating stories include “Service Call”, “Stand By”, “The Days of Perky Pat”, and many others.

1955-1964 en Stranger [4pi@bk.ru] doc2fb, FBTools 17.04.2005 627C7EBB-5E43-4B5D-8573-5EF29DADEC80 1.0 The Minority Report (The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Vol. 4) Citadel Press New York 1991 0806512768

The Minority Report

and Other Classic Stories

by Philip K. Dick

Introduction

by James Tiptree, Jr.

How do you know you’re reading Philip K. Dick?

I think, first and pervasively, it was the strangeness. Strange, Dick was and is. I think it was that which kept me combing the SF catalogs for more by him, waiting for each new book to come out. One hears it said, “X just doesn’t think like other people.” About Dick, it was true. In the stories, you can’t tell what’s going to happen next.

And yet his characters are seemingly designed to be ordinary people—except for the occasional screaming psychotic female who is one of Dick’s specialties, and is always treated with love. They are ordinary people caught up in wildly bizarre situations, running a police force with the help of the mumblings of precognitive idiots, facing a self-replicating factory that has taken over the earth. Indeed, one of the factors in the strangeness is the care Dick takes to set his characters in the world of reality, an aspect most other writers ignore.

In how many other science fiction stories do you know what the hero does for a living when he isn’t caught up in the particular plot? Oh, he may be a member of a space crew, or, vaguely, a scientist. Or Young Werther. In Dick, you are introduced to the hero’s business concerns on page one. That’s not literally true of the short stories in this volume (I went back and checked), but the impression of the pervasiveness of “grubby” business concerns is everywhere, especially in the novels. The hero is in the antique business, say; as each new marvel turns up, he ruminates as to whether it is saleable. When the dead talk, they offer business advice. Dick never sheds his concern that we know how his characters earn their bread and butter. It is a part of the peculiar “grittiness” of Dick’s style.

Another part of the grittiness is the jerkiness of the dialog. I can never decide whether Dick’s dialog is purely unreal, or more real than most. His people do not interact as much as they deliver monologs to carry on the plot, or increase the reader’s awareness of a situation.

And the situations are purely Dick. His “plots” are like nothing else in SF. If Dick writes a time-travel story, say, it will have a twist on it that makes it sui generis. Quite typically, the central gee-whiz marvel will not be centered, but will come at you obliquely, in the course, for instance, of a political election.

And any relation between Dick and a nuts-and-bolts SF writer is a pure coincidence. In my more sanguine moments, I concede that he probably knows what happens when you plug in a lamp and turn it on, but beyond that there is little evidence of either technology or science. His science, such as it is, is all engaged in the technology of the soul, with a smattering of abnormal psychology.

So far I have perhaps emphasized his oddities at the expense of his merits. What keeps you reading Dick? Well, for one thing, the strangeness, as I said, but within it there is always the atmosphere of striving, of men desperately trying to get some necessary job done, or striving at least to understand what is striking at them. A large percentage of Dick’s heroes are tortured men; Dick is expert at the machinery of despair.

And another beauty is the desolations. When Dick gives you a desolation, say after the bomb, it is a desolation unique of its kind. There is one such in this book. But amid the desolation you often find another of Dick’s characteristic touches, the little animals.

The little animals are frequently mutants, or small robots who have taken on life. They are unexplained, simply noted by another character in passing. And what are they doing? They are striving, too. A freezing sparrow hugs a rag around itself, a mutant rat plans a construction, “peering and planning.” This sense of the ongoing busy-ness of life, however doomed, of a landscape in which every element has its own life, is trying to live, is typically and profoundly Dick. It carries the quality of compassion amid the hard edges and the grit, the compassion one suspects in Dick, but that never appears frontally. It is this quality of love, always quickly suppressed, that gleams across Dick’s rubbled plains and makes them unique and memorable.

James Tiptree, Jr.

December, 1986

I used to believe the universe was basically hostile. And that I was misplaced in it, I was different from it… fashioned in some other universe and placed here, you see. So that it zigged while I zagged. And that it had singled me out only because there was something weird about me. I didn’t really groove with the universe.

I had a lot of fears that the universe would discover just how different I was from it. My only suspicion about it was that it would find out the truth about me, and its reaction would be perfectly normal: it would get me. I didn’t feel that it was malevolent, just perceptive. And there’s nothing worse that a perceptive universe if there’s something weird about you.

But this year I realized that that’s not true. That the universe is perceptive, but it’s friendly… I just don’t feel that I’m different from the universe anymore.

Philip K. Dick in an interview, 1974.

(from ONLY APPARENTLY REAL)

Autofac

I

Tension hung over the three waiting men. They smoked, paced back and forth, kicked aimlessly at weeds growing by the side of the road. A hot noonday sun glared down on brown fields, rows of neat plastic houses, the distant line of mountains to the west.

“Almost time,” Earl Ferine said, knotting his skinny hands together. “It varies according to the load, a half second for every additional pound.”

Bitterly, Morrison answered, “You’ve got it plotted? You’re as bad as it is. Let’s pretend it just happens to be late.”

The third man said nothing. O’Neill was visiting from another settlement; he didn’t know Ferine and Morrison well enough to argue with them. Instead, he crouched down and arranged the papers clipped to his aluminum check-board. In the blazing sun, O’Neill’s arms were tanned, furry, glistening with sweat. Wiry, with tangled gray hair, horn-rimmed glasses, he was older than the other two. He wore slacks, a sports shirt and crepe-soled shoes. Between his fingers, his fountain pen glittered, metallic and efficient.

“What’re you writing?” Ferine grumbled.

“I’m laying out the procedure we’re going to employ,” O’Neill said mildly. “Better to systemize it now, instead of trying at random. We want to know what we tried and what didn’t work. Otherwise we’ll go around in a circle. The problem we have here is one of communication; that’s how I see it.”

“Communication,” Morrison agreed in his deep, chesty voice. “Yes, we can’t get in touch with the damn thing. It comes, leaves off its load and goes on—there’s no contact between us and it.”

“It’s a machine,” Ferine said excitedly. “It’s dead—blind and deaf.”

“But it’s in contact with the outside world,” O’Neill pointed out. “There has to be some way to get to it. Specific semantic signals are meaningful to it; all we have to do is find those signals. Rediscover, actually. Maybe half a dozen out of a billion possibilities.”

A low rumble interrupted the three men. They glanced up, wary and alert. The time had come.

“Here it is,” Ferine said. “Okay, wise guy, let’s see you make one single change in its routine.”

The truck was massive, rumbling under its tightly packed load. In many ways, it resembled conventional human-operated transportation vehicles, but with one exception—there was no driver’s cabin. The horizontal surface was a loading stage, and the part that would normally be the headlights and radiator grill was a fibrous spongelike mass of receptors, the limited sensory apparatus of this mobile utility extension.

Aware of the three men, the truck slowed to a halt, shifted gears and pulled on its emergency brake. A moment passed as relays moved into action; then a portion of the loading surface tilted and a cascade of heavy cartons spilled down onto the roadway. With the objects fluttered a detailed inventory sheet.

“You know what to do,” O’Neill said rapidly. “Hurry up, before it gets out of here.”

Expertly, grimly, the three men grabbed up the deposited cartons and ripped the protective wrappers from them. Objects gleamed: a binocular microscope, a portable radio, heaps of plastic dishes, medical supplies, razor blades, clothing, food. Most of the shipment, as usual, was food. The three men systematically began smashing objects. In a few minutes, there was nothing but a chaos of debris littered around them.

“That’s that,” O’Neill panted, stepping back. He fumbled for his check-sheet. “Now let’s see what it does.”

The truck had begun to move away; abruptly it stopped and backed toward them. Its receptors had taken in the fact that the three men had demolished the dropped-off portion of the load. It spun in a grinding half circle and came around to face its receptor bank in their direction. Up went its antenna; it had begun communicating with the factory. Instructions were on the way.

A second, identical load was tilted and shoved off the truck.

“We failed,” Ferine groaned as a duplicate inventory sheet fluttered after the new load. “We destroyed all that stuff for nothing.”

“What now?” Morrison asked O’Neill. “What’s the next strategem on our board?”

“Give me a hand.” O’Neill grabbed up a carton and lugged it back to the truck. Sliding the carton onto the platform, he turned for another. The other two men followed clumsily after him. They put the load back onto the truck. As the truck started forward, the last square box was again in place.

The truck hesitated. Its receptors registered the return of its load. From within its works came a low sustained buzzing.

“This may drive it crazy,” O’Neill commented, sweating. “It went through its operation and accomplished nothing.”

The truck made a short, abortive move toward going on. Then it swung purposefully around and, in a blur of speed, again dumped the load onto the road.

“Get them!” O’Neill yelled. The three men grabbed up the cartons and feverishly reloaded them. But as fast as the cartons were shoved back on the horizontal stage, the truck’s grapples tilted them down its far-side ramps and onto the road.

“No use,” Morrison said, breathing hard. “Water through a sieve.”

“We’re licked,” Ferine gasped in wretched agreement, “like always. We humans lose every time.”

The truck regarded them calmly, its receptors blank and impassive. It was doing its job. The planetwide network of automatic factories was smoothly performing the task imposed on it five years before, in the early days of the Total Global Conflict.

“There it goes,” Morrison observed dismally. The truck’s antenna had come down; it shifted into low gear and released its parking brake.

“One last try,” O’Neill said. He swept up one off the cartons and ripped it open. From it he dragged a ten-gallon milk tank and unscrewed the lid. “Silly as it seems.”

“This is absurd,” Ferine protested. Reluctantly, he found a cup among the littered debris and dipped it into the milk. “A kid’s game!”

The truck has paused to observe them.

“Do it,” O’Neill ordered sharply. “Exactly the way we practiced it.”

The three of them drank quickly from the milk tank, visibly allowing the milk to spill down their chins; there had to be no mistaking what they were doing.

As planned, O’Neill was the first. His face twisting in revulsion, he hurled the cup away and violently spat the milk into the road.

“God’s sake!” he choked.

The other two did the same; stamping and loudly cursing, they kicked over the milk tank and glared accusingly at the truck.

“It’s no good!” Morrison roared.

Curious, the truck came slowly back. Electronic synapses clicked and whirred, responding to the situation; its antenna shot up like a flagpole.

“I think this is it,” O’Neill said, trembling. As the truck watched, he dragged out a second milk tank, unscrewed its lid and tasted the contents. “The same!” he shouted at the truck. “It’s just as bad!”

From the truck popped a metal cylinder. The cylinder dropped at Morrison’s feet; he quickly snatched it up and tore it open.

State Nature of Defect

The instruction sheets listed rows of possible defects, with neat boxes by each; a punch-stick was included to indicate the particular deficiency of the product.

“What’ll I check?” Morrison asked. “Contaminated? Bacterial? Sour? Rancid? Incorrectly labeled? Broken? Crushed? Cracked? Bent? Soiled?”

Thinking rapidly, O’Neill said, “Don’t check any of them. The factory’s undoubtedly ready to test and resample. It’ll make its own analysis and then ignore us.” His face glowed as frantic inspiration came. “Write in that blank at the bottom. It’s an open space for further data.”

“Write what?”

O’Neill said, “Write: the product is thoroughly pizzled.”

“What’s that?” Ferine demanded, baffled.

“Write it! It’s a semantic garble—the factory won’t be able to understand it. Maybe we can jam the works.”

With O’Neill’s pen, Morrison carefully wrote that the milk was pizzled. Shaking his head, he resealed the cylinder and returned it to the truck. The truck swept up the milk tanks and slammed its railing tidily into place. With a shriek of tires, it hurtled off. From its slot, a final cylinder bounced; the truck hurriedly departed, leaving the cylinder lying in the dust.

O’Neill got it open and held up the paper for the others to see.

A Factory Representative

Will Be Sent out.

Be Prepared to Supply Complete Data

on Product Deficiency.

For a moment, the three men were silent. Then Ferine began to giggle. “We did it. We contacted it. We got across.”

“We sure did,” O’Neill agreed. “It never heard of a product being pizzled.”

Cut into the base of the mountains lay the vast metallic cube of the Kansas City factory. Its surface was corroded, pitted with radiation pox, cracked and scarred from the five years of war that had swept over it. Most of the factory was buried subsurface, only its entrance stages visible. The truck was a speck rumbling at high speed toward the expanse of black metal. Presently an opening formed in the uniform surface; the truck plunged into it and disappeared inside. The entrance snapped shut.

“Now the big job remains,” O’Neill said. “Now we have to persuade it to close down operations—to shut itself off.”

II

Judith O’Neill served hot black coffee to the people sitting around the living room. Her husband talked while the others listened. O’Neill was as close to being an authority on the autofac system as could still be found.

In his own area, the Chicago region, he had shorted out the protective fence of the local factory long enough to get away with data tapes stored in its posterior brain. The factory, of course, had immediately reconstructed a better type offence. But he had shown that the factories were not infallible.

“The Institute of Applied Cybernetics,” O’Neill explained, “had complete control over the network. Blame the war. Blame the big noise along the lines of communication that wiped out the knowledge we need. In any case, the Institute failed to transmit its information to us, so we can’t transmit our information to the factories—the news that the war is over and we’re ready to resume control of industrial operations.”

“And meanwhile,” Morrison added sourly, “the damn network expands and consumes more of our natural resources all the time.”

“I get the feeling,” Judith said, “that if I stamped hard enough, I’d fall right down into a factory tunnel. They must have mines everywhere by now.”

“Isn’t there some limiting injunction?” Ferine asked nervously. “Were they set up to expand indefinitely?”

“Each factory is limited to its own operational area,” O’Neill said, “but the network itself is unbounded. It can go on scooping up our resources forever. The Institute decided it gets top priority; we mere people come second.”

“Will there be anything left for us?” Morrison wanted to know.

“Not unless we can stop the network’s operations. It’s already used up half a dozen basic minerals. Its search teams are out all the time, from every factory, looking everywhere for some last scrap to drag home.”

“What would happen if tunnels from two factories crossed each other?”

O’Neill shrugged. “Normally, that won’t happen. Each factory has its own special section of our planet, its own private cut of the pie for its exclusive use.”

“But it could happen.”

“Well, they’re raw material-tropic; as long as there’s anything left, they’ll hunt it down.” O’Neill pondered the idea with growing interest. “It’s something to consider. I suppose as things get scarcer—”

He stopped talking. A figure had come into the room; it stood silently by the door, surveying them all.

In the dull shadows, the figure looked almost human. For a brief moment, O’Neill thought it was a settlement latecomer. Then, as it moved forward, he realized that it was only quasi-human: a functional upright biped chassis, with data-receptors mounted at the top, effectors and proprioceptors mounted in a downward worm that ended in floor-grippers. Its resemblance to a human being was testimony to nature’s efficiency; no sentimental imitation was intended.

The factory representative had arrived.

It began without preamble. “This is a data-collecting machine capable of communicating on an oral basis. It contains both broadcasting and receiving apparatus and can integrate facts relevant to its line of inquiry.”

The voice was pleasant, confident. Obviously it was a tape, recorded by some Institute technician before the war. Coming from the quasi-human shape, it sounded grotesque; O’Neill could vividly imagine the dead young man whose cheerful voice now issued from the mechanical mouth of this upright construction of steel and wiring.

“One word of caution,” the pleasant voice continued. “It is fruitless to consider this receptor human and to engage it in discussions for which it is not equipped. Although purposeful, it is not capable of conceptual thought; it can only reassemble material already available to it.”

The optimistic voice clicked out and a second voice came on. It resembled the first, but now there were no intonations or personal mannerisms. The machine was utilizing the dead man’s phonetic speech-pattern for its own communication.

“Analysis of the rejected product,” it stated, “shows no foreign elements or noticeable deterioration. The product meets the continual testing-standards employed throughout the network. Rejection is therefore on a basis outside the test area; standards not available to the network are being employed.”

“That’s right,” O’Neill agreed. Weighing his words with care, he continued, “We found the milk substandard. We want nothing to do with it. We insist on more careful output.”

The machine responded presently. “The semantic content of the term ‘pizzled’ is unfamiliar to the network. It does not exist in the taped vocabulary. Can you present a factual analysis of the milk in terms of specific elements present or absent?”

“No,” O’Neill said warily; the game he was playing was intricate and dangerous. “ ‘Fizzled’ is an overall term. It can’t be reduced to chemical constituents.”

“What does ‘pizzled’ signify?” the machine asked. “Can you define it in terms of alternate semantic symbols?”

O’Neill hesitated. The representative had to be steered from its special inquiry to more general regions, to the ultimate problem of closing down the network. If he could pry it open at any point, get the theoretical discussion started…

“ ‘Pizzled,’ ” he stated, “means the condition of a product that is manufactured when no need exists. It indicates the rejection of objects on the grounds that they are no longer wanted.”

The representative said, “Network analysis shows a need of high-grade pasteurized milk-substitute in this area. There is no alternate source; the network controls all the synthetic mammary-type equipment in existence.” It added, “Original taped instructions describe milk as an essential to human diet.”

O’Neill was being outwitted; the machine was returning the discussion to the specific. “We’ve decided,” he said desperately, “that we don’t want any more milk. We’d prefer to go without it, at least until we can locate cows.”

“That is contrary to the network tapes,” the representative objected. “There are no cows. All milk is produced synthetically.”

“Then we’ll produce it synthetically ourselves,” Morrison broke in impatiently. “Why can’t we take over the machines? My God, we’re not children! We can run our own lives!”

The factory representative moved toward the door. “Until such time as your community finds other sources of milk supply, the network will continue to supply you. Analytical and evaluating apparatus will remain in this area, conducting the customary random sampling.”

Ferine shouted futilely, “How can we find other sources? You have the whole setup! You’re running the whole show!” Following after it, he bellowed, “You say we’re not ready to run things—you claim we’re not capable. How do you know? You don’t give us a chance! We’ll never have a chance!”

O’Neill was petrified. The machine was leaving; its one-track mind had completely triumphed.

“Look,” he said hoarsely, blocking its way. “We want you to shut down, understand. We want to take over your equipment and run it ourselves. The war’s over with. Damn it, you’re not needed anymore!”

The factory representative paused briefly at the door. “The inoperative cycle,” it said, “is not geared to begin until network production merely duplicates outside production. There is at this time, according to our continual sampling, no outside production. Therefore network production continues.” Without warning, Morrison swung the steel pipe in his hand. It slashed against the machine’s shoulder and burst through the elaborate network of sensory apparatus that made up its chest. The tank of receptors shattered; bits of glass, wiring and minute parts showered everywhere.

“It’s a paradox!” Morrison yelled. “A word game—a semantic game they’re pulling on us. The Cyberneticists have it rigged.” He raised the pipe and again brought it down savagely on the unprotesting machine. “They’ve got us hamstrung. We’re completely helpless.”

The room was in uproar. “It’s the only way,” Ferine gasped as he pushed past O’Neill. “We’ll have to destroy them—it’s the network or us.” Grabbing down a lamp, he hurled it in the “face” of the factory representative. The lamp and the intricate surface of plastic burst; Ferine waded in, groping blindly for the machine. Now all the people in the room were closing furiously around the upright cylinder, their impotent resentment boiling over. The machine sank down and disappeared as they dragged it to the floor.

Trembling, O’Neill turned away. His wife caught hold of his arm and led him to the side of the room.

“The idiots,” he said dejectedly. “They can’t destroy it; they’ll only teach it to build more defenses. They’re making the whole problem worse.”

Into the living room rolled a network repair team. Expertly, the mechanical units detached themselves from the half-track mother-bug and scurried toward the mound of struggling humans. They slid between people and rapidly burrowed. A moment later, the inert carcass of the factory representative was dragged into the hopper of the mother-bug. Parts were collected, torn remnants gathered up and carried off. The plastic strut and gear was located. Then the units restationed themselves on the bug and the team departed.

Through the open door came a second factory representative, an exact duplicate of the first. And outside in the hall stood two more upright machines. The settlement had been combed at random by a corps of representatives. Like a horde of ants, the mobile data-collecting machines had filtered through the town until, by chance, one of them had come across O’Neill.

“Destruction of network mobile data-gathering equipment is detrimental to best human interests,” the factory representative informed the roomful of people. “Raw material intake is at a dangerously low ebb; what basic materials still exist should be utilized in the manufacture of consumer commodities.”

O’Neill and the machine stood facing each other.

“Oh?” O’Neill said softly. “That’s interesting. I wonder what you’re lowest on—and what you’d really be willing to fight for.”

Helicopter rotors whined tinnily above O’Neill’s head; he ignored them and peered through the cabin window at the ground not far below.

Slag and ruins stretched everywhere. Weeds poked their way up, sickly stalks among which insects scuttled. Here and there, rat colonies were visible: matted hovels constructed of bone and rubble. Radiation had mutated the rats, along with most insects and animals. A little farther, O’Neill identified a squadron of birds pursuing a ground squirrel. The squirrel dived into a carefully prepared crack in the surface of slag and the birds turned, thwarted.

“You think we’ll ever have it rebuilt?” Morrison asked. “It makes me sick to look at it.”

“In time,” O’Neill answered. “Assuming, of course, that we get industrial control back. And assuming that anything remains to work with. At best, it’ll be slow. We’ll have to inch out from the settlements.”

To the right was a human colony, tattered scarecrows, gaunt and emaciated, living among the ruins of what had once been a town. A few acres of barren soil had been cleared; drooping vegetables wilted in the sun, chickens wandered listlessly here and there, and a fly-bothered horse lay panting in the shade of a crude shed.

“Ruins-squatters,” O’Neill said gloomily. “Too far from the network—not tangent to any of the factories.”

“It’s their own fault,” Morrison told him angrily. “They could come into one of the settlements.”

“That was their town. They’re trying to do what we ‘re trying to do—build up things again on their own. But they’re starting now, without tools or machines, with their bare hands, nailing together bits of rubble. And it won’t work. We need machines. We can’t repair ruins; we’ve got to start industrial production.”

Ahead lay a series of broken hills, chipped remains that had once been a ridge. Beyond stretched out the titanic ugly sore of an H-bomb crater, half filled with stagnant water and slime, a disease-ridden inland sea.

And beyond that—a glitter of busy motion.

“There,” O’Neill said tensely. He lowered the helicopter rapidly. “Can you tell which factory they’re from?”

“They all look alike to me,” Morrison muttered, leaning over to see. “We’ll have to wait and follow them back, when they get a load.”

“If they get a load,” O’Neill corrected.

The autofac exploring crew ignored the helicopter buzzing overhead and concentrated on its job. Ahead of the main truck scuttled two tractors; they made their way up mounds of rubble, probes burgeoning like quills, shot down the far slope and disappeared into a blanket of ash that lay spread over the slag. The two scouts burrowed until only their antennas were visible. They burst up to the surface and scuttled on, their treads whirring and clanking.

“What are they after?” Morrison asked.

“God knows.” O’Neill leafed intently through the papers on his clipboard. “We’ll have to analyze all our back-order slips.”

Below them, the autofac exploring crew disappeared behind. The helicopter passed over a deserted stretch of sand and slag on which nothing moved. A grove of scrub-brush appeared and then, far to the right, a series of tiny moving dots.

A procession of automatic ore carts was racing over the bleak slag, a string of rapidly moving metal trucks that followed one another nose to tail. O’Neill turned the helicopter toward them and a few minutes later it hovered above the mine itself.

Masses of squat mining equipment had made their way to the operations. Shafts had been sunk; empty carts waited in patient rows. A steady stream of loaded carts hurled toward the horizon, dribbling ore after them. Activity and the noise of machines hung over the area, an abrupt center of industry in the bleak wastes of slag.

“Here comes that exploring crew,” Morrison observed, peering back the way they had come. “You think maybe they’ll tangle?” He grinned. “No, I guess it’s too much to hope for.”

“It is this time,” O’Neill answered. “They’re looking for different substances, probably. And they’re normally conditioned to ignore each other.”

The first of the exploring bugs reached the line of ore carts. It veered slightly and continued its search; the carts traveled in their inexorable line as if nothing had happened.

Disappointed, Morrison turned away from the window and swore. “No use. It’s like each doesn’t exist for the other.”

Gradually the exploring crew moved away from the line of carts, past the mining operations and over a ridge beyond. There was no special hurry; they departed without having reacted to the ore-gathering syndrome.

“Maybe they’re from the same factory,” Morrison said hopefully.

O’Neill pointed to the antennas visible on the major mining equipment. “Their vanes are turned at a different vector, so these represent two factories. It’s going to be hard; we’ll have to get it exactly right or there won’t be any reaction.” He clicked on the radio and got hold of the monitor at the settlement. “Any results on the consolidated back-order sheets?”

The operator put him through to the settlement governing offices.

“They’re starting to come in,” Ferine told him. “As soon as we get sufficient samplings, we’ll try to determine which raw materials which factories lack. It’s going to be risky, trying to extrapolate from complex products. There may be a number of basic elements common to the various sublets.”

“What happens when we’ve identified the missing element?” Morrison asked O’Neill. “What happens when we’ve got two tangent factories short on the same material?”

“Then,” O’Neill said grimly, “we start collecting the material ourselves—even if we have to melt down every object in the settlements.”

III

In the moth-ridden darkness of night, a dim wind stirred, chill and faint. Dense underbrush rattled metallically. Here and there a nocturnal rodent prowled, its senses hyper-alert, peering, planning, seeking food.

The area was wild. No human settlements existed for miles; the entire region had been seared flat, cauterized by repeated H-bomb blasts. Somewhere in the murky darkness, a sluggish trickle of water made its way among autofac slag and weeds, dripping thickly into what had once been an elaborate labyrinth of sewer mains. The pipes lay cracked and broken, jutting up into the night darkness, overgrown with creeping vegetation. The wind raised clouds of black ash that swirled and danced among the weeds. Once an enormous mutant wren stirred sleepily, pulled its crude protective night coat of rags around it and dozed off.

For a time, there was no movement. A streak of stars showed in the sky overhead, glowing starkly, remotely. Earl Ferine shivered, peered up and huddled closer to the pulsing heat-element placed on the ground between the three men.

“Well?” Morrison challenged, teeth chattering.

O’Neill didn’t answer. He finished his cigarette, crushed it against a mound of decaying slag and, getting out his lighter, lit another. The mass of tungsten—the bait—lay a hundred yards directly ahead of them.

During the last few days, both the Detroit and Pittsburgh factories had run short of tungsten. And in at least one sector, their apparatus overlapped. This sluggish heap represented precision cutting tools, parts ripped from electrical switches, high-quality surgical equipment, sections of permanent magnets, measuring devices—tungsten from every possible source, gathered feverishly from all the settlements.

Dark mist lay spread over the tungsten mound. Occasionally, a night moth fluttered down, attracted by the glow of reflected starlight. The moth hung momentarily, beat its elongated wings futilely against the interwoven tangle of metal and then drifted off, into the shadows of the thick-packed vines that rose up from the stumps of sewer pipes.

“Not a very damn pretty spot,” Ferine said wryly.

“Don’t kid yourself,” O’Neill retorted. “This is the prettiest spot on Earth. This is the spot that marks the grave of the autofac network. People are going to come around here looking for it someday. There’s going to be a plaque here a mile high.”

“You’re trying to keep your morale up,” Morrison snorted. “You don’t believe they’re going to slaughter themselves over a heap of surgical tools and light-bulb filaments. They’ve probably got a machine down in the bottom level that sucks tungsten out of rock.”

“Maybe,” O’Neill said, slapping at a mosquito. The insect dodged cannily and then buzzed over to annoy Ferine. Ferine swung viciously at it and squatted sullenly down against the damp vegetation.

And there was what they had come to see.

O’Neill realized with a start that he had been looking at it for several minutes without recognizing it. The search-bug lay absolutely still. It rested at the crest of a small rise of slag, its anterior end slightly raised, receptors fully extended. It might have been an abandoned hulk; there was no activity of any kind, no sign of life or consciousness. The search-bug fitted perfectly into the wasted, fire-drenched landscape. A vague tub of metal sheets and gears and flat treads, it rested and waited. And watched.

It was examining the heap of tungsten. The bait had drawn its first bite.

“Fish,” Ferine said thickly. “The line moved. I think the sinker dropped.”

“What the hell are you mumbling about?” Morrison grunted. And then he, too, saw the search-bug. “Jesus,” he whispered. He half rose to his feet, massive body arched forward. “Well, there’s one of them. Now all we need is a unit from the other factory. Which do you suppose it is?”

O’Neill located the communication vane and traced its angle. “Pittsburgh, so pray for Detroit… pray like mad.”

Satisfied, the search-bug detached itself and rolled forward. Cautiously approaching the mound, it began a series of intricate maneuvers, rolling first one way and then another. The three watching men were mystified—until they glimpsed the first probing stalks of other search-bugs.

“Communication,” O’Neill said softly. “Like bees.”

Now five Pittsburgh search-bugs were approaching the mound of tungsten products. Receptors waving excitedly, they increased their pace, scurrying in a sudden burst of discovery up the side of the mound to the top. A bug burrowed and rapidly disappeared; The whole mound shuddered; the bug was down inside, exploring the extent of the find.

Ten minutes later, the first Pittsburgh ore carts appeared and began industriously hurrying off with their haul.

“Damn it!” O’Neill said, agonized. “They’ll have it all before Detroit shows up.”

“Can’t we do anything to slow them down?” Ferine demanded helplessly. Leaping to his feet, he grabbed up a rock and heaved it at the nearest cart. The rock bounced off and the cart continued its work, unperturbed.

O’Neill got to his feet and prowled around, body rigid with impotent fury. Where were they? The autofacs were equal in all respects and the spot was the exact same linear distance from each center. Theoretically, the parties should have arrived simultaneously. Yet there was no sign of Detroit—and the final pieces of tungsten were being loaded before his eyes.

But then something streaked past him.

He didn’t recognize it, for the object moved too quickly. It shot like a bullet among the tangled vines, raced up the side of the hill-crest, poised for an instant to aim itself and hurtled down the far side. It smashed directly into the lead cart. Projectile and victim shattered in an abrupt burst of sound.

Morrison leaped up. “What the hell?”

“That’s it!” Ferine screamed, dancing around and waving his skinny arms. “It’s Detroit!”

A second Detroit search-bug appeared, hesitated as it took in the situation, and then flung itself furiously at the retreating Pittsburgh carts. Fragments of tungsten scattered everywhere—parts, wiring, broken plates, gears and springs and bolts of the two antagonists flew in all directions. The remaining carts wheeled screechingly; one of them dumped its load and rattled off at top speed. A second followed, still weighed down with tungsten. A Detroit search-bug caught up with it, spun directly in its path and neatly overturned it. Bug and cart rolled down a shallow trench, into a stagnant pool of water. Dripping and glistening, the two of them struggled, half submerged.

“Well,” O’Neill said unsteadily, “we did it. We can start back home.” His legs felt weak. “Where’s our vehicle?”

As he gunned the truck motor, something flashed a long way off, something large and metallic, moving over the dead slag and ash. It was a dense clot of carts, a solid expanse of heavy-duty ore carriers racing to the scene. Which factory were they from?

It didn’t matter, for out of the thick tangle of black dripping vines, a web of counter-extensions was creeping to meet them. Both factories were assembling their mobile units. From all directions, bugs slithered and crept, closing in around the remaining heap of tungsten. Neither factory was going to let needed raw material get away; neither was going to give up its find. Blindly, mechanically, in the grip of inflexible directives, the two opponents labored to assemble superior forces.

“Come on,” Morrison said urgently. “Let’s get out of here. All hell is bursting loose.”

O’Neill hastily turned the truck in the direction of the settlement. They began rumbling through the darkness on their way back. Every now and then, a metallic shape shot by them, going in the opposite direction.

“Did you see the load in that last cart?” Ferine asked, worried. “It wasn’t empty.”

Neither were the carts that followed it, a whole procession of bulging supply carriers directed by an elaborate high-level surveying unit.

“Guns,” Morrison said, eyes wide with apprehension. “They’re taking in weapons. But who’s going to use them?”

“They are,” O’Neill answered. He indicated a movement to their right. “Look over there. This is something we hadn’t expected.”

They were seeing the first factory representative move into action.

As the truck pulled into the Kansas City settlement, Judith hurried breathlessly toward them. Fluttering in her hand was a strip of metal-foil paper.

“What is it?” O’Neill demanded, grabbing it from her.

“Just come.” His wife struggled to catch her breath. “A mobile car raced up, dropped it off and left. Big excitement. Golly, the factory’s a blaze of lights. You can see it for miles.”

O’Neill scanned the paper. It was a factory certification for the last group of settlement-placed orders, a total tabulation of requested and factory-analyzed needs. Stamped across the list in heavy black type were six foreboding words:

All Shipments Suspended until Further Notice

Letting out his breath harshly, O’Neill handed the paper over to Ferine. “No more consumer goods,” he said ironically, a nervous grin twitching across his face. “The network’s going on a wartime footing.”

“Then we did it?” Morrison asked haltingly.

“That’s right,” O’Neill said. Now that the conflict had been sparked, he felt a growing, frigid terror. “Pittsburgh and Detroit are in it to the finish. It’s too late for us to change our minds, now—they’re lining up allies.”

IV

Cool morning sunlight lay across the ruined plain of black metallic ash. The ash smoldered a dull, unhealthy red; it was still warm.

“Watch your step,” O’Neill cautioned. Grabbing hold of his wife’s arm, he led her from the rusty, sagging truck, up onto the top of a pile of strewn concrete blocks, the scattered remains of a pillbox installation. Earl Ferine followed, making his way carefully, hesitantly.

Behind them, the dilapidated settlement lay spread out, a disorderly checkerboard of houses, buildings and streets. Since the autofac network had closed down its supply and maintenance, the human settlements had fallen into semibarbarism. The commodities that remained were broken and only partly usable. It had been over a year since the last mobile factory truck had appeared, loaded with food, tools, clothing and repair parts. From the flat expanse of dark concrete and metal at the foot of the mountains, nothing had emerged in their direction.

Their wish had been granted—they were cut off, detached from the network.

On their own.

Around the settlement grew ragged fields of wheat and tattered stalks of sun-baked vegetables. Crude handmade tools had been distributed, primitive artifacts hammered out with great labor by the various settlements. The settlements were linked only by horsedrawn carts and by the slow stutter of the telegraph key.

They had managed to keep their organization, though. Goods and services were exchanged on a slow, steady basis. Basic commodities were produced and distributed. The clothing that O’Neill and his wife and Earl Ferine wore was coarse and unbleached, but sturdy. And they had managed to convert a few of the trucks from gasoline to wood.

“Here we are,” O’Neill said. “We can see from here.”

“Is it worth it?” Judith asked, exhausted. Bending down, she plucked aimlessly at her shoe, trying to dig a pebble from the soft hide sole. “It’s a long way to come, to see something we’ve seen every day for thirteen months.”

“True,” O’Neill admitted, his hand briefly resting on his wife’s limp shoulder. “But this may be the last. And that’s what we want to see.”

In the gray sky above them, a swift circling dot of opaque black moved. High, remote, the dot spun and darted, following an intricate and wary course. Gradually, its gyrations moved it toward the mountains and the bleak expanse of bomb-rubbled structure sunk in their base.

“San Francisco,” O’Neill explained. “One of those long-range hawk projectiles, all the way from the West Coast.”

“And you think it’s the last?” Ferine asked.

“It’s the only one we’ve seen this month.” O’Neill seated himself and began sprinkling dried bits of tobacco into a trench of brown paper. “And we used to see hundreds.”

“Maybe they have something better,” Judith suggested. She found a smooth rock and tiredly seated herself. “Could it be?”

Her husband smiled ironically. “No. They don’t have anything better.”

The three of them were tensely silent. Above them, the circling dot of black drew closer. There was no sign of activity from the flat surface of metal and concrete; the Kansas City factory remained inert, totally unresponsive. A few billows of warm ash drifted across it and one end was partly submerged in rubble. The factory had taken numerous direct hits. Across the plain, the furrows of its subsurface tunnels lay exposed, clogged with debris and the dark, water-seeking tendrils of tough vines.

“Those damn vines,” Ferine grumbled, picking at an old sore on his unshaven chin. “They’re taking over the world.”

Here and there around the factory, the demolished ruin of a mobile extension rusted in the morning dew. Carts, trucks, search-bugs, factory representatives, weapons carriers, guns, supply trains, subsurface projectiles, indiscriminate parts of machinery mixed and fused together in shapeless piles. Some had been destroyed returning to the factory; others had been contacted as they emerged, fully loaded, heavy with equipment. The factory itself—what remained of it—seemed to have settled more deeply into the earth. Its upper surface was barely visible, almost lost in drifting ash.

In four days, there had been no known activity, no visible movement of any sort.

“It’s dead,” Ferine said. “You can see it’s dead.”

O’Neill didn’t answer. Squatting down, he made himself comfortable and prepared to wait. In his own mind, he was sure that some fragment of automation remained in the eroded factory. Time would tell. He examined his wrist-watch; it was eight thirty. In the old days, the factory would be starting its daily routine. Processions of trucks and varied mobile units would be coming to the surface, loaded with supplies, to begin their expeditions to the human settlement.

Off to the right, something stirred. He quickly turned his attention to it.

A single battered ore-gathering cart was creeping clumsily toward the factory. One last damaged mobile unit trying to complete its task. The cart was virtually empty; a few meager scraps of metal lay strewn in its hold. A scavenger… the metal was sections ripped from destroyed equipment encountered on the way. Feebly, like a blind metallic insect, the cart approached the factory. Its progress was incredibly jerky. Every now and then, it halted, bucked and quivered, and wandered aimlessly off the path.

“Control is bad,” Judith said, with a touch of horror in her voice. “The factory’s having trouble guiding it back.”

Yes, he had seen that. Around New York, the factory had lost its high-frequency transmitter completely. Its mobile units had floundered in crazy gyrations, racing in random circles, crashing against rocks and trees, sliding into gullies, overturning, finally unwinding and becoming reluctantly inanimate.

The ore cart reached the edge of the ruined plain and halted briefly. Above it, the dot of black still circled the sky. For a time, the cart remained frozen.

“The factory’s trying to decide,” Ferine said. “It needs the material, but it’s afraid of that hawk up there.”

The factory debated and nothing stirred. Then the ore cart again resumed its unsteady crawl. It left the tangle of vines and started out across the blasted open plain. Painfully, with infinite caution, it headed toward the slab of dark concrete and metal at the base of the mountains.

The hawk stopped circling.

“Get down!” O’Neill said sharply. “They’ve got those rigged with the new bombs.”

His wife and Perine crouched down beside him and the three of them peered warily at the plain and the metal insect crawling laboriously across it. In the sky, the hawk swept in a straight line until it hung directly over the cart. Then, without a sound or warning, it came down in a straight dive. Hands to her face, Judith shrieked, “I can’t watch! It’s awful! Like wild animals!”

“It’s not after the cart,” O’Neill grated.

As the airborne projectile dropped, the cart put on a burst of desperate speed. It raced noisily toward the factory, clanking and rattling, trying in a last futile attempt to reach safely. Forgetting the menace above, the frantically eager factory opened up and guided its mobile unit directly inside. And the hawk had what it wanted.

Before the barrier could close, the hawk swooped down in a long glide parallel with the ground. As the cart disappeared into the depths of the factory, the hawk shot after it, a swift shimmer of metal that hurtled past the clanking cart. Suddenly aware, the factory snapped the barrier shut. Grotesquely, the cart struggled; it was caught fast in the half-closed entrance.

But whether it freed itself didn’t matter. There was a dull rumbling stir. The ground moved, billowed, then settled back. A deep shock wave passed beneath the three watching human beings. From the factory rose a single column of black smoke. The surface of concrete split like a dried pod; it shriveled and broke, and dribbled shattered bits of itself in a shower of ruin. The smoke hung for a while, drifting aimlessly away with the morning wind.

The factory was a fused, gutted wreck. It had been penetrated and destroyed.

O’Neill got stiffly to his feet. “That’s all. All over with. We’ve got what we set out after—we’ve destroyed the autofac network.” He glanced at Perine. “Or was that what we were after?”

They looked toward the settlement that lay behind them. Little remained of the orderly rows of houses and streets of the previous years. Without the network, the settlement had rapidly decayed. The original prosperous neatness had dissipated; the settlement was shabby, ill-kept.

“Of course,” Perine said haltingly. “Once we get into the factories and start setting up our own assembly lines…”

“Is there anything left?” Judith inquired.

“There must be something left. My God, there were levels going down miles!”

“Some of those bombs they developed toward the end were awfully big,” Judith pointed out. “Better than anything we had in our war.”

“Remember that camp we saw? The ruins-squatters?”

“I wasn’t along,” Perine said.

“They were like wild animals. Eating roots and larvae. Sharpening rocks, tanning hides. Savagery, bestiality.”

“But that’s what people like that want,” Perine answered defensively

“Do they? Do we want this?” O’Neill indicated the straggling settlement. “Is this what we set out looking for, that day we collected the tungsten? Or that day we told the factory truck its milk was—” He couldn’t remember the word.

“Pizzled,” Judith supplied.

“Come on,” O’Neill said. “Let’s get started. Let’s see what’s left of that factory—left for us.”

They approached the ruined factory late in the afternoon. Four trucks rumbled shakily up to the rim of the gutted pit and halted, motors steaming, tailpipes dripping. Wary and alert, workmen scrambled down and stepped gingerly across the hot ash.

“Maybe it’s too soon,” one of them objected.

O’Neill had no intention of waiting. “Come on,” he ordered. Grabbing up a flashlight, he stepped down into the crater.

The sheltered hull of the Kansas City factory lay directly ahead. In its gutted mouth, the ore cart still hung caught, but it was no longer struggling. Beyond the cart was an ominous pool of gloom. O’Neill flashed his light through the entrance; the tangled, jagged remains of upright supports were visible.

“We want to get down deep,” he said to Morrison, who prowled cautiously beside him. “If there’s anything left, it’s at the bottom.”

Morrison grunted. “Those boring moles from Atlanta got most of the deep layers.”

“Until the others got their mines sunk.” O’Neill stepped carefully through the sagging entrance, climbed a heap of debris that had been tossed against the slit from inside, and found himself within the factory—an expanse of confused wreckage, without pattern or meaning.

“Entropy,” Morrison breathed, oppressed. “The thing it always hated. The thing it was built to fight. Random particles everywhere. No purpose to it.”

“Down underneath,” O’Neill said stubbornly, “we may find some sealed enclaves. I know they got so they were dividing up into autonomous sections, trying to preserve repair units intact, to re-form the composite factory.”

“The moles got most of them, too,” Morrison observed, but he lumbered after O’Neill.

Behind them, the workmen came slowly. A section of wreckage shifted ominously and a shower of hot fragments cascaded down.

“You men get back to the trucks,” O’Neill said. “No sense endangering any more of us than we have to. If Morrison and I don’t come back, forget us—don’t risk sending a rescue party.” As they left, he pointed out to Morrison a descending ramp still partially intact. “Let’s get below.”

Silently, the two men passed one dead level after another. Endless miles of dark ruin stretched out, without sound or activity. The vague shapes of darkened machinery, unmoving belts and conveyer equipment were partially visible, and the partially completed husks of war projectiles, bent and twisted by the final blast.

“We can salvage some of that,” O’Neill said, but he didn’t actually believe it. The machinery was fused, shapeless. Everything in the factory had run together, molten slag without form or use. “Once we get it to the surface ...”

“We can’t,” Morrison contradicted bitterly. “We don’t have hoists or winches.” He kicked at a heap of charred supplies that had stopped along its broken belt and spilled halfway across the ramp.

“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” O’Neill said as the two of them continued past vacant levels of machines. “But now that I look back, I’m not so sure.”

They had penetrated a long way into the factory. The final level lap spread out ahead of them. O’Neill flashed the light here and there, trying to locate undestroyed sections, portions of the assembly process still intact.

It was Morrison who felt it first. He suddenly dropped to his hands and knees; heavy body pressed against the floor, he lay listening, face hard, eyes wide. “For God’s sake—”

“What is it?” O’Neill cried. Then he, too, felt it. Beneath them, a faint, insistent vibration hummed through the floor, a steady hum of activity. They had been wrong; the hawk had not been totally successful. Below, in a deeper level, the factory was still alive. Closed, limited operations still went on.

“On its own,” O’Neill muttered, searching for an extension of the descent lift. “Autonomous activity, set to continue after the rest is gone. How do we get down?”

The descent lift was broken off, sealed by a thick section of metal. The still-living layer beneath their feet was completely cut off; there was no entrance.

Racing back the way they had come, O’Neill reached the surface and hailed the first truck. “Where the hell’s the torch? Give it here!”

The precious blowtorch was passed to him and he hurried back, puffing, into the depths of the ruined factory where Morrison waited. Together, the two of them began frantically cutting through the warped metal flooring, burning apart the sealed layers of protective mesh.

“It’s coming,” Morrison gasped, squinting in the glare of the torch. The plate fell with a clang, disappearing into the level below. A blaze of white light burst up around them and the two men leaped back.

In the sealed chamber, furious activity boomed and echoed, a steady process of moving belts, whirring machine-tools, fast-moving mechanical supervisors. At one end, a steady flow of raw materials entered the line; at the far end, the final product was whipped off, inspected and crammed into a conveyer tube.

All this was visible for a split second; then the intrusion was discovered. Robot relays came into play. The blaze of lights flickered and dimmed. The assembly line froze to a halt, stopped in its furious activity.

The machines clicked off and became silent.

At one end, a mobile unit detached itself and sped up the wall toward the hole O’Neill and Morrison had cut. It slammed an emergency seal in place and expertly welded it tight. The scene below was gone. A moment later the floor shivered as activity resumed.

Morrison, white-faced and shaking, turned to O’Neill. “What are they doing? What are they making?”

“Not weapons,” O’Neill said.

“That stuff is being sent up”—Morrison gestured convulsively—“to the surface.”

Shakily, O’Neill climbed to his feet. “Can we locate the spot?”

“I—think so.”

“We better.” O’Neill swept up the flashlight and started toward the ascent ramp. “We’re going to have to see what those pellets are that they’re shooting up.”

The exit valve of the conveyor tube was concealed in a tangle of vines and ruins a quarter of a mile beyond the factory. In a slot of rock at the base of the mountains the valve poked up like a nozzle. From ten yards away, it was invisible; the two men were almost on top of it before they noticed it.

Every few moments, a pellet burst from the valve and shot up into the sky. The nozzle revolved and altered its angle of deflection; each pellet was launched in a slightly varied trajectory.

“How far are they going?” Morrison wondered.

“Probably varies. It’s distributing them at random.” O’Neill advanced cautiously, but the mechanism took no note of him. Plastered against the towering wall of rock was a crumpled pellet; by accident, the nozzle had released it directly at the mountainside. O’Neill climbed up, got it and jumped down.

The pellet was a smashed container of machinery, tiny metallic elements too minute to be analyzed without a microscope.

“Not a weapon,” O’Neill said.

The cylinder had split. At first he couldn’t tell if it had been the impact or deliberate internal mechanisms at work. From the rent, an ooze of metal bits was sliding. Squatting down, O’Neill examined them.

The bits were in motion. Microscopic machinery, smaller than ants, smaller than pins, working energetically, purposefully—constructing something that looked like a tiny rectangle of steel.

“They’re building,” O’Neill said, awed. He got up and prowled on. Off to the side, at the far edge of the gully, he came across a downed pellet far advanced on its construction. Apparently it had been released some time ago.

This one had made great enough progress to be identified. Minute as it was, the structure was familiar. The machinery was building a miniature replica of the demolished factory.

“Well,” O’Neill said thoughtfully, “we’re back where we started from. For better or worse . .. I don’t know.”

“I guess they must be all over Earth by now,” Morrison said, “landing everywhere and going to work.”

A thought struck O’Neill. “Maybe some of them are geared to escape velocity. That would be neat—autofac networks throughout the whole universe.” Behind him, the nozzle continued to spurt out its torrent of metal seeds.

Service Call

It would be wise to explain what Courtland was doing just before the doorbell rang.

In his swank apartment on Leavenworth Street where Russian Hill drops to the flat expanse of North Beach and finally to the San Francisco Bay itself, David Courtland sat hunched over a series of routine reports, a week’s file of technical data dealing with the results of the Mount Diablo tests. As research director for Pesco Paints, Courtland was concerning himself with the comparative durability of various surfaces manufactured by his company. Treated shingles had baked and sweated in the California heat for five hundred and sixty-four days. It was now time to see which pore-filler withstood oxidation, and to adjust production schedules accordingly.

Involved with his intricate analytical data, Courtland at first failed to hear the bell. In the corner of the living room his high-fidelity Bogen amplifier, turntable, and speaker were playing a Schumann symphony. His wife, Fay, was doing the dinner dishes in the kitchen. The two children, Bobby and Ralf, were already in their bunk beds, asleep. Reaching for his pipe, Courtland leaned back from the desk a moment, ran a heavy hand through his thinning gray hair … and heard the bell.

“Damn,” he said. Vaguely, he wondered how many times the demure chimes had sounded; he had a dim subliminal memory of repeated attempts to attract his attention. Before his tired eyes the mass of report sheets wavered and receded. Who the hell was it? His watch read only nine-thirty; he couldn’t really complain, yet.

“Want me to get it?” Fay called brightly from the kitchen.

“I’ll get it.” Wearily, Courtland got to his feet, stuffed his feet into his shoes, and plodded across the room, past the couch, floor lamp, magazine rack, the phonograph, the bookcase, to the door. He was a heavy-set middle-aged technologist, and he didn’t like people interrupting his work.

In the halls stood an unfamiliar visitor. “Good evening, sir,” the visitor said, intently examining a clipboard; “I’m sorry to bother you.”

Courtland glared sourly at the young man. A salesman, probably. Thin, blond-haired, in a white shirt, bow tie, single-breasted blue suit, the young man stood gripping his clipboard in one hand and a bulging black suitcase with the other. His bony features were set in an expression of serious concentration. There was an air of studious confusion about him; brow wrinkled, lips tight together, the muscles of his cheeks began to twitch into overt worry. Glancing up he asked, “Is this 1846 Leavenworth? Apartment 3A?”

“That’s right,” Courtland said, with the infinite patience due a dumb animal.

The taut frown on the young man’s face relaxed a trifle. “Yes, sir,” he said, in his urgent tenor. Peering past Courtland into the apartment, he said, “I’m sorry to bother you in the evening when you’re working, but as you probably know we’ve been pretty full up the last couple of days. That’s why we couldn’t answer your call sooner.”

“My call?” Courtland echoed. Under his unbuttoned collar, he was beginning to glow a dull red. Undoubtedly something Fay had got him mixed up in; something she thought he should look into, something vital to gracious living. “What the hell are you talking about?” he demanded. “Come to the point.”

The young man flushed, swallowed noisily, tried to grin, and then hurried on huskily, “Sir, I’m the repairman you asked for; I’m here to fix your swibble.”

The facetious retort that came to Courtland’s mind was one that later on he wished he had used. “Maybe,” he wished he had said, “I don’t want my swibble fixed. Maybe I like my swibble the way it is.” But he didn’t say that. Instead, he blinked, pulled the door in slightly, and said, “My what!”

“Yes, sir,” the young man persisted. “The record of your swibble installation came to us as a matter of course. Usually we make an automatic adjustment inquiry, but your call preceded that—so I’m here with complete service equipment. Now, as to the nature of your particular complaint…” Furiously, the young man pawed through the sheaf of papers on his clipboard. “Well, there’s no point in looking for that; you can tell me orally. As you probably know, sir, we’re not officially a part of the vending corporation… we have what is called an insurance-type coverage that comes into existence automatically, when your purchase is made. Of course, you can cancel the arrangement with us.” Feebly, he tried a joke. “I have heard there’re a couple of competitors in the service business.”

Stern morality replaced humor. Pulling his lank body upright, he finished, “But let me say that we’ve been in the swibble repair business ever since old R.J. Wright introduced the first A-driven experimental model.”

For a time, Courtland said nothing. Phantasmagoria swirled through his mind: random quasi-technological thoughts, reflex evaluations and notations of no importance. So swibbles broke right down, did they? Big-time business operations … send out a repairman as soon as the deal is closed. Monopoly tactics … squeeze out the competition before they have a chance. Kickback to the parent company, probably. Interwoven books.

But none of his thoughts got down to the basic issue. With a violent effort he forced his attention back onto the earnest young man who waited nervously in the hall with his black service kit and clipboard. “No,” Courtland said emphatically, “no, you’ve got the wrong address.”

“Yes, sir?” the young man quavered politely, a wave of stricken dismay crossing his features. “The wrong address? Good Lord, has dispatch got another route fouled up with that new-fangled—”

“Better look at your paper again,” Courtland said, grimly pulling the door toward him. “Whatever the hell a swibble is, I haven’t got one; and I didn’t call you.”

As he shut the door, he perceived the final horror on the young man’s face, his stupefied paralysis. Then the brightly painted wood surface cut off the sight, and Courtland turned wearily back to his desk.

A swibble. What the hell was a swibble? Seating himself moodily, he tried to take up where he had left off… but the direction of his thoughts had been totally shattered.

There was no such thing as a swibble. And he was on the in, industrially speaking. He read U.S. News, the Wall Street Journal. If there was a swibble he would have heard about it—unless a swibble was some pip-squeak gadget for the home. Maybe that was it.

“Listen,” he yelled at his wife as Fay appeared momentarily at the kitchen door, dishcloth and blue-willow plate in her hands. “What is this business? You know anything about swibbles?”

Fay shook her head. “It’s nothing of mine.”

“You didn’t order a chrome-and-plastic a.c.-d.c. swibble from Macy’s?”

“Certainly not.”

Maybe it was something for the kids. Maybe it was the latest grammar-school craze, the contemporary bolo or flip cards or knock-knock-who’s-there? But nine-year-old kids didn’t buy things that needed a service man carrying a massive black tool kit—not on fifty cents a week allowance.

Curiosity overcame aversion. He had to know, just for the record, what a swibble was. Springing to his feet, Courtland hurried to the hall door and yanked it open.

The hall was empty, of course. The young man had wandered off. There was a faint smell of men’s cologne and nervous perspiration, nothing more.

Nothing more, except a wadded-up fragment of paper that had come unclipped from the man’s board. Courtland bent down and retrieved it from the carpet. It was a carbon copy of a route-instruction, giving code-identification, the name of the service company, the address of the caller.

1846 Leavenworth Street S.F. v-call rec’d Ed Fuller 9:20 P.M. 5-28. Swibble 30s15H (deluxe). Suggest check lateral feedback & neural replacement bank. AAw3-6.

The numbers, the information, meant nothing to Courtland. He closed the door and slowly returned to his desk. Smoothing out the crumpled sheet of paper, he reread the dull words again, trying to squeeze some meaning from them. The printed letterhead was:

Electronic Service Industries

455 Montgomery Street, San Francisco 14. Ri8-4456n

Est. 1963

That was it. The meager printed statement: Established in 1963. Hands trembling, Courtland reached mechanically for his pipe. Certainly, it explained why he had never heard of swibbles. It explained why he didn’t own one… and why, no matter how many doors in the apartment building he knocked on, the young repairman wouldn’t find anybody who did.

Swibbles hadn’t been invented yet.

After an interval of hard, furious thought Courtland picked up the phone and dialed the home number of his subordinate at the Pesco labs.

“I don’t care,” he said carefully, “what you’re doing this evening. I’m going to give you a list of instructions and I want them carried out right away.”

At the other end of the line Jack Hurley could be heard pulling himself angrily together. “Tonight? Listen, Dave, the company isn’t my mother—I have some life of my own. If I’m supposed to come running down—”

“This has nothing to do with Pesco. I want a tape recorder and a movie camera with infrared lens. I want you to round up a legal stenographer. I want one of the company electricians—you pick him out, but get the best. And I want Anderson from the engineering room. If you can’t get him, get any of our designers. And I want somebody off the assembly line; get me some old mechanic who knows his stuff. Who really knows machines.”

Doubtfully, Hurley said, “Well, you’re the boss; at least, you’re boss of research. But I think this will have to be cleared with the company. Would you mind if I went over your head and got an okay from Pesbroke?”

“Go ahead.” Courtland made a quick decision. “Better yet, I’ll call him myself; he’ll probably have to know what’s going on.”

“What is going on?” Hurley demanded curiously. “I never heard you sound this way before … has somebody brought out a self-spraying paint?”

Courtland hung up the phone, waited out a torturous interval, and then dialed his superior, the owner of Pesco Paint.

“You have a minute?” he asked tightly, when Pesbroke’s wife had roused the white-haired old man from his after-dinner nap and got him to the phone. “I’m mixed up in something big; I want to talk to you about it.”

“Has it got to do with paint?” Pesbroke muttered, half humorously, half seriously. “If not—”

Courtland interrupted him. Speaking slowly, he gave a full account of his contact with the swibble repairman.

When Courtland had finished, his employer was silent. “Well,” Pesbroke said finally, “I guess I could go through some kind of routine. But you’ve got me interested. All right, I’ll buy it. But,” he added quietly, “if this is an elaborate time-waster, I’m going to bill you for the use of the men and equipment.”

“By time-waster, you mean if nothing profitable comes out of this?”

“No,” Pesbroke said. “I mean, if you know it’s a fake; if you’re consciously going along with a gag. I’ve got a migraine headache and I’m not going along with a gag. If you’re serious, if you really think this might be something, I’ll put the expenses on the company books.”

“I’m serious,” Courtland said. “You and I are both too damn old to play games.”

“Well,” Pesbroke reflected, “the older you get, the more you’re apt to go off the deep end; and this sounds pretty deep.” He could be heard making up his mind. “I’ll telephone Hurley and give him the okay. You can have whatever you want… I suppose you’re going to try to pin this repairman down and find out what he really is.”

“That’s what I want to do.”

“Suppose he’s on the level… what then?”

“Well,” Courtland said cautiously, “then I want to find out what a swibble is. As a starter. Maybe after that—”

“You think he’ll be back?”

“He might be. He won’t find the right address; I know that. Nobody in this neighborhood called for a swibble repairman.”

“What do you care what a swibble is? Why don’t you find out how he got from his period back here?”

“I think he knows what a swibble is—and I don’t think he knows how he got here. He doesn’t even know he’s here.”

Pesbroke agreed. “That’s reasonable. If I come over, will you let me in? I’d sort of enjoy watching.”

“Sure,” Courtland said, perspiring, his eye on the closed door to the hall.

“But you’ll have to watch from the other room. I don’t want anything to foul this up … we may never have another chance like this.”

Grumpily, the jury-rigged company team filed into the apartment and stood waiting for Courtland to instruct. Jack Hurley, in aloha sports shirt, slacks, and crepe-soled shoes, clodded resentfully over to Courtland and waved his cigar in his face. “Here we are; I don’t know what you told Pesbroke, but you certainly pulled him along.” Glancing around the apartment, he asked, “Can I assume we’re going to get the pitch now? There’s not much these people can do unless they understand what they’re after.”

In the bedroom doorway stood Courtland’s two sons, eyes half-shut with sleep. Fay nervously swept them up and herded them back into the bedroom. Around the living room the various men and women took up uncertain positions, their faces registering outrage, uneasy curiosity, and bored indifference. Anderson, the designing engineer, acted aloof and blase. MacDowell, the stoop-shouldered, pot-bellied lathe operator, glared with proletarian resentment at the expensive furnishings of the apartment, and then sank into embarrassed apathy as he perceived his own work boots and grease-saturated pants. The recording specialist was trailing wire from his microphones to the tape recorder set up in the kitchen. A slim young woman, the legal stenographer, was trying to make herself comfortable in a chair in the corner. On the couch, Parkinson, the plant emergency electrician, was glancing idly through a copy of Fortune.

“Where’s the camera equipment?” Courtland demanded.

“Coming,” Hurley answered. “Are you trying to catch somebody trying out the old Spanish Treasure bunco?”

“I wouldn’t need an engineer and an electrician for that,” Courtland said dryly. Tensely, he paced around the living room. “Probably he won’t even show up; he’s probably back in his own time, by now, or wandering around God knows where.”

“Who?” Hurley shouted, puffing gray cigar smoke in growing agitation. “What’s going on?”

“A man knocked on my door,” Courtland told him briefly. “He talked about some machinery, equipment I never heard of. Something called a swibble.”

Around the room blank looks passed back and forth.

“Let’s guess what a swibble is,” Courtland continued grimly. “Anderson, you start. What would a swibble be?”

Anderson grinned. “A fish hook that chases down fish.”

Parkinson volunteered a guess. “An English car with only one wheel.”

Grudgingly, Hurley came next. “Something dumb. A machine for house-breaking pets.”

“A new plastic bra,” the legal stenographer suggested.

“I don’t know,” MacDowell muttered resentfully. “I never heard of anything like that.”

“All right,” Courtland agreed, again examining his watch. He was getting close to hysteria; an hour had passed and there was no sign of the repairman. “We don’t know; we can’t even guess. But someday, nine years from now, a man named Wright is going to invent a swibble, and it’s going to become big business. People are going to make them; people are going to buy them and pay for them; repairmen are going to come around and service them.”

The door opened and Pesbroke entered the apartment, overcoat over his arm, crushed Stetson hat clamped over his head. “Has he showed up again?” His ancient, alert eyes darted around the room. “You people look ready to go.”

“No sign of him,” Courtland said drearily. “Damn it—I sent him off; I didn’t grasp it until he was gone.” He showed Pesbroke the crumpled carbon.

“I see,” Pesbroke said, handing it back. “And if he comes back you’re going to tape what he says, and photograph everything he has in the way of equipment.” He indicated Anderson and MacDowell. “What about the rest of them? What’s the need of them?”

“I want people here who can ask the right questions,” Courtland explained. “We won’t get answers any other way. The man, if he shows up at all, will stay only a finite time. During that time, we’ve got to find out–” He broke off as his wife came up beside him. “What is it?”

“The boys want to watch,” Fay explained. “Can they? They promise they won’t make any noise.” She added wistfully, “I’d sort of like to watch, too.”

“Watch, then,” Courtland answered gloomily. “Maybe there won’t be anything to see.”

While Fay served coffee around, Courtland went on with his explanation. “First of all, we want to find out if this man is on the level. Our first questions will be aimed at tripping him up; I want these specialists to go to work on him. If he’s a fake, they’ll probably find it out.”

“And if he isn’t?” Anderson asked, an interested expression on his face. “If he isn’t, you’re saying…”

“If he isn’t, then he’s from the next decade, and I want him pumped for all he’s worth. But—” Courtland paused. “I doubt if we’ll get much theory. I had the impression that he’s a long way down on the totem pole. The best we probably can do is get a run-down on his specific work. From that, we may have to assemble our picture, make our own extrapolations.”

“You think he can tell us what he does for a living,” Pesbroke said cannily, “but that’s about it.”

“We’ll be lucky if he shows up at all,” Courtland said. He settled down on the couch and began methodically knocking his pipe against the ashtray. “All we can do is wait. Each of you think over what you’re going to ask. Try to figure out the questions you want answered by a man from the future who doesn’t know he’s from the future, who’s trying to repair equipment that doesn’t yet exist.”

“I’m scared,” the legal stenographer said, white-faced and wide-eyed, her coffee cup trembling.

“I’m about fed up,” Hurley muttered, eyes fixed sullenly on the floor. “This is all a lot of hot air.”

It was just about that time that the swibble repairman came again, and once more timidly knocked on the hall door.

The young repairman was flustered. And he was getting perturbed. “I’m sorry, sir,” he began without preamble. “I can see you have company, but I’ve rechecked my route instructions and this is absolutely the right address.” He added plaintively, “I tried some other apartments; nobody knew what I was talking about.”

“Come in,” Courtland managed. He stepped aside, got himself between the swibble repairman and the door, and ushered him into the living room.

“Is this the person?” Pesbroke rumbled doubtfully, his gray eyes narrowing.

Courtland ignored him. “Sit down,” he ordered the swibble repairman. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Anderson and Hurley and MacDowell moving in closely; Parkinson threw down his Fortune and got quickly to his feet. In the kitchen, the sound of tape running through the recording head was audible … the room had begun moving into activity.

“I could come some other time,” the repairman said apprehensively, eyeing the closing circle of people. “I don’t want to bother you, sir, when you have guests.”

Perched grimly on the arm of the couch, Courtland said, “This is as good a time as any. In fact, this is the best time.” A wild flood of relief spilled over him: now they had a chance. “I don’t know what got into me,” he went on rapidly. “I was confused. Of course I have a swibble; it’s set up in the dining room.”

The repairman’s face twitched with a spasm of laughter. “Oh, really,” he choked. “In the dining room? That’s about the funniest joke I’ve heard in weeks.”

Courtland glanced at Pesbroke. What the hell was so funny about that? Then his flesh began to crawl; cold sweat broke out on his forehead and the palms of his hands. What the hell was a swibble? Maybe they had better find out right away—or not at all. Maybe they were getting into something deeper than they knew. Maybe—and he didn’t like the thought—they were better off where they were.

“I was confused,” he said, “by your nomenclature. I don’t think of it as a swibble.” Cautiously, he finished, “I know that’s the popular jargon, but with that much money involved, I like to think of it by its legitimate title.”

The swibble repairman looked completely confused; Courtland realized that he had made another mistake; apparently swibble was its correct name.

Pesbroke spoke up. “How long have you been repairing swibbles, Mr…” He waited, but there was no response from the thin, blank face. “What’s your name, young man?” he demanded.

“My what?” The swibble repairman pulled jerkily away. “I don’t understand you, sir.”

Good Lord, Courtland thought. It was going to be a lot harder than he had realized—than any of them had realized.

Angrily, Pesbroke said, “You must have a name. Everybody has a name.”

The young repairman gulped and stared down red-faced at the carpet. “I’m still only in service group four, sir. So I don’t have a name yet.”

“Let it go,” Courtland said. What kind of a society gave out names as a status privilege? “I want to make sure you’re a competent repairman,” he explained. “How long have you been repairing swibbles?”

“For six years and three months,” the repairman asserted. Pride took the place of embarrassment. “In junior high school I showed a straight-A record in swibble-maintenance aptitude.” His meager chest swelled. “I’m a born swibble-man,”

“Fine,” Courtland agreed uneasily; he couldn’t believe the industry was that big. They gave tests in junior high school? Was swibble maintenance considered a basic talent, like symbol manipulation and manual dexterity? Had swibble work become as fundamental as musical talent, or as the ability to conceive spatial relationships?

“Well,” the repairman said briskly, gathering up his bulging tool kit, “I’m all ready to get started. I have to be back at the shop before long… I’ve got a lot of other calls.”

Bluntly, Pesbroke stepped up squarely in front of the thin young man. “What is a swibble?” he demanded. “I’m tired of this damn fooling around. You say you work on these things—what are they? That’s a simple enough question; they must be something.”

“Why,” the young man said hesitantly, “I mean, that’s hard to say. Suppose—well, suppose you ask me what a cat or a dog is. How can I answer that?’

“We’re getting nowhere,” Anderson spoke up. “The swibble is manufactured, isn’t it? You must have schematics, then; hand them over.”

The young repairman gripped his tool kit defensively. “What in the world is the matter, sir? If this is your idea of a joke—“ He turned back to Courtland. “I’d like to start work; I really don’t have much time.”

Standing in the corner, hands shoved deep in his pockets, MacDowell said slowly, “I’ve been thinking about getting a swibble. The missus thinks we ought to have one.”

“Oh, certainly,” the repairman agreed. Color rising in his cheeks, he rushed on, “I’m surprised you don’t have a swibble already; in fact, I can’t imagine what’s wrong with you people. You’re all acting—oddly. Where, if I may ask, do you come from? Why are you so—well, so uninformed?”

“These people,” Courtland explained, “come from a part of the country where there aren’t any swibbles.”

Instantly, the repairman’s face hardened with suspicion. “Oh?” he said sharply. “Interesting. What part of the country is that?”

Again, Courtland had said the wrong thing; he knew that. While he floundered for a response, MacDowell cleared his throat and inexorably went on. “Anyhow,” he said, “we’ve been meaning to get one. You have any folders with you? Pictures of different models?”

The repairman responded. “I’m afraid not, sir. But if you’ll give me your address I’ll have the sales department send you information. And if you want, a qualified representative can call on you at your convenience and describe the advantages of owning a swibble.”

“The first swibble was developed in 1963?” Hurley asked.

“That’s right.” The repairman’s suspicions had momentarily lulled. “And just in time, too. Let me say this—if Wright hadn’t got his first model going, there wouldn’t be any human beings left alive. You people here who don’t own swibbles—you may not know it—and you certainly act as if you didn’t know it—but you’re alive right now because of old R.J. Wright. It’s swibbles that keep the world going.”

Opening his black case, the repairman briskly brought out a complicated apparatus of tubes and wiring. He filled a drum with clear fluid, sealed it, tried the plunger, and straightened up. “I’ll start out with a shot of dx—that usually puts them back into operation.”

“What is dx?” Anderson asked quickly.

Surprised at the question, the repairman answered, “It’s a high-protein food concentrate. We’ve found that ninety per cent of our early service calls are the result of improper diet. People just don’t know how to care for their new swibble.”

“My God,” Anderson said feebly. “It’s alive.”

Courtland’s mind took a nose dive. He had been wrong; it wasn’t precisely a repairman who had stood gathering his equipment together. The man had come to fix the swibble, all right, but his capacity was slightly different than Courtland had supposed. He wasn’t a repairman; he was a veterinarian.

Laying out instruments and meters, the young man explained: “The new swibbles are a lot more complex than the early models; I need all this before I can even get started. But blame the War.”

“The War?” Fay Courtland echoed apprehensively.

“Not the early war. The big one, in ‘75. That little war in ‘61 wasn’t really much. You know, I suppose, that Wright was originally an Army engineer, stationed over in—well, I guess it was called Europe. I believe the idea came to him because of all those refugees pouring across the border. Yes, I’m sure that’s how it was. During that little war, back in ‘61, they came across by the millions. And they went the other way, too. My goodness, people were shifting back and forth between the two camps—it was revolting.”

“I’m not clear on my history,” Courtland said thickly. “I never paid much attention in school… the ‘61 war, that was between Russia and America?”

“Oh,” the repairman said, “it was between everybody. Russia headed the Eastern side, of course. And America the West. But everybody was in it. That was the little war, though; that didn’t count.”

“Little?” Fay demanded, horrified.

“Well,” the repairman admitted, “I suppose it looked like a lot at the time. But I mean, there were buildings still standing, afterward. And it only lasted a few months.”

“Who—won?” Anderson croaked.

The repairman tittered. “Won? What an odd question. Well, there were more people left in the Eastern bloc, if that’s what you mean. Anyhow, the importance of the ‘61 war—and I’m sure your history teachers made that clear—was that swibbles appeared. R.J. Wright got his idea from the camp-changers that appeared in that war. So by ‘75, when the real war came along, we had plenty of swibbles.” Thoughtfully, he added, “In fact, I’d say the real war was a war over swibbles. I mean, it was the last war. It was the war between the people who wanted swibbles and those who didn’t.” Complacently, he finished, “Needless to say, we won.”

After a time Courtland managed to ask, “What happened to the others? Those who—didn’t want swibbles.”

“Why,” the repairman said gently, “the swibbles got them.”

Shakily, Courtland started his pipe going. “I didn’t know about that.”

“What do you mean?” Pesbroke demanded hoarsely. “How did they get them? What did they do?”

Astonished, the repairman shook his head. “I didn’t know there was such ignorance in lay circles.” The position of pundit obviously pleased him; sticking out his bony chest, he proceeded to lecture the circle of intent faces on the fundamentals of history. “Wright’s first A-driven swibble was crude, of course. But it served its purpose. Originally, it was able to differentiate the camp-shifters into two groups: those who had really seen the light, and those who were insincere. Those who were going to shift back… who weren’t really loyal. The authorities wanted to know which of the shifters had really come over to the West and which were spies and secret agents. That was the original swibble function. But that was nothing compared to now.”

“No,” Courtland agreed, paralyzed. “Nothing at all.”

“Now,” the repairman said sleekly, “we don’t deal with such crudities. It’s absurd to wait until an individual has accepted a contrary ideology, and then hope he’ll shift away from it. In a way, it’s ironic, isn’t it? After the ‘61 war there was really only one contrary ideology: those who opposed the swibbles.”

He laughed happily. “So the swibbles differentiated those who didn’t want to be differentiated by swibbles. My, that was quite a war. Because that wasn’t a messy war, with a lot of bombs and jellied gasoline. That was a scientific war—none of that random pulverizing. That was just swibbles going down into cellars and ruins and hiding places and digging out those Contrapersons one by one. Until we had all of them. So now,” he finished, gathering up his equipment, “we don’t have to worry about wars or anything of that sort. There won’t be any more conflicts, because we don’t have any contrary ideologies. As Wright showed, it doesn’t really matter what ideology we have; it isn’t important whether it’s Communism or Free Enterprise or Socialism or Fascism or Slavery. What’s important is that every one of us agrees completely; that we’re all absolutely loyal. And as long as we have our swibbles—” He winked knowingly at Courtland. “Well, as a new swibble owner, you’ve found out the advantages. You know the sense of security and satisfaction in being certain that your ideology is exactly congruent with that of everybody else in the world. That there’s no possibility, no chance whatsoever that you’ll go astray—and that some passing swibble will feed on you.”

It was MacDowell who managed to pull himself together first. “Yeah,” he said ironically. “It certainly sounds like what the missus and I want.”

“Oh, you ought to have a swibble of your own,” the repairman urged. “Consider—if you have your own swibble, it’ll adjust you automatically. It’ll keep you on the right track without strain or fuss. You’ll always know you’re not going wrong—remember the swibble slogan: Why be half loyal? With your own swibble, your outlook will be corrected by painless degrees … but if you wait, if you just hope you’re on the right track, why, one of these days you may walk into a friend’s living room and his swibble may just simply crack you open and drink you down. Of course,” he reflected, “a passing swibble may still get you in time to straighten you out. But usually it’s too late. Usually—” He smiled. “Usually people go beyond redemption, once they get started.”

“And your job,” Pesbroke muttered, “is to keep the swibbles working?”

“They do get out of adjustment, left to themselves.”

“Isn’t it a kind of paradox?” Pesbroke pursued. “The swibbles keep us in adjustment, and we keep them in adjustment… it’s a closed circle.”

The repairman was intrigued. “Yes, that’s an interesting way of putting it. But we must keep control over the swibbles, of course. So they don’t die.” He shivered. “Or worse.”

“Die?” Hurley said, still not understanding. “But if they’re built—” Wrinkling his brows he said, “Either they’re machines or they’re alive. Which is it?”

Patiently, the repairman explained elementary physics. “Swibble-culture is an organic phenotype evolved in a protein medium under controlled conditions. The directing neurological tissue that forms the basis of the swibble is alive, certainly, in the sense that it grows, thinks, feeds, excretes waste. Yes, it’s definitely alive. But the swibble, as a functioning whole, is a manufactured item. The organic tissue is inserted in the master tank and then sealed. I certainly don’t repair that; I give it nutriments to restore a proper balance of diet, and I try to deal with parasitic organisms that find their way into it. I try to keep it adjusted and healthy. The balance of the organism, is, of course, totally mechanical.”

“The swibble has direct access to human minds?” Anderson asked, fascinated.

“Naturally. It’s an artificially evolved telepathic metazoan. And with it, Wright solved the basic problem of modern times: the existence of diverse, warring ideological factions, the presence of disloyalty and dissent. In the words of General Steiner’s famous aphorism: War is an extension of the disagreement from the voting booth to the battlefield. And the preamble of the World Service Charter: war, if it is to be eliminated, must be eliminated from the minds of men, for it is in the minds of men that disagreement begins. Up until 1963, we had no way to get into the minds of men. Up until 1963, the problem was unsolvable.”

“Thank God,” Fay said clearly.

The repairman failed to hear her; he was carried away by his own enthusiasm. “By means of the swibble, we’ve managed to transform the basic sociological problem of loyalty into a routine technical matter: to the mere matter of maintenance and repair. Our only concern is keep the swibbles functioning correctly; the rest is up to them.”

“In other words,” Courtland said faintly, “you repairmen are the only controlling influence over the swibbles. You represent the total human agency standing above these machines.”

The repairman reflected. “I suppose so,” he admitted modestly. “Yes, that’s correct.”

“Except for you, they pretty damn well manage the human race.”

The bony chest swelled with complacent, confident pride. “I suppose you could say that.”

“Look,” Courtland said thickly. He grabbed hold of the man’s arm. “How the hell can you be sure? Are you really in control?” A crazy hope was rising up inside him: as long as men had power over the swibbles there was a chance to roll things back. The swibbles could be disassembled, taken apart piece by piece. As long as swibbles had to submit to human servicing it wasn’t quite hopeless.

“What, sir?” the repairman inquired. “Of course we’re in control. Don’t you worry.” Firmly, he disengaged Courtland’s fingers. “Now, where is your swibble?” He glanced around the room. “I’ll have to hurry; there isn’t much time left.”

“I haven’t got a swibble,” Courtland said.

For a moment it didn’t register. Then a strange, intricate expression crossed the repairman’s face. “No swibble? But you told me—”

“Something went wrong,” Courtland said hoarsely. “There aren’t any swibbles. It’s too early—they haven’t been invented. Understand? You came too soon!”

The young man’s eyes popped. Clutching his equipment, he stumbled back two steps, blinked, opened his mouth and tried to speak. “Too—soon?” The comprehension arrived. Suddenly he looked older, much older. “I wondered. All the undamaged buildings… the archaic furnishings. The transmission machinery must have misphased!” Rage flashed over him. “That instantaneous service—I knew dispatch should have stuck to the old mechanical system. I told them to make better tests. Lord, there’s going to be hell to pay; if we ever get this mix-up straightened out I’ll be surprised.”

Bending down furiously, he hastily dropped his equipment back in the case. In a single motion he slammed and locked it, straightened up, bowed briefly at Courtland.

“Good evening,” he said frigidly. And vanished.

The circle of watchers had nothing to watch. The swibble repairman had gone back to where he came from.

After a time Pesbroke turned and signaled to the man in the kitchen. “Might as well shut off the tape recorder,” he muttered bleakly. “There’s nothing more to record.”

“Good Lord,” Hurley said, shaken. “A world run by machines.”

Fay shivered. “I couldn’t believe that little fellow had so much power; I thought he was just a minor official.”

“He’s completely in charge,” Courtland said harshly.

There was silence.

One of the two children yawned sleepily. Fay turned abruptly to them and herded them efficiently into the bedroom. “Time for you two to be in bed,” she commanded, with false gaiety.

Protesting sullenly, the two boys disappeared, and the door closed. Gradually, the living room broke into motion. The tape-recorder man began rewinding his reel. The legal stenographer shakily collected her notes and put away her pencils. Hurley lit up a cigar and stood puffing moodily, his face dark and somber.

“I suppose,” Courtland said finally, “that we’ve all accepted it; we assume it’s not a fake.”

“Well,” Pesbroke pointed out, “he vanished. That ought to be proof enough. And all the junk he took out of his kit—”

“It’s only nine years,” Parkinson, the electrician, said thoughtfully. “Wright must be alive already. Let’s look him up and stick a shiv into him.”

“Army engineer,” MacDowell agreed. “R.J. Wright. It ought to be possible to locate him. Maybe we can keep it from happening.”

“How long would you guess people like him can keep the swibbles under control?” Anderson asked.

Courtland shrugged wearily. “No telling. Maybe years … maybe a century. But sooner or later something’s going to come up, something they didn’t expect. And then it’ll be predatory machinery preying on all of us.”

Fay shuddered violently. “It sounds awful; I’m certainly glad it won’t be for a while.”

“You and the repairman,” Courtland said bitterly. “As long as it doesn’t affect you—”

Fay’s overwrought nerves flared up. “We’ll discuss it later on.” She smiled jerkily at Pesbroke. “More coffee? I’ll put some on.” Turning on her heel, she rushed from the living room into the kitchen.

While she was filling the Silex with water, the doorbell quietly rang.

The roomful of people froze. They looked at each other, mute and horrified.

“He’s back,” Hurley said thickly.

“Maybe it’s not him,” Anderson suggested weakly. “Maybe it’s the camera people, finally.”

But none of them moved toward the door. After a time the bell rang again, longer, and more insistently.

“We have to answer it,” Pesbroke said woodenly.

“Not me,” the legal stenographer quavered.

“This isn’t my apartment,” MacDowell pointed out.

Courtland moved rigidly toward the door. Even before he took hold of the knob he knew what it was. Dispatch, using its new-fangled instantaneous transmission. Something to get work crews and repairmen directly to their stations. So control of the swibbles would be absolute and perfect; so nothing would go wrong.

But something had gone wrong. The control had fouled itself up. It was working upside down, completely backward. Self-defeating, futile: it was too perfect. Gripping the knob, he tore the door open.

Standing in the hall were four men. They wore plain gray uniforms and caps. The first of them whipped off his cap, glanced at a written sheet of paper, and then nodded politely at Courtland.

“Evening, sir,” he said cheerfully. He was a husky man, wide-shouldered, with a shock of thick brown hair hanging over his sweat-shiny forehead. “We—uh—got a little lost, I guess. Took a while to get here.”

Peering into the apartment, he hitched up his heavy leather belt, stuffed his route sheet into his pocket, and rubbed his large, competent hands together.

“It’s downstairs in the trunk,” he announced, addressing Courtland and the whole living room of people. “Tell me where you want it, and we’ll bring it right up. We should have a good-sized space—that side over there by the window should do.” Turning away, he and his crew moved energetically toward the service elevator. “These late-model swibbles take up a lot of room.”

Captive Market

Saturday morning, about eleven o’clock, Mrs. Edna Berthelson was ready to make her little trip. Although it was a weekly affair, consuming four hours of her valuable business time, she made the profitable trip alone, preserving for herself the integrity of her find.

Because that was what it was. A find, a stroke of incredible luck. There was nothing else like it, and she had been in business fifty-three years. More, if the years in her father’s store were counted—but they didn’t really count. That had been for the experience (her father made that clear); no pay was involved. But it gave her the understanding of business, the feel of operating a small country store, dusting pencils and unwrapping flypaper and serving up dried beans and chasing the cat out of the cracker barrel where he liked to sleep.

Now the store was old, and so was she. The big, heavyset, black browed man who was her father had died long ago; her own children and grandchildren had been spawned, had crept out over the world, were everywhere. One by one they had appeared, lived in Walnut Creek, sweated through the dry, sun-baked summers, and then gone on, leaving one by one as they had come. She and the store sagged and settled a little more each year, became a little more frail and stern and grim. A little more themselves.

That morning very early Jackie said: “Grandmaw, where are you going?” Although he knew, of course, where she was going. She was going out in her truck as she always did; this was the Saturday trip. But he liked to ask; he was pleased by the stability of the answer. He liked having it always the same.

To another question there was another unvarying answer, but this one didn’t please him so much. It came in answer to the question.”Can I come along?”

The answer to that was always no.

Edna Berthelson laboriously carried packages and boxes from the back of the store to the rusty, upright pickup truck. Dust lay over the truck; its red-metal sides were bent and corroded. The motor was already on; it was wheezing and heating up in the midday sun. A few drab chickens pecked in the dust around its wheels. Under the porch of the store a plump white shaggy sheep squatted, its face vapid, indolent, indifferently watching the activity of the day. Cars and trucks rolled along Mount Diablo Boulevard. Along Lafayette Avenue a few shoppers strolled, farmers and their wives, petty businessmen, farmhands, some city women in their gaudy slacks and print shirts, sandals, bandannas. In the front of the store the radio tinnily played popular songs.

“I asked you a question,” Jackie said righteously. “I asked you where you’re going.”

Mrs. Berthelson bent stiffly over to lift the last armload of boxes. Most of the loading had been done the night before by Arnie the Swede, the hulking, white-haired hired man who did the heavy work around the store. “What?” she murmured vaguely, her gray, wrinkled face twisting with concentration. “You know perfectly well where I’m going. “

Jackie trailed plaintively after her, as she reentered the store to look for her order book. “Can I come? Please, can I come along? You never let me come—you never let anybody come. “

“Of course not,” Mrs. Berthelson said sharply. “It’s nobody’s business. “

“But I want to come along,” Jackie explained.

Slyly, the little old woman turned her gray head and peered back at him, a worn, colorless bird taking in a world perfectly understood. “So does everybody else.” Thin lips twitching in a secret smile, Mrs. Berthelson said softly: “But nobody can.”

Jackie didn’t like the sound of that. Sullenly, he retired to a comer, hands stuck deep in the pockets of his jeans, not taking part in something that was denied him, not approving of something in which he could not share. Mrs. Berthelson ignored him. She pulled her frayed blue sweater around her thin shoulders, located her sunglasses, pulled the screen door shut after her, and strode briskly to the truck.

Getting the truck into gear was an intricate process. For a time she sat tugging crossly at the shift, pumping the clutch up and down, waiting impatiently for the teeth to fall into place. At last, screeching and chattering, the gears meshed; the truck leaped a little, and Mrs. Berthelson gunned the motor and released the hand brake.

As the truck roared jerkily down the driveway, Jackie detached himself from the shade by the house and followed along after it. His mother was nowhere in sight. Only the dozing sheep and the two scratching chickens were visible. Even Arnie the Swede was gone, probably getting a cold Coke. Now was a fine time. Now was the best time he had ever had. And it was going to be sooner or later anyhow, because he was determined to come along.

Grabbing hold of the tailboard of the truck, Jackie hoisted himself up and landed facedown on the tightly packed heaps of packages and boxes. Under him the truck bounced and bumped. Jackie hung on for dear life; clutching at the boxes he pulled his legs under him, crouched down, and desperately sought to keep from being flung off. Gradually, the truck righted itself, and the torque diminished. He breathed a sigh of relief and settled gratefully down.

He was on his way. He was along, finally. Accompanying Mrs. Berthelson on her secret weekly trip, her strange covert enterprise from which—he had heard—she made a fabulous profit. A trip which nobody understood, and which he knew, in the deep recesses of his child’s mind, was something awesome and wonderful, something that would be well worth the trouble.

He had hoped fervently that she wouldn’t stop to check her load along the way.

With infinite care, Tellman prepared himself a cup of “coffee”. First, he carried a tin cup of roasted grain over to the gasoline drum the colony used as a mixing bowl. Dumping it in, he hurried to add a handful of chicory and a few fragments of dried bran. Dirt-stained hands trembling, he managed to get a fire started among the ashes and coals under the pitted metal grate. He set a pan of tepid water on the flames and searched for a spoon.

“What are you up to?” his wife demanded from behind him.

“Uh,” Tellman muttered. Nervously, he edged between Gladys and the meal. “Just fooling around.” In spite of himself, his voice took on a nagging whine. “I have a right to fix myself something, don’t I? As much right as anybody else.”

“You ought to be over helping.”

“I was. I wrenched something in my back.” The wiry, middle-aged man ducked uneasily away from his wife; tugging at the remains of his soiled white shirt, he retreated toward the door of the shack. “Damn it, a person has to rest, sometimes.”

“Rest when we get there.” Gladys wearily brushed back her thick, dark-blonde hair. “Suppose everybody was like you.”

Tellman flushed resentfully. “Who plotted our trajectory? Who’s done all the navigation work?”

A faint ironic smile touched his wife’s chapped lips. “We’ll see how your charts work out,” she said. “Then we’ll talk about it.”

Enraged, Tellman plunged out of the shack, into the blinding late afternoon sunlight.

He hated the sun, the sterile white glare that began at five in the morning and lasted until nine in the evening. The Big Blast had sizzled the water vapor from the air; the sun beat down pitilessly, sparing nobody. But there were few left to care.

To his right was the cluster of shacks that made up the camp. An eclectic hodgepodge of boards, sheets of tin, wire and tar paper, upright concrete blocks, anything and everything dragged from the San Francisco ruins, forty miles west. Cloth blankets flapped dismally in doorways, protection against the vast hosts of insects that swept across the campsite from time to time. Birds, the natural enemy of insects, were gone. Tellman hadn’t seen a bird in two years—and he didn’t expect to see one again. Beyond the camp began the eternal dead black ash, the charred face of the world, without features, without life.

The camp had been set up in a natural hollow. One side was sheltered by the tumbled ruins of what had once been a minor mountain range. The concussion of the blast had burst the towering cliffs; rock had cascaded into the valley for days. After San Francisco had been fired out of existence, survivors had crept into the heaps of boulders, looking for a place to hide from the sun. That was the hardest part: the unshielded sun. Not the insects, not the radioactive clouds of ash, not the flashing white fury of the blasts, but the sun. More people had died of thirst and dehydration and blind insanity than from toxic poisons.

From his breast pocket, Tellman got a precious package of cigarettes. Shakily, he lit up. His thin, clawlike hands were trembling, partly from fatigue, partly from rage and tension. How he hated the camp. He loathed everybody in it, his wife included. Were they worth saving? He doubted it. Most of them were barbarians, already; what did it matter if they got the ship off or not? He was sweating away his mind and life, trying to save them. The hell with them.

But then, his own safety was involved with theirs.

He stalked stiff-legged over to where Barnes and Masterson stood talking. “How’s it coming?” he demanded gruffly.

“Fine,” Barnes answered. “It won’t he long, now.”

“One more load,” Masterson said. His heavy features twitched uneasily. “I hope nothing gets fouled up. She ought to be here any minute. “

Tellman loathed the sweaty, animal-like scent that rolled from Masterson’s beefy body. Their situation wasn’t an excuse to creep around filthy as a pig … on Venus, things would be different. Masterson was useful, now; he was an experienced mechanic, invaluable in servicing the turbine and jets of the ship. But when the ship had landed and been pillaged …

Satisfied, Tellman brooded over the reestablishment of the rightful order. The hierarchy had collapsed in the ruins of the cities, but it would be back strong as ever. Take Flannery, for example. Flannery was nothing but a foul-mouthed, shanty-Irish stevedore … but he was in charge of loading the ship, the greatest job at the moment. Flannery was top dog, for the time being … but that would change.

It had to change. Consoled, Tellman strolled away from Barnes and Masterson, over to the ship itself.

The ship was huge. Across its muzzle the stenciled identification still remained, not yet totally obliterated by drifting ash and the searing heat of the sun.

U.S. ARMY ORDNANCE

SERIES A-3 (B)

Originally, it had been a high-velocity “massive retaliation” weapon, loaded with an H-warhead, ready to carry indiscriminate death to the enemy. The projectile had never been launched. Soviet toxic crystals had blown quietly into the windows and doors of the local command barracks. When launching day arrived, there was no crew to send it off. But it didn’t matter—there was no enemy, either. The rocket had stood on its buttocks for months … it was still there when the first refugees straggled into the shelter of the demolished mountains.

“Nice, isn’t it?” Patricia Shelby said. She glanced up from her work and smiled blearily at Tellman. Her small, pretty face was streaked with fatigue and eyestrain. “Sort of like the trylon at the New York World’s Fair.”

“My God,” Tellman said, “you remember that?”

“I was only eight,” Patricia answered. In the shadow of the ship she was carefully checking the automatic relays that would maintain the air, temperature, and humidity of the ship. “But I’ll never forget it. Maybe I was a precog—when I saw it sticking up I knew someday it would mean a lot to everybody. “

“A lot to the twenty of us,” Tellman corrected. Suddenly he offered her the remains of his cigarette. “Here—you look like you could use it.”

“Thanks.” Patricia continued with her work, the cigarette between her lips. “I’m almost done—Boy, some of these relays are tiny. Just think.” She held up a microscopic wafer of transparent plastic. “While we’re all out cold, this makes the difference between life and death.” A strange, awed look crept into her dark-blue eyes. “To the human race.”

Tellman guffawed. “You and Flannery. He’s always spouting idealistic twaddle.”

Professor John Crowley, once head of the history department at Stanford, now the nominal leader of the colony, sat with Flannery and Jean Dobbs, examining the suppurating arm of a ten-year-old boy. “Radiation,” Crowley was saying emphatically. “The overall level is rising daily. It’s settling ash that does it. If we don’t get out soon, we’re done.”

“It’s not radiation,” Flannery corrected in his ultimately certain voice. “It’s toxic crystalline poisoning; that stuff’s knee-deep up in the hills. He’s been playing around up there.”

“Is that so?” Jean Dobbs demanded. The boy nodded his head not daring to look at her. “You’re right,” she said to Flannery.

“Put some salve on it,” Flannery said. “And hope he’ll live. Outside of sulfathiazole there’s not much we have.” He glanced at his watch, suddenly tense. “Unless she brings the penicillin, today.”

“If she doesn’t bring it today,” Crowley said, “she’ll never bring it. This is the last load; as soon as it’s stored, we’re taking off.”

Rubbing his hands, Flannery suddenly bellowed: “Then get out the money!”

Crowley grinned. “Right.” He fumbled in one of the steel storage lockers and yanked out a handful of paper bills. Holding a sheaf of bills up to Tellman he fanned them out invitingly. “Take your pick. Take them all.”

Nervously, Tellman said, “Be careful with that. She’s probably raised the price on everything, again.”

“We’ve got plenty.” Flannery took some and stuffed it into a partly filled load being wheeled by, on its way to the ship. “There’s money blowing all over the world, along with the ash and particles of bone. On Venus we won’t need it—she might as well have it all.”

On Venus, Tellman thought, savagely, things would revert to their legitimate order—with Flannery digging sewers where he belonged. “What’s she bringing mostly?” he asked Crowley and Jean Dobbs, ignoring Flannery. “What’s the last load made up of?”

“Comic books,” Flannery said dreamily, wiping perspiration from his balding forehead; he was a lean, tall, dark-haired young man. “And harmonicas.”

Crowley winked at him. “Uke picks, so we can lie in our hammocks all day, strumming ‘Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah.’ ”

“And swizzle sticks,” Flannery reminded him. “In order that we may all the more properly flatten the bubbles of our vintage ‘38 champagne.”

Tellman boiled. “You degenerate!”

Crowley and Flannery roared with laughter, and Tellman stalked off, smoldering under this new humiliation. What kind of morons and lunatics were they? Joking at a time like this … He peered miserably, almost accusingly, at the ship. Was this the kind of world they were going to found?

In the pitiless white-hot sun, the huge ship shimmered and glowed. A vast upright tube of alloy and protective fiber mesh rising up above the tumble of wretched shacks. One more load, and they were off. One more truckful of supplies from their only source, the meager trickle of uncontaminated goods that meant the difference between life and death.

Praying that nothing would go wrong, Tellman turned to await the arrival of Mrs. Edna Berthelson and her battered red pickup truck. Their fragile umbilical cord, connecting them with the opulent, undamaged past.

On both sides of the road lay groves of lush apricot trees. Bees and flies buzzed sleepily among the rotting fruit scattered over the soil; every now and then a roadside stand appeared, operated by somnambulistic children. In driveways stood parked Buicks and Oldsmobiles. Rural dogs wandered here and there. At one intersection stood a swank tavern, its neon sign blinking on and off, ghostly pale in the midmorning sun.

Mrs. Edna Berthelson glared hostilely at the tavern, and at the cars parked around it. City people were moving out into the valley, cutting down the old oak trees, the ancient fruit orchards, setting up suburban homes, stopping in the middle of the day for a whiskey sour and then driving cheerfully on. Driving at seventy-five miles an hour in their swept-back Chryslers. A column of cars that had piled up behind her truck suddenly burst forth and swung past her. She let them go, stony-faced, indifferent. Served them right for being in such a hurry. If she always hurried like that, she would never have had time to pay attention to that odd ability she had found in her introspective, lonely drives; never have discovered that she could look “ahead,” never have discovered that hole in the warp of time which enabled her to trade so easily at her own exorbitant prices. Let them hurry if they wanted. The heavy load in the back of the truck jogged rhythmically. The motor wheezed. Against the back window a half-dead fly buzzed.

Jackie lay stretched out among the cartons and boxes, enjoying the ride, gazing complacently at the apricot trees and cars. Against the hot sky the peak of Mount Diablo rose, blue and white, an expanse of cold rock. Trails of mist clung to the peak; Mount Diablo went a long way up. He made a face at a dog standing indolently at the side of the road, waiting to cross. He waved gaily at a Pacific Telephone Co. repairman, stringing wire from a huge reel.

Abruptly the truck turned off the state highway and onto a black surfaced side road. Now there were fewer cars. The truck began to climb … the rich orchards fell behind and gave way to flat brown fields. A dilapidated farmhouse lay to the right; he watched it with interest, wondering how old it was. When it was out of sight, no other man-made structures followed. The fields became unkempt. Broken, sagging fences were visible occasionally. Tom signs, no longer legible. The truck was approaching the base of Mount Diablo … almost nobody came this way.

Idly, the boy wondered why Mrs. Berthelson’s little trip took her in this direction. Nobody lived here; suddenly there were no fields, only scrub grass and bushes, wild countryside, the tumbled slope of the mountain. A rabbit hopped skillfully across the half-decayed road. Rolling hills, a broad expanse of trees and strewn boulders … there was nothing here but a state fire tower, and maybe a watershed. And an abandoned picnic area, once maintained by the state, now forgotten.

An edge of fear touched the boy. No customers lived out this way … he had been positive the battered red pickup truck would head directly into town, take him and the load to San Francisco or Oakland or Berkeley, a city where he could get out and run around, see interesting sights. There was nothing here, only abandoned emptiness, silent and foreboding. In the shadow of the mountain, the air was chill. He shivered. All at once he wished he hadn’t come.

Mrs. Berthelson slowed the truck and shifted noisily into low. With a roar and an explosive belch of exhaust gases, the truck crept up a steep ascent, among jagged boulders, ominous and sharp. Somewhere far off a bird cried shrilly; Jackie listened to its thin sounds echoing dismally away and wondered how he could attract his grandmother’s attention. It would be nice to be in front, in the cabin. It would be nice—

And then he noticed it. At first he didn’t believe it … but he had to believe it.

Under him, the truck was beginning to fade away.

It faded slowly, almost imperceptibly. Dimmer and dimmer the truck grew; its rusty red sides became gray, then colorless. The black road was visible underneath. In wild panic, the boy clutched at the piles of boxes. His hands passed through them; he was riding precariously on an uneven sea of dim shapes, among almost invisible phantoms.

He lurched and slid down. Now—hideously—he was suspended momentarily halfway through the truck, just above the tail pipe. Groping desperately, he struggled to catch hold of the boxes directly above him. “Help!” he shouted. His voice echoed around him; it was the only sound … the roar of the truck was fading. For a moment he clutched at the retreating shape of the truck; then, gently, gradually, the last image of the truck faded, and with a sickening crunch, the boy dropped to the road.

The impact sent him rolling into the dry weeds beyond the drainage ditch. Stunned, dazed with disbelief and pain, he lay gasping, trying feebly to pull himself up. There was only silence; the truck, Mrs. Berthelson, had vanished. He was totally alone. He closed his eyes and lay back, stupefied with fright.

Sometime later, probably not much later, he was aroused by the squeal of brakes. A dirty, orange state maintenance truck had lurched to a stop; two men in khaki work clothes were climbing down and hurrying over.

“What’s the matter?” one yelled at him. They grabbed him up, faces serious and alarmed. “What are you doing here?”

“Fell,” he muttered. “Off the truck.”

‘What truck?” they demanded. “How?”

He couldn’t tell them. All he knew was that Mrs. Berthelson had gone. He hadn’t made it, after all. Once again, she was making her trip alone. He would never know where she went; he would never find out who her customers were.

Gripping the steering wheel of the truck, Mrs. Berthelson was conscious that the transition had taken place. Vaguely, she was aware that the rolling brown fields, rocks and green scrub bushes had faded out. The first time she had gone “ahead” she had found the old truck floundering in a sea of black ash. She had been so excited by her discovery that day that she had neglected to “scan” conditions on the other side of the hole. She had known there were customers … and dashed headlong through the warp to get there first. She smiled complacently … she needn’t have hurried, there was no competition here. In fact, the customers were so eager to deal with her, they had done virtually everything in their power to make things easier for her.

The men had built a crude strip of road out into the ash, a sort of wooden platform onto which the truck now rolled. She had learned the exact moment to “go ahead”; it was the instant that the truck passed the drainage culvert a quarter mile inside the state park. Here, “ahead,” the culvert also existed … but there was little left of it, only a vague jumble of shattered stone. And the road was utterly buried. Under the wheels of the truck the rough boards thumped and banged. It would be bad if she had a flat tire … but some of them could fix it. They were always working; one little additional task wouldn’t make much difference. She could see them, now; they stood at the end of the wooden platform, waiting impatiently for her. Beyond them was their jumble of crude, smelly shacks, and beyond that, their ship.

A lot she cared about their ship. She knew what it was: stolen army property. Setting her bony hand rigidly around the gearshift knob, she threw the truck into neutral and coasted to a stop. As the men approached, she began pulling on the hand brake.

“Afternoon,” Professor Crowley muttered, his eyes sharp and keen as he peered eagerly into the back of the truck.

Mrs. Berthelson grunted a noncommittal answer. She didn’t like any of them … dirty men, smelling of sweat and fear, their bodies and clothes streaked with grime, and the ancient coating of desperation that never seemed to leave them. Like awed, pitiful children they clustered around the truck, poking hopefully at the packages, already beginning to pluck them out onto the black ground.

“Here now,” she said sharply. “You leave those alone.”

Their hands darted back as if seared. Mrs. Berthelson sternly climbed from the truck, grabbed up her inventory sheet and plodded up to Crowley.

“You just wait,” she told him. “Those have to be checked off.”

He nodded, glanced at Masterson, licked his dry lips, and waited. They all waited. It had always been that way; they knew, and she knew, that there was no other way they could get their supplies. And if they didn’t get their supplies, their food and medicine and clothing and instruments and tools and raw materials, they wouldn’t be able to leave in their ship.

In this world, in the “ahead,” such things didn’t exist. At least, not so anybody could use them. A cursory glance had told her that; she could see the ruin with her own eyes. They hadn’t taken very good care of their world. They had wasted it all, turned it into black ash and ruin. Well, it was their business, not hers.

She had never been much interested in the relationship between their world and hers. She was content to know that both existed, and that she could go from one to the other and back. And she was the only one who knew how. Several times, people from this world, members of this group, had tried to go “back there” with her. It had always failed. As she made the transition, they were left behind. It was her power, her faculty. Not a shared faculty—she was glad of that. And for a person in business, quite a valuable faculty.

“All right,” she said crisply. Standing where she could keep her eye on them, she began checking off each box as it was carried from the truck. Her routine was exact and certain; it was part of her life. As long as she could remember she had transacted business in a distinct way. Her father had taught her how to live in a business world; she had learned his stem principles and rules. She was following them now.

Flannery and Patricia Shelby stood together at one side; Flannery held the money, payment for the delivery. “Well,” he said, under his breath, “now we can tell her to go leap in the river.”

“Are you sure?” Pat asked nervously.

“The last load’s here.” Flannery grinned starkly and ran a trembling hand through his thinning black hair. “Now we can get rolling. With this stuff, the ship’s crammed to the gills. We may even have to sit down and eat some of that now.” He indicated a bulging pasteboard carton of groceries. “Bacon, eggs, milk, real coffee. Maybe we won’t shove it in deep-freeze. Maybe we ought to have a last-meal-before-the-flight orgy.”

Wistfully, Pat said, “It would be nice. It’s been a long time since we’ve had food like that.”

Masterson strode over. “Let’s kill her and boil her in a big kettle. Skinny old witch—she might make good soup.”

“In the oven,” Flannery corrected. “Some gingerbread, to take along with us.”

“I wish you wouldn’t talk like that,” Pat said apprehensively. “She’s so—well, maybe she is a witch. I mean, maybe that’s what witches were … old women with strange talents. Like her—being able to pass through time.”

“Damn lucky for us,” Masterson said briefly.

“But she doesn’t understand it. Does she? Does she know what she’s doing? That she could save us all this by sharing her ability. Does she know what’s happened to our world?”

Flannery considered. “Probably she doesn’t know—or care. A mind like hers, business and profit-getting exorbitant rates from us, selling this stuff to us at an incredible premium. And the joke is that money’s worth nothing to us. If she could see, she’d know that. It’s just paper, in this world. But she’s caught in a narrow little routine. Business, profit.” He shook his head. “A mind like that, a warped, miserable flea-sized mind … and she has that unique talent.”

“But she can see,” Pat persisted. “She can see the ash, the ruin. How can she not know?”

Flannery shrugged. “She probably doesn’t connect it with her own life. After all, she’ll be dead in a couple of years … she won’t see the war in her real time. She’ll only see it this way, as a region into which she can travel. A sort of travelogue of strange lands. She can enter and leave—but we’re stuck. It must give you a damn fine sense of security to be able to walk out of one world into another. God, what I’d give to be able to go back with her.”

“It’s been tried,” Masterson pointed out. “That lizardhead Tellman tried it. And he came walking back, covered with ash. He said the truck faded out.”

“Of course it did,” Flannery said mildly. “She drove it back to Walnut Creek. Back to 1965. “

The unloading had been completed. The members of the colony were toiling up the slope, lugging the cartons to the check area beneath the ship. Mrs. Berthelson strode over to Flannery, accompanied by Professor Crowley.

“Here’s the inventory,” she said briskly. “A few items couldn’t be found. You know, I don’t stock all that in my store. I have to send out for most of it.”

“We know,” Flannery said, coldly amused. It would be interesting to see a country store that stocked binocular microscopes, turret lathes, frozen packs of antibiotics, high-frequency radio transmitters, advanced textbooks in all fields.

“So that’s why I have to charge you a little dearer,” the old woman continued, the inflexible routine of squeeze. “On items I bring in—” She examined her inventory, then returned the ten-page typewritten list that Crowley had given her on the previous visit. “Some of these weren’t available. I marked them back order. That bunch of metals from those laboratories back East—they said maybe later.” A cunning look slid over the ancient gray eyes. “And they’ll be very expensive.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Flannery said, handing her the money. “You can cancel all the back orders.”

At first her face showed nothing. Only a vague inability to understand.

“No more shipments,” Crowley explained. A certain tension faded from them; for the first time, they weren’t afraid of her. The old relationship had ended. They weren’t dependent on the rusty red truck. They had their shipment; they were ready to leave.

“We’re taking off,” Flannery said, grinning starkly. “We’re full up. “

Comprehension came. “But I placed orders for those things.” Her voice was thin, bleak. Without emotion, “They’ll be shipped to me. I’ll have to pay for them.”

“Well,” Flannery said softly, “isn’t that too damn bad.”

Crowley shot him a warning glance. “Sorry,” he said to the old woman. “We can’t stick around—this place is getting hot. We’ve got to take off.”

On the withered face, dismay turned to growing wrath. “You ordered those things! You have to take them!” Her shrill voice rose to a screech of fury. “What am I supposed to do with them?”

As Flannery framed his bitter answer, Pat Shelby intervened. “Mrs. Berthelson,” she said quietly, “you’ve done a lot for us, even if you wouldn’t help us through the hole in your time. And we’re very grateful. If it wasn’t for you, we couldn’t have got together enough supplies. But we really have to go.” She reached out her hand to touch the frail shoulder, but the old woman jerked furiously away. “I mean,” Pat finished awkwardly, “we can’t stay any longer, whether we want to or not. Do you see all that black ash? It’s radioactive, and more of it sifts down all the time. The toxic level is rising—if we stay any longer it’ll start destroying us.”

Mrs. Edna Berthelson stood clutching her inventory list. There was an expression on her face that none of the group had ever seen before. The violent spasm of wrath had vanished; now a cold, chill glaze lay over the aged features. Her eyes were like gray rocks, utterly without feeling.

Flannery wasn’t impressed. “Here’s your loot,” he said, thrusting out the handful of bills. “What the hell.” He turned to Crowley. “Let’s toss in the rest. Let’s stuff it down her goddamn throat.”

“Shut up,” Crowley snapped.

Flannery sank resentfully back. “Who are you talking to?”

“Enough’s enough.” Crowley, worried and tense, tried to speak to the old woman. “My God, you can’t expect us to stay around here forever, can you?”

There was no response. Abruptly, the old woman turned and strode silently back to her truck.

Masterson and Crowley looked uneasily at each other. “She sure is mad,” Masterson said apprehensively.

Tellman hurried up, glanced at the old woman getting into her truck, and then bent down to root around in one of the cartons of groceries. Childish greed flushed across his thin face. “Look,” he gasped. “Coffee—fifteen pounds of it. Can we open some? Can we get one tin open, to celebrate?”

“Sure,” Crowley said tonelessly, his eyes on the truck. With a muffled roar, the truck turned in a wide arc and rumbled off down the crude platform, toward the ash. It rolled off into the ash, slithered for a short distance, and then faded out. Only the bleak, sun-swept plain of darkness remained.

“Coffee!” Tellman shouted gleefully. He tossed the bright metal can high in the air and clumsily caught it again. “A celebration! Our last night—last meal on Earth!”

It was true.

As the red pickup truck jogged metallically along the road, Mrs Berthelson scanned “ahead” and saw that the men were telling the truth. Her thin lips writhed; in her mouth an acid taste of bile rose. She had taken it for granted that they would continue to buy—there was no competition, no other source of supply. But they were leaving. And when they left, there would be no more market.

She would never find a market that satisfactory. It was a perfect market; the group was a perfect customer. In the locked box at the back of the store, hidden down under the reserve sacks of grain, was almost two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. A fortune, taken in over the months, received from the imprisoned colony as it toiled to construct its ship.

And she had made it possible. She was responsible for letting them get away after all. Because of her shortsightedness, they were able to escape. She hadn’t used her head.

As she drove back to town she meditated calmly, rationally. It was totally because of her: she was the only one who had possessed the power to bring them their supplies. Without her, they were helpless.

Hopefully, she cast about, looking this way and that, peering with her deep inner sense, into the various “aheads.” There was more than one, of course. The “aheads” lay like a pattern of squares, an intricate web of worlds into which she could step, if she cared. But all were empty of what she wanted.

All showed bleak plains of black ash, devoid of human habitation. What she wanted was lacking: they were each without customers.

The patterns of “aheads” was complex. Sequences were connected like beads on a string; there were chains of “aheads” which formed interwoven links. One step led to the next … but not to alternate chains.

Carefully, with great precision, she began the job of searching through each of the chains. There were many of them … a virtual infinity of possible “aheads.” And it was her power to select; she had stepped into that one, the particular chain in which the huddled colony had labored to construct its ship. She had, by entering it, made it manifest. Frozen it into reality. Dredged it up from among the many, from among the multitude of possibilities.

Now she needed to dredge another. That particular “ahead” had proven unsatisfactory. The market had petered out.

The truck was entering the pleasant town of Walnut Creek, passing bright stores and houses and supermarkets, before she located it. There were so many, and her mind was old … but now she had picked it out. And as soon as she found it, she knew it was the one. Her innate business instinct certified it; the particular “ahead” clicked.

Of the possibilities, this one was unique. The ship was well-built, and thoroughly tested. In “ahead” after “ahead” the ship rose, hesitated as automatic machinery locked, and then burst from the jacket of atmosphere, toward the morning star. In a few “aheads,” the wasted sequences of failure, the ship exploded into white-hot fragments. Those, she ignored; she saw no advantage in that.

In a few “aheads” the ship failed to take off at all. The turbines lashed; exhaust poured out … and the ship remained as it was. But then the men scampered out, and began going over the turbines, searching for the faulty parts. So nothing was gained. In later segments along the chain, in subsequent links, the damage was repaired, and the takeoff was satisfactorily completed.

But one chain was correct. Each element, each link, developed perfectly. The pressure locks closed, and the ship was sealed. The turbines fired, and the ship, with a shudder, rose from the plain of black ash. Three miles up, the rear jets tore loose. The ship floundered, dropped in a screaming dive, and plunged back toward the Earth. Emergency landing jets, designed for Venus, were frantically thrown on. The ship slowed, hovered for an agonizing instant, and then crashed into the heap of rubble that had been Mount Diablo. There the remains of the ship lay, twisted metal sheets, smoking in the dismal silence.

From the ship the men emerged, shaken and mute, to inspect the damage. To begin the miserable, futile task all over again. Collecting supplies, patching the rocket up … The old woman smiled to herself.

That was what she wanted. That would do perfectly. And all she had to do—such a little thing—was select that sequence when she made her next trip. When she took her little business trip, the following Saturday.

Crowley lay half buried in the black ash, pawing feebly at a deep gash in his cheek. A broken tooth throbbed. A thick ooze of blood dripped into his mouth, the hot salty taste of his own body fluids leaking helplessly out. He tried to move his leg, but there was no sensation. Broken. His mind was too dazed, too bewildered with despair, to comprehend.

Somewhere in the half-darkness, Flannery stirred. A woman groaned; scattered among the rocks and buckled sections of the ship lay the injured and dying. An upright shape rose, stumbled, and pitched over. An artificial light flickered. It was Tellman, making his way clumsily over the tattered remains of their world. He gaped foolishly at Crowley; his glasses hung from one ear and part of his lower jaw was missing. Abruptly he collapsed face-forward into a smoking mound of supplies. His skinny body twitched aimlessly.

Crowley managed to pull himself to his knees. Masterson was bending over him, saying something again and again.

“I’m all right,” Crowley rasped.

“We’re down. Wrecked.”

“I know.”

On Masterson’s shattered face glittered the first stirrings of hysteria. “Do you think—”

“No, Crowley muttered. “It isn’t possible.”

Masterson began to giggle. Tears streaked the grime of his cheeks; drops of thick moisture dripped down his neck into his charred collar. “She did it. She fixed us. She wants us to stay here.”

“No,” Crowley repeated. He shut out the thought. It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t, “We’ll get away,” he said. “We’ll assemble the remains—start over.”

“She’ll be back,” Masterson quavered. “She knows we’ll be here waiting for her. Customers!”

“No,” Crowley said. He didn’t believe it; he made himself not believe it. “We’ll get away. We’ve got to get away!”

The Mold of Yancy

Leon Sipling groaned and pushed away his work papers. In an organization of thousands he was the only employee not putting out. Probably he was the only yance-man on Callisto not doing his job. Fear, and the quick pluckings of desperation, made him reach up and wave on the audio circuit to Babson, the over-all office controller.

“Say,” Sipling said hoarsely, “I think I’m stuck, Bab. How about running the gestalt through, up to my spot? Maybe I can pick up the rhythm…” He grinned weakly. “The hum of other creative minds.”

After a speculative moment, Babson reached for the impulse synapsis, his massive face unsympathetic. “You holding up progress, Sip? This has to be integrated with the daily by six tonight. The schedule calls for the works to be on the vidlines during the dinner-hour stretch.”

The visual side of the gestalt had already begun to form on the wall screen; Sipling turned his attention to it, grateful of a chance to escape Babson’s cold glare.

The screen showed a 3-D of Yancy, the usual three quarter view, from the waist up. John Edward Yancy in his faded workshirt, sleeves rolled up, arms brown and furry. A middle-aged man in his late fifties, his face sunburned, neck slightly red, a good-natured smile on his face, squinting because he was looking into the sun. Behind Yancy was a still of his yard, his garage, his flower garden, lawn, the back of his neat little white plastic house. Yancy grinned at Sipling: a neighbor pausing in the middle of a summer day, perspiring from the heat and the exertion of mowing his lawn, about to launch into a few harmless remarks about the weather, the state of the planet, the condition of the neighborhood.

“Say,” Yancy said, in the audio phones propped up on Sipling’s desk. His voice was low, personal. “The darndest thing happened to my grandson Ralf, the other morning. You know how Ralf is; he’s always getting to school half an hour early… says he likes to be in his seat before anybody else.”

“That eager-beaver,” Joe Pines, at the next desk, cat-called.

From the screen, Yancy’s voice rolled on, confident, amiable, undisturbed. “Well, Ralf saw this squirrel; it was just sitting there on the sidewalk. He stopped for a minute and watched.” The look on Yancy’s face was so real that Sipling almost believed him. He could, almost, see the squirrel and the tow-headed youngest grandson of the Yancy family, the familiar child of the familiar son of the planet’s most familiar—and beloved—person.

“This squirrel,” Yancy explained, in his homey way, “was collecting nuts. And by golly, this was just the other day, only the middle of June. And here was this little squirrel—” with his hands he indicated the size, “collecting these nuts and carrying them off for winter.”

And then, the amused, anecdote-look on Yancy’s face faded. A serious, thoughtful look replaced it: the meaningful-look. His blue eyes darkened (good color work). His jaw became more square, more imposing (good dummy-switch by the android crew). Yancy seemed older, more solemn and mature, more impressive. Behind him, the garden-scene had been jerked and a slightly different backdrop filtered in; Yancy now stood firmly planted in a cosmic landscape, among mountains and winds and huge old forests.

“I got to thinking,” Yancy said, and his voice was deeper, slower. “There was that little squirrel. How did he know winter was coming? There he was, working away, getting prepared for it.” Yancy’s voice rose. “Preparing for a winter he’d never seen.”

Sipling stiffened and prepared himself; it was coming. At his desk, Joe Pines grinned and yelled: “Get set!”

“That squirrel,” Yancy said solemnly, “had faith. No, he never saw any sign of winter. But he knew winter was coming.” The firm jaw moved; one hand came slowly up …

And then the image stopped. It froze, immobile, silent. No words came from it; abruptly the sermon ended, in the middle of a paragraph.

“That’s it,” Babson said briskly, filtering the Yancy out. “Help you any?”

Sipling pawed jerkily at his work papers. “No,” he admitted, “actually it doesn’t. But—I’ll get it worked out.”

“I hope so.” Babson’s face darkened ominously and his small mean eyes seemed to grow smaller. “What’s the matter with you? Home problems?”

“I’ll be okay,” Sipling muttered, sweating. “Thanks.”

On the screen a faint impression of Yancy remained, still poised at the word coming. The rest of the gestalt was in Sipling’s head: the continuing slice of words and gestures hadn’t been worked out and fed to the composite.

Sipling’s contribution was missing, so the entire gestalt was stopped cold in its tracks.

“Say,” Joe Pines said uneasily, “I’ll be glad to take over, today. Cut your desk out of the circuit and I’ll cut myself in.”

“Thanks,” Sipling muttered, “but I’m the only one who can get this damn part. It’s the central gem.”

“You ought to take a rest. You’ve been working too hard.”

“Yes,” Sipling agreed, on the verge of hysteria. “I’m a little under the weather.”

That was obvious: everybody in the office could see that. But only Sipling knew why. And he was fighting with all his strength to keep from screaming out the reason at the top of his lungs.

Basic analysis of the political milieu at Callisto was laid out by Niplan computing apparatus at Washington, D.C.; but the final evaluations were done by human technicians. The Washington computers could ascertain that the Callisto political structure was moving toward a totalitarian make-up, but they couldn’t say what that indicated. Human beings were required to class the drift as malign.

“It isn’t possible,” Taverner protested. “There’s constant industrial traffic in and out of Callisto; except for the Ganymede syndicate they’ve got out-planet commerce bottled up. We’d know as soon as anything phony got started.”

“How would we know?” Police Director Kellman inquired.

Taverner indicated the data-sheets, graphs and charts of figures and percentages that covered the walls of the Niplan Police offices. “It would show up in hundreds of ways. Terrorist raids, political prisons, extermination camps. We’d hear about political recanting, treason, disloyalty … all the basic props of a dictatorship.”

“Don’t confuse a totalitarian society with a dictatorship,” Kellman said dryly. “A totalitarian state reaches into every sphere of its citizens’ lives, forms their opinions on every subject. The government can be a dictatorship, or aparliament, or an elected president, or a council of priests. That doesn’t matter.”

“All right,” Taverner said, mollified. “I’ll go. I’ll take a team there and see what they’re doing.”

“Can you make yourselves look like Callistotes?”

“What are they like?”

“I’m not sure,” Kellman admitted thoughtfully, with a glance at the elaborate wall charts. “But whatever it is, they’re all beginning to turn out alike.”

Among its passengers the interplan commercial liner that settled down at Callisto carried Peter Taverner, his wife, and their two children. With a grimace of concern, Taverner made out the shapes of local officials waiting at the exit hatch. The passengers were going to be carefully screened; as the ramp descended, the clot of officials moved forward.

Taverner got to his feet and collected his family. “Ignore them,” he told Ruth. “Our papers will get us by.”

Expertly prepared documents identified him as a speculator in nonferric metals, looking for a wholesale outlet to handle his jobbing. Callisto was a clearing-point for land and mineral operations; a constant flood of wealth-hungry entrepreneurs streamed back and forth, carting raw materials from the underdeveloped moons, hauling mining equipment from the inner planets.

Cautiously, Taverner arranged his topcoat over his arm. A heavyset man, in his middle thirties, he could have passed for a successful business operator. His double-breasted business suit was expensive, but conservative. His big shoes were brightly shined. All things considered, he’d probably get by. As he and his family moved toward the exit ramp, they presented a perfect and exact imitation of the out-planet business-class.

“State your business,” a green-uniformed official demanded, pencil poised. ID tabs were being checked, photographed, recorded. Brain pattern comparisons were being made: the usual routine.

“Nonferric enterprises,” Taverner began, but a second official cut him abruptly off.

“You’re the third cop this morning. What’s biting you people on Terra?” The official eyed Taverner intently. “We’re getting more cops than ministers.”

Trying to maintain his poise, Taverner answered evenly: “I’m here to take a rest. Acute alcoholism—nothing official.”

“That’s what your cohorts said.” The official grinned humorously. “Well, what’s one more Terran cop?” He slid the lockbars aside and waved Taverner and his family through. “Welcome to Callisto. Have fun—enjoy yourselves. Fastest-growing moon in the system.”

“Practically a planet,” Taverner commented ironically.

“Any day now.” The official examined some reports. “According to our friends in your little organization, you’ve been pasting up wall graphs and charts about us. Are we that important?”

“Academic interest,” Taverner said; if three spots had been made, then the whole team had been netted. The local authorities were obviously primed to detect infiltration … the realization chilled him.

But they were letting him through. Were they that confident?

Things didn’t look good. Peering around for a cab, he grimly prepared to undertake the business of integrating the scattered team members into a functioning whole.

That evening, at the Stay-Lit bar on the main street of the commercial district of town, Taverner met with his two team members. Hunched over their whiskey sours, they compared notes.

“I’ve been here almost twelve hours,” Eckmund stated, gazing impassively at the rows of bottles in the gloomy depths of the bar. Cigar smoke hovered in the air; the automatic music box in the corner banged away metallically. “I’ve been walking around town, looking at things, making observations.”

“Me,” Dorser said, “I’ve been at the tape-library. Getting official myth, comparing it to Callistote reality. And talking to the scholars—educated people hanging around the scanning rooms.”

Taverner sipped his drink. “Anything of interest?”

“You know the primitive rule-of-thumb test,” Eckmund said wryly. “I loafed around on a slum street corner until I got in a conversation with some people waiting for a bus. I started knocking the authorities: complaining about the bus service, the sewage disposal, taxes, everything. They chimed right in. Heartily. No hesitation. And no fear.”

“The legal government,” Dorser commented, “is set up in the usual archaic fashion. Two-party system, one a little more conservative than the other—no fundamental difference of course. But both elect candidates at open primaries, ballots circulated to all registered voters.” A spasm of amusement touched him. “This is a model democracy. I read the text books. Nothing but idealistic slogans: freedom of speech, assembly, religion—the works. Same old grammar school stuff.”

The three of them were temporarily silent.

“There are jails,” Taverner said slowly. “Every society has law violations.”

“I visited one,” Eckmund said, belching. “Petty thieves, murderers, claim-jumpers, strong-arm hoods—the usual.”

“No political prisoners?”

“No.” Eckmund raised his voice. “We might as well discuss this at the top of our lungs. Nobody cares—the authorities don’t care.”

“Probably after we’re gone they’ll clap a few thousand people into prison,” Dorser murmured thoughtfully.

“My God,” Eckmund retorted, “people can leave Callisto any time they want. If you’re operating a police state you have to keep your borders shut. And these borders are wide open. People pour in and out.”

“Maybe it’s a chemical in the drinking water,” Dorser suggested.

“How the hell can they have a totalitarian society without terrorism?” Eckmund demanded rhetorically. “I’ll swear to it—there are no thought-control cops here. There is absolutely no fear.”

“Somehow, pressure is being exerted,” Taverner persisted.

“Not by cops,” Dorser said emphatically. “Not by force and brutality. Not by illegal arrest and imprisonment and forced labor.”

“If this were a police state,” Eckmund said thoughtfully, “there’d be some kind of resistance movement. Some sort of ‘subversive’ group trying to overthrow the authorities. But in this society you’re free to complain; you can buy time on the TV and radio stations, you can buy space in the newspapers—anything you want.” He shrugged. “So how can there be a clandestine resistance movement? It’s silly.”

“Nevertheless,” Taverner said, “these people are living in a one-party society with a party line, with an official ideology. They show the effects of a carefully controlled totalitarian state. They’re guinea pigs—whether they realize it or not.”

“Wouldn’t they realize it?”

Baffled, Taverner shook his head. “I would have thought so. There must be some mechanism we don’t understand.”

“It’s all open. We can look everything over.”

“We must be looking for the wrong thing.” Idly, Taverner gazed at the television screen above the bar. The nude girlie song-and-dance routine had ended; now the features of a man faded into view. A genial, round-faced man in his fifties, with guileless blue eyes, an almost childish twitch to his lips, a fringe of brown hair playing around his slightly prominent ears.

“Friends,” the TV image rumbled, “it’s good to be with you again, tonight. I thought I might have a little chat with you.”

“A commercial,” Dorser said, signalling the bartending machine for another drink.

“Who is that?” Taverner asked curiously.

“That kindly-looking geezer?” Eckmund examined his notes. “A sort of popular commentator. Name of Yancy.”

“Is he part of the government?”

“Not that I know of. A kind of home-spun philosopher. I picked up a biography of him on a magazine stand.” Eckmund passed the gaily-colored pamphlet to his boss. “Totally ordinary man, as far as I can see. Used to be a soldier; in the Mars-Jupiter War he distinguished himself—battlefield commission. Rose to the rank of major.” He shrugged indifferently. “A sort of talking almanac. Pithy sayings on every topic. Wise old saws: how to cure a chest cold. What the trouble is back on Terra.”

Taverner examined the booklet. “Yes, I saw his picture around.”

“Very popular figure. Loved by the masses. Man of the people—speaks for them. When I was buying cigarettes I noticed he endorses one particular brand. Very popular brand, now; just about driven the others off the market. Same with beer. The Scotch in this glass is probably the brand Yancy endorses. The same with tennis balls. Only he doesn’t play tennis—he plays croquet. All the time, every weekend.” Accepting his fresh drink Eckmund finished, “So now everybody plays croquet.”

“How can croquet be a planet-wide sport?” Taverner demanded.

“This isn’t a planet,” Dorser put in. “It’s a pipsqueak moon.”

“Not according to Yancy,” Eckmund said. “We’re supposed to think of Callisto as a planet.”

“How?” Taverner asked.

“Spiritually, it’s a planet. Yancy likes people to take a spiritual view of matters. He’s strong on God and honesty in government and being hardworking and clean-cut. Warmed-over truisms.”

The expression on Taverner’s face hardened. “Interesting,” he murmured. “I’ll have to drop by and meet him.”

“Why? He’s the dullest, most mediocre man you could dream up.”

“Maybe,” Taverner answered, “that’s why I’m interested.”

Babson, huge and menacing, met Taverner at the entrance of the Yancy Building. “Of course you can meet Mr. Yancy. But he’s a busy man—it’ll take a while to squeeze in an appointment. Everybody wants to meet Mr. Yancy.”

Taverner was unimpressed. “How long do I have to wait?”

As they crossed the main lobby to the elevators, Babson made a computation. “Oh, say four months.”

“Four months?”

“John Yancy is just about the most popular man alive.”

“Around here, maybe,” Taverner commented angrily, as they entered the packed elevator. “I never heard of him before. If he’s got so much on the ball, why isn’t he piped all around Niplan?”

“Actually,” Babson admitted, in a hoarse, confidential whisper, “I can’t imagine what people see in Yancy. As far as I’m concerned he’s just a big bag of wind. But people around here enjoy him. After all, Callisto is—provincial. Yancy appeals to a certain type of rural mind—to people who like their world simple. I’m afraid Terra would be too sophisticated for Yancy.”

“Have you tried?”

“Not yet,” Babson said. Reflectively, he added: “Maybe later.”

While Taverner was pondering the meaning of the big man’s words, the elevator ceased climbing. The two of them stepped off into a luxurious, carpeted hall, illuminated by recessed lights. Babson pushed open a door, and they entered a large, active office.

Inside, a screening of a recent Yancy gestalt was in progress. A group of yance-men watched it silently, faces alert and critical. The gestalt showed Yancy sitting at his old-fashioned oak desk, in his study. It was obvious that he had been working on some philosophical thoughts: spread out over the desk were books and papers. On Yancy’s face was a thoughtful expression; he sat with his hand against his forehead, features screwed up into a solemn study of concentration.

“This is for next Sunday morning,” Babson explained.

Yancy’s lips moved, and he spoke. “Friends,” he began, in his deep, personal, friendly, man-to-man voice, “I’ve been sitting here at my desk—well, about the way you’re sitting around your living rooms.” A switch in camera work occurred; it showed the open door of Yancy’s study. In the living room was the familiar figure of Yancy’s sweet-faced middle-aged homey wife; she was sitting on the comfortable sofa, primly sewing. On the floor their grandson Ralf played the familiar game of jacks. The family dog snoozed in the corner.

One of the watching yance-men made a note on his pad. Taverner glanced at him curiously, baffled.

“Of course, I was in there with them,” Yancy continued, smiling briefly. “I was reading the funnies to Ralf. He was sitting on my knee.” The background faded, and a momentary phantom scene of Yancy sitting with his grandson on his knee floated into being. Then the desk and the book-lined study returned. “I’m mighty grateful for my family,” Yancy revealed. “In these times of stress, it’s my family that I turn to, as my pillar of strength.” Another notation was made by a watching yance-man.

“Sitting here, in my study, this wonderful Sunday morning,” Yancy rumbled on, “I realize how lucky we are to be alive, and to have this lovely planet, and the fine cities and houses, all the things God has given us to enjoy. But we’ve got to be careful. We’ve got to make sure we don’t lose these things.”

A change had come over Yancy. It seemed to Taverner that the image was subtly altering. It wasn’t the same man; the good humor was gone. This was an older man, and larger. A firm-eyed father, speaking to his children.

“My friends,” Yancy intoned, “there are forces that could weaken this planet. Everything we’ve built up for our loved ones, for our children, could be taken away from us overnight. We must learn to be vigilant. We must protect our liberties, our possessions, our way of life. If we become divided, and fall to bickering among each other, we will be easy prey for our enemies. We must work together, my friends.

“That’s what I’ve been thinking about this Sunday morning. Cooperation. Teamwork. We’ve got to be secure, and to be secure, we must be one united people. That’s the key, my friends, the key to a more abundant life.” Pointing out the window at the lawn and garden, Yancy said: “You know, I was …”

The voice trailed off. The image froze. Full room lights came on, and the watching yance-men moved into muttering activity.

“Fine,” one of them said. “So far, at least. But where’s the rest?”

“Sipling, again,” another answered. “His slice still hasn’t come through. What’s wrong with that guy?”

Scowling, Babson detached himself. “Pardon me,” he said to Taverner.

“I’ll have to excuse myself-technical matters. You’re free to look around, if you care to. Help yourself to any of the literature—anything you want.”

“Thanks,” Taverner said uncertainly. He was confused; everything seemed harmless, even trivial. But something basic was wrong.

Suspiciously, he began to prowl.

It was obvious that John Yancy had pontificated on every known subject. A Yancy opinion on every conceivable topic was available… modern art, or garlic in cooking, or the use of intoxicating beverages, or eating meat, or socialism, or war, or education, or open-front dresses on women, or high taxes, or atheism, or divorce, or patriotism—every shade and nuance of opinion possible.

Was there any subject that Yancy hadn’t expressed himself on?

Taverner examined the voluminous tapes that lined the walls of the offices. Yancy’s utterances had run into billions of tape feet… could one man have an opinion on everything in the universe?

Choosing a tape at random, he found himself being addressed on the topic of table manners.

“You know,” the miniature Yancy began, his voice tinny in Taverner’s ears, “at dinner the other night I happened to notice how my grandson Ralf was cutting his steak.” Yancy grinned at the viewer, as an image of the six-year-old boy sawing grimly away floated briefly into sight. “Well, I got to thinking, there was Ralf working away at that steak, not having any luck with it. And it seemed to me—”

Taverner snapped the tape off and returned it to the slot. Yancy had definite opinions on everything… or were they so definite?

A strange suspicion was growing in him. On some topics, yes. On minor issues, Yancy had exact rules, specific maxims drawn from mankind’s rich storehouse of folklore. But major philosophical and political issues were something else again.

Getting out one of the many tapes listed under War, Taverner ran it through at random.

“…I’m against war,” Yancy pronounced angrily. “And I ought to know; I’ve done my share of fighting.”

There followed a montage of battle scenes: the Jupiter-Mars War in which Yancy had distinguished himself by his bravery, his concern for his comrades, his hatred of the enemy, his variety of proper emotions.

“But,” Yancy continued staunchly, “I feel a planet must be strong. We must not surrender ourselves meekly … weakness invites attack and fosters aggression. By being weak we promote war. We must gird ourselves and protect those we love. With all my heart and soul I’m against useless wars; but I say again, as I’ve said many times before, a man must come forward and fight a just war. He must not shrink from his responsibility. War is a terrible thing. But sometimes we must…”

As he restored the tape, Taverner wondered just what the hell Yancy had said. What were his views on war? They took up a hundred separate reels of tape; Yancy was always ready to hold forth on such vital and grandiose subjects as War, the Planet, God, Taxation. But did he say anything?

A cold chill crawled up Taverner’s spine. On specific—and trivial—items there were absolute opinions: dogs are better than cats, grapefruit is too sour without a dash of sugar, it’s good to get up early in the morning, too much drinking is bad. But on big topics … an empty vacuum, filled with the vacant roll of high-sounding phrases. A public that agreed with Yancy on war and taxes and God and planet agreed with absolutely nothing. And with everything.

On topics of importance, they had no opinion at all. They only thought they had an opinion.

Rapidly, Taverner scanned tapes on various major subjects. It was the same all down the line. With one sentence Yancy gave; with the next he took away. The total effect was a neat cancellation, a skillful negation. But the viewer was left with the illusion of having consumed a rich and varied intellectual feast. It was amazing. And it was professional: the ends were tied up too slickly to be mere accident.

Nobody was as harmless and vapid as John Edward Yancy. He was just too damn good to be true.

Sweating, Taverner left the main reference room and poked his way toward the rear offices, where busy yance-men worked away at their desks and assembly tables. Activity whirred on all sides. The expression on the faces around him was benign, harmless, almost bored. The same friendly, trivial expression that Yancy himself displayed.

Harmless—and in its harmlessness, diabolical. And there wasn’t a damn thing he could do. If people liked to listen to John Edward Yancy, if they wanted to model themselves after him—what could the Niplan Police do about it?

What crime was being committed?

No wonder Babson didn’t care if the police prowled around. No wonder the authorities had freely admitted them. There weren’t any political jails of labor gangs or concentration camps … there didn’t have to be.

Torture chambers and extermination camps were needed only when persuasion failed. And persuasion was working perfectly. A police state, rule by terror, came about when the totalitarian apparatus began to break down. The earlier totalitarian societies had been incomplete; the authorities hadn’t really gotten into every sphere of life. But techniques of communication had improved.

The first really successful totalitarian state was being realized before his eyes: harmless and trivial, it emerged. And the last stage—nightmarish, but perfectly logical—was when all the newborn boys were happily and voluntarily named John Edward.

Why not? They already lived, acted, and thought like John Edward. And there was Mrs. Margaret Ellen Yancy, for the women. She had her full range of opinions, too; she had her kitchen, her taste in clothes, her little recipes and advice, for all the women to imitate.

There were even Yancy children for the youth of the planet to imitate. The authorities hadn’t overlooked anything.

Babson strolled over, a genial expression on his face. “How’s it going, officer?” he chuckled wetly, putting his hand on Taverner’s shoulder.

“Fine,” Taverner managed to answer; he evaded the hand.

“You like our little establishment?” There was genuine pride in Babson’s thick voice. “We do a good job. An artistic job—we have real standards of excellence.”

Shaking with helpless anger, Taverner plunged out of the office and into the hall. The elevator took too long; furiously, he turned toward the stairs. He had to get out of the Yancy Building; he had to get away.

From the shadows of the hall a man appeared, face pale and taut. “Wait. Can I talk to you?”

Taverner pushed past him. “What do you want?”

“You’re from the Terran Niplan Police? I—” The man’s Adam’s apple bobbed. “I work here. My name’s Sipling, Leon Sipling. I have to do something—I can’t stand it anymore.”

“Nothing can be done,” Taverner told him. “If they want to be like Yancy—”

“But there isn’t any Yancy,” Sipling broke in, his thin face twitching spasmodically. “We made him up … we invented him.”

Taverner halted. “You what?”

“I’ve decided.” Voice quavering excitedly, Sipling rushed on: “I’m going to do something—and I know exactly what.” Catching hold of Taverner’s sleeve he grated: “You’ve got to help me. I can stop all this, but I can’t do it alone.”

In Leon Sipling’s attractive, well-furnished living room, the two of them sat drinking coffee and watching their children scramble around on the floor, playing games. Sipling’s wife and Ruth Taverner were in the kitchen, drying the dishes.

“Yancy is a synthesis,” Sipling explained. “A sort of composite person. No such individual actually exists. We drew on basic prototypes from sociological records; we based the gestalt on various typical persons. So it’s true to life. But we stripped off what we didn’t want, and intensified what we did want.”

Broodingly, he added: “There could be a Yancy. There are a lot of Yancy-like people. In fact, that’s the problem.”

“You deliberately set out with the idea of remolding people along Yancy’s line?” Taverner inquired.

“I can’t precisely say what the idea is, at top level. I was an ad writer for a mouthwash company. The Callisto authorities hired me and outlined what they wanted me to do. I’ve had to guess as to the purpose of the project.”

“By authorities, you mean the governing council?”

Sipling laughed sharply. “I mean the trading syndicates that own this moon: lock, stock, and barrel. But we’re not supposed to call it a moon. It’s a planet.” His lips twitched bitterly. “Apparently, the authorities have a big program built up. It involves absorbing their trade rivals on Ganymede—when that’s done, they’ll have the out-planets sewed up tight.”

“They can’t get at Ganymede without open war,” Taverner protested. “The Medean companies have their own population behind them.” And then it dawned. “I see,” he said softly. “They’d actually start a war. It would be worth a war, to them.”

“You’re damn right it would. And to start a war, they have to get the public lined up. Actually, the people here have nothing to gain. A war would wipe out all the small operators—it would concentrate power in fewer hands—and they’re few enough already. To get the eighty million people here behind the war, they need an indifferent, sheep-like public. And they’re getting that. When this Yancy campaign is finished, the people here on Callisto will accept anything. Yancy does all their thinking for them. He tells them how to wear their hair. What games to play. He tells the jokes the men repeat in their back rooms. His wife whips up the meal they all have for dinner. All over this little world—millions of duplicates of Yancy’s day. Whatever he does, whatever he believes. We’ve been conditioning the public for eleven straight years. The important thing is the unvarying monotony of it. A whole generation is growing up looking to Yancy for an answer to everything.”

“It’s a big business, then,” Taverner observed. “This project of creating and maintaining Yancy.”

“Thousands of people are involved in just writing the material. You only saw the first stage—and it goes into every city. Tapes, films, books, magazines, posters, pamphlets, dramatic visual and audio shows, plants in the newspapers, sound trucks, kids’ comic strips, word-of-mouth report, elaborate ads … the works. A steady stream of Yancy.” Picking up a magazine from the coffee table he indicated the lead article. “ ‘How is John Yancy’s Heart?’ Raises the question of what would we do without Yancy? Next week, an article on Yancy’s stomach.” Acidly, Sipling finished: “We know a million approaches. We turn it out of every pore. We’re called yance-men; it’s a new art-form.”

“How do you—the corps, feel about Yancy?”

“He’s a big sack of hot air.”

“None of you is convinced?”

“Even Babson has to laugh. And Babson is at the top; after him come the boys who sign the checks. God, if we ever started believing in Yancy … if we got started thinking that trash meant something—” An expression of acute agony settled over Sipling’s face. “That’s it. That’s why I can’t stand it.”

“Why?” Taverner asked, deeply curious. His throat-mike was taking it all in, relaying it back to the home office at Washington. “I’m interested in finding out why you broke away.”

Sipling bent down and called his son. “Mike, stop playing and come on over here.” To Taverner he explained: “Mike’s nine years old. Yancy’s been around as long as he’s been alive.”

Mike came dully over. “Yes, sir?”

“What kind of marks do you get in school?” his father asked.

The boy’s chest stuck out proudly; he was a clear-eyed little miniature of Leon Sipling. “All A’s and B’s.”

“He’s a smart kid,” Sipling said to Taverner. “Good in arithmetic, geography, history, all that stuff.” Turning to the boy he said: “I’m going to ask you some questions; I want this gentleman to hear your answers. Okay?”

“Yes, sir,” the boy said obediently.

His thin face grim, Sipling said to his son: “I want to know what you think about war. You’ve been told about war in school; you know about all the famous wars in history. Right?”

“Yes, sir. We learned about the American Revolution, and the First Global War, and then the Second Global War, and then the First Hydrogen War, and the War between the colonists on Mars and Jupiter.”

“To the schools,” Sipling explained tightly to Taverner, “we distribute Yancy material—educational subsidies in packet form. Yancy takes children through history, explains the meaning of it all. Yancy explains natural science. Yancy explains good posture and astronomy and every other thing in the universe. But I never thought my own son …” His voice trailed off unhappily, then picked up life. “So you know all about war. Okay, what do you think of war?”

Promptly, the boy answered: “War is bad. War is the most terrible thing there is. It almost destroyed mankind.”

Eying his son intently, Sipling demanded: “Did anybody tell you to say that?”

The boy faltered uncertainly. “No, sir.”

“You really believe those things?”

“Yes, sir. It’s true, isn’t it? Isn’t war bad?”

Sipling nodded. “War is bad. But what about just wars?”

Without hesitation the boy answered: “We have to fight just wars, of course.”

“Why?”

“Well, we have to protect our way of life.”

“Why?”

Again, there was no hesitation in the boy’s reedy answer. “We can’t let them walk over us, sir. That would encourage aggressive war. We can’t permit a world of brute power. We have to have a world of—” He searched for the exact word. “A world of law.”

Wearily, half to himself, Sipling commented: “I wrote those meaningless, contradictory words myself, eight years ago.” Pulling himself together with a violent effort he asked: “So war is bad. But we have to fight just wars. Well, maybe this planet, Callisto, will get into a war with … let’s pick Ganymede, at random.” He was unable to keep the harsh irony from his voice. “Just at random. Now, we’re at war with Ganymede. Is it a just war? Or only a war?”

This time, there was no answer. The boy’s smooth face was screwed up in a bewildered, struggling frown.

“No answer?” Sipling inquired icily.

“Why, uh,” the boy faltered. “I mean…” He glanced up hopefully. “When the time comes won’t somebody say?”

“Sure,” Sipling choked. “Somebody will say. Maybe even Mr. Yancy.”

Relief flooded the boy’s face. “Yes, sir. Mr. Yancy will say.” He retreated back toward the other children. “Can I go now?”

As the boy scampered back to his game, Sipling turned miserably to Taverner. “You know what game they’re playing? It’s called Hippo-Hoppo. Guess whose grandson just loves it. Guess who invented the game.”

There was silence.

“What do you suggest?” Taverner asked. “You said you thought something could be done.”

A cold expression appeared on Sipling’s face, a flash of deeply-felt cunning. “I know the project… I know how it can be pried apart. But somebody has to stand with a gun at the head of the authorities. In nine years I’ve come to see the essential key to the Yancy character … the key to the new type of person we’re growing, here. It’s simple. It’s the element that makes that person malleable enough to be led around.”

“I’ll bite,” Taverner said patiently, hoping the line to Washington was good and clear.

“All Yancy’s beliefs are insipid. The key is thinness. Every part of his ideology is diluted: nothing excessive. We’ve come as close as possible to no beliefs … you’ve noticed that. Wherever possible we’ve cancelled attitudes out, left the person apolitical. Without a viewpoint.”

“Sure,” Taverner agreed. “But with the illusion of a viewpoint.”

“All aspects of personality have to be controlled; we want the total person. So a specific attitude has to exist for each concrete question. In every respect, our rule is: Yancy believes the least troublesome possibility. The most shallow. The simple, effortless view, the view that fails to go deep enough to stir any real thought.”

Taverner got the drift. “Good solid lulling views.” Excitedly he hurried on, “But if an extreme original view got in, one that took real effort to work out, something that was hard to live …”

“Yancy plays croquet. So everybody fools around with a mallet.” Sipling’s eyes gleamed. “But suppose Yancy had a preference for—Kriegspiel.”

“For what?”

“Chess played on two boards. Each player has his own board, with a complete set of men. He never sees the other board. A moderator sees both; he tells each player when he’s taken a piece, or lost a piece, or moved into an occupied square, or made an impossible move, or checked, or is in check himself.”

“I see,” Taverner said quickly. “Each player tries to infer his opponent’s location on the board. He plays blind. Lord, it would take every mental faculty possible.”

“The Prussians taught their officers military strategy that way. It’s more than a game: it’s a cosmic wrestling match. What if Yancy sat down in the evening with his wife and grandson, and played a nice lively six-hour game of Kriegspiel? Suppose his favorite books—instead of being western gun-toting anachronisms—were Greek tragedy? Suppose his favorite piece of music was Bach’s Art of the Fugue, not My Old Kentucky Home?”

“I’m beginning to get the picture,” Taverner said, as calmly as possible. “I think we can help.”

Babson squeaked once. “But this is—illegal!”

“Absolutely,” Taverner acknowledged. “That’s why we’re here.” He waved the squad of Niplan secret-servicemen into the offices of the Yancy Building, ignoring the stunned workers sitting bolt-upright at their desks. Into his throat-mike he said, “How’s it coming with the big-shots?”

“Medium,” Kellman’s faint voice came, strengthened by the relay system between Callisto and Earth. “Some slipped out of bounds to their various holdings, of course. But the majority never thought we’d taken action.”

“You can’t!” Babson bleated, his great face hanging down in wattles of white dough. “What have we done? What law—”

“I think,” Taverner interrupted, “we can get you on purely commercial grounds alone. You’ve used the name Yancy to endorse various manufactured products. There’s no such person. That’s a violation of statutes governing ethical presentation of advertising.”

Babson’s mouth closed with a snap, then slid feebly open. “No—such—person? But everybody knows John Yancy. Why, he’s—” Stammering, gesturing, he finished, “He’s everywhere.”

Suddenly a wretched little pistol appeared in his pulpy hand; he was waving it wildly as Dorser stepped up and quietly knocked it skidding across the floor. Babson collapsed into fumbling hysterics.

Disgusted, Dorser clamped handgrapples around him. “Act like a man,” he ordered. But there was no response; Babson was too far gone to hear him.

Satisfied, Taverner plunged off, past the knot of stunned officials and workers, into the inner offices of the project. Nodding curtly, Taverner made his way up to the desk where Leon Sipling sat surrounded by his work.

The first of the altered gestalts was already flickering through the scanner. Together, the two men stood watching it.

“Well?” Taverner said, when it was done. “You’re the judge.”

“I believe it’ll do,” Sipling answered nervously. “I hope we don’t stir up too much … it’s taken eleven years to build it up; we want to tear it down by degrees.”

“Once the first crack is made, it should start swaying.” Taverner moved toward the door. “Will you be all right on your own?”

Sipling glanced at Eckmund who lounged at the end of the office, eyes fixed on the uneasily working yance-men. “I suppose so. Where are you going?”

“I want to watch this as it’s released. I want to be around when the public gets its first look at it.” At the door, Taverner lingered. “It’s going to be a big job for you, putting out the gestalt on your own. You may not get much help, for a while.”

Sipling indicated his co-workers; they were already beginning to pick up their tempo where they had left off. “They’ll stay on the job,” he disagreed. “As long as they get full salaries.”

Taverner walked thoughtfully across the hall to the elevator. A moment later he was on his way downstairs.

At a nearby street corner, a group of people had collected around a public vid-screen. Anticipating the late-afternoon TV cast of John Edward Yancy.

The gestalt began in the regular way. There was no doubt about it: when Sipling wanted to, he could put together a good slice. And in this case he had done practically the whole pie.

In rolled-up shirt sleeves and dirt-stained trousers, Yancy crouched in his garden, a trowel in one hand, straw hat pulled down over his eyes, grinning into the warm glare of the sun. It was so real that Taverner could hardly believe no such person existed. But he had watched Sipling’s sub-crews laboriously and expertly constructing the thing from the ground up.

“Afternoon,” Yancy rumbled genially. He wiped perspiration from his steaming, florid face and got stiffly to his feet. “Man,” he admitted, “it’s a hot day.” He indicated a flat of primroses. “I was setting them out. Quite a job.”

So far so good. The crowd watched impassively, taking their ideological nourishment without particular resistance. All over the moon, in every house, schoolroom, office, on each street corner, the same gestalt was showing. And it would be shown again.

“Yes,” Yancy repeated, “it’s really hot. Too hot for those primroses—they like shade.” A fast pan-up showed he had carefully planted his primroses in the shadows at the base of his garage. “On the other hand,” Yancy continued, in his smooth, good-natured, over-the-back-fence conversational voice, “my dahlias need lots of sun.”

The camera leaped to show the dahlias blooming frantically in the blazing sunlight.

Throwing himself down in a striped lawnchair, Yancy removed his straw hat and wiped his brow with a pocket handkerchief. “So,” he continued genially, “if anybody asked me which is better, shade or sun, I’d have to reply it depends on whether you’re a primrose or a dahlia.” He grinned his famous guileless boyish grin into the cameras. “I guess I must be a primrose—I’ve had all the sun I can stand for today.”

The audience was taking it in without complaint. An inauspicious beginning, but it was going to have long-term consequences. And Yancy was starting to develop them right now.

His genial grin faded. That familiar look, that awaited serious frown showing that deep thoughts were coming, faded into place. Yancy was going to hold forth: wisdom was on the way. But it was nothing ever uttered by him before.

“You know,” Yancy said slowly, seriously, “that makes a person do some thinking.” Automatically, he reached for his glass of gin and tonic—a glass which up until now would have contained beer. And the magazine beside it wasn’t Dog Stories Monthly; it was The Journal of Psychological Review. The alteration of peripheral props would sink in subliminally; right now, all conscious attention was riveted on Yancy’s words.

“It occurs to me,” Yancy orated, as if the wisdom were fresh and brand-new, arriving just now, “that some people might maintain that, say, sunlight is good and shade is bad. But that’s down-right silly. Sunlight is good for roses and dahlias, but it would darn well finish off my fuchsias.” The camera showed his ubiquitous prize fuchsias.

“Maybe you know people like that. They just don’t understand that—” And as was his custom, Yancy drew on folklore to make his point. “That one man’s meat,” he stated profoundly, “is another man’s poison. Like for instance, for breakfast I like a couple of eggs done sunny-side up, maybe a few stewed prunes, and a piece of toast. But Margaret, she prefers a bowl of cereal. And Ralf, he won’t take either. He likes flapjacks. And the fellow down the street, the one with the big front lawn, he likes a kidney pie and a bottle of stout.”

Taverner winced. Well, they would have to feel their way along. But still the audience stood absorbing it, word after word. The first feeble stirrings of a radical idea: that each person had a different set of values, a unique style of life. That each person might believe, enjoy, and approve of different things.

It would take time, as Sipling said. The massive library of tapes would have to be replaced; injunctions built up in each area would have to be broken down. A new type of thinking was being introduced, starting with a trite observation about primroses. When a nine-year-old-boy wanted to find out if a war was just or unjust, he would have to inquire into his own mind. There would be no ready answer from Yancy; a gestalt was already being prepared on that, showing that every war had been called just by some, unjust by others.

There was one gestalt Taverner wished he could see. But it wouldn’t be around for a long time; it would have to wait. Yancy was going to change his taste in art, slowly but steadily. One of these days, the public would learn that Yancy no longer enjoyed pastoral calendar scenes.

That now he preferred the art of that fifteenth century Dutch master of macabre and diabolical horror, Hieronymus Bosch.

The Minority Report

I

The first thought Anderton had when he saw the young man was: I’m getting bald. Bald and fat and old. But he didn’t say it aloud. Instead, he pushed back his chair, got to his feet, and came resolutely around the side of his desk, his right hand rigidly extended. Smiling with forced amiability, he shook hands with the young man.

“Witwer?” he asked, managing to make this query sound gracious. “That’s right,” the young man said. “But the name’s Ed to you, of course. That is, if you share my dislike for needless formality.” The look on his blond, overly-confident face showed that he considered the matter settled. It would be Ed and John: Everything would be agreeably cooperative right from the start.

“Did you have much trouble finding the building?” Anderton asked guardedly, ignoring the too-friendly overture. Good God, he had to hold on to something. Fear touched him and he began to sweat. Witwer was moving around the office as if he already owned it—as if he were measuring it for size. Couldn’t he wait a couple of days—a decent interval?

“No trouble,” Witwer answered blithely, his hands in his pockets. Eagerly, he examined the voluminous files that lined the wall. “I’m not coming into your agency blind, you understand. I have quite a few ideas of my own about the way Precrime is run.”

Shakily, Anderton lit his pipe. “How is it run? I should like to know.” “Not badly,” Witwer said. “In fact, quite well.”

Anderton regarded him steadily. “Is that your private opinion? Or is it just cant?”

Witwer met his gaze guilelessly. “Private and public. The Senate’s pleased with your work. In fact, they’re enthusiastic.” He added, “As enthusiastic as very old men can be.”

Anderton winced, but outwardly he remained impassive. It cost him an effort, though. He wondered what Witwer really thought. What was actually going on in that closecropped skull? The young man’s eyes were blue, bright—and disturbingly clever. Witwer was nobody’s fool. And obviously he had a great deal of ambition.

“As I understand it,” Anderton said cautiously, “you’re going to be my assistant until I retire.”

“That’s my understanding, too,” the other replied, without an instant’s hesitation.

“Which may be this year, or next year—or ten years from now.” The pipe in Anderton’s hand trembled. “I’m under no compulsion to retire. I founded Precrime and I can stay on here as long as I want. It’s purely my decision.”

Witwer nodded, his expression still guileless. “Of course.”

With an effort, Anderton cooled down a trifle. “I merely wanted to get things straight.”

“From the start,” Witwer agreed. “You’re the boss. What you say goes.” With every evidence of sincerity, he asked: “Would you care to show me the organization? I’d like to familiarize myself with the general routine as soon as possible.”

As they walked along the busy, yellow-lit tiers of offices, Anderton said: “You’re acquainted with the theory of precrime, of course. I presume we can take that for granted.”

“I have the information publicly available,” Witwer replied. “With the aid of your precog mutants, you’ve boldly and successfully abolished the post-crime punitive system of jails and fines. As we all realize, punishment was never much of a deterrent, and could scarcely have afforded comfort to a victim already dead.”

They had come to the descent lift. As it carried them swiftly downward, Anderton said: “You’ve probably grasped the basic legalistic drawback to precrime methodology. We’re taking in individuals who have broken no law.”

“But they surely will,” Witwer affirmed with conviction.

“Happily they don’t—because we get them first, before they can commit an act of violence. So the commission of the crime itself is absolute metaphysics. We claim they’re culpable. They, on the other hand, eternally claim they’re innocent. And, in a sense, they are innocent.”

The lift let them out, and they again paced down a yellow corridor. “In our society we have no major crimes,” Anderton went on, “but we do have a detention camp full of would-be criminals.”

Doors opened and closed, and they were in the analytical wing. Ahead of them rose impressive banks of equipment—the data-receptors, and the computing mechanisms that studied and restructured the incoming material. And beyond the machinery sat the three precogs, almost lost to view in the maze of wiring.

“There they are,” Anderton said dryly. “What do you think of them?” In the gloomy half-darkness the three idiots sat babbling. Every incoherent utterance, every random syllable, was analyzed, compared, reassembled in the form of visual symbols, transcribed on conventional punchcards, and ejected into various coded slots. All day long the idiots babbled, imprisoned in their special high-backed chairs, held in one rigid position by metal bands, and bundles of wiring, clamps. Their physical needs were taken care of automatically. They had no spiritual needs. Vegetable-like, they muttered and dozed and existed. Their minds were dull, confused, lost in shadows.

But not the shadows of today. The three gibbering, fumbling creatures, with their enlarged heads and wasted bodies, were contemplating the future. The analytical machinery was recording prophecies, and as the three precog idiots talked, the machinery carefully listened.

For the first time Witwer’s face lost its breezy confidence. A sick, dismayed expression crept into his eyes, a mixture of shame and moral shock. “It’s not—pleasant,” he murmured. “I didn’t realize they were so—“ He groped in his mind for the right word, gesticulating. “So—deformed.”

“Deformed and retarded,” Anderton instantly agreed. “Especially the girl, there. Donna is forty-five years old. But she looks about ten. The talent absorbs everything; the esp-lobe shrivels the balance of the frontal area. But what do we care? We get their prophecies. They pass on what we need. They don’t understand any of it, but we do.”

Subdued, Witwer crossed the room to the machinery. From a slot he collected a stack of cards. “Are these names that have come up?” he asked.

“Obviously.” Frowning, Anderton took the stack from him. “I haven’t had a chance to examine them,” he explained, impatiently concealing his annoyance.

Fascinated, Witwer watched the machinery pop a fresh card into the now empty slot. It was followed by a second—and a third. From the whirring disks came one card after another. “The precogs must see quite far into the future,” Witwer exclaimed.

“They see a quite limited span,” Anderton informed him. “One week or two ahead at the very most. Much of their data is worthless to us—simply not relevant to our line. We pass it on to the appropriate agencies. And they in turn trade data with us. Every important bureau has its cellar of treasured monkeys.”

“Monkeys?” Witwer stared at him uneasily. “Oh, yes, I understand. See no evil, speak no evil, et cetera. Very amusing.”

“Very apt.” Automatically, Anderton collected the fresh cards which had been turned up by the spinning machinery. “Some of these names will be totally discarded. And most of the remainder record petty crimes: thefts, income tax evasion, assault, extortion. As I’m sure you know, Precrime has cut down felonies by ninety-nine and decimal point eight percent. We seldom get actual murder or treason. After all, the culprit knows we’ll confine him in the detention camp a week before he gets a chance to commit the crime.”

“When was the last time an actual murder was committed?” Witwer asked.

“Five years ago,” Anderton said, pride in his voice.

“How did it happen?”

“The criminal escaped our teams. We had his name—in fact, we had all the details of the crime, including the victim’s name. We knew the exact moment, the location of the planned act of violence. But in spite of us he was able to carry it out.” Anderton shrugged. “After all, we can’t get all of them.” He riffled the cards. “But we do get most.”

“One murder in five years.” Witwer’s confidence was returning. “Quite an impressive record… something to be proud of.”

Quietly Anderton said: “I am proud. Thirty years ago I worked out the theory—back in the days when the self-seekers were thinking in terms of quick raids on the stock market. I saw something legitimate ahead—something of tremendous social value.”

He tossed the packet of cards to Wally Page, his subordinate in charge of the monkey block. “See which ones we want,” he told him. “Use your own judgment.”

As Page disappeared with the cards, Witwer said thoughtfully: “It’s a big responsibility.”

“Yes, it is,” agreed Anderton. “If we let one criminal escape—as we did five years ago—we’ve got a human life on our conscience. We’re solely responsible. If we slip up, somebody dies.” Bitterly, he jerked three new cards from the slot. “It’s a public trust.”

“Are you ever tempted to—“ Witwer hesitated. “I mean, some of the men you pick up must offer you plenty.”

“It wouldn’t do any good. A duplicate file of cards pops out at Army GHQ. It’s check and balance. They can keep their eye on us as continuously as they wish.” Anderton glanced briefly at the top card. “So even if we wanted to accept a—“

He broke off, his lips tightening.

“What’s the matter?” Witwer asked curiously.

Carefully, Anderton folded up the top card and put it away in his pocket. “Nothing,” he muttered. “Nothing at all.”

The harshness in his voice brought a flush to Witwer’s face. “You really don’t like me,” he observed.

“True,” Anderton admitted. “I don’t. But—“

He couldn’t believe he disliked the young man that much. It didn’t seem possible: it wasn’t possible. Something was wrong. Dazed, he tried to steady his tumbling mind.

On the card was his name. Line one—an already accused future murderer! According to the coded punches, Precrime Commissioner John A. Anderton was going to kill a man—and within the next week.

With absolute, overwhelming conviction, he didn’t believe it.

II

In the outer office, talking to Page, stood Anderton’s slim and attractive young wife, Lisa. She was engaged in a sharp, animated discussion of policy, and barely glanced up as Witwer and her husband entered.

“Hello, darling,” Anderton said.

Witwer remained silent. But his pale eyes flickered slightly as they rested on the brown-haired woman in her trim police uniform. Lisa was now an executive official of Precrime but once, Witwer knew, she had been Anderton’s secretary.

Noticing the interest on Witwer’s face Anderton paused and reflected. To plant the card in the machines would require an accomplice on the inside—someone who was closely connected with Precrime and had access to the analytical equipment. Lisa was an improbable element. But the possibility did exist.

Of course, the conspiracy could be large-scale and elaborate, involving far more than a “rigged” card inserted somewhere along the line. The original data itself might have been tampered with. Actually, there was no telling how far back the alteration went. A cold fear touched him as he began to see the possibilities. His original impulse—to tear open the machines and remove all the data—was uselessly primitive. Probably the tapes agreed with the card: He would only incriminate himself further.

He had approximately twenty-four hours. Then, the Army people would check over their cards and discover the discrepancy. They would find in their files a duplicate of the card he had appropriated. He had only one of two copies, which meant that the folded card in his pocket might just as well be lying on Page’s desk in plain view of everyone.

From outside the building came the drone of police cars starting out on their routine round-ups. How many hours would elapse before one of them pulled up in front of his house?

“What’s the matter, darling?” Lisa asked him uneasily. “You look as if you’ve just seen a ghost. Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” he assured her.

Lisa suddenly seemed to become aware of Ed Witwer’s admiring scrutiny. “Is this gentleman your new co-worker, darling?” she asked.

Warily, Anderton introduced his new associate. Lisa smiled in friendly greeting. Did a covert awareness pass between them? He couldn’t tell. God, he was beginning to suspect everybody—not only his wife and Witwer, but a dozen members of his staff.

“Are you from New York?” Lisa asked.

“No,” Witwer replied. “I’ve lived most of my life in Chicago. I’m staying at a hotel—one of the big downtown hotels. Wait—I have the name written on a card somewhere.”

While he self-consciously searched his pockets, Lisa suggested: “Perhaps you’d like to have dinner with us. We’ll be working in close cooperation, and I really think we ought to get better acquainted.”

Startled, Anderton backed off. What were the chances of his wife’s friendliness being benign, accidental? Witwer would be present the balance of the evening, and would now have an excuse to trail along to Anderton’s private residence. Profoundly disturbed, he turned impulsively, and moved toward the door.

“Where are you going?” Lisa asked, astonished.

“Back to the monkey block,” he told her. “I want to check over some rather puzzling data tapes before the Army sees them.” He was out in the corridor before she could think of a plausible reason for detaining him.

Rapidly, he made his way to the ramp at its far end. He was striding down the outside stairs toward the public sidewalk, when Lisa appeared breathlessly behind him.

“What on earth has come over you?” Catching hold of his arm, she moved quickly in front of him. “I knew you were leaving,” she exclaimed, blocking his way. “What’s wrong with you? Everybody thinks you’re—“ She checked herself. “I mean, you’re acting so erratically.”

People surged by them—the usual afternoon crowd. Ignoring them, Anderton pried his wife’s fingers from his arm. “I’m getting out,” he told her. “While there’s still time.”

“But—why?”

“I’m being framed—deliberately and maliciously. This creature is out to get my job. The Senate is getting at me through him.”

Lisa gazed up at him, bewildered. “But he seems like such a nice young man.”

“Nice as a water moccasin.”

Lisa’s dismay turned to disbelief. “I don’t believe it. Darling, all this strain you’ve been under—“ Smiling uncertainly, she faltered: “It’s not really credible that Ed Witwer is trying to frame you. How could he, even if he wanted to? Surely Ed wouldn’t—“

“Ed?”

“That’s his name, isn’t it?”

Her brown eyes flashed in startled, wildly incredulous protest. “Good heavens, you’re suspicious of everybody. You actually believe I’m mixed up with it in some way, don’t you?”

He considered. “I’m not sure.”

She drew closer to him, her eyes accusing. “That’s not true. You really believe it. Maybe you ought to go away for a few weeks. You desperately need a rest. All this tension and trauma, a younger man coming in. You’re acting paranoiac. Can’t you see that? People plotting against you. Tell me, do you have any actual proof?”

Anderton removed his wallet and took out the folded card. “Examine this carefully,” he said, handing it to her.

The color drained out of her face, and she gave a little harsh, dry gasp.

“The set-up is fairly obvious,” Anderton told her, as levelly as he could. “This will give Witwer a legal pretext to remove me right now. He won’t have to wait until I resign.” Grimly, he added: “They know I’m good for a few years yet.”

“But—”

“It will end the check and balance system. Precrime will no longer be an independent agency. The Senate will control the police, and after that—“ His lips tightened. “They’ll absorb the Army too. Well, it’s outwardly logical enough. Of course I feel hostility and resentment toward Witwer—of course I have a motive.

“Nobody likes to be replaced by a younger man, and find himself turned out to pasture. It’s all really quite plausible—except that I haven’t the remotest intention of killing Witwer. But I can’t prove that. So what can I do?”

Mutely, her face very white, Lisa shook her head. “I—I don’t know. Darling, if only—”

“Right now,” Anderton said abruptly, “I’m going home to pack my things. That’s about as far ahead as I can plan.”

“You’re really going to—to try to hide out?”

“I am. As far as the Centaurian-colony planets, if necessary. It’s been done successfully before, and I have a twenty-four-hour start.” He turned resolutely. “Go back inside. There’s no point in your coming with me.”

“Did you imagine I would?” Lisa asked huskily.

Startled, Anderton stared at her. “Wouldn’t you?” Then with amazement, he murmured: “No, I can see you don’t believe me. You still think I’m imagining all this.” He jabbed savagely at the card. “Even with that evidence you still aren’t convinced.”

“No,” Lisa agreed quickly, “I’m not. You didn’t look at it closely enough, darling. Ed Witwer’s name isn’t on it.”

Incredulous, Anderton took the card from her.

“Nobody says you’re going to kill Ed Witwer,” Lisa continued rapidly, in a thin, brittle voice. “The card must be genuine, understand? And it has nothing to do with Ed. He’s not plotting against you and neither is anybody else.”

Too confused to reply, Anderton stood studying the card. She was right. Ed Witwer was not listed as his victim. On line five, the machine had neatly stamped another name.

LEOPOLD KAPLAN

Numbly, he pocketed the card. He had never heard of the man in his life.

III

The house was cool and deserted, and almost immediately Anderton began making preparations for his journey. While he packed, frantic thoughts passed through his mind.

Possibly he was wrong about Witwer—but how could he be sure? In any event, the conspiracy against him was far more complex than he had realized. Witwer, in the over-all picture, might be merely an insignificant puppet animated by someone else—by some distant, indistinct figure only vaguely visible in the background.

It had been a mistake to show the card to Lisa. Undoubtedly, she would describe it in detail to Witwer. He’d never get off Earth, never have an opportunity to find out what life on a frontier planet might be like.

While he was thus preoccupied, a board creaked behind him. He turned from the bed, clutching a weather-stained winter sports jacket, to face the muzzle of a gray-blue A-pistol.

“It didn’t take you long,” he said, staring with bitterness at the tight-lipped, heavyset man in a brown overcoat who stood holding the gun in his gloved hand. “Didn’t she even hesitate?”

The intruder’s face registered no response. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “Come along with me.”

Startled, Anderton laid down the sports jacket. “You’re not from my agency? You’re not a police officer?”

Protesting and astonished, he was hustled outside the house to a waiting limousine. Instantly three heavily armed men closed in behind him. The door slammed and the car shot off down the highway, away from the city. Impassive and remote, the faces around him jogged with the motion of the speeding vehicle as open fields, dark and somber, swept past.

Anderton was till trying futilely to grasp the implications of what had happened, when the car came to a rutted side road, turned off, and descended into a gloomy sub-surface garage. Someone shouted an order. The heavy metal lock grated shut and overhead lights blinked on. The driver turned off the car motor.

“You’ll have reason to regret this,” Anderton warned hoarsely, as they dragged him from the car. “Do you realize who I am?”

“We realize,” the man in the brown overcoat said.

At gun-point, Anderton was marched upstairs, from the clammy silence of the garage into a deep-carpeted hallway. He was, apparently, in a luxurious private residence, set out in the war-devoured rural area. At the far end of the hallway he could make out a room—a book-lined study simply but tastefully furnished. In a circle of lamplight, his face partly in shadows, a man he had never met sat waiting for him.

As Anderton approached, the man nervously slipped a pair of rimless glasses in place, snapped the case shut, and moistened his dry lips. He was elderly, perhaps seventy or older, and under his arm was a slim silver cane. His body was thin, wiry, his attitude curiously rigid. What little hair he had was dusty brown—a carefully-smoothed sheen of neutral color above his pale, bony skull. Only his eyes seemed really alert.

“Is this Anderton?” he inquired querulously, turning to the man in the brown overcoat. “Where did you pick him up?”

“At his home,” the other replied. “He was packing—as we expected.”

The man at the desk shivered visibly. “Packing.” He took off his glasses and jerkily returned them to their case. “Look here,” he said bluntly to Anderton, “what’s the matter with you? Are you hopelessly insane? How could you kill a man you’ve never met?”

The old man, Anderton suddenly realized, was Leopold Kaplan.

“First, I’ll ask you a question,” Anderton countered rapidly. “Do you realize what you’ve done? I’m Commissioner of Police. I can have you sent up for twenty years.”

He was going to say more, but a sudden wonder cut him short.

“How did you find out?” he demanded. Involuntarily, his hand went to his pocket, where the folded card was hidden. “It won’t be for another—“

“I wasn’t notified through your agency,” Kaplan broke in, with angry impatience. “The fact that you’ve never heard of me doesn’t surprise me too much. Leopold Kaplan, General of the Army of the Federated Westbloc Alliance.” Begrudgingly, he added. “Retired, since the end of the Anglo-Chinese War, and the abolishment of AFWA.”

It made sense. Anderton had suspected that the Army processed its duplicate cards immediately, for its own protection. Relaxing somewhat, he demanded: “Well? You’ve got me here. What next?”

“Evidently,” Kaplan said, “I’m not going to have you destroyed, or it would have shown up on one of those miserable little cards. I’m curious about you. It seemed incredible to me that a man of your stature could contemplate the cold-blooded murder of a total stranger. There must be something more here. Frankly, I’m puzzled. If it represented some kind of Police strategy—” He shrugged his thin shoulders. “Surely you wouldn’t have permitted the duplicate card to reach us.”

“Unless,” one of his men suggested, “it’s a deliberate plant.”

Kaplan raised his bright, bird-like eyes and scrutinized Anderton. “What do you have to say?”

“That’s exactly what it is,” Anderton said, quick to see the advantage of stating frankly what he believed to be the simple truth. “The prediction on the card was deliberately fabricated by a clique inside the police agency. The card is prepared and I’m netted. I’m relieved of my authority automatically. My assistant steps in and claims he prevented the murder in the usual efficient Precrime manner. Needless to say, there is no murder or intent to murder.”

“I agree with you that there will be no murder,” Kaplan affirmed grimly. “You’ll be in police custody. I intend to make certain of that.”

Horrified, Anderton protested: “You’re taking me back there? If I’m in custody I’ll never be able to prove—“

“I don’t care what you prove or don’t prove,” Kaplan interrupted. “All I’m interested in is having you out of the way.” Frigidly, he added: “For my own protection.”

“He was getting ready to leave,” one of the men asserted.

“That’s right,” Anderton said, sweating. “As soon as they get hold of me I’ll be confined in the detention camp. Witwer will take over—lock, stock and barrel.” His face darkened. “And my wife. They’re acting in concert, apparently.”

For a moment Kaplan seemed to waver. “It’s possible,” he conceded, regarding Anderton steadily. Then he shook his head. “I can’t take the chance. If this is a frame against you, I’m sorry. But it’s simply not my affair.” He smiled slightly. “However, I wish you luck.” To the men he said: “Take him to the police building and turn him over to the highest authority.” He mentioned the name of the acting commissioner, and waited for Anderton’s reaction.

“Witwer!” Anderton echoed, incredulous.

Still smiling slightly, Kaplan turned and clicked on the console radio in the study. “Witwer has already assumed authority. Obviously, he’s going to create quite an affair out of this.”

There was a brief static hum, and then, abruptly, the radio blared out into the room—a noisy professional voice, reading a prepared announcement.

“…all citizens are warned not to shelter or in any fashion aid or assist this dangerous marginal individual. The extraordinary circumstance of an escaped criminal at liberty and in a position to commit an act of violence is unique in modern times. All citizens are hereby notified that legal statutes still in force implicate any and all persons failing to cooperate fully with the police in their task of apprehending John Allison Anderton. To repeat: The Precrime Agency of the Federal Westbloc Government is in the process of locating and neutralizing its former Commissioner, John Allison Anderton, who, through the methodology of the precrime-system, is hereby declared a potential murderer and as such forfeits his rights to freedom and all its privileges.”

“It didn’t take him long,” Anderton muttered, appalled. Kaplan snapped off the radio and the voice vanished.

“Lisa must have gone directly to him,” Anderton speculated bitterly.

“Why should he wait?” Kaplan asked. “You made your intentions clear.”

He nodded to his men. “Take him back to town. I feel uneasy having him so close. In that respect I concur with Commissioner Witwer. I want him neutralized as soon as possible.”

IV

Cold, light rain beat against the pavement, as the car moved through the dark streets of New York City toward the police building.

“You can see his point,” one of the men said to Anderton. “If you were in his place you’d act just as decisively.”

Sullen and resentful, Anderton stared straight ahead.

“Anyhow,” the man went on, “you’re just one of many. Thousands of people have gone to that detention camp. You won’t be lonely. As a matter of fact, you may not want to leave.”

Helplessly, Anderton watched pedestrians hurrying along the rain-swept sidewalks. He felt no strong emotion. He was aware only of an overpowering fatigue. Dully, he checked off the street numbers: they were getting near the police station.

“This Witwer seems to know how to take advantage of an opportunity,” one of the men observed conversationally. “Did you ever meet him?”

“Briefly,” Anderton answered.

“He wanted your job—so he framed you. Are you sure of that?”

Anderton grimaced. “Does it matter?”

“I was just curious.” The man eyed him languidly. “So you’re the ex-Commissioner of Police. People in the camp will be glad to see you coming. They’ll remember you.”

“No doubt,” Anderton agreed.

“Witwer sure didn’t waste any time. Kaplan’s lucky—with an official like that in charge.” The man looked at Anderton almost pleadingly. “You’re really convinced it’s a plot, eh?”

“Of course.”

“You wouldn’t harm a hair of Kaplan’s head? For the first time in history, Precrime goes wrong? An innocent man is framed by one of those cards. Maybe there’ve been other innocent people—right?”

“It’s quite possible,” Anderton admitted listlessly.

“Maybe the whole system can break down. Sure, you’re not going to commit a murder—and maybe none of them were. Is that why you told Kaplan you wanted to keep yourself outside? Were you hoping to prove the system wrong? I’ve got an open mind, if you want to talk about it.”

Another man leaned over, and asked, “Just between the two of us, is there really anything to this plot stuff? Are you really being framed?”

Anderton sighed. At that point he wasn’t certain, himself. Perhaps he was trapped in a closed, meaningless time-circle with no motive and no beginning. In fact, he was almost ready to concede that he was the victim of a weary, neurotic fantasy, spawned by growing insecurity. Without a fight, he was willing to give himself up. A vast weight of exhaustion lay upon him. He was struggling against the impossible—and all the cards were stacked against him.

The sharp squeal of tires roused him. Frantically, the driver struggled to control the car, tugging at the wheel and slamming on the brakes, as a massive bread truck loomed up from the fog and ran directly across the lane ahead. Had he gunned the motor instead he might have saved himself. But too late he realized his error. The car skidded, lurched, hesitated for a brief instant, and then smashed head on into the bread truck.

Under Anderton the seat lifted up and flung him face-forward against the door. Pain, sudden, intolerable, seemed to burst in his brain as he lay gasping and trying feebly to pull himself to his knees. Somewhere the crackle of fire echoed dismally, a patch of hissing brilliance winking in the swirls of mist making their way into the twisted hulk of the car.

Hands from outside the car reached for him. Slowly he became aware that he was being dragged through the rent that had been the door. A heavy seat cushion was shoved brusquely aside, and all at once he found himself on his feet, leaning heavily against a dark shape and being guided into the shadows of an alley a short distance from the car. In the distance, police sirens wailed.

“You’ll live,” a voice grated in his ear, low and urgent. It was a voice he had never heard before, as unfamiliar and harsh as the rain beating into his face. “Can you hear what I’m saying?”

“Yes,” Anderton acknowledged. He plucked aimlessly at the ripped sleeve of his shirt. A cut on his cheek was beginning to throb. Confused, he tried to orient himself. “You’re not—“

“Stop talking and listen.” The man was heavyset, almost fat. Now his big hands held Anderton propped against the wet brick wall of the building, out of the rain and the flickering light of the burning car. “We had to do it that way,” he said. “It was the only alternative. We didn’t have much time. We thought Kaplan would keep you at his place longer.” “Who are you?” Anderton managed.

The moist, rain-streaked face twisted into a humorless grin. “My name’s Fleming. You’ll see me again. We have about five seconds before the police get here. Then we’re back where we started.” A flat packet was stuffed into Anderton’s hands. “That’s enough loot to keep you going. And there’s a full set of identification in there. We’ll contact you from time to time.” His grin increased and became a nervous chuckle. “Until you’ve proved your point.”

Anderton blinked. “It is a frameup, then?”

“Of course.” Sharply, the man swore. “You mean they got you to believe it, too?”

“I thought—“ Anderton had trouble talking; one of his front teeth seemed to be loose. “Hostility toward Witwer … replaced, my wife and a younger man, natural resentment. ...”

“Don’t kid yourself,” the other said. “You know better than that. This whole business was worked out carefully. They had every phase of it under control. The card was set to pop the day Witwer appeared. They’ve already got the first part wrapped up. Witwer is Commissioner, and you’re a hunted criminal.”

“Who’s behind it?”

“Your wife.”

Anderton’s head spun. “You’re positive?”

The man laughed. “You bet your life.” He glanced quickly around. “Here come the police. Take off down this alley. Grab a bus, get yourself into the slum section, rent a room and buy a stack of magazines to keep you busy. Get other clothes—You’re smart enough to take care of yourself. Don’t try to leave Earth. They’ve got all the intersystem transports screened. If you can keep low for the next seven days, you’re made.”

“Who are you?” Anderton demanded.

Fleming let go of him. Cautiously, he moved to the entrance of the alley and peered out. The first police car had come to rest on the damp pavement; its motor spinning tinnily, it crept suspiciously toward the smouldering ruin that had been Kaplan’s car. Inside the wreck the squad of men were stirring feebly, beginning to creep painfully through the tangle of steel and plastic out into the cold rain.

“Consider us a protective society,” Fleming said softly, his plump, expressionless face shining with moisture. “A sort of police force that watches the police. To see,” he added, “that everything stays on an even keel.”

His thick hand shot out. Stumbling, Anderton was knocked away from him, half-falling into the shadows and damp debris that littered the alley.

“Get going,” Fleming told him sharply. “And don’t discard that packet.” As Anderton felt his way hesitantly toward the far exit of the alley, the man’s last words drifted to him. “Study it carefully and you may still survive.”

V

The identification cards described him as Ernest Temple, an unemployed electrician, drawing a weekly subsistence from the State of New York, with a wife and four children in Buffalo and less than a hundred dollars in assets. A sweat-stained green card gave him permission to travel and to maintain no fixed address. A man looking for work needed to travel. He might have to go a long way.

As he rode across town in the almost empty bus, Anderton studied the description of Ernest Temple. Obviously, the cards had been made out with him in mind, for all the measurements fitted. After a time he wondered about the fingerprints and the brain-wave pattern. They couldn’t possibly stand comparison. The walletful of cards would get him past only the most cursory examinations.

But it was something. And with the ID cards came ten thousand dollars in bills. He pocketed the money and cards, then turned to the neatly-typed message in which they had been enclosed.

At first he could make no sense of it. For a long time he studied it, perplexed.

The existence of a majority logically implies a corresponding minority.

The bus had entered the vast slum region, the tumbled miles of cheap hotels and broken-down tenements that had sprung up after the mass destruction of the war. It slowed to a stop, and Anderton got to his feet. A few passengers idly observed his cut cheek and damaged clothing. Ignoring them, he stepped down onto the rain-swept curb.

Beyond collecting the money due him, the hotel clerk was not interested. Anderton climbed the stairs to the second floor and entered the narrow, musty-smelling room that now belonged to him. Gratefully, he locked the door and pulled down the window shades. The room was small but clean. Bed, dresser, scenic calendar, chair, lamp, a radio with a slot for the insertion of quarters.

He dropped a quarter into it and threw himself heavily down on the bed. All main stations carried the police bulletin. It was novel, exciting, something unknown to the present generation. An escaped criminal! The public was avidly interested.

“…this man has used the advantage of his high position to carry out an initial escape,” the announcer was saying, with professional indignation. “Because of his high office he had access to the previewed data and the trust placed in him permitted him to evade the normal process of detection and re-location. During the period of his tenure he exercised his authority to send countless potentially guilty individuals to their proper confinement, thus sparing the lives of innocent victims. This man, John Allison Anderton, was instrumental in the original creation of the Precrime system, the prophylactic pre-detection of criminals through the ingenious use of mutant precogs, capable of previewing future events and transferring orally that data to analytical machinery. These three precogs, in their vital function....”

The voice faded out as he left the room and entered the tiny bathroom. There, he stripped off his coat, and shirt, and ran hot water in the wash bowl. He began bathing the cut on his cheek. At the drugstore on the corner he had bought iodine and Band-aids, a razor, comb, toothbrush, and other small things he would need. The next morning he intended to find a second-hand clothing store and buy more suitable clothing. After all, he was now an unemployed electrician, not an accident-damaged Commissioner of Police.

In the other room the radio blared on. Only subconsciously aware of it, he stood in front of the cracked mirror, examining a broken tooth.

“…the system of three precogs finds its genesis in the computers of the middle decades of this century. How are the results of an electronic computer checked? By feeding the data to a second computer of identical design. But two computers are not sufficient. If each computer arrived at a different answer it is impossible to tell a priori which is correct. The solution, based on a careful study of statistical method, is to utilize a third computer to check the results of the first two. In this manner, a so-called majority report is obtained. It can be assumed with fair probability that the agreement of two out of three computers indicates which of the alternative results is accurate. It would not be likely that two computers would arrive at identically incorrect solutions—“

Anderton dropped the towel he was clutching and raced into the other room. Trembling, he bent to catch the blaring words of the radio.

“…unanimity of all three precogs is a hoped-for but seldom-achieved phenomenon, acting-Commissioner Witwer explains. It is much more common to obtain a collaborative majority report of two precogs, plus a minority report of some slight variation, usually with reference to time and place, from the third mutant. This is explained by the theory of multiple-futures. If only one time-path existed, precognitive information would be of no importance, since no possibility would exist, in possessing this information, of altering the future. In the Precrime Agency’s work we must first of all assume—“

Frantically, Anderton paced around the tiny room. Majority report—only two of the precogs had concurred on the material underlying the card. That was the meaning of the message enclosed with the packet. The report of the third precog, the minority report, was somehow of importance.

Why?

His watch told him that it was after midnight. Page would be off duty. He wouldn’t be back in the monkey block until the next afternoon. It was a slim chance, but worth taking. Maybe Page would cover for him, and maybe not. He would have to risk it.

He had to see the minority report.

VI

Between noon and one o’clock the rubbish-littered streets swarmed with people. He chose that time, the busiest part of the day, to make his call. Selecting a phonebooth in a patron-teeming super drugstore, he dialed the familiar police number and stood holding the cold receiver to his ear. Deliberately, he had selected the aud, not the vid line: in spite of his second-hand clothing and seedy, unshaven appearance, he might be recognized.

The receptionist was new to him. Cautiously, he gave Page’s extension. If Witwer were removing the regular staff and putting in his satellites, he might find himself talking to a total stranger.

“Hello,” Page’s gruff voice came.

Relieved, Anderton glanced around. Nobody was paying any attention to him. The shoppers wandered among the merchandise, going about their daily routines. “Can you talk?” he asked. “Or are you tied up?”

There was a moment of silence. He could picture Page’s mild face torn with uncertainty as he wildly tried to decide what to do. At last came halting words. “Why—are you calling here?”

Ignoring the question, Anderton said, “I didn’t recognize the receptionist. New personnel?”

“Brand-new,” Page agreed, in a thin, strangled voice. “Big turnovers, these days.”

“So I hear.” Tensely, Anderton asked, “How’s your job? Still safe?”

“Wait a minute.” The receiver was put down and the muffled sound of steps came in Anderton’s ear. It was followed by the quick slam of a door being hastily shut. Page returned. “We can talk better now,” he said hoarsely.

“How much better?”

“Not a great deal. Where are you?”

“Strolling through Central Park,” Anderton said. “Enjoying the sunlight.” For all he knew, Page had gone to make sure the line-tap was in place. Right now, an airborne police team was probably on its way. But he had to take the chance. “I’m in a new field,” he said curtly. “I’m an electrician these days.”

“Oh?” Page said, baffled.

“I thought maybe you had some work for me. If it can be arranged, I’d like to drop by and examine your basic computing equipment. Especially the data and analytical banks in the monkey block.”

After a pause, Page said: “It—might be arranged. If it’s really important.”

“It is,” Anderton assured him. “When would be best for you?”

“Well,” Page said, struggling. “I’m having a repair team come in to look at the intercom equipment. The acting-Commissioner wants it improved, so he can operate quicker. You might trail along.”

“I’ll do that. About when?”

“Say four o’clock. Entrance B, level 6. I’ll meet you.”

“Fine,” Anderton agreed, already starting to hang up. “I hope you’re still in charge, when I get there.”

He hung up and rapidly left the booth. A moment later he was pushing through the dense pack of people crammed into the nearby cafeteria. Nobody would locate him there.

He had three and a half hours to wait. And it was going to seem a lot longer. It proved to be the longest wait of his life before he finally met Page as arranged.

The first thing Page said was: “You’re out of your mind. Why in hell did you come back?”

“I’m not back for long.” Tautly, Anderton prowled around the monkey block, systematically locking one door after another. “Don’t let anybody in. I can’t take chances.”

“You should have quit when you were ahead.” In an agony of apprehension, Page followed after him. “Witwer is making hay, hand over fist. He’s got the whole country screaming for your blood.”

Ignoring him, Anderton snapped open the main control bank of the analytical machinery. “Which of the three monkeys gave the minority report?”

“Don’t question me—I’m getting out.” On his way to the door Page halted briefly, pointed to the middle figure, and then disappeared. The door closed; Anderton was alone.

The middle one. He knew that one well. The dwarfed, hunched-over figure had sat buried in its wiring and relays for fifteen years. As Anderton approached, it didn’t look up. With eyes glazed and blank, it contemplated a world that did not yet exist, blind to the physical reality that lay around it.

“Jerry” was twenty-four years old. Originally, he had been classified as a hydrocephalic idiot but when he reached the age of six the psych testers had identified the precog talent, buried under the layers of tissue corrosion. Placed in a government-operated training school, the latent talent had been cultivated. By the time he was nine the talent had advanced to a useful stage. “Jerry,” however, remained in the aimless chaos of idiocy; the burgeoning faculty had absorbed the totality of his personality.

Squatting down, Anderton began disassembling the protective shields that guarded the tape-reels stored in the analytical machinery. Using schematics, he traced the leads back from the final stages of the integrated computers, to the point where “Jerry’s” individual equipment branched off. Within minutes he was shakily lifting out two half-hour tapes: recent rejected data not fused with majority reports. Consulting the code chart, he selected the section of tape which referred to his particular card.

A tape scanner was mounted nearby. Holding his breath, he inserted the tape, activated the transport, and listened. It took only a second. From the first statement of the report it was clear what had happened. He had what he wanted; he could stop looking.

“Jerry’s” vision was misphased. Because of the erratic nature of precog-nition, he was examining a time-area slightly different from that of his companions. For him, the report that Anderton would commit a murder was an event to be integrated along with everything else. That assertion—and Anderton’s reaction—was one more piece of datum.

Obviously, “Jerry’s” report superseded the majority report. Having been informed that he would commit a murder, Anderton would change his mind and not do so. The preview of the murder had cancelled out the murder; prophylaxis had occurred simply in his being informed. Already, a new time-path had been created. But “Jerry” was outvoted.

Trembling, Anderton rewound the tape and clicked on the recording head. At high speed he made a copy of the report, restored the original, and removed the duplicate from the transport. Here was the proof that the card was invalid: obsolete. All he had to do was show it to Witwer....

His own stupidity amazed him. Undoubtedly, Witwer had seen the report; and in spite of it, had assumed the job of Commissioner, had kept the police teams out. Witwer didn’t intend to back down; he wasn’t concerned with Anderton’s innocence.

What, then, could he do? Who else would be interested?

“You damn fool!” a voice behind him grated, wild with anxiety.

Quickly, he turned. His wife stood at one of the doors, in her police uniform, her eyes frantic with dismay. “Don’t worry,” he told her briefly, displaying the reel of tape. “I’m leaving.”

Her face distorted, Lisa rushed frantically up to him. “Page said you were here, but I couldn’t believe it. He shouldn’t have let you in. He just doesn’t understand what you are.”

“What am I?” Anderton inquired caustically. “Before you answer, maybe you better listen to this tape.”

“I don’t want to listen to it! I just want you to get out of here! Ed Witwer knows somebody’s down here. Page is trying to keep him occupied, but—“ She broke off, her head turned stiffly to one side. “He’s here now! He’s going to force his way in.”

“Haven’t you got any influence? Be gracious and charming. He’ll probably forget about me.”

Lisa looked at him in bitter reproach. “There’s a ship parked on the roof. If you want to get away....” Her voice choked and for an instant she was silent. Then she said, “I’ll be taking off in a minute or so. If you want to come—“

“I’ll come,” Anderton said. He had no other choice. He had secured his tape, his proof, but he hadn’t worked out any method of leaving. Gladly, he hurried after the slim figure of his wife as she strode from the block, through a side door and down a supply corridor, her heels clicking loudly in the deserted gloom.

“It’s a good fast ship,” she told him over her shoulder. “It’s emergency-fueled—ready to go. I was going to supervise some of the teams.”

VII

Behind the wheel of the high-velocity police cruiser, Anderton outlined what the minority report tape contained. Lisa listened without comment, her face pinched and strained, her hands clasped tensely in her lap. Below the ship, the war-ravaged rural countryside spread out like a relief map, the vacant regions between cities crater-pitted and dotted with the ruins of farms and small industrial plants.

“I wonder,” she said, when he had finished, “how many times this has happened before.”

“A minority report? A great many times.”

“I mean, one precog misphased. Using the report of the others as data—superseding them.” Her eyes dark and serious, she added, “Perhaps a lot of the people in the camps are like you.”

“No,” Anderton insisted. But he was beginning to feel uneasy about it, too. “I was in a position to see the card, to get a look at the report. That’s what did it.”

“But—” Lisa gestured significantly. “Perhaps all of them would have reacted that way. We could have told them the truth.”

“It would have been too great a risk,” he answered stubbornly.

Lisa laughed sharply. “Risk? Chance? Uncertainty? With precogs around?”

Anderton concentrated on steering the fast little ship. “This is a unique case,” he repeated. “And we have an immediate problem. We can tackle the theoretical aspects later on. I have to get this tape to the proper people—before your bright young friend demolishes it.”

“You’re taking it to Kaplan?”

“I certainly am.” He tapped the reel of tape which lay on the seat between them. “He’ll be interested. Proof that his life isn’t in danger ought to be of vital concern to him.”

From her purse, Lisa shakily got out her cigarette case. “And you think he’ll help you.”

“He may—or he may not. It’s a chance worth taking.”

“How did you manage to go underground so quickly?” Lisa asked. “A completely effective disguise is difficult to obtain.”

“All it takes is money,” he answered evasively.

As she smoked, Lisa pondered. “Probably Kaplan will protect you,” she said. “He’s quite powerful.”

“I thought he was only a retired general.”

“Technically—that’s what he is. But Witwer got out the dossier on him. Kaplan heads an unusual kind of exclusive veterans’ organization. It’s actually a kind of club, with a few restricted members. High officers only—an international class from both sides of the war. Here in New York they maintain a great mansion of a house, three glossy-paper publications, and occasional TV coverage that costs them a small fortune.”

“What are you trying to say?”

“Only this. You’ve convinced me that you’re innocent. I mean, it’s obvious that you won’t commit a murder. But you must realize now that the original report, the majority report, was not a fake. Nobody falsified it. Ed Witwer didn’t create it. There’s no plot against you, and there never was. If you’re going to accept this minority report as genuine you’ll have to accept the majority one, also.”

Reluctantly, he agreed. “I suppose so.”

“Ed Witwer,” Lisa continued, “is acting in complete good faith. He really believes you’re a potential criminal—and why not? He’s got the majority report sitting on his desk, but you have that card folded up in your pocket.”

“I destroyed it,” Anderton said, quietly.

Lisa leaned earnestly toward him. “Ed Witwer isn’t motivated by any desire to get your job,” she said. “He’s motivated by the same desire that has always dominated you. He believes in Precrime. He wants the system to continue. I’ve talked to him and I’m convinced he’s telling the truth.”

Anderton asked, “Do you want me to take this reel to Witwer? If I do—he’ll destroy it.”

“Nonsense,” Lisa retorted. “The originals have been in his hands from the start. He could have destroyed them any time he wished.”

“That’s true.” Anderton conceded. “Quite possibly he didn’t know.”

“Of course he didn’t. Look at it this way. If Kaplan gets hold of that tape, the police will be discredited. Can’t you see why? It would prove that the majority report was an error. Ed Witwer is absolutely right. You have to be taken in—if Precrime is to survive. You’re thinking of your own safety. But think, for a moment, about the system.” Leaning over, she stubbed out her cigarette and fumbled in her purse for another. “Which means more to you—your own personal safety or the existence of the system?”

“My safety,” Anderton answered, without hesitation.

“You’re positive?”

“If the system can survive only by imprisoning innocent people, then it deserves to be destroyed. My personal safety is important because I’m a human being. And furthermore—“

From her purse, Lisa got out an incredibly tiny pistol. “I believe,” she told him huskily, “that I have my finger on the firing release. I’ve never used a weapon like this before. But I’m willing to try.”

After a pause, Anderton asked: “You want me to turn the ship around? Is that it?”

“Yes, back to the police building. I’m sorry. If you could put the good of the system above your own selfish—“

“Keep your sermon,” Anderton told her. “I’ll take the ship back. But I’m not going to listen to your defense of a code of behavior no intelligent man could subscribe to.”

Lisa’s lips pressed into a thin, bloodless line. Holding the pistol tightly, she sat facing him, her eyes fixed intently on him as he swung the ship in a broad arc. A few loose articles rattled from the glove compartment as the little craft turned on a radical slant, one wing rising majestically until it pointed straight up.

Both Anderton and his wife were supported by the constraining metal arms of their seats. But not so the third member of the party.

Out of the corner of his eye, Anderton saw a flash of motion. A sound came simultaneously, the clawing struggle of a large man as he abruptly lost his footing and plunged into the reinforced wall of the ship. What followed happened quickly. Fleming scrambled instantly to his feet, lurching and wary, one arm lashing out for the woman’s pistol. Anderton was too startled to cry out. Lisa turned, saw the man—and screamed. Fleming knocked the gun from her hand, sending it clattering to the floor.

Grunting, Fleming shoved her aside and retrieved the gun. “Sorry,” he gasped, straightening up as best he could. “I thought she might talk more. That’s why I waited.”

“You were here when—“ Anderton began—and stopped. It was obvious that Fleming and his men had kept him under surveillance. The existence of Lisa’s ship had been duly noted and factored in, and while Lisa had debated whether it would be wise to fly him to safety, Fleming had crept into the storage compartment of the ship.

“Perhaps,” Fleming said, “you’d better give me that reel of tape.” His moist, clumsy fingers groped for it. “You’re right—Witwer would have melted it down to a puddle.”

“Kaplan, too?” Anderton asked numbly, still dazed by the appearance of the man.

“Kaplan is working directly with Witwer. That’s why his name showed on line five of the card. Which one of them is the actual boss, we can’t tell. Possibly neither.” Fleming tossed the tiny pistol away and got out his own heavy-duty military weapon. “You pulled a real flub in taking off with this woman. I told you she was back of the whole thing.”

“I can’t believe that,” Anderton protested. “If she—“

“You’ve got no sense. This ship was warmed up by Witwer’s order. They wanted to fly you out of the building so that we couldn’t get to you. With you on your own, separated from us, you didn’t stand a chance.”

A strange look passed over Lisa’s stricken features. “It’s not true,” she whispered. “Witwer never saw this ship. I was going to supervise—“

“You almost got away with it,” Fleming interrupted inexorably. “We’ll be lucky if a police patrol ship isn’t hanging on us. There wasn’t time to check.” He squatted down as he spoke, directly behind the woman’s chair. “The first thing is to get this woman out of the way. We’ll have to drag you completely out of this area. Page tipped off Witwer on your new disguise, and you can be sure it has been widely broadcast.”

Still crouching, Fleming seized hold of Lisa. Tossing his heavy gun to Anderton, he expertly tilted her chin up until her temple was shoved back against the seat. Lisa clawed frantically at him; a thin, terrified wail rose in her throat. Ignoring her, Fleming closed his great hands around her neck and began relentlessly to squeeze.

“No bullet wound,” he explained, gasping. “She’s going to fall out—natural accident. It happens all the time. But in this case, her neck will be broken first.”

It seemed strange that Anderton waited so long. As it was, Fleming’s thick ringers were cruelly embedded in the woman’s pale flesh before he lifted the butt of the heavyduty pistol and brought it down on the back of Fleming’s skull. The monstrous hands relaxed. Staggered, Fleming’s head fell forward and he sagged against the wall of the ship. Trying feebly to collect himself, he began dragging his body upward. Anderton hit him again, this time above the left eye. He fell back, and lay still.

Struggling to breathe, Lisa remained for a moment huddled over, her body swaying back and forth. Then, gradually, the color crept back into her face.

“Can you take the controls?” Anderton asked, shaking her, his voice urgent.

“Yes, I think so.” Almost mechanically she reached for the wheel. “I’ll be all right. Don’t worry about me.”

“This pistol,” Anderton said, “is Army ordnance issue. But it’s not from the war. It’s one of the useful new ones they’ve developed. I could be a long way off but there’s just a chance—“

He climbed back to where Fleming lay spread out on the deck. Trying not to touch the man’s head, he tore open his coat and rummaged in his pockets. A moment later Fleming’s sweat-sodden wallet rested in his hands.

Tod Fleming, according to his identification, was an Army Major attached to the Internal Intelligence Department of Military Information. Among the various papers was a document signed by General Leopold Kaplan, stating that Fleming was under the special protection of his own group—the International Veterans’ League.

Fleming and his men were operating under Kaplan’s orders. The bread truck, the accident, had been deliberately rigged.

It meant that Kaplan had deliberately kept him out of police hands. The plan went back to the original contact in his home, when Kaplan’s men had picked him up as he was packing. Incredulous, he realized what had really happened. Even then, they were making sure they got him before the police. From the start, it had been an elaborate strategy to make certain that Witwer would fail to arrest him.

“You were telling the truth,” Anderton said to his wife, as he climbed back in the seat. “Can we get hold of Witwer?”

Mutely, she nodded. Indicating the communications circuit of the dashboard, she asked: “What—did you find?”

“Get Witwer for me. I want to talk to him as soon as I can. It’s very urgent.”

Jerkily, she dialed, got the closed-channel mechanical circuit, and raised police headquarters in New York. A visual panorama of petty police officials flashed by before a tiny replica of Ed Witwer’s features appeared on the screen.

“Remember me?” Anderton asked him.

Witwer blanched. “Good God. What happened? Lisa, are you bringing him in?” Abruptly his eyes fastened on the gun in Anderton’s hands. “Look,” he said savagely, “don’t do anything to her. Whatever you may think, she’s not responsible.”

“I’ve already found that out,” Anderton answered. “Can you get a fix on us? We may need protection getting back.”

“Back!” Witwer gazed at him unbelievingly. “You’re coming in? You’re giving yourself up?”

“I am, yes.” Speaking rapidly, urgently, Anderton added, “There’s something you must do immediately. Close off the monkey block. Make certain nobody gets it—Page or anyone else. Especially Army people.”

“Kaplan,” the miniature image said.

“What about him?”

“He was here. He—he just left.”

Anderton’s heart stopped beating. “What was he doing?”

“Picking up data. Transcribing duplicates of our precog reports on you. He insisted he wanted them solely for his protection.”

“Then he’s already got it,” Anderton said. “It’s too late.”

Alarmed, Witwer almost shouted: “Just what do you mean? What’s happening?”

“I’ll tell you,” Anderton said heavily, “when I get back to my office.”

VIII

Witwer met him on the roof on the police building. As the small ship came to rest, a cloud of escort ships dipped their fins and sped off. Anderton immediately approached the blond-haired young man.

“You’ve got what you wanted,” he told him. “You can lock me up, and send me to the detention camp. But that won’t be enough.”

Witwer’s blue eyes were pale with uncertainty. “I’m afraid I don’t understand—“

“It’s not my fault. I should never have left the police building. Where’s Wally Page?”

“We’ve already clamped down on him,” Witwer replied. “He won’t give us any trouble.”

Anderton’s face was grim.

“You’re holding him for the wrong reason,” he said. “Letting me into the monkey block was no crime. But passing information to Army is. You’ve had an Army plant working here.” He corrected himself, a little lamely, “I mean, I have.”

“I’ve called back the order on you. Now the teams are looking for Kaplan.”

“Any luck?”

“He left here in an Army truck. We followed him, but the truck got into a militarized Barracks. Now they’ve got a big wartime R-3 tank blocking the street. It would be civil war to move it aside.”

Slowly, hesitantly, Lisa made her way from the ship. She was still pale and shaken and on her throat an ugly bruise was forming.

“What happened to you?” Witwer demanded. Then he caught sight of Fleming’s inert form lying spread out inside. Facing Anderton squarely, he said: “Then you’ve finally stopped pretending this is some conspiracy of mine.”

“I have.”

“You don’t think I’m—“ He made a disgusted face. “Plotting to get your job.”

“Sure you are. Everybody is guilty of that sort of thing. And I’m plotting to keep it. But this is something else—and you’re not responsible.”

“Why do you assert,” Witwer inquired, “that it’s too late to turn yourself in? My God, we’ll put you in the camp. The week will pass and Kaplan will still be alive.”

“He’ll be alive, yes,” Anderton conceded. “But he can prove he’d be just as alive if I were walking the streets. He has the information that proves the majority report obsolete. He can break the Precrime system.” He finished, “Heads or tails, he wins—and we lose. The Army discredits us; their strategy paid off.”

“But why are they risking so much? What exactly do they want?”

“After the Anglo-Chinese War, the Army lost out. It isn’t what it was in the good old AFWA days. They ran the complete show, both military and domestic. And they did their own police work.”

“Like Fleming,” Lisa said faintly.

“After the war, the Westbloc was demilitarized. Officers like Kaplan were retired and discarded. Nobody likes that.” Anderton grimaced. “I can sympathize with him. He’s not the only one. But we couldn’t keep on running things that way. We had to divide up the authority.”

“You say Kaplan has won,” Witwer said. “Isn’t there anything we can do?”

“I’m not going to kill him. We know it and he knows it. Probably he’ll come around and offer us some kind of deal. We’ll continue to function, but the Senate will abolish our real pull. You wouldn’t like that, would you?”

“I should say not,” Witwer answered emphatically. “One of these days I’m going to be running this agency.” He flushed. “Not immediately, of course.”

Anderton’s expression was somber. “It’s too bad you publicized the majority report. If you had kept it quiet, we could cautiously draw it back in. But everybody’s heard about it. We can’t retract it now.”

“I guess not,” Witwer admitted awkwardly. “Maybe I—don’t have this job down as neatly as I imagined.”

“You will, in time. You’ll be a good police officer. You believe in the status quo. But learn to take it easy.” Anderton moved away from them. “I’m going to study the data tapes of the majority report. I want to find out exactly how I was supposed to kill Kaplan.” Reflectively, he finished: “It might give me some ideas.”

The data tapes of the precogs “Donna” and “Mike” were separately stored. Choosing the machinery responsible for the analysis of “Donna,” he opened the protective shield and laid out the contents. As before, the code informed him which reels were relevant and in a moment he had the tape-transport mechanism in operation.

It was approximately what he had suspected. This was the material utilized by “Jerry”—the superseded time-path. In it Kaplan’s Military Intelligence agents kidnapped Anderton as he drove home from work. Taken to Kaplan’s villa, the organization GHQ of the International Veterans’ League. Anderton was given an ultimatum: voluntarily disband the Precrime system or face open hostilities with Army.

In this discarded time-path, Anderton, as Police Commissioner, had turned to the Senate for support. No support was forthcoming. To avoid civil war, the Senate had ratified the dismemberment of the police system, and decreed a return to military law “to cope with the emergency.” Taking a corps of fanatic police, Anderton had located Kaplan and shot him, along with other officials of the Veterans’ League. Only Kaplan had died. The others had been patched up. And the coup had been successful.

This was “Donna.” He rewound the tape and turned to the material previewed by “Mike.” It would be identical; both precogs had combined to present a unified picture. “Mike” began as “Donna” had begun: Anderton had become aware of Kaplan’s plot against the police. But something was wrong. Puzzled, he ran the tape back to the beginning. Incomprehensibly, it didn’t jibe. Again he relayed the tape, listening intently.

The “Mike” report was quite different from the “Donna” report. An hour later, he had finished his examination, put away the tapes, and left the monkey block. As soon as he emerged, Witwer asked. “What’s the matter? I can see something’s wrong.”

“No,” Anderton answered slowly, still deep in thought. “Not exactly wrong.” A sound came to his ears. He walked vaguely over to the window and

peered out.

The street was crammed with people. Moving down the center lane was a four-column line of uniformed troops. Rifles, helmets ... marching soldiers in their dingy wartime uniforms, carrying the cherished pennants of AFWA flapping in the cold afternoon wind.

“An Army rally,” Witwer explained bleakly. “I was wrong. They’re not going to make a deal with us. Why should they? Kaplan’s going to make it public.”

Anderton felt no surprise. “He’s going to read the minority report?”

“Apparently. They’re going to demand the Senate disband us, and take away our authority. They’re going to claim we’ve been arresting innocent men—nocturnal police raids, that sort of thing. Rule by terror.”

“You suppose the Senate will yield?”

Witwer hesitated. “I wouldn’t want to guess.”

“I’ll guess,” Anderton said. “They will. That business out there fits with what I learned downstairs. We’ve got ourselves boxed in and there’s only one direction we can go. Whether we like it or not, we’ll have to take it.” His eyes had a steely glint.

Apprehensively, Witwer asked: “What is it?”

“Once I say it, you’ll wonder why you didn’t invent it. Very obviously, I’m going to have to fulfill the publicized report. I’m going to have to kill Kaplan. That’s the only way we can keep them from discrediting us.”

“But,” Witwer said, astonished, “the majority report has been superseded.”

“I can do it,” Anderton informed him, “but it’s going to cost. You’re familiar with the statutes governing first-degree murder?”

“Life imprisonment.”

“At least. Probably, you could pull a few wires and get it commuted to exile. I could be sent to one of the colony planets, the good old frontier.”

“Would you—prefer that?”

“Hell, no,” Anderton said heartily. “But it would be the lesser of the two evils. And it’s got to be done.”

“I don’t see how you can kill Kaplan.”

Anderton got out the heavy-duty military weapon Fleming had tossed to him. “I’ll use this.”

“They won’t stop you?”

“Why should they? They’ve got that minority report that says I’ve changed my mind.”

“Then the minority report is incorrect?”

“No,” Anderton said, “it’s absolutely correct. But I’m going to murder Kaplan anyhow.”

IX

He had never killed a man. He had never even seen a man killed. And he had been Police Commissioner for thirty years. For this generation, deliberate murder had died out. It simply didn’t happen.

A police car carried him to within a block of the Army rally. There, in the shadows of the back seat, he painstakingly examined the pistol Fleming had provided him. It seemed to be intact. Actually, there was no doubt of the outcome. He was absolutely certain of what would happen within the next half hour. Putting the pistol back together, he opened the door of the parked car and stepped warily out.

Nobody paid the slightest attention to him. Surging masses of people pushed eagerly forward, trying to get within hearing distance of the rally. Army uniforms predominated and at the perimeter of the cleared area, a line of tanks and major weapons was displayed—formidable armament still in production.

Army had erected a metal speaker’s stand and ascending steps. Behind the stand hung the vast AFWA banner, emblem of the combined powers that had fought in the war. By a curious corrosion of time, the AFWA Veterans’ League included officers from the wartime enemy. But a general was a general and fine distinctions had faded over the years.

Occupying the first rows of seats sat the high brass of the AFWA command. Behind them came junior commissioned officers. Regimental banners swirled in a variety of colors and symbols. In fact, the occasion had taken on the aspect of a festive pageant. On the raised stand itself sat stern-faced dignitaries of the Veterans’ League, all of them tense with expectancy. At the extreme edges, almost unnoticed, waited a few police units, ostensibly to keep order. Actually, they were informants making observations. If order were kept, the Army would maintain it.

The late-afternoon wind carried the muffled booming of many people packed tightly together. As Anderton made his way through the dense mob he was engulfed by the solid presence of humanity. An eager sense of anticipation held everybody rigid. The crowd seemed to sense that something spectacular was on the way. With difficulty, Anderton forced his way past the rows of seats and over to the tight knot of Army officials at the edge of the platform. Kaplan was among them. But he was now General Kaplan. The vest, the gold pocket watch, the cane, the conservative business suit—all were gone. For this event, Kaplan had got his old uniform from its mothballs. Straight and impressive, he stood surrounded by what had been his general staff. He wore his service bars, his medals, his boots, his decorative short-sword, and his visored cap. It was amazing how transformed a bald man became under the stark potency of an officer’s peaked and visored cap.

Noticing Anderton, General Kaplan broke away from the group and strode to where the younger man was standing. The expression on his thin, mobile countenance showed how incredulously glad he was to see the Commissioner of Police.

“This is a surprise,” he informed Anderton, holding out his small gray-gloved hand. “It was my impression you had been taken in by the acting Commissioner.”

“I’m still out,” Anderton answered shortly, shaking hands. “After all, Witwer has that same reel of tape.” He indicated the package Kaplan clutched in his steely fingers and met the man’s gaze confidently.

In spite of his nervousness, General Kaplan was in good humor. “This is a great occasion for the Army,” he revealed. “You’ll be glad to hear I’m going to give the public a full account of the spurious charge brought against you.”

“Fine,” Anderton answered noncommittally.

“It will be made clear that you were unjustly accused.” General Kaplan was trying to discover what Anderton knew. “Did Fleming have an opportunity to acquaint you with the situation?”

“To some degree,” Anderton replied. “You’re going to read only the minority report? That’s all you’ve got there?”

“I’m going to compare it to the majority report.” General Kaplan signalled an aide and a leather briefcase was produced. “Everything is here—all the evidence we need,” he said. “You don’t mind being an example, do you? Your case symbolizes the unjust arrests of countless individuals.” Stiffly, General Kaplan examined his wristwatch. “I must begin. Will you join me on the platform?”

“Why?”

Coldly, but with a kind of repressed vehemence, General Kaplan said: “So they can see the living proof. You and I together—the killer and his victim. Standing side by side, exposing the whole sinister fraud which the police have been operating.”

“Gladly,” Anderton agreed. “What are we waiting for?”

Disconcerted, General Kaplan moved toward the platform. Again, he glanced uneasily at Anderton, as if visibly wondering why he had appeared and what he really knew. His uncertainty grew as Anderton willingly mounted the steps of the platform and found himself a seat directly beside the speaker’s podium.

“You fully comprehend what I’m going to be saying?” General Kaplan demanded. “The exposure will have considerable repercussions. It may cause the Senate to reconsider the basic validity of the Precrime system.”

“I understand,” Anderton answered, arms folded. “Let’s go.”

A hush had descended on the crowd. But there was a restless, eager stirring when General Kaplan obtained the briefcase and began arranging his material in front of him.

“The man sitting at my side,” he began, in a clean, clipped voice, “is familiar to you all. You may be surprised to see him, for until recently he was described by the police as a dangerous killer.”

The eyes of the crowd focused on Anderton. Avidly, they peered at the only potential killer they had ever been privileged to see at close range.

“Within the last few hours, however,” General Kaplan continued, “the police order for his arrest has been cancelled; because former Commissioner Anderton voluntarily gave himself up? No, that is not strictly accurate. He is sitting here. He has not given himself up, but the police are no longer interested in him. John Allison Anderton is innocent of any crime in the past, present, and future. The allegations against him were patent frauds, diabolical distortions of a contaminated penal system based on a false premise—a vast, impersonal engine of destruction grinding men and women to their doom.”

Fascinated, the crowd glanced from Kaplan to Anderton. Everyone was familiar with the basic situation.

“Many men have been seized and imprisoned under the so-called prophylactic Precrime structure,” General Kaplan continued, his voice gaining feeling and strength. “Accused not of crimes they have committed, but of crimes they will commit. It is asserted that these men, if allowed to remain free, will at some future time commit felonies.”

“But there can be no valid knowledge about the future. As soon as precog-nitive information is obtained, it cancels itself out. The assertion that this man will commit a future crime is paradoxical. The very act of possessing this data renders it spurious. In every case, without exception, the report of the three police precogs has invalidated their own data. If no arrests had been made, there would still have been no crimes committed.”

Anderton listened idly, only half-hearing the words. The crowd, however, listened with great interest. General Kaplan was now gathering up a summary made from the minority report. He explained what it was and how it had come into existence.

From his coat pocket, Anderton slipped out his gun and held it in his lap. Already, Kaplan was laying aside the minority report, the precognitive material obtained from “Jerry.” His lean, bony fingers groped for the summary of first, “Donna,” and after that, “Mike.”

“This was the original majority report,” he explained. “The assertion, made by the first two precogs, that Anderton would commit a murder. Now here is the automatically invalidated material. I shall read it to you.” He whipped out his rimless glasses, fitted them to his nose, and started slowly to read.

A queer expression appeared on his face. He halted, stammered, and abruptly broke off. The papers fluttered from his hands. Like a cornered animal, he spun, crouched, and dashed from the speaker’s stand.

For an instant his distorted face flashed past Anderton. On his feet now, Anderton raised the gun, stepped quickly forward, and fired. Tangled up in the rows of feet projecting from the chairs that filled the platform, Kaplan gave a single shrill shriek of agony and fright. Like a ruined bird, he tumbled, fluttering and flailing, from the platform to the ground below. Anderton stepped to the railing, but it was already over.

Kaplan, as the majority report had asserted, was dead. His thin chest was a smoking cavity of darkness, crumbling ash that broke loose as the body lay twitching. Sickened, Anderton turned away, and moved quickly between the rising figures of stunned Army officers. The gun, which he still held, guaranteed that he would not be interfered with. He leaped from the platform and edged into the chaotic mass of people at its base. Stricken, horrified, they struggled to see what had happened. The incident, occurring before their very eyes, was incomprehensible. It would take time for acceptance to replace blind terror.

At the periphery of the crowd, Anderton was seized by the waiting police. “You’re lucky to get out,” one of them whispered to him as the car crept cautiously ahead.

“I guess I am,” Anderton replied remotely. He settled back and tried to compose himself. He was trembling and dizzy. Abruptly, he leaned forward and was violently sick.

“The poor devil,” one the cops murmured sympathetically.

Through the swirls of misery and nausea, Anderton was unable to tell whether the cop was referring to Kaplan or to himself.

Four burly policemen assisted Lisa and John Anderton in the packing and loading of their possessions. In fifty years, the ex-Commissioner of Police had accumulated a vast collection of material goods. Somber and pensive, he stood watching the procession of crates on their way to the waiting trucks.

By truck they would go directly to the field—and from there to Centaurus X by inter-system transport. A long trip for an old man. But he wouldn’t have to make it back.

“There goes the second from the last crate,” Lisa declared, absorbed and preoccupied by the task. In sweater and slacks, she roamed through the barren rooms, checking on last-minute details. “I suppose we won’t be able to use these new atronic appliances. They’re still using electricity on Centten.”

“I hope you don’t care too much,” Anderton said.

“We’ll get used to it,” Lisa replied, and gave him a fleeting smile. “Won’t we?”

“I hope so. You’re positive you’ll have no regrets. If I thought—“ “No regrets,” Lisa assured him. “Now suppose you help me with this crate.”

As they boarded the lead truck, Witwer drove up in a patrol car. He leaped out and hurried up to them, his face looking strangely haggard. “Before you take off,” he said to Anderton, “you’ll have to give me a break-down on the situation with the precogs. I’m getting inquiries from the Senate. They want to find out if the middle report, the retraction, was an error—or what.” Confusedly, he finished: “I still can’t explain it. The minority report was wrong, wasn’t it?”

“Which minority report?” Anderton inquired, amused.

Witwer blinked. “Then that is it. I might have known.” Seated in the cabin of the truck, Anderton got out his pipe and shook tobacco into it. With Lisa’s lighter he ignited the tobacco and began operations. Lisa had gone back to the house, wanting to be sure nothing vital had been overlooked.

“There were three minority reports,” he told Witwer, enjoying the young man’s confusion. Someday, Witwer would learn not to wade into situations he didn’t fully understand. Satisfaction was Anderton’s final emotion. Old and worn-out as he was, he had been the only one to grasp the real nature of the problem.

“The three reports were consecutive,” he explained. “The first was ‘Donna.’ In that time-path, Kaplan told me of the plot, and I promptly murdered him. ‘Jerry,’ phased slightly ahead of ‘Donna,’ used her report as data. He factored in my knowledge of the report. In that, the second time-path, all I wanted to do was to keep my job. It wasn’t Kaplan I wanted to kill. It was my own position and life I was interested in.”

“And ‘Mike’ was the third report? That came after the minority report?” Witwer corrected himself. “I mean, it came last?”

“ ‘Mike’ was the last of the three, yes. Faced with the knowledge of the first report, I had decided not to kill Kaplan. That produced report two. But faced with that report, I changed my mind back. Report two, situation two, was the situation Kaplan wanted to create. It was to the advantage of the police to recreate position one. And by that time I was thinking of the police. I had figured out what Kaplan was doing. The third report invalidated the second one in the same way the second one invalidated the first. That brought us back where we started from.”

Lisa came over, breathless and gasping. “Let’s go—we’re all finished here.” Lithe and agile, she ascended the metal rungs of the truck and squeezed in beside her husband and the driver. The latter obediently started up his truck and the others followed.

“Each report was different,” Anderton concluded. “Each was unique. But two of them agreed on one point. If left free, I mould kill Kaplan. That created the illusion of a majority report. Actually, that’s all it was—an illusion. ‘Donna’ and ‘Mike’ previewed the same event—but in two totally different time-paths, occurring under totally different situations. ‘Donna’ and ‘Jerry,’ the so-called minority report and half of the majority report, were incorrect. Of the three, ‘Mike’ was correct—since no report came after his, to invalidate him. That sums it up.”

Anxiously, Witwer trotted along beside the truck, his smooth, blond face creased with worry. “Will it happen again? Should we overhaul the set-up?”

“It can happen in only one circumstance,” Anderton said. “My case was unique, since I had access to the data. It could happen again—but only to the next Police Commissioner. So watch your step.” Briefly, he grinned, deriving no inconsiderable comfort from Witwer’s strained expression. Beside him, Lisa’s red lips twitched and her hand reached out and closed over his. “Better keep your eyes open,” he informed young Witwer. “It might happen to you at any time.”

Recall Mechanism

The analyst said: “I’m Humphrys, the man you came to see.” There were fear and hostility on the patient’s face, so Humphrys said: “I could tell a joke about analysts. Would that make you feel better? Or I could remind you that the National Health Trust is paying my fee; it’s not going to cost you a cent. Or I could cite the case of Psychoanalyst Y, who committed suicide last year because of overburdening anxiety resulting from a fraudulently filled out income tax.”

Grudgingly, the patient smiled. “I heard about that. So psychologists are fallible.” He got to his feet and held out his hand. “My name is Paul Sharp. My secretary made the arrangements with you. I have a little problem, nothing important, but I’d like to clear it up.”

The expression on his face showed that it was no small problem, and that, if he didn’t clear it up, it would probably destroy him.

“Come inside,” Humphrys said genially, opening the door to his office, “so we can both sit down.”

Sinking down in a soft easy chair, Sharp stretched his legs out in front of him. “No couch,” he observed.

“The couch vanished back around 1980,” Humphrys said. “Post-war analysts feel enough confidence to face their patients on an equal level.” He offered a pack of cigarettes to Sharp and then lit up himself. “Your secretary gave me no details; she just said you wanted a conference.”

Sharp said: “I can talk frankly?”

“I’m bonded,” Humphrys said, with pride. “If any of the material you tell me gets into the hands of security organizations, I forfeit approximately ten thousand dollars in Westbloc silver—hard cash, not paper stuff.”

“That’s good enough for me,” Sharp said, and began. “I’m an economist, working for the Department of Agriculture—the Division of War Destruction Salvage. I poke around H-bomb craters seeing what’s worth rebuilding.” He corrected himself. “Actually, I analyze reports on H-bomb craters and make recommendations. It was my recommendation to reclaim the farm lands around Sacramento and the industrial ring here at Los Angeles.”

In spite of himself, Humphrys was impressed. Here was a man in the policy-planning level of the Government. It gave him an odd feeling to realize that Sharp, like any other anxiety-ridden citizen, had come to the Psych Front for therapy.

“My sister-in-law got a nice advantage from the Sacramento reclamation,” Humphrys commented. “She had a small walnut orchard up there. The Government hauled off the ash, rebuilt the house and outbuildings, even staked her to a few dozen new trees. Except for her leg injury, she’s as well off as before the war.”

“We’re pleased with our Sacramento project,” Sharp said. He had begun to perspire; his smooth, pale forehead was streaked, and his hands, as he held his cigarette, shook. “Of course, I have a personal interest in Northern California. I was born there myself, up around Petaluma, where they used to turn out hens’ eggs by the million …” His voice trailed off huskily. “Humphrys,” he muttered, “what am I going to do?”

“First,” Humphrys said, “give me more information.”

“I—” Sharp grinned inanely. “I have some kind of hallucination. I’ve had it for years, but it’s getting worse. I’ve tried to shake it, but—” he gestured—“it comes back, stronger, bigger, more often.”

Beside Humphrys’ desk the vid and aud recorders were scanning covertly. “Tell me what the hallucination is,” he instructed. “Then maybe I can tell you why you have it.”

He was tired. In the privacy of his living room, he sat dully examining a series of reports on carrot mutation. A variety, externally indistinguishable from the norm, was sending people in Oregon and Mississippi to the hospital with convulsions, fever and partial blindness. Why Oregon and Mississippi? Here with the report were photographs of the feral mutation; it did look like an ordinary carrot. And with the report came an exhaustive analysis of the toxic agent and recommendation for a neutralizing antidote.

Sharp wearily tossed the report aside and selected the next in order.

According to the second report, the notorious Detroit rat had shown up in St. Louis and Chicago, infesting the industrial and agricultural settlements replacing the destroyed cities. The Detroit rat—he had seen one once. That was three years ago; coming home one night, he had unlocked the door and seen, in the darkness, something scuttle away to safety. Arming himself with a hammer, he had pushed furniture around until he found it. The rat, huge and gray, had been in the process of building itself a wall-to-wall web. As it leaped up, he killed it with the hammer. A rat that spun webs …

He called an official exterminator and reported its presence.

A Special Talents Agency had been set up by the Government to utilize parabilities of wartime mutants evolved from the various radiation-saturated areas. But, he reflected, the Agency was equipped to handle only human mutants and their telepathic, precog, parakinetic and related abilities. There should have been a Special Talents Agency for vegetables and rodents, too.

From behind his chair came a stealthy sound. Turning quickly, Sharp found himself facing a tall, thin man wearing a drab raincoat and smoking a cigar.

“Did I scare you?” Giller asked, and snickered. “Take it easy, Paul. You look as if you’re going to pass out.”

“I was working,” Sharp said defensively, partially recovering his equilibrium.

“So I see,” said Giller.

“And thinking about rats.” Sharp pushed his work to one side. “How’d you get in?”

“Your door was unlocked.” Giller removed his raincoat and tossed it on the couch. “That’s right—you killed a Detroit. Right here in this room.” He gazed around the neat, unostentatious living room. “Are those things fatal?”

“Depends where they get you.” Going into the kitchen, Sharp found two beers in the refrigerator. As he poured, he said: “They shouldn’t waste grain making this stuff… but as long as they do, it’s a shame not to drink it.”

Giller accepted his beer greedily. “Must be nice to be a big wheel and have luxuries like this.” His small, dark eyes roved speculatively around the kitchen. “Your own stove, and your own refrigerator.” Smacking his lips, he added: “And beer. I haven’t had a beer since last August.”

“You’ll live,” Sharp said, without compassion. “Is this a business call? If so, get to the point; I’ve got plenty of work to do.”

Giller said: “I just wanted to say hello to a fellow Petaluman.”

Wincing, Sharp answered: “It sounds like some sort of synthetic fuel.”

Giller wasn’t amused. “Are you ashamed to have come from the very section that was once—”

“I know. The egg-laying capital of the universe. Sometimes I wonder—how many chicken feathers do you suppose were drifting around, the day the first H-bomb hit our town?”

“Billions,” Giller said morosely. “And some of them were mine. My chickens, I mean. Your family had a farm, didn’t they?”

“No,” Sharp said, refusing to be identified with Giller. “My family operated a drug store facing on Highway 101. A block from the park, near the sporting goods shop.” And, he added under his breath: You can go to hell. Because I’m not going to change my mind. You can camp on my doorstep the rest of your life and it still won’t do any good. Petaluma isn’t that important. And anyhow, the chickens are dead.

“How’s the Sac rebuild coming?” Giller inquired.

“Fine.”

“Plenty of those walnuts again?”

“Walnuts coming out of people’s ears.”

“Mice getting in the shell heaps?”

“Thousands of them,” Sharp sipped his beer; it was good quality, probably as good as pre-war. He wouldn’t know, because in 1961, the year the war broke out, he had been only six years old. But the beer tasted the way he remembered the old days: opulent and carefree and satisfying.

“We figure,” Giller said hoarsely, an avid gleam in his face, “that the Petaluma-Sonoma area can be built up again for about seven billion Westbloc. That’s nothing compared to what you’ve been doling out.”

“And the Petaluma-Sonoma area is nothing compared with the areas we’ve been rebuilding,” Sharp said. “You think we need eggs and wine? What we need is machinery. It’s Chicago and Pittsburgh and Los Angeles and St. Louis and—”

“You’ve forgotten,” Giller droned on, “that you’re a Petaluman. You’re turning your back on your origin—and on your duty.”

“Duty! You suppose the Government hired me to be a lobbyist for one trivial farm area?” Sharp flushed with outrage. “As far as I’m concerned—”

“We’re your people,” Giller said inflexibly. “And your people come first.”

When he had got rid of the man, Sharp stood for a time in the night darkness, gazing down the road after Giller’s receding car. Well, he said to himself, there goes the way of the world—me first and to hell with everybody else.

Sighing, he turned and made his way up the path toward the front porch of his house. Lights gleamed friendlily in the window. Shivering, he put his hand out and groped for the railing.

And then, as he clumsily mounted the stairs, the terrible thing happened.

With a rush, the lights of the window winked out. The porch railing dissolved under his fingers. In his ears a shrill screaming whine rose up and deafened him. He was falling. Struggling frantically, he tried to get hold of something, but there was only empty darkness around him, no substance, no reality, only the depth beneath him and the din of his own terrified shrieks.

“Help!” he shouted, and the sound beat futilely back at him. “I’m falling!”

And then, gasping, he was outstretched on the damp lawn, clutching handfuls of grass and dirt. Two feet from the porch—he had missed the first step in the darkness and had slipped and fallen. An ordinary event: the window lights had been blocked by the concrete railing. The whole thing had happened in a split second and he had fallen only the length of his own body. There was blood on his forehead; he had cut himself as he struck.

Silly. A childish, infuriating event.

Shakily, he climbed to his feet and mounted the steps. Inside the house, he stood leaning against the wall, shuddering and panting. Gradually the fear faded out and rationality returned.

Why was he so afraid of falling?

Something had to be done. This was worse than ever before, even worse than the time he had stumbled coming out of the elevator at the office—and had instantly been reduced to screaming terror in front of a lobbyful of people.

What would happen to him if he really fell? If, for example, he were to step off one of the overhead ramps connecting the major Los Angeles office buildings? The fall would be stopped by safety screens; no physical harm was ever done, though people fell all the time. But for him—the psychological shock might be fatal. Would befatal; to his mind, at least.

He made a mental note: no more going out on the ramps. Under no circumstances. He had been avoiding them for years, but from now on, ramps were in the same class as air travel. Since 1982 he hadn’t left the surface of the planet. And, in the last few years, he seldom visited offices more than ten flights up.

But if he stopped using the ramps, how was he going to get into his own research files? The file room was accessibly only by ramp: the narrow metallic path leading up from the office area.

Perspiring, terrified, he sank down on the couch and sat huddled over, wondering how he was going to keep his job, do his work.

And how he was going to stay alive.

Humphrys waited, but his patient seemed to have finished.

“Does it make you feel any better,” Humphrys asked, “to know that fear of falling is a common phobia?”

“No,” Sharp answered.

“I guess there’s no reason why it should. You say it’s shown up before? When was the first time?”

“When I was eight. The war had been going on two years. I was on the surface, examining my vegetable garden.” Sharp smiled weakly. “Even when I was a kid, I grew things. The San Francisco network picked up exhaust trails of a Soviet missile and all the warning towers went off like Roman candles. I was almost on top of the shelter. I raced to it, lifted the lid and started down the stairs. At the bottom were my mother and father. They yelled for me to hurry. I started to run down the stairs.”

“And fell?” Humphrys asked expectantly.

“I didn’t fall; I suddenly got afraid. I couldn’t go any farther; I just stood there. And they were yelling up at me. They wanted to get the bottom plate screwed in place. And they couldn’t until I was down.”

With a touch of aversion, Humphrys acknowledged: “I remember those old two-stage shelters. I wonder how many people got shut between the lid and the bottom plate.” He eyed his patient. “As a child, had you heard of that happening? People being trapped on the stairs, not able to get back up, not able to get down …”

“I wasn’t scared of being trapped! I was scared of falling—afraid I’d pitch head-forward off the steps.” Sharp licked his dry lips. “Well, so I turned around—” His body shuddered. “I went back up and outside.”

“During the attack?”

“They shot down the missile. But I spent the alert tending my vegetables. Afterward, my family beat me nearly unconscious.”

Humphrys’ mind formed the words: origin of guilt.

“The next time,” Sharp continued, “was when I was fourteen. The war had been over a few months. We started back to see what was left of our town. Nothing was left, only a crater of radioactive slag several hundred feet deep. Work teams were creeping down into the crater. I stood on the edge watching them. The fear came.” He put out his cigarette and sat waiting until the analyst found him another. “I left the area after that. Every night I dreamed about that crater, that big dead mouth. I hitched a ride on a military truck and rode to San Francisco.”

“When was the next time?” asked Humphrys.

Irritably, Sharp said: “Then it happened all the time, every time I was up high, every time I had to walk up or down a flight of steps—any situation where I was high and might fall. But to be afraid to walk up the steps of my own house—” He broke off temporarily. “I can’t walk up three steps,” he said wretchedly. “Three concrete steps.”

“Any particular bad episodes, outside of those you’ve mentioned?”

“I was in love with a pretty brown-haired girl who lived on the top floor of the Atcheson Apartments. Probably she still lives there; I wouldn’t know. I got five or six floors up and then—I told her good night and came back down.” Ironically, he said: “She must have thought I was crazy.”

“Others?” Humphrys asked, mentally noting the appearance of the sexual element.

“One time I couldn’t accept a job because it involved travel by air. It had to do with inspecting agricultural projects.”

Humphrys said: “In the old days, analysts looked for the origin of a phobia. Now we ask: what does it do? Usually it gets the individual out of situations he unconsciously dislikes.”

A slow, disgusted flush appeared on Sharp’s face. “Can’t you do better than that?”

Disconcerted, Humphrys murmured: “I don’t say I agree with the theory or that it’s necessarily true in your case. I’ll say this much though: it’s not falling you’re afraid of. It’s something that falling reminds you of. With luck we ought to be able to dig up the prototype experience—what they used to call the original traumatic incident.” Getting to his feet, he began to drag over a stemmed tower of electronic mirrors. “My lamp,” he explained. “It’ll melt the barriers.”

Sharp regarded the lamp with apprehension. “Look,” he muttered nervously, “I don’t want my mind reconstructed. I may be a neurotic, but I take pride in my personality.”

“This won’t affect your personality.” Bending down, Humphrys plugged in the lamp. “It will bring up material not accessible to your rational center. I’m going to trace your life—track back to the incident at which you were done great harm—and find out what you’re really afraid of.”

Black shapes drifted around him. Sharp screamed and struggled wildly, trying to pry loose the fingers closing over his arms and legs. Something smashed against his face. Coughing, he slumped forward, dribbling blood and saliva and bits of broken teeth. For an instant, blinding light flashed; he was being scrutinized.

“Is he dead?” a voice demanded.

“Not yet.” A foot poked experimentally into Sharp’s side. Dimly, in his half-consciousness, he could hear ribs cracking. “Almost, though.”

“Can you hear me, Sharp?” a voice rasped, close to his ear.

He didn’t respond. He lay trying not to die, trying not to associate himself with the cracked and broken thing that had been his body.

“You probably imagine,” the voice said, familiar, intimate, “that I’m going to say you’ve got one last chance. But you don’t, Sharp. Your chance is gone. I’m telling you what we’re going to do with you.”

Gasping, he tried not to hear. And, futilely, he tried not to feel what they were systematically doing to him.

“All right,” the familiar voice said finally, when it had been done. “Now throw him out.”

What remained of Paul Sharp was lugged to a circular hatch. The nebulous outline of darkness rose up around him and then—hideously—he was pitched into it. Down he fell, but this time he didn’t scream.

No physical apparatus remained with which to scream.

Snapping the lamp off, Humphrys bent over and methodically roused the slumped figure.

“Sharp!” he ordered loudly. “Wake up! Come out of it!”

The man groaned, blinked his eyes, stirred. Over his face settled a glaze of pure, unmitigated torment.

“God,” he whispered, eyes blank, body limp with suffering. “They—”

“You’re back here,” Humphrys said, shaken by what had been dredged up. “There’s nothing to worry about; you’re absolutely safe. It’s over with—happened years ago.”

“Over,” Sharp murmured pathetically.

“You’re back in the present. Understand?”

“Yes,” Sharp muttered. “But—what was it? They pushed me out—through and into something. And I went on down.” He trembled violently. “I fell.”

“You fell through a hatch,” Humphrys told him calmly. “You were beaten up and badly injured—fatally, they assumed. But you did survive. You are alive. You got out of it.”

“Why did they do it?” Sharp asked brokenly. His face, sagging and gray, twitched with despair. “Help me, Humphrys …”

“Consciously, you don’t remember when it happened?”

“No.”

“Do you remember where?”

“No.” Sharp’s face jerked spasmodically. “They tried to kill me—they did kill me!” Struggling upright, he protested: “Nothing like that happened to me. I’d remember if it had. It’s a false memory—my mind’s been tampered with!”

“It’s been repressed,” Humphrys said firmly, “deeply buried because of the pain and shock. A form of amnesia—it’s been filtering indirectly up in the form of your phobia. But now that you recall it consciously—”

“Do I have to go back?” Sharp’s voice rose hysterically. “Do I have to get under that damn lamp again?”

“It’s got to come out on a conscious level,” Humphrys told him, “but not all at once. You’ve had your limit for today.”

Sagging with relief, Sharp settled back in the chair. “Thanks,” he said weakly. Touching his face, his body, he whispered: “I’ve been carrying that in my mind all these years. Corroding, eating away—”

“There should be some diminution of the phobia,” the analyst told him, “as you grapple with the incident itself. We’ve made progress; we now have some idea of the real fear. It involves bodily injury at the hands of professional criminals. Ex-soldiers in the early post-war years… gangs of bandits, I remember.”

A measure of confidence returned to Sharp. “It isn’t hard to understand a falling fear, under the circumstances. Considering what happened to me … Shakily, he started to his feet. And screamed shrilly.

“What is it?” Humphrys demanded, hastily coming over and grabbing hold of his arm. Sharp leaped violently away, staggered, and collapsed inertly in the chair. “What happened?”

Face working, Sharp managed: “I can’t get up.”

“What?”

“I can’t stand up.” Imploringly, he gazed up at the analyst, stricken and terrified. “I’m—afraid I’ll fall. Doctor, now I can’t even get to my feet.”

For an interval neither man spoke. Finally, his eyes on the floor, Sharp whispered: “The reason I came to you, Humphrys, is because your office is on the ground floor. That’s a laugh, isn’t it? I couldn’t go any higher.”

“We’re going to have to turn the lamp back on you,” Humphrys said.

“I realize it. I’m scared.” Gripping the arms of the chair, he continued: “Go ahead. What else can we do? I can’t leave here. Humphrys, this thing is going to kill me.”

“No, it isn’t.” Humphrys got the lamp into position. “We’ll get you out of this. Try to relax; try to think of nothing in particular.” Clicking the mechanism on, he said softly: “This time I don’t want the traumatic incident itself. I want the envelope of experience that surrounds it. I want the broader segment of which it’s a part.”

Paul Sharp walked quietly through the snow. His breath, in front of him, billowed outward and formed a sparkling cloud of white. To his left lay the jagged ruins of what had been buildings. The ruins, covered with snow, seemed almost lovely. For a moment he paused, entranced.

“Interesting,” a member of his research team observed, coming up. “Could be anything—absolutely anything—under there.”

“It’s beautiful, in a way,” Sharp commented.

“See that spire?” The young man pointed with one heavily gloved finger; he still wore his lead-shielded suit. He and his group had been poking around the still-contaminated crater. Their boring bars were lined up in an orderly row. “That was a church,” he informed Sharp. “A nice one, by the looks of it. And over there—” he indicated an indiscriminate jumble of ruin—“that was the main civic center.”

“The city wasn’t directly hit, was it?” Sharp asked.

“It was bracketed. Come on down and see what we’ve run into. The crater to our right—“

“No, thanks,” Sharp said, pulling back with intense aversion. “I’ll let you do the crawling around.”

The youthful expert glanced curiously at Sharp, then forgot the matter. “Unless we run into something unexpected, we should be able to start reclamation within a week. The first step, of course, is to clear off the slag-layer. It’s fairly well cracked—a lot of plant growth has perforated it, and natural decay has reduced a great deal of it to semi-organic ash.”

“Fine,” Sharp said, with satisfaction. “I’ll be glad to see something here again, after all these years.”

The expert asked: “What was it like before the war? I never saw that; I was born after the destruction began.”

“Well,” Sharp said, surveying the fields of snow, “this was a thriving agricultural center. They grew grapefruit here. Arizona grapefruit. The Roosevelt Dam was along this way.”

“Yes,” the expert said, nodding. “We located the remnants of it.”

“Cotton was grown here. So was lettuce, alfalfa, grapes, olives, apricots—the thing I remember most, the time I came through Phoenix with my family, was the eucalyptus trees.”

“We won’t have all that back,” the expert said regretfully. “What the heck—eucalyptus? I never heard of that.”

“There aren’t any left in the United States,” Sharp said. “You’d have to go to Australia.”

Listening, Humphrys jotted down a notation. “Okay,” he said aloud, switching off the lamp. “Come back, Sharp.”

With a grunt, Paul Sharp blinked and opened his eyes. “What—” Struggling up, he yawned, stretched, peered blankly around the office. “Something about reclamation. I was supervising a team of recon men. A young kid.”

“When did you reclaim Phoenix?” Humphrys asked. “That seems to be included in the vital time-space segment.”

Sharp frowned. “We never reclaimed Phoenix. That’s still projected. We hope to get at it sometime in the next year.”

“Are you positive?”

“Naturally. That’s my job.”

“I’m going to have to send you back,” Humphrys said, already reaching for the lamp.

“What happened?”

The lamp came on. “Relax,” Humphrys instructed briskly, a trifle too briskly for a man supposed to know exactly what he was doing. Forcing himself to slow down, he said carefully: “I want your perspective to broaden. Take in an earlier incident, one preceding the Phoenix reclamation.”

In an inexpensive cafeteria in the business district, two men sat facing each other across a table.

“I’m sorry,” Paul Sharp said, with impatience. “I’ve got to get back to my work.” Picking up his cup of ersatz coffee, he gulped the contents down.

The tall, thin man carefully pushed away his empty dishes and, leaning back, lit a cigar.

“For two years,” Giller said bluntly, “you’ve been giving us the runaround. Frankly, I’m a little tired of it.”

“Runaround?” Sharp had started to rise. “I don’t get your drift.”

“You’re going to reclaim an agricultural area—you’re going to tackle Phoenix. So don’t tell me you’re sticking to industrial. How long do you imagine those people are going to keep on living? Unless you reclaim their farms and lands—”

“What people?”

Harshly, Giller said: “The people living at Petaluma. Camped around the craters.”

With vague dismay, Sharp murmured: “I didn’t realize there was anybody living there. I thought you all headed for the nearest reclaimed regions, San Francisco and Sacramento.”

“You never read the petitions we presented,” Giller said softly.

Sharp colored. “No, as a matter of fact. Why should I? If there’re people camping in the slag, it doesn’t alter the basic situation; you should leave, get out of there. That area is through.” He added: “I got out.”

Very quietly, Giller said: “You would have stuck around if you’d farmed there. If your family had farmed there for over a century. It’s different from running a drug store. Drug stores are the same everywhere in the world.”

“So are farms.”

“No,” Giller said dispassionately. “Your land, your family’s land, has a unique feeling. We’ll keep on camping there until we’re dead or until you decide to reclaim.” Mechanically collecting the checks, he finished: “I’m sorry for you, Paul. You never had roots like we have. And I’m sorry you can’t be made to understand.” As he reached into his coat for his wallet, he asked: “When can you fly out there?”

“Fly!” Sharp echoed, shuddering. “I’m not flying anywhere.”

“You’ve got to see the town again. You can’t decide without having seen those people, seen how they’re living.”

“No,” Sharp said emphatically. “I’m not flying out there. I can decide on the basis of reports.”

Giller considered. “You’ll come,” he declared.

“Over my dead body!”

Giller nodded. “Maybe so. But you’re going to come. You can’t let us die without looking at us. You’ve got to have the courage to see what it is you’re doing.” He got out a pocket calendar and scratched a mark by one of the dates. Tossing it across the table to Sharp, he informed him: “We’ll come by your office and pick you up. We have the plane we flew down here. It’s mine. It’s a sweet ship.”

Trembling, Sharp examined the calendar. And, standing over his mumbling, supine patient, so did Humphrys.

He had been right. Sharp’s traumatic incident, the repressed material, didn’t lie in the past.

Sharp was suffering from a phobia based on an event six months in the future.

“Can you get up?” Humphrys inquired.

In the chair, Paul Sharp stirred feebly. “I—” he began, and then sank into silence.

“No more for a while,” Humphrys told him reassuringly. “You’ve had enough. But I wanted to get you away from the trauma itself.”

“I feel better now.”

“Try to stand.” Humphrys approached and stood waiting, as the man crept unsteadily to his feet.

“Yes,” Sharp breathed. “It has receded. What was that last? I was in a cafe or something. With Giller.”

From his desk Humphrys got a prescription pad. “I’m going to write you out a little comfort. Some round white pills to take every four hours.” He scribbled and then handed the slip to his patient. “So you will relax. It’ll take away some of the tension.”

“Thanks,” Sharp said, in a weak, almost inaudible voice. Presently, he asked: “A lot of material came up, didn’t it?”

“It certainly did,” Humphrys admitted tightly.

There was nothing he could do for Paul Sharp. The man was very close to death now—in six short months, Giller would go to work on him. And it was too bad, because Sharp was a nice guy, a nice, conscientious, hard-working bureaucrat who was only trying to do his job as he saw it.

“What do you think?” Sharp asked pathetically. “Can you help me?”

“I’ll try,” Humphrys answered, not able to look directly at him. “But it goes very deep.”

“It’s been a long time growing,” Sharp admitted humbly. Standing by the chair, he seemed small and forlorn; not an important official but only one isolated, unprotected individual. “I’d sure appreciate your help. If this phobia keeps up, no telling where it’ll end.”

Humphrys asked suddenly, “Would you consider changing your mind and granting Giller’s demands?”

“I can’t,” Sharp said. “It’s bad policy. I’m opposed to special pleading, and that’s what it is.”

“Even if you come from the area? Even if the people are friends and former neighbors of yours?”

“It’s my job,” Sharp said. “I have to do it without regard for my feelings or anybody else’s.”

“You’re not a bad fellow,” Humphrys said involuntarily. “I’m sorry—” He broke off.

“Sorry what?” Sharp moved mechanically toward the exit door. “I’ve taken enough of your time. I realize how busy you analysts are. When shall I come back. Can I come back?”

“Tomorrow.” Humphrys guided him outside and into the corridor. “About this same time, if it’s convenient.”

“Thanks a lot,” Sharp said, with relief. “I really appreciate it.”

As soon as he was alone in his office, Humphrys closed the door and strode back to his desk. Reaching down, he grabbed the telephone and unsteadily dialed.

“Give me somebody on your medical staff,” he ordered curtly when he had been connected with the Special Talents Agency.

“This is Kirby,” a professional-sounding voice came presently. “Medical research.”

Humphrys briefly identified himself. “I have a patient here,” he said, “who seems to be a latent precog.”

Kirby was interested. “What area does he come from?”

“Petaluma. Sonoma County, north of San Francisco Bay. It’s east of—”

“We’re familiar with the area. A number of precogs have showed up there. That’s been a gold mine for us.”

“Then I was right,” Humphrys said.

“What’s the date of the patient’s birth?”

“He was six years old when the war began.”

“Well,” Kirby said, disappointed, “then he didn’t really get enough of a dose. He’ll never develop a full precog talent, such as we work with here.”

“In other words, you won’t help?”

“Latents—people with a touch of it—outnumber the real carriers. We don’t have time to fool with them. You’ll probably run into dozens like your patient, if you stir around. When it’s imperfect, the talent isn’t valuable; it’s going to be a nuisance for the man, probably nothing else.”

“Yes, it’s a nuisance,” Humphrys agreed caustically. “The man is only months away from a violent death. Since he was a child, he’s been getting advanced phobic warnings. As the event gets closer, the reactions intensify.”

“He’s not conscious of the future material?”

“It operates strictly on a subrational level.”

“Under the circumstances,” Kirby said thoughtfully, “maybe it’s just as well. These things appear to be fixed. If he knew about it, he still couldn’t change it.”

Dr. Charles Bamberg, consulting psychiatrist, was just leaving his office when he noticed a man sitting in the waiting room.

Odd, Bamberg thought. I have no patients left for today.

Opening the door, he stepped into the waiting room. “Did you wish to see me?”

The man sitting on the chair was tall and thin. He wore a wrinkled tan raincoat, and, as Bamberg appeared, he began tensely stubbing out a cigar.

“Yes,” he said, getting clumsily to his feet.

“Do you have an appointment?”

“No appointment.” The man gazed at him in appeal. “I picked you—” He laughed with confusion. “Well, you’re on the top floor.”

“The top floor?” Bamberg was intrigued. “What’s that got to do with it?”

“I—well, Doc, I feel much more comfortable when I’m up high.”

“I see,” Bamberg said. A compulsion, he thought to himself. Fascinating. “And,” he said aloud, “when you’re up high, how do you feel? Better?”

“Not better,” the man answered. “Can I come in? Do you have a second to spare me?”

Bamberg looked at his watch. “All right,” he agreed, admitting the man. “Sit down and tell me about it.”

Gratefully, Giller seated himself. “It interferes with my life,” he said rapidly, jerkily. “Every time I see a flight of stairs, I have an irresistible compulsion to go up it. And plane flight—I’m always flying around. I have my own ship; I can’t afford it, but I’ve got to have it.”

“I see,” Bamberg said. “Well,” he continued genially, “that’s not really so bad. After all, it isn’t exactly a fatal compulsion.”

Helplessly, Giller replied: “When I’m up there—” He swallowed wretchedly, his dark eyes gleaming. “Doctor, when I’m up high, in an office building, or in my plane—I feel another compulsion.”

“What is it?”

“I—” Giller shuddered. “I have an irresistible urge to push people.”

“To push people?”

“Toward windows. Out.” Giller made a gesture. “What am I going to do, Doc? I’m afraid I’ll kill somebody. There was a little shrimp of a guy I pushed once—and one day a girl was standing ahead of me on an escalator—I shoved her. She was injured.”

“I see,” Bamberg said, nodding. Repressed hostility, he thought to himself. Interwoven with sex. Not unusual.

He reached for his lamp.

The Unreconstructed M

I

The machine was a foot wide and two feet long; it looked like an oversized box of crackers. Silently, with great caution, it climbed the side of a concrete building; it had lowered two rubberized rollers and was now beginning the first phase of its job.

From its rear, a flake of blue enamel was exuded. The machine pressed the flake firmly against the rough concrete and then continued on. Its upward path carried it from vertical concrete to vertical steel: it had reached a window. The machine paused and produced a microscopic fragment of cloth fabric. The cloth, with great care, was embedded in the fitting of the steel window frame.

In the chill darkness, the machine was virtually invisible. The glow of a distant tangle of traffic briefly touched it, illuminated its polished hull, and departed. The machine resumed its work.

It projected a plastic pseudopodium and incinerated the pane of window glass. There was no response from within the gloomy apartment: nobody was home. The machine, now dulled with particles of glass-dust, crept over the steel frame and raised an inquisitive receptor.

While it received, it exerted precisely two hundred pounds pressure on the steel window frame; the frame obediently bent. Satisfied, the machine descended the inside of the wall to the moderately thick carpet. There it began the second phase of its job.

One single human hair—follicle and speck of scalp included—was deposited on the hardwood floor by the lamp. Not far from the piano, two dried grains of tobacco were ceremoniously laid out. The machine waited an interval of ten seconds and then, as an internal section of magnetic tape clicked into place, it suddenly said, “Ugh! Damn it…”

Curiously, its voice was husky and masculine.

The machine made its way to the closet door, which was locked. Climbing the wood surface, the machine reached the lock mechanism, and, inserting a thin section of itself, caressed the tumblers back. Behind the row of coats was a small mound of batteries and wires: a self-powered video recorder. The machine destroyed the reservoir of film—which was vital—and then, as it left the closet, expelled a drop of blood on the jagged tangle that had been the lens-scanner. The drop of blood was even more vital.

While the machine was pressing the artificial outline of a heel mark into the greasy film that covered the flooring of the closet, a sharp sound came from the hallway. The machine ceased its work and became rigid. A moment later a small, middle-aged man entered the apartment, coat over one arm, briefcase in the other.

“Good God,” he said, stopping instantly as he saw the machine. “What are you?”

The machine lifted the nozzle of its front section and shot an explosive pellet at the man’s half-bald head. The pellet traveled into the skull and detonated. Still clutching his coat and briefcase, bewildered expression on his face, the man collapsed to the rug. His glasses, broken, lay twisted beside his ear. His body stirred a little, twitched, and then was satisfactorily quiet.

Only two steps remained to the job, now that the main part was done. The machine deposited a bit of burnt match in one of the spotless ashtrays resting on the mantel, and entered the kitchen to search for a water glass. It was starting up the side of the sink when the noise of human voices startled it.

“This is the apartment,” a voice said, clear and close.

“Get ready—he ought to still be here.” Another voice, a man’s voice, like the first. The hall door was pushed open and two individuals in heavy overcoats sprinted purposefully into the apartment. At their approach, the machine dropped to the kitchen floor, the water glass forgotten. Something had gone wrong. Its rectangular outline flowed and wavered; pulling itself into an upright package it fused its shape into that of a conventional TV unit.

It was holding that emergency form when one of the men—tall, red-haired—peered briefly into the kitchen.

“Nobody in here,” the man declared, and hurried on.

“The window,” his companion said, panting. Two more figures entered the apartment, an entire crew. “The glass is gone—missing. He got in that way.”

“But he’s gone.” The red-haired man reappeared at the kitchen door; he snapped on the light and entered, a gun visible in his hand. “Strange ... we got here right away, as soon as we picked up the rattle.” Suspiciously, he examined his wristwatch. “Rosenburg’s been dead only a few seconds … how could he have got out again so fast?”

Standing in the street entrance, Edward Ackers listened to the voice. During the last half hour the voice had taken on a carping, nagging whine; sinking almost to inaudibility, it plodded along, mechanically turning out its message of complaint.

“You’re tired,” Ackers said. “Go home. Take a hot bath.”

“No,” the voice said, interrupting its tirade. The locus of the voice was a large illuminated blob on the dark sidewalk, a few yards to Acker’s right. The revolving neon sign read:

BANISH IT!

Thirty times—he had counted—within the last few minutes the sign had captured a passerby and the man in the booth had begun his harangue. Beyond the booth were several theaters and restaurants: the booth was well-situated.

But it wasn’t for the crowd that the booth had been erected. It was for Ackers and the offices behind him; the tirade was aimed directly at the Interior Department. The nagging racket had gone on so many months that Ackers was scarcely aware of it. Rain on the roof. Traffic noises. He yawned, folded his arms, and waited.

“Banish it,” the voice complained peevishly. “Come on, Ackers. Say something; do something.”

“I’m waiting,” Ackers said complacently.

A group of middle-class citizens passed the booth and were handed leaflets. The citizens scattered the leaflets after them, and Ackers laughed.

“Don’t laugh,” the voice muttered. “It’s not funny; it costs us money to print those.”

“Your personal money?” Ackers inquired.

“Partly.” Garth was lonely, tonight. “What are you waiting for? What’s happened? I saw a police team leave your roof a few minutes ago … ?

“We may take in somebody,” Ackers said, “there’s been a killing.”

Down the dark sidewalk the man stirred in his dreary propaganda booth. “Oh?” Harvey Garth’s voice came. He leaned forward and the two looked directly at each other: Ackers, carefully-groomed, well-fed, wearing a respectable overcoat… Garth, a thin man, much younger, with a lean, hungry face composed mostly of nose and forehead.

“So you see,” Ackers told him, “we do need the system. Don’t be Utopian.”

“A man is murdered; and you rectify the moral imbalance by killing the killer.” Garth’s protesting voice rose in a bleak spasm. “Banish it! Banish the system that condemns men to certain extinction!”

“Get your leaflets here,” Ackers parodied dryly. “And your slogans. Either or both. What would you suggest in place of the system?”

Garth’s voice was proud with conviction. “Education.”

Amused, Ackers asked: “Is that all? You think that would stop anti-social activity? Criminals just don’t—know better?”

“And psychotherapy, of course.” His projected face bony and intense, Garth peered out of his booth like an aroused turtle. “They’re sick … that’s why they commit crimes, healthy men don’t commit crimes. And you compound it; you create a sick society of punitive cruelty.” He waggled an accusing finger. “You’re the real culprit, you and the whole Interior Department. You and the whole Banishment System.”

Again and again the neon sign blinked BANISH it! Meaning, of course, the system of compulsory ostracism for felons, the machinery that projected a condemned human being into some random backwater region of the sidereal universe, into some remote and out-of-the-way corner where he would be of no harm.

“No harm to us, anyhow,” Ackers mused aloud.

Garth spoke the familiar argument. “Yes, but what about the local inhabitants?”

Too bad about the local inhabitants. Anyhow, the banished victim spent his energy and time trying to find a way back to the Sol System. If he got back before old age caught up with him he was readmitted by society. Quite a challenge … especially to some cosmopolite who had never set foot outside Greater New York. There were—probably—many involuntary expatriates cutting grain in odd fields with primitive sickles. The remote sections of the universe seemed composed mostly of dank rural cultures, isolated agrarian enclaves typified by small-time bartering of fruit and vegetables and handmade artifacts.

“Did you know,” Ackers said, “that in the Age of Monarchs, a pickpocket was usually hanged?”

“Banish it,” Garth continued monotonously, sinking back into his booth. The sign revolved; leaflets were passed out. And Ackers impatiently watched the late-evening street for sign of the hospital truck.

He knew Heimie Rosenburg. A sweeter little guy there never was… although Heimie had been mixed up in one of the sprawling slave combines that illegally transported settlers to outsystem fertile planets. Between them, the two largest slavers had settled virtually the entire Sirius System. Four out of six emigrants were hustled out in carriers registered as “freighters.” It was hard to picture gentle little Heimie Rosenburg as a business agent for Tirol Enterprises, but there it was.

As he waited, Ackers conjectured on Heimie’s murder. Probably one element of the incessant subterranean war going on between Paul Tirol and his major rival, David Lantano, was a brilliant and energetic newcomer … but murder was anybody’s game. It all depended on how it was done; it could be commercial hack or the purest art.

“Here comes something,” Garth’s voice sounded, carried to his inner ear by the delicate output transformers of the booth’s equipment. “Looks like a freezer.”

It was; the hospital truck had arrived. Ackers stepped forward as the truck halted and the back was let down.

“How soon did you get there?” he asked the cop who jumped heavily to the pavement.

“Right away,” the cop answered, “but no sign of the killer. I don’t think we’re going to get Heimie back … they got him dead-center, right in the cerebellum. Expert work, no amateur stuff.”

Disappointed, Ackers clambered into the hospital truck to inspect for himself.

Very tiny and still, Heimie Rosenburg lay on his back, arms at his sides, gazing sightlessly up at the roof of the truck. On his face remained the expression of bewildered wonder. Somebody—one of the cops—had placed his bent glasses in his clenched hand. In falling he had cut his cheek. The destroyed portion of his skull was covered by a moist plastic web.

“Who’s back at the apartment?” Ackers asked presently.

“The rest of my crew,” the cop answered. “And an independent researcher. Leroy Beam.”

“Him,” Ackers said, with aversion. “How is it he showed up?”

“Caught the rattle, too, happened to be passing with his rig. Poor Heimie had an awful big booster on that rattle … I’m surprised it wasn’t picked up here at the main offices.”

“They say Heimie had a high anxiety level,” Ackers said. “Bugs all over his apartment. You’re starting to collect evidence?”

“The teams are moving in,” the cop said. “We should begin getting specifications in half an hour. The killer knocked out the vid bug set up in the closet. But—” He grinned. “He cut himself breaking the circuit. A drop of blood, right on the wiring; it looks promising.”

At the apartment, Leroy Beam watched the Interior police begin their analysis. They worked smoothly and thoroughly, but Beam was dissatisfied.

His original impression remained: he was suspicious. Nobody could have gotten away so quickly. Heimie had died, and his death—the cessation of his neural pattern—had triggered off an automatic squawk. A rattle didn’t particularly protect its owner, but its existence ensured (or usually ensured) detection of the murderer. Why had it failed Heimie?

Prowling moodily, Leroy Beam entered the kitchen for the second time. There, on the floor by the sink, was a small portable TV unit, the kind popular with the sporting set: a gaudy little packet of plastic and knobs and multi-tinted lenses.

“Why this?” Beam asked, as one of the cops plodded past him. “This TV unit sitting here on the kitchen floor. It’s out of place.”

The cop ignored him. In the living room, elaborate police detection equipment was scraping the various surfaces inch by inch. In the half hour since Heimie’s death, a number of specifications had been logged. First, the drop of blood on the damaged vid wiring. Second, a hazy heel mark where the murderer had stepped. Third, a bit of burnt match in the ashtray. More were expected; the analysis had only begun.

It usually took nine specifications to delineate the single individual. Leroy Beam glanced cautiously around him. None of the cops was watching, so he bent down and picked up the TV unit; it felt ordinary. He clicked the on switch and waited. Nothing happened; no image formed. Strange.

He was holding it upside down, trying to see the inner chassis, when Edward Ackers from Interior entered the apartment. Quickly, Beam stuffed the TV unit into the pocket of his heavy overcoat.

“What are you doing here?” Ackers said.

“Seeking,” Beam answered, wondering if Ackers noticed his tubby bulge. “I’m in business, too.”

“Did you know Heimie?”

“By reputation,” Beam answered vaguely. “Tied in with Tirol’s combine, I hear; some sort of front man. Had an office on Fifth Avenue.”

“Swank place, like the rest of those Fifth Avenue feather merchants.” Ackers went on into the living room to watch detectors gather up evidence.

There was a vast nearsightedness to the wedge grinding ponderously across the carpet. It was scrutinizing at a microscopic level, and its field was sharply curtailed. As fast as material was obtained, it was relayed to the Interior offices, to the aggregate file banks where the civil population was represented by a series of punch cards, cross-indexed infinitely.

Lifting the telephone, Ackers called his wife. “I won’t be home,” he told her. “Business.”

A lag and then Ellen responded. “Oh?” she said distantly. “Well, thanks for letting me know.”

Over in the corner, two members of the police crew were delightedly examining a new discovery, valid enough to be a specification. “I’ll call you again,” he said hurriedly to Ellen, “before I leave. Goodbye.”

“Goodbye,” Ellen said curtly, and managed to hang up before he did. The new discovery was the undamaged aud bug, which was mounted under the floor lamp. A continuous magnetic tape—still in motion—gleamed amiably; the murder episode had been recorded sound-wise in its entirety.

“Everything,” a cop said gleefully to Ackers. “It was going before Heimie got home.”

“You played it back?”

“A portion. There’s a couple words spoken by the murderer, should be enough.”

Ackers got in touch with Interior. “Have the specifications on the Rosenburg case been fed, yet?”

“Just the first,” the attendant answered. “The file discriminates the usual massive category—about six billion names.”

Ten minutes later the second specification was fed to the files. Persons with type O blood, with size 11 1/2 shoes, numbered slightly over a billion. The third specification brought in the element of smoker-nonsmoker. That dropped the number to less than a billion, but not much less. Most adults smoked.

“The aud tape will drop it fast,” Leroy Beam commented, standing beside Ackers, his arms folded to conceal his bulging coat. “Ought to be able to get age, at least.”

The aud tape, analyzed, gave thirty to forty years as the conjectured age. And—timbre analysis—a man of perhaps two hundred pounds. A little later the bent steel window frame was examined, and the warp noted. It jibed with the specification of the aud tape. There were now six specifications, including that of sex (male). The number of persons in the in-group was falling rapidly.

“It won’t be long,” Ackers said genially. “And if he tacked one of those little buckets to the building side, we’ll have a paint scrape.”

Beam said: “I’m leaving. Good luck.”

“Stick around.”

“Sorry.” Beam moved toward the hall door. “This is yours, not mine. I’ve got my own business to attend to… I’m doing research for a hot-shot nonferrous mining concern.”

Ackers eyed his coat. “Are you pregnant?”

“Not that I know of,” Beam said, coloring. “I’ve led a good clean life.” Awkwardly, he patted his coat. “You mean this?”

By the window, one of the police gave a triumphant yap. The two bits of pipe tobacco had been discovered: a refinement for the third specification. “Excellent,” Ackers said, turning away from Beam and momentarily forgetting him.

Beam left.

Very shortly he was driving across town toward his own labs, the small and independent research outfit that he headed, unsupported by a government grant. Resting on the seat beside him was the portable TV unit; it was still silent.

“First of all,” Beam’s gowned technician declared, “it has a power supply approximately seventy times that of a portable TV pack. We picked up the Gamma radiation.” He displayed the usual detector. “So you’re right, it’s not a TV set”

Gingerly, Beam lifted the small unit from the lab bench. Five hours had passed, and still he knew nothing about it. Taking firm hold of the back he pulled with all his strength. The back refused to come off. It wasn’t stuck: there were no seams. The back was not a back; it only looked like a back.

“Then what is it?” he asked.

“Could be lots of things,” the technician said noncommittally; he had been roused from the privacy of his home, and it was now two-thirty in the morning. “Could be some sort of scanning equipment. A bomb. A weapon. Any kind of gadget.” Laboriously, Beam felt the unit all over, searching for a flaw in the surface. “It’s uniform,” he murmured. “A single surface.”

“You bet. The breaks are false—it’s a poured substance. And,” the technician added, “it’s hard. I tried to chip off a representative sample but—” He gestured. “No results.”

“Guaranteed not to shatter when dropped,” Beam said absently. “New extra-tough plastic.” He shook the unit energetically; the muted noise of metal parts in motion reached his ear. “It’s full of guts.”

“We’ll get it open,” the technician promised, “but not tonight.”

Beam replaced the unit on the bench. He could, with bad luck, work days on this one item—to discover, after all, that it had nothing to do with the murder of Heimie Rosenburg. On the other hand …

“Drill me a hole in it,” he instructed. “So we can see it.”

His technician protested: “I drilled; the drill broke. I’ve sent out for an improved density. This substance is imported; somebody hooked it from a white dwarf system. It was conceived under stupendous pressure.”

“You’re stalling,” Beam said, irritated. “That’s how they talk in the advertising media.”

The technician shrugged. “Anyhow, it’s extra hard. A naturally-evolved element, or an artificially-processed product from somebody’s labs. Who has funds to develop a metal like this?”

“One of the big slavers,” Beam said. “That’s where the wealth winds up. And they hop around to various systems … they’d have access to raw materials. Special ores.”

“Can’t I go home?” the technician asked. “What’s so important about this?”

“This device either killed or helped kill Heimie Rosenburg. We’ll sit here, you and I, until we get it open.” Beam seated himself and began examining the check sheet showing which tests had been applied. “Sooner or later it’ll fly open like a clam—if you can remember that far back.”

Behind them, a warning bell sounded.

“Somebody in the anteroom,” Beam said, surprised and wary. “At two-thirty?” He got up and made his way down the dark hall to the front of the building. Probably it was Ackers. His conscience stirred guiltily: somebody had logged the absence of the TV unit.

But it was not Ackers.

Waiting humbly in the cold, deserted anteroom was Paul Tirol; with him was an attractive young woman unknown to Beam. Tirol’s wrinkled face broke into smiles, and he extended a hearty hand. “Beam,” he said. They shook. “Your front door said you were down here. Still working?”

Guardedly, wondering who the woman was and what Tirol wanted, Beam said: “Catching up on some slipshod errors. Whole firm’s going broke.”

Tirol laughed indulgently. “Always a japer.” His deep-set eyes darted; Tirol was a powerfully-built person, older than most, with a somber, intensely-creased face. “Have room for a few contracts? I thought I might slip a few jobs your way… if you’re open.”

“I’m always open,” Beam countered, blocking Tirol’s view of the lab proper. The door, anyhow, had slid itself shut. Tirol had been Heimie’s boss … he no doubt felt entitled to all extant information on the murder. Who did it? When? How? Why? But that didn’t explain why he was here.

“Terrible thing,” Tirol said crudely. He made no move to introduce the woman; she had retired to the couch to light a cigarette. She was slender, with mahogany-colored hair; she wore a blue coat, and a kerchief tied around her head.

“Yes,” Beam agreed. “Terrible.”

“You were there, I understand.”

That explained some of it. “Well,” Beam conceded, “I showed up.”

“But you didn’t actually see it?”

“No,” Beam admitted, “nobody saw it. Interior is collecting specification material. They should have it down to one card before morning.”

Visibly, Tirol relaxed. “I’m glad of that. I’d hate to see the vicious criminal escape. Banishment’s too good for him. He ought to be gassed.”

“Barbarism,” Beam murmured dryly. “The days of the gas chamber. Medieval.”

Tirol peered past him. “You’re working on—” Now he was overtly beginning to pry. “Come now, Leroy. Heimie Rosenburg—God bless his soul—was killed tonight and tonight I find you burning the midnight oil. You can talk openly with me; you’ve got something relevant to his death, haven’t you?”

“That’s Ackers you’re thinking of.”

Tirol chuckled. “Can I take a look?”

“Not until you start paying me; I’m not on your books yet.”

In a strained, unnatural voice, Tirol bleated: “I want it.”

Puzzled, Beam said: “You want what?”

With a grotesque shudder, Tirol blundered forward, shoved Beam aside, and groped for the door. The door flew open and Tirol started noisily down the dark corridor, feeling his way by instinct toward the research labs.

“Hey!” Beam shouted, outraged. He sprinted after the older man, reached the inner door, and prepared to fight it out. He was shaking, partly with amazement, partly with anger. “What the hell?” he demanded breathlessly. “You don’t own me!”

Behind him the door mysteriously gave way. Foolishly, he sprawled backward, half-falling into the lab. There, stricken with helpless paralysis, was his technician. And, coming across the floor of the lab was something small and metallic. It looked like an oversized box of crackers, and it was going lickety-split toward Tirol. The object—metal and gleaming—hopped up into Tirol’s arms, and the old man turned and lumbered back up the hall to the anteroom.

“What was it?” the technician said, coming to life.

Ignoring him, Beam hurried after Tirol. “He’s got it!” he yelled futilely.

“It—” the technician mumbled. “It was the TV set. And it ran.”

II

The file banks at Interior were in agitated flux.

The process of creating a more and more restricted category was tedious, and it took time. Most of the Interior staff had gone home to bed; it was almost three in the morning, and the corridors and offices were deserted. A few mechanical cleaning devices crept here and there in the darkness. The sole source of life was the study chamber of the file banks. Edward Ackers sat patiently waiting for the results, waiting for specifications to come in, and for the file machinery to process them.

To his right a few Interior police played a benign lottery and waited stoically to be sent out for the pick-up. The lines of communication to Heimie Rosenburg’s apartment buzzed ceaselessly. Down the street, along the bleak sidewalk, Harvey Garth was still at his propaganda booth, still flashing his BANISH it! sign and muttering in people’s ears. There were virtually no passersby, now, but Garth went on. He was tireless; he never gave up.

“Psychopath,” Ackers said resentfully. Even where he sat, six floors up, the tinny, carping voice reached his middle ear.

“Take him in,” one of the game-playing cops suggested. The game, intricate and devious, was a version of a Centaurian III practice. “We can revoke his vendor’s license.”

Ackers had, when there was nothing else to do, concocted and refined an indictment of Garth, a sort of lay analysis of the man’s mental aberrations. He enjoyed playing the psychoanalytic game; it gave him a sense of power.

Garth, Harvey

Prominent compulsive syndrome. Has assumed role of ideological anarchist, opposing legal and social system. No rational expression, only repetition of key words and phrases. Idee fixe is Banish the banishment system. Cause dominates life. Rigid fanatic, probably of manic type, since…

Ackers let the sentence go, since he didn’t really know what the structure of the manic type was. Anyhow, the analysis was excellent, and someday it would be resting in an official slot instead of merely drifting through his mind. And, when that happened, the annoying voice would conclude.

“Big turmoil,” Garth droned. “Banishment system in vast upheaval… crisis moment has arrived.”

“Why crisis?” Ackers asked aloud.

Down below on the pavement Garth responded. “All your machines are humming. Grand excitement reigns. Somebody’s head will be in the basket before sun-up.” His voice trailed off in a weary blur. “Intrigue and murder. Corpses … the police scurry and a beautiful woman lurks.” To his analysis Ackers added an amplifying clause.

…Garth’s talents are warped by his compulsive sense of mission. Having designed an ingenious communication device he sees only its propaganda possibility. Whereas Garth’s voice-ear mechanism could be put to work for All Humanity.

That pleased him. Ackers got up and wandered over to the attendant operating the file. “How’s it coming?” he asked.

“Here’s the situation,” the attendant said. There was a line of gray stubble smeared over his chin, and he was bleary-eyed. “We’re gradually paring it down.”

Ackers, as he resumed his seat, wished he were back in the days of the almighty fingerprint. But a print hadn’t shown up in months; a thousand techniques existed for print-removal and print alteration. There was no single specification capable, in itself, of delineating the individual. A composite was needed, a gestalt of the assembled data.

1) blood sample (type O) 6,139,481,601

2) shoe size (11 1/2) 1,268,303,431

3) smoker 791,992,386

3a) smoker (pipe) 52,774,853

4) sex (male) 26,449,094

5) age (30-40 years) 9,221,397

6) weight (200 lbs) 488,290

7) fabric of clothing 17,459

8) hair variety 866

9) ownership of utilized weapon 40

A vivid picture was emerging from the data. Ackers could see him clearly. The man was practically standing there, in front of his desk. A fairly young man, somewhat heavy, a man who smoked a pipe and wore an extremely expensive tweed suit. An individual created by nine specifications; no tenth had been listed because no more data of specification level had been found.

Now, according to the report, the apartment had been thoroughly searched. The detection equipment was going outdoors.

“One more should do it,” Ackers said, returning the report to the attendant. He wondered if it would come in and how long it would take.

To waste time he telephoned his wife, but instead of getting Ellen he got the automatic response circuit. “Yes, sir,” it told him. “Mrs. Ackers has retired for the night. You may state a thirty-second message which will be transcribed for her attention tomorrow morning. Thank you.”

Ackers raged at the mechanism futilely and then hung up. He wondered if Ellen were really in bed; maybe she had, as often before, slipped out. But, after all, it was almost three o’clock in the morning. Any sane person would be asleep: only he and Garth were still at their little stations, performing their vital duties.

What had Garth meant by a “beautiful woman”?

“Mr. Ackers,” the attendant said, “there’s a tenth specification coming in over the wires.”

Hopefully, Ackers gazed up at the file bank. He could see nothing, of course; the actual mechanism occupied the underground levels of the building, and all that existed here was the input receptors and throw-out slots. But just looking at the machinery was in itself comforting. At this moment the bank was accepting the tenth piece of material. In a moment he would know how many citizens fell into the ten categories … he would know if already he had a group small enough to be sorted one by one.

“Here it is,” the attendant said, pushing the report to him.

Type of utilized vehicle (color) 7

“My God,” Ackers said mildly. “That’s low enough. Seven persons—we can go to work.”

“You want the seven cards popped?”

“Pop them,” Ackers said.

A moment later, the throw-out slot deposited seven neat white cards in the tray. The attendant passed them to Ackers and he quickly riffled them. The next step was personal motive and proximity: items that had to be gotten from the suspects themselves.

Of the seven names six meant nothing to him. Two lived on Venus, one in the Centaurus System, one was somewhere in Sirius, one was in the hospital, and one lived in the Soviet Union. The seventh, however, lived within a few miles, on the outskirts of New York.

Lantano, David

That clinched it. The gestalt, in Ackers’ mind, locked clearly in place; the image hardened to reality. He had half expected, even prayed to see Lantano’s card brought up.

“Here’s your pick-up,” he said shakily to the game-playing cops. “Better get as large a team together as possible, this one won’t be easy.” Momentously, he added: “Maybe I’d better come along.”

Beam reached the anteroom of his lab as the ancient figure of Paul Tirol disappeared out the street door and onto the dark sidewalk. The young woman, trotting ahead of him, had climbed into a parked car and started it forward; as Tirol emerged, she swept him up and at once departed.

Panting, Beam stood impotently collecting himself on the deserted pavement. The ersatz TV unit was gone; now he had nothing. Aimlessly, he began to run down the street. His heels echoed loudly in the cold silence. No sign of them; no sign of anything.

“I’ll be damned,” he said, with almost religious awe. The unit—a robot device of obvious complexity—clearly belonged to Paul Tirol; as soon as it had identified his presence it had sprinted gladly to him. For… protection?

It had killed Heimie; and it belonged to Tirol. So, by a novel and indirect method, Tirol had murdered his employee, his Fifth Avenue front man. At a rough guess, such a highly-organized robot would cost in the neighborhood of a hundred thousand dollars.

A lot of money, considering that murder was the easiest of criminal acts. Why not hire an itinerant goon with a crowbar?

Beam started slowly back toward his lab. Then, abruptly, he changed his mind and turned in the direction of the business area. When a free-wheeling cab came by, he hailed it and clambered in.

“Where to, sport?” the starter at cab relay asked. City cabs were guided by remote control from one central source.

He gave the name of a specific bar. Settling back against the seat he pondered. Anybody could commit a murder; an expensive, complicated machine wasn’t necessary.

The machine had been built to do something else. The murder of Heimie Rosenburg was incidental.

Against the nocturnal skyline, a huge stone residence loomed. Ackers inspected it from a distance. There were no lights burning; everything was locked up tight. Spread out before the house was an acre of grass. David Lantano was probably the last person on Earth to own an acre of grass outright; it was less expensive to buy an entire planet in some other system.

“Let’s go,” Ackers commanded; disgusted by such opulence, he deliberately trampled through a bed of roses on his way up the wide porch steps. Behind him flowed the team of shock-police.

“Gosh,” Lantano rumbled, when he had been roused from his bed. He was a kindly-looking, rather youthful fat man, wearing now an abundant silk dressing robe. He would have seemed more in place as director of a boys’ summer camp; there was an expression of perpetual good humor on his soft, sagging face. “What’s wrong, officer?”

Ackers loathed being called officer. “You’re under arrest,” he stated.

“Me?” Lantano echoed feebly. “Hey, officer, I’ve got lawyers to take care of these things.” He yawned voluminously. “Care for some coffee?” Stupidly, he began puttering around his front room, fixing a pot.

It had been years since Ackers had splurged and bought himself a cup of coffee. With Terran land covered by dense industrial and residential installations there was no room for crops, and coffee had refused to “take” in any other system. Lantano probably grew his somewhere on an illicit plantation in South America—the pickers probably believed they had been transported to some remote colony.

“No thanks,” Ackers said. “Let’s get going.”

Still dazed, Lantano plopped himself down in an easy chair and regarded Ackers with alarm. “You’re serious.” Gradually his expression faded; he seemed to be drifting back to sleep. “Who?” he murmured distantly.

“Heimie Rosenburg.”

“No kidding.” Lantano shook his head listlessly. “I always wanted him in my company. Heimie’s got real charm. Had, I mean.”

It made Ackers nervous to remain here in the vast lush mansion. The coffee was heating, and the smell of it tickled his nose. And, heaven forbid—there on the table was a basket of apricots.

“Peaches,” Lantano corrected, noticing his fixed stare. “Help yourself.”

“Where—did you get them?”

Lantano shrugged. “Synthetic dome. Hydroponics. I forget where … I don’t have a technical mind.”

“You know what the fine is for possessing natural fruit?”

“Look,” Lantano said earnestly, clasping his mushy hands together. “Give me the details on this affair, and I’ll prove to you I had nothing to do with it. Come on, officer.”

“Ackers,” Ackers said.

“Okay, Ackers. I thought I recognized you, but I wasn’t sure; didn’t want to make a fool of myself. When was Heimie killed?”

Grudgingly, Ackers gave him the pertinent information.

For a time Lantano was silent. Then, slowly, gravely, he said: “You better look at those seven cards again. One of those fellows isn’t in the Sirius System … he’s back here.”

Ackers calculated the chances of successfully banishing a man of David Lantano’s importance. His organization—Interplay Export—had fingers all over the galaxy; there’d be search crews going out like bees. But nobody went out banishment distance. The condemned, temporarily ionized, rendered in terms of charged particles of energy, radiated outward at the velocity of light. This was an experimental technique that had failed; it worked only one way.

“Consider,” Lantano said thoughtfully. “If I was going to kill Heimie—would I do it myself? You’re not being logical, Ackers. I’d send somebody.” He pointed a fleshy finger at Ackers. “You imagine I’d risk my own life? I know you pick up everybody … you usually turn up enough specifications.”

“We have ten on you,” Ackers said briskly.

“So you’re going to banish me?”

“If you’re guilty, you’ll have to face banishment like anyone else. Your particular prestige has no bearing.”

Nettled, Ackers added, “Obviously, you’ll be released. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to prove your innocence; you can question each of the ten specifications in turn.”

He started to go on and describe the general process of court procedure employed in the twenty-first century, but something made him pause. David Lantano and his chair seemed to be gradually sinking into the floor. Was it an illusion? Blinking, Ackers rubbed his eyes and peered. At the same time, one of the policemen yelped a warning of dismay; Lantano was quietly leaving them.

“Come back!” Ackers demanded; he leaped forward and grabbed hold of the chair. Hurriedly, one of his men shorted out the power supply of the building; the chair ceased descending and groaned to a halt. Only Lantano’s head was visible above the floor level. He was almost entirely submerged in a concealed escape shaft.

“What seedy, useless—“ Ackers began.

“I know,” Lantano admitted, making no move to drag himself up. He seemed resigned; his mind was again off in clouds of contemplation. “I hope we can clear all this up. Evidently I’m being framed. Tirol got somebody who looks like me, somebody to go in and murder Heimie.”

Ackers and the police crew helped him up from his depressed chair. He gave no resistance; he was too deep in his brooding.

The cab let Leroy Beam off in front of the bar. To his right, in the next block, was the Interior Building… and, on the sidewalk, the opaque blob that was Harvey Garth’s propaganda booth.

Entering the bar, Beam found a table in the back and seated himself. Already he could pick up the faint, distorted murmur of Garth’s reflections. Garth, speaking to himself in a directionless blur, was not yet aware of him.

“Banish it,” Garth was saying. “Banish all of them. Bunch of crooks and thieves.” Garth, in the miasma of his booth, was rambling vitriolically.

“What’s going on?” Beam asked. “What’s the latest?”

Garth’s monologue broke off as he focussed his attention on Beam. “You in there? In the bar?”

“I want to find out about Heimie’s death.”

“Yes,” Garth said. “He’s dead; the files are moving, kicking out cards.”

“When I left Heimie’s apartment,” Beam said, “they had turned up six specifications.” He punched a button on the drink selector and dropped in a token.

“That must have been earlier,” Garth said; “they’ve got more.”

“How many?”

“Ten in all.”

Ten. That was usually enough. And all ten of them laid out by a robot device … a little procession of hints strewn along its path: between the concrete side of the building and the dead body of Heimie Rosenburg.

“That’s lucky,” he said speculatively. “Helps out Ackers.”

“Since you’re paying me,” Garth said, “I’ll tell you the rest. They’ve already gone out on their pick-up: Ackers went along.”

Then the device had been successful. Up to a point, at least. He was sure of one thing: the device should have been out of the apartment. Tirol hadn’t known about Heimie’s death rattle; Heimie had been wise enough to do the installation privately.

Had the rattle not brought persons into the apartment, the device would have scuttled out and returned to Tirol. Then, no doubt, Tirol would have detonated it. Nothing would remain to indicate that a machine could lay down a trail of synthetic clues: blood type, fabric, pipe tobacco, hair... all the rest, and all spurious.

“Who’s the pick-up on?” Beam asked.

“David Lantano.”

Beam winced. “Naturally. That’s what the whole thing’s about; he’s being framed!”

Garth was indifferent; he was a hired employee, stationed by the pool of independent researchers to siphon information from the Interior Department. He had no actual interest in politics; his Banish It! was sheer window-dressing.

“I know it’s a frame,” Beam said, “and so does Lantano. But neither of us can prove it… unless Lantano has an absolutely airtight alibi.”

“Banish it,” Garth murmured, reverting to his routine. A small group of late-retiring citizens had strolled past his booth, and he was masking his conversation with Beam. The conversation, directed to the one listener, was inaudible to everyone else; but it was better not to take risks. Sometimes, very close to the booth, there was an audible feedback of the signal.

Hunched over his drink, Leroy Beam contemplated the various items he could try. He could inform Lantano’s organization, which existed relatively intact… but the result would be epic civil war. And, in addition, he didn’t really care if Lantano was framed; it was all the same to him. Sooner or later one of the big slavers had to absorb the other: cartel is the natural conclusion of big business. With Lantano gone, Tirol would painlessly swallow his organization; everybody would be working at his desk as always.

On the other hand, there might someday be a device—now half-completed in Tirol’s basement—that left a trail of Leroy Beam clues. Once the idea caught on, there was no particular end.

“And I had the damn thing,” he said fruitlessly. “I hammered on it for five hours. It was a TV unit, then, but it was still the device that killed Heimie.”

“You’re positive it’s gone?”

“It’s not only gone—it’s out of existence. Unless she wrecked the car driving Tirol home.”

“She?” Garth asked.

“The woman.” Beam pondered. “She saw it. Or she knew about it; she was with him.” But, unfortunately, he had no idea who the woman might be.

“What’d she look like?” Garth asked.

“Tall, mahogany hair. Very nervous mouth.”

“I didn’t realize she was working with him openly. They must have really needed the device.” Garth added: “You didn’t identify her? I guess there’s no reason why you should; she’s kept out of sight.”

“Who is she?”

“That’s Ellen Ackers.”

Beam laughed sharply. “And she’s driving Paul Tirol around?”

“She’s—well, she’s driving Tirol around, yes. You can put it that way.”

“How long?”

“I thought you were in on it. She and Ackers split up; that was last year. But he wouldn’t let her leave; he wouldn’t give her a divorce. Afraid of the publicity. Very important to keep up respectability… keep the shirt fully stuffed.”

“He knows about Paul Tirol and her?”

“Of course not. He knows she’s—spiritually hooked up. But he doesn’t care … as long as she keeps it quiet. It’s his position he’s thinking about.”

“If Ackers found out,” Beam murmured. “If he saw the link between his wife and Tirol… he’d ignore his ten interoffice memos. He’d want to haul in Tirol. The hell with the evidence; he could always collect that later.” Beam pushed away his drink; the glass was empty anyhow. “Where is Ackers?”

“I told you. Out at Lantano’s place, picking him up.”

“He’d come back here? He wouldn’t go home?”

“Naturally he’d come back here.” Garth was silent a moment. “I see a couple of Interior vans turning into the garage ramp. That’s probably the pick-up crew returning.”

Beam waited tensely. “Is Ackers along?”

“Yes, he’s there. Banish It!” Garth’s voice rose in stentorian frenzy. “Banish the system of Banishment! Root out the crooks and pirates!”

Sliding to his feet, Beam left the bar.

A dull light showed in the rear of Edward Ackers’ apartment: probably the kitchen light. The front door was locked. Standing in the carpeted hallway, Beam skillfully tilted with the door mechanism. It was geared to respond to specific neural patterns: those of its owners and a limited circle of friends. For him there was no activity.

Kneeling down, Beam switched on a pocket oscillator and started sine wave emission. Gradually, he increased the frequency. At perhaps 150,000 cps the lock guiltily clicked; that was all he needed. Switching the oscillator off, he rummaged through his supply of skeleton patterns until he located the closet cylinder. Slipped into the turret of the oscillator, the cylinder emitted a synthetic neural pattern close enough to the real thing to affect the lock.

The door swung open. Beam entered.

In half-darkness the living room seemed modest and tasteful. Ellen Ackers was an adequate housekeeper. Beam listened. Was she home at all? And if so, where? Awake? Asleep?

He peeped into the bedroom. There was the bed, but nobody was in it.

If she wasn’t here she was at Tirol’s. But he didn’t intend to follow her; this was as far as he cared to risk.

He inspected the dining room. Empty. The kitchen was empty, too. Next came an upholstered general-purpose rumpus room; on one side was a gaudy bar and on the other a wall-to-wall couch. Tossed on the couch was a woman’s coat, purse, gloves. Familiar clothes: Ellen Ackers had worn them. So she had come here after leaving his research lab.

The only room left was the bathroom. He fumbled with the knob; it was locked from the inside. There was no sound, but somebody was on the other side of the door. He could sense her in there.

“Ellen,” he said, against the panelling. “Mrs. Ellen Ackers; is that you?”

No answer. He could sense her not making any sound at all: a stifled, frantic silence.

While he was kneeling down, fooling with his pocketful of magnetic lock-pullers, an explosive pellet burst through the door at head level and splattered into the plaster of the wall beyond.

Instantly the door flew open; there stood Ellen Ackers, her face distorted with fright. One of her husband’s government pistols was clenched in her small, bony hand. She was less than a foot from him. Without getting up, Beam grabbed her wrist; she fired over his head, and then the two of them deteriorated into harsh, labored breathing.

“Come on,” Beam managed finally. The nozzle of the gun was literally brushing the top of his head. To kill him, she would have to pull the pistol back against her. But he didn’t let her; he kept hold of her wrist until finally, reluctantly, she dropped the gun. It clattered to the floor and he got stiffly up.

“You were sitting down,” she whispered, in a stricken, accusing voice.

“Kneeling down: picking the lock. I’m glad you aimed for my brain.” He picked up the gun and succeeded in getting it into his overcoat pocket; his hands were shaking.

Ellen Ackers gazed at him starkly; her eyes were huge and dark, and her face was an ugly white. Her skin had a dead cast, as if it were artificial, totally dry, thoroughly sifted with talc. She seemed on the verge of hysteria; a harsh, muffled shudder struggled up inside her, lodging finally in her throat. She tried to speak but only a rasping noise came out.

“Gee, lady,” Beam said, embarrassed. “Come in the kitchen and sit down.”

She stared at him as if he had said something incredible or obscene or miraculous; he wasn’t sure which.

“Come on.” He tried to take hold of her arm but she jerked frantically away. She had on a simple green suit, and in it she looked very nice; a little too thin and terribly tense, but still attractive. She had on expensive earrings, an imported stone that seemed always in motion … but otherwise her outfit was austere.

“You—were the man at the lab,” she managed, in a brittle, choked voice.

“I’m Leroy Beam. An independent.” Awkwardly guiding her, he led her into the kitchen and seated her at the table. She folded her hands in front of her and studied them fixedly; the bleak boniness of her face seemed to be increasing rather than receding. He felt uneasy.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

She nodded.

“Cup of coffee?” He began searching the cupboards for a bottle of Venusian-grown coffee substitute. While he was looking, Ellen Ackers said tautiy: “You better go in there. In the bathroom. I don’t think he’s dead, but he might be.”

Beam raced into the bathroom. Behind the plastic shower curtain was an opaque shape. It was Paul Tirol, lying wadded up in the tub, fully clothed. He was not dead but he had been struck behind the left ear and his scalp was leaking a slow, steady trickle of blood. Beam took his pulse, listened to his breathing, and then straightened up.

At the doorway Ellen Ackers materialized, still pale with fright. “Is he? Did I kill him?”

“He’s fine.”

Visibly, she relaxed. “Thank God. It happened so fast—he stepped ahead of me to take the M inside his place, and then I did it. I hit him as lightly as I could. He was so interested in it… he forgot about me.” Words spilled from her, quick, jerky sentences, punctuated by rigid tremors of her hands. “I lugged him back in the car and drove here; it was all I could think of.”

“What are you in this for?”

Her hysteria rose in a spasm of convulsive muscle-twitching. “It was all planned—I had everything worked out. As soon as I got hold of it I was going to—” She broke off.

“Blackmail Tirol?” he asked, fascinated.

She smiled weakly. “No, not Paul. It was Paul who gave me the idea … it was his first idea, when his researchers showed him the thing. The M, he calls it. M stands for machine. He means it can’t be educated, morally corrected.”

Incredulous, Beam said: “You were going to blackmail your husband.”

Ellen Ackers nodded. “So he’d let me leave.”

Suddenly Beam felt sincere respect for her. “My God—the rattle. Heimie didn’t arrange that; you did. So the device would be trapped in the apartment.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “I was going to pick it up. But Paul showed up with other ideas; he wanted it, too.”

“What went haywire? You have it, don’t you?”

Silently she indicated the linen closet. “I stuffed it away when I heard you.”

Beam opened the linen closet. Resting primly on the neatly-folded towels was a small, familiar, portable TV unit.

“It’s reverted,” Ellen said, from behind him, in an utterly defeated monotone. “As soon as I hit Paul it changed. For half an hour I’ve been trying to get it to shift. It won’t. It’ll stay that way forever.”

III

Beam went to the telephone and called a doctor. In the bathroom, Tirol groaned and feebly thrashed his arms. He was beginning to return to consciousness.

“Was that necessary?” Ellen Ackers demanded. “The doctor—did you have to call?”

Beam ignored her. Bending, he lifted the portable TV unit and held it in his hands; he felt its weight move up his arms like a slow, leaden fatigue. The ultimate adversary, he thought; too stupid to be defeated. It was worse than an animal. It was a rock, solid and dense, lacking all qualities. Except, he thought, the quality of determination. It was determined to persist, to survive; a rock with will. He felt as if he were holding up the universe, and he put the unreconstructed M down.

From behind him Ellen said: “It drives you crazy.” Her voice had regained tone. She lit a cigarette with a silver cigarette lighter and then shoved her hands in the pockets of her suit.

“Yes,” he said.

“There’s nothing you can do, is there? You tried to get it open before. They’ll patch Paul up, and he’ll go back to his place, and Lantano will be banished—” She took a deep shuddering breath. “And the Interior Department will go on as always.”

“Yes,” he said. Still kneeling, he surveyed the M. Now, with what he knew, he did not waste time struggling with it. He considered it impassively; he did not even bother to touch it.

In the bathroom, Paul Tirol was trying to crawl from the tub. He slipped back, cursed and moaned, and started his laborious ascent once again.

“Ellen?” his voice quavered, a dim and distorted sound, like dry wires rubbing.

“Take it easy,” she said between her teeth; not moving she stood smoking rapidly on her cigarette.

“Help me, Ellen,” Tirol muttered. “Something happened to me … I don’t remember what. Something hit me.”

“He’ll remember,” Ellen said.

Beam said: “I can take this thing to Ackers as it is. You can tell him what it’s for—what it did. That ought to be enough; he won’t go through with Lantano.”

But he didn’t believe it, either. Ackers would have to admit a mistake, a basic mistake, and if he had been wrong to pick up Lantano, he was ruined. And so, in a sense, was the whole system of delineation. It could be fooled; it had been fooled. Ackers was rigid, and he would go right on in a straight line: the hell with Lantano. The hell with abstract justice. Better to preserve cultural continuity and keep society running on an even keel.

“Tirol’s equipment,” Beam said. “Do you know where it is?”

She shrugged wildly. “What equipment?”

“This thing—“ he jabbed at the M—“was made somewhere.”

“Not here, Tirol didn’t make it.”

“All right,” he said reasonably. They had perhaps six minutes more before the doctor and the emergency medical carrier arrived on rooftop. “Who did make it?”

“The alloy was developed on Bellatrix.” She spoke jerkily, word by word. “The rind … forms a skin on the outside, a bubble that gets sucked in and out of a reservoir. That’s its rind, the TV shape. It sucks it back and becomes the M; it’s ready to act.”

“What made it?” he repeated.

“A Bellatrix machine tool syndicate … a subsidiary of Tirol’s organization. They’re made to be watchdogs. The big plantations on outplanets use them; they patrol. They get poachers.”

Beam said: “Then originally they’re not set for one person.”

“No.”

“Then who set this for Heimie? Not a machine tool syndicate.”

“That was done here.”

He straightened up and lifted the portable TV unit. “Let’s go. Take me there, where Tirol had it altered.”

For a moment the woman did not respond. Grabbing her arm he hustled her to the door. She gasped and stared at him mutely.

“Come on,” he said, pushing her out into the hall. The portable TV unit bumped against the door as he shut it; he held the unit tight and followed after Ellen Ackers.

The town was slatternly and run-down, a few retail stores, fuel station, bars and dance halls. It was two hours’ flight from Greater New York and it was called Olum.

“Turn right,” Ellen said listlessly. She gazed out at the neon signs and rested her arm on the window sill of the ship.

They flew above warehouses and deserted streets. Lights were few. At an intersection Ellen nodded and he set the ship down on a roof.

Below them was a sagging, fly-specked wooden frame store. A peeling sign was propped up in the window:

FULTON BROTHERS

locksmiths

With the sign were doorknobs, locks, keys, saws, and spring-wound alarm clocks. Somewhere in the interior of the store a yellow night light burned fitfully.

“This way,” Ellen said. She stepped from the ship and made her way down a flight of rickety wooden stairs. Beam laid the portable TV unit on the floor of the ship, locked the doors, and then followed after the woman. Holding onto the railing, he descended to a back porch on which were trash cans and a pile of sodden newspapers tied with string. Ellen was unlocking a door and feeling her way inside.

First he found himself in a musty, cramped storeroom. Pipe and rolls of wire and sheets of metal were heaped everywhere; it was like a junkyard. Next came a narrow corridor and then he was standing in the entrance of a workshop. Ellen reached overhead and groped to find the hanging string of a light. The light clicked on. To the right was a long and littered workbench with a hand grinder at one end, a vise, a keyhole saw; two wooden stools were before the bench and half-assembled machinery was stacked on the floor in no apparent order. The workshop was chaotic, dusty, and archaic. On the wall was a threadbare blue coat hung from a nail: the workcoat of a machinist.

“Here,” Ellen said, with bitterness. “This is where Paul had it brought. This outfit is owned by the Tirol organization; this whole slum is part of their holdings.”

Beam walked to the bench. “To have altered it,” he said, “Tirol must have had a plate of Heimie’s neural pattern.” He overturned a heap of glass jars; screws and washers poured onto the pitted surface of the bench.

“He got it from Heimie’s door,” Ellen said. “He had Heimie’s lock analyzed and Heimie’s pattern inferred from the setting of the tumblers.”

“And he had the M opened?”

“There’s an old mechanic,” Ellen said. “A little dried-up old man; he runs this shop. Patrick Fulton. He installed the bias on the M.”

“A bias,” Beam said, nodding.

“A bias against killing people. Heimie was the exception, for everybody else it took its protective form. Out in the wilds they would have set it for something else, not a TV unit.” She laughed, a sudden ripple close to hysteria. “Yes, that would have looked odd, it sitting out in a forest somewhere, a TV unit. They would have made it into a rock or a stick.”

“A rock,” Beam said. He could imagine it. The M waiting, covered with moss, waiting for months, years, and then weathered and corroded, finally picking up the presence of a human being. Then the M ceasing to be a rock, becoming, in a quick blur of motion, a box one foot wide and two feet long. An oversized cracker box that started forward—

But there was something missing. “The fakery,” he said. “Emitting flakes of paint and hair and tobacco. How did that come in?”

In a brittle voice Ellen said: “The landowner murdered the poacher, and he was culpable in the eyes of the law. So the M left clues. Claw marks. Animal blood. Animal hair.”

“God,” he said, revolted. “Killed by an animal.”

“A bear, a wildcat—whatever was indigenous, it varied. The predator of the region, a natural death.” With her toe she touched a cardboard carton under the workbench. “It’s in there, it used to be, anyhow. The neural plate, the transmitter, the discarded parts of the M, the schematics.”

The carton had been a shipping container for power packs. Now the packs were gone, and in their place was a carefully-wrapped inner box, sealed against moisture and insect infestation. Beam tore away the metal foil and saw that he had found what he wanted. He gingerly carried the contents out and spread them on the workbench among the soldering irons and drills.

“It’s all there,” Ellen said, without emotion.

“Maybe,” he said, “I can leave you out of this. I can take this and the TV unit to Ackers and try it without your testimony.”

“Sure,” she said wearily.

“What are you going to do?”

“Well,” she said, “I can’t go back to Paul, so I guess there’s not much I can do.”

“The blackmail bit was a mistake,” he said.

Her eyes glowed. “Okay.”

“If he releases Lantano,” Beam said, “he’ll be asked to resign. Then he’ll probably give you your divorce, it won’t be important to him one way or another.”

“I—” she began. And then she stopped. Her face seemed to fade, as if the color and texture of her flesh was vanishing from within. She lifted one hand and half-turned, her mouth open and the sentence still unfinished.

Beam, reaching, slapped the overhead light out; the workroom winked into darkness. He had heard it too, had heard it at the same time as Ellen Ackers. The rickety outside porch had creaked and now the slow, ponderous motion was past the storeroom and into the hall.

A heavy man, he thought. A slow-moving man, sleepy, making his way step by step, his eyes almost shut, his great body sagging beneath his suit. Beneath, he thought, his expensive tweed suit. In the darkness the man’s shape was looming; Beam could not see it but he could sense it there, filling up the doorway as it halted. Boards creaked under its weight. In a daze he wondered if Ackers already knew, if his order had already been rescinded. Or had the man got out on his own, worked through his own organization?

The man, starting forward again, spoke in a deep, husky voice. “Ugh,” Lantano said. “Damn it.”

Ellen began to shriek. Beam still did not realize what it was; he was still fumbling for the light and wondering stupidly why it did not come on. He had smashed the bulb, he realized. He lit a match; the match went out and he grabbed for Ellen Ackers’ cigarette lighter. It was in her purse, and it took him an agonized second to get it out.

The unreconstructed M was approaching them slowly, one receptor stalk extended. Again it halted, swiveled to the left until it was facing the workbench. It was not now in the shape of a portable TV unit; it had retaken its cracker-box shape.

“The plate,” Ellen Ackers whispered. “It responded to the plate.”

The M had been roused by Heimie Rosenburg’s looking for it. But Beam still felt the presence of David Lantano. The big man was still here in the room; the sense of heaviness, the proximity of weight and ponderousness had arrived with the machine, as it moved, sketching Lantano’s existence. As he fixedly watched, the machine produced a fragment of cloth fabric and pressed it into a nearby heap of grid-mesh. Other elements, blood and tobacco and hair, were being produced, but they were too small for him to see. The machine pressed a heel mark into the dust of the floor and then projected a nozzle from its anterior section.

Her arm over her eyes, Ellen Ackers ran away. But the machine was not interested in her; revolving in the direction of the workbench it raised itself and fired. An explosive pellet, released by the nozzle, traveled across the workbench and entered the debris heaped across the bench. The pellet detonated; bits of wire and nails showered in particles.

Heimie’s dead, Beam thought, and went on watching. The machine was searching for the plate, trying to locate and destroy the synthetic neural emission. It swiveled, lowered its nozzle hesitantly, and then fired again. Behind the workbench, the wall burst and settled into itself.

Beam, holding the cigarette lighter, walked toward the M. A receptor stalk waved toward him and the machine retreated. Its lines wavered, flowed, and then painfully reformed. For an interval, the device struggled with itself; then, reluctantly, the portable TV unit again became visible. From the machine a high-pitched whine emerged, an anguished squeal. Conflicting stimuli were present; the machine was unable to make a decision.

The machine was developing a situation neurosis and the ambivalence of its response was destroying it. In a way its anguish had a human quality, but he could not feel sorry for it. It was a mechanical contraption trying to assume a posture of disguise and attack at the same time; the breakdown was one of relays and tubes, not of a living brain. And it had been a living brain into which it had fired its original pellet. Heimie Rosenburg was dead, and there were no more like him and no possibility that more could be assembled. He went over to the machine and nudged it onto its back with his foot.

The machine whirred snake-like and spun away. “Ugh, damn it!” it said. It showered bits of tobacco as it rolled off; drops of blood and flakes of blue enamel fell from it as it disappeared into the corridor. Beam could hear it moving about, bumping into the walls like a blind, damaged organism. After a moment he followed after it.

In the corridor, the machine was traveling in a slow circle. It was erecting around itself a wall of particles: cloth and hairs and burnt matches and bits of tobacco, the mass cemented together with blood.

“Ugh, damn it,” the machine said in its heavy masculine voice. It went on working, and Beam returned to the other room.

“Where’s a phone?” he said to Ellen Ackers.

She stared at him vacantly.

“It won’t hurt you,” he said. He felt dull and worn-out. “It’s in a closed cycle. It’ll go on until it runs down.”

“It went crazy,” she said. She shuddered.

“No,” he said. “Regression. It’s trying to hide.”

From the corridor the machine said, “Ugh. Damn it.” Beam found the phone and called Edward Ackers.

Banishment for Paul Tirol meant first a procession of bands of darkness and then a protracted, infuriating interval in which empty matter drifted randomly around him, arranging itself into first one pattern and then another.

The period between the time Ellen Ackers attacked him and the time banishment sentence had been pronounced was vague and dim in his mind. Like the present shadows, it was hard to pin down.

He had—he thought—awakened in Ackers’ apartment. Yes, that was it; and Leroy Beam was there, too. A sort of transcendental Leroy Beam who hovered robustly around, arranging everybody in configurations of his choice. A doctor had come. And finally Edward Ackers had shown up to face his wife and the situation.

Bandaged, and on his way into Interior, he had caught a glimpse of a man going out. The ponderous, bulbous shape of David Lantano, on his way home to his luxurious stone mansion and acre of grass.

At sight of him Tirol had felt a goad of fear. Lantano hadn’t even noticed him; an acutely thoughtful expression on his face, Lantano padded into a waiting car and departed.

“You have one thousand dollars,” Edward Ackers was saying wearily, during the final phase. Distorted, Ackers’ face bloomed again in the drifting shadows around Tirol, an image of the man’s last appearance. Ackers, too, was ruined, but in a different way. “The law supplies you with one thousand dollars to meet your immediate needs, also you’ll find a pocket dictionary of representative out-system dialects.”

Ionization itself was painless. He had no memory of it; only a blank space darker than the blurred images on either side.

“You hate me,” he had declared accusingly, his last words to Ackers. “I destroyed you. But… it wasn’t you.” He had been confused. “Lantano. Maneuvered but not. How? You did …”

But Lantano had had nothing to do with it. Lantano had shambled off home, a withdrawn spectator throughout. The hell with Lantano. The hell with Ackers and Leroy Beam and—reluctantly—the hell with Mrs. Ellen Ackers.

“Wow,” Tirol babbled, as his drifting body finally collected physical shape. “We had a lot of good times … didn’t we, Ellen?”

And then a roaring hot field of sunlight was radiating down on him. Stupefied, he sat slumped over, limp and passive. Yellow, scalding sunlight… everywhere. Nothing but the dancing heat of it, blinding him, cowing him into submission.

He was sprawled in the middle of a yellow clay road. To his right was a baking, drying field of corn wilted in the midday heat. A pair of large, disreputable-looking birds wheeled silently overhead. A long way off was a line of blunted hills: ragged troughs and peaks that seemed nothing more than heaps of dust. At their base was a meager lump of man-made buildings.

At least he hoped they were man-made.

As he climbed shakily to his feet, a feeble noise drifted to his ears. Coming down the hot, dirty road was a car of some sort. Apprehensive and cautious, Tirol walked to meet it.

The driver was human, a thin, almost emaciated youth with pebbled black skin and a heavy mass of weed-colored hair. He wore a stained canvas shirt and overalls. A bent, unlit cigarette hung from his lower lip. The car was a combustion-driven model and had rolled out of the twentieth century; battered and twisted, it rattled to a halt as the driver critically inspected Tirol. From the car’s radio yammered a torrent of tinny dance music.

“You a tax collector?” the driver asked.

“Certainly not,” Tirol said, knowing the bucolic hostility toward tax collectors. But—he floundered. He couldn’t confess that he was a banished criminal from Earth; that was an invitation to be massacred, usually in some picturesque way. “I’m an inspector,” he announced, “Department of Health.”

Satisfied, the driver nodded. “Lots of scuttly cutbeede, these days. You fellows got a spray, yet? Losing one crop after another.”

Tirol gratefully climbed into the car. “I didn’t realize the sun was so hot,” he murmured.

“You’ve got an accent,” the youth observed, starting up the engine. “Where you from?”

“Speech impediment,” Tirol said cagily. “How long before we reach town?”

“Oh, maybe an hour,” the youth answered, as the car wandered lazily forward.

Tirol was afraid to ask the name of the planet. It would give him away. But he was consumed with the need to know. He might be two star-systems away or two million; he might be a month out of Earth or seventy years. Naturally, he had to get back; he had no intention of becoming a sharecropper on some backwater colony planet.

“Pretty swip,” the youth said, indicating the torrent of noxious jazz pouring from the car radio. “That’s Calamine Freddy and his Woolybear Creole Original Band. Know that tune?”

“No,” Tirol muttered. The sun and dryness and heat made his head ache, and he wished to God he knew where he was.

The town was miserably tiny. The houses were dilapidated; the streets were dirt. A kind of domestic chicken roamed here and there, pecking in the rubbish. Under a porch a bluish quasi-dog lay sleeping. Perspiring and unhappy, Paul Tirol entered the bus station and located a schedule. A series of meaningless entries flashed by: names of towns. The name of the planet, of course, was not listed.

“What’s the fare to the nearest port?” he asked the indolent official behind the ticket window.

The official considered. “Depends on what sort of port you want. Where you planning to go?”

“Toward Center,” Tirol said. “Center” was the term used in out-systems for the Sol Group.

Dispassionately, the official shook his head. “No inter-system port around here.”

Tirol was baffled. Evidently, he wasn’t on the hub planet of this particular system. “Well,” he said, “then the nearest interplan port.”

The official consulted a vast reference book. “You want to go to which system-member?”

“Whichever one has the inter-system port,” Tirol said patiently. He would leave from there.

“That would be Venus.”

Astonished, Tirol said: “Then this system—“ He broke off, chagrined, as he remembered. It was the parochial custom in many out-systems, especially those a long way out, to name their member planets after the original nine. This one was probably called “Mars” or “Jupiter” or “Earth,” depending on its position in the group. “Fine,” Tirol finished. “One-way ticket to—Venus.”

Venus, or what passed for Venus, was a dismal orb no larger than an asteroid. A bleak cloud of metallic haze hung over it, obscuring the sun. Except for mining and smelting operations the planet was deserted. A few dreary shacks dotted the barren countryside. A perpetual wind blew, scattering debris and trash.

But the inter-system port was here, the field which linked the planet to its nearest star-neighbor and, ultimately, with the balance of the universe. At the moment a giant freighter was taking ore.

Tirol entered the ticket office. Spreading out most of his remaining money he said: “I want a one-way ticket taking me toward Center. As far as I can go.”

The clerk calculated. “You care what class?”

“No,” he said, mopping his forehead.

“How fast?”

“No.”

The clerk said: “That’ll carry you as far as the Betelgeuse System.”

“Good enough,” Tirol said, wondering what he did then. But at least he could contact his organization from there; he was already back in the charted universe. But now he was almost broke. He felt a prickle of icy fear, despite the heat.

The hub planet of the Betelgeuse System was called Plantagenet III. It was a thriving junction for passenger carriers transporting settlers to undeveloped colony planets. As soon as Tirol’s ship landed he hurried across the field to the taxi stand.

“Take me to Tirol Enterprises,” he instructed, praying there was an outlet here. There had to be, but it might be operating under a front name. Years ago he lost track of the particulars of his sprawling empire.

“Tirol Enterprises,” the cab driver repeated thoughtfully. “Nope, no such outfit, mister.”

Stunned, Tirol said: “Who does the slaving around here?”

The driver eyed him. He was a wizened, dried-up little man with glasses; he peered turtle-wise, without compassion. “Well,” he said, “I’ve been told you can get carried out-system without papers. There’s a shipping contractor… called—” He reflected. Tirol, trembling, handed him a last bill.

“The Reliable Export-Import,” the driver said.

That was one of Lantano’s fronts. In horror Tirol said: “And that’s it?”

The driver nodded.

Dazed, Tirol moved away from the cab. The buildings of the field danced around him; he settled down on a bench to catch his breath. Under his coat his heart pounded unevenly. He tried to breathe, but his breath caught painfully in his throat. The bruise on his head where Ellen Ackers had hit him began to throb. It was true, and he was gradually beginning to understand and believe it. He was not going to get to Earth; he was going to spend the rest of his life here on this rural world, cut off from his organization and everything he had built up over the years.

And, he realized, as he sat struggling to breathe, the rest of his life was not going to be very long.

He thought about Heimie Rosenburg.

“Betrayed,” he said, and coughed wrackingly. “You betrayed me. You hear that? Because of you I’m here. It’s your fault; I never should have hired you.”

He thought about Ellen Ackers. “You too,” he gasped, coughing. Sitting on the bench he alternately coughed and gasped and thought about the people who had betrayed him. There were hundreds of them.

The living room of David Lantano’s house was furnished in exquisite taste. Priceless late nineteenth century Blue Willow dishes lined the walls in a rack of wrought iron. At his antique yellow plastic and chrome table, David Lantano was eating dinner, and the spread of food amazed Beam even more than the house.

Lantano was in good humor and he ate with enthusiasm. His linen napkin was tucked under his chin and once, as he sipped coffee, he dribbled and belched. His brief period of confinement was over; he ate to make up for the ordeal.

He had been informed, first by his own apparatus and now by Beam, that banishment had successfully carried Tirol past the point of return. Tirol would not be coming back and for that Lantano was thankful. He felt expansive toward Beam; he wished Beam would have something to eat.

Moodily, Beam said: “It’s nice here.”

“You could have something like this,” Lantano said.

On the wall hung a framed folio of ancient paper protected by helium-filled glass. It was the first printing of a poem of Ogden Nash, a collector’s item that should have been in a museum. It aroused in Beam a mixed feeling of longing and aversion.

“Yes,” Beam said. “I could have this.” This, he thought, or Ellen Ackers or the job at Interior or perhaps all three at once. Edward Ackers had been retired on pension and he had given his wife a divorce. Lantano was out of jeopardy. Tirol had been banished. He wondered what he did want.

“You could go a long way,” Lantano said sleepily.

“As far as Paul Tirol?”

Lantano chuckled and yawned.

“I wonder if he left any family,” Beam said. “Any children.” He was thinking about Heimie.

Lantano reached across the table toward the bowl of fruit. He selected a peach and carefully brushed it against the sleeve of his robe. “Try a peach,” he said.

“No thanks,” Beam said irritably.

Lantano examined the peach but he did not eat it. The peach was made of wax; the fruit in the bowl was imitation. He was not really as rich as he pretended, and many of the artifacts about the living room were fakes. Each time he offered fruit to a visitor he took a calculated risk. Returning the peach to the bowl he leaned back in his chair and sipped his coffee.

If Beam did not have plans, at least he had, and with Tirol gone the plans had a better than even chance of working out. He felt peaceful. Someday, he thought, and not too far off, the fruit in the bowl would be real.

Explorers We

“Golly,” Parkhurst gasped, his red face tingling with excitement. “Come here, you guys. Look!”

They crowded around the viewscreen.

“There she is,” Barton said. His heart beat strangely. “She sure looks good.”

“Damn right she looks good,” Leon agreed. He trembled. “Say—I can make out New York.”

“The hell you can.”

“I can! The gray. By the water.”

“That’s not even the United States. We’re looking at it upside down. That’s Siam.”

The ship hurtled through space, meteoroid shields shrieking. Below it, the blue-green globe swelled. Clouds drifted around it, hiding the continents and oceans.

“I never expected to see her again,” Merriweather said. “I thought sure as hell we were stuck up there.” His face twisted. “Mars. That damned red waste. Sun and flies and ruins.”

“Barton knows how to repair jets,” Captain Stone said. “You can thank him.”

“You know what I’m going to do, first thing I’m back?” Parkhurst yelled.

“What?”

“Go to Coney Island.”

“Why?”

“People. I want to see people again. Lots of them. Dumb, sweaty, noisy. Ice cream and water. The ocean. Beer bottles, milk cartons, paper napkins—”

“And gals,” Vecchi said, eyes shining. “Long time, six months. I’ll go with you. We’ll sit on the beach and watch the gals.”

“I wonder what kind of bathing suits they got now,” Barton said.

“Maybe they don’t wear any!” Parkhurst cried.

“Hey!” Merriweather shouted. “I’m going to see my wife again.” He was suddenly dazed. His voice sank to a whisper. “My wife.”

“I got a wife, too,” Stone said. He grinned. “But I been married a long time.” Then he thought of Pat and Jean. A stabbing ache choked his windpipe. “I bet they have grown.”

“Grown?”

“My kids,” Stone said huskily.

They looked at each other, six men, ragged, bearded, eyes bright and feverish.

“How long?” Vecchi whispered.

“An hour,” Stone said. “We’ll be down in an hour.”

The ship struck with a crash that threw them on their faces. It leaped and bucked, brake jets screaming, tearing through rocks and soil. It came to rest, nose buried in a hillside.

Silence.

Parkhurst got unsteadily to his feet. He caught hold of the safety rail. Blood dripped down his face from a cut over his eye.

“We’re down,” he said.

Barton stirred. He groaned, forced himself up on his knees. Parkhurst helped him. “Thanks. Are we …”

“We’re down. We’re back.”

The jets were off. The roaring had ceased… there was only the faint trickle of wall fluids leaking out on the ground.

The ship was a mess. The hull was cracked in three places. It billowed in, bent and twisted. Papers and ruined instruments were strewn everywhere.

Vecchi and Stone got slowly up. “Everything all right?” Stone muttered, feeling his arm.

“Give me a hand,” Leon said. “My damn ankle’s twisted or something.”

They got him up. Merriweather was unconscious. They revived him and got him to his feet.

“We’re down,” Parkhurst repeated, as if he couldn’t believe it. “This is Earth. We’re back—alive!”

“I hope the specimens are all right,” Leon said.

“The hell with the specimens!” Vecchi shouted excitedly. He worked the port bolts frantically, unscrewing the heavy hatch lock. “Let’s get out and walk around.”

“Where are we?” Barton asked Captain Stone.

“South of San Francisco. On the peninsula.”

“San Francisco! Hey—we can ride the cable cars!” Parkhurst helped Vecchi unscrew the hatch. “San Francisco. I was through Frisco once. They got a big park. Golden Gate Park. We can go to the funhouse.”

The hatch opened, swinging wide. Talk ceased abruptly. The men peered out, blinking in the white-hot sunlight.

A green field stretched down and away from them. Hills rose in the distance, sharp in the crystal air. Along a highway below, a few cars moved, tiny dots, the sun glinting on them. Telephone poles.

“What’s that sound?” Stone said, listening intently.

“A train.”

It was coming along the distant track, black smoke pouring from its stack. A faint wind moved across the field, stirring the grass. Over to the right lay a town. Houses and trees. A theater marquee. A Standard gas station. Roadside stands. A motel.

“Think anybody saw us?” Leon asked. “Must have.”

“Sure heard us,” Parkhurst said. “We made a noise like God’s indigestion when we hit.”

Vecchi stepped out onto the field. He swayed wildly, arms outstretched. “I’m falling!”

Stone laughed. “You’ll get used to it. We’ve been in space too long. Come on.” He leaped down. “Let’s start walking.”

“Toward the town.” Parkhurst fell in beside him. “Maybe they’ll give us free eats … Hell—champagne!” His chest swelled under his tattered uniform. “Returning heroes. Keys to the town. A parade. Military band. Floats with dames.”

“Dames,” Leon grunted. “You’re obsessed.”

“Sure.” Parkhurst strode across the field, the others trailing after him. “Hurry up!”

“Look,” Stone said to Leon. “Somebody over there. Watching us.” “Kids,” Barton said. “A bunch of kids.” He laughed excitedly. “Let’s go say hello.”

They headed toward the kids, wading through the moist grass on the rich earth.

“Must be spring,” Leon said. “The air smells like spring.” He took a deep breath. “And the grass.”

Stone computed. “It’s April ninth.”

They hurried. The kids stood watching them, silent and unmoving.

“Hey!” Parkhurst shouted. “We’re back!”

“What town is this?” Barton shouted.

The kids stared at them, eyes wide.

“What’s wrong?” Leon muttered.

“Our beards. We look pretty bad.” Stone cupped his hands. “Don’t be scared! We’re back from Mars. The rocket flight. Two years ago—remember? A year ago last October.”

The kids stared, white-faced. Suddenly they turned and fled. They ran frantically toward the town.

The six men watched them go.

“What the hell,” Parkhurst muttered, dazed. “What’s the matter?”

“Our beards,” Stone repeated uneasily.

“Something’s wrong,” Barton said, shakily. He began to tremble. “There’s something terribly wrong.”

“Can it!” Leon snapped. “It’s our beards.” He ripped a piece of his shirt savagely away. “We’re dirty. Filthy tramps. Come on.” He started after the children, toward the town. “Let’s go. They probably got a special car on the way here. We’ll meet them.”

Stone and Barton glanced at each other. They followed Leon slowly. The others fell in behind.

Silent, uneasy, the six bearded men made their way across the field toward the town.

A youth on a bicycle fled at their approach. Some railroad workers, repairing the train track, threw down their shovels and ran, yelling.

Numbly, the six men watched them go.

“What is it?” Parkhurst muttered.

They crossed the track. The town lay on the other side. They entered a huge grove of eucalyptus trees.

“Burlingame,” Leon said, reading a sign. They looked down a street. Hotels and cafes. Parked cars. Gas stations. Dime stores. A small suburban town, shoppers on the sidewalks. Cars moving slowly.

They emerged from the trees. Across the street a filling station attendant looked up—

And froze.

After a moment, he dropped the hose he held and ran down the main street, shouting shrill warnings.

Cars stopped. Drivers leaped out and ran. Men and women poured out of stores, scattering wildly. They surged away, retreating in frantic haste.

In a moment the street was deserted.

“Good God.” Stone advanced, bewildered. “What—“ He crossed onto the street. No one was in sight.

The six men walked down the main street, dazed and silent. Nothing stirred. Everyone had fled. A siren wailed, rising and falling. Down a side street a car backed quickly away.

In an upstairs window Barton saw a pale, frightened face. Then the shade was jerked down.

“I don’t understand,” Vecchi muttered.

“Have they gone nuts?” Merriweather asked.

Stone said nothing. His mind was blank. Numb. He felt tired. He sat down on the curb and rested, getting his breath. The others stood around him.

“My ankle,” Leon said. He leaned against a stop sign, lips twisting with pain. “Hurts like hell.”

“Captain,” Barton said. “What’s the matter with them?”

“I don’t know,” Stone said. He felt in his ragged pocket for a cigarette. Across the street was a deserted cafe. The people had run out of it. Food was still on the counter. A hamburger was scorching on the skillet, coffee was boiling in a glass pot on the burner.

On the sidewalk lay groceries spilling out from bags dropped by terrorized shoppers. The motor of a deserted parked car purred to itself.

“Well?” Leon said. “What’ll we do?”

“I don’t know.”

“We can’t just—”

“I don’t know!” Stone got to his feet. He walked over and entered the cafe. They watched him sit down at the counter.

“What’s he doing?” Vecchi asked.

“I don’t know.” Parkhurst followed Stone into the cafe. “What are you doing?”

“I’m waiting to be served.”

Parkhurst plucked awkwardly at Stone’s shoulder. “Come on, Captain. There’s nobody here. They all left.”

Stone said nothing. He sat at the counter, his face vacant. Waiting passively to be served.

Parkhurst went back out. “What the hell has happened?” he asked Barton. “What’s wrong with them all?”

A spotted dog came nosing around. It passed them, stiff and alert, sniffing suspiciously. It trotted off down a side street. “Faces,” Barton said. “Faces?”

“They’re watching us. Up there.” Barton gestured toward a building. “Hiding. Why? Why are they hiding from us?”

Suddenly Merriweather stiffened. “Something’s coming.” They turned eagerly.

Down the street two black sedans turned the corner, headed toward them. “Thank God,” Leon muttered. He leaned against the wall of a building. “Here they are.”

The two sedans pulled to a stop at the curb. The doors opened. Men spilled out, surrounded them silently. Well-dressed. Ties and hats and long gray coats.

“I’m Scanlan,” one said. “FBI.” An older man with iron-gray hair. His voice was clipped and frigid. He studied the five of them intently. “Where’s the other?”

“Captain Stone? In there.” Barton pointed to the cafe.

“Get him out here.”

Barton went into the cafe. “Captain, they’re outside. Come on.”

Stone came along with him, back to the curb. “Who are they, Barton?” he asked haltingly.

“Six,” Scanlan said, nodding. He waved to his men. “Okay. This is all.” The FBI men moved in, crowding them back toward the brick front of the cafe.

“Wait!” Barton cried thickly. His head spun. “What—what’s happening?

“What is it?” Parkhurst demanded deprecatorily. Tears rolled down his face, streaking his cheeks. “Will you tell us, for God’s sake—”

The FBI men had weapons. They got them out. Vecchi backed away, his hands up. “Please!” he wailed. “What have we done? What’s happening?”

Sudden hope flickered in Leon’s breast. “They don’t know who we are. They think we’re Commies.” He addressed Scanlan. “We’re the Earth-Mars Expedition. My name is Leon. Remember? A year ago last October. We’re back. We’re back from Mars.” His voice trailed off. The weapons were coming up. Nozzles—hoses and tanks.

“We’re back!” Merriweather croaked. “We’re the Earth-Mars Expedition, comeback!”

Scanlan’s face was expressionless. “That sounds fine,” he said coldly. “Only, the ship crashed and blew up when it reached Mars. None of the crew survived. We know because we sent up a robot scavenger team and brought back the corpses—six of them.”

The FBI men fired. Blazing napalm sprayed toward the six bearded figures. They retreated, and then the flames touched them. The FBI men saw the figures ignite, and then the sight was cut off. They could no longer see the six figures thrashing about, but they could hear them. It was not something they enjoyed hearing, but they remained, waiting and watching.

Scanlan kicked at the charred fragments with his foot. “Not easy to be sure,” he said. “Possibly only five here … but I didn’t see any of them get away. They didn’t have time.” At the pressure of his foot, a section of ash broke away; it fell into particles that still steamed and bubbled.

His companion Wilks stared down. New at this, he could not quite believe what he had seen the napalm do. “I—” he said. “Maybe I’ll go back to the car,” he muttered, starting off away from Scanlan.

“It’s not over positively,” Scanlan said, and then he saw the younger man’s face. “Yes,” he said, “you go sit down.”

People were beginning to filter out onto the sidewalks. Peeping anxiously from doorways and windows. “They got ‘em!” a boy shouted excitedly. “They got the outer space spies!”

Cameramen snapped pictures. Curious people appeared on all sides, faces pale, eyes popping. Gaping down in wonder at the indiscriminate mass of charred ash.

His hands shaking, Wilks crept back into the car and shut the door after him. The radio buzzed, and he turned it off, not wanting to hear anything from it or say anything to it. At the doorway of the cafe, the gray-coated Bureau men remained, conferring with Scanlan. Presently a number of them started off at a trot, around the side of the cafe and up the alley. Wilks watched them go. What a nightmare, he thought.

Coming over, Scanlan leaned down and put his head into the car. “Feel better?”

“Some.” Presently he asked, “What’s this—the twenty-second time?” Scanlan said, “Twenty-first. Every couple of months ... the same names, same men. I won’t tell you that you’ll get used to it. But at least it won’t surprise you.”

“I don’t see any difference between them and us,” Wilks said, speaking distinctly. “It was like burning up six human beings.”

“No,” Scanlan said. He opened the car door and got into the back seat, behind Wilks. “They only looked like six human beings. That’s the whole point. They want to. They intend to. You know that Barton, Stone, and Leon—”

“I know,” he said. “Somebody or something that lives somewhere out there saw their ship go down, saw them die, and investigated. Before we got there. And got enough to go on, enough to give them what they needed. But—“ He gestured. “Isn’t there anything else we can do with them?”

Scanlan said, “We don’t know enough about them. Only this—sending in of imitations, again and again. Trying to sneak them past us.” His face became rigid, despairing. “Are they crazy? Maybe they’re so different no contact’s possible. Do they think we’re all named Leon and Merriweather and Parkhurst and Stone? That’s the part that personally gets me down… Or maybe that’s our chance, the fact that they don’t understand we’re individuals. Figure how much worse if sometime they made up a—whatever it is… a spore… a seed. But not like one of those poor miserable six who died on Mars—something we wouldn’t know was an imitation…”

“They have to have a model,” Wilks said.

One of the Bureau men waved, and Scanlan scrambled out of the car. He came back in a moment to Wilks. “They say there’re only five,” he said. “One got away; they think they saw him. He’s crippled and not moving fast. The rest of us are going after him—you stay here, keep your eyes open.” He strode off up the alley with the other Bureau men.

Wilks lit a cigarette and sat with his head resting on his arm. Mimicry… everybody terrified. But—

Had anybody really tried to make contact?

Two policemen appeared, herding people back out of the way. A third black Dodge, loaded with Bureau men, moved along at the curb, stopped, and

the men got out.

One of the Bureau men, whom he did not recognize, approached the car.

“Don’t you have your radio on?”

“No,” Wilks said. He snapped it back on.

“If you see one, do you know how to kill it?”

“Yes,” he said.

The Bureau man went on to join his group.

If it was up to me, Wilks asked himself, what would I do? Try to find out what they want? Anything that looks so human, behaves in such a human way, must feel human … and if they—whatever they are—feel human, might they not become human, in time?

At the edge of the crowd of people, an individual shape detached itself and moved toward him. Uncertainly, the shape halted, shook its head, staggered and caught itself, and then assumed a stance like that of the people near it. Wilks recognized it because he had been trained to, over a period of months. It had gotten different clothes, a pair of slacks, a shirt, but it had buttoned the shirt wrong, and one of its feet was bare. Evidently it did not understand the shoes. Or, he thought, maybe it was too dazed and injured.

As it approached him, Wilks raised his pistol and took aim at its stomach. They had been taught to fire there; he had fired, on the practice range, at chart after chart. Right in the midsection … bisect it, like a bug.

On its face the expression of suffering and bewilderment deepened as it saw him prepare to fire. It halted, facing him, making no move to escape. Now Wilks realized that it had been severely burned; probably it would not survive in any case.

“I have to,” he said.

It stared at him, and then it opened its mouth and started to say something.

He fired.

Before it could speak, it had died. Wilks got out as it pitched over and lay beside the car.

I did wrong, he thought to himself as he stood looking down at it. I shot it because I was afraid. But I had to. Even if it was wrong. It came here to infiltrate us, imitating us so we won’t recognize it. That’s what we’re told—we have to believe that they are plotting against us, are inhuman, and will never be more than that.

Thank God, he thought. It’s over.

And then he remembered it wasn’t...

It was a warm summer day, late in July.

The ship landed with a roar, dug across a plowed field, tore through a fence, a shed, and came finally to rest in a gully.

Silence.

Parkhurst got shakily to his feet. He caught hold of the safety rail. His shoulder hurt. He shook his head, dazed.

“We’re down,” he said. His voice rose with awe and excitement. “We’re down!”

“Help me up,” Captain Stone gasped. Barton gave him a hand.

Leon sat wiping a trickle of blood from his neck. The interior of the ship was a shambles. Most of the equipment was smashed and strewn about.

Vecchi made his way unsteadily to the hatch. With trembling fingers, he began to unscrew the heavy bolts.

“Well,” Barton said, “we’re back.”

“I can hardly believe it,” Merriweather murmured. The hatch came loose and they swung it quickly aside. “It doesn’t seem possible. Good old Earth.”

“Hey, listen,” Leon gasped, as he clambered down to the ground. “Somebody get the camera.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Barton said, laughing.

“Get it!” Stone yelled.

“Yes, get it,” Merriweather said. “Like we planned, if we ever got back. A historic record, for the schoolbooks.”

Vecchi rummaged around among the debris. “It’s sort of banged up,” he said. He held up the dented camera.

“Maybe it’ll work anyhow,” Parkhurst said, panting with exertion as he followed Leon outside. “How’re we going to take all six of us? Somebody has to snap the shutter.”

“I’ll set it for time,” Stone said, taking the camera and adjusting the knobs. “Everybody line up.” He pushed a button, and joined the others.

The six bearded, tattered men stood by their smashed ship, as the camera ticked. They gazed across the green countryside, awed and suddenly silent. They glanced at each other, eyes bright.

“We’re back!” Stone shouted. “We’re back!”

War Game

In his office at the Terran Import Bureau of Standards, the tall man gathered up the morning’s memos from their wire basket, and, seating himself at his desk, arranged them for reading. He put on his iris lenses, lit a cigarette.

“Good morning,” the first memo said in its tinny, chattery voice, as Wiseman ran his thumb along the line of pasted tape. Staring off through the open window at the parking lot, he listened to it idly. “Say, look, what’s wrong with you people down there? We sent that lot of”—a pause as the speaker, the sales manager of a chain of New York department stores, found his records—“those Ganymedean toys. You realize we have to get them approved in time for the autumn buying plan, so we can get them stocked for Christmas.” Grumbling, the sales manager concluded, “War games are going to be an important item again this year. We intend to buy big.”

Wiseman ran his thumb down to the speaker’s name and title.

“Joe Hauck,” the memo-voice chattered. “Appeley’s Children’s.”

To himself, Wiseman said, “Ah.” He put down the memo, got a blank and prepared to replay. And then he said, half-aloud, “Yes, what about that lot of Ganymedean toys?”

It seemed like a long time that the testing labs had been on them. At least two weeks.

Of course, any Ganymedean products got special attention these days; the Moons had, during the last year, gotten beyond their usual state of economic greed and had begun—according to intelligence circles—mulling overt military action against competitive interest, of which the Inner Three planets could be called the foremost element. But so far nothing had shown up. Exports remained of adequate quality, with no special jokers, no toxic paint to be licked off, no capsules of bacteria.

And yet....

Any group of people as inventive as the Ganymedeans could be expected to show creativity in whatever field they entered. Subversion would be tackled like any other venture—with imagination and a flair for wit.

Wiseman got to his feet and left his office, in the direction of the separate building in which the testing labs operated.

Surrounded by half-disassembled consumers’ products, Pinario looked up to see his boss, Leon Wiseman, shutting the final door of the lab.

“I’m glad you came down,” Pinario said, although actually he was stalling; he knew that he was at least five days behind in his work, and this session was going to mean trouble. “Better put on a prophylaxis suit—don’t want to take risks.” He spoke pleasantly, but Wiseman’s expression remained dour.

“I’m here about those inner-citadel-storming shock troops at six dollars a set,” Wiseman said, strolling among the stacks of many-sized unopened products waiting to be tested and released.

“Oh, that set of Ganymedean toy soldiers,” Pinario said with relief. His conscience was clear on that item; every tester in the labs knew the special instructions handed down by the Cheyenne Government on the Dangers of Contamination from Culture Particles Hostile to Innocent Urban Populations, a typically muddy ukase from officialdom. He could always—legitimately—fall back and cite the number of that directive. “I’ve got them off by themselves,” he said, walking over to accompany Wiseman, “due to the special danger involved.”

“Let’s have a look,” Wiseman said. “Do you believe there’s anything in this caution, or is it more paranoia about ‘alien milieux’?”

Pinario said, “It’s justified, especially where children’s artifacts are concerned.”

A few hand-signals, and a slab of wall exposed a side room.

Propped up in the center was a sight that caused Wiseman to halt. A plastic life-size dummy of a child, perhaps five years in appearance, wearing ordinary clothes, sat surrounded by toys. At this moment, the dummy was saying, “I’m tired of that. Do something else.” It paused a short time, and then repeated, “I’m tired of that. Do something else.”

The toys on the floor, triggered to respond to oral instructions, gave up their various occupations, and started afresh.

“It saves on labor costs,” Pinario explained. “This is a crop of junk that’s got an entire repertoire to go through, before the buyer has his money’s worth. If we stuck around to keep them active, we’d be in here all the time.”

Directly before the dummy was the group of Ganymedean soldiers, plus the citadel which they had been built to storm. They had been sneaking up on it in an elaborate pattern, but, at the dummy’s utterance, they had halted. Now they were regrouping.

“You’re getting this all on tape?” Wiseman asked.

“Oh, yes,” Pinario said.

The model soldiers stood approximately six inches high, made from the almost indestructible thermoplastic compounds that the Ganymedean manufacturers were famous for. Their uniforms were synthetic, a hodgepodge of various military costumes from the Moons and nearby planets. The citadel itself, a block of ominous dark metal-like stuff, resembled a legendary fort; peepholes dotted its upper surfaces, a drawbridge had been drawn up out of sight, and from the top turret a gaudy flag waved.

With a whistling pop, the citadel fired a projectile at its attackers. The projectile exploded in a cloud of harmless smoke and noise, among a cluster of soldiers.

“It fights back,” Wiseman observed.

“But ultimately it loses,” Pinario said. “It has to. Psychologically speaking, it symbolizes the external reality. The dozen soldiers, of course, represent to the child his own efforts to cope. By participating in the storming of the citadel, the child undergoes a sense of adequacy in dealing with the harsh world. Eventually he prevails, but only after a painstaking period of effort and patience.” He added, “Anyhow, that’s what the instruction booklet says.” He handed Wiseman the booklet.

Glancing over the booklet, Wiseman asked, “And their pattern of assault varies each time?”

“We’ve had it running for eight days now. The same pattern hasn’t cropped up twice. Well, you’ve got quite a few units involved.”

The soldiers were sneaking around, gradually nearing the citadel. On the walls, a number of monitoring devices appeared and began tracking the soldiers. Utilizing other toys being tested, the soldiers concealed themselves.

“They can incorporate accidental configurations of terrain,” Pinario explained. “They’re object-tropic; when they see, for example, a dollhouse here for testing, they climb into it like mice. They’ll be all through it.” To prove his point, he picked up a large toy spaceship manufactured by a Uranian company; shaking it, he spilled two soldiers from it.

“How many times do they take the citadel,” Wiseman asked, “on a percentage basis?”

“So far, they’ve been successful one out of nine tries. There’s an adjustment in the back of the citadel. You can set it for a higher yield of successful tries.”

He threaded a path through the advancing soldiers; Wiseman accompanied him, and they bent down to inspect the citadel.

“This is actually the power supply,” Pinario said. “Cunning. Also, the instructions to the soldiers emanate from it. High-frequency transmission, from a shot-box.”

Opening the back of the citadel, he showed his boss the container of shot.

Each shot was an instruction iota. For an assault pattern, the shot were tossed up, vibrated, allowed to settle in a new sequence. Randomness was thereby achieved. But since there was a finite number of shot, there had to be a finite number of patterns.

“We’re trying them all,” Pinario said.

“And there’s no way to speed it up?”

“It’ll just have to take time. It may run through a thousand patterns and then—”

“The next one,” Wiseman finished, “may have them make a ninety-degree turn and start firing at the nearest human being.”

Pinario said somberly, “Or worse. There’re a good deal of ergs in that power pack. It’s made to put out for five years. But if it all went into something simultaneously—”

“Keep testing,” Wiseman said.

They looked at each other and then at the citadel. The soldiers had by now almost reached it. Suddenly one wall of the citadel flapped down, a gun-muzzle appeared, and the soldiers had been flattened.

“I never saw that before,” Pinario murmured.

For a moment nothing stirred. And then the lab’s child-dummy, seated among its toys, said, “I’m tired of that. Do something else.”

With a tremor of uneasiness, the two men watched the soldiers pick themselves up and regroup.

Two days later, Wiseman’s superior, a heavy-set, short, angry man with popping eyes, appeared in his office. “Listen,” Fowler said, “you get those damn toys out of testing. I’ll give you until tomorrow.” He started back out, but Wiseman stopped him.

“This is too serious,” he said. “Come down to the lab and I’ll show you.”

Arguing all the way, Fowler accompanied him to the lab. “You have no concept of the capital some of these firms have invested in this stuff!” he was saying as they entered. “For every product you’ve got represented here, there’s a ship or a warehouse full on Luna, waiting for official clearance so it can come in!”

Pinario was nowhere in sight. So Wiseman used his key, by-passing the hand-signals that opened up the testing room.

There, surrounded by toys, sat the dummy that the lab men had built. Around it the numerous toys went through their cycles. The racket made Fowler wince.

“This is the item in particular,” Wiseman said, bending down by the citadel. A soldier was in the process of squirming on his belly toward it. “As you can see, there are a dozen soldiers. Given that many, and the energy available to them, plus the complex instruction data—”

Fowler interrupted, “I see only eleven.”

“One’s probably hiding,” Wiseman said.

From behind them, a voice said, “No, he’s right.” Pinario, a rigid expression on his face, appeared. “I’ve been having a search made. One is gone.”

The three men were silent.

“Maybe the citadel destroyed him,” Wiseman finally suggested.

Pinario said, “There’s a law of matter dealing with that. If it ‘destroyed’ him—what did it do with the remains?”

“Possibly converted him into energy,” Fowler said, examining the citadel and the remaining soldiers.

“We did something ingenious,” Pinario said, “when we realized that a soldier was gone. We weighed the remaining eleven plus the citadel. Their combined weight is exactly equal to that of the original set—the original dozen soldiers and the citadel. So he’s in there somewhere.” He pointed at the citadel, which at the moment was pinpointing the soldiers advancing toward it.

Studying the citadel, Wiseman had a deep intuitive feeling. It had changed. It was, in some manner, different.

“Run your tapes,” Wiseman said.

“What?” asked Pinario, and then he flushed. “Of course.” Going to the child-dummy, he shut it off, opened it, and removed the drum of video recording tape. Shakily, he carried it to the projector.

They sat watching the recording sequences flash by: one assault after another, until the three of them were bleary-eyed. The soldiers advanced, retreated, were fired on, picked themselves up, advanced again…

“Stop the transport,” Wiseman said suddenly.

The last sequence was re-run.

A soldier moved steadily toward the base of the citadel. A missile, fired at him, exploded and for a time obscured him. Meanwhile, the other eleven soldiers scurried in a wild attempt to mount the walls. The soldier emerged from the cloud of dust and continued. He reached the wall. A section slid back.

The soldier, blending with the dingy wall of the citadel, used the end of his rifle as a screwdriver to remove his head, then one arm, then both legs. The disassembled pieces were passed into the aperture of the citadel. When only the arm and rifle remained, that, too, crawled into the citadel, worming blindly, and vanished. The aperture slid out of existence.

After a long time, Fowler said in a hoarse voice, “The presumption by the parent would be that the child had lost or destroyed one of the soldiers. Gradually the set would dwindle—with the child getting the blame.”

Pinario said, “What do you recommend?”

“Keep it in action,” Fowler said, with a nod from Wiseman. “Let it work out its cycle. But don’t leave it alone.”

“I’ll have somebody in the room with it from now on,” Pinario agreed.

“Better yet, stay with it yourself,” Fowler said.

To himself, Wiseman thought: Maybe we all better stay with it. At least two of us, Pinario and myself.

I wonder what it did with the pieces, he thought.

What did it make?

By the end of the week, the citadel had absorbed four more of the soldiers.

Watching it through a monitor, Wiseman could see in it no visible change. Naturally. The growth would be strictly internal, down out of sight.

On and on the eternal assaults, the soldiers wriggling up, the citadel firing in defense. Meanwhile, he had before him a new series of Ganymedean products. More recent children’s toys to be inspected.

“Now what?” he asked himself.

The first was an apparently simple item: a cowboy costume from the ancient American West. At least, so it was described. But he paid only cursory attention to the brochure: the hell with what the Ganymedeans had to say about it.

Opening the box, he laid out the costume. The fabric had a gray, amorphous quality. What a miserably bad job, he thought. It only vaguely resembled a cowboy suit; the lines seemed unformed, hesitant. And the material stretched out of shape as he handled it. He found that he had pulled an entire section of it into a pocket that hung down.

“I don’t get it,” he said to Pinario. “This won’t sell.”

“Put it on,” Pinario said. “You’ll see.”

With effort, Wiseman managed to squeeze himself into the suit. “Is it safe?” he asked.

“Yes,” Pinario said. “I had it on earlier. This is a more benign idea. But it could be effective. To start it into action, you fantasize.”

“Along what lines?”

“Any lines.”

The suit made Wiseman think of cowboys, and so he imagined to himself that he was back at the ranch, trudging along the gravel road by the field in which black-faced sheep munched hay with that odd, rapid grinding motion of their lower jaws. He had stopped at the fence—barbed wire and occasional upright posts—and watched the sheep. Then, without warning, the sheep lined up and headed off, in the direction of a shaded hillside beyond his range of vision.

He saw trees, cypress growing against the skyline. A chicken hawk, far up, flapped its wings in a pumping action … as if, he thought, it’s filling itself with more air, to rise higher. The hawk glided energetically off, then sailed at a leisurely pace. Wiseman looked for a sign of its prey. Nothing but the dry mid-summer fields munched flat by the sheep. Frequent grasshoppers. And, on the road itself, a toad. The toad had burrowed into the loose dirt; only its top part was visible.

As he bent down, trying to get up enough courage to touch the warty top of the toad’s head, a man’s voice said nearby him, “How do you like it?”

“Fine,” Wiseman said. He took a deep breath of the dry grass smell; he filled his lungs. “Hey, how do you tell a female toad from a male toad? By the spots, or what?”

“Why?” asked the man, standing behind him slightly out of sight.

“I’ve got a toad here.”

“Just for the record,” the man said, “can I ask you a couple of questions?”

“Sure,” Wiseman said.

“How old are you?”

That was easy. “Ten years and four months,” he said, with pride.

“Where exactly are you, at this moment?”

“Out in the country, Mr. Gaylord’s ranch, where my dad takes me and my mother every weekend when we can.”

“Turn around and look at me,” the man said. “And tell me if you know me.”

With reluctance, he turned from the half-buried toad to look. He saw an adult with a thin face and a long, somewhat irregular nose. “You’re the man who delivers the butane gas,” he said. “For the butane company.” He glanced around, and sure enough, there was the truck, parked by the butane gate. “My dad says butane is expensive, but there’s no other—”

The man broke in, “Just for the sake of curiosity, what’s the name of the butane company?”

“It’s right on the truck,” Wiseman said, reading the large painted letters. “Pinario Butane Distributors, Petaluma, California. You’re Mr. Pinario.”

“Would you be willing to swear that you’re ten years old, standing in a field near Petaluma, California?” Mr. Pinario asked.

“Sure.” He could see, beyond the field, a range of wooded hills. Now he wanted to investigate them; he was tired of standing around gabbing. “I’ll see you,” he said, starting off. “I have to go get some hiking done.”

He started running, away from Pinario, down the gravel road. Grasshoppers leaped away, ahead of him. Gasping, he ran faster and faster.

“Leon!” Mr. Pinario called after him. “You might as well give up! Stop running!”

“I’ve got business in those hills,” Wiseman panted, still jogging along. Suddenly something struck him full force; he sprawled on his hands, tried to get back up. In the dry midday air, something shimmered; he felt fear and pulled away from it. A shape formed, a flat wall…

“You won’t get to those hills,” Mr. Pinario said, from behind him. “Better stay in roughly one place. Otherwise you collide with things.”

Wiseman’s hands were damp with blood; he had cut himself falling. In bewilderment, he stared down at the blood…

Pinario helped him out of the cowboy suit, saying, “It’s as unwholesome a toy as you could want. A short period with it on, and the child would be unable to face contemporary reality. Look at you.”

Standing with difficulty, Wiseman inspected the suit; Pinario had forcibly taken it from him.

“Not bad,” he said in a trembling voice. “It obviously stimulates the withdrawal tendencies already present. I know I’ve always had a latent retreat fantasy toward my childhood. That particular period, when we lived in the country.”

“Notice how you incorporated real elements into it,” Pinario said, “to keep the fantasy going as long as possible. If you’d had time, you would have figured a way of incorporating the lab wall into it, possibly as the side of a barn.”

Wiseman admitted, “I—already had started to see the old dairy building, where the farmers brought their market milk.”

“In time,” Pinario said, “it would have been next to impossible to get you out of it.”

To himself, Wiseman thought, If it could do that to an adult, just imagine the effect on a child.

“That other thing you have there,” Pinario said, “that game, it’s a screwball notion. You feel like looking at it now? It can wait.”

“I’m okay,” Wiseman said. He picked up the third item and began to open it.

“A lot like the old game of Monopoly,” Pinario said. “It’s called Syndrome.”

The game consisted of a board, plus play money, dice, pieces to represent the players. And stock certificates.

“You acquire stock,” Pinario said, “same as in all this kind, obviously.” He didn’t even bother to look at the instructions. “Let’s get Fowler down here and play a hand; it takes at least three.”

Shortly, they had the Division Director with them. The three men seated themselves at a table, the game of Syndrome in the center.

“Each player starts out equal with the others,” Pinario explained, “same as all this type, and during the play, their statuses change according to the worth of the stock they acquire in various economic syndromes.”

The syndromes were represented by small, bright plastic objects, much like the archaic hotels and houses of Monopoly.

They threw the dice, moved their counters along the board, bid for and acquired property, paid fines, collected fines, went to the “decontamination chamber” for a period. Meanwhile, behind them, the seven model soldiers crept up on the citadel again and again.

“I’m tired of that,” the child-dummy said. “Do something else.”

The soldiers regrouped. Once more they started out, getting nearer and nearer the citadel.

Restless and irritable, Wiseman said, “I wonder how long that damn thing has to go on before we find out what it’s for.”

“No telling.” Pinario eyed a purple-and-gold share of stock that Fowler had acquired. “I can use that,” he said. “That’s a heavy uranium mine stock on Pluto. What do you want for it?”

“Valuable property,” Fowler murmured, consulting his other stocks. “I might make a trade, though.”

How can I concentrate on a game, Wiseman asked himself, when that thing is getting closer and nearer to—God knows what? To whatever it was built to reach. Its critical mass, he thought.

“Just a second,” he said in a slow, careful voice. He put down his hand of stocks. “Could that citadel be a pile?”

“Pile of what?” Fowler asked, concerned with his hand.

Wiseman said loudly, “Forget this game.”

“An interesting idea,” Pinario said, also putting down his hand. “It’s constructing itself into an atomic bomb, piece by piece. Adding until—” He broke off. “No, we thought of that. There’re no heavy elements present in it. It’s simply a five-year battery, plus a number of small machines controlled by instructions broadcast from the battery itself. You can’t make an atomic pile out of that.”

“In my opinion,” Wiseman said, “we’d be safer getting it out of here.” His experience with the cowboy suit had given him a great deal more respect for the Ganymedean artificers. And if the suit was the benign one …

Fowler, looking past his shoulder, said, “There are only six soldiers now.” Both Wiseman and Pinario got up instantly. Fowler was right. Only half of the set of soldiers remained. One more had reached the citadel and been incorporated.

“Let’s get a bomb expert from the Military Services in here,” Wiseman said, “and let him check it. This is out of our department.” He turned to his boss, Fowler. “Don’t you agree?”

Fowler said, “Let’s finish this game first.”

“Why?”

“Because we want to be certain about it,” Fowler said. But his rapt interest showed that he had gotten emotionally involved and wanted to play to the end of the game. “What will you give me for this share of Pluto stock? I’m open to offers.”

He and Pinario negotiated a trade. The game continued for another hour. At last, all three of them could see that Fowler was gaining control of the various stocks. He had five mining syndromes, plus two plastics firms, an algae monopoly, and all seven of the retail trading syndromes. Due to his control of the stock, he had, as a byproduct, gotten most of the money.

“I’m out,” Pinario said. All he had left were minor shares which controlled nothing. “Anybody want to buy these?”

With his last remaining money, Wiseman bid for the shares. He got them and resumed playing, this time against Fowler alone.

“It’s clear that this game is a replica of typical interculture economic ventures,” Wiseman said. “The retail trading syndromes are obviously Ganymedean holdings.”

A flicker of excitement stirred in him; he had gotten a couple of good throws with the dice and was in a position to add a share to his meager holdings. “Children playing this would acquire a healthy attitude toward economic realities. It would prepare them for the adult world.”

But a few minutes later, he landed on an enormous tract of Fowler holdings, and the fine wiped out his resources. He had to give up two shares of stock; the end was in sight.

Pinario, watching the soldiers advance toward the citadel, said, “You know, Leon, I’m inclined to agree with you. This thing may be one terminal of a bomb. A receiving station of some kind. When it’s completely wired up, it might bring in a surge of power transmitted from Ganymede.”

“Is such a thing possible?” Fowler asked, stacking his play money into different denominations

“Who knows what they can do?” Pinario said, wandering around with his hands in his pockets. “Are you almost finished playing?”

“Just about,” Wiseman said.

“The reason I say that,” Pinario said, “is that now there’re only five soldiers. It’s speeding up. It took a week for the first one, and only an hour for the seventh. I wouldn’t be surprised if the rest go within the next two hours, all five of them.”

“We’re finished,” Fowler said. He had acquired the last share of stock and the last dollar.

Wiseman arose from the table, leaving Fowler. “I’ll call Military Services to check the citadel. About this game, though, it’s nothing but a steal from our Terran game Monopoly.”

“Possibly they don’t realize that we have the game already,” Fowler said, “under another name.”

A stamp of admissibility was placed on the game of Syndrome and the importer was informed. In his office, Wiseman called Military Services and told them what he wanted.

“A bomb expert will be right over,” the unhurried voice at the other end of the line said. “Probably you should leave the object alone until he arrives.”

Feeling somewhat useless, Wiseman thanked the clerk and hung up. They had failed to dope out the soldiers-and-citadel war game; now it was out of their hands.

The bomb expert was a young man, with close-cropped hair, who smiled friendlily at them as he set down his equipment. He wore ordinary coveralls, with no protective devices.

“My first advice,” he said, after he had looked the citadel over, “is to disconnect the leads from the battery. Or, if you want, we can let the cycle finish out, and then disconnect the leads before any reaction takes place. In other words, allow the last mobile elements to enter the citadel. Then, as soon as they’re inside, we disconnect the leads and open her up and see what’s been taking place.”

“Is it safe?” Wiseman asked.

“I think so,” the bomb expert said. “I don’t detect any sign of radioactivity in it.” He seated himself on the floor, by the rear of the citadel, with a pair of cutting pliers in his hand.

Now only three soldiers remained. “It shouldn’t be long,” the young man said cheerfully. Fifteen minutes later, one of the three soldiers crept up to the base of the citadel, removed his head, arm, legs, body, and disappeared piecemeal into the opening provided for him. “That leaves two,” Fowler said.

Ten minutes later, one of the two remaining soldiers followed the one ahead of him.

The four men looked at each other. “This is almost it,” Pinario said huskily.

The last remaining soldier wove his way toward the citadel. Guns within the citadel fired at him, but he continued to make progress.

“Statistically speaking,” Wiseman said aloud, to break some of the tension, “it should take longer each time, because there are fewer men for it to concentrate on. It should have started out fast, then got more infrequent until finally this last soldier should put in at least a month trying to—”

“Pipe down,” the young bomb expert said in a quiet, reasonable voice. “If you don’t mind.”

The last of the twelve soldiers reached the base of the citadel. Like those before him, he began to dissemble himself.

“Get those pliers ready,” Pinario grated.

The parts of the soldier traveled into the citadel. The opening began to close. From within, a humming became audible, a rising pitch of activity.

“Now, for God’s sake!” Fowler cried.

The young bomb expert reached down his pliers and cut into the positive lead of the battery. A spark flashed from the pliers and the young bomb expert jumped reflexively; the pliers flew from his hands and skidded across the floor. “Jeez!” he said. “I must have been grounded.” Groggily, he groped about for the pliers.

“You were touching the frame of the thing,” Pinario said excitedly. He grabbed the pliers himself and crouched down, fumbling for the lead. “Maybe if I wrap a handkerchief around it,” he muttered, withdrawing the pliers and fishing in his pocket for a handkerchief. “Anybody got anything I can wrap around this? I don’t want to get knocked flat. No telling how many—”

“Give it to me,” Wiseman demanded, snatching the pliers from him. He shoved Pinario aside and closed the jaws of the pliers about the lead.

Fowler said calmly, “Too late.”

Wiseman hardly heard his superior’s voice; he heard the constant tone within his head, and he put up his hands to his ears, futilely trying to shut it out. Now it seemed to pass directly from the citadel through his skull, transmitted by the bone. We stalled around too long, he thought. Now it has us. It won out because there are too many of us; we got to squabbling…

Within his mind, a voice said, “Congratulations. By your fortitude, you have been successful.”

A vast feeling pervaded him then, a sense of accomplishment.

“The odds against you were tremendous,” the voice inside his mind continued. “Anyone else would have failed.”

He knew then that everything was all right. They had been wrong.

“What you have done here,” the voice declared, “you can continue to do all your life. You can always triumph over adversaries. By patience and persistence, you can win out. The universe isn’t such an overwhelming place, after all…”

No, he realized with irony, it wasn’t.

“They are just ordinary persons,” the voice soothed. “So even though you’re the only one, an individual against many, you have nothing to fear. Give it time—and don’t worry.”

“I won’t,” he said aloud.

The humming receded. The voice was gone.

After a long pause, Fowler said, “It’s over.”

“I don’t get it,” Pinario said.

“That was what it was supposed to do,” Wiseman said. “It’s a therapeutic toy. Helps give the child confidence. The disassembling of the soldiers”—he grinned—“ends the separation between him and the world. He becomes one with it. And, in doing so, conquers it.”

“Then it’s harmless,” Fowler said.

“All this work for nothing,” Pinario groused. To the bomb expert, he said, “I’m sorry we got you up here for nothing.”

The citadel had now opened its gates wide. Twelve soldiers, once more intact, issued forth. The cycle was complete; the assault could begin again.

Suddenly Wiseman said, “I’m not going to release it.”

“What?” Pinario said. “Why not?”

“I don’t trust it,” Wiseman said. “It’s too complicated for what it actually does.”

“Explain,” Fowler demanded.

“There’s nothing to explain,” Wiseman said. “Here’s this immensely intricate gadget, and all it does is take itself apart and then reassemble itself. There must be more, even if we can’t—”

“It’s therapeutic,” Pinario put in.

Fowler said, “I’ll leave it up to you, Leon. If you have doubts, then don’t release it. We can’t be too careful.”

“Maybe I’m wrong,” Wiseman said, “but I keep thinking to myself: What did they actually build this for? I feel we still don’t know.”

“And the American Cowboy Suit,” Pinario added. “You don’t want to release that either.”

“Only the game,” Wiseman said. “Syndrome, or whatever it’s called.” Bending down, he watched the soldiers as they hustled toward the citadel. Bursts of smoke, again … activity, feigned attacks, careful withdrawals…

“What are you thinking?” Pinario asked, scrutinizing him.

“Maybe it’s a diversion,” Wiseman said. “To keep our minds involved. So we won’t notice something else.” That was his intuition, but he couldn’t pin it down. “A red herring,” he said. “While something else takes place. That’s why it’s so complicated. We were supposed to suspect it. That’s why they built it.”

Baffled, he put his foot down in front of a soldier. The soldier took refuge behind his shoe, hiding from the monitors of the citadel.

“There must be something right before our eyes,” Fowler said, “that we’re not noticing.”

“Yes.” Wiseman wondered if they would ever find it. “Anyhow,” he said, “we’re keeping it here, where we can observe it.”

Seating himself nearby, he prepared to watch the soldiers. He made himself comfortable for a long, long wait.

At six o’clock that evening, Joe Hauck, the sales manager for Appeley’s Children’s Store, parked his car before his house, got out, and strode up the stairs.

Under his arm he carried a large flat package, a “sample” that he had appropriated.

“Hey!” his two kids, Bobby and Lora, squealed as he let himself in. “You got something for us, Dad?” They crowded around him, blocking his path. In the kitchen, his wife looked up from the table and put down her magazine.

“A new game I picked for you,” Hauck said. He unwrapped the package, feeling genial. There was no reason why he shouldn’t help himself to one of the new games; he had been on the phone for weeks, getting the stuff through Import Standards—and after all was said and done, only one of the three items had been cleared.

As the kids went off with the game, his wife said in a low voice, “More corruption in high places.” She had always disapproved of his bringing home items from the store’s stock.

“We’ve got thousands of them,” Hauck said. “A warehouse full. Nobody’ll notice one missing.”

At the dinner table, during the meal, the kids scrupulously studied every word of the instructions that accompanied the game. They were aware of nothing else.

“Don’t read at the table,” Mrs. Hauck said reprovingly.

Leaning back in his chair, Joe Hauck continued his account of the day. “And after all that time, what did they release? One lousy item. We’ll be lucky if we can push enough to make a profit. It was that Shock Troop gimmick that would really have paid off. And that’s tied up indefinitely.”

He lit a cigarette and relaxed, feeling the peacefulness of his home, the presence of his wife and children.

His daughter said, “Dad, do you want to play? It says the more who play, the better.”

“Sure,” Joe Hauck said.

While his wife cleared the table, he and his children spread out the board, counters, dice and paper money and shares of stock. Almost at once he was deep in the game, totally involved; his childhood memories of game-playing swam back, and he acquired shares of stock with cunning and originality, until, toward the conclusion of the game, he had cornered most of the syndromes.

He settled back with a sigh of contentment. “That’s that,” he declared to his children. “Afraid I had a head start. After all, I’m not new to this type of game.” Getting hold of the valuable holdings on the board filled him with a powerful sense of satisfaction. “Sorry to have to win, kids.”

His daughter said, “You didn’t win.”

“You lost,” his son said.

What?” Joe Hauck exclaimed.

“The person who winds up with the most stock loses,” Lora said.

She showed him the instructions. “See? The idea is to get rid of your stocks. Dad, you’re out of the game.”

“The heck with that,” Hauck said, disappointed. “That’s no kind of game.” His satisfaction vanished. “That’s no fun.”

“Now we two have to play out the game,” Bobby said, “to see who finally wins.”

As he got up from the board, Joe Hauck grumbled, “I don’t get it. What would anybody see in a game where the winner winds up with nothing at all?”

Behind him, his two children continued to play. As stock and money changed hands, the children became more and more animated. When the game entered its final stages, the children were in a state of ecstatic concentration.

“They don’t know Monopoly,” Hauck said to himself, “so this screwball game doesn’t seem strange to them.”

Anyhow, the important thing was that the kids enjoyed playing Syndrome; evidently it would sell, and that was what mattered. Already the two youngsters were learning the naturalness of surrendering their holdings. They gave up their stocks and money avidly, with a kind of trembling abandon.

Glancing up, her eyes bright, Lora said, “It’s the best educational toy you ever brought home, Dad!”

If There Were No Benny Cemoli

Scampering across the unplowed field the three boys shouted as they saw the ship: it had landed, all right, just where they expected, and they were the first to reach it.

“Hey, that’s the biggest I ever saw!” Panting, the first boy halted. “That’s not from Mars; that’s from farther. It’s from all the way out, I know it is.” He became silent and afraid as he saw the size of it. And then looking up into the sky he realized that an armada had arrived, exactly as everyone had expected. “We better go tell,” he said to his companions.

Back on the ridge, John LeConte stood by his steam-powered chauffeur-driven limousine, impatiently waiting for the boiler to warm. Kids got there first, he said to himself with anger. Whereas I’m supposed to. And the children were ragged; they were merely farm boys.

“Is the phone working today?” LeConte asked his secretary.

Glancing at his clipboard, Mr. Fall said, “Yes, sir. Shall I put through a message to Oklahoma City?” He was the skinniest employee ever assigned to LeConte’s office. The man evidently took nothing for himself, was positively uninterested in food. And he was efficient.

LeConte murmured, “The immigration people ought to hear about this outrage.”

He sighed. It had all gone wrong. The armada from Proxima Centauri had after ten years arrived and none of the early-warning devices had detected it in advance of its landing. Now Oklahoma City would have to deal with the outsiders here on home ground—a psychological disadvantage which LeConte felt keenly.

Look at the equipment they’ve got, he thought as he watched the commercial ships of the flotilla begin to lower their cargos. Why, hell, they make us look like provincials. He wished that his official car did not need twenty minutes to warm up; he wished—

Actually, he wished that CURB did not exist.

Centaurus Urban Renewal Bureau, a do-gooding body unfortunately vested with enormous inter-system authority. It had been informed of the Misadventure back in 2170 and had started into space like a phototropic organism, sensitive to the mere physical light created by the hydrogen-bomb explosions. But LeConte knew better than that. Actually the governing organizations in the Centaurian system knew many details of the tragedy because they had been in radio contact with other planets of the Sol system. Little of the native forms on Earth had survived. He himself was from Mars; he had headed a relief mission seven years ago, had decided to stay because there were so many opportunities here on Earth, conditions being what they were…

This is all very difficult, he said to himself as he stood waiting for his steam-powered car to warm. We got here first, but CURB does outrank us; we must face that awkward fact. In my opinion, we’ve done a good job of rebuilding. Of course, it isn ‘t like it was before … but ten years is not long. Give us another twenty and we’ll have the trains running again. And our recent road-building bonds sold quite successfully, in fact were oversubscribed.

“Call for you, sir, from Oklahoma City,” Mr. Fall said, holding out the receiver of the portable field-phone.

“Ultimate Representative in the Field John LeConte, here,” LeConte said into it loudly. “Go ahead; I say go ahead.”

“This is Party Headquarters,” the dry official voice at the other end came faintly, mixed with static, in his ear. “We’ve received reports from dozens of alert citizens in Western Oklahoma and Texas of an immense—”

“It’s here,” LeConte said. “I can see it. I’m just about ready to go out and confer with its ranking members, and I’ll file a full report at the usual time. So it wasn’t necessary for you to check up on me.” He felt irritable.

“Is the armada heavily armed?”

“Naw,” LeConte said. “It appears to be comprised of bureaucrats and trade officials and commercial carriers. In other words, vultures.”

The Party desk-man said, “Well, go and make certain they understand that their presence here is resented by the native population as well as the Relief of War-torn Areas Administrating Council. Tell them that the legislature will be calling to pass a special bill expressing indignation at this intrusion into domestic matters by an inter-system body.”

“I know, I know,” LeConte said. “It’s all been decided; I know.”

His chauffeur called to him, “Sir, your car is ready now.”

The Party desk-man concluded, “Make certain they understand that you can’t negotiate with them; you have no power to admit them to Earth. Only the Council can do that and of course it’s adamantly against that.”

LeConte hung up the phone and hurried to his car.

Despite the opposition of the local authorities, Peter Hood of CURB decided to locate his headquarters in the ruins of the old Terran capital, New York City. This would lend prestige to the CURBmen as they gradually widened the circle of the organization’s influence. At last, of course, the circle would embrace the planet. But that would take decades.

As he walked through the ruins of what had once been a major train yard, Peter Hood thought to himself that when the task was done he himself would have long been retired. Not much remained of the pre-tragedy culture here. The local authorities—the political nonentities who had flocked in from Mars and Venus, as the neighboring planets were called—had done little. And yet he admired their efforts.

To the members of his staff walking directly behind him he said, “You know, they have done the hard part for us. We ought to be grateful. It is not easy to come into a totally destroyed area, as they’ve done.”

His man Fletcher observed, “They got back a good return.”

Hood said, “Motive is not important. They have achieved results.” He was thinking of the official who had met them in his steam car; it had been solemn and formal, carrying complicated trappings. When these locals had first arrived on the scene years ago they had not been greeted, except perhaps by radiation-seared, blackened survivors who had stumbled out of cellars and gaped sightlessly. He shivered.

Coming up to him, a CURBman of minor rank saluted and said, “I think we’ve managed to locate an undamaged structure in which your staff could be housed for the time being. It’s underground.” He looked embarrassed. “Not what we had hoped for. We’d have to displace the locals to get anything attractive.”

“I don’t object,” Hood said. “A basement will do.”

“The structure,” the minor CURBman said, “was once a great homeostatic newspaper, the New York Times. It printed itself directly below us. At least, according to the maps. We haven’t located the newspaper yet; it was customary for the homeopapes to be buried a mile or so down. As yet we don’t know how much of this one survived.”

“But it would be valuable,” Hood agreed.

“Yes,” the CURBman said. “Its outlets are scattered all over the planet; it must have had a thousand different editions which it put out daily. How many outlets function—” He broke off. “It’s hard to believe that the local politicos made no efforts to repair any of the ten or eleven world-wide homeopapes, but that seems to be the case.”

“Odd,” Hood said. Surely it would have eased their task. The post-tragedy job of reuniting people into a common culture depended on newspapers, ionization in the atmosphere making radio and TV reception difficult if not impossible. “This makes me instantly suspicious,” he said, turning to his staff. “Are they perhaps not trying to rebuild after all? Is their work merely a pretense?”

It was his own wife Joan who spoke up. “They may simply have lacked the ability to place the homeopapes on an operational basis.”

Give them the benefit of the doubt, Hood thought. You ‘re right.

“So the last edition of the Times” Fletcher said, “was put on the lines the day the Misadventure occurred. And the entire network of newspaper communication and news-creation had been idle since. I can’t respect these politicos; it shows they’re ignorant of the basics of a culture. By reviving the homeopapes we can do more to re-establish the pre-tragedy culture than they’ve done in ten thousand pitiful projects.” His tone was scornful.

Hood said, “You may misunderstand, but let it go. Let’s hope that the cephalon of the pape is undamaged. We couldn’t possibly replace it.” Ahead he saw the yawning entrance which the CURBmen crews had cleared. This was to be his first move, here on the ruined planet, restoring this immense self-contained entity to its former authority. Once it had resumed its activity he would be freed for other tasks; the homeopape would take some of the burden from him.

A workman, still clearing debris away, muttered, “Jeez, I never saw so many layers of junk. You’d think they deliberately bottled it up down here.” In his hands, the suction furnace which he operated glowed and pounded as it absorbed material, converting it to energy, leaving an increasingly enlarged opening.

“I’d like a report as soon as possible as to its condition,” Hood said to the team of engineers who stood waiting to descend into the opening. “How long it will take to revive it, how much—” He broke off.

Two men in black uniforms had arrived. Police, from the Security ship. One, he saw, was Otto Dietrich, the ranking investigator accompanying the armada from Centaurus, and he felt tense automatically; it was a reflex for all of them—he saw the engineers and the workmen cease momentarily and then, more slowly, resume their work.

“Yes,” he said to Dietrich. “Glad to see you. Let’s go off to this side room and talk there.” He knew beyond a doubt what the investigator wanted; he had been expecting him.

Dietrich said, “I won’t take up too much of your time, Hood. I know you’re quite busy. What is this, here?” He glanced about curiously, his scrubbed, round, alert face eager.

In a small side room, converted to a temporary office, Hood faced the two policemen. “I am opposed to prosecution,” he said quietly. “It’s been too long. Let them go.”

Dietrich, tugging thoughtfully at his ear, said, “But war crimes are war crimes, even four decades later. Anyhow, what argument can there be? We’re required by law to prosecute. Somebody started the war. They may well hold positions of responsibility now, but that hardly matters.”

“How many police troops have you landed?” Hood asked.

“Two hundred.”

“Then you’re ready to go to work.”

“We’re ready to make inquiries. Sequester pertinent documents and initiate litigation in the local courts. We’re prepared to enforce cooperation, if that’s what you mean. Various experienced personnel have been distributed to key points.” Dietrich eyed him. “All this is necessary; I don’t see the problem. Did you intend to protect the guilty parties—make use of their so-called abilities on your staff?”

“No,” Hood said evenly.

Dietrich said, “Nearly eighty million people died in the Misfortune. Can you forget that? Or is it that since they were merely local people, not known to us personally—”

“It’s not that,” Hood said. He knew it was hopeless; he could not communicate with the police mentality. “I’ve already stated my objections. I feel it serves no purpose at this late date to have trials and hangings. Don’t request use of my staff in this; I’ll refuse on the grounds that I can spare no one, not even a janitor. Do I make myself clear?”

“You idealists,” Dietrich sighed. “This is strictly a noble task confronting us… to rebuild, correct? What you don’t or won’t see is that these people will start it all over again, one day, unless we take steps now. We owe it to future generations. To be harsh now is the most humane method, in the long run. Tell me, Hood. What is this site? What are you resurrecting here with such vigor?”

“The New York Times,” Hood said.

“It has, I assume, a morgue? We can consult its backlog of information? That would prove valuable in building up our cases.”

Hood said, “I can’t deny you access to material we uncover.”

Smiling, Dietrich said, “A day by day account of the political events leading up to the war would prove quite interesting. Who, for instance, held supreme power in the United States at the time of the Misfortune? No one we’ve talked to so far seems to remember.” His smile increased.

Early the next morning the report from the corps of engineers reached Hood in his temporary office. The power supply of the newspaper had been totally destroyed. But the cephalon, the governing brain-structure which guided and oriented the homeostatic system, appeared to be intact. If a ship were brought close by, perhaps its power supply could be integrated into the newspaper’s lines. Thereupon much more would be known.

“In other words,” Fletcher said to Hood, as they sat with Joan eating breakfast, “it may come on and it may not. Very pragmatic. You hook it up and if it works you’ve done your job. What if it doesn’t? Do the engineers intend to give up at that point?”

Examining his cup, Hood said, “This tastes like authentic coffee.” He pondered. “Tell them to bring a ship in and start the homeopape up. And if it begins to print, bring me the edition at once.” He sipped his coffee.

An hour later a ship of the line had landed in the vicinity and its power source had been tapped for insertion into the homeopape. The conduits were placed, the circuits cautiously closed.

Seated in his office, Peter Hood heard far underground a low rumble, a halting, uncertain stirring. They had been successful. The newspaper was returning to life.

The edition, when it was laid on his desk by a bustling CURBman, surprised him by its accuracy. Even in its dormant state, the newspaper had somehow managed not to fall behind events. Its receptors had kept going.

Curb Lands, Trip Decade Long, Plans Central Administration

Ten years after the Misfortune of a nuclear holocaust, the inter-system rehabilitation agency, CURB, has made its historic appearance on Earth’s surface, landing from a veritable armada of craft—a sight which witnesses described as “overpowering both in scope and in significance.” CURBman Peter Hood, named top co-ordinator by Centaurian authorities, immediately set up headquarters in the ruins of New York City and conferred with aides, declaring that he had come “not to punish the guilty but to re-establish the planet-wide culture by every means available, and to restore—

It was uncanny, Hood thought as he read the lead article. The varied news-gathering services of the homeopape had reached into his own life, had digested and then inserted into the lead article even the discussion between himself and Otto Dietrich. The newspaper was—had been—doing its job. Nothing of news-interest escaped it, even a discreet conversation carried on with no outsiders as witnesses. He would have to be careful.

Sure enough, another item, ominous in tone, dealt with the arrival of the black jacks, the police.

Security Agency Vows “War Criminals” Target

Captain Otto Dietrich, supreme police investigator arriving with the CURB armada from Proxima Centauri, said today that those responsible for the Misfortune of a decade ago “would have to pay for their crimes” before the bar of Centaurian justice. Two hundred black-uniformed police, it was learned by the Times, have already begun exploratory activities designed to—

The newspaper was warning Earth about Dietrich, and Hood could not help feeling grim relish. The Times had not been set up to serve merely the occupying hierarchy. It served everyone, including those Dietrich intended to try. Each step of the police activity would no doubt be reported in full detail. Dietrich, who liked to work in anonymity, would not enjoy this. But the authority to maintain the newspaper belonged to Hood.

And he did not intend to shut it off.

One item on the first page of the paper attracted his further notice; he read it, frowning and a little uneasy.

Cemoli Backers Riot in Upstate New York

Supporters of Benny Cemoli, gathered in the familiar tent cities associated with the colorful political figure, clashed with local citizens armed with hammers, shovels, and boards, both sides claiming victory in the two-hour melee which left twenty injured and a dozen hospitalized in hastily-erected first aid stations. Cemoli, garbed as always in his toga-style red robes, visited the injured, evidently in good spirits, joking and telling his supporters that “it won’t be long now” an evident reference to the organization’s boast that it would march on New York City in the near future to establish what Cemoli deems “social justice and true equality for the first time in world history.” It should be recalled that prior to his imprisonment at San Quentin—

Flipping a switch on his intercom system, Hood said, “Fletcher, check into activities up in the north of the county. Find out about some sort of a political mob gathering there.”

Fletcher’s voice came back. “I have a copy of the Times, too, sir. I see the item about this Cemoli agitator. There’s a ship on the way up there right now; should have a report within ten minutes.” Fletcher paused. “Do you think—it’ll be necessary to bring in any of Dietrich’s people?”

“Let’s hope not,” Hood said shortly.

Half an hour later the CURB ship, through Fletcher, made its report.

Puzzled, Hood asked that it be repeated. But there was no mistake. The CURB field team had investigated thoroughly. They had found no sign whatsoever of any tent city or any group gathering. And citizens in the area whom they had interrogated had never heard of anyone named “Cemoli.” And there was no sign of any scuffle having taken place, no first aid stations, no injured persons. Only the peaceful, semi-rural countryside.

Baffled, Hood read the item in the Times once more. There it was, in black and white, on the front page, along with the news about the landing of the CURB armada. What did it mean?

He did not like it at all.

Had it been a mistake to revive the great, old, damaged homeostatic newspaper?

From a sound sleep that night Hood was awakened by a clanging from far beneath the ground, an urgent racket that grew louder and louder as he sat up in bed, blinking and confused. Machinery roared. He heard the heavy rumbling movement as automatic circuits fitted into place, responding to instructions emanating from within the closed system itself.

“Sir,” Fletcher was saying from the darkness. A light came on as Fletcher located the temporary overhead fixture. “I thought I should come in and wake you. Sorry, Mr. Hood.”

“I’m awake,” Hood muttered, rising from the bed and putting on his robe and slippers. “What’s it doing?”

Fletcher said, “It’s printing an extra.”

Sitting up, smoothing her tousled blonde hair back, Joan said, “Good Lord. What about?” Wide-eyed, she looked from her husband to Fletcher.

“We’ll have to bring in the local authorities,” Hood said. “Confer with them.” He had an intuition as to the nature of the extra roaring through the presses at this moment. “Get that LeConte, the politico who met us on our arrival. Wake him up and fly him here immediately. We need him.”

It took almost an hour to obtain the presence of the haughty, ceremonious local potentate and his staff member. The two of them in their elaborate uniforms at last put in an appearance at Hood’s office, both of them indignant. They faced Hood silently, waiting to hear what he wanted.

In his bathrobe and slippers Hood sat at his desk, a copy of the Times’ extra before him; he was reading it once more as LeConte and his man entered.

New York Police Report Cemoli Legions

On Move Toward City,

Barricades Erected, National Guard Alerted

He turned the paper, showing the headlines to the two Earthmen. “Who is this man?” he said.

After a moment LeConte said, “I—don’t know.”

Hood said, “Come on, Mr. LeConte.”

“Let me read the article,” LeConte said nervously. He scanned it in haste; his hands trembled as he held the newspaper. “Interesting,” he said at last. “But I can’t tell you a thing. It’s news to me. You must understand that our communications have been sparse, since the Misfortune, and it’s entirely possible that a political movement could spring up without our—”

“Please,” Hood said. “Don’t make yourself absurd.”

Flushing, LeConte stammered, “I’m doing the best I can, summoned out of my bed in the middle of the night.”

There was a stir, and through the office doorway came the rapidly-moving figure of Otto Dietrich, looking grim. “Hood,” he said without preamble, “there’s a Times kiosk near my headquarters. It just posted this.” He held up a copy of the extra. “The damn thing is running this off and distributing it throughout the world, isn’t it? However, we have crack teams up in that area and they report absolutely nothing, no road blocks, no militia-style troops on the move, no activity of any sort.”

“I know,” Hood said. He felt weary. And still, from beneath them, the deep rumble continued, the newspaper printing its extra, informing the world of the march by Benny Cemoli’s supporters on New York City—a fantasy march, evidently, a product manufactured entirely within the cephalon of the newspaper itself. “Shut it off,” Dietrich said. Hood shook his head.

“No. I want to know more.”

“That’s no reason,” Dietrich said. “Obviously, it’s defective. Very seriously damaged, not working properly. You’ll have to search elsewhere for your world-wide propaganda network.” He tossed the newspaper down on Hood’s desk.

To LeConte, Hood said, “Was Benny Cemoli active before the war?” There was silence. Both LeConte and his assistant Mr. Fall were pale and tense; they faced him tight-lipped, glancing at each other.

“I am not much for police matters,” Hood said to Dietrich, “but I think you could reasonably step in here.”

Dietrich, understanding, said, “I agree. You two men are under arrest. Unless you feel inclined to talk a little more freely about this agitator in the red toga.” He nodded to two of his police, who stood by the office doorway; they stepped obediently forward.

As the two policemen came up to him, LeConte said, “Come to think of it, there was such a person. But—he was very obscure.”

“Before the war?” Hood asked.

“Yes.” LeConte nodded slowly. “He was a joke. As I recall, and it’s difficult… a fat, ignorant clown from some backwoods area. He had a little radio station or something over which he broadcast. He peddled some sort of anti-radiation box which you installed in your house, and it made you safe from bomb-test fallout.”

Now his staff member Mr. Fall said, “I remember. He even ran for the UN senate. But he was defeated, naturally.”

“And that was the last of him?” Hood asked.

“Oh yes,” LeConte said. “He died of Asian flu soon after. He’s been dead for fifteen years.”

In a helicopter, Hood flew slowly above the terrain depicted in the Times articles, seeing for himself that there was no sign of political activity. He did not feel really assured until he had seen with his own eyes that the newspaper had lost contact with actual events. The reality of the situation did not coincide with the Times’ articles in any way; that was obvious. And yet—the homeostatic system continued on.

Joan, seated beside him, said, “I have the third article here, if you want to read it.” She had been looking the latest edition over.

“No,” Hood said.

“It says they’re in the outskirts of the city,” she said. “They broke through the police barricades and the governor has appealed for UN assistance.”

Thoughtfully, Fletcher said, “Here’s an idea. One of us, preferably you, Hood, should write a letter to the Times.” Hood glanced at him.

“I think I can tell you exactly how it should be worded,” Fletcher said. “Make it a simple inquiry. You’ve followed the accounts in the paper about Cemoli’s movement. Tell the editor—” Fletcher paused. “That you feel sympathetic and you’d like to join the movement. Ask the paper how.”

To himself, Hood thought, In other words ask the newspaper to put me in touch with Cemoli. He had to admire Fletcher’s idea. It was brilliant, in a crazy sort of way. It was as if Fletcher had been able to match the derangement of the newspaper by a deliberate shift from common sense on his own part. He would participate in the newspaper’s delusion. Assuming there was a Cemoli and a march on New York, he was asking a reasonable question.

Joan said, “I don’t want to sound stupid, but how does one go about mailing a letter to a homeopape?”

“I’ve looked into that,” Fletcher said. “At each kiosk set up by the paper there’s a letter-slot, next to the coin-slot where you pay for your paper. It was the law when the homeopapes were set up originally, decades ago. All we need is your husband’s signature.” Reaching into his jacket, he brought out an envelope. “The letter’s written.”

Hood took the letter, examined it. So we desire to be part of the mythical fat clown’s throng, he said to himself. “Won’t there be a headline reading CURB CHIEF JOINS MARCH ON EARTH CAPITAL?” he asked Fletcher, feeling a trace of wry amusement. “Wouldn’t a good, enterprising homeopape make front page use of a letter such as this?”

Obviously Fletcher had not thought of that; he looked chagrined. “I suppose we had better get someone else to sign it,” he admitted. “Some minor person attached to your staff.” He added, “I could sign it myself.”

Handing him the letter back, Hood said, “Do so. It’ll be interesting to see what response, if any, there is.” Letters to the editor, he thought. Letters to a vast, complex, electronic organism buried deep in the ground, responsible to no one, guided solely by its own ruling circuits. How would it react to this external ratification of its delusion? Would the newspaper be snapped back to reality?

It was, he thought, as if the newspaper, during these years of this enforced silence, had been dreaming, and now, reawakened, it had allowed portions of its former dreams to materialize in its pages along with its accurate, perceptive accounts of the actual situation. A blend of figments and sheer, stark reporting. Which ultimately would triumph? Soon, evidently, the unfolding story of Benny Cemoli would have the toga-wearing spellbinder in New York; it appeared that the march would succeed. And what then? How could this be squared with the arrival of CURB, with all its enormous inter-system authority and power? Surely the homeopape, before long, would have to face the incongruity.

One of the two accounts would have to cease … but Hood had an uneasy intuition that a homeopape which had dreamed for a decade would not readily give up its fantasies. Perhaps, he thought, the news of us, of CURB and its task of rebuilding Earth, will fade from the pages of the Times, will be given a steadily decreasing coverage each day, farther back in the paper. And at last only the exploits of Benny Cemoli will remain.

It was not a pleasant anticipation. It disturbed him deeply. As if, he thought, we are only real so long as the Times writes about us; as if we were dependent for our existence on it.

Twenty-four hours later, in its regular edition, the Times printed Fletcher’s letter. In print it struck Hood as flimsy and contrived—surely the homeopape could not be taken in by it, and yet here it was. It had managed to pass each of the steps in the pape’s processing.

Dear Editor:

Your coverage of the heroic march on the decadent plutocratic stronghold of New York City has fired my enthusiasm. How does an ordinary citizen become a part of this history in the making? Please inform me at once, as I am eager to join Cemoli and endure the rigors and triumphs with the others.

Cordially,

Rudolf Fletcher

Beneath the letter, the homeopape had given an answer; Hood read it rapidly.

Cemoli’s stalwarts maintain a recruiting office in downtown New York; address, 460 Bleekman St., New York 32. You might apply there, if the police haven’t cracked down on these quasi-legal activities, in view of the current crisis.

Touching a button on his desk, Hood opened the direct line to police headquarters. When he had the chief investigator, he said, “Dietrich, I’d like a team of your men; we have a trip to make and there may be difficulties.”

After a pause Dietrich said dryly, “So it’s not all noble reclamation after all. Well, we’ve already dispatched a man to keep an eye on the Bleekman Street address. I admire your letter scheme. It may have done the trick.” He chuckled.

Shortly, Hood and four black-uniformed Centaurian policemen flew by ‘copter above the ruins of New York City, searching for the remains of what had once been Bleekman Street. By the use of a map they managed after half an hour to locate themselves.

“There,” the police captain in charge of the team said, pointing. “That would be it, that building used as a grocery store.” The ‘copter began to lower. It was a grocery store, all right. Hood saw no signs of political activity, no persons loitering, no flags or banners. And yet—something ominous seemed to lie behind the commonplace scene below, the bins of vegetables parked out on the sidewalk, the shabby women in long cloth coats who stood picking over the winter potatoes, the elderly proprietor with his white cloth apron sweeping with his broom. It was too natural, too easy. It was too ordinary. “Shall we land?” the police captain asked him.

“Yes,” Hood said. “And be ready.”

The proprietor, seeing them land in the street before his grocery store, laid his broom carefully to one side and walked toward them. He was, Hood saw, a Greek. He had a heavy mustache and slightly wavy gray hair, and he gazed at them with innate caution, knowing at once that they did not intend him any good. Yet he had decided to greet them with civility; he was not afraid of them.

“Gentlemen,” the Greek grocery store owner said, bowing slightly. “What can I do for you?” His eyes roved speculatively over the black Centaurian police uniforms, but he showed no expression, no reaction.

Hood said, “We’ve come to arrest a political agitator. You have nothing to be alarmed about.” He started toward the grocery store; the team of police followed, their side arms drawn.

“Political agitation here?” the Greek said. “Come on. It is impossible.”

He hurried after them, panting, alarmed now. “What have I done? Nothing at all; you can look around. Go ahead.” He held open the door of the store, ushering them inside. “See right away for yourself.”

“That’s what we intend to do,” Hood said. He moved with agility, wasting no time on conspicuous portions of the store; he strode directly on through.

The back room lay ahead, the warehouse with its cartons of cans, cardboard boxes stacked up on every side. A young boy was busy making a stock inventory; he glanced up, startled, as they entered. Nothing here, Hood thought. The owner’s son at work, that’s all. Lifting the lid of a carton Hood peered inside. Cans of peaches. And beside that a crate of lettuce. He tore off a leaf, feeling futile and—disappointed.

The police captain said to him in a low voice, “Nothing, sir.”

“I see that,” Hood said, irritably.

A door to the right led to a closet. Opening it, he saw brooms and a mop, a galvanized pail, boxes of detergents. And—There were drops of paint on the floor.

The closet, some time recently, had been repainted. When he bent down and scratched with his nail he found the paint still tacky. “Look at this,” he said, beckoning the police captain over. The Greek, nervously, said, “What’s the matter, gentlemen? You find something dirty and report to the board of health, is that it? Customers have complained—tell me the truth, please. Yes, it is fresh paint. We keep everything spick and span. Isn’t that in the public interest?”

Running his hands across the wall of the broom closet, the police captain said quietly, “Mr. Hood, there was a doorway here. Sealed up now, very recently.” He looked expectantly toward Hood, awaiting instructions. Hood said, “Let’s go in.”

Turning to his subordinates, the police captain gave a series of orders. From the ship, equipment was dragged, through the store, to the closet; a controlled whine arose as the police began the task of cutting into the wood and plaster.

Pale, the Greek said, “This is outrageous. I will sue.”

“Right,” Hood agreed. “Take us to court.” Already a portion of the wall had given way. It fell inward with a crash, and bits of rubble spilled down onto the floor. A white cloud of dust rose, then settled.

It was not a large room which Hood saw in the glare of the police flashlights. Dusty, without windows, smelling stale and ancient... the room had not been inhabited for a long, long time, he realized, and he warily entered. It was empty. Just an abandoned storeroom of some kind, its wooden walls scaling and dingy. Perhaps before the Misfortune the grocery store had possessed a larger inventory. More stocks had been available then, but now this room was not needed. Hood moved about, flashing his beam of light up to the ceiling and then down to the floor. Dead flies, entombed here … and, he saw, a few live ones which crept haltingly in the dust.

“Remember,” the police captain said, “it was boarded up just now, within the last three days. Or at least the painting was just now done, to be absolutely accurate about it.”

“These flies,” Hood said. “They’re not even dead yet.” So it had not even been three days. Probably the boarding-up had been done yesterday.

What had this room been used for? He turned to the Greek, who had come after them, still tense and pale, his dark eyes flickering rapidly with concern. This is a smart man, Hood realized. We will get little out of him.

At the far end of the storeroom the police flashlights picked out a cabinet, empty shelves of bare, rough wood. Hood walked toward it.

“Okay,” the Greek said thickly, swallowing. “I admit it. We have kept bootleg gin stored here. We became scared. You Centaurians—” He looked around at them with fear. “You’re not like our local bosses; we know them, they understand us. You! You can’t be reached. But we have to make a living.” He spread his hands, appealing to them.

From behind the cabinet the edge of something protruded. Barely visible, it might never have been noticed. A paper which had fallen there, almost out of sight; it had slipped down farther and farther. Now Hood took hold of it and carefully drew it out. Back up the way it had come.

The Greek shuddered.

It was, Hood saw, a picture. A heavy, middle-aged man with loose jowls stained black by the grained beginnings of a beard, frowning, his lips set in defiance. A big man, wearing some kind of uniform. Once this picture had hung on the wall and people had come here and looked at it, paid respect to it. He knew who it was. This was Benny Cemoli, at the height of his political career, the leader glaring bitterly at the followers who had gathered here. So this was the man.

No wonder the Times showed such alarm.

To the Greek grocery store owner, Hood said, holding up the picture, “Tell me. Is this familiar to you?”

“No, no,” the Greek said. He wiped perspiration from his face with a large red handkerchief. “Certainly not.” But obviously, it was.

Hood said, “You’re a follower of Cemoli, aren’t you?”

There was silence.

“Take him along,” Hood said to the police captain. “And let’s start back.” He walked from the room, carrying the picture with him.

As he spread the picture out on his desk, Hood thought, It isn’t merely a fantasy of the Times. We know the truth now. The man is real and twenty-four hours ago this portrait of him hung on a wall, in plain sight. It would still be there this moment, if CURB had not put in its appearance. We frightened them. The Earth peoplehave a lot to hide from us, and they know it. They are taking steps, rapidly and effectively, and we will be lucky if we can—

Interrupting his thoughts, Joan said, “Then the Bleekman Street address really was a meeting place for them. The pape was correct.”

“Yes,” Hood said.

“Where is he now?”

I wish I knew, Hood thought.

“Has Dietrich seen the picture yet?”

“Not yet,” Hood said.

Joan said, “He was responsible for the war and Dietrich is going to find it out.”

“No one man,” Hood said, “could be solely responsible.”

“But he figured largely,” Joan said. “That’s why they’ve gone to so much effort to eradicate all traces of his existence.”

Hood nodded.

“Without the Times” she said, “would we ever have guessed that such a political figure as Benny Cemoli existed? We owe a lot to the pape. They overlooked it or weren’t able to get to it. Probably they were working in such haste; they couldn’t think of everything, even in ten years. It must be hard to obliterate every surviving detail of a planet-wide political movement, especially when its leader managed to seize absolute power in the final phase.”

“Impossible to obliterate,” Hood said. A closed-off storeroom in the back of a Greek grocery store… that was enough to tell us what we needed to know. Now Dietrich’s men can do the rest. If Cemoli is alive they will eventually find him, and if he’s dead—they’ll be hard to convince, knowing Dietrich. They’ll never stop looking now.

“One good thing about this,” Joan said, “is that now a lot of innocent people will be off the hook. Dietrich won’t go around prosecuting them. He’ll be busy tracking down Cemoli.”

True, Hood thought. And that was important. The Centaurian police would be thoroughly occupied for a long time to come, and that was just as well for everyone, including CURB and its ambitious program of reconstruction.

If there had never been a Benny Cemoli, he thought suddenly, It would almost have been necessary to invent him. An odd thought… he wondered how it happened to come to him. Again he examined the picture, trying to infer as much as possible about the man from this flat likeness. How had Cemoli sounded? Had he gained power through the spoken word, like so many demagogues before him? And his writing… Maybe some of it would turn up. Or even tape recordings of speeches he had made, the actual sound of the man. And perhaps video tapes as well. Eventually it would all come to light; it was only a question of time. And then we will be able to experience for ourselves how it was to live under the shadow of such a man, he realized.

The line from Dietrich’s office buzzed. He picked up the phone. “We have the Greek here,” Dietrich said. “Under drug-guidance he’s made a number of admissions; you may be interested.”

“Yes,” Hood said.

Dietrich said, “He tells us he’s been a follower for seventeen years, a real old-timer in the Movement. They met twice a week in the back of his grocery store, in the early days when the Movement was small and relatively powerless. That picture you have—I haven’t seen it, of course, but Stavros, our Greek gentleman, told me about it—that portrait is actually obsolete in the sense that several more recent ones have been in vogue among the faithful for some time now. Stavros hung onto it for sentimental reasons. It reminded him of the old days. Later on when the Movement grew in strength, Cemoli stopped showing up at the grocery store, and the Greek lost out in any personal contact with him. He continued to be a loyal dues-paying member, but it became abstract for him.”

“What about the war?” Hood asked.

“Shortly before the war Cemoli seized power in a coup here in North America, through a march on New York City, during a severe economic depression. Millions were unemployed and he drew a good deal of support from them. He tried to solve the economic problems through an aggressive foreign policy—attacked several Latin American republics which were in the sphere of influence of the Chinese. That seems to be it, but Stavros is a bit hazy about the big picture … we’ll have to fill in more from other enthusiasts as we go along. From some of the younger ones. After all, this one is over seventy years old.”

Hood said, “You’re not going to prosecute him, I hope.”

“Oh, no. He’s simply a source of information. When he’s told us all he has on his mind we’ll let him go back to his onions and canned apple sauce. He’s harmless.”

“Did Cemoli survive the war?”

“Yes,” Dietrich said. “But that was ten years ago. Stavros doesn’t know if the man is still alive now. Personally I think he is, and we’ll go on that assumption until it’s proved false. We have to.” Hood thanked him and hung up.

As he turned from the phone he heard, beneath him, the low, dull rumbling. The homeopape had once more started into life.

“It’s not a regular edition,” Joan said, quickly consulting her wristwatch. “So it must be another extra. This is exciting, having it happen like this; I can’t wait to read the front page.”

What has Benny Cemoli done now? Hood wondered. According to the Times, in its misphased chronicling of the man’s epic… what stage, actually taking placeyears ago, has now been reached. Something climactic, deserving of an extra. It will be interesting, no doubt of that. The Times knows what is fit to print. He, too, could hardly wait.

In downtown Oklahoma City, John LeConte put a coin into the slot of the kiosk which the Times had long ago established there. The copy of the Times’ latest extra slid out, and he picked it up and read the headline briefly, spending only a moment on it to verify the essentials. Then he crossed the sidewalk and stepped once more into the rear seat of his chauffeur-driven steam car.

Mr. Fall said circumspectly, “Sir, here is the primary material, if you wish to make a word-by-word comparison.” The secretary held out the folder, and LeConte accepted it.

The car started up. Without being told, the chauffeur drove in the direction of Party headquarters. LeConte leaned back, lit a cigar and made himself comfortable.

On his lap, the newspaper blazed up its enormous headlines.

Cemoli Enters Coalition UN Government,

Temporary Cessation of Hostilities

To his secretary, LeConte said, “My phone, please.”

“Yes sir.” Mr. Fall handed him the portable field-phone. “But we’re almost there. And it’s always possible, if you don’t mind my pointing it out, that they may have tapped us somewhere along the line.”

“They’re busy in New York,” LeConte said. “Among the ruins.” In an area that hasn ‘t mattered as long as I can remember, he said to himself. However, possibly Mr. Fall’s advice was good; he decided to skip the phone call. “What do you think of this last item?” he asked his secretary, holding up the newspaper.

“Very success-deserving,” Mr. Fall said, nodding.

Opening his briefcase, LeConte brought out a tattered, coverless textbook. It had been manufactured only an hour ago, and it was the next artifact to be planted for the invaders from Proxima Centaurus to discover. This was his own contribution, and he was personally quite proud of it. The book outlined in massive detail Cemoli’s program of social change; the revolution depicted in language comprehensible to school children.

“May I ask,” Mr. Fall said, “if the Party hierarchy intends for them to discover a corpse?”

“Eventually,” LeConte said. “But that will be several months from now.” Taking a pencil from his coat pocket he wrote in the tattered textbook, crudely, as if a pupil had done it:

Down With Cemoli

Or was that going too far? No, he decided. There would be resistance. Certainly of the spontaneous, school boy variety. He added:

Where Are the Oranges?

Peering over his shoulder, Mr. Fall said, “What does that mean?”

“Cemoli promises oranges to the youth,” LeConte explained. “Another empty boast which the revolution never fulfills. That was Stavros’s idea … he being a grocer. A nice touch.” Giving it, he thought, just that much more semblance of verisimilitude. It’s the little touches that have done it.

“Yesterday,” Mr. Fall said, “when I was at Party headquarters, I heard an audio tape that had been made. Cemoli addressing the UN. It was uncanny; if you didn’t know—”

“Who did they get to do it?” LeConte asked, wondering why he hadn’t been in on it.

“Some nightclub entertainer here in Oklahoma City. Rather obscure, of course. I believe he specializes in all sorts of characterizations. The fellow gave it a bombastic, threatening quality … I must admit I enjoyed it.”

And meanwhile, LeConte thought, there are no war-crimes trials. We who were leaders during the war, on Earth and on Mars, we who held responsible posts—we are safe, at least for a while. And perhaps it will be forever. If our strategy continues to work. And if our tunnel to the cephalon of the homeopape, which took us five years to complete, isn’t discovered. Or doesn’t collapse.

The steam car parked in the reserved space before Party headquarters; the chauffeur came around to open the door and LeConte got leisurely out, stepping forth into the light of day, with no feeling of anxiety. He tossed his cigar into the gutter and then sauntered across the sidewalk, into the familiar building.

Novelty Act

Lights burned late in the great communal apartment building Abraham Lincoln, because this was All Souls night: the residents, all six hundred of them, were required by their charter to attend, down in the subsurface community hall. They filed in briskly, men, women and children; at the door Bruce Corley, operating their rather expensive new identification reader, checked each of them in turn to be sure that no one from outside, from another communal apartment building, got in. The residents submitted good-naturedly, and it all went very fast.

“Hey Bruce, how much’d it set us back?” asked old Joe Purd, oldest resident in the building; he had moved in with his wife and two children the day the building, in May of 1980, had been built. His wife was dead now and the children had grown up, married and moved on, but Joe remained.

“Plenty,” Bruce Corley said, “but it’s error-proof; I mean, it isn’t just subjective.” Up to now, in his permanent job as sergeant of arms, he had admitted people merely by his ability to recognize them. But that way he had at last let in a pair of goons from Red Robin Hill Manor and they had disrupted the entire meeting with their questions and comments. It would not happen again.

Passing out copies of the agenda, Mrs. Wells smiled fixedly and chanted, “Item 3A, Appropriation for Roof Repairs, has been moved to 4A. Please make a note of that.” The residents accepted their agendas and then divided into two streams flowing to opposite sides of the hall; the liberal faction of the building seated themselves on the right and the conservatives on the left, each conspicuously ignoring the existence of the other. A few uncommitted persons—newer residents or odd-balls—took seats in the rear, self-conscious and silent as the room buzzed with many small conferences. The tone, the mood of the room, was tolerant, but the residents knew that tonight there was going to be a clash. Presumably, both sides were prepared. Here and there documents, petitions, newspaper clippings rustled as they were read and exchanged, handed back and forth.

On the platform, seated at the table with the four governing building trustees, chairman Donald Klugman felt sick at his stomach. A peaceful man, he shrank from these violent squabbles. Even seated in the audience he found it too much for him, and here tonight he would have to take active part; time and tide had rotated the chair around to him, as it did to each resident in turn, and of course it would be the night the school issue reached its climax.

The room had almost filled and now Patrick Doyle, the current building sky pilot, looking none too happy in his long white robe, raised his hands for silence. “The opening prayer,” he called huskily, cleared his throat and brought forth a small card. “Everyone please shut their eyes and bow their heads.” He glanced at Klugman and the trustees, and Klugman nodded for him to continue. “Heavenly Father,” Doyle said, “we the residents of the communal apartment building Abraham Lincoln beseech You to bless our assembly tonight. Um, we ask that in Your mercy You enable us to raise the funds for the roof repairs which seem imperative. We ask that our sick be healed and our unemployed find jobs and that in processing applicants wishing to live amongst us we show wisdom in whom we admit and whom we turn away. We further ask that no outsiders get in and disrupt our law-abiding, orderly lives and we ask in particularly that lastly, if it be Thy will, that Nicole Thibodeaux be free of her sinus headaches which have caused her not to appear before us on TV lately, and that those headaches not have anything to do with that time two years ago, which we all recall, when that stagehand allowed that weight to fall and strike her on the head, sending her to the hospital for several days. Anyhow, amen.”

The audience agreed, “Amen.”

Rising from his chair, Klugman said, “Now, before the business of the meeting, we’ll have a few minutes of our own talent displayed for our enjoyment. First, the three Fettersmoller girls from apartment number 205. They will do a soft-shoe dance to the tune of ‘I’ll Build a Stairway to the Stars.’ ” He reseated himself, and onto the stage came the three little blonde-haired children, familiar to the audience from many talent shows in the past.

As the Fettersmoller girls in their striped pants and glittery silver jackets shuffled smilingly through their dance, the door to the outside hall opened and a late-comer, Edgar Stone, appeared.

He was late, this evening, because he had been grading test papers of his next-door neighbor, Mr. Ian Duncan, and as he stood in the doorway his mind was still on the test and the poor showing which Duncan—whom he barely knew—had made. It seemed to him that without even having finished the test he could see that Duncan had failed.

On the stage the Fettersmoller girls sang in their scratchy voices, and Stone wondered why he had come. Perhaps for no more reason than to avoid the fine, it being mandatory for the residents to be here, tonight. These amateur talent shows, put on so often, meant nothing to him; he recalled the old days when the TV set had carried entertainment, good shows put on by professionals. Now of course all the professionals who were any good were under contract to the White House, and the TV had become educational, not entertaining. Mr. Stone thought of great old late-late movies with comics such as Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, and then he looked once more at the Fettersmoller girls and groaned.

Corley, hearing him, glanced at him severely.

At least he had missed the prayer. He presented his identification to Corley’s new machine and it allowed him to pass down the aisle toward a vacant seat. Was Nicole watching this, tonight? Was a White House talent scout present somewhere in the audience? He saw no unfamiliar faces. The Fettersmoller girls were wasting their time. Seating himself, he closed his eyes and listened, unable to endure watching. They’ll never make it, he thought. They’ll have to face it, and so will their ambitious parents; they’re untalented, like the rest of us … Abraham Lincoln Apartments has added little to the cultural store of the nation, despite its sweaty, strenuous determination, and you are not going to be able to change that.

The hopelessness of the Fettersmoller girls’ position made him remember once more the test papers which Ian Duncan, trembling and waxen-faced, had pressed into his hands early that morning. If Duncan failed he would be even worse-off than the Fettersmoller girls because he would not even be living at Abraham Lincoln; he would drop out of sight—their sight, anyhow—and would revert to a despised and ancient status: he would find himself once more living in a dorm, working on a manual gang as they had all done back in their teens.

Of course he would also be refunded the money which he had paid for his apartment, a large sum which represented the man’s sole major investment in life. From one standpoint, Stone envied him. What would I do, he asked himself as he sat eyes closed, if I had my equity back right now, in a lump sum? Perhaps, he thought, I’d emigrate. Buy one of those cheap, illegal jalopies they peddle at those lots which—

Clapping hands roused him. The girls had finished, and he, too, joined in the applause. On the platform, Klugman waved for silence. “Okay, folks, I know you enjoyed that, but there’s lots more in store, tonight. And then there’s the business part of the meeting; we mustn’t forget that.” He grinned at them.

Yes, Stone thought. The business. And he felt tense, because he was one of the radicals at Abraham Lincoln who wanted to abolish the building’s grammar school and send their children to a public grammar school where they would be exposed to children from other buildings entirely. It was the kind of idea which met much opposition. And yet, in the last weeks, it had gained support. What a broadening experience it would be; their children would discover that people in other apartment buildings were no different from themselves. Barriers between people of all apartments would be torn down and a new understanding would come about.

At least, that was how it struck Stone, but the conservatives did not see it that way. Too soon, they said, for such mixing. There would be outbreaks of fights as the children clashed over which building was superior. In time it would happen … but not now, not so soon.

Risking the severe fine, Ian Duncan missed the assembly and remained in his apartment that evening, studying official Government texts on the religio-political history of the United States—relpol, as they were called. He was weak in this, he knew; he could barely comprehend the economic factors, let alone all the religious and political ideologies that had come and gone during the twentieth century, directly contributing to the present situation. For instance, the rise of the Democratic-Republican Party. Once it had been two parties, engaging in wasteful quarrels, in struggles for power, just the way buildings fought now. The two parties had merged, about 1985. Now there was just the one party, which had ruled a stable and peaceful society, and everyone belonged to it. Everyone paid dues and attended meetings and voted, each four years, for a new President—for the man they thought Nicole would like best.

It was nice to know that they, the people, had the power to decide who would become Nicole’s husband, each four years; in a sense it gave to the electorate supreme power, even above Nicole herself. For instance, this last man, Taufic Negal. Relations between him and the First Lady were quite cool, indicating that she did not like this most recent choice very much. But of course being a lady she would never let on.

When did the position of First Lady first begin to assume stature greater than that of President? the relpol text inquired. In other words, when did our society become matriarchal, Ian Duncan said to himself. Around about 1990; I know the answer to that. There were glimmerings before that; the change came gradually. Each year the President became more obscure, the First Lady became better known, more liked, by the public. It was the public which brought it about. Was it a need for mother, wife, mistress, or perhaps all three? Anyhow they got what they wanted; they got Nicole and she is certainly all three and more besides.

In the corner of his living room the television set said taaaaang, indicating that it was about to come on. With a sigh, Ian Duncan closed the official U.S. Government text book and turned his attention to the screen. A special, dealing with activities at the White House, he speculated. One more tour, perhaps, or a thorough scrutiny (in massively-detailed depth) of a new hobby or pursuit of Nicole’s. Has she taken up collecting bone-china cups? If so, we will have to view each and every Royal Albert blue.

Sure enough, the round, wattled features of Maxwell Jamison, the White House news secretary, appeared on the screen. Raising his hand, Jamison made his familiar gesture of greeting. “Evening, people of this land of ours,” he said solemnly. “Have you ever wondered what it would be like to descend to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean? Nicole has, and to answer that question she has assembled in the Tulip Room of the White House three of the world’s foremost oceanographers. Tonight she will ask them for their stories, and you will hear them, too, as they were taped live, just a short while ago through the facilities of the Unified Triadic Networks’ Public Affairs Bureau.”

And now to the White House, Ian Duncan said to himself. At least vicariously. We who can’t find our way there, who have no talents which might interest the First Lady even for one evening: we get to see in anyhow, through the carefully-regulated window of our television set.

Tonight he did not really want to watch, but it seemed expedient to do so; there might be a surprise quiz on the program, at the end. And a good grade on a surprise quiz might well offset the bad grade he had surely made on the recent political test, now being corrected by his neighbor Mr. Stone.

On the screen bloomed now lovely, tranquil features, the pale skin and dark, intelligent eyes, the wise and yet pert face of the woman who had come to monopolize their attention, on whom an entire nation, almost an entire planet, dwelt obsessively. At the sight of her, Ian Duncan felt engulfed by fear. He had failed her; his rotten test results were somehow known to her and although she would say nothing, the disappointment was there.

“Good evening,” Nicole said in her soft, slightly-husky voice.

“It’s this way,” Ian Duncan found himself mumbling. “I don’t have a head for abstractions; I mean, all this religio-political philosophy—it makes no sense to me. Couldn’t I just concentrate on concrete reality? I ought to be baking bricks or turning out shoes.” I ought to be on Mars, he thought, on the frontier. I’m flunking out here; at thirty-five I’m washed up, and she knows it. Let me go, Nicole, he thought in desperation. Don’t give me any more tests, because I don’t have a chance of passing them. Even this program about the ocean’s bottom; by the time it’s over I’ll have forgotten all the data. I’m no use to the Democratic-Republican Party.

He thought about his brother, then. Al could help me. Al worked for Loony Luke, at one of his jalopy jungles, peddling the little tin and plastic ships that even defeated people could afford, ships that could, if luck was with them, successfully make a one-way trip to Mars. Al, he said to himself, you could get me a jalopy—wholesale.

On the TV screen, Nicole was saying, “And really, it is a world of much enchantment, with luminous entities far surpassing in variety and in sheer delightful wonder anything found on other planets. Scientists compute that there are more forms of life in the ocean—”

Her face faded, and a sequence showing odd, grotesque fish segued into its place. This is part of the deliberate propaganda line, Ian Duncan realized. An effort to take our minds off of Mars and the idea of getting away from the Party… and from her. On the screen a bulbous-eyed fish gaped at him, and his attention, despite himself, was captured. Chrissakes, he thought, it is a weird world down there. Nicole, he thought, you’ve got me trapped. If only Al and I had succeeded; we might be performing right now for you, and we’d be happy. While you interviewed world-famous oceanographers Al and I would be discreetly playing in the background, perhaps one of the Bach “Two Part Inventions.”

Going to the closet of his apartment, Ian Duncan bent down and carefully lifted a cloth-wrapped object into the light. We had so much youthful faith in this, he recalled. Tenderly, he unwrapped the jug; then, taking a deep breath, he blew a couple of hollow notes on it. The Duncan Brothers and Their Two-man Jug Band, he and Al had been, playing their own arrangements for two jugs of Bach and Mozart and Stravinsky. But the White House talent scout—the skunk. He had never even given them a fair audition. It had been done, he told them. Jesse Pigg, the fabulous jug-artist from Alabama, had gotten to the White House first, entertaining and delighting the dozen and one members of the Thibodeaux family gathered there with his version of “Derby Ram” and “John Henry” and the like.

“But,” Ian Duncan had protested, “this is classical jug. We play late Beethoven sonatas.”

“We’ll call you,” the talent scout had said briskly. “If Nicky shows an interest at any time in the future.”

Nicky! He had blanched. Imagine being that intimate with the First Family. He and Al, mumbling pointlessly, had retired from the stage with their jugs, making way for the next act, a group of dogs dressed up in Elizabethan costumes portraying characters from Hamlet. The dogs had not made it, either, but that was little consolation.

“I am told,” Nicole was saying, “that there is so little light in the ocean depths that, well, observe this strange fellow.” A fish, sporting a glowing lantern before him, swam across the TV screen.

Startling him, there came a knock on the apartment door. With anxiety Duncan answered it; he found his neighbor Mr. Stone standing there, looking nervous.

“You weren’t at All Souls?” Mr. Stone said. “Won’t they check and find out?” He held in his hands Ian Duncan’s corrected test.

Duncan said, “Tell me how I did.” He prepared himself.

Entering the apartment, Stone shut the door after him. He glanced at the TV set, saw Nicole seated with the oceanographers, listened for a moment to her, then abruptly said in a hoarse voice, “You did fine.” He held out the test.

Duncan said, “I passed?” He could not believe it. He accepted the papers, examined them with incredulity. And then he understood what had happened. Stone had conspired to see that he passed; he had falsified the score, probably out of humanitarian motives. Duncan raised his head and they looked at each other, neither speaking. This is terrible, Duncan thought. What’ll I do now? His reaction amazed him, but there it was.

I wanted to fail, he realized. Why? So I can get out of here, so I would have an excuse to give up all this, my apartment and my job, and go. Emigrate with nothing more than the shirt on my back, in a jalopy that falls to pieces the moment it comes to rest in the Martian wilderness.

“Thanks,” he said glumly.

In a rapid voice, Stone said, “You can do the same for me sometime.”

“Oh yeah, be happy to,” Duncan said.

Scuttling back out of the apartment, Stone left him alone with the TV set, his jug and the falsely-corrected test papers, and his thoughts.

Al, you’ve got to help me, he said to himself. You’ve got to get me out of this; I can’t even fail on my own.

In the little structure at the back of Jalopy Jungle No. 3, Al Duncan sat with his feet on the desk, smoking a cigarette and watching passers-by, the sidewalk and people and stores of downtown Reno, Nevada. Beyond the gleam of the new jalopies parked with flapping banners and streamers cascading from them he saw a shape waiting, hiding beneath the sign that spelled out LOONY LUKE.

And he was not the only person to see the shape; along the sidewalk came a man and woman with a small boy trotting ahead of them, and the boy, with an exclamation, hopped up and down, gesturing excitedly. “Hey, Dad, look! You know what it is? Look, it’s the papoola.”

“By golly,” the man said with a grin, “so it is. Look, Marion, there’s one of those Martian creatures, hiding there under that sign. What do you say we go over and chat with it?” He started in that direction, along with the boy. The woman, however, continued along the sidewalk.

“Come on, Mom!” the boy urged.

In his office, Al lightly touched the controls of the mechanism within his shirt. The papoola emerged from beneath the LOONY LUKE sign, and Al caused it to waddle on its six stubby legs toward the sidewalk, its round, silly hat slipping over one antenna, its eyes crossing and uncrossing as it made out the sight of the woman. The tropism being established, the papoola trudged after her, to the delight of the boy and his father.

“Look, Dad, it’s following Mom! Hey Mom, turn around and see!”

The woman glanced back, saw the platter-like organism with its orange bug-shaped body, and she laughed. Everybody loves the papoola, Al thought to himself. See the funny Martian papoola. Speak, papoola; say hello to the nice lady who’s laughing at you.

The thoughts of the papoola, directed at the woman, reached Al. It was greeting her, telling her how nice it was to meet her, soothing and coaxing her until she came back up the sidewalk toward it, joining her boy and husband so that now all three of them stood together, receiving the mental impulses emanating from the Martian creature which had come here to Earth with no hostile plans, no capacity to cause trouble. The papoola loved them, too, just as they loved it; it told them so right now—it conveyed to them the gentleness, the warm hospitality which it was accustomed to on its own planet.

What a wonderful place Mars must be, the man and woman were no doubt thinking, as the papoola poured out its recollections, its attitude. Gosh, it’s not cold and schizoid, like Earth society; nobody spies on anybody else, grades their innumerable political tests, reports on them to building Security committees week in, week out. Think of it, the papoola was telling them as they stood rooted to the sidewalk, unable to pass on. You’re your own boss, there, free to work your land, believe your own beliefs, become yourself. Look at you, afraid even to stand here listening. Afraid to—

In a nervous voice the man said to his wife, “We better go.”

“Oh no,” the boy said pleadingly. “I mean, gee, how often do you get to talk to a papoola? It must belong to that jalopy jungle, there.” The boy pointed, and Al found himself under the man’s keen, observing scrutiny.

The man said, “Of course. They landed here to sell jalopies. It’s working on us right now, softening us up.” The enchantment visibly faded from his face. “There’s the man sitting in there operating it.”

But, the papoola thought, what I tell you is still true. Even if it is a sales pitch. You could go there, to Mars, yourself. You and your family can see with your own eyes—if you have the courage to break free. Can you do it? Are you a real man? Buy a Loony Luke jalopy … buy it while you still have the chance, because you know that someday, maybe not so long from now, the law is going to crack down. And there will be no more jalopy jungles. No more crack in the wall of the authoritarian society through which a few—a few lucky people—can escape.

Fiddling with the controls at his midsection, Al turned up the gain. The force of the papoola’s psyche increased, drawing the man in, taking control of him. You must buy a jalopy, the papoola urged. Easy payment plan, service warranty, many models to choose from. The man took a step toward the lot. Hurry, the papoola told him. Any second now the authorities may close down the lot and your opportunity will be gone forever.

“This is how they work it,” the man said with difficulty. “The animal snares people. Hypnosis. We have to leave.” But he did not leave; it was too late: he was going to buy a jalopy, and Al, in the office with his control box, was reeling the man in.

Leisurely, Al rose to his feet. Time to go out and close the deal. He shut off the papoola, opened the office door and stepped outside onto the lot—and saw a once-familiar figure threading its way among the jalopies, toward him. It was his brother Ian and he had not seen him in years. Good grief, Al thought. What’s he want? And at a time like this—

“Al,” his brother called, gesturing. “Can I talk with you a second? You’re not too busy, are you?” Perspiring and pale, he came closer, looking about in a frightened way. He had deteriorated since Al had last seen him.

“Listen,” Al said, with anger. But already it was too late; the couple and their boy had broken away and were moving rapidly on down the sidewalk.

“I don’t mean to bother you,” Ian mumbled.

“You’re not bothering me,” Al said as he gloomily watched the three people depart. “What’s the trouble, Ian? You don’t look very well; are you sick? Come on in the office.” He led his brother inside and shut the door.

Ian said, “I came across my jug. Remember when we were trying to make it to the White House? Al, we have to try once more. Honest to God, I can’t go on like this; I can’t stand to be a failure at what we agreed was the most important thing in our lives.” Panting, he mopped at his forehead with his handkerchief, his hands trembling.

“I don’t even have my jug any more,” Al said presently.

“You must. Well, we could each record our parts separately on my jug and then synthesize them on one tape, and present that to the White House. This trapped feeling; I don’t know if I can go on living with it. I have to get back to playing. If we started practicing right now on the ‘Goldberg Variations’ in two months we—”

Al broke in, “You still live at that place? That Abraham Lincoln?”

Ian nodded.

“And you still have that position down in Palo Alto, you’re still a gear inspector?” He could not understand why his brother was so upset. “Hell, if worse comes to worst you can emigrate. Jug-playing is out of the question; I haven’t played for years, since I last saw you in fact. Just a minute.” He dialed the knobs of the mechanism which controlled the papoola; near the sidewalk the creature responded and began to return slowly to its spot beneath the sign.

Seeing it, Ian said, “I thought they were all dead.”

“They are,” Al said.

“But that one out there moves and—

“It’s a fake,” Al said. “A puppet. I control it.” He showed his brother the control box. “It brings in people off the sidewalk. Actually, Luke is supposed to have a real one on which these are modeled. Nobody knows for sure and the law can’t touch Luke because technically he’s now a citizen of Mars; they can’t make him cough up the real one, if he does have it.” Al seated himself and lit a cigarette. “Fail your relpol test,” he said to Ian, “lose your apartment and get back your original deposit; bring me the money and I’ll see that you get a damn fine jalopy that’ll carry you to Mars. Okay?”

“I tried to fail my test,” Ian said, “but they won’t let me. They doctored the results. They don’t want me to get away.”

“Who’s ‘they’?”

“The man in the next apartment. Ed Stone, his name is. He did it deliberately; I saw the look on his face. Maybe he thought he was doing me a favor… I don’t know.” He looked around him. “This is a nice little office you have here. You sleep in it, don’t you? And when it moves, you move with it.”

“Yeah,” Al said, “we’re always ready to take off.” The police had almost gotten him a number of times, even though the lot could obtain orbital velocity in six minutes. The papoola had detected their approach, but not sufficiently far in advance for a comfortable escape; generally it was hurried and disorganized, with part of his inventory of jalopies being left behind.

“You’re just one jump ahead of them,” Ian mused. “And yet it doesn’t bother you. I guess it’s all in your attitude.”

“If they get me,” Al said, “Luke will bail me out.” The shadowy, powerful figure of his boss was always there, backing him up, so what did he have to worry about? The jalopy tycoon knew a million tricks. The Thibodeaux clan limited their attacks on him to deep-think articles in popular magazines and on TV, harping on Luke’s vulgarity and the shoddiness of his vehicles; they were a little afraid of him, no doubt.

“I envy you,” Ian said. “Your poise. Your calmness.”

“Doesn’t your apartment building have a sky pilot? Go talk to him.”

Ian said bitterly, “That’s no good. Right now it’s Patrick Doyle and he’s as bad off as I am. And Don Klugman, our chairman, is even worse off; he’s a bundle of nerves. In fact our whole building is shot through with anxiety. Maybe it has to do with Nicole’s sinus headaches.”

Glancing at his brother, Al saw that he was actually serious. The White House and all it stood for meant that much to him; it still dominated his life, as it had when they were boys. “For your sake,” Al said quietly, “I’ll get my jug out and practice. We’ll make one more try.”

Speechless, Ian gaped at him in gratitude.

Seated together in the business office of the Abraham Lincoln, Don Klugman and Patrick Doyle studied the application which Mr. Ian Duncan of no. 304 had filed with them. Ian desired to appear in the twice-weekly talent show, and at a time when a White House talent scout was present. The request, Klugman saw, was routine, except that Ian proposed to do his act in conjunction with another individual who did not live at Abraham Lincoln.

Doyle said, “It’s his brother. He told me once; the two of them used to have this act, years ago. Baroque music on two jugs. A novelty.”

“What apartment house does his brother live in?” Klugman asked. Approval of the application would depend on how relations stood between the Abraham Lincoln and the other building.

“None. He sells jalopies for that Loony Luke—you know. Those cheap little ships that get you just barely to Mars. He lives on one of the lots, I understand. The lots move around; it’s a nomadic existence. I’m sure you’ve heard.”

“Yes,” Klugman agreed, “and it’s totally out of the question. We can’t have that act on our stage, not with a man like that involved in it. There’s no reason why Ian Duncan can’t play his jug; it’s a basic political right and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a satisfactory act. But it’s against our tradition to have an outsider participate; our stage is for our own people exclusively, always has been and always will. So there’s no need even to discuss this.” He eyed the sky pilot critically.

“True,” Doyle said, “but it is a blood relative of one of our people, right? It’s legal for one of us to invite a relative to watch the talent shows … so why not let him participate? This means a lot to Ian; I think you know he’s been failing, lately. He’s not a very intelligent person. Actually, he should be doing a manual job, I suppose. But if he has artistic ability, for instance this jug concept—“

Examining his documents, Klugman saw that a White House scout would be attending a show at the Abraham Lincoln in two weeks. The best acts at the building would of course be scheduled that night… the Duncan Brothers and Their Baroque Jug Band would have to compete successfully in order to obtain that privilege, and there were a number of acts which—Klugman thought—were probably superior. After all, jugs…and not even electronic jugs, at that.

“All right,” he said aloud to Doyle. “I agree.”

“You’re showing your humane side,” the sky pilot said, with a grin of sentimentality which disgusted Klugman. “And I think we’ll all enjoy the Bach and Vivaldi as played by the Duncan Brothers on their inimitable jugs.”

Klugman, wincing, nodded.

On the big night, as they started into the auditorium on floor one of Abraham Lincoln Apartments, Ian Duncan saw, trailing along behind his brother, the flat, scuttling shape of the Martian creature, the papoola. He stopped short. “You’re bringing that along?”

Al said, “You don’t understand. Don’t we have to win?”

After a pause, Ian said, “Not that way.” He understood, all right; the papoola would take on the audience as it had taken on sidewalk traffic. It would exert its extra-sensory influence on them, coaxing out a favorable decision. So much for the ethics of a jalopy salesman, Ian realized. To his brother, this seemed perfectly normal; if they couldn’t win by their jug-playing they would win through the papoola.

“Aw,” Al said, gesturing, “don’t be your own worst enemy. All we’re engaged in here is a little subliminal sales technique, such as they’ve been using for a century—it’s an ancient, reputable method of swinging public opinion your way. I mean, let’s face it; we haven’t played the jug professionally in years.” He touched the controls at his waist and the papoola hurried forward to catch up with them. Again Al touched the controls—

And in Ian’s mind a persuasive thought came, Why not? Everyone else does it.

With difficulty he said, “Get that thing off me, Al.”

Al shrugged. And the thought, which had invaded Ian’s mind from without, gradually withdrew. And yet, a residue remained. He was no longer sure of his position.

“It’s nothing compared to what Nicole’s machinery can accomplish,” Al pointed out, seeing the expression on his face. “One papoola here and there, and that planet-wide instrument that Nicole has made out of TV—there you have the real danger, Ian. The papoola is crude; you know you’re being worked on. Not so when you listen to Nicole. The pressure is so subtle and so complete—”

“I don’t know about that,” Ian said, “I just know that unless we’re successful, unless we get to play at the White House, life as far as I’m concerned isn’t worth living. And nobody put that idea in my head. It’s just the way I feel; it’s my own idea, dammit.” He held the door open, and Al passed on into the auditorium, carrying his jug by the handle. Ian followed, and a moment later the two of them were on the stage, facing the partially-filled hall.

“Have you ever seen her?” Al asked.

“I see her all the time.”

“I mean in reality. In person. So to speak, in the flesh.”

“Of course not,” Ian said. That was the whole point of their being successful, of getting to the White House. They would see her really, not just the TV image; it would no longer be a fantasy—it would be true.

“I saw her once,” Al said. “I had just put the lot down, Jalopy Jungle No. 3, on a main business avenue in Shreveport, La. It was early in the morning, about eight o’clock. I saw official cars coming; naturally I thought it was the police—I started to take off. But it wasn’t. It was a motorcade, with Nicole in it, going to dedicate a new apartment building, the largest yet.”

“Yes,” Ian said. “The Paul Bunyan.” The football team from Abraham Lincoln played annually against its team, and always lost. The Paul Bunyan had over ten thousand residents, and all of them came from administrative-class backgrounds; it was an exclusive apartment building of active Party members, with uniquely high monthly payments.

“You should have seen her,” Al said thoughtfully as he sat facing the audience, his jug on his lap. He tapped the papoola with his foot; it had taken up a position beneath his chair, out of sight. “Yes,” he murmured, “you really should. It’s not the same as on TV, Ian. Not at all.”

Ian nodded. He had begun to feel apprehensive, now; in a few minutes they would be introduced. Their test had come.

Seeing him gripping his jug tautly, Al said, “Shall I use the papoola or not? It’s up to you.” He raised a quizzical brow.

Ian said, “Use it.”

“Okay,” Al said, reaching his hand inside his coat. Leisurely, he stroked the controls. And, from beneath his chair, the papoola rolled forth, its antennae twitching drolly, its eyes crossing and uncrossing.

At once the audience became alert; people leaned forward to see, some of them chuckling with delight.

“Look,” a man said excitedly. It was old Joe Purd, as eager as a child. “It’s the papoola!”

A woman rose to her feet to see more clearly, and Ian thought to himself, Everyone loves the papoola. We’ll win, whether we can play the jug or not. And then what? Will meeting Nicole make us even more unhappy than we are? Is that what we’ll get out of this: hopeless, massive discontent? An ache, a longing which can never be satisfied in this world?

It was too late to back out, now. The doors of the auditorium had shut and Don Klugman was rising from his chair, rapping for order. “Okay, folks,” he said into his lapel microphone. “We’re going to have a little display of some talent, right now, for everyone’s enjoyment. As you see on your programs, first in order is a fine group, the Duncan Brothers and their Classical Jugs with a medley of Bach and Handel tunes that ought to set your feet tapping.” He beamed archly at Ian and Al, as if saying, How does that suit you as an intro?

Al paid no attention; he manipulated his controls and gazed thoughtfully at the audience, then at last picked up his jug, glanced at Ian and then tapped his foot. “The Little Fugue in G Minor” opened their medley, and Al began to blow on the jug, sending forth the lively theme.

Bum, bum, bum. Bum-bum bum-bum bum bum de bum. DE bum, DE bum, de de-de bum … His cheeks puffed out red and swollen as he blew.

The papoola wandered across the stage, then lowered itself, by a series of gangly, foolish motions, into the first row of the audience. It had begun to go to work.

The news posted on the communal bulletin board outside the cafeteria of the Abraham Lincoln that the Duncan Brothers had been chosen by the talent scout to perform at the White House astounded Edgar Stone. He read the announcement again and again, wondering how the little nervous, cringing man had managed to do it.

There’s been cheating, Stone said to himself. Just as I passed him on his political tests … he’s got somebody else to falsify a few results for him along the talent line: He himself had heard the jugs; he had been present at that program, and the Duncan Brothers, Classical Jugs, were simply not that good. They were good, admittedly … but intuitively he knew that more was involved.

Deep inside him he felt anger, a resentment that he had falsified Duncan’s test-score. I put him on the road to success, Stone realized; I saved him. And now he’s on his way to the White House.

No wonder Duncan did so poorly on his political test, Stone said to himself. He was busy practicing on his jug; he has no time for the commonplace realities which the rest of us have to cope with. It must be great to be an artist, Stone thought with bitterness. You’re exempt from all the rules, you can do as you like.

He sure made a fool out of me, Stone realized.

Striding down the second floor hall, Stone arrived at the office of the building sky pilot; he rang the bell and the door opened, showing him the sight of the sky pilot deep in work at his desk, his face wrinkled with fatigue. “Urn, father,” Stone said, “I’d like to confess. Can you spare a few minutes? It’s very urgently on my mind, my sins I mean.”

Rubbing his forehead, Patrick Doyle nodded. “Jeez,” he murmured. “It either rains or it pours; I’ve had ten residents in today so far, using the confessionator. Go ahead.” He pointed to the alcove which opened onto his office. “Sit down and plug yourself in. I’ll be listening while I fill out these 4-10 forms from Boise.”

Filled with wrathful indignation, his hands trembling, Edgar Stone attached the electrodes of the confessionator to the correct spots of his scalp, and then, picking up the microphone, began to confess. The tape-drums of the machine turned as he spoke. “Moved by a false pity,” he said, “I infracted a rule of the building. But mainly I am concerned not with the act itself but with the motives behind it; the act merely is the outgrowth of a false attitude toward my fellow residents. This person, my neighbor Mr. Duncan, did poorly in his recent relpol test and I foresaw him being evicted from Abraham Lincoln. I identified with him because subconsciously I regard myself as a failure, both as a resident of this building and as a man, so I falsified his score to indicate that he had passed. Obviously, a new relpol test will have to be given to Mr. Duncan and the one which I scored will have to be voided.” He eyed the sky pilot, but there was no reaction.

That will take care of Ian Duncan and his Classical Jug, Stone said to himself.

By now the confessionator had analyzed his confession; it popped a card out, and Doyle rose to his feet wearily to receive it. After a careful study he glanced up. “Mr. Stone,” he said, “the view expressed here is that your confession is no confession. What do you really have on your mind? Go back and begin all over; you haven’t probed down deeply enough and brought up the genuine material. And I suggest you start out by confessing that you misconfessed consciously and deliberately.”

“No such thing,” Stone said, but his voice—even to him—sounded feeble. “Perhaps I could discuss this with you informally. I did falsify Ian Duncan’s test score. Now, maybe my motives for doing it—”

Doyle interrupted, “Aren’t you jealous of Duncan now? What with his success with the jug, White House-ward?”

There was silence.

“This could be,” Stone admitted at last. “But it doesn’t change the fact that by all rights Ian Duncan shouldn’t be living here; he should be evicted, my motives notwithstanding. Look it up in the Communal Apartment-building Code. I know there’s a section covering a situation like this.”

“But you can’t get out of here,” the sky pilot said, “without confessing; you have to satisfy the machine. You’re attempting to force eviction of a neighbor to fulfill your own emotional needs. Confess that, and then perhaps we can discuss the code ruling as it pertains to Duncan.”

Stone groaned and once more attached the electrodes to his scalp. “All right,” he grated. “I hate Ian Duncan because he’s artistically gifted and I’m not. I’m willing to be examined by a twelve-resident jury of my neighbors to see what the penalty for my sin is—but I insist that Duncan be given another relpol test! I won’t give up on this; he has no right to be living here among us. It’s morally and legally wrong!”

“At least you’re being honest, now,” Doyle said.

“Actually,” Stone said, “I enjoy jug band playing; I liked their music, the other night. But I have to act in what I believe to be the communal interest.”

The confessionator, it seemed to him, snorted in derision as it popped a second card. But perhaps it was only his imagination.

“You’re just getting yourself deeper,” Doyle said, reading the card. “Look at this.” He passed the card to Stone. “Your mind is a riot of confused, ambivalent motives. When was the last time you confessed?”

Flushing, Stone mumbled, “I think last August. Pepe Jones was the sky pilot, then.”

“A lot of work will have to be done with you,” Doyle said, lighting a cigarette and leaning back in his chair.

The opening number on their White House performance, they had decided after much discussion and argument, would be the Bach “Chaconne in D.” Al had always liked it, despite the difficulties involved, the double-stopping and all. Even thinking about the “Chaconne” made Ian nervous. He wished, now that it had been decided, that he had held out for the simpler “Fifth Unaccompanied Cello Suite.” But too late now. Al had sent the information on to the White House A & R—artists and repertory—secretary, Harold Slezak.

Al said, “Don’t worry; you’ve got the number two jug in this. Do you mind being second jug to me?”

“No,” Ian said. It was a relief, actually; Al had the far more difficult part.

Outside the perimeter of Jalopy Jungle No. 3 the papoola moved, crisscrossing the sidewalk in its gliding, quiet pursuit of a sales prospect. It was only ten in the morning and no one worth collaring had come along, as yet. Today the lot had set down in the hilly section of Oakland, California, among the winding tree-lined streets of the better residential section. Across from the lot, Ian could see the Joe Louis, a peculiarly-shaped but striking apartment building of a thousand units, mostly occupied by well-to-do Negroes. The building, in the morning sun, looked especially neat and cared for. A guard, with badge and gun, patrolled the entrance, stopping anyone who did not live there from entering.

“Slezak has to okay the program,” Al reminded him. “Maybe Nicole won’t want to hear the ‘Chaconne’; she’s got very specialized tastes and they’re changing all the time.”

In his mind Ian saw Nicole, propped up in her enormous bed, in her pink, frilly robe, her breakfast on a tray beside her as she scanned the program schedules presented to her for her approval. Already she’s heard about us, he thought. She knows of our existence. In that case, we really do exist. Like a child that has to have its mother watching what it does; we’re brought into being, validated consensually, by Nicole’s gaze.

And when she takes her eye off us, he thought, then what? What happens to us afterward? Do we disintegrate, sink back into oblivion?

Back, he thought, into random, unformed atoms. Where we came from … the world of nonbeing. The world we’ve been in all our lives, up until now.

“And,” Al said, “she may ask us for an encore. She may even request a particular favorite. I’ve researched it, and it seems she sometimes asks to hear Schumann’s ‘The Happy Farmer.’ Got that in mind? We’d better work up ‘The Happy Farmer,’ just in case.” He blew a few toots on his jug, thoughtfully.

“I can’t do it,” Ian said abruptly. “I can’t go on. It means too much to me. Something will go wrong; we won’t please her and they’ll boot us out. And we’ll never be able to forget it.”

“Look,” Al began. “We have the papoola. And that gives us—” He broke off. A tall, stoop-shouldered elderly man in an expensive natural-fiber blue pin-stripe suit was coming up the sidewalk. “My God, it’s Luke himself,” Al said. He looked frightened. “I’ve only seen him twice before in my life. Something must be wrong.”

“Better reel in the papoola,” Ian said. The papoola had begun to move toward Loony Luke.

With a bewildered expression on his face Al said, “I can’t.” He fiddled desperately with the controls at his waist. “It won’t respond.”

The papoola reached Luke, and Luke bent down, picked it up and continued on toward the lot, the papoola under his arm.

“He’s taken precedence over me,” Al said. He looked at his brother numbly.

The door of the little structure opened and Loony Luke entered. “We received a report that you’ve been using this on your own time, for purposes of your own,” he said to Al, his voice low and gravelly. “You were told not to do that; the papoolas belong to the lots, not to the operators.”

Al said, “Aw, come on, Luke.”

“You ought to be fired,” Luke said, “but you’re a good salesman so I’ll keep you on. Meanwhile, you’ll have to make your quota without help.” Tightening his grip on the papoola, he started back out. “My time is valuable; I have to go.” He saw Al’s jug. “That’s not a musical instrument; it’s a thing to put whiskey in.”

Al said, “Listen, Luke, this is publicity. Performing for Nicole means that the network of jalopy jungles will gain prestige; got it?”

“I don’t want prestige,” Luke said, pausing at the door. “There’s no catering to Nicole Thibodeaux by me; let her run her society the way she wants and I’ll run the jungles the way I want. She leaves me alone and I leave her alone and that’s fine with me. Don’t mess it up. Tell Slezak you can’t appear and forget about it; no grown man in his right senses would be hooting into an empty bottle anyhow.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Al said. “Art can be found in the most mundane daily walks of life, like in these jugs for instance.”

Luke, picking his teeth with a silver toothpick, said, “Now you don’t have a papoola to soften the First Family up for you. Better think about that… do you really expect to make it without the papoola?”

After a pause Al said to Ian, “He’s right. The papoola did it for us. But—hell, let’s go on anyhow.”

“You’ve got guts,” Luke said. “But no sense. Still, I have to admire you. I can see why you’ve been a top notch salesman for the organization; you don’t give up. Take the papoola the night you perform at the White House and then return it to me the next morning.” He tossed the round, bug-like creature to Al; grabbing it, Al hugged it against his chest like a big pillow. “Maybe it would be good publicity for the jungles,” Luke said. “But I know this. Nicole doesn’t like us. Too many people have slipped out of her hands by means of us; we’re a leak in mama’s structure and mama knows it.” He grinned, showing gold teeth.

Al said, “Thanks, Luke.”

“But I’ll operate the papoola,” Luke said. “By remote. I’m a little more skilled than you; after all, I built them.”

“Sure,” Al said. “I’ll have my hands full playing anyhow.”

“Yes,” Luke said, “you’ll need both hands for that bottle.”

Something in Luke’s tone made Ian Duncan uneasy. What’s he up to? he wondered. But in any case he and his brother had no choice; they had to have the papoola working for them. And no doubt Luke could do a good job of operating it; he had already proved his superiority over Al, just now, and as Luke said, Al would be busy blowing away on his jug. But still—

“Loony Luke,” Ian said, “have you ever met Nicole?” It was a sudden thought on his part, an unexpected intuition.

“Sure,” Luke said steadily. “Years ago. I had some hand puppets; my Dad and I traveled around putting on puppet shows. We finally played the White House.”

“What happened there?” Ian asked.

Luke, after a pause, said, “She didn’t care for us. Said something about our puppets being indecent.”

And you hate her, Ian realized. You never forgave her. “Were they?” he asked Luke.

“No,” Luke answered. “True, one act was a strip show; we had follies girl puppets. But nobody ever objected before. My Dad took it hard but it didn’t bother me.” His face was impassive.

Al said, “Was Nicole the First Lady that far back?”

“Oh yes,” Luke said. “She’s been in office for seventy-three years; didn’t you know that?”

“It isn’t possible,” both Al and Ian said, almost together.

“Sure it is,” Luke said. “She’s a really old woman, now. A grandmother. But she still looks good, I guess. You’ll know when you see her.”

Stunned, Ian said, “On TV—”

“Oh yeah,” Luke agreed. “On TV she looks around twenty. But look in the history books yourself; figure it out. The facts are all there.”

The facts, Ian realized, mean nothing when you can see with your own eyes that she’s as young-looking as ever. And we see that every day.

Luke, you’re lying, he thought. We know it; we all know it. My brother saw her; Al would have said, if she was really like that. You hate her; that’s your motive. Shaken, he turned his back to Luke, not wanting to have anything to do with the man, now. Seventy-three years in office—that would make Nicole almost ninety, now. He shuddered at the idea; he blocked it out of his thoughts. Or at least he tried to.

“Good luck, boys,” Luke said, chewing on his toothpick.

In his sleep Ian Duncan had a terrible dream. A hideous old woman with greenish, wrinkled claws scrabbled at him, whining for him to do something—he did not know what it was because her voice, her words, blurred into indistinction, swallowed by her broken-toothed mouth, lost in the twisting thread of saliva which found its way to her chin. He struggled to free himself…

“Chrissake,” Al’s voice came to him. “Wake up; we have to get the lot moving; we’re supposed to be at the White House in three hours.”

Nicole, Ian realized as he sat up groggily. It was her I was dreaming about; ancient and withered, but still her. “Okay,” he muttered as he rose unsteadily from the cot. “Listen, Al,” he said, “suppose she is old, like Loony Luke says? What then? What’ll we do?”

“We’ll perform,” Al said. “Play our jugs.”

“But I couldn’t live through it,” Ian said. “My ability to adjust is just too brittle. This is turning into a nightmare; Luke controls the papoola and Nicole is old—what’s the point of our going on? Can’t we go back to just seeing her on the TV and maybe once in our lifetime at a great distance like you did in Shreveport? That’s good enough for me, now. I want that, the image; okay?”

“No,” Al said doggedly. “We have to see this through. Remember, you can always emigrate to Mars.”

The lot had already risen, was already moving toward the East Coast and Washington, D.C.

When they landed, Slezak, a rotund, genial little individual, greeted them warmly; he shook hands with them as they walked toward the service entrance of the White House. “Your program is ambitious,” he bubbled, “but if you can fulfill it, fine with me, with us here, the First Family I mean, and in particular the First Lady herself who is actively enthusiastic about all forms of original artistry. According to your biographical data you two made a thorough study of primitive disc recordings from the early nineteen hundreds, as early as 1920, of jug bands surviving from the U.S. Civil War, so you’re authentic juggists except of course you’re classical, not folk.”

“Yes sir,” Al said.

“Could you, however, slip in one folk number?” Slezak asked as they passed the guards at the service entrance and entered the White House, the long, carpeted corridor with its artificial candles set at intervals. “For instance, we suggest ‘Rockabye My Sarah Jane.’ Do you have that in your repertoire? If not—”

“We have it,” Al said shortly. “We’ll add it toward the end.”

“Fine,” Slezak said, prodding them amiably ahead of him. “Now may I ask what this creature you carry is?” He eyed the papoola with something less than enthusiasm. “Is it alive?”